Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘George W Bush’

Path of Blood *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 2nd July, 2018

Path of BloodFollowing the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, most of the world media’s Middle East focus was on what transpired in that benighted country. But from 2003 to 2009 another story was unfolding, in Saudi Arabia, though not much was reported about it in the West, partly because foreign journalists did not have easy access to the desert Kingdom. The narrative promoted by George W Bush (and his then acolyte, Tony Blair) was that the godfather of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden — initially holed up in the mountains of Afghanistan — posed an existential danger to Western civilisation, for which one obvious piece of evidence was the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. But a more immediate goal of bin Laden and his followers was the overthrow of the House of Saud. So for six years, a terror campaign was carried out in the Kingdom, mostly by radicalised young locals. Not all the attacks were successful, but some were very bloody, and on one occasion Al Qarda operatives managed to get to the Assistant Minister of Interior for Security Affairs, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, though somewhat miraculously he survived. It is this six-year war of underground activity that is the subject of Jonathan Hacker’s riveting documentary, Path of Blood, which combines footage from both the Saudi security forces and Al Qaeda cells. The juxtaposition provides a unique portrait of a cat-and-mouse game between what most Westerners would see as religious fanatics and a not always efficient state apparatus. Some of the shots are predictably gruesome — this is not a film for anyone who can’t bear the sight of blood, or of dismembered body parts — but other moments give an unparalleled insight into the minds as well as the practices of Al Qaeda extremists. Some scenes of the boys — and some are little more than boys — larking about inevitably raise a smile. But when a clearly rather educationally backward youth makes a real hash of recording his pre-suicide mission video, there is undeniable pathos. I have spent nearly three decades reporting on the Gulf and the wider Arab world, but this film taught me more in one-and-a-half hours than some trips to the region. It is due out in cinemas from 13 July.

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Remembering 9/11

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 11th September, 2016

twin-towers-2001On 11 September 2001 I was at the Savile Club having lunch when the head waiter called me into the kitchen to look at the TV. I thought I was seeing a disaster movie but soon the penny dropped that this was live news footage from New York. The way the twin towers crumbled and some people threw themselves to their death to escape the flames was almost unbelievable. Indeed, for a while my brain could not register the fact that it was really happening. It was an almost inconceivable event outside of wartime, and soon President Bush and Tony Blair and others would declare that we were in a state of war — a War against Terror. The following morning I was due to fly to Beirut and when I heard of the security measures being rushed into place around the globe I wondered if Heathrow would even be open. In fact, it was, though hardly any passengers had turned up and there were policemen carrying guns patrolling the corridors. Only about half-a-dozen people had boarded my Middle East Airways flight to Lebanon, so we were outnumbered by cabin crew when we finally took off. At Beirut, some airport staff came onto the tarmac to welcome us, to thank us for coming despite the tension. The Lebanese were frightened they might be attacked in reprisal for the 9/11 assaults, but it turned out that most of the hijackers were Saudis, not Lebanese or Palestinians or any of the “usual suspects” in the American mindset. Of course, there was no way that the United States was going to attack Saudi Arabia, its bosom buddy, in reprisal. Instead, it would be Afghanistan and then later Iraq that took the brunt. Millions were killed or displaced over the next decade and a half. The consequences of 9/11 must surely have been unimaginable to those who perpetrated it. Looking back 15 years on I am struck by a parallel with the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that was the spark that lit the tinder that set in motion the First World War, the consequences being so enormous that they overshadowed the initial act. I think the same will be true when the verdict of history is passed on 9/11, but we are still close enough to the events of 2001 to wish to mourn those who were killed and to offer deep sympathy to their families and friends. Perhaps the greatest tribute we can pay to them is then to dedicate ourselves to try to contain and ultimately extinguish the firestorm of war and terror that took hold of the Middle East and beyond.

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An Independent Kurdistan?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 12th August, 2014

Kurdish flagKRGThe tectonic plates of the Middle East are shifting. This is maybe not surprising, given the artificial boundaries imposed on the region by the British and French following the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. In fact, it’s quite surprising that carve-up envisaged by the Sykes-Picot Agreement has lasted as long as it has. The Islamic State, as ISIS has rebranded itself, sees its putative caliphate rubbing out borders like chalk lines on a blackboard. Iraq as a whole is falling apart, to an extent as a result of George W Bush and Tony Blair’s immoral war, but also because of the sectarianism and incompetence of the outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. The one bright spot on the horizon is the Kurdistan Regional Government, which has brought remarkable prosperity and stability to North-East Iraq, as well as providing a safe haven for refugees from other parts of the region. But in recent days, Kurdistan (KRG) has been under threat from ISIS and has called for weapons from the West, to help defend itself. Kurdistan deserves to be protected, and indeed to move swiftly to full independence, if that is what it wants. It had long been assumed that Turkey would oppose an independent Kurdistan, because of its own restless Kurdish minority, but that is no longer the case. So we may well see an independent Kurdistan take its seat at the United Nations in the not too distant future. And other changes to the map of the Middle East will surely follow.

