Saturday 27 January 2007

27 January 2007

How’s this for a Green policy agenda? More use of solar and wind power to generate electricity; more investment in research to find new ways of producing bio-fuels; reduce petrol consumption by 20 per cent over the next decade -- and a mandatory requirement to produce 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels by 2017.

It sounds, I reckon, like something you might find in a Green Party election manifesto. In fact, it comes, almost exactly word for word, from President Bush’s State of the Union address to the US Congress. Surprised? Thought so.

OK, here’s another one: A promise to become carbon neutral and stop sending any waste to landfill sites by 2012. Who’s promising? Marks and Spencer. And another one: all US stores to be run entirely on renewable energy. Says who? Says Walmart, the largest retailer in the world. And another one: a carbon label to be attached to all goods. Whose goods? Tesco’s, the largest British retailer and the third largest grocery retailer in the world.

So what’s going on? Well, here’s the verdict from the environmental campaigner and writer George Monbiot, in The Guardian: “The superstores’ green conversion is astonishing, wonderful, disorienting. If Tesco and Walmart have become friends of the earth, are any enemies left?”

Now, I’m a professional sceptic by nature. I tend not to believe in promises. I like to see them fulfilled with my own eyes before I applaud. But just for a moment, let’s be charitable: let’s assume that Mr Bush, and Walmart, and Tesco, mean what they say.

So I repeat, what’s going on? My explanation goes something like this: in the White House, as in the boardrooms, the penny has dropped – voters, shoppers, you and me, we’re worried about the state of the planet. We’ve seen the storms, the hurricanes, the droughts, the floods, the dry winters, the hot summers – and we don’t like it. Political leaders and corporate executives don’t like it either. They especially don’t like it if we start blaming them.

So going green has become good politics and good business. Correction: appearing to go green is good politics and good business. Let’s give them two cheers for saying the right things, but let’s hold back on that final cheer until they do the right thing as well. And yes, I suppose it might help if we turn off our TVs and computers at night and invest in some low energy light bulbs.

Meanwhile, I did enjoy our old-fashioned snowy London morning this week. Just a light dusting where I live, glistening brightly on the bare branches of the trees in the park, scrunching under foot as I walked to the bus. All gone by mid-morning, so no nasty grey slush. Sorry if it was worse where you are – but just occasionally, the weather still does exactly what I want it to.

Monday 22 January 2007

20 January 2007

I imagine that, like me, you’ve noticed the sound of sabres being rattled this week. The question is: have they noticed in Tehran?

The answer, I think, is oh yes, they’ve noticed all right. As Condoleezza Rice shuttled her way round the Middle East, the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, fired off a letter to the Saudis suggesting that maybe they should get together to talk about Iraq.

Now, Iran and Saudi Arabia are not exactly soul-mates in the land of Islam. The Saudi royal family consider themselves the true defenders of Islam and its most holy places: after all, the king’s official title is Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques (in Mecca and Medina). Iran, of course, is predominantly Shia – and Shia Muslims are regarded by Wahhabi or Salafi Sunni Muslims, which is what the Saudi royals are, as little better than heretics.

So it’s not often that they cosy up to compare notes about what’s going on in the neighbourhood. But that noise of sabres being rattled is definitely beginning to unsettle Tehran.

Here’s chief rattler Condoleezza Rice: “Perhaps one of the biggest challenges that we face is the policy of the Iranian regime, which is a policy of destabilisation of the world's most volatile and vulnerable region. And it's not just Iran's nuclear programme but also their support for terrorism around the world. They are, in effect, the central banker for terrorism around the world."

But surely, you will ask, the US is in no mood to embark on another high risk military adventure in the Middle East? And you will be right. Hence, the echo of more sabres being rattled in Israel, which is far more worried about a nuclear-capable Iran than it is about anything else. It’s got used to being the only nuclear power in the region, and doesn’t at all like the idea of there being a new kid on the nuclear block.

Here’s deputy chief rattler Ehud Olmert, Israeli prime minister: “The time is approaching when Israel and the world community will have to decide whether to take military action against Iran." And here’s Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni: “Iran is a threat not just to Israel, but to the entire region. Its goal is not just to wipe Israel off the map, but to remake the entire region." And here’s retired Israeli army chief artillery officer Brigadier General Oded Tira: “President Bush lacks the political power to attack Iran … If the Americans do not take military action against Iran, we'll do it ourselves.”

