Collision Between Geopolitics and Markets

Andy Langenkamp   |   October 13, 2014    9:04 AM ET

At the crossroads

"We come together at a crossroads between war and peace; between disorder and integration; between fear and hope," said US President Obama during his address to the United Nations. Stock markets still do not feel the same urgency. There is a huge gap between geopolitical reality and the financial markets.

Geopolitically, the world is on edge while global economic growth is mediocre; the OECD has revised growth expectations down for all major countries, apart from India. Therefore, a substantial reaction would not surprise. If (geo)political fires break out or flare up (and if they get enough oxygen), the markets could suffer burns.

No end to history

After the Cold War was over, it seemed as if international peace could be on the horizon. The idea being that the US would keep the world on course with a little bit of help from its allies. Most observers believed the world was becoming a more prosperous and peaceable place. Francis Fukuyama pronounced "The end of history" and proclaimed an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism.

A quick survey of the current global landscape reveals that the optimism of the 1990s and (to some extent) the early millennium years seems outdated. After the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the world needs to regain its political and economic balance. Add to this the relative weakening of the West, the ascendance of countries such as China, the renewed assertiveness of - for example - Japan and Russia, terrorist threats, and tensions at different levels of international relations.

A five level world

These levels can be classified as follows:

• Global: This level constitutes institutions like the UN and the IMF.

• Regional: The world is increasingly divided into regional blocs, for example the EU and NAFTA. On the one hand, this aids coordination and stability. At the same time, it tends to undermine global initiatives. For instance, attempts to agree on a global trade treaty.

• National: Having taken major steps in the past centuries, in recent decades the success of the traditional nation state seemed less certain. It was assumed that globalisation would cause boundaries to blur. Radical thinkers assumed that the nation state would become surplus to requirement. Globalisation has indeed changed the way countries interact in international politics, but it has also disenfranchised large numbers of people, which has led to a revival of the nation state. Especially in the aftermath of the economic crisis. Witness the nationalism in Japan and India. Another case in point is how, during the financial crisis, heads of states and governments bypassed the European Commission and Parliament as they worked around various treaties with intergovernmental agreements.

• Subnational: People are again inclined to look inwards, in response to the fallout of globalisation and the economic crisis. This tendency also applies within individual states. National governments increasingly fail to meet the demands and fulfill the wishes of the electorate so voters focus on their own regions.

• Individual: This may be the lowest level but it has a huge effect on the rest. Open borders make it easier for individuals to contact like-minded people in other countries. Of course, internet and mobile phones are the perfect tools. The Arab Revolutions - most of which have run hopelessly aground - partly gained momentum due to Facebook and other modern media and means of communication.

Failure and explosions all over

A number of players on the international chessboard find it easy to hop between the different levels, like terrorist movements and multinationals. They know how to use the possibilities and shortcuts of a fluid international system. By contrast, nation states struggle to get to grips with changing environments. It could be said that businesses, terrorist movements, and individuals are gaining power at the expense of national governments. Meanwhile, the latter have to go all out to gain a semblance of control (for example, through their intelligence services). Obama described the situation as, "the failure of our international system to keep pace with an interconnected world."

Or to quote the US Defence Secretary, "the world is exploding all over." This may be an exaggeration but in any case:

• The region between West Africa and Pakistan is very instable and acts as a breeding ground for a new generation of terrorists.

• Russia is taking an aggressive and expansive stance (partly in response to actions by the West).

• It remains to be seen if is the Asia-Pacific region is large enough to accommodate four great powers (the US, China, India, Japan); especially if nationalism continues to gain ground.

• In the West, the political and economic system could run aground. Globalisation has hit home in every way, but people have forgotten to globalise politics. The tensions between globalisation, democracy, and sovereignty will continue to create structural problems.

• The US is uncertain about how to interpret its role of global leader in a rapidly changing world. No other leaders have stepped forward to fill its shoes. In the meantime, we are nowhere close to a well-functioning new international system with fair roles for the likes of China.

If markets have already moved into bubble territory (as many fear), geopolitical triggers that could cause these balloons to burst could be just around the corner.

Former Top General's Ambitious Timeline To Beat Isis

Mehdi Hasan   |   October 8, 2014    3:14 PM ET

The West's war against IS could be "over in six months" if the US and UK governments were to put "boots on the ground", the former head of the British armed forces has said.

Speaking to the Huffington Post UK, General David Richards, who stepped down as Chief of the Defence Staff in 2013, warned it would be "naive" to try and defeat the so-called Islamic State (IS) without greater Western military involvement and said it was a mistake for David Cameron and Barack Obama to have pledged to "destroy", rather than merely "defeat", the terror group.

"If western boots were on the ground, if western armies were to be applied to the problem [of Islamic State], it could be over in six months," Richards told the HuffPost UK.

Richards - now Lord Richards of Herstmonceux - said he wasn't calling for UK boots on the ground right now - "that's not going to happen, clearly" - but nor was he opposed in principle to the idea of UK ground forces participating in the campaign against IS. "The idea that you can make [the Free Syrian Army or the Peshmerga] successful in the time we have available to us... without much more active and fulsome western involvement is, I think, naive."

According to the retired general, without the deployment of US or UK ground forces, "you've got to equip, train, mentor this regional army [of Syrians and Kurds] that’s going to do the same. With the proper amount of support, with our airpower.. then it could be still done within a year."

Richards said it was "unwise" for Obama and Cameron to have spoken about "destroying" IS, also known as Isis and Isil. "That I think is impossible to do. It’s very hard to destroy an idea. But I think you can defeat it."

Meanwhile, tackling the root causes of Muslim extremism in the long run, said Richards, is "essentially a political, social, economic, religious problem, it's not one [for] soldiers".

Asked if the US and UK governments should take some responsibility for the threat posed by ISIS, having invaded Iraq in 2003 and created the conditions inside that country in which jihadist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS have since flourished, Richards agreed and said he believed that history would judge the Iraq war to be "a grand strategic error".

david cameron barack obama

Richards thinks Obama and Cameron were unwise to speak of 'destroying' IS

In 2006, Richards took charge of the Nato operation in Afghanistan, becoming the first British general to command US forces in a conflict theatre since the Second World War. He told HuffPost UK that "many thousands" of Afghan civilians had died as a result of the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 and conceded that "we haven't defeated the Taliban in the traditional sense".

Nonetheless, for Richards, the Afghan war could still be judged a "successful operation" because, he claimed, the Taliban wouldn't be back in power anytime soon and Afghans now had "hope about their future".

As chief of the defence staff in 2011, Richards coordinated Britain's involvement in the Nato air war against the Colonel Gaddafi regime in Libya. Referring to the current post-war chaos in Libya, Richards said "one of the big deductions" in the wake of the Arab Spring is that "we should just be a bit cautious about imposing our own [political] solutions on people who are not necessarily up for it or ready for it".

He said military action appealed to prime ministers such as Tony Blair and David Cameron who "enjoy being influential" and want to make "a difference" on the global stage. Sending troops into battle is "quite a drug" for such leaders, he told HuffPost UK, adding: "What I have been saying is that if you want to do that, for goodness sake, please do it properly, full-bloodiedly. Don't play at it."

On the crisis in Ukraine, Richards said it was "right" not to go to war over Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea but that if Russia took military action against a Nato member country in the region then "Nato would have to respond militarily. That, I think, is a message we have to send Putin."

However, the former chief of the defence staff said he didn't believe "what’s happening in Ukraine today was Putin's design. He actually had a solution through an acquiescent president, who was democratically elected, we forget, when he was removed, effectively in a coup d'état."

Richards criticised the "liberal Western media" for turning a blind eye to the fact that former Ukrainian president, and Putin ally, Viktor Yanukovych was elected and then removed from office without due process. Western journalists would have made much more of a fuss, he said, "if it was someone else, which I always find a little bit bizarre".

The retired general said the West had "misunderstood", "ignored" and "almost stiff-armed" Russia since the 1990s and it was important to bring the country back "into the family of nations" via a "federal solution in Ukraine".

"I am not an apologist for Russian aggression.. but I do understand Russia.. and you have to go to empathise with their position.. very emotional, very patriotic, willing put up with a lot of hardship for their kith and kin."

There has been speculation as to whether Richards, the author of a new memoir called 'Taking Command', is about to embark upon a political career - his daughter has worked for David Cameron.

general david richards

Could General Richards end up in government?

