Friday, December 26, 2008

Backstabbing for Beginners

Ian Williams: Untangling the Oil for Food Knot

December 26th, 2008 Posted in Books, Iraq, UN |

Ian Williams

Michael Soussan’s Backstabbing for Beginners: My Crash Course in International Diplomacy (Nation Books, 2008) is a compelling, fascinating, and humorous account of his years working with the UN’s Oil for Food program. This by no means a definitive account of the program, but rather a personal and highly impressionist view from an insider. But his impressions have the ring of truth for anyone who has observed the UN at close range and even more so for anyone who knows the characters with whom he worked. As a writer, he was blessed, since the Oil for Food program was short on gray bureaucrats and big on distinctively eccentric characters.

In fact, he does not appear to realize just how much the pugnacity and stubborn-ness of his boss, “Pasha” Benon Sevan, may have been critical in getting the program up and running. If he had played by the bureaucratic rules, Iraqis would have been waiting for their rations while memos piled up on desks across the Secretariat.

But eccentricity has its limits. There are echoes of Catch 22 in Soussan’s narrative, not least of which is a female ex-PFC Wintergreen, “Cindy,” the administrative assistant, whose attempt to secure promotion and recognition included fighting a war of bureaucratic attrition that at times almost brought the program (that was feeding the bulk of the Iraqi population) to a halt.

Inexperienced and idealistic, Soussan soon realized that had joined “an organization riddled with internal turf wars, petty office politics, dramatic personal rivalries, and in our case, a shameless competition for control over more money than the UN system had ever seen.”

Outraged by the general insouciance to Saddam’s schemes to bypass the sanctions, Soussan was one of the first to testify about the program in Washington, which did not endear him to his former colleagues. Conservatives used the allegations to attack and weaken Kofi Annan and the UN, at a time when the secretary-general was engaged in navigating through important global initiatives such as the “Responsibility to Protect” and the Millennium Development Goals. Indeed, to this date, there have been more congressional committees investigating Oil-for-Food than looking into the Sub-Prime meltdown, which indicates some distorted priorities.

Soussan broke UN rules by going before a Congressional committee, in doing so compromising the organization’s nominal independence. However, while it is true that Congress had been trying to micro-manage and control the UN for decades, it does not mitigate the fact that Soussan was seething with indignation at the absence of any other redress or forum to redress the wrongs he saw.

As Soussan puts it, “This was a whodunit in which most parties involved had ‘Done it.’ A truly multilateral heist. The entire international community had been involved in the fleecing of Iraq.” Escaping unscarred, however, were the swathes of the Russian and French politicians who took Saddam’s dinar, and U.S. occupation authorities who took some $12 billion of Oil for Food surpluses and spent it without any accounting.

In the end, the only way London and Washington could stop the sanctions wall crumbling entirely was by arranging the Oil for Food program. Soussan clearly outlines its contradictions. The UN had to supervise the entire foreign trade of large oil-producing economy with long and porous borders. At the same time, it had to treat Iraq as a sovereign member state. Its inspectors were accompanied everywhere by operatives of one the most savage and clumsy secret services in the world. Locally hired Iraqi spies ran the UN office and, most critically, as Soussan points out, the mailroom through which all the faxes and other transmissions passed.

Few UN officials in Iraq believed that maintaining punitive sanctions were any part of their mission, not least when they saw London and Washington condoning massive oil smuggling to Jordan and Turkey. And in New York, American diplomats, assisted by Brits, creatively but forcibly interpreted the resolutions and rules for senior staff.

The Oil for Food program staff who actually wanted to feed the people were caught between hostility from Washington to allowing more imports, and the Saddam’s lack of interest in whether his people were fed or not. If UN staff reported the widespread Iraqi evasions, Britain and the United States might have used it to limit the program, and the act of reporting would likely have provoked Iraq into terminating the program by expelling UN staff.

The Volcker Inquiry into the scandal spent $30 million of the surplus itself—and ended up with the dampest squib of a conclusion ever, claiming that Benon “Pasha” Sevan, Soussan’s boss and head of the program, could not explain $160,000 cash transfers over five years, alleging that it must have been kickbacks. Although Sevan admits (and Soussan affirms) that he did indeed suggest recipients for the famous oil vouchers, Volcker’s evidence for actual kickbacks is very circumstantial, and one has to doubt whether the circumstantial evidence would convince a jury outside New York. Sevan was the sole UN person actually fingered by the inquiry. Indeed, it highlights the ridiculousness of the “UN” part of the scandal—a paltry sum set against the untold billions siphoned off by non-UN governments, companies, and individuals.

In fact, the program kept the Iraqis fed—admittedly to a miserable extent, but much less so than if the full sanctions had been maintained. And, as it turned out, sanctions worked. Saddam Hussein abandoned his weapons of mass destruction programs, as the Bush administration belatedly discovered after it invaded.

Soussan seem not to have realized just how much of an explicit anti-UN agenda many of the American media and politicians had—particularly after the majority of UN member states failed to support the invasion. He claims that the Volcker Inquiry and the resulting furor provoked “the most meaningful push for reforms since the UN’s creation.” Sadly, it did no such thing. When nations like the United States want to “reform” the UN, all too often they mean they want to shape it to their own ends, no more, no less.

Which is sad, because Soussan’s amusing and eminently readable book shows that reform is necessary, much of which would entail stopping great power interference in the day-to-day running of the organization and clearing out some of the bureaucratic dead wood.

Ian Williams is the author of Rum: A Social & Sociable History (Nation Books, 2005).

Good to Gonzo

Ian Williams, Thursday 25 December 2008 15.00 GMT

It was really difficult to tell whether Dave Cox was being curmudgeonly for the sake of it, or whether he really hates Hunter S Thompson, the 60s and interesting "gonzo" journalism.

I am all in favour of clog-dancing on the gravestones of people who deserve it, who have harmed others on a massive scale. But what harm did Thompson ever do to Cox, or anyone else for that matter, unless illuminating an era in an amusing and memorable way gets up his nostrils?

It behoves us to spring to the defence of Thompson, the 60s and gonzo journalism. Of course if you are part of the "just the facts" school of journalism, as he seems to be, you will rate Bernstein and Woodward, his Watergate heroes, highly for acting as stenographers to the disgruntled passed-over second in command of the FBI, while harrumphing at someone like Thompson who eschewed the faux third-person objectivity of "this reporter", for lavish, interesting and highly memorable use of the first person.

It is not only because Thompson's Rum Diaries were part of my research reading for my own book on rum that I appreciate him. His writing is in a tradition of impressionist, personalised journalism, putting colour in the facts, that goes back to practitioners like Mark Twain and Charles Dickens. I somehow doubt whether many people with read Woodward, Bernstein or indeed Williams and Cox, for pleasure and instruction in a century's time. But Twain, Dickens and Thompson depict times and places with far more depth and accuracy than any tediously correct fact-checking department could contrive.

Of course, Cox could be harrumphing because Thompson went beyond the traditional writer's ruin in the cocktail cabinet and raged experimentally through the pharmacopia. But a whole generation, from Presidents Clinton to Bush to Obama have near enough admitted similar experimentation, while rigorous application of the drug-free principle would see Coleridge and many others expunged from the literary canon.

But then, Cox clearly associates such practices with the 60s, which he detests with fogeyish fervour. I came of age in the 60s, and with no false nostalgia, it was a wonderful time. In my own gonzo way, I remember whole generations before who were married, procreating and middle-aged and old by their 20s – until the Beatles and the 60s.

And then there came a generation that knew how to enjoy itself, and still cared about Vietnam, about the developing world, about poverty and injustice in their own societies. Church-defined "sin" lost its popular mandate to ruin people's lives. As Philip Larkin said accurately, if unfact-checkably, it was in the 60s that "sexual intercourse began" resulting in "a brilliant breaking of the bank / A quite unlosable game".

It is true that some of that generation went overboard on the self-indulgent side: the people who took doing their own thing all the way through tech bubbles, property bubbles and major rip-offs. But they always had the other side on their case, those who could combine enjoyment with active interest in the common good.

In fact, maybe it was Thompson's undying hatred of Richard Nixon and what he stood for that has induced such dyspeptic prose on Cox's part. Nixon, with his repressive, obsessive personality, unable to relax and enjoy himself, imbued with an unhealthy self-righteous sense of sin even as he plotted mayhem is a fitting emblem for the pre-Beatles pre-60s Fear and Loathing era. Sounds a bit like Cox really.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Blagojevich is innocent(ish)

Ian Williams: Strings attached and change for which we must all pay
Tribune December 21, 2008

THE world greeted Barack Obama’s election with understandable jubilation. However, while there will be some change, there may be somewhat less than some of his fervent supporters expect. One augury of that was last week’s arrest on corruption charges of Rod Blagojevich, Governor of Obama’s home state of Illinois. Blagojevich was charged with trying to trade his right as Governor to nominate Obama’s replacement in the Senate for a position or profit for himself or his wife. He was also shaking down state contractors for campaign contributions.

Chicago politics are notorious: it is the city where if dead men only voted twice, they would be exhumed to go to the polls for a third time. The media were filled with shock-horror stories and replayings of the phone taps of the Governor’s conversations with the frequent expletives bleeped out. Despite diehard Republican efforts to tie in Obama, the FBI prosecutor specifically cleared the President-elect, not least because the Governor directed some of his obscenities at Obama for not playing the game. But while Blagojevich was crude and indiscreet, the tone of pious horror with which commentators reported the charges is amazing. There was none of the irony with which Claude Raines discovered that customers were gambling in Rick’s café in Casablanca: it was fervent outrage.

