Monthly Archives: March 2011

Gaddafi and the CIA – a short history

The disclosure this week that Barack Obama had authorized the deployment of CIA agents in Libya comes at a bad moment for the US and its allies in their efforts to depose the country’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi.

Obama authorizes deployment of CIA

For the second time in as many weeks the rag-tag army of Libyan rebels is fleeing eastwards in the face of Gaddafi’s more numerous and better trained soldiers, highlighting some uncomfortable realities for NATO’s commanders. The rebels are by themselves incapable of dislodging Gaddafi. The allies’ no-fly zone, cruise missile strikes and bombing missions may be sufficient to deny Gaddafi a victory over his rebel opponents but it cannot assure success for the rebels.

Libyan rebels flee once more

Slowly but surely Obama and his French and British allies are being sucked into direct involvement in yet another project to secure regime change in a Muslim country. The next stage will be to give the rebels sophisticated weapons in the hope this can reverse their decline. The rebels will have to be trained of course, the training must take place in Libya and the trainers will have to be protected, in Libya, by NATO soldiers. Slowly but surely the prohibition against “boots on the ground” will be erased. If, as seems very possible, the acquisition of modern weaponry fails to transform the rebels’ fortunes the only remaining option will be to send NATO troops in against Gaddafi. Failure to remove Gaddafi means a humiliating defeat for Obama and his allies and in the end NATO may have little alternative but to fight on Libyan soil.

But the rebels cannot be armed until the Americans and Europeans know exactly who they are dealing with. Who leads them and do the rebels, as some reports suggest, have al Qaeda or other jihadist sympathizers in their ranks? Does Obama risk arming America’s most committed enemies in the rush to overthrow Gaddafi?

Although the rebels’ capital Benghazi has been swarming with foreign media and press for weeks, it is only recently that journalists began looking for answers to those vital questions.

While names and faces of a few top figures are now known, the identities of much of the leadership of the rebel Transitional National Council, as well as who chose them, how they were chosen and why, remain shrouded in mystery. As a Guardian report put it: “Most of their names are kept secret. They often meet in hiding – at times in a church in Benghazi, on other occasions as far away as Tobruk. Some members of what amounts to the government of revolutionary Libya are not seen at all. They are just voices down a phone line.”

There is though one singular exception. We now know the name of the rebels’ military commander although the significance of his presence and his lengthy history in the annals of covert US opposition to Gaddafi has so far escaped the

Khalifa Heftir - the CIA's man in Benghazi

mainstream media. In the middle of March, Khalifa Heftir arrived in Benghazi from his home near Washington DC to a hero’s welcome from rebel supporters but it is likely that his safe arrival was greeted with as much joy and relief in Washington. The CIA’s man in the Libyan opposition was now in the saddle.

Heftir’s history as a former officer in Gaddafi’s military turned CIA-backed opponent of the Libyan regime goes back nearly twenty-five years and while a number of media outlets noted his return to Libya none, so far, have mentioned his CIA backstory. The Daily Mail in Britain, for instance, reported Heftir’s return on March 19th, saying that the former Libyan army officer had “recently returned from exile in America” to give the rebel force some “tactical coherence” without mentioning the background that had provided him with these talents.

A McClatchy Newspapers’ report on March 27th said that the new military leader of the Libyan opposition had spent the last two decades living in suburban Virginia and that he was the third military leader of the chaos-plagued rebel force in a month. The bureau quoted a friend as saying he “was unsure exactly what Heftir did to support himself” in America but that he had been motivated by his hatred of Gaddafi and sense of responsibility to Libya to return to lead the rebellion.

The New Yorker’s John Lee Anderson, writing in the magazine’s April 4th issue, refers to Heftir, whose name is sometimes spelled Haftar, Hefter or Huftur, as living, until recently, as an exile in the US, and that he was one of two competing military chiefs vying for control of the rebel force. Unlike his rival, General Abdel Fateh Younis, wrote Anderson, Heftir, “elicits widespread admiration in Benghazi, but he, too, has kept out of sight, evidently at a secret Army camp where he is preparing elite troops for battle”.

Khalifa Heftir is mobbed by supporters in Benghazi

President Obama’s motives in ordering the bombing of Gaddafi’s forces may well have been driven by humanitarian concerns but the appointment of Khalifa Heftir to lead the armed uprising in the oil-rich North African republic, is a reminder that there is a long and tangled history of secret American efforts to oust the Libyan ruler.

Heftir’s elevation also signals that Obama’s intervention in Libya is now not just about saving civilian lives but is aimed at removing Gaddafi from power, a mission begun a quarter of a century before by a President regarded as an American Conservative icon and supposedly the polar opposite, politically, of the White House’s current resident.

The story of Khalifa Heftir’s entanglement with the CIA begins with the election to the White House of Ronald Reagan in 1980 amid gradually worsening relations with Gaddafi’s Libya and a growing obsession on the part of Reagan and his allies with removing the Libyan leader.

Reagan was obsessed with overthrowing Gaddafi - will Obama fulfill his dream?

A year before Reagan’s election a Libyan mob, imitating Iranian revolutionaries, burned down the US embassy in Tripoli and diplomatic relations were suspended. Two years later the Libyan embassy in Washington was closed down while US and Libyan jets skirmished over the Gulf of Sidra, which Gaddafi claimed to be part of Libya’s territorial waters.

Later in 1981 American press reports claimed that Libyan hit squads had been sent to the US to assassinate Reagan, shots were fired at the US ambassador to France while the ambassador to Italy was withdrawn after a plot to kidnap him was uncovered. After explosives were found in musical equipment at a US embassy sponsored dance in Khartoum, Sudan, Reagan ordered a travel ban and ordered all Americans out of Libya.

In 1983 there were more air skirmishes off the Libyan coast; two years later five US citizens were killed by bombs planted at Rome and Vienna airports and US officials blamed Libya. The worst clashes came in 1986, beginning with more air skirmishes over the Gulf of Sidra and the destruction of Libyan SAM sites by American missiles. In April a bomb exploded at the LaBelle nightclub in Berlin, a bar frequented by off-duty American servicemen. Three people were killed, two of whom were US soldiers and of the 200 wounded, sixty were American citizens. President Reagan blamed Libya and on April 15th, some 100 US aircraft, many flying out of bases in the UK, bombed Libyan bases and military complexes. The Libyans said that 70 people were killed in the attacks which also targeted Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli, killing his adopted infant daughter, Hana. One account claimed that nine of the jets had been directed to blast Gaddafi’s compound in a clear attempt to kill him.

By the mid-1980’s, the Reagan administration and the CIA believed that Gaddafi was supporting terrorist groups or helping fellow radical states throughout the globe. In a November 3rd, 1985 article for the Washington Post, Bob Woodward listed the countries where Gaddafi was said by the White House to be active. They included Chad, Tunisia, Sudan, Iran, Syria, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon and Iraq. Gaddafi was also supporting the IRA in Northern Ireland and significantly stepped up supplies of arms and cash to the group after a British policewoman was shot dead and diplomats expelled following a confrontation and lengthy siege at the Libyan embassy in London in 1984.

In May 1984, less than a month after the London embassy siege, gunmen launched rocket and gun attacks against the Tripoli army barracks where Gaddafi’s family compound was located. The initial assault was repulsed and most of the insurgents killed when Libyan tanks shelled the building overlooking the barracks where the gunmen had taken refuge. It was though the most serious challenge to Gaddafi’s hold on power in Libya, made all the more threatening by the fact that it had happened on his doorstep.

The attack was claimed by a group calling itself the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), composed of anti-Gaddafi exiles, some of them supporters of the Idris monarchy overthrown in the 1969 revolution. Claims that the NFSL was at that time supported by US intelligence derive some support from a leak to American newspapers a few days before the attack in Tripoli that President Reagan had recently signed a new directive authorizing US agencies to “take the offensive” against international terrorism by mounting retaliatory or pre-emptive attacks. But the Americans were, at this stage, not directly involved in supporting the exile group’s activities.

The NFSL was getting aid mostly from Saudi Arabia whose ruling family despised Gaddafi after he had accused them of defiling holy Islamic sites in their country but also from Egypt and Tunisia in whose internal affairs Gaddafi had meddled. Sudan was another sponsor. Gaddafi had tried to foment an uprising against its pro-Western leadership and in response Sudan supplied the NFSL with bases from which the May 1984 attack was planned.

The Sudanese, according to one account, kept the CIA informed of the plot. CIA Director, William Casey, was heartened by the attack even though it had failed and renewed his efforts to persuade Reagan to authorize specific covert action against the Libyan leader. Casey is said to have remarked: “It proves for the first time that Libyans are willing to die to get rid of that bastard” (p. 85). From thereon the NFSL was put on the CIA’s payroll.

