The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Turkey and the S-300

Recent reports suggest that Russia is lining up a sale of the highly capable S-300 air-defence system to Turkey. While it's not surprising that Russia is seeking alternative customers for the S-300 (given that a lucrative deal to supply the system to Iran has now been canceled), the involvement of Turkey as recipient is potentially significant.

An article in UPI (which takes quite a negative tone) points out what it considers to be some of the possible implications of this speculative deal:

1) It would mark an eastward shift in Ankara's geopolitical orientation;

2) Turkey may end up supplying the S-300 to Iran;

3) Russia is using arms sales to "bolster" its influence in the Middle East.

Although the deal would be the latest of several indications that Turkey is reorientating itself towards the East, the assertion that it may supply the system to Iran seems like pure fantasy. If it did, then Ankara would not only undermine its position within NATO, but it would also aggravate Russia. However, point 3 is valid -- Turkey usually buys its weapons systems from the West and purchasing the S-300 may lead to more extensive arms procurements from Russia.

Nevertheless, there does appear to be a contradiction in the article: it claims that Anatoly Isaikin, director of Rosoboronexport, suggested that "Russia was prepared to participate in a Turkish tender for missile systems along with Western arms manufacturers." If this is true, and it's done in partnership with Western firms, then it changes the nature of the deal entirely. Rather than it being yet another indication of an increasingly precarious U.S.-Tukey relationship, it becomes a good example of U.S./NATO-Russian cooperation. Furthermore, if NATO members/allies purchase the S-300 system then it may help relieve pressure coming from Russian arms manufacturers to supply air-defence systems and other armaments to Iran.

It's clear that the United States and the West can't have the best of both worlds, it cannot stop Russia from supplying the S-300 to Iran while at the same time blocking sales to alternative (friendly) buyers. Given Russia's substantial arms industry there is an argument to be made, from a security standpoint, for allowing it to sell arms to allies. Moreover, if firms from Russia and the West actually partner with each other then it may help to maintain some semblance of control over Russian arms exports.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Stabilising Kyrgyzstan

After the events that have taken place in Kyrgyzstan this week I'd like to follow-on from Patrick's previous post - "Realpolitik in Central Asia" - by highlighting that the current ethnic violence is, in part, a side-effect of the political vacuum left by the removal of President Bakayev. Following the Tulip revolution, both Russia and the United States failed to promote good governance in Kyrgyzstan, which has resulted in history repeating itself. However, there is now an opportunity - for the United States in particular - to help stabilise the country and show the Kyrgyz people that it cares about more than just the Manas air base. The U.S. and its allies need to demonstrate that they seek the creation of a stable and viable government that doesn't enrich itself at the expense of its own people.

As is often the case with Central Asia, the International Crisis Group's most recent report offers valid recommendations on what direction Western policy towards Kyrgyzstan should take. The report is particularly critical of the policy adopted by the Obama Administration, an approach that it claims can be summed-up in one word: "Afghanistan."

In an effort to address the mistakes of the Bush era (and its attempts to spread democracy), the current U.S administration may have swung too far in the other direction and, in doing so, is laying the seeds for future unrest. As the ICG rightly point out "ignoring major problems such as political brutality and institutionalised corruption is seen by the populace as condoning them."

The United States needs to find a policy that avoids both the imposition of a particular system and the propping up of a corrupt leader. The ICG sums this up as follows:

Future policies towards authoritarian regimes in Central Asia need to be encased in a clear framework, where obligations, undertakings and needs are carefully articulated, but where the U.S. speaks out clearly but politely, in a spirit of dialogue, when a host nation deviates from fundamental values of governance or human rights.

This may be easier said than done. But the current state of political limbo in Kyrgyzstan does offer an opportunity to introduce visible civilian personnel that can help ensure the creation of a stable government. It seems fundamental that the majority of U.S./allied resources shouldn't be devoted to the training of a military that the Kyrgyz government can then turn on its own people - as may have been the case on 7 April. Visibility seems to be important and the people of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, in particular, will need to be able to associate the West with more than just counter-terrorism and the war in Afghanistan.

