Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Sheepish about Burns

Burns night in the Catskills
Buying real haggis is illegal in the US – so I tracked down contraband sheep guts for the 250th anniversary of Robbie Burns's birth

o Ian Williams
o guardian.co.uk, Monday 26 January 2009 20.30 GMT

Around the world last weekend, Scots and their sympathisers assembled for the 190 year-old ritual of the Burns Supper, to toast the "immortal memory" of Robert Burns over a fine dish of haggis.

Like many such rituals Burns Night has accrued ahistorical nationalist baggage: tartan, kilts, bagpipes "an a' that". Burns was a radical but a realist. He worked as an exciseman for the British crown that he sometimes berated at a time when this was a patronage appointment. Despite the malt whisky used to toast his memory today, his job's perks included "as much rum and brandy as will easily supply an ordinary family." (No mention of whisky - the days of whisky as a drink of the wealthy were well off in the future.)

So indeed was the tartan kilt. Highland dress was illegal when Burns was young, but Burns and his fellow lowlanders bore the constraint lightly. They were about as likely to wear a kilt and dress up in barbaric Highland splendour as a Wasp banker today is to wear denim overalls. It wasn't until the following century that Walter Scott and his followers romanticised tartans, kilts and sporrans into nationalist symbols.

In the interests of public education and celebration of the internationalist who wrote:

For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

our planned Catskill Burns Supper pledged to dispense with much of the tartanry. What would Rantin' Roving Robin have made of people who wanted to put their pooches in kilts at any time, let along in celebration of his birthday?

And I gather that the Scots themselves have recruited Kofi Annan to celebrate Burns universalism for this, the 250th anniversary of his birth. I hope they provide him with a UN interpreter.

But putting aside kilts, the haggis - "Great chieftain o' the pudding race," as Burns had it - is surely indispensable to the occasion.

After a week hunting for contraband - genuine haggis - the conclusion was that this would have to be a DIY project. It is legally impossible to buy authentic haggis in the United States. In the land of the free and the home of the brave, the nanny state reigns supreme, and it reins in import of any comestible containing sheep's lungs. At first, I thought it must be yet another example of crypto-protection for the domestic US haggis industry. But then my research eventually uncovered a quasi-clandestine network of amateur US haggis-makers. Some of them told me that slaughterhouses refuse to give them back the lungs from their own sheep if they take them in for slaughter.

So I hope Burns, the former ploughman and tax-man, would have appreciated our sacrifice. Last Wednesday I stood in several feet of snow at Snowdance Farm, a few thousand feet up in the Catskills in upstate New York, watching Marc Jaffee slaughter a sheep. Marc emptied the sheep's pluck, the liver, heart and lungs, into one plastic bag, and stomach into another, after obligingly squeezing out most of the half-fermented grass. So there it was, a blow for Rabbie Burns and against the tyranny of the US department of agriculture. And maybe the cold was helpful, as the rich, bucolic aroma spread.

The sheep's stomach looked like an alien sex organ, and it had a pervasive cloacal smell, as I everted it and scrubbed it thoroughly, over and over again in cold running water. The lungs were a bit of a trial: the recipe points out that they should be boiled with the rest of the pluck, but with the windpipe over the edge of the cauldron so any mucus would drip out into a bowl.

By this stage I was tending to agree with PG Wodehouse, who suggests that Macbeth's three witches were in fact cooking haggis. He added: "Scotsmen have their merry moods, like all of us, and the thought must occasionally cross the cook's mind that it would be no end of a lark to shove in a lot of newts and frogs and bats and dogs and then stand in the doorway watching the poor simps wade into them." Midwinter in the mountains, all these things had gone to ground, so we were spared the temptation.

The combined pieces, even after a few hours boiling, defied my electric mixer and I had to rush out to get a sturdy cast-iron hand meat grinder, while in the oven the two pounds of oatmeal gently toasted. But the only real tears came from the onions and pepper I chopped and ground into the mix. Stirred together with the liquid from the cauldron, the oats and the minced pluck fitted nicely into the stomach, whose gnarly bits were now safely back inside it.

Dangling in cheesecloth in the cauldron, a mere five hours brought the beast to perfection, in time for the couple of dozen brave souls who weathered the minus-20 degrees Celsius (-4F) to come for the show. Neil Stewart, a Canadian Scot (so that's why they say "oot and aboot," eh?) roared rhotically through the address to the haggis before plunging a dagger into it. It was a very impressive performance, even though our five-year-old spoke for everyone in the way of little boys: "But I can't understand it!"

Ancestral memories nonetheless restored, the multi-ethnic crowd recited verses, sang and generally had a very good time. The one plucky vegetarian actually tried this most carnivorous of dishes – and confessed she liked it – as did everybody else.

And as we thumbed through the collected works of the poet, just after what could have passed as a predictive ode to Washington DC, Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation, we stumbled across his Ode to General Washington:

A tyrant's proudest insults brav'd,
They shout-a People freed! ….

But come, ye sons of Liberty,
Columbia's offspring, brave as free,
In danger's hour still flaming in the van,
Ye know, and dare maintain, the Royalty of Man!

All agreed as the malt - and indeed some rum and brandy - flowed, that the departure of George Bush, and the successful defiance of the USDA made the ode timely. Next year in the Catskills, was the cry.

Watch out sheep.

Setting the Tone

Setting the right tone
Barack Obama's inaugural address lent itself admirably to his governing style – eloquent but not stilted, pointed but polite

o Ian Williams
o guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 21 January 2009 21.30 GMT

Many people have commented on the echoes of Abraham Lincoln in Barack Obama's inaugural address, but they have missed the point. As the benediction by civil rights veteran Reverend Joseph Lowery demonstrated, Obama's address also echoed the pulpit, and the black pulpit in particular.

This is not too surprising, since they share with Lincoln a common vocabulary of solemnity, the pervasive tradition of King James and the Book of Common Prayer, along with the folksy touch.

This is not aloofness – people expect solemn words for solemn occasions, which is doubtless why so many prefer the older versions to modern translations that read like committee reports. His speech was simple, comprehensible but matched the dignity of the occasion.

His diction was formal but not stilted or pompous, and the formality depended on the precise word order, which provided measure and cadence in an almost antiphonal style. Just listen to the stresses in those opening lines, which set the tone, and indeed the rhythm, for the rest of the speech:

"humbled by the task before us,
grateful for the trust you have bestowed,
mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors."

And of course there were the antiphonal contrasts: "The rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace" or "So it has been. So it must be."

