Dick Dastardly’s Middle Eastern promise

A week after What Is Wales? asked what Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair was doing about the crisis in Gaza he has apparently sprung into action.
Back from holiday he has been on the telephone to Jordan’s King Abdullah II and is planning a series of meetings today.
AFP reports that King Abdullah told Mr Blair that the world’s silence over Gaza has become “unacceptable”.
What has the former crusading prime minister been up to then as the hungry and desperate people of Gaza await the tanks and troops of the Israeli Defence Force?
According to the Daily Telegraph one of the things which has been occupying his mind is the design of the Congressional Gold Medal which he has received from George W Bush.
Mr Blair has not yet been able to pick up the medal, awarded for being Bush’s “staunch and steadfast ally” during the invasion of Iraq, and like Dick Dastardly’s sidekick Muttley, he’s understandably keen to see it looks just right.

:: Demonstrations and events relating to the crisis in Gaza are continuing in Wales. See the comments section of the previous post for details.

Gaza: where are the Christmas peacemakers?

I never thought I’d ask this question but where is Tony Blair?
As Hamas and the Israeli government square up – home-made rockets against F-18s – just where is our Middle East “peace envoy”?
I thought he might have come out and done something (although on past behaviour I don’t know what I could have been expecting.)
The people of Gaza have been living under a crippling blockade since the summer of 2007.
Its population of 1.5 million lack fuel, food and medical supplies. Seventy per cent are living without electricity.
In November 2008, John Ging, the United Nations’ senior official in Gaza, told the Washington Post: “This is a disastrous situation, and it’s getting worse and worse… It is unprecedented that the UN is unable to get its supplies in to a population under such obvious distress; many of these families have been subsisting on this ration for years, and they are living hand-to-mouth.”
That same month, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, while urging Hamas to end its rocket attacks, demanded the Israeli government lift its blockade.
“The Secretary-General is concerned that food and other life saving assistance is being denied to hundreds of thousands of people, and emphasizes that measures which increase the hardship and suffering of the civilian population of the Gaza Strip as a whole are unacceptable and should cease immediately,” said a UN report.
Three out of four people in Gaza are living in poverty and 45 per cent are unemployed. Those, too, are UN figures.
According to the Red Cross, “chronic malnutrition is on a steadily rising trend and micronutrient deficiencies are of great concern”, while Unicef has reported that one in five of the population has access to six hours of water every five days – and other’s access is limited.
Today, on the third day of the latest violence, the death toll stands at 312 inside Gaza (according to Hamas) and two in Israel (according to Israeli police).
And what will the latest round of bloodshed achieve?
Robert Fisk notes in today’s Independent: “The blood-splattering has its own routine. Yes, Hamas provoked Israel’s anger, just as Israel provoked Hamas’s anger, which was provoked by Israel, which was provoked by Hamas, which … See what I mean? Hamas fires rockets at Israel, Israel bombs Hamas, Hamas fires more rockets and Israel bombs again and … Got it? And we demand security for Israel – rightly – but overlook this massive and utterly disproportionate slaughter by Israel.”
As Israel’s people prepare to go to the polls to elect a new prime minister in the new year, its army is apparently preparing to go into Gaza on the ground.
Fisk takes an Israeli general’s claim that “no country in the world would allow its citizens to be made the target of rocket attacks without taking vigorous steps to defend them” and notes that when the IRA were firing mortars over the border into Northern Ireland, Britain did not unleash the RAF on the Irish Republic.
“Did the RAF bomb churches and tankers and police stations and zap 300 civilians to teach the Irish a lesson? No, it did not. Because the world would have seen it as criminal behaviour. We didn’t want to lower ourselves to the IRA’s level.”
And what of the people inside Gaza? What is their reaction to the Israeli government’s blockade and assault likely to be?
A yearning for friendship and peace with its neighbour? Or the harbouring of further hatred that will continue to expose the uselessness of our Middle East “peace envoys” for decades to come?

