the Disillusioned kid: Gorgeous Does Humphrys
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Saturday, November 19, 2005

Gorgeous Does Humphrys

Gorgeous George Galloway is courting controversy again. During an interview with John Humphrys on BBC Radio 4's Today programme he defended his support for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, expressed during a recent visit to the country. Listening to the interview (available from the BBC article linked above, although I have no idea how long it'll remain there) I'm struck by how little conviction Galloway seems to have about his own views and the half-arsed job of pinning him down Humphrys does.

Galloway seems singularly uninterested in disputing the suggestion that he "praised" Assad, suggesting that the comments to which Humphrys was referring where merely "the plum" selected from a very long speech by an "Israeli website." Instead he makes a concerted, if unconvincing effort, to justify his positive appraisal of the Syrian regime. Galloway's argument seems to hinge on the following points:
(1) Assad isn't really such a bad guy.

(2) The British used to like him back when they had an "independent" policy towards Syria, which they were forced to rewrite by George Bush.

(3) He may not be all that nice, but at least he's not controlled by the west like other equally bad regimes in the region.
The first point is, I suppose, a fairly subjective one, but a quick perusal of materials produced by a range of human rights organisations (like this and this and this) suggests that Syria could probably do better. There certainly doesn't seem to be much which merits praise of any description.

Galloway dismisses Humphrys reference to Syria's position on the Index of Political Freedom as the second worst state as "nonsense," although he provides no evidence to back this up. He doesn't even recite the usual claims as to the alleged pro-US bias of Freedom House who produce the Index and also receive considerable funding from the National Endowment for Democracy an organisation funded by the US government and sharing membership with the Project for a New American Century. Eventually under tough questionning by Humphrys (who goes on about whether it is right that Syria "does what it does") Galloway concedes that it does engage in torture and other nasty extracurricular activities at which point he turns to point 3 (to which we will return anon).

Bizarrely, Galloway seeks to support his positive assesment of Assad by pointing to the parallels between his position and that of the British government until recently. He argues that Assad was seen as a "breath of fresh air" after decades of dictatorship under his father and that his reforming zeal and vision of an independent Syria was popular with the British government. As evidence for this proposition he points to a visit by Assad during which he was put up in Buckingham Palace. A quick Google search suggests that the visit to which Galloway is referring took place in December 2002. While Galloway construes this as an endorsment of Assad, others writing at the time took a different viewpoint. The World Socialist Website, for instance, argued that the point of the visit was to bring "Syria fully behind the planned US led war against Iraq" and that contrary to the MP's assertions that the visit was part of an "independent" British foreign policy, Blair spoke on behalf of Washington.

To his credit, Humphrys was astute enough to pick up on the obvious contradiction which this argument portends. He noted that Galloway is hardly known for taking what the government says at face value, suggesting that citing government policy in support of his own position seems at best inconsistent. The MP for Bethnal Green & Bow retorts (unexpectedly) that even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day. This is true enough (assuming, of course, its not a 24 hour clock), but seems largely irrelevant. There are 1,440 minutes in a day. Therefore, there is a 1 in 720 chance that should I look at the time on a stopped clock it will be correct. On that basis, making a decision on the basis of what that clock said would seem to be foolhardy at best. Similarly, if British policy towards the Middle East is often imperialistic, as both Galloway and myself would argue, then using British policy towards Syria as a guide for one's own actions seems unwise.

Having conceded that Syria does many of the things Humphrys accusses it of (torture, extended detention etc.) he points to the undisputable fact that so do most of the other regimes in the region. (Intriguingly he doesn't point to growing evidence that this is also true of the regime we helped install in Iraq.) Galloway points out that British foreign policy is hypocritical insofar as we support many of those regimes. He points particulalry to the UK's close and "profitable" relationship with neighbouring Saudi Arabia, citing specifically our intention to provide the Saudi regime with £40 billon worth of military equipment (presumably a reference to Al Yamamah). I'd be the first to agree with Galloway at this point and have long been critical of the hypocrisy which runs through so much of British foreign policy, belying our rhetorical concern for human rights and the like. Where I diverge with him, however, is the suggestion that any of this neccesitates support for Assad.

The crux of his argument seems to be that Assad should be supported simply because he is not a "slave" of the west, regardless of the character of his regime. While I share his concerns about western imperialism in the region I fail to see why this means I should throw my hat in with a Baathist dictator. I am anti-imperialist not because of some alienated hatred of the west, but because I believe in freedom, democracy and self-determination. None of those things is acheivable as long as the US and UK interfere in the region in pursuit of their own agendas as they have done for decades, but neither are they possible as long as the regime is ruled by vicious dictatorships, no matter how "independent" they may be.

Running out of time, Humphrys turns the interview to the Respect Coalition which Galloway formed and of which he is the de facto leader. At this juncture Galloway makes some ridiculously optimistic statements about the party's potential in local elections next May when he says he hopes that Respect will win a councillor in every local authority in the country. Perhaps they will secure a few seats, but if they can even field candidates in every local authority in the country I'll be amazed (in Chelmsford Respect is completely non-existent and I doubt this is unique).

Towards the end of the interview, Humphrys made a cack-handed effort to criticise Galloway's failure to turn-up for the vote on the amendment to the glorification proposal. Humphrys obviously hadn't read-up properly and implied that Galloway had failed to turn up for the vote on 90 days detention without charge. This allowed Galloway to respond that on the contrary he had been "present and correct" for the vote "which mattered," the one the government lost, thereby avoiding the fact that he had missed the vote (which didn't matter?) which the government only won by one vote.

Supporters of the occupation of Iraq and assorted right-wingers have made a sport of attacking Galloway as a way of getting at the anti-war movement left. The problem is that Galloway seems to go out of his way to provide them with amunition, a symptom I fear of his ideological predilections. He has quite the way with words (although you'd hardly know it from the interview, maybe he was jet lagged) and is an impressive public speaker, but his politics are another matter. Increasingly I find myself agreeing with Dave Wearing who suggested that Galloway's presence on anti-war platforms actually harms the movement. No doubt others will disagree, but I fail to see what we're getting out of this relationship apart from a collective kicking.

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