Thursday, May 21, 2009

Beijing tickled by Obama's China envoy

Missionary to Middle Kingdom

Beijing tickled by Obama's China envoy

Asia Times 21 May 2009
By Ian Williams

United States President Barack Obama has shown an ability to please almost everybody, apart from the irreconcilable conservative wing of the Republican Party. His nomination of Jon Huntsman as ambassador to Beijing has not only demonstrated his bipartisanship to moderate voters and Republicans, it has removed a potential Republican rival for the 2012 elections - and perhaps more significantly has China purring with satisfaction.

The 49-year-old Utah governor is a Mormon of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, a religious group whose members have had a disproportionate representation in foreign policy circles in Washington because they are in many ways the most outward

looking group in the US.

Young Mormons have a requirement to undertake missionary activities abroad and learn the languages. Perhaps fortunately, Huntsman's mission was in Taiwan, rather than a less welcoming mainland. Even though the mission was only for one year, he learned to speak Mandarin, a skill he deployed at his press conference accepting the nomination, where he promised to look for the issues that unite the two countries.

He and his wife later adopted a Chinese girl. His relationship with the region also includes a stint as ambassador to Singapore under the George H W Bush administration and as a deputy United States trade representative for George W Bush, during which he held trade talks with China.

Beijing has responded enthusiastically to the nomination of an envoy with proven sensitivity to Chinese culture and an appreciation of the nation's importance. The People's Daily hailed the appointment of "Hong Bopei", his Chinese name, as "good steel being used where it is needed most", and noted the importance of Obama securing Republican consensus for its China policy.

Indeed, the importance of China is unchallenged in Washington, given how essential Chinese finance is for any recovery plans. However, given that in former house speaker Tip O'Neill's dictum "all politics is local", there will certainly be point-scoring politicians prepared to mount an offensive on trade and currency issues, and Huntsman should be able to help control them, not least of which due to his close ties to Republican Senator John McCain, for whom he campaigned vigorously and prominently.

Beijing expects Huntsman, as a Republican, to concentrate on issues of diplomatic and economic substance, and also to be able to keep his own party's partisan instincts under control. Beijing has somewhat exaggerated worries about Democratic Party concerns over human rights and democracy in China, which tend to be rhetorical rather than practical. In fact, on the Democratic side, Obama's lieutenants should have little difficulty curbing his own party. All it takes is a discreet reminder of the importance of Beijing's good-will to the recovery program.

While influential, an ambassador does not decide policy. That will be Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the usual suspects in Washington. But Huntsman's influence as envoy and an important politician in his own right will ensure the US avoids the gratuitous insults to Chinese dignity that characterize less sensitive and experienced American politicians.

Observers in the US expect him to be adroit in balancing friendliness with firmness. There are serious issues, from North Korea's nuclear program to the naval squabbles in the waters off China that need cooperation, and where either perceived weakness or insults could exacerbate the situation.

Obama's administration has shown signs of having the most "joined-up" foreign policy for decades, combining pragmatism with principle. It should be refreshing for China to know what they are dealing with, and Huntsman should be an able representative of a policy that he is unlikely to disagree with in any substantial way.

He also has an incentive. Success in China - certainly one of, if not the most important American diplomatic post - will play into his presidential ambitions for 2016 when, as most people expect, the defeat of an expected diehard conservative Republican in 2012 will pave the way for a moderate like Huntsman.

Ian Williams is the author of Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, Nation Books, New York.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Fly Whiskers

When Bibi met Barack

Don't be fooled by the friendly act - Netanyahu's tone-deaf response to Obama's overtures will hurt him in the long run

o Ian Williams
o, Monday 18 May 2009 22.00 BST

Binyamin Netanyahu and his Likudnik friends do not do listening. They are like the fly in the La Fontaine fable, which buzzes around the horses' muzzles and thinks it is moving the coach. Flies with ideas above their station risk being swatted.

