Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Holocaust History and the Law

History: the legalised version
click for the Guardian Comment is Free link - and the remarkably sane comments..

Legislating against scepticism is a slippery slope.

February 26, 2007

"What is truth" is not a question for politicians - they are the worst equipped to recognise it. Armenian genocides, the Holocaust, do not need politicians to sort out what happened. Politicians just need to make sure it does not happen again.

In 1897, the Indiana legislature passed a remarkably incoherent bill establishing that pi was equal to 3.2 or 4 or even 3.23. But not 3.142, etc, ad infinitum. It was stalled in the state senate, after being referred, in what one hopes was a sense of merriment, to the Committee on Temperance.

We should be lucky they were not Biblical literalists of the kind who keep trying to usher Darwin out of the schools and smuggle creationism in the front door. The Book of Kings clearly mandates that pi is three. If the creationists were only to travel in aircraft and cars designed on that basis, there would be an interesting demonstration of Darwin in action. It would do wonders for the gene pool.

As Mark Twain once said: "Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself ..." Twain, who was never an American parochialist, couldn't have intended to refer simply to American legislators.

Despite the Patriot Act, the US is (temporarily) ahead because of First Amendment fundamentalisms, even if honoured in the breach more than the observance, as sundry Palestinians who have espoused unpopular causes can testify. Without such protections, Twain's idiots are going through Aye lobbies across Europe to put small print in the history books.

Almost as bad as legislative poking around in test tubes are lawmakers making history. For example, there were indeed massacres of Armenians at the end of the Ottoman era, and from what I have seen of the evidence, there is strong evidence that Istanbul officially condoned and probably conducted the operations. But I think the idea that France should make scepticism about it illegal is every bit as inane as Turkey making it illegal to say that it happened.

Of course it happened, and the cleverest thing the Turks could do is to say, "Hey, it happened under the Sultans. But we aren't responsible. We've had a revolution, we got rid of the Sultan, dissolved his harem, and we're really sorry for anything the corrupt old polygamist and his crowd got up to." It may not be entirely true of course: the military that removed the Sultan were involved in those operations, but it would show willing.

Contemporary politics rarely provides a good platform from which to solidify retrospection. Indeed, the Armenian genocide became tangentially involved with the Jewish Holocaust in 1990 when Senate Leader Bob Dole moved a resolution to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.

Originally Dole had a clear majority in support but then the Israel lobby "lent" a dozen or so senators to the Turkish lobby, to cement Israel's alliance with Ankara. When they withdrew their votes, without making Galileo-like disclaimers, like "they are still dead", it made Bob Dole a strong opponent of loan guarantees to build Israeli settlements, and still has repercussions as various presidential candidates adjust their positions.

As governor of Texas, George Bush took McCain to task for not supporting, but is now, as president, fighting shy of supporting similar measures for fear of Turkish displeasure. He does not have many friends left internationally, after all.

And this time around, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has espoused the cause, which, apart from ethical qualms, is why the Turks are having difficulty enlisting pro-Israeli groups to fight their fight. Indeed, the wonder is that they ever succeeded.

Almost as contentious across Europe is the actual Jewish (and Roma and gay) Holocaust. There should be no exceptions to legislating history. The writers, like David Irving, who have been imprisoned for "Holocaust" denial, are not nice people. But to imprison them for expressing views on a historical matter is on a par with rounding up the Flat Earth Society and sending them down. It is not just bad history: it is bad politics. Imprisoning and persecuting them makes them martyrs and attracts a whole world of wackos to think that if governments want to silence them, then there must be something behind it. And it provides cover for not doing anything about contemporary and future mass murders.

One could understand feeling that action is necessary for someone who says: "The Holocaust did happen - and a shame it did not finish the job," or similar noxious sentiments that could incite. But for someone who denies it, surely care in the community is the better road? We do not send everyone who thinks they are Napoleon to St Helena, do we?

How do we approach the legislator who wants to penalise scepticism about the Gulags under Stalin, or the famines under both him and Mao? Will the French pass a resolution apologising for their behaviour in Algeria and making apologetics for it illegal?

How about legislation penalising glorification of mass bombings of civilians during the second world war? It is a slippery slope. The Tonkin Gulf incident or George Bush's Vietnam war record could be voted into veracity, along with Iraqi WMDs and Saddam Hussein's part in 9/11.

No, it may be irritating when idiots indulge in history, but it is disastrous when congressmen and their overseas colleagues indulge.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Little big brother

Little big brother
The Guardian Comment is Free Post - see below for the link

Rudy Giuliani is running for president on his reputation as a tough-guy mayor, but he should explain where his emergency HQ was on 9-11 - and why.

February 23,

In the unlikely event that Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani face off against each other for the presidency, Americans could be faced with a difficult choice. Both support abortion rights, the death penalty, and the war in Iraq; both oppose a single payer health system; and both support gay rights and being mean to welfare recipients. And both have instant name recognition for reasons tangential to their own deeds.

Both will also flip-flap like hummingbird wings to avoid appearing over-committed to anything that could lose them votes. In classic Clintonian triangulation (this time to get the evangelical vote), Giuliani is busily promising that, while he personally supports abortion rights, he would appoint judges who don't.

If the policy differences are negligible, it will all come down to "character". Now there is no doubt that, despite her faux-folksiness, the softest thing about Hillary is her teeth. She has an impressive drive for power that is reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher on the rampage.

Immediately one can hear the objections "what about Rudy, America's mayor, the hero of 9-11?" Never was there a more fragile legend than the daring deeds of Sir Rudy. I was living downtown on September 11, and watched the World Trade Centre when it was hit by those pretty convincing holograms (well done George Monbiot).

While reporting by phone from my fire escape to radio stations, I heard on a local station that Giuliani was looking for an emergency headquarters. I almost telephoned to tell him where it was. It was on the 23rd storey of No 7 World Trade Centre. And the Mayor had spent no less than $16m building "the Bunker" in the face of strong contrary advice.

Apart from the sheer stubborn silliness, there was the typically Rudyesque detail that the Bunker was on a twenty year lease paying $1.4m annual rent to one of his major campaign contributors. His own city's fire regulations wisely forbade putting a 6,000 gallon tank of diesel fuel in the building to keep generators running. So he declared it to be part of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and had it installed regardless.

On September 11, when No 7 caught fire as a result of blazing debris from the WTC itself, the diesel caught fire, and helped melt the retaining girders so the building collapsed onto the Con Edison electricity substation in the basement. The resulting floods from fire hoses trying to put out the blaze knocked out downtown Manhattan's telephones after water reached the neighboring Verizon station.

Some are born to greatness, some grow into it and some have it thrust upon them. Blacking out the world's financial centre for a week is indeed a rare accolade.

Maybe we can overlook a little lapse like closing down Wall Street for a week, not least since no one seemed to notice its absence at the time. But that toxic smog downtown has occluded memories of Giuliani's unheroic performance as mayor.

Never has there been such an example of acquired memory syndrome. Giuliani has taken the credit from David Dinkins boosting the size of the police force and from Bill Clinton for providing the federal cash to pay for it. And "America's Mayor" basked in the spurious glory of a financial boom that happened to coincide with his term in office. Lower poverty, more police, less crime - and nothing to do with him or his corrupt police commissioner (and subsequent business partner) Bernard Kerik.

Kerik was Giuliani's poodle, whose fur was famously clipped when he lost his scandal-ridden nomination for secretary of the Homeland Security Department. 9-11 did not sanitize him well enough. But one wonders whether it will whitewash Giuliani.

Americans expect a certain degree of decorum from their President. They will need to judge whether or not a man who claims to be a devout Catholic - and then announces his third divorce at a press conference without telling his long-suffering spouse - meets that requirement.

Of course loyalty counts - and indeed Giuliani loyally backed President Bush when the latter churlishly halved the 9-11 aid that Congress voted to the city. So much for what voters can expect in return.

This week in Florida, Rudy has been touring firehouses and associating with "first responders". These great photo opportunities should be fogged by memories of his November 2001 order drastically reducing the number of firemen on the Word Trade Centre site, where they were sifting the rubble for human remains.

It could have been justified as an economic measure, except every cop in New York had been on almost unlimited overtime for months, manning stupid and ineffectual checkpoints on bridges and roads across Manhattan.

Petty and petulant as ever, he obviously remembered that the New York firefighters' union backed his opponent. In December 2001, after that failed, he tried to "privatize" the Twin Towers Fund that the city had set up for the widows and orphans of firefighters. He transferred the funds to a private foundation he controlled that would pay salaries of up to $250,000 a year to six of his pals - including his mistress.

As Manhattanites said of him, "you can take the boy from the suburbs, but you can't take the suburbs out of the boy". Those suburbs were white. The cops who sodomized Abner Louima with a toiler plunger may not have shouted "It's Giuliani time", but they knew that it was. Implicitly, their mayor backed the idea that any black victim of a police shooting must have been guilty of something.

Perhaps the most frightening thing about him is that he has consistently shown the insecurity of a little bullied school kid, getting payback by behaving like Big Brother when anyone is foolish enough to give him the authority. His most defining quote is a verbose expansion of "Freedom is Slavery" - a succinct summary of the Patriot Act. He said, "Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do and how you do it."

