“What the British and American working class have in common is that they both vote against their own interests”. I can’t remember who said that but the popularity ratings of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson – notably with their own Parties – gives it credence. In the British case an odd coalition of the elderly, many comfortably off, and the working class and poor, those on or below the poverty line, pushed us into BREXIT by a narrow majority.
What have these two groups got in common? What motivates their voting behaviour? The startling resonance of the Leave campaign’s “Take Back Control” gives the clue. Both groups feel a lack of control over their own lives. It’s easy to see why the poor may feel like this. The decline in the trades unions, the new digital economy, decades of decline and stagnation in workers’ wages, and the zero-hours economy have left manual and unskilled workers insecure. They feel forgotten and left out of the prosperity they see in advertisements and in affluent parts of the country.
Old people, well off or poor, weaken and become sick as they age, and feel a loss of control over their lives. They see the past through rose-tinted spectacles and fear the fast pace of change. They depend on their local GP and hospital consultants, and on social care, in a similar way to the unemployed and intermittently employed who have to deal with Job Centre officials and the benefits system. Remember the Leave video of the helpless old lady waiting tearfully as foreign-looking men were treated before her in a hospital A & E department? It was a brilliant but sinister piece of propaganda which incorporated the two big interlinked themes which brought together the two large groups attracted to BREXIT: immigration and loss of control.
There is also another factor: education. When I went to university with a scholarship in the 1960s, it was to join a privileged 5% of the population. The elderly, the poor, and manual workers on the whole lack higher education and the self-confidence it brings. In a transformed world where half of young people become university students, hoping for access to better jobs with better terms of employment, those with no degree, if they are still of working age, fear unemployment, temporary employment, the food banks and debt. They are not wrong. Higher education facilitates the skills of good decision-making. Britain’s urban elite did not get where they are today without figuring out how to find fulfilling jobs, how to make money and what professions to make it in.
BREXIT, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are part of a wider global phenomenon in which insecurity, anger, resentment at being ignored accompany rejection of expertise and experience, and generate votes for leaders who appear to subvert the hated, but vaguely defined, Establishment. Trickster leaders entertain and manipulate minds skillfully, with the single aim of gaining and retaining power through the politics of feeling. William Davies’ book, Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World makes the point that democracy is now acutely vulnerable to this kind of emotional subversion. He cites the worrying statistic from the last US presidential elections that “86% of those who voted for Hillary Clinton expressed trust in the economic data produced by the federal government, compared to just 13% of those who voted for Trump”. Translated to the UK this means that the overwhelming economic arguments against a ‘No Deal’ BREXIT will carry negligible weight with Brexiteers. The success of the politics of feeling should, and is beginning to, set alarm bells ringing about the future of democracy. Political discourse has for millennia included emotion and rhetoric. But we now seem to be witnessing a jump-shift into spectacular public irrationality. A majority of members of the Conservative and Unionist Party, if opinion polls are to be believed, consider retention of the Union less important than completing BREXIT. This cannot simply be placed at the door of social media. It indicates a deeper swing from rational choice to emotion preference.
The tricksters, with the coming appointment of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister by 160,000 or so Tory members, will have triumphed. Emotion will have defeated reason in British politics. Our antiquated political machinery will have failed to uphold democracy.
Is there a remedy? None is obvious in the short term. But we must return to a reasoned vision of what we want our society to be, to a concept of politics with social justice as its principal goal, and to creating systems which have a chance of producing governments with a respect for moral integrity. Faith and Reason sound like a Catholic formula. But retaining faith in democracy through the current turbulence and insisting that our politics temper emotion with reason are essential if we are to emerge from the current crisis. We need to retrieve the idea that there is something called truth.
This flight from expertise and fact to emotion and fantasy in democracies is happening against the background of the economic success and global ascendancy of the anti-democratic People’s Republic of China with its pervasive censorship. With autocracies such as Russia stirring the pot through cyber-interventions, we have entered the new ideological conflict of the 21st. century. Our political culture has to change if we are to win it.
See All over the world Rational Choice is being rejected. What should we do about it? TheArticle 10 July 2019
A few years ago I had an interesting conversation with Iran’s former President, Seyyed Khatami, during lunch at Lambeth Palace. I asked him through his interpreter what Shi’a Islam had to say about nuclear weapons. “They are forbidden, haram”, was the answer through the interpreter. “Banned for use ?” I queried. “Forbidden for both possession and use” came back the answer from Khatami in perfect English.
Of course, with a little casuistry, you could have the components of a nuclear bomb available and ready for assembly and still “not possess nuclear weapons”. This was probably the aim of the Iranian nuclear programme pre-JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action): the international agreement on limiting and monitoring Iran’s nuclear capacity, signed in 2015 by Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, USA, China, Russia, France and UK plus Germany and the EU.
Iranian national pride is widely shared inside the country. You do not have to be a fanatical Revolutionary Guard commander to believe in national sovereignty. It is after all one of the basic principles of the UN. Nor from an Iranian perspective do you necessarily think possession of a nuclear weapon is perversely irrational. A number of States with a military presence near or around Iran’s borders have nuclear weapons: Russia, USA, UK, Pakistan and Israel. JCPOA took a lot of selling to Shi’a hardliners. To give the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) thorough monitoring access to Iran’s nuclear facilities was a big ask . But, according to the IAEA, Iran complied with the treaty and kept its uranium enrichment below the required 3.67%. Any preparations for a nuclear weapon were thus in abeyance, or discontinued, until the USA reneged on the JCPOA agreement enraging and humiliating President Hourani’s government and the Iranian public.
