Monday, April 09, 2007

The Sun Sheads Light on Sailor's Saga Shambles

As if the UK could not look any worse in the whole affair with the British sailors captured by Iran, the ongoing story of the release of the captives has done nothing but show the ugly side of Britain. The most striking thing about the story given by leading Seaman Faye Turney in today's Sun is not her treatment by the Iranians, which was mild in comparison to our treatment of Iraqi prisoners, but rather her fears that seemed to be more based in ignorance than evidence, and the thinly veiled racism of the Sun newspaper.

One of the more sensationalist claims that Faye made in the Sun today was that she feared that she would be raped. When you actually read the article, however, we quickly see that the only foundation that she had for this fear was the fact that she was a woman, there was no threats implicit or explicit from from the Iranian soldiers. Her fear was generated solely from the image that she had of Iranian behaviour, a sad sign of the pervasive beliefs that many Brits hold about the Middle East. Another sailor has been quoted as saying that he though they would be killed saying, "we have all seen the videos". I wonder what video he is referring to, perhaps the videos of beheadings released by terror groups in Iraq. Apart from the fact that these are groups of undisciplined militias and not a professional military force, if he can't tell the difference between Iraq and Iran can we really trust their claims that they were in Iraqi waters?

Which brings me to my second point, it is no surprise, given this attitude that she described the Sun as the services' paper. It described the headscarf that she was given to wear as a "black Islamic cape", clearly a suggestion of the sinister, and described her ordeal at the hands of the "evil" Iranians. This disgusting and see-through propaganda is not only distasteful but also is exactly the kind of writing that conjured in the minds of the sailors the images that made them fear their captors so much. It seems that in creating this fear of the foreigner we might be doing more damage to our own troops rather than that of the enemy.

Furthermore all of this sensationalism around the treatment of the sailors makes us look ridiculous and hypocritical in the light of all of the practices we condone. The British have been complicit in a war where we systematically transport people to be tortured, and by that I mean really tortured with real physical, mental and sexual abuse and not imagined physical and sexual abuse. The press foams at the mouth about how Faye was left alone and reduced to counting the bricks on the wall, separated from her friends even, as we speak the coalition is separating people for years without any reason and subjecting them to water boarding, stress positions, barking dogs and so on.

What makes this look so much worse is not only that few of the sailors captured were willing to turn up to the press conference whilst they then continued to sell their stories to the press. It is that some of the reports are such blatant lies that it does nothing more than to make the case of Iran even stronger. For example in the Sun article it is stated that day six was the first time Faye knew that her fellow sailors were still there, and that they were only allowed one hour of filmed socialising on day ten. However the Iranians were releasing footage of the crew together by day five. Although I am sure that they were not spending the whole time together playing ping pong and chess, this inflation of their ordeal to the tune of £100,000 does nothing to make the Brits look any better.

In fact this whole saga has made us look idiotic


Friday, March 30, 2007

Iran Testing the Special Relationship

With the capture of 15 British sailors close to the Shatt al Arab waterway a week ago Britain is likely to see its so called special relationship with the US under sever strain. It is more than possible that Iran, far from trying to challenge British cartography is instead trying to demonstrate to the UK the dangers trying to sell something that you don't have, in this case influence in Washington.

It seems to be beyond doubt that that the British sailors were in fact in Iraqi waters at the time of the incident, which leaves one asking why this all happened. Whilst British and Iranian diplomats continue to debate co-ordinates, the real reasons behind this incident could well be the capture of five Iranian officials last December, who are currently being held in Iraq by US forces. If this turns out to be the case, there could be many interesting consequences for international relations.

Given the climate of US policy and rhetoric towards Iran, the Iranians know better that to attempt to take US personnel. The British on the other hand, continuing to tell the world of their great influence and strong alliance with the Americans seemed to be the much safer option. If Iran wanted its people back from Iraq, and the alliance was really as strong as the Brits claim it to be, surely capturing British sailors would be the perfect way to exert pressure on the US for their release.

