Hard News by Russell Brown


My 10 year-old hears a lot more than he usually lets on. Earlier this week, we were watching yet another TV item on the Zimbabwe cricket tour, and he piped up: "why can't the government just get on with it and intervene?" [Yes, he really did use the word "intervene".] He said that, from the way he'd heard me and Mum talking, the guy in charge over there was pretty bad.

I explained that Mugabe had once been regarded as a good guy, but had since turned mad and bad. He had turned on his own people. My son suggested that he sounded a bit like Chuundar in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (it's a video game). Chuundar, he explained, was a wookie who sold other wookies into slavery.

Well, I'm glad the kids are getting their archetypes from somewhere

I explained to my son the complexity of the issue; the fact that one of the things that made New Zealand a free country was that we are free to go where we wish, and it was a serious matter for the government to prevent that.

I haven't ventured here on Zimbabwe because I've been struggling to know what to think. I really don't want the cricketers to go, but I realise that my belief isn't going to cost me tens of thousands of dollars in income, the way it would them. When Martin Snedden said recently that the wearing of black armbands in protest could put the players' personal safety at risk, I thought: doesn't that suggest it's a pretty bad place to go in the first place, then?

The International Cricket Council appeared this week to offer an option that would avoid the atrocious prospect of Mugabe pocketing a $2.8 million fine from New Zealand Cricket or the New Zealand taxpayer: a mere "directive" from the government rather than a legislative ban would do. It then moved to contradict that stance. I know exactly what the ICC is thinking here. Human rights in parts of the cricket-playing world are pretty shabby. It would be easy to make a case against touring, for example, Pakistan. If the ICC gave ground in Zimbabwe, the international game could fall apart. And in the case of the Indian team touring Pakistan, didn't we all think it was a good thing that the teams had been able to put aside the politics of their governments and just meet on the field?

I'm likewise short on certainty when it comes to picking through the ruins of last week's London bombings. Christopher Hitchens was quickly into action with a noisy column for the Daily Mirror, in which he sought to cut off any avenue of argument that encompassed geopolitics and Iraq in particular:

We know very well what the "grievances" of the jihadists are.

The grievance of seeing unveiled women. The grievance of the existence, not of the State of Israel, but of the Jewish people. The grievance of the heresy of democracy, which impedes the imposition of sharia law. The grievance of a work of fiction written by an Indian living in London. The grievance of the existence of black African Muslim farmers, who won't abandon lands in Darfur. The grievance of the existence of homosexuals. The grievance of music, and of most representational art. The grievance of the existence of Hinduism. The grievance of East Timor's liberation from Indonesian rule. All of these have been proclaimed as a licence to kill infidels or apostates, or anyone who just gets in the way.

For a few moments yesterday, Londoners received a taste of what life is like for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, whose Muslim faith does not protect them from slaughter at the hands of those who think they are not Muslim enough, or are the wrong Muslim.

It is a big mistake to believe this is an assault on "our" values or "our" way of life. It is, rather, an assault on all civilisation.

Hitchens' argument was anointed, with typical pomp, by Instapundit ("Christopher Hitchens explains the facts of life to the clueless"), as if it were the end of the matter.

On the other hand, Seamus Milne in the Guardian and Christiaan Briggs in his blog have no doubt that it is the presence of "our" troops on foreign soil that drives the jihad. We must quit our "bloody occupations" of Iraq and Afghanistan forthwith.

But the Taliban regime wasn't just a bad government; it was psychotic - and it was harbouring a group that had committed a huge terrorist atrocity. Where's the moral good in walking away from that?

I recall elements of the Left screaming "imperialism!" at the suggestion that the West should wade into Bosnia 10 years ago. Wouldn't it have been better, in retrospect, to have gone in and prevented the systematic slaughter in Srebenica of 8000 Muslim men at the hands of orthodox Christian fascists? Surely there are times when intervention is warranted?

But here's the thing: it's uncontroversial to say now that this or that young Muslim was "radicalised" by the war in Bosnia. Say the same thing about Iraq and you'll have half the world's right-wing bloggers jumping down your throat. While Hitchens may be right to say that at heart the jihadists are too nihilistic, too literally fascist, to ever negotiate with, it's just stupid to insist that Iraq hasn't been used to conjure with the minds of those ordinary kids in Leeds.

