Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Five years on (2)

E-mail to the Radio Times:
I suppose I should be used to the media's distortions on Iraq, but to describe Saddam Hussein's Iraq as "liberal" beggars belief (David Butcher's review of 'The Iraq war by numbers'). Try asking the Kurds, who are just seeing the 20th anniversary of the attack on Halabja and are still suffering from its long-term health consequences, as the BBC's Jim Muir reports; or the Shi'a in the south, who were massacred after their uprising in 1991.
The programme referred to was Rageh Omaar's on ITV1 on Monday, 17 Mar.

Channel 4 News (17 Mar) report on Iraq was reasonably balanced. They looked at Haifa Street. First, the US surge took on insurgents, with Iraqi army forces, which were mainly Shi'a and accused of human rights abuses. Then, the "awakening council" fought against al Qaeda. Now the street is quiet. (The views of their assistant foreign editor, Tim Lambon, could be found in the New Statesman, recently.)

Peter Oborne's 'Dispatches', though, was the usual stuff.
Jon Snow, in 'Hidden Iraq' (18 Mar), talked about the "positive spin" put on the surge. Does it never occur to him that he is determined to put on a negative spin? Thus, security measures equal "paranoia". He too talked of a "united, secular country" under Saddam. He manages to find a young boy vowing to fight against "the occupation".

Attacks on Sunday (23 Mar). The suicide attack using a fuel tanker on an army base in Mosul appears to be an al Qaeda operation, linked to the Sunni insurgency. Mortars and rockets fired into the "Green Zone" seem to have been carried out by Shi'a militia - David Petraeus told the BBC that they were by Iranian backed forces. One report is that the attack was triggered by the arrest of a member of Muqtada al-Sadr's militia. Another theory is that the upsurge in violence is an anti-Christian thing, timed to coincide with Easter.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Five years on

Dominique de Villepin unrepentant, triumphant even, on the French veto in 2003: 
si la France a brandi son veto aux Nations Unies, c'est tout simplement  parce que si l'on voulait éviter que la résolution en faveur de la guerre ne soit votée, il fallait convaincre les pays des neutres, les pays du tiers monde, les pays du sud, des pays comme le Mexique, comme le Chile, comme le Pakistan, comme l'Angola et ces pays n'auraient pas accepté livrer bataille face aux Américains, si certains membres permanents du Conseil de Sécurité, comme la France, ne prenaient pas toute leur responsabilité parce que cela nous aura conduit alors à leur demander de faire le travail à notre place pour finalement nous débiner in fine et de ne pas mettre notre veto. Donc, il fallait dire que nous allions mettre notre veto pour soutenir la position de ces pays, si nous voulions véritablement tenir tête aux Américains. [… inaudible] cohérent.  (France Inter, 19 Mar 2008; Extract here.)
This one’s worth translating in full:
if France brandished its veto at the United Nations, it is quite simply because if one wanted to avoid a resolution in favour of war being passed, it was necessary to convince neutral countries, the countries of the third world, the countries of the south, countries like Mexico, like Chile, like Pakistan or Angola and these countries would not have agreed to give battle faced by the Americans, if certain permanent members of the Security Council, like France, did not fully take on their responsibility because that would then have meant us asking them to do our work for us and allow us at the end to clear off and not impose our veto. So, it was necessary to say that we were going to impose our veto in order to support the position of these countries, if we wanted to truly stand up to the Americans. [… inaudible] consistent.
What’s really being said here? I tried to analyze it in a fairly technical way. But first, the context: asked about Nicolas Sarkozy’s attitude concerning the Iraq crisis, de Villepin said that he was uncomfortable about the style of France’s diplomacy, but he (de Villepin) defended France against the charge of “arrogance” and went on to talk about the importance of using the threat of the veto.
The aim was to avoid a resolution in favour of war being passed. Earlier, he had said that France’s success was in avoiding a resolution that would have legalised the war, which would have been an irreparable step, equating to “a confrontation between East and West”.

But France could simply have simply vetoed the resolution when the time arrived. So, the unstated objective was to avoid France being in a minority, possibly of one, in opposing the war.

The means used was to get the support of other, weaker, countries, to stand up to (give battle to) the Americans.

