Royal Weddings and Other Disasters

‘Did the earth move for you, darling?’

‘No, it bloody well didn’t! How am I expected to perform with all these damn’ courtiers standing around gawping?’

Fortunately for Prince Harry and Meghan, their wedding night will (hopefully) not be spoiled by the ancient custom of the public consummation of a royal marriage.

Throughout history, there have been some disastrous marriages involving royals. Not every royal wedding is the stuff of fairy tales.  Whilst we wish the happy couple all the best, history offers some cautionary examples.

Perhaps the most bizarre was the old custom of ‘bedding.’ The original purpose of this ceremony was to record the consummation of a marriage, without which the union could later be legally annulled. Public bedding was therefore essential for royalty and the nobility to establish the legality of any union. In medieval Iceland, a marriage was only valid if it included the bedding ritual witnessed by at least six men, including a lawyer. That must have put many a nervous groom off his stroke ….

Consummation was often a problem in dynastic marriages because of the age of the participants. For example, Isabella of Valois was just 6 years old when she was married off to King Richard II.  (But then, they couldn’t spell ‘paedophilia’ back in 1396 ….)  And Queen Mary II, of ‘William and Mary’ fame, was only 15 when she married William of Orange in 1677.

A less fortunate young bride was Marie-Antoinette, daughter of Austria’s Holy Roman Empress, who was married off by proxy in 1770 to the French Dauphin, the future King Louis XVI.  She was just 14, he was barely 15. Consummation was impossible because the groom was not present at his own wedding. That was held in the bride’s native Vienna; unfortunately, Louis was in Paris.

When the young bride finally arrived in France, her petulant husband sulked all through the wedding mass in Notre Dame and then, embarrassingly, later failed to do his public duty. As distinguished guests (including an archbishop to bless the newlyweds) crowded into the happy couple’s bed chamber to watch, something went wrong. An embarrassed Louis could not perform in public. It would be seven long years before Louis and Marie Antoinette finally consummated their marriage, making them the butt of suitably Rabelaisian jokes by court and commoners alike.

French royal weddings already had a dodgy track record.  On 18 August 1572 an arranged marriage between the Protestant (or ‘Huguenot’) Henri de Navarre, and Marguerite de Valois, the Catholic daughter of King Henri II, was designed to reunite two French royal houses by ending France’s savage religious civil war. It went wrong from the start.

The nervous groom had to stand outside Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral during the religious part of the ceremony – because he was not a Catholic! Inside, the blushing bride was forced by her brother to go through with the wedding at knife point. Six days later, on 24 August 1572, Catholic mobs slaughtered thousands of French Protestants gathered in Paris for the great royal wedding knees-up in the ‘St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.’ Henri himself only survived the carnage by swiftly promising to convert. Sadly the newlyweds’ marriage did not survive – it was later annulled.

Britain has had its own problems with royal marriages, too. After the death in childbirth of his third wife, Jane Seymour, Henry VIII looked around for a suitable Protestant dynastic replacement. The artist Holbein was despatched to Germany to paint a prospective bride, Anne of Cleves. He returned with a portrait that appears to have flattered her, because when she arrived in England Henry took one look and fled, dismayed by her drab looks and lack of sophistication, famously calling her ‘the Flanders mare’. Henry’s Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, convinced him to go through with the wedding for diplomatic reasons. After just one night, the king wanted out, proclaiming, ‘I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse’, and complaining that she also had a bad case of BO. The marriage was quietly annulled on the grounds that it had never been consummated and, as a result, Anne was never crowned, just quietly pensioned off to court as ‘the King’s Beloved Sister’. Looking at Henry VIII’s track record with his brides, Anne seems to have had a lucky escape from the fat old monster.

Another continental import, Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, arrived in London two centuries later in 1736, at the tender age of 16. She had been promised to King George II’s oldest son, Frederick. Speaking not a word of English, and clutching her favourite toy doll, she was likened to ‘a frightened puppy.’ Within ten days the unfortunate maiden was bundled into her wedding gown and marched off down the aisle. She was so nervous that she vomited down her wedding-dress and all over the skirt of her new mother-in-law. The wedding took place nonetheless, with Britain’s Hanoverian Queen translating the ceremony into Augusta’s ear.

History doesn’t record what happened on the new Princess of Wales’ wedding night but, despite its inauspicious beginning, the marriage is thought to have been a happy one and was definitely consummated. She bore nine children.

One of her grandchildren was Prince George Frederick Augustus, the dissolute eldest son of King George III. A marriage was arranged with his German cousin, Caroline of Brunswick. The future royal couple had never met. Worse, there was a little problem.  George was already married – to Maria Fitzherbert, a widow six years his senior and a commoner to boot. This existing marriage was recognised by the Catholic Church but not by English law. George protested, but the King ordered him to wed Caroline or lose his allowance.

In April 1795 a surly George met his affianced for the first time. Disappointed by Caroline’s looks and casual attitude to personal hygiene, the reluctant fiancé promptly demanded a large brandy, while the bride-to-be complained that her prince was ‘nothing like as handsome as his portrait.’

