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On the afternoon of 11 November 1918, my father Claud Cockburn, then aged 14, covertly threw the keys of the main gate of his school out of an upstairs window to a soldier waiting below. His purpose was to allow the soldiers being trained locally to break into Berkhamsted School in Hertfordshire and thrash it in retaliation for the refusal of the headmaster, Charles Greene, to call a school holiday to celebrate the armistice, which had just been declared. Many pupils, including Claud, objected to this decision, as did the soldiers, angry at what they saw as an unpatriotic failure to celebrate victory adequately after four years of war.

But the soldiers and schoolboys were both mistaken about the headmaster’s motives: Charles Greene, whose third son was the novelist Graham Greene, supported the war, but he was acutely aware of its terrible cost, not least to former Berkhamsted pupils, of whom no less than 230 had been killed, their names commemorated by plaques outside the school chapel, while a further 1,145 were still in the armed forces as the war ended. “Most of the sixth form were wiped out year after year,” Claud recalled 60 years later. “I know when I was in the sixth form, I think that only 10 per cent of the previous year were still alive.” Greene, a liberally minded man with great force of character, had had the grim experience of seeing those whom he had just been teaching called up when they reached the age of 18 and, all too often, they were reported killed or wounded a few months later.

The end of the slaughter might have led Greene to declare a holiday, but he reached a radically different conclusion about how the peace should best be celebrated. He had time to think about this because the news that the German kaiser and crown prince had abdicated reached Berkhamsted on Sunday 10 November and the announcement of the end of the war would clearly follow shortly. When the armistice was signed at 11am the following day, Greene announced the fact to staff and pupils who sang “God Save the King” before dispersing. He did not make the expected announcement about the holiday but instructed everyone to go on working as if this was a normal day. He justified this by arguing that, with 5 million allied soldiers killed, the survivors had to work even harder to make best use of the victory for the good of civilisation and could not afford to take holidays. “We must go on,” he said. “Now is the time for effort.”

It was a decision which, however reasonable in abstract terms, was so entirely contrary to the patriotic fervour of the day and the intense sense of relief being felt by those who had the most to gain from an end to the fighting that it provoked an almost instant uprising. Those involved included soldiers training in and around Berkhamsted, most of whom belonged to the Officers Training Corps (OTC) of the Inns of Court, in addition to members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. They were highly – and soon drunkenly – relieved to find that they would not be sent to the western front where the OTC members stood a high chance of being killed or maimed. The boys at Berkhamsted, particularly the prefects and the older boys facing military call-up, also had good reason to be thankful that the fighting was over. Explaining this in an interview 60 years later, Claud told Norman Sherry, the author of the magisterial biography The Life of Graham Greene – from which much of this account of the Berkhamsted uprising is derived – said that, deeply though he admired Charles Greene, he could understand the anger of the prefects and senior boys at not being allowed to celebrate victory. He pointed out they had been living in expectation of likely death or injury in the near future “so they didn’t take much interest in the preservation of civilisation or the school spirit and they got pretty rough”.

The prefects, normally in charge of keeping tight discipline in Berkhamsted, had conspired with men from the OTC to break into the school. By chance it was Claud, though much younger than the others in the plot, who played a crucial role in what happened next. Because it was he was due to have a bath, he was allowed to enter part of the school which was beyond the Great Hall, which was the main assembly area for staff and pupils. He was therefore able to open an upstairs window and throw down the key of the heavily locked main gate, which the plotters had secured, to a sergeant major waiting below.

It is worth citing my father’s account, as retailed to Sherry, at length since it gives a tangible sense of the rapidly unfolding events: “I can remember now sitting there – it was one of those foggy nights in Berkhamsted, fog rising from the canal and so on, and suddenly, we heard the roar of the distant troops coming up the road. Everybody was quite content because they couldn’t get in. And then in they burst and we were all sitting at prep in the Great Hall at about 7pm. So suddenly all these drunken troops and women came surging in and were planning to throw Charles Greene into the canal … and Greene and the second master Cox appeared at the end of that little passage, and defended the door, and Greene was persuaded to retire to his study. Cox stood at the door, and drunken troops joined in with the students, and we surged out of the school, and marched through the streets of Berkhamsted, and I can remember to this day walking down Berkhamsted High Street and I took off my shoes in order to beat on the drum with them. We then occupied the local cinema and we sprang onto the stage and sang songs and yelled and shouted. And at last the troops retired, and we, rather bedraggled, returned after this enormous elation, this tremendous night, and suddenly realised that we had to face reality. And that reality was Charles Greene who was sitting at the big desk on the Great Hall, and said ‘you’re expelled, you’re expelled’ one after another. He expelled 122 of us…”

The rioters went to bed deeply worried. Claud in particular was anxious because he knew that his father, Henry Cockburn, a former Foreign Office diplomat of high principle and seriousness of purpose, would take the dimmest of views of his expulsion. The following morning, he and the other expellees were brought back to the Great Hall and given a great lecture by Greene, his denunciation of their action delivered with all the force and rolling periods of which Victorian rhetoric was capable. He linked the previous day’s riot to the revolutionary upsurge spreading everywhere since the Bolshevik revolution in 1917: “This is one more exhibition of the spirit of Bolshevism which is spreading across Europe. Over there in Moscow, there sits Lenin, there sits Trotsky, there they are. The spirit of Bolshevism and atheism is creeping across Europe. It is breaking out all over. Look at Lenin, look at Trotsky and look at you.” Fortunately for his by now thoroughly rattled listeners, Greene in his rage had expelled more of his pupils than could really be purged in one go, so all were reinstated aside from two whom, Claud recalled, had “tried to get the soldiers to break into Charles Greene’s study and tear up his books – a really rather shitty thing to do”.

