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.

One Hundred Days And Counting…

So, one hundred days after the tumultuous events that followed the 2010 general election, what have we learnt about the coalition government and its approach to foreign policy?

For one thing, Cameron appears to have taken to the job like a duck to water. No apparent hesitation or diffidence has been evident. Neither have signs of self-doubt or insecurity. Whilst he clearly relishes the role of statesman, he is secure enough in his own skin to have appointed the very credible William Hague as Foreign Secretary, who has gone about breathing new life into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Key policy decisions have already been made and announced regarding Britain’s role in the world, and the direction the nation intends to take in the 5 years of this government.

Cameron’s foreign trips have proven to be a success, even when failure was forecast. No apparent problems dealing with the White House, despite the all too problematic situation concerning BP. His declarations that followed, regarding Israel and Pakistan have been rounded on (unsurprisingly) by David Milliband, and praised by our former man in Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer. Take your pick as to who to side with. (Here’s a hint, he wears red socks…) Intriguingly, these declarations, on the status of Gaza and of terrorism in Pakistan, came after the meeting at the White House and not before. Could this be a new strategy in the Special Relationship, of good cop (Obama), and straight talking bad cop (Cameron)? It’s too early to tell, but it is worth pondering as the weeks unfold…

With a new foreign policy initiative and a new defence policy on the horizon, Cameron has sought to revitalise UK foreign policy. With the newly inaugurated National Security Council, he has sought to restructure the decision-making process and in so doing, bring both policies and procedures into the 21st century.

One hundred days in, so far, so good…

For more on this, see my interview on Aljazeera, August 18, 2010.

Splashing Around in the Gulf

As part of the Resolute Group’s effort to engage on a global basis, Director James D. Boys was recently interviewed by the Polish newspaper, Rzeczpospolita, on President Obama’s dip in the Gulf of Mexico. You can read the article, in its original Polish, at:

http://www.rp.pl/artykul/25,522744_Obama_kapie_sie_na_pokaz.html

The Senate ‘Foreign’ Relations Committee plays to a domestic constituency

It was the late Tip O’Neil who famously coined the phrase, “all politics is local.’  If ever there was a need to be reminded of this fact, it is surely in conjuncture with the latest outburst from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. For anyone watching the news coverage of the events surrounding the latest efforts to besmirch the name of BP, a logical question to ask is, who one Earth is Senator Robert Menendez, and how did he suddenly become the Chair of such a powerful Senate Committee?

The simple answer is that he is not. Despite media claims to the contrary, Senator Menendez is NOT the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, this honour still rests with the former Democratic candidate for president, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts. Why then is the media misrepresenting Menendez’s role in all of this?

The Senate is made up of 2 elected officials from every state in the Union. Of these, some 19 serve on the Foreign Relations Committee, designed to oversee the foreign policy agencies of the federal government. Accordingly, these members provide oversight into the actions of the State Department, the CIA etc. However, not all members will take the same degree of interest in all activities. These senators may be examining foreign policy, but they remain domestic politicians, dependent upon a domestic constituency for their political lives and financial viability. Accordingly, members of the ‘Foreign’ Relations Committee have one eye on the globe and another on their home state. As events occur that impact their home state, they will take a special interest. And this is what has occurred in this instance. The Pan Am flight was returned to New York’s JFK airport and accordingly, it is senators from the Empire State and the Garden State of Jersey who are taking the lead on this matter.

Senators serve a fixed 6 year term in office, 2 years longer than the president and as such have a great deal of power in Washington. However, even they need to face the electorate and can only do so armed with their achievements (or otherwise) of their time in office.  Which is to say that Senator Menendez has to bring home the bacon, to become a name on the Hill and in the country at large in order to deliver for New Jersey.  This can be a very unforgiving state, as Jon Corzine recently discovered. One way to achieve these results is to jump on a bandwagon, and it would appear that this is just what the good senator from the Garden State has done.

