Friday 27 May 2011

20 May 2011

How should America respond to what’s been happening in the Arab world? Or, to use President Obama’s words in his major Middle East policy speech last night, how should it respond “in a way that advances our values and strengthens our security”?

Well, let’s take “advancing values” first. Support people demanding self-determination? Yes. Demand that tyrants stand down? Yes again. Press for freedom of expression, and of religion? Ditto. Oppose violence and repression? Of course.

So, how about “strengthening security”? This is where it gets a bit trickier. “We must acknowledge,” said Mr Obama, “that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of [US security] interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind.”

And he repeated what he said in his Cairo speech two years ago: “We have a stake not just in the stability of nations, but in the self-determination of individuals.”

Which may be an admirable sentiment in theory, but can be rather more difficult to put into practice. (Is it, for example, why there was not a single reference to Saudi Arabia in the entire speech? How much public support is expressed in Washington for Saudi citizens, men and women alike, to be granted the right of self-determination?)

According to Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who used to be an adviser to President Bush’s first secretary of state, Colin Powell: “The battle between realists and idealists is the fundamental fault line of the American foreign-policy debate.”

Realists will tell you that sometimes a hard-headed assessment of national interests has to take precedence over advancing values. Idealists will insist that you can do both – safeguard national interests while remaining true to your core values.

So which is President Obama? Some analysts argue that while he often uses the words that make him sound like an idealist, his actions tend to be those of a realist.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, for example, who was President Carter’s national security adviser in the 1970s, and who more recently helped advise Obama during his campaign for the presidency, says: “I greatly admire his insights and understanding. (But) I don’t think he really has a policy that’s implementing those insights and understandings … He doesn’t strategise. He sermonises.”

Barack Obama is now more than half way through his Presidential term. (Whether he is granted a second term will be decided by American voters in November next year.) And the experts are still searching for a definition of what his foreign policy vision really is.

“We must proceed with a sense of humility,” he said last night. “There will be times when our short term interests do not align perfectly with our long term vision …” Are those the words of a realist, or an idealist?

One of the biggest questions facing US foreign policy-makers now is how to adapt their thinking to take account of the emergence of new, and increasingly assertive, regional powers. India and China, of course, but also countries like Brazil and Turkey, both of which have begun to demonstrate their own foreign policy interests.

Should the US sit back and let them take centre stage? Is “leading from behind”, the new buzz phrase in Washington, becoming the new foreign policy strategy? It seems to be the strategy of choice in Libya, but can it be applied elsewhere?

Hillary Clinton said something that intrigued me as she introduced President Obama ahead of his speech: “We have seen that in a changing world, America’s leadership is more essential than ever, but that we often must lead in new and innovative ways.”

I’d love to know more about these “new and innovative ways” -- and perhaps I’ll find out next Tuesday, when I’ll be in Washington to present a special edition of the programme in which we’ll be discussing exactly how the US sees its role in this rapidly changing world.

Is it still a world leader, or does the “humility” that President Obama referred to last night imply that under his leadership at least, the US will tend more often to let others move out in front, just as it did over Libya?

27 May 2011

First, Osama bin Laden. Then, the former Bosnian Serb general, Ratko Mladic. And let’s not forget – because these things often seem to come in threes -- Bernard Munyagishari, a former Hutu militia leader in Rwanda, wanted on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

One of them is dead, the other two are now in custody. All three of them are alleged to have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of people in some of the worst atrocities of modern times.

What strikes me as remarkable about all three of these cases is how long after the events the alleged perpetrators were hunted down. Perhaps we should be less cynical when politicians and prosecutors tell us they will not rest until alleged mass murderers are brought to justice.

Bin Laden was killed nearly a decade after 9/11; Mladic was arrested yesterday morning, 16 years after the massacre of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995; Munyagishari was apprehended 17 years after the Rwanda genocide, during which he is alleged to have recruited, trained and led Interahamwe Hutu militiamen in mass killings and rapes of Tutsi women.

My guess is that the trial of General Mladic, if and when it happens, will receive a great deal more publicity than the trial of Bernard Munyagishari. Yet if media coverage were to depend on the scale of the alleged atrocity, it should by rights be the other way round.