Israeli leaks suggested that at his first meeting with President Obama in Washington DC today, Netanyahu hoped, and maybe even expected, that if he just kept talking about Iran he could ignore recent Obama administration strictures. No one can say that he was not warned. Incremental signals from Washington have been building the case for the fly-whisk to come into operation.

Instead he was told firmly that there would be talks with Iran, rather than bombs, with "no artificial deadline," and that the Palestine issue is crucial, with a two state solution, and: "That means that all the parties involved have to take seriously obligations that they have previously agreed to," which is diplomatic-speak for Washington's expectation that Netanyahu will abide by the agreements that Israel has undertaken – for example on settlements, opening the Gaza crossings, and so on.

Netanyahu's studied refusal to mention a Palestinian state, and his anodyne prescription of two peoples living side by side, was an overtly meaningless evasion. The Bantu and the Afrikaaners lived side by side in. The issue was the unequal relationship between them. Similarly, any demand that the Palestinians accept a Jewish state is a calculated attempt to halt negotiations even before they start.

Netanyahu will play up a spurious agreement between the parties on Iran. But it will only wash for those amnesiacs who forget Israel's furious opposition to the diplomatic path and its impatience to send in the bombers – now overturned by Obama.

Any talk about Iran, when the two men met behind closed doors, probably featured the baneful effects of any Israeli attempt to bomb its way to a solution on the several hundred thousand US personnel in the region.

Despite Israeli claims that "the Arabs" are behind any attempts to attack Iran, Obama's team must know while some unelected Arab regimes may wish that if "'twere done, then 't twere best it were done quickly", neither they nor Turkey can call on any popular support for such a deal nor would they in any way want to be associated with such an attack. If they flew over Iraq, in defiance of Baghdad's majority Shia government, then the US's attempts to withdraw from the country could be either precipitately accelerated or bogged down interminably

This was just the opening bout of the Netanyahu v Obama match-up, but we can expect more to come. It is possible that Obama and his administration are lulling Netanyahu into a false sense of security and complacency, giving him enough time to reveal that he has no intention of listening to US policy.

To begin with, a more sensitive ear than Netanyahu's might have registered the shock-horror of Washington's assumption of an independent American foreign policy, so that Middle East statements have not been cleared with Israel first. That was apparent in the content of those various statements, warning about settlement building, nuclear non-proliferation, about house demolitions, about the two state solution, the border closures in Gaza and indeed Washington's warning against unilateral attacks on Iran.

In the domestic US context, Netanyahu is acting as if he puts full credence in the rumours about the infallibility of Israel's much-vaunted "lobby". But the question is, which lobby? The peace lobby, such as J-Street and its associates, has close ties with the administration. Aipac, the core of the Israel US lobby, has changed its leadership to include longtime supporters of Obama, and Vice President Joe Biden, a veteran pro-Israeli politician, reads Aipac the riot act. Even Rahm Emanuel – Israeli by descent - looks as if he will be the president's enforcer if there is any attempt by Netanyahu to turn Obama's policies round.

A popular US president, newly elected, with a financial crisis to hand, could soon persuade American voters that there good reasons not to send scarce cash to a foreign government set on ignoring the wishes of its benefactor. Serious signals like that would soon introduce term limits for Netanyahu's shaky coalition. Israeli voters tend to punish prime ministers who alienate the Americans too much. Netanyahu brought nothing to the table – and he is leaving with nothing even if, at this stage he did not get the public dressing down that is coming his way eventually.

Perversely, having the pugnacious Netanyahu as Israel's prime minister could burnish American credentials with everyone else in the region. There will be a visible difference between Obama and Netanyahu, in contrast to the Clinton and Bush era negotiations – when at best the US played good cop to Israel's bad cop, while both were actually torturing the Palestinians.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ian Williams: Universal human rights can’t allow a get-out clause

Tribune May 8

IN THE end, despite the hysteria, the British delegation to the Durban II racism conference in Geneva did not boycott the event. Despite the rhetoric and the posturing, international conferences can lead to conventions enshrining basic principles for the global community. They have led to effective standard settings in human rights – as the improvements that the European conventions have made to British practice will demonstrate.

