Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The BBC is shaken, rattled, and rolled

The Daily Star
Wednesday December 1 2010
By Michael Glackin

As everyone in Lebanon is now aware, BBC Television abruptly cancelled
the broadcast this month of “Murder in Beirut,” a documentary about
the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, only
days before it was due to be aired.

The BBC initially said the program, made by ORTV, a United
Kingdom-Saudi Arabian production company, had been pulled because it
had not yet complied with the corporation’s editorial guidelines. I
contacted the BBC for details about which editorial guidelines the
program had not met. A BBC spokesperson informed me that the program
had not in fact fallen short any of the BBC’s editorial guidelines,
but was still in the process of being verified, because the film was
“a work in progress.” The BBC failed to provide anything on which
material required verification.

The program maker, Christopher Mitchell, was unavailable for comment
and ORTV declined to comment. However, sources close to the BBC
dismiss the corporation’s official, rather opaque explanation and
insist that compliance with BBC guidelines or verification of its
facts was not an issue in the decision to pull the program. Indeed,
the program was originally completed more than a year ago, and no
fewer than four senior BBC Middle East specialists vetted it, and
recommended content changes that were then incorporated. As an insider
put it: “‘Murder in Beirut’ has been very much through the BBC’s
editorial mill.”

The vetting team is understood to have included Malcolm Balen, the
BBC’s Middle East “watchdog.” Balen is the author of a report the BBC
commissioned on its own Middle East coverage in 2004. The report was
prepared in response to accusations of bias from both Israel and the
Arab world, but was mostly prompted by a perceived anti-Israeli
predisposition at the BBC. No one outside of the BBC’s top brass has
ever seen Balen’s 20,000 word report and the BBC has fought a long and
expensive legal battle to prevent its publication – spending somewhere
in the region of $400,000 in British courts to keep it secret.

BBC insiders have said that “Murder in Beirut” went through an
extensive vetting process and the first episode was expected to be
broadcast on November 20. So, bearing in mind the program had been
scrutinized and amended by the BBC’s own Middle East specialists, why
was it so abruptly pulled from the schedule?

It appears that once the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to
Hizbullah, revealed much of the contents of “Murder in Beirut” and
attacked the program for accusing Hizbullah of having participated in
the Hariri assassination, senior people in the BBC’s Middle East team
took fright at the impact the program might have and recommended that
it be pulled. An insider told me: “Basically they were worried about
exacerbating tension in Beirut, how Hizbullah would react.”

Last week the BBC correspondent in Beirut, Jim Muir, wrote that the
recent Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s documentary on the Hariri
assassination, which reported that Hizbullah would be implicated, had
a “bombshell effect in Lebanon.” Although, curiously, he added that
the film might also “have the effect of reducing the impact of the
eventual [Special Tribunal for Lebanon] indictments,” because by the
time the indictments are handed down “they might be seen as old hat.”

Confused? Muir’s point was actually made earlier by UN prosecutor
Daniel Bellemare but was, oddly enough, reiterated at the weekend by
Hizbullah MP Nawwar al-Sahili, who warned that the CBC was fueling
religious tensions. Well, he would say that wouldn’t he?

Among the laughable aspects of the BBC’s actions in this affair is
that the publicity surrounding the decision to pull the program
prompted CBC to bring forward the transmission of its own documentary,
enabling it to scoop the BBC. But it doesn’t stop there. A version of
ORTV’s program was shown last week by German broadcaster WDR. To
paraphrase Oscar Wilde: To be scooped once might be regarded as a
misfortune, but to be scooped twice looks like carelessness. Or

Of course, the fact that two films covering the same ground have now
been aired gives the BBC an excuse not to show “Murder in Beirut.” The
story has been told; there’s no point in doing anything else on it.

It is worth pointing out that the BBC is no stranger to running away
from the conclusions drawn by its programs. In 1985, it caved into
pressure from the British government and pulled a documentary about
Northern Ireland that focused on Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness,
then relatively unknown outside Northern Ireland, as well as the
hardline Unionist politician Gregory Campbell. That decision led to a
strike by BBC staff. The film was eventually shown later in a revised
form, a fate I suspect “Murder in Beirut” will share, probably after
indictments are handed down by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

But by pulling “Murder in Beirut” in the manner that it did, the BBC
once again raised the issue of how it reports on the Middle East amid
a continuing onslaught of accusations that its coverage is biased and
inaccurate. Last year the BBC Trust upheld a complaint from Israeli
supporters that a report by its Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, was
inaccurate and not impartial. There have also been accusations from
the Arab world, most recently when the BBC was criticized for refusing
to broadcast a television appeal by aid agencies for Gaza in the
aftermath of the Israeli attack. Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of
the International Atomic Energy Agency and a Nobel prize winner,
refused to accept interview requests from the BBC in protest.

Many in the BBC say the decision not to broadcast the Gaza appeal was
a clumsy attempt to over compensate for the fact that the Balen Report
was understood to have concluded the BBC’s coverage was biased against
Israel. Against that backdrop it may be that the BBC once again over
compensated – this time for the Gaza decision – when Al-Akhbar
attacked “Murder in Beirut.”

All journalists put up with criticism. It comes with the territory,
whether you are reporting on flower shows or global events. But to
borrow a phrase from American war reporter Martha Gelhorn, reporters
should at least record truly, because “it is something no one else
will do.” Not only has the BBC failed to follow even that simple
maxim, it appears to have allowed a fear of how Hizbullah or Syria
will respond to dictate whether Gelhorn’s truth should be told at all.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Britain embraces the pageantry of retreat

The Daily Star
Friday 26 November 2010
By Michael Glackin

Next year Britain will remind the world of what it does better than anyone. The nuptials between Prince William and Kate Middleton, announced last week, will allow the United Kingdom to display its unmatched talent for pomp and pageantry to a global audience.

Unfortunately, last week also saw a pair of other announcements that relate to something the UK is no longer does quite as well as it used to. Being a global military power.