It was after the unsuccessful effort to kill Gaddafi in his Tripoli compound that Reagan took the intelligence offensive. Bob Woodward revealed Reagan’s move, first in the Washington Post (November 3rd, 1985) and then in his account of Reagan’s secret wars in his book Veil, published in 1987. A secret presidential directive, which Woodward was able to quote, signaled that the exile groups like NFSL would be an important weapon wielded in this campaign against the Libyan leader: “…the exile groups, if supported to a substantial degree, could soon begin an intermittent campaign of sabotage and violence which could prompt further challenges to Qaddafi’s authority.”

The Reagan directive had listed ten options for action against Gaddafi, which ranged from regime change to economic sanctions, although it was obvious that the operation could only be judged a success if Gaddafi was dislodged: “…no course of action short of stimulating Qaddafi’s fall will bring any significant and enduring change in Libyan policies”, the document read.

The former French colony of Chad on Libya’s southern border had already been a major battleground in the war between Reagan and Gaddafi and after the 1984 bid to kill the Libyan dictator it assumed even greater importance. Chad had gained independence from France in 1960 but its history for many years thereafter has been one of coups and civil wars, often sponsored by foreign powers using Chad as an arena for their rivalry.

Libyan interest and activity in Chad pre-dated Gaddafi’s 1969 revolution and centered on a piece of land in Northern Chad called the Aouzou Strip which is rich in uranium and other rare minerals. Gaddafi formed an alliance with the government of Goukouni Wedeye who allowed the Libyans to occupy the strip but in 1982 Wedeye was overthrown by Hissene Habre who was backed by the CIA and by French troops.

Hebre’s was a brutal regime. During the eight years of his leadership some 40,000 people were estimated to have died in detention or executed. Human Rights Watch observed: “Under President Reagan, the United States gave covert CIA paramilitary support to help install Habre in order, according to secretary of state, Alexander Haig, to ‘bloody Gadafi’s nose’”. Bob Woodward wrote in Veil that the Chadian coup was William Casey’s first covert operation as head of the CIA.

During the years following Habre’s coup, Gaddafi’s army and the forces of the Chad government, the CIA and French intelligence clashed repeatedly. In March 1987 a force of some 600-700 Libyan soldiers under the command of General Khalifa Haftir was captured and imprisoned. Gaddafi disowned Heftir, presumably in anger at his capture, and the former Libyan General then defected to the major Libyan opposition group, the NFSL.

A Congressional Research Service report of December 1996 named Heftir as the head of the NFSL’s military wing, the Libyan National Army. After he joined the exile group, the CRS report added, Heftir began “preparing an army to march on Libya”. The NFSL, the CSR said, is in exile “with many of its members in the United States.”

In 1990 French troops helped to oust Habre and installed Idriss Debry to replace him. According to one account the French had grown weary of Habre’s genocidal policies while the new resident in the White House, George H W Bush did not have the same interest as Reagan had in using Chad as a proxy to damage Gaddafi even though the Libyan leader formed an alliance with Debry.

A New York Times report of May 1991 shed more light on the CIA’s sponsorship of Heftir’s men. “They were trained” it said, “by American intelligence officials in sabotage and other guerilla skills, officials said, at a base near Ndjamena, the Chadian capital. The plan to use the exiles fit neatly into the Reagan administration’s eagerness to topple Colonel Qaddafi”.

Following the fall of Habre, Gaddafi demanded that the new government hand over Heftir’s men but instead Debry allowed the Americans to fly them to Zaire. There Libyan officials were given access to the men and about half agreed to return to Libya. The remainder refused, saying they feared for their lives if they went back home. When US financial aid offered to Zaire for giving the rebels refuge failed to materialise they were expelled and sent to Kenya.

Eventually the Kenyans said the men were no longer welcome and the United States agreed to bring them to America where they were admitted to the US refugee programme. A State Department spokesman said the men would have “access to normal resettlement assistance, including English-language and vocational training and, if necessary, financial and medical assistance.” According to one report the remnants of Heftir’s army were dispersed to all fifty states.

That was not, however, the end of the Libyan National Army. In March 1996, Heftir returned to Libya and took part in an uprising against Gaddafi. Details of what happened are scant but the Washington Post reported from Egypt on March 26th that travelers from Libya had spoken of “unrest today in Jabal Akhdar mountains of eastern Libya and said armed rebels may have joined escaped prisoners in an uprising against the government….and that its leader is Col. Khalifa Haftar, of a contra-style group based in the United States called the Libyan National Army, the travelers said.”

The report continued: “The travelers, whose accounts could not be confirmed independently, said they heard that the death toll had risen to 23 in five days of fighting between security forces and rebels, including men who escaped from Benghazi prison thursday and then fled into the eastern mountains.”

What part the CIA played in the failed uprising and whether the then US president, Bill Clinton had given the operation his approval are not known. By coincidence or not, three months later, Gaddafi’s forces killed some 1200 political prisoners being held in Benghazi’s Abu Simal jail. It was the arrest of the lawyer representing many of the prisoners’ families that sparked the February 17th uprising against Gaddafi and with it, the return of Khalifa Heftir.

Brian Moore RIP

Brian Moore, aka Cormac, who drew cartoons in An Phoblacht-Republican News for over thirty years

I have just learned that Brian Moore, better known as the cartoonist Cormac, died recently in Belfast and reading some of the obits that appeared on the web and elsewhere, it struck me that his role in the development of republican, that is Provo republican, politics was not really given proper recognition by the various writers. He played a small part, for sure, but nonetheless an important one in its way in bringing about the leadership changes in the IRA and Sinn Fein that led us to where we are now.

He was originally a member of one of those Trotskyite groups – don’t ask me which one, but I have a notion it was an offshoot of the post-QUB, Peoples Democracy – which believed that national liberation struggles were more important than class ones, that supporting the Viet Cong and Che Guevara was more relevant than organising in the local Ford plant or giving out leaflets during strikes. In Ireland that meant backing the Provos and so it was that Brian Moore volunteered his services as cartoonist for Republican News and later An Phoblacht-Republican News (AP-RN).

As a cartoonist Brian Moore was strongly influenced by the American underground comix tradition of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s which was especially rich in the San Francisco area. That was no accident since San Francisco was at the centre of the Sixties counterculture ferment which was defined by political radicalism, disdain for mainstream values and liberal attitudes towards sex and drug use, all themes that were meat and drink in the world of underground comix.

The comix were mostly self-published and although they had small circulations the cultural influence of publications like Zap Comix and characters like Fritz the Cat or the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers was immense and stretched way beyond the west coast. One of the best of the underground cartoonists was Robert Crumb whose work and that of Brian Moore are strikingly similar. Two of Crumb’s creations, Mr Natural and Keep on Truckin’ could easily have jumped out of a Brian Moore cartoon in AP/RN or vice-versa.

Mr Natural, a character created by San Francisco cartoonist Robert Crumb, and an inspiration for Cormac

Keep on Truckin', another Robert Crumb cartoon

It was Danny Morrison who as editor in the mid-1970’s brought Brian Moore into Republican News, the Provisional weekly that was set up by the Belfast Brigade of the IRA in 1970 under the direction of Jimmy Steele and Hugh McAteer, the latter a former Chief of Staff, the former an early Provo icon and veteran of the Thirties and Forties campaigns.

The early Republican News was almost a caricature of the early Provisionals and faithfully reflected the devout Catholicism and fierce anti-Communism of the new IRA’s founders. One of its first editorials railed against erstwhile comrades in the Official IRA, explaining the reasons why people of the calibre of Steele and McAteer had broken with them to set up the Provisional IRA in terms that Joe McCarthy would have been proud of: “Gradually into executive posts both in the IRA and Sinn Fein, the Red agents infiltrated and soon these men became the policy makers”. Its first editor later became a leader in the Tridentine Mass movement which was dedicated to returning the Catholic church to Latin rituals and the dogmas and attitudes of pre-Vatican II Catholicism.

By the time Brian Moore joined Republican News, both Steele and McAteer were dead and the IRA in Belfast was moving leftwards under the direction of Gerry Adams, Ivor Bell and Brendan Hughes whose influence was enormously significant even though all three men were in Long Kesh at the time, either as internees or jailed because of escape attempts from internment.

The IRA had just ended a long, debilitating ceasefire which had caused huge dissension within the organisation. The camp led by Adams, Bell and Hughes – then the IRA’s Young Turks – opposed the ceasefire, arguing that the leadership in Dublin had been tricked by the British into believing that withdrawal was on the cards. Instead, they said, the British had used the lengthy ceasefire to build up intelligence on the IRA and to refine their anti-terrorist strategy, notably by criminalising the IRA, which almost resulted in its defeat.

Danny Morrison, editor of Republican News, on a visit to Long Kesh, circa 1981

Danny Morrison had at first supported the 1974-75 ceasefire but was talked round by Adams and then became an enthusiastic convert to the anti-leadership cause. Adams & Co. were agitating to take over the IRA and the centerpiece of their argument was the conviction that a quick military victory was no longer possible, that the war against the British was going to be a long one and to survive that length of time, the IRA would need to become politically relevant to those from whom it drew support. That necessitated both that the IRA move leftwards and that it get involved politically, two ideas that not only would have been anathema to Jimmy Steele and Hugh McAteer and their confreres but contained within them the mustard seeds of the peace process.

