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Boris Yeltsin was making a presidential visit to Washington in 1995 when he was found one night outside the White House dressed only in his underpants. He explained in a slurred voice to US secret service agents that he was trying to hail a cab so he could go and buy a pizza. The following night he was discovered by a guard, who thought he was an intruder, wandering drunkenly around the basement of his official residence.

Drunk or sober, Yeltsin and his escapades became the living symbol for the world, not just of the collapse of the Soviet Union but of a dysfunctional administration in the Kremlin and the decline of Russia as a great power. It was impossible to take seriously a state whose leader was visibly inebriated much of the time and in which policy was determined by a coterie of corrupt family members and officials serving at Yeltsin’s whim.

Donald Trump is often compared to Vladimir Putin by the media which detects ominous parallels between the two men as populist nationalist leaders. The message is that Trump with his furious attacks on the media would like to emulate Putin’s authoritarianism. There is some truth in this, but when it comes to the effect on US status and power in the world, the similarities are greater between Trump and Yeltsin than between Trump and Putin.

Trump does not drink alcohol, but his incoherent verbal onslaughts on Australia, Mexico and Sweden since he became President are strongly reminiscent of Yeltsin’s embarrassing antics. Both men won power as demagogic anti-establishment leaders who won elections by promising to reform and clear out corruption in the existing system. The result in Russia was calamitous national decline and the same thing could now happen in America.

It will be difficult for the US to remain a super-power under a leader who is an international figure of fun and is often visibly detached from reality. His battle cry of “Fake News” simply means an inability to cope with criticism or accept facts or views that contradict his own. World leaders who have met him say they are astonished by his ignorance of events at home and abroad.

This cannot go on very long without sizeably diminishing American global influence as its judgement and actions become so unpredictable. Over the last three quarters of a century, countries of all political hues – dictatorships and democracies, republics and monarchies – have wanted to be an ally of the US because it was the most powerful player in world affairs.

It will remain so but the degree and nature of its primacy is changing significantly for four reasons. The US has a leader who appears unhinged to an extent not true of any of his predecessors. Secondly, political combat in the US has reached an all-absorbing ferocity not seen since the 1850s. This does not mean that the last act of this crisis will be a civil war, but American society is more divided today than at any time since the conflict between North and South. From the moment Trump took office he has shown no inclination towards compromise and his divisiveness inevitably makes America becomes a lesser power than it was.

The US is in a much stronger position today than the Soviet Union in 1991, but aspects of the two situations are the same. The Soviet Union was past its peak when it dissolved, but the US is weaker than it was fifteen years ago. Despite its vastly expensive armed forces, the US has failed to win wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or to obtain regime change in Syria. In all three wars, it made serious mistakes and suffered important setbacks. Barack Obama had an acute sense of just how far US military strength could be turned into political gains without stumbling into unwinnable wars in the Middle East and beyond. Contrary to Trump’s jibes about Obama doing disastrous deals with Iran and others, the last president kept out of the Syrian civil war, which would have been as draining as Afghanistan or Iraq, and gave priority to the campaign to eliminate Isis.

As presidential candidate Trump presented himself as an isolationist, claiming to have opposed the wars in Iraq and Libya. He had taken on board, as Hillary Clinton had not, that the American public does not want to fight another ground war in the Middle East. But Trump’s appointment of two senior generals – James Mattis as Defence Secretary and HR McMaster as National Security Adviser – tells a different and more belligerent story. Already, there are steps being taken to create a Sunni Arab coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies and in cooperation with Israel, to confront Iran.

The Trump administration does not have a coherent foreign policy and will probably go along at first with many of the policies already in place. The dangerous moment will come later when it has to devise its own responses to new events, such as terrorist attacks by Isis, and its real capacity becomes apparent. It looks all too likely that a president who has such a ludicrously warped picture of life in Sweden will fail to grapple successfully with complex crises in Yemen, Syria or Iraq.

The election of Trump brings with it another negative but less tangible outcome that is already eating away at American primacy: the US will be not only divided but unable to focus on for the foreseeable future on anything other than the consequences of Trumpism. When US politicians, officials and media look at Russia, China, Ukraine, Iran, Israel or anywhere else in the world from Sweden to Australia, they will view them through a prism distorted by his preconceptions and fantasies.

The US is not alone in this. The debilitating result of a single factor marginalising other crucial issues has become all too clear in Britain since the Brexit vote. Tony Blair said in his recent speech that “this is a government for Brexit, of Brexit and dominated by Brexit. It is a mono-purpose political entity.” Aside from this single-minded focus, nothing else really matters, not the health service, the economy, technology, education, investment or crime. “Governments’ priorities are not really defined by white papers or words, but by the intensity of focus,” explained Blair. “This government has bandwidth for only one thing: Brexit. It is the waking thought, the daily grind, the meditation before sleep and the stuff of its dreams; or nightmares.”

In the US, Trump is a similarly obsessive concern. Once it was smaller European countries like Ireland and Poland that were derided for an exaggerated and unhealthy preoccupation with their own problems. A Polish joke from the 1920s relates how an Englishman, a Frenchman and a Pole competed to write the best essay on the elephant. The Englishman described “elephant hunting in India”, the French wrote about “the elephant in love” and the Pole produced a lengthy paper on “the elephant and the Polish Question”. These days the Englishman would undoubtedly write about “the elephant and Brexit” and an American, if he was allowed to enter the competition, would write interminably about “the elephant and Donald Trump”.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, Donald Trump 

Iraqi government forces have started their offensive aimed at capturing the western half of Mosul, Isis’s last big urban stronghold in the country. There are an estimated 4,000 jihadi fighters defending the close-packed houses and narrow alleyways in the half of the city west of the Tigris River, which is inhabited by some 650,000 civilians.

