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.