Under Morrison’s editorship, Republican News became the vehicle for this agenda. Gerry Adams and like-minded IRA prisoners were given columns in the paper. Adams chose the Brownie byline (for a detailed explanation, see Voices From the Grave) to protect his anonymity as he pushed his programme, although everyone knew it was him, but others also wrote influential columns, not least Bobby Sands under the nom de plume, Marcella.

Hiring Brian Moore was an inspired move by Morrison and along with allowing the late John McGuffin, a friend and colleague of Moore’s, free rein to write The Brigadier column, an often hilarious send up of the British Army’s officer class, these moves helped make Republican News one of the most attractive and interesting political papers in Western Europe. The Cormac cartoon though was its distinctive feature and as Danny Morrison noted in his obituary of Moore it was often the first thing that readers would turn to.

The contrast represented by Morrison’s Republican News with the staid leadership that had led the IRA into the ceasefire disaster, old men with politics to match, could not have been greater. They were yesterday’s men, out of touch and out of date, whereas Adams & Co., as symbolised by their newspaper, were tomorrow’s young, vibrant and relevant hope for Irish republicans, people who were brimming with ideas and enthusiasm. In the world of political propaganda, hiring Brian Moore and transforming RN was the equivalent of ditching Thompson machine guns for Armalite rifles.

It was no accident either that when Gerry Adams made his move in the late 1970’s to consolidate the take over of the IRA that he and his allies had been long planning, they chose the organisation’s newspapers as a major battleground. In those days RN’s circulation was confined to the North; the IRA’s Southern supporters were sold An Phoblacht (The Republic) which was produced in Dublin and strongly reflected the views of the anti-Adams Southern leadership.

Adams’ victory, and his readiness to wade in the gutter to achieve it, was signaled when, after a fierce battle that involved badly smearing AP’s editor Gerry O’Hare, the two papers were fused. Any doubt as to who had won were settled when the first edition of the re-christened An Phoblacht-Republican News appeared. It was Republican News, in content, style and politics, with a slightly different name; An Phoblacht had been swallowed up and was no more. In this bitter little battle Brian Moore and Cormac had played a not insignificant role.

But what goes around, comes around. I doubt very much whether Danny Morrison’s observation remained correct throughout time and that when AP-RN moved into what can only be described as its Pyongyang Times phase, when pro-peace process political correctness became the stifling order of the day, people still as enthusiastically turned to the Cormac cartoon.

The truth is that, at the end, his cartoons became infected with the same malady, faithfully drawn to conform to that week’s orthodoxy. The cartoon chosen by AP-RN to accompany his obituary was typical of this, celebrating Stormont, once the symbol of partition and a prime target for destruction by the IRA, but now the Holy Grail partly because Sinn Feiners sit in its chamber but mostly because Unionists don’t like that. The cartoon is also, interestingly, a measure of how much sectarianism is now part of the Provo culture. In fact AP-RN became so dull that it is no longer sold as a newspaper, hawked as it once was, door-to-door by volunteers and is now only available on the web where it is read by an ever dwindling audience.

The politically correct Cormac cartoon chosen by AP-RN for Brian Moore's obituary

A Cormac cartoon from the time of the 1981 hunger strikes. More typical of the body of his work.

There was, though, another aspect of Brian Moore’s life that is worth remembering and that was as songwriter and performer for the Men of No Property, an eclectic group which produced original pro-IRA music and songs in the early 1970’s. Two of Moore’s creations, the self-explanatory England’s Vietnam and Jesus and Jesse, the story of Jesus Christ and Jesse James meeting in the Belfast of the early 1970′s, have become classics and also relics of what now seems to be a long-lost age. Their music is still on sale here. Here are those two songs for you to savour:

England’s Vietnam

Jesus and Jesse

David Cameron Makes His Bones in Libya, NeoCon-style

Whenever a national leader justifies aggressive military action against others by invoking the phrase “humanitarian crisis” – as Barack Obama did to explain why a no-fly zone was being imposed on Libya – the most appropriate reaction may not be “to reach for my revolver”, to quote a long-forgotten German playwright, however tempting that might be. But stretching out a hand for a zinc bucket to hurl into sounds like a pretty good alternative.

No fly zone declared

 

This is not to deny that Libya does indeed face a potential calamity. The embattled Col. Gaddafi, his family, tribe and assorted associates and hangers-on are facing political, financial and possibly physical extinction at the hands of rebels – whose precise political orientation remains a mystery despite a heavy media presence in their strongholds – and clearly they will fight, and fight dirty, to make sure that does not happen.

But this is not the first time that an oppressive regime has threatened its own people, or other countries’ people, with slaughter and that fact serves to highlight the embedded dishonesty and hypocrisy of the joint Obama-Cameron-Sarkozy venture. If the prospect of a “humanitarian crisis” was an honest reason for military intervention then the three national leaders would be pretty much doing nothing else every day except issuing threats or organizing military sorties into other peoples’ countries.

They would be telling the leaders of Bahrain, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, for instance, to lay off their pro-democracy protesters; they’d impose a no-fly zone over Zimbabwe or otherwise threaten to rein in Robert Mugabe, toss Cruise missiles at the Burmese military dictators and long ago have sent legions of the Green Berets, the SAS and the French Foreign Legion into Darfur.

But they didn’t, and they wouldn’t have dreamed of doing it. No more than they would have ordered a no-fly zone in the Middle East in December 2008 when Israel invaded Gaza during Operation Cast Lead and rained white phosphorous

Western silence when Israel rained white phosphorous on Gaza

down on the heads of Palestinian children with murderous consequences for scores. Not only did that not happen but the newly-elected Obama, vacationing in Hawaii at the time, could not be persuaded to utter even one word of condemnation or disapproval.

To be fair to the US president, however, this is one military adventure which the Americans appear to have been the most reluctant to join. The lead has been taken instead by French president, Nicolas Sarkozy and British prime minister, David Cameron who heads a coalition Tory-Liberal Democrat government in London. The two Europeans had been pressing for action against Gaddafi for more than a week before Obama, apparently also urged to travel down this road by Hillary Clinton, finally gave in.

Sarkozy’s reasons for joining this anti-Gaddafi expedition have, according to one persuasive account, much to do with the confluence of two uncomfortable realities and very little with the catastrophe that inaction could bring to the unfortunate Libyans.

One is the impending French presidential election, due next April or May, and the other is his awful standing in the opinion polls. The latest of these showed

Pandering to Le Pen's National front did Sarkozy little good

him trailing behind the Socialists and the quasi-fascist, anti-immigrant National Front founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen. In a bid to fend off the challenge from the extreme right, Sarkozy last year decided to join Le Pen’s people in the gutter and ordered the expulsion of France’s Roma population.

Pandering to French xenophobia made little difference and now Sarkozy faces the real prospect of entering the history books as a one-term president. But as Margaret Thatcher discovered in the Falklands, as did George W Bush after the invasion of Iraq, nothing does quite as much good for a politician’s re-election prospects – particularly when you’re third in the polls – than a war, especially one your people believe you are leading.

For reasons that perhaps hark back to the days of “Freedom Fries” and the contrast that the sight of a French leader eager to fight a war alongside America

Sarkozy - no more "Freedom Fries"

makes, the US media have placed Sarkozy in the “no-fly zone” limelight. To be sure Sarkozy was the first to give official recognition to the Libyan rebels and French jets did fly the first missions over Benghazi but to focus on this risks missing one of the big stories of the Libyan adventure: the role of neocons in shaping British prime minister David Cameron’s enthusiastic support for the Libyan escapade.

And there is no doubting Cameron’s passion for this North African adventure. He was the first to call for a no-fly zone (as well as the arming of the rebels), in early March well ahead of Sarkozy who initially opposed the idea. Even when NATO turned him down and the Russians and Chinese promised to veto any attempt at the United Nations to dislodge the Libyan leader by force, he

David Cameron with 'neocon Rex' Tony Blair

persisted. When he ducked a question in the House of Commons over whether he would wait for a UN resolution on Libya before committing Britain to a no-fly zone it raised the intriguing possibility that Cameron might be ready to go down the same path traveled by Tony Blair in 2003 when he and Bush cut a secret deal to go to war in Iraq without the UN’s approval.

And Cameron’s ministers have let it slip that, notwithstanding that the terms of the UN resolution do not authorize regime change, getting rid of Gaddafi and even killing him is very high on the British agenda.

His Defence Secretary, Liam Fox let it slip that the Libyan dictator could be targeted by Cruise missiles while his Chancellor, (like Timothy Geithner but with much more clout) George Osborne refused to rule out British troops being deployed on Libyan soil to overthrow him, telling a British television show only

Dave and Barry share a joke - but does Obama really know about his friend's friends?

that it was not planned “at this stage”. Should there be any doubt what the real intentions are, it is worth remembering that it was a British submarine that targeted Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli with a missile strike shortly after the no-fly zone was authorised (the same compound, incidentally, bombed by Reagan in 1986 in a raid that killed Gaddafi’s adopted daughter).