Now one might rightly argue that these two situations are completely different, one involved the capture of Iranian spys on Iraqi soil, whilst the other involved the capture of military personnel legally operating in Iraqi waters, however the fact that this argument is not even raised speaks volumes in itself. The US response has been muted to say the least, Condoleezza Rice only going as far as to say that the international community needed to play a role.

The British Government, in pretending to hold more than it does in Washington has turned our personnel into pawns in a game between Washington and Tehran. In the end Iran is most probably unlikely to get anywhere on the return of their prisoners from Iraq, and Britain may well get frustrated with the US's hands off approach. However this outcome might not be so bad from Iran's point of view either. If the shallowness of the special relationship is exposed and the Iranians manage to distance the UK and the US, something that would work to their advantage.

Of course this might not have been the reasoning for the kidnapping of the British sailors, however if it was we should watch closely as to what Iran's next move will be. If it starts to raise the issue of its prisoners in Iraq, the relationship between the US and the UK will be put under the spotlight. At this point we will see how strong that relationship really is.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

British Conservatives are more extreme than their American counterparts

Yesterday I had the displeasure to listen to attend a meeting at the Heritage Foundation, America's leading conservative think tank. I fully expected to disagree with some of the views aired, but after years of following the far right, I thought I would be ok. I have to admit to always having had a kind of morose fascination with the views of the far right. Like a small child picking a scab, knowing that it will hurt but curious to see what lies beneath that vile layer of puss. Despite this, the proceedings of the meeting still managed to shock me. On a variety of issues, the speaker was far far more extreme than anything I have heard in the last six months in America. However this speaker was not American, but none other than distinguished historian and political commentator Andrew Roberts from the UK.

Amongst the many distasteful things said in his speech such as defending Guantanamo bay as only a few prisoners of war, and his stiring of islamophobia, there was one thing in particular that deeply disturbed me. Andrew Roberts, strongly advocated introducing internment in order to stop the violence in Iraq, saying that whilst locking up people without charge may be an odious practice in peacetime, this, was a time of war.

Now although the Americans themselves may have propagated this war in at times an disastrous fashion, I have yet to hear anyone in the US advocate the introduction of concentration camps to Iraq. And whilst there have been internment facilities used by Americans since their arrival, most notably at Abu Grabe, Roberts was advocating something quite different. That was the forced imprisonment of tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens.

Although sad, it is no accident that this statement should have come from a Brit and not an American. For Americans who believed in the Bush doctrine, and I have met many of them, the Iraq war was primarily about bringing their model of freedom and democracy to the region. Within the far right of America there is a libertarian core which is deeply opposed to almost any form of government. Government suppresses freedom and totalitarianism is the only an extreme form of government. If nothing else the complete lack of planning for the post war Iraq not only exposed the incompetence of the Bush administration but belied their belief that an Iraq without Saddam would become an oasis of democracy in the region, with little need for outside support. Even now many still hold onto this belief. Blair's insistence that it is Iran that is behind all of the intercene ethnic conflict is an example of how he for one continues to believe that Iraq, left on its own, would become a peaceful and democratic country in no time.

This however is not the position of the far right of Britain. The views propagated by Andrew Roberts, were far from libertarian in their foundations. For him Iraqis are simply not capable of democratic government, they need a strong authoritarian hand to keep them peaceful. Interning large sections of a population without any charge is not immoral when dealing with people who "wouldn't know habeas corpus if you hit them over the head with it". Not everyone deserves human rights it would seem. Within this view, is the kind differentiation of the rights of man that is at the heart of racism.

In Britain we often believe that we were blindly lead along and seduced by the Americans. But this attitude leads us to ignore the many unpleasant elements of our society that supported the Iraq war for their own unpleasant reasons. Reasons that are often more extreme than the American administration that took us there in the first place.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Ethnic Minorities Should not be "Tolerated" in Britain

The worldwide sensation (I first heard about it on CNN in Mexico City) caused by the remarks of a failed game show contestant Jade Goody last week were disturbing not only in themselves but also in the reactions that they provoked from those who supposedly had no truck for racism. The strongest denunciation that Gordon Brown could muster was that Britain is a tolerant nation. Although one does wonder whether he was talking about the tolerance shown by the Brits for people like Jade Goody, it was clear that his remarks were directed towards the tolerance of ethnic minorities in Britain.