At the wedding, George arrived very late and very drunk. He managed to fall over on the altar steps in the Chapel Royal and only muttered his vows when his father, the King, shouted to him to behave himself – or else. The bridegroom then spent his wedding night drunk as a skunk, unconscious on the bedroom floor. The unhappy couple eventually produced a daughter, Princess Charlotte Augusta, in 1796. Soon afterwards George demanded a separation; but Caroline flatly refused any divorce.

An attempt to blacken the Queen by alleging ‘scandalous and improper conduct’ became the subject of an official investigation, but failed amid widespread public sympathy for Caroline. George got his revenge by having his Queen locked out of the Abbey for the coronation service in 1821. Poor old Caroline died just two weeks after guards stopped her attending her estranged husband’s coronation – by no means the first or the last victim of a disastrous royal marriage.

Closer to home the story has continued. Royalty are no more immune to the travails and trials of marriage than anyone else. Royalty pays a heavy public price for its privilege and duties – in some cases with harsh consequences, as the abdicated King Edward VIII found to his cost in 1936, when he announced he intended to marry Wallis Simpson, a divorced American.

And everyone remembers the fairy tale wedding of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 ending in bitter estrangement, divorce and ultimately tragedy. Now Britain’s future king will be a divorcé. The gilded cage of royalty can destroy relationships just like any other.

So today, let us raise our glasses to the happy couple and wish them, sincerely, all the luck in the world. They will need it on life’s journey together.

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Watch Out! There’s a War About

For once I find myself in total agreement with Vladimir Putin, who observed recently in a Blinding Glimpse of the Obvious that ‘the world is becoming a more chaotic place.’ Whilst Pres-for-life Vlad’s BGO doesn’t exactly qualify him as a great thinker, this time he is absolutely right. There’s a definite feeling abroad of an unravelling in world affairs; an uneasy sense that something nasty is lurking round the corner of history ….

As Nigel Molesworth put it so succinctly in Down with Skool: ‘History started badly and hav been getting steadily worse.’ Looking at our increasingly troubled world, maybe ‘the gorilla of 3B’ got it right.

But first, the good news. A few months ago we were all nervously observing a ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ US President threatening fire and fury at North Korea’s ‘Little Rocket Man’ over nuclear missiles. It was definitely steel helmet (and don’t forget your respirator) time. Now, thanks to Trump’s interesting blend of diplomacy, brutal economic sanctions and the threat of violence, Kim Wrong ’Un seems to have a sudden change of heart and is smiling for the cameras and shaking hands across the border. Sigh of relief all round?

However, let’s not get too excited. North Koreans have a consistent track record in talks with the South and the US: consistently lying and trousering the ‘Danegeld’ paid to them to behave themselves, whilst they ignore any agreements. We need to watch this ‘deal’ very carefully.

And let us not forget that Dictator Kim was threatening nuclear war whilst still presiding over appalling human-rights abuses as he ruthlessly executed friends and family alike to eliminate his rivals. Nonetheless, if President Trump really succeeds in negotiating an end to Kim’s nuclear provocations and the Korean War (‘Neutral ground or dramatic backdrop?‘, Telegraph, 23 April 2018), he will have defused a potentially apocalyptic global crisis.

Good luck with that.

Now for the bad news; and there is far too much, as Putin warns.  Intelligence analysts are warning that trouble is looming from at least three other directions: Syria and Iran; Israel; and a global economy deep in debt.

First, Syria, where the endless civil war to keep Assad and his Shi’a allies in power has morphed into something new – and much more worrying. UN Secretary General Guterres warns: ‘The Cold War is back with a vengeance – and a difference.’ The difference is that it is no longer cold. Something very dangerous is unfolding in the war-torn Middle East. A little-known Iranian-backed Shi’a group calling itself the ‘Baqir Brigade’ has declared jihad on US forces in Syria,  where Russian and American troops are only a rifle range apart.  The US, UK and France have already attacked Syrian military targets as a reprisal for the latest gas attack. The dangers are obvious. Any Russia and US fighting in Syria could detonate a hot war and set the entire Middle East on fire.

Further north, Turkey has invaded Syria to crush the Kurds – the warriors who really defeated ISIS on the ground. Meanwhile the Iranians and their Lebanese Shi’a proxy, Hezbollah, have set up a new battle front on Israel’s border. Iran effectively runs Syria now and is turning its malevolent eye against Israel.

This time the Mullahs are really playing with fire. Israel is not a normal country. Tel Aviv will fight like a cornered cat against an enemy that has sworn to ‘sweep the Jews into the sea.’ And Israel possesses nuclear weapons precisely to deter anyone stupid enough to threaten Israel’s very existence. Israel has warned that ‘it will retaliate with every means possible,’ if attacked by Iran and its friends.

