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Why asylum seekers have only themselves to blame

Tony Blair yesterday said that his government needs to do more to tackle the issue of “failed asylum seekers”. As a phrase to describe people whose requests for asylum have been turned down, “failed asylum seekers” may at least be accounted an improvement on “bogus asylum seekers”, a term introduced by the Conservative government in the mid-1980s during controversy over the admission of Tamil Tigers, and later adopted enthusiastically by the incoming Labour government. According to the law’s presumption of innocence and what you might call a humane assumption of sincerity, there can be no such thing as a “bogus asylum seeker”: one is simply an asylum seeker until the point when one’s request has been granted or refused.

But the phrase “failed asylum seeker” is also doing some subtle Unspeak work. At first it might look like mere shorthand for what the Public Accounts Committee’s report calls “asylum seekers whose initial application to stay in the United Kingdom fails”. But in the construction “failed asylum seeker”, what has failed is not the application to stay in the UK, but the asylum seeker himself or herself. When we refer to a failed parliamentary candidate, or a failed musician, as it might be, we damn them with the odour of a kind of moral defeat. And so too with “failed asylum seekers”, who, one might be led to think, are failed people. Frankly, if their request for asylum has been turned down, it can only be their own fault.

Perhaps we might find this plausible if we had absolute faith in the justice of every decision to refuse asylum. However, given the remarkable fact that Jack Straw refused an Iraqi man’s asylum application in January 2001 on the grounds that he could be assured of a “fair trial” under Saddam’s regime, we might not have such faith. We might also remember that an initial judgment of “failure” may be reversed, as it is with the 20% of asylum refusals that are overturned on appeal . . .

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An Unspeaker in denial

In an op-ed piece for the Guardian, Alastair Campbell, former “Director of Communications and Strategy” for Tony Blair, complains about the “rise in cynicism” about politics among young people. One way of combating it, he argues, might be the internet, which he has belatedly discovered. Only a few years ago, he says, he couldn’t even write an email:

I thought that my computer illiteracy might become more of an issue at the time of the Hutton Inquiry into the death of government scientist David Kelly. Lord Hutton, the judge in charge of the inquiry, called for all papers and emails relevant to the events under his wide-ranging investigation, and these were published almost immediately they became evidence. This was seen by many as a groundbreaking use of the internet during such an inquiry. There were emails galore to be published, but none from me, just a few sent on my behalf by my long-suffering PA or one of her team. At one point during my appearance to give evidence, I had to explain who all these people were who sent emails “on behalf of Alastair Campbell”.

If this looks like a further attempt at self-exoneration (“Look, I didn’t even write those emails!”), it might be illuminating to recall that the documents collected by Hutton included not only emails but also typewritten memoranda explicitly headed “From: Alastair Campbell”. You never know, but close scrutiny of these memoranda might go some way to explaining the “cynicism” of the British public.

For example, in a memo to Joint Intelligence Committee chairman John Scarlett, dated 17 September 2002, Campbell requested changes to the draft dossier on “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq. Campbell wrote:

3. Can we say he has secured uranium from Africa. [CAB/11/0067]

Scarlett responded the following day to say:

3. on the uranium from Africa, the agreed interpretation of the intelligence, brokered with some difficulty with the originators and owners of the reporting) allows us only to say that he has ‘sought’ uranium from Africa. [CAB/11/71]

Strike one for Campbell. As we now know, it was false even that Saddam had “sought” uranium, since the Nigerian documents on which this claim depended were forgeries. Still, it was a good attempt by Campbell to render the dossier more alarming by changing a word.

Campbell had more success, however, with another request . . .

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Unitary executive

How to escape the law

In a brilliant essay for the New York Review of Books discussing Samuel Alito?s accession to the Supreme Court, Ronald Dworkin writes of a revealing piece of coded language used by the administration: “unitary executive”. During the hearings, Alito was reminded that he had, in a 2000 speech, endorsed “the theory of the unitary executive, that all federal executive power is vested by the Constitution in the president”. Dworkin comments:

The phrase “unitary executive” has been much used by conservatives anxious to increase the president’s power, particularly in the “war on terrorism.”

Former Justice department attorney John Yoo, Dworkin reminds us, had appealed to the idea of the “unitary executive” as meaning “the centralization of authority in the president alone”, which is “crucial in matters of national defense”. What does such centralization of authority mean? Simply this: that the president is above the law. As J S Bybee wrote in one of the notorious torture memos (which are discussed in detail in Chapter 7 of Unspeak):

Congress can no more interfere with the President’s conduct of the interrogation of enemy combatants than it can dictate strategic or tactical decisions on the battlefield.

In other words, Congress has no right to tell the president that he cannot torture “enemy combatants”. Dworkin writes:

Bush has himself mentioned the “unitary executive” doctrine 103 times in the “signing statements” he has issued when signing bills in order to make it plain that he does not regard himself as bound by congressional restrictions; he was appealing to that doctrine when he declared, before signing a bill including the McCain Amendment banning torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners, that he would “construe” the act “in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief…”

So Bush planned to “construe” the ban on torture in a manner “consistent” with the opinion of his advisors that no one has a right to ban him from torturing. Clever, isn’t it? . . .

