Thursday, August 30, 2007

Fangs & frivolity

My "Speculator" column in the July 2007 Investor Relations MagazineFangs & frivolity

Ian Williams wants to see richer shareholders, smarter management – and poorer lawyers

When politicians on Capitol Hill try to put limits on tort litigation, it's a reasonably safe assumption that lobbyists are paying them on behalf of companies seeking impunity to put asbestos in lungs, lead in children and poisons in petrol – or at least to get a free pass for doing so in the past.

But while companies should pay compensation to those who have suffered from their actions, there is one exception where the anti-tort lobbyists are halfjustified: shareholder suits.

Fangs and frivolity Shareholder suits are perplexing. A corporation is a body with rights and responsibilities, just as if it were a human. At the same time, shareholders own the company. In fact, together they are the company, so a shareholder suing a company is, on the face of it, like a vampire bleeding his own blood into a glass and drinking it. It may offer temporary satisfaction but it is unlikely to add much to the food pyramid for the fanged feeder.

However, there is one class of beneficiary that is more like a creature of the night: the lawyers who initiate, negotiate and bleed dry shareholder suit settlements. Of course, some corporate executives have been regularly ripping off shareholders and other stakeholders like employees and pensioners, so it would make sense if shareholder suits were not against the corporation but against the management as individuals.

On the other hand, employees of a company, including management, are entitled to protection against frivolous litigation for actions they carried out for the benefit of their company – insofar as their actions were within the law. If a CEO is charged with the murder of a business rival, we would not, in general, expect directors and officers insurance to cover the costs of his or her defense, except in the unlikely event that a board decision authorized the whacking.

There are several ways to tackle this: one is to give juries the power to order the costs of both parties to be paid by frivolous litigants and their lawyers. The other would be to legislate that no company should pay, either directly or indirectly through insurance, for the legal defense of management teams that did not meet certain corporate governance criteria that demonstrate they were acting on behalf of the company.

Even though I suspect this may not play well in Delaware, it would be conducive to putting some truth in the legal fiction that a public company is a joint enterprise of its shareholders rather than a management-dominated Ponzi scheme while reducing frivolous shareholder litigation. If individual managers make decisions that tortuously steal from shareholders, they should pay the price – by being both forced out and made to pay back their own gains.

Finally, there is the Gordian knot solution: remove the conflict of interest from senior executives by removing their incentive to manipulate stock values and financial reporting. Pay them a salary – and nothing else.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Come back Karl Rove, all is forgiven: FULL TEXT

Come back Karl Rove, all is forgiven
Without Bush's Brain in the White House, the wheels are starting to fall off. Just look at the president's last speech.

Ian Williamss
August 23, 2007 9:00 PM |
There can have been few speeches more laughable than George Bush's latest. Referring to books he has surely never read, laden with specious historical parallels guaranteed to turn round and bite him in the bum, it is one long "speechwriter wanted at the White House" ad.

But bad speechwriting notwithstanding, didn't the president remember that Karl Rove's parting words were almost certainly "Don't mention Vietnam"? The parallels are obvious: a prolonged war started on false pretences in which untold thousands on both sides die and the US is eventually driven out anyway.

Quite apart from the historical echoes - the Tonkin Gulf Incident and the invented weapons of mass destruction - it has to be a definition of chutzpah for George Bush, of all people, to turn up at all at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention. But to invoke Vietnam really takes the prize.

This was, after all, the war that he made his very own by spending five years actively avoiding participation. While his father left school immediately to fly in combat in world war two, as Vietnam heated up George W flew - to Texas, to join the Texas Air National Guard, a nepotistic boondoggle. Even that eventually proved too much for him - so he deserted. This was not a war he disagreed with. On the contrary, he took time off from his arduous and perilous National Guard service to campaign for politicians who wanted the war to continue.

And now he has the absolute gall to say that more Americans, more Cambodians, more Laotians, more Vietnamese should have died, and the war that he was dodging should have been continued.

He is, of course, quite right about the totalitarian nature of the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge. But that leaves out a few details. That would of course be the Khmer Rouge whose accession to power was made possible by the American bombing of neutral Cambodia that led to the overthrow of the Sihanouk regime. It would also be the Khmer Rouge regime that was allowed to keep its UN seat even after it had been driven into the jungle - because Britain, China and the US insisted that it was the legitimate government.

