Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Archive for November, 2015

The (Soft) Power That Daren’t Speak Its Name


This week the BBC – used as it is to brickbats from Tory politicians – got a rare bit of good news from the government.

As part of his early turn as Father Christmas, Chancellor George Osborne allocated £289 million to the World Service over the next five years to pay for new services to places like North Korea and Eritrea.

This partially reversed his 2010 decision that the BBC’s international broadcasting would no longer be paid for by a grant from the Foreign Office, but out of the Licence Fee.

BBC Director General, Tony Hall, welcomed the deal as the single biggest increase in funding for the World Service by any government ever.

Despite these warm words from the Corporation, caution would be advised in the corridors – or open plan offices – of Broadcasting House.

Strikingly, the announcement came not in the Chancellor’s Spending Review but in the Strategic Defence and Security Review a couple of days earlier.

What has the World Service got to do with security and defence, you may ask.

The answer lies in politics and international diplomacy.

Many Conservative MPs – even ones who don’t like the BBC on principle because it is publicly funded – like the World Service.

That’s partly because of the feel good factor from when they travel abroad and the people they meet say complimentary things about something British.

But it’s also because politicians have come to appreciate that the World Service is a major soft power asset to the UK.

In a nutshell, soft power is the ability to get people to do what you want by the power of attraction rather than by forcing them.

In many international comparisons of soft power the UK comes near the top of the table – and one of the things that people in other countries like about Britain is the BBC.

By being a high quality, independent source of news that is respected by audiences around the world, the BBC reflects well on the UK and represents the democratic values politicians like to say the country stands for.

The thing about soft power though is that it is hard earned and easily squandered.

It’s a bit like the diplomatic equivalent of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in physics. Because of the scepticism of politicians and governments shared by many people around the world, the more visibly governments try to build up and wield their soft power the less effective it is.

Just ask the Chinese government. It spends billions on international broadcasting but it hasn’t made much difference to its soft power – because it’s perceived as propaganda.

By overtly linking funding for the BBC to the UK’s soft power in the Strategic Defence and Security Review, the government risks undermining the BBC’s reputation for independence and impartiality from the state – precisely what makes it attractive and popular with audiences around the world.

Of course the government’s intention in funding the World Service from its beginnings before the Second World War was always to increase British influence in the world, but when I first started working at World Service in the late 1980s it wasn’t something you talked about in those bald terms and certainly not much in public.

But times have changed and now Tony Hall himself made the link in his statement welcoming the new money.

“The World Service is one of the UK’s most important cultural exports and one of our best sources of global influence.” (my emphasis).

Indeed, pressure on funding has led the BBC down the path of pitching for more money by trying to leverage its contribution to the country’s soft power.

Take the BBC’s proposed new service for North Korea. There has been a small but persistent lobby in parliament for a Korean Service for years, but the BBC had always resisted this on the grounds it wouldn’t be cost effective because not many North Koreans would be able to hear it given jamming and strict controls on radio sales.

Despite the advent of digital and online, the same applies today as access to the internet in the country is highly restricted.

The danger is that if the BBC aligns itself too closely and too publicly with the government’s foreign policy goals and ministers talk about the BBC as part of the country’s security strategy, people abroad may come to distrust it, which in turn could mean the BBC’s influence – and its audience – will decline.

There’s a scene in Ridley Scott’s epic “Gladiator” when the Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, is talking about the danger his ideals may not survive his death.

“There was once a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish… it was so fragile. And I fear that it will not survive the winter.”

The words may come from a movie, but the BBC and the government should take heed.


IS: The Limits of Conventional Wisdom

Would Islamic State have attacked Paris twice this year killing almost 150 people if France weren’t bombing it in Iraq and Syria?

Would IS have blown up an airliner killing 229 Russian tourists and aircrew, if Moscow had not intervened in Syria?

Would IS have bombed Shi’ite suburbs of Beirut killing at least 43 if Hezbollah was not fighting alongside President Assad’s forces?

