Saturday, December 30, 2006

No Juice For Saddam

The impending execution of Saddam Hussein could almost inspire black humour. The gallows is apparently of American construction, and one cannot help suspect that one reason it was chosen over the electric chair is that under American rule, no one can guarantee that the power system would deliver enough juice to the executioners.

If, or when, it happens, the hanging will symbolize all that is wrong and hypocritical about the American Occupation. In general, they are replicating the barbarity of the Baathist regime, since most of the developed world has now abandoned the death penalty. Indeed, one of the few fields in which the US is now competitive with China is in the number of executions carried out - and the way that the poverty of the victims matches the poor quality of legal redress.
I will not shed too many tears when he ends up on the end of a rope, any more than I donned mourning black when Slobodan Milosevic died in prison, or Augusto Pinochet met his end. But the fact remains, executing someone like Saddam Hussein is reducing yourself to his level

Saddam undoubtedly had a fairer trial than he ever allowed his victims. But it was incredibly stupid, as well as prejudicial, for the trial to be held in country under occupation rather than be referred to the International Criminal Court, or a special international tribunal. But of course American prejudices against the UN and multinational forces - not to mention complete ignorance about the likely domestic effects in Iraq, made sure that that did not happen.

In terms of justice, the crimes which Saddam Hussein was tried for, mass murder of rebellious subjects, had on other occasions been condoned and covered up by US administrations. Undoubtedly guilty though Saddam was of aggression, an impartial international court may have wanted to examine why aggression against Iran, which killed hundreds off thousands on both sides,, was commendable and worthy of Western support, while attacking Kuwait was unforgivable. Of course we know the political difference, but if you are conducting a court of justice rather than a show trial, these things do bear examination. And you are coinducting the trial, then you cannot be surprised when your own behaviour is weighed in the balance and found wanting.

It seems highly likely that more Iraqis have died bloodily and messily in the conflict since the invasion than Saddam Hussein killed in his campaigns against the Kurds and Shi'as.
His execution will doubtless add to the tally, while American political discourse about the war completely discounts the views of the alleged beneficiaries: more than half of Iraqis polled want the US troops out immediately, with another quarter wanting them to go soon. Now that is serious verdict by a serious jury of Saddam's peers -- and who in Washington is prepared to act on it?

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Burmese Centuries

The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma,

For many of us, most of what little background we have about Burma, apart from a vague impression of repressive military governments and Aung San Suu Kyi, is from the essays of George Orwell, or his novel Burmese Days. As Thant Myint-U says, in “The River of Lost Footsteps,” for most people, the remarkable upsurge of popular demonstrations in summer 1988 was “like hearing of a coup in Shangri-La.” Reasons for that included “the lack of television, summer holidays," but "also because Burma was almost entirely unknown.’

But as Thant Myint-U shows, it is a fascinating history that we have been overlooking. Orwell’s experience in the British police in Burma converted him to anti-colonialism and hence to anti-capitalism. Orwell honestly depicted the effect of a resented colonial regime on both sides of the equation, and confessed his own struggle with the temptation not to reciprocate the hate and resentment that the intensely nationalist Burmese offered him.

In later essays, Orwell complained at British neglect of events in Burma. Thant Myint-U’s book belatedly fills that gap in readable and comprehensive history of the country from early days to the present, and he shows how much of that history explains the present, and indeed Orwell’s experiences.

There are some good reasons for the amnesiac strand. It was not really in the interests of either the British government, nor the Burmese military rulers of the last four decades, to spell out that the British handed over power to a group whose core had trained and fought with the fascist Japanese.

In contrast to India, where Nehru cannily ensured that those who fought with the pro-Japanese Indian National Army were honoured but completely excluded from the independent Indian military, the Burmese Independence Army, whose reputation was laundered by a last minute defection from Tokyo as the war ended, are the root of the present Burmese military. But it says a lot for the unpopularity of British rule that so many Burmese leaders were prepared to embrace the Japanese - even if they were soon disillusioned with the realities of the Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Indeed the other trend was of those who were subscribers to the British Left Book Club, and admirers of Stafford Cripps, the leftist Labour MP represented by U Thant, the author’s grandfather.

Upper Burma was one of the last additions to British India, and Thant Myint-U suggests that the major motivation for the invasion was Randolph Churchill’s need for a colonial victory for the forthcoming election. Reminiscent of similar more recent adventures a laconic civil servant recorded “The people of this country have not, as was by some expected, welcomed us as deliverers from tyranny.”

Equally similarly, the deposition of King Thibaw led to the decapitation of the government and the disintegration of civil society.

One of the values of Thant Myint-U’s work is to remind us just how much we subliminally absorb the colonial prejudice that the societies incorporated into empire only joined history at that moment of annexation. Without romanticism - indeed he stresses the militarism of the early Burmese states -he sketches the rich and literate history of the country, and he also stresses the pluralism of the society, which had absorbed not only neighbouring nationalities but Turkish, Portuguese, French and other adventurers, bound together by mutual obligations and roles. The armies were armed with muskets - and in the eighteenth century Burmese shipbuilders launched teak warships for both the British and the French although that parity disappeared when the East India Company launched the first ever steam powered war vessel against the Burmese.

That was what disappeared with the British conquest. Indeed he postulates an alternative, and arguably better outcome, where the British could have kept the monarchy as a protectorate, one of the princely states, and assisted it to stay on its modernizing course, although he also points out that Western inspired government reforms were already undermining the traditional networks of government. (The development of a Burmese Morse code was one interesting aspect).

There is no romanticism in his dispassionate treatment. Thibaw was offered just such a deal but cavilled at the requirement to stop the mass political executions he was conducting.

His narrative is pointed so his emphasis on the martial tradition and the pluralism explains how the the present rulers developed their ideology of narrow ethnic nationalism, steeped in past military glory. Burma had been “suddenly pushed into the modern world without an anchor in the past, rummaging around for new inspirations, sustained by more sour nationalist sentiment, and Fidel finding voice in the extremist years of the 1930’s,” he asserts, while also showing how colonialism and racism created those conditions.

It was poor preparation for the tests to come when the Allies and the Japanese fought over the devastated land. “The Burmese had nothing to do with the war but it destroyed their country,” he says, showing how those militant nationalists made common cause with the Japanese, while conducting pogroms against the large minorities from Karens to Indians. While the Burmese were soon disillusioned with the Japanese, that did not imply any nostalgia for the rapidly retreated British.

The British reoccupation was a stopgap, while the various parties, of whom the strongest was the nationalist collaborators with Japan, juggled for power, but independence was celebrated with the assassination of much of the leadership so the new Republic launched itself with “several of its key leaders, including its nationalist hero, dead, its principal minority demanding an independent state, and another nationalist leader getting ready to lead a communist rebellion. It was not an auspicious start,” Thant says.

With his own family history tied inextricably in these events, the author made his reacquaintance with the land of his birth by accompanying the corpse of his grandfather, former Secretary General U Thant, back home after his death in New York in 1974.

It was a bizarre reintroduction with the revered deceased being kidnapped and shuffled around between competing groups and between popular demands for a significant memorial and General Ne Win’s hostility to Burma’s most famous citizen. Like the later democracy demonstrations, it was a telling demonstration of the inability of the bloated military to win the hearts and minds of the nation whose essence they claim to represent.

Thant Myint-U’s narrative is literate, drily humorous, personally engaged but politically dispassionate. This is a book that is worth reading for its own literary qualities, but essential for anyone who wants to understand Burma, or indeed the ripple effects of the end of empire around the world.

Lending authenticity to Thant Myint-U’s analysis is his acknowledgement that there are no easy fixes. Sanctions and isolation he points out are unlikely to affect a regime that actually wants isolation, and has a steady income stream from trade. He also suggests that the regime has not been given credit for its flexibility in coming to terms with many of the armed factions. It will be a long and hard road to rebuild a nation that, he points out, with over sixty years of conflict, effectively a continuation of the Second World War.

The publishers have done Thant Myint-U and the reader a tremendous disservice by missing out an index. In a complex narrative, with unfamiliar names of people, titles and places, this is a book that desperately needs one to complement the detailed and fascinating narrative.

