Friday, 25 January 1991


Tribune, 25 January 1991

It was unnecessary to go to war to secure Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. Sanctions would have worked had they been given more time, and the United States and Britain should not have closed the door to a negotiated settlement.

But now that war has started, there is little point in rehearsing last week's arguments. The priority now is to bring the war to an end as soon as possible.

How, though, should this be done? The government, the Labour leadership and most of the media believe that the best way is a vigorous military campaign against Iraq until Saddam Hussein withdraws from Kuwait.

And, because of the apparent success of the initial American-led air bombardment, achieved with few casualties among allied forces, a large majority of the public agrees with them.

But Desert Storm has not been quite the success it was at first claimed to be. The allied onslaught has failed to destroy Iraq's airforce, airfields, chemical and biological warfare capability, Scud missiles and launchers, crack ground troops or command-and-control infrastructure. (The corollary is that it is now difficult to believe that the bombardment did not cause many civilian casualties.) Iraqi forces are well dug in and have started a scorched earth defence of Kuwait, setting fire to the first of the country's several hundred oil-wells.

It is likely that, far from being an easy and painless business, securing military victory against Saddam Hussein will be protracted, bloody and environmentally disastrous even if the conflict conti nues to involve only its current protagonists and does not go chemical or nuclear.

The longer the war goes on, the" more likely it is that Iraq will use chemical and biological weapons. If radicals in Iran have their way, Saddam could fmd himself with a powerful ally. If he drags in nuclear-armed Israel, the prospects for death and destruction are almost beyond rational contemplation.

Politically, the war has already had profound consequences, nearly all of them grim. Now that the Americans owe Hafez Assad a favour in return for participation in the anti-Saddam alliance, the Syrians can look forward to hegemonY in the Lebanon for the foreseeable future.

Similarly, the Israelis can expect substantial rewards from the Americans in return for refraining from immediate retalliation against Iraqi Scud attacks.

Meanwhile, Saddam has become a hero of the dispossesed (and a role-model for the politically ambitious)  in the Arab and Islamic worlds, the first leader in years to dare to stand up to the United States and Israel.

Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise. In this context the fact that some form of peace conference on Israel and Palestine after hostilities have ceased is now almost inevitable is not without its problems.

So is getting Saddam out of Kuwait by force worth the cost? He is a brutal, criminal despot.

His invasion of Kuwait was an act of aggression which the international community was absolutely right to seek to reverse.

It is irrelevant at this stage to point out that Britain and America have refused to enforce international law, against Saddam or any other aggressor, when it was not in their economic interests, or that Saddam was armed and aided for years by the world's major powers. Past failure to deal with despotism and aggression does not justify abstention today.

It is, however, an entirely different matter to argue that liberating Kuwait justifies the slaughter of thousands, environmental catastrophe or spreading war to the whole of the Middle East – particularly if there is a chance, however slim, of securing Iraqi withdrawal and averting death and destruction.

At present the chances are slim indeed. On Monday, Saddam rejected a Soviet proposal for a ceasefire followed by withdrawal from Kuwait, arguing that the Americans were the aggressors and should be made to agree to a ceasefire first. America and Britain have repeatedly rejected all calls for a ceasefire.

But diplomatic efforts have not ceased. A ceasefire plan from the Non-Aligned Movement, currently being put together frantically by Iran, Yugoslavia, Algeria and India, just might have a different fate.

Such an initiative should not be dismissed out of hand as allowing Saddam time to regroup and resupply: a ceasefire need not necessarily be permanent, and even if he has weathered Desert Storm better than the Americans hoped, he knows that the allies are serious about removing him from Kuwait and that he must lose any war.

Not to explore the possibility of a ceasefire is to risk a massive human, political and ecological disaster. It is extraordinary that the Labour leadership is prepared to take the risk.

Friday, 18 January 1991


Paul Anderson,  review of From Yalta to Glasnost by Agnes Heller and Ferenc Feher (Blackwell, £30), Tribune, 18 January 1991

Since they left their native Hungary in 1977 to continue their academic careers in the west, Agnes Heller and Ferenc Feher have been extraordinarily prolific social theorists. As well as Dictatorship Over Needs, their innovative democratic left critique (with Gyorgy Markus) of the "actually existing socialism" of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, they have co-written a vast number of fiery iconoclastic political and philosophical essays, a book on the Hungarian revolution in 1956 and, most controversially, a polemical assault on what they saw as the iditotic ideology of the west European peace movements. Heller has also published several volumes of philosophy on her own.

