Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Russia and Europe - Friend or foe?


by John Pedler, former British diplomat now a diplomatic consultant based in France.

As the Georgia crisis continues amid wide denunciation of Russia, it is important to remember the fundamentals of Russia’s relations with the countries of the European Union.

Russia is culturally, historically, and in its most important area a European country and Russians consider themselves a European people.  At least since Peter the Great in the 17th Century moulded his country on European lines, Russia has played a major role in Europe’s history culminating in its major role in defeating first Napoleon and then Nazi Germany.

One cannot imagine today’s European culture without Russian classical music and ballet, and its literature and poetry – to mention only composers Prokoviev, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich, and writers Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pasternak, and Solzhenitsin. Christianity too, is basic to Russian culture – for hundreds of years Russians defended the Christian faith against numerous forces – notably the Golden Hoarde. The Russian Orthodox and Catholic churches share essentially the same theology despite a millennium of priestly disputes.   

Russia temporarily left the European fold with the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin’s purges, and the Cold War. Since the fall of the Soviet Union the Russian people – even the only moderately affluent - have to a large extent reintegrated with Europeans with whom they feel more at home than with any other people.

Unfortunately – because the European Union has no united voice in world affairs - it was not fellow European countries but the United States that played the dominant role in Western policy towards Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. So American laissez faire capitalism, not the EU’s more controlled capitalism with its emphasis on welfare, was adopted in the chaotic and socially divided Russia of President Yeltsin.

The result was the return to authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin – welcomed by the bulk of Russians who were suffering worse economic conditions than under Gorbachev’s USSR. The so-abrupt descent from super-power status was far more humiliating for Russians than, say, for the British whose descent from world dominance took place over half a century. But when Gorbachev declared the end of the Cold War, the Russian Federation that emerged remained a great power – “the only power capable of destroying the United States”.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union President G.H.W. Bush carried on President Reagan’s policy of d├ętente with the Start I treaty (Strategic Arms Control), ratified in 1992, and the signature of the Start II treaty (Strategic Arms Reduction). At first NATO had no plans to expand eastwards after the fall of the Berlin wall, but agreement had to be reached once the DDR in East Germany came to an end, to ensure that all of a unified Germany remained militarily tied to the West. So, with Russian consent, NATO came to include eastern Germany. It was to end there.

According to Gorbachev (he repeated this recently) after the fall of the Berlin Wall the US (under the first President Bush) pledged not to expand NATO to include the East European countries. That there was any binding pledge is though denied by Robert B. Zoellick who was at the time a State Department officer concerned with negotiations with the USSR. Whatever the nature of the understanding, there was soon a major debate in the US and in NATO countries about the wisdom of expanding NATO to the former Warsaw Pact countries and hence to the old Soviet frontier against Russian opposition. The question was: why raise Russian suspicions and risk the partnership it offered the West, when NATO had only come into being to counter the threat from a Soviet Union that no longer existed?

But the US and some others saw NATO as the essential structure binding Europe and the US and Canada politically as well as militarily – a solution acceptable to Russia. But soon the drive for NATO’s expansion eastwards began under President Clinton – at the 1997 Madrid Summit, the membership of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary was accepted over the opposition of a still weak Russia. Still, Russia continued cooperation with the West on several issues while warning against further expansion which it would see as a threat.

America’s move away from a new era of cooperation made possible by the end of the Cold War, towards a unipolar world dominated by the US, alarmed not only Russia but China. One major turning point from (diminished) cooperation to (open) confrontation came on 15 June 2001, when President G.W. Bush announced the intention to expand NATO to all the former Warsaw Pact countries. That same day Russia, China and some central Asian countries established the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as the ‘new security concept’ – i.e. to counter US unipolarism.

Then, less than 3 months later came ‘9/11’ and there was a brief return towards co-operation: Russia and China also had problems with Muslim minorities and an interest in countering international terrorism. 

