Friday, 21 December 2007

21 December 2007

It’s that time of year again … when I go into a trance and pretend that I can forecast what’s going to happen in the year ahead. It’s a silly game, I know, but it keeps me amused.

How did I do with last year’s predictions? Well, I feared that violence in Iraq would get worse, which it didn’t. I’m perfectly happy to have been wrong on that one.

I said Somalia would descend into more factional fighting, which it has done, not that anyone has taken much notice. I also said Gordon Brown would take over as prime minister (I claim no prizes for that one), that the SNP would probably emerge as the largest single party in Scotland, which it did, and that there’d be an increase in anti-Scottish sentiment south of the border, which there has been.

I also said that Mr Brown “might be sorely tempted to call a snap election in the autumn, both to establish his own authority and to wrong-foot David Cameron”. Which he was, and much good did it do him …

I noted that June would mark the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War in the Middle East and suggested that Hamas would not want to let that go unnoticed. And guess what, June was when they seized control in Gaza.

Finally, I noted that Romania and Bulgaria were about to join the EU and that Germany was determined to revive the debate over the EU constitution, sorry, reform treaty. Both turned into major stories of 2007.

So, what do my tea leaves tell me about 2008? First the US presidential election, and no, daft I may be, but not daft enough to predict the outcome of that one. Not even the most respected US political pundits are daring to forecast the winner at the moment, although I do intend to be in the US in early February when the picture may become a great deal clearer after a whole series of primaries and caucuses. Ask me again then …

I think the big story of the coming year will be the economy … because both in the US and in this country, it looks as if the decade of growth is coming to an end. So the big question in my mind is whether governments and central bankers can manage the downturn. And I’ll be watching for more bad news from the banks as they discover that the wave of speculative finance they’ve been riding so profitably for the past few years is now crashing down on them.

Which means even fewer smiles, I suspect, from G Brown. I predict that the opinion polls will continue to make gloomy reading for Labour, that the anti-Brown sniping from his own party ranks will increase, and that the Tories will still find it difficult to believe their luck. As for Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems, I fear they’ll continue to feel the pinch: on one side, a Tory leader who disobligingly describes himself as a liberal; and on the other, a Labour party that isn’t led by Tony Blair.

I think we’ll hear less about Iran and more about Pakistan. President Putin of Russia will become Prime Minister Putin of Russia, and I doubt that anyone will notice the difference. The Olympics in Beijing will be the occasion for much breast-beating about human rights abuses in China, and it wouldn’t surprise me if something goes horribly wrong.

I’m also going to be keeping a close eye on Cuba, which is already in the throes of a transition to a post-Fidel future, and on Venezuela and Bolivia, where there are growing signs of popular dissatisfaction with their populist leftist leaders. And finally, unfinished business in Kosovo: I expect a unilateral declaration of independence in February or March, and then a lot of grumbling and mumbling and gnashing of teeth from Belgrade and Moscow. But I doubt it’ll explode into a major conflagration.

As for what’s left of this year, I do hope you’ll try to catch the programme on Monday, Christmas Eve: it’ll be a bit different from the usual fare, because (i) we’ve already recorded it; (ii) it’s all about one subject; and (iii) no, you’ll have to listen to find out …

I’m going to be taking a break next week, so there’ll be no newsletter next Friday -- but the programme will be on air as usual (except for Christmas Day), so you’ll have no excuse not to keep up with world events. In the meantime, thank you for all your support – and comments -- over the past year.

Friday, 14 December 2007

14 December 2007

Don’t you love it when politics gets all cosy? Like in Argentina, for example, where President Nestor Kirchner has just handed over the baton (literally) to President Cristina Fern├índez de Kirchner. Yes, she’s his wife. And yes, she was elected.

Or in the US, where President Bush I was followed by President Clinton I, who was followed by President Bush II (son), who may soon be followed by President Clinton II (wife).

My favourite, though, isn’t exactly “keep it in the family”, although it’s not far off. President Putin of Russia said this week that he thinks first deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev would make an excellent President. To which Mr Medvedev replied that he thinks Mr Putin would make an equally excellent Prime Minister. See what I mean by cosy?

But I’m not sure we should accept these Kremlin games of “happy families” at face value. Can you really imagine strongman President Putin suddenly becoming meek and obedient Prime Minister Putin, playing the loyal subordinate to a new President?

