Wednesday, February 27, 2013


"Commentators called the results the 'catastrophic scenario' and 'a recipe for gridlock' Amid the see-sawing results coming out of Rome on Monday, one thing was quickly very clear: against a backdrop of declining wages and pensions and a sharp rise in unemployment, a majority of Italians issued a clear basta to austerity. In the final weeks of his campaign Mario Monti, the country’s technocrat prime minister, tried to soften his austerity message, promising “reasonable” tax cuts and admitting that his policies, although necessary to restore market confidence in Italy, had exacerbated the recession. But that was too little, too late in the face of the populist anti-austerity promises delivered by Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo. “The result is the absolute majority of Italians have voted against austerity measures, the euro and Europe,” said Enrico Letta, deputy leader of the Democrat party. “This sends a very clear signal to Brussels and Frankfurt.” “We will try our best to avoid chaos in Italy,” he added, expressing the hope that the Democrats would emerge after a long night of waiting with a majority in he lower house. What Italians may also have voted for is a quick return to the polls, potentially after what is likely to be the difficult task of agreeing to change the country’s unpopular electoral law. “If these numbers are confirmed then in the next [few] days there will be an earthquake – not just in Italy but in all Europe,” Mr Letta said, warning of a “totally unstable government”. While the make-up of the next parliament could depend on the very last votes counted, projections based on partial results released by the interior ministry suggested the centre-left could emerge with a majority in the lower house but without one in the senate. The result, dubbed the “catastrophic scenario” by Roberto D’Alimonte, professor of politics at Luiss university, confounded opinion polls and the general consensus among investors that the Democrats would have the numbers to govern in the senate in a coalition with the centrist alliance led by Mr Monti. But the populist tax-cutting promises by Mr Berlusconi, the former centre-right prime minister, combined with a surge in support for Mr Grillo’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement, demonstrated that Italians were ready to take the risk of rejecting harsh austerity measures they see as imposed by a hostile Germany and Brussels."
Guy Dinmore, "Angry Italians deliver austerity warning." The Financial Times. 25 February 2013, in
"What the countries of the EU have experienced in the past three years is austerity in the midst of a sustained and indeed, in some countries (Greece, Italia, Portugal, and to an extent Ireland) deepening down-turn. In those and indeed soon enough other cases, the alleged benefits of austerity, qua austerity, are soon enough shown to be completely baseless. Which is not to gainsay the idea that many of the economies of the European Union need, nay require profound adjustments to their economic structures and in particular to their labour markets. The issue is merely that in the midst of the greatest economic crisis since the end of the Second World War, cuts in government spending and pro-cyclical fiscal policies are on the face of it, senseless and self-defeating."
Charles Coutinho, "The Decline and Fall of the Politics of Austerity." Diplomat of the Future. 5 May 2012, in
"The task of the Brunning Government does not get easier with time. In his efforts to put Germany's house in order, which means to bring about financial equilibrium, the Chancellor was bound to antagonise one or more of the parties at present supporting him....Speaking of the recent elections in Oldenburg, I said that they appeared to confirm the process of attrition amongst the middle parties which has been going on for some time past. If that process were to be continued might not the time come when the parties in question would disappear for all practical purposes....To sum up, the Brunning Government are at grips with two problems, i.e., difficulties with their supporters, which increase pari passu with the sacrifices which they feel it necessary to call for from the nation, and the achievement of some action in the domain of foreign policy which will hold out a prospect of a measure of relief in the near future for German economy".
Sir Horace Rumbold (Berlin) to Foreign Office, 29 May 1931, in Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1919-1939, Second Series, Volume Two: 1931. Her Majesty's Stationary Office: 1947, pp. 63-65.
The election results in Italia which were announced earlier this week, confirm once again for all and sundry the political, nay economic as well cul de sac, that an obsession with Brunningism, id. est., the ne plus ultra of unmitigated austerity, results in. Notwithstanding the loud praises that the former Italian premier, Mario Monti, garnered from the European pays legal (read any number of leaders and features in say the Financial Times, et. al., as matter of practical politics, the ex-Premier's exercise in having the Italian nation eat and indeed like its economic spinach has not proven it would appear a success. Something predicted (in general terms) in this journal before. With that being said, where do the election results leave the not so bella Italia? Presuming that the Mr. Bersani of the Democrats Party, will be able to form a minority government, it is quite possible that with the threat of another election hanging over everyone's collective heads (except of course the 'Five Star Movement', which would love another election so soon), that the newly elected Parliament will be with us for quite awhile longer. The only issue is that this length of office is dependent upon their being no new austerity and reform initiatives by the Democrats Party. And, which this may appears a species of political cowardice, the fact of the matter is that sans such political trimming, there is every likelihood of the Five Star Movement garnering even more of the vote, if there is another election within the next six months to one year. What needs to occur is that the Five Star Movement, needs to be defeated, by good, old-fashioned, Fabian tactics. Let this populist movement, be politically hang out to dry. After a year or two, it will appear nothing so much as an exploded volcano. That once again depends upon time doing its work in allowing the natural idiocy of populism to come to the surface and discredit the entire movement. Something, which if Paul von Hindenberg had not been (erroneously and unnecessarily) talked into appointing Hitler as Chancellor in January 1933, would soon enough have overtaken the NSDAP by sometime in the mid to the latter part of 1933.

