Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Oh, Lord: The peers’ unconvincing report

By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Monday, May 8 2017

The U.K. House of Lords has been dubbed the Bermuda Triangle of British politics. It’s where elderly or unwanted politicians are sent by their party leaders to disappear and be forgotten about.
For the Lords is the largely toothless second chamber of the U.K. Parliament. Its members are unelected. Around 10 percent are so-called hereditary peers, those who sit in the chamber courtesy of the historical deeds of their ancestors. The other 90 percent are political appointees; some are rich political donors, but most are former government officials, who on elevation to the House of Lords get a grand title, a robe made from rabbit fur, and a $400 a day attendance allowance (plus expenses). Nice work if you can get it.
And part of that nice work caused a minor stir last week when the House of Lords International Relations Select Committee published a report calling for an overhaul of U.K. policy in the Middle East. The gist of the peers’ report was that the U.K. must end its slavish reliance on U.S. leadership in the region.
Now you could be forgiven for thinking there hasn’t been much in the way of U.S. leadership in the region over the last decade. But it’s correct to say the U.K. has happily fallen in line with Washington’s indolence.
However, lest there be any doubt, the Lords singled out the “mercurial and unpredictable” nature of current U.S. President Donald Trump, whom it warned “has the potential to destabilize further the region,” rather than the laconic foreign policy of Barack Obama.
On Iran, where Trump has vowed to rip up the deal Obama struck with Tehran over its nuclear program (although he has taken no action to do so), and the Israel-Palestine situation, where the president has effectively abandoned the long-standing, but largely meaningless, U.S. commitment to a twostate solution, the report said: “The U.S. president has taken positions that are unconstructive and could even escalate conflict.”
The committee’s chairman, Lord Howell, said: “In a world less automatically dominated by the U.S. underpinning security in the region, it is no longer right to have a stance at every stage of ‘If we just get on with the U.S. everything will be alright.’”
Fine words. However, in the post-Brexit world U.K. policy in just about every sphere, from foreign policy and especially international trade, is entirely focused on getting on with the U.S., even, as we have seen, a U.S. led by the “mercurial and unpredictable” Trump.
Indeed, Howell, a former foreign policy adviser to ex-Prime Minister David Cameron, appeared blissfully oblivious to the reality of Brexit as he insisted the U.K. distance itself from Trump’s “destabilizing postures” in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. He instead called on the U.K. to play an active role in European diplomacy to solve the conflict. Come again? Whatever influence the U.K. has in European diplomacy is diminishing on a daily basis. Last week Prime Minister Theresa May accused European politicians of making “threats” against the U.K. in a bid to influence the country’s general election, which takes place in June.
A few days after May’s broadside, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was speaking in a conference in Florence. He began his speech in English but switched to French, because, he told the audience, “Slowly but surely, English is losing importance in Europe.” He then accused the U.K. of “abandoning the EU.”
Far from helping drive Europe’s international diplomacy, the U.K. is hurtling toward Washington at a rate of knots, regardless of Trump’s policies on NATO or anything else.
To borrow a phrase from Bill Clinton, it’s the economy stupid, and as the U.K. exits the largest single market in the world it is desperate to secure a trade deal with the largest economy in the world (in nominal GDP terms).
Indeed, the U.K.’s efforts to ingratiate itself with Washington are becoming ever more desperate. Kicking off the election campaign last month Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the government could join any future U.S. military action against Syria without parliamentary approval. He added it would be “very difficult to say no” if Trump asked for help.
Moreover, it is worth pointing out that while the peers fired several broadsides at Trump’s “destabilizing” impact on the Middle East they studiously avoided discussing the disruptive role of some of the committee’s members in the region.
Howell himself was a cheerleader for the 2011 “intervention lite” in Libya, which failed to put boots on the ground following the overthrow of Col. Moammar Gadhafi and created the vacuum that is filled today by the bloody chaos of myriad murderous militias. Baroness Helic, another member of the committee, was also an adviser to the Cameron government during the Libyan intervention.
The most famous member of the committee though is Lord Reid of Cardowan, better known as John Reid, the combative former U.K. defense secretary under Tony Blair. At the time of the invasion of Afghanistan Reid famously opined British troops might be able to carry out their mission without actually having to fight the Taliban. Later he was a vocal cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq, the event that is arguably at the root of most of what ills the Middle East today.
For Trump’s critics, his two big interventions in the region – the decision last month to drop the “Mother of All Bombs” on suspected Daesh (ISIS) fighters in eastern Afghanistan – rather than targeting the Taliban – and his missile strike against Syria, reinforces the “mercurial and unpredictable” nature of the president.
It would be wonderful if Trump’s airstrike on President Bashar Assad represented the start of a proper U.S. engagement with the region, but it doesn’t. It’s simply a cheap expression of moral outrage. Assad remains free to use more conventional weapons to murder many more defenseless Syrian men, women and children.
But one can argue that Trump did at least show both the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian backers that there is a limit to how much barbarism the West will tolerate. Maybe it’s not worth much applause, but it hardly warrants condemnation. After a decade of Western inertia, it has not made the situation in Syria any worse.
Where the peers did hit the right notes were in their criticism of the U.K.’s policy on Syria, which the report said was characterized by “confusion and disarray.” Sadly it offered no solutions, beyond a bland statement that “lessons of intervention, or nonintervention, in Iraq, Libya and Syria must be thoroughly learnt.”
The peers’ call for the U.K. to give “serious consideration” to recognizing Palestine as a state in order to boost the Middle East peace process is laudable, but again highly unlikely in the post-Brexit political landscape.
The peers also called for the government to take a tougher line with Saudi Arabia over its actions in Yemen, including the possibility of suspending some arms exports to the kingdom. That will certainly go down well with Trump. Washington is in talks with Saudi Arabia about tens of billions of dollars worth of new arms deals as Trump seeks to honor his election pledge to boost U.S. manufacturing.
On the whole, this report is proof of the great 19th-century journalist Walter Bagehot’s maxim: “The cure for admiring the House of Lords was to go and look at it.”
Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR, is a writer in the United Kingdom. A version of this article appeared in The Daily Star on Monday May 8 2017.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

