Monthly Archives: February 2008

I am 35,000ft above Afghanistan. Beneath me, in the snowy hills, an insurgency is raging. In front of me sits David Miliband, Britain’s foreign secretary, who is leaning forward in his cream-coloured leather seat on a flight from Kabul to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.

“Amartya Sen is a brilliant man,” remarks Miliband. “I think his argument that there is a fusion tradition – a liberal tradition that is concerned with social justice – is right. And I admire his work on capabilities, and on freedom as capability.”

At 42, Miliband is one of Britain’s youngest-ever foreign secretaries. As his musings on Amartya Sen [the Harvard academic and Nobel prize winner] suggest, he is also one of the most intellectual. The son of Ralph Miliband, a famous Marxist academic, he worked in a think-tank before serving as head of Tony Blair’s policy unit at 10 Downing Street. With the predictable British reaction to anybody who might seem a bit clever, Miliband’s colleagues in Downing Street nicknamed him “Brains”. He entered parliament in 2001 and rose swiftly. When Tony Blair was forced to step down as Labour leader and prime minister in 2007, despairing Blairites appealed to Miliband to run for the leadership against Gordon Brown. But Miliband resisted the temptation, and was rewarded with the job of foreign secretary when Brown formed a government.

A rise from the backbenches to one of the great offices of state in just six years demands real political skill. And a couple of days in Miliband’s company have convinced me that he is much more than a jumped-up intellectual. He has a politician’s knack for rarely saying the wrong thing – which makes him a tricky man to interview when there is a tape recorder running. He is also formidably energetic. His day began with an early morning visit to British troops in Kabul. It will end with a late-evening meeting in Dhaka, with politicians and businessmen. His schedule includes no “down time”. He doesn’t seem to sleep much, and his staff claim that they have to remind him to eat. Read more

March will be a bad month for those who prefer their elections free and fair. On March 2nd (this Sunday) we have the Russian presidential election. Then on March 14th it is the Iranian parliamentary elections. And then on March 29th, Zimbabwe is holding joint presidential and parliamentary elections.

So much for the inevitable forward march of democracy.

It’s a bit of a toss up as to which of these three electoral charades will be the most blatantly unfair. But I would say that things will get progressively worse as the month goes on. The Russian election will be bad; the Iranian election will be really bad – and the Zimbabwe polls will be grotesque. Read more

Even his most bitter opponents grant Barack Obama one thing – he makes great speeches. The senator from Illinois is generally held to be a competent debater and an electrifying orator.

The notion that Mr Obama is the new Demosthenes has even made it across the Atlantic. On BBC radio the other day, there was a long discussion of the art of rhetoric, illustrated with clips of the best of Barack. William Rees-Mogg, a venerable former editor of UK newspaper The Times, asserts that Mr Obama is the most inspirational presidential candidate since John F. Kennedy and that “he is, in my view, a better speaker than Kennedy”.

All this leaves me baffled. I have watched Mr Obama speak live; I have watched him speak on television; I have even watched his speeches set to music on a video made by celebrity supporters ( But I find myself strangely unmoved – and this is disconcerting. It feels like admitting to falling asleep during Winston Churchill’s “fight them on the beaches” speech.

I will admit one thing. Mr Obama has a nice, gravelly voice – which is perhaps a legacy of his days as a heavy smoker. But his most famous phrases are vacuous. The “audacity of hope”? It would be genuinely audacious to run for the White House on a platform of despair. Promising hope is simply good sense. “The fierce urgency of now”? It is hard to see what Mr Obama means when he says this – other than that some inner voice has told him to run for president. Read more

I am just back from watching a citizenship ceremony at the Tower of London.  The new Britons swear an oath of loyalty to the crown, in which they are referred to as subjects rather than citizens. Then they go and get a certficate and their photo taken with a man in a fancy uniform, in front of a Union Jack and a portrait of the Queen. Then everybody sings the national anthem: just the first two verses, so that the new citizens do not have to engage with that confusing passage about “crushing rebellious Scots”.

