Monday, November 29, 2004

Hydrogen and nuclear power

Far and away the biggest real world question on energy and environment centres on whether or not nuclear power has a role.

That may be an exaggeration. It may be plain wrong

But reported breakthrough in high temperature electrolysis looks likely to stoke that particular fire (see here).

Something to pay attention to tomorrow as I rapporteur a conference Brussels on climate change (at The Centre).

Multiverse wonders

As a relative dummy, I've greatly enjoyed re-reading by Max Tegmark's essay for Scientific American on parallel universes:

The scientific theories of parallel universes...form a four-level hierarchy, in which universes become progressively more different from ours. They might have different initial conditions (Level I); different physical constants and particles (Level II) or different phyical laws (Level IV). It is ironic that Level III [quantum many worlds] is the one that has drawn the most fire in the past decades, because it is the only one that adds no qualitatively new types of universes.

...Should you believe in parallel universes? The principal arguments against them are that they are wasteful and that they are weird. The first argument is that multiverse theories are vulnerable to Occam's razor because the postulate the existence of other worlds which we can never observe.

...But an entire ensemble is often much simpler than one of its members. (This principle can be stated more formally using the notion of algorithmic information content)...Similarly, the set of all solutions to Einstein's field equations is simpler than a specific solution.

...A common feature of all four multiverse levels is that the simplest and arguably most elegant theory involves parallel universes by default.

US "Moral Values"

"Moral values" is one of those semi-literate phrases, built on redundancy in case you just don't get it. It's like saying "empty vacuities". Values are morals, and vica versa. Putting that pedantic gripe aside, two pieces of note are George Lakoff's On Moral Values and Bruce Rich's The Great Indecency Hoax.

Lakoff writes:

If we [progressives] communicate our values clearly, most people will recognize them as their own, personally more authentic and more deeply American than those put forth by conservatives. At the very least they will see progressives as having deeply held, traditional American principles. This would be a huge step forward from the present state, in which conservatives are seen as having a monopoly on "values" and progressives are framed as the party of "if it feels good, do it," with no higher principles. (Our Moral Values, The Nation, 6 Dec)

Rich writes:

The mainstream press, itself in love with the "moral values" story line and traumatized by the visual exaggerations of the red-blue map, is too cowed to challenge the likes of the American Family Association. So are politicians of both parties. It took a British publication, The Economist, to point out that the percentage of American voters citing moral and ethical values as their prime concern is actually down from 2000 (35 percent) and 1996 (40 percent). (New York Times, 28 Nov)

Something’s clearly awry with American moral values. In an article that this time goes deeper than either Laskoff or Rich, Naomi Klein is at her best (which is all too unusual) when she writes:
Yes, that's right: letter-writers from across the nation are united in their outrage – not that the steely-eyed smoking soldier makes mass killing look cool, but that the laudable act of mass killing makes the grave crime of smoking look cool. (Kerry and the Gift of Impunity, The Nation 29 Nov) .

New elections in Ukraine

A little less than an hour ago, Reuters reported that Leonid Kuchma, the outgoing Ukrainian president, called for new elections.

Kuchma's statement is extremely positive," Reuters reports Frank Gill, emerging market strategist at IDEAglobal in London as saying. "It's an extraordinarily unexpected concession."

"The best activist in the Middle East"

"My plumber, the hero" is an outstanding piece by Daphne Baram (author of the important book Disenchantment: The Guardian and Israel):

The wrongs that you see there tear you apart," says Ezra [Ezra Nawi, the plumber]. "I was attached to this community from the moment I came in contact with it, living like people in biblical times, working the land with the most primitive tools. And all of a sudden, they are in existential danger, prosecuted, having their fields burned, their wells poisoned, their elderly beaten and their land taken away from them. You can't just walk away."

Aviad Albert, a veteran activist, says he has seen many people get obsessively involved with their voluntary work but Ezra is something else. "I'm telling you, he is the craziest, and therefore the best, activist in the Middle East."

Friday, November 26, 2004

Bastille stormed yesterday

In Tim Garton Ash’s piece, cited in previous post, "Good on Ukraine", Tim writes “State television stations are today's Bastilles”.

The BBC reports that Ukrainian TV stations have rebelled:

On Thursday, state-owned TV station UT1 rebelled against government control by announcing live on air that its news team was joining opposition protests.

Hours earlier the private, formerly pro-government channel One Plus One announced it would stop broadcasting "biased news".

It may mean pictures making plain the huge size of the opposition demonstrations will now reach the heartlands of Mr Yanukovych's support in the industrial east of the country, reports the BBC's World Media correspondent, Sebastian Usher.

Insurgents and Iraq's January election

What kind of progress or regress in relations between the Iraqi interim government and Iraqi insurgents?

In an interview on 22 Nov (published on openDemocracy on 25 Nov), Yahia Said said:

While trying to create a security environment to hold elections, the government is undermining the political environment that make elections possible.

In an interview also conducted on 22 Nov, consulting editor Bernard Gwertzman asked Anthony Cordesman of CSIS if he thought the Sunnis would participate in the January elections (see here). Cordesman said:

It is very unclear. The organized Sunnis have so far said they won't. But it is a long time, in terms of the dynamics of Iraq, between now and the end of January. The problem for any kind of boycott is that the boycott would mean, essentially, that Iraq's first National Assembly is Shiite and Kurdish, with whatever Sunnis they choose to include. That is a dangerous problem for the Sunnis unless they are absolutely confident that the insurgents can block a [Shiite electoral] victory. It makes it very hard to negotiate over the constitution, over power-sharing, and the sharing of oil revenues and money. That is not exactly the ideal strategy for any person unless it is someone who believes that somehow he can make the current insurgency the springboard to some type of lasting political and military victory.

[The whole interview is definitely worth reading as is Cordesman's longer paper published 23 Nov, Iraq - Playing the Course.]

The New York Times reports that on 25 November the Iraqi foreign minister that said the interim Iraqi government planned to meet soon in Jordan with rebel leaders to try to persuade them to take part in politics:

It is the first time the government had agreed to an official meeting with leaders of the insurgency. The minister, Hoshyar Zebari, did not give a date for the meeting or specify who would be invited (full article here).

Blogging from Shiraz to Shenzhen

Early on 24 Nov I read and passed around Dan Gilmour's 21 Nov article "China bloggers Emerge, but not too loudly".

My colleague Solana Larsen said:

As in Iran, it sounds like the Chinese bloggers are sticking to very personal subjects. A high proportion of the most popular blogs in Iran are about sex too. The personal is political, and all that. Anyway, interesting to see if Chinese bloggers will pick up tips from Iran and shake things up in Beijing.

David Hayes said:

Good comparison, Solana - Fred Halliday always says that these are the two continuous 3000-year old west and east Asian civilisations with recent experience of convulsive revolution now in encounter with globalised modernity...there is more!

I asked for a guide to Iranian blogs. And Hoder Hossein, who knows Solana and Danny Postel, said:

Check out

Also the wikipedia page:

and my own blogs:

Since then, an article in New Scientist on the altogether more political and subversive bloggers in China here.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

The strategic choice for Russia?

If the map of official votes by region (see map at base of this article) were turned into de facto or de jure spheres of influence, then Russia would get most of what it wants in Ukraine, including the coal fields and the entire coastline.

Several commentators have observed that the Yanukovych campaign - which is controlled by Russia - has relied quite explicity on encouraging division. Seen in conventional political terms this is "irresponsible in the extreme". But if you have no interest in the future of Ukraine as a political entity then it's quite logical (assuming your first best option, total control, doesn't come off).

Tom Waits at his best

Alex Petridis writes a sympathetic review: ...Live, amplified to deafening volume, and accompanied by a series of fantastic gesticulations, the effect is alternately hilarious and profoundly distressing...

