The Dangerous Political Game That Killed Jo Cox

The Citizen

LONDON: The assassination of Jo Cox, a 41-year-old Labour MP, during a fierce political campaign ahead of the 23rd June referendum to decide whether Britain remains in the European Union, or leaves, has shocked many people. Her assassination is not only a personal tragedy for her family. It has wider significance, for British society has become deeply polarised in the current debate over immigration and its social and economic consequences.

A 52-year-old man, Thomas Mair, has been arrested and charged with the murder of the MP. When Mair was produced before a judge in London, and asked to confirm his name, he replied: “My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” Mair had repeatedly shot Jo Cox, and plunged a knife several times into her body as she lay dying outside a village library, where she had gone to meet her constituents.

According to the prosecution’s summary, as Mair attacked he shouted a variation of “Britain First”, “Keep Britain independent” and “Britain always comes first”. As he was arrested, Mair told police officers that he was a “political activist”.

A 77-year-old man tried to intervene, but was also attacked and seriously wounded. Britain First is an extremist right-wing group. The name chimes with the “America First” slogan of Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee in the US presidential election.

In a video released after the assassination, Britain First swiftly denied that the attacker had any links with the group. Other details emerging since Thomas Mair’s arrest tell a different story. There is evidence that he had purchased manuals on guns and explosives from National Alliance, an American neo-Nazi group which advocates an all-white nation.

Receipts going back many years show that Mair bought Ich Kampfe (I Fight!), an illustrated handbook issued to members of Germany’s Nazi Party in the early 1940s; and he had been a subscriber to a white supremacist magazine S. A. Patriot, published by a pro-apartheid group in South Africa.

Police found firearms, knives and Nazi regalia during their searches of Thomas Mair’s home. As further evidence emerged, an overwhelming number of people expressed grief over the death of Jo Cox. At the same time, some white supremacists glorified the act of murder on social media. Right-wing extremist groups are now a priority line of police investigations, along with Thomas Mair’s mental health. Police said that he was fit to be questioned.

The political and social landscape in Britain has undergone an alarming transformation, and poses a major challenge to society. The targeted assassination of a young politician, on the threshold of a promising career in politics after a decade of work for international charities, is a symptom of deeper conflict between antagonistic forces in British society.

To make sense of what has happened, context is all important. Despite strong opposition to Britain’s membership of the European Union in some quarters, general consent had been found after a referendum in 1975. It did not last long. Scepticism over closer integration with the rest of Europe started to come to the fore again in the 1980s, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was in power. She fought the European Union hierarchy, but did not make a decisive move to leave the association.

Nonetheless, many of her associates and followers were encouraged, and their hostility to the EU grew steadily. Today, distrust of Germany and France lingers in many of Britain’s older generation, though young people under 35 years of age are more pro-European Union.

Enlargement of the EU to 28 member-states and closer integration has its virtues. It has created a large single market with unrestricted movement of goods and services, but has also enabled free movement of people. It has also kept the peace in Europe. With an ageing population and shortage of workers in some sectors, immigrant workers from the European Union and outside have been coming to Britain to take up jobs which are difficult to fill. Competition in the labour market is greater.

There is downward pressure on wages because of economic austerity in the government and private sectors. Competition for jobs, and the presence of new arrivals from abroad, mean extra pressure on public services. Further, it generates resentment among working people already in Britain, because they feel disadvantaged. Their complaint, put in simplistic terms, is that foreigners are taking away their jobs.

The reality is somewhat different. Immigrants are mostly young with necessary skills, and many work as doctors, nurses, IT specialists. Others do menial jobs which British workers are reluctant to do for relatively low wages.

Anti-EU politicians have been successful in harnessing the discontent. They have fought an aggressive campaign over immigration from EU countries, and assert that the United Kingdom must regain its independence and sovereignty from the European Union – the absurd implication is that the United Kingdom is an EU colony. To this end, many politicians on the right have common cause, though their tactics may vary. Some of the language used in the “Leave” campaign has been inflammatory, even xenophobic, similar to that on the far right.

For example, claims that Turkey’s entire population of 80 million, overwhelmingly Muslim, is about to descend on Britain; the 500 million people living in the European Union can enter the country any time; and a poster similar to a Nazi-era image showing a flood of people ready to enter, with the message “Breaking Point”. After Jo Cox’s murder, her bereaved husband, Brendan, criticised mainstream politicians for legitimising extremist anti-immigrant views by imitating far-right rhetoric.

