After they go

The US invasion unleashed chaos in a fragile region; the withdrawal of troops could prove equally de

General David Petraeus clapped Sheik Abdul-Sattar al-Rishawi on the shoulder and talked enthusiastically about their new project. "It's men like this who are going to make Iraq work," he said, looking back towards my camera with the confidence of a king.

It was March last year. By September Rishawi, instigator of the "Anbar Awakening", was dead. What he had given to the Americans, however, was the vital Sunni co-operation that had been missing until then from their "surge" plans.

When President Bush adopted the "surge" strategy and appointed Petraeus as overall commander in Iraq, all that seemed important was to increase the number of US troops. Yet four things made up the "surge". Two were within US control - more troops, and more trained Iraqis in uniform deployed with those forces. The other two were less certain - Sunni co-operation in confronting al-Qaeda and Shia co-operation in not attacking everyone else.

After four years of fighting the US occupation, Sunni tribal leaders decided to change sides because al-Qaeda was imposing a harsher Islamic regime than they were prepared to stomach. They formed the "Awakening Councils" and signed 80,000 of their kinsmen on to the Pentagon's payroll to fight beside the US military. The Sunni fighters, together with an increase in Iraqi forces of around 110,000 over the past year, have helped to stem the violence and bloodshed.

Certainly the changes in the Baghdad neighbourhoods I visited while embedded with the US military in early 2007 were secured by enlisting local Sunnis into a home guard. Initially unarmed, these home guards were being trained by US marines by the end of last year. While the US geared up Sunni militias, Shia fighters sat tight. It could have been a recipe for civil war.

"[The] ceasefire has been helpful in reducing violence and has led to improved security in Iraq," noted Rear Admiral Greg Smith, a US spokesman, acknowledging that the success of the "surge" was down to its fourth and least certain constituent - the Mahdi army ceasefire declared by the anti-American Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr last August. To the relief of the US military, the ceasefire, which had reversed the statistics of violence, was renewed last month.

Five years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the issue is no longer the chaos unleashed by occupation, but the impact of the expected US withdrawal, both within Iraq and across the region. The UN Chapter 7 resolution that the US quotes as legitimising its 2003 invasion runs out at the end of June. By then, what remains of the coalition will have to negotiate a deal with a weak, fractured government. The Iraqis have to decide on the number of foreign troops they wish to remain in the country, and for how long.

Aware of the potential for renewed civil war as troop numbers fall, both the US defence secretary, Robert Gates, and Petraeus have talked of a "brief period of consolidation and evaluation". This means that as the US presidential race plays out through the summer and autumn, the commanders will take the opportunity to exercise "strategic patience". There will be a halt in troop repatriation, and gains made with the surge will be consolidated. By the time a new president has finally to grasp the nettle, the military and political balance may have stabilised, reducing the likelihood of Washington's greatest enemy, Iran, stepping into a vacuum of withdrawal.

The largely Shia government of Iraq talks to Iranian officials all the time; President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has just held historic, high-profile meetings in Baghdad. But a fourth round of talks between US and Iranian diplomats, due to be held in Baghdad, should have taken place on 5 March. They didn't happen, for reasons unrelated to Iraq. Because of American efforts to isolate Iran, the US embassy in Baghdad declared there had been no such arrangement.

Proxy war

Iran's influence in Iraq is most visible in the south of the country, where it permeates nearly every faction of Shia politics. A power-sharing agreement is being hammered out by Abdel Aziz al-Hakim of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. The initial part of that understanding was the al-Zahra Charter, which attempted to disarm the Shia militias, leaving use of force solely in the hands of the government. Iran has pushed hard for this, in an attempt to keep the Iraqi government beholden to the Islamic Republic.

Between the overt influence of Shia Iran and the depredations of fundamentalist groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, it is no wo nder Rishawi and other Sunni tribal leaders turned to the Americans. They realised they had to get what weapons and backing they could while it was possible. Only thus would they be in a position to defend themselves against Shia militias, the largely Shia government and its Iranian backers when the Americans withdrew.