A cue from Churchill on how to fight terror

By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Tuesday, March 28 2017.

It has emerged that one of the four people murdered during the Westminster terror attack in London last week, 75year-old Leslie Rhodes, used to be Winston Churchill’s window cleaner. It’s a quirky footnote to the tragedy, one that for some, links the attack, and those which Islamist terrorists have unleashed in other cities, to the struggle for civilization against barbarism in the middle of the last century. We have heard this before of course. The clash of civilizations has been the battle cry of many Western leaders since 9/11.
Oddly enough, Churchill had a decidedly contrarian view of terrorism. Speaking in Parliament in January 1947, less than two years after the end of World War II, Churchill said: “No country in the world is less fit for a conflict with terrorists than Great Britain. That is not because of her weakness or cowardice: It is because of her restraint and virtues, and the way of life which we have lived so long in this sheltered island.”
Ironically he was talking about Zionist terrorists in Palestine. But his words remain relevant. Because within hours of the attack, the U.K. government was quick to resurrect its perennial desire to implement a litany of heavy-handed, coercive measures to combat the threat posed by Islamist terror groups.
Rhodes, along with two other people, was killed, and 50 others injured, when British-born Muslim convert Khalid Masood mowed down pedestrians with his car on Westminster Bridge before crashing into the gates of the Houses of Parliament, gaining entry to the grounds and stabbing to death an unarmed police officer. Masood, or Adrian Elms if you prefer his birth name, was quickly shot by an armed policeman – the bodyguard of the U.K.’s defense secretary who happened to be near the gate where Masood entered. The entire attack lasted just 82 seconds. It was claimed by Daesh (ISIS), who called Masood its “soldier.”
It is understandable that the death of a brave policeman has led to calls for all police officers who guard Parliament to be armed. But the government was also quick to call for increased powers to allow security services greater access to the online communications and internet browsing history of individuals. On Sunday, Amber Rudd, the U.K. home secretary and the minister responsible for law and order, threatened to introduce legislation to force tech companies to allow intelligence agencies access to encrypted messaging services after it emerged Masood had sent a WhatsApp message minutes before his deadly attack.
Rudd also warned internet companies such as Google, which runs YouTube, and other smaller sites such as WordPress and Telgram, that they must do more to stop extremist material appearing online.
You can see Rudd’s point. In the last week Daesh has flooded YouTube with violent recruitment videos in what is seen as an attempt to capitalize on the attack and encourage others to repeat it.
But I am reminded of Churchill’s words.
It’s worth pointing out that last year Rudd was forced to abandon a shameful draconian plan to force companies to publish lists of all their foreign workers in a bid to “name and shame” British companies that employed too many non-U.K. nationals.
What terrorists want is to terrorize us. What better proof that they are successful than to see democracies abandon rights that liberal societies cherish?
Would more armed police, or greater access to Masood’s social media, have prevented the London attack? The former may have saved the life of the unarmed policeman, but it would not have prevented the deaths of those mowed down by Masood when he turned his car into a lethal weapon.
Terrorism does not rely on a great amount of sophistication, or collaboration that security services can monitor. A kitchen knife and a car is all you need because, as we have seen, the biggest threat to London and other cities is lone wolf attacks. Daesh may have been quick to claim Masood’s bloody deed, but security officials do not believe he was part of an Islamist cell of the kind that carried out the Paris and Brussels atrocities.
Of the 12 people arrested in the aftermath of the attack, only two remain in custody, while a third has been released on bail. A security official said: “There is nothing dramatic about this being a global plan or directed from overseas. There is nothing to suggest he was operating as part of a cell.”
The reality for western democracies is that it was always a question of time before a lone fanatic mounted an attack on London along the lines of those that have taken place with much deadlier results in Paris, Nice, Brussels, Berlin and Istanbul.
At the risk of sounding callous, Masood’s attack on Parliament succeeded only in generating publicity. It had no strategic significance, it didn’t bring the U.K. capital to its knees, and the death toll pales in comparison to the numbers killed in those other cities, not to mention the daily civilian carnage in Syria and Iraq.
If Masood was seriously trying to attack Parliament, the citadel of our democracy, and kill British lawmakers, he failed.
Of course, terrorism is more about creating a climate of fear, or terror, and a sense of constant insecurity. But in reality Masood failed here too. Westminster Bridge is open again. Londoners went to work the next day, on buses, trains and by foot, and went out to play again that night.
Rather than attempting to further erode civil liberties by increasing the state’s power to snoop on our private lives, there’s a plausible case for asking tougher questions about why intelligence agencies failed to pick up on Masood, who came to the attention of MI5 six years ago because of his contacts with known extremists.
It is worth remembering the Daesh executioner “Jihadi John,” Londoner Mohammed Emwazi, was able to escape to Syria in 2012 despite being on an MI5 terror watch list, which prohibited him from leaving the U.K. Despite extensive so-called intrusive surveillance of Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, both men slipped through the intelligence net and hacked to death an off-duty soldier, Lee Rigby, in broad daylight on a busy London street in 2013.
The leaders of the July 7, 2005, bombings in London, which killed 52 people, were also on the radar of the intelligence services, but again slipped through the net.
It is worth pointing out that since the 2005 tragedy the U.K. has not suffered another attack on the scale, largely because security services have successfully employed powers already at their disposal to monitor and prevent other outrages – they have foiled at least 10 attacks in the past two years.
Of course we must protect ourselves from terrorists. But we must also ensure that by protecting our way of life we do not trample over the civil liberties that underpin the way of life we are trying to protect. The hard-earned rights and liberties of people pursuing their daily affairs must be safeguarded too.
Churchill never shied away from a fight. But he never forgot what he was fighting for.
Legend has it that during the darkest days of the war Churchill was asked to cut arts funding and to send the great works of art on display in London abroad for safe keeping. He refused with the simple response: “Then what are we fighting for?”
Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR, is a writer in the United Kingdom. A version of this article appeared in The Daily Star on Tuesday, March 28 2017.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