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Iraq 10 Years On

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 17th April, 2013

The Cordoba Foundation - Iraq 10 Years : Examining A Decade Of Turbulence Conference-The Commonwealth Club, London, United KingdomThe Cordoba Foundation - Iraq 10 Years : Examining A Decade Of Turbulence Conference-The Commonwealth Club, London, United KingdomThe tenth anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq has provided an occasion for reflection on the pluses and minuses of that operation and its aftermath. Having been in Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG) last month I know that many Kurds there think of the War as a Liberation, and I can understand why, given the dreadful persecution they suffered at the hands of Saddam Hussein and his henchmen; it did indeed constitute genocide. But I am also aware, from my last visit to Baghdad, in December 2012, just how shattered Iraq remains as a state. Sunni have been pitted against Shia (who are now dominant) and fatal bombings in the capital are commonplace. As I said in a speech to the Cordoba Foundation and Al Sharq Forum’s Conference at London’s Commonwealth Club, “Iraq 10 Years On”, the Americans made a terrible mistake in pushing de-Ba’athification so far that they sacked the army and police force, as well as many officials — a mistake they notably did not make in Germany in 1945 after the defeat of the Nazis. Saddam was a monster, of that I have no doubt; his torture centres bore all the hallmarks of a true sadist. But the Bush-Blair invasion did not usher in a period of faultless democracy and peace. I never believed it would. Moreover, as Wadah Khanfar — former head of Al Jazeera — pointed out at the same conference, the Iraq War, together with the new Arab Awakening, and all the baggage of Western interference in the Middle East and the unresolved Palestinian situation, has left a region in turmoil. It is not just Iraq that is dysfunctional but the entire MENA region, and I suspect it will take decades before things settle down. Whether that will be within the same b0undaries as the current countries is by no means sure. After all, most of the countries in the Middle East are artificial constructs, the result of the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Balfour declaration and the British betrayal of Arab nationalists led by the Hashemites. Moreover, given the Syrian civil war and renewed political activity regarding the Kurdish question in Turkey, it is not impossible that some time in the future there will be an independent Kurdish state. The KRG are currently sticking to their line that they will be happy with devo-max in Iraq, but if Iraq effectively ceases to be a coherent country then there will be a big temptation to go it alone, which could have far-reaching regional implications.

Photos by Richard Chambury (richfoto). 1: Daud Abdullah, Rosemary Hollis, JF, Matthew G Banks; 2: JF.

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Avi Shlaim, 9/11 and the Arab Spring

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 12th September, 2012

Professor Avi Shlaim is one of the most learned and liberal Jewish commentators on the history and reality of the Arab-Israeli conflict so it was a pleasure to share a platform with him yesterday at a seminar put on by the Forum for International Relations Development (FIRD) in North Cheam to mark the anniversary of 9/11. Dr Shlaim’s central argument was that George W Bush’s response to the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, launching a “War on Terror”, was disastrously misguided. Terror is a tactic not an entity, and one cannot have a war against a tactic. Moreover, demonising Osama bin Laden — whom the Americans had funded when he was fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan —  fuelled the new global divide that Samuel P Huntington had simplisticly described as the Clash of Civilizations. Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with Al Qaeda, indeed the Iraqi Ba’ath Party was hostile to Al Qaeda’s ideology, yet that did not stop Bush invading Iraq. That war was clearly illegal, Prof Shlaim declared, and he endorsed Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s call for Tony Blair to be brought before the International Criminal Court for war crimes. But the major part of Dr Shlaim’s talk focused on the way that the failure to resolve the Palestinian question — a situation made even worse by ongoing Israeli settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — prevents a normalisation of relations between the West and the Arab world, as well as contributing to the sort of extreme radicalism against which FIRD campaigns. Not surprisingly, the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu came in for some withering criticism, as did Israel’s threats to bomb Iran. My own brief remarks at the seminar were in a sense a warm-up act for Dr Shlaim, but I recalled flying to Beirut the morning after 9/11 on a Middle East Airways plane, most of whose passengers had decided not to turn up for the flight. Those of us who did were welcomed warmly on arrival in Lebanon, but the Lebanese were nervous that they might be attacked because of 9/11. So often in the Middle East it is people who have nothing to do with violent acts who find themselves at the receiving end of retaliation.

