Recent Foreign affairs Articles
The other day, in a discussion among friends on Israel’s attack on Gaza (I generally avoid them, even on Twitter), one said Hamas started the latest round of shelling by bombarding Israeli towns and inviting a response.
I have no way of verifying this, so I shrugged. Its irrelevant who started it.
On social media I’ve seen Israelis blame Hamas and say they’re merely defending themselves, so they’re justified in attacking Gaza. Israelis ask “what would you do if someone attacked you with rockets?“. Its a really counter-productive question to ask, and it misses the wood for the trees.
Palestinians are a desperate people who live in an open-air prison camp controlled by Israel. Their lives are lived in squalor and poverty. This is beyond dispute; even Israelis know it. Israel blocks drinking water and proper sanitation even when its not attacking Gaza. It keeps building illegal settlements when there isn’t a war going on.
Palestinians aren’t stupid – they can see Israel wants to slowly annex their land until its too late for independence. In fact, its PM Benjamin Netanyahu stated quite explicitly in a (very under-reported) speech just last week that Palestinian weren’t going to get independence.
That makes it even more likely that Hamas will provoke Israel into an angry response. They see it as the only real option available to them.
Every time Israel responds it is goaded into spending money, becoming more extreme, killing more Palestinians children and becoming more isolated from international opinion.
Sooner or later something has to give. The Palestinians have little to lose by carrying on by goading Israel. They already live their lives in squalor and under occupation.
Israel on the other hand has over-stepped the mark already to the point it has alienated most of European public opinion. A few more missteps, coupled with the rise of social media, and American opinion could rapidly turn against them too.
Once that happens Israel really will face an existential crisis.
The question for Israelis shouldn’t be “what would you do?“, but “how do we break out of this cycle?“. But they’re not asking that. Benjamin Netanyahu has stoked up his country enough that the majority want immediate respite and instant revenge. They’ve lost sight of the broader picture.
Israel may be winning the battle on the strength of its military now, but Hamas is winning the longer strategic war.
The Washington Institute recently published a note titled ‘The War Between ISIS and al-Qaeda for Supremacy of the Global Jihadist Movement’ – on tensions between the two movements.
Its worth emphasising briefly that there are differences between the two, mostly that ISIS are even more brutal than AQ and freely break many rules that Osama Bin Laden set for his own people.
But I think al-Qaeda has effectively lost the battle for terrorism supremacy to ISIS / Islamic State already.
All the world’s focus, the momentum and the expansion is on side of ISIS, not al-Qaeda, which matters to the impressionable men who want to be on the side of winners not losers (like most people, really).
Plus ISIS is based in the Levant, which has much bigger symbolic value for Muslims than the mountains of Afghanistan. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, Al Qaeda militants have to hide from US drones or the Pakistani army. In Iraq and Syria, they have near free rein and their opposition is melting away (for now).
Most importantly, ISIS claim to have established an Islamic State – which has even more symbolic and religious value for the kind of impressionable men who want to get involved in jihad. I suspect more fighters will abandon Al Qaeda and join ISIS over coming months, effectively finishing off Osama Bin Laden’s brainchild.
But what prompted me to write this short note was news of heightened security warnings across US airports. I suspect that US Homeland Security officials have come to the same conclusion and know this infighting has grave consequences.
Al-Qaeda leaders will be making the same calculations about ISIS and will likely re-double their efforts to regain momentum and attention. And in the terrorist world there’s only one way to do that: by launching terrorist attacks in the West.
A few observations on the ongoing crisis in Iraq and Syria.
1) British foreign policy is dead
Ed Miliband’s fairly gentle questioning of Cameron yesterday in PMQs illustrated the obvious: there is consensus among the three main parties that there will be no military intervention in Iraq again. The same goes for President Obama, who has been proceeding far more carefully than he is given credit by the left and right. In one sense Syria has sealed the fate of military intervention: when a humanitarian and strategic disaster on that scale cannot elicit a US-UK response, its highly unlikely Iraq will. For better or for worse, we have given up major on military interventions in other countries. The American and British public are firmly against them, despite what commentators in the press say.
