Friday, February 29, 2008

Hanging Down Bill Buckley's head

Confronting the tsunami of hagiography that has greeted his demise, it may be timely to correct the impression that conservative litterateur and laide-lettrist William F Buckley was some kind of saint. In fact, as I write, the pampered Ivy Leaguer is facing the traditional challenge of rich men at the gates of heaven: trying to squeeze a camel through the needle's eye. If the Gospels have any truth, then it is a Bactrian camel with two humps and very small micro-surgical needle, since Buckley combined inherited riches with acquired callousness to those who had not been so fortunate in their choice of parents.

I cannot say definitively that the millions of words penned by Buckley, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, completely eschew concern for the poor or underprivileged of the world. However, I think we can safely say that they were not prominent in his works.

A Catholic of the school of Torquemada and Franco, whom he described as "an authentic national hero", whose victory brought "forty years of relative prosperity, peace and independence", to Spain, he seemed to overlook the modern Church's teachings on social justice.

He could be witty, and relished shocking received opinion, in contrast to many of his would-be successors in American conservatism who would can George Bush's farts and sell them as deodorants. But even that independence of thought was the arrogance of an American aristocrat of the old school for whom the purpose of government was to keep the plebs in their place while civilisation and culture were guarded and developed by the elite.

"Who else, on so many issues, has been so right so much of the time? I couldn't think of anyone," he crowed in the New York Times, but was of course only accurate if "Right" had an uppercase "R".

Supporting the Vietnam war, opposing civil rights for African-Americans, cheerleading for murderous (but anti-communist) regimes across the globe, may have been modernised versions of the family's deep Ku Klux Klan tradition, but have hardly been vindicated by history.

But when you see obituaries praising his principles for opposing Nixon after Watergate, they miss the salient point. Buckley was unhappy with Nixon because he considered him too liberal, which in the demonology of the American right meant socialist, which meant communist.

Even the free markets that he espoused so firmly and, according the hagiographers, played such a large part in bringing about, have hardly been unmitigated triumphs. The era of deregulation that came from Ronald Reagan's reign quickly brought the savings and loans debacle, in which the taxpayer picked up the tab for trillions of dollars, followed recently by Enron and the other scandals and of course now by the subprime mortgage scandal, where taxpayers abroad are picking up the tab.

For Buckley's people, Roosevelt's New Deal, which rescued most of the nation from poverty, was a communist conspiracy whose effects needed reversing. That is a work still in progress, but sadly well-advanced.

Interestingly, the spectacle of an American behaving as a braying, brainlessly snobbish, aristocratic cad from Black Adder gave him a certain cachet in Britain - and of course the convicted Conrad Black has rushed out with a fittingly fawning tribute.

As Buckley's form of braying elitism held sway, the US ran up the biggest fiscal and trade deficits in history, putting itself in hock to the Chinese Communist party, and for 30 years of a growing economy saw the plebs' income static or declining while his pals, like Black, amassed wealth on a scale unseen for a century.

During his overlong life Buckley gilded the fungus by casting a gossamer-thin veil of erudition on the brawling mélange of crude bigotry, racism, self-satisfied ignorance and isolationism that characterised American conservatism until the neocons turned up. It takes more than yachting and harpsichord-playing, more even than sense of humour and a belated admission that Iraq was a big mistake, to weigh the balance in his favour.

I wish a long life to Gore Vidal, equally aristocratic but with a sense of noblesse oblige totally missing in Buckley, and a genuine intellectual who has indeed been correct and not "Right" about most off the issues of the last century. But I almost look forward to the tide of unthinking vituperation with which Buckley's hagiographers on the right will greet the demise of a much better person.

Kosovo Duet..

Strategic Dialogue: Kosovo

Ian Williams and Stephen Zunes | February 29, 2008

Editor: John Feffer

Foreign Policy In Focus

Was the United States too hasty in recognizing the new state of Kosovo? Ian Williams and Stephen Zunes have different takes in this strategic dialogue. To see the original essays, follow these links to Williams and Zunes.
Ian Williams

Stephen Zunes is quite right to point out the inconsistencies of U.S. policy in the Balkans, which has been fairly consistently wrong! Beginning when James Baker declared that the United States had no dog in the fight in the Balkans. Contrary to what some far leftists claim, U.S. policy in the beginning depended on keeping Yugoslavia together even though it was clear that Milosevic's power grab had effectively dissolved the fragile federation. Once Slovenia declared independence, that was the end.

The United States and the European Union (EU), and indeed Russia in its various avatars, should have laid down the rules and effectively supervised the Yugoslav successor states. Guaranteeing boundaries and rights for minorities, establishing dual or even common citizenship, were all possibilities that could have ensured a soft landing for the wreck of Tito's enterprise.

The hands-off U.S. policy in effect removed the only threat that would have curbed Milosevic's excesses. Left to their own devices, the Europeans failed badly. Both Britain tacitly and France overtly, acted on the principle that the Serbs would win, and if it were done, then best t’were done quickly.

When the United States did intervene, it quickly produced results. Richard Holbrooke, the architect of the Dayton Accords that produced an agreement among the warring factions in Bosnia, emulated Kissinger in realpolitik. Honoring promises to Milosevic, the Republika Srpska was effectively rewarded for successful ethnic cleansing, which encouraged Milosevic.

But while the State Department maintained close back-channel relations with Rugova's shadow administration in Kosovo, bringing him and other leading figures to meet opinion formers, it was back-burner as well as back channel. One thing was clear: whenever Milosevic saw a clear and present danger of intervention, he backed down. But U.S. and Western policy was consistently unclear.

We should not exclude Russia from this. Russian diplomats at the time of the Kosovo crisis told me that what the Serbs were doing was unconscionable, but effectively the United States was not consulting them, and was being arrogant. This was true, but did not make Moscow's role much more moral or constructive.

Clinton then fatally refused even to consider UN authorization for intervention, for fear of a Russian veto, and refused to take the issue to the General Assembly, where he would have won support. He then began the campaign by effectively ruling out the one option that Milosevic feared: a ground invasion. Instead, Clinton launched a bombing campaign, which was all the more foolish for being conducted from on high to avoid the political embarrassment of American casualties abroad. (The now-interventionist Republicans were then quite the opposite of course). The mounting "collateral damage" allowed Milosevic to crawl to the moral high ground in some quarters. Notably, the day that NATO decided on a ground invasion, Milosevic ran up the white flag and pulled out of Kosovo – as he would have done months earlier if he had seen a real threat of ground attack.

The UN trusteeship of Kosovo has not been an unmitigated success. Despite the efforts of some, the mission was colonial and condescending to the Albanians, and in my experience, many of the UN staff had no appreciation for what had happened to the Kosovars earlier. It is difficult to know what Washington could do at the end of a trail of so many mistakes. Mostly, constructive engagement with Moscow may have averted the latter's amoral and expedient support for Serbian nationalism.

Insofar as I disagree with Stephen Zunes at all, it is over American responsibility for the declaration of independence and for the nature of the Serb governments since Zoran Djindjic's assassination. They have been much more center-right than center-left and are strongly nationalistic.

That is why the United States was once again reacting rather than initiating events. The Kosovars were determined, and gave Thaci's government a popular mandate to declare independence. The Kosovars were calling the shots. The trade-off with the United States and EU was to postpone the declaration from last year until now, after the elections in Belgrade, in return for recognition.

Looking back in history, and indeed at the Serb mobs and gangs at the border now acting with the same quasi-governmental backing that the paramilitary murder squads had a decade before, recognition and NATO back-up were essential to stop yet another Balkan War from breaking out. The Czech/Slovak dissolution could serve as a model here. But that presupposes realism and democracy on both sides. Every action the Belgrade government took showed the taint of old-style Balkan nationalism. And it showed no appreciation, let alone contrition, for what so many of its citizens had perpetrated back in 1999.

Negotiation is fine, but there comes a point when it is delaying the inevitable and keeping the wound open. That point was reached last year. Russia could make a precedent out of it for its various adventures in the near-abroad, in Moldova and Georgia, but it would be very foolish to do so. Chechnya and many other autonomous republics inside the Russian Federation would be delighted to cite it right back at them. Moscow would be better to join the EU chorus of how Kosovo is a one off.
Stephen Zunes

I have little fundamental disagreement with Ian William’s response to my article or in his original article, but I would like to challenge him on a couple of minor points.

My interpretation of what led to the end of the fighting in 1999 was not the threat of a NATO ground invasion, which was fraught with dangers and the prospects of which produced serious internal divisions within the alliance. Nor did Milosevic “run up the white flag.” Instead, it appears that it was the United States and NATO that were also forced to compromise due to the failure of the 11-week bombing campaign to coerce the Serbs to give in. If one looks at the original U.S./NATO proposal at Rambouillet and the counter-proposal presented by the Serbian parliament immediately thereafter, and then compares both of them with the text of the final cease-fire agreement, the agreement that ended the fighting pretty much splits the difference, perhaps even coming a tad closer to the Serb position. In other words, the United States and NATO had to compromise at least as much as did Milosevic. This raises the possibility that the Western nations could have worked out a similar deal without the tragic decision to go to war, a war that not only resulted in enormous human, economic, and environmental damage to Serbia, but led to Serbian repression in Kosovo that escalated dramatically into full-scale ethnic cleansing.

