Thursday, 26 November 2009

Gordon Brown's small Afghan games

The Daily Star
Friday 27 November 2009
By Michael Glackin

Winston Churchill famously described Russia as a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. He could just as easily have been talking about current Western policy in Afghanistan.

Last week, British Premier Gordon Brown announced plans to host a conference in London next January involving NATO and the Afghan government. The gathering would set out an Afghan exit strategy and establish “a timetable for transfer [of power] starting in 2010.”

But just days after Brown floated his timetable for the United Kingdom’s military exit from Afghanistan, his foreign secretary, David Miliband, warned that “artificial timetables just give succor to your enemy.” Miliband insisted the UK was in Afghanistan for the long haul, because the government in Kabul would collapse within weeks if NATO troops left. Oddly enough, last month the newly installed head of the British Army, General Sir David Richards, warned that British troop numbers in Afghanistan couldn’t be reduced until 2014 at the earliest, a date with which Afghan President Hamid Karzai hastily concurred last week.

So, is the UK cutting and running – remember Basra – or digging in? Last week, I spoke to the Foreign Office in a forlorn attempt to clarify British policy. An official insisted that the prime minister was not talking about withdrawal, and bizarrely he added that “no one is putting a timetable” on an exit. The official added that the UK’s strategy remained centered on building up Afghan institutions, the army, police and political system, so that Afghans could run everything themselves “at some point.”

I admit I was still confused, but a later inquiry to the Defense Ministry about how many coalition and Afghan troops were currently in Helmand Province alongside British forces turned confusion to farce. Astonishingly, the Defense Ministry didn’t know, and referred me to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul. I duly contacted a very helpful chap at ISAF who informed me there were 15,000 coalition troops in total in Helmand, but that he had no idea how many Afghan soldiers were in the field. Let’s hope someone figures it out before Brown’s 2010 transfer. It’s one hell of a way to run an eight-year-long war.

Karzai has said that he will send 5,000 Afghan trainee troops to help in Helmand, but the Defense Ministry in London confirmed it had no idea when these troops would be dispatched. Based on all this, the chances of Helmand being handed over even in five years are slim to say the least, even if ISAF and the DefenseMinistry finally work out how many Afghan soldiers there are in the province to transfer security to.

Meanwhile, the government of the “re-elected” Karzai was last week declared by Transparency International the second most corrupt in the world, second only to Somalia’s. Brown has warned Karzai that he is not prepared to put the lives of British soldiers “in harm’s way” if the Afghan president fails to stamp out corruption. But as Miliband’s comments made clear, the threat is an empty one. It’s true that Brown has still not made good on his much-touted announcement to boost British troop numbers to 9,500, but that is because he is waiting for US President Barack Obama to decide how many soldiers he will commit to the Afghan conflict, with the announcement expected early next week in Washington.

Therefore, in place of anything resembling a firm policy, the prime minister dangled an ill-conceived and entirely unrealistic prospect of a military withdrawal before the British electorate, in order to fill the void. While Brown studiously avoided using the word withdrawal, his inference was as clear as it was cynical. It was a desperate attempt to shore up crumbling public support for the Afghan war, and for his government, ahead of next year’s elections, which must take place by June at the latest.

Brown wants to be able to tell voters that the process of withdrawing British troops is under way on his watch, even if no troops actually leave Afghanistan before the UK goes to the polls. Weekend leaks from the armed forces suggested the government was putting them under pressure to send a small number of troops home before the end of next year. Thus, British strategy is now subordinated to getting Brown re-elected.

The impression that British policy in Afghanistan now owes more to the Marx Brothers than Churchill was further underlined following a recent military briefing in London.

Those interested in financial markets will have noticed that the price of gold has soared this year. This is good news for the Taliban, who, following an alleged change in tactics by the British Army, are poised to receive “bags of gold” from soldiers in a bid to tempt them to lay down their arms. This “bags of gold policy,” outlined in a Defense Ministry briefing last week, is already being pursued, albeit with cash, not gold, by French and Italian forces in Afghanistan. Such payments could provide the Western powers with enough breathing space to allow international development programs to take root and provide real benefits to Afghans.

Except that according to the Defense Ministry the story is not true. It appears that “bags of gold” is merely a metaphor for stepping up development programs to provide work and benefits enabling “moderate insurgents” to see that there are alternatives to the $10 a day they are paid to take up arms with the Taliban. It appears that the British government believes bribing insurgents is something best left to the continentals.

That’s a shame. The handing of British gold to Afghan insurgents actually has a long and successful history. During the Great Game era of the late 19th century, the emir of Afghanistan, Abdul Rahman, received large supplies of gold and guns from Lord Dufferin, then viceroy of India, to maintain order in Afghanistan and keep Tsarist Russia at bay.

Mind you, Lord Dufferin probably knew how many Afghan troops he was paying for.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Tony Blair's record as 'Quartet' envoy displays distinct lack of substance

The Daily Star
Friday November 6 2009
By Michael Glackin

During a trip to Nablus earlier this year, Tony Blair insisted that improving conditions for Palestinians in the Israeli occupied West Bank was proof that a Palestinian state can be “built from the bottom up while it’s being negotiated from the top down.” Blair was referring to the removal of three Israeli checkpoints around the city.

It was a typical snappy, political sound-bite of the kind Blair, special envoy for the Middle East “Quartet” – the United States, Russia, the European Union and United Nations – excels in. Remember the one about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction “which could be activated within 45 minutes?”

Unfortunately, like the sound-bite he used to win support for the invasion of Iraq, Blair’s comments in Nablus were untrue.

Firstly there are currently no meaningful “top down” negotiations between the governments of the Palestinian Authority and Israel, nor indeed anyone else it seems. Secondly, the “bottom up” improvements that Blair was extolling, the easing of restrictions at Israeli checkpoints, only exist in a handful of places and are seen by many Palestinians as a sop for the lack of meaningful political progress to improve their plight.

These small improvements in the everyday lives of people shouldn’t be overlooked of course, but in reality they are not much to show for more than two years in his role as Quartet envoy and hardly evidence that Blair is slowly laying the economic foundations of a viable Palestinian state. This year Israel has removed 11 checkpoints, but according to the UN there are still more than 600 checkpoints and unmanned barriers choking the free movement of goods and people throughout the West Bank and Gaza.

So what exactly has Blair achieved during his two years as Quartet envoy?

Well for one thing, he has succeeded in rapidly turning himself into a multi-millionaire. It is estimated Blair has made around $24 million since he stepped down as prime minister in 2007. He is of course unpaid in his role as part-time Quartet envoy – although his expenses are picked up by taxpayers – but he appears to have found his Middle East role a useful way to generate cash for himself.

