The Party Line is…………Hindsight

Throughout our lives, there are times when we make the wrong decisions. We choose one course of action over another, we support one thing where another may have been the more correct point of view and we express remorse when our decisions are proven to be wrong.

Hindsight is a beautiful thing and with hindsight I would say that at the time I would never have supported the war in Iraq.

I should qualify that last statement: I supported the British government undertaking to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. I believed that it was a logical and highly justified endeavour, I mean why wouldn’t I? This was a concerted military action to remove a tyrannical despot from power and free a people from a regime of terror that claimed so many of their fellow citizens.  It would also serve to protect us from his potentially hostile intent. I refused to believe those who said that it was an illegitimate war and supported the Blair position in this area.

But 13 years and almost 300,000 deaths later, I can say unequivocally that I was wrong.

The process by which a government admits it made a mistake is a much more complicated one and is generally not legislated for in any constitution. It becomes the province of the individual politician or government to determine the legitimacy or illegitimacy of any action undertaken, they have to be seen to take responsibility for their actions both previous and current. In the continuance of this imperative, the UK government called for a public enquiry into the government’s actions in both the lead up and the aftermath of the Iraq war.

Testimony was taken, evidence analysed, reports written and a week ago the results of this enquiry were made known to the general public and more particularly to the families of those who died as a result of this war.

At 6,000 pages the report is the most detailed examination of the Iraq war to date and its publication has shown the failings and backroom politics of the Blair administration during this period.

So you might be wondering, what else is there left to say that hasn’t already been said?

While the individual truths of the conflict and the lead up to it are slowly being disclosed, the key thing that characterises both the war in Iraq and the lead up to it is failure. Failures of international systems of law and governance and failures of the political process in the UK.

The Prime Minister of the time, Tony Blair has become a scapegoat for the systemic failures that allowed the war in Iraq to take place in the first place. If these systems had been as robust as is intended and portrayed, then war would have been impossible. Any concerted action by the Prime Minister with such a course in mind should have been checked at once by the cabinet, the party and the people of the UK. It was not, and the actions that Tony Blair undertook to force the country to war qualify as an abuse of executive power.

In his eagerness to support our American allies, he became blind to the severely questionable legality of invading a country which posed no immediate threat to the United Kingdom. The intelligence and security services failed to produce significant evidence of any so-called “weapons of mass destruction” and the case for invasion was a fudged coalition of half-truths, presented to the British people as concrete facts.

That is not to say that there was not significant opposition to the potential invasion of Iraq. Four senior ministers within the cabinet publicly voiced their opposition and were forced to resign. Public protests were widespread in both the UK and the US and many of our international partners voiced their opposition in the EU and in the United Nations.

Mr Blair conducted secret meetings with individuals outside of the regular parliamentary system, ignoring political procedure when it suited his aims. Political pressure was brought to bear on members of parliament, by both whip and lobby to force them to vote in the affirmative for war.

This absence of cabinet legitimacy prevented the instruments of government being used effectively once the decision to go to war was taken. As a direct result of this failure to utilise effective government our troops went into the war without the tools to effectively wage it, which contributed to the high number of service deaths in the conflict. Indeed, once the war ended, this failure to use government prevented the ability to produce a coherent strategy for the post war environment, allowing the Bush administration to pursue its damaging policy of complete structural destruction of the Iraqi system of government.

A country should at its heart, not plan for war and should exercise all possible actions to avoid this through diplomatic means. It is impossible to talk about the diplomatic methods to avoid war without addressing the chief diplomatic body of the time: The United Nations.

An organisation of mutual collaboration, designed to provide a check to the dictatorial and despotic ambitions of member countries as the previous League of Nations failed to do. In this endeavour it utterly failed to provide a significant check against the invasion ambitions of the US and UK. Its resolutions, while well-meaning were completely ignored when it suited the Bush administration and by proxy the Blair government. It should have pressed the member nations to exert political pressure on the US and UK and backed it up with the prospect of sanctions, both pre and post invasion. The gesture of placing Weapons inspectors in Iraq was a token one and achieved absolutely nothing but prolonging the period before war was declared regardless.

All efforts at diplomacy failed, but realistically was there any chance of them succeeding at all? Old animosities from the previous Iraq conflict, coupled with the American desire to fight back at the so-called “Axis of Evil” made the chances of a peaceful diplomatic solution very slim.

