Category Archives: Global Politics

The leader of the Middle-East’s only nuclear power speaks to Congress

Binyamin Netanyahu's speech to the US Congress tells us much about him and much about the Republican lawmakers fawning over his every word.

The Israeli prime minister has been engaging in a reckless gamble, as he deliberately sets out to alienate the president of his country's only reliable friend in the world.  This is the man who openly sought a Romney victory at the last US presidential election and who has now once again flouted the non-partisan rules of international engagement by taking up his invitation from the Republican House Speaker, John Boehner, to speak to a joint session of Congress without doing the president the courtesy of even letting him know.

Mr. Netanyahu may be holding on to a belief that no matter how much he offends Mr Obama, the US president would not, in the last resort, leave him and Israel hanging in the wind.  And yet Mr Obama has shown that he is willing to redraw the map of American political allegiance in the middle-east if it suits him, especially in the aftermath of an Arab Spring that left the region in a continuous state of turbulence and unpredictability.  It is just possible that by speaking to a Congress which carries little actual foreign policy heft, in defiance of a president who does, Mr. Netanyahu may have placed himself firmly on the outside track as the Secretary of State continues to pursue a deal with Iran.

Let's hope so at any rate.  Netanyahu is a man who revels in confrontation, sees himself as a latter-day Churchill and, modestly, the leader of all Jews in the world.  There are definitely shades of Iran's former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in Netanyahu's own messiah complex.  He also heads up a nation which has not been shy of employing vigorous aggression against enemies imagined or real.  His military's foray into Gaza last year killed somewhere over 2,000 Gazans, including 513 children.  There were also admittedly Israeli deaths - 66 soldiers and 5 civilians.  And, of course, while Iran protests that it merely wants to develop a uranium enrichment programme, and is nowhere near producing a nuclear weapon - all under intense international scrutiny - it is Israel which continues to deny its own actual nuclear capability, revealed in the 1980s by disillusioned scientist Mordechai Vanunu.

Israel is no slouch, either, in dealing with citizens who reveal uncomfortable truths.  Vanunu was kidnapped while in Italy - having earlier fled Israel for Britain - and after a closed trial spent 18 years in prison, 11 of which were in solitary confinement.

Mr. Netanyahu pursues the politics of violent sectarianism with relish.  He used the post-Charlie Hebdo marches to egoistic effect, and has entered the political arena of another sovereign nation with an indecent partisan glee.  This is no statesman, and he does his country severe discredit at a time when he might have been better off trying to embellish its tattered credentials as a bulwark of stability and tolerance in its region.

He is well joined by congressional republicans.  It is not surprising that some dissenting Democrats have likened the Netanyahu speech to the calls for war against Iraq in 2003 (a war firmly supported by Netanyahu at the time).  The international sores of the last Republican administration's malign foreign policy remain clear in the murderous scars across the Iraqi nation and the rise to power of ISIS.  Netanyahu and his Republican allies may be made for each other, but the world would be well rid of both if their respective electors woke up to the dangerous reality of their blinkered sectarianism.


How ignoring human rights has moulded today’s world crises

There are times when I box "human rights" into a little, separate compartment of my overall fascination with global politics, seeing it as the well-meaning pursuit of a handful of liberals who are banging their noble heads against the brick wall of political realism.  Yes, it would be nice if everyone's rights were respected, but no they can hardly be expected to get in the way of the often unpleasant and dirty business of keeping afloat in the mucky world of international relations.  If I keep failing to make the link between an increasingly volatile, war-strewn world and a general western disinterest in human rights, then yes, go ahead and condemn my superficiality and short-sightedness.  But then reflect on the unhappy fact that it is shared - sometimes cynically so - by most of the western public and its duly elected leaders.

This keynote post by Human Rights Watch director Ken Roth on their World Report 2015 has been a real wake-up call, not least because he has so persuasively rooted the continuing abuse of human rights in the unfolding political tragedies around the world.  And its persuasive because, really, we know that the tragic equation he is articulating is right.  It isn't just blind fundamentalism which is driving ISIS's many followers - look at the world they are escaping from and fighting against.  People do usually act from rational motives, and what can be more rational than the desire to fight for your rights and your well-being against oppressive, murderous states.  Does it really surprise us that ISIS's principal theatre of operations, and success, is in two countries whose regimes have relentlessly and brutally suppressed the rights of their minorities?  That Boko Haram might just be a response to the corruption and abuses of the Nigerian government?  That maybe the pro-Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine have legitimate grievances against abuses from the pro-western militias? 

Roth's article is a must-read for a better, more nuanced, and morally based understanding of world affairs.  And then, when you've done with that - and it's a long, wide-ranging read - have a look at another piece by an HRW operator, this time on the forgotten war that Russia is waging in Dagestan. 

Human rights becomes more than a decent liberal pursuit; it becomes a crucial prism through which to understand the turbulent 21st century world. 

King Salman’s Rapid Succession Declarations

King Salman bin Abdulaziz may have only just become king of  Saudi Arabia, but the new - and seventh of his line - monarch is moving fast to ensure the succession is assured into the next generation.  Taking over from his half-brother, King Abdullah, who died yesterday, the 79 year old King Salman inherits a bulging inbox of problems, but it is clear that the continued smooth rule of the House of Saud is a top priority.  As the kingdom runs out of eligible sons of its founder, King Abdulaziz, to take the throne, there have been questions raised as to how Saudi Arabia might transition its ruling elite into the next generation.  There are something like 7,000 princes directly descended from King Abdulaziz, and it is little wonder that faction struggles feature highly on the list of likely problems to beset the crucial kingdom.

