The ‘peacenik’ President heeds a call to arms – but is it too little, too late?

THERE must be an awful lot of soap being used up in the White House and Whitehall, as ministers and their minions try to wash their hands of Iraq.

And I bet the label on each bar is stamped, ‘For ditherers only.’ If not, they should be.

Because the great brains of Western diplomacy haven’t a clue whether to stick, twist or chuck in their hand and allow violence to take its unnatural course in sorting out the latest Middle East imbroglio.

Various military acronyms rooted in WW2 slang – like FUBAR and SNAFU, whose meanings I won’t spell out for fear of upsetting those of a sensitive disposition – spring to mind as pertinent descriptions for the plight of those whose indecision may, or may not, be final.

And at the very top of the pile of confused, anguished hand-wringers is an American leader, whose default setting is to gaze at his navel, as if answers to the world’s ills miraculously lie within the lint of his belly button.

In 2008 Barack Obama was elected President on an anti-war ticket, redolent with slogans ranging from ‘Hope’ to ‘Yes We Can’ (whatever that meant). The following year he was awarded the Nobel Peace prize, based not on deeds, but the same windy promises that shoehorned him into office. Even the man himself was flabbergasted.

Over six years later his main achievements of note have been extricating his gung-ho predecessor, George W. Bush’s ‘Coalition of the Willing’ from Iraq and downsizing troops in Afghanistan, with the aim of every Crusader GI quitting by New Year.

But, given the daily evidence of mounting carnage afflicting both rudderless states, there’s little to embellish Obama’s legacy, except for taking Hillary Clinton’s advice on obliterating Osama bin Laden.

RUTHLESS & MURDEROUS: The Sunni fanatics of ISIS have ignited  the power-keg of Iraq

RUTHLESS & MURDEROUS: The Sunni fanatics of ISIS march on, having ignited the power-keg of Iraq

Meanwhile, even starry-eyed optimists recognise it’s only a matter of time before the untamed Taliban return to Kabul and fill the void created by the exit of NATO troops.

An even more alarming spectre haunts Western policy-makers over the future of Iraq, where a sectarian strife has erupted in all but civil war, as murderous Sunni fanatics of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS, mop up the oil-rich hinterland and threaten Shia-dominated Baghdad.

It’s futile to rake over old coals, as former British leader Tony Blair recently did in justifying the 2003 invasion/liberation of Iraq, because history is already writ large, though it was always received wisdom the country would be a powder-keg for decades.

That it has exploded so ghoulishly is largely due to the ineptitude and arrogance of Nouri al-Maliki, the Shia Prime Minister, who ethnically cleansed Iraq’s government, army and civil service of virtually any Sunni and Kurdish influence.

Even if the nation’s religious demographics gave Shias a 65% majority, the vision for a democratic, post-conflict Iraq was intended to be an inclusive one, with a modicum of power-sharing.

Now, stability exists only in far-north, autonomous Kurdistan, while the rest of the country seems damned to imitate next-door Syria and descend into a sectarian bloodbath.

That the blinkered Maliki was stupid and overcome by megalomania is beyond doubt, despite having a democratic mandate.

But, as his paymaster and sponsor, Obama – for all his aversion to confrontation – should have had the wit to nip the shameless power-grab in the bud and read the riot act to the idiot of Baghdad much earlier.

Hence, now we see a battle-fatigued America being re-drawn into the conflict, after the President announced on Thursday 300 special operatives would go to Iraq and ‘provide technical support’ to help overcome ISIS, after Maliki pleaded for US intervention.

Talk about déjà vu all over again!

FAR APART: Obama is angry Prime Minister Maliki (right) has turned Iraq into a Shia-governed state

CLOSE TOGETHER, FAR APART: Obama is angry Prime Minister Maliki (right) has turned Iraq into a Shia-governed state

Meanwhile, how much difference 300 specialists can make – and whether they are too little, too late – is debatable, as is Obama’s vague threat of force, ‘if intelligence recommended it’.

