Monthly Archives: April 2009

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. Read more

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.

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“The British people had given up on socialism. The 30-year experiment had plainly failed – and they were ready to try something else.” Read more

suffering in Sri Lanka

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. Read more

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. Read more

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. Read more

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. Read more

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. Read more

Ingram Pinn illustration

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. Read more

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. Read more

I interrupt my holiday briefly to note that the last two national leaders that I have interviewed for lunch with the FT – Abhisit Vejjajiva, the prime minister of Thailand and Mikheil Saakashvili, the president of Georgia – are facing similar sorts of problems this weekend: mass demonstrations in Thailand and Georgia, aimed at levering them out of power. The abandonment of the Asean summit in the Thai resort of Pattaya – after the breakdown of security there – is a deep humiliation for the Thai government

 I interviewed Abhisit last January and Saakashvili about a year ago. Could I have inadvertently put a curse on them both?

Then again, there are more profound connections between the two crises. Both leaders are western-educated economic liberals who have been hailed abroad as champions of democracy. But both are now having their democratic credentials seriously questioned at home, and are threatened by popular uprisings. Both are desperate to stop the demonstrations against them, but also to avoid a violent crackdown. Read more

It is the Easter break in Britain, and I am about to go on holiday. My column will appear in the paper next Tuesday and will be re-published on the blog. Also, if war breaks out, I will make my way to the nearest internet cafe and post something.  Otherwise, I intend to fall silent for a week.

But I would like to leave you all, with a parting question. Lots of observers – including me – have been predicting that this economic crisis will have serious geo-political consequences. Niall Ferguson has written of an “axis of upheaval“. Harold James has predicted a reversal of globalisation. One of the prime ministers passing through London last week, told us that a political crisis would soon follow the financial crisis. Read more

What do Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan all have in common? Absent fathers.

I hadn’t realised that this was true of Reagan until I came across this passage in Sean Wilentz’s book on “The Age of Reagan”. He notes that Reagan’s father, Jack, was an alcoholic who played very little part in his son’s upbringing. Wilentz writes – “Many children of alcoholics are said to have trouble separating illusion from reality. Whether or not this was true of Reagan, he did have a proven propensity to …conflate the two.” He also, of course, learned to be charming and grew up with a burning ambition that took him to the White House.

As Obama makes clear in his autobiography – “Dreams From My Father” – the absence of his Kenyan father was central to his own search of identity.

As for Bill Clinton, his biological father was killed before he was even born. And his step-father, Roger Clinton was an alcoholic. In an interview with CBS, Clinton reflected: “I think the fact that I was born without a father, and that I spent a lifetime trying to put together a picture of one also had a lot to do with how I turned out.” Read more


And so it was that Barack Hussein Obama visited Europe. In London, he rescued the world economy. In Strasbourg, he healed the Nato alliance. In Prague, he rid the world of nuclear weapons. In Ankara, he reconciled Islam and the west. And on the seventh day, he got back on to Air Force One and disappeared into a cloudless sky. Read more

Somebody seems to have forgotten to tell the Turkish parliament that it is traditional to greet speeches by Barack Obama with regular standing ovations and whoops of approval. It was rather strange and unsettling to listen to an Obama speech today that was not interrupted in this way. It forced you actually to listen to what he was saying.

Of course, there were a few rounds of applause punctuating the speech. Obama got clapped for using a Turkish word, for mentioning some successful Turkish basketball players, for condemning the PKK as terrorists and for asserting that -”the US is not and never will be at war with Islam.”

The passage of his speech on the Armenian issue was greeted with studious silence. But given that Obama has, in the past, called for official US recogntion of the massacres of 1915 as genocide this was probably about as good as he could have hoped for. I wouldn’t have been surprised if there had been some walk-outs. As it is, Obama is obviously trying to edge away from a committment on the genocide issue that was convenient during the election (there is a powerful Armenian lobby in the US), but that is distinctly inconvenient now. He has got the cover he needs because Turkey and Armenia are, in fact, edging closer towards reconciliation. That allowed him to avoid using the g-word in his address to the Turkish parliament and to speak, in generalised terms, about the virtues of countries coming to terms with their past. Read more

This is Nato’s 60th anniversary and the alliance is engaged in a proper war in Afghanistan. So you might expect the mood here in Strasbourg to be a mixture of the sombre and the celebratory. Instead, diplomats and bureaucrats are fussing about their usual concerns – protocol and security.

Nato officials are aghast that their secretary-general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, has had to beg for an invite to tonight’s official banquet. Apparently the French originally intended to exclude him, arguing that the meeting should be heads-of-state only. Scheffer had to jump through all sorts of humiliating hoops to make it to his own organisation’s birthday party. Also Carla Bruni has been a bit lazy about looking after her fellow spouses. By tradition, since the summit is taking place in France, Mrs Sarko should have acted as chief animatrice. But Nato people claim that that she has barely lifted a finger.

The most interesting story is the controversy over who is likely to be the next Nato secretary-general. Apparently it may not, after all, be Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish PM. The Turkish opposition to him is real, because he was prime minister at the time of the Danish cartoons row. Nato officials first reaction was that the Turks might not be being serious; or that they were just being awkward and could be talked round. But that thinking is changing. One senior official whispers that the Turks might have a point after all. Denmark’s embassy in Pakistan was burnt to the ground during the cartoons’ row – and Rasmussen was attacked for allegedly haughty behaviour. With Nato so heavily involved in that part of the world, people are beginning to think he might not be the most tactful appointment.

Some might regard that line of reasoning as cowardly, others would see it as pragmatic. Whatever, the search is on for new candidates. Jonas Store, the Norwegian foreign minister, is the new name doing the rounds. Read more

It is tempting to blame all the demos and violence in the streets of London on the economic crisis. But I think that would be a misreading. The fact is that the British – and many other Europeans – have long enjoyed a good riot. The thing that needs explaining is why we haven’t had much social disorder since the turn of the century, not why it has returned now.

When I was growing up in London we had the Notting Hill riots in the 1970s, the Brixton riots in the early 1980s, riots in Liverpool, all the disorder linked to the miners’ strike, the Poll Tax riots at the end of the Thatcher era. If you want to go a lot further back, you could mention the Gordon Riots in 1780; the Chartist riots in the mid-nineteenth century.

And that’s just Britain. Obviously, the French have an even livelier tradition of social disorder and street riots. And just before 9/11, it began to look as if no meeting of European leaders would be complete without being set against a background of anarchist demonstrations. In July 2001, I went to an EU summit in Gothenburg where most of the city seemed to have been trashed by the “black blocs” of assorted European anarchists. Read more

The Financial Times building is a good vantage point for watching the goings-on at the G-20 summit. The Excel centre, where the summit will take place, is just a few tube stops away. As I write the “anti-capitalist” demonstrators are gathering near London Bridge – I can hear the sirens and the hovering helicopters through the windows. A procession of world leaders and summit participants have been trooping through the building, giving on-the-record interviews or off-the-record briefings.

Listening to three of the people who will be sitting around the table at the summit tomorrow, I was struck that maybe the leaders are arguing about the wrong issues. At the moment, the big controversies are about regulation and fiscal stimuli. But the three leaders I am referring to made the same point: this crisis is not going to end, until the banks have been cleaned up. As one of them argued, until the banks balance-sheets are cleaned up, more government money is just “pouring money into a bucket with a hole in it.” Read more