Behind the blank statements on St Athan

There was a very upbeat tale in the South Wales Echo yesterday, describing the military training privatisation at St Athan as “‘on track”.
There had been fears that the huge project in the Vale of Glamorgan could fall victim to the worldwide economic crisis, the Echo reported, but Armed Forces Minister Bob Ainsworth had told the House of Commons on Tuesday that “considerable progress has been made in driving down costs and towards achieving affordable, value for money.
“Package one is on track for an investment decision in the spring of next year, with contract signature expected approximately 15 months later.”
The new base is now being called the Defence Technical Academy, as opposed to the Defence Training Academy (name changes are always a sign of trouble), but Vale of Glamorgan MP John Smith, has hit out at “the negative rumours that have been bandied about by doom-and-gloom merchants”.
“The minister’s statement confirms what I have always maintained, that St Athan is the only location that will provide technical training for all our armed forces in a high-quality bespoke environment and purpose-built facilities,” Mr Smith said.
And a spokesman for the Metrix Consortium of private companies behind the academy said greyly: “We are pleased with the progress that has been made so far and look forward to working closely with the MoD to deliver the Package One programme and the Defence Technical Academy in St Athan.”
However, over at the Defence Management Journal, the experts paint a very different picture – and rabid leftie peaceniks those boys ain’t.
They are, however, “doom-and-gloom merchants”, describing the Government’s Defence Training Review (DTR) as “oft-delayed, over budget and controversial” – all elements of the DTR which have been regularly reported at What Is Wales?
“Numerous MPs have told Defence Management that the DTR’s funding is heavily reliant on the sales of vacant MoD properties,” it reported yesterday. “The current financial crisis has not allowed the MoD to do this which has delayed a final financial agreement.
“The project is believed to already be £1bn over budget and Metrix and the MoD are reviewing extensive cuts to the programme. Ainsworth told parliament that even the alternatives such as moving the DTR to a central location in the West Midlands would be just as expensive if not more costly.”
The MoD’s project leader Brigadier Geoff Nield said in a statement that the MoD was committed “to continuing with the current assessment phase”.
He acknowledged that there have been affordability challenges and that this had forced Metrix, the leader of package 1, to re-examine its proposal.
Ultimately, the St Athan training programme which was to begin in 2012 will now be delayed until 2014 at the earliest, Defence Management reported.

Privatisation on parade

Much scrutiny of the nationalisation or part-nationalisation of various banks.
If only there had been as much investigation over the years of Labour’s love affair with privatisation.
It started with the air traffic control service and continues in defence.
This month an RAF engineer highlighted the appalling state of accommodation at St Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan.
“The MoD sent us to a welfare house while our quarters were fumigated…the place they gave us was disgusting, with ripped carpets, filthy cupboards and kitchen doors hanging off their hinges,” said the serviceman’s wife.
Local MP John Smith said: “I am deeply concerned. The problem here appears to be that the property was absolutely filthy and that could not have happened 20 or 30 years ago.
“The entire housing stock of the Ministry of Defence was sold to a Japanese bank some 10 or 12 years ago and what that means is the liaison officer on camp has limited control over the standards of these properties.”
The entire housing stock of the MoD was sold to a Japanese bank? Who knew?
And, yes, this is the same John Smith who is drum major for the massive sell-off which will put the training of all three British armed forces into private hands.

CACI, Abu Ghraib and us

There is growing concern in Scotland about a decision to award the multi-million pound 2011 Census contract to a marketing and information company called CACI Ltd.
CACI Ltd is a wholly-owned subsidiary of CACI International Incorporated, an American company which is doing rather well in these troubled times.
It is a publicly-listed company on the New York Stock Exchange with an annual revenue in excess of US $2bn.
But it is how it makes its money that concerns campaigners: it is a key partner in George Bush’s homeland security and “war on terror” – and its staff worked with the US Army in the prison and interrogation blocks of Abu Ghraib in Iraq.
The US Army was forced to close Abu Ghraib after news reports of the torture and humiliation of prisoners. Eleven US soldiers were convicted of breaking military laws for mistreating prisoners, and five others were disciplined.
CACI International Incorporated has produced a book defending itself for its part in the Abu Ghraib scandal and says “we were not involved with horrendous abuses such as death or sexual assault at Abu Ghraib”.
But it is one of two private contractors who are the subject of lawsuits from four Iraqis over allegations that they were tortured there.
CACI’s growing role in UK information systems prompts another concern: in a world which has become one big database and surveillance job, do we really want our personal information handled by a company so closely linked to the US intelligence services?
As CACI International Incorporated boasts in its mission statement: “(Our) mission is to be a leader in providing the information technology and consulting solutions America needs to defeat global terrorism, secure our homeland and improve government services. We are ever vigilant in aligning our solutions with the nation’s highest priorities.”
Realistically, CACI Ltd already plays a larger role in our lives than we know. The UK Government uses the company’s ACORN (“A Classification of Residential Neighbourhoods”) model in areas such as the monitoring of crime to classify us (some of us are “wealthy achievers”, some “hard pressed”).
The company is a major collator of health information too.
Welsh local authorities regularly use their expertise on retail matters. Ceredigion County Council and Bridgend County Borough Council are recent customers.

