Friday, June 26, 2015

Thursday, June 18, 2015

United Nations Report Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June July 2015.

U.S. Protects Israeli Occupation, U.N. Reinforces Morocco’s in Western Sahara

By Ian Williams

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (r) meets with Kim Bolduc, his Special Representative and Head of the U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). (UN PHOTO/EVAN SCHNEIDER)

THERE IS NOTHING LIKE watching the great powers at work to demonstrate just how ephemeral “eternal” principles are, and how expedient their implementation. It is reported that Washington is trying to persuade the French, in particular, to back-pedal on their attempt to lay down the accepted principles of a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. This would essentially emphasize the illegality of settlement activity and the applicability of the 1967 boundaries as enshrined in numerous repeated U.N. resolutions over the years and accepted by every country in the world except Israel.
But for once, the Obama administration is not doing this simply as a favor to Israel. It is a different kind of pandering: Washington is discreetly asking the other countries to hold back so that the White House can concentrate on the Iranian deal and get it through Congress in the teeth of Israeli lobby opposition. It is demeaning, of course, but over the decades not uncommon for American diplomats to plead for forbearance with foreign colleagues so that they can cope with geopolitically illiterate American legislators.
In this case there is an extra twist, in that the U.S. is hinting that once the Iran deal is done, it can get around to dealing with Binyamin Netanyahu’s recalcitrance, with the further hint that Israel cannot take the American veto at the U.N. for granted.
That raises the question of why President Barack Obama could not say that before the Israeli election. Netanyahu has gratuitously interfered in domestic American politics all his political career, and in particular over the Iran issue. If Obama and Secretary of State Kerry had forcefully announced to the world that should Netanyahu persist in disavowing agreed terms for peace and refused to stop settlement, there would be no guarantee of a U.S. veto in the Security Council, it might well have cost him the election. Israeli voters see no downside in Netanyahu’s chutzpah,and clearly a majority of them agree with his hard-line stance—as long as he can get away with it.
In a chain of connections, the Marshall Islands is one of the few countries that frequently supports the U.S. on Israel. Of course, it has to! It was one of the former U.N. strategic trust territories in the Pacific taken from Japan and administered by the U.S., and Washington only agreed to its “independence” if it relinquished its right to its own defense and consulted with the U.S. on foreign affairs.
Even at the time, that raised eyebrows, since these are some of the crucial indicators of sovereignty. Nonetheless, the General Assembly accepted the new micro states as full members, and they have consistently voted with the U.S. on Middle Eastern issues. Among the few sources of revenue were annual grants from Congress, so no wonder the islanders were so interested in Middle Eastern affairs. One other revenue source was fees from the islands’ sideline as a flag of convenience, where American shipowners could escape domestic labor and safety regulations.
But at the end of April unforeseen consequences cropped up when Iran arrested an American ship that was flagged out of the Marshall Islands. Some Israeli commentators immediately tried to get the U.S. Navy to fulfill its defense obligations under international law—for them, of course, it is always a good day to attack Iran. Interestingly, the Marshall Islands would have recourse to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea since it is a signatory—unlike the U.S., Israel and Iran! Quite why the U.S. should risk World War III for a shipping company that expatriated its ships to avoid U.S. taxation and regulation is a question that remains unanswered.
While Arab states and others—such as France—are quick, and correct, to call attention to how U.S.-drafted Security Council resolutions bend over backward to cover for a certain state on the eastern end of the Mediterranean, they remain resolutely silent over France’s cover for another state at the opposite end of the Mediterranean that flouts previous resolutions and international law.

A Free Pass for Morocco

Morocco’s continuing occupation of the Western Sahara, with its own separation wall, the Berm, snaking across the desert, continues to get a free pass in Resolution 2218 passed April 28 in New York.
The name of the U.N. operation that the resolution extends for yet another year says it all. MINURSO, in full, is the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, and it was set up in 1991 with a timetable of one year. Almost a quarter of a century has passed, with Morocco still impeding any attempt to implement the “self-determination of the people of Western Sahara in the context of arrangements consistent with the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations” that the resolution breezily refers to in its preamble, even as its substance robs it of meaning.
Back in 1991, Johannes Mantz, the first head of the mission, promised the U.N. press corps that the operation would be open within a year, since a Spanish census 18 years before had identified the voting roll and even the infants had now come of age. There is now an entirely new generation of Sahrawis born and come of voting age.
Many of these are young, unemployed and disaffected, and the secretary-general’s report gives evidence of unrest and demonstrations on both sides of the Berm, in Polisario- and Moroccan-controlled territories alike. After decades in which the world seemed happy to let the Sahrawis wallow in their misery as long as there was no spillover, there are now increasing worries at the possibilities of destabilization in the region. The possibilities for smuggling and cross-border crime are now joined by apprehension at the prospects of extremist recruitment of unemployed youth with few if any prospects and facing rampant injustice exacerbated by the “benign neglect” of the world community.
The African Union, whose membership includes the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), has taken a renewed interest in the issue and has been pushing for a referendum. After all, one of the founding principles of the Union was that the old colonial boundaries had to be respected, not so much because of their own inherent value but rather because the belligerent consequences of trying to redraw them would be so bloody. Morocco did not join the Union because of SADR’s membership—and objected in April when the Union tried to get the SADR delegate to speak on non-proliferation in Africa.
A veritable chorus of forked tongues speaks on the issue, with words getting new and Orwellian meanings. The U.N. reports praise Morocco for its progress on human rights in the territory, while Morocco and France, with active U.S. and British support and Russian connivance, fought to ensure that the resolution did not mandate an active human rights monitoring mission called for by the African Union.
The West often castigates Africa for its allegedly lackadaisical attitude to human rights violations. But in this case the great powers actively fought to keep MINURSO the only U.N. peacekeeping mission without a human rights component, and for the even more singular honor of being the Mission for the Referendum on self-determination on the Western Sahara that is not allowed to carry out a referendum or mention that Rabat has repeatedly announced that it will not allow self-determination.
Polisario has raised Morocco’s sale of off-shore oil rights to foreign oil companies and had thechutzpah to justify it by reference to the 2002 letter on the matter from Hans Corell, who was then U.N. undersecretary-general for legal affairs. As he has repeatedly said since then in several articles, the legal opinion he gave was that selling the oil contracts was in flagrant breach of the Geneva conventions on Occupied Territories—and that the companies accepting the contracts were in breach of international law.
While even the U.S. does not insist on praising Israel for its cooperation when it so clearly does not cooperate, the April U.N. resolution praises Morocco for its progress in the teeth of its flamboyant defiance.
Principles can be so tedious for politicians. 