2) China is more worried about Iraqi oil than the USA
Less than a quarter of American oil imports are from the Middle East. The US isn’t just a net energy exporter now, some say it may become the world’s largest producer of oil by next year. Meanwhile, a majority of oil exports from the Middle East now go to Asia, and China is particularly exposed. If oil prices shoot up because of ISIS, I suspect China will throw money towards Iran to send more troops into Iraq and wipe them out. The geo-political plates have shifted significantly over the last ten years.
3) We’ll look back at ‘stable’ ME dictatorships
The US supported dictatorships across the Middle East because they provided stability. I suspect we are about to see commentators on the left and right, who earlier wanted to see democracy across the Middle East, going back to supporting dictatorships for the same reason. To take one example, Mehdi Hasan would like the US government to prop up Bashar al-Assad in Syria. I’ve debated other lefties too who would prefer to see Assad propped up in Syria. The same may soon apply to Iraq, and will be an argument against popular uprisings in Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere.
4) Kurdistan may arise
The strength of ISIS has strengthened the hand of Iraqi Kurds who, in the face of a disintegrating national Iraqi government, may demand an independent Kurdistan. This is on balance a good thing because the Kurds are a persecuted minority and don’t have a homeland. But it may also increase sectarian tensions and there will be questions of how an independent Kurdistan would protect itself.
In my view there is little doubt the invasion of Iraq in 2003 lit the tinderbox across Iraq, but the conflict has taken a life of its own because its driven by deep-rooted sectarian differences. There is no appetite for military intervention in the foreseeable future, among politicians or the public, unless we are under provable, imminent threat. Whether that means we see a more peaceful world, or one where other countries (Russia, China) try and take advantage, remains to be seen.
A group called ISIS, which even some in the al-Qaeda leadership have disassociated themselves from, are now rapidly taking over large parts of Iraq. There is a sense of panic in the air because it obviously means more conflict in the Middle East, and more refugees trying to escape their brutal control.
But it has also sparked an odd debate here in the UK.
In the Guardian, Owen Jones writes: ‘We anti-war protesters were right: the Iraq invasion has led to bloody chaos’.
But this has been obvious for a few years now. I opposed the invasion from the start and was at most of the demonstrations against it (including the big one in Feb. 2003). Only a few deluded idiots now believe the invasion of Iraq has gone well. In fact the invasion was a disaster from day one, despite attempts by Americans to stage a few stunts to pretend it was going OK.
So that’s an old debate, while the one about ISIS is a new one.
Firstly, ISIS has grown out of the chaos in Syria, which we sat by and watched instead of working with Arab countries to end. We should have joined a military coalition with other Arab countries to bomb Assad’s military installations and weaken him – thereby driving him out into asylum in Iran or elsewhere.
I wrote about ISIS in January this year, saying: “as these groups become prominent, the fallout is being felt in surrounding countries like Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and even Pakistan”.
Sitting by and watching has made things worse. We’ve gone from 20,000 dead in Syria (“if we intervene now, we’ll make it worse”) to nearly 200,000 dead (*silence*). The ongoing chaos has helped ISIS grow and destabilised surrounding countries. And all that is about to get worse.
As I said:
Intervention in Syria is not a matter of ‘If’, but a matter of ‘When’. Do we wait until the situation spirals further out of control, and Al-Qaeda re-establish a powerful base, or go for damage limitation earlier?
Secondly, are we meant to be against countries militarily intervening in other countries? I ask because Iran is now sending troops into Iraq (without official invitation) to fight ISIS. What if those troops are used to suppress Kurds? Will people on the left raise their voice then?
Basically, we are sitting around watching the situation get worse, as many predicted. ISIS hasn’t grown because we invaded Iraq (though we definitely wrecked the country and Saddam Hussain would have been better placed to quell them)… they’ve grown because Syria was allowed to spiral out of control.