But, at least, he took a sideswipe at the Iraqi leader, underlining the error of his ways.

Nevertheless, it bode ill for the 44th President, who’s hardly put a foot right dealing with crises on foreign fields since his election.

He and his diplomatic corps at the State Department – situated in aptly-named Foggy Bottom – utterly misread the runes of the Arab Spring, ignominiously backtracked over the ‘red lines’ warning to Syria’s butcher, Assad, tried and failed to arm-twist allies Israel into a one-sided peace deal with the deceitful Palestinians and contracted the ousting of Libya’s lunatic, Gaddafi, to France and the UK.

To add to his litany of follies, Obama has practically given Iran a free pass on its nuclear ambitions and allowed Vladimir Putin to run rings round him over Ukraine.

Rarely – if ever – has a US commander-in-chief commanded so little respect on the world stage, now a far more parlous place for his ineptitude and dithering.

The very real and present danger is that matters threaten to grow rapidly worse, because not only does ISIS make Al-Qaeda appear pussycats, their manifesto is to export terror worldwide, once they’ve established a Sharia caliphate across a swathe of Syria and Iraq.

The irony of all ironies is only one nation has sufficient military and diplomatic muscle to halt their charge and lift the West off the peg it’s impaled upon: Iran.

Through its religious ties, only it has the ears of Maliki and Assad, whose Alawite sect is a Shia offshoot.

However unedifying, the notion of Tehran’s terror-mongers and ‘The Great Satan’ of the USA finding common cause is increasing from possibility to probability, as back-channel chatter between the two is said to be buzzing.

The threat is not lost on Iran’s arch foe, Saudi Arabia, whose ambassador to Britain, Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf al-Saud, warned last week, ‘There must be no meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs, not by us or by the US, the UK or any other government.’

If a US-Iran alliance does come to pass, though, any slender hope of Obama leaving a legacy of a peace-maker president will be forever tarnished.

No wonder they’re busy passing the soap in the White House and Whitehall.

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Why Spain is stuck between a rock and a hard place over British Gib

Not for nothing is this time of year dubbed ‘The Silly Season’ and my prediction for the summer of 2013 is that it’ll go down in the annals as one of the daftest yet.

With parliaments in long recess, official business on hold and politicos busy spending their ill-gotten gains in sunnier climes, we news types are left scratching around for something pertinent to report.

Then – lo and behold! – our prayers are answered by another gripping sequel to an on-going brouhaha concerning a 2.6-square mile pimple on the gluteus maximus of Europe, with a population of around 30,000.

Yes, Gibraltar is again making headlines for all the wrong reasons. And, regardless of which country’s media and jingoism you subscribe to, there’s no denying the fact that verbal exocets are exploding with increasing velocity from both sides of the great divide, though Spain’s more so than Britain’s.

To the Spanish El Peñón, as they call The Rock, is a long-festering scab that gets picked from time to time, often – surprise, surprise! – coinciding with economic gloom. It’s a sure-fire distraction to set Latin tempers aflame, because it pricks to the pride of a nation whose patchwork quilt of autonomous regions regularly threatens to come apart at the seams.

So, while Catalans, Galicians, Extramadurans and certainly Basques can’t agree on most issues, Gib is the glue that sticks the Spanish Humpty Dumpty together again.

ROCK SOLID: 99% of Gibraltarians want to remain British

ROCK SOLID: 99% of Gibraltarians want to remain British

General Franco certainly understood the emotional impact of playing the Gibraltar card, because he made much of expunging the British overseas territory from local maps and inventing ‘border incidents’ to suit his whims.

Following in the footprints of the fascist dictator’s jackboots, now centre-Right premier Mariano Rajoy is in high dungeon over the Gib government’s decision to create an artificial reef to protect fish stocks by dumping concrete blocks into its waters, ostensibly imperilling the livelihoods of Spanish fishermen.