The Serbs agreed to the ceasefire on the condition that while Kosovo’s autonomous status and right to self-government would be restored, the province would not be allowed to secede. Indeed, UN Security Council resolution 1244 (1999), while calling for “substantial autonomy and meaningful self-administration for Kosovo,” also reaffirmed “the commitment of all Member States to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the other States of the region.” It is not surprising, therefore, that the Serbs feel betrayed by the international community.

I certainly agree with Kosovo’s right to independence on a moral level, for reasons spelled out in Ian’s original article. It would have been better, however, to have pressured the Kosovars to put off their declaration until after Serbia’s entrance into the European Union (and provide whatever combination of pressure on and assistance to the Serbian government to make that happen sooner rather than later.) When a country becomes part of the EU, national boundaries and what constitutes an independent nation-state become far less significant. Supporting Kosovo’s secession beforehand, however, has strengthened hard-line nationalists in both Serbia and Kosovo and will likely delay both nations’ integration into Europe.

Finally, I would have been thrilled if the United States had recognized an independent Kosovo a decade ago, when the Serbs were led by the autocratic and militaristic Milosevic and the Kosovar Albanians were led by the pacifist and democratic Rugova. Today, however, the roles are partly reversed, with Serbia led by democratic moderates, Kosovo led by national chauvinists, and the Kosovar Serbs being subjected to attacks and (small-scale) ethnic cleansing by Kosovar Albanians. Most of the Serbs governing in Belgrade today, while strongly nationalistic, were not responsible for and in most cases were strongly opposed to Milosevic’s brutal repression of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority. Indeed, they supported – and, in some cases, participated in – the nonviolent democratic revolution in October of 2000 that ousted Milosevic. With Kosovo’s secession having been recognized by the United States and other key Western states on their watch, however, these democrats will likely get the blame for having “lost” Kosovo. This will thereby create the conditions for a comeback by some of the hard-line Serbian nationalists responsible for the innumerable war crimes of the 1990s.

Ian Williams contributes frequently to Foreign Policy In Focus ( on UN and international affairs. More of his work is available on Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco. and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus ( From 1996 to 1999, he served as chair of the board of Peaceworkers, a U.S.-based group supporting the nonviolent struggle of the Kosovar Albanians and other nonviolent movements and peacemakers in areas of conflict.

For More Information

Ian Williams, "A New Kosovo" (Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, February 20, 2008).

Stephen Zunes, "Kosovo and the Politics of Recognition" (Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, February 21, 2008).

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Marooned by the Special Relationship

Marooned by the special relationship

Diego Garcia is the oceanic tombstone of British independence. The UK's violation of international law there is yet another of its epitaphs
Ian Williams

February 25, 2008 8:00 PM | Comment is Free Guardian

Of course we are all shocked, shocked, that the CIA would have misled the British government about renditions taking place via so-called British territory Diego Garcia.

But we should also be shocked that Whitehall did not suspect or know about it. We would not be that shocked if it turned out that that the CIA's assurances that none of the prisoners were tortured was more than a little wobbly. Indeed, five years ago, exactly such questions were being raised - and waffled away by Tony Blair's ministers. It is, let us say, coyly, not beyond probability that the CIA, which lies to its own legislators, may be economical with the truth with satellite state governments.

But apart from putting some truth in Robert Harris's novel The Ghost about a former British prime minister wanted by the International Criminal Court for aiding and abetting just such rendition, the brief flurry of interest in these islands may remind people worldwide of the original mass rendition, by which the British deported the island's inhabitants in order to hand over a nominal British colony to effective American control.

Luckily, the politicians involved then are now mostly dead, and the ICC has no retrospective authority, otherwise the ethnic cleansing and continued exclusion of the inhabitants would be subject to prosecution, as indeed would be complicity in the renditions.

Indeed, the British signature on the International Court of Justice, which precludes liability for any act occurring before 1974 and from any present or past member of the Commonwealth, also handily stops the Seychelles from protesting the timely removal of the islands from its jurisdiction just before independence.

Of course the American presence, and the islanders' absence from their home, is all in the name of defending the world for democracy and the rule of law - which is why the British government is defying successive court rulings in favour of the cleansees.

Indeed Diego Garcia is the distilled essence of the "special relationship" between Britain and the US. The British government stole the islands from their own inhabitants and the Seychellois, and handed them over rent-free to the US in return for a discount on the Polaris submarines that in turn marked the end of the genuinely independent British deterrent that the post-war Labour government had strived for, and tied the country's fate almost inextricably to the US. It involved giving up Blue Streak, the successful rocket which would have allowed Britain to have a presence in space as well.

Harold McMillan, who did the Polaris deal, believed like Blair that Britain could be Athens to Washington's Rome. He had marginally better expectations of constructive results from John F Kennedy than Blair did from his diplomatic duet with George Bush. At the insistence of the latter, Blair over-rode decisions of British courts on letting the inhabitants of Diego Garcia return.

Surely it's time for a declaration of independence. The lease of Diego Garcia is up for renewal in 2016. Britain should let the islanders back immediately and let them take it over then and join the Seychelles if they wish. And it should drop the pretensions to "independent" nuclear power and give up on the Trident replacement. Any relationship that involves the country in violations of international human rights law is indeed "special", but it is not necessarily desirable.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Accept the Reality of Kosovo Independence

I will be on KPFA Monday morning 0705 LA Time on Kosovo but in the meantime, the latest production from the connect to reality production line.

From Tribune, 22 February
Accept the Reality of Kosovo Independence

THE bluster about the illegality of Kosovo independence begs some questions. If you want legality, perhaps someone should ask Moscow to point out the United Nations resolution that gave the Russian Federation the former Soviet Union’s permanent seat and veto on the Security Council. There isn’t one. Sometimes people find it best to accept reality.

In contrast, now that Kosovo has declared its independence, we can expect many people, including so-called socialists, to discover a sudden attachment to international law. Most of them were not such devoted defenders of it when Slobodan Milosevic was defying 50 UN resolutions and committing the crimes against humanity for which he eventually ended up on trial in The Hague.

With the same insouciance that Palme Dutt once dismissed Stalin’s crimes as “spots on the sun”, apologists for Milosevic overlook or dismiss the thousands of Kosovars killed by his regime when it was expelling almost a million Kosovars. In their own language, it is perhaps “no coincidence” that, for some tankies,the Kosovars were indiscrete in their choice of allies. They were supported reluctantly by Bill Clinton and forcibly by European democratic socialists, while their murderers had Moscow’s blessing.

In the course of this sun-spotting, one frequent claim was that “only” 2,000 were killed. In fact, double that number of slaughtered had already been unearthed. Since then, hundreds more have been discovered whose rotting bodies were carried in refrigerated trucks to be disposed of in Serbia. Proportional to the population of Kosovo, “only” 2,000 would the equivalent of 60,000 victims in Britain. Multiply by at least three and you realise why Kosovars refuse to be re-integrated into a Serbia whose leaders have yet to seriously admit that their forces did anything wrong.

Any rational point of view would suggest that such atrocities by Belgrade extinguished any residual claim of sovereignty over or loyalty from the Kosovars. When, in 1971, the Pakistani army staged mass killings and rapes of the Bengalis in East Pakistan, and foolishly took on India, it lost and Bangladesh seceded. Bangladesh became a member of the Commonwealth, recognised by almost 90 countries, and a member of many of the subsidiary bodies even before its first application – supported by Moscow – to join the UN became the occasion off Beijing’s first veto. In the end, reality triumphed. China and Pakistan dropped the veto in 1974.

When one hears so-called socialists denying the right to self-determination to a people, claiming that they are Jihadists or Islamo-fascists and asserting the right of Serbia to the land they live in because of ancient monasteries there, one can only wonder why they don’t rush off and join the church. In fact, not only are many Kosovars, Catholic and Orthodox, refreshingly few of them are very religious at all – as any visit to a Pristina café to drink the potent local raki would soon demonstrate.

There are some very bad Kosovars, and on the body count across the Balkans, in absolute terms there are even more murderous Serbs. But self-determination applies to all people, not just those whose morals we approve of. Kosovo does risk being a dysfunctional state, with a limited economy, a severe crime and smuggling problem, undeveloped institutions and a flourishing gangster class. That puts it on a par with about half the membership of the UN. Indeed, looking at the wars that Belgrade has visited on its neighbours, the black-marketing and profiteering that Milosevic made the bedrock of its economy, its failure to reform its security apparatus to the extent of arresting war criminals, one might question Serbia’s credentials for independence. At least Kosovo insists on EU supervision of its administration.

No one has produced any reasonable plan to show how, without massive repression, Serbia is to re-assert its sovereignty over a country, 90 per cent of whose population does not want it. One parallel would be a government in London deciding to hold on to Scotland by military force, despite a clear vote by the majority of its population for independence. And perhaps a closer parallel would be London deciding to take back Ireland based on a much longer political history of continuous sovereignty than Serbia can demonstrate over Kosovo. This is more about Serbian politicians pandering to the nationalist vote at home – which is where Milosevic began the road to Kosovar independence in 1989, when he withdrew the province’s autonomy.

Russia’s support for Serbia also smacks of playing the nationalist card at home. And the EU could steal its ace by telling the US to forget the plans for positioning radars and missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic in return for a more mature attitude from Moscow.