Since we have now committed to sitting around and doing nothing, the situation in the Middle East is about to get much worse.
Addendum: in case it isn’t clear, I’ve given up on the prospect of any military action now. We’re now committed to sitting around on our hands and pretending it could be worse.
It feels like the calm before the coming storm. The situation in Ukraine is likely to escalate very quickly, and yet there seems to be worrying lack of urgency about it everywhere.
Three things happened over the last week that have set the stage.
1) Rather than going home after taking over Crimea, Russia started amassing troops on the Ukranian border. It also started directing its people inside Ukraine to take over various towns and cities in the east of the country. There are obvious examples of this: well-armed and well-trained ‘militias’ have sprung up everywhere; the newly appointed police chief in Horlivka admitted to being a lieutenant colonel in the Russian army.
2) In response, Ukraine said it would launch a military operation to take back its own territory unless the militias left peacefully by Monday morning. Fair enough: any government would want to fight back against armed (and foreign) militias who have taken over its towns without any democratic mandate.
3) The deadline passed and the Ukrainian govt did nothing. Then, it asked for UN peacekeeping forces to maintain order. Today, the Ukranian govt belatedly launched military operations, but there are reports that some troops in the east are defecting to the pro-Russian side. Meanwhile, the Ukranian economy is near collapse.
The key problem here is that Ukraine is too weak against Russia. If Ukraine gets bogged down in a long battle against pro-Russian forces in the east, it would only hasten a collapse of its economy.
Putin is betting that the Ukranian economy collapses before his does, which would trigger a crisis for the EU and force them to agree to his demands.
This is why we have to get involved now rather than later. This could mean all out trade sanctions, UN peacekeeping forces or NATO forces. If Ukraine collapses then Europe will feel the full force and force us to agree to Putin’s demands. It would be the worst crisis for Nato and the EU in a generation.
Hoping that Russia will back off from strong words is foolish – Putin’s only hope now is that Ukraine goes down before him. And he’s doing his utmost to make that happen.
‘Ukraine stands on the brink of a possible military showdown with Russia this morning,’ says Human Rights Watch today.
This isn’t an exaggeration either – the acting President of Ukraine issued a warning to pro-Russian forces yesterday, calling on them to lay down their weapons.
That deadline has now passed and there are no signs that the militants are giving up. In fact, they are bolstered by Russian money and weapons and the build-up of Russian troops on the border.
So what happens now? This is where confusion reigns and why Putin is resting easy for now.
Ukrainian forces will try and take back government buildings occupied by pro-Russian forces, but are likely to face heavy resistance and won’t be able to take them back quickly.
That will give Putin more time to create disorder and to reiterate his claim that Ukrainian forces are harming ordinary ethnic Russians. It would give him internal justification for more explicit military action in Ukraine.
If Putin then takes stronger military action in Ukraine, what do the UK and USA say then?
Calling on him to withdraw is not enough clearly, Putin has ignored them so far. I suspect Ukraine is looking for promises of military backing from the United States and European states before it continues.
But sooner or later we will have to confront the question: what do the USA and UK do is Ukraine goes to war with Russia? We cannot just sit on the sidelines and watch because it has huge security and energy implications for us.
But there seems to be no appetite for such promises from the West to guarantee Ukraine’s safety. Our politicians want to avoid answering such questions. Some of them are busy holidaying in Lanzarote. I don’t suspect Vladimir Putin is too worried for now.
The test of democracy and of the rule of law, both here and in Greece, is not how it treats the best of us but how it treats the worst.
That doesn’t mean we should be complacent. There are real threats to justice in Britain, such as cuts to legal aid. However the battle is clearly not yet lost here.
Meanwhile in Greece the authorities have moved to arrest members of the Neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, including its leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos and four other Golden Dawn MPs. They’ve been charged with belonging to a criminal organisation and it’s claimed that guns and ammunition were found in Michaloliakos’ home.