However unpleasant Saddam's regime was, there was no imminent danger of genocide. This was also a country that had never experienced a suicide bombing. Two years on, tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have died and the occupation fosters both the jihadists' recruitment and its own cycle of violence. But if coalition troops started shipping out tomorrow, the country could collapse into an even greater bloodbath. They can't stay, and they can't leave.

The case for the invasion of Iraq was, of course, deceitful and wrong-headed from the outset, and its execution has been staggeringly incompetent. The result has been counterproductive in a way that will surely engage future historians. A few conservative commentators are starting to acknowledge this. In the Washington Post in June, David Ignatius ventured thus:

Here's where the fundamental contradiction in Bush's strategy becomes clear. If Iraq has shown anything, it is that there's no easy equation between democratic government and success in containing terrorism. In the short run, prying the lid off a tightly controlled society such as Iraq may actually make the terrorism problem worse. The cruel instruments of repression are gone, while the constraints of an orderly, law-abiding, democratic society are not yet present.

Most of these commentators (Andrew Sullivan is another one) still hold that the making-terrorism-worse problem is a "short term" issue on the way to a lovely democratic future. To which the answer must be: well, you hope it's short-term, because the way things are turning out that seems anything but certain.

In December last year the British Sunday Times ran this story on al-Qaeda's recuiting strategy in Europe. It was prescient, and it included this quote from a Western intelligence official:

The new land of jihad is Iraq. There, they are trained, they fight and acquire a technique and the indoctrination sufficient to act on when they return.

In January this year, the Washington Post ran this report:

Iraq has replaced Afghanistan as the training ground for the next generation of "professionalized" terrorists, according to a report released yesterday by the National Intelligence Council, the CIA director's think tank.

President Bush has frequently described the Iraq war as an integral part of U.S. efforts to combat terrorism. But the council's report suggests the conflict has also helped terrorists by creating a haven for them in the chaos of war.

And then two days before the bombs went off in London, this report appeared in American newspapers:

Iraq's emergence as a terrorist training ground appears to challenge President Bush's rationale for invading and overthrowing leader Saddam Hussein in March 2003.

"To complete the mission, we will prevent al-Qaida and other foreign terrorists from turning Iraq into what Afghanistan was under the Taliban, a safe haven from which they could launch attacks on America and our friends," the president said in a nationally televised address last Tuesday.
But Iraq wasn't a source of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism under Saddam and played no role in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Critics argue that the U.S. invasion harmed, rather than helped, the war on terror by acting as a magnet and recruiting tool.
"Arguably, it's created new problems that we're going to be dealing with for a long time," said Steven Simon, a senior analyst at the RAND Corp. who served at the National Security Council under President Clinton.
Foreign fighters' growing experience with IEDs, in particular, "is a real problem if you think these guys are going to wind up in the streets of Europe and the Middle East, or even the United States at some point," Simon said.

All that neocon bluster; that stuff about making-our-own-reality; the obsessive focus on military action. Where is it now? And is anybody still up for invading Iran? Those people have fucked up beyond belief.

Two other things to have a squizz at: a Flash presentation stepping through jihadist bombings since 1998. And a good editorial from the Guardian, headed The need for calm.

OneGoodMove has been collecting some great video on the Karl Rove story (which is shocking not in that someone from the Bush White House lied, but that they're actually being called on it). Two Daily Show clips: an eight-minute rundown (6.9MB) and the unexpectedly vigorous White House press conference. And the next day's press conference, from MSNBC. What’s behind this sudden growth of a press corp spine? Stem cells?

And finally, I was in New Plymouth yesterday afternoon talking to these people about their product: an uber-geek PC-based PVR/DVR, packaged up as a full home theatre/media solution for ordinary consumers. I was impressed.

PS: Nearly forgot to say: I'm on the Campbell Live book club, TV3, 7pm tonight, talking about Great New Zealand Argument. John's directing it, and got me to do it a bit differently - talking to the camera instead of an interviewer. He also frankly encouraged my promotional tendencies. I'll be interested to see how it turns out ...