If we are to believe White House sources, we were 10 minutes away from a US attack on Iran two weeks ago with, probably, the Strait of Hormuz being blocked in retaliation. Iran had shot down a US surveillance i.e. spy drone. Remarkably the Stock Exchange barely blinked. So was it all playground bravado and will it remain only a war of words?
In the Trump era, sanctions are imposed on foreign countries as if they were a routine part of foreign policy. But oil sanctions on a country almost totally dependent on revenue from its oil exports devastate its economy and are close to being an act of war. Oil sanctions on Iran are estimated to have resulted in $50 billion in lost revenue. Iran had strong reasons to threaten retaliation by making warning attacks on shipping transporting oil through the Strait. As the cliché goes, one thing leads to another.
This dangerous state of affairs in the Gulf must primarily be laid at the door of the Trump administration and its unilateral withdrawal of the USA from JCPOA. The agreement was a triumph of diplomacy. Due to deep distrust between Iran and the rest of the signatories, detailed verification provisions were put in place. Iran has honoured these provisions and limited its stockpile of enriched uranium to the required 660 pounds. The US withdrawal was both a major blow to the ordered conduct of international relations, an insult to the co-signatories, and an economic blow to Iran; the Iranian rial lost three-quarters of its value. It undermined President Rouhani, by Iranian standards a pragmatic moderate, and illustrated that the Revolutionary Guards who opposed the treaty had been right all along. So strong are feelings about national sovereignty in Iran, there were, and are, only two ways of stopping the movement towards the possession of nuclear weapons: the JCPOA treaty or military attack.
So far the US has held back from military attack. It has followed up the oil sanctions it imposed, by bullying the rest of the world through threats to banks and trade into complying, with an almost total boycott of Iran. Further sanctions are now being piled on in the hope of bringing Iran to heel. One measure, banning the sale of enriched uranium to Russia, has resulted in Iran now being in breach of its stockpile limits.
Having told his core constituency that he will end US military intervention and “bring home our boys”, Trump is no warmonger even if his National Security Adviser, John Bolton, is. But a fundamental misunderstanding of the Iran’s complex political system and public opinion makes the chance of war by mistake a growing danger. Any loss of American lives, attributable to the Revolutionary Guards, would be a trigger.
It is understandable that the US and Israel are particularly unhappy about Iran’s support for Hezbollah, and to a lesser degree the Houthis in Yemen, along with a threatening Revolutionary Guard presence in Syria. Both the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, key Sunni protagonists, see Iran’s defiance of the West and Israel in a sectarian context as their rival in the struggle for hegemony in the Middle East. But the way forward is indicated by the successful negotiations over JCPOA: perseverance in diplomatic initiatives and recognition of Iran as inheritor of an ancient Persian culture and the Shi’a Safavid Empire, a legitimate claim to leadership of the Shi’a world.
This religious element in the geopolitics should not be neglected. Westerners sometimes find this difficult to grasp. Iran is absolutely serious about seeking religious recognition in the Muslim world. Hence its support for Hezbollah and the Houthis and the foul anti-Zionism of its crazed former President, Mamoud Ahmadinejad, who took over from President Khatami in 2005.
So now thanks to President Trump and his coterie we have Iran’s centrifuges spinning again and building up enriched uranium suitable for Iran to build a nuclear weapon. The routine disavowal, “the United States is not seeking war with Iran” is unconvincing. War is, and has been, the default position of both Israel and the USA. And at the moment, on the trajectory set by President Trump, the USA or Israel will eventually undertake a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities with dire consequences.
The sign said La Farga de Reynes, the Reynes Forge It was a small Catalan village on the French side of the border. We had just left two friends in the Musée d’Art Moderne in Cerêt, with its seventy odd pieces contributed by Picasso, and half of the exhibition rooms closed for repairs. Nothing much had changed since we visited four years previously and found half the museum shut. Now we were driving into the mountains, heading towards Amélie-les-Bains for a brief R & R from Culture. We planned to return and pick them up.
Rounding a bend, I saw the bridge ahead of us was hung with yellow bunting. Then I spotted them. “Look”, I said, “Gilets Jaunes”. We felt like those bird-watchers who spot a migrant yellow-hammer in a Suffolk field. There they were, as seen on TV, by the roadside in their high-viz yellow jackets just before the bridge, clustered around an old Citroen 2 CV sporting Catalan and French flags. And like any avid bird-watcher my mind immediately turned to getting a photograph to prove it.
We shouldn’t have been surprised. The Pyrénées-Orientales and industrialised areas of the coast going north towards Montpellier are the happy hunting grounds of Marine le Pen and her National Rally (the mutated National Front) Party. In the 2017 Presidential elections, she won 41% of the vote in Hérault, 45% in Aude and, moving to the mountains, 47% of the vote in Pyrénées-Orientales - which had the highest unemployment rate in France, 12.7%. The Mediterranean rim has a poor track record for year-round employment. These protesters were Gilets Jaunes 66 from the Perpignan sector who, on this beautiful morning, had left the coastal plain for higher things.