The American people, shocked out of their isolation by their biggest tragedy since Pearl Harbour in 9/11 can be somewhat forgiven for having an appetite for revenge. The American congress, however cannot be forgiven for allowing President Bush to pursue this agenda without a clear plan for the aftermath and for allowing their intelligence agencies to manipulate intelligence to suit a flimsy case.

An American politician advocating peaceful solutions at this time would like their UK counterparts be shouted down albeit more vociferously by their own people. In the aftermath of the war, the public opinion changed dramatically, as the US Army and its government became bogged down in the quagmire.

The failure to clearly plan for the aftermath of the War and the rush to utterly destroy the existing political structures of Iraq created the power vacuum and ultimately created the conditions for the Islamic State movement to exist. This is the greatest failure of the war in Iraq and has contributed to many more deaths and terrorist acts over the years following the cessation of operations.

The civilian enquiry into the War in Iraq should be applauded for both being thorough and unequivocal in its judgments, but such a mechanism should be in place in the constitution of this country and should not have to rely on civilian oversight. The problem with this, particularly in the UK is that Parliament is essentially the presence of the Crown in politics and as such cannot be seen to be wrong.

The weight of evidence, high number of deaths and obvious manipulation of government necessitates the need for strong political changes in this area. These changes must occur not just in the UK but in both the United States and the United Nations.

What can we do in the UK to prevent such a situation occurring in the future?

Changes in legislation to ensure that a Prime Minister cannot operate independently of his cabinet, the introduction of large-scale political engagement in the war making process be it from the populous or ministers independent of cabinet and party and the reintroduction of the historic practice of impeachment for those who flout constitutional law.

Additionally, we have to create a mechanism where civilian oversight in both foreign policy and the practice of war making becomes a legitimate function of government. Abuses of executive power should be documented and prevented via legislation and judicial restraints. It should not take a public outcry for these things to come to light, it should be parliamentary practice to review.

We have to create a climate where making war truly becomes a last resort and is conducted as a legitimate constitutional act, controlled by parliament and with the full consent of the people. I do accept that there are always situations where wars do not conform to these sorts of absolute aims, but by maintaining these absolute maxims and conditions we can more effectively manage the hardest duty of any government: declaring war.


© R Simmons. All Rights Reserved.

How do we defeat Islamic State?

Baghdad, Aden, Brussels, Jakarta, Istanbul, Paris.  It is a sad litany of names all united in tragedy: they are all cities touched by Terrorism; they have all been successfully targeted by Islamic State.  It is an organisation which has killed almost 50,000 individuals throughout the Middle East and beyond.  Its European, African and Asian activities show a terrorist network which is expanding further and further beyond this area.   Despite the efforts of the international community, despite all of our victories the terrorists are still getting through, still spreading their message of hate, still causing the death of countless numbers.

A key part of the Islamic State machine is its use of Propaganda, from video to social media and beyond. It is how it recruits new members, maintains a political presence and enacts terrorist acts. We cannot simply close down every site or video which they use, as barring the use of media by individuals in the region would stop others in the region from expressing their legitimate opinions.  We must use their methods against them, posting interrogations of captured suspects, illustrating the methods we use to combat their followers. Every defeat of Islamic State must be broadcast on every channel in the region using every media. Illegitimate organisations such as the hacker collective Anonymous have voiced their intention to target Islamic State, most recently in the wake of the Brussels attacks. It is these organisations which should be brought into the fight, be it legitimately or covertly, we can use their skills to remove the ability of Islamic State to broadcast its message of hate or recruit new followers. These organisations can do this effectively without the wider need to cut off legitimate media in the region.

Islamic State purports the idea that it is an organisation engaged in warfare with the western powers only, as it supports its message of Anti-Semitism against non Muslims. The coalition of powers engaged in attacks against them, collectively known as Operation Inherent Resolve has over 30 countries 8 of which are in the region affected and are predominantly Muslim. This should be highlighted and used in propaganda against Islamic State to sabotage their assertion that it is only the Christian nations who are against them. At home in the nations affected and those not affected by terrorist acts, there must be a concerted effort to recruit and support the Muslim community and the local tribes in the combat area. It is these individuals who will stop the beginning of terrorism and fight Islamic State on their own territory. Radicalisation begins at home and will end when the communities themselves take responsibility for their members. We need to show that they are the exception to the rule, not the rule itself.