Good on Ukraine

Veronica Khokhlova's blog here. Tim Garton-Ash here. Who says Europe is boring?

Ronald Wright tells an old tale well

Ronald Wright (presumably this one) recounts the Easter Island history beautifully in the 19 Nov TLS.

The story's familiar to environmentalists and others at the very least since Clive Ponting's and other's retelling in 'green' books of 70s, 80s and 90s.

Wright starts with a nice bit of contextualising:

The greatest wonder of the ancient world is how recent it all is. No city or monument is much more than 5,000 years old. Only about seventy lifetimes, of seventy years, have been lived end to end since civilization began. Its entire run occupies a mere 0.002 per cent of the nearly 3 million years since our first ancestor sharpened a stone.

He writes like a dream, and finishes with:

In the epilogue to their 1992 book, Easter Island, Earth Island, the archaeologists Paul Bahn and John Flenley are explicit. The islanders, they write, "carried out for us the experiment of permitting unrestricted population growth, profligate use of resources, destruction of the environment and boundless confidence in their religion to take care of the future. The result was an ecological disaster leading to a population crash . . . . Do we have to repeat the experiment on [a] grand scale? . . . Is the human personality always the same as that of the person who felled the last tree?"

Atrocity gifts

The tape recording is of a three-way conversation between the army watchtower, the army post's operations room and the captain, who was a company commander.

The soldier in the watchtower radioed his colleagues after he saw Iman: "It's a little girl. She's running defensively eastward."

Operations room: "Are we talking about a girl under the age of 10?"

Watchtower: "A girl of about 10, she's behind the embankment, scared to death."

A few minutes later, Iman is shot in the leg from one of the army posts.

The watchtower: "I think that one of the positions took her out."

The company commander then moves in as Iman lies wounded and helpless.

Captain R: "I and another soldier ... are going in a little nearer, forward, to confirm the kill ... Receive a situation report. We fired and killed her ... I also confirmed the kill. Over."

Witnesses described how the captain shot Iman twice in the head, walked away, turned back and fired a stream of bullets into her body. Doctors at Rafah's hospital said she had been shot at least 17 times.

On the tape, the company commander then "clarifies" why he killed Iman: "This is commander. Anything that's mobile, that moves in the zone, even if it's a three-year-old, needs to be killed. Over."

- Chris McGreal's 24 Nov Guardian article, titled Israeli officer- I was right to shoot 13-year-old child, confirms the worst fears of those in the Israeli peace movement and elsewhere that occupation corrupts the occupier absolutely.

One tiny tragedy among many, but it has more than usual iconic power. And it comes within days of US-led attack on Falluja, which motivates Rana Kabbani to write this:

All Iraqis watch as their homes and mosques are desecrated by soldiers who shoot injured men in the stomach in pre-emptive lunacy that mirrors that of their leader. They and a billion Muslims watched as Americans forbade families from burying their dead, and allowed stray dogs to gnaw the corpses of pregnant women and toddlers on the mean streets of what was once Falluja, during Id al-Fitr, Islam's Holy Feast. (Guardian, 23 Nov).

The US and its allies are investing a lot of political and real capital in trying to win hearts and minds. So far, the results are not encouraging.

Reading again Children Pay Cost of Iraq's Chaos, a 21 Nov Washington Post article cited in a previous post (The price of Falluja), the following struck me:

After the rate of acute malnutrition among children younger than 5 steadily declined to 4 percent two years ago, it shot up to 7.7 percent this year...

Iraq's child malnutrition rate now roughly equals that of Burundi, a central African nation torn by more than a decade of war [emphasis added]. It is far higher than rates in Uganda and Haiti....

Baghdad residents often point out to reporters that after the 1991 Persian Gulf War left much of the capital a shambles, Hussein's government restored electricity and kerosene supplies in two months.

Two hundred billion dollars or so on the Iraq campaign so far, and a major consequence has been to reverse basic human development. For comparison, the few billion dollars that US and others spend on Millenium Development Goals look like quite an intelligent investment.

And a Pentagon advisory panel says the US is failing in its efforts to explain the nation's diplomatic and military actions to the Muslim world (International Herald Tribune 25 Nov):

"America's negative image in world opinion and diminished ability to persuade are consequences of factors other than the failure to implement communication strategies" says the 102 page report [from the Defence Science Board].

Who wrote this? Homer Simpson?

The funniest US/Canada joke so far

is by Columbus Dispatch columnist Joe Blundo. Canada busy sending back Bush-dodgers (available without registration here) explains:

Canadian border farmers say it's not uncommon to see dozens of sociology professors, animal-rights activists and Unitarians crossing their fields at night.

"I went out to milk the cows the other day, and there was a Hollywood producer huddled in the barn," said Manitoba farmer Red Greenfield, whose acreage borders North Dakota. The producer was cold, exhausted and hungry.

"He asked me if I could spare a latte and some free-range chicken. When I said I didn't have any, he left. Didn't even get a chance to show him my screenplay."

...Canadian citizens have complained that the illegal immigrants are creating and organic-broccoli shortage and renting all the good Susan Sarandon movies.

"I feel sorry for American liberals, but the Canadian economy just can't support them," an Ottawa resident said. "How many art history majors does one country need?"

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Where is Europe?

Colin Powell, for United States government, has refused to accept the fraudulent election result in Ukraine.

Canada, with its large Ukrainian diaspora, has condemned the fraud.

The Europeans have expressed concern.

How long are European politicians going to go on expressing concern rather than calling the situation what it is? At time of writing there are few encouraging signs.

Will they "express concern" that the Yanukovych government set up a Special Commission to find out what happened in the election? Will they "express" concern when that Special Commission's results - months or years down the line - are "far from satisfactory"?

Where is the will?

How Ukrainians became citizens

openDemocracy may soon publish a piece by Alexander Motyl, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, on the Ukrainian revolution.

Motyl is optimistic that democractic forces will prevail.

Justice in our time, or something like that.

It's a well written, well argued piece. And it would be nice if he turns out to be right.

Is multiculturalism an illusion?

Today, openDemocracy published an essay by Theo Veenkamp, a Dutch specialist on migration, who asks what the murder of Theo van Gogh means for the Dutch multiculturalist model. (openDemocracy's multiculturalism debate is here.)

Tomorrow's International Herald Tribune also carries a piece on multiculturalism - this one by William Pfaff (already available at the time of writing here.)

Pfaff's piece may make some readers uncomfortable. Under the title Europe pays the price for its cultural naïveté, Pfaff writes:

The troubled case of the Netherlands is the most interesting...because the Dutch - like the British - said their aim was a multicultural society composed of equals. This was a convenient illusion, or form of hypocrisy, because the Netherlands, like other West European countries, never ceased to believe in the superiority of its own society and to indulge in a high-minded denial of the power of national cultures and religion...

This specifically Dutch tragedy was created by good intentions combined with false assumptions about the human, social and political realities of cultural difference. After the Nazi catastrophe, racial and cultural distinctions were interpreted as cause for discrimination and conflict, and accordingly were not only avoided but denied. Certain illusions about the nature of man were - and are - promoted. People in the West want to continue to believe in these illusions, despite all that history has done to disprove them.

They include the belief that the core values of the Western democracies are innate, and that education, the liberalization of political and social institutions, and political action can liberate these values among people who don't yet recognize them. It is believed that all men and women are headed not only toward liberal democracy but also toward secularism or religious indifference.

Western political...values are said to be universal, valid for all societies now and in the future. Hence the unity of mankind is only a matter of time. The moral complexity of the human condition in the past is ignored, or is simply unknown.