That the word tolerated was used to describe ethnic minorities in Britain is deeply disturbing. It only serves to reinforce the sense of division, for in order to be tolerated one has to be different to begin with. Many of the communities of ethnic minorities in Britain have been in the country for several generations if not longer. The time for tolerance should have long passed.

On the other hand the US, from the beginning of its history never just tolerated ethnic minorities. George Washington, in his letter to the Jewish community of Newport just after he had become the US's first President said, "All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens."

In other words, When Gordon Brown said that Britain is a tolerant nation, he meant that we 'put up with' minorities. That we British, allow them their civil rights. However their civil rights should not be allowed by the British, they should be automatic. It should not be up to British Citizens of native decent to decide what rights British Citizens of any other decent enjoy because they too are British.

In Britain we do not talk of the British-Pakistani community or the British-Caribbean, we say Pakistani or Afro-Caribbean, we do not wish to suggest that they have anything to do with Britain. On the other hand in the States, people tend to identify themselves as Italian-American, Irish-American, Lebanese-American. One Lebanese American friend told me that he now tries to avoid Europe as a whole, because of the latent racism there. He feels much more comfortable he said in the United States. To be sure there are racists in the US. But in general US citizens are regarded by their peers as equal regardless of their background or decent.

In Britain we would do much better to do the same and to accept our ethic minorities as fellow citizens without question and not just tolerate them.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

ASBOS demonstrate everything that is wrong with British society

I remember vividly my politics professor at graduate school, and an expert on Belgium and Holland once asking my class, "has anyone ever wondered why the Dutch are so fucking liberal?" His answer was that they are so self controlled that they do not need anyone telling them not to do drugs, only foreigners do drugs in Holland and Dutch people would probably resent the state telling them what to do with their lives. The point is that the state only really needs to step in to stop behavior that is deemed damaging to society when society cannot do the job itself. The ASBO in the UK is not only a response to specific social problems, but also reveals a worrying inability of British society to deal with them.

In order to function as human beings we all need to live within societies. As Aristotle said, man is by nature a political animal. Society and the community provide us with a means of interaction that allow for a functioning economy and a division of labour. Anti-social behaviour is so dangerous because it threatens the core of our prosperity, the ability to live in communities free of conflict.

Building these societies that preserve individual liberty whilst eliminating conflict has been a constant preoccupation of liberal philosophers. John Stuart Mill's answer was to say that the state should only be able to intervene in cases where peoples actions were affecting others. The ASBO fits perfectly well into this thinking, but the problem with this formulation is that in todays world this covers practically everything. On the other hand Rousseau believed that the ideal solution was to find a way to make people want to choose, out of their own free will, the best option for society, for this one has to build consensus.

Central to doing this are communities. Communities have themselves certain patterns of behavior, certain practices and norms that are common to them, such as religion, custom and culture. In living together communities have to develop some kinds of standard practices in order to interact with each other and in order for this to function properly communities need to have some standards of good behavior that allow people to live together in peace.

These standards and behavior are reinforced by the very many overlapping social institutions that exist in communities. These can include the workplace, the post office, the local pub, schools etc. When everyone knows everyone else's business and come into constant contact with each other it becomes very hard to break out of the norms that your community has set as acceptable. If you misbehave, soon enough everyone will know about it and the prospect of this makes you want to behave in a way that is acceptable to everyone. Doing so, frees you from the worry of being frowned on by the rest of society.

In Britain this system seems to be breaking down. Increasingly we are living separate lives, unaware of the consequences of our behavior on other people. This is a phenomena that has been examined in the US by Putnam in his excellent book "Bowling Alone" and his findings useful for the Western World as a whole. In it he paints a world where the associations that bind us together, political organisations, sports clubs and so on are dissappearing and our attachments to others loosening.

British people it would seem increasingly need to be told how to behave in society by the state. I was struck by this when I returned to the UK through Stanstead airport after being away for almost a year. A sign at passport control tells people waiting in line that immigration officials will not accept drunkenness or violent and aggressive behavior. I thought to myself do people really need to be told this? is it not obvious that drunkenness and violent or aggressive behavior is unacceptable? But if you live in a world where you never see the result of your violent or drunken behaviour, then it is possible that it isnt obvious.