The citizenship ceremony is a new thing in Britain. One of my neighbours at the FT recalls that when he became a citizen many years ago, all that happened was that he got a letter from the Home Secretary saying that he was “minded” to grant him citizenship. He then had to go a local solicitor’s office and swear an oath of loyalty to the monarch. The solicitor said merrily – “I’ll give her a call and tell her.”

I always found this British casualness about citizenship quite re-assuring. It seems self-confident and under-stated – which are two of the better national characteristics. But 9/11 and an increasing awareness of the impact of immigration on Britain has changed things. The government brought in a citizenship ceremony – loosely modelled on the US. The first one took place in Britain in January, 2004. Read more

I was glad to see that the subject of adultery – which has long played such a central and entertaining role in American politics – has reared its head again. Hillary Clinton made a guarded reference to her marital problems in her closing remarks in the most recent debate.

But the big news – of course – is the New York Times’s suggestion that John McCain had an affair with a lobbyist.

McCain has denied the story. His wife Cindy has said that he “would never do anything to disappoint our family and, more importantly, to disappoint America.” More importantly? That seems excessively high-minded of her.

I’ve no idea whether these latest allegations are true. But McCain has not denied accusations of adultery during his first marriage. He left his first wife – who had waited for him while he was a POW in Vietnam. She alluded to his affairs by saying – “John turned 40 and wanted to be 25 again.” Perhaps as he approached 70, he decided to be 30 again?

But – salacious details aside – the interesting question is does it matter? Would America have any right to be “disappointed” or to think less of McCain as a candidate, if he had committed adultery? Read more

So, it looks increasingly inevitable that it will be Obama v McCain. What will that mean for the foreign policy debate? The two men actually actually broadly agree on quite a lot: a preference for multilateralism, closing Guantanamo, a tougher line with Russia and China. But there are also big differences, mainly about the Middle East. The Swoop site summarises the main issues, in an admirably terse fashion.

The two main differences, it seems to me, will be over Iraq and Iran. Obama wants to get out of Iraq fast. McCain is talking about a committment that could last generations. Reality might force both men to be a bit more pragmatic. But – for now – there is a clear difference. Obama is also in favour of unconditional talks with Iran and the countries once known as the “axis of evil”. McCain sounds much more cautious and wants to tighten sanctions against Iran and Syria. Read more

Well, Kosovo has been independent for about 24 hours, and so far things are going more or less as the British and Americans anticipated. The assumption was that there would be trouble within Kosovo itself – and violent protests in Serbia. But that Russia would restrict itself to diplomatic protests and would not escalate matters by recognising would-be statelets that want to break away from Georgia, like South Ossetia or Abkhazia. So far, that’s more or less how things are working out.

But unhappiness about the new state-of-affairs is not confined to the Balkans or Russia. As the FT reports this morning, there are several European Union countries that are refusing to recognise Kosovo – foremost among them Spain, which is worried about the implications for Basque separatism. The whole situation is a reminder that “European unity” can quickly shatter, when EU members feel that their basic national interests are at stake. The situation must be particularly awkward for Javier Solana, a Spaniard who is meant to be the very embodiment of EU foreign policy. Read more

Shortly after the FT published its journalists’ “Predictions for 2008″ a colleague approached me and said: “I see you’re predicting instability in Pakistan. That’s sticking your neck out a bit, isn’t it?”

I am writing this column before the Pakistani election results have come in. But, having established a reputation for daring judgments, I am prepared to make a further prediction. Whatever happens in the parliamentary elections, there will be further instability. Read more

I always thought that one of the things about going to Cambridge University was that you had a guarantee that at least some of your fellow students would end up running the world. Not in my case. The Gonville and Caius College class of 1984 has produced a few respectable academics. But the only fellow student who has done something really interesting with his life is Richard Tomlinson, who joined British intelligence and then had a spectacular disagreement with his employers. MI6 sacked him and Richard ended up serving a term in Belmarsh prison, for breach of the Official Secrets Act – after trying to publish a book about his life as an agent. MI6 also accused him of publishing a list of British agents on the internet – a charge he denied.

Tomlinson is now living as a semi-fugitive in France. But he has not disappeared from view. Yesterday he made a video-link appearance at the inquest into the death of Princess Diana – and strongly implied that MI6 might have had a hand in her death.