Last weekend it was reported that Blair had held talks with UK supermarket giant Tesco about helping the superstore establish itself in the Middle East for a fee of $1.6 million. The talks, which ended without agreement, have increased accusations that Blair is utilizing his unpaid role in the Middle East to feather his own nest by promoting his private political and economic consultancy, Tony Blair Associates (TBA).

TBA, which Blair runs with his former Downing Street chief of staff Jonathan Powell, was established shortly after he was forced out of government by current UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Earlier this year, Blair was in Saudi Arabia in his peace-envoy role to hold talks with King Abdullah on the situation in the Gaza Strip. He was accompanied by Powell, although Powell has no role in the peace process. After the meeting the pair also met Prince Al-Waleed, King Abdullah’s nephew, who has no political role but is widely recognized as the wealthiest and smartest businessman in the Middle East. TBA’s clients are understood to include members of the royal families of Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, countries Blair has visited in his role as Quartet envoy.

Last month a friend of Blair’s told the Sunday Times newspaper that TBA “had been set up to make money from foreign governments and companies. There’s a focus on the Middle East, because that is where the money is.”

On top of all that, Blair also represents US investment bank JP Morgan in the region in return for an estimated annual fee of $3 million. Beyond the Middle East there’s also the $800,000 Blair earns for representing Zurich Financial Services and a $7 million advance on his memoirs he received from publisher Random House in 2007. He is also reputed to earn up to $300,000 for each talk he gives on the global lecture circuit.

But what has been good for Blair’s finances has not been so good for Palestinians who remain burdened by Israeli restrictions, with movement into and through the West Bank strangled by checkpoints.

This week the Israel relaxed its blockade on Gaza to allow in tea and coffee. Both had been on a long list of items prohibited by the Israelis for security reasons along with cooking oil, dairy products, flour and frozen meat.

Another successful example of Blair’s “bottom up” theory? Hardly.

The blockade, imposed following the Hamas takeover of Gaza in June 2007 continues and still includes the closure of Karni, one of the largest and best-equipped commercial crossings, continuing restrictions on the import of industrial, agricultural and construction materials, the suspension of almost all exports and a general ban on the movement of Palestinians through Erez, the only passenger crossing to the West Bank.

The bizarre ban on pens and pencils also appears to remain in place. The World Bank warned this year that the impact of the blockade on Gaza has been so severe, that it is unlikely many of the area’s fledgling businesses will be able to recover if and when the blockade is eventually lifted.

Other areas where Blair has become directly involved, such as his commendable attempts to persuade Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu to allot the promised bandwidth for a second Palestinian mobile-phone company, operated by Wataniya Palestine, and which Blair said was “an important indicator of whether Palestinians are going to be allowed to run an economy properly” have also failed. Wataniya finally launched this week but not on the promised bandwidth it needs for the business to be viable.

In fairness to Blair the political process, under the aegis of US Middle East envoy George Mitchell has also failed to deliver and US President Barack Obama’s demand for a one-year freeze on settlement construction has been ignored. But given Blair’s narrow economic remit he has achieved next to nothing. Based on results, Blair’s role has been revealed as a non-job, save for providing him with a political calling card to present when selling his other wares.

Blair’s burning ambition to become the first president of the European Union appears to have been scuppered by European leaders over his support for former US President George W Bush’s war on Saddam Hussein. But they didn’t have to go that far back to find his flaws.

Blair is an extremely accomplished communicator, a skill not to be overlooked in modern politics, but one that should compliment political acumen and leadership, not serve as a substitute for it.
There must be substance behind the sound-bite, and frankly, Blair’s record as Quartet envoy displays a distinct lack of that particular commodity.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Strings attached to a shaky policy

The Daily Star
October 15 2009
By Michael Glackin

Am I alone in being confused by the UK’s commitment to increase its troop numbers in Afghanistan?

On Wednesday UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced to Parliament that he was sending an additional 500 troops to Helmand Province. But rather bizarrely Brown said the increase was conditional on the Afghan government supplying more of its own troops for frontline action, and other NATO countries making an increased contribution – a barely concealed swipe aimed at Germany, France, Spain and Canada to shoulder a bigger share of the fighting as Britain and the US suffer increasing casualties. Brown also said the increase was conditional on the right equipment being available to ensure all additional troops were properly equipped, something that his own government is responsible for.

Does this mean that if none of the above happens the additional troops won’t be sent? The Defense Ministry told me that was “a fair assumption,” but expressed optimism that all the prime minister’s conditions would be met.

Really? While the Afghans are capable of putting more of their own troops in the line of fire and London will ensure, following criticism that it has failed to in the past, that its troops are equipped for the job they are given on the battle field, the odds on Britain and America’s NATO allies answering Brown’s call are slim.

Of the largest troop contributors outside of the US and Britain, only France is likely to offer to send a small number of troops. German leader Angela Merkel is under pressure to set a timetable for a withdrawal, while Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has pledged to pull his country’s troops out by 2011. Meanwhile Spain agreed last month to send an additional 200 soldiers bringing its total force in Afghanistan to around 1,000 and is unlikely to go beyond that number.

When Brown calls for further commitments from NATO he means the US. But there is a degree of uncertainty over the current policy of US President Barack Obama, who is considering a proposal by the commander of international forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, to send in an additional 40,000 troops.

NATO meets next week in Bratislava. It is unclear whether Obama will announce a decision on troop numbers there, but it is extremely doubtful Brown would have chosen to increase UK troops if he wasn’t certain that Obama was going to do the same thing. Though whether Obama commits as many as 40,000 US soldiers remains a moot point.

The decision to deploy more troops comes just days after General Sir Richard Dannatt, who stood down as head of the army in August, accused Brown of overruling his advice to send an additional 2,000 troops to Helmand Province – which would have brought the total number of UK troops to around 9,500 – because it would cost too much money.

When yesterday’s increase is added to the 700 or so troops Brown sent as a temporary force in the run up to the Afghan elections, which has since become a permanent force, British troop forces will be at roughly the level Dannatt wanted.

So why the change? Well, Brown made the announcement just minutes after he read out the names of the 37 British soldiers killed in Helmand over the summer, and less than a week after Dannatt’s exposure of his refusal to send more troops on the grounds of cost. He can now say he is at least doing something.

But the additional troops, and indeed the announcement last week that Dannatt had been appointed by the opposition Conservative Party to be their adviser for defense policy, merely serves to underline the lack of policy and leadership from all political parties in the UK on the Afghan war.

