Friday 26 September 2014

Iraq: war without end?

By the time you read these words, RAF Tornados will either have started, or will be about to start, bombing targets in Iraq. Here we go again …

Six weeks ago, I wrote: "We should be in no doubt: we, the West, are back in Iraq." And so it has come to pass. It is difficult to see how it could have been otherwise, once the murderers of Islamic State (or Isis or Isil, take your pick) started killing American and British journalists and aid workers on video.

The primary task of any government is to defend its citizens -- so once those citizens are being brutally murdered, any government would feel compelled to take action. We can debate whether dropping bombs in the desert is the right action to take, but I seriously doubt that anyone would wish to argue that there's no need for the government to do anything at all.

As always, the US is in the driving seat. But unlike his White House predecessor, President Obama has demonstrated the utmost reluctance to go to war -- some would say he has been far too reluctant in the face of repeated warnings of the likely consequences of inaction -- but he now says the US has a  “comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy” to confront IS and allied groups in both Iraq and Syria.

I find that a deeply troubling formulation. "Sustained", as in long-lasting, implies that US policy-makers envisage this bombing campaign as open-ended. Mr Obama may talk glibly of destroying the terrorists, but he knows full well that that's a fool's mission. The UK defence secretary Michael Fallon has suggested the action could last three years. My guess is that it'll be longer.

As for "comprehensive", well, no, Mr President, it isn't. In the words of the analyst Lina Khatib, director of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center, "the strategy is a positive step forward after years of relative inaction on part of the United States, but it is far from comprehensive." The lack of any thought-out political plan for Syria is a gaping hole; what's the point of bombing jihadi rebels if you have no idea, and no plan, for what's likely to be the aftermath.

For obvious reasons, President Assad seems not to have objected to the US bombing his own country. After all, the people the Americans are attacking are the same people (some of them, at least) who are attacking him. Iran isn't complaining either, for the same reason. Any US action that weakens Assad's enemies must, by definition, strengthen him.

This morning (Friday), it was reported that his army has already been taking advantage of the US air strikes, sweeping through several villages in the north-east of the country, and making gains around Damascus. You could call it an unfortunate by-product of having to deal with the IS threat.

So we have entered a bizarre Alice-in-Wonderland world in which Washington, Tehran, Damascus, Riyadh and Doha all seem to be lining up on the same side. The Saudis, Qataris and Emiratis even seem to have deployed some of their own aircraft, which I suppose at least proves that they do know what they're for.

I always try to apply a simple test when confronted with complex conundrums: is the proposed course of action likely to do more good than harm? Will bombing IS targets in Iraq and Syria destroy the murdering zealots of Islamic State? (And by the way, I fully expect the UK to be joining the Syria bombing raids before long.) Answer: no, but they may significantly weaken the group's capacity to seize new territory.

Will more Iraqi and Syrian civilians be killed as a result of the bombing raids? Answer: yes, inevitably. That's what happens.

Will the raids encourage more young fighters to join IS, emboldened by propaganda that seeks to portray this fight as one between true believers and infidels, whether Western, Shia, or fellow Sunnis? Answer: quite possibly, although by greatly increasing the odds of IS fighters being killed, the bombings may also cause at least some potential recruits to think twice before signing up.

And there's another question that needs to be answered as well: is the military action legal? In the case of Iraq, the answer is plainly yes, given that the government in Baghdad, imperfect though it be, has requested it. As for Syria, the answer has to be, at best: hmm. A case can be made, on the grounds that protecting Iraq necessitates action across the border, but it's far from clear cut.

(As for the wisdom of hitting supply lines and bases in neighbouring countries, I would have thought that the precedent from the Vietnam war, when the US pulverised neighbouring Cambodia, supposedly to neutralise the Viet Cong, should give planners much pause for thought. The prospect of a Syrian version of the Khmer Rouge is a chilling one.)

Beyond the immediate issue of to-bomb-or-not-to-bomb (I write before Friday's House of Commons vote, but it seems to be a foregone conclusion), there's a deeper and far more difficult issue that Arabs themselves will need to confront sooner or later.