Definitely not something to be mumbled by his rhetorically misunderestimated predecessor, there was more poetry in this speech than the somewhat vapid "Praise song" by Elizabeth Alexander, which pandered to the modern prejudice that poetry can dispense with disciplines of rhyme or scansion.

Since this was not the product of a committee, let alone focus groups, it lent itself admirably to Obama's own style. It is an authentic American tradition of oratory that can tend to bloviated orotundity on one end of the scale but gave the Gettysburg Address on the other. This was not up there with Gettysburg (which was not an immediate hit with contemporaries anyway) but definitely tending that way.

Obama's thanks and appreciation to George Bush the person were followed by a comprehensive but polite repudiation of his political legacy. In an atmosphere of bitter ad hominem attacks, he set an example.

In the political discourse of recent America, to be as studiously inclusive as Obama was, with invocations to Christians and Muslims (note the order), not to mention non-believers, was in its way to be very exclusive. His programme excludes anti-science creationists, elitists, dogmatic free marketers and bigots of all kinds.

His continual evocation of collective, common responsibilities is a rebuttal to and rebuke of Thatcherism – "There is no such thing as society" – while his vindication of the role of government (as if not vindicated by events) refutes both Ronald Reagan's ideological opposition to it, and Bill Clinton's pandering to neoliberals, without itself being dogmatically assertive. Indeed his call for effective government echoes Deng Xiaoping's indifference to the colour of cats as long as they catch mice.

If not quite in the King James mode, his evocation of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers called up more recent, Depression-era folk memories. Most people will have found the words "Start all over again" popping up in their heads after "Pick yourself, dust yourself off," and some may even remember the full context:

"Will you remember the famous men,
Who had to fall to rise again?
So take a deep breath,
Pick yourself up,
Dust yourself off,
Start all over again."

It was a very apposite text for the sermon – sorry, speech – whose theme is indeed a repudiation of the poisonous ideologies that brought us to this pass and a call for "hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord".

And one hopes that it is indeed true, with his 80% approval ratings, that "On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics."

But only if you do not trawl the Mesozoic swamps of conservative websites, where the far-from-fossilised right is sharpening its claws and fangs ready to start all over again. And of course in Congress, where the lobbyists are already swarming like velociraptors to get their greedy maws on the taxpayers' money, Obama will need armour like a stegosaurus if he really intends to put truth in the rhetoric.


Failure's no success at all
George Bush deserves an Oscar for his performance as a statesman after convincing so many people to believe his lies

o Ian Williams
o guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 14 January 2009 18.00 GMT

As disastrous a president as he has been, George Bush is certainly cleverer than most of his detractors gave him credit for. He is reminiscent of Stalin, whose defeated rivals sneered at his intellect. Like Stalin, Bush passed the ultimate Darwinian test: He held power while his detractors did not. But while researchers now reveal that Joe the Georgian had a personal library of some 20,000 well-thumbed and heavily annotated volumes, no one, despite Karl Rove's claims to the contrary, really believes that book boxes will take up much space in the moving van when the 43rd president quits the White House or sells his dude ranch in Crawford, Texas.

What did Bush do well? He epitomised the Republican party's makeover of itself as the party of the common man, even as he pursued the most unabashedly plutocratic policies in an American history replete with welfare for the wealthy.

In some measure, he was an unacknowledged acolyte of the method school of acting. Who knows, maybe even the drinking was over-enthusiastic preparation for his coming role as a son of the soil?

College friends at Harvard have told me how Bush used to chew tobacco as if it made him more Texan. But the University of Texas Law School refused to admit him on his unimpressive Yale transcripts, so he had had to use a nepotistic legacy – positive discrimination for wealthy Wasps – to get into Harvard.

So here was an Ivy League jock and wastrel born to a Waspy northeastern family with a long line of silver spoons in its ancestral mouths, passing himself off as an illiterate, verbally dyslexic rube and a self-made man at the same time. Not to mention that he passed himself off as a quasi-veteran instead of a deserter, as Dan Rather's court case against CBS is likely to reiterate this year. It is uncanny how someone with such a dubious military record spent so much time speaking on military bases or to veterans, always in some semblance of military garb. It is method acting that Stanislavsky would have applauded, although psyching yourself up with "I am a Bush" may not be as taxing a role as "I am a tree".

Of course, 4,000 dead Americans and untold thousands of dead Iraqis ago, Bush landed in full pilot's accoutrements on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln to the backdrop of "Mission accomplished". This is going to be one of iconic images that will haunt his posterity, along with reading My Pet Goat on 9/11, complimenting Fema head Michael Brown for the post-Katrina debacle and dodging the shoe in Baghdad.

Of these, one cannot help think that Katrina was the turning point when Americans finally shared the perception of much of the world that their country was in the hands of an administration that was as incompetent as it was malicious.

So, at the end of a career that reduced his country to its lowest-ever standing in international public opinion polls, not to mention his own reputation domestically, what has Bush ever done for us?

Well he has brought unemployment to its highest in decades and presided over the biggest fiscal deficit in the country's history, and in the name of free enterprise and hands-off government, he will leave the government in effective ownership of much of the crumbling financial sector while giving government agents constitution-free permission to torture, imprison and spy on citizens, residents and foreigners alike. He also presided over an orgy of dollar printing that will surely hit the currency and the US economy down the line.

If we rank these as Bush's marks on history, we are left to contemplate his failures, for which even a born-again atheist is tempted to thank the Lord.

He totally failed in his plans to privatise social security, for which all of us but the Bernie Madoffs of this land should give daily thanks.

Above all, Bush failed Israel and the evangelists in their Armageddon movement. For whatever reason, he failed to back an Israeli strike on Iran by nixing the bunker buster bombs, the mid-air refuelling capability and allowing the overflight of Iraq.

So what is his greatest political achievement, putting to one side the ethical dimension and the incompetent governance thing? Surely he deserves an Oscar for his performance as a statesman, which was so convincing that most of the American media bought his lies and grovelled to him, and maybe a Golden Globe for persuading "Yo Blair" to play best supporting actor next to him for so long – even at the expense of his own career.

And his subsidiary achievement? Making Bill Clinton look good. Now that's impressive.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Not so Special

Ian Williams:
They’re changing the guard at the White House
January 17, 2009 Tribune, London

AS THE world sighs with relief that George W Bush is finally stepping down, one wonders what it will mean for the famous “special relationship”. Overall, it has been one of the longest episodes of unrequited love in history – and perhaps no more so in Britain than under “new” Labour.