Ian Williams 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

AIPAC, Graham, Netanyahu and the Utter uselessness of the Quarter

WRMEA, May, 2015, pp. 20-21

United Nations Report

Three New Amigos: Graham, Netanyahu And Blair

By Ian Williams

Tony Blair
International Quartet special envoy Tony Blair at a July 15, 2014 press conference in Jerusalem with Israeli President Shimon Peres. Still criticized in Britain for his role in helping George W. Bush launch the 2003 war on Iraq, Blair more recently has been attacked for focusing more on his own economic interests than in bringing peace to Palestine and Israel. (ILIA YEFIMOVICH/GETTY IMAGES)

“It’s déjà vu all over again,” as Yogi Berra famously said. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) recently put in a bid for more campaign funding from Sheldon Adelson and his friends. At the AIPAC annual conference and on Fox, the senator threatened to reopen the tedious tactic of threatening Washington’s payment of its $654 million in dues to the U.N. Once a hardy perennial on the Hill, the issue had gone away since the relatively benign relations between the world body and Israel seemed to have dulled the edge of Washington’s constant grating chorus.
Despite their professed disdain for the U.N., Israeli diplomats and politicians clearly wallow in the reflected glory of every minor committee membership the state has achieved since it became a de facto member of the West European and Other Group.
As on those earlier occasions, it is pro-Israel activists rather than Israel itself trying to score donations and points by bashing the U.N. This time it is not just Palestine, but the Iranian issue that has them exercised. Graham knows that there are major donations to be had from deranged Likud supporters like Adelson.
“All the money that goes in to support the State Department comes through my committee,” Graham, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs, told Fox, adding, “I’m gonna put the United Nations on notice.” He warned that he would slash U.S. funding to the U.N. if that body decided to lift sanctions on Iran as part of a nuclear agreement. “Twenty-two percent of the funding for the United Nations comes from the American taxpayer and I’m in charge of that account,” Graham stated.
“If they go to the U.N. Security Council, and the U.N. Security Council lifts all sanctions before we ever get a chance to look at this deal, absolutely I would suspend funding the United Nations, because I don’t think your money should go to an organization that irresponsible,” he affirmed. “I’m not going to allow the United Nations to be used as a way to get around the United States Congress for a deal that affects the very existence of Israel and our own national security,” he vowed.
Since there is no way the Council could consider lifting sanctions on Iran without the support and vote of the U.S. delegation, which has a veto there, the senator really is talking about using his assumed legislative prerogatives to thwart an agreement by his own country’s president and diplomats. It is an act similar to that of the 47 Republican senators who wrote Tehran on behalf of Israel threatening not to honor any agreement with Iran, which is hardly surprising since Graham was one of the signatories.
The tentacles of Likud-USA, as AIPAC has become, are everywhere. Bereft of direct influence over President Barack Obama and the State Department, they are using their bully power everywhere else. Binyamin Netanyahu’s election rally in front of an adoring Congress might have helped him win back home with the voters—but it was much less effective with the White House.
When Netanyahu gauchely topped his Washington performance with his election eve speech to hard-line settlers explicitly denouncing recognition of any Palestinian state, he made it even more difficult to win over the White House. What little diplomatic credibility the U.S. has had globally on the issue was that it was pulling Israel along toward the stated goal of a two-state solution, as enshrined in all previous declarations from Oslo onwards.
However, Netanyahu’s promise should not have come as much of a surprise to most observers. Anyone who looked at Netanyahu and Likud could see the unconvincing hollowness of their protestations of support for a Palestinian state. They had put so many conditions on recognition that it clearly said “Bukra fil mishmish” (when pigs fly) to any recognition. However, it suited American leaders and their diplomatic hangers-on to overlook all this and pretend that Israeli leaders sincerely wanted peace. Otherwise they would have to confront their Israeli “ally” publicly, with all the fraught consequences for domestic politics that would entail.
In order to win re-election, Netanyahu went farther than usual in dropping the pretense of cooperation in peace talks. An already exasperated President Obama deliberately delayed telephoning him to congratulate him on his victory, and when he did, reminded the Israeli leader of U.S. policy on the two-state solution and the U.S. view of settlement building.
Similarly, at the United Nations, U.N. spokesperson Farhan Haq read a prepared statement from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon saying, “It’s incumbent on the new Israeli government, once formed, to create the conditions for a negotiated final peace agreement with the active engagement of the international community that will end the Israeli occupation and realize the creation of a viable Palestinian state living in peace and security alongside Israel. This includes the cessation of illegal settlement building in the occupied Palestinian territory. The secretary-general firmly believes this is also the best and only way forward for Israel to remain a democratic state.”
It was not exactly casting down the gauntlet, but in diplomatic terms, and coming from the low-key Korean secretary-general, it was quite a strong rebuke.