There is also the fear that the US withdrawal could provoke Sunni nations bordering Iraq to support their fellow believers in a nasty war by proxy. Such a possibility, reinforced by the US's "isolate Iran" diplomacy, makes regional leaders nervous.

In a demonstration of how keen it is to isolate Iran, the US has been arming its authoritarian Arab allies in parallel with Israel. Israel is to receive military aid of £15bn a year over the next ten years, up 25 per cent from present levels. Egypt will receive £6.5bn, while the Saudis will get an arms package of satellite-guided weaponry and other hi-tech munitions worth £10.2bn.

When Bush visited the region in January he repeated often and publicly his theme that Sunni Arabs had to face down Iran "before it's too late". The cautious Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, played down the antagonism, insisting that "Iran is a neighbouring country, an important country in the region. Naturally we have nothing bad against Iran."

But he was not being entirely sincere. Reports suggest that Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt and Jordan, could be intending to demonstrate animosity to Iran's friends by sending only officials to this month's Arab League summit in Damascus. Arab leaders are critical of Syrian ties with Iran and Hezbollah, and of their meddling in Lebanon, putting them in what King Abdullah of Jordan has referred to as a new "crescent" of dominant Shia movements or governments - from Iran through Iraq, Syria and into Lebanon. Speaking to the Washington Post in 2004, the king warned: "If Iraq [becomes an] Islamic republic, then, yes, we've opened ourselves to a whole set of new problems that will not be limited to the borders of Iraq."

Maintaining the unity of Iraq has been a core US aim throughout the past five years, but the turbulence of a pullout could, in addition to aggravating antipathy between Sunnis and Shias, result in the Kurdish north declaring independence. After the First World War, the ethnic territory of the Kurds was split by the imperial powers between Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. The consequent struggle for Kurdish independence is closest to fulfilment in northern Iraq. Unsurprisingly, the central government finds itself at odds with Erbil's regional government over who should control local oil revenues.

The issue of independence is focused, in Kurdish eyes, on control of Kirkuk. The decision as to whether Kirkuk remains Arab or becomes Kurdish is due to be made by the end of June; but the issue is so contentious and potentially explosive that it has already been shelved three times since the downfall of Saddam, and will probably be delayed again.

Meanwhile, Turkey fears that independence for Iraqi Kurds would encourage its own Kurdish separatists, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). In the past few weeks, Turkish forces have entered Iraq to attack PKK fighters operating from the Qandil Mountains. Despite Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice making it clear that "no one should do anything that threatens to destabilise the north", US forces in northern Iraq have, over the past six months, helped to facilitate Turkish military operations at the border.

It is already a year since that hot afternoon when General Petraeus and Sheik al-Rishawi talked of their plans to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq. The success of the "surge" cannot be denied, but there are long-term implications for the balance of power in the region. The borders that resulted from the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, held so sacrosanct by today's governments and diplomats, may be about to change.

George W Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, the former secretary of defence, planned the war, but not the peace. They should have paid attention to the known unknowns.

Tim Lambon is assistant foreign editor of Channel 4 News

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the war that changed us

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Jeremy Corbyn and the paranoid style

The Labour leader’s team has a bunker mentality, and their genius has been to extend that bunker to accommodate tens of thousands of their followers. Within that bubble, every failure becomes a victory.

 

There was an odd moment on the BBC last summer, during Jeremy Corbyn’s first leadership campaign. A reporter had asked him a simple question about nationalisation: “Where did you get these words from?” he snapped. “Has somebody been feeding you this stuff?” 

At the time I was taken aback, but before long the campaign would become defined by paranoia, manifested in its leader as an extreme suspicion of “mainstream media”, and in its supporters as a widespread belief that establishment forces were conspiring to “fix” the Labour leadership contest, the so-called #LabourPurge.

This summer, Corbyn is fighting another leadership election. The main focus of his campaign so far has been an attempt to paint his rival Owen Smith as a “Big Pharma shill”, while Corbyn’s most influential supporter, Unite’s Len McCluskey, has claimed that MI5 are waging a dirty tricks campaign against the Leader of the Opposition. On stage Corbyn has attacked national media for failing to cover a parish council by-election.  