But when American politicians talk about special relationships or “our closest ally”, they are not referring to the United States’ unsinkable aircraft carrier, the country which bankrupted itself in two world wars, was on the front line in Korea and standing side by side with it in Afghanistan and Iraq.

No, they are talking about Israel, the special ally from whom they tolerate spying, sinking of ships such as the USS Liberty, and for whom they have been regularly prepared to alienate the rest of the world.

The Anglo-American “special relationship” has always existed more in the eyes of British ministers than in the facts on the ground. Winston Churchill saw the British Empire dismembered and its Treasury looted by Franklin D Roosevelt even as he whispered sweet nothings to the American President. Churchill complained: “We are not only to be skinned, but flayed to the bone”, about the American financial terms. And FDR was the nice one!

The 1945 Labour Government constructed Nato with self-interest in mind, reportedly to “keep the Germans down, the Russians out and the Americans in”. Even so, confronted with American duplicity on nuclear research and callousness on credits that almost led to economic collapse, Clement Attlee’s Government decided to build a British nuclear bomb. Despite all their protestations of undying alliances, they knew that Washington would use Britain when it was convenient and then toss it aside like a used condom afterwards.

With a genuine Soviet threat in Europe, there was some pragmatic justification for swallowing it and maintaining the pretence of a special relationship, but the one time that it was the closest to reality was between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Apart from Tony Blair and his acolytes, not many of us remember this as Britain’s finest hour.

However, whatever you think of the Iron Lady, there was no “Yo Maggie” business from Ron, none of the genial contempt that Bush used for Blair. On issues such as the Middle East and defending British companies against US attempts to extent its legislation extra-territorially, Thatcher was quite willing to stand up to Washington. It is worth remembering that she had to. If it were not for her seductive charms with Reagan, the US conservative establishment would have supported the Argentinean junta and its invasion of the Falklands Islands over Thatcher and the “mother country”.

The lesson of Israel is that a squeaky wheel gets the grease – by the bucketful – while those who lie down uncomplainingly looking at the ceiling and thinking of shared values get screwed.

Gordon Brown has allowed a sliver of daylight to appear between himself and the deserter-in-chief across the water. No “Yo Gordies” are recorded. In any case, surely British foreign policy is now due for a reappraisal? The Germans maybe up for it and friendly, the Russians are played out, and the Americans on the verge of being an economic basket case.

It will behove Brown to start making up to President Obama as fast and furiously as possible. The scale of the recovery programmes under consideration are bound to have repercussions for Britain and Europe. Co-ordination is desirable and essential.

However, the myth of the special relationship lulls British leaders into thinking a quick call to the American President and an occasional royal visit is all that is necessary. Israel and other countries do not make that mistake. They work the lobbies of the US Congress to get results. If Britain wants any type of meaningful relationship, it needs to connect to the sordid reality.

Brown has to abandon his underlying Euroscepticism. There may be pragmatic grounds, for example, for staying out the euro, but the plunging pound suggests it is time to reconsider his undeclared tacit blanket rejection. Above all, in the European Union, Britain has a genuine stature and role to play in shaping the future in an economy that aims to be far more resilient and successful in protecting its citizens than the US. Look to Iceland for the alternative.

In fact, for decades, friendly American leaders, a little embarrassed perhaps by the faithful partner they have so often mistreated, have been advising Britain to involve itself more in the EU. British leaders, so sadly and slavishly prepared to follow the American lead in almost every other way, no matter how self-evidently disastrous, have baulked at taking this advice.

I remember with nostalgia the early days of this Labour Government, with Robin Cook, Claire Short and others. Even under the Tories, Britain’s standing was surprising high in the United Nations as a good global citizen and in the early days of Blair’s Government it bounced even higher. Alas, total subservience to Washington soon destroyed much of that. A declaration of independence would go a long way to restore beneficial British influence around the world – and in Washington.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Buck Up. We Can Sell Alaska

Buck up
Ian Williams ponders the strong dollar

Speculator, Investor Relations Magazine, November 2008

Suddenly things fell apart. Our only hope is that, unlike Humpty Dumpty, they can be put back together again.

It’s no great consolation that Speculator has repeatedly suggested in recent years that the US economy has, in effect, been running on hot air. That said, even Speculator failed to anticipate the way subprime loans metastasized through the global economy.

One could understand the motives of the banks packaging and selling the bonds; they made a fortune in fees at each stage of the process. In a Ponzi scheme, the idea is to broaden the process and find more marks among the general public. This one was almost unique in that other financial institutions bought the snake oil, so the erstwhile Masters of the Universe were falling for their own confidence tricks.

Even at the end, as some of the banks realized how toxic their wares were, their reaction was not to issue a financial health warning, but to attempt to unload the bonds on their peers. There is, truly, no honor among thieves.

None of the famous new paradigms seemed to explain how dire the consequences would be. There are huge pools of money coagulating around the globe, including, one suspects, the ill-gotten gains of the bond-mongers, but no wants to risk it, which is why the government has had to flood the system with liquidity.

The caution surrounding most forms of credit – and even equities – is understandable. But why are people buying dollars? Cash may be the first port of call, but surely any sensible financial navigator would get the hell out of it again as soon as possible. And yet, with a massive deficit on trade, and a huge fiscal hole just enlarged by a $700 bn bailout, the dollar almost inexplicably rises.

In Peter Pan, Tinkerbell is brought back to life because all the children believe in fairies. And something similar seems to be happening to the dollar, although it’s more a question of everybody being more skeptical about all other forms of liquidity.

With the US Treasury, in effect, printing money to pay for sundry wars, pork barrels and bailouts, how long can this last? Well, as long as the Chinese continue buying T-bonds. But even Beijing will want some collateral soon.

The situation is reminiscent of the UK’s 1940 war cabinet, which decided to continue World War II even if it meant liquidating every British asset and selling it to the Americans. That precedent offers some inspiration now.

Sadly, the UK is not in a position to make any offers for the original 13 colonies. Perhaps a bidding war between Canada, Russia and China for Alaska is in order. It would sell for far more than the $7 mn originally paid for it and a good realtor could talk up its glowing prospects when global warming really sets in.

Vermont, home of the US’ only socialist senator, would probably volunteer to go to Canada for a small consideration, and the French could make an offer from their gold reserves to take back Louisiana, which would save FEMA a fortune in future hurricane damage repairs.

