Sunday, December 19, 2010

Why there must be rich poker players in Chicago

In this political poker game, Barack Obama always folds
by Ian Williams
Saturday, December 18th, 2010

In the United States Senate last week, its sole avowed socialist, Bernie Sanders, who I have occasionally interviewed for Tribune, showed that there is still reason to believe in evolution on Capitol Hill. There are still some vertebrates there. On Friday December 10, for eight hours, he actually did what the Republicans have threatened to do since Barack Obama was elected President. He filibustered.

His eight-hour oration was no time-consuming recital of the phone book but, rather, a concentrated point-by-point rundown of all the crimes committed by the wealthy against the American people, culminating in the current trade-off, sponsored by Obama, of the extension of unemployment benefits for millions thrown out of work by the crisis in exchange for continuing tax cuts to the billionaires who caused the crisis in the first place.

Essentially, Obama had inherited a previous compromise, whereby the Democrats agreed to George W Bush’s deficit-building package of tax cuts which were heavily loaded towards the rich. They expire at the end of this year, and Obama and the Democrats wanted to keep the cuts for the more modestly paid, but abolish them for the rich.

In the meantime, the emergency two-year extension of unemployment benefits for the millions made jobless by the plutocrat-induced crisis was also expiring. Obama’s administration has been wrestling with conservatives to extend that limit. However, in the full spirit of Christian Conservative charity, Republicans were happy to see the benefits expire just before Christmas and for everyone, no matter how poor, to pay more taxes if there aren’t breaks for billionaires.

Obama negotiated more out of them than many expected, but that is because expectations have been diminishing. The estate tax was retained – for 3,500 of the richest halfwits who can’t afford estate-planning attorneys, and the unemployment benefit was retained for 13 months – but the tax cuts stay for two years. Just in time for the next presidential election.

If the economy improves because of the rescue package Obama forced past the Republicans, they will take the credit. If it falters, they will blame “his” deficit spending, not their tax cuts.

I used to berate Bill Clinton for his signature “triangulation”, in which he rode to victory by stealing conservative policies while persuading his base he was really on their side.

Obama has it all base over apex. He is alienating his base while folding to Republican demands and actually leading his party to massive electoral defeat. Whether on the Middle East, healthcare or now tax cuts and unemployment, he starts the bidding low and then goes lower.

The whole American system is designed to make fudging, lobbying, backroom dealing and sordid compromise almost inevitable. It is a bit like American football, with lots of huddling and heaving and running around to gain a few yards.

Before going any further, let’s put on the record that I am happy it is Barack Obama and not Sarah Palin or John McCain in the White House, even though I never thought he was the paragon of progressiveness some of his more naive protagonists presumed he was.

Obama does have to appear as reasonable as possible for the sake of the millions of voters disenchanted with the bitter partisanship in Washington. But if he showed a fraction of the toughness to the Republicans that he has to his liberal backers, he would be much more successful.

The President is reputedly a keen poker player. His performance in Washington has led many to suppose that he made a lot of money for his fellow players back in Chicago. He has yet to call someone’s bluff. He always pushes the pot across to his opponents when they hang tough.

In the Middle East, Benjamin Netanyahu announces his intention to keep stealing land and houses in the occupied territories, and the American President offers billions of dollars and flights of free fighter aircraft, and the veto equivalent of a get-out-jail-free card in the United Nations in return for a temporary suspension of settlement building. It was a bit like bribing a rapist to take a breather.

In the Senate, the Republicans have threatened filibuster after filibuster to thwart the view of the majority. But they have not had to act on their threats once. On this occasion, they would have had to have stood there, in the run-up to Christmas, holding millions of unemployed to ransom so that the billionaires who trashed their jobs could keep tax breaks that were a major reason the deficit was running so high. Sanders filibustered. Obama folded.

Obama’s basic problem is his assumption of good will on the part of his opponents for which there is little or no evidence. Conservatives everywhere believe in sacrifice for the greater good – as long as it is poor and working people on the altar.

The Republicans’ main aim is control of the White House in two years’ time. And if they have to trash the economy even more to get it, they will. Their supporters contrived the biggest ever post-war recession – and made more money than ever before. Vultures thrive on casualties.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Richard Holbrooke: A Statesman's Statesman -- if You Take Your Diplomacy Straight up Without Principles as a Chaser

By Ian Williams, December 16, 2010

Richard HolbrookeNow that he’s dead, Richard Holbrooke takes up the halo that is the natural prerogative of deceased American public figures. However, there have been few less qualified than he for canonization. His most memorable achievement, the Dayton Agreement was an unprincipled surrender to confessional apartheid, which pandered to war criminals to whom it gave a veto over the future of a viable Bosnian state. It has been suggested that part of its price was an implicit pledge for NATO forces to be less than rigorous in their search for Ratko Mladic and other wanted war criminals.

That remains to be proven, but it is indisputable that in the cause of a quick exit for President Bill Clinton from the Balkan imbroglio, Dayton granted the ethnic cleansers of the Republika Srpska territory they had soaked in other people’s blood. It enshrined an unworkable, confessionally based, almost Apartheid-motivated Rube Goldberg state whose institutions made the Holy Roman Empire seem like a lean mean governmental machine.

Technically Holbrooke was indeed a superbly effective diplomat. There is a fuzzy sort of do-gooding diplomacy, especially prevalent around the UN, that thinks that as long as people are talking, all is well. Netanyahu and Milosevic are just outstanding examples of conjuror-style diplomacy in which, as long as you keep talking, no one notices what mayhem your hands commit.

Richard Holbrooke knew that. He was neither fuzzy, nor much in the way of a do-gooder. Nor was he one of those whose machinations would be exposed in WikiLeaks, since his deals were based on a firm handshake -- accompanied by a firmer grip around his opponent’s scrotum. He leaked to the press in a way that makes Julian Assange look like an bumbling amateur -- but was of course selective and self-glorifying in his selection of information.

He was a most undiplomatic diplomat, as shown with his relations with Afghan President Ahmed Karzai. It is not usually effective to treat heads of state whom your government is trying to boost as independent national leaders as if they were underlings to be bullied. We can be sure that whatever failings he ascribed to Karzai’s administration, it was no sense of abstract moral outrage that motivated him, rather the effect of such behavior on American war aims.

Former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who tempered idealism with reality, famously said that foreign policy should have a “moral dimension.” He resigned over the Iraq War. Holbrooke showed an amoral enthusiasm for doing his government’s bidding.

The classic definition of a diplomat is someone who goes abroad to lie for his country and Holbrooke spent a vigorous career living down to the quip. He cut his teeth on the Vietnam War, and as State Department desk officer did Washington’s bidding in Indonesia during the the invasion and mass murders in East Timor. On the realpolitik front he could make Henry Kissinger seem like a hand-wringing Liberal.

To be fair, he was genuinely appalled by the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, but he unsentimentally never lost sight of the main aim -- which was to extricate his President, Bill Clinton, from a predicament in which he had promised Americans not to involve US troops but needed force to get a settlement.

In those days before the Internet took off, it is unlikely that even WikiLeaks would ever extract and publicize whatever deal Holbrooke cooked up with Milosevic, nor even unravel the choreography of Operation Storm in which with the Serbian President’s tacit complicity Bosnian and Croatian forces rolled over the Krajina and Bosnian Serbs.

When they were too successful -- and went past the agreed 51/49% division of spoils, reportedly NATO stopped enforcing the no-fly zone that had kept Serbia’s superior air force and helicopters out of play.

Milosevic was keen for Holbrooke to testify in his defense that many of these events were choreographed, but his lawyers would not have been able to find any paper trail to back up events. Certainly, some in the Balkans, like former Bosnian FM Muhamed Sacirbey, suspects that Holbrooke had winked at the fall of the enclaves, such as Srebrenica, although even Sacirbey does not think the subsequent massacre was part of the deal.

Later, when Sacirbey was held awaiting extradition under charges inspired and perpetuated by the US State Department and embassy in Sarajevo, I asked Holbrooke if he could help. It was somewhat tongue-in-cheek since there was more than a suspicion that his influence was behind the spurious charges, but he was adamant, “You‘ve heard what he said about me?” he said defensively. “Yes,” I said, “but what does that have to do with his innocence and imprisonment?” In fact, Sacirbey was also one of the most cogent critics of the Dayton deal that has now come back to haunt the Balkans.

Some people occasionally wondered what would happen if Hobrooke’s rebarbative talents were unleashed on the great prevaricators in the Middle East. In fact, Netanyahu would have been safe -- in a speech in Jerusalem Holbrooke made it plain that he considered UNSC resolution 242 as firstly, non-binding, despite most legal opinion that consequent resolution 338 made it so, and that it essentially allowed Israel to keep hold of territory.

Looking back, what is striking about Holbrooke’s career is how it illustrates the essential continuity of American foreign policy over every administration during his lifetime. He was more vigorous and unalloyed in his espousal of perceived American interests than most, and he certainly chafed at Bill Clinton’s refusal to let him wave a big stick -- and at European reluctance to be deployed as Sepoys to do the work the White House did not dare do itself for fear of GOP attacks.

His deathbed words on Afghanistan will be subject to exegesis for some time to come, but an invocation to get out of Afghanistan is certainly in line with his realistic assessment of American interests. Looking back, what is striking about Holbrooke’s career is how it illustrates the essential continuity of American foreign policy over every administration during his lifetime.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Leak on WikiLeaks

My op ed in Dvevni Avaz, Sarajevo, 11 December 2010

Julian Assange and WikiLeaks were very astute in leaking to an international spread of newspapers. They released the US diplomatic cables to newspapers in France, Germany, Spain, the US and Britain. That countered the pressure on editors, particularly in the US, to appease their governments. Any newspaper that was too attentive to government wishes would risk their foreign rivals scooping them, and the internet would soon make that apparent to their own readership.

