Friday 24 April 2009

24 April 2009

Raise your hand if you remember triangulation. Now lower it again if you think I’m talking about mathematics.

No, what I’m thinking of is the technique introduced by Bill Clinton, and then enthusiastically adopted by Tony Blair, of deciding on a political posture by reference to the two extreme positions. They called it the Middle Way, or the Third Way, and for a time, it served them well.

The reason I ask is that I’ve begun to wonder if Barack Obama might be a secret triangulator. Yes, Mr No-Drama Obama, Mr Über-Cool – could he be?

Consider his position on what to do about the authorisation and use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” by the Bush administration on alleged terrorism suspects.

First, it was clear enough: “I regard what happened as illegal and immoral, but I want to look forward not back, so I am not in favour of prosecuting anyone who might have been involved.” (I paraphrase.)

Then came a wobble: “I am not in favour of prosecuting any CIA official who may have been involved in actually using the ‘enhanced’ techniques, but I leave open the question of prosecuting former administration officials who authorised their use, which is something for the attorney-general to decide.” (I paraphrase again.)

(By the way, if you’ve been wondering which officials exactly might have been involved, US Senate documents released this week suggest they include former vice-president Dick Cheney, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, and White House counsel Alberto Gonzales.)

And then last night, another wobble, from the attorney-general, Eric Holder: “I will not permit the criminalisation of policy differences. However, it is my responsibility as Attorney General to enforce the law.” (A direct quote this time.)

Which leaves things unclearer than ever. So what’s going on? Are we observing the return of the triangulator? Is Mr Obama trying to find a middle way between his Democratic Party colleagues in Congress (who are themselves split on how to handle this issue), and the Republicans who are already accusing him of selling out the country’s intelligence services?

Like all Democrats, Mr Obama knows that his right-wing critics are just waiting to pounce on any suggestion that he might be “soft on national security”. But he needs to keep his colleagues on Capitol Hill happy as well, because he’s going to need them big time when it comes to voting through proposals on health care reform.

The President likes to portray himself as a uniter rather than a divider. Throughout his campaign, and since his inauguration, he has tried to emphasise what Americans agree on, not what they disagree on.

But sometimes, it looks as if his instincts don’t serve him too well. When he was engulfed in controversy over remarks by his Chicago pastor, Jeremiah Wright, he thought at first that some soft soothing words would make it all go away. They didn’t. So he had to toughen up his response and disown Mr Wright.

Similarly the row over bonuses paid to the insurance giant AIG after it had been bailed out by US tax-payers. At first he thought the bonuses weren’t a serious issue. But they were – so again, he had to toughen up his response.

Being cool is fine when everyone is happy with you being cool. But sometimes voters like to see their leaders getting tough on issues they care about. I’m not sure President Obama has quite decided yet how tough voters want him to be on “enhanced interrogation techniques”.

Nevertheless, I very much doubt that there will be any prosecutions. I also doubt that there’ll be a formal commission of inquiry, although some senior Democrats are pressing for one. On Wednesday night’s programme, Josh Gerstein of the political news website Politico told me that what the argument is really about is who will make the decision that there won’t be any prosecutions.

Try triangulating that one.

Friday 17 April 2009

17 April 2009

I imagine that, like me, you’re glad that you don’t have to deal with the contents of Barack Obama’s in-tray.

Think about it: right at the top, two over-excited daughters, constantly squabbling over whose turn it is to take the new puppy for a run. And a wife who – even if she doesn’t say it out loud is certainly thinking it: “Don’t look at me … you’re the one who promised them a dog if we made it to the White House, so now you can deal with it.”

And then, when both the daughters and the dog are finally asleep, there’s the nearly as tricky question of what Iran and North Korea are up to at their various nuclear sites. And Iraq and Afghanistan, of course. Oh yes, and climate change. Did someone mention the economy?

