Friday, August 29, 2008

Obama's Speech

The technical virtuosity of Obama's speech - my piece in the Guardian

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Biden My Time

Stick to the script, Joe
As a former speechwriter for Neil Kinnock, reminders that Joe Biden plagiarised his words give me a warm glow

Ian Williams, Saturday August 23 2008 17:16 BST

I have always felt a quasi-spiritual connection with Joe Biden, Barack Obama's choice as running mate. Google "plagiarism" and the poor Senator from Delaware always comes near the top of the search. As a former speechwriter for Neil Kinnock it gives me a warm glow that Neil's political career gets a much deserved resurrection and run around the houses every time Biden's past is raked up. I did not produce the immortal words that Biden borrowed, but, fittingly for my views on how Democratic primaries are a long drawn-out form of seppuku, it was an aide to his Democratic rival Michael Dukakis who incited the media feeding-frenzy by revealing Biden's highly inappropriate lifting, not only of Neil's words, but his biography as well.

And you have to admire someone like Biden who presented Kinnock with a book of his Senate speeches when he visited the House of Commons the following year. A sense of humour is rare in American politics, and Biden has one. How else could he have survived all those long decades on Capitol Hill?

He shares another oratorical characteristic with the former Labour leader, which is an inability to put a firm and terminal full-stop (or a period, in the US) at the end of his discourses.

Biden's long foreign policy experience and interest certainly meets Obama's alleged deficiencies in that field. In reality of course Obama is not so deficient compared with John McCain, so it is a bad sign that he may be appointing a real VP to beat a spurious shortcoming.

However, Biden and Obama seem to be on similar lines with the need to engage in diplomacy before sending in the gunboats. And read the conservative blogosphere on Biden as a creature of the UN – he even got married in the Methodist chapel at the UN - and you begin to think that he may have something going for him on the multilateral front.

Biden was pandering to Aipac long before Obama stepped to the podium to promise the world to the lobby, but is still on the more pragmatic side compared with McCain's "coalition of the yelling" on the issue.

And one presumes it was Biden's tendency to lean towards the Israel lobby which inclined him to support the Iraq war, which he did with some enthusiasm, even though he now regrets it. Certainly, having a son about to be deployed to Iraq puts him in a distinct minority among American politicians.

Biden also supports the embargo on Cuba, which has been Fidel's best excuse for mismanaging the island for all these decades. That sits uneasily with his call to engage constructively with China, the number one proponent of the death penalty, which Biden, to his credit, opposes. In fact, his position is remarkably close to Clinton's on this.

Similarly while one can admire the humanitarian fervor with which he insists that something must be done about Darfur, his favoured solution was to send US troops there. That would be as disastrous as it is impracticable. Quite apart from the question of where the troops would come from, it betrays a lack of appreciation of just how deep in the toilet the US's reputation is globally, let alone in the Arab world.

Clearly Biden may need some help. Nine years or so ago I was taken to lunch by a veteran Republican who asked how I would like to write speeches for George Bush. I replied that if Bush wanted speeches written advocating universal healthcare and a greater role for the UN, he could have them. I did not get the call. Neil Kinnock is now busy heading the British Council, but I am prepared to substitute. Joe, just drop me a line. But please, follow the script.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Georgia & Uncle Joe's Jigsaw

What To Do Now in Georgia

Ian Williams | August 19, 2008

Editor: John Feffer

Foreign Policy In Focus

There are no saints and even fewer geniuses in the conflict between Russia and Georgia over Ossetia. However, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, clearly the real power in Moscow, has certain proven himself even less saintly than other parties – and in the long term, less clever. Albeit with serious input from American miscalculations and atavistic politics and with the help of the hapless Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili, Putin has made both Russia, and the world, a more dangerous place.

That is not because of any great conspiracy, but rather a concatenation of expedient stupidities on all sides, exacerbated by the tendency of all American administrations since Reagan to treat Russia as a defeated power rather than a partner. Russian leaders began the elder George Bush’s New World Order with unprecedented gestures of cooperation, around the first Gulf War, for example. Washington’s triumphalist approach since would have provoked any regime in Moscow, let alone one led by a KGB/Mafia consortium, to nationalist reaction.

