That headline is not, amazingly, a rhetorical question, but one posed by 'Russell Howard's Good News'.
Check out Howard comparing and contrasting Cameron and Obama's recent moves... and coming to a not-too-unexpected conclusion.
That headline is not, amazingly, a rhetorical question, but one posed by 'Russell Howard's Good News'.
Check out Howard comparing and contrasting Cameron and Obama's recent moves... and coming to a not-too-unexpected conclusion.
Talking about butterflies and bees
Forty years ago on 30th October 1974 the legendary Rumble in the Jungle took place: Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman in the eighth round in Zaire in one of the biggest sporting events ever. The US would like to be able to operate on the global stage like Ali did in the boxing ring: "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee."
However, the US now often lacks the stamina, shrewdness and domestic political unity needed to deal out a mean five-punch combination of left and right hooks to deal with opponents and challenges: Russia, terrorists, high debt, immigration, to name but a few.
The coming quarters we will see if the US manages to offer some Ali to the world and deliver on domestic issues like immigration, addressing the Islamic State challenge, standing up to Russia without plunging the world into a new Cold War etc. On 4 November Americans will be heading to the polls to pick a new House of Representatives and replace a third of the hundred Senators. Later in November - on 15 and 16 November - we will witness the G20 Summit in Brisbane, Australia and a deal on Iran's contested nuclear program needs to be reached before a November 24 deadline.
Ali used a tactic now known as Rope-A-Dope: lying against the ropes, Ali allowed Foreman to hit him, but much of the punch's energy was absorbed by the ropes' elasticity rather than Ali's body. Ali managed to cause Foreman to "punch himself out" and make mistakes so Ali could counter-attack.
It would be fantastic if we would be able to look back in a couple of years to the period after 2008 and conclude that the US copied the Rope-A-Dope tactic and 2015 turned out to be the year that the US finally hit back and took the initiative back again as global leader and as a united country with a strong and cohesive vision and policies.
Who's the greatest?
However, America often acts like a ponderous and unwieldy giant in the geopolitical boxing area lacking the necessary eye-to-hand coordination. The US used to be able to act like Ali did in the ring (although it did not always do so):
• Approaching fights like chess matches.
• Being almost invincible and acting with supreme confidence, just like Ali yelled to Foreman in the 1974 fight: "That all you got, George? That all you got?"
• Bending the rules and getting away with it (just like Ali did when he out-wrestled Foreman, leaned on him and pushed the champion's head down by pulling on the back of his neck).
But the US could and cannot sustain the hegemonic role the way it did in the recent past: other giants stepping into the ring are one cause. Another reason is the political disunity at home, the partisanship that obstructs policy making and the clear lines that divide the country into red and blue parts. The government shutdown last year was one example of this debilitating political climate. The US does not succeed in passing major reforms in areas like immigration and taxes because of the political gridlock.
Midterms: it's the economy stupid - except when it isn't
The midterms next week will not lead to revolutionary change. The Republicans should retain solid control of the House and recent polls have tilted in favor of a narrow Republican Senate majority, with a net gain of seven seats which would give the GOP 52 out of the hundred seats. Obama's Democrats heading for a clunking defeat in the midterm elections next week shows a disjunction between economic performance and political success. "It would upend one of the great clichés of modern politics. These days it's the economy stupid - except when it isn't," writes The Guardian. The American people are insecure and are doubting if growth will translate into many good paying jobs being created and in a broad-based recovery for consumers. On top of this, the world seems more dangerous to Americans with ISIS beheading US citizens and Ebola having entered the country without Washington showing an appropriate response.
If polls turn out to be right, the last two years of Obama's presidency are set to make the last four look like an age of mutual civility and respect. The GOP will try to repeal many laws that the Obama administration has enacted in the last six years. Obamacare will obviously be the first to go if it was up to the Republicans and environmental regulation will also be on the list. If the next two years will indeed be all about the GOP trying to undo what Obama has done, the US will lose even more sense of direction and purpose.
