Archive for February, 2012

Greek Agony

Monday, February 13th, 2012

What is happening to Greece now is profoundly wrong. It is wrong because the economics will not work. It is wrong because it is wholly undemocratic.

Taking first the issue of democracy. The European Union is an enterprise founded to preserve democracy, yet it has allowed its institutions to fragment in such a way that it has become little better than a bureaucratic autocracy. This is not how its members see themselves but it is how the Greek people are now coming to regard it. Within the fragmentation was the floored notion of monetary union without fiscal union. This cannot work. Within that failure, was the permissive attitude to the rules which did exist, which allowed Greece to join the euro in the first place on a completely false prospectus. The Greeks then made hay. The sun stopped shining. Greece is utterly bust.

Rather than face that reality and work out some programme where Greece can default and devalue in order to make a fresh start and grow its economy, which is the only realistic option, the euro members, led by Germany, with the support of France, are condemning Greece to an unending period of deep depression. They are doing this because of the losses they would themselves sustain in their own banking systems if Greece were allowed to take the only proper route out of the crisis into which it has, through its own profligacy, put itself.

When the previous Greek prime minister decided it was proper to put an earlier set of terms to the Greek people in a referendum there was uproar and he was forced from office. This now adds up to a kind of economic occupation against the will of the people on the pattern of a military conquest. This is not what the EU is supposed to be nor is it what it is supposed to do.

Nothing whatever has been solved by the vote in the Greek parliament last night, to back the latest austerity demands. It is doubtful they can be enforced and if they are Greece will not have the revenues to fund even its reduced financial commitments. The argument by the EU members was that without their medicine the future, not just of the euro but of the EU was at risk. Let their be no illusions. Grinding into poverty and depression one of its members not only threatens the future of the EU but also throws up doubts about its benefits and its purposes.

This is now a crisis not of the euro but of the whole European Union.

Syria: Russia’s Efforts Fail

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

The Assad regime appeared to have been offered a breathing space by the Russian and Chinese veto. Calling a halt to its bombardment of Homs during Sergei Lavrov’s visit, would have been a good gesture; offering something tangible to the Russians to take back would have been shrewd. Offering only feeble promises  for dialogue, promises none would expect to see kept in view of the record of the regime, whilst stepping up a cruel and indiscriminate bombardment, was foolhardy. This causes the Russians, who have had to suffer near universal criticism for the UN veto, to look impotent and without leverage with their ally. That will not please the Kremlin. In the long run that could be very bad for Assad.

Until the near humiliation of Mr. Lavrov, there remained the possibility that a modified Assad regime would represent the best practical way forward in Syria, even if not to the liking of those who seek not just change, but change of regime. With every salvo fired into the homes of the inhabitants of Homs, that prospect fades. At present the opposition to Assad lacks the strength to topple him. It may never, without foreign intervention which nobody favours, manage to acquire that strength. On the other hand Assad can blast his way onward until he gets to the place where he lacks the strength to stand alone. He will then regret the broken promises, the cruel bombardments and the slaughter of his people, because then he will find his friends are gone. Alone he will fall at the mercy of his angry people. They may have little mercy to show him.

Syria: Russia’s Challenge

Monday, February 6th, 2012

Sergei Lavov has a big challenge ahead of him, when he visits Damascus on Tuesday. The Russians may have been surprised by the scale of the dismay at their veto of the UN resolution. Some of this opprobrium is misplaced. UN resolutions do not  end conflicts and never have. To suggest that continued fighting is all down to the veto is unrealistic. It is probably true that the Assad regime felt emboldened enough to try and end the insurrection in Homs, before the arrival of Mr Lavrov. That too will prove unrealistic because even if halted, trouble will again erupt.

Essentially the Russian and Chinese position is that regime change is not the answer. Where this has happened elsewhere as a consequence of outside pressure, especially Afghanistan and Iraq, things did not work out well. In Libya it looks better, but the difficult part of nation building lies ahead and it is not yet clear whether that will live up to expectations.

In Syria, President Assad enjoys the substantial support of his own minority tribe and appears to be opposed by a sizeable chunk of the majority Shias. Nevertheless there is no obvious successor, nor government in waiting, nor leader in the wings. The Russian challenge is to see if order can be restored and the suffering brought to an end, not by regime change but real and substantial changes to the regime and the way it governs. Assad has promised reforms repeatedly and repeatedly failed to deliver them.

