Monthly Archives: January 2008

A colleague has just forwarded me an AFP story headlined – "Nepal bombing bad news for peace process: analysts". I applaud the urge to maintain a rigid division between fact and commentary. But sometimes I think journalists should be allowed to state the blindingly obvious – without resorting to "analysts".

The headline reminds me of a conversation I once witnessed at the BBC World Service. A worried editor was fretting that the presenter of a current-affairs programme had described some people who had let off a bomb as "militants". The presenter – Hugh Prysor Jones – replied, reasonably enough – "Well, they are unlikely to be moderates." Read more

Thank you to Pacifist et al, for drawing my attention to the White House’s displeasure at Zalmay Khalilzad’s decision to appear alongside the Iranian foreign minister at Davos. I was at that session and – I must say – I don’t think the Bush administration has much to fear. There were no surprises. The Iranians ranted about their right to nuclear energy and about injustice in the world. Khalilzad said nothing that was out of line with American policy.

But his general demeanour was cool and unconfrontational – and maybe that was the problem. As it happens, Khalilzad has impeccable neocon credentials. He studied under Albert Wohlstetter, a fiercely conservative strategist, and was a founder member of the Project for a New American Century. But, in other ways, he does not fit the stereotype. He is not a headbanger and has gone down very well as American ambassador to the UN. Unlike his predecessor, John Bolton, he does not go out of his way to offend people. And he also has a deep knowledge of the countries he is dealing with. He was born in Afghanistan and – at Davos – he listened to the Iranians without using the headphones.

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Soccer crowds in England like to abuse match referees by chanting: “You don’t know what you’re doing.” If protesters had been able to get near the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, they could justifiably have aimed the same chant at the world leaders who assembled in the Alps. Read more

I realise that is hard to argue that a big victory in the South Carolina primary was bad news for Barack Obama. But once you examine the details of the vote, that’s the way it looks to me.

From the very beginning, the Obama campaign has been at pains not to play the race card. The idea is that he is a candidate who is black, not a black candidate. But in South Carolina, the Democratic electorate split clearly on racial lines. As Ed Luce points out in today’s Financial Times – "Only one in four whites who voted opted for Mr Obama, against eight out of 10 blacks." A racially polarised electorate can sweep Obama to victory in South Carolina. It would mean certain defeat on national level. Read more

I notice that the comments posted about Bill Gates so far have all been pretty hostile. Having just met him for the first time, I have to say I’m a fan.

I have no firm views on the merits of the anti-trust cases against Microsoft. And I am not a teccie person, so I’m not joining in the debate about the merits of Microsoft products. Read more

They say money can’t buy you love. I have always been a bit sceptical about that. But it certainly can’t buy you a sense of rhythm. That much was clear from the McKinsey party in the Hotel Belvedere last night.

McKinsey always have a good bash, largely because they bring back the same New York soul band year after year. I’ve forgotten their name, but they were so good they played at Paul McCartney’s wedding to Heather Mills. You can almost see the Bad Karma hovering over them as they perform. By midnight the dance floor is packed with CEOs and bankers strutting their stuff. It is not a pretty sight. Every now and then, one of the backing singers leaps into the crowd and dances with whichever sweaty hedge-fund manager is closest to hand. I hope they are well paid. (The dancers, not the hedge fund managers.)

Tonight’s hot ticket is the Google party – also at the Belvedere. Before that I am having dinner with Bill Gates, along with some colleagues from the FT. Impressive, I know. But Gates seems to have a thing about British journalists. Earlier in the week I bumped into some friends from The Economist who said casually, "We’re having dinner with Bill Gates, tonight." It gave me great satisfaction to be able to say, "Yeah, we’re having dinner with him on Friday." They were pleasingly crestfallen.

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Why are you in Davos? It is a question we all struggle with in our different ways. But when our three-man FT delegation posed it to Pervez Musharraf on Wednesday afternoon, the Pakistani president seemed incredulous. Were we implying, he asked, that Pakistan was an unstable country that could not be left to its own devices for a few days? "There is no danger in Pakistan," he assured us, "business is bustling."

Does this reaction suggest that the president is cool, calm and in command? Or completely detached from reality? Or just presenting a cynical front to the world, while he battles to contain the forces that threaten to engulf him? During the course of our audience with him – which was written up in Thursday’s paper – I got flavours of all three ideas. (Sorry if this is beginning to sound like the wine-tasting, of which more later.)

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The theme of this Davos is meant to be “collaborative innovation” – otherwise known as “collovation”. But my personal theme seems to be spitting.

Yesterday morning I gobbed into a glass tube, so that a new company called 23andMe could analyse my DNA. In the evening I went to a wine-tasting, which also involved a bit of spitting. But there are some activities that shouldn’t involve spitting, unless things go badly wrong – like interviewing President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and moderating a session on global political risk this morning. Read more

My recent article Illiberal capitalism: Russia and China charter their own course has prompted some interesting debate. Robert Kagan, foreign-policy analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for InternationalPeace, and I answered some of readers’ questions in a Q&A on on Tuesday. All the questions and answers can been seen here.

My recent article Illiberal capitalism: Russia and China charter their own course has prompted some interesting debate. Robert Kagan, foreign-policy analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for InternationalPeace, and I answered some of readers’ questions in a Q&A on on Tuesday. All the questions and answers can been seen here.

My recent article Illiberal capitalism: Russia and China charter their own course has prompted some interesting debate. Robert Kagan, foreign-policy analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and I answered some of readers’ questions in a Q&A on on Tuesday. All the questions and answers can been seen here.

