Thursday, 15 September 2016

Past Time

Peter Oborne writes:

Most nights Saudi bombers fly low over the Yemeni capital of Sanaa dealing out random destruction.

High up in the Yemeni mountains, Sanaa claims to be the oldest inhabited city in the world. Its old city, a Unesco world heritage site, is at least as unique, ancient and priceless as any western city.

Many of its buildings have been destroyed or damaged by Saudi bombs. Imagine the outcry in the West if Venice or Florence were being targeted in this way.

However, nobody seems to care one way or another about Yemen.

This is because the country is under attack from Britain’s oldest ally in the region, Saudi Arabia. So that’s all right then. 

Sanaa is in the hands of Houthi rebels. 

Elegantly clad in thowbs, with Kalashnikovs flung over their shoulders, the rebels frequently cause offence by bringing their weapons with them into restaurants, contrary to local practice. 

Many of their fighters have not reached puberty. The Saudis accuse the Houthis of being agents of Iran. 

There is no question that their hideous slogan, plastered in all public spaces, is inspired by the Islamic Republic: ‘God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, A Curse upon the Jews, Victory to Islam.’ 

Left to themselves the people of Sanaa might well have cast out the Houthis, a northern clan who captured the city two years ago. 

The bombing campaign from the Saudi-led coalition has instead made them immensely popular. The Saudis have destroyed schools, hospitals, market places, residential suburbs.

‘I dislike the Houthis,’ one Sanaa official confided, ‘but we have to choose between two evils. One evil is bombing us from above. The Houthis are merely making things difficult for us. 

‘Given the choice between the two, I would rather the ones who are making things difficult for us.’ 

One widow outside a water distribution point put it more strongly: ‘If the aid is coming from aid agencies, we want it. If it’s coming from the Saudis, we’d rather starve to death.’ 

The Saudis’ closest allies in this horrible affair are Britain and the United States. We supported King Salman when he declared war in March last year.

In the face of a mountain of evidence that crimes have been committed, Britain repeatedly insisted that the Saudis have not breached international humanitarian law.

Britain has advisers in the heart of the Saudi command centre which sets targets for the bombers.

We provide Saudi with crucial diplomatic cover, for instance blocking Dutch calls for a very badly needed independent inquiry into war crimes by all sides.

Throughout the war we have supplied arms to the Saudis. This is almost certainly illegal.

The Arms Trade Treaty, enthusiastically supported by Britain two years ago, insists that no arms should be sold when there is an ‘overriding risk’ that they will be used in breach of international humanitarian law. 

There is no question that the provision applies in the case of Yemen.

Approximately 10,000 have been killed, many of those by Saudi bombing, most of them civilians, while millions have been made hopeless and even more now live on the edge of starvation.

The former British prime minister David Cameron, as well as his foreign secretary Philip Hammond, were strong supporters of the war on Yemen.

But what of Theresa May and her new Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson? There are some fascinating signs that policy is changing.

Within weeks of taking office, Mr Johnson (who contrary to some predictions has got off to a strong and confident start) forced the Foreign Office to correct its convenient but mendacious line that Britain had ‘assessed’ that Saudi Arabia had carried out no breach of international humanitarian law.

This assertion, carelessly repeated many times during the Hammond era, was completely false. No such assessment, we now know, had ever been carried out. 

Then Mr Johnson infuriated the Saudis by restoring full diplomatic relations with Iran, which Saudi Arabia regards as its existential enemy. 

However, the Foreign Secretary’s biggest challenge comes over the next two weeks, with the UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva. 

This is the forum where last year Britain disgracefully helped to block that Dutch-led initiative for an independent inquiry into Yemeni war crimes. 

Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, announced in his opening speech on Tuesday that the subject will raise its head again this year. 

Mr Johnson should make certain that Britain supports it this time.

Such an action would anger Saudi Arabia, along with its powerful allies in the British foreign policy establishment. 

The new Foreign Secretary needs to take them on. 

Over and over again during my week-long stay in Yemen, I was approached by men who said they remembered British colonial rule. 

They told me that (unlike the United States) we are still regarded fondly. ‘Why have you switched sides to the Saudi barbarians? Have the British been bought by Gulf money?’ 

I told them that there is no doubt at all about that.


Very few political reputations, not even Tony Blair’s, have fallen as far and as fast as David Cameron.

It’s less than 18 months since Cameron pulled off a stunning general election victory against the odds. At that moment, the Tory leader appeared invincible.

Instead, he will go down in history as the British prime minister who triggered Brexit by mistake.

This week, his decision to quit early as an MP has brought accusations of lying – and ugly comparisons with Tony Blair for profiteering after leaving public office. 

