Boris Johnson’s Big Day Out

Politically speaking, schadenfreude tends to be a consolatory emotion, whose pleasures are generally ephemeral and often sharpened by defeat.   Even so the humiliation of Boris John last week was worth the price of admission.     I’m referring, of course, to the car crash press conference in which Johnson appeared alongside John Kerry and found himself subject to some very sharp and hostile questioning that he clearly didn’t anticipate.

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The questions included gems like the following:

‘You’ve accused the current U.S. president, Barack Obama, of harboring a part-Kenyan’s ‘ancestral dislike for the British empire’ while claiming, I think, untruthfully at the time that he didn’t want a Churchill bust in the White House. You’ve described a possible future U.S. president, Hillary Clinton, as someone with “dyed-blonde hair and pouty lips, and steely blue stare, like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital.’ You’ve also likened her to Lady Macbeth. Do you take these comments back or do you want to take them with you to your new job as some sort of indicator of the type of diplomacy you will practice?’

And this:

‘You have an unusually long history of wild exaggerations and, frankly, outright lies that, I think, few foreign secretaries have prior to this job. And, I’m wondering, how Mr. Kerry and others should believe what you say considering this very, very long history? ‘     

Such interrogations don’t appear to be common amongst the US press corps when referring to their own politicians, let alone representatives of Her Majesty’s government, and Johnson hasn’t experienced many of them from British journalists either.   For some mysterious  reason, most journalists who interview Johnson seem to break out into smiles and giggles in his presence, as though some quaint and endlessly amusing and endearing toddler had just come bouncing into the room wearing a ‘where the wild things are’ playsuit.

It’s weird and – to me at least – inexplicable how often this has happened, and how rarely Johnson has ever been called out for anything he’s ever said or done.  Admittedly it’s not easy dealing with a politician like this, who doesn’t seem to care what he actually says beyond its immediate usefulness to him.  When Alex Salmond called him out for drawing dishonest and inaccurate conclusions from a paper that he’d never read, Johnson just tossed his blonde tousled locks and grinned sheepishly.

Because after all, why should Johnson have to actually read something that he’s inaccurately quoting, and  it was awfully unfair and perhaps a little celtic and presbyterian of Sammers to come on all truthy and facty in what was just a bit of knockabout fun – using false arguments to advance his career whilst pretending to stand up to the European ‘dictatorship.’

Johnson clearly feels entitled to do things like this.  He sees himself as a national treasure and expects the nation to think the same, and too often -unfortunately for us – he’s been right..  The single exception was Eddie Maier’s velvety ‘ you’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you’ interrogation, but even then, accused of lying and trying to get someone beaten up, Johnson just grinned it out

Perhaps this cheekie chappie thing only works in England, because it clearly didn’t work for Johnson last week.  He looked and sounded shifty.  He exuded incompetence, self-regard, dishonesty, pretentiousness and bluster in equal measure.  One minute he was telling his audience:

“We can spend an awfully long time going over lots of stuff that I’ve written over the last 30 years … All of which, in my view, have been taken out of context, through what alchemy I do not know – somehow misconstrued that it would really take me too long to engage in a full global itinerary of apology to all concerned. “

Yep, it’s weird that suggesting that Barack Obama’s opposition to Brexit was due to some ancestral racial resentment of the British Empire can be ‘misconstrued’, isn’t it?  I don’t understand it at all.  But Johnson stuck with this line, declaring

“There is a rich thesaurus of things that I have said that have, one way or the other, I don’t know how, that has been misconstrued. Most people, when they read these things in their proper context, can see what was intended, and indeed virtually everyone I have met in this job understands that very well, particularly on the international scene.’

I suspect a lot of people on the ‘international scene’ are still struggling to understand how the hell someone like Johnson ever got appointed to his position.   Because that ‘rich thesaurus’ of lies, exaggerations and distortions does go back quite a way, to his stint in Brussels back in the early 90s, when his former colleague Martin Fletcher accused him of making up stories to pander to Tory Party xenophobes.

Even more pathetic than Johnson’s attempts to convince the assembled journalists that his remarks had been ‘misconstrued’ was his painfully inept stumbling towards the gravitas normally associated with the position of foreign secretary.   Even Philip Hammond managed to look the part – sort of. But Johnson doesn’t and can’t.   After all,   you probably don’t want a man who has accused the current president of Turkey of having sex with goats to be giving the British position on the Turkish coup and its aftermath, and the fact that Johnson confused Turkey with Egypt on two occasions during the press conference didn’t make it any better.