However, at a time when corruption allegations swirl round Spain’s government, the economy is on the rocks and unemployment at one of the highest levels in the EU, 7,000 Spaniards daily cross onto The Rock to work – a fact not lost on union chiefs, livid with their leader’s posturing in far-off Madrid.

Despite the commerical benefits, in what smacks of the backdrop to a farcical Gilbert and Sullivan libretto, Gibraltar has become an international flashpoint – and not for the first time at the petulant Rajoy’s prompting.

In May, 2012, the Popular Party leader threw his toys out of the pram and banned Queen Sofia from officially attending her cousin, Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, presumably because it somehow implied recognition of UK sovereignty over the craggy outcrop. And to add insult to royal injury, Spain formally objected to a visit by Prince Edward and his missus to The Rock as part of his mum’s knees-up.

Now, cranking up the pressure, Spain’s foreign minister, Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, mutters darkly about to taking Gib to the United Nations – not that they could sort out a schoolyard scrap – or the International Court of Justice, bogged down as it is in The Hague with the mundane trivia of trying war criminals.

ON THE ROCKS: Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish PM, is using Gib as a convenient distration

GIB THUMPER: But is Spanish PM, Mariano Rajoy, simply using The Rock as a convenient distraction?

Meanwhile, a ploy being touted in Madrid is teaming up in common cause with Cristina Fernández Kirchner, Argentina’s pseudo-democratic dominatrix, who’s obsessed with ‘liberating’ the Falklands/Malvinas from British rule, despite all but one of the 2,841 islanders refusing her kind offer of citizenship.

However, Spain should realise that getting into the diplomatic sack with Hissy Crissy has its downsides, since she presides over a corrupt and bankrupt state that last year siezed YPF – the local arm of Spanish energy giant, Repsol – to pay off debts.

The odds, then, of a Spain-Argentina axis bearing fruit are, as my bookmaker says, about as good as a three-legged Chihuahua exploding out of Trap 6 to win the Greyhound Derby.

Neither has the weight of history on its side and both claims to territory that’s not theirs reek of crass hypocrisy.

Spain can blame the overarching ambition of Philip V for the loss of Gibraltar, because in 1701 he tried to usurp the French throne in what became known as the War of Spanish Succession.

Fearing a calamitous shift in European power, an alliance between Britain, Holland, the Germanic Holy Roman Empire and the Duchy of Savoy crushed the Bourbon’s biscuit.

Gibraltar was captured in 1704 by an Anglo-Dutch fleet and, in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, ceded to Britain (along with Minorca temporarily) ‘in perpetuity’, which – the last time I consulted my lexicon – meant forever and a sunset.

Over the centuries the miniscule splodge of Jurassic limestone has played a defining role in Britain’s defences and, to some extent, still does. Moreover, in the last 13 years, its inhabitants have twice voted in plebiscites, by 99 to one, to remain British, which, under Europe’s rules of people’s self-determination, should render the issue beyond debate.

Like his Argentinian counterpart in the case of the Falklands, that doesn’t stop Rajoy banging on about bi-lateral talks with Britain over Gib’s future, bypassing the reasonable and legal aspirations of the locals.

However, when taken to task, he conveniently dodges the thorny topics of Melilla and Ceuta, the two enclaves of Spain’s North African empire, which the uppity Moroccans somehow consider theirs.

Let’s not forget, either, the medieval town of Olivenza, which the Spanish wrested from Portugal in the 1801 War of the Oranges and have retained with dubious legality ever since, irrespective of the fact that the Portuguese no longer kick up a fuss over its ownership.

And, if we’re discussing historical imperatives, add one from Osama bin Laden, whose first diktat as Al-Qaeda’s head honcho was to demand the return of Andalucía – El Andaluz, as his forbearers called it before 1492 – to Muslim dominion.

Verily, as pots call kettles black in the kitchen of international diplomacy, the vipers of historical fact have an unfortunate habit of biting the dissenter in the backside.

