Sunday, December 21, 2014

Thatcher RIP

I had posted this while I was ill with heart problems, but discovered it was still in draft. Thought it still had some resonance and published now!

By Ian Williams
The mainstream media epithet machine used to describe Margaret Thatcher for American readers as “the prime minister who privatized the loss-making state industries.” Of course she did no such thing. The enterprises she sold off made huge profits for the Treasury. BP was, after all, the state-owned creation of Winston Churchill and kept a constant flow of petropounds going into the Treasury. Selling it off to her friends in the City of London benefited its executives and shareholders but hardly the British public, let alone the US citizenry around the Gulf of Mexico.
Mark Twain said that while he wished no man dead, he sometimes read obituaries with great pleasure. I rather suspect that I will be denied even that enjoyment with the oleaginous brown-nosing that will surround the demise of Margaret Thatcher.
The woman contrived the collapse of Britain as an industrial power, squandering the windfall find of North Sea oil in the process and perhaps most reprehensibly helped erode the ideology of common welfare and concern that was consummated by the Labour government after World War II, which was after all, for most British people, the most significant achievement of that titanic struggle.
Less of a self-made woman than most obituarists will admit, she married well, to a millionaire who could support her in her political ambitions. To give her her due, she carved her way into an all-male chauvinist milieu with scrotum-crushing tenacity. She was determined and resolute in her ambitions. I was going to say strong-minded, but that would inadvertently have given her more credit than she deserved. Although undoubtedly more clued in than Ronald Reagan, with whose name she will be linked in death, I suspect that much of what the right see as ideological correctness was no such thing. Her motivation was not to dismantle the state so much as to ensure her continuing control of it.
She sold off public housing and stopped the programs to build more, not because she had deeply neo-liberal feelings that were offended by this intrusion of the state into the housing market but because she believed that doing so would break open what she saw as a Labour Party vote bank of council tenants, and convert them into property owning conservatives. In this and other respects she displayed a materialism and crude economic determinism that resembled the diehard factions of the Leninist left!
It was similar reasoning that I suspect impelled her break up of the great state-owned enterprises.   Coal, steel, railways, electricity and gas, were the stronghold of unions who not only had their fingers on the jugular of the nation but were the financial and political base of the Labour Party.  From her point of view, one cannot help but suspect this was a double whammy perpetrated on her political opponents, since the sale of the shares, she hoped, like the sale of public housing to its tenants would create a huge new voting population of conservatives.
It is worth remembering that she also introduced a poll tax to replace the local government property taxes, almost certainly with the aim of driving poorer, and as she saw them, natural Labour voters off the electoral rolls.
To her credit, in the same astute political vein, she forbore to privatize the National Health, not because she was attached to socialized medicine, but because she knew who her own voters were, just as they liked British Rail, which was left for John Major to privatize with disastrous fiscal consequences.
Despite all these measures, and despite the florid encomia now covering her pall, Margaret Thatcher never won a majority of the popular vote. Her arrival and stay in Downing Street owed much to her opponents. The Labour Party was tied up in sterile political arguments with ambitious politicians defecting to found the Social Democrats who later merged with the Liberals. It was that bloc of popular votes which deprived opposition Labour of the votes necessary to win elections. In each election a clear majority voted against Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Party.
On foreign policy, it was her penny-pinching, withdrawing niggardly sums from, for example, the British Antarctic Survey, which sent the wrong signals to the Junta in Argentina and led to the invasion of the Falklands. She did indeed display courage and resolution in repelling that invasion, but fixing something she broke herself should dull the glow of that triumph. Indeed her defense cuts would have made the same operation impossible a year later!
That obduracy could be ugly - as when she gloated that she had bullied the Commonwealth’s and other heads of state into accepting only the most rudimentary token sanctions against Apartheid. On the other hand, she deserves considerable credit for persuading Reagan that Gorbachev was serious about detente. There were few others with the conservative credibility to do that.
She was not nice, not popular and a person of narrow but tightly focused vision. But her flawed legacy lives on, mesmerizing, for example, Tony Blair.  Apart from the pious politicians, one suspects that sackcloth and ashes will he hard to discern on the streets of London, that in pubs across the former industrial heartland of Britain, many pint glasses will be raised in tasteful celebration.
Ian Williams is the founder of Deadlinepundit Ltd, a public affairs media consultancy.