So I was more tolerant of Durban II, despite the antics of the NGOs – and some of the governments. I must also admit that, as a rule of thumb, anything hated so intemperately by the likes of Binyamin Netanyahu, John Bolton and Melanie Philips certainly deserves some sympathy.

Gordon Brown and David Miliband merit applause for withstanding the tendentious fury of the Likud lobby, whose views on boycotts and embargoes in general are demonstrably, to use their favourite accusation, “one-sided”. Barack Obama’s administration did not score so well. It practiced a form of coitus interruptus, defying the calls for boycotts, engaging in face-to-face intercourse with other delegates – and then withdrawing at the last moment – giving cover to the bevy of white colonial and settler states to pull out as well. It was sadly reminiscent of Bill Clinton-era prevarication, when the United States would dilute international conventions and then still refuse to accept the result.

That so many Western countries persistently unite to give Israel a free pass in the aftermath of Gaza, after Lebanon and after its continuing defiance of international law, is shameful. And it lends support to the assorted oligarchs, ayatollahs and tyrants who can point to the West’s manifest double standards on human rights to justify their own depredations.

Political equations need to balance. If we refuse to talk to Hamas, Hizbollah or Iran because they refuse to recognise Israel’s “right to exist”, then we should also refuse aid and sustenance to those who refuse to recognise a Palestinian state or threaten an attack on Iran.

Indeed, the Islamic states did their best to aid Israel and its allies with their contrived confusion of Islamophobia and legitimate discussion of Islam and proposed ban on any criticism of the religion. Islamophobia is much more widespread than anti-Semitism in the developed world, as anyone called Muhammad who has flown recently could testify.

But fortunately the delegations which attended Geneva defeated the attempt to introduce into international law the concept of blasphemous libel that the British Government tried to get through Parliament a few years ago. Luckily, no one called for a boycott of the House of Lords, whose wisdom threw out the bill.

It is significant that the Israeli government has been lobbying across the world for countries to stay away – not to attend and resist any language or concepts it considers untenable. And this continued, even when the conference conclusions dropped any reference to Israel. Even if Israel is not explicitly mentioned, the conclusions of any international conference or convention on racism will put Israel’s behaviour in the dock. If countries that could be bullied or persuaded to stay away, if the whole event is smeared incessantly as anti-Semitic, it diminishes its force. In fact, Israel wanted a boycott of this conference precisely because its conclusions can only indict the day-to-day reality of the occupation, which is racist in both concept and application. The rest of the boycotters’ name-calling is just intended to lend verisimilitude to an otherwise entirely unconvincing argument.

Ironically, in the month of the conference, Israeli railways fired 40 Israeli citizens – because they were Arabs. Many social benefits are available only to citizens who have completed military service – which excludes most Arabs – but citizens who attend Yeshivot get a free pass. A law of return for Jews that excludes all others, even those born in the land, is unavoidably racist.

If you are an Israeli Arab citizen who demonstrates, the police may shoot to kill you, as happened in Nazareth in 2000 to 13 unarmed protestors. You would look long and hard for any reports of similar lethal violence against Jewish settlers furiously and violently attacking Israeli soldiers and police, let alone unarmed Jewish demonstrators. And, in the West Bank, we have the ultimate Bantustans, where Israel goes even beyond apartheid South Africa and manages to segregate the road system.