In the old days, spying was about photographing, microdots, and invisible ink to copy files spread over kilometers of filing cabinets that would take a lifetime to look over. Now a government’s entire archives can be carried out in a flash drive or two and mined for key words. Out of those milions of Americans we can assume that some will be sharing their access with Russians, Chinese, Israelis and other interested parties, quite apart from the statistically significant chance that out of those millions there are going to be some with principles or axes to grind.

With literally millions of American personnel permitted access to these documents, the lesson for the US government is the usual advice for anyone on Facebook. Privacy is illusory: if you put it on the net then it will be seen.

This huge horde of diplomatic cables almost certainly came from the same source as the original Pentagon documents on the Iraq Wars, which was apparently Sergeant Bradley Manning, who bragged "Hillary Clinton and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack." He is now in prison, but not yet charged.

But while the video of the helicopter attack that killed Reuters’ staff in Baghdad revealed prima facie evidence of a war crime, (which, incidentally, the Pentagon does not appear to be investigating), the latest leaks are amusing, but scarcely earthshaking. They expose the hypocrisy of politicians and diplomats and will perhaps make them more wary of substantiating the revelations with their public behaviour from now on.

For example, the revelation of complicity by the new head of the IAEA with the US over Iran will certainly bolster skepticism and resistance within his own organization about the campaign against Iran. The dismissive opinions about the Turkish government are likely to accentuate rather than blunt its independent line, while revelations that Arab governments, regardless of the views of their people, have been implicitly conniving with Israel to spur Washington into a military attack on Teheran might well inhibit such views. But all this is apparent to anyone who was observing the region. What WikiLeaks has done is to move such information from the opinion columns to the news pages.

That is important. It forces governments to justify their decisions in a field, foreign policy, where, even in democratic countries the public are often neither informed nor consulted.

In 1917, the Bolsheviks exposed the sordid secret diplomacy that had brought the world to war and that is why the League of Nations said that any treaty not registered with it was not binding. By 1945, Yalta, Potsdam and other agreements had tempered that and the UN Charter (Art 102) simply says such treaties cannot be invoked before any organ of the UN.

So, for example, if Richard Holbrooke had came to a personal deal with Milosevic, as the evidence of American reactions to Croat and Bosniak success in Operation Storm would suggest, the parties were clever enough to do it verbally, rather than in writing. But even it were in writing, it could not be invoked before the UN. Even both sides would want to keep the deal secret as they betrayed their respective proteges. It is the job of journalists to reveal such information, and the self-appointed task of governments to keep it secret. When governments are formulating or practicing policies in secret, they deserve exposure.

The media has responsibilities - to ensure that the innocent are not put at risk, for example - but protecting politicians and diplomats from embarrassment is not one of them. On the contrary, that is what real journalism is about

Friday, November 26, 2010

Upper Volta with Missiles- and Banks

Ian Williams

Arms and the world’s most powerful man

by Ian Williams
Tribune , November 19th, 2010

Dismissively, but not entirely inaccurately, American commentators used to dismiss the Soviet Union as “Upper Volta with missiles” – a country that failed to provide the goods for its own people, but excelled at military production.

Watching President Barack Obama tour the world, the phrase came back. On his tour, he was selling fighters and transport aircraft to India and Saudi Arabia. He had already offered fighters to Israel (for free, naturally). Taiwan, Japan and others were in line for a visit from the arms salesperson.

Obama gave every indication of trying use military sales, especially aircraft, to stimulate the United States economy and provide jobs. There is a reason for that. When the Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher era straddled the Atlantic, manufacturing collapsed in both countries, and subsequent governments in Washington and London effectively encouraged the process in the name of free trade and free markets.

As a result, the US, like the Soviet Union, hardly produces anything anyone wants to buy except agricultural commodities and weapons. The US is now Upper Volta with missiles – and banks, of course.

Britain sells a lot of weaponry as well, of courser. However, in the absence of fields of waving soya beans, it is probably more like desert-like Chad with missiles and banks. Aneurin Bevan once famously said: “This island is almost made of coal and surrounded by fish. Only an organising genius could produce a shortage of coal and fish in Great Britain at the same time.”

Bevan would probably not have been surprised that the organising genius that closed down the coalmines and fished out the surrounding seas was Adam Smith’s invisible hand, but he would have been eloquently scathing about the all too visible hands from his own party that applauded the process and furthered it.

Indeed, he did not even know that, as well as fish, the seas were filled with oil and gas. Once again, he would not necessarily have been surprised that Thatcher’s Tory Government squandered the revenue from them to pay the costs of making the miners and countless other manufacturing workers unemployed.

Now we have another Reagan-Thatcher-style convergence. The British Government is pursuing policies of the kind that brought in the Great Depression on both sides of the Atlantic and, sadly, any plans that Obama had to stimulate the economy are now likely to fall foul of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives and the Republican and New Democrat coalition in the Senate.
Under George W Bush, the rich fed themselves cake and took bread from the poor. In the face of a mounting deficit and two expensive wars, Congress voted for a package of tax cuts which overwhelmingly benefited the filthy rich, who seem to have used the money to pour into bubbling derivatives and bring about the current crisis.

The one small compromise the Democrats extracted was that this looting of the public purse would expire at the end of this year.

Now the resurgent Republicans want to extend them all – even as they wail, gnash teeth and don sackcloth and ashes about the size of the fiscal deficit. Somehow, the Democrats, including Obama, have been unable to take the field against this obscene absurdity. The obvious response is to extend the tax cuts for the lower and middle income people, but not the filthy rich and to say so, vigorously and viciously, while pointing out what they would do to wipe away the crocodile tears of conservatives concerned about the deficit.

But they seem mesmerised. In the face of callous class warfare on a scale unimagined since the age of the robber barons, Obama and friends seem worried that it would not seem “responsible” to go against the plutocrats who financed the recent successful electoral assault on them. And it does not help that, like Ed Miliband, Obama has to overlook the policies of his Democratic predecessors. The now understandably forgotten “Third Way” of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair used exactly the same rhetoric and hidebound free market ideology that is now being brandished by Cameron and Eric Cantor, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives.

Despite all Obama’s weaknesses, the world is a better place than it would have been if he had not been elected. However, while he still has time, he really had better start organising to fight these ideas and their holders with sharper weapons than Clintonian triangulation and, like the new British Labour leader, repudiate the mistakes of his predecessors wherever necessary.
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About The Author
Ian Williams is Tribune's UN correspondent

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Mid Term Elections

The economy is the bottom line
By Ian Williams
Asia Times 4 November 2010

WASHINGTON - With the Democrats holding onto the senate, albeit barely, and the Republicans taking control of the House of Representatives following Tuesday's mid-term elections in the United States, there is still not likely to be a dramatic change in the policy of the United States.

Above all, President Barack Obama remains in the White House with a veto that the Republicans cannot surmount, not least because many of the so called "Blue Dog" Democrats who so often acted like a Republican fifth column actually lost their seats. So the result was not the Tea Party tsunami, not least with the resounding defeat of Christine O'Donnell in Delaware but it was certainly more than a storm in a teacup.

The good news for democracy is that the US elections reportedly experienced a record turnout. The bad news is that that was just over 41% of registered voters, who amount to only 71% of eligible US citizens. So all it takes for a landslide is a vote of some 15% of Americans and a switch by just a handful of votes. The result does not signal a huge popular upsurge, let alone a tectonic shift in the bedrock of the American body politic, as a quick look at the map shows.

The heavily populated and urbanized East and West Coast stayed Democrat, in the senate, the House and the governorships. In California, despite the huge personal fortunes of the Republican contenders being brought to bear, Democrats Barbara Boxer and Jerry Brown comfortably won the senate seat and the governorship. In New York, both Democratic senators and the governorwon handily, as did the Democratic contender for the attorney-general, who is the watchman for Wall Street.

Democrat senate and House leaders Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, despite being used almost as swear words by the Republican campaign material, actually won re-election
comfortably. Landslides are relative at the best of times, and the whole US system is designed to ensure that not too much can change in one election - which is another reason for the low turnout.

But while the Republican strode to victory on all the things they are against, by getting the majority in the House they have fitted themselves up. After two years of trying to frustrate every Democratic initiative, and blaming their opponents for the economic crisis, they are now in charge of spending and tax-setting for the next two years. In short, they are responsible for the deficit. They should be prepared since their incumbent leaders were responsible for building it to the heights that Obama inherited.

The split control means that the Republicans cannot actually take initiatives that do not have the support of the president and the Democrats in the senate. If they want to make Obama's day, they will continue the campaign of negativity they have maintained for two years and attack him continuously.

The polls show that even with the lost support from the continuing economic doldrums, Obama is actually more popular than the Republican party now. With two years more of gridlock, the anger they exploited this time will splash back on them. Almost certainly, the Tea Party candidates lost the Republicans the chance to take the senate, but enough of them were elected to make it highly likely that the Republicans in congress will be culpably uncooperative for the next two years.

The world watches
So what do tonight's results mean for the rest of the world? Interestingly, foreign relations were not a big issue. For example, in an election dominated by anger, conservatives were unsure whether they should condemn Obama for continuing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or for not withdrawing.

Tea Party candidates refused interviews with the "mainstream media" who might have elicited views on the rest of the world and their followers are from a long tradition of American isolationists and exceptionalists who had certainly put foreign relations very low in their priorities, unless it was to find out which African country they thought had given birth to Obama.