Iraqi paramilitary federal police and interior ministry units are advancing from the south of Mosul with the initial aim of seizing the city airport. But the heaviest fighting is likely to come when the soldiers get into built up areas where the militant group has been digging tunnels and holes cut through the walls of houses so they can conduct a mobile defence away from artillery fire and airstrikes.

The fighting could be as fierce as anything seen in the Iraq war, which has been ongoing since the US invasion of 2003 overthrew Saddam Hussein. The operation is being largely planned by the US, which has 6,000 soldiers in Iraq and which leads a coalition that has carried out more than 10,000 airstrikes and trained and equipped 70,000 Iraqi soldiers. “Mosul would be a tough fight for any army in the world,” said Lt Gen Stephen Townsend, the commander of the coalition, in a statement.

The struggle for Mosul is the climactic battle in the bid by the Iraqi government and its foreign allies to destroy Isis, which established its self-declared caliphate in June 2014 when a few thousand fighters unexpectedly captured Mosul from a 60,000-strong government garrison. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Isis leader and self-appointed caliph, is in west Mosul according to Hoshyar Zebari, the former Iraqi finance and foreign minister, speaking to The Independent in an interview last week. This gives Isis an extra reason to hold the city to the last man.

The Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of the operation early on Sunday morning, but intense fighting has yet to start as Iraqi forces advance through empty outlying villages. Going by the well-planned resistance put up by Isis in east Mosul over the last three months since the first offensive began on 17 October, casualties on all sides are likely to be heavy.

Isis depended on mobile squads of snipers, booby traps and over 600 suicide bombers driving vehicles packed with explosives to slow the advance of the counter terrorism service and other elite formation, some of which suffered 50 per cent casualties during a snail’s pace advance. By the end of 2016, the Iraqi Kurdish health ministry was complaining that its hospitals were full to overflowing with 13,500 wounded soldiers and civilians from the fighting in Mosul.

Though Baghdad announced that it had seized all of east Mosul, its grip on captured districts appears shaky as Isis sleeper cells carry out assassinations and bombings. Two suicide bombers, who emerged today, blew themselves up, killing three soldiers and two civilians and injuring many more. Last week a restaurant owner in east Mosul, who had reopened his business and was serving soldiers, was killed by another bomber. The Iraqi army is short of well-trained troops and their dispatch to the front line means that districts already taken are vulnerable to infiltration by Isis.

While Mr Abadi called on the Iraqi forces to be careful of the human rights of civilians in Mosul, videos are emerging of young men being beaten and summarily executed in places already taken by Iraqi troops. Despite frequent claims that it is liberating Mosul, the Shia-dominated Iraqi government is effectively assaulting the last great Sunni Arab city in Iraq. Away from the television cameras Iraqi soldiers often suspect civilians in Mosul of having been much more cooperative with Isis since 2014 than they now claim.

Civilians in Mosul have no alternative but to cooperate with warring armies that are destroying their city. Iraqi planes have dropped millions of leaflets on west Mosul telling Isis fighters to surrender, and people to stay in their houses and to display white sheets to show they are not resisting. But since Isis kills anybody who shows signs of surrendering, this tactic is unlikely to be very effective.

Government military commanders say they have learned from their experiences in east Mosul and will try to advance on west Mosul from all sides in order to spread out the Isis defenders. They will also be strongly supported by US artillery and airstrikes seeking to eliminate Isis strongpoints. The government says that it is seeking to minimise civilian casualties, but it is impossible to know from a distance how many families have taken refuge in the interior of buildings or in cellars. If, as seems inevitable, government forces use greater firepower than before to capture west Mosul, then civilian loss of life and material destruction will be greater than in the east.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, ISIS 

Self-absorbed and irrational Donald Trump may well be, but on Thursday he held what was probably the most interesting and entertaining White House press conference ever. These are usually grimly ritualistic events in which select members of the media establishment, who have often come to see themselves as part of the permanent government of the US, ask predictable questions and get equally predictable replies.

The conventions of democracy are preserved but nobody is much the wiser, and the general tone is one of fawning credulity towards whatever line the administration is adopting. That this has long been the case was shown in the fascinating book about the press coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign, The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse, which notes that negative popular perceptions of the media truckling to power is largely true of the White House correspondents, though not of other reporters.

For now, Trump reminds one more of a theatrical populist like Silvio Berlusconi than anything resembling a proto-fascist or authoritarian demagogue like Benito Mussolini. This perception may change as he secures his grip on the levers of power as he promises to do, blaming leaks from the US intelligence services on holdovers from the Obama administration.

But the lesson to be drawn from the history of all populist authoritarian regimes is that there is always a wide gap between what they promise and what they accomplish. As this gap becomes wider, the regime responds by concealing or lying about it through control or closure of the media. This was the trajectory in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is holding a referendum in April which will establish an all-powerful presidency. In the run-up to the vote the Turkish media simply reports military failures in Syria as brilliant successes and even mildly critical tweets can lead to the tweeter being sacked or imprisoned. Press freedoms may never be extinguished to the same degree in the US, but then many Turkish journalists did not foresee what was going to happen to them.

At present, this is a golden era in American journalism, because established media outlets such as CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post find themselves under unprecedented and open attacks from the powers that be. Richard Nixon may have felt persecuted by press and television, but he never counter-attacked with the same vigour and venom as Trump. Discussions on CNN, which used to be notoriously soporific, have suddenly become lively and intelligent, and the same is true of the rest of the mainline media.

This radicalisation of the establishment media may not last and is accompanied by a significant rearrangement of history. Lying by the Trump administration is presented as wholly unprecedented, but what has really changed is the position of the media itself, forgetful of its past complicity in claiming that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or that war in Libya would bring peace and democracy to that country.

