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Silly Buggers

I don’t remember which navy I was in when I first heard the term “silly buggers”, but the meaning was clear. It included some sensible exercises like “man overboard” drills, but the heart and soul of the game was high-speed manoeuvres by ships traveling in close company. These sometimes got quite exciting, because ships don’t have brakes.

Off the coast of Lebanon, in 140 metres of water, is the wreck of the British battleship HMS Victoria, which sank in 1893. It is the world’s only vertical wreck, because its bow is plunged deep in the mud but its stern is only 70 metres below the service – “like a tombstone,” said one of the divers who found it in 2004. And it was “silly buggers” that did for it.

The British Mediterranean fleet was travelling in two parallel lines when Admiral Tryon decided to reverse course – and to make it interesting he ordered the lead ships of each line to make the turn inwards, towards the other line. In theory the two lines of ships should have ended up travelling in the opposite direction, but much closer together.

Unfortunately, they were already too close, and they couldn’t turn tightly enough to avoid hitting each other. The lead battleship of the other line rammed HMS Victoria and all 10,400 tonnes of her sank within a few minutes, carrying the admiral and 357 other officers and men down with her. That’s the sort of thing that happens when you play “silly buggers” and get it wrong.

It’s silly enough when everybody is on the same side. When two different countries start playing “silly buggers” it gets even more dangerous, and that’s where we are right now. On Monday, over the Baltic Sea, a Russian fighter plane flew within one and a half metres of an American reconaissance aircraft’s wingtip. US officials protested, saying it was “unsafe” and criticising the Russian pilot’s “high rate of closure speed and poor control of the aircraft.”

The Russians immediately blamed the American aircaft for making a “provocative” move, but that’s nonsense. The reconnaissance plane was a KC-135, a four-engine aircraft the size of a passenger jet that lumbers along like a freight train. The Russian plane was an SU-27, a nimble state-of-the-art fighter that could fly rings around the American aircraft.

Had the Russian pilot been ordered to get that close? Probably not. Did he intend to scare the Americans? Almost certainly, yes. He probably did misjudge the distance – it’s not worth dying to make your point – but he would have known that he was off the leash.

American reconnaissance flights targeting Russia are perfectly legal so long as they stay over international waters, but they have become much more frequent over both the Baltic and the Black Seas. That is clearly yanking the Russians’ chain, and they duly get worked up about it. More importantly, the Russian pilot would have known what is going on over Syria.

The game over eastern Syria has gone beyond mere “silly buggers”. It’s more like “chicken” now, with the Russians and the Americans pushing each other to see how far they can go. But it’s the Americans who are actually shooting, though they haven’t killed any Russians yet.

Early this month, the US shot down a Russian-made Syrian government drone near the al-Tanf border crossing, between Syria and Iraq. Then on Sunday an American F/A-18 shot down a Syrian air force fighter-bomber near the Islamic State’s besieged capital of Raqqa. The Russians responded by saying that they would track any Western aircraft operating west of the Euphrates River as potential targets.

When US aircraft mistakenly dropped bombs on Syrian government troops last September, killing 62 of them, nobody shot them down. But that was then, and the rules have clearly changed – as was underlined on Monday, when US forces shot down another Syrian government drone near al-Tanf, this time an Iranian-built Shahed 129.

At one level, what’s driving all this is the fact that Islamic State is going under, and the various players are racing to gain control of the parts of eastern Syria that were or still are controlled by the group. US forces are part of that race, and are getting increasingly reckless about how they compete.

At a higher level, this is the result of President Donald Trump’s decision to commit the United States and its forces to the Sunni side in the Sunni-Shia confrontation that links all the local wars together. That defines not only the Syrian government but also its Iranian and Russian supporters as America’s enemies, and the American forces in the region are just responding to that shift.

There is still no clear American vision for the future of the Middle East, let alone a serious strategy for accomplishing it. But meanwhile the games-playing continues and intensifies, and it’s only a matter of time before some Russian or American gets killed by the other side.

