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Friday, 30 January 2009

30 January 2009

Do you believe we could ever live in a world with no nuclear weapons? Do you think it would be a better place, or a more insecure place? Did nukes save us from a Third World War during the Cold War of 1945-1989, or did they take us to the brink of Armageddon?

The reason I ask is that there is a growing movement – with some very eminent supporters – arguing that now is the time for governments to start moving seriously towards the total elimination of all nuclear weapons.

Idealistic nonsense, you say? From the likes of George Shultz and Henry Kissinger? Mikhail Gorbachov? Robert McNamara? David Owen?

Something is stirring in the world of nuclear non-proliferation, which is why we devoted a large chunk of last night’s programme to it. (If you missed it, you’ll find it in the usual place: Listen Again on the website. http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/news/worldtonight/ And my apologies, by the way, for the technical problems earlier in the week, which prevented us from updating the site.)

George Shultz’s line boils down to this: nuclear deterrence was all very well when it was about just America and the Soviet Union – but now that there are so many more nuclear powers (I make it eight at the last count: the US, Russia, China, France and Britain, plus India, Pakistan and Israel), deterrence becomes a hugely risky option.

The former chief of the UK Defence Staff, Lord Bramall, wrote in a letter to The Times recently: “Nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of violence we currently, or are likely to, face — particularly international terrorism; and the more you analyse them the more unusable they appear.”

Consider this: the attacks of September 11, 2001, the attacks in London in July 2005, in Mumbai in November – all took place in countries with a nuclear weapons capability. So who exactly was deterred by the fear of a retaliatory nuclear strike?

I put that argument to the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. Ah, he said, you’re right, nuclear weapons don’t deter terrorists, but they may well deter future potential enemies 20 or 30 years into the future. And until everyone gives up their nuclear weapons, Britain will retain its own capability.

As for the argument that Britain could set a good example by going it alone on nuclear disarmament: “fanciful,” says Mr Miliband. Does anyone seriously think that Iran, for example, would give up its own nuclear programme (it denies, of course, that it is developing nuclear weapons) just because the UK decided not to renew Trident?

There is a serious debate to be had. A growing number of policy makers seem to be convinced that it should be possible to turn back the tide of nuclear proliferation if the existing nuclear powers do more to reduce, and eventually eliminate, their own arsenals.

Here’s what the White House says about the Obama administration’s policy objectives: “(We) will stop the development of new nuclear weapons; work with Russia to take US and Russian ballistic missiles off hair trigger alert; seek dramatic reductions in US and Russian stockpiles of nuclear weapons and material; and set a goal to expand the US-Russian ban on intermediate-range missiles so that the agreement is global.”

All of which sounds pretty ambitious. But can aspiration be converted into achievement? To be honest, I have no idea, but it’s going to be interesting to watch over the coming months as Washington and Moscow size up each other’s true intentions.

Just this week, the word from Moscow was that it may now suspend its plans to place a missile system in Kaliningrad, close to the border with Poland. Was it a goodwill gesture to President Obama, or an attempt to drive a wedge between him and Washington’s allies in what used to be the Soviet backyard?

We do live in interesting times.

Friday, 23 January 2009

23 January 2009

I think I was probably witness last Tuesday to one of the biggest, loudest and most enthusiastic gatherings of Obama inauguration-watchers anywhere in the world.

I was in the Boutwell Auditorium in Birmingham, Alabama, with between 5,000 and 6,000 black Alabamans who were there to celebrate the inauguration of a man who – to use the phrase I heard over and over again – “looks like us”.

The southern state of Alabama has two main claims to fame: it was, from before the days of the American Civil War, a bastion first of slavery and then of segregation and racism, where blacks weren’t regarded as second class citizens, but as non-citizens. And then, in the 1950s and 60s, it became the cradle of the civil rights movement: where Martin Luther King preached non-violence, and where the segregationists made their last stand.

The Boutwell Auditorium itself tells its own story: in 1948, it hosted the States Rights Democratic Convention, at which Southern Democrats – the “Dixiecrats” – broke away from the national party in protest at its commitment to “human rights” over states’ rights. And in 1956, the black singer Nat King Cole was attacked on stage by white assailants while performing to a whites-only audience.

It was so very different on Tuesday. Giant TV screens beamed the pictures from Washington as Barack Hussein Obama took the oath of office to become the 44th US President. (No one in Birmingham seemed to mind, by the way, that he got the words slightly muddled.) You know that cliché – “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house”? There wasn’t.

“It was like being released from a prison,” said the veteran civil rights campaigner Gwen Gamble on our programme that night. “We had been in bondage, we had been denied certain rights, and none of us thought this would happen in our lifetime.” (If you missed our programme from Alabama, you can still listen to it via the website – and you can also find a link to some pictures from my trip.)

Do you remember when Obama first emerged as a possible Presidential candidate? The pundits wondered whether blacks would really vote for him. After all, his mother was white, his father was Kenyan, and he grew up mainly in Hawaii. He wasn’t exactly a “typical” black American. None of that mattered: “he looks like us.”

