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At the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s I used to visit Crossmaglen, a village in South Armagh close to the border with the Irish Republic and notorious as an Irish Republican stronghold.

I would go there with my friend Ben Caraher, a teacher in Belfast who came from the village and was a low profile but important figure in the moderate nationalist SDLP.

Once we were taking a walk along a road in the pretty countryside outside the village, when Ben remarked that one day the natural beauty of the place might attract tourists.

“It is not as dangerous as it looks around here,” he said and then added – in a classic qualification that has lived in my memory for over 40 years – “but you have to be a bit careful about trip wires.”

Powerful roadside bombs, often detonated by various kinds of command wire, were at that time a deadly feature of the South Armagh countryside. They killed many of the 123 British soldiers and 42 Royal Ulster Constabulary police who died there between 1970 and 1997. Described by British home secretary Mervyn Rees as “bandit country”, the area was so dangerous for British forces personnel that they only travelled by helicopter.

Those lethal wires linked to explosives are long gone thanks to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998, but in a broader sense the 310-mile-long border that divides Northern Ireland from the Irish Republic itself constitutes a trip wire which, if touched or interfered with in any way, has the capacity to trigger a political explosion that could end 20 years of peace.

The removal of the physical border with its hundreds of blocked and cratered roads and blown bridges, channelling traffic through a few heavily guarded military checkpoints, was an essential part of the GFA.

Protestants and Catholics, unionists and nationalist communities, which each make up about half of the 1.9 million population of Northern Ireland, could choose to be British or Irish without either being able to dominate the other. A stable balance of power between the two was held in place by an elaborate structure of institutions and laws negotiated by the leading nationalist and unionist parties of the day and buttressed by the British and Irish governments acting in cooperation along with the EU.

This structure has maintained a hard-won peace for over two decades, but it is now crumbling under the impact of Brexit. The referendum of 2016 opened the way for – indeed made it difficult to avoid – the resurrection of the border as an international frontier between an Irish Republic as a member of the EU, with all its rules and regulations, and the UK determined to be outside it.

The radicalism and gravity of what is proposed by the Brexiteers is masked by mumbo-jumbo about “backstops”, “hard borders” and “max fac” (maximum facilitation) borders that will somehow be automatically monitored by technical gadgetry which, though yet to be invented, will apparently be sure to make any human presence unnecessary.

The debate about the “backstop” in the UK ignores the political and demographic realities on the ground in Northern Ireland.

“Brexit is absolutely disastrous for the Good Friday Agreement,” says the author and commentator Brian Feeney, formerly head of history at St Mary’s University College in Belfast. “All this stuff about bar codes and cameras [monitoring the border] is nonsense. They would not last a weekend because people would pull down any cameras or similar arrangements.”

The threat to a hard border is often portrayed as coming from dissident Republican groups that never accepted the GFA.

But these are small, fragmented, under surveillance by MI5 and lack popular nationalist support. More likely are spontaneous protests by farmers and local people on the border determined to prevent an international frontier once again cutting through their neighbourhoods.

Much of the border runs through land populated (on both sides) by a majority of Catholics and nationalists. Any new barrier would probably in practice require the deployment of military force.

After all, the EU is like a club which requires porters at the door to keep non-members out – or ensure that, if they do enter, they abide by the club’s rules and regulations. In the case of Northern Ireland, the guardians at the gate would be customs and other regulatory officials, but these could not be stationed there in the face of local nationalist opposition without police protection; and the police would not come without the deployment of the British Army, which would presumably operate from a network of fortified positions, potentially even blocking many of the 300 roads crossing the border – as they did in the past.

The “backstop” is portrayed as an insurance policy under which all of the UK would remain in the customs union if the UK and EU cannot agree some other way of avoiding a “hard border”. But the latter could not be recreated without reigniting the Northern Ireland conflict, something that neither nationalists nor unionists want to happen, but that might be brought about by the momentum of events, just as it was in Northern Ireland in 1968-69.

Some supporters of Brexit argue naively that the UK government could solve the problem by allowing almost free passage of people and vehicles and relying on cooperation and goodwill to ensure that their passage, and the goods they carry, will be registered electronically.

Feeney is scathing about such plans, saying: “All this stuff about bar codes and cameras is nonsense because only the good guys will obey them. The rest would cross the border from Cavan and Monaghan where there are no bar codes or anything else.”

Cheap but illegal Brazilian beef and American chicken would thus flood out of the UK and into the EU through the unguarded Northern Ireland breach in its defences. The EU could not permit a trade deal with the UK that allowed Northern Ireland to become a smugglers’ paradise.

But the problem of the Irish border is not primarily about trade and commerce, important though these may be.

What is really at issue here – and the “backstop” is unwittingly at the centre of this – is the shifting balance of power between the Catholics and Protestants on the island of Ireland. Brexit may be divisive in England but is even more so in Northern Ireland because it plugs into the 400-year struggle between the two communities, a historic confrontation which over the last hundred years has gained its most visible expression in the island’s partition.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Britain, Northern Ireland 
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The prosecution of a single paratrooper for allegedly murdering two out of the 13 innocent civil rights marchers in Derry in 1972 has provoked inevitable criticism from knee-jerk defenders of the British army.

They stubbornly refuse to admit that the greatest recruiting sergeant for the Provisional IRA during the Troubles were the killings carried out by British army troops on Bloody Sunday. The wounds in the nationalist community in Northern Ireland opened on that day have never closed and, thanks to the meagreness of the judicial response to the massacre, they never will do.

“Massacre” is certainly the right word to use since the 12-year-long Saville Inquiry, published in 2010, concluded that none of the 28 people shot dead or wounded by the soldiers as they took part in a protest march against internment without trial posed any threat to those troops or “was armed with a firearm”.

All this happened 47 years ago, but the delay was the result of a whitewash by the Widgery tribunal followed by decades of stone-walling by the government. The passage of time has not mitigated what happened or diminished its continuing effect on the present.

