Tag Archives: USA

Welcome to the Next Middle East War

Well, it’s already started. The many wars in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran are beginning to come together into one single, bigger conflict. We are on the road to another war.

The shadow war, which has been going on between Iran and its sworn enemies, Israel and America, ever since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution now looks like escalating. In the last few weeks there have been ominous military, naval, diplomatic and psychological-warfare developments on all fronts. The omens are not good; we seem to be heading for a major bust-up not very far from here.

Intelligence officers use a system called an ‘Indicators and Warnings board’ to monitor events and assess where they are heading. Essentially it is a list of key questions, listing the critical information requirements. Examples might be:

• Are the potential enemy’s warplanes bombed-up and armed?
• Are the pilots on weekend leave?
• Is radio traffic normal?
• Have reservists been called up?

The answers are traffic-light coded – green for normal, amber for abnormal activity and red spelling danger.

Today, the I&W board for the Middle East is not looking encouraging. From Tehran to Tobruk the war drums are beating. Iran, as ever, is at the heart of the problem.

Should another red star be added to the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf?

The narrow Strait of Hormuz is the world’s most important oil chokepoint because of the large volumes of oil that pass through the strait. In 2018, its daily oil flow comprises 21 per cent of global petroleum liquids consumption. China’s gluttonous need for fuel makes the Gulf indispensable to Beijing.

This puts Iran in a strong position geographically; and for decades Tehran has been threatening to block the Straits. In July 2018, Tehran hinted that Iran could disrupt oil flows through the Strait in response to US sanctions and Trump’s calls to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero. A Revolutionary Guards commander warned that Iran would block all oil through the Strait if Iranian exports were stopped.

The USA has been willing to use its firepower in the past. It escorted ships here during the 1980s ‘Tanker War’. America fought its last naval battle in these waters against Iran in 1988. In July that year, the warship USS Vincennes even shot down an Iranian airliner, killing all 290 aboard, in what Washington said was an accident. Tehran said it was a deliberate attack.

This summer has seen Iranian attacks on tankers with the result that now the US Navy is putting together a coalition of nations to counter a renewed maritime threat from Iran.

This US move to build a maritime multinational force to patrol the key sea route across the Strait of Hormuz prompted outrage in Tehran. Iran’s Foreign Minister blamed the US, insisting that ‘any extra-regional presence is by definition a source of insecurity’ and that Iran ‘won’t hesitate to safeguard its own security.’ The result is that tankers are now being convoyed down the Straits. All it needs now to spark fighting is some out of control Revolutionary Guard commander chancing his luck – and the Iranian RGC is a law unto itself.

This is demonstrated daily in Syria, where the long arm of Tehran now reaches as far as the Israeli border. For months now an undeclared low intensity war has been waged by the Israelis, systematically targeting Iranian weapon dumps, training camps and missile sites across Syria. Unfortunately Netanyahu’s professed strategic goal – ‘the removal of all Iranian forces from Syria’ – is fantasy. The result is a dangerous instability, because Israel is confronting a nasty dilemma. An enemy sworn ‘to drive Israel into the sea’ is camped on his borders; and every day that Tel Aviv does nothing to pre-empt Iran’s expansion makes the potential enemy stronger.

Netanyahu has been steadily raising the stakes, ostensibly with the aim of forcing Iran back to its own turf. But what does Israel seek to achieve? Removing Iran’s forces from the entire Middle East? Changing the Iranian regime?

What kind of American backing can Israel expect? Israel is now upping the ante. It was undoubtedly responsible for recent explosions at Iran-linked sites in Iraq. Sabotage or air strikes were involved and Israel stands at the top of the list of potential culprits. Israel is on the verge of expanding its anti-Iran campaign from Syria deep into Iraq to check the threat from the Islamic republic. But any Israeli action in Iraq comes with high risk that it could ignite a major regional war.

So the danger of crossing the line between limited and full-scale warfare between Israel and Iran grows daily more likely, especially now that Hezbollah – Tehran’s Shi’a proxy, currently running Lebanon – appears to be gearing up for a missile strike on Israel’s cities.

To make this devil’s brew more dangerous still, Iran – smarting from increased US sanctions – is now openly accelerating its drive to get a nuclear weapon. The Mad Mullahs, hell bent on war, can just about be contained; but the Ayatollahs with a bomb? For Israelis that is a chilling step too far. It threatens the country’s existence. Israel has made it very clear: it will not allow an Iranian bomb – by force if necessary.

Others in the region are equally nervous of any Atomic Ayatollahs. Sunni Saudi Arabia has the money and technology to build a bomb quickly to deter the Shi’a of Iran; and only last week President Erdogan openly hinted that of Turkey has an interest in obtaining a bomb, adding to worries about the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

If this were not bad enough, everywhere you look in the Middle East there are many other dangerous flashpoints, many of them already the scene of fierce fighting. In Yemen, Sunni fights Shi’a (Saudi versus Iran), as the Houthis become part of Iran’s regional proxy warriors. On the Syrian border, Turkey is already busy fighting the Kurds. Gaza and the West Bank still simmer with anti-Israeli anger. Israel has already mobilised some reservists as a cornered Netanyahu looks for a grand gesture – probably a demonstration of Israel’s military might – to help him form a government after the recent elections.

Even sleepy little Cyprus, sitting secure in the eye of the hurricane, is now feeling the heat. Drawn by the lure of black liquid gold, powerful allies are now jockeying for position. Ankara suddenly finds itself having to confront a Greek-Cypriot defensive alliance of Israelis, Egyptians, Greeks and Italians – plus France and the USA – all hungry to get their hands on the spoils of the huge natural gas reserves off the coast. Gunboats now protect the Turkish prospecting ships as a symbol, a warning and a deterrent.