Serbia’s rulers should be told firmly but politely that when they stop posturing over the “illegality” of Kosovar independence and attend to the genuine illegality of harbouring mass murderers wanted in The Hague, they will have a bright future in an EU which has made formerly fortified frontiers administrative boundaries, and which has guaranteed minorities unprecedented rights.

Castro and Manichaean-Marxists - and rightists

Fidel Castro retires after half a century of being the dubious beneficiary of uncritical support from Manichaean-Marxists who firmly believe that being attacked by Washington is tantamount to canonisation. None of the Leninoid left's idols have feet with any hint of clay and Castro's halo of infallibility is already luminescing around Hugo Chávez.

There can be no denying Castro's charisma and attraction to many people across the world. Whether at conferences in the United Nations general assembly or receptions at the Cuban mission in New York, the presence of El Lider Maximo always pulled maximum crowds.

Across the Caribbean, crowds would gather to greet him for his stand against the US, but you did not see boatloads of Caribbeans paddling their rubber inner tubes to the promised land of socialism. Not even the desperate Haitians were, or are, that desperate.

I met Castro several times at such events, and, with my longer, redder beard at the time was rather chuffed that he called me "El Vikingo". On one level, it is easy to see why he attracts that support and even why it gives me frisson to be sobriqueted by a historical leader. In a world where almost everyone tries to do America's bidding, Castro has successfully defied president after president.

In that battle, the US has mostly been wrong, morally, legally and tactically. The Pentagon's torture chambers in Guantánamo on the island mock Washington's relatively recent rhetorical attachment to democracy and human rights. Earlier, its oft-expressed concern for human rights in Cuba belied its sponsorship of military regimes across Latin America, which killed more civilians in a single day than the Castro regime executed in the last 50 years. And of course sanctions on Cuba compare oddly with almost complete trade dependence on China, compared with which Cuba is an open society.

However, while Washington may have usually been wrong, that does not mean that Castro was always right. Castro's execution of his former comrades Antonio de La Guardia and Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez, and his wholesale arrests and imprisonments of dissidents merited condemnation, but when a group of us drafted a letter about the latter to the New York Review of Books, the vitriol from some of those who now condemn Bush for Guantánamo reflected the pseudo-Marxist Manichaean thinking of some of the left.

Inspired by the same unthinking solidarity that overlooked Stalin's purges, or indeed more recently Milosevic's mass murders, they reacted in fury. I have never quite understood why executions in Texas should be so obviously bad, while those in Havana or Beijing should be excusable, or vice-versa for that matter. But then Fidel's support for various mass murderers masquerading as socialists, from Mugabe to Milosevic showed the same uncritical solidarity of the Levant: his enemy's enemy was his friend.

These starry-eyed supporters will tell you of Cuba's education, of the health service. On one visit to Cuba, I went round to the house of Alberto Korda, the photographer who took the iconic photo of Che Guevara. Although he was getting his heart medication, he showed me the local ambulance station, where the ambulance was propped up on bricks, without tires. Others complained that they needed hard currency to buy medications, and I usually brought unobtainable across-the-counter painkillers for the arthritic parents of another Cuban friend.

Cuban education was indeed successful in effecting near universal literacy - but there are strict limits on what anyone is allowed to read with their skills. I had known several of the dissidents against whose sentences we had protested, and, sadly, I also knew the one who became a stool-pigeon for the regime. His eloquent and cogent denunciation of the falling intellectual standards brought about by such censorship suggests that he was turned later, or was a deeply conflicted person, old and weak.

But let us look at the reality. Also in the Caribbean is Barbados, where people do not need permission to leave the country, where free trade unions exist and where a government that was defeated last month has stepped down gracefully. It also has treble the per capita GDP of Cuba. Compare Barbados's UNDP human development report with that of Cuba.

When I checked, Jamaica actually had a larger proportion of its population abroad than Cuba, and like the emigrants from many Caribbean islands, they send remittances home and harbour no grudges against their home governments. The perverse genius of Castro was to declare most of those who left criminals or "worms", although it has to be said that it was not totally East German in its application. Cubans who married foreigners could leave with them, as many have.

Now that Castro has stepped down, albeit in favour of his brother, bringing Cuba into the North Korean dynastic socialist mode, one can only hope that there is a middle way. Sadly the signs are that some of the leadership are more interested in the Chinese model, letting the economy rip while the party holds ruthlessly onto power, while the Miami exiles' vindictive attitudes to those who stayed do not bode well for either democracy or equality.

Many of the dissidents I've met thought that Cuba should emulate Scandinavia and western Europe as a way of combining prosperity, democracy and social equality. Let's hope that with El Lider Maximo sidelined, they can persuade some in the leadership. Cuba is a wonderful country with enterprising and generous people. It deserves better than Castro has given them, or the Miami crowd can offer.

For more news coverage on Cuba click here

For more comment on Cuba after Castro click here

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A fistful of Euros, full text.

A fistful of euros

As the US dollar continues its slow decline in value, canny American investors are putting stock in using foreign currencies
Ian Williams

Guardian CiF
All Ian Williams articles
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February 20, 2008 8:00 PM | Printable version

This month, Ron Paul, who may be cuckoo, but is sometimes like the first of cuckoo of spring in his denial of "accepted wisdom", called in Congress for allowing competing currencies.

What goes around comes around. In the Brooks Brothers store in New York, they used to display early 19th century account ledgers which, in view of the parlous state of the dollar and the British source of most of their material, recorded prices in sterling.

Then, and for some time later, the services of a lady of the night allegedly cost two bits, a bit being a Spanish dollar cut into eighths. And if it is not insulting the ladies, the New York Stock Exchange until a decade ago also priced their stocks in bits, or a least in eighths of a dollar. And that was before we got the real two-bit bonds - collateralised subprime mortgage obligations.

Partly because of the latter, but also because the greenback is looking mouldier and mouldier, Reuters reports that New York stores are eagerly taking euros and hoarding them to watch their value rise.

Indeed, I was recently choking in a New York cigar store, where I was speaking about the history of rum, and an Italian tourist waving euros in a way that one cannot imagine ever brandishing fistfuls of lira bought fistfuls of cigars and jars of pipe tobacco at prices unimaginable back home.

There are occasional whispers of canny artists contracting to be paid in euros, and rappers now wave fistfuls of euros rather than dollars.

It sounds familiar to anyone who grew up in the 1960s in Britain as sterling struggled to stay afloat. But in those days, no one could take more than £50 abroad, and strict currency controls stopped British investors running abroad to avoid sinking with the pound.

Washington pushed the rest of the world to end currency controls, incidentally precipitating the East Asian currency crisis for all the countries that followed their advice. The US did not need currency controls. Indeed, a decade or so ago, from the comfort of the world's reserve currency, American investors were loath to buy stocks in overseas companies, but thrown on their own devices by the companies that used to fund their pensions, millions are now discovering the joys of hard currency investments in Europe, Asia and Latin America. International funds have so far stood them well, growing in value and returns far more than the domestic equivalents. Heading the charge was legendary investor Warren Buffet, who said five years ago:

Through the spring of 2002, I had lived nearly 72 years without purchasing a foreign currency. Since then Berkshire has made significant investments in - and today holds - several currencies ... . Both as an American and as an investor, I actually hope these commitments prove to be a mistake. Any profits Berkshire might make from currency trading would pale against the losses the company and our shareholders, in other aspects of their lives, would incur from a plunging dollar.

Last week Buffet had not changed his mind. "In the future, I would predict that the US dollar will decline, I don't know what it will look like in the short term, but force-feeding the rest of the world $2bn a day is inconsistent with a stable dollar," he told Canadians basking in the renewed power of the Loonie. But as a sign of the times, he said the only currency he held was the Brazilian real. Now that would have had fund manager certified a decade ago. Now, as they get real, Americans will be calling their broker.

It brings it all into perspective, and anyone tempted to invest abroad will surely find their resolution to do so strengthened by Washington's response to the current economic precipice on whose edge we are teetering: lots of tax rebates in the hope that feckless American consumers will rush to Wal-Mart and keep the Chinese factories busy - while the canny ones rush to the brokers and buy international stocks and funds.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Mouldy Greenback

A Fistful of Dollars, now up on Comment is Free

A New Kosovo -FPIF

A new Kosovo
Amid the joy of long-delayed self-determination, Kosovars face serious obstacles. Serbia and its Russian ally continue to oppose independence.
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
By Ian Williams
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Someone should erect a monument in Pristina to Slobodan Miloševic as the godfather of the new country. If he had not abolished Kosovar autonomy, practiced a form of apartheid for a decade, and rounded it off with a brutal episode of ethnic cleansing and mass murder, Kosovo would not likely have declared independence on February 17. Nor would its European neighbors and indeed so many of the most important countries of the world have recognized its independence so promptly.

Amid the joy of long-delayed self-determination, Kosovars face serious obstacles. Serbia and its Russian ally continue to oppose independence. There are some lingering doubts in certain European capitals and the new state has some persistent political and economic dysfunctions. But Kosovar independence is now a reality, and the international community will soon get used to it.

Serbian Arguments

Supporters of Serbia have objected to Kosovar independence on many grounds – often contradictory. Perhaps the most contradictory has been Belgrade's newfound attachment to international law. Both Moscow and Belgrade can make a limited case in international law with respect to sovereignty. But neither in recent history has been scrupulous about respecting boundaries or over-scrupulous concerning the sovereignty of their neighbors.