The Vietnamese government is the one that is now hosting American trade delegations on a daily basis, and allowing American teams to search for US war dead.
In his speech, Bush laughably cited Graham Green's "Quiet American" as typical of the Leftist thinking that led to the defeat in Vietnam. Anyone want a bet on whether he has ever read the book? We do know he is unlikely to have seen the very good film version with Michael Caine, because Hollywood, following 9/11, refused to give it commercial showing. The idea that Americans could arrange bombings was too sensitive, and may have interrupted the process of demonization that Bush and Cheney were fomenting.

Bush also invoked Pearl Harbour and the fight against the Japanese empire as the equivalent of fighting back against Al Qaeda after 9/11. But attacking Iraq was the equivalent of invading Argentina after Pearl Harbour while giving Japan a free pass.

Bush withdrew forces from Afghanistan to attack Iraq - which is why the turbaned poster boy is still free. Last year the president told the same convention: "Victory will come when Iraq is not a safe haven for terrorists to plot new attacks on our nation". This year he told the veterans: "The terrorists have made it clear that Iraq is the central front in their war against humanity. And so we must recognize Iraq as the central front in the war against the terrorists".

As chicken and eggs go, this is the big one. Saddam's Iraq was totalitarian, vicious, and belligerent, but it had nothing to do with al-Qaida. "Victory" was in our hands because Iraq, for all its faults, was al-Qaeda free before 2003. It was the invasion that wrested "victory" from our hands.

And while George Bush was only marginally responsible for inciting war in Vietnam and dodging it, in Iraq the buck stops on his desk for yet another pointless conflict heading for failure. And he stands to be condemned for his inane speeches. Karl Rove has indeed left with the president's brain.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Bush's Brain on the lam

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Beware the killer robots

Beware the killer robots
The use of robot soldiers may appeal to the Pentagon. They should not to anyone else.

Ian Williams
check out the Guardian site to see the robotic responses from American nationalists!

August 21, 2007 2:30 PM
The headlines said that the US was moving towards building robot soldiers. My first thought was this was not such a bad idea. Robots could be programmed to refuse to obey illegal orders, ranging from illegal invasions of other countries to violations of the Geneva Conventions.

They would carry out their duties without prejudice and would not get stressed out at being under attack and unleash a torrent of fire against any passing civilians. They could not really take much pleasure in humiliating the "enemy," and so would avoid having them posing for sexually humiliating photographs.

If programmed properly, they would not be worried about their career prospects if they refused orders to torture or even take part in "robust" interrogations of prisoners. Free of sexual hang-ups, they would not feel the need to rape or kill the "enemy" civilians. Their database of knowledge would, one hopes, avoid the Murdoch press and so they would not need to exorcise the rancour of blaming whoever the enemy du jour is for September 11.

On the other hand, computer recognition skills being what they are, could you trust a robot to tell the difference between a passing a civilian and enemy combatant, when the Pentagon has so much difficulty itself? Wouldn't the people who wrote programs be drafted in from GOP donor electronic voting machine makers? There might a risk of mis-programed robots gunning down registered Democrats among the GI's.

The robots would also need a regular memory dump so they do not get confused when yesterday's ally suddenly becomes today's hub of the Axis of Evil.

Indeed, if Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had a hand in writing the military code into the program, a prohibition against torture would probably invoke a contradictory subroutine to fill the bathtub and bring out the water-board! He certainly would not be keying in Asimov's laws of robotics any more than an evangelist military chaplain would tell his flock about turning the other cheek.

In fact, apart from the science-fictional frisson that the headlines invoked, the machines under development are not real robots, but remotely controlled death starlets. That raises other worries. One might think that the absence of existential threat to the operator would give the opportunity for calm and reasoned reactions. Unless, that is, you had seen video game fans at work, and then you consider the effects of physical impunity on an enthusiastic late adolescent operator.

Many veterans report how difficult it is for most soldiers to actually kill an enemy, moving and breathing in front of them. It is part of our essential humanity. But if instead of a live human, all you see is an image in a screen, then the daily holocaust of the videogames suggests it is very easy to overcome those human scruples. The landmine is in fact an elementary robot soldier, killing to a simple program, which almost invariable fails to distinguish between combatant and civilian, enemy and friend. If soldiers kills a civilian, they may get tried. When has a soldier ever been prosecuted for planting a mine after it has disemboweled a child, or seeding an area with cluster bombs?

