Monthly Archives: December 2012


American policy-makers sometimes lack creativity. That, at least, is the sense one gets from the latest move on Syria — the blacklisting of rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra as an alias of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

There is no doubt that the group has established itself as the jihadi front in Syria and that, if left unchecked after the fall of the Assad regime, it would become a threatening al-Qaeda franchise in the Levant that also bolstered its Iraqi affiliate.

“Al-Nusra has sought to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition while it is, in fact, an attempt by AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq) to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes,” US state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.

Memories of the blowback from Afghanistan are still fresh in the minds of American officials. Back in the 1980s, the US and Saudi Arabia backed the Mujahideen’s fight against the Soviet Union and, along the way, sowed the seeds of what became Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist organisation. No one wants to repeat the same mistake. Read more

South Korean students in Seoul sit a test (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty)

South Korean students in Seoul (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty)

A novelty that has emerged since the mid-1990s is the international standardised test solely designed to measure how good national school systems are – not individual schools nor their pupils. Today, two of the three big tests issued results.

The tests, TIMSS and PIRLS, measure basic learning skills and primary school performance respectively. (The third big test, the OECD’s PISA test, comes out next December. It measures higher order skills among 15 year-olds.)

The educational divide in the US is always startling: on the TIMSS maths test for teenagers, Alabama’s test scores put them in line with Armenia and behind Dubai. Meanwhile, Massachusetts comes in at around the same level as market-leader Japan.

These tests confirm the crowd of top performers: Korea, the Chinese cities and Singapore always do well. Not even Finland and Ontario, western school-reform pin-ups, have the degree of consistency that the Asian education superpowers do.

This will spark hand-wringing about school performance, but it is important to note the role of culture. As a really simple experiment to show this, we can look at how Chinese children in England do in their GCSE exams at the age of 16. Read more

David Cameron at a Syrian refugee camp (Getty)

David Cameron has long been anguished by the unwillingness of the west to do anything about the civil war in Syria. Ever since he became prime minister there has been a strong humanitarian instinct to his foreign policy. In 2011, he joined forces with Nicolas Sarkozy, then the French president, to push the case for western military intervention in Libya to stop the Gaddafi regime’s assault on Benghazi. Over the last 20 months, he has expressed even deeper concern over Syria, where civil war has led to 40,000 deaths. As he said in a speech to the UN General Assembly in September, the blood of young children in Syria is a “terrible stain” on the UN’s reputation.

Mr Cameron’s agony over Syria is sincere, a product of the anguish that the Conservative party went through over its failure to act on the humanitarian crisis in Bosnia in the 1990s. That said, British military planning on Syria over the last 20 months has not shifted one jot. Read more

Georgia's former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili arrives for questioning at an Interior Ministry building on December 7 (IRAKLI GEDENIDZE/AFP/Getty Images)

Former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili arrives for questioning on December 7 (IRAKLI GEDENIDZE/AFP/Getty)

A spate of arrests and investigations of members of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s party since the October election victory of billionaire premier Bidzina Ivanishvili is causing a headache for western officials over how to respond.

On the face of it, the legal campaign seems to follow the typical winner-take-all logic of elections in post-Soviet states. It looks similar to how Mr Saakashvili’s government treated former associates of his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze. It also looks rather like the Ukrainian authorities’ pursuit under president Viktor Yanukovich of former premier Yulia Tymoshenko and her allies. Read more

By Gideon Rachman

What is worse? Locking somebody up for years, without trial, while you try to find proof he is a terrorist? Or killing somebody whose name you don’t even know because his pattern of behaviour suggests to you that he is a terrorist? The first strategy, internment without trial at the Guantánamo Bay prison camp, was a signature policy of the George W. Bush administration. The use of drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists has become a trademark of the Obama administration. Yet while Guantánamo attracted worldwide condemnation, the use of drones is much less discussed.

2013 may well be the year that biology trumps ideology – if not in attitudes to global warming then in the increasing actuarial possibilities that both Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez will soon die, writes JP Rathbone.  Read more

The climate change talks in Doha have come to a predictably acrimonious conclusion. As well as the baffling technical, economic and scientific challenges involved, the diplomatic deadlock throws up a fascinating question of political philosophy – do the citizens of one country have responsibilities to people in other parts of the world? If so, what are they? Internationalists might respond that we should have equal obligations to all human-beings. But, as a matter of fact, that is not how practical politics or human emotions work. Most people are willing to do much more for the people who are closest to them: family and neighbours. They also usually feel more willing to help compatriots than people on the other side of the world. They might, however, feel some obligation, or desire, to help people in far-off places. But how far do those obligations stretch?