The truth is we are sitting in the middle of a region set to explode at any moment, thanks to an aggressive Iran-sponsored build-up. The plan appears to be to force Israel to concentrate on dealing with threats to its civilian population – from rocket barrages and commando raids – from Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza. Consequently, Israel would not be able to focus on blocking the principal surge when it comes.

Now even China is involved. Beijing considers Iran to be its strategic partner in the greater Middle East and vital to China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ across Asia. The PRC knows that the Iranian network of roads, railroads and pipelines all the way to the Mediterranean is a major contribution to the ‘New Silk Road.’ But now, Beijing is becoming increasingly concerned by the sudden possible slide to war caused by Iran’s regional ambitions.

It may not come next week, it may not come next year, but be in no doubt, the Middle East is gearing up for a major war. And it’s important to remember that for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, according to their scriptures, a final battle between good and evil will usher in God’s brave new world, free from sin.

The place for this battle? The ancient city of Megiddo, better known by its Greek name – Armageddon – a real, geological location in Israel….

On the Freedom of the Press

The row that has blown up over the leaking of the British ambassador’s private opinions of President Trump and his administration has far-reaching consequences.

In a crude but accurate of an ambassador’s job description, Sir Christopher Meyer in his memoir, DC Confidential, revealed that Tony Blair’s chief of staff had instructed him to ‘get up the arse of the White House and stay there’ when George W Bush was President. Having been effectively barred from the White House, suddenly finding himself with little or no access to Washington’s movers and shakers, Sir Kim Darroch had little choice but to fall on his sword.

Back in London a hunt is now on to find the leaker of those secret ‘diptels’; there have even been calls for the newspaper that published them to be charged under the Official Secrets Act. This is explosive stuff because the ‘freedom of the press’ is one of the cornerstones of a free society.

Freedom of the press is the right to circulate opinions in print without censorship by the government. Americans enjoy freedom of the press under the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which states:

 ‘Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…’

In the late 1770s this was remarkable stuff. Across the Atlantic, radical MP and journalist John Wilkes landed in jail for daring to criticise the London establishment in the press.

Wilkes was accused of treason and seditious libel for publishing articles critical of King George III’s government. He was arrested, thrown out of Parliament and put into prison. His legal travails, his publications, and his every movement were covered with great interest by the colonial newspapers. To those breakaway Britons, he provided a powerful example of why liberty of the press was so critical: after their observations of London’s heavy hand, they saw press freedom as vital for their new American state.

However, this declaration of press freedom caused concern, even in the new USA.  For example, under the existing Common Law, protection against false allegations of defamation was a long standing legal right. How did that square with a press that had the legal right to print whatever it liked? ‘Fake news’ is no modern phenomenon.

Early American courts struggled with the argument that the punishment of ‘dangerous or offensive writings… [was] necessary for the preservation of peace and good order…’ How did that balance with a free press guaranteed by federal law? That difficult question was swept under the carpet for two centuries after the ratification of the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

Not so in Britain, however. In the early years of the 20th century spy fever gripped Britain. An Anglo-German naval arms race bred a panicky – if totally inaccurate – belief that the country was riddled with spies bent on uncovering the defence secrets of British dreadnoughts and dockyards. A worried government rushed through an Official Secrets Act in 1911 with little debate or opposition. The new Act had extremely wide-ranging powers. There were two main sections: Section 1 contained tough provisions against espionage and concentrated on the theft of military secrets; Section 2 dealt with unauthorised disclosure of government information, making it a criminal offence to disclose any official information without lawful authority.

The absurdity of making publication of even a Buckingham Palace menu a crime was quickly spotted by lawyers and widely ignored.

Across the Atlantic this problem came to light during World War I. In a famous case a man called Schenk had been convicted under the US wartime Espionage Act for publishing leaflets urging resistance to the Draft. This went against the right to freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes tried to unscramble the contradiction, ruling: ‘the question in every case is whether the words are used… to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.’ He went on to add the all-important interpretation of the legal principle:

‘There is no threat to national security implied in the release of this material. It is embarrassing…  but it is the duty of media organisations to bring new and interesting facts into the public domain. That is what they are there for. A prosecution on this basis would amount to an infringement on press freedom.’

The Supreme Court agreed, and held that virtually all forms of restraint on free speech were unconstitutional. The key was that embarrassing the government was no crime; the real illegality was the theft of secrets.

Into this delicate legal minefield one of Britain’s most senior police officers has now blundered. Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said the leak had caused damage to the UK’s international relations, pompously warning that journalists who publish leaked information risk going to jail. Senior legal figures said that Basu, the head of the Metropolitan Police’s specialist operations, appeared to have set out to ‘protect the Government from embarrassment’ after he issued his warning that the publication of the leaked memos could in itself be ‘a criminal matter’.

The subsequent outrage was both unnecessary and predictable. Sharp-eyed lawyers immediately pointed out that in law, the authorities have to prove that ‘damage’ – not mere embarrassment – has been caused to Britain’s international relations through a leak.

However, nothing that Ambassador Darroch said in his diptels was remarkable. He could have been quoting the views of the Guardian or the New York Times on Trump. Nothing has been published that in any way affects national security. So for the Mail to be threatened with the Official Secrets Act 1989 was a clumsy and unwise thing to do. The real crime is the theft and leaking of the secret diptels. Even then the case is arguable: nothing that has been leaked in these particular diplomatic reports threatens Britain’s (or Britons’) security. However, even if there had been sensitive material involved, it is a decision for responsible newspaper editors to decide whether or not they should publish it.

The authorities quickly realised that a PR disaster was looming; from 10 Downing Street downwards the hapless Assistant Chief Commissioner of the Met was thrown under the bus, ethnic figurehead of ‘diversity’ and Common Purpose mole or not. Even London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, who is responsible for policing in London, said the media ‘must not be told’ what they could publish. Sir Paul Stephenson, a former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and a mentor to Mr Basu when he was at the force, warned that the police must ‘step very carefully and warily’.

