Blogroll: Lustig's Letter

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Updated: 1 hour 4 min ago

Theresa May: a new kind of Tory?

Fri, 19/05/2017 - 09:21
I have a little election quiz for you. See if you can work out which of the three main political parties made each of the following statements:
'Government can and should be a force for good ... and its power should be put squarely at the service of this country’s working people.'
'We know that our responsibility to one another is greater than the rights we hold as individuals.'
'Paying your fair share of tax is the price of living in a civilised democracy.'
'We will remain signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights for the duration of the next parliament.'
'Immigration to Britain is still too high. It is our objective to reduce immigration to sustainable levels, by which we mean annual net migration in the tens of thousands.'
OK, the last one was easy. But the other ones? Here's a clue. Each statement comes from the same party manifesto -- and it's the one in which the words 'strong and stable' appear no fewer than thirteen times.
That sound you hear is Margaret Thatcher spinning in her grave -- because Theresa May is using the cover of Brexit to rip up Thatcherism and recast her party as the Friend of the Workers. She has cast herself as The Queen of State Intervention and The Believer in Society. She is a cross between Boudicca and Elizabeth I. The Mother of the Nation.
Did you vote UKIP in 2015 and Leave in the referendum? Brexit means Brexit: Theresa's your woman.
Do you care about inequality and obscene fat cat salaries? Guess what, so does Theresa.
Did you vote Remain, but now just want to get the whole Brexit business over with so that we can get on with our lives? Yup, Theresa does too.
Oh, and if you think it's only reasonable that older people in need of expensive social care should be required to pay for some of it out of the absurdly inflated value of their family homes, so does Theresa. (The home I bought 35 years ago is now valued at 25 times as much as I paid for it. Why shouldn't some of that wholly undeserved wealth go towards paying for my care in my dotage?)
All things to all voters? Why not? Mrs May is a canny enough politician to seize the golden opportunity that she has been offered: if she wins the kind of majority that is being predicted for her on 8 June, the manifesto will entitle her to claim that 'the people have spoken' (where have we heard that before?) and endorsed her vision of the future.
How many Tory MPs and activists share that vision is an interesting question. And whether the impending Brexit storms will leave her with any breathing room in which to make that vision a reality is an equally interesting question.
I shouldn't think Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage would find that they have much in common were they to sit down for a ruminative chat, but on one thing they would agree: We wuz robbed. Mrs May has taken the Miliband vision of caring capitalism and the Farage vision of a Brexited, low immigration UK and made them both her own. Just as Tony Blair did two decades ago, she has planted her flag defiantly in the centre ground (which happens to be where most voters see themselves) and dares anyone to challenge her right of occupation.
What a shame that she and Emmanuel Macron of France will soon be spitting at each other (figuratively) across the Brexit negotiating table. They have a lot in common, both having cast themselves as big tent centrists, Macron by forming a brand new party, and May by reinventing the one she leads.
What was the main May message in Halifax on Thursday as she launched her manifesto? 'Come with me as I lead Britain.' Me, me, me ...
Sebastian Payne put it well in the Financial Times: 'This is a Conservative party document in name, but it is very much a product of the prime minister and her team. There is a notable focus on principles and ideas, arguing that there is such a thing as society, government can do good and collectivism and individualism need to work side by side.'
I admit that it is usually a mistake to read too much into manifestos. I still bear the scars from when I made a series of radio programmes ahead of the 1992 general election, in which we attempted to submit each of the main parties' manifestos to forensic and expert examination. One by one, they fell apart in our hands, their grandiose prose crumbling into meaningless guff.
Voters vote for many different reasons, but the detailed proposals set out in election manifestos are rarely a decisive factor in the decision they make. Trust in party leaders, on the other hand, is a major factor, which is why Tory election propaganda features the words 'Theresa May' wherever you look. It is also why the letter I got from my local Labour party candidate this week didn't include the words 'Jeremy Corbyn' once.