It all adds up to a naïve version of the belief in inevitable human progress that arose during the French Enlightenment and has inspired virtually every Western political ideology we have known since - and that history has repeatedly disproved.

Some readers, instead of thinking, may be quick to assign Pfaff to a pigeon hole labelled "reactionary" (pessimism about progress is not cool). But from what I have read, Pfaff is not a lightweight or a bigot. He has a deep understanding of history and how it shapes political and cultural thought, and is a more effective critic of - for example - the Bush administration than many self-proclaimed progressives.

[See, for example, his excellent skewering of both the administration and "mainstream" foreign policy critics like Zbigniew Brzezinski in The American Mission? (NYRB, 4 April 2004) or quite good rapid summary articles containing passages like this: The language of political hyperbole used by some alarmists to describe the threat of Islamist radicals resembles the language of totalitarianism. It does not describe an empirically observed reality. It describes and exaggerates something feared and imagined (This Futile Fundamentalism, Observer, 17 Oct 2004).]

So the uncomfortable question is: if Pfaff is right on flaws in the foundations of real existing multiculturalism, where do Europeans, and others, go from here?

Radio Netherlands has an interesting piece on Dutch Immigration and Integration Minister Rita Verdonk telling Muslim clerics in the Netherlands that they need to assimilate into Dutch society (The minister, the imam and the handshake, 22 Nov), while Dominique Moisi has a fascinating review of Nicolas Sarkozy's La Republique, Les Religions, L'Esperance in the 24 Nov FT (Sarkozy's entente with Islam).

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Im Osten etwas neues

The defiance of Viktor Yushchenko and his supporters of the regime looks like something new. People power comes to the Ukraine. Vladimir Putin will not be pleased.

200,000 people in the centre of Kiev witness Yushchenko's "swearing in", and Yushchenko calls on the police and army to join the opposition.

Hope in the world. 1956, 1968, 1989...

On my way this afternoon (4pm), I stopped by the Ukrainian embassy in London to see if there was any kind of vigil or demonstration going on.

Nothing. Through the heavily barred window of the embassy I had a clear view of a dozen or so smooth men sitting at a lush, well lit table. It looked like business as usual. All smiles. But who knows what they were really talking about?

But there was nobody on the street. Only an official from the Algerian embassy opposite who passed by and gave me a cold, hard, chilling look.

Now, of all times, who in this country cares about democracy and justice in one of the largest countries of our common European home?

More fishes in the sea

The BBC reports findings from the Census of Marine Life:

Some 13,000 new marine species have been discovered in the past year, according to information released by an international alliance of scientists.

The Census of Marine Life (COML) has also uncovered previously unknown migration routes used by fish such as tuna and shark…

The project's Ocean Biographic Information System database now includes more than 5.2 million new and previously existing records of the location, date and depth at which a marine species was found - a rise of 1.1 million entries.

The current total of marine fish species now stands at 15,482. Experts expect the final count to total roughly 20,000 by the time the COML is completed in 2010.

Fish biomass is dwarfed by that of microscopic life forms. The database now includes more than 6,800 species of zooplankton, tiny animals that drift with the currents.

Microbes, the smallest organisms, astonishingly account for more than 90% of ocean biomass.

[A scientist tells the BBC]

“ the big discovery is that 90% of all the carbon that's taken up in life in the oceans is taken up in microbes, and a large number of those may be in the deep-ocean sediments buried beneath the sea floor".

All fascinating, but this last point, on carbon uptake, is not exactly news.

I'm not with Idiot

This just posted in an openDemocracy forum:

In Are Voters Idiots? (Nov 19) Dominic Hilton is right to repeat an observation – expressed many times elsewhere – that democracy allows people to make mistakes, to live with the consequences and, perhaps, learn from those mistakes.

Democracy, he says, ‘allows us to vote against “our own interests”. It allows us to make perfectly awful decisions and then either regret them or forget about them. It is imperfect, and that is its everlasting beauty’.

Perfectionists, says Dominic Hilton, simply can’t stand democracy. For Hilton, the prime offenders are Leftists unhappy with the US election result and for him there is no distinction between socialists and totalitarian Marxists: ‘Socialists have no choice but to steal our belongings off us, on threat of incarceration’.

He takes particular umbrage at Nicolas Kristof (not the world's most obvious Leninist) for his Nov 4 article Living Poor, Voting Rich.

Dominic Hilton concludes: ‘next time you complain that the voters are idiots, remember this: so are the politicians, so were my tutors, and so am I’.

A few quick points in response.

It may have escaped Dominic Hilton’s notice in the fastness of that soggy island somewhere off the coast of Belgium, but some of those liberals conceded the first observation long before he echoed it.

To take three examples among many: in a Nov 3 post, the popular liberal-ish blogger Lawrence Lessig wrote “It’s all over; let it go… Bush has won the popular vote…He is our President -- legitimately, and credibly. Our criticism of this administration must now focus narrowly and sharply: on the policies, not on the credibility of the man”; also on Nov 3, Michael Lerner wrote “Instead of assuming that most Americans are either stupid or reactionary, a religious Left would understand that many Americans who are on the Right actually share the same concern for a world based on love and generosity that underlies Left politics”; and on Nov 7 Michael Kinsey wrote “I apologise for everything I believe in. May I go now?”

Going to the next point, Dominic Hilton puts quotation marks around “our own [economic] interests”. Is he hinting just a touch of scepticism that such things actually matter (or exist, beyond evil Marxist construct)? If so, a case substantiating this – by for example refuting Thomas Frank's What’s the matter with Kansas? – will surely be worth reading.

If moral values – not economic interests – are what really matter, then what are we to make of Frank Rich’s 14 Nov piece On 'Moral Values,' It's Blue in a Landslide.

If Dominc Hilton does think there is such a thing as economic self-interest then why is it a thing of everlasting beauty when millions of poor people, with no prospect of benefiting from reduced taxes on their investment portfolios and estates, vote against theirs, and only learn the lesson when it is too late?

As for learning from perfectly awful decisions, well one can live in hope. But the precedents offer little encouragement. The widespread failure to learn from Vietnam – and worse, not to even acknowledge that there is something to learn from the holocaust of two to three million civilian deaths (and even worse, not even be aware that it happened) – is a common thread in American life, which constantly recharges the myth of its own injured innocence. Indeed, those who courageously stand up against the war crimes – as the young John Kerry did on behalf of hundreds of his comrades – are viciously attacked.

As for idiocy – well, this is a difficult one. Let’s try the word ‘misinformed’ (as in ‘I came to Casablanca for the waters’. ‘What waters?’. ‘I was misinformed’). About twice as many Americans believe in the devil and UFOs as understand the theory of natural selection. At least as seriously, many are profoundly ignorant and ill-informed – sometimes comically so – about basic social, political and economic realities (a good example here is the popular perception that the US government spends about 20% of its budget on aid to poor countries. The true figure is well under half of 1%).

Is the fact that ill-informed, misguided people hold the office of the most powerful man in the world in their hands a cause for concern? Yes. Does this mean they should be disqualified from voting? Of course not. Does it support the case for investing in better high school and civic education? Go figure.

In sum, Dominic Hilton’s dismissal of the left is glib and ill thought-through. Unless substantiated, it is irresponsible.

Leftists haven't exactly had a monopoly on coercion (think of Ataturk’s “For the people, despite the people” ), nor are Leftists all Marxists (as even the rather silly neo-con scholar Gertrude Himmelfarb recognises in her praise for John Wesley, part of the British tradition of ethical socialism which predates Marx by at least 100 years – see Alan Ryan’s review of Himmelfarb’s The Roads to Modernity, NYRB 2 Dec).