Click to buy

The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma,
By Thant Myint-U, Farrar Straus & Giroux, New York $25

Asian Tsunami - All the UN’s Fault!

Two Years And Not a Neocon Blush

Last month Jan Egeland retired back to Norway after two years as the UN's Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs. He went quietly, but with the deep appreciation of many around the world - noted most recently for his forthrightness over Sudan and Darfur, and for his success in marshaling resources for rebuilding in Asia after the Tsunami. Who now remembers his American media lynching in the last two weeks of 2004, as he began that work?

Well I certainly do. I spent the week between Christmas and New Year in 2004 in end to end combat on the cable TV channels, from Fox to MSNBC to CNN. My role was not necessarily to defend the UN, or Jan Egeland, but rather to defend the truth in the face of a section of the American media that seemed to have out-sourced its fact checkers - to somewhere on a different planet.

The reaction of the cable channels to the Tsunami had been immediate - blame the United Nations. Of course not even Fox had the temerity to blame Kofi Annan directly for the tidal wave itself. But for a week, until the sheer scale of the disaster sank in on even the most addle-pated cable TV host, they filled their air time with attacks on Egeland.

In the course of a press conference about the tsunami on 27 December, Egeland had replied to a question about the development aid that the United States and other Western nations had been "stingy" in the level of their AID. This was entirely true, as demonstrated by any comparison between the percentage of the GDP that they give and what they themselves have set as a target.

Only Holland and three Scandinavian countries had reached the agreed target of 0.7% of GDP for which the US and other Western Countries had voted along with the rest of the world in the UN's Monterey Summit on development.

But Egeland hadd never specified the US. He did say "If actually the foreign assistance of many countries now is 0.1 or 0.2 percent of their gross national income, I think that is stingy really," adding "Christmastime should remind many Western countries at least, how rich we have become....There are several donors who are less generous than before in a growing world economy."

That evening, he was interviewed on CNN in a special about the Tsunami and reiterated his point, “The average rich nation pays 0.2 percent of its national income in international solidarity, in international assistance. We keep 99.98 percent to ourselves, on average. I don't think that's very generous when we see the images that you have just seen today."

When Anderson Cooper of CNN pressed further, "Are you saying richer nations should pay a much higher proportion?" Egeland replied, "A much higher proportion. I mean, usually in the old days in many religions, you should give one-tenth of your surplus. We give much less than one percent."

Within hours, that "we" had been transformed into "you" and "western countries" had become the USA. The Washington Times led its story on the Tsunami the following morning, the 28th with the headline "U.N. Official slams U.S. as 'stingy' over aid." It was an odd article, showing some suspicious signs of strong editorial direction. Both the headline, and the opening paragraph about Bush announcing a paltry $15 million donation sat oddly atop an otherwise fact-filled piece on how the world was rallying round to help.

The politically astute Washington Times editor who chose that peculiar way to open the article got his money's worth, unless he filched it from some unarchived cable or radio host. In any case, coming from the newspaper of record for the conservative right that headline acted like lit fuse for cable TV networks. It is possible that his headline was the epicenter of a perfect media Tsunami.

Which is why I spent Christmas week trying to bring festive facts into an American cable media that would probably have pilloried Santa Claus for wearing red, if it weren’t also the Republican Party colors.

None of them seemed motivated enough to check the original press conference transcript but preferred to adopt the aggreived tone of that Washington Times headline. All of them assumed that firstly, Egeland was talking about the US directly, which he clearly wasn't, and that he was referring to the US response to the Tsunami, which he also wasn't, and that finally, if he were talking about the US, he was wrong.

Now it is a truth universally admitted outside the Murdoch press, that the US is proportionately the meanest donor in the world. Indeed, it gave me some pleasure to be able to tell hosts and viewers that in fact Bush had increased Overseas Development Aid since it reached its lowest under Clinton.(Admittedly that was as much to do with the Congress as well, but Bill Clinton was never one too squander domestic political capital on overseas ventures.)

Bush, as has happened before during disasters, 9-11 being most notable, was missing on parade that Christmas week. That first US offer of $15 million was a pathetic joke, and as the week went on it rapidly increased-as soon as someone could be found to make a decision. For example by the time archaeo-con Robert Novak was on the case, on CNN's Crossfire the evening of the Times article, it was already $35 million, and at least Novak was not feigning indignation at the insult to the US. He showed his hatred for the UN whatever it was doing! "One of those nasty little bureaucrats at the United Nations sneered at the level of taxpayers' money helping victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami. Jan Egeland, a Norwegian, who's U.N. undersecretary- general for humanitarian affairs, suggested that the U.S. and other Western nations are stingy in charitable contributions. He even outrageously said we don't pay enough taxes to help the rest of the world."

Novak ranted on, "Secretary of State Colin Powell bristled at the U.N.'s bureaucrat's insinuation. As you might guess, Mr. Egeland backed down today and said he was misinterpreted. That's really in character for the U.N."

Well up to a point Mr. Novak. In fact, Egeland had specifically praised the generosity of individuals in the developed world, and as we have seen, he had not been referring to the Tsunami relief. And as for climbing down, what he actually said was entirely factual. "I have been misinterpreted when I yesterday said that my belief that rich countries in general can be more generous...This has nothing to do with any particular country or the response to this emergency in the early days. The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive."

So when he tried to correct the serious distortions - calling them misinterpretations is a serious euphemism - the whole conservative media, like Novice accused him of "climbing down," or "backpedalling."

Any UN staffers who were not off with their families or skiing that week was being conscripted for the Tsunami relief effort, and so it fell to me, the Liberal lion, to be thrown to the Christian Right all week, doing the studio shuffle.

It was not easy. After all, if the Secretary of State and the President, once again, believed what the Neocon pundits and the conservative media told them about Egeland’s statement, without checking reality and primary sources, you couldn’t really fault lowly employees of moody and megalomaniac media moguls for deciding to follow the line, no matter how tangential to reality.

But all is well that ends well. The conservative media have pushed their memories of the whole sordid affair, a sort of dress rehearsal for the Oil For Food swiftboating of Annan, into the memory hole. Maybe even they have a sense of shame for trying to score poltical brownie points out of a hundred thousand plus Tsunami victims?

And as the UN Tsunami office winds up, we recall that it raised unprecedented resources for reconstruction, one reason being that the conservative furor over what Egeland did not say, helped the natural generosity of many developed country governments - none of whom could face their electorate if they were not demonstrably and massively more generous than George W. Bush.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Christmas Carol

A Merry Christmas, Carefree Kwanzaa, Eid Mubarak, Happy New Year, and Happy Hannuka to all our readers. In our ecumenical mode we are happy to celebrate everyone's festivals, but will pass on the fasts.

Can there be a better way to celebrate than by buying the most aptly seasonal book since Christmas Carol "Rum: A Social and Sociable History" for your friends. One click and your last minute gift-buying conundrum is solved.

And in seasonal mode, check this link to see me on Democracy Now holding forth on Annan, Ban and Rum.

And here is my Christmas Carol, commissioned and then rejected by a business magazine that thought (can't think why!) that its Chinese advertisers may be upset by it. I was accused of China-bashing for my piece on Taiwan, so I thought I may as well put some truth in the rumours.

We three sharks of Orient are
Bearing stocks we travel afar
Field and roadshow, selling an IPO
Extolling yonder share

O share of wonder, share of might
Share of rosy prospects bright
Upward trending, never bending
Guide us to thy dizzy height

Born state-owned on the Yangtse plain
Golden prospects down the lane
Rising forever, dropping never
Over us all to rain

O share of wonder, share of might, etc.

Mind ye not the dodgy loan book
With Chinese banks, best not to look
Stock brokers are such jokers
Keep accounts in a Little Red Book

O share of wonder, share of might, etc.

A prospectus offered have I
The SEC cannot come nigh
Privatizing, launch price rising
Send your cash to Shanghai

O share of wonder, share of might etc.

Your few shares outvoted are
Beijing owns more stock by far
Minor holder gets cold shoulder
Even more than Delaware

O share of wonder, share of might etc.