While Russia will continue to be an impediment to some policies, it is in Moscow's interest to see Kyrgyzstan stabilised. This is also true of China, whose concerns over the Uighurs in Xinjiang mean that it wants to avoid any upswirl in Central Asian radicalism.

No doubt the Kyrgyz leadership will continue to play the U.S. and Russia off against each other, but its important for Moscow and Washington to at least try and concentrate on what unites them in central Asia rather than what divides them. In this case what unites them is the need for stability. Unless they achieve this aim then the rise of a young male population that's disenchanted and militant may be difficult to prevent.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Who is misreading Iran now? On facts and opinions

A very interesting piece on Iran appeared in Foreign Policy today. Claiming that much of the reporting on Iran is based on political preferences and ideologies, the authors argue that the West has a distorted image of the realities on the ground. Those distorted perceptions lead to bad policy decisions.

Fact-based reporting and writing has been replaced by ideology-driven reporting, where facts are disregarded or not properly investigated. The authors focus on the reporting of the Green Movement in Iran, which has been portrayed as a democratic uprising against an evil dictator.

As a little known fact I would like to add that Mousavi accused Ahmadinejad in the pre-election presidential debates that he was too soft on the British when he returned the sailors that were captured in Iranian waters.

Although I'm sure that all writers of the spectrum, from Noam Chomskey to Bill Kristol (and Dustin Dehez, I might add) have good intentions, I wonder why some disregard facts. What is the benefit? Could anything good come out of a policy recommendation that only considers facts selectively?

In my friend's Dustin case, he wrote a piece on Iran (in German) without even mentioning the three negotiation offers by Iran. Obviously, he did not mention them because they do not fit in the picture. But shouldn't the picture change when facts undermine them?

Another example is the Israeli Ambassador here in Brussels: I saw him at a lecture the other night, where he outlined the Israeli policy that led to the Freedom Flotilla incident. In order to prove his point, he wilfully misrepresented historical facts (Hamas came to power by a coup d'etat), inaccuracies (there is no shortage of anything in Gaza, they even have shoes. Well, that is correct, but Israel let shoes into Gaza only in April 2010) and terminology (the siege is no blockade, the blockade is legitimate, there is no blockade etc.).

Instead of winning support, he clearly lost support in the audience. He did not help Israel that night. Instead of explaining the reasons for Israel's behaviour, he twisted facts to prove his point and lost sympathies of people who felt fooled by his statements.

Seems to be an evident thing to say but we all would be better off if we would base our opinion on facts and not vice versa.

Bloody Sunday - conclusions and lessons

As mentioned here last week, the Saville report into the events in Derry, Ireland, in January 1972 has been published after a twelve-year investigation.

Whenever the peace process in Northern Ireland has been mentioned on this blog (indeed it has been the subject of three separate posts) it has been with a view to discussing what lessons of that process may be applicable, directly or indirectly, to other conflict resolution situations elsewhere in the world.

It is with a similar principle in mind that the investigation into Bloody Sunday is of interest now - in other words, what warnings from that particular catastrophe should be heeded today?

The Saville report concludes that there was "a serious and widespread loss of fire discipline among the soldiers of support company [1 Para]." No warning had been given to any civilians before the soldiers opened fire. None of the soldiers fired in response to attacks by petrol bombers or stone throwers. Some of those killed or injured were clearly fleeing or going to help those injured or dying. The report stops short, however, of using the term "unlawful killing", contrary to the Guardian report referred to here last week.

The report also exonerates the victims of any wrongdoing, stating that they were not posing a threat of causing death or serious injury. This is hugely significant, above all for the victims' families, as the original investigation into Bloody Sunday - the Widgery report of April 1972 - accused the marchers of being armed and of firing the first shots - an accusation completely refuted by the Saville report which states that the Army fired first.

So what lessons are to be drawn? What warnings are to be heeded?