Istanbul Great European City

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2009, pages 38-40

Talking Turkey
Istanbul: A Great European City
By Ian Williams

AFTER HALF a millennium of Crusader-style propaganda, Westerners all know that Turks eat babies. But in fact, walking the streets of Istanbul with a six-month-old baby is a revelation: adult males—as much as, if not more than women—could not resist coming up to stroke the baby’s hand and chin.

The city defies expectations and stereotypes and now looks like the cosmopolitan world capital it was for so many centuries. It is an organic growth of ultra-modern high rises rising from a seedbed of traditional wooden houses, sadly being reduced to mulch by time and gentrification. Apart from the great monuments, the Roman walls, the mosques and churches, it is sad that so little of the ancient city survives, but that is because the all-too-flammable wood that has been the favored building material for millennia has led to urban renewal by conflagration.

Old Ottoman wooden houses crumbling on the backstreets are eloquent testimony to the relative fragility and evanescence of the city’s fabric over the centuries. A lamp overturned could do as much damage as barbarian invasion, and even Ottoman palaces went up in flames.

My favorite part of Istanbul is Sultanahmet, which clusters on the hills near the Topkapi Palace. A few decades ago, Sultanahmet was a louche quarter of gangsters and smugglers. They have moved on, but it still maintains a definite charm.

The narrow, steep and winding cobbled streets allegedly follow the Ottoman strictures: they were to be no wider than three horsemen could ride abreast. In many of them, their stirrups would have tangled with each other, and in any case the Sipahis—members of the Ottoman Empire’s elite mounted cavalry force—would have crashed their helmets on the overhanging medieval-style upper storeys.

Nevertheless, such restrictions do not prevent cars from trying to squeeze past pedestrians up the steep slopes and around the hairpin bends.

In keeping with their multi-faceted exterior walls, the roofs of Sultanahmet are a Harry Potter fantasy of tumbled tiles and random angles and equally random chimneys poking out, enhanced by rooftop flower pots and the new talismans of satellite dishes. Concrete in bright hues of yellow and pink escapes the Third World ubiquity of turquoise blue, and is interspersed with wooden and corrugated iron additions and extensions.

Two views of Küçük Ayasofya (Photo I. Williams).

The area is undergoing serious gentrification, but only in a few favored cases does that involve repairing and repainting the topsy-turvy blackened wood structures. Rebuilding is done mostly in concrete, often with the same eccentrically shaped exteriors, and from a quick view of construction techniques they are unlikely to be much more durable than the rickety, and sometimes deserted, wooden houses alongside.

Perhaps the best indication of Turkey’s accretive civilization is the incredible archaeological excavations taking place in Yenikapi, just south of Sultanahmet. To set the contrast, I once stood in the Beersheba museum, in a confiscated mosque, perusing the Israeli Department of Antiquities time chart—in which the mosque did not exist, since history stopped in 660 and resumed in 1900.

When, during the digging for a new underground railway tunnel, Turkish archaeologists discovered the silted-up remains of a Byzantine harbor with the preserved remains of 9th and 10th century ships, they did not concrete over the inconvenient reminder. Instead they delayed the hugely expensive project while they excavated and rescued the relics. Indeed they went digging even further, and took the origins of the city back to Neolithic times.

The archaeologists assured me that there was no popular upsurge against the display, rather pride in this reinforcement of the antiquity of their city.

One of the joys of Istanbul is stumbling across ancient churches and mosques nestled among the houses, quite apart from the better-known and huger monuments such as Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) and the Sultan Ahmet mosque that gives the district its name. One of the relatively unknown treasures hiding near the waterfront is the Küçük Ayasofya, the little Hagia Sophia, since it was a template for the big one when it was built.

The original late Roman Arches can be seen in the dome, and the adapted Arab style on the outside wall. In the foreground are the chimneys for the kitchens to feed pilgrims and travellers.