Dominic Hilton's dismissal here of all things Left is of a piece with his description of an open letter from 216 Iranian intellectuals (including this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner) to their American counterparts, which calls for peaceful democratic change, as “terribly confused”. I’d like to see that description substantiated. Anything else would not be serious. (The letter can be found here).

My hope is that Mr and Mrs America will wake from their post election blues, and prove themselves The Incredibles. Arise ye from your slumbers! Toil no more for the new regime at Insuracare! Cease and desist from making meatloaf and vacuuming the house!

(see also Clancy Segal's call to action).

Finally, accepting that elections are not perfect, the free-market nevertheless offers vast potential improvements. (Even better, this will horrify leftists!) Privatisation of the US electoral process is surely the way forward:

“Rather than trying to attract more voters, let's attract better voters. We could reduce the overall cost of the election by 97 percent if we paid a small body of informed, designated voters to keep abreast of candidates' policy positions. The candidates would save time and money, too, because they could focus their attention on the thousand votes that count. And fewer ballots means faster, more accurate counting. It's just good sense."

Monday, November 22, 2004

The test for Europe

... is now, and in the Ukraine

At 21.08 Ukraine time, Yuchshenko's campaign reported:

Tonight, police will attempt to run down the tent town on Independence Square
Viktor Yushchenko has just informed the participants of the rally on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kyiv that, at about 3 a.m., police will attempt to run down the tent town. He said that this was insider information. "This night, at 2 a.m., there should be more of us here than now, so that authorities realize that we are being serious here, and this protest rally will carry on for a long time", Yushchenko said.

He also informed that tomorrow organized rallies will take place also at other locations all over the capital. More specific information about this will be announced tomorrow.
Yushchenko emphasized that information on the protest rally in the capital of Ukraine has been spread all over Ukraine. Those present welcomed this news with loud applause.

The BBC reports:

Officials in several Ukrainian cities have refused to accept the outcome of Sunday's presidential election.

Tens of thousands of protesters have rallied to contest the official victory for Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, amid Western concern over the vote.

..."We are launching an organised movement of civil resistance," said [opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko], denouncing what he called the "total falsification" of the vote, which followed days of acrimonious wrangling over the results of the first round.

Kiev city council refused to recognise the results, and urged parliament to follow suit.
Thousands of people also turned onto the streets in the western city of Lviv, where the city council said it would only take orders from Mr Yushchenko.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

The price of Falluja

"The price for the Americans so far: 51 dead and 425 wounded, a number that may yet increase but that already exceeds that from any battle in the Iraq war". - Dexter Filkins, New York Times, 21 Nov

As for Iraqi and other non-US deaths, both fighters and civilians, the total figures so far not yet clear. (which only reports civilian deaths) has figures on the conflict this April, but not yet on the recent events (as far as I can see).

Essential reading: passim.

One of the wider Iraqi tragedies - that acute malnutrition among young children in Iraq has nearly doubled since the US-led an invasion 20 months ago (Washington Post, 21 Nov) - is sure to stoke further anger.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Sen on Buddhism, China and democracy

Amartya Sen's Passage to China (New York Review of Books, 2 Dec) shows he has more time to reflect in his semi-retirement, and to read Joseph Needham among others, which is nice.

Sen makes as good as case as you are likely to find of the relevance of the Buddhist tradition to democracy:

Insofar as reasoned public discussion is central to democracy (as John Stuart Mill, John Rawls, and Jürgen Habermas, among many others, have argued), the origins of democracy can indeed be traced in part to the tradition of public discussion that received much encouragement from the emphasis on dialogue in Buddhism in both India and China (and also in Japan, Korea, and elsewhere). It is also significant that nearly every attempt at early printing in China, Korea, and Japan was undertaken by Buddhists...

As a religion, Buddhism began with at least two specific characteristics that were quite unusual, its agnosticism and its commitment to broad discussion of public issues. the third century BC, [the Emperor] Ashoka also tried to codify and circulate what must have been among the earliest formulations of rules for public discussion—a kind of ancient version of Robert's Rules of Order. He demanded, for example, "restraint in regard to speech, so that there should be no extolling of one's own sect or disparaging of other sects on inappropriate occasions, and it should be moderate even in appropriate occasions." Even when engaged in arguing, "other sects should be duly honored in every way on all occasions."

In covering so much ground, Sen is inevitably sweeping. But it's worth it (as as it was in his 2000 piece for the same magazine, East and West: The Reach of Reason). In the concluding section he joins battle on familiar ground - development and freedom, with specific regard to public health:

China's life expectancy of seventy-one years is now lower than that in some parts of India, notably in the state of Kerala, which, with its 30 million people, is larger than many countries; Kerala has been particularly successful in combining Indian-style multiparty democracy (including public debates and widespread participation of citizens in public life) with improvements in health through state initiatives of the type that China undertook after the Revolution.

The advantage of that combination shows itself not only in achievements in high life expectancy but also in many other fields. For example, while the ratio of women to men in the total population in China is only 0.94 and the Indian overall average is 0.93, Kerala's ratio is 1.06, exactly the same as in North America and Western Europe. This high ratio reflects the survival advantages of women when they are not subjected to unequal treatment. The fall in the fertility rate of Kerala has also been substantially faster than in China, despite China's coercive birth-control policies.

Democracy and political freedom are not only valuable in themselves, says Sen; they also make a direct contribution to public policy ... by bringing failures of social policy under public scrutiny.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Being human in the 21st Century

A recent post (Jihad, McWorld, civic education and Dr Seuss) glanced over the question of human being in 21st Century.

One of the central challenges is an honest and healthy relationship to scientific knowledge.

A good starting point is thinking like this:

If we don’t want to fool ourselves or be lulled into complacency by myths, then to understand the universe – and our place in it – we need a healthy exposure to the uncommon sense of science.

Those who doubt the reality of evolution must also not believe in the existence of antibiotic resistant bacteria, a graphic and potentially lethal example of evolution in action, not over millennia but over months and years. As for Earth’s age, the very same laws the govern radio-active decay, which provides a tick-by-tick measure of time eon and after eon, also describe the flow of electrons in cell phones, computers and televisions.

(from the Foreword to The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2004, edited by Tim Folger and Steven Pinker).

Are there dangers in science? Of course. Among them may the undermining of free will. The astrophysicist Paul Davies explored this in his contribution to the Sep/Oct 04 Foreign Policy series The World’s Most Dangerous Ideas:

Belief in some measure of free will is common to all cultures and a large part of what makes us human. It is also fundamental to our ethical and legal systems. Yet today’s scientists and philosophers are busily chipping away at this social pillar—apparently without thinking about what might replace it.

What they question is a folk psychology that goes something like this: Inside each of us is a self, a conscious agent who both observes the world and makes decisions. In some cases (though perhaps not all), this agent has a measure of choice and control over his or her actions…

All this may seem like common sense, but philosophers and writers have questioned it for centuries—and the attack is gathering speed. “All theory is against the freedom of the will,” wrote…Samuel Johnson.

Physicists assert that free will is merely a feeling we have; the mind has no genuine causal efficacy...The rise of modern genetics has also undermined the belief that humans are born with the freedom to shape their individual destinies…

These ideas are dangerous because there is more than a grain of truth in them. There is an acute risk that they will be oversimplified and used to justify an anything-goes attitude to criminal activity, ethnic conflict, even genocide. Conversely, people convinced that the concept of individual choice is a myth may passively conform to whatever fate an exploitative social or political system may have decreed for them. If you thought eugenics was a disastrous perversion of science, imagine a world where most people don’t believe in free will.

The scientific assault on free will would be less alarming if some new legal and ethical framework existed to take its place. But nobody really has a clue what that new structure might look like. And, remember, the scientists may be wrong to doubt free will. It would be rash to assume that physicists have said the last word on causation, or that cognitive scientists fully understand brain function and consciousness. But even if they are right, and free will really is an illusion, it may still be a fiction worth maintaining.