Ironically, Iran’s nuclear ambitions may be unravelling at the very moment it tries to intimidate Israel. Tehran thought that it had pulled a stroke with nice Mr Obama with his 2016 no-nukes deal to get sanctions lifted, whilst continuing to build its Shi’a empire in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and now Yemen. Trump is having none of that. Despite Macron’s pleading for a cosy continuation of flogging French and EU goodies to oil-rich Iran, Trump pulled the plug on 12 May 2018 and re-imposed economic sanctions, blocking Iranian oil sales and wrecking Tehran’s not-so-secret nuclear plans.

This is bad news for the world economy, which is now just as vulnerable to a financial crisis as it was in 2008. Oil is the motor of commerce. Oil prices, which dropped to $30 a barrel in 2009 and 2016, are now rising as production cuts by OPEC and Russia have finally sold the world glut of oil; so supply dries up. Iranian sanctions alone will remove 500,000 barrels a day from the market.

Even America’s new oil-shale output cannot fill this gap between supply and demand. Now Brent crude has risen to $72 a barrel and will probably go higher now that Trump has re-imposed sanctions. This could be a global economic bombshell as various geostrategic crises explode. Saudi Arabia is already talking about $100 crude, setting off a speculators’ scramble;  ‘We are pretty confident that oil will be in triple digits by next year,’ opines Jean-Louis Le Mee from Westbeck Capital.

IMF reports warn of a chain-reaction for world finance. One is well-understood: debt. Global debt has been alarmingly high since the 2008 financial crisis. Since then, nations have continued to borrow hand over fist, pushing worldwide debt to $200 trillion (a trillion is a million, million million.)  That is nearly three times the size of the entire global economy.

The second economic problem is that the Chinese and German economies are going into reverse. Germany’s economy in particular is stalling surprisingly quickly. The economic miracle by the EU’s motor of industry is over and now even Berlin faces economic problems, warns Düsseldorf’s Macroeconomic Policy Institute: ‘The danger of recession has increased markedly. It is a more critical picture than just a month ago.’

All this is happening as Korea teeters on a knife edge, Washington and Moscow go head to head, Syria faces multiple wars, Israel and Iran are shaping up for a catastrophic showdown, and the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran over Yemen gets out of control with missile attacks on Saudi targets by Iranian-backed Houthis. A full blown religious war between Sunni and Shi’a has started. One intelligence analyst warns: ‘All it will take is one Houthi missile sinking a 200,000-ton oil tanker in the Gulf and the consequences would be global.’

Even here, on our island in the sun, alarming events are going on all around us. Suddenly bankrupt Greece is preparing to lease two French multi-purpose frigates to bolster its defences in the Aegean Sea, amid rising tensions with Turkey. Fighters are again on the alert over contested islands. Turkey sails warships to Cyprus to protect hydrocarbon finds. Hostages are being held on both sides. President Erdogan suddenly announces a snap election to choose the country’s next president and parliament on 24  June 2018, to give himself greater executive powers.

All this at a time when the Turkish economy is overheating, raising the possibility of another financial crisis like 2001, when the AKP first came to power promising a strong economy. With Turkish national borrowing skyrocketing and Ankara having to lure foreign money with promises of 13% interest on government bonds, this doesn’t look much like economic competence. The truth is that we are ‘living through interesting times,’ as the old Chinese curse puts it.

Whilst most normal people are just trying to get on with their lives, get to work, earn enough to raise a family and enjoy themselves, all around us alarming events look like coming to the boil. Politically we are living through world-changing history.

It’s an increasingly unstable and dangerous world.  We need to watch out for what is really going on out there.

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Gallipoli and the ANZACS

Last Wednesday, 25 April, was ANZAC day, which commemorates the invasion of Gallipoli in Western Turkey by the Allies in 1915. While Gallipoli was not exactly the British Empire’s finest hour, for Australia ‘ANZAC Day’ celebrates the colony’s rebirth as a new nation, forged in war.

The ‘Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’ was formed in Egypt in December 1914 from Antipodean volunteers. They were fit, adventurous young men, well paid and full of enthusiasm for the Empire and its war. Their first action was at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915.

However, the Gallipoli campaign turned out to be a major defeat for the Allies. It killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of men, wasted scarce resources and changed the face of British politics in the middle of a global war. It ensured that the Ottoman Empire would stay in the war, and helped condemn Tsarist Russia to defeat and the subsequent Red revolution.

The campaign was approved in January 1915, following a Russian request for an attack on Turkey. Russia was geographically isolated and fighting on three fronts. Both the Tsar and the Allies desperately needed support for Russia’s war effort because, if Russia stopped fighting, the whole might of the German war machine would be free to fall upon the Western Front.  Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, ordered a naval assault on the Dardanelle Straits to bombard Constantinople. France added reinforcements to the force assembling in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The attack started in February when Admiral Carden led a mixed British and French fleet into the Straits. The British and French battleships blasted the Turkish fortresses and marines went ashore to confirm that the forts were out of action. It therefore came as a surprise when the fleet returned early in March to be met by accurate fire from mobile Turkish field artillery batteries. Worse, the minesweeping trawlers clearing the narrows ahead of the battleships with their crews of untrained civilian fishermen ‘turned tail directly they were fired upon.’