Ironically, as an immaculately maintained and cleaned working mosque, in some ways it gives a better impression of the original church than its larger descendant, whose shabbiness, reconstruction work, dust and thronging tourists demand an effort of the imagination to conjure up its original effect. Its marble walls survived intact, while around its interior walls the Greek inscription to the Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora also remains intact after 1,500 years.

Indeed, shocking to more conservative Muslims, the Ottomans surrounded their holy places with graves and tombstones, emulating the Christian tradition. Indeed, one great Christian practice they adopted enthusiastically was collecting relics. The Amanat in the Topkapi Palace preserves relics of the Prophet and others. There may be some room for doubt about the rod with which Moses struck the rock, for example, but with a continuity of tradition and polity from the Prophet’s days, the hair from his head and beard, the fragment of his tooth and the original standard lends them serious credibility.

To fundamentalists, however, their provenance would not diminish their idolatrous nature—indeed, some emissaries were sent from Mecca specifically to protect them from iconoclasm. Fortunately, as the ruling AKP in Turkey is demonstrating, Turkish Islam covers a wide spectrum, and is self-reliant enough to eschew the excesses of more austere fundamentalists.

To some extent, it has little option. After the Ottomans, Kemal Ataturk constructed a Turkish identity that was not confessional, unlike many others in the region. That secularist identity—which can be fairly fundamentalist itself—has its drawbacks, one of which has certainly been the restrictions placed on the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch and the seminary that used to supply candidates.

Those restrictions exist not because he is Christian, but rather because he is seen as “Greek” Orthodox, and has indeed been taken to court for claiming the title of ecumenical. It is a very shortsighted stance, which not only raises human rights issues for EU accession, but also deprives the city of prestige and tourism and pilgrimage dollars. As the sultans realized, it is better to have such a potent title to hand than drive it into exile!

History is always seen through the prism of the present, or the more recent past. The Cold War/Clash of Civilizations view places like Istanbul as a front line between Islam and Christianity, or more recently between Islam and Judeo-Christianity. The West looks at the Sufi-inspired Islam of the Turks and Balkans through a lens ground from the sand of the Saudi desert.

In reality, of course, these are crossroads and meeting places rather than battlegrounds. Istanbul is often regarded as a Turkish nationalist name imposed to erase the Greek past inherent in Constantinople, when in reality it is the Greek words “to the city,” the polis, that was its basis, while Constantine is a Latin name.

To confuse the simplicities of retrospective nationalism even more, the “Greeks” of the Byzantine Empire never called themselves either Byzantine or Greek. They were Romans. It was Westerners trying to assert the legitimacy of the Holy Roman Empire in the face of it being, as Voltaire quipped, neither Roman nor Holy who foisted these names on the citizens.

And right up to the end of the Sultanate, the Phanariots, the Greeks of Istanbul, were a considerable proportion of the cosmopolitan population of the Ottoman capital—and indeed crewed the navy and filled the bureaucracy.

Although, sadly, most of the Phanariots were driven out in the 1950s, some still remain, along with Armenians, Bosnians and Uzbeks and other peoples from along the Silk Road.

Turkish Islam is distinct from its more southerly forms. Sunday is the day off in Turkey and the environs of the Eyup mosque, allegedly the burial place of the Prophet’s standard-bearer, as revealed in a dream to a sultan, swarmed with the visibly pious, men in skull caps and women in chadors pinned across their face coming to pray. But the men and their wives walked hand in hand, and on less solemn occasions fundamentalist feminine fashion includes colorful figure-hugging silk attire, with chic headscarves surrounding immaculate maquillage.

However, as the more pious immigrants from the Anatolian hinterland move into the city, the headscarves are certainly more widespread, even if they coexist with miniskirts and tight blouses from the more secular. Another audible testimony to growing Islamic power is the decibels from the minarets, which are distinctly louder than they used to be. I am inclined to be fundamentalist on this issue. I think the muezzen should climb the minaret and use his lungs to benefit his own soul and body, and delight the ears of sleeping citizens. More secular citizens also complained that beer and raki were disappearing from supermarket shelves and restaurant menus, but that was the whim of the proprietors, not a legal edict.

