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Friday, 22 January 2010

22 January 2010

Here’s a thought for you: might the people of Haiti be a lot better off if they signed up as soon as possible to become the 51st state of the USA?

It’s not entirely a rhetorical question. Slightly over-stated, perhaps, but not entirely rhetorical. For one thing, if Time magazine is right, it’s already happened: “Haiti, for all intents and purposes, became the 51st state at 4:53 p.m. Tuesday in the wake of its deadly earthquake.”

It’s the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, with a recent history of decades of maladministration, violence, corruption and grinding poverty. Then came the earthquake.

What little Haiti had is now gone. And that includes its government.

All right, perhaps joining the US isn’t such a good idea. The gobbling up of other people’s lands is no longer as fashionable as it once was. So how about becoming a protectorate, either of the US, or of the UN?

Here’s what the Miami Herald suggested a few days ago: “Once the immediate challenges brought by the earthquake are under control, Haitians should request a formalisation of the country's dependence on the international community, i.e., a 25-year United Nations Protectorate (or some analogous political designation similar to the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo) …

“Under this framework, the international administration would, in effect, be able to perform or help in the performance of basic civilian administrative functions; facilitate a political process to strengthen self-government in Haiti; coordinate humanitarian and disaster relief of all international agencies; fund and support the reconstruction of key infrastructure; maintain civil law and order and promote human rights.”

Here’s how a letter-writer in the Baltimore Sun put it: “If ever a nation screamed in unrelenting agony to become a U.N. protectorate, it is Haiti. But that would assume the United Nations is capable of anything other than feeding upon itself at the expense of others …

“The United States has the resources to put tens of thousands of additional troops into Haiti, to establish order where order hasn't really existed in memory, and to bring the situation under control. But it takes no stretch of imagination to figure out what would happen then. However pure our motives, we would be accused of occupying another country, of nation building, of imperialism.”

Indeed so. Haiti has a sorry history of being occupied, ruled, pillaged and exploited by outsiders. And yet …

Might it be that it’ll need long-term, consistent international involvement long after the last victims of the earthquake have been buried? Might it be that whatever government can be re-formed in the weeks to come, it’ll need a lot of help – not just financial, but logistical, administrative and political – for many years?

There’s no shortage of candidates. Brazil has been running the UN peace-keeping force there since 2004, and does not take kindly to the idea that now the US is about to take over.

France is a former colonial power, and is just as unimpressed by the idea that the Americans have an automatic right to run the place.

So here’s the Lustig Plan: convene an international conference. (Yes, I know, another one. It can’t be helped.) Propose that Haiti applies for UN protectorate status under the umbrella of three nations: the US, France and Brazil, who will act as co-guarantors of its independence.

Establish a multi-billion dollar development fund, to operate over a period of 50 years, to approve, finance and oversee the construction of schools, clinics, roads and industries which will enable Haiti to start developing a viable economy.

Oh yes, and write off all remaining debts. That means mainly Venezuela ($167 million) and Taiwan ($91 million).

The world’s richest nations have not been good to Haiti over the 300 years since France took possession in 1697. It may have become the Western hemisphere’s second independent republic (after the US) in 1804, thanks to a successful slave revolt under Toussaint Louverture, but its history since then has not been a happy one. The US occupied it from 1915 to 1934, then came the ghastly Duvaliers, with their Tonton Macoutes thugs, and then another US invasion in 2004.

Maybe this time the world – and Haiti – can do better. What do you think?

Friday, 15 January 2010

15 January 2010

WASHINGTON DC -- If you were giving Barack Obama an examination grade for his foreign policy record during his first 12 months as US president, what would you decide on? 75 per cent? 85 per cent? Fail?

It’s a question someone put to our panel of foreign policy experts here in Washington after a special edition of The World Tonight broadcast last night. (It’s still available via Listen Again on the website if you missed it. And there’s a longer version, including questions from an invited audience, going out on BBC World Service at 6pm GMT tomorrow, Saturday.)

We were last here just over a year ago, a few weeks before the Obama inauguration, when no one yet knew what kind of a President he’d turn out to be. A year on, it should be possible to start making a judgement.

There was a much quoted saying during the Obama campaign, whenever people marvelled at his oratorical skills: “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.” And there’s certainly been no shortage of hard decision-making for the new President over the past 12 months.

