Category Archives: Foreign Policy

Trump ought to keep his paw out of the North Korean beehive

I sometimes wonder if Donald Trump has ever picked up a history book, or one covering war or geopolitics. It wouldn’t surprise me if he hasn’t, but he ought to.

I hold out a slither of hope that his advisers are at least more intelligent than he is, because if they aren’t, the United States could be sticking its hand rather naively into a hustling North Korean beehive.

If the president knew anything about Pyongyang’s foreign policy, he would know that missile tests are neither new nor particularly threatening.

During his eighteen year tenure, Kim Jong-il carried out plenty of missile tests, including nuclear ones, and usually for the purpose of playing a little political brinkmanship.

Under Jong-un, this trend has continued, and the endgame is the same. North Korea wants concessions and reassurances, not war. It is a country that can barely feed its people and a place in which electricity shortages are commonplace.

Pyongyang’s behaviour on the international stage has always has a perversely rational tinge to it. In the early 1990s, the communist pariah state’s first missile tests lured the Clinton administration into fruitful negotiations.

A deal known as the Framework Agreement (signed in October 1994) allowed for a sensible trade-off between North Korea and Bill Clinton’s United States: no more nuclear weapons development for relief of military hostility and economic sanctions.

Then again in 2005, after President Bush’s ideological dismantling of the countries’ relationship, Pyongyang offered Washington another deal which explained:

“The D.P.R.K. committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to IAEA safeguards.”

The BBC notes in a timeline of DPRK-US nuclear talks that on December 20th 2005, “North Korea says it intends to resume building nuclear reactors, because the US had pulled out of a key deal to build it two new reactors.” The potential for progress between Jong-il and Bush was thus quashed.

There are more lengthy accounts of negotiations between the two countries available online, and given that I only intend to show that non-military avenues have not been exhausted, I do not need to reproduce them in their entirety.

The Trump administration must surely be aware of this important history. If it is, then it knows that war isn’t even close to being necessary. Without negotiations that produce a long-term agreement between Washington and Pyongyang, tensions will continuously resurface.

I have chosen thus far to remain objective about Donald Trump’s presidency, opting not to jump on nauseating pro or anti bandwagons. But Trump’s strike on the Assad regime in Khan Shaykhun the week before last and the use of a 21,000lb bomb in Afghanistan at the weekend tell me that old presidential patterns could be emerging.

A trigger happy state like the United States has employed the sledgehammer technique time and time again, often under the guise of fanciful democracy promotion.

‘Smash everything into pieces, and then when that doesn’t work and new problems spring up, smash those problems into tiny pieces too’.

It seems to me that as we move from a hegemonic world in which Washington could more or less control global affairs into a more nuanced, multi-polar world, with new threats and competing powers, the only noticeable foreign policy strategy coming out of the United States appears to be: ‘suppress any and all stability emerging on the doorsteps of our rivals’.

So in the case of North Korea, it is difficult to ignore the possibility of Trumpian pre-emptive strikes. Any missile attacks on North Korea would be both laughably unnecessary and, perhaps more importantly, intolerable in Beijing.

For China, the prospect of an unstable North Korea, shattered by military action and hollowed out by inevitable droves of fleeing refugees, must be avoided at all costs.

Donald Trump may think, based on his action in Syria, that his military endeavours are isolated incidents and that they will not have long lasting ramifications, but as ever he’d be mistaken. If he strikes Jong-un’s regime, he’ll have lost any remnant of support I ever had for him.

North Korea’s vice-foreign minister Han Song-ryol told the BBC today: “If the United States encroaches on our sovereignty, then it will provoke an immediate counter-reaction.” This seems to me reasonable. I would expect no less than if Trump were to attack Britain.

North Korea undoubtedly lacks a moral compass, but this does not make its declarations of sovereignty or its military mobilisation irrational. Pyongyang does behave outlandishly, but as a stagnant pond left after the departing tides of the Cold War, it was always going to attract unique scepticism.

I ask readers to draw inspiration from past diplomatic successes before succumbing to the appeal of yet another completely unnecessary war.


An analysis of the gathering storm clouds over the Korean peninsula

Back in January, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a respected academic journal collating the world’s leading thinkers on global security and threats, altered their ‘Doomsday clock’ (initially established upon the founding of the agency in 1947), setting it to two and a half minutes to midnight. Midnight, of course, meaning: it’s over.

I am astonished the re-setting didn’t get more pertinent media coverage. This is, after all, the most respected journal on nuclear affairs, and any warning signal given by specialists in the field should be treated very seriously indeed.

The clock has been this late before, I should inform readers. The atomic analysts set it to two minutes to midnight back in 1953, upon the ending of the Korean War and heightened hostilities between the world’s two superpowers.

This morning I went back and read their reasonably short and concise report in light of the geo-political movements of recent days. It can be read here, for anybody interested. 

Particularly fascinating are the following two passages, which can be found on pages 3 and 7 respectively, precisely because they articulate North Korea’s role in both the intensifying of friction between nuclear powers and the adjusting of the Doomsday clock:

“North Korea conducted two more nuclear weapons tests, the second, in September, yielding about twice the explosive power of the first, in January. Pyongyang also relentlessly tested missiles, achieving a rate of about two launches per month in 2016. In his 2017 New Year’s statement, Kim Jong-un declared he would soon test a missile with an intercontinental range.”