A propaganda war must be supported by a concerted international effort to combat the territorial and political gains made by Islamic State.  An invasion force, made up of predominantly western nations would ultimately prove counterproductive and replicate the same conditions which allowed Islamic State to flourish in the first place. That being said western intervention is inevitable, however it must be restricted to a support capacity only. The local nations must be seen to be spearheading the efforts; else Islamic State will use its propaganda machine to turn the region against coalition forces.

The two key countries to this effort are Syria and Russia. Syria, a country torn apart by civil war and one of the two areas where Islamic State predominantly operate (the other being Iraq) has recently called a cease fire between rebels and the Al Assad regime.  Russian support and political pressure was crucial in making this ceasefire a reality. It is the Russian government which can effectively use its influence over the Assad regime to secure a peaceful transition to alternative government. Assad is a war criminal, guilty of many crimes against his own people and he must answer for them in front of the international community, but great care must be taken in when this transition takes place. A transition which occurs too fast could result in an unstable government replacing a stable one as was witnessed in Iraq upon the transfer of power from the coalition to civilian government. It may be necessary to leave him in power for the moment, but place significant restrictions in place to prevent him from abusing his people as he has done previously. There must be a timetable for the transition of power to occur and this can be achieved by engaging and unifying the legitimate opposition groups in the Syrian political system. Leaving Assad in power for a limited time would conceivably be a workable scenario for the Russian federation as it continues its international political rehabilitation after the Ukraine crisis.  A stabilised Syrian government could turn its attention to eliminating those terrorist elements from their country, chief among them being Islamic State.

As stated previously, Russian involvement was integral in bringing the Syrian civil war to an end but the need for Russia to be involved goes much deeper than that. Russia with its 16 million Muslims has a vested interest in stopping Islamic State and terrorist attacks on its citizens have been met with retaliatory strikes against targets in Syria and Iraq. Russian influence on Syria and Iran can have the effect of concentrating the efforts of these countries in eradicating the extremists.  Its inclusion in Operation Inherent Resolve would bring it into an alliance of co-operation with many countries that it has become estranged from, particularly the USA.  Drawing Russia back into the fold would enable the other coalition partners to impose a crucial distinction on their future strikes, stopping them from attacking legitimate opposition groups in Syria.

One thing is abundantly clear, the international community can do more than it is doing.  The predominantly regional conflict is isolated and it is easier to do less to address a problem when it is not on your doorstep. Additionally Islamic State is like no other terrorist organisation in history, operating without borders or centralised country. What this needs is a leader or a nation to take the lead and make it their primary concern.  Many leaders cannot because of their own provincial concerns/ responsibilities but all it would take is one to lead the way and galvanise international action.

There is no magic bullet that will end the conflict against Islamic State. What is set out here is one potential blueprint. A difficult and uncertain path lies ahead for the World as they tackle this threat. One thing is a given though, we will face this threat together.


© R Simmons. All Rights Reserved.

Would the US pursue a better strategy by pulling out of the Middle East entirely?

The end of World War Two was a watershed moment in US political history, it marked the end of its international isolation which had been the pervading element in US politics since the end of the 1920’s and only was abated when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. The politics of the Monroe doctrine were rekindled as the need to counter the Soviet threat grew.

The decline and fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990’s led to the resumption of American isolationism. America looked inward, became embroiled in its own internal issues such as the impeachment of Bill Clinton and the bungled US Presidential election in 1999.

As the new century dawned, America was shocked out of its isolationist stance by a new Pearl Harbour, the September 11th Attacks. It was a powerful wake-up call for the Bush administration and shocked the Americans into action. American involvement in international affairs increased, as they were effectively “hit where they live” by a few well placed individuals piloting hijacked planes.

The popular public sentiment at the time was revenge, the desire to hit those who had hurt America so badly. However Al-Qaeda was not of any specific country, Osama Bin Laden was a Saudi Arabian national and Saudi Arabia had a history of good relations with the US going back to the first gulf war.

This all changed, when the link between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was established in December 2001 and was duly followed by the invasion of Afghanistan by US forces.

The fall of the Taliban should have marked the end of this need to retaliate, but the American public full of the patriotism of winning a war wanted more. The controversial pursuit by the US of definitive proof that Saddam Hussain was manufacturing weapons of mass destruction, despite reasonable evidence that he had no such capability prompted the second Gulf war.

But this time the US had bitten off more than it could chew. Although the war was won in a matter of months the resultant insurgency bogged the US down in the area for a number of years. Public support waivered and then declined dramatically as more and more US servicemen were killed. The second term of George Bush Junior was one belied by lack of progress, both domestically and internationally. Osama Bin laden remained at large, the US economy teetered and then fell into the abyss of recession and Hurricane Katrina rid the US of its stomach for war.