Before the election, he said he’d pull US troops out of Iraq – and he still says that by August of this year, all combat troops will be gone.

He said he’d shut down the military detention base for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay – and sure enough, as soon as he took office, he ordered that it should be shut within 12 months. It’s still open.

He said he’d reach out to Iran to engage them in meaningful negotiations about their nuclear programme. He reached out, but Tehran didn’t respond. There are no meaningful negotiations.

He said he’d put real effort into reviving the Israel-Palestine peace process. Not much success there, either.

And as for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change, well, Copenhagen has been and gone, and you know what happened there.

Our panel of analysts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace were divided about how big a shift there’s really been in US foreign policy since Barack Obama took office. Sure, there’s been a shift in style, but with a few exceptions, the consensus seems to be that continuity is the name of the game.

One member of our audience wanted to know why Obama, this son of a Kenyan father, hasn’t done more to engage the US in Africa? To which the response was: how many hours are there in a day? He just can’t do everything.

And then we discussed the dogs that didn’t bark. The global banking system did not collapse during 2009; and the US – still the motor that drives the global economy – did not plunge into depression. Presidents don’t get much credit for things that don’t happen – but Obama’s supporters argue that he played a major role in preventing an even bigger global economic and financial disaster.

As for those examination grades, our panel of analysts gave him between 75 per cent and 95 per cent, with one unmarked paper on the grounds that after just one year, he has still far from completed his assignment.

What would you award him?

Friday, 8 January 2010

8 January 2010

I fear one of the predictions that I made in my New Year newsletter may already be coming true.

I wrote a week ago: “There'll be a resumption of hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians. Calls from outside for restraint will be ignored.”

Here’s what has been happening over the past few days:

-- On Tuesday, several hundred pro-Palestinian activists clashed with Egyptian police after Egypt refused to allow an international aid convoy cross into Gaza.

-- On Wednesday, there was a shoot-out between Hamas forces in Gaza and Egyptian forces during a protest over Egypt’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. One Egyptian border guard was killed.

-- Yesterday morning, at least 10 mortar shells fired from the Gaza Strip landed in southern Israel. A Palestinian group called the Popular Resistance Committees said they fired the shells, in retaliation for the killing of two of their members by Israeli forces on Tuesday, apparently as they were preparing to fire rockets into Israel.

-- Late last night, Israeli warplanes launched a series of air strikes against Gaza, following the firing of a Qassam rocket which landed close to the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon. Two Palestinians, includng a 14-year-old boy, were reported killed in the air strikes.

Now, you will notice that all these clashes are in, or on the border with, Gaza – and that they involve both Israel and Egypt. As you may have read, the Egyptians are beefing up the security on their border, trying to restrict the lucrative subterranean cross-border smuggling operations that largely keep Gaza from total collapse.

Hamas, which controls Gaza, is furious – but the Egyptians are deeply suspicious of Hamas, which is an off-shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, banned in Egypt, and which they accuse of smuggling weapons from Gaza into Egypt to help fellow-Islamists.

None of this bodes well for any future attempt to breathe new life into the inaptly-named peace process. For months now, the Egyptians have been trying to broker a kiss-and-make-up deal between Hamas and Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank – and to mediate in a prisoner swap deal between Hamas and Israel, which would lead to the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails and the freeing of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was seized on the Israeli side of the Gaza border three and a half years ago.

There is a horrible choreography that comes into play after events of this kind. Each side strikes at the other, in retaliation for an earlier strike in the opposite direction. Each side tries to escalate its response, hoping to cow its enemy into an early admission of defeat.

But Gaza has been boiling up for months now, and it’s only too easy to see how it could all erupt again. I suspect Hamas will want to try to keep a lid on things, but it’s not the only player in Gaza, and other groups may well be keener to take the fight back to the Israeli enemy.

Incidentally, Israel has just successfully tested a new short-range missile defence system – it’s called Iron Dome – which it says is capable of intercepting rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. The first operational system is due to be delivered in May. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if someone in Gaza wasn’t already planning to see how it performs for real.

Just a quick word about our programme next Thursday: I’ll be live at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, for a discussion with top foreign affairs analysts there about President Obama’s foreign policy achievements in his first year in office. I hope you’ll be able to join us.

Friday, 1 January 2010

1 January 2010

Yes, it’s time for Mystic Robin to make a fool of himself again with his predictions for the next 12 months.