Not once.
Categories: Current Affairs

The utter incompetence of the Trump White House

Fri, 12/05/2017 - 09:08
I want you to read the following words very, very carefully. They were spoken on Thursday by the White House deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders.
'We want this [the FBI's investigation into possible Russian interference in last year's presidential campaign] to come to its conclusion, we want it to come to its conclusion with integrity. And we think that we've actually, by removing Director Comey, taken steps to make that happen.'
Do I need to translate? The White House hopes that by firing the director of the FBI, James Comey, President Trump will have managed to shut down an investigation that threatens the very survival of his administration. Not since Richard Nixon fired the Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox in 1973 has a president acted so blatantly to protect himself against possible impeachment.
(A few hours after Ms Sanders's statement, the president flatly contradicted her, and said that far from bringing the Russia investigation to a conclusion, his decision to fire Comey might actually lengthen it. Hmm ...)
Compare Ms Sanders's admirably frank admission with the utterly incredible version originally offered by the White House. On Tuesday, when the firing of the FBI director was announced to universal astonishment, the White House said President Trump had acted on the recommendation of the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, that following Comey's mishandling of the Hillary Clinton email saga, 'the FBI is unlikely to regain public and Congressional trust until it has a director who understands the gravity of the mistakes and pledges never to repeat them.'
Given that Comey's 'mistakes' are generally believed to have had a significant influence on Mr Trump's election victory, this always seemed to stretch credulity to breaking point. And now, thanks to Ms Sanders, we know it was total tosh.
We also have it direct from the horse's mouth. In an interview with NBC News, Mr Trump said: 'I was going to fire Comey -- my decision. I was going to fire regardless of recommendation ... In fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia, is a made up story. It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.'
Russia. Not Clinton. Odd. Or perhaps not odd at all. And, in the eyes of some, perilously close to being an admission of obstruction of justice. As Mr Trump himself might say: Terrible.
There was more. '[Comey's] a showboat, he's a grandstander, the FBI has been in turmoil. You know that, I know that. Everybody knows that. You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil, less than a year ago. It hasn't recovered from that.'
But that's not true either, says the man who has taken over as the FBI's acting director. Andrew McCabe told the Senate intelligence committee that Comey enjoyed 'broad support within the FBI and still does to this day.' And he added: 'The majority, the vast majority of FBI employees, enjoyed a deep, positive connection to Director Comey.'
This isn't a common or garden case of mixed messages. This is clear, incontrovertible evidence of an administration that is making it up hour by hour. It is evidence of an administration that is so culpably incompetent that it lets an official Russian photographer into the White House to snap merrily away as Mr Trump glad hands the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, having first banned all American media from recording the encounter.
So not only did the Russians get their pictures all over the American media, they also revealed -- oops, sorry about that -- that the Russian ambassador in Washington, Sergei Kislyak, who happens to be the man at the centre of all the Russia-Trump campaign allegations, was also present. Somehow, the White House had forgotten to mention that he would be there too.
Now, apparently, White House officials are complaining that the Russians 'tricked' them and never mentioned that they intended to publish their photographs. It just fills one with confidence about the sophistication and professionalism of the White House operation, doesn't it?
And then there's the president himself. A man who gives interviews virtually on a daily basis and whose utterances are so incomprehensible that media outlets have taken to publishing them verbatim for us to enjoy in all their glory. This, for example, is Mr Trump telling TIME magazine what it's like being president.
'I find the job very natural for me. I find -- it’s a very big job obviously, there’s no job big like this. No job is important like this. But I think some of the -- I just think it’s something that works for me, it feels very natural to me. And all I said, the job, it is, it’s a difficult job but it’s a job that I find to be -- I love doing it. I love helping people. Mike [Pence] is doing a fantastic job. He fits it so well. I mean we have a great team, he and I guess, they say we’re somewhat opposite and that works to be a very good combination.'
And this is what he said about his foreign policy achievements: 'You know what’s interesting, I’m getting very good marks in foreign policy. People would not think of me in that light. I’m just saying, and you read the same things I read. I’m getting As and A+s on foreign policy. And nobody thought about it.'
This is borderline gibberish. Correction: delete the word 'borderline'. It is pure, unadulterated gibberish. This is the president of the United States who can construct neither an intelligible sentence nor a coherent thought.
Watergate? Impeachment? Fat chance. Richard Nixon was done for by a Democrat-controlled Congress. Donald Trump bathes in the shameful acquiescence of Congressional Republicans, none of whom -- for now -- are prepared to play the role of the truth-telling child in The Emperor's New Clothes: 'But he hasn't got anything on.'
Mr Trump's unfitness for high office, clothed or unclothed, is plain for everyone to see. Is there no senior Republican, not one, who is prepared to state the obvious and start whatever process is required to remove him from the White House?
I cannot believe that there is not a single honourable Republican in Congress who knows what has to be done and has the political courage to do it. Or am I being hopelessly naïve?