But the Governor was only doing what almost everyone else in American politics does. Does anyone really think that Hillary Clinton did not engage in hard bargaining for the Secretary of State job? Even the squeaky-clean Obama raised around a billion dollars from contributors for his election campaign – the most ever for a candidate. Yes, he did establish an unprecedented network of small contributors, but most of his money came from rich people who want to stay that way. Everyone would like to pretend those donations had no strings attached, but that is nonsensical. If Obama does not deliver, then in four years times, those cheques from the financial institutions will be going to someone else. It is more than strings attached. In the American political system, it is as difficult for a poor man to enter office as it is for a camel to get through a needle’s eye, unless some passing billionaires throw a rope down.

Exxon-Mobil has been a major financial supporter of George Bush and Republican causes, but of course it is only its power of intellectual persuasion that has kept the administration in a state of denial about global warming and the need to rein in oil use.

Does anyone really think that Halliburton did not benefit when its former chief executive, Dick Cheney, became Vice President? Can it be just a coincidence that the finance industry in the United States has been the biggest political contributor for several decades over which restrictions and oversight have been progressively lifted?

When Robin Cook was Foreign Secretary, his team did their best not to chortle in the faces of denials from Bill Clinton’s team that the donation from United Fruit had anything to do with the case the US started at the World Trade organisation against European Union preferences for Caribbean bananas. The US does not grow bananas, but United Fruit does, in vast low-wage plantations across Central America.

And one would have to believe in the power of Dianetics not to see a connection between the huge Hollywood donations to Clinton from the L Ron Hubbard school of acting (prop: John Travolta) and the administration’s almost immediate acceptance that Scientology was a bona fide religion.

The difference is that all such deals are traditionally clinched with the equivalent of a Masonic nudge and handshake rather than blurted out expletively on tapped phone lines. Blagovejich’s only real crime was crudeness, but he will pay for it dearly – unlike Scooter Libby, nailed by the same prosecutor, whose sentence was promptly commuted by the President for whom he had so loyally lied.

Meanwhile, the attention given to the Governor from Chicago diverts attention from the Chicago School, the cabal of monetarists whose intellectual depredations brought dictatorship in Chile, kleptocracy in Russia and financial chaos in the US – and Margaret Thatcher’s trashing of British manufacturing.

Far from facing prison time like Blagojevich, the serried ranks of Congresspersons, bankers and chief executives, who under cover of the Chicago School’s licence to loot have reduced the world’s greatest financial power to relative bankruptcy, are sentenced to be force-fed untold billions of taxpayers’ money. As Bertolt Brecht pointed out in The Threepenny Opera, small crooks rob banks, big ones start them.

Obama has a window of opportunity. There is less tolerance for corporate greed in the electorate than ever before. The lobbyists will be hard at work, but simply flushing them into the daylight will have a salutary effect for a short period, while they will be like flies on a cowpat trying to gorge on the stimulus package dollars. But, in the long run, if Obama wants to produce credible and long-lasting change, he will have to do something about campaign finance or else he will just be marking time until the next big scandal.

Dancing on Weyrich's Grave

Burying conservatism
Paul Weyrich helped American conservatism rise to prominence. It's fitting that his death comes at the movement's nadir
Comments (21)

* Ian Williams

o, Friday 19 December 2008 14.00 GMT
o Article history

I oppose the death penalty but, as Clarence Darrow said, I often read obituaries with great pleasure, and I read the recent epitaphs to Paul Weyrich – the man who put the truth in the rumours about vast right-wing conspiracies – with even more gusto than usual.

That may sound unseemly, but one only has to read Weyrich's own obituary of Augusto Pinochet to see him clog-dancing on the hidden graves of the Chilean tyrant's thousands of victims:

Pinochet should go down in history as a liberator ... Yet what he is known for, it seems to me, are the deaths of some 3,000 people and the torture of others. As William F Buckley reminded us, Pinochet "spoke with passion to say he had not himself known about, let alone authorised any of the random killings and torture laid at his door." Perhaps he did not know of these killings and the torture of the living. First, let it be said: He fought a war. And when you fight a war, people will end up dead.

Dead, not to mention tortured, raped, thrown from helicopters and all the rest of the sundry dry-runs for Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib (also cheered by Weyrich) that were pioneered by the Chilean Caudillo.

Weyrich and his conspiratorial network of foundations depended on two very odd sets of benefactors for such proponents of the moral majority and manipulators of the evangelical block vote: booze and ciggies. Joe Coors gave them their initial impetus, followed by the Scaife family, with valuable top-ups from Philip Morris, which in its previous deranged corporate incarnation put large sums into defeating a national health service plan that could be funded by excise taxes on tobacco (memo to Tom Daschle: an idea whose time has re-arrived).

Under his stewardship, the Heritage Foundation grew like a metastasising tumour from a rival to the John Birch society for eccentric irrelevance into the overt policymaker for presidents, whose pundits graced the talkshows like infallible oracles. Backed by the Free Congress Foundation, NET television and his other organisations, it certainly achieved its aims.

As fellow nutter Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform wrote: "Most of the successes of the conservative movement since the 1970s flowed from structures, organisations and coalitions [Weyrich] started, created or nurtured." Weyrich himself declared: "We are different from previous generations of conservatives. We are no longer working to preserve the status quo. We are radicals, working to overturn the present power structure of this country."

And the interesting thing about the rabid anti-communist radicals like Weyrich was how they emulated the unscrupulousness of the Third International in going after their targets with a combination of absolute ruthlessness and manipulation of front organisations. From the persecution of Bill Clinton (for all the wrong reasons) to the swiftboating of John Kerry, his cabal of cheque-wielders were behind the plots.

In triumphant mode at Bush's re-election, Weyrich declared: "There are 1,500 conservative radio talkshow hosts. You have Fox News. You have the internet, where all the successful sites are conservative. The ability to reach people with our point of view is like nothing we have ever seen before!"

And yet, reality has this gravitational effect. It is entirely fitting that as he shuffles off his mortal coil, we can look around and see why Americans looked on his works and despaired. The shoe is on the other foot as protégée George Bush shuffles shame-faced off the world stage. The meltdown of the casino economy, the nadir of American prestige, the stalemate in Iraq and Afghanistan – these are all suitable epitaphs for the world Weyrich made.

But there is an even more telling tale. Weyrich, like the proverbial stopped clock, was occasionally right. He supported trains for transport. However, it was for the wrong reasons, since he apparently gave as one of his reasons that white people took commuter trains.

There could be no greater epitaph for him than the black man who will be boarding the train in Philadelphia to go to Washington for the inauguration next month. The epitaph's second line should be that Barack Obama's election was in part made possible by the sane and liberal citizenry who (belatedly) adopted many of Weyrich's grassroots organising techniques. That may make it possible to say with deep sincerity: We shall never see his like again.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Booting Bush

Ducking the issue on Iraq
One Iraqi journalist shows more willingness to stand up to President Bush than the entire White House press corp

o Ian Williams
o, Monday 15 December 2008 19.31 GMT

News organisations have to feign surprise to make news. In reality, it is of course no surprise that Bush would be greeted in Baghdad with all the warmth and approbation of fraudster Bernie Madoff dropping by the Palm Beach Country Club, nor that Iraq's physical infrastructure, $69bn later, is still in a worse state than before 2003.

In Arab culture, dogs and the soles of shoes are two very potent demonstrations of detestation and the intemperate. Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zeidi's lobbing of two well-aimed shoes at the president is a belated make-up for all the softballs thrown at him in Washington.

Zeidi has clearly epitomised Iraqi feelings across the board, with protests on the streets and support messages from Arab journalists. Ironically, many of them, including Zeidi's own TV station, are comparing his arrest with the brisk way that the Baathists had with dissent. This is a little unfair – he is still alive as far as we know, which is more than could be said for anyone who would have done that to Saddam.

But it does raise the question of how the White House managed to tame the major media in the US even without the implicit threat of shooting journalists and their families.

With a few notable exceptions like Helen Thomas, Bush's press conferences have not generated the indignation he so richly deserves from a largely quiescent White House press corps that needs government inspectors and Congressmen to tell it when it can be surprised and even occasionally indignant.

In a parochial way, one can understand why the press corps lacks indignation over Iraq's 100,000 civilian dead and over two million external refugees, plus untold more internally displaced.

But it is still surprising that so many reporters can be polite and deferential with someone who has turned the US Federal Reserve into a giant Ponzi scheme and broken the world's strongest economy. They defer humbly to someone who has contrived the deaths of 4,200 US servicemen and women in Iraq. It even failed to follow through on questions about the president's murky military record with the Texas Air National Guard while his peers were dying in Vietnam.

This intrepid press corps showed no compunction in following in minute detail Clinton's screwing around, but kept silent as Bush screwed entire nations.

Last week, a Senate report pointed the finger directly at Bush and his senior officials for authorising - indeed, ordering - torture and abuse of detainees. But no one threw any shoes.

It is that fawning quiescence that allowed Bush to tell Bob Woodward: "I'm the commander – see, I don't need to explain – I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation."

And there we have it. Some people in the US and abroad certainly did ask why Iraq was invaded, and some who agreed with the invasion, certainly questioned its abysmal lack of foresight and planning and the totally inept conduct of the occupation. The information in these reports has been available all along. But it has to wait for a government or congressional report before it is mentioned. And still no shoes.

As Bush gives up his dude-ranch in Crawford to move into the McMansion that really suits him in Dallas, he should not be allowed to go quietly into that good night to file My Pet Goat into his presidential library. Better than throwing boots, prosecutors should be throwing the book at Bush and his accomplices.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Set a pirate to catch one

The pirate problem
The world is unsure how to deal with rampant Somalian piracy. The US should take the first step and ratify the Law of the Sea

o Ian Williams
o, Tuesday December 9 2008 14.00 GMT

It is a pleasant surprise that few voices have tried to justify Somali piracy as an anti-imperialist gesture – although I'm sure someone out there is working on just such an apologia. However, hijacking food aid cargoes and taking unarmed merchant ships is a bit of a stretch for even the most determined third worldist.

