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.