Silly buggers.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“The Russians…aircraft”; and “Who…129″)

Varadkar and Bernabic

19 June 2017

Varadkar and Bernabic
By Gwynne Dyer

For most Irish people the most striking thing about their new prime minister, Leo Varadkar, is that he is very young. (At 38, he is the country’s youngest leader ever.) It’s mainly the foreign press that goes on about the fact that he is a) half-Indian, and b) gay.

Varadkar himself, the son of a doctor from India and a nurse from Ireland who met while working in a hospital in southern England, is definitely not keen on being seen as a symbol of changing public attitudes: “I’m not a half-Indian politician, or a doctor politician or a gay politician, for that matter. It’s just part of who I am. It doesn’t define me.”

No, it doesn’t, but it is still worth focussing on for a moment to think about what it tells us not just about Ireland but about the West as a whole, and even about the world.

Homosexuality was legalised in England in 1967, and it was decriminalised in Canada the following year (when Pierre Trudeau, then the justice minister, told the CBC that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation”). It only became legal in Ireland a quarter-century later, in 1993. But two years ago same-sex marriage was made legal in Ireland by a referendum in which 62 percent of the voters said yes.

Well, we already knew that Ireland had changed. It has lots of immigrants now – one in every eight people is foreign-born – and the political power of the Catholic Church has collapsed. So it’s no longer a surprise that an Indo-Irish gay man can become prime minister. But what about Serbia?

The only “immigrants” in Serbia are ethnic Serbs who were stranded in other parts of former Yugoslavia after the break-up. The Serbian Orthodox Church is still strong, and it has no truck with degenerate Western ideas about human rights. As one Orthodox monk wrote: “Homosexuality is not a problem in Serbia. There are hardly any gay people, and society wouldn’t permit them to organize or (publicly advocate) their abominations.”

Two-thirds of Serbians think that homosexuality is an illness, and almost four-fifths believe that gay people should stay in the closet. But Ana Brnabic is an out and proud lesbian, and she has just been appointed prime minister of Serbia. She is also of Croatian descent. How has this happened?

Brnabic was appointed by Alexandar Vucic, who was prime minister himself until he ascended to the presidency in last month’s election. The prime minister is constitutionally the most powerful person in the government, but Brnabic is a technocrat, not really a politician. It is widely expected that she will concentrate on making the trains run on time, so to speak, and leave the sensitive political decisions to Vucic.

The general assumption in Serbian political circles is that Brnabic’s appointment is window-dressing. Serbia wants to join the European Union, and the government would quite like to divert the EU’s attention from a few little image problems: its close ties with Russia, its hostility to refugees, and rampant corruption.

So what could be better than a woman prime minister (a Serbian first) who is openly gay (another Serbian first) and even has foreign antecedents (her father was born in Croatia)? Why, the Serbs are even more enlightened than the Irish! We should make them full members of the EU as soon as possible!

That may well be the plan – and if it is, so what? The European Union knows that there was a considerable amount of calculation behind Brnabic’s appointment, but it will not condemn President Alexandar Vucic for trying to make Serbia look like a suitable candidate for EU membership.

Lots of ordinary Serbs will be shocked by this assault on “Serbian values”, but many of them will understand that it serves the national interest. And little by little, just because Brnabic is the prime minister, they will grow less uncomfortable with the notion of gays – and indeed just women in general – having a legitimate role in public life.

This is how change really happens: not sudden enlightenment, but a gradual acceptance of new rules and values. And the most encouraging take-away from this little story is that even a man like Vucic, once an ally of the murderous demagogue Slobodan Milosevic, understands the new political and social rules of the West.

They are not yet the new rules everywhere. Eastern Europe is way behind Western Europe, North America and Latin America, largely because it spent between forty and seventy years isolated from the rest of the world under Communist rule. The struggle is still intense in parts of Asia, and it has scarcely begun in most of Africa and the Muslim world.

