Friday 28 November 2008

28 November 2008

“Isn’t it terrible about Mumbai?” said the man in the BBC canteen, just hours after the first news of the attacks on Wednesday evening.

“Are there any pictures yet?”

Pictures. Of course. He wanted to see the pictures – and the attackers wanted him to see the pictures. They wanted us all to see the pictures: pictures of people, dead and dying; of security forces rushing about, not knowing where to turn; of great iconic buildings in flames.

The IRA used to talk of their major attacks on the UK mainland as “spectaculars”. They were, literally, spectacles. We live in the age of the image, so those who seek to become globally visible must create global images.

Here’s a (partial) list: 11 September, 2001. The Twin Towers in New York, smoke billowing from the upper floors before they come crashing to the ground. In your mind’s eye, you can see the images now, can’t you?

12 October 2002: The Bali nightclub bombings. Destroyed clubs, dazed tourists. More images.

11 March 2004: The Madrid train bombings. Mangled wreckage and twisted tracks. More lasting images.

7 July 2005: The London bombings. A red, double-decker bus, its roof ripped off by a suicide bomb. More images again.

And now 26 November 2008: The Mumbai bombings. The Taj Mahal Palace hotel, one of the most recognisable buildings in all of India, with flames and smoke billowing from the roof. Another image that our minds will not erase.

Approximately three and a half thousand people were killed in those five attacks. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, on the other hand, an estimated five million people have died as a direct and indirect result of conflict. In Darfur, an estimated 200,000 people have died. In Zimbabwe, we don’t even have an estimate.

Do you have an image in your mind from Congo, Darfur, or Zimbabwe? No, nor do I.

And I’ll tell you why. We journalists are good at reporting sudden events. We’re good at surprises, the bigger the better. We call them “news”.

We’re not so good at things that happen slowly, or over a long period of time. We’re also not very good at things that happen in places that are dangerous or difficult to reach, where there’s no reliable power supply to recharge our cameras, mobile phones and satellite transmission equipment. In other words, we’re much better in big modern cities. Cities like New York, Madrid, London and Mumbai.

I don’t say you should blame us for it; it’s just the way it is. And those who plan terrorist attacks know it. (They also know that they get a lot more coverage if they attack Westerners than if they attack “locals”. Nearly twice as many people died in the Mumbai train station attacks in 2006 as died this week, but they were all “locals”.)

India has the third largest Muslim population in the world, after Indonesia and Pakistan. But unlike in Indonesia and Pakistan, India’s Muslims are a minority, and many of them feel they are systematically discriminated against by the Hindu majority. If it turns out that the Mumbai attackers were Indian (I hate the label “home-grown”), that may be relevant.

If it turns out that there is a Pakistan connection, we have reason to be seriously worried. The not-very-experienced Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower, has been trying to improve relations with India. If someone in Pakistan is trying to stop him by killing scores of Indian citizens, he’s in big trouble.

It may take a while before we know who was behind the Mumbai attacks. We may never know for sure. But when we remind ourselves that both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers, we have to hope that cool heads will prevail.

Friday 21 November 2008

21 November 2008

If you’ve been trying to figure out how those Somali pirates managed to clamber aboard the giant oil super-tanker Sirius Star in the middle of the Indian Ocean last weekend, I think I can enlighten you – because I’ve done it.

Well, something rather similar, at any rate. Many years ago, I was invited to spend a few days aboard a super-tanker in the Gulf. But it had no intention of stopping for me, so I was ferried out in a launch from Dubai to meet it, and then clambered up the side with the help of a none-too-secure rope ladder. I imagine the pirates did much the same thing (although they wouldn’t have had to do too much clambering, given that the tanker was fully laden with 2 million barrels of crude oil and therefore lying very low indeed in the water).

The point being that super-tankers are not easy to defend. They are slow, and ridiculously difficult to manoeuvre. What’s more, they need only a handful of crewmen on board, so half a dozen pirates with a couple of Kalashnikovs are probably all you need to seize control.