If the state is becoming the only means by which to enforce good behaviour, the ASBO is its means of enforcement. However, apart from the moral and philosophical problems with the state being the sole guardian of what is deemed to be acceptable behaviour, regulating society in this way is also terribly inefficient. It is far more efficient if nobody commits a crime than to have the police find and catch a criminal and in the same way it is far better for someone not to be drunk and disorderly than for the state to come in and tell them not to do it again. For one thing the offense has already been committed, moreover it might not stop them from doing it again. Thirdly the police and the state cannot be there all the time to prevent bad behavior, they have more important crimes to attend to and no amount of resources would allow them to be present the whole time anyway, nor would this be desireable.

In the end, the most effective way to stop antisocial behaviour is to help people live socially, to invest in our communities, and stop the removal of institutions that serve as centers as of community interacton, or at least try to create new ones. The government therefore, would do well to take a closer look at trying to fix the social decay that leads to anti social behavior, rather than trying to impose social behaviour by decree.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Why China Might Have the last Word in Iraq

China always kept a low profile in the war in Iraq; they were disinterested in the matter. However, few people realise, maybe not even the Chinese themselves, that it is actually they who may well have the final say as to how and when US involvement in Iraq ends. This is because if one follows the money to see how the US is financing the war, much of it ends up in Beijing.

When governments spend more than they can earn back in taxes they have to borrow the rest by issuing debt. This debt in the US comes in the form of US Treasury bonds. The latest estimates of the Congressional Budget Office are that the US Government will spend 260 billion dollars more than it earns this year. Most of this deficit is accounted for by spending on the Iraq War which recently reached 100 billion dollars a year. We know that the war is being debt financed because most of the spending comes from emergency appropriations, when the Department of Defense asks for money from Congress outside of the usual budget procedure.

At the same time the US currently has a huge trade deficit with China. This deficit is so large that container ships often come back empty from the US on their return journey to China. Currently China sells around 100 billion dollars more goods and services to the US than the US sells to it in return, and this difference is made up for in US dollars.

The Chinese have to do something with all of their accumulated dollars. And a large proportion of them go into buying US Treasury bonds. The Chinese now hold an incredibly large share of the US public debt with almost half of all US Treasury bonds being owned in Asia. This recycles the dollars that China receives back into the US economy, more specifically into the hands of the US Government. Furthermore this willingness on the part of the Chinese to buy T-bonds keeps debt cheap for the US Government.

Now suppose for a moment that China stopped buying US Treasury bonds. This would certainly not be implausible. The Chinese central bank has often talked about diversifying its foreign currency holdings into Euros and other currencies. With the absence of an important buyer of its debt, the US would either have to raise interest rates, raise taxes or cut spending. An increase in the interest rate would raise the return on bonds, making them more attractive to other potential buyers; raising taxes or cutting spending on the other hand means that less has to be borrowed.
As the US already faces a huge burden of repayment on its existing debt, and many predict a slowdown in the US economy this year, raising interest rates may not be possible. If taxes are increased, the public will inevitably start to ask questions as to why they are being expected to hand over their money to the Federal Government, and they might not like the answer. If this Government went to the American people to ask them for more money to fight the Iraq war, there is little chance that they would be willing to pay. A swift pull out from Iraq that would drastically cut US Government spending and with it the budget deficit, might be the only option left.

In Europe we often see Americans' fear of the state and aversion to taxation with some perplexity. However in a state such as the US, which only provides for the most basic levels of public service, the majority of the government’s activities are necessarily occupied by defence. Americans know this and for them, like the British liberals of the eighteenth century, low taxation is seen as a means of keeping a violent state in check, making sure that if wars have to be fought then approval has to be sought from the purse of the public. Now it seems as though the large capacities of governments to run such deficits has long since made this check on government power obsolete. Now the power to dictate policy to the government lies not in its constituency but in the hands of its financiers. And for the US Government trying to pay for a war in Iraq, its financiers are in Beijing.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Special Relations

Last week a talk by a professor at my University and long time employee of the State Department Kendall Myers, at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, produced a storm of controversy in the UK. What was surprising to all of the students attending the talk, was that Kendall Myers wasnt saying anything that we didnt know already.

