Friday 31 May 2013

The Middle East: bring back Saddam Hussein?

If it weren't for the God-awful mess in Syria, I suspect we'd be paying a great deal more attention to the God-awful mess in Iraq.

We should be, anyway. This month alone, more than 500 people have been killed in almost daily bomb attacks, and last month was reported to be the most violent the country has seen for nearly five years.

Perhaps you remember the so-called pottery barn rule that was said to have been used by former US secretary of state Colin Powell in his discussions with George W Bush: "You break it, you buy it, you own it." Maybe the US, UK and their allies don't exactly own Iraq after the invasion of 2003, but it's not difficult to argue that at the very least they were responsible for breaking it.

Let me be clear: I do not wish to argue that Iraq would have been better off with Saddam Hussein still in power. That, even after the hundreds of thousands of deaths in the years after 2003, is a judgement that only Iraqis are entitled to make.

I visited Iraq during Saddam's time; I also visted Libya under Gaddafi and have visited Syria under Assad, so I have no illusions about the nature of their regimes. I am a convinced democrat, but I also recognise that dictatorship brings with it a degree of stability that enables many people to live their lives in a way that simply hasn't been possible in the turmoil of the recent past.

When I returned to Iraq in 2004, on the first anniversary of the toppling of Saddam, I wrote that the message from most Iraqis I spoke to could be simply summarised: "We’re glad Saddam Hussein has gone; we wish the Americans would go too; but we’re desperately worried about the future of our country."

They could see what was coming, because when you remove the lid from the pressure cooker, you discover all kinds of things that have been bubbling away inside. In Iraq, dangerous fault-lines between Shia and Sunni Muslims, cynically exploited by outside powers, and in Libya, tribal and territorial tensions that have made the country post-Gaddafi virtually ungovernable.

So no one should be surprised if Western governments are reluctant to repeat the mistakes of the past. If you wanted to put a positive gloss on their Syria inertia, I suppose you could say that at least they've learned something from the experience of the past decade.

Ask yourself this: are most Iraqis better off now than they were pre-2003? Are most Libyans living better lives than they were under Gaddafi? And, hand on heart, how confident are you that most Syrians would be better off with Bashar al-Assad gone?

So here's a little test for you. Who said this? "For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither. Throughout the Middle East the fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty. It is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy."

It sounds like something Barack Obama would say, doesn't it? Or maybe Hillary Clinton? In fact, it was Condoleezza Rice, speaking in Cairo in 2005. And you could argue, perhaps, that the hundreds of thousands of Arab Spring revolutionaries who built the barricades on the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria five years later were simply taking her at her word.

But make no mistake: when the royal rulers of Saudi Arabia and Qatar pour millions of dollars into Syria to help topple Assad, it's not because they've discovered a deep love of democracy. It's because they see Syria as the battleground on which they will finally defeat Iran, Syria's most powerful regional ally, and, of course, a Shia state which the Sunni royal families of the Gulf regard with deep suspicion.

Which brings us, if you're still with me, back to Iraq. Saddam Hussein was a secular Sunni ruler in a country where most citizens are Shia. Now, the Shia are in control, closely allied to Iran, and uncomfortably neutral in Syria. And it's beginning to look as if Iraq could soon be sucked back into the bloody sectarian mayhem of 2007-8, as it is pulled into the same abyss in which the people of Syria are now being slaughtered.

And if all that's not bad enough, add to the mix poor little Lebanon, once again under the cosh of regional power rivalry, and an increasingly jittery Israel, watching nervously as the latest Russian weaponry turns up on its doorstep. The match is getting perilously close to the tinder box.

If George Bush and Tony Blair still believe, as they used to argue so passionately, that the Middle East is clearly better off with Saddam Hussein gone, it'd be interesting to hear their evidence. But evidence, of course, was never their strongest point.

Friday 24 May 2013

Woolwich: it's time to confront some obvious truths

Perhaps it might be useful, as we contemplate the horror of the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in Woolwich on Wednesday, to have a quick look through the history books.

In 1971, for example, Robert Campbell killed 15 people in a bomb attack on McGurk's bar in Belfast. He was not a Muslim.  

In 1984, the then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi was shot dead by two of her security guards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh. They weren't Muslims either.

In 1991, a suicide bomber named Thenmozhi Rajaratnam blew herself up and killed Indira Gandhi's son and heir apparent, Rajiv.  She was not Muslim.

In 1994, Baruch Goldstein opened fire in a mosque in Hebron, in the West Bank, and killed 29 Palestinian worshippers. As you might have guessed, he wasn't a Muslim.

In 1998, 29 people were killed in a bomb attack in Omagh, in northern Ireland. Not one of the bombers was Muslim.

