Tag Archives: David Cameron

What to make of Cameron’s night of the long knives

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It wasn’t a surprise that British prime minister David Cameron sacked Kenneth Clarke, the one-time self-proclaimed ‘big beast’ of the Conservative Party from government. United Kingdom Flag Icon

At age 74, the pro-Europe former chancellor, who began his ministerial career in Edward Heath’s government of the early 1970s, had already been demoted once from justice secretary, his progressive ideas for penal reform and lighter sentencing guidelines  thwarted by the Tory right two years ago.

But it was something of a surprise that Cameron sacked so many other high-profile members of his cabinet last night.

Foreign secretary William Hague (pictured above with Queen Elizabeth II), one of the most high-profile Tories inside or outside government will now become the Commons leader. Hague, once a strident eurosceptic, was elected leader of the Conservative Party in the aftermath of Tony Blair’s massive victory in 1997. He stepped down in 2001 after his failed campaign to return the Tories to power. Though just 53 years old, Hague also announced he would also leave office at the 2015 elections, cutting short what’s been a solid career, if not one that might have elevated Hague to the premiership under different conditions.

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His replacement is defence secretary Philip Hammond, another Conservative firebrand, who has ably worked with chancellor George Osborne to reign in spending while the United Kingdom has reduced its role in the US-led occupation in Afghanistan. Hammond, who served as Osborne’s deputy in opposition, comes from the right wing of the party, however, having opposed Cameron’s push to legalize same-sex marriage last year. He’s not known as a particularly charismatic figure, and he’ll have a hard time shaking the notion that he’s No. 11’s man at the foreign office. 

Having argued that the United Kingdom should leave the European Union without significant, additional British carve-outs, Hammond will now be tasked with salvaging the UK-EU relationship.

But the knives went longer and deeper still — David Willetts, the minister for universities and science, nicknamed ‘Two Brains’ and deemed one of the cabinet’s most thoughtful members; David Gove, the combatively conservative and stridently eurosceptic education minister; Dominic Grieve, the attorney general; Owen Patterson, the environmental secretary.

The semi-official word is that Cameron’s reshuffle represents an effort to put his cabinet and his government on footing to wage next May’s general elections, with a particular focus on elevating the number of women and younger Tories to higher positions.

To borrow a phrase from former US president Bill Clinton, a ‘cabinet that looks like Britain.’

Continue reading What to make of Cameron’s night of the long knives

Did Syria’s Assad regime have a Dr. Strangelove moment?

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January 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Stanley Kubrick’s dark nuclear war comedy Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.USflagSyria Flag Icon freesyria

It’s the charming tale of U.S. general Jack Ripper (Get it!?), who’s gone completely off his rocker and launches the world into a nuclear crisis as the United States and the Soviet Union bumble to stop the fallout from the chain of events that the wayward general sets in place.

In the U.S. war room, the meek U.S. president (played brilliantly by Peter Sellers) asks another general, ‘Buck’ Turgidson, why a renegade general somehow found a way to order the use of nuclear weapons outside the chain of command, given that the U.S. president is the only one authorized to launch a nuclear attack.

Turgidson replies, ‘And although I, uh, hate to judge before all the facts are in, it’s beginning to look like, uh, General Ripper exceeded his authority.’

It’s starting to look like last week’s horrific chemical warfare attack was a case of someone in the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad exceeding his authority as well.

Did Syria have a ‘Dr. Strangelove’ moment?

And if so, how should the international community ‘punish’ the Assad regime if it turns out that a rogue pro-Assad commander launched the attack and not Assad or his top guard?  Is there some sort of negligence per se standard for crimes against humanity?  Even as British prime minister David Cameron is backing down from the urgency of an immediate Syria strike (at least until the United Nations finishes its initial assessment of the chemical attack in the days ahead) and French president François Hollande is emphasizing a political solution to Syria, the case for an overhasty, unilateral military response from the United States is falling apart in favor of a multilateral, evidence-based approach that would otherwise avoid further internationalizing the two-year, sectarian Syrian conflict.