On second thought, that alone may overcome the conservative reluctance to back a pro-choicer and put him the ballot next year. If he won, he would make W look like a liberal.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Little Big Brother - Rudy runs for Prez.

check out the site, full post by Monday


Friday, February 23, 2007

Demon du jour

Here is the full text of the Comment is Free piece Demon du jour
The comments, for which you have to check the Guardian site, are fun, mostly taking the blindly binary approach that I was questioning. In this mirror universe, calling someone a mass murderer is apparently revisionist whitewashing if you do not admit they kicked the dog and robbed kid's piggy banks as well.

Are Ahmadinejad, Cheney, Mao and Chavez really as evil as everyone says?

Ian Williams

February 21, 2007 8:30 PM | Printable version

The allegation that George W Bush has read and enjoyed the 814 page Mao: The Unknown Story, is on the face of, amazing. I have just finished reading it - and, for a start, it does not have many pictures. But on another level - once you have overcome a natural scepticism about his reading prowess - you can see why both the subject and treatment of the massive biography would appeal to the president, even if he only received an executive summary.

On the one hand, Bush has taken Mao's aphorism that political power comes from the barrel of a gun to levels way beyond the puny weaponry of Mao's army, not to mention emulated Mao's idiosyncratic uses of the word "democracy".

And on the other hand, the president has previously said that he does not "do nuance", and neither does this book - which is so relentlessly negative that it almost provokes sympathy for a man who was, as the authors exhaustively document, responsible for the deaths of millions. Likewise, demonization is the weapon of choice in this administration. They practiced it on Saddam Hussein, on Fidel Castro, and on Yasser Arafat, and are currently honing it for use on Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Most Americans probably assume that these people kick their dogs, abuse their children and are totally faithless to their friends and spouses. But it doesn't work that way. Dick Cheney can be a sinister force for evil - and still love his lesbian daughter.

Even the worst rulers are complex. Think of a leader who died, faithful to one woman for many years, who was a vegetarian, a pet-lover, a non-smoking teetotaler and a sincere believer in all the causes he had espoused for thirty years. One worries whether to name him, in case Adolf Hitler is mistaken for some evangelical saint.

In fact, Milton had a more complex picture of Satan than much of the contemporary western media does of its enemies. Once people are tainted with evil, it is assumed that, like some figure from Marlowe or Webster, everything they do is evil.

I should warn that if ever I grow up, the title of my memoirs will be "I was a Teenage Maoist". I was in China during the Cultural Revolution, had a drinking competition with Chou En Lai and had the temerity to argue about English Literature with Chiang China, aka Mme Mao. The period was a useful prophylactic against the temptations of rigid political lines in later life.

Yet the new Mao book is over the top. Certainly Mao had enough hagiographies written about him in his time. But demonographies are equally uninstructive and this one fails to explain how he mesmerized a nation. The authors show him as having a monstrous ego - but do not mention, let alone explain, why he refused to allow any places to be named after him. When I was there, they had just built the Beijing metro, and party officials chuckled at their own temerity to say that the station by the Forbidden City was called "Chairman station". The Mao book presents no such complexity.

According to the book, naked self-interest motivated every decision Mao made, and the Chinese economy was a shambles when he died. But that does not explain the foundations from which the Chinese economic miracle sprang. As with Stalin's terror, there were many beneficiaries, and millions who believed along with Mao that they were building a better world. The book, and demonography in general, finds it easier to load all the sins and responsibilities on the designated demon - which abandons the responsibility to think about motivations and backgrounds, let alone the context that made such terror possible.

While it may work for whipping up war fever, this form of writing actually disarms us against real totalitarianism - against what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil. A binary, black and white, cowboys-and-Indians depiction of political figures does not equip us to deal with the real world.

In fact, the most dangerous tyrants are totally sincere. They are romantics, and think they're advancing humanity and civilization. On account of their monstrous egos, they tend to see themselves as the means of such advance. (The old aphorism about the road to hell applies here.) From the Crusades to the Inquisition, from the Nazis to the Bolsheviks, it's people with "good" and even selfless intentions whose efforts to make a better world have created hell on it.

They know best, regardless of the fickle and fragile human material they have had to work with. But far from being the work of one evil tyrant, the successful demons have always known how to appeal to masses of people. It takes more than one man, or woman, to conduct a purge, a holocaust or a Great Leap Forward - or even a jihad or crusade.

To take a recent example, by loading all the evil on Osama Bin Laden as an individual, we do not have to think about his political origins, the role played by Washington in nurturing him and his ilk as proxy warriors in Afghanistan, let alone the genuine grievances that he has been able to play upon in the Arab and Muslim World.

Such one dimensional depictions are also easy to drop on demand. Just as Saddam Hussein changed overnight from the West's man in the Middle East - when he was rocketing Tehran - to the devil incarnate after Kuwait, you will have noted an almost complete silence about what's-his-name-with-the-turban, who inconveniently hid in Afghanistan rather than Iraq or Iran when wars were wanted in Washington.

Down with demonization! We should be trying to understand these people - not in the hand-wringing way of the stereotypical liberal social worker - but to understand what motivates them so that we can dissipate the romantic illusions of those who always know what is best for others, whether it is Hugo Chavez - or the Project for a New American Century.

Down, Sir Rudy

A vivisection of Rudy Giuliani's reputation as America's Mayor.. with few passing barbs for Hillary, to prove I'm bipartisan.

Comment is Free Little Big Brother

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Sympathy for the Devil? -

Are Ahmadinejad, Cheney, Mao and Chavez as evil as they say?
Check out the perils of demonization, and throw in your comments to

the latest "Comment is Free" on the Guardian site.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Sphinxes - Korean and Egyptian sub-species.

Many people at the UN have a feeling of deja vue since Ban Ki-Moon came to town. They see a resemblance to the early days of Boutros Boutros Ghali. There are indeed similarities: the most notable being that both came from outside the house with little visible concern for how things were done in the past.

One major difference is that Boutros Ghali assumed that the UN was a simulacrum of the Egyptian foreign ministry – and that this was a bad thing, to be dealt with by "stealth and sudden violence." Not only did he not bring many Egyptians with him, those already in the house were soon disappointed with his lack of attention to them.

In Ban's case, the opposite is true. He appreciated the ROK so much that he seems to have brought a lot of it with him, and put them in positions of influence in the organization. Readers of Catch 22 may remember that it was Ex Private First Class Wintergreen in the office who actually made the decisions on the Western Front in World War II, not the titular commanding officers. UN insiders get the distinct impression that behind every successfully appointed dignitary stands an influential Korean.

This is not necessarily a totally bad thing to begin with. The ROK's foreign policy has been, under the country's precarious circumstances, not a bad one. However, there are perils in running a ship without listening to the experienced members of the crew.

When reinventing wheels it is always best if you can avoid previously mapped potholes.
Only last week at a staff meeting, one impertinent member innocently asked Chef de Cabinet Vijay Nambiar if the new proposals to split Peacekeeping had been run by the Special Representatives who actually have to run Peacekeeping Operations on the Ground. They had not – even if Nambiar smartly accepted it as a good idea.

As we have said before, the new administration does not seem to have developed a rapport with anyone outside their own inner circle. I do not know if Korea has a form of Sumo wrestling, where the two proponents strain and grunt locked immobile to each other until one suddenly gives way. But that is what watching the new team on the 38th floor is like. You know there is a conflict: you know the proponents. But there is no progress until suddenly a proposal pops out the ring into the public view.

But it also seems certain that what we are seeing is the wreckage of pay-off to the Americans. In return for appointing B. Lynn Pascoe (the "urton" is seemingly silent) to head the Department of Political Affairs, the not so invisible hand of NAM has ensured that peacekeeping did not go under the American's direct grip – and the promise to dismember the Department of Disarmament affairs – which has John Bolton's bloody fingerprints all over it- may be transmuted into something that is indeed more effective. After all, he and the US have been the biggest obstacle to enhancing multilateral non-proliferation instruments for some years now.

The proposal to split peacekeeping into a political and logistics side is not the end of the world, and it is even true, as Ban now says, that making a High Representative for Disarmament could give a higher profile to the issue than keeping it as a Department.

It is even true that some of the concern of some of the Non Aligned Envoys is less for the efficiency of the organization than for the potential employment prospects when they retire from their own national diplomatic circles.

But if, as we hope, Ban is wrestling with the Bush administration behind the scenes, it can't be a bad thing if the Nonaligned, and maybe even the Europeans, Russians and Chinese begin to put their shoulders in. As a former union negotiator, I can assure Ban, the best position to be in is to cite popular pressure behind his resistance to overweening Washington.

But if he wants some supportive popular pressure, then he had better begin ensuring that the populace, the staff, the General Assembly, the press and public are more aware of what he wants, and why. At present, those sent out to do the explaining, do not seem have had explanations themselves.

Boutros Ghali learned quite quickly. Let's hope Ban does too.

Global smarming

Global smarming
Exxon Mobil and the White House are united in denying global warming. But new solutions exist, and even God isn't on their side.
Latest Guardian Comment is Free

February 19, 2007 5:14 PM
Montreal and Kyoto are a hemisphere apart geographically, and a world apart in their environmental policy. The Montreal protocol, which effectively cut back damage to ozone layer, was signed in 1987 and applied in record time. Kofi Annan described it as "Perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date..." Kyoto, agreed upon 10 years later and widely considered inadequate at the time, has still not been implemented with any effectiveness.