“Fake news” and “false facts” are the battle cries in this ferocious struggle for power in Washington in which each side takes a high moral tone, while trying to land any low blow they think they can get away with. Trump, accused of everything aside from grave-robbing, is said to have been aided by the dark hand of Vladimir Putin in winning the election, in a manner that is far beyond Russian capabilities. The Kremlin is credited with demonic foresight whereby it sponsored Trump as a candidate in the presidential election long before any American politician or commentator thought he had a chance.

A bizarre feature of the present confrontation is that the Democrats and liberals have relaunched McCarthyism, something they would have decried as a toxic episode in American political history until a few months ago. Just as Senator Joe McCarthy claimed in 1950 to have a list of communist infiltrators in the State Department, so any contact between a Trump supporter or official and a Russian is now being reported as suspicious and potentially treacherous. It is difficult to see where Trump is wrong when he tweeted that “the Democrats had to come up with a story as to why they lost the election, and so badly, so they made up a story – RUSSIA. Fake news!”

Trump has a point, but he is also entirely hypocritical because he himself probably won the election because of the spurious significance given to Hillary Clinton’s private emails and her supposed responsibility for the killing of the US ambassador in Benghazi by jihadis. Paradoxically, she was blamed for one of the few bad things that happened in Libya that was not her fault. In recent decades it has been the Republicans who have made a speciality in promoting trivial offences or no offence at all into major issues in order to discredit political opponents. In the 1990s they succeeded in smearing the Clintons by elevating a minor unsuccessful real estate deal into the Whitewater scandal. Probably the biggest Democratic Party “false fact” success came in the Presidential election in 1960 when Kennedy claimed that the Republicans had allowed “a missile gap” to develop between the US and the Soviet Union, though he knew this was untrue since he had been officially briefed that the US had far more missiles than the Russians.

The phrases “fake news” and “false facts” give a misleading impression of what really happens in the course of political combat now or in the past. A direct disprovable lie, like Kennedy on the missile gap, is unusual. More frequent is systematic exaggeration of the gravity of real events such as Clinton’s emails or Trump’s Russian connections.

Sound advice on this was given 300 years ago in Dr John Arbuthnot’s wonderful treatise on “the Art of Political Lying”, published in 1712, which warns that once a false fact or lie is lodged in the public mind, it may be impossible to persuade people that it is untrue except by another lie. He says, as an example, that if there is a rumour that the pretender to the British throne in exile in France has come to London, do not contradict it by saying he was never in England. Rather “you must prove by eyewitnesses that he came no farther than Greenwich, but then went back again.” He warns against spreading lies about a political leader which are directly contrary to their known character and previous behaviour. Better to give credibility to a lie by keeping within realms of credibility, by blackening the name of a prince known to be merciful “that he has pardoned a criminal who did not deserve it.”

Arbuthnot assumes that political parties lie as a matter of course, and that the only way for the public to limit the power of governments is to lie as much as they do. He says that, just as ministers use political lying to support their power, “it is but reasonable that the people should employ the same weapon to defend themselves, and pull them down.”

Could this be the fate of Trump? He became president because false facts fatally damaged Hillary Clinton – and now the same thing is happening to him.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: American Media, Donald Trump, Fake News, Russia 

The Iraqi armed forces will eventually capture west Mosul, which is still held by Isis fighters, but the city itself will be destroyed in the fighting, a senior Iraqi politician has told The Independent in an interview.

Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish leader who until last year was the Iraqi finance minister and prior to that the country’s long-serving foreign minister, says that Isis will fight to the last man in the densely-packed urban districts it still holds.

“I think west Mosul will be destroyed,” says Mr Zebari, pointing to the high level of destruction in east Mosul just taken by government forces. He explains that Isis is able to put up such stiff resistance by skilful tactics using networks of tunnels, sniper teams and suicide bombers in great numbers. He adds that no date has yet been set for the resumption of the Iraqi government offensive into west Mosul, but he expects the fighting to be even tougher than before.

A further reason for fanatical resistance by Isis is that Mr Zebari is certain that the Isis leader and self-declared Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is still in west Mosul and reports of him being killed or injured in an air strike elsewhere in Iraq are incorrect. He says that Isis sector commanders in the city are experienced professional soldiers, all of whom were once officers in Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard or Special Forces, and will fight effectively to defend their remaining stronghold in the larger part of the city that is to the west of the Tigris River.

The elite Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Services, led by the 10,000-strong Golden Division, had expected to take the whole of Mosul, once a city of two million people, by the end of 2016. But ferocious resistance by some 3,000 Isis fighters on the east bank of the Tigris meant that this part of the city was only captured after three months of fighting with heavy loss of life on all sides, especially among civilians.

Mr Zebari, who originally comes from Mosul, describes the present situation in the city as “horrible” and “a shambles”, even in those parts of it that Iraqi government forces have captured, though not fully occupied and secured. “There are Isis ‘sleeper cells’ with maybe 16 to 24 men in each district which come out of hiding and kill people who are cooperating with the government,” he says. “They target restaurants which have reopened and serve soldiers.” There has also been a complete failure by the government to restore basic services like electricity and water supply.

Asked about casualties, Mr Zebari said those on the Iraqi security forces side had been heavy, but the government in Baghdad has refused to produce exact figures. US reports say that some units of the Golden Division, which is a sort of highly trained army within the army, had suffered up to 50 per cent losses. He discounts official Iraqi claims that 16,000 Isis fighters had been killed, saying that the real figure was probably between 1,500 and 2,000 Isis dead out of a total of 6,000 in Mosul. He thought that they had brought in reinforcements and there were probably 4,000 Isis fighters left who would defend west Mosul, which is home to about 750,000 people.