General Sir David Richards, the head of the British armed forces, finally broke ranks and revealed what many of his military colleagues and a number of politicians have been saying for some time: It is impossible to defeat Al-Qaeda and the Taliban with military force. Of course, neither the Taliban or Al-Qaeda can defeat the West’s military forces either, but they don’t have to.

The military has long believed that the Afghan war is unwinnable, just as it eventually did in Iraq, but Richards is the first to say it openly. And the reason the general felt confident enough to voice his opinion openly was because, as last week’s NATO summit in Lisbon made plain, the West’s political appetite for this war is now at an end.

US President Barack Obama used the Lisbon summit to insist that full responsibility for security in the country will pass to the Afghan army and police “by 2014,” as he reiterated his plan to start withdrawing American soldiers from Afghanistan within the next eight months.

NATO officials were at pains to downplay the increasingly indecent haste to beat a retreat from Afghanistan by insisting “events, not calendars” would dictate the withdrawal timetable. But it is obvious that the West’s focus in Afghanistan is to cut a deal and clear out.

In mid-November, the British foreign secretary, William Hague, stated that his government’s 2015 deadline for a British withdrawal was set in stone, regardless of whether large tracts of the country remained violent or the Afghan government remained corrupt. He said Britain’s presence in Afghanistan was to make sure the country did not pose a threat to “Britain’s security,” before adding: “This does not mean we will necessarily arrive at a situation where every valley of Afghanistan is entirely peaceful, where there are no difficulties in the governance of Afghanistan, where it has reached a point where it’s not 190th on the corruption league.”

Well, that last point is good news at least for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But Hague’s comments underline how much British ambitions for Afghanistan have shrunk. From lofty plans to establish democracy, the UK and the West narrowed their ambitions to achieving “stability” in the country. Now it appears even that isn’t important. The West wants to clear out in five years at the latest and leave Afghanistan to its own devices, protected by what passes for a national army.

The elephant in the room is the fact that no one in NATO’s military command, indeed no one at all other than perhaps Karzai, believes the Afghan army will be capable of maintaining order by 2015. Earlier this year a US government report from the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction revealed that just 23 percent of Afghan soldiers and 12 percent of police were capable of working unsupervised, and that there was widespread absenteeism, corruption and drug abuse among Afghan forces.

It is against this backdrop that both Richards and the American commander, General David Petraeus, have spoken of the need for many thousands of NATO troops to remain in Afghanistan to support the Afghan army as a back-up force until 2030 at least. However, there is a political imperative at work thousands of miles away from the dusty battlefields of Helmand and Kandahar and the moth-eaten government in Kabul. Obama faces an election in 2012, while the British prime minister, David Cameron, faces one in 2015. Both want to be able to wave significant troop withdrawals at their respective electorates at those crucial dates, while everyone still remembers that they inherited the Afghan war from their predecessors.

At the same time there is recognition within the British security establishment that none of the terror plots aimed against the UK have been hatched in Afghanistan. Indeed neither was the Madrid or Bali bombings. These days Al-Qaeda hangs its shingle in Pakistan.

Moreover, there is now an increasing emphasis within the British government on the need to direct attention to other potential centers of terror, most notably Yemen. The government has confirmed it is looking to “substantially increase” the amount of aid it gives to Yemen in a bid to prevent it from becoming what one official described as “a second Afghanistan.”

And lest we forget, these days Karzai is second only to Taliban in the frequency of his condemnation of NATO strategy. Some of his criticisms are justified, particularly concerning the large number of civilian casualties, but it also serves as another reason why the West is keen to wash its hands of Afghanistan.
The Afghan war is entering its 10th year for the United States and its allies in NATO. But for Afghans it has been going on for more than 30 years. There was never going to be a clear-cut military victory in Afghanistan. But the last week shows we are getting closer to the messy, inconclusive, endgame that was always going to mark the end of this phase of Western involvement.

Whether it finally ends decades of misery for Afghans no longer appears to matter. But at least we have a royal wedding to look forward to in the UK. When Britain last staged a military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1842 it was at the height of its global influence. Then British forces were effectively run out of Kabul by Muhammad Akbar Khan and around 16,000 British soldiers and civilians were massacred in the mountain pass of Khurd Kabul. There were no royal weddings that year. Rule Britannia.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Gulf arms buying: old wine in new bottles

The Daily Star
Tuesday September 27 2010
By Michael Glackin

Head for the caves. It appears that an “unprecedented arms race” is under way in the Middle East as oil-rich Gulf states embark on what The Financial Times has called “one of the largest re-armament exercises in peacetime history.” Apparently, Gulf states, alarmed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions, are stumping up more than $120 billion over the next four years in a move that will also “generate fear in Israel.”

The catalyst for the doom laden headlines was the news that the United States is selling $67 billion worth of aircraft and military hardware to Saudi Arabia. In what is the largest US arms sale of its kind, Saudi Arabia has agreed to pay $30 billion up front for fighter jets and helicopters, with the balance following at an undisclosed date. Meanwhile the United Arab Emirates is set to splash out $35 billion on mainly US made military hardware, closely followed by Oman, which is poised to spend $12 billion and Kuwait which is spending $7 billion.

Back in 1975, the late US senator, Edward Kennedy, warned of a “major arms race in the Persian Gulf,” and called for a moratorium on US military sales to Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel. At that time those three nations accounted for more than 75 percent of America’s total arms sales of $8 billion. Washington was accused of trying to buy influence with Iran and Saudi Arabia to combat the sharp increase in oil prices as OPEC’s Arab members used the “oil weapon” in the aftermath of October War, precipitating the mid-70s energy crisis in the West.

There was also a sharp increase in Middle East arms sales in 1991, in the wake of the first Gulf War and periodic arms build ups ever since.

Why is this arms race any different?