Indeed, neither country has shown the slightest contrition for Miloševic's crimes against international humanitarian law and their active or tacit support for them. There is a ghoulish form of revisionism among Serb nationalists and their supporters that either totally denies or downplays the murder of thousands of Kosovars, many of whose rotting corpses were later excavated and removed to destroy the evidence. Belgrade's forces drove almost a million Kosovars across the borders and out of their homes.

The Serb nationalist claim to Kosovo on historical grounds is not likely to get far in any international tribunal, Israeli fanatics’ claims from Moses notwithstanding. It is a sort of diplomatic neutron bomb that claims the land and disposes of the people. Belgrade's supporters have failed to explain how Serbia would in any way exercise effective sovereignty over an overwhelmingly hostile population, whose recalcitrance has, if anything, been reinforced by the Serbian leader's intransigence. A close parallel would be London deciding to take back Ireland based on a much longer political history of continuous sovereignty than Serbia can demonstrate over Kosovo.

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Self-determination has been one of the bedrock principles of modern times, strongly emphasized by the International Court of Justice in its ruling over Western Sahara. Various Balkan nations, including the Serbs, invoked that right earlier against the Ottoman Empire.

Bangladeshi Precedent

Any rational point of view would suggest that such atrocities by Belgrade extinguish any residual claim of sovereignty over or loyalty from the Kosovars. There is in fact a recent example, which could indicate the direction that the international community will take.

Pakistan was originally formed by the voluntary union of what is now Bangladesh and what is now left of the country in the West. You may note that, in contrast, no one asked the Kosovars about their incorporation into Serbia in 1912, or at any time since. When in 1971 the Pakistani army staged mass killings and rapes of the Bengalis in East Pakistan, and foolishly took on India, it lost and Bangladesh seceded. Bangladesh became a member of the Commonwealth, recognized by almost 90 countries. It joined many of the UN’s subsidiary bodies even before its first application to join the UN became the occasion of Beijing’s first veto, since the PRC and Pakistan were close allies against India and the USSR. In the end, reality triumphed, and China and Pakistan dropped the veto in 1974.

UN Role

When the Security Council passed Resolution 1244 in 1999, which put Kosovo under interim UN administration, Miloševic’s regime was already under UN sanctions and had been the subject of over 50 UN Security Council Resolutions and innumerable statements. The Council unanimously set up an International Tribunal to try the perpetrators of what they agreed had been egregious war crimes. Only months before NATO's bombing of Serbia, the Security Council endorsed Miloševic’s agreement to reduce troop numbers in Kosovo – and to stop killing and expelling Kosovars. He broke the agreement and the UN resolution.

In fact, Security Council resolution 1244, despite its tendency to bury the facts under diplomatic verbiage, pointed firmly at independence. Its purpose was to legalize NATO’s victorious intervention while saving Moscow’s feelings. The UN was charged with setting up an autonomous administration and holding democratic elections in Kosovo, "pending a final settlement," which would help in developing "substantial autonomy and self government." The resolution’s small print refers to the Rambouillet accords, which were sold to the Albanians on the basis of an implied promise of a referendum after three years. Kosovo’s independence had to wait an additional five years.

New Challenges

Some critics of Kosovar independence point out that the country risks being a dysfunctional state, with a limited economy, a severe crime and smuggling problem, and undeveloped institutions. That puts it on a par with about half the membership of the UN! Consider the wars that Belgrade has visited on its neighbors, the black-marketing and profiteering that Miloševic made the bedrock of the Serbian economy, the assassination of the most democratically minded prime minister Zoran Djindic, and its failure to reform its security apparatus to the extent of arresting war criminals. Yet no one calls into question Serbia’s right to be a state.

A more serious problem concerns ethnic minorities. Many Serbs in Kosovo were complicit in the persecution of their Albanian neighbors. Some, but not many, stood up for them. When the tables turned, many Serbs fled, expecting to be paid in like coin. Many Kosovars saw it as payback time. Some stood against it, but not many. There can be no justification for the attacks on Serbs that some Albanians have perpetrated. But those who now so strongly emphasize what happened to the Serb minority in Kosovo forget that such attacks have been the work of individuals, while what happened to the Kosovar Albanians before was the work of the organized forces of the state. Nonetheless it is very wise of Kosovo to accept the plan of UN Special Envoy Marrti Ahtisaari, which allows for years of tutelage to help build institutions and protect minorities.
It is reassuring that the declaration of independence specifically calls for friendship with Serbia "with whom we have deep historical, commercial and social ties that we seek to develop further in the near future." Indeed, the very fact that the declaration refers to Kosovo, instead of “Kosova,” is a step forward from the early days when Albanians tried to insist on using the latter, as the Albanian spelling.

Recognition of Kosovar independence has started with the United States and most of the European Union. Most Islamic countries will probably follow suit, along with many non-aligned states. So far Belgrade has blustered and threatened to downgrade relations with the dozens of very important neighbors who will recognize Kosovo. But after the multiple defeats that Miloševic caused for Serbs, fortunately there is little appetite for military action.

European Future?

But whatever the atavistic pan-Orthodox pan-Slavic ties invoked between Belgrade and Moscow, Serbia needs better relations with the EU, whose members and associates surround it. Selling former state assets to Russian companies at knockdown prices may give vengeful satisfaction to anti-Western politicians in Belgrade, but Serbia's economic future is with Europe.

Not only is the EU much more generous than Russia with funds, it has been extremely successful in making old boundaries obsolete and transforming fortified frontiers into administrative divisions. Less noticed has been the EU’s advancement of the rights of minorities, both in its original and aspirant members. Both should blunt the more atavistic forms of nationalism that still haunt the Balkans.

Brussels should indeed wave its juiciest carrots at Belgrade. However, the Netherlands and Belgium have, quite rightly, stopped the EU from offering Serbia an accession package unless it fulfils its own promises and its legal commitments to hand over indicted war criminals, notably Mladic and Karadjic, to The Hague. Until they do, Miloševic's undemocratic and criminal coterie will still control Serbia's security forces. It would be like admitting Turkey without provisions for freedom of the press and rights for Kurds and other minorities there.

For both the EU and the United States, firmness but respect should be the formula for re-establishing relations with both Moscow and Belgrade. It would be a good gesture, for example, for the United States to abandon the provocative anti-missile and radar stations on Russia's door-step in Poland and the Czech Republic. Without condoning Putin's moves to authoritarianism, the United States and EU should treat Moscow as a partner rather than an undercover enemy. As the Europeans point out, Kosovo is a special case. Any attempt by Moscow to generalize it to Abkhazia or Trans-Dneister could have serious blowback in Chechnya, for example.

During the Balkan wars, Moscow became progressively more intransigent in its support for Serbia. Partly this derived from pan-Orthodox sentiment. But Moscow also liked the idea of using the threat of its veto to try to get some respect from a disdainful Washington, whose denizens persisted in treating it as a defeated power In the best-case scenario, neither Serbia nor Russia will be able to use the politics of resentment to prevent Kosovo from entering the community of states.

Ian Williams contributes frequently to Foreign Policy In Focus ( on UN and international affairs. More of his work is available on Published by Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF), a project of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS, online at Copyright © 2008, Institute for Policy Studies.

Plagiarism forsooth

Plagiarism forsooth!

US elections 2008: Nothing becomes Obama like Clinton's attacks. So once more unto the breach - we come to analyse Obama, not to praise him
Ian Williams

full text of Guardian CiF
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It is symptomatic of the Clinton campaign's drearily academic approach that, while demanding a full critical apparatus for their opponent's speech, they have not noticed that Obama lifted his slogan "Yes We Can!" from Bob the Builder, ("Can we build it? Yes....") One is almost surprised they have not accused him of pandering to the hard-hat union vote.

I am somewhat agnostic about Obama. While I am certain that Hillary Clinton will do the right thing, in every sense, by the moneyed interests that have been backing her, he has not yet had the opportunity to do so on the same scale. Neither she nor Obama have the courage to adopt the single-payer system that is the only sensible solution to American health care's lack of structure, and both of them have burnt a pinch of incense on the altar of neo-liberal economic doctrine.

But the latest attack from the Clinton camp for alleged plagiarism - like the previous attempt to play the race card against him - should have footnoted it as a cover of "Karl Rove and the Swift Boaters: Greatest Hits, volume one". It is difficult not to suspect that the alleged linking of Obama to "terrorism" because an alleged Weatherman sent $200 to the campaign is also a leak from the Clinton campaign.

When Joe Biden stole Neil Kinnock's speech back in 1987, he was hounded out of the race, not so much for plagiarism as for absolute inappropriateness. Kinnock's speech celebrated what the 1945 Labour government in Britain had done for his family, generations of whom had toiled at the literal Welsh coal faces, while Biden's ancestors were trying to get their lips around silver spoons. Around that time, I was a writer on Kinnock's election team, and he took scrupulous care rewriting our contributions - so the bit Biden filched was all his.

The question to ask is, who writes Hilary's speeches? Does she really compose them herself, or, like most American politicians of her ilk, are they the distillation of focus group opinions being replayed back to ensure that no potential donor's feathers are ruffled?

The cult of originality derives from the ferocious Darwinian struggle for tenure in academic America. Like most pre-modern authors, Shakespeare's work is a pastiche of quotations, liftings and unacknowledged citations that, if he were writing now, would have him up for copyright violations. But in Obama's case, apart from Bob Builder, whose intellectual property has been appropriated? He paraphrased a paragraph from Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachussets - who is a friend and supporter, and who has not complained about it.

