Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Browning of America

The Browning of America

Two cheers and a 'Gordon who?' from the US for Britain's new prime minister.
Ian Williams

Full text of Guardian Comment is Free piece
June 27, 2007 4:10 PM

I greet the coronation of Gordon Brown not so much with joy and rapture unforeseen, but nonetheless with a restrained approbation.

Lots of my American friends and colleagues, a group that almost by definition is fairly savvy about foreign politics, have asked, "who is Gordon Brown?" What they mean is: "what does he stand for?"

For the reporters who went out to do vox pops on the streets of Manhattan, it was a literal question that produced a blizzard of dandruff as people scratched their heads in puzzlement. The incoming British Prime Minister is totally unknown to most citizens of the country with which he will almost certainly be preaching a special relationship. The Blue half of American will remember his fawning on Bush and wonder whether he could be any worse than Blair, while the Red half will wonder how perfidious Albion could replace such a staunch friend of America with a dour unknown Scot with so little pizzazz.

That is a shame, since Brown is the one who quietly and methodically has been financing and implementing the programmes that have made the Labour government attractive enough for British voters to support, despite the Blairish foreign forays and the attempts to treat George Orwell's 1984 as a desirable social programme rather than a dystopic novel.

Regardless of Tony Blair's best efforts at convergence, the political systems of the two countries are widely different even if they are conducted in the same language. Gordon Brown was elected, admittedly unopposed, by his party, and once Blair had been persuaded it was time to take a walk, it was a fairly short and bloodless process. But the British public knew who he was, as did the Labour Party.

In the US the presidential primaries drag on over a year and are effectively restricted to those who are very rich, or are connected enough to the very rich, to buy airtime. Of course, in some ways, that makes it politically less exclusive than British politics. Small-state governors, city mayors and passing millionaires can all put their hat in the ring. The president can be of the opposite party to the legislature, and several, Reagan, Carter, Clinton and Bush the latest, could all take office with no experience in congress at all, and indeed little at national, let alone international politics.

In Britain, the Prime Minister is elected by the majority party in parliament of which he has to be a member, and the constituency, theoretically at least, includes not only Members of Parliament but also ordinary party members and members of the affiliated organizations, like the unions.

So Gordon Brown did not have to be wealthy to get to No 10 Downing Street. But he did have to have the trust of the membership. To ensure unopposed re-election he played on his credentials as a solid party member, determined to rebuild an organization that his predecessor had reduced to a Clintonesque dropping off point for big cheques.

His credentials in the party are much more solid than the flibbertigibbet Blair. Not only did he write a biography of prewar left Labour icon James Maxton he also co-edited the "Red Paper on Scotland," thirty years ago which for American readers refers to Red as in Red Flag, not Republican.

But one of the things that is worth pointing out is the impact of the period in which he entered politics on his economic thinking. Harold Wilson's Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s were bedeviled at every turn by a hostile financial system, where international bankers imposed conditions on their social and economic policies which they enforced with runs on the currency and the usual panoply of measures that were later wielded against recalcitrant third world states.

Brown's cautious financial approach has led to fiscal and economic success unprecedented in post-war British governments - the much-vaunted growth rates of Margaret Thatcher were largely recouping the damage she did when she trashed British industry after taking office. Many of his measures, including the independence of the Bank of England, were designed to stroke the bankers and keep them purring while in effect maintaining public spending.

As chancellor of the Exchequer, Brown had far more power in Britain than any comparable figure in American finance. Despite the cosmetic independence of the Bank of England, he combined the prerequisites of the Federal Reserve chair with those of the Treasury secretary, and did not really have to share control of the budget with parliament.

The reductions in unemployment, the increase in the minimum wage, increase in health and education spending are not be sneezed at, either in the context of Thatcher's Britain, nor for that matter compared with the United States.

Which brings us to the question: Is he good for America? It is often forgotten that it was a Labour icon, Ernest Bevin, who invented Nato and the present form of the "special relationship." Harold Wilson the Prime Minister in the 1960s and 1970s wrestled with keeping LBJ happy - without sending troops to Vietnam, which would have made his party and electorate very unhappy.

Brown, a frequent sojourner in Cape Cod, is certainly an admirer of the United States. One can legitimately doubt that he would have been so effusive about the present president if he had been premier hitherto. Certainly the fate of Blair will keep the brakes on Brown's enthusiasm for supporting Washington's wilder adventures, but he will almost certainly maintain, albeit in more restrained form, the myth of the special relationship.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Browning of America

The Browning of America... in the Guardian
quite topical in conjunction with last week's prescient piece of Blair's move to represent the Quadriplegic Quartet in the Middle East
FPIF Commentary
Ban Ki Whom?

Ian Williams | June 27, 2007

Foreign Policy In Focus

People used to equate the vice-presidency of the United States with a "pitcher of warm spit." Since Dick Cheney occupied the position, the spittle has become more potently venomous and the office consequently more important and noticeable. Similarly, the secretary-generalship of the United Nations is a very malleable office. The contrast with a predecessor’s personality can make the successor’s style more or less noticeable. Ban Ki Moon's tenure so far has been on the low decibel end of the scale, even compared with Kofi Annan, who always spoke softly, realizing that there was no big stick at hand.

Technically, the secretary general is the UN’s office manager, and on the official protocol totem pole only equates to a foreign minister. In fact, the frequently overlookable President of the General Assembly officially outranks him. (Until now, only men have served as UN secretaries general.)

However, like his predecessors, Ban can phone heads of state, confident that they will answer his calls. His real powers derive from his ability to put questions on the agenda –which can mean putting the great powers on the spot by raising issues that they would rather see buried. That’s an integral part of his real power – it’s the practical leverage by which he can symbolize the UN Charter and the world community for the peoples of the world.

It’s a power that recent incumbents have under-used rather than abused. One of the reasons for this is that the role of the world's conscience contradicts the other role that has accreted to the office, which is to be the global Arch-Envoy. It’s difficult to remain the public keeper of the global conscience when shaking the bloodstained hands of the statesmen of the world is an essential part of your job description. And it’s difficult to keep shaking the hands of people that you may name and shame.
First Six Months

So where does Ban Ki Moon fit into the pattern after six months in office? One suspects that his neophyte Korean-dominated team doesn’t really realize that there is a pattern. In some ways, his tenure is reminiscent of the initial intellectual arrogance of Boutros Boutros Ghali, who ran the show peremptorily and autocratically until experience taught him differently. In Ban's case, it’s more oligarchic than autocratic. His team of Korean advisors is collectively running the show, but these advisors really do think they have little to learn from the existing office-holders, many of whom they have cleared out.

Indeed, so thoroughgoing has been their exclusion of most of Annan’s personnel that one can only presume they believed the John Bolton/Fox TV image of the Annan administration as hopelessly anti-American and incorrigibly corrupt.

That lack of institutional memory leads to a reinvention of the wheel. The fractious ending of their terms of office obscured the fact many Non-Aligned delegations regarded both Boutros-Ghali and Annan as being pro-American to the point of being tools of Washington. Ban has, naturally, declared that U.S.-UN relations are to be a major priority, but his Korean back up staff seem to think that they are being innovative with this. In reality they are marching briskly into the same prejudiced swamp as their predecessors.
Annan and the United States

Indeed, Annan, a U.S. nominee, went as far as possible in constructive engagement of Washington, and, realizing its importance on Capitol Hill, to bring in Israel and American pro-Israeli organizations into the United Nations.

However, Annan realized that there was some considerable dissonance between what American politicians wanted and what the UN Charter and international law mandates. He didn’t ostentatiously flaunt disagreements, but when he was pushed there were lines he would not cross. In the end, he had to admit that the invasion of Iraq was illegal – but no one could accuse him of being ostentatious in his delivery of the message. Similarly, even as he worked to get Israel fully participating in the UN and accepting a role for the UN in the Middle East, he occasionally reminded the world that there were relevant and important resolutions to consider.

Unlike their predecessors, the Ban's team seems unaware that maintaining some distance from Washington – especially when it is scoffing at the UN Charter and International Law – is essential to keep the rest of the membership happy. That’s nowhere more apparent than on Middle East issues, where in his leaked confidential report on his resignation as the UN Representative for the Peace Process, Alvaro de Soto revealed an almost complete capitulation to the American/Israeli positions. De Soto complained of the "unprecedented access" Israel had to the Secretary General's office, which insiders confirm, and which goes as far as helping choose officials as well as determining positions on the Palestine conflict.
Ban and the Middle East

Some of this results from the historical experience of Ban and the South Koreans, who after all, are more likely to see the United States as guardian angel than predatory superpower. In fact, UN officials report that Ban sees Israel as South Korea and the Palestinians as North Korea, with the United States backing the good guys. That misconception is reinforced because South Korea simply has not had a dog in the Middle East fight, which has been an almost entirely peripheral issue for Seoul. Ban and his team simply don’t appreciate the significance of the issue for the UN, for international law, and the diplomacy of most of the rest of the world.

Ironically, sources inside the UN suggest that the under-secretary general for political affairs, former U.S. diplomat B. Lynn Pascoe, has been more objective over the Middle East than some of the Europeans that Ban's team appointed and is taking his responsibilities as an independent international civil servant more seriously than many expected when Ban announced the appointment of an American.