The Lebanese journalist Hisham Melhem, of the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya TV news channel, wrote in a recent article: "Arab civilization, such as we knew it, is all but gone. The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism -- the extremism of the rulers and those in opposition -- than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. Every hope of modern Arab history has been betrayed …

"The jihadists of the Islamic State, in other words, did not emerge from nowhere. They climbed out of a rotting, empty hulk -- what was left of a broken-down civilization. They are a gruesome manifestation of a deeper malady afflicting Arab political culture, which was stagnant, repressive and patriarchal after the decades of authoritarian rule that led to the disastrous defeat in the 1967 war with Israel."

If he is right, defeating Islamic State will be just the start of a far longer, far more difficult process: the rebuilding of what was once one of the world's great civilisations and the revitalising of some of the Arab world's greatest cities. Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus, Aleppo were once by-words for scholarship, culture and learning. Now, they are either hollow shells where people live in oppression, fear and poverty, or they are destroyed by civil war. It will be a long haul.

Friday 19 September 2014

Time for a new start


Those of us who were desperately hoping that the Union would remain united are surely entitled to a sigh of relief. But there's already another battle looming: who's going to take control of what happens next?

David Cameron, in his early morning, post-referendum statement, suggested that a neat little Cabinet committee is all that's needed to chart the way forward. But even he acknowledged the need for what he called "wider civic engagement" in the debates to come. So let's consider how this could -- should -- be done.

The people of Scotland have taught the rest of us an invaluable lesson. They have shown us that people do still care about the country they live in, its future, and how it is governed, and that they can become engaged, enthusiastic and passionate if they believe their views will make a real difference.

So surely we can learn that lesson and build on it.  Now it's time for the rest of us to demand that we too are given the same opportunity to make our voices heard, so that we too can have a say in what kind of country we and our children will live in.

It's up to us. The Westminster establishment would like nothing more than to be left once again to their own devices, to keep the Scots happy and the rest of us quiescent. There is another way. No more oh-so-British, let's-just-muddle-through. This time, let's do it properly.

I propose the establishment of a Reform Commission, to draw up, after proper public discussion, a new government framework for all the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. I envisage a four-stage process lasting no more than two years -- and I have some fairly radical ideas about how it should go about its business.

First, the back-of-an-envelope "vow" scrabbled together in the closing days of the referendum campaign by Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband to promise the people of Scotland heaven on earth should immediately be consigned to the bin. (We won't mind them breaking their promise -- we're used to it by now.)

Second, the Cabinet secretary should be instructed to nominate no more than 50 of Whitehall's best and brightest officials to constitute a Reform Secretariat.  There must be equal numbers of men and women, a proportionate representation of ethnic and other minorities -- and no member shall be over the age of 35.

Why the age limit? Because we need to break free of the hide-bound attitudes that have held back reform for decades. We need fresh thinking from fresh brains -- and we need people with the imagination and intellectual courage to cast the net wide.

These young, energetic secretariat officials will have two tasks: first, to nominate the members of the Reform Commission, to be made up of representatives of all sections of UK society -- again, maximum number 50, equal numbers of women and men, minorities properly represented -- and again, no one over the age of 35. Community leaders, youth workers, academics, think-tank policy-wonks, teachers, counsellors, religious leaders from churches, mosques, temples and synagogues -- anyone with first-hand knowledge of how this country works, or doesn't work.

The secretariat's second task will be to prepare a series of option papers on all aspects of political life: voting reform; House of Lords reform; the monarchy; relations between towns, cities, counties and regions; housing and planning regulations; local taxes. (They will, of course, take a close look at how other countries manage this kind of thing: Germany, Italy, Spain, for example -- oh yes, and the grand-daddy of federal set-ups, the US of A.)

These documents will be published and distributed, engaging a wide variety of organisations not usually involved in these kinds of discussions. I'm thinking of groups with lots of members (ie not political parties): the RSPB, RSPCA, National Trust, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, trades unions, as well as online reform groups like 38 degrees and All of them with members who care about the future.

The whole point of the exercise is to get people thinking and talking. We know people care, we know they want to make this country a better place -- and we know they don't trust the politicians to do it for them. That, surely, is one of the reasons why so many Scots voted Yes to independence: just like UKIP voters south of the border, they have lost confidence in the traditional political elite.