Indeed, if the Clinton team had academic insight to match their shallow academic spite, they would have noticed what their opponent said in New Hampshire last December:

"But you know in the end, don't vote your fears. I'm stealing this line from my buddy [Massachusetts Governor] Deval Patrick who stole a whole bunch of lines from me when he ran for the governorship, but it's the right one, don't vote your fears, vote your aspirations. Vote what you believe."

The Clinton tactics highlight the self-destructive absurdity of the primary system, in which a party's potential candidates spend almost two years providing ammunition for the other side in the general election. In the absence of clear macro-policy differences, they go for quibbles and personalities. But the primaries also highlight the self-destructive egotism of Hillary Clinton and her husband. Their speedy disavowal of their longtime friend Lani Guinier when faced with a proto-swiftboating by the Wall St Journal editorialists shows that they lacked attachment to their friends and their principles if they thought it detracted from dynastic power.

Swiftboating may indeed work in a Republican primary, where the wackos have disproportionate influence, and even in a general election, but it will backfire in a Democratic primary. And as for an accusation of plagiarism, maybe voters in the general election should be required to spell it, or even define it, before registering?

May I recommend a line to Obama: "Et tu, Hillary?"

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Kosovo Independence, Full text

Check out CiF, some 150 comments and counting, bringing out some of the nastiest, chauvinistic demons on the Web, whose rhetoric really makes the Kosovars' case for them.

Heads in the sand

There may be practical arguments against Kosovo's independence, but citing international law ignores the genocide committed by Belgrade
Ian Williams

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February 16, 2008 5:00 PM
When John Bolton, Henry Kissinger, Vojislav Kostunica and Vladimir Putin line up with the fossilised relics of the Leninist left on an issue - you can be fairly sure that they are all wrong.

There may be practical arguments against Kosovo's independence, but for this motley assortment of naysayers to cite international law really has to take the biscuit. Along with what passes for leadership in Belgrade they all disregard the Genocide Convention and share an ostrich-like denial that the Serbian state under Milosevic practiced genocide and ethnic cleansing - or that it matters very much.

But all their pomp about sovereignty and the sacredness of boundaries does not change circumstances: Serbia as a state was complicit in what the World Court called "an act of genocide" in Srebrenica and in ethnic cleansing and mass murder in Kosovo. Belgrade, which carried on paying a pension to general Ratko Mladic while claiming it could not find him to hand over to the Hague, has now discovered an expedient attachment to international law over Kosovo.

This week at the international tribunal in the Hague, the judges are considering the refrigerated trucks full of excavated corpses of Kosovars that were driven into Serbia to be buried under police barracks or dumped in the Danube. No one is disputing that it happened. It is just that the Serbian police drivers on the witness stand seem confused about which of their superior officers ordered them to do it.

Even if the leaders in Belgrade had shown any serious measure of contrition for a decade of apartheid culminating in 1998 with the massacre of thousands of Kosovars and driving the bulk of the population over the borders such acts forfeit any duty from the victims to the perpetrating state. Instead of saying sorry, they bluster about precedents in international law.

But there is a very cogent and recent example. Pakistan was originally formed by the voluntary union of what is now Bangladesh and what is now left of the country in the west. You may note that, in contrast, the Kosovars were not asked about their incorporation into Serbia in 1912, or at any time since.

When in 1971 the Pakistani army staged mass killings and rapes of the Bengalis in East Pakistan, and foolishly took on India, it lost, and Bangladesh seceded. Bangladesh became a member of the Commonwealth, recognised by almost 90 countries, and in fact a member of many of the subsidiary bodies. Its first application to join the UN became the occasion off Beijing's first veto, since the PRC and Pakistan were close allies against India and the Soviet Union.

Those who deny the Kosovars the right to secede, then, somewhat contradictorily advance the right of the Serbs in the Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Northern Mitrovica to secede and overlook the circumstances. In fact, the RSK owes its present Serb majority to acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing, and even Northern Mitrovica's present population is based on the refusal of the Serbs there, with the connivance of UN forces on the bridge, to allow Albanians back into their homes.

In contrast, Kosovo owes its present status to an international reaction against ethnic cleansing that Belgrade committed, and in the end the illogic of victims needing the permission of their murderers to quit will become obvious. Bangladesh became a member of the UN in 1974. Kosovo looks set to follow in the same path, with recognition from most countries in the world being followed eventually by admission to the United Nations. Like Pakistan, Belgrade's nationalists can prance on their diminutive stage for a while, but reality will eventually intrude.

Then everyone can join the EU, and the borders will be irrelevant.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Military Inaction

from the Guardian Comment is Free full text
Ian Williams
14 February 2008

I've known Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos Horta for approaching 20 years, during which UN officialdom and western governments regarded him as a Don Quixote figure, tilting at the Indonesian windmill so firmly planted in his native land.

So on both private and public levels it was bad news that he had been shot. It was equally distressing to hear the allegation that the first UN police who had arrived at the scene stood back and left him bleeding on the road until their backup appeared. The UN representative has provided the police version, which, like most police exculpations across the world should be taken with a sack full of salt, and as Timor-Leste's own military chief said: "Even though it may have been possible and highly recommended, there was no immediate operation undertaken to arrest the personnel responsible for the attacks."

UN missions are in the classic positions of beggars deprived of choice, especially with police, and the Timor-Leste mission includes some of the finest police forces that money can buy, including Egypt, El Salvador, India, Zimbabwe, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine Yemen and, unforgettably, Zimbabwe.

You do not have to accept the principle of universal constabulary illegitimacy to consider that there are some police forces you are even less likely to rely.

But the other feeling was of déjà vu all over again, in the worst days of the UN during the Bosnian war, when French marines opened the door of an APC while a Serb militiaman shot seven or eight times into the Bosnian deputy prime minister Hakija Turajlic, whom the French were supposed to be protecting. The French colonel in charge, Patrice Sartre, had ordered British reinforcements to move away, and his men took no action to stop or apprehend the murderer who had the leisure to fire with impunity.

One would have thought that losing a deputy prime minister may cause a blot on one's military escutcheon, but it does not seem to have affected Sartre's career. He retired recently as a general after commanding operations in places like Rwanda, where the French forces went to the rescue to the genocidaires, and even a spell as French military attaché to the UN.

However, this is about par for the course. The Dutch soldiers who stood by at Srebrenica and watched general Ratko Mladic's Serbs lead away 8,000 men for slaughter, were given an official welcome and medals all round when they got home. The officials and politicians in New York and the various capitals who refused to allow air support did not resign in disgrace and went on to greater things with their CV's untrammelled by their tacit complicity in an act of genocide.

In fact, while in Rwanda, Sartre met Canadian general Romeo Dallaire, who deserves an opera, a tragedy of his own. He was abandoned by UN officialdom and the great powers and tried to save as many as he could from the genocide going on around him - in effect defying orders to do so. It would be fair to say that the Canadian military was not supportive on his return.

In Timor-Leste itself, when the pro-Indonesian militia ran riot, the UN pulled out, against, one might think, the wishes of many of the contingent.

In the end, it all comes back to a culture of impunity. If the cops, or marines, feel any responsibility, it is to their national commands. The UN mission heads are stuck between lack of disciplinary powers against their motley contingents and lack support from bureaucrats far away who need to pander to countries to raise forces.

Nevertheless, if the UN police in Timor-Leste did stand by and watch Ramos Horta bleed, they should be on the next plane out, and their pay docked of the handsome subsistence allowance that induce them to volunteer.

For the future, the idea of dedicated UN forces stirs up deep atavistic fears in the wackos who run the Republican party. But in fact, the security forces that guard UN buildings across the world could easily be the core of a UN police force. They have the training, discipline and corps d'esprit that seem so totally lacking in the pluralistic plods in Dili.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Ramos Horta and the failure of UN police

My comments in the Guardian, comment is free on the reports that Timor L'Este's PM was left bleeding while UN police kept their distance.

Green indeed

Global fuming
Investor Relations Magazine

Jan, 2008

What’s green and intoxicating? Ian Williams fuels up

‘Green’ has different connotations, the most (over)used conjuring benign visions of environmental soundness. Another implies being gullible and easy to trick. The two sometimes even converge – for example, when health-conscious consumers are tricked into buying overpriced tap water decanted into disposable bottles made of potentially toxic petrochemicals and trucked across continents.

You may think nothing could be greener than bio-fuels, but there are ominous aspects to this issue. Sugarcane is one of the most potent sources of vegetable energy, which is why Brazilians began to put the stuff in their gas tanks when they weren’t drinking it in their caipirinhas. But even cachaca producers complain that bio-ethanol production is driving their costs up the spouts of their stills, while environmentalists note with concern that sugarcane plantations are encroaching on the Amazon rainforest, one of the globe’s last big carbon sinks.

For some Caribbean countries faced with huge imported fuel bills and idle fields because of US and EU protectionism, sugar alcohol as fuel makes sense. But in a world where billions go hungry every day, turning corn into gasoline seems obscene: the grain it takes to fill one SUV tank with bio-ethanol could feed a person for a year.

