Monday, May 21, 2012

How would Catherine Ashton know what's good for Iraq?

News stories often require a health warning. In the interests of transparency, the words “this is a rehashed press release” should appear at the beginning of numerous articles in the papers and websites owned by the mainstream media. TV bulletins should open with an announcement, saying “much of what you are about to hear reflects the interests of the powerful”.

Earlier this month the European Union signed a “partnership and cooperation” agreement with Iraq. From my research it appears that virtually every press report on the agreement was based primarily, if not solely, on a statement issued by Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief. This statement told us that the accord would be “good for Iraq”.

All of the journalists who wrote about this agreement did so without seeing its precise details. When I asked Ashton’s spokesman for a copy of its text, he told me it is not yet “publicly available”. Ashton and her team have put out their side of the story before anyone has a chance of contradicting them.

Why on earth should Catherine Ashton be trusted? Ashton was a British government minister in 2003. Her boss at the time, Tony Blair, decided (along with George Bush) to invade Iraq in violation of the United Nations Charter, which expressly forbids wars of aggression.

No apology

“Auditioning” for her current job in 2010, Ashton told MEPs she believed that bombing Iraq was “the right thing to do based on what I knew at the time”. She has not once apologised for supporting that war or sought to distance herself in any way from Blair. Indeed, she maintains regular contact with that war criminal in his current role as an “international peace envoy” (the title conferred on him by the British media) for the Middle East.

How can Ashton know what is “good for Iraq” when she backed an illegal occupation which devastated that country? Tommy Franks, one of the military “brains” behind the war, famously said that “we don’t do body counts”. But the death toll was certainly enormous. A 2006 study in The Lancet, an authoritative medical journal, estimated that the war had caused 600,000 civilian deaths. The organisation Just Foreign Policy now puts the figure at over 1.4 million. WikiLeaks has exposed Franks’s assertion as dishonest by releasing diplomatic cables which prove that the US has been keeping tabs on casualties. The Iraq War Logs, published by Julian Assange and his cohorts in 2010, document 109,000 violent deaths in the 2003 to 2009 period. More than 66,000 of those killed were categorised as civilians.

What exactly did Ashton know in 2003? As she was a minister in the Department of Education and Skills then, I assume she was not privy to all the “intelligence” at Blair’s disposal. Yet she would have been extremely naive if she believed that the war was really about those weapons of mass destruction Saddam was supposed to be hiding.

Good for BP?

Last year The Independent revealed that meetings were held between British government representatives, Shell and BP in the last few months of 2002. Records of these discussions say that BP was “desperate” to get its claws on Iraq’s oil reserves. The Foreign Office made a commitment to lobby Washington to ensure that British firms wouldn’t lose out when contracts were being divvied up after the invasion.

Ashton has just signed an agreement that is being touted as “good for Iraq”. Does she really mean it is good for BP and Shell?

An explanatory note on the website of the EU’s “external action service”, which Ashton heads, says the Union aims to ensure a minimum level of “predictability” and “legal certainty” for businesses working in Iraq. The new agreement follows a 2010 “memorandum of understanding” between the EU and Iraq on energy issues, which promised a “transparent investment framework”.

Those terms might sound innocuous. But if they are placed in the broader context of EU trade policy, they take on a more sinister meaning. The “Global Europe” blueprint championed by that other Blair acolyte Peter Mandelson, when he was the EU’s trade commissioner, maintained that every obstacle firms encounter when doing business abroad must be challenged. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it must therefore be concluded that Ashton wants Iraq’s oil and gas reserves to be exploited in a way that brings far greater rewards to Western corporations than to the people of Iraq.

In June 2011, The Wall Street Journal reported that an investment law introduced in Iraq exempted many investors from corporation taxes for up to 15 years and allowed them to repatriate profits. A constitutional ban on the privatisation of key state assets was overturned by the Coalition Provisional Authority, the American body that oversaw the wholesale looting of the Iraqi economy in 2003 and 2004. A total of 47 firms are preparing for an auction of oil exploration licenses in Iraq on 30 May, according to Bloomberg. Iraq is on course to be the second largest producer in the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries by the end of the year, the agency says.

The business press isn’t immune from the charms of spindoctors. But it does publish useful facts. Read them carefully and you get a more accurate view of how the world works than by copying and pasting Catherine Ashton’s propaganda.

How dare someone who supported an illegal war claim to know what’s good for Iraq.

●First published by New Europe, 20-26 May 2012.

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