But this evaporated with Bush’s famous Axis of Evil Speech in January 2002 after which it soon became clear that the US would invade Iraq primarily to achieve a dominating military and political position in the Middle East – a point insufficiently understood in the West. This has been thwarted. Instead the occupation of Iraq has had the effect not only of increasing Iran’s influence in Iraq and also the Middle East despite Sunni/Shia differences, but in greatly reducing Russia’s (and China’s) fears of a New American Century (the name of the neo-conservative think tank). Over-extended militarily, financially strapped, and losing thanks to the Iraq war its hope of establishing a  unipolar world, the US is now seen by Russia as becoming,  not a paper tiger for is power and influence remain immense, but simply as another great power which can successfully be confronted. As for NATO, Russia sees the fissures in that organisation widening as its first ‘out of area’ operation in Afghanistan threatens to end in defeat.

To sum up – despite a fairly promising start under President G.H.W. Bush, PresIdent Clinton failed properly to follow up the partnership option with Russia. Russia was largely ignored, and its real national interest regarding its ‘near abroad’ was disregarded in favour of an unnecessary and provocative expansion of NATO.

By the autumn of 2007 it was already clear that not only was the US overstretched militarily, but that it was in deep and deepening financial trouble. On 2 October 2007, against this background of American decline, President Putin made a key speech on Russian foreign policy at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy. (It was largely written off in the West as anti-American ranting but it deserves to be read by anyone concerned with European/Russian relations). He rejected both the concept and the possibility of an American unipolar world.  He referred to the failure of America’s “almost uncontained hyper use of force…. plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts… Finding a political solution settlement also becomes almost impossible”. He strongly criticised NATO’s pretentions. At the end of his carefully prepared and reasonable speech he said – “And of course we would like to interact with responsible and independent partners with whom we can work together in constructing a fair and democratic world order that would ensure security and prosperity not only for a select few, but for all”.

Whatever one’s views of Mr. Putin and Russia, this speech surely deserved to be followed up to establish how sincere the Russian Federation was about this offer of collaboration in place of confrontation.

But sadly, the Europeans – still divided by the Iraq war and associated unipolarism – made no coordinated move to do this. As for the United States,    
the response came from President G.W. Bush on 3 April 2008 when he pressed NATO to accept as members Ukraine, Georgia and Afghanistan – this against the opposition of France and Germany.  
To sum up, we in the West baited an apparently friendly bear and got a slap from its paw – largely as a result of NATO expansion coupled with our failure to ensure that the Georgian government acted with the utmost restraint while Europe and America mounted a joint effort to defuse the long standing tension over Abkhasia and over South Ossetia (an area divided by Stalin from its northern half).

Is it too late to test the sincerity of Russia’s offer of joining in the cooperative era made possible by the fall of the Soviet Union? I believe not for Russia’s long term national interest and orientation is towards the closest possible relations with Europe. But there are two pre-conditions – the next US President, whatever he has to say to satisfy ‘patriotism’ must make it clear that – facing up to America’s decline during the disastrous G.W. Bush years – that the unipolar, hegemonistic, neo-conservative period is over and that the US now seeks to lead in creating a cooperative era.

Second, the European Union must find a single voice for the most important aspects of its international relations. This too, is not impossible even though the Union is currently all but paralysed over what sort of Union it should eventually be. On the great issue of world cooperation or confrontation all members of the Union have basically the same interest. The problem lies with members understandably afraid of Russia, and members who believe American unipolarism has been proved to be a step too far. If Russia is sincere about cooperation should America clearly renounce unipolarism, then the split among the Europeans would be healed. The way towards a partnership with Russia would be opened.                                                              
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Sunday, August 03, 2008

An inexcusable blunder, that vote for the Iraq war


by John Pedler, former British Diplomat, now a diplomatic consultant currently based in France.

We in the US and the UK got the Iraq war because of a failure of democracy. Both the Democrats in the United States’ Presidential system and the Conservatives in the UK’s parliamentary system failed in their duty as opposition parties.