The same is true of the other “legacy” issues that are becoming more, rather than less, significant as Northern Ireland becomes more polarised and divided in the wake of the Brexit referendum. The problem might have been solved by a general amnesty, which the British government and Sinn Fein would have found to their advantage – but already in calmer times this was too politically sensitive to be implemented because all parties in Northern Ireland would like to see a partial amnesty which would protect their own partisans, but force their enemies to answer for their crimes. In reality, an amnesty for one means an amnesty for all, but this is not politically saleable.

If compromise was difficult before, it is impossible now: as the prosecution of a single soldier for Bloody Sunday was being announced, Theresa May’s half-capsized government was trying to seduce the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to back its Brexit deal. This is the moment when May, if her government is to survive, must give concessions to the DUP and do nothing to antagonise them. If the party realises that it will never be so influential again and, if it wants concessions on the Irish border or the Good Friday Agreement, this is the moment to strike.

The seriousness of the situation is being underestimated. What we are seeing is the two most divisive issues in modern British history coming together in a toxic blend: these are Brexit and the Irish question.

People have searched for past examples of the deep fractures that have developed within British political life since the Brexit referendum. The crises identified as similar include everything from the reformation to the Great Reform Bill and the Suez crisis. But the closest analogy is probably the divisions generated by Irish home rule – which became known as the Irish question – in the years after prime minister Gladstone introduced the First Home Rule Bill in 1886. “The next three decades saw the Irish question polarise British political parties as it had not done before,” wrote Ronan Fanning in his compelling book Fatal Path, British Government and Irish Revolution 1912-1922.

Differences over Ireland generated the same poisonous rancour as the Brexit debate, divisions varying in intensity over 36 years but never entirely cooling down. They only ended, and then only temporarily, when Ireland was partitioned into two states, the largely Catholic Irish Free State (later the Irish Republic) and a Protestant dominated Northern Ireland.

The highly sectarian unionist state did not last, losing its grip on power in the years after 1968. Despite the pronged violence, the Troubles never became a political party issue at Westminster as Home Rule had once been. A reason why Tony Blair and a Labour government were able to negotiate an end to the violence was that the foundations for compromise had been laid by the previous Conservative government under John Major, which had declared itself strictly neutral between unionists and nationalists.

All this has already been going into reverse. British government neutrality, a central feature of the Good Friday Agreement, was discarded in 2017 when Theresa May reached her agreement with the DUP to keep her government in office. Under David Cameron the role of the Irish government in stabilising Northern Ireland was minimised or ignored.

The Irish question and the Brexit question are now coming together in a destructive way. The British government and, above all, the Brexiteers have embraced the DUP as if it was the sole representative of Northern Ireland.

Two leading advocates of Brexit and former secretaries of state for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson and Theresa Villiers, stated during the referendum that the border would not become an issue. “That was either delusional or mendacious,” Lord Patten was quoted as saying in an interview earlier this week.

Paterson and Villiers are not alone: other Conservative politicians have carelessly whipped up feelings in a place which only recently endured the bloodiest guerrilla war in Western Europe since the Second World War.

Randolph Churchill wrote in 1886 that if Gladstone “went for Home Rule, the Orange card would be the one to play. Please God it may turn out to be the ace of trumps and not the two.”

Boris Johnson played a very similar card when he denounced May’s Brexit deal in a speech to an ecstatic DUP annual conference in Belfast at the end of last year. “We would have to leave Northern Ireland behind as an economic semi-colony of the EU and we would be damaging the fabric of the union,” he told them. “Unless we junk this backstop, we will find that Brussels has got us exactly where they want us – a satellite state.”

Bombastic stuff like this may be harmless enough in Woking or Orpington, but in Belfast people have been killing each other because of what they deemed to be threats to the union. Johnson may know or care nothing about the future of the Northern Irish unionists, but he had no hesitation – for his own political advantage – in fanning the fears of people who already see existential threats all around them. The ingredients for the Bloody Sundays of the future are slowly accumulating.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Britain, Northern Ireland 
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The families of the 13 innocent people shot dead by the Parachute Regiment when they took part in a civil rights march against internment without trial in Londonderry in 1972 will learn in the coming week if soldiers, who are alleged to have carried out the killings, will be prosecuted.

There is no doubt about what happened on Bloody Sunday 47 years ago since Lord Saville’s report, 5,000 words long and the fruit of 12 years’ work, was published in 2010. It concluded that none of the casualties shot by the soldiers “were posing any threat of causing death or serious injury”. It said that all soldiers bar one responsible for the casualties “insisted that they had shot at gunmen or bombers, which they had not”. Saville added that “many of these soldiers have knowingly put forward false accounts in order to justify their firing”.

Saville said the report was “absolutely clear” and there were “no ambiguities” about events in the city on that day. David Cameron later told the House of Commons that “what happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.”

But eight years after Cameron had apologised, the Commons heard another story from the Northern Ireland secretary, Karen Bradley, who said this week that the deaths caused by the British security services during the Troubles were “not crimes” but people acting “under orders and under instruction and fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way”.

This was so very different from Saville and Cameron that it was followed by a frantic row-back on the part of Bradley, followed by some some touchy-feely stuff about acknowledging the pain of the families of the dead who might be upset by her words.

Bradley’s original statement and confused apologies were greeted with derision by the media, which recalled her past gaffes, comparing her ineptitude to that of the transport secretary Chris Grayling whose pratfalls and failures – and unsackability because of Brexit – are notorious.

But Bradley’s incompetence and ignorance – her kinder critics say that “she is out of her depth” – are a diversion from a more serious failing on her part, one which has the potential to do real damage to the stability of Northern Ireland. This is simply that what she said and later apologised for reflects all too accurately the real thinking of much of the government, most Conservative MPs and the great majority of their party supporters.

Prominent Brexiteers have never liked the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), while others consider it a Labour project that they would be happy to see wither on the bough. Michael Gove compared the GFA to the appeasement of the Nazis. The former Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson happily retweeted an article saying that the GFA had run its course and he supports a hard border with the Irish Republic. The “Get Back Control” slogan of the pro-Brexit campaign was aimed at the EU, but it can be rapidly adjusted for use against the GFA, which undoubtedly does dilute the formal authority of the British government in Northern Ireland though expanding its real influence.

