Four Things the Left Should Learn from Kobane

The Kurdish town of Kobanê has recently become the centre of a geopolitical conflagration that may well change the course of Middle Eastern politics. After months of silence over the threat faced by Kurds from ISIS, the world is now finally watching, even if the ‘international community’ remains conspicuously quiet. However, many Western responses, be it from scholars, journos or activists, have somewhat predictably retracted into recycled critiques of US and UK imperialism, often at the expense of missing what is truly exceptional and noteworthy in recent developments. So, in the style of contemporary leftist listicles, here are four things we can and should learn from events in and around Kobanê.

1. It’s Time to Question the West’s Fixation on ISIS

If Barack Obama, David Cameron and Recep Tayyip Erdogan are to be believed, the ‘savagery’ of ‘fundamentalism’ is the primary focus of NATO involvement in Syria. Notably, many left critics have reproduced this very same fixation on ISIS when discussing Western interests. However, for an almighty imperialist organisation supposedly hell bent on stopping ‘Islamic extremism’, NATO have been curiously ineffective. In fact, the US has been indirectly responsible for arming ISIS and altogether incompetent and/or reluctant in arming the decidedly secular Kurdish resistance. US and UK air strikes have been fleeting, and at best symbolic, making little impact on the advance of ISIS. Moreover, Turkey has repeatedly turned a blind eye to ISIS’s use of its territories and borders for training activities and supply lines, respectively. More recently, as Kobanê teetered on the edge of conquest, Turkey insisted any military assistance was dependent on the Kurdish PYD abandoning self-determination and self-governing cantons, and agreeing to Turkish buffer zone in Kurdish controlled areas in Northern Syria (which amounts to little more than a colonial land grab). Now, considering the US and UK were keen to intervene long before ISIS was seen as a threat, and considering Turkey long-standing hostility to the PKK/PYD, we should be more demanding of any analysis of intervention that begins and ends with ISIS. In short, it is becoming increasingly clear that ISIS is little more than a pretext for NATO to pursue other geopolitical aims – namely removing Assad and destroying Kurdish autonomy.

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Clinton’s World

As part of the Canada 2020 conference, Hillary Clinton will be giving a lunch-time talk at the Ottawa Convention Center on Oct. 6. The subject of her speech is yet to be announced, but I imagine due attention to “Canada-U.S. relations in a changing world” will be given. I also imagine the event will be sold out despite high ticket prices (495 Canadian dollars per person + sales tax).  The main reason is that the former U.S. Secretary of State—former front-runner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, former U.S. Senator, and former First Lady—is also the most likely person to succeed Barack Obama as POTUS (according to the American and British bookies at least).

By my count, this will be her fourth visit to Canada’s national capital region, and the first since 2010, when she swung by to attend important meetings in nearby Wakefield, Quebec. But where exactly is my city in Clinton’s world?

To answer this question, I turned to Hard Choices, her second memoir published earlier this year, and I read it through the lens of Saul Steinberg’s 1976 New Yorker cover, “View of the World from Ninth Avenue,” a famous Manhattanite mappa mundi from the era when the Vietnam War was a fresh trauma and Jimmy Carter was making an unexpected splash in the Democratic presidential primaries.

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Rendition and Exception in the Carceral Archipelago

Given half the chance
They danced around the truth
For most of my youth
Like you’re really going to jump off that roof
You lived your life
In a perfect paradise
The sun always shone
On your beaches with lies

– Leatherface, ‘Diego Garcia’ (2010)

Diego Garcia US Navy SeaBees

In October 2005, then Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells stood before Parliament and reported that the UK government had granted no requests for extraordinary rendition in any part of British territory or airspace, and was aware of no such use. Critics – who suspected that the UK was indeed complicit in rendition for torture – pressed the point. So in December Jack Straw, who was Foreign Secretary, explained that “careful research” within government had turned up no evidence of renditions since 9/11 in UK spaces (land, air, or sea) and, again, no requests. The very next day Straw was giving evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and was asked about the possibility of an investigation along similar lines as other EU states. Came the forceful reply:

I do not think that there is any case whatsoever for such an investigation here…I did what it is my duty to do, which is to provide a thorough comprehensive answer. That has been done. It has produced a nil return. Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States, and also let me say, we believe that Secretary Rice is lying, there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition full stop, because we have not been, and so what on earth a judicial inquiry would start to do I have no idea.