In the end, one almost has to agree that the NRA has a (strictly limited) point. Robots will not kill people any more than guns do. Those who operate and program them are responsible for their outcomes. The danger is, of course, that the more distance between the commander and the outcome, the less chance there is of retribution and justice, as the White House team responsible for the sorry debacle in Iraq can testify. Guns and lethal robots alike need controlling carefully.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

beware the killer robots

see the latest in Guardian Comment is Free

Monday, August 20, 2007

Padilla: Whose justice? Which rationality? full text

Whose justice? Which rationality?
The suspect conviction of Jose Padilla is a symbol of the straw-clutching weakness and cynical hysteria-mongering of the Bush administration.
guardian comment is free

Ian Williams

August 17, 2007 8:30 PM | Printable version
Jose Padilla is no hero. He chose to associate himself with an organization whose methods and aims violated international law and the domestic laws of most countries. But just as in cases where police failed to give arrestees their rights, Padilla should have been allowed to go free after the illegal, constitution-breaking and mentally murderous routine that the US government put him through. The jury missed the chance to send a message to the administration that there is a penalty for depriving citizens of their rights.

Additionally, while editorialists intone solemnly that the court and the jury sent a message to the administration that they did not need to break the constitution to secure a conviction, no one should be happy at the looseness of conspiracy charges.

The jury found Padilla and his two co-convicts, who seem to have had precious little contact with him, guilty of conspiracy to "murder, kidnap and maim individuals in a foreign country, conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists, and providing material support to terrorists." "Terrorism," is not really a legal construct. It is a cynical attempt to raise public hysteria. Murder or attempted murder charges are quite adequate - but they could not find a single case that the indicted were directly involved in.

The US government did not produce a single charge against him to substantiate the years of publicity about his alleged "dirty bomb" plot. Padilla's defence attorneys, already hampered because years of unconstitutional solitary confinement and illegal abuse had made their client, clearly not the full shilling before these events, mentally unfit to plead, could not address these unspoken but omnipresent charges. His application for al-Qaida training was enough to find him guilty by association of everything any other member of the organization ever did.

This application of "six degrees of separation" is dangerous and could easily implicate Kevin Bacon (despite his distinctly non-halal name). To put it in perspective, there should have been many more in that dock. Padilla was training with al-Qaida, which allied to the Taliban, who were financed, armed and supported by the Pakistani intelligence services, which was backed in its work by the CIA, and thus, one may presume, successive presidents.

One can hardly blame the jury. It would have taken very strong-minded individuals to have overcome the social pressures that have put Muslims and Arabs, even US citizens, in a free fire zone. The year after 9/11, at Newark Airport I watched a dapper elderly middle-aged man in a blazer and tie being led away by Immigration while his white American wife ran after him shouting: "What's up Mohamed?" In Padilla's case, it was not just generic, but particular accusations that flooded the airwaves, but were never tested in the court.

Even so, juries across the states have cavilled at such prejudiced charges, only to find the administration invents new charges to justify their persecution of the new pariahs. Nor is this just an American trait: one only has to think of the innocent men who spent decades in prison on trumped charges of IRA terrorism in Britain.

Which really brings us back to the ghost at the feast in the trial? Where is Osama Bin Laden? The US government went into Afghanistan to get him, against the background of millions of "Most Wanted" fliers for the turbaned poster boy. And then it took its troops out to concentrate on Iraq, having somehow given 70% of Americans the impression that Saddam Hussein was behind Bin Laden and 9/11.

Thousands of dead Americans and many more Iraqis later, an embarrassed White House hardly mentions Osama Bin Laden anymore and instead glories in a politically expedient Auto de Fe against Padilla that the Inquisition would have disowned.

Bin Laden is a fugitive from justice, Padilla has not seem much justice at all. And the Bush administration sadly seems to face no prospect of it at all.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

My country 'tis of thee ... and thee and thee: full text

My country 'tis of thee ... and thee and thee

Multiple passports may be the answer to many of fissions and frictions of the new world order, even if bureaucrats and ID card pedlars may hate them.
Ian Williams

August 15, 2007 6:30 PM | Guardian Comment is Free

Alexander Alexandrovich Volkov is an unsung hero of the new world of cosmopolitan citizenship.

