Of Ambassadors and the enforcement of Free Speech

So I’m here in southern California and I can’t lie, it’s fabulous. The weather is perfect. This morning was almost too perfect. I drove down from a meeting at Pepperdine University in Malibu, former residence of the witch-finder general, Judge Kenneth Starr, taking in the fantastic views from the Pacific Coast Highway, through LA, Santa Monica, Long Beach and other such places that I had long heard off from one classic rock track or another, but never gave much thought to ever driving through…

So I arrived in Irvine about an hour south of LA. I’m here for the International Studies Association regional conference addressing security issues. I’m delving a paper in the morning on the development of the UK national security council and the parallel rise of the transatlantic body set up by Obama and Cameron in the summer.

This evening I was invited to a reception with former US Ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, something I anticipated very much. I was expected an evening of fascinating personal insight drawn from his career in the service of his country overseas in some of the most vital postings available.

Disappointed doesn’t cover it…

Instead of what could have been an erudite performance, we were treated to a bland, colourless and limp discourse on the state of the world today. No attempt was made to address his own insight, based on his experiences or engagements with the great and the good, or with the truly rotten.

The real low point however, came when he stated that the situation in Iraq was essentially the fault of, guess who, the British, since we had created the ethnic conditions that allowed for Saddam to be in power! How easy it is to have the Brits to kick whenever necessary. How easy it is to forget America’s own woeful tale in Iraq, or their sending of Donald Rumsfeld as President Reagan’s emissary in the early 1980s, or the curious case of arming both sides when circumstances suited in the eight year Iran/Iraq War. Shocking doesn’t come close to covering it!

To compound matters the ambassador was late arriving, not realising apparently that traffic in LA tends to get somewhat congested in rush hour. One wonders how long he has been in his diplomatic bubble?

Late,bland, boring. Other than that it was a great experience!

Needless to say the sycophants were running around congratulating him on a magnificent job. The tell-tale sign was the mass exodus of students from the well guarded auditorium. That’s right, the auditorium was being patrolled by a uniformed member of university security, looking for all the world like a police officer. I cannot confirm whether he was armed with a firearm not. The students left, deciding that they had less important things to do, leaving us under the watchful glare of the failed police officer, there apparently to ensure freedom of speech! Past experiences had apparently led to protests that had prevented speakers from talking, thereby denying them their first amendment rights.

Can you see the contradiction here? We have apparently reached a point whereby security is being employed on university campuses to ensure the enforcement of first amendment rights for invited guests, whilst denying them to attendees. Does this strike anyone as odd?

Land of the free and the home of the brave.

Right.

JDB on LBC Radio with Ken Livingstone this Weekend

Following my busy week of appearances on Sky News, LBC and the BBC, I will be returning to the airwaves once more this weekend.

I will be discussing the status of the United States of America with former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, on LBC 97.3 FM  at 11.00 on Saturday
August 6.

foreign and domestic policy is likely to be addressed, with issues of debt , tea parties and the special relationship with David Cameron also on the cards.

The conversation will no doubt turn to the forthcoming presidential election and the future of President Obama, whose birthday is today!

You can listen live at http://ukrp.musicradio.com/lbc973/live

JDB and Sky News

As some of you may have seen, I was on Sky News this morning, discussing President Obama’s trip to Europe. The conversation concentrated on his initial stop-over in Eire, where he will apparently revel in his Irish ancestry. I must admit that one doesn’t really look at Obama and immediately think of the Emerald Isle, but I guess that he is just the latest in a long line of president’s claiming Irish ancestry to bolster their domestic standing with the Irish community in the United States.

I seem to remember when Obama used to be from Kenya and Hawaii? Apparently that was soooo yesterday! I know he campaigned on a platform of ‘Change’ but I didn’t think that changing his ancestry was what he had in mind.

In London from Tuesday, Obama will hold meetings at Downing Street with the PM David Cameron to discuss Afghanistan and UK/US foreign policy. Doubtless to say questions of the Special Relationship will come up, along with issues pertaining to the demise of Osama bin Laden.

Obama will be staying as a guest of Her Majesty the Queen and will also address both houses of Parliament. A press briefing is expected at the FCO. The president will be accompanied by Secretary of State Clinton who is expected to hold meetings with her opposite number, William Hague.

Suffice to say, getting around central London may be a little tricky with the heightened security this week!

I will be returning to the airwaves through the week as the president spends his State Visit here in London, so watch this space for more news.

JDB and LBC Radio

I will be returning to the airwaves once more this evening, to discuss the future defence position of the United Kingdom in light of Defence Secretary Dr. Liam Fox’s speech today. Where will David Cameron’s government take the nation and position the country in 20 years?