These are desperate measures, admittedly, but with Americans’ future depending on the credibility of their currency, what else could get the people of the world to believe in that most modern equivalent of fairies, a strong dollar?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Obama's Opportunity in Gaza

Obama and Israel

Ian Williams | January 9, 2009

Foreign Policy In Focus

On January 5 John Bolton, the former unconfirmed U.S. envoy to the United Nations, advocated in The Washington Post a "three-state solution" to the Palestinian problem. This "solution" involved returning Gaza to Egypt and the West Bank to Jordan because the Palestinian state has manifestly failed.

A perennial cutter of Gordian knots, Bolton usually misses the complexity of the turns — and the identity of the knot-tiers. In this case, he missed the rather obvious point that the Palestinian Authority's ailments are connected to the Israeli refusal to allow a viable and contiguous state to exist and its constant undermining of whatever party the Palestinian people elect, first Fatah and now Hamas. In fact, Bolton doesn't go far enough. Following his line of "reasoning," Israel should be returned to Britain as a mandate and then quickly turned over to the United States.

The Obama administration isn't likely to pick up Bolton's advice to dissolve the Palestinian state. In the current policy vacuum, however, Obama should be ready for a serious rethink of U.S. policy. And that rethink should begin with Israel.
Israel and the United States

Israel is far from being simply a U.S. satellite and base. In many ways, the United States orbits Israel. For domestic political reasons, the U.S. government in effect uncritically guarantees almost any act of any Israeli government. There are, of course, some limits, though not many. For example, it's clear that Israel either couldn't or wouldn't mount an attack on Iran without U.S. approval, which was likely withheld more because of its potential effect on U.S. forces in the region than any principled objection to the idea.

This U.S.-Israeli relationship gives President-elect Obama, despite his distressing silence on the Gaza conflict, a unique window of opportunity. Domestically, he garnered the votes of almost 80% of American Jews, despite a furious campaign from Republican and Likudnik die-hard organizations questioning his attachment to the Zionist project and Israel's defense.

Even after his kowtowing to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) during the primaries, Obama won even more support from American Muslims than he did from Jews.

Obama shouldn't listen to conservative Jewish organizations, who outshout the silent majority of American Jews who abide by their traditional liberal and humanitarian instincts. The overwhelming majority of American Jews voted for Obama, and the emergence of voices like J Street offers an opportunity for a new president who owes the "Israel Lobby" nothing.
Obama and Israel

If Obama wants to be a real friend to Israel, he has to let the Israeli government know its actions are not consequence-free. There is both a principled and a pragmatic constituency that he can address in Israel itself. Until now, the Israeli electorate has worked on the principle that whatever happens, the United States will provide support. If the government needs replacements for expended cluster bombs, the United States will airlift them in. If the UN, the EU, and other international actors criticize Israel's military actions, Washington will send the aid check as always. This uncritical support of Israel must change.

Obama shouldn't let the immediate crisis in Gaza deflect from the root problem. Israeli leaders have a profound ambivalence toward the peace process, to which they officially subscribe even as they continue building settlements in the West Bank. The United States must push Israel toward greater engagement with a peace settlement. Nor can the United States or the EU continue to ostracize any Palestinian (or for that matter the Lebanese) leadership demonized by Israel as terrorists.

On the carrot side, Obama should promise full security guarantees to Israel within the internationally accepted borders, based on the June 1967 lines.

Since he is being bipartisan, the new president should take up where George Bush Sr. and James Baker left off almost two decades ago. Any Israeli spending on settlement building should be condemned in the UN, and matched by equivalent reductions in U.S. aid. He should also implement actual U.S. policy by reminding Israelis that American weaponry is intended for defensive purposes and that any used in attacks beyond the borders won't be replaced.

Finally, the president-elect should speak out now about the desirability of Israel abiding by UN Security Council Resolution 1860, which calls for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, Israeli troop withdrawal, and sustained delivery of humanitarian assistance. A word from Obama would give Israel the excuse it desperately needs to extricate itself from the hole it dug in Gaza, while redounding to the president-elect's credit globally.

Given the cast of mind of many leading Democrats, such a rethink of U.S.-Israel relations is sure to be controversial. But early and speedy action before Obama starts campaigning for reelection should produce results. And backing a durable peace would be the best way of supporting Israel in the end.

Ian Williams is a senior analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus.

Friday, January 09, 2009

The Buck in The Bog

From Investor Relations Magazine June 2008

I wrote this way back in April, and only recently resurrected it, so I'm quite proud of the prescience..

The bog down in the valley-o

Ian Williams breaks into song

It was 2030 when a Chinese traveler in the ruins of Manhattan heard singing. As he approached, he saw – dancing round a campfire on the Bowling Green – a group dressed in a strange mixture of bearskins and the tattered remnants of Brooks Brothers suits. He recorded their song, which appeared to be an old folk tune.

The bog down in the valley-o

O-ro, the rattling bog, the bog down in the valley-o
O-ro, the rattling bog, the bog down in the valley-o.

And in that bog there was a shack, a rare shack, a rattling shack,
With the shack in the bog
And the bog down in the valley-o.

And on that shack there was a loan, a rare loan, a rattling loan,
With the loan on the shack, and the shack in the bog
And the bog down in the valley-o.

And on that loan there was a bond, a rare bond, a rattling bond,
With the bond on the loan, and the loan on the shack, and the shack in the bog
And the bog down in the valley-o.

And behind that bond there was Bear Sterns, a rare bear, a rattling bear,
With the bear on the bond, and the bond on the loan, and the loan on the shack,
and the shack in the bog
And the bog down in the valley-o.

And behind the bear there was the Fed, a rich Fed, a rattling Fed,
With the Fed on the bear, and the bear on the bond, and the bond on the loan,
and the loan on the shack, and the shack in the bog
And the bog down in the valley-o.

And behind the Fed was the Treas’ry, a rare Treas’ry, a rattling Treas’ry,
With the Treas’ry on the Fed, and the Fed on the bear, and the bear on the bond,
and the bond on the loan, and the loan on the shack, and the shack in the bog
And the bog down in the valley-o.

And behind the Treas’ry was the buck, a rare buck, a rattling buck,
With the buck on the Treas’ry, and the Treas’ry on the Fed, and the Fed on the bear,
and the bear on the bond, and the bond on the loan, and the loan on the shack,
and the shack in the bog
And the bog down in the valley-o.

And behind that buck was the RMB, a rare RMB, a rattling RMB,
With the RMB on the buck, and the buck on the Treas’ry, and the Treas’ry on the Fed,
and the Fed on the bear, and the bear on the bond, and the bond on the loan,
and the loan on the shack, and the shack in the bog
And the bog down in the valley-o.