In 1991 Volkov launched intrepidly into space as a patriotic Soviet air force colonel and cosmonaut, and spent half a year in the Soviet space station. While he was orbiting, the Soviet Union fell apart and by the time the comrades on the ground started calling each other "mister" and eventually remembered to bring him down, Boris Yeltsin had been vivisecting his citizenship. By birth he had become Ukrainian citizen, on a Russian vessel, landing in Kazakhstan.

Totalitarian countries have no ambiguities about citizenship - they demand total loyalty to one state, which their rulers take to represent the country. EM Forster introduced a humanistic ambiguity declaring, "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."

One hopes that he chose his friends wisely. But no real patriot, except one who was living down to Dr Samuel Johnson's definition of patriotism as the "Last refuge of the Scoundrel," ever truly believed "My country right or wrong." As GK Chesterton, who was himself fond of his motherland to excess, said, it "is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying 'My mother, drunk or sober.'"

Surely the model should be Willy Brandt, a true patriot, who donned a Norwegian uniform against his "own" state when it betrayed him, humanity and its own citizens and invaded the country that had given him refuge?

However Brandt has his mind made up for him. The Nazis stripped him of citizenship. For most of us, however, citizenship is uncomplicated. We are born with it, or we acquire it when we move elsewhere. For millions of people in over 70 countries, the state does not care if someone who picks up a new passport retains a previous one. But far too many insist on a monopoly of loyalty.

In fact, the US used to require anyone who took an American passport to renounce their previous one and it still says so in the naturalization oath. Indeed, as I remember, an old friend Bill Ash, a prematurely anti-Nazi Texan, lost his US passport for flying Spitfires during the Battle of Britain.

The law never changed, but the practice did in the sixties, largely with the discovery that there were many Americans in Israel who wanted to have their rugelach and eat it. As a result the State Department now operates on the administrative premise that "U.S. citizens intend to retain United States citizenship when they obtain naturalization in a foreign state, subscribe to routine declarations of allegiance to a foreign state, or accept non-policy level employment with a foreign government."

Although one cannot help thinking that US citizenship is not what is was since the White House stripped Jose Padilla of its protections, many millions of Americans who hold multiple passports would make it very difficult to enforce the law as written. In fact the biggest threat is the xenophobic reaction of some Americans to Mexico allowing dual nationality. People who see no threat at millions of Cubans, Poles, Israelis, Irish, and even British like myself holding dual nationality now wake up sweating at night at the thought that their gardeners and housecleaners may vote.

Whatever the reasons, the US has effectively joined the countries that show an urbane insouciance about multiple passport holders. But while most of these are people who have moved their homes, dual nationality could be a major stabilizing influence in areas not traditionally associated with either urbanity or insouciance. Across the world are millions of people like Alexander Volkov, who did not change their country but had their country changed for them. Unlike the orbiting cosmopolitan Volkov, these stationary tourists have stayed in the same place as their country changed around them.

It would be nice to think that minorities stranded in a country could live there safely. As the old Balkan saying has it: "Why should I be a minority in your country, when you can be a minority in mine?" Sensibly, many of these people vote preemptively with their feet, and "return" to whatever they think their safest homeland may be even if they never lived there. Their movement led to social distress, skill shortages, economic disruption and contributed to nationalist backlashes.

In the former Yugoslavia, the former Soviet Union, and even the velvetly divorced former Czechoslovakia, if citizens had been able to keep the option of dual nationality, they would be less fearful about the future: enough so to stay wherever they were confident they had a bolthole if things got tough. In Kosovo, if the Kosovar Serbs were assured that they could also hold Serbian passports, it could help persuade them to risk staying in and independent state.

Restrictions on passports are counterproductive, and to some extent a violation of human rights. And while contributing to global citizenship, as Willy Brandt proved, a new passport does not sever obligations but rather adds to existing ones. Dual nationalities should be encouraged, not prohibited.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Monday, August 13, 2007

Bush's Miami Vice - full text

Bush's Miami vice

Cuban emigrants tend to hate Castro less than they once did. Maybe that's why they now seem less welcome in the US.
Ian Williams

Guardian Comment is Free
August 12, 2007 12:00 PM

The only certain thing about the mysterious hold-ups on Cuban visas is that Washington is lying. Are the new Cubans voting the wrong way? Since 1994, the US has issued 20,000 visas a year to Cubans in return for Havana's promises to try to stop Cubans swimming, rafting or boating their way across to Florida. Some recent surveys suggest these new immigrants, who have left with the cooperation of Castro's government and are more racially and socially diverse, are less likely to vote Republican and less likely to support the embargo against the Cuban government. Looking at the knife-edge, by-chad-or-by-crook elections in Florida, this could actually make a difference.