Here’s a central issue (beyond the immediate danger of gross simplification - evident from past episodes such as social Darwinism): there is "more than a grain of truth" to the notion that freewill is illusory; but we cannot live without it, any more that we can live without the notion – more than notion – of time, however illusory it is in fundamental physics.

Truly, there’s a Koan here on which to meditate.

Turning to the grubby real world of ignorance and politics, then, people who are trying to wake up need to show a little humility. What expressions for spirituality in the cosmos and solidarity with other humans and life if not the ones mediated through traditional cultures?

The question has specific, time-related political relevance, and calls for solidarity with people who situate themselves within religious traditions, such as the very San Francisco rabbi Michael Lerner in his 3 Nov reflection on the Democrats and religion after the US presidential election:

In the Right wing churches and synagogues…voters are presented with a coherent worldview that speaks to their "meaning needs." Most of these churches and synagogues demonstrate a high level of caring for their members [emphasis mine], even if the flip side is a willingness to demean those on the outside.

Instead of assuming that most Americans are either stupid or reactionary, a religious Left would understand that many Americans who are on the Right actually share the same concern for a world based on love and generosity that underlies Left politics, even though lefties often hide their value attachments.

Yet to move in this direction, many Democrats would have to give up their attachment to a core belief: that those who voted for Bush are fundamentally stupid or evil. Its time they got over that elitist self-righteousness and developed strategies that could affirm their common humanity with those who voted for the Right. Teaching themselves to see the good in the rest of the American public would be a critical first step in liberals and progressives learning how to teach the rest of American society how to see that same goodness in the rest of the people on this planet. It is this spiritual lesson-that our own well-being depends on the well-being of everyone else on the planet and on the well-being of the earth-a lesson rooted deeply in the spiritual wisdom of virtually every religion on the planet, that could be the center of a revived Democratic Party.

The Passion of Christopher Hitchens

Kissinger Declassified, Vanity Fair 18 Nov, shows Christopher Hitchens in good form. He turns over more grubby stones to reveal ugly truths about Henry Kissinger's complicity with the Argentinian and Chilean junta of the 1970s an 80s, drawing on the evidence recorded in "telcons" archived at

But even more interesting, to my eye, is the extent to which this piece documents how Hitchens himself has fallen or is falling out of love with the Bush administration (Not so long ago Hitchens used to meet quite frequently with Paul Wolfowitz to enthuse jointly the cause of liberation by armed force).

I am probably - as so often - way behind the curve on this, but still think it's worth noting the change, and meditating on what's behind it. (Hitchens, just about emerging from layers of irony, came out for Kerry in Slate: "Kerry should get his worst private nightmare and have to report for duty" - 28 Oct),

As so often, this Hitchens piece for Vanity Fair is worth reading for the style alone. For example:
Sometimes, in spite of its stolid, boring commitment to lying, a despotic regime will actually tell you all you need to know. It invents a titanic system of slave-labor camps, for example, and it gives this network of arid, landlocked isolation centers the beautiful anagram of gulag. (Adding the word "archipelago" to that piece of bureaucratic compression was the work of an aesthetic and moral genius.) The stone-faced morons who run the military junta in Burma used to call themselves slorc (State Law and Order Restoration Council), which was hardly less revealing. The Brezhnev occupation regime, imposed on the romantic city of Prague after the invasion of 1968, proclaimed its aim as "normalization": a word eloquent enough in itself to send every writer and artist either hastening across the border or entering "internal exile."

and this:

I possess a photograph of myself, from December of 1977, shaking the hand of General Jorge Rafaél Videla, who was then the dictator of Argentina. The picture was taken in the Casa Rosada, that pink presidential palace in Buenos Aires from which Juan and Evita Perón had once harangued the masses. General Videla is now under house arrest in his own country for, among other things, trading the babies of the tortured rape victims who were held in his own secret prison. You might want to run your eye back over that last sentence and appreciate every stage of it. The Macbeth family had a notoriously hard time getting the blood off their hands, or shaking the impression that their hands were still reeking. To this day I wish that I had stiffly sat down for that interview without the polite grip-and-grin that I gave to Videla.

Then, towards the end of the piece comes:

We sometimes like to sneer at the "banana republic" political culture of Latin America. But here's how things now stand...The Bush State Department, to its shame and ours, continues to say that such questions [Kissinger's complicity] should be addressed only through official diplomatic channels. This makes us complicit in the criminal behavior of a man who was in his time the (naturally, unelected) chairman and patron of the international dictators' club.

OK, one could say, he means the Powell led State Dept (at the time of writing Powell had not yet resigned), but not the neo-cons. But then comes this:

The [family of Gen. Schneider - a Chilean solider who opposed military intervention and was murdered] has standing in this matter, not just morally, but legally-because of the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows non-Americans to seek redress in American courts. This act dates from the 18th century and was one of the first laws of the American Republic. The Bush administration recently tried and failed to have the Supreme Court strike the ancient legislation down.

Hitchens chooses his words. The way I read this, it is not a barb directed at a particular member of the Bush administration (who can be lopped off to save the body pure). It's aimed at the whole shooting match.

What kind of journey Hitchens is on? Danny Postel, who used to spend time with Hitchens, took Anthony Barnett and I round his old neighbourhood in Washington DC the week before last, including past Hitchens's apartment block The Wyoming and favourite restaurant. One can read between the lines that Hitchens drags the heavy cross of the bottle.

As one who had more than average knowledge of the nature of the Saddam regime, my position before the 2003 Iraq invasion was roughly as follows: "it's imprudent, and the US regime are gangsters, but at least the invasion will get rid of one of the most monstrous regimes of modern times and break the deadlock of the UN sanctions. Moreover, the invasion is going to happen anyway so what can one do to make the best of a bad job?". (I acknowledge faults in this line of argument. But it did seem unlikely to me that even this US administration could and would make such a mess).

Hitchens - with a more lively sense than most of the horrors of Saddam - went further, and embraced the neo-cons. Where does he stand now?

Thursday, November 18, 2004

How important is Falluja

Interpretations of Falluja are on a spectrum from "Whackamole" (insurgents will redeploy, aka flee) to "striking at the heart" (US administration rhetoric).

Truth somewhere in between? From Fallujah, Thomas Friedman writes:

How important is taking Falluja? Huge. Falluja was to the Iraqi insurgency what Afghanistan was to Osama bin Laden. It was the safe haven where militants could, with total impunity, plan operations, stockpile weapons and connect the suicide bombers from abroad with their Iraqi handlers. That's gone. One arms cache alone found here had 49,000 pieces of ordnance, ranging from mortars to ammo rounds. Another arms cache blown up last week kept exploding for 45 minutes after it was hit, a senior U.S. officer said. (New York Times, 18 Nov)

From another part of the planet, Greg Palast observes:

Falluja Arithmetic Lesson
Monday, November 15, 2004

by Prof. Greg Palast

Today's New York Times, page 1:"American commanders said 38 service members had been killed and 275 wounded in the Falluja assault."

Today's New York Times, page 11:"The American military hospital here reported that it had treated 419 American soldiers since the siege of Falluja began."

Questions for the class:

1. If 275 soldiers were wounded in Falluja and 419 are treated for wounds, how many were shot on the plane ride to Germany?

2. We're told only 275 soldiers were wounded but 419 treated for wounds; and we're told that 38 soldiers died. So how many will be buried?

3. How long have these Times reporters been embedded with with military?

Bonus question: When will they get out of bed with the military?