Friday, February 22, 2013


"Japan’s new prime minister on Friday offered the world a vision of his country as a reinvigorated Asian power, pledging to restore its influence in a region where it is increasingly eclipsed by China. “Japan is not, and will never be, a tier-two country,” Shinzo Abe said in a speech to members of the US foreign policy establishment, following his first meeting with President Barack Obama. “It is high time, in this age of Asian resurgence, for Japan to bear even more responsibility to promote our shared rules and values.” Mr Abe’s declaration that “Japan is back” could raise hackles in China, where a new leadership is keen to establish that country as a more dominant political force, befitting its position as Asia’s largest economy. Mr Abe, a conservative nationalist, referred to a rare increase in Japan’s military spending by his government and made a forceful reassertion of Tokyo’s claim to the Senkaku Islands, whose ownership has been contested by Beijing, saying Japan “simply cannot tolerate any challenge now, or in the future”. But he also tried to assure US leaders that he was working to avoid escalating a dispute which Washington has made clear it does not want to be drawn into, suggesting he might be open to meeting Chinese leaders to try to ease tensions over the islands. “The doors are always open on my side for the Chinese leaders,” Mr Abe said.... Mr Abe came to Washington seeking to erase a perceived ambivalence about Japan’s relations with the US that was created by the previous centre-left government, which Mr Abe’s Liberal Democratic party defeated in national elections in December. Japan has swapped prime ministers six times since Mr Abe first held the office in a short and scandal-marred tenure from 2006 to 2007. One of his biggest challenges is to convince the Obama administration that his second stint will last long enough for him to follow through on his promises. Soon, Japan will export more, but it will import more as well. The US will be the first to benefit, followed by China, India, Indonesia and so on. Mr Abe has made a robust start, launching an economic stimulus programme of increased government spending and looser monetary policy that has lifted the Japanese stock market and pushed his poll ratings to around 70 per cent. Washington has been broadly supportive of the effort, even though it has led to a sharp fall in the yen that has alarmed some of Japan’s trade partners and prompted concerns about a potential “currency war” of competitive devaluations."
Jonathan Soble. "Abe lays out vision of Japan power in Asia." The Financial Times. 22 February 2013, in
"Q[uestion]: What is their larger purpose, do you think? What is China trying to achieve with what it is doing in the Senkaku Islands? Abe: China, as a nation, is a country under the one-party rule of the Communist Party, but it has introduced the market economy. As a country that is under the one-party rule of the Communist Party, normally what they should be seeking is equality of results. And I believe it is fair to say that is probably what constitutes the legitimacy of one-party rule by the Communist Party. But as a result of introducing the market economy, China, has dropped one of its pillars of legitimacy, which was equal results for all. This has led them to require some different pillars — one of which is high economic growth, and another of which is patriotism. As part of their effort to seek natural resources needed for their high economic growth, I believe they are moving into the sea. And the other pillar they are now seeking is teaching patriotism in their education. What is unfortunate, however, is that in the case of China, teaching patriotism is also teaching anti-Japanese sentiment. In other words, their education policy of teaching patriotism has become even more pronounced as they started the reform and opening policy. In that process, in order to gain natural resources for their economy, China is taking action by coercion or intimidation, both in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. This is also resulting in strong support from the people of China, who have been brought up through this educational system that attaches emphasis on patriotism. This, however, is also a dilemma faced by China. That is to say, the mood and atmosphere created by the education in China attaching importance on patriotism — which is in effect focusing on anti-Japanese sentiment — is in turn undermining their friendly relationship with Japan and having an adverse effect on its economic growth."
"Transcript of interview with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe." The Washington Post. 16 February 2013, in
The statements made by the new Japanese Premier, Shinzo Abe are to my mind the very best news that can come out of Tokyo as they relate to the proper and best manner to handle both the issue of the Senkaku Islands and Chinese aggressiveness in general. Chinese policy, as has been stated and re-stated time and again in this journal is as the Premier correctly states, an end-result of primat der Innenpolitik. And as long as the current rulers of Peking remain in power, the natural tendency of Chinese foreign policy will be one of aggressiveness towards its neighbors. Such a policy can only be dealt with by a Kennanesque policy of containment, showing at once firmness and flexibility but with firmly drawn lines au fond, that Chinese aggression can and will be challenged and if need defeated. Albeit, just as in reality Sovietskaya Vlast choose for the most part not to challenge the Western policy of containment in the Cold War, so I will surmise that the rulers of current regime in Peking will not choose to challenge Japan and its neighbors provided that it is backed cautiously, but firmly by the Western Powers and in particular by the United States. The danger of an 'incident' and concomitantly of war, can only occur if the Western Powers and in particular the United States fails to make absolutely clear their support of Japan and its neighbors on the Chinese periphery. Any and all Chinese endeavors to breakout of its current restricted boundaries can and must be defeated. Therein lines the way of safety for all the powers concerned including nota bene the poor people of China itself.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Britain's Afghan destiny: A review of Edmund Yorke's 'Playing the Great Game'

The following is a book review of mine which appears in the french history review, 'Cercles', sponsored by the University of Rouen in the February 2013 issue. I have to thank Professor Antoine Capet of Cercles for being so kind as to suggest that I review Dr. Yorke's book.
