Monthly Archives: May 2013

One of the many alarming aspects of Syria in recent days – amid reports of ethno-sectarian cleansing and chemical weapons use – has been the brazen behaviour of two of the proxy warriors in the conflict: Hizbollah and Israel.

The Shia Islamist movement’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, almost boasted in a speech broadcast last week that his forces were helping to prop up Bashar al-Assad. Then, over the weekend, Israel’s air force blasted targets in Damascus that anonymous US and Israeli officials suggested were Iranian rockets destined for Hizbollah.

This accelerating spiral of proxy warfare – and these are but two of the actors driving it – is becoming a menace not just to a fast disintegrating Syria but to the region. Read more

Margaret Thatcher and Giulio Andreotti – they didn't always see eye to eye

Tuesday’s FT contained a wonderful obituary of Giulio Andreotti, a man who managed to be prime minister of Italy no fewer than seven times – as well as serving as foreign minister for much of the 1980s. Yet, as the FT obituary notes, Andreotti’s life ended in semi-disgrace, with the former PM preferring to to travel to “those parts of the world where he was still treated with respect: notably Libya, Syria and Iran.”

The Andreotti story is not simply an Italian curiosity. For the former Italian PM was also a pivotal figure in the construction of Europe and in the debates that led to the formation of the European single currency. As such, he crops up quite frequently in Margaret Thatcher‘s autobiography – in ways that cast a revealing light on today’s debates and dilemmas. Read more

♦Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s first black minister, is confronting the country’s culture of casual racism, but the success of her proposed legislation depends on her fellow parliamentarians – some of whom have not been entirely complimentary about her.
♦ China is pushing to water down the World Bank’s Doing Business report, showing its increased assertiveness at international bodies and its willingness to challenge liberal economic prescriptions.
♦ Growth in Indonesia has reached its slowest pace in two years, hit by the slowdown in China and India, but investors are still feeling confident.
♦ David Gardner argues that Israel’s latest attacks on Syria play right into Assad’s hands supporting conspiracy theories about a western-conceived attempt to destroy Syria.
♦ Somalia’s president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, calls for a Marshall plan to help his country recover from decades of poverty, civil war and terrorism.
♦ Roberto Azevêdo of Brazil and Herminio Blanco of Mexico are scrambling to secure last-minute votes in a tight race to become the next head of the troubled World Trade Organisation.
♦ Hollywood film-makers are going to great lengths to satisfy the whims of Chinese censors. However, appearances by Chinese actors in the Chinese version of Iron Man 3 have not been to everyone’s taste – “
One microblogger named Bumblebee Marz compared the new scenes to chicken ribs — a common expression denoting the most tasteless and undesirable cut of meat in Chinese cuisine.
♦ Dexter Filkins looks at the White House debate over Syria. According to Gary Samore, who was President Obama’s chief adviser on weapons of mass destruction until February,
“All the options are horrible”.
♦ Obama’s off-the-cuff remark about large quantities of chemical weapons crossing a “red line” have now put him into a bind, “his credibility at stake with frustratingly few good options.”
♦ Gabriel Kuris at Foreign Policy looks at how Latvia’s anti-corruption bureau managed to pass through reforms and take down oligarchs. Read more

One of the most popular iPad apps in Beijing at present is China Air Pollution Index. The app is both addictive and disturbing. When I checked into a Beijing hotel recently, I found that – even from the 40th floor – I couldn’t see further than one block because of the grey smog enveloping the city. So I checked the numbers and discovered that the AQ level, which measures fine particulates that are especially dangerous, was 250 – about five times the level deemed safe.

♦ The FT argues today that Apple’s decision to borrow money in order to fund a dividend, despite being one of America’s most liquid companies, indicates a need for reform to the US tax system.
♦ Despite impressive economic growth, improvements in living standards in Malaysia have lagged behind those of its neighbours, building pressure for change ahead of Sunday’s election.
♦ North African governments are trying to stem the flow of young Islamic militants, heading to Syria to fight the regime.
♦ President François Hollande is struggling to please everyone and, in fact, anyone – leading to concerns that France might become the next European problem child. After a draft paper by the president’s party described Angela Merkel as “selfish”, Mr Hollande has had to reassure her that he still believes in a Franco-German relationship.
♦ William Finnegan discusses his article on Mark Lyttle, a US citizen from North Carolina who was deported to Mexico despite ample evidence that he was an American, and the soaring number of deportations.
♦ Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has told the FBI that he and his brother considered suicide attacks on July 4, but instead decided to strike on Patriots’ day.
♦ Politics and vetting processes mean that Barack Obama has yet to fill some long-empty posts in his cabinet.
♦ Evangelical Christians in California have struck up a debate over whether yoga is a religion or not – where is the line between the body and the soul?
♦ SAYA, a Jerusalem-based design studio, is trying to provide a architectural resolutions to territorial disputes: “you can’t stop terror with just a fence. We need to imagine structures that can build hope instead of fear and resentment.”
♦ When Alex Christodoulou tried to quit his job for life in the Greek public sector, he found the process harder (and more labyrinthine) than he ever thought it could be, especially when the government had committed to taking thousands of workers off the public payroll. “They wanted to rehire him so that they could fire him and include him in the number of public servants being laid off to appease Greece’s international creditors”.
♦ In a review of The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future, Richard Lloyd Parry argues against the idea that North Korea is a “zombie nation”, but wonders if the idea that the country is in a state of “political undeath” doesn’t perhaps suit some other states.
 Read more

 Najib Razak, Malaysia's prime minister

Najib Razak, Reuters

In the New Straits Times, Malaysia’s solidly pro-government newspaper, a beaming prime minister Najib Razak is pictured in an advertisement. It lists a range of goodies he promises for the electorate if his ruling coalition is voted in at Sunday’s landmark general electionRead more

Irish President Michael D Higgins smiles during the official announcement of the Irish presidential election's results on October 29, 2011 (PETER MUHLY/AFP/Getty Images)

(Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty)

On Thursday morning, a small storm erupted in Ireland over an interview given by the president, Michael D. Higgins, to the FT’s Dublin correspondent, Jamie Smyth.