Bradley’s statement in the Commons could be dismissed as the normal Conservative knee-jerk support for the British Army. But the problem here is that its tone is in keeping with Conservative actions since they won the general election in 2010. Since then they have ignored essential parts of the GFA, such as the central role of the nationalist population in the north and, until recently, of the Irish government. Cameron may have apologised for Bloody Sunday but he sent a right winger like Paterson to Belfast as secretary of state.

Bit by bit the preconditions for peace have been chipped away. A crucial element was the declaration by the British government under John Major in 1993 that it was neutral between unionists and nationalists. This enabled it to mediate successfully between the two communities. It also enabled it to act in concert with the Irish government if the two communities could not agree.

This neutrality was carelessly abandoned long before Theresa May finally knocked it on the head when she became dependent on the DUP for her parliamentary majority in 2017. DUP MPs are now treated as if they were the sole representatives of Northern Ireland, though its voters chose decisively by 56 to 44 per cent to stay in the EU. Moreover, demographers say that Catholics and nationalists now each make up half the population of the north and will be in the majority in two years’ time.

Contrary to criticism, Bradley’s repeated gaffes, automatic support for the British Army and open ignorance of the Northern Irish political terrain are nothing out of the ordinary for politicians holding her job. Perhaps it is unfair to blame this on the Conservatives alone: the British political class has a long tradition of ignoring Ireland until it blows up in their faces.

The fact that Bradley’s ill-considered remarks were made only days before there is to be a decision by the Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service about the prosecution of soldiers involved in Bloody Sunday is also par for the course.

A central reason why the Troubles went on for so long was that successive British governments from 1968-69 failed to realise the extent to which internment without trial, Bloody Sunday, the hunger strikes, the Birmingham Six and similar injustices delegitimised the British state in the eyes of the nationalist community. A myth was maintained that the IRA has only two or three per cent support in the nationalist community and that it was always on the verge of total defeat. But small guerrilla groups depend more on tolerance or support than they do on military capacity and this popular acceptance was underestimated by the British and Irish governments. Both were astonished when Sinn Fein started winning elections under their own name in the wake of the hunger strikes.

These grievances in Northern Ireland are often presented as “legacy” issues which are only kept alive by the historically obsessed Irish who ought to let the dead bury their dead and get on with their lives.

But this is exactly what Brexit – along with a prolonged failure by the British government to keep the GFA in good working order – is preventing people in Northern Ireland from doing. It is absurd for people in Britain to criticise anybody in Northern Ireland for undue interest in the past when Brexit is doing just that by resurrecting a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, the elimination of which was central to the peace agreement. If Britain goes backward into the past, there is no reason why the Irish should not do the same thing.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Britain, Northern Ireland 
A return to violence is not a worst-case scenario but an inevitability if a hard border returns, as it will if there is...
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I was sitting in a cafe on the Falls Road in heavily nationalist West Belfast when a local radio reporter came in looking for residents to interview about the effect of Brexit on Northern Ireland. She said that the impact was already massive, adding: “Stupid, stupid English for getting us into this pickle. We were doing nicely and then they surpassed themselves [in stupidity].”

It does not take long talking to people in Northern Ireland to understand that almost everything said by politicians and commentators in London about the “backstop” is based on a dangerous degree of ignorance and wishful thinking about the real political situation on the ground here. Given how central this issue is to the future of the UK, it is extraordinary how it is debated with only minimal knowledge of the real forces involved.

The most important of these risks can be swiftly spelled out. Focus is often placed on the sheer difficulty of policing the 310-mile border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland because there are at least 300 major and minor crossing points. But the real problem is not geographic or military but political and demographic because almost all the border runs through country where Catholics greatly outnumber Protestants. The Catholics will not accept, and are in a position to prevent, a hard border unless it is defended permanently by several thousand British troops in fortified positions.

The threat to peace is often seen as coming from dissident Republicans, a small and fragmented band with little support, who might shoot a policeman or a customs’ official. But this is not the greatest danger, or at least not yet, because it is much more likely that spontaneous but sustained protests would prevent any attempt to recreate an international frontier between Northern Ireland and the Republic that wasn’t backed by overwhelming armed force.

It is unrealistic to the point of absurdity to imagine that technical means on the border could substitute for customs personnel because cameras and other devices would be immediately destroyed by local people. A new border would have to be manned by customs officials, but these would not go there unless they were protected by police and the police could not operate without British Army protection. Protesters would be killed or injured and we would spiral back into violence.

We are not looking at a worst-case scenario but an inevitability if a hard border returns as it will, if there is a full Brexit. The EU could never agree to a deal – and would be signing its own death warrant if it did – in which the customs union and the single market have a large unguarded hole in their tariff and regulatory walls.

An essential point to grasp is that the British government does not physically control the territory, mostly populated by nationalists, through which the border runs. It could only reassert that control by force which would mean a return to the situation during the Troubles, between 1968 and 1998, when many of the 270 public roads crossing the border were blocked by obstacles or cratered with explosives by the British Army. Even then British soldiers could only move through places like South Armagh using helicopters.

The focus for the security forces in Northern Ireland is on dissident Republican groups that never accepted the Good Friday Agreement. These have failed to gain traction inside the Roman Catholic/nationalist community which has no desire to go back to war and give up the very real advantages that it has drawn from the long peace.

But that peace could slip away without anybody wanting it to go because Brexit, as conceived by the European Research Group and as delineated by Theresa May’s red lines, is a torpedo aimed directly at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement. This meant that those who saw themselves as Irish (essentially the Catholics) and those who saw themselves as British (the Protestants) could live peacefully in the same place. Moreover, the agreement established and institutionalised a complicated balance of power between the two communities in which the Irish government and the EU played a central role.

Yet ever since the general election of 2017, when May became dependent on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), it is the DUP – the party of Ian Paisley – that has been treated by politicians and media in Britain as if they were the sole representatives of the 1.9 million people living in Northern Ireland. Its MPs are seldom asked by interviewers to justify their support for the UK leaving the EU when Northern Ireland voted for Remain in the referendum by 56 per cent to 44 per cent.

