Paul Robeson: scourge of empire

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Paul Robeson, who died forty years ago this year, was a towering athlete, singer and actor, both literally and figuratively. But above all, he was a phenomenal intellect and scholar, a polymath who spoke twelve languages fluently and developed a piercing critique of white supremacy, colonialism, Western culture and capitalism. As such, he was a trailblazer for the Black Power movement, prefiguring many of the ideas that would go on to be articulated so powerfully by Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.

Born April 9th 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey, Paul Leroy Robeson had initially intended to be a lawyer. Earning a scholarship for his outstanding footballing abilities, he studied law – but his first day on a planned work placement at the solicitor’s office went badly. “The partners were furious”, he told a Jamaican newspaper in 1935, “’What is a negro doing here?’ The American typist refused to take down my dictation. I left the place, and not only the place but the profession, for we Negroes cannot get the necessary experience at the Bar.” Getting a job as a waiter, he began acting in amateur performances, and was noticed by a talent scout for his remarkable singing voice – after which, he says, “I started a new life: that of an artist.” He soon became a much sought-after Hollywood and stage actor and world-renowned singer, his name becoming synonymous with his trademark hit Ole Man River, and delivering what remains for many critics the definitive performance of Othello. At the height of his career, according to his biographer Philip S Foner, Robeson was “better known internationally than nearly all Americans aside from Franklin D. Roosevelt”, grossing an income of $150,000 per year, one of the highest paid Americans in the entertainment industry.

Yet, his experience in that industry quickly disillusioned him. As his fame grew, he told an interviewer in 1938, he found himself “more and more dissatisfied with the stories I played in. Certain elements in a story would attract me and I would agree to play in it. But by the time producers and distributors had got through with it, the story was usually very different, and so were my feelings about it.” He told another interviewer that year that “I am convinced that the great American and English companies are controlled by big capital, especially by the steel trust, and they will never let me do a picture as I want…The big producers insist on presenting a caricature image of the Black, a ridiculous image, that amuses the white bourgeoisie, and I am not interested in playing their game.”

At that point, Robeson made a conscious decision to quit Hollywood until it moved beyond stereotypical portrayals of African Americans as what he called “plantation hallelujah shouters”.  Four years later, he returned to Hollywood for a movie called “Tales of Manhattan”, which he believed had done just that. But, he later explained, “in the end, it turned out to be the same old thing – the Negro solving his problem by singing his way to glory. This is very offensive to my people. It makes the Negro child-like and innocent and is in the old plantation tradition. But Hollywood says you can’t make the Negro in any other role because it won’t be box office in the South. The South wants its Negroes in the old style”.

 

Robeson also saw that it was not only the characters he played, but his own life story, that was being used to sell the idea that black people’s problems could be solved by ‘singing their way to glory’.

In particular, he grew frustrated with the way in which ‘success stories’ such as his own were being held up to add credence to the fraudulent claim that race prejudice no longer existed in the USA. As he put it, “the rulers of this land – keeping the millions of our people in near serfdom and poverty: exposing us to terror and gross inhumanity – always point to the permitted achievements of a few of us in justification. For myself, I got tired of serving as an excuse for these cruelties to my people. I felt that I and they no longer possessed simple human dignity. So I stopped… I refuse to let my personal success, as part of a fraction of one per cent of the Negro people, to explain away the injustices to fourteen million of my people.”

 

Instead, Robeson began to search in earnest for roles that would give dignity to his people, rather than perpetuate white prejudices about them, and began to join and form cultural groups dedicated to this end. Such work was, he believed, vital to combat the psychological legacy of slavery and racial discrimination which, he wrote in 1934, “have left an indelible mark on the negro’s soul”. But the path to salvation, he emphasised repeatedly, would not come through what he called ‘aping whites’, but rather through rediscovering and embracing the African culture which had been so belittled and despised by Europeans. The African American, he wrote, “suffers from an inferiority complex which finds its compensation in a desire to imitate the white man and his ways; but I am convinced that in this direction there is neither fulfilment nor peace for the negro…the very impulse which drives them to copy those with the desired status, is killing what is of most value – the personality which makes them unique”. Instead, Robeson immersed himself in the study of African culture, and sought to bring it to the attention of a wider audience: “In my music, my plays, my films I want to carry always this central idea: to be African”. To this end, he declared in 1934, he hoped to help develop “a movement to inspire confidence in the Negro in the value of his own past and future”. He founded a theatre company which he regarded as “the first step on this road. Through it we aim to win world recognition for negro productions and so help the negro back to self-respect” including “some purely African plays – plays which may hold in them the seed of a new dramatic form, since they consist of a perfect welding of drama, music and ballet as has never been achieved on the Western stage”. He had many ideas for films as well – “the part of the Negro in American history – the epic part – can be depicted adequately only on the screen” he insisted – and sought, for example, to make a dramatization of the life and death of a black commander of the Lincoln battalions who fought in the Spanish civil war. Unfortunately, however, and as he had predicted, financiers were not forthcoming.

 

One of Robeson’s first moves was an attempt to gain recognition for those existing elements of African American culture most clearly influenced by Africa. Despite the best efforts of European slavemasters, the diaspora’s roots remained evident in its folk songs; but even black people themselves, Robeson found, were prone to belittle precisely this aspect of their culture. So, for his farewell US concert in 1931 before relocating to Europe for several years, Robeson rejected calls to ‘prove himself’ by embracing opera and other European traditions, and Instead, fronting a choir of 700, gave a concert consisting entirely of Negro spirituals. “I prefer a programme entirely made up of spirituals”, he explained, “because I know that therein lies our sound and enduring contribution. I know that in the concession to the music of other peoples in our Negro programmes, magnificent and masterly though they may be, lies the eventual obliteration of their own folk music, the musical idioms of our race.” Unfortunately, white audiences did not necessarily appreciate them as Robeson had intended: “There is little audience in England and America for the things I feel like singing or playing,” he lamented in 1934: ”They want Negro religious songs from which they take, not the suffering, but the comfort of the resignation they express – not heeding that the song’s cry for heaven is only a reflex from the Negro’s having suffered hell on earth”. But, of course, it was not for their sake that Robeson was performing: “It is my first concern”, he wrote, “to dispel this regrettable and abysmal ignorance of the value of its own heritage in the negro race itself”. And by the end of the decade, at least, he considered his work in this field a success: “If there is one thing I am proud of”, he would explain to the Sunday Worker on his return to America in 1939, “it is that I have been able to do something, along with others, toward giving this Negro American folk music its rightful place in the world”. Indeed, Robeson was clear that, whilst on the one hand white society belittled African culture and its American offshoots, it was nevertheless perfectly happy to appropriate it: “It is not as imitation Europeans, but as Africans, that we have a value” Robeson said, adding that “in a popular form, Negro music, launched by white men – not Negroes – has swept the world”.

 

Robeson’s identification with Africa, innocuous and natural as it may seem, was profoundly disturbing for white elites at the time, and already set him apart from many of his contemporaries in the struggle against racism, who emphasised their American identity in order to shore up their patriotism and appear as less of a ‘threat’. This tendency was to grow particularly marked after the war; as Von Eschen has noted: “As the Cold War escalated, the affirmation by many Black American leaders that ‘Negroes are Americans’ left no room for the claim of commonality with Africans and other oppressed peoples”.