Well in reality it isn’t. Most observers have highlighted the threat posed to the region by Iran, but that threat has been present for many years. In reality the latest round of purchases stem from an internal shake out of military capacity as cash-rich Gulf states update their hardware for a new era that includes not only the problem posed by Iran’s growing strength, but the increasing threat of domestic terrorist attacks.

Respected defense expert Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington told me last week that this kind of arms build up is cyclical. “Everyone keeps talking about the ‘arms deal of the century’ but it never is. Iran is not a new threat; it has been the driving force behind Saudi planning since 1981. The current purchases will have a deterrent impact on Iran but remember that as part of these purchases Saudi Arabia is getting the mobility to deal with complex tactical environments such as the Yemeni border, or a terrorist attack on one of its energy facilities. The Red Sea area and the Indian Ocean are also becoming more unstable. There is no one driving factor in all this.”

It is worth pointing out that the deals, which still have to be approved by the US Congress, represent a coup for the administration of President Barack Obama. The Saudi deal alone will protect the jobs of around 80,000 American defense industry workers as Obama heads into crucial mid-term Congressional elections. From seeking to buy influence to keep oil prices low in the 1970s, America now wants recycled petrodollars to support its beleaguered blue collar workers.

That said, it is also impossible to ignore the concerns with Tehran’s increasing bellicosity. While no one would ever go overboard in stressing cooperation between the Gulf states, regional arms sales have accelerated in unison since Iran embarked on a series of high-profile missile tests in recent years. A large chunk of the money being spent over the next four years is for missile defense systems.

And apart from guaranteeing American jobs, the deals also underline Washington’s determination to support its regional allies against both Iran – after Obama’s ill fated “back passage” strategy yielded little – and the continuing threat posed by a myriad fundamentalist terror groups. To this end, Washington is arguably looking to provide the kind of cover to the Middle East or, more accurately, to friendly Gulf states and of course Israel, that it provided to Western Europe during the Cold War – only this time at something akin to a cash profit.

It is also worth pointing out that the military hardware finding its way to Saudi Arabia and its neighbors, though vastly superior to Iran’s current arsenal, remains short of the sophistication and power that the US is sending to Israel. Cordesman points out that Washington has not offered Saudi Arabia the systems that enable advanced long-range weapons to be attached to the F-15 fighters it is buying. Israel is also set to buy a number of F-35s, a much more advanced fighter jet.

Such imbalances make a nonsense of talks of “an arms race.” But more importantly the current spending spree does nothing to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Right now the real problem facing the Middle East is the increasing likelihood that Israel will do to Iran what it did in 1981 to Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor – before Tehran’s nuclear facilities are active enough for an attack to cause radiation leakage that might cause widespread harm to civilians. Time is fast running out in this race.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star

Friday, 20 August 2010

Lazarus in Libya, ignominy in London

The Daily Star
Friday August 20 2010
By Michael Glackin

On this day last year, in the company of fellow journalists and a plethora of television crews from the UK, the US and the Middle East, I was ushered into a small, stuffy room in the bowels of the Scottish Government Building in Edinburgh.

Inside the overcrowded basement, Scotland’s justice minister, Kenny MacAskill, announced to us that Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the only person convicted of the worst terror atrocity in British history – the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103, which killed 270 people – had just been released from prison and was en route to a waiting jet that would take him home to his family in Libya.

Megrahi, whose conviction in 2000 had been questioned by many, including some of the victims’ families, was released on “compassionate grounds” because he was suffering from “terminal cancer” and had just three months to live.

When I asked MacAskill if he believed Megrahi was innocent he insisted the Libyan was guilty. He solemnly intoned that Megrahi now faced “a sentence imposed by a higher power. It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die.”

Well, we’re all going to die. But Megrahi was supposed to die within 12 weeks of MacAskill’s somber pronouncement. Indeed, this was the sole reason for his “compassionate release” under Scottish law.

One year on, Megrahi is of course alive and, if not entirely well, he is yet expected to remain among the living for another year at least. Indeed one respected cancer specialist predicted that he would be around to enjoy the London Olympics in 2012 and perhaps even the next World Cup in 2014. It’s the greatest recovery since Lazarus.

The decision to free the Lockerbie bomber was always contentious, but in the last year it has descended into farce, enveloped by conspiracy theories about oil deals, political double-dealing, cover-ups, and now bogus medical evidence.

Megrahi was released after the Scottish prison service’s director of health and care, Dr. Andrew Fraser, announced that his cancer was resistant to “any treatment.” But it has since emerged that the cancer specialists most familiar with Megrahi’s case were not consulted before his release, and that one of the specialists who did see him was actually being paid by the Libyan government.

Moreover, it has also emerged that a standard chemotherapy medicine, Taxotere, was not administered to Megrahi. The prisoner couldn’t receive the treatment inside prison, but the medicine could surely have been administered at a local hospital.

No one appears to have an answer for how doctors diagnosed Megrahi’s cancer as untreatable when he hadn’t received chemotherapy, but it suited the overall plan of the British and Scottish governments to ignore this fact in their desperation to return him to Libya. And ignore it both governments surely did because Megrahi’s application for compassionate release, made just weeks before he was freed, actually referred to the possibility of his undergoing chemotherapy to treat the cancer once he was free.

The medical revelations fit in neatly with conspiracy theorists who believe trade – Libya has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the UK in the past year – and oil are at the heart of Megrahi’s release.

In March 2007 Premier Tony Blair agreed to the so-called “deal in the desert” with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. This included provisions for a Prisoner Transfer Agreement (PTA) between the two nations, designed solely to repatriate Megrahi. During the visit, Blair also witnessed the inking of a $900 million gas and oil exploration deal between oil giant BP and Tripoli.