I had always thought that one reason for the disparity was that the ozone hole threatened fair-skinned and fairly affluent people like me with cancer, while global warming and consequent sea level rise was only going to drown brown-skinned paupers - so who cares? (As an editor at the Scotsman at the time told me, "you ken, some of us think it may be no bad thing for London to be 200ft under water.")

This view may still hold water - but there are other dimensions. Last week Exxon Mobil put full-page ads in, among other papers, the New York Times. The ads sort of implied that the company was as green as a New York St Patrick's Day, which might be convincing if you forgot that Exxon Mobil is alone with the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the White House in pretending that global warming has nothing to do with the product the company sells so profitably. The sound of silence has rarely been so deafening.

In fact, although most of the other major oil companies are convinced that global warming is happening, and that human activity is a major cause of it, Exxon Mobil has been using its considerable charm and influence with the White House to dump opponents from the Intergovernmental Panel of Scientists on Climate Change. The White House in turn has been doctoring Nasa reports to add levels of uncertainty to its reports on the subject.

The company is increasingly isolated in its stand, a process that began when John Browne of BP in 1997 broke with big oil omerta and committed BP to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 10% below 1990 levels by 2010. They met the target in only three years for an expenditure of $20m; the company actually made $650m in savings. (Of course they should have spent some of that cash in their Texas plant, but that's another story.)

The very fact that Exxon Mobil felt forced to put out dissimulatory ads instead of a bald denial shows that the cloud of CO2 may have a silver lining. The new Congress seems alert to public interest on the subject, reinforced by the findings of the panel. It is also helped by the British government's pushing of Nicholas Stern's report on the economics of climate change to Congress and the UN.

Even Tony Blair begs to differ with George Bush on this one - and even as he squirms to be as deferentially non-confrontational as possible.

More significantly, God is no longer on Exxon's side. At one point, American conservatives who claimed to have a hotline to Heaven seemed to be losing the connection - as the deity sent a different kind of message. Can it be a coincidence that hurricanes keep ripping into the states that vote Republican?

More seriously, Rich Cizik, the government affairs officer for the National Association of Evangelicals, one of the legs of the Republican coalition, told me a year ago, "We have a fine history of advocacy, but it has been a little blind towards the environment, but we are beginning to change that." A Toyota hybrid driver, he quotes polls showing that over 70% of Evangelicals thought the environment was very important, and in a shot across the bows of companies like Exxon Mobil, he warned, 'We have not really used shareholder advocacy. But we are quick studies, and I think when we put our hands to the plough, then we will have a tremendous capacity to influence Wall St and corporate America." And, of course, Republican policy.

Both Stern and Jeffrey Sachs at their UN presentation last week (hosted, incidentally, by the British mission) emphasised how achievable a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is, and showed how the relatively small costs are far outweighed by the benefits. Stern also noted that the success of the Montreal Protocol was in large part because the giant chemical companies had substitutes for the destructive CFC gases.

Both of them see the adoption of carbon-sequestrating coal plants as essential to maintaining global growth and prosperity - although Sachs, at least, also recommends nuclear energy. But one of the problems here is that the tide of neo-liberalism over the last thirty years has effectively disarmed us. The old publicly owned utilities could afford to take a long-term view, and to build such prototypes regardless of the effect on the next quarter's earnings. Many are now privatized, and from California to New York to Britain, the capacity and willingness of private companies to build innovative and experimental new plants is diminshed. Stern estimated that R&D in the field has dropped by 50% since privatisation.

Sachs says that, armed with public money, private companies will be happy to design and build such generators.

Surely there is enough public interest here to take seriousa action. Why don't western governments pay for prototype CO2 efficient hydrocarbon using plants to be built in nuclear and nuclear threshold countries - North Korea, Iran, India, Pakistan and Israel - in return for them giving up their nuclear programmes. It repays the historic carbon debt of the industrial countries, diminishes the threats of global warming from greenhouse emissions and global scorching from thermonuclear explosions, and develops technology that could be used worldwide.

Who knows? If Bush's friends in Exxon Mobil get a piece of the action, even they may be won over.Global smarming
Exxon Mobil and the White House are united in denying global warming. But new solutions exist, and even God isn't on their side.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Driving Performance

- a conservative conspiracy in Detroit
My latest "Speculator Column" from
Investor Relations magazine

The New Year is not just a time for making Resolutions on the lines "Aggh, I'll never mix rum and champagne again." It is also a time to look back so that we can inform our future through the lessons of the past.

As the old year shuffled off two of the free market's biggest proponents resurfaced when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher praised her recently dead chum Augusto Pinochet, self appointed President of Chile.

These two were of course the grand panjandrums of privatization, Pinochet famously privatized the Chilean pension system and Thatcher, in the oft-repeated erroneous words of the New York Times, "privatized the loss making state industries."
But Pinochet's military and police resolutely refused to have their own pension schemes privatized, which, since they were running the country which could have been taken as a wink and nudge by the wise. And most of the state owned industries that Thatcher sold were making huge profits, which is why everyone was so eager to buy them. In those days, BP, originally nationalized by that firebrand socialist Winston Churchill, not only made big money for the British Treasury, it did so without blowing up Texas and leaking on Alaska.

The afterlives of the biggest projects of Thatcher and Pinochet also returned for a quick haunt at the end of the year.

First, the New York Times had an editorial warning that the Chile's pension schemes were facing disaster, because half or more of them could not promise their prospective pensioners even the minimum living standards.

Across the Atlantic, the UK's staunchly conservative Daily Telegraph lamented how business investment in Britain was at risk because of the poor state of British utilities: electricity, gas, telephone and water connections were inefficient, businessmen complained. The Telegraph did not mention that these were the first industries that Mrs T had privatized, nor that they were now celebrating their first quarter century of profit-taking lack of infrastructural investment.

But she was never the free market ideologue that was claimed. Rather she was a ruthless and accomplished politician who was trying to lock in her party's victory. By selling deeply discounted shares in state industries to consumers, and selling off municipal housing to its tenants, she raised a pot of capital that let her hold off on tax increases-and, she hoped, created a whole constituency of anti-socialist working class voters.

Selling off the state industries was a move to break the power of the unions, because, not only were they a source of opposition, which she never took kindly to, but because they bankrolled the Labour Party, which she wanted to cripple.

Of course, in the US, the strongest unions in the private sector are the autoworkers, who fund the Democrats. One can only speculate, but is it possible that long term GOP coddling of the big three in Detroit has a similar agenda inspired by Thatcher's example?

By giving huge tax breaks to Detroit to build gas-guzzling SUV's, they have been locked immovably into heavy capital investment in truck-beds that have all the commercial future of a dinosaur squinting at a plummeting meteor. Any analyst can see where fuel prices were going, but Congress has held back on any stringent MPG restrictions. Foreign car makers, where the unions do not have a stranglehold, are coming into the US and making smaller, more efficient and sellable vehicles.

Could the misguiding coddling of Detroit be intended to lead to the US auto industry to auto destruct, taking with it the UAW funding for the Democrats?

Not for reproduction without permission from Cross Border Publications

Friday, February 16, 2007

Presidential Runners Jump The Starting Gun

My piece from today's Tribune on the early Presidential primaries in the US. It is, of course the newspaper that George Orwell wrote many of his best essays for.

I do my best..

An unprecedented year before the first actual primary election, the candidates are already waving their placards. The hidden subtext on most of them is “send money to this address.” Any serious candidate has to raise some $100 million– and prepare to blow it all in a very short period. Many states, including major ones like Florida and California, are concentrating their primary dates together in the early part of the year, which means that candidates will have to rely more than ever on expensive TV advertising – not to mention jet rental – to get their messages across.

However, how many of them actually have a message? Or more pertinently, a message that not aimed into attracting the millions needed for the campaign.

By old British Labour standards, Congressman Dennis Kucinich is easily the most principled of the pack. So he definitely won't get the campaign financing, nor will he get the media’s endorsement as one of the favourites. Sadly, integrity does not necessarily imply charisma. Sometimes, it is not enough to have the right policy – as the comedian said "It's the way you tell 'em."

So far consensus on the Democratic side anoints Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as the front-runners, with John Edwards, Joe Biden and others as outsiders. Hillary has an early lock on the money, where her husband’s skills in charming billionaires out of cash were as legendary as his ability to get interns on their knees. She has been trying to appear folksy and human. In reality, the softest thing about her is her teeth, and her real policy has no complexity at all. It is to get herself into the White House by any means necessary.

Over the next year we will see some desperate triangulation as she tries to rally the traditionally liberal segments of the Democrat voter base, blacks, women, unions, gays and the like, while persuading those with money that she will look after them. In particular her support for starting the war and her half-hearted opposition to continuing it, while pandering to the hawkish pro-Israeli campaign contributor by beating the drums for a war in Iran, is going to make her husband's line on marijuana use appear to be the epitome of candour.

Unlike Hillary, Barack Obama unequivocally wants out of the Iraqi maelstrom, but no one is sure of the rest of his policies. However the articulacy and sincerity he exudes are both traits that no recent President has combined, so no wonder he is under attack.