 

Yet, for Robeson, this commonality was front and centre of his evolving political thought. As he threw himself into his studies of African culture, the political ramifications of his growing African consciousness became ever more apparent. As he noted later, in relation to his absorption in the study of African languages in London: “There was a logic to this cultural struggle, and the powers-that-be recognized it before I did. The British intelligence came one day to caution me about the political meanings of my activities. For the question loomed of itself: if African culture was what I insisted it was, what happens then to the claim that it would take 1000 years for Africans to be capable of self-rule?”

Robeson soon became an ardent, passionate and eloquent support of the struggles for African liberation, and became a regular at the West African Students’ Union in London, where came to know future independence leaders such as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Kenya’s Kenyatta. In 1937, he became a founder member and chairman of the Council on African Affairs, a position he used to ceaselessly campaign against the brutalities of colonial rule on the continent. For, as he later wrote, “The African and American Negro problem is not purely racial. These cultures must be freed, formulated, and developed, and this cannot be done without a change in the present system. The Negro cannot develop this culture until he is free”.

It was precisely this deep concern for the renaissance of African culture that led also to Robeson’s lifelong devotion to the Soviet Union. As he explains: “It was an African who directed my interest in Africa to something he had noted in the Soviet Union. On a visit to that country he had traveled East and had seen the Yakuts, a people who had been classed as a “backwards race” by the Tsars. He had been struck by the resemblance between the tribal life of the Yakuts and his own people of East Africa…I saw for myself when I visited the Soviet union how the Yakuts and the Uzbeks and all the other formerly oppressed nations were leaping ahead from tribalism to modern industrial economy, from illiteracy to the heights of knowledge. Their ancient cultures blossoming in new and greater splendor. Their young men and women mastering the sciences and arts. A thousand years? No, less than 30! So through Africa I found the Soviet Union – a beacon, a tried and tested way for whole nations, peoples, continents to revive the mother-roots of culture, to flower in freedom.”

Robeson had made the intellectual journey from pride in cultural heritage, to political liberation, to socialism. Needless to say, this did not go down well in Washington – especially in the Cold War climate following the Second World War. Following his speech at the Paris Peace conference in 1949 – in which he declared that “it is inconceivable that American Negroes would fight with those who have oppressed them for generations against the Soviet Union which, in a generation, has raised them to a position of equality” – his career took a nosedive. Declassified documents show that the State Department went to great lengths to bury him, planting defamatory articles in black journals, pressuring foreign governments to cancel planned celebrations of his life or honorary positions he had been offered, and much else besides. His passport was revoked, and theatres, recording studios and concert halls all closed their doors to him. Unable to work, his income plummeted to $3000 per year, foreshadowing the harassment of black activists that would become institutionalised under the FBI’s COINTELPRO programme in the 1960s.

In the decades immediately following World War Two, a deal was effectively operational between the US government and the mainstream black leadership of the country; in the words of Sohail Daulatzai, “In exchange for legislation on education, interstate transportation, voting rights, and other measures, the Civil Rights establishment approved an aggressive US foreign policy in the name of anti-communism, including US covert interventions and wars in Africa and Asia”. For Robeson, however this was not only unacceptable, but utterly self-defeating; as he put it: “the misrepresentation of the African and the distorted picture of the American Negro still so prevalent in our American culture, stemming as they do from the same basic cause of economic exploitation, can NOT be attacked or rooted out separately. Each myth is propped up by the other; both must be destroyed. When that happens, the true worth of the Negro – whether in Africa or in the Americas – and his place in the mainstream of world culture will be properly understood. When that happens, no one will dare to speak of white supremacy or Negro inferiority… united support for our brothers’ struggle in Africa is an integral part of our task in achieving freedom for all Americans”. As Malcolm X would quarter of a century later (and Marcus Garvey had a quarter of a century before), Robeson saw the struggle against white supremacy as a global one, and the struggles of African Americans for dignity and freedom at home inseparable from the anti-colonial independence struggle in Asia, Africa and Latin America. It was in fact this commitment to the anti-colonial struggle, even more than his support for the Soviet Union, that led to him being stripped of his passport in 1950; according to a piece he penned in 1955, the State Department lawyers argued that “in view of the applicant’s frank admission that he has been fighting for the freedom of the colonial people of Africa…the diplomatic embarrassment that could arise from the presence abroad of such as political meddler (sic!) travelling under the protection of an American passport, is easily imaginable.”

Again, like Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, Robeson pressed for the internationalisation of the fight against racism in the US through a concerted campaign at the United Nations. In 1951, he was co-signatory to a Civil Rights Congress petition presented to the UN entitled ‘We Charge Genocide’, using extensive documentation to demonstrate that the USA was guilty of genocide against its own African American population. The petition clearly prefigured Malcolm’s presentation to the Organisation of African Unity congress in Cairo in 1963, which laid bare the state-sanctioned violent racism prevalent in the US, and led to the adoption by the OAU of a resolution condemning the “continuing manifestations of racial bigotry and racial oppression against Negro citizens in the United States of America” (a resolution Malcolm saw as such a success that it may well have triggered the US government decision to assassinate him).

Following the foundation of the Council on African Affairs to advocate for African liberation, Robeson also set up a newspaper, Freedom, in which he had a regular column, specifically to make the case for the inseparability of the freedom struggle at home, and the great anti-colonial movements that were beginning to shake imperialism to its foundations abroad. Robeson was scathing in his opposition not only to the Korean War – which he rightly called a genocide – but also to those African American leaders, such as NAACP leader Walter White and Congressmen Adam Clayton Powell who apparently believed that their support for this war would buy them establishment respectability. “If Mr Powell and Mr White are so terribly anxious to prove their patriotism,” he asked his readers in 1951, “why don’t they rush over to Korea and take the place of Lt Gilbert and his other co fighters who face white supremacy frame-ups in a jim-crow army?”, referring to the spate of death sentences that had been dished out to black troops serving in the US army at racist US court martials in Korea.

As a strong advocate of unity between all the oppressed nations of the world, Robeson was deeply disappointed that he was unable to attend the founding conference of the Non-Aligned Movement in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955 due to his travel ban. He did, however, use his column in Freedom to send a warm message to the assembled delegates: “How I should have loved to be at Bandung!,” he wrote, “It is my profound conviction that the very fact of the convening of the Conference of Asian and African nations at Bandung, Indonesia, in itself will be recorded as an historic turning point in all world affairs. A new vista of human advancement in all spheres of life has been opened by this assembly.”

Robeson’s politics clearly foreshadowed both the internationalism and the militancy of later figures such as Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party. Panther leader Huey P. Newton later defined power as “the ability to define phenomena and make them act in a desired manner.” Following the Second World War, the US government sought to define the ‘good Negro’ as one who supports, or at least acquiesces in, US imperialism abroad. Robeson, of course, by refusing to be defined in this way, had put himself outside the category of ‘government-approved Negro’. By the time of his death in 1976, however, this category had become more a badge of shame than one of respectability – thanks, in no small part, to the efforts of those such as Robeson.

