What follows below is a bit of a ramble but I have a big personal question to address: whether to stay with the Liberal Democrats. As it turns out, as so often in life, one question evolves into another.
Have you ever thought about what the definition of a military superpower actually is? Unless one is a student of either international politics or military global strategy, probably not. I am a student of neither but I have from a young age have always been aware of the effects that superpowers have over us. These are best documented in maps. When I was young, I used to pore over maps, especially those parts which were barred to me. Russia, the Black and Caspian Seas. The vast steppes of the Soviet Union and the Russian Far East Pacific. All these places would be forever closed.
Meanwhile my father travelled. He was a marine engineer. There were parts of the world to which he seldom went and others he would never go. Russia, of course, was one of them. It was the Cold War after all. Surprisingly enough, America was another. Not that he was ever barred officially but before he worked with what turned out to be his long-term employer, he did jobs for smaller companies wherever he could. Thus in the 1960s he ended up in Mao's China and shipping supplies to North Vietnam. After that, if the vessel he was working on won contracts to the USA, he would usually be transferred after the first trip, and definitely no more than two.
The Cold War was on a global basis and there were two superpowers: Russia and the USA. They were given this label because both claimed to be able to fight two major wars, simultaneously, anywhere on the planet. I say claimed because, thankfully, it was never put to the test. One would think that ownership of nuclear weapons would be enough to make one a superpower but apparently not. It is the capability to field forces simultaneously in different regions. That is why Britain was a superpower before WWII and has never been since.
The US capacity during the 1960s was, on paper at least, to retain capacity to fight two and a half major conflicts simultaneously. That is why Vietnam was such a shock the the American psyche. How could the greatest superpower lose to a local army? It was a lesson in losing through losing the people, and not just the Vietnamese. America lost their own people too: at home through the imagines being sent back on the news reporting and in the war zone itself, where very often the conscript troops would simply refuse to obey orders of senior NCOs and officers. This is a reality which has yet to be depicted in any Hollywood movie I am aware of.
It was Nixon that did away with conscription, moved away from the two-and-a-half major conflicts capacity, and also increased reliance on nuclear weapons, especially with ICBM missiles armed with multiple warheads. As Vietnam wound down, hope that Carter would come to an accommodation with the Soviet Union during the SALT II talks were dashed with the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. Carter himself was undermined by the Iranian Revolution and the taking of the embassy hostages.
Also during the 1970s, less publicised at the time, the Israelis achieved nuclear capacity with its (now ageing) Samson nuclear missile system. This meant the end of formal wars between Arab states, such as Syria and Egypt, against Israel and more of war-by-proxy using guerrilla and informal forces such as the PLO its offshoot, the Abu Nidal organisation. It is worth noting though that both organisations are secular, very different from that which was to follow.
A few things to remember about Afghanistan. The Russians did not invade: they were invited in by the socialist government in Kabul. True, the Socialists had themselves benefitted from a coup, and their reforms were unpopular with the old conservative landowners, who despite their apparent devotion to Islam were making a good living by charging interest on loans.
The Afghans themselves are made up of disparate peoples; each independent and with a turbulent history but often unified under a strong ruler. When the central power weakens, often there is rebellion and this was the case several times during the 1970s.
I am no theologian but it is my understanding that the original meaning of the term "jihad" means a defence of one's own home against an invader. It was this religious twist to the guerrilla armies that was introduced by the Americans and their allies the Saudis, when organising resistance to the Soviet intervention into Afghanistan. The Taliban arose in the brutality of the Afghan refugee camps of the Hindu Kush. "The Students" is an ironic name: educational facilities in the camps were next to none and they were environments where the strong ruled. It must have been relatively easy to recruit an army of young men, provide them with a version of warrior Islam and send them forth, armed with the latest technology in light American weaponry, in order to sweep their homeland clean of the godless Russian invaders. It was not only the Afghan Mujahideen that arose, but their Arabic allies who were keen to fight against secularism. One such faction was led by a charismatic rich kid from a major Saudi family: the bin Ladens. Osama became the black sheep but where was the harm? He was fighting Russians. These Arab fighters started to define the modern meaning of Jihad - after all, they were not fighting in defence of their own homes but on behalf of those they identify with as co-religionists.
After the Russians withdrew, these new Jihadists found there were many other injustices to apply their energies to. One tends to wonder now whether George Bush Senior was pretty smart in not overturning Saddam Hussain after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Saddam probably thought it was his just reward for waging a bitter, decade-long war against Iran. Throughout this time he was supported by the West, even in the illegal destruction of international shipping destined for Kharg Island at the top of the Persian Gulf. My father was running what became known as Exocet Alley at the time. It was no idle threat: other vessels owned by his employers had been hit and colleagues killed. As chance would have it, he was on board another ship which departed Kuwait a mere eighteen hours before Iraqi forces rolled into town.