Today's New York Times, page 1:"The commanders estimated that 1,200 to 1,600 insurgents had been killed."

Today's New York Times, page 11:"Nowhere to be found: the remains of the insurgents that the tanks had been sent in to destroy. ...The absence of insurgent bodies in Falluja has remained an enduring mystery.""

"Every time I hear the news
That old feeling comes back on;
We're waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the Big Fool says to push on."
- Pete Seeger, 1967

And in a move that looks significant (see Juan Cole, 18 Nov), 47 Iraqi political parties announce boycott of January elections:

Forty-seven Iraqi political parties, including many with a religious base, have announced that they will boycott the planned January elections. They met at the Umm al-Qura mosque in Baghdad under the auspices of the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars and its allies among Sunni fundamentalists, but they were joined by 8 Shiite parties and one Christian one. The Iraqi Turkmen Front and the People's Union Party (Communist) also joined in the boycott.

On insurgency, my father, Mungo Henderson, (a very young Second Lieutenant in the British Army during the"Emergency" in Kenya in the 1950s - a nasty little war) describes Iraq as "a giant West Bank with no borders - totally unwinnable".

See also this, from Daryl G. Press and Benjamin Valentino, professors of government at Dartmouth:

The history of counterinsurgency warfare is a tale of failure. Since World War II, powerful armies have fought seven major counterinsurgency wars: France in Indochina from 1945 to 1954, the British in Malaya from 1948 to 1960, the French in Algeria in the 1950's, the United States in Vietnam, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, Israel in the occupied territories and Russia in Chechnya. Of these seven, four were outright failures, two grind on with little hope of success, and only one - the British effort in Malaya - was a clear success.

Many counterinsurgency theorists have tried to model operations on the British effort in Malaya, particularly the emphasis on winning hearts and minds of the local population through public improvements. They have not succeeded. Victory in Malaysia, it appears in retrospect, had less to do with British tactical innovations than with the weaknesses and isolation of the insurgents. The guerrillas were not ethnic Malays; they were recruited almost exclusively from an isolated group of Chinese refugees. The guerrillas never gained the support of a sizable share of the Malaysians. Nevertheless, it took the British 12 years to defeat them, and London ended up granting independence to the colony in the midst of the rebellion.

And the good news? Well, my father saw horrible things in Kenya, but he came back with an absolute understanding of the equality and worth of all human beings. He was and is no racist - something that's quite unusual in his generation.

Banana Republicans

Very funny:

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Wesley Clark measuring success in Falluja

Following Wesley Clark's 15 Nov Washington Post article The Real Battle, reasonably intelligent and useful debate - albeit from a very US-centric perspective in Clark's online discussion. A model for some others?

Includes gritty down to earth stuff like the following:

Hailey, Idaho: Will a victory in Fallujah prove decisive in the struggle with Iraqi insurgents? Or will the insurgency simply pop up in other cities and keep the military in a continual game of whackamole in various Iraq locations? It sounds like many combatants may have slid out of the city already.

Wesley Clark: Unlikely that Falluja will be decisive...but it should stem the rising tide of insurgent activities for a little while. The insurgents have no other real bastion in Iraq, so the level of fighting, although it's spreading now, should contract shortly. For a while. That gives the political process a chance to grip, if it can.

Jihad, McWorld, civic education and Dr Seuss

On 16 Nov I rapporteured a session on Iraq at a workshop at the London School of Economics on democracy and global governance.

Of the two principal speakers, the best and most challenging contribution, in my view, came from Yahia Said. He layed into both the deeply misguided policies of the US administration and the lazy, self-regarding sniping of so-called progressive critics, who have no real solutions. I will probably interview Yahia for openDemocracy, a follow-on to this one earlier in the year.

But Benjamin Barber - a very nice man (and former national security advisor to Howard Dean) - made some valuable points in his initial presentation too. Just one among several useful insights I noted crudely as follows:

The great theorists of society– from Plato and Rousseau forwards were all interested in civic education and the role of schools in building the just society

Too often today, thinkers pay only lip service to this central issue.

Civic education only exists within particular social and cultural contexts. The real question is not whether Islam and Islamic societies are compatible with democracy. Of course they are. The real question is whether civic education and Islamic education are compatible wth each other. The falutline is not terrorism/democracy or islam/democracy, but civic education/islam

Islamic fundamentalists understand this all too well. Hence their emphasis and huge energy on madrassahs, of which there are some 30,000 wahabist ones in Pakistan. The West puts its energy into supporting Musharaf. The Islamists put their energy into building up Islamic education.

This part of Barber's presentation seemed ever more pertinant tonight when reading an excellent assessment by John Fea of Theodore Geisel, aka Dr Seuss (Suess is one of my favourites - on an expedition to the high Karakorum this summer, the catchphrase was "Up! Up! A good day for up!"):

Giesel had a subtle, unintended, but yet irresistibly strong influence on the way children understood America

During World War Two, Geisel wrote editorial cartoons from the pages of the left-leaning New York newspaper PM that scathingly criticized Naziism, Fascism, American isolationism (Charles Lindbergh was a favorite target on this front), and racial discrimination in the hiring of defense workers...“PM was against people who pushed other people around,” Geisel told his biographers shortly before his death, “I liked that.”

...Most prominent in Geisel’s work are the liberal Enlightenment values of progress, self-improvement, and cosmopolitanism. Perhaps more than anything else, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment was a movement defined by the principles of human potential and the advancement of society. The best citizens of the Enlightenment’s “republic of letters” were those individuals who maintained primary loyalty, not to family, friends, faith, or nature, but to an international commonwealth of humankind.

...But the contradictions in Seuss’s canon between individualism and community, cosmopolitanism and local attachments, and self-interest and self-sacrifice reveal the inability of the left to inspire us—to offer any hope for those longing for a different kind of human flourishing. Can liberalism prompt us to get out of bed with voices of praise on Christmas morning even when all of our gifts have been stolen? Does it give us strength to risk our lives for the preservation of others—whether it is Horton’s Whoville or those in the crumbling towers of the World Trade Center? What motivates one to surrender cosmopolitan ambition and return home to face, sin, suffering, and trial? Where do we find the courage to defend creation against those seeking to destroy it?

The paradoxes and tensions in Seuss’s work offer a window into one of the twentieth-century’s most influential liberals searching—maybe unconsciously—for answers to questions that his liberalism, even on its best days, cannot seem to provide. For all of his true brilliance, one wonders if Seuss really grasped the limits of his own optimistic faith in ambition and progress.

For all the merits of this assessment - published in a magazine (The New Pantagruel) with a thinking Christian tenor - its dismissal of the nature of Enlightenment liberalism and its potential is a little too glib and collapses too easily into its own ill-grounded assumptions.

But this begins to touch on perhaps the most fundamental questions about being human and about politics in the 21st century - probably the subject for at least one future post!

Monday, November 15, 2004

The Death of Environmentalism

The most important text on environmental issues in 2004 is probably Michael Schellenberger and Ted Norhaus's The Death of Environmentalism, which I only got round to reading thanks from a reminder last week from Lisa Jordan at the Ford Foundation. I have passed it on to someone providing strategic advice to a major US environmental organisation: she hadn't seen it either so this was useful.

Schellenberger and Norhaus argues the US environmental movement has made the most catastrophic strategic errors, and say this arises from profound misconceptions of the nature of the challenges and the concepts they use.

The critique articulates well profound questions I have only more or less realised but not properly thought through. It is specific to the US/North America, but has wider application.

A lot to take on board while developing the debate on the politics of climate change, planned for the British Council and openDemocracy in spring 2005.