Beijing rules, so best presume
The Comrades run the board-room
Party blundering, bleeding, plundering
Sealing your stake's doom

O share of wonder, share of might, etc.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Annan's Principled Pragmatism

So Farewell Then Kofi (not to mention John Bolton)
It will be interesting to see where they end up, but we will be watching Ban Ki-Moon in the meantime.

Annan's Principled Pragmatism

by Ian Williams
from the January 8, 2007 issue
the Nation,

Ban Ki-moon was sworn into office as the new United Nations Secretary General on December 14. Soon he will be sworn at, when once again the UN fails to obey US orders. Any secretary general's honeymoon in Washington is likely to be short. Who now remembers that outgoing Secretary General Kofi Annan was a US nomination back in 1996, or that he managed to persuade Jurassic Jesse Helms to cut a deal on paying off Washington's debt to the UN?
As Annan leaves, it gives him some wry satisfaction that John Bolton, the US ambassador who thought he was a viceroy, has been sent off the field by the new Democratic Congress. After spending his first term perceived almost as a secular saint, Annan spent much of his second being reviled by Bolton's soulmates as a global kleptocrat.
It was mostly in the United States that the sustained neocon Swift-boating, through the alleged "Oil for Food Scandal," muddied Annan's reputation. Fortunately, the rest of the world took little notice of those furious and hyperbolic exaggerations. Annan's historical position is now clearer, and it is not just customary valediction to say that he has been one of the most effective secretary generals in UN history. Successes in Sierra Leone, Liberia, East Timor, Lebanon and Congo's first free elections in four decades are no mean vindication of Annan's principled pragmatism.
Bill Clinton pushed Annan's appointment because of a misapprehension that he would be a reverse of his predecessor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali: more secretary than general. Clinton and his Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, did not want someone with big ideas and a big mouth engaging in public debates with their Administration. They thought they could count on the reserved UN bureaucrat to deliver.
They were right about the big mouth, wrong on the big ideas. Annan is not a great orator. Audiences have to strain to hear his softly spoken phrases, whose content has usually been carefully polished to remove any language that would be too confrontational. Yet the big ideas kept coming.
As a cog in the UN juggernaut hijacked by the great powers, Annan was implicated in the bloody failures in Bosnia and Rwanda, and on taking office he tried to make "Never Again" more than an empty slogan, beginning with an unprecedentedly open report on the UN's role in those events. Human rights, development and global responsibility were his constant refrain over the years, and he reclaimed a role for the UN as a standard setter, making development a global issue.
Annan's quiet authority and palpable decency made him a perfect standard-bearer both for the organization and for these values. It was precisely those strengths that the xenophobic wing of the US media tried to undermine in his second term, when he stated the obvious truths about Washington's disregard for international law and human rights, most notably in Iraq.
However, there is a built-in contradiction in combining the roles of peacemaker and tribune of the world's peoples. The secretary general cannot bad-mouth perpetrators too strongly, since he may have to negotiate with them. Even some close aides wish that Annan had been more stentorian in his statements. Annan admits that sometimes he may have been too low-key, but he argues that "particularly when it comes to human dignity and individual rights, some of the positions I have taken...are also intended to empower others, particularly the civil society. In some countries people can quote the secretary general...and not go to jail. If they say it themselves they will be in trouble."
When Annan took office, the UN was still reeling from decades of Congressional assault--culminating in the US putsch against Boutros-Ghali. The organization had few friends in Washington. Annan realized the importance of engaging the United States actively--not just for the sake of his own survival but for that of the organization itself. That predicated cultivating a US constituency, and Annan was remarkably successful at it for most of his tenure. In particular, he engaged American Jewish organizations and worked hard to end the isolation of Israel inside the world body, at the risk of alienating key international constituencies. This led to criticism--some of it from supporters and close associates--that he was forgetting the Palestinians. However, Annan has consistently restated and emphasized the UN's legal and humanitarian positions on Israel, and he condemned the Israeli attack on the UN's Khiyam outpost in Lebanon during the summer war.
Annan had built enough trust from both sides for the resolution of this summer's war in Lebanon, which was perhaps the best vindication of his principled pragmatism. Once again, the UN had to cope with the consequences of Washington's refusal to listen to others. Annan called for a cease-fire when two permanent members, the United States and Britain, regarded it as "premature." While the Security Council was tied down by a threatened US veto, Annan had the UN pre-emptively preparing a solution--an expanded and reinforced peacekeeping force, which allowed the Israelis and their allies to climb down from the pole up which they had clambered. Ten years ago it was a major plank of Israeli, and consequently US, Middle East policy to exclude the UN from any role. Following ten years of Annan's tightrope diplomacy, the Israelis pleaded for the UN to step in.
While the Bush White House did not overtly join the assault on Annan's integrity during the so-called Oil for Food Scandal, it certainly did not try to curb the rabid right when they were calling for his resignation. Annan admits, "There have been times when it has been tough, particularly when some people on the Hill or the right wing begin attacking the UN and the Secretary General, and no one pulls them back.... If you undermine the organization to that extent, your own population may ask you, Why are you going to this organization that you've discredited so much?"
For fifteen years the US perception of the UN has revolved around the issue of Iraq. The organization was a convenient scapegoat for US policy failures, which ricocheted catastrophically from insufficient resolution to too much. Washington expected the UN to follow faithfully every wobble. Saddam Hussein did consistently violate the terms of UN resolutions, but Washington's positions, not least in treating weapons inspectors as a branch of US intelligence, succeeded in giving his defiance quasi legitimacy. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations made it plain they would veto any lifting of sanctions until regime change--even though this was not in any way a part of the UN resolutions. First Boutros-Ghali and then Annan had to negotiate compliance from Baghdad, even though Washington's veto insured that they could offer no "light at the end of the tunnel." Iraqi civilians paid the price for the obduracy of both Baghdad and Washington. In 1998, after negotiating with Saddam, Annan himself pointed out, "You can do a lot with diplomacy, but with diplomacy backed up by force you can get a lot more done." That was never consistently forthcoming.
Annan is deeply conscious of the collateral damage of the Iraq War on the global community: "It led to a major division in this organization and in the world. And it has not healed yet.... At the early stages the leaders themselves were quite divided, and they were very vocal about it.... They are trying to mend fences and work together, but we are not there yet."
In his typically oblique way, Annan lodges a criticism of the invasion: "The member states debated it fully here, and you noticed that the majority of the members in the Council could not bring themselves to vote for the military action. The US and others decided to go outside the Council to take action, and of course individual governments are free to take decisions that they wish to. But I think it was appropriate that the Council took the decision it did." True to form, even at this late stage, when he is beyond the reach of Rush Limbaugh and Norm Coleman, he persists in a nonconfrontational correction.
Following the UN's laudable but ineffective refusal to authorize the invasion, neocon warrior Richard Perle, a member of George W. Bush's Defense Policy Board at the time, crowed over the organization's troubles in an article headlined, "Thank God for the death of the UN." It wasn't long before triumph turned to quagmire, with Washington calling on the UN for its services.
The war was also to have profound consequences for Annan's media image in the United States, as it allowed all the obsessive UN-baiters out of their kennels. Hitherto the perception of him had been of one who was Teflon-coated and unassailable, exuding moral authority. No longer. One of the postwar responsibilities the UN accepted was the transition from occupation to Iraqi self-government, and the officials involved were well aware that the neocons' man, Ahmad Chalabi, was a self-promoting carpetbagger with a bigger constituency in Washington think tanks than in Baghdad. Chalabi and the think tanks bitterly opposed UN involvement, not least for that reason. He came to New York and threatened Annan's office with consequences--with the Oil for Food Scandal, in fact.
At the time Annan described the imbroglio as "a bit like lynching." A distressing number of American media assessments of his tenure are still presenting it as a taint on Annan's reputation rather than a blot on their colleagues' integrity for joining in the malicious Swift-boating. In fact, as demonstrated in these pages [see Williams, "The Right's Assault on Kofi Annan," January 10/17, 2005], by any rational standards Oil for Food was a success, so much so that Washington asked that it be continued in the year after the invasion. The Volcker Commission inquiry alleged that the OFF director had received $140,000 over four years in kickbacks from perfectly legal, if unethical, oil trades. The rest of the money allegedly transferred to Saddam was the result of oil sales in breach of sanctions but condoned by Security Council members, or from companies whose behavior was overlooked by member governments.
Still bemused by the media battering, Annan suggests that publicity during the inquiry was "patently unfair. What was interesting was the way they handled it, with rogue investigators leaking information and leading people astray. When the full story came out and they discovered that the scandal was not here but in the capitals, with the 2,200 companies involved in kickbacks, the story died." No part of the scandal was more dead than the $10 billion from the program that was given to US occupation authorities--spent lavishly and with very little paper trail. Representative Henry Waxman has been a lonely voice in Washington following the trail from OFF to GOP crony contractors. So far Annan's media persecutors have shown little interest.
Those who do not read or watch the Murdoch media will probably note that Annan's biggest historical legacy will be the "Responsibility to Protect." Rather than try to amend the UN Charter, in 2005 he maneuvered the heads of state at the UN's sixtieth-anniversary World Summit to reinterpret it. From now on, the threats to "peace and security" that the Security Council is chartered to fight include governments' failures to protect their own people, thus overturning the centuries-old principle of absolute national sovereignty accepted by the Charter.
Annan reminisces about the initial reaction to his raising the subject: "When I said, back in 1999, 'We cannot accept that governments can hide behind the shield of sovereignty and brutalize their people or allow these violations to go on,' quite a lot of ambassadors were very upset that I was encouraging interference in their internal affairs. And yet five, six years on, we have the 'Responsibility to Protect' as a principle accepted by all heads of state." It has taken several millennia for an accepted principle like "Thou shalt not kill" to be implemented, so we should not be too disappointed if the continuing carnage in Darfur casts doubt upon the sincerity of many of those heads. At least the concept strips the defenders of mass murder of any spurious legal or ethical defense based on national sovereignty.
Even if it is unfinished business, Darfur is certainly not Annan's failure; he has been remarkably outspoken about the culpability of Khartoum. "When I hear heads of state get up and say, 'The UN must act in, say, Darfur,' who is the UN here?" he asks. "We need to hold governments to the solemn pledge they made in the General Assembly. Most people believe that Darfur is a sort of test, so we need to remind them that they made this solemn pledge and we want them to redeem it. What's even more important is that peoples around the world can use this to push member states to action." He adds, "Without pressure from the population and civil society, I don't think they would do it."
Annan has done more than any predecessor to insure that those invoked in the opening words of the UN Charter, "We the peoples of the world," have a serious place on the UN agenda. Under very difficult circumstances, one of which was the negative role of US administrations, he has done remarkably well.