And behind the RMB was the Chinese Party, a rare party, a rattling party,
With the party on the RMB, and the RMB on the buck, and the buck on the Treas’ry,
and the Treas’ry on the Fed, and the Fed on the bear, and the bear on the bond,
and the bond on the loan, and the loan on the shack, and the shack in the bog
And the bog down in the valley-o.

And on that party grew cold feet, rare cold feet, rattling cold feet,
So the RMB stiffed the buck, and the buck hit a hole, and the Treas’ry spooked
the Fed, and the Fed loosed the bear, and the bear chewed the bond,
and the bond lost the loan, and the shack was foreclosed, and we all took a bath
In the bog down in the valley-o.

Quartet, Sahara, UN etc

A PS is in order, Cox was finally named rep for Western Sahara in January

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 2008, pages 36-37

United Nations Report
Winners and Losers in the Biennial Contest For Security Council’s Rotating Seats
By Ian Williams

IT WAS NO great surprise, nor necessarily a triumph for American diplomacy, that Iran failed in its bid for one of five two-year rotating Security Council seats, the one representing the Asian States. Tokyo beat Tehran by a five-to-one majority, 158-32 votes. (When there are more candidates from a regional group than there are rotating Security Council seats, the voting goes to the 192-member General Assembly, as it did in this case.)

Officially in Europe for voting purposes, Turkey, along with Austria, won the two European seats, beating financially battered Iceland. It will be interesting to observe Turkey’s voting record, since it has been ruled by an Islamist party for the past six years, while its powerful military establishment is closely tied to Israel and the U.S. There is likely to be some tightrope walking on the Council as the Turkish ambassador balances the two positions.

The U.S. and Israel had had the chutzpah to suggest that it would be wrong to have a Security Council member (in this case, Turkey) against whom there were U.N. decisions. This would be a pertinent point if either had complained about, for example, Morocco’s defiance of resolutions on Western Sahara, or Indonesia’s former recalcitrance over East Timor, which did not stop Washington from supporting their Security Council seats. Indeed, the Turkish forces in northern Cyprus would be more of an issue if the local government there were not committed to reunification talks. (Although a member of the EU, Cyprus is in the Asian rather than the West European and Other group—the “other,” to pile on the U.N. illogic, including Canada, Australia and New Zealand.)

Because it was a secret ballot, one can presume that it reflects the relative standing of the countries. Iran failed to win over both the Organization of Islamic States and the Non-Aligned Movement. Japan, widely felt to deserve a permanent seat, has played a coyly constructive role. In contrast, Iran’s Shi’i revolution is automatically upsetting to much of the Muslim world, let alone other countries.

Iran’s nuclear program, although perfectly legal until the Security Council called a halt to its processing uranium, does not make economic sense for a country that cannot even refine the oil that is the bedrock of its economy. Nor does it make political sense, except as a means to persuade the U.S. that it must talk to Tehran. The manifest hypocrisy and double standards involved in tacitly condoning Israel’s, India’s and Pakistan’s open nuclear weapon programs are no excuse.
Regardless of Iran’s defeat, Washington had little or no success in getting support for tougher sanctions.

Regardless of Iran’s defeat, Washington had little or no success in getting support for tougher sanctions. Even the talks about them had been postponed, following the alienation of China because of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and the dispute with Russia over Georgia. Eventually the best the U.S. could achieve was a resolution in late September affirming previous resolutions, but with no new penalties attached.

Battered by the economic tsunami, the U.S. only managed to get the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany to a telephone conference in October, but had no more success. Their cause probably was not helped by the International Atomic Energy Authority’s Mohammed ElBaradei, who said the Iranians “do not have even the nuclear material, the raw unenriched uranium to develop one nuclear weapon if they decide to do so. Even if you decide to walk out tomorrow from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and you go into a lot of scenarios, we’re still not going to see Iran tomorrow having nuclear weapons.”
Jumping the Gun?

Speaking of the double standard, Morocco was holding up the appointment of a new U.N. special representative for the Western Sahara. The vacancy was created, of course, following the effective firing, or at least failure to renew his contract, of Dutch diplomat Robert Van Walsum for his outright espousal of the autonomy plan. Even though he admitted it was wrong in principle, Van Walsum had candidly prescribed the complete lack of interest by the international community in forcing Morocco, an ally of Israel and the U.S., to make any concessions to legality.

In a September interview with Al-Hurra television, Condoleezza Rice announced the appointment of Christopher Ross, which was odd in itself. Normally it would have been somewhat presumptuous for an official of a member state to announce a U.N. appointment, since the secretary-general is supposed to make both the decision and the announcement. This was even more puzzling since, a month later, there was still no announcement. Sources in the U.N. said that Morocco was holding up the appointment, firstly because it had wanted Von Walsum retained, and then because it had wanted Warren Christopher and was doubtful about Ross, a retired U.S. ambassador who had survived the gentle purges of “Arabists” within the State Department over the years. An Arabic speaker, one of his former positions was U.S. ambassador to Algeria.

With a parallel seepage of principles and creepage of language to what it uses regarding the Israeli settlements, the State Department has moved from “serious and credible” to “the only realistic solution” to describe Morocco’s defiance of U.N. resolutions on a referendum of its autonomy plan. Like Israel, Morocco sees every concession by Washington as the platform for yet another incremental escalation of condoned illegality—and the State Department, so solicitous of American dignity in other areas, goes along with it.
Quartet Shows Some Gums

Moving right along on the double standard front, the Quartet met as the olive harvest began in the West Bank and as illegal Israeli settlers, untrammeled and indeed protected by the Israel Defense Forces ramped up their brownshirt tactics against Palestinian harvesters, and as the Israeli government continued to flout its obligations under international law—not to mention its promises to the Quartet, to Washington and to the Palestinians—by expanding settlements.

So it is not surprising that the Quartet’s statement was expressed in the arcane polysyllables that George Orwell, in Politics and the English Language, identified as designed to obscure the lack of content. Waffled its closing statement: “The Quartet recognized that a meaningful and results-oriented process is underway and called upon the parties to continue to make every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008. It noted the significance of this process and the importance of confidentiality in order to preserve its integrity.”

In short, very little has happened.