* * *

 
• Category: History • Tags: World War I 
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In 1898 the state of Louisiana held a constitutional convention with the declared aim of disenfranchising black people and perpetuating white rule. “Our mission was, in the first place, to establish the supremacy of the white race in this state to the extent to which it could be legally and constitutionally done,” reads the official journal of the convention. Legal means were found to scrub 130,000 registered black voters from the rolls and allow juries to come to non-unanimous verdicts in felony trials, including those involving the death penalty.

This measure might sound technical, or even be presented as a bid to make the court system more efficient, but its real purpose was thoroughly racist. It effectively side-stepped the constitutional requirement that black people should serve on juries, which gave them some leverage in resisting legal discrimination against the black population.

Since there were usually only one or two black jurors on a jury, they only had influence so long as verdicts were unanimous. Once a split verdict was allowed, then all-white juries could effectively decide the fate of defendants by a 10 to 2 verdict. This entrenched the legal bias against black people for over a century.

It was only last Tuesday that voters in Louisiana approved an amendment that abolished this toxic Jim Crow law that had survived the civil rights movement because it was not demonstrably racist written down, despite its obvious racist intent. Oregon is now the only state that does not require juries to reach unanimous verdicts.

Votes like the one in Louisiana – though little reported by the media – are often more important in their effect on people’s lives than the choice of elected representative in Congress.

Some of these votes have vast political consequences: great attention is given to the races for the governorship and senate in Florida and too little to the decision by voters to restore the voting rights of ex-felons though this will re-enfranchise nearly 1.5 million people in Florida or 9.2 per cent of the voting-age population. These are people who have completed felony sentences, but until now had lost the right to vote in a state that is often described as evenly divided between Republican and Democrat.

The purpose of denying ex-felons the right to vote was much the same as that expressed openly by those attending the Louisiana constitutional convention 120 years ago. Depriving felons of the vote was purportedly non-racist since it applied to every ex-convict, but in practice it targeted the black population. Some 418,000 out of a black working age population of 2.3 million in Florida have felony convictions. This is just under 18 per cent of the potential black voting population who, if they could have cast a ballot, would have ensured that the Democratic candidates for governor and the Senate were elected.

Only two other states – Iowa and Kentucky – bar former felons from voting, so the situation in Florida was always out of the ordinary. This should be very obvious but pundits mulling over the political divisions in Florida last Tuesday night seldom mentioned this crucial act of voter suppression.

The midterm elections confirmed the extent to which the US is racially divided, though this was scarcely a mystery to anybody who has spent any time in the country. It was easy enough for President Trump to whip up racial fears and animosities by demonising the so-called caravan of Central American migrants in Mexico.

Trump is always skilful in dominating the news agenda and he did so again in the final weeks of the campaign. His success was hugely aided by the lack of any Democratic leader able to rebut him in equally attention-grabbing terms. The media dances too easily to Trump’s tunes, but, since the Democrat leaders don’t play any memorable tunes of their own, it is difficult to know what else the journalists can do.

The absence of an effective Democrat leadership also opened the door to Trump’s partial success in claiming a great victory in the elections, though, in losing the House of Representatives, he has overall suffered a defeat. Many of these ploys are scarcely new: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan invariably claims an electoral triumph before all the votes are counted and a winner declared. Populist nationalist leaders with cult-like attributes the world over all show the same need to project an aura of inevitable success.

This unrelenting focus on Trump and the struggles at the apex of American politics is often irrelevant to what is happening, both good and bad, on the ground. It does not bring anybody very close to understanding what makes America tick and how far and in what direction this is changing.

A better guide to this is often local or state-wide initiatives or the election of new district attorneys or sheriffs who actually implement the law. In Alabama, for instance, two counties have voted to ban their sheriffs from being allowed to take for themselves any money left over from that allocated to pay for food for prisoners after they have been fed. This is a significant amount of money, with one sheriff keeping $750,000 which he invested in the purchase of a beach house. Since it is in the financial interest of sheriffs to spend as little as possible on feeding their prisoners, it is not surprising that they go hungry. In one case, where the sheriff had legally pocketed $200,000, a judge found “undisputed evidence that most of the inmates had lost significant weight”.

I found when I was a correspondent in the US that visiting foreigners, who came from centralised states, usually exaggerated the role and power of the federal government and underestimated that of local officials in the states. An example of this on Tuesday was the election of progressive DAs in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio in Texas, a state that holds 218,500 people in jail or prison. Many are there because the state authorities have criminalised poverty. The choice of DA will decide to what extent people who cannot pay minor fines end up spending years in incarceration.

Resistance to such injustices is strong and growing with the return of over one million people to the electoral roll in Florida being the most important sign of this.

The shock effect of the rise of Trump is great but is exacerbated in the minds of many Americans and most foreigners because they underestimate the extent to which the US is a racially and socially divided country. Slavery left a mark on black and white people that has never been eradicated. Trump is a symptom of this rather than an aberration. That is why his type of politics will persist, but so too will the opposition.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: 2018 Election, Donald Trump, Racism 
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US sanctions imposed on Iran today are the greatest test so far of President Donald Trump’s ambition to act unilaterally in defiance of both rival powers and traditional allies.

The aim of the Trump administration is to put enough economic pressure on Iran to force it to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal of 2015 or, more ambitiously, to secure regime change in Tehran by provoking popular unrest.

It will be difficult to achieve either objective: sanctions can impose intense pressure on a country if maintained over a long period, but their effectiveness depends on support and enforcement by a broad coalition of powers. This is what happened with UN sanctions on Iraq between 1990 and 2003 and with sanctions on Iran between 2006 and 2015.

But this time round there is no coalition supporting sanctions and a great array of states from China and Russia to the EU and Iran’s immediate neighbours, Turkey and Iraq, which are opposing them. On one level, they are seeking to save the Iran deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which the five permanent members of the Security Council – US, UK, France, Russia, China – plus Germany and EU, agreed with Iran three years ago.