And in any case, he’s not just been elected President of black America – he couldn’t have won the election if only blacks had supported him. (But note this: in Alabama, only one-tenth of white voters supported him – and whites make up three-quarters of the total state population.)

I met one young white activist who told me that Obama as President is a “deviation”, that he is a Marxist, and that America must remain a “European” (ie white) nation. Was he typical of white Alabamans? Perhaps not, but the fact remains that most white southerners did not vote for Obama.

Of course, there is much more to the Obama presidency than the fact that he is black. In the fullness of time he will be judged, to use the words of Martin Luther King, not by the colour of his skin but by the content of his character.

Yet, if you’re black and if you were born and brought up in the deep South, with its history of segregation and oppression, to see someone in the White House who looks like you is a very big deal. In the Boutwell Auditorium on Tuesday, I watched as a 10-year-old schoolboy told the crowd: “I am proud of Barack Obama. I am proud that he is an African-American – like me.” That’s why I saw so many black Alabamans crying as the new President took the oath of office.

They know it won’t be easy. They know nothing will change overnight. He’s told them that himself. But however longs it takes, and however hard it is, they also know that he will always look like them.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

16 January 2009

By the time you read this, I’ll be on my way to the US, to start preparing our coverage of the Presidential inauguration next Tuesday. I’ll have plenty to say about that in next week’s newsletter – but today, I’m afraid I need to return to events in Gaza.

My newsletter last week – or rather newsletters, plural – elicited an extraordinary response, both from subscribers to the newsletter and from readers of my blog. I rather expected when I wrote last week that by now a ceasefire would be in place. But no, the fighting goes on.

Which means that almost the first foreign policy issue Barack Obama will have to confront is the conflict there. It’s not what he had in mind … but it’ll serve as an early lesson that in politics, nothing ever goes according to plan.

So, what will he do? My hunch is that his approach will be relatively low-key and cautious. If there’s still no ceasefire in place by the time he’s sworn in (although my hunch is that there will be), I expect him to send an envoy to the region – someone from the Clinton days, who knows the principal players. The name Dennis Ross springs to mind.

I don’t think he’ll engage directly with Hamas. Or at least not yet, and not openly. But I do think he’ll signal a greater openness to the Palestinians … if he can, he’ll want to strengthen the position of the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. He may find it’s too late for that.

And don’t forget that Israel’s best friends in Washington are not necessarily in the White House, but in Congress. You may have heard the Israeli historian Avi Schlaim on the programme last week: some people, he remarked, refer to the US Congress as “Israeli-occupied territory”.

And that won’t change simply because there’s a new President. But nor should you forget that the US won’t necessarily always be as supportive of Israel as it has been in recent years. After all, as those of you with very long memories will recall, at the time of the Suez crisis in 1956, it was the US that put an end to the Israeli-French-British military intervention designed to regain control of the Suez Canal.

Many of Mr Obama’s top foreign policy people were members of the Clinton administration. They know the score. President Clinton tried – and failed – right at the end of his second term in office to broker a deal between Israelis and Palestinians. Maybe lessons have been learned.

Next month, Israelis go to the polls. It may well be that within weeks of taking office, Mr Obama will find himself dealing with a hard-line Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, a man who made few friends in Washington the last time he was in office, between 1996 and 1999. Making peace between Israel and the Palestinians is certainly not going to get any easier.

On the other hand, everyone in the Middle East is going to want to impress the new man in the White House – and it’s just possible that when he isn’t trying to sort out the US economy, Mr Obama will be able to use his status as a new world leader to try out some new initiatives.

A quick word about next week: I’m heading to Alabama, the cradle of the civil rights movement, where I’ll be talking to some veterans of the struggle for equal rights and hearing their thoughts as they watch America’s first black president in history take the oath of office. Fifty years ago, they couldn’t sit at the front of a bus; on Tuesday, they’ll watch Barack Obama sworn in as their head of state. I do hope you’ll be able to tune in on Tuesday – if you miss it, it’ll be available in the usual way, via Listen Again on the website.

Friday, 9 January 2009

9 January 2009

Sometimes, it’s useful to try to look at the world through someone else’s eyes. So here’s what I might be writing today if I were a Palestinian living in Gaza.

"You want to know what it’s like in Gaza at the moment? It’s Hell on earth. But that’s nothing new – it’s always Hell on earth here. Since the day I was born, I have lived in a stinking, rotten prison, with no freedom and no dignity. I remember my grandfather telling me about the beautiful home he once had, and of the lemon trees and olive groves he tended – I still have the huge metal key to his house, and he told me before he died that one day I would be able to go back and live there again. Yeah, right. I doubt it still exists: it was probably buried under the Tel Aviv ring road years ago …

"Do I support Hamas? Yes, I do – because they stand up for me and they fight for me. I’m not a fundamentalist – I like to drink beer and I don’t pray very often – but I don’t see anyone else taking on the Israelis, and I can’t live my whole life like a snivelling dog, just waiting for the next blow to fall.