And yes, I'm coming to it, in 2001, a group of hijackers killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. All 19 of the hijackers were Muslim.

As were the attackers who killed more than 200 people in Bali in 2002, another 200 in  Madrid in 2004, 52 people in the London bombings of July 2005, and 160 in Mumbai in 2008.

Oh, and while I'm at it, in 2011 Anders Breivik killed 77 people in Oslo, and last December, Adam Lanza killed 26 people, most of them children, at a school in Newtown, Connecticut. Neither Breivik nor Lanza were Muslim.

You see my point, don't you? There's nothing "Islamic" about acts of violence. So all those anguished questions along the lines of "What is it about Islam that drives people to such terrible acts of violence?" seem to me to be entirely specious.

Of course, there's a tiny number of Muslims who say they carry out acts of violence in the name of their religion. Just as there are some Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and -- as we've seen in Burma -- even Buddhists, who say the same.

We will learn more in the coming days about who the alleged Woolwich attackers were and the background to what appears to have been an unusually brutal attack. For now, though, the clearest pointer comes from one of the alleged assailants themselves.

According to the account given by the remarkably courageous Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, who confronted them within minutes of the attack: "I asked him if he did it and he said yes, and I said why? And he said because he [the victim] has killed Muslim people in Muslim countries, he said he was a British soldier and I said really and he said 'I killed him because he killed Muslims and I am fed up with people killing Muslims in Afghanistan, they have nothing to do there.'"

Now, there are many people who object to US and British policy in Afghanistan and in other Muslim countries such as Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Syria. Plenty of Muslims and non-Muslims alike have been sickened by images from Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, or showing soldiers posing and gloating over the bodies of dead "insurgents". They may be deeply opposed to the Obama administration's use of drones to kill "high value targets" in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia -- but they don't go out onto the streets of London or New York to kill soldiers.

So it seems to me there are two tough questions that need to be asked: first, can anything effective be done to reduce the number of vulnerable young men who are likely to be persuaded by the sort of propaganda that leads them to commit acts of violence?

Second, does it make sense to go on pretending that these acts, when they occur, have nothing to do with government policy? It may or may not have been right for Britain to join with the US in invading Afghanistan and Iraq, but can we honestly claim that British military action in those countries has had nothing at all to do with the radicalisation of a tiny handful of young Muslims?

This is not to argue for one moment that government policy should be made dependent on the perceived threat that it could upset a few alienated urban youths. But perhaps it's time at least to confront an obvious truth: that actions in faraway places can produce reactions on streets at home.

And while we're confronting obvious truths, here's another one: there will be no end to terrorist attacks (President Obama admitted as much in his speech last night). The police and the security services will do everything they can to prevent them, and to keep tabs on people whom they regard as potential threats -- but let's be honest: there's no way they can monitor round-the-clock every single disaffected youth, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, who spends too many hours looking up "How to make a bomb" websites or sending blood-curdling text messages to his mates.

A final point about the way the Woolwich attack was reported, and the widespread publication of the image of one of the alleged attackers with blood on his hands. I don't believe it would have been right to suppress the images once they had become available -- newspapers and other mainstream media organisations simply look foolish if they self-censor material that can lawfully be published and which is already readily available elsewhere.

But if I'd been editing one of yesterday morning's newspapers, I wouldn't have put the picture on the front page -- and I would have used as a headline not the threats of the attackers but the words of Ingrid Loyau-Kennett as she confronted them: "It is only you versus many people, you are going to lose …"

On a day like last Wednesday, surely it's better to focus on the heroes rather than the villains.

Thursday 16 May 2013

Just watch that Gove bandwagon gather speed ...

Wasn't that nice Mr Obama a sweetie, the way he tried to help our Dave end the war in the Tory party while he was over in Washington this week?

Mind you, given how little the President has managed to do to end the war in Syria, I don't much rate his chances with the fundamentalist rebels of the Conservative party. Never mind, I still think it was jolly nice of him to try.

The truth, though, is that the coalition is crumbling. No, not the Tory-Lib Dem coalition -- that's in fine fettle compared to the one I'm thinking of: the ramshackle, increasingly dysfunctional bunch of lemmings we know and love as the Conservative party.

In the words of Benedict Brogan, deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph (yes, the paper better known as the Torygraph), writing on his blog on Tuesday: "The Tories look like a bunch of self-indulgent lunatics."

President Obama tip-toed through the Tory euro-minefield with considerable skill, I thought -- it does make some sense, he suggested, to seek to mend a relationship before breaking it off. And that, of course, is pretty much what Mr Cameron says he wants to do with the EU: renegotiate, and then call the referendum.

There's a problem, though. When one party in a relationship threatens week after week, year after year: "Unless you change the way you behave, I'm not going to be able to carry on like this," there is a real chance that one day the inevitable reply will be: "Fine, perhaps you'd better move out."

