Let me first apologise to those who can't see me - though they might possibly regard this as an advantage! I was initially invited to Cambridge to participate in a debate about the war in Afghanistan. Events having moved on, I was subsequently invited to address you here, and so I will try to talk more broadly about the causes of the current rash of wars in the world.
Many of you are probably aware that I was once British Ambassador to Uzbekistan. I will begin by quoting from a letter regarding that part of the world, written on 3 April 1997. (See http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/bushlay12.html ) It is addressed to the Honorable George W. Bush, then Governor of the State of Texas, by Kenneth Lay, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Enron.
"Dear George", it begins. "You will be meeting with Ambassador Sadyq Safaey, Uzbekistan's Ambassador to the United States, on April 8th. ...Enron has established an office in Tashkent and we are negotiating a $2 billion dollar joint venture with Neftegas of Uzbekistan, and Gazprom of Russia to develop Uzbekistan's natural gas and transport it to markets in Europe, Kazakhstan, and Turkey. This project can bring significant economic opportunities to Texas, as well as Uzbekistan... I know you and Ambassador Safaev will have a productive meeting which will result in a friendship between Texas and Uzbekistan. Sincerely, Ken."
A remarkable 'friendship' did indeed develop between Texas - later the United States as a whole - and Uzbekistan. For one thing, Tashkent became a major centre for America's extraordinary renditions program. But of most decisive importance to Lay and Bush, of course, were the natural gas reserves of Central Asia. The thermal unit value of Uzbekistan's natural gas reserves is equivalent to that of the oil reserves of Iraq. Exploiting these gas reserves and controlling their route to European markets: this is the new Great Game.
There are three possible routes to get this gas to Europe. The most obvious route, though it is one which the United States has for some reason refused to countenance, is that through Iran. A second possible route would run through Georgia & Azerbyja: tensions over that led to the war between Georgia and Russia war last summer. The United States was keen to support the third possibility: a pipeline though Afhganistan. So Unocal, the US energy company, set about looking for partners who could guarantee the safety of such a pipeline, and found that the Taliban might help in this regard. Negotiations between Unocal and the Taliban were held in Houston, Texas in 1997. Two of those involved in negotiating for Unocal are particularly worthy of mention: Hamid Karzai, today President of Afghanistan, and Zalmay Khalilzad, later the US ambassador to Iraq & then US ambassador to the United Nations.
One often hears that wars are essentially about the control of natural resources - oil or natural gas - and it can often sound rather abstract, as if it were merely an academic construct. But here you see how just concrete it is.
One problem with any natural gas pipeline is that it is really rather easy to blow up. To guarantee the commercial running of a gas pipeline requires physical control of the region. As US companies – particularly Bechtel and Halliburton – took on contracts associated with this pipeline project, their interest led to NATO control over Afghanistan. Diferent NATO powers took control of different regions of Afghanistan, and a remarkable feature of the zone apportioned to the United States was that it did not correspond to any administrative or regional division of Afghanistan. Indeed, it appears to make no sense until you superimpose a map of the projected pipeline.
Last year the production of opium and narcotics was 60% higher than it had ever been before in history. Opium is no longer exported, but processed in Afghanistan to produce heroin. All one hears of the Taliban being narcotics smugglers is untrue. Under the Taliban – and I should stress that I am certainly no apologist for narrow, extremist theocracies such as the Taliban – the opium trade had been virtually eliminated. Yet now the four biggest heroin smugglers in the world are ministers in the Karzai government - foremost among them General Dostum, now head of the Afghanistan armed forces.
In short, we are maintaining in power a bunch of warlords and thugs and perpetuating a state of civil war. All in an effort to control the region's natural resources – just as, in Iraq, safeguarding profits from oil has taken priority over other political objectives.
Those of you who have been participating in this occupation may have been too busy in the past few days to keep up with the newspapers. But, for those who have been following the news of the last few days, I should say a few words about Lord Taylor of Blackburn. The Sunday Times has recently caught him in a sting operation, offering his services to influence decision makers for a fee. This is not new. He has been working like this for twenty years, principally as consultant for the defence industry. For his services to the company Electronic Data Systems, for example - a shadowy company which has made billions through defence contracts with the UK and US military – Lord Taylor has been paid a fee of £84,000 per year plus bonuses. Taylor is especially close to Jack Straw, whom he knows through Blackburn politics, and has hosted parties to introduce Straw to various American industrial concers. Taylor and Straw lobbied successfully together to have the criminal proceedings against BAE dropped.
Taylor lists twelve consultancies, all paid, in the Members' Register of interests. (See http://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2007/08/more_lord_scumb.html ) It is unlikely that the interests explicitly listed there reflect the full range and extent of his activities, but by making some reasonable assumptions we can use the data there to estimate how much he has been able to make: around £3 million per year, for acting effectively as New Labour's bagman for the defence industry.
That is the nexus of corruption: where defence interests meet government interests. When you hear of the vast amount spent on the war in Iraq – over a trillion spent by the US, billions by the UK – remember that these aren't notional figures. Only a tiny proportion goes to the poor bloody soldiers who fight and die in those wars. The vast majority goes to the arms companies and mercenary companies and logistics providers, who all pay lobbyists to influence government. Profits run into billions. Heavier than expected ground fighting in Iraq? An opportunity for celebration in BAE's annual report, and for an additional bonus to the chief executive. from those who profit directly from the extension of war
All of which shows the relevance, I think, of one important demand of your occupation: that Cambridge University withdraw investment from arms companies.