As he sternly reminded his audience:

‘We have very serious issues before us today we have an unfolding humanitarian crisis in Syria that is getting worse. We have a crisis in Yemen that is intractable and a burgeoning crisis on Egypt, and those are to my mind far more important than any obiter dicta you may have disinterred from 30 years of journalism.

Johnson is right about one thing: the world does have some very serious issues before it. But his press conference only revealed why he is so utterly and unforgiveably the wrong man to deal with them.   It’s not only that he’s a ‘post-truth’ politician for whom words are only ever ‘obiter dicta’ – remarks in passing, designed – in his mind at least – to be said and then forgotten.   It isn’t only that he’s a self-aggrandising clown with no moral compass, who will say anything to anyone in order to rise higher.

The problem with Johnson is this: removed from the protective embrace of a British audience that sees him as some kind of real person as opposed to robotic politicians we are used to, he is painfully and glaringly inadequate, incompetent and out of his depth.

That’s what Johnson looked like last week, and you can’t help feeling that a part of him knew it.   That’s why his public humiliation was much more than schadenfreude – it was the moment when one of the most disreputable frauds in British politics was revealed to the world to be… a disreputable fraud.   As Johnson might say ‘Mendacem memorem esse oportet’ – A liar needs a good memory.

He clearly doesn’t have one – or thinks he needs one. But last week, perhaps for the first time, he has discovered that other people do.  Let’s hope that it isn’t the last time.

 

 

 

 

The Peace Talks that Died of Boredom

With a noisy sucking of bubbles, the last dregs of the Israeli-Palestinian peace ‘process’ have disappeared down the plughole. The ostensible reason for the collapse was the announcement of a forthcoming national unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas, which caused Netanyahu to suspend talks.  But it is difficult to imagine that anyone involved is surprised by this outcome, because this latest nine-month-old, US-brokered effort has been one of the most singularly fruitless and redundant phases in the history of the Oslo Process.

On one level it represents a total and ignominious failure of American diplomacy, and for the hapless John Kerry in particular.   Throughout the process, Kerry has been unable or unwilling to put any serious pressure on Israel to make meaningful concessions regarding key Palestinian demands, while the onus has remained as always on the Palestinians to ‘recognize’ an Israeli occupation that has continued to expand its settlement program even when talks were going on.

Since the talks began Israel has expanded its settlements in the West Bank by 14,000 units, bringing the Jewish presence in the Occupied Territories to 636,000.   This is not an accidental outcome.    In general the overall emphasis of the peace process has always been on the process rather than the peace – a process that has been overwhelmingly tilted in Israel’s favour.  It allowed Israel to continue and in fact to accelerate its settlement of the West Bank and its encirclement of Jerusalem, while paying lip service to a two-state solution with a subordinate Palestinian entity that often acted as a secondary instrument for imposing the Israeli occupation.

The ‘international community’ – and the United States in particular – mostly went along with this situation, and has always seen peace as dependent on Palestinian subjugation/acquiescence.  In 2006  the Russia/US/EU/UN ‘Quartet’  refused to accept a Hamas electoral victory because Hamas ‘refused to recognize Israel’s existence.’   In fact Hamas has dropped more than enough hints of a willingness to negotiate a ‘truce’ over the issue of recognition, which could have been explored had Israel any desire to do so.

Instead the Quartet first told the Palestinians to participate in democratic elections and then effectively told them to choose another government because it didn’t like the one they elected.  Then it colluded in the Israeli blockade of Gaza after the failed Fatah coup in 2007 – a blockade that has effectively bottled up nearly one million Palestinians in the largest open prison in the world.

For the last seven years the ‘international community’  put its fingers in its ears and sang ‘la la la la la’ as living standards in the Gaza Strip plummeted, in the hope that the Gazans would fold and reject Hamas, and ummed and aahed when Israel blitzed Gaza in 2009 and 2012.

Oddly, ‘peace’ didn’t happen as a result, and nor was it intended to.   For Israel, Hamas has always provided a useful pretext for not negotiating.   Its insistence on recognition is equivalent to a man standing with his boot pressing down on someone’s neck and demanding that his victim ‘recognize’ his right to be holding him down.  A people subject to military occupation, colonization and the forced dispossession  of the territory they inhabit is not obliged to ‘recognize’ the existence of their occupiers.