So stage one: the setting up of the reform secretariat and reform commission. Stage two: the preparation and publication of the option papers. Stage three: the commissioners travel round the country for six months, speaking at public meetings in town halls, village halls, pubs, libraries and schools. Most importantly, though, they will listen.

What's important is that the priorities for reform must be set by voters, not by politicians. That's why the referendum "vow" was such an insult -- it implied that any old promise, cobbled together by panic-stricken party leaders, will be enough to satisfy the voters. It won't.

Stage four: the reform commissioners produce a report based on their country-wide soundings. They submit it to the secretariat, who in turn produce a set of proposals to be submitted to parliament. We remain a parliamentary democracy, so it is crucial that parliament makes the final decisions, but I somehow doubt that after a genuine public consultation, MPs will dare to ignore the popular will.

Could it work? Of course it could. Let's steal a slogan from the Yes campaign (who stole it from Barack Obama): Yes, we can.

The Scots have shown us how. Let's do it.

Tuesday 16 September 2014

The Referendum -- by Mills & Boon

Alex paused by the front door, his suitcase at his feet. "I really hope we can still be friends," he said.

"I don't know how you can say that," Dave replied, with a catch in his throat. "You're about to walk out of that door, walk out of a marriage that has lasted 307 years, and you say you want us still to be friends. It doesn't make sense. It just doesn't."

Dave was trying hard not to cry. He knew it was too late, but with every fibre of his being, he wanted to stop this happening.

"Alex, listen. You're going to walk out of that door, and then the next thing I'll hear will be from your lawyers. And then you'll hear from my lawyers. And they'll argue -- about everything. And we'll end up hating each other."

There was a silence. It lasted for ever. Then Alex sighed. "It doesn't have to be like that. I only want what is right for me. I want what is mine."

Dave felt the anger rising. "But you know perfectly well that you can have that without walking out. I let you make your own decisions, I let you lead your own life, don't I?"

"Let me? You let me?" Alex was close to breaking point. "Don't you see that's what this is all about? You have no right to 'let me' do anything. I am an individual, I am your equal -- I don't need your permision …"

They stood there in the hallway, glowering. Dave swallowed hard. "I don't want you to go. You don't have to go. We can make this work, really, we can. I know we can."

Alex sighed again. "It's too late, Dave. I have to do what is right for me. It's going to be better for both of us if I leave. I need to be my own person, an independent person. If you're reasonable about this, I know we can stay on good terms, as friends, neighbours."

A tear rolled down Dave's cheek. "I just don't think you've thought this through. What will you live on? Who will look after you when you're ill? You think it's going to be easy living on your own, but it's not. You have to understand -- if you walk out through that door, you can't come back. You just can't."

Another silence. "Listen," Alex said. "If you let me keep my keys to the house, I'll let you have a key to my new place. You'll always be welcome if I'll be welcome here. We don't need to erect barriers, we can still be members of the same clubs, the same groups. We'll still have the same friends."

"No, Alex, we won't." There was a hard edge now to Dave's voice. "You're dreaming. The clubs will throw you out. Remember, we have joint membership. You'll have to apply all over again. And our friends will take sides. Alex, I hate to say this, but I have many more friends than you do. You could end up very lonely."

The ugliness had already started. Both of them knew that this was how it was going to be. In truth, both had known for years that it might come to this: for decades, the signs had been there, but somehow neither had been ready for the final step.

Many of Alex's friends had been urging him to take charge of his own life. "You don't need Dave and his chums," they would tell him. "You have money of your own, you're bright, of course you can look after yourself. Look in the mirror, Alex, do you really see someone who can't cope on their own?"

Perhaps Dave had been wilfully blind. Perhaps he had chosen not to notice. If he ever mentioned his fear that one day Alex might walk away, his chums would scoff. "Alex? Don't be daft. He knows he's on to a good thing. Why would he walk out?"

Of course, they had under-estimated him. He hadn't been to their school; he wasn't from their background. He didn't speak like them. And now it might be too late. Alex was standing at the doorway, and Dave was desperate. What would people say if Alex did walk out on him? His only hope was that some of Alex's friends might be urging him to think again. Some, he knew, thought the two of them -- the odd couple -- should stay together. But time was running out.