In the first instance there are immediate political ramifications for the British government. Today's publication of the report poses an extremely delicate challenge for David Cameron, who has barely got his feet under the table in 10 Downing Street. Like almost all British Prime Ministers, with the possible exception of Tony Blair, Cameron does not take office intending to devote much time to Northern Ireland. Like almost all British Prime Ministers however, he has quickly found that the choice is not his to make.

Cameron's problem is twofold - firstly, the Tory Party which he leads (full name the Conservative and Unionist Party) has an electoral pact and very strong historical links with the Ulster Unionist Party, which has been very critical of the Saville report on the grounds that it is too expensive (£192m) and accords 'special treatment' to some victims of the Troubles but not to those killed by the IRA.

Moreover, as discussed here last week, the findings of the Saville report will inevitably put the Public Prosecution Service of Northern Ireland under pressure to prosecute the soldiers involved in the shootings and their commanders. This comes at a very important moment in the relationship between government and armed forces in Britain, in large part due to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is in this context that David Cameron only last week called for a new "covenant" between the British people and the British Armed Forces.

Although it is not Cameron's decision to prosecute - or not - the guilty soldiers, the issue clearly will require some very careful handling by his administration, starting with his speech in the House of Commons the afternoon.

"The Government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces. And for that, on behalf of the Government, indeed on behalf of our country, I am deeply sorry."

Cameron also that said that you do not defend the British Army by defending the indefensible. All in all, these are strong words and, although some would (rightly) argue that he had no choice but to react in this way, it seems that his initial handling of a potentially explosive issue has been good.

In terms of lessons or warnings, the penultimate sentence of the report encapsulates the incalculable damage incurred by the British Army's loss of control.

"What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased nationalist resentment and hostility towards the army and exacerbated the violent conflict of the years that followed."

This is a warning applicable to any counter-insurgency situation. If a State is supposed to hold the monopoly of legitimate violence, then any violence which it chooses to administer must be absolutely and unquestionably legitimate. If it is not then the legitimacy of the State itself is undermined. In a counter-insurgency situation, this can potentially be a fatal blow and all because of a loss of discipline by a company of soldiers.

NB: This entire issue is worth revisiting in the near future. For the time being, the report of the British Army into their forty-year engagement in Northern Ireland - known as Operation Banner - shows that conclusions drawn from that experience were applied elsewhere, with the caveat that few were "directly exportable". Be that as it may, the report should feature on the reading list of any study in modern counter-insurgency.

The box in the jungle

There have been a number of rumours in recent weeks regarding the possibility that Myanmar may be embarking upon an illicit nuclear weapons programme. Reports from Burmese dissidents have added fuel to the fire but there is no conclusive evidence. Much of the suspicion has focused on a box-shaped building which, from aerial footage, appears similar to the site the Israelis attacked in Syria. However, the building in Myanmar is much larger than the Syrian facility (which is said to have been based on the North Korean reactor at Yongbyon). Several analysts have also suggested that the box may be linked to a Burmese attempt at indigenous missile production. While I will not go into too much detail about what has been said, I would like to point out why Myanmar may choose to go down this path.

First, there is good reason for us to question the rationality of the military junta that rules Myanmar, primarily due to its acute sense of paranoia. A good example was its decision to move the capital from Yangon (formerly Rangoon) inland to Naypyidaw in 2005. This was a move that was done in secret and for reasons of isolation and protection; its location is very remote and most Burmese citizens had no idea that it was being built.

By disengaging itself from Yangon, the junta disengages itself from the people -- something that it appears to want. But another reason for moving the capital is that it fears a U.S. led invasion of the country. As a result, the junta may look at the North Korean example and see nuclear weapons as the most effective means of preventing such an invasion from taking place.

Second, Myanmar is believed to have close links with North Korea and there have been several reports of North Korean ships docking in Burmese ports. In order for Myanmar to kick-start any nuclear programme it would need substantial external assistance as it simply does not have the infrastructure to carry out such a feat alone. If it did seek this support, then it would almost certainly turn to Pyongyang.