Relatively muted compared with previous years, there is a persistent susurrus of repudiation of international organizations and the United Nations, and there were the populist jibes, from both sides of the partisan divide, about China. International agreements on almost any issue from disarmament to climate change will almost certainly fail ratification in the senate.

While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's supporters were praying for a Democrat defeat, they will find it will do little good. If the Republicans choose to challenge Obama on foreign policy issues, they risk serious alienation of those whose anger voted them in. That anger was based on the economic situation and a certain degree of amnesia about whose policies actually brought it about. A demand, for example, that the US continue to give billions of dollars to a foreign government that refuses to listen to Washington is not one that is a winner outside some neo-conservative and Christian right circles.

Obama will certainly not neglect US commitments to the rest of the world, but he can scarcely risk taking too high a profile if he seems to be neglecting the domestic economy, whose care and resuscitation will clearly absorb much attention, even though he seems to trust Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to cover his back there.

However, the worst effect for the rest of the world is that, despite the setbacks, the fiscal and trade deficits and the military over-stretch, the US is still the locomotive of the world economy. And thanks to its dysfunctional system of government, ossified over 200 years, it is off the rails with no clear hand on the controls.

The US economy needs decisive action and leadership, and the elections have made it even less likely than before that it will get it. That is bad news for the rest of the world, now matter how much schadenfreude other countries might derive from seeing the giant cut low, they will be hurt as well if it stumbles.

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

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Monday, November 01, 2010

Spirits Up for Haiti!

I am serving the Rum!

Public-Private Alliance Foundation

You are invited….
“Partners Against Poverty” Event
to benefit the

Public-Private Alliance Foundation
and its work in Haiti

Thursday November 4 6 – 8 pm

Since the January 12 earthquake PPAF is helping Haitians revitalize their country by partnering with business, the Diaspora, non-profits, the Government, the United Nations and individuals on key projects that improve peoples’ lives and help achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals. The fundraiser will help advance this. The Foundation, a recognized non-profit, also works in the Dominican Republic and Madagascar.

The setting for the event is the outstanding exhibit of Haitian paintings on display at Affirmation Arts, on 37th Street in Manhattan.

The Foundation welcomes actor/director Tony Plana (of “Ugly Betty” fame) and pundit Ian Williams to its November 4 Benefit. Ian will turn mixologist for samples of Haiti's internationally famous Barbancourt Rum. Michael Yarema, Executive Vice President and National Sales Manager at Crillon Importers will comment on the importance of Barbancourt Rum to the Haitian economy.

A current main focus for the Foundation is collaboration with several partners to promote improved stoves and fuel in Haiti. Locally-grown and distilled sugar ethanol will fuel cookstoves manufactured, marketed and distributed in the country. The project aims to improve lives and health, especially for women and children, and reduce the heavy reliance on wood and charcoal that has stripped the country of forest and topsoil. Livelihoods for farmers and small scale entrepreneurs will likewise be improved.

Come enjoy the artwork, learn more about the Foundation’s work, and help Haiti build back better.

WHEN: Thursday, November 4, from 6 to 8 pm

WHERE: Affirmation Arts, 523 West 37th St., Manhattan (1/2 block from the Javitts Center; nearest subway is Penn Station)

REFRESHMENTS: Wine, soft drinks hors d’oevres and a tasting of Barbancourt Rum!

TICKETS: Students and under 30’s -- $30; supporters -- $50; sponsors -- $250 and up. Go to: and click on the “Donate” buttons for PayPal or JustGive. Donations also accepted at the door. Prepaying helps reduce a line at the door!

RSVP: Tel: 914-924-1413 or e-mail

David Stillman, PhD
Executive Director

The Public-Private Alliance Foundation is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to reducing poverty in the world by bringing together business, governmental, community, academic, United Nations and other interests. Through collaboration, PPAF helps stimulate entrepreneurship and commerce-related activities and encourage investment for sustainable development. PPAF supports the principles of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.

Focusing on the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Madagascar, our vision is to make a difference for human betterment. PPAF works closely with the United Nations for policies and actions to advance public-private alliances. PPAF is associated with the Department of Public Information of the United Nations and is a participant in the United Nations Global Compact..

Tuesday - Armageddon?

Democrats poised for mid-term hit as cash floods to Republicans

Ian WilliamsTribune 30 October 2010

It is third world politics, perhaps befitting a country that has a third world social safety net - and is proud of it. Huge sums of fisco-money (fortunes amassed from tax cuts) are pouring into the mid-term elections and the one sure result will be yet more legislative gridlock as the United States tries to steer away from the iceberg into which Captain George Bush steered it.

The Republicans could win a majority in the House of Representatives, but are unlikely to get the Senate, but in any case, their majority will not be big enough to over-ride a Presidential veto. Indeed some Democrats - albeit not those who would lose their seats - almost welcome a slim Republican majority, since it means the conservative negativists would have to assume responsibility for legislative initiatives that would allow, or force, Obama to confront them.

So far the Republican campaign has been entirely reactionary, in every sense of the word, inveighing against handouts to banks (which came from Bush) the stimulus programme which they claim has failed (they did their best to ensure it by restricting funds available) the deficit (that they and Bush built to record heights before the crisis) and ‘Obamacare’ (but would they really try to take insurance away from patients with ‘pre-existing’ conditions).

A defeat might look like a setback to the high hopes represented by the election of a black President, but as a consolation, he is still by far the most popular politician in the country, with far more favorable ratings than Congressmen as an entity. Additionally, where the really looney Tea Party types won Republican primaries their candidates have all the credibility of the Monster Raving Loony Party. In the major New York state races the Democrats seem to be holding their own while in California billionaire Meg Whitman has spent $130 million of her own money and yet is trailing veteran Democrat Jerry Brown in the race for Governor, similarly the high spending Republican candidate for Senator is failing against incumbent Barbara Boxer, who as Democrats go, goes right too often.

The leftists who dismiss Obama as a plutocrat’s pawn should consider that open Wall Street donations were flowing towards the Republicans, where before they went to the Democrats, and as a new factor, armed with the Supreme Court decision that said corporations had all the rights of Freed Slaves, the newly liberated companies are now pouring money into the types of groups that gave us the “Swift Boat” libel campaign against Kerry. Between Sept. 1 and Oct. 20, such under cover Republican leaning groups spent $118 million to $45 million for their Democratic counterparts. These donors are not people who think Obama is a foreign born Muslim, but they are cynically happy to take advantage of what one Republican lobbyist (now in gaol) candidly referred to as the “Wackos.”

In a confusing melee of hand to hand combats across the political field, where candidates rarely identify themselves by party, one definite conclusion is that Obama and the Democrats have consistently pulled their punches in campaigning, as if mesmerised by Faux TV accusations of inherent socialism. Indeed, even “liberal” is now almost a McCarthyite smear. They have to get over it. This ship really could sink while they wrestle the wheel into immobility.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Harper @ Gates of UN