Doing your bit now for Syria is too little, too late, Mr. President

As the weight of history leans ever more heavily on his shoulder – and no US President wants to leave office looking like a ‘wuss’ – Barack Obama is about to shed his conflict aversion.

‘Stop leading from behind,’ his friends chorus apropos Syria’s civil war, while ex-President Bill Clinton is even more critical, describing his Democratic Party successor as a ‘fool’ and that word, ‘wuss’ (a term I’m unfamiliar with, but can’t help thinking it’s not a compliment).

Obama’s problem is two-fold: firstly, his default setting is that of a liberal conciliator, who, for all his silver-tongued oratory, would rather shut up than put up; secondly, he slavishly follows opinion polls, which Slick Willy says isn’t the hallmark of a true leader.

Because, of all US Commanders in Chief, Clinton knows there are limits to navel-gazing, as he admitted – with teary regret – after shutting his eyes to the Rwanda genocide. That was why he finally ignored the people’s voice, took up military cudgels and sorted out the Bosnia-Kosovo mess, after Europe and the UN had lamentably failed.

The Syrian bloodbath, however, is riddled by complexities that threaten the worst of worse-case scenarios. Plus, coming as it does when the West is untangling itself from controversial engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq – after an Arab Spring that has transited into an Islamic Winter – no-one wants a Cold War-style stand-off.

But, while Obama’s policy of wait and berate may have seemed laudable after G ‘Dubya’ Bush’s gung-ho era, sitting on the sidelines, manicured fingers crossed that Syria’s goody rebels – not those nasty Al-Qaeda types – would topple the detestable Bashar Assad, is growing a remoter possibility by the day.

STAYING GLUM: Obama ponders over arming the Syrian rebels

STAYING GLUM: Obama ponders over arming the Syrian rebels

And now the President has fallen into a trap of his own making. When, last August, he threatened ‘red lines’ would be crossed if the Demon of Damascus ever resorted to chemical weapons, Obama should have realised it would only be a matter of time before that likelihood happened and the snare was triggered.

It has been, even if Bashar’s Russian buddies claim evidence is flimsy.

In reality, so far perhaps only a few hundred Syrians have been victims of gassing, probably by sarin. And while I don’t denigrate that appalling statistic, Obama’s stress on bio-warfare being a game-changer somehow diminishes the other 93,000 fatalities, whose deaths by conventional weapons were mostly far grislier than from anything concocted in a laboratory.

To be fair, the off-the-cuff , ‘red lines’ remark to journalists was made when the rebels – under the banner of the secularly moderate Syrian National Council (SNC) – looked short-odds favourites to win and fears were growing the maverick regime would break open its biological arsenal and stage a gory last stand.

Less than a year on, however, the tables are turning dramatically in Assad’s favour, after worse dangers than the sporadic use of nerve agents have exploded onto the bloodletting.

On one side, thousands of Shiite fanatics from Hezbollah have streamed over the Lebanese border to prop up the despot and they are being joined by an estimated 4,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards, all tooled up with increasingly sophisticated Russian weaponry.

In the rebel corner, provisioned by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, countless, rabidly Sunni jihadis from every corner of the globe, including Britain, have flooded into Syria, itching to take a swipe at Assad and his foreign legion.

FIGHTING BACK: But anti-Assad rebels are looking to the West to arm them

FIGHTING BACK: But anti-Assad rebels are looking to the West to arm them

It is these combined alien elements, not gas, that have proved the real game-changer. And, far from being internecine strife, Syria has become the battleground for a proxy war between Islam’s opposing ideologies.

Now – after Obama’s failure at last week’s G8 confab to talk Vladimir Putin into halting Russia’s ‘arms-lift’ to Assad – thanks to his ‘red lines’ warning, the US President is faced with a humiliating volte face or putting his munitions where his mouth is.