I've said something about the belt of hydrocarbons through the middle east to central asia, which are today the scene of wars fought for the benefit of war profiteers. How has this been justified to the general public? By whipping up a frenzy of Islamophobia in the corporate media, and exaggerating the dangers of terrorism.
I condemn terrorism. Yet contemporary terrorism needs to be kept in proper perspective. In the last ten years the number of those who have died on the UK mainland though terrorist atrocities has been around 70. One is more likely to win the national lottery, or drown in the bath, than to die as a result of a terrorist incident. By contrast, in the 1970s thousands died as a result of Irish terrorism. Yet it would have been unthinkable then that I could have been denied entrance to speak to students in the Cambridge Law Faculty. Exaggerated fears of terrorism have been used to make assaults on civil liberties seem routine.
A further effect of the anti-Muslim media propaganda has been to make us desensitized to the bodies of the dead. Think of the fifteen people killed by the American operation in Pakistan last week. Think of those in Gaza.
Of course, we have recently seen a transition in the American presidency. Yet I personally remain agnostic at present about how much better Obama will be. On the one hand, I welcome Obama's announcements on Guantanamo. On the other, I am dismayed by the military operations in Pakistan which have already happened on Obama's watch.
Perhaps more important is what seems to me evidence of a real demand for change in public opinion. The student occupations here and at other universities seem to me evidence of a growing forcefulness amongst young people.
i would like to conclude by thanking you very much for the opportunity to speak. I am sorry that it should have taken place in such peculiar conditions, though perhaps otherwise it might have been boring indeed.
Q. How can the West put pressure on Israel to change their policy? What will change Israeli policy?
CM: My own view is that we have to seek to make Israel as morally isolated in the world as apartheid South Africa was. There are a number of extremely good parallels between the two situations. I am, in fact, no supporter of a two-state solution. The proposed 'two state' solution is in fact akin to the apartheid separation of land in South Africa. Even were borders open in Gaza, the density of population there does not make life there sustainable. Two small pockets of land, surrounded by military occupation, with decreasing access to water, does not make a viable state. In fact, when Tony Blair committed Britain for the first time to a two-state solution, at a press conference in the rose garden with George W. Bush, it came as a great shock to the British diplomatic community. It says a great deal for the influence of the British media that they have managed to back people into a position where this seems an acceptable 'solution'.
In this context, consumer boycott of Israel is entirely reasonable. And now may be a moment where it is especially effective: the US is entering an economic phase where it will not be happy to be pouring unlimited funds into Israel.
Q. How much blame needs to be put on lobbyists? Are there changes in the way lobbying works?
CM: Zionist lobbying in the US has two halves. One half is those Jewish people who support Israel. The other half is the religious Christian right. who somehow manage simultaneously to be fervent supporters of Israel and to believe that all Jews are going to hell. I once heard a far-right fundamentalist preacher on American television – and I was in Michigan, not the deep south – welcome a major conflagration in the Middle Wast as a prelude to the second coming of Christ. My academic host – this was an academic institution which let me in to speak! – told me that 20% of their university students would believe that, and that in some areas in the South over 50% would believe it.
I was once giving a talk at Harvard Law School - once again, I should say that they let me in! - and encountered a large protest, comprising 500 fundamentalist Christians, at the door of the Boston Globe, They were objecting to the plaque on the Globe making reference to the marble being several million years old.
This is the political madness of the United States. There are signs that things may get a little better with Barack Obama.
Q. What can university do?
CM: As rector of a Scottish university, I know a little of what universities can and can't do. (They often say they can't do something when all they actually mean is that they don't want to do it.)
Ethical investment is clearly one area in which universities can exert influence . And building international links: providing bursaries to Palestinians seems entirely appropriate. For years the Carnegie Foundation has provided bursaries to those who are Scottish, and no one complains that that is racist!
Universities exist to encourage learning and the free exchange of ideas: I see no reason why they should lend support to killing people, and no reason why a university should not explicitly condemn Israel's action. (Again, bureaucrats standardly invent reasons to justify their inaction as the outcome of some alleged necessity.)
Q. As a resident in Cambridge since the Vietnam war, this seems the most pro-active that students have been in this university since that time!
Q. Do you think that – as capitalism is linking finance and war ever more tightly – this will be reflected in protest realising it needs to tackle both as a single problem?
CM: I don't think capitalism necessarily causes war - I think in fact that Lenin was wrong where J. A. Hobson's book Imperialism got it right. Imperialism is not in the general interest of capitalism, but rather encouraged by sectional interests.
This is clearly not to say that capitalism is in good health right now. International global flows around the financial system, before the recent crisis, had reached extrordinary levels: the amounts exchanged were 1,500 times the total amounts at which goods themselves were bought and sold around the world. (By comparison, in 1929: this ratio was 3:1) This always seemed unsustainable to me: a world of funny money, in which the manufacturing world produces goods while the rich world merely enters financial transactions on a computer terminal and drinks capuccino. So I think the present recession may prove to be the start of an extremely large event. The conflict wars caused by the scarcity of oil and gas, and the dislocation of our expectations – we have unfortunately been living in a fools paradise – will inevitably require a rather severe change in our consumption habits.
My own view is that we are therefore likely to see more radical political change in the next few years than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. Perhaps the political activity of students is a sign of this.
Having said all that, I have to go back to London!