However, by aligning himself with the United States and Israel, Ban is making it difficult for him to woo and work with the Non-Aligned and Muslim majority in the General Assembly. Their defensiveness against Washington and its allies is being reflected in voting in, for example, the Human Rights Council.
No Trained Poodle

Ban is a person of principles: if he panders to the United States and Israel, it’s because he has chosen to, not because he is a trained poodle. He has publicly supported a global moratorium on the death penalty, and supported the International Criminal Court and the Responsibility to Protect, which certainly are not playing to the Texan gallery in Washington. He has shown signs of a deep and abiding interest in Africa, and as we go to press, his persistence in nagging Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir – admittedly backed by increasing Western exasperation and Chinese embarrassment – may have secured a UN/African Union force with teeth in Darfur. If he succeeds, it will be because he has refused to grandstand on the issue but rather just work away on Al-Bashir without fanfare.

It’s not impossible that faced with the continued arrogance of Washington and Israel, Ban Ki Moon will soon realize that there are limits to cooperation if he, his office, and the UN are to maintain any integrity. If he sticks to UN decisions, then he will soon discover that the race in Washington is not always to the nice. It will be his call.

One issue could be the continuing refusal of the U.S. Congress to release the funds the legislators promised to pay for the U.S. share of UN peacekeeping, and of the White House to expend any political capital on the issue, even as the United States mandates more and more peacekeeping operations.

The other issue is, of course, the Middle East, in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Israel, Iraq and Iran.

Ban will discover, in de Soto's words, how much of a "heavy burden" he has: that much of the world will judge his independence, and hence his efficacy, on the mark he leaves in the Fertile Crescent.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Distilled essence of snobbishness

Distilled essence of snobbishness - full text

Never mind what it's made from: premium brand vodka is all about image.
Ian Williams
Guardian Comment is Free
The EU shouldn't be worrying about what vodka is made from, but about what the super-premium brands make out if it.

Anyone who has been in a bar late at night watching the staff refill the expensive designer brand vodka bottles with the cheap cooking vodka knows that the European Union was engaged in one of its more pointless debates last week. It was arguing about what distillers could use to make vodka.

There is an unimpeachable source: Dmitri Mendeleyev, the Russian scientist who invented the periodic table that adorned all our school chemistry labs. He defined it as 60% water, and 40% pure ethanol, three times distilled.

If it is properly distilled, vodka is a flavourless, odourless, colourless spirit. Indeed, most brands filter it through charcoal, just in case any residual taste is left in. It is just possible, although highly unlikely, as numerous blind tastings have demonstrated, that discriminating drinkers of neat vodka could occasionally tell what they were made with. However, it is inconceivable that anyone who has added tonic water or other cocktail mixers to vodka would be able to identify either the brand or whatever was fermented to fill the still.

As a militant champagne socialist I strongly believe that nothing's too good for the workers and will knock back gallons of the stuff - when someone else is paying.

But when not sniftering aged rums to promote my book, my usual tipple is vodka and tonic and I always insist on the cheapest brand, the Nockoff or whatever - the type of stuff my local liquor store sells in plastic half-gallon bottles. That's what I would almost certainly get anyway in half the bars, no matter what expensive brand I asked for, and it cuts out the late night decanting and reduces already-pricey bar bills by half.

In Puerto Rico I have had vodka that proudly proclaims that it was made from pure sugar cane. In fact, under EU and US regulations, that makes it rum, but it was indeed indistinguishable from the vodkas made with rye, wheat, potatoes, wood pulp, milk products, or sugar beets as the root feedstock for the still.

Of course I appreciate that in Eastern Europe vodka has developed an almost sacramental aura that is difficult to dispel. Red Army men in nuclear tests and at Chernobyl were given vodka to stave off the effects of the radiation. But they never showed any particular concern for where the stuff came from.

Super-premium vodkas are distilled essence of snobbishness. It is what is on the bottle, not what is in it that sells it. Sydney Frank, the late inventor of Grey Goose demonstrated that. He realised that Absolut was making an additional $10 a bottle simply because of its brand. So he had Grey Goose distilled in France, put it in an even fancier bottle and charged twice as much as Absolut. Vodka is bottled and sold hot from the still, with none of the aging and maturation of rums, brandies or whiskies.

Grey Goose, like Absolut before it, was a classic case of the emperor's new clothes. People are prepared to pay a huge premium for qualities that exist only in their minds. But gullibility has always been a major revenue source for astute brand builders. In fact, Frank sold the Grey Goose brand to Bacardi for over $2bn, which was highly appropriate, since it is a company that has done its best to make its rum as tasteless as vodka.

But there is no way to legislate against stupidity and cupidity. By all means list the ingredients in microdot form on the label, but in the end the people who suffer are not those who buy their supermarket vodka made out of industrial alcohol but those pay through the nose for a designer label. And I am all in favour of a tax on stupidity. If people want to be goosed, take their money, and leave me with the anonymous firewater and water.

High Spirits in the Guardian

High Spirits in the Guardian.. why vodka is distilled essence of snobbishness

Rum of course is for more refined palates...

Hot Money - Responsible Investing in a Warmer World

My latest Speculator column in IR magazine
advises corporate and national responsibility - invade Antarctica

Hot Money

Ian Williams

It is very short sighted of some large oil companies to pretend that global warming is not happening – the way to make money is to embrace the concept, and exploit the consequences.

Where some people see crisis, we speculators see opportunity. Global Warming offers big openings for canny investors who refuse to let dogma blind them to genuine opportunities for big bucks. 'Nuclear Winter" was only a possibility, and it was difficult to cope with, business-wise. No one really rushed out to buy bomb-shelters or Geiger counters because, rightly or wrongly, they had decided that nuclear war was not that likely.

But all these scientists and analysts, and even most governments, now tell us that Global Warming is a certainty, and we all know that investment thrives on certainty.

Just think through the consequences. The hotter it gets, the more demand there will be for refrigeration and air-conditioners, which will create more demand for electricity which uses yet more coal and gas to fuel the power stations. Now is surely the time to buy into mines and utilities, not to mention appliances, like air-conditioners, and fans.

Indeed, as the world heats up, think of the possibilities for cold soft drink and bottled water sales! They even help create their own markets. The ships and planes and trains and trucks needed to ship bulky fluids will be making the world hotter, and customers thirstier, all the time. What is more, can there be a better way to sequestrate carbon dioxide emissions than to pump them into fizzy drinks? The utilities will pay bottlers to take the CO2!

Climate change is also a great opportunity for some global hedging. As one part of the world suffers a Dioxide Drought, and wants humidifiers, other parts will be suffering from Dioxide Drowning, and will want pumps and dehumidifiers. Indeed the wetter it gets, more people will want and need SUV's to traverse the washed out roads and shorelines. Some will take to the air to avoid the discomfort of land travel as temperatures rise. Those cars and planes need gas, lots of it. Buy oil, auto and aerospace companies. (A side bet on inflatable dinghies may not be a bad idea either. No house within fifty miles of the present shoreline should be without one!)

Buying aerospace is an extra good deal because global warming pessimists warn of increasing security threats: populations from the Third World are on the move and countries in the developed world are competing for scarce resources. Defense spending can only go up.

But the real prize is on the back burner, as it were. Antarctica is up for grabs. We have to think long term. As it gets hotter here and the ice melts there, this huge and hitherto wasted continent becomes a desirable cool residential place to live with several lifetimes' supply of clean glacial water, both for fortunate inhabitants and for sale to the hotter places nearer the equator.

But that is only the beginning. As the world's oil supplies run out, the melting of the ice sheet around the South Pole makes accessible the world's last untouched major reserves of oil and coal. Talk about intelligent design! This can only be Providence in action. Just as global hydrocarbon supplies show signs of failing, there we are. Bingo! A whole new continent just bursting with carbon to burn as the ice cap melts.

At present, all territorial claims to Penguinistan are suspended until 2048, but good old Texan ingenuity and creative approach to international law can surely overcome that. It's not even as though there are any natives there to cause problems, although, come to think of it, we have looked everywhere else for Osama Bin Laden and have not found him, so perhaps we should be sending a task force to go look…

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The UN, Ban the Middle East

Following on the solid doubts about Tony Blair's ability to make peace in the Middle East, is is my piece in the Chatham House publication World Today worrying about whether the current policies of the UN have enough credibility to do so.

The World Today |July 2007

The United Nations Secretariat has become an uncritical instrument of Israeli and American policies in the Middle East, says a senior official in his resignation report, which also warns of much wider consequences.
From Ian Williams in New York.

Alvaro De Soto, the United Nation’s special representative for the Middle East Peace Process, resigned from his post and the organisation in May, for reasons he explained in his subsequently leaked end of mission report. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon’s spokeswoman refused to comment on the contents since, she said, it was confidential and represented de Soto’s personal views. That left unanswered the critical questions that the incisive, evenhanded and remarkably readable document raised about the role of the organisation, the Secretary-General and the Quartet – The European Union (EU), Russia, the United States and the UN – in the Middle East

De Soto claimed the tipping point for his resignation was when, on his visit to the region on March 25, Ban introduced ‘out the blue’, conditions for whether he would meet the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority in future, thus sabotaging UN efforts to lead the rival Palestinian organisations Hamas and Fatah towards a solution.

Ban is a person of high principle – he has endorsed an international moratorium on the death penalty, for example, which is hardly music to Texan President George Bush’s ears – but somehow, with limited experience of the Israel-Palestine question. ‘He just does not get it. He sees Israel as South Korea and the Palestinians as the North. And the US as on the side of the angels’, one exasperated UN official suggested.