To win post-Brexit allies, May goes too far

By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Thursday, February 9 2017

As official visits go, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to London earlier this week looked like a textbook lesson in how not to conduct diplomacy. But looks can be deceptive.
In the full glare of the world’s media, Netanyahu arrived at U.K. Prime Minister’s Theresa May’s residence at 10 Downing Street only to find himself locked out and left standing in the street on his own for what seemed an eternity. At one point I wondered if he might have to kneel down at the front of the door and announce his arrival by shouting through the letterbox. Fortunately, before it got to that stage, the door was finally opened and a very sheepish Netanyahu gratefully entered.
On the face of it, things didn’t appear to get much better for Israel’s prime minister once he got inside.
May smiled and stressed the importance her government attaches to a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In response, Netanyahu, a man who appears to have a permanent frown these days, warned about the danger Iran poses to the Middle East.
A few hours after the meeting relations appeared to get even frostier when Israeli MPs voted in favor of the so-called “regulation law,” which gives retroactive approval to illegally built Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
May’s government was quick to condemn the new law. Tobias Ellwood, the foreign office minister responsible for the Middle East, said: “It is of great concern that the bill paves the way for significant growth in settlements in the West Bank, threatening the viability of the two-state solution.” He added: “As a long-standing friend of Israel, I condemn the passing of the Land Regularization Bill by the Knesset which damages Israel’s standing with its international partners.” Well up to a point. The most important international partner, U.S. President Donald Trump, who will host Netanyahu in Washington next week, has yet to offer the world his thoughts on the matter. His administration is on record as saying Israeli settlements are not an obstacle to peace, but their expansion “may not be helpful.” Go figure. At any rate, Netanyahu was still en route from the U.K. when the vote happened, having left London empty handed. His clarion call for May to follow Trump in imposing fresh sanctions on some Iranian individuals and entities following Tehran’s ballistic missile test last week were ignored.
May has asked the U.N. to examine whether the tests breached any resolutions, but U.K. government officials insist it is a separate issue from the 2015 nuclear accord that lifted a host of sanctions on Iran in return for curbing its nuclear program.
Moreover, when she became the first Western leader to meet Trump in Washington last month, May advised the U.S. president of the dangers of jeopardizing the nuclear accord, advice that appears to have been heeded in Washington – despite Trump’s tweet last week that “Iran is playing with fire – they don’t appreciate how ‘kind’ President Obama was to them. Not me!”
May reiterated her stance to Netanyahu, telling him the accord was “vital,” though in what some see as a nod to Trump’s misgivings about the deal she added it needed to be “properly enforced and policed.” That caveat could prove significant. Because for all the frostiness in the stagecraft of this week’s visit, behind the scenes other factors are at play for May as she seeks to create a viable blueprint for the U.K.’s post-Brexit economic future.
There has been a visible change in the U.K.’s relationship with Israel since London played a key role in drafting last December’s U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the continuing expansion of settlements on occupied Palestinian territory.
It was followed by May’s bizarre criticism of outgoing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for his condemnation of Israeli settlement expansion – just days after the U.N. vote. The broadside at Kerry was widely seen as a clumsy attempt to earn some brownie points with the then-incoming Trump administration – Trump of course made a number of stridently pro-Israel comments during his election campaign.
Why? Because post-Brexit U.K. is desperate for business.
May is under intense pressure to secure some sort of U.K.-U.S. trade deal in the wake of her announcement last month that she is prepared to accept a clean break with the European Union, that will sacrifice membership of the single market and customs union, in order to allay domestic concerns about immigration and Europe’s open borders.
That has led to a rather unseemly rush to broker new trade deals, which has also seen May cosying up to Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan in recent weeks. The two governments have agreed to set up a joint working group to carry out the groundwork for a bilateral trade deal. Turkey’s current trade with the U.K. amounts to around 16 billion pounds a year.
May even tapped up Netanyahu, who also agreed to establish a working group to prepare the ground for a post-Brexit freetrade agreement. The U.K. is already Israel’s second-largest trading partner, with bilateral trade worth 5 billion pounds a year.
Ironically, the U.K.’s former EU trading partners are reassured that the rush of British firms to cultivate business deals with Iran since sanctions were lifted means May’s support for the nuclear accord will remain solid.
However, during this month’s EU summit in Malta European leaders openly expressed fears that May’s desperation for post-Brexit allies is pushing her too far toward Trump, and a softening of U.K. opposition to Israeli settlement expansion.
It is worth pointing out that the U.K. failed to attend last month’s one-day Middle East peace conference organized by the French government in Paris. U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the conference was “a little like Hamlet without the Prince” because the Israelis had declined to attend.
But is U.K. opposition to settlements up for negotiation?
The fear that it might be underlines the dilemma that Brexit poses for the U.K. and its Middle East commitments. It’s early days yet, but despite the stagecraft of this week’s visit, it’s clear May is keener than any of her predecessors to keep Netanyahu onside as a means to court favor with Trump and the potential for favorable U.S. trade deals. At the end of May’s meeting with Netanyahu she invited him to return to the U.K. later this year to attend events to mark the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration in November. I very much doubt he will be left waiting on the doorstep on that day.
Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper The Daily Star. This article was first published in the print edition of The Daily Star on Thursday February 9 2017.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Former General's homecoming: the band plays on

As Michel Aoun becomes President of Lebanon, my Eyewitness sketch of his homecoming to Beirut in 2005, after 15 years of exile in France - first published in The Daily Star on May 9 2005.