All he could hear was the ticking of the grandfather clock.

Friday 12 September 2014

Why I'd vote No -- with passion

-->I am not Scottish, and I don't live in Scotland, so I don't have a vote in the independence referendum. But if I were, and if I did, I would unhesitatingly vote a great big No.

Here's why:

I am a passionate believer in multi-culturalism and multi-nationalism. I believe that we really are better together, and that doesn't apply only to England and Scotland.

I believe in strengthening what unites us, not what separates us. I believe in looking outwards, not inwards, in sharing, not grabbing. I prefer the hand that is outstretched in friendship, not snatched away in suspicion.

I believe that Scotland and England together are greater than Scotland and England apart. Whether it's literature or music, business or politics, we are stronger when we share what we have and when we learn from each other.

Yes, it's a matter of faith. Faith in humanity's ability to coexist in harmony, to be different yet equal, proud yet tolerant. Surely history teaches us that we are better when we come together than when we turn our backs. In the words of a recent Financial Times editorial: "A Yes vote would ignore the lessons of the 20th century, a chapter in European history indelibly scarred by narrow nationalism."

I fear that too much pro-independence sentiment stems from a hatred of the narrow, market-driven economics that have driven policy from London over much of the past 30 years. I share that hatred, but I believe the solution is to vote for an alternative vision for all of the UK, not just for north of the border.

I believe that in a dangerous and unpredictable world, it would be madness to break the bonds of friendship. I am filled with dread at the prospect of a Scotland and an England, both perhaps outside the EU, regarded with suspicion both by each other and by their neighbours. How can that possibly be a better vision for the future than one in which we work together for a better world?

Progressives always used to argue for reaching out across borders, not creating new ones. Surely the multi-nationalist case is stronger now than it has ever been; with modern communications, we know more than we ever did about shared problems that require shared solutions.

How will a Scotland alone be better able to deal with the challenge of climate change, or cyber-terrorism? How will a Scotland alone survive a new financial melt-down? To say we need each other is not to say we are incapable alone, simply that we are stronger together.

I despair when I hear the arguments over currency unions and taxation rates. Nations are made of more than purses and wallets: they are made of shared histories and shared cultures. I understand Scottish pride, but there is nothing in a fairly constituted Union that should in any way diminish the value of Scotland's heritage.

So Yes to a new federal settlement. Yes to greater powers for Edinburgh, and for Wales and England's regions. Yes to national pride, to regional pride, but also Yes to a shared pride.

If I write with what is, for me, uncharacteristic passion, it is partly because the No campaign has been accused of a lack of passion. But it is also because, somewhat to my surprise, I have discovered that I do care passionately about what Britain represents and about how it would be diminished by a Scottish breakaway.

So if, on Friday, I wake up to learn that Scotland has voted Yes, I shall need someone to blame. I won't blame the Scots, but I will blame David Cameron, an arrogant, ignorant Englishman who will have presided over the destruction of something I value -- and, quite possibly, the break-up of his own party, over which, admittedly, I shall shed fewer tears. (I'll also reserve a bit of the blame for the sclerotic Scottish Labour party, which seems to have been asleep for the best part of a decade.)

David Cameron was once asked why he wanted to be prime minister. He replied: "Because I think I'd be rather good at it." By Friday, we may well have more cause than ever before to dispute that judgement.

Friday 5 September 2014

Living in a world without a globo-cop

I can't think of anywhere that would have been less appropriate as a venue for this week's NATO summit than the UK.

A United Kingdom that within the next couple of weeks may become shatteringly disunited. A once middle-ranking European power that now has no idea what sort of international role it wants for itself, or indeed whether it even wants to be part of a European Union. A nation that sometimes seems to have decided to have no further truck with any joint international endeavours.

Inward-looking, backward-looking, suspicious of its neighbours: everything that NATO is meant not to be. And this at a time when the world is a more dangerous place than it's been in decades. So why are Western leaders -- because it's not just David Cameron -- so dismally unable to confront the dangers?