Playing the Great Game: Britain, War and Politics in Afghanistan since 1839
Edmund Yorke, London: Robert Hale, 2012 Hardcover. 448 p. ISBN: 9780709091967. £30
"Beginning in the late 1990’s, there has reemerged with a vengeance popular and indeed even scholarly interest in the subject of what was known in times past as the ‘great game’, AKA the competition, both real and imagined for power and influence between Tsarist Russia and the British Empire in Central Asia and the upper reaches of the Indian sub-continent. Unfortunately, a good deal of this writing and indeed even ‘scholarship’ leaves much to be desired(1). With anachronistic premises and ahistorical arguments, the concept of the ‘great game’ is one which, it may be argued, obscures more than it enlightens. Reflecting an understandable, but none the less not historically based, instinct to ground the past (19th-century Anglo-Russian diplomatic interaction and competition) in the concerns of the present and recent past. Given this rather less than impressive background, one opens the pages to Edmund Yorke’s book, entitled Playing the Great Game : Britain, War and Politics in Afghanistan since 1839, with some amount of trepidation. Thankfully, in that respect at least, Dr. Yorke eschews most of the substructure of the aforementioned topic except in the most nominal sense, choosing instead to concentrate upon Britain’s ‘four’ Afghan Wars, the last being Britain’s military involvement since 2001 as a junior partner of the United States. Currently a senior lecturer in the Department of War Studies at Sandhurst, Dr. Yorke understands his study as an analysis of the ‘political-military interface within the specific framework of Britain’s four Afghan conflicts’ [10]. With a focus on what is characterized as “the friction or tension generated by all of these wars between the ‘politicals’…and the military establishments”. Lest anyone misunderstand the underlying premises to this study, there is a foreword to Dr. Yorke’s book by no less a personage than Brigadier ‘Ed’ Butler, former SAS officer and circa 2006, one-time Commander in Chief of British forces in Afghanistan. According to Brigadier Butler, the value of Dr. Yorke’s study is that it “highlights the tensions” between the generals on the ground and the politicians in either London or British India. The sub-text being that just as the latest round of British military involvement in Afghanistan has been fraught with tensions between the army and its political leaders, with the former claiming that the policies by the latter have consistently undermined British forces in the field, so we see, as per Dr. Yorke, the same pattern of failures by the politicians in the past, thereby explaining the lack of success of British forces in the three previous Anglo-Afghan Wars. Given this rather topical background to his study, how does Dr. Yorke’s make sense of British military involvement in Afghanistan per se? Unfortunately, the book makes for an odd read, even given the premises outlined above. At times one is not entirely sure if one is not reading a contemporary journalistic exercise rather than a scholarly study of events occurring almost two hundred years ago. Anachronistic terms and expressions such as “military overstretch was matched by political overstretch” [78] and “it was a campaign and occupation already seriously under-resourced in both men and materials…. It was a classic situation of mission creep”, are ever-present throughout the text [80-81 & passim]. Oddly, at the same time, the study is also replete with language which almost comes straight out of the Boy’s Own: “An officer of the Queen’s Regiment, stationed amongst the first echelon, recalled the moment of the great assault as the thin red lines of 1,500 British troops and their Indian allies began their relentless advance” [53], as well as “it was a great British triumph, but both sides fought heroically” [55]. Also worthy of note are the limitations on source materials that Dr. Yorke has chosen to labor under (almost all of the primary source material for the chapters dealing with the 19th century is memoir literature by various British participants)—there being virtually no archival sources cited by the author except for his discussion of the Third Anglo-Afghan War. In dealing with the First, Second & Third Anglo-Afghan Wars, Dr. Yorke's chapters are in many ways quite rewarding insofar as one is prepared to read and enjoy a studiously old-fashioned version of military history. Indeed, it would appear from the text that Dr. Yorke is almost completely ignorant of the “New Military History”. Regardless, for the first-time reader of these military conflicts, Dr. Yorke does provide a solid introduction to the subject; in particular, explaining in depth the failures of military decision-making, which ensured that the British occupation of Kabul in 1840-1841 would end in dismal failure. Also rewarding and insightful, is his recounting of the lengthy aftermath of the disastrous British retreat from Kabul in 1841, in which in a revenge campaign, Kabul was reoccupied and sacked by British forces. The author is bringing to light a portion of the First Anglo-Afghan War which has been studiously ignored in most discussions of this conflict. Similarly, his telling of the (for this reader) exciting campaigns of the future Field-Marshal, Lord Roberts, in the Second Anglo-Afghan War almost justifies