Merkel Government Under Pressure

Pressure is building on German chancellor Angela Merkel and her defense minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, to account for the German-ordered NATO attack in Afghanistan last September that killed 142 people, many of them civilians.

Guttenberg, formerly minister for economics, took charge of the Defense Department last October as member of Chancellor Merkel’s second cabinet. The rising star of the German conservative party, Guttenberg outranked Merkel as the country’s most popular politician but he has come under siege from the Social Democrats, the former coalition partners, for changing his position on the Afghanistan attack.

Initially, Guttenberg called the bombings “appropriate” but three weeks ago, he claimed the opposite after assessing the incident in greater detail.

Germany’s previous defense minister already resigned over the affair and Guttenberg himself has discharged a top defense official and a state secretary for supposedly withholding information. Now, a parliamentary inquiry has been produced to study the bombings all the more thoroughly.

Although all but one of Germany’s political parties support the Afghan mission, there exists something of an obsession to wage a “clean” war there regardless of the changed circumstances. While the Taliban has gained ground, parliament’s mandate remains unchanged: German soldiers are to aid in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, not to be involved in any fighting.

The Social Democrats are leading the charge that seems specifically aimed at Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. He and the chancellor are to appear before committee next January. Yet the Social Democrats were the ones in power when the country decided to contribute to ISAF and they were still in power when the bombings occurred. Holding the man who has been defense minister for barely two months responsible seems utterly hypocritical and largely a political move before anything else.

Brown Bashing the Rich

It’s not good to be rich in Britain. One is properly punished there for making too much money as becomes a welfare state. From every Briton that earns over £150,000 (or $243,000) a year, the government takes half of that in income tax. The well-off now face a further cut to tax relief on their pension contributions. An announced increase in the inheritance tax threshold has been put on hold but the taxman is still going after those with offshore bank accounts for it seems that in Britain today no crime is worse than the outrageous practice of tax evasion.

Even The Economist is upset and it calls Gordon Brown’s bashing of the rich “bad politics and rotten economics.” With elections arriving in a little over six months, Labour is doing everything it can to prove that it is still the “party of the many” whereas the Conservatives are branded as the “protectors of privilege and gleeful spending slashers.”

An extra tax on bankers’ bonuses this year is meant to smooth over voters but it does little to aid Britain’s ailing economy. The last of the G20 countries to be mired in recession, all the Labour government can think of doing is spending more money in the hope that such Keynesian methods will save Britain from further stagnation.

Now, with what will probably turn out to be a dreadful election ahead, Gordon Brown and his party are throwing themselves up as defenders of the common man again. Bashing the rich isn’t all about class politics though. As The Economist points out, the government needs the additional funds badly to keep its social services running, the imperfectly reformed National Health Service first among them. These are “disproportionately used by the poor” while “their employees tend to vote Labour.” By looking after the state, the party is looking after its core vote. The paper doesn’t like it one bit:

Britain has much experience of class politics, and none of it has been good. Class politics makes for bad economics: the state swells, public money gets wasted and entrepreneurs grow nervous. And it makes for a sad country, too: divisions deepen, suspicion flourishes and the social contract frays. When the time comes to judge the parties’ electoral strategies, voters should remember that.

Obama Last Transatlanticist?

Will Barack Obama turn out to be the last transatlantic American president? Nicholas Kitchen wonders in The Washington Note. Although his wind of change met the approval of nearly all of Europe, a series of diplomatic gaffes and mishaps has strained relations, he claims.

The Obama Administration supposedly downgraded ties with Britain from a “special relationship” to a “special partnership” — whatever the difference there might be. As James Pritchett has argued, such a downgrading is not unnatural: Britain simply isn’t the global power it used to be, not in economic nor in military terms and the United States have little reason to pretend otherwise. Kitchen seems to consider it a failure nonetheless.

And it’s not just Britain that Obama managed to upset. No, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy expressed their “annoyance” with his administration’s “attitude toward sensitive historical anniversaries” apparently. According to Kitchen these “diplomatic contretemps” were the products of a serious divide:

[O]ver the best response to the financial crisis and in particular the issue of regulation of complex financial services instruments, with Mirek Topolanek using the Czech Republic’s presidency of the European Union to describe American bailouts and stimulus policies as “the road to hell”.

And what does Obama do? He goes to Asia and declares himself the “Pacific president”.