Categories: Current Affairs

The Brexit disaster: so much more than politics

Fri, 05/05/2017 - 09:14
Only the most sadistic of dinner party arrangers would ever choose to seat Jean-Claude Juncker and Theresa May at the same table -- so we shouldn't be too surprised that their Downing Street soirée last week was less than successful.
Theresa May: 'Let's do everything we can to make Brexit a success.'
Jean-Claude Juncker: 'There is no way it can be a success.'
And there, in one icy exchange, you have the heart of the problem. Mrs May has convinced herself that the UK can look forward to a glorious, prosperous future once it has left the EU -- if she gets the deal she wants. That's what she calls 'a success'.
Mr Juncker thinks the opposite: that Brexit will be a disaster for the UK. After all, what would be the point of the EU if member states could do better outside it than as members? To believe that such a thing is even possible would be to make a nonsense of the entire project.
On the morning after the Brexit referendum last June, I wrote: 'For the next several years, British politics will be dominated by endless negotiations, rows and crises over how to recalibrate our relationship with our neighbours.' It has started: the leak of the May-Juncker contretemps and Mrs May's Downing Street counter-blast were just the first in what will be a long, ugly parade of name-calling, spinning and leaking.
Why? Because name-calling, spinning and leaking feeds back into the negotiating process by putting pressure on the negotiators. If Brussels spins that the UK is being wholly unreasonable and that a so-called train crash Brexit is looking increasingly likely, that will have inevitable repercussions in Westminster.
Similarly, if the UK spins that because of Brussels intransigence, it is seriously examining the 'Singapore option' -- rock-bottom corporate taxes to attract investment away from the EU -- that will create pressure from, among others, German business leaders.
Remember what Philip Hammond said last January: 'I personally hope we will be able to remain in the mainstream of European economic and social thinking. But if we are forced to be something different, then we will have to become something different.' No one was left in any doubt as to what that 'something different' might be.
For Mrs May, the immediate priority is to stack up as large a majority as she can on 8 June. 'I've got my mandate, and I'll use it however I see fit.' Her opponents, both those in her own party and those on the opposition benches, will be expected to do little more than sit on the sidelines and complain impotently.
Her Downing Street counter-blast on Wednesday was aimed squarely at British voters, not at Brussels. Look how tough she is, look how she can give as good as she gets. Can you imagine Jeremy Corbyn or Tim Farron being this tough? And who needs UKIP now? (On that front at least, the early results from Thursday's local elections seem to have clearly vindicated her Boudicca act.)
The tragedy is that the gulf between Brussels and London is, as it has always been, as much cultural as political. Mrs May's and Mr Juncker's generation simply see the world differently -- the under 30s, who will have to live with the consequences of the decisions made in their name, tend to be far more understanding of each other's cultures and societies.
For the Brexiteers, walking away from the EU is a rational decision based on what they perceive to be in the UK's best interests. For many in the EU27, it's far more than that -- it's an irrational and incomprehensible repudiation of their very identity as Europeans.
That's why the negotiations will be so ill-tempered. You can't negotiate over identity. And that's why, for the next two years, the UK and the EU27 are going to say some very nasty things about each other.

How will it end? Let's hope for the best and plan for the worst. Just in case.
Categories: Current Affairs