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With his latest batch of primary victories, Obama is looking increasingly unstoppable. This is faintly embarrassing for me, since in my last pronouncement on the US election I suggested that the racial polarisation of the electorate in South Carolina looked bad for him. Obviously – like many a pundit during this election – I spoke too soon.

But – to misquote John Kerry – I was right before I was wrong. The proof of this is sitting in a desk draw in my office. I put £10 on Obama to win the presidency at 7-1 last December. Not a bad bet, since he is now odds-on to be president with LadbrokesRead more

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With his fancy hats and fluent English, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan cuts a dashing figure on the international stage. But, while Mr Karzai is a regular at Davos, he keeps a low profile in Afghanistan itself. Holed up in his presidential palace in Kabul, he seemed tired and evasive at a press conference there last week. Read more

As the British party led by David Miliband, the foreign secretary, drove through Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, we all noticed a gigantic queue of people, stretching several blocks. What were people lining up for? Apparently, the attraction was a book fair held on the university grounds. If nothing else, that confirmed Bangladesh’s reputation as an exotic place. But also one with powerful links to Britain. There are some 500,000 British-Bangladeshis – just under 1 per cent of the British population.

But Bangladesh scarcely features on the policy map in Britain, let alone in Washington. In some ways that is odd because the foreign-policy problems posed by Bangladesh are very similar to those posed by Pakistan. Both countries are struggling to restore a democracy that has been marred by feudalism and corruption in the past. Both are threatened by radical Islamism. It is true that Pakistan has nukes and a war on its border (and increasingly within its borders); but then Bangladesh has a claim to fame as a country that is directly threatened by climate change.

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I am now in Kabul, and so are Condi Rice and David Miliband. The "security situation" here is so dicey that the arrival of the American secretary of state and Britain’s foreign secretary could not be advertised in advance. In fact my Foreign Office companions became highly agitated when I mentioned on an "open line" (ie a mobile phone call home) that I was sitting in a motorcade at Kabul airport, with Rice and Miliband in the car ahead, waiting to be swept along to the president’s palace.

The security is so tight that it must be virtually impossible for visiting western dignitaries to form any spontaneous impression of Afghanistan. Rice and Miliband arrived early this morning on an unadvertised flight from London. They were immediately put on a military plane to Kandahar – but did not leave the military base there. Then it was back to Kabul, and a short drive to see President Karzai on a road that had been cleared of all traffic. Then it was time to visit some more troops in a gym at Nato HQ. And that’s it. Condi is off tonight. Miliband is staying for a formal dinner. I’m sure they will have had "frank discussions" with President Karzai. But they must be completely reliant on their diplomats for any impression of how things are going.

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I am in Islamabad, which is perhaps not the ideal place from which to comment on Super Tuesday. But while we still have months and months to go before the Americans actually choose their president, the Pakistani elections are coming up fast – February 18th in fact.

There are three big questions surrounding the vote:

1) Will Musharraf rig the voting? 2) If the opposition win can they form a stable government? 3) Can any government improve the security situation – which means regaining control of the wilder bits of the country and stopping the suicide bombings which are becoming a regular feature of Pakistani life?

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Here is a proposal for the next American president. The US should take the lead in setting up a massive, publicly funded research project to tackle climate change. The American government has, in the past, shown that it is capable of sponsoring pioneering science – from the Manhattan project that produced the atomic bomb to the space programme. Why not apply American energy, money and know-how to a new Manhattan project on global warming? Read more

How appropriate that the French parliament has approved the European Union’s Lisbon treaty in a special session at Versailles. By ignoring public opinion in this way, France’s politicians have proved themselves to be worthy heirs of Louis XIV.

The Lisbon treaty is essentially a repackaging of the European Union constitution that was decisively rejected in a referendum in France in 2005. As a defeated politician once put it – "The people have spoken, the bastards." But the newly-married President Sarkozy is not one to take rejection lying down. He has decided to push through the new treaty, without risking a second referendum. He argues that a second rejection would be disastrous for both France and the European Union.  Read more