The Scottish government had asked the British government to exclude Megrahi from the PTA, but in late 2007 BP successfully lobbied Blair, warning that failure to agree to the PTA on Libyan terms could hit British commercial interests – or more specifically BP’s exploration deal with Libya. which was awaiting ratification. Indeed, a leaked letter revealed that then-British Justice Secretary Jack Straw wrote to MacAskill in December 2007 and told him that it was “in the overwhelming interests of the UK” to let Megrahi return to Libya.

BP insists it never mentioned Megrahi when lobbying for the PTA, but of course there was no need to since there was no one of similar significance among the 26 Libyans held at the time in British prisons.

The Scottish government insists it “had no contact from BP” while considering Megrahi’s release, and of course Megrahi was not released under the PTA, but freed on compassionate grounds.

Will we ever get to the truth in this affair? Prime Minister David Cameron called for an independent inquiry into the Megrahi release while he was in opposition, but has refused to countenance one now that he is in power.

So to mark the anniversary of Megrahi’s release, let me offer an alternative. Megrahi was due to have an appeal heard against his conviction in 2009, which he abandoned to facilitate his release. Megrahi’s lawyers planned to introduce documents that were not made available at Megrahi’s trial. Chief among these was evidence from the US Defense Intelligence Agency showing that the Syrian-controlled Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command was paid $1 million to carry out the bombing by Iran to avenge the July 1988 accidental downing of an Iranian commercial airliner by an American warship, killing 290 people. Many believe Syria's role in the bombing was swept under the carpet after Syrian president Hafez Assad supported the US led alliance to oust Iraq from Kuwait in early 1991. Megrahi was not formally indicted for the crime by the United States and the United Kingdom until November 1991.

If Megrahi were allowed to launch his appeal from Libya it would perhaps go some way toward shedding light on what happened the night Pan Am 103 went down, as well as the process surrounding his conviction and discharge from prison. The evidence against Megrahi was dubious, but the reasons given for his release were equally so.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Any substance to David of the East?

The Daily Star
Friday August 6 2010
By Michael Glackin

The art of diplomacy, according to American historian Will Durant, is “to say nothing, especially when speaking.” During his recent whistle stop tour of foreign capitals, British Prime Minister David Cameron appeared to have gone out of his way to ignore that maxim.

In just a few days Cameron debunked the belief that the United Kingdom enjoyed a special relationship with the US by declaring that the UK was no more than a “junior partner” of Washington. He also irritated the Israeli government by calling Gaza a prison camp. And he enraged Pakistanis by saying their country exported terrorism. Each statement was correct (except the first, which greatly overestimated British importance). But to say Cameron’s language was undiplomatic was an understatement.

Cameron’s comments about Pakistan in particular were, in diplomatic terms, brutal. “We cannot tolerate in any sense the idea that this country [Pakistan] is allowed to look both ways and is able, in any way, to promote the export of terror whether to India, whether to Afghanistan or to anywhere else in the world.” For Cameron’s admirers those remarks – which unlike his Gaza comments were unscripted – represented a welcome blast of honesty in British foreign policy.

But as people in the Middle East in particular know, talk is cheap. In politics actions are what count, and whether Cameron’s bold words marked a departure from the years of failed strategies in both the Afghan conflict and the Palestinian issue was a moot point.

Interestingly, government officials refused to be drawn out on whether this cascade of candor heralded a new approach to foreign affairs, or in view of Cameron’s Gaza remarks a tougher attitude toward Israel. Instead, an official at Number 10 Downing Street repeated to me – seven times – that the prime minister’s comments spoke for themselves, and steadfastly refused to clarify what, if anything, their impact would be on wider British policy in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Cameron’s summary of Pakistan’s ambivalence to terror in Afghanistan and elsewhere revealed nothing new, although when he said that he “cannot tolerate” this situation any longer you suspected that he was talking less about banging heads together in Islamabad and more about his own plans to beat a hasty retreat from a never-ending war.

There have been moans for some time in Washington that Pakistan’s main intelligence service, Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, “looks both ways” in its dealings with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Last year US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said “to a certain extent, they [Pakistan] play both sides.” More recently the WikiLeaks website published US military documents indicating the ISI was aiding the Taliban.

The ISI of course had close links with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan fighting the Soviet Union, and later the Taliban. It has been criticized for failing to crack down on the Haqqani network, the group led by former Mujahideen leader Jalaluddin Haqqani. He was once generously bankrolled by Washington, but is now linked to both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and launches regular attacks in Afghanistan from Pakistan.

Pakistan would argue it is fighting a fierce battle with the Taliban, not just along its northwest frontier, but in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, where suicide bombers have unleashed devastating attacks. This point will be made by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari when he meets with Cameron in London on Friday. He might also mention Pakistan’s army, which casts a long shadow over Pakistani politics and is furious with Zardari for traveling to the UK despite Cameron’s criticism. The army may yet decide that Zardari is surplus to the requirements of Pakistani politics, throwing the west’s Afghan strategy into further turmoil.

Meanwhile, Cameron’s comments on Gaza were actually a repeat of comments he made in Parliament earlier this year. Nor was he the first British official to describe the plight of those living in Gaza in this light.

More than 20 years ago, Foreign Office Minister David Mellor outraged Israel when he upbraided an Israeli colonel in protest at the behavior of his soldiers in Gaza during the first Palestinian intifada. Mellor, who had links of a sort with the Palestinians via his relationship with Mona Bauwens, a daughter of the late PLO official Jaweed al-Ghussein, also used some undiplomatic language to describe living conditions in Gaza.

Yet Israel retains an iron grip on Gaza’s borders and only allows in a very limited quantity of supplies. Israel insists the blockade will continue while Hamas runs Gaza’s government, yet Palestinians elected Hamas precisely because nothing had changed since Mellor’s visit years ago.

You could be forgiven for thinking Cameron’s primary policy last week was simply to ingratiate himself with his multiple hosts. His warnings about Pakistan went down well in India, a country that regularly accuses its neighbor of complicity in terror attacks in Kashmir and elsewhere. The UK is also keen to forge increased business links with New Delhi as the nucleus of global economic growth switches east.