You can never be sure whether the alleged connection to Islamists isn't just the usual obsessive attempt to link every sparrow's assassination to the followers of the prophet, but if true, it precludes much in the way of yo-ho-ho-ing and rum toping and wenching in the taverns ashore. On the other hand, as a longtime member of the Somali Seaman's Social Club back in the port of Liverpool, I remember long after-hours drinking sessions that indicate a powerful and persistent thirst in the Somali maritime community.

But romanticism and Jack Sparrow aside, there was historically and is now little to recommend those who kill and loot at sea. Perhaps their one positive achievement was to provoke the concept of universal jurisdiction. Even without a UN Security Council resolution, anyone apprehending a pirate could hang them from the yard-arm. That has now been supplanted by Articles 100 to 107 of the Law of the Sea Convention, which specifically deal with piracy and its repression on the high seas.

However, the US has yet to ratify the Convention, and the current administration, peg legged though it may be, frowns upon the concept of universal jurisdiction, which, heaven forefend, could apply to American officials kidnapping and torturing citizens of other states.

The act only applies to piracy on the high seas, and not in the exclusive economic zone even of virtual states like Somalia, but that contingency is covered by Security Council resolutions 1816 and 1838 which allow states cooperating with the transitional federal government in Somalia to enter territorial waters to stop piracy.

In the meantime every state with a war ship to wave seems to want to get in on the action and send a force to the Red Sea entrance to show that they are doing something. Navies are probably bored nowadays since modern technology has reduced them to offshore logistics and missile batteries, so going after pirates must be appealing to the Hornblower struggling to surface in every naval officer. However, they do not seem to be speaking to each other very effectively. The unfortunate incident in which the Indian ship blasted a hijacked trawler out of the water may have been a salutary lesson to the pirates, but it was one that the crew held hostage on it may not have needed.

But maybe older practices need to be reconsidered. Why not employ a convoy system under naval escorts through the straits? It may be slower, but not nearly as time consuming as going round the Cape or taking a diversion into a Somali pirate haven.

And while hanging from the yard-arm and walking the plank may be a little too atavistic, maybe the time has come to issue letters of marque to privateers. It is an old Anglo-American tradition to employ pirates to catch pirates and all those Blackwater-types from Iraq, soon to be unemployed when they lose their impunity for killing Iraqis, may welcome the opportunity to claim prize money for retrieving ships and capturing pirates.

However, while on the subject of impunity, some more serious coordination of the joint naval force is obviously called for. It would help legitimacy and acceptability if Washington were to ratify the Law of the Sea quickly so that it accepts the actual convention that the combined fleet is supposed to be implementing. The Navy wanted to sign the treaty; it's the loony-tune ideologues from the GOP who continue to hold it up. Piracy proves them wrong-headed on this as on so many other stands they have taken during the past eight years.

Prohibition's Hangover

Prohibition's hangover
Although its government repealed prohibition 75 years ago today, drug and alcohol laws in the US are still too puritanical

o Ian Williams
o, Friday December 5 2008 19.00 GMT

It is politics in a bottle of rum. Today is the 75th anniversary of the 21st amendment that ended prohibition, one of the most disastrous social experiments in history, way up there with Thatcherism and Bolshevism. To be fair, it was the Canadians who started it. Several Canadian provinces introduced prohibition much earlier, with Quebec - French, catholic and drinking - holding the line to stop it from becoming a federal law. But the Canadians learned their lesson much quicker, and most provinces repealed it during the 1920s.

In the US, the Volstead Act passed in 1919 under the cover of Germanophobia, when the large and previously influential beer and wine toping German-American community kept its head down for fear of lynching. Once again, Americans did not pioneer this movement either. It was the British royal family that changed from being Saxe-Coburg-Gothas to Mountbattens and Windsors for fear of being associated with their close relative, the Kaiser.

Apart from the total failure of prohibition – some estimates suggest that there was more and harder liquor drunk when it was more illegal than before – one of the reasons for repeal was the earnest hope of the new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that thirsty Americans would buy, pour and drink themselves out of the great depression.

Even so, there is still a hangover. Americans who shiver at the thought of "socialised medicine," cling atavistically to socialised booze. Many state governments control, indeed own, a monopoly of liquor distribution, which makes it very difficult for anyone but the most well-heeled distillers to enter their markets, therefore letting bland rums and even blander beers dominate. Prohibition pretty much killed, for example, the centuries-old tradition of New England rum, which never re-established itself in the face of Bacardi becoming a domestic brand through Puerto Rico to take advantage of repeal.

Indeed the hangover is exacerbated by the fact that the US is the only country where citizens who can be (metaphorically) hanged cannot legally be hung-over. Eighteen-year-olds who can be conscripted and vote cannot buy or drink alcohol. Prohibition's long Grundyish shadow also hangs over other "consensual" crimes, the victimisation of prostitutes, the draconian drug laws and other attempts to make the citizenry more moral whether they want to be or not.

So, 75 years later, with an official recession and a looming depression, Obama can change the law like FDR did years ago. Like most recent presidents, Obama indulged in prohibited substances in his youth which, if he were caught, could have finished his political career on the spot since he did not have the ultra-wasp Bush family to cover up for him.

A change would not only be moral, but economically effective. Give 18-year-olds their full constitutional rights, decriminalise marijuana use – and tax it heavily. Medicalise harder drugs by making them available only under medical supervision, and tax them, too.

This change would boost government revenue, cut expenditure on the drug enforcement agency, police and prisons and provide a huge Keynesian boost to the entertainment industry and retrospectively vindicate all of Obama's peers who were caught, and whose lives were blighted by the drug laws. FDR showed the way back in 1933.

Learning Bosnia's lessons in Congo

The UN's decision to send 3,000 more peacekeepers to Congo won't stem the conflict unless they are prepared to use force

o Ian Williams
o, Wednesday November 26 2008 22.00 GMT

Last week, the UN security council agreed to send 3,000 more peacekeepers to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While size does indeed matter, the history of the last few decades suggests that direction and vigour are actually more important. In both Congo and Sudan, massive human tragedies take place while ill-equipped and badly led forces with inadequate mandates make token gestures. It is strongly reminiscent of Bosnia, where for years inadequate forces stood around monitoring how many shells Mladic's and Karadzic's forces dropped on Sarajevo, and in effect enforcing the Serb blockade.

Too many UN peacekeeping operations are as much to do with show business as geopolitics. The international community, or at least those parts of it responsive to popular pressure, wants to appear ostentatiously to be "doing something". Few are prepared, or even able, to provide capable forces, while for some governments the UN payments are lifelines for their defence budgets rather than for suffering war victims. On the other hand, the US, which has supported, and indeed requested, many of the operations, has been paying its contributions in arrears because of loony tune amendments in Congress.

The UN itself has had endless panels analysing individual operations and peacekeeping in general, but in the end it is hostage to the member states and what they are able and willing to provide, whether in cash or troops.

In Congo, perhaps because there are no Arabs involved to vilify, far more people have died, unprotected and relatively un-noticed, than in Darfur. Lieutenant General Vicente Diaz de Villegas y Herrería, the Spanish commander for the peacekeepers, resigned after a mere six weeks, reportedly because he could see no way out of the impasse. France, sponsoring last week's resolution, is indeed willing to take stronger action, but is perhaps the least suitable power, given its recent involvements in Rwanda.

The resolution contained all the usual diplomatic boilerplate about Congo. It reaffirms "its commitment to respect the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of the Democratic Republic of the Congo", and "underscores the importance of MONUC implementing its mandate in full, including through robust rules of engagement". However it blithely ignores the fact that the boiler has exploded.

Even more than in Bosnia, it is optimistic to the point of Panglossian to assume that all parties really want peace. With the collapse of the economy and country, war is the major local employer. Indeed, some years ago, one UN official suggested that the central African conflicts were being perpetuated because the commanders of the various forces were all HIV-positive and needed to pay for their antiviral medications. The region's reserves of diamonds and coltan, essential for mobile phones, are highly portable and valuable in themselves, even without such an incentive.

The remnants of the genocidal Interhamwe from Rwanda, former clients of the French, have been marauding in the east of Congo, since they were defeated and expelled from their own country. No international forces have taken effective action against them, which is why there is at least some justification for Rwanda's support for Laurent Nkunda and his rebel force against them, and indeed against the Congolese army, whose conduct makes it part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Both Congo and Sudan epitomise the apocryphal Irish advice to lost wayfarers: "If I was you, I wouldn't start from here." But they do reassert the lesson that traditional peacekeeping, a thin blue line of lightly armed troops, does not work when there is no peace to keep. At best they should be a tripwire, with the strong message that anyone crossing them will get serious mayhem from serious forces.

In Sierra Leone, for example, while the UN peacekeepers were surrendering their weaponry at the first barricade, it was the British marines and navy that finally put paid to the horror. In Bosnia, the beginning of the end for Karadzic and Mladic was when General Rupert Smith pulled in the lines of peacekeepers and brought in artillery and air support against them, even if the latter promptly proved the point by taking UN troops hostage.

In the past, not entirely rational opponents of a "UN army" in Congress have managed to block longstanding proposals for quick-reaction standby forces from countries with the military wherewithal to be available for rapid deployment on UN operations for peacekeeping, and indeed peacemaking, when parties cross the thing blue line. Now that we can have at least a presumption of rationality in both the White House and on Capitol Hill it may be possible for the US to lend its vote, and even its forces to such an enterprise.

Clinton & Rice, good cop/bad cop?

