The United States, Britain and the European Union


On his farewell tour, President Barack Obama has stirred the pot ahead of the June referendum in Britain on whether the United Kingdom should stay in the European Union or leave. His warning to leavers that Britain cannot expect a trade agreement with the United States any time soon if it withdraws from the EU has infuriated leaders of the Brexit campaign, and delighted those who want to remain, including Prime Minister David Cameron. Obama’s message to Britain was that it should remain in the EU, and that it was in America’s interest, too.

Some of the comments made by leading Brexit figures in the governing Conservative Party in retaliation to Obama’s intervention have been described as borderline racist.

In a particularly outspoken jibe, London mayor and a member of the British cabinet, Boris Johnson, accused the American president of interfering in British politics. Johnson went on to say that after entering the White House Obama had ordered the removal a bust of the British wartime leader, Winston Churchill, from the Oval Office. Furthermore, he suggested that this might be because of Obama’s “part Kenyan ancestral dislike of the British empire.”

Other leading Brexit campaigners expressed similar sentiments. Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, told the American president to “butt” out of intervening in Britain’s referendum on EU membership. Farage, too, asserted that Obama was influenced by his Kenyan family’s colonial view of Britain. The use of this type of language about an American president is unprecedented for the British political establishment – a country which claims a “special relationship” with the United States.

There are striking similarities between insinuations by American conservatives about Barack Obama’s Kenyan heritage and his Muslim father, and comments heard in Britain. Some members of the Brexit lobby have privately expressed fears that such direct attacks on him will backfire, and help the pro-EU campaign in a tight race. Jingoism and xenophobia live on both sides of the Atlantic. There are people ready and willing to whip up such sentiments.

Winston Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Soames, a member of the British parliament and a supporter of remaining in the EU, has described Boris Johnson’s remarks as appalling, and said it was “inconceivable” that his grandfather would not have welcomed Obama’s views. It was, after all, Churchill who first suggested closer European unity in a famous speech in the Swiss city of Zurich in 1946.

From the ruins of the Second World War, Churchill spoke of his vision to recreate “the European family” with a structure under which it can “dwell in peace, in safety and freedom.” He described it as something like a United States of Europe. Today, his party is tearing itself apart over whether Britain should be part of that structure.

Why should President Obama have intervened so publicly in the EU debate during his visit to Britain? And why did opponents of the European Union react so furiously? These questions require understanding of how Britain’s relations with the United States and the rest of Europe, Germany in particular, have evolved in the last century.

The Second World War was a watershed which brought enormous global change. Hitler’s Nazi regime in Europe, and imperial Japan in Asia, were defeated. But Europe was quickly divided into rival blocs again – one dominated by America, the other by the Soviet Union.

At the same time, Europe’s colonial powers, Britain and France in particular, were so exhausted that they would have found it difficult to keep distant territories under their control. And the foremost superpower, the United States, was exerting pressure on the masters to let their colonies go. The Americans wanted to expand their markets worldwide, for which they were in competition with the Soviets.

Imperial Britain had to yield to imperial America – the coming inevitability which Churchill intensely disliked. There was, however, another option. Accept that the United States was paramount; stay close to Washington; and, whenever possible, use diplomacy to maneuver America in the direction in which Britain’s interests would be served.

The United States, too, was looking for close allies – in Europe, in the United Nations Security Council and other international organizations. Germany had been the main enemy in two world wars. France, at times, was too independent for Washington’s liking. Under President Charles de Gaulle’s leadership, France left NATO’s integrated military structure in 1966, asserting its independent nuclear deterrent and broader defense policy. Only in 2009 did President Sarkozy announce that France would rejoin the military structure of NATO once again.

In contrast, the United Kingdom has enjoyed the closest military and intelligence ties with the United States. “Special relationship” is a term often invoked in London. The dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the fall of the iron curtain, have paved the way for NATO and the European Union to expand. Today, both organizations perform similar functions, having incorporated countries that were once in the Soviet bloc. NATO and the EU both do the job of containing Russia, and of projecting American power beyond Europe. Brexit campaigners fail to get it.