Outrageous? Not really. Kitchen is fair to note that it’s mostly the Europeans themselves who are to blame:

[T]he truth remains that if Europe wants to be a major player on the world stage it needs to think of its role more strategically and systemically if the United States is not to regard the relationship with China as its most important bilateral tie.

There is probably little that will prevent the Americans from considering the latter relationship of greater significance, however, and for good reason: the Sino-American relationship is bound to define the twenty-first century, one way or another.

At the New Atlanticist, James Joyner defends the Obama Administration’s Pacific orientation. That is not to say Washington has forgotten about Europe, he writes. “Just because other countries now get more attention doesn’t mean the transatlantic relationship isn’t the most important one.”

[I]t’s difficult to imagine an evolution of the international system that would have China — or any other rising power — coming to have more similar values and interests than exists between the United States and Western Europe.

If not for the military and political alliance, that is still strong no matter how little attention President Obama were to pay to it; the cultural and economic ties between both sides of the North Atlantic would suffice to ensure mutual dependence for decades to come. The Obama Administration isn’t neglecting Europe. It simply realizes that there are more partners out there.

The Potential of European Might

War, said Clausewitz is nothing but a continuation of political intercourse, with the mixture of other means. If your politics or those of some other propel you to military action, then that is what must be done.

The recent appointment (not election) of a European president unifies the European Union, politically more than has been seen before, with the addition of a “High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy” providing the bloc with a mouthpiece on strategic affairs which one presumes will include out of area operations of a military nature and a unified approach to the strategic defense of the EU as a whole. Read more “The Potential of European Might”

The New Atlantic Order

The financial collapse of 2008 and the subsequent global economic downturn have left American prestige badly damaged. For years its free-trade rhetoric dominated debate within fora like the World Trade Organization and urged second-rate powers to privatize and reduce tariffs. Whatever its political course, American economic leadership seemed unchallenged. It was the era of the Washington Consensus.

Today, the American economy lies in shambles and eight years of George W. Bush have obliterated a great amount of the international leverage and respect that the country could previously count on. American management of globalization is contested as is American predominance on the world stage. Rising powers as Brazil, China and India and old world players as Europe and Russia all demand a place in the Obama Administration’s “multilateral” game.

Serious attempts are made in that direction. The G20 is a fine example of what Henry Kissinger called for last January in “The chance for a new world order“: “creating an international political regulatory system with the same reach as that of the economic world.” A promise that the United Nations has never been able to fulfill, the G20 now revives by shaping the political and financial framework of the future. Read more “The New Atlantic Order”

Five Hundred Is Not Enough?

As we’ve been recently been informed by the various media, Gordon Brown, the prime minister, has pledged five hundred new (presumably) combat-role servicemen to Operation Herrick — the British mission in Afghanistan. Five hundred would boost the British presence to a total of 9,500 service personnel from all the services including the Royal Air Force and the large Royal Navy training body. Within your humble correspondent’s lifetime, Britain deployed whole divisions to operational theatres such as Northern Ireland, where three brigades numbering several thousand kept the police in support of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. A task force of 9,500 does little to compare to the 68,000 American service personnel in “Afghan.”

American defense spending is a staggering 41 percent of the global total. Its armed forces population is so large that the United States Marine Corps is bigger than the entire British Army and due to its all-arms nature, considerably more effective. At a time when American military expenditure dwarfs the whole of the British economy, it is hardly surprising that there is some difference in capability here.

Therefore it is curious that the British media remain shocked that British forces get little mention in American strategic and military dialogue about the region. What is more surprising is that American commentators and possibly even politicos expect a greater contribution from the British Armed Forces.

The briefest of glances at the history of the services from 1945 onward will provide anyone with the knowledge that defense cuts by both parties across all successive governments have neutered the operational capabilities of state. The possibility of fighting the Falklands War in 1982 was small enough, now it would be next to impossible. With the end of the Cold War and the subduing of the Troubles in the Province, further cuts and reductions seem not only economic but dare I say it sensible, certainly in the Army. That this hasn’t been taken on board by our erstwhile journalists is probably due to the myth of the special relationship, on which I have spoken on in the (scarcely) public domain before.

What is certain is that until required reforms in the British Armed Forces are implemented, five hundred troops is about as much as can be deployed with political constraints, and without them there wouldn’t be that much more.