So, in order to convince these countries, France had to, not only be prepared to use its veto, but, early on, to say (threaten / brandish) that it was going to do so.
L'invité d'Inter also featured Hans Blix.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The urgency of now

Asked whether waterboarding is legal,  he replies,  'It's torture, pure and simple.'  (Walter Pincus on C-Span, via BBC Parl., 5 Feb).  But we only ever used it on three people and we stopped in August 2003.  So that's OK then.

Barack Obama,  Hillary Clinton and John McCain all,  of course oppose torture,  but McCain has supported President Bush's retention of "muscular" techniques of interrogation.

Meanwhile,  the Democrat's candidates are displaying some nuances on Iraq.  On Thursday 10 Jan, Obama said,  'I will end the war responsibly.  I will be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were as careless getting in.'  (C-span, 13 Jan).  On 26 Feb,  though,  he quoted Martin Luther King's words:  'the urgency of now' apparently ...  is to withdraw from Iraq.

John McCain,  on the other hand,  has said that the US might be in Iraq for 100 years: unwise words, which his Democrat opponents have seized upon with glee.  There is a tendency amongst commentators in the UK  (for example, on Channel 4 News)  to see McCain's policy as merely a continuation of  Bush's. There is more to it than that.  The first three and a half years after the fall of Saddam Hussein,  in spite of some positives  (sovereignty for Iraq, elections),  saw a failure to provide the basics of order and security.  During this time,  I believe,  McCain called consistently for sufficient forces to be deployed to do that.

A change came about after the Democrats took control of Congress in November 2006,  not that they can take the credit for that  (much like some theologies believe that God created the world as a reaction to evil,  to the fall of Satan/Lucifer and his fellow angels/devils,  not that I'm comparing Bush to... ).  First, Rumsfeld was sacked (he should have gone in April 2004);  then a reasonably competent team was put in place  -  Gates, Ryan Crocker  (I'm not imagining,  am I,  that after the end of Bremer's period as viceroy,  the US went for several months without even an ambassador in Iraq?),  Petraeus;  above all the "surge".  And McCain naturally supported the surge when,  lest we forget,  reaction was largely,  and overwhelmingly in Europe,  one of derision at the time.

And still the uncertainty of the Democrats' position goes on.  The main reason Samantha Power resigned as one of Barack Obama's foreign policy advisors was that she called Hillary Clinton a "monster",  but as Le Monde (9 Mar) put it,  the interview she gave on the BBC World Service "added to her difficulties".  There she seemed to play down or minimise  (that word relativiser again)  Obama's commitment to withdrawal from Iraq ('The Interview', 7 Mar 2008, can be heard here).

Regardless of the nuances,  both Democrat candidates have said that they will at least begin to "end the war",  that is to withdraw American forces from the struggle against violent extremism,  whatever the circumstances on the ground.

If the last 5 years have taught us anything,  it is that this is not struggle that can be undertaken half-heartedly.  As has been said often enough,  the security gains of the last year are fragile:  the smallest lowering of the guard can be fatal.  Though the number of insurgent attacks taking place fell to November 2007, they have remained stable through to January 2008,  at levels that are still unacceptably high.  (New York Times, 12 Mar)

I think you should take politicians at their word, at least in the pessimistic direction.  So,  while anybody who is motivated to vote for Obama or Clinton because of their promises to "end the war" could be disappointed,  those who think it vital that the US remain engaged in the struggle have a strong reason to support McCain.

Updated 16 Mar

Update 17 Mar:
Samantha Power's remarks are not actually in the BBC World Service interview I cited,  but in another interview - see here.  They are talking about withdrawing combat forces within 16 months (not about 1 or 2  brigades per month,  as Le Monde had it):
He will of course not rely upon some plan that he's crafted as a presidential candidate or as a U.S. senator.  He will rely upon a plan,  an operational plan that he pulls together,  in consultation with people who are on the ground,  to whom he doesn't have daily access now, as a result of not being the president. So to think,  I mean it would be the height of ideology,  you know,  to sort of say,  "Well I said it,  therefore I'm going to impose it on whatever reality entreats me" ...