Admiral de Robeck took over and on 18 March led another full-blooded assault to ‘Force the Narrows’, when disaster struck. Four old battleships hit mines and sank. De Robeck withdrew, planning to return with reliable minesweepers and this time with army support to secure the ground covering the Straits. The upshot was that an expeditionary force under General Sir Ian Hamilton landed on Cannakale (Gallipoli) on 25 April. The ANZACs came ashore halfway up the west coast at Gaba Tepe and the British stormed ashore on the southern tip at Cape Helles.

But now the Turks were waiting. Both landings were a shambles. The ANZACs landed on an unknown beach under heavy fire. They struggled ashore to scramble up the steep slopes to the high ground overlooking the peninsula. Some Australians could even see the distant waters of the Dardanelles.  However, back on the beach all was confusion. Units waited for orders, officers failed to advance and artillery could not get up the steep hills. A near-suicidal counter attack by Mustafa Kemal’s 19th  Division stopped the Australians. Hamilton ordered the ANZACS to consolidate and dig in. They would stay in those locations for another eight wretched months.

Hamilton tried to break out on 28 April; but little was achieved and the bridgeheads were reduced to the troglodyte trench conditions of the Western Front by a determined Turkish defence. In the first five weeks of the campaign, the Imperial troops suffered nearly 40,000 casualties, the French a further 20,000; the Turks lost even more.

Gallipoli had become a bloody failure, politically and militarily. In May 1915 Admiral Fisher resigned over the direction of the campaign. Churchill was promptly sacked by Prime Minister Asquith as the price of forming a new coalition government.

As the summer heat built up, the campaign stagnated; flies, disease, lack of water and sanitation became the real enemy in the blistering heat of a Mediterranean summer. In August three new attacks were mounted. All failed. All that was left were three beleaguered beachheads – at Helles, Anzac Cove and Suvla Bay. In October, Hamilton was replaced by Sir Charles Monro, who promptly recommended withdrawal.

Lord Kitchener himself came out to see what conditions were like on the ground; appalled, he confirmed that the campaign must be ended. The only decision left was when to do so. In December the ‘Constantinople Expeditionary Force’ extricated itself under the very noses of the Turks without the loss of a single soldier. Ironically, the evacuation was easily the most successful element of the entire campaign.

However, Gallipoli established the ANZACs’ unique reputation. This was confirmed when they joined the BEF on the Western Front in France in 1916.  However, while no one doubted their ferocity in action or their fighting ability, they were – by British army standards – woefully undisciplined. Australian blood lust in the attack was legendary and they frequently took no prisoners, as at Polygon Wood near Ypres in the final assault towards Passchendaele in 1917. Here they encountered the Prussian Guard, whom they had fought when they arrived on the Somme the year before. Even the official communique admitted, ‘the ANZACs took no prisoners’. Robert Graves claimed in Goodbye to All That, that an Australian had boasted of robbing a dozen German prisoners then killing them all in cold blood.

These excesses were not just confined to the battlefield. Stories of Australian misconduct abounded and a host of contemporary references detail the lengthy list of their misdeeds, which were not limited to drunken sprees in estaminets behind the lines, either. They had the worst VD record in the BEF and a remarkable record of disciplinary infringements and imprisonment.  (By 1918, nine Australians per thousand were in prison for military crimes, some of them extremely serious. For the rest of the Dominion troops, the figure was only 1.6 per thousand.)

Australians were even bold enough to release British prisoners undergoing field punishment and dare the Military Police to try and re-imprison them. The Australians were not just tough and resourceful; they were also brazen in their defiance of authority.

The big difference was probably the absence of the death penalty. Alone in the BEF, Australians were effectively exempt from capital punishment for military offences. Although the British Commander-in-Chief, Haig, made several pleas for the death sentence to be enforced on his bolshie Australians, for domestic Australian political reasons the penalty was never enforced. Whatever the reasons, wherever ANZAC troops gathered in a gang out of the line there was often theft, drunkenness, disorder and trouble.

This cocky, over-confident Australian attitude was not universally admired. However, a Royal Artillery officer grudgingly conceded that he was ‘always glad when they were in the line nearby.’

As the war progressed the ANZACs’ reputation grew, even as their volunteer soldiers increasingly became casualties. Their final commander was an ‘amateur’ soldier: an Australian civil engineer, John Monash. General Monash led his Australians to remarkable victories as the German Army finally collapsed in the last years of the war. From 8 August to 11 November 1918 the ANZACs alone destroyed no less than 39 German divisions and advanced 100 miles.

According to the British Official Historian, ‘We all agreed; the Australians were finest assault troops on the Western Front.’ French Marshal Foch agreed after the war, stating that ‘the greatest individual fighter of the war was the Australian,’ and Field Marshal Montgomery later wrote: ‘Sir John Monash was the finest general on the Western Front.’