An Opportunity Not to Be Missed

This is an opportune juncture for the secretary-general to withdraw from the hollow charade of the Middle East Quartet, the U.S./Russia/EU and U.N. body that epitomizes all the problems of a committee. The “consensus” of the Quartet is of course dominated by the U.S. When it was set up, it was almost a breakthrough that the U.S. and Israel allowed the United Nations any role at all in the “peace process.”
The U.S. has had the strictly limited virtue of consistency over the years, emphasizing the importance of bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and thereby seeking to exclude international law and the whole body of U.N. resolutions as a basis for peace. Somehow, however, the U.N. is now bound by this Quartet consensus and, with no decision or discussion among U.N. members, U.N. officials in Gaza and the West Bank were barred, for example, from talking to Hamas. The U.N. secretary-general became the Quartet spokesperson, charged with reading their increasingly anodyne statements marking the complete lack of progress in negotiations and steadfastly refusing to put the blame where it belonged, on the settlement builders and occupiers. Instead of the U.N. position being taken to the Quartet, Washington’s view of consensus has taken over U.N. policy!
It would be unfair to say that the Quartet served absolutely no purpose. It did provide a job and networking opportunities for former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whom George W. Bush wanted to reward for his loyalty in helping engineer the Iraq invasion disaster. By all accounts, Blair has used his time well—securing contracts from unsavory potentates all over the world and being much favored by Israeli interests.
With a new regime in Washington that does not feel overmuch gratitude for Blair’s part in turning the Fertile Crescent into a sectarian inferno and increasing press scrutiny of the former prime minister’s entrepreneurial activities, Blair’s position is under severe challenge. American officials are briefing that he has “no credibility at all,” while the Palestinians call him “useless, useless, useless.” So, in a sense, Blair is a unifying factor for the Quartet and the Palestinians. They all regard him as a waste of space.
Blair became special envoy to the Middle East Quartet the same day he resigned as prime minister, replacing James Wolfensohn, the World Bank official who had the integrity to resign when he found his every effort to restart the Palestinian economy blocked by the Israelis, who could count on automatic diplomatic cover from the U.S. There was certainly a stark contrast in their approaches. Blair has been careful not to criticize Israel, whose supporters have bankrolled his career almost from the beginning.
Blair won’t be missed at the Quartet, and his departure is the right time to put the stake through the heart of this shambling cadaver of an organization. The U.N. has already charted the real road map, with the full force of international law: Israel should withdraw from the occupied territories, allow refugees to return or compensate them. Under international law, the settlements that Netanyahu is expanding even as Blair shakes his hand are illegal, a point reinforced by Security Council resolutions and a decision of the International Court of Justice.
It is indeed time that the U.N. separated from the man who would not listen to it on Iraq.

Talk Also Cheap in Western Sahara

Interminable peace talks with no progress are also a reminder of Western Sahara, where the Moroccan attempts to cover their own non-cooperation stoked a minor diplomatic flurry in March. Just as no country recognizes the Israeli annexation of Jerusalem, no one accepts the legality of Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara. So Morocco hosted a conference of an alleged NGO in the territory in the occupied city of Dakhla, and wasted no opportunity to emphasize U.N. connections.
To some extent it backfired, since claiming that a U.N. adviser speaking at the forum implied United Nations support for the lavishly funded event prompted the U.N. to disavow the conference and state the official position. The U.N. statement said:
“The secretary-general was invited to this Forum, but informed its president that he could not attend. He did not delegate Mr. Philippe Douste-Blazy or anyone else to represent him or the United Nations. Mr. Douste-Blazy, who serves as a special adviser to the secretary-general on innovative financing, is attending exclusively in his private capacity.
“While Dakhla is described in Forum materials as a city in Morocco, the definitive status of Western Sahara is the object of a negotiating process being conducted under the auspices of the secretary-general in accordance with the relevant United Nations resolutions.”
This was a gentle but firm put-down of Morocco, which has shown all the assiduity of Israel in abiding by U.N. decisions. It is now more than 40 years since Morocco was told to pull out of the territory and to cooperate in holding a referendum on its future.
It is a telling reminder of the weaknesses of the U.N. that after all these decades, the Moroccans and the Israelis continue to occupy territory in defiance of U.N. resolutions. But it is also a reminder of the strength of the organization that after all this time no country recognizes the legitimacy of their occupations. There is hope yet.  

Ian Williams is a free-lance journalist based at the United Nations who blogs at <>.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Elections Can Be Won

