Letters: Blair's Middle East

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The Independent Online

Few will qualify for Blair's 'alliance of moderation'

Sir: Tony Blair has called on countries in the Middle East to form an "alliance of moderation" to take on Iran as part of a monumental struggle between democracy and extremism.

Presumably this means ruling out the participation of any country that does such immoderate things as executing people by cutting off their heads - or hands if they're thieves; or denying women equal rights, or not allowing freedom of speech and of the press.

Certainly he'd have to rule out countries whose citizens have financed international terrorism. It is obvious too, that no Middle Eastern country that didn't have a properly functioning democracy could join an alliance to engage in a democratic crusade.

Taking all this into account, obviously Saudi Arabia would have to be ruled out for a start; and you wouldn't be able to sell arms to this country either, because not only is Saudi Arabia not a moderate Islamic country, but it doesn't believe in democracy either. So why would the alliance of moderates that has to fight for democracy arm its opponents?

Indeed, using the above criteria I wonder just how many Middle Eastern states would be fit to join Tony Blair's "monumental struggle for democracy"?



Sir: I agree with Adrian Hamilton's judgement on the Prime Minister's misguided venture into the Middle East ("Every day he clings on, the damage gets worse", 21 December). What is particularly striking is the evident poverty of his briefing and his lack of knowledge of the history of the region, so vital in understanding its problems.

It was reported that, at a gathering of women students in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, Mr Blair was asked about the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, by which Britain and France sought to partition parts of the Ottoman Empire. His blank response clearly indicated he had no idea of what was being referred to.

Some months ago, he demonstrated similar ignorance in relation to Mohammed Mossadegh, an iconic figure in Iran whose overthrow in 1953 by US/UK agencies still rankles in Iran. Even a cursory reading of an elementary history of the Middle East would have demonstrated the importance of these two events.

Mr Blair, as a former barrister, should be well aware of the vital importance of mastering his brief. Instead, he seems to be driven by flawed ideological zeal.



Not anti-politics, just pro-reform

Sir: I dispute Steve Richards' view that an anti-politics viewpoint, whether or not shared by the BBC, serves no one (Opinion, 19 December). Indeed, it is a catalyst for long-overdue change to the political system of the UK. The obvious major problem is the national, central government in London.

The history of the British political system over the past 25 years has been of crushing centralisation by all governments, Conservative and Labour. A clear example has been the diminishing of local authorities to little more than agents of the central government.

This unrepresentative Government, beset by its own mismanagement, is unchecked and unbalanced by Parliament or any other centre of power. The anti-politics view wants an improved political system that reasserts the authority of a representative Parliament, reflecting most of the people of the United Kingdom, not the 20 per cent who elected the present Government.

This overdue change must be in the context of a new constitutional arrangement that also removes from the central government the prerogative powers, including the power to declare war without the authority of Parliament, and restores the authority of and respect for our judges, the legal system and the rule of law.

For me and others, the last straw comes very close when the Prime Minister directs the abandonment of criminal proceedings, as he has done so blatantly.

We have been here before. The Stuart kings were the equal of the present Government in their contempt for Parliament and their claims to powers which were not theirs. The civil wars of the next 100 years frightened all concerned to cobble together the basis of the existing constitution, which worked only because it was largely respected until recently.

The past 25 years have demonstrated that the constitutional checks and balances are worthless to protect the freedoms of the peoples of the United Kingdom. They do not reflect the needs of the present, and the future.



Sir: Steve Richards' article on the BBC's coverage of the cash for honours investigation accuses the BBC of being "one-sided" and "anti-politics", both of which are wrong.

The first time the police have interviewed a serving Prime Minister was a major news story, and the primary duty in reporting the story on that day was to tell the audience what actually happened. The key facts were that the Prime Minister had not been cautioned, was not treated as a suspect and there may never be any charges in this case. The issues around party funding have been covered extensively across various BBC news programmes over the past weeks in interviews, packages and reporter two-ways but were not the primary focus that day.

His criticism of the Thursday night political review, This Week, for including a commentary by Michael Gambon lambasting politicians is itself one-sided. This Week has attracted a strong audience for its accessible, irreverent and challenging way of talking about politics, and the regular panel of Diane Abbot, Michael Portillo and Andrew Neil are the antithesis of "anti-politics".

Reporting an unprecedented investigation such as this is not without difficulties and of course the BBC must continually strive to explain the context to its audiences. But it is just not true to say the BBC is anti-politics when it reports the facts of this story.



Circumcision and preventing HIV

Sir: Male circumcision not a "magic bullet" in the fight against HIV ("Male circumcision: the kindest cut", 19 December).

Research suggesting male circumcision helps lower the risk of contracting HIV is an important step forward. But the article fails to mention the main risks in encouraging circumcision in developing countries, as a means of minimising risk of HIV infection.

The US study in Uganda and Kenya shows a clear halving of the risk of contracting HIV in circumcised men, but more research is needed into the impact of circumcision on men's sexual behaviour.

Will condoms and other protective measures be abandoned under the false sense of security that circumcision provides full protection from HIV? What would the implications be for women's and girls' exposure to HIV, to other sexually transmitted diseases and to unplanned pregnancy? And what about the risk of complications from the surgical procedure when performed by unqualified doctors, with dirty equipment and without anaesthesia?