 

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My interview on the Brexit deal with RT

Full transcript (including bits not broadcast on the video) 
Q: So Theresa May called it [her Brexit deal with the EU] a decisive step. Is this really the breakthrough she’s claiming, or could it all fall apart?
A: It could certainly fall apart. The deal itself is no surprise really. It basically amounts to the UK effectively staying in a customs union and Northern Ireland effectively staying in the single market – some version of which was always bound to happen since the government decided they didn’t want to reimpose a hard border in Ireland. There was going to be no other way round it really. So the deal is no surprise, and of course it will be spun by the Brexiteers, and is already being spun, as a major betrayal.
But the important thing about Brexit is that it has been a major victory for the far right. It’s a project of the far right and it’s already been a victory for them: it’s normalised virulent anti-immigration discourse, and whatever kind of Brexit happens now or doesn’t happen, it will for sure be spun as a betrayal, which will be used to further mobilise ultra-nationalist revanchist sentiment.
So when the annals come to be written of Europe’s second descent into fascism, which is what we are living through right now, then Brexit will be a majorly important milestone. It’s given a huge shot in the arm to the neofascist movements that are on the rise in Europe – and, since the Brexit referendum, many have actually entered government – but the really tragic thing about this is how Russia and yourselves at RT are actually supporting this neofascist upsurge, giving platforms regularly to these movements. The Soviet Union lost 27 million people to fascism last time around, so this does not end well for Russia. Already we see Russia is supporting Trump’s war plans on Iran, facilitating the oil sanctions by pumping extra oil, quietly facilitating US-Israeli plans to drive Iran out of Syria. This is very self-defeating for Russia, and it is very tragic to watch. And we are already seeing this policy coming back to bite Russia with Putin’s United Russia party actually losing out in elections to the fascist parties in Russia. So this is a really tragic part of this whole episode; the role that Russia and yourselves at RT are playing in pushing this neofascist upsurge of which the Brexit vote was in many ways the trigger.
Q: Something you mentioned before is that a key sticking point so far has been Northern Ireland. Is there any real clarity over how this could be resolved?
A: Well, there’s clarity; it’s clear that this was going to have to be the case from the get-go. If there was not to be a reimposition of a hard border in Ireland, and there was not to be a border within the Irish Sea, then the whole of the UK would have to accept the rules and regulations of the EU to continue trading with them without a border, that was always going to have to be the case; the chequers agreement confirmed that, and ever since, Theresa May has been trying to fudge that issue and has still tried to fudge it with this agreement. But it’s clear enough, and it was always going to be that way. But like I say, the genie’s out of the bottle with Brexit: it’s been a far right driven project from the get-go – however much leftists might want to delude themselves that it’s their project, it’s not – and they’re driving the agenda. The government didn’t really want to leave the EU so they are following as close as they can to a Brexit in name only, and this was always going to be the case. But the danger is, by capitulating to this far right project, they are only mobilising it further still and giving it further grist to the mill.
Q: My thoughts were that most of the British politicians and the British citizens as a whole somehow betrayed by this deal because – don’t you think that it doesn’t match the expectations that people and the politicians had when they voted for Brexit?
A: Sure, that’s true, because everyone deluded themselves: everyone who supported Brexit projected their own fantasies of what Brexit would be and decided that was Brexit. But in fact – and I’m not a supporter of Brexit – but as the Leavers have pointed out, the government is not really committed to Brexit, so it is trying to achieve a fudge where Britain will remain as close as possible to the EU without actually being in it. But the desires of many of the Brexiteers were projections of their own fantasies. There is a parallel to be drawn with the Arab Spring. When the Arab Spring, so called, happened, people in the West, of all different political hues, just projected their own fantasies as to what it was: so liberals thought it was a liberal democratic uprising, socialists thought that it was a great class struggle, and so on. The reality is that it was none of those things; and it is the same for Brexit: Left Brexiteers delude themselves that it is this great anti-neoliberal upsurge, the far right believe there is going to be this great British Empire 2.0 nonsense; so the reality is that actual Brexit is never going to meet people’s crazed delusional fantasies; how could it ever do that?
Q: Don’t you think that tomorrow another parliament session will take place, Theresa May is going to be attacked from both parties, because – well, I don’t expect anyone to praise her and say that it is the best deal ever.
A: Absolutely not. Well it’s really down to Labour now. Because it is unlikely the DUP will support this because, contrary to the promises made to the DUP – that there would be no separate arrangement for Northern Ireland – there will be a separate arangement for Northern Ireland, in which Northern Ireland effectively remains part of the single market, whilst the rest of the UK does not. That breaks the DUP’s red line, so they’re unlikely to support it: so straight away there Theresa May has lost her majority. And, of course, we already know that quite a sizeable handful at the least of Tory backbenchers – it could be anywhere from 30 to maybe up to 100 – will almost certainly vote against a deal – Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson have already put their cards on the table and said they’re against it, they’re not going to vote for it. So if the opposition parties oppose it then the deal is dead. So really it is up to Labour now, and there is quite a strong likelihood that, if not the official leadership, then at least a sizeable, perhaps the majority of Labour MPs, might end up supporting this deal. So Theresa May, her future and the future of her deal, is now in the hands of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.
Q: And what do you expect – what are your forecasts on a short term perspective?
A: Well it is very difficult to predict. There are a number of possibilities. One is that MPs are effectively emotionally blackmailed, or economically blackmailed, into voting for the deal. The threat from the markets, of course, will loom very large. The idea would be that if you don’t vote for this deal then we are back to the cliff-edge no-deal scenario, the pound might plummet and so forth, so there will be a lot of pressure on MPs along the lines of ‘if you don’t vote for this deal, then you will bring about an economic catastrophe on our head’. And MPs might just capitulate to that logic and just vote it through, that’s possible. The other option, of course, then is that MPs vote it down. And then where do we go from there? The option is then a no-deal or reverse Brexit. And to be honest, I think all three options are really on the table. It’s impossible to predict. I think the majority of praliamentarians – the vast majority of whom were remainers – would obviously prefer to reverse Brexit than to have a no-deal Brexit. But how they bring that about, through another referendum, through another election, is very hard to foresee. But I still think that it is quite likely, still, that article 50 is revoked. If the deal is not voted through, and Theresa May’s government falls, then the new government may just decide to rescind article 50 and say, look, we can’t go for a no-deal Brexit, it’s too damaging, there’s no parliamentary majority for the deal, so that leaves only – we’ll just have to reverse article 50. And the post-Theresa May government – of whatever political party – may well consider that the only viable option. So i think that is still a very realistic possibility.
Q: And how likely is it that Theresa May’s government will fall?
A: Well, as I say, it’s really on a knife edge. If the deal doesn’t win parliamentary support, I think it will be difficult for Theresa May to carry on. However, of course, then there is the issue of – would her own party risk seeing her government fall, potentially triggering a general election that they might lose? But the [Brexiteer] conservative backbenchers – they play a long game. They were willing to sit back and let Theresa May dig her own grave; I think they may well be willing to sit back and let Jeremy Corbyn dig his own grave as well. People like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg are strategic thinkers, very machiavellian, and they play a long game. So I think these kind of people would be willing to risk even a Labour government if they believed that that government itself would fall over the issue of Brexit, allowing them to then come back in the future and pick up the pieces. There are precedents for this. The Tories did this in the early 1920s: they handed over power to Labour, when they didn’t have to, knowing that Labour would alienate its own supporters, demoralise its support base, and then they could storm back into power, which is exactly what happened. So I think Theresa May’s government could fall – on its own sword – because these guys play a long game.

US-UK calls for a Yemen ceasefire is a cynical piece of political theatre

Mattis: Trump’s tweet sends message that Iran is “on the ...