Sense and credibility
By appointing both Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice, Obama has established a wary tension over US foreign policy goals
Comments (…)

o Ian Williams
o, Monday December 1 2008 20.00 GMT

John Bolton gets top marks for consistency. Even when he was the US ambassador to the UN (albeit unconfirmed) he thought that it should not be a cabinet level post, which has been the case under most, if not all, Republican administrations. However, quite apart from the general principle, Obama's appointment of Susan Rice to the post and to the cabinet along with Hillary Clinton as secretary of state makes the latter's appointment more palatable.

Lots of leftists are grinding their teeth at the number of former Clinton appointees in Obama's entourage, but since these are the only Democrats with government experience who can shuffle round without a walking frame, that is hardly surprising. However, with Hillary herself, he is playing for high stakes. Her foreign policy experience, whether at 3am or any other time, is negligible. Until she reached the US Senate, she had not held any elected or government office, unless you count being on the board of Wal-Mart. But then, Madeleine Albright's highest elected office was to the board of governors of the National Cathedral school in DC. It showed.

Hillary Clinton gives up her independent New York political base to take this office, which is somewhat mystifying, unless she expects the Rapture or whatever to claim Obama, Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi simultaneously. For his part, Obama may be applying the old LBJ principle about having people inside the tent urinating out rather than vice-versa, and by having Susan Rice about, he has a perfect fallback for the position at state if Hillary proves uncontrollable, and a counter to her in the cabinet as well.

Between Obama, Clinton and Rice, they have to see to what extent it is possible to reconstruct the multilateral consensus that to some extent held sway during the Bush senior years. Some of the first items on the agenda will suggest the extent to which Hillary Clinton will bite the bullet, notably engagement with Iran on the Obama plan, or choose frosty fobbing off, as promised on her campaign trail.

Obama will have to watch for lobby-led policy inclinations, whether directly or from her spouse, whose house indeed has many lobbies listed as donors. Cuba, the Middle East, even banana trade wars, all spring to mind, not to mention earnest cross checking of foundation donors with ambassadorial nominees. But she may rise above all that. After all, she is certainly tougher and less pliable than her husband.

However, both Rice and Clinton are likely to veer to the interventionist side, the former on humanitarian and the latter on more Kissingerian grounds. In the Clinton administration, the then-pacifist Pentagon checked Albright's otherwise admirable instincts in the Balkans, as her tussles with Colin Powell over doing mountains as well as deserts witness. Bill Clinton, mesmerized by the accusations of draft-dodging, and fearing a political backlash from those who later insouciantly sent 4,000 plus troops to die in Iraq, was not prepared to risk any US troops, and foolishly let bad guys like Slobodan Milosevic know that.

This time, an unabashed Obama should be able to control the Pentagon, whose temporary bellicosity has been blunted by two wars, and make sure that the team follows the Teddy Roosevelt dictum about speaking softly but keeping a big stick in visible (but not overly ostentatious) reserve.

Which brings us back to Susan Rice. Being the sharp end of a multilateral policy is almost oxymoronic. Just because the UN votes on something does not make it ethical, as the Iraq sanctions demonstrated. She has to walk a tightrope between pandering to nations of dubious ethical and democratic credentials and getting the desired results, while cutting through the diplomatic candyfloss language used at the UN to hide lack of purpose or achievement.

For example, on her favourite subject of Darfur, she and Hillary have to sweet-talk Beijing and Moscow, while being firm to get the results she wants. She can address them proudly without triumphalism as the representative of a nation that has learned from its mistakes, and is prepared to remedy them. Basking in the prestige of a president who it seems is the world's choice, she will have tremendous pulpit to preach from, so she has a good start.

But she has to be aware that much of that moral prestige will evaporate with the very first veto that Hillary asks her to deliver on behalf of Israel, when the non-aligned will decide that it may after all be business as usual. As for the last thirty years, it will be applicability of UN middle east resolutions that the US once voted for that will be the test for US credibility. Support for a condemnation of the settlements would do wonders. After all, it is US policy and an Israeli promise to the Quartet, not to mention international law.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A modest proposal for Obama foreign policy

Ian Williams: A modest proposal for an ethical US foreign policy
November 23, 2008 Tribune, UK,

WITH the election of Barack Obama, the changes may be so minimal that they can all too readily be believed. The swarm of Bill Clinton’s former foreign affairs advisors around the President-elect suggest that, if we want to avoid disillusion, it may be wise not to entertain too many illusions about how much his policy will change things.

So far, apart from ritual pinches of incense on the altar of the Israel lobby, Obama has not been tied to any of the tired and failed formulae of anti-communism or anti-Islamism pushed by the neo-conservatives. So here are some modest proposals to give American foreign policy, in Robin Cook’s phrase, an “ethical dimension”.

Cuba is not a threat to the United States, even though it may be a threat to the political aspirations of national candidates through swing-state Florida. The Cuban-American GOP delegation to Congress held their seats despite the Obama-driven Democratic surge in the state. Obama won the state anyway. However, it is not just rabid Gusanos who worry about human rights in Cuba, although a more balanced perspective would show that there are far worse culprits who get a free pass. Anyone for an embargo on China?

It is also clear that the embargo that Cuban American fundamentalists have lobbied into existence harms ordinary Cubans while providing excuses for their government’s incompetence and dogma-induced inefficiencies. There is diminishing support, even among exiled Cubans, for policies that harm their relatives back home. Others showed signs of being more concerned about George Bush’s blight on American prosperity than his Cold-War rhetoric about Castro.

Quite apart from its effect on bilateral relations with Havana, American policy towards the island reinforces the Latin American, Caribbean and global perception of Washington as the bullying imperialist. The week before Obama’s victory, the United Nations General Assembly passed its 17th consecutive annual resolution condemning the embargo, with only Israel and tiny Palau joining the US in dissent. Both the former are heavily dependent on the latter’s largesse. In the case of the Israelis, their support for the American embargo on Cuba sits uncomfortably with its contrived indignation against the Arab embargo against Israel.

In any case, maintaining the Cuban embargo for any length of time risks eroding the fresh global image that Obama can presently wield.So what can an Obama administration do, without pandering to or overlooking Havana’s human rights abuses? Well, it could kill several birds with one declaration. Not only should Obama announce the closure of the shameful internment camp in Guantanamo Bay, he should commit the US to hand over the whole base to Cuba – immediately following democratic elections. Such a pledge would be as popular in Miami as in Cuba.

Perhaps while waiting for Raul Castro to do the patriotic thing to redeem the enclave with an election, Obama could offer to hold the base area in trusteeship as a free trade zone, employing local Cubans. Perhaps Bacardi could relinquish its vexing and ill-founded claim to Havana Club and build a distillery there, putting truth in its occasional claims to be a Cuban rum.

Combined with the relaxation on travel to the island and on the restrictions on remittances that he has already promised, Obama making good on his pledge to shut Guantanamo would reduce the paranoia about American intentions that is one of the mainstays of whatever domestic popular support there is for the regime in Cuba.

In Georgia, Vladimir Putin (and perhaps Dmitry Medvedev, too) may not have been as villainous as the press depicted. But they put up a pretty good Brezhnevian show once they had started, not least in their invocation of principles, such as self-determination, that have hitherto been lacking in their practice, as the Chechens could testify.

Medvedev flung down a clumsy challenge to Obama with his threat to move missiles into Kaliningrad. Obama should certainly reconsider the whole missile defence scheme, not least the bases in the Czech Republic and Poland. Missile defence is a boondoggle for Boeing and the aerospace industry exploiting the faith-based fervour of the devotees of the Project for a New American Century. Obama can do his budget and his foreign policy a big favour by shooting these pork barrels out of orbit.

But some response to Medvedev’s provocation may be called for. I understand that many of the Volga Germans deported to Central Asia by Stalin have since moved to the Teutonic ambience of Kaliningrad, or East Prussia as it was known until ethnically cleansed by the KGB in 1945. Obama should suggest to Angela Merkel that, if Ossetians and Abkhazians can get Russian passports because it was once all Soviet territory, then Berlin should offer citizenship and full German and European Union benefits to residents of Kaliningrad

That might even work and remove an anomaly from the map of the Baltic, but in any case it should remind Putin (and perhaps Medvedev, too) that you cannot pick and choose when to apply principles which you may cite expediently. But then, that is a lesson that one hopes Washington may learn as well.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Rather Good, W Bad.

The apology Bush owes Dan Rather
CBS pandered to the Republican party by giving its anchorman the boot for revealing the truth about the president's war record

Ian Williams, Tuesday November 18 2008 21.00 GMT

As George Bush shuffles off to a long absence that is not only with leave but with a heartfelt global sentiment that it is long overdue, he leaves behind a lot of unfinished business. One wonders whether, just in case, he will smuggle in a pardon for himself for his technical desertion and very definite absence without leave from the Texas Air National Guard.

What is really in order is some sort of pardon and apology to Dan Rather, who CBS's cowardly management squeezed from 60 Minutes for telling the truth about Bush's war record. Rather's suit against them, with its accompanying subpoenas, has now revealed that in their eagerness to throw a sacrificial victim to the swiftboating bloggers with their escorting media sharks, CBS management actually considered such paragons of journalistic objectivity as Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, William Kristol, William Safire and William Buckley for the investigating panel. Their concern was to counter the "reputation" of the network's liberal bias.

In the end, they settled on Dick Thornburgh, the Republican former attorney general appointed by the deserter-in-chief's dad, although apparently Roger Ailes, Fox News's brain was also under consideration.

Indeed, since they discussed the composition of this panel with the Republican party and Viacom's Washington lobbyists, it may even have been Republican operatives who had the good sense to realise that a Limbaugh or Coulter may not have the desired "reputation" of objectivity and credibility.