Taiwan's Independence

Here's is my latest for Foreign Policy in Focus
to which you should subscribe for its eminently rational look at foreign affairs.

Self Determination - It's the Law!

China's arguments against Taiwanese self-determination are not particularly legal or ethical. They boil down to the fact that Beijing has over a billion people, a huge economy, and over 900 missiles pointing at the nearby island.

The latter figure, growing by 50 rockets a year, should give a clue to the weakness of Beijing's arguments. In the modern world, few governments can pledge with a straight face to “liberate” an island full of people it pretends are compatriots by blowing them off the map. Equally, while China's “one nation—two systems” transition period for Hong Kong has not been a total failure, Beijing's clumsy interference in Hong Kong's politics and refusal to allow democratic reforms have not done much to reassure the Taiwanese.

There is scope for wrangling on historical and legal claims. But the real question is what status the people of the territory themselves want. Do the people of Taiwan and their democratically elected government have a right to decide their own fate? And will they use that right to get politically closer or more distant from the mainland?

According to modern international practice and the principles of democracy, the Taiwanese do indeed have the right to “declare” what is manifestly already true: that they are an independent, sovereign state. It is also clear that the Taiwanese, on the political level, do not want to be ruled by Beijing. If the threat to the island's (and the islanders') existence were removed, a very strong majority would support outright independence.

This is not just romantic nationalism. The Taiwanese pragmatically believe that falling under Beijing's thumb would be a major step backward for a prosperous democracy of 23 million people, with its developed economy, developed social democracy, and amenities such as a national health system.

Taiwan at the UN

Taiwan has long been trying to shore up its global position by joining international bodies, notably the UN. For the first decade or so of the UN's existence, the “universality” of membership was not at all evident. But now UN membership is generally regarded as a sort of certificate of sovereign statehood. Indeed, after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, every last microstate came rushing for membership precisely to get anti-annexation insurance. Some members barely qualify for sovereignty. For instance, the former U.S. trust territories in the Pacific, such as Palau, the Marshal Islands, and Micronesia, have constitutions that entrust the United States with their defense and with consultation over foreign policy. Such contingent sovereignty is reflected in their lonely UN votes supporting Washington over Israel. Indeed, at the time of their admission to the UN, British diplomats, for the record, queried the degree of the islands' sovereignty.

Add economic autonomy, and Taiwan clearly has more attributes of sovereignty than many UN members. If not for the continuing threat from the PRC, Taiwan's leaders might realistically accept their anomalous status. One only has to think of avian flu to realize that it is not in the global interest for Taiwan to be outside the World Health Organization or any of the other institutions of international standard-setting.

By blocking Taiwan's entry to the UN, China is ignoring the same right to self-determination it proclaimed in its more revolutionary days of anti-colonial struggle. This hypocrisy explains in part why the nagging consciences of the non-aligned at the UN impel them to ensure that the admission of Taiwan is not even on the agenda for discussion, despite clear rules to the contrary. In any debate they would have to acknowledge that Beijing's obdurate stand contravenes not only of the right to self-determination but also of the inviolability of colonial boundaries that most African countries accept.

It is worth considering why the Chinese are so unbendable on this issue. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the Communist Party of China has all but abandoned any social agenda other than the maintenance of power, and that leaves only nationalism as a ruling ideology. The “reunification” with Taiwan is a token over which the cadres in Beijing can jostle for leadership by out-shouting each other.

However, Beijing's claim to sovereignty over the island is not well founded at all, unless you accept it as the successor state to the Middle Kingdom that claimed to rule the world. In historical terms, the mainland's one unquestioned period of control over Taiwan lasted between the end of the Second World War and the ouster of Chiang Kai-shek from the mainland. The islanders were never consulted, and Chiang's Kuo Min Tang (KMT) made sure that their views went unheard by massacring some 30,000 of them beginning February 28, 1947. Even when driven from the mainland in 1949, Chiang's regime maintained its increasingly tenuous claim to be the legitimate government of China, which included Mongolia as well.

Only after Chiang's death did the island move toward democracy and into the real world, by dissolving the all-China shadow government structures maintained by the KMT. Strangely, the comrades in Beijing were happier with an island claiming to represent the whole of China than they are with one that currently purports only to represent itself.

Definitions of Imperialism

In the modern world, with a few notable and messy exceptions such as in the Balfour declaration, irredentist claims based on ancient history have been unsuccessful in the face of popular sovereignty. There is more to a nation state than a shared language, common ethnicity, or certainly former imperial sovereignty.

According to its arguments based on former control, Beijing could seize Vietnam or parts of Korea. Indeed, if reunification of the former Chinese empire is the issue, then China should really consider the examples of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Luckily, there has been no British call for reunification. Austria and a large part of Switzerland speak German, but Germany has not revived calls for anschluss. Spain has learned to live with the absence of most of Latin America.

Historical claims are essentially worthless. In a modern, civilized world, the views of the people themselves matter most. For example, no British government, not even one as control-minded as Tony Blair's, could force Scotland to stay in the United Kingdom if a clear majority of its people wished otherwise. The Chinese leadership, on the other hand, often confuses “terrorism” with “secessionist activities,” which includes simple advocacy of autonomy and independence. As such, the Chinese equivalent of the Scottish Nationalist Party in Beijing would serve time in jail, not in parliament.

Potential Compromises

Although it is not helpful in the adjudication of modern sovereignty claims, history does offer some examples of pragmatic solutions that could produce a degree of mutual satisfaction. For example, if the PRC had demonstrated more trustworthiness over Hong Kong, then something like the “compacts of association” between the Pacific trust territories and the United States would have been conceivable. But it would be a foolhardy Taiwanese leader who would accept even a token garrison from the People's Liberation Army in view of Beijing's recent threats.