This account is borne out by other reports from in and around east Mosul where this week two suicide bombers attacked a market, killing twelve and wounding 33 people. Mortars and rockets fired by Isis are still exploding and the main water system was destroyed in fighting in January. Pictures show cavernous craters reportedly caused by bombs dropped by US Air Force B-52s to aid the Iraqi army advance. People who fled Mosul at the height of the fighting and have been returning to it are often leaving again. The UN says that it is worried by arbitrary arrests of displaced people as possible Isis sympathisers and records that on 8 and 9 February some 1,442 came back to east Mosul, but 791 left for displacement camps.

Despite the Iraqi security forces’ focus on weeding out Isis supporters and “sleeper cells”, Mr Zebari says that this does not provide real security because travel documents can be bought from corrupt security officers for 25,000 Iraqi dinars (£17). Drivers on Iraqi roads have confirmed to The Independent that the main concern of checkpoints is not security, but to extract bribes from passing vehicles. This would explain how Isis suicide bombers driving vehicles packed with explosives are able to pass through multiple checkpoints before detonating explosives in civilian areas in Baghdad or other cities.

Mr Zebari notes that rivalry between the US and Iran in Iraq is increasing under President Donald Trump, with the latter slow to call the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and making US help conditional on a reduction in Iranian influence. During the US presidential election campaign, Mr Trump claimed that Iran had taken over Iraq. There is also growing friction between the different Shia parties and movements that Mr Zebari says makes “inter-Shia fighting imminent”.

Mr Zebari’s prediction that Mosul will be destroyed as a city by the next wave of fighting is all too likely because the last three years in Iraq and Syria have seen deepening sectarian and ethnic hatred. This was greatly fostered by Isis massacres, primarily of Shia and Yazidis but also of its other opponents. There is an ominous precedent for what may happen in Mosul because other Sunni cities and towns up and down Iraq have been wrecked or rendered uninhabitable by government counter-offensives since 2014. Some 70 per cent of the houses in Ramadi, the capital of the overwhelmingly Sunni Anbar province, are in ruins or are badly damaged. Even where many houses are still standing, as in Fallujah 40 miles west of Baghdad, the people who come back to them have to live without electricity, water, jobs or medical care. In practice, the Shia-dominated Iraqi government wants to break the back of Sunni resistance to its rule so it will never be capable of rising again.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, ISIS, Shias and Sunnis 

President Trump made great play when he came into office with his return of a bust of Winston Churchill to the Oval Office, presenting the move as a symbol of his admiration for adamantine patriotic resolve in pursuit of patriotic ends. Presumably, Trump was thinking of Churchill in 1940, not Churchill in 1915-16 when he was the leading advocate of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in which the Turks decisively defeated the British army with great slaughter.

Trump is reputed to seldom read books or show much interest in history other than that of his own life and times, but it would be worth his while reflecting Gallipoli because Churchill was only the first of six British and American leaders to have suffered political shipwreck in the Middle East over the last century. The prime reason for these successive disasters is that the region has always been more unstable and prone to wars than anywhere else in the world during. Mistakes made on its battlefields tend to be calamitous and irretrievable.

Avoiding this fate is not easy: the six British and American leaders who came a serious cropper in the Middle East were generally abler, more experienced and better advised than Trump. It is therefore worthwhile asking, at the beginning of his administration, what are the chances of him becoming the next victim of the permanent state of crisis in the wider Middle East. He campaigned as an isolationist who would avoid being sucked into armed conflicts abroad, but his first weeks in office and his senior appointments suggest that he will try to take a central role in the politics of the region. The new administration projects a macho self-image devoted to “Making America Great Again” and this, combined with demonization of its enemies, will hinder compromise and tactical retreats. Western intervention in the region has usually come to grief because of arrogant exaggeration of its own strength and an underestimation of the capabilities of their enemies.

These failings unite with a crippling ignorance of the part of foreign powers about the complexity and dangers of the political and military terrain in which they were operating. This was true of Churchill who wrongly assessed likely Turkish military resistance in 1915. Lloyd George, one of the most astute of British prime ministers, made the same mistake in 1922 when his government destroyed itself by threatening to go to war with Turkey. Anthony Eden lost office after the Suez Crisis in 1956 when he failed to overthrow Nasser in Egypt. Tony Blair’s reputation was forever blasted for leading Britain into war in Iraq in 2003.

Of the three US presidents badly or terminally damaged by crisis in the Middle East, Jimmy Carter was the most unlucky, as there was nothing much he could do to stop the Iranian Revolution in 1979 or the seizure of diplomats in the US embassy in Tehran as hostages. Ronald Reagan’s presidency saw military intervention in Lebanon where 241 US Marines were blown up in 1983, and the Iran-Contra scandal that permanently weakened the administration. Significant though these disasters and misadventures seemed at the time, none had the impact of George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 which led to the regeneration of al-Qaeda and the spread of chaos through the region.

In retrospect, these leaders may look foolhardy as they plunged into bottomless quagmires or fought unwinnable wars. Some like Carter were victims of circumstances, but entanglements were not inevitable, as was shown by President Obama who did read books, knew his history and was acutely aware of the pitfalls the US needed to skirt in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and beyond. Avoiding disasters which nobody else knew existed will seldom win a politician much credit, but Obama deserves credit for escaping being sucked into the civil war in Syria or into a broader conflict against Iran as the leader of the Shia axis. He justifiably suspected US allies like Saudi Arabia and the Sunni states of the Gulf of being eager to see the US fight their battles for them.