The danger for the US is not only that these countries are opposing sanctions against Iran, but that they all have an interest in making sure that they fail. They know that if Trump does succeed then their own authority will be damaged because the US will have proved that it can act unilaterally and effectively without their assistance.

The power of the US Treasury is never to be underestimated, but at this stage the odds against Trump succeeding look long and are getting longer. He could decide to negotiate with Iran – as he did with North Korea – and declare a famous victory, which is not impossible.

For all Trump’s bellicose rhetoric, he has yet to start a war and his fantasy picture of Iran trying to take over the Middle East would make it easy for him to claim to have repelled it since it is not happening in the first place.

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said that “because of the sanctions we are announcing today, Iran will have zero oil revenue to spend on terrorism, missile proliferation, regional proxies, or a nuclear programme”.

But Iranian power in the Middle East does not really depend on any of these things and is, in any case, only strong in the northern tier of the region – Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – where the Shia have political strength and Iran is in loose alliance with Russia and Turkey.

In any case, Iranian political and military intervention was at its height up to 2017 in Iraq, when the Iraqi army recaptured Mosul, and 2015-16 in Syria, when Russian began its military intervention in support of President Bashar al-Assad, and East Aleppo was recaptured from the armed opposition. Winners and losers have emerged in this part of the Middle East and the success or failure of US sanctions on Iran will not change the outcome.

A weakness of the Trump administration’s policy in the Middle East is its exaggerated reliance on Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman: long before the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi assailants in Istanbul on 2 October, the operational incapacity and poor judgement of the kingdom’s leadership was, to some, self-evident.
The growing power in the Muslim world is not Saudi Arabia but Turkey, which has friendly if edgy relations with Iran and balances between the US and Russia. Iraq, a Shia-majority country, tries to keep on good terms with both Tehran and Washington, but in any conflict between the two will side with Iran because of deep-rooted Iranian influence and common Shia identity.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been in the forefront of pushing the US towards withdrawing from the nuclear deal and confronting Iran.

“Iran is the biggest threat to Israel, to the Middle East and to world peace,” he declared on Monday. “For many years I dedicated my time and energy to fighting the Iranian threat … Today we see the fruit of that long and continuous battle.”

But the Israeli leader, like Mr Trump, has previously specialised in belligerent rhetoric and threat inflation, but is cautious about engaging in real military conflict. This could change, but Israel would not gain much and could lose a lot from war with Iran and Hezbollah.

The US sanctions will put strong pressure on Iran, but the temporary waivers granted to eight importers of Iranian crude shows the difficulty the US is having in imposing an economic siege. Trump’s demonstration of US strength could easily turn into a demonstration of weakness.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iran, Iran Sanctions, Israel 
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I caught polio at the age of six in an epidemic in Cork in 1956 and was taken to St Finbarr’s hospital in the city where I was well treated by the doctors and nurses. The fever passed but the virus had crippled the muscles of my back and legs so I was moved to another hospital nearby called St Mary’s at Gurranebraher, where the patients, mostly young children, were appallingly mistreated.

The nurses viewed the polio victims they were supposed to help as the irritating cause of them having to work and were angry when crippled patients asked for anything. I remember one nurse screaming at a small boy who had defecated in his bed because he was too weak to move and her saying that, if he did so again, he would be forced to eat his own excreta. I listened in terror and feared the same thing might happen to me.

The nurses maintained a rough barrack-room discipline, but I was bullied by older boys who smashed the toys brought by my parents. Years later I met Maureen O’Sullivan, a tireless volunteer nurse who drove a Red Cross ambulance during the epidemic, and she told me that the problem at the hospital was that “it lacked professional staff and there was a shortage of trained people. Many of the nurses looked at it just as a job and not a vocation. The main problem was always lack of resources.”

I stopped eating and speaking and my parents believed, almost certainly rightly, that I was dying. The doctors, who were a rather distant and ineffective presence in the hospital, believed that my deterioration was somehow connected with the polio. They noticed that the care of patients was poor, but they were told by the senior matron that she had great difficulty in recruiting nurses though untrained carers were easy enough to find

After 13 weeks at Gurranebraher, my parents brought me home where I rapidly recovered my spirits, though I was confined to a wheelchair.

A year later, I went to the Whitechapel hospital in London for an operation on the surviving muscles in my legs, which would enable me to walk again. I was surprised to find that many of the nurses in Whitechapel were Irish. In sharp contrast to what I had in Gurranebraher, they were kind, attentive and well trained.

The problem in Ireland in the 1950s was not so much a lack of nurses, but the fact that so many of the best of them had gone to Britain because of better pay, conditions and prospects. In coping with a rapidly spreading polio epidemic, the Irish health authorities had concentrated their best-trained and most experienced personnel to treat those who had just been diagnosed with the disease in St Finbarr’s, and had left the other hospitals to get by as best they could.

This problem has not gone away in the following 60 years. The British healthcare system remains extraordinarily reliant on attracting doctors and nurses from poorer parts of the world, notably Africa and South Asia, with damaging – and at time disastrous – consequences for the health of people in countries denuded of their best trained health workers.

“In the UK, over a third of the registered doctors are not originally from the UK and nearly half of nurses are from overseas,” says Rachel Jenkins, Professor Emeritus at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College, London, in an editorial in the journal International Psychiatry prefacing detailed papers on the brain drain of medical specialists from the poor to the rich.

Jenkins writes that – in a similar way to the polio epidemic in Ireland that I had experienced – “the dangers are exemplified by the recent outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, which was able to spread so rapidly because of weak health systems. Those systems would have been significantly stronger had it not been for health worker migration to the UK.”