But that March visit had in many ways epitomised a qualitative shift in the UN Secretariat’s attitude to the problem. For example, attempts to get Ban to go to Gaza and see conditions at first hand, were thwarted by Israeli diplomats exploiting to the full their ‘unprecedented access’, as de Soto puts it, to the receptive Korean phalanx around Ban, which allows the Israeli mission input in sifting new appointees to exclude any hint of old-style, pro-Arabist thinking.
So Ban’s restricted vision is unlikely to be challenged by alternative advice from within. Israel’s view, backed by the US, and effectively unchallenged by other major powers, has led to decisions on the Middle East that will further cocoon him.
De Soto himself complains in his report that he was excluded from the meetings that Ban’s team held in the region, and that he was so far out of the loop that the Israelis were informing him about Secretariat discussions in New York. He complains that ‘the Israeli mission to the UN has unparalleled access in the Secretariat even at the highest levels, which leads to ‘a seeming reflex…to ask first how Israel or Washington will react rather than what is the right position to take’.
Ironically, one of the new appointees who seem to have a more objective and even-handed view is B Lynn Pascoe, the former American Ambassador to Indonesia whose appointment to head the United Nations Department of Political Affairs caused fears of unmitigated American dominance.

Potent Leverage

For many years, at Israeli insistence, the UN was excluded from the Middle East peace process. In part this was an understandable Israeli reaction to the 1975 ‘Zionism is Racism’ Resolution 3379 and the marginalisation of the country inside the organisation, for example its exclusion from regional groupings that are essential to hold any elected positions.
On the other hand, it was Israel’s prevarication about acceptance of UN decisions, on the occupation of Palestinian areas, the Israeli settlements, the return of refugees, the status of Jerusalem and similar issues, which contributed both to its isolation and also to its determination to marginalise the organisation’s role.
On the other side, in the 1990s the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) mission in New York realised that it was precisely the legitimacy and force of UN decisions and international law that provided the Palestinians’ most potent leverage in negotiations. The absence of all but a handful of embassies from Jerusalem is a reminder to both Israelis and Palestinians that, no matter how marginal it may appear at times, the UN does indeed have, in former Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s terms ‘a unique legitimacy.’ Israel’s borders and claims even to West Jerusalem will never be recognised without a UN decision.
The Palestinian mission secured restatement and expansion of those UN positions, for example with a meeting of states which are party to the Geneva Conventions on Occupied Territories to rebut the Israeli position that these were ‘disputed’ territories to which the Conventions did not apply, and most importantly, securing an advisory judgment from the International Court of Justice on the illegality of the separation wall in the West Bank.
Above all, the Palestinians looked to the UN to hold the green line, as it were. Their negotiators were prepared to haggle about the final borders, but only from the secure base of acceptance of the 1949 armistice line. Indeed, they felt that even this was a painful concession, since it involved abandoning the 1947 partition lines, which in turn, most Palestinians had regarded as inequitable whatever the legality.

Washington’s Wants

Almost in parallel with the PLO’s efforts, Annan worked hard to legitimise Israel’s position within the UN system, in part because he thought it was the right thing to do, but also as part of his efforts to construct a supportive constituency for the UN in the American political system.
He was relatively successful in this, and it certainly stood him in good stead when most influential American Jewish organisations refused to join the witch- hunt over abuses of the Iraq Oil-for-Food programme. De Soto decided the Quartet was a ‘vindication and culmination of SG Annan’s risky but successful effort…to regain Israel’s confidence.’
No Secretary-General can work successfully without reasonable relations with Washington, but Washington’s unreasonable demands of total fealty would test the skills of the most adroit tight rope walker in balancing between UN decisions and international law on the one hand, and Washington’s wants on the other. That is particularly true when the US and Israel so often stand in total isolation, apart from a few dependent island microstates.
In general, despite the pressures, Annan maintained a degree of impartiality, even if it sometimes had to be extracted as painfully as a wisdom tooth, as when the BBC wrested from him an admission that the Iraq war was ‘illegal’.
In the case of Israel, Annan’s balance took the form of gentle reminders that there were indeed UN decisions, and that the rights of the Palestinians did have to be taken into account. Even so, de Soto points out that it was Annan who initially restricted his contacts with Syria and the Palestinian Authority.

Free Pass

Certainly since September 11 2001 and the ‘war’ on terror there has been a global shift of support. Israel is now committing acts in the Territories, implicitly condoned by the EU and the Quartet for which it came under Security Council censure before 2001.
The role of Britain has also changed. While once it would support resolutions condemning Israeli actions even in the face of an American veto, it now abstains or opposes. That has had an effect on EU policy as well: German diplomats have complained that they cannot be seen as being more critical of the Jewish state than the British, so the former European even-handedness has also shifted towards a pro-American, pro-Israeli position.
As a result, de Soto says the Quartet’s statements have transformed it from ‘a negotiation-promoting foursome guided by…the Road Map, into a body that was all-but imposing sanctions on a freely elected government of a people under occupation as well as setting unattainable preconditions for dialogue.’ He adds, ‘There is no getting around the reality that the Quartet – Russia and the UNSG – provides a shield for what the US and the EU do.’
‘The absence of any complaint or criticism by the Quartet has in effect given Israel a free pass, enabling them to argue that withholding these monies [Palestinian tax revenues] is in conformity with Quartet policy’, he argues, even as he demonstrates that it is not. In contrast, he asserts that Quartet policy has taken ‘all pressure off Israel,’ and the ‘settlement enterprise and barrier construction has continued unabated’.
That was already the case under Annan, but even so, Ban’s team seems to have fallen off the rope on the Middle East issue. De Soto sardonically claims that ‘A Sherlockian magnifying glass’ is needed to ‘detect the allusions to Israel’s total non-compliance with its Road Map obligations’, in the Quartet’s February 2 statement, which obliquely urged ‘the parties to refrain from taking any measures that could predetermine the number of issues that will be resolved in negotiations.’
This, he says is ‘the high point of evenhandedness of 2007 so far,’ which ‘began to wane toward the end of 2005 and continued to wilt throughout 2006,’ but he adds, ‘has been pummelled into submission in an unprecedented way since the beginning of 2007.’

Question of Trust

In his conclusions de Soto warns that if the Secretary-General ‘is swayed, or seen to be swayed, by one or the other member state, other members, and indeed any party to a conflict susceptible of being entrusted to the Secretary-General’s good offices will justifiably hesitate to deposit that trust in him.’ As he says, the Secretary-General ‘has the duty to uphold international law, and more particularly UN resolutions.’ De Soto points out the wider implications for his role on other conflicts and for UN staff working in the region if he does not. It is ‘a heavy burden on the SG, for which he will be accountable to history,’ he warns.
It is possible that as reality intrudes into the cocoon on the 38th floor of the UN headquarters that the Secretary- General can see the implications. Someone who has spent months in conversation with President Omar Al Bashir of Sudan over Darfur, despite his clear role in crimes against humanity, must surely appreciate that he should not exclude talks with Hamas leaders simply because of western and Israeli refusal to accept an elected government.

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Middle East doesn't need Blair - full text

The Middle East doesn't need Blair
Guardian Comment is Free
Appointing Tony Blair as peace envoy to Palestine would be futile, given the prime minister's track record.
Ian Williams

June 21, 2007 10:30 AM |

In response to a news story, Tony Snow, Bush's spokesman, denied that Tony Blair was being considered for a position of special representative for the Middle East quartet. So, based on Snow's record for obscuring issues, it must be true.

It would be the final epitaph for a quartet that has already proven to be a quadruple diplomatic paraplegic.

To be fair, Blair does realize the primacy of the Israel-Palestinian issue for peace in the region. It is indeed the blockage in the regional U-bend that needs clearing before any other issues there can be seriously addressed.

But knowing what the problem is, does not translate into knowing the solution, let alone being the solution. He has tried to tell George W. Bush this repeatedly - but with clearly limited success.

Blair has consistently done whatever Bush wanted him to do. When he took British forces into Iraq, it was with clear knowledge of the ineptitude of the White House but he nursed the fond illusion that his support would give him a hand on the steering wheel - and then he found that runaway trains do not have steering capacity, and no working brakes either.

His behaviour since he forced Robin Cook out of the foreign office follows a similar track, of coupling his wagon to the runaway Bush train. Once upon a time, even during the Reagan era, Margaret Thatcher had no compunction in having Britain vote with the rest of the world against the US on Middle East issues. Since Blair chopped Cook, on any occasion when the US has vetoed a resolution in the UN security council, British diplomats have abstained.

In the EU, that has translated into tacit support for the American-Israeli positions. Diplomats from countries like Germany complain that even when Israeli depredations horrify them, they cannot be more critical of Israel than the British. That has shifted the formerly even-handed EU consensus into the American camp.

The invertebracy of the EU has, as UN Envoy Alvaro de Soto demonstrated, helped the UN fall into the American-Israeli line. That accounts for three legs of the quartet and has left the Russians, who no longer really have a dog in the fight, as the half-hearted hold-outs, making the quartet a fig leaf for American positions.

But consider also Blair's personal position. One of the reasons he is leaving office is that he accepted the fund raising talents of Lord Levy, whose imaginative dangling of peerages for pounds attracted the attention of Scotland Yard. One should remember that his lordship was originally enticed to finance Blair's leadership campaign with the promise that it would be good for Israel for him to do so. And in return Blair made him Britain's special envoy for the Middle East.

When it came to the Lebanon war last year, Blair stood alongside with the US and Israel in resisting a ceasefire for a month during which millions of cluster bombs rained down on Southern Lebanon.He not only backed the wrong side in moral terms, he backed the losing side. This does not augur well for his announced career path.

It has been reported that Abbas has accepted Blair's nomination. That would be the beleaguered president of Palestine whose party lost the legislative elections and has accepted Israeli and American aid to oust the victors.