By Michael Glackin
Beirut -- Eyewitness
The assembled members of the Kfarzebian-Kesrouan brass band stood resplendent beside the podium in their uniforms. Their ages looked to range from 17 to 70, and they were occasionally guilty of the odd bum note. But what they lacked in finesse they made up for in sheer volume, particularly if, as I was, you were standing right in front of them beside the stage.
Like the thousands of others gathered in Beirut's Martyrs' Square, the Kfarzebian-Kesrouan band had come to welcome home Aoun, Lebanon's prince-across-the-water, and to his followers as near a messiah as you can get in politics.
Most of the overwhelmingly young and largely Christian crowd gathered in the square would barely have been school age when the man his opponents dub "Napol-Aoun" was airlifted to safety out of Beirut by the French government, to a long exile in Paris.
The Martyrs' Square statue, which by now must be the most-climbed structure outside the Himalayas, had a huge photograph of the former general in his military uniform hoisted to the top of it and, as always happens on these occasions, was bedecked in Lebanese flags.
The Kfarzebian-Kesrouan band, which in addition to its trumpets and drums is also the proud owner of the largest Lebanese flag I have ever seen, tried hard to compete with the appearance of a loud thudding beat booming from giant speakers on the stage. But at the first sighting of Aoun's motorcade approaching the square, the crowd went wild, which also unleashed a fresh enthusiasm in the band that heartily banged and blew new life into their instruments.
Suddenly the music stopped. The crowd chanted Aoun's name and Martyrs' Square caught sight of the general for the first time in 15 years as he appeared from backstage. My new-found friends in the band struck up another loud tune before finally giving in to the power of the speakers, which were by now playing the national anthem at a level that could probably be heard in Damascus.
Wearing a suit and tie and standing behind a bullet-proof screen the former general, who cut such a dashing figure as a uniformed commander during the 1980s, looked more like a chubby middle-class businessman. Luckily none of his allies on stage tried to hoist him on their shoulders as his army colleagues used to do in the old days.
Oddly enough, when Aoun finished his speech it was met with polite applause rather than the rapturous cheering that preceded it. The gathered masses got more enthusiastic after their hero left the stage, dancing to more loud music blasting out from the stage. At that point my friends in the band gave up the ghost and downed their instruments to have a cigarette. "We go home for a drink now," they told me. "He's back and we were here to greet him. That is all that matters." It was indeed.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

A U.K. malodorous wind of change

By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Wednesday, October 12 2016

If you thought barrel-scraping pandering to populism was limited to political discourse in America think again.
While the sickening spectacle of Donald Trump securing the Republican Party nomination for U.S. President has dominated the world's headlines, the type of xenophobia represented and fueled by the mega mouth businessman is on the increase everywhere. Even in the home of the so called "mother of parliaments".
Last summer's vote for the UK to leave the European Union - so called Brexit - appears to have fired the starting gun on a frantic political race to the bottom, with the government increasingly trying to appeal to voters basest instincts in much the same way as the Hair Fuhrer has done in the U.S.
Last week Home Secretary Amber Rudd, the minister responsible for law and order in the UK, gleefully announced that companies would in future have to publish lists of all their foreign workers. Her department later threatened to "name and shame" British companies that employed too many non UK nationals.
Thankfully, the backlash was ferocious. Steve Hilton, a one time adviser to former Prime Minister David Cameron and oddly enough a vocal supporter of Brexit, called Rudd's plan "divisive, repugnant, and insanely bureaucratic", adding: "Hey Amber, for your next brain­wave, why not announce that foreign workers will be tattooed with numbers on their forearms?"
Tamara Rojo, the Spanish-born director of that most English of institutions, the English National Ballet, made a similar point: She said: “After 20 years contributing to this great country and having been recognized with a CBE [Commander of the British Empire award], how long before I am made to sew a star on my clothes?”
