Thursday, 28 August 2008

I hope David Miliband and co. read this article by Lord Skidelsky....

Thursday, 21 August 2008

The Times publishes my letter re Russia and Georgia


It is astonishing that the British media have so wholeheartedly swallowed the default position of hostility towards Moscow expressed by the Western security establishment, without critiquing this stance, or analysing the Russian perspective. Any survey of Western coverage will show the paucity of balance on an issue which is self-evidently not clear-cut. Western journalists (and politicians) seem to take the view that Russia has no right to influence the Caucasus, or exploit its own mineral wealth, while the West has every right to intervene in the Balkans or influence (and even occupy on occasion) countries in the Middle East in pursuit of its political and economic interests. Such hypocrisy is no basis for a reasoned argument with a country that is an increasingly important power in the multipolar international system we are moving towards.

John Slinger

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Russia / Georgia - the case put brilliantly by Michael Binyon...

From The Times August 14, 2008

Vladimir Putin's mastery checkmates the West
Russia has been biding its time, but its victory in Georgia has been brutal - and brilliant

By Michael Binyon

The cartoon images have shown Russia as an angry bear, stretching out a claw to maul Georgia. Russia is certainly angry, and, like a beast provoked, has bared its teeth. But it is the wrong stereotype. What the world has seen last week is a brilliant and brutal display of Russia's national game, chess. And Moscow has just declared checkmate.

Chess is a slow game. One has to be ready to ignore provocations, lose a few pawns and turn the hubris of others into their own entrapment. For years there has been rising resentment within Russia. Some of this is inevitable: the loss of empire, a burning sense of grievance and the fear that in the 1990s, amid domestic chaos and economic collapse, Russia's views no longer mattered.

A generalised resentment, similar to the sour undercurrents of Weimar Germany, began to focus on specific issues: the nonchalance of the Clinton Administration about Russian sensitivities, especially over the Balkans and in opening Nato's door to former Warsaw Pact members; the neo-conservative agenda of the early Bush years that saw no role for Russia in its global agenda; and Washington's ingratitude after 9/11 for vital Kremlin support over terrorism, Afghanistan and intelligence on extremism.

More infuriating was Western encouragement of “freedom” in the former Soviet satellite states that gave carte blanche to forces long hostile to Russia. In the Baltic states, Soviet occupation could be portrayed as worse than the Nazis. EU commissioners from new member states could target Russian policies. Populists in Eastern Europe could ride to power on anti-Russian rhetoric emboldened by Western applause for their fluency in English.

Nowhere was such taunting more wounding than in Ukraine and Georgia, two countries long part of the Russian Empire, whose history, religion and culture were so intertwined with Russia's. Moscow tried, disastrously, to check Western, and particularly American, influence in Ukraine. The clumsy meddling led to the Orange Revolution.

Georgia was a different matter. Relations were always mercurial, but Eduard Shevardnadze, the wily former Soviet Foreign Minister, knew how to keep atavistic animosities in check. Not so his brash successor, Mikheil Saakashvili. From then on, hubris was Tbilisi's undoing.

It was not simply the dismissive rhetoric, the open door to US advisers or the economic illiteracy in forgetting dependence on Russian energy and remittance from across the border; it was the determined attempt to make Georgia a US regional ally and outpost of US influence.

Big powers do not like other big powers poaching. This may not be moral or fair but it is reality, and one that underpins the Security Council veto. The Monroe Doctrine - “hands off the Americas” - has been policy in Washington for 200 years. The US is ready to risk war to keep out not only other powers but hostile ideologies - in Cuba and Nicaragua.

Vladimir Putin lost several pawns on the chessboard - Kosovo, Iraq, Nato membership for the Baltic states, US renunciation of the ABM treaty, US missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic. But he waited.

The trap was set in Georgia. When President Saakashvili blundered into South Ossetia, sending in an army to shell, kill and maim on a vicious scale (against US advice and his promised word), Russia was waiting.

