No End In Sight for Syria

In the immediate wake of the Iran nuclear deal there was a flurry of diplomacy involving Washington, Moscow and Tehran with talk that the time might be right to hammer out an agreement to end Syria’s four-year-long civil war. But with renewed commitments from Iran and Russia to shore up President Bashar al-Assad there seems no end in sight for the ruinous war of attrition that has left an estimated 240,000 people dead.

No one is budging their hard-held positions inside or outside Syria, despite the recognition by most parties involved that defeating the extremists of the Islamic State should be among the highest priorities — and that is unlikely to happen while the civil war rages.

For the West the mounting refugee crisis roiling Europe has added urgency to the search for some kind of resolution to the barbaric conflict.

Read my full VOA dispatch here.

Parlez Vous Francais, Mr President?

President Barack Obama better brush up on his French: Francois Hollande acknowledges in an interview with Slate magazine that he speaks English, “but a French president has to speak French!”

The two leaders are due to meet at Camp David on May 18 and 19 at the G8 Summit, although the White House has invited the French President for a bilateral meeting in Washington DC beforehand.

Asked if a leader should understand the main language of international diplomacy, i.e. English, Hollande responds: “he needs to understand it and to be able to have unmediated exchanges with his interlocutors” but adds that he is “attached to the French language.”

On other fronts, the U.S. and French presidents may have much in common. He notes: “We have similarities on the economic level.” By this he presumably means their shared opposition to the idea that deficit cutting can boost growth. Although it is doubtful whether Obama will want to get two kisses on his cheek from a French President who is a declared “Socialist” — that would be a godsend for the folks at Fox News!

He praises Obama in the interview, saying, “the Democratic administration’s choices in terms of foreign policy showed serious and beneficial changes compared with the preceding one.”

And he mentions he has no wish to make life harder for Obama with an upcoming election: “I intend to assert France’s independence without making Barack Obama’s task any more difficult. For example, I will maintain the position I had during my campaign of a pullout of French troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, in agreement with our allies.”

What will he push at Camp David? There are hints. He says “convertibility of the Chinese currency should have been discussed at the G20” earlier this year and he argues that reform of the international monetary system must be “a priority.” He shares his predecessor’s tough line on Iran and the development of a nuclear weapon but appears to see some room for maneuver in terms of negotiation.

 

Part 2 – The Silliness of Simon Heffer

Part 2: The Silliness of Simon Heffer

On 30th July in a Daily Telegraph column ostensibly criticising Chancellor George Osborne for arguing that any Trident replacement should come out of Ministry of Defence funds we got these gems from Simon:

“We live in a world whose massive instability seems to have passed the Prime Minister by.”

“Dave (by this Simon means Prime Minister Cameron) so obsessed is he with image management that real issues of governance are pushed to the margins.”

“If there is the political will, the money can be found to maintain the defence of the realm. As I have argued before, end the overseas aid budget, which is a pointless, socialist waste of money at £7 billion a year.”

As I asked in an earlier blog posting on Simon, are these really the comments one expects from a serious commentator writing for a supposedly serious daily newspaper?

You may or may not agree with Cameron’s recent criticisms of Israel and Pakistan or think they should have been made so publicly (I for one think the Prime Minister was right in the content of what he said and how and where he made his remarks), but does anyone really believe that the Prime Minister is unaware that we live in a dangerous World – always have actually – and that instability from elsewhere threatens?

When commenting on the Coalition, Simon likes to press the idea that the Prime Minister is just a PR man focused on image solely. What he ignores is how radical this government is planning to be – and radical in a lot of Conservative/Libertarian ways. Nothing less than a radical reform of the state and the relationship between the state and the public is being aimed for, a point emphasized last week by the Economist, which noted that “it is shaping up to be an ambitious administration.”

According to Simon, the Prime Minister is not interested in “real issues of governance” but let’s look at the short record so far. The Coalition has introduced an austerity package aimed at ending the country’s fiscal deficit that could see most government departments facing cuts of up to 40 percent – it is a spending reduction package that shames other European governments who claim they too are intent on putting the public books in good order.

But the Coalition is not stopping there. Coalition ministers intend to seize the opportunity to reshape the State and are proposing truly radical changes to NHS management, the Welfare system, schools, and the relationship between the police and the public. The Coalition is already acting to push back on the astonishing civil rights encroachments of the Blair and Brown governments. As the Economist – hardly a lefty or Lib Dem publication – argued “the historic nature of the coalition government itself is now less interesting than its domestic politics.”