Would IS have launched attacks in Turkey killing 134 peace protesters if Ankara had not turned against it over Syria?

I’m not asking these questions to imply the victims of these attacks somehow brought it on themselves.

I’m asking because as President Hollande said this week his country is “at war” with IS – it has been since it started air strikes against its forces last year – and in a war you are likely to get attacked.

I’m also asking because when IS – or ISIL or ISIS or Daesh – hit world headlines by seizing Iraq’s second city, Mosul, last year, the conventional wisdom among the experts and analysts was that IS was a different kind of threat from al Qaeda – whose signature is mass casualty terrorist attacks anywhere it finds a target, like the 9/11 attacks in the US or the Bali bombing.

It may have emerged out of al-Qaeda in Iraq, but the argument went that ISIS – the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – was what it said on the tin – an organisation dedicated to carving out a state from those two countries.

It followed from there that IS was fighting a more conventional style war with the aim of capturing territory. Sure it used terror against its enemies by publicising on social media the atrocities it carried out when it occupied towns and took prisoners – be they regular Iraqi troops or Yezidi women and girls – but it was not interested in attacking targets further afield.

If this was a correct reading of IS then, we now know only too well it isn’t anymore.

It is tempting to see IS attacks outside Syria and Iraq as a direct response to the intervention of foreign forces against it that began after the fall of Mosul and its advances across the border in Syria.

But one of the first such incidents linked to IS was the attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014 – before the fall of Mosul and several months before the US-led campaign against it began.

Whatever motivated the change in tactics by IS, the conventional wisdom has been proved to be very wrong.

With the escalation of terrorist strikes and the shock of its assault in the heart of a major western capital, the focus is on how to eradicate the Islamist group.

Here another piece of conventional wisdom comes in – that destroying Islamic State in Syria and Iraq can be achieved, but only by using large numbers of ground troops.

Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by US air strikes have had some success and recently retook the town of Sinjar. But the Iraqi army and its Shia militia allies have made heavy weather of retaking Ramadi and the much-awaited offensive to retake Mosul is still to get underway. They clearly need reinforcements though where they may come from is not clear.

But is this wisdom also flawed?

Is there the danger the defeat of IS in Syria and Iraq would see it resorting to more mass casualty attacks in the region and beyond?

Remember, after 9/11, the overthrow of its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan didn’t prevent al Qaeda and its followers around the world carrying out further terrorist attacks, including Europe’s worst to date: the 2004 Madrid train bombings that killed more than 190 people as they travelled to work.

The challenge many European countries face is that they have quite a few young Muslim citizens who are attracted to Islamist ideology.

This seems to be because they are deeply alienated from mainstream society and deeply angry about what they see as their countries’ policies towards the Muslim world.

But being attracted to the ideology and carrying out acts of terrorist violence for the cause are two different things.

What makes some people take to bombing and shooting their fellow citizens is not yet well enough understood. The studies that have been done suggest it’s a complex combination of societal and psychological factors as well as ideology.

Whatever the precise triggers, European countries, like France and Britain, are grappling with a volatile mix – the legacy of their imperial past in the Middle East and North Africa added to recent policies in the region which have angered substantial numbers of alienated young Muslim men and women.

The final ingredient – the detonator – seems to be the appeal of groups like IS offering what to these young people may appear a romantic cause of fighting to restore a glorious past – in this case the Caliphate.

So alongside more effective security measures and increased vigilance from ordinary people, to stop further attacks European countries need to take a deep breath, not overreact to Paris, and try to address the causes of Islamist violence.

So far the prospects don’t look good.

The French and British governments are both proposing changes that will enhance powers that will restrict people’s freedom.

Yet, French politicians and commentators have echoed their counterparts in Britain and other countries that have suffered Islamist-inspired violence by saying the terrorists’ target is the European way of life. So, surely the worst response would be to resort to unreasonable restrictions on people’s rights and freedoms in the name of defeating IS?

If this is partly an ideological struggle, that would be conceding valuable ground.


