Monthly Archives: May 2008

I’m afraid that newspaper columnists are incorrigible show-offs. As a species, we are constantly trying to draw attention to ourselves. So I have to hand it to my colleague, George Monbiot, of The Guardian. I thought I might attract a little attention by writing a scathing review of John Bolton’s book. It never occurred to me to actually try and arrest the guy. (Yes, I know that’s a split infinitive – I feel reckless today.)

But this is what George has done at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival. Admittedly, it was a fairly ineffectual attempt at a citizens’s arrest. But the underlying issue is interesting. Monbiot claims to be in possession of a fat dossier on Bolton – and argues that the former UN ambassador is a war criminal. But I’m with Foreign Policy magazine when it argues that the grounds for arresting Bolton under international law are flimsy, at best. I don’t think that being in a possession of an offensive moustache is enough to take you to the Hague.

I find both Bolton and Monbiot puzzling in different ways. Why – for example – does Bolton spend so much time in Britain, when he professes to despise the place? It can’t be the money – the speaker fees are much fatter on the other side of the Atlantic.

As for Monbiot – the question that interests me is, is he a stunt man and publicity-seeking shyster or a sincere person, who is genuinely trying to improve the world? I fear that the answer is the latter. Read more

Pimm, Rachman, 27 May 2008

“Thrown under the bus” is becoming the phrase of the American presidential election. It describes the moment when a candidate disowns an embarrassing supporter or adviser. Read more

Russia won the Eurovision song contest over the weekend. I believe that this result has ominous implications for the future of the European Union – particularly with Ireland’s referendum on the Lisbon Treaty coming up on June 12th.

I’m not joking. Or at least, not entirely. Read more

I am just coming to the end of a week in Washington. Now that it seems pretty certain that the presidential race will be McCain v Obama, political gossip is turning to the second-order questions – who will be the vice-presidential candidates? Who will get the big cabinet jobs?

Barack Obama will be even less inclined to want Hillary Clinton on his ticket, after her tasteful suggestion that he might be assassinated – like Bobby Kennedy. The thought of having Bill hanging around the Obama White House is also not obviously attractive. Still, Hillary seems to want the job – and could yet force Obama’s hand. The Obama camp are desperate to unify the party and get on with battling McCain. What if Hillary threatened to take the fight all the way to the Democratic convention at the end of August – and even to make a speech there, arguing that Obama is unelectable and appealing to delegates to switch over to her camp?

And her price, for avoiding this nasty scenario? Why, the second spot on the ticket. Read more

For a while this felt like it was going to be a bad night for Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton won a huge victory in Kentucky – and the television pundits had hours to dwell gloomily on Obama’s failure there. But Kentucky was then offset by a big win for Obama in Oregon.

The fact that Obama chose to give his evening speech in Iowa – the site of his first crucial victory – had excited speculation that he was going to claim that the Democratic race was over. Instead he contented himself with the claim that he is”within reach of the Democratic nomination” – which is undeniable. Instead Obama chose to signal his inevitable victory by a change in tone and focus. He was magnanimous towards Hillary, in the manner of a victor. And he focused the most effective part of his speech on an attack on John McCain. Read more

“In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” Read more

I chaired a debate at the US embassy in London last night on the impact of the internet on the presidential election. It was surprisingly interesting. If you have a lot of time on your hands, you can watch it here.

One of the reasons I found the discussion interesting is that it convinced me that there is more to the subject than I had realised. I started fairly sceptical. I don’t think it’s very obvious that the internet has made this election qualitatively different from all other campaigns. Read more

Tensions between Russia and Georgia are heightening. In the latest development, the Russians have accused Georgian special forces of aiding anti-Russian insurgents. The Georgians meanwhile are outraged by the build-up of Russian forces in the separatist Georgian province of Abkhazia. They are now talking about a military response. And that would mean a shooting war with Russia – albeit, probably, quite a short one.

Specifically, the Georgians point to the downing of Georgian drones flying over Abkhazia, which is (after all) part of their country. They say that one of their drones was definitely shot down by a Russian Mig. They are threatening to shoot down the next Russian Mig to over-fly Georgian territory. And they say that they have tacitly been given the go-ahead by the Americans to do this. Read more

Robert Kagan fires back at me over the League of Democracies in today’s FT.

He purports to be baffled that I should waste my time writing about the league when there are other more urgent issues to discuss – Georgia, Burma etc…Actually, I’ve written about both of these subjects in the past – and I’m sure I will again. But I think Kagan is too modest. His idea of a League of Democracies is being pushed hard by John McCain, who has a strong chance of being the next US president. So it is surely worth discussing?

Reading Kagan’s commentary today, I’m struck by how much we agree on. (There are also disagreements, which I’ll get onto in a moment.)