But first, here’s a quick tally of how I did last year. All in all, not too bad: I was right about the economy (although it didn’t turn into the global banking melt-down that some commentators feared); I was right about growing instability in Pakistan (although I was wrong about the likelihood of more terrorist attacks in India); right about Obama on Iraq and Guantanamo; right about Obama delivering a major speech on relations with the Islamic world; wrong about growing unrest in Russia and China; more or less right about the elections in South Africa; wrong about the end of the Mugabe era in Zimbabwe; right about the outcome of the Iranian elections (although I didn’t forsee the scale of the protests); and right about the outpourings of verbiage to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I reckon that’s about 7.5 out of 10, so bearing that in mind, here goes for 2010:

1. The UK general election will be on 6 May; Gordon Brown will still be Prime Minister; the entire campaign will be dominated by discussion and dissection of the TV leaders’ debates, which in the end will make little difference to the outcome: a Conservative victory with a slim Commons majority of 15-30.

2. China will become the US-EU bogeyman. It’ll block a package of new UN sanctions against Iran, and will be “unhelpful” on climate change. There’ll be lots of talk about Beijing “flexing its muscles”; Premier Wen Jiabao will gently remind Washington that China is continuing to keep the US economy afloat by lending it squillions of dollars.

3. The US mid-term elections will see the Democrats losing control of the Senate but hanging on to the House of Representatives with a reduced majority. President Obama will say he’s “heard the people’s message”.

4. The US will start bombing “terrorist targets” in Yemen and Somalia following the attempted Christmas Day plane attack, apparently by a would-be al-Qaeda suicide bomber trained in Yemen.

5. The Iranian authorities will crack down hard against opposition protests. There’ll be hundreds more arrests, and more protests. The regime will survive.

6. The global economy will stage a slow recovery. In the main developed economies, unemployment will remain high, especially among young people. There’ll be more trouble in France among unemployed young people from Arab and African backgrounds.

7. There’ll be a resumption of hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians. Calls from outside for restraint will be ignored. The Israeli government will say it’s determined to do whatever is necessary to defeat “Palestinian terrorism”; Hamas and the Fatah-affiliated al-Aqsa Brigades will say armed resistance to occupation is the only option available to them. The imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti will be released as part of a prisoner swap deal; he will quickly emerge as the man everyone wants to do business with.

8. Silvio Berlusconi will stand down as Prime Minister of Italy on health grounds.

9. The extra US troops will be deployed in Afghanistan; casualties on both sides will increase dramatically during the summer, but by November (mid-term election time in the US), Obama will claim his strategy is working.

10. Climate change negotiations will splutter on, with an increasing emphasis on finding other policy options besides Kyoto-style emission reduction targets. Expect to hear more discussion from the richer countries about the need to control population growth. There’ll be a furious reaction from the poorer countries.

Sorry if you find all this a bit depressing, but remember, I could be entirely wrong. Anyway, this was my advice a year ago, and I repeat it now unchanged: enjoy the company of your family and friends; admire the trees and the flowers in parks and gardens; count your blessings.

19 December 2009

COPENHAGEN: There may have been 192 governments represented at the climate change conference here, but in the end, it came down to just two men: the former law professor Barack Obama of the US, and the one-time geologist Wen Jiabao of China.

I’m told that yesterday morning they realised that there was no workable text to present to their fellow leaders, so they rolled up their sleeves (figuratively, you understand) and did it themselves. One veteran negotiator told me it was unprecedented in his experience to see world leaders do the hard graft of drafting themselves.

And so the Copenhagen Accord was born. It will never take its place alongside the Magna Carta or the US Declaration of Independence – but it was the best they could come up with.

And so ashamed of it were its sponsors that they could scarcely even bring themselves to damn it with faint praise. A first step, they called it, a modest success, something to build on. As late night turned into early morning, and as press conference followed press conference, it was almost embarrassing to see them trying to sound positive.

They all know they failed. They didn’t do what they came here to do. Nor did they do what the scientists told them they had to do to have even a small chance of avoiding the worst effects of climate change.

Here’s where we stand: suppose they had committed themselves to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 per cent of 1990 levels by 2050. (Which they didn’t do.) Even that, almost certainly, would not have been enough to stop global temperatures rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius. That’s the point at which scientists say really nasty things start to happen.