There’s More to Democracy Than Elections

Burma has just held its freest election in decades with the international media in attendance focusing on happy voters and the landslide for Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy.

The optimistic mood has been boosted by the reaction of the military’s proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party of President Thein Sein, which has run the country since the last – less than free – vote five years ago. Although all the results are yet to be declared, Thein Sein has already congratulated Aung San Suu Kyi on the NLD’s performance.

The President has been followed by the Commander in Chief of the armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing, who promised the military – which has run Burma for most of the past six decades – would cooperate with the new government.

The impression is that despite some bumps along the way the reforms started by Thein Sein in 2010 when he released Aung San Suu Kyi from years of house arrest are on course to return Burma to the democracy it was before the army first seized power in 1962.

I don’t want to rain on anybody’s parade, but if you need evidence that there’s more to democracy than elections, Burma may be about to provide it.

Despite the encouraging noises since Sunday’s election, the constitution entrenches military influence in the political system. A quarter of seats in parliament are reserved for officers and the National Defence and Security Council retains the power to remove the government.

Over the years, the Burmese armed forces have trained many more officers than it has needed and many of them have taken off their uniforms and are now prominent in business and other areas and, by and large, they remain loyal to the military’s ethos.

Astute Burmese and knowledgeable foreigners have dubbed the reform process the military’s retirement plan.

Then – perhaps surprisingly to many – there is growing doubt about Aung San Suu Kyi herself.

The defiance of the military dictatorship that saw her kept under house arrest for 15 years won her a Nobel Peace Prize and iconic status as a symbol of democracy among ordinary Burmese and around the world, where she was compared to Nelson Mandela.

But unlike Mandela, who was able retain his iconic status while also being president of his country, Suu Kyi has not shown the same ability to combine politics with moral leadership.

In an attempt to realise her ambition to lead her country she has made many compromises with the military in return for being released, allowed to run for parliament and win a by-election in 2012.

Her freedom helped ease the country’s isolation from western powers and avoid over dependence on neighbouring China, which was one of Thein Sein’s main objectives. But if she expected the military to return the favour and amend the constitution they’d written so she could become President – she is currently prevented because her children were born in Britain – she must have been sorely disappointed.

So it’s perhaps understandable that since the election she has said that whoever the NLD chooses to be President, she will be above them – understandable, but not particularly edifying.

She went on to tell the BBC the constitution won’t stop her “making all the decisions as the leader of the winning party”.

This is not simply loose language. It tallies with her whole approach to leading the NLD.

She takes a regal approach to her followers. There is little debate over key decisions, little delegation to those below her and, by all appearances, no attempt to bring on the next generation of leaders in the party – remember Suu Kyi is already 70.

There is also her attitude to the plight of the Rohingya minority.

They are Muslims of Bengali descent who live in the west of the country and are subject to widespread discrimination and even denied full citizenship. Since the country started opening up, many have also been victims of communal attacks from Buddhist chauvinists and driven from their homes to live in camps or risk their lives fleeing to neighbouring countries in rickety boats.

Aung San Suu Kyi – in order to avoid alienating Buddhist voters – has been mealy-mouthed about condemning all this. In an interview two years ago she even appeared to sympathise with Buddhist fears that “global Muslim power” as she put it “is very great”.

This matters because democracies are societies characterised by tolerance – tolerance not just of different political views, but also of ethnic and religious diversity and Suu Kyi is failing to set an example. If anything, she is reinforcing intolerance and an authoritarian approach to political leadership.

This clearly hasn’t harmed her standing with Burmese voters, but it has made a mockery of the Mandela comparisons and tarnished her image among former supports abroad. Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch went as far as to tweet ahead of the election “if only she were as principled as popular. Shh, please don’t say Rohingya”

Suu Kyi is very much her father’s daughter. General Aung San led the struggle for independence from Britain, but he was assassinated six months before his dream was realised. She has the ambition to go one better and lead the country – even if it means making deals with the men who have imprisoned and tortured thousands and impoverished a country that was once one of the richest in South East Asia.