In place of a policy, the Conservatives have come up with a gimmick appointment of a general whose criticism of the government now looks politically motivated rather than out of concern for his soldiers. Meanwhile Brown, who told Parliament that it has been a “particularly difficult summer for our armed forces” once again failed to offer a coherent outline of what the UK’s aspirations and role is in Afghanistan, let alone provide a strategy for winning what is increasingly looking like an unwinnable war.

The great problem with British, and indeed Western, policy in Afghanistan is that it still doesn’t appear to understand what can and cannot be achieved by military power. The army cannot defeat the Taliban and its fellow travelers alone. Defeating the militants and establishing stability in Afghanistan requires a political solution. But the West has had eight years to set about the task of nation-building and so far has failed to create anything resembling a functional and stable state.

The deeply embarrassing debacle of Afghanistan’s presidential election has left what passes for the political process in Kabul in turmoil. While the UN probe into ballot rigging continues there remains the distinct possibility that there may have to be a further round of elections. Indeed it was noticeable during his statement to Parliament that Brown was careful to stress he had received assurances from both the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, and his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, that the Afghans would deploy more troops to fight alongside the British in Helmand.

The row over election fraud places more pressure on Brown to justify the British presence in Afghanistan as the death toll rises without any military or political end in sight. This is why Brown was reluctant for so long to commit more troops. He fears putting more soldiers in the line of fire merely gives the Taliban more British troops to shoot at and kill. This is the same dilemma facing Obama and hence his reluctance to immediately accede to General McChrystal’s demands.

While the military insist the war will be lost unless more troops are sent, Both Brown and Obama have belatedly come to realize that the military solution won’t work regardless of how many troops they deploy. How long before a Vietnam-type blame game between politicians and soldiers over who lost the war?
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Pan Am Flight 103: the mystery continues

The Daily Star
August 19 2009
By Michael Glackin

By the end of this week, Abdulbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the only person to be convicted in the December 21, 1988, bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 which killed 270 people, may be released from a Scottish prison and return to Libya. Megrahi, a former Libyan secret service agent, is unlikely to enjoy his newfound freedom for long. His release, or transfer to a prison in Libya, is due to the fact he has terminal cancer, with a life expectancy measured in weeks rather than months.

The New York-bound Pan Am flight blew up as it flew over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. So when Megrahi eventually came to trial, a dozen years after the event, he was tried by a specially convened Scottish Court that sat in The Netherlands. Megrahi was given a life sentence by three Scottish judges who found him responsible for putting a suitcase containing a bomb aboard a flight from Malta to Frankfurt. From there the suitcase went on to London and was transferred to the New York flight that exploded less than 40 minutes after take-off.

Megrahi was positively identified by a witness, Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci, who claimed he had sold clothes to Megrahi which were later found scattered over the crash site and had been in the suitcase containing the explosive device. However, it is now alleged that Gauci was offered a $2 million reward for his evidence by the CIA and a place in a witness protection program. It also emerged during Megrahi’s failed appeal in 2002 that the bomb may have been planted in London, not Malta.

Megrahi’s defense team was also denied access to official government papers that were made available to Scottish police. After conducting an exhaustive three-year review of the case, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission reported in June 2007 that there may have been a miscarriage of justice in Megrahi’s case.

Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died in the attack, is considering taking legal action against the Scottish Court because he believes it deliberately suppressed crucial evidence from Ray Manly, a retired security guard at Heathrow Airport, who revealed in 2002 that Pan Am’s baggage area at Heathrow was broken into 17 hours before Flight 103 took off for New York. Swire believes this was probably when the bomb was planted, and he is convinced of Megrahi’s innocence.

But if Megrahi didn’t do it, who did?

In October 1988, two months before the bombing, German police raided an apartment in Frankfurt and arrested several Palestinians. The raid unearthed explosives, weapons and, crucially, a number of radio cassette recorders similar to the one used to detonate the Pan Am 103 bomb. Most of the Palestinians arrested were members of the Syrian-controlled Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), headed by Palestinian born former Syrian Army officer Ahmad Jibril.

The three judges at Megrahi’s trial rejected the argument that Jibril and the PFLP-GC had carried out the bombing on behalf of Iran and Syria to avenge the July 1988 accidental downing of an Iranian commercial airliner by an American warship, which killed 290 people.

However, a number of intelligence documents indicating PFLP-GC involvement were not made available at the trial. Chief among these was evidence from the US Defense Intelligence Agency showing that the PFLP-GC was paid $1 million to carry out the bombing. The DIA also claimed that Jibril was given a down payment of $100,000 in Damascus by Iran’s then ambassador to Syria, Mohammad Hussan. Megrahi’s lawyers had planned to introduce this evidence – also seen by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission – in a fresh appeal against his conviction this year, which was abandoned to facilitate his release.

The conspiracy view is that after Syrian President Hafez Assad supported the US-led alliance to oust Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, Syria’s role in the bombing was swept under the carpet. Megrahi was not formally indicted by the United States and the United Kingdom until November 1991.

The PFLP-GC is not the only suspect. When German police raided the Frankfurt apartment in the weeks before the bombing, they also arrested members of the Palestine People’s Struggle Front. It emerged that the group’s former leader, Muhammad Abu Talib – who is currently serving a life sentence in Sweden – was in Malta two months before the bombing. He was cleared of involvement during Megrahi’s trial, despite the fact he had circled the date of the bombing in a calendar found at his apartment.

The final part of the jigsaw is the Libyan angle. The PFLP-GC was subcontracted dirty deeds for Iran and Syria, but also Libya when the African state was at the top of the West’s list of terrorist states. Libya’s intelligence service worked closely with a range of terrorist groups. It is possible, even likely, that Megrahi had contact with the PFLP-GC, but not credible that he masterminded and executed the entire Pan Am bombing.

Megrahi’s abandonment was perhaps facilitated by Libyan reasons of state. In 2003, after the US-led occupation of Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair took the lead in persuading the Libyan leader, Moammar Gadhafi, to give up on Libya’s nuclear program, the first step in his international rehabilitation. That same year, the Libyan government paid $2.7 billion in compensation to the families of those killed – around $10 million per victim. In 2004 international sanctions imposed on Libya were eased and a raft of Western oil companies signed multi-million dollar contracts to explore and develop oil and natural gas in the country.

You don’t have to be a cynic to see that Libyan compensation payments and the continued incarceration of Megrahi were a small price for Gadhafi to pay to repair his reputation and open the floodgates of Western investment. In 2005 Libyan Prime Minister Shukri Ghanem denied Libyan involvement and said the compensation payments were simply to “buy peace and move forward.”

