Notes From a Small Planet

2 Conversations

Bush versus the world

The other day, I saw an army recruitment ad and found myself wondering exactly what sort of person would join the British armed forces at this particular point in history.

I imagine that some recruits will, as always, come from the ranks of the desperate: those so sick of their present surroundings that they'll do absolutely anything to get away. Some will perhaps be drawn from among the happily ignorant, dim souls who never pay much attention to the news and think it'll be exciting.

But they'll surely now be joined by a greater-than-usual proportion of chronic xenophobes, attracted to the idea of getting to kill a few foreigners. Because what anyone contemplating a career in Britain's forces should now realise is that, in the near future, they're likely to be called upon to risk their lives in defence of the American government's interests.

And they wouldn't leave for Iraq as national heroes, because the majority of the British public oppose the involvement of British troops in any American invasion of that nation. It's hard to tell precisely how big that majority is. In a telephone poll organised by the 'Daily Mirror' newspaper at the weekend, over 90 per cent opposed any British involvement in a war in Iraq. Other polls have produced a smaller majority, but all have showed a marked lack of enthusiasm in Britain for the idea of joining this particular American crusade.

The plans for war have been condemned by British clergy, MPs, scientists and trade unionists. A petition organised by the international Catholic peace movement Pax Christi attracted the signatures of nearly 3,000 Christian clergy from a variety of
denominations, including Rowan Williams, the new Archbishop of Canterbury.

The petition, handed in to 10 Downing Street on Tuesday, declares: 'It is deplorable that the world's most powerful nations continue to regard war and the threat of war as an acceptable instrument of foreign policy, in violation of the ethos of both the United Nations and Christian moral teaching. The way to peace does not lie through war but through the transformation of structures of injustice and of the politics of exclusion, and that is the cause to which the west should be devoting its technological, diplomatic and economic resources.'

I'm not generally a great fan of the church, but in this instance I couldn't agree more.

Outside of America, hardly anyone seems to support the idea of a blitz on Baghdad. The United Nations Secretary-general Kofi Annan has expressed his concerns about the dangers of attacking Iraq, given the generally unstable situation in the Middle East. King Abdullah of Jordan has strongly opposed an attack. He's also spoken to Tony Blair on the subject, and claimed afterwards that Blair was uneasy about supporting Bush in any war on Iraq. Given the depth of opposition to an attack among the British public, that's not particularly surprising. Blair, famed for his devotion to focus groups, doesn't often ignore public opinion - a fact which may help to explain his stubborn reluctance to make any clear declaration of policy on this particular issue.

Other European leaders have been more forthcoming. Last month, German chancellor Gerhard Schröder and French President Jacques Chirac issued a joint statement opposing any invasion of Iraq without a fresh UN mandate. Schroder has since gone further, declaring that Germany will provide no support for any such attack. The fact that
Schröder was willing to make that statement at the start of his campaign for re-election as Germany's leader presumably means that he believes German public opinion to be in line with that policy. Italy's robustly right-wing prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is a
natural ideological ally of Bush, but Italian government ministers have made it clear that Italy will only provide troops for an invasion of Iraq if it's sanctioned by the UN and supported by other European nations.

The unease around the world at the Bush administration's stance can only increase as Iraq appears to offer more and more concessions. There may still be disagreements about the precise manner in which UN arms inspections should take place in Iraq, and as to whether sanctions against Iraq should be lifted in return for such inspections being allowed to take place: but the principle that inspections could be allowed to happen has been conceded by Hussein's government.

If inspections do take place, as seems increasingly likely, the US government will lose another excuse for wanting to attack Iraq. First it was said that Iraq was helping the terrorists of al-Qaeda and was thus implicated in last September's attacks on America. When anthrax spores were sent through the US mail, Iraq was blamed. But no convincing evidence for the supposed Iraq-al Qaeda link has ever been produced, and the sources of the anthrax attacks turned out be American. Then Iraq's non-compliance with UN resolutions on arms inspections was the supposed cause for conflict - but now it appears
that Iraq is backing down on that issue. Now, the Bush administration's goal is said to be 'regime change'. Basically, they don't like Saddam, so he's got to go, and that's that.

There are certainly plenty of good reasons to dislike Saddam and to want to see him ousted. His has been an appallingly brutal dictatorship. He has used chemical weapons to suppress dissent against his own people. Iraq has certainly had a fearsome arsenal of weapons at its disposal in the past. But if inspections resume, and no forbidden weapons can be found, then there'll be no possible justification for taking the huge risks involved in starting a war in such a volatile part of the world.