The very lack of experience that his opponents accuse him of could also be an asset, unlike rivals with more Senatorial seniority who have spend several terms brown-nosing campaign contributors. The jibes about his lack of experience are somewhat desparate. George W. Bush’s experience as governor of Texas, with no power except the one he never used too commute the death penalty, was hardly up there with the great political apprenticeships. Carter, Reagan and Bill Clinton all made it on the basis of governorships with no national experience. Nor can Hillary and George W. claim that being respectively the spouse and son of a president is the same as actual experience.

In the complex shifts of the primaries, the unknown factor is how Obama's candidacy affects Clinton's positions. She would prefer, like Tony Blair, to take her base for granted so she can concentrate on swing votes and fundraising from rich lobbyists. But she is now forced to fight off Obama's challenge from a more liberal position.

Watch out for coded attacks from her camp. Already it is being questioned whether the son of a Kenyan father and a White American mother can really be black, and merit the black vote the way that, it is implied, the pure white Hillary can. The school he attended as an infant in Kenya, has, totally spuriously, been described as an Islamic madrassa. Many more winged arrows of outrageous innuendo will be swooshing his way over the next year.

If it is any consolation, on the Republican side, two of the main contenders, Senator John McCain and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani are having a similar internecine battle. Both have previously taken moderate positions, but have to stand on their heads to appeal to the die-hard Christian right. As mayor, Giuliani, despite the halo that inadvertently dropped on his head on September 11, surrounded himself with dubious characters who will now be brought up in evidence against him, as will the socially liberal positions on abortion and the like that he adopted to get elected in New York. Announcing ones divorce at a press conference without telling the spouse was hardly a triumph for family values either.

Perhaps the saddest is McCain, who was thoroughly slimed last time by the Bush team, but has since licked the slime and said how tasty it is. He is moving to the right at close to light speed, but must still worry that the Bush dynasty, despite his loyalty, will suddenly produce someone like Jeb Bush out of the hat, and slime McCain all over again.

It will be an interesting year, but like mud-wrestling, it's much better to be a spectator than a participant, and even then little hope of edification.

When God is Right

With God on your Case

The agenda of the Christian right is more about politics than religion.

Ian Williams
Latest Guardian Comment is Free

February 15, 2007 11:38 AM

Increasingly it becomes obvious that the "Christian right" is a profound mis-description. They are conservative far more than they are Christian and are prepared to overlook all sorts of theological mayhem to advance their political agenda.

That was thrown into stark relief by the friendly reception that some of the Christian right have given to US presidential contender Mitt Romney, who is a Mormon.

The Mormons, the Church of the Latter Day Saints, suffer from a lack of seniority. They were still having visitations of angels within the last two centuries. To be fair, if you are going to accept a deity appearing on Mount Sinai with tablets of stone for Moses three millennia ago, then it is pure snobbishness be especially skeptical about the Angel Moroni appearing in upstate New York with the Book of Mormon on gold plates for Joseph Smith in 1823.

Indeed, while there is a lack of serious documentation for Moses, Smith's existence is well attested, even if we take the contents and unorthodox publication methods of the Book of Mormon under advisement. So from that point of view there is more credibility for the Mormons than Moses.

Most religions in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition tend to claim exclusivity on the truth, and that used to make them mutually repulsive. One thing that usually divides them is the cut-off date for the age of miracles. Does age wither the normal skepticism?

If you discount the strange Christian rituals for canonisation and the therapeutic benefits of assorted saintly body parts, once the resurrection was over, that was it for canonical Christian miracles. The Jews perhaps draw the line earlier, after the long-life environmentally-sound everlasting lamp in the temple celebrated in Hanukkah. Muslims tend to discount miracles after the Prophet went to paradise.

That raises another question: who was your last canonical prophet? Jews do not accept Jesus as a prophet, Muslims do, and so do Mormons. Muslims accept almost all Christian teachings, even the virgin birth, which is probably a bit of a stretch for some modern Christians. But if Christians say that Muslims are beyond the pale for accepting a subsequent prophet, where does that leave the Mormons with Joseph Smith?

So why should acceptance of the Quran be any more un-Christian than belief in the Book of Mormon? Compare the fuss at Minnesota Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison's swearing his oath on a Quran compared with the relative acceptance of Mitt Romney's candidacy.

Similarly, conservatives have been accusing Barack Obama of attending a Muslim "madrasa" when he was child in Indonesia, and being a crypto-Muslim despite his ostentatious baptism. It is, of course, not only the instant prejudice against Islam but Obama's and Ellison's liberal views that make them targets. Conservatives attack Ellison for betraying America's Judeo-Christian heritage, but the Quran accepts much of Christian doctrine that Orthodox rabbis have indignantly rejected for two millennia.

In fact, the Vatican is way ahead of the protestant Christian right in this way. The bishops regularly team up with imams at international conferences to combat abortion rights and similar liberal aberrations.

Most heterodoxical of all is the Christian right's acceptance of the Washington Times as their house journal. It is owned by "Father" Sun Myung Moon, who supplants all the prophets by claiming to be the Messiah himself - which would have had him burnt for heresy in previous times, but espousing, funding, and propagating conservative causes and politicians, including the Bush dynasty, seems to have got him a free pass.

Imagine if a Palestinian or liberal Democrat had said the Holocaust was an "indemnity" for the Jews killing Jesus? Moon did and the Christian Right and their neocon chums will still take his cheques unblushingly. Of course, he is paying a lot more than the faithful used to pay for indulgences to get their relatives out of purgatory, but that was where the protestants who dominate the Christian right differed from Rome.

Oddly enough, while political candidates have to show some signs of religious affiliation to be acceptable, except for the conservatives, everyone is getting ecumenical. It does not really matter, and what is more, anyone who shows signs of overly serious attachment to a particular church or sect is likely to be unacceptable.

To be elected as a Roman Catholic, JFK pretty much had to foreswear papal infallibility even if he kept his infidelities discreet.
Rudi Giuliani, despite an atavistic tribal Catholicism that had him trying to de-fund the Brooklyn Museum for an exhibit he considered disrespectful for the Church, previously bulled up his political credentials by supporting abortion and announcing his divorce at a press conference without telling his wife. Now of course, he will be pushing a conservative agenda, along with John McCain, to get those Christian right votes. One feels sure that he will overlook Moon's campaign to bury crosses from churches - if the cheques come through.

In fact, the conservative obsession with the social agenda does have great potential for amusement. The people who are still on Bill Clinton's case for transitory fellatio a decade ago rapidly welcome Ted Haggard back into the fold now that he has been "cured" of his homosexual tendencies.

A joint ticket of Mitt Romney and Ted Haggard has potential, but what we really want is an old-style unreformed polygamous Mormon candidate to announce that he, or she, supports legalising not only gay marriage but polygamous/polyandrous marriages with any permutation of genders. If he supports low taxes, war in Iraq, the death penalty and abolishing abortion, will he (or she) get the conservative vote?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

North Korea a Precedent for Iran. Probably Not!

North Korea is a mysterious place, but Washington makes Pyongyang seem pellucidly open. We knew what Kim Jong Il and his pals wanted, and they seem to have got it. On the other hand no one was sure what the Bush administration wanted, although, now John Bolton has denounced what Christopher Hill has achieved, we can suspect that firstly, there has been a change of policy, and secondly, the change was an improvement.

There is little or nothing in this agreement that could not have been secured by the administration five years ago. In fact in terms of disarmament, it is getting back to the status quo before the Bush administration effectively reneged on the agreement. The Koreans wanted respect –normalization of relations and a guarantee that the US would not attack them, and for the price of a damp squid of a nuclear test, now they have it. If the deal goes through, that is what Washington has now offered along with lifting the financial restrictions.

It is being presented as a triumph of American diplomacy, but that is true only if we consider it the triumph of Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill in getting the White House to see sense, as much as it was a success in cajoling North Korea to the table. But even then, DPKR wanted to meet the Americans at the table all along, so whose triumph is it.

If reality really has connected, Washington will now follow up with a similar deal with Iran. But it won’t. Flynt Leverett, a former National Security Council member revealed in Washington Wednesday that in 2003 Teheran offered normalization when the moderate Rafsanjani was in office. Describing it as a “serious proposal, a serious effort,” at rapprochement delivered through the Swiss embassy in Teheran. It was turned down, by both Rice and Bush, Leverett claims.

I suspect that this deal was not designed as a precedent for Iran. On the contrary, the intention is to free resources for attacking Iran. Looking at the renewal of spurious revelations of Iranian involvement in Iraq against the US, it seems that the closest the White House has come to sanity is to realize that the American military power is severely overstretched. Action against North Korea was not on the cards because neither South Korea nor China would tolerate it, and even Japan, with real issues against Pyongyang, would not want to see an Iraqi style imbroglio across the Sea of Japan, let alone a possible low level nuclear exchange.

So the administration is almost certainly cutting its losses in Korea to concentrate on Iran where it does have willing platforms and covert allies. It is not totally irrelevant that totalitarian and despotic as it is, North Korea poses no threat to Israel. Of course, in reality, neither is Iran. But while the administration may have had a brief, tangential relationship with reality over North Korea, it will normal non-reality based operations.