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Being a Junior Partner in a Coalition

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 27th March, 2012

For half a century and more the Liberal Party and its successor, the Liberal Democrats, languished as the high-minded, principled oppositional alternative to both Conseratives and Labour, and I have to say that most of us found that situation pretty comfortable, although we spoke wistfully of one day having the chance of getting into power. But I think we realised that the only way that would happen in the post-modern age was as a junior partner in coalition with one of the two ‘major’ parties, which could well result in a shrinkage in our level of public support (as indeed Chris Rennard long ago warned). We looked at examples such as Germany’s FDP and saw that even on a small share of the vote one could nonetheless wield quite a lot of influence (admittedly under a system of proportional representation in Germany’s case), and even aspire to having a few Cabinet Ministers. I suppose most of us imagined that if that opportunity arose, it would almost certainly be in a Coalition with Labour; indeed, Paddy Ashdown and some of his closest colleagues imagined that could happen with a Blair-led government, before Britain’s warped electoral system gave Tony Blair a humungous majority and he veered away from social democracy to become seriously illiberal and a George W Bush groupie. So it was with some surprise that after the May 2010 election the arithmetic meant that only a Tory-led Coalition in Britain was possible. But did that inevitably mean that the LibDems as the junior partner would be screwed? This was the subject of a fascinating seminar put on at Westminster’s Portcullis House yesterday by the Centre for Reform, moderated by former LibDem Chief Executive Lord (Chris) Rennard. Ben Page, Chief Executive of Ipsos-MORI was somewhat disheartening in his analysis of the way that sacrificing full independence had inevitably led to the LibDems’ sharp decline in the opinion polls. But his pessimism was counter-balanced by the Deputy Leader of the party, Simon Hughes MP, who — despite getting into a bit of a muddle with his statistics — managed to reassure the audience that the LibDems, far from crashing to oblivion are still alive and kicking and actually doing better than at many times in their recent history, as well as winning real victories on policy within the Coalition government. Martin Kettle, the acceptable face of the Guardian’s political columns, was also fairly upbeat; unlike Polly Toynbee he does not feel we have sold our soul to the devil, and moreover he believes that even in the North — from which, like me, he hails — there is a future for the party. In the ensuing discussion I pointed out that being the junior partner in a Coalition government is rather like travelling down a road full of hidden sleeping poliemen. The tuition fees débacle was probably predictable; the NHS Bill less so. But I warned that the Tory rethink on the Heathrow third runway could be a third bump that could shake the Coalition and cause a fall in support for the LibDems unless the party came out firmly against once again. I didn’t get quite the ringing endorsement of this line that I’d hoped for from Simon Hughes (or indeed Lord Rennard), but I think the point was taken.

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We Don’t Need a Religious Right in Britain

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 30th August, 2011

One topic I get my students at SOAS to discuss each year is the familiar proposition that Religion and Politics should never mix. Of course, historically in Britain they often did. Until the emergence of the SDP in the early 1980s, the Church of England was often referred to as the Conservative Party at prayer. And both Methodists and Quakers had a big influence on the old Liberal Party. But secularism has swept Britain over the past 50 years and the fall in church attendance has been mirrored by a distancing of most politicans from overtly religious standpoints. As Alastair Campbell famously said when he was the master of dark arts at 10 Downing Street, “We don’t do God.” — though in the case of Tony Blair himself, that proved to be completely untrue. One cheeky journalist is said to have asked Blair if he prayed with George W Bush. And of course, in the United States, religion and politics most certainly do mix, whether it is in the form of the liberal Christianity of Barack Obama or the disturbing beliefs of the Christian Right and the Christian Zionists, with their hatred of homosexuals, Muslims and many others who aren’t like themselves. Liberals in Britain have comforted themselves with the assumption that we don’t have that sort of Religious Right here in the UK, but recent trends have suggested that may not be the case. Maybe the Religious Right didn’t dare show its head above the parapet before, or simply didn’t get organised. That doesn’t mean it won’t. And if it does, both the secularists and those believers of moderate or even radical political views need to be prepared to rebut any suggestion that the Religious Right has God and morality firmly on their side.

