All posts by Binoy Kampmark

Vague Alternatives and G7 Summitry: The Build Back Better World Initiative

Summits often feature grand statements and needless fripperies.  In Cornwall, the leaders of the G7 countries were trying to position and promote their relevance as the vanguard of democratic good sense and values.  They, the message went, remained relevant, valuable and essential to the order of the earth, despite challenges posed by the autocrats.

Never let contradiction get in the way of such a united front.  Babbling about liberal democratic values matters little when it comes to crusty realpolitik.  The UK and the US continue to supply armaments to their favourite theocracy, Saudi Arabia, even as they take issue with Russia and Chinese actions they deem aggressive, cruel or authoritarian.   Germany’s position on dealing with Russia remains distinct within the grouping, not least on the issue of energy politics and the Nord Stream 2 gas project.  Nor does the G7 necessarily share the same attitude in dealing with China, each having had its slant in coping with Beijing’s actions in recent years.

The China Syndrome has produced some form of united response at the summit.  Welcome, then, to the Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative.  This will entail, according to a White House factsheet, “a values-driven, high-standard, and transparent infrastructure partnership led by the major democracies to help narrow the $40+ trillion infrastructure need in the developing world, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”  The initiative will also involve “the G7 and other like-minded partners” coordinating and mobilising “private-sector capital in four areas of focus – climate, health and health security, digital technology, and gender equity and equality – with catalytic investments from our respective development finance institutions.”

A senior official in the Biden administration told Reuters that, “This is not just about confronting or taking on China.  But until now we haven’t offered a positive alternative that reflects our values, our standards and our way of doing business.”

Since 2013, President Xi Jinping’s multi-billion dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has niggled the sphere of influence watchers.  While the developed world went into something of an investment coma after the Great Recession of 2007-9, notably in developing economies, China took its wallet out.  Attached conditions to the investment would be few; questions about human rights, freedoms and business transparency would not be obstacles.  As this was happening, high-income states went into chatter mode while keeping their shut purses, formulating principles for quality infrastructure investments.

The BRI infrastructure program, currently featuring 2,600 projects, is China’s geopolitical bridge to developing states, linking Beijing through an assortment of road, maritime and rail projects.  These include the $100 billion China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, and the $62 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor.  Over time, the initiative has moved into 5G technologies and fiberoptic networks.

The BRI initiative is also a way of jostling out countries long presumptuous about keeping their backyard free of competition.  (Australia, for instance, has shown alarm that its long standing position as Pacific bruiser and charity giver is facing dethroning.)  And it has worried recipient states initially warmed by Chinese offers of investment.  In 2016, Pakistani Senator Tahir Mashhadi, chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Planning and Development, issued a warning.  “Another East India Company is in the offing; national interests are not being protected.  We are proud of the friendship between Pakistan and China, but the interests of the state should come first.”

The G7 states have been doing much head scratching as to how to rival and blunt the BRI.  In 2019, the Trump administration, along with Japan and Australia, suggested their own counter: the Blue Dot Network, the principles of which underpin B3W.  The BDN initiative seeks to promote “equality infrastructure investment that is open and inclusive, and transparent, economically viable, financially, environmentally sustainable and compliant with international standards, laws, and regulations.”  The inaugural meeting of the Blue Dot Network’s Executive Consultation Group took place on June 7.

While not specifically referencing the BDN (anything deemed worthy by President Donald Trump is to be assimilated rather than acknowledged), US President Joe Biden has been making regular sprays about, as he told reporters in March, establishing “a similar initiative coming from the democratic states, helping those communities around the world.”

In April, Biden and his Japanese counterpart, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, met to discuss “practical commitments” in establishing an alternative to BRI projects.  There was a special emphasis on promoting and protecting “the technologies that will maintain and sharpen our competitive edge” based on “democratic norms that we both share – norms set by democracies, not autocracies.”

Cornwall has become the site for similar assurances.  The B3W is all about, as the Biden administration claims, “offering a higher-quality choice”.  The choice will be offered “with self-confidence … that reflects our shared values”.  Kaush Arha, who worked as the US G7 sherpa for the Blue Dot Network in 2020, sees the way paved “for BDN to earn the endorsement of the G7” and feature at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties in November.

The details of this new plan, for all its claims to transparency, remain opaque.  In the first place, it places strong emphasis on private sector contributions that are supposedly drawn in an open, accountable manner.  Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Centre’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States asks the question “whether this is going to be actually new funding, new capacity to build infrastructure in the region, or is this a repurposing and repackaging of resources that are also available.”  Eventually, the participating powers will have to show the money.

The post Vague Alternatives and G7 Summitry: The Build Back Better World Initiative first appeared on Dissident Voice.

ET, You Bore Me: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena and the Pentagon

Those of you drawing sustenance and stimulation from the traditional acronym UFO best brace yourselves.  The less exciting and dull term accepted by the defence clerks – unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) – is renewing its march into the extra-terrestrial hinterland.

On June 25, the Pentagon’s UAP Task Force will release a declassified report to Congress that will do little to shift ground or alter debate on the nature of such phenomena.  For those exercised about green creatures, ancient aliens and that roguish charlatan Erich von Däniken, nothing would have changed. For sceptics, it will be a case of tired yawn before returning to work.  There will be many “I told you so” moments and no one will be any wiser.

Since 2017, various eyewitness accounts and videos have been circulating in such measure as to worry members of Congress.  This came a decade after Senate majority leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) first began tooting the horn on the subject, a measure that led to the creation of the $22 million Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program.  That program, along with the even lesser known Advanced Aerospace Weapons Systems Application Program, saw the involvement of such proponents of extra-terrestrial life as billionaire Robert Bigelow.

Such programs were hardly the first.  From 1966 to 1968, the University of Colorado’s UFO Project, which lead to the publication of the tome heavy Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects, was funded by the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research.  Led by physicist Edward U. Condon, the report, totalling almost a thousand pages, covered 56 “cases” (UFO sightings), of which 33 were suitably explained as “normal phenomena”.