Blair has shown consistently that he has no influence with the White House on any important issue and will not even try to influence the Israelis. In the unlikely event that he has a blank cheque from the White House, he could do something useful. But it looks much more like the White House tossing him a diplomatic dime because there are vestigial memories of him doing them an occasional good service.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Who won the election? - full text

Who won the election?

By continuing to punish Hamas, Israel and the US are ignoring the democratic will of Palestinians.
Ian Williams

June 20, 2007 3:00 PM Guardian Comment is Free

If Israelis want peace, they have to talk to the people the Palestinians want, not those anointed and armed by Israel and the US.

One of the points about democracy is that sometimes the "wrong" people win. Many Americans and British looking at their present leaders can ruefully relate to that. Indeed, Ehud Olmert has popularity ratings within a statistical range of zero. Nonetheless, other governments and the political institutions inside their own countries continue to talk to them and recognize them. The rest of the world continued talking to, indeed pandering to Israel, even while the butcher of Sabra and Shatila was its prime minister. That's democracy.

The purpose of the Palestinian elections was to elect a government the Palestinians wanted, not one that Israel liked. Hamas won, fair and square, and did so against a background of Fatah incompetence and corruption that had been connived at, and indeed tacitly encouraged by the west and Israel, in return for Yasser Arafat's pliability at the negotiating table.

Now as a born-again atheist, whose last book was an ode to rum, Hamas would be very low down in my list of preferences for voting - indeed somewhere alongside a teetotal born-again Christian from Texas for US president in my ranking order.

Even so, Hamas has been demonized by Israel, the US, and the EU, which should give pause for thought. A rule of thumb suggests that Washington and its allies may not be entirely accurate in their depiction of events.

Firstly, we need to consider the historic shifts as opposed to the expedient amnesia of politicians. At a time when the US and Israel were marginalizing and refusing to recognize Arafat and the PLO, as Charles Freeman, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, baldly stated: "Israel started Hamas. It was a project of Shin Bet, which had a feeling that they could use it to hem in the PLO." At that time, the PLO was seen as representing the secularist, leftwards-inclined factions so a dose of good old time religion seemed to be called for.

As Hamas developed, a secondary point was that the last thing that hard-line Israeli factions, of the kind who seem to be running the security services, wanted was a partner who will negotiate. There is no conceivable negotiated solution that does not involve withdrawal from the occupied territories and recognition of genuinely independent Palestinian statehood that even now, few Israeli politicians have unequivocally supported.

That is why, of course, there is a suspicious, what one could call a statistically significant correlation, between Hamas's acceptance of cease-fires, and Israeli assassinations of its leadership. There are times when Israeli security forces to seem to function as as if they were the militias of right-wing Israeli factions.

In response to the Hamas victory, and despite its unilateral ceasefire, Israel illegally withheld the taxes it had collected on behalf of the Palestinian authority and led a boycott of the new Hamas government, an example followed naturally by the US, cravenly by the European Union, and implicitly endorsed even more shamefully by the UN Secretariat.

As the former UN representative Alvaro de Soto revealed, the US tactic was to get Fatah to sort out Hamas.

The fighting in Gaza is being represented as if it were a Hamas coup against the Palestinian government. But Hamas won the election and has a majority in the parliament - even if 40 of their representatives have been interned by the Israelis. It is almost as if Blair dissolved parliament and sent the army against Brown supporters.

The Palestinian authority forces that Hamas inherited were in effect a group of militias responsible to various factions of Fatah. Israel happily agreed to them being armed to quell Hamas.

The fighting in Gaza is above all the responsibility of the gun-worshippers on both sides. There is little to choose between the assorted armed militias now shooting it out. But those who crammed a million and half people into a ghetto, restricted their water supplies, bombed their power stations, cut off funding for government services and occasionally lob shells and "precision" bombs into their apartments cannot escape their responsibility for the carnage.

Just as those in Washington and London who let Israel continue to rip up the road map, expand settlements and build a wall were far more effective campaign managers for Hamas's election victory than Saatchi & Saatchi could have been.

A credible Palestinian partner for peace negotiations is one that can represent Palestinians and bring them along. Anointing Abbas as the chosen one of Israel and the US has likely ensured that he is not that partner. But the Palestinians have to choose their negotiator, not Olmert or Bush.

Who won the Elections, Gaza, Hamas and Fateh.

Who won the Election? The fighting in Gaza. Comment is Free, Guardian
click to join the fray.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Full text of Farewell Then Kurt Waldheim

Here's the full text of the Guardian CiF piece

So farewell then, Kurt Waldheim

Kurt Waldheim exemplified the banality of bureaucracy: he was one of the greyest eminences ever to grace the world stage.
Ian Williams

June 14, 2007

In general, the big powers want a safe, anything-but-boat-rocking bureaucrat to head the United Nations. Their perfect choice would be Pontius Pilate, but he did not apply, so they got Kurt Waldheim, one of the greyest eminences ever to grace the world stage.

It would be a stretch to believe that the various permanent members had not had their spooks do due diligence on him and discovered his war record with the Nazi military. The thought that they all had this eminently suitable blackmail material to hang over his head could have been very reassuring for them.

The process of appointing Secretaries General is so mysterious that one cannot resist speculation. For example, almost certainly the first one elected, Trygve Lie, was acceptable to the Soviets because in 1936, as Norwegian justice minister, he had given the exiled Leon Trotsky the bum's rush from Oslo and so sent him to Mexico for his date with destiny and the sharp end of an ice pick. The honeymoon did not last. Joseph McCarthy denounced Lie for hiring "disloyal" Americans while the Soviets refused to recognise him because he supported the Korean war.

In contrast, the dapper Waldheim managed two terms, from 1972 to 1982, without ruffling anyone's feathers, and would have made a third were it not that the Chinese were in a third-world-ist phase and told him - nothing personal - that they wanted a diplomat from the developing world to get the job.

The UN veteran Sir Brian Urquhart, who worked with him, confirms that no boats were rocked during his tenure. He was a hard-working bureaucrat who kept the ship afloat and avoided waves. In fact, Sir Brian recalls a classic bureaucratic moment after an interminable meeting on whether to issue a statement about the American bombing of North Vietnam. Waldheim, challenged to make a decision, declared: "There will be no decision. That is the decision."

He scarcely deserves the infamy that has been heaped on him since. Even in his criminality he was not outstanding. Firstly, he was economical with the truth. His first autobiography was going to skip blithely from 1938, when the Nazis took over, to 1945, when he joined the foreign service. In anticipation of Basil Fawlty, he did not mention the conflict at all, telling Sir Brian that "no one is interested in the War".

Of course everyone was, and he continued skimping veracity by only describing his war career up the gates of Moscow.

Afterwards, during the election campaign for the Austrian presidency, his service in the Balkans - for which his commanding officer was later executed - was revealed, not to mention his membership in the Brownshirts.

But it probably helped him win the presidency, since Waldheim was the Ur-Austrian. Despite some very honourable armed resistance against Engelbert Dollfuss and the homegrown Nazis in 1934, most Austrians were not happy with the Versailles-enforced independence. Even the Nazis' enemies supported Anschluss in 1938, and while Hitler, the local boy made good, was winning there was no great independence movement.

In 1945, it suited the Allies to go along with the newly assumed Austrian posture of aggrieved innocence. They were the first victims of German expansionism and occupation, and so they never really bothered with de-Nazification, war crime trials and all the German sort of stuff. No wonder Austrians supported Waldheim in an act of collectively self-absolving amnesia.

As a gesture, a lot of fair weather friends took him off their invite lists - except the Vatican, which made him a papal knight. Presumably he had confessed and been absolved.

But you can see why no one really pursued the former Nazi officer on a global scale. A commission of inquiry decided that he had not committed war crimes, but had only witnessed them and done nothing to prevent them.

No one was going to get too excited about that, since almost every statesman in the world shares some similar guilt. Just look at Iraq, Darfur, Gaza, Lebanon, Rwanda, and many more instances of ineffectual clucking while pretending not to see. There are a lot of politicians who firmly decide not to make decisions in the face of barbarity, and almost as many deciding to commit crimes, so it seems unfair to single out Waldheim just because he was on the losing side.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

How to get the road map on track

Full text of the Guardian Comment is Free piece

How to get the road map on track

The new UN report makes it devastatingly clear that only the UN can stand up for international law and justice between Israel and Palestine.
Ian Williams

June 13, 2007 11:30 AM

The road map has been turned into an origami dead duck.

On the front pages of today's carbon-rich edition of the Guardian are details of a leaked report from the UN's recently resigned special representative for the Middle East, Alvaro de Soto. His cogent and well-substantiated report, intended for internal consumption, in effect told the UN to put up or shut up over the peace process.

But despite the UN's weaknesses, the pandering to Washington and Israel, and the apparent indisposition of the current secretary general to take any independent stand at all, the UN is essential to the peace process.

Around the time of the Oslo accords, the realists of the PLO realised that, far more than any amount of "armed struggle", their best defence was international law and the UN. After all, no one, even now, recognises the occupation of East Timor and Western Sahara even though there have been times when they were, if not quite dead, about as lively as the Monty Python parrot on the international agenda.

Once the Arabs and the Palestinians could swallow the injustice, but undoubted legality, of the 1948 resolution that partitioned Palestine, they looked to the United Nations as the embodiment of international law and they had some reasons for hoping for success. After all, less than a fistful of (bribed) banana republics had ever set up a mission in West Jerusalem, or recognised it as Israel's capital. Even the US, despite unremitting pressure from the lobby in Congress, still has not moved its mission to Israel from Tel Aviv. Until the UN, that is the nations of the world, decides differently, Jerusalem is UN territory.