It is worth noticing that for all its theocratic faults, Iran is a far freer and more democratic society than Iran, and in terms of proliferation, the Islamic republic has been an importer rather than a consumer of missile technology, unlike cash strapped North Korea whose arms industry is all that is left of its vaunted industrial self reliance.

So attacking Iran will not make sense. But neither did the war in Iraq.

With God On Your Case

With God On Your Case looks at the expedient ways of religion in politics.

Full text up tomorrow. Comment there is up and running.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The plot in favour of America

As promised, here is my Guardian Comment is Free post
The editors asked the question, you will note that I did not answer it - insufficient data!

The plot in favour of America

Does Ban Ki-Moon's latest appointment put truth on the rumours of a US-dominated United Nations?
Ian Williams

February 13, 2007 9:45 PM | Printable version

Ban Ki-Moon has finished six weeks as secretary-general of the United Nations. At a similar stage in Kofi Annan's career, Sergei Lavrov, the mordantly witty Foreign Minister of Russia and then ambassador to the UN, asked him why he had not completed his reforms, since the Almighty only took six days to complete the Universe. In one of his infrequent but sharp retorts, Annan pointed out that God did it on his own, without the interference of 190 members.

In reality, most of those 190 have little individual voice - but the permanent five members of the security council and, above all, the US certainly do. In that context, Ban's confirmation or the rumours that he is appointing the US ambassador to Indonesia, Lynn Pascoe, to head the UN's department of political affairs, could be disastrous.

That is no personal comment on Ambassador Pascoe, who is an accomplished diplomat well versed in Asian affairs, and even speaks Mandarin. If it had to be an American then he was a much better choice than, say, John Bolton.

Presumably Ban, in his previous incarnation as South Korean foreign minister had already become professionally acquainted with Pascoe. One can imagine a trade-off: American insistence that an American get the job, but Ban picking one he felt comfortable with. But no-one should have put him in that position.

Having any American, or for that matter, in the current state of the Blair-Bush relationship, any British appointee, in such a crucial position, is bad for the UN and for Washington. Even if Pascoe does not keep his fingers crossed behind his back when he takes his oath as an international civil servant, swearing that he "shall not seek or receive instructions from any government or from any other authority external to the Organization," who is going to believe him?

When Washington talks about reform and efficiency of the UN it is like Humpty Dumpty - the words mean just what the White House want them to mean, neither more nor less. Humpty Dumpty's great fall in Iraq is strongly persuasive to the rest of the UN membership that little this administration says or does can be put back together into any close proximity to reality. To mention but one important question, will Ambassador Pascoe implement UN resolutions on the Middle East, or for that matter on issues like Western Sahara?

Of course, he may, but Washington wouldn't like it, he will have a huge credibility gap to surmount with the rest of the membership and any hopes of a career in American politics go up in smoke. Yet without heroic efforts on Pascoe's part to establish himself as thoroughly un-American, the UN's every move will now suffer from the perception of being another American plot, which is bad for America.

In fact, the rhetoric and snide asides from the Washington aside, the US has been calling on the UN more than ever before: between African peacekeeping operations, putting pressure on Sudan, on Iran and many other diplomatic initiatives. The appearance of global diplomatic consensus that UN action gives has been far more legitimizing than unilateral decrees from the White House. But the cover is now blown. If Pascoe gets involved in Sudan, then he will be depicted as an envoy of the Crusaders in Washington.

Insofar as reforms mean anything at the UN, it has to be about personnel, where a combination of big power pressure, smaller power diplomatic nepotism, and the most renownedly inefficient and politicized "human resources" department conceivable have perpetuated the situation that a former secretary-general, Perez de Cuellar, epitomized when asked how many people work at the UN. "About half," he replied.

At the core of that is the permanent five's presumption, since the organization was founded, that they could appoint the senior staff of the UN. While Pascoe has to be an improvement over the KGB appointees that Moscow used to foist in the same position before the end of the Cold War, the job is now far more important than providing hard currency and information for a beleaguered Soviet Union.

Very belatedly, in his last term, Kofi Annan began to tackle this, and began a respectable search for candidates for senior posts. And then right at the end, under heavy White House pressure he appointed, after consulting Ban, a Bush appointee Josette Sheeran Shiner, a former editor of the Moony-owned Washington Times, as head of the World Food Programme.

Ban also appointed Sir John Holmes, a chum of Tony Blair as head of the department of humanitarian affairs, a task in which he may succeed. But governments that prate about "reform" should have the decency to blush when they make the UN part of their domestic spoils system.

If there is any ironic satisfaction, it is that UN staff are complaining that no matter who gets what job, the decisions will be taken by one of the Korean kitchen cabinet that Ban Ki-Moon has brought with him. Comparing Seoul's recent foreign policy with Washington's, that is actually reassuring.

No fun Being Right.

Well just because we said Ban was going to appoint an American does not make us feel much better when he does. Vindication may be fine for a writer's ego, but my ego does fine anyway - and the appointment is bad for the UN and the world.

Honey Moon Ending for Ban?

Forty days into his tenure, Ban Ki-Moon's future policies are as enigmatic as ever – and it seems that they are enigmatic in Korean. The Ban team have not been successful – in fact they have not really tried – to explain what it is they are doing and why. In the absence of information the effect is like the Rorschach inkblot test used by psychologists so that those who stare at it can conjure up their worst nightmares.

Things did not become much clearer with the appointments that Ban made last Friday. They generally had hints of pay-off. As predicted he appointed B Lynn Pascoe, currently the US Ambassador to Indonesia, and a career diplomat, to be head of the Department of Political Affairs. He was probably the least worst American to put in the position, but having any American in that position is not clever either for the UN, or the US.

Essentially it gives the UN the appearance of being a open tool of US diplomacy, when its main usefulness for Washington is the global legitimacy that a seemingly independent UN can give to policies.

In fact, apart from his passport and his consequent difficulties in advancing UN positions that often run counter to what Washington had him pushing as a US Ambassador, Pascoe actually looks better qualified than many of Ban's appointments, whose resumes seem to have been fluffed up somewhat. Gender and geographical distribution seem to have weighed more than actual achievement and experience in many of the appointments.

Of course, it is possible that Mr Ban has seen deep and undiscovered qualities in his appointees that will now flower in office. But until they do, some of them will be seen as pay-offs, and also an attempt to buy non-aligned silence about Pascoe's appointment and unpopular moves like downgrading the department for disarmament affairs.

One generally welcomed decision was Ban's reappointment of Jean-Marie GuĂ©henno as head of peacekeeping. As well as being an Annan appointee, he was very highly regarded throughout the system – but more importantly, he is French. Ban, even if he has not quite fulfilled his promise to become fluently francophone was obviously paying off a debt.

On the payoff front for influential support, Ban has also rewarded Japan with the appointment of Kiyotaka Akasaka as Under Secretary General in the
Department of Public Information, supplanting Indian Shashi Tharoor, who had the temerity to run second in the race for Secretary General.

Those who remember previous Japanese incumbencies in this post are hoping that this one will be different – but fail to see how a former Japanese civil servant is going to do much for the UN's image outside Tokyo – and most crucially in the US. Even though his bio somewhat oddly states that he "has nurtured sufficient experience in handling communications and public relations issues," it will be interesting to see how he copes with the ferocity of the next "scandal" that the US media will surely cook up the very first time the UN next says no – to an attack on Iran for example.

However, while Japan has been rewarded with DPI, many UN staff were profoundly distressed with the public abuse by Ban's Korean aides of Nobuaki Tanaka, Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs for apparently taking initiatives without instructions. Whether it was a Korean thing about Japan, distaste for the actual disarmament position, which Ban is downgrading, or a very rigidly doctrinaire line with subordinates, it left UN staff very unhappy with the direction that Ban's team seems to be taking.

They are concerned that he has brought in a team of loyal South Korean advisers, who are actually making the decisions, regardless of the official position-holders. In fact, the indiscipline in the Secretariat has been legendary, and having an A-team of ones own nationals may in the end be a better way to run the organization than Boutros Ghali's "stealth and sudden violence" approach. And I would rather have a policy contrived in Seoul than one from Washington.

The real question is, which way will they steer the organization? Korean and American policy concur, for example, in favouring Israel more than the run of nation states, although South Korea has never joined the lonely band of coral atolls that are the only voting support that Israel and the US can muster. Can Ban and Pascoe resist attempts to get UN support for bombing Teheran?

The Secretary General is the servant of the member states and so has to implement the policies that they decide. But any good civil servant can be economical with the enthusiasm needed to implement mandates that he is unhappy with.

Once again, it is difficult to see which direction he is taking. Like Kofi Annan, he is deliberately courting opinion makers in the US. But does he appreciate the dangers of seeming to follow a path suggested by John Bolton when the Democrats now control congress? Does he appreciate the opportunities offered by the Congress that is reacting to the willful anti-multilateralism of the administration and the previous incumbents. Can he balance the superpower demands with the policies agreed by the rest of the world?

The answers are wrapped up in the Hermit Kingdom that has taken control of the 38th floor eyrie of the United Nations building. And the self confessed "slippery eel" is even harder to pin down.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Ban Ki Moon Appointments

Some more thoughts in the Guardian's Comment is Free page on Ban's appointment of Pascoe. Full text up tomorrow but in the meantime, go check it out and add your ha'porth.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Special Relationship - Dead as a Parrot.