Remember what happened in Rwanda. In just three months, an estimated 800,000 people were killed, in an organised pogrom allegedly designed to wipe out the country’s minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

The indictment issued by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, based in Tanzania, lists five charges against Munyagishari: conspiracy to commit genocide, genocide, complicity in genocide, murder as a crime against humanity, and rape as a crime against humanity.

That’s quite a charge sheet. But of course if the prosecutors are to succeed, they’ll have to prove that Munyagishari himself was both involved in, and had “command responsibility” for, the appalling atrocities of 1994.

As for General Mladic, the same applies. We know well enough what happened at Srebrenica, but again the court will have to be satisified that the man in the dock was responsible in law for those thousands of deaths. The erstwhile political leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic, is already on trial in The Hague – I suspect the two men will not be given the opportunity to spend much time together.

I visited Srebrenica in 1996, just a year after the mass killings. It was empty and virtually silent, the sort of place where the sound of absent footsteps is louder than on any city street. I also visited Poto├žari, the grim industrial complex outside the town, which had been the UN base – the supposed “safe haven” – where so many of the Bosnian Muslims met their deaths.

But let me be clear: nightmare memories of a 16-year-old atrocity do not mean that General Mladic is guilty of the crimes with which he is charged. Only the court can decide that.

As for Osama bin Laden, of course, there’ll be no trial, and no opportunity to test the strength of the case against him. You may well take the view that he convicted himself out of his own mouth, with the audio and video messages he released after September 11, 2001. It’s not my place to offer a judgment on that.

If, as President Obama insists, “justice was done” when bin Laden was killed in his Pakistani hideout, well, one day, perhaps justice will also be done in the cases of Ratko Mladic and Bernard Munyagishari.

A different kind of justice, maybe, but justice nonetheless.

Sunday 15 May 2011

13 May 2011

It’s more than four months now since the start of the Arab Spring, so maybe it’s time to take stock.

Number of Arab leaders toppled: 2 (Ben Ali in Tunisia; Mubarak in Egypt).

Number of Arab leaders under heavy pressure but hanging on: 4 (Gaddafi in Libya; Assad in Syria; Saleh in Yemen; King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in Bahrain).

Number of Arab leaders more or less untroubled: 15.

In other words, the so-called wave of Arab uprisings has pretty much by-passed something like 70 per cent of the members of the League of Arab States. (In Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Sudan and the UAE, there have been some protests, but in general, they’ve been relatively small-scale.)

So if you’re wondering who’ll be the next despot to depart, I suggest you look beyond the Arab world and focus for a moment on Iran.

Not because I’m expecting a repeat of the street protests that followed the contested presidential election of two years ago (suppressed, you’ll remember, in much the same way as President Assad of Syria, Iran’s close ally, is now suppressing protests in his own back yard.)

No, in Iran the threat to the survival of the President comes from inside, not outside, the political structure. It seems Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has fallen out – big time – with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

This is not a good career move, and many Iran analysts are now openly speculating that Ahmadinejad may soon be either gone, or rendered effectively powerless (one Iranian cartoonist this week depicted him as a bee buzzing around the ear of Khamenei, only to have his sting removed).

Here’s the background. The Iranian political system is like no other: the president is not the most senior figure in the administration of the State, who ever since the revolution of 1979 has been a religious figure known as the Supreme Leader.

So when President Ahmadinejad decided to sack his intelligence minister (who had allegedly been spying on him and his chief of staff), he did not take kindly to the Supreme Leader promptly reinstating the dismissed minister.

The president went on strike, and for 10 days refused to turn up for cabinet meetings. He found himself being accused by high-ranking clerics of associating with religious “deviants” who believe in djinns, or spirits.

According to Farhang Jahanpour of the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University, the accusation stems from a series of recently-released documentary films that has enraged the clerical establishment by suggesting that Ahmadinejad is the embodiment of a mythical religious figure who will accompany the “Hidden Imam”, who Shia Muslims believe will return on the Day of Judgement to establish an Islamic kingdom. This would give the president a religious status far above that of the ruling clerics. Not a suggestion to which they take kindly.

But the real target of the clerics’ wrath seems to be Ahmadinejad’s close confidant and chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Masha’i, who is the father of his daughter-in-law. His crime is to have claimed that he doesn’t need the clergy to intepret religious texts for him – and to have attended an event in Turkey at which there was a performance by women dancers.