By seemingly convincing the world’s media that he is Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has gained sudden global exposure by attempting to question Scottish and English lawmakers in relation to the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the one individual convicted of blowing Pan Am flight 103 out of the sky in December 1988. By linking this decision to the plight of BP, the senator is on to a winner domestically, as few would be willing to defend the actions of the multi-national giant in the face of evidence that it helped lobby to release this terrorist in exchange for drilling rights. Menendez’s day in the sun was done initially by inviting former PM Tony Blair to testify, a decision that was VERY hastily withdrawn. The attention of the world’s media having been attained, Menendez extended his kind invitation to a series of lower level politicians, all of whom politely declined.

As I stated on the BBC and Sky News, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is very influential. Domestically. But it has no international jurisdiction. Whatsoever. No one is under any obligation to play ball with this inquiry and efforts to suggest otherwise are quite wrong. Not that it makes anyone look good. It is possible that reputations will be reduced as a result of all this. Quite what Americans must be thinking of their former hero, Tony Blair, when they see him grinning from ear to ear with Colonel Gaddafi, as BP sign their oil deal, is anyone’s guess. He is rapidly becoming all too reminiscent of the characature of himself in Robert Harris’ novel The Ghost: A politician out of power, out of luck and out of friends.

It is not often (nor indeed ever) that I find myself in complete agreement with Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, but his comments on Newsnight were on the button last night. If members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wish to come over for meetings to discuss the situation, great. But do not for one minute be under the illusion that lawmakers from Scotland or England are under any obligation to appear before their body in an official capacity. American claims of ‘stonewalling’ are amazing to hear when one considers that numerous hearings that have been held (and are still ongoing) into events that the US initiated but to which their officials have steadfastly refused to attend.

Senator Menendez has sought the spotlight to highlight to his constituents (many of whom lost loved ones on the Pan Am disaster) that he is doing all he can on their behalf. This is admirable enough, but it must be recognised for what it is: Domestic politics. Last night he raised the spectre of former security service personal being involved in oil deals and negotiations. I suspect that the whole area of secret deals involving oil, he security services etc will be an area that he will be wise to avoid. Like the international arms trade, there are some things that go one that no one wants examined, as a citizen of New Jersey, the good Senator will doubtless understand this.

The grandstanding also helps conceal the Senator’s role in helping to plan for the upcoming elections, that Democrats are expected to do poorly in. With little else to campaign on, his record is not looking so hot. By tilting at international bad guys, he can elevate himself to a whole new playing field. Who he climbs over in his efforts to secure his domestic reputation, will be another matter.

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…

What Would ‘W’ Do?

So here we are now, several weeks on and the BP situation is going from bad to worse. What started out as an environmental disaster is heading for something far worse. At risk now is the future of an organisation employing thousands of people around the world (including the United States) the pension funds of untold individuals whose portfolio managers have invested in the blue chip company, the immediate future of the Special Relationship and an American presidency.

Of these, the latter is worth pondering in some detail.

Some eighteen months ago, Barack Hussein Obama came to power in a barrage of good will and even better press. Gone it appeared, were the dark days of W and knee-jerk reactions to events and people. Here, it was believed, was an intelligent and thoughtful individual who would articulate wisely the thoughts and beliefs of a nation to a wider world in such a way as to reinvigorate the United States on the world stage.

Yet in this escapade, one finds the new boss, much like the old boss. With attacks coming from all sides, Obama appears to be asking only one salient question, “What would W do?”

His answer, alas, appears to be to find an easily identified foreign enemy and blast away in an effort to divert attention from American failings. In this he has been aided by a flawed response from BP that has done little if anything to help the situation. Content to put short-term domestic political considerations ahead of long-term international relationships, Obama is falling into a well laid trap that has now seen him equate the incident in the Gulf to 9/11.

All of which will be red meat to the Republicans, who can now say either that Obama is exploiting both tragedies to aid his political ends, or that in so doing, Obama reveals an ignorance of the impact that 9/11 had on the American people. And in both claims they would be absolutely correct. Keep an eye on this and see how it plays out. My guess is that you are going to be hearing this quote over and over again in attack ads in the fall. It is a major mis-calculation by the president and it could well be his undoing in the fall elections.