This mixture of Islam and secularism, despite the occasional atavistic whiffs of authoritarianism, made Turkey a sensible place for President Barack Obama’s first major visit abroad, sending discrete but strong signals across the region. The country, as its involvement with Damascus has shown, is a possible partner in winning a Middle East peace process, an essential part of which is to persuade Muslims that the U.S. is not irredeemably Islamophobic—or, for that matter, irredeemably Israelophilic. It was well worth his blocking our access to the Blue Mosque on his visit.

One cannot help but suspect that Obama’s immediate predecessors would not have made a walk around the mosque and a trip to a Muslim country their first priority, especially if they had been accused of being a crypto-Muslim, and if their host had publicly dressed down Israeli President Shimon Perez on global TV.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of course, gained immense popularity across the Muslim world, and indeed much further, for his sermon to the Israeli leader at Davos, when so many others prevaricated on or supported Israel’s attack on Gaza. Interestingly, the tidal wave of obloquy that would normally have deluged over him was muted—and then almost silenced. The Turkish armed forces are Israel’s only ally in the area.

The generals may have their own disagreements with Erdogan, but let their Israeli counterparts know that they would be unhappy with foreigners calumniating a Turkish leader. Hence the rapid silence which overcame the initial vociferous pro-Israel indignation. Even Obama benefited from the amnesty!

One lesson is clear: successful conduct of foreign policy comes by talking to foreigners, not listening to domestic lobbies. The other is that Turkey should be in the European Union. There are legitimate hurdles on minority issues—but the Muslim majority population should not be a bar to membership. Istanbul is one of the great European cities and should take its place with London, Paris, Madrid and Berlin.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

UK abstains on nuke vote

Ian Williams

Tribune December 19, 2014 Last modified: December 14, 2014
In the United Nations, a flight of disarmament resolutions went through in December – and the nuclear powers, including Britain, disappeared up their diplomatic rears abstaining or voting against core principles in the treaty.

Significantly, one resolution calling for a nuclear-free Middle East passed by 161 votes, with the United States, Canada, Palau, Micronesia and, of course, Israel voting against. No fewer than 18 cowardly countries abstained, including Australia, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain. In contrast, the tiny Marshall Islands, totally dependent on the US Congress, had more integrity than Britain, and voted for.

The Marshall Islands has gone to the International Court of Justice in The Hague for a ruling on the failure of the nine nuclear nations to disarm, and asking the court to require them to stop maintaining and modernising their weaponry as well as take substantial steps to disarmament.

The Marshallese know whereof they speak since US exploded out no less than 23 hydrogen bombs on the itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny atoll of Bikini in the former Strategic Trust territory. Five of those nine would-be nuclear bombers, Britain, China, France, Russia and the US, are signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which bars new nations from going nuclear but which also requires the existing nuclear states to move towards complete disarmament. Among the 190 signatories is Iran. Not among them are India, Pakistan – and Israel.

So why would Britain, Germany and France vote against a resolution whose principles their countries have publicly endorsed and committed to?  The reason is that the resolution was not about North Korea, or even Iran, but specifically called on Israel to “accede to that treaty without further delay, not to develop, produce test or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons, to renounce possession of nuclear weapons” and to put its nuclear facilities under the safeguard of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

US representative Robert Wood claimed that the resolution “fails to meet the fundamental tests of fairness and balance. It confines itself to expressions of concern about the activities of a single country.” His statement epitomises the absurdities of Washington’s position. In a resolution calling for a US backed nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, is it “unfair” and “unbalanced” to mention the one nuclear state in the region?

But the US is the mover of all the resolutions in the UN Security Council, identifying Iran as the only threat to disarmament in the Middle East. Iran is not the most palatable regime in region, although on almost every human right standard, it far surpasses our Saudi allies. But the ayatollahs have declared nuclear weapons unIslamic. Iran has signed and apparently observes all the chemical and biological warfare conventions and treaties, and has not invaded any of its neighbours. Although its citation of its “inalienable right” right to civil nuclear development might sound pompous and portentous, it is lifted straight from the Non-Proliferation Treaty which it has signed and Israel hasn’t.