Tune in to hear me in conversation with Iain Dale at 20.35 on LBC Radio97.3FM or listen online at http://ukrp.musicradio.com/lbc973/live

JDB, Chatham House and 60 Years of UK-Israeli Foreign Relations

Yesterday I had the great honour, and high privilege to attend a Chatham House conference marking 60 years of UK-Israeli foreign relations, at the invitation of the Israeli embassy here in London.

The conference was organised to celebrate 6 decades of international relations between the two countries and to ponder the current and future state of affairs. We in the audience were most fortunate in that the keynote address was delivered in person by the President of Israel, Shimon Peres. Click here for a link to his address.

Convened by the always smooth Dr. Robin Niblett, the day featured panels examining bilateral relations, economic and scientific issues as well as security matters. The make-up of the panellists reflected the high quality of the day and included Dr. Claire Spencer from Chatham House, Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP, Israel’s Ambassador to London, HE Ron Proser, the ever effervescent Baroness Susan Greenfield, James Blitz from the Financial times, Dr. Uzi Arad, former Chairman of the Israeli National Security Council, and Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI-6.

It was a remarkable day full of remarkable people, addressing a remarkable relationship that continues to redefine itself on a regular basis. The day was brought to a fitting conclusion with a talk from the UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the Right Honourable William Hague, MP. Click here for a video  of his remarks.

I was able to ask the Foreign Secretary about the constraints upon the British government and the quest for peace in the Middle East of having to conform to the straightjacket of the American political timetables.

The talk very much highlighted the traditional level of excellence at Chatham House and reminded us of the need for continued dialogue in this troubled world.

Twisting in the Wind: The Shameful Treatment of the LSE

Over the past week or so it cannot have escaped the attention of a proportion of the population that the London School of Economics has been rather mired in a scandal, seemingly of its own making. The allegations surround the university’s ties with the Libyan authorities in general and their education of Colonel Gaddafi’s son Saif, specifically.

Needless to say, this has all made for easy headlines, noisy protests and the furrowing of brows among much of the left-leaning intelligentsia in the UK. The affair has now led to the honourable resignation of the university’s director, Sir Howard Davies. Yet this furore is overshadowing the great work done by the university in general and the sterling work of the LSE IDEAS department in particular, which has hosted Professor Niall Ferguson this year, to great acclaim.

As a practicing academic in the current economic and educational climate it is hard to know where to start with the accusations that have been levelled at the LSE and its management.

For years of course, the Libyan regime was a pariah on the international scene, blamed for the downing of Pan-Am flight 103 over Lockerbie and for over atrocities during the 1980s and early 1990s. It is no coincidence that the bad guys in Back to the Future were Libyan terrorists; in an age of Gorbachev’s reforms, ‘Mad Dog’ Gaddafi made a perfect foil for President Reagan.

Yet in the twenty-first century, quiet diplomatic efforts, led in part by the British government, appeared to make great strides, leading to the meeting between Gaddafi and Tony Blair and the Libyan leader’s rejection of a WMD programme. In line with these developments, and at the behest of the British government, the LSE advised the Libyan government with regard to its finances. At the same time, a number of British companies, including BP, sought to maximise the new potential that exited in dealing with this former adversary. For that was the situation as it stood until the past few weeks; of Libya as a reformed state, with whom the west could suddenly do business.

Little wonder therefore that organisations and universities were happy to trade and advise Libya since they were actively encouraged to so do by their own government! Advise Libya on financial matters? Why not! Educate potential Libyan leaders of tomorrow? No problem. And why should it be? After all, this was a country that was embraced on the UN Human Rights Council and was not seen as being worthy of inclusion in the now notorious Axis of Evil.

That the British government has allowed the LSE to twist in the wind like this is shameful, as is the all too obvious silence by former members of the Labour government. With former Foreign Secretary David Milliband due to address the LSE in the coming weeks, it will be interesting to see what he has to say on the subject, unless, of course, he cancels in favour of his efforts to seek a career in television.

During the Second World War the United States’ government encouraged its citizens to join organisations that celebrated US ties with the USSR and its esteemed leader ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin. Within a few short years this same government would accuse such citizens of being Communists as the McCarthy era purges began. The LSE is in such a position today.

The other allegations centre on the LSE’s decision to educate Gaddafi’s son, Saif. Educating an individual whose wealth and power may have questionable origins had better not be outlawed, else there will suddenly be both a mass exodus of students and with them a great deal of money from many British universities, right at the moment that they cannot afford to lose either. With less and less public money being allocated to the university sector, more and more institutions will be required to look elsewhere for their funding. If businesses and philanthropists come forward to provide assistance, great, but if not, then the bank accounts of the not so great and the not so good will look increasingly attractive and necessary if these academic institutions are to survive in the increasingly competitive marketplace of global education.

