One lesson you would think should now have been thoroughly learned after the fiasco of Iraq is that the Middle East is a region of deep political, religious and cultural complexities. Simple, simplistic and often simple-minded answers are usually signs that someone has just not understood the question. Or has chosen to ignore it because it does not play with the neat heroes vs villains story the folks at home should hear. The result is that sides and actions are taken which make things more, rather than less likely to end tragically and divisively. We should demand a lot more of our politicians and diplomats than this tablid politics. The fall-out, after all, is likely to affect all of us.
Syria is a case in point. It has now, by endless public repetition, become a received wisdom that Syria must be behind everything that goes wrong in the region, is hand in glove with its soul-mate Iran to foment anti-Israeli and anti-Western terror, and is an evil regime presided over by a despotic dictator. Syria, goes the convenient narrative, is trouble. Capital B Bad. The best thing for the War on Terror and the mission to bring democracy to the oppressed would be to oust President Assad and his government. A democratically elected government would then make peace with Israel, be a compliant partner to Western interests in the region, and give its people their proper rights. Until that happens, stringent sanctions will encourage the Syrian people to demand change from within.
If this all starts to sound word for word like the "successful" Iraq scenario all over again, that is because the same criminally simplistic black-and-white analysis is at work, and much the same appalling consequences would be likely. Right now, Syria can be a substantial part of the long-term solution for the region, and it would be reassuring to hear Bush, Blair, Rice and Bolton acknowledge this. Small chance. Instead, the West’s words and actions are already starting to increase the influence of the region's religious extremists and political hard-liners who between them would make Syria a very real problem indeed.
Labels: Politics, Viewpoint
I flew back from London to Damascus yesterday, with the Israel/Lebanon conflict still raging. As so often, Damascus seems just as normal, but with far more people around. No hotel rooms are available - all are full of refugees from Lebanon. Other refugee families are being housed in schools, so the coming term will start late.
Getting the news in the UK has been completely depressing, not so much for the unending stories of death and suffering, but more for the simplistic views that most media commentators appear to have about the region. Either that or they are simply putting out Foreign Office briefings without any thought of their own. I have sent off outraged comments to the Sunday Times and the BBC, which, no doubt conscious of its charter renewal and bid for increased licence fee, now seems to say anything the government wants.
Comment on Syria has been breathtakingly stupid by and large. It is very much in the interests of America and Israel to paint Syria in the role of pantomime villain, responsible for all the evils of the region. So, unsurprisingly that is what is being put about by Bush, Rice and the truly frightful Bolton. Blair and Beckett obediently trot behind, yapping the same story. I long for someone to suggest that Syria may in fact be a large part of the Middle East's solution rather than its problem. Bashar Assad is a progressive leader trying to bring a market economy and greater democracy to this secular country. Every time he is villainised it provides succour to those people who most want him to fail - the hard-line old guard in his government, and the religious fundamentalists. That is the prospect facing Syria - going 40 years backwards, or 400 years. Neither would do anything but increase the chances of terror and war. Instead it is being backed into a corner with Iran, not a stablemate Syria is comfortable with at all these days.
At the start of the month, before the trouble broke out, we had a major launch of the project to great acclaim. An evening event in the Four Seasons hotel, attended by The First Lady and six or seven Cabinet Ministers, plus the great and good, and most importantly children, parents, teachers and families of the project team. Lots of positive media coverage, some offers of real money, and a good time was had by all. I announced our new name - Massar - about which more in a following post.
As a matter of principle Protocol approach events attended by The First Lady differently from the event's organisers. Protocol are looking after The First Lady, ensuring that all goes smoothly for her; the objectives of the event are not their primary concern. Protocol’s instincts, therefore, run in the direction of risk-avoidance, predictability and adherence to schedule, with success judged constantly by what The First Lady is assumed to prefer and find enjoyable (or bearable). The event organisers have different priorities. The event’s guests or audiences are their main concern. The attendance of the First Lady is not an end in itself, but a means to attract and convince those guests. For the event organisers, the ideal is that both the First Lady and guests leave the event happy, but if The First Lady is happy and the guests are not, the event has not succeeded.