Hijacking a super-tanker – or any other kind of sea-going vessel -- is a bit like taking someone hostage. Its only value is what someone else is prepared to pay for it. The Somali pirates wouldn’t have much use for the crude oil, or for the tanker itself – but the several million dollars in ransom money they expect to be able to extort will buy each of them a very nice home, a top-of-the-range 4x4 and as many guns and nippy little speed-boats as their hearts desire.

So here’s the question: should the ship’s owners refuse to pay up? Yes, it’d be tough on the crewmen, whose lives could be at risk – but all previous experience suggests that paying up merely encourages a repeat offence. That certainly seems to be the view of the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, who said yesterday: “There is a strong view of the British Government, and actually the international community, that payments for hostage-taking are only an encouragement to further hostage-taking.”

And here’s another question: could it be that paying a million dollars – or even 10 million dollars – once in a while for a hijacked ship is a pain that ship owners are prepared to bear? Most of their ships don’t get hijacked, and even if they start sending them the long way round Africa, instead of through the Gulf of Aden and up towards the Suez Canal, that won’t necessarily do them much good – after all, the Sirius Star was heading south towards the Cape of Good Hope when it was seized, simply because it’s far too big for the Suez Canal.

So who will stop the pirates? There’s no authority in Somalia, nor has there been for the best part of 18 years. It’s now nearly two years since the internationally-recognised interim government, with the help of the Ethiopian army, defeated the Union of Islamic Courts which had ruled much of Somalia for nearly six months. But now the Islamists are back in strength, and the Ethiopians are reviled as an occupation army. Think Afghanistan and the Taliban, and you’ll get the general idea.

By a strange coincidence of timing, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo both now find themselves back in the headlines. In Congo there are 17,000 United Nations peacekeepers and a high-profile diplomatic effort to restore security to the east of the country. In Somalia, on the other hand, after the collapse of the interim government, there is virtually no effective international engagement at all.

I think the most heartbreaking scene I ever witnessed was in southern Somalia in 1997, when I was there to report on a catastrophic floods emergency. I came across a deserted hospital – the staff had all left when they ran out of drugs. In the dust outside sat a woman with two tiny dying babies in her arms, sobbing almost silently as she watched their lives ebb away. She had brought them to the hospital in the desperate hope that she would find help there. But there was none.

That was more than 10 years ago, when Somalia had been without a government for “only” six years. The sad truth today is that Somalia still has a lot more to worry about than pirates who hijack super-tankers. And I fear there’s no end in sight to its suffering.

Friday 14 November 2008

14 November 2008

I’ll be honest with you: I’m going to try really hard to take this weekend’s global economic summit seriously. But it won’t be easy.

I’m not a great believer in summits: the truth is that the real work usually gets done in the weeks and months leading up to them, by hard-working civil servants whose names you’d never recognise. When the Presidents and Prime Ministers eventually turn up in their limousines, there’s rarely much left for them to do, other than hobnob around, do a bit of grandstanding, whisper to each other in corners and corridors, and hold not-very-informative press conferences.

Will this one be any different? Well, there hasn’t been much time for preparation, if only because the financial crisis erupted with such fury in September that there’s scarcely been time for anyone to do any preparing. My guess is that at the end of the weekend, they’ll announce with great pride that they’ve all done terribly well and agreed unanimously that lots more meetings need to be held.

Which, I admit, is probably a good thing. The last thing we need in our current predicament is each government and central bank going their own sweet way without any consultation with anyone else. But if you’re going to reinvent the wheel, an unwieldy committee made up of the world’s most powerful (and wannabe most powerful) nations is not the best way to go about it.

Do I have an alternative suggestion? Er, no. And my impression is that the events of the past couple of months have given these guys such an almighty fright that they may just be in a mood to do some serious thinking. Whether they’re also in a mood to do some serious compromising remains to be seen.

So here’s a little test for you. Can you name the members of the Group of 20 who are on the summit invitation list? They are: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.

