Editorial: Normalising war

IssueDecember 2022 - January 2023
Comment by Milan Rai

‘The deepest power is that of determining what people consider normal,’ British historian Timothy Garton Ash wrote in the Financial Times on 13 November.

The next day, British prime minister Rishi Sunak condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with these words: ‘There can be no normalisation of [Russian president Vladimir] Putin’s behaviour, which has no place in the international community.’

Perhaps Sunak was referring to the massive waves of Russian missile attacks on the electricity infrastructure, which have had huge humanitarian consequences for Ukraine’s civilian population.

The problem is that the US and Britain launched exactly these kinds of indiscriminate attacks on the electrical grids of both Iraq, in 1991, and Serbia, in 1999.

One US military study found that US attacks on the Iraqi electrical system in 1991 ‘virtually eliminated any ability of the Iraqi national power system to generate or transfer power’, causing severe civilian effects ‘including the loss of power to hospitals, the breakdown of water purification systems, and damage to sewage systems, which then contaminated the water supply.’ The study mentions estimates that 70,000 to 170,000 Iraqi civilians died as a result.

In fact, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, US and British planners were puzzled in early 2022 that Russia had not followed the Western attack-the-civilian-infrastructure strategy with Ukraine. In September, US officials told the New York Times that they were ‘baffled’ by Russia’s restraint so far, including its ‘only limited attempts to destroy critical infrastructure or to target Ukrainian government buildings’.

Perhaps Sunak was saying that it should not be normal for one country to annex the territory of another. Putin announced that Crimea was part of Russia in 2014 and claimed even more territory from Ukraine in September.

On the other hand, Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967 and effectively annexed the territory in 1981 (extending its laws to the area).

This annexation was formally recognised by the then US president Donald Trump in 2019 – a policy which has not been reversed by the current president Joe Biden.

Just before he left office, Trump also recognised Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara, which it has held illegally since invading in 1975. Again, Biden has chosen to continue that policy.

Sunak has not objected.

Perhaps Rishi Sunak was speaking more broadly, meaning that Russia’s use of military force against another country, without the authorisation of the UN security council, should not be normalised.

The trouble is, there is a long list of wars that the US and UK have fought without UN security council authorisation. One serious recent example is the 2003 war on Iraq, which has its 20th anniversary soon.

Many countries in the Global South (particularly in the Middle East) contrast the European reaction to the invasion of Ukraine and the European reaction to the invasion of Iraq.

In 2003, there were no sanctions on the invaders, no arms sold to Iraq.

The truth is that much of Putin’s horrifying and criminal behaviour in Ukraine (attacking other countries, annexing the territory of other countries, destroying civilian infrastructure) has been ‘normalised’ – as long as it is carried out by the right people: the US or Britain or one of their clients.

‘The deepest power is that of determining what people consider normal.’ What we here consider normal is ignoring or forgetting our own crimes, while screaming blue murder when the same crimes are committed by official enemies.

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