The UK appears now to be gearing up towards authoring a UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in Yemen. For years, the UK has been the official ‘penholder’ on Yemen, meaning that it has been up to the UK to table resolutions. It has consistently used this position not only to refuse to issue any resolutions calling for a ceasefire but also to block anyone else’s attempts to do so. The apparent about-turn is a response to last week’s statements from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary James Mattis calling for a ceasefire in Yemen within 30 days, to be followed up with UN-facilitated peace talks. The UK dutifully followed suit shortly afterwards, expressing their support for the initiative. This was somewhat ironic given that minister Alistair Burt, obviously not privy to the seeming about-turn, had just spent the day providing MPs with excruciatingly contorted explanations of why calling for a ceasefire was not a good idea in the circumstances. “Passing a ceasefire resolution risks undercutting the UN envoy’s efforts to reach a political deal and undermining the credibility of the Council” he told the House of Commons at midday; yet within 36 hours, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt was telling Newsnight that the US call for a ceasefire was “an extremely welcome announcement because we have been working towards a cessation of hostilities in Yemen for a long time.” In the parallel universe of British double-speak, it is of course natural thatunrelenting support for what is fast turning into a war of national annihilation gets recast as “working towards a cessation of hostilities”.

Yet this latest call does appear to be at odds with the hitherto existing strategy; it was only in June, after all, when the US and UK torpedoed a Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in the face of impending famine. Many commentaries (such as this one in the Telegraph, for example), have suggested that the US is now taking advantage of pressure on Saudi Arabia following the murder of Saudi insider-turned-dissident Khashoggi to push the kingdom towards a less belligerent position in the disastrous Yemen war. The ever-more desperate humanitarian situation is giving the war a bad name and – so the story goes – the US are now keen to end it. David Miliband, former UK foreign secretary and now president of the International Rescue Committee, even called the US announcement “the most significant breakthrough in the war in Yemen for four years”.

Unfortunately, it is likely to prove nothing of the sort. The detail of the announcement makes clear that, far from representing some kind of Damascene change of heart, the ‘call for a ceasefire’ is little more than yet another rebranding exercise, a cynical attempt to whitewash escalating carnage with the rhetoric of peace. 

With every passing day, the war in Yemen becomes harder to defend. The airstrike on a bus full of schoolchildren in early August briefly caused international outrage, but it was sadly not exceptional; indeed, at least 55 civilians had been killed during the bombardment of a hospital and fish market just the week before, and the bus itself was but one of over fifty civilian vehiclestargeted by Saudi airstrikes during the first half of this year. For most of the war, around a third of coalition airstrikes have hit civilian sites; but according to the Yemen Data Project, this ratio reached 48% in September.

More grim news emerged on 29th October, when a detailed research project concluded that over five times as many people have met violent deaths in the conflict than previously estimated. For years, the media have consistently claimed a death toll of 10,000, but the true figure is closer to 56,000 since the start of 2016 according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, as the earlier estimate only covered deaths reported to official medical centres. The death toll from the start of the bombing campaign until the end of this year is expected to lie between 70,000 and 80,000.

Yet even this number, horrific as it is, is dwarfed by the deaths from the starvation and disease which have been the coalition’s weapon of choice against the population of Houthi-controlled areas. The bombing of water treatment systems, fishing boats, roads and bridges, the naval blockade of the country’s imports, and the coalition regime’s decision to stop paying salaries to health and sanitation workers in Houthi areas two years ago have combined to create mass starvation and the world’s biggest cholera outbreak since the end of WW2. An average of 130 children die of disease and malnutrition every day (Although “they are not starving”, noted a tweet from the Norwegian Refugee Council, “they are being starved”), with around 150,000 people thought to have died from such causes last year alone. And this aspect of the conflict is set to deteriorate exponentially.

On 15th October, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen Lise Grande warned that Yemen could face the world’s worst famine for one hundred years if the airstrikes are not stopped, with 12 to 13 million at risk of starvation. Nine days later, the agency’s undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs Mark Lowcock said that the risk was actually worse than they previously predicted with 14 million close to “pre-famine conditions” – half the country’s population. He noted that the UN was currently only able to feed 8 million of these, although these too would be at risk if the country’s main port Hodeidah – responsible for over 70% of imports – is attacked by the coalition.

Earlier this week, just as Mattis and Pompeo delivered their soothing words, 30,000 troops began massing to launch precisely that attack. The problem for the war’s backers in London, Paris and Washington is how to justify the holocaust this is almost certain to unleash on Yemen’s population in the delusional pursuit of reimposing an impotent and discredited quisling.

The ceasefire announcement, then, is about providing cover for the impending attack. Just at the moment the aid agencies have been warning against its devastating consequences, and calling for an immediate end to the bombing, the ‘ceasefire proposal’ gives the Saudis a month’s free pass to conduct their famine-inducing operation on Hodeidah. Rather than demanding the offensive be halted or delayed, the ‘30-day’ call eggs it on. Nor is the 30-day timeframe any kind of limit on the operation. Pompeo stated that“The time is now for the cessation of hostilities, including missile and UAV strikes from Houthi-controlled areas into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.  Subsequently, Coalition air strikes must cease in all populated areas in Yemen”. The term ‘subsequently’ is crucial, implying that the Saudis continued bombardment – including in “populated areas” – would be perfectly justified unless the Houthis had implemented a unilateral ceasefire first. This is little more than a call for unconditional surrender by the Houthis, dressed up as a peace initiative. By the same token, it sets the scene for laying all the blame for any continued fighting at the door of the Houthis

The reality is that the US and UK could end the war tomorrow, simply by threatening to cut off military supplies, intelligence, and training to the Saudis until the airstrikes stop, a point made by Jan Egeland of the Norwegian Refugee Council to a UK Parliamentary Select Committee earlier this week. Yet the US are precisely NOT calling for an end to the bombing, nor threatening to use their leverage to bring it about. Instead, this so-called initiative is yet another cynical PR exercise designed to justify, rather than to reign in, this brutal war.

This piece originally appeared in Middle East Eye

Was Trump’s attack on the lira Putin’s idea?

 

Trump Impeachment Odds Slashed to Shortest Ever After ...

What did Trump and Putin agree in their secret meeting in Helsinki in July? Trump’s attack on the Turkish economy has given Putin just the leverage he needs with Erdogan over Idlib.

Trump’s critics warn us that his belligerent policies towards Iran and Turkey are pushing them into Moscow’s arms, even as they seek evidence of ‘Russian collusion’ in all the wrong places. This collusion is not to be found in shady backroom campaign meetings; it is hiding in plain sight.

“He does things the right way” Trump said of Erdogan last month. It shouldn’t have been a surprise; the two men have much in common after all: nationalist tubthumping autocrats with a contempt for constitutional limits on presidential might, who see few problems which cannot be solved through the right combination of willpower and firepower. His comment specifically referred to Erdogan’s ability to ignore his own parliament, and was followed up with a mutually aggrandising fistbump. Yet the budding bromance was to be short-lived.

 

Days later, Trump entered his now infamous two-hour private meeting with Putin in Helsinki. According to their own account, one of the main items on the agenda was Syria, which for seven years has been the battleground for a proxy war between (among others) the two men’s respective countries. In this war, Turkey and the US were supposed to be on the same side; yet Trump, on Syria as so many issues, has been ambivalent as to US goals in the conflict. The original objective, of course, was to transform Syria – an independent regional power allied to both Iran and Hezbollah – into a failed state on the Iraqi/ Libyan/ Afghan model. Yet the Syrian state – with a level of popular support surprising to those western observers susceptible to their own propaganda – stubbornly refused to be destroyed. Russian intervention helped turn the tide in September 2015, and since then, one victory after another – most notably in Aleppo – has made it clear that not only will the Syrian government survive, but that it will very likely restore its authority nationwide. Most rebel-held cities have now been retaken by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), whilst the Kurdish YPG – who have always, correctly, feared the US-backed sectarian insurgency far more than they have feared Assad – have entered into negotiations with the government, leading to a growing role for the SAA in YPG-held areas as well. The only major population centre still fully outside government control, then, is Idlib, home to almost 3 million, and largely under the control of Hay’et Tahrir Al Sham, the latest rebrand of Syria’s Al Qaeda franchise.