Elections Can Be Won

Written By: Ian Williams
Published: May 15, 2015 Last modified: May 13, 2015

While progressive Brits donned sackcloth and ashes at the prospect of another five years of David Cameron, there were some signs of rationality across the Atlantic. The same week, in New York, Dina Richardson, the candidate for the Working Families Party won a seat on the State Assembly from the Democrats – on a platform that included refusing to take any election donations from the real estate interests who tend to buy candidates and elections in the city.
In Alberta, the National Democratic Party had a landslide victory in the provincial elections. Alberta is Canada’s oil-rich equivalent of Texas. Based on ranching and oil, the province has been consistently conservative in its voting and has been a power base for Stephen Harper, the Conservative Prime Minister who has so successfully sullied Canada’s international reputation and has been busily trying to undo Canada’s welfare state.
The victory of the charismatic new NDP premier Rachel Notley confounds the pundit drive to the centre. It is true that the NDP, the party which dragged Canada into the civilised world with its single payer health service, has been influenced by the siren calls of the centre, but it has to a large extent resisted them.
After all, the Liberals were already there in the centre, so instead of a New Labour-style stampede to the right, the NDP had to find the sweet spot between attracting a majority and distinguishing itself from the Liberals. The Alberta result suggests it was successful. It was elected with calls for abolishing Alberta’s regressive flat tax and by challenging the various neoliberal economic shibboleths that have swept the industrialised world.
Many commentators compared the effect to Bernie Sanders winning Texas. Which leads gently to the self-avowed Socialist Senator announcing his bid in the Democratic primary against Hillary Clinton. The former first lady is being treated as the heir apparent for the nomination with, so far, little opposition from traditionally ambitious Democrats. For the right wing, the hatred for her is all-consuming. If you read their commentary, you would assume that she was on the verge of socialism. Such rumours are even less well-founded than those about Ed Milliband’s Bolshevism.
She is, in fact ,a comfortably corporate conservative, like her husband. While his manoeuvres looked like weak wobbles and she looks tough and decisive, for both of them the technique is the same. Getting votes from ordinary people by “feeling their pain” while inflicting that pain themselves on behalf of all the corporate donors.
So Hillary is presenting herself as deeply concerned with ordinary “middle class” voters as the Americans put it. But in reality, like Bill before, the campaign is shaking down corporate donors – who do not give money without expectations of adequate returns.
Hillary is raking in cash as fast as the bankers can write her cheques, and not releasing their names, even as she calls for a constitutional amendment to reduce the power of money in politics.
Bernie Sanders takes the Democratic whip in the Senate where he represents Vermont. But there is nothing in the rules to stop him running in a primary as the Democratic candidate – indeed, he could run for Republican primary! While the mainstream depicts him as the wild leftist, his reasonable analysis actually appeals to many ordinary Americans.
He is under attack on the left for not trying to break the two party tyranny in American politics but by standing in the Democratic primary, he can put forward his unabashed democratic socialist views much more effectively. Clinton is already trying to throw sops to the left of the Democrats because in the primary at least, she knows that is where she is vulnerable to attack. Then she would veer comfortably right in the general election in office. For the Clintons, like Tony Blair, the purpose of politics is to get them in office, no matter the cost to others.
Looking at this in the context of the line-up of yesterday’s men calling for a return to the centre for the Labour Party, one can see how much more adroit are the tactics of the Clintons, who at least pretend to cater to their core voters, compared with New Labour arrogance that lost us Scotland and the election. The Labour Party might do well to emulate Sanders and Notley not Blair and Peter Mandelson if it wants to return to power.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Half Cheer for Hillary

Ian Williams

Written By: Ian Williams
Published: April 18, 2015 Last modified: April 15, 2015

When many on the left were gushing adulatory about the election of America’s first black president, I tried to sound a cautionary note. Barack Obama was not really the second coming, but neither was he the Antichrist. And he was lot more promising than Hillary Clinton. Predictably, the vociferous sections of the left who revile anyone who is in power, started to fulminate as soon as he did not deliver the millennium. But then, he had never promised it. Sceptical to begin with, now the election circus hits town, I have to admit that Obama is actually doing better than I expected.
For all its manifest faults, Obamacare has delivered health insurance to around 16 millions of Americans who did not have it before. That is a huge achievement, not least in the American context, since those people were almost by definition not wealthy and therefore not in a position to bribe the legislators to pass the healthcare act. On the economy, Obama trod very carefully. Perhaps too much so, but he did complete the job of stopping the crash and turning the American economy round. He actually delivered a stimulus package without mentioning it. Perhaps he could and should have advertised government’s role in turning things around – but he had a mostly hostile Congress around, ranging from deranged Tea Party types to the right of the Democratic Party who overlapped what is left of the sane wing of the Republicans. Best to do good by stealth than shout and be thwarted.
He also extricated the United States from the tail end of the debacles in the Middle East initiated by George W Bush and Tony Blair, although their legacy has come back to haunt him. Reality there is messy, but it is surely no mean achievement to resist the pressures from so many powerful lobbies to start yet more wars in Iran and Syria. Resisting Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israel lobby in order to reach a deal with Iran represents a major step forward. One does not have to admire the domestic policies of the Iranian ayatollahs to recognise just how unjust and counterproductive American policy has been. India and Pakistan that have fought numerous wars, and both have nuclear arsenals, the latter just a coup away from control by Taliban sympathisers. In a breath-taking display of hypocrisy, India, which has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, voted at the International Atomic Energy Agency to refer Iran to the United Nations Security Council because there was a faint suspicion that Iran could develop the same nuclear fuel refining capacity to which it was entitled under the NPT!
One definition of chutzpah has to be the calls for war against Iran by Israel, a non-signatory of the NPT, the possessor of nuclear weapons, and wager of multiple wars and acts of aggression against almost every other country in the neighbourhood. Obama’s forestalling Netanyahu is an outstanding display of vertebracy among recent White House incumbents, as well as bringing comfort to all­ who wondered when the odious Likudnik would get his comeuppance. And what is more, it was good politics.
Obama has also defied the Cuban exile lobby. Much of Cuba’s economic travails derive as much from pseudo-Marxist mismanagement by the government, but normalisation will at the very least deprive the Castro regime of its excuses and hasten reform.
So what about Hillary Clinton? She would be Blair in a trouser suit. They share a conviction that the business of politics is get wonderful people like themselves elected, and if that means taking money from people and doing their bidding, what’s the beef if they get elected. Hillary is as free with her political favours to corporate donors as her husband was to doting interns. But unlike him, she keeps her promises to them.
At the moment, she is faraway the front Democratic candidate, which impales any sensible person on the horns of a dilemma. But wriggling apart, in the end, is it better to have an utterly cynical and selfish president who is in the same dimension as the rest of us, or a Republican ensconced in the Twilight Zone? Remembering what happened when people deserted James Callaghan and got Margaret Thatcher, there will be many who will reluctantly but inevitably make their mark next to Hillary Clinton, who might or might not reintroduce Rodham back as her middle name depending on what the polls tell her.

About Ian Williams
Ian Williams is Tribune's UN correspondent
My latest book out now!

Tequila: A Global History

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Humans write like computers... or is it vice versa?