The full truth about the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 may never be known. But what we do know now strongly indicates that the guilty remain unpunished.
Michael Glackin is former Managing Editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star

Monday, 20 July 2009

British patience wanes for the Afghan war

The Daily Star
20 July 2009
By Michael Glackin

Last week, on a sunny afternoon in the sleepy English market town of Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire, around 4,000 people gathered and stood and watched as eight coffins carrying the remains of eight British servicemen were driven through the streets. It is a ritual that people in the town, which is close to RAF Lyneham, where the bodies of fallen servicemen are regularly flown into, are becoming numbingly used to.

But last week’s procession was different. The eight soldiers were killed in a bloody 24 hours of violence in Afghanistan, on what was the United Kingdom’s darkest day of combat. And their homecoming came at a time when the British public is becoming disillusioned and angry with the UK’s involvement in the eight-year Afghan war, an attitude that a raft of opinion polls in the last month has only confirmed.

As the death toll mounts, no victory over the Taliban is in sight. No political solution is on offer, save another term for the inept administration of President Hamid Karzai, who heads, according to Transparency International, the fourth most corrupt government in the world. The number of British troops killed in Afghanistan is now larger than British losses in Iraq. Prime Minister Gordon Brown is now regularly accused of being complicit in many of those deaths for sending troops into battle without adequate equipment.

The accusation is not new. It was made last year by the Oxfordshire coroner Andrew Walker during numerous inquests into the deaths of soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it is now being made by senior military chiefs, both former and current commanders. And last week, Parliament’s Defense Select Committee said a lack of helicopters was undermining operations and troop protection in Afghanistan.

Brown has faced a barrage of criticism over his government’s failure to supply front-line troops with the helicopters they need to take the fight to the Taliban. Official figures show that just 43 percent of combat helicopters were ready for action in June, even as commanders on the ground complained of a shortage. It even emerged last week that the head of the armed forces, General Sir Richard Dannatt, was traveling around Helmand province in an American Black Hawk helicopter because there wasn’t a British one available.

Despite the sharp increase in casualties Brown has insisted the shortage of helicopters has not cost lives. But when he faced Parliament’s powerful Liaison Committee last Thursday he sidestepped the issue, saying he could not discuss the numbers of helicopters in Afghanistan for security reasons. In a series of terse exchanges with the committee, Brown also refused to answer claims that earlier this year he rejected pleas from the military to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan by 2,000 men.

As public anger grows over both the rationale for the war and its prosecution, the government has accused Dannatt, who also called on the government to reconsider the resources and troop numbers it had committed to Afghanistan, of playing politics. However, Dannatt’s views are also representative of most Britons and, increasingly, many politicians. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, said last week that lives were being “thrown away” in Afghanistan.

In contrast, last week Brown called the war a “patriotic duty.” Perhaps. But it was Samuel Johnson who famously declared that patriotism was the last refuge of a scoundrel. Frankly, when it comes to Afghanistan, that is what Brown looks like. As prime minister, he has been keen on photo opportunities with soldiers. He has even inaugurated a British version of America’s Veteran’s Day. Yet while he was finance minister he steadfastly refused to properly fund the military. One of Dannatt’s predecessors, General Lord Guthrie, in charge during the early stages of the Afghan war, has stated that Brown had caused the deaths of servicemen because he was “unsympathetic” to military appeals for funds as finance minister. As the general put it: “[Prime Minister Tony] Blair found it difficult to deliver Brown in the Treasury.”

Brown’s contempt for the military stemmed from his acrimonious relationship with Blair. Brown felt that Blair had cheated him out of becoming prime minister. When Blair wanted to use the military to pursue his political agenda, Brown did what he could to avoid paying for this. Blair was too spineless to stand up to Brown.

It is of course a brutal reality of war that soldiers die in combat zones. Combat deaths are, as the Duke of Wellington observed, “the butcher’s bill.” And it is hardly unusual for the military to demand more funding. However, the current row has left the public questioning whether the government still believes in the war.

What Brown needed to do during his testimony to the committee last week was to make plain to everyone what exactly British war aims are in Afghanistan, and whether there is anything like a realistic chance that they can be achieved. He failed to do that, and his failure will further convince the public that British troops are dying in a faraway land for no good reason at all.

If Brown still believes that the war is necessary to combat terrorism and build something akin to a stable government in Afghanistan, then he has to “deliver” and put his full weight behind achieving this. If he doesn’t, he should have the moral courage to withdraw British troops now.

Sadly, the importance the government places on the war can perhaps best be seen in the fact that while 4,000 people turned up in Wootton Bassett to greet the arrival of eight dead soldiers, there was not a senior member of government among them.
Michael Glackin is former Managing Editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.

Friday, 26 June 2009

The UK seeks business as usual with Iran

The Daily Star
June 26 2009
By Michael Glackin

Britain and Iran appear to have paused for breath in the increasingly acrimonious war of words that climaxed with this week's tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats. For British Prime Minister Gordon Brown the expulsions marked an unwanted escalation of the current tension between the two countries.

While the world has watched in admiration at film footage of Iranians taking to the streets to protest the dubious election that returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power, politicians in London - and Washington - fear their fragile strategy of engaging Iran's ruling regime could be shattered by recent events.

And the harsh reality is that the United Kingdom has gone as far as it intends to in its criticism of Iran. As the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reasserts his control over affairs through ever greater force, the British government is now looking to return to what passes for business as usual with Iran.

Indeed there are many in government who are at a loss to understand why Britain was singled out for such strident criticism by the Iranian regime. Khamenei denounced Britain as "the most treacherous of foreign powers," and for good measure insisted that the Brown government was orchestrating the street demonstrations. It was this claim in particular that resulted in the expulsion of the two British diplomats from Tehran and Britain's carbon-copy response.

There is a school of thought, in the West at least, that Khamenei and his fellow travelers have found themselves caught in the headlights by US President Barack Obama's overtures to the Muslim world in his Cairo speech. Consequently the UK, Iran's old familiar enemy, or "Little Satan," found itself promoted to the role of national enemy number one.

The UK of course has a bit of a history in Iran. If we just take the period after the outbreak of World War II, the British helped depose the country's then leader, Reza Pahlavi, installing his son Mohammad, the last shah, in his place. Later, in 1953, Iran's prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, who nationalized the assets of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, was ousted in a coup organized by the Americans and the British. More recently the UK has sided with the US in calling for tougher sanctions against Iran for continuing with its nuclear program.