Recent posts by reservists belonging to elite Greek military units calling for a coup, the killing of a prominent leftist musician, sustained attacks on immigrants and left wing protesters, had all brought things to a point where the state seems to have felt obliged to act.
I feel obliged to say two things. Firstly that I believe in muscular democracy; in other words I do not believe that a democracy, in the name of democracy, should hand the means of its own destruction to non-democratic forces.
When Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared at one point that he saw democracy as a bus, you use it to get to your destination and then get off, he associated himself with autocrats everywhere who have exploited democracy from Hitler onwards.
The minimum qualification for seeking power democracy must be a commitment to surrender power democratically when citizens demand it. For that reason it’s hard to justify allowing Golden Dawn or any other anti-democratic group an electoral platform.
The other thing I would say is this; however odious Golden Dawn the party and its members may be they must get due process and a fair trial. It’s not so much a concern about creating martyrs. Most knuckle dragging far right thugs would fetishise a rotting dog’s carcass if it served their warped cause. Nope, it’s because the damage done to Greek democracy by further degrading its already damaged institutions would be almost as bad as letting Golden Dawn damage them.
There’s a passage in A Man For All Seasons, where Sir Thomas More is debating with his son-in-law Wiolliam Roper, that puts it better than I could.
Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.
Bang ‘em up, throw away the key and all that, but do it proper and do it so a better, more confident, more self respecting, more honest, more democratic Greece can come out of this.
this blog was originally posted here.
Many, but by no means all Greens are worried about population. It’s a multiplier on many of the problems we face. But it’s a very sensitive subject, as David Attenborough has discovered.
When I heard Attenborough say: “what are all these famines in Ethiopia, what are they about? They’re about too many people for too little piece of land. That’s what it’s about,” I hear the echoes of generations-old, lazy thinking about Africa and Africans summed up in the notion of the White Man’s Burden.
A little while ago there was a row about whether Green World, the magazine for Green Party members, should take an ad from the group Population Matters of which Attenborough is a prominent supporter. I argued, quite vociferously that it should; I dislike any attempt to stifle debate.
The anti-Population Matters lobby, among them Lib-Con regular Adam Ramsay, pointed out that the carbon footprint of a country like Mali is so small compared to Western nations that the population could double, treble or more without having much impact on the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
True, though unless we keep Malians poor or we can roll out clean energy fast that may not remain the case. And every African needs to eat the same minimum as every European, and even people in the rich West can only eat so much. Over-population results in countries hitting a food production buffer long before they hit an energy buffer.
But David Attenborough and others also need to stop blinding ourselves with stereotypes about Africa.
Firstly, in simple terms of density sub-Saharan Africa is far less populated than North West Europe, the Indian subcontinent, China and Japan.
Then, when one looks at which nations import and which export food, an even more interesting picture emerges. Many West and East African nations are net food exporters – Ethiopia included.
What do they export? Well next time you pick up a packet of mange-tout check out its origin. Chances are it’ll come from Kenya along with cut flowers and other products that drink up water and use valuable agricultural land.
Yes, populations outstripping the ability of the land to support them is a problem; but not in Africa. It’s a problem in Japan, and Saudi Arabia and Russia. It’s a problem in South East England and potentially across most of Europe too. But those are wealthy countries, so we don’t tell people there to stop having children.
Africa’s problem, on the other hand, is one of economics and justice; debt, balance of payments, the need for foreign currency and poverty. It’s about foreign governments and corporations (the Chinese prominent amongst them) buying up land because they know that rich nations consume more food than they can.
If only David Attenborough were as knowledgeable about the human as he is about the animal world he might have talked about the Black Man’s Burden – part of which involves feeding Europeans who are quick to advise, slow to listen and who, for the most part, simply don’t seem to care.
Jonathan Kent blogs here.