After souffléing further in a similar vein, the statement began to show some gums, if not teeth. “The Quartet expressed deep concern about increasing settlement activity, which has a damaging impact on the negotiating environment and is an impediment to economic recovery, and called on Israel to freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth, and to dismantle outposts erected since March 2001. In this regard, the Quartet reiterated that the parties must avoid actions that undermine confidence and could prejudice the outcome of the negotiations. Quartet Principals condemned the recent rise in settler violence against Palestinian civilians, urging the enforcement of the rule of law without discrimination or exception.”

This was a commendable toughening of language about blatant Israeli disregard for its own promises, but it still fell into the trap of comparing Israeli government actions with Palestinian groups’ and individuals’ behavior: “The Quartet also condemned acts of terrorism against Israelis, including any rocket attacks emanating from the Palestinian territories, and stressed the need for further Palestinian efforts to fight terrorism and dismantle the infrastructure of terror, as well as foster an atmosphere of tolerance.”

Even so, in using the phrase about “the enforcement of the rule of law” the Quartet perhaps is inching out of the trap, since so far it has accepted the Israeli point that not a stone can fly in the territories without the PA being responsible, while Israel has no responsibility even for the acts of its own thuggish soldiery, let alone for civilian militias.

In Iraq, the U.N. has become essential sub-text. After disdaining and disclaiming the organization in the run up to the invasion, the Bush administration afterwards discovered that its only path to legality—and the only way Iraqi oil could be sold—was to return to the United Nations.

One may wonder, with some justification in the face of international scofflaws, about the power of the U.N., but it is worth noting that the laws the latter scoff are set by the organization—and continue to have considerable moral force, as the lack of recognition of the occupations of the Palestinian territories and of Western Sahara demonstrates. It works in Iraq as well.

By the end of the year, the U.N. resolution authorizing the U.S. “military assistance” to the Iraqi government expires. Washington is faced with the dubious choice of putting its operations in Iraq up for discussion by Russia, China and other of its fellow Security Council members, risking their veto, or wringing a bilateral agreement from the Iraqi government before the deadline.

As the news demonstrates, it has decided that Baghdad will be easier to blackmail than Beijing or Moscow, hence Washington’s wrestling with Iraqi nationalist sentiments to produce a bilateral agreement on the status of forces. The Baghdad government has to balance its dependence on U.S. forces to remain in power against the clear sentiments of its people that the troops should leave. But it is thanks to the U.N. that the U.S. cannot just have its own way.
Pinochet’s Echoes Today

January 9th, 2009 Posted in Books, Chile, Democracy, Economy, Justice |
World Policy Institute

Ian Williams

September 11 is a day that will live in infamy: a terrorist attack on a landmark building whose aftermath left more than 3,000 dead. Yes, Chileans will always remember the coup of September 11, 1973, when their military commanders—with tacit, and indeed active, support from Washington—bombed their own presidential palace, setting up a repressive regime that imprisoned, tortured, and executed supporters of the deposed government while driving untold more into exile.

But while Osama bin Laden is being hounded around the North West Frontier, one of the architects of the Chilean coup, Henry Kissinger, is a revered advisor to governments; the other, Augusto Pinochet, died without facing trial for his involvement.

“He had taken full advantage of the rights guaranteed to him by due process—rights that his victims were denied—and postponed his day of reckoning indefinitely.” On the day he died, “My feelings of hate toward Pinochet and what he represented had waned through the years; instead I felt a serene contempt for the man,” concludes Heraldo Muñoz in The Dictator’s Shadow, a highly readable, fascinating, and revelatory account of the General’s career.

Muñoz, now Chile’s ambassador to the United Nations and one of those who had to flee his country in 1973, has written a remarkably restrained memoir assessing just how big a shadow Pinochet cast, both globally and historically.

In fact, Pinochet comes across almost as a Zelig-like figure crossed with his earlier Spanish counterpart, Francisco Franco. Muñoz points out that as with many other aspects credited to him, Pinochet only adopted Chicago School economics under pressure from Admiral José Toribio Merino. Indeed, it wasn’t only economics the General bought ready-made off the shelf. A gray military bureaucrat who prospered by hanging on, Pinochet joined the coup against the president (who had appointed him commander-in-chief, mind you) mostly because his subordinates told him they were going ahead anyway. He adopted the anticommunist ideology and rhetoric almost retrospectively.

Muñoz stresses that the dictator stood out from other Latin America caudillos largely because he broke a uniquely long tradition (for Latin America) of democracy in Chile, but also because of his economic policies. Furthering this point, Muñoz writes: “In contrast to the disastrous record of most Latin American dictators, Pinochet would have had far fewer defenders if it had not been for his regime’s economic reforms.”

Could Chile have reached its present level of prosperity without the dictatorship? There is credit given in The Dictator’s Shadow for some of the economic reforms but Muñoz dismisses totally the idea that the dictatorship, the killings, and the repression were necessary—or even helpful—for the implementation of fiscal policies.

To cope with the initial recession that the Chilean shock treatment induced (and with ironic parallels to the current Bush administration policy), “Pinochet had to nationalize banks and industries on a scale unimagined by the Allende government.” The irony continues: it was the alleged socialistic trends of the Allende government that were the excuse for the coup in the first place.

Muñoz is emphatic that while some of the reforms had positive effects in weaning the country off its overdependence on copper and in encouraging a more entrepreneurial spirit, most economic growth has been made since democracy’s return, which has provided Chile a growth rate and prosperity that is in stark contrast, for example, with neighboring Argentina.

One of the reasons for this, Muñoz explains, is that Pinochet united the previously dispersed factions of Chilean politics in a renewed appreciation of both democracy and rule of law. While on the day of the coup Muñoz was picking up the pathetic armory of his Socialist Party unit, he eventually helped form the Socialist Party faction that tried to work within the realities of the situation rather than indulge in revolutionary gestures. They reached out to the Christian Democrats, among others, and campaigned against the referendum which would cement Pinochet’s rule.

Even though he correctly ascribes much of the blame for the coup’s chaos to Washington and its agents who worked to destabilize the country, Muñoz also accepts some of the responsibility for the growing schism in Chilean society—due in large part to the radical elements of the Socialist Party. Muñoz’s story of his involvement in the small jeans-making workshop (whose laborers were urged into reappropriating it for themselves) is emblematic. After the coup it was returned to its owner—only to close completely under the pressure of Friedmanite “reforms.”

While the tale of Pinochet, the coup, and the involvement of the United States may seem like ancient history to many younger readers, what makes The Dictator’s Shadow an engaging read is the discovery by Muñoz and his compatriots of the seductions of democracy that paved the way for what is now a prosperous Northern European-style socially democratic state at the Southern tip of the Antipodes.

