Monthly Archives: March 2008

Dictators sometimes miscalculate. So I suppose it is possible that Robert Mugabe – failing to realise the depth of his own unpopularity – has just gone down to an electoral defeat in Zimbabwe that is so catastrophic that even he will be unable to reverse the result. But I am pessimistic. Mr Mugabe does not strike me as somebody who is likely to be shamed into doing the right thing. Nor is he the kind of man, who is likely to shrug and say that retirement might not be such a bad option after all. Maybe the army will turn against him? Otherwise, I think he will just dig in his heels and declare victory.

So what happens if Mugabe has indeed been clearly defeated – but decides to cling on to power and to brazen it out? I’ve just been listening to Lord Malloch Brown, Britain’s Africa minister, talking on the BBC World Service. He unequivocally ruled out the possibility of military intervention. Instead, he suggested two courses of action. First, Britain and other western countries should be absolutely clear in condemning a rigged election. Second, we should support African-led attempts at mediation – modelled on Kofi Annan’s efforts in Kenya. Read more

I suppose it was inevitable. Events in Tibet have sparked calls for a boycott of the Olympics. Hans-Gert Poettering, the president of the European Parliament is speculating aloud about the possibility – and the parliament is due to debate Tibet later in the week.

Personally, I think it was a mistake to give the Olympics to China. It was inevitable that they would be used for political purposes, to bolster the Chinese government’s legitimacy and to herald China’s arrival as an international player. And I think its always preferable to hold the games somewhere small, rich and sunny – and without aspirations to global leadership: Barcelona and Sydney were perfect.

But now that the Chinese have been awarded the games, I think it would be an even bigger mistake to boycott them. Much as the West would insist that the boycott was aimed only at the Chinese government, it would be both portrayed and percieved as an insult aimed at the entire Chinese people. The great task of international relations over the next generation is going to be managing the rise of China. Picking symbolic fights – and so whipping up Chinese nationalism – is the wrong way to go about things, I think. Read more

A lively debate has broken out on the blog between Mary Cunningham and “Danny” about whether the Bush administration bears any responsibility for the current financial crisis. They go into much more detail than I am capable of, so I suggest that readers take a look.

But let me make one simple point. This crisis is taking place in the eighth year of the Bush presidency. It must have very deep roots indeed, for the Bush administration to bear no responsibility. Read more

Various people have been in touch with me – by e-mail and on the blog – to ask what I thought of Obama’s speech on race and the Wright controversy? Wasn’t it a great speech, and doesn’t it prove that I was wrong to dismiss Obama as a master of empty rhetoric?

Difficult. Yes, it was a great speech. And perhaps I should just leave it at that. Any attempt at further explanation threatens to leave me sounding like one of those politicians, saying – “I do not for a moment withdraw any of my previous statements on this matter. However, in the light of recent events, I would like to issue some further remarks, expanding upon my previous statements and adding some important context.”

Well, I do not for a moment…etc, etc. But Obama’s race speech was completely different from his standard stump/victory speech - because of the context in which it was delivered. In his regular campaign appearances, Obama’s goal is simply to pump up the crowd with vague and vacuous applause lines. He is a master at producing euphoria. At one campaign stop, he was even cheered to the rafters simply for blowing his nose. Read more

Some people are good in a crisis. Unfortunately, President Bush isn’t one of them. His comments on the global financial crisis yesterday were the opposite of reassuring. The simian furrowing of the brow suggested deep confusion. The bland assertion that “our financial institutions are strong” defied credulity. He even thanked Hank Paulson, the treasury secretary, for “working over the weekend”. Yes, that’s really going the extra mile, isn’t it?

Bush’s congratulations for Paulson have a nasty echo of his comments to the head of FEMA, Michael Brown, at the height of the Hurricane Katrina fiasco/tragedy – “Brownie, you are doing a heck of a job.” Read more

There is a well-established pecking order of prejudice in western Europe. The British look down on the French, the French look down on the Italians, the Italians look down on the Spanish, the Spanish look down on the Portuguese – and everybody fears and ridicules the Germans. Read more


Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning
By Jonah Goldberg
Doubleday $27.95, 496 pages Read more

Another European Union summit has just got underway in Brussels. I used to go to a lot of these things. From the inside they can seem quite important and exciting. But as an outsider, it is often difficult to see the point.