At the time, many people asked "Why don't the Americans finish the job?" It seemed that was not the mission. The Republican Guard were not targeted and Saddam was allowed a free hand in brutally suppression of Kurds in the north and the Marsh Arabs to the south. Both peoples had been promised support and liberation if they rose up against Hussain. Having previously being head of the CIA, perhaps Bush knew more than most what would occur if Iraq was dismantled. It seems the aim was to keep intact the borders established by the great colonial powers.
Post-Iraq War, things looked pretty hopeful for those of us in the West. The so-called Peace Dividend was promised. Thank God we could reel back military spending. There was the Balkans Wars of course. Europe was particularly ineffective in stopping that. Intervention, which was used by Liberal Democrat leadership on this week's vote as an example of good military intervention, was probably the only way to finally halt the predation of Serbia. All people of the region suffered but the maps changed. Yugoslavia, created by the victorious Great Powers after the First World War, no longer exists. The people of the region, through the combination of war and diplomacy, have created the border that exist today. This is an important point.
Not that the Americans were dormant during this time. Taking advantage of Russia's weakness, NATO was extended eastwards into the former Warsaw Pact nations. When the Soviet Union fell, they had asked that the nations of central Europe remain militarily neutral. It was agreed at the time but informally so. Unfortunately for the Russians, a gentleman's agreement is worth even less than a non-binding UN resolution. It was a lesson that will not be forgotten.
What is the big deal about NATO expansion? In principle, once the Soviet Union fell, so did the reason for NATO's existence. There was only one reason for NATO to expand and that was arms sales. All the Warsaw Pact nations had plenty of serviceable military kit, mostly Russian-supplied but also home-grown. Part of the conditions of joining NATO was that, in order to fully integrate with existing members, the newly independent nations of the east would have to buy western equipment.
There was a huge outburst of sympathy for the USA after 9/11. We all understood when the Americans wanted revenge for the 3,000 murdered that day. If they said that the bombers were trained in bases in Afghanistan, okay. Perhaps, given the history of the place it may not have seem such a smart idea for a full invasion but hell. This was no trivial attack. America had been sorely wounded and they are our friends.
That genuine and heartfelt sympathy lasted approximately a year, until the world realised that America under George Bush Junior wanted to invade Iraq, using the September 2001 attacks as a premise. The propaganda of the time would have had us all that the recently discovered Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussain were hand-in-glove. Nothing could be further from the truth. Hussain was indeed a loathsome dictator but the Baath parties of Iraq and Syria were equally loathed by the modern Jihadist movements. It was as likely a scenario as the Tea Party getting into bed with the Greens. Hussain played up to his reputation as the Middle East hard man who stood up to the Imperial West. When it came to it, he was a straw man. This time the West (primarily the USA supported by the UK) unleashed it's full force and the armies of Iraq were blown like husks on a burning wind. George W. Bush stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln under the banner that read Mission Accomplished.
I remember the build up to that war. I was in Egypt in February 2003 and one could cut the atmosphere like a knife. Everybody knew war was coming. It was just a question of when. When I got home the protests were in full flood. Those of us, like the Liberal Democrats, who were against the war were called "wobblers" by The Sun. I particularly remember a phone in on BBC Radio Scotland: it was the Lesley Riddoch radio slot. It was never stated why she was not available that day but the reason soon became obvious. The male presenter who replaced her was only there to whip up backing for the war. It was the most blatantly biased bit of broadcasting I have ever heard, including the crap put out by Fox News. Sky News were doing character assassinations on us "wobblers" too. I was so proud that Charles Kennedy led the party against that war. The legality of it did not matter so much. It was wrong. What the real worry was over what came after. We were right to worry.
Today, after all the billions upon billions of dollars spent on that war, Iraq is still an open sore. Following the Arab Spring, now too are Libya and Syria. Notice that all three nations were ones that resisted the West. Over a million are dead but, we are told, that the answer is more bombing.
During my previous blogs, Drones, and US, The Middle East and a Bar in Haifa, I described encounters that showed me at least that currently the United Kingdom totally at one with the real politick of US policy: to integrate with US and Israeli armament technology and to further the aims of US policy, which is to continue the War on Terror. The actions of the US shows that they are using the ongoing wars to destroy nations the West do not control. I am not claiming that Cairo or Jeddah are controlled by the US on a day-to-day basis, but rather the US are propping up the current ruling elites through illicit subsidies of military supplies.
That is the UK's current position, without any shadow of a doubt. What I need to know, really need to know, is that that also the position of the six Liberal Democrat MPs that this week decided the back the UK military intervention in Syria? By voting with the government last night, they justified the continuing UK backing of the War on Terror. Was this or was this not the intention? Is this the kind of grown-up decision that it is necessary to take in order to be trusted with government?
The reason why I am asking these questions is that they are important to me and, I think, to a growing number of people in the UK. The biggest change between today and, say, The Falklands War, is the development and expansion of the Internet. In 1982, there was only the BBC, ITV and newspaper reporters available to us. Unless one really made an effort to look outside the nation (and it was an effort in those day) it was impossible to have any other news source of a conflict. That is not the case now. Information is available in directions unimaginable thirty years ago. While on the topic of the Falklands though, and this idea just came to me, is I wonder if some kind of deal was done? Now I know that the British naval task force received help from the US Navy in term of refuelling en route to the South Atlantic. Was there a deal that the UK would thereafter support America in whatever conflict arose? If so, we are paying a high price after twelve years of constant engagement.