The unexplained cases were not sufficient for Condon and his co-authors to encourage further government study or scientific investigation of UFO sightings.  The words of the report are unequivocally damning: “nothing has come from the study of UFOs in the past 21 years that has added to scientific knowledge. Careful consideration of the record … leads us to conclude that further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will be advanced thereby.”

Decades after, with interest rekindled, the Pentagon was duly pressed by US lawmakers into compiling a report examining UAP sightings.  Legislation passed in December stipulated that the resulting work should contain “detailed analysis of unidentified aerial phenomena data and intelligence” gathered by the FBI, the Office of Naval Intelligence and the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force.  The latter was created in August 2020 on the direction of Deputy Secretary of Defense David L. Norquist.  It was done so with a view to improving “understanding of” and to “gain insight into the nature and origins of UAPs.  The mission of the task force is to detect, analyze and catalogue UAPs that could potentially pose a threat to US national security.”

The focus of the report is bound to be workmanlike, given the DOD’s concern about “the safety of our personnel and the security of our operations”.  Emphasis is placed on the potential risks posed by “any incursions by unauthorized aircraft into our training ranges or designated airspace”.  “This includes examinations of incursions that are initially reported as UAP when the observer cannot immediately identify what he or she is observing.”

So far, news outlets have veered between panting anticipation and bemused interest.  The BBC suggested that, “The review of 120 incidents is expected to conclude that US technology was not involved in most cases.”  The Hill, not quite grasping the meaning of secrecy, concluded that this fact “effectively rules out any secret government operations conducted by the American government”.

Both the New York Times and Washington Post went for common ground.  The Times reported that senior administration officials briefed about the report found no evidence that the sighted objects seen over the past decade by Navy pilots were not of this planet.  But these same officials “still cannot explain the unusual movements that have mystified scientists and the military.”  US technology, it was confirmed, was not involved in the sightings.  The report, according to the Post, “finds no proof of extraterrestrial activity, but cannot provide a definitive explanation for scores of incidents in which strange objects have been spotted in the sky”.

The Post goes on to make some broad claims, detecting a shift from “fringe conspiracy theory” to the “mainstream”.  To justify the assertion, they cite such figures as Luis Elizondo, a former military intelligence official who told reporters on an April roundtable call that many objects recorded in the videos under review had “baffled pilots, military and intelligence officials for their apparent defiance of known laws of flight and gravity”.

Fox News, for its part, can call upon the observations of former director of national intelligence John Ratcliffe. Those interested in the report would read of “objects that have been seen by Navy or Air Force pilots or have been picked up by satellite imagery that frankly engage in actions that are difficult to explain.”

The minds of former presidents are also being tickled with interest. “[W]hat is true, and I’m actually being serious here,” Barack Obama claimed in May on the Late Late Show With James Corden, “is that there are, there’s footage and records of objects in the skies, that we don’t know exactly what they are.  We can’t explain how they moved, their trajectory.”

A good number in the scientific and sceptical fraternity have been much cooler to this excitement.  “Recently,” a reproachful Andrew Franknoi, astronomer at the Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning at the University of San Francisco observes, “there has been a flurry of misleading publicity about UFOs [based on military reports].  A sober examination of these claims reveals there is a lot less to them than first meets the eye.”

Science writer Mick West, who has viewed much UAP footage released by the US military, affords a good perspective for debunkers.  Most sightings can be put down to distortions in the image or problems in the instruments themselves.  For all that, he admitted that unidentified objects appearing “in restricted airspace” presents “a real problem that needs solving.”

UFO sceptic Robert Sheaffer sees no reason for a Damascene conversion.  “There are no aliens here on Earth, and so the government cannot ‘disclose’ what it does not have.”  With a measure of unflagging confidence, he suggested that government sources knew “less on the subject than our best civilian UFO investigators, not more.”

Another good reason for dampening any excitement around the UAP Report is the motivation of the Pentagon.  Instances of costly bungles are many, from the vast expenditure in such failed conflicts as Afghanistan to the $1.6 trillion debacle over the F-35.  Perhaps, writes Matt Stieb, the DOD “simply wants a flashy reason to demand more money.”

Reid, for his part, expects little but urges continued interest in funding ventures in UAP investigations.  “I don’t think the report is going to tell us too much.  I think they need to study it more and not just have one shot at it.”  Condon and his research team might have set him straight.

The post ET, You Bore Me: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena and the Pentagon first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Denmark Offshores the Right to Asylum

This has been a fantasy of Danish governments for some time.  There have been gazes of admiration towards countries like Australia, where processing refugees and asylum-seekers is a task offloaded, with cash incentives, to third countries (Papua New Guinea and Nauru come to mind).  Danish politicians, notably a good number among the Social Democrats, have dreamed about doing the same to countries in Africa, returning to that customary pattern of making poorer states undertake onerous burdens best undertaken by more affluent states.

The government of Mette Frederiksen has now secured amendments to the Danish Aliens Act that authorises the transfer of asylum seekers to other countries as their applications are being processed.  The measure was secured on June 3 by a vote of 70 to 24, though critics must surely look at the absence of 85 MPs as telling.  The measure is not automatic: the Danish government will have to secure (or bribe) the trust of third party states to assume their share.

Government spokesman Rasmus Stoklund left few doubts as to what the new law entailed.  “If you apply for asylum in Denmark, you know that you will be sent back to a country outside Europe, and therefore we hope that people stop seeking asylum in Denmark.”

Stoklund’s language of warning evokes parallels with Australia’s own campaign of discouragement, marked by a highly-budgeted effort featuring such savage products as No Way.  You Will Not Make Australia Home.  In the video, Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, then chief of Australia’s effort to repel naval arrivals known as Operation Sovereign Borders, is stern in threatening that “if you travel by boat without a visa you will never make Australia home”.  Other delights involve a graphic novel, translated into 18 different languages, promising trauma and suffering to those who end up in a detention centre in the Pacific, and the feature film Journey, where an Iranian mother and her child seek sanctuary in Australia.  The Danish propaganda arm will have some catching up to do.