Mr Lavrov will doubtless tell him that time is running out. There will now be a price for continued Russian and Chinese support. If Assad is willing to pay and actually does, Russia will have achieved a diplomatic coup. If not Syria will sink into civil war, notwithstanding resolutions, vetoes, protestations and pleas. Those who want to end the suffering of innocents will wish Mr Lavrov well; nevertheless a solution may be beyond his reach.

Russia and China’s Veto

Sunday, February 5th, 2012

The West is now busy blaming Russia and China for the violence in Syria, because they vetoed a not very good UN resolution. That is ridiculous.

Russia is a faded superpower, but it is no longer fading. It has not yet made the transition from military strength to economic strength, but it will get there. China is now an economic superpower, maybe the economic superpower. Neither considers the open pluralist democracy, favoured by the West, the best way to govern and they could point to the political polarisation in the US and the inability of the Eurozone to put decisions into effect, as evidence to support their conclusion. Neither is remotely equivalent to their structure in the cold war era; both populations culturally prefer constant, strong and predictable leadership to the vociferous debate of the most open democracies.

Russia and China look at Syria and see bloodshed and mayhem, but they do not see the vestige of a coherent alternative government (unlike Libya, where their opposition to western intervention was much more muted) and, post Iraq, will be sensitive of anything which looks like a policy of regime change. They might go along with regime change if there were a coherent regime in waiting, to change to. Both follow a much more nuanced approach to foreign policy than the West led by the US. Putin has described the US as a hyper-power constantly over-reaching itself. This is harsh, but their is a vestige of truth in it.

Afghanistan is a disaster to anyone willing to be realistic, Pakistan is seriously destabilised, Iraq is one of the most dangerous places for innocent civilians in the world. Moreover Iraq’s  Shia majority is allied to Iran, the direct opposite of US aims at the start of the invasion.  The Israel/Palestinian problem is no nearer resolution than it was fifty years ago. This is not a good foreign policy inventory.

Maybe it would be a good plan to see what Russia and China can do in Syria, if anything. Meanwhile before we get too critical it might be good to remember that without China’s money the US is bust and without Russia’s energy most of Europe would freeze to death.

Chris Huhne: Lib Dem Challenge

Saturday, February 4th, 2012

The Liberal Democrats have a lot on their plate. It is an odd mix. There is the personal tragedy of Chris Huhne and Vicki Pryce, leading to both being charged with a serious criminal offence and Huhne’s exit from the Cabinet. Huhne protests innocence. If he is right, he will return to front line politics. If he is wrong, his political career is over.

This would be a blow to his Party, just under half of whom wanted him as leader. He has challenged the Tories in Cabinet, when they violated principles the Lib Dems held dear and thus became the champion of the grass roots members, mostly uncomfortable about their party’s closeness to the Tories. He was a good minister. The interesting thing is that all the Lib Dems in government impress at every level, yet the party has lost so much popularity since joining government that current polling averages would give it only fifteen MPs after a snap general election. We shall see after the local government elections in May how bad things actually are.

Unfortunately most voters now regard the choice as between Conservative and Labour. The attraction of a third party has diminished. Moreover joining the Tories in government appalled most of its supporters on the left, who now that New labour is history, are returning to the party of their roots. It was the ability to penetrate the Labour heartland which gave the Lib Dems their surge in numbers during the Blair years.

By far the biggest disaster was tuition fees. This u-turn was seen as a betrayal by all its young supporters and it will take a generation and fading memories to neutralise the corrosive effect of such a spectacular breach of trust. When all is said and done, the Lib Dems are in a very difficult place. There are many aspects beyond their control. In the whole context it is unlikely that the outcome of the Huhne/Pryce trial will have much impact outside the Party. The voters, they count first above everything after all, are unlikely to care either one way or the other.

Afghanistan

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

The leaked NATO report acquired by the BBC shows what so many who stop to think have believed for a long while. The Taliban is the strongest indigenous force both politically and militarily in Afghanistan. It also confirms that Pakistan plays a key part facing both ways, but no settlement can be achieved without its inclusion in the settlement. In the end it will be Pakistan which guarantees the outcome, not NATO.

The fact that talks are now taking place between the Taliban and the Karzai government on neutral ground is good news. Karzai knows the West has had enough. He knows too that his own security forces, with their uncertain loyalties, cannot possibly assure freedom from a Taliban takeover, once NATO leaves. The only option now open to his corrupt regime is to do a deal.

It would have saved countless lives, both militarily and civilian, if all this had been understood years ago. There was enough evidence.