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Friday, 29 August 2008

29 August 2008

I’m writing this just after 4am, having stayed up late to watch Barack Obama accept his party’s nomination as candidate for President. And I’ve been thinking back to the first time I watched a Democratic Party convention, exactly 40 years ago: Chicago, 1968, when there were fights, literally fights, over whether delegations from southern states should be allowed to participate because they refused to accept any black members.

Well, tonight, the Democrats embraced a black Presidential candidate. Forty years is a long time in politics.

While I was waiting for Senator Obama, I began leafing through a book that’s been sitting for months on my desk.: it’s called “Speeches that changed the world.” And it has reminded me that speeches do sometimes matter, do sometimes make a difference.

Will Obama’s speech tonight be one of those? I have no idea. But the speech he made at the Democratic party convention four years ago certainly changed his world: it launched him on a meteoric political trajectory that just might take him all the way to the White House.

And consider these:

The Conservative party leader David Cameron’s speech to his party conference in Blackpool three years ago, which certainly changed his world too: it won him the party leadership , and might well take him all the way to Downing Street;

John F Kennedy’s inauguration speech in 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”, which changed the way Americans thought about themselves and their country, at least temporarily;

Franklin D Roosevelt, in his inaugural address in March 1933: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, steadying American nerves after the banking crash.

And, of course, Winston Churchill, in May 1940, as the Nazis swept across Europe: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”

So I could have written today about the continuing crisis in the Caucasus, or about the collapse of the coalition government in Pakistan following the resignation of President Musharraf. But I decided not to simply because, in many ways, Barack Obama’s speech – and American voters’ reaction to it – may well have a profound influence on developments in both Georgia and Pakistan.

My impressions of tonight’s speech? There was more steel – and even more anger – than I had expected … this was a Barack Obama grittily determined to put America back on the right track, ready and willing to attack John McCain (“it’s not that he doesn’t care, it’s that he just doesn’t get it”) – and ready to strike one of the lowest blows I’ve heard from the man some commentators call Saint Barack: “If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament, and judgment, to serve as the next Commander-in-Chief, that’s a debate I’m ready to have.” (McCain has a reputation as a man with a tendency to blow a fuse.)

There was plenty of the high-blown rhetoric we have come to expect; there was the personal back-story that is a given on such occasions – but there was also a hefty dollop of detailed policy proposals (on tax cuts, health care, and job creation, for example) that many American voters probably won’t have heard before.

So what the Democrats are hoping for now is a great big bounce in Obama’s opinion poll ratings as they head home, and the Republicans start heading for their convention in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Even before he spoke, a Gallup tracking poll was showing him six points ahead of McCain after two weeks of level-pegging. So from their point of view, the early omens are good. But of course, the same thing may well happen for McCain after the Republican convention, and then we’ll all be back at square one.

Oh, one final thing: happy 72nd birthday today to Senator McCain.

I’m going to be travelling in the US for the next couple of weeks: next Friday, I’ll be presenting the programme live from Missouri, the bellwether state where only once in the past 104 years have they not voted for the winning candidate in a presidential election. I do hope you’ll be able to tune in.

Friday, 22 August 2008

22 August 2008

The shooting war in Georgia seems to have ended, thank God, but the war of words shows no sign of abating. I reckon it’s time to go back to basics.

So here are two, inter-related questions, which might help us to understand how and why this nasty, and potentially dangerously destabilising, crisis erupted. One: why is NATO apparently so determined to go ahead with the applications for membership from Georgia and Ukraine? And two: why are Georgia and Ukraine so determined to join?

Ask NATO why it wants to expand its membership to include an ever-growing number of countries in central and eastern Europe, and you’ll be told it’s by far the best way to encourage peace and security in the region. The preamble to NATO’s founding treaty, which was signed nearly 60 years ago, says its members “seek to promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area.”