It was not only Mr Saakashvili who thought that he had the distraction of the Olympics to cover him; the Kremlin also knew that Mr Bush was watching basketball, and, in the longer term, that the US army was fully engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan. From the day that the Russian tank brigade raced through the tunnel into South Ossetia, Russia has not made one wrong move. Mr Bush's remarks yesterday notwithstanding, In five days it turned an overreaching blunder by a Western-backed opponent into a devastating exposure of Western impotence, dithering and double standards on respecting national sovereignty (viz Iraq).

The attack was short, sharp and deadly - enough to send the Georgians fleeing in humiliating panic, their rout captured by global television. The destruction was enough to hurt, but not so much that the world would be roused in fury. The timing of the ceasefire was precise: just hours before President Sarkozy could voice Western anger. Moscow made clear that it retained the initiative. And despite sporadic breaches - on both sides - Russia has blunted Georgian charges that this is a war of annihilation.

Moscow can also counter Georgian PR, the last weapon left to Tbilisi. Human rights? Look at what Georgia has done in South Ossetia (and also in Abkhazia). National sovereignty? Look at the detachment of Kosovo from Serbia. False pretexts? Look at Ronald Reagan's invasion of Grenada to “rescue” US medical students. Western outrage? Look at the confused cacophony.

There are lessons everywhere. To the former Soviet republics - remember your geography. To Nato - do you still want to incorporate Caucasian vendettas into your alliance? To Tbilisi - do you want to keep a President who brought this on you? To Washington - does Russia's voice still count for nothing? Like it or not, it counts for a lot.

Friday, 15 August 2008

An excellent article in The Independend by Mary Dejevsky about the Georgian crisis

You won't find many Western commentators writing like this...I must say I share Mary Dejevsky's views and wonder whether the Western media isn't guilty of blindly reinforcing the view promulgated by Western etablishments which preferred Russia when it was an enfeebled and economically defunct former superpower, and simply doesn't know how to handle their resurgence...

Monday, 11 August 2008

South Ossetian Realities

The west can be extremely hypocritical. We claim the right to intervene (in Bosnia, Kosovo or Sierra Leone for example), or to invade (in Iraq), with or without UN authorisation. We also, correctly, see it is our right to use military force to protect our national economic interests (e.g. our naval presence in the Arabian Gulf). We also arm or give diplomatic backing to allies when they are surrounded by implacable enemies (e.g. Israel).

And yet when Russia is aggrieved that the seductive moves by NATO on its borders may well see it surrounded by pro-western states and a missile shield which renders its own strategic missiles defunct while preserving Western capability – we perceive the Russian stance as aggressive and unreasonable.

We in the west viewed it as our inalienable right to have bombed Russia’s ally (Serbia) over Kosovo, and then recognise the right to national self-determination of the Kosovan Albanians. And yet when Russia acts in South Ossetia to protect the interests of ethnic Russians who clearly do not wish to remain part of Georgia, the west calls this an outrage. When the west is in possession of huge economic power and advantage, and seeks to exploit it in its own interests, this is perceived as acting in legitimate self-interest. When Russia starts reminding its former Soviet satellites that they can’t continue to buy oil and gas at Soviet prices, while seeking to join NATO or put in place US radar stations, the Economist runs a front page with a picture of a menacing Putin, standing in the shadows and an apocalyptic headline along the lines of ‘Should We Fear the Russian Bear’ (I forget the exact phrase, but you get my gist). There wouldn’t be an Economist headline saying, “Evil California Exploits the World Through Dominance of Computing Technology”.

It seems that we in the west just cannot get over our delusion that we are the only true great powers, the sole arbiters of when an intervention or military action is just. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia was so enfeebled that it spent all its energies trying to avoid economic meltdown and so let us perpetuate western hegemony over international morality. But now, things have changed. Whether we like it or not, Russia is a proud, powerful force again, which is not going to dance to a tune penned by the west. The sooner we realise this, the better. It is hard to imagine how the US would act if an enclave of Mexico, populated almost entirely by US passport holders, were being forced to remain part of Mexico. It is unthinkable that the US would tolerate Russia lecturing it on how to resolve issues of national self-determination, within its sphere of influence.