The Trump administration is seen by so many commentators as so uniquely awful in its contempt for the truth, legality and democracy, that they underestimate how much it has in common with that of George W Bush. After 9/11, the Bush administration famously gave the Saudis a free pass despite the many links between the hijackers and Saudi Arabia. Instead the White House channelled popular anger and desire to hit back provoked by 9/11, into its military campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein as leader of Iraq.

Thirteen years later it is well established through leaked US documents and briefings that Saudi Arabia and the Sunni states of the Gulf played a central role in financing and supplying fundamentalist Islamic groups in Syria after 2011. Trump continually promised during the presidential election that he would focus exclusively in the Middle East on destroying Isis, but the first moves of his administration has been to shift the US closer to Saudi Arabia by backing its war in Yemen. In almost his first statement of policy, Secretary of Defence James Mattis said that Iran is “the single biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world”.

One of the dangers of Trump’s demagogic rants and open mendacity is that these tend to give the impression that less theatrical members of his team, especially former generals like Mattis or National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, are monuments of good sense and moderation. Yet both men are set on threat inflation when it comes to Iran, though without providing any evidence for its terrorist actions, just as their predecessors inflated the threat supposedly posed by Saddam Hussein’s non-existent WMD and fictional support for al-Qaeda.

This is all good news for Isis, though it has so many enemies committed to its defeat that a switch in US policy may be too late to do it a lot of good. But its main enemies on the ground are the Iraqi and Syrian armies, whose governments are backed by Iran, and the Syrian Kurds who fear that the US may soon give them less support in order to appease Turkey.

Given the high decibel level of the Trump administrations threats and warnings, it is impossible to distinguish bellicose rhetoric from real operational planning. A confrontation with Iran will probably not come soon; but in a year or two, when previous policies conceived under Obama have run their course, Trump may well feel that he has to show how much tougher and more effective he is than his predecessor whom he has denounced as weak and incompetent.

This administration is so heavily loaded with crackpots, fanatics and amateurs, that it would be optimistic to imagine that they will pass safely through the political swamplands of the Middle East without detonating a crisis with which they cannot cope. The diplomatic agreements that Trump denounces as “terrible deals” for the US represent real balances of power and interests and he is not going to do any better. In four years’ time, the select club of American and British leaders who failed in the Middle East, with disastrous consequences for everybody, may have a voluble seventh member.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Donald Trump, Iran, ISIS 

In the south west corner of the Arabian Peninsula, Britain is complicit in one of the worst and least noticed crimes against humanity in the 21st century. Thanks to Saudi air strikes starting two years ago, a localised civil war in Yemen was transformed into a devastating conflict which has brought 12 million people to the edge of famine. Some 19 million Yemenis out of a total population of 25 million lack fresh water to drink and 4 million do not have enough food to eat.

In bringing about this man-made calamity, the British Government has played a small ignoble role as a supplier of weapons to Saudi Arabia whose air raids are primarily responsible for the destruction.

The continuation of arms sales that are the subject of a legal challenge before the High Court in London this week on the grounds that the weapons will be used in Yemen in violation of international humanitarian law. Critics of the US and Britain say they play an essential role in supporting the Saudi-led air campaign that has destroyed much of the Yemen’s infrastructure. The poorest Arab country, it used to import 90 per cent of its food – but this has become far more difficult since air strikes destroyed cranes in the port of Hudayda on the Red Sea coast in 2015. The loss of the always inadequate sewage and garbage disposal facilities has led to the spread of cholera and dengue fever. In addition, at least 10,000 people have been killed in the fighting and 3.27 million people forced to flee their homes.

The suffering is likely to grow worse because the prolonged Saudi attempt to defeat the Houthi rebels, who are allied to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, has so far only produces a military stalemate. The rebels still hold the capital Sana’a and much of the north of the country. The Saudi ambition to split the alliance between the Houthi and Saleh has so far failed.

British support for the Saudi campaign has provoked little public interest, but the Government is now facing a landmark case before the High Court in London as the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) seeks an order to stop the sale of British-made bombs, fighter aircraft and other munitions to Saudi Arabia. CAAT says that since the start of the conflict, Britain has approved export licences for arms worth £3.1bn to Saudi Arabia.

The British Government maintains that it does not licence weapons when there is a clear risk of humanitarian law being breached. But there is evidence that Saudi pilots either do not know or do not care what they are bombing. US officials are quoted by The Washington Post as saying that “errors of capability or competence, not of malice” explain repeated strikes against civilian targets but this lack of intent means that no international laws are being broken.

American and British support for Saudi Arabia as their main regional ally has been automatic in the past, but its policies have become more aggressive and nationalistic since King Salman became Saudi monarch in 2015.

Though the US and UK have sought to present the Houthis as an Iranian proxy, there is little sign that they get much help from Tehran, though Saudi intervention has served to deepen – and make more sectarian – a complicated civil war inside Yemen.

As Britain prepares to leave the European Union, it has a strong incentive to strengthen existing alliances with trading partners in the Gulf and elsewhere. Theresa May has already visited Bahrain and Turkey, both notoriously prohibiting dissent and imprisoning journalists and opposition leaders.

President Obama’s administration had begun to distance itself from supporting Saudi Arabia and the Sunni states of the Gulf, but the Trump administration is showing himself itself as much more sympathetic to Saudi Arabia and hostile to Iran with officials saying that the US will give full support to the Saudi-led air offensive.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Britain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave Theresa May a frightening account during their meeting of the threat posed by Iranian aggression to Israel and everybody else. In Mr Netanyahu’s eyes, Iran is a much more dangerous enemy than Isis or al-Qaeda, seeking “to annihilate Israel, it seeks to conquer the Middle East, it threatens Europe, it threatens the West, it threatens the world.”