My mind quickly moved from getting a good photograph to a more travel-focused anxiety. What if they were preparing to block the road? We would be cut off from our friends. They would be stuck in Cerêt all day while we would be trapped in Amélie. Here was a new and creative holiday anxiety: easily a match for fear of striking French air traffic controllers grounding us, or railway workers shutting down the railways. I did a U-turn, tentatively approached the group of Gilets Jaunes, and stopped, causing a minor traffic jam. They directed us in a friendly fashion into a yard just off the road so we could talk.
“No”, they were not going to block the road. They seemed a little shocked that I thought they might. Would they mind us taking a photograph? They would be positively delighted if we took a photograph - several photographs. And so we have the whole group, a group with us in the middle, and another in front of the heroic Citroen CV which, it was proudly announced, had been to the Paris demonstrations . The CV had been signed by Parisian Gilets Jaunes just like on a football after the big match. It was a powerful symbol of French identity as well as Catalan protest.
The protesters’ slogans and the bunting were on the vague side. “On lâche rien” – Never give up. “Macron Démission” – Macron Resign. And “SOS Santé Publique, Urgence - SOS Public Health, Crisis/Urgent; Macron’s public health reform began in 2016. We got talking. I asked about their current “revendications”, demands, but the answers were on the short side. “Augmentation” seemed to be all that needed repeating, a code word for an increase in the hourly minimum wage for over 18s, the SMIC, (Salaire minime interprofessionel de croissance).
All the men and women in the group were in their late 50s, early 60s, working class, and having a jolly time waving to cars that honked as they passed. The Citroen formed a material and symbolic bond with past, more riotous shenanigans in Paris, like a giant papal medal linking a rural Catholic to the panting heart of Rome. They were having far too good a time to give up easily and, if an increase in the minimum wage was top of their personal list amongst the forty or so demands coming from the Movement, more power to their arms.
I have come to the conclusion that with the storming of the Bastille as the great seminal moment in French Republican history, protest, demos, and disruption, jolly or confrontational, went into the French bloodstream. Much of the French public seem to be comparatively at ease with them - even if they block the road for a while. Participants obviously enjoy them as a day out. Unlike the British middle class who march dutifully causing minimal damage, though often with witty banners, and climate change protesters with creative and daring forms of disruption.
With hopes for social justice in Britain draining away by the day as Boris Johnson climbs to the top of the greasy pole to become Prime Minister, and the country falls apart, we will need to borrow the Gilets Jaunes slogan: “On lâche rien”
“Never give up”.
Donald John Trump, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson and Nigel Paul Farage are the three political figures who garner the most public recognition in Britain today. They share and promote BREXIT’s underlying public anxiety about immigrants. This is their primary engagement with voters. Showmanship and outrageous - thus newsworthy - behaviour keeps all of them in the public eye. Each, in his own way, disports himself to great effect in the grubby, if crowded, grounds of Chateau Celebrity.
Many people find these three men morally repugnant. But evidently many others do not feel the same, are not deterred by their fellow citizens’ repugnance, and would like Trump/Johnson/Farage to wield political power. Fundamental to their political strategy is the blurring of the distinction between truth and falsehood. Trump is a pathological liar living in an Alice in Wonderland world. The Washington Post fact-checker clocked his 10,000th lie this April. I suspect he doesn’t really grasp the concept of truth. He manages an average of eight public lies a day. Alexander Boris de Pfellel Johnson is a more intermittent and casual liar, and more selective in his choice of lies, tactical rather than pathological in comparison. Stockbroker Nigel, man of the people with his Coutts bank account, proffers more Piffle than Pfellel in his interviews and speeches. But he has some very sinister friends and acquaintances, and keeps the source of his funds for his political work suspiciously obscure. Public support for them all continues.
Does lying matter? The 13th Century Dominican thinker, St. Thomas Aquinas, said that lying was making a false statement “at variance with his mind”. I am not sure that all Trump’s 10,000 utterances and tweets were “at variance with his mind”. He believes the last thing he says. Then again our three celebrities may well imagine the public don’t believe a word they say and don’t take them seriously, goes the argument. I doubt that. True, politics and entertainment blend into each other these days; politicians are duly entertaining us and many of the electorate enjoy the big game. But lying is a corrosive thing. The Catholic catechism – I confess not my bedside reading – says that lying “sows discord, destroys society, undermines trust and tears apart social relationships”. Not a bad description of Britain in June 2019. We laugh at our peril.
Most people would not go along with Aristotle and St. Augustine who took a very hard line on lying: lying is always wrong, no exceptions. A memorable Dominican priest, Father Finbar Synnott, who headed the South African Catholic Truth & Reconciliation Commission in the early 1970s, faithfully followed Augustine. At the peak of apartheid repression in the early 1980s, I used to stay in the Dominican Priory in Mayfair, Johannesburg – a confusing name for the British visitor as Mayfair was one of the poorest parts of town. The beat-up priory hid several young black activists on the run from the security police. When the phone rang everyone leapt across the room to take the call. I asked why and was told that, if Finbar picked up, he would feel obliged to tell the truth about the priory’s temporary residents, whoever was asking. His brother Dominicans were less Augustinian.
You became accustomed to ‘white lies’ in apartheid South Africa. The police must have known everyone was lying as the priory was shot up one night; and, rather unfairly in the morning, bullet holes were visible above Finbar’s bed. We concluded that sleeping soundly with a clear conscience had saved his life.