Male circumcision must form part of a broader strategy. Effective approaches to HIV prevention must include education, providing access to male and female condoms, and tackling the stigma and discrimination associated with Aids which keep men and women from seeking information about HIV and Aids, prevention measures, contraception, testing and treatment in their local communities.



Where to find more soldiers

Sir: I agree with the Defence Secretary that the Army needs to grow. I would urge him not to take the short-term route at the expense of the Royal Navy or Royal Air Force, both of which have also suffered heavy cuts.

There are 20 fit Nepali applicants for every place the UK advertises in the Gurkha regiment. Why not increase the size of the Gurkha contingent to fill the gaps in the Army? If that isn't enough, replicate the Gurkha model and have a West Indian regiment and a Pacific Islands regiment. There are thousands of fit and willing people in poorer Commonwealth countries who would find British Army pay highly attractive.



Sir: Des Browne claims we need more troops. No, we don't. We need fewer wars.



Spotlight on the Darfur genocide

Sir: Thank you for your courageous coverage of the Darfur genocide (articles, 20 December). After three years and the mass slaughter and rape of innocent civilians, you have restored my faith in journalistic integrity.

The attention span of the mainstream media has proven short and easy to divert. Even the most anodyne celebrity's love-life garners more coverage than a genocide in Darfur. If it isn't made visible by the media it is forgotten.

In the same way that the media can take credit for inciting such huge international support which indubitably benefited the victims of the Asian tsunami, it must also accept responsibility for failing the black African victims of genocide; again.



Born in today's Bethlehem

Sir: Johann Hari asks: "What would happen if the Virgin Mary came to Bethlehem today?" (23 December). She would not last 24 hours. Hamas activists would kill her and Joseph for the crime of being Jews. If she concealed her religious identity, morality brigades would gun them down as adulterers, or her own family would polish her off in an "honour" killing for having become pregnant outside wedlock.

If she escaped that, Muslim radicals, faithful to Koranic doctrine would put her to death as a heretic for claiming to be the Mother of God, and would execute the infant Jesus for his pretension to be the Son of God. The three Magi would be beheaded as star worshippers and the angel Gabriel sent back to heaven for re-training in Islamic theology.

The reality of life in the West Bank and Gaza has as much to do with unreformed Islamic conservatism as it has with Israel's repeatedly thwarted attempts to achieve peace and goodwill in equal measure for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.



Sir: Give a thought to the citizens of Bethlehem. Their town is cut off by Israel and tourist numbers are down. Imagine if this year Christ was about to be born. Would he be better off in 21st-century Bethlehem or the time of King Herod? Would Mary and Joseph make it through the road blocks and violence that is now Palestine? No doubt that they could stay at any hotel as there are vacancies everywhere.

The other people with the problem would be the Magi, coming from somewhere in the East - Iran, Iraq? Would they be welcome and have an easy trip or would they be caught by border patrols or held hostage by terrorists.

Let's hope that 2007 will be a turning point for peace in the Middle East.



On your own for a happy Christmas

Sir: You report (23 December) that the Liberal Democrat Party "urged everyone to visit anyone they knew was spending the festive period on their own". Heaven save us from interfering busybody politicians. And they say Labour are running a nanny state!

Some of us prefer to be alone on 25 December. It's hard enough convincing friends and relatives without encouraging perfect strangers to join in! Why is it seen as frightening to be alone on the 25th? Since when has celebrating the birth of Christ turned into a suffocating attempt to make everyone behave in the same way?

Peace on earth, please! And leave me alone.



Brain food

Sir: A survey showed vegetarians are more intelligent than those who eat meat. Does this mean that vegetarians become more intelligent because of their diet, or that more intelligent people choose to become vegetarians? As a lowly carnivore, I'm afraid I possess neither the intellect nor knowledge to solve this conundrum.



Seasonal shutdown

Sir: A list of road works and queues and delays at airports, then the annual 58-hour shutdown of railways. This is my 31st Christmas in Britain and I've never understood the reason for the absence of public transport on Christmas and Boxing Day. London calls itself a world city, and some take pride in having the world's busiest airport, but public transport is scarcely available on two days when many people would travel. It can't be for religious reasons, and other cities and countries manage. What's the problem?



Foggy airport

Sir: My father was chief architect to Imperial Airways, and early in the Second World War was asked to advise on the choice of a base for the Air Transport Auxiliary. Two possible airfields were considered: Heathrow, and White Waltham, near Maidenhead. A carbon copy of this report survived into my teens, and I remember clearly his conclusion that, among its other manifest disadvantages, Heathrow was very fog-prone. Perhaps London Airport should have been located about 12 miles to the West.



Faithful Anglicans

Sir: Charles Wesley was not a Methodist ("Wassail that about?", 20 December); he was a worshipping member of the Church of England at St Marylebone Old Church to the end of his life. You will find his grave in the garden of remembrance where Marylebone Old Church used to stand. John Wesley was not a Methodist either: he was an Anglican priest and never renounced his holy orders. John Wesley's followers split from the Anglican church to become Methodists.



End of civilisation

Sir: I bought a little box of cocktail sticks, and noticed they had been made in China. What worries me is that, by the time the oil has run out, we will have lost the know-how and technology to make the cocktail sticks in this country, and they will have to be carried overland from China by pack-horse.