…and

“The United States, China, Russia, and other concerned nations engage with North Korea to reduce nuclear risks. Neighbours in Asia face the most urgent threat, but as North Korea improves its nuclear and missile arsenals, the threat will rapidly become global. As we said last year and repeat here: Now is not the time to tighten North Korea’s isolation but to engage seriously in dialogue.”

I have thought for a while that North Korea, not ISIS, would prove to be Donald Trump’s biggest foreign policy challenge. This was primarily because, towards the latter stages of the previous United States administration, ISIS lost a lot of ground both in Syria and Iraq, whilst North Korea ramped up their nuclear development program. One threat seems to have leapfrogged the other.

The world appears to be inching towards nuclear conflict and an increasing proportion of hostilities are being driven by officials in Pyongyang. But we didn’t necessarily have to have arrived here. It is worth examining historical records.

In 1994 the United States and the DPRK signed what was coined in Washington as the ‘Framework Agreement’. The deal prescribed that the U.S withdraw hostile, pre-emptive military acts in the Korean peninsula and embark upon comprehensive trade and diplomatic relations, in exchange for an easing on economic sanctions and a halting to the development of North Korean nuclear weapons.

The agreement was successful, until about six years later when George W Bush became U.S president. He immediately dismissed the deal and re-imposed harsh sanctions, before labelling North Korea as the third wheel in what he referred to as the ‘axis of evil’.

Richard Perle, the former chair of the Defense Policy Board which advised the Bush administration’ Defense Department, said of the 1994 Framework Agreement that “the basic structure of the relationship implied in the Framework Agreement…is a relationship between a blackmailer and one who pays a blackmailer.”

In the mind of President Bush, Perle had painted the nature of the Clinton administration’s agreement with North Korea in a misleading fashion, and it may have resulted in a warping of Bush’s attitude towards dealing with the North Korean problem. So US-DPRK ties soured and North Korea resumed its nuclear weapons program.

But, a few years later in 2005, a new agreement was proposed. Pyongyang asked Washington to cease engaging in hostile military acts, to bring an end to crippling economic sanctions (effectively a non-aggression pact) and to enact provisions over a system to provide North Korea with low-enriched uranium for scientific purposes. In return, they promised to suspend their nuclear weapons program. I think this, much like the 1994 Accords, was a reasonable proposal.

Bush did not accept the agreement; something we now know to be a mistake. If we look at the situation now it appears as if, by flouting openly their nuclear progress, North Korea are beckoning for the United States to offer them some kind of deal.

They know that if they want something from the global hegemon, developing weapons is the only action they can carry out that will garner its attention and lure it into a dialogue. In a perverse way it is actually extremely sensible.

No longer can they wholeheartedly rely on the Chinese, too. China has grown increasingly frustrated with its communist neighbour, understandably tense parked next to a promiscuous nuclear state on the Asian continent and worried about a large-scale build up of refugees on the border that the two countries share (this could very well be why the Chinese have warned the US about war escalation).

The concern for the region now is a question of how far Pyongyang is willing to go with its nuclear program. Is it merely trying to attract the attention of the United States, as it has done so repeatedly over the past two and a half decades, with its long held aim of creating nuclear missiles capable of reaching continental America?

If the United States is to act quickly, it will have three options: intensive discussion starting soon, pre-emptive military strikes (which I think will happen) or harsher economic sanctions, which have been tried time and time again and usually result in strengthening Pyongyang’s intransigence in developing nuclear weapons.

John Delury, a professor of Chinese studies at Seoul University, wrote recently for Foreign Affairs: “North Korea will start focusing on its prosperity instead of its self-preservation only once it no longer has to worry about its own destruction. And North Korea will consider surrendering its nuclear deterrent only once it feels secure and prosperous and is economically integrated into Northeast Asia.”

I think he is correct. Pyongyang seeks reassurances, and will continue to pursue them aggressively. Kim Jong-un has already proven himself to be more forceful than his predecessor, conducting 35 missile tests and four nuclear missiles in his four years at the head of the North Korean regime. Jong-Un will also want to present his country as a force so as to incentivise his neighbours to act in ways that will calm his regime. There certainly seems to be a Machiavellian motive to all this.

Washington, on the other hand, is once again bemused. It is trying to figure out what its approach ought to be towards the DPRK. I fear we will see yet another display of Trumpist unilateral bombing, irrespective of China’s desperation for North Korea to remain as stable as it can possibly be.


Britain is leaving the EU, and she’s taking Gibraltar with her

During last year’s referendum, Remain voters were unfairly labelled as unpatriotic. I preferred not to charge those on the other side with this accusation, as I believe that patriotism can be expressed in various forms.

But I am dismayed by festering support amongst Remainers for Spain in its quest to power share over Gibraltar. This is a fundamentally un-British stance.

It is perfectly reasonable to oppose Brexit, and indeed to dread the magnitude of negotiations ahead, but to side with a potential opponent over territory belonging to the United Kingdom must be avoided.

Part of the problem here is that I don’t think the future of Gibraltar was as prominent an issue as it perhaps should have been during our country’s EU debate. Why it wasn’t remains clear: it simply doesn’t affect that many people, but it does raise wider questions about the impact of a breaking of political union on geo-political disputes.

Remain voters may point to a Spanish claim of sovereignty over Gibraltar – or at least calls for joint control – as evidence that Brexit was a mistake, but in actual fact, this is a poor excuse. Spain’s use of Gibraltar as a bargaining chip in Britain’s exit talks was to be expected, but ultimately is nothing more than political opportunism.