Late Tuesday, Noah Shachtman, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution broke the story in Foreign Policy that the United States and its allies are so certain that the Assad regime is responsible for last Wednesday’s attack on the basis of intercepted phone calls that largely show confusion and panic on the part of the Syrian regime:

Last Wednesday, in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people. Those conversations were overheard by U.S. intelligence services, The Cable has learned. And that is the major reason why American officials now say they’re certain that the attacks were the work of the Bashar al-Assad regime — and why the U.S. military is likely to attack that regime in a matter of days.

But the intercept raises questions about culpability for the chemical massacre, even as it answers others: Was the attack on Aug. 21 the work of a Syrian officer overstepping his bounds? Or was the strike explicitly directed by senior members of the Assad regime? “It’s unclear where control lies,” one U.S. intelligence official told The Cable. “Is there just some sort of general blessing to use these things? Or are there explicit orders for each attack?”

Nor are U.S. analysts sure of the Syrian military’s rationale for launching the strike — if it had a rationale at all. Perhaps it was a lone general putting a long-standing battle plan in motion; perhaps it was a miscalculation by the Assad government. Whatever the reason, the attack has triggered worldwide outrage, and put the Obama administration on the brink of launching a strike of its own in Syria. “We don’t know exactly why it happened,” the intelligence official added. “We just know it was pretty fucking stupid.”

Of course, that calls into question the strident and unequivocal stance of many U.S. and European officials over the weekend and earlier this week, including British foreign minister William Hague and U.S. secretary of state John Kerry.

Today brings further news that top U.S. intelligence officials who have seen the U.S. report on the Assad regime’s culpability believe that it is not a ‘slam dunk’ case, a reference to the allegedly solid intelligence that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency held in 2002 that implicated Iraqi president Saddam Hussein — erroneously — with having a nuclear weapons program:

A report by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence outlining that evidence against Syria includes a few key caveats – including acknowledging that the U.S. intelligence community no longer has the certainty it did six months ago of where the regime’s chemical weapons are stored, nor does it have proof Assad ordered chemical weapons use, according to two intelligence officials and two more U.S. officials.

But one senior U.S. official who read the report said Thursday that despite those caveats, the report assesses with “high confidence” that the Syrian government was responsible…. The official conceded that there is no proof listed in the report tying Assad personally to ordering the attack, but the official also said there was no mention in the report of the possibility that a rogue element could have been responsible.

That’s certainly very consistent with Shachtman’s report, and it makes intuitive sense.  With Assad generally winning the war and reclaiming ground against the disparate opposition, it makes no sense for Assad to draw the ire of the world by launching chemical warfare on civilians.  The timing, moreover, has always been suspicious given that United Nations chemical weapons inspectors were sitting in a Damascus hotel when the chemical attack occurred.  We know that the Assad regime has certain access to chemical weapons, and while there’s a possibility that some weapons have fallen into the hands of anti-Assad rebels, this explanation is certainly less harrowing than the alternative possibility that radical opposition elements launched a toxic chemical attack in the hopes of framing Assad and drawing the international community against him.

Although we’re still awaiting the intelligence report that the United States promised to release this week, the public British report released earlier today has been thoroughly panned:

In an echo of the buildup to the Iraq war in 2003, Downing Street took the rare step of releasing the assessment of the JIC to support its case that the Assad regime was responsible.  But the assessment was mainly based on “open source” evidence such as video footage of the victims and a judgment that the opposition does not have the capability to launch such an attack…

The JIC acknowledged that some of its assessment was based on “open source” evidence such as testimony from victims, doctors and video footage. But in a separate letter to Cameron the JIC chairman, Jon Day, said he had seen “highly sensitive” unpublished intelligence that supported their view that the regime had launched the attacks to clear the opposition from strategic parts of Damascus.