ANZAC Day therefore marks Monash and his ‘Diggers’ true achievement. Australians started the war in 1914 as one of Britain’s ‘Lion Cubs.’ Thanks to the exploits of the ANZACs at Gallipoli and the Australian victories of 1918, a new, independent and proud Australia emerged from World War I.

Professor Sir Michael Howard later hailed the ANZACs as ‘builders of a nation’: he was right.

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The New War

Well, that’s it. The war is over, ISIS is beaten and on the run. We can all relax and bring the boys home. Mission accomplished.

Wrong.

In May, President Trump stood before the assembled leaders of the Sunni Muslim world and called on them to ‘drive out the terrorists and extremists … from this earth.’ Well, they have succeeded. An extraordinary coalition of Syrian, Russian, American, British, Turkish, Kurdish and Iraqi military forces have crushed ISIS’s ‘caliphate’, killed most of its leadership and made the heroic ‘Fighters for God’ flee as fast as their strictly non-suicidal legs will carry them.

Unfortunately it’s not over. Islamic State survivors have dispersed into the global undergrowth to set up a network of IS franchises known as ‘wilaya’ (Arabic for ‘provinces’) stretching from the southern Philippines to Nigeria. ISIS is far from finished. Instead it has rebranded itself by merging with existing religious fanatics who hate the West and all it stands for, and who have pledged allegiance to IS’s aims. More ominously it has also absorbed – or taken over – the legacy of Osama bin Laden’s global network, al-Qaeda. Its new leader is thought to be none other than Osama’s son, Hamza bin Laden, who resurfaced in 2015 when al-Qaeda’s Zawahiri introduced him as the torchbearer of his father’s legacy. Hamza has sworn revenge on the United States in retaliation for Osama’s murder. He is considered by intelligence agencies to be the next charismatic leader of global jihadism.

That’s the bad news. The worse news is that after ISIS’s defeat there is now a vacuum in the Middle East. However, ‘as any fule kno’, nature abhors a vacuum and nowadays Iran is only too happy to fill that vacant space. The truth is that Iran played a larger role in the battles for Mosul and Raqqa than the Coalition admits, and Tehran is determined to cash in on its victory. The war between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, between Arabs and Persians, continues with an undeclared new war stretching from Iraq to Lebanon on the Mediterranean coast.

The problem is that Washington, firmly focused on the Korean nuclear crisis, has been forced to take its eye off the ball and concentrate on the problems of the Far East rather than the Middle East and the consequences of Obama’s feeble nuclear deal with Iran. The US is well aware of Tehran’s regional power grab; but Washington can only deal with one major foreign policy crisis at a time. Iran is shaping up to become a major problem, not just for US diplomats but for the whole region.

Colonel Richard Kemp, former head of international terrorism on the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee has warned that the Iranian Shi’a Ayatollahs’ destabilising actions are not just a threat to the Middle East but pose a grave threat to wider international security. In a recent interview, he said, ‘I see Iran as the greatest threat to world peace today. Not just to the Middle East, but elsewhere in the world.’

Kemp has a point. Iran is spoiling for a fight and has effectively declared war on Sunni Saudi Arabia. Intelligence reports are clear. Openly funding and arming the mainly Shi’a Houthi rebels in Yemen, Iran is now fighting a proxy war against the Saudi-backed Yemeni government. Earlier this month the rebels launched an Iranian-supplied Scud ballistic missile across the border at Riyadh International Airport. It was brought down by a Saudi surface-to-air missile. That looks like a war.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are now locked in a fierce struggle for regional dominance. The ancient feud between Arab and Persian is made worse by deep religious differences. Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and guardian of Islam’s holy places, sees itself as the leading Sunni state and leader of the Muslim world. However, the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution, with its theocratic regime of rule by the Ayatollahs, is a permanent challenge to the Saudi monarchy. Shi’ite Iran openly declares itself to be a ‘Revolutionary Muslim’ state, anxious to export its revolution beyond its own borders.

Both nations seek to ally themselves with countries with Sunni or Shi’a majorities, and who instinctively look towards Saudi Arabia or Iran for support. The uprisings across the Arab world have also added to the political instability throughout the region. The 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab, removed an intransigent Iranian adversary. Since then Iran has moved into Iraq – politically, militarily, economically and religiously – intent on establishing itself or its proxies across the region and determined to build a land corridor west to the Mediterranean. Intelligence photographs show the Iranians constructing a network of roads, electricity and communication lines extending from Iran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

In its turn, Saudi Arabia is working hard to thwart Tehran’s growing influence and regional ambitions. When Shi’a Houthi rebels seized control of Yemen’s capital Sana’a in 2014 and began pushing south to take over the country, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Sunni Arab states intervened to support their neighbour’s government. The result is that Yemen has now become a major battleground between Riyadh and Tehran.

This intervention by the Saudis’ Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – now Saudi’s de facto ruler – has exposed wider regional tensions. However, in his efforts to stem Iranian influence, ‘MbS’ has found an unusual ally: Israel. Strange bedfellows indeed! For years Saudis have been taught that Israel is the ‘eternal enemy‘ and Jews are the descendants of apes and pigs.