Asked if he would consider joining government as a junior minister, the crossbench peer and retired general replied: "No, I wouldn’t be a junior minister. I'd be joining at Cabinet level.. In my judgment, someone of my background.. you can't go and be a junior minister."

Richards, however, added: "I don’t think it's a serious proposition so I don’t entertain it."

Mehdi Hasan's full interview with General David Richards

The Islamic State, Ebola, and the Appeal of Conspiracy

James Snell   |   October 8, 2014    2:08 AM ET

This week, the famous feminist and formerly respected thinker Naomi Wolf took to Facebook to voice her concerns about an issue of vital importance. She, like many others, was concerned with the Islamic State, and the video evidence it likes to create in order to document its brutality. Unlike many others, however, her message was not one of shock or commiseration. Instead, and under the guise of innocently 'check[ing] and confim[ing] a story' - an excuse for credulity disguised as scepticism which is common among the conspiracy-minded - she 'strongly impl[ied] that the videos had been staged by the US government and that the victims and their parents were actors,' in the words of Middle East writer Max Fisher.

In reacting to this suggestion, the declarative is warranted. Such accusations of fakery are just as credulous and just as ill-informed as those levelled at events of historical fact, like the moon landings or the terrible events of September 11th, 2001. What these new ravings involve, though, is a degree of nastiness which is not normally associated with crackpot ramblings of this sort. Neil Armstrong didn't meet his death on camera; Buzz Aldrin's family did not have to go through the grieving process in public - and certainly not under the ever watchful eye of self-proclaimed 'experts' eager to declare their sorrows insincere and their emotions illegitimate.

For some, Wolf's intervention appeared to mark a departure from the normal output of a famous face and an important literary figure. Sadly, this is not the case. This rot spreads far further than that; she has voiced similar sentiments before. In an article for The Guardian in 2012, Wolf suggested that there exists in America a 'totally integrated corporate-state repression of dissent'. To such a proposition, the obvious question practically leaps, fully formed, from the tongue: If such a system exists as you say it does - one in which legitimate and popular protests are crushed by an tangle of corporate and governmental interests - why are you allowed to point it all out so publicly and, dare I say, so hyperbolically?

To this question, there is no serious answer. If one attempts to deflect the probe, one would look as absurd as Alex Jones, who was skilfully cornered on the BBC's Sunday Politics by Times columnist David Aaronovitch last year. If Jones's ramblings are correct, it was stated, an interesting question is raised. He is allowed to say these things and remain alive, Aaronovitch said. What other conclusion can be drawn than the one which states that he must therefore be part of the conspiracy?

Ebola, another terrifying story shaping the world's media, has also served as the focal point for a fair few ideas too outlandish and un-evidenced to deserve the term 'theory'. Ebola is a disease, a contagious malady which is sweeping West Africa. It has also been spotted in the United States and Spain. Diseases often cause panic; feelings tend to run high when fearsome contagions can supposedly spread silently and undetected, bringing death and misery in their wake. This swamp of fear, therefore, becomes the ideal and perpetual breeding ground for conspiracy. The febrile climate is ruthlessly and cynically exploited by individuals and websites too disreputable for me to wish to endorse by using their names.

Finding them isn't hard. Reading their litanies of untruth, so concocted as to spread the maximum terror and mistrust and discontent, is not an arduous undertaking.  I would advise against it. (For the record, Wolf also used her Facebook presence to opine on the Ebola crisis and the response of the US government. She theorised that the sending of US troops to fight the disease was part of a plan for a 'militarized Africa'. I can only hope that such remarks are self-discrediting)

This conspiratorial mindset comes in many guises. It can be mild or acute, insane or insidious, good-natured or ill-tempered. It includes the belief that national terror threat levels are the tool of big government, desperate to keep us afraid and subservient - even though such indicators are decided by an independent agency. It fixates upon material and natural resources - 'war for oil' being a favourite slogan - and those in thrall to a similar worldview made elaborate claims about Scotland's oil wealth when seeking to offset the acknowledged costs of independence.

The facts, figures and justifications behind individual conspiracy theories are almost immaterial; it just doesn't matter what convinces you that the Middle Ages never really existed or that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim or, heaven forefend, a foreigner.

What are interesting, however, are the reasons why people are willing to attach themselves uncritically to insane hypotheses and unorthodox interpretations.

The desire for knowledge is a basic human trait, and a strong one at that; and it does not manifest itself purely in a wish to absorb information. When there is a hint of official obfuscation or the telltale tantalising promises of 'the real story,' people will be interested in anything which claims to tell them the truth. This instinct is not an inherently negative one, although it can be supplemented by a slightly more selfish desire to be ahead of the mainstream and, therefore, ahead of the competition. That character flaw can be seen, for example, in any high-handed dismissal of 'the mainstream media' and anyone who is unfortunate enough to believe the lies of this supposed monolith.

Conspiracies and the instincts which drive their survival are understandable, even interesting. But this understanding does not in any way depreciate the tremendously negative effects their propagation, especially by someone as well known and even respected as Naomi Wolf, can have on the way we see important events, and even the world at large.

What this episode should remind us is that scepticism, real scepticism, means exercising true judgement with regard to gathering news and information. Critical thinking is the key, and not the promises of the lone website, or celebrity, or individual, which claims to have all the answers available for anyone who will simply sit back, suspend their judgement and listen.

James Snell is a Contributing Editor of The Libertarian

'As A General, I Could Literally Change The Fortunes Of A Nation'

Mehdi Hasan   |   October 7, 2014    1:14 PM ET

"If western boots were on the ground," David Richards, the former head of the British armed forces tells me, "if western armies were to be applied to the problem [of the so-called Islamic State, or IS], it could be over in six months."

It is a bold claim from a bold soldier. The retired general served as the Chief of the Defence Staff between 2010 and 2013, in which capacity he coordinated the British military effort to topple Colonel Gaddafi in Libya in 2011; won plaudits for defeating the thugs and hand-choppers of Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front as a brigadier in 2000; and commanded Nato forces against the Taliban in Afghanistan between 2006 and 2008 where, as he proudly writes in the introduction to his new memoir 'Taking Command', "I became the first British general to command American troops at theatre level since the Second World War."

He doesn't lack allies - or admirers, for that matter. In the book's foreword, military historian and journalist Sir Max Hastings calls Richards "a wonderfully grown-up general.. a remarkable man". The book's cover endorsements include quotes from celebrated US general David Petraeus ("the UK's most significant soldier-scholar-statesman of the new century") and novelist Frederick Forsyth ("a consummate soldier").

I meet General Richards - now Lord Richards of Herstmonceux, a cross-bench member of the upper house - in the rather grand environs of the Army and Navy Club on Pall Mall, where plush, high-ceilinged meeting rooms are named after the likes of Nelson and Wellington.

Sitting across from me, in a blue blazer and red-and-blue striped tie, the former commanding officer of the British military listens carefully to my questions before answering with them in his deep, and deeply authoritative, voice. I begin by asking Richards to clarify his headline-grabbing remarks in a recent BBC interview with Andrew Marr in which he called for "boots on the ground" in northern Iraq, as part of the West's campaign to counter IS, also known as Isis or Isil. Is he calling for British boots on the ground?

"No, no," he says, waving his hand. "What I'm essentially saying is.. wars, historically, have never been won by air power alone. That's self-evident but clearly it needs saying because certain people wish it could be won by airpower alone."

Certain people? "Well, many politicians are very leery after.. Iraq and Afghanistan to commit to the size of expedition that the aims they have set themselves, to defeat Isis, actually imply. The ends, i.e. defeating Isis, are out of kilter with the ways and means that are being applied."

The general checks himself. "I am all for the bare-bones strategy that President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron have described, which is essentially raising, training and equipping a regional army, for want of a better phrase. Peshmerga, FSA [Free Syria Army], whoever.."

Obama and Cameron have both spoken of "destroying" IS, but Richards thinks such overblown rhetoric is a mistake. The challenge, he explains, is "getting that [regional] army not to defend but to contain, essentially contain the problem.. but then you've got to attack. Then you've got to quote ‘defeat’ and some perhaps unwisely have talked about ‘destroying’. That I think is impossible to do. It’s very hard to destroy an idea. But I think you can defeat it."