Politicians en masse quickly backed away from what was an obvious tar baby; trying to muzzle – let alone jail – newspaper editors in today’s digital communications world would be political suicide, especially when no lives are at risk from the disclosure.

Here is the key: whereas Julian Assange and his unwitting pawn Private Chelsea Manning stole US military secrets and really did put many undercover lives at risk via Wikileaks, nothing the Mail has published risks anything other than the red faces of officials. So, to threaten editors with the OSA and Court Number One at the Old Bailey was a blunder of monumental proportions.

The irony is that the British press are often far too ‘responsible’. For example, over the Rochdale sex gangs and the Elm Guest House MPs paedophile scandals the press kept too quiet whilst great wrongs continued. They knew all about the Pakistani sex traffickers and they knew all about the behaviour of MPs Cyril Smith and Nicholas Fairbairn; but, under pressure not to rock the political or policing boat, the press stayed quiet. Too quiet, too long.

Press freedom is today a delicate balancing act, requiring skilful tightrope walking by editors and journalists. The threats and heavy hand of Mr Plod would be funny – if it were not so serious.

Turkey at a Crossroads?

‘Peace at home; peace in the world.’ Atatürk’s homely ambition has never been more important for Turkey. However, a number of crises are coming together inexorably to force Ankara to think long and hard about its future intentions. Turkey is at a major crossroads.

There are three main reasons: first Ankara’s relationship with the USA; second, Turkey’s position in the Middle East; and lastly, its delicate economic position.

The biggest snowball rolling down the hill is defence, surprisingly. Ankara has insisted that it will take delivery of a Russian-made S-400 advanced anti-aircraft missile system this month, but the US Congress says it will impose penalties on Turkey if it does so. The sophisticated Russian SAM system poses a direct threat to the latest hi-tech US F-35 fighter, also being supplied to Turkey.

Turkey faces a position in which it must either back away from Moscow’s S-400 deal, or accept the possible economic damage of sanctions and its eventual ejection from the US F-35 programme. The result would have been that, whether by levying economic sanctions, or by cancelling Turkey’s participation in the highly advanced (and very expensive) F-35 stealth fighter programme, the US could retaliate and hurt Turkey’s economy badly.

However, risks to its economy and the threat of US sanctions have not stopped Turkey from acquiring Moscow’s air defence system. Ankara stood firm. A government spokesman was defiant: ‘We are a serious country. Our deal with Russia continues.’ Ankara clearly believes that it can withstand US pressure over the issue – because America needs Turkey.

Then, in late June 2019 (in the margins of the G20 Osaka meeting), the Turkish president claimed that a deal had been struck. President Trump had told him there would be no sanctions over the Russian deal and that Turkey had been had been ‘treated unfairly’ over the move.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told reporters that the first delivery of the S-400s would take place within 10 days and that he believed the dispute would be overcome ‘without a problem’ and without sanctions over Ankara’s purchase of Moscow’s missiles. The results were immediate; the Turkish lira soared nearly 3 per cent on 1 July 2019 to its strongest level since April 2019.

However, Ankara’s optimism is a risky calculation. A USAF spokesman later said: ‘Nothing has changed …  Turkey will not be permitted to have both systems.’ Moreover, if the US Congress follows through on its threat to impose sanctions on Turkey by 31 July 2019 and ignores President Trump, that pressure will have a much wider impact on Turkey’s political and economic future than just defence.

Should the USA remove Turkey from the F-35 programme and impose sanctions on its NATO ally, it would be one of the most significant ruptures in recent history in the relationship between the two nations. It would be one more policy dispute that over the years have tested the complicated relationship between Turkey and the USA.

From Turkey’s military intervention to stop the Greek coup and civil war in Cyprus in 1974, to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and, more recently, US support for the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Units in Syria’s civil war, ties have frequently been strained between the supposed allies. The danger is that Turkey is, for many reasons, drifting away from the West.

This brings us to foreign policy. Turkey is being forced to recalibrate its foreign and regional policy at a time when the Middle East is undergoing a major transformation. Both Russia and Turkey are seeking more influence in an unstable region. Their relationship is a curious mix of cooperative and competitive. Whilst Ankara is well aware of the dangers of creating new risks to its already weakened economy, it also needs to demonstrate its power as a major regional player.

The problem is that Turkey and Russia have serious form going back to the days of the Tsars. For example, the Crimean War in the 1850s was really all about Russian and Turkish rivalry. Since the days of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey has always sought to deny Russia a significant presence to the south or in the eastern Mediterranean. But that is now where Russia is becoming increasingly active – especially in Syria. As Russian influence grows, Turkey’s room for regional influence shrinks. Turkey’s recent accommodation of Russia is therefore historically and geopolitically unusual.

However, given Russia’s military involvement in the Syrian civil war in 2015 – and its determination to support President Assad in power – some form of engagement between Russia and Turkey, Syria’s neighbour, was inevitable. The two sides seem, for the moment, to have settled on a wary cooperation. Russia controls northern Syria on Turkey’s border. When Turkey is frustrated with the West – as it is now over US support for Syrian Kurdish forces and the EU’s doublespeak on enlargement –- it finds in Russia a sympathetic ear.

The third factor is economics. Turkey is a major energy-importing country. It needs low energy prices, particularly given its alarming level of borrowing and an unsustainable current account deficit, much of it caused by its increasing energy needs. Ankara is however in serious economic trouble. This spills over on to the streets of Turkey itself, as recent elections have shown.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has won support on the streets by using nationalism to highlight frequent challenges from alleged EU and Western hostility, fear of Islam and foreign pressure against the country. The fragile state of Turkey’s economy now however threatens social and political stability. The country’s economy dipped into a recession since the last quarter of 2018. The lira has lost 30 per cent on the global money market.