To be perfectly fair, comparisons with Nazi Germany are somewhat wide of the mark - even allowing for the fact that 13th century England was the first European nation to require Jews to wear a visible cloth badge (prompted by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 which demanded Jews and Muslims wear special dress since you ask).
At any rate, within days of Rudd's crass announcement government ministers hit the airwaves to announce they had abandoned the policy. Well sort of.
Cabinet minister Michael Fallon insisted businesses would not have to publish the number of foreign workers they employ. However, he added they could still be made to "report their numbers" to government in order to help establish areas where there are shortages of British workers.
The problem here is that any sort of "foreigners list" has more than a faint whiff of the goosestep about it, particularly when set against the backdrop of other recent government announcements.
Just before Rudd revealed her plans, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt insisted the National Health Service would slash large numbers of foreign doctors working in the UK and hire British ones in their place. Hopefully the Lebanese orthodontist treating my teenage daughter will be allowed to remain in his job long enough to fit her train tracks before he's placed on the next plane out of here.
Just to ensure no foreign worker was left untouched by this malodorous wind of change, it also emerged last week that UK based foreign academics can no longer serve as advisers to the government on EU affairs. The move is understood to be due to concerns that sensitive information could be leaked to the governments of EU member states during Brexit negotiations.
Considering Prime Minister Theresa May has already shown most of her Brexit cards to the EU the ban looks pretty daft. She has already pledged to invoke article 50, the mechanism which will trigger the formal two-year process for Brexit, within the next six months. She has also made clear her willingness to sacrifice the UK's access to the EU free trade market in order to avoid having to accept the free movement of EU labour - the so called "hard Brexit".
There's not much left to leak after that, something the currency markets have already figured out - sterling has fallen to a 31 year low since the prime minister made those announcements.
On one level you can see where the government is coming from. The message from last summer's Brexit vote was clear. Those who voted to leave the EU want tighter curbs on immigration. It is right that the government should take note of this.
However, confronted with disaffected voters the government appears willing to say and do anything, regardless of the cost to the economy, and regardless of the fact that its policies are legitimizing a growing intolerance towards foreign workers.
Make no mistake, the EU referendum campaign unleashed a wave of bigotry in the UK, evidenced by the assassination of Jo Cox, a vocal pro EU member of parliament (and a champion of Syrian refugees). Her assassin shouted "Britain First" at her as he shot and stabbed her in broad daylight on the street outside her local library a week before the Brexit vote.
Official government figures reveal that in the three months since the UK voted to leave the EU there has been a sharp increase in reported hate crimes against ethnic minorities and foreign nationals, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to detect the government's sudden ill-conceived plans to crack down and "get tough" on foreign workers, whether they are waiters, carpenters, doctors, or academics, is pandering to people with extreme tendencies. Indeed there is a strong danger that it is feeding and even tacitly vindicating those who are carrying out attacks in increasing numbers on foreigners in the UK.
Worryingly, a day after Rudd announced her plan, an opinion poll revealed 60 percent of the public supported her. Only 25 percent opposed the plan. That support comes despite the fact that the number of UK nationals in work is at its highest level in almost 20 years.
The politics of snarling and sneering is no substitute for substance and leadership. A hate filled lunatic fringe may have captured the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower, but that's no reason for the government of the UK to embrace it. The barrel-scraping has to stop. In an increasingly unstable world the UK requires leadership, not mob rule dressed up as government.
Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 12 2016.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Chilcot’s 8,000-page report exposes Iraq invasion hidden deals