Trading technology and the threat to IR

March 23, 2015 | By Ian Williams
Quantum quarterlies and improving technology could render an entire profession obsolete
Anyone who is not at least mildly worried that computers can trade stocks faster than people can follow the trades is surely on the way to not knowing where their DNA ends and the silicon starts. Neurologists have calculated that the human ‘now’ is about 2.5 seconds long, and events we observe that happen faster than that generate a fuzzy chronology in our minds, so that it is difficult to remember the actual sequence of data inputs – or memories, as they used be known.

When the original joint-stock companies began their sales process, it was mediated at the speed of a fast horse or speedy ship, and a quill pen scratching out the details in copperplate established ownership. But when securities are whizzing round at close to light speed in virtual reality, who owns them at any given moment? Could a security be in a state of superposition like a quantum particle, bought and sold simultaneously?

Did I buy it back from myself before I had sold it to someone else? Is it insider trading if a security has the same owner several times in a nano-second, less time than ‘now’ for a human brain? If the intellectual foundation for the whole premise of the market is that fully informed buyers and sellers are trading to approximate the true value of a security, then what purpose is served by these lightning-fast quantum churnings? The mind-bogglingly tenuous connection between humans and finance is stretched even thinner with the news that the Associated Press now generates its reportage of most quarterly earnings filings without any human intervention. One of the pioneers estimates that the system, Automated Insights, can generate 2,000 articles per second, which is far faster than any human can actually read them.

For what it’s worth, AP says it was originally reporting on only 300 companies’ quarterlies, but now its computers are publishing 3,000. Why? In the real world, quarterlies are of dubious value anyway, boosting the trend toward short-termism. European companies can manage without them with no visibly significant effect on market efficiencies.

Surely, such prodigious financial literary output can only be meant for other computers to read – which is worrying. At least when humans are editing they can take into account that Airbus or Boeing billing for a plane the day before or the day after the reporting date could distort the picture. Computers can be programmed for some such contingencies, but they don’t have the sharp eye for the anomaly one would hope a human analyst would spot.

Markets reporting has indeed become so formulaic that its algorithmic prose already reads as if a bored computer generated it. [(Wall Street) OR (US investors) OR (the City) OR (markets)] [(rose) OR (fell) OR (met) OR (did not meet) expectations] on news of [(GDP) OR (oil prices) OR (employment figures) OR (interest rates)] AND (random-pick analyst) comments (rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb).

Until now, however, such reports have been like magical incantations designed to lend verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative, to lend the comfort of ritual to human actions. Humans can roll their eyes, and say, ‘So what?’ as so many journalists do when confronted with floods of ungrammatical, uneventful corporate flackery. But perhaps the hypertext is really on the wall: AP is now adding ‘forward-looking guidance’, and the implications are upsetting. Computers will now generate reports suggesting action, which other computers reading the reports will use to execute trades online.

Will the last investor relations officer to leave the building please ensure the computers are connected to a safe power outlet and switch off the coffee machine? Then rush down to the unemployment office before the rest of the world joins the line.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Thatcher RIP

I had posted this while I was ill with heart problems, but discovered it was still in draft. Thought it still had some resonance and published now!

By Ian Williams
The mainstream media epithet machine used to describe Margaret Thatcher for American readers as “the prime minister who privatized the loss-making state industries.” Of course she did no such thing. The enterprises she sold off made huge profits for the Treasury. BP was, after all, the state-owned creation of Winston Churchill and kept a constant flow of petropounds going into the Treasury. Selling it off to her friends in the City of London benefited its executives and shareholders but hardly the British public, let alone the US citizenry around the Gulf of Mexico.
Mark Twain said that while he wished no man dead, he sometimes read obituaries with great pleasure. I rather suspect that I will be denied even that enjoyment with the oleaginous brown-nosing that will surround the demise of Margaret Thatcher.
The woman contrived the collapse of Britain as an industrial power, squandering the windfall find of North Sea oil in the process and perhaps most reprehensibly helped erode the ideology of common welfare and concern that was consummated by the Labour government after World War II, which was after all, for most British people, the most significant achievement of that titanic struggle.
Less of a self-made woman than most obituarists will admit, she married well, to a millionaire who could support her in her political ambitions. To give her her due, she carved her way into an all-male chauvinist milieu with scrotum-crushing tenacity. She was determined and resolute in her ambitions. I was going to say strong-minded, but that would inadvertently have given her more credit than she deserved. Although undoubtedly more clued in than Ronald Reagan, with whose name she will be linked in death, I suspect that much of what the right see as ideological correctness was no such thing. Her motivation was not to dismantle the state so much as to ensure her continuing control of it.
She sold off public housing and stopped the programs to build more, not because she had deeply neo-liberal feelings that were offended by this intrusion of the state into the housing market but because she believed that doing so would break open what she saw as a Labour Party vote bank of council tenants, and convert them into property owning conservatives. In this and other respects she displayed a materialism and crude economic determinism that resembled the diehard factions of the Leninist left!
It was similar reasoning that I suspect impelled her break up of the great state-owned enterprises.   Coal, steel, railways, electricity and gas, were the stronghold of unions who not only had their fingers on the jugular of the nation but were the financial and political base of the Labour Party.  From her point of view, one cannot help but suspect this was a double whammy perpetrated on her political opponents, since the sale of the shares, she hoped, like the sale of public housing to its tenants would create a huge new voting population of conservatives.
It is worth remembering that she also introduced a poll tax to replace the local government property taxes, almost certainly with the aim of driving poorer, and as she saw them, natural Labour voters off the electoral rolls.
To her credit, in the same astute political vein, she forbore to privatize the National Health, not because she was attached to socialized medicine, but because she knew who her own voters were, just as they liked British Rail, which was left for John Major to privatize with disastrous fiscal consequences.
Despite all these measures, and despite the florid encomia now covering her pall, Margaret Thatcher never won a majority of the popular vote. Her arrival and stay in Downing Street owed much to her opponents. The Labour Party was tied up in sterile political arguments with ambitious politicians defecting to found the Social Democrats who later merged with the Liberals. It was that bloc of popular votes which deprived opposition Labour of the votes necessary to win elections. In each election a clear majority voted against Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Party.
On foreign policy, it was her penny-pinching, withdrawing niggardly sums from, for example, the British Antarctic Survey, which sent the wrong signals to the Junta in Argentina and led to the invasion of the Falklands. She did indeed display courage and resolution in repelling that invasion, but fixing something she broke herself should dull the glow of that triumph. Indeed her defense cuts would have made the same operation impossible a year later!
That obduracy could be ugly - as when she gloated that she had bullied the Commonwealth’s and other heads of state into accepting only the most rudimentary token sanctions against Apartheid. On the other hand, she deserves considerable credit for persuading Reagan that Gorbachev was serious about detente. There were few others with the conservative credibility to do that.
She was not nice, not popular and a person of narrow but tightly focused vision. But her flawed legacy lives on, mesmerizing, for example, Tony Blair.  Apart from the pious politicians, one suspects that sackcloth and ashes will he hard to discern on the streets of London, that in pubs across the former industrial heartland of Britain, many pint glasses will be raised in tasteful celebration.
Ian Williams is the founder of Deadlinepundit Ltd, a public affairs media consultancy.