Those who make such demands are intent on domination and submission rather than ‘peace’, except in the narrowest technical sense of the term.   Israel knows this, the corrupt Palestinian Authority knows it, and so does the ‘international community’ and the United States, but all of them have gone along with it.

The latest journey through the arid terrain of the ‘road map’ is no exception.  Netanyahu continued to expand settlements, while demanding that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a ‘Jewish state.’   Abbas refused, and Israel began stalling on its promises to release prisoners.  Unable to produce a single tangible outcome to present to his people,  even the pliant stooge Abbas  quietly untied his puppet strings – at least for now – and acted like an autonomous agent by seeking international recognition for a Palestinian state in the United Nations.

And now he has agreed on a national unity government with Hamas – something that Israel and the ‘international community’ regard as anathema.   None of this was inevitable.  The United States had, and still has, enormous power that it could have used  to make Israel pursue a real peace rather than a process, but it didn’t use it, and Netanyahu knew that it wouldn’t.   And now, hardly have the talks collapsed, than Kerry has apologized for having suggested that Israel risked  becoming an ‘apartheid state’ if it did not accept a two-state solution.     How pathetic is that?   Very.

Today, nearly thirty percent of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails are Palestinians arrested inside Israel who were looking for work.   To all intents and purposes, Israel already is an ‘apartheid state’ and has been for some time.   But the ‘A word’ is still outside the boundaries of respectable mainstream discourse about Israel in the US and so Kerry got his hand slapped and had to say sorry.

And now the ‘honest broker’ is threatening to freeze its annual aid/subsidy to the Palestinian Authority if Hamas ‘terrorists’ join a national consensus government.  You don’t need a degree in political science to work out that these efforts are intended to keep the Palestinians divided – the better to make them accept a ‘peace’ devoid of any semblance of justice.

 

 

Turkey’s False Flag

No matter how many countries are shattered, no matter how many times the consequences of ‘humanitarian interventions’ fail to live up to their expectations, nothing seems to shake the fairytale version of Western foreign policy that emanates from a broad spectrum of the mainstream media, from the centre-left to the right.

This week for example, the supposedly centre-left New Statesman has a horrendously militaristic front cover showing a slavering Russian bear embracing the world in its claws, with the headline ‘Time to Rearm?’   And The Observer has a hand-wringing article which seeks to discredit the ‘Blair doctrine’ of humanitarian intervention once again in Syria.

Both discussions reflect a fairytale narrative of Western foreign policy which includes the following essential components:

  •  The world is divided into good guys and bad guys.  The good guys consist of all Western governments and their allies, whether taken individually or collectively as members of the ‘international community’.  Like Don Quixote, these governments are out there in a perilous world,  perpetually slaying dragons, saving maidens in distress, and fighting injustice.
  • On the other side there are assorted dictatorships, authoritarian and undemocratic states, terrorists, jihadists, gangster states like Russia and ‘bad guys’ who are out there doing evil.
  • In this fairy tale world ‘we’ have no aggressive intentions. We do not engage in realpolitik.  We have no ulterior motives.   Our foreign policy is guided entirely by lofty moral principles.   We have no geostrategic or economic interests.  Energy resources and pipeline routes do not interest us.
  •  We do not and never would conspire to bring about ‘regime change’ or other political outcomes to suit our geopolitical interests, and nor do our allies, and anyone who says otherwise is guilty of ‘conspiracy theory.’  We do not engage in ‘terrorism’ and never ‘talk to terrorists’ or deal with states or organizations that do.  We are led by decent folk, who only want to do the decent thing.

From time to time evidence emerges to challenge these assumptions.  This week, for example, Turkey’s beleaguered Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has been engaged in a futile and counterproductive attempt to prevent leaks about the corruption of his administration by banning Youtube and Twitter.

Despite these efforts, leaked Youtube posts have revealed what seems to be a recent conversation between Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and a number of high-ranking officials earlier this year, discussing previous weapons shipments to Syrian rebels and the possibility of carrying out a faked an al-Qaeda attack on the tomb of Suleyman Shah, founder of the Ottoman Empire, in Syria, in order to just a military invasion with tanks and special forces.

The authenticity of the recording has not been verified, but nor have I heard any evidence to suggest that it is not authentic.   It is not clear when this conversation took place, but its participants included intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, army deputy chief of staff Yasar Guler, and Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu, and there is no doubt about their intentions.