The numbers involved are strikingly large. Out of a total of 255,141 doctors registered in the UK, no fewer than 82,866 or 36.4 per cent were trained elsewhere. Put simply, the UK population depends for its high standard of healthcare on health professionals trained elsewhere and the demand for which can only rise with the ageing of the British population.

The economic gain to Britain, and the proportionate loss to some of the poorest countries in the world, is very high. Jenkins points out that it costs £220,000 to train a doctor in the UK and £125,000 to train a nurse. If the training is done elsewhere, this implies a saving to the benefit of the UK of £65m from the employment of 293 Ghanaian doctors and £38m from the employment of 1,021 Ghanaian nurses, a sum that exceeds the annual UK aid to Ghana.

This unrecognised subsidy to Britain by poor countries has produced great dollops of hypocrisy about the recipients of aid. The Department for International Development (DFID) in the UK said in a report this summer that “our focus is on helping Ghana to end its reliance on aid and become a strong trading partner for the UK”.

Solutions to the present toxic situation in which the poor subsidise the healthcare of the rich – and thereby deplete their own health systems – are twofold: wealthy countries like Britain should build up their own training of doctors and nurses to a level that meets demand. Poorer states, for their part, should improve pay and conditions for their own health professionals to the point that emigration ceases to be such an attractive option.

Such a change in British government policy is unlikely because the current deeply unfair system is, from its point of view, too good a deal. Jenkins argues that the situation will only change for the better “when rich countries assume some responsibility for reimbursing the country of origin for each foreign-born health worker”. This would give such countries the money to rebuild their healthcare systems.

Western states all benefit from siphoning off health professionals: some 23 per cent of the doctors in the US were trained abroad and 64 per cent come from low- or middle-income countries. This is not a statistic likely to be mentioned by President Trump as he denigrates immigrants in general as parasites taking jobs from native-born Americans.

The advocates of Brexit in Britain, conscious that opposition to immigration has been the core issue driving their success, have never wanted foreign health workers to be emblematic of immigration, perhaps conscious that a YouGov poll shows that 76 per cent of the British population welcomes them or would like more to come.

There is some understanding of how necessary this migration of doctors and nurses is to ill people in Britain, but little knowledge of the damage it does to the countries they come from. Foreign aid would be more popular if it was presented as compensation for the huge hidden benefits the UK gets from this sort of immigration, giving poorer countries the money to fill the gap in their own healthcare systems that the migrants leave behind them.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Immigration 
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The silly idea of recruiting businessmen and other non-professionals into the Foreign Office is more menacing than it looks at first glance. It is a depressing signal that Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, though promising dramatic increases in the numbers of British diplomats, has not really taken on board what has gone wrong in the past and what can be done to put it right.

The main failings of British foreign policy over the last two decades has been amateurism and wishful thinking combined with a rather pathetic desire to retain great power status by piggy-backing on American political and military strength.

British participation in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria showed an inability to correctly forecast trouble and act effectively to avoid it. Sir Jeremy Greenstock, who was the British envoy to Iraq after the invasion of 2003, told the Chilcot Inquiry that “the preparations for the post-conflict stage were abject: wrong analysis, wrong people”.

It is not just that things go wrong, but so little is learned from past mistakes: fast forward to the summer of 2014, and a victorious Isis, fresh from capturing Mosul, is advancing on Baghdad where the political section of the British embassy has just three short-term diplomats, according to a report by the House of Commons Defence Committee.

I have always found it strange that British diplomats often stay for a shorter period in their posts than journalists. To be fully effective, anybody, however able, needs time and experience – and without these they will always lag behind rivals with greater expertise. Most of the skills required for successful diplomacy have not changed since Athens and Sparta were exchanging emissaries.

“One of the saddest developments during my professional lifetime has been the decline of the Foreign Office,” remarks one close observer of the institution. In THE wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, countries imagined the political landscape of the world had gained permanent stability and there was less to play for diplomatically. Expertise was at a discount.

The Foreign Office, moreover, has long been the victim of attempts by successive foreign secretaries to justify their budgets by stressing its role in promoting foreign trade. Commerce is more tangible than traditional diplomacy and easier to sell to governments as self-evidently beneficial. I recall a British ambassador in Tehran in the 1970s being quoted as saying: “I don’t want any more elegantly written reports about social conditions in Iranian villages. What I want is exports, exports, exports!” Soon afterwards the Shah was overthrown – something that had a lot to do with social conditions in Iran – and exporters may have wished that the embassy had paid more attention to them.

The Foreign Office is now to expand rapidly as Britain approaches its Brexit moment, and its diplomats will have to play its diminished pack of political and economic cards with greater skill. But expertise once lost cannot be recreated overnight, and long-term demoralisation of staff will take time to reverse.

More ominously for the future of the Foreign Office, the politicians who favour Britain striding bravely forward to claim an independent place in a post-Brexit world have been those least interested in finding out what that world is really like.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Britain 
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One reason Saudi Arabia and its allies are able to avoid a public outcry over their intervention in the war in Yemen, is that the number of people killed in the fighting has been vastly understated. The figure is regularly reported as 10,000 dead in three-and-a-half years, a mysteriously low figure given the ferocity of the conflict.

Now a count by a non-partisan group has produced a study demonstrating 56,000 people have been killed in Yemen since early 2016. The number is increasing by more than 2,000 per month as fighting intensifies around the Red Sea port of Hodeidah. It does not include those dying of malnutrition, or diseases such as cholera.

“We estimate the number killed to be 56,000 civilians and combatants between January 2016 and October 2018,” says Andrea Carboni, who researches Yemen for the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), an independent group formerly associated with the University of Sussex that studies conflicts and is focusing attention on the real casualty level. He told me he expects a total of between 70,000 and 80,000 victims, when he completes research into the casualties, hitherto uncounted, who died between the start of the Saudi-led intervention in the Yemen civil war, in March 2015, and the end of that year.