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President George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” has run into the Middle Eastern sand. The president himself will be the last to recognise this. Speaking in the United Arab Emirates on January 13, he hailed a “great new era” of “the advance of freedom”. “My friends,” he proclaimed to the assembled sheikhs, “a future of liberty stands before you.” Then Mr Bush flew on to Egypt and lavished praise on President Hosni Mubarak, who threw into jail the last man to run against him for the presidency. Read more

I am always on the look-out for boring headlines – and I found a good one lying around on a desk at the FT today. It is in a newsletter from Moody’s, the ratings agency – "Belgian political uncertainty no threat to ongoing fiscal consolidation".

The whole question of what makes for interesting reading is the subject of this post – which is provoked not by Moody’s, but rather by an outburst from Steve Walt, a Harvard professor. Walt – who has become famous (or infamous) – as the co-author of a critical book on "The Israel Lobby", has written a piece bemoaning the appointment of William Kristol, a prominent neo-con, as a columnist for the "New York Times".

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All the mainstream pundits agree. Mike Huckabee is a crack-pot. The first piece of evidence is that he is a creationist. But the second point is that Huckabee wants to abolish income tax.

As far as many of my colleagues are concerned this is breathtakingly unsophisticated – the economic equivalent of creationism. However, when I heard Huckabee explain his plan recently in a burger joint in New Hampshire, it sounded pretty good to me. Huckabee – who is one of three front-runners for the Republican Party nomination – advanced several plausible sounding arguments. First – simplicity. He would replace the entire income tax code, with a simple sales tax set at a flat rate of – say – 23%. No more form-filling. In fact the Huckster would abolish the IRS (America’s much-hated Internal Revenue Service). Second, his plan would ease the burden on honest tax-payers. At present drug-dealers and other nefarious types avoid all income tax. But they have to spend – so they would be caught by a consumption tax, just like the rest of us. Also he reckons that his flat consumption tax would encourage saving – because you are taxed when you spend, not when you earn. And the whole thing is designed to be "revenue neutral"; ie if the calculations worked out, it wouldn’t cause a massive whole in the federal budget.

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Western politicians routinely say that they are motivated by a “desire to serve” and they are routinely disbelieved. With her near-tears in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton briefly managed to puncture that scepticism – and, perhaps, to swing the US presidential election back in her direction. Read more

As journalists thrash around to make sense of the American election, the latest theory is that John McCain is the favourite. The US may not be ready to elect a black (Obama) or a woman (Clinton) – so it could opt for the Republicans’ current front-runner, the reassuringly white and male Mr McCain.

But there is one factor that few people are considering yet, which I think the Republicans would do well to think about – the baldness factor. In a fascinating recent blog entry, Dan Hannan – a Conservative Euro-MP – points out that if an election comes down to a contest between a baldie and a man with a full head of hair, the bald man always loses. Hannan had to go back to 1880 to find a presidential election where the bald candidate won. (It’s true that Eisenhower was bald, but he was running against Adlai Stevenson, who was also follically-challenged).

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One of the whispered discussions that takes places around the fringes of the American election is whether somebody might try and shoot one of the candidates – in particular, Barack Obama.

But although plenty of people talk about the risk of assassination, security around the candidates remains startlingly lax. Last Saturday I went to an Obama rally at a high school in New Hampshire. I got lost on the motorway, so I was a bit late. I rushed up to an entrance marked press and waved my press card. It’s a real press card, as it happens – but I could quite easily have bought it on the internet. I was waved into the rally. Nobody checked my bag. Within a couple of minutes I was standing ten yards from Obama. Apparently he does have secret service protection. But I suspect they cannot do very much, given the hectic nature of his schedule and the openness of his meetings.

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During the cold war it was natural to lump Russia and China together. They were the two great communist powers -€“ the leading ideological adversaries of the west.

Then came 1989 -€“ the year of the crushing of the students’ revolt in China and the collapse of the Soviet empire. Communism had failed. Free markets and democracy seemed poised to sweep all before them. The spirit of the time was captured in Francis Fukuyama’s famous article on "€The End of History€", published in Washington’™s National Interest magazine that summer. Mr Fukuyama did not argue that history had ended in the sense that there would be no more great events. Rather he claimed ideological victory for the west, suggesting that "€œliberal democracy may constitute the end point of man’s ideological evolution". Read more

As I was saying, Hillary Clinton is doomed – or possibly Barack Obama is. After Hillary’s victory in last night’s primary in New Hampshire, I think I may give up making predictions about American politics for 24 hours.

To be fair to the pundits and the pollsters, it wasn’t just journalists who were confidently predicting an Obama victory. Even people in the Hillary camp were talking about trying to keep the margin of their defeat in New Hampshire down to below double digits. When, on Monday, Hillary broke down and cried – or rather "choked up", it looked like she had accepted that defeat was inevitable.

New Hampshire lore is also that crying in public is very bad news for a candidate. It is what is deemed to have finished off Edmund Muskie in 1972. However, one of the Obama people did, presciently, say to me – "Hillary crying is bad news for us. It humanises her. It’s easier to run against a robot." Today’s conventional wisdom is that Hillary’s display of emotion did indeed help her, particularly among women voters.

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Barack Obama is in favour of hope, unity and change. If only his rivals would agree to campaign on a ticket of despair, discord and stagnation, the electorate would have a real choice. Read more