Although this is all currently unsubstantiated, it does appear that Burmese paranoia regarding a U.S. led invasion has been heightened since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. If this is the case, then we have yet another negative effect of the conflict. Given that the justification for the war was to dismantle Saddam's supposed WMD capability, it would be ironic if the invasion turns out to be the trigger for another country to start its own programme (note that this same argument has been used with North Korea). It would be interesting to know whether the possibility of this happening was ever discussed prior to the 2003 invasion. If it wasn't then it certainly should have been.

Myanmar presents an interesting case study and one that is very different from Iran. The main difference seems to be rationality: while the Iranian leadership, with its multiple power bases, can be considered to be rational, this is not necessarily the case with the Burmese junta. If it were, then the junta should conclude that while an invasion is pretty much an impossibility as things stand today, this could all change if there was conclusive evidence that it was trying to construct a nuclear weapon. That said, it should be much easier for the West to use peaceful measures to prevent it from succeeding; due primarily to the regime's international isolation (China would be a key actor again). After all, another invasion of a country suspected of having a nuclear weapons programme could add further value to the weapons' value, precipitating further proliferation......and so it goes on.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Open Saudi skies for Israel (?)

The enemy of my enemy is my friend... and his bombers shall have open skies to attack my enemy's nuclear facilities.

The Times reports that Saudi Arabia has been conducting tests to stand down its air defences and allow Israeli bombers through unharmed. Granting Israeli jets free passage through a narrow corridor of northern Saudi airspace would considerably reduce the distance of the bombing run.

The Kingdom has officially denied this claim, calling it "slanderous and false" and reiterating its "position of opposition and rejection of the violation of its sovereignty and the use of its airspace or territory by anyone to attack any country".

According to The Times, the four main targets are said to be the uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and Qom, the gas storage development at Isfahan and the heavy-water reactor at Arak. These targets lie up to 2,250km from Israel, which is the outer limit of their bombers’ range, even with aerial refuelling. An air strike would involve multiple waves of bombers, presumably crossing Jordan, northern Saudi Arabia and Iraq - which would require at least tacit approval from Washington for the strike.

The article quotes a US defence source who claims that the understanding between Israel and Saudi Arabia has been done with the agreement of the US State Department.

An interesting aspect of this issue is the regional dimension - the article refers to a claim by 'Israeli intelligence sources' that Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are just as concerned (to put it mildly) as Israel and the west over the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.

If this story is true - and we should not consider it a foregone conclusion - then it raises many questions. Is a strike on Iran a question of when not if? Is the ongoing diplomatic effort genuinely intended to bring about a peaceful resolution to the issue or is it merely a smokescreen intended to convince the world that a military solution is the only solution? If the diplomatic effort is genuine then at what point do we decide that it is not working and an air strike is the only solution?

Also, to what extent is Israel doing this at its own behest or as a US (and Saudi) proxy? What would be the repercussions of using Israel as a blunt instrument, diplomatically or otherwise?

Friday, 11 June 2010

Bloody Sunday report imminent

The Saville enquiry into the Bloody Sunday massacre will publish its findings on Tuesday, twelve years after the enquiry began. According to The Guardian, the report will conclude that the fatal shooting of fourteen unarmed civilians by the British Army in Derry in 1972 was "unlawful". The British government has described the Guardian's claim as speculation.

Until the findings are actually published on Tuesday, it would perhaps be premature to draw any firm conclusions. For the time being, suffice to say that the repercussions could potentially be considerable.

If the Guardian has its story right then the Public Prosecution Service of Northern Ireland will be under heavy pressure to put soldiers in the dock for manslaughter or even murder - and this the day after David Cameron promised a "new covenant" with the Armed Forces.

It remains to be seen what will happen on Tuesday but the anonymous unionist MP who described the report as a "hand-grenade with the pin pulled out" may not be too far from the truth.