Obama’s willingness to say and do anything to divert attention away from any debate to do with oversight of the oil business, any discussion concerning the ownership of the platform and the casual ease with which he suggests that private individuals should be fired, is woeful behaviour that would be slammed if it were muttered by any Republican president. It would appear that Obama is still benefiting from a media-love-in that carried this untried, unqualified Senator to  the White House.

The effort to prove that this is not Obama’s Katrina is backfiring in ways that could never have been imagined. During Katrina, it simply appeared that Bush could care less about certain elements within American society and that the federal government was inept when it came to dealing with a natural disaster.

Now it appears that Obama could care less about relations with America’s oldest ally, and that the federal government continues to be inept at regulating the oil industry or at responding to environmental disasters. As each day passes, Obama is looking less and less like the great hope, and more and more like a previous Democratic president who came to know the impact that an oil crisis could have on a presidency and paid a heavy price: Jimmy Carter. Unless he is able to find the voice and the direction that propelled him to victory in 2008, Obama risks repeating Carter’s abbreviated occupation of the Oval Office.

Blood and Oil in the Water

Make no mistake, the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico is a serious one for all concerned; for the local fishing industry, for the wildlife, for residents and for those who make a living from the local region. For two groups, however, there is far more at stake: The White House and British Petroleum. For both, this has become a poker game with the highest possible stakes, an all or nothing scenario with everything to lose and only equilibrium to retain. In a situation that has come to dominate the airwaves in the United States, both parties are under fire, with political opponents seeking the opportunity to add blood to the already polluted waters.

This is about far more than pollution and environmentalism. At the heart of the story are two organisations that simply cannot be seen to lose. It is, and will continue to be, a tale of spin control. In one corner stands British Petroleum, the mighty organisation that generates vast fortunes of revenue year in and year out. In the other corner is the White House, occupied by everyone’s favourite Nobel laureate, President Obama. Under fire from political opponents for doing seemingly little about the disaster, the president has now made three trips to Louisiana in the past six weeks, in an effort to be seen to be doing something. This has involved holding meetings with local officials and taking photo-opportunity trips to beaches, staring out at the ocean and sifting through the polluted sands.

What does this achieve, one may ask? Well it presents the impression of pro-activity if nothing else. Alas, presidential visits do not simply occur, they are vast exercises in organisation and security. Marine One does not simply deposit POTUS on a beach and then deliver him safely back to the White House. The very business of placing Obama on a beach in Louisiana requires a security detail and planning that will have vastly impacted the ability of those involved in conducting the clean up from simply getting on and doing their job. Instead of working, they will be required to adhere to security restrictions put in place to accommodate Obama’s visit. Instead of getting on with the clean up, they will be required to meet with Obama, whilst the president looks stern and resolute for the evening news.

Which is to say that the situation is now simply a political football. The White House is clearly concerned that this will become seen as Obama’s Katrina, and the way to avoid this is to lay the blame squarely on BP. Thus far, BP’s response has been to attempt to plug the leak in oil, if not in its reputation. Once the oil flow has been stemmed it may be in a better position to explain the complex ownership issues that exist in the oil industry and how it came to be drilling at that time and place and the role of Halliburton in the whole process. Until then, the White House will continue to portray this as an example of greedy (and foreign) investors ruining the American environment. Such a lament is inappropriate, of course, as the American coast is ringed with drilling platforms, merrily pumping away, be it at oil or gas reserves. When Piper Alpha exploded off the British coast, no one was arguing that it was an American disaster and pointing the finger across the Atlantic.

The deregulation that has  contributed to this crisis is not unlike that which accompanied the financial market, and neither is the result. When times are good, deregulation has a thousand fathers. Now it is an orphan. BP and the Obama Administration now face the Poor House. There is only room for one and both will fight to avoid this most ignoble of ends.