Wimbledon, Cameron, China, Chilcot – a few thoughts for our times

Wimbledon: Andy wins in style, and for once an afternoon watching a Wimbledon final doesn’t extend into the evening. I’m remembering Federer against Nadal, was it five years ago – rain breaks and five sets…

Andy mentioned that the prime minister was in the crowd and asked almost as a throwaway – who would want the PM’s job? Should we just occasionally give politicians a break? Even the PM? He’s made a life-changing (for all of us) mistake, but he’s kept his cool, and laughed when Murray made his comment. I almost felt I could forgive him.

And tomorrow (13th July) he’s out for ever.

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Other thoughts for our time…

‘Few middle-class Chinese people say they want democracy.’ (The Economist) Three possible reasons. For one, memories of Tienamen Square: economic freedom it seems doesn’t require political freedom. For another, the Arab spring – the dangers of insurrection.

And Brexit, yes, Brexit.  ‘A sign that ordinary voters cannot be trusted to resolve complex political questions.’ Another good subject for discussion. One riposte – only ordinary people can be trusted.  And who are ordinary people these days. The proletariat is no more, and they weren’t it turned out very good at dictating. And the Economist’s big feature is on China’s new 225 million middle class. And then we have readers of the Daily Mail.

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One conclusion from the Chilcot Report: politicians should beware commitments which catch up with them later. Applies to Cameron of course. But Brexit supporters have put out all sorts of promises and expectations – with little chance of delivering on them. But you can get away with promises.

Also, beware plans based on best-case scenarios, which is what Blair and Bush worked to…They may get support in parliament (2003) – win elections – and indeed referenda (2016) – but they can come back to hurt and haunt you.

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Mendacious campaigns – which side in the referendum debate was more mendacious?Unwise forecasts (which nonetheless could be right) based on Treasury models from the Remain side, which weren’t believed. But not mendacious. Promises with almost nil substance on the other side. Given they were presented as probabilities if not truths by the Leave side – I’ve no problem with the word mendacious in their case.

If we delay invoking Article 50 – how favourably will other countries respond? We’re still – the Leave side are – in a dream world, laced with false expectations. The EU countries’ point of view? Keep Britain trading and halfway prosperous, yes. But at the same time demonstrate that you don’t get way with being a turncoat. And remember too, the cards are all in your (the EU’s) hands.

To take just one example. Paying in – we stop paying – and yet we expect the same benefits.  Absurdity. The something for nothing culture – which the Brexit side in other circumstances rail against.

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And finally – ‘groupthink’. ‘When Mr Blix’s inspectors failed to find any WMD the JIC (Joint Intelligence Committee) gripped by groupthink put it down to the Iraq’s talent for subterfuge’. We reinforce each others’ opinions, if one of us believes, we make it easier for the others. We’ve been gripped by groupthink these past few months. The ‘somehow it will all turn out right, because it always does’ school of thought. Nearly always. Sometimes. Or, more realistically, never….

Obama and the big wide world

I gave President Obama my endorsement in my last blog – for which he’ll no doubt be grateful.

But, at the hard end of politics, has he disappointed the ‘yes we can!’ generation? The world we have to admit isn’t a happier place after over seven years of the Obama presidency. Can he be held responsible?

There are still inmates at Guantanamo, the Middle East is in greater turmoil than ever, we have a resurgent Putin, a more autocratic, less tolerant China under Xi Jinping. The euphoria after the end of the Cold War is a distant dream. (I’m avoiding here the subject of US domestic politics, more convoluted and intriguing than ever.)

Countering the arguments that a more assertive American policy could have contained Putin and Xi Jinping, it’s abundantly clear that threats of NATO intervention wouldn’t have stopped Putin, and Han Chinese momentum cannot and will not be contained by Western stick-waving.

The Middle East. America has been much criticised in the USA and elsewhere for not being more involved, for not wielding a cudgel. The USA and the West, it’s claimed, have lost influence. And, yes, there’s the Libyan invasion aftermath, and the red line that Assad is deemed to have crossed in Syria. It was rash ever to lay down that line.

On the other hand, the Arab Spring, enthusiastically supported in the West, and its aftermath have shown how little understanding Western politicians, and indeed press and pundits, have of Middle Eastern politics on the ground – of individual countries, factions religion and otherwise, what moves and motivates individual citizens.