A special relationship?

Not exactly. Britain has always been the battered mistress: badly treated but clinging to the US for protection.
Ian Williams

Latest on Guardian "Comment is Free"
A Special Relationship
February 11, 2007 3:00 PM |

My father's old chums always used to reminisce about trigger-happy Yankee pilots during the second world war. But the Pentagon's denial that it had tapes of the killing of British Corporal Matty Hull by American pilots in Iraq highlights the change in the alleged "special relationship", over the last seven decades.

The special relationship was indeed special and one-sided from the beginning, putting Britain in the role of the battered mistress: frequently screwed and badly treated, but clinging to the protection of the stronger USA. But no matter how humiliating, it could be argued that Britain used to benefit from it. No longer.

There was a rare moment of candour last year by a US State Department official, Kendall Myers. "There never really has been a special relationship or at least not one we've noticed," he said and added: "We typically ignore them and take no notice. We say, 'There are the Brits coming to tell us how to run our empire. Let's park them'. It is a sad business and I don't think it does them justice."

He concluded "I can't think of anything [Blair] got on the asset side of the ledger," out of the Iraq War.

In the second world war even my old man's aggrieved veteran friends were glad the Americans were there, "blue on blue" notwithstanding. It was a war that Britain had worked very hard to drag the US into - and not just for selfish reasons. Knowing that Britain only had the resources to fight the war on its own until 1943, the cabinet in 1940 decided not to cut to a deal with Hitler, which could have left the economy and empire intact, and instead fought on, even though it meant effectively selling the country to the USA. Washington took full advantage of the fire sale.

Even at the height of the struggle against Hitler, once Canadian and American troops began to arrive in Britain, the US Treasury unilaterally cut off lend-lease whenever their spending brought Britain's dollar reserves above $300m.

Britain handed over to the US all its technology, from penicillin and radar to its nuclear bomb research. Washington rewarded it in 1946 with the McMahon Act, which stopped British access to the joint research product of the Manhattan project, and a sudden stop on lend-lease terms as soon as the war was over.

But Britain was in no position to argue. After the war, the Labour government, stiffed several times by the US Treasury, was under no illusions - but now faced the prospect of the Red Army taking over Europe. There was no way a bankrupt Britain could head off the threat on its own.

The Labour foreign minister, Ernest Bevin, invented NATO to "keep the Germans down, the Russians out and the Americans in". But he was under no illusions about American altruism, which is why the British Labour government decided to build its own nuclear bomb. As Bevin put it: "We've got to have it and it's got to have a bloody Union Jack on it."

During the Berlin airlift, Britain accepted US bases, with nuclear weapons. Churchill condemned the Labour party for selling out British sovereignty, but did nothing to expel them when he resumed office in 1951.

The later Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan accepted an even more explicitly subsidiary role, in an avuncular sort of way, with Jack Kennedy. In an inadvertently appropriate analogy, he saw Britain as Athens to America's Rome, providing wisdom and culture to the stronger military power. Of course, in the real world, Rome conquered Athens and those wise Athenian cultural teachers in Rome were often slaves.

Successive British governments managed to maintain some minimal dignity under the circumstances. For example, despite Lyndon Johnson's arm-twisting, Labour prime minister Harold Wilson managed to ensure that there was no British involvement whatsoever in Vietnam. Even Margaret Thatcher managed to oppose the US's uncritical support of Israel - whether to maintain profitable arms trade with Saudi Arabia or out of concern for the Palestinians.

Until recently, Britain's diplomatic specialty was to bridge the gap between a unilateralist USA and the rest of the world. It also has to be said they did a pretty good job of it, no matter how distasteful most of the time. Like cleaning sewers, someone has to do it.

Being a loyal ally did indeed give them an occasional hand on the steering wheel, as Tony Blair said. But what Blair thought was the steering wheel in a car was usually just the whistle on a runaway locomotive. All he could do was warn that the train was rattling down the tracks and would not stop until it hit Iraq. Subservience without self-interest is now the rule. For example, Britain now regularly abstains at the UN rather than defy Washington on Middle Eastern issues. London will extradite British citizens to the US without a hearing in their own country - but not vice versa.

The gains to the US are clear. It gets a difficult-to-sink aircraft carrier moored off Europe, and a significant diplomatic and military ally to save it from the total isolation that its policies would so often have otherwise condemned it to. And it comes without sending aid or covering for maverick military adventures, as it does with Israel.

A former British foreign secretary once explained to journalists that British policy was the same as it was in the time of Pitt the younger: "To ensure that no combination of powers arises in Europe that can threaten Britain."

That policy has sunk with the wooden battleships of the era. Britain should stop acting as Washington's Trojan Horse in Europe, and join in building a multilateral Europe rather than providing latter-day sepoys for the American empire.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Kosovan Indendence, get used to it guys

Check out the comment is free article for a study in ethnic pathology. I hope you will note that at no point in my article do I suggest collective Serb guilt for the atrocities committed in Kosovo. It was the government of Milosevic, and the Serb nationalists who were responsible. But most of the angry Serbs seem to assume that the Albanians collectively are guilty of everything done by any one of them. Blood guilt is the technical term. Albanians are crooks, illegal immigrants, nun-rapers, and have no riight to self determination. And of course, they are all also Islamic terrorists which is why they are not acccused of being drunkards I suppose despite the gallons of raki they regularly down.

If the Serb nationalists had said similar things about blacks or Jews, in most countries they would face prosecution for hate crime and in some for holocaust denial... sadly, in Belgrade they get elected to high office instead and complain that no one loves them.

No more on Kosovo
It's time to stop pandering to Serbian nationalists and give them a reality check.

Ian Williams

February 9, 2007 3:00 PM
In 2005, the UN heads of state summit accepted contemporary humanitarian standards of international law and accepted the "Responsibility to Protect", a doctrine which says that international humanitarian law trumps claims to state sovereignty. In effect, it takes up those words from the Declaration of Human Rights and says that sovereignty is a contract between a people and their state, and a state that massacres and mistreats its own people has broken that contract.

King George III tried to make the American colonists pay some taxes to fund the war that Britain had just fought to get the French out of North America.

The American response was that "when in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."

One would have thought that opinions of mankind should know the causes impelling Kosovo's independence fairly well. The ten years of apartheid that Slobodan Milosevic's regime practiced upon the ethnically Albanian Kosovars, after he dissolved their government in 1989, followed by the intense attempt at ethnic cleansing in 1999 should make it fairly plain that the "political bands" had been stretched beyond breaking point.

It is clear that Milosevic's behaviour effectively renounced any claims to loyalty from and justified sovereignty over the vast majority of Kosovars. Instead, Serb nationalists were left with more traditional claims to sovereignty: Serbia conquered Kosovo just before the First World War.

Of course after Milosevic's overthrow, the Serbs could have said they are really sorry for what happened, and offered to make amends. They did not. Serb nationalist leaders blustered and tried to demonize their victims - although, to give them a bit of credit, they were forced to prosecute some of the perpetrators of mass murders in Kosovo when over a thousand semi-rotten Albanian cadavers turned up buried under police stations in Serbia and from under lakes where truckloads of them had been dunked. The post-mortem cleansing had been intended to remove the evidence of atrocities.

But while Zoran Djindic hoped that revealing the mass graves would help raise support in Serbia for extraditing Milosevic, the temporary enthusiasm of the Serbian security forces for apprehending war criminals rapidly returned to its normal low ebb. It took several years for the Belgrade authorities to identify the DNA and return the corpses to Kosovo, but as gestures go, returning the fetid evidence without too much in the way of returning indictments does not really send a strong signal of contrition.

So far, this is all Belgrade has done to woo Kosovo's Albanian majoirty. Instead, the nationalists have been posturing, running a referendum to declare that Kosovo is an inalienable and integral part of Serbia, while trying to detach the area north of Mitrovica, from which the Albanians were ethnically cleansed, and incorporate it into Serbia.

Amusingly, there was no attempt get the citizenry of Kosovo to vote in this referendum. It has about the same strength as a British referendum declaring the13 colonies to be an integral part of the United Kingdom. Which is to say, none.

It is time to stop pandering and give the nationalists a reality check. Because the international community came to the rescue of the Kosovars when Milosevic was killing them, it has earned the right to ensure the welfare of other minorities there. But, supervised or not, Kosovan independence is the only way forward. And then the Serbs and Kosovars can join the EU and concentrate on getting the Balkans working and making the frontiers there as irrelevant as they are in the rest of Europe. If the nationalists in Belgrade want to bluster and break off relations with their neighbours, the EU and the US, let them.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


I have been busy, speaking elsewhere, being crowned by my dentist, and meeting deadlines - my Guardian Comment is Free piece on Kosovo should be up by now and another one is already cooking.

So maybe I missed the outraged punditry of Charles Krauthammer, Claudia Rossett and the rest of the Fox UN-hunting team at the re-revelation that the US Occupation authoriities have still not been able to explain what they did with the $12 billion or so surplus that the UN handed over from the Oil For Food program to the Iraq Development Fund.

The Manhattan DA reveals an indictment of Benon Sevan for allegedly getting a couple of thousand dollars in kickbacks - which he still denies - but Bush's pal Stuart Bowen, the Special Inspector still can't find out where the missing billions went.