You’re right, that’s only 19. The 20th is the European Union, which is the only way countries like Spain and Poland get a look in. According to the G20 website, the member countries represent around 90 per cent of global gross national product, 80 per cent of world trade, and two-thirds of the world's population. In other words, in strictly economic terms, just about everyone who matters.

In tonight’s (Friday’s) programme, we’re going to be discussing the prospects for this weekend’s summit with three supremely well-qualified economic thinkers: the US deputy trade representative John Veroneau, the French government economic adviser Laurent Cohen-Tanugi, and the Indian economist Jagdish Bhagwati of Columbia University, New York.

We recorded the discussion yesterday afternoon, as they all happened to be in London, and what struck me was how little they expect to emerge from the next couple of days. Yes, they agree that much needs to be done, especially in the field of tighter financial regulation – but they all say it’s going to take time.

Quite apart from anything else, there needs to be an agreement on what exactly has to be fixed before they start discussing how to fix it. And no one is unaware that their host this weekend, President Bush, will be off the world stage within a matter of weeks. His successor, Barack Obama, is making himself scarce this weekend, for all the usual protocol reasons – but no real work will get done till he’s got his feet under that desk in the Oval Office and has made his own thoughts known.

So, yes, let’s by all means pay attention to the summit this weekend. But let’s not pretend that all those presidential jets and motorcades will bring us renewed prosperity and stability by Monday morning. I still suspect that few, if any, of the summiteers know exactly how we got ourselves into this mess, so it’s asking quite a lot to expect them to get us out of it just yet.

Friday 7 November 2008

7 November 2008

WASHINGTON DC -- I always enjoy it when pundits are proved wrong, even if the pundit is me.

For example: remember how they said Spanish-speaking voters wouldn’t vote for a black candidate in the presidential election? They did, by more than 2-1.

How blue-collar working class voters wouldn’t support a smart Chicago lawyer? Yes, they did, in states like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

How voters lie to pollsters about supporting a black candidate, because they don’t want to look racist? If anything, it was the opposite … it seems that slightly more people voted for Barack Obama than the polls suggested.

Oh, and how I went to Missouri in September, because Missouri always gets it right? Er, not this time, it seems, because the unofficial indications are that by the slimmest of margins, it went for John McClain, even while Barack Obama was basking in victory.

And here are a couple more little nuggets for you. Obama won the largest share of white support of any Democrat in a two-man race since 1976. He won 43 percent of white voters and 96 percent of black voters. But despite a massive drive to register new black voters, national turn-out among blacks was just two per cent higher than last time.

A columnist in the New York Times yesterday called this week’s election “the first real 21st century election … As a nation, we rejoin the world community. As a sustaining narrative, we found our story again.”

I think that may be over-stating it. America is still split down the middle – there are nearly as many people who weren’t persuaded by the Obama oratory as those who were … and for all the jubilation out on the streets of the major urban centres, there are still many millions of Americans who view the prospect of an Obama presidency with forboding.

And yet. Can you think of any other country which has elected as its head of state someone from a minority community? The only one I can think of is Peru, which in 1990 elected Alberto Fujimori as president. (Not a happy precedent, in fact: he’s currently serving a six-year prison sentence for abuse of power.)

The symbolism of a black president in the White House is over-powering, and if you doubt its significance to African Americans, just listen to my interview with the writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, which was broadcast on The World Tonight and Newshour on Wednesday evening and is still available online.

The scenes of enthusiasm which greeted Obama’s victory were stunning – Washington on Tuesday night felt a bit like I remember London feeling on that night in May 1997 when Tony Blair was first elected. A new beginning, a fresh start, a young leader with a young family, brimming with ideas and energy.

This is no time to dampen his supporters’ enthusiasm. But as their euphoria begins to fade, they will have to acknowledge that excitement will soon give way to the gruelling reality of governing an America that’s in the grip of a deep economic downturn and embroiled in two messy wars.

It has been a fascinating week to be in the US – and the Obama presidency will be well worth watching.