Dagoberto Rodríiguez, head of the Cuban interests section in Washington, went public on Wednesday with Cuban complaints about the Bush administration's slowdown of immigration visas at the Havana US interests department. It seems the Americans have issued only half of the 20,000 visas they promised to Cuba in 1994.

Another explanation, which does not necessarily preclude the first, is that Cuban exile hardliners in Florida and Washington think closing off the escape valve of emigration to the US will build up pressure for regime change inside Cuba. While cutting visas in Havana, the Bush administration has allowed fast-track immigration procedures for Cuban doctors sent to places such as Venezuela, presumably hoping to undercut Havana's flagship internationalist programme.

Of course, there is more than the usual whiff of hypocrisy about the whole thing. Castro's fatal mistake was to adopt East German, Stasi-style emigration procedures and to denounce those who did succeed in leaving as "gusanos" - worms. In fact, the whole Caribbean has been busily emigrating to the north for some centuries, and if Castro had been more laidback, all those emigrants would have been repatriating money, buying retirement homes and holidaying back in the fatherland.

Actually, not that many Cubans have left. The last US census figures show 870,000 Cuban-born residents in the country, which is less than a 12th of the population remaining in Cuba. In comparison, the far more prosperous Barbados (which has a developed-country economy and a health service!) has 52,000 immigrants in the US, which is almost a fifth of its stay-at-home population; Jamaica has about the same proportion - and these Caribbean island diasporas are patriotic supporters of their homelands.

If anything, it is surprising that so few came to the US, bearing in mind that, because of the strength of the anti-Castro crowd, the US guaranteed a green card to any Cuban. That policy fell apart in the early nineties, when an embarrassed Clinton had to explain why any of the (predominately white) Cubans who landed in Florida stepped on to a red carpet while black Haitians fleeing a CIA-inspired military regime were promptly deported.

That was the genesis of the 20,000 Cuban quota in return for Cuban connivance at holding back would-be emigrants, even if it made the US administration effective accomplices in a practice it had hitherto ferociously condemned. The US was supposed to send back any Cubans landing without papers, but in a typically Clintonian compromise it decided on the wet foot/dry foot policy: the US Coast Guard would turn back any caught at sea but the Immigration and Naturalisation Service would welcome any who actually made it to whatever passes for dry land in Florida.

The State Department's official response to the Cuban charges is so risible that it invites assumptions of nefarious politicking - and not just because this is, after all, an administration with something of a track record on the big fib front. It claims the hold-up is because the Cubans have stopped personnel and supplies getting to the US interests section in Havana. As Wayne Smith, a former State Department official and Cuba-watcher, chuckles: "I've not seen any signs of American staff denied entry, and as for allowing materials, the visa stamps and the forms are all there. The Cubans have the right of it on this."

The State Department quite rightly said Castro's government should allow freedom to travel, but that is more than a little hypocritical if the US does not give them visas. Once again, the US makes Castro look good.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Bush's Miami Vice

Bush's Miami Vice In the Guardian on the mysterious, and presumably malicious, State Department policy on Cuban visas.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

China Syndrome - full text

The China syndrome

In reality, UN resolutions seem to mean just what Beijing wants, neither more nor less.
Ian Williams

Guardian - Comment is Free
August 8, 2007 6:00 PM | Printable version

On July 19, the UN ambassadors of Swaziland and the Solomon Islands took a letter from President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan asking for admission to the United Nations - under the name of Taiwan, not the traditional designation that the deceased president, Chiang Kai-shek, had lumbered the island with, the Republic of China. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon refused to accept the letter.

George Orwell would love the excuses. The spokeswoman for the secretary general of the UN said, "It's really up to the Member States of this Organization to decide on the future course of how it deals with new membership". This did not really explain why he would not put the letter before the members of the general assembly.

The UN claims that resolution 2758 which seated the People's Republic of China in 1971, precludes Taiwan's membership. This is highly arguable.

It quite rightly said that the PRC delegates were the "only lawful representatives" of China to the UN, and decided to "expel forthwith the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek".

