Monthly Archives: April 2008

It is difficult not to feel sorry for Barack Obama. The whole Jeremiah Wright thing is a complete nightmare. I doubt that Obama’s late-in-the-day repudiation of his spiritual mentor of 20 years is going to do the trick. Wright will be an issue for the rest of the campaign.

And so he should be. Obama has responded to Hillary Clinton’s assertion that she is the candidate of “experience”, by talking about his superior judgement. But what does it say about his judgement that he chose Reverend Wright as his pastor? Read more

One of the disadvantages of having my e-mail address printed in the paper is that I get a lot of weird people communicating with me. (I am not referring to the honoured readers of this blog.)

Most of the offers of cheap Viagra are caught in the FT’s capacious spam-filter. But I seem to get an awful lot of people trying to interest me in dubious-sounding business propositions. Most of them I delete without a second thought. But I think this particular communication has an unusual panache to it.

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It sounds like something from a political thriller by Michael Crichton. Arab sheikhs and Chinese communists amass billions of dollars. They wait for a moment of financial weakness in the US. Then they use their massive “sovereign wealth funds” to buy large stakes in strategic US firms. They secure places on the board. Then, at a crucial moment, they… Read more

Some lunches end with coffee in the drawing room; others finish with a brandy on the terrace. But the final course of my lunch with Mikheil Saakashvili is taking place in a Dolphin helicopter, speeding towards a military base in the middle of Georgia.

President Saakashvili – affable over lunch on a terrace in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital – is ebullient once up in the air. As we lean back on our black leather seats, he puts on a CD at top volume: it is Charles Aznavour singing “Je N’ai Rien Oublié”. French is one of the many languages the president speaks and besides – he informs me – Aznavour is of Georgian origin.

Gesturing towards the countryside – and shouting to make himself heard over the helicopter blades and the Aznavour – Saakashvili says that if I look to my right I will see South Ossetia, a Georgian territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists. “We don’t want to fly too close to there,” he laughs. “The last time I did that, they shot a missile at my helicopter.” Read more

You will be glad to know that the weather is beautiful in Paris. But the outlook is cloudy with showers for Nicolas Sarkozy.

I was here this time last year, on the eve of Sarko’s election. Almost a year later, all that hope and expectation has all but evaporated. A poll last week showed that 72 per cent of French people now have an unfavourable view of Sarkozy’s presidency. This is an astonishing achievement. It took Chirac more than a decade in office to achieve similar levels of unpopularity.

Sarkozy gave a long interview on television last night to try and repair some of the damage. He argued that reforming the French economy was always going to be difficult – and would inevitably piss off important interest groups. (A loose translation, obviously). This seems plausible enough to me. But I think that some of the problems of his presidency are more personal than that. The furore over his personal life has obviously hurt him – and he tried to draw a line under it last night. But in a broader sense, Sarko seems a bit unpresidential. While Chirac spoke slowly in a deep voice and sat very still, Sarko gets visibly agitated and seems fidgety and angry when put under pressure. Read more

Brace yourself for the wave of 1968 nostalgia that will hit us next month – the anniversary of the May events in Paris. All those soixante-huitards will be strutting their stuff in the papers. Who knows Le Monde may even consent to start publishing again?

Well I’m not a soixante-huitard – more like a soixante-dix huitard. And I’m pleased to see that we 1978ers are also getting our small moment of nostalgic glory. This weekend they are re-staging the famous (well, quite famous) “Rock Against Racism” concert that took place in Victoria Park in Hackney in 1978. There was a big article last weekend in the Observer about the original concert.

I finally managed to impress my daughter by informing her that I had been at the original concert back in 1978. She is 14 – the same age as I was in 1978 - and is planning to go to the re-union concert this weekend. (I have been forbidden from coming along, even though I would quite like to.) Read more


Why is the American presidential election such compelling viewing? Because it combines the formats of the games show, the talent contest, the television series and the sporting contest. Read more

Tensions between Russia and Georgia seem to have ratcheted up a couple of notches, with the story that the Russians have shot down a Georgian drone.