The answer is both simple and complex. Simple, because the world's traditional globo-cop -- the US -- no longer has either the will or the cash to carry on as before. Its ill-fated military ventures in Afghanistan and Iraq have sapped the Americans' appetite for more wars, and its economic plight means it can no longer afford to fight other people's wars for them.

Good thing too, you may say, when you look at the consequences of the US's most recent forays. But here comes the complex bit: in the absence of a globo-cop, bad people get more chances to do bad things. (Globo-cops can do bad things too, of course: Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, you can draw up your own list ...) Who should stop the bad people -- and how -- is now the single biggest foreign policy headache facing world leaders.

NATO? Ah yes, good old NATO. The US by another name. As Gideon Rachman pointed out in the FT this week, the US now provides no less than 75 per cent of NATO's total spending, compared to 50 per cent at the height of the Cold War. It may still be the world's biggest economy (just), but it's heartily fed up with European leaders whining about a lack of "American leadership" and then scurrying for cover as soon as someone suggests they might like to cough up some cash themselves.

I remember a senior NATO official telling me some years ago that for effective international action to be agreed, you always need one political leader to go out in front, pick up the phone and do some serious arm-twisting. Tony Blair was pretty good at it (Kosovo, 1999); so were George H.W. Bush (Kuwait, 1991) and Nicolas Sarkozy (Libya, 2011). This time, when it comes to Ukraine, Syria, or Iraq? Er, no one.

As it happens, there are some very good reasons for the reluctance to go back to war. First, recent experience is not encouraging. Second, it's extremely difficult to see what kind of action, at least in Syria or Ukraine, would be effective. Third, there's the very real possibility that military intervention would make things worse rather than better.

There is, however, one NATO member that might be in a position to take up where the US has left off, and that member is Germany. It is the most powerful economy in Europe, and Chancellor Angela Merkel is by a long way Europe's most powerful leader. Germany is also, according to a global opinion poll conducted last year, the most admired country in the world.

There's just one problem: history. The Germans themselves, and the rest of Europe, remember what happened in the past when Germany had ambitions to be a global power, and it did not end well. So whether it's the global economic crisis or Russian troops stomping around in eastern Ukraine, Chancellor Merkel has no intention of dressing up in a globo-cop uniform. I can't say I blame her.

But with the Polish prime minister Donald Tusk now in pole position in Brussels (sorry) as the new president of the European Council, Mrs Merkel really is best placed, together with Mr Tusk, to mediate between Moscow and Kiev.  (Britain has no useful role to play, if only because of its unedifying determination not to upset all those Russian oligarchs who like to use the London property market as their playground.)

Let's be clear: even if the latest ceasefire is effective, the Ukraine crisis won't be over until there's a sustainable political settlement. No outside power is going to go to war on Kiev's behalf -- that's why at the NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008 (I was there), Western leaders rebuffed Ukraine's attempt to begin a membership application process.

As for Iraq, it seems to me that President ("no strategy yet") Obama is heading slowly in the right direction. Just as the first President Bush did in 1991, he wants to assemble a multi-national coalition that extends beyond the Western powers. That means bringing countries like Turkey on board, plus Jordan and at least some of the Gulf Sunni autocracies. (If they really don't approve of the IS jihadis, now is the time for them to show it. And to do something useful with all that military hardware we keep selling them.)

Most important of all is to engage with Iraq's Sunni leaders to help them confront the brutality of the IS zealots. Because if there is to be any hope for Iraq -- or Syria, or Ukraine -- the shape of the future must be decided by its own people.

Finally, spare a thought for the people of Bama, in northern Nigeria, 26,000 of whom are reported to have fled from their homes after the town was seized by jihadi fighters from Boko Haram, IS's African soul-mates. Bodies are said to be littering the streets.

And if you can, spare another thought for the people of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, facing the worst outbreak of the Ebola virus in history. According to the president of the international medical relief agency Médecins sans Frontières: "The world is losing the battle to contain it … cases and deaths continue to surge. Riots are breaking out. Isolation centres are overwhelmed. Health workers on the frontline are becoming infected and are dying in shocking numbers."

If it wasn't for everything else, Nigeria and Ebola would be on the front pages as well.