The oft-cited figure of 10,000 dead comes from a UN official speaking only of civilians in early 2017, and has remained static since. This out of date statistic, drawn from Yemen’s patchy and war-damaged health system, has enabled Saudi Arabia and the UAE – who lead a coalition of states strongly backed by the US, UK and France – to ignore or downplay the loss of life.

Casualties are rising by the day as Saudi and UAE-directed forces try to cut off Hodeidah – the last port controlled by the Houthi rebels – from the capital, Sanaa. Oxfam said this week, a civilian is being killed every three hours in the fighting, and between 1 August and 15 October, 575 civilians were killed in the port city, including 136 children and 63 women. An airstrike on Wednesday killed 16 civilians in a vegetable market in Hodeidah, and other strikes this month have hit two buses at a Houthi-held checkpoint, killing 15 civilians, including four children.

Little information about casualties in Yemen reaches the outside world because Saudi and the UAE make access difficult for foreign journalists and other impartial witnesses. By contrast to the war in Syria, the American, British and French governments have no interest in highlighting the devastation caused in Yemen – they give diplomatic cover to the Saudi intervention. But their deliberate blindness to the death of so many Yemenis is starting to attract more negative attention, as a byproduct of the flood of international criticism of Saudi Arabia in the wake of the premeditated murder of Jamal Khashoggi – now admitted by Saudi officials – in Istanbul on 2 October.

The absence of credible figures for the death toll in Yemen has made it easier for foreign powers to shrug off accusations they are complicit in a human disaster. That is despite frantic appeals from senior UN officials to the organisation’s Security Council to avert a manmade famine which now threatens 14 million Yemenis – half the population.

The crisis has worsened because of the siege of Hodeidah – with the city a lifeline for aid and commercial imports – since mid June, a situation that has forced 570,000 people to flee their homes. UN humanitarian affairs chief Mark Lowcock warned on 23 October “the immune systems of millions of people on survival support for years on end are now literally collapsing, making them – especially the elderly – more likely to succumb to malnutrition, cholera and other diseases”.

Just how many people die because they are weakened by hunger is difficult to know accurately, because most of the deaths happen at home and are unrecorded. This is particularly true of Yemen, where half the meagre health facilities no longer function, and people are often too poor to use those that do.

Loss of life from fighting should be easier to record and publicise, and the fact this has not happened in Yemen is a sign of the lack of interest by the international community in the conflict. Carboni says ACLED has been able to tally the number of civilians and combatants killed in ground fighting and bombing by drawing on the Yemeni press and, to a lesser extent, international media. ACLED has used these sources, after carefully assessing their credibility, to calculate the number of fatalities. Where figures differ, the group uses lower estimates and favours the claims of those who suffered casualties, over those who say they inflicted them.

It is difficult to distinguish between civilian targets that are deliberately attacked, and non-combatants who died because they were caught in the crossfire, or were close to a military unit or facility when hit.

A study by Professor Martha Mundy – Strategies of the Coalition in the Yemen War: Aerial Bombardment and Food War – concludes the Saudi-led bombing campaign deliberately targeted food production and storage facilities. Some 220 fishing boats have been destroyed on Yemen’s Red Sea coast and the fish catch is down by half.

ACLED began counting casualties after the war was under way, which is why it is only now researching loss of life in 2015, with its findings due to be published in January or February.

Carboni adds, the trend is for the number of people being killed to rise. The monthly total before December 2017 was fewer than 2,000 casualties, but since then it has always been more than 2,000. Almost all those who died are Yemenis, though the figures also include 1,000 Sudanese troops killed fighting on behalf of the Saudi coalition.

The Khashoggi affair has led to greater international focus on the calamitous war in Yemen, and the role of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the conflict. But there is no sign of the US, Britain or France curtailing military assistance to the kingdom and the UAE, despite the likelihood the coalition will fail to win a decisive victory.

The true “butcher’s bill” in the Yemen war has taken too long to emerge, but it may help to increase pressure on outside powers to stop the killing.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia, Yemen 
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President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a skilful politician who knows how to maximise his advantages and this was very much on display in his speech to the Turkish parliament.

He contemptuously dismissed the official Saudi story that the murder of Jamal Khashoggi was the accidental outcome of a botched interrogation by a “rogue” Saudi intelligence team.

It was always naive to imagine that Mr Erdogan would tell all that Turkey knows about the murder and the Saudi role in it because such information – particularly the alleged audio recording of the killing – is invaluable in giving Turkey leverage over Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser degree, the US.

Mr Erdogan disappointed the media by not producing “a smoking gun”, but it is not in his interests to do so for the moment. However, he was categorical in showing that the killing of Mr Khashoggi was premeditated. “Intelligence and security institutions have evidence showing the murder was planned,” he said. “Pinning such a case on some security and intelligence members will not satisfy us or the international community.”

This unlikely narrative is, of course, exactly what Saudi Arabia is trying to sell to the rest of the world. Mr Erdogan did not mention Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by name. But then he does not have to. All he had to say was that “from the person who gave the order to the person who carried it out, they must all be brought to account”. The nation has repeatedly denied any suggestion that the crown prince may have been involved.

The crown prince is discovering, as have many authoritarian leaders in the past, that once you win total control of a country it becomes impossible to talk of ignorance of its crimes.

Mr Erdogan is shooting at an open goal. When Saudi Arabia denied knowing anything about the killing for 17 days and then issued a vague and unconvincing admission of the “rogue operation”, it created a vacuum of information about a story which the whole world is watching with fascinated interest. This vacuum is being filled by unattributable briefings by Turkish officials, drip-fed to the Turkish and international media at a pace geared to keep the finger pointing at Riyadh and the affair at the top of the news agenda.