Bush and Obama: Two Middle East Legacies

The Citizen

In January 2017, Barack Obama will be handing over the presidency to a successor after eight years in the White House. In the April 2016 issue of The Atlantic Magazine, President Obama speaks to Jeffrey Goldberg, and gives an overall view of his presidency. Goldberg’s article headlined “The Obama Doctrine” is based on a series of conversations in which the president explains, and to an extent justifies, the hardest decisions he took and why.

Alongside his own explanation, an independent and critical analysis of the Obama legacy, and comparison with that of his predecessor George W. Bush, is necessary.

Barack Obama’s victory in November 2008 was historic, not only because he was the first ever African-American to be elected president of the United States, but also because of its timing. After eight years of George W. Bush’s “war on terror” in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Barack Obama’s victory over his hawkish Republican opponent John McCain promised change. Many millions in America and abroad felt that an era of peace was near.

The “war on terror” was primarily directed against Muslims, seen by Bush’s vice president Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and most of America’s military-intelligence complex as a threat. It defined the George W. Bush presidency, and sharply polarised the world. Nonetheless, it was a happy irony that the United States elected a president, a Christian, whose father was Muslim. The manner in which Obama’s victory was greeted made it appear like a possible antidote to treat the afflictions created under the Bush presidency.

Those afflictions were everywhere. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq at the centre of war; the Greater Middle East, where abductions, hostage-taking, torture and extra-judicial killings were carried out in the name of “war on terror” without boundaries; sweeping depiction of Muslims and their religion as if they were the root cause of all evil. It shaped opinion in much of the non-Islamic world against Muslims. It also reinforced perceptions of the west in the Islamic world, widening the breach. George W. Bush’s presidency ended with the financial earthquake of 2008/2009.

In January 2009, Obama’s presidency began from a low point. Now that he approaches the conclusion of his eight years in office, the time is ripe for an appraisal of his journey through multiple crises in the Middle East. What kind of Middle East is it going to be when he leaves the White House in January 2017?

The high point of President Obama’s engagement with the region came soon after his inauguration. In his June 2009 address at al-Azhar University in Egypt, he struck the right tone. Praising a thousand-year-old al-Azhar as a beacon of Islamic learning, he said he carried with him the goodwill of the American people; he acknowledged that great tension existed between the United States and Muslims around the world; many Muslims were denied rights and opportunities by colonialism.

Muslim-majority countries, he said, were treated as proxies during the Cold war without regard to their own aspirations; sweeping changes by globalization and modernity led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam; remarkably for an American president, Obama cited the situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world as “a major source of tension”, albeit making clear America’s strong bond with Israel.

Obama’s comment about the sufferings of Palestinians – Muslims and Christians – in the pursuit of a homeland, their pain and dislocation could not have gone down well with Israel’s political establishment, and many in Israel’s majority Jewish community. But that America will not turn its backs on “the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own” was music to the ears of numerous people in the occupied Palestinian territories and the wider Arab world.

As President Obama prepares to complete his term, his record repeats the history of American presidency. It shows that even the world’s most powerful elected leader has his limits. The plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories that Obama so eloquently spoke of in 2009 continues, as changes to Israel’s citizenship laws narrow the space in which Arab citizens of Israel can exercise their rights. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel remains defiant of the Obama administration’s wishes, helped by the Israel lobby’s influence in the American Congress. Obama has given up on the Palestinian cause.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, his stance on the popular revolution against the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak was hesitant. The revolution did lead to Mubarak’s fall from power, and victories of the Muslim Brotherhood in the presidential and parliamentary elections. However, with the Mubarak era military and judiciary remaining opposed to the new order, and President Mohamed Morsi facing persistent rebellion at home, the short-lived elected order in Egypt was crushed by the military in July 2013, leading to the rise of the military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power.

