Opinion

John Lloyd

Putin’s vision of equality

John Lloyd
Sep 13, 2013 19:28 UTC

The light on the discussions on Syria in Geneva between the U.S. and Russian foreign ministers is dim and flickering and may well be snuffed out. But at least there’s a light.

For the light to become brighter, world powers must declare war not on each other, but on noxious geopolitics. It is time to end the zero-sum game. World leaders are magnetized to its bare calculus: if you’re up, I’m down. It’s not a pleasant equation, but it’s terribly hard to give up.

Vladimir Putin is a great aficionado of the game, partly because he was trained to be, as a KGB officer. All secret service people think that way. In their often brutal world, when your enemy wins, you are pretty sure to have lost. It’s likely that Putin enjoys his success in delaying the U.S.-led putative strike against President Assad of Syria as a move that establishes himself as a world figure with the future of Syria in his hands, while President Obama flails about, seeking to keep the military option on the table while constrained to follow Putin’s way. The Russian autocrat has put himself in tune with public opinion in the U.S. and Europe, and put a shine both on himself and on autocracy.

The op-ed he wrote this week, published in the New York Times, and placed there by the PR company Ketchum, was artfully crafted for Western popular assent — right down to the final sentence, an injunction that “we must not forget that God created us equal.”

Putin’s proposing himself as an angel of peace is rich. The last Times op-ed he published, in 1999, justified his flattening of much of Chechnya in pursuit of peace — which was indeed largely achieved — in the rebel Russian province. But the pleasures of cynicism are shallow. In the zero-sum game he has improved his position — and Obama is left with wails of anguish over his “weakness” and “indecision” from every quarter, liberal and conservative, domestic and foreign. 

Mark Thompson’s two-front war

John Lloyd
Sep 10, 2013 19:38 UTC

Mark Thompson is a burly, clever, self-confident, occasionally slightly intimidating man who until a year ago ran the BBC and is now chief executive officer of The New York Times Company. He’s been at the center of a very open row with his previous employer and one much more covert with his present one — not so much because he’s a troublemaker (though he seems to find it easily) but because trouble is being made for news media with high standards.

Thompson was the subject of a recent piece in New York magazine, which reported growing tension between him and Jill Abramson, the Times’ executive editor. It claimed that “the role of ‘visionary’ at the paper, traditionally held by the news chief, was now being ceded to Thompson,” and that he was usurping some news functions. Author Joe Hagan’s sources were mostly unnamed: one of them told him that Thompson had said to “a Times executive” that “I could be editor of the New York Times: I have that background.” That’s not an emollient statement for Abramson, two years into her job.

At a Reuters Institute event last weekend in Oxford, which I chaired, Thompson declined to speak about the BBC. He was to appear before the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee on Monday, and there was huge interest in the row that had developed between him and Chris Patten (Lord Patten of Barnes), the chairman of the BBC Trust — a hybrid regulator/cheerleader for the Corporation. Patten had professed ignorance of large severance payments made to a handful of senior BBC executives towards the end of Thompson’s reign, signaling that he shared the MPs’ disapproval at the size of such handouts by a publicly-owned body. But Thompson produced a 13,000-word document for the Committee, which claims that Patten, and his predecessor, were fully briefed. When he finally appeared before the MPs on Monday, he and Patten rehearsed their previous, strongly phrased, positions.

Why democracy is an insufficient force against WMD

John Lloyd
Sep 4, 2013 15:33 UTC

The British parliament’s refusal to countenance military intervention in Syria, and President Barack Obama’s decision to delay a strike until Congress approves it, point to a larger, even more dangerous contradiction of the mass destruction age.

That is, parliamentary democracy and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) sit ill together. Each confounds the other’s natural working.

This is for two reasons. First: everything about weapons of mass destruction — their possession, storage, security and use — demands centralized, authoritarian control and rapid decision making unimpeded by debate, except from within a tiny command circle. And when a rogue state uses or threatens to use WMD, leaders must react rapidly and forcefully, unconstrained by their legislatures. When they are so constrained, the result can be similar to what the British government suffered last week. Democracies that wish to police the use of WMD are held back by the same protocols that allow these institutions to thrive.

On Syria, England defects

John Lloyd
Aug 30, 2013 21:18 UTC

Thursday’s British House of Commons vote against Britain aiding in a Syrian intervention led me to center on one question: what will happen to the U.S.-UK relationship? Is that alliance now gravely weakened? Can it survive in a meaningful form?

Specifically, will Britain ever again be able to partner with the United States in any future military interventions? Without Britain, the United States will certainly carry on. It has a new best friend in France — french fries top of the menu now! — and maybe Turkey will be willing, too. In the UK, Prime Minister Cameron says Britain will remain committed to mobilising opposition to the Assad regime, delivering humanitarian aid, and deploring the use of chemical weapons.

