Gordon Campbell: NZ's Gaza Timidity & Goodbye Bush

Gordon Campbell on the NZ response to Gaza, and on saying goodbye to George W. Bush

Murray McCully, head down and rucking – Not so timid on the rugby field.

As the slaughter in Gaza continues, the timidity of the New Zealand reaction to the 17 day Israeli offensive becomes even more …well, offensive. To date, Foreign Minister Murray McCully’s response has had two main themes (a) New Zealand is not taking sides in the conflict, and (b) since we’re not a major player in the Middle East no one would listen to us anyway.

The comparative death toll exposes the moral vacuousness of the government’s approach. Medical officials are estimating that the Palestinian death toll has risen past 900 and includes at least 380 civilians, with the BBC reporting that 235 of the Gazan dead were children. On the other side, three Israeli civilians have died from Hamas rockets, and 10 soldiers have died, four of them from Israeli friendly fire.

In the face of such numbers, New Zealand’s virtual silence certainly has involved taking sides. Imagine our vociferous response if those death figures were reversed. Would New Zealand be silent if it was Hamas who had killed 235 Israeli children in the past fortnight ? Hardly. And in that situation would it still be lecturing Israel to pull back from its use of violence ? No, it wouldn’t. It would be too busy screaming about terrorism and expressing our compassion and outrage for the suffering of the Israeli families.

The McCully stance – of treating Israel and Hamas as equally responsible for the use of weapons of mass destruction and the subsequent death toll in Gaza, is a wilful distortion of reality. There is only one side conducting air strikes on densely packed civilian populations in contravention of the Geneva Conventions. If we believe in the international treaties that we have signed, it is time that we spoke up in their defence, and against the way these conventions are being flouted by Israel.

Briefly, those violations include the use of disproportionate force, the carrying out of collective punishment, and the failure of an occupying force to take reasonable care to avoid inflicting casualties on civilians. The reports of the use of white phosphorus bombs by Israel on civilians could also qualify as a war crime – though Israel denies that it is has been using these flesh melting weapons in a way that violates international law. The report in The Times of London on the phosphorus bomb evidence, including the canister details that trace the weapons back to their US suppliers can be found here .

As Israel’s military offensive enters its so called third stage of ground warfare, its goals in Gaza now seem fairly obvious. There is an election in Israel on February 10, and Tzipi Livni will be using the offensive to head off Likud hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu at the polls, while gambling that any lasting downside for Israel will only emerge well after the votes have been cast and counted – much as it took months before the folly of Israel’s 2006 offensive against Hizbollah in southern Lebanon to became evident.

Israel’s other goals are likely to prove more difficult. It clearly aims to destroy Hamas as a military force, decapitate its leadership. and inflict sufficient collective punishment on the civilian population of Gaza that they will never dare to vote for Hamas again. The Israelis may well have some success in killing the current generation of Hamas fighters, who are penned up in Gaza.

Yet history shows how difficult it can be to achieve lasting success in such attempts. In the Second World War, the Nazis found that the horrific collective punishments meted out at Lidice and elsewhere, still failed to stifle the Resistance. Already, there are signs that the Israeli attacks have only boosted public support for Hamas throughout the Arab world, and especially so on the West Bank. Ironically, the main political casualty so far of the Israeli offensive seems to have been the Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, the West’s chosen glove puppet for peace among the Palestinians. As one resident of Nablus quoted above says : “When it comes to Israel, we are all Hamas.”


2 . Goodbye to Bush. Before we start to bitch about what a big fat disappointment President Obama has been, lets make a pact never to forget just how terrible the Bush years have been. As Atrios pointed out back in early December, it will still be a major leap forward for humanity if Obama turns out to be the kind of centrist “who wants to do sensible centrist things like build supertrains, get out of Iraq, not torture people or invade random countries, strengthen labour protections, reduce income inequality, improve education, provide health care for people, and reduce poverty.”

Meaning : even a relatively lacklustre Obama presidency will be far, far better than what we’ve known for the past eight years. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be critical of Obama’s choices of key advisers. As David Sirota says, why should anyone think that the likes of Lawrence Summers who helped to cause this financial crisis, are ‘better qualified’ to be Obama’s economic advisers than say, James Galbraith or Joseph Stiglitz, who have been right all along ? Here’s a sample of Galbraith’s thinking that makes a lot of sense in the light of recent events :

Today, the signature of modern American capitalism is neither benign competition, nor class struggle, nor an inclusive middle-class utopia. Instead, predation has become the dominant feature — a system wherein the rich have come to feast on decaying systems built for the middle class. The predatory class is not the whole of the wealthy; it may be opposed by many others of similar wealth. But it is the defining feature, the leading force. And its agents are in full control of the government under which we live.