Playing chicken with Pyongyang

Fri, 28/04/2017 - 09:12
Let's see if, just for a moment, you can tear yourself away from the election campaign and avert your gaze from Brexit.
And then let's see if you can bear to consider the scarily dangerous game of chicken that's currently being enjoyed -- if that's the right word -- by political leaders in Washington and Pyongyang.
As you may recall, when President Obama sat down with Donald Trump following his election victory last November, the then president named North Korea as the number one foreign policy issue that would be faced by his successor.
Since then, Mr Trump has torn up the Obama doctrine of 'strategic patience' and replaced it with a doctrine that could be summarised as 'Don't you bloody dare.'
To which the North Korean response has been, more or less: 'Just watch us.'
Watch us test another long-range ballistic missile. (Sure, the last one blew up as soon as we had launched it but, hey, that's what tests are for.)
Watch us conduct another nuclear test. And then, Mr President, Bring It On.
None of this leaves me feeling very happy. As the security analyst Fred Kaplan of wrote a couple of days ago: 'A mix of mutual bluff, bluster, ego, and insecurity -- fueled by heavy firepower and an itchy trigger-finger or two -- makes for a potentially lethal concoction.'
Between them, Kim Jung Un, his father and grandfather have ruled North Korea for nearly 70 years. That is quite an achievement for a modern dynasty, although admittedly, it's not quite as impressive as the Japanese royal family which claims a dynastic line going back more than two and a half thousand years.
The current Kim has no intention of being last in the line. And he is convinced that nuclear weapons are the dynasty's best guarantee for survival. After all, look what happened to Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya as soon as they abandoned their own nuclear weapons programmes. They are not examples designed to enable brutal dictators to sleep easy in their beds.
In a fascinating essay in Foreign Policy this week, the Russian Korea analyst Andrei Lankov wrote that North Korea's political leaders 'believe that without nuclear weapons they are as good as dead. That’s a disaster for the region, but a perfectly logical choice by the Kim family.'
Perhaps some of this is what President Xi Jinping of China tried to explain to Mr Trump when they had their cosy little chat over dinner in Florida earlier this month. Perhaps President Xi also tried to explain why China is not over-keen to see the end of the Kim dynasty just yet.
Imagine what a unified Korea would like like from Beijing. A staunch US ally, host to more than 20,000 US troops, on its border? An open, pluralist, capitalist democracy, on its doorstep? And if the Kim regime were to collapse in chaos -- perhaps as a result of economic melt-down caused by yet more international sanctions -- how many hundreds of thousands of desperate North Koreans would want to seek refuge in China?
When President Trump summoned all 100 US senators for a North Korea briefing this week, he left them distinctly underwhelmed by the clarity of his strategy. The (Republican) chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker, called it 'an OK briefing.'
Sen. Jeff Merkley (Democrat, Oregon) said: 'We learned nothing you couldn't read in the newspaper.' Sen. Tammy Duckworth (Democrat, Illinois)  said: 'It felt more like a dog and pony show to me than anything else.'
But you know what? I was pleased. Despite all the bluster, the Trump administration seems in reality to be prepared to wait a bit. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said as much on Fox News on Thursday: 'We'll wait as long as it takes.' Just don't call it strategic patience, because that was Obama's idea and was, obviously a Very Bad Thing.
Kim Jung Un is as ruthless and determined as Mr Trump is mercurial and unpredictable. One false move from Pyongyang and all bets are off. After the US president's decision to launch cruise missiles against Syria, and then to authorise a massive bomb strike against the Islamic State group in Afghanistan, I just hope he isn't developing a taste for theatrical gestures involving terrifying amounts of high explosive.

For now, the official Washington position is that the US intends to tighten economic sanctions and pursue diplomatic measures with its allies and regional partners, including -- shock, horror -- via the United Nations. Let's hope it stays that way. The alternative is far too frightening to contemplate.
Categories: Current Affairs

Memories from the 1979 general election

Thu, 20/04/2017 - 14:17
Political reporters are already complaining that Theresa May is not allowing them to ask questions as the election campaign gets under way. The following extract is from my memoir, Is Anything Happening? (Biteback, £20)

For the three weeks of the 1979 election campaign, I was one of the team of journalists on the Thatcher campaign bus. To be strictly accurate, I was on one of the two campaign buses, because we drove round the country in convoy: the candidate and her team in one bus, with the ‘reptiles’, as her husband Denis referred to us, following close behind. We got so few chances to interact with her directly that, after a week of steadily mounting frustration, the travelling press wrote her a letter, signed by all of us, begging for a chance to actually talk to her.
The first week of Thatcher’s campaign trail has been a success. Or rather it has achieved what it set out to achieve – plenty of pictures in the papers. So far, Mrs T has refused only two photographers’ requests: she does not enjoy kissing babies, and she very sensibly refused to hold a giant pair of scissors near her face. Smiling at cameras is one thing, talking to reporters is quite another. So far, we scribblers have had scarcely a ‘Good morning’ to call our own … (The Observer, 22 April 1979)
One evening, close to midnight, our wish was finally granted, and we were ushered into her hotel suite for an impromptu press conference. The main issue of the day was her party’s taxation proposals, a subject on which the Financial Times’s political correspondent Elinor Goodman, later of Channel 4 News, was both impressively knowledgeable and commendably insistent. Eventually, proceedings were brought to a close after Denis, in an audible whisper, had muttered to an aide: ‘Who is that dreadful woman?’ ...
The 1979 Conservative Party campaign was a watershed: adopting techniques imported from the US, Thatcher’s handlers understood that what mattered above all was imagery. For the first time in British politics, the interests of the TV cameras were paramount. Hence, Thatcher cuddling a calf, Thatcher in a chocolate factory, Thatcher chatting to shoppers. We take it for granted now, but in 1979, it was a novelty.
Categories: Current Affairs