What’s more, the idea is as dubious economically as it is ethically. There are processes that use waste oils, cornstalks, grass or almost any organic garbage to make bio-diesel, but they do not have big lobbyists on the Hill. Corn gas is economically sustainable only in an insulated environment of corporate welfare, a cocoon of subsidies, tax breaks and high-tariff barriers against imported sugar. It is not even slightly environmentally sustainable. It uses almost as much carbon-based fuel in its production as it delivers, while the resulting higher corn prices will lead to the prairies being plowed, destroying the regrowing carbon sink there.

But corn ethanol makes lots of political sense because politicians collect sack-loads of campaign contributions from its manufacturers and the Florida sugar barons who could not otherwise compete with the Caribbean and Brazil. And in US politics, it’s never a bad thing to have the farm lobby on your side. In the current paranoid climate, it also helps to imply that every dollar that goes to the Midwest corn barons is not going to a fundamentalist Arab sheikh.

Most perniciously, the green glow around corn gas relieves the pressure on Washington and Detroit to do anything about the gas-guzzling monstrosities wallowing along America’s roads. Washington refuses to set carbon limits, enforce stricter fuel efficiency standards or in any way lessen the nation’s addiction to cheap liquid fuel, while simultaneously pumping tax dollars to the corn gas emitters.

Some years ago, Speculator predicted the imminence of the $100 barrel of oil. My grim satisfaction at being correct is made even grimmer by the acquisition of an oil-heated home in the mountains and a car to get to and from it. Even so, I still believe gas is far too cheap in this country – and only higher fuel taxes will force economic design on Detroit and rational planning on the cities.

50 years of the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament

From Tribune, 14 th February

As a young, politically interested science-fiction reading schoolboy, I went on successive Aldermaston marches, singing about the “H Bombs’ thunder” that “echoed like the crack of doom.” I read, and still have a first edition of John Hershey’s Hiroshima, which, in those days of Cuban crises, gave gruesome details of what a nuclear holocaust could be like. It is clear that both in scale of devastation and in their lingering after-effects nuclear weapons were immoral and uniquely evil, not least because of the blow back effect – the fallout came back on the users as well the victims.

But somehow people aren't as scared anymore. Six decades and not a mushroom cloud in anger, and no Cuban style standoffs to raise the anxiety quotient.

It is difficult to be rational about such weaponry, and certainly few governments have succeeded. The USA exploded almost 200 in Nevada where trippers to Las Vegas could watch the fireworks on the horizon. The British stood servicemen in shorts on the decks of ships, and told them to cover their eyes against the flash. The Soviets gave conscripts a glass of vodka and marched them into the mushroom cloud. The French went ahead with a test for de Gaulle, even though the wind was blowing towards nearby islands. Clearly one of the first effects of such weapons was on the sanity of their possessors.

One of things we did at Aldermaston was to distribute the Spies for Peace leaflets that exposed the government's secret plans to run post-nuclear Britain with neo-feudal baronies run from bunkers.

But then, it was not just governments that were a few kilos short of critical mass in the brain department, sometimes even opponents had a whiff of irrationality about them. In the sixties, the Committee of 100 had a demonstration in Moscow, and I remembered some of the Communist CND members were upset. Unilateral disarmament for Britain was one thing, but leave the "Workers' Bomb" alone.

Looking back in sobriety, over Berlin, Korea, Hungary, Berlin and Czechoslovakia, it does indeed take an act of considerable faith to consider Moscow as "peace-loving," even if it were not as much of a threat as the Americans believed. Traumatized by the cost of standing alone in Europe during the war, the post-war British Labour government saw an independent nuclear weapon as an essential survival tool.

Relying on American support had been very costly for Britain: it had been a very risky strategy then and was likely to be even more so in the future, hence the fervour with which Nye Bevan had defended the independent nuclear deterrent, arguing that unilateralism was "an emotional spasm," "sending a British foreign secretary naked into the council chamber."

Perhaps the one good thing about the Polaris deal that turned into Trident is that it disarmed the concept of the "independent nuclear deterrent." Harold McMillan's deal with JFK actually gave up Britain's independence. The country can neither make, nor deliver nuclear weapons without Washington's say-so, and in return it has to snap to attention when the White House calls. The UK is as naked as an Athenian slave in the arena with a Roman sword at his testicles.

More to the point, it puts Britain on the frontline of American unilateralism of a totally different kind to that which we espoused at Aldermaston. Apart from Iraq, it makes us complicit in breathtaking hypocrisy, which says that some countries can have nuclear weapons and others cannot. It ties us to a nation, the USA, which is hedging about the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and reinterprets the Non Proliferation Treaty to exclude Israel and India, while resisting its strengthening. Washington also sends very dangerous signals about the convention on peaceful uses of outer spaces and has unilaterally scrapped arms limitation treaties with Moscow.

The constant hedging about first use and the hints of nuclear bunker-busters show that the collective insanity of the early days is still rampant around the Pentagon and the White House.

In doing so, both they and the British government are in clear violation of their own commitments under the Non Proliferation Treaty that commits them to good faith disarmament. It also pits them against the International Court of Justice ruling in 1996, which found the threat and use of nuclear weapons to be illegal under international law, except in the case of an existential threat to the state possessing them. But even then, the ruling stressed that the NPT commitment "is an obligation to achieve a precise result -- nuclear disarmament in all its aspects -- by adopting a particular course of conduct, namely, the pursuit of negotiations on the matter in good faith."

Under the circumstances, the non-proliferation regime has been relatively successful. South Africa disarmed because the Afrikaaners did not want an African bomb, but it could restart the process – yet it so far has not. Countries like Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Germany, that could with some seriousness argue their need, have also declined to take up the nuclear option.

Britain apparently now has the second biggest arms budget in the world, to defend one offshore island that is not threatened with invasion from anywhere. Trident never had a "useful" life, but now it is obsolescent, perhaps it could become useful – as a bargaining chip with Iran, India and Pakistan, not to mention North Korea and Israel, to show that a country can remain potent on the world stage even without a nuclear phallus to brandish.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Whale of a Tale

Note my restraint: I refrained from calling the Japanese Spermicides!

A whale of a tale

Japan's killing of whales is unjustified, and its claim that the whaling industry serves a scientific purpose is hypocritical
Ian Williams

Ceticide is silly, as well as not very nice.

I was addressing freshmen politics students at Paterson University about the British elections on the day that Tony Blair was first elected. "Could you tell them about Scotland and Wales?" the professor asked. A large and hitherto comatose football player in the front row suddenly raised his head from the desk and asked: "You mean, like, Moby Dick?" Whales 'R Us for a whole generation.

Whales are clever and cuddly, and they sing. They even have names, like Willy. Like eating dogs and horses, harpooning whales appals the anthropomorphically inclined, a point realised by the Japanese who have responded to the recent Australian court ruling against Japanese whaling in the Antarctic by pointing our the relish with which their prosecutors eat kangaroo.

If the Japanese were to get up and say outright, "We actually like whale meat, we think it's yummy and we are going to chomp our way through it regardless of your anthropomorphic delusions," you could almost respect them. But they don't. They waffle on about scientific research while going through whales as if they were white mice in a laboratory.

As a born-again carnivore, when I chomp through a filet mignon I don't pretend that it is byproduct of tissue sampling for "scientific research", unless gastronomy has moved recently from being an art to a science.

The Norwegians make no such pretence. These cosy Nordic social democrats and suppliers of UN peacekeepers, take as many whales as the Japanese and blithely admit that they are doing it for food. Of course, they are European, were on the right side in the last war and hunt in their own waters, so somehow Greenpeace leaves them alone. It may help that they take less than their own declared quota because demand for it is so low, but is cooking whale meat and eating it with knives and forks really any better than nibbling raw slivers on the end of chopsticks?

Japan sends heavily subsidised ships on long voyages to the opposite pole and then tries to flog the flensed carcasses back home to a generally indifferent public. There are freezers full of whale meat because they can't sell all the by-product of their "research" even to captive audiences like school lunch programmes.

Added to the hidden subsidies are the untold millions in bribes - sorry, aid - that goes to small developing-world countries to join the International Whaling Commission and vote along with the ceticidic Japanese.

At one time, as I remember, it was widely alleged that the steak in British steak and kidney pies of the kind sold in fish & chip shops was in fact whale steak, so I have probably eaten some myself.

But there are differences. Many of the great whales were and still are endangered species, and we have the example of Atlantic cod to show what happens when a species falls below a threshold value. They are also remarkably intelligent and more cogently, there is no humane way to kill Leviathan. Their dying is long and direful. That is why Tokyo got testy when the new Australian government released its official pictures of the beginning of the bloody trail to Japan's restaurant tables.

But the biggest sin of the Japanese government is hypocrisy. Real scientists use neither harpoons nor chopsticks to do biopsies and autopsies.

I eagerly await the government of Japan's announcement that it is setting up a Sashimi Research Council. Its purpose will be to kill lots of whales to investigate the possibility that whale sushi will combat global warming. After all, sashimi saves enormous amounts of carbon output because it does not involved cooking.

However, it would be every bit as blubbery an excuse as the research the Japanese whaling fleet is allegedly conducting, which is simply pandering to a small but very vocal industry than evokes atavistic national pride to keep the yen rolling in. Of course, Japan is not the only country where small lobbies have disproportionate power regardless of international opinion, but does the government really have to put so much effort into it? Can't they promise the whaling ports a bullet train line to bring whale-watching tourists instead?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Taiwan's Healthcare, lessons in civilization for the USA

Health Care in Taiwan: Why Can’t the United States Learn Some Lessons?
An article from the Winter Edition of Dissent Magazine, which you can subscribe to and get good stuff like this all the time.