The Obama presidency was supposed to be a brave new dawn, where the mistakes of old were rectified not repeated. The killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2012 was seen as an ending to the aggressive stance of the US with the switch being made to a more peaceful approach. US troops were withdrawn gradually from Iraq and Afghanistan with the onus being on local forces to take up the slack. While the existing structure of Afghanistan did not change, the US disassembling of the Iraqi military created more insurgency, with many of these individuals joining the newly formed Islamic State.

The current crisis in the Middle East, one can argue is a direct result of American destabilisation of the area. Displacement of individuals with military training and those who would have enjoyed a greater position under the previous regime, together with those individuals who exercise an extreme view of Islam have combined forces where they would not have done if the US had not got involved.

Many books have and will continue to be sold on the motivations of the USA in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and its role in the Middle East. I don’t propose to rain on their parade; I’d like to establish an alternative: What if the USA pulled out of the Middle East entirely?

When I say pull out of the Middle East entirely, I mean a complete cessation of all military, diplomatic, economic and industrial involvement in any country located in the area.

The most obvious casualty of this withdrawal would be the standing of the US in the political arena. Withdrawal sounds far too much like retreat, the US would be seen as running away with its tail between its legs. Old adversaries like Russia, North Korea and Iran would cry coward and would not be on their own.

Far too often in politics leaders have pursued a course of action to the bitter end, despite the obvious damage it has caused to their political standing. An example I have already mentioned bears this out: The US pursuit of the Iraq war despite opposition from its allies within the UN. International relations with Germany and France were set back at least 10 years by following this through. On the other side of the coin, a US withdrawal from the Middle East sphere would show that the US is willing to change, willing to embrace new ideas. This may lead to a softening of current perception about the US and its foreign policy.

In addition the US government would improve its standing at home, as withdrawing would enable it to focus on its internal strife and rid itself of the problems that it faces and ultimately may strengthen it. However, this withdrawal may lead to a backlash, as those families who lost loved ones fighting in the wars for Iraq and Afghanistan might wonder what they died for and start to question their leadership.

The US army currently has 21,374 personnel in seven countries across the Middle East at its various military bases. This figure does not include the 28,970 currently stationed in Afghanistan, as most of these are due to return to the US by the end of the year, leaving a small residual force in the country until the end of 2016. The withdrawn personnel could be reallocated to conflicts closer to home, such as assisting the Mexican government in its battles against the cartels or defending the shipping lanes currently under threat from Somali pirates in the horn of Africa.

Ceasing economic intervention in the Middle East would save the US government on average 17.7 billion dollars in foreign aid payments. Money which could be reallocated to solving the US debt crisis, the redevelopment of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the strengthening of disease management infrastructure, the list goes on. It could also pay these funds to less developed countries than those currently enjoying US aid.

Industrially, the US would lose its guarantees to Middle Eastern oil, which currently comprises two thirds of the worlds overall reserves. These guarantees are mostly bought with a combination of aid and military support which would cease. Although the loss of these guarantees would be a body blow to US industry, it would stem the US overdependence on this resource, allowing monies which would have been spent on oil to be spent on developing fledgling energy sources such as fracking and re-evaluating Nuclear power.

The US need to defend these oil reserves, as articulated during the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter would cease and a new policy would have to evolve to suit.

In any war there are casualties, just as there will be casualties in any US withdrawal from the Middle Eastern theatre. US withdrawal would put the pressure of fighting Islamic State back on the powers currently being helped by the Americans. Would these powers be able to effectively push back IS without US help? Simply put: No. The IS advance into Iraq proves the ineffectualness of their army, the Turkish army is unwilling to aid the coalition because of the coalition’s desire to support its traditional enemies, the Kurdish people. Iran may be drawn into supporting its neighbour, resulting in an expansion of the conflict zone to larger sections of the Middle East.

Countries which have enjoyed US protection, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait are ill equipped to defend themselves against an aggressor such as IS. The fact that IS is concerning itself solely with Iraq is the only thing stopping the potential attack of these countries.

Already repressive regimes in the area would become more oppressive as a result of the absence of the moderate US, which serves as a check against restrictive and oppressive governments. These regimes could become the breeding ground for a new “Arab Spring” style revolution, which while needed could destabilize the region even further.