Whether Burma goes on to become more truly democratic or goes down the track of authoritarian oligarchy seen in other countries emerging from military or one-party rule will depend to a large extent on the choices made in the coming months and years by the military, the officers who’ve shed their uniforms and Aung San Suu Kyi’s newly empowered NLD.

Despite the historic election, optimism may prove to be misplaced.



Saudi Arabia: Going Rogue

We haven’t heard much about rogue states since George W Bush’s tenure in the White House ended, but maybe the term should be revived and applied to one of America’s closest allies – Saudi Arabia.

The talks on Syria in Vienna have finally got all the relevant international players around the table with Iran taking part along with the Saudis. Following the deal over Tehran’s nuclear programme, the US no longer had a good reason to refuse to talk to the Iranians and as Assad’s main backers they are crucial to making any progress.

So far so good.

But Saudi Arabia seems to have been doing its upmost to provoke the Iranians into walking out.

Ahead of the talks, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, gave media interviews saying Iran had to accept Syrian President Assad’s removal – interesting, given how Saudi diplomats are usually pretty media shy.

Then when the talks started it appears al Jubeir went out of his way to provoke his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, and there was a blazing row.

Under King Salman’s predecessors, Saudi Arabia pursued a cautious foreign policy and shunned the limelight.

No longer.

Although King Abdullah did send troops into neighbouring Bahrain in 2011 during the so-called Arab Spring to put down unrest among the country’s Shia majority, since his successor ascended to the throne in January this year he has taken this regional activism to a different level.

Salman appointed his favourite son, the young and inexperienced, Prince Mohammed bin Salman al Saud, Defence Minister. The Saudis promptly launched a direct military intervention in the civil war over the country’s southern border in Yemen. With air and some ground forces, the Saudis are leading an alliance of Sunni states trying to crush the Shi’ite Houthi rebels the Saudis accuse of being Iranian proxies.

Many of the more than 4,500 civilians killed so far in the fighting have died in air strikes and recently – in a gruesome rerun of what happened last month in Afghanistan – a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital was hit. The UN says 39 medical facilities have been struck – and possible war crimes committed – in Yemen since the intervention started, although the Saudis deny they are responsible.

Saudi-led forces have imposed a blockade on Yemen though and according to the UN, this is causing a humanitarian crisis as almost 13 million people – half the population – are now short of food, medicine and fuel.

Credible reports indicate the new Saudi government also escalated support – in arms and money – for Syrian rebel groups, including those allied to the al Qaeda-affiliated al Nusra Front. This is thought to have been crucial to the rebel advance which led to Russia’s intervention to prop up President Assad in September.

The new Saudi leadership, unnerved by the prospect of US rapprochement with Iran following the nuclear deal and angered by President Obama’s sudden U-turn in 2013 when he called off American military strikes on Assad’s forces at the last minute, has become markedly less pliant to US wishes.

Like Washington’s other close ally in the region, Israel, Saudi Arabia is doing its own thing and Obama, faced with a determined friend, seems largely content to let the tail wag the dog.

The Americans have turned a blind eye to Saudi links to rebels Washington doesn’t consider “moderate” enough to merit its own backing. The US has also supplied arms and intelligence to support Riyadh’s campaign in Yemen.

While Washington says Assad’s use of indiscriminate force against civilians has put him beyond the pale, the moral and diplomatic credibility of its position is undermined by its failure to oppose what the Saudis are up to around the region.

Try a little exercise. Imagine what President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry would have said and done if it were Iran launching air strikes on Yemen and blockading its ports.

If the US is serious about restoring stability to the Middle East and protecting the rights of civilians there, it should be reining in the Saudis in Yemen, not aiding and abetting them.

On Syria, the Americans should take the Saudis to one side and make it clear to them they should play nice at the talks so as not to extinguish the glimmer of hope for political progress that’s appeared since Russia intervened directly in the conflict.

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