Daily Archives: May 1, 2013

The debate over intervention in Syria
The death toll in Syria is now estimated at a horrifying 70,000, and the pressure on the United States to intervene is mounting, particularly with the suggestion that the Syrian government may have used chemical weapons. Geoff Dyer in Washington and Abigail Fielding-Smith in Beirut join Gideon Rachman to discuss where the debate over Western intervention in Syria stands.

Gideon Rachman

(Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty)

(Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty)

About ten years ago I visited Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux. Paul Pontallier, the chief winemaker there, told me that prices for the most sought-after red Bordeauxs had already reached such stratospheric levels that it had become almost embarrassing. “My friends can’t afford to buy Margaux,” he lamented. Since then, it’s got even worse. Now it seems that even the president of France cannot afford to drink the top clarets. The Elysée has just announced that it will sell off about 10% of the presidential wine collection – and restock the cellars with cheaper wines.

It is an understandable decision. I don’t know if there will be any Margaux sold at auction, but I see that a bottle of Margaux 2000 now goes for about £700 (€825). The auction will also apparently include some Petrus 1990, which the FT this morning reckoned would go for €2,200 a bottle. (Actually my research suggests that would be a bargain and that the market price is now closer to €3,000).

But it is important that the restocking exercise should be carried out carefully. That is because a stellar cellar can be a genuine diplomatic asset. There are diplomats who attribute Britain’s success, in persuading France to make the fatal decision to reverse its opposition to British membership of the European Economic Community (now the EU), back in the 1970s, to the magnificence of the wines that Sir Christopher Soames – the then British ambassador to Paris – poured down the throats of key French decision-makers. Read more

Another runner in the Great Tax Race: Susana Martinez, governor of New Mexico, hopes that recently approved cuts to corporate tax rates will help diversify its economy – following on from a tax incentive measure for the film industry designed to attract more television productions like Breaking Bad.
♦ As the Syrian state pulls back, necessity has forced rebel fighting brigades to take on the role of governing the towns and villages across rural northern Syria.
♦ Chile is embroiled in an embarrassing statistical scandal, casting a cloud over Sebastián Piñera’s final months in office. It seems analysts were right to question how he kept inflation at just 1.5 per cent despite growth of 5.6 per cent.
♦ The US seems to be headed for a manufacturing renaissance.
♦ Since the revolution, Cairo residents have turned to do-it-yourself infrastructure as they grapple with getting about from day to day. The New York Times has photographed the boom in illegal construction.
♦ The New York Times has also profiled Sohel Rana, the most hated man in Bangladesh: “He traveled by motorcycle, as untouchable as a mafia don, trailed by his own biker gang.”
♦ IBM has created the world’s smallest film by manipulating single atoms on a copper surface.
♦ Cash is still king in China, where home buyers make payments in trunks filled with cash and monthly salaries are delivered in armoured cars.
 Read more

James Blitz

(CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images)

(CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images)

President François Hollande this week published France’s long awaited strategic defence review, setting out what the French armed forces should be aiming to do in the years ahead. The publication of the document – called the “livre blanc” or “white book” – was an important moment for those following European defence.

In recent years, the US has become increasingly concerned that European states are cutting back on defence spending, leaving the US to do more and more of the heavy lifting in Nato. In 2010, Britain, the biggest defence spender in Europe, slashed expenditure by eight per cent in real terms. The big question was whether France was about to do the same.

The good news for France’s allies is that it isn’t taking what might be called the “Cameron approach.” According to Camille Grand, director of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, France did debate whether to slash defence spending by 10 per cent. “But the French finance ministry lost that argument, much to relief of the service chiefs,” he says. Read more

The “exclusive” footage by SABC, South Africa’s state broadcaster, was rich in content as the country’s top leaders chuckled to the background of clicking and flashing cameras.

There was President Jacob Zuma, his shirt undone at the neck, looking relaxed and carefree. His deputy in the ruling African National Congress, Cyril Ramaphosa, appeared equally jovial and casual.

But there was one major problem – the centrepiece of the clip, Nelson Mandela, looked anything but happy. Rather, the revered former liberation leader and South Africa’s first black president stared vacantly into the distance, frail and apparently unaware of the commotion around him.

The result was the unseemly spectacle of a bunch of politicians parading themselves around an old man lauded as a national treasure, causing a storm of outrage to erupt on social media.

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/Trevornoah/status/329190012258230273"]

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/amandathandile/status/329306594028441600"]

In response to the backlash, the ANC felt the need to explain itself in a statement the following day. Read more

By Richard McGregor in Washington

It is remarkable that Barack Obama, only months after a convincing re-election, seems to keep falling back on his self-professed powerlessness when pressed about his second-term agenda.

Be it on closing down Guantanamo Bay, ending the across-the-board budget cuts (known as sequestration), restricting firearms sales or bringing Obamacare into life, Mr Obama talks more about what he can’t get done than the other way round.

The president suffered the indignity at a Tuesday press conference of being asked if his second-term administration still had any “juice” left, joking in response that maybe he should “just pack up and go home”. Read more