So there seems reason to believe that in Cameron’s mind at least, the Libyan intervention is less a humanitarian intervention intended to relieve the hard-pressed rebels and avoid the slaughter of civilians and more a war whose aim is to overthrow the Gaddafi government and to achieve regime change.

David Cameron, like many British Tories, has some compelling reasons to get rid of Gaddafi although commercial motives such as access to Libyan oil and enhancing trade links are not among them. Cameron’s predecessor, Tony Blair long ago took care of Britain’s interests in that regard, secretly offering in 2005 to hand over Libyan dissidents hiding out in London (yes, the same ones whose friends in Libya the West is now so eager to protect) to Gaddafi and almost certain death (and later freeing the Lockerbie bomber) just at the time that Libyan oilfields were made available for public auction (by a remarkable coincidence by the time the hammer fell, BP and Shell had beaten out their US rivals and secured rights to all of Libya’s oil and natural gas resources).

Another reason could be Gaddafi’s nearly two decade-long sponsorship of the Provisional IRA. Over the years Libya gave the IRA many millions of dollars and tons of sophisticated weaponry, including ample supplies of the powerful explosive Semtex. By so doing the Libyan leader nourished a group that

Gaddafi gave the IRA weapons to use against Britain

otherwise would have posed a much less formidable threat to Britain. Getting payback for all those years spent helping out Irish terrorists who killed the Queen’s cousin, Lord Mountbatten and nearly wiped out the Thatcher Cabinet would certainly give Cameron and his colleagues much satisfaction but is insufficient by itself to explain the eagerness to attach Gaddafi’s scalp to their belt.

The clue to what is really going on in the Cameron cabinet can be found in the phrase that many believe describes their real but officially unstated aim: “regime change”. Consider these words to be published in the forthcoming issue of The Weekly Standard: “The only way this crisis will end – the only way we and our allies can achieve our objectives in Libya – is to remove Qaddafi from power. Containment won’t suffice. We must make ‘rollback’ the international strategy.”

British neocons want to do this to.........

....this guy

The Weekly Standard is, of course, the house magazine of the American neoconservative movement and the author of these words is the writer and think tanker, Max Boot. Although Boot dislikes the epithet, he is one of America’s foremost neocons. In fact there is hardly a neocon project of any significance in recent years that has not had Max Boot’s name attached to it at some stage or other, from the Project for a New American Century and the invasion of Iraq through to unquestioning fealty to Israel and particularly the Likud party.

And remember also that key defining document produced by American neoconservatism back in 1996, ‘Clean Break’, advice to Israeli’s incoming Likud premier, Benjamin  Netanyahu that a policy which embraced military force to topple unfriendly Arab regimes could ‘transcend’ the Arab-Israeli conflict, i.e. make an accommodation with Palestinians unnecessary. It is view heartily endorsed by the Atlanticists who populate the ranks of Britain’s neocons.

One of the most stubborn popular myths about neoconservatism is that it is a uniquely American phenomenon and given the baleful consequences that the doctrine had for the Bush White House, never mind the rest of the world, that is hardly surprising.

But neoconservatism’s roots do not belong in America and not even in the West Side of Manhattan, at least according to some in Cameron’s circle. The roots actually belong in Britain and, according to one of the doctrine’s leading

The Earl of Castlereagh - a founder of modern neoconservatism?

apostles, specifically in the British Tory party at the dawn of the nineteenth century when the doctrine of intervention in other countries’ affairs was legitimized, beginning with the effort to throw Napoleon off France’s imperial throne, and the basis laid for largely unopposed British colonial expansion during the rest of the century.

The claim, incidentally, is a necessary reminder that neoconservatism is just a fancy name for old-fashioned, interest-driven imperialism, justified in the nineteenth century in the name of bringing “civilization” to the rest of the world and nowadays to spread “democracy”.

Well, it looks as if Britain’s nineteenth century neocons have made a comeback and have a real, pivotal influence in Cameron’s Cabinet. The prime minister himself is not formally a neocon but he has surrounded himself with neocons,  given them key posts in government and has allowed his policies to be framed with significant input from neocon think tanks.

Consider the openly neocon members of Cameron’s Cabinet, nearly all of them members of the so-called Notting Hill set, a group of young ambitious Tories

Goerge Osborne as a young buck at Oxford - never had a proper job before politics

who spearheaded Cameron’s rise to the top of the Tory party. The leading figure is George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer whose economic policies will determine whether or not Cameron gets re-elected in 2014 or 2015. He is a crucial figure in Cameron’s government and has the prime minister’s ear every day. Back in 2003 when Bush and Blair were about to invade Iraq, Osborne – a member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy – declared himself a “signed-up, card-carrying Bush fan” and told the House of Commons that he had been won over by the “excellent neoconservative case” for war.

The next most important figure is Cameron’s Education Secretary, Michael Gove who, when he is not advocating no fly zones in Libya, is busy constructing Britain’s version of charter schools. A former leader writer for the Times, Gove is the zealot who traces the origins of

Michael Gove - a key member of Cameron's 'Notting Hill set'

neoconservatism to a couple of early nineteenth century Tory Foreign Secretaries, George Canning and Robert Stewart, aka Viscount Castlereagh. An uncritical fan of Israel who barely bothers to disguise his contempt for all things Palestinian and Arab, Gove once compared Donald Rumsfeld to the sheriff played by Gary Cooper in High Noon.

More junior Tories make up the rest of Cameron’s neocon set. They include Greg Hands, George Osborne’s Private Parliamentary Secretary (PPS), the House of Commons’ version of a public school fag. Hands holds joint US and UK citizenship and returned to America in 2008 so he could vote for the McCain-Palin ticket. Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey is also a neocon as is Nicholas Boles, PPS to the Schools Minister.

So two of Cameron’s most important Cabinet colleagues, and close personal friends, are declared neocons and a group of junior, talented and up and coming government figures are with them. Others in Cameron’s Cabinet are “liberal interventionists”, like the Foreign Secretary William Hague. A cynic might observe that “liberal interventionists” are to neocons what call girls are to hookers. They’re in the same business but one is more honest than the other about what they do.

The founder, nay inspiration of the liberal interventionists is Bush’s old pal, Tony Blair, about whom Michael Gove once wrote an article titled, would you believe, “I can’t fight my feelings any more: I love Tony”. That was on the eve of the Iraq war. Guardian reporter Richard Seymour, whose insightful writing informs much of this post, once observed: “…for many Tories, Blair is neocon Rex.” So wherever he turns, Cameron is confronted by neocon influence or its surrogate, Blairism.

As with their American counterparts, many of these Cameronian neocons are leading figures in a bewildering array of overlapping Think Tanks and front groups and it is here that perhaps the greatest influence on Cameron can be seen.

Prime amongst these is Policy Exchange (PE), a conservative think tank based in Westminster which was founded by Michael Gove, now Cameron’s Education

Nicholas Boles, another Cameron ally and founder of Policy Exchange

Secretary, and Nicholas Boles who was until 2007 Policy Exchange’s Director and later Cameron’s head of policy. The Daily Telegraph, whose former editor Charles Moore is now PE’s chairman, called Policy Exchange “the largest, but also the most influential think tank on the right” while the New Statesman termed it David Cameron’s “favourite think tank”.

In the final years of Tony Blair’s premiership the Notting Hill set would meet at Policy Exchange’s offices to discuss the future of their party and out of that was born the idea that he should make a bid for the leadership. The measure of the think tank’s influence on Cameron and the regard with which he held it was on view in June 2005 when he chose a Policy Exchange event to launch his bid for the top job. When he succeeded, the think tank’s star rose along with him. Money flowed in from the City of London and with its income rising tenfold, Policy Exchange’s research staff grew by a factor of seven.

A key figure in Policy Exchange, and in shaping Cameron’s political direction during his premeirship, is its Research Director on security issues, Dean Godson, a former feature and leader writer for the Daily Telegraph and author of a celebrated if controversial biography of the Northern Ireland Unionist leader, David Trimble.*

Godson’s familial links to the neocon cause are impressive. His father Joseph, a Polish Jew who emigrated to America in 1926 at age 13, was a neoconservative before there were neoconservatives. A member of the American Communist Party he became disillusioned with Stalin at a very early stage and, skipping the Trotskyite phase, moved rightwards, joined the State department in 1950 and was stationed in London where he allegedly played a significant role meddling in the British Labour party’s internal politics much to the detriment of leftist figures like Nye Bevan, the father of British socialised medicine.

His other son Roy, based in Washington, is an expert in the shady business of counter intelligence/black propaganda and served on Reagan’s National Security Council where he helped Ollie North funnel Iranian cash to the Contras in Nicaragua.

Dean Godson’s two passions in life are Israel and Ireland, or to be more specific the cause of Likud and Ulster Unionism whose twin fates he saw threatened by the temptations of dialogue with untrustworthy terrorist adversaries, the PLO and the IRA, in the search for peace and political accommodation.