And under 242 and subsequent resolutions, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights are also occupied territory, and Israel is bound by the Geneva conventions in its behaviour there. Which is why the settlements are illegal.

Since then, under the various peace plans, while demanding that the Palestinians deliver every jot and tittle of their commitments, the Israelis have persistently ignored theirs, by building and "strengthening" settlements, and by building the wall through the Occupied Territories in defiance of the judgment of the international court of justice.

The US's position as interlocutor was hopelessly compromised, even though the Palestinian leadership has clung to the forlorn hope that somehow, someday, it will exercise restraint on the Israelis. The Israelis wanted nothing to do with the UN, and in the old days, the Russians could be relied upon to stand for some semblance of Palestinian rights. Indeed, when the Quartet was set up, even the European Union was balanced in its approach and recognised the need to respect international law.

None of that is true any more. The Russians are tougher about Orthodox communion with Serbia than about any residual anti-imperialist solidarity with the Palestinians. Under British influence, the EU has become an echo chamber for Washington, mesmerised by the word "terrorism."

Everyone wants to get Washington off their backs. That leaves the UN. For two years Kofi Annan tried to walk a tightrope. He balanced between encouraging the Israelis to come into the UN fold both because he thought it was the right thing to do, and because it drew the fangs of one of the most important partners in the rabid anti-UN claques on the Hill. Engaging the US was an understandable goal for the secretary general - it is difficult to run a world organisation if the biggest power in the world is not cooperating.

Annan tried keep Israel and Washington happy, but he also realised that international law and UN decisions had to be respected. And even he pandered, as de Soto points out, forbidding his own special representative to contact Hamas, or Damascus, although there was not a single UN body had agreed on such a policy.

Now the Quartet has become an international fig leaf for Israeli non-compliance with international law, implicitly condoning Israel's refusal to hand over tax revenues, its strangulation of the faltering Palestinian economy, its settlement expansion, its roadblocks and armed attacks against Palestinian power stations and infrastructure. The parties to the Quartet are now condoning Israeli behaviour that before 9/11 they were condemning in the security council.

De Soto, quite correctly called on the secretary general to stand up for the UN charter, for international law, and for the decisions of his own organisation. Instead, or rather because, he, and likeminded people have been frozen out, and UN staff say that Ban Ki Moon sees Israel as South Korea and the Palestinians as North Korea.

The secretary general should reappraise that view soon. The only viable two-state solution, as accepted by most of the Arabs, and a significant proportion of Israelis, depends upon acceptance of 242, and the 1967 boundaries. There can be haggling - after the acceptance, but without the United Nations, in the sense of the whole world community, Israel will never have recognised borders, and therefore cannot ever hope to have secure boundaries, or peace.

If the secretary general of the United Nations cannot stand up against the US, for the "unique" legitimacy which is the organisation's only weapon, then it does not bode well for its peacemaking efforts anywhere in the world.

The UN, and the Road Map

How to get the Road Map unfolded in Guardian Comment is Free

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Shock, horror, a truthful UN report.

Here are two of my reports in today's Guardian on the Secret UN report condemns US for Middle East failures which also carries Alvaro de Soto's excellent report on the failures of the peace process

Envoy's damning verdict revealed as violence takes Gaza closer to civil war

Rory McCarthy in Jerusalem and Ian Williams in New York
Wednesday June 13, 2007
The Guardian

The highest ranking UN official in Israel has warned that American pressure has "pummelled into submission" the UN's role as an impartial Middle East negotiator in a damning confidential report.

The 53-page "End of Mission Report" by Alvaro de Soto, the UN's Middle East envoy, obtained by the Guardian, presents a devastating account of failed diplomacy and condemns the sweeping boycott of the Palestinian government. It is dated May 5 this year, just before Mr de Soto stepped down.

The revelations from inside the UN come after another day of escalating violence in Gaza, when at least 26 Palestinians were killed after Hamas fighters launched a major assault. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, head of the rival Fatah group, warned he was facing an attempted coup.

Mr de Soto condemns Israel for setting unachievable preconditions for talks and the Palestinians for their violence. Western-led peace negotiations have become largely irrelevant, he says.

Mr de Soto is a Peruvian diplomat who worked for the UN for 25 years in El Salvador, Cyprus and Western Sahara. He says:

· The international boycott of the Palestinians, introduced after Hamas won elections last year, was "at best extremely short-sighted" and had "devastating consequences" for the Palestinian people

· Israel has adopted an "essentially rejectionist" stance towards the Palestinians

· The Quartet of Middle East negotiators - the US, the EU, Russia and the UN - has become a "side-show"

·The Palestinian record of stopping violence against Israel is "patchy at best, reprehensible at worst"

Mr de Soto acknowledges in the report that he is its sole author. It was meant only for senior UN officials, and its wording is far more critical than the public pronouncements of UN diplomats. Last night, Mr de Soto, who is in New York, told the Guardian: "It is a confidential document and not intended for publication."

In January last year, the Quartet called on the newly elected Hamas government to commit to non-violence, recognise Israel and accept previous agreements. When Hamas refused to sign up to the principles, the international community halted direct funding to the Palestinian government and Israel started to freeze the monthly tax revenues that it had agreed to pass to the Palestinians. Several hundred million dollars remain frozen.

Mr de Soto, who had opposed the boycott, said this position "effectively transformed the Quartet from a negotiation-promoting foursome guided by a common document [the road map for peace] into a body that was all-but imposing sanctions on a freely elected government of a people under occupation as well as setting unattainable preconditions for dialogue".

The EU said yesterday that there was an imminent risk of civil war if fighting went on, and UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon urged support for Mr Abbas's efforts "to restore law and order".

In the heaviest day of fighting in Gaza for months, Hamas appeared to make its first concerted effort to seize power in Gaza. There was a wave of co-ordinated attacks, which appeared to overwhelm the larger but less effective Fatah force. "Decisiveness will be in the field," said Islam Shahwan, a spokesman for the Hamas military wing.

Fatah's central committee called an emergency meeting in Ramallah, in the West Bank, and said it would suspend the activities of its ministers in the government. Fatah would pull out of the government if the fighting failed to stop, it said.

For the first time in several weeks, fighting spread to the West Bank when Fatah gunmen attacked a Hamas television studio in Ramallah and kidnapped a Hamas deputy cabinet minister from the city.

The day began with a rocket attack on the private house in Gaza of Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister and a Hamas leader. He was in the building but was not hurt. Fighting spread across Gaza City and within hours Hamas fighters issued warnings over loudspeakers calling on all Fatah security forces to pull out of their bases and return home. At about 2pm Hamas gunmen seized control of several small Fatah bases and one large base in northern Gaza, where there were heavy casualties when Hamas fighters fired mortars and rocket-propelled grenades at the compound.

Several Fatah officers complained that they had received no orders during the day. Mr Abbas tried calling for a truce, and later Fatah ordered its officers to fight back.
N was pummelled into submission, says outgoing Middle East special envoy

· Negotiators 'lost impartiality' says report
· Palestinians also criticised over violence

Read Alvaro de Soto's end of mission report

Rory McCarthy in Jerusalem and Ian Williams in New York
Wednesday June 13, 2007
The Guardian

American support for Israel has hindered international efforts to broker a peace deal in the Middle East, according to a hard-hitting confidential report from the outgoing UN Middle East envoy.

Alvaro de Soto, who stepped down last month after 25 years at the UN, has exposed the American pressure that he argues has damaged the impartiality of the UN's peace making efforts.

In Mr de Soto's "End of Mission Report", which the Guardian has obtained, he delivers a devastating criticism of both Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the international community.

The Quartet of Middle East negotiators - the UN, the US, the EU and Russia - has often failed to hold Israel to its obligations under the Road Map, the current framework for peace talks, he argues.

Over the past two years, the Quartet has gradually lost its impartiality. "The fact is that even-handedness has been pummelled into submission in an unprecedented way since the beginning of 2007," he writes.

He blames overwhelming influence exerted by the US and an "ensuing tendency toward self-censorship" within the UN when it comes to criticism of Israel.

"At almost every juncture a premium is put on good relations with the US and improving the UN's relationship with Israel. I have no problem with either goal but I do have a problem with self-delusion," he writes. "Forgetting our ability to influence the Palestinian scene in the hope that it keeps open doors to Israel is to trade our Ace for a Joker."

Mr de Soto reveals that after Hamas won elections last year it wanted to form a broad coalition government with its more moderate rivals, including Fatah, run by the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But the US discouraged other Palestinian politicians from joining. "We were told that the US was against any 'blurring' of the line dividing Hamas from those Palestinian political forces committed to the two-state solution," Mr de Soto writes. It was a year before a coalition government was finally formed.

The US also supported the Israeli decision to freeze Palestinian tax revenues. "The Quartet has been prevented from pronouncing on this because the US, as its representatives have intimated to us, does not wish Israel to transfer these funds to the PA [Palestinian Authority]," he writes. "There is a seeming reflex, in any given situation where the UN is to take a position, to ask first how Israel or Washington will react rather than what is the right position to take."

Mr de Soto opposed the international boycott placed on the Palestinian government after Hamas won elections last year. He argued that it was wrong to use pressure and isolation alone, and proposed retaining dialogue with Hamas. He wanted tougher criticism of Israel as well, but came up against a "heavy barrage" from US officials.

The effect of the boycott was to seriously damage the Palestinian economy and promote radicalism. It also lifted pressure from Israel. "With all focus on the failings of Hamas, the Israeli settlement enterprise and barrier construction has continued unabated," he writes.