In ignoring the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, the British government is committing the same costly mistake it committed in the 50 years before 1968 which led to the fiercest guerrilla conflict in western Europe since the Second World War. The nationalist community today has a lot more to lose than it did half a century ago. It is no longer subject to sectarian discrimination in the way it used to be, as well as being highly educated and economically dynamic, but this does not mean that it can be taken for granted.

It may also be that the majority of the Northern Ireland population in two years’ time, when the Brexit transition period might be coming to an end, will no longer be Protestant and unionist but Catholic and nationalist. In the last census in 2011 Protestants were 48 per cent of the population and Catholics 45 per cent. The Protestants are not only a declining proportion of the population, but an increasingly ageing one, figures from 2016 showing that Catholics are 44 per cent of the working population and Protestants 44 per cent. Significantly, Catholics make up 51 per cent of school children in Northern Ireland and Protestants only 37 per cent.

The Protestants are a community on the retreat, but many have argued that this does not make much political difference because it is a mistake to imagine that all Catholics wanted a united Ireland. Many felt that they were better off where they were with a free NHS and an annual UK subsidy of £11bn.

But Brexit has changed this calculation. With Ireland and the UK members of the EU, religious and national loyalties were blurred. Many Protestants, particularly middle class ones, voted Remain in the referendum, but the vote was still essentially along sectarian lines. “You would not find many nationalists post-Brexit who would not vote for a united Ireland in a new border poll whatever they thought before,” said one commentator, though the likelihood is that if there were to be such a poll there would still be a slim majority favouring the union with Great Britain.

If May’s deal with the EU is finally agreed by the House of Commons then the issue of a hard border will be postponed. Any return to it would put Northern Ireland back on the road to crisis and violence. Stupid, stupid, stupid English.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Britain, Northern Ireland 
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The decision of home secretary Sajid Javid to strip former Isis mother Shamima Begum of her British citizenship is evidently motivated by his wish to be seen – along with Theresa May – as tough and proactive amid the chaos and uncertainties of Brexit. The decision is probably illegal, given that Begum does not have a Bangladesh passport, but by the time the case works its way through the courts, the gesture will have served its turn.

The frenzy over the Begum story is partly impelled by the media’s desperation to report something other than Brexit. But taking away Begum’s right to a British passport is only the latest in a series of bizarre gestures by ministers designed to give the impression of a government in control at home and abroad, though the weirdness of its actions suggests one that is rattled and does not know where it is going.

Sending the giant aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to disputed waters off China has a fine “Britain rules the waves” feel to it. Defence minister Gavin Williamson says it is a display of “hard power” and “lethality”. Except we do not rule the waves anywhere much and certainly not in the South China Sea, and to pretend otherwise gives a very large hostage to fortune.

There is even an ominous echo here, which probably passed Williamson by, of a spectacularly ill-judged bit of gesture strategy. Churchill sent the warships Prince of Wales and Repulse to the far east to serve as a “veiled threat” to deter Japanese aggression. Both vessels were promptly sunk by Japanese aircraft and their fate should have served as a warning to any power that bluffs without thinking through what will happen if that bluff is called.

The Chinese were never likely to react militarily to vague threats, but they did cancel trade talks with chancellor Philip Hammond. It was a curious moment to irritate a country with the world’s second largest economy just weeks before a post-Brexit Britain will be looking for new markets.

A few days later, Japan got a taste of Britain’s new ill-timed steeliness with foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt and international trade secretary Liam Fox causing offence in Tokyo by writing a letter telling the Japanese that “time is of the essence” when it comes to a new Anglo-Japanese trade deal and that both sides should show flexibility. The Japanese reportedly came close to stopping the trade talks in which they are visibly aware of having a stronger hand in dealing with Britain than when it was an EU member.

Anger towards Britain in Beijing and Tokyo will pass away if there are no more provocations, but a peculiar precedent is being set. Britain is already a weaker power because of Brexit and will have to learn the diplomatic language that goes with its new status as a lesser power.

The problem in dealing with China and Japan is similar to that in negotiating with the EU: the Brexiteer programme, in so far as they had one, supposed that the EU needed Britain more than Britain needs the EU, though everything that has happened since 2016 shows the opposite to be case.

The negative impact of dealing with the rest of the world through belligerent but empty gestures is so obvious that it can only be intended to befuddle a domestic audience. “Foreign policy ends at the water’s edge” is a cynical American political saying which means that foreign policy is really always about domestic politics.

Yet even this does not quite explain the sheer ineptitude of the government’s attempts to project strength in all directions. The prime example of this was the £14m contract with Seaborne Freight to provide ships to carry cargo between Ramsgate and Ostend in the event of a no-deal Brexit, despite the fact that the company had no ships or experience of operating them. The contract has now been cancelled after an Irish company backing it pulled out. Nevertheless, the hiring of the ghost ferry ships was extraordinary, even by the horrendous track record of transport secretary Chris Grayling.

The exceptional level of incompetence at the top of government catches one by surprise because every cabinet in history has been accused by opponents of unexampled stupidity. Deriding such failings has been so much the province of pub bores that sensible people switch off when they hear it. But Theresa May’s cabinet seems to surpass all its predecessors in the extent of the gap between what is said and what is done.

This may be explained by the chasm between what Brexit was supposed to deliver and what it will be, a gap that can only be bridged by wishful thinking or outright lies.

The personality of Theresa May must have a lot to do with this. I first noticed the disconnect between her words and deeds when, as Home Secretary, she was making sympathetic and intelligent speeches about mental illness. She went on doing so after she moved to Downing Street, but the number of hospital beds for those suffering from severe psychosis kept on shrinking and patients were increasingly transferred to hospitals hundreds of miles from their families who were their main support.

There were 5,800 deaths by suicide in the UK in the last year for which figures are available, making it the leading form of death for young people between 18 and 34. And how did May respond to these grim figures? Unsurprisingly, for those who had come to know her style, she made the useless gestures by appointing a minister for suicide prevention.

Some have interpreted the current crisis as a failure of the British political class as a whole. I am wary of this argument because it spreads the blame for disastrous policies too widely, which is highly convenient for the much smaller group who are really responsible. I remember a Japanese prime minister getting good marks for repentance in 2012 for saying the whole Japanese establishment was responsible for the Fukushima disaster, his audience failing to note that this let individuals off the hook apart from sharing in the general guilt.