Corbyn’s time as Labour leader has been marked by an extraordinary surge of paranoia and conspiracy theory on the left. The sheer intensity of it, combined with some of his supporters’ glassy-eyed denial of reality and desire to “purge” the party unfaithful, has led some to compare Corbynism to a cult or a religious movement. Unfortunately, the problem goes much deeper. Corbyn didn’t create or lead a movement; he followed one.

In the last few years, a new breed of hyperbolic pundits has emerged on left-wing social media who embody what Richard Hofstadter called “The Paranoid Style” in politics, “a sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy”.

Hofstadter’s 1964 essay was inspired by McCarthyism, but the Paranoid Style as a political and psychological phenomenon has been with us for as long as modern politics. Of course conspiracies and misdeeds can happen, but the Paranoid Style builds up an apocalyptic vision of a future driven entirely by dark conspiracies. The NHS won’t just be a bit worse; it will be destroyed in 24 hours. Opponents aren’t simply wrong, but evil incarnate; near-omnipotent super-villains control the media, the banks, even history itself. Through most of history, movements like this have remained at the fringes of politics; and when they move into the mainstream bad things tend to happen.

To pick one example among many, science broadcaster Marcus Chown’s Twitter feed is full of statements that fall apart at the slightest touch. We learn that billionaires control 80 per cent of the media – they don’t. We learn that the BBC were “playing down” the Panama Papers story, tweeted on a day when it led the TV news bulletins and was the number one story on their news site.  We learn that the Tories are lying when they say they’ve increased spending on the NHS. As FullFact report, the Tories have increased NHS spending in both absolute and real terms. We learn via a retweet that Labour were ahead of the Conservatives in polling before a leadership challengethey weren’t.

The surprise Conservative majority in last year’s election shocked the left to the core, and seemed to push this trend into overdrive. Unable to accept that Labour had simply lost arguments over austerity, immigration and the economy, people began constructing their own reality, pasting out of context quotes and dubious statistics over misleading charts and images. Falsehoods became so endemic in left-wing social media that it’s now almost impossible to find a political meme that doesn’t contain at least one serious mistruth. Popular social media figures like Dr Eoin Clarke have even built up the idea that the election result itself was a gigantic fraud.

The problem with creating your own truth is that you have to explain why others can’t – or won’t – see it. One answer is that they’re the unwitting stooges of an establishment conspiracy that must involve the “mainstream media”, a belief that seems more plausible in the wake of scandals over expense claims and phone-hacking. Voters can’t be expressing genuine concerns, so they must have been brainwashed by the media.  

The left have long complained about the right-wing bias of the tabloid press with some justification, but in recent years the rage of a hardcore minority has become increasingly focused on the BBC. “Why aren’t the BBC covering X” is a complaint heard daily, with X nearly always being some obscure or unimportant protest or something that in fact the BBC did cover.  

Bewildered and infuriated by the BBC’s refusal to run hard-left soundbites as headlines, the paranoid left assume Auntie is involved in some sort of right-wing establishment plot. Public figures such as Laura Kuenssberg, the Corporation’s political editor, have been subjected to a campaign of near-permanent abuse from the left, much of it reeking of misogyny. By asking Labour figures questions as tough as those she routinely puts to Conservative politicians, she has exposed her true role as a “Tory propagandist whore”, a “fucking cunt bag”, or a “Murdoch puppet”.

This was the context in which Corbyn’s leadership campaign was fought, and with his own dislike of the media and love of a good conspiracy theorist, he swiftly became a figurehead for the paranoid left. Suddenly, the cranks and conspiracy theorists had a home in his Labour party; and they flocked to it in their tens of thousands. Of course most Corbynistas aren’t cranks, but an intense and vocal minority are, and they have formed a poisonous core at the heart of the cause.

The result is a Truther-style movement that exists in almost complete denial of reality. Polls showing double-digit leads for the Conservatives are routinely decried as the fabrications of sinister mainstream media figures. The local elections in May, which saw Corbyn’s Labour perform worse than most opposition leaders in recent history, triggered a series of memes insisting that results were just fine. Most bewildering of all is a conspiracy theory which insists that Labour MPs who quit the shadow cabinet and declared ‘no confidence’ in Corbyn were somehow orchestrated by the PR firm, Portland Communications.