The US, he argues, was clearly pushing for a confrontation between Fatah and Hamas but Washington misjudged Mr Abbas, who he argues had wanted to co-opt rather than defeat Hamas. Fighting between Fatah and Hamas has intensified in recent months. He quotes an unnamed US official as saying earlier this year: "I like this violence ... It means that other Palestinians are resisting Hamas." Since December at least 600 Palestinians have been killed in factional battles.

The report criticises the Palestinians for their violence, and Israel for extending its settlements and barrier in the West Bank. But he also argues that Israeli policies have encouraged continued Palestinian militancy. "I wonder if the Israeli authorities realise that, season after season, they are reaping what they sow, and are systematically pushing along the violence/repression cycle to the point where it is self-propelling," he writes.

Mr de Soto speaks of his frustration in the job, not least that he was refused permission to meet the Hamas and Syrian governments in Damascus. "At best I have been the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process in name only, and since the election of Hamas, I have been the secretary-general's personal representative to the Palestinian Authority for about 10 minutes in two phone calls and one handshake," he writes.

He stepped down in May at the end of his two-year contract and left the UN. The "tipping-point" for his departure came after the new UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said future meetings with a Palestinian prime minister would depend on the actions of his government.

Michele Montas, spokesperson for Mr Ban, said: "It is deeply regrettable that this report has been leaked. The whole point of an end-of-mission report is for our envoys and special representatives to be as candid as possible ... the views in the report should not be considered official UN policy."

Sex and Pringle's Dandelions

The sexual life of the dandelion is more interesting than anyone thinks… so Peter Pringle discovered in researching a recent non-fiction book Food Inc.

Grigor Mendel, the Austrian monk who discovered the laws of genetics by scrutinising peas over many generations of their immaculate sexual reproduction, could not account for the dandelion. Spawned from this discovery is Pringle's hero, Arthur Hemmings, an unlikely cross between Botanist Boffin and Bond. In this first novel, Day of the Dandelion, Hemmings works at Kew Gardens but is under special assignment as agent for the British Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, a task which he interprets liberally in the name of freedom of thought and common access to genetic resources.

The Holy Grail of genetic research is to get food plants, particularly grains, to reproduce asexually, and to continue to so, in effect cloning themselves. (Actually, Pringle does not get into it, but this form of monoculture is also fairly dangerous, since as with potatoes and bananas, the crop is left open to the rapid spread of diseases).

But even more dangerous is the prospect of an unscrupulous multinational company patenting and monopolizing genetic discoveries of this kind. Some farmers have already been sued for having patented maize lines growing on their farms – whether they knew it or not.

But these weeds are killers. There is mayhem and lawlessness in those labs, with several deaths and near misses as unscrupulous multinationals backed by governments who see the agricultural future in sexlessness pursue naïve but dedicated good academics trying to beat corporate patents.

The researches of the engaging, energetic and somewhat sybaritic Hemmings who has no intention of emulating the celibacy of the asexual plants he studies, allow Pringle to disparage the increasing role of business in academic institutions, such as Oxford, actively promulgated by the British government. In parts Pringle is lamenting and gently lampooning a rapidly disappearing middle class Britain, which however mistakenly, though it knew what it stood for.

What begins as the enjoyable hokum of a secret agent who kicks corporate tails in the crotch on behalf of seeds and weeds soon becomes quite plausible in what Pringle suggests is just one in a series. I look forward to more Arthur Hemmings adventures with this stimulating hybrid of science and politics.

Day of the Dandelion

Food Inc

The mouse that cheered - full text

The mouse that cheered

Bush went to Albania and Bulgaria for a sympathetic hearing. But he should have had a history lesson in Rome - seat of another fallen empire.
Ian Williams
Guardian Comment is Free

June 11, 2007

Truly is it written, a good wine needs no Bush. I was in Rome in the Piazza Navona on Saturday, and knew that the US president was in the neighbourhood. The whiff of tear gas from the anti-Iraq demonstrations still lingered, lending piquancy to the bottle of the local Frascati we quaffed in one of the restaurants brave enough to stay open.

Rome should have been a learning experience for the president. All around are the ruins that show that even the mightiest empires can come a cropper. But even the founding fathers missed that message when they set up the American Republic and modelled it on its Roman antecedents rather more closely than they thought.
The rose-tinted view of history, like the equally rose-tinted view of the present, lends itself to simplification: civilisation against the barbarians, the democracies against the terrorists.

Rome at its apogee was a ferocious aggressor, whose politics were fuelled by massive corruption and injustice, and which felt no need for diplomats because they had the legions. It made war on all its neighbours and sold the defeated as slaves, with no thought for anything like the Geneva conventions. Its major public buildings, like the Stadium of Domitian - now the Piazza Navona - were places where prisoners were forced to kill each other in public for the entertainment of the masses. Empires are built on moral decline. The fall follows.

So if the president were aware of these imperial antecedents, he doubtless felt very much at home in Rome, even if the new Italian government has pulled its troops out of Iraq and is resisting pressure to send some to Afghanistan, and even if the Italian courts have proceedings against the CIA for abducting people from Italy and against a US soldier for killing an Italian agent who was rescuing a journalist.

Bush's visit to the Vatican could symbolize the beginning of the end to the schism between the evangelical Protestant right and the Church of Rome, with an increasingly shared agenda between Catholic and Baptist conservatives. But did he notice that the Pope was upset because, on account of the war in Iraq, the millennia-old Christian population of Iraq is being driven from their homes? Or that the Pope is strongly against the death penalty and wants justice for the Palestinians? Probably not. But then he may wanted the Grand Fenwickian uniformed Swiss Guards for surge service in Iraq.

Which, of course, brings us to the Duchy of Grand Fenwick. You may remember that the Duchy was the tiny country in the Mouse that Roared which decided that, in a world dominated by a benign and generous superpower, the surest way to wealth was to standout from all the loyal allies and declare war on the US, surrender, and then sit back to enjoy the resulting tidal wave of popularity.

Times have changed, and tiny Albania has cottoned on. The new Empire follows Rome in making deserts and calling them victories. In a world characterised by almost universal suspicion of Washington, not least because of its somewhat unforgiving, and indeed rather Roman, response to opposition, the Albanians have chosen to stand out from the rest of the world and embrace the Empire with an embarrassing enthusiasm.

But one cannot help suspecting that they are in some measure as intellectually isolated as they were under Enver Hoxha. Those Italian demonstrators in Rome showed no hostility to Americans, but to Bush. Roman taxi drivers and waiters alike had the courtesy to assume that their English-speaking guests shared their antipathy to the president and his policies. Someone should tell the Albanians that few Americans share their support for George Bush - and that there is no crock of gold waiting for them.

And the rest of us should note that Bush is feeling so isolated that he needed to go to two of the smallest countries in the world to get a sympathetic hearing.

Monday, June 11, 2007

A Good Wine Needs No Bush

The Mouse that Cheered. Bush in Rome
Latest in the Guardian Comment is Free

Burning Bush's "Forward Step" is Just Hot Air

I have been in Rome. I knew Bush was as well - may have been the smell of tear gas in the streets.
My latest in last week's Tribune

It's a good job Tony Blair has stopped losing his teeth. It saves him the embarrassment of checking under the pillow to see what the tooth fairy left him. How naïve could he be to describe Bush's position on Climate Change as "a huge step forward"?

Well, as we have seen consistently, very. George W. Bush's "conversion" to global warming is typical of his administration, one tiny step forward for him and two giant steps backward for mankind.

For example in 2002, to cover his refusal to abide by the (already demonstrably inadequate) Kyoto protocols, he suggested an 18 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions "intensity" in the following ten years. It sounded good, and doubtless kept Yo-Blair off his back a bit, – but in reality, it meant that even if the "volunteers" among American companies lived up to it, actual emissions would rise 12 percent over the same period. These American corporations are the same ones who lobbied for years to keep lead in paint and petrol and asbestos in the buildings.

"Intensity" is the ratio of emissions to GDP, so total emissions would have been going up all through this period of economic growth. To show the President's sincerity, the following year, in 2003, the White House took the Environmental Protection Agency's draft report on the state of the environment and erased references to studies that implicated industrial pollution and vehicle exhaust in global warming.

Where the EPA had said ''Climate change has global consequences for human health and the environment,'' the Bush edition emitted hot air – ''The complexity of the Earth system and the interconnections among its components make it a scientific challenge to document change, diagnose its causes, and develop useful projections of how natural variability and human actions may affect the global environment in the future. Because of these complexities and the potentially profound consequences of climate change and variability, climate change has become a capstone scientific and societal issue for this generation and the next, and perhaps even beyond.''

So did that alarm you, or send you to sleep? It is in fact the opposite tactic to WMDs in Iraq. Instead of taking a non-existent threat and talking it up, he took a serious danger, and buried it in polysyllables. And his "bold step forward" is no different. It is an exaggeration. It is a terminological inexactitude. It is a fib. It is a whopper. It is a distortion of reality. It is a total lie.

On global warming, Bush is under duelling constraints. His own conception of science would make phlogiston seem like state of the art. His party is bankrolled by companies that make gas-guzzling off-road vehicles and sell oil – and who show no flexibility at all in the face of international competition. They both only survive because of Federal tax breaks. In general American industry is like the CBI under Margaret Thatcher – its ideological fixations lead it to champion policies that lead to the bankruptcy of untold thousands of firms.

The President himself, despite calling upon the UN more than any of his predecessors for peacekeeping, cannot bring himself to admit that UN decisions have any validity. After all, some of them may go against Washington. So he does not want the blue fingerprints of the UN on anything. Not least because then they would be public, and provide yardsticks against actual performance.