Sarkozy Strikes at the City

With France, along with Germany, leading the way of European recovery, President Nicolas Sarkozy has both the power and the prestige to launch a reinvigorated campaign against what he calls the “freewheeling Anglo-Saxon” model of finance. With his countryman Jean-Claude Trichet heading the European Central Bank and UMP-ally Michel Barnier soon to be installed as the union’s internal market commissioner, Sarkozy appears to have everything in place to make the world see “the victory of the European model, which has nothing to do with the excesses of financial capitalism.” No wonder that people are worried in the City of London.

London was quick to respond. Mayor Boris Johnson traveled to Brussels to lecture the European Parliament but his entourage of rabble-rousers and cameramen did little to persuade them. Nor was Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling’s argument that “London is New York’s only rival as a truly global financial center,” and therefore Europe should strengthen, not weaken it, well received.

Earlier, in conference with his colleagues from across the continent, Darling compromised on the creation of a European financial regulator. French finance minister Christine Lagarde praised the deal which according to Darling leaves considerable responsibility with national authorities. That is not how his counterparts sold the agreement at home.

Nevertheless, there is some truth in Darling’s statement. A European Systemic Risk Board is to be put in place to spot irregularities in the financial system that threaten to harm it. But it will have no power to leap upon banks to put any questionable practices to a halt. Rather it is supposed to issue recommendations and warnings alone.

Sarkozy has more weapons in store to bombard Paris to the world’s next financial capital however. A European Alternative Investment Directive seeks to install a framework for all alternative fund managers which in London is rather perceived as an attempt to shackle another sector of “freewheeling Anglo-Saxon” capitalism. If that were true, Paris in fact stands to gain very little: hedge funds taking a pre-emptive decision to leave London headed straight for Switzerland, not Paris or Frankfurt.

There is more reason for Londoners to be hopeful. As Ambrose Evans-Pritchard notes in the Telegraph, Barnier is actually “deeply averse to trampling on British sensitivities.” Moreover, his director-general, Jonathan Faull, is British. “Given the circumstances, the Barnier-Faull team is the best that Britain could hope for.” Whether that will stop Sarkozy remains to be seen.

Spanish Socialism is Hampering Europe

Most of the economies of the European Union are slowly moving out of recession. Both Germany and France are boasting modest growth rates and they are pulling other countries, like Italy, on the road to recovery. There is one country that seems utterly incapable of keeping pace however and that is Spain.

Government stimuli have been of some help but the Spanish national bank warns that early signs of recovery are misleading: because imports have fallen even more dramatically than exports have, BNP-figures might appear optimistic but in truth, the country lacks a solid foundation for economic growth.

During the ten years between 1997 and 2007 the Spanish economy was almost exclusively driven by a rapidly expanding real estate market, producing a stable growth rate of 4 percent annually. In the same period the country attracted almost four million immigrants. Now that construction has come to a standstill many of these people are moving away while millions of Spaniards are left unemployed with so much as two million living off unemployment benefits.

Spain’s prime minister Rodríguez Zapatero came to power in 2004 promising to diversify the country’s economy. He intended to invest in renewable energies, bioengineering, high-speed infrastructure, construction and logistics to encourage innovation and the emergence of a solid services economy. Now, five years later, the prime minister continues to repeat his promise will little progress made in the meantime.

“My government’s ambition is to make this an innovative, creative, entrepreneurial country while upholding the social welfare state,” said Zapatero last July. He foresaw no trouble combining the two at the time. “Some people will say that a social welfare state and a competitive economy are incompatible, that innovation is incompatible with workers’ rights. They want to deregulate workers rights, deregulate social rights. That is exactly the same tune as people who say we have to deregulate the financial markets and I do not dance to that tune.”

As a result, Spain faces both an enormous trade deficit and a deficit on the state’s budget of almost 10 percent with the public debt, of course, mounting fast. Zapatero nevertheless counts on foreign investments to carry his country out of recession although no one in their right mind would entertain the notion of investing in Spain nowadays.

It’s not just money from abroad that is lacking however. Spanish banks are hesitant to borrow which is hurting small businesses and the whole of the real estate market because people can’t a mortgage.

Today, finally, the Spanish government announced long awaited labor market reform after unemployment reached a staggering 19.3 percent in October this year. Zapatero proposes to provide for greater flexibility, reducing high dismissal costs but also reducing working hours to preserve employment: a controversial step that seems unwise considering how little it did to once ail Britain’s economy during the 1970s.