The far-right fringe group Britain First recently announced that it was to launch a “direct action campaign against Muslim elected officials targeting where they live, work and pray”. The group described them as “occupiers”.

It is a disturbing scenario in which hatred runs deep; individual interest supersedes wider community interest; there are people who feel that their leaders have granted equality and fair treatment to those who do not deserve it; the ‘undeserving’ are inferior and subhuman in their eyes. In this critical period, Britain needs leadership that promotes unity not division, cooperation not isolationism, and communal harmony not blame.

[END]

Repeating Falsehood and Making Stuff Up To Divert Attention from Social Woes

The Citizen

President Barack Obama’s recent commencement address at Rutgers University in New Jersey has raised some uncomfortable truths about public life.

In a wide-ranging critique of the 2016 presidential campaign, Obama warned against a culture of chauvinism and falsehood. He pointed out the dangers of wilful ignorance of leaders and commentators who insist on the supremacy of the past, and dismiss science and facts as elitist. He singled out the issue of inequality, and rebuked leaders for “repeating falsehood and just making stuff up” to divert attention from real social woes.

It is easy to say that Obama is a lame duck president, but this description ignores significant achievements in his second term. He has defied the powerful Israel lobby, and started reconciliation with Iran. He has overcome the lobby of Cuban exiles in the United States, and normalised relations with Havana. His visit to Vietnam and lifting of the American arms embargo has been hailed as opening a new chapter between the two countries. At home, Obama has nominated Merrick Garland to fill the Supreme Court position vacated by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. A battle with his Republican opponents is expected in the Senate in the coming months.

Obama’s address at Rutgers University was primarily a commentary on the current state of affairs in America, but it could equally apply to Britain, India, indeed many other countries. Therefore, the theme of his address – in politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue – is worth reflecting upon. For counter-factual and anti-intellectual tendencies anchored in cultural and religious chauvinism permeate many societies today.

Obama had Donald Trump in mind – the man with enough delegates to win the Republican Party’s presidential nomination for the November 2016 election, and who has made disparaging remarks about women, Hispanics, Muslims, almost every other minority, and foreigners.

If elected, Trump says he would build a wall at the US-Mexico border to stop immigrants, and force Mexico to pay for it. He would ban Muslims to stop terrorism. What would he do with the 55 million Hispanics and 3.5 million Muslims, the third largest religious community already in the United States? Obama’s comment was: “A wall won’t stop that.”

Donald Trump has become the most prominent icon for Americans who feel angry and bitter because of globalization resulting in a massive number of jobs moving abroad, and the presence of immigrants at home. But he is not the only one to harness the widespread discontent of mainly white working-class Americans for his political ends.

Ex-governor of Alaska and the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, another icon of America’s ultraconservatives, is known for making bizarre statements. She has endorsed Donald Trump, and in a jibe against Spanish-speaking people in the United States, she insisted that all “immigrants” will have to be legal, and will have to speak “American 24/7 – the way it’s been for thousands of years”.

For those who care about facts, colonisation of America by English settlers began in 1585, when Walter Raleigh sailed with about a hundred men to the east coast of the continent, and named the settlement Virginia. Before the English arrived, Spanish influence had been prevalent from the Chesapeake Bay to the tip of South America, including countries now known as Mexico, Peru and Cuba.

On the European side of the Atlantic, a fierce debate on immigration is taking place in Britain and across the continent. The debate presents disturbing aspects of raw human instincts – sectarianism, xenophobia, economic and class rivalries. Hyperbole and falsehood dominate the European debate. In a bitterly fought presidential election in Austria, the far-right Freedom Party candidate, Norbert Hofer, came within 0.3 per cent (31000 votes) of winning. Hofer’s manifesto was overtly anti-immigrant. Austria, once a Social Democratic bastion, is split down the middle, and the main parties fear that the far-right could win power in the 2019 general election.

Britain is in the midst of an acrimonious campaign before the upcoming referendum to decide whether the country should remain in the European Union, or leave. The issue has caused deep splits in the governing Conservative Party, and in the wider society. Supporters of remaining in the EU emphasise the balance of benefits, including the free movement of goods, services and people for British citizens, and many of the same rights they can enjoy throughout the 27 other countries of the European Union.