Conspiracies! Dark forces. Lies and secret states, no less. By January 2006, Howells was again reporting to MPs that all relevant Foreign Office records and recollections had been checked, implying that no proof of rendition had been discovered. Two years later David Miliband, who replaced Straw, was forced to admit that two renditions in fact did pass through the island of Diego Garcia in 2002 (Blair, pathetically: “We have just been informed by the United States of America about what has actually happened”). Suspicions were somewhat confirmed, but it was all a long time ago, and there was a change of Prime Minister, and then of government. While rendition-torture didn’t exactly go away, it faded from view. But it has resurfaced. Last month we discovered that some crucial records are incomplete due to ‘water damage’. Because if you have files pertinent to a major foreign policy controversy, why not store them that badly? Never mind that Ministers had previously argued that they wouldn’t be keeping notes anyway, and had to rely on assurances from the Americans (an “error” in US records was the culprit). Kettle logic, again.

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Acting Time; Or, Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict

Pitt Jolie ESVC Pictures

The attention lavished on sexual violence in conflict last week was in many ways unprecedented. As well as convening the largest ever gathering of officials, NGOs and other experts for the Global Summit on Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict, co-chairs William Hague (Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) and Angelina Jolie (Special Envoy of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees) also generated very many pages – both print and digital – of commentary. In some myopic quarters, that achievement was in itself a distraction from the really important politics of blossoming conflict in Iraq. Such views should remind us that there are still those who insist on seeing gender violence as marginal to international peace and security. Worthy, yes, “no doubt important”, obviously a cause for concern, and so on, but naturally not the real deal.

Since the Summit’s close on Friday, there have also been criticisms of a different sort. A protest on the first day drew attention to the asylum and refugee policies of Her Majesty’s Government, and the ways in which survivors of sexual violence were being mistreated on the British mainland. The Foreign Office raised awareness in part through one-dimensional stories of crazy monsters in the hinterlands of barbarism. The “weapon of war” framework was ubiquitous, but no less problematic for that (see also). Although the Summit made space for youth delegates, UN entities, amateur hackers, foreign ministers, survivors, doctors, lawyers, celebrities, military officers and the odd NGO, academics (and our directly relevant research) were barely at the table. Some myths were therefore recycled. Delegates insisted on using rape survivors as props for their own journeys of self-discovery. I met a women in Panzi Hospital and what she told me broke my heart, etcetera. Some national representatives seemed only just to have discovered the existence of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, which urged the participation of women in military and political settings at all levels. That was, um, 14 years ago. John Kerry, amongst others, appeared to believe that rape in war was not yet illegal, but that we could make it so if we really put our minds to it.

The Fringe events were themselves a source of considerable disappointment. Angelina opened proceedings by assuring us that “our” institutions protected us from rape, and prosecuted it ably when it did occur, whilst “they” (we all know who) need our help because they are confined to refugee camps. There was a staged ‘trial’ of the afore-mentioned Resolution 1325, in which an all-white panel of lawyers and faux-judges, including Cherie Booth QC, took the testimony of African witnesses. You could buy various goods made by (or meant to help) rape survivors in the “bustling” Fringe marketplace, and the official programme recommended that you “treat yourself” by doing so. All of this (including the less appalling and more considered exhibits) seemed removed from the set piece debates upstairs. If the Foreign Secretary really did refuse to meet with four Nobel Laureates – some of whom are themselves survivors of political rape – then clearly civil society (that vague but essential category) was being neglected.

