Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Observer view of Trump’s insults to Britain

Even for Donald Trump, a man whose tawdry personal conduct has frequently placed him beyond the pale, last week’s crass and odious behaviour marks a new low. By retweeting doctored propaganda videos posted by a British far-right fringe group, Trump gave the White House seal of approval to incitement to hatred and violence against racial and religious minorities. The villain of Charlottesville proved, beyond any doubt, that he is the president of hate. Trump is a disgrace to the United States. The sooner the American people turn him out of office, the better it will be for them and the world at large. This being Trump, of course, the story does not end there. When Theresa May summoned the courage to deliver a mild public rebuke, saying the retweeting was wrong, the notoriously thin-skinned president hit back. In effect, he told Britain’s prime minister, again via Twitter, to mind her own business and concentrate on catching terrorists. This was an extraordinary way to treat the leader of a close ally whom he had feted in Washington only in January.
Trump’s personal rudeness to May is every bit as inexcusable as his ill-disguised racism and bigotry. Condemnation has rightly rained down on his head across the entire British political spectrum. Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrats, spoke the truth when he said Trump was guilty of an “open, deliberate, calculated insult to the prime minister”. The US leader was not wanted in Britain, Cable said. His invitation to make a state visit should be withdrawn. With this, we heartily concur. The government’s dilemma over the visit and the wider implications of the row for the US-UK alliance are only too painfully evident. May’s rash offer, an attempt to curry favour when both leaders were relatively new to office, has undoubtedly made a rod for her government’s back. But Trump would be a big problem for Britain even if he were not intent on gorging his ego on royal audiences, banquets and gaudy parades in the Mall. As we have said before, Trump is not a fit and proper personto occupy the Oval Office. At a basic level, he does not understand how international – or personal – relationships work. His refusal to apologise to his country’s most steadfast ally for an egregious blunder, coupled with a refusal to take down the offending tweets or heed a formal complaint by Britain’s ambassador, is indicative of a dismaying contempt for long-established diplomatic conventions. Trump’s nationalistic, xenophobic “America First” outlook has no time for equal and balanced relationships between states, no thought for consensus or compromise. In Trump’s sad, blinkered world, you either win or you lose. He has a pathological need to get the better of everybody, be they friends like Britain, foes like North Korea, or hapless golf partners. With him, there is no middle ground.
In such a toxic context, the “special relationship” with Britain was unlikely to prosper. The fact that Brexit Britain needs the US more than at any time, perhaps, since 1940 is doubly unfortunate. May’s idea that, by befriending Trump, she could navigate her way towards a favourable bilateral trade deal was always delusional. American investors, businesses and exporters are not charitable concerns. It is already plain, whether the product is chlorine-rinsed chicken, banned by the EU, or new aircraft – just look at the Department of Commerce’s harsh treatment of Belfast-based Bombardier – that big US companies will seek the toughest, most advantageous terms possible. In this aim, they have the full backing of “zero sum” Trump, whatever he may have told May.
The US-Britain relationship is about a lot more than trade and jobs, although they are very important. At its heart is defence, security and intelligence collaboration. In a bid to calm the storm over Trump’s tweets, Amber Rudd, the home secretary, urged angry MPs to remember this bigger picture. “The importance of the relationship between our countries and the unparalleled sharing of intelligence between our countries is vital. It has undoubtedly saved British lives,” Rudd said last week. In the now seemingly halcyon pre-Trump era, such bald assertions were broadly accepted. But in the iconoclastic age of Trumpism, this is no longer so self-evidently the case.
The usefulness and funding of Nato, the linchpin of Britain’s defence, is openly questioned by the White House incumbent. Trump seems utterly uninterested in the security of Europe or, for that matter, the stability of its near neighbours in the Middle East. Why else would he tacitly encourage the illegal settlement policy of Israel’s rightwing government? Why else would he abdicate any serious US role in ending the Syrian war or bringing to justice its chief perpetrator, the alleged war criminal, Bashar al-Assad? Why else would he be so foolishly, irrationally intent on tearing up one of the great multilateral diplomatic achievements of recent years – the UN-endorsed 2015 nuclear treaty with Iran?
Trump’s approach to all these vital international issues is at odds with, or directly opposed to, British policy and interests. It is not merely a matter of emphasis. These are fundamental differences. And the list is not finished. If Trump recklessly launches a war to destroy North Korea’s regime, as he repeatedly threatens to do, will Britain seriously want to support him? Or what about climate change? Successive British governments have committed themselves to international efforts to reduce greenhouse gases and mitigate harmful environmental impacts arising from human activity. Trump, in his infinite ignorance and denial, rubbished the Paris climate change agreement, snubbed allies like Britain and withdrew the US from the pact.
Trump’s unexplained, fawning attitude to Vladimir Putin, Russia’s predatory president, is the most glaring example of how he actively works against British interests. May recently accused Putin of “weaponising information” through cyber attacks, computer hacks, trolls, bots, fake news and other “active measures” designed to destabilise western democracies. It is not only Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton that now appears tainted by covert Russian meddling. So, too, do recent elections in France and Germany. Even last year’s Brexit referendum may have been compromised. No one can be certain about that, although Britain’s intelligence agencies probably know more than they are letting on. By overt and devious means, Putin’s Russia systemically and deliberately threatens the independence of the Baltic states and Ukraine, democracy in eastern Europe, the integrity of the EU and the future power balance in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Yet Putin is the same man Trump refuses to criticise, terms a trustworthy partner and whose word he prefers to that of his own spy chiefs. Trump may ultimately pay a heavy price for this idiocy. Last week’s charging of Michael Flynn, a former senior adviser, suggests the scandal over illegal Russian influence-peddling and collusion is closing in on the White House. As Rudd said, counter-terrorism intelligence-sharing with the US is important. But the fight against Islamic State aside, there is little else left, in policy terms, of the “special relationship”.
Last week was a wake-up call for May and the Tories. Britain cannot rely on Trump’s America. Before she finally burns our bridges to Europe, May should consider this: the president of hate is a menace to our inclusive values, our national interests and to all our people. Trump is not Britain’s friend.

