Friday 15 February 2013

Is a North Korean bomb a direct threat to US security?

Not for the first time, I fear we're not paying enough attention to rising tensions in east Asia.

North Korea's underground nuclear test this week -- its third -- was a salutary reminder that all is not well in a region already facing a host of uncertainties.

Let's unpick just a few of them, starting with North Korea itself. It seems the world's last Stalinist dictatorship is now closer than ever before to having a nuclear bomb and a delivery mechanism which -- in theory -- could pose a direct risk to US security. (In other words, it can make a bomb small enough to be carried by a long-range missile all the way across the Pacific Ocean.)

No wonder President Obama responded to Pyongyang's latest example of nuclear sabre-rattling within hours of the test in his State of the Union address: "Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate [North Korea] further, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats."

Allies? Well, South Korea, obviously, but also Japan and Taiwan, both of which are growing increasingly twitchy at the dramatic changes in strategic power balance all around them. They know that they depend on the US security umbrella to enable them to sleep soundly at night -- and they need constant reassurance that the umbrella remains there for them.

Which brings us, as you thought it might, to China. A country that within the next five years or so will have overtaken the US as the world's biggest economy. A country with a military budget growing year by year, unlike the US military budget, which is being cut back.

A country that is arguing loudly with Japan over a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea -- a dispute that just last week reportedly came close to open military action when Japan claimed that a Chinese naval frigate locked its fire-control radar onto a Japanese ship near the islands.

When I wrote about this row last September, I suggested that it is more than a mere symbol of rival regional powers jostling for dominance. As I pointed out: "The islands are close to strategically important shipping lanes, and the waters around them offer rich fishing grounds and are thought to contain potentially lucrative oil deposits -- this isn't only about politics and pride by any means."

Japan calls them the Senkaku Islands and has controlled them since 1971, when they inherited them from the US, which had administered them since 1945. China calls them the Diaoyu Islands and says they've been part of China since as early as the 14th century and were ceded to Japan as part of Taiwan only after the first Sino-Japanese war.

Neither the new Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, nor the new Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe can afford to be seen to be weak on the issue of the islands' sovereignty -- and with naval vessels from both sides playing a constant game of cat-and-mouse in the waters surrounding the islands, the risk of an "accident", whether provoked or otherwise, cannot be ignored.

And there's another complicating factor as well: China's relations with North Korea. Traditionally, Beijing is regarded as Pyongyang's one remaining ally -- Chinese trade and aid is all that keeps the North Korean Kim dynasty in place. Now, though, Beijing is mightily miffed at the latest North Korean nuclear test, which went ahead despite earnest -- and public -- pleas from Beijing to desist.

Being mightily miffed is one thing; but breaking with Pyongyang is something quite different. Beijing certainly doesn't like being snubbed, but nor does it want its unpredictable neighbour to go into melt-down following economic collapse and a political implosion. The end of North Korea would lead to the unification of the two halves of the Korean peninsula, and that would mean US troops, potentially, on China's border.

So, once again, all eyes are on China. The talk of tougher UN sanctions against North Korea seems to me to be utterly irrelevant -- as we've seen in countries as diverse as Iran and Cuba, all that sanctions tend to do is strengthen paranoid regimes and bring hardship to the people over whom they rule.

Perhaps the incoming South Korean president Park Geun-hye, who takes office in 10 days' time, will adopt a more nuanced approach to her northern neighbours; perhaps the new US secretary of state John Kerry will be able to come up with a joint approach together with Beijing.

There are a lot of new leaders in the region these days -- and that's both an opportunity and a danger. The oppportunity is for some new ideas to be tried out; but the danger is that political inexperience could lead to mistaken assumptions about what is feasible.

Monday 11 February 2013

The Pope's resignation: setting a precedent?

First, they started electing Popes who weren't Italian. Now a Pope is resigning. Who says the Catholic church never moves with the times?

When Karol Wojtyła was elevated to the Papacy in 1978, he was the first non-Italian to become Pope since 1523. When Joseph Ratzinger announced that he intends to resign at the end of the month, he became the first Pope to stand down since 1415.

The Catholic church may not move quickly, but it does -- sometimes -- move.

There is surely a direct connection between the fact that John Paul II held the job for 27 years, and towards the end was clearly severely incapacitated by failing health, and Benedict XVI's decision to stand down of his own free will before he too became incapable of being an effective pontiff.

Just look at the comparisons: when John Paul was elected, he was a mere 58 years old and still a keen sportsman. When Benedict took over, he was already 78, which is old even for Popes.

As Cardinal Ratzinger, he had been one of the most powerful figures in the Vatican hierarchy, and he had seen at first hand the problems caused by a Pope no longer capable, either physically or mentally, to cope with the demands of the job.

But John Paul took the view that a job he had been given by God was not one he could decide to give up, even though the Code of Canon Law clearly lays down: "If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested …"

It was with that provision clearly in mind that Benedict said in his resignation statement that he had reached his decision to stand down "with full freedom ..."

An important precedent was set today. My hunch is that in future, it will become much more common for Popes to resign on grounds of age or failing health. The arguments of John Paul II are far less powerful in the light of Benedict's decision.

And who would argue with his conclusion that "in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark (boat) of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary"?

Friday 8 February 2013

David Cameron is Richard III -- with apologies to W Shakespeare

(With apologies to William Shakespeare and to King Richard III, formerly of Leicester Social Services car park.)