Over the next year, the Turkish private sector must pay back at least $150 billion in debts, and in foreign currency too. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the money. Financially, Ankara is drifting towards national bankruptcy without serious economic reforms – or getting a lot of new money.

However, there are four more years until the next scheduled elections in 2023. The AKP leadership is banking on having time to stabilise the economy, as Ankara believes it can find alternative sources of money.

Two obvious pots of gold are the hydrocarbons beneath the sea off Cyprus and the lure of a sell-out to the East. To deal with the latter first, China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative (to buy up ports and infrastructure across the Middle East and eastern Europe) could be a tempting offer for Ankara. Turning to the East offers easy cash – but at a heavy price.

The second cash cow could be hydrocarbons off Cyprus, and Ankara has shown itself determined to get as much as it can and, in the process, warn off any competition. South Nicosia’s optimistic alliance of Italian, French, Israeli, US and Egyptian backers to support their national oil companies’ ambitions is being met with hard words and the threat of maritime force. The balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean is being challenged.

Inside Turkey the first tremors of a domestic political earthquake are being felt, too. With the country in economic turmoil, AKP’s legitimacy is suddenly facing serious challenges. It suffered stinging defeats in municipal elections in March and was humiliated in the recent mayoral election in İstanbul, the key to national political power. Already there is talk of a rival party based on AKP’s original blend of Islamism with democracy and liberal market policies. Both former deputy prime minister Ali Babacan and former president Abdullah Gül are now looking to create a rival party and bid for power themselves.

The result is that politically, economically and abroad, Turkey is at a crossroads; ‘peace at home and with the neighbours’ is a fine slogan, but is looking to be an increasingly distant dream …

What on Earth are ‘Rare Earths’?

Right! Hands up all those who have heard of rare earths?

I thought so – well, just for our single clever clogs at the back, name them?

You can’t?  That proves my point.

Well, we’d all now better pay attention, because rare earths are very important and are will become more so in the future; even though most of us have never even heard of them. In fact, they are going to become just one more commodity over which nations can, and probably will, come into conflict. Rare earths are a modern showstopper.

First, what are rare earths? There are 17 ‘rare earth’ minerals. They are actually fairly abundant in certain areas, but difficult to mine. Their importance stems from their uses in some vital products on which the modern world depends, including: mobile phones; fibre-optic cables; lasers; nuclear reactors; and X-ray machines.

Understandably, most people have never even heard of these obscure elements. However, a list of these rare minerals and their uses shows their importance in our modern technologically advanced and digital world. For example:

  • Scandium Found in aerospace alloys and cars’ headlamps
  • Yttrium Used in energy-efficient lightbulbs, spark plugs and cancer treatments
  • Lanthanum Found in camera lenses, battery electrodes, and catalysts used in oil refineries
  • Cerium Used in self-cleaning ovens and industrial polishers
  • Praseodymium Used in lasers
  • Neodymium Used in electric motors for electric cars, hi-tech capacitors
  • Promethium Found in luminous paint
  • Samarium Used in the control rods of nuclear reactors, lasers and atomic clocks
  • Europium Used in fluorescent lamps, MRI scanners
  • Gadolinium Found in computer chips, steel, X-ray machines
  • Terbium Used in sonar systems on navy vessels, fuel cells on hi-tech cars
  • Dysprosium Used in hard disk drives and lasers
  • Holmium Used in mass spectrometers by hospitals and forensic scientists
  • Erbium Used as catalysts for the chemicals industry and in electrical grid batteries.
  • Thulium Found in portable X-ray machines and lasers
  • Ytterbium Used in stainless steel, thyroid cancer treatment and earthquake monitoring
  • Lutetium Used in LED lightbulbs, oil refining and medical PET scans

It is clear that access to these rare elements – which most normal people have never heard of – is vital to any modern advanced economy. To take just two examples, we would all notice if MRI scanners gradually disappeared or if computer memory chips suddenly became unavailable.  So where is the problem?

There are two: first rare earths are so-called because they are not abundant; second, ominously, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) controls the world’s supply. In a world driven by global supply and demand, the economic power and control of much needed rare earths are obvious.

These rare metals, which are excellent conductors of electricity, also come with a serious health warning. They are dangerous. To extract the usable material from their ore is a very dirty business, needing acid baths and even nuclear radiation. Many are extracted from radioactive ores that contain uranium and thorium. The toxic waste from this process is harmful and there is a danger of it leaking out into the surrounding environment after processing which risks polluting water supplies.

So, just as with plastic, the West has ducked responsibility, outsourcing the environmental challenges of rare earths by dumping the problem out in the dusty deserts and cheap mass labour of far-distant China. By doing so it has allowed Beijing to corner the global market. There’s a price; China holds 37 per cent of the world’s rare-earth deposits and it controls the rest. Even when rare earths are mined in the US – or in other nations, such as Estonia – the extracted material is sent to China for processing. It’s cheaper, easier and, most important, it avoids the environmental lobby’s inevitable shrieks of outrage.

The result is that Western scientific and technical efforts have failed to develop new, cost-effective rare earth substitutes. Many universities no longer offer courses and advanced degrees in ‘materials science’, ‘metallurgy’, or ‘mining engineering’. China has cornered the market. Rare earths are now an ace in Beijing’s hand. ‘The geopolitical and economic importance of rare-earth minerals is vastly inflated by China’s overwhelming near-monopoly on the mining of these elements,’ says Ole Hansen, the head of commodities at Saxo Bank (Saxo Markets, 23 May 2019). China churns out 260,000 tons of rare earths – that’s 95 per cent of global output.