The Lustig Election Guide for Remainers

Wed, 19/04/2017 - 15:05
Suppose you are one of the 16,141,241 people who voted a year ago for the UK to remain in the European Union. How are you going to vote on 8 June?
Here is the Lustig Election Guide for Remainers:
First of all, repeat after me: 'The UK is going to leave the EU. I'll just have to get over it.'
But you do not have to give up. If you live in a constituency where the election result is not a foregone conclusion, you can still influence the outcome of the Brexit negotiations and therefore the likely shape of the UK's future relationship with the EU.
Suppose you're one of the 40% of Conservative voters in 2015 who also voted Remain in 2016. If you're happy with the way Mrs May is approaching Brexit, you'll probably vote Conservative again. If you're not, you may well consider switching to the Lib Dems.
There are nine seats, currently held by the Tories, where in 2015 the Lib Dem candidate was less than 5,000 votes behind. They are, in order of vulnerability: Eastbourne, Lewes, Thornbury Vale, Twickenham, Kingston and Surbiton, St Ives, Torbay, Sutton and Cheam, and Bath.
There are also 12 seats, currently held by the Tories, where in 2015 the Labour candidate was less than 1,000 votes behind. They are, again in order of vulnerability:  Gower, Derby North, Croydon Central, Vale of Clwyd, Bury North, Morley and Outwood, Thurrock, Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, Brighton Kemptown, Bolton West, Weaver Vale, and Telford. (All data courtesy of Election Polling.)
My guess is that relatively few Tory voters are likely to switch to Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. (How's that for an under-statement?) Nevertheless, if you're prepared to take the long view, you may calculate that Jeremy Corbyn is unlikely to survive much longer as Labour leader, that whoever comes next may well be more electorally credible, and that a stronger Labour opposition could have a significant influence on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.
Tactical voting is nothing new. On 8 June, however, tactical voting will not only influence some important constituency outcomes, but also how the next government reads the mood of the electorate. So even in constituencies where the outcome is not in doubt, an increased vote for anti-Brexit parties will convey a message to Westminster.
Mrs May has gambled that with the Labour party in disarray, and the Lib Dems almost invisible to the naked eye, she will emerge on 9 June with a lovely big majority, mistress of all she surveys, and unstoppable as she molds the country into her own image.
Although I do not for one moment think that she will be defeated, I am nevertheless reminded of Edward Heath, who in February 1974 called an election to answer the question 'Who governs Britain?' and received, much to his surprise, the answer 'Not you, matey.'  Prime ministers don't always get to dictate which question voters choose to answer in the privacy of the polling station.
So, bottom line: If you're pro-Remain in a marginal constituency, vote for whoever is most likely to win the seat and most closely reflects your own views, even if they do not represent your usual party choice.
If you're a pro-Remain Tory, stick to St Theresa if you think you can trust her, or switch to the Lib Dems.
And if, like me, you're in a constituency where both the Labour incumbent and the Lib Dem challenger are pro-Remain, consider yourself blessed. You're spoilt for choice. (There is, however, a strong argument for backing those pro-Remain Labour MPs who were brave enough to defy the party whip, on the grounds that we'll need as many of them as possible in the next parliament.)
A last word for pro-Remain Labour voters (two-thirds of all Labour voters) who may have been bitterly disappointed by Jeremy Corbyn: take a close look at your Labour candidate. If they make it clear that they're not a Corbynite,  consider voting for them. If they're fully signed up to the Corbyn/McDonnell/Momentum project, switch to the Lib Dems, unless by doing so you risk handing the seat to the Tories.
(If you want to get involved in cross-party anti-Brexit campaigning, by the way, take a look at the More United website, or the initiative by anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller, who's raising money to support candidates who pledge a 'full and free vote' on the eventual Brexit deal.)