However, I doubt that the outcome of the elections will matter very much to markets despite upcoming issues like the possibility of another debt ceiling-related impasse in the 2nd quarter of 2015. The markets are already discounting a lame-duck president for the next two years and I do not see this changing. We witnessed political trench warfare in the last couple of years and we will certainly see it the next two years albeit possibly in a somewhat intensified manner.
Get up and fight
All in all, the US will not undergo a remarkable change for the better in the coming quarters to years: US economic growth will probably continue without surprising very much on the upside. The G20 meeting in Australia will not herald any major changes in how the world will deal with economic imbalances and disappointing growth and we will also not witness a game changing nuclear deal with Iran. This means that the West will stay down in the near future just like Sonny Liston did in 1965 when Ali shouted at him: "Get up sucker and fight. Get up and fight!" The US will be a giant for years to come but is clearly taking a couple of steps back because of domestic political malady and a lack of strategic vision and strong White House leadership amid the rise of new international players and the reappearance of thorny old rivals.
Bricks and stones
Right after the crumbling of the Soviet Union the US felt like Ali in his heydays:
"I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale;
and cuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail;
Only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick;
I'm so mean I make medicine sick."
Nowadays, the US still deserves and receives much admiration and awe because of its military, political, economic and social levels of development, but in many ways the nation needs a couple of doses of medicine while players from all sides are hurling bricks and stones at it. It will take some time for the US to stand up again and turn the game around.
Western foreign policy vis-à-vis Iraq & Syria is an incoherent and ineffective mess. It is becoming painfully obvious that the lazily sporadic Western/coalition air strikes in the two countries, particularly in Iraq, are proving ineffective at pushing back ISIS, let alone defeating it. The self proclaimed caliphate has infiltrated territory less than 10 miles from Baghdad, and the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga are merely holding the line. The Assad regime appears to be mounting a more effective campaign but nothing close to what is needed to push ISIS into full scale retreat. Meanwhile, ISIS is controlling vast swathes of Iraq and Syria as well as large portions of the populations and natural resources of both countries, giving them the unprecedented influence and power to perpetuate their extremist ideology and carry out tyrannical extreme Islamist oppression not seen since the brutal rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Children are being indoctrinated in extremist controlled schools and the rule of secular law has been brushed aside. The genocidal massacre of the Yazidi population in Iraq and the persecution of Kurds and other minorities are just a handful of the deplorable crimes committed by the organisation. One thing is certain - there is consensus the world over that ISIS must be stopped, but the present strategy simply isn't working.
At the heart of the problem is that current efforts are not only halfhearted, the West is trying to implement a "one size fits all" strategy in both countries. Air strikes weaken ISIS but they do not comprise an effective counter attack to retake the lost territory containing vast swathes of valuable natural and human resources which are fueling ISIS' war effort. History has shown time and time again that air power alone cannot win wars. The current strategy does not take into account the differing contexts and situations on the ground in each state. As far as Iraq is concerned, it is becoming clear that the democratic government in Baghdad is completely inept at governing the territory it does control let alone able to mount a successful counterattack on the ground. This is partly due to the US' premature withdrawal from the country, which had more to do with Barack Obama's 2012 reelection campaign than with any real confidence that the Iraqis were ready to provide their own security. The Iraqi army has proven to be unorganized and poorly disciplined - leaving in the wake of their hasty retreat scores of technologically advanced US provided materiel which ISIS now uses to its advantage. But despite the fact that Iraq is crumbling before our very eyes, the West is reluctant to provide any real assistance. Baghdad's Western allies have allowed the legacy of Iraq's failings as well as the memories surrounding the loathed Bush Doctrine to constrain the execution of anything close to an effective strategy. No doubt one of the most important things for policy makers to bear in mind when formulating foreign policy are the lessons of history - having an awareness and appreciation for the mistakes of the past and acting accordingly to prevent repetition. But one of the most dangerous paths policy makers can go down is to allow the mistakes of the past to constrain future decision making to the point that fears of public reprisal and concerns of one's place in the history books prevent effective and necessary policy from being enacted. This is what is happening in Iraq. Nobody wants to return to Iraq, but sometimes the only options on the table are bad ones.