All kudos to Henry Waxman for reviving this particular moribund equine that I have been flagellatiing for two years. And shame on the press that continue to ignore it while accepting, either implicitly or enthusiastically the NeoCon witchhunt against the UN while ignoring the real witches flying their broomsticks in formation in occupied Iraq.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Biden, My Part in His Downfall

Latest Guardian "Comment is Free Post"

Of plagiarism and primaries
Joe Biden, former Neil Kinnock plagiarist, shows the full madness of American presidential primaries.

February 2, 2007 07:58 PM
The primary season has started early in the United States. Would-be candidates have been spotted "exploring" Iowa, getting in touch with their feigned inner folksiness - and ready for next year's caucus.

Joe Biden, one of the candidates, was laughed out the race almost two decades ago for plagiarizing a speech made by Neil Kinnock in the 1987 election campaign, during which I worked in the Labour Party leader's office writing speeches and articles. (To be fair, Neil always ended up composing his own speeches based on the input from the writers.)

They were heady times. Ben Elton the comedian used to come to the office after his nightly performances and we would work on jokes late into the night. Big Ben's booming rocked us in our seats every fifteen minutes as little Ben and I, exhausted, worked out quips for the campaign speeches.

But the speech Biden stole was no joke. Neil eloquently depicted what the 1945 Labour government had done for working people in Britain. Generations of Kinnocks had hacked away at the coal face in the South Wales collieries, but he was the first to get to university.

Joe Biden misappropriated the speech in every sense of the word. He had hacked his way through a private academy with a silver spoon. I felt a sense of justice watching him fail.

Now of course, he has appropriated another trait of Neil Kinnock - who tended to take the periods and full stops out of what we wrote. Biden missed a comma while discussing Barack Obama's presidential aspirations - he said Obama was "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy" - and walked into a manufactured firestorm over whether or not he had insulted other (presumably less bright and clean) black Americans.

Biden's problems illustrate what is wrong with the weird primary process. Wannabe presidential candidates have to be contortionists as they try to appear inoffensive to as many different constituencies as possible. For example, the US heavily subsidizes converting corn into ethanol - a process that actually consumes more energy than it produces. But the huge subsidies exist in part because the primaries begin in Iowa - the largest producer of ethanol in the country - and thus all candidates must sing the praises of the fuel right from the beginning of the campaign.

And a longer, wackier primary will cost a lot more. Estimates for merely entering the race range from $30m to $100m. And like Will Sutton - who robbed banks, because that's where the money is - almost all the candidates will be going to major lobbying groups to raise cash for their campaigns.

John Edwards supports ending the war in Iraq because he knows that's where the votes are. But in a speech to the Herzliya Institute in Israel, he near enough threatened to start a war with Iran instead, bellicosely saying that no option should be left off the table in dealing with Tehran. Needless to say, pro-Israeli money also plays a big role in campaigns. And who in Florida is going to say it is time to stop pandering to the anti-Castro crazies and drop the embargo on Cuba?

It's not just the Democrats who bend themselves into the political equivalent of Moebius strip. John McCain has been passing as an honourable man, a centrist Republican who was once considered as a potential for vice presidentt on a Democratic ticket. But to win the Republican primaries, he is now transforming himself, or revealing himself - the jury is out on which it is - as a ferocious conservative hack.

The primary system, where candidates mutually vivisect their own party colleagues for a year and then expect voters to turn out in a general election to support exhausted and thoroughly slimed candidates, is a uniquely American process. Which may go a long way to explaining why so few Americans vote in the end.

This entry was tagged with the following keywords: JoeBiden, HillaryClinton, JohnEdwards, JohnMcCain, NeilKinnock, BenElton, AmericanElections

Friday, February 02, 2007

Primary Causes

This is my latest in the Washington Spectator, a magazine well worth subscribing to
Click here The Washington Spectator

"Pillar of Democracy" May Be Worse Than Useless
By Ian Williams | 02/01/2007

n recent elections, reform-minded Americans have had their usual doubts about the manifestly undemocratic and clunky Electoral College, and a completely new set of deep doubts have arisen about how accurately the electronic voting systems have recorded the wishes of voters. There has also been some justifiable concern about how partisan election officials have purged the voter rolls. Despite the various concerns, and attempts to address them, the use of primary elections to choose party candidates has, surprisingly, escaped critical examination. People discuss how to make the primaries more efficient, more representative. But the real question should be, why are they held at all?

They are unique to the United States, which is even more anomalous, considering its national reputation, maybe not always deserved, for keeping government out of civic affairs. No other democratic country with embedded electoral traditions allows a state or federal government to determine how political parties choose their candidates or to run elections for them. Although it was only in the 1970s that primaries supplanted party conventions as the means of choosing presidential candidates, familiarity has bred undeserved contentment with the process. Primaries have been part of the U.S. electoral system for a century, and have thus acquired a patina of constitutional respectability, even though the Founding Fathers wisely never mentioned them, nor indeed political parties, for which George Washington and others had a profound distrust. The change has not necessarily advanced democracy, let alone the Democrats.

AN ACCELERATED SCHEDULE—Under discussion now is a move by several state governments to hold their primaries earlier in the year. Nevada is seeking to hold a primary for Democrats before the traditional lead-off polling in New Hampshire, and South Carolina will stage its primary right afterwards. The number of states that participate in Super Tuesday on February 5 could leap next year from six to fourteen, with powerhouses like California, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey joining in. Less than a month after the Iowa caucuses, the nominations could already be decided on both sides.

Since anything that puts an end to the opportunity for auto-evisceration that is a presidential primary has to be a good thing, a concentrated early primary may be welcome news. It would allow a rapid nomination and would give the winning candidate time to brush off some of the mud slung before the general election.

On the other hand, it means that prospective candidates to be the presidential nominee are already on the hoof a year in advance. Already 19 candidates (give or take Newt Gingrich) have declared or are "exploring" a run for president. The very weekend that Hillary Clinton announced that she was "in to win," New Mexico governor Bill Richardson pitched himself as a "uniter, a healer," and Kansas senator Sam Brownback posed as a "full-scale Ronald Reagan conservative." They are all spending freely and are prepared to keep on sprinkling greenbacks for the next year. And after a year, they will have to raise—and spend—even larger sums of money in a very short time to compete in the official primary election circuit.

So the other effect of the concentrated primaries is that the financial barrier for candidates is higher than ever. In general, only the rich need apply—or perhaps even more pernicious, those who are backed by the rich, since as we know, there are the occasional eccentric progressive billionaires.

In fact, instead of tinkering with the details, we might well reconsider the whole tedious and retrogressive machinery of the primaries, perverse both in principle and in practice. Having begun as a means of freeing politics from the smoke-filled rooms of the party machines, they have become the method by which hugely expensive rubber-chicken-filled banqueting rooms dominate politics. It is through the primaries that big money gets most leverage in the political process. A candidate as an individual rather than a party organization has to raise huge amounts of money for a primary election.

The grueling marathon is more a test of who can raise the most campaign cash than who can get the most votes. You may remember that Bill Clinton was not the front-runner early on in 1992. He lost the New Hampshire primary, but he carried on getting money when Paul Tsongas's political base ran out of funds and he had to drop out.

It's not a pretty picture. The primaries are an inverted Darwinian struggle to see which candidate has the least scruples about digging up the most dirt on his rivals, and can spend the most money to broadcast the slurs. Let us remember that the GOP picked up the Willy Horton slur from the Democratic primaries. At the end of this intra-party struggle, the exhausted victor is supposed to rally all the people who have been campaigning against him or her for a year to go out and canvass for the victor in the general election.

The need for money distorts the political campaigns and thus the platforms of the candidates. As a general rule, someone who wants to make the rich less so begins with a considerable handicap in the primaries. Candidates skew their policies towards the checkbooks as much as the voters. Their positions on health care, the Middle East, gun reform, transportation, Cuba, abortion and many other significant issues will be triangulated in a complex political calculus to garner maximum contributions as well as votes.

That is not to say that the voters are without power. Primary voters tend to be self-selected, more committed and ideological than the general electorate. The pernicious effects of that were clear with Bush senior, Bob Dole, and now John McCain, who as Republicans have all had to appear far more rigidly conservative in their positions than their records would otherwise suggest. The good news is that this tends to make them unelectable. The exception to this that has proven the rule is George W. Bush, who managed to sail under false centrist colors because the Christian right knew where his deeply conservative heart really was.

However, even on the Democratic side, the contortions of policy lead to a well-deserved public mistrust of politicians, who tailor their messages to different blocs of voters and check-writers. In January, John Edwards spoke to a conference in Israel, where he implied that he supported war with Iran and talked about keeping "All options on the table," presumably with potential donors in mind, while at the same time he was busily disavowing the war in Iraq for voters. Any candidate who wants to campaign for a single payer health-care system, popular with Democratic voters, can not only kiss goodbye any health insurance company donations but will have to accept that his rivals will clean up from them in return for silence or obfuscation on the issue.

VOTERS' RIGHTS—At present, in most states primary-election voters will have already declared their party allegiances when they come to the polls. To an outsider, this makes a mockery of the secret ballot, since voters' preferences are signaled on the public record for anyone to see. In an ideal world, of course, no harm would come to anyone for voting the wrong way . . . but has anyone noticed anything especially idealistic about the current GOP?