The trouble is that Bush needs a war. Things have not been going well for him at home, with a series of financial scandals scarring the image of the free-market capitalism he so strongly supports. However, a war would distract attention away from America's
domestic problems. Bush's poll ratings soared during the attacks on Afghanistan, as Americans took the view that it was right to support their national leader at such a time, whatever reservations they may have about him.

But, although it thankfully succeeded in removing the odious Taleban regime from power, the Afghan campaign had a slightly anti-climactic ending. Osama bin Laden was never captured or killed. The much-trumpeted 'War On Terrorism' appears to have fizzled out. So Bush needs a new baddie to fight, and Hussein must seem like the best
candidate for the role.

One of the best h2g2 Edited Guide Entries I've ever read tells the story of the US-backed military coup in Chile in 1973. It illustrates that for a US government to seek 'regime change' in another country is nothing new. I suppose it can be argued in the Bush administration's defence that at least this US government is open about its intentions, and Saddam Hussein's dictatorship is
certainly a worthier enemy that was Salvador Allende's democratically elected government.

But it is still outrageous that the US government should be contemplating waging war on a nation that presents no immediate danger to any of its neighbours, and which now appears to be ready to negotiate with the outside world. Indeed, the Iraqi government seems far more sensitive to world opinion than does the Bush administration, which appears to be preparing to wage war with or without UN support, and regardless of international law.

I'd like to see a regime change in Iraq, but I'd prefer to see a regime change in Washington. It's the government there that seems most likely to drag this planet into an unnecessary and hideously destructive conflict.

The small matter of the planet

What could be more important than the future of the world? What matters of state could reasonably concern a government more than trying to seek international agreement and action on sustainable development, and finding ways to alleviate poverty and protect the environment?

This intriguing question was raised by a news story this week concerning the forthcoming Earth Summit in Johannesburg. The event is being described by enthusiasts as the world's biggest-ever conference, and by the more sceptical as the world's biggest talking shop. Delegates from 174 countries will take part in an attempt to thrash out new agreements. Many national leaders, including Tony Blair, will be making brief appearances towards the end of the Summit in order to sign the new agreements. The conference was originally scheduled for the first two weeks in September, but it has been brought forward in order to avoid a clash with events commemorating the first anniversary of the attacks on America, so that President Bush could attend - although he hasn't yet confirmed that he will actually do so.

With the environment such an important part of the agenda, you'd expect that all the countries involved would be sending their environment ministers, and almost all of them are doing just that. However, it appears that there may be one exception to this rule.
Britain's environment minister, Michael Meacher, is reportedly being excluded from the occasion, even though he's internationally renowned as one of the world's great experts

on environmental issues. The environmental pressure group Friends of the Earth are so

alarmed at the prospect of Mr Meacher's absence from the summit that they've offered to pay for his air fare, but it's still not known whether he'll be allowed to participate.

So why has this peculiar decision been taken? Because of egos and domestic political expediency, it seems. Ministers higher up the political pecking order than Mr Meacher wanted to go, and Mr Blair was anxious to keep the size of the UK delegation down in order to avoid charges of junketing at the expense of the world's poor. Sending Mr Meacher to Johannesburg might have improved the UK's input into the Summit, but a large delegation of ministers could also have left the government open to attacks from opposition parties.

Therefore, the answer to my opening question is clear. What could be more important than the future of the world? Why, of course, making Tony Blair look good, and not giving that horrid Iain Duncan Smith a chance to say something nasty about him. Of
course. I should have realised.

Mid-European moaners menaced

The April 18 edition of this column really started something, and the something that it started was called PUDDING. The column contained a story about an American woman who wanted to start an annual event called The Great
American Grump Out - a day on which looking miserable would be a punishable offence.

That story prompted the formation of PUDDING - People United in Defence of Depression, Irritability and Natural Grumpiness. The society has thrived: at the time of writing, its membership stands at 52 Researchers and one cat.

And PUDDING is needed more than ever. I don't know whether National Grump Day ever got off the ground, but this week I heard of outrageous persecution being suffered by the sour-faced souls of Austria. The Austrian Chamber of Commerce and the Austrian
advertising industry has launched a multi-media campaign featuring pictures of miserable faces with red lines through them, and the slogan 'No more moaners'. Those responsible for the campaign claim that the Austrian economy is being damaged by people grumbling
about it, and so eroding investors' confidence.

This pernicious propaganda is currently being seen on billboards. There are plans to bring it on to TV, radio and even beer mats, so Austrian drinkers won't even be allowed to mutter into their beer without being picked on. There are also plans for the city of Vienna to display banners proclaiming itself a 'grumble-free zone'.

You see the sort of thing that can happen if we don't stand up for our right to moan? Pretty soon, people will be getting arrested on suspicion of scowling! There's only one thing for it - join the swelling ranks of PUDDING!

Until next week, have a nice time. But only if you want to.

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