Even for us British students here in the US, it has become common knowledge that the US takes little notice of little Britain. Well at least only as much notice as it takes of, Japan, France, Germany or any of its other allies and yet the British still believe that they are "special". I myself found it amusing to be called a "euro" by all my American friends last year, whilst my fellow Brits think of themselves as so uneuropean.

The ensuing attacks in the British press on Professor Myers as a low level official who knows nothing about US-UK relations, are not only wrong but do nothing if not avoid the real issue at hand. Firstly he is not a low level official, not many people have heard of him in the States, but only for the same reason that not many people have heard of members of the British foreign intelligence community. It seems rather ridiculous, as some commentators have tried, to claim that someone working in the intelligence and research department of the US State Department and a thirty year expert on US/UK relations knows nothing about what is happening with regards to US foreign policy towards Britain. The subsequent clamoring, from Kim Howells the Foreign Office minister, and the Number 10 spokesman for his resignation, are nothing more than a cynical attempt to play the man instead of the ball. It is a shame because what was said at the meeting was quite important, and it would have been far more profitable for all if the content was discussed and not the man, who is beyond doubt an authority.

One curious aspect of the special relationship is that no one seems to be able to define what it is exactly that makes it special, that is, different from any relations that the US or UK has with any other nations. Some have argued that it is our colonial history and common values that have made this relationship special. This argument withstands no historical interrogation. If these were the foundations of a special relationship than the United States would have far more special relations with the French, who helped them throw off their colonial oppressors and whose philosophy provided the ideas behind the US constitution.

Personally I have always found this argument quite patronising towards the Americans, nothing more than a piece of British arrogance. Because two states cannot be equivocated to two friends. Two friends have no responsibility other than to each other, whilst states have responsibilities to millions of their citizens and hundreds of billions of dollars economic resources. Why would America sacrifice its own resources and risk its own citizens lives for nothing more than a vague nostalgia for their former colonial master, the ones after all who threw the Pilgrim Fathers out of Britain in the first place.

There is also the argument of "The Bridge" that Britain can be the US ally within Europe, to explain to the Europeans what the US cant explain to them themselves. To act as the US Minister plenipotentiary to Europe. However as another one of my professors so aptly pointed out, "Do the Brits really think that if we wanted to speak to Paris, we couldn't just pick up the phone?".

Although many quote Churchill, who first coined the phrase ‘special relationship’ few remember what he said immediately after these words. Churchill was very specific about what he meant by the term special relationship and for him it needed to be something tangible requiring, "not only the growing friendship and mutual understanding between our two vast but kindred systems of society, but the continuance of the intimate relationship between our military advisers”. Churchill, was speaking in 1946 after fighting a war where the relations between British and US military advisers were so intimate that we had British generals commanding US troops and vice versa. Commanders of both forces knew each-others plans in detail and there was cooperation between forces at all levels. Although it was always unlikely that this level of cooperation would continue for long after the war, cooperation between the British and US militaries did exist at a higher level than between other forces throughout the cold war. One thing that was also mentioned at the same talk last week by another commentator was that British and US nuclear submarines take weapons from the same stockpile, something that involves incredibly high levels of trust.

Looking at the Special Relationship in this way, as an enhanced level of cooperation between military forces, we can see that Kendall Myers clearly had a point. When Rumsfeld said on the 11th of March 2003, 9 days before the beginning of the war that British involvement was “unclear”, it demonstrated a shockingly low level of coordination between US and UK forces, and showed just how little the Department of Defence cared for British support. Furthermore as Robin Niblett, the future director of Chatham House pointed out during the same evening, the British are seriously considering pulling out of the plan to build a Joint Strike Fighter with the US and during the Iraq war requests by the British for intelligence material were turned down by the Americans. Again, these are all things that we knew already, what is new however, is that after three years, Rumsfelds remarks that the US didn't need the British, are perhaps finally beginning to sink in in London.