But even the most ardent anti-British conspiracy theorist would be hard pressed to believe that Brown had orchestrated the last fortnight of street demonstrations that have taken place across Iran. Brown couldn't even organize enough of his supporters to go out and vote for him in the UK during this month's European and local elections in which his party suffered a humiliating defeat. The idea that he somehow had the means to get Iranians into the streets beggared belief.

It is true that Brown's criticism of the Iranian government's behavior over the last fortnight has been slightly less restrained than that of Obama, at least early on when the demonstrations started. While White House officials initially said Obama was merely "concerned" about events following Ahmadinejad's election victory, Brown said the violence being meted out to demonstrators was "unacceptable" and "deplorable."

But words are cheap, and that was as far as Brown was willing to go until Iran took the decision to give two of Britain's diplomats in Tehran their marching orders. Once that happened, the British government had no choice but to expel two Iranian diplomats in response. Now Brown is desperately keen to draw a line under the whole affair.

Sources within government insist there are no plans to increase existing sanctions or take any further action against Iran. A Foreign Office insider told me this week: "We are not stepping anything up." Indeed, following the diplomatic expulsions the British government is keen to "keep the door open" to allow the Iranian regime to "improve relations."

Iran's nuclear program is what is driving Brown's, and indeed Obama's policy, not civil rights or outrage over the deaths of innocents. An official statement on the expulsion of the diplomats sent to me by the Foreign Office devoted more space to concerns about Iran's nuclear program than it did to the bogus election result and the deaths of demonstrators.

There is also the real fear that Britain's embassy in Tehran could be targeted. Earlier this week the government evacuated the families of embassy staff and there have been reports of British nationals being arrested in recent days.

This is the backdrop to Brown and Foreign Secretary David Miliband's insistence this week that the outcome of Iran's presidential election was for the country's people alone to decide. The Council of Guardians, the unelected committee overseeing Iran's elections, took Miliband and Brown at their word. On Tuesday the council upheld Ahmadinejad's victory despite admitting a day earlier that there were a number of voting inconsistencies. For the record these inconsistencies included the fact that the number of votes in 50 cities exceeded by 3 million the number of voters actually registered.

So despite the row marked by the expulsions and a clear stepping up of Obama's rhetoric in recent days, the reality is that the UK wants to move on before things get any worse. There are no easy answers when it comes to Iran. That's the problem with despotic governments.
Michael Glackin is former Managing Editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Can the UK afford its Washington ties?

The Daily Star
1 June 2009
By Michael Glackin

A week, they say, is a long time in politics. And so it seems like an eternity since British Prime Minister Gordon Brown proclaimed to the nation that he had a "moral compass" that guided all his decisions and underpinned his policies. Today, less than two years on, his moral compass looks more like a defective traffic direction finder, the kind you rip out of your car because it can't tell right from left, or in Brown's case, right from wrong.
In case you missed it, the United Kingdom is enduring an unending moral sclerosis within Parliament. Members of Parliament from all parties have been exposed for scandalously misusing their generous expense allowances to line their own pockets, enriching themselves and their families. The public outrage is such that some parliamentarians have returned money or decided not to seek re-election. So far, a minister and the Speaker of the House of Commons have been forced out of office.
A fish of course rots from the head down. Brown has been exposed for using taxpayers' money to pay his brother for "cleaning services," and he has also claimed tens of thousands of pounds of public money for running and renovating two different homes. The prime minister's manipulation of the system is far from the most blatant. But the expenses scandal is just the latest to envelop him and call into question his cultivated image as a model of probity and integrity.
The impact of all this on British policy in the Middle East and Afghanistan should not be overlooked. In his struggle to hold the fast disintegrating ring at home, Brown has given up foreign affairs unless it offers him a decent photo opportunity. Unfortunately, the only international photo worth having today usually involves US president Barack Obama, and much to Brown's chagrin opportunities for him there are very limited.
Even allowing for the usual fawning over American presidents that British politicians indulge in to give credence to the "special relationship," Brown's overt desperation to get close to Obama in the hope that some of the president's stardust might fall on him has been embarrassing.
Obama knows a lame duck when he sees one and is already looking beyond Brown. When the president visited the UK in April for the G-20 summit he went out of his way to meet the opposition Conservative leader David Cameron. It was also noticeable that US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton took time out to hold a meeting with the Conservative's shadow foreign secretary, William Hague.
The "special relationship" isn't so special these days. Unlike Tony Blair and George W. Bush, or indeed Blair and Bill Clinton, Brown does not enjoy a close personal bond with Obama. At the same time, unlike many of his predecessors, Obama has no great affection for the UK. Whereas Clinton was a former Rhodes Scholar who enjoyed Oxford University and much else that the swinging 1960s in England had to offer, Obama was exposed to a very different side of British culture which saw his grandfather tortured by British soldiers during Kenya's Mau Mau rebellion.
Right now the US president is angry at the UK's response, not to mention the rest of Europe, to his call for more military aid in Afghanistan.
Brown was of course the only Western leader to offer substantial help, and Britain remains the principal contributor of troops to the Afghan conflict after America. But Brown's decision to send just a temporary force of 700 British troops to join the 8,300 already in Helmand and provide security during the August election, fell way short of the thousands of troops Obama was hoping to get from the prime minister as the UK pulls out of Iraq. It also falls short of the 10,000 permanent troops British military chiefs insist is necessary to bring stability to the Helmand-Kandahar region.
But Brown has domestic reasons for resisting Obama's and his own generals' pleas. The human sacrifice - this weekend saw the death of the 164th British soldier in the conflict - and the increasing financial burden, which will see the cost of the conflict hit $3.6 billion in 2008-2009, up from $2.4 billion the year before, are fast becoming unacceptable to UK voters. Meanwhile new laws proposed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai sanctioning child marriage and marital rape leave many voters questioning what kind of regime British troops are dying to establish in Afghanistan.
Consequently, much as Brown wants to bask in the glow of the "special relationship" he has no intention of adding to his many domestic woes by sinking deeper into an unpopular war. Brown's priority is political survival and further commitments to Afghanistan do nothing to help him in that quest.
Although Brown will almost certainly lead his party into a humiliating defeat in June's European Parliament elections and later national elections, the current scandal surrounding parliamentary expenses may lessen the scale of the defeat because support for the Conservatives has also been hit. Brown may even decide to take a calculated gamble and call a national election in the autumn, six months before he has to, and before he is tainted by anything else.
But whenever the election takes place, the UK will have a new government. And while it too will extol the "special relationship" it will be just as unwilling to pay the price demanded by Washington for it as the current government. The country needs some time alone with its scandals.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.