The Saudi admission on 19 October that Mr Khashoggi was killed has made things worse rather than better for them. Their feeble cover story is already in shreds. Mr Erdogan is very reasonably asking what has happened to the body and what are the names of the Turkish “collaborators” to whom Riyadh is claiming operatives have handed over the corpse.

The problem for Saudi Arabia is that any attempt to explain away its role in the killing is likely to be immediately discredited by Turkish leaks. It is almost certain that the audio recording of Mr Khashoggi’s final moments really exists and will finally be made public. Meanwhile, it enables Turkey to pile on the pressure on the kingdom in the knowledge that it holds all the high cards.

It will play these cards very carefully because, once revealed, they lose their value. For Turkey, the Khashoggi affair has provided an unexpected and miraculous opportunity to recalibrate its relations with Saudi Arabia and the US to its own advantage. The Saudi bid to be the undisputed leader of the Sunni Muslims, although never really convincing and always overstating the kingdom’s strength, is dissolving by the day. Mr Erdogan can look to extract concessions – although he may not get them – from Saudi Arabia when it comes to the war in Yemen, the blockade of Qatar and confrontation with Iran, as well as financial benefits.

Whatever happens, the aggressive, arrogant but disaster-prone Saudi foreign policy over the last three years under the leadership of the crown prince is likely to be thoroughly diluted in future.

Mr Erdogan will be looking to modify the stance of the US towards Turkey on issues such as the US alliance with the Syrian Kurds, whose enclave in Syria Ankara denounces as being run by the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the Turkish state has been fighting since 1984.

This is a delicate moment for President Trump. The Khashoggi affair may not much effect the midterm elections, but it will affect the US position in the world. Mr Trump’s most radical change of policy has been to exit the Iran nuclear deal and to reimpose severe sanctions on Iranian oil exports in early November. The main US regional ally in this was to have been the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, but this strategy is in deep trouble. Turkey has close if shaky relations with Iran and says it will not comply with sanctions. Saudi Arabia will go on being an important regional player because of its oil and money, but its prestige and influence have been damaged beyond repair.

If the crown prince does survive then he is likely to be much more under US influence and less likely to act independently than in the past. For the moment, he will be watching the news from Ankara and living from leak to leak.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Erdogan, Saudi Arabia 
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The Middle East has a century old tradition of being the political graveyard of American and British political leaders. The list of casualties is long: Lloyd George, Anthony Eden, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Tony Blair and George W Bush. All saw their careers ended or their authority crippled by failure in the region.

Will the same thing happen to Donald Trump as he struggles with the consequences of the alleged murder of Jamal Khashoggi? I always suspected that Trump might come unstuck because of his exaggerated reliance on a weak state like Saudi Arabia rather than because of his supposed links to Russia and Vladimir Putin. Contrary to the PR company boosterism of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and his ambitious projects, Saudi Arabia has oil and money, but is demonstrably ineffective as an independent operator.

The Middle East disasters that toppled so many Western leaders have a certain amount in common. In all cases, the strength of enemies and the feebleness of friends was miscalculated. Lloyd George was forced to resign as prime minister in 1922 because he encouraged the doomed Greek invasion of Anatolia which almost led to a renewed Turkish-British war.

George W Bush and Tony Blair never understood that the occupation of Iraq by American and British ground forces had no support inside Iraq or among its neighbours and was therefore bound to fail. A British military intelligence officer stationed in Basra told me that he could not persuade his superiors of the potentially disastrous fact that “we have no real allies anywhere in Iraq”.

The political debacle most similar to Trump’s ill-judged reliance on the Crown Prince and Saudi Arabia over the last three years was American policy towards the Shah and Iran in the years leading up to his overthrow in 1979. US humiliation was rubbed in when its diplomats were taken hostages in Tehran which torpedoed Carter’s hope of a second term in the White House.

There are striking and instructive parallels between US and British policy towards Iran in the lead up to the revolution and towards Saudi Arabia in 2015-18. In both periods, there was a self-destructive belief that an increasingly unstable hereditary monarchy was a safe bet as a regional ally as well as being a vastly profitable market for arms.

The Shah and MBS both promoted themselves as reformers, justifying their authoritarianism as necessary to drag their countries into the modern era. Foreign elites fawned on them, ignored their weaknesses, and were fixated by the mirage of fabulous profits. A British ambassador to Iran in the 1970s was said – I quote from memory – to have rebuked his embassy staff with the words: “I don’t want any more elegantly written reports about social conditions in Iranian villages. What I want is exports, exports, exports!”

Brexit has taken Britain off the world stage and it must be happy in future with whatever crumbs it can scrounge in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else. But Trump sounds very much like this long-forgotten ambassador when he justifies the US strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia by referring repeatedly to a $110bn in arms contract.

In practice, hereditary monarchies are at their most unstable during a leadership transition, attempts to reform, efforts to expand as regional powers or as initiators of war. In England, the pacific and cautious King James I was succeeded by his arrogant, arbitrary and incautious son, King Charles I, with unfortunate consequences for the monarchy.

Vulgar display was a feature of the Shah’s Iran 40 years ago as it is of Saudi Arabia today. In his case, there was the celebration of 2,500 years of the Persian Empire at Persepolis in 1971, which fed the ruling elites of the world with exotic delicacies such as 50 roast peacocks with tail feathers restored and stuffed with foie gras along quail eggs filled with caviar, which the Shah could not eat because he was allergic to caviar.

The Saudi equivalent to Persepolis is the much-publicised “Davos in the Desert” or, more prosaically, the “Future Investment Initiative” being held this week in Riyadh and from which politicians and businessmen have been very publicly dropping out as mystery over the disappearance of Khashoggi has deepened. Much of the media is treating their decision to stay at home as some sort of moral choice and never asks why these luminaries were happy to act as cheerleaders for Saudi Arabia in the same time the UN was warning that 13 million Yemenis are on the verge of starvation because of the Saudi-led military intervention.