Both our columns ended on the same point. This is obviously not an idea that the US can impose. If European and Asian democracies are not attracted to the League of Democracies, then nothing is going to happen. Kagan also makes much of the fact that the idea of an alliance of democracies has got a lot of support among American liberals. Again, this is a point I made – in fact we cite some of the same names.

So let’s get onto the more interesting stuff: the disagreements. I think the most obvious dispute is over whether this is a potentially “dangerous” idea. Read more

With the oil price heading upwards and President George W. Bush heading for Saudi Arabia, as part of a Middle Eastern tour, it is time to accept the truth. The pursuit of oil is fundamental to US foreign policy. Read more

Who are the world’s 100 leading public intellectuals? Woundingly, I do not appear on the list compiled by “Prospect” and “Foreign Policy” magazines. But at least I sit along the corridor from one of these great brains: Martin Wolf is on the list.

Prospect are now inviting readers to vote for a top five. In the interests of self-aggrandisement by association, I have decided only to vote for colleagues or former colleagues – so my five votes go to Martin, Niall Ferguson (FT columnist), Larry Summers (ditto), Christopher Hitchens (Sunday Correspondent) and Anne Applebaum (The Economist). This seems an appropriately infantile response to an infantile exercise. And anything that stops Noam Chomsky from winning again has to be worthwhile. Read more

Gideon on videoWe have a new conventional wisdom. Hillary is done for…again. The notion that Barack Obama has all but secured the Democratic nomination is hard to argue against.

For those of you who wish to see me discussing this in video format, here is the linkRead more

American presidents are meant to have big ideas about the world: a “new frontier”, an “alliance for progress”, a “war on terror”. Unfortunately for the Democratic party the big idea that most animates their two would-be presidents – Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton – seems to be mutually assured destruction. Read more

Viewed from the United States, there are three ways of looking at the rise of China and India: as an illusion, as a threat or as an opportunity. Fareed Zakaria is an optimist.

Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, came to the US as an 18-year-old student from India. But, in many ways, this is a very American book – both in its optimism and in its determination to leave the reader with useful lessons.

Much of the material in The Post-American World will be well known to anyone with a passing interest in international affairs: the stunning economic growth in Asia; the challenge to America’s post cold-war hegemony; the parallels between modern America and the British empire. Zakaria tells this story in a convincing and entertaining way. But it is familiar stuff.

The novel feature of Zakaria’s book is its effort to argue that “the rise of the rest” need not entail the decline of the US.

To illustrate his point, he draws an analogy with tennis. A generation ago, American players dominated the US Open. Now they have to share the prizes with players from other nations. This does not mean that Americans have suddenly got worse at tennis. It is just that others have learnt how to play the game. Read more

I went to a couple of meetings this week where the food crisis was discussed. At Chatham House on Monday John Holmes, the UN’s co-ordinator for emeregency relief, gave a careful and under-stated presentation -which was still alarming in its implications. He told me after the meeting that he thinks that we are still only at the beginning of the food crisis – and that prices and hunger are likely to keep rising for a while yet.

I’ve certainly noticed on my travels that food prices are now a big political issue in almost every country that I visit. I first noticed it on a trip to Pakistan and Bangladesh at the beginning of the year. In both countries, people told me that the biggest source of popular discontent were not the machinations of President Musharraf or the Bangladeshi interim government. It was the fact that the price of staple foods had gone up by as much as 40% over the last year. Read more

In case you haven’t been reading the papers, London has a new mayor. Boris Johnson has won. I thought that both Boris and Ken Livingstone gave unusually graceful speeches at the count last night. There was no triumphalism or buffoonery in Boris’s speech – and his tribute to Ken was generous and sounded genuine. Livingstone, for his part, avoided bitterness and accepted responsbility for his defeat – which was also generous, given that the more plausible explanation is that he was a victim of an anti-Labour rip-tide that is sweeping Britain.

The conventional explanation of Boris’s victory is that the voters are fed up. The economy is turning down, people are scared of crime and everybody in London is in a bit of gloom. This seems to me precisely wrong. Electing Boris is the act of a supremely confident city. You wouldn’t take a chance on a joker like him if you were actually worried about the future. Read more

This may be the laziest blog I have ever done. But I heartily recommend this splendid seven-minute video from Slate, summarising the Democratic presidential race so far.

And just to add a teensy bit of value of my own. I met a long-time Clinton adviser at an event in London today. His private take is that Obama has now locked up the nomination. Yes, the Reverend Wright stuff is incredibly damaging. But it’s too late to de-rail Obama now. He said that: “The Democratic elite decided a few weeks ago that Obama will be the nominee. And he will be. The trouble is that he can’t finish Clinton off. And that show’s he a weak candidate.” Read more