And Cameron’s Turkish hosts were no doubt delighted to hear his pronouncements on Gaza, not to mention his support for Turkey’s membership of the EU and his criticism of the Israeli attack against the international relief convoy to Gaza in which nine Turks died.

Oliver Miles, a former diplomat who has been critical of British policy in the Middle East, said this week: “I’d rather have a prime minister who believes he is clever enough to speak out in public than one who believes he is clever enough to solve the world’s problems by going to war.”

Well so say all of us, but only time will tell if David Cameron’s comments actually amount to anything more than hot air.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Little is new in the 'New' Conservatism

The Daily Star
Friday May 21 2010
By Michael Glackin

The new coalition government in the United Kingdom, including the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, is in place. Such governments are rare in British politics and this one, the first since World War II, has promised a sea change in the way the country will be run, a change that will “take Britain in a historic new direction.”

To this end, Foreign Secretary William Hague traveled to Washington last week for some tough talking about how the UK would conduct its foreign affairs while pursuing this “historic new direction.” On arrival Hague warned US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton that the days of Britain’s being America’s poodle were over. Hague told Clinton he wanted a “strong but not slavish” relationship with the United States.

Well that much was new. Unfortunately he then went on to sound more slavish than Mr Burns sycophantic assistant Smithers in the Simpsons.

He hailed Britain’s “unbreakable alliance” with the US and praised Clinton as “an inspiring example to other foreign ministers and aspiring foreign ministers around the world.” He didn’t quite kneel down as some feared he might after praising the “sheer warmth of the welcome” his government had received from Washington. However, he confided that he had traveled to the US especially quickly in order “to show we reciprocate that warmth.”

When it came to practical politics, Hague insisted that his government would not deviate from the strategy of its predecessor on Afghanistan, adding that Britain’s 9,500 troops would stay in the country until “their job is done.” He also supported the US on the need to pursue vigorous sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program through the United Nations Security Council. Hague even promised to pressure Britain’s “European allies” into imposing the type of economic sanctions on Iran that the US already has in place.

You could be forgiven for asking yourself, “What’s new?” In reality, Hague’s embarrassing trip to Washington showed that nothing had changed, a reality confirmed by Foreign Office sources this week. Even the tougher British stance on Iran was not what it seemed. Iran’s nuclear ambitions are due to be aired again at the United Nations in the coming weeks and it’s probable that the previous British government would have indulged in the same tough rhetoric heard during Hague’s trip to Washington, in order to show a united front to Russia, China and Tehran ahead of a new sanctions vote.

Even Hague’s promise to pressure Britain’s “European allies” over Iran was a continuation of policy started by the Gordon Brown government. Up to now, however, this has been derailed within the European Union by Germany, which has trade links with Tehran.

Hague’s hastily arranged trip was a rather clumsy attempt to publicly display that the new British coalition was firmly behind the US. It was also to allay fears in Washington that the Liberal Democrats, who have called for more distance between the two nations, will be in a position to call any shots in the new government’s foreign policy.

In addition to confirming that it is business as usual with Washington, the trip underlined the Conservatives’ antipathy to the European Union in that Hague chose to visit the US before European capitals. This was deemed necessary because the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, has advocated closer ties with the European Union than with the US. He recently said that Britain needed to release itself “from that spell of default Atlanticism,” and warned of the “dangers of a subservient relationship with the United States.”

More worryingly for Washington in the short term is that Clegg has also declared his firm opposition to military action against Iran.

However, Clinton was right to dismiss fears that foreign policy differences between Washington and London would cause problems in the pursuit of their shared objectives. The Liberal Democrats have little sway on foreign affairs in the coalition, beyond a consultation role, and the official policy of the new government toward Iran is unequivocal: It does not rule out military action if Tehran fails to fall into line over its nuclear ambitions.

But business as usual is only likely to be sustainable in the short term. There are a number of pressing issues in the government’s in-tray that will demand fresh thinking in the coming months.

A fresh strategy on Afghanistan is unlikely to be contemplated until both the US and the UK assess the results of the massive military operation planned later this year for Kandahar, a city the Taliban have successfully held throughout the war. But it is clear that fresh ideas are needed. This is already visible in Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s peace conference, or jirga, scheduled for this month, which is intended to secure a consensus on how to reconcile with the Taliban.

Also in the government’s in-tray is whether the UK will be more forceful in helping produce a commitment from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to start meaningful negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

So far the “historic new direction” of this British government doesn’t appear to include any new answers.
Michael Glackin is former managaging editor of Beirut based newspaper The Daily Star

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

A Mideast absent in Britain's elections

The Daily Star
Wednesday 5 May 2010
By Michael Glackin

You know British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is in trouble when he has to ask his predecessor, Tony Blair, to campaign on his behalf. Last week the former prime minister, the man Brown kicked out of office two years ago, took a break from his lucrative overseas engagements to tell voters that Brown had “every chance” of staying in power.

It was hardly a ringing endorsement. But, trailing badly in opinion polls and after earning the wrath of the nation for calling a widowed grandmother “bigoted” for questioning his policies, a visibly tired Brown will take whatever support he can get right now.

But despite the reappearance of the politician who involved Britain in more wars than any of his predecessors, you could be forgiven for forgetting that this election is being held against a backdrop of an increasing unpopular conflict in Afghanistan, because so far, the politicians aren’t talking about it.

Despite this, when voters go to the polls on Thursday it will mark the end of what has been one of the most exciting general election campaigns in a generation. Brown, who became prime minister without facing a vote, will likely be voted out of power. But for the first time in almost 40 years no one actually knows what kind of government will replace him.

A single phenomena has made this election different. The first ever televised debates between the leaders of the three main parties have created an interest in this campaign that has been absent from recent elections. It also looks set to end the two-party monopoly on political power that has dominated British politics.