The LSE will no doubt be hoping that Sir Howard’s departure will draw a line under the issue and that the focus will now shift elsewhere. But no one working in academia or seeking a career in the university system should be under any illusions that this situation is in any way unique or that it will not happen again. Indeed, it is the proverbial tip of the iceberg and more likely to be the way of things in the future than any mere embarrassing solitary incident.

David Cameron: Blending modern conservatism with 1960s US Liberalism?

On a day when much will be said of David Cameron’s use of language and tone following his speech on radicalism and Islamic-extremism at the Munich Security Conference, it is perhaps worth considering the repeated use that the British Prime Minister makes of lines and ideas that originated in the United States of the 1960s.

Cameron is hardly the first politician to attempt to emulate a Kennedyesque picture postcard family, but he has been unusually brazen in his use of language and phrases that have their origins in the time period. Lest anyone wonder quite what I mean consider the following examples:

Long before he became Prime minister, David Cameron was referencing JFK in a speech that called for cleaner cars and lower fuel emissions. Speaking to environment leaders in June 2008, Cameron deliberately called for a Kennedy style focus on a new mission. “As John F Kennedy said of his vision of an American on the moon by 1970, a goal that at the time seemed impossible to achieve: ‘We choose to go to the moon in this decade not because it is easy, but because it is hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills.’ We need a JFK vision for clean cars today.”

Cameron’s speech of March 31, 2010 revealed the central philosophy of his public policy; the Big Society. Cameron referred to Kennedy as having asked ‘the noble question’ as posed in his inaugural address: “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Quoting liberal Democrats is hardly a thing that British conservative Prime Ministers have made a habit of, but David Cameron would buck that trend . His speech also lauded the work of Barack Obama, the former community organiser turned Commander-in-Chief.

At the April 13, 2010 launch of his election manifesto, Cameron referred to Kennedy as “a great American president” and proceeded to repeat the fabled words, “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” as a preface to his concept of getting people to aid their families and their community too. So, two things here; firstly the reference to JFK, a liberal Democrat as being “great,” and secondly the direct quote from Kennedy’s inaugural address of January 1961. When I was involved with the Tories in the late 1990s my efforts to consort with Democrats Abroad were forbidden. Now we have a conservative Prime Minister heaping praise on a Democrat President. I’d call that progress. This was too much to go un-noticed, of course, with the Telegraph referring to it as ‘Cameron’s Kennedy Moment.’ Missed, however, was Cameron’s distinctly American reference to “we, the people.”

The Conservative campaign manifesto document made reference to ‘the brightest and the best,’ a phrase that was identified with Kennedy’s cabinet before it was ironically inverted by David Halberstam in his Pulitzer Prize winning book on the drift to war in Vietnam. Cameron was not only paraphrasing JFK, but also being compared to him in political circles, to the detriment of Gordon Brown, of course, whose similarity to Richard Nixon could be the subject of a whole other posting!

At his first Party Conference speech as leader of the Conservative Party, Cameron deliberate made an effort to paraphrase JFK’s inaugural address, something the Observer picked upon immediately. 

Now, one need not be a particularly avid reader of American politics or history to notice that Cameron’s Big Society concept bears more than a passing resemblance to President Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society.’ Designed by LBJ to complete the work of FDR’s New Deal, the Great society would ultimately come undone due toe the small but competing issue of the Vietnam War and the realisation that it really wasn’t wise to attempt to have guns and butter. At its core, however, the Great society was Johnson’s dream of reducing poverty and racial divisions. Worryingly, the American link was spotted, but incorrectly attributed. The Daily Mail was quick to suggest that Cameron was once more emulating not LBJ, but his predecessor, President Kennedy. James Chapman suggested that ‘David Cameron echoes Kennedy in crusade to empower communities.’ Nice try, but wide of the mark. I’ve always found that it helps to attribute the right polices to the right presidents. 

Lest anyone think that Cameron is ignoring his Republican cousins across the Atlantic, he is not about a Nixon reference when the occasion serves. As the general election was launched Cameron declared he was fighting for “the great ignored,” a phrase that immediately brought to mind Nixon’s Silent Majority. It will be intriguing to see which American president Cameron quotes next. I wouldn’t expect to hear many Bushism thrown in for good measure!

A Mother has two sons….

You may have heard the old joke in American politics, “A mother has two sons, one joins the navy, the other becomes Vice President… And neither are ever heard of again.” Ok, so not particularly funny, but it used to have them rolling in the aisles in the 1950s when Tricky Dicky was Ike’s Veep.