I do not know all the facts of the current crisis. But I do believe that the above sentiments are rarely expressed in the western media. This is because our supposedly unbiased media does in fact perpetuate an anti-Russian viewpoint in many of these cases.

Russia is certainly not as democratic as the west, and it is certainly not blameless in the current crisis. However, we are fools if we think that Russians, of all people, will accept Western hypocrisy.

And for the record, I am not anti-western. I believe that western liberal democracy is the best form of governance known to mankind. I believe in human rights and in defending them wherever possible. I supported the interventions in Iraq, and in Kosovo. I would have supported invading Rwanda to prevent genocide. I would support invading Sudan to prevent genocide there now. I believe in spreading freedom as far around the world as possible. I am also a realist (an idealist one). Regarding Russia, there needs to be a little more realism.

Friday, 8 August 2008

A Christian viewpoint on the Beijing Olympics

Here is a short piece my father penned to deliver at his church (he's not a vicar). I'm not a Christian myself - I'm a humanist, but I must say that I agree with the sentiment of this piece. I think it's a really interesting and unusual perspective amid the hyperbole of Olympics coverage. I personally wonder why sporting events such as the Olympics, or the Premiership, etc are hyped so much. Do they really inspire ordinary people to get involved in grassroots sports? Or is their main function to generate prestige for the host country and revenue for the sponsoring companies?

A Christian viewpoint on the Beijing Olympics
By David Slinger

The Beijing Olympics open today. Tens of billions of pounds have been spent to stage them and tens of thousands of participants, members of support teams and officials will be attending. For China it will be a major showcase of its economic and social progress.

But what is the essential Olympic message and ideal? Is it:

- to win at all costs
- to excel to the best of one’s personal capacity
- to share in a friendly, international contest bringing the peoples of the world together?

Is here any spiritual dimension to all this? In what ways, if any, will the spectacle inspire us to pursue goals which Christians might hold dear?

The honest answer – at first sight, at least – might well be, very little.

In 1924, an outstanding Scottish athlete by the name of Eric Liddell, surprised the world’s press and sporting fraternity by refusing to run the 100 metres relay at the Olympics because the race was to take place on a Sunday. To compete in this way offended Liddell’s conviction that Sunday was a day for quiet reflection and worship of God, not a day to focus on men’s physical sporting prowess. I suspect that he viewed his great sporting achievements not so much as personal ones, but as fulfilment of a God-given gift.

The Olympic torch should not be seen as a kind of shrine to physical fitness and strength. These are worthy enough pursuits, but are not ends in themselves.

Christ did not single out high performers, the strongest, wealthiest and most commercially successful, to become his Olympic-style top performers. He focussed on ordinary people, the weak, the old and the sick. His idea of strength was more about an inner moral strength than a desire to outperform others.

In the Sermon on the Mount, you will not find a call to the faithful to triumph over others. He challenged them to serve God and their fellow human beings, to cooperate and serve peace.

Yet we are called upon on innumerable occasions in The Bible to use our talents to the full. For a sportsman or woman this means hard training, courage and endurance if victory is to be achieved at a high level – especially the Olympics. But does winning and the victor’s rostrum bring the winners any closer to God than all the other competitors? I think the answer must lie in the effect the whole process has on the winner’s perception of his or her true motivation. Is it for the personal strength of character which may flow from the pursuit of excellence as an end in itself, or is it about an exaggerated sense of self-importance?

To reflect differing perceptions, innumerable dictums have emerged, for example:

- it’s better to lose well than to win badly
- it’s not winning, but taking part that counts

Or, to put the other point of view:

- who wants to be a loser?

We should recall, perhaps above all statements, one which Jesus is reported to have made about the ultimate judgement of performance in that most important of all events: living itself.

“But many that are first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”

Also: “What profiteth a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his soul?” For which we might substitute “gold medal” for “the whole world”.

For a Christian, then, the Olympic message does not appear to be a very promising one, that is, unless it leads to the transfer of sporting skills to other areas of human endeavour and to an equal determination to seek a true meaning of life, not just Olympic medals.