NB: For anyone unfamiliar with the events of Bloody Sunday, the excellent CAIN web service must be the first port of call.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Do counter-terrorists make us safer?

I went to an event at the European Parliament on terrorism today. On the panel were Vikram Sood, former head of the Research and Analysis department of the Indian external intelligence service, Efraim Halvey, the former head of Israel's Mossad, and Gilles Van Kerkhove, the counter-terrorism Coordinator of the EU Council.

After giving the Israeli interpretation of the events around the Gaza aid flotilla, Halevy went on to single out Hizbollah as main terrorist threat.

Sood identified Pakistan as the main security threat and outlines the connections between terrorism and the Pakistani government.

Of course, working in counter-terrorism means fighting the bad guys. But after these polarising statements by the two gentlemen, I couldn't help to wonder whether intelligence officers in counter-terrorism are the right people to rely on when it comes to our safety.

The reasoning is quite simple: an intelligence officer fights an enemy. But this enemy is the result of realities on the ground, which in turn are created by politicians. Understandably, the ex-chief of Mossad justifies the killing of alleged terrorists disguised as peace-activist on vessels carrying humanitarian aid. But did this action make Israel safer?

Of course, the former Indian senior intelligence officer threatens Pakistan with retaliation, if an event like the Mumbai attacks would reproduce itself. But does he make the Indian population safer?

Terrorism has a reason. As Robert Fisk put it: if you don't want terrorism, you should stop killing Muslims. Is it as simple as that? Not according to the Mossad or Indian intelligence service, as it seems.

The root causes for the Gaza flotilla disaster is not that Turkey joined the rogue states club, nor that a handful of alleged IHH activists were on board. The reason is the situation in Gaza.

The root cause for the Hizbollah is not that Muslims hate Jews, nor that Hizbollah seeks to destroy Israel. The reason is the ongoing occupation of Lebanese territory by Israel.

The root causes for the Mumbai attacks are not that Muslims hate Hindus, nor that Pakistan is becoming a jihadi state. The reason is the conflict in Kashmir.

Intelligence officers cannot tackle those issues. There job is to take out the enemy. They need help by politicians. Where is the political initiative to solve the Kashmir situation? Where is the political initiative to end the collective punishment of 1,5 million Palestinians in Gaza? And where is the political initiative to solve the "border-dispute" at the Lebanese-Israeli border?

As long as we don't face those issues, we will have terrorism.

Is Europe pushing Turkey eastward?

The Free Gaza flotilla debacle has led many to question Israel's direction and its strategic thinking. The flip side of this is that many are doing the same for Turkey - with equally good reason.

Bob Gates has made rather strident comments in this regard, essentially accusing the European Union of pushing Turkey away from the west and away from Israel.

"I personally think that if there is anything to the notion that Turkey is, if you will, moving eastward, it is, in my view, in no small part because it was pushed, and pushed by some in Europe refusing to give Turkey the kind of organic link to the West that Turkey sought."

While developments such as the sharp deterioration of Israel-Turkey relations are clearly a source of concern, is it accurate to say that this forms part of an eastward movement from Ankara?

The article quotes a senior US State Department official involved in U.S. policy toward Turkey, who argues that Turkey continues to attach importance to its relationship with the West and that its new found role in the region is part of "the most activist Turkish foreign policy that we've probably ever seen," rather than a conscious effort to break with Europe and the U.S.

"I don't think it's accurate to say they're turning away from the West. What they are doing is adding on a much more activist role in their neighbourhood to their traditional strategic relationship with us and Europe and the West."

If this is indeed the case then it would be perfectly logical from Ankara's point of view. Turkey's biggest selling point is its strategic location - the more good relationships Turkey has with as many of its neighbours as possible the more added value it can bring to its relationship with the west - both the U.S. and the EU.

However, let us accept for a moment that there is indeed an eastward trend in Ankara's foreign policy, just as Gates says. Is it fair to apportion all the blame to the EU? According to Turkish diplomat Tuncay Babali, it is indeed fair.