The military overthrow of Egypt’s elected government that President Obama still does not recognise as a coup was carried out under his administration’s watch, with the National Security Adviser Susan Rice being close to events. Obama also gave in to the sustained pressure from the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, to intervene in the Libyan civil war to overthrow, after which Muammar Gaddafi was brutally assassinated. In his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg for the Atlantic Magazine, Obama lamented the intervention in Libya, and disastrous repercussions thereof in the Arab world and beyond – repercussions for which he pointed the finger at the British government.

It is true that the Obama administration has not used vitriolic language like the preceding administration against Muslims and Islam, though leading politicians continue to use such language in Congress and outside. However, those killed by drone attacks ordered by President Obama are overwhelmingly Muslim, and the total number of drone strikes is about ten times greater than those ordered by his predecessor. Among the killings ordered by Obama from the White House was that of Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani city, Abbottabad, in an American special forces’ operation in May 2011.

If George W. Bush left behind a vast amount of wreckage in Iraq and Afghanistan, Barack Obama is about to leave similar wreckage in Libya and Syria. Both legacies attest a historical record of the exercise of power with impunity. In one respect, though, Obama has forced a fundamental change in the Middle East. He has gone against Israel and Saudi Arabia, America’s closest allies, to enable US rapprochement with Iran after 35 years. In doing so, he has moved the balance away from Sunni Islam towards Shia Islam. Whether he has made this important shift too late to be permanent, and it could revert again under a successor administration, remains to be seen.


The consequences of Cameron’s Syria defeat

AL JAZEERA, September 1, 2013

Parliament’s rejection of Syria intervention will have important repercussions in Britain as well as abroad.

Cameron on Syria

Cameron makes a point

The defeat of British Prime Minister David Cameron in Parliament over his plan for “humanitarian intervention” in Syria to “protect civilians from President Assad’s chemical attacks” is one of the most significant parliamentary votes in recent years.

It means that Cameron, one of the most aggressive advocates for military intervention, has been prevented from participating in any United States-led operation in Syria. The divergence between London and Washington on this matter has echoes of the 1960s, when Prime Minister Harold Wilson successfully rebuffed President Lyndon Johnson’s pressure to send British troops to Vietnam. Some writers have gone all the way back to 1782 and the American war of independence in search of a parallel.

A defeat of this magnitude has many consequences for foreign and domestic policies, as well as for Cameron’s own authority. The atmosphere before the debate was poisoned by extraordinary behaviour outside Parliament. As the prospect of defeat became distinct in the hours before the vote, expletives were used against the opposition Labour Party leader, Edward Miliband, in private news briefings. They originated from the prime minister’s official residence and the Foreign Office.

In an ill-tempered phone call, Cameron accused Miliband of siding with Russia and giving succour to Vladimir Putin. Such low punches were bound to unite the opposition, and alienate the undecided, and even friends, as seen in the parliamentary vote and after.

Immaturity and misjudgement

The use of raw language by unnamed people close to the prime minister reflects the degree of the government’s immaturity and misjudgement of the mood in Parliament and outside. The doubters included many in his own party and his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats: Thirty Conservative and nine Liberal Democrat MPs voted against the government. Some ministers missed the vote. It showed how divided Cameron’s troops were, how high the stakes became, how desperate the battle to win, somehow, anyhow – and why the atmosphere turned so unpleasant.

It was largely Prime Minister Cameron’s own making, for he and his hawkish Foreign Secretary William Hague were the two leading architects of the policy on Syria. Together, they had pushed an unsure President Obama to an interventionist position. Cameron and Hague had persuaded the White House to intervene in Libya in 2011. They almost succeeded in doing so again on Syria, before the British Parliament stopped them. By then, however, they had walked Obama far enough not to be able to reverse the US position without appearing politically impotent.