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Evade, then invade

According to the newly released minutes of his January 2003 meeting with George W. Bush (detailed in the new edition of Philippe Sands’s excellent book, Lawless World), Tony Blair said that:

a second Security Council resolution would provide an insurance policy against the unexpected, and international cover, including with the Arabs.

“International cover” is an evocative phrase. What was meant by it? “Cover” has various interrelated military meanings. It can be covering fire, as when a soldier shoots at the enemy in order to distract from his comrade’s movements. It can be a place to evade fire, a nook or ditch or wall. Or it can be a cover story: the fictional role of someone who is actually an espionage agent, as in the cover of CIA proliferation investigator Valerie Plame that was deliberately blown by a spiteful US administration, even after the CIA had already told Dick Cheney that the story of Iraq seeking Nigerian yellowcake uranium was untrue.

So why did Bush and Blair talk about “international cover”?

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Blair goes broader, deeper, further

Respect to the British government, who last week issued a remarkable document called the Respect Action Plan. The Prime Minister’s foreword ably illustrates the essential futility of the scheme:

It is not in my gift, or that of anyone in central Government, to guarantee good behaviour or to impose a set of common values about acceptable behaviour. But we will set out a framework of powers and approaches to promote respect positively…

Let us set aside the idea of the government as a benevolent year-round Santa Claus, dispensing “gifts” to a grateful public. The crucial word in the sentence is that little “but”, which is doing an awful lot of work. What Mr Blair is saying is that it is of course impossible for a government to instil “respect” in the people. But, they are going to try to do it anyway. What heroic fortitude in the face of inevitable failure. One is reminded of the Adidas advert: “Impossible is nothing”. Later on, the document states clearly that the programme’s aim is to “create a culture of respect”. How exactly to accomplish such a task?

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Christopher Hitchens strikes again

Last week, Christopher Hitchens was interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. Repeating his justifications for the invasion of Iraq, he had this to say about Saddam Hussein’s pre-2003 links with terrorism:

The big fallacy is the people who say there wouldn’t be all these terrorists in Iraq if we hadn’t gone there – that’s capitulation. Zarqawi was there before we got there. Mr Yasin, who blew up the World Trade Center, was being sheltered there since 1993… The guy who hijacked the Achille Lauro, wheeled Mr Klinghoffer off the side of the boat, was also found hiding in Baghdad… I went to see Abu Nidal, I went to see Abu Nidal in Baghdad.

In a way, Hitchens does everyone a favour by offering the best case for Saddam Hussein’s links to terrorism. Let’s take his examples one by one . . .

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Reforming the UN

Bolton’s Unspeak: a case study

John Bolton, the new US ambassador to the UN, would help to “reform” the UN so as to “update” and “strengthen” it, according to Condoleeza Rice. We can now see exactly what updating and strengthening the UN means, from an American perspective. Recently leaked to Steve Clemons at TPM are Bolton’s proposed amendments, dated August 17, to the “Revised draft outcome document of the High-level Plenary Meeting of the General Assembly of September 2005 submitted by the President of the General Assembly”. Choice extracts follow.

text deleted by Bolton
text added by Bolton
Unspeak translation

I. Values and Principles

2. to maintain international peace and security
The US reserves the right to start wars.

3. core values and principles: respect for nature.
Fuck Kyoto . . .

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Goodbye ‘war on terror’

Nearly four years after the “war on terror” was first declared, the US Administration has finally decided that perhaps the slogan was after all counterproductive in publicity terms. What America is engaged in now is a “Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism“. The differences between this shiny new catchphrase and the old, much-maligned one are several. First, a “war on” something sounds rather bellicose and unilateral, but a “struggle” has a sense of built-in righteousness. It does not boast of physical superiority, but of moral superiority. One struggles against illness, or misfortune, or poverty. To struggle connotes a kind of heroism. The word also has a history in the language of communism, as in the “class struggle”: Lenin wrote of “the struggle of the proletariat”; “struggle meetings” were held in revolutionary China for people to demand the removal of officials from office. The new US catchphrase might even have been designed with that sense also in mind, in a heartwarming attempt to reconcile socialists to the cause. A struggle, moreover, is not conducted only with bombs: General Richard Myers emphasized this implication of the change in language by saying that the new Global Struggle would be “more diplomatic, more economic, more political than it is military”. Better late than never, perhaps.

Thus the Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism is one in which all right-thinking people will wish to share. For “violent extremism”, moreover, is surely a bad thing. But it is also rather a vague thing. To be sure that struggling against it is a good idea, we should know more about what it is. Yet “extremism” itself is a rather slippery term of Unspeak. Let us trace its roots . . .

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