So much for the Simon claim that the Prime Minister is pushing to the margins real issues of governance!

Does Simon think that he is writing fine commentary when he sneers and insults and misrepresents and tries to make out that Cameron and his ministers are ignorant and immature. Is this how Heffer’s mentor T.E. Utley wrote? Utley was an ideological Conservative but in his columns he was not bombastic and stuck to the facts and he would never have demeaned a Prime Minister by referring to them in a condescending manner by their first name.

So what does Simon think he is doing? And why he is doing what he is? Well, his chums on the right of the Conservative Party no doubt are egging him on. They, of course, are unable to accept any compromises to their narrow Conservatism. As far as they are concerned Britain should have no mass immigration – European Union citizens included – and Conservatives should not share government power. They want an old Britain that stands alone, proud, free and brave, etc. That fits in well with the kind of Britain Simon would like – the England of Trollope, where the Celtic fringes and working class people knew their places.

And so to be brave and free and proud we need an independent nuclear deterrent and shouldn’t be wasting money on some natives overseas. And according to them the nuclear replacement should not come out of defence funds but the government reserve. Well, boys, I have news for you – there isn’t a government reserve, the coffers are empty!

Britain’s nuclear deterrent isn’t and never will be independent – the Americans would have to agree before we fired it! And which country are we going to shoot at? The Russians? We knock out a couple of their cities and they knock out Britain lock, stock and barrel. Terrorists who sneak in a suitcase bomb? Iran has a far more important target than the U.K. – Israel.

I can well understand why Reagan thought all the generals talking about MAD were mad.

Back to Simon, briefly. The days when Britain’s overseas budget went straight into the pockets of Third World dictators are kind of over, Simon. Aid is far more targeted and monitored – although more monitoring is needed – and aid is starting to get more results-oriented, something Andrew Mitchell, the International Development Secretary, is keen to increase.

Yes, money to India and China should cease now but a lot of good can come from that aid budget in Africa and less developed countries, helping to ease the instability Simon worries about so much and encouraging economic development and that helps to ease the immigration pressures on us. Simon, maybe you should read less Trollope and start reading more studies and books on economic development, aid mechanics and even brush-up on what is actually happening in Africa.

Did the Election Reflect Iranian Opinion?

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was probably being accurate when he said on State television on Tuesday night that voters, regardless of who they voted for, support the Islamic Republic. U.S. and European reporters and commentators who have little first-hand knowledge of the country have a terrible tendency to interpret events there in very Western ways.  

Polling data pulled together by Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty ahead of the elections did not pick up an impending revolution and the pollsters argued in a thoughtful article in the Washington Post on Monday that the “election results in Iran may reflect the will of the Iranian people.”  The poll they conducted by phone between May 11 and May 20 had Mahmoud Ahmadinejad enjoying a huge lead over challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi –even among Azeris. Iran, of course, is not just Tehran and too many U.S. commentators seem not to appreciate that the middle-class in Tehran don’t necessarily reflect the majority view. 

But how the regime deals with the protests aginst the results is going to be a crucial determining factor in how the Islamic Republic will be viewed in the future by Iranians. In the Ballen/Doherty poll even supporters of Ahmadinejad indicated their hope for change — more democracy, the right to vote for the Supreme Leader, and free and fair elections and a free press were seen as priorities and not just for Mousavi supporters but by those planning to vote for the incumbent president. If those hopes are crushed, even many Ahmadinejad supporters could become disaffected. The authorities are caught between a rock and a hard place: maintain a hardline position and risk widespread disaffection, back down and encourage the opposition to demand more reform.

President Obama has come in for criticism from Republicans for not being out front enough but his approach reflects real maturity and sophistication. If Washington DC starts blasting away with all rhetorical guns blazing more than likely that will help the hardliners by allowing Ahmadinejad to rally patriotic Iranians. After all surely the point is that the protests don’t mark a rejection of the Islamic Republic but a determination by some to purify and modernise it.

The Real Revolution

The struggle in Iran to ensure all votes are counted just once each is surely put into perspective by the great revolution that is being unleashed on the leafy streets of ancient country towns in England. They are marching against plastic trash bins even in Henley-upon-Thames.  The governments quakes. Hardly surprisingly, the great bin revolution as covered by the UK Daily Mail prompted 241 comments from readers. The Iran report received 13 comments.