A convenient untruth, Miliband style

Monty is the MediaShack UK corresondent and will  be blogging about Mid-East security issues from a British perspective. 

I would just like to make it clear that I was outraged when I read the British press this morning.  Outraged.  The_US_told_Foreign_Secretary David Miliband that if the UK courts revealed alleged evidence of torture on a British national at Gitmo then the US will cut off intelligence sharing agreements with the UK.  Or did they? …Monty suspects a bit of a cover-up, and he is not alone.

It turns out the US did no such thing.  Miliband told judges in the case of Binyam Mohamed of the threat, causing the judges to refuse the release of the evidence.  Miliband is also believed to have assured them that the Obama administration had not brought with it a change of policy in this area.  And so it was, Britain’s national security reigned supreme and the judges bowed to the greater good.  Or so it seemed, until Miliband fessed up on to MP’s this afternoon – there was no threat he said, just the ‘threat’ of undermining the agreement that intelligence shared was intelligence to be kept secret.

Hmmm… At first glance this would seem to appear very convenient for the Government.  Why could it not reveal any abuses by the Bush administration, if they were indeed the perpetrators?  Or were the British services involved?  Why did Miliband not consult the Obama administration over the release of the information? Isn’t Obama committed to ending waterboarding and similar methods?  Surely a democracy can’t demand the cover-up of such information and subjugation of a sovereign democracy’s legal system?

Miliband’s subsequent disavowals of the use of torture did not convince.  Plausible deniability is hardly a defence here – what ever this evidence was, it must have been pretty explosive.

Things are not going well for the Foreign Secretary, after navigating the curious incident of the banana, he won few friends in a recent trip to India and was about as visible the Raiders in this year’s Superbowl over the Gaza conflict.  At least he got a hug from Hilary Clinton. Lucky guy.

Britain, Afghanistan, and the ‘special relationship’

Editor’s  Note:  Joining MediaShack is my good friend Monty, a Tommy  who has spent lots of time in Egypt and Syria and has good Arabic skills.   Monty is one of those wicked cool Europeans that like both American and European football.   His only problem is, for some reason, he chose a crap team to root for- the Oakland Raiders.  Dude, you have no geographic obligations.  You can pick any team you want and noone in America can say anything!! A Brit choosing to root for the Raiders is like an American choosing to become a fan of Manchester City FC!  Anyway, Monty will be blogging about Middle East security issues from a British perspective. 

 British Foreign Secretary David Miliband was in Washington yesterday after grabbing the much-coveted first slot for a foreign minister to appear side-by-side with the Obama administration.  For all of you in the US, this appointment may not sound like a big deal, but in Britain the press has been reporting widespread panic overtaking Whitehall.  Hillary Clinton told reporters yesterday that there had been a   “slight_change…but_continuity”  of the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the US, describing it as “certainly special in my eyes.”   Whitehall will have been watching intently.

The UK Government usually takes time to ease alongside new US Presidents, but this transition may be more painful than most.  

Many Brit’s are beginning to see themselves as adrift in Afghanistan and on their way out of Iraq.  The British edition of  The Economist this week summarised the position of the British military perfectly as “overstretched, overwhelmed and over there.” The article quoted a senior official in the Bush administration as saying that there is “a lot of concern on the US side about whether we are going to have an ally with the capability and willingness to be in the fight with us.”  Indeed, with even Britain’s own generals openly questioning the role of their armed forces in Afghanistan, the UK is likely to resist an expected Obama “surge” in the mould of that which was unleashed in Baghdad.  This request was alluded to by Clinton yesterday when she said that she looked forward to the UK and Europe helping to “enhance our support for the people of Afghanistan.”

There is also great weight of expectation on Obama.  Philip Stephens, a commentator writing for The Financial Times – and always worth reading – argued that Britain expects two things from Obama; first, that the US steps in and resolves the world’s myriad problems, and second that it stops throwing its weight around and asks less from the UK for its support.  The public popularity of the war in Afghanistan is very low.  With British forces pulling out of Iraq, the British public would most likely support a similar move in Afghanistan which is at risk at being viewed as an intractable conflict. The current economic climate provides little prospect of an increase in funding for a stretched military, which is badly needed if Britain is to achieve its goals in Afghanistan.

And finally, for all Obama has said, he has said little on Britain. Obama makes little or no reference to Britain in his ‘Audacity on Hope’ political tract.  Apart from the affirmation that no war should be embarked upon by the US without a UN mandate, that is.  The 44th US President has also paid more initial attention to France than his predecessors – although the French are too likely to baulk at demands upon their military.

While there is no doubt that the US and UK will continue to have a strong relationship, the degree to which it is special is likely to be tested in Afghanistan.