The problem is perhaps less with pro-Brexit politicians than with the press that has sold a fantasy picture of Britain to half the population who are convinced that their country is far more important than it is. Travelling around Britain in the last few weeks, I have been struck by the conviction of Leave voters that the Germans will always want to sell their cars here and the French will want to sell their cheese to them whatever happens. People are deaf to the idea that the balance of power is very much against them.

Fortunately, it turns out that the real threat to Britain is Shamima Begum and her infant baby and that, at least, the government knows how to deal with.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Britain, ISIS 
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The one million people living in the south Wales valleys, a place that was once the engine room of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, are poorer today than the population of parts of Bulgaria, Romania and Poland.

Unsurprisingly, they have few good things to say about anybody in authority – the EU in Brussels, the British government in London, the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff – who have presided over their decline.

The EU may not be the only one to blame for the current state of the region, says Graham Simmonds, an independent local councillor from the Blackwood district of Caerphilly, but “it was the EU against which people decided to push back.”

An electrician in the giant steel plant in Ebbw Vale which closed 17 years ago, he voted Leave as did the majority in the Valleys – usually spelled with a capital V – in the 2016 referendum believing that Brussels, despite its much-publicised largesse, had done nothing effective to regenerate the region, which is home to a third of the Welsh population.

Among those who voted Leave in the referendum, there remains a sense of anger over the area’s deprivation, bitterness at their exclusion from power, and now too a conviction that some fresh act of treachery is being prepared to keep the UK inside the EU.

“It’s the first referendum in British history that the public hasn’t done what the establishment wanted them to do,” says Simmonds. He suspects that Theresa May’s deal with the EU, so far rejected by the House of Commons, along with the possibility of a second referendum, are manoeuvres by the establishment to sabotage the Brexit vote.

“I think we are looking at an establishment coup and they are doing everything they can to subvert the will of the people,” he says.

Such suspicions are widely shared in the Valleys. “If the powers-that-be thought that they could hoodwink the country and get away with it, they would,” says Norman Hopkins, who advises housing tenants in Caerphilly. “When I voted Leave, I genuinely thought they would rig the ballot against us if we looked like winning.”

Underlying this cynicism, amounting at times to paranoia, is a conviction that the interests of ordinary voters will always be ignored. The EU is seen as a remote institution which is the project of a distant political class whose own wellbeing it serves.

“We should have been in Europe properly and not in a way that suited the establishment and the south east of England,” says Simmonds. “We may not be as well educated, we may not be as well dressed as them but we are members of the same country.”

What has happened in the Welsh Valleys is similar to what has happened in other old industrial heartlands in Britain, except that in Wales the impact has been more devastating because the region was already deprived. EU figures show the region is poorer than anywhere in Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia.

In the aftermath of the referendum there was some patronising debate in parts of the metropolitan media about why Wales, particularly the Valleys, should have decisively voted to leave the EU when Brussels had spent at least £5 billion in the Principality since 2000 and currently subsidises it by about £680 million a year.

But there should be no mystery about the success of the Leave campaign in Wales and similarly deprived areas such Cornwall and Lincolnshire: whatever the EU did or did not do in these places, it was not enough to produce a noticeable improvement in peoples’ lives.

Above all, none of those involved in helping the people of the Valleys – be they Welsh, British or European – were able to satisfy their two most important needs: well-paid, secure jobs; and better quality education.

Naturally, the two are interlinked because without an educated work force the Valleys will be unable to attract modern enterprises or – and this may be more realistic – they will be unable to equip the younger generation with the skills they need to find good jobs elsewhere.

Ian Thomas, a psychiatric nurse for the last 29 years, who also lives in Blackwood, has a more nuanced though still negative view of the EU. Along with everybody else interviewed for this article, he believes that the outcome of the referendum “was a way of kicking back” against the status quo and a protest against many grievances that have nothing to do with the EU.

He says that he was “a reluctant Leaver” but, describing himself as somebody on the political far left, he sees the EU as the embodiment of neo-liberal economics that has swept away the old industries in the Valleys and put nothing in their place.

Nonetheless, today he has doubts about how he would vote if there were to be a second referendum. “I would be tempted to vote Remain, having seen the mess that has unfolded,” he says.

He thinks that the debate about membership of the EU that should have taken place in 2016 is only happening now; three years ago people did not really know what they were voting for.

Part of him feels that Britain should not be bullied into holding a second vote, as happened in Ireland in 2008 and Denmark in 1992. But he says he also feels that leaving the EU is turning out to mean “far too much disruption.” He believes the process has fuelled racism and made it difficult for his hospital in the Vale of Glamorgan to recruit essential foreign nurses, who are deterred by uncertainty over their future status.

 
• Category: Economics, Ideology • Tags: Brexit, Britain, EU, Poverty 
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A tidal wave of hypocrisy has greeted the discovery of the Bethnal Green schoolgirl and Isis bride Shamima Begum in a refugee camp in eastern Syria. Grandstanding politicians like Sajid Javid, the home secretary, say they will do everything to stop her coming back to the UK and might seek to put her on trial as a terrorist if she did return.

It is a symptom of the parochialism of British political life that debate rages over the fate of Begum and her possible complicity in Isis crimes. But there is scarcely a word of well-informed discussion about the role of the British and other western governments in creating the circumstances in which Isis was able to create a powerful de facto state in the heart of the Middle East.

The role of foreign fighters in Isis was important but tends to be exaggerated because of understandable public fascination with people who would leave London or Paris to go to fight for a murderous and bizarre jihadi cult in Syria and Iraq.

I was once in touch with a former Isis fighter, himself a Syrian, who had talked to foreign volunteers of whom he was highly critical, saying that they were ill-informed about Islam and local customs. He thought that many had come to Syria because of unhappy home lives or simple boredom and were not much use for anything except propaganda – showing that Isis was a global movement – or as suicide bombers.

A reason why many of the foreigners were used in the latter role was they lacked military training. Another was that Isis is a deeply paranoid movement that sees spies and traitors at every turn and was convinced that a proportion of the volunteers from abroad were in fact foreign agents so it was prudent to have them blow themselves up as soon as possible.