Obama and the rest of us were carried along by all the euphoria. But Obama had at least recognised three years before that the USA could neither continue in Iraq and Afghanistan as it had done under George Bush, nor get involved in any overtly military way in Syria. The actions of the USA, UK and France over the last century have been a main cause of the Middle East’s problems (seeking causation is I admit a risky business, but on the one word ‘oil’ hinges much of the story), and a continuing attempt to impose solutions cannot be the way forward.

Some kind of equilibrium in the Middle East will only be achieved by allowing conflicts to find their own more local resolutions. Holding back has taken much more courage than renewed military intervention would have done.

I’m well aware of the impact that Putin has had in Syria in recent months. But that cannot change the main argument. The USA, and Europe, has no choice but to work with Putin, whatever old-style neo-con and new-fangled bludgeoning interventionists might argue. IS is a different matter, a vile and inhuman organisation, with which no-one can negotiate, and which can have no place in a peace settlement in Syria – which Assad must have. And I’m not going to attempt here any appraisal of clone attacks on Taliban targets in Pakistan: that would be taking us into a whole additional area of future modes of warfare, and their morality and implications for the rest of the world.

Obama cannot claim any headline agreements or extraordinary successes in his foreign policy. But he has established in direction of traffic, and that could – should – be much more important than any short-term gains.

Given the malfunctioning Congress and the pretty vile right-wing press Obama has faced throughout he has remained remarkably cool, good-natured, level-headed. I hope the future will put up a few of like calibre. Sadly none are showing their faces just at the moment. It would be intriguing to consider if there could be candidates in any other country – the French economy minister Emmanuel Macron, for example. But that’s for another time and place.

Dresden, Brussels and Good Friday

I talked about Dresden in a recent post, in a different context.

I listened yesterday to a Radio 4 meditation for Good Friday…. 3.15 it was. I was travelling to a service, and late, and in a jam on the M4. Plans do not always work out, but the jam meant that I heard a speaker and a story that I’d otherwise have missed.

The speaker’s father was a member of a Lancaster bomber crew that was part of the mass raid on 13-15 February 1945 that burnt Dresden city centre to the ground and killed upwards of 25,000 people. He never spoke about it to his son, save on one occasion. His son knew he must visit Dresden and a few years ago he attended a service of commemoration at the Frauenkirche in Dresden.

The taxi driver taking him back from the service asked him how he came to be in Dresden, and he explained his father’s role in the raid. ‘That was the day my mother was killed,’ the taxi driver said. He turned round, and they shook hands. There may have been more to the story – but that’s enough. (My apologies to the unknown storyteller for abridging the story.)

Dresden has for many years (in the UK, not least in its connections with Coventry) been a symbol of how Europe and the world can come together.

Will we in future times be reconciled to our enemies, will our enemies be reconciled to us? Hard to imagine when we’re faced with a nihilist ideology (John Kerry’s description) that espouses brutal violence. Where jihad requires violence.

We can, with seventy years now past, almost put behind us the violence of a Dresden or Hiroshima, but Brussels and Paris, and bombings in Turkey, and many times more than that the carnage in Syria and Yemen – they remind us – punch us – with an understanding of what brutal violence and loss of life are actually like – when it’s close to home, as it was for everyone in World War 2.

Reconciliation must lie at the heart of any positive view of our future, and there are powerful emotions that go with it – but I can’t put that harder emotion in response to cruelty and violence, with all the anger and bitterness it engenders, behind me – the more I think on it, the harder it is.

And that’s the dilemma, and there’s no resolution. I will always want to reconcile, but brutal violence has to be met with military action – and call that violence if you will. And that’s a hard message to put alongside the message of Good Friday and triumph of Easter.

(I’m referring here to IS, not to whether it was justified or not to bomb Dresden. That is another argument – and another dilemma. And the level of our own responsibility for the current Middle East debacle, as interpreted, for example, by the Stop the War Coalition. That’s also another argument, anothe dilemma, and one I’ve addressed in another blog.)

Reaching agreements …

We’ve seen a positive outcome to the climate change talks, and now an agreement at the UN in the Security Council for a peace plan for Syria. It’s not just the agreements themselves but the willingness to argue and discuss and actually reach agreements that I find encouraging. Both are under the auspices of the UN. And both have come about because of the engagement of all parties. China now fully recognises the urgency of measures to combat rising CO2 emissions, so too the US administration, if not the coalheads behind the American far-right in Congress. And Russia is now fully engaged in the Syria peace process, seen by some in the West a few weeks ago as a backward step, but as an interested party committed to the support of the Assad regime, with a naval base at Tartus in Syria, essential if a peace process was to move forward.