His friend David Frum, a Bush speechwriter famous, or infamous, for coining the phrase “axis of evil”, once wrote of the many anguished phone calls he would receive from Godson about the peace processes in Israel and Ireland during the 1990’s: “Dean kept pointing out….(that) they all shared a dangerous defect. They were attempts to make peace with terrorist adversaries who were not sincerely committed to peace”. (After the IRA called off its war and decommissioned its arsenals – thereby inconveniently demolishing Godson’s conspiracy theory – British neocons have instead turned to IRA dissidents as the next great threat, but less than convincingly)

Godson joined Policy Exchange when his benefactor Conrad Black lost control of the Daily Telegraph. The new editor, Martin Newland let Godson and Black’s wife and fellow writer, Barbara Amiel go because of their strident politics, as he later explained: “I soon came to recognise that (the Daily Telegraph was) speaking a language on geopolitical events and even domestic events that was dictated too much from across the Atlantic. It’s OK to be pro-Israel, but not to be unbelievably pro-Likud, it’s OK to be pro-American but not look as if you’re taking instructions from Washington. Dean Godson and Barbara Amiel were key departures.” Conrad Black once called Palestinians “vile and primitive” while Barbara Amiel, in one of her pieces, compared Arabs to “animals”.

At Policy Exchange, Godson’s singular contribution has been, according to his many critics, to fan the flames of British Islamaphobia under the guise of confronting Muslim extremism and his methods have sometimes brought the think tank into unwelcome controversy.

In 2007 PE published ‘The Hijacking of British Islam’ which purported to show that extremist Muslim literature which, inter alia, advocated the stoning of adulterers and the beheading of apostates, was on sale in twenty-five per cent of British mosques. A BBC investigation revealed however that a number of receipts allegedly issued by mosques for the literature had been forged on PC’s or were written by the same hand.

Dean Godson (right) being grilled by the BBC's Jeremy Paxman over allegations of forgery in a Policy Exchange report on British Muslims

None of this seems to have deterred David Cameron however. In February this year he chose his first speech on terrorism as prime minister to announce the failure of British multiculturalism, echoing Germany’s Angela Merkel, and the need for a tougher stance on Muslim groups allegedly promoting extremism. Government contacts with and financial support for such groups would be re-examined and, if necessary, withheld, he declared. The speech was a feather in the cap for Dean Godson and Policy Exchange; it was also a notable triumph for the Tory party’s neoconservatives and clear evidence that Cameron was open to persuasion on other issues.

Key figures in Policy Exchange also populate the ranks of the Cambridge-based, British branch of the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), set up in the midst of the Iraq war and so-named after the fiercely pro-Israel, anti-Communist Senator from Washington State, the late Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson, a figure regarded as something between patron saint and founding father of the American neoconservative movement.

Signatories to the HJS’s statement of neocon principles include Cameron allies and Policy Exchange founders, Michael Gove and Nicholas Boles as well as George Osborne’s “fag”, Greg Hands. Some of its researchers, like Martyn Frampton, have inherited Godson’s obsession with the dangers of talking to terrorists and Frampton has also been to the fore in projecting the tiny, heavily infiltrated and mostly corrupt IRA dissident groups as a new and major threat to peace in Ireland.

The corollary of such alarmism of course is the need for extra anti-terrorist resources, unceasing vigilance (not to mention paranoia) and, ultimately, the military strength to tackle not just the terrorists but those abroad who may sponsor and fund them, whether they be of the Irish or Muslim variety. While many British neocons have warmly welcomed David Cameron’s support for intervention in Libya they also express dismay at his unaltered plans to run down Britain’s military strength. Neoconservatism and the military state, like love and regret, go hand in hand.

The Henry Jackson Society has been anything but shy advocating the invasion of Libya and the overthrow of Gaddafi. Type “Libya” into its website search bar and more than sixty articles and references appear, virtually all of them antagonistic to the Libyan leader or urging extreme action against him. One article written by HJS’s Global Security and Terrorism director George Grant and published recently in Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal was headlined “Put the Mad Dog Down”.

As the situation in Libya deteriorated it set up an emergency “Committee for a Democratic Libya”, headed by the subject of Dean Godson’s autobiographical magnum opus, David, now Lord Trimble, the former NI Unionist leader who expressed himself in favour of supplying the rebels with military equipment and the services of unspecified “experts”. Libya, he told its inaugural meeting, “is the sort of situation where it would be utterly wrong for us to hang back”.

Activists in the Henry Jackson Society can also be found at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) based at King’s College London. Its publicly stated brief is to “educate the public in relation to diplomacy and strategy, public administration and policy, security and counter-terrorism and international conflict resolution.”

Its real function, fueling Islamaphobia, soon becomes apparent when you examine the biographies of just two of its research staff. One is an alleged Jihadist apostate called Shiraz Maher who doubles as a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange. He claims that he was once a member of the extremist Hizb ut-Tahrir group but became disillusioned and quit. He now preaches a virulent anti-Islam gospel given credibility by his purported past history (the neocons’ Irish equivalent is Sean O’Callaghan, a former IRA leader and admitted spy for the Irish police and the British intelligence service, MI5).

Former Islamist Shiraz Maher......

....and Sean O'Callaghan, an IRA informer. Both apostates, and useful to the neocon cause

During Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, Maher wrote that British Muslims have a choice: “…between Hamas, a terrorist group committed to destroying a sovereign state and its people – and Israel, the region’s only democracy which is responding to that threat.”

The other is Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens. Yes, you guessed it, the son of Christopher Hitchens, former Trot and post-9/11 convert in all but name to the neoconservative cause. The apple did not fall far from the tree. Also a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange and a

Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens - the apple fell not far from the tree

blogger for the Henry Jackson Society, Hitchens junior shares all of his father’s detestation of things Islamic and then some, as Strathclyde Sociology professor, David Miller observed in an August 2010 profile: “He has no truck with the idea that U.S., U.K., or Israeli foreign policy or human rights abuses contribute to terrorism. ‘It is the ideology of Islamism,’ he writes, ‘which is the primary root cause of jihadist terror.’ This puts him at odds even with the British intelligence agencies. Even they have acknowledged that the invasion of Iraq exacerbated opposition to the U.K.”

This then is the British neoconservative network that surrounds David Cameron. Iraq-style regime change is undeniably their goal with Muammar Gaddafi playing the role of Saddam Hussein. The Iraq invasion was based on the lie of weapons of mass-destruction (WMD) but it is the specter of a failed state that is being used by neocons to justify the action against Libya. As one of them wrote, the war between Gaddafi and his rebels could “create an Afghanistan on our doorstep….a source of terrorism and piracy”.

Perhaps, but there’s a large element of the self-fulfilling prophecy at the core of neoconservative thinking. It is worth remembering that Afghanistan became a failed state in the first place because of foreign intervention, first by the Russians and then the Americans. Had Afghanistan been left alone there would have been no Al Qaeda training camps, no 9/11. The Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq has likewise left the region more unstable than it was before, more susceptible to Iranian influence than could ever have been imagined in Sadam Hussein’s day.

Obama is going down a road these two men travelled before him

The debacle of Iraq had sounded, many thought, the death knell of neoconservatism but the Arab Spring and the Libyan crisis have revived it. That, and the neocon clique that surrounds David Cameron. US president Barack Obama now finds himself attached to a project that many would have more readily associated with his predecessor. He can only hope that his foray into Libya will have a happier ending than the Bush-Cheney expedition to Iraq. If not he will have, in no small way, his British ally to thank as well as that ally’s neocon friends. Remember what the man, no friend of the neocons, said: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”

*In the interests of full disclosure I should say that I know Dean Godson quite well and while our respective views of the world, and the Irish peace process, are poles apart, I like him and enjoy his company. I once spoke at a Policy Exchange debate on the NI peace process and found myself, gratifyingly I should add, in the minority. But he was, as always, a gracious and generous host.

The Nuking of Barack Obama

With Japan teetering on the edge of a nuclear catastrophe potentially many times worse than Chernobyl, its government incapable of interacting candidly with its

A reactor on the edge of meltdown

own people and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which owns and runs the Fukushima reactor, a case study in Keystone Cop-like incompetence, many are looking to America for guidance and help and in particular to President Barack Obama for a lead.

The folks at TEPCO search for a lead

As the Japanese nuclear crisis faces its second week, Obama has announced a comprehensive safety review at all 104 reactors in the US. But just what is the track record of America’s 44th president in dealing with nuclear safety issues and the nuclear industry; how resolute will he be in the face of industry lobbying? It would be re-assuring to be able to say that in this case at least, the soaring rhetoric has been matched by action. But sadly, the answer is that it provides yet another metaphor for the Obama presidency and style of politics – he can talk the talk like no other politician in the hemisphere; the problem begins and stays with the walking part.

Obama’s connections to the nuclear industry surfaced briefly during the battle for the Democratic nomination with Hillary Clinton in the Spring of 2008 and then promptly disappeared. This was a pity because the story really told us all that we needed to know and have come to know about Obama in the White House, which is that what he says he will do when he is searching for votes and what he actually does do once he has got them are often two very different things. It also told us that, despite his campaign slogan of ‘Change’, Obama was no different from any other American politician; his vote could be bought and sold like a pig at market.