Who then, are the third country candidates?  Denmark already has a memorandum of understanding with the Rwandan government that covers migration, asylum, return and repatriation.  Its purpose is to target an asylum system which supposedly gives incentives to “children, women and women to embark on dangerous journeys along migratory routes, while human traffickers earn fortunes”.  When it was made, Amnesty International’s Europe Director, Nils Muižnieks could see the writing on the wall, calling it “unconscionable” and even “potentially unlawful”.  But for Rwanda, just as it is with Pacific island states such as Nauru, money is to be made.  Such countries effectively replace demonised people smugglers as approved traffickers and middlemen.

The response to the legislation from those in the business of advocating for refugees and the right to asylum has been uniform in curtness and distress.  Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, voiced strong opposition to “efforts that seek to externalise or outsource asylum and international protection obligations to other countries.”

UNHCR spokesman Babar Balloch could only make the relevant point that the legislation ran “counter to the letter and spirit of the 1951 Refugee Convention”.  Moves to externalise “asylum processing and protecting of refugees to a third country… seriously risk setting in motion a process of gradual erosion of the international protection system, which has withstood the test of time over the last 70 years”.

Balloch is evidently not as attentive as he thinks: those wishing to externalise such obligations have well and truly set this train in motion.  The 2018 EU summit went so far as to debate the building of offshore processing centres in Morocco, Algeria and Libya to plug arrival routes via the Mediterranean.  The UK government is also toying with the idea of an offshore asylum system.

Bill Frelick of Human Rights Watch’s Refugee and Migrant Rights Division distils the relevant principle being sacrificed.  “By sending people to a third country, what you are essentially doing is taking what is a legal right and making it a discretionary political choice.”  It is an increasingly attractive, if grotesque policy, for wealthier countries with little appetite to share the burdens of sharing the processing claims under the UNHCR’s Global Compact on Refugees.

Unfortunately for Frelkick and their like, the Danish government is proving derivatively consistent.  It has been opting out of the European asylum system since the 2000s, doing its bit to fragment an already incoherent approach in the bloc.  The centre right government of Anders Fogh Rasmussen, just by way of example, was proud to reduce the number of asylum seekers and those wishing to settle in Denmark.  In 2004, 1,607 people were granted asylum compared to 6,263 three years prior.

The approach of the current government is to negate the very right to seeking asylum in Denmark, aided by third countries.  And there is not much left to do, given that the country received a mere 1,515 asylum applications in 2020, its lowest in two decades.  Of those, 601 were granted permits to stay.

Lurking, as it always does in these situations, is the Australian example.  The right to asylum is vanishing before the efforts of bureaucrats and border closing populists.  The UN Refugee Convention, like other documents speaking to freedoms and rights, is becoming a doomed relic.

The post Denmark Offshores the Right to Asylum first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Suicidal Games: Tokyo’s Coronavirus Olympics

A pandemic crisis.  A state of emergency.  Overwhelming public opinion bristling with alarm.  Notwithstanding these factors, Tokyo is still on track to host the Olympics that was cancelled last year in response to the global pandemic.  The first sports team – Australia’s softball crew – has touched down.  Is all this folly, bravery or self-interest?

On a daily basis, the tally of reasons against holding the games grows.  Currently, the Japanese capital and nine other regions in the country labour under a declared state of emergency, one that will extend, at the very least, to June 20.  Overseas fans have been barred and some 600,000 tickets refunded.  Travel warnings have been registered, none more unequivocal than the US State Department’s advisory: “Do not travel to Japan due to COVID-19.”  As the grave Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga warned, “The next three weeks are an extremely important period in achieving results in infection prevention and vaccine inoculation, a two-pronged strategy.”

An important point here is the sheer porcine obstinacy of the administration wonks whose very existence depends on an event that takes place every four years.  They form what can only be described as the “show must go on” brigade, given the billions of dollars at stake regarding television rights.  These furnish the International Olympic Committee some 75 percent of its income, with the US broadcaster NBC being the major contributor.

The President of the IOC, Thomas Bach, has shown little concern as to what Japan is facing in terms of public health.  “We have to make some sacrifices to make [the games] possible.”  World Athletics President and IOC member Sebastian Coe is convinced that competitors will be “hermitically sealed from local people”.

The IOC vice-president John Coates, filled with the lunatic spirit of the Light Brigade, insists that the games proceed as scheduled.  “The Prime Minister of Japan said that to the President of the United States two or three weeks ago,” Coates told reporters after the AOC annual general meeting in Sydney.  “He continues to say that to the IOC.”  Coates felt that the “playbook” of health regulations covering participants was an adequate “guide for a safe and successful games”.

Administrators such as Coates have taken it upon themselves to assume some depth of public health knowledge.  Regarding the situation in Japan, he was happy to prognosticate.  “The numbers [of infections] are very small, particularly amongst the elderly.  And so as the vaccine is rolled out in Japan, I think that will improve.”  It was incumbent, he urged, that Japanese authorities reassure the public that all was well and that the safety measures were more than adequate.

The much touted Tokyo 2020 Playbook has had a few iterations.  As it stands, an extensive testing regime will be in place both before, during and after the event.  Social interaction will be limited.  Eating is to take place in designated areas.  The use of public transportation and sightseeing is prohibited.  Athletes must abide by various rules or be barred from competing: undergo testing at least once every four days, maintain a distance of 6 feet apart, eschew high-fives, hugging or sex.  The latter injunction is to read alongside the odd promise to distribute 150,000 free condoms, a classic example of absurd committee logic.

Seiko Hashimoto, President of the Tokyo Olympic organising committee, is almost blithe in assuming that the crisis will plateau.  With pandemic restrictions in place, there was an expectation that “the infection situation” would “improve”.  “Once the state of emergency is lifted, we will assess how many spectators we can allow in.”

Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto, in response to objections being levelled at holding the games, considered it “natural” that “different media organisations have different views”.  As with other organisers, he felt that the “stringent measures” that had been put in place by national and local governments would improve the situation.