Those accumulated complaints can be dismissed as relatively trivial if the Summit gets even some way to achieving its stated aim of ending sexual violence in conflict.[1]  Continue reading

Aircraft Stories: The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (Part II)

This is the second part of a single post about the F-35 as actor-network. The first part is here 

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Strike

This word is meant to convey the F-35’s identity as a proper multirole fighter, a machine rigged to conduct both air superiority and strike missions, the latter defined as tactical attacks on a ground or naval target with a particular focus on “initial blow” or “first day of attack” operations.  All three variants of the F-35 fighter family hold this capability: the conventional A version designed for use by the U.S. Air Force and allied air forces; the Short Take-Off, Vertical Landing (STOVL) or B variant for the U.S. Marines Corps as well as the UK’s Royal Navy, as well as the conventional carrier-based edition for the U.S. Navy, the F-35C.

Airstrike, or strike for short, shapes, and is shaped by, the evolving structure of international politics in important ways.  Pax Americana, defined in terms of successive hegemonic or hierarchical international and regional orders centered on Washington, D.C., can be regarded as an assemblage made possible by the so-called global strike, among other smaller assemblages.  Since the middle years of the twentieth century warplanes have transformed themselves into multirole, fighter-bomber machines capable of ever-greater lethality and survivability.  What makes U.S. strike aircraft especially formidable is the surrounding stuff—assets like ballistic and cruise missiles plus countless “force enablers” such as ground bases, aircraft carrier groups, logistics depots, a large tanker force and aerial refueling know-how, interlinked information and communication systems, the ability to generate and sustain the use-of-airspace deals on relatively short notice and so on.

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Aircraft Stories: The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (Part I)

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How big is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter? By one set of measures, it is three times bigger than the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, ten times bigger than either the Apollo Project or the International Space Station or Hurricane Katrina, or one hundred times bigger than the Panama Canal. These comparisons are only moderately outlandish. US$1.45 trillion is the Pentagon’s own December 2010 estimate of lifetime operating and supporting costs for the 2,443 copies of the F-35 currently on order by the United States government, which we can then compare to the known price tags, in 2007 dollars, of these five projects.[i] Costs—also variously prefaced as procurement, actual, sunk, fly-away, upgrade, true and so on—and their contestations are central to a discourse of accountancy that surrounds all projects that require large-scale mobilization of public power. But enormous as they are, these numbers still cannot capture the size of this particular weapons program. To understand just how big the F-35 is, I wish to suggest in this two-part post, we ought to conceive it as a proper assemblage—a heterogeneous association of human and nonhuman elements that is at once split, processual, emergent, and, most importantly, constitutive of the modern international.

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Cavity Searches in Intern(ation)al Relations

In the most darkly comic scene in Mohammed Hanif’s brilliant A Case of Exploding Mangoes, General Zia—the thinly mustachioed dictator of Pakistan from 1977-88—suffering from a bad case of worms, enlists the services of the physician of his Saudi friend Prince Naif. ‘Birather, bend please’, requests Dr. Sarwari, in a strange mixture of Arabic and American accents. Zia unfastens his belt, slips his trousers down and leans forward, laying his right cheek on his desk. His head is between two flags, Pakistan’s national flag and the flag of the Pakistan Army, as Dr. Sirawar slips a lubricated probing finger into his itchy rectum. The allegory is crystal clear: this is Pakistan being fucked by Saudi and US money and weapons during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.

In Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the terror attacks of September 11 provide the pivotal moment in the transformation of young Pakistani Princeton graduate Changez Khan from Wall Street analyst to Islamist radical. Watching 9/11 unfold on television while away on a work trip, Khan feels something akin to schadenfreude, as if the attacks were payback for the daily humiliation of being Muslim in America, giving vent to a reservoir of grievance hitherto fiercely suppressed, even denied, in his pursuit of the American dream. Returning to the US, Changez can see that Americans see him differently. In Mira Nair’s film version of the book, he is separated from his white colleagues at immigration and subjected to a cavity search: this is Pakistan being fucked by the US in the aftermath of 9/11.

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