Modern Chile is a much more successful model for the world than Pinochet’s military regime and its muddled laissez-faire economics (the same financial thinking that is widely blamed for the current global crisis). Insofar as there are lessons to be learned regarding prosecuting former heads of state for crimes against humanity, for Pinochet himself, they come sadly too late.

The IDF war on the UN

The UN in Israel's sights
The shelling of schools in Gaza caps off a tumultuous relationship between the UN and Israel

o Ian Williams
o guardian.co.uk, Thursday 8 January 2009 13.30 GMT
As well as the untimely and tragic end of over 40 Palestinian civilians, the Israeli shelling of UN schools in Gaza could be taken as a final farewell salute to the honeymoon between Ban Ki-moon and Israel.
Ban came into office with somewhat limited appreciation of the Middle East, and seemed to take much of his attitude second-hand from Washington. But his own deep sense of ethics and growing experience of Israeli duplicity and obduracy could be plotted on the rising curve of indignation in his public statements. Israel has been provided with the exact coordinates of all UN agency installations in the strip. So are those who fired the shots incompetent, ruthless or undisciplined and vindictive?
There is a morbid circularity in this. When Boutros Boutros Ghali took office as UN secretary general, he was reviled by much of the Arab world as the architect of the original Camp David accords, which they regarded as treachery. He left as their hero after Israel shelled the UN compound at Qana in Lebanon, killing over a hundred civilians who had taken shelter there.
Famously, when the Israeli ambassador came to ask for the suppression of the UN's report on the incident because it would "open deep wounds in Israel" Boutros Ghali retorted that they could not match the wounds inflicted on the Lebanese who were shelled.
Ironically, Kofi Annan, who was accused of trying to soften the report in Israel's favour and did much to bring the Jewish state into the UN mainstream, left office in 2006 with a similar problem: the day-long shelling of the UN compound at Khiam and killing of four UN peacekeepers, despite long hours of messages from local UNIFIL commanders, and even high-level messages from the UN HQ directly to Israel.
There is a pattern here. Firstly, the regular gruesome pre-election blood sacrifice to prove that Israeli politicians like Ehud Barak are hairy-chested and macho enough to be elected. The IDF personnel involved are either criminally culpable or incompetent, but can be confident that they will escape with impunity – an impunity that increases with each shooting incident in the territories. IDF spokespeople will refer to alleged "terrorist" activity near the sites as they did here and tut tut about how the nasty Arab terrorists use human shields.
Interestingly, this does not apply when they set up machine gun nests on the top of UN schools, as they have done in the past, or on the top of apartment blocks, as they have done this time.
The IDF, of course, always behaves as if it is shocked, shocked, that wild firing into the most densely populated territory in the world produces civilian casualties.
But now let us compare international reactions. A Serb mortar shell into the market place in Sarajevo in 1995 led to much-belated Nato and UN intervention against the perpetrators. Here the US that called for that action has, as in 2006 in Lebanon, resisted almost unanimous international calls for a ceasefire, and is now belatedly converted to the idea, albeit hedged around with enough qualifications to keep the blood flowing into Gaza's already overflowing sewers a little longer.
When the US does move, it will almost certainly be, as in Lebanon, to use the UN security council as a fireman's ladder to let Israel get down gracefully from the gory pole it has once again mounted. It is too much to hope that the perpetrators will appear before an international court?
But one can anticipate that even more Israeli politicians and generals will be checking with their lawyers as well as their travel agents before going on any trips abroad.

Guilt by "investigation"

Bill Richardson's guilt by association
Barack Obama should fight Republican attacks rather than let the mere whiff of scandal derail his cabinet appointments

o Ian Williams
o guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 6 January 2009 18.00 GMT

Personally, I thought New Mexico governor Bill Richardson should have been Barack Obama's secretary of state, so it is even more galling that his appointment as commerce secretary should be derailed by an investigation into an alleged pay-for-play scandal in his state.

When the owners of building site hoardings put up signs saying "Bill Stickers will be prosecuted," wags used to add the declaration "Bill Stickers is innocent!" Frankly, I would not be quite so declaratively definitive about Richardson. He is, after all, an American politician. But "Bill Richardson is innocent(ish)" I could happily put on my placard, and I still think he would be an asset to Obama's cabinet.

Being investigated, even with the investigators leaking like a drunk after two six-packs of Bud, is not the same as being guilty. Richardson himself has not been charged, or so far even implicated, in the alleged influence-peddling under his New Mexico administration. But is it Pollyannish or Casablanca-ish that everyone should be shocked, shocked that those who provide billions of dollars of campaign financing often seem to benefit from subsequent government action?

Hence my instinctive sympathies for Illinois governor Rod Blagojevic. Here he is, his official decisions threatened with overturning, facing possible impeachment, and yet how many elected politicians in the US could put their hand on their heart and without risk of their pants catching fire, declare that their decisions had been totally uninfluenced by campaign contributions? That they had never, ever, ever made a deal on voting in return for favours from their colleagues? Blagojevich was indeed indiscreet, and if he had any sense he should have realised that the FBI was tapping his telephone, but if he simply concluded his business with a wink and nudge in the country club or over a dinner table no one would have even noticed the revolving door as he or his wife took up a sinecure after appointing a senator.

Governmental policy in the US is notoriously cheap. A few hundred thousand to Bill Clinton bought a tightening of the embargo on Cuba and a trade war over bananas at the World Trade Organisation. We could allow for ideological rectitude, but does anyone really think that George Bush and the Republican party's opposition to the concept of climate change is totally unrelated to contributions from Jurassic oil like Exxon-Mobil? Having a former CEO of Halliburton in the vice-presidency would seem to have bought them lots of no-bid Iraq war contracts.

Stuart Bowen, Bush's appointee as special inspector general for Iraq, has been investigating the billions of dollars that went astray in Iraqi reconstruction contracts. No one in the administration resigned, there have been very few prosecutions and the FBI's Clouseauish response to the revelations from his reports has been to investigate him! And of course to ensure that the investigation was leaked to the media as soon as Bowen's reports pricked the bubble of the alleged success of the Iraq reconstruction effort.

Richardson has done the right thing by standing down for possible improprieties on his watch, sure to be seized upon in any confirmation hearings by a revanchist Republican party and indeed probably quietly supported by vengeful Clintonistas who have never forgiven the New Mexico governor for "defecting" to Obama at an early stage of the campaign.