In the face of all of this is a clamour for the game’s cancellation.  This is the position taken by the Japanese paper Asahi Shimbun, an official Games sponsor which has called upon Prime Minister Suga to “make a calm, objective assessment of the situation and make the decision to cancel this summer’s Olympics.”  The editors also took issue with the “self-righteous” disposition of Coates and other IOC Committee leaders, rebuking them for being “out of step” with Japanese public opinion.  “Saying ‘yes’ without demonstrating any clear grounds for it once again drove the self-righteous image of the IOC.”

Others have been even more acid in their comments.  The chief of the Japanese online retailer Rakuten, Hiroshi Mikitani is baffled by the determination of administrators to proceed with the event.  “The fact that we are so late for the vaccinations, it’s really dangerous to host the big international event.”  To hold it would be tantamount to staging “a suicide mission”.  Chief executive of the Softbank Group, Masayoshi Son, has issued dire warnings about 100,000 people from 200 countries descending “on vaccine-laggard Japan”.  The arrival of mutant variants could see the loss of more lives, the need for subsidies and more economic losses.  “If we consider what the public has to endure, I think we could have a lot more to lose.”

Most troubling of all for concerned Japanese citizens is the way Suga’s government has ceded authority to the IOC in what can only be regarded as a disgraceful abdication of responsibility.  Last month, the prime minister went so far as to defer authority to the sporting body: “the IOC has the authority to decide”.  No wonder Bach and Coates are so confident.

The post Suicidal Games: Tokyo’s Coronavirus Olympics first appeared on Dissident Voice.

That Old Story: Spying on Friends

One has to be repeatedly reminded that the theatre of international relations knows no friends and only national interests, whatever those might be.  Intelligence services, being an expression of those interests, do not necessarily discriminate in targeting their quarry.  The revelations of Edward Snowden in 2013 about warrantless and unwarranted surveillance by the US National Security Agency was revealing on this point, though it merely confirmed centuries of understanding in politics: In our friends and foes, we mistrust.

Having spilled such valuable beans, Snowden readied us for what should have been regarded as banal, even farcical.  As Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists summarised, “The rule is that everybody spies on everybody – except when they have an agreement not to.”  And, just in case you were in doubt “they may still do so.”  In terms of the United States, he was not shy: “We are photographing and listening to the entire globe.”

The entire globe naturally includes peeking into the affairs of one’s allies.  “Even among friends,” a serious Charles Kupchan of Georgetown University said in 2013, “a lot of espionage takes place, and some of that espionage is targeted against national security.”  Kupchan sees this as solid bookkeeping. “There is more mundane day-to-day intelligence gathering, which is focusing on intelligence that would be relevant to American statecraft: who is likely to be the next foreign minister, what’s Germany’s position on negotiations with Iran?”

Snowden showed how the NSA exploited its partnership with various intelligence networks to get a leg up into the surveillance of various allies. One of these partnerships involved Denmark.  The relationship with the Danish Defence Intelligence Service (Forsvarets Efterretningstjeneste or FE), it transpired, involved conducting surveillance upon senior officials in Sweden, Norway, France and Germany.  This says much about the Danish political experiment, a small establishment in search of a relevant, collaborative purpose.  To that end, the FE-NSA enterprise involved using XKeyscore, an NSA-developed software tool revealed by Snowden, which intercepts calls, texts and chat messages received and sent from the phones of the officials.

The 2013 exposure prompted an internal investigation into the Danish Defence Intelligence Service codenamed “Operation Dunhammer”.  The findings of the Dunhammer report were then aired in selective form across a range of media networks: Danmarks Radio, NRK, SVT Nyheter, NDR, WDR, Süddeutsche Zeitung and Le Monde.

When asked to comment on the issue, Danish Defence Minister Trine Bramsen reiterated with bone dull tediousness “that this government has the same attitude as the former Prime Minister expressed in 2013 and 2014 – systematic wiretapping of close allies is unacceptable.”

As always with such disclosures, there is much ventilating fury, feigned surprise and naïve implausibility.  This lies in the residue of desperation and misplaced expectation: fidelity undermined and compromised.

On such occasions, the outraged claim they had no idea, even in the face of news that was old news.  Peer Steinbrück’s words of hurt to the German broadcaster ARD were angry but rehearsed for the occasion. It was, claimed the former Social Democratic Party candidate for chancellor, “grotesque that friendly intelligence services are indeed … spying on top representatives.”  By way of contrast Patrick Sensburg of the commission with oversight over Germany’s intelligence services, barely bats an eyelid.  Denmark, he assumes, had not deliberately intercepted the communications of top politicians.  A sweet suggestion.

France’s Europe Minister, Clément Beaune, stayed to the script in strolling fashion, calling the findings “extremely serious”, though his views should be taken at a pinch.  According to Beaune, “We need to see if our partners in the EU, the Danes, have committed errors in their cooperation with American services.”  But this came with a neat, even comic caveat. “Between allies, there must be trust, a minimal cooperation.”  Clearly, the minimal aspect prevailed here.

Towards the northern European states, the Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist could hardly be said to be outraged in an interview with SVT Nyheter.  The behaviour of such figures before scandal is to treat it as an interlude of interest.  He acknowledged the Danish response that such eavesdropping on allies was “unacceptable”, which was mighty fine of him.  He was also adamant that espionage activity from his country was not directed at Danish or Norwegian politicians (the Germans and French do not warrant a mention), suggesting that the Swedes are just that much better in all of this.

Deafening silences have followed in Washington and Copenhagen in the intelligence community.  The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the NSA, and the Danish Defence Intelligence Service, have declined to comment.  Former chiefs of the FE, Lars Findsen and Thomas Ahrenkiel, are keeping mum about the matter.

As with President Barack Obama before him, Joe Biden will face a few questions on his visit to Europe in a fortnight.  He was, in Snowden’s view, “well-prepared to answer for this when he soon visits Europe since, of course, he was deeply involved in this scandal the first time around.  There should be an explicit requirement for full public disclosure not only in Denmark, but their senior partner as well.”

The only thing of interest that may come of these meetings is the cold realisation that espionage reduces all relationships to those of adversaries.  Misnamed friends cannot be trusted in the business of gathering intelligence.