Gay rights, feminism, human rights in general are not really “Western” values: a hundred years ago the West was just as intolerant of difference as everybody else. The change has come to the West earlier mainly because it is richer, but we are all traveling on the same train, and the other end will pull into the station just a little bit later.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit 6 and 8. (“The only…abominations”; and “Brnabic…Vucic”)

Qatar Quarantine

Public-spirited businessman Moutaz al-Hayat is flying 4,000 cows into Qatar from the United States and Australia to boost milk supply in his country, which is being blockaded by most of its Arab neighbours in the Gulf. It will take sixty flights, and is definitely not cost-effective. But that may not be his biggest problem.

Ninety-nine percent of Qatar is open desert, and most of the very limited grazing areas for cattle are already fully occupied. Is al-Hayyat also going to airlift in the fodder for his 4,000 cows? There are many ridiculous aspects to the current crisis over Qatar – but it does have a serious side too.

Compared to the real wars (Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya) currently raging in the Arab world, Qatar’s crisis is a bit like a tempest in a teapot. The country is tiny but rich, and nobody is getting killed there yet. Yet there is a blockade, and refugees, and troop movements, and it is not inconceivable that the gas-rich Gulf state might get invaded and its government overthrown.

On 5 June all of Qatar’s Arab neighbours in the Gulf withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, Qatar’s gleaming capital. They also cut all land, sea and air communications with the country. Roads were blocked and flights were banned, which is pretty serious for a country of 2.7 million people (only a quarter-million of them actual Arab citizens of Qatar) that produces almost nothing except abundant natural gas.

Qatari citizens visiting or living in Saudi Arabia, Bahrein, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt were ordered to leave within fourteen days. Qatar Airways lost its landing and overflight rights in those countries, necessitating extensive detours, and the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera television service was blocked.

It is a real blockade because 40 percent of Qatar’s food comes in across its one land border, with Saudi Arabia, and that is now closed. The “refugees” are better dressed and educated than the normal ones, but the ban on Qataris living in the hostile countries and citizens of those countries living in Qatar is already uprooting people and breaking up families.

As for military movements, there have been no reports of Saudi Arabian troops moving towards the Qatari border, like they did before they rolled across the causeway into Bahrein in 2011, but speculation is rife that they might.

The Saudis would love to replace the current Qatari ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, with some member of the royal family who would toe the Saudi line. And since intra-family coups have become a bit of a tradition in Qatar, the Sheikh couldn’t complain if other family members decided that he had become a liability and opted for a Saudi-backed coup.

This is a pretty low-key crisis at the moment, but it could turn much nastier – and there are two further complicating factors. One is that Qatar hosts the biggest US military base in the Middle East: there are 10,000 American troops in the country. The other is that there is also a Turkish military base in Qatar.

The Turkish-Qatari agreement was signed two years ago and there are only about a hundred Turkish soldiers on the base yet, but it will accommodate 5,000 eventually. Turkey could fly the rest in very quickly if it chose to, and it just might do that if the crisis worsens. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has backed Qatar from the start.

Does this mean that Turkey could end up fighting Saudi Arabia in defence of Qatar? It sounds very far-fetched, but things have got so violent and complex in the region that people and countries no longer just stab each other in the back. They are also stabbing each other in the front, the sides, and the unmentionables.

Turkey and Qatar are both close US allies, but they support the same Sunni extremists in the Syrian civil war, and have lavished money and arms on some groups that both the United States and Saudi Arabia see as terrorists (ISIS, the Nusra Front, etc.).

Saudi Arabia, like most of the Sunni-ruled Gulf states, used to support the same extremists. Now it doesn’t any more – or not all of them, anyway – and says it is blockading Qatar because that country does still give money to the “terrorists”.

Whether that is true is debatable, but the Saudi Arabians managed to convince President Donald Trump that it was true during his recent visit to Riyadh, so Trump encouraged this blockade. Indeed, he takes the credit for it.