Spanish protests of this kind are nothing new. In 2002, residents of Gibraltar (who I remind readers are culturally and officially British) overwhelmingly rejected joint-control. I wonder if, should they intensify, NATO will step in and try to broker a deal between Spain and Britain, who have been officially allies since 1834 and cooperate extensively in military endeavours.

The EU may have said that decisions affecting Gibraltar must be run past the Spanish government, but the people of the rock have themselves made it clear that they seek to live under British rule, and subsequently, the UK government has the right and responsibility to protect them at all costs.

Britain’s continued claim of sovereignty over the territory of Gibraltar has absolutely no bearing on whether or not she is a member of the European Union. Spain surrendered the territory in 1713 under Article X of the Treaty of Utrecht; a ceding of land that Remainers will be happy to note was legally binding.

For the record, I don’t think there will be an outbreak of war and I hope that there isn’t, but one cannot rule it out. These are, after all, extraordinary political times to live in. We saw in Ukraine only a few years ago what can happen when the European Union meddles in complex disputes between competing or historically intertwined European nations.

Of course, war is not ideal, but there is no better reason to go to war with a country than if that country decides to threaten the territorial sovereignty of another. If Argentina sent battleships to the Falkland Islands, I would expect a swift and aggressive military response.

I believe that Theresa May is willing to orchestrate a similar sort of response to that of Thatcher’s in 1982. She seems to me to have the necessary grit to stand up for British interests abroad, even if her government insists on extending its current policy of shredding our armed forces (and particularly our navy) into embarrassment.

In the event of military conflict, or in presupposition of it, serious manoeuvring of our naval fleet may have to take place. We don’t have the impressive arsenal that we once had. I don’t think a British response would be quick or orderly, and our nuclear weapons certainly won’t deter the Spaniards from making moves.

But make no mistake: Britain is leaving the European Union. And she’s taking Gibraltar with her.


Why defeating ISIS in Mosul is only the beginning for Iraq

The operation to liberate the ISIS stronghold of Mosul is underway, and some encouraging progress has already been made. The Iraqi military and the Peshmerga have recaptured a string of villages, including Nawaran and Khalidiya, and coalition forces are closing in on the centre of Mosul, where an intricate tunnelling network and a moat of oil tankers await them.

If all goes well, the offensive will last just a couple of months. Daesh know that they are running out of time and options in Iraq after a succession of heavy defeats. Ramadi, Baquba and Fallujah were all lost this year to strengthened Iraqi Armed Forces and huge efforts have also been made to attack IS communication through social media.

But let us not get ahead of ourselves. The battle ahead is crucial both for the future of Iraq and in the war against international terrorism, but it isn’t going to be as simple as a few territorial gains. Contingency planning must be precise in order to prevent a local backlash and conflict being waged amongst the powers engaged in the pursuit of ISIS.

It is very interesting, for example, that President Erdogan of Turkey has spent quite a bit of time in recent weeks citing the national oath; an oath which demands the restoration of both Kirkuk and Mosul to Turkish rule. Erdogan told the International Law Congress in Istanbul that it was ‘impossible to remain outside the Mosul equation’, and that “a history lies for us. If the gentlemen desire so, let them read the Misak-i Milli (National Oath) and understand what the place means to us.” A map proposed by the 1920 Ottoman oath can be seen here, clearly including large sections of Iraq: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misak-%C4%B1_Mill%C3%AE#/media/File:Misaki_Milli.jpg

Back in 1926, Turkey and Britain (then the regional colonial power) signed the Ankara Pact, upon the advice of the League of Nations Council, which officially designated Mosul to the newly established state of Iraq. Recep Erdogan, a staunch political conservative who maintains strong domestic support, may well be developing an imperial strategy in Iraq based on his country’s historical political aspirations.

It isn’t as crazy as it may seem. Strategic and territorial Turkish-Iraqi disputes are decades old. Take the case of Bashiqa, a town located 10 miles north of Mosul. Despite strong opposition from Iraq’s government, Turkey maintains a hefty military presence at its base there, and seems more than willing to use its troops to influence the campaign to rid northern Iraq of ISIS.

One side battle, therefore, is how to prevent almost inevitable military conflict brewing between Iraq and an ambitious state of Turkey. The BBC reported just two days ago that “US Secretary of Defence Ash Carter made the point explicitly at the end of last week when, on a visit to Baghdad, he reaffirmed “the vital importance of every country operating with full respect for Iraqi sovereignty”. His words were quite obviously directed at Erdogan. (One has to wonder what the implications for Turkey’s NATO membership would be if territorial goals in Iraq were pursued with vigour over the coming months)

Another battle is more subtle and less likely to be accurately reported on after the offensive is over. Gaining the support of the local population (an objective made harder to achieve by the strategic interests of competing regional powers) is crucial to Mosul’s long-term stability. Patrick Cockburn, one of Britain’s best foreign correspondents, wrote in his book The Rise of Islamic State that ‘the fall of Mosul was the result of a popular uprising as well as military assault. The Iraqi army was detested as a foreign occupying force of Shia soldiers, regarded in Mosul as creatures of an Iranian puppet regime led by Maliki’ (then the shia Prime Minister of Iraq).

Mosul, once a content city of two million Sunni Muslims (more recent population figures are rather difficult to obtain), objected fiercely to being defended by soldiers it regarded as alien. This civil dispute became a handy smokescreen and weakness for ISIS to exploit in the original battle for Mosul in June 2014. Local residents, however wary they were of the Islamic State’s intentions for the city, accepted that as a branch of Sunni Islam they represented the lesser of two evils.