The post That Old Story: Spying on Friends first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Laying the Bear Trap: Orbán visits No 10 Downing Street

His comments would not have fallen on deaf ears.  While metropolitan London would have been aghast at his pedigree and remarks, a Brexit-audience in the rustbelts and areas of deprivation, would have felt a twang of appreciation.  For them, migration has not been a boon and glory.  For Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, it has been an opportunity to make valuable enemies and court new friends.

The meeting between UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Orbán on May 28 did more than raise eyebrows and prompt head scratching.  The statement released by No 10 was anodyne enough, filling space and not much else.  “The leaders discussed the importance of the UK and Hungary working together bilaterally to increase security and prosperity in our countries and to address global challenges such as climate change.”

Johnson is also said to have “raised his significant concerns about human rights in Hungary, including gender equality, LGBT rights and media freedom.”  In terms of foreign policy, Johnson saw his Hungarian counterpart as a man of influence.  “The Prime Minister encouraged Hungary to use their influence to promote democracy and stability.”

The critics, notably those drenched in the juice of Britannic values, were bemused and baffled.  Labour MP Alex Sobel outlined Orbán’s resume ahead of the visit: “a renowned anti-Semite, fuelled violence against the Romany, clamps down on the LGBT and Muslim communities.”  He had also “suppressed democratic norms and press freedom”.  Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy took issue with the visit given Orbán’s record on attacking “press freedom and democracy”, refugees as “Muslim invaders” and was “a cheerleader for Putin and Lukashenko.”

Nandy then turned on that resource so commonly drawn upon when faced with discomforting leaders. Orbán, being one of Europe’s “most regressive leaders” was effectively undermining “the values the UK government says it wants to defend”.

The government of Boris Johnson may well spout the values argument, but Brexit has meant courting and entertaining widely.  The world is less its opportune oyster than a pressing necessity.  Friends need to be won over, agreements inked and secured.  As a No 10 spokesman put it, “As president of the Visegrád group of Central European nations later this year, cooperation with Hungary is vital to the UK’s prosperity and security.”  UK Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng was even more explicit: the UK had to, at times, speak to the unsavoury and approach the unlikeable. “I think Viktor Orbán’s views on migrants are things I would not endorse in any way.”

Kwarteng distils the amoral British position with accuracy, though it also says much about what Timothy Garton Ash described as “the dilemma of self-inflicted weakness” that burdens post-Brexit Britain.  Arms contracts with Saudi Arabia while a theocracy maims and molests remain a matter of course.  The relationship with China privileges the business imperative, despite claims about holding a liberal international order together.  Deals are to be made, even with authoritarian regimes and those with a sketchy record on human rights.

Orbán, by comparison to some of the UK’s trading partners, is almost civil.  And more to the point, he never disappoints as one of the great critics of the EU, even as he remains in its tent.  The abundant admiration for Brexit, described as the opening of a “fantastic door, a fantastic opportunity”, has not gone unnoticed.

Then there is that niggling issue that Johnson and his party members might not be entirely at odds with the Hungarian PM.  While the official statement on the No 10 meeting mentions a concern for rights and liberties, Johnson could hardly have disagreed with some of his counterpart’s views, notably on Islam.  The recent Singh report into claims of Islamophobia within the Conservative Party found degrees of discrimination from the Prime Minister to grass roots organisations, though it rejected claims of “institutional racism” made by such prominent Tory members as Baroness Warsi.  The Prime Minister’s previous remarks, mocking those wearing burqas as “looking like letterboxes” were also picked up in the report.  “I am obviously sorry for any offence taken,” Johnson said in response, though he also added a rounding qualifier: “My writings are often parodic, satirical”.

Orbán’s views on immigration and Islam are far from satirical, though they do not resist unintentional parody and farce.  Reprising himself as a nationalist warrior fending off a modern Ottoman surge, the grave Hungarian leader wears the habitual costume of a defender of European civilisation.

And what of anti-Semitism? Specifically referring to his troubled relationship with George Soros, the billionaire was described as “a talented Hungarian businessman… he is very much in favour of migration, financing and helping the NGOs who are doing that.  We don’t like it but it has nothing to do with ethnic identity.”

The shambolic rollout of the EU vaccination program has also gifted much room to Orbán to mock opponents and stifle detractors.  Vacillation in Europe on how best to approach COVID-19 and poor planning has meant the courting of other countries for vaccines.  The EU is not working, he can say, and this is how we respond.  The result is a range of options for Hungarians, sourced from Russia and China.  As he has done so, Orbán has pursued an aggressive campaign against contrarians within his country.  The pro-government media mobbing of political scientist Peter Kreko, who cautioned against the speed the Orbán government was seeking the Sputnik V vaccine, was typically sinister.

In the indignant storm surrounding the visit, a White Hall source may have provided the most accurate summary that reflects the British PM’s approach to policy in general: “Number 10 has walked into a bear trap.”

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The Dominic Cummings Show

The former chief strategist for Prime Minister Boris Johnson was in a stroppy mood before the UK parliamentary Health and Science committee.  For seven hours, Cummings unleashed salvo after salvo against his former boss and the government coronavirus response.

Boiling down some points of the Cummings show: there was a failure on the part of the Johnson government to respond to the pandemic.  Johnson was unfit for office.  The Health Secretary Matt Hancock should have been sacked for any number of decisions.  Lockdown measures were imposed too late to prevent the surge of infections.  There was simply no overall master plan to cope with a pandemic.

The political strategist apologised for the various tiers of decision makers and advisers, including himself, for falling calamitously “short of the standards that the public has a right to expect”.  He apologised to those families who “unnecessarily” lost loved ones and confessed that “lots of key people were literally skiing” instead of moving to a “war footing” in January and February last year.

The portrait of Johnson is superbly unsympathetic.  The prime minister’s clownish credentials come blundering through.  The novel coronavirus was dismissed as “the new swine flu”, a mere “scare story”.   He even suggested receiving an injection of the virus live on television “so everyone realises it’s nothing to be frightened of”.  Bodies piled up high was a preferable outcome to imposing a third lockdown in the autumn of 2020.  And as for information, the PM could not take himself away from the Daily Telegraph’s view of events.