The investigation carefully did not consider the veracity of the charges against Bush, simply the provenance of the scrap of paper, but by the time it was over, many people who should have known better assumed that the story of Bush's desertion was refuted.

In fact, the evidence was compelling. Many others, myself included in my book, Deserter, had proved that George Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard with nepotistic backing in order to avoid service in Vietnam, a war that he agreed with. And then he went missing and failed to fulfill the terms of his service, an offence for which other less well-connected people were going to prison or being drafted to the jungle.

Let us consider the sins of Rather. Firstly, he admitted openly what everyone knew – that anchormen are performers not journalists. Secondly, 60 Minutes pandered to the television need for a McGuffin to wave around. However, it is still not proven that the memo under consideration was a forgery. What has been proven beyond doubt was that the information in it was accurate. The very secretary who said that she had not typed that particular piece of paper attested that she had typed exactly that same message.

The kindest explanation for CBS, other than outright political complicity, is that it paid the Danegeld, yet again, to keep the conservative hordes off its back by pandering to the Republican party. In a sense, it was not unique since most of the media were in post-9/11, post-Iraq mode mesmerised into thinking that any criticism of the Bush administration was treachery in the face of the enemy. It is not as if the Democratic benches hosted a swelling chorus of dissent either.

Rupert Murdoch cited the case last week: "Far from celebrating this citizen journalism, the establishment media reacted defensively. During an appearance on Fox News, a CBS executive attacked the bloggers in a statement that will go down in the annals of arrogance. '60 Minutes,' he said, was a professional organisation with 'multiple layers of checks and balances'. By contrast, he dismissed the blogger as 'a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing'. But eventually it was the guys sitting in their pajamas who forced Mr Rather and his producer to resign."

No it was not. It was because the "mainstream media" – not least Murdoch's – took up the bloggers against Rather and amplified their case. In a sense, this defines the essence of swiftboating as an Olympic event. The bloggers, backed by Fox, the rightwing talk radio jocks and the editorial pages of the WSJ with their hangers-on at the Standard, National Review etc, will conjure up a perfect storm of vituperation against their target, be it Kerry, Kofi Annan, or Dan Rather, and put everyone on the defensive. The technique is to generate so much smoke that no one notices that there is no fire.

But for some reason the evidence against Bush, abounding in small and regional publications and on the web, was not taken up with the same assiduity. So much for Murdoch's concern for blogs – and for CBS's journalistic standards in the face of its owner Viacom's need to keep in with the Bush White House.

Friday, November 14, 2008

He really can see Mexico from his state

Obama's representative to the world
Who should the president-elect choose to be his secretary of state? Someone whose ethics equal his abilities

* Ian Williams

o, Thursday November 13 2008 21.30 GMT

If Barack Obama is going to maintain the huge public diplomacy surge his election has given the US, his choice of secretary of state will be crucial. As the late British foreign secretary Robin Cook said, foreign policy should have an "ethical dimension", which is not to discount the possibility that states have to take to steps to protect their interests which occasionally are parsimonious on the ethics front – think of the Anglo-American occupation of Iceland or attack on the French fleet at Oran during the second world war.

The rumour mills race with the names mentioned, and since Obama's foreign policy advisers tended to come from the Clinton-era there is plenty of scope for disaster. However, one member of Clinton's cabinet does stand out. Bill Richardson was my original choice in the Democratic presidential primaries, and he is certainly top of my list for secretary of state.

As a person who can deliver the mix of ethics and solid attention to interests, his credentials are unmatched. He's the current governor of New Mexico - who can really see old Mexico from his state and can speak Spanish to the countries south of the Rio Grand – and a former legislator, former ambassador to the UN, former energy secretary and proven negotiator with, for example, the North Koreans.

And what is more, he is a good guy, with the principles and courage enough to risk the wrath of the Clintons by being an early endorser of Obama when his victory was still a far from done deal. Although a Clinton appointee at the UN, Richardson was clearly concerned when he arrived at the legacy of Madeleine Albright's undiplomatic tenure and did his best to make friends and influence other envoys instead of hectoring them and stamping on their toes. It was clear then and is now that he is a person with the ethical principles that Obama promised in his election campaign. In addition, he is one of the few who could shift Latin America away from its present reverse Monroe doctrine, based on keeping the Gringos out.

Almost certainly working the phones to get the job is Richard Holbrooke, who can be an effective negotiator but is much more in the testicular pressure line. However, Holbrooke has shown little sign of even the faintest hint of an ethical dimension. His masterpiece of realpolitik, the Dayton accords, which rewarded the ethnic cleansers with secure possession of their Croat- and Bosniak-free spoils, is a spider web of burning fuses still sizzling across a divided Bosnia.

It is true he was only obeying orders from a Clinton desperate to avoid committing American ground troops, but Holbrooke's previous record in the state department, in Korea, Indonesia and elsewhere, showed a disturbing enthusiasm for obeying orders regardless of the ethics of mass murder. He is peerless in executing policy, but it would not do the Obama aura much good to have him actually making it, so a high profile negotiating role would be a useful outlet for his undoubted talents.

John Kerry denies wanting the job - but then he would, wouldn't he? In many ways he would be better to replace Joe Biden as chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, where, interestingly enough, Russ Feingold, principled and progressive, is in line of seniority after him. So Kerry as cabinet-level ambassador to the UN, with a special remit for global diplomacy on Aids, climate change and similar issues he has fronted on, would not only add a boost to Obama's global reputation, but also guarantee the direction in the Senate.

There have also been stories that Republicans Chuck Hagel and Dick Lugar may be under consideration. This has been touted as an example of bipartisanship, but since both of them are to the left of some Democrats on foreign policy, it hardly counts. In fact, since the two are among the rapidly dwindling band of fact-based Republicans, taking them into the Obama administration only makes sense if it is a calculated Machiavellian plot to destroy the Republican party by leaving it entirely to Sarah Palin and the crazies.

It would be far better to leave the two, whose rare sanity is blessed and protected by the Senate's seniority rules, to work with the new chair of the foreign relations committee and ensure that the Obama White House meets some of the world's great expectations. And the sad reality is that the honeymoon will end in consummation or divorce in the Middle East, where one hopes that the new team is savvy enough to distinguish between what Israel needs and what the Likudnik/Republican/neocon/evangelical coalition wants.

UN Round Up

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 2008, pages 34-35

United Nations Report
European Court of Justice Rejects Procedures Enforcing U.N. Terrorism Watch List

By Ian Williams

I used to say that one of the attractions of the United Nations was that it was nice to know there was some authority between the White House and the heavens. Now I am happy to reveal that there is an additional body above the U.N., which has occasionally proven all too susceptible to White House pressure.

The European Court of Justice, which has frequently done so much to improve British governance, has overturned European governments’ implementation of the U.N. terrorist watch list, saying that it breaches fundamental rights. It annulled the European Council regulation which followed a U.N. Sanctions Committee decision by freezing the assets of Yassin Abdullah Kadi, from Saudi Arabia, and the Al Barakaat International Foundation of Sweden, part of the “Hawala” banking system used by the Somali Diaspora to transfer funds internationally. The Court was concerned at the lack of redress for people put on the list and complained that “the rights of the defense, in particular the right to be heard, and the right to effective judicial review of those rights, were patently not respected.”

While accepting that the EU had the right to act on the list, the Court gave a lesson to the world by insisting that there should also be a guarantee that those affected should be allowed to argue their case, “in order to ensure respect for his right to property.”

At the beginning of September, an American-led raid on a Pakistani village, killing at least 15, embarrassed the most pro-American candidate for the presidency there. Benazir Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, already had been embarrassed by the revelation that U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Zalmay Khalilzad had been assisting and advising him.

The State Department reprimanded Khalilzad, who was born in Afghanistan and reputedly has ambitions to succeed Hamid Karzai as president there. However it is uncertain whether this was because the White House has been nurturing and supporting retiring—or rather, sacked—President Pervez Musharraf, or because of concerns over the chain of command.
Khalilzad, who was born in Afghanistan, reputedly has ambitions to succeed Hamid Karzai as president there.

Under Democratic administrations, the U.N. ambassadorship is a high profile position. Often a cabinet post, it can cause problems when the secretary of state and one of his or her ambassadors are sitting side by side. Indeed, even without a cabinet conflict, we saw the tensions between John Bolton in the role and the State Department ultimately resolved by his departure.

Assistant Secretary Richard Boucher has some grounds for concern about crossed wires in a delicately balanced area where the U.S. was for long the major funder of those in Pakistan who were the sponsors for the Taliban. But the revelation of Khalilzad’s advice and help seems not to have affected Zardari’s recent election as president.
Western Sahara

Another envoy also dropped himself into trouble with candid advice, presumably because he correctly assumed his contract was not being renewed. Peter van Walsum, the Dutch diplomat who is the U.N. representative to Western Sahara, told the Spanish newspaper El Pais that Western Sahara would never achieve independence, even though he admitted that international law and successive U.N. resolutions have called for self-determination in the vast desert country occupied mostly by the Moroccans.

He castigated Spanish civil society—whose NGOs are very active on the issue, since Western Sahara is a former Spanish colony—for encouraging the Sahrawis in their fruitless resistance. Van Walsum was careful, however, to whom he was candid. He almost had a point when he said the U.N. Security Council “is not ready to exercise its authority under article VII of the U.N. charter, and impose it.” But it was a little like telling a rape victim to stop struggling. Why did he attack the victims and their friends? A diplomat from a country with a record of acquiescence to “facts on the ground” in Srebrenica should be more circumspect. Why has he not pilloried Morocco and its friends in the Security Council—the U.S., France and Britain?