Those who walked out of the conference after Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s silly speech have given succour to those who are still using the aftermath of colonialism to justify their own callous greed and incompetence. The caste discrimination, affecting millions in shamefully humiliating ways, the strictures in some Muslim countries against other religions all escaped scrutiny. The unpunished pogroms against Muslims in India went unmentioned, for example.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not a Western concept. It is universal, as its title proclaims. It applies to Muslims, Jews, Christians, Arabs and Israelis – and atheists, for that matter.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Fossil Government in Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan mixes rich and poor

By Ian Williams


TASHKENT - Uzbekistan may have recovered somewhat from the post-dissolution economic crash that afflicted so many of the former Soviet republics, but President Islam Karimov has nothing like Beijing's pragmatic success to justify his hold on power. It is rich country with paradoxically poor people.

Replacing Vladimir Lenin with Timur (Tamerlane) as the national hero may have a certain gruesome appropriateness for those who think the Bolshevik leader a ruthless mass murderer, but the 14th century Timur empire, builder of skull pyramids and destroyer of cities, is not everyone's idea of a 21st century icon. Timur's wooden coffin is on display in the Samarkand museum - as part of a display of Uzbek woodwork!

Uzbekistan is a palimpsest of history. With mud-brick the building

material of choice until Soviet concrete came along - and even that is somewhat friable - the past eras melt into a muddy totality. The layers of fire-worshippers, Greco Bactrian deities, Buddha and Islam merge into each other. And the Soviet culture similarly has left its lasting impression.

The regime's political structure is fossilized in Soviet times, and since independence it has been more concerned about maintaining power than growing the economy. At least on paper, it maintains all the pervasive regulation of communist times, such as internal passports and registration for visitors, and exit visas for its citizens who wish to leave. But rather than being the basis for an efficient police state, these regulations are more in the nature of profit points for the government, which levies fees, or just as commonly, for the individual bureaucrat or police officer who will overlook their flouting for a bribe.

However, it has also preserved some aspects of the Soviet social net. The country has a universal health service, even if it seems generally accepted that medical staff deserve something extra from the patients and their families to supplement their abysmal salaries. Across the country the government is building new schools and universities - but once again it's taken for granted that additional payments and bribes may be necessary for teachers and professors.

The green-uniformed militiamen are everywhere, zealous in stopping drivers for real or imagined infractions, but every time one of my drivers was stopped, there was nothing that a dollar or so in bribes would not excuse.

On the main highways, especially going up towards the Ferghana Valley, where the Andijon massacre took place four years ago, the checkpoints were more substantial with police, customs and border guards checking the trunks of cars and occasionally the passports of drivers and passengers.

On the face of it, with a literate population, an infrastructure of rail and roads that is relatively well maintained and a core position in Asian landmass, at the crossroads between north and south, east and west, Uzbekistan is poised to become a Central Asian tiger for all the reasons that Tashkent was the regional center before. However, the pervasive bureaucracy and corruption are just some of the reasons why this is a highly unlikely scenario.

One of the most striking Soviet hangovers is the dependence on cotton, which is in turn dependent on massive Soviet-era irrigation works diverting rivers to the fields. The Aral Sea is now a pond, whose former seabed is being blown toxically about the region, while the irrigation techniques are causing salination of croplands.
It is not often mentioned that Karimov was a leading figure in the Uzbek Communist Party when these ecological disasters were perpetrated, but he now has to measure the immediate social and financial costs of curtailing the government's main source of revenue and the mainstay, albeit at not much above subsistence, of the rural population against the environmental costs.

The cotton industry epitomizes the handicaps of incomplete reform. While the industry was once large-scale, mechanized and industrialized, privatization led to small plots, and most cotton is now harvested by hand. But the state buys the crop at a fraction of the price it sells the cotton on the world market. In an odd hangover, schoolchildren and college students alike are forced to pick the crop, and their labor became increasingly vital as the former Soviet machinery broke down without the resources for replacement.

The state gets assured revenue, but the results do not percolate down to the farmers in an overwhelmingly rural country. This hybrid private-commandism is no way to create a modern economy.

In general, however, the regime epitomizes Jeanne Kirkpatrick's distinction between totalitarian and authoritarian. There is little sign of a personality cult for Karimov, which is just as well - he is about as charismatic as you would expect a former Leonid Brezhnev-era apparatchik to be. The government is concerned about what its citizens do, not what they think.