Istanbul Great European City

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2009, pages 38-40

Talking Turkey
Istanbul: A Great European City
By Ian Williams

AFTER HALF a millennium of Crusader-style propaganda, Westerners all know that Turks eat babies. But in fact, walking the streets of Istanbul with a six-month-old baby is a revelation: adult males—as much as, if not more than women—could not resist coming up to stroke the baby’s hand and chin.

The city defies expectations and stereotypes and now looks like the cosmopolitan world capital it was for so many centuries. It is an organic growth of ultra-modern high rises rising from a seedbed of traditional wooden houses, sadly being reduced to mulch by time and gentrification. Apart from the great monuments, the Roman walls, the mosques and churches, it is sad that so little of the ancient city survives, but that is because the all-too-flammable wood that has been the favored building material for millennia has led to urban renewal by conflagration.

Old Ottoman wooden houses crumbling on the backstreets are eloquent testimony to the relative fragility and evanescence of the city’s fabric over the centuries. A lamp overturned could do as much damage as barbarian invasion, and even Ottoman palaces went up in flames.

My favorite part of Istanbul is Sultanahmet, which clusters on the hills near the Topkapi Palace. A few decades ago, Sultanahmet was a louche quarter of gangsters and smugglers. They have moved on, but it still maintains a definite charm.

The narrow, steep and winding cobbled streets allegedly follow the Ottoman strictures: they were to be no wider than three horsemen could ride abreast. In many of them, their stirrups would have tangled with each other, and in any case the Sipahis—members of the Ottoman Empire’s elite mounted cavalry force—would have crashed their helmets on the overhanging medieval-style upper storeys.

Nevertheless, such restrictions do not prevent cars from trying to squeeze past pedestrians up the steep slopes and around the hairpin bends.

In keeping with their multi-faceted exterior walls, the roofs of Sultanahmet are a Harry Potter fantasy of tumbled tiles and random angles and equally random chimneys poking out, enhanced by rooftop flower pots and the new talismans of satellite dishes. Concrete in bright hues of yellow and pink escapes the Third World ubiquity of turquoise blue, and is interspersed with wooden and corrugated iron additions and extensions.

Two views of Küçük Ayasofya (Photo I. Williams).

The area is undergoing serious gentrification, but only in a few favored cases does that involve repairing and repainting the topsy-turvy blackened wood structures. Rebuilding is done mostly in concrete, often with the same eccentrically shaped exteriors, and from a quick view of construction techniques they are unlikely to be much more durable than the rickety, and sometimes deserted, wooden houses alongside.

Perhaps the best indication of Turkey’s accretive civilization is the incredible archaeological excavations taking place in Yenikapi, just south of Sultanahmet. To set the contrast, I once stood in the Beersheba museum, in a confiscated mosque, perusing the Israeli Department of Antiquities time chart—in which the mosque did not exist, since history stopped in 660 and resumed in 1900.

When, during the digging for a new underground railway tunnel, Turkish archaeologists discovered the silted-up remains of a Byzantine harbor with the preserved remains of 9th and 10th century ships, they did not concrete over the inconvenient reminder. Instead they delayed the hugely expensive project while they excavated and rescued the relics. Indeed they went digging even further, and took the origins of the city back to Neolithic times.

The archaeologists assured me that there was no popular upsurge against the display, rather pride in this reinforcement of the antiquity of their city.

One of the joys of Istanbul is stumbling across ancient churches and mosques nestled among the houses, quite apart from the better-known and huger monuments such as Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) and the Sultan Ahmet mosque that gives the district its name. One of the relatively unknown treasures hiding near the waterfront is the Küçük Ayasofya, the little Hagia Sophia, since it was a template for the big one when it was built.

The original late Roman Arches can be seen in the dome, and the adapted Arab style on the outside wall. In the foreground are the chimneys for the kitchens to feed pilgrims and travellers.

Ironically, as an immaculately maintained and cleaned working mosque, in some ways it gives a better impression of the original church than its larger descendant, whose shabbiness, reconstruction work, dust and thronging tourists demand an effort of the imagination to conjure up its original effect. Its marble walls survived intact, while around its interior walls the Greek inscription to the Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora also remains intact after 1,500 years.

Indeed, shocking to more conservative Muslims, the Ottomans surrounded their holy places with graves and tombstones, emulating the Christian tradition. Indeed, one great Christian practice they adopted enthusiastically was collecting relics. The Amanat in the Topkapi Palace preserves relics of the Prophet and others. There may be some room for doubt about the rod with which Moses struck the rock, for example, but with a continuity of tradition and polity from the Prophet’s days, the hair from his head and beard, the fragment of his tooth and the original standard lends them serious credibility.

