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.