By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Saturday, July 9, 2015.

The 18th-century satirist Jonathan Swift, author “Gulliver’s Travels,” famously said: “I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed.” I was reminded of Swift’s words as I watched Tony Blair’s emotionally charged response to the publication of the long awaited Chilcot Report into the U.K.’s role in the invasion and occupation of Iraq Wednesday.
Sir John Chilcot delivered a damning verdict on Blair’s leadership, the most damning criticism of a prime minister in living memory. It took Chilcot seven years, and 2.6 million words, but his report makes plain that Blair took the decision to go to war at a time when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein posed no imminent threat and “before peaceful options for disarmament were exhausted.”
Chilcot found that Blair deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction after accepting flawed intelligence, which he resolutely failed to question or properly scrutinize.
Chilcot also revealed evidence that Blair pledged to support U.S. President George W. Bush’s ambition to topple Saddam within weeks of the 9/11 attacks on America, culminating eight months before the 2003 invasion in an unqualified commitment to support the U.S. invasion – “I will be with you, whatever.” Yet at the same time Blair was still pretending to Parliament, and the U.K. public, that he was desperately seeking a peaceful solution.
Chilcot also found Blair sent British troops into combat ill-equipped, and that he had failed to plan for the aftermath of the invasion and occupation of the country.
And yet, when confronted with this woeful litany of deceit and failure this Wednesday, Blair, visibly shaken and looking like a broken man, was stridently unrepentant about what is widely seen as the worst foreign policy decision by a U.K. government since the disastrously botched attempt to gain control of the Suez canal in 1956.
“I believe we made the right decision and the world is better and safer,” he declared.
Blair confessed “more sorrow and regret than you can ever believe” but insisted he had acted in good faith, based on intelligence at the time which said Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. He conceded that this “turned out to be wrong,” but failed to refer specifically to Chilcot’s charge that he deliberately exaggerated the threat to gain support for the invasion.
In short, Blair said he would “do it all again.” The former prime minister, who at times looked close to tears, insisted he could “look the nation in the eye” because he did not mislead it into war. He insisted Iraqis today, dying in their thousands, are better off since the invasion, particularly the Kurds.
For all the drama of the last week, much of what Chilcot concluded in his 8,000 page report is already widely known, including Blair’s infamous note to Bush in July 2002, in which he said: “I will be with you, whatever.” This was quoted in journalist Andrew Rawnsley’s 2010 book “The End of the Party,” based on his interviews with David Manning, Blair’s foreign policy adviser, and Sir Christopher Meyer, then Britain’s ambassador to the U.S.
It’s also worth pointing out that we are unable to see the other side of the correspondence – what Bush said to Blair – which Washington has refused to declassify. That means the notes are onesided, and arguably lack context for a proper judgment.
One could also argue that some of Chilcot’s criticism of Blair is a little unjust. Chilcot’s accusation that Blair sidelined his Cabinet in the run-up to war, preferring instead to discuss key details with selected trusted aides is more than a little laughable.
At the time, Blair had overwhelming support for the invasion both in Cabinet and in Parliament – though not among the general public. Those politicians who supported him may now argue that they did so under a false prospectus, but all were happy to do so at the time without seeking to scrutinize the evidence themselves. Surely they should have spoken up if they felt they were being left out of key discussions?
Meanwhile, the U.K.’s top spy chief, Sir John Scarlett happily allowed Blair’s government to exaggerate the value of information the intelligence agencies believed to be flawed to make his case for war. The report also asks why the U.K. generals failed to protest that they were ill-prepared and inadequately supplied troops into battle. Chiclot specifically points out that U.K. military commanders made “over-optimistic assessments” of their capabilities, which had led to a number of “bad decisions.”