Those questions lie at the heart of a fascinating new academic enterprise, pioneered by Hakan Altinay, a Turkish academic. I come across a lot of schemes to improve the world. But Altinay’s efforts to promote the idea of a “global civics” is one do-gooding idea that might actually really do some good. Read more

Much to Moscow’s anger, the Senate passed the Magnitsky bill on Thursday, which places visa bans and assets freezes on a group of Russian officials accused of contributing to the death of whistleblowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

The law is part of a broader piece of legislation that normalises trade relations with Russia following its entry to the World Trade Organisation this summer. The Magnitsky bill has attracted huge attention because of the gruesome back-story that propelled it and because of the friction it has caused between Moscow and Washington. But there are two further important things to note about the bill. Read more

Since the start of this month, there has been a spate of stories in the western media about the possibility that the Assad regime is about to use chemical weapons against rebel forces in Syria. The stories – most of which have been briefed by US intelligence officials to the American print and broadcast media – have been alarming. As the Assad regime comes under increasing pressure, there are fears that it might use some of its stocks of sarin in a last-ditch demonstration that it is determined to hang onto power. The Obama administration has again asserted that it would see the use of such weapons as the crossing of a red line that triggers US intervention in the conflict.

Anyone trying to bring together the steady stream of news stories on this issue is left with a somewhat murky picture. Some have suggested that the military has loaded chemical weapons into bombs and is awaiting the order from the regime to drop them on rebel groups.

Others have suggested that the precursors for sarin gas have been mixed and could be ready for use.

There is also one report that goes in the other direction and suggests the fears of US intelligence have eased.

What are we to make of it all ? The fact that Syria possesses chemical – and possibly biological – weapons is not in doubt. After years of obfuscation, the regime admitted to having chemical weapons stocks last summer. Most academic opinion is in no doubt that Syria possesses one of the largest arsenals in the world, one that was developed as a strategic deterrent against Israel. Read more

What’s holding up a European banking union?
When European leaders resolved to finally solve the eurozone crisis, they swore that that a banking union would be a crucial part of the solution and that agreement would be in place by the end of this year. But with the latest negotiations bogged down, what’s happened and does it pose a threat to financial stability in Europe? Patrick Jenkins, banking editor, and Alex Barker, Brussels correspondent, join Gideon Rachman to discuss.

Alan Simpson (left) and Erskine Bowles Getty Images

If there is one thing at which Washington does not excel (an admittedly rich menu), it is self-deprecation. The city operates to a kind of Gresham’s Law in which self-importance drives out whatever humour is to be found. Which makes the latest intervention from Alan Simpson, the co-keeper of the nation’s fiscal conscience, along with Erskine Bowles, all the more enjoyable. At 81, the former Republican senator has made his fair share of gaffes – not least his remark in 2010 about the “lesser people” who rely on Social Security. He added: “We’ve reached a point now where it’s like a milk cow with 310m tits.” He never really apologised.

With just three weeks to go before the US arrives at a deeply sobering fiscal cliff, Mr Simpson has developed a better line in humour since then. Last week, Mr Simpson said that he hoped that Grover Norquist, the keeper of the Republican anti-tax conscience, would “slip into” the same bathtub in which he famously wants to drown government. Then on Wednesday, Mr Simpson descended into the idiom of the lesser people – or at least the younger ones – with the releases of a “Gangam-style” video exhorting viewers to take to the social networks and campaign against the fiscal cliff . Read more

Missing: Jihad Makdissi (Getty)

Every defection, or assumed defection, from the Syrian regime heartens its opponents and gives fresh impetus to the “this is a big blow to Bashar al-Assad” comments from western capitals desperate for a collapse of the government – and desperate not to be forced into military intervention to get rid of it.

But defections often come with a measure of disinformation, which is designed to protect the official or general until he or she is in safe hands and properly debriefed by whichever intelligence service assisted him. Families back home also have to be protected because there is no limit to the cruelty that could be inflicted on relatives of a defector.

So it is no surprise that the whereabouts of Jihad Makdissi, the suave, English-speaking mouthpiece of the foreign ministry, are still a mystery two days after the first report of his departure from Damascus emerged. Read more


Cars and trucks are stuck in a traffic jam during a snowfall in Moscow on December 4, 2012. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Traffic jam in Moscow on December 4 (Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)

Russia has two main problems, according to an old 19th century joke: “dorogi i duraki”, or “roads and idiots”.

Over the weekend, many Russian motorists travelling between Moscow and St Petersburg were reminded of this saying, which even made a brief debut as a twitter meme “дураки + дороги” after the first snowfall of the year caused a 160km traffic jam on a highway between the two cities.

Finger-pointing in the wake of the snarl-up predictably pitted the “roads” versus the “idiots”, even as government emergency workers toiled frantically to clear new congestion on Tuesday following a fresh snowfall.

It was the drivers’ fault, claimed Andrei Kosinov, the head of the road service agency from the province of Tver, where the worst of the traffic jam occurred.

“This is mainly the result of uneducated drivers who are always hurrying somewhere, overtaking each other in the opposite lane, and so on… If there was a normal culture of driving, then these problems would not have occurred,” he said. Read more