The nightmare fear is that US weaponry will fall into the hands of Al-Qaeda affiliates and eventually be used against the West. Certainly, nobody with a modicum of marbles has forgotten Afghanistan, where the CIA equipped the mujahedeen against the Soviets and Osama bin Laden was regarded as a ‘good guy’, a fact chillingly underlined by Putin.

So the talk is of supplying limited battlefield technology, maybe light arms plus anti-tank missiles, and pray a diplomatic miracle – one of the magnitude of Obama walking on the nearby lake – will somehow happen if a Geneva peace conference slated for later this month takes place.

Should it do, the likelihood is everyone will turn up, with the possible exception of the adversaries. Having clawed back the initiative, Assad has nothing to gain by making an appearance. And the SNC, who certainly don’t speak for all the rebel factions, insist on the tyrant retreating into ignominious exile before they’ll come for a natter.

Far from a ushering in a breakthrough, the meeting’s chances of success can best be summarised by an expression incorporating the words ‘snowball’, ‘chance’ and ‘Hell’.

Meanwhile, with an eye to his legacy, Obama won’t want to be remembered as a Jimmy Carter Mark II, though there’s every danger he will.

Imitating probably the most inept, post-WW2 occupant of the White House – who blundered monumentally in the Iran Hostages Crisis with a botched rescue mission and was serially incompetent in handling the US economy – Obama missed a real window of opportunity to halt the Syrian carnage more than a year ago.

Urged on by his then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and Pentagon top brass to outfit the rebels when their fortunes were soaring and they weren’t infested by Islamist headbangers, he dithered, dallied and did nothing.

Today, then, it’s nigh on impossible for the President to make a moral, humanitarian case for intervention, because that time has elapsed.

The best Obama can hope for is to claim, ‘Well, I did my bit.’

But whatever that bit is, it’s a bit too little and a lot too late.

It’s only ‘Hasta la vista, baby’…Hillary deserves to return as Madam President

Rarely do American Secretaries of State leave their mark as indelibly as the man behind the Oval Office desk. Most retire into obscurity and, apart from rare exceptions – perhaps remembered more for ineptitude than diplomacy – few leave a legacy of achievement to match that of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Naturally, no-one can hold public office without detractors and the legion of Hillary-bashers will continue deriding her as, variously, The Wicked Witch of the West Wing, Shrillery, The Bride of Clintonstein and worse.

Unforgiving feminist ultras will also ceaselessly attack her for sticking like a *dingleberry to her philandering hubby, Slick Willy, during a presidency frequently mired by scandal and tales too tall, they’d shame Baron Munchausen.

Somehow, though, both Clintons redeemed themselves and even Bill has reclaimed a measure of affection most thought unimaginable, especially after his outrageous claim that although Monika Lewinsky had sex with him, it wasn’t reciprocal (‘Ah wuz enjoin’ a ci-gar at the time,’ was his laughable excuse).

Hillary, meantime, was said to have only been given the job as US foreign minister by Barack Obama to stop her having a hissy fit after the ugly mud-slinging of the Democratic Party’s joust between the pair for the presidential nomination.

Without any prior diplomatic experience – except as hostess to foreign dignitaries in her eight years as First Lady – she was tipped to be a lame duck and cannon-fodder for the State Department mandarins.

Except, no siree, she wasn’t. In fact, she was anything but. And, though guile, charm, acute perception and hard-nosed determination, she refashioned American foreign policy following the gung-ho era of G ‘Dubya’ Bush – despite Obama making it transparent from Day One of his term the US would no longer be the world’s cop.

If anything, she has consistently outshone and outperformed her aloof Commander In Chief, leaving him exposed as more professorial more presidential, a ditherer not a doer, or – to use grid-iron football parlance – a quarterback who can’t deliver a Hail Mary, killer pass.

So, while Obama pondered, Hillary ploughed on, enduring one of the roughest, toughest rides of any Secretary of State.

Because, in stark contrast to the certainties of a Cold War nuclear stalemate between the West and the communist East, the world has disintegrated into an unpredictable, shifting morass, where – as Mali has just shown – conflict could ignite anywhere almost without warning.