The silence of the U.N. Secretariat over the years has been stunning, since Morocco reneged on its 1991 agreement to allow a referendum in the territory. Indeed, there has often been complicity and connivance, as when then U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, in his last week in office, tried to get the Security Council to adopt a pro-Moroccan resolution over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

At the press briefing back in 1991 Johannes Mantz, the Swiss diplomat first charged with heading MINURSO, the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, announced that it would only take a year to identify the voters and hold the referendum. I asked him at the time if he had consulted King Hassan of Morocco, who had made it plain that the only referendum he would allow was one that he was guaranteed to win. Since then, Hassan and his heir, Mohammed, each refused to allow the referendum, while the U.N. over 17 long years has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the sand dunes in preparation for it.

For some reason, while all other U.N. peacekeeping missions have come under congressional scrutiny, this, the most wasteful of all, was never questioned. Similarly, while Iraq and Iran were castigated for their failure to obey Security Council resolutions, there has been a deafening sound of silence about Rabat’s refusal to accept international law and Security Council resolutions, let alone honor its own promises.

France, with its own neocolonial interests in Morocco, has been a consistent supporter, but the Moroccan monarch now has more active American support on the issue, which nowadays always carries automatic British acquiescence as an added bonus.

At least partly, Washington’s support is because Morocco is Israel’s closest partner in the Arab world, despite the king’s position as chair of the Arab League committee on Jerusalem. The latter position ensures that Arab states perennially, and rightly, concerned about Palestinian refugees and the Israeli separation wall are, with a few expedient exceptions like Algeria, totally unconcerned about the Saharan refugees and the huge sand berm that Morocco has built across the territories it has occupied.

In the face of Moroccan obduracy, the fifth round of talks between Polisario and Morocco due this August was postponed.

As he left office Dan Gillerman, Israel’s envoy to the U.N., complained about all the breaches of U.N. Resolution 1701 and the failure of UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, to enforce it. “The UNIFIL soldiers were not sent there to give out chocolates to children or write traffic tickets,” he complained. “They were sent there to carry out a mandate which was very clearly defined,” which he claims they are not doing. Of course, Gillerman’s remarks resounded around the pro-Israel echo chamber. However, in September we had yet another reminder of just who is failing to deliver when an Israeli anti-personnel mine killed a Belgian U.N. peacekeeper on minesweeping duties.

These leftover munitions from Israel’s 2006 attack have killed at least 40 people—including 13 bomb disposal experts. More than 250 people have been injured by the munitions littering south Lebanon, which Israel was supposed to identify and chart for the U.N., which has itself identified 1,058 cluster strike locations

Israel has yet to respond to repeated requests from the U.N. to fulfil its part of 1701: detailed data on the strikes.

Of course, it has still not withdrawn from the border village of Ghajar, which it also is pledged to do. And Israel still, despite complaints, and indeed threats, from some UNIFIL contingents, persists in overflying Lebanon and the peacekeepers’ positions even though 1701 mandates it not to. In August, UNIFIL spokeswoman Yasmina Bouzianne demanded Israel bring a halt to its overflights as “a violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 and of Lebanese sovereignty.”

Indeed Israeli sources had the chutzpah to complain that they needed to monitor Hezbollah because the group may use the “excuse” of continuing Israeli occupation of Ghajar and the Sheba’a farms to take action against the overflights. Since the occupation and the overflights are equally in violation of international law, this is a bit like a burglar complaining in advance that the householder is trying to stop him!
Security Council Settlements

With refreshing candor, U.N. Under Secretary General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe told the Security Council in his monthly report that the secretary-general had repeatedly stated that all the settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, ran contrary to the Fourth Geneva Convention and Israel’s commitments under the road map and the Annapolis process.

Pascoe added that although two major stations in the West Bank had been partially opened to Palestinian traffic, leading to a significant improvement in access to those areas, the overall number of closures had remained unchanged at 608, as some previously removed obstacles had been re-installed. Construction continued on the barrier around East Jerusalem and within the West Bank, deviating from the Green Line and contrary to the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice.

Meanwhile, while even Condoleezza Rice is audibly miffed about Israel’s settlement building activities, in clear violation of international law, U.N. decisions, and its own promises to the Quartet and its American ally, the Arab group at the U.N. reported failure in its efforts to get a simple resolution echoing the Quartet statement, which had called on Israel to immediately cease all settlement activities and dismantle its outposts.

The Lobby That Does Not Exist had the world’s only superpower scared to allow such a resolution through, and B. Lynn Pascoe, the former American diplomat, showed more courage than the entire panoply of American presidential candidates.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Obama and the world

Click on the links for

On KPFA, Against the Grain on Obama's possible policies,

and at Foreign Policy in Focus, myself and others on Three Priorities for Obama,

and still up on the Guardian, thoughts on the transition and the White House.
Respect the office, if not the man
Barack Obama's White House visit was a polite formality, but it sends a powerful signal to his opponents: it's over
Comments (62)

* Ian Williams
o Ian Williams
o, Monday November 10 2008 23.36 GMT
o Article history

Barack Obama is a cool guy, so his visit to George Bush's White House today was likely not as tense as it could have been. After all, given his commitment to talk with his enemies, Obama could have been chatting with Kim Jong Il or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, neither of whom has insulted him or ripped up the constitution recently. But Obama is savvy enough to realise that whatever his thoughts on the man, he has to make nice to the office.

By all accounts, Bush is a sociable sort of guy, and as long as the conversation did not stray too into nuance - what type of dog to get was probably safe - it should have been easy. Despite the ugly overtones of the election, the man who appointed Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice is clearly no visceral racist himself, even if his campaigns happily conjured up the ghosts of the Ku Klux Klan.

Indeed, given the bitterness of sectarian Republican politics, which is now as inherently schismatic as the Leninist left, it is quite possible that Bush was actually quite glad to see John McCain get his comeuppance. After all, it does not do much for a guy's ego when his party's successor attempts to bury him alive and out of sight for the duration of the election.

There are probably some denunciations of Obama for accepting Bush's hospitality already prepared. However, the constitutional whiz kid from Harvard is doing the right thing in subtly underlining the years of Republican denial of election results. There is, as he says, only one president at a time.

For decades now, the conservatives in the Republican party have had difficulty accepting the idea of a "loyal government" when Democrats won elections. Most memorably, they never accepted Bill Clinton as president, regardless of mere details like elections.

Obama's acceptance of Bush's proffered hand has no downside. It does not commit him to anything, let alone to continuing his policies. On the contrary, for those Americans still hoping the Minutemen or Nathan Bedford Forrest will come and rescue them from their living nightmare, the Bush handoff sends a signal that it is all over.

So, dignity should be the watchword for Obama. When the Clinton family left the White House, the rabid Republican interns rushed in and began counting the spoons. Obama's team does not have to stoop to that. Bush is a manifest failure and falls down on his own record without embellishment of any kind from the victor.

Now that he has done the barely necessary honours, Obama can continue, without personal malice, to undo the executive work of eight years of the worst president out the 43 variously talented previous occupants of the office. It seems that he has been preparing his agenda and can, at the dash of a pen, undo some of the substantial damage his host today has done. Much better to reach for the presidential pen to sign away all those regressive executive orders than an ostentatious wipe with a sanitising tissue after today's handshake.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Now more Hot Air- Carbon taxes now!

Sep, 2008
A taxing problem

Speculator IR magazine, Sept 2008

Ian Williams argues against cap and trade

In Kyoto, 10 years and many hurricanes ago, when most governments began to suspect there might be something in this climate change business, the carrot that drew the Washington donkeys nibbling a little way down the road was the idea of a carbon emissions market.

It was the high tide of the neo-liberal consensus, before the tech bubble, Enron, Bear Stearns, and so on. Taxes were toxic and then-President Clinton's briefly mumbled invocation of carbon taxes was drowned out by clamorous coal and oil lobbyists who could call for backup from the host of voters who saw taxation of any kind as an unconstitutional, cruel and unusual punishment. Clinton did what he did so well and so often: he folded.

Instead, the argument went, companies and countries would set caps on emissions and efficient companies or countries would be able to trade what they saved with those that went over their caps. In the US, with some cities smelling and looking like Beijing in an off-Olympic month, the coughing citizenry and the acid rain pock-marking car bodies and killing trees had provided the political impetus for a cap-and-trade system for sulfur emissions that worked quite well.

However, until recently it looked like the people in underdeveloped tropical countries would be the first to suffer the greenhouse-induced drought or drown syndrome, so who cared? Certainly few worried enough to swap their SUV for a hybrid, or to turn down the A/C. Then, this year, the price of oil finally sent what economists call 'a signal' loud enough for American consumers to receive. People began to drive less and use public transport, while Detroit suddenly realized that the game was up for gas-guzzling behemoths.

Environmentalists point out that a higher oil price sends other signals as well - to the producers, the miners of coal and tar sands, both huge sources of emissions, whose otherwise marginal profitability is boosted by oil prices. Meanwhile, between the bankers, the traders and the green lobby, carbon trading is suddenly the fashion of the year, with confident predictions that any new administration will implement it.

But let's take our foot off the pedal for a moment. The debate on the failed Warner Lieberman bill in the Senate this summer showed the complexities of a cap-and-trade system. This is not a market for tangible commodities between consumers and producers but for permissions from a government creating a whole new class of regulators, rentiers and arbitrageurs.

In fact, a straightforward carbon tax would be much more market-friendly, despite the residual bad karma attached to taxation. It would invoke real market mechanisms that would restrain consumption and make innovation and pollution control directly profitable for producers.