It is difficult to have much sympathy for these foreign jihadis and Isis sympathisers who found Syria very different from what they expected. But they were not alone in their misunderstanding of the nature of the war and its likely outcome.

The rise of Isis surprised many, but it was neither unpredictable nor unpreventable and many in the region foresaw what dire things would come years before Isis fighters captured Mosul in 2014 and established the caliphate.

I was spending much time in Baghdad after 2011 and I recall Iraqi political leaders repeatedly telling me that al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) would resurrect itself unless the civil war in Syria was swiftly brought to an end. They said the same to western diplomats and were told they were exaggerating.

But those Iraqi politicians were dead right as the western powers, backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, supported the Sunni Arab insurrection in Syria. The initial aim of western countries like Britain in 2011 and 2012 was to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, and, when this turned out to be more difficult than originally supposed, to weaken him – though not to the extent that his jihadi opponents would take over.

Iraqi politicians were not alone in foreseeing the calamity that was in the making. The Pentagon’s Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) drew up a draft report in August 2012 which is an astonishingly accurate resume of what was happening in Syria and the probability that it would spread to Iraq.

“There was a regression of AQI in the western provinces of Iraq during the years of 2009 and 2010,” says the report which is written in a rather contorted bureaucratic style. “However, after the rise of the insurgency in Syria, the religious and tribal powers [in Iraq] began to sympathise with the sectarian uprising.”

The author of the report rightly interpreted the struggle in Syria and Iraq as one which was essentially a conflict between Sunni and Shia. He says: “If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria.” Moreover, he or she foresaw “the ideal atmosphere for AQI to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi, and will provide a renewed momentum under the presumption of unifying the jihad among Sunni Iraq and Syria (sic)”. The DIA report goes on to suggest that the outcome of this turmoil might be the declaration of “an Islamic State” in Syria and Iraq.

The purpose of quoting the DIA report at length is to show that western governments were in a position to know what the real situation in 2012 and do something to prevent such a disaster by making greater efforts to end the war.

Unfortunately, when the declassified report was published it met the fate of many such revelations, which is to fuel conspiracy theories inculpating the US government. The fact that one or more intelligence officers knew what was happening does not mean that this knowledge was shared by the White House and the Pentagon.

It is easy enough to say that Begum and her fellow schoolchildren should have had some idea of what Islamic State was all about when they set off for Syria in 2015. If they did not know when they departed, then they should have learned about its atrocities soon after their arrival.

 

No doubt they should have, but so too should the British and other western governments when they played sorcerer’s apprentice in Syria and ended up failing to get rid of Assad but creating the sort of chaos in which Isis could flourish.

There is much anxiety now in Europe and elsewhere about former Isis fighters and volunteers heading back to their homelands. But the very same governments showed remarkably little concern five years ago about tens of thousands of foreigners travelling in the other direction to join the war in Syria. They poured unimpeded across the Turkish border without the rest of the world expressing much concern.

I have always been struck by the contrast between outrage over Tony Blair leading Britain into the war in Iraq in 2003 and the lack of interest in British government culpability in becoming engaged in Afghanistan and later in Libya and Syria. The British role in these three conflicts was more limited than in Iraq but it was not insignificant. All of them turned out to be disasters for the inhabitants of these countries and whatever the British government thought it was doing certainly ended in failure, as has been explained in copious detail in various reports and inquiries. What comes across in all of them is that successive British governments had little more idea of what they were doing than Begum and her teenage friends on the road to Syria.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Britain, ISIS, Shias and Sunnis, Syria 
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President Trump says that in the coming week the US and its allies will announce that they have captured all of the land previously controlled by Isis. He claims that US-led forces “have liberated virtually all of the territory previously held by Isis in Syria and Iraq … we will have 100 per cent of the caliphate.“

The prediction has sparked a sterile and misleading debate about whether or not Isis is finally defeated, something which will remain unproven since the movement is unlikely to run up a white flag and sign terms of surrender. The discussion has – like all debates about foreign policy in the US – very little to do with the real situation on the ground in Syria and Iraq and everything to do with the forces at play in Washington politics.

In discussing the demise or survival of Isis, pundits make the same glaring omission. They ignore the fact that by far the largest stronghold in Syria held by an al-Qaeda type group is not the few shattered villages for which Isis has been battling in the east of the country. Much more important is the jihadi enclave in and around Idlib province in north-west Syria which is held by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Liberation of Levant Organisation), a powerful breakaway faction from Isis which founded the group under the name of Jabhat al-Nusra in 2011 and with whom it shares the same fanatical beliefs and military tactics. Its leaders wear suicide vests studded with metal balls just like their Isis equivalents.

It is not that the US has any doubts about what HTS is – since last year, a foreign terrorist organisation despite a name change. Nathan A Sales, the State Department’s coordinator of counterterrorism, noted that “today’s designation serves notice that the United States is not fooled by this al-Qaeda affiliate’s attempt to rebrand itself.”

Over the past year HTS has expanded its control to almost all of the Idlib enclave, which the UN estimates to have a population of three million, half of whom are refugees, and can put at least 50,000 fighters into the field. The zone is surrounded on three sides by the Syrian Army backed by the Russians and on the fourth side it shares a common border with Turkey whose local proxies it has crushed. Fighting between Assad government forces and the armed opposition in Idlib has largely died away under the terms of a shaky ceasefire agreed and enforced by Moscow and Ankara.

Blindness in the west to this embattled al-Qaeda-run mini-state, which has a population the same size as Wales and a fighting force not much smaller than the British army, is explained by the fact that such an admission would reveal that the US and its allies are weak players in Syria and there is more than one jihadi group in the country. A recurrent and disastrous theme of western involvement in the war in Syria is for governments and media to focus only on part of the multilayered crisis in which they are engaged.

Pretending that Isis is anything close to the potent threat it used to be is part of the struggle between Trump and the foreign policy and security establishment in Washington. They represent what President Obama derided as “the Washington playbook” which he denounced as always looking to military solutions and always overplaying its hand in fighting wars that never end.