Blair does appear to have been able to cajole or bully the government’s legal adviser, Lord Goldsmith, into changing his initial legal advice over the legality of the invasion without United Nations support. Chilcot did not make a judgment on whether Blair or his ministers were in breach of international law, but added: “The circumstances in which it was decided that there was a legal basis for U.K. military action were far from satisfactory.”
Fair enough. But it is worth pointing out that for all the legal arguments surrounding the invasion, the West had created a humanitarian disaster in Iraq in the decade preceding the war courtesy of the U.N. sanctions program. By 2003, there was no electricity in many parts of the country, barely any running water, and few medicines. UNICEF estimated that more than half a million Iraqi children died as a consequence of sanctions between 1990 and 2003. Yet as Chilcot makes clear, there was no coherent plan by the invaders to rebuild the destroyed country once they occupied it.
Chilcot makes clear that Blair, and as such the U.K., had virtually no role in either planning the invasion or the aftermath which was left entirely to the Americans. Indeed Chiclot criticized the U.S. for ignoring U.K. pleas to avoid implementing a wide-ranging de-Baathification of the army and government offices. Blair’s comment Wednesday that the U.K. was a junior partner of the U.S., was an understatement. Looking at parts of Chilcot’s report it’s clear the U.K.’s role was sadly more akin to the wider world view of Blair being Bush’s poodle.
Finally, Blair insisted that those military men and women who have died in the conflict did so in the “defining global security struggle of the 21st century against the terrorism and violence which the world over destroys lives, divides communities.” Perhaps. But many more would argue the conflict they gave their lives for has instead had a significant role in if not creating, then shaping and fueling that terrorism.
Moreover, as Chilcot’s report shows beyond doubt, the decision to invade Iraq destroyed the U.K.’s international reputation, and single-handedly killed the notion of liberal intervention to protect human lives and human rights in future. In one of Blair’s most telling comments Wednesday, he appeared to express bemusement at that fact. “It [Iraq] also overshadows everything people think about me” he said, seeming to put his bruised ego and tarnished political legacy on a par with the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the bloody quagmire of Iraq since 2003 and their grieving families.
Blair it seems, is pretty unbroken.
The same cannot be said for the dead, the wounded and those left behind to grieve them. To borrow another phrase from Swift, Blair seems to have discovered that “Happiness is the perpetual possession of being well deceived.”
Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 7, 2015.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Brexit: A nation turns on itself

By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Monday, June 27 2016

Beirut -- To say the political establishment in the U.K. has been rocked to its foundations by last week’s historic vote to leave the European Union is, for once, an understatement. The shocked reactions of leaders around the world reveal that most have not yet fully absorbed what has happened. They are not alone. Neither have the U.K.’s political leaders.

The U.K. voted to withdraw from the EU by a narrow margin. Leave won the referendum with 51.9 percent of the vote, while Remain finished on 48.1 percent. The turnout was 72 percent. It’s interesting to note that roughly 75 percent of the U.K.’s over-65s voted Leave, while a similar number of under-25s voted Remain. A clear case of the old deciding the future of the young. Whether older heads are wiser remains to be seen, but I have my doubts.

As a long-standing Euroskeptic I have many misgivings about the EU: There is its lack of political accountability, its wasteful bureaucracy and idiotic regulations, its diktats and increasing centralizing tendencies. The EU is an open goal when it comes to its shortcomings. But the EU debate, while masquerading as an argument about economics and sovereignty, was really about immigration. There was a pikestaff link between hostility to immigration and support for the Leave campaign, the so-called Brexit vote.