If a new president and Congress introduced carbon taxes, would gangs of oil tycoons swarm aboard tankers in Boston Harbor and dump the cargo overboard? Probably not. A few more Katrinas should send the appropriate signal, however. The time has come to reconsider taxation.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Obama's lessons for Brown

Ian Williams: Bush in history’s dustbin and what Obama can teach others
November 9, Tribune

Ian Williams says the President-elect gives Americans a reason to face the rest of the world with pride again, while Gordon Brown could learn a few things from his campaign

BARACK OBAMA’S victory is historic – in terms of centuries and more recent decades. After 230 years, it finally puts truth in the rumours spread by America’s founding fathers about freedom, and government by the people, which at the time they assumed meant white people.

When Obama was born, anyone of his complexion would have had difficulty voting in most of the south. When Ralph Bunche, one of the highest-ranking black Americans in government, was offered a choice between the State Department and the United Nations, he chose the latter, because it was in New York. Washington was still segregated legally.

Even 20 years ago, it was inconceivable for whites and blacks to kiss in a movie, since any such film would be unmarketable throughout large stretches of the United States. A lot has changed in those decades, which is reflected in the age profile of intense Obama support. Forced desegregation of schools and other civil rights policies have worked.

However, we should not neglect the importance of George W Bush in this. His perversely positive legacy is that his melange of myopic malice and incompetence has done as much as Martin Luther King’s hard work to unite Americans of all colours – against him.

But as the world watches the White House race for all its historical significance, there is a more recent historical resonance – not least for those countries foolish enough to imitate the American model too slavishly. Obama has reinvigorated politics across the US and revived the Democratic Party, which in the Bill Clinton era seemed destined to become a mere PO box for corporate donations. Obama insisted on contesting supposedly unwinnable states and building a nationwide base, which is, in a way, the best guarantee that he will not recede too precipitately to unprincipled presidential behaviour.

That very base, those habits of organisation that Obama has built, could turn against him if he fails to deliver. In fact, his own success has now guaranteed that his party now has control of both houses in Congress as well, so he has fewer excuses for backsliding on his promises.

Because of his adept political organisation, Democrats now have secure majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives to back his firm electoral mandate. He will need it to turn the Balkanised federal government around.

As a Senator himself, whose work will have brought in many of the new intake of legislators, he is in a better position than Clinton to work with the Congress.

He clearly has to win over some Republicans, but one can but hope that he avoids Clinton’s mistake of pandering to conservatives in the hope of reciprocation. They will no more accept his legitimacy than they did Clinton’s. Obama will almost certainly face interference from a conservative Supreme Court that is even more committed than in the 1930s to deny central government powers to act for the common good. He will need all the political support he can muster to prevail and reverse the deleterious effects of decades of Republican appointments to the bench.

However, beyond the parochial, Americans can now consign the Bush years to history and face the world with pride. They have put centuries of racism behind it and elected a President who shows signs of knowing where the rest of the world is, as well as knowing that the way to hearts and minds is not crushing testicles in some secret CIA dungeon.

Perhaps now is the time for Gordon Brown, always an assiduous student of the American way of doing things, to take some lessons about building parties and electoral success.

And perhaps he should note that after the economic collapse brought about by neo-liberal economic policies, the most potent issue for American voters in their choice of Obama for President was the debacle of Iraq – a war supported by the British Government.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Obama and the UN

Winning back hearts and minds
Unlike its predecessor, the Obama administration should use the United Nations to restore America's image all around the world

Comments (19)

Ian Williams, Thursday November 6 2008 18.00 GMT

There is little doubt that, if UN staff and ambassadors could vote, Barack Obama would have won by an even bigger landslide than he achieved. From his speeches they expect him to negotiate where possible, to build consensual international alliances. They may not get all that they want. It may not be the second coming, but to use the eschatological phraseology of the Palins of this world, it is certainly the end of the reign of the anti-Christ.

All the signs are that Obama is of the Teddy Roosevelt, "speak softly
and carry a big stick" school of diplomacy. He may not chase neocon chimeras across the globe, but he will certainly be strong in his defence of concrete American interests. He has surrounded himself with advisers whose centre of gravity leans towards liberal interventionism, as he has shown by his declared policy of boosting troop strength in Afghanistan. His statements on raids into Pakistan also suggest a robust attitude towards rules about sovereignty.

There will certainly be a change of approach and a different discourse, but it there may be less change in actual policy than people think.

A British comedian's tag line used to be "It's the way you tell 'em," and this is true of George Bush's engagement with the United Nations. No previous administration has relied so much on the world organisation to help carry out its foreign policy objectives, but neither has any other administration been as curmudgeonly in its public pronouncements. In its split personality, the White House has pandered to the know-nothings and isolationists on Capitol Hill, while first Colin Powell, then Condoleezza Rice have tried to use charm. But then he undercut their work by sending John Bolton to be UN ambassador.

Of course, from that bleak period, there is a tendency to look back sentimentally towards the Clinton era, but Madeleine Albright was in her way every bit as peremptory and demanding of submission by the UN. She and Bolton could meet and brandish the respective heads of Boutros Boutros Ghali and Kofi Annan to prove their machismo.

Obama's team includes many of Albright's ilk, and it will have expectations of the United Nations, and as the world's remaining superpower, albeit somewhat battered by wars and economic crisis, they will expect delivery. They will start with an immense reservoir of good will from across the world, but there will be limits. Even the litmus paper issue of climate change and carbon usage, espoused by Ban Ki Moon as his big issue, is not universally popular in the developing world, where they have reasonable suspicions that it is an attempt by industrialised countries to pull the ladder up after them.

In fact, Ban Ki Moon has a window of opportunity to put some distance between himself and the putrescence of the Washington ducks, and make some rapid appointments while no one is micromanaging.

When the Obama team arrives at the state department, it will have its own agenda for the UN, which may be expressed more subtly, but in the end no less forcefully than its predecessors. Indeed, it may even be more forceful, albeit more in harmony with UN objectives. Obama is clearly more strong-minded than Bill Clinton, and is not haunted by Vietnam-era ghosts that made the latter unwilling to stand up to either the Pentagon or the Jesse Helms on foreign policy issues. And of course, it helps that he will have a clear majority in Congress.

The diplomatic equivalent of winning hearts and minds by attaching
electrodes to testicles is no more effective than its use in sundry CIA rendition centres. If he is subtle about it, Obama can recreate the coalitions that passed the "responsibility to protect" and marshalled African pressure on Sudan, for example. Simply stroking and talking to the Russians would produce beneficial results, as in the glory days when Moscow supported Desert Storm.

But in the end, there will be issues that need resolution, where the real world impinges on the resolution factory on the East River. For example, it will be difficult to secure Russian cooperation in the "near abroad" if Obama continues missile defence programmes in Eastern Europe. There he will have to overcome the Pentagon/aerospace/neocon lobby that wants to build on the $100bn already wasted on Star Wars, but for him it could be a triple whammy. Obama has already expressed scepticism about the programme, which would get diplomatic dividends from Moscow and free resources needed elsewhere in a strapped federal budget.

Of course, the mother of all issues is the Middle East, whose repercussions poison all efforts to uphold the role of the United Nations and international law. Obama's landslide gives him a mandate to back the serious peace forces in Israel, rather than the domestic US Likudnik chorus that overwhelmingly backed Palin and McCain. Serious action on settlements and serious support for a 242-based solution would really transform American ability to use the UN constructively.

At home, Obama could use his mandate to bring the US into line with its allies and the rest of the world with ratification of the various conventions on the international criminal court, the international law of the sea, child soldiers or even on landmines. Above all, he could use his influence to stop the series of loony tune amendments that are leading the US back into arrears on its dues to the UN. Any, or all of these, would establish America's leadership in the organisation.

And of course, and immediate closure of Guantánamo Bay would really show that there was a new United States administration dedicated to the rule of law at home and abroad.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Riding Obama's coattails

Riding Obama's coattails
Barack Obama isn't the only winner tonight. Thanks to him, Democrats are taking back statehouses and the US Senate

Ian Williams, Wednesday November 05 2008 05.30 GMT
Article history
As the world watches the White House race for all its historical significance, it is worth remembering that there is more at stake. Barack Obama's victory has reinvigorated politics across the US and revived the Democratic party, which in the Clinton era seemed destined to become a mere post office box for corporate donations. He insisted on contesting supposedly unwinnable states and building a nationwide base, which is, in a way, the best guarantee that he will not recede too precipitately to unprincipled presidential behaviour.

That base, those habits of organisation, could turn against him if he fails to deliver. In fact, his own success has now guaranteed that his party now has control of both houses in Congress as well, so he has fewer excuses.

At the local level as well, he has revived political activity in a way that promises interesting times. For example, in New York, where the citizenry turned out across the spectrum to ensure an Obama victory, Democrats and the Working Families party are riding in his slipstream, hoping to break the Republican oligarchy that has kept the state's politics notoriously dysfunctional for 40 years.

Thanks to creative redistricting - or gerrymandering, as it is known, depending on who is doing it - the Republicans have controlled the state Senate in Albany by securing over-representation for the sparsely populated upstate counties that they controlled. The basic deal is that state prisons are built upstate to employ locals to lock down prisoners from the city, long journeys from homes and visitors.

It has not been working. The half-dozen or so corrections officers at a recent barbecue I attended were all highly literate Obama supporters, and such votes will tip the balance of power. One reason for the excitement among New York Democrats is that in 2010 there will be a new census, and consequent redistricting, or counter-gerrymandering, to lock out the previous incumbents.

The congressional delegation is also likely to have the lowest number of Republicans since the days when it was the party of Abraham Lincoln and abolition, before it became the party of the renewed Confederacy under Richard Nixon.

And in an election there is always the part where the personal and political intermesh, so it is with particular pleasure that I note that the Obama upsurge in Minnesota may have taken Al Franken with him, leading to a form of historic revenge over Brooklyn transplant Norm Coleman. I was on Al's Air America show when he was discussing his Senate run, off-air of course, and the subject on-air was Coleman's lynch-mob-like chasing after Kofi Annan. Coleman's hatred for the UN and support for the Iraq war may have attracted large amounts of campaign donations from some people, but it certainly does not seem to have captivated the voters in his state.