Perhaps a more exiguous form of association could be developed on the model of the dominions of the British Commonwealth, where the British head of state is also head of state of Australia, Jamaica, Canada, and New Zealand. For the last half century at least, this arrangement didn't imply any degree of British control and left the various parties harmoniously linked but independent.

However, for all these imaginative solutions, the Taiwanese need reassurance that some powerful members of the global community have the spine to argue with Beijing, to educate its leaders that their eccentrically Sinocentric view of the world is wrong, and to persuade those same leaders that threats of military action are completely counterproductive as well as unacceptable.

Why should the rest of the world care? Last year, the “Responsibility to Protect” accepted by the UN heads of state codified the instinctive feelings of many. The world should not stand by and watch military action crush a vibrant, successful democracy. And in terms of self-interest, Taiwan has wisely and morally eschewed the nuclear option. Faced with a United States in economic thrall to China and increasingly unlikely to back up its security guarantee against China's developing military capacity, Taiwan certainly has a case for pursuing such a deterrent. But the world is dealing with enough threats to the current arms control regimes and does not need another nuclear power.

Taiwan should take the initiative and propose some such pragmatic solutions to the mainland. Although rejected, such proposals would at least have the effect of putting the onus on Beijing. In fact Taiwan could learn some lessons from Cyprus, where the leaders have for years suggested reasonable-sounding solutions they know are, for some obscure reason often barely discernible to outsiders, completely unacceptable to the other side. At the same time, Taiwan should abandon some of the more ritualistic restrictions on trade and travel across the Strait. And Taipei should make plain that it does not hold a “Two China” policy but rather a “one China, one Taiwan” policy. Like Austria and Germany, or Australia and Britain, Taiwan is close to China—but separate.

Ian Williams contributes frequently to Foreign Policy In Focus (online at on UN and international affairs.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Spirit of Christmas Past—and Future

Latest on the rum trail for the season


For centuries, rum has been a warming folk remedy for colds, flu—and indeed cold itself. As the winter solstice approaches in its various festival forms, one worldwide constant is the need for rum to bring a little tropical warmth into the winter. In places like the Caribbean, India, and Australia a solid rum-drinking tradition ensures that the amber nectar is savored year-around, but in colder climes, rum in eggnogs, Christmas cakes and puddings, mince pies and of course just rum in tots, are traditional accoutrements for the holiday season.

Rum is the world's biggest selling spirit—and both the European Union and the United States define it as any drink distilled from sugar cane products, so Brazilian cachaca is rum whether the Brazilians like it or not. (And they do tend to like it, whatever it's called.) While a certain formerly Cuban transnational corporation is, despite its bland tastelessness, the biggest brand, India's “Old Monk” and the Philippines' “Tanduay” are next up there. From Cuba's “Havana Club” to Barbadian “Mount Gay,” “Guyanese ElDorado,” and Jamaica's “Appleton,” rum offers a range of experiences for guzzlers to gourmets, from those best drunk in cocktails to those best savored sip by sip.

Not So Useless Byproduct

Most rums are made from the molasses left over when the white sugar is crystallized out, and one of its original attractions was that it used an otherwise useless byproduct instead of competing for scarce food grains—as whiskey did for example. The American colonies banned whiskey distillation because it drove up the price of grain and hence bread. And when that happened, old Anglo Saxon tradition was that you rioted and knocked the Town Hall down until the authorities did something about it.

On current evidence, Barbados is the place where nascent Northern technology and tropical agriculture combined to bring about the distillation of spirits of unsurpassed strength and in unsurpassed quantities. The Caribbean was a great melting pot for cultures and for a brief period in the seventeenth century, Barbados was at their focus.

The Portuguese in Brazil had brought sugar-growing from the Arabs in the Mediterranean. The Dutch and the Portuguese Jewish refugees had brought milling and trading skills. And one can only suspect that among the prisoners and indentured servants sent from Britain were some Irish or Scottish exiles who were familiar with the new technology of the still.

Hot Hellish Liquor

People knew that the molasses left behind by sugar refining fermented easily, but only the bold risked drinking it. It continues fermenting in the stomach, according to some who've tried. However, put it through a still and you had a potent and palatable drink. They called it Kill-Devil, or rumbullion, “a hot, hellish liquor,”—and they loved it.

Rum was born.

Soon, they discovered that storing it in oak barrels did wonders for the palatability. Killdevil became rum or “Barbadoes Water” and was in demand across the Atlantic World, until in Jamaica, they discovered that if you redistilled the liquor, it was still hot, but a little less hellish.

It soon spread. New Englanders made rum from contraband molasses that they smuggled from the French colonies, where Paris forbad distillation, in case it competed with Cognac. The enterprising Yankees drank a lot of it, and as Benjamin Franklin boasted, used what was left to help ethnically cleanse the Indian tribes to the West and to trade for slaves in West Africa.

They did so initially under the protection of the British Royal Navy, which won its wars with the French through the period not least because the British national debt was underwritten with the profits of the Caribbean sugar and rum trade. The British Navy was also fuelled more directly by rum. For hundreds of years, every British sailor had a daily ration of a pint of overproof rum.

Revolution Over Taxation

After defeating the French, the Royal Navy turned to defeating American smugglers who had been busily trading with the enemy, and the American Revolution began. The British felt that the American colonists should make a financial contribution to the biggest national debt hitherto that they had run up clearing the French threat from Canada. American colonists were as averse to taxation as some of their descendents. The revolution was about taxation, not representation—and it was not about tea but molasses and rum. In fact, the core problem was American resentment of military policing of civilians. This was two centuries before the White House reintroduced the concept after 9-11 of course.

Throughout the 18th century, the Caribbean was the equivalent of the modern Persian Gulf. The great powers went there to fight their wars over the liquid energy and liquid capital of the islands. France, Britain, and others sacrificed untold hundreds of thousands of white indentured laborers, African slaves, soldiers, and sailors on the altar of sugar and rum.

Not that it did him much good, but Napoleon devalued Britain's Caribbean empire while losing most of the important battles. In 1811, Benjamin Delessert had a pilot plant working with Spanish POWs who were experienced in sugar refining, when the emperor turned up, with a troop of horse guards, pinned a Legion D'Honneur on his chest, and ordered the wholesale expansion of sugar beet production.

Within a few decades, beet sugar and the anti-slavery movement had converted the Caribbean from being the engine of North Atlantic economic and military power to a backwater of empire and they have never really recovered.

Bacardi and Revolutionaries

The English-speaking islands had lost American markets to the new whiskey distilleries that Western grain made possible, and the French and Spanish colonies were finally allowed to make rum themselves. Even so, Jamaica rum was the standard until the 20th century and it was Jamaican distillers who moved to Cuba who probably founded the original Bacardi distillery.

Bacardi won prizes from the Spanish Court for its rum, credited with bringing young King Alfonso of Spain back from death's door with a tot of the family specialty in 1892. Bacardi was revolutionary in many ways.

Even as it saved the royal life, the family supported the Cuban revolutionaries against Spain, and later supported Fidel Castro and the guerrillas against Batista. The Bacardi clan even provided members of Castro's first trade delegation to the United States. And then he nationalized them and they took it personally—very personally. They have been fighting on every level ever since, especially politically in the United States.

Bacardi boss Juan Pépin Bosch brought a touch of the old connection between buccaneering and rum back to life in 1961 by buying a surplus U.S. Air Force B-26 Marauder medium bomber, to bomb a Cuban oil refinery. Later he was the money behind a plot to assassinate Castro.

In fact, the Castro takeover had not fatally wounded the company, which had already become one of the first trans-nationals. From 1955, Bacardi was headquartered in the Bahamas, getting British Empire tariff preferences, and from the 1930s its major distillery was in Puerto Rico to get access to the American market that it had cornered during Prohibition, when it was the rumrunner's favorite product.

Evil Empire

Bacardi has been the evil empire to the other smaller Caribbean rum producers. It works to keep them out of markets as fervently if they were all Castroite allies. On some islands you cannot get the local rum in the hotel bars, because Bacardi has bought the concession.