But how much has changed since 1971! Firstly, the "representatives of Chiang Kai-shek" lost in democratic elections, and the elected government of Taipei has no pretence whatsoever to represent the Chinese mainland. Ironically Chiang's delegation only used their veto in the security council once - against the admission of Mongolia, which they considered as integral a part of the "one China" as the PRC now considers Taiwan!

With equal irony, the first veto from the PRC's delegation was against the membership of Bangladesh. What was then Peking saw no reason why the genocidal behaviour by Pakistan's generals against the citizenry of what was then East Pakistan in any way affected the "one Pakistan policy". Both Taiwan and the PRC have seen the light since. Taiwan no longer claims the mainland, let alone Mongolia, and Beijing and Bangladesh are quite prepared to maintain what have now become "traditional", friendly relations.

The UN bureaucracy's hypocritical response is an assault upon the principles of the UN charter. Resolution 2758 does not say what the Chinese say it does, and even if it did, it is like any other resolution, always open to question, amendment and rescission. It was the laws of the Medes and Persians that could not be rescinded, not UN resolutions. Indeed, to cover Israel's defiance of so many of them, the US now claims that general assembly resolutions are not binding!

None of the security council members such as the US have protested at this arbitrary withdrawal of the prerogative of members to put items on the agenda or to discuss previous resolutions.

As always there is a certain lack of consistency. No one said, for example, that the zionism is racism resolution of 1975 could not be rescinded, certainly not the US, which successfully moved to do just that in possibly the shortest ever resolutions. "The General Assembly decides to revoke the determination contained in its resolution 3379 (XXX) of 10 November 1975".

But then neither has any state complained that the UN's department of public information bans reporters from Taiwan on the totally spurious grounds that only reporters with a UN member state passport can attend, as the CPJ has so eloquently complained. Once again, the UN inappropriately cites that Swiss army knife of a resolution, 2758, which seems have a tool to extricate bureaucrats and diplomats from dragons' claws. So Taiwanese passport-holders and journalists can go to China - but not to the UN! One only hopes that the last few microstates, like Niue or the Cook Islands, can rustle up a correspondent to test the integrity of the UN's rules.

Indeed it will be interesting to see what happens to Kosovan media when the US recognises Kosovo's independence, and the Russians veto its UN membership.

The reflexive deference to China is bad for the US, the UN and the world. Beijing always comes back for more. In contrast, when China has threatened to veto UN operations in Haiti because of the Haitian recognition of Taiwan, the Latin American and Caribbean states have called its bluff and made it plain that that China would lose friends. It backed down.

Beijing is entitled to use its considerable influence on the floor of the general assembly. For the foreseeable future it will probably succeed in keeping 23 million people and one of the world's most advanced economies in a state of multilateral limbo. But for the UN secretariat to connive at stifling the debate is a threat to the principles of the organisation, just as its treatment of Taiwanese journalists makes a mockery of its annual celebration of World Press Freedom day. To be fair, Ban Ki-moon is only following in the footsteps that his predecessors should have shamefully concealed. One wishes he had the courage to blaze a new trail.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Rum and Pirates at Old Baldy, NC

For those bored with politics, I went to North Carolina at the weekend to speak about the history of rum. The occasion was fund raiser for one of the US's oldest lighthouses, Old Baldy, which used to warn shipping away from the treacherous shoals of Cape Fear.

The organizers had tied the event in with Pirates, and a properly villainous bunch of them milled round the site, firing off black powder muskets. It was a highly appropriate venue all around. Firstly, the coast was indeed the haunt of real pirates, like Blackbeard, and the island was site of British fortresses and Revolutionary attacks during the War of 1776, during which readers of Rum: A Social and Sociable History will remember, rum was one of the causes and one of the major weapons of war.

It was also the site of a Confederate fortress, and USN blockade ships shipwrecks. The Union Navy had gone prohibitionist and abolitionist at that point, stopping the grog rations for the ratings.

North Carolina is still hungover from Prohibition. In a country where George W. Bush and Rudolf Giuliani can sneer about socialized medicine, North Carolina has socialized state owned liquor distribution. It has a limited list, and any North Carolinian of more refined tastes can indeed special order of the better stuff – but only by the case, which seems a little counterintuitive if the purpose of this exercise is to cut back drinking.

