British combat operations in Iraq came to a formal end today. “Iraq is a success story”, proclaimed Gordon Brown, our prime minister.
But is it? There is an ominous increase in terrorism in Baghdad. I was shocked to read in this morning’s paper that three car bombs had gone off in Baghdad, killing 41 people (the death toll is now over 50). This was shocking both because of the news itself, and because it merited no more than a “news in brief”. That reminded me of the dark days when violence in Iraq was so widespread that it barely merited comment. Are we getting back to that? Earlier this week, there was another spate of car bombings that killed over 80 people.
Stephen Walt, the Harvard academic, has blogged about his ten favourite political films. It is a great idea, and I thoroughly approve of his top two choices: Dr. Strangelove and Casablanca. But overall, I think his list is a bit disappointing. And – as a couple of the commenters on his site point out – all the films he lists are American, which is a bit odd for a professor of international relations.
“The British people had given up on socialism. The 30-year experiment had plainly failed – and they were ready to try something else.”
It is remarkable how little attention the war in Sri Lanka is getting. Londoners are probably dimly aware that something is going on, because of the big Tamil demonstrations that have been taking place outside Parliament. The serious papers, like the FT, are running reports on the inside pages.
In late 2004, when it was already clear that the Iraq war was going badly wrong, I got talking to a European official who had just visited the White House, and held meetings with Condi Rice and Dick Cheney. “Were they panicking?”, I asked. “These are not people who panic,” he replied gravely.
I wouldn’t have put Hillary Clinton down as a panicker, either. But her Congressional testimony on Pakistan yesterday sounded distinctly alarmed. Pakistan, she said, now faces an “existential threat” from Islamist militancy and the Pakistani government has “basically abdicated to the Taliban and the extremists.” This was positively cheery compared to the committee chairman, Howard Berman, who claimed that “Pakistan could collapse in as little as six months.” I was planning my next visit to the country for October, so it sounds like I’ll be just in time.
But is all this alarm really justified? Jason Burke of The Observer once pointed out to me that people have been predicting the imminent demise of Pakistan for years – but it hasn’t happened yet. I used to take some comfort from the fact that the hardline Islamist parties generally do pretty badly in the elections.
Last time I was in Beijing, I met a reporter from a newspaper called the “Global Times”, which deals mainly with international affairs. The reporter said, slightly defensively, that “people say my newspaper is very nationalist, but that is not really true.” This made me suspect that it probably was true.
Now we can all judge for ourselves. This week, the “Global Times” launched an English-language edition and web-site. Those on the look-out for signs of a more assertive China might be struck by the fact that the lead story is – “China’s navy sails onto world stage”. The peg is that the “Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy” (PLAN) is staging some exercises to celebrate its sixtieth anniversary this week. The accompanying article told me some things I should have known, but didn’t: China and Britain staged joint naval exercises in 1997; there are Chinese ships taking part in the anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. There is no sabre-rattling – and no mention of Chinese plans to build new aircraft carriers.
In retrospect, it is pretty clear that the UN anti-racism summit was an accident waiting to happen. And so it has proved. About an hour ago, there was a walk-out by European delegates – after President Ahmadinejad of Iran unleashed his usual anti-Israel rant. The Americans and Canadians would doubtless have walked out as well – but they were already boycotting the conference.
The UN Human Rights Council, which is running the conference in Geneva, was meant to be a marked improvement on its predecessor, the UN Commission on Human Rights. That had been widely condemned in the west for focussing obsessively on Israel – while studiously avoiding the discussion of human-rights violations in places like Burma and Sudan. But the new council has fallen into the old trap. It was brought into being in 2006. By spring 2007 it had passed eight resolutions condemning Israel – but none that specifically targeted other countries.
The prestige of the economics profession is meant to be at a low ebb at the moment. But prominent academic economists are still regularly recruited for the very top positions in the American government – Ben Bernanke is at the Federal Reserve, Larry Summers is co-ordinating economic policy from the White House.
By contrast, it is no longer fashionable to pick political scientists for the top positions making US foreign policy. The days when Henry Kissinger could go directly from Harvard to a job as the director of the National Security Council seem long gone. Some blame this on anti-intellectualism in American life. But there are also eminent professors who see the fault as lying within the groves of academe themselves. Joe Nye, former head of the Kennedy school at Harvard, has just published a piece bemoaning the irrelevance of much political science to practical policymaking. Steve Walt, another Harvard professor, backs him up – arguing that academics who pursue real-world issues are even penalised and looked down upon.
To a certain extent, Walt and Nye are living refutations of their own thesis. Nye served in a high position in the Pentagon during the Clinton administration and is tipped for an ambassadorship under Obama. Walt has influenced the policy debate with his co-authored book on the “Israel Lobby”.
Still, I know what they mean. I can still remember my shock and confusion when I first sampled a political science course at Princeton. I was used to the empirical, rather literary style of political analysis that is taught if you take a history degree in Britain. But I now found myself confronted with a world, dominated by abstract models and obsessed with number-crunching. I looked at something called the “Journal of Conflict Resolution” and found articles about real-world political problems which seemed just to be a mass of quadratic equations. It is hard to believe that anybody actually trying to resolve a conflict would find this kind of stuff useful, or relevant.
The Darul Aman palace is a huge neo-classical pile with hundreds of rooms, set against the backdrop of the snowy mountains that surround Kabul. From a distance, it is an imposing sight. Unfortunately, as I discovered when I visited a few weeks ago, it is also a ruin. The palace was all but destroyed in the Afghan civil war of the 1990s.
Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Thai prime minister, claims that the Bangkok demonstrations are now under control. Maybe – but whatever happens on the streets over the next few days, I think the only plausible way out of this crisis is to hold fresh elections.
Of course, that is hardly a risk-free option. In the current climate, the elections are quite likely to be a violent affair. And given that Thailand’s “reds” and “yellows” clearly do not accept each other’s legitimacy, it’s not obvious that the elections would spell the end of the political crisis. All the same, I think Abhisit has to look for a new mandate. His legitimacy has been badly tarnished by the fact that he was voted in only by parliamentary vote, after the mass “yellow” demos of late last year.