The West, particularly Britain and the United States, have become prisoners of the past - afraid to act in fear of repeating the sins of 2003 and the failures of the subsequent occupation, regime change, civil war, and insurgency. This fear is a fallacy. This isn't 2003 and this isn't a regime change. The mistakes of the 2003 invasion and the failures of Iraq can no longer constrain us - it is clear that ISIS can only be stopped and pushed back with a commitment of Western ground troops in Iraq to aid the woefully untrained and undisciplined Iraqi army. Western nations are the only states with the experience and the effective power projection to meet the task at hand, with the Arab League proving yet again to be nothing more than an impotent and ineffective talking shop. Arming the Kurdish Peshmerga as has been widely advocated is a vital step, but alone it is a short sighted strategy aimed at merely keeping Iraqi Kurdistan free from ISIS influence. The Iraqi Kurds have neither the ability nor the will to fight ISIS in the Arab populated regions of Western Iraq where the militants are strongest. The simple fact is that the original Iraq mission remains unfinished and was terminated prematurely for reasons of Western domestic politics. But let's be clear about one thing, a return to Iraq isn't about national security - Theresa May's scaremongering that ISIS poses a threat to the United Kingdom is unfounded and hyperbolic. Neither is a return solely about international and regional security, though ISIS does pose a threat to both. A return to Iraq is primarily about meeting obligation and responsibility. Regardless of the rights and wrongs surrounding the 2003 invasion, to not aid the democratic government in Baghdad is tantamount to a death sentence to a country and people the West owes security to at the very least. Those states in particular which partook in the 2003 invasion and catalysed a chain of events which slowly but surely destabilized the region into its present state are indebted to Iraq. The questionable legality of the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation are food for thought but they are now moot points - policy in 2014 should be formulated according to the needs of 2014. Yes we should remember the failings of the past but Iraq now has as close to a democratic government as it has ever had, and to allow that to fall to an extremist group whose ideology we have been fighting for over a decade is simply unacceptable. Granted an ideology cannot be stopped with the use of military force, but the tangible effects of its execution can.
But ISIS' transnational presence across the Iraqi-Syrian border means even if the West does intervene and defeat ISIS in Iraq, the organization maintains a foothold in Eastern Syria. To defeat ISIS, the organization must be crushed in both states. This leads us to accepting an uncomfortable truth; that a tacit relationship with the Assad regime is currently the only way to ensure ISIS is fully militarily defeated in both countries. Western ground troop presence in Syria is out of the question, and the "moderate" Syrian opposition has become so intermixed with the Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat-Al-Nusra that the distinctions between moderate secularists and Islamist extremists, albeit non-linked to ISIS, are no longer apparent. The blurring has reached such an extent that it is impossible to support the moderates without aiding Islamist extremists allied to the West's nemesis by default. Similarly to the situation in Iraq, arming Syrian Kurds is a step in the right direction but is not a strategy in itself. The Kurds have little interest or ability to fight ISIS outside Kurdish populated territory. It is becoming all too apparent therefore that the West was right to not intervene in the Syrian Civil War in the aftermath of Ghouta chemical weapon attack of 2013, not solely because the perpetrator of the attack has been unconfirmed (though all evidence points to Assad's Ba'ath regime) but because the Syrian government has proven to be the sole effective fighting force keeping ISIS and Islamic extremism at bay in Syria. An attack on the Syrian regime would undoubtedly have aided an enemy which the West has been combating for over a decade.