Now the tale needs updating to accommodate the Miliband brood. One son becomes a Foreign Secretary with aspirations of leadership, heeds his kid brother’s advice not to challenge the leader and to bide his time, and is then defeated by said brother in the leadership election. I wonder how Christmas will be in the Miliband household this year?

However….I wonder if poor old David hasn’t escaped lightly and may yet have the last laugh. As of this morning he has yet to announce his plans. But for what it’s worth, let’s speculate: Ed has secured the leadership without the support of the Parliamentary Labour Party or the membership and is reliant on the Unions for support. If the Tories are smart this will be brought up on every occasion that the increasingly militant  unions bring London to a grinding halt or ground British Airways flights at Christmas.

How does David Miliband deal with this? By putting 3,000 miles of clear blue water between himself and the plight of his kid bother. Go west, young man and make a killing. Go to Harvard and teach. Cosy up to the Democrats in DC, let Hillary swoon over you in Fogy Bottom and become a man of international renown. Meanwhile let brother Ed take the fall for another Labour defeat in 4 1/2 years and become the next ‘greatest Labour prime minister the country never had.’

Then he can decide if he wants to return to the fray and lead a resurgent Labour Party in 2015… It’s just a thought.

How will D.C. be received in DC?

With the new British government now having issued its much vaunted Emergency Budget, eyes will no doubt start to turn towards the Prime Minister’s imminent visit to Washington to meet President Obama. The first visit by the PM to the White House is always an important event and this will prove to be no exception.

The meeting comes at a delicate time for UK/US relations. With troops serving together in Afghanistan the room for disagreement is slender, yet focus will no doubt be concentrated upon any potential rift caused by the BP oil disaster.

The media will no doubt be looking for any sign of division caused by the events in the Gulf of Mexico, the may even go so far as to stress division where none exists. What they will miss, no doubt, is the change in fortune that the Conservatives are experiencing in Washington and the implications that this may have for the Special Relationship.

It is standard diplomatic practice for the American president to grant an audience to the Leader of the Opposition. Even Ronald Reagan extended this courtesy to Neil Kinnock despite his obvious (and stated) support for Prime Minister Thatcher. Recent events have been somewhat more problematic, however. William Hague met George W. Bush in Crawford, Texas, prior to the election of 2000, but one wonders if the Texan governor thought that perhaps he was due to see former Secretary of State Al Hague?

In the years that followed the debacle of 2000 the leaders of Her Majesties’ loyal opposition were effectively given the cold shoulder in DC, so close was Bush to Blair. Michael Howard was considered persona non grata in Washington following his calls for Blair’s resignation and Ian Duncan Smith failed to make an impression in his 2002 visit.

Of course it is also true that the Conservatives have sought to gain access whilst still maintaining a low profile. David Cameron met Bush at the White House in a meeting in 2007, but images are hard to come by. Clearly there was a desire to be received in official Washington, but less of a desire to distribute images of Cameron with an unpopular president. Cameron’s visit in 2007 followed a 5 year absence from Washington for a leader of the Conservative Party, the longest since the advent of the jet engine.

When Prime Minster David Cameron returns to DC he will do so in a very different capacity and with a very different occupant of the White House. Barack Obama was the first foreign leader to congratulate Cameron upon becoming PM and the Foreign Secretary’s first overseas foray was to Washington and a meeting with Hillary Clinton.  This meeting was important as it presented the opportunity to reset official relations between London and Washington that has been waning for several years.

When Gorden Brown became PM he was eager not to become tainted by his relationship with George W. Bush, whose time in the White House was drawing to a close. Accordingly, Brown set a very different tone for the Special Relationship than had Tony Blair. However, it would appear that President Obama adopted a similar stance to Gordon Brown, not wishing to be seen as being to close to an unpopular British PM who was rightly expected to lose office at the earliest possible occasion.

With the departure of Brown and Bush and the emergence of Obama and Cameron, therefore, the slate has effectively been wiped clean, allowing for a new era in Transatlantic ties. Having met previously on Senator Obama’s trip to London in 2008, the PM will be eager to forge a new working relationship that is businesslike and balanced, avoiding the pitfalls that Blair fell into time and again for pandering to the White House with little or no derived benefit.

The Special Relationship is about far more than the chemistry between the two leaders, but when so much attention is focused upon their dealings, it has a disproportionate impact upon all other elements; politically, culturally and militarily. With this trip, the PM will be well placed to begin a new and positive era in US-UK relations and to put to rest overblown tales of Obama rejecting a bust of Churchill (which had only been lent to the Bush White House as W. was a known admirer) and of DVD gift sets. The past can be overcome. How the BP situation is dealt with, may well be another question…