The Georgians are already very anxious about what they regard as further steps in Russia’s “creeping annexation” of the Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. On April 16th, the Russians announced that they are opening “representations” in the two territories, to deal directly with Russian citizens there. David Smith of the Georgian Security Analysis centre in Tbilisi argues that – “This is big—tantamount to Russian annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.” Read more

The British papers this week have been contemplating the death of Joan Hunter Dunn – who was the muse who inspired that most English of poets, John Betjeman.

But never mind Betjeman. I have just come across something that struck me as quintessentially English, on the website of the Cambridge University Philosophy department. It is the biography of one of the members of the faculty, John Marenbon. The full version is here. But let me just highlight the first paragraph and a half: Read more

What is the cure for anti-Americanism in Europe? I have always thought that there is a one-word answer to that question – China.

And so it has come to pass. The FT-Harris poll released this week shows that a narrow majority of Europeans now regard China as the biggest threat to global stability – ahead of the United States. Of course, these kind of polls always reflect recent events. So the news out of Tibet – and, to a lesser extent, Darfur – will have hurt China’s image. Meanwhile the decline in coverage of the Iraq war – and the fact that the Bush administration is winding down – will help the US. Read more

Three more books arrived today. I shouldn’t let this get me down. Obviously, in many ways it’s a very nice aspect of my job that I keep being sent interesting new books – for free. But the pile of unread tomes on my desk is a bit lowering.

One of the British Sunday papers has a quiz that includes the question “what percentage of the books on your shelves have you actually read?” My answer has always been – “about 50%” – and even that is probably charitable. But with new books arriving all the time, my hit rate is going down fast.

The three that arrived today are “Fidel Castro, My Life” (Penguin) by – well – Fidel Castro; “The Powers to Lead”  (Oxford) by Joseph Nye – he of “soft power” fame. And “In Sickness and in Power” (Methuen) – a tome by David Owen, a former British foreign secretary and doctor, about people who fell ill when in power. I have put all three on the pile and I look at them occasionally – and they look back at me, reproachfully. Read more

In Winston Churchill’s memoirs, he records a meeting with Stalin in October 1944: “The moment was apt for business, so I said ‘Let us settle our affairs in the Balkans… So far as Britain and Russia are concerned, how would it do for you to have 90 per cent predominance in Romania, for us to have 90 per cent of the say in Greece and go 50-50 about Yugoslavia?’ While this was being translated, I wrote out the percentages on a half-sheet of paper. I pushed this across to Stalin… There was a slight pause. Then he took his blue pencil and made a large tick upon it, and passed it back to us. It was all settled in no more time than it takes to set down.” Read more

I am delighted by this comment from “Paskalis” (a relative newcomer to the blog). So much so that I am lifting it out of the comments section on the Georgia post and giving it its very own entry.

I feel it would serve as an excellent epitaph for me. If there is not enough room on my tombstone for the entire comment, then I would accept just the second sentence: Read more

Boris Johnson is not an easy man to confront. On the eve of London’s mayoral elections we met in the coffee shop of a Marriott Hotel, just along the corridor from his campaign headquarters in County Hall. Johnson bustled in and ordered a cup of tea. He was his usual disarming, dishevelled self. But it was my task to ignore all that – and to tell him that many of his friends greet the idea of Mayor Johnson with a mixture of hilarity and horror. “They all like you,” I said wheedlingly, “but they all kind of laugh at the idea of you as mayor … They say you are incredibly disorganised.”

Johnson looked a little pained at this, and took the only line open to him – stout denial. “I think I’m extremely well organised and always have been – and achieve a fantastic amount. I work harder than almost anybody else I know. And I take these criticisms in the loving spirit with which I’m sure they’re meant.” Read more

I am just back from Tbilisi in Georgia, where I received this unorthodox welcome from a Tbilisi-based academic. “You have heard of the end of the earth. Well this is it. We are the last outpost of western civilisation.” This is not the normal Georgian line. The usual spin is that Georgia is a central part of the west – and always has been – apart from unfortunate periods on invasion by Mongol hordes (Tamburlaine passed through on numerous occasions) – or incorporation into various incarnations of the Russian empire.