However, its paranoia reflects its own deep feelings of insecurity. When the citizens of Andijon dared to protest in 2005, up to 2,000 of them were gunned down - and posthumously accused of being Muslim fundamentalists.

In the context of a century of Russian domination, Islam is as much an expression of cultural identity and ethnicity as it is of deep religious fervor, as the numerous dinners I attended that began with prayers and ended with vodka might suggest.

In that context, Karimov has greatly expanded the old Soviet state-controlled mosque and madrassa (seminary) system. However, they are still under tight control - right down to the decibel level from the minarets. Karimov disallowed the electronic systems that pierce the night in so many other Middle Eastern cities. More importantly, any independent civil or religious activity attracts police attention and repression.

The bureaucracy is as leery of genuine entrepreneurial activity as it is of civil or religious activism. Foreign companies, with a few exceptions like Daewoo, British American Tobacco and several cell phone companies, have tried and given up. These survivors provide large tax revenues for the government and so have some degree of protection against the pervasive shakedowns.

At first, since the country is effectively isolated from the global financial system - no credit, no crunch - the government was being boastful about its foresight as the global crisis developed. However, much of its recent increase in prosperity had been based on revenues from commodities like cotton and gas, and above all from remittances. Uzbekistan's major export has been people. Professors cleaning dishes in Brooklyn, engineers laboring on Russian construction sites or teachers working in hotels in London are all finding their earnings dropping, along with the commodity prices.

Uzbeks do not trust banks. Not only is the official exchange rate over 20% lower than the black market rate, it is not easy to get money out of banks if you put it in - not to mention the prospect of paying taxes. The expanding retail sector works in (black market) dollars, right down to pricing of goods, but much of the expatriate remittances was going into property which, familiarly, led to a bubble. This is surely one of the crucial handicaps for Uzbek tigritude, if there is no effective way to marshal domestic capital for growth. The housing market has now plummeted as the world economic crisis grips.

Without the former Soviet subventions, the state does not have the capital for major projects, but because of its paranoia, and the rapacity of its officials, it does not allow the conditions for others to invest.

Boosting the income of the farmers, developing the financial sector so that it can marshal and harness the domestic and remittance capital would all be steps forward to stopping the export of the human capital which is, after all, one of the biggest assets the country has.

It is difficult to see how things can improve under the present government. Karimov has already overstayed his constitutional term, but is confident that his strategic position will protect him. After throwing out the Americans when they protested Andijon, Karimov is now being rewarded with overtures from Washington, not least since Kyrgyzstan has taken the Russian rouble to throw out its American base. He is under similar blandishments and pressure from Russia, while keeping close relations with China.

It is time for him to stop playing the Great Game and to pay more attention to the country's economic potential. There is more to the country than being a strategic location on a geopolitical chessboard.

Ian Williams is senior analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus. He spent most of April travelling in Uzbekistan.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Red and Blue Cats

Apr, 2009
Banking on the state

Ian Williams pokes his pink nose out

April Investor Relations Magazine: Speculator Column

China’s Deng Xiaoping signaled the end of statist orthodoxy when he said he didn’t care whether a cat was black or white, as long as it caught mice. Similarly, President Obama wrote the epitaph for neo-liberalism in his inaugural address, saying it is ‘not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.’

In many countries, state ownership has certainly allowed many forms of micropolitical management. The New York Times succumbed to the prejudices of the Washington consensus by always referring to former UK premier Margaret Thatcher as the ‘privatizer of the loss-making nationalized industries.’ In fact, the firms she sold – BP, British Airways, British Gas, British Telecom – were making money, which is why investors were so eager to buy them.

Similarly, the UK’s building societies were steered obsessively toward demutualization. By the end of 2008, however, only those that had kept their mutual status had survived as independent businesses. The rest were defunct, bought out or nationalized, like much of the US banking system.