From barely making up the numbers within the British political system, the centrist Liberal Democrats, who have less than 10 percent of seats in Parliament, are suddenly serious contenders. The change in the party’s fortunes is attributable to a combination of public skepticism in the credibility of Conservative leader David Cameron and the success of Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg in the televised debates, which led to an extraordinary surge in support for his party.

The final result is unpredictable. Opinion polls indicate Clegg and his party may emerge as kingmakers enabling them to win enough seats to form a coalition government with one of the two bigger parties. Clegg insists he will not work with Brown, so short of an improbable Labour victory Brown is surplus to post-election requirements. However, many in Clegg’s party insist they won’t work with the Conservatives. Meanwhile, some polls indicate Cameron could win enough seats to form a government with the support of small nationalist parties who account for around 3 percent of parliamentary seats.

Confused? We all are. But what will all this mean for British policy in Afghanistan or the Middle East?

Nothing actually. All three parties support the war in Afghanistan and none has offered an alternative to the current strategy of propping up the inept and corrupt regime of President Hamid Karzai. Brown’s principal policy remains helping create a 300,000-strong Afghan army and police force and handing over districts and provinces to them later this year. Cameron agrees and beyond some tinkering to the command system between Whitehall and the British Army nothing will change in the short term if he takes power.

Clegg, on the rare occasion he has discussed Afghanistan in anything resembling detail, appears keen to put Britain’s entire war effort in the hands of the European Union. However, in essence, his party supports the current policy.

Strangely, Afghanistan, the prospect of Iran becoming a nuclear power, Israel and its creative use of British passports, Palestine, or the continuing threat of Al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism, have hardly been mentioned during this campaign. Equally strangely, at the time of writing, only three British soldiers (one in an accident) had been killed in Afghanistan since Parliament was dissolved and the election campaign officially started on April 12. Speculation is rife that the army is under orders to restrict operations during the election campaign. A conspiracy theorist could have a field day with all this.

Only half of one of the three televised debates was devoted to foreign policy, around 45 minutes in total. Just 10 minutes of that was spent discussing the war in Afghanistan, now in its 10th year, and that consisted largely of all three leaders spewing out the same platitudes, praising the work of the troops and stressing the importance of fighting the war to keep the streets of Britain safe. This at a time when bodies of British soldiers killed in the conflict return to the UK on a regular basis and public support for the war is at an all-time low.

Brown did mention the role of Al-Qaeda in Yemen and Somalia, but there was no discussion about what the UK’s approach should be to dealing with the threat this poses. Even after the attempt on the life of the British ambassador in Yemen, the issue hasn’t been mentioned. Instead voters were treated to an argument about the UK’s tortured relationship with the European Union and a surreal discussion about Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain later this year.

The turgid discussion about the EU was an attempt by Brown and Cameron to put a dent in Clegg’s growing popularity – he’s a proponent of strong ties with the EU rather than the United States.

Interestingly, under a project called Give Your Vote, hundreds of people in Afghanistan will be voting in the election courtesy of Britons who have agreed to donate their vote to people in the developing world. Afghans taking part in the project watched the foreign policy debate. Many fear Clegg’s insistence that the UK should distance itself from the US signaled a weakening of Britain’s commitment to Afghanistan.

Consequently, it appears the Afghans will “vote” Conservative this week. It’s ironic that this by-product of the Afghan war may contribute to Gordon Brown’s political demise. Perhaps it’s Blair’s final victory over his onetime bitter rival.

Whoever those Afghans vote for, they will at least have the comfort of knowing their vote will count in at least one election this year.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper The Daily Star.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Innocent in Iraq, insists Gordon Brown

The Daily Star
Tuesday 9 March
By Michael Glackin

Some years ago, while idly browsing the shelves of the Way In bookshop on Hamra Street in west Beirut, I came across the autobiography of American actress Shirley MacLaine. MacLaine, it turns out, had an affair with the famously monosyllabic star Robert Mitchum, and joked in her book that she made a point of asking him the time whenever they were together, just so she could “get a straight answer.”

I was reminded of this last week while watching the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, giving evidence to the Chilcot inquiry on the Iraq war. At one point during his testimony the audience laughed out loud as panel member Sir Roderic Lyne repeatedly failed to illicit a straight answer as to whether Brown had been aware that his predecessor, Tony Blair, made an early commitment to offer US President George W. Bush military support to oust Saddam Hussein. In the end, Lyne gave up.

The exchange sums up the futility of the Iraq inquiry, established to examine the decision to go to war and failures in postwar planning. The inquiry panel’s overly deferential approach to witnesses and long-winded questions that are rarely properly answered have become a national joke.

Some inquiries shed light on the issue they are examining; others merely generate heated emotion. The Iraq inquiry has managed neither. It is the least forensic examination that could have been conceived. The panel members, distinguished academics and civil servants, have looked hapless in the face of politicians used to dealing with far more awkward questions from the media. Their shortcomings were brutally exposed during Blair’s appearance in January, and again highlighted during Brown’s testimony.

Brown is adept at shifting blame and avoiding answering questions. He insisted that he stood by the decision to topple Saddam Hussein, (“the right decision made for the right reasons,” he said) because “the international community had to act.” Curiously, the panel did not think to ask why the “international community,” in the shape of the United Nations, refused to act and left it almost entirely to the United States and the United Kingdom to do so.

Despite his support for the war, Brown insisted that he was “not aware of” the now infamous letters between Blair and Bush that appeared to commit the UK to war while the pair was publicly pursuing a diplomatic solution in 2002. Brown, who has long despised Blair for standing in the way of his own ambition to be prime minister, was barely on speaking terms with him during that time. But as the second most powerful British politician then, it is inconceivable that he was unaware of any commitments made by the prime minister to support an invasion.

Brown added he knew nothing of the initial doubts that the UK’s attorney general – the government’s chief legal adviser – had expressed about the legality of the invasion. The botched reconstruction of Iraq was “regrettable,” but that was Washington’s fault because it had failed to heed his warnings to prepare properly for after Saddam’s removal.