the book on its own. I also found the author’s recounting of the relatively ignored Third Anglo-Afghan War to be quite interesting and enlightening. Unfortunately, a complete understanding of the text, which the clear narrative provided by Dr. Yorke allows, is considerably reduced by the decision (one assumes by the publisher) to re-use 19th-century maps, which I for one found completely unreadable and indeed useless. Concerning Dr. Yorke’s thesis itself, the issue which undermines it considerably is illustrated by the absence from the text of the name and writings of Karl von Clausewitz. Meaning of course, that the concept that ‘war is politics by other means’, seems to have escaped the author completely. The fact of the matter is that the guiding supposition which Dr. Yorke operates under—that there was at anytime something akin to a hermetically sealed opposition between ‘the politicals’ and the ‘military’—is reductionist and completely ahistorical. Statements such as “many politicals had again exceeded their brief and directly interfered with military operations at great cost”, are undermined by the author’s own narrative of events [318]. Indeed, British forces in the Indian sub-continent, either under the East India Company or under the Raj, were never understood, nor did they understand themselves, as being autonomous actors, a sort of ‘state within a state’, à la Hans von Seekt’s idea of the Reichswehr in the 1920’s Weimar Republic. Nor did they ever assume the oppositional mindset between the ‘frocks’ and the ‘brass hats’ that dominated British civilian-military relations during the Great War. That fact is that per se ‘British forces’ (something of a misnomer insofar as most of the troops fighting for the East India Company or the Raj were in fact natives of the Indian sub-continent), were always throughout the entirety of the time period under discussion undermanned and under supplied. For the simple reason that for London, the military requirements of its forces in India always had to be subordinated to its larger geo-political strategy and goals. The first one being that the Indian Army as much as possible had to be a financially self-supporting enterprise. The concept that the British tax-payer had to remit a portion of his taxes to support the military establishment in the Indian sub-continent was one that was fundamentally at variance with British domestic politics and grand strategy up to the end of the Raj in 1947. It is not for nothing that all three Anglo-Afghan Wars merit barely a mention in the five-volume Oxford History of the British Empire(2). Au fond, from the larger London-centric perspective, the first three Anglo-Afghan Wars were nothing more than sideshows. In and of themselves they had no intrinsic importance. Hence the fact that the debacle that British forces suffered in 1841 did nothing to mar the future political careers of either its architect (Auckland) or its principal supporter in the Cabinet (Palmerston)(3). Indeed, it would be true to say that Dr. Yorke almost completely ignores the larger geopolitical context in which the key decisions by policy-makers either in India or London were made. Finally, in the case of the ‘fourth’ Anglo-Afghan war (surely another misnomer), that being British military operations in Afghanistan since circa 2005, Dr. Yorke seems to follow what one may characterize as the current British military establishment’s own ‘party line’, concerning the failure of the British military’s campaign in Helmond Province. As per Dr. Yorke, British forces were placed in “an impossible political dilemma in which the British were the military ‘fall guys’ ” [379]. An assertion backed by copious quotes from not only Brigadier Butler, but also Generals Richards (C in C NATO Forces in Afghanistan), and Dannatt (Chief of the Defence Staff), all of whom used the argument that British forces in Afghanistan were ‘under-resourced’ to try to escape from their own heavy responsibility for the failures of British military strategy in Helmand. Failures which Frank Ledwidge, among others, has recently shown were the result more than anything else of deficiencies in Britain’s own military culture and leadership(4). It is clear in retrospect that it is only when the campaign in Helmand ran into serious difficulties that the military hierarchy in London commenced using the ‘politicals’ as scapegoats. In that respect, the reader who is looking for the standard treatment of this still somewhat controversial subject will do well to read Ledwidge’s book. Otherwise for the First, Second and Third Anglo-Afghan Wars, the lay reader, if not necessarily the academic specialist, would do well to read with some caution but read none the less, and indeed enjoy this old-fashioned exercise in military history by Dr. Yorke."
(1) Karl Meyer & Shareen Blair Brysac. Tournament of Shadows (1999); Peter Hopkirk. The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia (2001).
(2) On the role of the Raj in 19th-century British ‘grand strategy’, see John Darwin. The British Empire Project : The Rise and Fall of the British World System, 1830-1970. (2009): 10,35,52-53 and passim. See also: D.A. Washbrook, “India, 1818-1860”. In The Oxford History of the British Empire, Volume III: The Nineteenth Century. Edited by Andrew Porter (1999) : 323-328 and passim.
(3) For this point as it relates to Palmerston, see David Brown, Palmerston (2010).