Cameron recalled Parliament to debate Britain’s participation in the false hope, as it turned out, of getting the MPs’ backing for intervention in Syria. Assertions of Britain playing its essential role as befits a “major power on the world stage” were heard again and again.

Cameron and Hague hopped from one justification to another during the debate in the House and outside: The ban on chemical weapons has to be upheld; Britain cannot sit idly by while innocent civilians are slaughtered; Britain has a responsibility to protect; the United Nations Security Council does not matter; we do not plan regime change, but Assad must be punished.

When the crunch came, Cameron and Hague failed to deliver. Their arguments were vague and predictable. Their legal justification was far from compelling and unconvincing to many. Their assertions that Britain was already certain of the culpability of Bashar al-Assad, although the UN inspectors had yet to decide whether chemical weapons had been used, sounded bizarre.

Why was the “use of chemical weapons” in Syria’s civil war – the “red line” – unacceptable while mass killing by all sides, abduction, torture and forced expulsion of civilians were not? Absurdities of this kind in making the case for intervention are there for all to see. There will be no UN Security Council approval or NATO umbrella – instead, there may be only a “coalition of the willing” like the US-led invasion against Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Cameron exhibited too much hubris and undisguised eagerness to look like a war leader in the mould of Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair – who is a much diminished figure in Britain today after his role in the “War on Terror”. The evidence presented by Cameron to Parliament failed to convince members, who knew public opinion was strongly opposed to Britain’s involvement in another war. Blair’s advocacy for intervention in Syria reminded many people of Iraq.

Domestic fallout

Britain’s appetite for punching above its weight has come to an end. One commentator on the left said thatBritain’s illusion of empire was over. The Economist, the pillar of the right-wing British establishment, described Cameron’s defeat on its website as “The vote of shame“, and the Conservative-Liberal coalition is now deeply traumatised as accusations and counter-accusations abound.

For all this, the oposition Labor leader Miliband deserves credit. He is not like left-wing Labour politicians of the past, offering an alternative to neoliberal militarism. It is a welcome change that is good for democracy.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives must try to rebuild their party and the Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in the Conservative-led government, face an existential threat. Having sacrificed their principles while in power, the Liberal Democrats will face a tough election next time around.

In an open display of bitterness, former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Paddy Ashdown – now a party grandee – said he was ashamed after the vote on Syria. The Guardian was right to rebuke him for lecturing the nation. On the contrary, the newspaper declared: “We should feel ashamed that our instinct for legitimacy and our patriotism have been too often and too cheaply taken for granted … Britain’s mood is not never again. The mood is not now, not again, not like this.”


On Egypt’s turmoil

AL JAZEERA, August 14, 2013

A victim mourned

A victim mourned

The bloodbath in Egypt’s security crackdown against opponents of the military coup is truly catastrophic. Enough independent observers maintain that the crowds of protesters, including women and children, were largely peaceful, and the use of violence by the security forces was disproportionate. Egypt faces a lasting conflict with itself. The army’s repression is a shattering blow against a fledgling, and brief, democratic experiment. Muslim Brotherhood activists and other opponents of the military-backed government may feel that they have little choice except to go underground.

In a vast country so deeply split, the authorities will find it very difficult to establish total control that the military seeks. Civilian political figures cooperating with the army face isolation from sections of Egyptian society. The turmoil will be destabilising, and a serious setback against hopes for democratic change in the region. The conflict will inflame the anti-American feeling, and pose a particular challenge for the United States in the Middle East. President Obama cannot disown the Egyptian military. But Washington’s close links with the ruling military establishment in Cairo will provide further fuel to the resentment against America.

Others on the Al Jazeera panel were Mahmood Mamdani (Columbia University), John L. Esposito (Georgetown University), Phyllis Bennis (Institute of Policy Studies), Adel Iskander (Georgetown University), Mark LeVine (University of California, Irvine) and Richard Falk (Princeton University), Sarah Mousa (Georgetown University), Larbi Sadiki (Qatar University), Michael Hudson (NUS), Daniel Levy (ECFR) and Abdullah Al-Arian (Georgetown University). 