Friday, March 07, 2008


The FARC's release of some hostages has brought more news about Ingrid Betancourt, who has been held by the FARC for more than six years in Columbia (or Ecuador or Venezuela?) that the state of her health seems to have become grave. Pierre Rousselin comments:
Les Farc n'ont aucun avenir en tant que guérilla marxiste-léniniste. Rejetées par l'immense majorité des Colombiens, elles ne ressusciteront pas un passé révolutionnaire qui n'a plus cours. Leur seul espoir est de survivre sur leur magot en tant que narcotrafiquants [survive on the money they make as ..]. Se servir d'Ingrid Betancourt pour exiger une légitimité politique n'a aucun sens. Comment accorder le moindre crédit à une organisation qui combat, à coup d'enlèvements et de tortures, un gouvernement démocratiquement élu ? (Ne pas se tromper d'ennemi, Editorial in Le Figaro,  29 Feb.)
That is comment from a conservative paper, of course. But if Ingrid Betancourt were to die in captivity, it would be another nail in the coffin of the stalinist illusion, that greatest deception of all: the "dictatorship of the proletariat". Another nail, as if one were needed: I don't need to detail all the previous ones, yet it lives on. Still you get people like George Galloway defending the record of Fidel's 49 years in power in Cuba (on Channel 4 News), people defending Hugo Chavez's suppression of opposition media (last May). 

A lot has happened in the last week, starting with the Columbian operation that led to the death of a top FARC leader, Raul Reyes. Still you get people who focus mainly on the violation of Ecuador's sovereignty, who are too ready to believe that the Columbian government is lying when it says it has found evidence that Raul Reyes was receiving support from Chavez (I don't know the truth or otherwise of these claims myself) or, like Chavez himself, who regard Reyes as a "true comrade".

The simple truth is:  It behoves all of us, especially those who consider themselves to be liberal or of the "left", to unequivocally condemn the actions of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia.  It shouldn't be necessary to say that. But it is.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The biggest single issue

I finally got around to reading Michael Gove's Celsius 7/7. I mentioned Gove in a previous post. You would have thought that with a proper book, as opposed to a post on a weblog, annoying little things like errors of punctuation would be eliminated, yet I noticed two on pages 6 and 7 (in 'embassies in east Africa, and...' - the "," is superfluous; 'Amman, the border' where in the context the "," should clearly be a ";").

Gove trots out the line that 'the 9/11 hijackers [..] spent their last nights at strip clubs' (p20), which I think is a myth.

He argues that Hizb ut-Tahrir should be proscribed, as Tony Blair wished in 2005, because the German government has proscribed it (P100-1), that Tariq Ramadan should be banned, because America and France have banned him (all this in the name of the defence of Western freedom).

Gove quotes Dr Ramadan as saying, "Iraq was colonized by the Americans. The resistance against the army is just." , giving as the source 'Inquiry and Analysis' (266), MERIP (p103).

There are further dubious arguments, such as the crucial importance of the nation state, which, thankfully, he does not develop in the manner familiar from British Conservatives - with regard to devolution in the UK and the EU, only attacking, as US neoconservatives do, respect for the UN (pp73-6).

On Iraq, his views will already be known to many. He is surely right, though. Writing in early 2006, he takes up John McCain's call that 'as the Iraqis stand up we shouldn't stand down. We should use their strength to augment our own in engaging with the jihadists.' He warns: 'Should Iraq's infant democracy collapse then it would be the biggest single victory the Islamists have had, or could conceive of, in our lifetime.' (p131, 134)

Gove acknowledges the help of, among others, Oliver Kamm and the self-proclaimed British neoconservative, Douglas Murray.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Blair en français

A few weeks ago, Tony Blair was interviewed on France Inter (without benefit of interpreter). There was another interview on French radio late-Jan., in his role of envoy to the middle east. Then there was his infamous appearance at the conference of the centre-right UMP. The reason for him to want to display his skill in the French language is obvious enough. But it may all come to nought. This is Pierre Moscovici, a potential leader of the PS (Franc Parler on France Inter, 14 Jan - *):
[since the European president] also presides over the Eurogroup, I believe it would be extremely complicated if the European Union were presided over by a man who, whether you like it or not, represents a country that is not a member of the Euro: there we have a whole series of reasons why a British person, even if it's Tony Blair, cannot be president of the European Union.
This ignores the aspect that, if Blair were to become president of the EU, he would not be the representative of Britain. All the same, it is a widely held view in Europe: it was repeated by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Euro MP and leader of the Greens (interview on France Inter, 5 Feb).

* An extract from the Moscovici interview (in French). Again, I apologize for the sound quality of this.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

I didn't write much about Uzbekistan last year..