Those campaigning to leave have consistently been throwing up a figure of £350 million which they claim Britain pays every week for EU membership. In truth, Britain’s net contribution to the EU is less than half that. As the campaign has progressed, the focus of Leavers has shifted from the assertion of the British parliament’s absolute sovereignty to make all laws governing the country to immigration and firmer border controls.

The UK Statistics Authority, the official watchdog, first warned the Leavers against using the £350 million figure in their campaign literature, but the Leavers refused to heed the warning. So the official watchdog has advised the electorate not to trust the figure.

On the other hand, a parliamentary committee has accused both sides of misleading voters by exaggerating, embellishing, or inventing facts. The committee’s report says that a few grains of truth are buried under mountains of false claims which not only mislead the people, but impoverish the public debate.

Leading politicians on both sides appear overtly keen to demonstrate their mastery of history to support their argument. Some have not hesitated to invoke references to Hitler to claim, for example, that the EU’s agenda is to dominate Europe like Hitler. Others have asserted that if Britain leaves the association, the EU will be weakened and there will be another major war in Europe.

The tendency among leaders and commentators to insist on the supremacy of the past over science and facts is not only an American or European phenomenon. The drive in India, with official approval, to revert to religious scriptures thousands of years old to determine how people should live, and what children should be taught, is a case in point.

The inclusion of myths in science, and the rewriting of history, in pursuit of ideological goals is a slippery slope. When politicians at the highest level employ rhetorical questions like what did India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru achieve, or assertions such as the current government, having come to power just two years ago, has done more than its predecessors in sixty years since independence, the result is infectious, because many others follow.

Remember the Bhakra Nangal Dam Project (1948–1963); the Green Revolution (1960s); the India-Pakistan war that established India’s pre-eminence in South Asia (1971); and India’s first atomic test in the Rajasthan desert (1974)? Did those events mean nothing? Or they were important events which explain much about today’s India.

There are three main limitations of the postmodern world in the new century: crisis of leadership, fondness for instant answers, and supremacy of opinions over scientific methods and facts.

We should be careful, for when opinions are numerous, and the regard for facts scant, we live in an era of extremes.

[END]

The United States, Britain and the European Union

CounterPunch

On his farewell tour, President Barack Obama has stirred the pot ahead of the June referendum in Britain on whether the United Kingdom should stay in the European Union or leave. His warning to leavers that Britain cannot expect a trade agreement with the United States any time soon if it withdraws from the EU has infuriated leaders of the Brexit campaign, and delighted those who want to remain, including Prime Minister David Cameron. Obama’s message to Britain was that it should remain in the EU, and that it was in America’s interest, too.

Some of the comments made by leading Brexit figures in the governing Conservative Party in retaliation to Obama’s intervention have been described as borderline racist.

In a particularly outspoken jibe, London mayor and a member of the British cabinet, Boris Johnson, accused the American president of interfering in British politics. Johnson went on to say that after entering the White House Obama had ordered the removal a bust of the British wartime leader, Winston Churchill, from the Oval Office. Furthermore, he suggested that this might be because of Obama’s “part Kenyan ancestral dislike of the British empire.”

Other leading Brexit campaigners expressed similar sentiments. Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, told the American president to “butt” out of intervening in Britain’s referendum on EU membership. Farage, too, asserted that Obama was influenced by his Kenyan family’s colonial view of Britain. The use of this type of language about an American president is unprecedented for the British political establishment – a country which claims a “special relationship” with the United States.

There are striking similarities between insinuations by American conservatives about Barack Obama’s Kenyan heritage and his Muslim father, and comments heard in Britain. Some members of the Brexit lobby have privately expressed fears that such direct attacks on him will backfire, and help the pro-EU campaign in a tight race. Jingoism and xenophobia live on both sides of the Atlantic. There are people ready and willing to whip up such sentiments.

Winston Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Soames, a member of the British parliament and a supporter of remaining in the EU, has described Boris Johnson’s remarks as appalling, and said it was “inconceivable” that his grandfather would not have welcomed Obama’s views. It was, after all, Churchill who first suggested closer European unity in a famous speech in the Swiss city of Zurich in 1946.

From the ruins of the Second World War, Churchill spoke of his vision to recreate “the European family” with a structure under which it can “dwell in peace, in safety and freedom.” He described it as something like a United States of Europe. Today, his party is tearing itself apart over whether Britain should be part of that structure.

