Saturday 27 March 2010

26 March 2010

I suppose I should only whisper this – but I have the distinct impression that the words “regime change” are in the air again.

No, not Iraq this time. Not Iran either. Israel.

In both Washington and London, there seems to be a growing feeling that the current Israeli government, led by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is not one they can do business with.

In Washington, President Obama’s people are furious about Mr Netanyahu’s insistence on Israel’s right to continue building in parts of Jerusalem that the rest of the world regard as illegally occupied.

In London, there’s real anger about the forging of the British passports that were used in the assassination of Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in January. (You may have noticed that after the UK expelled an Israeli diplomat in protest on Tuesday, there was no retaliatory move by Israel. In the world of diplomacy, inactions sometimes speak louder than actions.)

So let’s scroll back the calendar to 1991. The US had just led a successful military operation to defeat Saddam Hussein after he invaded Kuwait. It wanted to make progress in resolving the Israel-Palestinian issue, and under the first President Bush was putting pressure on Israel to agree to freeze its settlement-building programme in the West Bank.

Sound familiar? The then Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, refused. President Bush threatened to withhold $10 billion worth of Israeli loan guarantees. He forced Israel to the Madrid peace conference – and in mid-1992, Israeli voters defeated Mr Shamir’s Likud party and elected Yitzhak Rabin instead.

See what I mean about regime change? And if you think I’m exaggerating, look at these words: “The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbours present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests … The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favouritism for Israel.

“Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships … and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilise support.”

The words come from written evidence given to the US Senate armed services committee 10 days ago by General David Petraeus. He’s the man who’s in charge of fighting the US wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and you can be sure they will be heeded in Washington.

As for Mr Netanyahu, well, both Washington and London have had their difficulties with him in the past. In 1998, the then British foreign secretary Robin Cook insisted on visiting the site of a proposed new Israeli settlement in the West Bank, Har Homa. It created such a row that Mr Netanyahu cancelled dinner with him. (In the world of diplomacy, who has dinner with whom matters a lot.)

A word about Jerusalem: Israel insists that settlements like Har Homa – and the area for which the new building permits were announced just as US vice-president Joe Biden was in town last week (bad timing, as all now admit) – are in Jerusalem, not the West Bank, and therefore part of a city that it regards as its eternal and undivided capital.

As Mr Netanyahu put it in a speech in Washington last Monday: “The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today. Jerusalem is not a settlement. It's our capital."

But we need to be careful with definitions here: after the 1967 war, when Israel gained control of all of Jerusalem, it extended the city boundaries by some 64 square kilometres, nearly doubling the area it regarded as sovereign Israeli territory. (And remember, under the terms of the 1947 UN resolution that established the State of Israel, Jerusalem was meant to be “a corpus separatum under a special international regime, administered by the United Nations”.)

Be all that as it may, you could well argue that Mr Netanyahu is the democratically-elected prime minister of Israel, and if Washington and London don’t like it, well, that’s just too bad. Which, up to a point, is perfectly true. (Pedants might point out that in fact, Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party won about 30,000 fewer votes than the centrist Kadima party in last year’s elections, but as all Israeli governments are coalitions, that’s mainly a theoretical debating point.)

Israel needs friends. It’s a small country, surrounded by neighbours who have no great love for it. It receives some $3 billion a year in aid from Washington. And for that reason, if for no other, Mr Netanyahu and his coalition partners may well be wondering this weekend how to start mending a few fences again.

19 March 2010

RIO DE JANEIRO -- So, it’s a week now since I arrived here in Brazil, and you’ll want to know what I think of the place.

First, as I said on the programme on Wednesday, it’s a country oozing with self-confidence. The economy is in great shape; the country is acknowledged as one of the most important of the emerging nations – and its president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known everywhere simply as Lula, is reckoned to be the world’s most successful democratic politician.

Why? Well, how many presidents can you think of who are more popular at the end of their eight years in office than they were at the beginning?

But here comes the but. Millions of Brazilians still live in miserable poverty. (Yes, fewer than before, but still too many.) The country’s roads, railways and airports wouldn’t look out of place in a war-torn African country. Nor would the appalling levels of political corruption.