By Ian Williams
Some years ago in New York I went to hear the Taiwanese health minister describe the country’s new National Health Service. He had just been to visit George W. Bush’s first secretary of health, Tommy Thompson. I could not resist and asked, “While you were in Washington, did you explain to the Republican secretary of health that you’ve introduced a socialized health system?” He looked me squarely in the eyes and said, “You know, it completely slipped my mind!” And well it might. We have heard much tendentious information about the alleged success of Chile’s privatization of social security, but little of the unchallenged efficacy of Taiwan’s health service.

Taiwan inaugurated its National Health Insurance program in 1995. Before then the three major social health insurance programs, Labor Insurance, Government Employee Insurance, and Farmers Insurance, left 40 percent of the population uncovered, many of them children and retirees. Dr. Michael Chen, vice president and chief financial officer of the NHI Bureau, says that there is now 99 percent coverage—he is not sure who the missing 1 percent are, but suspects that they are expatriates who have not registered (apparently, prison inmates are not covered but do receive care in the prison system). Indeed, many expatriates maintain their coverage—including the million or so who now work in mainland China. Conversely, foreign workers in Taiwan are also covered.

NHI premiums cover Western- and Chinese-style medicine, both in- and outpatient, prescription charges, home care, and dentistry. Almost all western-style hospitals and 88 percent of Chinese-medicine clinics are in the system. Though dentists have been opting out of the British National Health dental system in large numbers, almost 95 percent of dental clinics are in the Taiwanese system. Health care is provided by a competitive mixture of municipal and public (about one-third of the beds) and privately owned hospitals that also offer comprehensive primary care. Between them they employ almost two-thirds of doctors. Avoiding the severe conflict of interest that the British system has maintained, doctors contracted to hospitals cannot run private practices on the side.

TAIWAN IS a smaller (twenty-one million people), more compact country than the United States, but the NHI provides many pointers for Americans attempting to secure full health coverage. To begin with, Taiwan had a vigorous market-based health provision system, which has adapted itself, apparently very happily, to the new national service. The former KuoMintang government was an authoritarian social democracy, in the very limited sense that social provision was on the agenda. But corruption and capitalism were fully developed. The NHI was introduced in the early days of democracy, just as the KMT single-party system was being dismantled. It was a popular election issue.

The provision of health care is not nationalized, despite a degree of information and coordination that, for example, the British system cannot match after spending billions on computerization. Rather, the NHI is a classic single payer scheme—the government runs a compulsory, mostly premium-financed insurance system, which negotiates a single payment schedule with the private and municipal or government-owned providers.

On the face of it, the experience of the insured in Taiwan is certainly better than that of Americans dependent on the caprices of commercial health insurers. In 2005, polls showed a 72.5 percent satisfaction rate—and much of the dissatisfaction is with the cost, laughably small though it is by U.S. standards. When co-payments and premiums were increased in 2002, the satisfaction rate plummeted to 59.7 percent. To put this in perspective, the premiums at the maximum are less than $20 (U.S.) per month (the annual per capita GDP is $16,500 U.S.).

Taiwan has done this for proportionately, less than half the cost of the United States, with costs running at 6.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2005, compared with the following for other countries: United States, 15.2 percent; France, 10.1 percent; Canada, 9.9 percent; United Kingdom, 7.7 percent; Japan, 7.9 percent; South Korea, 5.2 percent (World Health Organization figures for 2003 published in 2006).

In absolute terms, the difference is even starker. In 2003, health spending per head in Taiwan was less than $800 per head of population compared to the U.S. level of approximately $5,500. In fact, by 2005, U.S. health care spending increased 6.9 percent to almost $2.0 trillion, or $6,697 per person, amounting to 16 percent of GDP.

With an aging population demanding more and more innovative medical interventions, the NHI faces similar problems to the United States in terms of the escalation of demand (and thus of cost), but it has contained the growth of health care costs as a share of GDP while expanding coverage to a far higher proportion of hitherto uninsured people than in the United States

The various constituencies seem to have cooperated to avert long-term financial problems, adjusting premiums, co-payments, and provider fees in a way that has left them all reasonably content, while providing protection for weaker and poorer groups and those suffering chronic illnesses. Even the generous safety net seems to have another net below, with exemptions for those who cannot pay, loan option to pay premiums, and referral to charitable organizations for payment when even that fails. For example, by the end of 2004, the NHI had issued 750,000 “Catastrophic Illness” cards, whose holders’ co-payments are either reduced or eliminated entirely. This makes sound social but bad financial sense, as these people account for almost a quarter of the bureau’s expenditure—but that is what national insurance is about.

A common argument against “socialized medicine” in the United States is that it leads to rationing and waiting lists for treatment. However, unlike the Canadian or British systems, and, indeed, unlike health maintenance organizations in the United States, there are simply no waiting lists, except perhaps for organ donor availability. That is in part because, although there is a government sponsored single-payer system, there is not a single provider, and the insured have free choice of doctors and institutions. Indeed, Deputy Minister of Health Tsay Jinn Chen refers to “doctor shopping” on the part of the insured, which introduces market discipline and ensures speedy treatment.

Transition Problems
Of course, the system did not start running as designed immediately. It has needed adjustment, not least to balance revenue and costs and manage demand in a way that does not impinge on health care. In fact, the system does seem to have a considerable degree of adaptability.

When the British National Health System was established in 1947, there were two major fiscal problems. One was that, as Health Minister Aneurin Bevan said, he had to “stuff the maws of doctors with gold” to get them into the system. That was in part because the government was, in effect, nationalizing the old hospitals and employing the doctors on a contractual basis. The other problem, which would be relevant for any U.S. introduction of national insurance, was the “overhang,” the pent-up demand for dentistry, prescription medicine, dentures, and glasses from millions of previously uncovered patients. In Taiwan, Chen described the new system as something like “an all-you-can-eat” restaurant for very hungry people, who no longer had to trade off other purchases against health care.

The introduction of co-payments in Britain in the early 1950s, as a result of the costs of the Korean War, occasioned a huge ideological battle in the Labour Party, with Harold Wilson, later the prime minister, leading a revolt on behalf of a completely free service. In retrospect, admirable though the motives of the Labour revolt may have been, Taiwan’s program of nominal co-payments, with suitable provision for the genuinely needy, seems a sensible way to manage and filter demand.

In order to contain costs, in 2005 the NHI introduced a referral system, aimed at dissuading the insured from racing to the most prestigious hospital or specialist with every headache. They can still do that, but now they face an increased co-payment if they skip referral. The co-payments should not dissuade anyone genuinely ill from seeking help—it is a mere $12 U.S. for an unreferred patient who chooses to go to an Academic Medical Center. For those who go first to a clinic, referred or unreferred, the co-payment is $1.50 U.S.

For some expensive high-tech and experimental procedures preauthorization is needed, but it would appear that this is less onerous than dealing with an American HMO. Equitably counterbalancing the co-payments are ceilings on in-treatment liabilities—for example, an annual cumulative ceiling of approximately $1,300 or 10 percent of per capita income for co-payments. The ceiling has a safety net hanging from it as well, with many exceptions for serious illness, childbirth, rural and outlying areas, and low-income families, to ensure that no one is deterred from seeking the help they need.

Prescription costs are managed similarly. First, the NHI bargains down drug prices and second, co-payments are on a proportional scale with a ceiling of approximately $6. Once again, there are many exemptions for the needy.

Health Care Delivery
The NHI benefits from a longstanding public health system that, even under the Kuo-Mintang, provided a network of inoculation and vaccination, children’s and women’s health care, and which had reduced or eliminated the diseases that otherwise would be prevalent in a subtropical developing country. The NHI is proud, for example, of its 95 percent inoculation rate against measles, which compares to 70 percent in Japan.

Although the competitive free market in health was probably an important factor in averting waiting lists, it did have other consequences, one of which, as Jui-Fen Rachel Lu and William C. Hsiao charge, is that “Taiwan has a fragmented health care delivery system that lacks continuity of care. Its clinical quality of care suffers from years of laissez-faire policy toward clinical practices.” (“Does Universal Health Insurance Make Health Care Unaffordable? Lessons From Taiwan,” Health Affairs, 22:3, 2003.) There are, however, more and more quality controls. By law, only licensed doctors can own a hospital or clinic, for example. Building on that, the persuasive power of the NHI has been creating a family doctor system, in which between five to ten primary care clinics in each area are networked with NHI contracted hospitals to provide an integrated care system, with referrals when needed but with primary care continuity.

It seems that the family practice is an innovation for Taiwan, but harnessed to the network, and with the detailed record keeping made possible by the NHI card, it ensures better primary care. A smart chip in the new insurance cards allows the NHI to look for examples of fraud, overbilling, and similar practices that bedevil Medicare. There are significant fringe benefits, too, for example, keeping track of organ donors, which is especially important in a society where donation is not that common.