Even by Mr Netanyahu’s standards the rhetoric sounds excessive and is probably motivated by a wish to divert attention from Israeli settlement building on the West Bank. Within a few days of Donald Trump’s inauguration as President, Israel announced the construction of a further 2,500 housing units on the West Bank. Though the Trump administration expressed mild discontent, Israel will probably be spared more vigorous protests by Washington.

Mr Netanyahu knows that senior members of the new administration have themselves been denouncing Iran in similarly apocalyptic terms as himself. On Saturday, the US Defence Secretary James Mattis called Iran “the single biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world”, though he added that it was not necessary for the US to deploy more military forces to counter Iran. On the previous day, the US had imposed new though limited sanctions over an Iranian ballistic missile test.

Fresh Israeli settlement building on the West Bank usually provokes cries internationally that the prospect of a “two-state solution” to establish peace between Israel and the Palestinians is being eroded or destroyed. But in reality such a solution has long been dead and buried because of the disparity in political, diplomatic and military strength between the two sides. Israel has no reason to compromise and the Palestinian Authority leadership, decrepit and authoritarian, has virtually no leverage or alternative options because of its long-standing dependence on Israeli security backing.

Israel and the Sunni Arab states of the Gulf led by Saudi Arabia are relieved to have a more sympathetic president in the White House and glad that Mr Obama has gone. The administration has adopted a much more belligerent anti-Iranian tone, but is evidently not going to tear up the deal on Iran’s nuclear programme agreed by President Obama. US policy in Iraq and Syria is directed primarily towards eliminating Isis and al-Qaeda-type groups using US and allied air power in support of local allies on the ground, notably the Iraqi armed forces in Iraq and the Syrian Kurds in Syria.

Iranian influence in the region is increasing simply because it leads what is essentially a Shia coalition of states and movements – Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon – that is winning the war in Syria in alliance with Russia. In Iraq, the US and Iran have long had a strange relationship which is a mixture of cooperation and rivalry. The assent of Washington and Tehran is in practice required before there is a new Iraqi prime minister.

Both Mr Netanyahu and Ms May are somewhat isolated internationally and want to take advantage of a more fluid situation in Washington under Mr Trump, but they do not know quite what direction it will take. The most important US policy decisions in Iraq and Syria are unlikely to be unstitched because they are working well and Isis is under strong pressure.

More Israeli settlement building around Jerusalem and on the West Bank undermines the idea that a “two-state solution” is feasible, but it has long been nothing more than a convenient fig leaf. A more sympathetic administration in Washington will increase pressure from the far-right inside Israel to move towards annexation of all or part of the West Bank, but real change is unlikely.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iran, Israel/Palestine 

President Trump is adding further venom to the raging sectarian hatreds tearing apart Iraq and Syria by his latest ill-judged tweets. These have far greater explosive potential than his better known clashes with countries like Australia and Mexico, because in the Middle East he is dealing with matters of war and peace. In this complex region, the US will have to pay a high price for switching to a vaguely belligerent policy which pays so little regard to the real situation on the ground.

In one tweet this week, Trump says that “Iran is rapidly taking over more and more of Iraq even after the US has squandered three trillion dollars there. Obvious long ago!” In fact, it is not obvious at all because it is not true. Iran was in a stronger position in Iraq before June 2014 when the Isis offensive captured Mosul, defeated the Iraqi army and provoked the fall of the government of Nouri al-Maliki who was close to Iran.

The victories of Isis at that time led to a return of US influence in Iraq as President Obama created a US-led air coalition which has launched thousands of air strikes against Isis. He sent at least 5,000 US military personnel backed by thousands of American contractors who handle training and logistics for the current Iraqi army assault on Mosul. The attack is very much a joint US-Iraqi joint operation and has turned into the hardest fought battle in Iraq since the US invasion of 2003.

But Trump is not the only person saying that Iraq is increasingly controlled by Iran. Isis continually maintains that the majority Iraqi Shia community, which makes up about two thirds of the 33 million Iraqi population, is not really Iraqi but Iranian. Isis has always demonised the Iraqi Shia as religious heretics and “Safavids”, called after the Iranian dynasty, and said they are not real Muslims and deserve to die. Saudi Arabia, with whose rulers Trump recently had a long conversation, holds somewhat similar views about equating Shia Islam with Iran and the need to combat both.

Trump’s claim about growing Iranian control of Iraq might be dismissed as nonsense without long term consequences. But there are other arrows pointing in the same direction: Iraqis, Iranians and others in the region are pointing to the bizarre make-up of the list of seven states whose citizens have been temporarily banned from entering the US. This is supposedly directed against al-Qaeda and Isis, drawing on lessons learned after 9/11. But none of the states from which the hijackers came – Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon – are subject to the ban as are Iraq and Iran. “The list looks like its intent is basically anti-Shia,” says one observer in Baghdad and the governments of Saudi Arabia and Turkey seem to think the same thing, since they have either supported or failed to condemn the US action, though it is more or less openly directed against Muslims.

The Trump administration seems to think in tweets and slogans, so it is probably wrong to speak of a coherent change in policy. But in its first weeks in office, it has been far more vocal about confronting a supposed Iranian threat than it has about eliminating Isis. This came across clearly on Wednesday when the national security adviser, General Michael Flynn, once head of the Defence Intelligence Agency until sacked by Obama, accused Iran of conducing a “provocative” nuclear missile test in breach of a UN Security Council resolution and helping Houthi rebels in Yemen, saying “as of today we are putting Iran on notice”. The phrase about Iran was repeated in a tweet by Trump, indicating a greater concern in the White House about Iran than Isis and little interest in the titanic battle being waged for control of Mosul. In some secret location in that city, the self-declared caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, may be pondering the same question that is absorbing other world leaders: how much of what Trump says is just bombast and how far will it turn into reality on the ground? It is a little early to say, but the signs are not encouraging.

