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.