And now, the people at the US State Department are telling you that you need to focus on Sri Lanka. They put out a statement last night: “The United States government is deeply concerned about the current danger to civilian lives and the dire humanitarian situation created by the fighting in the Mullaittivu area in Sri Lanka. We call upon the government and military of Sri Lanka, and the Tamil Tigers, to immediately stop hostilities until the more than 140,000 civilians in the conflict area are safely out.”

On Wednesday, the British and French governments called on the Sri Lankan government to continue its 48-hour ceasefire, while also criticising the Tamil Tiger rebels for preventing civilians from leaving the conflict area.

So what’s happening in Sri Lanka? Here’s the brief history: for the last 25 years, on and off, the Tamil Tigers have been fighting for an independent Tamil state in the north and east of Sri Lanka. At least 70,000 – I’ll repeat that, 70,000 – people have died in the conflict.

Now, after several months of heavy fighting, government forces seem to be on the verge of a military victory. The rebels control only a tiny sliver of land, but well over 100,000 civilians are trapped there. Many are dying, either as a result of military action or from diseases for which no treatment is available.

I spoke to the Red Cross earlier this week: they told me they have managed to get thousands of people out, but many thousands more are still stuck. Very few got out during the government ceasefire on Monday and Tuesday, either because the Tigers wouldn’t let them leave, or because they were too frightened to.

You haven’t seen or heard much about all this, have you? The reason is simple enough: the authorities won’t let journalists anywhere near the conflict zone. So the Red Cross are just about the only people who know what’s really happening.

And so far, all the international appeals for pauses, negotiations and the rest of it have fallen on deaf ears in Colombo. The government and the army are convinced that they are about to win this war once and for all. They are in no mood to stop now.

But those statements from Washington, London and Paris mean something. They mean there is real and growing international concern about the terrible cost in civilian lives of this military end-game. India is the traditional power broker in Sri Lanka, but India has just entered a month-long election process.

President Obama has just arrived in Mexico on his way to a Summit of the Americas in Trinidad. He has drug wars, arms smuggling, illegal immigration and relations with Latin America on his mind.

I can’t help wondering how much attention he’s paying to Sri Lanka.

Friday 10 April 2009

10 April 2009

I’ve been thinking about something an American pundit said to me when we were discussing Barack Obama’s election last November. “Just because we’ve changed presidents,” she said, “doesn’t mean that the rest of the world has changed as well.”

I wonder if Mr Obama is thinking something similar as he ponders the results of his travels. Because he may be feeling that he doesn’t have a great deal to show for all his glad-handing and speechifying.

I don’t want to sound mean-spirited, so let’s deal with the positives first. Yes, he was well received – even rapturously received – pretty much wherever he went. He spoke well, he seemed to be listening as well – and he said many of the things his hosts hoped to hear from him. And, if it matters, the First Lady was a great success too.

From the London summit to the NATO summit, from the Prague speech on nuclear disarmament to the speech to the Turkish parliament, the verdict of the punditocracy was that he didn’t put a foot wrong.

But did his fellow world leaders in London accept his idea for a globally-agreed fiscal stimulus package? No. Did European leaders in NATO agree to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan to join the US in its counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations? Only in a very limited, and temporary, way.

And as for that briefest of touch-downs in Iraq, he arrived just a day after a co-ordinated series of bombings in Baghdad that cost nearly 40 lives. The suspicion is that restive Sunni militiamen are flexing their muscles as the (Shia) Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki tries to rein them in.

Mr Obama would like us to think that Iraq is no longer a major problem. He’d much rather we focussed on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. But I fear that Iraq is in fact still a major problem, or at least that it has the potential to be one. (Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad to US forces, and it was marked by a huge demonstration calling for the US to get out now.)

It has long been acknowledged by military strategists that withdrawals are uniquely risky undertakings. Soldiers are never so vulnerable as when they are packing their bags and preparing to fly home. What’s more, they inevitably leave a hole, which others want to fill for them after they have gone.