But, of course, the British government isn’t providing the unpublished intelligence, so their rationale essentially boils down to, ‘trust us.’  Moreover, as Guardian commentators Ian Black and Ian Sample write, the intelligence reports boasts no scientific evidence and rests on little more than informed speculation:

In one passage the JIC appears to weaken its own conclusions by noting that there was “no obvious political or military trigger for regime use of CW on an apparently larger scale now” – given the presence of the UN inspectors. It wrote that permission to authorise CW had “probably been delegated” by Assad to “senior regime commanders, such as [*]”. It added: “But any deliberate change in the scale and nature of use would require his authorisation.” That language suggests the possibility, as reported in the US, of unauthorised or accidental use of CW munitions.

On Syria, Obama administration prepared to shoot now, ask questions later

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gives a

Even before the United States has provided any public evidence that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is responsible for what appears to be a craven chemical warfare attack in Ghouta last Wednesday, the United States is preparing to launch missile strikes against Syria and Assad in retaliation as soon as Thursday, with the support of French president François Hollande and British prime minister David Cameron.USflagSyria Flag Icon freesyria

That marks a failure of U.S. president Barack Obama’s foreign policy in at least four senses.

The first is that we still don’t know what happened last Wednesday.  We do know that a chemical attack of some variety ultimately killed many civilians, up to 1300, on the eastern outskirts of Damascus.  But we don’t know which chemical agent caused it (was it sarin? was it concentrated tear gas? was it mustard or chlorine gas?) and, more importantly, we certainly don’t know who launched the attack.  While the U.S., French and British governments assure us that Assad was responsible, the public evidence is far from certain.  While the U.S. state department claims that a full intelligence assessment is coming later this week, it assures us for now that it’s ‘crystal clear’ that Assad is responsible.  But how credible will that assessment be if it’s delivered hours or minutes before a U.S. military strike?  If it’s delivered after the military strike?  Will it contain forensics evidence gathered yesterday by United Nations experts?  No one knows.

While Assad’s certainly a prime suspect, there’s more than enough reason to believe, in the absence of further intelligence or forensic evidence to the contrary, that anti-Assad rebels could well have perpetrated the attack to frame Assad and draw the international community (or at least the United States and Europe) into the kind of response that now seems likely to happen in the next 48 hours.  At a minimum, the United States should wait for U.N. chemical weapons inspectors, who spent at least a short time on the scene of the attack yesterday, to draw what conclusions they can on the basis of hard evidence.  What happens if we learn in one year or five years that radical Sunni elements within the opposition were responsible for the attack?  That will only encourage false-flag attacks in the future designed to provoke the United States into inadvertently taking sides in a civil war.

The second is that it’s an uncharacteristically unilateral, hasty and severe response.  Assume that we had proof that Assad is responsible for the chemical attacks.  The next step would be to determine the appropriate response from the international community, and it is telling that the United States and its British and French allies believe that a military response should be the first step, not the last step.  There’s a panoply of various responses that the United States is ready to bypass, all of which could bear the stamp of legitimacy of the United Nations Security Council.  Those include a U.N. peacekeeping and/or further inspections forces, a NATO-led and UN-approved no-fly zone, a tighter regime of diplomatic and economic sanctions against the Assad regime, and a prosecution against Assad and his military leaders for crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court.  Moreover, given the current stalemate, Syria is now essentially split into three disparate parts: pro-Assad territory along the coast and the Lebanese border, anti-Assad territory in the north and Kurdish strongholds in the northeast:

Main areas of control in Syria as of 3 June 2013

With Assad regaining ground over the past months, it doesn’t look like the end of the civil war will come from a military triumph but from a political settlement.  That makes an immediate military response (and not a political response) from the United States even more inappropriate.  By all means, use the threat of military action as a negotiating point with Russia and Syria’s other allies on the Security Council.  But by launching a hasty attack just eight days after the incident makes it seem to the rest of the world that the U.S. action is less concerned about punishment for chemical warfare, but rather salvaging the credibility of the Obama administration over an ill-advised ‘red line’ stand that Obama articulated last autumn in the heat of a presidential campaign. Continue reading On Syria, Obama administration prepared to shoot now, ask questions later