It's daft to make predictions in the current climate, so I won't. But I'll join the International Federation of Hat Eaters if Mrs May is not still prime minister on 9 June.
Categories: Current Affairs

Donald Trump: king of the flip-flops

Fri, 14/04/2017 - 09:22
Everything that follows was said by Donald Trump:  
'When you talk about currency manipulation ... they [China] are world champions.' -- Interview with Financial Times, 2 April 2017
'[China] are not currency manipulators.' -- Interview with Wall Street Journal, 12 April 2017
'I said it [Nato] was obsolete. It's no longer obsolete.' -- press conference, 12 April 2017
'China has great influence over North Korea.' - Interview with Financial Times, 2 April 2017
'After listening [to President Xi Jinping of China] for 10 minutes, I realised it’s not so easy.' -- Interview with Wall Street Journal, 12 April 2017
You get the picture. The president of the United States is a man who has redefined the art of the political flip-flop. According to one calculation, he reversed position on no fewer than six policy issues last Wednesday alone.
So here's the question: do you approve or disapprove? One interpretation of what he's up to is that he's learning fast -- and that the simplistic, shoot-from-the-lip stuff that served him well enough on the campaign trail is now being jettisoned in favour of a more nuanced, bipartisan, even globalist approach.
Mr Trump seems, however, to recognise that he's vulnerable to the charge that he's ripping up his promises by the barrel-load. On Twitter, which is where you find the 'real' Donald Trump (not for nothing is his Twitter handle @realDonaldTrump), he insisted: 'One by one we are keeping our promises - on the border, on energy, on jobs, on regulations. Big changes are happening!'
He also claimed, for good measure: 'Things will work out fine between the U.S.A. and Russia. At the right time everyone will come to their senses & there will be lasting peace!'
I can't tell you how much better that made me feel.
And I think we have to assume that authorising the US air force to drop the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in its arsenal -- the 21,000-ton so-called 'mother of all bombs' -- on a cave complex in eastern Afghanistan must have made Mr Trump feel a lot better as well. After all, he did promise to 'bomb the shit' out of the Islamic State group, so he probably regards this as one promise he has kept.
Perhaps, though, he's not learning anything. Perhaps he's just listening to different people. His arch-ideologue chief strategist Steve Bannon is apparently being pushed out of the inner circle, and perhaps out of the White House entirely, which is probably the best place for a man who once said: 'Lenin wanted to destroy the state and that’s my goal too ... I want to bring everything crashing down ...'
My suspicion is that what we're actually witnessing is a president who still doesn't have a clue what he's doing. This, after all, is the man who when he proudly described to a TV interviewer how he broke the news to President Xi that he had authorised a cruise missile attack on Syria used these exact words:
'I was sitting at the table. We had finished dinner. We are now having dessert. And we had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you have ever seen. And President Xi was enjoying it. And I was given the message from the generals that the ships are locked and loaded. What do you do? And we made a determination to do it. So the missiles were on the way. And I said: "Mr President, let me explain something to you … we’ve just launched 59 missiles, heading to Iraq."'
Iraq. He said Iraq. And when the interviewer gently corrected him, he just shrugged 'Yeah, heading towards Syria.' As if he didn't know the difference. And didn't much care either.
Before he took office, Mr Trump told everyone who would listen that he expected to get on just fine with Russia but that the real enemy was China. Now, after less than a hundred days in the White House, it's exactly the other way round.
He was going to get rid of Obamacare, introduce a massive tax reform programme, and build a wall (sorry, a beautiful wall) along the border with Mexico. He has done none of it.