Here’s what I’d be worrying about if I were contingency planning. First, the Sunni fighters of the Awakening Councils, whose anti-al Qaeda operations were a crucial element in reducing the levels of violence. Can Mr Maliki be persuaded to treat them with a degree of respect and understanding which until now he has seemed unprepared to show?

Second, the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, and the flashpoint city of Mosul. Both are tinder-boxes, and both have the potential to erupt at any time. The top US commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, is quoted in The Times today as saying that trouble in Kirkuk and/or Mosul could result in US combat troops staying in Iraq beyond the Obama-imposed deadline of 30 June next year.

(By the way, the number of US military deaths in Iraq last month was nine, the first time it has been in single figures since the invasion six years ago. The total number of US military deaths is put at 4,266.)

Don’t forget: President Obama is now committed to a major escalation of US military involvement in Afghanistan. The last thing he wants is for things to get worse again in Iraq – but he can’t be sure that won’t happen.

And my sense is that if things do get worse, he won’t get much help from US allies, however much they may have applauded his speeches over the past week. The prevailing view seems to be: “You lot got us into this mess, so you can get us out again.” Not pretty, maybe, but hard times breed hard politics.

Friday 3 April 2009

3 April 2009

I’m going to keep this as simple as I can, mainly because it’s the only hope I have of understanding any of it. So here’s my take on the London summit …

Did it change anything? A bit. Will it make a difference? A bit. Does it mean the crisis will end sooner rather than later? No idea.

The first thing you need to do is ignore the headlines. All that stuff about “a historic meeting”, and “a new world order” – that’s just to keep the headline-writers happy.

And as for the trillion dollars, well, thanks to the Financial Times, I can do a bit of deconstructing for you. Half of it is made up of supposedly “new money” for the International Monetary Fund: $100 billion from Japan (announced last November), $75 billion from the EU (announced last month), $40 billion from China. Then there’s another $250 billion in Special Drawing Rights, which isn’t real money at all, but can be used as if it is – it’s the IMF’s version of “quantitative easing”, or, if you prefer, printing money.

Add in another $250 billion on trade finance guarantees (that’s the insurance policies that governments offer to exporters so that if they don’t get paid, they get their money anyway) – but like all insurance policies, the assumption is that they won’t have to pay out, and in any case, according to the FT, only $3-4 billion of new money has been committed.

And then there’s an extra $100 billion available for lending from multi-national development banks, much of which will in fact be borrowed from elsewhere.

In the words of the FT: “When all the sums are added together, rather than $1,100 billion, the new commitments appear to be below $100 billion, and most of those were in train without the G20 summit.”

So let’s get back to basics for a moment. This whole mess started when we discovered that our banks had lent out far too much money to people who couldn’t pay it back. They did this because they had gazillions of dollars swishing about in their vaults, thanks to the mega-surpluses built up by China, which has been selling us everything from computer chips to cameras.

Then the banks panicked, stopped lending anything to anyone, so we stopped buying, which meant that manufacturers couldn’t sell anything, which meant they either went out of business or started laying off staff. Meanwhile, we couldn’t get mortgages to buy houses with, so property prices stopped rising, so we stopped feeling richer.

Did the London summit change any of that? Er, not a lot. The banks are still spooked, because they still don’t know how much nasty stuff is lurking on their books – and the summiteers simply didn’t dare shine a spotlight.

All they could come up with was: “We are committed to take all necessary actions to restore the normal flow of credit through the financial system and ensure the soundness of systemically important institutions.” Which sounds uncannily like what I exclusively predicted a week ago: “We reaffirm our commitment to work together to encourage a rapid end to the current crisis … and we reaffirm our faith in the power of motherhood and apple pie.”

Finally, an answer to a pub quiz question of the future: Why is there no photograph of all the summit leaders together? Answer: because the first time they tried, the Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper was otherwise engaged; and the second time, they couldn’t find the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.