In fact Brown wasn’t responsible for anything. In response to claims that he failed to properly fund the military during his time as chancellor of the exchequer, Brown insisted that “every request the military commanders made to us for equipment was answered.” Yet when asked if he was aware that the military chiefs had threatened to resign over concerns about military funding in 2004, Brown responded: “I can’t remember all the conversations I had.”

One would have thought that a threat by the top brass to quit while the country was fighting two wars would be a fairly memorable occasion, but again the panel failed to press Brown on the point. And so it went on.

He expressed sadness for the deaths of British troops and Iraqis in the conflict, a calculated contrast to Blair’s refusal to do so, but sidestepped questions submitted to the inquiry by the families of soldiers killed in controversial lightly armored Snatch Land Rovers in Iraq. The military insist it had to use Snatches because the Treasury had failed to provide cash to purchase properly armored vehicles. Brown said that was the army’s fault. “It is not for me to make the military decisions on the ground about the use of particular vehicles,” he said.

Considering that earlier witnesses to the inquiry, including the former defense secretary, Geoff Hoon, had insisted that military action in Iraq and Afghanistan was hampered by a lack of funds, it was inevitable that this point would be challenged. But bizarrely it was not the inquiry panel that took issue with Brown’s statements. It fell instead to two former army chiefs, who within hours of Brown completing his evidence accused the prime minister of misleading the inquiry. One insisted the military had been “starved of funds” by the former chancellor.

The funding row centers on the fact that while Brown had provided increased cash for the military’s urgent operational demands through an emergency fund, he systematically imposed deep cuts on the military’s regular budget. This meant the army lacked equipment, particularly helicopters and heavily armored vehicles, when it went into battle.

The distinction between the two funding mechanisms was blithely ignored by Brown in his evidence. The inquiry panel also failed to make the distinction, allowing Brown to bury their questions in a raft of statistics.

Immediately after he gave his evidence, Brown flew to Afghanistan to meet current military commanders. A cynic might say that his trip had more to do with grabbing another photo opportunity ahead of the general election that is likely to take place in May. Noticeably, he was wearing a watch, so based on the Shirley MacLaine reminiscence, he may have been able to give at least one straight answer to inquisitive soldiers.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star

Monday, 22 February 2010

The Dubai killing and European tolerance

The Daily Star
Tuesday 23 February 2010
By Michael Glackin

In diplomatic circles, Israel increasingly resembles a distant relative who drunkenly turns up at family functions, does something embarrassing, and leaves the rest of the family wringing its hands in bewilderment.

Whether or not firm evidence emerges linking Mossad to the murder of Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai on January 19 (and as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was at pains to point out last week, there is currently no proof of Israeli involvement), it is clear there are few better suspects if you follow the old adage of “Who benefits?”

It is equally clear that Ireland, France, Germany and the United Kingdom, whose passports and citizens’ names were used by the 11-member hit squad, do not want to make a fuss about the affair. While various politicians were busy feigning concern last week, there is a tacit acceptance among Western governments that events like the murder of Mabhouh are merely things Israel is liable to do from time to time, and that these are best ignored or forgotten as quickly as possible.

The laughably fruitless 15-minute meeting in London on Thursday between the Israeli ambassador, Ron Prosor, and Sir Peter Ricketts, the permanent secretary who heads Britain’s diplomatic service, underlined this point. Prosor told reporters after the meeting that he “was unable to add any information and could not shed new light” on the affair. Meanwhile, despite its concern over the circumstances surrounding the assassination, the Foreign Office was unable to say whether Israel was even cooperating with the British Serious Organised Crimes Agency (SOCA) investigation into how British passports in the name of six British nationals living in Israel were used by the hit squad.

In the mid-1980s, Mossad was forced to promise never to use British passports to help its agents carry out covert operations. The intelligence agency did so when the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, effectively closed down its British operation after the discovery of a bag of forged British passports lost by a Mossad agent. And five years ago Israeli agents were arrested in New Zealand trying to acquire a passport in the name of a quadriplegic. Again, Israel had to promise not to repeat the exercise.

There are a lot of reasons why the UK wants the Mabhouh assassination to quietly fade away. British diplomatic relations with Israel are already strained. Aside from the perennial complaints from Israel about the “Arab bias” of the British Broadcasting Corporation in its reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is also the matter of a British court issuing an arrest warrant last year for Israel’s former foreign minister, Tzipi Livni. Livni was forced to cancel a visit to the UK after pro-Palestinian groups applied to the courts to issue the warrant because of her role in war crimes allegedly committed during the Gaza war.

Amid the political bickering, intelligence-sharing over terror groups between the British and Israeli secret services has also been threatened, without so far being terminated. Indeed, despite official denials, it is clear that the Brown government knew some time ago that British passports had been used by Mabhouh’s killers. An Irish Foreign Office spokesperson confirmed that Irish officials first looked into reports of Irish passports being used by the assassins as far back as February 5.

In fact, speculation is rife that MI6 was tipped off that Israeli agents were going to carry out an “overseas operation” using fake British passports. The British Daily Mail even had a member of the Mossad saying that the Foreign Office was told about the assassination a few hours before it took place, although the identity of the victim was not disclosed.

All this comes at a time when pressure is mounting on the government to hold a public inquiry into the UK’s involvement in the war on terrorism after British judges ruled that the country’s intelligence personnel had been complicit in the torture of terrorism suspects. Fears persist that the British failure to take a firm stand on the Mabhouh case, such as the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador, will play into the hands of Islamist terrorist groups seeking to recruit members within the UK’s borders.

The rather subdued hue and cry shifted to Brussels yesterday, where Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister, met the British foreign secretary, David Miliband, along with the ministers of the other European Union member states whose passports were used in the assassination. Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East program in London, believes all four governments are keen to bury the issue. “By dealing with it at the European level, within the council of ministers, they are signaling they want the issue to die quietly. It’s quite obvious no one really wants to do anything.”

