Does WikiLeaks prove that the Yanks are “a force for good”?

David Aaronovitch must be having a laugh.

When I first read David Aaronovitch's column in the Times (£) today, I resisted the temptation to look up at the corner of the page to remind myself of the date. I know it's not 1 April. But is Aaro having a laugh? Playing a prank on us? Just being silly? His column is entitled:

The secret's out: the Yanks are a force for good

The standfirst says:

The WikiLeaks cables prove that the world's most powerful democracy is on our side, the side of liberty

David himself writes:

. . . the United States sometimes blunders, makes mistakes, corrects them and, in correcting them, makes more.

So the US, in his view, is just an innocent abroad – clumsy, mistaken, but well-intentioned; not mad or bad. Nice and convenient. He continues:

The cables prove again that the US, the most powerful democracy, is on our side. On Britain's side. On the side of those who think that democracy and liberty are important and need to be argued for and defended. They haven't been lying to us. They haven't been doing things that are against our interests.

What?? Let me check the date again. Are we sure it's not April Fool's Day? If not, then I'm not sure where to begin. Hold on, I know, let's start with the "first sets of disclosures of military messages relating to Iraq and Afghanistan" which David glosses over.

In the Iraq war logs, for example, we discovered that the "US authorities failed to investigate hundreds of reports of abuse, torture, rape and even murder by Iraqi police and soldiers whose conduct appears to be systematic and normally unpunished" and "a US helicopter gunship involved in a notorious Baghdad incident had previously killed Iraqi insurgents after they tried to surrender".

In the Afghan war logs, for examples, we learned about Task Force 373, the "black" unit of special forces charged with hunting down targets for assassination or detention without trial and "in many cases, the unit has set out to seize a target for internment, but in others it has simply killed them without attempting to capture. The logs reveal that TF 373 has also killed civilian men, women and children and even Afghan police officers who have strayed into its path."

Is this what Aaronovitch calls democracy, liberty and truth? Let's turn to the latest batch of state department cables. Aaronovitch rejects Julian Assange's call for Hillary Clinton to resign from her post as US secretary of state on the grounds that (a) she is elected and he is not, and (b) she "authorised her spies to spy in the United Nations – as, one imagines, do the undocumented Chinese, Russians, Bolivians and Cypriots". But point (a) is irrelevant and, as for point (b), let me make two points of my own:

1) The fact that others break the law or engage in morally dubious behaviour does not justify the United States or, for that matter, the United Kingdom doing so also. Perhaps David was off sick the day his primary school teacher taught his class the rather basic lesson that two wrongs don't make a right; and

2) Clinton did not, in fact, authorise "her spies" to "spy in the United Nations", as he claims, but actually instructed her state department ambassadors, envoys and diplomats to do so, which, as the Guardian has noted, "appears to blur the line between diplomacy and spying". That's what makes the content of Section 01 of 24 State 080163 so disturbing. Plus, I should add, the UN says that bugging the secretary general is illegal, under the 1946 UN Convention on Privileges and Immunities and the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

Does US law-breaking not matter if the Cypriots are allegedly doing so, too? Is that really what Aaronovitch would have us believe?

And, yes, we've had gossip and tittle-tattle in some of these leaked US cables. But we've also had clear and depressing evidence of the "grand hypocrisy" on the part of the United States that Aaro is so desperate to dismiss in his column. A 2007 cable from the US embassy in Berlin, for example, published by WikiLeaks on Sunday night, describes a meeting in which the then-deputy chief of the US mission to Germany, John M Koenig, urged German officials to "weigh carefully at every step of the way the implications for relations with the US" of issuing international arrest warrants for CIA agents in the shameful case of the German national Khalid el-Masri.

As the ACLU notes:

In 2003, el-Masri was kidnapped from Macedonia and transported to a secret CIA-run prison in Afghanistan where he was held for several months and tortured before being dumped on a hillside in Albania.

Charming. So I guess that's what Aaronovitch means when he refers to the United States, "the most powerful democracy", being on "our side", on the side of "liberty". Here's what the ACLU's Ben Wizner said in response to the el-Masri WikiLeaks revelations:

We have long known that both the Bush and Obama administrations have shielded perpetrators of torture and rendition from accountability for their illegal acts. We now know that US diplomats have also sought to shut down accountability efforts abroad. The United States' employment of diplomatic pressure to influence the legal proceedings of a democratic ally was improper and unseemly, particularly where the goal of that interference was to shield US officials from accountability for torture.

Even as many of our closest allies have acknowledged and addressed their official complicity in the Bush administration's human rights abuses, the United States has yet to reckon with its legacy of torture. The best way to restore our standing in the world, reassert the rule of law and strengthen our democracy is to support, not obstruct, meaningful accountability for torture.

Hear, hear!

On a side note, I must point out that it is ironic for a man who wrote, back in April 2003, that "if nothing is eventually found, I – as a supporter of the [Iraq] war – will never believe another thing that I am told by our government, or that of the US ever again" to now write, as he does in the Times, that the Americans "haven't been lying to us".

Itis also worrying to see a man of David's intelligence, experience and acumen having failed to learn the lessons of the Iraq war, and the associated WMD lies, deceptions and propaganda: in his column, he refers to the "possibility of the Iranian Bomb". Why the capital letters, David? Is that the Times's house style or the product of your own deliberate decision to fear-monger?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.