A small point in their text that is important but tangential is their assessment of the state of the US automobile industry (which they argue it's crucial to understand if you're to develop a politics that works). I guess this leapt out - along with other things - because I'd just read John Plender's article (see previous post Questioning US capitalist credentials). Schellenberger and Norhaus quote Danny Hakim of the New York Times:

General Motors covers the health care costs of 1.1 million Americans, or close to half a percent of the total population. For G.M., which earned $1.2 billion [in profits] last year, annual health spending has risen to $4.8bn from $3bn since 1996...Today, with global competition and the US health care system putting the burden largely on employers, retiree medical costs are one reason Toyota's $10.2bn profit in its most recent fiscal year was more than double the combined profit of the Big Three [US car manufacturers].

Because Japan has national health care, its auto companies aren't stuck with the bill for its retirees.

Questioning US capitalist credentials

John Plender has a good piece in the 14 Nov Financial Times on flaws in the US system:

General Motors recent third quarter figures showed that this corporate colossus made no money from motors and was in profit thanks only to its financial subsidiary, GMAC. Within GMAC, mortgage lending was the biggest earner. In effect, GM has been doing a similar job to Fannie and Freddie in encouraging car buyers and home owners to borrow and spend, thereby keeping the US economy afloat after the stock market bubble.

GM's equity is a slender $28bn wedge that supports hundreds of billions of dollars in debt, healthcare liabilities and pension obligations. It is more of a social insurance system for employees and retirees than an exemplar of shareholder capitalism. In short, GM looks increasingly like a Japanese stakeholder company, as does Ford Motor. Oddly enough, their chief Japanese competitor, Toyota, still manages to make big profits from motor manufacturing

Nor should we forget that one reason Fannie, Freddie, GM and Ford operate like this is down to another non-market feature of the system. The Federal Reserve is one of the world's busiest price fixers and has fixed interest rates at an unprecedentedly low rate in the post-bubble period, with the result that the US system is awash with credit while household debt is at sky-high levels. There are uncomfortable similarities with Japan in the 1980s, even if the Japanese were more thrifty.

On US corporate governance:

Consider now the biggest curiosity of US corporate governance - namely that shareholders' votes on directors' appointments at annual meetings have no force. Shareholders can "withhold" their votes, but even if more than 50 per cent do so the gesture is purely symbolic and the company can continue on management's chosen path. This shareholder democracy is about as democratic as Cuba or the old Soviet Union.

Plender concludes

The US may be a capitalist economy. But in matters corporate it often lags behind Old Europe and Japan Inc. Perhaps the stellar compensation of US chief executives should be reduced towards German or Japanese levels. But the free market plays little part in boardroom pay decisions. Yet another non-capitalist fix.

Friday, November 12, 2004

War Gaming Iran

At a small dinner in Washington DC on 4 Nov, a group of thinkers and actors from left and right (but all sharing antipathy to the policies of the Bush administration) met with to discuss where to go next.

At least one of those present had recently come from a meeting with people at the top of the re-elected administration, even though he didn’t agree with them nor they with him. He reckoned the administration was now looking seriously at an attack on Iran.

I’ve long been skeptical of this. It looks so likely fail, bot militarily and politically, as attested by another outstanding article by James Fallows in the Dec 04 edition of The Atlantic (this available on subscription only: beg, borrow or steal to read it).

But another of those present at the DC dinner – Charles [Chuck] Pena of the Cato Institute – agreed. He said it had been war gamed for the administration.

Chuck has since written a clear piece for openDemocracy outlining the situation. Before seeing Chuck’s piece, I ran the question of an attack on Iran by Gilles Kepel who joined Sami Zubaida for a discussion at the Maison Francaise in Oxford on 11 November.

Kepel is not convinced. He said he met a number of people in the US administration in September, confident Bush would win, from whom he had concluded that go ahead with Iran unlikely. And a new factor, Kepel said, was the death of Arafat. This could provide an opportunity for US administration to refocus on Israel-Palestine, putting Iran to one side for now (He did not cite the Tony Blair line, but I wouldn’t be surprised if - pin stripe and poppy in button-hole, he had come to Oxford straight from a meeting at 10 Downing St or with senior advisors – the following day Blair was flying to Washington).

Kepel held to the view that, to some extent, the second W administration might see the neocon agenda as something of a liability, although the war on terror was very useful in being re-elected right up to the perfect appearance of Bin Laden at the end to wave hello. Kepel noted that a successful outcome for the US in Iraq was of course deeply worrying to the Iranian regime. And he told some amusing anecdotes about one of his recent trips to Iran

Elsewhere, Kepel has noted:

The Iraqi option which is a secular, Shia-dominated Iraq would be a forceful magnet boosting the moral of those in Iran who are against the Iranian regime. This is something which the Iranian regime – very wise when it comes to perpetuating itself – grasped very well. This is why they back Moqtadr al Sadr so that he might help them destroy the trump card of Shia mobilization. But they failed in this. The insurgency of the Sadrists collapsed after Ali Sistani’s remarkable political move when he went back to Najaf and Kerbala and mobilized all the clerical resources of Shiism in order to compel those young drop-outs who supported al Sadr to kiss his ring and pay their respects to him.

I begin to wonder if the pieces are falling into place – at least in the mid term, and in a great cost in blood – for the neo con strategy. Assuming (!) a successful liquidation in Falluja, Ramadi, Mosul etc, the US administration calculates it can beat obstreperous Sunni elements into submission in Iraq. If so, it can deliver some sort of election in which majority votes, while Sunni parties remain sullen. OK, so the votes were overwhelmingly Kurd and Shi’ia, but hey man it’s 70% of the population! You can see the lines in George W Bush’s speech now.

So then comes Iran, whoops and bumpety bump, and then a larger agenda – perhaps as identified by Frank Gaffney in his 5 Nov article Worldwide Value (thanks to another of those present at the 4 Nov dinner for pointing out this piece) .

As another person present at the dinner described this view "Iran is for pansies! Real men are already talking about China and France!"

If this is correct then we in Europe will need at the very least the skills of "Jeeves diplomacy", to use the felicitous coinage of Timothy Garton-Ash in What to do about Bush.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Five points from Gilles Kepel

Today openDemocracy published an interview with Gilles Keppel by Rosemary Bechler.

Kepel’s analysis is profound – and reaches far beyond even this excellent interview. But at least five points he articulates in the interview stand out for me.

Points one and two are what Kepel identifies as the blind spots of the jihadis and the neo-conservatives respectively.

1. The jihadis: claiming that they alone won the war against the evil empire of kufr (impiety) and its Red Army, also dismiss what they owe to American policy. But without the smart, ground–to–air, shoulder–borne Stinger missiles – brainchild of Albert Wohlstetter’s military thinking – the Soviet forces would never have been defeated. In this respect, the Afghan–bred mujaheddin is the metonymy or synecdoche – the best image of the geopolitical crossroads represented by 9/11.

[They forgot that they owed their victory over the Soviets over the United States, and created an unrealistic assessment of the vulnerability of US-allies who they hoped to overthrow next.]

2. The neocons: The main shortcoming of the neocon understanding of democracy, and indeed their whole vision of the world, lies deeper: in its strategic assessment that all it needed to accomplish in Iraq was to remove Saddam Hussein’s regime and thus free Iraqi society. The neocons completely failed to grasp what had happened during the previous sanctions regime.

[Elsewhere, Kepel calls identifies what happened during the sanctions as the“destructuring” or Iraqi society: the collapse of the remnant middle class and creation of a totally criminalized state]

3. The Future of Iraq: The United States troops could, I imagine, have eliminated Muqtada al–Sadr with a smart missile had they really wanted to; but I guess that they perceive him as someone who can ultimately be coopted and inserted into the lower ranks of the Shi’a hierarchy.