Perhaps this best explains why Israel seems to be enjoying all the publicity. On the day Prosor met with Ricketts, the Israeli Embassy’s official Twitter feed posted a joking reference to the killing, and the fact that two of the assassins were dressed in tennis gear: “You heard it here first: Israeli tennis player carries out hit on Dubai target.” The headline linked to a report on the victory by the Israeli tennis star Shahar Peer, who had reached the finals of the Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships. Peer is probably more upset about the crass joke than any Western government is about the assassination.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Blair regretted nothing; learned nothing

The Daily Star
Tuesday, February 2 2010
By Michael Glackin

Quite why anyone should be surprised by Tony Blair’s “Je ne regrette rien” performance at the British government’s Iraq inquiry in London last week is a mystery. Did anyone really expect him to express regret?

His failure to express remorse for the deaths of 179 British servicemen he ordered into Iraq while sitting in a room surrounded by their bereaved families – let alone the 100,000 plus Iraqis who died during the invasion and its aftermath – was crass in the extreme, but it is simply another illustration of the cocoon of self-belief the former prime minister has wrapped around himself.

“We didn’t end up with a humanitarian disaster,” he told the inquiry, ignoring all the thousands of dead, the 4 million or so refugees and the utter destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure. “If I am asked whether I believe we are safer, more secure, that Iraq is better, that our own security is better with Saddam and his two sons out of office and out of power, I believe indeed we are,” he insisted, oblivious to the spate of terror attacks perpetuated by Islamist extremists that have occurred in Europe since 2003 and continue to wreak havoc on an almost daily basis in Iraq.

Not only would Blair invade Iraq all over again, but he spent much of his six hours in front of the inquiry urging the West to take military action against Iran, and citing the same arguments used to justify overthrowing Saddam.

Except of course, Blair’s self-belief and conviction did not always tally with the facts and it is to the inquiry panel’s shame that it failed to press him on the glaring contradictions in the reasons he gave for going to war, and the reasons he gave Parliament and the public in 2003.

Indeed the inquiry panel, chaired by former civil servant Sir John Chilcot and including another former civil servant, Baroness Usha Prashar, the United Kingdom’s former ambassador to Russia Roderic Lyne and historians Lawrence Freedman and Martin Gilbert, seemed cowed by Blair. Despite his nervous start, Blair gave a defiant performance batting away the panel’s long-winded, largely unchallenging questions and reminding everyone of his skills as a communicator.

The inquiry was never going to tell us anything new about the reasons why Blair supported US President George W. Bush in his desire to oust Saddam Hussein. What it did reveal is how much Blair has shifted his position from his original cheerleading for war based on the threat of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.

Blair’s bizarre insistence in his testimony that his “tolerance” of Saddam’s regime changed after the 9/11 attacks was nonsense. Not even the most imaginative conspiracy theorists believe Iraq was involved in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Blair certainly doesn’t, but he still managed to hint at a possible link between Saddam and Al-Qaeda, telling the inquiry that “[Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi [late leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq] did go to Iraq prior to the invasion.”

Conceding there was no solid link between Saddam and Al-Qaeda, Blair insisted instead that “suppressed and failing states,” such as Iraq under Saddam, become “porous” and thus easier for terror groups to infiltrate. He also talked vaguely about the “calculus of risk” and Saddam’s ability to “reconstitute” his [presumably old or decommissioned] weapons of mass destruction and pose a risk in future. All that’s a far cry from telling Parliament before the invasion that Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction program is active, detailed and growing.”

Moving on to the occupation, Blair told the inquiry that no one could have predicted that Al-Qaeda and Iran would try to destabilize the coalition’s efforts in creating a government once Saddam was toppled. Really? If, as Blair insisted, Iraq was “porous” surely it was obvious that insurgents such as Al-Qaeda and other Iranian-backed terror groups would quickly move to fill the void left by Saddam’s ousting.

Yet the inquiry panel failed to bring Blair to account on any of these contradictions in his reasons for going to war and failures to provide security in its aftermath.

Why? Perhaps because one of the other things the Iraq inquiry has revealed is the chumminess of the British establishment. Several of the panel members are hardly people likely to press the former prime minister. Freedman wrote significant portions of Blair’s famous Chicago Speech in 1999 in which the prime minister, in the wake of the West’s intervention in Kosovo, argued for international military intervention to prevent humanitarian disasters and achieve regime change. In suggestions for the Chicago speech Freedman had written: “Many of our problems have been caused by two dangerous and ruthless men – Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic.” His suggestions included a justification that intervention without a United Nations mandate can be necessary because the UN is often constrained by the Security Council’s unwillingness to support military action.

Meanwhile, Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill, claimed in 2004 that Blair and Bush were a modern day Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Chilcot and Prashar, in turn, received honors during Blair’s premiership: a knighthood in the case of Chilcot and for Prashar a seat in the House of Lords.

In short, Blair wasn’t exactly facing the Spanish Inquisition.

Ultimately, Blair’s testimony, and that of earlier witnesses, reinforces the view that he arranged the intelligence on Iraq weapons of mass destruction to suit his political desire to back Bush. Why he was so keen to do so remains a mystery for now, but his testimony also confirms that Bush-Blair was a lopsided partnership. Blair admitted his relationship with Bush was not one of quid pro quo, where the United States would reciprocate British support. Thus Blair was unable to get Bush to advance the paralyzed Israeli-Palestinian peace process. “You could describe me as a broken record in that period” he told the panel describing his many unsuccessful pleas to Bush that movement on the Palestinian issue would help to solve their problems in Iraq.

Broken record? Lap dog might be a more appropriate description, and whatever Blair’s confident but twisted view of the war and its aftermath, that is how he is likely to be remembered in the world outside his cocoon.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star