Monday, 23 March 2009

The UK chats up Hizbullah ... again

Friday 20 March 2009
The Daily Star
By Michael Glackin

How angry is the White House with the United Kingdom for opening talks with Hizbullah? Judging by the tirade of criticism that emanated from the US State Department last week, the answer is very angry indeed.

Despite the fact that President Barack Obama is making overtures to those the Bush White House once deemed untouchable, it is clear from the comments coming out of Washington that this new policy has its limits.

The US of course has a particular problem with Hizbullah, which it believes was behind the bomb attack that killed 241 US Marines in Beirut in 1983. But you could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the White House, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare, "doth protest too much" and is privately content with the UK's attempts to fly solo.

This would perhaps better explain why the UK suddenly appears to be abandoning its recent record of unquestioning acquiescence to US policy and is publicly cocking a snook at its ally, the special relationship and the most popular leader in the world at the moment.

It's worth pointing out that these latest talks, which were officially sanctioned in the summer of 2008, actually represent a resumption rather than an entirely new policy. UK talks with Hizbullah go back as far as 2001 and only stopped during the turmoil following the Hariri assassination. Therefore, over the last eight years or so the UK has spent more time talking to Hizbullah than ignoring it.

The catalyst for the current resumption was Hizbullah's decision to join Lebanon's national unity government in May 2008. A Foreign Office official told me this provided the British government with a "window of opportunity to engage Hizbullah by opening low level talks to encourage it to play a more positive role in politics." The Foreign Office insists it is talking to what it calls Hizbullah's "political wing," and will not hold discussions with the movement's "military wing."

Of course, this "window of opportunity" opened because Hizbullah, its "military wing" included, orchestrated a wave of civil unrest, followed by a military takeover of western Beirut, that substantially weakened the democratic government, including a parliamentary majority that had been targeted by a succession of (unsolved) murders of several of its members.

It is this, among other things, that has apparently so annoyed the Americans. While the UK has opted to compartmentalize Hizbullah's political, social and military functions, Washington insists that Hizbullah's leadership is so integrated that any attempt to separate its various activities is foolhardy.

But one cannot escape the feeling that the Obama administration is perfectly at ease with the UK's engagement of Hizbullah. In the space of a few months Obama has moved away from the Bush policy of isolating so-called rogue states to engaging them. Obama is preparing, according to The Los Angeles Times, to send a secret message to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, inviting him to open a clandestine "back channel" for direct talks between Washington and Tehran. Indeed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has invited Iran to this month's international conference on Afghanistan at The Hague. Meanwhile US officials, among them the acting US assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, have begun talks with Syrian officials.

Arguably, British policy is merely seeking to get a step ahead of the US, as opposed to its previous policy of following Washington's lead. The Foreign Office is keen to stress that the move to engage Hizbullah should be seen "purely within the context of Lebanon's political scene." However, insiders concede it is also part of a "wider approach" in the Middle East.

The British foreign secretary, David Miliband, has already broken bread with President Bashar Assad in Damascus. Last weekend a former minister, Clare Short, a left-wing Labor parliamentarian, also visited Damascus where she met with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and called for the UK to end its boycott of the Palestinian group. The meeting was well publicized, in contrast to several low-profile visits that other British politicians have made to Meshaal over the last year.

Short was not representing the government of course, and for the record the Foreign Office still insists there are "absolutely no plans" to open talks with Hamas. An official told me: "If there's a lesson for Hamas in our low-level talks with Hizbullah it is that if it decides to agree to the Quartet principles, the door would be open." Perhaps I missed Hizbullah's announcement that it was renouncing violence, throwing down its arms and recognizing Israel. But there is clearly a pattern emerging that a more softly softly approach, which for now includes contact with Hizbullah, but before long is likely to include Hamas too, is now central to UK policy.

The previous policy of isolating enemies and promoting liberal democracy is in pieces, broken by its own failure. The West has so far failed to thwart Iran's ambitions to become a nuclear power. Israeli military actions have strengthened both Hamas and Hizbullah. Security may have at long last improved in Iraq, or at least enough for coalition troops to depart, but Afghanistan remains a disaster and neighboring Pakistan is now a political basket case as well. Large parts of Pakistan's northwest are firmly under the control of the Taliban with tacit government approval. The West cannot allow Pakistan to become another Afghanistan any more than it can sit back and allow Iran to join the nuclear club.

The UK, like the US, wants to draw a line through what has gone on before and clearly feels the interlocking relationships between Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas is a good place to start. The fates of all four are inextricably entwined, and with them the future of Lebanon. The question that remains unanswered is what price Lebanon will pay for this change of policy, particularly in the run up to elections in June?

When I put this question to the Foreign Office the official said: "We don't seek to empower one movement over another. We are supportive of the Siniora government and our talks with Hizbullah do not change that."

So that's alright then. But official talks offer Hizbullah, or its political wing, an official sanction that may well undermine political parties that don't have a "military wing," those that rely on elections to bring down governments.

The government often cites the lessons learned through the peace process in Northern Ireland when discussing the Middle East. But it is worth remembering that the moderate political parties quickly lost ground to the extremists once the government opened a dialogue with them. The two moderate Northern Ireland politicians who won the Nobel Prize in 1998, John Hume and David Trimble, both lost their parliamentary seats to more extremist parties a few years afterward.

Of course the advances in Northern Ireland, notwithstanding the recent outbreak of violence, have been fantastic. But crucially the IRA leadership told the British government that "the war was over" before formal talks began. Has Hizbullah given a similar assurance? I doubt if it was even asked.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper THE DAILY STAR.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

The gun gets an olive branch

Wednesday 18 March 2009
NOW Lebanon
By Michael Glackin

Britain reaches out to Hezbollah

Those in Britain with an interest in political Islam suffered a blow over the weekend when it emerged that a Hezbollah official, Ibrahim Moussawi, would not be allowed into the United Kingdom to lecture on the subject at the School of Oriental and African Studies later this month.

The Home Office, the department responsible for the banning order, does not comment on individual cases, but department insiders told me that Moussawi’s application for a visa was denied on the basis that his presence in the UK “was not conducive to the public good.” It’s worth pointing out that Moussawi can appeal the decision, although the process is unlikely to offer him much comfort.

Moussawi will probably feel hard done by. Quite why his presence is now suddenly “not conducive to the public good” after he happily visited Britain’s shores last year and in 2007 without interference is a bit of a mystery. During Moussawi’s previous trips, Hezbollah was a proscribed movement. Now when the British authorities are openly talking to Hezbollah, he has suddenly found himself persona non grata.