From Yalta to Glasnost collects the most important of the recent political essays that were missed out of Eastern Left, Western Left in 1987 and a few extracts from books. All the pieces are provocative and some brilliant. Those in defence of the Hungarian revolution's democratic credentials and relevance to the whole of eastern Europe 25 years on are superb exercises in historical re-evaluation; the essays on the contrasting "reform communism" of the Prague Spring and Janos Kadar's Hungary are almost as good.

But on some things Heller and Feher were way off the mark. On Germany, the focus of the longest essay here, they were in some ways perceptive in raising the prospect of unification at a time (1984) when no one else was taking it at all seriously. Yet their prognosis of how unification might come about, as the result of German appeasement of the Soviet Union leading to Moscow offering Bonn unification in return for neutrality and economic aid, was quite wrong.

In particular, their identification of the West German peace movement of the early eighties as a Trojan horse for German nationalism has turned out to be bunk: in 1989-90, it was the Greens and left Social Democrats who had formed the backbone of the peace movement who were the most vocal opponents of unification.

Had "Better Red than dead" actually been the dominant thrust of the early eighties peace movement, Heller and Feher's analysis might have more purchase. In reality, however, the greater part of the peace movement in West Germany, as elsewhere in western Europe, opposed new NATO nuclear arms because it believed the Soviet Union had no desire or ability to expand its influence in Western Europe.

It is certainly arguable that the peace movement didn't, on the whole, think through the question of the Soviet Union's long-term goals in Europe. The idea that the Soviet Union might like to have Germany "Finlandised" was barely discussed. This was a weakness, but hardly, as Heller and Feher would have it, willful blindness to the dangers of Soviet expansionism. Contrary to their core assumption that the Soviet nomenklatura not only wanted to expand its influence in western Europe but was actually capable of pursuing such a policy, the rulers of the Soviet Union were increasingly paralysed by the ever-deepening economic, social and cultural crisis of their empire.

Friday, 4 January 1991


Paul Anderson, review of Reagan and Thatcher by Geoffrey Smith, Tribune, 4 January 1991

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were both crusading free-marketeers, friends of big business who won office on populist promises to reduce the burden of taxation, curb union power and cut government waste. Both were moral conservatives, enthusiasts for family values and law and order. And both were instinctive hardline cold warriors. It is hardly surprising that they hit it off when they first met in 1975, or that in office (except after the American invasion of Grenada in 1983) they enjoyed a personal and political relationship closer than normally exists between heads of government.

But did their closeness really make that much difference? Geoffrey Smith, a Times journalist and committed Atlanticist, believes it did, and in some ways he is right. His book shows that the "special relationship" between the president and the prime minister was crucial in securing American support for Britain in the Falklands war and was the main reason that Thatcher endorsed the American bombing of Libya in 1986. Thatcher was instrumental in persuading Reagan that Mikhail Gorbachev was a man with whom it was possible to do business, and she kept quiet after the British security services told her about the Irangate affair (an episode examined in some detail here).

Beyond this, however, it is arguable whether the ideological and personal affinity between Thatcher and Reagan had particularly far-reaching effects.

It certainly did little to stop the focus of American foreign and defence policy drifting away from Europe. On Star Wars, which Thatcher (like other West European leaders) saw as a dangerous threat to nuclear deterrence, the "special relationship" merely allowed her the opportunity to air her views and get a vague agreement from Reagan to limit research: the programme went ahead regardless, eventually to be cut drastically by Congress. Similarly, Thatcher's attempts to scupper a super-power deal on Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces were brushed off by the Reagan administration, which was desperate for a disarmament agreement in the wake of Irangate.

Smith puts a different spin on all this, emphasising the seriousness with which Thatcher was taken in the United States even when she was at odds with the administration. "A Thatcher intervention with the president was always a powerful instrument in the ceaseless battle over policy," he writes in his conclusion. But Smith never lapses into sycophancy, and it is not necessary to agree with his analysis or assumptions to appreciate the work he has put into uncovering the history of Anglo-American relations in the eighties.