The Cummings-Johnson relationship duly atrophied. “The heart of the problem was, fundamentally, I regarded him as unfit for the job.  And I was trying to create a structure around him to try and stop what I thought would have been bad decisions, and push things through against his wishes.”

Some of the choicest blows are reserved for the Health Secretary, who “should have been fired for at least 15 to 20 things”.  Hancock held back the testing regime and interfered in the development of a mass testing system, conduct Cummings found “criminal” and “disgraceful”.  Hancock was mendacious in meetings held in the cabinet room of Downing Street, assuring those in attendance that people “were going to be tested [for COVID-19] before they went back to care homes [from hospitals].”  He also used health experts such as the chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical adviser Chris Witty as shields for government incompetence.

Cummings delighted the political science fraternity with his display in the Attlee suite in Portcullis House.  He was, Matthew Flinders of the University of Sheffield, asserted, “at his most magnificent and Machiavellian: a quite beautiful case study in the art of planting seeds and laying traps.”  The Spectator, a magazine once edited by Johnson, was blind to the retributive nature of the testimony.  “His decision to identify the many mistakes made at the start of the pandemic is not about seeking vengeance; it is a vital process to ensure that errors are identified and not repeated.”  How noble.

To a degree, the Cummings account is useful in pointing out administrative failings.  The pandemic blueprint was inadequate, developed to fight influenza rather than respiratory variants in the form of coronavirus.  Dissenting views were not countenanced.  “It was a classic historical example of groupthink in action,” assessed Cummings. “The more people from outside attacked, the more internally said, ‘They don’t understand, they haven’t got access to our information.’”

The response from Johnson to such accounts and depictions is crudely simple: remind voters that Britain’s vaccination effort has been stellar.  The UK is one of the leading countries in the mass vaccination programme.  Specifically regarding Cummings’s testimony, the “commentary”, claimed Johnson, did not “bear relation to reality”.

Hancock’s approach was much the same: stay focused on the vaccination drive.  Forget past crimes and misdemeanours.  He also denied that he lied about patients being sent from hospital to care homes without being tested first.  “My recollection of events is that I committed to delivering that testing for people going from hospital into care homes when we could do it.”  The relevant factor was the timing of it; the capacity for testing had to be built up.

And there is the obvious point that Cummings, despite blaming Johnson and seeking his own restoration, remains chipped and damaged.  The display by the senior strategist in the rose garden of No 10 last year featuring an apologia for his infamous trip to County Durham in breach of lockdown laws was a hard one to efface.  He did concede that doing so had “undermined public confidence”.  But he was ready with an explanation.  Moving his family out of London took place after his wife received death threats from people gathered outside the home.  “The whole thing was a complete disaster and the truth is… if I just basically sent my family back out of London and said here’s the truth to the public, I think people would have understood the situation.”

When asked whether the additional trip by Cummings to Barnard Castle from the family home in County Durham was actually for reasons of testing his eyesight, the dark eminence returned to form.  “If you’re going to drive 300 miles to go back to work, popping down the road for 30 miles and back to see how you feel… it didn’t seem crazy.”  It was not, as committee chair Jeremy Hunt suggested, a birthday celebration for his wife.  “If I was going to make up a story I would come up with a better one than that.”

Patrick Diamond of Queen Mary, University of London, identifies the central paradox of British government that proved so detrimental to the pandemic response.  The British state might be highly centralised but “the centre of government lacks capacity.”  Policymaking by the core executive has also been undermined by the altering of relations between the ministerial group and the civil service. Then comes the “growth of territorial conflict with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.”  The result of this: a failure of coordination of governments across the UK in responding to COVID-19.  What Cummings did was render such dysfunctions flesh and folly.

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How It All Went Wrong: The Global Response to COVID-19

The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response was never likely to hand down a rosy report with gobbets of praise.  Organised by the World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus last May, the panel’s gloomy assessment was grim: the COVID-19 pandemic could have been avoided.

Almost nothing in the main report could be seen as remarkable in these jaded times.  It reads like a sharp vision of looking backwards, a history of folly and stumbles.  The protagonist, SARS-CoV-2, proved wily, moving more rapidly than surveillance could detect it, ducking the monitors and seducing the examiners.  The rest of the actors in the show proved, to varying degrees, to be inept, indifferent and even callous.

Such attitudes were shared in a climate of prior warning.  Humanity has already faced events of mass viral mortality.  That there would eventually be a pandemic of this scale was being discussed well ahead of the novel coronavirus march.  But governments, planners and policy makers seemed unmoved.  When action took place, it was tardy.  “Although public health officials, infectious disease experts, and previous international commissions and reviews had warned of potential pandemics and urged robust preparations since the first outbreak of SARS, COVID-19 still took large parts of the world by surprise.”

The WHO itself is not spared a few chastising blows by the panel members.  The organisation’s Emergency Committee should have, they argued, declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern a week earlier than it did: on January 22, at its first meeting, rather than January 30, by which time there were already 98 cases in 18 countries outside China.  Not doing so also caused critical delays in mustering a global response.  “The meeting of the WHO IHR Emergency Committee called to discuss the outbreak on 22-23 January was split on whether to recommend that the outbreak be declared a PHEIC.”

A central theme emerges: communication.  And it is rather unsatisfactory.  “It is glaringly obvious that February 2020 was a lost month,” the report states.  Various Asian countries speedily responded, introducing intense testing and tracking regimes. But the WHO remained tentative.  Evidence was weighed, balanced, and considered.  Standard and sober as this was, the WHO did not consider convincing material that would prove to be beneficial.  One was the importance of wearing masks.

The result: a pandemic that busily infected 150 million people, killed over three million people, and exposed deep inequalities.  (Pandemics remain, historically, the great unmaskers.)  “Division and inequality between and within countries have been exacerbated, and the impact has been severe on people who are already marginalized and disadvantaged.”

The report, and its authors, are stern in mood. “If travel restrictions,” former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and panel co-chair combatively insists, “had been imposed more quickly, more widely, again that would have been a serious inhibition on the rapid transmission of the disease that remains the same today.”  Clark, for all the merit of that assertion, ignores the logistical nightmares, hub routes, transit points and freedom of movement principles of such blocs as the European Union.