The Chinese are well aware of the importance of these commodities. In May 2019, Chinese leader Xi Jinping made a dramatic and highly symbolic gesture. He visited one of China’s most important rare-earth metals mining and processing plants, in Ganzhou, along with Liu He, his US  chief negotiator in the trade talks.

Even more significantly, he combined the visit with a stop at the monument in Yudu that marks the start of Mao’s ‘Long March’ during the Chinese civil war during the 1930s. The Long March, when the communist armies undertook a 6000-mile trek to the mountains of the north during the civil war, was a key event in communist China’s history. Xi was signalling a symbolic warning to America and the West that in any trade war, China is ready for a long, painful economic conflict.

The global effects of the visit to the Ganzhou plant were swift. Rare-earth equities leapt in value. America’s Blue Line Corporation of Texas rushed to sign a deal with Australia’s Lynas Corporation, one of the few rare-earths processors outside China. ‘I would expect US importers to develop local, domestic processing facilities over time and also to buy from non-China sources,’ said a spokesman.

Beijing is now openly ‘seriously considering’ restrictions on exports of 17 key elements; a move that will force up prices and dry up supplies of rare earths. The hit on US industry, and the military, would limit production of hard disk drives, lasers, fibre optics, LED lightbulbs, hospital scanners, low-carbon technology and camera lenses.

To make the point, Beijing raised tariffs on imports of US rare earth metal ores from 10 per cent to 25 per cent from 1 June 2019, making it less economical to send the material for processing in China. Such a move will prove costly to Washington and will be a key weapon in the trade war between the USA and China.

‘This will cause a lot of short-term pain for US companies. In the longer term it would accelerate the decoupling of the US and China,’ says Rory Green, an economist at TS Lombard. Even the IMF warns that the ‘delicate balance of the world economy could be split apart. Higher trade barriers would disrupt global supply chains and slow the spread of new technologies, ultimately lowering global productivity and welfare.’

Whilst some analysts regard cutting off supply to the USA as something of a nuclear option, others note China that the PRC already has form in ‘weaponising’ these vital metals. In 2010 there was a diplomatic spat with Japan that saw China cut the country out of its rare-earths exports. This action caused a price rise of around 20-30 per cent as a panicked Japanese market rushed to find (expensive) alternative sources.

The connections are now well-established between rare-earth elements, specialist metals – and their corresponding supply chains – and the US high-tech manufacturing sector, renewable energy, and military readiness. All these sectors in the US economy require rare earths in large quantities. Even for the world’s largest economy and most powerful military, the stakes cannot be higher. China could hold the USA (and the West, by extension) to ransom.

Does any of this matter to us?  Well, next time you look at your smart phone, that ubiquitous symbol of modern civilisation, remember that China copies and reproduces Apple’s products on an industrial scale. Apple is forced to manufacture its iPhone and other electronic products in China in order to maintain access to a steady supply of rare earths.

Think about a smart phone costing $1000 – or a Chinese knock off at £300.  Or worse – a world without your mobile phone? Unthinkable!

Rare earths matter.

Versailles – The Terrible Treaty

One hundred years ago, one of the most important conferences in the 20th century began (on 28 June 1919) culminating in the negotiation of a portentous document (finalised on 10 January 1920) that has had ramifications ever since. The Treaty of Versailles – signed to put a formal end to Word War I – turned out to be a disastrous script offering nothing but grief. It would lead in future decades to the death of millions and the chaos of the world in which we continue to live today.

For the first six months of 1919, the leaders of the great powers descended on Paris to reshape their world. Empires were broken up and horse-traded over tea and biscuits in the Quai d’Orsay as new countries were discussed and confirmed – or not. Royalty, journalists, economists, bankers, prostitutes, politicians and other con men poured in to make their unique contributions to building a ‘new world order.’

Although 27 nations attended the Peace Conference at Versailles, it was President Woodrow Wilson of the USA, Prime Minister David Lloyd George of Britain, and Prime Minister Georges Clémenceau of France who dominated the proceedings. They came to the table determined upon a settlement that would keep Germany down, albeit tempered by liberal-democratic ideals: a settlement intended to get rid of the catalysts for future conflict, or at least control them.

The problem was that everyone attending the negotiations had a different agenda. Belgium and France wanted payback and security from the warlike Germans across the Rhine. Britain had already got most of its war aims. Wilson insisted that there should be ‘peace without victory’, believing that that if Germany was treated too harshly she might seek revenge, and start another war. He came to Europe determined to preach that the sacred legacy of the Founding Fathers and American political ideas were universally intended for the good of all mankind. Cynics – including Lloyd George and Clémenceau – were sceptical.

The cracks emerged early on in the proceedings. Unlike the high-minded President, the British PM was a slippery, unprincipled pragmatist: in the US advisor’s words, he was ‘a mischief-maker who changes his mind like a weather cock’; and Clémenceau’s judgement was even harsher: ‘Lloyd George is a trickster…  Lloyd George has deceived me. He made me the finest promises, and now he breaks them.’ Clémenceau was heard to growl: ‘Between the crooked Lloyd George and the saintly Wilson, it’s like sitting between Napoleon and Jesus Christ.’

Wilson’s demand for a League of Nations to control his new world order was dealt with rapidly. Lloyd George agreed with the idealistic American to keep him happy, as did Clémenceau, both believing that although the League was theoretically a good idea, it would never work. Wilson virtuously lectured them all on ‘American values and principles of liberty and independence as a perpetual charter for the whole world.’ The startled delegates moved on rapidly to safer topics.

Russia was not represented at Versailles, even though the country was theoretically one of the victorious belligerents. The new Bolshevik regime spurned international diplomacy, concentrating instead on exporting revolution to their erstwhile allies’ home countries. The problem was that Russia was still legally an ally. However the subversive aims of Bolshevism, Lenin’s flat refusal to pay Russia’s debts, and the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, sent a shiver down the spines of European politicians, aware that they were seeing something new and alarming on the international scene.