Canada on Ice: at the UN
By Ian Williams, October 26, 2010
Canada’s defeat in elections for a temporary seat in the UN Security Council has implications that reach beyond being an upset for Stephen Harper’s conservative government in Ottawa. It reinforces how far most UN members are from supporting other nations that unconditionally accept Israeli behavior in the Middle East. It also, ironically, lends some support to Ottawa’s longstanding opposition to increasing the number of permanent Security Council members.
In a secret ballot election in early October, UN General Assembly members cast votes for which nations would fill the non-permanent seats on the Security Council for the next two years. While the Asian, African, and Latin American seats were uncontested, the two seats for the Western European and Other group (which includes Canada) were up for grabs. Germany won the ballot outright. In the second round, Canada lost to Portugal, 78 to 113. This rout should have been a wakeup call for the Canadian electorate. Sadly, it is unlikely to disturb the isolationist reveries of Stephen Harper and his right-wing Canadian government.
Indeed, some Canadian diplomats quietly suggest that Harper and company scarcely noticed the Security Council candidacy was coming up for a vote until the last moment. They then did little or nothing to prepare for it and seemed insouciant of how conservative policies had tarnished the country’s once golden reputation. This reflects the isolationism of the party’s domestic base.
The defeat has implications extending beyond Canadian discomfort. Discussions have been underway for reforming the Security Council, including increasing the number of permanent and non-permanent members. In January, five of the countries aspiring to these new permanent seats will be sitting as elected members. Germany, India, and South Africa were elected this year to join already sitting Brazil and Nigeria among the putative permanent members. Canada, which opposes adding new permanent seats, will not be at the table even in a temporary capacity.
Losing Status
Although the rather arrogant Harper government did not expect this outcome, more objective observers inside and outside of Canada were not surprised. It was only one more sign that the shelf life was expiring on the prestige accumulated by previous governments.
Since the beginning of the UN, Canada has been up there with Sweden as the very model of a modern UN member and has been almost automatically elected to any position in the organization. This is not just because Canadians were polite or that the Mounties had nice red uniforms. It was based on an independence of spirit that could happily defy London and, more importantly, Washington on issues of principle and international law. With the traditional social-democratic and liberal attitudes of much of the Canadian electorate, Harper’s government has not been able to live up to its conservative aspirations at home. But since the executive branch has more unbridled influence over foreign policy, it has been able to overturn longstanding international attitudes.
In times past, Ottawa had defied its giant neighbor to establish relations with China and later maintained trade, travel and diplomatic links with Cuba. Before the Harper administration, Canada supported important pillars of international law, such as the international tribunals in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and the International Criminal Court. It pioneered the articulation of the Responsibility to Protect, which established principles for genuine humanitarian intervention that avoided acting as a cover for aggression. It also led such important campaigns as the ban on land mines.
Then Stephen Harper and the new breed of rebarbative and reactionary Canadian conservatives took over. They began by emulating President George W. Bush at almost every level, and in some ways went further. Canada showed hostility to Russia and China, more on atavistic Cold War grounds than because of any deep concern for human rights, since Ottawa developed a U.S.-style expediency on that subject. Its troops in Afghanistan handed over prisoners to the CIA. Its officials did nothing at all about Canadian citizens that the United States kidnapped in New York and sent for torture in the Middle East or held in Guantanamo.
Harper’s Canada reversed 60 years of Canadian practice. The country that almost invented peacekeeping stopped contributing blue helmets to peacekeeping forces. The inherent isolationism of many conservatives was also reflected in the retrenchment of foreign missions and foreign aid.
Changes in Middle East Policy
Canada’s pre-Harper policies on the Middle East conflict, reflected on the official foreign ministry website, had been exemplary statements of international law and accepted UN decisions. As such, Canada refused to recognize the annexation of the territories, declared settlements to be illegal, and called for an independent Palestinian state.
Although the website has not changed, executive decisions have profoundly changed the interpretation of these policies. The government has withdrawn contributions to UNRWA, which feeds and educates Palestinian refugees. It defunded grants to NGOs that investigate Israeli human rights abuses as well as Arab Israeli human rights research. And whatever you think of the principle, what government with any sense of diplomacy signs a trade agreement with Israel days before asking for nonaligned votes?
There could be an expedient argument for kowtowing to a neighboring superpower, but Ottawa does not seem to have noticed the last election in the United States. In fairness to Canadian independence, Harper’s government was not so much emulating Bush as pandering to deep-rooted domestic conservatism and accommodating its own right-wing Israel lobby in the hope that traditionally Liberal constituencies with a large Jewish vote would switch to Harper’s Conservatives.
That at least partially explains why Harper continues to pander to Bushism even now Bush has gone. Harper’s about-face puts Ottawa out of step with Washington, at a time when the Obama administration has taken steps to reach out to Arab and Muslim countries despite denouncements by right-wing hawks that the United States is turning anti-Israel. Dragged to the right by the unforgiving Likud-inclined lobby, the Canadian government now acts as if Israel can do no wrong. In contrast with the usual abstentions of the EU when Israel is on the agenda, Canada has recently opposed any scrutiny of Israeli actions. For instance, it voted against the UN Human Rights Council even considering Operation Cast Lead.
Some in Canada’s Conservative government blamed Michael Ignatieff, the leader of the opposition, for the Security Council defeat, Earlier this fall, Ignatieff had questioned whether his nation should earn a seat given its failure to pay attention to the UN and its current foreign policy. Indeed, there is little opposition even from the Canadian opposition to the proposition that Israel is always right.
UN Reform Stalled
Ironically, the defeat of Canada vindicates a longstanding Canadian proposition that no additional permanent Security Council seats should be created. Rather, Canada has supported the creation of more elected seats with the option for renewable terms. Ironically, this eminently sensible proposal might also have cost Ottawa some support from would be permanent seat holders. In any case, maybe Ottawa’s defeat this time will send a message to other aspiring powers about the need to listen to their international colleagues.
Since the existing permanent five can veto any attempt to take away their veto - and frankly the United States, Russia, and China would probably quit the organization without it - the proposal does not compound the injustice by creating new permanent seats, let alone new permanent seats with vetoes. Rather, it ensures that Brazil, Egypt, Germany, India, Japan, Nigeria, or South Africa would have to truly reflect the views of their regions and the UN community to be re-elected.
In a way, the line-up of newly elected members is almost a dry run for such a Council. The United States and the rest of the Permanent Five will not likely be able to ignore non-permanent members who have serious power in the real world rather than simply power by virtue of their position in the Council.
Smaller members have also played significant roles when seated in the Council; Ireland, Jamaica, Mauritius, and others provided more consistent and less expedient opposition to the Iraq War than France. But a Security Council composed of seriously sized emerging powers, representing smaller members in their regions, could shift the global center of gravity away from the “G-Forces” the G8 and G20.
Canada’s defeat is a salutary lesson for nations -– and their leaders -- who ignore world opinion. Ignatieff’s fact-based assertion that the country simply did not deserve a Security Council seat under the Harper government demonstrates that the opposition is more in touch with the international order than the government.
The traditional pro-UN Canadian position can draw some comfort from the Canadian defeat, which points the way for genuine Security Council reform – ensuring that its members represent the world in ways more profound than bean-counting regional representation. No member of the Council should have impunity for their geopolitical behavior – as perhaps the Obama administration will soon discover when the UN tries to reconcile unilateral Palestinian declarations of statehood with unilateral and illegal settlement-building.
Ian Williams, senior analyst and long time contributor to FPIF, is a New York-based author and journalist. He is currently working on a new edition of his book, The UN For Beginners.
Recommended Citation:
Ian Williams, "Canada on Ice: at the UN" (Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, October 26, 2010)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Monday, September 27, 2010

SG = Scape Goat!

The Man With the World On His Shoulders

Ian Williams

Published 27 September 2010 New Statesman

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, talks to Ian Williams about his critics, Israel and the challenges of global leadership.

On 20 September, the largest assembly of world leaders since the Millennium Summit of 2000 gathered at the United Nations in New York for the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a globally agreed set of targets to halve world poverty by 2015. However, the summit was neither commemoration nor celebration, but more of an emergency revival meeting. The financial crisis could have made it an autopsy, but the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, backed by Gordon Brown, ensured that the G20 meeting in 2009 kept the MDGs on the agenda. These meetings were about keeping them on track.

From the beginning of his term in office, in 2007, Ban made the MDGs and climate change signature issues. He worked hard to ensure an influential turnout for this General Assembly, lobbying governments across the globe to attend. But ostentatious do-gooding is not in the quiet style of the former South Korean foreign minister. Indeed, his focus on internal diplomacy with heads of state has caused him to neglect some of the public diplomacy opportunities offered by his current position.

Ban's youthful ambition in Korea was always to be a diplomat, he told me when we met at his UN office this year. "In 1962, when I was a third-grade senior in high school, I came to the US as an exchange student, brought by the American Red Cross, and met President John F Kennedy at the White House. It was a most inspirational experience as a very young boy from a very poor country, destroyed by the Korean war. I thought, what should I do for my country, totally devastated by war? I thought I could contribute by being a diplomat, and helping enhance the status and prestige of Korea."

His appreciation for the organisation dates from the same era: "The UN has been and continues to be a beacon of hope to Koreans. It was the UN which really saved us - 16 countries came to the aid of Korea when North Korea attacked. It was the first enforcement action under the UN Charter, after only five years!"

Ban, approachable when he interacts with the UN press corps, originally ducked a high media profile. His modus operandi has been to make explicit statements of the UN's position on specific questions, but to refrain from direct public criticisms of national leaders. Yet he told me that his meetings with leaders "have been quite straightforward and very vocal . . . Most of my senior advisers were quite surprised by how outspoken I was."
Simmering sentiment

His diplomatic style, however, is more umpire than player. He says, "The secretary general is not a negotiator. The members do the negotiation; we provide and facilitate . . . it is the member states which have to negotiate, which have to agree." That was about climate change, but since the MDGs were entrusted to the UN, his team has been retargeting them, in the hope of concentrating members' attention on the most cost-effective goals: technology, education, women, small farmers and global health, particularly that of women and children, as maternal and infant mortality are among the most visibly failing MDGs. As Ban said ahead of the meetings: "No area has more potential to set off a ripple effect - a virtuous cycle - across the goals than women's health and empowerment."

But his efforts have not been helped by recent attacks from international diplomats, echoed by the press. In August 2009, a letter was leaked to the press from one of Norway's ambassadors to the UN, condemning the secretary general's "absence" and passivity in the face of critical crises such as those in Burma or Somalia. At the same time, the neoconservative writer Jacob Heilbrunn published an article in the journal Foreign Policy describing him as a "nowhere man" and "general nonentity". Anti-UN sentiment in the US is always simmering; as a result of these attacks, Ban's aides have realised how vulnerable his low profile and his tendency only to react to events have left him.

Yet Ban has been more outspoken on international matters than expected. Many liberal UN supporters had low expectations of him when he started, given that he was a nominee of the Bush administration and seemingly a protégé of the arch-conservative John Bolton (acting US ambassador to the UN from 2005-2006). But during the hustings for secretary general he expressed unequivocal support for the International Criminal Court, against which Bolton had fought obsessively, and for the Responsibility to Protect initiative. His position, he says, came from his time as foreign minister when he visited the massacre memorial in Rwanda. "I was so saddened and horrified by what I saw there. I was convinced the international community had to take steps to prevent anything like what had happened."

On the Middle East, his statements have been considerably more explicit than those of his immediate predecessor, Kofi Annan. With limited experience of the region before office, he initially adopted a position that was reflexively pro-Israeli. But greater exposure to the intricate details has clearly been educational, and his recent statements on Gaza and the aid flotilla protest stand in contrast to the tactful silence of most western leaders. When Israel insulted Vice-President Joe Biden by announcing new settlement-building during Biden's visit to Tel Aviv in March, Ban reiterated "that settlements are illegal under international law". He also scored a first for the UN by securing $10.5m from Tel Aviv by way of compensation for the UN premises in Gaza that Israel destroyed during Operation Cast Lead.
Hue and cry

“My dialogues with Israel and Arab governments have always been based on my convictions, human rights and resolution of differences of opinions - and in that regard I have had trust from both parts," he told me. "Of course my dialogue with the Israelis has been quite difficult," he conceded, but despite the challenges he has kept open channels of communication.