The real reason for this curious alliance is that both are equally nervous about Tehran’s ambitions. Israel and Saudi Arabia were the two countries most adamantly opposed to Obama’s 2015 international agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear programme.

Both warned that the treaty did not go far enough to prevent Iran obtaining the bomb. The danger is that Israel’s alliance with Saudi inevitably brings any proxy conflict uncomfortably close to Lebanon and Cyprus.

Tel Aviv is well aware that Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese allies, lead a politically powerful bloc and, crucially, control a large, well-armed Shi’a militia. Hezbollah in Lebanon is spoiling to begin another civil war like Syria’s and poses a serious problem, because any conflict in Lebanon will almost certainly draw in Israel. This could lead to yet another devastating Israeli-Lebanese war. Israel is right to be worried by Iran’s growing threat. With Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Al-Quds brigades now parked on Israel’s borders, the risks to regional peace are obvious.

The other risk is a direct war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That Iran is preparing for trouble across the Persian Gulf is not in doubt. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has recently installed sophisticated radar, surveillance and communication equipment covering all the routes from Iran to Basra, Najaf and Karbala on Iraq’s southern coast. Intelligence sources warn, ‘The purpose of these devices, which can be used for eavesdropping and spying on mobile phones and wireless Internet services, is to cover the Iraqi-Saudi border and monitor all communications and aircraft movements.’

This build up risks a much broader conflict across the waters of the Gulf. For the US and other Western powers, freedom of navigation in the Gulf is essential. Any conflict that blocked that waterway – vital for international shipping and oil transportation – would swiftly draw in US naval and air forces.

There are other indications of serious trouble. The sudden resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister because ‘he feared an assassination attempt by Hezbollah’ simply doesn’t pass muster. The truth is that the Saudis were furious at him for holding secret talks with Iranian and Hezbollah officials. The Middle East is breaking up; and Lebanon is directly in the firing line.

With Saudi Arabia now united with Israel against Iran, plus troubled Lebanon on the brink, a new desert storm is brewing in the Middle East.

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The Month that Changed the World

A century ago this month an event occurred that would have world-changing consequences: the United States of America entered the First World War.

In 1914 the prospect of ‘Europeans cutting each other’s throats’ proved a blessing to the economy of the USA. Industrial production and stocks and shares soared that autumn as the British and French placed massive orders for weapons with American companies. The war was very distant and very profitable. The general feeling among Americans was, ‘Let Europe stew in its own juice’.

However news of German atrocities in Belgium shocked many Americans and there were some open calls for war. But with 2.3m German-Americans, German immigrants were the largest ethnic group in the United States. The Irish bore no love for the British either and America’s Jewish community supported the Germans, seeing Russian Jews rescued from the tyranny of the Tsar.  Congress agreed that staying out of it was best, and supported a strongly isolationist foreign policy. The Americans’ view was that it was not in their interest to get involved in the ‘Europeans’ War’.

However, the powerful ‘Robber Baron’ capitalists of Wall Street slowly came to realise during 1915 that if the Allies lost the war – and could not repay the two billion dollars they owed to the American bankers – the US economy risked collapse. US bankers, led by J P Morgan, unsurprisingly began to lobby for a pro-Allied policy.

Into this confused neutrality Mexican Pancho Villa’s invasion and attack on the border town of Columbus, New Mexico in early 1916 caused shockwaves throughout America. A retaliatory expedition under General John Pershing promptly invaded Mexico to hunt down the rebellious warlord. Suddenly the realities of war seemed closer for many Americans.

Moreover, by the summer of 1916 American attitudes towards Europe’s bloody conflict were changing. There were dark rumours of German-inspired industrial sabotage, supposed poisoning of water supplies, kidnapping individuals, and penetration of American labour unions. These rumours, along with the shock of the sinking of the Lusitania and the Sussex, added to the growing distrust of Germany. Growing public concern over the weak state of the US armed forces saw a National Defense Act passed in June 1916, authorizing an army of 175,000 men, and a National Guard of 450,000. Many liberals regarded this as a dangerous first step towards war and campaigned hard for peace and isolationism.

The November 1916 election spelled out these political issues very clearly. After a close fought campaign, Woodrow Wilson’s winning margin was tiny. (He carried New Hampshire by just 56 votes.) An idealistic Harvard law professor, Wilson was re-elected on a ticket promising ‘peace, progressivism and prosperity’. He succeeded primarily because he branded his Republican opponents as ‘the War Party.’ The great majority of Americans were determined to remain neutral.

Wilson tried hard to end the war, even launching his own diplomatic mission over the winter of 1916-17 to seek a peace deal. All it did however, was to reveal was that the warring factions’ aims were absolutely irreconcilable. Germany insisted on keeping Alsace and Lorraine; Britain, under its new Prime Minister Lloyd George, would fight to the death; and France and Belgium demanded all their occupied territories back, full compensation, plus a demilitarised border on the Rhine.