Why should President Obama have intervened so publicly in the EU debate during his visit to Britain? And why did opponents of the European Union react so furiously? These questions require understanding of how Britain’s relations with the United States and the rest of Europe, Germany in particular, have evolved in the last century.

The Second World War was a watershed which brought enormous global change. Hitler’s Nazi regime in Europe, and imperial Japan in Asia, were defeated. But Europe was quickly divided into rival blocs again – one dominated by America, the other by the Soviet Union.

At the same time, Europe’s colonial powers, Britain and France in particular, were so exhausted that they would have found it difficult to keep distant territories under their control. And the foremost superpower, the United States, was exerting pressure on the masters to let their colonies go. The Americans wanted to expand their markets worldwide, for which they were in competition with the Soviets.

Imperial Britain had to yield to imperial America – the coming inevitability which Churchill intensely disliked. There was, however, another option. Accept that the United States was paramount; stay close to Washington; and, whenever possible, use diplomacy to maneuver America in the direction in which Britain’s interests would be served.

The United States, too, was looking for close allies – in Europe, in the United Nations Security Council and other international organizations. Germany had been the main enemy in two world wars. France, at times, was too independent for Washington’s liking. Under President Charles de Gaulle’s leadership, France left NATO’s integrated military structure in 1966, asserting its independent nuclear deterrent and broader defense policy. Only in 2009 did President Sarkozy announce that France would rejoin the military structure of NATO once again.

In contrast, the United Kingdom has enjoyed the closest military and intelligence ties with the United States. “Special relationship” is a term often invoked in London. The dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the fall of the iron curtain, have paved the way for NATO and the European Union to expand. Today, both organizations perform similar functions, having incorporated countries that were once in the Soviet bloc. NATO and the EU both do the job of containing Russia, and of projecting American power beyond Europe. Brexit campaigners fail to get it.

[END]

Bush and Obama: Two Middle East Legacies

The Citizen

In January 2017, Barack Obama will be handing over the presidency to a successor after eight years in the White House. In the April 2016 issue of The Atlantic Magazine, President Obama speaks to Jeffrey Goldberg, and gives an overall view of his presidency. Goldberg’s article headlined “The Obama Doctrine” is based on a series of conversations in which the president explains, and to an extent justifies, the hardest decisions he took and why.

Alongside his own explanation, an independent and critical analysis of the Obama legacy, and comparison with that of his predecessor George W. Bush, is necessary.

Barack Obama’s victory in November 2008 was historic, not only because he was the first ever African-American to be elected president of the United States, but also because of its timing. After eight years of George W. Bush’s “war on terror” in the wake of the  September 11, 2001 attacks, Barack Obama’s victory over his hawkish Republican opponent John McCain promised change. Many millions in America and abroad felt that an era of peace was near.

The “war on terror” was primarily directed against Muslims, seen by Bush’s vice president Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and most of America’s military-intelligence complex as a threat. It defined the George W. Bush presidency, and sharply polarised the world. Nonetheless, it was a happy irony that the United States elected a president, a Christian, whose father was Muslim. The manner in which Obama’s victory was greeted made it appear like a possible antidote to treat the afflictions created under the Bush presidency.

Those afflictions were everywhere. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq at the centre of war; the Greater Middle East, where abductions, hostage-taking, torture and extra-judicial killings were carried out in the name of “war on terror” without boundaries; sweeping depiction of Muslims and their religion as if they were the root cause of all evil. It shaped opinion in much of the non-Islamic world against Muslims. It also reinforced perceptions of the west in the Islamic world, widening the breach. George W. Bush’s presidency ended with the financial earthquake of 2008/2009.

In January 2009, Obama’s presidency began from a low point. Now that he approaches the conclusion of his eight years in office, the time is ripe for an appraisal of his journey through multiple crises in the Middle East. What kind of Middle East is it going to be when he leaves the White House in January 2017?

The high point of President Obama’s engagement with the region came soon after his inauguration. In his June 2009 address at al-Azhar University in Egypt, he struck the right tone. Praising a thousand-year-old al-Azhar as a beacon of Islamic learning, he said he carried with him the goodwill of the American people; he acknowledged that great tension existed between the United States and Muslims around the world; many Muslims were denied rights and opportunities by colonialism.