Luckily for Ban, he has not had the difficulties that Annan faced, of confronting warmongering pressure from the US and the UK as they moved towards the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The Obama administration has also been more amenable and not followed the Democratic line, set by Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright, of browbeating the UN and the secretary general into submission - never mind the outright hostility of George W Bush.

That might not last. With the MDGs needing cash from the world powers, and the prospect of a Republican majority in Congress after the midterm elections in November, it is likely that the usual American hue and cry against the UN and its leader will begin again. This would only be amplified by a sense of betrayal that "our" nominee appears to believe in the institution as an active force for international progress. Ban would benefit from engaging in further high-profile diplomacy to let the world know that this is exactly what he believes.

Ian Williams is the author of "The UN for Beginners" (Writers and Readers, £6.99)

How to save 16 million lives

Ten years on, progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is not encouraging. The world leaders assembled in
New York for this month's summit heard that the eight commitments, which include pledges to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger and to combat HIV/Aids, will not be met by 2015 without considerably more investment and effort.

The largest gaps between commitment and reality are in child and maternal mortality. The MDGs pledge to reduce the under-five mortality rate by two-thirds between 1990 and 2015 and to reduce the number of maternal deaths by three-quarters over the same period.

Nick Clegg, representing the UK at the summit, announced that the UK would commit to doubling the number of lives of women and babies saved by 2015 through "reorientating" the government's aid programme. As well as ring-fencing the development aid budget, the coalition has promised to meet the UN target of raising aid levels to 0.7 per cent of gross national income by 2013.

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, also unveiled a strategy focused on women and children. It is estimated that the plan could save 16 million lives by 2015 by improving funding for maternal and infant care in developing countries.

Caroline Crampton
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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Closest Ally misses US mood On Kosovo

United Nations Report: Ban Ki-moon Engages Israeli Politicians, as Israel Remains Mum on Kosovo Precedent

WRMEA, Sept/Oct 2010, Pages 19, 41

United Nations Report
Ban Ki-moon Engages Israeli Politicians, as Israel Remains Mum on Kosovo Precedent
By Ian Williams

The endless trail of Israeli politicians beating their way to the door of the U.N. secretary-general continues, with Defense Minister Ehud Barak arriving at the end of July. One wonders whether it is a form of masochism on their part, since Ban Ki-moon's public statements on Gaza, on settlements, or the flotilla assault can scarcely offer them much comfort, and he is reputed to be unsparingly direct in private conversation. Even as Barak turned up, the consequences of the Goldstone Report rumble on and the Human Rights Council appointed yet another inquiry into Israel's May 31 attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla.

Even so, Ban clearly keeps an open door for the motley ministers who turn up at his office, and almost certainly sees more Israeli politicians than those of any other nationality. If one were cynical, one might wonder whether or not a visit to the U.N.'s New York headquarters allows Israeli ministers to deduct expenses for a trip to meet potential American donors to electoral campaigns back in Israel. On another level, however, it demonstrates the bipolar relationships between Israel and the world organization. After all, the state's legitimacy derives far more from the U.N. partition resolutions and its admission to the General Assembly than from any deeds by Moses—which even the most assiduous title search might have difficulty producing. It seems Israeli politicians will do anything to get the U.N.'s blessing—except, of course, abide by the organization's decisions and resolutions!

The other aspect of the ability to believe several impossible things before breakfast is the Israeli tendency to dismiss all U.N. agencies as irredeemably anti-Israel, while happily demanding that the U.N. take action against Iran, Lebanon and Syria for alleged breaches of U.N. resolutions. And there is this, almost pathetic, wish to be accepted, which manifests itself in the need to be photographed with Ban Ki-moon.

Ban has parlayed it well. The U.N. is more involved in the Middle East question than ever before. At the beginning of August he even persuaded Israel to accept an international fact-finding inquiry into the flotilla assault, with former Prime Minister of New Zealand Geoffrey Palmer as chair and, as vice-chair, the outgoing president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe—who, when he was awarded B'nai B'rith's premier international honor, the Presidential Gold Medallion for Humanitarianism, spoke of his "deep feeling of respect and admiration for Israel." They will be joined by a Turkish and an Israeli representative. The panel is the result of the Security Council presidential statement, supported—and, indeed, diluted—by the U.S., and Israeli acceptance resulting from intense pressure from Ban.

It would of course be naïve to think that it was the moral standing of the U.N. alone which won over Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. More sober-minded Israelis are desperate to woo Turkey, so Ban was able to leverage pressure from inside Israel as well. It shows that Ban's work with Israel does have positive results, and already, as a consequence of it, the U.N. has a much more active part in what passes for a peace process. It took a lot of pressure for Israel to allow Washington to allow the U.N. even a walk-on part when Boutros Ghali, one of the architects of the original Camp David agreement, was secretary-general. And then the U.N. was smuggled in to become part of the Quartet, with the EU, Russia and the U.S.

Israeli leaders had traditionally resisted U.N. involvement because it was the world's institutional memory: all the resolutions that it wanted to force the Palestinians to forget stood against the Jewish state's expansionist ambitions. But, conversely, the U.N. must ratify any agreement reached if Israel is ever to gain the full legitimacy it craves. Israel might have cemented its hold on the U.S., but that is showing welcome signs of crumbling. Along with short-term behavior, Israeli leaders have a long-term view, and can see Washington's relative decline and the increasing importance of China and the EU. World opinion is tiring of aggressive, heavily armed self-proclaimed victims. It takes a lot of effort to make fundamentalist Islamist militant bigots like Hamas the objects of sympathy, but Israel has managed it!

So what is the U.N. doing about it all? For years U.S. congressional apologists for Israel have railed against the U.N. programs that expound its own decisions—including those the U.S. itself voted for! But these programs have persevered, and in July I was in Lisbon for one of them. The media seminars on the Middle East issue used to be just Third Worldish jamborees, but under Boutros Ghali and his head of information, Samir Sanbar, the seminars became more deliberative and less declarative, inviting Israeli journalists and politicians from across the political spectrum, along with Palestinian counterparts and international journalists and academics.

Of course, there was much reticence on the part of some Israelis to take part, not least as they wrestled with the various arbitrary taboos of assorted Israeli governments about which Palestinians they could speak to. Indeed, especially in the early days, some Palestinians were reluctant in case they were tainted as collaborators with the occupiers.

In Lisbon, where the effect of new media was being considered, the U.N. had assembled a respectable spectrum of Israeli media and society, along with those from Palestine who could get out. Gazans were under-represented, naturally, because the Israeli government does not allow them to travel.

And that highlighted one of the points: despite a decade and a half of such "bridge building," and despite an encouraging relaxation of tensions, it appeared that in general, the Palestinians followed events in Israel far more closely than vice versa. Despite the unprecedented accessibility that new media gave to the Palestinian press and media, few Israelis avail themselves of it, even on Hebrew-language sites. In that sense, the wall has worked. Even many Israeli journalists seem oblivious to what is happening on the other side, of the daily humiliation of occupation. A young Palestinian journalist's account of in effect groveling to get a permit to attend a press conference in Jerusalem, crossing innumerable checkpoints, with arbitrary and capricious delays, and having to return by five was compared by an Israeli editor, sympathetic and personable, to the security the rest of us endure at airports—i.e., something necessary and excusable. It was a stunning lack of personal and professional empathy, all the more telling for being unconscious and in contrast to his apparent benignity.
The ICJ Decision on Kosovo

Recognizing the pain of others is, of course, one of the building blocks of a global society, and Israelis certainly are not alone in thinking that the people they drop bombs on do not understand them. On July 22, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued an advisory opinion asked for by the General Assembly, at Serbia's request, on the legality of the Kosovar declaration of independence. There was no international law against declaring independence, the court ruled—which is hardly surprising, since most members of the U.N. are there because at some point or other they had declared their independence.

Belgrade had covered its bases, but not really in glory, by pre-emptively stating that it would not be bound by the decision. It is symptomatic of the self-regarding state of Serbian nationalism that its government can ask for a court ruling while telling the court that it will only accept a favorable decision. For decades Serbia had treated Kosovo as if it were its own West Bank, regarding the actual inhabitants as unwanted complications to its alleged historical claims, and of course it is a hot button issue in Serbia, where growing pragmatic acceptance that Kosovo is not going to return to the bosom of its persecutor does not detract from nationalist outrage. The Serb government, a prisoner to nationalist sentiment, used the U.N. and the ICJ to stall the issue domestically, not because it expected—or even wanted—a resolution of the issue.

It is an interesting dilemma, because Serbia does not have a snowball's chance in hell of joining the EU, as it wants, if it maintains claims against a country now recognized by the EU and a majority of its members. Currently 69 U.N. members recognize Kosovo, and the ICJ's decision will almost certainly open the floodgates.

However, there is an interesting omission. Serbia complains that the EU and U.S. have been putting pressure on countries to recognize Kosovo. One would expect, therefore, that Washington's closest ally, which owes so much to American diplomatic support, would be one of the first to step up to the plate. But Israel has not recognized Kosovo, and it will be interesting to see whether it will now. Ask not what you can do for the U.S., but what can the U.S. do for you!

Apart from keeping lines open to China, Russia and other powers, Israel clearly is thinking of the legal precedent offered by Kosovo for the threatened Palestinian (re)Declaration of Independence. Unlike Kosovo, the United Nations General Assembly authorized the establishment of an Arab Palestinian state in the same 1947 partition resolution, and has progressively upped the status of the Palestinian delegation to the United Nations so that it has almost all the prerogatives and opportunities of a member state. It is only a paragraph or two from being recognized as a full member—with, of course, profound implications.