"What Secretary Gates said is right on target. Turks are sick and tired of being judged on individual issues such as whether they support certain Western policies, rather than being accepted as a significant partner."

There is possibly a degree of truth in that - the public debate on Turkey's potential EU membership does focus heavily on specific issues, rather than the broader strategic picture. Given that Turkey's biggest contribution would be geostrategic reach and influence, an issue-specific lens is the wrong one through which to look at the bigger picture.

However, this is a two-way street. What makes Turkey a significant partner is, again, its geostrategic reach. While Turkey is doing good work with Afghanistan and Pakistan through the tripartite commission, this is overshadowed by its increasingly acrimonious relations with Israel. Furthermore, the success of Turkey's attempt to establish itself as a mediator between, for example, Syria and the west remains open for debate. In short, what added value would Turkey bring to the EU right now?

In any case, even if we are to adopt the narrow perspective, Turkey has not delivered on the specific issues in question - above all Cyprus, an EU member. If the EU were to compromise on the Cypriot question then what kind of signal does it send to its other newer members? Incidentally, I do not include recognition of the Armenian genocide among those issues. Turkey has not delivered on that either but the west has been complicit for too long in Turkey's failure to acknowledge what happened. To use that against Turkey now is shameless hypocrisy.

In short, its true that Turkey has some reason to feel aggrieved at its treatment from the European Union but only to a certain extent. The European Union would indeed do well to re-evaluate its approach to the Turkish question but, at the same time, the bloc is perfectly entitled to defend its interests and set its own threshold for membership.

Integrating Turkey would be a huge step and conditions must be right. At the moment, conditions are clearly not right for obvious economic reasons within Europe but, as the Ergenekon trial continues into its third year, they are not right in Turkey either. Is Gates seriously telling Europe that it should countenance bringing Turkey into the fold while grave questions remain over the possible existence of a 'deep State' which plotted to overthrow a democratically-elected government through chaos and mayhem?

In the light of all this, Gates' criticism appears unjustified and rather one-sided in fact. Perhaps some in Europe are indeed refusing to give Turkey the 'organic link' that Turkey wants but the reverse is equally true.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The EU and Gaza

A recurring theme on this blog is the role - actual, potential or (usually) imagined - of the European Union in situations beyond its borders. This article in European Voice accuses the EU of not doing enough to end the blockade of Gaza and by extension contributing indirectly to the flotilla fiasco last week.

It's a familiar pattern: strongly worded statements from commissioners but with very little follow-through. Far from sending ambiguous messages to Israel, as Herremans asserts, the message from Brussels is very clear - inaction. The EU condemns the blockade policy but does not use its potentially considerable leverage to bring about change.

It was not for nothing that the International Crisis Group described the flotilla assault as "a symptom of an approach that has been implicitly endorsed by many."

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Nuclear fusion: the EU in a bind

There have been rumours in recent days - not particularly surprising rumours - that the EU debt crisis could have a negative impact on the attempt to commercialise nuclear fusion at Cadarache in France. The project, named the International Thermonuclear Experiment Reactor (ITER), includes the EU, United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. In 2005, France narrowly won the right to host the project ahead of Japan, primarily because the EU pledged to pay 45 percent of the site's construction. However, scientists have revealed that the initial £5bn cost of the project has trebled over the last three years. As a result, the timeline has been pushed back from 2015 to 2019 and the project could end up being cancelled entirely. Although this topic is slightly outside the usual scope of this blog, I thought it might be worth discussing given that there would be real benefits for the European Union if the project produces results -- not least for energy security.

So what are the benefits to be gained from commercialising nuclear fusion? I'm no scientist, but here is what I've been told:

1) Unlike nuclear fission reactors, those based on fusion are inherently safe, which means that the major argument against nuclear energy - safety - would be undermined;

2) Fusion does not produce large amounts of radioactive waste for which states need to devise unpopular long-term disposal plans;

3) In comparison to current nuclear reactors, those based on fusion could produce far more energy.