Ideally this split purpose, or difference in emphasis, needs to be discussed before any events where Protocol are supporting another project team. Protocol should be very clear what the objectives of the event are if they are not inadvertently to organise a piece of it to the detriment of the event’s aims. The event organisers also need to understand clearly from Protocol what flexibility can or cannot exist in the event schedule. If The First Lady is putting the project team in charge, this needs to be explicit both to the project team itself and to Protocol. If in such a partnership Protocol are accountable to the overall project head or event organiser, Protocol need to communicate clearly before and during the event what they are doing. In other words, while they may take a decision on the hoof for sound reasons, unless the project team also knows that decision, it may result in problems.
Some things that may not reflect badly on Protocol are unacceptable when seen as coming from a project team. Late invitations are an example. Any inconvenience of a last-minute invitation received directly from the Palace is outweighed by its status. When an invitation comes from a project, lateness is impolite or incompetent. For the 2 July event, names were still being added by Protocol on the morning of the event. I eventually instructed the Massar team to accept no more last-minute names, not just for reasons of courtesy but because the invitation process was taking the time of two team members, who were needed elsewhere. Our project team has limited resources, and this too needed to be made clear to Protocol as part of initial briefings. All of this underlines the need to get the invitation list finalised early and completely. The assumption of the Massar team for the 2 July event was that Protocol would take the first draft list and amend it specifically with regard to omissions (diplomatic, personal, or somehow connected to The First Lady’s projects), errors and requests to exclude certain names. This did largely happen, but slowly and in dribs and drabs, leading to the lateness described above. The shared objective should be to ensure that no-one feels badly treated through not being invited.
Some issues of inclusion were not well resolved. The Yemeni Ambassador called the office on numerous occasions to ask why he had not received an invitation. At this stage the project team was unclear whether his omission by Protocol was deliberate or inadvertent, and several comical if unsatisfactory conversations were held with the Ambassador. Eventually we told him just to turn up, and then had an issue of whether he could bring his daughter as his wife was away… Another management decision by me was to go to print with the invitation before final copy approval requested by Protocol. This was in part driven by time considerations – waiting for approval would have given less than a week before the event for print and distribution – and partly because approval by Protocol for the project’s own invitation seemed unnecessary. Protocol’s amendments consisted of a small number of tiny changes, so the decision to proceed was the right one. As it was, one print deadline was missed.
There was a difference of policy over VIPs. The Massar team wanted the absolute minimum of reserved seating – only for The First Lady, the Steering Committee and invited children. Protocol requested, and got, reserved seating for all Ministers and Ambassadors, and then various other people as well. For the record, this caused awkwardness on the evening, with some people apparently designated as VIPs by having reserved seats, while others were not without any clear reason. From the project’s perspective, this is divisive and counter to the egalitarian principles we seek to espouse.
Media at such events have to be well controlled. If the Palace press office is taking this role, a formal sign-in process at a press desk is a good start, on the basis that no journalist not on the list gets in. It is worth badging press at these events, so they can be easily spotted and marshalled. It is also the responsibility of the press office to liaise with the venue in advance to make any necessary provision for microphone feeds and power for television crews. The press office then has sole responsibility for the management of the press during the event and for follow-up afterwards.
However, for an event such as the July 2 evening, the Palace press office is probably not the ideal focal point for media work for reasons given in the first paragraph: its natural emphasis and instinct is The First Lady, not the project. The Palace press office should only take the lead if, as in this case, the project team does not have an established press person of its own.
At the event itself, The First Lady’s walkabout plainly caused Protocol a worry or two. This is, however, the area where Protocol should apply their own expertise in crowd management. My sole reference point here is events involving HM The Queen in the UK, where one equerry is working with the event hosts to identify people HM should meet, and another equerry is beside her, directing her to the next group, and ensuring conversations stay short. This aspect of the 2 July event had not been adequately thought-through by the project team. In future we will allocate hosts to a number of specific guests to make certain they are brought forward for introduction, chat. And have a clear who-does-what working arrangement with Protocol agreed in advance.
This was also the part of the evening where it needs to be clear what flexibility over schedule there can be. Is The First Lady running to a tight schedule, or can things be played by ear? On July 2, the brief was clearly the former, with the car unveiling got ready for a specific time, and then Protocol hopping from foot to foot as the walkabout a) went over schedule and b) kept all the children waiting at the car downstairs. As the car event could have been set up in a matter of minutes, it would have been preferable to wait until the walkabout had reached a certain natural point before setting up the unveiling, rather than cutting the walkabout short.
Syria has some fairly bleak country but it has its own magnificent qualities. These pictures were taken from their on a helicopter trip to Hassakeh this summer.