How does he define defeat? Forcing IS to surrender the territory it currently controls? "Yes [and] to squeeze them into strategic irrelevance."

I ask him for a further clarification: is he opposed to deploying UK troops on the ground in principle? "I am not opposed to them [deploying in principle]," he replies. "I don’t see any requirement for them to be right up front in the front line. But I do see a great requirement for western military assistance, in terms of logistics, command and control.. the provision of niche areas of activity, intelligence, so on and so forth. The idea that you can make these armies successful in the time we have available to us.. without much more active and fulsome western involvement is, I think, naive."

Richards also told the BBC's Marr on Sunday that UK military action against IS targets in Syria was "a no brainer". What about the legality question? Wouldn't it be a crime under international law to bomb a sovereign state without UN approval?

"Well, okay, but our Arab allies and the Americans seem to think it’s legal. The Syrian regime is not actually stopping it. They're not retaliating [or] shooting down American aircraft for example.. I'm not an expert on [the law].. from a military perspective alone, it is a no brainer. You can’t fight half a war."

Richards thinks IS are beatable on the ground - given the right level of commitment. "I don’t think militarily [IS] is a great challenge. If western armies were to do what we did back in 2003 it would be easy to take back that ground [from IS] and occupy that territory. The issue is: are the political foundations for such action now in place? And that’s the difficulty."

In pure combat terms, the former chief of the defence staff wants the fight against IS to be treated as a "traditional military campaign" which is "what we're good at". He points out that IS have "got tanks [and] artillery, they’re holding ground. They're going to fight to keep that ground.. so the idea that this is some sort of counter-terror campaign is the first big error. It’s not.. it’s a conventional problem which needs to be fought conventionally."

He says it'd take "six months" if western ground forces were deployed but "that's not going to happen, clearly." Both Obama and Cameron have pledged to avoid putting US or UK boots on the ground (aside from a small continent of Special Forces operatives). Therefore, explains Richards, "you've got to equip, train, mentor this regional army that’s going to do the same. With the proper amount of support, with our airpower.. then it could be still done within a year. The key thing after that is that during the period when we prepare that army we are getting the politics right; the [Iraqi] Sunni tribes in particular see what’s coming their way is a much better alternative to what Isis is offering."

cameron obama

Richards is critical of Obama and Cameron's opposition to 'boots on the ground'

I mention former US defence secretary Leon Panetta's recent assessment that the fight against IS might take up to 30 years. Richards shakes his head. "When someone like Leon Panetta... talks about 30 years, he’s talking about changing a mindset where at the moment thousands of disenfranchised young men, presumably, find it attractive to go and fight for Isis. What we have got to do is make it unattractive and give them an alternative."

He pauses. "It’s essentially a political, social, economic, religious problem, it's not one [for] soldiers."

Isn't it also a consequence of Anglo-American foreign policy, too? Our support for dictators and despots, our invasions and occupations of Muslim-majority countries, which have acted as recruiting sergeants for Islamist terror groups?

The former chief of the defence staff chooses his words carefully. "I absolutely buy the case for examining the issue... how we now confront them, which is why people are leery about putting any western boots on the ground - I think over-leery [as], people in the region are saying ‘That’s the help we need’ - but [let's] do it cleverly, do it subtly. Don’t hang around after the event. Be generous in victory. All these sorts of things that our forbears learned."

Some have suggested that the US and UK governments should take some direct responsibility for the threat posed by IS, having attacked Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 2003 and created the conditions inside that country in which jihadist groups such as Al Qaeda and IS have since flourished. Richards doesn't disagree with that assessment. "With the benefit of hindsight.. the invasion of Iraq in 2003 [will] certainly be viewed in 10 to 15 years time as a grand strategic error."

Richards may have had his doubts about Iraq in March 2003, but he tells me that he firmly supported the invasion of Afghanistan from the get-go in October 2001. In his memoir, he calls the country a moral and strategic "vital interest" for the UK and proudly claims that "not one terrorist incident has been planned or executed from Afghanistan since we deployed there in 2001".

Of course, there are plenty of terrorism experts who believe our military presence in Helmand and other Afghan provinces helped bolster the Taliban and exacerbated the global terror threat from Al Qaeda and its affiliates. Does the general really believe the world is a safer place as a result of the Afghan war? Safer than it was on, say, 10 September 2001?

He leans back. "That's a different issue. I don't know the answer but you cant prove it isn't and I cant prove it is safer. If we had not confronted Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and they'd got away with it, the chances are they'd have repeated [9/11] or tried to repeat it. I don’t know but you don’t know either. From [Afghanistan] at least, there has been no terror plot. They have been squeezed out of their ability to operate like that."

What about all the Al Qaeda franchises which have sprung up around the world since then? From Yemen to north Africa, from Iraq to - most recently - India? "I know they've spread across the world but you don’t know they wouldn’t have done that anyway," is the general's rather defensive retort.

And the Taliban, like Al Qaeda, still exist, despite 13 years of conflict, more than 450 British troops killed and billions of pounds spent. The Taliban weren't defeated or destroyed, were they? How can anyone, therefore, describe the Afghan war as a victory for Nato or the West?

"I haven’t said it is a victory," he says quietly. "I have said it is a successful operation."

general david richards

Richards was in charge of Nato's Afghan war and continues to defend it

This feels like an exercise in pedantry. In practical terms, how does a "victory" differ from a "successful operation"? I can't help but be reminded of a recent Times review of the general's memoir: "There's a fair amount of score settling, as former foes in Whitehall get the equivalent of a silent commando dagger between the shoulder blades and are damned with the faintest of praise.. As with all such autobiographies, Richards is here to defend his legacy."

He calls Afghanistan a "successful operation" so I respond by pointing out the mess that the country is currently in: a resurgent Taliban, the opium harvest at a record high and civilian deaths on the increase.

For Richards, however, the recent presidential election was a vindication of the Nato strategy. "Eight million Afghans very courageously came out to reject the Taliban recently. Don’t they need our support? Deserve our support after the hell they went through in the 1990s, because we neglected them then? I feel quite good about that."

What about the Afghans who went through "hell" as a result of the Anglo-American occupation? Who were tortured at Bagram airbase? Or killed in Nato air strikes?

"The vast majority [of Afghans] have spoken. Eight million people said we don’t want the Taliban," he repeats, before adding: "We're not perfect.. but.. no western forces have gone out there by design to blow up civilians. We've had the odd bad egg.. and of course I bitterly regret. But we cannot be placed in the same moral box as the Taliban."

Some might say that 'we are better than the Taliban' is a pretty low bar to clear. They might also say that the fact the Taliban haven't been defeated, despite the best efforts of the most powerful military alliance the world has ever seen, is a pretty damning indictment of the strategy formulated by Western politicians and generals.

Richards concedes that "we haven't defeated the Taliban in the traditional sense" but believes the Taliban will never get back into power" in Kabul. "We have given a whole generation or two of Afghans hope about their future," he says. "I think you're at risk of looking two much at the negative and not enough at the positive.. So, the jury is out. But things may not be as bad as you think."

The US general, Tommy Franks, once famously remarked, when asked how many civilians had been killed as a result of the invasion of Iraq, "We don't do body counts." Does Richards "do" such counts? Can he tell me how many civilians have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001?

"Depends which statistics you believe."

Well, which ones does he believe?

"It’s probably.." He pauses. "It’s in the many thousands," he continues. "I keep going back to the fact that the Afghan people had the opportunity this summer to reject democracy and say ‘Taliban, come back’ and they didn’t. They did the opposite.. that is the metric I would hang on to. They want to stay with us and they want us to stay with them."

Richards may be guilty of over-spinning the successes in Afghanistan. A 2013 poll of Afghans, for example, found three out of four of them "say they would be afraid when encountering international forces".

Another recent Anglo-American war that the general was intimately involved in, and that looked at the time like a clear-cut victory but now looks a blood-stained failure, is the 2011 conflict in Libya. The post-Gaddafi government-in-exile is hiding out in a car ferry; Islamist militias battle for control of major cities; Gulf states launch air strikes on militia-held enclaves.

Yet Richards, curiously, describes Libya in his memoir as a "qualified success". Does he regret using that phrase?

"It was a tactical success, that’s why I said it was a ‘qualified success’," comes the reply. "We achieved our immediate war aims."