The lies that corrode British and US society are not ‘white lies’. They are profoundly injurious ones, a worrying aspect of our political culture’s decline. Trump, Johnson and Farage, deliberately or just instinctively, create a world of fake news, and in consequence an entire political generation is mistrusted; people do not know who or what to believe, or having made up their minds are unable to change them because contrary evidence is no longer evidence. An informed electorate, so important for democracy to work successfully becomes impossible. In other places and at other times this state of affairs has led to authoritarianism and the assassination of journalists committed to the truth. I find myself hesitating to say we are a very long way from there yet. Is not suggesting that our future Prime Minister might prorogue Parliament to thwart the will of Parliament a first move in the authoritarian playbook?
We just cannot take the continuation of a healthy democracy, the rule of law, and strong governing institutions for granted. We need to ask ourselves what it means about us and our societies that three men known for their lack of moral values and personal virtues attract the spotlight of celebrity, become leaders, and are given power over us. And once we have asked ourselves, and not liked the answer, we need to speak out and vote accordingly.
See The Article.com Lying Politicians will tear apart civilised western democracy
In last Sunday’s Observer the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, placed President Trump into the same category as the European populists who are “using the same divisive tropes of the fascists of the 20th century to garner support”. Was he right to do so? Well, yes. But Donald Trump is also part of the story of American fascism and the American Dream.
Not the American Dream as originally set forth: liberty, equality and justice ‘for all our citizens of every rank’ (my italics). Sarah Churchwell’s recent study Behold America: a History of America First and the American Dream, describes how this dream mutated over time firstly being reduced to a dream of opportunity, and finally to becoming a dream of the individualist pursuit of wealth.
Donald Trump’s slogan ‘America First’ has deep roots in American history. Sarah Churchwell traces its use from when it emerged in 1884 during trade wars with Britain – that certainly rings a bell - to the time when it mobilized voters in the 1916 Presidential campaign. It was thought so effective it was used by both candidates. According to Woodrow Wilson when he said America First, he did not mean beggar your neighbor but that the USA should taking the lead internationally. Wilson attempted to put his ideal into practice in the founding of the League of Nations. The League, intended by Wilson as a global body headed by the USA, was never ratified by Congress, and in the 1930s “America First”, acquiring some of its present meaning, became the popular expression of isolationism.
The deep and broad appeal of the words America First and the allied theme of Americanism was that their meaning for the public could encompass traditional and honourable themes of patriotism as well as those of racial bigotry and the assertion of white supremacy. America First was more than compatible with the views and racial violence of the Klu Klux Klan. Donald Trump inherits and promotes this ambiguity.
Sadiq Khan is right in making the link between the USA and Europe. Toxic ideologies are no respecter of geographical distances especially in the internet era. In the US mix of the 1930s the Friends of New Germany were active. On 17 May 1934, beneath a swastika banner, 20,000 people attended a rally in Madison Square Gardens. This was the overt face of American fascism. But fascism’s true and abiding American expression was, and remains, the promotion of fascist values under the cover of super-patriotic American slogans. Today’s European populist Parties finesse their own politics in a comparable way with varying degrees of sophistication.
Was Trump aware of this dark heritage of American politics when he set out on the campaign trail? Perhaps some of his advisers such as Steve Bannon knew their Right-wing political history. It doesn’t really matter. Extreme right-wing ideas have a way of sticking around for ages like chewing gum under furniture. There are striking parallels with former US political figures such as Huey Long and Charles Lindberg who gained national prominence in the 1930s. The ideas behind America First and Americanism were there to be discovered or re-invented. Just as America First Inc. emerged in 1934 as a reaction to Roosevelt’s New Deal, so today’s Trump’s version of America First is a response to the Obama presidency reacting to the 2008 financial crash, an economic crisis comparable in gravity to the Great Crash of 1929. Trump could win a second term on the slogan.
There is a great danger that the effectiveness in electoral terms of Trump’s first term will be underestimated and liberals’ hopes of his disillusioned supporters seeing sense will turn out to be a form of denial. Until our political systems have answers to the human consequences of Rust Belts, the problems of inequality and to the challenge of integrating immigrant communities, and until they can also respond to those part of the mass media that provide echo-chambers for extreme right-wing thinking, fascist tropes will have traction. Does this make Trump smarter than we like to think? Perhaps. More important, it makes him more dangerous.
The Mayor of London is not being deliberately contentious. We have our own values in London and they need asserting in the face of a foreign visitor who apparently likes straight talk. It helps to set Donald Trump’s policies in an historical context, rather than simply dismissing him as some kind of a narcissistic sociopath who by some aberration accidently got into power. America, Britain and the world have encountered this cluster of ideas before, resisted them, and lived to see another day. The current President of the United States is indeed a throwback to a dark past. This doesn’t solve the problem but it is an important insight.
But insights are not enough. Trump promises to hold the dominant elites to account. That, in a divided society, is the source of his appeal both in the US and in Britain. The same elites must now examine themselves and recognize how much they have contributed to an outcome with which they so strongly disapprove.
See TheArticle 04/06/2019 "Donald Trump is flirting with fascism. The Mayor of London is right to stand up to him"
It was one of those humid days when you didn’t want to be in London on a train, even an over-ground from Stoke Newington to Liverpool Street station. The Bank holiday was over. It had not been particularly warm over the weekend and now cruelly the weather had turned hot just when you would be stuck in the office.