As for the favelas, the teeming slums that cling to the mountainsides outside Rio, they are not a pretty sight.

I met Lana just outside one of them. She’s 19 and told me what it was like growing up in a favela very similar to the one we were about to visit.

“Of course I was scared,” she said, as we talked about the drugs gangs and the gun-fights that characterise the widespread image of life in the favelas. “Every day, life was stressful.”

I asked her if any of her friends had been killed. “Yes,” she said, and her eyes filled with tears. “He was 14, and he was my best friend. But he got close to the wrong people …”

The government says it intends to “pacify” Rio’s favelas in time for the Olympic Games that Rio will host in 2016. What ministers mean is that they will put specially-trained police into the favelas, and keep them there. You might think that the millions of people who live there would be delighted – but it’s not that simple.

As we wound our way up the mountain-side, along narrow alley-ways lined with roughly-built houses, the community workers who were with us (they said we would be immediately targeted as strangers if we had tried to go in alone), said violence in the favelas comes in many guises.

We stopped at a tiny bar. The bar-owner told us she had had no electricity for the past five days; no water for the past two months. “You ask about violence?” said one community worker. “That’s the real violence, that’s the violence that has an every-day impact on people’s lives. Not the shooting that happens only when the police come in and make trouble.”

I asked how many people had been killed over the past month. They said they had no idea – the only people who would know were the people who did the killing. “But why does no one ask how many people were killed by disease?” asked one man. “Why is no one interested in how many die because of poor sanitation? Poverty is the real violence here.”

It’s all very different in Tavares Bastos. Tavares is also a favela, but much smaller, and with a jaw-droppingly beautiful view over Rio’s Guanabara Bay and the Sugarloaf mountain.

Tavares was “pacified” nearly 10 years ago, and now the people there live a peaceful and relatively untroubled life. There’s even a small guest-house and jazz club that entices people up from the city for good music and cheap beer.

Would the people of Tavares recommend “pacification” to Rio’s other favelas? They would.

But my lasting memory is of the two young schoolboys who grinned at us as we were leaving the Complexo do Alemão, the unpacified favela in the impoverished north of the city.

They were sitting on a doorstep in the sunshine. How was school? I asked. School was good, they said. And if they could change one thing about life in the favela, what would they change?

There was a quick glance between them, and then, almost in unison, they said: “Stop the shooting. That’s what we would change: stop the shooting.”

I’ll be on air live from Rio tonight, and there’s more – including some of my pictures – on my blog at

Friday 12 March 2010

12 March 2010

How remarkable is this? I’ve just read the following sentence in a news report from Baghdad: “The (Iraqi) poll’s outcome is still unclear.”

Remarkable? How so? Well, consider this: in no Arab country other than Lebanon are you likely to read those words after an election. Not in Egypt, or Syria, or Morocco, or Saudi Arabia. If you regard Palestine as a country, then yes, admittedly, there too they have elections whose results are not pre-determined.

It’s an odd thing, isn’t it? Throughout Latin America, and east Asia, and in many parts of Africa, a democratic wind has blown over the past 20-30 years. Yet much of the Arab world seems to have remained immune, for reasons which you may like to discuss.

Now, whenever the words “election” and “democracy” crop up in the same sentence, I am reminded of what a Ugandan MP once told me as we sat on the green leather benches of the parliament building in Kampala. “An election is no more democracy than a wedding is a marriage.”

In other words, yes, of course, you need the one before you can have the other – but on its own, it’s not enough.

So elections in Iraq with no predetermined outcome do not necessarily mean that democracy has come to Iraq. Is there a free and impartial judicial system? Do all citizens have equal recourse to the courts? Is there guaranteed freedom of expression and assembly? The questions answer themselves.

You may think that the people of Iraq have paid a terrible price in order to be able to vote (semi-) freely in parliamentary elections. Or you may think that freedom from tyranny is rarely won without bloodshed.

If you were to ask an Iraqi: “Has democracy come to your country?”, I suspect as many would answer No as Yes. But as someone who visited Iraq while Saddam Hussein was in power, I well remember the all-pervasive, and paralysing, atmosphere of fear.