The story began on December 1st, 2005 when Exelon, an Illinois-based utility company and America’s largest single producer of nuclear energy (20% of all nuclear-generated electrical power) disclosed that traces of tritium, a radioactive byproduct of nuclear reactors, had been discovered in the water table at its Braidwood plant, some fifty miles southwest of Chicago. Within days tritium was found in wells nearby that provide drinking water to locals and Exelon admitted that the radioactive element had been present in millions of gallons of water that had leaked from the plant years before but the leakage had not been reported.

Now tritium, while a radioactive element, is not the most dangerous substance than can be released from a nuclear reactor. Unlike say Uranium 235 or Plutonium, being in the presence of tritium is not inherently dangerous – those old-fashioned watches with faces that glowed in the dark did so because tritium was painted on the numerals – and it is only when it is ingested in food or liquid that it can do harm. Clearly a lot of tritium had been released from Exelon’s plant and how much harm it may have done was an unanswered question compounded by the alarming realisation locally that other far more dangerous substances may have been released without anyone’s knowledge, except of course Exelon’s.

As Joseph Cosgrove who lived and worked in the nearby hamlet of Godley, Ill, told the Los Angeles Times in 2008: “We want people to be notified. Think about

Safe to drink?

it. They had releases and no one was told. How would you like to turn on the tap and (have to) think, ‘Should I drink this?’”

Cue the arrival of a white knight in the genial form of Illinois’ newest Senator, Barack Obama, elected just a year or so before the tritium leakage was disclosed and, since his electrifying keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, a rising star in the Democratic party and already touted by some as a future White House runner.

The existing law governing radioactive discharges from nuclear plants stipulated a requirement on the owners’ part to report leakages to state and local authorities only if they amounted to an “emergency”. So Senator Obama proposed a new law, called the Nuclear Release Notice Act of 2006, which stipulated that nuclear plants “shall immediately” notify officials at local, state and federal level of any accidental release of radioactive material that exceeded “allowable limits for normal operation”.

To objections from the nuclear industry that tritium posed not such a great health threat, Obama responded, according to the New York Times:

“This legislation is not about whether tritium is safe, or at what concentration or level it poses a threat. This legislation is about ensuring that nearby residents know whether they may have been exposed to any level of radiation generated at a nuclear power plant as a result of an unplanned, accidental or unintentional incident.”

It looked as though Senator Obama was going to do the rare thing in American politics, take a stand on behalf of ordinary people even if that was at the expense of corporate interests. Until that is the nuclear industry started cozying up to the Democrats. By 2006/2007, George W Bush’s unpopularity was at its peak and it was clear that any Republican candidate running for the White House in 2008 would likely take the blame for Bush’s follies and lose badly.

Traditionally, the nuclear lobby had always donated most heavily to the GOP but from 2006 onwards, as the result of the 2008 presidential race became more predictable, nuclear’s money went Democratic. When the race got underway the Los Angeles Times estimated that for every dollar that the nuclear industry gave to Republicans, it donated $3.50 to Democrats.

In the case of one of the leading Democratic contenders, Barack Obama, the nuclear industry’s bet paid off handsomely. Exelon and the nuclear lobby, the Nuclear Energy Institute, opposed Obama’s Bill and within a few months their lobbying helped gut the legislation.

Out went that requirement to “immediately” notify the authorities of any nuclear leakage and in its place the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was asked to “consider” public notification in the light of the findings of a special task force set up to examine the tritium discharges. Predictably, that task force reported that “existing reporting requirements for abnormal spills and leaks are at a level that is risk-informed and appropriate”. The Obama Bill was also re-written – the words apparently chosen by Exelon – to make it clear that State and local authorities would not be able to exercise regulatory oversight of nuclear reactors.

The one concession made by the nuclear industry was agreement that plants would “voluntarily” report leakages from now on. But as David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists told the New York Times: “…because it is all voluntary who’s to say where things will be in a few years from now?”

Joe Cosgrove, who had campaigned for Obama’s Bill, now complained in the media that the Illinois Senator was bending to the pressure: “Senator Obama’s staff was sending us copies of the Bill to review, and we could see it weakening with each successive draft. The teeth were just taken out of it”.

So why did Barack Obama water down his Bill and allow the nuclear industry to remove its heart and soul? Answer: they gave him lots of money.

Since 2003, when Obama started his run for the US Senate, Exelon employees and bosses had, by February 2008, contributed $227,000 to his Senate and White House bids. That’s a New York Times’ estimate. The Los Angeles Times claimed that $190,000 of that sum was for Obama’s White House campaign. Two of Exelon’s top executives, Frank M Clark, executive vice-president, and John W Rogers, a director, raised funds for Obama while John W Rowe, the chairman of both Exelon and the lobbying group, the Nuclear Energy Institute, was also a donor to his campaign. In addition, Obama’s key aide and adviser, David Axelrod had also worked as a consultant for Exelon.

In the event neither Exelon nor the nuclear industry need have worried. Although Obama had re-written and watered down his Bill, the Senate, which remained under GOP control in 2006, still found reason to object and stalled it. Obama re-introduced the legislation in 2007 but it went nowhere.

Obama took over $225,000 in campaign donation from Exelon staff

This did not stop Obama from claiming just the opposite. On the campaign trail in the winter of 2007/2008, he boasted about the Bill, telling voters in the Iowa primary that it was “the only legislation that I’ve passed. I just did that last year.” Not true but Obama’s claim went largely unchallenged. His main opponent, Hillary Clinton was in no position to exploit the slip, if such it was. Obama was the number one recipient of nuclear cash but Hillary came a close second.

Obama’s promise to the voters of Illinois went the same way as his presidential campaign pledges to, inter alia, offer a public option in health reform, to protect whistleblowers from prosecution, march alongside union members if their collective bargaining rights were threatened, end the Bush tax cuts to the rich and close down Guantanamo prison camp – abandoned in the face of powerful or wealthy opposition.

His current energy proposals include a $36 billion subsidy to the nuclear industry so it can build more reactors. When the policy was drawn up nuclear power looked preferable to oil and carbon-based fuels as a source for energy. The disaster in Japan is a timely reminder that nuclear energy is every bit as unappealing as conventional sources and that a major re-assessment of the Obama energy plan is now imperative. But in the light of the president’s interaction with Exelon, it might not be prudent to bet the mortgage that this will happen.

St Patrick’s Day – Bah! Humbug!

Yuck!

I was going to write an angry piece about Irish-Americans and how each St Patrick’s Day they happily indulge, for the amusement of the rest of America, every demeaning, insulting and degrading stereotype of the Irish invented since the Famine. Would African-Americans so easily paint their lips white and put on a minstrel show? Would Chinese-Americans typecast themselves so quickly as Fu-Manchu or Charlie Chan? I think not. Anyway that was before I read this excellent piece on Salon.com by Aine Greaney which says everything I wanted to say and does so much better than I could.

More Yuck!

Beyond words!

Peter King Redux

I am grateful to Mark Devenport, political editor of the BBC in Belfast for this information. Congressman Peter King is hosting a St Patrick’s Day breakfast in Washington tomorrow (Wednesday, March 16th) and his two principal guests are Peter Robinson, the First Minister in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government and Martin McGuinness, his deputy.

Robinson was for many years deputy to the Rev Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, NI’s extreme Unionist  grouping and for many years an opponent of all things Catholic and Irish. Martin McGuinness is number two to Gerry Adams, effectively the deputy leader of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing.

Doubtless tomorrow’s breakfast will be heralded as another celebration of Northern Ireland’s transition from some forty years of bloodshed and terrorism to peace and political co-operation – which undoubtedly is the case.

But in the light of the controversy over Peter King’s hearings into purported American Muslim radicalization and his perceived hypocrisy given his own past as a cheerleader for IRA terrorism in Ireland, it is worth noting that not too long ago his two guests wore very different hats.

McGuinness was Chief of Staff of the IRA, that is its head honcho, from 1978 (when he took over from Gerry Adams) until 1982.

Martin McGuinness (extreme right) wearing the IRA's uniform at a paramilitary funeral in the early 1970's.

From 1984 until very recently he was the IRA’s Northern Commander, effectively its military leader responsible for directing the IRA’s day-to-day war against the British, which meant that he endorsed or organised every bombing, shooting, killing and other acts of what Peter King would regard as ‘terrorism’ if it was to happen in America rather than Northern Ireland. He was also the Chairman of the IRA’s Army Council, its supreme decision-making body, effectively the IRA chief diplomat and ambassador in dealings with outside bodies, such as the British and Irish governments.

Martin McGuinness fires a pistol

Peter Robinson was not always a politician who preached peaceful methods. His boss, Ian Paisley, has a long history of involvement in shady Loyalist paramilitary groupings, starting with the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) back in the 1960′s when the group killed the first of what would be 3,000 plus victims of the Troubles. As Paisley’s deputy Robinson was often the man in charge of the important details. Paisley and Robinson’s most celebrated expedition into the world of terrorism came in the late 1980′s and early 1990′s, not long after the Anglo-Irish Agreement which gave the Dublin government a say in Northern Ireland’s affairs.