True, Ukraine and Georgia are quite a long way from the North Atlantic, but the view seems to be that peace, security and democracy easily trump geography. Nations that feel confident about their own security are less likely, so the argument goes, to indulge in reckless military adventurism.

In Moscow, however, for obvious reasons, you’ll get a very different answer to the same question. Look at a map of Russia’s western borders: along the Baltic coast, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all members of NATO. As far as the eye can see, with the exception of Belorus, just about all the European countries that used to be in the Soviet bloc are in NATO. And now, to make matters even worse, to the south-west, along the Black Sea coast, Ukraine and Georgia are both hoping to be members of NATO soon. To many Russians, it looks suspiciously like encirclement.

NATO was Russia’s enemy for half a century. Over the past decade, there have been attempts to convert enmity into partnership, but not with any conspicuous success. (Yesterday, Russia announced that it’s suspending all cooperation with NATO, which could affect an agreement to allow it to transport through Russia non-military supplies for use in Afghanistan.) Russia doesn’t like playing second fiddle in someone else’s orchestra: you may have heard the senior Russian politician Mikhail Margelov on last night’s programme: “We are not children who can be seen but not heard … Russia is a player on the world stage.”

So how about the answer to my second question? Why do Ukraine and Georgia want so badly to join? Well, perhaps because being in NATO would make them feel safer. It’s never comfortable living next to a big and powerful neighbour – and the angrier that neighbour becomes, the less comfortable you feel. If I were a Georgian, I think I might have looked at how the world has changed over the past 20 years and concluded that I may well be a lot safer sheltering under the NATO umbrella.

Mind you, not all Georgians – or all Ukrainians – share their governments’ enthusiasm for NATO membership. There are substantial minorities (as there are in some of the Baltic states as well) who hanker for the days when they looked to Moscow for protection. What’s more, there are many millions of ethnic Russians, and Russian-speakers, scattered throughout what used to be the Soviet Union – and many, like Vladimir Putin, still mourn its passing.

So a final two questions for you. If democratically elected governments express a considered wish to join NATO, and if they fulfil the membership criteria, are there any grounds on which they should be refused? And is extending NATO membership in a way that risks increasing Russia’s sense of insecurity a good way to “promote stability and well-being” in the region? I’d be interested in your thoughts.

Friday, 15 August 2008

15 August 2008

All right, it may be a bit too soon to start talking about winners and losers in Georgia, but not too soon for a provisional tally, or to learn some lessons from the events of the past week.

Obvious loser: Georgia, and more especially, President Mikheil Saakashvili. He thought he could resolve the long-standing dispute with separatists in South Ossetia by military force – and he was wrong.

Obvious winner: Russia, and more especially, the Medvedev-Putin double act. They reacted swiftly and effectively, and demonstrated to their neighbours with brutal efficiency that it is definitely not a good idea to stamp on Russia’s toes.

Less obvious loser: the US. It was slow to react, and gave its allies in the region the impression that when push comes to shove, they’re on their own. Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic states will all have taken note. (Last night, Poland signed on the dotted line for a US anti-missile installation to be built on its soil, although the foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski insisted when I interviewed him on last night’s programme that the decision to sign had nothing to do with events in Georgia. I leave you to make up your own mind …)

Less obvious winner: the European Union, and more especially President Nicholas Sarkozy of France. As the current older of the EU’s rotating presidency, he was impressively quick out of the starting blocks, and with the help of his hyper-active Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (whose CV, incidentally, includes having worked as a Red Cross doctor in Biafra in the 1960s, and then co-founding the relief agency Medecins sans Frontieres in the 1970s), he brokered an admittedly fragile ceasefire within less than a week of the conflict erupting.

We’ve learned a few useful lessons over the past week. First, Russia’s Putin-inspired national confidence can be – and will be – translated into military action when the Kremlin decides that’s what’s needed. (Arguably, the Chechens learned that lesson several years ago.)