George Osborne, the chancellor, said that the U.S.-UK relationship was a “very old one, very deep and operates on many layers.” President Obama, in an astonishingly passionate speech he gave to the UK Parliament in May 2011, agreed, calling it “one of the oldest, one of the strongest alliances the world has ever known.”

In Egypt, violence justified by a hope for democracy

John Lloyd and Abdalla F. Hassan
Aug 27, 2013 20:25 UTC

CAIRO — Alaa al-Aswany, one of Egypt’s most famous novelists, talks to visitors in a dental surgery room. Aswany, 56, was (and still is) a dentist by trade before, in middle age, rising to fame and controversy as a writer both of novels (The Yacoubian Building and Chicago) and opinion (long running columns in the independent and opposition press). He was dressed in a grey jacket and black shirt and, unusually for a dentist, smoked throughout the interview we conducted over the weekend.

Genial and expansive, he’s also angry — most of all at the Muslim Brotherhood, whose year-long government was, to his joy, cut short by the army last month. But he’s also fuming at the West, especially the U.S.: he thinks America has “no credibility left” in the Middle East’s most populous country because of its hypocrisy and naiveté.

What Aswany says matters. He’s a world literary figure, routinely listed among the world’s most influential Muslims. He had his own part in bringing down the regime of President Hosni Mubarak thanks to a confrontation on television between the writer and Ahmed Shafik, the prime minister Mubarak appointed. It was the first time Egyptians had seen a government figure chastened on live television, prompting Shafik’s resigned the next day. Shafik went on to become a presidential candidate but lost in runoff elections to Mursi. 

What’s next for the Muslim Brotherhood?

John Lloyd
Aug 22, 2013 18:38 UTC

CAIRO – The Muslim Brotherhood is on the run.

Its leaders, including its Supreme Guide, Mohamed Badie, are in prison. Badie’s only son, Ammar, was killed during the military’s clearing of protests last week. Badie’s deputy, Mahmout Ezzat replaced him, and is apparently free for now, but others are imprisoned or sought for arrest. Its protestors have been scattered by police and the army, losing hundreds of lives in the process. The cancellation of its legal status is now being discussed by the military-backed government. Former President Hosni Mubarak’s release on Thursday, from jail to house arrest, is salt in a wound. As they fall from the heights of leadership, so the old and reviled leader climbs, if shakily, out of the pit.

In a special report, Reuters correspondents wrote that the Brotherhood originally had decided not to contest for power after the fall of Mubarak, arguing — according to the U.S. scholar Nathan Brown, who met the senior Brotherhood official Khairat El-Shater several times — that ”the burdens of Egypt are too big for any one political actor.” Yet, in power, it insisted on being that one actor.

Neither a visionary nor an efficient politician, Mohamed Mursi issued meaningless calls for unity and moderation, while rooting legislative power in an Islamist-dominated Shura Council that he appointed. He brushed aside all proposals for inclusion of other forces and sought to make his office unchallengeable. Mohammed Habib, a former deputy supreme leader of the Brotherhood, now a renegade with his own party, wrote in the Egypt Independent this week that, ”they lost everything due to their failure to understand what was happening around them.”

General Sisi: An enigma without a dogma

John Lloyd
Aug 19, 2013 15:59 UTC

CAIRO — The man who presently rules Egypt, General Abdel Fattah Said al-Sisi, is an enigma. He’s even more inscrutable because he is not — to misquote Churchill — an enigma wrapped in a dogma. He’s too slippery to be filed under any kind of label. Depending on where you sit, that’s either alarming or reassuring.

A devout Muslim, he deposed a devoutly Muslim president. The boss of a military that slaughtered some 1,000 Egyptians in the past few days, he gave a speech on Sunday in which he said there was “room for everyone” in Egypt. Having smashed the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government, he appeals in the same speech for its supporters to “help rebuild democracy.” He isn’t even officially the ruler of Egypt — he retains his old post as defense minister, and is “only” first deputy prime minister. But the president, Adly Mansour, is “acting,” and the prime minister, Hazem al-Beblawi, is “interim.” Sisi put them there, sustains them there and as head of the armed forces, he’s as close as you can get to permanence. He’s the government Egypt has. 

The short thesis he wrote while at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania in 2006, called “Democracy in the Middle East,” has been much commented on for its view that democracy can only be developed in the Middle East using a Muslim model. He makes clear, though, that it would be a “moderate” kind of Islamic government, requiring support from the West, with the mission both to sharply raise educational standards and to liberalize the economy. He thinks that properly elected governments, even of extremists, should be allowed to govern — a savage irony in light of his recent actions. In another ironic observation, he wrote that the media should be free to publish diverse points of view. Does he still hold to any of this?