Amidst outrage from Loyalists and Protestants, Paisley and Robinson set up a paramilitary group called Ulster Resistance which linked up with the two major Loyalist groups, the Ulster Defence Association (estimated to have killed at least 300 people in the Troubles) and the UVF (death toll, at least 480). In its very first action, an armed group of Ulster Resistance members crossed the Border and invaded Clontibret in Co. Monaghan. Shots were fired but the group, with one exception, fled when the Irish police arrived on the scene. The sole Ulster Resistance member left behind was Peter Robinson who was arrested and charged. He later pleaded guilty to taking part in an unlawful assembly.

Ulster Resistance’s claim to fame, or infamy, came when French police arrested some of it leaders in a Paris hotel as they were negotiating a second arms deal with representatives of the apartheid government in South Africa. Using its extensive contacts in Shorts missile factory in East Belfast, Ulster Resistance had already traded missile secrets for weapons and grenades. The latter were used in Michael Stone’s famous attack on IRA mourners in a West Belfast cemetery in 1988 which killed three people. The second deal apparently involved passing over details of Shorts Blowpipe missile system, weaons that were at the centre of the Iran-Contra scandal.

Peter Robinson (second left, wearing glasses) parades with Ulster Resistance members involved in the South African missile secrets-for-arms deal

When Peter King, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness break bread tomorrow in DC, doubtless they will inwardly congratulate themselves on how far their respective careers in politics have taken them. The rest of us might well reflect on another reality, that as Peter King organises his second hearing on American Muslim support for terrorism, but for their ambivalence, at least, towards terrorism or their outright support for it, none of them would be even be in Washington, never mind seated around this particular breakfast table.

Peter Robinson totes an AK-47 during a trip to Israel, then a close ally of South Africa

Peter King

As he prepares to open Congressional hearings into the alleged ‘radicalization’ of American Muslims this week, Rep. Peter King has not been having it all his own way – in fact he’s been having a terrible time of it.

His problem is that the US media has finally caught up with his past as a cheerleader for the Provisional IRA back in the 1980’s and 1990’s when he and Noraid were inseparable and when he was on first name terms with and a house guest of many in the IRA’s national and Belfast leaderships.

And they are drawing a-pretty-hard-to-avoid conclusion – which is that with his background and history, the Republican Congressman for Long Island is pushing the definition of the word hypocrisy to new limits by pursuing others for their purported ambivalence towards terrorism.

Two of America’s premier newspapers, the Washington Post and the New York Times featured substantial pieces that led with and dwelt extensively on King’s past as an uncritical supporter of the IRA and advocate of armed struggle. As effective, and possibly more so, was a biting piece by Jon Stewart on Comedy Channel’s Daily Show. Here’s a link to the segment. Irish viewers will not be able to watch it unless they use a US proxy IP address. There is also this piece on MSNBC, a cable network popular amongst American liberals and progressives.

Also interesting to note is that some in the Irish-American community have protested at King’s plan. Particularly effective was this piece on the Irish Central website by Irish-American writer Brian Dooley who highlights the potential effect of Peter King’s Congressional hearings on the Muslim community in America, noting that the precedent was set amongst the Irish community in Britain during the 1970’s at the height of the IRA’s bombing campaign – which is that they were all wrongly tarred with the IRA brush and suffered terribly for it. What Peter King would have roundly, and rightly in the view of many, condemned in Britain he now threatens to bring to America.

Islamophobia is at a new and scary peak in America, as the video below of a recent Tea Party protest at an Islamic function in California demonstrates, even though the 9/11 attacks happened a decade ago.

The reasons are not hard to fathom. First of all there’s an audience for it. This is a deeply and at time frighteningly racist country and in Muslims, White racists are able to indulge both their hatred for non-Whites and for non-Christians – the same engines that fueled and drove the Klu Klux Klan. The Tea Party is emerging as the leader in that field.

Second, a number of skilled and articulate rabble rousers have discovered that a lucrative living can be made whipping up these fears. Take a look at this recent piece in the New York Times and you’ll see what I mean. There’s now a small industry of hate-mongers who thrive off fear and distrust of Islam. To them Peter King’s hearings mean money in the bank.

Third, there’s a political dividend. Politics in America have, historically, often been characterised by the exploitation of ignorance, bigotry and fear, especially in White middle America – and particularly in that big bit in the middle between the East and West coasts. Blacks, Irish, immigrants, Jews, anarchists, socialists, communists, Russians, Chinese and Mexicans have all been at one time or another the focus of an invariably ill-founded, irrational but powerful phobia. Since 9/11 the Muslims have gone to the top of the list and replaced the Red Tide and the Yellow Peril as the biggest imagined threat facing America.

Invariably it has been the Right, that is the Republican Party, that has cranked this engine and the electoral payoff can be substantial. It is why GOP leaders have refused to condemn those who say that Barack Obama is a Muslim or that he was really born in Kenya and therefore not entitled to be in the White House. It’s ugly stuff but since one in five Americans believe this nonsense, the GOP does nothing to discourage it. And it is why Peter King is holding his hearings. Liberals will denounce him, the media will mock him but he knows that out there in the boondocks they are cheering him on.

Nonetheless, the re-emergence of these old links to the IRA are embarrassing to Peter King and his response has been both utterly predictable and supremely dishonest – he has wrapped the peace process around himself as protection and justification for what he did. This is what he told the Washington Post:

‘ “I [wanted] a peace agreement, a working agreement, where the nationalist community would feel their rights would be respected,” King said in an interview at his Capitol Hill office. “I felt that the IRA, in the context of Irish history, and Sinn Fein were a legitimate force that had to be recognized and you wouldn’t have peace without them. Listen, I think I’m one of the people who brought about peace in Ireland.” ’

The facts, sadly for him, do not support any of this. He first came to Belfast in 1980 just when the first hunger strike, the one led by Brendan Hughes, was reaching a climax and was radicalised by what he saw and experienced. He came back for the second hunger strike and it was then he met the family of Bobby Sands family, in particular his sister Bernadette and her then partner, now husband Micky McKevitt. He would visit them on every trip he made and often stayed in their home in Louth. When he was elected to Congress virtually the first thing he did was to jump on a plane to Ireland to host a celebratory dinner with Bernadette and Micky – and this was all at a time when McKevitt was masterminding the smuggling of Col Gaddafi’s Semtex and AK-47’s from Tripoli. In Belfast, King’s best friends were Anto’ Murray and his wife, the formidable Lucy. McKevitt was the IRA’s QMG and Anto Murray was Belfast Operations Officer.

The point of this story is that King’s closest contacts in the IRA in these years were the military men, people who had never been nor would ever want be in Sinn Fein, activists who would have little truck either with the peace process. King told me himself that he didn’t meet Gerry Adams, the architect of the peace process, until 1984, four years after his love affair with the Provos began.

By the time the process got seriously underway in secret, circa 1987/1988, King had been supporting the IRA for seven or eight years and if his real ambition during these years was to contrive a peace agreement he did a remarkably successful job disguising it. By the time the process became public in 1992, his liaison was a dozen years old. When the US got officially involved, King’s role was fairly minor, ferrying the odd message from Adams to Clinton. In fact he probably gained more than he contributed, as it enabled him to refresh a rather soiled image. As he told me back in 2005: “Gerry Adams made me respectable.” I’m afraid Peter King’s re-writing of his own history just doesn’t wash.

Nonetheless, his hearings will go ahead amid fears that they could whip up a McCarthyite-style hysteria against American Muslims. There is one group of people whose silence during all of this build up has been pronounced. Peter King owes the Provos a lot; in fact it is no exaggeration to say that his political career would have been stillborn and he wouldn’t now be a Congressman, much less the Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security without their support back in 1985 when he was chosen to lead the St Patrick’s Day parade in New York city, an event that gave him sufficient profile for higher office.

Peter King with friends in Belfast. So far Gerry Adams has stayed silent on his planned Congressional hearings on Muslim extremism

If they were to speak out their words would have an effect. But so far they have stayed silent. Until they break that silence we can only believe that Peter King’s plans cause them no problems even if their former ally helps to foment a campaign of hate against American Muslims every bit as toxic and harmful as that which engulfed the Irish in Britain some thirty years ago.

Musings on the Irish General Election

Thanks to the Cedar Lounge for this link. It’s an RTE radio documentary called ‘Dogfight: Conor and Charlie’, that zeros in on one constituency, Dublin South-West during the recent general election campaign and the re-election bid of the area’s two former Fianna Fail TD’s, Conor Lenihan and Charlie O’Connor. Lenihan is the scion of a distinguished Fianna Fail family. His brother Brian was the finance minister in the FF-Greens coalition and the point man for the economic meltdown; his late father, also called Brian, was Charles Haughey’s ill-fated Tanaiste, and his aunt is Mary O’Rourke, a three time minister in Fianna Fail administrations.

