May Day at the UK elections; Qatar cut off by Saudi, Egypt, Bahrain and UAE. By Hamish McDonald.

Paris accord with US may outlast Trump

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May at an election campaign event in Derby.
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May at an election campaign event in Derby.

On returning to Washington just over a week ago, Donald Trump ignored the earlier entreaties of Europe, Japan, the Pope and most respected scientists to stick with the Paris accord on climate change and announced a United States withdrawal, with the vague hedge that he’d negotiate a better deal for American workers.

He’d clearly not had enough flattery on last month’s stops in Brussels and Sicily, so he responded in petulance. “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” he said, forgetting that Pittsburgh had voted 80 per cent for Hillary Clinton. French president Emmanuel Macron offered a home in Paris for self-exiling US climate scientists, the commentariat spoke again about abdication of American leadership, the US acting ambassador in China quit, and tycoons of American advanced manufacturing and knowledge industries resigned from Trump’s advisory committees.

It was unclear what difference it would make, given Trump was already doing his best to boost hydrocarbon use in the US and the withdrawal process for the Paris accord takes about four years, meaning a new president could promptly reverse it in 2021. California said it would stick with the Paris commitments, meaning the rest of America will have to do the same if they want to sell products into the most populous state. New York – and Pittsburgh – were among places declaring they would also follow the Paris deal.

It was left to Trump’s defence secretary Jim Mattis and secretary of state Rex Tillerson to put the best face on it, when they appeared variously in Singapore, Sydney and Wellington over the past week for defence and foreign policy talks. Both had seen Trump throw away the speech they and national security adviser H. R. McMaster had written for him to deliver at the NATO summit. “Bear with us,” Mattis told Asia’s assembled strategic thinkers at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. “Once we’ve exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing.” In Wellington, Kiwi bystanders greeted Tillerson’s convoy from the airport with down-turned thumbs or raised middle fingers.

Sacked FBI chief James Comey was due to testify in congress on Thursday. He was preceded by a written statement affirming Trump had asked him to go easy on former adviser Mike Flynn and “lift the cloud” over himself about Russian ties, and had denied involvement with “hookers” in Moscow.

May day

By Saturday we should know whether Theresa May’s gamble on an early election has paid off, and whether the last-minute contribution from Daesh followers in Manchester and London has helped her, as no doubt intended.

May’s response to the London Bridge–Borough Market carnage last Saturday was obviously heartfelt but saying “enough is enough” and promising to look at more draconian anti-terrorism measures looked as if she was as short of new ideas on security as she is on Brexit.

It was quickly back to campaigning on Monday, with May attacking Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn for being weak on terrorism. He promptly pointed out that during May’s recent six years as home secretary, the number of police officers in England and Wales fell by nearly 20,000 and the number of officers authorised to use firearms went down by 1337 to 5639. May claimed anti-terror units had been shielded from the cutbacks and more armed officers will be added.

The eight-minute response of London police to halt last Saturday’s attack, killing the three perpetrators, showed May to be right, at least on the reactive side and in central London. But what about prevention? It turned out one of the three attackers was known to police and security agencies as being attracted to violent jihadism. He had been shown on TV posing in a London park with a Daesh flag. Here was one of the usual suspects, mounting a sudden attack, with the everyday objects of vehicles and kitchen knives.

It showed again the delicate job of determining when thought and talk is about to translate into action. It’s even more difficult when the circle of suspicion widens to include “fixated persons” and petty criminals seeking redemption, such as the offenders in Sydney’s Lindt cafe siege and Mebourne’s Brighton incident this week.

So what of May’s suggestion of increased powers and harsher punishments? British security services already have sweeping powers to monitor, without warrant, and search. Firearms are hard to obtain. Sentences for terrorism offences are already lengthy and may sometimes deter families and friends from reporting suspicious behaviour on the part of someone they love. And anyway, how does the risk of a long jail sentence deter someone aiming to die?

Electronic spy agencies such as the British Government Communications Headquarters, American National Security Agency and Canberra’s Australian Signals Directorate have their supercomputers working on backdoors into encrypted information networks such as Telegram, and may get more help from their designers. But short of the time-tested British model of preventive detention – applied to the Boers, Mau Mau, Malayan communists, IRA etc – we are probably going to see more classic human intelligence, agent provocateur operations, and American-style stings.

Qatar solo

There is disarray in the Sunni Arab coalition lined up against Iran and its Shiite friends in the Middle East, only two weeks after Trump’s White House claimed his visit to Saudi Arabia “united the Muslim world in a way that it really hasn’t been in many years”.

This week Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and the shaky governments of Yemen and Libya announced a boycott of the Gulf emirate of Qatar for supporting the underground Muslim Brotherhood and going soft on Iran. They also remain irked by Qatar’s sponsorship of the Al Jazeera satellite TV news service, which fired up the 2011 Arab Spring of unrest against their regimes and continues to give airtime to Arab dissidents, except those in Qatar itself.

The offence that broke the camel’s back was a report in Qatar’s state media on May 23 that Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani issued a caution against too hard a line against Iran. His government has since claimed this was fake news, inserted by a hacker.

The Saudis and their sidekicks have cut air, land and sea links with Qatar, expelled its diplomats, and told Qataris to leave within two weeks. Saudi Arabia has closed its airspace to Qatar Airways. The UAE won’t let Qataris even transit Dubai.

However, should it be prolonged the boycott will rebound on the Saudis. Qatar does co-operate with Iran in developing the huge undersea natural gas fields between their shores, and according to some reports has a secret defence pact with Tehran against any Saudi invasion. But it also hosts the giant US air base at al Udeid, where about 11,000 Americans run the air operations into Iraq and Syria. Qatar also has about 1000 troops in Yemen, helping the Saudis fight the Shiite-led Houthi movement.

Tensions worsened on Wednesday when gunmen entered Iran’s parliament dressed as women and opened fire, and a suicide bomber blew himself up at Ayatollah Khomeini’s mausoleum, killing 12 Iranians. Daesh claimed credit. Tehran blamed Saudi Arabia.

The region’s sectarian conflict seemed to be escalating from proxy war to something bigger. The news angle for most of the Western media, however, was whether Qatar could still host the FIFA World Cup in 2022.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 10, 2017 as "Paris accord with US may outlast Trump".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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