Two years on, though, and it would seem that this is no longer true. The sheer barbarism of ISIS’ regime (recent chemical attacks, the mass execution of citizens and their use as human shields acting as depressing proof of this) has left thousands desperate for liberation. But will Iraqi Armed Forces, directed by the Shia Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, be able to regain the support of the locals who helped to drive them out two years ago? Will civilians in Mosul instead look to Turkey for solace after several years of disenchantment?

Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, revealed recently that his country’s plan was to create a safe haven for refugees in northern Iraq; a move that will certainly heighten Prime Minister Abadi’s sensitivities. Prime Minister Yildirim of Turkey suggested that a haven was necessary in order to protect citizens against what a called ‘a common threat’; namely, the PKK, but it would seem more likely that the policy is designed to grab a piece of the Iraqi pie and maximise influence in an oil-rich and strategically crucial part of the Middle East.

So defeating ISIS in Mosul may well be the easy part. Coordinating the removal of forces and winning over the local population whilst preserving Iraqi sovereignty in Mosul, on the other hand, could be the real battle ahead.


Russia, Iran, Syria and a whole load of hypocrisy

Some rather unsurprising developments caught my eye yesterday afternoon concerning the ongoing Syrian civil war and, in particular, the not-so-secret involvement of both Russia and Iran. Perhaps September 25th will have to go down as international hypocrisy day, as the two regional powers faced intense accusations from three western powers concerning what they called ‘war crimes’ in Syria. Three news articles in particular may interest readers at this blog:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-37468080 (accusation number 1, from an American diplomat at the UN)

http://www.itv.com/news/2016-09-25/russia-hits-back-at-boris-johnsons-syria-war-crime-slur/ (accusation number 2, this time from the United Kingdom’s new foreign secretary Al Johnson)

http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Iran-and-Russia-in-danger-of-becoming-war-crimes-accomplices-468663 (and finally a small contribution from French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault)

I must stress right away that I do not deny and have not denied the links between Iranian and Russian action in Syria and the intensifying civil war. Iran’s funding of terrorism in Syria; the tail country of the so-called ‘Shia crescent’ has been a continued and deliberate ploy to further destabilise a now ravaged and desperate nation. Russia’s bombing campaigns are hardly secret, and it would seem that agreed ceasefires with the United States (which are crucial to the fostering of any kind of productive or peaceful settlement) have gone largely ignored in the Kremlin.

I am personally convinced that the Russians and Iranians are sensing that the Syrian military are growing in confidence. Israeli commentator Yossi Melman recently attributed the shooting down of two Israeli aircraft in the Quneitra region on the part of Assad’s government to this renewed confidence. It is not hard to imagine that, given recent successes in Damascus against both non-aligned rebels and Islamic State, Assad’s forces are beginning to feel a sense of control once more.

The Syrian military are coming off the heels of a slightly more successful summer. Notable gains were made in Aleppo, and three strategic locations were wrestled from the al-Nusra front (Syria’s Al-Qaeda affiliate) in the western province of Hama. From the perspective of Russian and Iranian foreign policy and their diplomats, this would therefore seem a bad time to adhere to any proposed plans for a ceasefire. While momentum appears to be going the way of the Russian and Iranian-backed regime, why stop now?

You can see why western powers are frustrated. It is particularly amusing to see the ‘war crimes’ line thrown out in an attempt to demonise two countries following an entirely reasonable strategic goal (though the way it has without doubt been followed has been counter-productive to peace). War crimes have become a thing in the Middle East not in recent years, but in fact many years prior to the Arab Spring. But again, the question of hypocrisy comes ringing back to me.

The United States, Britain, France and Saudi Arabia do not, contrary to their claims, have any principled objections to war crimes in Syria. If they did, then why, as Patrick Cockburn notes in his fantastically concise book ‘The rise of Islamic State’, would they have sought to play such an active role in laying down the fertile soil out of which ISIS would grow. More recently, in fact, United States-led airstrikes killed 28 civilians in a ruthless attack on al-Ghandour, a small town in the northwestern countryside of Manbij.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – responsible for accounting for the suffering of non-combatants in the ongoing Syrian crisis – recently noted of the 28 innocents (allegedly including both women and children): “They were killed when the warplanes of the international coalition committed a massacre in the town of al-Ghandour, and the death toll is expected to rise because there are some people in critical situation.”

These points are made over and over again, but they are important. The Syrian civil war has long been a proxy for major powers to flex their military muscles in an attempt to further their own interests. How sad it is that so many young children have to pay the price for this never ending stupidity. Also stupid was the insinuation that Iran would support a ceasefire in Syria, even temporary, between the United States and Russia.

In the case of Syria, the strategic goals of Russia and the United States are in direct contravention to one another. Since Iran’s vision for Syria requires its tactical alliance with Russia to be maintained for the foreseeable future, it would appear that any longstanding ceasefire between the two major powers could threaten the political interests of Tehran in the Syrian conflict. President Rouhani said in an interview recently that to ground all planes would “benefit the terrorists 100%” as IS would be able to continue with their ‘savage killings’.