“During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of radical ideology,” he said. “They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to horror of terrorism!”

And they have just founded a “World Center for Countering Extremist Thought” in Riyadh. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“Qatari…blocked”; and “The Saudis…coup”)

Britain: “Soft” Brexit or No Brexit

“We don’t know when Brexit talks start. We know when they must end,” tweeted Donald Tusk, former Polish prime minister and now president of the European Council. He doesn’t know when the talks will start because even now, a year after Britain’s referendum on leaving the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May doesn’t know what her negotiating position is.

She thought she knew. It was going to be a “hard Brexit” where Britain left both the European Union’s “internal market” (complete free trade between the half-billion people in the EU’s 28 members) and the customs union (the same external tariffs against everybody else). “Free movement” would also end (to limit immigration from EU countries), and Britain would flourish all alone thanks to its genius for free trade. Good luck with that.

But then May called a needless election to get a bigger majority in parliament – to “strengthen her hand” in the negotiations with the EU that are scheduled to begin next Monday, or so she said. Instead, after a botched campaign focussed entirely on May, the Conservative Party lost its majority in last Thursday’s election.

Now she is a zombie prime minister: “Dead woman walking”, one senior Conservative called her. Yet the Conservative Party can’t dump her yet because she is in the midst of talks with the small Democratic Unionist Party (exclusively Northern Irish) to get enough votes in parliament to keep the goverment in power.

Even if May succeeds, “hard Brexit” is dead. To get the support of the 11 DUP members of parliament – even to retain the support of the 13 MPs of the Scottish Conservative Party – she will have to agree to a much softer Brexit. That would certainly include a customs union, and maybe also continued membership of the internal market.

That may tear the Conservative Party apart, as the hard-line Brexiters in the party will fight against it tooth and nail. May’s Brexit Minister, David Davis, has already warned that next week’s start to the talks with the EU may have to be postponed. But the deadline for an agreement is only eighteen months away, in practice, and the negotiations will be extremely
complex. No wonder Donald Tusk is losing patience.

The Brexit referendum was originally promised in 2013 by May’s predecessor, David Cameron, in order to prevent a split in the Conservative Party. May’s devotion to Brexit today is still mainly aimed at avoiding that split, but the rest of the country has moved on.

If the referendum were held again today, it would almost certainly result in a victory for the Remainers, not the Leavers. The problem is that both main parties include large numbers of Leave voters.

They are a bigger proportion of the Conservative Party, although around half of the Conservative MPs are still secretly anti-Brexit. Jeremy Corbin’s Labour Party is equally divided: at least a third of Labour’s voters were Leavers.

Corbin would not have come so near to displacing the Tories if he had not maintained his ambiguous stance on Brexit in the recent election. Many of the traditional Labour voters who came back to the Labour Party this time were former supporters of the United Kingdom Independence Party. They had been made homeless by the collapse of that party, but they are still Leavers.

So neither party is going to propose a second referendum now. To do so would be to lose many of their pro-Leave voters, and probably to lose the new election that is likely to be called before the end of the year. Yet the outcome of last week’s election does open up a possible path to a new referendum.

If the Conservative Party shreds itself over who is to replace Theresa May, or if either the DUP or the pro-Remain Scottish Conservatives withdraw their support, there will have to be another election.

Labour could win that election, but only if Corbyn can convince the Leavers in his party that he will try very hard to make a “soft Brexit” work. At the same time, he must persuade all the students and other young people who voted for the first time this month (and almost all voted Labour) that he will put the results of the negotiations with the EU to a second referendum, even though he cannot promise that publicly now.

It’s a fine line to walk, and Corbyn is genuinely ambivalent about the EU. Nevertheless, the final result could be either an acceptably soft and amicable Brexit, (leaving Britain in a close relationship with the EU, like Switzerland or Norway) – or an abandonment of the whole Brexit project after a second referendum. But it will leave deep scars for a generation whichever way it comes out.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 10. (“Corbin…Leavers”)