 

All the signs are that a government offensive on this last rebel stronghold is imminent, with government forces amassing at the western edge of the province near Jisr al Shughour. Yet one major obstacle remains. Turkey.

 

Turkish troops are now present on the ground in Idlib at around a dozen ‘observation posts’ set up under the terms of the ‘de-escalation zones’ agreed by Iran, Turkey and Russia at the Astana conference, making a direct assault on the governorate very difficult without risking a major escalation with Turkey – still, despite everything, a NATO member. Furthermore, Turkey wields extensive influence over many of the rebel groups present in Idlib. Back in May, Turkey formed a coalition of around a dozen anti-government militias there under the banner of the ‘National Liberation Front’. Earlier this month, they persuaded two HTS splinters – Nour al-Din al-Zenki, the US-UK-funded group infamous for their livestream beheading of an 11 year old, and Ahrar al-Sham, another Al-Qaeda in all but name and attitude to the west – to sign up. Through this force, Turkey now claims to control up to 100,000 fighters in Idlib, in addition to its own troops on the ground. In other words – Turkey has positioned itself to act as a major spoiler to any forthcoming Idlib operation.

 

Russia, then, seeks to pressure Turkey into agreeing to, if not a surrender of the province, then at least the removal of its troops, and a negotiated settlement with its NLF proxies – perhaps even a joint operation against HTS by the SAA, the NLF and Russia. This might be acceptable to Turkey – given a guarantee of influence in the aftermath – and Russia, but would be very hard to swallow for the Syrian government, who have no desire to share power with Al Qaeda lite. What Russia needs, then, in order to oversee an Idlib settlement on its own terms, is some kind of leverage over Turkey.

 

Enter Trump. Trump’s attack on the Turkish currency – already under pressure from the rising dollar due to its huge mountain of debt – precipitated an unprecedented decline in its value, only stemmed by a $15 billion loan from Qatar. But this is likely to only be a temporary solution. Cut out of US markets, and facing further sanctions over its purchases of Iranian oil, what Erdogan needs is a new, more dependable ally than his volatile erstwhile buddy in the White House.

 

Enter Putin. On August 10th, following the Trump tweet that triggered the lira’s plunge, Erdogan immediately spoke to Putin to discuss “trade and economic cooperation”. 3 days later, Erdogan explained that he had “made advancements in our ties with Russia in accordance to our benefits and interests”. This was followed up with a visit to Ankara by Foreign Minister Lavrov the next day and then, at the end of last week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was received in Moscow by Putin himself. Russia had already reaffirmed its commitment to the delivery of its much-feared S-400 missile system by early next year, and made some vague promises to use the lira in its transactions with Turkey at some unspecified point in the future. But nothing new, nothing concrete. Russia was signalling that it was ready to come to Turkey’s aid; but at a price. That price may well be Turkish support for Russian proposals in Idlib, which Putin will be hoping to finalise in the forthcoming Syria summit between Turkey, Russia and Iran next week. Already, the statements coming out of Turkey following the various meetings which have taken place have indicated something of a shift in the Turkish position, with Cavusoglu admitting the presence of “terrorist groups” in Idlib, which need to “neutralised” – “to alleviate the concerns of our Russian counterparts”. At the same time, Putin can use the prospect of Turkish acquiescence to an operation in Idlib as leverage on the Syrian government to accept both its own proposals for recognition of Kurdish autonomy and Israeli demands on the Iranian presence in Syria. Such an outcome would allow both Netanyahu and Trump to claim a much-needed victory in their campaign to ‘rollback’ Iran, whilst simultaneously increasing Iranian and Syrian dependence on Russia. Trump’s attack on the lira, in other words, by throwing Turkey into Moscow’s arms, may have been the key to unlock the final stages of a Syria settlement under Russian tutelage. This is the real Trump-Russia collusion: not in backroom campaign meetings, but hiding in plain sight.

This article was originally published on Middle East Eye 

Turkey and Qatar are being punished for refusing to do Washington’s bidding on Iran

 

Turkey and Iran reject 13 demands to Qatar | Vestnik Kavkaza

For years, Turkey and Qatar were at the vanguard of the western imperial project in the Middle East. Having had their fingers burnt in Syria, however, they are now refusing to facilitate Washington’s Iran plans – and paying the price.

Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May last year – his first foreign trip as President – was significant for two main reasons: first, the $110 billion arms deal it produced, and secondly, the regional blockade of Qatar it heralded – widely seen as having been greenlighted by Trump during his visit. The impact of the blockade – implemented by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt – was, however, immediately mitigated by increased trade with Iran and Turkey in particular, limiting its overall impact.

 

This month’s attack on the Turkish economy, however, has had far more devastating results. Trump’s tweet on Friday August 10th – announcing a doubling of steel and aluminium tariffs on an economy already hit hard by his trade war – sent the Turkish currency into freefall. By the end of the day’s trading, it had lost 16% of its value, reaching a nadir of 7.2 to the dollar two days later; before his tweet, it had never fallen below 6 to the dollar. Trump’s move came on the back of Federal Reserve policies that were already threatening to provoke financial crises in over-indebted emerging markets such as Turkey. These are harsh punishments for countries long considered prime US allies in the region.

 

A NATO member since 1952 (following Turkish involvement in the Korean war on the side of the US), Turkey has hosted a major US airbase at Incirlik since 1954, essential to US operations in the region, and even housed the US nuclear missiles which triggered the Cuban missile crisis. Incirlik was crucial to the US-UK terror bombing of Iraq in 1991, and, although the Turkish parliament narrowly prevented its use for the 2003 redux, Turkey has been the launchpad for subsequent US strikes both in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

 

Qatar, meanwhile, is, to this day, run by the family – the al-Thanis – appointed as Britain’s proxies in the nineteenth century. Granted formal independence only in 1971, the country has remained deeply tied into western foreign policy since then. Both its ‘post-independence’ rulers were educated at the UK’s Sandhurst military academy, and it, like Turkey, hosts a major US base, whilst it’s ruling family, like those of the other Gulf monarchies, are dependent on western arms transfers to maintain their power. In 2011, Qatar played a major role in NATO’s Libya operation, providing airstrikes, military training, $400million of funding to insurgent groups, and even ground forces – not to mention the major propaganda role played by the Qatari-owned network Al Jazeera.

 

Then, in mid-2011, both countries threw themselves headlong into the war to overthrow the Syrian government. Turkish president Erdogan had previously enjoyed relatively warm relations with his Southern neighbour, but at some stage decided that the western-backed rebellion was going to win, and he wanted in on it. Turkey’s collaboration was crucial for the London-Washington Syria project, not only to give it a semblance of regional legitimacy, but more importantly because its 800km border with the country was to be the conduit for the tens of thousands of armed fighters on which the insurgency would depend.