The train was pulling out of Cambridge Heath when a young man appeared, pale, thin and exhausted, and began moving down the carriage. The atmosphere in the carriage congealed with guilt and embarrassment. But you had to hand it to the beggar, he had a strong story. He was a “released prisoner”, “let down by the probation services”. He needed “£7 for a bed for the night” or he’d have to sleep “under the arches”. Who could tell if this was true?
A black Londoner sitting across the aisle, and in his early thirties, got out his wallet and gave the beggar a gleaming five-pound note. My wife, white haired and travelling on her Freedom Pass, said to the charitable giver – who turned out to have Nigerian origins and a 100% ordinary London accent: “How very kind and generous of you”. “Well”, he replied, “I’ve never forgotten being a child on Baker Street station with no money. I asked a lady for my fare and she gave me more than I asked for. You can’t tell about beggars, what they’ll do with the money. You just have to take the risk and give”. My wife answered: “When I came to live in London, I was so upset by the homeless people on the streets, as it’s often not helpful to give direct to the people who ask, I took out a standing order to a homeless charity”.
The solemn, frozen and embarrassed silence of the compartment had broken down. A middle-aged white man sitting opposite joined the conversation. He worked on Liverpool Street station. “A bit ago a man came to the girls on the information desk and asked for £3.75 to make up his train fare. One of them got out her hand-bag and gave him the money.” Two days later the man came back and re-paid her.” “You really don’t know, you can’t tell”, said the black Londoner in a reflective tone.
The train pulled into Liverpool Street station. Everyone stepped onto the concourse and went their different ways. “I do it for God”, said the black Londoner before he went through the barrier.
That’s London for you.
“A cycle of Western domination of the world is coming to a natural end. Their populations, on the other hand, can feel these large changes in their bones, and in the job markets. This, in part, explains supposedly politically aberrant – to the elites at least – events like Trump and Brexit”. So writes Kishore Mahbubani, a distinguished Singaporean diplomat, in the slimmest of slim volumes entitled Has the West Lost It?
Getting a view of the West’s trajectory, as others see us, is a salutary experience. For Mahbubani the last two hundred years of overwhelming Western hard and soft power is a temporary aberration in two millennia of history. We are, he argues, returning to a world in which China and India are the largest economies and global power centres. But returning to a changed world. After the entry of a vast Asian labour force and growing Asian economies into the global market, taking advantage of Western experience and technology, the West’s share of global GDP inevitably began to shrink with the consequence that incomes in the West, except for those of elites, stagnated.
China, by entering the World Trade Organisation (WTO) at the end of 2001, injected almost a billion low-paid workers into the global economy; this led to declining real wages and growing inequality in the West. Eastern European labour, visible and often blamed was by comparison only a minor depressant. Globalization between 1973 and 2015 saw productivity rise by 73.4% while wages rose by only 11.1%. An incredible 63% of Americans do not have enough savings to deal with a family emergency costing over $500. The significance of these economic events and the growing inequality they created was ignored as the USA, responding to 9/11 by embarking on neo-con wars in the Middle East, had its government’s attention diverted to military interventions.
Mahbubani argues strongly that a hubristic West has yet to come to terms with the policy implications of this transformed geo-economics and geo-politics. Our British perceptions of the world are skewed towards pessimism and, I would say, victimhood. Max Roser, an Austrian researcher into long term evaluation of living standards, based in Oxford University’s Martin School for Global Development, has tracked the numbers in extreme poverty globally: 75% in 1950, 44% in 1981, below 10% in 2016. According to the OECD, the size of the middle class around the world doubled from 1.8 billion in 2009 and will hit 3.2 million next year. The West still has a picture of a backward, underfed world instead of large pockets of dire poverty in war zones and, notably, in parts of Africa.
Mahbubani is highly critical of US military interventionism around the world, particularly in the Middle East. President Trump’s approach has been to raise military expenditure to unparalleled levels, to insist that other countries comply with the US’ own regime of extreme sanctions against perceived enemies, and to start a trade war with China. “The setbacks to America’s ability to shape the international environment to its advantage are not the result of declining capacity on its part”, former Ambassador Charles Freeman said in a lecture at Brown University, Rhode Island. After decades of experience in State and Defense Departments and in the US Foreign Service, Freeman concluded: “They are the consequences of a failure to adapt to new realities and shifting power balances”.
Has the West Lost It? deliberately provokes with a sweeping critique of the West. But I do not think the people of Kosovo and Sierra Leone would decry Western military interventionism. I doubt if, as Mahbuhani suggests, the EU’s 1962 Common Agricultural Policy had been different, and not a beggar-your-neighbour-across-the-Mediterranean policy, that we would now have fewer migrants from Africa. And I would like the BBC’s excellent More or Less programme to test his often shocking statistics, several of which are reproduced here. What worries me most is the unexamined assumption that democracy and individual human rights seem irrelevant to his analysis. Mahbubani surely does not believe that autocratic government and a police/surveillance State are needed before nations change from “basket case” to economic titan.
Finally, Mahbubani underplays the importance of international financial crises. While he does briefly mention the West’s reaction to the Asian financial crisis of 1997-8, the impact of the global banking crash of 2008 is missing from his analysis. This is surprising because it was China’s financial reserves on top of the US and European tax-payers billions which bailed out the banks, and China’s 30-40% contribution to global growth after the initial shock that helped avoid another Great Depression.