No, nor can I. In the bad old days of the Soviet Union, people who studied Kremlin power games were known as Kremlinologists. I think we now need a few Putinologists to guide us through what look likely to be some exceptionally interesting times up to and beyond the Russian presidential election in March.

On the subject of which: why do you think Mr Putin has turned against the British Council? The authorities have ordered all the British Council’s regional offices to shut down before the end of the year. Officially, it’s something to do with the council’s tax status and the fact that it charges Russians for language lessons. But as the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov openly admitted in a BBC interview this week, it’s really the latest move in the ongoing battle over the murder of the former Russian intelligence official Alexander Litvinenko in London a year ago.

President Putin attaches a lot of importance to looking strong. (Remember those photos of him in the summer, bare-chested and virile-looking as he went fishing?) That’s why he occasionally switches off the gas supplies to uppity neighbours (Belorus and Ukraine). It’s also why in the summer Russian bombers started flying Cold War-style sorties close to NATO and US areas.

It’s also, I suspect, why he’s taking action against the British Council. As I’ve written here before, the Russian bear may have been asleep – and a bit out of form – for a few years, but it’s wide awake now and feeling fighting fit.

We need to keep this in perspective. I don’t for one moment believe that the Kremlin wants to go to war, of either the hot or cold variety. But it doesn’t like being taken for granted. So it won’t, for example, sign up to independence for Kosovo, which is a major headache for the US and the EU.

It’s also making ominous noises about restarting the arms race unless it can do a deal with Washington over the anti-missile defence installations which the US wants to build in Poland and the Czech Republic. And in its current mood, don’t even think about getting Moscow’s approval for a new UN sanctions package for Iran. Amazing, isn’t it, how a few billions from oil and gas sales can do such wonders for your self-confidence.

I remember someone telling me shortly after the end of the Cold War that one of the new realities of the post-Soviet world was that you could get nothing done in the international arena without the approval of Washington. Moscow’s ambition now, I suspect, is that we should start thinking the same about them.

It’ll be interesting to see how President-to-be Medvedev decides to play his cards.

Friday, 7 December 2007

7 December 2007

Here’s a little test for you. Question 1: Do you think the US intelligence agencies got it right about Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction? Question 2: Do you think the US intelligence agencies have got it right now about Iran having suspended its nuclear weapons programme four years ago?

My guess is you answered No to Question 1. (It’s not too difficult, as the agencies themselves have admitted they got it wrong.) But what did you answer to Question 2?

First, a reminder of what the new US National Intelligence Estimate said on Monday: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.”

Compare that with what was being said two years ago: “[We] assess with high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure.”

Were they right then, or are they right now? If you accept that they got it wrong about Iraq, are you more likely to accept that they’re right about Iran? I don’t know about you, but this kind of stuff makes my head hurt.

So, always anxious to be of service, I have been trying to discover why the spooks and spies have changed their minds. Here’s what the New York Times reported yesterday: “American intelligence agencies reversed their view about the status of Iran’s nuclear weapons program after they obtained notes last summer from the deliberations of Iranian military officials involved in the weapons development program …

“The notes included conversations and deliberations in which some of the military officials complained bitterly about what they termed a decision by their superiors in late 2003 to shut down a complex engineering effort to design nuclear weapons, including a warhead that could fit atop Iranian missiles.”

Which immediately raises another question: Where might they have obtained these all-important notes? Well, there’s an intriguing theory (and it is, as far as I know, no more than that) that a man named Ali-Reza Asghari may have something to do with it. He’s a retired general in the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards, a former deputy defence minister who was cold-shouldered after President Ahmadinejad came to power and who disappeared (defected?) in Turkey last February.

The Michigan-based Middle East analyst Juan Cole describes him as “someone who knows where all the bodies are buried with regard to Iranian covert operations” – and recalls that at the time of Asghari’s disappearance, a Turkish newspaper reported that “Turkish intelligence and police had discovered that Asghari was opposed to the Iranian government and that he holds information regarding its nuclear plan.”

All of which may, or may not, help you make up your mind. My point is simply this: intelligence estimates are, as their name suggests, estimates. They are only as good as their source material and the analysis of that material. Sometimes they are right, and sometimes they are not. Unfortunately, we often don’t find out which is which until long after the decisions based on the estimates have been made. But given what you’ve just read, if you had to make a decision now about how to approach Iran, what would you decide?