It is no excuse for the Trump administration or the defecting guests in Riyadh to claim that they did not know about Saudi Arabia’s potential for random violence. As long ago as 2 December 2015, the German federal intelligence agency, the BND, published a memo predicting that “the current cautious diplomatic stance of senior members of the Saudi royal family will be replaced by an impulsive intervention policy.” It went on to say that the concentration of so much power in the hands of Prince Mohammed bin Salman “harbours a latent risk that …he may overreach.”

The memo was hurriedly withdrawn at the insistence of the German foreign ministry, but today it sounds prophetic about the direction in which Saudi Arabia was travelling and the dangers likely to ensue.

Trump has put a little more distance between himself and the Crown Prince in the past few days, but he makes no secret of his hope that the crisis in relations with Saudi Arabia will go away. “This one has caught the imagination of the world, unfortunately,” he says though he may believe he can shrug off this affair as he has done with so many other scandals.

Just for once, Trump’s highly developed survival instincts may be at fault. His close alliance with Saudi Arabia and escalating confrontation with Iran is the most radical new departure in Trump’s foreign policy. He withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in defiance of the rest of the world earlier this year on the grounds that he can extract more concessions from Iran by using American power alone than Barack Obama ever did by working in concert with other states. This struggle is so important because it is not just between the US and Iran but is the crucial test case of Trump’s version of American nationalism in action.

The White House evidently calculates that if it draws out the crisis by systematic delaying tactics, it will eventually disappear from the top of the news agenda. This is not a stupid strategy, but it may not work in present circumstances because the Saudi authorities are too inept – some would say too guilty – to produce a plausible cover story. The mystery of Khashoggi’s disappearance is too compelling for the media to abandon and give up the the chase for the culprits.

Above all, the anti-Trump portion of the US media and the Democrats smell political blood and sense that the Khashoggi affair is doing the sort of serious damage to the Trump presidency that never really happened with the Russian probe.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Donald Trump, Iran, Saudi Arabia 
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The Khashoggi affair has weakened President Trump’s campaign to impose stringent economic sanctions on Iran aimed at reducing its influence or forcing regime change. Saudi Arabia is America’s main ally in the Arab world so when its credibility is damaged so is that of the US.

On 5 November the US will impose tough restrictions on Iranian oil exports which have already been cut by more than half since Mr Trump announced the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement.

Other signatories, who disagree with him, are seeking to keep the nuclear deal afloat, but the threat of secondary sanctions on oil companies, banks and commercial companies for doing business with Iran is too great a risk for them to resist.

Iran is facing economic isolation but the US will find it more difficult to maintain a tight economic siege of the country without the sort of international cooperation it enjoyed before 2015 when sanctions were lifted as part of the nuclear deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

For sanctions to put irresistible pressure on Iran, they would need to be in place for years and to be enforced by many other nations. Paradoxically, the successful implementation of sanctions requires just the sort of international collaboration that Mr Trump has repeatedly denounced as being against American interests.

Mr Trump can scarcely back away from his confrontation with Iran because he has made it the principle test case for making America great again; or, in other words, the unilateral exercise of US power.

Saudi Arabia and Israel are exceptions but few other countries have a genuine interest in Mr Trump succeeding here even if they do not care much about what happens to Iran.

How has the prospect for sanctions succeeding been affected since dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi embassy in Istanbul on 2 October and failed to re-emerge?

Saudi Arabia has certainly been weakened by turning a minor critic and dissident into a martyr and cause célèbre, a mistake that is convincing many US foreign policy and intelligence experts that the operational capacity of the kingdom is even more limited than they had imagined.

The alleged murder of Mr Khashoggi is only the latest of a series of Saudi ventures since 2015 that have failed to turn out as planned. The list includes a stalemated war in Yemen that has almost provoked a famine; escalation in Syria that provoked Russian military intervention; the blockade of Qatar; and the detention of Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri.

For the first time, the US media is giving wall-to-wall coverage to negative stories about Saudi Arabia. One effect of this is to undermine Mr Trump’s effort to sell his confrontational policy towards Iran by demonising it as a uniquely criminal and terrorist regime. These denunciations are now being undercut by the drip-drip of allegations about the fate of Mr Khashoggi with even the case for the defence apparently resting on the claim that he was accidentally tortured to death by an overly enthusiastic security officer.

The importance of all this is that the essential political underpinnings of sanctions are being eroded.

The Iranian leadership is probably enjoying the Khashoggi scandal and wondering how it affects their long-term interests. The Iranians have a well-established reputation in the region for political cunning, but this often amounts to no more than patiently waiting for their enemies to make a mistake. They like to avoid direct confrontations and prefer long drawn out messy situations in which they can gradually outmanoeuvre their opponents.

The evidence so far is that Iran is choosing an unconfrontational response to impending sanctions. In Iraq, it has helped orchestrate the formation of a government that will once again balance between the US and Iran, but will not be vastly more pro-Iranian than its predecessor.

“It looks to me as if the Iranians were making a sort of peace offer to the Americans,” said one Iraqi politician who asked to remain anonymous.

Iran will need to make sure Iraq remains one of the many breaches in the wall of sanctions that the US is trying to build. It will probably arrange barter deals that avoid cash transactions in which, for instance, Iranian gas is exchanged for pharmaceuticals, vehicles and other imports from Iraq.

Another channel for Iranian sanction busting under Mr Obama was Turkey, so Iran will be pleased by anything that worsens US and Saudi relations with Ankara.