In the US House of Representatives on 10 October 2002 81 Democrats voted with Republicans to authorise the use of US armed forces against Iraq. The result: 296-133. In the Senate the next day the Yeas had it 77 – 23. Senator McCain the presumptive Republican candidate for the presidency, and Senators Edwards, Hillary Clinton, and Kerry all at one time Democratic candidates, voted yea. This despite a remarkable dissenting speech by Senator Byrd.  It later emerged that not a few senators (notably including Mrs. Clinton) had not even read the secret papers on Iraq prepared for them in the senate library.     

In the UK’s House of Commons on 18 March 2003 the vote authorising ‘the use of all means necessary to ensure Iraq’s disarmament’ passed 412 – 149. This despite an even more remarkable dissenting speech the previous day by Britain’s former Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook. Some allege that the new leader of the Conservative opposition, Iain Duncan Smith, had too readily believed Prime Minister Tony Blair’s private confidential briefing.

Only the Liberal Democrats voted as a party against the motion. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer – one man whose opposition to the invasion might have prevented the UK’s participation - voted for. So did today’s Conservative Opposition leader David Cameron, then a back bencher (albeit reluctantly).

The sole candidate with a prospect of political leadership in the US or the UK to have opposed the Iraq war is now, of course, Senator Barack Obama.

One searches the US and UK records in vain for a speech setting out the arguments against an invasion of Iraq without wide international support that we Cassandras were making. As is now becoming clear these were also being advanced by experts inside both the US and UK governments (e.g. see Ross Carne’s testimony after he had resigned from the UK’s Diplomatic Service).   

Perhaps Brent Scowcroft, a key figure in Republican foreign policy, is the doyen of the Cassandras. An Air Force Lieut. General he was Military Assistant to President Nixon, later National Security Adviser to both President Ford and President H.W. Bush. In his op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal for 15 August 2002 he remarks ‘An attack on Iraq at this time would seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counter-terrorist campaign we have undertaken.’ He warned that war on Iraq would be a diversion from the ‘war on terrorism’. This required wide international cooperation which risked being lost. Scowcroft advised there had first to be a resolution of the Israel/Palestine problem. An attack on Iraq could lead to destabilisation of the Arab regimes. Anti-terrorism (and so the campaign in Afghanistan) needed continued top priority. ‘A comprehensive perspective’ on the international consequences of an invasion of Iraq was essential.

 On the Democrat side Leon Fuerth, Al Gore’s National Security Adviser during his Vice Presidency with whom I exchanged views, added to Scowcroft’s warnings the need to put North Korea before Iraq. His letter in the New York Times (4 January 2003) points out that ‘the outcome of the administration’s diplomacy is that America is preparing to fight a war with a country that might eventually acquire nuclear weapons, while another country is closing in on the ability to go into mass production’.

The senators, congressmen, and Members of Parliament all had greater access to the experts and the facts than did we outsiders. On this grave matter of war they all had the duty to probe thoroughly before casting their vote. Our unheeded warnings have, alas, all come true. (For my own claim to ‘Cassandraship’ see e.g. my letter to the Independent of 10 September 2002 beginning: ‘Isn’t a US attack on Iraq just what Osama bin Laden’s flagging plan requires?)

We Cassandras pointed out that 9/11 was not a ‘Pearl Habour’ – an attack to destroy a vital element of the adversary’s military power at the opening of hostilities – rather a ju jitsu ploy to provoke a wildly disproportionate response, so using the adversary’s own strength to bring about a fall. So President G.W. Bush’s carefully prepared and professionally executed invasion of Afghanistan with widespread international support (or at least tacit acceptance) had denied Al Qaeda the rash reaction it had expected.

Clearly what was required was continued top priority for cadres, finance, and forces to ensure Afghanistan’s stabilisation and reconstruction after decades of destruction (no easy task given that country’s history). This needed to be paralleled with a determined attempt to resolve the Palestine/Israel problem which provided Al Qaeda with so much of the Arab resentment on which it depended for support and recruits. For this, as 2002 ended, there had never been such widespread international support.