The other important reason was that war-weary Western public opinion was decidedly hostile to any new war; in many places (such as Red Clydeside and Liverpool) people actually supported the Bolsheviks. In 1919 Whitehall was terrified of a British revolution. So the powers opted to isolate Red Russia by blockade and provide dwindling support for the anti-Bolshevik Whites. It was a policy that would cost the unfortunate Russian masses dear over the next 70 years.

The other big absentee from the negotiating table was Germany. Most Europeans were understandably bitter about the legacy of the ‘Second Reich’. Their millions of dead stood as a mute reproach to any calls for leniency towards German militarism. Clémenceau of France, demanding ‘victory with vengeance’, insisted that the defeated must expect little mercy from the victors. His aims were clear: to punish Germany; to make the Germans pay for all the damage they had done to France and Belgium; to recover Alsace and Lorraine; and to restrict Germany military power to ensure that it was forever weaker than France. The Germans were not consulted. Berlin was, in historian Norman Stone’s dry comment, ‘just expected to sign on the dotted line.’

Meanwhile the peacemakers turned their attention to creating a new and supposedly more peaceful Europe. New countries sprang up in the Balkans, where the war had started in 1914. Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Greece all got new borders. The Slavs got a national home in Yugoslavia and an independent Poland was created with a curious corridor to Danzig on the Baltic, isolating East Prussia, and creating a serious international hostage to fortune. The Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia suddenly appeared. Italy’s frontiers took in former Austrian territories inhabited by Italians. Ottoman Turkey lost everything as their empire was parcelled out. Further east the French got Syria – much to TE Lawrence and the Arabs’ dismay – and the British got the oil in what was now Iraq and Persia. (Kurdistan was completely overlooked, because Lloyd George had never heard of it and didn’t know where it was.)

When the details of the treaty were published in June 1919 German reaction was surprised and outraged. The still-blockaded German government was given just three weeks to accept the terms of the treaty, take it or leave it. Its immediate response was a lengthy list of complaints, most of which were simply ignored. The terms of the treaty were seen as an unreasonable Diktat, clearly intended to ensure that Germany remained militarily and economically powerless. After all, argued the militarists of the ‘stabbed-in-the-back’ nationalists, Germany had never actually ‘lost’ the war.

The final terms of the Treaty were indeed harsh. The blame for the whole war was placed firmly on Germany. The ‘War Guilt Clause’ (Article 231) in particular was judged very unfair. How could Germany be the only country to blame for the war? The war had been caused because a Serbian hothead had assassinated an Austrian Prince. Germans believed that they were being made the scapegoats for everything.

Berlin was also ordered to pay reparations of around 226 billion gold marks. The German army was reduced to 100,000 men, the navy to six warships and no submarines; and all military aircraft were to be destroyed. Heavy artillery, gas, tanks and military aircraft were banned. In addition, there was to be no military presence within 30 miles of the east bank of the Rhine. Kaiser William II and some German army officers were found guilty of ‘war-crimes.’

The Allies also foisted a new form of government on Germany to prevent the country from being taken over by a dictatorship. Instead ‘proportional representation’ would lead to more than 30 political parties, and the Weimar Republic’s eventual weakness and collapse.

The final act of Versailles was overshadowed by German’s refusals to sign. Political chaos reigned in Germany. The government folded and no politician was prepared to put his signature to what was seen as a dishonourable capitulation. Without a government there could be no Treaty. The Germans said that if the offending articles were removed, then they would sign. Paris refused, threatening to start Foch’s armies marching again. Germany backed down, sending two subordinate ministers to sign.

On 28 June 1919, in a glittering ceremony in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, the Peace Treaty to end World War I was finally signed. Next day Paris rejoiced, en fête; but in Germany the flags were at half mast.

Later generations would be left to deal with the problems of a resurgent Germany and the USSR, let alone Hitler, Stalin, the Cold War, the Arab-Israeli wars, Palestine, Iraq, Syria and control of global oil supplies.

All consequences of Versailles: the 20th century’s political Pandora’s Box…

Why D-Day Matters

The invasion of Normandy by Allied forces on 6 June 1944, was the Western Allies’ most critical operation of World War II.

By 1942 German armies had overrun most of Europe, North Africa and the western Soviet Union. They set up murderous police states and imprisoned million of people in the pursuit of implementing a policy of breeding a Germanic master race. With gas chambers and firing squads, Nazi Germany killed millions of Jews, Poles, Russians, homosexuals, gypsies, disabled people and others undesirable to the Nazi regime. If the attack, nicknamed ‘Operation Overlord’, had failed – and Hitler’s Wehrmacht had succeeded in pushing the invaders back into the sea – then world history would have been altered. ‘It’s hard to imagine what the consequences would have been had the Allies lost,’ says Timothy Rives, of the Eisenhower Presidential Library. ‘You could make the argument that they saved the world.’

Failure on D-Day would have freed Hitler to redeploy 20 more divisions, including eight Panzers, to meet the Red Army’s summer 1944 onslaught on the Eastern Front. The German generals would never have risked their 20 July bomb plot against a now victorious Führer and Germany’s V-weapons programme would have had the critical extra time it needed to produce thousands more new rockets and jet fighters. Many people forget that, even with D-Day and the Allied bombing offensive, German industrial production peaked in September 1944.

Also, as Andrew Roberts points out, if the Russians had overwhelmed the German armies in the East, nothing could have prevented the whole of Western Europe – perhaps even as far as Paris – falling to Joseph Stalin’s USSR.

The 50 miles of Normandy coastline is therefore one of the most important battlefields of World War II. Today’s golden tourist beaches witnessed the start of one the most ambitious and historically important campaigns in human history. In its strategy and scope – and with its enormous stakes for the future of the free world – it was among the greatest military achievements ever. The Western Allies’ goal was simple and clear cut: to put an end to the Germany military machine and topple Adolf Hitler’s barbarous Nazi regime.