He continues: "This goes back to a bigger issue about the Arab Spring and the stage of development in which many of these counties are. Someone described it as ‘cultural imperialism’, that our Western-style democracy is the right one for these countries. Like most liberal people, I’d like to think that it is but I suspect one of the big deductions is that we should just be a bit cautious about imposing our own solutions on people who are not necessarily up for it or ready for it without sounding, I hope, too condescending."

Here, the general seems to echo the David Cameron of opposition, who once said: "You cannot drop democracy on a country from 30,000 feet." The David Cameron in government, however, like his prime ministerial predecessor but one, Tony Blair, seems much more messianic, much keener on using military action and, specifically, air power, as a key tool of British foreign policy. Did the former chief of the defence staff get a similar sense of messianism and complete faith in the hard power of military force from those two prime ministers, I wonder, when he served under them?

For Blair and Cameron, argues Richards, "there are bad things happening in the world and they would like, with others, to do something about it. I think they do enjoy being influential, feeling that together with others they are making a difference. It's quite a drug. What I have been saying is that if you want to do that, for goodness sake, please do it properly, full-bloodiedly. Don't play at it."

In March, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, provoking a massive international crisis and warnings of "World War 3".

Does Richards believe there is a viable military option for the West vis a vis Russia? "Obama and Cameron have said we're not going to go to war over Ukraine and I think that’s right. We have to understand that Ukraine is very, very important to Russia, emotionally, historically, it was part of Russia for hundreds of years, which is why they were never going to allow Crimea to become part of this new Ukraine."

However, he adds, "what we must make clear to President Putin is you can do so much there but you are going to pay a penalty and, secondly, don’t even think about breaching the [Nato] Article 5 guarantee because in that case you're in a different league."

Would such a breach trigger a military response by the West against Russia?

"Well it would have to," he says with a shrug. "My own reading, and I know a number of learned Russians with whom I have got a relationship, is that’s not their intention. I don’t actually think what’s happening in Ukraine today was Putin's design. He actually had a solution through an acquiescent president, who was democratically elected, we forget, when he was removed, effectively in a coup d'état."

Richards criticises the "liberal Western media" for turning a blind eye to the fact that former Ukrainian president, and Putin ally, Viktor Yanukovych was elected in a free election and then removed from office without due process. They would have made much more of a fuss, he says, "if it was someone else, which I always find a little bit bizarre".

The general thinks the West has "misunderstood" Russia. "We lost great opportunities in the 1990s to bring her into the family of nations when we should have done. We sort of ignored her, almost stiff-armed her. We had another go in the early 2000s when Putin came to power and made overtures, and again we didn’t really take him up on [them]."

vladimir putin

The West has 'misunderstood' and 'ignored' Russia and Vladimir Putin, says Richards

Perhaps recognising that he might be slammed as a Putin supporter by hawks in the West for making such comments, he quickly adds: "I am not an apologist for Russian aggression.. but I do understand Russia.. and you have to go to empathise with their position.. very emotional, very patriotic, willing put up with a lot of hardship for their kith and kin."

As for Putin, "I think we've got to make sure that he knows there are penalties. I personally think there is.. a federal solution in Ukraine. It’s absolutely vital, as I am glad to say that no lesser authority.. than Henry Kissinger is saying, that we deal with the problem in Ukraine and bring back Russia into the family of nations."

And if the Russians were foolish or reckless enough to attack a Nato member country, perhaps a Baltic nation, what then?

"The Article 5 guarantees that an attack on one is an attack on all and we will respond appropriately [and] militarily. This is into speculation but if the Russians - and I don’t for one minute think they are.. unwise enough to do it - were to attack visibly a Nato nation, Nato would have to respond militarily. That, I think, is a message we have to send Putin."

Throughout the interview, time and again, Richards reminds me that he is a "soldier, not a politician".

In his memoir, the former head of Britain's armed forces reveals some of the sharper exchanges that he had with the country's elected prime minister. During the Libya conflict, for example, after the general told a BBC interviewer that he was wary of the legal case for targeting Colonel Gaddafi himself, an irritated Cameron told him to keep quiet: "You do the fighting, I'll do the talking."

On another occasion, during the same conflict in 2011, Richards says he bluntly told the PM that "being in the Eton Combined Cadet Force" was no qualification for running a foreign war.

So, is he maybe interested in a political career himself? He smiles. "You're the third journalist in the past 24 hours who has asked me that," says the general. "The answer is ‘No’. I've learned one thing: if you want to exercise real influence then you probably have to be in politics."

But isn't he already "in politics" as a member of the House of Lords? "No, as a member of the House of Lords.. I'm simply a voice with some relevant experience... But I'm not a politician, I'm a parliamentarian."

So he would turn down a job offer from the prime minister? He wouldn't, for example, consider a job as a junior defence minister?

"No, I wouldn’t be a junior minister," he says, with a laugh. "I'd be joining at Cabinet level." There's an awkward pause. "This is idle speculation." Another pause. "In my judgment, someone of my background.. you can't go and be a junior minister."

So he has thought about it then. "It’s gone through my mind.. I don’t think it's a serious proposition so I don’t entertain it."

What made him go for a military career in the first place? "Well my family were in it, my brother, my uncle, my cousin. They had a good life. I liked soldiers. I liked the environment, the people. I can't say I joined the army to make a decisive difference because you don’t. You join it for much more mundane reasons, like travel."

Nevertheless, he tells me, "I did stay in the army on a number of occasions when I could have been drawn from it. I almost became a journalist.. I thought about becoming a diplomat. But by then I'd decided that.. [on] quite a meaningful scale, and this came home to me in Sierra Leone, I could literally change the fortunes of a nation."

He is also, as one would expect of a former chief of the defence staff, a firm believer in "the morality and necessity of armed force". Richards explains that "there are some people out there who are more brutal then I ever realised and there's a vast majority of us who just want protection from the bully. And armed forces, well-deployed and well-led, can provide that."

What about those occasions when we, the UK, the British army, British soldiers, are the bullies? Or, at least, are perceived to be the bullies?

"We should never do that."

But we do, don't we? Look at what happened in Iraq, for example. "Well, Iraq sadly is an aberration," he says, before citing what he believes to be more morally-just wars in the Falklands, in 1982, and Sierra Leone, in 2000. In the latter country, says the general, "we stopped bloodthirsty men from cutting off hands and legs of a whole load of people".

Nonetheless, in all wars, especially modern wars in which there is a heavy reliance on air power, civilians are killed, aren't they? Women and children. Noncombatants. As a general who has commanded troops in conflict zones from west Africa to south Asia, do the deaths of innocents as the result of his own orders keep him up at night? Does it haunt him?

"It doesn’t haunt me but it weigh on my conscience."

Even now, in his retired life?

"Yes."

Richards says he would like to think that "the decisions I took were very carefully weighed up and the risks were understood and accepted but we strove very hard to avoid the thing you're talking about. But I am sad to say there will have been errors, there will have been troops under my command who didn't act as judiciously."

Nevertheless, the general is defiant: "If you believe in the greater good, then it probably was a necessary part of defending an idea, a people, whatever it was I trying to do."

'Islam Is Peace' - But Islam Is Also Isis!

Inna Shevchenko   |   October 7, 2014    9:35 AM ET

At first it might sound evil, but when ISIS started their terrible massacres I felt hope. I was hoping that this time we would not mess it up and would finally stop ignoring this abnormal violence, that we would get enough bravery to fight the real problem, which is not today's murderers, like ISIS, but the ideology that will keep bringing us new killers tomorrow.

My hopes were rapidly deteriorated. Again we heard all these hysterical "Islam is peace", "IS is not Islamic", "stop Islamophobia". This dangerous hypocrisy brings me to wonder if we will colonize Mars before being able to criticize religion and admit the objective fact that religion teaches to kill?

Islam might be peace for some, surely, but Islam is also ISIS. And this should be finally declared without any barriers. But as we see, it's still not the case.

In his speech responding to the horrific murder of the journalist James Foley, President Obama said: "ISIS speaks for no religion... and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just God would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day. ISIS has no ideology of any value to human beings..."

Sam Harris answered on his website: " It may be true that no faith teaches people to massacre innocents exactly - but innocence, as the President surely knows, is in the eye of the beholder. Are apostates "innocent"? Blasphemers? Polytheists? Islam has the answer, and the answer is "no." "

In the same hysterical way, French authorities demanded mass media stop using the word "Islamic" to qualify ISIS, and furthermore not to call the terrorist group ISIS in order to avoid insulting French Muslims, whereas many participate in ISIS's jihad in Iraq and Syria.