The high tide of the Washington consensus has hit like a tsunami, but the cleared landscape should allow some dogma-free discussion. And those who did the wrecking should not dictate plans for the rebuilding. For example, the privatization of Social Security should stay off the agenda for a generation, as any potential retiree would choose a government guarantee over a share in Bernie Madoff.

Still, there is room for creativity. Taiwan set up a state-run health insurance agency, but left the actual provision of healthcare to a mix of municipal, charitable and private providers. As a result its healthcare system costs one third that of the US.

But the immediate problem is government stakes in financial institutions on both sides of the Atlantic. Governments owe it to the long-suffering taxpayers not to allow any reflexive phobias about government control to stampede them into unloading their bank stakes hastily or at bargain-basement prices. They should take time to clean them up thoroughly, making banking boring again, and only sell their holdings when there is a good return for taxpayers.

The issue is as much about governance in business as it is about government. Managements have been looting shareholders and taxpayers alike, with shameless bravado and relative impunity.

Just after the inauguration, the Financial Times revealed that Merrill Lynch had rushed to pay ‘billions of dollars’ in bonuses to executives just three days before its taxpayer-financed rescue by Bank of America. Shareholders received no such largesse.

If banks can loot, they will; that is the lesson of the last few decades. The administration needs to stomp on the lobbyists and ensure shareholder rights and much stricter regulation, especially in the ruins of the financial sector. It should not let any fetish about government interference inhibit it from appointing independent directors – it needs cats that will catch the mice that have gnawed their way through the national granary.

Obama in Istanbul

Asia Times Middle East
Apr 10, 2009

A town hall meeting and a mosque
By Ian Williams

ISTANBUL - Istanbul has been the pivot of East-West, and indeed North-South, relations for millennia, and Turkey was an inspired, and indeed brave, choice for an early visit by United States President Barack Obama.

If former president Bill Clinton had been accused of being a crypto-Islamist, or secret adherent to Islam, there is no way that either his spin-doctors or his own timorous instincts would have allowed him with miles of a mosque. Yet Barack Hussein Obama, demonized by web-weirdos across America as a Muslim fifth columnist, goes to Turkey and visits the Blue Mosque - accompanied by Islamist party Prime Minister Recep Erdogan - and holds a town hall meeting with young Turks.

As police barriers held up Turks in the rain-swept streets of

Istanbul, there was little audible or visible resentment. They like Obama, and they liked even more that he gave Turkey so much prominence, as well as his emphasis on his own Muslim connections.

Turkish Islamism covers a wide spectrum, and is self-reliant enough to eschew the excesses of Saudi Arabian Wahhabism. The day before Obama's arrival, Sunday, is a day off in Turkey and the Eyup Mosque - allegedly the burial place of the Prophet's standard-bearer, as revealed in a dream to a sultan - swarmed with the visibly pious, men in skull caps and women in chadors pinned across their face, coming to pray. But the men and their wives walked hand in hand, and on less-solemn occasions fundamentalist fashion includes colorful figure-hugging silk attire, with chic headscarves surrounding immaculate maquillage.

Some of the more deluded Islamists might secretly hope that Obama is indeed the crypto-Muslim his loony American detractors claim, but the secularists of both left and right share with Turkey's ruling party an appreciation of Obama's greatest asset: he is not George W Bush.

The country where popular pressure stopped the traditional military and foreign policy establishment going along with the US invasion of Iraq, will naturally share an affinity with the president whose major impetus in the primaries came from his earlier opposition to the war.

But nothing is simple. Obama has not so much united as converged the Republican military/secularist wing in Turkey with the Islamists. For example, for the last two years the army command has boycotted parliament sessions in protest at the presence of Kurdish Demokratik Toplum Partisi party legislators. It does take a step back to wonder, firstly what they are doing attending parliament meetings anyway, and secondly, who do they think they are, boycotting the democratically elected legislature?