However, despite the reticence of the American media, the news is beginning to sink into the American public. I mean, if you want a message from God, how many hurricanes hitting the Republican-voting former Confederate states do you want? In fact, even the Evangelicals are now accepting that just because the Earth is God's gift does not give you the right to crap on it just so Texaco can continue making big bucks.

So as in Darfur, the Bush answer is to express concern – but not do anything about it that would upset the guys who send the big cheques to the Republican Party.

So at this G8 summit, faced with the prospect, as at Kyoto, of the whole world meeting under the auspices of the United Nations and hammering out a deal that may, just conceivably, save the planet, Bush reverted to a previous tactic. Ignore the United Nations, which is global conspiracy against the UN, let us assemble a small band of nations with conservative governments, Japan, Canada, probably Australia, and make a vague general suggestion of being good.

The sickening thing is that Blair has accumulated enough brown-nose points enough that if he were to get up and denounce this pathetic evasion of a cause which, in all fairness, he has been banging the drum about since he took office, it would actually be noticed in the US and would have a political effect. But as during Iraq, where US politicians wonder why Blair did not ask for the occasional quids for his innumerable pro-quos, the Prime Minister talks about a big step forward.

And of course that leads to the embarrassing spectacle of the G8 meeting, where Angela Markel, the allegedly conservative Chancellor of Germany is prepared to confront Bush, while Tony Blair, vice-president of the Socialist International rushes to wipe the President's emission-smeared arse. A "huge step forward" forsooth!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Bombs and Bombast

Here is the full text, but you really should go to the Guardian site to read the comments. The chilling insouciance about mass murder from the Slobbophiles is really quite disgusting and runs the full gamut of every excuse made for the Purges and the Holocaust. Others did it first, not that many died. Some of our guys got killed as well. Sickening stuff.


Bodies, bombast and bombs in the Balkans
Joint diplomacy could ease the way to Kosovar independence, and stop revival of the cold war in eastern Europe.

About Webfeeds
June 6, 2007 8:30 PM | Printable version
Right on cue, just as the UN Security Council moves to consider the independence plan for Kosovo, news reports from Belgrade announce the opening of a mass grave where authorities suspect the bodies of some 500 Kosovars whom Milosevic's Serb forces killed were dumped in a quarry.

Towards the end of the war, the Serbian army and police conducted a macabre exercise, digging up already rotting bodies and smuggling them into Serbia. The largest such was a cache of 800 bodies reburied under a police training ground near Belgrade. The beginning was the discovery of a freezer truck with 86 bodies, men, women and children, found in the Danube.

Needless to say (except to deranged Serbophiles and hard leftists), Milosevic's men did not do this to show respect for their enemies killed in honourable combat. They were hiding the evidence of mass murder before Nato could discover it.

That alone explains why Kosovo is not going to revert to Serbia anytime soon. Quite apart from the right to self-determination, a state whose organs so recently practiced ethnically motivated mass murder against its alleged citizens has forfeited any claim to sovereignty over them.

A hundred years ago Boutros Ghali, grandfather of the former secretary general of the United Nations, was nominated to be prime minister of Egypt by the Khedive - at the prompting of Lord Cromer, the British de facto viceroy to Cairo. Since Cromer could call upon the British troops who had been occupying Egypt for over thirty years and since he had already appointed the Khedive there was no doubt who was in charge. But they had to go to Istanbul to get a firman from the sultan to confirm his appointment, since the Ottomans, very nominally, had sovereignty. No one in Pristina bothers to go to Belgrade to confirm a change of government.

In the Security Council is another residual authority. Russia has a veto, which it wisely has not committed itself to using. For Moscow, the veto is like the nuclear deterrent, best waved about but never actually used, except on symbolic occasions that do not lead to a showdown.

Putin would be ill-advised to use it on behalf of the Serbs. Even if Moscow says "nyet", the Kosovars will declare independence, and it will be recognized by almost every state in Europe, the US, and many of the Non-Aligned, particularly the Islamic states. So, because the Serb parties dare not recognize the reality on the ground in Kosovo for fear of a nationalist backlog, the Russian veto would be converted from a putative big stick to an actual limp wand. The Serbs would do both themselves and their chums in Moscow a big favour by taking advantage of the hint of a Russian veto to climb down as gracefully as possible, negotiating the best deal they can with Pristina before the inevitable happens.

That does not excuse Washington from action, even if, for once, and without a big domestic lobby for it, the US is doing the right thing over Kosovo. But there are ways to make it more palatable for Putin and the Russians. American diplomacy with Russia has been even more inept than in many other places. Surely, all it would take would be some discreet back channel talks to drop the ridiculous missile shield in eastern Europe, which is ineffective, offensive and clearly not directed against fissionable flying carpets or whatever is currently the best that Iran could throw in the direction of Europe.

Washington is being provocative and ideologically motivated in reviving the cold war in the missile case, and Moscow's atavistic attachment to Serb Orthodoxy is equally counterproductive. There is an obvious deal waiting to be made.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Bombs, Bombast and Balkans, not to mention Boutros!

seee my latest on bombs, bombast and the Balkans in Comment-is Free in the Guardian

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Backward Christian Soldiers, 1967 through the eyes of the defeated

Ten years ago I was in Cairo for the thirtieth anniversary of the 1967 war. Twenty years after Camp David, and several years into the Oslo process, the peace between Israel and Egypt was still chilly. If ordinary Egyptians did not want to make war on Israel, they were still far from wanting to make love. The mood has not changed that much.

Talking to General Talat Soliman Gallaby in 1997 gave some insight into past and future. was one of the first Egyptian officers to get the news of the scale of the Israeli victory in 1967. In Cairo, thirty years later, over a cup of coffee, he was happy to let met know how upset he still is. As a Lieutenant Colonel at a supply base at the gateway to Sinai, he met the first troops of the Egyptian Army as they fled from the Israelis. It was June 7, two days after the war started. “I was still listening to Radio Cairo, hearing about our great victories. I was very enthusiastic, and then these persons and officers came to me describing our defeat. I was very sorry for the weakness of our leaders,” he remembered lugubriously.

In retrospect, although vociferously unhappy about the results, he was not surprised at them. “I joined as an officer in King Farouk’s army - it was for parade grounds only, we were not trained to fight - unlike the Jews” he contrasted, “who the British trained to fight during the Second World War in Dashur, just outside Cairo.”

Afterwards, he said, Nasser neglected the army in favour of schools and industry, “so it was not trained well.” Its commander continued the old habits of nepotism that had made Farouk’s army such a joke. “They moved our officers around, shifted units about, we never got to train together,’ he explains. “And Nasser had one big fault. He was not a democrat. In a democracy, you can say ‘you are wrong!’”

The General was, on his own admission, “fat, and I have asthma.” But his winning smile and sense of humour could not disguise the firmness of his opposition to the peace talks with Israel, current and past. He was still serving in 1973 as well. “Ah! That was marvellous! We had good weapons and good training, and we made a victory! But then Sadat used it badly. I wasn’t pleased with anything he did. And most Egyptians think so as well. When Nasser died, there were huge crowds at his funeral. When Sadat was buried, they had just a few, and they had to bring them from outside, like Begin and Carter. Sadat’s friends were all foreigners.”

“Anwar Sadat was a traitor,” he declares roundly. “Nasser was a good man, whose good works all disappeared because he was a dictator. Sadat was a much weaker man who destroyed everything Nasser did. Three foreign ministers resigned rather than go to Jerusalem with him. Sadat spoke to Carter and Begin, but not to his own men!” He vigorously dismissed the return of territories negotiated at Camp David. “Yes, we have Sinai, but we have no troops there and the Israelis can take it back within an hour! All those millions of investment will be wasted!”

No one could accuse him of fundamentalism. He was Copt, who invoked scripture constantly, although in versions unlikely to be authorized by the Evangelical right in the USA. “No one can be rich without being a thief,” he declared, explaining his socialism, “Remember what Jesus said about a rich man going to heaven, like a camel through a small hole." Nor is his vigorous and militant version of Christianity the “turn the other cheek variety.” He sees Christ more as a proto-Palestinian prophet, declaiming, “Jesus said, Luke 22, sell your clothes and buy a sword.’”

Laughing, he summed up his forty- year military career, “I love war! War is the only solution, the way to peace, the only way to get your rights. Jesus said,' Love Justice.' Jesus does not want anything but for people to love each other.” Should that not mean he would support peace talks? He dismissed the idea firmly, “You don't talk to a serpent. You kill it!”

He had actually been on his way to Gaza when the war broke out. He had been there before. From 1954 to 1956, he was one of twenty Egyptian officers who trained Palestinian commando unit in raids across to their former homeland. “Nasser could not restrain them, so he wanted to integrate them into our forces. They were brave, firm for their rights.”

In fact, he recounted a story to show how brave and moral they were. He says that 1,700 of them, rather than be trapped and killed in Gaza, when the Israelis joined with British and French in the attack in 1956, set off to trek through Israel across the Negev and made it to Jordan several days later. "On the way," he reminisced, "we stopped and took food and water from an isolated house, and I asked whether they wanted to kill the family there. The volunteers all refused, and said we do not make war on women and children! They are good people the Palestinians!” he declared, shaking his head with admiring disbelief at their sentimentality

And the Israelis, he said, are bad people. “You cannot trust them.” Waving his arm to indicate the crowded Cairo streets, he declared, “Ask any of these people here. Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel, but he cannot make us love them.”

Naked Greed?