Mabhubani is right to conclude that Western governments did not do enough to prepare for and protect their citizens from the Asian ascendancy. And that this had political consequences. He attributes the Trump and BREXIT phenomenon to changes in the distribution of economic power and the resulting visible inequality in the West. The average income of a CEO in the USA in 1965 was twenty times that of their workers. By 2013 it was on average 296 times greater with “fat cats” much resented in the UK.
What should be done? Financial Times economics journalist, Martin Wolf, gave a pertinent answer: “The elites – policy-making, business and financial elites – are increasingly disliked. You need to make policy which brings people to think again that their societies are run in a decent and civilized way”. There seems little chance of this happening until we put BREXIT and Trump behind us, and accept that we must think in more realistic terms about the consequences of inequality and our role in the world around us.
See TheArticle.com 28/05/2019
“The American role in post-war Iraq actually will be fairly minimal”: that was John Bolton, then US Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs, in late 2002. “Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear programme”: John Bolton a few weeks before the international nuclear deal signed in 2015. (He believed a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities was needed).
Bolton is a firm supporter of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), listed officially by the USA from 1997-2012 as a terrorist organization. He apparently sees this bizarre authoritarian “Muslim” cult as the future government of Iran once the ayatollahs are overthrown. Such were the views that lead to his appointment as National Security Adviser in April 1918 following the much decorated Lieutenant-General Herbert McMaster who opposed pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and lasted 13 months in the job.
In the Trumpian universe disdain for facts and poor judgement are qualifications for office. And since the future US Secretary of Defence, Patrick Shanahan, is at present only Acting Secretary until Senate confirmation, Bolton ‘the moustache’ has led on US policy towards Iran. An aircraft-carrier battle group and four nuclear-capable B 52s are on their way to the Gulf on Bolton’s advice, and an Iran battle-plan updated with provision for 120,000 US troops sent to the region.
John Bolton who has been pushing for a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities for over a decade, himself has avoided any experience of war – in Vietnam - by opting for a few months service in the national guard. He has no in-depth experience outside the USA let alone in the Middle East. If he had seen the acres of graves along the road from Tehran to Ayatollah Khomeini’s large mausoleum, he might have reflected that after the Iran-Iraq war the senior ranks of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps would be experienced and tenacious in battle. He might also have perceived the significance for US diplomacy of the deep divisions over the velayat-e-faqih, the rule of the Shi’a clerics. If Bolton had put aside for a moment his belligerence, and contempt for the United Nations, he might have understood that tearing up the Iran nuclear deal, JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed 15 July 2015), a hard-won international treaty, thus punishing President Rouhani for his compliance, played into the hands of Iran’s own extremists. Rouhani has complied with the world’s most comprehensive International Atomic Energy Agency verification regime to date. The IAEA reported on Iran’s nuclear facilities and production of enriched uranium on ten occasions since 2015 and verified that Iran is compliant. Rouhani took a considerable risk in signing JCPOA. He was rewarded by the US ruining the Iranian economy by ever more effective sanctions. His position has been undermined.
What is the risk now of a major war breaking out between Israel/USA and Iran? Firstly, the two key military leaders, US General Kenneth McKenzie, CENTCOM (Central Command) Commander for the Middle East region and Major-General Hossein Salami, head of the Revolutionary Guards, are both new to their jobs, appointed only a few weeks ago; both need to prove themselves in their new roles. Salami says that Iran stands “on the cusp of a full-scale confrontation”. McKenzie threatens Iran with “an experienced, ready, battle hard force with the best equipment and training in the world”. Each side has branded the armed forces of the other as a terrorist organization. Rhetoric from both sides, at the moment, but dangerous rhetoric.
On the plus side, neither the US military nor Israeli Intelligence services are keen on plunging the Middle East into a further war which might close the Strait of Hormuz to vital oil supplies. US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has made it clear the US does not want war. General David Petraeus, former head of the CIA and CENTCOM, and Meir Dagan, former MOSSAD chief, neither insignificant voices, have made it clear that they think a military strike on Iran would lead to a regional conflagration. President Trump has on a number of occasions broadcast his intention to bring home US troops from the Middle East, to avoid another Iraq-type war, and has recently asked President Rouhani to give him a call.
Trump believes that increasing sanctions pressure on the Iranian regime by finally blocking its oil exports, together with his miraculous deal-making skills, will solve the Iran problem. But the problem has become of his own making: rejection of an international treaty signed by the USA and five permanent members of the UN Security Council: Russia, China, France, UK plus Germany and the EU. The pressure this put on President Rouhani, who is beset by supporters of the Supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has pushed him into threatening minor violations of the treaty. For the moment we are in a classic smoke-and-mirrors game.
John Bolton as Under-Secretary for Arms Control was adept during the prelude to the Iraq War at politicizing and manipulating intelligence on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion. Recent news feels like an action replay: vague reports of new Iranian threats to the US in Iraq, denied by Major-General Chris Ghika, the British deputy head of Operation Inherent Resolve (US-led against Da’esh in Syria and Iraq); a background of Revolutionary Guard activity in Syria and Iraq together with Iranian support for Hamas in Gaza and Hizbollah in Lebanon. And what should we make of those “sabotaged ships” in UAE waters, reminiscent of the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964 – the supposed attacks by North Vietnam on the USS Maddox - used to justify the deployment of US conventional forces in a war against North Vietnam? Or was Iran sending a “message” about oil sanction? A surfeit of rhetoric and politicized intelligence can lead to war by accident.