The dinner and rum tasting event in the evening at the Bald Head Island Club was highly successful and if they were at all like me, all the participants felt a lot a better than they deserved the follow morning.

The organizers and the Alcohol Board of Control of North Carolina pulled together these brands, which were consumed in statistically significant samples, with the remnants from the cases being auctioned off to enthusiastic bidders after enthusiastic toasters raised their tots to "The Global Spirit with its warm beating heart in the Caribbean," and "Every tot downed helps Third World Development."

Appleton Estate 21 yr, Jamaica
Rhum Barbancourt 15 yr Estate Reserve, Haiti
Flor De Cana Centenario 12 yr, Nicaragua
Pyrat XO Reserve, Anguilla
1 Barrel Rum, Belize
Angostura 1919, Trinidad & Tobago
Pusser's British Navy Rum, Tortola (and Trinidad).

The China Syndrome

Latest on Taiwan UN bid and the Swiss Army Knife resolution that gets diplomats and bureaucrats out of the Dragon's claws, Comment is Free

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Whose dime is Blair travelling on?

Whose dime is Blair travelling on?

The former PM's new role raises questions of mandate and accountability, not to mention who's footing the bill for his Middle East adventure.
Ian Williams

August 2,

When Tony Blair was appointed as the Quartet representative, it was at the behest of the Bush administration. And for once, the White House seems to be putting its money where its mouth was.

British and UN sources confrimed to Al-Jazeera International last week that the US state department is picking up Tony Blair's tab while they work with their reluctant partners in the Quartet to set up a trust fund. Russian sources, who were not that keen on his appointment anyway, have said that they would be prepared to see Blair get international civil servant (tax free status) but would be reluctant to go further in the way of contributing.

The subject has upset even senior British Foreign Office officials, concerned not only at Blair's lack of a substantial enough role for an ex-prime minister, but also with the contradictions inherent in his in effect being on the American payroll immediately after his retirement, which was after all accelerated by public displeasure at his being so close to the Bush administration while in office.

The question of who pays for him and his office, and on what basis he is employed, had been getting the runaround. There is the soapy smell of money laundering here, with frantic attempts to disguise the source.

By Friday, the state department was declaring that "neither the US government nor the Quartet pays a salary to Quartet representative Tony Blair. We are working out the details of funding and support with our Quartet partners for Blair's staff as well as the costs associated with their mission. We expect staff will be seconded by other governments of the Quartet, including the US".

The UN spokeswoman said "there are discussions still taking place", and in remarkable harmony, his own office said on Thursday that "these issues are still being discussed. Our focus has been on Tony Blair's trips and getting the office up and running September". So is Blair paying for his office, his staff and his travel costs to the region on his own credit card while waiting for cash? One doubts it.

His spokesman's email address is, which is not as surprising as it may seem. The Quartet is an ad hoc partnership between Europe, the UN, Russia and the US, which has no institutional existence, no office, no rules of procedure and no organisation. There is a lot of mystery about what the Quartet does, and even more about what Tony Blair's part in it is.

Condoleezza Rice and the Americans have been very explicit about what his part is not. He cannot engage in any serious attempts at peacemaking between the Israelis and the Palestinians. His job is to help build Palestinian Institutions, but he is not to talk to Hamas, which actually won the elections and controls the Gaza Strip. That may be just as well since between Iraq and his refusal to call for a ceasefire in Lebanon last year, there is no guarantee that Hamas would talk to him.

Indeed, the presence of Blair as an official Quartet representative, refusing to talk to Hamas, reinforces the recent conclusion, leaked to the Guardian from Alavaro de Soto, the UN's previous special representative, that the Quartet is simply a means of binding the other parties to an American, and hence Israeli, agenda.

It is not Russian policy and certainly has not been voted upon by any UN decision-making body, to boycott the victors of the last Palestinian Authority elections. But here we have a former British prime minister, on the American payroll, doing just that in the name of the Quartet. It is not surprising that there is a degree of caginess on the part of the various parties. It is surprising that Tony Blair could not wait to start until some more acceptable and transparent payment had been worked out - and perhaps even more so that he would take the job without a more substantial role allotted to him.

And to highlight his peripheral status, Gordon Brown has approached former Robin Cook aide Michael Williams, freshly appointed to be Middle East rep at the UN to represent Britain in the peace process. Which reinforces the question. Who does Blair represent?