Then in February 1917 came the news of Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. The normally calm Wilson was furious and broke off diplomatic relations with Berlin.  Despite this, Wilson still believed that ‘the Teutonic powers’ really wanted peace and began preparing a new round of peace proposals.

However, Germany now made a disastrous blunder. On 24 February an astonished Wilson learned of the contents of a secret telegram sent by the German Foreign Minister, Zimmermann.

On top of U-boat attacks on American ships, came the breath-taking news that Berlin had made a back-stairs deal with Mexico to invade the USA. It was impossible for America to ignore such a provocation.  Wilson, who had been returned to office on a peace platform only two months before, was now contemplating taking his country to war – and all because of a serious German miscalculation.

When the German submarine cable had been cut in 1914, Sweden let Berlin use the Swedish cable to send its diplomatic telegrams out to its embassies world-wide. But this cable route went through the UK and the British codebreakers could read the German signals. The so-called ‘Swedish roundabout’ suddenly produced pay-dirt on 17 January 1917, when astonished Admiralty codebreakers intercepted a German telegram from Zimmermann to the German Ambassador in Mexico, to let him know that Germany was about to resume unrestricted submarine warfare. Ominously, it also instructed the Ambassador to offer Mexico a secret alliance with Germany on the promise that Berlin could offer ‘an understanding … that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.’

The British sat on this explosive telegram for over 2 weeks, hoping that the Americans might be provoked without any action from London. The British problem was how to tell the world of the Germans’ plans without letting them know how they had found out? That would compromise the true source and the Germans would change their codes. Signals intelligence relies on total secrecy.

London’s ‘insurance’ copy of the Mexican version of the telegram provided the solution. The British obtained a hard copy of the actual telegram that had been delivered to the Germans in Mexico City.  When the Americans were handed the formal copy of the offending telegram, they were told that it had been obtained by ‘an agent in Mexico.’ To British astonishment, Germany admitted that the telegram was no forgery.

Even when confronted with this open evidence of hostile German intention, Wilson still hesitated to call for war. He only briefed his Cabinet on 20 March, nearly a month after he had first seen the telegram. By then, the U-boats’ deliberate sinkings of neutral American merchant and passenger ships, plus the explosive content of the ‘Zimmermann Telegram’, had completely changed American public opinion.  On 2 April an indignant President briefed the House and Senate, calling for a declaration of war. In typical idealistic style however, he sold it as some great moral crusade: ‘The world,’ Wilson declared, ‘must be made safe for democracy.’ On the 6 April 1917 the USA declared war on an unrepentant Germany.

Allied hopes of any immediate reinforcement by US armed forces turned out to be optimistic. America’s army was still tiny, with only 128,000 men. There was no air force – in 1914 the army had only 6 planes and 16 pilots, and the navy was undermanned and unprepared. America was just not ready for war. The first real reinforcement only came as late as December 1917, when US Navy dreadnoughts arrived in Scapa Flow to augment Britain’s Grand Fleet.

The real benefit of America’s entry into the war in 1917 was the psychological boost to Allied morale post-Passchendaele, post-French Army mutinies, with the promise of massive new fighting forces coming from across the Atlantic in 1918 to tip the balance in Europe by sheer weight of numbers. It also meant that Berlin was now uncomfortably aware that America’s entry inevitably spelled defeat unless Germany got in some war-winning blow before it was too late.

So April 1917 was a decisive month for the war – and for the world. It was the month that would ultimately lead to Germany’s desperate final offensive of spring 1918, to be followed by inevitable defeat, retreat, revolution and the fall of the Second Reich, the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. Those great events of one hundred years ago this month would also lead to America’s emergence as a world power.

To this day we still live with the consequences of that April, long, long ago.

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North Korea: A Third World War?

Just like Cyprus, Korea is still officially at war.

An armistice (a ‘temporary cessation of hostilities’) remains the international legal position in Korea. Just as there is still no peace treaty between Greece and Turkey for the events of 1974, there is still no peace treaty between North and South Korea following the 1953 end of fighting in the Korean War.

And therein lies an almost insoluble problem. Because North Korea is now hell bent on going nuclear. And if it does, we will be confronting a serious threat to world stability and peace. Does this matter or concern us, thousands of miles away?

Yes, it does; for in the delicate balance between North and South Korea, backed respectively by China and the USA, with Japan and the South China Sea in the wings, there are now some very dangerous regional catalysts for conflict – even a major war between superpowers.

‘Fanaticism armed with power’ has always been the greatest threat to peace since the end of the Second World War. That is why the Big Five and the Security Council have strenuously tried to limit the spread of nuclear weapons.  In North Korea under its homicidal and unstable leader Kim Jong-Un, it now looks very much as if fanaticism is acquiring power – nuclear weapons. We are headed for confrontation, if not a war, because not only is the Korean dictator determined to get nuclear weapons, he is now quite openly threatening to use them.