Last Friday, the Green Alliance published their review of the three major political parties’ activity on the environment since May 2010. The “Green Standard 2013” makes disappointing reading for all parties – but for none more so than the Conservatives.
On becoming Prime Minister in 2010, David Cameron said he would lead the “greenest government” ever. He described the existence of a fourth, mysterious minster at the Department for Energy & Climate Change, “who cares passionately about this agenda – and that is me, the prime minister. I mean that from the bottom of my heart”.
Yet despite such reassurances, Cameron’s own Chancellor has repeatedly suggested that environmental progress would compromise a healthy economy. Meanwhile, Owen Paterson, the UK’s Secretary of State and political leader on all things environment, has publicly questioned the reality of human-induced climate change.
However, neither the Liberal Democrats nor Labour have come away unscathed either. The Green Standard describes Labour’s failure to lead upon, prioritise, or even propose credible solutions to green the UK economy.
The Liberal Democrats are portrayed as having “no clear vision for the environment” –a portrait which certainly rings true as only yesterday, the Lib Dems backed a motion to support fracking- a fossil fuel industry vociferously opposed by 1000s of demonstrators nationwide, with 67% of citizens preferring to have a wind turbine near their home than a fracking site.
As extreme weather and energy insecurity bear down on our continent, we need someone to lead us to a better place, fast. While British politicians flag, our EU membership may haul us out of the smoggy darkness. The EU’s record on the environment, while not perfect, is often better than Britain’s record.
From addressing carbon capture, to banning bee-harming pesticides, the EU is providing both a platform to debate these issues, as well as leadership in exploring change.
Let’s take fish as an example. In 2005, the Northeast Atlantic was 95% overfished. Recognising the seriousness of the situation, the European Commission tackled the issue head on through determined fisheries management. Today, the same waters are only 39% overfished.
Concurrently, the European policy governing fisheries has undergone significant, progressive reform; a process frequently led, perhaps surprisingly by Richard Benyon, the UK’s Tory Fisheries Minster. A chance on the world stage allowed him to push for positive change, in a way which he’s failed to do at home, as shown by his desultory progress in establishing only 31 of the originally propose 127 marine conservation zones in UK waters.
The possibility to participate, shape and share a common future on issues such as air quality, weather, natural resources and energy security is one that shouldn’t be overlooked by the debate on our membership of the European Union.
The environment is one issue we’re unable to go alone – we need to be in it to win it.
Former PM Tony Blair was on the BBC’s Today programme this morning, saying the Syrian conflict wasn’t about trust in the same way was Iraq, because we know that chemical weapons exist in Syria and were used on innocent people very recently.
Before I come to the issue about trust, it’s worth emphasising that Blair is right about the second part.
What we know, is that on 21st of August 2013, several canisters of gas opened in several suburbs of the Syrian capital Damascus, and within a short time approximately a thousand people were dead.
But after that the facts become hazy, because the UN inspectors weren’t given much time to gather evidence and didn’t take many of the local samples offered to them (see Section 3).
To my mind there is little doubt that the Syrian governement carried out this attack. Tony Blair said the same thing this morning. But where Blair still continues to get it wrong is that this is still very much about trust.
There is little trust in claims (by the US government and others) that chemical weapons were used.
There is little trust in announcements by US and UK governments that Bashar al-Assad is behind these chemical attacks.
There is hardly any trust in the ability of the United States government to intervene in the Syrian conflict constructively.
This lack of trust, built up in large part due to Iraq, is the reason why the public remains deeply unconvinced and our politicians so hesitant to act over Syria.
So, trust matters.
Which is why Tony Blair has it so wrong. And the aim of western government now should be to build up that trust again. Confirm use of chemical weapons with proper evidence for everyone to see, show evidence that Assad’s regime was behind it, make the case for intervention by explaining what exactly you want to do and the exit strategy. Only once that is done can there be any public trust in any decision to intervene in Syria.
It’s extraordinary that Tony Blair still thinks trust is irrelevant.
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