There is certainly no denying Georgia’s ancient Christian culture and its historic links to Europe. The question for the Georgians is whether all this history will help them achieve their dearest political and strategic wish – membership of Nato. Right now they are feeling a bit let down because they failed to get a “Membership Action Plan” at the recent Nato summit in Bucharest, although they did get a promise that they will be Nato members – some day. The Georgians think things are a bit more urgent than that, since the Russians are (according to them) rapidly consolidating their grip in the break-away Georgian territory of Abkhazia. Read more

If you had to define “globalisation” with an image, what would it be? A container ship from China stuffed with toys and T-shirts? A programmer tapping at a keyboard in Bangalore? A plane circling gloomily over Heathrow airport? Read more

In some ways I can sympathise with Thabo Mbeki’s reluctance to throw South Africa’s weight behind a campaign to shove Robert Mugabe out of power in Zimbabwe. The South Africans sometimes complain that the world should understand that Zimbabwe is not a colony of South Africa – which is true enough. Its also true – unfortunately – that there is considerable sympathy for Mugabe among black South Africans. Any South African politician has to take that into account.

But the South Africans should realise that they have a lot at stake in Zimbabwe – and I’m not just talking about the threat of refugee flows and chaos on their borders. Gordon Brown was probably too polite to put it this way when he met President Mbeki, but many people wonder whether – when they look at Zimbabwe – they are looking at a vision of South Africa in 30 years time. Zimbabwe looks like a vindication of every white racist prediction made at the time of independence, that African self-government would end in disaster. It is urgently in South Africa’s interests to help turn the country round. Read more

It was predictably depressing to see Robert Mugabe’s first televised reactions to the Zimbabwean election. We don’t cheat, he said – flapping his hands in a weirdly disjointed, faintly camp movement. But, as for the opposition, he shook his head sorrowfully, “lots of irregularities”.

I often wonder, on such occasions, what is really going on inside the head of a dictator like Mugabe. This, after all, is the man who has terrorised opposition politicians and merrily rigged elections for years. Is he just utterly cynical; or does he, at some level, believe what he is saying?

If he were purely cynical, I suppose his internal voice would be saying something like:  “Sure, I used to be a freedom fighter. But now I’m rich and powerful, and I have way too much to lose by stepping down from power. So I’ll do whatever it takes – including murder – to stay in power. And who cares what happens to the country, it’s all about me now.”

That, actually, is what I think it does basically come down to: personal enrichment, personal survival, personal pride – and screw the country. Read more

Bertie Ahern, who has just resigned as Irish prime minister, is a Dubliner with the common touch. Taxi drivers in Dublin liked to point out his relatively modest house and the suburban pub in which he allegedly drank. Bertie’s outward modesty contrasted with the high-living of his political mentor, former pm, Charlie Haughey. But the apparent end of his political career is very reminiscent of Haughey. Both men were ultimately laid low by official tribunals investigating their finances and unexplained payments they had recieved.  Ahern must now wince at Haughey’s (admiring) description of him as “the most devious, the most cunning of them all.”

All of that makes Ahern sound like a very traditional Irish politician and prime minister. But watching Bertie operate in Europe over the past decade, it struck me that he represented a new Ireland. He was prime minister during the period in which Irish GDP-per-capita overtook that of Britain. And he dealt with the British and with other European leaders with complete confidence in who he was – and in the country he represented. That enabled him to form an excellent working relationship with Tony Blair – which was crucial in bringing peace to Northern Ireland. Ahern’s experience and patience as a negotiator was then used to good effect in Europe – where he successfully concluded negotiations on the European Union constitution: an achievement that had eluded Silvio Berlusconi of Italy. Read more

The Olympic torch’s journey to the Beijing Olympics is threatening to turn from triumphal progress into marathon humiliation. Protesters are rushing like moths to the Olympic flame. Read more