Conor Lenihan, Charlie O'Connor and new FF leader Micheal Martin in happier days

It is a great piece of radio and is required listening because it graphically illustrates why the general election went the way it did. What comes across as Lenihan and O’Connor separately canvass housing estates in places like Tallaght, is the sheer venom of so many of the voters towards Fianna Fail. The verbal abuse directed at the two men, the sheer anger at what the Fianna Fail government did to the Irish economy and the damage done by people like Brian Lenihan to ordinary lives is extraordinary. There are a couple of instances in the documentary where the two, soon to be ex-TD’s, are lucky to escape physical violence on the doorstep.

That anger became quantifiable on February 26th. Between them Lenihan and O’Connor barely ended up with half a quota and the contrast with 2007 could not be greater. Four years ago Lenihan topped the poll, exceeding the quota on first preference votes and O’Connor was not far behind. This time O’Connor outpolled Lenihan (evidence, surely, that being a brother of the finance minister did him only harm) while Labour and Sinn Fein took their seats, improving their share of the first preference votes respectively by 81% and 41%.

The documentary gives colour and atmosphere to the wider message coming from the general election result, which is that it was not a judgement about other parties’ policies, ideas and competence as alternatives but overwhelmingly an opportunity, grasped eagerly by the voters, to give Fianna Fail a severe kicking. Fine Gael, Labour and the independents, notably the left-wing ones, all benefited enormously from this revenge factor in the voters’ minds and so did Sinn Fein. In fact one of the striking features of the documentary was how some of the angriest voters saw voting for Sinn Fein as the best way of doing the most damage to Fianna Fail.

In that respect Fianna Fail’s tactic of leafletting constituencies with warnings that Sinn Fein’s vote could increase unless the party faithful answered the call on election day badly backfired since it served only to alert voters that this was the outcome most feared by FF.

Protest vote or not the results were translated into bums on seats in the Dail chamber and in that department, Sinn Fein saw its group of TD’s more than triple to fourteen even if the first preference vote rose by less than 45%. This was the result that Sinn Fein had hoped for and expected in 2007 but had it come about then, the Provos would almost certainly be political toast now. With fourteen seats under its belt in 2007, Sinn Fein would, in all likelihood, have taken the place of the Green Party in coalition with Fianna Fail and now would probably be in the same place as that party: utterly destroyed and without a single TD to its name.

With a result like that four years ago, the Shinners would have been able to boast that the peace process strategy had reached its medium term goal, even if the holy grail of Irish unity was still out of reach. That goal was to have SF bums nestling on chairs around cabinet tables in both parts of Ireland and a voice in the formulation of all-Ireland policies in each jurisdiction.

The chief architect of the process on the Republican side, Gerry Adams would have hailed this as a vindication of the decision to dump armed struggle and the IRA – and of all that preceded and enabled this, especially the controversial offers, deals and non-deals that accompanied six of the ten deaths during the 1981 hunger strike and the consequent foray into electoral politics.

Sinn Fein’s surprisingly poor showing in 2007 deprived Adams of that triumph but fortuitously so, as it turned out. However, luck, one of the biggest housing bubbles in economic history, the Anglo-Irish Bank and the most stupid, incompetent and possibly corrupt Fianna Fail government in the history of the State combined in the period since then to give Sinn Fein a second chance.

It seems pretty clear that for Sinn Fein to achieve in 2015 or 2016 what it failed to obtain four years ago, a certain set of conditions would have to exist. The major prerequisite would be that in four or five years time the Irish economy is every bit as damaged and derelict as it is now. That’s a distinct possibility but the downside for Sinn Fein is that if this were so then emigration would in all likelihood have returned to the distressing levels last seen in the early 1980’s and many of those leaving Ireland’s shores would be natural SF voters and therefore no longer available to the party (hence, I suspect, the reason for SF’s demand that emigrants be given the vote).

Another set of requirements would be that the recently elected Fine Gael-Labour coalition would be every bit as venal and bungling as Fianna Fail was, that when the next general election is called the voters are as angry as they were last month and, last but not least, that Sinn Fein has shown itself as a talented and inspirational opposition. Again, all three of those preconditions are by no means impossible, but neither are they anywhere near certain.

Then there would be the question of whether Sinn Fein should aim, as it did in 2007, to be the junior partner in the post 2015/2016 coalition government or the senior one. Since the election campaign would be focussed on attacking the FG-Labour government, coalition with either of those parties would be automatically ruled out (just as FG could not now contemplate a partnership with Fianna Fail).

That means that if Sinn Fein wants to be in government in four or five years time, its likely partner, possibly the only one available, will be Fianna Fail. Here’s where it starts to get tricky for SF. If Sinn Fein’s support is going to grow in the next four or five years it will in the main be at the expense of Fianna Fail yet it will need Fianna Fail to have recovered a lot of the support lost in the recent election for such a government to be viable. How to balance those competing demands will be a challenge.

If Sinn Fein’s participation in the next government is dependent upon Fianna Fail’s recovery, where then would SF’s extra votes come from except from the many independents who were elected last month, or the Labour party? The other option would be to set out to absorb as much of Fianna Fail’s support as possible, effectively replacing it as the Republican party of Ireland, and then cobble together a coalition from the remnants of FF and the scattering of independents.

What matters here is that in either scenario, aiming to be the junior or senior partner in the next coalition government, Sinn Fein would have to grow and develop – and be led – like a normal political party. The problem for Sinn Fein is that it is not a normal political party. It came to life as an offshoot of the IRA and it continues to behave, particularly in the way it handles its internal affairs, as an offshoot of the IRA, where obedience to an all-controlling leadership comes before all else.

The symptoms of this were visible in the years after the 2007 electoral setback with a series of resignations from party ranks in both parts of Ireland – perhaps twenty in all – and most damagingly in Dublin. Perhaps the most telling of these was the defection of Dublin councillor Killian Forde to the Labour Party in January 2010, a rising star who many predicted would go far. He chose his words carefully when he resigned but their import was unmistakable:

“The leadership of the party appeared to not recognise or were unwilling to accept that changes are long overdue. These changes were essential to transform the party into one that values discussions, accommodates dissent and promotes merit over loyalty and obedience. It is only logical that if you disagree with the direction of the party and are unable to change it there is no option but to leave.”

He didn’t put a name to the problem but we all know who he was talking about. Last week Gerry Adams was chosen as leader of the new, expanded Sinn Fein group in the Dail, replacing the dull but dependable Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin. He was picked for the job in the same way as Sadam Hussein was in Iraq, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Josef Stalin in Soviet Russia, with no rival or dissent worthy of the name and success absolutely assured. His selection has to be ratified by the Sinn Fein Ard Comhairle and it surely will be, as all his wishes have been.

Gerry Adams - President of SF since 1983 and now leader of the party in the Dail.

In assuming leadership of the Dail party, Gerry Adams may well have missed one of those opportunities that the great leaders recognise when they come along, that for the good of the party and the project for which they have struggled, it is time to stand aside for newer, younger and fresher blood.

Now it may be that Gerry Adams does see the reality of his situation and that when the new Dail sits, he will be leader in name only, that in practice he will let the Pearse Doherty’s shine and get their way in charting the party’s direction and shaping its decisions. If he does then Sinn Fein will have a betting chance of growing and, more importantly, attracting talented and ambitious people to its ranks and by so doing significantly improve the chances that it will end up in power in 2015 or 2016.

But it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Even harder when there’s a great temptation to see the election result, and his own performance in Louth, as a massive vote of confidence in the way he goes about politics. Gerry Adams’ problem, as Killian Forde implied, is that he sees little difference in leading Sinn Fein and leading the IRA.

Surviving at the top of the IRA, as he did for so many years, required being on constant guard against dissent and brooking no disobedience of, or divergence from the leadership strategy, no matter how trivial, for fear that it will bloom and grow into a significant and even life-threatening challenge. (If you don’t believe this is how he ran the IRA, go ask Ruairi O Bradaigh, Ivor Bell or Micky McKevitt) That may be an acceptable style of leadership for an armed group waging a revolutionary war – or for a revolutionary leader intent on leading his army in a completely new direction – but it’s fatal for a political party in a democratic, parliamentary system.

It means, inter alia, that there’s a natural tendency for such leaders to surround themselves with untalented sycophants, valued mostly for their trustworthiness and dependability, or carpetbaggers who stare lovingly into their eyes and murmur compliments about standing on the shoulders of giants. These are precisely the sort of people who are not needed in a party that wants to flourish and expand.

In two years time, Gerry Adams will have been leader of Sinn Fein for thirty years. I can’t think of any European or Western party with a leader who’s been in office even half as long as he has. But over in North Africa there is one leader just as unwilling as he is to pass on the reins of power to others. Muammar Gaddafi, long time patron and sometime paymaster of the IRA, has been ruling Libya for forty years and is, as I write, stubbornly – and violently – resisting efforts to dislodge him from office. The two men’s lives intersected constantly over the last four decades and it looks like they will continue to do so till the bitter end.