Even accepting that a tick on a registration form gives membership privileges to closed primary voters, there can be few excuses for the mockery of the democratic process that is the "open primary," which lets supporters of the opposing party muscle in and pick your party's candidate. In more than twenty states, you can sabotage the opposition in this way in the privacy of the polling booth. Whatever the views of Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, it is clear that most Democrats in her district wanted her to represent them; but McKinney has twice been unseated by a combination of out-of-state money and Republican crossover votes in an open primary, in between winning a general election handsomely.

In a free society, as long as no criminal activity takes place within independent associations like parties, government should not interfere with how they order their affairs. Why shouldn't Democrats keep Republicans, or indeed professed Independents, from interfering in their internal affairs, one of the most important of which is surely their choice of whom to represent them in election campaigns?
In fact, an American political party has little or no choice about its candidates. It is carpetbagger heaven out there. Anyone with a bankroll can apply. New York's billionaire mayor Mike Bloomberg, a registered Democrat for many years, decided to run on the Republican ticket simply because it was cheaper and easier to buy the nomination.

Supporters of open primaries argue that they "increase voter participation," but there is little evidence of this. Indeed, since those who make this argument often spend so much time filtering the electoral rolls for alleged felons, there is room to doubt their sincerity.

In any case, this imaginary benefit is nullified by a certain reality: that the primaries turn voters into consumers of the policies of any personality with enough cash to run and to advertise themselves with all the sincerity and political content of a new toothpaste. The need to win an unknown and amorphous mass of voters has led to massive expenditures on television advertising, which in turn leads to huge demands for cash and all the consequences. That expenditure spills over into the general election, where at least public financing takes on some of the strain.

In many countries, parties are not allowed to abuse the airwaves in this way. Britain, for example, has very strict limits on spending by candidates. The Supreme Court's laughable invocation of the First Amendment to stop restrictions on spending is reminiscent of Anatole France's comment that "The law in its wisdom allows both the rich and the poor to sleep under the bridges over the Seine."

When campaign donations have such a disproportionate effect on policies, primaries deprive party supporters, or members as they are misnamed, of any real input into candidate or party platforms. In other democratic countries, ordinary party members can usually propose policies, choose—and lose—the leadership of their organizations. The Democratic primaries have been turning the party more and more into a P.O. box for corporate donations and reducing Democratic supporters to voting fodder, which is exactly where Tammany Hall had them before reformers instituted primaries, which were invented to break its power.

MUTING OPPOSITION—The system also has an effect on the political process, serving to make effective opposition much more difficult. In a parliamentary system, shortly after an election the defeated party chooses either to give its leader another chance, or picks someone new to carry the standard, so there is an acknowledged leader of the opposition. With the primaries and the attenuated party system, Democrats in opposition can wallow leaderless for the three years of a presidential term and then tear themselves apart in bitterly contested primaries.

This rudderlessness could afflict Republicans as well as Democrats, but this tends not to be. The Democratic Party still has the vestiges of a grass-roots organization, representing vociferous interest groups. The modern GOP is much more Bolshevik in its ideology and organization. When Karl Rove issues orders, Republican operatives all over the country tend to move in concert. The Democrats have no equivalent commissar, and even if they did, no one would take too much notice.

ALTERNATIVES AND THINGS TO AVOID—Of course, there may be worse things than primaries. In many other countries, where there is proportional representation party bosses dictate who gets on the party list, and in Britain the ever-eager-to-learn Tony Blair has been busily introducing candidate selections that exclude anyone who is insufficiently supportive of his style of leadership. Indeed, he has cemented his control by repelling half the Labour Party's membership since he took office.

As with the introduction of primaries themselves, there are often unintended consequences. It would be foolish to rush in with any kind of panacea when it comes to change, but we should surely be thinking about alternatives. For example:

• Hold the party convention early. In fact, hold it immediately after an unsuccessful presidential election, to choose the leadership and policies for the time in opposition and to give a candidate a good three years to build a reputation with the electorate.

• Build an actual party. There are over sixty million registered Democrats. If they were to join up as real party members, even paying a nominal subscription fee of $10 a year, not only could they fund elections without another corporate check, they would have some serious input in the matter of choosing candidates. A participation fee, no matter how nominal, would be a better test of party loyalty than just ticking a box when registering to vote.

• Use new technology to communicate. At one time, it could be argued that only government had the resources to canvass the opinions of party supporters. Apart from the very poor job that government has been doing in conducting elections recently, the technology and the need are now there for parties to seize control back from the state. With the growth of the Internet, as organizations like MoveOn.org have shown, party activities and fundraising can be much more democratically organized, cutting out expensive and sleazy TV advertising campaigns and putting the voter back in control of policy decisions and candidate choice.

• Consider new voting systems. In many other democracies, first-past-the-post elections have been abandoned for transferable voting systems. More people would vote if they thought that their vote was not wasted in elections where incumbents have a lock on re-election. A transferable vote allows anyone who so desires to vote for a Nader, or any other non-traditional party candidate, and not feel that it would be a wasted ballot, since if the voter's first choice lost, the vote would be moved to a safer alternative. Ireland has multimember constituencies, designed to allow minorities (of all kinds) representation while keeping the close connection between legislators and voters—not dissimilar to the proposals Lani Guinier made that had her swift-boated out of the Clinton Court as a "quota queen."

With its electronic voting, Supreme Court election-fixing and Homeland Security, American democracy appears less and less of a given with each presidential signing statement. Time may be running out for a critical examination of things we've taken for granted but that have led us to this pass.

©Copyright 2007, Public Concern Foundation Inc.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Nostradamus Rules!

It makes a change from O'Reilly! On Tuesday I went on Manhattan Cable public access with Paul DiRienzo and Joannie Moosie on their show, "Let Them Talk," to talk about the UN.

Bad lighting, poor sound, but good thoughts from Paul and Joannie. Shame about the callers. White supremacists, Nostradamus fans.... I think Paul and Joanie should get some sort of public health grant for keeping these people at home watching TV instead of being on the streets!

Check it out... Let Them Talk

Invade Canada!

This was my post on the Guardian "Comment is Free" yesterday. Many Canadians seem happy to be mentioned in any capacity. Others distressed that we may be giving the White House ideas. And some Americans still seem to think that irony was what they used to make in Pittsburgh.

Feel free to join in there!

The heat is on

For Americans, there's one obvious solution to the problems caused by global warming: invade Canada.
Ian Williams

January 31, 2007

The heat is on President Bush over global warming; we can expect a Road to Damascus conversion soon. Who says this guy is not responsive to the popular mood?

But based on his track record, we can expect the form of his conversion to be distinct and innovative. He acknowledged electoral discontent over his failure in Iraq by sending in 24,000 more troops and limbering up for a war in Iran. In short, when in a muddy hole, keep digging until you find the exit.

So we can expect the president to give some verbal recognition of global warming, and to accompany it with some forthright domestic measures - like a temporary twenty-five year tariff on hybrid cars to allow Detroit's SUV's to catch up on fuel efficiency, and a reduction of taxes on gasoline to limit the effects of climbing oil prices on motor-voters.

But there are steps that the US must take internationally as well. Increasing temperatures and rising sea levels may make many parts of the United States uninhabitable. I mean, who would buy Florida real estate on a long lease? New Orleans is already written off, and the rest of the Gulf area can't be far behind.

About the only part of US business that is competitive internationally is corn and grain production, and rising temperatures may soon lay waste those fields of waving corn. Clearly strong measures are called for. Once again, Manifest Destiny beckons.

The United States has put a lot of energy into bringing about global warming, and the main beneficiaries of our hard work are a bunch of ungrateful foreigners. Canada's grain-growing capacity is going to expand as America's shrinks. Canada's northern territories are emerging from the ice and will soon be fertile meadows - all as a result of patriotic Americans burning gas selflessly, regardless of the cost.

As the Great Plains become dustbowls and the southern states and our coastlines go under water, Americans will be driven to ducking under the wires on the 49th parallel and fleeing north to escape the heat.

Can we tolerate American citizens being turned back by hardhearted Canadian Mounties, or hunted down and deported by Canuck vigilantes? Surely not. Fortunately, the White House is believed to be considering a Nine Step Global Warming Recovery programme:

One: Canadian based forces in 1813 burnt down the White House and the Capitol - a terrorist attack for which payback time is long overdue.

Two: As the strict constructionists in the Supreme Court are well aware, Article XI of the Articles of Confederation provides for the incorporation of Canada into the Union, and just because our last attempt in 1812 was unsuccessful should not put a cap on the business.

Three: Canada is harboring Maher Arar, a Muslim terrorist with documented connections to Syrian torturers, and even paying him compensation, defying the efforts of our Ambassador David Wilkins to set them right.

Four: Canada refused to send troops to Iraq.

Five: Canada is harboring deserters from the US forces, who can't get the same safe haven in the Texas Air National Guard that they used to.

Six: Canada cannot fight terrorism effectively because it has abolished the death penalty.

Seven: Canada has a socialistic health service.

Eight: A Lot of Canadians speak French.

Nine: Canada has lots and lots of oil. And pipelines.

The logic is inescapable. Fellow Americans, there is only one way forward from here: go north!