Second, the Western enthusiasm for intervening in other people’s conflicts (Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, East Timor) hasn’t survived the new millennium. (Afghanistan and Iraq were very different stories, which don’t need to be retold today.) The Nineties were the first post-Cold War decade, and post-Soviet Russia was in meltdown, so for a brief few years, the West had things pretty much its own way. Remember President Bush Senior’s “new world order”?

Then, on the very last day of 1999, President Yeltsin resigned. His successor, Vladimir Putin, lost no time in rebuilding Russia’s self-confidence and national pride. Steadily rising oil prices meant cash was soon pouring into the Kremlin’s coffers, and Georgia has seen over the past few days what that can mean for Russia’s neighbours.

And here’s a lesson that the Kremlin has learned. If the West backs breakaway Kosovo, against the wishes of the sovereign UN member-state Serbia, on the grounds that it’s the wish of the majority, then Moscow can back breakaway South Ossetia, against the wishes of the sovereign UN member-state Georgia, on precisely the same grounds.

Life was a lot simpler when everyone agreed that “territorial integrity” was a sacrosanct principle. But now that the UN, no less, has agreed on a new principle – the “responsibility to protect” people at risk – then why shouldn’t Russia protect the people of South Ossetia when they come under attack from Georgian forces? Isn’t that exactly what NATO did in Kosovo when ethnic Albanians came under attack from Serb forces?

Back in 1992, in the warm glow of those early post-Cold War days, the American academic Francis Fukuyama famously wrote in “The End of History”: "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

Now the warm glow has long gone. Not so much the “end of history”; more the beginning of a new, more complex, and arguably more dangerous, history.

Friday, 8 August 2008

8 August 2008

I don’t imagine you see much reason to celebrate the current level of oil prices around the world. I don’t hear you cheering delightedly every time you fill up the car, or every time you have to pay your electricity bill.

If you were living in Iraq, on the other hand, where, let’s face it, they still don’t have much to celebrate, high oil prices should be excellent news. You’d be sitting on the world’s third largest oil reserves, pumping it out as fast as you can, with billions of dollars rolling in to the government coffers.

So: lots of cash available to rebuild the country’s decaying infrastructure. Develop a functioning electricity grid again; get clean water gushing out of taps in Baghdad and Basra; repair roads and bridges. Except … it’s not happening. Or where it is happening, it’s by no means enough, and more often than not, it’s being paid for by American tax-payers, not Iraqi oil revenues.

Here’s what the US Government Accountability Office reported this week: “From 2005 through 2007, the Iraqi government generated an estimated $96 billion in cumulative revenues, of which crude oil export sales accounted for about $90.2 billion, or 94 percent … Projected 2008 oil revenues could be more than twice the average annual amount Iraq generated from 2005 through 2007 …

“From 2005 through 2007, the Iraqi government spent an estimated $67 billion on operating and investment activities. Ninety percent was spent on operating expenses, such as salaries and goods and services, and the remaining 10 percent on investments, such as structures and vehicles. The Iraqi government spent only 1 percent of total expenditures to maintain Iraq- and U.S.-funded investments such as buildings, water and electricity installations, and weapons.”

Meanwhile, according to the GAO, the U.S. has appropriated $48 billion for Iraqi reconstruction and stabilisation projects since 2003, with about 70 per cent of those funds having been spent.

Now, you could argue, I suppose, that since it was the US that led the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it’s only fair that the US should pay to rebuild it. (Remember US secretary of state Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule? “If you break it, you fix it.”)

But that’s not how it looks to the two senior US senators – Democrat Carl Levin and Republican John Warner – who asked for the GAO report. This is what they said: “The Iraqi government now has tens of billions of dollars at its disposal to fund large-scale reconstruction projects. It is inexcusable for U.S. taxpayers to continue to foot the bill for projects the Iraqis are fully capable of funding themselves. We should not be paying for Iraqi projects, while Iraqi oil revenues continue to pile up in the bank."