In the case of Iraq, once again there was an element of convergence. The liberal secularists opposed the invasion for the same reasons as everyone else in the world, the Islamists for obvious reasons. The military saw the operation through their obsession with Kurdistan, tempering their usual fervent connections to Washington and Israel.

On the occasion of Obama's speech to the parliament, the military establishment decided that their affection for the American connection outweighed any distaste they had for his mentions of the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical patriarchate or Armenian charges of genocide.

This being Turkey, the mere suggestion that the Armenian charges of genocide should not necessarily be dismissed out of hand, had some of the nationalists up in arms. However, Obama's initiatives seemed to have been carefully choreographed in advance. He treaded lightly with the adroit Erdogan, who has already suggested a commission of historians to study the alleged Armenian Holocaust of 1915, and who also knows that one very definite barrier to entry of the European Union (EU) is allowing the Orthodox Patriarchate to re-open its seminary on the island of Haliki.

Obama's public pressure may well be just what the Turkish prime minister needs and wants to overcome the traditional security establishment's resistance to necessary reforms. Any rational government would see the Ecumenical Patriarchate as a huge asset to the prestige of the country, a suitable adornment to Istanbul's tenure as European Capital of Culture next year.

Most cities and countries would fight for the chance of opening an Orthodox Vatican with the huge potential for prestige and profits from pilgrims and prophets. However, Turkey has traditionally insisted that the incumbent must be a Turkish citizen, drawn from the shrinking Phanariot Greek community, which in fairness would continue an age-old tradition that the secular power must have a say in the appointment. However, Ankara closed the only seminary in the country that could provide a native priesthood from which to recruit one, which falls foul of EU aspirations for both religious freedom and minority rights.

The new Israeli government, if it were not deaf to everybody who disagreed with it, should be watching and listening carefully. Erdogan, of course, gained immense popularity across the Muslim world, and indeed much further afield, for having the courage to dress down Israeli President Shimon Perez at the World Economic Forum in Davos, when so many others prevaricated or supported Israel's attack on Gaza.

Interestingly, the tidal wave of obloquy that would normally have deluged over him was muted - and then almost silenced. The Turkish armed forces are Israel's only ally in the area. Israeli planes practice in Turkish airspace, while Ankara is a major customer for Israeli military hardware. The Generals may have their own disagreements with Erdogan, but let their Israeli counterparts know that they would be unhappy with others attacking the Turkish government. The message was acted upon, hence the rapid silence which overcame the initial vociferous pro-Israeli indignation.

Hence also Obama's emphasis on Turkey as a democracy with a majority Muslim culture which could be a bridge to the Islamic world and a possible partner in winning a Middle Eastern peace process. An essential part of which is to persuade Muslims that the US is not irredeemably Islamophobic, or for that matter, irredeemably Israelophilic.

Erdogan is using US leverage to get what he wants. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu government shows no signs of such adroitness. In his Turkish speech, Obama, yet again, sent a message to Israel's leadership that "The United States strongly supports the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security. That is a goal shared by Palestinians, Israelis and people of good will around the world. That is a goal that that the parties agreed to in the roadmap and at Annapolis. And that is a goal that I will actively pursue as president."

Erdogan is shooting into the same goal posts as the US president, while the Israeli cabinet is separately and collectively limbering up for a series of fouls and penalties.

Maybe Erdogan's generals can speak to Netanyahu's, or maybe not. But Obama's visit to Turkey before Israel shows his basic understanding that foreign policy is about dealing with foreigners, not domestic lobbies.

Ian Williams is the author of Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, Nation Books, New York.

Back on the Web

I've just returned from a long trip to Turkey and Central Asia, where I had very limited web contact. Normal service will now be resumed!
Thanks for the concerned emails.. we had not fallen off the edge of the world. Even thought it felt like it on occasion!