And just across the Hudson, Joe Lieberman may not be running in this election, but whatever happens he is now history. He would appear to have backed the wrong horse, and the strong Democratic majority in the Senate no longer relies on him for a swing vote. They will realise that it was Obama's insistence on reviving the party nationally and driving for registration that brought them to power. They owe Lieberman absolutely nothing in terms of committee places and influence, and so he can fade away into the obscurity he so richly deserves.

However, beyond the parochial, the US can now put the Liebermans, Bushes, Boltons and Colemans back under cover, and face the world with pride. Six months ago, I pointed out that the world public looked upon these elections as an IQ test for the American public. The electorate has aced the test. It has put centuries of racism behind it and elected a president who shows signs of knowing where the rest of the world is, as well as knowing that the way to hearts and minds is not crushing testicles in some secret CIA dungeon.

Not Just the White House

Posted before the election was declared
Comment is free
Cif America
Braving the crowds
Turnout is key, and even Karl Rove is forecasting an Obama landslide – but there's a long way to go before he's sworn in

Ian Williams, Wednesday November 05 2008 02.00 GMT
Article history
Apart from quaint habits like spending two years and billions of dollars on an election when the Canadians can have a complete campaign from start to finish in between US presidential ballots, the oddest thing is that the leader of the free world is not able to actually cope with citizens wanting to vote.

All day I monitored reports suggesting that, apart from difficulties getting on the register, polling places have wonky machines, not enough of them and batteries of lawyers prepared to fight the election to the last writ.

Up here in New York's Catskills, voting began at 6am, but I waited. If this election was about returning the US to civilisation, then 10am was plenty early for someone who thinks America's most notable contributions to culture are breakfast meetings and drive-by shootings. At the town hall, the solitary voting machine, one of New York's un-programmable clunky ones was ready right away, staffed by four eager helpers, offering candies and cookies to citizens arriving. The Rotarians opposite offered a $7.50 lunch, which if not a free lunch as allegedly promised by Obama, is on the way.

Since in the US balloting is not an exact science, it is hardly surprising that polling isn't either. Before the polls closed, MSNBC was declaring Vermont for Obama and Kentucky for McCain. And as befits the evangelical voter base with its belief in miracles, Republican "prayers" have successfully conjured victory from electoral defeat with disturbing regularity recently. So until Obama is standing being sworn in, it is too early to tell. Incidentally, the Pew poll shows white evangelical protestants, brought up on faith and miracles, as the only religious group consistently backing the McCain-Palin ticket.

Turnout is key. And despite the email I got from McCain, presumably as a subscriber to sundry conservative websites, there is no doubt that more voters in general means more votes for Obama. So it was heartening to read early on that voters were queuing in Alabama with a record turnout anticipated. It was even more heartening that at the time Obama was born, only the bravest black Americans would turn out to vote in Alabama.

Even more worrying was when Karl Rove forecast a landslide for Obama, with 338 votes to John McCain's 200. If you assume every word Rove says is a lie, it would be worrying, but then if you assume that malice is the motivating force, it could be a big "told you so" to the Republican party for selecting his old foe McCain.

Looming over all day was the pernicious Bradley effect. It is sad that no one remembers would-be governor Bradley anymore, except for the latent racism his candidacy unleashed. Dr Alzheimer lives on: it remains to be seen as we scrutinise the difference between votes cast and exit polls whether Bradley's claim to immortality subsists.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Polls Apart, America and the World

The world wants change
An international poll confirms what the US's Pilgrim founders first recognised - that the eyes of the world are on America

Ian Williams, Friday October 17 2008 07.00 BST
Article history
So, after eight years of Blair and Brown toadying up to Bush, 65% of Brits want Barack Obama to win the presidential election, according to the Guardian's international poll published today, and only 15% are rooting for the McCain/Palin ticket – and one suspects that some of those would be voting for the racist BNP given half a chance, not least when the numbers indicate that Obama is only supported by the 54% of the lowest socio-economic class, whose neglect by New Labour has left many of them clutching at racist straws.

In every country, opinions of the US have declined to record levels over George Bush's two terms as president. One can understand why 75% of the French would think so, but what do you make of the Swiss, 86% of whom think so, even though not even the Republicans boycotted Helvetian cheese or cuckoo clocks?

The world is showing what it thinks of Sarah Palin and the Bushite know-nothings who have usurped McCain's campaign. So should Americans care? Of course, they should, but more pertinent is whether it could be a factor in the election. At this stage, it could well be important.

Except in times of war, when American foreign policy happens to the citizenry rather than to others, it is often assumed that presidential politics is all local. In fact, the president, as head of state, symbolises their country, and it is important for Americans how he (or, heaven help us at this present juncture, she) represents them.

While it would be easy to dismiss French gall as a natural, well Gallic, prejudice against the Anglo-Saxons, the opinions of close allies like Britain, Canada and the rest are certainly worth broadcasting, subtly, by the Obama campaign. After all, even John McCain has invoked the world's low regard for the US as an important issue.

An earlier poll this August showed that 78% of American voters also believe the United States is less respected by other countries than it has been in the past and that 80% of voters believe that working with major allies, and through international organizations, is a wiser strategy for achieving the US's international affairs goals.

The high international regard for Barack Obama is only a surprise for six-packing evangelist hockey moms like Sarah Palin. She keeps referring to the "City on a Hill" as her vision of America – a phrase she attributes to the Prophet Reagan. And her version is indeed Reaganesque: one of the reasons people used to build cities on hills was because their sewage would fall on the people downhill. The rich usually lived at the top and the poor at the bottom.

But of course the original was from a more distinguished prophet in his Sermon on the Mount, and its American form came through the Puritan divine John Winthrop. Now one may, with justice, consider the Pilgrims to be a dangerously bigoted cult, but they had "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind proper regard for the opinions of mankind."

Winthrop went on to say (somewhat optimistically, with the self-importance of a cult leader) that "the eies of all people are upon us; soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our god in this worke wee have undertaken and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a byword through the world."

So, far from being a declaration of isolation and disregard for where the city's sewage flowed, Winthrop had a deep regard for the opinions of the rest of the world. The attitude of the freedom-frying Republicans flies not only in the face of their forgotten and erased history, but, happily, runs against the American voters, who do care what other people think about them and their leaders.

And for its part, the rest of the world will little note nor long remember what the candidates said in the debates, here. But it will never forget what the electorate does on November 4.

Dead profitable

Death and credit
From the cradle to the grave, the economic crisis has no end of ramifications. Overcoming it will be a stiff task

Comments (5)

Ian Williams, Tuesday October 21 2008 18.20 BST
Article history
There are perhaps not a few citizens of the world disappointed that there have been no credible sightings of erstwhile Masters of the Universe defenestrating themselves from the Temples of Mammon on Wall Street. One reason could be that the windows are now sealed and air-conditioned, offering no access to the ledges.

The other could be that they have looted the "pre-need" funeral plans that would pay for their interment. Last month, a little-noticed casualty of the financial crisis was National Prearranged Services, which shuffled off its corporate coil, leaving in doubt some 200,000 customers who had paid in advance "pre-need" for what the industry equally coyly calls "end of life" services.

Another organisation in Colorado, the Neptune Society was charged with skimming the funds this month.

Paul Krugman took time off from dusting off his tux for the Nobels to make tangential reference to the connection between the death industry and the credit crisis in his blog. He cites the very conservative Daily Mail inveighing against the British labour government because the credit crunch has made it slow in paying out funeral grants to the families of
the impoverished deceased. It highlights the decadence of a welfare state for American conservatives – socialised death care as well as healthcare – no wonder the British Empire fell!

I should declare an interest. I once wrote a column advocating "synergistic dialectical investing" and as a joke invested my annual
pension contribution in Service Corporation International, the world's biggest chain of funeral homes, and Philip Morris, on the grounds that death and taxes are inevitable, and tobacco would help them both along.

As an investment, the joke has paid off six-fold, but SCI has not done as well as I anticipated. This month the credit crunch killed off its takeover bid for the second biggest chain of morticians, Stewart.

From cradle to grave, the credit bust has no end of ramifications. Overcoming it will be a stiff task.

It raises the question about the billions of dollars put aside pre-need by Americans in the confident expectation that it will pay for them to be gutted, pickled in toxic fluids and sealed in expensive caskets with (as I recall in one trade publication) "a lifetime guarantee".

Can they really trust the finance industry not to assume that since you cannot take it with you, we may as well take it from you now? Hoping that someone will follow in my footsteps when we did a quick and clean funeral for my father (at his request), it is not an issue that deeply concerns me, except for the environmental consequences of stuffing sealed toxic capsules below ground in a country where millions are dependent on wells tapping the ground water.

However in the public interest I approached the Funeral Ethics Association whose Lisa Carlson advised pre-needers not to bother, "unless you are reducing assets to the level to get Medicare". Better to plan ahead she said, while her organisation also advocates cheaper, greener, DIY burials - where the law allows.

The death industry in the United States has lobbyists almost as tenacious as Wall Street's in Washington. Embalming, morticians, concrete vaults and all sorts of expensive ghoulish accoutrements are compulsory in different states. Carlson herself is being sued by Thomas Lynch, author and poet of the mortuary slab for comments she has made about the industry and his business.

Ms Carlson does not say so, of course, but if you are not worried about funeral costs, those who are about to die can happily run up huge credit card charges and leave them swinging for the bailiffs to try to shake down the urn afterwards. Now that is real pre-need planning. But do be careful. My father tried it, and paid an insurance premium on his Visa card. They noticed and came a-knocking.