The Caribbean islands that once fuelled world wars and industrial revolutions are now almost entirely dependent on tourism for their economic survival. First President Bill Clinton took them to the World Trade Organization to remove preferential access to Europe for their bananas. The Drug Enforcement Agency takes strong measures against another traditional island recreational crop, and in the face of protected EU and U.S. sugar substitutes, their sugar cane fields are being leveled to make golf courses for gringos.

But tourism and rum could go together. The region's Rum producers should be selling more than a drink—they should be selling a concept, a life style. As Johnny Depp exulted, staggering round his desert island in the film Pirates of the Caribbean, “Rum, sand, and sun! It's the Caribbean!”

And almost every shot you down will help development. Sugar cane only grows in the tropical zone, which as it happens, is mostly underdeveloped in the modern world. Selling high value-added branded spirits on the world market makes much more sense than trying to compete with cane sugar in a market where the EU protects sugar beet farmers and the United States looks after the double interests of Cuban exile sugar plantation owners in Florida, and Archer Daniels Midlands' high fructose corn syrup, made from maize.

Pathetic Substitutes

These pathetic substitutes need high tariff protection and subsidies because there is nothing as efficient as cane for producing sugar and energy—and hence rum. As a result, as Fidel Castro discovered, mass marketing high-value added Havana Club rum across the world produces far more revenue than bags of sugar in the supermarkets.

Somehow, the Caricom island rum producers have to overcome their insularity. Just as the island governments have been selling the Caribbean as a concept, they should be boosting Caribbean rum as the distilled essence of the islands, whose every sip in the cold of winter evokes happy memories of sultry tropics, and an altogether better and more relaxed life style. They should be keeping their sugar plantations because, not only can they produce gasohol like Brazil, they can produce rum and attract tourists to watch it being cooked up.

Trade Spats

Caribbean Rum distillers have millions of potential customers coming into their territories who can take their acquired tastes back with them to the bars of London and New York. They have expatriates in their millions who can guarantee exporters a market. So far, whatever dents there have been on the Bacardi empire have come from major international spirits acquiring distribution rights for island products. The biggest success story is Pernod Ricard's partnership with Havana Club. That old Bacardi magic in Washington ensures that they cannot sell it in the United States and indeed the dispute over the trademark has almost provoked trade wars between the EU and United States.

However, it takes more than variations on “Old” and “Aged,” on the bottles to build a brand. Discerning and affluent consumers want to see precise ages and they want a back-story for their bottle. And what a back-story rum has. It can beat any other drink with four centuries of Caribbean history to call on. Rum launched revolutions, slave rebellions, and fuelled wars on land and on sea. Its devotees include pirates, sailors, soldiers and admirals, planters and field hands, rum shops and chic bars.

Every rum bottle on every cold northern bar shelf should be a spirited ambassador for Caribbean tourism. Vodka, whose sales are booming world wide with heavy advertising, is just a dull spirit, literally ethanol and water. But rum, in its infinite flavorsome variety, is the true global spirit with its warm beating heart in the Caribbean.

Ian Williams is a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor ( and the author of Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776 (Nation Books, hardback 2005, and paperback 2006). This article is specially written for FPIF in aid of development and merrymaking.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Strange Attraction: Stories of Imperial Decline

Not always a bad thing when the Captains and Kings Depart!

I have several times been accused of posts longer than some blog-readers' attention span, so I will not inflict this 8 page opus on you. Besides, I think people should look at Common Review and subscribe, since it is a highly readable yet cultured magazine. The link below takes you to the pdf of my cover story in this issue, and the links below that allow you to buy the works mentioned, and help my sagging bottom line with commission from Amazon!

"Strange Attraction: Stories of Imperial Decline," by Ian Williams

Nothing becomes an empire like its fall. We look upon its works with a sense of despair that such a mighty social edifice could fall so completely. Whether it is the Anglo-Saxon elegist on the ruins of the Roman city of Bath (“giants made it”), or Edward Gibbon “musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol," the fall of Rome is behind the almost omnipresent Ozymandian nostalgia that permeates Western intellectual life. But, although many of us share in this fascination, one has to admit how odd it is that our generally accepted apogee of civilization was in fact a military dictatorship based on brutal aggression, conquest, and slave trading, whose most memorable entertainments were forcing people to kill each other or setting wild beasts to dismember them in front of large audiences.

See the Decline and Fall of the Roman, British and American empires below...

Click on the Common Review

And buy the Books!!

Mohammed and Charlegmagne, by Henry Pirenne

Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire
by Morris Berman

The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians
by Peter Heather

Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors by Charles S. Maier

Europe After Rome by Julia Smith

Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800
by Chris Wickham

Friday, December 15, 2006

With Friends Like These, NAM, Darfur and Palestine

There's No Monopoly on Hypocrisy

In an exemplary display of chutzpah this week, John Bolton and former Israeli Ambassador to the UN Dore Gold called for the International Criminal Court to go after the Iranian President. Please note that this is the International Criminal Court whose founding Rome Treaty Bolton "unsigned" and which he has spent six years trying to sabotage.

One has to admit that having Bolton as the US Ambassador was a good excuse for a lot of silly behavior by alienated Third World delegations. But it is not a good enough excuse for their collusion in covering up violations of human rights. Since the controversial Human Rights Council was established, the Non-Aligned have behaved as if they deliberately trying to vindicate Bolton and the pro-Israeli anti-UN lobby.

Of course I am not complaining that the Council sees fit to criticize Israel for its human rights violations--often. After all Israel often violates the human rights of its Palestinian and Lebanese neighbors and the various pro-Israeli UN-Watch and NGO-Monitor sites could productively suggest to the Israeli government that the best way to avoid being in the dock is to stop committing crimes.

But providing cover for tyrannies like Uzbekistan or Belarus, as the non-aligned majority has done this year, blocking resolutions on their practices, is to give the Palestinian cause a bad name in an equally hypocritical way. Human Rights are too important to indulge hypocrisy.

In his valedictory speech to Human Rights Watch last Friday, Kofi Annan pointed this out and more. In a recent interview with me, he commented that "The question of double standards is a question you never get away from when you touch the Middle East, whether you are discussing the Middle East in the region or outside the region. We’ve often been accused that UN resolutions are implemented selectively, and I try to explain that we can only implement these resolutions with the cooperation of the member states. In situations where the member states concerned do not cooperate it’s extremely difficult for the UN to impose any resolutions."

In particular, of course, is the issue of Darfur, where all the objective evidence shows that the Sudanese government is backing a murderous militia in mass killings, rapes and ethnic cleansing of local people. Having outvoted a resolution that named the government, the Non-Aligned and Muslim countries on the Human Rights Council supported an African Union resolution that passed condemning the killings--without mentioning the government that was organizing the murders.

This is a travesty that plays into the hands of Israel supporters. Most of those campaigning for Darfur are sincere humanitarians, but there many among them who see it as a wonderful opportunity for anti-Arab propaganda. And who can blame them--it is a wonderful opportunity, handed to them on a plate by the Arab and African governments who will not speak up against Khartoum.

However, as a testament to the efficacy of international and popular pressure, including strong words from Annan, in the end, the Council realized it was losing all credibility and was forced to agree to hold a special session this week, which decided to send a team to Sudan to investigate. But even now, the only references to the Sudanese government are to thank it for its cooperation. The five person team will be picked by the President of the Council after "informal consultations" among members, which means that he will have to resist governmental pressures to appoint those who will not rock the boat with Khartoum.

There are some caveats here. The situation in Darfur and Sudan is much more complex than some of these lobby groups would have us believe. Some of them take the UN to task because it refuses to call what is happening there genocide, which makes one suspect their motivation. In fact the UN inspectors reported that what the Jinjaweed were doing may be "no less serious and heinous than genocide."

For a close look at the complexity of the issues see Alex De Waal's piece in the current London Review of Books.

Darfur should matter to the Palestinians, despite the large cheque the Sudanese handed over to the Hamas Prime Minister Ismael Haniyah. Diplomatically, the Palestinians have lost ground, not least because of the large, and very important, European Union bloc whose support for entirely correct resolutions has wavered. The EU members are under heavy pressure from the US, and they have a Trojan horse in their midst, in the form of Tony Blair’s Britain. But externally, the Non-Aligned’s stance on overall human rights issues, and its seeming refusal to accept that anyone other than Israel violates international humanitarian law, has certainly made it easier for Blair and Bush to pull the EU away from its former commitment to international law on the Middle East to a more expedient view.