All this is keeping us from progress and future safety. Not admitting that ISIS is an Islamic group that is strictly following Quran's teachings is agreeing on more terror and killings against unbelievers, not fanatic muslims or followers of other religions than Islam.

Bill Maher, an outspoken atheist and famous American TV-host declared in his show last week that "vast numbers of Muslims around the world believe that humans deserve to die for merely holding a different idea, or drawing a cartoon, or writing a book, or eloping with the wrong person."

He added: "Not only does the Muslim world have something in common with ISIS, it has too much in common with ISIS."

All this can of course be called "Islamophobia" and an "insult to peaceful Muslims" and it surely will be. Let me ask - until when will politicians and opinion makers support this intellectual bankruptcy in which every criticism of the doctrine of Islam is seen as an insult towards Muslims as people? Why are we fine with criticizing other ideologies and not changing their names to avoid insulting their peaceful followers? Why aren't we attacked in this way for pointing violence in any other ideology than Islam? That's ridiculous.

Whereas I know many will argue that Islam doesn't teach killings and is a totally peaceful religion, by matter of fact, the Quran has more than 100 verses calling Muslims to war with nonbelievers for the sake of Islamic rule.

Here are a few examples:

Quran (2:191-193) - "And kill them wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out. And Al-Fitnah [disbelief] is worse than killing...
Quran (9:14) - "Fight against them so that Allah will punish them by your hands and disgrace them and give you victory over them and heal the breasts of a believing people.

Moreover, some verses are teaching how to punish unbelievers, commanding to behead, mutilate and kill infidels wherever they may be hiding.

Quran (5:33) - "The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement"

Muslims who do not join the fight are called 'hypocrites' and warned that Allah will send them to Hell if they do not join the slaughter.

Quran (4:95) - "Not equal are those believers who sit (at home) and receive no hurt, and those who strive and fight in the cause of Allah with their goods and their persons. Allah hath granted a grade higher to those who strive and fight with their goods and persons than to those who sit..
Quran (9:5) - "So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them..."

Finally, the Quran instructions are not linked to any historical context or specific situation as wartime etc. They are part of the eternal, unchanging words of Allah, and just as relevant or subjective as anything else in the Quran.

Islam teaches Quran (4:76) - "Those who believe fight in the cause of Allah..." and this is what ISIS jihadists are doing as faithful Muslims.

A Crisis of Confidence - Can Our Government Be Trusted?

Jon-Christopher Bua   |   October 6, 2014   12:00 AM ET

There have been a rash of outrageous breaches of the public trust relating to national and international security including:

Failure of the US Secret Service to protect the President and the First Family.

Failure of the Dallas Hospital and federal, state and local officials to initially detect the first person in the US infected with ebola.

Failure of our government to protect our young children who are sick and dying from the enterovirus.

Failure to identify ISIL as a real threat.

Failure to identify Khorasan as a real threat.

Failure to realize the Iraqi Army when challenged would simply fall apart.

Failure to understand Putin would annex Crimea.

Failure to understand the Putin would invade Ukraine.

Failure of the department of veterans affairs to serve and support our returning Veterans health care concerns.

Failure to properly test the Obamacare Website before its launch.

Failure to protect the privacy of US citizens in the NSA "Spying Program" designed to get terrorist.

Failure of our federal, state and local governments to protect our borders from illegal immigrants who have criminal records.

Failure of our immigration services to keep track of individuals who enter the country legally, overstay their visas and evade the authorities with the intent to cause harm.

Failure to identify mentally deranged individuals who cause mass killings in our schools, on our military bases and in our communities.

Failure to identify and discipline members of our local police forces who are prone to use extreme measures including the beatings and killings of individuals being apprehended or in custody.

Failure of our local law enforcement and health care services to coordinate efforts to identify and arrest individuals who abduct and murder our young and vulnerable women and girls.

Failure of our media organizations to delve more deeply into these question and serve the public interest.

Failure of all the administrations past and present to tell us all that they know and not just what they want us to hear.

Failure of the public and those individuals who actually vote to hold the media and the government's "Feet to the Fire" each and every day.

At the moment the world appears to be spinning out of control with seemingly no one who can be trusted to "Be In Charge."

It is now less than one month to Election Day for the 2014 Mid-Terms, where control of Congress is up for grabs and except for the politicians themselves and the so-called pundits who actually make their living off this stuff...no one really seems to care.

The public is scared, disappointed and simply fed up with their government's inability to Do Its Job!

Maybe they believe it does not matter who wins.

Whether they are Republicans, Democrats or independents, the public thinks they are all running for their own self interests and not to do a job for the people they represent.

The US Congress has its lowest rating ever - locked in never-ending gridlock and dysfunction!!!

This is by no means a partisan issue. Although Republicans, Democrats and Independents do view these failures differently.

Republicans generally believe that government should be very limited - supporting a strong military, protecting the borders, etc. while standing for little or no regulations, allowing unfettered access for business to flourish in the "free market". They think everything else should be left up to the states and the local governments to work out.

There is a flaw with this reasoning since many problems of public heath and safety require collective attention, action and cooperation.

These emergencies cannot be contained within the borders of a state.

The Republicans in Congress have stripped the government of much of the funding for what they see as "non-essential services".

It would be hard to imagine how individual states could effectively handle a challenge like Ebola and keep it from spreading nationally.

Democrats on the other hand, believe that the government can and should be a force for good to make people's lives better. They believe it can level the playing field and provide opportunities for all to succeed.

As a result they see harsh budget cuts as the real reason the government can no longer function properly and do its job.

For example, take the way some in Congress view the Ebola epidemic.

At this moment the US does not have a Surgeon General - the Republicans have not approved Obama's choice for this position, and the Democrats are making "political hay" out of this.

The top Republicans contenders for the 2016 Presidential Race think the Obama Administration is not doing enough to prevent the Ebola Virus for becoming a national emergency....Some even want all flights stopped from the hardest hit countries immediately.

The Democrats, on the other hand, seem to be focusing on the US and international response to the disease at its source. They think that banning flights will make it harder to do this and will cause further hardship including economic damage to those poor countries already struggling to control the disease.

Both groups raise good points, but once again seem more interested in gaining a political advantage from this terrible disease than actually addressing the problems it poses.

Clearly the proper role that government should take in these difficult situations is a debate worth having... No one is having it.

Instead the politicians are home campaigning, raising oodles of cash - focused on keeping their own jobs.

Perhaps the voting public is simply overwhelmed with too many crises of their own at home like holding down their job, paying their bills including college loans, keeping their kids safe and educated, looking after their ageing parents, etc., to keep track of all these other issues.

Or maybe they have just lost total confidence in the ability of those they elected to represent them to actually get the job done!

Iraq and Syria: A Better Way

Robin Lustig   |   October 4, 2014   12:00 AM ET

In May of last year, President Obama announced that future US air strikes against suspected al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan and Afghanistan would be authorised only when there was a "near certainty" that civilians wouldn't be harmed.

The new policy was in response to growing hostility to the strikes, especially in Pakistan, where several hundred civilians are believed to have been killed by US military action. It is, after all, quite difficult to persuade people that you're trying to help them confront a terrorist threat if you end up killing them in the process.

So it is totally baffling that the "near certainty" principle apparently doesn't apply in Syria or Iraq, where US air strikes are now targetting Islamic State fighters. According to the American investigative reporter Michael Isikoff, reporting for Yahoo News, "a White House statement ... confirming the looser policy came in response to questions about reports that as many as a dozen civilians, including women and young children, were killed when a Tomahawk missile struck the village of Kafr Daryan in Syria's Idlib province on the morning of Sept. 23."

So how does the White House justify its casual acceptance that civilians in Syria and Iraq are likely to be killed by US missiles? Ah, the "near certainty" principle applies only "outside areas of active hostilities", says a spokeswoman for the National Security Council. And that's not the situation in Syria or Iraq, obviously.

So that's all right, then. Which, of course, it isn't. I can think of no policy more likely to achieve the precise opposite of what's intended than one which blithely accepts that innocent civilians will be killed. As a recruitment tool for IS (also known as ISIS or ISIL), it's hard to think of a more effective weapon.