I know what you're thinking - Assad is a monster, or more accurately, the ruling Syrian Ba'ath Party regime is monstrous. The extent to which Basher al-Assad is actually in control of 'his' government let alone his country is a matter of debate, but what has been clear for decades is that the ruling regime is one of illiberal and brutal despotism hell-bent on maintaining its grip on power at the expense of the Syrian people and wider regional security. The crimes of the Ba'athist regime became quite clear prior to the onset of the Civil War with the gunning down of peaceful demonstrators in Damascus. One might rightly ask therefore why the West should have anything to do with such a despicable regime. The sad fact is there a few other options. Lamentably, foreign policy and diplomacy is invariably a game of contradictions and hypocrisies, and let's be frank - the Syrian regime is a considerably lesser evil than ISIS. Double standards in diplomacy more often than not serve a purpose and a much needed channel of communication with Assad is no exception. The West maintains close ties with a plethora of questionable bedfellows the world over, many like Saudi Arabia and Yemen possessing far worse human rights and civil liberties records than Syria. Many of these uneasy relationships are forged because they are beneficial economically, but many of these alliances of convenience are essential in the maintenance of international security. Co-operation with Assad doesn't have to be a formal treaty, it doesn't mean the West and Assad would be best friends. Cooperation can come in the form of intelligence sharing or the co-ordination of offensives. A communicative channel with Assad would be an acceptance that the situation in which we now find ourselves is intolerable and that alliances of convenience, as history has shown, serve wider humanitarian interests. If the parties of the Chinese Civil War could put aside their differences to fight Japanese imperialism, if Churchill could sit with Stalin to defeat European Fascism, then London and Washington can call Damascus to defeat ISIS. The beauty of alliances of convenience is that they are just that and nothing more. They serve their purpose and can end as soon as they become redundant.
NEW YORK -- “Ebola Hits New York,” screamed headlines across US media on Friday (including HuffPost) following news that a 33-year-old doctor had contracted the virus in Africa before unwittingly transporting it to Gotham.
Paranoia is rife stateside, with cable news shows devoting hours to the “outbreak” (currently four people out of 316 million), puffing the opinion of anyone willing to go on record and say the virus is perhaps more communicable that the much maligned Centre for Disease Control (CDC) has outlined.
However beyond the rational fear of disease, some commentators are using the “outbreak” for political capital ahead of next week’s mid-term elections, while employing the virus as fertilizer for two of America’s great cultural pastimes – "blaming Obama" and conspiracy theories.
Bewigged birther Donald Trump was quick to assign responsibility, tweeting on Thursday night:
Ebola has been confirmed in N.Y.C., with officials frantically trying to find all of the people and things he had contact with.Obama's fault— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 24, 2014
This was followed by a further tantrum:
I have been saying for weeks for President Obama to stop the flights from West Africa. So simple, but he refused. A TOTAL incompetent!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 24, 2014
Yet Trump’s late-night sulk was positively tame compared to some of the views being proffered in the God-infused sewers of America’s right wing madhouse.
Earlier this week, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins told a radio show that Obama was “deliberately” pushing for an Ebola epidemic to take hold across the US so that the President could institute “martial law”.
Then there was Peter LaBarbera, a social conservative activist who runs the wonderfully named, “Americans for Truth about Homosexuality”, who last week made the handy connection between Ebola and homosexuality, arguing that as the government had made no plans to deal with AIDS (presumably by banning gay sex), they could not be trusted to handle Ebola.
"Condom-less anal sex and homosexual promiscuity are the two largest risk factors in the spread of disease," he said. "They can't even close down a bath house? I mean, they're not serious about that disease so why should we trust them on Ebola?"
Erik Rush, a man best know for making a joke about Muslims while the charred victims of the Boston Marathon bombings were still on the pavement, used a recent speech about Ebola to claim the president had “deep psychological problems”.
He said: “Last weekend, Obama addressed the threat to America from the Ebola virus during his weekly television and radio address. Leaving aside the gross inaccuracies and misrepresentations contained therein, what caught my attention was a photograph from the video of the address released by a news agency in which Obama looks completely deranged.”
And then there was the John Hagee, a senior Pastor from Texas whose brand of Christianity is more concerned with geopolitics than helping people, particularly when it comes to the borders of the Middle East. He decided to fuse end times theology, the Ebola virus and Israel into a toxic cocktail mixed by the man in the White House.
He squealed: "I want every American to hear this very clearly… our president is dead set on dividing Jerusalem. God is watching and he will bring America into judgment. There are grounds to say that judgment has already begun because he, the president, has been fighting to divide Jerusalem for years now."