A “democratic” coup

AL JAZEERA, July 23, 2013

The military overthrow of President Morsi is not a coup for democracy, but an old remedy that has long failed. 

The military overthrow of Egypt’s freely-elected president Mohamed Morsi represents the beginning of a new, more turbulent phase in the country. The coup in early July was decisive in the immediate run, ending a brief democratic experiment with a Muslim Brotherhood politician in power.

Beyond the immediate outcome, however, the military takeover has thrown Egypt’s future into uncertainty, and caused further ruptures in civil society. While the Brotherhood insists on Morsi’s reinstatement, surely an unlikely prospect, the anti-Morsi coalition of liberals, secularists and Mubarak-era elites is determined to move on.

The newly installed interim president Adly Masour has appointed a 35-member cabinet led by an economist, Hazem el-Beblawi. General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led the coup, is the first deputy prime minister and defence minister. Prominent anti-Morsi figure and ex-International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Mohamed ElBaradei is one of three acting vice presidents in the new administration, which has also dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated upper house of the Egyptian parliament.

The new administration is made up of technocrats and unelected people, establishing the armed forces as the real power. More than promises to hold elections, the military’s future course of action is vague at best.

The coup would have been inconceivable without millions of anti-Morsi Egyptians pouring out into the streets of Cairo and other cities. The protests offered the generals a justification to intervene on “behalf of the people.” To many, Morsi was his own worst enemy. In his short presidential tenure since winning the election by a wafer-thin majority a year ago, Morsi had alienated large sections of Egyptian society that had either not voted for him, or had supported him reluctantly.

Egypt’s Christians, about 10 per cent of the 85 million population, felt threatened by President Morsi, who was viewed as too Islamist and who had amassed too much power in the presidency. Liberal and women’s groups were deeply unhappy with the new constitution, which Morsi had pushed through just over six months ago.

His administration was unable to tackle the worsening economy, betraying the hopes of many Egyptians. For them, the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak was far from over. So, amid renewed demonstrations against Egypt’s elected head of state, the military removed President Morsi on “behalf of the people.”

However, there are problems with this narrative. The truth is that the Egyptian people are bitterly divided into the Morsi camp and the opposition, which in itself is fragmented. That Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood still enjoy substantial support among the poorest sections, especially in the countryside, is not in doubt. There are large demonstrations by Brotherhood supporters almost every day, and a military crackdown is going on against Brotherhood leaders and activists.

In one of the bloodiest incidents, more than 50 Morsi supporters were killed when soldiers shot at a crowd, said to be praying outside the headquarters of the Republican Guards. The swearing-in of the new cabinet took place amid continuing clashes in which lives were being lost. Morsi and other senior figures of the Brotherhood are either in custody or at large. He is under investigation for “spying, inciting violence and ruining the economy.” The leaders’ assets have been frozen.

These events do not bode well for Egypt and the wider Middle East. The military is back in power, and the most significant political movement, with grassroots support, is the target of repression. Leading opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood are collaborating with the military.

This experiment has failed decade after decade in Egypt, and the record of military coups leading to a smooth transition to real democracy is poor. The same educated liberal-secular middle classes that were in opposition to Morsi’s rule will soon be opposing the military regime. It is only a matter of time.

The two greatest risks for Egypt and the region are further radicalization and volatility.

There are credible reports that the military overthrow of President Morsi happened under the Obama administration’s close watch. On 6 July, the New York Times published an expose on the final hours of Morsi’s presidency, written by David D. Kirkpatrick and Mayy El Sheikh.

According to their account, the United States, through an Arab foreign minister acting as emissary, made a ‘final offer’ which would avoid a military coup: the appointment of a new prime minister and cabinet that would take over all legislative powers and replace Morsi’s chosen provincial governors.