Not all actors in the COVID-19 disaster show receive a lashing.  The conduct of clinicians within the last two weeks of December 2019 and January 2020 receives a nod of approval.  They showed “diligence” in noticing “clusters of unusual pneumonia”.  They sent samples for screening and “escalated their concerns about this cluster of unexplained disease to local health authorities.”

The panel also makes an assortment of recommendations.  They call “for an all-out-effort to reach the world’s population with vaccines within a year and set in place the infrastructure needed for at least 5 billion booster doses annually.”  They urge the application of “non-pharmaceutical public health measures systematically and rigorously in every country at the scale the epidemiological situation requires.”  High income countries should commit “at least one billion vaccine doses no later than 1 September 2021 and more than two billion doses by mid-2022” through the GAVI COVAX Advance Market Commitment.

The conventional model behind the making of vaccines is also challenged, with the panel insisting on establishing “a truly global end-to-end platform for vaccines, diagnostics, therapeutics, and essential supplies”.  Rather than leaving innovation to the market, vaccines and related products should be seen as public goods.  Unequal access to such products could be overcome through technology transfer, voluntary licensing and financing of regional manufacturing capacity.

Other suggestions point to a broader, health surveillance system that will not be hostage to national interests and clunky sovereignty.  “The emergence of COVID-19,” the report notes, “was characterized by a mix of some early and rapid action, but also by delay, hesitation, and denial”.  From this, an epidemic grew; from that, a pandemic.  To that end, it was suggested that “surveillance and alert systems at national, regional and global levels must be redesigned”, all should be “able to function at near-instantaneous speed.”  The WHO should be given greater powers and a higher budget.  Its officials should be permitted access with minimal notice.  Many governments are unlikely to agree.

Of some interest is the suggested Global Health Threats Council.  Stacked with former presidents and prime ministers of various high-, middle- and low-income countries, it would perform the role of moralising guardian, taking governments to task for not preparing for, or responding to, the public health emergencies as designated by health specialists.  Such a body, however, risks becoming a toothless entity with a megaphone.

The panel’s report has a title that sounds much like previous inquiries drawn from despair and destined to be lost: COVID-19: Make it the Last Pandemic.  It will be filed in the vault of aspirations along with those noble wars that went wrong with criminal stupidity, the victory by Christmas that never took place, and efforts of failed solidarity in sharing scientific discoveries.  “They are trying to grab a moment that everyone knows will pass pretty fast,” suggested Stephen Morrison of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.  Global public health responses, sporadic, erratic and politically divided, will do everything to impair any such realisation.  Nationalism continues to throb and disrupt.  However well contained the novel coronavirus is, another threat to public health will be lurking.

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Liz Cheney, Dick Cheney and the Rule of Law

One could not accuse US Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming of having a sense of irony. For some time, she has felt her party to be the hostage of a ghoulish monster who refuses to be slayed.  And she fears her party has fallen out of love for the rule of law.

In being ousted from the third spot in the leadership of the Republican Conference in the House, Cheney has found a new morality. In her floor speech, she called Donald Trump’s canard of a stolen election a “threat America has never seen before.”  Opposing Trump’s interpretation of the result was a “duty”. “I will not sit back and watch in silence, while others lead our party down a path that abandons the rule of law and joins in the former president’s crusade to undermine our democracy.”  After her speech, she told reporters that she would “do everything” she could “to ensure that the former president never gets anywhere near the Oval Office.”

Cheney’s seemingly shabby treatment led such papers as the Washington Post to remark that truth was again under assault. “Truth is the issue upon which Cheney has made her stand – truth and her unwillingness to be silent for the supposed good of the team.”  Peter Wehner, who served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes, saw the event as a “confirmation that the Republican party is diseased and dangerous, increasingly subversive and illiberal”.  Eric Lutz, writing in Vanity Fair, called the Cheney display “defiant”, laying “bare the cowardice of her colleagues who, with their vote on Wednesday, affirmed what had long been clear: The GOP is the cult of Trump now, and fealty the price of admission.”

This is gruesomely fascinating on a few levels, given that Cheney comes from a family rather snotty about such concepts as the rule of law, verisimilitude and the Constitution.  Her father Dick Cheney, the Vice Presidential dark operator in the administration of George W. Bush, was not exactly strong on such ideas, and proved rather subversive and illiberal in a number of ways. Old Dick, along with his lawyer David Addington and John Yoo of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, did much to read executive power in a manner most imperial in nature.

For Dick Cheney, US executive power needed to be restored after the damaging effects of Watergate and the Vietnam War.  The time that followed, he lamented to reporters on Air Force Two in 2005, proved to be “the nadir of the modern presidency in terms of authority and legitimacy”.

It is true to say that Trump also preferred a broad reading of executive power, one all too readily articulated by former Attorney General William Barr. But Cheney, Addington and Yoo were responsible for views that justified the bypassing and defanging of Congress, wiretapping of US citizens, torture of terrorist suspects, the establishment of military commissions, the breaching of international treaties and the waging of illegal wars.  Such conduct has caused more than a smattering of commentary urging the prosecution of both Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush for a range of offences in both domestic and international law.

It would be churlish to claim that a father’s blackened record should somehow compromise that of his daughter’s.  But the co-authored father and daughter work Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America repeats the old neoconservative interventionist sins that were so important in laying the ground for a Trump victory in 2016.  Father Dick and Daughter Liz supply an apologia for such murderous disasters as Iraq while piling into President Barack Obama whom they stop short of accusing of treason.  “The touchstone of his ideology – that America is to blame, and her power must be restrained – requires a wilful blindness about what America has done in the world.”

In 2009, Liz Cheney, along with fellow neoconservative Bill Kristol, co-founded Keep America Safe, an outfit steeped in a tattered worldview that proceeded to leave many Americans behind.  As Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic noted in a battering piece on Liz Cheney in 2013, “Most Americans understand that investing trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives in Iraq was a historic blunder.”  Not for Liz, who finds wars stirringly necessary.