With the astonishing support that Robin Cook noted, the world was near to establishing the era of international cooperation that the end of the Cold War had made possible. World cooperation on international terrorism and wide support for ending the Israel/Palestine running sore on the international scene, could be harbingers for cooperation on other problems requiring international cooperation from North Korea to climate change.  

But Vice President Cheney and the neo-conservatives placed in key positions in the G.W. Bush administration saw things differently. They were concerned to ensure US dominance in the 21st century – their ‘think tank’ was called The Project for a New American Century.  

For them an invasion of Iraq would not be a diversion from the ‘War on Terror’ but a means of winning it. For it would:

1. overthrow a hated dictator, so winning kudos in the Middle East and among Human Rights activists.

 2. eliminate such WMD as Iraq possessed – a warning to North Korea and others like Iran that might be tempted to acquire the bomb.

3. secure Iraq’s oil – especially important given doubts about the stability of Saudi Arabia, home of Bin Laden’s extremist Wahabism.

4. obtain permanent US bases in Iraq – denied by Saudi Arabia. So achieving US military dominance at the heart of the Middle East.

5. establish an American style democracy in Iraq, the success of which would be imitated, creating a New Middle East.

6. replace a hostile with a friendly Iraq, much improving Israel’s security and its bargaining position with the Palestinians, Syria and others.

7. demonstrate by ‘shock and awe’ to all the world US overwhelming military and economic might – its ability to go anywhere, pay any price, to ensure that the 21stwould indeed be an American Century – the key aim of the neo-conservatives

And added after 9/11:

8. To trump Al Qaeda in its Islamic heartland - effectively winning the ‘war on terror’ by ending its prestige and dashing its hopes of re-making the Middle East in its own extremist Wahabist image.        

This beguiling scenario – though the administration stressed only 1. and 2. – could be deduced from neo-conservative writings and the remarks of those ‘embedded’ in the Pentagon and other parts of the administration. Only a handful of politicians challenged its assumptions though many experts in and out of government did.    

First, they pointed out, hopes of this sort for the Iraq operation ignored the reality on the ground. Iraq is fissiparous – ethnic Kurds, Arabs etc.; religious Shi’ites, Sunnis, and others (including Christians). The history of British rule after creating this artificial country following World War I suggested that only a firm leader could hold it together. So a strong occupation force and a firm interim administration would be essential to prevent chaotic collapse.

General Eric Shinseki, Chief of Staff of the US Army during the run up to war, famously told the Senate Armed Forces Committee that “something of the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” would probably be needed for this purpose. After Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz (a leading neo-conservative) pooh poohed this, Shinseki’s testimony was ignored. Yet already in the summer of 2002 the British government had itself expressed much concern at the lack of planning for an occupation.              

Second, both Bush and Blair had to present a cheap quick war in order to get the political approvals they needed. That meant adopting the Rumsfeld lite force, and claiming that the whole operation would cost only $50-100bn. The Shinseki alternative involved a far bigger, far more expensive operation – probably impossible given the commitment in Afghanistan.   

Let us list the principal arguments put forward against the war:

1. After the Cold War, the US had begun leading towards a new era of international cooperation to deal with the grave issues all humanity now faces. But a virtually unilateral invasion by the US would split Europe, NATO and the UN. Russia, China and others including Middle East countries, were against a unipolar world. This would be magnified by a US attempt to dominate of the Middle East. Worsening relations with all of them could well result, wrecking hopes for international cooperation. .

2. America’s unfinished business in Afghanistan would lose its top priority and risk losing too, the remarkable international support needed quickly to rebuild the country and ensure against the possibility of a Taliban return. With Al Qaeda’s move to the tribal areas of Pakistan, which had formerly supported the Taliban and Al Qaeda, great care would be needed to ensure Pakistan’s own stability and help General Musharraf to justify, thanks to positive results in Afghanistan, the pro-American stance he took after 9/11. The invasion of a second Muslim country would make this more difficult. It would be ‘self-sabotage’ once again to downgrade Afghanistan as America did after the Soviet Union’s withdrawal. That resulted in the Taliban and the bases it provided for Al Qaeda.   