Contingency plan for St Athan failure

The Government’s sell-off of military training continues to go badly.
It is planned that a consortium of private companies (the Metrix Consortium) will set up and run the massive new St Athan training academy.
Other training sites are to be closed with the land sold off to raise funds by Metrix.
One of the sites expected to go was RAF Cosford in Shropshire.
But now – with the credit crunch biting and few developers queuing up for the MoD land sell-off – it appears that might not be so.
According to the Defence Management Journal, Cosford’s closure might be put on hold during a review of the Government’s scheme, which is known in official circles as the Defence Training Rationalization.
“The DTR is facing an extended period of difficulty and a full blown financial review because its financing was dependent on the sale of surplus MoD land,” the DMJ reported yesterday. “Now the MoD may have to keep the RAF Cosford open as a contingency plan in case the deal at St Athan collapses.
“If the deal at St Athan were to fall through, the MoD would need a backup site for the programme.”

War is Peace

Who will be training their soldiers at the new Defence Training Academy at St Athan?
It’s a question that’s been exercising campaigners who feel the development is not just pledging Wales to a future of “militarism”, but wondering to whose military we are making that pledge.
I mean, we are never going to stop people killing other people. But does it look like we even want to?
Especially if private security companies – like the ones fighting wars for ‘us’ by proxy in Iraq – will be getting trained there.
I contacted the Ministry of Defence under the Freedom of Information Act to ask if, for instance, the MoD would ban any particular nations from using the training camp.
And what about private security companies – would they be able to send personnel there?
After a short delay I received an email from Brigadier Geoff Nield, a project leader with the Defence Training Review.
Under this privatised scheme, it seems, the first decision on who comes in from the outside for training is down to the Metrix Consortium – a group of arms/defence companies and educational establishments like the Open University.
“The MoD is content that Metrix may deliver training and accommodation services to third parties as long as certain contractual conditions and restraints are met,” said Brigadier Nield.
“These include, for example, not impairing the delivery of military training to the MoD, meeting security requirements and maintaining military ethos on-site.
“Furthermore, MoD reserves the right to approve or forbid the use of training assets (including facilities) for third parties.”
So, could a regime like Burma for instance, on paying the right fees, get its soldiers trained here? After all, Britain kindly sold more than 40 Hawk aircraft to the Indonesians during the 1980s and 1990s before world attention suggested that helping the country suppress the East Timorese did not make Britain either great or a land of much hope and glory.
“The MoD…prioritises those countries that receive training on a case by case basis. Where there is a mutual agreement between the UK and countries of interest, agreed scheduled training courses can be attended by those invited, subject to availability and appropriate security clearance.”
There is, some might say, an Orwellian feel to the response. The MoD insists on calling the centre a “college” and the non-UK attendees, “students”.
In addition, the MoD also states that the training of private contractors and foreign armies is actually about making a stable world for our children’s children.

“A key tenet of UK foreign policy is to encourage diplomatic engagement with foreign countries so as to not only serve UK interests but also develop long term stability throughout regions of the world,” said the brigadier. “The MoD supports this policy in different guises, one of which is to train foreign students, both in UK and abroad as arranged through overseas embassies and high commissions.”
War is peace, then, after all.
::The Big Issue Cymru, June 16-22, 2008