"The rockets? Sure, fire rockets at the Israelis. Let them feel how it hurts when children are killed, when you live every day in fear. Let them learn how it feels to be a Palestinian. If they want the rockets to stop, tell them to stop killing us, to give us back our land, to lift their blockades. Give us a chance to live like ordinary human beings.

"Ah, you want to know if we can ever live in peace? Perhaps you should ask the Israelis. Ask them if they will end their illegal occupation, give us back the land they stole to build their settlements on, let me go home to my grandfather’s house, if it’s still there, and plant more lemon trees. When they say Yes, then, maybe, we can live in peace. Salaam."

And here’s what I might be writing if I were an Israeli:

"You want to know why Israel is attacking Hamas in Gaza? Do you really need to ask? Do you know how many rockets they have fired at us since we left Gaza? How many times they have tried to send suicide bombers into Israel to kill us in our shopping malls and our bus stations? Have you any idea what it feels like when your neighbours are terrorists?

"Am I worried that we’re losing friends around the world? Let me tell you something: the Jewish people have learned over hundreds of years that friends don’t save you. For hundreds of years, we have been both hated and weak: if it’s a choice between that, and being hated and strong, well, I’m sorry, I know which I prefer.

"Look at a map. Look how small Israel is. It’s all we’ve got, and if we lose it, we lose everything. I’m sorry if some Palestinians have lost their homes – but so too have hundreds of thousands of Jews, in Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, and many other places. We all know what it means to suffer.

"I repeat, we have nowhere else to go. But the Arabs? If they feel so sorry for the Palestinians in Gaza, why don’t they offer them homes in Egypt, or Jordan, or Saudi Arabia? There’s plenty of space for them there. I’ll tell you why: because they still hope that one day, Israel will disappear, that the Jews will vanish into the sea, and that they can have all of Palestine back.

"Sorry, it’s not going to happen. We won’t let it happen, because we have been victims too often. We remember the Holocaust, even if you don’t. Strength is our only defence – and we will use that strength until our enemies understand that we are here, in our God-given homeland, to stay for ever. When the Palestinians say Yes, they understand that, and accept it, then, maybe, we can live in peace. Shalom."

Let there be no misunderstanding: these are not my views, but based on my experience of more than 20 years reporting from and about Israel and Palestine, I’m pretty sure they’re the views of a great many Palestinians and Israelis.

Friday, 2 January 2009

2 January 2009

If I were sensible, I would take the following words as my guide for this first newsletter of 2009:

“What happens next? I do not know. Nor do you. Desperate though we are to find out, we should be grown-up enough to admit there is no one to tell us. It makes life hard, but what would we be otherwise? Curiosity about what happens next is an essential part of the joy and anguish of being human.”

They were written by the Financial Times columnist Michael Skapinker a couple of days before Christmas, and very wise words they are too. Nevertheless, fool that I am, I shall ignore them.

So, for your entertainment and edification, here are my global predictions for the coming year.

1. The fate of the global economy will dominate everything. It will be horrible. Enough said.
2. Discussion about what to do in Afghanistan will increasingly become a discussion about what to do in Pakistan. Tension between Pakistan and India will escalate yet further as the Indian general election approaches. There may be more Mumbai-style attacks in India, as jihadis try to relieve the pressure on them in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas.
3. President Obama will start pulling US troops out of Iraq – but more slowly than some of his supporters would like. He will also announce that thousands will remain as “trainers”.
4. He will announce his intention to close the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay – but then there’ll be a huge fuss over who’ll take the ex-detainees who can’t or won’t go back to their country of origin.
5. He’ll make a major speech about the US’s new vision for its relations with the rest of the world, and especially with the Islamic world, probably in Jakarta, but maybe in Cairo or Amman.
6. There’ll be growing social unrest in Russia – and China – over rising unemployment. Moscow may be tempted to deal with it in the time-honoured fashion: escalating a dispute with a neighbour (Ukraine? One of the Baltic nations?) to take voters’ minds off the economic crisis.
7. The South African presidential election will see the newly-created party COPE (Congress of the People) do creditably but not outstandingly. Supporters of the likely new president, Jacob Zuma, will denounce the new party as a stooge of Western capitalism. Tensions between Zulu, who tend to back Zuma, and Xhosa, who are suspicious of him, will grow.
8. The Mugabe era in Zimbabwe will finally come to an end.
9. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will win the presidential election in Iran, but only after seeing off a serious challenge and amid allegations of widespread vote-fixing. It’ll become increasingly clear that he wields little real power.
10. The 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet empire in eastern and central Europe will be marked by endless analyses and retrospectives along the lines of: Is The World Now a Better Place? I’ll probably add to the outpouring.

I agree: it doesn’t seem that there’s much to look forward to. So here’s what I suggest you do: enjoy the company of family and friends; admire the trees and the flowers in parks and gardens; count your blessings. And remember: only fools try to predict the future.

Thank you for your loyalty, your support and your comments over the past year.

Happy New Year.