Over the last 20 years, the foreign-born population of the U.K. has increased from around 3.8 million to 8.3 million. Brexit campaigners were quick to blame immigrants for increased pressure on schools, hospitals and housing and promised tighter immigration controls and that money the U.K. currently sends to Brussels would instead be used to relieve this pressure.

But since winning the vote Leave campaigners have spent the weekend insisting they never promised there would be a decline in immigration, and have now said it was a mistake to tell voters there would be more money for the U.K.’s state-run health system.

Meanwhile the mayor of Calais demanded France scrap the 2003 Touquet agreement, which keeps thousands of asylum-seekers on the French side of the Channel Tunnel, living in the notorious “Jungle,” the name given to the makeshift camps that have developed around the tunnel.

Calais is just part of a far wider refugee crisis across Europe, which has been grappling with its biggest influx of asylum-seekers since World War II, as people flee conflict-ridden zones in the Middle East, and Africa. It is this crisis, even more than the 2008 financial crisis, which has done the most to destabilize the European project, and secured the Leave vote.

The dodgy deal the EU brokered with Turkey to lock Middle East refugees outside Europe’s borders, a bribe predicated on allowing Turks visa-free travel across the EU, was used as a stick to beat the Remain camp as Leave campaigners noisily shouted about millions of Turks flooding into the U.K.

The European issue has now accounted for the scalps of three British prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and now David Cameron, who announced his resignation Friday. All three were leaders of the right-wing Conservative Party, which in the last 30 years has been bitterly divided over Britain’s role in Europe.

However, in the aftershocks of last week’s historic vote, the ghosts of the left-wing Labour party’s own Euroskepticism, which had been dormant for almost four decades, have come back to haunt them.

Yesterday Hilary Benn, a leading pro-EU Labour politician and the party’s foreign policy spokesperson, was unceremoniously sacked by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for criticizing the leader’s lackluster support for the Remain campaign. Ironically, Corbyn’s political hero was Benn’s father, the left-wing and anti-EU politician Tony Benn. Following Benn’s sacking, half of Corbyn’s shadow Cabinet quit and demanded he stand down as Labour leader.

In the vacuum of leadership since the vote, the unity of the entire U.K. looks under threat. Nicola Sturgeon, who heads the ruling party in Scotland, where people voted to remain in the EU by a wide margin, has called for a second referendum on Scottish independence, enabling Scots to break away from the U.K. and remain in the EU. The Brexit vote has even led to calls for a referendum that would effectively unite Ireland and Northern Ireland to enable the latter to remain in the EU.

Modern British politics hasn’t been enveloped by such chaos since the Suez crisis.

More importantly for the Middle East is the impact the U.K.’s withdrawal could have on the EU’s role in the Middle East.

The domino effect of Brexit could see other Euroskeptic member states, most notably Denmark, but also more recent complainers, such as the Netherlands, forced into calling their own referendums on EU membership. Geert Wilders, head of the Netherlands’ anti-immigrant Party for Freedom gleefully said: “The Europhile elite has been defeated.” French far-right leader Marine Le Pen called the vote a “victory for freedom.”

A weaker EU means its long-aspired role as a counterpoise to U.S. power in the Middle East will be firmly placed on the back burner. The EU played a leading role in brokering the deal that saw Iran curb its nuclear program. Within the so-called Union for the Mediterranean it has also created myriad trade deals with Middle East states, and funds projects linked to the beleaguered Israeli-Palestinian peace process. A disunited EU, distracted by both negotiating the U.K.’s withdrawal and holding the ring with other potentially recalcitrant members, will clearly lack the clout and inclination to carry out its admittedly second tier role in the region.

Considering the U.K.’s role as bridgehead into Europe for America, it appears likely that Russia, and indeed Iran, could also increase their influence in the region, particularly in the current situation in Syria.

In terms of the U.K.’s own role in the region, U.K. Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood bullishly insisted it would be business as usual. He said the U.K.’s role in the fight against Daesh (ISIS) and wider Islamic extremism would continue. But in reality, the U.K.’s punching power in global politics has been diminished by last week’s vote.

As for Cameron, by calling for this referendum he blithely sailed his country into choppy waters, crashed it on the rocks and then promptly jumped ship. The referendum, which voters here never demanded, on the U.K.’s membership of the EU, was designed as a tool for Cameron to lever his Euroskeptic party into obedience. The tool broke in his hand when the referendum became a vote about immigration and disenchantment with the nation’s body politic. Somehow, the U.K. feels like a smaller nation this morning.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of The Daily Star. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of THE DAILY STAR on page 7 on Monday June 27 2016.