Over the years, Rep. Cheney barely warranted a mention after securing the seat her father once occupied. As the third-ranking member of minority party leadership, she was a middleweight power with exaggerated expectations.  Then came President Trump.  The neoconservatives were outflanked.  Fires were lit, casting light upon her cause.  That cause, simple as ever, was an anti-Trump, using truth and democracy as crutches of polemical convenience.

To date, Rep. Cheney is pursuing a cause of martyrdom that is, like many such causes, futile.  It was a martyrdom that was “well-planned”, as Republican political consultant Keith Naughton noted in The Hill.  “There are no reports she actually worked the GOP caucus, canvassing and counting heads.  Cheney didn’t fight back, she planned to lose.”  In losing, she hopes to rebuild a neoconservative base that has withered into oblivion.

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Burned by the Diana Cult: The Fall of Martin Bashir

The interview was infamous, made his name and was bound to enrage.  It also received a viewing audience of 23 million people who heard a saucy tale of adultery, plots in the palace, and stories of physical and mental illness.  But the tarring and feathering of Martin Bashir for his 1995 Panorama programme featuring Princess Diana was always more than the scruples of a journalist and his interviewing methods.

Princess Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer, eternally committed to excoriating press coverage of his sister, brought pressure to bear on the BBC last year in allegations that Bashir had used forged bank documents to induce the interview.  The documents suggested that people were receiving cash to monitor the princess.  Bashir, Spencer accuses, sowed the seeds of concern that a conspiracy within Buckingham Palace was afoot against his sister.  Bashir, for his part, claimed that the documents in question had “no bearing whatsoever on the personal choice of Princess Diana to take part in the interview.” For Diana fans, such a detail is irrelevant.

In November, the BBC appointed retired Supreme Court judge Lord Dyson to revisit old ground, notably the 1996 investigation by Tony Hall, who found Bashir to have been “honest” and an “honourable man”.   Lord Dyson begged to differ.  “What Mr Bashir did,” the report states, “was not an impulsive act done in the spur of the moment.  It was carefully planned… What he did was devious and dishonest.  To dismiss his actions as no more than a mistake, unwise and foolish did not do justice to the seriousness of what he had done.”  Hall’s investigation was “flawed” and “woefully ineffective”.  The BBC had fallen “short of the high standards of integrity and transparency which are its hallmark” effectively instigating a cover up.

Figures have queued up in a feast of Bashir bashing.  John Birt, Director-General of the BBC at the time of the interview, called the journalist’s conduct “a shocking blot on the BBC’s enduring commitment to honest journalism; and it is a matter of the greatest regret that it has taken 25 years for the full truth to emerge.”

Prince William and Prince Harry have unsurprisingly joined the fray for their mother’s memory.  In his statement, the Duke of Cambridge accused the BBC of contributing “significantly to [Diana’s] fear, paranoia and isolation that I remember from those final years with her.”  She had been failed by both “a rogue reporter” and “leaders of the BBC who looked the other way rather than asking the tough questions.”  Prince Harry looked beyond the conduct of the public broadcaster, seeing it as part of “the ripple effect of a culture of exploitation and unethical practices ultimately took her life.”  Harry, it should be noted, is no fan of broad free speech protections. “I’ve got so much I want to say about the First Amendment as I sort of understand it,” he told actor Dax Shepard, the host of the Armchair Expert podcast, “but it is bonkers.”

Lord Dyson’s report, as with the Leveson Inquiry into the phone hacking conducted by such press outlets as the now defunct News of the World, risk becoming springboards for a broader agenda of censorship and press control.  The latter’s suggestion that the press be subjected to an “independent” and “voluntary” regulator created by statute caused alarm and did not sway the then Prime Minister David Cameron.  As Index on Censorship warned in 2013, “Any law which sets out criteria that the press must meet, by definition introduces some government or political control of the media.”

The press regulation agenda ignores the fact that journalism as practice can, even should, be unethical if the broader public interest demands it.  Going under cover, masking identities, concocting fables may be necessary to expose misconduct and villainy.  “There are cases, and undercover is one of them,” stated former Panorama editor Tom Giles to the House Communications Committee in 2012, “where technically, we break the rules.  Technically we break the law whether it is on privacy or on giving a misleading CV in order to ensure that we are able to go undercover.”  For Giles, there had to be “very clear prima facie evidence that this is something that is of significant public interest.”

The Communications Committee also heard similar testimony from Chris Birkett, Deputy Head of News and Executive Editor of Sky.  “For us, there are times when the only way to get the story is to do something that is contrary to the laws of the country in which we are doing journalism.”  His example: reporting on Syria.  “If you try to film openly, you will be beaten up and arrested, your camera will be smashed and you will be put into prison.”

This is not to say that a journalist has an inherent right to break the law.  Bashir might well have been prosecuted for forgery.  The issue is one of degree.  Nick Davies, who exposed the phone-hacking scandal in the pages of The Guardian, suggested that “all citizens have a right of conscience in extremis to say, ‘This is so important I’m going to break the law’.”

The question as to whether knowing the personal affairs of Princess Diana was in the public interest, or merely interesting to the public, will never go away.  This was not the issue of exposing the handiwork of war criminals, or the shady transactions of an underworld figure.  Bashir’s interview style and approach has always had a certain tabloid flavour.  But reporting on the activities of a modern constitutional monarchy is bound to blur the line.  According to Tessa Clarke, herself a former BBC Panorama reporter, “Bashir’s methods were neither exceptional nor unjustified – the marital affairs and behaviour of the heir to the throne is in the public interest.”  People do want to know what the royals are up to, while the royals are keen to be talked about as long as they control the narrative.

The eternal flame of the Diana Cult is one that constantly threatens purges and censorship.  Only hagiographers are welcome to the shrine.  Prince William is keen to take the purging further.  The interview, he demands, should be scrubbed from the historical record.  “It is my firm view that this Panorama programme holds no legitimacy and should never be aired again.”  The concern now is how far that purging will go in the battles over what can, or can’t, be reported.

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