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Being right about the Iraq war has made the left insufferable

Iraq gave a whole section of the British left a sense of burning, brilliant superiority. But that isn’t a good enough foundation for political life.

I was right about the 2003 Iraq war. I thought it was a bad idea, and it was a bad idea. For a long time this fact was very important to me. From late 2002 till the start of hostilities, the prospect of war, and whether it could be averted, was the guiding obsession of my life: I consumed all the news I could, hunting out signs and omens of what was coming. I was 21, a student with a baby, and had never cared about anything so much. The stakes were so high, and the issue so staggeringly obvious: of course Al Qaeda was not in Iraq, of course 45 minutes was a nonsense, of course this was really about oil, unfinished Bush family business, and some other hard-to-define international pressures that it definitely wouldn’t be anti-Semitic to discuss.

The wrongness of the war, and my rightness about that wrongness, mattered to me a great deal – not just in the run-up to the invasion, but for years afterwards. The division between pro-war and anti-war cleaved a sharp line through the world between the lost and the saved. For the remainder of the decade, I would judge an MP on their voting record on Iraq; a journalist on their coverage of Iraq; a publication on its editorial line on Iraq. And the moral certainty of that period was simply blissful. I do not believe I am alone in this: being right about Iraq gave a whole section of the British left a sense of burning, brilliant superiority.

This is particularly true for the part of the left that felt generally alienated by New Labour. Uncharitably, one might describe this as the part of the left that didn’t know how to win. That includes the hard-left factions that have always been, frankly, unpopular. It also includes a lot of people like me who were young enough to have never known Labour as a party of government before 1997 – people for whom supporting Labour was synonymous with opposing the party in power. Once your avatar of resistance to the government was the government, what were you to do? Feel deeply and painfully disappointed, over and over again, it transpired. The legacy of Blair’s tenure is not unmixed, but it is easier – much easier – to be right about everything when you don’t have to enact your policies.

It’s fortunate that losing felt like home, because losing over the Iraq war was otherwise desperately sad. I remember taking part in the Stop the War march in Sheffield, and I remember it being a drizzly and defeated sort of day as we shuffled around Barker’s Pool, me pushing a pram with one hand, holding my crying baby with the other. I remember thinking, we’re not stopping anything. This has already happened. I remember hearing something drifting over from a loudspeaker, something about Israel that I felt not entirely comfortable with, but then anti-Zionism wasn’t anti-Semitism and wasn’t it important to be able to question Israel? (An aside: over ten years later, I am very sure that if you "question" the existence of Israel, a state that has given refuge to a universally persecuted people, you are in fact an anti-Semite.)

I was right that the case for war was bad, and rushed. But there was a case for war – maybe a sufficient one, maybe not, but a better one than 45 minutes. Saddam Hussein was monstrous. He killed and killed and killed. The choice was never a simple one between the good of non-intervention and the ill of intervention: doing nothing and leaving a genocidal dictator in power was an ill too, and the fact that what was done was done badly does not change that. Now, it is bloodily, horribly obvious that the plan for post-invasion Iraq was barely thought out, but I do not think that the anti-war left should take much comfort in that. It would have been better to be wrong. It would have been better, in fact, to prove ourselves wrong – to divert political energies from stopping the war (or being right that the war should never have started) and into building a plan for Iraq after Saddam.

This did not happen. I was right, and my being right helped no one, ameliorated no violence, saved no lives. Or rather, it helped one person, meaning me – helped by giving my world a gleaming sense of right and wrong that made an otherwise morally awkward universe much easier to navigate. It took until 2012 for rape apologist Assange supporters to kill that certainty off in me, but by 2010 it had begun to pall, and if I wasn't exactly over it (I wanted Ed Miliband to become Labour leader in part because his short parliamentary career meant he was unscathed by Iraq), I was certainly looking forward to being over it, and hoped that the accession of Miliband jr would allow for a break with the war-rifted recent history of Labour.

That, I was wrong about. The left is not even nearly done with the comforting confidence of an Iraq-based ethics system – for example, the organisation Media Lens, while claiming to criticise the biases of corporate news, is in practice largely engaged in an endless project of separating the anti-war sheep from the goats to be purged. Iraq is part of the reason for Corbyn's breezy rise: he's pure of war taint. The fact that his anti-war credentials have led him into associations with Holocaust deniers and other unsavoury types is of no import when he can promise an apology for the Iraq war – at last, a politician willing to say sorry for a decision he bears no responsibility for and win rectitude by blaming his predecessors. The new politics we've all been waiting for. Being right about Iraq is not, ultimately, a good enough foundation for political life. The longer the left behaves as though it is, the closer we get to redundancy and death.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?