3. The resolution of the Palestine/Israel problem, which should have had top priority, would be further delayed, to the advantage of extremists including al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas etc. - all the more militant following an occupation of Iraq.

4. The invasion would put US forces to the west as well as to the east of Iran. That would all but certainly end the initial cooperation Iran had shown over the ousting of the Taliban, its enemy too. Naming Iran part of an Axis of Evil in January 2002 had already set back the gradual progress of the ‘reformists’ and a reassertion of the ‘hard liners’. A hostile Iran would bode ill for the occupation of Iraq. And perhaps encourage it to push harder for nuclear capability.

5. The plan to ‘democratise’ occupied Iraq and later the Middle East would be fraught with difficulty as the State Department had warned. The Middle East potentates supported by the US would be threatened by democratisation brought by force. That could lead to ‘Islamists’ coming to the fore with ‘one man, one vote, one time’. This risk would be reduced with a just resolution of the Palestine situation.

6. It was likely that nothing would help Al Qaeda so much as an unapproved invasion of Iraq. Indeed Al Qaeda must have been aware of the persistent calls for an invasion of Iraq since the ‘90s by the neo-conservatives now in high positions in the Bush administration. Vice President Cheney was a signatory to the Project for a New American Century and its call for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. So it is quite possible that the violent over-reaction bin Laden had counted on with 9/11 (but had so far failed to achieve) was a US invasion removing Saddam’s brutal repression of extremist Islam (including Al Qaeda) and of Iranian revolutionary influence. Without Saddam doing America’s work for it, there could be a second front for Al Qaeda on its Mid-East homeland - not to take over Iraq but to create maximum chaos in the neighbour of Saudi Arabia, Al Qaeda’s target for regime change.     

7. Those of us who were in Vietnam during that war warned of a return of the ‘Vietnam syndrome‘. Excessive force – particularly of airpower - had turned virtually the entire population of South Vietnam against the Americans. Were the US driven to use violent repression in Iraq provoking a widespread reaction, it could once again find itself with no support and no exit strategy.

8. Clash of Civilisations. Coming on top of the ideological war against Al Qaeda’s introduction of international Islamic terrorism, the unauthorised invasion of a second Muslim country – which many opponents were already presenting as a naked bid for Iraq’s oil – would greatly increase widespread suspicion that the US aimed to dominate the Middle East and dilute its Islamic culture with its own. These suspicions would be likely to spread rapidly across the Muslim world from Morocco to Indonesia - and into the large Muslim immigrant communities in Europe.

9. The century of the Pax Britannica from 1815 to 1914 held with remarkable success because of Britain’s ‘fleet in being’. America’s armed power ‘in being’ had held a fraught situation throughout the Cold War and into our new era. But a major commitment of US forces simultaneously in both Afghanistan and Iraq risked over-stretch militarily and financially – the very opposite of the ‘shock and awe’ intended. The limits of American power and finance would then be revealed to all.

Every one of these arguments against the Iraq war (and there are more) were public knowledge in 2002 and advanced by experts. It is all but incredible that politicians almost to a man (and woman) failed to examine them, discuss them, and weigh them before voting to authorise war.  

There are no excuses for those opposition politicians who did – ‘we couldn’t get the facts’, ‘we were deceived by Bush and Blair’, etc.  Democracy fails when the opposition fails properly to scrutinise government policies and proposals. In the case of Iraq this failure has led to much public cynicism and loss of trust in our US and UK democratic systems.

In sum, the vote for war was a blunder which could and should readily have been avoided. The judgment of any politician who voted for war yet now claims to be strong on security and international affairs, cannot summon the international confidence and respect essential to lead along the rocky road towards cooperation and away from confrontation. This includes Messrs Brown, Cameron, and Miliband in the UK and Senators Clinton, Edwards, Kerry, and McCain in the US.  Britain has no leader in sight who is not burdened an error that he can neither deny nor excuse. The US has one who just might – Senator Obama.

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