I seem to recall that the Obama administration was "appalled" by civilian casualties during the most recent Israeli military action in Gaza - "totally unacceptable and totally indefensible" was how it described an Israeli strike on a UN school being used as a shelter for civilians. I don't say it was wrong to speak out then; I do say it is wrong now to lower the bar for authorising air strikes against IS.

But let's be absolutely clear: IS do need to be confronted and defeated. The argument is not about the goal, but about the means. A horrific UN report published yesterday accused the group of carrying out mass executions, abducting women and girls as sex slaves, and using child soldiers in what it said may amount to systematic war crimes.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein: "The array of violations and abuses perpetrated by ISIL and associated armed groups is staggering, and many of their acts may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity."

So instead of air strikes aimed at solitary military vehicles trundling through the desert, or apartment blocks where IS leaders may or may not be sheltering, perhaps there's another way. A way that would mean turning our attention back to Syria, which is where IS is based, where it is strongest, and where it has greatest freedom of action.

In a fascinating recent article for the New York Review of Books, two former senior US National Security Council officials, Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson, sketched out a very different approach, starting from the premise that the best way to defeat IS is to change the balance of forces on the ground in Syria.

"The Syrian state has already effectively collapsed," they wrote. "The country has split into pieces, is stuck in a civil war now in its fourth year, and is experiencing one of the largest humanitarian crises since World War II, with almost 200,000 dead, over three million refugees, and 6.5 million internally displaced people. Continued intense fighting will only amplify the havoc wreaked by ISIS and other jihadist groups."

What they propose is that the UN tries to encourage locally-negotiated truces between government and rebel forces - they say many unofficial truces are already in place, in and around cities like Damascus, Homs and Hama. "The most realistic short-term policy goal in Syria is to find ways to limit the areas of the country in direct conflict, with the aim of both containing extremist violence and significantly reducing the number of non-combatant deaths.

"This goal is not as far-fetched as it sounds, and there is already a basis for pursuing it: through a series of local cease-fires that could, if properly implemented and enforced, provide a path toward stability in several regions of the country, even as conflict continues elsewhere."

It would mean acknowledging an uncomfortable new reality: that the alliance of Western and Arab forces confronting IS are now on the same side as President Assad. It may be only temporary, and it can probably never be openly admitted, but there are some signs that both sides understand that IS pose a greater threat to each of them than they do to each other.

Peace, like democracy, cannot be imposed from above, or from outside. But if the two sides in Syria's civil war can agree to at least a few temporary local truces, they may be better able to turn their attention to IS. That's certainly what would be in their best interests, and in the interests of their foreign backers, whether Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Turkey.

It is local people who will defeat IS, both in Syria and in Iraq. Yes, foreign powers can help, by training them and arming them. But not by bombing them and their families.

I Was One of the Last Journalists to Speak to Joan Rivers - And She Was as Brilliant as Ever

Benjamin Butterworth   |   October 1, 2014   12:00 AM ET

Joan Rivers was one of those people who seemed like they'd live forever. She'd been doing the rounds for almost six decades - starting out opposite a then-unknown Barbra Streisand playing a lesbian lover. Lesbians and gay men would go on to play a big role in her life, as she would theirs, as she became something of a gay icon.

It was for that status that I came to talk with Joan Rivers some weeks ago. As a journalist for GT (Gay Times) magazine, we were embarking on writing our 30th anniversary issue with the theme of 'gay icons'. An interview with Joan Rivers was top of the list, and with plans to go on a UK tour this October, the opportunity presented itself.

I've been a fan of Joan for years. But weeks before Joan and I came to speak, she had started to make some real waves with her publicity tour. Calling Barack Obama "gay", Michelle a "tranny" and then storming off a TV interview about her new book. As if that wasn't enough, she decided to intervene on the Gaza conflict by insulting some of the victims. Even by Joan Rivers' standards, she was having a controversial summer.

So nerves were aplenty as the interview beckoned. It was 10am in her daughter Melissa's home. Joan's assistant apologises that the queen of mean isn't feeling so well today; she has the flu. As her voice comes to the phone, she's clearly not in great shape, repeatedly clearing her throat.

But she shrugged off her surgery as a "pre-tour facelift". Of course, the reality was to be considerably more serious. But Joan doesn't much like serious, as she quipped when asked about Kristen Stewart suing her over negative remarks, "I just think that a lot of people are losing their humour. I always say, 'if you don't know what I do at this point in my life, then what do you think I do?"

The point she had reached in her life was one totally at ease with herself. As I enquired about her state, Joan refused to say she was at her happiest, "because I'm very superstitious," but said that, more than in a long time, "I'm very happy."

I could tell. She had probably done a hundred interviews in the past month - little did I know this one would come so close to her end - but still she bursts with enthusiasm. Never more so than discussing her 13-year-old grandson, Cooper, who comes running up to his grandma part way through our interview.

"Sorry, excuse me," Joan said as the line became more muffled and she hugged Cooper before he headed for his lacrosse match. "We just got back from a trip together and he [Cooper] said, 'It's so nice because you make people laugh all the time.' Isn't that great!"

Family had always been important to Joan. She married a Cambridge-educated TV producer in the 1980s, Edgar Rosenberg. The story of their marriage, and his eventual suicide, was always of much more interest to me than the powers of her comedy. We all knew that Joan was hilariously funny, but there's a much darker story to her than would always meet the eye.

I asked about that time in her life: "Everything was ruined. Totally ruined. It was like Samson pulling down the temple," she told me, speaking of losing her Fox chat show, and then her husband. "But I was fired because of something he [Edgar] did to Rupert Murdoch, that's why I was fired. It had NOTHING to do with the numbers and ratings," she argues.

She then revealed that, in the weeks after his death, she had considered the same fatal treatment for herself. "Just say it! Suicide?" she responds to my questioning, unsure where the line is in our brutally frank conversation is. "I thought about it for a second. I had the gun on my lap," she answered, before describing the heartbreak of that time.

Discussing her dark past was the only time Joan's trademark rasp faded. I'd wanted to get behind the 'mask' of her eccentric persona, but as I did it felt like a very different Joan.

In the main it wasn't the Joan Rivers we see on TV that answered the phone that morning. She was warm, easy to talk with and hugely professional. There was nothing offensive about her; it felt like talking with my own grandmother. Though, admittedly, I don't tend to ask my own grandmother about her RuPaul's Drag Race and whether she gets horny - both things Joan waxed lyrical about...

Before we finished our conversation, Joan took time to ask about my own background and insisted we meet after her Royal Albert Hall show. Most celebrities couldn't care less for who's talking to them, but Joan had an obvious sense of maternal empathy to her.

Barely enough days had passed from our encounter for the excitement to settle in before the news broke of her serious ill-health. We will never meet at the RAH. But her boundless energy and comedy will live on. And that is priceless.

To read Joan's full interview reflecting on her life in her final days, the October issue of GT is available in WHSmith nationwide from 1 October, or to download from www.gtdigi.co.uk

joan rivers

Obama Doesn't Have a Doctrine - Good

Chris Oates   |   September 29, 2014    9:09 PM ET

Much has been made of President Barack Obama's "fecklessness" in international affairs. He doesn't have a coherent strategy against ISIS, according to Senator Rand Paul. He won't stand up to Putin, according to Governor Chris Christie. He's golfing too much, according to Maureen Dowd.

An underlying critique is that Obama has no doctrine, no conception of America's place in the world or what is to be done to protect and advance it, other than "don't do stupid stuff."

To political journalists, whose worldviews are punctuated by elections, who revolve around the rise and fall of candidates, coalitions, and parties, this may make sense. It fits into a world in which willpower, backbone, and lines like "morning in America" are bandied about by people in blue suits acting serious on Sunday mornings.

To those who are looking at the crises the President is dealing with, this is absurd.

To show why, let's take a brief rundown of some of the most famous doctrines in American history.

The Monroe Doctrine said that the US would act against any European interference in the Americas. The Truman Doctrine pledged American support against countries threatened by Soviet action. The Bush Doctrine advocated pre-emptive strikes to bring democracy to countries.

There is a common thread. All were basic frameworks for dealing with the most pressing threat (according to the Executive Branch) to the country at the time. European re-colonization in 1823, Soviet expansionism in 1947, terrorist safe havens in 2002. All were deemed by the Presidents as the single most important national security threats and deserving of an overarching, concerted response.

