Monthly Archives: December 2007

I get the message. The fact that my last post attracted all of nil comments suggests to me it is time to go on holiday. I intend to fall silent for the next 10 days or so – before re-surfacing in the US, on January 3rd – the day of the Iowa caucus. If I blog before then, it’s probably a bad sign.

But before I quit, here are a couple of things I would like to draw to your attention. First, a delightfully unreverential account of interviewing Al Gore, by my friend Stephen Sackur of the BBC. I normally hate that back-scratching formula, "my friend x of the x". But Stephen really is a friend, he had the office next door to me in Brussels for several years. However, I have learnt that I have to be cautious about admitting friendship with Stephen Sackur. Although he is naturally a rather mild-mannered person, he is the host of a television show, "Hardtalk", which demands an aggressive and adverserial pose from the interviewer. This often leaves the interviewee distinctly pissed off. When I interviewed Michel Platini of Uefa recently and mentioned conversationally that Sackur is a friend of mine, Platini’s face darkened _"Ard Talk..", he exclaimed contemptuosly and I realised it was a good idea to drop the subject.

I probably shouldn’t mention Sackur to "my good friend, Al Gore" either – to judge from Stephen’s account of their post-interview chat.

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Is Hillary doomed? You might begin to wonder, from some of the recent coverage of her campaign – featuring reports of bad opinion polls, demoralised staff and a panicky candidate. Bill’s recent description of his wife as a "world-class genius" is touchingly inarticulate – but also sounds a little desperate.

Certainly the momentum is with Obama at the moment. He has sneaked ahead of Senator Clinton in the opinion polls for the Iowa caucus on January 3rd. And a USA today poll, out today, has Obama and Clinton neck-and-neck in New Hampshire. Just a month ago, she had a double digit lead in New Hampshire. If Obama wins the first two contests, then Hillary’s national lead might begin to evaoprate as the candidates head for the most populous "delegate-rich" states.

But let’s not get carried away. You can lose New Hampshire and still win the nomination, if you have the strongest national campaign – as George W.Bush showed. A national poll on December 19th had Hillary well out in front among Democrats in the country as a whole. A friend who is close to the campaign says that the American press are getting intoxicated by the Obama boomlet, because it makes the story more exciting. Hillary has no reason to panic. He adds that – "The drugs smear against Obama is working." What drugs smear, you ask? I suggest you enter the words Obama and cocaine into Google.

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There are some events that change the world in an instant: the fall of the Berlin wall; the tanks rolling into Tiananmen Square; the aeroplanes flying into the World Trade Center.

So far, there have been no such defining moments in 2007. Perhaps we should be grateful for that, since world-shaking events are often sudden acts of shocking violence. But it makes it both trickier and more interesting to carry out my annual end-of-year exercise – listing the five most important events of the past 12 months. Nonetheless, I intend to try. If you want to make sense of world affairs, it is useful to identify the most significant events. Also, I like making lists. So here goes: Read more

Perhaps I am being a bit literal-minded, but I do not find it reassuring that Jacob Zuma’s "signature anthem" (as the FT describes it) translates as "Bring me my machine gun". As I write, Mr Zuma seems poised to wrest the presidency of the African National Congress from Thabo Mbeki. If he succeeds, he then becomes hot favourite to succeed Mbeki as the next president of South Africa in 2009.

With Zuma as president-in-waiting, South Africa will have a significant PR problem. South Africa’s big challenge – of course – has always been to convince the world that it is not going to be just another hopeless African country. It is bigger, richer, more sophisticated. It has a proper legal system, good infrastructure and world-class companies. To even suggest that there might be a risk that one day South Africa will go the way of Zimbabwe is to invite furious denunciation. How could you be so ignorant? The situations are totally different. The comparison simply demonstrates western ignorance and racism, etc etc

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I am delighted to discover that there is a form of nostalgia that I am too young for. This week’s "Led Zep" frenzy left me pretty cold. No so FT readers – it seems. Our review of the Led Zeppelin reunion concert this week made the paper’s "most read" list.

I didn’t totally miss out on Led Zeppelin, the first time around. The first rock film I ever went to see was a recording of one of their concerts called, "The Song Remains the Same". And so it did – for hour, after interminable hour. The low-point was an 18-minute drum solo. The film was released in 1976 in London and even to my 13-year-old eyes, it was clear that Led Zep did not represent the future.

Before I crow too much about my extraordinary youth, however, I should face the truth. I may be "only" 44, but I’m going senile. Sitting on my desk is the fourth blackberry I have been issued with in the past 18 months. I’m too terrified to pick it up and move it (which kind of defeats the point), in case I lose this one as well. Number one was left on a bus in Istanbul; number two was left in a taxi in Washington; number three was left in a taxi in London.