Discussing the plan, Sinirlioglu says ‘We’re going to portray this is Al-Qaeda, there’s no distress there if it’s a matter regarding Al-Qaeda. And if it comes to defending Suleiman Shah Tomb, that’s a matter of protecting our land.

To which Güler replies:

‘We don’t have any problems with that.’

And Prime Minister Erdogan also appears to be aware of the planning for this operation, according to this extract:

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Davetoglu:   Just between us, Prime Minister said that this (attacking the Tomb of Suleyman Sah) should also be considered as an opportunity in this conjuncture Hakan

Fidan: Sir, look, if the justification- we can- I can send four men to the other side, and make them fire 8 missiles to deserted territory. It is not a problem! Justification can be created.

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Indeed it can, if the will is there, and with this lot it certainly is.  Faking such an incident is clearly so normal in their world that the morality of it doesn’t even emerge as an issue to be discussed.  The problem lies in its follow-up strategy and doability, according to Guler, who worries:

We cannot implement the decision, we are paralyzed for various reasons, this is our problem Mr. Minister. The apparatus of the state is not working’.

And then there are other protagonists to consider:

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Ahmet Davutoğlu: Yes, we will pass on to that okay take it and I am coming. You cannot say to the US Secretary of State, “we need to take strong measures.”

Hakan Fidan: Well, sir, what I am saying is

Ahmet Davutoğlu: Then he will say, you did not even defend your own land. We had many friendly conversations, mostly with Kerry and he told me exactly this, did you decide to strike and …

Yaşar Güler: Sir, we did, we did a hundred times. With US

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Whether this means that Kerry was actually aware of these particular plans, or whether the US had more generally been pressuring Turkey to attack Syria is not made clear in the conversation.  In any case it suggests a very different way of conducting international relations to the one that appears in the mainstream  press.

You might expect the revelation that a key Nato member has been plotting to fake a terrorist attack to justify a war, with the possible collusion of the world’s greatest democracy to be at least worthy of further analysis and discussion.   But with the exception of Reuters, this leak has barely aroused any attention at all.

And why should it?   Because fairytales about knights and dragons may not be true, but as every child knows, they do leave you with a warm glowing feeling, don’t they?

Russia: Under Western Eyes

Just to be clear:  I regard Russia’s quasi-occupation of the Crimea as a dangerous gambit and a violation of international law that opens the possibility for a range of potentially dire outcomes.   That said, I cannot see how any state in Russia’s position would accept the possibility that such a vital economic and strategic asset as the Crimea might fall into the hands of a hostile and anti-Russian government studded with representatives of the far-right, and actively supported by Nato, the European Union and the United States.

The Black Sea is Russia’s single maritime access point to the Middle East and the Mediterranean, and there is no way that any state in a similar position would simply give it up – or risk giving it up.  Once upon a time it didn’t matter that the Black Sea fleet was housed in Ukraine, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.   Since then Russia’s naval presence has been contested by various Ukrainian leaders, including Yanukovich himself, and Russia has always been able to use its military clout and its control of the gas tap to overawe such opposition.

The EuroMaidan revolution/coup has changed that, and added the additional risk of a nationalist backlash against the Russian-speaking minorities in Ukraine, particularly in the Crimea.   That is why Russia has used its military clout in an attempt to secure its interests.   Will it work?   Well it might.    And unless the tensions between the Crimea’s Russian-speakers, Tatars and Ukraine can be resolved through reciprocal agreements, then Russian annexation of the Crimea might even be the best of various bad options.

But Putin’s gamble also opens the potential prospect of a war between Russia and Ukraine that could return the region to the vicious ethnic strife of World War II or even further back, to the days of General Wrangel’s marauding White Armies during the Russian Civil War, or the anti-Semitic pogroms under Simon Petliura’s Ukrainian administration from 1919-20.

So cool and wise heads are required to avoid these outcomes, and bring about a peaceful resolution to the crisis, and that would require, among other things, a very different understanding of Russian calculations that the hysterical bluster emanating from so many Western politicians and analysts.

Whether it is John Kerry’s outrage at Russia’s ‘incredible act of aggression‘, or the cretinous Louise Mensch twittering to the Russian embassy that the ‘the only real “red lines” belong to Vladimir Putin, and they are marching West’, Western perceptions of Russia are steeped in old notions of Russian belligerence that go back to the Cold War and beyond, to the bad old days of the Tsars and the ‘Russian bear.’