Back to the point however. Not everybody has had the privilege that I have enjoyed of seeing the world (albeit by the back door) over the past twenty-or-so years. I have been able to see such places and talk to folk first-hand. You would not believe how much people talk. They are normal people, doing a job just as I was. By bloody hell it was an education. The truth is is this: there are no angels, no good guys. There are plenty of good people but when it comes to real power the systems in place and the momentum of economics and vested interest makes change very difficult indeed. Even more so in a liberal democracy where power is spread throughout the interested elites. Individual people like you and me have very little real power and that is where political parties come in, or ought to.
With the introduction of the Internet, it is increasingly important that citizens are told the truth, or as much truth that can be released without endangering lives. Now this directly contradicts Political Science 101 - that rulers lie to the citizens for both the good of the state and of the citizen. Don't believe me? Check out your Plato. It is easy to see that since the beginning of time that this has been abused for the benefit of the rulers. It is the most common complaint that politicians are in it for themselves. For some that is undoubtedly true. My experience of party politics is that people who put themselves forward for political activity are a mixed bunch but overall, like most folk, are good and decent. No matter the intent though, the deeper one gets into real power the harder one finds it to achieve real change. This is normal: in a democracy power is devolved to other bodies, the courts, press and media, trade unions, businesses to name but a few. On the whole though, it is the politicians that carry most of the responsibility and almost all the blame. Misleading the public is more difficult today because of the Internet, though that does not stop the mass media from trying and, often, succeeding.
I am sure you all have plenty of your own examples. Below I'll cite one of my own examples, which also returns us to the question of warfare.
These things always seem to take place in bars. I had just come off a rig in Norway. The hotel, some way from the airport, was dead. Besides, one appreciates the luxury of walk after several weeks on any rig. Ending up at the SAS Radisson, I took a beer and a bar meal. Across the way was a large group of British oil workers and for want of anything else I found myself tuning into their conversation. One guy was talking about his son who was in the Finnish special forces. Ever notice that piracy around the Horn of Africa seems not to be in the news so much nowadays? There is a reason for that. According to this person, all the northern nations special forces were invited to do tours of duty at the massive east African military base at Djibouti. From there they would undertake missions which was basically search and destroy. Anything that looked like a pirate vessel, or in other words anything local and floating was sunk. Usually from helicopter gunships. The idea that any nation who wanted their special forces troops blooded would be welcome to book a place and take part.
Now I didn't even know there was a western military base at Djibouti. So I did what everybody else would do and Googled it. Sure enough, up it came.
So, what do we have? A military base, no more reporting of piracy on the media and a plausible explanation as to what caused the piracy to stop: the pirates had been killed, probably along with a whole load of innocent fishermen. How was this reported? A few months ago s BBC journalist, speaking on From Our Own Correspondent, referred to the reduction of piracy in the region and attributed that it to increased naval patrols. I swore at the radio. Somebody in that position must know what really happened but chose not to tell us. To my mind, increased naval patrols conjures the picture of warships ploughing through the waves escorting merchant shipping and deterring piracy through their presence. I don't think it is me being particularly naive; this image would occur to most of us. Given the circumstances, would the public understood the actions taken if reported? The region had become unsafe, vessels captured and ransomed, along with their crews. Some of the crew had been murdered. There was no effective law enforcement on land. The situation could not have been allowed to continue. Perhaps the extreme military response, after years of naval patrols failed, was necessary.
War is never good but sometimes justified. Which allows me to return to the question: what is politics for and what is my role in it? Am I to stay with the Liberal Democrats? If so, is it the intention of the party leadership to back the US War on Terror? To my mind is an unjustified war designed to be open-ended.
I have been asked to stay by some in the local party. Which is nice. Of course, I have to ask myself what the options are for me if I were to leave the party. Emotionally, now is not a bad time for me to leave. The current downturn in the oil industry is probably going to be long-lasting. While it is possible I may still find work, one must face the probability that my time in the industry has come to an end. I joined the Liberal Democrats a few weeks before I stumbled into the industry; leaving would have a pleasing symmetry to it.
What to do afterwards? Would I join another party? Another friend said that any party would be lucky to have me. The vote on Wednesday showed some parties united against the war but I do not share their other aspirations. Perhaps I am deluded but I like to think that I am not a political chancer. It did also show me that other parties were split on the Syrian intervention, which goes to show that understanding of the situation is across the political spectrum. Besides, it would feel like a betrayal to move to another party.
Another option is not to join another party at all. If somebody paid me to write on politics and world affairs, that would be a tempting option indeed. Like my politics though, I have never earned a penny from my writing.
What is it to be? I am minded to stay but I need to know the answer to that question. Is the leadership signed up to the US-led War on Terror? That is what they voted for on Wednesday night but was that their intention?