Suppose they had come up with a cast-iron finance mechanism to help the poorest countries deal with the impact of climate change (floods, drought, famine) and to adapt to the needs of a low-carbon economy. (Which, again, they didn’t.) Even then, countries like India and China would have gone on increasing their emissions for years to come. After all, they argue, why shouldn’t their citizens have the comfy cars, the deep freezes and the air conditioners that rich people have? It wasn’t the Chinese or Indians who caused the problem, was it?

So the negotiators will have another go next year. They’ve set themselves some more deadlines, but given how much notice they took of the Copenhagen deadline, I don’t recommend holding your breath in anticipation. (Who was it who called this conference the most important gathering in the history of humankind? Ah yes, of course, the environment secretary Hilary Benn.)

As for the proceedings of the past few days, for a grizzled old reporter like me, it was all horribly reminiscent of a particularly fraught EU summit mixed with an even more fractious than usual political party conference. Too many people, not enough fresh air, and a vast amount of energy expended to produce not very much.

I was more or less right in my prediction last week about how it would all end, although I did think they would go on later into the night and eventually come up with something a bit more impressive.

On the other hand, they did try. And these are fiendishly difficult issues to get right. So what do you reckon? How about a B for effort and an E for achievement? Must try harder next time?

11 December 2009

CHICAGO/LONDON: There are some occasions when radio reporters have to do things that may appear to be extremely stupid. I’ve just been in Chicago for a few days, and believe me, standing on a street corner in the snow, in the teeth of a howling icy wind, and asking passers-by what they think about “global warming”, probably did appear very stupid. Certainly the passers-by looked at me as if I was mad.

I could, of course, have saved myself some embarrassment by asking about “climate change”, rather than “global warming”. Trouble is, at least in Chicago, no one seems to know what you’re talking about.

And while we’re on the subject of embarrassment, spare a thought for my colleague (I think she’d better remain nameless, but her friends and colleagues know who she is), who found herself chasing across a Chicago park early last Sunday morning after some geese whose tuneless honking we needed to record. To get close enough, she had to catch them unawares … so here’s the scene: zero temperatures, senior BBC editor, microphone held aloft, chasing geese across a field, geese merrily honking away. You should have been there …

But seriously. We were in Chicago to report on its claim to be one of America’s greenest cities. It’s Barack Obama’s adopted home town, of course, and back in its heyday, it was a city of railways, steelworks, cattleyards and slaughterhouses. I somehow doubt that back then anyone would have dared claim it was environmentally-friendly.

How times have changed. Now Chicago has its very own Climate Action Plan; it has “green buildings” that consume far less energy than conventional structures. Thousands of trees and flowers have been planted; the shoreline along Lake Michigan has been turned into a splendid Millennium Park; the honking geese now live happily on what used to be a private airfield reserved for the use of corporate jets and hot-shot executives.

But inevitably, there is another side to the story. Take yourself out of central Chicago, to the low-income neighbourhood of Little Village, home to one of the biggest Mexican communities in the US, and you’ll find a coal-fired electricity generating plant that local residents say is seriously damaging their health. A study carried out by scientists from Harvard University some years ago estimated that this plant, together with another one nearby, could be responsible for 41 premature deaths, 2,800 asthma attacks, and 550 emergency hospital visits every year.

All of which adds a human dimension to the fiendishly complicated negotiations now under way at the international climate change conference in Copenhagen. One of the many issues under consideration is how to strike a balance not only between developed and developing economies, but also between national and local, governmental and private action.

I reported from Chicago both for Newshour, on the BBC World Service, and for The World Tonight -- you can hear the material via the respective programmes’ websites. And one of the questions I was interested in exploring was whether the kind of plan Chicago has drawn up at city level could be more effective than policies agreed at national or international level.

Or do you have to reach binding international agreements to make sure that some nations don’t “cheat” by allowing polluting industries to get away with emissions they wouldn’t be allowed elsewhere?

I shall be reporting from Copenhagen next week as the climate change conference reaches its climax – and here’s my prediction. The news next Friday evening will be that the whole thing is on a knife-edge; the negotiations will be described as “fraught”, and “extremely difficult”. Some of the poorer nations will claim that their interests are being ignored. Then, some time during the night, there’ll be a breakthrough, and by Saturday morning, the headlines will be of a “historic moment when the world came together to save the planet for future generations”.

But of course, I may be entirely wrong, which is why I’d better go to Copenhagen.