Lemming time

Ian Williams: Don’t bank on lemmings – their dogma has had its day
Tribune April 13, 2009

THE current economic crisis demands metaphors, similes, and similar poetic tropes. It is just too complicated for simple rationality.

The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States has been like changing the captain on the Titanic – after it had hit the iceberg. This is still good news. It will still be a chilling experience when we hit the icy water in our lifejackets and watch the rescue vessels pick up the first-class lifeboats first. However, before we would have been locked below decks as the water rose, but passengers in steerage might now have access to the lifeboats the previous skipper would surely have denied us.

Obama has implemented an impressive array of reforms since he took office. He has shown ingenuity, in trying to stop the ship of state from sinking. Nevertheless, on some issues, such as healthcare, the financial industry and the Middle East, he has been patching up rather than reforming.

The global and US economies are currently running under some world version of a clunky Windows programme: in time, the patches such as those that Obama and the G20 are downloading overwhelm rather than repair the already wobbly underlying structure. There really comes a time when the umpteenth crash should persuade you to buy an Apple Mac.

However, not unlike some sections of the Labour Party, Bill Clinton-era officials on the financial side of his administration work on the assumption that the way out of the crisis is to gain the “confidence” of bankers. Since these are the bankers whose Panglossian optimism led them to stampede over the cliff during the Savings and Loans scandal, and then the property boom and credit crunch, one would have thought that confidence was easily engendered in a breed so susceptible to its more extreme forms.

But while neo-liberals see a “moral hazard” in over-generous unemployment pay, their “moderate” and “rational” wings – the likes of “new” Labour and the “new” Democrats – see the only way to get the lemmings back up the cliff is to stuff their ravenous maws with taxpayers’ money. From a banking background themselves or reflexively responsive to bankers, they see those lemmings as an essential part of the process – and their huge greed as an essential cost of keeping the economy moving. In contrast, frothing conservatives are now mounting an assault on Obama and his policies for fighting the crisis and shamelessly blaming him for the financial meltdown that he inherited.

Even more shamelessly, conservatives are among the most intemperate complainers about the US administration giving money to institutions whose executives have been rewarding themselves in the manner to which they had become accustomed for the past 20 years under both Republican and Democratic governments.

It is clear that, with their customary unconcern for what would pass for patriotism anywhere else, the rabid conservatives would rather Obama failed than succeeded. If we were charitable – as they never are – we might allow that some of them may really have genuine concerns about government interference and deficits. However, many such liberal impulses are over-ridden by the way that conservatives managed for eight years to mute their indignation of an administration that ripped up the constitution and bankrupted the country in a war of aggression.

Forget the unparalleled tax handouts to the rich under George Bush and let amnesia descend on the scrapping of effective regulation of businesses, whether on financial, health and safety or environmental grounds, the Republicans sense the popular mood and want to ride with it to re-election. If this seems implausible, remember that one sitting Republican Senator owed his election seven years ago to a campaign branding his paraplegic war veteran Democratic opponent as anti-military.

Apart from Obama’s immediate advisors, the cloth ears of a significant proportion of Democrats are restraining attempts at the root-and-branch reforms that events so clearly demand. So-called “moderate” legislators have learnt nothing. Dependent on business donations, they are fighting to defend corporate malpractice and oligarchic greed against the upsurge of popular anger that the Republicans are exploiting.

This has led to the bizarre consequence that Obama administration finance experts consider it more acceptable to throw $1 trillion of taxpayers’ cash at bankers with a recidivist record of running off with clients’ and shareholders’ money than to take the banks into effective public control, let alone, horror of horrors, public ownership. Nationalisation is not a panacea – but neither is it guaranteed poison as, in the British context, the failure to take the railways back into public ownership has been. On a large scale, faced with the chaos achieved by the visible hand of the market in the collective till, Obama should not deprive himself of any potential weapon for his arsenal – certainly not on ideological grounds dictated by those whose dogma caused the debacle.