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.