Spain’s lack of recovery left the European Central Bank with a difficult choice to make. As the French economy grows once more it is expected to see inflation go up above the European average next year. France has proposed to temper it by increasing the interest rate (a step Australia and Norway have already taken) although this would hurt the Spanish economy terribly by further depriving it of credit. The Bank had to chose between serving France, whose recovery is helping other European economies also, and supporting wearisome Spain because its own government lacks the political will to do so. For the time being, it elects do to the latter, maintaining the interest rate at 1 percent.

Swiss Vote to Ban Minarets

In a referendum proposed by the Swiss People’s Party, the Schweizerische Volkspartei, an alliance of farmers and urban conservatives, a majority of Swiss voters (57.5 percent) agreed to ban the construction of minarets in their country. The government, perfectly democratic, will uphold the outcome while assuring Muslims, mostly immigrants from the Balkans and Turkey, that the vote does not represent “a rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture.”

It seems odd that one of the wealthiest and safest countries in the world should be so frightened of this architectural display of Islamic culture, especially when one considers that of the 150 mosques and prayer rooms in Switzerland, just four boats minarets with only two more planned. None conduct the traditional call to prayer. Moreover, of the circa 400,000 Muslims in the country, out of a total population of some 7.5 million, virtually none adhere to the codes of dress and conduct associated with orthodox Islam. In other words, the Muslim presence in Switzerland is hardly noticeable.

The Associated Press notes that the vote “taps into anxieties about Muslims that have been rippling through Europe in recent years, ranging from French fears of women in body veils to Dutch alarm over the murder by a Muslim fanatic of a filmmaker who made a documentary that criticized Islam.” In fact, Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders immediately called for a similar referendum to be held in the Netherlands today. Considering the opposition he faces in parliament, such a referendum, let alone a ban, is unlikely to come about, but with his support currently polling at around 17 percent (making him the second largest party), Wilders’ fierce crusade against what he believes is a growing Muslim corruption of Western culture is telling.

Unlike the United States, which actually fell victim to a destructive attack by Muslim extremists, most European countries never experienced such extremism first hand. Yet the countries that have (specifically Britain and Spain) seem the least determined to wipe out any traces of Islamic culture whereas in France, the Netherlands and Switzerland, countries that have significant Muslim populations, fear is more widespread.

When Geert Wilders declares the Quran a “fascist” book and proposes to outlaw it, he finds many people agreeing with him. Now, a majority of the Swissdemand that no more minarets be erected in their streets. These are all outward displays of Islam however. Burning the Quran or banning minarets will do little to diminish the threat of Muslim extremism. Quite to the contrary, such measures might well strengthen the fundamentalists in their conviction that the West intends to wage a religious war against them.

Meanwhile, the voice of moderate Islam is overlooked. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims who have adapted perfectly to Western culture while retained part of their heritage feel threatened. While perhaps not an explicit infringement of their freedom to worship, the Swiss ban of minarets is a sad display of intolerance all the same that is terribly unbecoming of a country renowned for its democratic tradition.

Does the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq Invasion Matter?

The role of the United Kingdom in the international arena has been one of much debate over the past three decades, but more particularly since the ending of the Cold War. Summed up neatly by former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, the United Kingdom has been ‘punching above its weight’ internationally effectively, driving international policy at the UN during a period of American uncertainty following the disastrous American-led Somalian adventure in the early and mid-1990s and dominating the UN Security Council discussions under Sir David Hannay (then British ambassador to the UN).

This confidence has been knocked more recently through the long engagement in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan is Britain’s longest engagement since the nineteenth century, and while public sentiment is still generally behind engagement, Prime Minister Brown and American president Obama have been framing their words with care in the run-up to increased troop deployments, speaking of defending American and British streets from terrorism, rather than rebuilding some far away land’s political infrastructure.

Behind Afghanistan still lurks the specter of Iraq. While American troops remain with boots on the ground, pressure to disengage from Iraq is increasing — British troops withdrew from the country earlier in 2009, and publically, the United States intend to have combat troops out of the arena by August 2010, having already withdrawn from Iraq’s cities in July 2009.  Given the strong feelings expressed by both supporters and opposers of the invasion of Iraq in 2001, the British electorate had repeatedly been informed by the government that an enquiry into the Iraq war would be held once British troops had been withdrawn.