A senior adviser to President Rouhani, Hesameddin Ashena, recently tweeted President Trump: “You wanted a better deal with Iran. Looks like you’re going to get a war instead. That’s what happens when you listen to the moustache”. All part of the game. But with someone as erratic and unfocussed as Donald Trump, who most commentators believe is genuinely no warmonger, it is a game in which miscalculation can happen.
Bolton has stayed true to form: he has now overreached himself. Trump is de-escalating. But the likelihood, expressed in an earlier blog, that the USA’s ever closer relationship with Israel may encourage an Israeli military strike on Iran, alongside its current bombing in Syria, remains a danger.
See also "Thanks to John Bolton Iran could be standing on the cusp of full scale confrontation" The Article.com
A large photograph of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Da’esh leader, appeared in The Times on 30 April. He looked distinctly alive and well fed, compared to his murderous followers, and was starring in a video designed to reinforce his leadership of Da’esh and to celebrate its atrocities. Then we have news of Asia Bibi’s release at last and escape to Canada reminding us of the innocent Christians suffering under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
So this may not be the best time to declare my admiration for Muslims in their practice of Ramadan. No matter. The Islamic annual fast began on Sunday night, 5 May and will last till 4 June. It is a strenuous expression of Muslims’ aim to lead a life of self-discipline, prayer and charity completely at odds with the orgy of cruelty and hatred which is Da’esh.
Britain is far from free of prejudice against Muslims. It extends far further than the defunct UKIP, the Brexit Party and Farage, and, if Baroness Warsi is to be believed, has seeped into parts of the Conservative Party. The Mayor of London needs police protection because he is Muslim. Steve Bannon is now promoting Islamophobia in Europe. The positive aspects of Muslim faith are simply ignored. We have to fear the direction in which our society is going.
During Ramadan observant Muslims neither eat nor drink between dawn and sunset. Sunnis time sunset to be when the sun disappears over the horizon, like a coin in a slot; Shi’a when the red glow has left the sky. The fast lasts four weeks from the beginning of the ninth lunar month of the Muslim calendar until the end. It is tough going in the Nordic countries when it can last over 15 hours. In the intense heat of the Middle East fasting is shorter but punishing. Young children, the elderly, nursing, pregnant or menstruating women and travelers are traditionally dispensed.
I was in the Yemen in 1989 watching families gathered around plates of food waiting for sunset; the firing of a cannon signaled that the fast was over. In Nigeria expatriate advice was not to have your car repaired during Ramadan as mechanics were not on top form. When I broke my leg in Connemara during Ramadan, most of the surgical team in Galway Hospital came from the Middle East. With the inheritance of my expatriate prejudices, I was hoping that the consultant orthopedic surgeon in charge of repairing my multiple fractured limb, whom I learnt was Jordanian, would not be practicing even if Muslim. He appeared at my bedside in a bomber jacket and I guessed he would be the least pious of the team. If there were going to be prayers of supplication, dua, said that evening, it seemed more likely that they were going to be mine than his.
The last ten days of Ramadan recall and celebrate the foundation of Islam, the anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad receiving the verses of the Qu’ran. The spiritual purpose of this abstinence, and the recommended religious practices associated with it, such as special prayers and alms-giving, is taqwa, to gain in piety, strengthening that part of human nature that seeks the good and weakens the propensity for evil, nafs (Qu’ran 2:183-185). Fasting is one of the five ‘pillars’ of Islam, some would say the strongest.
The Muslim daily fast ends with a communal meal. The fasting month ends with a big family get together like Easter or Christmas. Ramadan shares its basic rhythms and purpose with the other two monotheistic religions, though today Christian and Jewish fasting occurs in a far less robust and demanding form. Lent in the Churches of the Syriac tradition gets closest to the rigour of Ramadan. But does the Islamic fast have any significance for a secular Britain? Well, it is as counter-cultural as you can get to both individualism and hedonism, and brings concern for self-discipline and self-control into sharp focus.
Apart from a willingness to experience hunger, Muslims have also built into their religious practice a normative attempt to reduce poverty by the requirement to give an annual tithe, zakat, and practice sadaqa, charitable giving. Ramadan is a time to do both.
Thirst is a different matter. I have an African memory of coming back from the Chad border, being rescued hitch-hiking in a temperature of over 110 degrees Fahrenheit outside Maroua in northern Cameroons by a pick-up with Muslim workers in the back. It was so hot out of the shadow of buildings or trees, it hurt. The driver offered me some murky water in a dirty plastic container. I declined. It required little imagination to see the consequences of accepting. We stopped, mats out, for the sunset, maghrib, prayer. We were skirting the border with Nigeria now frequented by Boko Haram. I could feel my tongue swelling up in my mouth. I don’t recommend experiencing real thirst.
I am looking forward to going for iftar, the meal breaking the fast after sunset, with Turkish friends, several of them refugees from Erdogan’s police state. They are from the modernizing and progressive Muslim Gulen movement persecuted by the Turkish government. Some of the Gulen movement participated in the failed military coup against Erdogan who promptly designated and banned the movement as terrorists. Turkish asylum seekers, many Gulen followers, are now being sent back by Greece from the Turkish-Greek border. So this will be for several around the table an iftar and Ramadan separated from their relatives, a worrying time. And I won’t be taking up Turkish Airlines advertised invitation to visit the historic and scenic beauties of Turkey in the near future.