One can already hear the objection that it would be wrong to recognize a state without clear international boundaries, but that of course is precisely what happened with Israel, which had exceeded what it was allowed in the partition resolution. In fact there is a clear corpus of U.N. decisions on the Palestinian state's boundaries. No wonder Israel is holding back on Kosovo.

Primary Urges in the US & UK


Will everything stop for the Tea Party?
by Ian Williams
Friday, September 24th, 2010

The United States is in a perennial state of election, but it is hardly tumescent. The primary turnouts are soft, even lower than the customarily abysmal showing in general elections. In Britain, several Labour constituency parties are in the process of emulating this road to disaster by holding primaries. In some ways, I can’t help but compare American elections with the spuriously open Labour Party leadership election. It comes down to the one point. Money talks. Political commentary is not about winning hearts and minds so much as filling war chests: which candidate has raised the most money.

In that context, if one thing should evoke some sympathy for Barack Obama’s flailing administration it is the news that Wall Street money is now going preponderantly towards the Republicans, following the passage of the Financial Reform Act and the apparent refusal of the White House to extend billionaire tax breaks when they expire next year. The situation was worsened when the Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that corporations were citizens – people – whose election spending was a form of free speech that could not be restricted by law.

We saw some of the latest consequences of this trend in the US last week. The most reactionary and racist candidates will now represent the Republican Party in contests for the Senate in Delaware and Alaska and for the governorship of New York. The good news is this might cost the Republicans the election. The Republican candidate for Delaware has surfaced in an amusingly wacky video she made declaring that masturbation was the same as adultery and forbidden by the Bible. After all, she engagingly explained, if her putative husband was accustomed to masturbating: “Why am I in the picture?” It is a question many mainstream voters in the state might be asking themselves in November.

So what is the secret of their success? In primary elections with a small turnout, Fox TV and alleged grassroots organisations funded with untold millions of private and corporate money, inflamed and motivated those who Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff has called “the Wackoes”. This cynical game plan works. The relentless campaign of innuendo has persuaded a third of Republican supporters to think Obama is a Muslim and even more to blame him for the financial crisis he inherited. Campaigns funded by big business are getting deranged Tea Party supporters out to vote against the Democrats because, they say, Obama is in the hands of Wall Street.

You do not have to be a party “member” to vote in a primary. In many states, when you register to vote, you simply declare which party you support. In a frightening number of states, you do not even have to do that.

You simply turn up at the booth and vote to choose any party’s candidate in the forthcoming election. The very concept of party membership, in the sense of subscribing to the ideology of an organisation and paying dues in return for a say in its management and policymaking, has effectively disappeared in the US – the consummation that Tony Blair and New Labour wished for in Britain.

Those diminishing membership rolls and roles and political prostitution for corporate donations did not come from thin air. They were a conscious emulation of Bill Clinton, the triangulator-in-chief, who saw unions, poor people and minorities as “special interests” to be scorned.

The most powerful union in the US is actually the Business Roundtable, representing fewer than 200 chief executives of the biggest corporations. It has successfully achieved the greatest transfer of wealth from workers to senior management in the history of the world, but which lobbies furiously to prevent shareholders, the theoretical owners of companies, having any effective say in choosing the boards of directors.

Primary elections for choosing candidates throw the whole contest open to the media moguls to manipulate support for those they want. It is true that the electorate can ignore that manipulation. But in the US, the legislative ranks are filled with lawyers. In Britain, one gets the impression that Labour’s parliamentary ranks are now filled with aides and apparatchiks who owe more to patrons than constituents.

And so to the Labour leadership campaign. Voting by all party members is a good idea. However, from the beginning, I’ve invoked the American example and suggested some control and transparency for funding – unless we want the sort of situation where the Democratic chair of the Senate Finance Committee almost sabotaged his own party’s financial reform act, because he was the biggest recipient of bank and credit card company donations.

Tony Blair’s campaign for the Labour leadership was supported by Lord Levy, as he later became, with a view to influencing government policy on the Middle East. It was a stupendously successful investment. In contrast, as I remember, poor John Prescott was scratching round for cash to pay off his bills for a long time after.

Despite the levelling influence of the internet, there is a disturbing disproportion even now in the funding for candidates. Is it too much to expect that all candidates for party elections be compelled to list publicly all their donors who go much above the proverbial widow’s mite?

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Empire, Alcohol and Culture!

The Common Review, Summer Issue
Empire and Alcohol: A Brief Survey
By   Ian Williams