Today’s report from the House of Commons foreign affairs committee (FAC) into Britain’s intervention into Libya five years ago marks another nail into the coffin of Cameron’s collapsing reputation. 

The report is emphatic that the British/French intervention was an unmitigated disaster, and insists that Cameron should take personal responsibility. 

The FAC accused the Cameron government of overstating the threat Muammar Gaddafi posed to civilians, failing to understand how Libya worked, and of pursuing "an opportunistic policy of regime change". 

Worse still, it states that Britain failed to develop "a strategy to support and shape post-Gaddafi Libya". 

According to the FAC, the consequence of British incompetence could hardly have been more dire:

"Political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of [the Islamic State group] in North Africa."

And the FAC has no doubt that "former prime minister David Cameron was ultimately responsible for the failure to develop a coherent Libya strategy". 

Fundamental falsehoods 

Cameron has often been compared with his predecessor Tony Blair, and with good reason.

Both men shared the same modernising analysis, the same style of government, and the same contempt for traditional political structures.

There is another comparison.

Both men were truly dreadful war leaders - up there among British prime ministers with Anthony Eden (Suez humiliation of 1956), Neville Chamberlain (Munich) and Lord North (loss of the American colonies). 

Blair led Britain into the catastrophe of Iraq. Cameron, along with French president Nicolas Sarkozy, led Britain into our disastrous Libyan intervention.

Libya was David Cameron’s Iraq. Just as with Iraq, a fundamental falsehood lay at the heart of the decision to invade. 

Cameron wrongly claimed that Gaddafi was about to commit a genocide, while Blair mistakenly stated that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Catastrophic intelligence failures were at the heart of each disaster.

The FAC notes that "the UK government was unable to analyse the nature of the rebellion in Libya due to incomplete intelligence and insufficient institutional insight …it selectively took elements of Muammar Gaddafi’s rhetoric at face value and it failed to identify the militant extremist element in the rebellion". 

There is a very troubling echo here of the British intelligence mistakes in Syria, where our officials also failed to understand the way that al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups would come to dominate the uprising. 

However, the failure of British intelligence to understand Libya is especially puzzling because Britain enjoyed a specially close relationship with the country’s pre-revolution intelligence chief Musa Kusa – as evidenced by the correspondence with senior SIS officer Sir Mark Allen over the kidnap and subsequent torture of AbdulHakim Belhaj.

Third, the failure to plan for the future was every bit as notable in Libya as in Iraq. And much less excusable. 

By the time we intervened in Libya in 2011, Britain had had plenty of time to absorb the lessons of the Iraq war. We were incapable of doing so.

A new security architecture was in place in the shape of Cameron’s much-vaunted National Security Council, but it proved to be no more use than Blair’s notorious "sofa government". 

Ironically, Blair emerges as one of the good guys in the Libyan fiasco, or so the committee seems to assert. 

The former prime offered himself as a linkman with the Gaddafi family, opening up the possibility of a political rather than a military solution to the crisis. 

Unfortunately, the FAC concludes, Cameron lacked the wit to exploit Blair’s Gaddafi connection. 

Playing both sides 

Most of the conclusions of the FAC report are fair enough. 

However, the FAC itself shows grievously faulty judgment when it comes to current events. ‘The Government of National Accord (GNA) it declares, ‘is the only game in town.’ 

This is nonsense. The GNA – yet another doomed British initiative of dubious legality – is in shambles. It commands very little allegiance in the east of Libya (where the British ambassador is persona non grata). 

Following a series of takeovers last weekend, the eastern government’s General Khalifa Haftar now controls approaching 80 percent of Libya’s oil production.

Curiously, British special forces are on both sides of this political schism at the same time, helping the forces loyal to the GNA in Misrata, and helping Haftar bomb pro-Tripoli Islamist militias in Benghazi.

Not even the smoothest of Foreign Office tongues can remotely claim that helping Haftar is helping the GNA in Tripoli or working towards the unity of the country.

Rather this is a policy aimed at the de-facto partition of Libya. 

Hindsight is easy and the FAC report takes full advantage. So perhaps it is worth recalling that only a dozen MPs voted against intervention in Libya five years ago. 

One of them was the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

It is past time that Labour critics such as Hilary Benn acknowledged that Corbyn has consistently shown superb judgment on foreign policy issues.

Had he been prime minister for the last 15 years, Britain would not have been drawn into the death trap of Helmand province, the horror of Iraq or the calamity of Libya.

As Labour members cast their votes in the Labour leadership contest, they should bear that in mind.

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