Both Iran and Russia remain adamant that Syria is stronger, at least in the short term, with Assad in power. A strong argument can be made to support this. Former CIA analyst and respected foreign policy commentator Graham Fuller has explained in the past that many Syrians (including large Sunni and minority communities) now accept that preserving Assad’s power could well be preferable to despotic alternatives. In Iraq, Sunni communities saw ISIS as a lesser of two evils, the same is not true in Syria. For Russia, it is about preserving and extending its geo-strategic influence in the region. For Iran, it is about protecting Shia communities and combating Sunni terrorism – funded and supported, in large part, by the very countries ‘seeking to establish’ a ceasefire in Syria.

The devastating effects of the Syrian civil war remain only a bloody backdrop to a posturing deadlock between major world powers. It’s about time they were pushed to the foreground.

 


Reflecting on Owen Smith’s ISIS comments

Owen Smith is quickly proving only one thing: he is not up to the top job in Britain. Nor is he making a particularly persuasive case for why he should be the man to lead Labour into the 2020 General Election. I have decided not to write in any great length about his desire to ignore June’s referendum result, focus on equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity or his alternative Labour manifesto (that may as well be a carbon copy of Mr Corbyn’s). If I believed him to have any real chance of becoming the next leader of the Labour Party, I might divert more of my attention towards him.

I do, however, want to pick up on his ludicrous comments this week concerning Islamic State that have topped off a truly torrid few weeks of campaigning. Appearing alongside Jeremy Corbyn on Victoria Derbyshire, Mr Smith said: “I worked on the Northern Ireland peace process for three years; I was part of the UK’s negotiating team that helped bring together the loyalist paramilitaries. My view is that, ultimately, all solutions to these international crises do come about through dialogue, so eventually if we are to try to solve this all of the actors do need to be involved. But at the moment ISIL are clearly not interested in negotiating. At some point for us to resolve this, we will need to get people round the table.”

It is almost comical. As I read it, my sympathy for traditional Labour voters begins to strengthen. They were robbed of their identity by Anthony Blair as the century turned and this is what they are left with. Anybody who has ever accused Jeremy Corbyn of being unelectable may like to consider an Owen Smith premiership for just a moment. It is particularly bewildering to me that not more Labour members have noticed just how similar Mr Smith’s policies are to Jeremy Corbyn’s. To elect Owen Smith as Labour’s new leader would, in effect, mean swapping out an old-fashioned state socialist for a slightly younger state socialist with contempt for democracy and negotiating skills so impressive that even the mention of his name would be enough to de-radicalise an Islamic State fighter.

Naturally, Smith’s comments have been ridiculed by the wider public and political intelligentsia. There is no ‘getting ISIS round a table’ on offer in this conflict. But the absurdity of the suggestion is not what I wanted to get into on this blog. My interest in his comments spring from how debased our national debate is on the subject, and how soaked up many of us seem to get over the (in my view) greatly over-exaggerated threat presented by ISIS. Despite our eagerness to interfere in the running of other countries, I am constantly baffled by how easily events in the Middle East take centre stage in British political debate. Why are we so obsessed with interfering in the affairs of other parts of the world, and why do we afford a vile terror group so much publicity?

Britain undoubtedly played a role in creating the environment out of which ISIS grew. Bush and Blair’s Iraq invasion, sectarian in nature and devoid of any substantive long-term planning, laid the groundwork for brutality and division in a country that would otherwise have been happy to see the back of Saddam Hussein. In this context, I am forced to concede that Britain has links to ISIS and will, at least for the foreseeable future, remain a frontrunner in the campaign to ‘degrade and destroy ISIL’. It therefore goes without saying that a potential Prime Ministerial candidate suggesting that we sit round a table with Islamic State leaders and negotiate, with the hope of arriving at some kind of political settlement (what form would it take?), is a laughable exposing of our foreign policy incompetence in the matter.

Could you imagine Owen Smith standing up in front of a packed NATO summit and, in his thick northern accent, proclaiming to the rest of the alliance that the best way to tackle ISIS is to get round a table and to negotiate with them? He’d quickly be laughed out of the room. But this notion aside, I wonder if we have bothered to ask on whose authority we have been assigned with the responsibility of dealing with ISIL. It seems to me that every time we venture into the Middle East in some fashion (usually to satisfy the egos of our politicians) we manage to make things worse. Has anybody come up with a long-term strategy for life in the Levant once ISIS is gone? Or is that not for us to think about as long as our politicians are able to thump their chests on the world stage?

I mentioned earlier that I considered the ISIS threat to be a greatly exaggerated one. In fact, I would probably go further than this. I think ISIS is a minor irritation that looks set to be the architect of its own downfall. One day soon I may return to this blog with a piece entitled ‘Why the Islamic State was doomed to fail from the start’. It may be true to say that ISIL are the most successful terror group in human history, but that isn’t saying too much. The nature of the regime – barbaric, surrounded by enemies and over-reliant on particular mediums of propaganda and finance – meant that such a group were never going to thrive for a particularly long period of time. I dare say that we have entered the twilight period of the group’s existence. The sheer bravery of regional Kurdish fighters, combined military efforts from competing outside powers and the intransigence of the Assad government have ensured that much of the territory once marked by those infamous black flags has been returned to more moderate ownership.