To fundamentalists, however, their provenance would not diminish their idolatrous nature—indeed, some emissaries were sent from Mecca specifically to protect them from iconoclasm. Fortunately, as the ruling AKP in Turkey is demonstrating, Turkish Islam covers a wide spectrum, and is self-reliant enough to eschew the excesses of more austere fundamentalists.

To some extent, it has little option. After the Ottomans, Kemal Ataturk constructed a Turkish identity that was not confessional, unlike many others in the region. That secularist identity—which can be fairly fundamentalist itself—has its drawbacks, one of which has certainly been the restrictions placed on the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch and the seminary that used to supply candidates.

Those restrictions exist not because he is Christian, but rather because he is seen as “Greek” Orthodox, and has indeed been taken to court for claiming the title of ecumenical. It is a very shortsighted stance, which not only raises human rights issues for EU accession, but also deprives the city of prestige and tourism and pilgrimage dollars. As the sultans realized, it is better to have such a potent title to hand than drive it into exile!

History is always seen through the prism of the present, or the more recent past. The Cold War/Clash of Civilizations view places like Istanbul as a front line between Islam and Christianity, or more recently between Islam and Judeo-Christianity. The West looks at the Sufi-inspired Islam of the Turks and Balkans through a lens ground from the sand of the Saudi desert.

In reality, of course, these are crossroads and meeting places rather than battlegrounds. Istanbul is often regarded as a Turkish nationalist name imposed to erase the Greek past inherent in Constantinople, when in reality it is the Greek words “to the city,” the polis, that was its basis, while Constantine is a Latin name.

To confuse the simplicities of retrospective nationalism even more, the “Greeks” of the Byzantine Empire never called themselves either Byzantine or Greek. They were Romans. It was Westerners trying to assert the legitimacy of the Holy Roman Empire in the face of it being, as Voltaire quipped, neither Roman nor Holy who foisted these names on the citizens.

And right up to the end of the Sultanate, the Phanariots, the Greeks of Istanbul, were a considerable proportion of the cosmopolitan population of the Ottoman capital—and indeed crewed the navy and filled the bureaucracy.

Although, sadly, most of the Phanariots were driven out in the 1950s, some still remain, along with Armenians, Bosnians and Uzbeks and other peoples from along the Silk Road.

Turkish Islam is distinct from its more southerly forms. Sunday is the day off in Turkey and the environs of the Eyup mosque, allegedly the burial place of the Prophet’s standard-bearer, as revealed in a dream to a sultan, swarmed with the visibly pious, men in skull caps and women in chadors pinned across their face coming to pray. But the men and their wives walked hand in hand, and on less solemn occasions fundamentalist feminine fashion includes colorful figure-hugging silk attire, with chic headscarves surrounding immaculate maquillage.

However, as the more pious immigrants from the Anatolian hinterland move into the city, the headscarves are certainly more widespread, even if they coexist with miniskirts and tight blouses from the more secular. Another audible testimony to growing Islamic power is the decibels from the minarets, which are distinctly louder than they used to be. I am inclined to be fundamentalist on this issue. I think the muezzen should climb the minaret and use his lungs to benefit his own soul and body, and delight the ears of sleeping citizens. More secular citizens also complained that beer and raki were disappearing from supermarket shelves and restaurant menus, but that was the whim of the proprietors, not a legal edict.

This mixture of Islam and secularism, despite the occasional atavistic whiffs of authoritarianism, made Turkey a sensible place for President Barack Obama’s first major visit abroad, sending discrete but strong signals across the region. The country, as its involvement with Damascus has shown, is a possible partner in winning a Middle East peace process, an essential part of which is to persuade Muslims that the U.S. is not irredeemably Islamophobic—or, for that matter, irredeemably Israelophilic. It was well worth his blocking our access to the Blue Mosque on his visit.

One cannot help but suspect that Obama’s immediate predecessors would not have made a walk around the mosque and a trip to a Muslim country their first priority, especially if they had been accused of being a crypto-Muslim, and if their host had publicly dressed down Israeli President Shimon Perez on global TV.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of course, gained immense popularity across the Muslim world, and indeed much further, for his sermon to the Israeli leader at Davos, when so many others prevaricated on or supported Israel’s attack on Gaza. Interestingly, the tidal wave of obloquy that would normally have deluged over him was muted—and then almost silenced. The Turkish armed forces are Israel’s only ally in the area.

The generals may have their own disagreements with Erdogan, but let their Israeli counterparts know that they would be unhappy with foreigners calumniating a Turkish leader. Hence the rapid silence which overcame the initial vociferous pro-Israel indignation. Even Obama benefited from the amnesty!

One lesson is clear: successful conduct of foreign policy comes by talking to foreigners, not listening to domestic lobbies. The other is that Turkey should be in the European Union. There are legitimate hurdles on minority issues—but the Muslim majority population should not be a bar to membership. Istanbul is one of the great European cities and should take its place with London, Paris, Madrid and Berlin.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

UK abstains on nuke vote

Ian Williams

Tribune December 19, 2014 Last modified: December 14, 2014
In the United Nations, a flight of disarmament resolutions went through in December – and the nuclear powers, including Britain, disappeared up their diplomatic rears abstaining or voting against core principles in the treaty.

Significantly, one resolution calling for a nuclear-free Middle East passed by 161 votes, with the United States, Canada, Palau, Micronesia and, of course, Israel voting against. No fewer than 18 cowardly countries abstained, including Australia, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain. In contrast, the tiny Marshall Islands, totally dependent on the US Congress, had more integrity than Britain, and voted for.