Ahmadinejad is said to be grooming Masha’i as his eventual successor, something the clerical establishment are determined to prevent. More than 20 of his allies have been arrested in the past week.

At stake in all this is the role of religion in a future Iran. Ahmadinejad owes much of his power to the Revolutionary Guards rather than to the clergy, although there are now suggestions that the Guards may be shifting their allegience. So if he is ousted, the religious establishment, not for the first time, will have re-established itself as the country’s pre-eminent political force.

And that, perhaps paradoxically, could be the best outcome for the rest of us. Because, according to the Iran analyst Geneive Abdo, writing in Foreign Policy: “The alternative – a highly militarised state run by the Revolutionary Guards – would be much worse.”

In many ways, the future shape of Iran probably matters much more to the outside world in the long term than the future shape of Libya. I suspect that if it hadn’t been for Libya – and Syria, and Osama bin Laden, and the Royal wedding – the Iran crisis would have received far more attention than it has.

Friday 6 May 2011

6 May 2011

I’ve had another one of my peculiar dreams. This time, I dreamt I was working as an Agony Uncle, and I received the following letter:

“Dear Uncle Robin

“I’ve been in a relationship now for just a year, and it already seems to be going horribly wrong. My partner, Dave, started out insisting that he was sure we were going to be good together – we seemed to enjoy the same things, we had a lot of interests in common, some people even said we looked alike!

“But now everything’s changed. He doesn’t take any notice any more of what I want from the relationship, and some of his friends have been saying really nasty things about me. I’m beginning to wonder if I made a big mistake and should walk away. Many of my friends are telling me to get out – last night, I got a real hammering because they seem to think everything’s that going wrong is my fault.

“But I’m worried that I’d be even more unhappy on my own, because many of my former friends disapproved of Dave all along and now won’t have anything to do with me.

“Sometimes I think Dave wants me to leave and will make things so horrible for me that I’ll just pack my bags and go. But part of me still thinks we could do great things together, if only he and his friends would pay more attention to what I want.

“What should I do?

The letter was signed simply “NC”.

This is what (in my dream) I replied:

“Dear NC

“I think you first need to consider what you want from this relationship. You say that at the beginning your partner insisted that the two of you would be good together. Was he right? Has it been good – for you, I mean? Do you think – even if he and his friends aren’t being very nice to you at the moment – that it could be good again?

“Or do you agree with the friend (Paddy someone?) who’s accusing Dave of a breach of faith? If you do agree, then clearly you have to ask yourself if you really do want to carry on.

“All relationships go through rough patches, and that’s as true in politics as it is in love. (Am I right in thinking that you and Dave are both politicians?) But you need to listen to your friends as well, and if they’re saying you might have made a big mistake, well, you need to ask yourself if perhaps they’re right.

“I know how hurtful it is when people say horrible things about you, especially when it’s all reported in the newspapers. But what’s important now is what you think. Can you and Dave rebuild what you had before? Is there still enough trust between you for you to be able to carry on together, perhaps recognising that the happiness you felt in those wonderful early days could never last for very long?

“I do wonder from what you say in your letter if perhaps you were always keener on this relationship than your partner was. You may have felt you had little choice at the time, that you were being swept along by forces so powerful that you couldn’t control them – but now, a year later, you do have more of a chance to reassert control of your own life.

“You need to think carefully about what your friends are telling you. Are all of them really friends? Are they thinking of what’s best for you, or what might be best for them?

“ You’re understandably feeling pretty miserable at the moment, and the next few days aren’t going to make things any easier. There may well be news that makes you feel even more depressed, and you have to accept that Dave will probably be thrilled to bits and not even notice how upset you are.

“But I think he’s going to try to make things up to you. I think he’ll tell you that he wants to put the last few weeks behind you and re-start your relationship on a stronger footing. (By the way, if it makes you feel any better, Alastair Campbell now says he’s beginning to feel sorry for you …)

“Anyway, here’s my advice: don’t do anything rash; and don’t take too much notice of what Dave’s friends – or your friends, for that matter – are saying. But be careful not to lose all your friends, because, as you suggest in your letter, you may need them to come out and support you again if you and Dave do decide to go your separate ways.”

As I say, it was a most peculiar dream.