In truth, ISIS have always been flattered by our incessant media coverage and spotlighting. Ordinary people do not think about them, even at railway stations or at airports (as we are supposed to) and our politicians like to appear busy in the war on terror by talking hard and over-promising. If nothing else, it is a breath of fresh air that Mr Smith has proposed a solution that differs somewhat from the usual proposals we here. Bombing campaigns aren’t quite as ludicrous on paper as the suggestion that a Labour leadership candidate can dilute extreme Islamic ideology, but they are certainly every bit as ineffective. Either way, the Labour Party would do well not to elect Owen Smith as its leader. If this is the kind of opposition that would meet Theresa May at the dispatch box, then Jeremy Corbyn may not seem so pacifistic and radical after all.


How not to respond to a terror attack

How sad it was to see the people of France once again fall victim to Islamic terrorism late last night. As innocent bystanders celebrated Bastille Day in the beautiful city of Nice, one drug-fueled fundamentalist decided he would use a lorry to massacre almost 100 unsuspecting citizens. I want to send my sympathies and well-wishes to the families and friends of those affected, however meaningless and insignificant they may be.

What a shame also that westerners are beginning to feel desensitised to increasingly common, though equally-horrendous attacks. It has been a truly testing eighteen months for France; a country which (along with Belgium) really seems to be struggling in the fight against radical Islam. The heartbreaking fact is that this doesn’t look like a war that will end any time soon. My fear is that we will see a lot more bloodshed and violence in the months and years to come.

Vigils, candles and hashtags are pleasant gestures, but nothing more than this. They do not constitute progression in terms of public or foreign policy, they do not tackle the core of Islamic fundamentalism, and they do not bring back those killed in acts of vile, merciless terrorism. I suspect some will be comforted by kind displays of solidarity, but most are now left wondering why they are having to occur so frequently.

We can pray for the French if we wish to, but realistically, how helpful has praying proven to be? We can express publicly our love or hatred of Islam, but how useful is this in achieving anything other than divide and intolerance? We can suggest solutions to aiding the war on terror, but Twitter doesn’t seem an appropriate platform for these solutions to be adhered to. In effect, social media has become a tool by which outrage is magnified, tensions are exploited and disunity is encouraged in the wake of despicable incidents of violence and terrorism. For this reason, I try my best to avoid being sucked into emotional cyber spasms.

In the good old days (alas, a time I was not around to see), we used to get on with life immediately after terrorism. Perhaps this was because the war generation found themselves used to bombings and devastation, or perhaps it was down to that famous British stiff upper lip (which seems to have disappeared, I might add). Nowadays, we rant and rave and sign emotionally-charged petitions calling for bans, border closures and infringements to be placed upon cherished freedoms. We need to calm down.

Only those unfortunate enough to have lost a loved one in an act of hatred have a mandate to be emotional. Since social media has brought us all closer together and made life much more interactive, we seem to take the burden of mourning upon ourselves as a means of enhancing our own social desirability. Bizarrely, it is often those closest to an attack that remain the most rational and objective in the wake of its effects, and those furthest away who resort to the kind of bigotry and fear-mongering that terrorists have come to reap the rewards of.

This does not mean Islam, or indeed sects of the Islamic community cannot be held responsible. Islamism continues to thrive in a range of European, African and Asian societies. Intensifying anti-Muslim sentiment hasn’t worked, using terror attacks to justify bombing raids hasn’t worked and simply ignoring the ongoing presence of Islamic fundamentalism clearly isn’t working either. The question is whether or not western societies can respond by upholding the values they champion; of liberty and the rule of law. The question is whether the peoples of Europe can muster the tolerance and encourage the diversity that has brought great benefits to the continent.

Preserving liberty in the face of adversity can be extraordinarily difficult, but wholly worthwhile. It is for this reason that I cannot support the deportation of domestic Muslims in France or indeed my own country, and it is for this reason that I cannot support thoughtless bans on Islamic immigration. Liberty is too precious to be discarded in such a manner. Benjamin Franklin was absolutely right when he said that those who will sacrifice liberty for security will in the end enjoy neither.

An interesting article has cropped up in the Daily Mail, for anybody interested, that has described the attacker as an ISIS fanatic who ‘took drugs and flouted every rule of Islam’. This doesn’t surprise me. Most attacks of this nature, both Muslim and non-Muslim tend to be perpetrated by deranged, drug-obsessed lunatics. I am pleased that a major publication has highlighted the link between drug taking and violence. You can read the article for yourself here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3691019/Several-people-injured-truck-crashes-crowd-Bastille-Day-celebrations-Nice.html

Motives aside, though, I don’t claim to have the silver bullet on this. It is obvious to me that French Muslims are not as integrated as they are in other parts of the world, like Britain. It is also obvious to me that continuing to allow the influence of Saudi Arabia and fundamentalist-supporting regimes to creep into French society is dangerous. France’s ‘state of emergency’ seems set to continue for the foreseeable future. But there is an interesting prospect on the horizon.

French presidential elections take place late next year, and I’m now almost certain that Marine Le Pen is set to take office, swinging France vigorously to the Right. I don’t like Le Pen, but if such attacks are to continue in her country, then support for her presidential bid is likely only to strengthen. I’m not particularly well versed when it comes to French politics, so forgive me, but it seems to me to be plausible to suggest that Francois Hollande’s legacy will be stained by France’s apparent buckling to Islamic extremism.

We will see how the French people respond to the fight against Islamic terror as the months and years progress, and I wish the country well in its battle, but it is time for a different approach. Those of us unaffected by last night’s events in Nice may also want to consider the way we behave in light of horrendous acts of violence. After all, sickening terrorists aren’t worthy of dictating public policy. Keep the healing French in your minds, folks. It is they who matter today.