Then two points on Muslims in Europe

4. The battle for Muslim identity in Europe as illustrated over the headscarf issue in France and the taking hostage of two French journalists in Iraq of two in France:

The response to the kidnapping of two French journalists, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, in Iraq on 20 August 2004 is an illustration of this. A so–called “Islamist army”, after buying them from the group of thugs responsible for their seizure, announced they would behead the journalists unless France rescinded its secular ban on the wearing of the hijab (and other religious apparel) in French schools.

The “army” was convinced that this would mobilise the masses of the umma in their favour, and were supported in this expectation by various French Islamists on Arabic–speaking satellite TV. Much to their dismay, French people of Muslim descent – regardless of the degree of their devotion – adamantly denied the kidnappers the right to speak in their name, and affirmed a primary solidarity with the journalists, not to whoever claimed to speak in the name of Islam.

5. Muslims ideology and the European left – the role of Tariq Ramadan:

In my view, the question of whether someone like Tariq Ramadan is two–faced is not the real issue. I see nothing particularly wrong in someone who is in politics using all the means at his disposal. The more relevant point is about the kind of alliance he seeks to form with the extreme left, calculating that it is unlikely to long resist the Islamists’ much more potent and organised ideology.

Post-election humour

Dominic Hilton, a clown at openDemocracy, forwards , which he must admit is funny. And he’s right. The links are particularly good.

And Sorry Everybody, forwaded by Caspar Melville, is also very funny.

Falluja and Propaganda

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is one of the few journalists reporting well from inside Falluja . His 11 Nov Guardian article “The only place I am going from here is heaven” is remarkable (see also his photos and previous articles here and here).

Abdul-Ahad interviews a jihadi from Yemen who left his wife and five children behind to fight in Iraq, driven – he says – by the scandal of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse.

Is the propaganda value of Abu Ghraib to jihadism a concern if one thinks who think the US-led war in Iraq is completely right? Can it be seen as a way of attracting terrorists to the magnet of Iraq so that they won’t make a bother elsewhere?

Will the appointment of Alberto Gonzales as the new US Attorney General have consequences, unintended or otherwise, that will be used for jihadist propoganda?

On 25 Jan 2002, the New York Times reports, Mr. Gonzales wrote a memorandum to President Bush in which he supported the Justice Department's position that suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban members did not need to be treated according to rules of the Geneva Conventions, which govern treatment of prisoners of war.

"The nature of the new war places a high premium on other factors such as the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians," his memo said.

Mr. Gonzales went on to say that the war against terrorism, "in my judgment renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners."

The central question remains Donald Rumsfeld's: "Are we killing or capturing more terrorists than we are recruiting"?

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The Serbia-Israel analogy

openDemocracy recently published an essay by Anatol Lieven, drawing on his recent book American Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism.

Anthony Barnett comments on this in his editor’s note Why the United States and Israel? (for which I ghosted an early draft, not including the following paragraph):

"[Lieven’s piece] contains a…striking analogy. The first world war was precipitated by Serbian extremists whose ambitions had been inflamed by their confidence in the massive support extended to Serbia by the vast Russian empire of the Czars. Could Israel, thanks to its American alliance, be similarly overconfident today?"

But how appropriate is the analogy? Robert K Massie’s Castles of Steel (a history of naval warfare in World War One, which I happen to be reading) contains this comment on the origins of the attack by Austria-Hungary on Serbia:

"The assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife by a Bosnian Serb provided Austria with the pretext it needed to invade. The assassin belonged to a secret Serb organisation, the Black Hand, whose objecttive was to detach Bosnia and other Slav provinces from the Hapsburg empire and incorporate them into a Greater Serbia. The Serbian government was not involved, but the assassin had connections with Serbian police officials and his revolver had come from the Serbian State Arsenal". (page 11 of the US paperback edition)

By Massie’s account drawing on contemporary sources, Austria-Hungary sent the Serbian Government a note following the assassinations demanding near total surrender on terms no sovereign nation could reasonably be expected to accept. But the Serbian government – terrified of Austrain power – did accept the terms.

Even this was not enough for the Austro-Hungarians, and they invaded anyway.

Who plays the role of Austria-Hungary in the Serbia-Israel analogy? The most military powerful Arab states, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, seem to be realistic about Israel’s continued survival. So not them.

Maybe Iran, then? The Iranians must surely be aware they are no military match for Israel with or without a handful of simple nuclear weapons to Israel's reported 200 to 400 sophisticated ones (this upper count from Cato Institute military analyst Chuck Pena). Iranian bluster largely designed to galvanise support at home.

And who plays the role of the Black Hand? West Bank settlers, perhaps. But they would be more likely to assasinate Sharon than an Arab or Muslim leader.

Useful insight into Sharon’s position came in an article by David Grossman (published in the Guardian on 27 Oct). Grossman – no fan of Sharon – says: “ Sharon is now acting with great personal and public courage”.

Dutch Voices

The BBC reports that three Dutch police officerswere wounded in a grenade explosion during an anti-terror raid on a house in The Hague.

This follows the burning down of a Muslim school in Uden - part of a spate of attacks following the murder of film-maker Theo van Gogh, a critic of Islam. Other attacks have targeted Christian and Muslim buildings across the Netherlands.

The BBC report is linked a vox pop as follows.

Adil Abrini, 31, works in marketing:
"I'm originally from Morocco and now I have the feeling that I'm being looked at as if I've done it, while it's got nothing to do with me.
"I didn't agree with everything he said and you shouldn't always say what you want to say; there are norms and values and you have to have respect for other people."

Eric Hulscher, 39, taxi driver:
"The atmosphere is grim after the murder. You feel strange, especially having seen that attacks [on mosques and an Islamic school] have now taken place.
"It will only get worse, all the talk about integration is a lot of nonsense.
"There's been talk of 'us' and 'them' and that's absolutely right."

Inge van de Panne, 64, social worker:
"It's very tense now and people are afraid - there is a radicalisation in Holland. The situation is explosive.
"We must be reasonable and think before we say things, but I am afraid too, I don't think it's going to get better.
"We have to be very careful."

Radouan Veldmeijer, 21, cook:
"I'm half Moroccan and the atmosphere now in the Netherlands is terrible.
"I was adopted and since I was seven months old I have been brought up by Dutch parents, so for me it’s doubly difficult.
"I'm not a Muslim but since the murder I've been sworn at in the street by skinhead types."

Jan van den Berg, 53, bank worker:
"I just arrived at the station and began to think it's just a matter of time before al-Qaeda involve themselves in this situation and you get something like what happened in Madrid.
"We're known as being very tolerant in the Netherlands but I have the feeling this is an explosion of suppressed emotions."

Diny Helhorst, 64, housewife:
"It's just going to get crazier here and more difficult because people are frightened that something will happen.
"Everyone wonders now what we have to do. I haven’t really got an answer to that - stand together and demonstrate maybe.
"I think the government has to do something."

Lucian Meye, 38, web-designer:
"The Netherlands has been turned upside down by this because of the witch hunt against the Muslim community.
"I don't think that's right, everything shouldn't be bundled together after one person's committed a murder.
"You see after this news that things are being blown out of proportion."

Dennis Werkman, 24, sells advertising space for a publisher:
"Personally there isn't much change for me.
"Discussion about the tensions between the Muslim community and non-Muslim community is to be expected after the murder, but actually we could have seen it coming.
"Tensions have been growing for a while between the communities."

Tanar Ozbek, 20, banking and insurance student:
"There is security around the mosques everywhere and it’s a real shame that things are going this way in the Netherlands.
"I was born here but I'm Turkish and a Muslim. I hear 'Muslims this' and 'Muslims that' and I fall under that - I don’t feel so safe any more even when I'm in a mosque."