Books mentioned in this essay:
I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine, by Roger Scruton Continuum, 211 pages, $24.95
The Prohibition Hangover, by Garrett Peck Rutgers University Press, 309 pages, $26.95
Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer and Other Alcoholic Beverages, by Patrick E. McGovern University of California Press, 348 pages, $29.95
The King of Vodka: The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire, by Linda Himelstein HarperCollins, 384 pages, $29.99
Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba, by Tom Gjelten Viking, 413 pages, $27.95
The conservative philosopher and wine columnist Roger Scruton writes in I Drink Therefore I Am: “A visitor from another planet, observing Russians under the influence of vodka, Czechs in the grip of slivovitz or American hillbillies blotto on moonshine, would surely favor prohibition”. He then goes on to explain why the same alien would revere and applaud the same people’s relishing of a fine Burgundy.
Alcohol is a subject that can chill or burn a conversation. As do sex and drugs, it uneasily resides on an index of both pleasure and transgression. From prehistoric times, people have appreciated drink and its effects, so much so that many rulers throughout the ages have suspected the stuff is too good and too dangerous for the lower orders. And alcohol’s potency can be seen in the way it generates rituals. Sometimes this is rather literal, in the case of both the Christian sacraments and the ancient Greeks and Romans who, in taking their libations, liked to splash some wine on the ground for the gods before taking their own sip. Or it can be metaphorical, as in the case of wine lovers like Scruton, a man who sharply distinguishes between his own savoring of fifty-year-old vintages and the redneck glugging of the “guaranteed fresh” beers of the American supermarket.
Perhaps nowhere outside the Islamic world is there a nation quite so conflicted as the United States about pink-eyed Bacchus’s gift to us mortals, where drinking, as opposed to being drunk and incapable, still carries a stigma. Long before the Bolshevik airbrush reshaped the photographic history of the Russian Revolution, strong American prejudices were at work reshaping the national view of the past—a process culminating with the passing of Prohibition in 1920. The legislation would not be repealed until 1933 under Franklin Roosevelt. As with all great moral panics, it was not just the liquor itself that became spiritually contaminating; all favorable, or even neutral, references to alcohol became a form of thought-crime.
In this new, filtered version of history, Founding Fathers such as Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, and indeed George Washington have been stripped of their actual historical callings as distillers or tavern keepers. Modern-day attention on the underlying causes of the American Revolution has focused almost entirely on the Boston Tea Party. This obscures what was quite possibly a more significant issue: the British Parliament’s insistence on taxing molasses—the substance that New England merchants and distillers like Sam Adams preferred to smuggle in order to make rum.
American independence cut ties with the Caribbean even as it opened up the West, in particular, the fertile landscape of Kentucky. Not surprisingly, whiskey became the American drink of choice. Rum’s rhetorical assonance with Romanism and rebellion and its imperialist associations led to the elision of its role in the revolution. Temperance supporters carried on campaigning against “demon rum,” even as most of the targets of their solicitude were more likely to be swigging whiskey. But even more damning was the association of liquor with both slavery and overindulgence. The Northern victory in the Civil War saw an evangelical fervor for abolitionism often marching hand in hand with a passion for temperance, paving the way for Prohibition. Tellingly, the Union Navy ended the grog ration. The Confederate fleet didn’t.
The raging heat of evangelical fervor distilled out from American history the important role of alcohol in its various forms. Currier and Ives, the ubiquitous nineteenth-century printmakers who chronicled nineteenth-century American life, epitomize this Orwellian redrafting of history. Compare their antebellum print Washington’s Farewell to His Officers in Fraunces Tavern in New York with its postwar equivalent. Their original 1848 print has him raising a glass for a toast in front of his chest while a decanter stands on the table behind him. By 1867, the glass had disappeared to leave him with his hand clutched to his bosom in Nelsonian mode, and the decanter on the table behind him was deftly reengraved as an ornately feathered hat.
Temperance soon mutated into outright prohibitionism. After all, the Puritan heritage of New England had always felt that still-small voice of conscience was all very well, but the bellowed instructions of ordained authority were more reliable.
However, when in “Sententiae” H. L. Mencken defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” he was himself buying into this newly distilled version of history. In fact, according to Rum: A Social and Sociable History, historically, Puritan divines such as Increase Mather relished alcohol as a good gift of God, and ordinations of New England pastors led to legendarily lavish inputs of the unholy spirit. It was the loss of control, more precisely their control of others, that worried the Puritan elders. Typically, New England towns were mandated to have taverns, but officers were appointed to ensure that no one drank enough to behave indecorously. Similarly, after the Civil War, the Anti-Saloon League raided not restaurants, gentleman’s clubs, or country house wine cellars but the places where working-class people gathered to liberate their minds.
We can see the gathering drought in the contrast between the desperate attempts by patriotic citizens in New England to procure rum for Washington’s army in the Revolution and the character assassination of General Ulysses Grant for his fondness for whiskey in the Civil War and afterward in the White House. Lincoln’s urbane request to the complainers that they find out “what brand of whiskey Grant drinks, because I want to send a barrel of it to each one of my generals,” reflects how presidential urbanity was already battling a growing tide of intolerant temperance. In fact, the first great victory for the dry cause came when Congress abolished the grog ration—only for ratings—for the U.S. Navy in 1862. The British Admiralty did not dare do that until 1970 for fear of mutiny and public outcry, but with the departure of the drinking Confederate sailors and legislators at the outset of the Civil War, the Union Congress could do so with impunity. (Possibly the last American ship to serve the grog ration was the CNS Shenandoah, which carried on fighting for six months after the war, blithely unaware that, back at home, abolition was triumphant and temperance ascendant.)
For Prohibition’s final triumph in 1919, the Southern Baptists had to make a radical transition: from hard drinking to just saying no, period. Such a shift was about as plausible as a sincere Southern conversion to abolitionism. Still, various forces conspired to make the nation’s collective turn possible. World War I proved useful in terms of silencing the hitherto politically powerful German community, with its urbane acceptance of, and indeed social reliance on, communally consumed wine and beer.
As Garrett Peck shows in The Prohibition Hangover, the half century of fervent campaigning against drinking, culminating in the thirteen years of the so-called great experiment that began in 1919, has permanently marked current American social and legal attitudes as well as historical memory. Whole generations have been brought up considering demon rum the devil’s work. Even many of those who did not go the whole hogshead and get on the wagon came to regard drinking as something to be restricted to consenting adults behind closed doors—and certainly something not to mention in front of the children.
Because what little history most Americans are exposed to is at school while they are children, it should come as no surprise that the intimate connection between the country’s heroes and alcohol has gone into the same memory hole as the founders’ slaveholdings, let alone Thomas Jefferson’s slave offspring. Sex and race join alcohol as taboo subjects.
Peck shows how the enforced hypocrisies of temperance and prohibition still permeate American society, perhaps no more visibly than in this country’s drinking age being set at twenty-one. Consider the fact that sixteen-year-olds are trusted to handle firearms and drive, and eighteen-year-olds are trusted to vote and to die in the service of their country. Even more widely flouted than laws against cannabis usage, the age restriction has, among youths, made drinking an illicit glug fest devoid of appreciation for the finer flavors or bouquets. Although almost everyone who has looked closely at the application of the laws admits they are unjust and ineffective, few have the political courage to call for reform.
Indicative of alcohol’s thought-crime status is that entering a Web site in the United States for any alcohol-related subject requires a silly ritual of entering one’s age, as if merely reading about drink were contaminating. Of course, anyone who can subtract twenty-one from the current year can gain access anyway, so the pointlessness of the ritual, unless it is considered a low-threshold IQ test, has the stigmata of a moral panic, all sound and fury, signifying nothing of effect except to armor the site owners against the pitchforks and torches of the moral majority when they come a-lynching.
The poor quality of mass-produced beer in the United States is one result of Prohibition’s thirteen-year intermission in domestic alcohol production, but another is the acceptance of a complete distortion of the market. In many of the Red states, where the mere thought of socialized medicine reduces the citizenry to paroxysms of libertarian fervor, there is unquestioning acceptance of government-owned liquor distribution, whereas in others, state regulations enforce a wholesale structure of intermediaries that stifles entrepreneurship and helps guarantee large corporate control of the trade.
That this should happen in the country that preaches free trade with the evangelical zeal with which it once propounded Prohibition is all the more anomalous in the light of the antiquity, and indeed ubiquity, of the trade that it so distorts. In Uncorking the Past, Patrick E. McGovern implies the brewer as the real oldest profession in the world, and certainly his research suggests that wine is one of the oldest items of international commerce in the world. McGovern, the scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, clearly enjoys his work. In fact, McGovern reverses the general alcoholic amnesia and finds the stuff everywhere, permeating the fabric of the universe and of human history. Putting Bacchus at the center of creation, McGovern is an archaeologist with a nose. He suggests that the vast clouds of ethanol, billions of kilometers across, that astronomers have detected in places like the center of our galaxy might well be one of the sources of life, when the organic molecules generated in such stellar distilleries rained down on planets like ours. And advances in biochemistry allow McGovern and his colleagues to examine an excavated potsherd and find reliable indicators of what the pot used to hold, like alcoholic beverages. Although McGovern’s prose does not always flow as smoothly as his bubbling enthusiasm for his subject, his assiduous efforts certainly rescue intoxicating drink from any residual post-Prohibition amnesia.
In the birthplaces of all civilizations, McGovern finds telltale indicators of beer, wine. and assorted fermented cocktails with mixed ingredients. In Neolithic China, on the borders between Iran and Iraq, and even in the prehistoric Americas, let alone the windy wastes of the north of Scotland, he finds the chemical traces of human ingenuity at work converting honey, grapes, and other fruits to alcohol, or the even more complex task of converting carbohydrates from rice, millet, barley or wheat to sugar and then alcohol. In the midst of our flint-wielding ancestors’ struggle for survival, there is something touching about how assiduously they addressed the technology needed to store and transport their liquid treasures.
McGovern could have emphasized the nutritional value of fermented drinks, their ability to preserve the nutrients of fruits and grains, and indeed he does mention that. However, his main thrust is that the drinks our ancestors made were intended to be, well, intoxicating. He places them in the context of worldwide traditions of shamanism and ritual and gleefully lists the pharmaceutically active ingredients such as Ephedra, opium, and hemp, whose residues he and his colleagues have detected in the containers along with more traditional alcoholic residues.
McGovern implies that, far from alcohol being a byproduct of agricultural development, it was the need for regular feedstock for the breweries that drove our hunter-gatherer ancestors to forsake their more nutritious mixed diet for the beginnings of cereal monoculture. He produces convincing evidence to suggest that the successful domestication of maize was driven by its use in chichi, the beer that Amerindians made from it, rather than the beer being a by-product of food production. He argues that it took thousands of years before cultivators bred maize varieties with ears big enough to eat as opposed to brew. This can be inferred, he claims, from the lack of biochemical indicators of eating corn in recovered skeletons from the chichi-brewing era. Certainly, alcohol became imbued with cultic significance. The Incas rubbed their human sacrifices in the stuff before they made the final cut.
The author also points out the genetic equipment to cope with alcohol has been so pervasive through evolution that naturally fermenting fruit is likely to have been both food and fun for millions of years even for our prehuman ancestors. Although grapes and sugar-rich fruit present almost windfall booze—crush them and they ferment with the natural yeasts on the skins—grain-based beers, made from barley, rice, or millet, present a different technological challenge. Neolithic biochemistry had to convert the carbohydrates to sugars before they could start fermentation. Indeed, barley is the source of some of the world’s earliest beer in the now-dry (in every sense) uplands of Iran. Letting it sprout to produce sugar-rich malt and the enzymes to convert carbohydrate is relatively simple and easily comprehensible as a serendipitous series of discoveries. One imagines a frugal cook using sprouted barley to make porridge and then discovering that it began to bubble if left in the pot—and tasted very refreshing when the puzzling effervescence finished. As McGovern details it, the Chinese process of using fungus to convert carbohydrate from grains like rice to sugars and then allowing the yeast to ferment it could have sprung from similar frugality in far-off days when food was too precious to have a sell-by date, and food preparers scraped off the mold and carrying on cooking.