Muslim-majority countries, he said, were treated as proxies during the Cold war without regard to their own aspirations; sweeping changes by globalization and modernity led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam; remarkably for an American president, Obama cited the situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world as “a major source of tension”, albeit making clear America’s strong bond with Israel.

Obama’s comment about the sufferings of Palestinians – Muslims and Christians – in the pursuit of a homeland, their pain and dislocation could not have gone down well with Israel’s political establishment, and many in Israel’s majority Jewish community. But that America will not turn its backs on “the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own” was music to the ears of numerous people in the occupied Palestinian territories and the wider Arab world.

As President Obama prepares to complete his term, his record repeats the history of American presidency. It shows that even the world’s most powerful elected leader has his limits. The plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories that Obama so eloquently spoke of in 2009 continues, as changes to Israel’s citizenship laws narrow the space in which Arab citizens of Israel can exercise their rights. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel remains defiant of the Obama administration’s wishes, helped by the Israel lobby’s influence in the American Congress. Obama has given up on the Palestinian cause.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, his stance on the popular revolution against the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak was hesitant. The revolution did lead to Mubarak’s fall from power, and victories of the Muslim Brotherhood in the presidential and parliamentary elections. However, with the Mubarak era military and judiciary remaining opposed to the new order, and President Mohamed Morsi facing persistent rebellion at home, the short-lived elected order in Egypt was crushed by the military in July 2013, leading to the rise of the military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power.

The military overthrow of Egypt’s elected government that President Obama still does not recognise as a coup was carried out under his administration’s watch, with the National Security Adviser Susan Rice being close to events. Obama also gave in to the sustained pressure from the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, to intervene in the Libyan civil war to overthrow, after which Muammar Gaddafi was brutally assassinated. In his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg for the Atlantic Magazine, Obama lamented the intervention in Libya, and disastrous repercussions thereof in the Arab world and beyond – repercussions for which he pointed the finger at the British government.

It is true that the Obama administration has not used vitriolic language like the preceding administration against Muslims and Islam, though leading politicians continue to use such language in Congress and outside. However, those killed by drone attacks ordered by President Obama are overwhelmingly Muslim, and the total number of drone strikes is about ten times greater than those ordered by his predecessor. Among the killings ordered by Obama from the White House was that of Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani city, Abbottabad, in an American special forces’ operation in May 2011.

If George W. Bush left behind a vast amount of wreckage in Iraq and Afghanistan, Barack Obama is about to leave similar wreckage in Libya and Syria. Both legacies attest a historical record of the exercise of power with impunity. In one respect, though, Obama has forced a fundamental change in the Middle East. He has gone against Israel and Saudi Arabia, America’s closest allies, to enable US rapprochement with Iran after 35 years. In doing so, he has moved the balance away from Sunni Islam towards Shia Islam. Whether he has made this important shift too late to be permanent, and it could revert again under a successor administration, remains to be seen.

[END]

Britain’s EU Referendum: What Is At Stake?

History News Network

A continent away from the presidential primaries in the United States, Britain is in the midst of an acrimonious campaign ahead of a referendum to be held on June 23 this year. The purpose is to decide whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union, a political and economic association covering much of Europe, or leave.

The idea of such an association was first mooted by the British war-time leader Winston Churchill. In a famous address at the University of Zurich in 1946, just after World War II, Churchill spoke of there being “a remedy which would make all Europe free and happy.” It was to “recreate the European family” and provide it with “a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom.” He called it “a kind of United States of Europe.”

Churchill’s dream became a reality with the Treaty of Rome of 1957, and the creation of the European Economic Community. That association is known as the European Union today – the result of years of evolution. Ironically, when the European Economic Community was established, the French President, Charles de Gaulle, doubted “the UK’s political will” to be a member. France vetoed Britain’s application twice, in 1963 and 1967, and London had to wait until 1973 before it could join.

More than half a century on, Britain faces uncertainty again in its relationship with the rest of Europe. The issue of whether to stay in the European Union or exit divides the country, and the argument is getting louder and louder as the June referendum approaches.

The governing Conservative Party of Prime Minister David Cameron is deeply split. A number of senior members of his cabinet, more junior ministers, and as many as a hundred Conservative MPs, have declared their support for leaving the European Union. Their decision goes against their own government’s policy to remain, with some “opt-outs” from the EU Treaty that the prime minister has secured after lengthy negotiations. The governing party’s divisions have created an extraordinary situation in a parliamentary democracy which is supposed to have a cabinet with collective responsibility.