The BBC continues to provide excellent coverage of Central Asia, through its correspondent Natalia Antelava. In late-October she reported on the murder of journalist Alisher Saipov who wrote mainly about Uzbekistan. He was killed over the border in Kyrgyzstan. He was 'critical of the Kyrgyz authorities, which he said have allowed President Karimov's influence to spread beyond the borders of Uzbekistan.'

Natalia expanded on the event in 'From Our Own Correspondent'
Alisher had dedicated his entire life to telling the story of a place that many people know little about: Uzbekistan.
There was one other little detail, though, that I heard on France Inter (I think it was Luc Lemonnier, but I couldn't find it on their website).  In the run-up to the presidential vote [in late-December], the Uzbek people were receiving plentiful supplies of gas, for once. Things were expected to return to normal as soon as the polls closed. 

[18 May] Here is something from the International Crisis Group that I didn't get around to posting before:
Around Rond-Point Schuman, Realpolitikers will present many arguments to support lifting “ineffective sanctions”. But has any good news reached us from Uzbekistan in the meantime? Has the repression of journalists, human rights defenders or non-governmental organisation members softened? Has the situation in the prisons, in the court rooms – where allegations of torture are never taken into account – improved? Or in the cotton fields, where children are obliged to work in conditions close to slavery? ... Diplomacy being what it is and politics having its reasons que la raison ne connaît pas there will be voices in Europe... ("Europe’s Reasons without Reason", 8 February 2007, European Voice. Alain Délétroz,  vice-president (Europe) of the ICG).
Update (5 Feb): the BBC WS had a story on the release of a reporter who provided on-the-spot accounts of the events in Andijan. It seems that pressure from the EU is having some small effect...

Monday, March 03, 2008


Nicolas Sarkozy hesitated, but finally decided to visit Chad on his way to South Africa (the main purpose of which visit seems to have been to sell some more nuclear power stations), after obtaining from President Idriss Déby a promise to allow an international commission into the whereabouts of 2 opposition figures who disappeared after the failed rebel attack on the capital.  A third person who disappeared has recently been "rediscovered".

Various rumours circulate about the two: they may have been detained by the Chadian security service, but many Chadians believe they have been killed.

Sarkozy did not spend long enough in N'Djamena to meet anyone from the opposition, but his new wife, Carla Bruni-S. spent three-quarters of an hour in the French embassy with the wife of Ibni Oumar Mahamat Saleh, one of the missing men. Bernard Kouchner was also supposed to meet members of the opposition the following day. The opposition refused to take part in a meeting that President Déby had reluctantly offered as long as they did not know the truth about the disappearance of their leaders.

As Le Monde's report put it, President Sarkozy did not have time to take note of the fear that still reigns in N'Djamena.

Meanwhile, in the Cameroons, riots have spread from the port of Douala to the capital, Yaoundé, leaving at least 17 dead over the last week. Resentment has crystallized around the apparent decision of President Paul Biya, who has already been in charge for 25 years, to seek a further term in 2011. The US ambassador made known her opposition to this move, but France has been severely criticised for its silence on the matter. Living standards are falling, corruption is particularly bad - the Cameroons are very low in the rankings published by Transparency International. One demonstrator claimed, "We have a privileged caste which lives to the detriment of the majority who are suffering." 

The French government is reviewing its military bases. The facility in Chad is a 'provisional' one that has been there since 1986. Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, could be scaled back, as a middle east base in Abu Dhabi is set up. In the west, the status of Abidjan (Ivory Coast) has changed so that it is no longer a permanent base, while it is likely that Dakar (Senegal) will remain as the main naval point of entry and Gabon as a key aerial base.

Just to finish off, while wandering some distance from the original point, the US (and/or Britain?) seem to have removed their objections to a strong and independent European defence structure. As a French military chief put it, Washington realised that these merely "had the result of encouraging most European countries not to spend any money on their defence, relying rather on Nato, that is, the US."

Le Figaro, 28 Feb 2008; Le Monde, 28-29 Feb 2008.

Update 3 Mar: the news is that 1 of the 2 men missing in Chad, Ngarlejy Yorongar, has reappeared in Yaoundé, having escaped from his jailers and made his way to the north of the Cameroons (AFP).

Kouchner claims that people in Chad and refugees from Darfur 'are welcoming' the deployment of the Eufo . He says that France 'fulfilled its obligations' in terms of logistics and providing intelligence, but did not defend the Déby regime (interview on France Inter).