Confused? Well it’s not the only confusing occurrence in the UK’s relationship with Hezbollah in the last week. Earlier this month Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell, whose remit includes the Middle East, caused consternation when he announced that the government had just “reconsidered” its policy toward Hezbollah and would now talk to ‘‘carefully selected’’ contacts within the movement’s “political wing” – by which he meant members of parliament.

Unfortunately for Rammell, the policy he thought he was unveiling has been in existence for almost a year, and was first revealed in July 2008, five months after Moussawi’s last visit to the UK. In fact, the policy is even older than that. In December 2001, then-British Ambassador to Lebanon Richard Kinchen met with the secretary general of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah. This “official contact” lasted until 2005, and ended because of a combination of factors, including the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and the fact that it was yielding little positive results.

Putting aside Rammell’s blushes, not to mention his ignorance of his own department’s policy, the catalyst and purpose for this not-so-new approach was explained to me by a friendly but unenlightening Foreign Office spokesperson. She told me that Hezbollah’s decision to join the Lebanese national-unity government – which of course came about after it brought the country to a standstill and used force against the existing government – provided an opportunity for the UK to “engage Hezbollah.”

This meant that the British ambassador in Lebanon has been given permission to open what the Foreign Office describes as “low-level talks” with the aim of “encouraging Hezbollah to take a more positive role in the political process.” The government’s objectives are straightforward: “We want Hezbollah to disarm and stop supporting terrorism and participate in Lebanese politics as a democratic party. This dialogue helps us communicate these points to Hezbollah,” the spokesperson said.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Hezbollah was already aware of what the UK and most Western governments wanted them to do for some time now. But in the spirit of this engagement, Moussawi was probably looking forward to explaining how these aspirations fit in with Hezbollah’s view of “political Islam” to a British audience, which was set to include a number of Foreign Office staff members.

Actually, Moussawi found himself caught up in purely domestic row. The government was heavily criticized after it banned Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders from entering the UK earlier this year for a screening of his controversial film “Fitna” – which links Islam to terrorism – at the House of Lords. The government faced accusations of being tough on critics of Islam and soft on Muslim extremists. The public perception that the British government is soft on Muslim extremism was further evidenced for many when a handful of such extremists were allowed to protest last week during a parade for soldiers returning from Iraq.

Moussawi aside, the new British policy toward Hezbollah is broadly in line with Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s speech in India earlier this year, when he poured scorn on the idea of the “war on terror”. It can also be viewed as part of what US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton calls America’s “smart diplomacy”, although the White House insists, for now at any rate, that it will not talk to anyone from Hezbollah.

Has the UK’s olive branch to Hezbollah achieved anything?

The Foreign Office insists it is too early to say if the approach is working. The spokesperson said, “The jury’s still out. We’ll assess it on a regular basis. There is no open-ended check here.” But with Lebanon’s elections just under three months away, there may be some who think this very public rapprochement with Hezbollah, by a government that just a year ago was one of its most vociferous critics, will be money in the bank for the party on polling day. Maybe Rammell isn’t as ignorant as we thought.
Michael Glackin, a UK based journalist and former managing editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of NOW Lebanon.

Monday, 2 March 2009

British Conservatives and the Middle East

The Daily Star
Tuesday 3 March 2009
By Michael Glackin

Gordon Brown's government is in its death throes, propelled there by a recession, rising unemployment and a succession of revelations highlighting ministerial sleaze. The odds on Brown being prime minister after an election, which he must call before May 2010, are long indeed.

The latest opinion polls reveal the government is trailing the opposition Conservative Party by 16 points and is now just three points ahead of the much smaller Liberal Democrats.

So what can the Middle East expect from a future Conservative government?

Speaking to me earlier this month David Lidington, the Conservative shadow minister for foreign affairs and the party's Middle East spokesperson, outlined what the region could expect from a Conservative government, and made it clear that lofty ideals such as democracy will no longer be the yardstick for measuring political progress in the region.

"The experience of Iraq and Afghanistan has given us a more sober assessment about how difficult it is to introduce political reform," Lidington told me. "I think we've learned that it is very difficult to impose democracy by force, particularly by foreign force, and that democracy in terms of votes and competing political parties is not enough."

Lidington said a Conservative government would remain "very interested" in human rights and democratic reform, but it is clear that stability, not democracy, will be the guiding principle of Conservative Middle East policy. "We are not starry eyed about the ability of Britain or even a country as powerful as the United States simply to snap its fingers and impose such a system on places with their own cultures and histories," he explained. "I would hope that we will see the development of democratic and plural institutions in the Middle East in different countries, but in each country it will have to be in a fashion that takes account of the particular history and culture of that nation."

On one level this "more sober assessment" is a reflection of the policy shift in the corridors of power of Washington and London. But this sort of realpolitik in Middle East affairs has never been far from the surface of Conservative policy. When the American and British government, along with France, cold shouldered Syria in the wake of the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, the Conservative Party continued to talk to President Bashar Assad's regime.

Lidington has long believed Western attempts to isolate Syria have failed. Britain and France have already undergone a Damascene conversion and the obvious desire of US President Barack Obama to bury the hatchet that his predecessor waved over Assad's head is the latest vindication of his party's policy of maintaining a dialogue with Damascus.

But you get nothing for nothing in international diplomacy, and as the West rushes to bring Syria in from the cold, many people in the Middle East, particularly the Lebanese, wonder what price will be paid for this rapprochement? Many wonder whether the Hariri Tribunal, which begins operating this week but will not hear testimony before next year, might now grind to a halt as Syria's international rehabilitation gathers pace.

No says Lidington. "We haven't moved from our position supporting the Hariri Tribunal. But, we do take the view that you need to talk to governments even when you have the most profound differences with them. I certainly take the view that efforts to isolate a government are rarely effective and probably breed greater risk of misunderstanding. That doesn't mean you take on trust everything that another government says to you, you have to sup with long spoons."

But why stop at Damascus? If you can use a long spoon to sup with a regime that the UN has implicated in a terror attack on another state then why not use it to sup with Hamas, or Hizbullah? Both groups have successfully contested elections that were more open and democratic than those won by Assad and the Baath Party in Syria. Both groups are also crucial to any hopes of stability in the region. Do they not fall into the "more sober assessment" category?

Lidington agrees both groups are central to creating a stable Middle East, but insists the United Kingdom must distinguish between the governments of a sovereign nation, in this case Assad and Syria, and a group which "openly advocates violence."

"I would accept that Hamas has electoral support and it does represent a significant strand of Palestinian opinion," he said. "But I think that if we are going to deal with it as a party to Middle East diplomacy that can only be on the basis that it has committed itself to being a political movement rather than a movement based on violence."