On the other hand, members of other political parties generally support the idea of Britain’s continued membership, with the exception of the United Kingdom Independence Party. With just one member in the British Parliament, UKIP’s demands center around leaving the EU, and imposing rigid controls on immigration into Britain. UKIP and Conservative opponents of EU membership assert that this is the only way for the United Kingdom to regain its sovereignty lost to the European Union.

The essence of their argument is that membership of the EU means having to accept laws made by the European Commission and Parliament. Although both have representatives of Britain and other member-states, it hardly matters for opponents. Their complaint – it means that the United Kingdom cannot govern itself.

Advocates of Brexit, as the idea of leaving the EU is called, insist that all laws governing the United Kingdom, in particular immigration, trade, justice, must be made in the British Parliament in London. They will accept nothing short of total sovereignty. Their solution is to negotiate separate trade deals with countries which Britain wants to do business with, and for the UK Parliament to pass all legislation to govern the country.

As in the United States, the resentment in certain sections of British society against foreign workers is strong. Those sections form the core of opposition to Britain’s membership of the European Union. They want cuts in the numbers of foreign workers, and the benefits of those who remain in the country. Little attention is paid to consequences for nearly two million UK citizens living in the rest of the European Union.

Will British citizens keep their right of free movement and freedom to work across the European Union under the system of reciprocity currently available? Will their status as permanent residents, and benefits like health and social security, be safe in other member-countries if Britain leaves? How will Britain’s exit influence the attitudes of other countries? These and other questions must be part of the current debate which could lead to a major realignment of British foreign policy. Supporters of Britain’s continued membership of the European Union have begun to raise these questions. And a lot of heat is being generated between the two sides.

Words of warning are being heard from across the borders. President Hollande of France has said that if British voters backed exit from the European Union, there would be “consequences” for Britain. His economy minister Emmanuel Macron was more direct. He said that France would end border controls agreed with the United Kingdom, opening the way for large numbers of migrants to move into Britain. The English Channel separating Britain and France is less than 20 miles wide. And with millions of people arriving from war-torn countries of the Middle East to the European continent, the prospect of large numbers of them heading for Britain’s shores is a nightmare.

Supporters of Brexit lament not just the loss of national sovereignty, but also the size of Britain’s financial contribution, €11.3 billion in 2014, to the EU budget. In comparison, Germany paid nearly €26 billion, France €20 billion and Spain €10 billion. The argument of Brexit advocates is that the United Kingdom could negotiate separate agreements with EU member-states, and pay even less, like Norway – without joining the association. Often ignored is the fact that Norway still pays into the European Union budget for privileges it receives, and the Norwegian economy is much smaller.

The referendum in June is not just about Britain’s membership of the European Union. It is about unhindered trade, movement of EU citizens, cooperation for mutual security; and about how British expatriates are treated by others, depending on how their citizens are treated by the United Kingdom. The stakes are high, and the opinion so evenly divided that the outcome hangs in the balance. In this climate of uncertainty, some will still find justification in General de Gaulle’s skepticism about Britain, expressed more than half a century ago. Others will hope that British voters will make a choice driven on the idea of a shared destiny, not past doubts.

[END]

How Does Today’s Middle East Threaten Obama’s Legacy?

History News Network

The season of festivities is over, and, once more, the year 2016 begins with warning signs. History is an unquestionable pattern of hope and disaster. Nowhere is it truer than in the Middle East.

In the midst of turmoil in the region, the nuclear deal, signed between Iran and six world powers in July 2015, was hailed as an historic success. In stages, it promised to end Iran’s long isolation since the 1979 Islamic revolution, which overthrew America’s close ally, Shah Reza Pahlavi, and brought to power a vehemently anti-US regime in Tehran. The 35-year freeze between Iran and the West, and sanctions against Iran, caused great hardship for Iranians.

For the United States and other powers (Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China), the likelihood of restoring normal ties with Iran brought prospects of relief. They too had paid a high price in lost opportunities for business, and difficulty in accessing Iranian oil. Sanctions on Iranian exports made oil supplies tight despite Saudi Arabia increasing its production from time to time. Sanctions on Iran’s Shia clerical regime were good for the House of Saud, and their oil-rich kingdom.