Kim claims that his country has attained the status of a nuclear power and says he is prepared to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) against American targets. The little sealed-off communist country has carried out five nuclear tests and several missile launches recently, despite stern warnings from the UN. Only last week Kim warned that his North Korean army could ‘deal deadly blows’ without any warning against the US and South Korea. US intelligence believes that Pyongyang is in the final stages of readying itself for another yet nuclear experiment – possibly within a matter of days.

The question is; does Kim really mean it, or just blustering? The answer is, no-one knows. The fat, blood thirsty little despot has a track record of mouthing off with blood-curdling threats and then backing off.

North Korea is a strange place; a closed country with insufficient arable land and few natural resources, squeezed between China and South Korea, which is still protected by tens of thousands of U.S. forces. In the north, since the end of the Korean War, Pyongyang has accepted Chinese protection while maintaining domestic control and military power – the so called “poison-shrimp” strategy: best to ignore, because invading it would be more dangerous.

But things are changing rapidly.  With Kim’s promise to go nuclear soon, North Korea now poses a grave risk to stability, not just in the region but to the rest of us. The situation is not unlike the alliance system just before the outbreak of war in 1914, when the small fry went to war in the Balkans and dragged the major nations backing them into hostilities. The problem today is that superpower China underwrites and backs Pyongyang; over the border in the South, superpower America guarantees Seoul’s security.  A very nervous Japan looks on, horrified.

Whatever we think of Kim, his policy is very clear and rational: to stay in power by building a nuclear deterrent. With this he hopes to neutralise the long-standing threat of America, determined to destabilise his government and forcing the collapse of the North Korean regime. But now America is facing a genuine challenge to its leadership in the Far East.  Washington has to make a big decision soon. There are some serious questions to be answered.

First, how dangerous is North Korea’s nuclear capability, really? The answer is no-one for sure.

North Korea is now thought to have some 50 kg of weapons-grade plutonium, enough to make 10 nuclear bombs, according to South Korea intelligence.  Pyongyang has also made significant advancements in its ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead, as well as its ability to enrich uranium. The big problem is where exactly are these nuclear assets? North Korea has at least ten nuclear sites, scattered around the country, many deep underground.

Although the United States is unmatched when it comes to military power projection, any attempt to cripple North Korea’s nuclear programme by force faces some serious problems. Major intelligence gaps complicate Washington’s decision-making.  There is no doubt that if the US decides to carry out an air strike against North Korea, using B2 bombers with Ordnance Penetrators and 900-kilogram GBU-31 JDAMs, it could destroy North Korea’s known nuclear production infrastructure and associated nuclear sites.

The problem is that although the immediate impact would be devastating for Pyongyang, it might not be fatal. Even with the United States’ advantage in intelligence and equipment, uncertainty about the exact locations and dispositions of North Korean nuclear assets means that the complete success of any conventional strike on North Korea cannot be assured. Realistically, without the use of nuclear weapons or the invasion and total occupation of North Korea, the United States and its allies cannot guarantee absolutely the complete removal of the threat of a North Korean counter-attack in some form or other.

The most immediate and expected method of retaliation would be with conventional artillery. North Korea has an incredible 13,000 guns positioned along the border, many of them within range of Seoul, one of the world’s most densely-populated cities, just 35 miles away.

Just a single volley could deliver more than 350 tons of explosives across the South Korean capital, with massive civilian casualties.  North Korea also has an advanced chemical warfare capability, as well as large commando and sabotage forces. The latter are capable of being inserted into South Korea through tunnels or off-shore, to wreak havoc by attacking key infrastructure, logistics nodes, and US command-and-control facilities, causing mayhem behind the lines.

The conclusion is that any American pre-emptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear programme will come at a heavy price. North Korea’s revenge response to any attack is something that  U.S. policymakers cannot ignore. And China cannot be expected to stay neutral if America moves in. Beijing is already flexing its muscles with the US Navy over control of the South China Sea, and has warned Washington that deploying Terminal High Altitude Air Defence Missiles (THAAD) to protect South Korea is ‘a hostile act.’ Things are hotting up.

Kim Wrong-Un understands that he now has very little time to field his credible nuclear deterrent. But once he has one, then the chance of American intervention becomes increasingly unlikely. A diplomatic resolution is obviously preferable to direct intervention, because attacking North Korea guarantees massive destruction in return. But that needs China’s agreement and support to rein in its erratic and increasingly dangerous neighbour. And North Korea isn’t looking for diplomacy.

Logic dictates that now would be the best time to strike, before North Korea can finalise its nuclear capability. The result is that America’s new president is now between a rock and a hard place, thanks to his predecessor’s failure to act. If Trump orders a strike, then the consequences for South Korea could be devastating, as Pyongyang would almost certainly respond. But if nothing is done, then North Korea will become a nuclear power, placing American bases in Japan, Okinawa and American carrier groups in the region at risk for the first time. Would the unthinkable then become the inevitable: would Japan go nuclear for self-protection?

There will never be a perfect time to launch an operation to destroy North Korea’s nuclear capability. But one thing is evident: every week that goes by brings Pyongyang closer to a credible nuclear deterrent. Confrontation, even war, looms.

The omens are not good.