(4) On the failures in the Helmand campaign being primarily failures of military strategy and leadership, see Frank Ledwidge. Losing Small Wars : British Military Failures in Iraq and Afghanistan (2011) : 60-82, 110-168. See also Anthony King, “Understanding the Helmand Campaign : British military operations in Afghanistan”. International Affairs (March 2010) : 312-331.
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Tuesday, February 19, 2013


"Last year at this time, I argued that Assad would last until 2013 – Why the Assad Regime Will Likely Survive to 2013 – despite the many predictions that he was on the verge of falling in 2012. This year, I make a similar prediction that Assad will last until 2014. The reasons I give are outlined in the following two articles by Karon and Weaver, copied below. Fred Hof’s article, excerpted below, is excellent. His worry that the Syrian opposition may fail to produce a convincing Syrian Nationalism or present a viable alternative to the narrow Assad “rule by clan and clique” is the real problem. Assad has perfected rule by traditional loyalties and patronage combined with fear and intimidation. The regime has survived for so long because Syrians have been unable to unify against it. Divide-and-rule has been the mainstay of this regime. So long as the opposition continues to squabble and Syrians remain deeply divided, and greater powers don’t intervene, the Assad regime will likely find a way to hang on. More importantly, as Fred Hof laments, “If in the end Syria is really akin to Lebanon in terms of the supremacy of sectarian identification, it is finished.”'
Joshua Landis, "The Assad Regime May Well Survive to 2014." Syria Comment. 3 January 2013, in
"But the real problem for the White House is that Mr Panetta has drawn attention to the fact that the administration’s strategy for the Syrian civil war is in tatters. The war is intensifying, the humanitarian disaster growing and the regional consequences expanding. Yet most of the reasons that the US has given for not becoming more involved have become irrelevant. At a rhetorical level, at least, Mr Obama has tried to have it both ways on Syria. In his inaugural address three weeks ago, he promised “a decade of war is ending”. But as far back as August 2011, he called for Mr Assad to step aside. Last April at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, he was asked by Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate: “How is it that Assad is still in power?” Mr Obama responded that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national-security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States”. How to square that circle, to be against both intervention and atrocity? For months, the administration threw its weight behind a negotiated political transition to a new government, an effort that has seemed stillborn since the collapse of Kofi Annan’s UN-Arab League diplomatic initiative last summer. American officials once argued that throwing more arms into the conflict would only accelerate the dominance of local warlords and close all options other than victory by the gun. Yet that is now the reality on the ground. The Obama administration feared that its greater involvement would help turn the conflict into a proxy war for outside powers, but the Syrian conflict is now a battle with Iran supporting one side, Qatar and Saudi Arabia the other. For all the risk that arming the rebels could aggravate regional spillover, Turkey is already drowning in refugees and Israel has recently bombed a convoy in Syria to prevent more weapons leaking into Lebanon. Even the one “red line” for intervention established by the administration – the use of chemical weapons – has come perilously close to being breached with the mysterious gas that was reportedly released in Homs in December. One by one, the reasons given for not getting involved have withered. Of course, just because one strategy has failed does not make the alternatives any better. The Obama administration is right to fear that the Syrian conflict could develop into a quagmire. Washington would not be able to prevent American weapons from ending up in the hands of Jihadis. It is not too hard to imagine the same arms used against the Assad regime today being turned against Israel in the future. There are plenty of good reasons for caution".
Geoff Dyer, "Panetta Exposes Obama's Syrian Dilemma." The Financial Times. 10 February 2013, in
The realities expressed by Joshua Landis have not changed since the beginning of the year. Nay they have not changed since January 2012. With that being said, and assuming that Professor Landis surmise about 2014 is indeed correct, where does that leave Western policy? It seems to me that one should tabulate the pros and the cons of overt Western military intervention as follows: i) pro-by overtly intervening, the Western powers will ensure that: a) the Assad Regime will be overthrown; b) that the Assad Regime will be succeeded by pro-Western, anti-Persian, anti-extremist forces; c) that the process involved in 'a' and 'b', will be short and quick, rather than unnecessarily prolonged and bloody (or should one say, confine the 'bloodiness' to the ferocious levels already attained); d) the quick and decisive overthrow by the Western powers of the Assad regime, will result in a heavy defeat for Persia and its allies: Hezbollah in particular, in the region. Increasing the likelihood, that Persia will diplomatically stage a climb-down in its negotiations with the Western powers over the nuclear negotiations; ii) contra-by not intervening overtly, the Western powers will ensure that: a) they will not lose any of their own forces in a conflict which has so far consumed thousand and thousands of Syrian lives; b) they will at the very least, ensure that they do not assume any moral responsibility for the aftermath of the overthrow of the Assad Regime. In particular, sans large numbers of Western troops on the ground, post-facto to the overthrow of the Assad regime for perhaps years, there is a high likelihood of large scale massacres of Alawite, Shiite and other non-Sunni Muslim peoples in Syria, akin to what occurred in Iraq, post-facto to the American invasion; c) similarly, the Western powers will not assume any responsibility for any of the disorders akin to those in Libya currently, which are very well likely, in the absence of large numbers of Western troops on the ground, to occur in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Assad regime; d) the absence of Western military intervention will prevent a break diplomatically speaking with both Russia and with China. An important consideration given the fact that any such Western intervention will have no foundation in International law and be in fact a violation of the same; e) perhaps the most important variable is that any overt Western military intervention, will call forth equally no doubt, more Persian, Iraqi, Russian and Hezbollah intervention on the opposing side. Of course if it came to escalation between these two sides, the West will win, win relatively easily. However, this likelihood of counter-intervention, must be tabulated as a reason to not intervene since there is no exact prediction as to what may occur once the Western powers intervene and the pro-Assad forces counter-intervene. Which is not to gainsay the fact that the Persians and the others are already intervening in Syria.