The coming clash of civilizations over gay rights

John Lloyd
Aug 12, 2013 20:54 UTC

Supporters of gay rights have been protesting in Western cities this past week, picketing in front of Russian embassies and consulates. They’re protesting the passing of a law in the Russian parliament that bans “homosexual propaganda” directed at under 18-year olds — which if interpreted strictly, bans all public demonstrations and much public and private discussion on the issue.

Not so long ago how a country’s administration handled its ‘homosexual problem’ would be thought of as its business. Many still think that way. But most Western democracies don’t. They haven’t just adopted legislation that enjoins equality of treatment for all, irrespective of sexuality. They have taken seriously, for the most part, the claims made by gay organizations for many years: that discrimination against gay men and women is an affront to civil liberties, and that when some states pursue discriminatory policies, those who do not should make their disapproval clear. Gay rights are now part of the world’s clash of cultures.

This is presently true most clearly in the United States and the U.K., not because they have been ahead of the pack in equality — they have lagged a bit behind Canada and the Scandinavian states, ever the pioneers in such matters — but because they have had, and still have, the most contentious relations with Russia.

Politicians, mistrusted just when we need them most

John Lloyd
Aug 6, 2013 18:23 UTC

A talented friend of mine recently asked me what I thought about an offer he received to take up a political career. The friend has brains and ambition, and achieved and enjoyed a stellar career. I advised he accept the invitation. I made sure to underscore the downside; from most points of view, it’s all downside. It would be a life much less well-rewarded, more strenuous, with the certainty of bitter opposition and the strong possibility of final disillusionment. But I still said it was the better choice.

I said that if politics, the most necessary of professions, doesn’t get such people in its ranks, its current raggedness will get worse, and the fabric will begin to rip and disintegrate. I was advising selfishly. I want to live in a world where the essential work of managing its conflicts and emergencies is overseen by elected men and women who are highly intelligent with a social morality at once liberal and firmly held. I believe they exist, and shouldn’t be discouraged by the low status of politics we’re all suffering through now.

The general consensus is that political parties are losing their talent pools because there are so many lucrative, attractive and even useful careers around for clever and energetic people. It’s worse than that: their internal struggles are at least as internecine as ever, but the tasks and dilemmas facing them are more complex and strenuous than ever before. Moreover, the press and public regard them with anything between indifference and contempt. There are only occasional flashes of admiration.

Italy confronts its fate as Berlusconi meets his

John Lloyd
Aug 1, 2013 21:37 UTC

FLORENCE — In Silvio Berlusconi’s 20th year on the scene of Italian politics, he has finally been found guilty by the country’s highest court of tax fraud. Berlusconi winked and nodded at tax evasion throughout his career. He protested that no one should pay more than one-third of their income in tax, even while the government he headed demanded up to 50 percent. He paid fortunes to dozens of the most expensive lawyers to delay, obfuscate and time-out charge after charge. That is the man who has been judged guilty of a vast fraud. In a country where tax crime runs from the bottom to (especially and most lucratively) the top of society, a judgment of this kind is even larger than the shock waves it will send through the country’s political system.

Judge Edoardo d’Avossa, in the first hearing of the fraud case in Milan last October, referred to “an incredible machine of fraud” set in place under the aegis of one who “had a natural capacity for crime.” The venerable judges of Italy’s Supreme Court took their time weighing in. Outside the vast palace that houses the court, a few enthusiasts for and against the former prime minister shouted at each other, and the broadcast reporters, half-demented by the need to fill the airwaves hour after hour, gave variations of “I have no clue what’s happening.” A little further off, a cinema showed posters advertising the French film L’Immortale, a story about the Marseilles mafia. The irony was picked up and bounced around the airwaves: would Berlusconi continue his apparent immortality?

No. But what does this mean for the coalition government, half of which is sustained by Berlusconi’s recent creation, the People of Freedom party? Despite an unpromising beginning, yoking together two parties that contained many who loathe each other and led by a modest man who was number two in the hierarchy of the center-left Democratic Party, it has given signs of real determination. It has a grasp of what must be done and a certain urgency, in the first three months of its life, in doing it. Prime Minister Enrico Letta, the man overseeing the coalition, may have a modest demeanor, but he has the advantage of surprise in a political culture that tends to privilege the flaunting of power. So far, he has shown more than a little steel beneath the mildness. He has said he wants to make large privatizations; to reduce the power of the Senate, which is presently co-equal with the lower house, leading to frequent blockages; and to change an election law that privileges tiny parties, incentivizing splits in larger ones.

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