For Morsi, it was a coup in all but name, and he refused. A telephone call between President Morsi’s top adviser, Essam el-Haddad, and President Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, followed. Rice informed him that a military takeover was about to begin, and a Morsi aide told another associate, “Mother just told that we will stop playing in an hour.” The State Department in Washington offered no comment on America’s role.

Washington’s response in the aftermath, and the announcement that the United States would go ahead with the supply of F16 aircraft to the Egyptian military, suggest that Washington’s priority is to see “controlled change” in Egypt. As clashes continued on the streets of Cairo, America’s deputy secretary of state William Burns met Egypt’s new leaders in the capital, telling them of President Obama’s firm commitment to help Egypt succeed in this “second chance” for democracy.

President Obama’s preferred scenario is to ensure that any political change in Egypt is under the supervision of the army, with a lesser role at best for the Muslim Brotherhood in governance in future. In its fundamentals, Washington’s latest remedy is no different from the past, since President Anwar Sadat broke with the Soviet Union in the 1970s, and joined the U.S. alliance.


Obama’s Faltering Legacy

CounterPunch, June 24, 2013

imagesPresident Obama’s disputed pronouncement that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons and thus crossed his “red line” is significant in several respects, not least because what follows in Syria and the wider Middle East will determine how the Obama presidency is ultimately judged. The first heavy weapons are reported to have reached rebels on the front line of Aleppo. Obama’s decision undermines the United Nations and his much-heralded idea of multilateral diplomacy. It has set back chances of success in Geneva, after President Putin’s dogged determination at the G8 summit not to capitulate to Western demands that President Bashar al-Assad must go as part of any solution to the Syrian conflict.

It is the second time in recent months that diplomacy has suffered a serious blow by a well-timed announcement from Washington. Last August, American media revealed quoting unnamed officials that Obama had signed a secret order to supply weapons, including shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, to anti-Assad forces. It prompted the immediate resignation of the special envoy Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General, who was leading tentative peace efforts to end the Syrian conflict. I wrote at the time that the first casualty of Obama’s secret order was diplomacy and the sudden departure of Kofi Annan. Lakhdar Brahimi, a respected Algerian diplomat, succeeded Annan. Now Obama has done it again. His pronouncement surely kills what little prospects there were for peace in Syria.

A few words are in order here about Russia’s S-300 missiles to President Assad’s armed forces. Until a few months ago, opposition forces made up of Syrian and foreign fighters, including the dreaded Nusra Front, were in the ascendancy, and shooting down Syrian aircraft with increasing impunity. Those successes were likely due to American missiles supplied via Turkey, part of the armament financed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Iran’s help and the entry of Hezbollah to fight alongside Syrian government forces have been instrumental in reversing the balance on the ground. Russian supplies to boost Syria’s air-defense system mean greater protection for Assad’s air force.

During harsh exchanges, President Putin told the G8 host, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, “One does not really need to support people who not only kill their enemies, but open up their bodies, eat their intestines in front of the public and cameras … This probably has little relation to the humanitarian values preached in Europe for hundreds of years.”

Syria and Iran remain surrounded by a powerful alliance of Arab states, contrary to the overwhelming impression in both Western and regional media that portray Damascus and Tehran as monstrous regimes. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states, Turkey, the European Union, the United States and Canada have all lined up against Assad. His government was excluded by the Sunni bloc in the Arab League in 2011, yet remains a member of the United Nations. President Putin, justifying Russia’s military assistance to the Syrian government, asserted that the Kremlin was sending these supplies to a legitimate government under contracts signed over many years.