But if David Cameron's poll ratings are sliding down the plug-hole, it's not because voters disagree with him about exactly when to hold that wretched referendum. It's because he's looking increasingly like a weak prime minister unable to control his own party, an old Etonian toff who's no longer even capable of organising cocktails and canap├ęs in a Notting Hill nosherie.

It's as if Tory MPs have clean forgotten what they were told back in 2006 to explain why they hadn't won any elections for a decade. "Instead of talking about the things that most people care about, we talked about what we cared about most. While parents worried about childcare, getting the kids to school, balancing work and family life, we were banging on about Europe." The man who told it to them straight? Er, their party leader, a certain D Cameron.

We've been here before, of course. John Major went through exactly the same agonies, facing exactly the same euro-obsessives, and we know what happened to him. This time, though, unlike in 1997, it may not be Labour who reap the benefit -- Ed Miliband hasn't got quite the same effortless TV appeal that Tony Blair mastered so skillfully -- so it may well be Nigel Farage and UKIP who stand to gain the most.

When the prime minister unveiled his "in-out referendum" strategy last January, I wrote: "There is a strong possibility that David Cameron, in one single, ill-considered, badly-timed and unnecessary speech, may have sown the seeds of his own downfall."

My argument then was that all of the likely election outcomes in 2015, the least likely was an overall Tory victory that would enable him to remain in Downing Street. Now, though, I'm beginning to think his downfall could come even sooner.

It goes like this: the UKIP bandwagon and the Tory rebellions continue to roll. At the European parliament elections next year, the UKippers may even get more votes nationwide than the Tories. (Remember, turn-out for the euro-elections in 2009 was a dismal 34.7 per cent.) Tory MPs go into full-blown panic mode, just 12 months ahead of the general election.

The cry goes up: We can't win with Cameron. (After all, if they could unceremoniously dump Margaret Thatcher in 1990 because they thought she was going to lose them the next election, I don't imagine they'll have too much trouble jettisoning Mr Cameron.)

And if you think I'm being fanciful: consider this -- the two Cabinet ministers who so unhelpfully put their heads above the parapet last weekend to venture that they would vote No in a referendum if one were held now, just happen to be two of the ministers with the shortest odds in the betting shop to be the party's next leader. Yes, take a bow, Michael Gove and Philip Hammond.

You may also like to consider this piece in this morning's Telegraph: "Michael Gove has said he wants to be 'the heir to Blair' amid renewed speculation that he could succeed David Cameron as Conservative leader."

If I were a betting man, I'd put £100 on Gove for Tory leader before the next election. There again, it may all look different after the summer.

By the way, don't you think the two Tory MPs who created so much misery for the prime minister this week, with their EU referendum amendment ahead of the Queen's Speech vote, Peter Bone and John Baron, should set up a pub together? "I want a quick chat about Europe -- how about a pint with Farage down the Bone and Baron?"

Wednesday 8 May 2013

Why Israel wants Syria's Assad to survive

After Israel's air attacks against Syrian government military targets last weekend, you might be forgiven for thinking that Israel is doing what it can to help the anti-Assad rebels bring down a hated dictator.

You would be wrong. Bizarre as it may seem, if Israel could choose -- which, probably to its dismay, it can't -- it would much rather Bashar al-Assad somehow survived the current bloodbath. Fierce enemy though he is, Israel's leaders feel they know him, they understand him, and in an odd sort of way, they can do business with him.

Back in the days when Israel occupied great swathes of southern Lebanon, it was a standing joke in Jerusalem that although you could always negotiate to your heart's content with Lebanese political leaders, you could never do a deal. With Syria, on the other hand, the opposite was the case: it was all but impossible to negotiate, but somehow you could do a deal -- and it would stick. In the 45 years since Israel seized and occupied the Syrian Golan Heights, the border between the two countries has been the most peaceful of all Israel's frontiers.

Israel would much rather deal with neighbours it knows, however unfriendly they are, than have to get used to living next door to new neighbours, who may well turn out to be even more unfriendly. Whatever the people of Syria might want, Israelis would be much happier with a brutal, secular dictator than a brutal, Islamist one. They have already had to adjust to the new neighbours in Egypt, after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, but there it seems that the people who really matter in Cairo as far as Israel is concerned -- the military intelligence officers who help police the border and keep a close eye on what's going on in Gaza -- are largely unchanged. It's as if the house next door has been bought by a new owner, but the tenants remain the same.