For the very old men of the surviving British, American and Canadian troops who spearheaded that assault at dawn on what one commentator called ‘the longest day’, this year’s anniversary was special. It will be their last big celebration of their victory, 75 years ago in the summer of 1944. Amid the beautiful French holiday countryside, one of the most critical struggles of the twentieth century took place. It was a struggle that would eventually end at the gates of Hitler’s Chancellery in Berlin on the last day of April 1945, as a demented and broken Hitler poisoned his dog and his mistress, before finally blowing his own brains out.

But D-Day nearly didn’t happen. The whole enterprise was delayed for 24 hours by bad weather and heavy seas. Having taken the momentous decision, on the night before the invasion Eisenhower drafted an ‘In case of failure’ note, to be published if necessary: ‘If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone,’ he wrote. Like all professional soldiers, he knew that in the final analysis – assuming that his soldiers had weapons and would fight – only two factors are of paramount importance in war: intelligence and logistics.

On both counts the Allies triumphed. One of the biggest and most successful deception operations ever fed the German General Staff a brilliantly conceived and executed stream of false intelligence. From a phantom ‘4th Army’ in Scotland, preparing to invade Norway, to Patton’s massive ‘1st US Army Group’ in Kent, with its thousands of rubber tanks, fake landing craft and a mock oil depot across from the Pas de Calais at Dover, the Germans were completely fooled. In reality the busiest warriors were a few hundred Allied radio operators busy transmitting phoney signals to simulate non-existent armies’ radio traffic.

What is also often forgotten also is the staggering scale of the logistic back-up effort put in to ensure that the amphibious assault went well.

The statistics of all the materiel the Allies piled up on the beaches of southern England to support the invasion are mind blowing – not just in scale, but in attention to detail. All over southern England massive new ammo and supply dumps mushroomed. Millions of tons of stores, 100,000 vehicles and 250,000 men piled into the Channel coast bases in the spring of 1944. One of those supply units alone piled up 3 500 tons of soap, which Eisenhower insisted went to France so that his soldiers could take baths.

‘Ike’ had 3 million troops under his command; what they all devoured in just one day was stupendous. According to historian Rick Atkinson, US commanders had ‘calculated daily combat consumption, from fuel to bullets to chewing gum, at 41,298 pounds per soldier. Sixty million K-rations, enough to feed the invaders for a month, were packed in 500-ton bales.’

With his experiences of the Somme and Gallipoli, Churchill was deeply pessimistic about casualties. There is ample evidence that he harboured grave misgivings about the whole enterprise. The US Chiefs of Staff were having none of it. They insisted that casualty evacuation was given particular attention. Many of the ships headed across the channel for France, had no soldiers on board. Instead, they carried some 30,000 stretchers, 96,000 blankets and tons of supplies – blood, dressings, splints, plasma, beds, to name a few – for the assault troops that would land at Normandy.

Once ashore, a sophisticated and well-organised system of field hospitals swung into action. Medics on the beach applied basic first aid as they sorted the casualties. The ‘transportable wounded’ were embarked on to the very ships that had carried the blankets that now covered them. Across the channel they were loaded on to trains for the 150 American-built hospitals across southern England. This was the medical staffs’ vital contribution: to save lives, none more so than the forward Casualty Clearing Stations and mobile Field Hospitals as the battle plunged further into France. ‘Doctors and nurses, often working 14-hour-long shifts, consider this time as their actual battle participation,’ one medical official wrote.

Except for the difficulties on Omaha Beach – when the Americans launched their swimming tanks too far out, where they were swamped by the waves – casualties were surprisingly light, considering the perils of any frontal assault. Although German machine-gunners hit Allied soldiers hard as they came ashore from their landing craft, the Montgomery’s attack plan (in his role as Land Forces Commander) overwhelmed them, as 160,000 assault troops, 12,000 aircraft and 200,000 sailors manning 7000 vessels first blasted the defenders, then stormed the beaches.

The eight assault divisions suffered 12,000 killed, wounded and missing. The Americans lost 8230, with 2400 casualties at Omaha alone. On the other beaches casualties were surprisingly light; at Utah, the US lost only 197 men. Thanks to the firepower of their swimming tanks and other ‘funnies’ the British and Canadians had only 3000 casualties. Although no major French units took part in the invasion, many French civilians were killed, mostly by Allied bombs or shell fire. Some injured citizens were reduced to disinfecting their wounds with calvados, the local apple brandy.

By dawn on 7 June the Allies were safely ashore, dug in and there to stay. German counter attacks had been repulsed. Supplies and fresh reinforcements were flooding in and the bridgehead was expanding. As the Allied soldiers marched inland from the beaches, the delighted French cheered, many of them giving flowers to the soldiers. The success of D-Day changed the course of history for ever.

That is why President Johnson’s tart reply to de Gaulle in 1966, when the arrogant French leader demanded that all US troops leave France immediately, still hits home: ‘What? Including all the ones in your cemeteries?’

Not Another Bloody War?

Here we go again. Even as you read this, the war drums are beating. And – surprise, surprise – it’s Iran that’s at the heart of this latest eruption of trouble in the Middle East.

The problem is that in a region forever simmering with war and rumours of war, this one looks more serious than most. In the great international strategic poker game, a lot of dangerous cards are being dealt on to the region’s bloodstained and dusty gaming table.

Intelligence officers monitor crises by looking at two principal indicators: capabilities and intentions. The key question confronting the major powers’ intelligence officers is now very straightforward: are the US and Iran preparing for war? If so when, were and how? As The Guardian put it recently, ‘Old grudges, new weapons – is the US on the brink of war with Iran?