Indeed, the Security Council resolution against Iran was only possible because Washington won over the vote of India, a nuclear non-signatory of the NPT, by exempting it from sanctions for its own nuclear programme to get a reference from the IAEA.

In contrast, Israeli politicians have openly called for military action against Iran on the mere suspicion of possible nuclear capability – thereby violating the most fundamental core of the UN Charter. It has flouted the NPT, and has a nuclear arsenal.

The reaction of the US and the Europeans is to pour treasure, armaments and diplomatic support to Israel. Germany provides advanced nuclear-capable submarines to the world’s biggest nuclear power outside the NPT.

Sadly the more reactionary governments become, the more support they win from across the political spectrum of European leaders, who all preach to the world about respect for UN resolutions, international law, nuclear disarmament, the International Criminal Court and the Geneva Conventions – unless anyone tries to apply them to one bellicose state in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Picking up the Democrats' tricks

A reader's intelligence is affronted by the latest Democratic Party email campaign
Have Nigerian email scammers taken over the US Democratic Party? Or have they just been retained as consultants? For weeks in the run-up to the mid-term elections in November, chummily cozy missives addressing me intimately as ‘Ian’ have been clogging my inbox asking for campaign donations.

The email campaign was an insult to anyone’s intelligence. I am supposed to believe that my chums Barack and Hilary have personally dropped me a line, that candidates I have never heard of have personally mentioned me by name in their staff meetings that morning, and that their daughters have written thanking me for help.

The senatorial contingent from New York is equally intimate in its greetings. As young Molly Bishop, daughter of senator Tim Bishop, writes: ‘I would be absolutely heartbroken if my dad lost. Please help.’ She later shares her father’s desperation: ‘Ian, I wouldn’t be emailing you for the sixth day in a row if it wasn’t urgent. I’m downright PLEADING with you – Molly & Tim Bishop.’

But then I looked up a perceptive paper from Cormac Herley of Microsoft Research entitled ‘Why do Nigerian scammers say they are from Nigeria?’ Most of the world, after a decade of inbox stuffing, would look even a giftwrapped gold-plated gift horse in the mouth if it had Nigeria on the label, so why would the scammers not be clever enough to say they came from, say Switzerland or the Netherlands, small countries that exude trustworthiness and probity?

Why do some of them persist in using upper case letters for their tall tales? Were these conditions imposed by the Nigerian Federal Scammers Trade Association? Or are they just a strong local tradition, gloating to the world: we can empty your bank accounts. Herley hit the nail on the head: email scams come in two stages – one is putting out the bait, which in the case of emails is basically free. The second stage is the expensive and time-consuming business of reeling in those who take that bait.

‘As gullibility is unobservable, the best strategy is to get those who possess this quality to self-identify,’ he explains. ‘An email with tales of fabulous amounts of money and West African corruption will strike all but the most gullible as bizarre. It will be recognized and ignored by anyone who has been using the internet long enough to have seen it several times. It will be figured out by anyone savvy enough to use a search engine.’

In other words, the scammers keep Nigeria in the emails because only a fool would follow through – and eons of folk wisdom correctly assesses the tenuous ties between the intellectually challenged and their monetary assets.

This is clearly the discovery that Tea Party emailers have been working on, in their case with special attention to the subset of idiocy that contains paranoia and hypochondria. But the recent Democratic fund-raisers have now realized that idiocy is bipartisan: those gullible enough to accept this easy familiarity as their due, let alone good-natured enough not to hit the delete button and get angrier and angrier as their inbox fills with insults to their intelligence, have to be an easy touch. It probably raises money for the party, but one cannot help wondering whether it does – or should – lose it votes. I certainly would not vote for someone who sat next to my desk shouting electoral slogans through a megaphone.

But the brilliant concept Herley deduced behind the emails certainly has implications and applications for garnering retail investors. One thinks of subject lines like ‘Invest in snake oil – the fuel of the future,’ or ‘Trust me, I’m a banker!’ There might be some interesting negotiations with the SEC, but if the politicians who set the rules for the regulator see fit to use such communications breakthroughs, why shouldn’t corporations?