The paranoid left even has its own news sources. The Canary manages, without irony, to take the worst traits of the tabloids, from gross bias to the misreporting of a suicide note, and magnify them to create pages of pro-Corbyn propaganda that are indistinguishable from parody. On Facebook, Corbyn has more followers than the Labour Party itself. Fan groups filter news of Corbyn and his enemies so effectively that in one Facebook group I polled, more than 80 per cent of respondents thought Corbyn would easily win a general election.

This kind of thinking tips people over a dangerous threshold. Once you believe the conspiracy theories, once you believe you’ve been denied democracy by media manipulation and sinister establishment forces mounting dirty tricks campaigns, it becomes all too easy to justify bad behaviour on your own side. It starts with booing, but as the “oppressed” gain their voices the rhetoric and the behaviour escalate until the abuse becomes physical.

I’m prepared to believe Jeremy Corbyn when he says that he doesn’t engage in personal abuse. The problem is, he doesn’t have to. His army of followers are quite happy to engage in abuse on his behalf, whether it’s the relentless abuse of journalists, or bricks tossed through windows, or creating what more than 40 women MPs have described as a hostile and unpleasant environment

Supporters will point out that Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t asked for this to happen, and that in fact he’s made various statements condemning abuse. They’re not wrong, but they fail to grasp the point; that the irresponsible behaviour of Corbyn and his allies feeds into the atmosphere that leads inexorably to these kinds of abuses happening.

We see this in Corbyn’s unfounded attacks on media conspiracies, such as his absurd complaints about the lack of coverage of council elections. We see it in the shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s angry public jibes at Labour MPs. Surly aggression oozes out of the screen whenever a TV reporter asks Corbyn a difficult question. Then there’s the long history of revolutionary rhetoric – the praise for bombs and bullets, the happy engagement with the homophobic, the misogynistic, the anti-Semitic, the terrorist, in the name of nobler aims. 

Even the few statements Corbyn makes about abuse and bigotry are ambiguous and weak. Called upon to address anti-Semitism in the Labour party, he repeatedly abstracts to generic racism – in his select committee evidence on the topic, he mentioned racism 28 times, and anti-Semitism 25 times, while for his interviewers the ratio was 19 to 45. Called on to address the abuse of women MPs in the Labour Party, he broadened the topic to focus on abuse directed at himself, while his shadow justice secretary demanded the women show “respect” to party members. Corbyn’s speech is woolly at the best of times, but he and his allies seem determined to water down any call for their supporters to reform.   

Still, why reform when things are going so well? Taken at face value, Corbyn’s summer has been appalling. It began with the poor local election results, continued with Labour’s official position being defeated in the EU Referendum, and then saw the party’s leader lose a vote of no confidence, after which he was forced to watch the resignation of most of his shadow cabinet and then face a leadership challenge. Labour are polling terribly against Theresa May (who, admittedly, is in her honeymoon period), and the press are either hostile or find Corbyn impossible to work with.

If Corbyn were a conventional Leader of the Opposition these facts would be catastrophic, but he’s not and they’re not. To understand why, let’s look at some head-scratching quotes from leading Corbynistas. Jon Lansman, Chair of Momentum, was heavily mocked on Twitter recently for saying, “Democracy gives power to people, ‘Winning’ is the small bit that matters to political elites who want to keep power themselves.” The former BBC and Channel 4 journalist Paul Mason released a video clip suggesting Labour should be transformed into a “social movement”, along the lines of Occupy.  

These sentiments are echoed at the heart of Team Corbyn. Owen Smith claimed to have asked Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, whether they were prepared to let the Labour party split. According to Smith, whose version of events was denied by John McDonnell but backed up by two other MPs, Corbyn refused to answer while McDonnell said “if that’s what it takes”. Many activists seem to hold the same view – Twitter is full of Momentum warriors quite happy to see the bulk of the PLP walk away, and unconcerned about their diminishing prospects of winning any election.