There is complete stalemate in diplomacy as whole-scale butchery continues in the battle for Syria. In Britain, Prime Minister Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague have shown extraordinary persistence for arming the rebels, possibly a Libya-style intervention by Western air power and special forces on the ground. However, there is little appetite in the British public for another intervention after a series of botched adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan, the lawless outcome of the Libyan operation in which Gaddafi was overthrown and brutally murdered, and continuous fallout of more than a decade of “war on terror” under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

The art of political spin and deceit is not new, but it has reached new heights in the Obama administration. With his ethical base invoking Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela in tatters, its true nature is there to see. The American president had travelled to Europe, primarily for the G8 summit, with his administration’s credibility further wounded by Edward Snowden’s disclosures that the U.S. National Security Agency operated a global surveillance network to spy on governments and citizens, foes as well as friends, with the help of the British intelligence center GCHQ.

The atmosphere was distinctly cool during Obama’s European visit this time. In his own country, he had told his fellow citizens that they did not have to worry about surveillance of their mail and telephone calls – that surveillance was directed at others in America’s war against terrorism. The effect was only to increase the anger elsewhere.

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel bluntly reminded him that people in her country were comparing U.S. espionage to that of the Gestapo under Hitler and the Stasi in East Germany under Communism. Uncomfortable questions were raised in private talks with Obama, and Merkel said that more in-depth questions would be asked of the Americans. Even then, President Obama, rather discourteously, monopolized the joint press conference with the German chancellor, and gave a lengthy explanation for America’s global surveillance.

The private fury of President Putin could only be imagined as he arrived at the G8 summit, and, in a way, explained his uncompromising mood. For not only he might have suspected that he was being spied on, his predecessor and the Kremlin’s number two man, Dmitry Medvedev, almost certainly was a victim of surveillance, along with other foreign leaders invited to the G20 conferences in London in 2009, as revealed by the Guardian. The newspaper also disclosed that the British intelligence agency GCHQ was intercepting and storing as many as 600 million emails, telephone calls and internet entries every day by secretly accessing worldwide telecommunications network. German ministers are furious, describing GCHQ activities as “catastrophe.”

In the wake of Snowden’s expose¢ and recriminations over Syria at the G8 summit, President Obama and his British and French allies badly needed a public relations triumph. So, coinciding with the end of the G8, the administration in Washington announced direct talks with the Taliban of Afghanistan in Qatar. Security analysts sympathetic to Washington promptly went on television channels to explain the virtues of talks in the Qatari capital Doha, where the Taliban had been allowed to open an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Bureau (diplomatic office), flying the white flag when the Taliban ruled prior to their overthrow in late 2001.

Washington’s announcement came as an unpleasant surprise to President Hamid Karzai, the man originally hand-picked by the Americans to be the president of Afghanistan. The U.S. decision to hold direct talks with the Taliban had all but frozen out the constitutional head of state. Karzai was angry and broke off talks with Washington on keeping military bases after the withdrawal of most American troops at the end of 2014.

In announcing direct negotiations, the Obama administration also might have hoped that the Taliban would ease their attacks on foreign troops as the withdrawal from Afghanistan accelerated. Within hours, however, Bagram airport near Kabul was targeted by Taliban rockets, killing four American soldiers. Further attacks continued.

Barack Obama cuts a sorry figure today compared to the young idealistic senator who won the 2008 race for the White House promising to end America’s wars abroad and restore civil liberties at home. His administration has come to be associated with warmongering, legal maneuverings designed to flout the constitution and freedoms enshrined therein, and international law. And the presidency which began with the audacity of hope appears to be heading toward a legacy of spin, deceit and a culture of prurience. His America can kill people anywhere in the world. It cannot inspire.


The Syrian Riddle

CounterPunch, FPJ, Palestine Chronicle

Recent remarks by Carla Del Ponte, a Swiss investigator of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry, have changed the nature of debate on the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war. Momentum had been building up for months against Bashar Syriaal-Assad’s government, first on the basis of accusations that such weapons were in use, followed by heavy hints by anti-Assad groups and Western politicians that the Damascus regime was guilty of chemical warfare against its opponents and civilians. There is no doubt about the unspeakable brutality committed by both sides in the conflict, but chemical warfare, if proven, would mean escalation to another level involving serious war crimes.