In any case, bombast alone is capable of reshaping the political landscape. Paradoxically, White House actions in the Middle East are creating the very conditions for Iran to displace US influence in Iraq in a way that Trump wrongly imagines has already happened. Responding to the travel ban, the Iraqi parliament declared that US citizens proposing to enter Iraq over the next 90 days should be subjected to the same restrictions. The Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi refused to go along with this, saying it was more important to keep cooperation with the US while the battle for Mosul is still going on.

But the matter is not likely to rest there, because the US relationship with Iran in Iraq has always been a curious mixture of open rivalry and rather more covert cooperation, since they share a common enemy in Isis and, previously, in al-Qaida in Iraq. American power in Iraq has grown since 2014 because it is Iraq’s main military ally. Without US and coalition air strikes, the Iraqi army could not defeat Isis or even hold its own against it. But the US political position in Iraq is weaker than its military one and, thanks to the US travel ban and Trump’s escalating attacks on Iran, it’s going to get weaker still. The ban is a “golden opportunity” for Iran to push back against the US, said a former senior Iraqi official. “Iraqis are very worried,” said Kamran Karadaghi, an Iraqi commentator and former chief of staff to the Iraqi presidency. “If anything bad happens to Iran because of Trump, it will be bad for Iraqis.”

In pursuit of an anti-Iranian line, the Trump administration is making the same mistake as that made by Western governments after the 2011 uprisings in the Arab world. They tended to think in terms of nationalism, nationalities and the nation state, but in the Middle East these count for less as communal bonds than religious identity. Thus, what was essentially a Sunni Arab uprising in Syria six years ago changed the balance of power between Sunni and Shia in Iraq and restarted the civil war there. The threat to President Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite dominated government was bound to lead to the Shia in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon rallying to his support to prevent his overthrow, because they felt that was an existential threat to themselves.

The Trump administration has not made any disastrous missteps in the Middle East yet, but, going by its actions over the last week, it may soon do so. There is the same mixture of wishful thinking, misinformation and arrogance in Washington as led to the US disaster in Lebanon in 1982-83 and in Iraq after 2003. Trump’s tub-thumping in quarrels with Australia and Mexico may not have very dire effects in the long term because no blood is being spilt. But in the Middle East, a zone of wars, Trump’s angry amateurism is more likely to produce a thoroughgoing disaster.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Donald Trump, Iran, Iraq, Middle East 

Donald Trump’s travel ban on refugees and visitors from seven Muslim countries entering the US makes a terrorist attack on Americans at home or abroad more rather than less likely. It does so because one of the main purposes of al-Qaeda and Isis in carrying out atrocities is to provoke an over-reaction directed against Muslim communities and states. Such communal punishments vastly increase sympathy for Salafi-jihadi movements among the 1.6 billion Muslims who make up a quarter of the world’s population.

The Trump administration justifies its action by claiming that it is only following lessons learned from 9/11 and the destruction of the Twin Towers. But it has learned exactly the wrong lesson: the great success of Mohammed Atta and his eighteen hijackers was not on the day that they and 3,000 others died, but when President George W Bush responded by leading the US into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that are still going on.

Al-Qaeda and its clones had been a small organisation with perhaps as few as a thousand militants in south east Afghanistan and north west Pakistan. But thanks to Bush’s calamitous decisions after 9/11, it now has tens of thousands of fighters, billions of dollars in funds and cells in dozens of countries. Few wars have failed so demonstrably or so badly as “the war on terror”. Isis and al-Qaeda activists are often supposed to be inspired simply by a demonic variant of Islam – and this is certainly how Trump has described their motivation – but in practice it was the excesses of the counter-terrorism apparatus such as torture and rendition, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib which acted as the recruiting sergeant for the Salafi-jihadi movements.

The Trump administration is now sending a message to al-Qaeda and Isis that Washington is easily provoked into mindless and counter-productive repression targeting Muslims in general. Those affected so far are limited in number and about the last people likely to be engaged in terrorist plots. But the political impact is already immense. Salafi-jihadi leaders may be monsters of cruelty and bigotry, but they are not stupid. They will see that if Trump, unprovoked by any terrorist outrage, will act with such self-defeating vigour, then a few bombs or shootings directed at American targets will lead to more scatter-gun persecution of Muslims.

Like leaders everywhere Isis commanders will wonder how unhinged Trump really is. The banning order may in part be a high profile way of assuring Trump voters that his pledges on the campaign trail will be fulfilled. But demagogues tend to become the creatures of their own rhetoric and certainly Trump’s words and actions will be presented as a sectarian declaration of war by many Muslims around the world. Isis will also see that by pressing their attacks they will deepen divisions within American society.

Bush targeted Saddam Hussein and Iraq in response to 9/11, though it was self-evident that the Iraqi leader and his regime had no connection with it. It was notorious that 15 out of 19 of the hijackers were Saudis, Osama bin Laden was a Saudi and the money for the operation came from private Saudi donors, but Saudi Arabia was given a free pass regardless of strong evidence of its complicity.

Much the same bizarre mistargeting of Muslim countries least likely to be sending terrorists to the US is happening in 2017 as happened in 2001. Though 9/11 is cited as an explanation for Trump’s executive order, none of the countries whose citizens were involved (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Lebanon) are facing any restrictions. The people who are being refused entry come from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Yemen and Somalia. Since the main targets of al-Qaeda and Isis are Shia Muslims primarily in Iraq but also in other parts of the word, Iran is the last place which is likely to be their base.