It seems no one realised that one of the consequences of getting rid of Saddam Hussein would inevitably be the strengthening of Iraq’s majority Shia, many of whose leaders had spent years in exile in neighbouring Iran. That makes Iran feel much more powerful than it used to – and it makes the Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Jordan break out in a cold sweat. Being Arab, they’re not too keen on Persian power either. I’d be misleading you if I said there was nothing to worry about.

But don’t ignore what’s going on in Iran itself. President Ahmadinejad, demagogue though he may seem, is not immune to domestic political pressure. He wasn’t elected because of his views on the Nazi Holocaust, but because he promised to do something about poverty. And the economy is still a mess, which means that members of parliament – especially after the elections late last year which were a disaster for the president – are now beginning openly to voice their dissatisfaction with his performance in office.

Would they dare to stick their heads over the parapet if they didn’t have some reason to suppose that the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who wields the real power, might be sympathetic? Is it significant that a newspaper owned by the Ayatollah has appeared to criticise Ahmadinejad’s handling of the nuclear issue? I wonder …

So: do I think Israel is going to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities? Frankly, I don’t, but I’m sure the Americans and Israelis want officials in Tehran to think otherwise. And yes, I did notice that the group of elite nuclear scientists who have been looking after the so-called Doomsday Clock for the past 60 years (it’s meant to show how close we are to a nuclear Armageddon) have just moved the hands two minutes closer to midnight. The hands now stand at five minutes to – but hey, you can always look on the bright side: back in 1953, they were at two minutes to, and we’re still here.

Wednesday 17 January 2007

13 January 2007

Let’s start with what I assume we can all agree on: that the vast majority of Iraqis want to be left alone to live in peace, earn a living, and educate their children. It doesn’t matter if they are Sunni or Shia, secular or religious, urban or rural – certain basic human desires surely unite us all.

We can, I think, also agree that the vast majority of Iraqis have no more prospect now of fulfilling those basic desires than they did before the invasion of their country nearly four years ago.

But now it gets rather harder. Will 21,500 extra American troops in and around Baghdad make it more likely or less likely that peace will prevail in Iraq? Are Iraq’s political leaders genuinely committed, as they claim to be, to creating a non-sectarian, democratic future for their country? Or does the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, secretly believe that the best way forward is to entrench a Shia hegemony after decades of domination by the Sunni minority?

Military commanders hate political ambiguity. Give them a clear mission and a defined goal and they’ll happily go for it. But Iraq is one big mess of political ambiguities. President Bush said in his TV address that the extra US troops do have a well-defined mission: “to help Iraqis clear and secure neighbourhoods, to help them protect the local population, and to help ensure that the Iraqi forces left behind are capable of providing the security that Baghdad needs."

But he is, in the words of former US defence secretary William Cohen, “pretty much alone on this.” The majority of American voters think he’s wrong, many of his top generals are reported to think he’s wrong, the opposition Democrats think he’s wrong – and even Mr Maliki is said to have grave doubts.

Mind you, going with the consensus doesn’t always mean making the right decisions. Remember Winston Churchill in the 1930s, a voice in the wilderness. (No, I’m not saying George Bush is Winston Churchill …) The New York Times describes the new strategy as “vintage George Bush — in the eyes of admirers, resolute and principled; in the eyes of critics, bull-headed, even delusional.”

Just before Mr Bush addressed the nation on Wednesday night, the White House released a list of eight “key assumptions” which it says used to underlie US policy in Iraq but which now no longer apply. Among them: that the main challenge to security is a Sunni insurgency. Now, it says, it thinks the main challenge is “violent extremists from multiple communities: the centre is eroding and sectarianism is spiking.”

And that, surely, is the heart of the problem. Will the US army now be able to encourage Mr Maliki to deal with Shia death squads as well as Sunni ones? (Always remembering, of course, that the Shia militia known as the Mahdi army is loyal to the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose MPs are a vital part of Mr Maliki’s parliamentary coalition.)

I kept a diary during the Iraq war, and I’ve just been re-reading it. After the fall of Saddam and amid the celebrations over the capture of Baghdad in April 2003, I wrote this: “I think Iraq is going to be a violent, messy, angry place for a long time … I’ll probably be talking about Iraq until I retire.” I fear that, for once, I was right.