Good news? Bad news? Personally, I see no cause for celebration. The best that we can hope for is that the Trump administration may not turn out to be quite as bad as we feared at the start.  But I still regard the words President Trump as two of the scariest words in the English language.
Categories: Current Affairs

Ken Livingstone: a grotesque, offensive disgrace

Fri, 07/04/2017 - 09:14
Question: Why does Ken Livingstone, former mayor of London, former Labour MP, former close ally of Jeremy Corbyn, insist on repeating that Hitler supported Zionism?
Answer 1: Because it's true, and the truth is important to him.
Answer 2: Because he thinks it validates and justifies his own opposition to Zionism. ('If Hitler supported it, it must have been a very bad idea.')
Answer 3: Because he suffers from a Trump-like compulsion to be at the centre of attention regardless of the consequences.
Delete according to taste.
I happen to take the old-fashioned view that truth does still matter -- but on this occasion, motivation matters as well. What's important is not just what he said, but why he said it. Not once, but over and over again. Obsessive, moi?
So first, based on more than 30 years reporting about and from the Middle East, my own background as the child of refugees from Nazi Germany (my maternal grandmotherwas one of the 6 million victims of the Holocaust), and extensive research undertaken when I was writing my recently-published memoir ('Is Anything Happening?', and if you haven't yet bought it, you can remedy that right now by clicking here), here is my best understanding of the truth of the relationship between Nazis and Zionists in the 1930s.
You probably haven't heard of Leopold von Mildenstein. He was an Austrian-born Nazi official (Adolf Eichmann's boss) who had joined the SS even before Hitler came to power in January 1933. He was so fascinated by Zionism that he visited Palestine in the company of Kurt Tuchler of the Zionist Federation of Germany (their wives went with them), to see the place for himself.
On his return, he wrote a series of articles entitled 'A Nazi travels to Palestine', for Joseph Goebbels' newspaper Der Angriff. In August 1933, Zionists and Nazis signed the Haavara agreement -- in the words of the Jewish Virtual Library, it was 'an instance where the question of Jewish rights, Zionist needs and individual rescue were in deep tension ... The Zionists saw [it] as a way of attracting Jews to Palestine and thus rescuing them from the Nazi universe even if that meant cooperation with Hitler.'
(Incidentally, the story of von Mildenstein and the Tuchlers is told more fully in an award-winning film called The Flat, made by the Tuchlers' grandson and available either on DVD or on Netflix. Bizarrely, the two couples became good friends and remained so, even after the War.)
The aim of the Nazis was to create a Germany that was judenfrei, free of Jews. The aim of the Zionists was to build a Jewish state where all Jews could live in safety. Did their interests coincide? For a time, they did.
None of this is contested. But to suggest that Hitler shared the Zionist dream of a Jewish homeland is a grotesque -- and offensive -- distortion of history.   So now we come to the second, more interesting question. Why does Mr Livingstone attach such importance to a relatively minor detail in the history of the slaughter of Europe's Jews?
I'll tell you why: because it is an easy, cheap way of attacking Zionists (of whom the vast majority, of course, are Jews). 'You're a Zionist? You know Hitler supported Zionism, don't you? So what does that make you?' And with one tiny step, we've arrived at 'Zionists are Nazis.' Not that he would ever say it outright -- but where else does the thought process lead?
As David Baddiel put it in his excellent piece in The Guardian: 'This, of course, is the point, the banal, shit point – a way of confirming that Zionism is bad. Through an association with the top bad thing, Hitler.'
Perhaps Mr Livingstone will claim that he is following in a long left-wing tradition of anti-Zionism. Sometimes, anti-Zionism is indeed a cover for anti-Semitism (Stalin's purges are well-documented, even though he was an early supporter of the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine), but it can also stem from a deep tension between two rival ideologies: Zionism, which prioritised the establishment of a new, Jewish state, and Socialism-Communism, which emphasised the need to improve the conditions of the working classes in the lands of their birth.
I write in my book: 'At least some of the political leaders who proclaimed themselves to be enthusiastic pro-Zionists did so because it offered them an opportunity to direct some of the quarter of a million Jews displaced by the Second World War away from their own shores. Support for Zionism could easily become a handy disguise for anti-Semitism, just as, confusingly, what these days is called anti-Zionism can sometimes be used in exactly the same way. (Not all anti-Zionists are anti-Semites, even if some anti-Semites choose to disguise themselves as anti-Zionists.)
'Much of the furore in 2016 over alleged anti-Semitism in the Labour Party stemmed from this blurring of the distinction between Jews and Zionists. Some people openly and deliberately use the word Zionist (or the abbreviation Zio) as an insult, hoping that by calling someone a Zionist instead of a Jew they can avoid being labelled anti-Semitic. It is an easy elision to make, given that for many Jews, being a Zionist is intrinsic to their sense of identity.'
It is now nearly 70 years since the Zionist dream was realised with the establishment of the state of Israel, yet there are still more Jews living outside Israel than in it. (Old joke: What's the definition of an American Zionist? An American Jew who gives money to a second American Jew so that a third Jew can go to live in Israel.)
In the late 1980s, when the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachov allowed Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel, thousands of them took advantage of the offer, only to change direction as soon as they reached Vienna and head for the US instead. By 1989, there were so many that the US had to change the rules to restrict the numbers.
I am not a Zionist. I say in my book: 'The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 may well have been, in retrospect, a mistake ... because, just as the Jewish anti-Zionists of the early twentieth century had feared it would, I fear that it has turned out to be bad both for Jews and for the rest of the world.'
But that does not mean I think Ken Livingstone was justified in saying what he did, or in stubbornly refusing to apologise for the deep hurt he has caused a great many Labour supporters, Jewish and non-Jewish.
Quite the opposite. He has deliberately insulted Zionists by implying that their beliefs were shared by Adolf Hitler, which must be by far the most offensive suggestion it is possible to make. He demonstrates not one jot of shame or contrition; instead, he revels in the publicity and does incalculable harm to the cause he professes to value.
He is, in other words, a disgrace. And so is the Labour party's chronic inability to get rid of him.