ما وراء الخبر- لماذا انقلب صالح على الحوثيين؟

Thursday, November 30, 2017

سيناريوهات- الدولة الفلسطينية وآفاق التسوية

Mohammed bin Salman and the magic of the 99 percent

When critical opinions are criminalised and those who articulate alternative visions are treated like traitors, terrorists and dissenters, it is meaningless to think that surveys generate sound and accurate results
By Madawi Al-Rasheed
You may think that the days when old-fashioned Arab dictators announced that they won presidential elections by 99 percent of the votes are gone. You are mistaken. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman joins a long list of emirs and sheikhs eager to inform us about how popular he is. 
We are informed that 94.4 percent of Saudis approve of his performance in social, political and economic areas of policy only five months after he became crown prince.

Fallacy of magical numbers

Here the magic of numbers and time are presented to the public as scientific assessment of public opinion. But I am not sure why the approval percentage drops from 94.4 percent to 92 percent when Saudis are asked whether he is the godfather of reform. 
Furthermore, notice how the percentage drops to 91.75 percent approval rate for gender reform and a sharp dramatic drop to 80.02 percent when people are asked to assess the level of affluence associated with Muhammad ibn Salman’s programmes for rafahiyah (affluence and wellbeing).
It is amazing that someone like MBS, who rules by an iron fist, still needs to bother to commission surveys that result in absurd numbers
But wait a minute!  All these numerical tricks are not enough unless they lead to the old magical figure. According to the Saudi survey, 99 percent of surveyed Saudi men and women across the various regions who are above 18 years old think that Mohammed bin Salman established domestic stability and security.
Today with the help of PR companies and market research, absolute monarchs endowed with great wealth are able to improve the old-fashioned propaganda and make it more sophisticated. They unsurprisingly claim to scientifically document the pervasive appreciation of their policies among their disenfranchised subjects.
Photo: Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is still following the old Stalinist magical propaganda (Reuters)
From surveys that tell us how the whole Arab world youth aspire to find jobs and live in their country (UAE), to how the whole Arab world detests Iran, and supports Donald Trump’s hard-line approach towards it, we are flooded with seriously suspicious propaganda supported by alleged evidence.
There is no limit to the fallacy of magical numbers.
 Stalinist propaganda
But Mohammed bin Salman’s PR machinery is lagging behind as the audiences have truly gone beyond the magical 99 percent number and expect more sophisticated ways to assess approval ratings.
Elections, parliaments, and elected governments are the language of the day but MBS, as he is known, is still following the old Stalinist magical propaganda. Governments' performance is now measured by serious output indicators and the personal popularity of one individual is put to the test only in national elections - if they are not rigged and distorted.
It is amazing that someone who rules by an iron fist still needs to bother to commission surveys that result in absurd numbers such as the above.
With this iron fist, the crown prince has eliminated royal opposition to his rule for the time being, silenced potential critics from all walks of like, detained hundreds of intellectuals, clerics and professionals, and most importantly concentrated all powers, means of coercion and media in his own hand.
Why is he then so keen on meaningless surveys? Who is he trying to impress? And who is he trying to convince that he is the one to lead Saudi Arabia through an imaginary revolution from above?
Today even autocrats, such as the one currently in charge of Saudi Arabia, need the semblance of consensus. A royal family that was keen to maintain a balance between the carrot and the stick had ruled the country for several decades.
This does not apply only to how the royal family had managed its relations with society and the multiple voices from religious establishment to modern intellectuals, but also in the way it dealt with its own aspiring members.
Saudis attend a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the creation of the King Faisal Air Academy at King Salman airbase in Riyadh in January 2017 (AFP)