One reason for the failure of Obama’s attempted rapprochement with Putin was the fact that it was one-sided. Putin has now established himself, as he’s wanted all along, as an ‘equal’ partner. 2003 the US and UK tried to call the tune, and that can’t be the way forward anymore. We don’t have a democratic Russia, as we all hoped for after the fall of the Soviet regime, but we do have a government with whom we can deal and – possibly -reach agreement at a global level. We can establish areas of vital common interest and work out from there. Likewise with China: combating climate change has potential for being a major area of cooperation between China and the West. We can’t as yet resolve issues surrounding China’s imperial ambitions in the South China Sea, but working together in one area can only improve the prospects of doing so in others.

And there are serious – fundamental- issues of human rights. We have Saudi Arabia as an ‘ally’, and that’s pretty cynical in the scheme of thing. But we have to work from where we are. And what conflict tells us is that the big stick never works. So if we have to work with the likes of Putin, best to get on with it. Pragmatism is the best ally of idealism.

Another lesson – the importance of bodies such as the UN, above all the UN, under whose auspices the nations of the world can come together, and argue, and find common ground. Doing exactly what it was set up to do.

I’d put the European Community in the same category. What’s remarkable is that countries are working together, at a European – and a global level. War shattered Europe st  twice in the 20th century, and European institutions over the last sixty years have  cemented peace in a quite remarkable way. Walking away from the EU would be lunacy. Putting all our energies into reforming it so that it is and is seen to be an institution working for people at all levels is the only way forward.

And that requires strong leadership. Whether it’s Obama and Kerry, Putin and Sergei Lavrov, Hollande and Fabius, who acted as convenor at the the Paris talks – presidents and foreign ministers, the recognition of the interests of each of the parties involved is essential if common ground is to be established and agreements achieved.

This may be stating the obvious – but it’s why were getting agreements now, and we didn’t before.

Democracy – a bloody miracle

Democracy is a fragile institution. Not, to paraphrase Churchill, the least-worst form of government, but a bloody miracle. Against the tendency humanity has shown throughout history to tear itself apart we have fashioned a form of government which works – where we listen, argue, campaign, vote, and accept that vote. After legislation in the last parliament, for a five year period.

And in practice?  Governments and oppositions have to abide as far as they can by the manifestos on which they’re elected. But MPs also have to make their own judgements. Trust in an individual has to be one of the criterion the electorate use in voting someone into parliament. Ultimately MPs are mandated by the electorate, and not by conferences which may support policies which weren’t in an election manifesto. 

Party loyalty, and especially the three-line whip, is necessary part of the parliamentary process, but there will be issues where MPs take principled positions against party policy (‘conscience’ is a poor term), as Jeremy Corbin often did in the past, and as others would have done had there been a three-line whip in the Syria debate. There’s been much talk recently of the duty of an opposition to oppose,  and the failure to impose a three-line whip in the Syria debate is seen as weakness by some. But when a party is divided, with both sides arguing from principle, a three-line whip serves no purpose. It only exacerbates division. 

Nor am I a fan of referenda which can be influenced by short-term considerations, or media hype. But with the Europe referendum coming up, that’s an issue for another time.

There’s a centre ground of British politics, where parties are broad churches, encompassing right and left wings, representing interest and arguments across the political spectrum. It’s as near as we have to a political duty to make certain the system continues to function and flourish.

History has yet to suggest that there is any better form of government than parliamentary and party democracy, with all the check and balances of tradition (the UK) or a constitution (the USA, above all others) built in. I think it’s one of mankind’s greatest achievements, flawed in its execution, but our first and last best hope.

I want to be arguing in this blog for compassion, aspiration and opportunity. Against the bigotry of some sections of the press, and for a compassionate state. Neither small state or command economy. For a wide and international perspective. Beyond ideology.

But this blog is called zenpolitics – politics, and politics is a rough old game. That said, we have in the UK the finest working democracy in the world. The challenge is to build on that, not to undermine it.

Syria – a just war?

Can I justify supporting military action while writing a ‘zenpolitics’ blog? Can there be such a things as a ‘just war’? When is intervention justified in the affairs of another state? Ultimately the justification has to be humanitarian, and that’s the way I see the situation in Syria. Iraq 2003 was political, with grand ideas of a new world order, and economic, riddled through with self-interest, and with remarkably little thought given to the likely consequences.