You can say the same thing about what passes for foreign policy debate in the major European capitals. I was in Madrid last week. The outside world barely featured in the Spanish election campaign (other than in the form of illegal immigrants, mysteriously washing up on Spanish shores). Advisers to Jose Luis Zapatero, the prime minister, are proud of their man’s role in launching the “Alliance of Civilisations” – his major foreign policy initiative. But the “alliance” is a complete non-topic in the real world. (Can any readers of this blog honestly say that they they know what it is, without benefit of an internet search?)

Now I’m in Paris. Here too, the head of government has launched a major foreign policy initiative – generating much local fanfare, and very little interest anywhere else. Sarkozy’s big idea is a Mediterranean Union, attempting to create closer ties between the EU and North Africa. The French claim that the EU summit has already endorsed the idea – and they will certainly try to give it a renewed push when they take over the presidency of the EU later this year. Read more

Does the resignation of Admiral William Fallon as head of CentCom mean that the “war party” is back in control of American policy to Iran?

I doubt it’s quite that simple. From what we know both the secretaries of state and defence – Rice and Gates – are opposed to an attack. But there is no doubt that fallon was a key member of the “peace party”. Read more

Some people are too open for their own good. That was certainly how I felt after interviewing Samantha Power last week. Read more

It is not just the US that is holding elections. There is a Spanish general election on Sunday and the streets of Madrid are festooned with campaign posters.

Spanish political slogans have lost a little of their élan, since the civil war and the days of “No pasaran”. The main parties in this election have clearly run out of inspiration on the sloganeering front. Outside my hotel is a huge banner for the centre-right Popular Party, featuring its smiling, bearded leader, Mariano Rajoy. The line on the poster is “Clear ideas, with Rajoy it’s possible.” The main slogan being used by the governing Socialist Party translates as “We are the majority”. To which the obvious response is: well, we’ll see about that on Sunday, won’t we? Read more

So the race goes on. Hillary’s victories in Ohio and Texas are both embarrassing and pleasing for political pundits. Pleasing because this is fantastically exciting election – and now we well get some more of it. It’s like being told there will be an extra series of The Sopranos. Embarrassing – obviously – because once again the conventional wisdom has been turned on its head.

I did a BBC Radio programme yesterday morning in which it was all but assumed that the race was over – and it was clearly going to be Obama v McCain. To his credit my fellow guest, Robert Kagan, insisted that Hillary had a good shot of re-opening the race by winning both of last night’s primaries.

Since Kagan was right about that, let me also quote him on the question of presidential character and foreign policy. This is something that both the Clinton and McCain campaigns are going big on. McCain last night insisted that he is by far the most experienced candidate to deal with a foreign policy emergency. And the Clinton campaign has been running TV ads, showing Hillary answering an emergency 3am call at the White House. Read more

If you browse down my blogroll, you will see a link to the excellent and eclectic Normblog.

Norm has asked me to write a piece on a favourite book, which you can find here. Seeing my effort on screen, it seems extremely short and perfunctory. But some of the other efforts in Norm’s “writers choice” series are really good. I particularly recommend the essays by John Lloyd, Francis Wheen and Christopher Hitchens.

In my earlier musings on the character of my fellow columnist, I left out one other abiding impression from our time at The Economist. It really is a big mistake to get into a prolonged argument with Clive. Once riled he is relentless. The conversation will only end when Clive has nailed your head to the floor (figuratively speaking, obviously).

So I’m going to accept his invitation. Let’s call it quits. History can judge whether Obama is an orator to be ranked alongside King, Kennedy at el. But I think we should take a broad view of what history means. Let’s wait at least 200 years before we form a definitive judgement.

While we’re waiting, can I offer some short-term predictions. Obama will win the nomination. Obama will win the presidency. Obama will then deliver an inaugural speech that is so brilliant and moving, that even I will be reduced to tears (without the assistance of an onion.) And within 18 months Clive Crook and many of Obama’s former fans will be bitterly disappointed – so it will be left to me to argue that he’s not so bad really.

Meanwhile, I was amused by this analysis of my relationship with my present and former colleague that appeared on the comments section of the Crook blog: Read more


Nikita Krushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union in 1956, told the western world: “We will bury you.” Now Dmitry Medvedev, the newly elected president of Russia, has come back with a revised offer: “We will buy you.” Read more

I’ve always felt a bit queasy about columnists who debate with each other on the pages of their own papers. It can seem a bit vain and self-referential. On the other hand, the whole phenomeon of blogging is vain and self-referential. So here goes.

Clive Crook has given me a bit of a going over because of my critique of Obama’s speeches. Here is my response; Read more