Battle In Doha

When I first started this blog, I did a weekly report on the Al-Jazeera talk show Al-Itijah Al-Muakis (The Opposite Direction), the Arab world’s most popular political talk show, known for its intense debates.    For example, in February, it was hosting  raucous debates between former officers in the Egyptian Mukhaberet and Algerian intellectuals over the question “Do Arab security serve serve the people or the regimes.”   But because of the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Qatar (Al-Jazeera’s host), there now seems to be some kind of limit on the scope of topics that can be discussed and so the show has become boring.   Maybe its just me, but a discussion of the threat  posed to Arab culture by foreign soap operas just isn’t as interesting. 

However, yesterday’s show was a notable exception to this unfortunate trend.  Guests debated the general question “to what extent is Britain responsible for the major disasters in the Middle East (such as Palestine, Iraq because of her colonial policy)?  “100% responsible,” said Nour Ad Deen Al-Farjani, an Arab intellectual who lives in Germany.  Taking a cool diplomatic position, was Dr. John Wilkes, a representative for the British government, who argued that its not useful to dwell in the past. Instead, we should move on and focus on the future.   

I have a special interest in watching non-native Arabic speaking Western diplomats, especially those from countries whose foreign policy is not welcomed in the region (US and UK) go on Mid Eastern TV programs to defend their government’s policy.  Wilkes gave a textbook lesson in how to successfully execute public diplomacy. 

First, he spoke perfect Arabic.   Its one thing to “speak” a foreign language, amongst friends, taxi drivers, etc when there is no pressure.  Its a whole different level of linguistic skill to go on TV, under pressure, being watched by millions of viewers who mostly will disagree with everything you say.  Wilkes made almost no grammatical mistakes during the 50 minute session in which he was always on the defensive, under pressure, responding to difficult questions and accusations from his opponent.  He also spoke very good formal Arabic.  Grandmasta is a big believer that, in formal situation, US or British diplomats should speak in Classical Arabic, as it brings with it a sense of prestige, which is important in diplomacy.  Speaking in colloquial Arabic on tv, especially a program on Al-Jazeera, which some diplomats do is degrading.  For those who aren’t familiar with Arabic, speaking in Colloquial would come across as only slightly more prestigious than the way Ali G  interviews Boutros Boutrous Ghali.  Maintaining prestige is huge. 

In these types of situations, there is no way a British diplomat is going to “win” the debate.  He is operating on the “road” in a hostile environment.  Right off the bat, the question was posed to the audience; 85% said Britain is responsible.  And from an objective historical perspective, Britain can be blamed for Palestine and Iraq  so it would be dumb to even try and challenge the question.  Therefore, the best strategy is to sit back, be modest, and maintain a defensive argument, focus on the present and future, and gain Arab “street respect” for use of good language skills and being willing to go on the such under such hostile conditions in the first place.  All of this he did very well. 

Al-Farjani’s central argument is that Britain was directly responsible for the disaster of Palestine.  Without her colonial intervention, ie  allowing Jewish immigration to Palestine in the decades before 1948, Israel’s foundation would not have been possible.  He was especially angered with Britain’s alleged failure to formally apologize in comparison to Germany which quickly owned up to its transgressions after WWII.

Wilkes, clearly an experienced diplomat, refused to get caught up in historical details, saying we need to focus on the here and now.  The most he would say is that the British government has an obligation to the Palestinian people, and is working hard to find a solution to the conflict.  His central them was “get over it – its time to move on and stop dwelling in the past.”  He noted how the US and Brits used to be bitter enemies; In 1812 the Brits even burned down the White House, but shortly after they reconciled and became the closest of allies.  Relations between Germany and Britain, especially at the popular level were extremely bitter after WWII, but they moved on. 

Farjani constantly lost his composure, at one point saying Iraq under Saddam was “50 million times better” than it is now. Wilkes responded by saying “you live in Germany, with all these freedoms of speech, religion etc and you speak of Iraq being better under Saddam… what are you doing to help the Pals from Germany?”  This point was repeated several times which seemed to really strike a sensitive spot in Farjani. 

Wilke’s only technical mistake  was to try and (respectfully) cite passages from the Quran to back up his argument.  Unless he is a Muslim convert, or unless his grasp of the Quran is so good his point will be clearly understood, this is something that should probably be avoided as it sounds patronizing.   It definitely riled up Farjani. 

In conclusion, it was a very good performance for Wilkes and the British government.  To be fair, he was helped out by his opponent’s general lack of composure.  Several times throughout the show, host Dr. Faysail Al-Qasem, had to stand  to  calm him down.   Everything Wilkes said was completely predicable, coming from a diplomat, but Farjani seemed to be shocked, as if he didn’t expect to hear these arguments.  Surely, Al-Jazeera could have found someone better to debate the Arab view?   A more composed debater would have made it alot tougher for Wilkes.  It almost seemed as if Al-Jazeera was trying to do Britain a favor……