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Phil Willis on Faith and Science

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 1st February, 2010

Alastair Campbell famously reined in Tony Blair once by saying ‘We don’t do God!’ Subsequently, of course, it became clear that whatever Number 10’s Spinmeister wished, Blair did God in a big way — and thus had even more to talk about with his pal George W Bush. Together, they were indeed on a sort of Crusade, not just to get rid of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but to defend what they considered to be good, wholesome Christian values. Campbell’s warning reflected the fact that Britain — in common with most of the rest of Western Europe — has largely become a secular society; only a small percentage of the nation’s Christians could be described as ‘practising’ in any true sense of the word. Nonetheless, within all political parties there is a nucleus of ‘believers’, whether they are Christian Socialists, Conservative CofE or Liberal Democrat Non-Conformists.

Indeed, the Non-Conformist tradition in the old Liberal Party was very strong and there are more than a few remnants today. Methodists, in particular, are well represented among party members, but so too adherents to smaller denominations or sects, such as the Quakers. After the merger with the SDP, at least some of that tradition survived and is well represented by the LibDem Christian Forum (LDCF), whicb notably runs breakfast events during autumn federal party conferences, when many less conscientious delegates are asleep or nursing a hangover. The LDCF has also instituted an annual lecture, named in memory of William Gladstone (who had no qualms about involving God in politics). Alan Beith, MP, gave the first lecture last year and tonight, at the National Liberal Club, the honour fell to the retiring MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough, Phil Willis. The former headmaster gave a thoughtful reflection (devoid of his usual stock of jokes) on Faith and Science, arguing that scientists, politicians and theologians are all researchers into truth and act largely out of a desire to serve humanity’s best interest. As Phil said, Gladstone avoided locking horns directly with his contemporary Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution rumbled through the second half of the 19th century until breaking as a great storm in the 20th. Some people blame Darwin for the decline of religious faith, others the horrors of War. And in a sense, Nick Clegg is a product of our secular age. But one hopes that all liberally-minded people — whether of great, little or no faith — can unite round the values being promoted by the party: of tolerance of diversity and the championing of fairness as a basis for society.


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A Prize Too Far for Barack Obama?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 9th October, 2009

Barack Obama 2Barack Obama is a great guy. And after eight years of George W Bush, he has arrived in Washington and on the world stage not so much as a breath of fresh air as a strong, balmy breeze of change. Yet I am not alone among commentators in feeling that the decision to award him the Nobel Prize for Peace is uncomfortably premature. Surely these prizes are meant to mark outstanding achievement or many years of dedicated struggle against all odds. One thinks of past laureates such as Nelson Mandela, Shirin Ebadi and Aung San Suu Kyi, for example. What Barack Obama brings to the world is hope, but is aspiration enough to justify such an accolade? Surely it would have been better to wait until he had a chance to implement some of his ambitious schemes, such as trying to relaunch the Middle East peace process in a way that really will deliver a viable Palestinian state as well as security for Israel. I am not necessarily against giving the Nobel Prize to political leaders, including American Presidents, but I feel the example of Jimmy Carter, who got his many years after stepping down from office and engaging in all sorts of peace and humanitarian initiatives worldwide, was the sort of precedent to follow. Of course, it is entirely up to the Nobel Peace Prize committee who they choose and they have made far, far worse decisions in the past.  Think of Henry Kissinger and Menachem Begin, for example. I suppose we should be thankful that they didn’t go for Tony Blair. Still, I am saddened, not enthused, by the award to Barack Obama. One day, I trust, he will more than merit it. But after a mere nine months in office? Not really.

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Adios Guantanamo

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 6th February, 2009

The last remaining trial at the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay has been halted, marking the end of a chapter in the disgraceful saga of Camp Delta. There are still a reported 250 detainees in custody there and the Obama administration has warned that it might take a year to close the facility down, as negotiations proceed about the dispersal of the inmates to the United States or to other countries willing to take them, or in some cases back home. I am confident history will judge the whole Guantanamo affair as one of the most damning indictments of the George W Bush presidency. Prisoners were often transferred there by the process known as ‘extraordinary rendition’, after torture in various parts of the world, with the connivance of several countries that ought to have known better and in the face of only muted protest from European governments, including Britain’s, which are meant to champion the values of justice, transparency and a respect for human rights. Liberal Democrats, including London MEP Sarah Ludford in the European Parliament, spoke out repeatedly against the illegal and inhuman aspects to the whole Camp Delta phenomenon. The US authorities repeatedly tried to obstruct the full truth coming out, as is still the case with the remaining British-based detainee, Binyam Mohamed. It is important that the quest for truth continues and that nothing like Guantanamo Bay is allowed to happen again.

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