For President Barack Obama, the thaw in relations with Iran, despite strong opposition from Israel, the United States Congress, and the Saudi rulers, was one of two major foreign policy victories. The other was normalization with communist Cuba for the first time since Fidel Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship in 1959. These successes abroad, along with his healthcare plan at home, are supposed to form Obama’s legacy at the end of his presidency in January 2017.

Throughout his White House years, Obama has encountered fierce resistance from conservatives in the Republican and Democratic parties alike. For him, the first African American to be elected president, a durable legacy is particularly important. However, achievements which make headlines is one thing, reality on the ground is another.

Less than a year after the nuclear agreement aimed at ensuring that Iran did not make the bomb, Obama’s main rationale, things between Washington and Tehran do not look all that promising, and recent events in the Middle East do not augur well.

Two developments in particular have caused a sharp deterioration with threatening consequences in the coming year. On December 30, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama administration was preparing to impose new sanctions against firms and individuals in Iran. The report followed Iran’s test of a medium-range missile which, according to UN monitors, is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Iran insists that the missile is conventional, and purely for defensive purposes. Tehran has long insisted that the country does not seek nuclear weapons; its nuclear program is peaceful.

Initially, Iran’s foreign ministry rejected any connection between its missile program and the nuclear agreement. President Hassan Rouhani further accused the United States of “illegal meddling” and instructed Iran’s defense minister to accelerate the country’s ballistic missile program in the face of new sanctions.

One cause of escalation in tensions between Washington and Tehran was bad enough. Yet more serious events have since followed in the Middle East. On January 2, Saudi Arabia put to death 47 men in what Human Rights Watch described as the largest mass execution in the country since 1980. The number of those executed was shocking, among them a prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a non-violent critic of the Saudi ruling establishment.

The cleric was accused of breaking allegiance with the ruler, inciting sectarian strife, and supporting rioting and destruction of public property during protests in Shia-majority towns in Saudi Arabia in 2011-2012. According to Human Rights Watch, local residents and family members insisted that al-Nimr supported only peaceful protests, and eschewed all forms of violent opposition to the government.

The executions in Saudi Arabia, and the fallout thereof, have raised the power struggle with Iran to a new level, and there is a real sense of crisis in the Middle East now. Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has described al-Nimr as a “martyr” and warned Saudi Arabia of “divine revenge.” Demonstrations against Saudi Arabia have taken place in Iran and other countries. The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has expressed his “deep dismay” over the executions.

Angered by the international criticism, the Saudi authorities have broken off diplomatic relations with Iran. Sudan and Djibouti have followed Saudi Arabia by cutting off ties. Other Gulf states have either reduced the level of relations with Tehran, or recalled their ambassadors. For their part, the Iranian authorities have accused the Saudi air force of attacking Iran’s embassy in Yemen.

Motives behind these actions are worth considering. Questions must be asked: Is Iran being provoked into launching a direct attack on Saudi interests, and what may follow? If that happens, the anti-Iran sentiment in the American Congress and the Pentagon will be reinforced. There will be calls in Washington to act in support of Saudi Arabia. President Obama, in all likelihood, will resist such calls. Nevertheless, the Saudis and the Israel lobby will push him hard. There may well be pressure from the British, French, Turkish and other Sunni Arab states.

Will Obama be able to resist? Or will he succumb to the pressure?

The stakes are high. If Obama shows determination, and stands up to the pressure, criticisms of his foreign policy will increase. His detractors will accuse him of acting against America’s national interest. The final year of his presidency will be chaotic.

On the other hand, if he bows to the pressure, there is a risk of the United States being dragged into a new conflict with Iran. The consequences will be damaging on the ground and beyond. Obama’s carefully crafted strategy to chart a more equidistant course in the Middle East will be thwarted. And his presidential legacy, irreparably damaged, will pass on to his successor.

[END]

What is Going on with Russia and Turkey?

History News Network

Two recent events amid the turmoil in the Middle East are of particular interest, for they illustrate the complexity of the region’s politics, and shed light on the players’ motives as they act. On November 24, Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft flying a bombing mission against ISIS targets in Syria. The Turkish government said that the plane was one of two Su-24 bombers which had violated the country’s airspace for 17 seconds, and had been warned ten times before being shot down. Was the Turkish action taken in the heat of the moment or was it part of a calculated move is difficult to know for certain. However, the incident certainly sparked furious reactions from Moscow and Ankara. President Putin called the Turkish action a “stab in the back.” President Erdogan warned Russia not to “play with fire.”