But, of course, there are problems. This process entails recreating the conditions at the centre of the sun where elements are able to fuse together under intense heat. Creating that heat requires vast amounts of electricity and all prototype fusion plants to date have consumed more energy than they have generated. So, the aim of ITER is to create excess power and pave the way for
innovative new reactor designs -- an ambitious and expensive goal that could take decades.

If the current funding crisis in Europe continues then the EU may be unable to continue financing 45 percent of the total cost, perhaps placing the whole project in jeopardy. It's understandable that the project has its critics. After all, this is an extravagance at a time when most EU states are battling against mounting debt burdens.

Clearly the EU finds itself in a very difficult position and this raises important questions about whether ambitious projects that could, potentially, change the nature of energy security should be off limits to budget cuts. Although the possible gains (if successful) are significant, we could be throwing money into a black hole. Of course the EU should be at the center of pioneering projects such as these, but the rationale for pledging to pay 45 percent of the project has to be severely questionned. Safe and affordable nuclear fusion could reduce European dependency on oil imports while taking away the risk of future Chernobyls. But at the same time, did we really need to insist that the experimental reactor be based in Europe? The liability that European tax payers now face suggests that the answer is no.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

The fall-out from Kohlergate

Following Frederik's post last week on the comments made by the now former German President Horst Kohler, I'd like to highlight this article from the Wall Street Journal, Germany needs to grow up.

Horst Kohler resigned on Monday following the controversy stirred up by his comment on Germany's engagement in Afghanistan:

"A country of our size, with its focus on exports and thus reliance on foreign trade, must be aware that military deployments are necessary in an emergency to protect our interests, for example, when it comes to trade routes, for example, when it comes to preventing regional instabilities that could negatively influence our trade, jobs and incomes."

That statement is a fairly succinct summary of the reason's for the international community's engagement in Afghanistan. Moreover, the same reason applies to the international community's counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa (under NATO, EU and national flags). Do we send ships to the Gulf of Aden to help the people of Somalia or because 7% of the world's oil passes through those straits alone?

I think the basic message of the WSJ article - that Kohler was merely stating an obvious truth and a failure to understand that is a failure to understand the world we live in - is basically right, although perhaps the tone is unnecessarily caustic and greater empathy for the context of German history would have been appropriate. Moreover, the article misses the point that Frederik made in his post, that Kohler's comment has considerable legal implications in Germany.

However, if I were to internationalise this debate then I would have to challenge the assertion, made both by Frederik and the WSJ, that such a comment would have passed unnoticed in most other countries. It may well be true that only Germans could find Kohler's words incendiary but many other Europeans (especially those with a poor grasp of history) would find them at least controversial.

For example, Gordon Brown regularly linked the war in Afghanistan to the fight against terrorism, stating that the vast majority of terrorist plots uncovered in Britain were conceived or planned or organised in the Afghan-Pakistan border regions.

Barack Obama directly links the war in Afghanistan to the fight against al-Qaida. Although it was not the Obama administration that made that link and although Obama himself is probably too smart to really believe that, the fact remains that the war continues to be sold to the American public on that basis.

My point here is not to claim that the international community is engaged in Afghanistan under false pretences. My point is that, for some reason, publics seem to need more stark reasons for military engagement abroad than mere protection of trade and national interests through prevention of regional instabilities.

If an American politician or decision-maker made the same statement as Horst Kohler, what kind of reaction would he/she receive? Probably in America this kind of statement would - indeed does - go largely unnoticed, simply because it is relatively commonplace.

The real question is if a European (other than German) politician or decision-maker made the same statement as Horst Kohler, what kind of reaction would he/she receive?

While the German context is a unique one for obvious historical reasons, I think that its not only the Germans who need to accept certain realities. I think the same applies to many Europeans, albeit to varying degrees depending on nationality, demography or even political allegiance.

The simple fact is that Kohler spoke the truth and a perfectly valid truth at that. The sooner Europe accepts this and bases foreign and security policy around it, the more effective Europe will be on the world stage.