But at no point did those doctrines consume all American energies. Trade deals continued, diplomatic spats were smoothed over, and subsidiary policies pursued. To see American foreign policy history as a series of doctrines is to look back at Hollywood and see a series of blockbusters and Oscar winners. Yes, they were the most important. But the day-to-day reality was whether to see that Western or this rom-com.

This brings us to the reason why Obama does not have a doctrine when dealing with ISIS or Russia. They are not issues worthy of a doctrine.

ISIS at the moment is a regional crisis, involving the stability of a regionally important state, with implications for terrorist attacks. The response has been a combination of what was pursued in 2011 in Libya, when a state's stability and civilian massacres were at stake, and counterterror actions in Yemen and Pakistan.

Russia is interfering with a neighbor, as it did in Georgia in 2008, and using natural gas supplies as a weapon, as it did in 2009.

This is not to say that Obama's policies towards either situation is necessarily correct. Maybe Russia deserves more sanctions. Maybe ISIS is significant enough for boots on the ground. Maybe the opposite. But let's not think that a nuclear-equipped Security Council member state playing power politics and a radical insurgent group are the same. Or that they demand a wholesale reconsideration of the United States' global priorities.

The purpose of foreign policy is to advance the national interest. In most situations, that's difficult. Supporting those in Hong Kong protesting for democracy vs. alienating Beijing. Engaging with the new Indian Prime Minister while indicating disapproval for his past. And in many situations, we've done it badly. But problems with execution, with analysis, or with confronting various issues is not helped by shoehorning them into single doctrine. To do so would to unduly complicate matters by treating them simplistically.

So Obama's critics are right that "don't do stupid stuff" is not a doctrine. What they don't understand is that trying to create a single doctrine to address the current world would itself be pretty stupid.

  |   September 29, 2014    8:30 PM ET

Fox News are not happy that Barack Obama saluted troops while he also happened to be carrying a coffee cup.

Not happy at all.

And here's the consummate host of 'The Daily Show', Jon Stewart, to guide us through Fox's indignation at '#lattesalute'... and skewer it, in typically brilliant style:

Watch part one:


Watch part two:

'The Daily Show' airs Tuesday night at 1.10am on Comedy Central Extra.

  |   September 29, 2014   12:38 PM ET

Did you know that America recently carried out drone strikes in Waziristan and Yemen?

Don't worry if your answer is 'no' - because as John Oliver points out, you were unlikely to find out unless you were watching the Iranian government's English-language TV channel.

Check out this clip from 'Last Week Tonight', in which Oliver investigates how and why America uses its drones - including the loopholes that allow it to deploy them even if the threat isn't 'imminent' and the targets are innocent civilians. It's fascinating, funny, important and terrifying in equal measure.

SEE ALSO: John Oliver On Narenda Modi's Trip To New York

Iraq: War Without End?

Robin Lustig   |   September 27, 2014   12:00 AM ET

By the time you read these words, RAF Tornados will either have started, or will be about to start, bombing targets in Iraq. Here we go again ...

Six weeks ago, I wrote: "We should be in no doubt: we, the West, are back in Iraq." And so it has come to pass. It is difficult to see how it could have been otherwise, once the murderers of Islamic State (or Isis or Isil, take your pick) started killing American and British journalists and aid workers on video.

The primary task of any government is to defend its citizens - so once those citizens are being brutally murdered, any government would feel compelled to take action. We can debate whether dropping bombs in the desert is the right action to take, but I seriously doubt that anyone would wish to argue that there's no need for the government to do anything at all.

As always, the US is in the driving seat. But unlike his White House predecessor, President Obama has demonstrated the utmost reluctance to go to war - some would say he has been far too reluctant in the face of repeated warnings of the likely consequences of inaction - but he now says the US has a "comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy" to confront IS and allied groups in both Iraq and Syria.

I find that a deeply troubling formulation. "Sustained", as in long-lasting, implies that US policy-makers envisage this bombing campaign as open-ended. Mr Obama may talk glibly of destroying the terrorists, but he knows full well that that's a fool's mission. The UK defence secretary Michael Fallon has suggested the action could last three years. My guess is that it'll be longer.

As for "comprehensive", well, no, Mr President, it isn't. In the words of the analyst Lina Khatib, director of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center, "the strategy is a positive step forward after years of relative inaction on part of the United States, but it is far from comprehensive." The lack of any thought-out political plan for Syria is a gaping hole; what's the point of bombing jihadi rebels if you have no idea, and no plan, for what's likely to be the aftermath.

For obvious reasons, President Assad seems not to have objected to the US bombing his own country. After all, the people the Americans are attacking are the same people (some of them, at least) who are attacking him. Iran isn't complaining either, for the same reason. Any US action that weakens Assad's enemies must, by definition, strengthen him.

On Friday, it was reported that his army has already been taking advantage of the US air strikes, sweeping through several villages in the north-east of the country, and making gains around Damascus. You could call it an unfortunate by-product of having to deal with the IS threat.

So we have entered a bizarre Alice in Wonderland world in which Washington, Tehran, Damascus, Riyadh and Doha all seem to be lining up on the same side. The Saudis, Qataris and Emiratis even seem to have deployed some of their own aircraft, which I suppose at least proves that they do know what they're for.

I always try to apply a simple test when confronted with complex conundrums: is the proposed course of action likely to do more good than harm? Will bombing IS targets in Iraq and Syria destroy the murdering zealots of Islamic State? (And by the way, I fully expect the UK to be joining the Syria bombing raids before long.) Answer: no, but they may significantly weaken the group's capacity to seize new territory.

Will more Iraqi and Syrian civilians be killed as a result of the bombing raids? Answer: yes, inevitably. That's what happens.

Will the raids encourage more young fighters to join IS, emboldened by propaganda that seeks to portray this fight as one between true believers and infidels, whether Western, Shia, or fellow Sunnis? Answer: quite possibly, although by greatly increasing the odds of IS fighters being killed, the bombings may also cause at least some potential recruits to think twice before signing up.

And there's another question that needs to be answered as well: is the military action legal? In the case of Iraq, the answer is plainly yes, given that the government in Baghdad, imperfect though it be, has requested it. As for Syria, the answer has to be, at best: hmm. A case can be made, on the grounds that protecting Iraq necessitates action across the border, but it's far from clear cut.

(As for the wisdom of hitting supply lines and bases in neighbouring countries, I would have thought that the precedent from the Vietnam war, when the US pulverised neighbouring Cambodia, supposedly to neutralise the Viet Cong, should give planners much pause for thought. The prospect of a Syrian version of the Khmer Rouge is a chilling one.)

Beyond the immediate issue of to-bomb-or-not-to-bomb (I write before Friday's House of Commons vote, but it seems to be a foregone conclusion), there's a deeper and far more difficult issue that Arabs themselves will need to confront sooner or later.

The Lebanese journalist Hisham Melhem, of the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya TV news channel, wrote in a recent article: "Arab civilization, such as we knew it, is all but gone. The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism -- the extremism of the rulers and those in opposition -- than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. Every hope of modern Arab history has been betrayed ...

"The jihadists of the Islamic State, in other words, did not emerge from nowhere. They climbed out of a rotting, empty hulk -- what was left of a broken-down civilization. They are a gruesome manifestation of a deeper malady afflicting Arab political culture, which was stagnant, repressive and patriarchal after the decades of authoritarian rule that led to the disastrous defeat in the 1967 war with Israel."

If he is right, defeating Islamic State will be just the start of a far longer, far more difficult process: the rebuilding of what was once one of the world's great civilisations and the revitalising of some of the Arab world's greatest cities. Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus, Aleppo were once by-words for scholarship, culture and learning. Now, they are either hollow shells where people live in oppression, fear and poverty, or they are destroyed by civil war. It will be a long haul.

ISIS Must Be Stopped But Not By the West - Arm the Kurds

Peter G Tatchell   |   September 26, 2014   12:00 AM ET

The British and US governments seem determined to repeat the mistakes of the past, with plans for Iraq war number three. The first was in 1991, the second in 2003 and now the third in 2014. It's only air strikes - for now - they pledge. And only in Iraq, not in Syria (yet). But judging from the past, this limited intervention may be hard to sustain. Mission creep tends to be norm. Have our leaders learned nothing from two decades of disastrous foreign and military policy? It seems not.