As the old, secular dictatorial order throughout the Middle East tumbled like dominoes in a gale, Hillary gamely sought to maintain US influence on new regimes, mainly as anti-democratic as those they deposed, even if they gained power via the ballot box.

Undeniably, she was slow in confronting the Arab Spring, which overthrew Mubarak in Egypt, hoping against hope – reflecting the aspirations of all freedom-seekers – a tenable, democratic government would ensue, after the bloody sacrifices of the students and middle-classes in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Instead, it heralded the dawn of the repugnant Muslim Brotherhood and is plunging the nation into fresh turmoil.

But, through Hillary, America sub-contracted assistance to the anti-Gaddafi rebels in Libya to Britain and France, and wisely stayed out Syria’s civil war, where there’s every likelihood the opposition will replace Assad’s secular tyranny with Sharia-based despotism.

She also did her damnedest to bring sanity to prevail over the Israel-Palestine impasse. But Muslim Brotherhood cohorts, Hamas, only want to obliterate the Jewish state and fork-tongued Fatah, on the West Bank, can’t get their thick heads round the benefits of a peace dividend.

MADAM PRESIDENT? Hillary would be a shoe-in for the White House in 2016

MADAM PRESIDENT? Hillary would be a shoe-in for the White House in 2016

Meanwhile, Hillary urged Burma’s military to edge its way to democratic reforms, convinced China of the wisdom of distancing itself from the lunatic North Koreans and airbrushed nationalistic Russia off the diplomatic map, except where the pariahs of Syria are concerned.

And throughout all this, she had to deal with a United Nations General Assembly united on only one principle: its vehement hostility to the West (unless they were talking hand-outs).

Hillary also did her best in trying give the purblind Iranians a way to have nuclear power, minus a nuclear bomb, but there’s only so long anyone can be expected bang their head on a mosque wall.

Hence, there was never a more propitious time for her to quit office than now.

The US has all but exited Iraq and Afghanistan is on the back burner in relative diplomatic terms, after she forced Obama to agree to General David Petaeus’s ‘surge’ against the Taliban.

Whatever happens next to a Kabul regime so blighted by corruption, it make Spain’s money-grubbing sleazebags seem like choirboys, is up to her successor, newly-appointed, John Kerry.

Small wonder the former senator says, ‘I’ve got big high heels to fill.’

As an addendum, it’s well known within the Washington Beltway that taking out Osama bin Laden was at Hill’s behest. Again, Mr. President was a pretty passive bystander, not that it will inhibit him from claiming the credit.

So, after flying a million miles in US – and Western – interests, is it goodbye or just hasta la vista, baby for Madam C?

The political runes point to a ‘No’. On the contrary, with three years before the holographic reign of Obama fades away, if her health holds out, Hillary should be a shoe-in as the Democrats choice for the 2016 White House race, even aged 69 – a year younger than Ronald Reagan when he became President.

The world has witnessed Hillary Clinton as the consummate politico-cum-diplomatic high-achiever and the notion of a second Clinton in charge of America is making the Republicans wince.

After the debacle of Mitt Romney’s failure, their anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-tax, anti-immigrant philosophy is an auto wreck. It plays to no-one but the red necks, mainly in the old Confederate South and, as they’ll begrudgingly admit themselves, their antediluvian opinions don’t count for a mess of beans.

As Lloyd Green, former research counsel to the George H.W. Bush campaign, says, ‘Unlike her husband, Hillary is personally disciplined. Unlike Barack Obama, she has demonstrated an ability to connect with beer-track voters across the country.’

But will her gender be an impediment to her landing the ultimate office in the land? Not a bit, say pollsters, who reckon Romney’s lack of appeal to female voters was another reasons for his undoing.

So way to go, Hill, as the Yanks would say.

*Dingleberry: A small ball of excrement that sticks to the wool of a sheep’s backside (Dictionary of Slang)