That is a much larger threat than the handful of Pacific coral atolls which are the only active supporters of Israel that the US can muster. And the way to deal with it is for delegations that really care about the Palestinians to is to do the right thing by supporting human rights wherever they are violated, regardless of which government is doing the violating – or indeed even if it is terrorists depriving people of the fairly fundamental right to life.. There is really no excuse for democracies like India and South Africa to cover up for Uzbekistan, Belarus--or Sudan, just as there are no real excuses for EU collusion with Israel's violations.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Pinochet, Thatcher, Kirkpatrick and Galtieri

Pinochet, Thatcher, Kirkpatrick and Galtieri in perspective

Augusto Pinochet was evil and few will mourn his passing, although there is room to mourn that he spent his declining years outside a prison cell. Even his former supporters were disappointed when they discovered that he had been dipping the till. There was nothing pure about this evil! No one who watched what Margaret Thatcher did to Britain in the eighties will be too surprised that both she and the Murdoch press are the only ones with tears to spare, in public at least. Thatcher reputedly suffers from Alzheimer's, and so she has an excuse, but one feels that she would have said the same with her full faculties.
See Marc Cooper for more details from someone who knew Pinochet's victim Allende well.

In fact, it is to the credit of the often-disparaged Labour government of Harold Wilson that they offered asylum to many Chileans fleeing Pinochet's Kissinger-backed civilization effort. I had one staying with me in Liverpool, traumatized by the torture he had undergone.

But ever since, the disparity of treatment between Chile and Argentina has intrigued me. While the Argentinian military did nothing so spectacularly thuggish as bombing the presidential palace and killing the president, according to Human Rights groups, they ended up killing ten times as many Argentineans as the Chilean Junta killed Chileans, and often in gruesomely imaginative ways that betoken seriously twisted minds.

Yet, as I remember, Chile was the cause celebre for the decade, and Argentina was an afterthought.

I cannot help suspecting that it was to do with international relations. While the Chilean Junta was fervently anti-communist, the Argentinians happily carried on trade relations with the Soviet Union, selling wheat, for example. Was the disparity in publicity as demonstration of the power of the Soviet led communist parties in the world's left? I really cannot think of any other explanation.

Margaret Thatcher's affection for Pinochet is, of course, also based on personal gratitude for his regime's covert help against Argentina during the Falklands War. Certainly, Mrs. T showed no signs of disaffection with Galtieri's regime before the Argentinian invasion, and the Junta could be forgiven for mistaking the signals London was sending, that it really did not care too much. Thatcher was running down the British presence in the South Atlantic, and indeed the Navy. If Galtieri had had any sense, and was really worried about liberating the islands, all he had to do was to wait a few years and her penny-pinching policies would have handed them to him on plate. Jeane Kirkpatrick, who beat her protégé Pinochet to the pearly gates by a few days, was deeply reluctant to back even Thatcher against Galtieri, and Reagan had to order her to back Britain in the UN Security Council. You may remember Kirkpatrick distinguished between "authoritarian" regimes, which imprisoned, killed and tortured people, and totalitarian regimes, which did the same, but disagreed with her.

Sadly, in the trade off from Galtieri's stupidity, Britain lost and Argentina won. The Junta fell and Thatcher was re-elected despite her disastrous economic and industrial policies. Her spectacular success was then to rebuild the British economy back to where it was when she took over, for which economic pundits with short term memories applauded her.

But then, amnesia is such a general phenomenon nowadays. How many of us think back to the descriptions of life and painful death in the Argentinean and Chilean generals, and see the repressive technology of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. People kidnapped, "rendered," shackled, hooded, and tortured. Can it just be a coincidence that the same people in Washington who applauded Pinochet are now implementing his policies and practices on a global scale?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Magic moments on Wall St

This was one of my "Speculator" Columns in Investor Relations Magazine earlier this year. I offer it until I catch up with more current events.

Magic Moments

The Wall Street Journal recently noticed that executive stock-options often seemed to dated and priced just before a leap in stock prices or while the they were in an abnormal trough.

Their number-crunchers decided that the odds against this happening on a random basis, for the companies it studied ranged from 800,000 to 1 to 100 million to one.

Then it became clear that at some companies, the options were provably backdated at specific, and for the executives, highly propitious, dates.

How can we explain this or the fact that all these incidents seemed to happen at around the same time? When we exclude all possible but unthinkable explanations for such events, then the impossible becomes feasible.

So let's sing a response to the Loving Spoonful, at least those of us old enough too remember those carefree days, "Do you believe in magic?" Dead right we do. You often hear people talk about the magic of high finance, but it must be real!

It is clear that America's senior executives discovered both time travel and telepathy simultaneously. They traveled back in time to issue themselves options, and mentally communicated the technology to their colleagues in other companies so they too could travel back and do the same thing

Of course this may seem a little far-fetched, but the alternative hypotheses are absolutely untenable. We would have to assume that much of the corporate leadership of the United States was involved in an unprincipled conspiracy to defraud the shareholders, employees and pensioners of their companies, and what is more to make an end run round the SEC while they were doing it. Unthinkable!

Similarly, when faced with reports of executives awarding themselves bonuses for declining earnings and stock prices it would be unthinkable and preposterous to assume any veniality on their part. It is much more reasonable to assume that they are creating real shareholder value, but that our ever-inventive corporate leadership is siphoning it off into another dimension, beyond the reach of the IRS, where it will be available at the appropriate time for the use of trusting and patient shareholders.

Think about the massive thaumaturgic advance made by all those compensation committees and experts who can prove with charts and diagrams that every executive must be paid above average in case they desert. In the American corporate world, everybody is above average, and so is their pay. If it is not math, it's magic.

It may be useful to send an exploration party into the fifth dimension to find out what happened to the below average - since they are clearly not to be found in this universe.

These are special people we are talking about: masters of quantum uncertainty who can argue to annual meetings and compensation committees that they are uniquely indispensable for the companies that they manage, but tell the jury afterwards that they had no clue what was going on in their companies.

I know that there will be some skeptics out there, but clearly a select group of insiders is in the know, doubtless all honor graduates of the Hogwarts School of Business. How else to explain why institutions with large voting blocs and big research departments saw nothing amiss, and did not raise it at the annual meetings, why respected banking operations with astute analysts did not put sell on their holdings? Because they know about the magic of finance.

So why will they not share the news with the rest of the world? Because it would pose a moral hazard, that's why. Imagine the consequences for American public morale, let alone morality, if people learnt that you could get much greater pay for working less efficiently, or that they could go back and retrospectively rewrite their contracts?

Whatever would happen to the American work ethic? As the carefully selected readers of Harry Potter's Guide to Business Success will know, these are secrets that must be kept hermetically sealed form Muggles, or Mugs, as we affectionately call them, who have to work longer and harder for less pay and fewer benefits or smaller dividends each passing week. Doubtless there are dire consequences for anyone foolish enough to revea.................... SPLOTTTT.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Unfinished Business for Blair

In Tribune, London, 8 December 2006

Kosovo Independence - There's No Alternative

It is sad to see the ruined fragments of the former Yugoslavia. You can travel from the Arctic Circle to the Moroccan border with Spain without showing a passport. But to travel from Skopje to Pristina, which was once as trouble-free as going from Manchester to Leeds, is a time-consuming bureaucratic business. The only hope for the sundered Balkans is for the separate states to start cooperating and eventually to join the European Union.

For that to happen, the last piece of the Balkan jigsaw has to have clear and guaranteed shape-and that is an independent Kosovo. Recognition must precede cooperation and reintegration.

Occasionally overlooked in the wake of the Iraqi debacle is the fact that Tony Blair's foreign policy was not always bad. Without the Prime Minister's strength over Kosovo, Slobodan Milosevic would probably have escaped with the ethnic cleansing– and remained in power. Certainly, Clinton ungoaded by Blair would not have supported action-and, since it was on behalf of Muslims and there was no oil involved, not even a belligerent Bush would have been that fired up about a genuine humanitarian issue in an oil-free niche of the Balkans.