This skewed vision of the Syrian conflict – with its over-emphasis on whether or not the death certificate of the caliphate should be formally signed – diverts attention from a more important question. In the short term, it is true that can Isis carry out guerrilla and terrorist attacks, but for all practical purposes Trump is right in saying that it has been decisively defeated. The caliphate that once ruled a de facto state the size of Great Britain with a population of eight million is gone.

A more important question to ask now is how far the whole al-Qaeda idea and mode of operating have become obsolete and discredited. Not so long ago, this militarised cult of extreme fanaticism with core beliefs derived from the Wahhabi version of Islam was extraordinarily successful. Suicide bombing on an industrial scale enabled it to turn untrained but committed believers into a devastating military weapon.

Suicide attacks as an expression of Islamic faith produced 9/11, which was the most successful terrorist attack in history: the overwhelming impact of the destruction of the Twin Towers provoked the US to jump into a trap of its own making by launching wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda, which had scarcely existed as an international organisation before 9/11, instantly took advantage of this overreaction. The US and British invasion of Iraq in 2003 enabled the local al-Qaeda franchise to became the core of the armed resistance of the Sunni Arabs against their enemies at home and abroad.

Can these conditions be recreated in Idlib or in the deserts of western Iraq, eastern Syria or wherever else al-Qaeda type groups have their hideouts from Pakistan to Nigeria and Chechnya to Somalia? A ferociously disciplined group with experienced military leaders will always have an influence out of proportion to its size in chaotic war-time conditions.

But al-Qaeda and its clones should not be allowed to remain a bugbear, a cause of obsessive fear because of its past successes in staging 9/11, dominating the armed opposition in Iraq in 2004-09, and unexpectedly resurrecting itself in Syria and Iraq after 2011.

It once was able to offer miraculous victories to its followers but for the past few years it has been able to offer them nothing but defeat and martyrdom for a cause that has been failing demonstrably.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Donald Trump, ISIS 
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How should Brexit be seen against the broad backdrop of British history? Analogies multiply, with the crudest coming from prominent Brexiteer MP Mark Francois who denounced the head of Airbus for writing a letter stressing the negative economic impact for Britain of leaving the EU.

Francois claimed that this was yet one more example of teutonic arrogance, adding pugnaciously, “My father, Reginald Francois, was a D-Day veteran. He never submitted to bullying by any German. Neither will his son.” With this, he tore up the letter in front of the television cameras.

The puerile bombast that accompanied this performance attracted great publicity, as no doubt Francois intended, and derisive commentary was abundant. But Francois has scarcely been alone in making ludicrously exaggerated analogies between Britain leaving the EU and other great crises in British history.

Jacob Rees-Mogg made a classier but equally absurd comparison between Theresa May’s Brexit deal and the Treaty of Le Goulet agreed between King John and Philip II of France in 1200 at time when John was vainly trying to hold on to his lands across the Channel.

Such xenophobic or far-fetched analogies tend to bring into disrepute anybody else trying to see Brexit in the context of British history. Yet there are comparisons to be made with our recent and distant past which illuminate the political terrain in which the battle over relations between Britain and the EU is being fought.

The trouble is, knowledge of events only recently past is depressingly scanty. People may very reasonably say that they have never heard of the Treaty of Le Goulet and are dubious about its relevance. Much more dangerous is the fact that so many Conservative MPs, going by what they say, have little idea what was in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 or why it ended a savage guerrilla war in which some 3,000 people were killed.

The conflict known as the Troubles was only the latest episode in the 400-year-old confrontation between the Catholic and Protestant communities in Ulster. Bringing it to an end was the greatest achievement of Tony Blair’s years in office. Yet today Theresa May is cavalierly putting this hard-won peace in jeopardy because she needs the votes of the DUP, seen by Catholics as a sectarian Protestant party, to maintain her parliamentary majority.

The British government has thoughtlessly abandoned the neutrality between nationalists and unionists which was declared by John Major’s government in 1993 and was a necessary precondition for peace talks.

Watching MPs being questioned about the backstop, it soon becomes clear that few of them have much idea of its significance.

The backstop is treated as if it was solely about border checks, or the absence of them, and about the stance of the EU, Irish and British governments on the issue. Conservative MPs and ministers state defiantly that Northern Ireland cannot be treated differently from the rest of the UK, as if the Good Friday Agreement and everything else to do with the country since 1920 has not treated it as a different political entity.

We have been here before. The crisis in British history which perhaps has the most in common with the turmoil over Brexit is that over the home rule, which convulsed British politics repeatedly between 1880 and 1922. The Conservative Party played the “Orange Card” successfully in order to win elections and thereby ensured that, when the Irish gained effective independence, it was through violence.

The English have the reputation abroad of being obsessed with their own history, but I doubt if this is really the case. Put another way, they consider history as a determining force to be something that happens to other people. The explanation for this is that the history of the British state over the last four centuries has been one of largely undiluted success, in sharp contrast to the rest of Europe, which looks back at a history of revolutions, wars and occupations.

The Suez crisis in 1956 is often cited as having similarities with Brexit, but it was a setback far more limited in scope than its subsequent reputation. The British and French miscalculated the strength of Egyptian nationalism and of US objections to their venture, but they suffered no military defeat and lost little they had not lost before. The British drew the lesson that they must become even closer allies of the US and the French, and that they needed to enhance their strength through deepening their engagement with Germany and the EEC.

The idea that the British have been blinded to their real interests by nostalgia for lost empire is a myth. If it had been true, then they would not have retreated from empire so easily (not so easy, of course, for people in India, Kenya, Cyprus and Malaya). Contrast this with France,which battled to keep Indo-China and then Algeria, only to suffer defeat and humiliation.

The British legacy from the 19th and 20th centuries is less a crippling desire to revisit imperial glories than an overwhelming sense of self-confidence which has only recently transformed into mindless hubris. The political class lost the ability to calculate the political odds for and against its projects. One could see this in the failures in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. One can see this again in the bafflement of the Theresa May government, the Brexiteers, and much of the public, as they struggle to understand why they failed to get their way in negotiations in Brussels, obvious though it was from the beginning that the 27 remaining members of the EU held the trump cards.