It is not for me to say whether the US-led invasion was justified or not. My point is simply to draw your attention to how rare it still is in the Arab world to find elections in which a genuine choice is on offer. (Not that the choice was a perfect one in Iraq by any means – but it was more of a choice than what went before.)

And by the way, to speak of the Arab world is not the same as to speak of the Muslim world. In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, in Pakistan, even in Iran, there have been elections that could well be judged free-er than many in the Arab world.

So Iraq joins Lebanon – and perhaps Palestine – on a rare roll of honour. As in Lebanon, the political process is largely dominated by sectarian considerations. In neither country will you find many Sunni Muslims voting for a Shia party, or vice versa. In Lebanon, to find a Maronite Christian voting for a Muslim party is about as rare as to find a Kurd in northern Iraq voting for a non-Kurdish party.

Think politics in northern Ireland and you’ll get the general idea. Sectarian politics is not confined to the Middle East.

As for Iraq, the strong likelihood is that prime minister Nouri al-Maliki will be able to put together a new government coalition able to command a majority in parliament. What he does with it we’ll have to wait to see.

I’ve just arrived in Brazil, from where I’ll be reporting next week on a country emerging ever more strongly onto the world stage. I hope you’ll listen out for my reports.

Friday 5 March 2010

5 March 2010

I’ve just finished watching Gordon Brown give evidence to the Chilcot committee on Iraq. In summary, he said this:

 We did the right thing for the right reasons.
 I regret all the lives that were lost, both military and civilian
 I gave the military all the money they asked for.

If you’re bored by the Iraq inquiry, you can stop reading now. If, like me, you think it’s a remarkable political exercise – watching a prime minister in office being questioned on live television by members of an inquiry team that he himself set up – then I hope you’ll read on.

Let’s remember, though, that if Mr Brown had had his way, we wouldn’t have seen any of this, because his original idea was that it wouldn’t be held in public.

To me, the key moments today were when he insisted, again and again, that he never turned down a request for extra cash from the military. That’s not what former MoD officials and military chiefs have said – they certainly remember being told they couldn’t have all the cash they wanted. (We’re going to try to reconcile these two versions of history in tonight’s programme.)

But I was also fascinated to compare Gordon Brown’s approach to the committee with Tony Blair’s in January. From Mr Blair, we got passion and conviction; from Mr Brown, a calculated defence of a position that he only rarely defended publicly at the time.

For a man who is said not to be the most subtle political operator on the planet, I thought he turned in an unexpectedly subtle performance. He didn’t try to distance himself from Mr Blair overtly – but there were moments when, if you were listening carefully, you could hear him tip-toeing away from the Blair position.

“I never subscribed to what you might call the neo-conservative proposition that somehow, at the barrel of a gun, overnight liberty or democracy could be conjured up,” he said. Unlike whom, would you say?

“We have learned the lessons of informality in government,” he said. Although to be fair, he did say that Tony Blair learned those lessons too.

As for that contentious legal advice from the attorney-general, who at the last moment assured the Cabinet that going to war in Iraq would be legal, despite his earlier reservations, No, he hadn’t known about all the detailed discussions that had preceded it – but it didn’t matter, because the final “unequivocal” advice was that the war would be legal.

When the Chilcot inquiry report comes to be written, it won’t deal with stylistic or thespian differences between Britain’s two leading political figures. Judging by the way the questioning has been going, it’ll deal mainly with how decisions were made, and how the way the government works should be improved.

Not really surprising, because that’s what it has been asked to do. But after today’s evidence from Mr Brown, I wonder whether it’ll have anything to say about how closely a Chancellor of the Exchequer should be involved in the detailed political discussions that precede a decision to go to war.

Gordon Brown portrayed himself as a man who viewed his role very largely as being confined to finding a way to pay for it all. And who, by and large, was perfectly happy for that to be the case.

By the way, you may have seen that the interview we broadcast with William Hague about Lord Ashcroft on Wednesday’s programme created a bit of a stir. If you missed it, it’s still available via Listen Again on the website, or via my Facebook page.