Intervention in Syria this time around has to be step by step, where we have a clear end in view but revise our position in the light of circumstances. IS poses an extraordinary threat to lives and values, and requires – demands – an immediate and practical response.

I’m also troubled by my argument that the Assad regime should be included in the alliance against IS. I’m well aware of its brutality. But if the shortest route to ending violence has to involve Assad, and I believe it does, he should be included. The US, Russia, France, the UK, Saudi Arabia, Iran, all working together, bringing together diverse interests but with a common goal, is our best chance.

I’ve argued often that compassion has to come first in all our considerations. How that’s expressed toward the people of Syria, toward people in any war situation, is a mighty challenge. But we cannot sit on the sidelines, we cannot wait for grand strategies to be put in place. And we must avoid cheap accusations of warmongering. We have a war on our hands, not in our backyard, but one with profound implications for all of us. We have to respond.

Syria – Monday 30th November

There’s a vote coming up in the House of Commons on the subject of bombing Syria –  bombing IS, something very different from the vote on bombing Assad’s forces which was lost two year’s ago. (Bombing Assad would have been a disaster, but that’s another subject, for another time.)

What are the arguments? Should we bomb, should we join France, Russia, the USA? Would we making the same mistake as we did in 2003? How valid are comparisons?

The two situations are radically different. IS is a clear and present danger, terrorising, a very literal sense, destroying communities, espousing a brutal ideology, with no spiritual content in the way I’d understand the term. Inaction isn’t a strategy. Bombing cannot win a war, but it can contain, it can limit IS’s expansion beyond its current boundaries, and if sustained break its lines of communication and its oil-based ‘economy’. Removing IS from Raqqa and Mosul is another matter, and will indeed require ground forces, and there is real danger of loss of innocent life and widespread destruction. But concerns over Raqqa and Mosul shouldn’t mean that we don’t act now to restrict IS’s operations, and at the same time break its hold on the imaginations of potential recruits.

Our engagement with the Middle East arguably goes back to the Battle of Lepanto in the 16th century when we first began to turn the tide of Arab and Ottoman dominance. There followed centuries of Ottoman decline and growing British and French interest in the trade and politics of the Levant.  Our Western instinct, that we know better, our instinct to interfere, is deep-rooted. The second Iraq war in 2003, which I strongly opposed, was born of that instinct, and a radical misjudgement. But this isn’t to say that all engagement is wrong, and the situations in Iraq in 2003 and in Syria in 2015 are radically different.

I’m well-aware of the argument that the bombing to date has been ‘ineffective’. Though in what sense? True, IS haven’t been defeated. But how much further might have they have extended their reach had they been (with the exception of the Kurds) unimpeded, without any disruption to their supply lines?

The answer now cannot be to withdraw, or to fail to support allies (and that in itself is a powerful argument) who are very much engaged. I don’t doubt that bombing on a much extended scale, well directed, and with a much broader political support, can be effective.

I don’t buy into the argument, which has been picked up across political spectrum, that we should have a clear end-strategy, and not approve a strategy involving bombing IS without one. What we can guarantee is that whatever that end-strategy might be, it won’t be what happens in the end. We have to proceed  step by step, deal with immediate dangers, and move forward from each new position we achieve. There is common ground at this time between the French, Russians and to a degree the Americans, and we need to take full advantage of this – as of now.

We also need to recognise that Syria in the short and medium term will comprise several different authorities and spheres of influence. Assad will remain in control of Damascus and considerable territory along the Mediterranean, and to the north. The Free Syria Army will have, I would hope, its own sphere of influence, and Kurdish territory will be well-defined. I wouldn’t expect them to fight side-by-side but their action could nonetheless be coordinated if all the various parties involved, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, work toward that end.

We may have a dream of a Western-style democratic Syria, but it’s one we should put out of our minds for now. The aim has to be an end to violence and reestablishing political authority in whatever form proves most viable. Once that’s in place and security is guaranteed refugees can begin to return home. They have to be the first steps.

The aim for ten years time has be a Syria, or a Syrian territory, at peace, and that peace needs to be a guaranteed peace, ideally with UN involvement. The return of refugees will be well underway if not a complete, and the traditions of civilised life which were well-established, along with religious tolerance and educational opportunities, before 2011, will have a chance to reassert themselves again.