Even so, it does seem worrying that all it takes to derail a competent elected official is the announcement of investigations. In a litigious society with law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and even judges elected or under direct political influence, it seems at times as if everyone is under investigation. Indeed, the FBI probably does have anyone of any political prominence under investigation in the time it can spare from sending paid informants and provocateurs to set up terrorist plots it can then forestall in a blaze of publicity. Effectively, Bernard Madoff handed himself in without a peep from the bureau.

Obama's team had better get some spine quickly and realise that bipartisanship is supposed to be a two-way affair. Otherwise there will be more investigations and allegations against his appointees from embittered Republicans and their allies in places like J Edgar Hoover's old shop. He could also return to his earlier calls about cleaning up campaign financing, since assuredly money is the root of so much evil in American politics.

But on the bright side, when he and Hillary Clinton fall out, Obama now has an immediate and competent substitute to call on.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Ring out the Till for the Old Year

Back in my Liverpool home, New Year was a serious celebration, with
firstfooting at midnight being an important tradition. As a redhead, I was toxic bad
luck, so I reserved firstfooting for enemies, drinking the proffered
drinks while wondering what the year would bring.

This New Year Eve it would have been good to go firstfooting with the
guy one
cop friend introduced me to -"The Doorman." His job was to kick in doors
on police raids, and it would have been a good new year resolution for
the FBI
and the SEC to go firstfooting in like manner all the Masters of the
Universe who brought the world economy to its present state.

Sadly that would have been as unlikely to happen as the ICC enforcers
banging on
the doors of the latter day thumbscrew and rack wielders around the
White House.

Even so, one big unanswered question of 2008 is, where did the money go?

One clue to the mystery has just emerged. In Scotland, where they take
Hogmanay seriously, as 2008 came to an end, a student went to his ATM,
which my oldest son had always presciently called magic money machines,
since cash came from nowhere with little perceptible effort. The
student, Donald Moffat discovered that it disappears even more
when he learnt that he had run up a £100 billion overdraft.
Even in these beknighted days for sterling, that still weighs in at
around $150 billion worth of hole in his account.

It took him many phone calls to persuade Barclays Bank that there may
have been an error. Many of us are still scratching our heads wondering
"could the Masters of the Universe have been that stupid?" and if
Barclays, one of the survivors of the financial debacle did not notice
this little glitch, you can see why the others went down like the Titanic.

Pundits intone about the "destruction of value" that the crisis has
caused. The houses, buildings, factories and fields are all still there.
If money has the connection to the real world economy that we usually
assume, then the money did not disappear down some quantum black hole.

It is still out there.

People sold those stocks, those hedge funds and funny bonds when they
were high, unloading them onto others. In fact investigators on the
Madoff money trail are already reporting that much of it was siphoned in
fees and commissions by various fund managers even before he got his
sticky mitts on it.

When the band starts again, I suspect that, once again, we will have
seen a massive transfer of wealth from the not so well off to the
stinking rich, not least with reverse redistribution of the bailouts
shoveling taxpayers' money to the crooks and incompetents who brought
about the present situation.

2008 was of course the 160th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto, voted
by uber-Conservative Human Events
the most harmful bookever (Keynes came in at tenth). The Manifesto hymned the achievements of
a different sort of capitalism in reshaping the world in a triumphant
tone that makes Ayn Rand in her novels seem laid back..

"Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of
all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish
the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones…All that is solid melts into
air, all that is holy is profaned …All old-established national
industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are
dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death
question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up
indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones;
industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every
quarter of the globe."

But that was the old-fashioned kind of capitalist who profited from the
production of goods and services, engineering bridges, canals and
railways, not the financial engineers whose virtual webs of derivatives
indeed turned what was solid into air, electrons or whatever. Even if
Lenin got the prescription wrong, crusty old Karl was no mean
diagnostician. Maybe in 2009 we can finally seal Milton Friedman in his
sarcophagus and get a creative combination of Keynes and Marx extending
to the world the benefits of West European social democracy.

But first we have to find what they did with the money.

Friday, January 02, 2009

PInter Bitter

Pinter bitter
We remember Harold Pinter as a brilliant writer of dialogue. But as a political agitator he was sometimes tone-deaf

o Ian Williams
o guardian.co.uk, Friday 26 December 2008 19.00 GMT

Harold Pinter, playwright and militant pacifist, was a vivid testimony as to why poets should indeed remain unacknowledged as legislators of the world. Epitaphed everywhere as the playwright of pauses and silences, like many pacifists he remained noisily silent about what should happen in the real world.

For example, one would expect the author of Mountain Language, on the repression of the Kurds, to show similar empathy towards the Kosovars, a small mountain people whom Milosevic was expelling, to have offered some constructive alternatives to Nato action, even if he quite rightly opposed Bill Clinton's chosen method of high-level bombing. His pacifism inhibited him from advocating the one method that actually worked – the threat of a ground invasion, which eventually led to Milosevic running up the white flag immediately.

Pinter's intemperate attacks on the Western European countries that decided on action to protect the Kosovars made him seem an ally of the murderous tyrant in Belgrade – an impression he gave even more substance when he joined the "International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic", as the Serb leader, overthrown by his own people, awaited trial in The Hague. That did not sit well with his declaration in his earlier letter to the Guardian that "Milosevic is undoubtedly ruthless and savage." Indeed, even as Pinter passed away, a Serb court was trying Serb militiamen for their part in murdering a Kosovar family.

It is the traditional poetic pacifist dilemma, highly visible in Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke, which implies blame for the second world war and the Holocaust on the warmongers Roosevelt and Churchill while in some measure exonerating those more directly responsible. Orwell said of Gandhi that he did "did not take the sterile and dishonest line of pretending that in every war both sides are exactly the same and it makes no difference who wins."

But, as Orwell also pointed out, all too often Manichaean pacifists assume reflexively that their own governments are worse than those their opponents'. "Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writings of younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval, but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States."

However, that is not to detract from Pinter's dramatic achievements, merely to separate his direct political pronouncements from his playwrighting, which was all the better for being more subtly imbued with his political sensibilities. Indeed, he was quite right in his overall assessment of Clinton and Blair, and indeed the broad parameters of US policy. But the Kosovars whom he claimed would suffer "disastrous consequences" from Nato's actions now understandably name streets and buildings after Clinton and Blair, not Pinter and Milosevic

If he had put the subtle pauses and timing in his political pronouncements that he did in his plays, it would have been a considerable step forward.