He also gathers worldwide evidence for mastication of grains as a method of inducing fermentation. The enzymes in saliva convert carbohydrates to sugars. One does not like to think about how it was discovered that chewing and spitting out carbohydrates induced the equivalent of malting, their conversion to fermentable sugars. Did some disgruntled servant spit in the gruel at some point? However, we are happy to consume honey, which bees regurgitate. McGovern attests to honey’s frequent use in the cocktails of various fermentables. Mead has a respectable history all of its own. Indeed, the rule seems to be that, with rare exceptions, wherever there is fermentable material, humans have taken advantage of it.
Although his speculation and conclusions about a world wide web of shamanism practiced with the aid of alcohol (laced or not with other mind-altering substances), are not as well substantiated as the impressive evidence he marshals of ancient brewing and fermentation technology, McGovern indisputably shows the pioneering role of alcohol in commerce. In a world where narcotic drugs are a major, albeit little-heralded, item of world trade, amounting to more than $300 billion annually, if it were not for our inherited historical prejudices, it should not be surprising that drink has been a major trade commodity from the earliest days. He cites the copious evidence for trading of wines from the highlands to the plains of Mesopotamia, or from the coast of the Levant to Egypt, even before the well-attested traffic from the Mediterranean vineyards to northern people like the Celts and later the Germans. Recovered shipwrecks show the holds full of wine that crossed the seas and held the ancient world together.
Despite being steeped in classical lore himself, Roger Scruton’s crusty conservative philosophy ignores sordid economic details and takes a much more cerebral look at drink, with a libation to the spirits of ancient metaphysicians. His latest book, I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine, is disdainful of spirits but even more so of the lower classes’ drinking habits. Alcohol becomes the principal criterion for imposing one’s snobbery. Equally, brands, or even grape varietals are nothing to Scruton: terroir is all, imbuing each bottle in his cellar with a sense of history and belonging. He discounts the revolutionary blind tastings in which French experts had, to their own chagrin, preferred Californian wines to their own. For Scruton, “blind tastings assume that wine is addressed solely to the senses, and that knowledge plays no part in its appreciation”, so for him, a bottle of a fine vintage is fifty years of direct history in a bottle, written on a palimpsest of generations of vineyard toil and tenderness. He ignores the questions that arise with the vodka brands he presumably disdains: Would he derive the same enjoyment from a bottle with a Burgundy label in which a prankster had substituted a Californian vintage? Is it the label or the wine that stimulates his higher faculties?
Scruton’s patrician condescension can be jarring, but he is surely right about the ubiquity of drinking and stresses not only that the word alcohol comes from Arabic but also that the assumed Koranic prohibition is no better founded than those of the prohibitionists who invoke the Bible. It is important to remember that Jesus turned water to wine, not to grape juice, and the Prophet originally promised believers a paradise with rivers of wine. And of course, many of its deeper thinkers have added depth to their thoughts with its aid. As Omar Khayyam acclaimed, “The grape that can with logic absolute, / The two and seventy jarring sects confute.” Scruton cites Avicenna, writing from what is now Iran, to refute the assumed Koranic declaration that wine intoxicates: “We should take into account whether potentially and actually, and whether a little, or a large amount”.
Apart from Sufi conclaves and Avicenna’s eminently rationalist approach, Scruton puts wine at the heart of Western philosophy: it was the social lubricant for the symposia of Socrates and Plato. He prefers to skirt discussion, however, of the bawdy Greek vase paintings. Those suggest that wine could be much less cerebral in its effects, liberating sexually and intellectually.
In the modern age, there are signs of actively rigorous repression. Breweries and distilleries were major businesses in both the North American colonies and metropolitan Britain. Both for general consumption and especially for the navy and army, they were part of early industrialization and capital accumulation, becoming some of the largest enterprises of their era. Rum was the fuel and the lubricant for the trade that kept the infertile New England colonies afloat as part of a circum-oceanic trade system. Otherwise relatively infertile, the Yankee colonies nevertheless had huge reserves of cod and timber, which they traded to the Caribbean in return for rum, which the better class of colonists drank, and for the molasses that made rum for the others, including the Indians, of whom Ben Franklin said in his autobiography, “Indeed if it be the design of Providence to extirpate these Savages in order to make room for cultivators of the earth, it seems not improbable that Rum may be the appointed means. It has already annihilated all the tribes who formerly inhabited the Sea-Coast.”
The balance went to Africa, to be traded for slaves—“rum in the hold and a preacher on deck,” as the old saw had it. One can clearly see why the history of New England was bowdlerized into inanity after the Civil War. The South may have been institutionally reconstructed, but the North was made over historically to expunge its unthinkably close ties to rum and slavery. Their use of the rum, whether to ethnically cleanse the Indians or to trade for slaves, was doubly unpalatable to abolitionist and prohibitionist sentiment.
The Boston Tea Party, a smugglers’ heist of the competition, became a useful McGuffin to divert interest and attention from the real issue that poisoned relations between London and the colonies: the duties on molasses, for making New England rum, that the local merchants regularly tried to avoid paying. For much of the period during which Britain was engaged in a life-and-death global struggle with France, in part to secure the American colonies from the French threat, American merchants not only smuggled molasses without paying duty but also obtained it by trading with the enemy—the French Caribbean colonies. It is not surprising that the staunch commercialism of the Yankee merchants pragmatically embraced free trade to such an extent; rather, it is still anomalous that their descendants are still reluctant to embrace the (alcoholic) liquidity that was so important to the rise of trade and capitalism.
That same process of mass alcohol production also played its role in other epoch-making revolutions, not least in Russia and Cuba. Two recent books, Linda Himelstein’s account of Smirnov vodka and Tom Gjelten’s story of Bacardi rum, show just how innovative and influential drink-making dynasties have been in modern history. Along the way, these authors respectively illuminate the histories of Russia and Cuba.
Himelstein’s king of vodka, Pyotr Smirnov, was born a Russian serf, who then navigated his way upward through the hierarchy of the caste-bound czarist society, not to mention plutocracy. Of course, it always helped to make lots of money and spread it around in appropriately useful ways, and the Smirnov dynast’s astute brand-building exercises, from winning imperial approval to collecting international medals, went hand in hand with his calculated and effective social climbing. Vodka has had an almost-sacramental character in Russia, but it was equally important fiscally. The state vodka monopoly, to the disgust of temperance advocates like Tolstoy, paid for much of the government’s expenditures. Indeed, it may be that prohibition in 1914 contributed to the defeat of the czar’s armies by depriving the government of needed revenue, but that has to be countered by the novel effects of a sober soldiery, whose new found efficiency in the first months of the war amazed observers. Of course, in keeping with temperance movements elsewhere, high-class restaurants were allowed to carry on selling alcohol while the lower orders rapidly filled the market gap with illicit moonshine, known as samogen.
After the revolution, the game was up. Vladimir Smirnov fled to the West to sell the brand, which went from France to the United States and is now in the hands of the formidable booze giant Diageo, which straddles the world market and has returned to the Russian market that gave birth to the brand. Russia, through czars to commissars and now oligarchs, is still wrestling with the social consequences of alcohol, which has reduced average life expectancy, and indeed productivity, to third-world levels but without emulating the birth rates. Vodka was probably more effective in undermining the Soviet empire than were Ronald Reagan and Star Wars.
The Smirnoff attention to advertising and image creation anticipates the success of Grey Goose. Vodka is the ultimate in consumerist commodities. It is, after all, a clear, colorless, aromaless mixture of pure alcohol and water, and the difference between brands is somewhat metaphysical. Flashy spenders are prepared to pay huge premiums for those metaphysics—or more banally for a fancy label and bottle. It is with a less articulate sense of Scruton’s terroir that Sidney Frank invented Grey Goose and had it made in France, feeling correctly that people would find French origins considerably more chic than any of the former homelands of vodka, let alone the industrial alcohol plants of the United States. Just as during the tech boom bankers spent thousands of dollars in steak houses for fine wine that they drank as if it were Coca-Cola, a bottle of Grey Goose on a nightclub table sends a signal as potent as a padded codpiece about the purchaser. Bacardi paid billions for the Grey Goose brand once Frank had launched it.
Rum has been an even more powerful historical force than vodka. Tom Gjelten’s Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba demonstrates just how innovative the Bacardi family has been, with an impressive array of pioneering business innovations, even discounting those they claimed that might not pass the fact checker’s scrutiny, such as the origins of the cuba libre. The family truly appreciated the value of branding, so much so that when Castro’s Marxist regime nationalized their company, the materialist compañeros would have caviled at the family taking actual barrels of rum out with them into exile but had no inkling of the value of the immaterial trademark registrations they carried out in their pockets.
In fact, Bacardi had already offshored from Cuba to become one of the world’s first transnationals. When the family left the island, they lost their home but not their headquarters—which they had already moved to the Bahamas, close to the U.S. coast (and gaining what was at the time British imperial trading preferences). With similar foresight, they had already built a plant in Puerto Rico from which to assault the American market as Prohibition ended.
The Bacardi family had grown this market by appealing to refugees from Prohibition and by sending in large shipments through illegal rumrunners before repeal. It is little remarked that while the Bacardi family was growing its market this way, another dynasty was building its political fortunes in the same business. No more than we hear about Washington’s distilling and slave trading do we usually hear in reverent obituaries of the Kennedy clan how the proceeds of rum-running originally stocked the family’s political war chest.
Bacardi itself has kept rum to the fore in regional and international politics. The family had a rebellious tradition, and despite making rum by appointment to the royal court in Madrid, it supported José Martí and the rebels in the war against Spain. Indeed, they bankrolled Castro’s shock troops in the Sierra Maestra and greeted the arrival of the long-haired, bearded rebels at Bacardi headquarters with a banner declaring “¡Gracias, Fidel!” Pepin Bosch and Daniel Bacardi, two of the family’s heads, served on the first postrevolution trade mission from the island to Washington. Of course that made Castro’s nationalization of their Cuban operations all the more galling.
Bacardi blows hot and cold on its Cuban connections, but as one of the largest private, family-held companies in the world, it does not have to answer to shareholders for the millions it has expended on this grudge fight with the revolutionary regime they helped distill and market. Its lobbying power has bankrolled the maintenance of the embargo on Cuba, and in a fit of pure pique, Bacardi sought out the former owners of Havana Club and bought their tenuous claim to the trademark that the Cuban government had acquired by default. Litigated inside a United States hostile to Castro, their ownership of the trademark is not recognized in any other country and has on occasion threatened the whole global structure of international property rights. It has done little to stem the sales of Havana Club outside the United States, not least since one of the world’s liquor giants, Rémy Cointreau, markets it outside Cuba, which is what almost precipitated a trade war between the United States and the European Union over the case. Alcohol still fuels history!
Although the other authors discuss the historical impact of drink, Scruton correctly stresses its social and intellectual impact on those who drink it, not just those make and trade it. Readers who savor fine single malts or aged rums do not have to subscribe to his excessive oenophilia to appreciate the good sense of his argument about the centrality of drink to our culture, ranging from its role as the icebreaker, the social lubricant, to its role as Titanic, going down with all hands when imbibers lose control and hit one ice cube too many.
But between is that golden-glow territory, where people appreciate fine wines and spirits, and indeed beers, which stimulate them into expansive conversation, if not greater thoughts. Scruton begins his book by telling us: “Throughout history, human beings have made life bearable by taking intoxicants.” He memorably counters the modern day prohibitionists with this exhortation: “The worst use of money is to add to the junk pile of old cars or kitsch houses. The best use is to buy mega-expensive wine, so turning your money into biodegradable urine and returning it to the primordial flux,” or even perhaps, as the universe ferments and distills its ingredients over the eons, into the clouds of ethanol that waft across the center of the galaxy.
History, and the universe, seen through the bottom of a glass, can indeed reach further than the Hubble. From the likes of these recent titles, it appears that such an appreciation is growing on the bookshelves, and as Scruton above all would agree, no home library is really complete without bottles and glasses to accompany the reading.