And what form has this punishment taken? “The crisis of Ebola,” said an ageing Hagee, looking close to the Day of Judgment himself.
(H/T Right Wing Watch)
Do you want my alternative, semi-serious take on the Ukip 'Calypso song'; their new Holocaust-denying ally in Europe; and Obama's coolness versus Cameron's coolness?
Here's the political week in 60 seconds.
A 23-year-old Maryland man is in custody after he climbed over the White House fence Wednesday night and was swiftly apprehended on the North Lawn by uniformed Secret Service agents and their dogs.
The incident came about a month after a previous White House fence jumper carrying a knife sprinted across the same lawn, past armed uniformed agents and entered the mansion before he was felled in the ceremonial East Room and taken into custody.
That embarrassing Sept 19 incident preceded the disclosure of other serious Secret Service breaches in security for President Barack Obama and ultimately led to Julia Pierson's resignation as director of the agency after 18 months on the job.
Secret Service spokesman Brian Leary said a man he identified as Dominic Adesanya of Bel Air, Maryland, climbed the north fence line at about 7:16 p.m. and was taken into custody immediately by uniformed agents and K-9 teams that constantly patrol the grounds.
Obama was at the White House at the time of Wednesday's incident.
Adesanya was unarmed when he was arrested, Leary said. Charges were pending.
Two dogs were taken to a veterinarian for injuries sustained during the incident, Leary added.
Video of the incident recorded by TV news cameras shows a man in white shorts on the lawn just inside the fence. The man lifts his shirt as if to show that he is unarmed, then is seen kicking and punching two Secret Service dogs that were released on him.
Adesanya was taken to a local hospital, Leary said, without elaboration.
After Pierson resigned, an agent who once led Obama's protective detail came out of retirement to lead the Secret Service until Obama names a new director, pending the completion of internal and independent reviews of agency practices.
This week, a federal judge delayed the arraignment of Omar Gonzalez, the individual charged in September's fence-jumping incident, because of questions about his mental fitness to stand trial.
Gonzalez has been indicted on several charges, including of carrying a knife into the White House and assaulting two Secret Service officers.
The latest security breach occurred the same day that a gunman went on a rampage in the Canadian capital of Ottawa.
After nearly four years of almost unimaginable horror in Syria, the prime mover of all the repression, all the brutality, and all the sheer suffering of this cruelest of civil wars is getting what he wanted all along. A myopic and half-hearted aerial campaign is targeting his supposed rivals, and he is being left alone by the international community.
Even Bashar al-Assad's most gleeful propagandists could not have dared to hope that things would work out this far in his favour. Not only are his crimes being forgotten. Not only is his role in creating the humanitarian quagmire which besets Syria and the surrounding nations being minimised or removed entirely, as if swept from the history books.
More than that, he is even being spoken of as a potential ally in the fight against the Islamic State. It is enough to make even the most dull-eyed dictator - or the most maniacal mass murderer - pinch himself with glee. Not only have they fallen for it, he must think, they even want me on their side!
But this is exactly what some western analysts - such as Leslie H. Gelb, writing in the Daily Beast - think we should do.
Gelb admits, somewhat to the detriment of his argument, though not to the detriment of the truth, that: '[Assad] remains zeroed in on the rebels, while brokering his own stolen oil internationally on behalf of the ISIS jihadis who took it.'
After years of civil war, Syrian rebels are not in the best shape. This is a statement of fact. It would be intellectually dishonest, however, to omit the causes of this state of affairs. Caught between the twin perils of IS and Assad, and denied all but the most vacillatory international support, rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army have suffered. Of course they have; and so have the Syrian people.
Assad's forces have committed atrocities, both with and without the aid of weapons of mass destruction. More than 11,000 people have been tortured to death in regime prisons, according to the Senate testimony of a Syrian defector. And the state is poised, it seems, to inflict the same grisly fate on many more. This particular fact becomes tired in reiteration - but not less true.