Given the above pros and cons, what is the intelligent observer of international affairs to say? Well first, that there are no good options in approaching the crisis in Syria, merely bad and not so bad. Second, it is perhaps true in retrospect that a full-scale, overt, Western military intervention might eighteen months ago, repeat might have made a great difference and resulted in a quick overthrow of the Assad regime. The problem with this scenario both eighteen months ago and now is that there is no great willingness to throw troops into Syria, much less keep them there for perhaps years on end `a la Iraq, 2003-2011. Given this fact, and the fact, that au fond, Syria is not, per se, a vital Western strategic interest. The horrible massacres going on in this wretched country is precisely that: horrible. However, this fact cannot gainsay the equally horrible fact that similar massacres and death totals are going on in Sub-Saharan Africa at the moment. Viewed from simply a machtpolitik perspective, the continuation in power of the Assad regime is a quite acceptable situation for the Western powers. Just as the continuation in power of the Assad regime (pere et fils) has been 'acceptable', not agreeable mind you, merely acceptable, since Anno Domini 1970. And of course once Assad, et. al., has been ousted there is no predicting what may occur in that wretched country. Indeed, from a purely selfish perspective, the continuation in power of the Assad regime is perhaps a 'lesser evil', to what may happen if in fact Assad were to be ousted. Given all of the above unknown variables, I believe that a policy of 'watchful waiting', and principled 'non-intervention' best suits the Western powers in the current case of Syria. Just as (to use a fruitful historical example) the policy of non-intervention worked best in the case of the Spanish Civil War. Or as former American Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, best expressed the matter almost ten years ago:
"There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know".

Thursday, February 07, 2013


"The flickering black and white films of men going “over the top” in the first world war seem impossibly distant. Yet the idea that the great powers of today could never again stumble into a war, as they did in 1914, is far too complacent. The rising tensions between China, Japan and the US have echoes of the terrible conflict that broke out almost a century ago. The most obvious potential spark is the unresolved territorial dispute between China and Japan over the islands known as the Diaoyu to the Chinese and the Senkaku to the Japanese. In recent months, the two countries’ aircraft and ships have shadowboxed near the islands. Alarmed, the US dispatched a top-level mission to Beijing and Tokyo in late October, made up of four senior members of the US foreign policy establishment: including Stephen Hadley, who ran the National Security Council for George W. Bush, and James Steinberg, who served as Hillary Clinton’s number two at the State Department. This bipartisan US delegation made clear that a Chinese attack on the islands would trigger the security guarantees that America has made to Japan. The obvious danger is that, as in 1914, a small incident could invoke alliance commitments that lead to a wider war. The American group was well aware of the risks. As Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor who was part of the four-person mission, puts it: “We discussed the 1914 analogy among ourselves. I don’t think any of the parties wants war, but we warned both sides about miscommunications and accidents. Deterrence usually works among rational actors, but the major players in 1914 were also rational actors.” Graham Allison, Mr Nye’s Harvard colleague, who has written a classic study of the Cuba missile crisis, also believes that there is a danger of war by miscalculation. He says: “The mechanism in 1914 is instructive. Who could imagine that Serbian terrorists could kill an archduke no one had heard of and trigger a great war, at the end of which all contestants were devastated? My view is that the Chinese leadership has no intention of challenging the US militarily, yet. But what about the hothead nationalists in China or Japan?” Such “hotheads” could be very low down the chain of command. In September 2010, a crisis over the islands was provoked when a Chinese trawler captain confronted Japanese patrol ships. It later turned out that the captain had been drunk. Back then, the Japanese government took a fairly conciliatory approach. However, the US is concerned that the new Japanese cabinet is full of hardline nationalists, who are more inclined to confront China. Shinzo Abe, the new Japanese prime minister, is the grandson of a wartime cabinet minister and rejects the “apology diplomacy”, through which Japan tried to atone for the war. America’s security guarantee is meant to reassure Japan, but there is also a danger is that it might tempt Japanese politicians to take unnecessary risks. Some historians argue that in 1914, the German government had concluded that it needed to fight a war as soon as possible – before it was encircled by more powerful adversaries. Similarly, some Japan-watchers worry that nationalists in the government may be tempted to confront China now – before the gap in power between the two nations grows too large, and while the US is still the dominant military force in the Pacific. The Americans’ concern about the nationalist turn in Japanese politics is amplified because they see the same trend in China. China now, like Germany 100 years ago, is a rising power that fears the established great power is intent on blocking its ascent. Deng Xiaoping, the father of modern China, pursued a foreign policy based on the adage: “Hide your strength, bide your time.” But his generation has been replaced by a new leadership group, which is more confident and assertive. The Chinese military is also increasingly influential in shaping foreign policy.... If things got really dangerous, there is also some wiggle room in the US-Japan security treaty. Article V of the treaty is commonly believed to commit the US to defend its ally by military means. In fact, it simply commits the two nations to “act to meet the common danger” in the event of an attack on Japan. That ambiguity could be dangerous, if it tempts China to call America’s bluff. But it could also be useful at a time of crisis. In July 1914, leaders on all sides felt helpless as they were swept towards a war that most of them did not want. A study of that history might help the Chinese, Americans and Japanese to avoid a similar fate in 2014".