Why Richard Sakwa’s ‘Frontline Ukraine’ is a must-read

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“Those who see Putin as the cause of the problem refuse to concede that he might also be a part of the solution” was perhaps my favourite line in Frontline Ukraine; an intelligent and beautifully-written summary of the Ukrainian crisis of 2013/14.

In 250 pages, Professor Richard Sakwa (lecturer at the University of Kent and probably Britain’s most interesting and articulate voice on European politics) managed to contextualise, rationalise and even simplify one of the most interesting and misrepresented conflicts of our time.

As noted in the title of the post, anybody interested in Russia, Crimea, Ukraine or foreign policy in general would benefit from reading this book. Such a well-researched and thoughtful account deserves the eyes of both the west and its misguided politicians.

Drawing on conveniently forgotten historical foundations, ruthlessly sourced statistical evidence and political meddling, sensible conclusions are arrived at relating to the causes, belligerents and development of the crisis. Yet more striking is Sakwa’s neutrality and ability to provide us with a healthily balanced and unbiased view of events which are often twisted through selective foreign media coverage.

What I found most startling about reading Frontline Ukraine was discovering the extent to which both Brussels and Washington managed, often with shocking subtlety, to significantly influence domestic Ukrainian affairs, laying the groundwork for a crisis I now know to have been an inevitable one.

Sakwa explains in rigorous and thought-provoking detail just how Russia came to annex the Crimean peninsula, how they can justify doing so, and why it was a mistake all along to externalise Ukraine’s internal demons, and frame the country’s problems as evidence of a new Cold War.

Rooted at the very core of the book is the rather accurate notion that the events of 2013 and 2014 can be explained by separating the Ukraine crisis and the Ukrainian crisis; one related to ethnic and culture divisions, the other characterised by political pointscoring and international intervention.

European Union and NATO expansion, driven by a desire to create a ‘Wider Europe’ based on western ideals and political institutions, played a huge role in the exacerbating of Ukraine’s problems. Fundamental too is the now glaring fact that through the tabling of the European Association Agreement in November 2013, the EU displayed astounding ignorance towards Russian economic interests, as well as the prominence of the existing Eurasian Customs Union.

Frontline Ukraine directly challenges the lazy argument that the European Union is a bastion of international peace and stability. It outlines crucially just how taken aback Russia was by the events of the Ukrainian revolution, and provides a powerfully contrasting case against the idea that the conflict can be frame in terms of Russian imperialism.

Furthermore, I was impressed by how acutely the inner workings of the Maidan revolution were documented. Vital distinctions were made between the two competing ideologies surrounding Ukrainian statehood; monist and pluralist. It was interesting to see just how deeply rooted social friction and tribalism were across Ukraine, and why internal sects must be diluted and managed responsibly if the country is to rebuild itself as a prosperous and productive nation.

Naive is the argument that Russia’s invasion of the Crimea is emblematic of a country seeking to re-establish the construct of the Soviet Union, and lazy too are those fronting it. For a thorough understanding of the political climate across Eurasia, Sakwa educates those reading by encompassing multiple perspectives of events throughout the book.

His summaries of American geopolitical objectives are sensible, his explanation of Russia’s annexation is rationally-argued and represents a refreshingly open-minded outlook, and his description of Ukraine’s more internal challenges (both in terms of its societal structure and its ethnic segmentation) make this book such a fascinating read.

Please do give it a go.

 

 


NATO has become exactly the belligerent it was designed to quell

We were told, throughout the twentieth century and immediately after its inception, that NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) was a shining example of what both internationalism and a western military alliance could achieve.

Acting as a buffer to the Soviet Union’s aggressive expansionism, the treaty was formalised in a bid to promote unity and cooperation across both the anglosphere and Soviet-neighbouring eastern European countries. It was said that with a proper, well-structured operation in place, Europe would be able to defend itself against any fervent military or diplomatic USSR expansion.

So in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and disintegrated into separate territories, one would have been forgiven for thinking that NATO’s job was complete. The Cold War was over, industrial capitalism had prevailed and inhabitants of Soviet land could rejoice in the knowledge that their futures seemed bright once more.

Only NATO wasn’t dissolved. Instead, politicians across the northern hemisphere lobbied for exactly the kind of territorial and political expansionism that the pact had originally been created to counteract. The decision not to disband the North Atlantic Alliance post-1991 was, in my view, an act of extraordinary mistrust.

By 1992, there was absolutely no political purpose justifying NATO’s existence, nor any valid explanation on the part of any European government. But not only has the alliance not evaporated, it has expanded since the collapse of the Soviet Union. One does have to ask why such a decision was taken, and why the newly established Russian Federation was not entrusted with a peaceful chance to show how different it was to its communist predecessor.

Expansion itself isn’t the only puzzling thing about the North Atlantic Alliance. Some of its members too, seem a little out of place, almost randomly selected. Contributors like Britain, Portugal and Iceland have no historical conflict with either Russia or the USSR to which a sufficient precursor to accession can be set.

National alliances, crucial as they are in whichever form, seem to me to form more so out of fear than out of any substantive, factual political context in some instances. For this reason, I am glad that Britain has major politicians like Jeremy Corbyn standing up and questioning the legitimacy of British NATO membership, and indeed the objectives of the alliance.