Like Joseph Conrad,  Western governments have routinely assumed that Russia is inherently aggressive,  irredentist, and imperialistic, and that such behavior is something to do with Russia’s inscrutable ‘Easternness’ or the fact that it was only partially ‘European.’   When I studied British history at school, we learned how Britain’s foreign policy during the 19th century was driven by the desire to prevent any attempt by  the Tsarist Empire to block its access to Britain’s prize imperial possession in India.

We were taught to regard these efforts as a defensive protection of a natural right that was good for Britain and India and the world in general,  unlike the big bad Russians, who were a threat to everybody.

Similar assumptions underpinned the Cold War.    After World War II, the Europe and the United States assumed that the Soviet Union was once again returning to its old ‘Russian’ ways beneath a communist veneer, and preparing a military takeover of the free world – ignoring evidence that Russia’s its seizure of much of eastern Europe was essentially an attempt to establish a cordon sanitaire and a barrier against invasion – and a product of military weakness rather than strength.

This doesn’t mean that Russian and Soviet foreign policy has not been imperialistic.  But there is, and often has been, a striking tendency amongst Western governments to attribute Russian behavior to some cultural or political ‘otherness’.

Such attitudes were once contained in George Kennan’s famous ‘long telegram’, written from Moscow in 1946, which outlined the doctrine of ‘containment’.   ‘ In atmosphere of oriental secrecy and conspiracy which pervades this government,’ Kennan informed the Secretary of State,’ possibilities for poisoning and distorting sources of information are infinite. The very disrespect of Russians for objective truth – indeed their disbelief in its existence – leads them to view all stated facts as instruments for furtherance of one ulterior purpose or another.’

The idea that Russian politics, unlike ours, is always directed towards some occult ‘ulterior purpose’ was intrinsic to the perceptions of Russian ‘cynicism’, ‘opportunism’ and ‘self-interest’ in the Balkans, and also in Syria.

The current ‘new Russian empire’ narratives belong to the same tradition.  Thus the New York Times, one of the cheerleaders for the Iraq invasion,  condemned Putin’s ‘cynical and outrageous exploitation of the Ukrainian crisis to seize control of Crimea’ and insists that the United States and Europe ‘must make clear to him that he has stepped far outside the bounds of civilized behavior.’

In fact, Putin’s ‘power grab’ is entirely within the parameters of ‘civilized behavior’, as practiced by Western states throughout history right through to the war that the New York Times once supported so ardently.   The hapless John Kerry ignored these continuities when he laughably declared ‘You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.’

Coming from a state with a long history of precisely such interventions, Kerry’s double standards are obvious.   But such hypocrisy is also the result of an astonishing blindness by the United States and its allies,  that have become so used to taking their own interventions as a natural right for so long, that they cannot see themselves as aggressive, belligerent or imperialistic.

From Cuba and the Philippines to Iraq, the United States has  invaded countries on a ‘completely trumped up pretext’ and has frequently used the press and the mass media to manipulate its population into supporting such interventions.   Time magazine has condemned Putin’s attempt to manipulate the Russian population through ‘ brainwashing’ and ‘The blatant misinformation and demagoguery on Russian television.’

Weren’t the attempts to ‘spin’ the Iraq war through ‘dodgy dossiers’ and spurious allegations about ’45 minute missiles’ and WMD a form of ‘brainwashing’, ‘blatant misinformation and demoguery?’  If so, we didn’t hear it from Time or any other mainstream media outlets.

There was no suggestion that Bush and Blair were ‘cynical’ or ‘opportunistic’, or were in fact, lying, when they breached the UN Charter – and even when their lies became obvious we were told that it was all some mysterious folly of good intentions.  Many of those who are currently working themselves up into a moral lather over Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty have had not the slightest respect for charters, international law or national borders during the new era of ‘humanitarian’ imperialism.

Obama has condemned Putin’s ‘meddling’ in Ukraine.   Haven’t the United States, Europe, and Nato been ‘meddling’ in Ukraine then?   What gives them the right to do so and not Russia?

What we need now is for all parties to negotiate an outcome that can reconcile Russia’s security interests with Ukraine’s national interests, in which military force is marginalized – whether it comes from Russia or Nato.

That is unlikely to happen, as long as Western politicians and analysts continue to see Russia’s vices as uniquely bad in order to enhance their own virtuousness, and seek to reserve arrogate sole and exclusive rights to dictate the affairs of other countries to themselves.