Gideon Rachman, "The shadow of 1914 falls over the Pacific." The Financial Times. 5 February 2013, in
"Reuters - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged China on Wednesday not to stoke tension over disputed East China Sea isles, a day after Japan said a Chinese vessel directed radar normally used to aim weapons at a target at a Japanese navy ship. A Chinese government spokeswoman said she was not aware of the details of the incident, and focused instead on China's stance that Japan should stop sending its ships into what China considers its territorial waters around the islands. "The incident is a dangerous conduct that could have led to an unforeseeable situation. It is extremely regrettable that China carried out such a one-sided, provocative act when signs are emerging for dialogue," Abe told parliament. "I ask the Chinese side to return to the spirit of mutually beneficial, strategic relations and prevent the recurrence of an incident like this. I strongly ask them for restraints so that the situation will not escalate further." Fire control radar is used to pinpoint the location of a target for missiles or shells. Directing the radar at a target can be considered a step away from actual firing".
Reuters, "Japan PM urges Chinese restraint after radar lock-on." 6 February 2013, in
I would like to publish here, a letter to the editor that I have sent off, to the Financial Times, which I believe puts paid to the type of wrong-headed and indeed dangerous sort of analysis which finds that there are two parties, equally to blame for the current tensions in the Far East. As it is quite clear to anyone who possesses eyes to see, or ears to hear, there is only one party to blame in the stoking the tensions, and that indeed is China. Something which David Stevenson of the London School of Economics points out in his own response to Rachman's erroneous piece, noting:
"In China, in particular, some of the rhetoric now employed suggests a willingness actually to welcome hostilities in a way not seen in the western world for decades" 1.
The upshot of this situation is that unless and until the Western powers, headed by the United State show complete backing for the Japanese Government's position that any change in the territorial status quo ante as it relates to the Senkaku Islands is something which can only be negotiated if and when the Japanese Government so pleases, then we will indeed have a possible 1914 scenario to be afraid of. As the regime in Peking will see anything else as carte blanche to endeavor to exercise coercion, either diplomatically or militarily.
1. David Stevenson, Letter to the Editor: 'Hostilities yet to reach pitch to making Sino-Japanese War inevitable." The Financial Times. 7 February 2013, in
"In his piece on the dangers that tensions between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands may result in a reply of 1914 ("The Shadow of 1914 falls over the Pacific Ocean." The Financial Times, 5 February 2013), Gideon Rachman makes nonsense of the underlying issues involved. Per contra to Rachman's thesis that the gravest threat to peace is that a 'new Japanese cabinet is full of hardline nationalists who are more inclined to confront China', the fact of the matter is that the only threat to peace in the Far East, comes from an aggressive China which aims to overthrow the territorial status quo ante of more than one-hundred years as it relates to the Senkaku. In the absence of militant Chinese rhetoric (both governmental and non-governmental) and dangerous Chinese military actions (the sending of ships and aircraft into internationally recognized Japanese sea and air space), there would be no 'crisis' to speak of. The only way in which this crisis can be positively resolved is by the West, lead by the United States, standing firmly by Japan and facing down China's treats to overthrow the territorial status quo".