King Salman's crown prince was already known, as predecessor King Abdullah had unprecedentedly appointed a deputy crown prince a few years ago - another half-brother, Prince Muqrin.  Salman has not only confirmed Muqrin - ten years his junior - as the new crown prince, but also filled the deputy crown prince role with his nephew (by one of his full brothers, former Crown Prince Nayef who died before he could assume the throne, thus paving the way in fact for Salman) Mohammad bin Nayef, the hardline Interior Minister.  This would seem to assure the necessary smooth transition to the generation of Abdulaziz's grandsons, and while it might put Salman's own sons out of joint a little, it does interestingly keep the long-term succession in the hands of the so-called "Sudairi faction", the families of that group of seven brothers whose mother was Princess Hassa al-Sudairi.  The new king's own son, Mohammad bin Salman has in turn become defence minister, replacing his father.  Whether this does indeed narrow the future succession to the Sudairis remains to be seen, and there are rumours that that once tight faction is itself subject to some internecine struggling, but it is certainly clear that Crown Prince Muqrin will be the last of the immediate sons of King Abdulaziz to become king in succession to Salman.  Muqrin's own position was controversial, as his mother was a Yemeni concubine rather than a pure Saudi wife, but perhaps a Yemeni connection is no bad thing at a time when the southern arab country is causing so many headaches for Saudi Arabia.

Why does this matter?  Well, apart from the inherent fascination of an almost medieval tableaux of court politics that the kingdom provides, it remains one of the two key regional powers - along with its old enemy Iran - and is a key to American interests in the region.  Its ability to manipulate world oil prices is being seen at the moment as it maintains oil production at the same rate but lower prices without causing undue economic stress to itself.  It is a key ally against Isil, a counter-weight to Iran, and the stable home to two of Islam's holiest shrines.  That Saudi Arabia is in Isil's sights is apparent from a recent attack by that group on Saudi border guards.  Isil have already made it clear that they regard the Saudi control of Mecca and Medina as wholly wrong, and would love to wrest the cities away.  This may seem like a pipe dream but Saudi Arabia takes its border security seriously enough to have initiated the erection of an impressive 600-mile wall along its northern border with Iraq, similar to the 1000-mile one it already has across its southern border with Yemen.

King Salman - by all accounts a shrewd and respected leader, who even established a private jail for misbehaving Saudi princes - will already be familiar with the problems of a Yemeni government that has just fallen (to allegedly Iranian backed guerrillas, the Houthi); a continuing high risk strategy on oil prices and production contrary to the rest of Opec's wishes; the threats from Isil; and the policy to see Bashar al-Assad removed from Syria.  As he juggles these, he also needs to work out just how much reform - if any - the powerful Saudi religious establishment will take (and he appears not to be as personally committed as his older half-brother), as well as keep his increasingly fractious family in line.  He may not have much time either.  Whilst foreign visitors remark that he retains his sharpness in conversation, there are rumours of an onset of either dementia or Parkinson's.  Another reason, perhaps, for the seventh Saudi king to have quickly put the putative numbers 8 and 9 in place so quickly.

Further - Joshua Keating on Slate.com examines Salman's difficult inbox; Newsweek on Saudi border concerns; and the Washington Post on the generatiom shift in Saudi royal circles.

Western News Priorities

Of course western news media are going to focus on their own backyard first and foremost, but in an age when many speak grandiosely of a globalized community and an equally globalized media, there is still a serious dichotomy between the way news in the West is presented against the "news from elsewhere".

There has of course been acres of coverage about the Charlie Hebdo killings and subsequent "three days of terror" in Paris that left 17 dead at the hands of five terrorists, three of whom have now been killed, one of whom is in custody and one on the run.  Yes, it's shocking in a peace-accustomed west that men and women going to work, or going shopping, may be gunned down in the middle of their mundane tasks.

But compare this with the reaction to Boko Haram's latest atrocity in Nigeria.  Battling for control of the town of Baga, 2,000 civilians are feared killed in the latest Boko Haram massacre.  2,000.  2,000 people trying to live normal lives, massacred for standing in the way of an extremist group's political ambitions.  And that figure has to be an estimate, because local agencies stopped trying to count the bodies from the carnage, and many were simply strewn in the nearby bush.  Most of the victims were elderly, or women, or children, apparently because they are the ones who can't run so fast when Boko Haram send their courageous fighters into the town in jeeps, firing rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles on the unarmed citizens.   And just to be clear, this is an organisation that is every bit as ruthless and danegrous as ISIL.

How many headlines did this generate in the same week as 17 people were killed in Paris?  None.  It is reported on some foreign news pages, but it doesn't feature today anywhere on the front page on the BBCs online site, or Al Jazeera's English language site, or Sky News' website.  To their credit, CNN does have it fairly near the top, but the distance between western deaths and 'elsewhere' deaths remains vast.  If our news organisations can't report prominently on the terrible activities of Boko Haram and other, similar groups operating across much of the globe, then we will remain shrouded in a cloud of ignorance about the onslaught of terrorism that occasionally leaks onto the western stage.  Our shock at Charlie Hebdo is partly due to our failure to see and understand the wider world.  Globalization is not noticeably enlarging our world-view it seems.