If sanctions fail, could Washington decide that military action might be a better option? For all his verbal belligerence, Mr Trump has yet to start a war anywhere and sounds as if he intends to force Iran to negotiate by using economic pressure alone. On the other hand, as the Khashoggi affair has demonstrated, almost anything could happen and not everybody acts in their own best interests.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Media, Iran, Saudi Arabia 
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The plot to supposedly murder Jamal Khashoggi, as apparently proved by Turkish audio and video evidence shown to US officials, is a grizzly mixture of savagery and stupidity: Jack the Ripper meets Inspector Clouseau. Neither element is surprising because violent overreaction to minor threats is a traditional feature of dictatorial rule. As seems to be the case with Saudi Arabia today, Iraq under Saddam Hussein made immense efforts to eliminate exiled critics who posed no danger to the regime.

It is the purpose of such alleged assassinations and kidnappings to not only silence dissident voices however obscure, but to also intimidate all opponents at home and abroad by showing that even a hint of criticism will be suppressed with maximum force. But it is in the nature of dictators that their judgement is unbalanced because they never hear opinions contrary to their own. Iraq invaded Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990 with disastrous results. Saudi Arabia started its war in Yemen in 2015, with similarly catastrophic results, and now appears to think that it can get away with brazenly assassinating Khashoggi, as apparently proved by Turkish investigators. Saudi Arabia firmly denies any involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance and says he left the consulate safely that afternoon.

It is important to watch how long the torrent of criticism of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Saudi Arabia will last. President Trump has been muted in his comments, emphasising the need to keep on terms with the Saudis because of the $110bn contract to sell them arms. Some of those most accustomed to kowtowing to Gulf monarchs, like Tony Blair, are comically reluctant to criticise Saudi Arabia despite the compelling evidence of the murder produced by Turkey. The best Blair can do is to say that the issue should be investigated and explained by Saudi Arabia “because otherwise it runs completely contrary to the process of modernisation”. Even for Blair this is surely a new low, and it could also be a dispiriting straw in the wind, suggesting that political elites in the US and UK will not be shocked for long and criticism will be confined to the alleged killing of Khashoggi.

This is an important point because the killing (as suggested by the Turkish investigators) is by no means the worst act carried out by Saudi Arabia since 2015, though it is much the best publicised. Anybody doubting this should read a report just published which shows that bombing and other military activities by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is deliberately targeting food supplies and distribution in a bid to win the war by starving millions of civilians on the other side.

There is nothing collateral or accidental about the attacks according to the report. Civilian food supplies are the intended target with the horrendous results spelled out by the UN at the end of September: some 22.2 million Yemenis or three quarters of the population are in need of assistance, 8.4 million of whom are not getting enough food to eat, a number which may increase by 10 million by the end of the year. “It is bleak,” UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told the Security Council. “We are losing the fight against famine.”

But there are those in Saudi Arabia, UAE and their allies in Washington, London and Paris who evidently do not feel any regret and are intent on creating conditions for a man-made famine as the best way of winning the war against the Houthis who still hold the capital Sana’a and the most highly populated parts of the country. This is the conclusion of the highly detailed report called “The Strategies of the Coalition in the Yemen War: Aerial Bombardment and Food War” written by Professor Martha Mundy for the World Peace Foundation affiliated to the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

The report concludes that “if one places the damage to the resources of food producers (farmers, herders, and fishers) alongside the targeting of food processing, storage and transport in urban areas and the wider economic war, there is strong evidence that the coalition strategy has aimed to destroy food production and distribution in the areas under the control of Sanaʿaʾ.” It adds that the bombing campaign aimed directly at food supplies appears to have begun in 2016 and is continuing and becoming more effective.

Some aspects of the food war are easy to chronicle: on Yemen’s Red Sea coast no less than 220 fishing boats have been destroyed and the fish catch is down by 50 per cent according to the report. It cites one particular incident on 16 September when 18 fisherman from the district of Al Khawkhah were seized, interrogated and released by a coalition naval vessel which then fired a rocket at “the departing boat carrying the fishermen, killing all but one of them”. The report of this incident has been denied by the coalition.

The Saudi-led coalition began its intervention in the Yemeni civil war in March 2015 on the side of the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and against the “Houthi rebels” whom the coalition claims are backed by Iran. As Saudi defence minister at the time, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was the driving force behind the intervention code named “Decisive Storm”. The coalition air campaign is aided by US aerial refuelling and logistic support while UK military personnel are stationed in command and control centres.

At first, the targets were largely military, but this changed when the coalition failed to win the quick military success its members had expected. Professor Mundy says that “from August 2015 there appears a shift from military and governmental to civilian and economic targets, including water and transport infrastructure, food production and distribution, roads and transport, schools, cultural monuments, clinics and hospitals, and houses, fields and flocks.”

Copiously illustrated with maps and charts, the report shows the impact of bombing and other military activities on the production and availability of food to the civilian population. Lack of electricity to pump water and fuel for farm vehicles have all been exacerbated by the airstrikes. Mundy says that “livestock production has been devastated as families in need sold animals and also found it increasingly difficult to access markets”.

When the farmers do reach a market, their troubles are not over. Coalition air strikes have become more lethal with the beginning of the siege of the Red Sea port of Hodeida by Saudi and Emirati-led forces in June. Some 70 per cent of Yemen’s imports enter the country through Hodeida, which has a population of 600,000. On 2 August the main fish market in the city was attacked along with the entrance to the public hospital where many people were gathered. In July, King Salman of Saudi Arabia issued a general pardon to all Saudi soldiers fighting in Yemen.

The lack of international protests over the war in Yemen, and the involvement of the US and UK as allies of Saudi Arabia and UAE, helps explain one of the mysteries of the Khashoggi disappearance. If the Saudis murdered Khashoggi, why did they expect to carry out the assassination without producing an international uproar? The explanation probably is that Saudi leaders imagined that, having got away with worse atrocities in Yemen, that any outcry over the death of a single man in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was something they could handle.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Saudi Arabia, Yemen 
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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