Monday, February 04, 2013


"For someone who once attracted furious and even unhinged criticism from all sides of politics and the press, Mrs Clinton left office to adulation from Democrats, near-fawning from the media and respect from many Republicans. The problem with Mrs Clinton’s adulatory send-off is that it invites the question of what she has achieved in her four years at the state department. Barack Obama, in as near to an endorsement as it is possible from a president only a few days into his second term, described her in a joint interview as “one of the finest secretaries of state we have ever had”. The praise also came from abroad. William Hague, the British foreign secretary, flew to Washington to hold a dinner for Mrs Clinton, and arranged a video message for her by members of the cast of Downton Abbey. “There is a wonderful stillness that descends on large halls full of diplomats and foreign ministers the moment Hillary enters the room,” Mr Hague told the dinner. But while she has scored high marks for stamina (956,733 air miles clocked up), competence and for winning positive press for her country, there are few of the distinctive accomplishments that defined the legacies of Henry Kissinger or James Baker. She leaves office with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process languishing. The engagement with Iran and North Korea that Mr Obama promised has produced no results, while the political reconciliation that might prevent another civil war in Afghanistan remains a distant prospect. Syria is in flames, Egypt not far from collapse and Libya, where the US ambassador and three other Americans were killed last year, is flooded with weapons that are destabilising its neighbours. Mrs Clinton’s supporters say the absence of big breakthroughs partly reflects the hand she was dealt. After the bodyblow to US credibility and image from the Iraq war, one of her main tasks has been to repair the damage, even if opinions about Washington have not improved in the countries subject to drone strikes. “She has done a fantastic job of rebuilding America’s image and standing in the world,” said Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel now at the Brookings Institution think-tank. “She is a rock star in her own right.” Mrs Clinton also demonstrated she could be a loyal team player in an administration with a tendency to micromanage foreign policy from the White House. “This has been a very White House-centric foreign policy,” said Robert Kagan, an author and foreign policy commentator. “You have to actually give cabinet officers some room to work.” Her imprint is most clear in Asia, where the US has the most latitude to set the agenda. Mrs Clinton moved swiftly to support signs of a political thaw in Myanmar, and was one of the main architects of the “pivot” – the opportunistic effort to take advantage of regional disquiet about China to re-engage in Asia. If those bets pay off in the coming years, her reception by historians could become yet more positive".
Geoff Dyer & Richard McGregor, "Clinton leaves without big breakthroughs." The Financial Times. 1st February 2013, in
The changing of the guard at Foggy Bottom has inspired some rather silly talk about the 'legacy' and the historic place of now former Secretary of State Clinton. Leaving aside the more idiotic point-scoring / rating that one sees in the Financial Times story of last week, what can one say about Mme. Clinton as Secretary of State? Obviously, as even her most ardent advocates like Mr. Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institute, will agree, Mme. Clinton has not been by any means a 'great' (George Marshall, Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger and James Baker) Secretary of State. Or even a first-rate one (John Foster Dulles, George Schultz). But more akin to what one may characterize as 'a safe pair of hands' 1. Which per se, is no bad thing. One can of course well imagine worse outcomes to her tenure at the State Department. As has been recently noted, in 2012, Mme. Clinton and General Petraeus at the CIA endeavored, thankfully unsuccessfully to involve the USA in assisting the Syrian rebels with military and other forms of assistance. The proposal was vetoed by the President. No doubt for reasons more related to domestic American politics than anything else 2. Au fond, as Mr. O'Hanlon correctly notes, the fact is that the American President for the last four years, has basically run foreign policy out of his office, something which Mme. Clinton should indeed be commended for understanding perfectly well:
"She understood that she was a part of President Barack Obama's team, not a co-president, as some might have once worried she would try to be coming out of the bruising 2008 election season. When Obama had strong views, she did not publicly dissent or allow any distance to open between her position and that of her boss. She understood that secretaries of state carry out the foreign policy determined by the president and that little good can come from public disagreements of the kind that plagued the Carter administration and the George W. Bush administration 3."
In short, Mme. Clinton, whose practical experience of the ways of statecraft were limited in the extreme, prior to her becoming Secretary of State, did no real harm. She of course did little in the way of good either. However, in the long run, perhaps that all that could possibly be expected of her. In an ideal world, it would have been quite splendid, if it could be said of her (or indeed of any American Secretary of State), that in the mots of Sir Charles Arthur Evelyn Shuckburgh, describing the future Earl of Avon (Anthony Eden) circa 1951, she was "a professional diplomat as Secretary of State" 4. Such of course is not to be. As for former Senator Kerry, now Secretary of State, one may indeed hope for more, much more, from someone possessing a good deal more experience and knowledge in the field of foreign relations than his predecessor when she first came to Foggy Bottom in January 2009. If not quite of course the Eden level. We shall of course wait and see what time will indeed tell...
1. Michael O'Hanlon, "State and the Stateswoman: How Hillary Clinton re-shaped U.S. Foreign Policy-but not the world." Foreign Affairs. 29 January 2013, in
2. On this topic, see: "White House rebuffed a Clinton-Petraeus plan to arm Syrian rebels: A report." Syria Comment. 3 February 2013, in
3. O'Hanlon, op. cit.
4. Sir Charles Arthur Evelyn Shuckburgh. Edited John Charmley. Descent to Suez: Foreign Office Diaries, 1951-1956. (1987), p.11.