South Africa goes to the polls on 8 May to elect a National Assembly and Provincial Legislatures for the fifth time since the April 1994 elections that ended apartheid. This was one of the best monitored elections in Africa drawing monitors from around the world. Black voters swept the African National Congress (ANC) to power. The Party still retains some of its glory as the movement that brought freedom, though it is waning. The hope, excitement and enthusiasm of 1994 are long gone.
The advantage of monitoring the 1994 elections in one of the Ecumenical Monitoring Programme for South Africa (EMPSA) teams in KwaZulu Natal alongside President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia was that he was our canary down the mine. If the crowd shrank away, that was an area dominated by Inkatha, the Zulu Party. If people were beaming and rushed forward to greet him, then we were in territory dominated by the non-racial ANC. You always knew where you stood and the likely dangers.
There were three in our monitoring team. Kaunda himself, a former leader of a nationalist struggle, signature white hankie in top pocket, with his immaculate Zambian bodyguard in perfectly pressed military uniform, plus me as adviser, general factotum and bag-carrier. We were very lucky. Until only a day or two before the elections began on 26 April, and our arrival in Durban, it had looked as if civil war between Inkatha and the ANC might break out in KwaZulu-Natal. Hence the presence of an influential and admired mediator and election monitor such as President Kaunda. Inkatha leader Chief Gatsha Buthelezi pulled back from the brink.
Our itinerary took us to small towns and townships north of Durban. We attended a night prayer vigil for peace in Pietermaritzburg Anglican cathedral. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was at the back of the church. The Catholic Archbishop of Durban, Denis Hurley, delivered a short address. Shortly after he spoke, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a stocky white man rushing up the aisle towards us looking disturbed. Sure enough, he blundered along our line of pews towards Kaunda. To my amazement the bodyguard moved aside to let the man past him and sit next to Kaunda.
I feared an assassination. But no. The man broke into wracking sobs. Kaunda held his hand and took out his handkerchief. Between sobs the man explained that as a member of the South African Special Forces he had raided the ANC HQ in Lusaka, the Zambian capital. He had come to ask forgiveness for the killings. He and Kaunda talked quietly. I asked the bodyguard later how he knew it had been safe but he just smiled. This election time seemed filled with some kind of enchantment. The wonder of the 1994 elections was that they were conducted peacefully, and were in themselves part of a process of reconciliation, and, looking at the faces of the black voters in winding queues, waiting to cast their first vote, a moving expression of hope and human dignity.
25 years later the contrast is striking. This time some 50 different parties are contesting the 400 seats in the National Assembly. The atmosphere of euphoria and expectation of major change has gone. Half the population remains below the poverty line in a country with one of the world’s most unequal societies and spectacular income inequality. Over a quarter of the labour force are unemployed. Youth unemployment is running at around 50%. Judging by the very low electoral registration levels for young people, hope that the political Parties will improve their lives has disappeared. The fiery populist, Julius Malema, former leader of the ANC Youth League who appeals to angry youth, is likely to see his Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), currently at 6.25% of the popular vote, make gains.
In 1994 Nelson Mandela led the ANC to a resounding victory in the country’s first national democratic election. But for people born since then the heroic past is just that, the past; the ANC has gradually become for them just another political Party. Since Thabo Mbeki’s time as President 1999-2008, the ANC’s share of the national vote has been declining, though only by a few percentage points, (the 2004 elections, when the economy was growing at 4.5% annually, gave the ANC a record 69% of the vote). After Jacob Zuma’s de facto coup in 2008 and the rampant corruption he brought, steady decline set in. This year some commentators are predicting the ANC will only get between 50-60% of the popular vote.
President Cyril Ramaphosa is, in comparison with his predecessor, good news. A lawyer who rose up the ranks of the ANC to become its secretary-general, starting from his base as leader of the powerful National Union of Mineworkers, he is credited with deploying his negotiating skills, playing an important part in reaching a settlement with the apartheid regime. Worth $550 million through his former business acumen: franchises in McDonalds, chair of the Board of the telecoms giant MTN, and time on the Board of Lonmin (platinum mines), he is well placed to know what is going on and to reflect on endemic corruption in the Party and the country’s inequality.
The question is not so much will voters continue to walk away from the ANC, but will they support it enough to give Ramaphosa the mandate and the authority he needs to pursue his proclaimed reformist programme, break out of the corruption/stagnation syndrome, and reverse South Africa’s inevitable decline. He faces considerable difficulties, not least the vexed and politically explosive issue of land reform. During his fourteen months in office, the Rand has dropped in value by 19% . Ramaphosa has tried to get rid of the most corrupt brakes on economic progress represented by ANC place-men. But protests and riots about corruption, housing, water, electricity and other failures of service delivery have been increasing.
A white Cape Town social worker, dismissing my support for the ANC in the early 1980s, said to me: “They will simply displace a corrupt and greedy white elite with a black one”. Jacob Zuma and his clique certainly proved her right. Let’s hope President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has some genuine achievements under his belt, proves her wrong. And that on 8 May South African voters will prove the commentators wrong, and give him the votes for members of the National Assembly and Provincial Legislatures that provide him with a mandate to do so.
See TheArticle.com “In 1994, the ANC swept to power on a wave of hope. 25 years on, the mood in South Africa couldn’t be more different”