The Marshall Islands has gone to the International Court of Justice in The Hague for a ruling on the failure of the nine nuclear nations to disarm, and asking the court to require them to stop maintaining and modernising their weaponry as well as take substantial steps to disarmament.

The Marshallese know whereof they speak since US exploded out no less than 23 hydrogen bombs on the itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny atoll of Bikini in the former Strategic Trust territory. Five of those nine would-be nuclear bombers, Britain, China, France, Russia and the US, are signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which bars new nations from going nuclear but which also requires the existing nuclear states to move towards complete disarmament. Among the 190 signatories is Iran. Not among them are India, Pakistan – and Israel.

So why would Britain, Germany and France vote against a resolution whose principles their countries have publicly endorsed and committed to?  The reason is that the resolution was not about North Korea, or even Iran, but specifically called on Israel to “accede to that treaty without further delay, not to develop, produce test or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons, to renounce possession of nuclear weapons” and to put its nuclear facilities under the safeguard of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

US representative Robert Wood claimed that the resolution “fails to meet the fundamental tests of fairness and balance. It confines itself to expressions of concern about the activities of a single country.” His statement epitomises the absurdities of Washington’s position. In a resolution calling for a US backed nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, is it “unfair” and “unbalanced” to mention the one nuclear state in the region?

But the US is the mover of all the resolutions in the UN Security Council, identifying Iran as the only threat to disarmament in the Middle East. Iran is not the most palatable regime in region, although on almost every human right standard, it far surpasses our Saudi allies. But the ayatollahs have declared nuclear weapons unIslamic. Iran has signed and apparently observes all the chemical and biological warfare conventions and treaties, and has not invaded any of its neighbours. Although its citation of its “inalienable right” right to civil nuclear development might sound pompous and portentous, it is lifted straight from the Non-Proliferation Treaty which it has signed and Israel hasn’t.

Indeed, the Security Council resolution against Iran was only possible because Washington won over the vote of India, a nuclear non-signatory of the NPT, by exempting it from sanctions for its own nuclear programme to get a reference from the IAEA.

In contrast, Israeli politicians have openly called for military action against Iran on the mere suspicion of possible nuclear capability – thereby violating the most fundamental core of the UN Charter. It has flouted the NPT, and has a nuclear arsenal.

The reaction of the US and the Europeans is to pour treasure, armaments and diplomatic support to Israel. Germany provides advanced nuclear-capable submarines to the world’s biggest nuclear power outside the NPT.

Sadly the more reactionary governments become, the more support they win from across the political spectrum of European leaders, who all preach to the world about respect for UN resolutions, international law, nuclear disarmament, the International Criminal Court and the Geneva Conventions – unless anyone tries to apply them to one bellicose state in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Picking up the Democrats' tricks

A reader's intelligence is affronted by the latest Democratic Party email campaign
Have Nigerian email scammers taken over the US Democratic Party? Or have they just been retained as consultants? For weeks in the run-up to the mid-term elections in November, chummily cozy missives addressing me intimately as ‘Ian’ have been clogging my inbox asking for campaign donations.

The email campaign was an insult to anyone’s intelligence. I am supposed to believe that my chums Barack and Hilary have personally dropped me a line, that candidates I have never heard of have personally mentioned me by name in their staff meetings that morning, and that their daughters have written thanking me for help.

The senatorial contingent from New York is equally intimate in its greetings. As young Molly Bishop, daughter of senator Tim Bishop, writes: ‘I would be absolutely heartbroken if my dad lost. Please help.’ She later shares her father’s desperation: ‘Ian, I wouldn’t be emailing you for the sixth day in a row if it wasn’t urgent. I’m downright PLEADING with you – Molly & Tim Bishop.’

But then I looked up a perceptive paper from Cormac Herley of Microsoft Research entitled ‘Why do Nigerian scammers say they are from Nigeria?’ Most of the world, after a decade of inbox stuffing, would look even a giftwrapped gold-plated gift horse in the mouth if it had Nigeria on the label, so why would the scammers not be clever enough to say they came from, say Switzerland or the Netherlands, small countries that exude trustworthiness and probity?

Why do some of them persist in using upper case letters for their tall tales? Were these conditions imposed by the Nigerian Federal Scammers Trade Association? Or are they just a strong local tradition, gloating to the world: we can empty your bank accounts. Herley hit the nail on the head: email scams come in two stages – one is putting out the bait, which in the case of emails is basically free. The second stage is the expensive and time-consuming business of reeling in those who take that bait.

‘As gullibility is unobservable, the best strategy is to get those who possess this quality to self-identify,’ he explains. ‘An email with tales of fabulous amounts of money and West African corruption will strike all but the most gullible as bizarre. It will be recognized and ignored by anyone who has been using the internet long enough to have seen it several times. It will be figured out by anyone savvy enough to use a search engine.’

In other words, the scammers keep Nigeria in the emails because only a fool would follow through – and eons of folk wisdom correctly assesses the tenuous ties between the intellectually challenged and their monetary assets.

This is clearly the discovery that Tea Party emailers have been working on, in their case with special attention to the subset of idiocy that contains paranoia and hypochondria. But the recent Democratic fund-raisers have now realized that idiocy is bipartisan: those gullible enough to accept this easy familiarity as their due, let alone good-natured enough not to hit the delete button and get angrier and angrier as their inbox fills with insults to their intelligence, have to be an easy touch. It probably raises money for the party, but one cannot help wondering whether it does – or should – lose it votes. I certainly would not vote for someone who sat next to my desk shouting electoral slogans through a megaphone.

But the brilliant concept Herley deduced behind the emails certainly has implications and applications for garnering retail investors. One thinks of subject lines like ‘Invest in snake oil – the fuel of the future,’ or ‘Trust me, I’m a banker!’ There might be some interesting negotiations with the SEC, but if the politicians who set the rules for the regulator see fit to use such communications breakthroughs, why shouldn’t corporations?