Lidington concedes his party has what he calls "channels of communication" with Hamas through some of its backbench MPs and contacts in various NGOs, but insists no direct talks will take place until Hamas renounces violence for good and formally recognizes Israel.

Despite this there is strong support within the Conservative Party for direct talks with Hamas. Former Conservative ministers Michael Ancram and Chris Patten, both of whom were involved in the Northern Ireland peace process, recently called for the scrapping of preconditions on talks with Hamas, insisting the group should only be required to halt its violence, not renounce it entirely, to join peace negotiations.

Bearing in mind the Conservatives' willingness to cock a snoot at both the US and UK government over Syria, it doesn't take a great leap of imagination to see a situation where a Conservative government would be prepared to break bread with Hamas or indeed Hizbullah if it felt it was in the UK's wider interests. While describing Hizbullah as a terror group on the one hand, Lidington also insists it is "an authentic movement," because of its strong electoral support, and as such would have to be part of any Middle East peace settlement.

"You cannot disentangle Hizbullah from broader questions of the Middle East. If you think about prospects of a deal between Israel and Syria over the Golan you can sketch quite easily the territorial demarcation lines; but I cannot see any Israeli government finalizing a deal without some firm assurances concerning the supply of arms to Hizbullah across Syrian territory. When you start getting into that discussion you're immediately talking about the relationship of Hizbullah to Iran as well. These are all part of a broader regional picture."

Whether you see the Conservative Party's "more sober assessment" of the region's future as a long overdue correction or a contradictory and indeed dangerous policy, one thing is certain: The West now appears to view the idea of Middle East democracy with the same disdain it once had for Soviet Communism. It is fast becoming the doctrine that can no longer speak its name in this part of the world.
Michael Glackin is former manging editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

British reserve

20 January 2009
Now Lebanon
By Michael Glackin
Despite the criticism at home directed at the UK’s Labour government for its stance on the Israeli offensive in Gaza, the UK’s Mideast policy has little impact; the policy that matters is on the other side of the Atlantic.

"Most of my family were killed in the Holocaust. In Poland, my grandmother was shot dead in her bed by a German soldier. She was too ill to get up you see, so he shot her. But none of that justifies Israel murdering Palestinians."

Sir Gerald Kaufman, veteran Labour Member of Parliament and former minister was talking to me just before he had to rush off to take part in a parliamentary debate on the latest Gaza conflict late on Thursday afternoon.

Kaufman, who is Jewish, is a long standing supporter of Israel, though a vociferous critic of both its current government and of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. But Kaufman is not blind to the Real Politik of the Middle East. He voted in favour of the invasion of Iraq, and more recently voted against a parliamentary investigation into the war.

During Thursday's three hour debate he told parliament the Israeli government was "cynically exploiting the continuing guilt from gentiles over the slaughter of Jews in the Holocaust as justification for their murder of Palestinians". He said the Israeli claim that 500 of the 1,000 Palestinian victims of the conflict were militants "was the reply of the Nazi" and added: "I suppose Jews fighting for their lives in the Warsaw ghetto could have been dismissed as militants."

The debate revealed how out of step the UK government's inertia on the continuing violence is with parliamentarians of all political parties. It also follows two weekends of demonstrations in most of the UK's major cities against the Israeli offensive.

Opposition Conservative MP Hugo Swire, who chairs the Conservative Middle East Council and also supported the invasion of Iraq, called on the government to open talks with Hamas. He insisted the elected Hamas administration in Gaza had a more democratic mandate than Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas has of course ruled by decree for the last two years and the Palestinian Legislative Council in Ramallah has not met for more than a year.

Another Conservative, former Northern Ireland minister Michael Ancram, said he had spoken to Hamas leaders who were willing to acknowledge the existence of Israel, but added Israel's actions made it harder for moderates to win support.

In addition to several calls for economic sanctions against Israel, a number of MPs called on the government to recall the UK ambassador from Israel and expel the Israeli Ambassador from the UK.

But lively as the debate was, it is extremely unlikely to have any impact on what passes for government policy on the conflict.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband missed the debate because he was visiting India. But speaking in parliament earlier in the week he insisted the ill fated UK authored UN resolution calling for a cease fire was evidence of the government's hard work and commitment to solving the conflict despite the fact that it was ignored by both sides and only passed after America agreed to abstain rather than use its veto. If this kind of abject failure is how the government measures success I'd hate to see what it considers failure.

Miliband firmly ruled out severing diplomatic ties or imposing sanctions, insisting that would simply isolate Israel. He also ruled out talks with Hamas. He did call for abuse allegations made by both sides to be investigated, although he neglected to say who should investigate them.

Israel has twice bombed United Nations buildings in Gaza during this offensive – insisting missiles had been fired from the premises, something the UN vehemently, and it seems quite rightly, deny. Therefore it is unlikely Tel Aviv will consider a UN led investigation to be entirely impartial. Mind you, considering the UN's long running probe into former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri's murder has so far yielded little, this may be a good thing. For the record, the Foreign Office had no idea who would carry out such an investigation either.

Meanwhile, as the violence in Gaza intensified, Quartet Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair was busy accepting the presidential medal of freedom from outgoing US president George W Bush for his support in the war on terror – a phrase Miliband poured scorn on during a speech in Mumbai this week.

Yet for all the criticism of the government, it should be remembered the UK is a bit player in all this. For that matter so too are the Palestinians. Israel has the support of the world's only superpower, and in reality, as the last eight years have shown, it doesn't have to talk to anyone outside of Washington. Hence Hamas - whose electoral success represents Palestinians anger at the failure of anybody to do anything about their plight - and with it Gaza, remain beyond the Pale.

The obscenity here is that Israel is well aware that negotiations with a weakend and all but bankrupt Abbas, such as the now dead in the water Annapolis talks, are pointless. Having been ousted from Gaza, Abbas' authority is now seriously under threat in the West Bank. Annapolis, which Abbas supposed would lead to a comprehensive agreement with Israel by the end of 2008, has instead led to the death of at least 292 children in Gaza since the offensive started, none of whom voted for Hamas in the last election, along with the death of more than 700 adults.

Will this change when the new administration starts work this week?

The former Northern Ireland minister Ancram made a telling point during the parliamentary debate when he said peace in Northern Ireland was only achieved when the White House became heavily involved and former US senator George Mitchell took charge of chairing the talks process. He called on incoming president Barak Obama to make a similar commitment to the Middle East.

Meanwhile, the government here will continue to watch and wait until Israel decides its time to stop hostilities. Welcome to 2009.
Michael Glackin is a journalist and former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.