Stability within the UK and the skilful creation of alliances abroad were the key to past British successes while the Royal Navy prevented temporary reverses turning into permanent defeats. British power sprang from victory over France – as Britain’s historic European rival – in the Napoleonic wars and against Germany in the First and Second World Wars.

There has not really been a peacetime British crisis that matches up to Brexit since the 17th century and those most often mentioned, such the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 and the Great Reform Bill of 1832, do not measure up. The English Civil War between 1642 and 1651 had complex ingredients that are not yet replicated by Brexit (despite claims by those who are privately persuaded their cause would benefit from saying that we are all on the road to armageddon).

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Britain 
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It is always pleasing for authors to find out that they have readers in far flung places. It was therefore surprising but gratifying to see a picture of a battered copy of a French translation of a book I wrote called The Jihadis Return abandoned by Isis fighters, along with suicide vests and homemade explosive devices, as they retreat from their last enclaves in Deir ez-Zor province in eastern Syria.

The book was written in 2014 when Isis was at the height of its success after capturing Mosul, and was sweeping through western Iraq and eastern Syria. I described the Isis victories and tried to explain how the movement had apparently emerged from nowhere to shock the world by establishing the Islamic State, an entity which at its height ruled 8 million people and stretched from the the outskirts of Baghdad to the Mediterranean.

A picture of the book, Le Retour des Djihadistes, was tweeted by Quentin Sommerville, the intrepid BBC Middle East correspondent, who is travelling through the deserts of Deir ez-Zor and reporting what may be the last pitched battles fought by Isis. The book had presumably belonged a French-speaking Isis fighter: many Isis volunteers came from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, as well as from France itself, and may now be trapped in this corner of Syria.

But is this truly the last round for Isis? The Islamic State no longer controls territory, but will it live on as an ideology inspiring a core of fanatical believers who will seek to rise again? They know that the US wrongly declared that al-Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor of Isis, was dead and buried in 2007-08. Isis hopes to repeat its previous resurrection by waiting for its many enemies to relax their pressure and to fall out among themselves.

The book found in Deir ez-Zor tried to explain how Isis had escaped decisive defeat last time around, so an Isis fighter might have been interested in reading it in the hope of finding out how his movement might survive today. I wrote that al-Qaeda in Iraq was never quite as dead as people imagined: I had Iraqi business friends who were forced to pay it protection money in Mosul even when it was at the nadir of its fortunes. It was notorious that the Iraqi army of the day was a corrupt money-making racket with “ghost” battalions,from which money for non-existent soldiers, their fuel and supplies was siphoned off by crooked officers. I thought that Iraqi politicians were exaggerating when they told me that the army was never going to fight but they turned out to be right.

The most important factor reopening the door to Isis was the civil war in Syria after 2011, where the armed opposition was rapidly taken over by jihadis directed by battle-hardened commanders sent by al-Qaeda in Iraq. Well-organised fanatics willing to die for a cause and experienced in warfare will always dominate their own side when serious fighting gets under way. I portrayed Isis as an Islamic version of the Khmer Rouge and, like their Cambodian counterparts, they systematically committed atrocities to terrify and demoralise their opponents.

Could all this happen again, or are we looking at the final chapter of the Isis nightmare as the group is cornered in Syria and driven into the desert wastes of Iraq? Perhaps they will survive in small numbers, depending what resources in men and materials they preserve in their hideouts. Occupying armies almost invariably alienate local populations and a resurgent Isis might be able to exploit this. Their reputation for savagery was such that they can give the impression that they are still in business by carrying out a few limited attacks.

I was in Baghdad last year when there were some gruesome killings and kidnappings on the main road north to Kirkuk. These were pinpricks compared to the massacres of 2014, but they were enough to produce extreme nervousness in the capital, where people spoke with real fear of Isis being reborn.

I do not believe that this is going to happen because Isis no longer has the advantage of surprise as it did in the past. The surprise in 2014 was greater than it should have been because Isis had been winning local battles and taking territory for some time. I had made Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Isis leader, the Independent Middle East man of the year for 2013. But a consequence of the unexpected emergence of Isis five years ago is that nobody is ever again going to underestimate them. The Iraqi army of today is very different from the old and recaptured Mosul after overcoming ferocious Isis resistance.

Isis could and probably will revert to guerrilla warfare and high-profile terror attacks to show that it is still an enemy to be feared. The pictures of the suicide vests studded with ball bearings from Deir ez-Zor show that suicide bombing is still an essential part of their tactics. But Isis no longer has the resources of the well-organised Islamic State to recruit, train and finance suicide bombers on the industrial scale of the past.

An invasion of northeast Syria by Turkey, which denounces the Kurdish YPG soldiers fighting Isis with American support as terrorists, could relieve the pressure on the jihadis. Another danger is that former Isis and al-Qaeda fighters will be absorbed into the Arab militia units allied to Turkey, which have already carried out ethnic cleansing of Kurds and Yazidis from the Kurdish majority Syrian province of Afrin that Turkish-led forces captured last year.

Governments have by-and-large learned about the threat posed by Isis and are not going to allow it to rise again. But, in another important sense, the US, UK and allied governments have learned nothing from their disastrous actions in the Middle East and North Africa over the past 20 years which opened the door to Isis. During this period, they repeatedly denounced dictatorial but powerful national leaders – Saddam Hussein, Muammar Al Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad – as illegitimate and instead supported shadowy opposition figures with whom they were friendly as the true leaders of their countries.

The result was invariably disastrous: in July 2011, to take but one example, the British government announced that it was recognising the rebel council in Libya as the sole governmental authority there. But the rebels turned out to have little real power other than that provided by Nato, making it inevitable that a post-Gaddafi Libya would collapse into criminalised anarchy.

Fast forward to Venezuela this week when the US, along with the UK, Canada and a bevy of South American states, declared that the opposition leader Juan Guaido is the country’s legitimate ruler, replacing President Maduro.

The UK foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said the hitherto little known Guaido was the right person to take the country forward, though there is no obvious reason to think so. On the contrary, we are seeing the same sort of crude imperial overreach producing failed states and chaos that brought calamity to Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. The terrible lesson of the rise and fall of Isis has taught leaders in Washington and London very little.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, ISIS, Syria, Venezuela 
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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