Carla Del Ponte, Switzerland’s former attorney general and prosecutor of the UN tribunals for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, is no pushover. She is now a member of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, appointed under the auspices of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Contrary to subsequent insinuations that she did not know what she was talking about, Del Ponte had chosen her words carefully. She had said that witness testimony made it appear that “some chemical weapons were used, in particular nerve gas.” And it appeared to have been used by the “opponents, by the rebels.” There is “no indication at all that the Syria government … used chemical weapons.” She said she was a “little bit stupefied” that the first indications were of the use of nerve gas by the opponents.

Del Ponte’s remarks, made amid reports of gains by Syrian government forces, seemed to undermine the position of rightwing hawks in Washington like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and in London Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague. These are some of the powerful figures who craft Western policy, but hardly objective and credible voices on Syria and the wider Middle East.

Within hours, enthusiastic interventionists in Washington and a somewhat reluctant Obama administration were scrambling to adjust. The White House said the United States believed that chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime. In a stark reminder of Iraq in 2003, the British Prime Minister David Cameron insisted in Parliament: “I can tell the House that there is a growing body of limited but persuasive information that the [Syrian] regime has used and continues to use chemical weapons.” The Foreign Secretary William Hague agreed. Mainstream television channels and newspapers remained broadly uncritical, unquestioning, even generous in giving the benefit of the doubt to Hague, despite lessons of Iraq.

Persuading those who are ideologically drunk and politically myopic is often a hopeless undertaking. Hunger for war and lust for power or for distant resources always impair both reason and morality. The developing situation on the ground has made the war hawks struggle for credibility. For them, the last resort is to assert with dead certainty their “belief” that it is Bashar al-Assad’s forces who have employed chemical weapons and committed war crimes. How could “freedom fighters” do this?

The changing reality of Syria’s long and brutal war, in which government forces show much greater resilience than their opponents’ predictions, has generated some desperation among the rebels and worry in the American and European capitals about Islamist factions gaining control of the anti-Assad campaign. The capture by rebels of UN peacekeeping troops in Syria, freed after a week of behind-the-scenes activity, tells the story, bringing a little more balance in the scenario usually painted before us.

It was the second time in two months that UN peacekeepers had been held by a rebel faction. The United States and its allies are trapped between delusions of total victory in the Middle East and its true consequences – emergence of anti-Western forces such as Al-Nusra Front that are even more aggressive and erratic.

The outcome of the recent Moscow visit of President Obama’s new secretary of state John Kerry is instructive. America’s agreement with Russia that they co-sponsor an international conference to find a negotiated settlement raised some eyebrows in Washington and among U.S. allies in Europe and the Arab world. President Vladimir Putin seemed to have prevailed in his insistence that Assad’s exit cannot be a precondition. But this precondition is the starting point for the Syrian rebels and many of their foreign supporters who have a wider Middle East agenda. A commentary in Italy’s rightwing publication Il Geornale said in its headline, “Obama’s Defeat: To Pacify Syria He Is In Cahoots With Putin.”

Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, struggling to maintain his authority within his Conservative Party and coalition with the Liberal Democrats, immediately flew off to Moscow for talks with Putin in an attempt to see that any international conference on Syria is held in London; Cameron’s trip to Washington would be next; Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel planned a visit of his own to Moscow after ordering two secret air attacks against Syrian military facilities in a week; and Israeli and Western newspapers issued warnings that Russia was about to supply S-300 missiles to Assad.

As for Russia, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov maintains that Moscow is “not planning to supply Syria with any weapons beyond the current contracts,” which, he says, are “for defensive purposes.” Russia’s message to Washington, delivered a year ago, continues to be “hands off Syria and Iran.” Obama continues his rhetorical maneuvers. And the war goes on.