 

Unwilling – and, following the decimation of their armies in Iraq and Afghanistan, probably unable – to provide the ground forces necessary to destroy the Syrian Arab Army themselves, the ‘regime-change regimes’ of the west relied on states like Qatar and Turkey to act as intermediaries – to facilitate weapons transfers, provide finance and smooth the passage of foreign fighters. Both states, heady with the prospects of the economic and geopolitical rewards that would follow Assad’s removal, and believing their own networks’ fantasies about an imminent collapse, were more than happy to act as accomplices. Over the years that followed, the resources they committed – and the devastation that resulted – were immense. In the case of Turkey, in particular, the spillover would prove disastrous.

 

Less than three years into the war, the International Crisis Group estimated that Turkey had spent $3billion on the war on Syria. Yet this figure, high as it is, represents a fraction of the true costs involved. A detailed report in Newsweek in 2015 noted the huge increase in military spending following the start of the Syria war, rising from $17 billion per year in 2010, to $22.6 billion in 2014, an increase of 25%. Furthermore, Turkey has been the first port of call for millions of Syrians fleeing the war. This alone had cost the country an estimated $8billion by 2015. Added to this, the report says, are the ‘collateral costs’ resulting from the deterioration of relations with Russia following Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet in 2015, which it estimated could be as high as $3.7 billion due to lost Russian tourism, investment and trade. Trade with Syria, of course, also slumped by “70 percent as a direct effect from the Syrian war,” from $1.8billion worth of exports in 2010 to $497 million two years later. In place of this legitimate trade – much of it in energy resources – however, came a flourishing new illicit trade. This new trade imposed “an additional cost to the Turkish economy: a growing, untaxed, hard-to-control black market economy. To combat its effect on government revenue, Turkey’s Energy Market Regulatory Agency declared an increase in inspections and control mechanisms in Turkey.” Ultimately, however, the government opted to facilitate, rather than attempt to control, this burgeoning black market, issuing in April 2015 “new border regulations that enabled Turkey to open its borders to uncontrolled cash inflow and remittances. According to the new law, travelers no longer had to declare transported currency or profit amounts at the customs booth.” This policy would, noted former governor of Turkey’s central bank Durmus Yilmaz, “attract black money to flow into Turkey.”

 

“In sum”, concluded the report, “as Turkey incrementally left its prior foreign policy agenda of “Zero Problems with Neighbors” and moved towards an Assad-centric policy, the costs imposed on its economy multiplied. This can be observed directly from the refugee costs, military spending, border security costs and the changing composition of trade volume and quality of liquidity flows in the economy.” Furthermore,The data suggest…that the more aggressive Turkey gets in its Syria policy in terms of military involvement, the more aggressively these costs rise.” Erdogan’s enthusiastic collaboration with the regime-changers in Washington and London had crippled his country’s economy – not to mention spawning a new era of sectarian militancy in the form of ISIS, which would launch multiple terror attacks within Turkey itself.

 

Being far removed from the conflict, the Syrian war’s impact on Qatar was not nearly as severe. Nevertheless, Qatar, too, pumped billions into the insurgency: noted the Financial Times in 2013, “The gas-rich state of Qatar has spent as much as $3bn over the past two years supporting the rebellion in Syria, far exceeding any other government”  It added that “Qatar has sent the most weapons deliveries to Syria, with more than 70 military cargo flights into neighbouring Turkey between April 2012 and March this year,” showing clearly the division of labour between Qatari finance and Turkish logistics.

 

Turkey and Qatar have thus put themselves right at the forefront of western efforts to overthrow the Syrian state. To date, however – other than an ever-growing pile of burnt Syrian corpses and a huge hole in their own finances – they have nothing to show for it.

 

In hindsight, the Turkish downing of a Russian jet in November 2015 can be seen as a last-ditch attempt to test the resolve, not of Russia, but of the west. Erdogan wanted to know whether or not the US was going to put their money where their mouth was and put some decisive muscle into the conflict. In the escalation that followed the attack, Turkey immediately put forward plans for a ‘no fly zone’ – euphemism for the sort of all-out aerial bombardment that befell Libya. But nothing came of it. That was the moment Turkey realised the west were not about to commit anything like the resources necessary to actually bring about victory. Assad was here to stay. Turkey would have to deal with that. And that meant dealing with Russia. The slow realignment of Turkish foreign policy had begun. And earlier this year, with tails no doubt firmly between their legs, even Qatar re-established relations with the Syrian government.

 

So when Trump came knocking for buyers for the west’s next brilliant idea – war on Iran, beginning with a brutal economic siege  – neither Turkey nor Qatar were exactly chomping at the bit to sign up. The suggestion was even less appealing than the disastrous Syria gambit, targeting an even more important trading partner, and with even less chance of influence over some mythical future government. Qatar shares a major gas field – South Pars – with Iran, and is dependent on Iran for accessing eastern energy markets, whilst Iran is the major source of Turkish energy imports. Following Syria, neither country has much nose left to cut off, even if they had wanted to spite their own face. Trump’s merciless attack on their economies is yet another sign of the increasing US inability to bend once-pliable clients to its will. For all his bluster, it is a clear admission of weakness and failure.

This piece was originally published on RT.com

Yemen’s media blackout

The shameful lack of coverage given to US-UK backed atrocities in Yemen is but one aspect of western media’s blackout of the truth about the conflict.
Image result for boys killed in saudi airstrike yemen bus

One of the survivors of the US-UK supported bombing of a school bus in Yemen, which killed over 40 children, mostly under 10

 

Even by the depraved standards of the US-UK-Saudi-UAE aggression against Yemen, yesterday’s bombing of a school bus was a new low. The bus had stopped at a market whilst taking the children back to school from a picnic when it was targeted, according to Save the Children. Health officials have informed the world that the strike killed 47 people with 77 more injured, but that that number was likely to rise. Most of those victims, tweeted the Red Cross, were less than ten years old. Following the attack, Frank McManus, Yemen country director for the International Red Cross, whose workers are treated the wounded, pleaded that: “Today should be the day the world wakes up to the atrocities going on in Yemen … a bus full of school children cannot be viewed as mere collateral damage. Even wars have rules, but rules without consequences mean nothing.”

It is hard to see how the world will wake up, however, when western media remains so committed to its refusal to give anything like adequate coverage to the ongoing aggression. You might have thought that the targeted bombing of a bus full of children parked in a market far from any military activity, by forces enjoying full military, diplomatic and strategic support from the UK, would make headlines. Yet this is not the case. Take the Guardian, for example, supposedly a bastion of liberal values and humanitarian concern. Their report on the incident went online shortly before 7pm last night. Yet this morning, it does not feature amongst their 13 headline stories, which include such gripping items as  “the chips are down in Belgium at heatwave hits supply of fries”. Click on the ‘world news’ section, and Yemen is not even amongst the 11 headlines there, bumped by earth-shattering stories such as “New Zealand – Jacinda Ardern says country will ban plastic bags”. Only if you specifically click on the Middle East section would you find the story – fourth of that section’s six headlines, just behind “Mauritian presidential hopeful arrested” and “Looted Iraqi antiquities return home”.

The Independent, now online only and perhaps, you might have thought, less subject to the pressure from advertisers that drives some of the self-censorship of its loss-leading print-edition cousins, is little different. Yemen was among neither its eight ‘top stories’ this morning, which included headlines such as “British campers flee as flash floods batter France”, nor the eight pieces in its ‘more stories’ section, which included items titled “summer not over yet, despite thunderstorms and heavy rain” and “Pochettino blames Brexit for Spurs’ failure to sign any new players”

Of course, in a sense, these outlets are entirely correct not to consider the story as news – for there is nothing really new about yesterday’s atrocity. Indeed, only last week, an airstrike on a market and hospital killed at least 60 people; such slaughter has become routine. Even the killing of children is standard practice: in fact, the 29 children killed in the bus bombing yesterday are but a fraction of the 130 children killed in Yemen every day by the famine and disease which the aggression has brought to the country.