So if Israel doesn't want to see a change of regime in Damascus, why did it attack those military facilities? The answer is quite simple: it can live with Assad possessing chemical weapons and powerful Russian-made missiles, because it's confident he won't use them. Not so, in the case of the Lebanese group Hizbollah, which has a long record of attacking Israeli targets and which claims, with some justification, to have forced Israel to abandon its military presence in southern Lebanon. And if Israel thinks Assad is transferring some of his weaponry to Hizbollah, perhaps as a way of cementing their loyalty to his cause, well, that, for Israel, is a red line which must not be crossed.

All the signs are that President Assad understands this perfectly well. He and the Israelis have more in common than they might like to acknowledge -- both are masters at the art of political power plays, and both know very well how to calibrate action and reaction. Assad can tell Hizbollah he tried to get the weapons to them -- Israel tells Assad "We know what you're up to, and you know we know -- and you also know that we won't let you get away with it."

Meanwhile, thousands more Syrians die. They are victims in what started out as a genuine popular uprising against a brutal dictatorship, but which has now become a regional war in which powerful outside interests -- Iran, Russia, Turkey, the US, the Gulf states -- are jostling for influence in one of the most dangerous regions in the world. To these outside powers, ending the conflict takes second place to winning it.

And this is where it gets even messier. I have pointed out before that even if Assad is eventually toppled, that may well not mean an end to the violence. The reason is that each of the anti-Assad actors has a different idea about what winning will mean: Turkey and Saudi Arabia, for example, are backing entirely different anti-Assad factions, and there are growing signs of an ever more powerful jihadi element among the anti-Assad fighters who owe their loyalty first and foremost to an ideology rather than to a State sponsor.

It is, undeniably, a grim picture. If there is a chink of light on the horizon, it's the agreement between Moscow and Washington to put their heads together and try, once again, to come up with a joint position. I'm not holding my breath, but I'm marginally happier to see them trying than if they were simply wringing their hands in despair. Syria's agony will end eventually -- all agonies do -- the only question is how much longer it must continue.

Friday 3 May 2013

The new American revolution

If it's true that we are what we eat, does the same apply to nations? In other words, if a nation's dietary habits start changing, does that tell us something about the nation itself?

Perhaps I should explain, since food is not a subject I often write about. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal this week, the US is currently experiencing a booming demand for -- wait for it -- hummus.

This strikes me as interesting for a couple of reasons. First, I eat tonnes of the stuff myself, in the perhaps mistaken belief that as my snack of choice, it is less likely to clog up my arteries or further expand my waistline than, for example, cheese.

Second, I associate hummus with the Middle East, especially Lebanon, although I know that as soon as I say that, I enrage millions of Israelis who jealously regard it as their own national dish. And there's not much that comes from the Middle East these days that Americans welcome into their homes or refridgerators.

(Here's something I didn't know: apparently, one reason why hummus is so popular in Israel is that it's made from ingredients that under Jewish dietary laws can be eaten with both meat and dairy products. Which is, of course, extremely useful.)

Now, I know the US well enough to know that not every American exists solely on a diet of burgers, fries, pizzas and giant buckets of sugar-laden carbonated beverages. On the other hand, many do, so if they're turning to dainty little dips of hummus as their lunch of choice, well, what should we make of it? (And here's something else I didn't know: one of America's biggest hummus makers is half-owned by Pepsi Cola. Hmm …)

So here are some numbers, courtesy of that same article in the Wall Street Journal. Last year's US harvest of chickpeas, the main ingredient in hummus, totalled a record 332 million pounds, up by more than 50 per cent from 2011. This year, American farmers are expected to plant a record 214,300 acres of chickpeas, five times as much as a decade ago, to meet demand not only from domestic consumers but also from Spain, Turkey and Pakistan.

And how's this for yet another intriguing fact? In Virginia, state officials are encouraging local farmers to plant chickpeas to take the place of tobacco, for which the market has shrunk dramatically due to falling cigarette sales. So it seems Americans are now dipping instead of puffing.

Ah, if only. In fact, those impressive-looking figures start to look a lot less impressive as soon as you compare them with other foodstuffs. Meat, for example? US consumption last year: 52 billion pounds, equal to about 270 pounds per person. That's the highest rate of meat consumption per person on earth, with the one exception of Luxembourg -- and I have no idea how much hummus Luxembourgers eat.

But I am not to be deflected from my vision of America as an emerging nation of hummus-dippers. For surely such a nation would be a gentler nation, more understanding of others, more tolerant of cultural and dietary diversity. Could a nation of hummus-lovers also be a nation of gun-lovers? Surely not.

And even if there is still a long way to go before the falafel takes the place of the burger in American dietary mythology, in the words of the old Chinese saying: "A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step." So I can dream.

As Martin Luther King would never have said, and I mean no disrespect when I parody him: "I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by what they put on their plates.

"And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring … we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children … will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last … to eat hummus."