But now as Blair approaches the end of his premiership, Kosovo is still unfinished business. Europe and the UN are hedging about independence, almost eight years after Milosevic's killers beat an ignominious retreat. Accepting that he certainly is not going to see a happy ending in Iraq, the Prime Minister Blair's last mission, should he choose to accept it, should surely be to ensure recognition of Kosovo's independence.

In a recent interview, Kofi Annan told me that the UN was treading water on the issue so as not to give Serb nationalists leverage in the forthcoming elections. This is the wrong approach. You do not cure nationalist illusions by pandering to them. Belgrade's claims to Kosovo were always about as well founded as London's to Calais, which may have been written on Mary Tudor's heart but has long been erased from any serious map of Britain.

The founders of the regime in Washington that Mr. Blair admires so much declared that governments derive their "just Powers from the Consent of the Governed...whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government."

In the modern democratic world, there is no way that the international community can force Kosovo back under Serbian rule against the wishes of some ninety per cent of its population. Over twenty years ago Milosevic ago instituted a form of Apartheid against the majority of its population, and followed it up with a bout of ethnic cleansing and mass murders, whose victims are still being exhumed from mass graves in Serbia.

The only right the Serbs had to Kosovo was that of conquest, in the early twentieth century. And the problem with the right of conquest is that he who conquers last has the last laugh. Milosevic lost. More pertinently, the Kosovars will not, and nor should they, be forced back into the state that deprived them of all their rights, including the right to life.

If there had been an effective reformist government in Belgrade, it would have spent the years since the overthrow of Milosevic apologizing to the Kosovars and trying to kiss and make up. But instead of trying to win hearts and minds they have directed a haze of irredentist claims against Kosovo and its government, the latest of which involves railroading through a reaffirmation of Serb sovereignty over the province in a Floridian-style vote on a new constitution.

It is true that the Kosovars have not exactly made a stellar success of self-government hitherto. However, almost every such objection, no matter how accurate, could equally be levelled against Serbia, whose government had in addition waged recent aggressive and genocidal war against its neighbours. By the same logic, having proven unfit for self-rule, perhaps Serbia should return to Ottoman suzerainty?

Some so-called socialists now claim to be deeply concerned about the problem with minorities in Kosovo. It would, one cannot help thinking, have helped their case if they had shown similar concern when Milosevic's regime was ethnically cleansing minorities, Albanians, Bosniak Muslims and Croats, but even so, there is indeed a serious problem with how Kosovars treat the minorities they see as accomplices of Belgrade.

The occasional obsession with it by those who see the likes of Saddam and Slobodan as socialist saints and martyrs is on a par with concentrating on how the Czechs (genuinely) mistreated the Sudeten Germans while forgetting what Nazi Germany had done before. The one does not excuse the other–but it puts it into perspective. There is certainly room for a continuing international presence and protection for the minorities, Serb, Roma or whatever, with a strong message to Kosovo that there would be financial and political consequences for a failure to ensure their safety.

But we return to the same point. There are no conceivable circumstances short of extermination or expulsion of the Kosovars that would bring about a restoration of Belgrade's power in the province. Tony Blair should make himself useful in his exit, and effect the independence wanted by an overwhelming majority of Kosovo's inhabitants.

Monday, December 04, 2006

John Bolton's Greatest Hits

Sorry about the recent silence, but illness inhibited productivity. Normal Service should now be resumed.
Here is the latest on Bolton.

The Nation
December 4, 2006
John Bolton's Greatest Hits
Ian Williams
In a rare midterm election in which foreign policy was a major issue, it is not too much of a stretch to say that American voters put UN Ambassador John Bolton out of office. Bolton's resignation from his unconfirmed recess appointment at the UN removes the residual fear that the Bush team had something up its sleeve to bypass senatorial resistance to his confirmation. The White House had claimed the support of a bipartisan silent majority for his appointment--even though it was vociferous defections from GOP ranks that helped thwart his confirmation.
In fact, Bolton's determination to hang on up to this point suggests that his obsession with the United Nations is as serious as Ted Haggard's with sin: He just can't keep away from it. For three decades of work at conservative think tanks and at the State Department, Bolton has angled for appointments that would in some way keep him grappling at close quarters with the organization even if they sometimes involved him in contradictory positions.
Even when the Bushes were out of office, Bolton filled in his time working with former Secretary of State James Baker when he was appointed UN special envoy for the Western Sahara. The Moroccan annexation of the territory has been on the UN agenda for more than thirty years and a standing invitation to complaints about the organization's ineffectiveness; Bolton has been remarkably reticent to highlight it.
Bolton's other job in exile was to advise the Taiwanese government on how to get into an organization that he had spent decades advising the United States to get out of. No sooner had he arrived at the UN in 2005 than he cooked up a deal with Beijing's ambassador to scuttle the efforts of Germany, Japan and India--all US allies--to get permanent seats on the Security Council. He may have had a point about the undesirability of the changes--but a more diplomatic envoy would not have left American fingerprints so messily obvious.
From the White House point of view, Bolton's appointment appeased the know-nothing foreign policy crowd while rewarding his longstanding loyalty to the Bush dynasty. That loyalty had been shown most memorably in 2000, when the man who has spent the past year preaching democracy to the members of the United Nations strode into a library polling place in Florida yelling, "I'm with the Bush-Cheney team, and I'm here to stop the count."
To be fair, while Bolton's tenure has from the standpoint of any rational diplomacy been a disaster, it has not been an unmitigated one. He has been a very well-trained attack dog, always coming to heel when the White House wanted and chewing his own words when necessary.
One of his proudest achievements in his previous job at the State Department was to "unsign" the treaty that committed the United States to the International Criminal Court, and then to bully and browbeat small countries across the world into signing agreements not to extradite US citizens to its seat in the Hague. And then this year he had to allow a Security Council resolution setting the Court's prosecutors on the perpetrators in Darfur.
As pious commentators talk about how effective he was, it is worth remembering that while he was in charge of arms control, North Korea joined the nuclear club and that, according to him and Bolton and his allies, Iran is about to. It is an achievement--but of a dubious sort for an alleged arms control maestro. To be fair, within the Administration, he reportedly opposed the US-Indian nuclear deal, although he remained silent on Israeli nuclear capabilities.
Otherwise, Bolton's most memorable "achievement" occurred while he was in charge of arms control at the State Department before moving to the UN. He was a major saboteur of Congressional efforts to improve and tighten the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. If these measures had been passed, countries would not have been able, as North Korea did, to drop out of the treaty after reaping its dual-use benefits, and the voluntary protocols on inspection that Iran stopped observing would have been compulsory.
However, his greatest legacy may be his semi-successful attempt to wreck the UN reform proposals last year. By introducing hundreds of unilateral amendments after long months of painstaking negotiations between the members, he certainly managed to destroy the efforts of Kofi Annan to persuade the Third World members that managerial reforms were not some form of American and Western plot. In fact, almost every public statement he made pretty much confirmed their suspicions.
Bolton leaves unfinished business at the UN. His attempt to enforce on Iran an international law in which he professes disbelief comes to nothing as Security Council members try to insure that Washington has no excuse to take military action. The resolution is stalemated and diluted.
Although he is now implying personal credit for the appointment of Ban Ki-moon, the incoming Secretary General, Ban is astute enough to know that he was far from Washington's first choice for the position. Ban differed from Bolton on issues ranging from the International Criminal Court to how to deal with Pyongyang.
Bolton has clearly relished his role at the UN, and one nightmare scenario would be intense White House pressure on Ban to grant him a senior UN appointment. If that sounds farfetched, just consider the recent appointment of Bush supporter and former Washington Times editor Josette Sheeran Shiner as head of the World Food Program.
One cannot help but suspect that Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman will soon have competition in xenophobic grandstanding. Bolton's media prominence, his longstanding credentials as a Goldwater supporter and his newly acquired status as a martyr for conservatism would certainly equip him for a political career in the GOP's new confederate heartland, where tough talk regularly obscures lack of achievement.