Since Isis’s great victories in 2014 when it captured Mosul and conquered a vast area in in Iraq and Syria, it has been beaten back by a myriad of enemies. Though it is fighting back hard, its eventual defeat has seemed inevitable, but with Trump fuelling the sectarian war between Muslims and non-Muslims which Isis and al-Qaeda always wanted to wage, their prospects look brighter today than they have for a long time past.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Donald Trump, Muslim Ban, Terrorism 

As the international political order fragments, Theresa May flies from seeing Donald Trump, who speaks approvingly of the use of torture, to a meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who is presiding over the reintroduction of torture in Turkey.

The opportunism and hypocrisy of British foreign policy, as the UK flails around for new allies to replace the EU, is better illustrated by the Prime Minister’s Turkish trip than by her ingratiating speech to Republican Party leaders in Philadelphia. She told them that as close allies the US and UK would always win the war of ideas “by proving that open, liberal, democratic societies will always defeat those that are closed, coercive and cruel.”

Yet within 48 hours of adopting this high moral tone, May will be in talks with Erdogan which will be seen as endorsing the destruction of Turkish democracy; he is replacing it with a presidential system as dictatorial and repressive as anything seen in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. Since a failed military coup last July, a sweeping purge has seen at least 137,000 judges, teachers, journalists, civil servants and military personnel arrested or sacked, according to the government’s own figures.

The mass arrests and trials include anybody who protests or dissents from government policy. Two Kurdish leaders, whose party won five million votes in the last election, face over 200 years in prison. A Human Rights Watch report into torture by the Turkish police cites a forensic specialist who says that a suspect related how “the police had forced him to sit on his knees, bent forward so his forehead touched the floor, with his hands tied on his back, for 36 hours. Whenever he tried to move, the police hit him on the head and the back with a belt.” The police then placed him in a cell with several enlisted soldiers who severely beat him. “There was not a part of his body that was not covered in bruises and he suffered from a frozen shoulder from the stress-position,” said the forensic specialist, though the detainee was too frightened to make an official complaint.

Erdogan will hold a referendum in April on the new presidential system in which all power is focussed on himself. But since he has closed down or taken over at least 150 news outlets and jailed 141 journalists, he is likely to win approval of legal changes that will strip almost all power from parliament and the judiciary.

It takes considerable cheek on the part of May to solemnly state just before her visit to Turkey that the US and Britain’s special relationship is rooted in “the promise of freedom, liberty and the rights of man”. An unpublicised motive for the trip is probably the prospect of a substantial Turkish order for Rolls Royce engines for a new Turkish fighter, though so many Turkish air force pilots have been purged that there are reportedly now too few to fly the existing aircraft fleet.

This is not May’s first visit to the political sewers of the Middle East. In December, she went to Bahrain, the tiny toxic sectarian island kingdom where a Sunni monarchy oppresses a Shia majority and 2,600 people out of a population of 65,000 are in jail. She told the kings of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and the rulers of Kuwait, Qatar and United Arab Emirates, all arbitrary monarchs, that “we in the UK are determined to continue to be your partner of choice as you embed international norms and see through the reforms which are so essential for all of your people.”

May is alone in detecting these reforms, but her support for the Gulf States may have encouraged Bahrain to carry out on 15 January its first executions in six years. A firing squad shot three men who alleged that they had been tortured into making false confessions, according to Amnesty International.

British governments commonly defend the combination of pro-democracy rhetoric with practical support for the most vicious autocracies by claiming that they are not the moral arbiters of the world and must put the interests of their own country – often in the shape of a juicy arms contract – first.

Such government cynicism is traditional, but May’s speech to the Republican Party leaders on Thursday suggests that she and her government are underestimating the gravity and divisiveness of the political turmoil in the US. Up to the inauguration of President Trump, it was possible to believe that he was a populist nationalist demagogue, with good political instincts, whose views and actions would be sobered by high office and would in any case be restricted by constitutional and institutional limits on his power.

But the last week has shown this is not happening: Trump is becoming more, not less, paranoid and extreme. His petty and incoherent speech to the CIA, his obsession with the numbers attending his inauguration, his hostility to the press and his confrontation with Mexico suggest a man not only incapable of coping with contradiction, but somewhat demented and not fully rational. He and Erdogan may be similar in their authoritarian hubris – the Turkish leader applauded Trump for “putting in his place” a CNN journalist by refusing to take his question – but there is no evidence that Erdogan is insane.

The growing belief that the leader of the US may be unhinged is becoming a seriously destabilising factor in the US and around the world. This view is well put by the Turkish journalist Asli Aydintasbas who tweeted: “I really can’t handle American going so insane. One thing when we go astray, another when US sounds like it has lost its marbles.”

It is not only the US and Turkey which have their leadership problems. May presents herself as the hard-headed exponent of common sense, a Margaret Thatcher with a human heart, but, when her speeches are carefully read, they are almost as full of wishful thinking and nostalgia for a vanished American and British supremacy as those by Trump.

British politicians have been attracted for the last 75 years by the belief that they could be junior partners of the US. May evidently believes that the election of Trump as President offers an opportunity to ride the American tiger once again, giving the new administration a degree of international respectability while restraining its worst excesses. Of course, this will supposedly be very different from the blank cheque Tony Blair gave George W Bush which landed the UK in the Iraq and Afghan wars; May says there will be no return to the failed policies of “Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries”.

This does not mean much, since she went on to say that the US and UK are not “going to stand idly by when the threat is real and when it is in our own interests to intervene”. But Trump won the election with contradictory pledges: as an isolationist with the slogan “America First” and as a nationalist who would make the US great and respected again. May might imagine that she can manage such an unpredictable tiger, but it is going to be a very dangerous ride.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Britain, Turkey 
Patrick Cockburn
About Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn is the Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. He was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting. His book on his years covering the war in Iraq, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction.


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