Categories: Current Affairs

Trump's Syria U-turn -- what next?

Fri, 07/04/2017 - 08:55
I think Donald Trump is about to have the best weekend of his life. And that scares me.
No more crazy Trump. No more ineffective Trump. Instead, it'll be resolute Trump. Decisive Trump.
Mr Trump goes to war.
Better yet: China's president, Xi Jinping, is his guest at Mar a Lago. What a way to impress him! 'Excuse me, Mr President, I just need to give the order to launch a cruise missile attack.'
But we need to take a deep breath. So do the news channels. Above all, so does Mr Trump.
Because what has changed? Well, Mr Trump has changed, that's for sure. In August 2013, when Barack Obama was considering whether to launch missile strikes after a chemical weapons attack, Mr Trump tweeted: 'The President must get Congressional approval before attacking Syria -- big mistake if he does not!'
In another tweet, he wrote: 'President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside.'
So he has changed his tune. He saw the reports (presumably on Fox News) of the attack on Khan Sheikhun and said that as a result, 'my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.'
The implication that he hadn't taken much notice until now of what was happening there is deeply worrying.
The 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles that landed on the al-Shayrat military airfield near Homs were Mr Trump's signal -- to President Assad and, even more importantly, to President Putin -- that he is not Barack Obama. But what exactly did they signal?
The Pentagon says it warned the Russians ahead of time what was coming. Presumably the Russians warned the Syrians. Anything that could be moved out of harm's way will have been moved. Result? One airfield out of commission.
It is not always a bad thing for political leaders to give the impression that they are unpredictable. It makes it much more difficult for their enemies to calibrate responses. But Donald Trump is not unpredictable in a good way.
He is erratic. His aides have no way of assessing what his next move will be. As a result, they can't plan ahead. Do they have any idea what they're going to do next, now that they moved the Syria conflict into a new phase? I doubt it very much.
The US is now at war in Syria with both sides at the same time. It is attacking IS and other anti-Assad jihadi groups, as well as Assad's own air force. This is not what you might call a coherent strategy.
The award-winning Muslim American writer Moustafa Bayoumi wrote in The Guardian: 'At its best, Thursday’s reckless and largely ineffective bombing does little but make US lawmakers feel good about themselves. At its worst, it deepens a war which the US has no idea how to end.'
Next week, Mr Tump's all-but-invisible secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, will be in Moscow for talks with President Putin. He will, no doubt, be lectured about the US's 'illegal aggression'; what he will not hear, I suspect, is that Mr Putin is likely to be mightily irritated by Assad's renewed use of chemical weapons. Just when things were going so well ...
Back in 2013, Mr Obama's secretary of state, John Kerry, was roundly mocked for suggesting that if the US did take military action then in response to the chemical weapons attack in Gouta, it would be an 'unbelievably small, limited kind of effort'.
Looking back, it seems to have been a pretty accurate description of what President Trump authorised last night. The fact remains, though -- given that I wouldn't trust Mr Trump with a water pistol, I'm far from thrilled that he's now authorising missile attacks.

He may well enjoy his weekend -- but the Syria quagmire will still be on his desk on Monday.
Categories: Current Affairs
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