To save lives and protect human rights, the genocidal fundamentalists of ISIS must be stopped. But not by the West and not for the reasons often advanced by David Cameron and Barack Obama.

Despite the ostensibly broad-based anti-ISIS coalition assembled by Washington, it's the US that is the puppet master pulling the strings. The other partners are, to a large degree, White House proxies. This is where the whole Obama strategy falls down.

A Western instigated and led military intervention will inevitably be a propaganda gift and recruiting sergeant for ISIS. It will energise and expand the ranks of Islamist extremism. ISIS will portray it as Muslims under attack by Western crusaders and their stooges. They'll trumpet their own actions as godly self-defence against infidel imperialism. Images of western air strikes, and the inevitable civilian casualties, will be plastered across social media and cited as evidence of yet another attack on Muslim lands and people.

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ISIS will be aided by the justifications offered by Cameron and Obama, who claim that ISIS must be defeated because it poses a threat to Europe and the US. In truth, the main threat is to Muslim people in Iraq and Syria. They are already bearing the brunt of ISIS brutality and remain at gravest risk in the unfolding genocide. By comparison, the danger to Western nations is minimal. Lesson one: don't exaggerate the threat to the West and ignore the main victims in Syria and Iraq.

Further evidence of this distorted Western-centric focus is the way British and US leaders are suddenly tub-thumping that swift, strong action is needed against ISIS, while effectively ignoring that an anti-ISIS fight back has been going on for more than a year in places like Kobane, northern Syria, led by Kurdish troops. During all this time, as the Kurds led the resistance to ISIS, the Western powers looked the other way. Lesson number two: don't act like it was the West that originated the idea of action against ISIS and insinuate that the people of region haven't been resisting the so-called Islamic State.

The truth is that if the US and UK are serious about fighting ISIS they should start by aiding the people on the ground who know the region best, have local roots and who are already leading the fight against the jihadist menace - the peshmerga army of the Kurdish regional government in Iraq and guerrillas from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and allied movements in Syria. This aid could include training, weapons, military intelligence, food and medical equipment. With extra assistance and supplies, they could be a powerful, effective counter-force to ISIS. The aim would be to empower them to liberate themselves.

Kurdish protesters made this call in London during the last week. They want international military aid to enable Kurdish fighters to roll back the ISIS advance.

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Belatedly, some western governments are offering to assist the Iraqi-based peshmerga but not the forces of the leftist PKK, which is still wrongly branded a terrorist organisation by the US and European Union. Yet it is the PKK fighters and their allies that are holding off ISIS in northern Syria. They are a key bulwark against the spread and triumph of the Islamic State - and deserve international recognition and support.

Sadly, the UK Stop The War Coalition (STWC) has allowed its opposition to war to trump support for democracy and human rights. It is laudable to oppose western military attacks but a betrayal to show no solidarity with the democratic, secular, liberal and left forces in Iraq and Syria who are fighting ISIS and Assad's blood-soaked tyranny.

Not backing military aid to these progressive forces, as an alternative to Western intervention, is a serious misjudgement. STWC's failure to support those fighting an emerging genocide has a whiff of de facto acquiescence and collusion.

I hate war and see it as a last resort. But to stave off a bloodbath and enslavement, the progressive anti-ISIS fighters deserve assistance from the West and the whole international community. If military aid to partisans fighting Nazi fascism was the right thing to do in the 1940s, then surely support for those opposing ISIS clerical fascism is the right thing to do today.

Attacking the Islamic State in Syria Is Justified and Right

James Snell   |   September 25, 2014   12:00 AM ET

This week, after nearly four years of civil war, the United States and her allies have finally intervened in Syria. It is far too late and, in attacking only the Islamic State and not the regime, it only deals with half of the problem. Nevertheless, barring a sudden period of rapprochement with the Assad tyranny, this move is a good one. We may only be combating some of our enemies in the region, but it is a start; and with President Obama's foreign policy history as chequered as it is - half-measures such as the disastrous failure of reconstruction in Libya and inaction have taken precedence over necessary military intervention - any step in the right direction must be welcomed. Here, I set out why, even though it is partial, and even though more will need to be done, Obama's action is the right one.

The Islamic State is a hideous organisation. That is well known to all but the most blinkered and casual of observers. The Syrian and Iraqi peoples have suffered under the heel of its potentates and acolytes for months, even years. It seemed that no one was listening then. When an American journalist, James Foley, was beheaded by IS in a video released on the internet, however, those living in the West began to sit up and take interest. He was the first victim of this new wave of violence specifically and publicly targeted at Westerners. He would not be the last.

Steven Sotloff, another foreign correspondent held by IS, also met his grisly end at the razor edge of a ceremonial blade. He was both a Jew and an Israeli citizen. He managed to keep that secret. His fate would likely have been far worse - if that thought is possible to process - if his murderers had found out. Days before the tragedy, his mother had released a statement in which she begged for his life. Her pleas were met with silence. These are the people who decapitate non-combatants mere days after receiving emotional appeals for their release, it seems.

David Haines, a British aid worker, was the third captive Westerner to be put to death on film. There will in all likelihood be more.

The slaughter of David Haines in particular by Islamic State fighters was utterly appalling but entirely predictable. The men who carried out this monstrous deed thought the result would be to their favour: That which is laughably referred to as the 'international community'  would back off, and let them get on with terrorising Iraq and Syria - where many thousands, largely unknown to the wider world, have met fates similar to the three men I have mentioned.

Not only did that not happen, it would have been disgraceful if it had. A certain degree of callousness is to be - regrettably - expected in national leaders. Sometimes they will sit back and let horrors and outrages occur. We must not endorse this morality, but we can recognise that it happens; in Syria especially, the public and the political leadership of Western nations have been far too reluctant to act. This is not such an occasion.

When a citizen of their own nation is killed, presidents and prime ministers the world over do not let the event simply pass them by. While it is possible to turn a blind eye to the suffering of other peoples on other continents - and many in Britain and America have been doing so in the case of Syria since before the Islamic State first officially split with al-Qaeda in February of this year, and even before President Assad first began his brutal crackdown against pro-democracy protestors in March 2011 - there is still the almost familial loyalty to fellow citizens, real or imagined, that can be called upon in times such as this.

For Britain especially, the nation has more to digest than the loss of a man who was born and brought up on these islands. The killer, perhaps in all three cases, perhaps in 'only' one or two, has been identified internationally as British. This, coupled with the realisation that British jihadis constitute up to a quarter of foreigners who fight under the banner of the Islamic State, may prove difficult to treat entirely dispassionately.

This murder has elicited retaliation. It is be overdue, and the stated reason for it is narrow. That does not mean it is in anyway unjustified or wrong.

The Islamic State admitted to and, bizarrely, apologised for footage of Steven Sotloff's final moments  entering the public domain earlier than planned. This revelation is important, because it dispels the idea that these war crimes follow a perverse Newtonian model: they are not subject to the laws of cause and effect, as some witting or unwitting apologists for terror would suggest.

Rather than being the result of US airstrikes, or British support for the embattled Kurds, this execution-style barbarity needs to be shown for what it is: entirely arbitrary and terrifyingly capricious. Only when we recognise this truth about our enemies - and they are our enemies (as the old leftish slogan has it, 'Fascism Means War') - can we begin to dissociate from them a self-defeating myth. They are not rational actors with legitimate grievances; they cannot be simply spoken to, or treated better and thereby stopped.

For, despite the appearance of strength, IS has overplayed its hand. In murdering citizens of two of the world's most powerful nations, it has given shape to the coalition now ranged against it. The Islamic State is rattled; giving it space and consciously avoiding escalation, as many on the self-described 'anti-imperialist' Left suggest, would be playing into its hands.

With the weight of the world slowly but definitely gathering on the side of the Iraqi, Kurdish and Syrian peoples, that disgusting act has begun to backfire on the Islamic State. Many nations joined the United States in attacking IS positions in Syria, just as many peoples have suffered under its heel.

There are legitimate criticisms of President Obama's strategy in the region, and he must go yet further if he wants to truly combat the root causes of the horrific situation now engulfing Syria and its neighbours. However, this specific action is one undertaken in the right direction. Fighting the Islamic State is entirely necessary, both in Iraq and Syria. In this, at least, the eventual decision Obama has made is just and right.

James Snell is a Contributing Editor of The Libertarian