I spoke to the man who wrote the GAO report, Joseph Christoff, on the programme on Wednesday. (It’s still available via Listen Again on the website.) And he accepted that Iraq does have problems spending huge sums of money on vast infrastructure projects – that it’s just as important to spend cash wisely as it is to spend it quickly.

Still, I somehow doubt that the US Congress is going to be voting again to authorise billions of dollars in reconstruction aid to Iraq … with a new administration and a new Congress in place next January, I’d hazard a guess that the Iraqis will soon be spending rather more of those oil revenues than they have been up till now.

Which may, or may not, make you feel just a bit better next time you fill up the tank.

By the way, as the eagle-eyed among you may have noticed, this is my 150th newsletter -- and I’ve just been looking at what I wrote in my 100th. This is what I said on 6 July last year about Gordon Brown, who had just taken over as PM:

“If I were Mr Brown, I’d be keeping a very close look at the property pages. Because if house prices start tumbling, he’s going to be in big trouble. Interest rates go up (and, of course, there’s nothing he can do about that any more, since he gave the Bank of England full independence over interest rate policy), property prices go down … result: tens of thousands of very unhappy voters. If their pockets start feeling emptier than they have been for the past decade, they’ll stop buying so many giant flat-screen TVs and cheap flight holidays. And before you know it, the economy will be stalling. And whom do you think they’ll blame?”

Four weeks later, on 9 August, the European Central Bank injected an unprecedented 94.8 billion euros into the money markets to stave off what we soon learned to call the “credit crunch”. And the rest is history …

Friday, 1 August 2008

1 August 2008

I can’t help wondering if President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan was watching television yesterday as the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic made his first appearance in the dock at the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Did he imagine that one day he might be sitting in the dock as well? Did he try to imagine what it might feel like, listening to a sombre-voiced judge read out a list of alleged crimes, beginning with that most spine-chilling word: genocide?

Frankly, I doubt it. But perhaps he should have. After all, Radovan Karadzic evaded capture for more than a decade and by all accounts was living an undisturbed life behind that huge white beard and over-sized glasses until a shift in the political weather in Belgrade led to his arrest 10 days ago.

Who knows what changes there might be in Sudan over the coming decade? The point is that when it comes to prosecuting alleged war crimes, politics is all. But the case against President Bashir, charging him with three counts of genocide and five of crimes against humanity arising out of the conflict in Darfur, will proceed only if the UN security council gives the nod.

In the small hours of this morning, the security council voted to extend the mandate of the joint UN/African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur for another year. But it also “noted a request from the African Union for the council to use its power to suspend [the] indictment”, and further noted that some governments intend “to consider these matters further." If I were President Bashir, I think I’d find that quite encouraging.

There is, as I’ve discussed before, an intense debate under way among the people who think about these things about whether the priority should be to bring peace to Darfur or to prosecute those responsible for the violence. The Tanzanian ambassador to the UN pointed out on the programme last night that in Bosnia, the peace deal came many years before the arrest of Mr Karadzic (although not, as it happens, many years before the issuing of the indictments against him).

And there’s another question being asked too, especially in the responses to what I’ve written on my blog about all this. If you prosecute Radovan Karadzic and Omar al-Bashir, why not, for example, George W Bush and Tony Blair, for their alleged responsibility for the many thousands of deaths in Iraq? Is it true, as many bloggers complain, that only the losers ever face prosecution?

History, it’s often said, is written by the victors. (When Churchill was asked why he was so sure that history would judge him kindly, he replied: “Because I shall write it.”) Does the same go for justice? If the International Criminal Court and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia are both in effect organs of the United Nations, does it inevitably follow that they will be “guided’ by the balance of power at the UN?

I don’t think anyone is claiming that the way the system currently works is perfect. Perhaps the best that can be said for it is that it is better than nothing. Because if we agree that heinous crimes committed by political leaders should not go unpunished, what alternatives are there?