Kerry’s forceful remarks on Syria fail to explain why Assad’s to blame

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U.S. secretary of state John Kerry this afternoon emerged with some strong remarks about the unfolding international situation with respect to Syria, where chemical weapons were unleashed last Wednesday upon civilians in Ghouta in the eastern outskirts of Damascus and that killed up to 1,300 people.USflagSyria Flag Icon freesyria

Max Fisher at The Washington Post writes that Kerry’s remarks amounted to a ‘war speech,’ that the Obama administration has all but decided to respond to the chemical attack with air strikes.  I don’t disagree with that assessment, but the oddest thing about Kerry’s seven minutes on Syria was how much of it he spent arguing that the attacks were real — consider the following exchange:

Last night, after speaking with foreign ministers from around the world about the gravity of this situation, I went back and I watched the videos — the videos that anybody can watch in the social media, and I watched them one more gut-wrenching time. It is really hard to express in words the the human suffering that they lay out before us.  As a father, I can’t get the image out of my head of a man who held up his dead child, wailing while chaos swirled around him, the images of entire families dead in their beds without a drop of blood or even a visible wound, bodies contorting in spasms, human suffering that we can never ignore or forget. Anyone who could claim that an attack of this staggering scale could be contrived or fabricated needs to check their conscience and their own moral compass.  What is before us today is real, and it is compelling.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of John Kerry (pictured above) — he’s had a strong start at State and that follows a generally impeccable senatorial record of thoughtful engagement on foreign affairs.  But with all due respect, I certainly hope the chief diplomat of the United States of America is spending more time reviewing the intelligence that the U.S., British and French governments allegedly have that implicates the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in the chemical attack than watching shock footage on YouTube.

No one is arguing that the attack was contrived or fabricated — it’s a horrific slaughter that deserves a united and firm response from the international community conveying that the use of chemical weapons to kill civilians, including women and children, is unacceptable.  What remains at issue is determining who was responsible for the attack, and that’s why it was odd to watch Kerry spend more time knocking down a straw-man argument than explaining why the U.S. government is so sure that Assad was responsible for the attack.  Earlier today, Saleh Muslim, head of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), who has clashed with both pro-Assad and anti-Assad forces, said that he doesn’t believe Assad is responsible for the attacks.  It’s a real question, and the U.S. media and the rest of the world should demand an answer.

What’s staggering is that, with all signs pointing to U.S. and British military poised to launch some kind of strike against Assad, the Obama administration still hasn’t made the case for why it believes that Assad — and not anti-Assad extremists looking to draw the international community into Syria’s two-year civil war — is to blame.  As many commentators have written, the timing of last week’s attack is incredibly suspicious, given that U.N. weapons inspectors were in Damascus during the attacks and that Assad has generally been gaining ground against the opposition, and there’s plenty of reason why the more radical elements among the anti-Assad opposition want to provoke the world’s ire against Assad.

It’s generally undisputed that Assad has stockpiled chemical weapons in the past, while we don’t know if any rebel group of the opposition now have access to them.  But that’s hardly a smoking gun.

The fact that Assad denied U.N. experts to inspect the scene for five days (and then allowed only 90 minutes of access today) is highly suspicious.  But in a court of law in the United States, that would amount to circumstantial evidence.  Remember that Saddam Hussein hedged over whether he had weapons of mass destruction in 2002 and 2003 mostly because he wanted to deter neighboring Iran.  Moreover, I can think of a half-dozen reasons why the Assad regime might hesitate to allow United Nations inspectors into the affected area.  (If Assad wasn’t actually responsible for the chemical attack, do you think he has enough control to guarantee the safety of U.N. inspectors from anti-Assad rebels?)

The international community deserves more from the United States, given its track record of failed intelligence over the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (notably nuclear weapons) in Iraq in 2003.  That ‘slam dunk’ intelligence justified an eight-year military effort that catalyzed massive amounts of violence in Iraq.  New revelations this morning from Foreign Policy detailing the U.S. government’s complicity and acquiescence in the use of chemical weapons by then-a