Why I wrote for Hustler

Pornographer Larry Flynt is offering $1m to anyone who can give his magazine a political sex scandal. So why would anyone want to associate with him?
Ian Williams

June 4, 2007 10:30 PM | Printable version

In a full-page ad in yesterday's Washington Post, Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt offered $1 million to anyone who could provide proof of an illicit sexual encounter with a high-ranking government official. Flynt's offer, which asked for "documented evidence" that could be verified and published in the magazine, has set off a new round of collective discomfort with the wheelchair-bound pornographer. Why would anyone want to associate with Flynt? And who would want to have his work appear in a magazine like Hustler?

Well, I would. He's certainly not hypocritical - unlike the politicians he's after. So when an old colleague who is now working there, Ed Rampell called with a commission a few months ago, I had no such high-minded scruples. The July issue of Flynt's raunchy magazine, usually found, if at all, prophylacticly sealed in plastic envelopes on the top shelf of newsvendors, carries my first contribution.

Based on my book "Deserter" about George Bush's Vietnam record, Ed thought I was the perfect person to write about current deserters from the Iraq War. I interviewed some who had gone to Canada, and some who had stayed to fight the legality of the war inside the United States.

One of the points that emerged was that there is an easy way out of the army, based on that typically convoluted Clintonesque compromise Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Basically, all a GIs has to do is tell their officers that they are gay, and request a discharge. Even allowing for those who wanted to take a personal stand against the war, the reluctance of many the current deserters to risk imprisonment or exile rather than the "Brokeback" option suggested a lot about the sexual hang-ups of many in this country.

I had no hang-ups about Hustler. It has twice the circulation of the Nation, the other most widely circulated leftist magazine and its key working class constituency includes many people serving in the military. Having scooped up the Liverpool Press Club Award for By-line Mania in 1984 for getting the centrefold of the Baptist Times, I thought that Hustler, following a Penthouse piece two years ago, was the apotheosis of the literary promiscuity that I like to advertise as "more columns than the Parthenon".

If I can appear on Fox, and cross swords with Bill O'Reilly, and argue with Bill Scarborough on MSNBC, then I really can see no problems with appearing in a magazine owned by Larry Flynt, with whose editorial line I totally agree. Professionally, I couldn't complain. They edited and fact-checked in meticulous detail.

Hustler even printed a picture of me, although I have far more clothes on than most others depicted in its pages and I am far less likely to get the readers' hormones running. In between the pictures, I must admit even when I agreed with what the editorials were saying, they were putting it more crudely than I would like. But then I often appear in publications whose other writers I totally disagree with. And then of course, there was the money shot: Flynt pays on time and reasonably.

Flynt has taken his fight for free speech for pornographers to a much wider range of issues, in particular by vigorously opposing the war in Iraq. An oblique testimony to American sexual repression, he sit in wheelchair (albeit in a gold-plated version) because he was shot by a white supremacist Christian for featuring interracial couples in his magazine. Ironically, this was during a brief period when he was a born again Christian himself, which did not stop him publishing the magazine, since, he said, he was hustling for Christ. Much of the circulation is in fact in the Bible Belt - that provides so many of the US's military.

He has recovered from the conversion if not from the attempted assassination and has been imprisoned harassed by the FBI and such paragons of virtue as Charles Keating, one of those convicted over the Savings and Loans scandal for which taxpayers are still paying. And I cannot help wondering how many of those who think that Flynt is a pariah who should be shunned are happy to be, or appear with, defenders or apologists for mass murderers like Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein.

Above all give me Flynt over still born-again Rupert Murdoch any day. News International's titillatory page three girls in the Sun, fact-checker free editorials and politically dictated news coverage supporting the obscenity of the war in Iraq, are far more distasteful than explicit photos of naked people voluntarily doing what comes naturally. If I have to choose, give me freely exposed genitalia to involuntary revealed exploded innards any day.

Naked Ambition

Currently up in the Guardian is my apologia - why Larry Flynt knocks moral spots off Rupert Murdoch.
check out "Why I Wrote for Hustler."

Sunday, June 03, 2007

UNcle Sam, the UN Deadbeat

Uncle Sam the UN deadbeat
How can the United Nations be expected to listen to the US when Congress reneges on every funding promise?

June 1, 2007 8:00 PM |
Congress won't pay the UN the money it promised - and wonders why the US loses influence abroad. And the presidential candidates are silent about it.

Between John Bolton and Iraq, it is not difficult to find reasons why America's diplomatic currency is plunging along with the dollar. But another reason has nothing to with the White House - but the congressional circus's latest performance.

At a time when the US is proposing and voting for UN peacekeeping operations on a huge scale, and when its new Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is trying to foist more responsibility for Iraq on the organisation, the US is running a tab of almost $1bn in arrears with the UN - and that will increase even more by the end of the year based on the latest amounts budgeted by Congress.

In effect, the Capitol Hill circus has ignored an intricate compromise crafted by the former US Ambassador, Richard Holbrooke, under which the other 190 members agreed to accept the unilateral congressional calculations, wink at a substantial amount of arrears, and to reduce the percentage paid by the US in future from 33% to 27%.

Ted Turner agreed to sweeten the deal for the General Assembly by paying off some of the US arrears himself, but the clincher was the now-broken promise from the US to pay off the arrears and to pay promptly in future.

But Congress ratted on the deal, and has maintained a 25% cap on contributions, even though the other members agreed to reduce the US assessment again from last year, to 26%, which is why the US is again running up massive arrears - massive that is to the UN.

In fact, the sum that Congress is sitting on is the equivalent of two days of Pentagon spending in Iraq and Afghanistan, and one-tenth of the amount of the UN oil-for-food surplus that the US took for reconstruction in Iraq and still cannot account for.

The US general accounting office studied UN peacekeeping and found it was one-eighth of the cost of using US forces - even if one discounts the Pentagon being otherwise engaged at the moment, surging and losing in Iraq. Partly at the urging of the same Congressional geniuses, the US has pushed the UN into a massive expansion of peacekeepers in Lebanon, and wants an even bigger expansion into Darfur, in addition to supporting new and renewed operations ranging from Haiti to East Timor.

For an interesting contrast in how American politicians look at foreign affairs, one only has to contrast the total agreement of almost every presidential question to contribute to the Jerusalem Post on their (favorable) attitude to Israel with their almost equally total silence on the United Nations on which any successful candidate will have to rely for dealing with foreign countries.

So far, Joe Biden is the honourable (in this instance, at least) exception, who has publicly called for the arrears to be paid. It makes diplomatic sense for a nation to honour its pledges, but sadly the other candidates do not think it makes political sense to talk about it. Presumably they assume that it will get them few extra votes, while getting the assorted America-firsters and Likudniks on their case.

Since the candidates now have half a year of trawling around pressing the flesh, perhaps some of the more far-sighted voters can put them on the spot. For more background on the questions they could ask, the Better World Foundation is attempting to stir up some interest. Perhaps voters could thank the UN for refusing to endorse the invasion of Iraq by telling their representatives to pay up.

Friday, June 01, 2007

UNcle Sam the UN deadbeat

My latest in the Guardian comment-is-free on the US arrears to the UN.

Clame to Fame

Coincidentally, my first piece for Hustler Magazine - a how to desert to Canada guide for GI's is on Larry Flynt's website - as well as the top shelves of your magazine seller where it includes a nonprovocative picture of yours truly!

Clame to fame

My May "Speculator" column in Investor Relations magazine May, 2007

As President Bush may notice, having a ‘W’ in your name is not always an advantage, finds Ian Williams

At school, the surname ‘Williams’ was an advantage because that initial ‘W’ put me right at the back of the class, away from teachers’ prying eyes. But an alphabetically ordered ballot paper puts me right at the bottom, so most voters only come across it when they have exhausted their votes higher up. After the one time I ran for public office – and lost – I swore that for any future attempt I would change my name to Aaron A Aardvark.

In the old days adulterous couples allegedly signed the hotel register as Mr and Mrs John Smith, to the embarrassment of the occasionally real John Smith who booked in on more legitimate business. My name is getting like that: Ian and Williams are two of the most common names in the English-speaking world, and whole new generations of them are entering the electronically tangible workforce every day.

Google’s half a million or so hits on ‘Ian Williams’ include a film director, a blogger, a Florida football player, a champion British sailor, a racehorse trainer, a rock guitarist, a writer for electronics trade magazines, a risqué film director, a detective, a Welsh rugby player, and so on.

I have one namesake who comes from my hometown and is now in Asia working for Nbc, and I get strange looks sometimes when I pop up at venues where people have just heard my namesake live in Tehran on their TV screen.

It does not help that, in my promiscuous productivity, quite a lot of these Ian Williams are actually me in varying byline avatars, from the Baptist Times to Hustler – and IR magazine, of course.

Debt collection agencies keep making threatening phone calls aimed at yet another Ian Williams, who has at some point lived somewhere near me in mid-town Manhattan and who has skipped on several credit cards.

I am still wrestling with the problem of how to preserve whatever professional equity I have in my name. If a well-known cholesterol vendor can trademark the name of a Scottish clan, why can’t I? After all, three out of the top four hits on Google are me. Another Ian Williams journalist broke the strike at the Murdoch presses in London many years ago and people suggested I change my name when the UK journalists’ union fined him £1,000 ($1,973). But I felt that if he had brought our name into disrepute, he should adopt a new one, not me.

As prolific Williams parents all over the world call their sons Ian, the consolation is that I am beginning to feel a quasi-familial relationship with this growing family, united only by having a Scottish first name attached to a surname with a vestigial connection to North Wales. In fact, I propose to call it a ‘clame’, a group united only by having a cloned name.

In an atomized world where blood family relations get more and more stretched, there is a certain comfort in watching the varied progress of members of my clame – none of whom has any claim on me. Except my second son, who we named...Ian. He will have to start with a pen name.