NHI providers use the card for financial purposes but also increasingly for clinical record keeping. Since 2004, the IC card has given users access to details of serious illness and injury and major medical examinations and scans, avoiding unnecessary and expensive repeat tests of the kind that happen so frequently in the United States. It stores records of both prescriptions and drug allergies, thus averting the problems of adverse interactions between different medicines, and duplication of prescriptions for dangerous or expensive drugs. In previous years the system was prone to over-prescribing and prescription inflation, but the card checked that tendency. One of the most valuable applications of the NHI’s information system is that of tracking down suspected cases and heading off an epidemic disease, as in the case of SARS.

The card makes it much easier to monitor and detect fraud. In 2004, the NHI reduced or deducted claims from over a thousand institutions, 231 were awarded demerits, which affect their contract payment levels, and 90 were suspended from the system for periods of one to three months. Four were dropped entirely. The information system is so effective that a former CEO of the NHI Bureau once quipped that he knew immediately if the same tooth had “been pulled twice” from any individual.

Revenue and Costs
The IC card helps track payment of premiums and allows prompt reminders of missed premium payments, which ensures coverage for the insured and, equally vital, cash flow for the system. Since it was set up, the costs of the NHI have risen by an annual average of 5.5 percent, while revenues have only risen by 4.7 percent, hence the need for constant fine-tuning of co-payments and attempts to restrain expenditures, which are currently between $11 and $12 billion U.S. The fund is mandated to carry a one-month buffer but has rarely been able to do so. Solutions have included doubling the tobacco tax surcharge and raising the earnings ceiling on contributions, which currently stands at a little over $4,000 per month.

Premium collection is similar to that of Social Security contributions in the United States. Employers and the self-employed are legally bound to pay. However, unlike the US Social Security Fund, the NHI is a genuine pay-as-you go system. The aim is for the premium income to pay costs.

There is a continual tussle over who bears the cost of the national service—currently 27 percent is paid by the government, 35 percent by employers, and 38 percent by employees. The various partners try to shift the burden, and legislators are reluctant to incur popular displeasure by increasing costs to employees, while the influential employers’ organizations also have the ear of negotiators. They talked down the employers’ share of the premium from 80 percent to 60 percent. The government puts in another 10 percent.

The government share, including the tobacco tax surcharge and lottery proceeds, goes disproportionately—but appropriately—to finance the premiums of disadvantaged groups, remote rural dwellers, the indigenous peoples, and the poor. Although all contributors have access to the same services, there is a significant redistributive effect. Six categories of insured pay at different levels, scaled against income, with ceilings.

The insured pay for each dependent, up to a ceiling of three, while the employers pay for an average number of dependents, which takes away the incentive to fire or not hire fecund workers. For the “regional population,” in remote rural areas, the government pays 40 percent and the insured pays 60 percent of the premium, while for low-income households, the government pays the whole premium.

The single-payer system means that the NHI is a monopoly purchaser and so has greater bargaining power with the pharmaceutical companies and with the providers. As in Canada and the United Kingdom, the pharmaceutical companies have to accept reasonable prices, because the NHI has a weight in prescription pricing that is deliberately denied Medicare in the latest U.S. Medicare prescription plan.

Facing up to the pharmaceutical industry allows the single-payer system to control costs, and the technology of the NHI card allows controls of overcharging. It even encourages best practices, such as appropriate use of antibiotics for upper respiratory chest infections, or antacids for stomach problems. The twenty-nine million monthly claims going through the system allow effective analysis of costs and billing patterns.

The NHI does not seem to have abused its monopoly power to drive down doctors’ earnings, as there is vigorous competition among practitioners and institutions for patient patronage, even at the fees collectively agreed upon. The ease of payment, with the government writing the checks, seems to have been a good enough trade-off for the doctors. There is nothing to stop a doctor setting up private practice—except a shortage of clients. The system was originally based on fee for service but then transitioned to a “case-payment” system based on fifty-three items. The program’s chief financial officer, Michael Chen, says that the idea is that the NHI is purchasing “not just medical care, but health, as evidenced by initiatives aiming at encouraging ‘pay for performance.’” The 95 percent inoculation rate against measles suggests the success of the program.

The NHI Committee for the Arbitration of Medical Costs considers not only the overall figures but also individual providers’ performance based on support for patients’ rights, accessibility and satisfaction, efficiency of service, and similar criteria. The committee rewards providers if scored for “excellence” through the “quality assurance funds.”

And in the Superpower?
When General Motors offloads its health care system onto the United Auto Workers, one suspects that disaster has been postponed rather than averted. The Taiwanese example of the single-payer system should prove attractive to everybody but executives and shareholders of health insurers. Many features of the Taiwanese system lend themselves readily to the United States, which is not surprising, because, as Chen admits, the primary model for it was Medicare. But the adjustments the Taiwanese made point to the road not taken in the United States. Avoiding the commercial health insurers for a single-payer system with universal coverage offers great efficiencies at almost every point of the provision network.

The Taiwanese system begins with an idealistic premise—of universal, high-quality health coverage—but then addresses in a most pragmatic way the actual behavior of the constituencies involved: the medical providers, the pharmaceutical companies, and the patients. The frequent readjustments do not pander to the moral panic of freeloading or fraud that often governs legislation and decision-making in the United Kingdom and the United States, but rather to actual, observable behavior.

Of course, the U.S. federal system offers an obstacle to any outright imitation, but no more so than the Canadian provincial system, and, as so often, states could be convinced to participate easily by offering, for example, a proportion of the tobacco taxes on a use-it-or-lose-it basis. Imagine the possibilities if the $250 billion U.S. global tobacco settlement had been allocated to a health insurance scheme instead of, in effect, providing walking around money for the states party to the settlement.

Isn’t it strange that Taiwan, so long dear to the hearts of anticommunist conservatives in the United States, should produce such a socially innovative model? But maybe the source of the model will overcome some of their reflexive opposition.

Ian Williams’s last book, The Alms Trade, on the development of charities and not-for-profit organizations, has just been reprinted by Cosimo Press. His other works include Rum, Deserter, and The UN for Beginners. He is a regular columnist for the Guardian online and writes for many other publications. More work can be found at
Robert Harris's Fatherland is one of the books I consider in a forthcoming Common Review piece on alternative history. I am not sure this one is alternative history.

Ghastly Times

Robert Harris "Ghost" Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Ian Williams for the Catskill Review of Books

There are times when fiction is “essentially” true, when we get more insight about the motivations and characters of real historical figures from a novel than from any amount of breathless prose based on privileged access interviews.

Primary Colors certainly evoked the essence of the Clintons' and inadvertently and tangentially said much about the appalling state of media and publishing when bitchy editorialists spent more time lamenting the originally anonymous author Joe Klein’s refusal to ‘fess up when the suspicious fingers pointed his way than they did considering the accuracy of his artistry.
Robert Harris’s “Ghost” explores what many would consider to be the essence of Tony Blair – which plausibly explores how a lightweight but charismatic politician vaulted to become leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom despite an almost complete lack of political pedigree, or indeed of visible ideology. It provides an answer to the mystery of how someone who was apparently sincere and well- wishing in a sort of nondescript "nice" way should have become such a complete helot to the worst kind of American conservatism.

From a writer's point of view, Robert Harris also explores the sad and lonely world of the Ghostwriter – hence, at least in part, the title. For the other part of the explanation you will have to read to the end, but he heads the chapters with apposite quotes from a real "how-to" book on ghostwriting.

The book is told from the viewpoint of a craftsman-like hack, a competent, hard working and cynical drudge who earns his crust form ghosting the memoirs of fading rock starts, soccer plays and celebrity bimbos. He gets an offer he can't refuse. Lang's previous ghost has, ironically, joined the heavenly choir in his own right in mysterious circumstances on the ferry to Martha's Vineyard where the recently resigned Prime Minister of Britain is holed up in a borrowed mansion striving to meet the deadline for his vastly over-advanced memoirs.

The other reason he is holed up is that the International Criminal Court is on his case. He had ordered British forces to kidnap alleged Al Qaeda operatives from Pakistan and hand them to the CIA for rendition to obliging allies with scant regard for international conventions against torture. Britain is a signatory to the ICC treaty and of course, the US is not.

"Ghost" works as a taut and well-written thriller so I would hate to spoil it for readers, but I think it would not spoil it too much to say that Adam Lang (an old Scottish name, like Blair) had fallen under undue influence from the CIA. This is not as far-fetched or paranoid as it seems. During the Cold War, many aspirant Labour politicians were courted by a variety of Atlanticist bodies, many of them funded by the CIA.

Some were genuinely democratic socialists in opposition to Communism and totalitarianism. In that sense taking the American dime was less reprehensible than the likes of Philby taking the Soviet kopek. After all, in general, Washington did not directly interfere with post-War Labour's establishment of the trappings of a West European Social Democracy in Britain. Indeed, the Conservative Party before Thatcher did not try to dismantle the National Health Service or the opening up of educational opportunities.

Nevertheless, the American influence was visible in what was generally regarded as Labour's right wing which in conjunction with the communist influenced members, led to a false dualism that stereotyped those who opposed Soviet-style communism as "right wing, and pro-American. It made life hard for those like Harold Wilson whose desperate attempts as Prime Minister to forge an independent role for Britain and Europe between the two extremes certainly helped provoke the persistent and weird British establishment rumours that he was a KGB agent.

Anyone who has had contacts with the interface between New and Old Labour will recognize the types, and occasionally even the characters in Harris's depiction. This gripping and rewarding novel displays all the skills he has used previously in historical contexts in a contemporary scenario.