Consolidation not consensus

Mohammed bin Salman has truly alienated his own uncles and cousins, all have gone silent after the wave of detentions. Currently he is not seeking consensus but consolidation. The time of consensus is actually gone forever and his recent oppressive measures, conducted under the guise of the war on corruption, prove that he has totally abandoned the carrot.
While multiple sticks are being brandished at the Ritz Carlton and a kind of diyya, blood money, is being negotiated with the detainees to liberate their necks from a fatal end, MBS clings to the magic of surveys.
He is seeking to find refuge in the so-called youth cohort that is allegedly in total agreement and appreciation of his infitah (openness), and religious and economic policies that promise to bring development and even magical outcomes that benefit all.
It is important for him at a time when he still cannot take for granted the consensus within his own family, especially the big names of Mohammed bin Nayef and Miteb bin Abdullah, not to mention the financial tycoons such as Waleed bin Talal, to popularise surveys with limited value.

Feel good factors

Autocrats are always compelled to seek the feel-good factors, and so-called scientific surveys are meant to generate a certain unrealistic euphoria even if they are not convincing. They circulate in the public sphere for a short period then sink into historical oblivion. Then new ones are commissioned and the results are the same.
Unfortunately, this kind of survey is meaningless in authoritarian and repressive contexts. When critical opinions are criminalised in a stifling way and those who articulate alternative visions are treated like traitors, terrorists and dissenters, it is meaningless to think that surveys generate sound and accurate results.
If PR companies masquerading as research centres conduct such surveys, they are better considered a sort of propaganda that fails to yield convincing results.
The loneliness of autocrats is notorious. And even a powerful crown prince aspiring to become king like Mohammed bin Salman needs this kind of propaganda to compensate for such loneliness. 
When you are all alone at the top and cannot even trust your own kinsmen, seeking approval from society can be an alternative comforting trick.
Autocrats need to hear their own voice and propaganda to convince themselves that "they all love me", a statement that we came to hear more from Arab dictators during their dark moment in 2011 when people took to the streets to show how they detested rather than loved them.

- Professor Madawi al-Rasheed is a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at LSE. She has written extensively about the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalisation, religious transnationalism and gender. On Twitter: @MadawiDr

Is Trump Going to Lie Our Way Into War With Iran?