Just last month, plans for more ballistic missile defences in eastern Europe (specifically, Bucharest in Romania) were formalised, in an action justified by NATO and which can be read about here:

http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_126151.htm

The peculiar irony here, is that were such an action to take place north or south of the United States, either in Mexico or Canada, America would consider the move to be an infringement of and a threat to national security. As it is, the United States retains close relationships with her allies to the north and south, and so no such activity is necessary.

America and the European Union would do well to remember that Russia is, in many ways, an army with a country. It has highly contestable borders, many of which she shares with NATO allies, the Middle East and China. Do we ever, even for a second, stop and think about the insincerity of our actions surrounding Russia?

Sitting on an island much to the west of Europe, it is easy for British people to appreciate the safety of geographically well defined and non-militarised borders within which the country operates. For Russia, the situation is a little more bleak. Just as multiple American military bases surround Iran, Russian people and politicians constantly have to worry about the threat of invasion or aggression, unlike many of its western counterparts.

NATO, which has been the armed wing of the European Union and the USA for some time now, has been directly involved in the exacerbation of various political conflicts in recent years which do not concern either Russia or the Soviet Union, calling to question its ability to encourage peace and safety.

In particular, its intrusion in Yugoslavia at the end of the twentieth century, its unforgivable intervention in Afghanistan, commandeered once more by the US just after the September attacks, and its involvement in the bombing and destruction of Libya just four years ago, are only three examples of its more careless and nonsensical contribution to conflict on the world stage.

No wonder Russia have had enough of them.

And how could I write a little something about NATO, its aggression and its hypocrisy, without mentioning our allies Turkey (though the meaning of the world ‘ally’ may have to undergo some altering if this is true)?

Refusing to close all borders with the Islamic State in Syria, as well as some of the group’s sympathisers within Turkey allowing ISIS to smuggle oil throughout the region are just two of last year’s darkest blotches against the Turkish nation in world politics. Notice, also, that relatively little has been done, not even in the form of economic sanctions, to punish the Turks for their militarised occupation of Cyprus (EU territory, might I add) since 1974.

At this point, is there anything that NATO hasn’t done, encouraged or taken part in around the world that it was not originally established to prevent? It is no wonder Mr Putin labelled, for the first time ever, both the United States of America and NATO as ‘threats to Russia’ in his national security document a few days ago.

They told us back in 1949 that membership of NATO was necessary for not only the UK’s safety, but for its very survival. At the time, perhaps that was true, but in 2016 the picture tells a very different story. Jeremy Corbyn seems to understand: if the US won’t dissolve NATO, then it is in British interests to abandon it.

 


The west should listen to Putin on Syria, he’s no fool

They say that desperate times call for desperate measures.

At least that was the view of Russia’s parliament in the Kremlin at the beginning of the week, as immediate air strikes in Syria were prescribed the correct way to deal with the country’s severe militant conflict.

The situation in the region has reached breaking point in recent months, with large parts of the country completely blacked out and others policed by Islamic State. In one of the world’s most complex ongoing conflicts, Putin has stacked his cards behind the lesser of two evils, and has chosen to assist Assad’s fighting forces.

Vladimir Putin’s sharp and decisive leadership is exactly what you would want from a modern world leader. Whilst Barack Obama deliberates over exactly whom Syrian’s rightful president should be, a war is raging and western countries are standing by raising far more questions than they are solutions.

Russian airstrikes over Syria targeting Islamic State-controlled areas should provide Syria’s official government with the military support and time they need to assess their options and fight back effectively. Apparently only the French in Europe share the same, logical mindset. I wish my country would do much more to get involved. We did, after all, contribute to some of this mess.

Innocent lives will be lost in this war; of that there can be no doubt. The problem that surrounding nations face is that there is no clear side to favour. Assad’s regime has led to the slaughtering, poisoning and torturing of his own peoples, (among them many thousands of women and children) but the same, too, can be said of ISIS.

Putin is no fool, I’m sorry to announce. He read the political and military situations in Iran, India and Libya to perfection, and that trend has continued with his desire to intervene in Syria. Give him credit, he doesn’t do democracy or equality particularly well, but the intelligence he deploys towards resolving foreign diplomatic or military conquests is to be admired.

At least the people of Russia can sleep safe in the knowledge that their president intends to keep them all safe, regardless of whether or not he likes them.

Syria is currently experiencing its most ghastly and unpredictable anarchy in its history, and it seems only Russia have kept this fact in mind. Islamic State poses a threat potentially to the entire world, and if we don’t attempt to suppress it now, we may end up regretting it sooner rather than later.

This solemn fact is an uneasy one to digest, but it should put Jeremy Corbyn’s prime ministerial bid into perspective for just a few moments. Take the time to consider that Corbyn would like an army and nuclear-less Britain, and you begin to wonder just how much of a chance he has of obtaining office.

I shudder at the thought of Vladimir Putin addressing a scruffy-looking Jeremy Corbyn on a state visit.

The European Union, British parliament and United States may have political and social differences with Russia, but when it comes to foreign policy, there is no leader on this planet more focused and effective than Vladimir Putin.

It’s time we stopped the procrastinating, deliberation and political point-scoring and recognised that it would be far better to join Russia, than to oppose them. This conflict has only one realistically satisfying conclusion for the west, and that means supporting Assad until his eventual personal demise.

Russia’s president phrased it succinctly and accurately this week when he said: “Our position is based on the concern that Syria might submerge into the same situation as Libya, or even Iraq. We are urging all of our partners to make additional efforts to fight this absolutely evil fundamentalism.”

After all, desperate times call for desperate measures. Putin gets it, why does nobody else?