President Higgins, who is 72 years old, a published poet and a former government minister, argued that EU leaders needed to rethink their “hegemonic” response to the crisis.

“There is a real problem in what was assumed to be a single hegemonic model… The unemployment profile in Greece is different from the unemployment profile in Ireland. You need a pluralism of approaches… We have 26m people unemployed… There are 112m at risk of poverty, a contraction in investment and falling demand.”

Higgins’ remarks were quite frank for someone whose role is largely ceremonial. Some members of the public commenting on the Irish Times website praised his candidness: “He may be small in physical stature, but he is not averse to standing up to the heavyweights of the EU”, said one; another wrote: “THIS IS THE KIND OF PRESIDENT I HOPED FOR WHEN WE ELECTED MICHAEL D. HIGGINS!!!”.

Not everyone was positive. “By speaking out on matters which don’t concern his office, he is skirting dangerously close to creating a constitutional issue – and he does not have a mandate for that,” said ‘PaulFlynn’. When a Sinn Féin representative mentioned Higgins’ remarks in the lower house of parliament (the Dáil) later on Thursday, the parliamentary speaker immediately warned: “Don’t go there with regards to the President, we don’t discuss the President in Dáil Éireann.”  Read more

On its way out? A Trident submarine leaves Faslane naval base (Getty)

Does the US want Britain to renew its independent nuclear deterrent? The question is generating a certain amount of debate among security analysts on both sides of the Atlantic. Between now and 2016, the UK must take a decision on whether to spend £20bn building four new submarines to carry the Trident missile. David Cameron’s Conservatives are keenly committed to a like-for-like replacement, saying there can be no compromise with the UK’s ultimate security guarantee.

But there are a few discordant voices out there who are questioning whether it is really worth ploughing all this money into a renewed nuclear weapons capability when the UK is having to cut its conventional arsenal as much as it is. Would it not be better, ask some critics, if Britain shifted the billions of pounds of cash meant for Trident’s replacement and bought weapons it is far more likely to use and which will ensure it remains an effective ally of the US? Read more

Election campaign posters are pictured along a busy road ahead of Pakistan's general election on April 15, 2013 (FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images)

(FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images)

Pakistan is preparing for its first constitutional democratic handover since partition as it heads to the parliamentary polls on May 11.

The campaign period has been marred by outbursts of violence, especially attacks by the attacks by the Taliban on candidates, rallies and offices of the country’s smaller, secular and liberal parties.

What’s at stake?

There are 342 seats available. Voters elect 272 members on a first-past-the-post basis. The 70 remaining (60 reserved for women and ten for non-Muslim minorities) are allocated to parties on the basis of their showing in the contests for the directly elected seats.

The outcome of this election may also determine which way the wind will blow for President Asif Ali Zardari when his five-year term ends in September. Zardari is widely considered an ineffectual president who has nevertheless proved oddly effective at clinging to power. And although he was forced to step down as co-chair of the Pakistan People’s party, he is definitely considered to be its standard bearer.

Who are the runners and riders for the role of prime minister?

It really boils down to three key players.

The Favourite Nawaz Sharif, leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League, is a front runner.

Former Pakistani premier Nawaz Sharif attends a meeting of traders during his election campaign in Islamabad on May 1, 2013 (AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)

(Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty)

A force in Pakistani politics for some time, he was ousted during his second stint as PM by former General Pervez Musharraf in a military coup in 1999. A victory in the forthcoming election would herald a third return to power. But is this a Shinzo Abe-style comeback – or more of a Silvio Berlusconi?

The Economist charts a favourable track record that may hint at the former:

“In Lahore alone, a bus system set up last year was opened in January; officials nearly eradicated dengue in 2012; and Mr Sharif built a motorway to Islamabad, the capital, in the 1990s. Such tangible schemes are popular.”

 Read more

♦ Ireland’s head of state says the EU must drop its “hegemonic” economic model and reform the ECB, or risk social upheaval and a loss of popular legitimacy.
♦ The Great Tax Race series turns to Ireland, looking at how Ireland has remained attached to aggressive tax policies that favour businesses even as ordinary people have struggled to get by. (If you’re trying to get your head around how all of this even works, watch this handy explainer from Matt Steinglass)
♦ Richard McGregor thinks President Obama needs to circumvent Congress if he wants to get his agenda moving.
♦ Western clothing companies are scrambling to address public concerns over working conditions in Bangladesh – the Walt Disney Company ordered an end to the production of branded merchandise in the country before Rana Plaza collapsed. John Gapper today makes the argument against western companies withdrawing: “Despite everything, the industry provides better-paid jobs than the alternative – working on rural farms – and has helped to emancipate women.”
♦ Despite violence and corruption, Afghan entrepreneurs are still making opportunities for themselves.
♦ The Kremlin is putting pressure on VKontakte, a Russian Facebook clone, pushing CEO Pavel Durov to leave the country.
♦ Slate is publishing a series of excerpts from the memoirs of Mohamedou Oul Slahi who was a prisoner at Guantánamo for nearly 11 years.
♦ Mafia historian goes underground into the bunkers of the Ndrangheta, Europe’s biggest cocaine traffickers and Italy’s most powerful organised crime group.
 Read more

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.

(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

(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