A decade and a half ago, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush’s administration conjured up not only terrifying images of nuclear mushroom clouds but also of Saddam Hussein plotting with Osama bin Laden to attack the United States.
Mr. Bush himself declared that Mr. Hussein “aids and protects terrorists, including members of Al Qaeda” while Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called links between Iraq and Al Qaeda “accurate and not debatable.”
It wasn’t true, of course. But it helped make the case for war.
That may be why a similar lie is getting trotted out again now, except this time the target is Iraq’s neighbor, Iran.
On Oct. 13, in his statement decertifying the Iran nuclear deal, President Trump claimed that Tehran “provides assistance to Al Qaeda.” The following week, his C.I.A. chief, Mike Pompeo, went further: “It’s an open secret and not classified information that there have been relationships, there are connections,” Mr. Pompeo said at an event hosted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a neoconservative think tank. “There have been times the Iranians have worked alongside Al Qaeda.”
On Nov. 1, the C.I.A. released a new batch of nearly 470,000 files recovered in the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. But the agency did more than just release the documents to the public. It provided advance copies to the foundation’s online publication, Long War Journal. (The C.I.A. said it was common practice to distribute declassified documents to the news media and academic organizations on an embargoed basis and that the only agenda in releasing these files was “to enhance public understanding” of Al Qaeda.)
Long War Journal homed in on a 19-page document by an unidentified Qaeda official who claimed that the Iranian government had offered “Saudi brothers” in Al Qaeda “everything they needed,” including money, arms and training in Hezbollah camps in Lebanon, “in exchange for striking American interests in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.” Yet the Iranian offer, admitted the official, was never accepted by Al Qaeda — if such an offer was in fact made.
The timing of these latest claims from the president and his C.I.A. chief are hardly coincidental. Tensions in the Middle East are ramping up. America’s chief allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and Israel, are pushing even more aggressively than usual to confront Iran. With the Obama administration gone, they have found a soul mate in the White House.
President Trump has staffed his administration with hawks who believe that the road to solving the Middle East’s problems runs through Tehran. Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the United Nations, has accused Iran of trying to “hold the world hostage to its bad behavior.” Defense Secretary James Mattis once described the three biggest threats to American national security as “Iran, Iran, Iran.”
A former State Department official who worked under Mr. Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, told me that the Trump administration is “obsessed” with Iran in the same way that the Reagan administration was obsessed with the Soviet Union. Inside the government, the former official added, “Iran, ISIS, Al Qaeda, are all mentioned in the same breath, as a menacing threat.”
But Americans aren’t exactly itching for a new war. (A majority, in fact, believes the country would be better off staying in the nuclear deal with Iran.) So how can the Trump administration build a case for a pre-emptive strike?
Those claims of a nefarious alliance with Al Qaeda might help. The “bomb Iran” crowd has long pointed to the presence of senior Qaeda officials, including members of the Bin Laden family, inside Iran since late 2001.
But Iran is far from being a base or command center for Al Qaeda. In 2001, after hundreds of Qaeda fighters crossed into Iran from Afghanistan fleeing American airstrikes, the Iranians deported most of them back to their countries of origin. In 2003, the Iranians offered to swap Qaeda members held under house arrest for members of Mujahedeen Khalq, a militant group that seeks to overthrow the Iranian government, who are being detained by American forces in Iraq.
The relationship between the Salafi Sunnis of Al Qaeda and the Shiite clerics of Iran is “not one of alliance” but “highly antagonistic” and “largely based on indirect and unpleasant negotiations over the release of detained jihadis and their families, including members of Bin Ladin’s family,” according to a 2012 report by the Combating Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy at West Point. The report said that Iran held onto senior Qaeda figures not to protect or assist them but to use them as bargaining chips with the United States and also as a deterrent against Qaeda attacks.
When I asked terrorism experts what they made of the alleged Iran-Al Qaeda ties, they were unanimous in their incredulity.
“I’ve never seen any evidence of active collaboration,” said Jason Burke, the author of an acclaimed book on Al Qaeda.
Ali Soufan, a former F.B.I. agent and the author of the new book “Anatomy of Terror,” dismissed the coverage of the C.I.A.’s documents as an “oversimplification of the facts” and a result of “the Trump administration joining Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iran campaign.”
Few would deny that Iran has sponsored groups listed by the United States as “foreign terrorist organizations,” such as Hamas and Hezbollah. But, say the experts, support for Al Qaeda is another matter altogether. As William McCants, a former American government adviser on extremism and author of a recent book on the Islamic State, put it, Iran and Al Qaeda “never embraced as lovers.”
So far, none of the documents newly released by the C.I.A. contains a smoking gun. Have Iranian security forces and members of Al Qaeda had contacts, or done deals? Probably. Are there Qaeda figures still living in Iran? Almost definitely. Does that mean there’s an anti-American alliance between Iran and Al Qaeda? No.
Mr. Trump, like Mr. Bush before him, is beating the drum for war in the Middle East. But he needs a pretext for an attack on a sovereign nation that, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, is complying with the terms of the nuclear deal. The American public fell for a false pretext in 2003 — and it cannot afford to do so again. Saddam Hussein was not allied with Al Qaeda; for all its faults, neither is the Iranian government.
As Mr. Bush himself once famously tried, yet failed, to say: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”