2012 in review: The New Statesman . . . Abroad

From a portrait of Ai Weiwei to fascist rallies in Athens, the best foreign reporting, analysis and interviews of the year from the New Statesman.

Tidings of comfort and joy! With a bumper double issue of the magazine - guest-edited by Brian Cox and Robin Ince - sent to press, it's time to reflect on the year. 

Over the Christmas and New Year period, the team will be bringing you the 12 Days of Blog-mas, with links to some of the best content of 2012 that you might have missed the first time round. (Please forgive the fact that there are actually only 11 days of Blog-mas, and that they have started too early).

Today's theme is The New Statesman Abroad. Foreign reporting is - compared with domestic news and opinion - difficult, expensive and sometimes dangerous. It's also vital. 

In some of the places we've covered this year, the country's own media are unable to report honestly because of corruption or censorship. In others, the stories which usually reach Britain are simplistic and one-dimensional. Here are six stories which we hope get close to uncovering the truth about some fascinating parts of the world.


The cold choice - jobs or jihad

Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the NS has commissioned Olivier Roy, a professor of social and political theory at the European University Institute in Florence, to write a series of essays on the uprising. His first piece of 2012, The Cold Choice, looks at the rise of Islamist parties in Egypt in the wake of the removal of Hosni Mubarak from power. 

His most recent piece for the NS, The Myth of the Islamist winter, was published this month.

Greece: The austerity laboratory

The NS assistant editor, Daniel Trilling, has written several longform pieces for the magazine this year after completing his book on the British National Party. In a recent dispatch from Greece, he considers the rise of Golden Dawn and the social effects of austerity. In a final coda, he visits a food bank near his house in London and asks: what can Greece's example tell us about Britain's austere future?

India after the blackout

William Dalrymple considers the contradiction at the heart of India: that its seemingly meteoric rise has divided the country even more sharply between the haves and have-nots.

For, even at the height of India’s boom, amid talk of space missions to Mars and fleets of nuclear submarines, and as the country tripled its defence budget to become one of the world’s top ten military spenders, it has also been home to one-third of the world’s poor. A full quarter of its population – about 310 million people – live in poverty.

Mexico's drug war: the battle without hope

Malcolm Beith, author of the book Narco, reveals the incredible toll of drug violence in Mexico and wonders why the one solution the US won't consider to the "war on drugs" is decriminalisation.

In 2009, a man nicknamed El Pozolero – “the stew-maker” – was arrested and confessed to dissolving the remains of more than 300 people in vats of caustic soda for a drug kingpin. Later that year, a man working for rivals of the powerful Sinaloa cartel was found; he had been beheaded and his face had been carved off and delicately stitched on to a football.

Israel's endless war

In November, the New Statesman's editor Jason Cowley visited Israel, just as it began a renewed assault on Gaza. He found a country unwilling to question its actions.

The message from inside Israel was one of profound and unyielding unity. “There can be no peace,” it is said, “until Hamas stops trying to kill us,” irrespective of the context in which Hamas acts or the suffering of the Palestinians inside Gaza.

Earlier in the year, the NS had looked at the fading possibility of a peaceful two-state solution, with Jonathan Freeland's essay Yearning For the Same Land, and Ali Abunimah's response

Ai Weiwei: If someone is not free, I am not free

In October, the NS was guest-edited by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who wanted to draw attention to the routine censorship of dissenting voices by the Chinese state. 

Features editor Sophie Elmhirst visited him in his studio, just outside Beijing, and wrote a long profile of a complex man: 

Ai lives like a king, though not in the clichéd sense. It’s more that he lives like an embattled medieval monarch, trapped in a palace that is half power base, half prison. Every day, visitors pass through to pay their respects or in the hope of finding favour. In the week I’m there, journalists, fans, gallerists, film-makers, photographers, artists, old friends and new all make their pilgrimage to the studio, and Ai patiently entertains them, having his picture taken or answering the same questions he has answered in the scores of other interviews he has done this year. One asks him to play “Water” in an experimental art film; Ai shrugs and agrees.

If Ai’s studio is his court, then Twitter is his kingdom. He might not be able to leave China, and rarely leaves his neighbourhood, but he can encounter his population directly through the social media site. He tweets to his 170,000 followers continuously; commenting on the latest political twists, retweeting support from followers and championing the causes of fellow dissidents. In 2005, he was invited to set up a blog by the internet company Sina Weibo, to which he contributed regularly until it was shut down four years later. Since then Twitter has been his platform of choice.

In his guest-edited issue, Ai used his leader column to issue a call to China to "recognise itself". "Right now, in China, we are living in conditions that no other generation has ever experienced – of great economic growth and expansion, but also great oppression of freedom of speech and human rights," he wrote. 

Photograph: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.