Which on the face of it makes no sense. Labour has 232 seats, considerably more than David Cameron inherited in 2005. Their opponent is an “unelected” Prime Minister commanding a majority of just twelve, who was a senior figure in the government that just caused Britain’s biggest crisis since the war, and is now forced to negotiate a deal that either cripples the economy or enrages millions of voters who were conned by her colleagues into believing they had won a referendum on immigration. Just before leaving office, George Osborne abandoned his budget surplus target – effectively conceding it was a political gambit all along.

A competent Labour leader, working with other parties and disaffected Remainian Tories, could be – should be - tearing lumps out of the government on a weekly basis. Majority government may be a distant prospect, but forcing the Tories into a coalition or removing them from government altogether by the next election is entirely achievable.  Yet it’s fair to say that many Corbynistas have little interest in seeing this scenario play out.

Which makes sense, because to these people Labour – real Labour – doesn’t have 232 seats, it has about 40. The others seats are occupied by “Red Tories” or, worse, “Blairites”. Since these groups are as much the enemy as the Tories are, exchanging one for the other is meaningless. The Corbynites could start their own party of course, but why do that when they can seize control of Labour’s infrastructure, short money and institutional donors. The only long-term strategy that makes sense is to “purify” Labour, and rebuild from the foundations up. That may mean another 10 or 20 years of Tory rule, but the achingly middle-class Corbynistas won’t be the ones to suffer from that.

Seen through that prism, Corbynism makes sense. A common theme among the dozens of resignation letters from former shadow ministers has been his apparent disinterest in opposition policy work. A recent Vice documentary showed his refusal to attack the Tories over the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith. Even Richard Murphy, a supportive economist who set out many of the basic principles of ‘Corbynomics’, lost patience in a recent blog post

“I had the opportunity to see what was happening inside the PLP. The leadership wasn’t confusing as much as just silent. There was no policy direction, no messaging, no direction, no co-ordination, no nothing. Shadow ministers appeared to have been left with no direction as to what to do. It was shambolic.”

So where are his attentions focused? Unnamed “insiders” quoted in the Mirror paint an all too feasible picture of a team that, “spent hours in ‘rambling’ meetings discussing possible plots against him and considered sending ‘moles’ to spy on his Shadow Cabinet.” That claim was given more weight by the recent controversy over Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s office manager, who allegedly entered the office of shadow minister Seema Malhotra without permission. Vice’s documentary, ‘The Outsider‘, showed Corbyn railing against the BBC, who he believed were ‘obsessed’ with undermining his leadership, and other journalists.

By all accounts, Corbyn’s team inhabit a bunker mentality, and their genius – intentional or otherwise – has been to use the ‘paranoid style’ to extend that bunker to accommodate tens of thousands of their followers. Within that bubble, every failure becomes a victory. Negative media coverage simply reinforces their sense of being under attack, and every bad poll or election disappointment becomes an opportunity to demonstrate the strength of their faith. Shadow cabinet resignations and condemnations reveal new ‘traitors’, justifying further paranoia and increasing the feeling of being under siege.

It’s terrible for a functioning opposition, but brilliant for forming a loyal hard-left movement, driving screaming protestors into CLP meetings, keeping uppity MPs in line with the prospect of more abuse or deselection, and ensuring that Corbyn will sign up enough supporters to win the leadership election by a landslide.  

Hofstadter wrote that ”the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician.” In the United States, Bernie Sanders was ultimately forced to compromise when Hillary Clinton won the Democrat nomination. The Bernie Corbyn & Jeremy Sanders Facebook group, hardcore loyalists to the end, immediately disowned him, and suggested the group change its name.

Corbyn need make no such compromise, which is his whole appeal. Those who expect him to step down after a general election defeat, or to compromise with the rest of the party to achieve greater success, have completely failed to understand what they’re dealing with. For Corbyn and his followers there is no compromise, only purity, and a Red Labour party with 50 MPs is better than a centrist party with 400. That is the reality of the movement that Labour and the left are facing, and it is catastrophic. 

 

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.