Indeed, alongside the straightforward lack of coverage, the downplaying of the level of killing in Yemen constitutes a second, more subtle, form of media blackout. Somewhere along the line, someone decided that 10,000 was the death toll to be forever associated with the Yemen war, and this number has appeared in virtually every article on the subject for years. In truth, this figure is a massive underestimate, given that at least150,000 are believed to have died from starvation and preventable diseases last year alone, a direct consequence of the aggression on Yemen, the blockade of its ports, and the targeting of its civilian and agricultural infrastructure. Thus the ‘death toll’ endlessly repeated in the media – and shamefully, this often includes alternative media – is in truth but a tiny fraction of the true level of suffering being rained down on that country by the west and its proxies.

Another form of blackout is the presentation of the conflict as a civil war. There was a civil war in Yemen, the endgame of which was reached when the Ansar Allah movement captured the capital city and President Hadi fled the country. Since then, beginning in March 2015, what has been occurring is a foreign aggression against the country. In the words of Professor Isa Blumi, what is ”Strategically left out of the discussion” here “are those outside facilitators of empire whose war has created new opportunities to plunder Yemen’s resources. Rather than seeing the heavy hand of empire, the outsider is expected to believe the media and think tank experts that it is Yemenis’ own pathologies, their social and economic backwardness, that leave them susceptible to violence and thus ‘civil war’. The ‘they are at war with themselves’ trope continuously repeated in various media and academic circles ultimately obfuscates who are guilty, laying blame on eighty percent of a country’s population currently being starved to death”.

Even when foreign aggression is admitted, however, the agency for this is often misrepresented. Thus a fourth form of blackout consists of presenting the war as somehow an independent initiative of the Saudis, which the west are, at best, merely ‘backing’ or ‘going along with’ for the sake of arms sales or oil supplies. This is truly putting the cart before the horse. The truth is thatthis is a US-UK war, planned in the corridors of Whitehall and Washington, but executed by their faithful Gulf proxies. We know now, from emails leaked by Wikileakslast year, that even Crown Prince Salman himself wants out of the war. But he knows that his family’s grip on power is utterly dependent on western support. And the price of that support is that their foreign policy is not their own. The deal, stretching back to the days of the British empire, is that the west provide security to the al-Saud family – but in return, the al-Sauds relinquish their foreign policy to the west. And right now, the west’s order of the day is to destroy Yemen.

Make no mistake, the war on Yemen is a UK-US war, and to present it as anything else is a dangerous misrepresentation of reality which attempts to lay the blame solely at the door of their oriental fall guys. Of course, it plays very well in countries like Britain, still drenched in its colonial and orientalist mentality, to shift the blame for Yemen’s genocide onto crooked and mischievous Arabs. Groups like Stop the War, I am sorry to say, tend to play into this narrative, portraying the recent visit to Britain by Crown Prince Bin Salman, for example, in terms of an otherwise pristine Britain sullying itself by association with a bloody Arab ‘despot’. This is a complete inversion of reality; the truth, of course, is that the Saudis’ greatest crime is their collaboration with the genocidal ruling class in Britain and the USA.

But there is also another form of media blackout on Yemen, one which even the alternative media (and here I would have to include some of my own past writings on the conflict) often succumbs to. This is the presentation of Yemenis as simply passive victims, lacking all agency, the hapless recipients of bombing raids and starvation policies. In fact, Yemen’s struggle is not essentially a story of victimhood, but of resistance. When we lament three years of Yemen’s bombardment, we should not forget that we are also celebrating three years of truly extraordinary and heroic resistance. To have survived these punishing raids for this long should demonstrate beyond all doubt that the Ansar Allah movement, against whom this devastating war is being waged, is a genuinely popular and representative movement – for if it were not, it would have collapsed years ago. The constant media refrain of Houthis being merely Iranian proxies fighting the ‘legitimate government’ turns reality square on its head. Legitimacy does not come from being ordained by the priesthood of global capital, as Hadi was, but from the kind of popular support that alone allows a movement to face down a ten-country coalition supported by the most powerful militaries in the world.
And where does the Ansar Allah movement’s popularity come from? It comes from putting itself at the forefront of resistance to the western project of selling off Yemen, opening up Yemen’s resources to looting by western financial corporations, and turning over Yemen’s political system to Saudi stooges. Indeed, in so doing, Ansar Allah are merely the latest incarnation of a spirit of Yemeni resistance to western capitalism going back over 100 years. It is this spirit which the current bombardment is trying – in an act of the most brutal futility – to crush. It is this spirit that the media desperately want to black out. And it is this spirit that will ultimately see empire, and all its stooges and apologists, crumble into dust.  

A version of this article originally appeared on Middle East Eye 

Trump’s delusional Iran oil gambit is decades too late

Trump is using everything he’s got to wage economic war on Iran. His problem is that ‘everything he’s got’ is not nearly enough, as the virtual monopoly power once wielded by the US has long since evaporated.

Last week, a senior State Department official announced the US’ intention to cut Iranian oil exports “to zero” by November 4th this year, by threatening to impose sanctions on any company still trading beyond that date. Brian Hook, director of policy planning at the State Department, told reporters on July 2nd that “Our goal is to increase pressure on the Iranian regime by reducing to zero its revenue on crude oil sales”.

Hitherto, experts had predicted US sanctions would see a reduction of around 500,000 barrels per day (bpd) by the end of the year – barely one fifth of the country’s current export of 2.4 million bpd. Even the sanctions that preceded the 2015 nuclear deal – which, unlike today’s unilateral effort, were supported by a broad alliance of world powers, including Russia and China – only succeeded in removing half Iran’s oil (1.2m bdp) from the market.

Hook reassured the world that “We are confident there is sufficient global spare oil capacity”, claiming Saudi Arabia alone could produce an additional 2 million bpd. Saudi Arabia and Russia have already agreed to increase production by 1 million bpd reversing the production quotas imposed in the wake of the oil price slump in 2016.

This determination to destroy Iran by any means necessary has, of course, been the Trump administration’s signature foreign policy since day one, with almost every member of his team harbouring a long-held and well documented vendetta against the Islamic Republic. What is new with Trump, however, is not this determination as such – let’s not forget that Iran has been on the official Pentagon hitlist since at least 2001 – as the means used to pursue it. As I argued in 2014, the nuclear deal was not, on the part of the west, a genuine rapprochement so much as a long term programme of western infiltration, based on the ‘Libya model’, aimed at building a pro-imperialist fifth column within the Iranian state in order to prepare the ground for ‘regime change’ in the future. The Trump team, of course, has no patience for the long game, and want to simply cut to the chase. The reason for this obsession with destroying Iran – shared by all factions of the western ruling class, despite their differences over means – is obvious: Iran’s very existence as an independent state threatens imperial control of the region – which in turns underpins both US military power and the global role of the dollar. And as South-South cooperation continues to develop, this threat grows every day, whilst the means to diminish it are reduced by the same measure.

At the same time, the US military encirclement of China – begun in earnest as Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’, but, like so much else, undergoing major escalation under Trump – is intimately linked to a policy of cutting off China from its suppliers. In this sense, a policy of ‘isolating’ of Iran is aimed at isolating China also, as China is the largest market for Iranian crude.