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If the furore over the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran hadn’t intervened, the US delegation to the IISS security conference in Bahrain last weekend would have spent the time boasting about progress in Iraq. In 2006, the Americans sent a relatively low-level delegation to Bahrain. This time they were out in force. The delegation was led by Robert Gates, the defence secretary and included William Fallon, the admiral in charge of Centcom – which runs the US military presence in the Middle East. Also at the conference was Colonel HR McMaster – the American officer who pioneered the "clear and hold" tactics that became the model for the US "surge" in Iraq.

As it was, Gates did spend a fair amount of time talking about the progress that had been made in Iraq. But he was cautious about making sweeping claims that things have taken a decisive turn for the better. Everybody remembers the hubris of "mission accomplished". And the Americans are well aware of the fragility of security gains, without real political progress to back it up.

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I ended last year with a column that looked back on 2006 and tried to list the "five most important events" of the year. They were – I claimed – Russia’s cut-off of gas to Ukraine; the bombing of the golden mosque in Iraq; the release of an "Inconvenient Truth"; Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and the US mid-term elections.

I intend to repeat the exercise for 2007 in my column next Tuesday (18th December). But with a slight difference. This time I would like to canvas opinion ahead of time. Please let me know, by Friday, what your nominations are. Of course, I realise this in some ways a fatuous exercise. But that’s never stopped me in the past.

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A week ago, the Americans were mad bombers. Now they are naive dupes. The Bush administration’s flip-flop over Iran’s nuclear programme has caused a somersault in the way America’s allies talk about US foreign policy in the Gulf. Read more

A controversial stint as American ambassador to the United Nations can be a good career move. Both Daniel Moynihan in the 1970s and Jeane Kirkpatrick in the 1980s became famous for their fierce anti-communism and outspoken defence of Israel.

John Bolton – who served as US ambassador to the UN in 2005-2006 – stands very much in this tradition. He will certainly not disappoint his conservative fan club with his scathing criticism of the "high-minded" and self-serving elite who he believes runs the UN. They are not the only objects of his scorn. The US state department gets it in the neck, so does the "Eastern Establishment" and the EUroids (his term for European diplomats), with their tiresome obsession with multilateral diplomacy. Read more

I am in Abu Dhabi – and so are the Opec oil ministers, or they were until a few hours ago. For those of you who have got your Emirates in a twist – Abu Dhabi is bigger and less flashy than Dubai. It also has far more oil – almost 10% of the world’s reserves, plus 5% of its natural gas.

So there is quite a lot of spare cash here. Abu Dhabi’s Sovereign Wealth Fund is thought to be the largest in the world – bigger than China’s. Nobody knows quite how much money it has to spend. But the lowest estimate I’ve heard is $500 billion – and the highest is $1 trillion. They recently snapped up 4.9% of Citigroup, and already own bits of Ferrari and the Carlyle Group.

The Emirates Palace Hotel, where Opec were meeting, is easily the most opulent hotel I’ve ever visited. Even part of the driveway is made of marble – a Porsche Cayenne trying to brake on marble makes a very loud squeak. The lobby (also all marble, naturally) is the size of a football field. The pianist there looked a bit like Condi Rice – although I dont think it has quite come to that, yet. One journalist who was staying at the hotel was startled to find a butler hovering in her room – asking her what temperature she would like her bath to be run.  (She said that, on balance, she would prefer a shower – and he made his excuses and left.)

Given all this, it was a little hard to swallow when Opec people tried to argue in favour of the current high oil price, on the grounds that their members need more cash to spend on schools and hospitals. The Emirates Palace hotel alone cost $2 billion to build. Of course, there are Opec members that are genuinely still quite poor – Iran, Ecuador etc. But pleading poverty in Abu Dhabi is tricky.

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The new US intelligence report on Iran is clearly a bit of a blow to those pressing for military action against Iranian nuclear facilities. As the FT explained this morning: "The key finding in the estimate, the product of more than 18 months of work by the 16 US intelligence agencies, is that Iran is probably not actively seeking to turn nuclear material into weapons."

You might expect that the only people who would be depressed by this news would be the hawks around Dick Cheney. But you would be wrong. I spent a bit of time today with some British policymakers who follow Iran and counter-proliferation closely. And they are not exactly jumping for joy.

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Europe seems intent on slicing itself up into ever smaller pieces. In the next month, Kosovo is likely to declare independence – making it the seventh new country to emerge from the wreckage of Yugoslavia. The Soviet Union has given way to 15 new states. Even in western Europe, there is talk of Belgium dividing in two, while a pro-independence party has taken power in Scotland. Read more

I won’t make sarcastic comments about the "carbon footprint" caused by all those world leaders convening in Bali to discuss climate change. Everybody else has already made the same point. Plus, I hate the phrase "carbon footprint". And I have some sympathy with the urge to visit Bali. Its a really nice place – the Four Seasons in Bali is probably the best hotel I have ever stayed in. I wish the delegates joy of it.

But all the bitching about Bali is in danger of obscuring the real point. Climate change is a really, really serious threat – and it is good that world leaders are at least trying to do something about it – even if they have chosen to meet in a luxury resort. Let me direct you to two articles that I think give a good idea of what is at stake.

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