Following the official launch of the Iraq Inquiry on 30 July 2009, the first evidence was heard on 16 November 2009.  According to Sir John Chilcot:

Our terms of reference are very broad, but the essential points, as set out by the Prime Minister and agreed by the House of Commons, are that this is an Inquiry by a committee of Privy Counsellors. It will consider the period from the summer of 2001 to the end of July 2009, embracing the run-up to the conflict in Iraq, the military action and its aftermath. We will therefore be considering the United Kingdom’s involvement in Iraq, including the way decisions were made and actions taken, to establish, as accurately as possible, what happened and to identify the lessons that can be learned. Those lessons will help ensure that, if we face similar situations in future, the government of the day is best equipped to respond to those situations in the most effective manner in the best interests of the country.

The Inquiry committee members are Sir John Chilcot (Chairman), Sir Lawrence Freedman, Sir Martin Gilbert, Sir Roderic Lyne and Baroness Usha Prashar.

The first week of the Inquiry’s evidential hearings proved interesting, and included:

  • British policy toward Iraq in 2001, 24 November, Chairman’s Opening Statement;  Simon Webb, Peter Ricketts and William Patey
  • Weapons of Mass Destruction, 25 November, William Ehrman and Tim Dowse
  • The Transatlantic Relationship, 26 November, Christopher Meyer
  • Developments in the United Nations, 27 November, Jeremy Greenstock

For many, it is this opening week which is probably the most important, and hinges upon two important questions — was the invasion of Iraq by the American-led international force legal, and, whether legal or not, when was the decision to invade taken?

British politicos and public interactions with the media, not least upon radio and television debates, demonstrate that the latter of these two questions is considered the most important. In many ways, the timing of the decision to invade is important, but not for the obvious reasons. The previous Clinton Administration had passed the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998 in the United States, with a stated claim of regime change in Iraq, although not much publically perceptable action was subsequently seen. The Act aimed to work through the Iraqi opposition to establish regime change, but did not sanction invasion. There are numerous UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCRs) on Iraq, but the most important were UNSCR 678, 687, and 782 which set out Iraq’s obligations over weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the territorial integrity of Kuwait. UNSCR 1205 of 1998 framed the possibility of military action in the event of non-compliance under the WMD declarations. Discussions over the toppling of Saddam and regime change in Iraq by members of the public — including ex-soldiers who fought in the first Gulf War — focus upon the viability of ‘going all the way to Baghdad’ after expelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait, often concluding that such a proposition was not possible due to the resources available and the threat of becoming bogged down in a long guerilla war. Other arguments for removing Saddam are premised upon the authoritarian and inhumane nature of the regime, and the humanitiarian reasons for invasion. However, these discussions miss the point. The first Gulf War was fought to preserve the territorial integrity of a sovereign state which had been invaded by another state, as protected under the UN Charter, and the responsibility of the UN Security Council to preserve — i.e., to protect Kuwait’s right to exist as a state against invasion by Iraq. To then ‘go on to Bagdhad’ would have violated the very ideals and international obligations under which Iraqi forces had been expelled from Kuwait. Humanitarian intervention was a very popular premise in the early 1990s, until events in Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Somalia (amongst others) deterred further military adventures on the part of Western powers in the name of humanitarian intervention. Besides, humanitarian affairs falls under the UN’s 6th Committee and not the 7th (the Security Council), and has no remit under international law for military action on its humanitarian merits.

These international obligations then frame the engagement with Iraq until the decision to invade was taken. The Second Gulf War was undertaken due to Iraq’s perceived refusal to oblige with UNSCRs on WMD since UNSCR 687, despite the work of the UN’s Weapons Inspection teams. This was made clear under Tony Blair’s statements to the House of Commons, and was the remit under which the House of Commons voted to take the United Kingdom to war. If UNSCR 1441 is seen as giving permission for military action — despite omitting the key wording of ‘all necessary measures’ — then this is only due to the obligations of Iraq under the WMD issues included in previous UNSC resolutions. Only subsequently has the public vocabulary changed to include ‘regime change’ — something which is illegal under international law, under which the two Gulf Wars were fought. If regime change was the true reason for invasion, UNSCR1441 does not permit military action for this, and this then makes the invasion illegal, and its proponents and instigators liable to prosecution for war crimes.

This is why the timing of the decision to invade is so important. If a decision was made, as intimated by some evidence already given to the Chilcot Inquiry, in a private meeting between Tony Blair and George Bush early in 2002 to invade Iraq to instigate regime change, then the legality of the invasion is questionable (to say the least) under UNSCR1441. 

This is why those private meetings between President George Bush and Prime Minister Blair are so crucial to the Inquiry. However, only George Bush and Tony Blair are able to speak of the events in those meetings. Blair is to give evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry, and this is one reason why the Inquiry matters.