Trump’s policy, however, is likely to get few buyers. Pepe Escobar has explained the likely response to Trump’s plans from each of Iran’s top customers:India will buy Iranian oil with rupees. China also will be totally impervious to the Trump administration’s command. Sinopec, for instance, badly needs Iranian oil for new refineries in assorted Chinese provinces, and won’t stop buying. Turkey’s Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci has been blunt: “The decisions taken by the United States on this issue are not binding for us.” He added that: “We recognize no other [country’s] interests other than our own.” Iran is Turkey’s number-one oil supplier, accounting for almost 50% of total imports. Russia won’t back down from its intention to invest $50 billion in Iran’s energy infrastructure.. And Iraq won’t abandon strategic energy cooperation with Iran. Supply chains rule; Baghdad sends oil from Kirkuk to a refinery in Kermanshah in Iran, and gets refined Iranian oil for southern Iraq.”

With European companies likely to be more nervous about insubordination to US diktat, this merely leaves more tantalising investments open to Russian and Chinese companies.  As Philip K. Verleger noted, “It’s a huge opportunity for China and Russia to cement relationships with Iran”.

At the same time, all this activity and uncertainty is bound to push oil prices higher, meaning that any reductions in export quantities may well be compensated by increased revenues.

Trump’s attempts to persuade the rest of the world to cut off its nose to spite its face, then, are likely to all on deaf ears. It is in this light that Trump’s igniting of a global trade war must be seen.

At midnight on July 5th, US tariffs on $34billion worth of Chinese imports went into effect, at a rate of 25%. Trump told reporters that tariffs on a further $16 billion worth were likely to follow in two weeks, fulfilling a pledge made in April to slap tariffs on 1300 products totalling $50 billion annually. These tariffs were designed to target the Chinese aerospace, tech and machinery industries, as well as medical equipment, medicine and educational material. The final total, however, he added, could eventually reach $550 billion – “a figure”, noted Industry Week, “that exceeds all of U.S. goods imports from China in 2017”. These China-specific tariffs follow tariffs on steel (25%) and aluminium (10%) imports imposed on the EU, Mexico and Canada four days earlier.

According to Fox Business, Canada stands to lose around $2billion per year as a result of these tariffs, with Brazil, Russia, China and South Korea each set to lose at least $500 million annually.

But this may be precisely the point: not only to ‘bring jobs back to the US’, but also to create new forms of leverage to be used against rivals and allies (and is there really a distinction between the two anyway these days?) alike. So far, of course, Trump has famously refused to offer waivers to his allies. But with Trump, nothing is forever – everything is leverage, to be played and bartered as seen fit. Could it be, then, that waivers may yet be offered to countries who manage to wean themselves off Iranian oil by the November deadline? And even if not, the very willingness to use trade as a weapon so openly and brazenly is a reminder that there may be further punishments on the way for those who do not toe the line on the strangulation of Iran. After all, as Louis Kuijs, chief economist at Oxford Economics, has pointed out, this ‘new era’ has only just begun: “Clearly the first salvos have been exchanged,” he said, “and in that sense, the trade war has started. There is no obvious end to this”.

Nevertheless, Trump’s bark may yet be well worse than his bite. For on thing, the counter-measures employed by the Chinese – a reciprocal 25% tariff on $50billion of US goods – will hit the US hard. One product subject to the new tariff, for example, is soybeans. China is the market for 25% of all soybeans grown in the US. Grant Kimberley, a soybean farmer with the Iowa Soybean Association, estimates that this tariff alone could lead to a 70% drop in exports.

But even, even apart from the Chinese counter-measures, the US-imposed tariffs themselves are likely to hurt the US as much as China. A report on NPR suggests thatfor now, the blows are threatening to land hardest on non-Chinese companies like New Jersey-based Snow Joe/Sun Joe”, which – like so many other US companies, relies on Chinese imports for crucial parts of its supply chain. And in the end, of course, all of these increased costs will be passed on to the US consumer, directly depressing their real wages.

For China, however, the impact is likely to be – in the words of Ethan Harris, head of economic research at Bank of America Merrill Lynch – “quite small”.  Industry Week noted that whilst “In the past, the U.S. used its economic clout to win trade skirmishes with developing countries… China, whose economy has grown tenfold since it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, poses a much more formidable adversary.” James Boughton, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario, told the site that  “The dynamic is different from anything we’ve seen. China has an ability to ride out this kind of pressure, to weather the storm, that a lot of countries didn’t have in the past.”

 

Indeed, Trump has already been forced into retreat in some areas, given the likely repercussions. Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group consultancy, told CBS that  “Trump backed off a couple weeks ago on implementing what would have been significant measures against them. You’re familiar with the Chinese telecom firm ZTE. They were going to be made bankrupt by White House regulations what were being put in place. Trump himself intervened with a tweet saying, we don’t want to lose all of those Chinese jobs… [Trump] knows that China can hit back really hard and they can hit back in a targeted way against red states, against American farmers. So I would be very surprised if we saw significant escalation as opposed to significant rhetoric before elections in the U.S. in November, which is what we’re really talking about here.” Other possible Chinese retaliatory measures include limits on exports of rare-earth metals, essential for technologies such as smartphones, and of course the zero-option of dumping its holdings of US treasuries (although this would not be without serious pain to itself of course).

So the idea that trade war will somehow pressure China (and others) to dump Iran seems ultimately fanciful. The process of ‘delinking’ has already gone too far. China is already Iran’s biggest trading partner, and – with Chinese tariffs on US oil looming – is more likely to increase Iranian imports to replace that no longer coming from the US rather than vice versa. Iran already sells its oil to China in yuan, rather than US dollars, meaning that the entire US-controlled financial system is completely circumvented for the countries’ bilateral trade, and therefore outside the control of US-imposed financial sanctions. Looking forward, Iran is set to play a crucial role in the development of China’s mega Belt and Road Initiative, with a high speed railway planned to provide sea access to landlocked central Asia. And with French oil giant Total’s planned investment in the massive South Pars oil field in jeopardy, the contract is likely to now go to a Chinese company.

Economics professor Danny Quah noted back in 2009 that the dependence of China on US markets tended to be greatly overestimated in the west. By 2006, only 20% of Chinese exports were to the USA, with a far higher proportion going elsewhere in East Asia. In 2013, the US was not even the largest single customer for Chinese goods (it came second to Hong Kong). By 2o15, only 18% of Chinese exports were to the US; with almost half (48.5%) going elsewhere in Asia, 19.9% to Europe, 4.2% to Latin America, and 4.1% to Africa. In other words, the global South accounted for more Chinese exports than US and Europe combined. And, as is becoming clearer by the day, US and Europe are not combined.

According to the CIA’s world factbook, Chinese exports in total represent just under 20% of GDP. If we do the maths, then – 20% of 20% – it turns out that just 4% of Chinese GDP comes from exports to the US. Significant, but hardly the economic gun to the head that Trump seems to believe.

The days when loss of market access to the US meant oblivion for countries like China are long gone. The future now lies in South-South cooperation precisely along the lines of the multibillion Belt and Road Initiative. The US government understand that, and their attempts to simultaneously sabotage both China and Iran are last-ditch attempts to prevent the inevitable – further delinking, and a global economy in which the US is becoming increasingly peripheral. But the truth is, this effort is already too late.

This article originally appeared on RT.com