A few days later, Israel’s defense minister Moshe Yaalon told Israel Radio that a Russian jet recently breached Israeli airspace by “mistake,” but was not shot down. Yaalon said that Russian planes “don’t intend to attack us” and therefore there is “no need to shoot them down.” When the Russians were informed, the plane, which had entered about a mile into Israel, was said to have turned back.

These incidents raise intriguing questions about relations between all three countries, and why Israel and Turkey responded so differently to brief “violations” of their territory by Russian aircraft. They provide insights into the true situation in the Middle East. They explain competing, as well as common interests, of various players in the region. They also suggest that a degree of order exists even in a seemingly chaotic set of circumstances.

Deep suspicion, even hostility, afflicted Turkish-Syrian relations since the beginning of the Cold War until the 1990s, well after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The reasons were threefold: Turkey’s membership of NATO and Syria’s alliance with the Soviets; Syria’s Baathist ruler Hafez al-Assad’s support for the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) fighting for independence from Turkey; historical baggage of Ottoman rule between the early sixteenth century and World War I.

Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in WW1, and the creation of a new Turkey by its founder Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, successive Turkish governments had seen the country as more European than Middle Eastern. Turkey’s desire to become a full member of the European Union seemed logical. However, reluctance among some EU members caused long delays. Often cited obstacles were Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus, and creation of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized only by Ankara. The end of the cold war, meanwhile, opened the way for improvement in relations with Russia and Syria. Disenchantment over the EU membership issue, and the rise of the governing Justice and Development Party originating from the Islamist tradition, renewed Turkey’s interest in the Middle East.

More than 95 percent of Turkey’s population is Muslim, mostly Sunni. Demography is, therefore, an important determinant in the country’s domestic and foreign policies. When President Hafez al-Assad of Syria expelled the Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan after sheltering him for 20 years, the stage was set for a dramatic improvement in relations between Ankara and Damascus. Under the leadership of Erdogan and al-Assad, military cooperation and formal trading ties were established; Erdogan helped Assad’s visit to France in 2005, and talks between Syria and Israel were held under Turkish mediation in 2008. Syria was brought in from the cold.

Relations between Israel and Turkey had historically been good. Ankara recognized the State of Israel in 1949, but remained mindful of its ties with the Muslim world. Diplomatic relations with Israel were downgraded during the 1956 Suez Crisis – a conflict in which Israel, France and Britain launched an unsuccessful invasion of Egypt to regain control of the Suez Canal and remove President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had nationalized Suez. Half a century later, a major crisis developed in Israeli-Turkish relations following a series of events which began after the landslide victory of Erdogan’s party in 2002.

Turkey condemned the Israeli assassination of the blind Palestinian cleric Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in 2004; Erdogan denounced Israel’s 2008-9 bombing of Gaza as “state terror” and said Israel will reap what it sows; Israel, in turn, rejected Turkish mediation in talks with Syria; then in May 2010, Israeli defense forces attacked the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” carrying humanitarian supplies, killing nine activists, including eight Turkish nationals and one Turkish-American. The flotilla had been organized by Turkey’s Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH).

These events caused a sharp deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations. However, Ankara remained pragmatic. When asked why his government doesn’t break off relations with Israel, Prime Minister Erdogan replied: “We are running the Turkish Republic, not a grocery store.” Turkey is an overwhelmingly Muslim country. Its government is of an Islamic and conservative disposition. However, the country is also a member of the Western alliance. Ankara’s ambitions to become a full member of the European Union have been set back for now, but Turkey and the European Union remain important for each other. Turkey, a leading NATO member, and Israel, America’s most important ally, can hardly be enemies no matter how serious their differences about Middle East politics.

The outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011 made Ankara reassess its developing ties with the Assad regime. Erdogan’s decision to switch sides and back the Syrian opposition was a calculated move based on a number of considerations, none without risks. In the final analysis, however, Erdogan and his party decided that Turkey had more to lose by continuing its association with the Assad regime. In the light of how long the Syrian regime has lasted, the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and the Russian intervention in Syria, that calculation is open to question.

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