The indicators are not reassuring. US-Iran enmity goes back a long way. In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution overthrew the Shah, who was a bastion of Western support in the Middle East. Khomeini’s Revolutionary Guards invaded the US embassy, grabbing every classified document they could lay their hands on and seizing 52 American diplomats to hold as hostages. An ambitious attempt to rescue the hostages turned into an American military disaster, when helicopters collided in the desert, killing eight men.

This fiasco has never been forgotten by the Pentagon. It stirred patriotic sentiment in Iran that allowed the Islamic government to consolidate its power, and drove the USA into supporting Saddam Hussein in an attempt to bring down the rule of the Ayatollahs.

The 1979 revolution created strong passions in both countries. In Iran it was a glow of triumphalism over ‘The Great Satan’; and in the USA a simmering resentment at what was seen as a national humiliation. Few episodes in living memory, other than the sight of Royal Marines surrendering to Argentine invaders in 1982, show how public emotion can drive political decisions.

Since then Iran’s growing regional power is now seen by the USA as a serious threat to regional peace and particularly to Israel. Leading Iranian political and military figures regularly threaten to ‘wipe the Jewish homeland off the map.’ Iran has taken advantage of the Syrian War to build military bases across Syria; and a low key cross-border war between Israel and Iran has already begun. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister and close ally of President Trump, remains convinced that the Mullahs are hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons.

This nuclear dimension is the key. Trump’s decision last year to withdraw the USA from Obama’s 2015 nuclear accord with Iran and strangle Tehran’s already enfeebled economy was the catalyst.  In retaliation, Iran has reneged on the nuclear deal, and threatens to develop weapons-grade uranium. America and its allies fear Tehran’s programme could allow it to one day build atomic bombs. So does a nervous Tel Aviv.

It is against this background that the alarming intelligence indicators of a potential armed clash are being weighed.

Satellites report Iran moving S-300 SAMs and massing armed fast gunboats in the Gulf. Their role would be to swarm out and attack American and Western shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the world’s oil supplies pass.

Last week, the US State Department ordered all non-essential staffers to leave the embassy and consulate in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil. Exxon Mobil has evacuated all its foreign staff members from Iraq’s Western oilfield. A ‘Notice to Airmen’ warns of the risks to air travel in the region amid ‘heightened military activities and increased political tension.’ Lloyd’s Insurance of London is warning of increasing risks (and premiums, naturally) to maritime shipping in the Gulf.

US-allied Bahrain has warned its citizens against travel to Iraq and Iran, citing ‘unstable regional circumstances, dangerous developments and potential threats.’

In response to these rising tensions, Washington has upped the ante, flying B-52 bombers into the region and moving a nuclear equipped carrier task force with 80 aircraft, accompanied by a Marine Expeditionary Force, to the Gulf. The objective of the exercise, in the words of national security adviser, is to ‘send a message’ to Iran. Donald Trump’s tweet spells out the threat implicitly: ‘If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran.’

Iran has responded defiantly, quadrupling production of low-grade uranium while its IRGC commanders warn, ‘Over the years, our forces have completely surrounded the Persian Gulf, so that the Americans need our permission to move in this area.’ Meanwhile, a sabotage operation targeting four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates was probably sponsored by Iran, and Iran-backed rebels in Yemen claim responsibility for a drone attack on a crucial Saudi oil pipeline and an airport.

The leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force has already told Iraqi militias in Baghdad to ‘prepare for proxy war’ as the relationship with the USA deteriorates. Iraq has no shortage of friends among the Shi’a militias owing allegiance to Tehran; all are capable of stirring up fighting across the region.

Tehran has significantly expanded its footprint over the past decade, making powerful allies across the Middle East as it forges its ‘Land Bridge’ west to the Mediterranean. The IRGC’s Quds Force controls up to 140,000 Shia fighters across Syria, many dug in on Israel’s border. Quds has close links to Hezbollah, Lebanon’s well-armed anti-Israel military organisation, part of Iran’s ‘axis of resistance’, armed groups with tens of thousands of Shi’ite Muslim fighters backing Tehran. In GazaIran supports Palestinian Islamic Jihad in its struggle against what Tehran calls the ‘Zionist enemy’. Further south in Yemen, the insurrectionary Houthi rebels are openly fighting Iran’s enemy, Saudi Arabia.

At the time of writing the uncomfortable fact is that all the capabilities on both sides are in place for a dangerous confrontation between Iran and the USA. The odds are that any war would be asymmetric; Iran can stir up major trouble across the region and make deniable attacks on US and Western interests, particularly by disrupting global oil supplies. In its turn Washington, egged on by Israel, has the capability of surgical strikes to decapitate the Iranian leadership and take out key Iranian nuclear facilities.

The key question is now, what are the leaderships’ real intentions? Despite the rhetoric, it looks like neither side really wants a dragged out fight. Both are discreetly signalling that they are looking to negotiate a solution. Oman’s Foreign Minister brings news that that ‘the Islamic Republic is open to talks with the USA – but not under pressure.’  Asked if the USA was going to war with Iran, President Trump replied, ‘I hope not‘, tweeting: ‘I’m sure that Iran will want to talk soon.’

This is classic, ‘speak softly but carry a big stick’ diplomacy – on both sides.

The indications from Tehran reflect this. In a letter to the UN Security Council, Iran is hinting that the Ayatollahs don’t want war: ‘Iran will never choose war as an option or strategy in pursuing its foreign policy. But if war is imposed on us, Iran will exercise its inherent right to self-defence in order to defend its nation and to secure its interests.’

Peace or war? The stakes are very high.

With the tangle of competing alliances and a region already riven by armed struggles, this could turn out to be the conflict that no-one wants. We’ve been here before.

Just like the disastrous events of summer 1914, it only needs one spark to set off the powder train of a wider war.