Enter Richard III, who in this production closely resembles David Cameron

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made yet more chill by inglorious mutiny.
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
Weigh deep in the bosom of this accursed king.
Behind him and at his side, an army --
Not of faithful friends and stalwart yeomen,
But of weak and fickle traitors,
Who will not act 'pon their king's command
Yet murmur in the shadows of plots and treason.
Instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
They plead and whimper
Of conscience, opportunely-found.
They know not love nor loyalty,
Neither in this House nor 'twixt the sheets.
Instead, they yowl of God's law
And swoon clean away
Lest man should marry man
Or woman woman.

Enter a messenger, breathless

My Lord, I bring word from the Tower
Where your nephews, the Princes,
Lie, abandoned, in their chains.
They bid me plead their case, to save them
From the wrath of Gove
And his foul determination to torment them
With further agonies and examinations
Which -- they cry -- no mortal human could bear.

Enter a second messenger, also breathless

My Lord, I come direct from blasted Surrey Heath,
Whence the good lord Gove bids you know
That all is now for nought.
Your enemies, now, are also his --
Where once were liberal hearts,
Are only foes, filled not with love for you,
But with hatred and resolve
To thwart you both at every turn.
Your project is undone,
And dangers loom e'en greater than before.

Richard/Cameron tears off his cloak in a rage

Morse! Morse! My kingdom for Morse!
Get ye to Oxford and bid the wise old man
I have need of him post-haste
To show me the colour of mine enemies,
To root them out and make this land
As once it was, fair and just,
A place fit for Cameroons as yet unborn.
Bid him join us on the fields of Eastleigh
Where we shall fight like lions
And smite our foes, where'er they be.

Exeunt, stage (centre) right

Friday 1 February 2013

Britain is slipping deeper into the sands of Mali

Inch by inch and day by day, Britain seems to be sliding ever deeper into the shifting sands of the Malian desert. It is, in my view, a military adventure that's unnecessary, ill-advised and fraught with danger.

According to David Cameron, speaking in the House of Commons just 10 days ago, Britain now needs to show "iron resolve" to deal with a threat to our very existence from jihadi terrorists.

"We are in the midst of a generational struggle against an ideology which … holds that mass murder and terror are not only acceptable but necessary," he told MPs. "We must … resist the ideologues' attempt to divide the world into a clash of civilisations."

And just in case you missed the Churchillian overtone, there was this: "We must demonstrate the same resolve and sense of purpose as previous generations have with the challenges that they faced."

So there you have it: we faced down Kaiser Wilhelm, Adolf Hitler, and Uncle Joe Stalin -- and now, in the sands of the Sahara, we will not flinch as we confront, well, who exactly?

A few thousand fighters, many armed with weapons seized from Muammar Gaddafi's armouries in Libya, or purchased with cash obtained as ransoms for kidnapped Westerners, and as divided in their aims and their loyalties as their equivalents in Somalia or Afghanistan.

So why does Mr Cameron seem to be so convinced that the very survival of the Western world is at stake? Could it be that when gunmen over-ran that gas plant in the Algerian desert last month, someone put a briefing paper in one of his red boxes that seriously spooked him?

Perhaps it said something like this: "The best assessment of our security services is that there is now a real and growing threat from jihadi groups in Mali and elsewhere in the region that pose both direct and indirect risks to UK interests. Our strong recommendation is that we do not make the same mistake we made in Afghanistan, when we allowed the Taliban to take control of the country and offer sanctuary to al-Qaeda.  That error, as you will be aware, led directly to the attacks of 9/11 and the deaths of 3,000 people."

Well, I'm sorry, but even if that's what the intelligence bods said (and of course, I have no access to their work), I don't buy it. In an impressively-argued piece in The Guardian this week, Jason Burke, one of the world's leading experts on al-Qaeda, wrote that, if anything, the jihadi groups are now weaker than they were a decade ago, and that they are "as far from posing an existential threat as they have ever been."

No one would argue, of course, that there is no threat at all. I have not the slightest doubt that even as you read these words, somewhere in Yemen, or Somalia, perhaps even in Mali, someone is planning another attack on a major Western target: a plane, or an oil refinery, or a transport hub.

But does the prime minister really think that by backing French military action, and by sending hundreds of British army instructors to train regional African forces, he is going to defeat the forces of evil, just as President Bush and Tony Blair thought they were doing in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Does anyone honestly believe that spending a couple of armour-plated hours in Algiers and Tripoli this week really changed anything, other than perhaps earning a few brownie points in Paris that might come in useful in future euro-rows? ("Now, François, remember how I supported you in north Africa, I'm sure you can help me out in Brussels …")

Here's what I would do: leave President Hollande to get on with his own military adventure, trying as best he can to show that he's every bit as macho (it's the same word in French, apparently) as his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, the Liberator of Libya.

Instead, send a senior Foreign Office (oh, all right, MI6) envoy to talk to Tuareg leaders in northern Mali. Engage with them, get to know them, earn their trust, and mediate between them and what remains of the central government in the capital, Bamako, and the army.

Just maybe, we could persuade them that they're more likely to make progress towards a deal on autonomy by negotiating than by making common cause with the jihadi extremists who have brought them nothing except the (fleeting) attention of the world and thousands of rather well-trained French soldiers.

If that doesn't work, and if we're fans of the Danish TV political series Borgen, we could even seek the services of prime minister Birgitte Nyborg, who just last week did rather a good job stitching together a deal between the government and rebels in the fictional African state of Kharoun. (To my eyes, Kharoun bore a startling resemblance to Sudan, but I'm sure she'd manage just as well in Mali.)

By the way, if you've been worried about the fate of the priceless ancient Islamic manuscripts that were reported to have been destroyed in Timbuktu this week, it seems the early reports may have been unduly alarmist. The picture is still far from clear, but TIME magazine quoted a senior Presidential aide in Bamako as saying: “The documents … are safe, they were not burned. They were put in a very safe place. I can guarantee you. The manuscripts are in total security.”