The other chief casualty of this withdrawal would be Israel, an aggressive country which has proven itself to be reactionary and volatile on more than one occasion in the recent past. In addition the removal of US financial aid would undermine the Israeli economy, which currently spends 57.5 billion a year on its defence forces. Volatility, combined with the presence of nuclear weapons is a dangerous combination and could lead to Israel’s destruction either by itself or a hostile foreign power. Iran, in the past has made no secret of its desire to destroy Israel as a nation state and the withdrawal of the US from the region could prove the catalyst to war.

So coming back to our original question: Would the US pursue a better strategy by pulling out of the Middle East entirely?

The simple answer is no. The US has been embroiled in the region for far too long is over dependent on its resources, finds opposition in its people and is too invested in the continuation of the current Middle East status quo. Removal of the US from this theatre would yield many practical benefits, however the ideological cost and lasting political, military repercussions on the region from exerting such a stratagem would cancel out any potential benefits.

Why ask the question then? Well the role of the politically minded individual is to question their leaders, the policies they follow and the politics they preach. We must continue to ask these sorts of questions of our leaders, lest we become a totalitarian dictatorship.

© R Simmons. All Rights Reserved.

The Failure of “Flat Pack” Democracy

Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and numerous other Arab speaking and Asian countries.

The names read like a who’s who of the Foreign Offices “must avoid” list. What do they have in common?

Simple, they have experimented in democracy, with varying successes and failures.

Let’s take Afghanistan first, the American led invasion of 2001 while being primarily an act of revenge for 9/11 had one very important thing, the support of the local leaders. The tribes of Afghanistan, militarised in the form of the Northern Alliance who long despised the Taliban had no trouble falling in with the Americans in their war of freedom.

The post war government of Afghanistan, led by Mohammed Karzai is a western friendly government, eager to fall in line with its American backers.  The April 2014 election, coincidental with the withdrawal of the bulk of the American forces from Afghanistan was a widely contested and criticised affair.  To date there has been no clear winner announced amidst rumours of electoral vote rigging and corruption of officials. Democracy has in this case bred corruption.

Iraq, the second great American war of the 21st century was an equally short affair. The government, while enjoying popular support from the mostly Shia population is without the means to effectively defend  itself in the same way that it’s Ba’ath (the party of Saddam Hussein) did.  The Sunni bankrolled Islamic State (IS) organisation has been allowed to rise in Iraq in the vacuum of power left by the demise of the aforementioned dictator. IS now controls large parts of Iraq and neighbouring Syria, cities like Tikrit, Mosul and Fallujah and has perpetrated appalling war crimes in its pursuit of its aims. Democracy, while present has been proven ineffective against brutality.

Eqypt, the great and ancient power eager to shake off the chains of the oppressive Hosni Mubarak presidency was the next to rise up in revolt.  No one can forget the scenes in Tahir square, it was a regime change that was as popular as it was swift. Free elections followed and it was believed that democracy would prevail. Democracy did for a time, but revolutions are fickle things as the Muslim Brotherhood found out when the army coalition of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi wrestled power back from the government.

Rather than reel off another narrative on the failure of democracy in Libya, I shall quote one disturbing fact, this: The Libyan government does not control its own capital, Tripoli, it has been in the hands of Islamist militants since the start of 2014. Muammar Gaddafi, so much a dominant figure over the last 40 years left a power vacuum which the current government has struggled to fill.

Syria is a sad and tragic story and has been in a state of civil war since the dawn of the Arab Spring in 2011. Where the people of Syria have suffered, the Islamic State has profited from the proliferation of weapons and combatants eager to embrace their extremist view of Islam. The failure of the surrounding Arab states and the Western powers to act has led to the growth of this genocidal band of fanatics in Syria and can be blamed for the current crisis.

The countries highlighted above together with several others were enthusiastic for change, but once it did the imposition of the democratic framework from the ground up has not worked.  In most cases the free people cannot move past the previous system, be it dictatorship, or corrupt form of democracy. Surely the failure of “Flat pack” democracy is the proof that what works in the western hemisphere does not work in the east, or the south. The countries that have adopted this have become political and conflict quagmires, where the innocent people of those countries become bogged down casualties.

So what are the alternatives?  Is there a happy medium that allows the rule of strong law but retains the rights and individual freedoms of the people?  The dictatorship for all its faults does fulfil at least one of these aims if only at the expense of the other.

If such a thing exists, the multitudes across the Middle East and Africa need this as soon as possible.

The Writing Mercenary- 12/9/2014

© R Simmons. All Rights Reserved.