It is also true that international inaction - be it in failing to intervene in the aftermath of chemical war crimes, insufficiently equipping moderate rebel groups to fight against trained soldiers from Assad's army and that of Iran, and not providing the sort of diplomatic recognition that could have put pressure on an embattled tyrant - has helped to create the current terrible situation.
But being complicit in the creation of a scenario in which the theocrat and the fascist can thrive should not mean embracing that most terrible of eventualities. On the contrary, it only doubles the moral obligation of those who - for whatever reason - allowed Assad and IS to ascend to their duel positions of power; rather than shrinking away from confronting this evil, we must fight it - and in any form it may take.
Cosy accommodation with dictators is never something any truly moral nation or coalition of nations should be prepared to countenance - and especially not in this instance: a humanitarian disaster which the UN has been calling 'the worst in its history' since December last year. Things have only got worse in the intervening months.
And the worst of it is yet to come: Assad and the Islamic State are hardly enemies. The regime has co-operated with jihadis of all stripes in the harvesting of oil revenues; it has released suspected Islamists from prison - this as early as 2012 - with the full knowledge that they would join IS and its affiliates; and has continued, as Gelb concedes, to target rebels positions, despite the fact that IS supposedly represents an existential threat to all and sundry. Why? Because it was all part of the plan from the beginning.
If it is true, as Gelb asserts, that 'recently, Assad has been signalling that he sees things differently', this about face is unlikely to come from the goodness of his heart. Monsters rarely change their course of action without a reason, after all. It is more likely to do with the fact that Islamic State has served its purpose. The remarkable variety of those states which make up the anti-IS coalition should indicate the regime's objective. If the United States is willing to tolerate the head-chopping Saudis and dissent-crushing Bahraini monarchy as allies, goes this line of thought, why not Syria?
Why not Syria indeed.
With this sort of slippery diplomatic game afoot, it is absurd to suggest, as Gelb seems to do, that the coalition can find a stable and useful ally in the Assad regime. Furthermore, it is an insult to the collective intelligence of his readers for Gelb to state that '[c]ooperating with Assad is also the only feasible way, at present, to lessen the humanitarian nightmare in Syria'. Assad is not interested in lessening the humanitarian crisis which has befallen Syria since the first flickers of protest against his authoritarian government broke out in 2011. Of course he isn't; he caused that very disaster in the first place.
Allying with Assad would be worse than poor strategy; it would be morally unacceptable to anyone with an ounce of decency, and to anyone with the slightest stake in identifying and punishing his crimes. Ethical triangulation on this scale - even where it not based on a propagandistic smokescreen, the sort which allows terrorists and tyrants to co-operate in butchery - must be resisted.
Until we are able to peer past the obfuscation and the disinformation, and to see this squalid proposal for what it is, we will forever remain to tools of tyrants; dancing to their tunes, abetting their crimes, and excusing the excesses of their governments - all with little thought for the horrors contained within.
James Snell is a Contributing Editor for The Libertarian
The Secret Service is charged with watching the president's back, but who's watching his wallet?
When his credit card was declined last month while dining in New York, President Barack Obama wondered if he had become a victim of identity theft.
"It turned out, I guess I don't use it enough," Obama said Friday at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
"They thought there was some fraud going on," he said, chatting while announcing a government plan to tighten security for debit cards that transfer federal benefits like Social Security to millions of Americans.
"I was trying to explain to the waitress 'No, I really think that I've been paying my bills.'"
Fortunately first lady Michelle Obama was able to whip out a credit card they could use.
The Huffington Post US couldn't confirm where the president's credit card was declined, but it was previously reported that the Obamas and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett dined at Estela last month. A woman who answered the phone at the posh restaurant in downtown Manhattan Friday told HuffPost that no one was available to talk about the president's visit.
Identity theft is a growing problem and an estimated 100 million people have been affected by security breaches in the past year at retailers like Target and Home Depot.
"Even I'm affected by this," he said.
According to Reuters (16 October) a senior U.S. official said some progress was made in high-level nuclear negotiations with Iran on Wednesday but much work remained to be done, adding the goal was still to reach a deal by a late November deadline.
The State Department official spoke after about six hours of talks between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Vienna.