Now, that’s the kind of guy I’d like to see sitting in Obama’s inner circle, not the economic servants of the predator class, like Summers and Robert Rubin. But enough picking at Obama before he even gets his feet under the presidential desk. Lets pick on Bush one last time instead.

No doubt, you will have your own nightmare memories of the 43rd President. Like perhaps, the “Its hard to put food on your families” gaffe. Or the lies and fantasies that provided the rationale for invading Iraq. Or the ripping up of constitutional protections against eavesdropping and arbitrary detention and torture. Or the looting of the US economy for the benefit of his cronies. Or the Hurricane Katrina fiasco. Or perhaps, this lunatic statement made by Bush last year to US troops fighting in Afghanistan.

“I must say, I’m a little envious. If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed,” said President George W. Bush in a Thursday video conference.

Breathtaking stuff, when you recall how Bush used his family connections to weasel out of doing active service in Vietnam. The wider point here is the one that New Zealand is about to re-discover all over again – that yes, it really does matter which one of the two major parties is in power.

Back finally, to Bush though. My favourite Bush family anecdote is one the economist Brad DeLong first mentioned back in 2005. It takes time and space to explain this one properly, so please bear with me. Here’s how the Gainesville, Florida newspaper in 2005 carried the original story :

After more than an hour of solemn ceremony naming Rep. Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, as the 2007-08 House speaker, Gov. Jeb Bush stepped to the podium in the House chamber last week and told a short story about “unleashing Chang,” his “mystical warrior” friend. Here are Bush’s words, spoken before hundreds of lawmakers and politicians:

“Chang is a mystical warrior. Chang is somebody who believes in conservative principles, believes in entrepreneurial capitalism, believes in moral values that underpin a free society.

“I rely on Chang with great regularity in my public life. He has been by my side and sometimes I let him down. But Chang, this mystical warrior, has never let me down.”

Bush then unsheathed a golden sword and gave it to Rubio as a gift. “I’m going to bestow to you the sword of a great conservative warrior,” he said, as the crowd roared.

The crowd, however, could be excused for not understanding Bush’s enigmatic foray into the realm of Eastern mysticism. We’re here to help. In a 1989 Washington Post article on the politics of tennis, former President George Bush was quoted as threatening to “unleash Chang” as a means of intimidating other players. The saying was apparently quite popular with Gov. Bush’s father, and referred to a legendary warrior named Chang who was called upon to settle political disputes in Chinese dynasties of yore. The phrase has evolved, under Gov. Jeb Bush’s use… Faced with a stalemate, the governor apparently “unleashes Chang” as a rhetorical device, signaling it’s time to stop arguing and start agreeing.

Good try, but still wrong. In reality, “Chang” was an inside joke concocted by Dubya’s father, and made at the expense of the right wing extremists in the Republican Party. Plainly, it was a joke that his sons never understood – not even Jeb, the allegedly brighter one. DeLong explained the context :

When George H. W. Bush in the 1970s and 1980s threatened to “unleash Chang” on his tennis opponents, he was referring to China’s onetime strongman and thereafter Taiwan’s dictator Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Nationalist Party, the man who had largely reunified China in the 1920s with his army’s “Northern Expedition,” lost the Chinese Civil War to Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party, and then taken refuge with his Guomindang party cadres on Taiwan. After the start of the Korean War, the American 7th Fleet protected Chiang (and Taiwan) from Mao’s People’s Liberation Army.

Republican wingnuts, however, pretended that the 7th Fleet actually protected Mao’s Communists (who had, after all, won the Chinese Civil War) from Chiang’s Nationalists (who had, after all, lost it) by keeping Chiang Kai-shek leashed. They periodically called for the U.S. to “unleash Chiang Kai-shek”–so that Chiang, you see, could invade and conquer the Chinese mainland.

When George H. W. Bush, playing tennis (and losing) in the 1970s and 1980s, would threaten to “unleash Chiang,” he was mocking the right-wing nuts of his generation.

But George H. W. Bush’s sons–even the smart one, Jeb–never got the joke. They, you see, didn’t know enough about world history or even the history of the Republican Party to know who Chiang Kai-shek was, or what “Unleash Chiang!” meant. Hence Jeb Bush’s explanation that twentieth-century Chinese nationalist, socialist, general, and dictator Chiang Kai-shek was a “mystical warrior… who believes in conservative principles, believes in entrepreneurial capitalism, believes in moral values that underpin a free society.”

Jeb Bush, as his brother has proved wont to do, just took a basic outline and made all the rest up. Sure, we can all probably think of examples of our parents saying things that it took us decades to figure out. Yet the interesting thing here is that the Bush boys didn’t even seem to try. They just took Dad’s catchphrase and made up an entire version of history to go with it. It is that lack of curiosity about the nature of reality – and the preference for a self- serving pageant of fantasy – that has really defined the presidency of George W. Bush.


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