Most observers believe that a deal is unlikely in the current round of negotiations.
The Iranians are fully aware of Obama's desperate concessions to induce them to engage in these futile negotiations. A year or so before becoming president, Barack Obama indicated to the New York Times that he would seek co-operation with Iran as a way to extricate the US from the quagmire of Iraq. President Obama had stated unequivocally that the United States will not permit Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. The problem is nobody in the Middle East believes him. Israel as well as the Arabian Gulf States including Saudi Arabia are skeptical.
Writing in the Sunday Times in June 2014, David Frum said that in May 2009 Obama wrote to Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei proposing nuclear talks and unfreezing of relations.
Obama was apparently oblivious to Iran's subversive influence on Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Iranian opposition figures I interviewed are amazed at the Obama administration's naiveté in adopting the Iranian perspective on the Middle East. The Iranian regime cannot be trusted in conflict resolution or its nuclear intentions. Iran is part of the problem, and has never been part of any solution.
The negotiations' original July 2014 deadline was extended to November 24th, the anniversary of an interim agreement. Both sides were publicly committed to a deal. President Rouhani denounced Western-led sanctions in a speech to the General Assembly, but reiterated his wish to resolve the dispute with the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. President Obama put the onus on Iran, warning that a deal can happen only "if Iran seizes this historic opportunity."
The biggest stumbling block in the last round of negotiations was how much enriched uranium Iran would be allowed to continue producing.
Iran still insists it needs 19,000 centrifuges. Experts believe this number is unnecessary for usage other than nuclear weapons.
Even if Iran finally accepts a substantial reduction to below 5000, does the West really trust Iran? Does President Obama trust Iran?
John R. Bolton, former US Ambassador to the UN: "We cannot verify and must not trust Iran's promises on nuclear weapons. Ignore the 'moderate' smokescreen. Sanctions have failed, so our choice is stark: use military force or let Tehran get the bomb".
Iran's state-run Fars news agency reported on May 3rd 2014 that on the eve of arrival of UN nuclear inspectors in Tehran, the Iranian regime's Atomic Energy Organization intended to deny the international inspectors access to Parchin nuclear facility. The IAEA wants to visit a specific location at the site, but Iran has not so far granted access.
According to opposition sources, over the past three years, the IAEA inspectors have frequently requested to visit a certain section of Parchin to study the unknown aspects of the regime's nuclear weapons program, without success.
Barely hours after the signing of an interim agreement in Geneva (24th November 2013) to temporarily freeze Iran's nuclear enrichment programme, President Rouhani said the interim deal recognised Iran's nuclear "rights".
US President Barack Obama welcomed that deal, saying it included "substantial limitations which will help prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon". Iran agreed to give better access to inspectors and halt some of its work on uranium enrichment. According to Al Arabiya News, Iran announced just 24 hours before agreement was reached that it could not accept any agreement that did not recognize its right to enrich uranium, a demand the United States and its European allies have repeatedly rejected.
In March 2014, President Rouhani insisted that Iran would not abandon its enrichment of uranium, after US senators called for it to be denied any such right under a long-term nuclear deal.
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on 9th April 2014 that Iran will never give up its nuclear programme. He said Iran had agreed to the talks to "break the hostile atmosphere" with the international community.
The Arab States in the Gulf region are wary of Iran's real intentions. In Saudi Arabia the perception is that the Iranian nuclear programme is designed to threaten the Kingdom and its allies in the Gulf.
In November 2011 the IAEA published a new report revealing advanced Iranian design for a nuclear warhead developed with the help of former Soviet scientists.
In response to the report. Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, a vital route for the oil trade that links the Gulf oil-producing states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with the Indian Ocean.
Does the world trust Iran to honour its obligations? The belligerent and often conflicting statements coming out of Tehran are not reassuring.
Many experts are not fooled by the charm offense; everybody in the Middle East knows that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons. Rouhani can smile but his nuclear objective remains unchanged. As for Obama, he must wake up and stop deluding himself.
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.
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".
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.
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."
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
"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."
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."
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."
"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]."
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?
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."
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.