Some conspiracy theorists see a pipeline beneath every recent front line. In Georgia, a real one runs from Baku to Ceyhan in Turkey, whose sole and explicitly announced purpose was to get oil from the Caspian that did not have to go through Russian territory. Of course, it also made Turkey and its Israeli friends very happy. But alienating even a faded nuclear superpower to make two dependent states happy is not a statesmanlike thing to do.

The United Nations has largely been absent from the conflict between Russia and Georgia. There were Russian and not UN peacekeepers deployed in South Ossetia, and there was little discussion in the Security Council about either Georgia’s attack on the enclave or Russia’s response. Any durable peace in the region, however, will require some role for the UN. There is some real potential. The United States under Bush, while paying lip disservice to the organization, has been using it tacitly and widely. Russia, as one would expect from a weaker power, often invokes the organization, even if its adherence to UN principles has been as much, if not even more, expedient than Washington’s.
Unfinished Business

As an organization of sovereign states, albeit committed to over-arching humanitarian principles, the UN is confronted with “Uncle Joe’s Jigsaw.” The ex-Soviet republics were born with often calculatedly capricious boundaries that Stalin had established. As Boris Yeltsin took over after the Soviet Union’s official dissolution, he doubtless expected to reconstitute the union under some form or other. Polls across the former Soviet Union showed quite strong support for maintaining the union in some form. It would have helped defuse the economic and political shock of the Soviet Union’s collapse if Russia had promoted dual or multiple nationalities, freedom of movement and employment, a common currency, a free trade area, and the maintenance of joint enterprises across state boundaries. None of that happened. Instead, most of the new states had independence – and authoritarian regimes – thrust upon them. What had been administrative boundaries became concrete and barbed wire, regardless of economic and ethnic realities.

Putin’s rhetorical and military over-reaction to events in Georgia has scuppered any likelihood of reconstruction of the defunct Commonwealth of Independent States on the lines of the European Union. Russia’s attack has made NATO expansion all the more likely, and leaders of the ex-Soviet states immediately showed their colors by making solidarity visits to Tbilisi.

The Kremlin’s strategy in Georgia is likely to come back to haunt it. If there is one country that has much to fear from unbridled secessionism it is the Russian Federation, the Russian majority is rapidly shrinking. Legitimizing the secession of Abkhazia and Ossetia strengthens the case of the Chechens and numerous other claimants to independence or simply greater autonomy. And challenging the former Soviet boundaries opens the way to future conflicts, not just between Russia and its neighbors, but among the neighbors themselves.

Quite apart from any suspicions of Moscow’s ulterior motives, the undisciplined behavior of Russian troops in Georgia, as documented by human rights workers and the journalists who witnessed the Russian assault, did not win hearts and minds in their field of operations. It certainly belies Moscow’s weasel words about humanitarian interests.
Humanitarian Intervention

The Canadian-convened Commission on the Responsibility to Protect, the doctrine of humanitarian intervention adopted at the 60th anniversary summit of the United Nations, was quite clear about how dangerous a concept it could be when used expediently. When the doctrine was first raised in modern times in response to Saddam Hussein’s brutal assault on the Kurds, international lawyers at the UN quietly mentioned that one of the precedents was Adolf Hitler’s invocation of humanitarian intervention to “save” the Sudeten Germans and justify the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Sadly, there were shades of that expediency in Moscow’s declaration that it was intervening on humanitarian grounds. Handing out Russian passports to the Ossetian citizens of Georgia could be taken as a humanitarian gesture – unless one takes into account the difficulties encountered by ethnic Russians and other Soviet citizens marooned in other ex-Soviet Republics in getting the same documents. As for coming to the rescue of their Ossetian brethren, Human Rights Watch and journalists on the ground have cast considerable doubt on whether nearly so many people as Russia claimed were killed in Georgia’s initial, unjustifiable attack.

Russia has followed the Kosovo script, almost recycling the same rhetoric the United States used to justify the 1999 intervention. However while Putin did not succeed in getting UN authorization for military intervention,– there are no records of any CIS meeting to consider the reaction of the Russian peacekeepers it nominally controls, unlike the long discussions Blair and Clinton had that won round NATO members. By going beyond Ossetian boundaries and papering over the brutalities of Ossetian militia, Moscow has seriously compromised its case, quite apart from the implicit doublethink of advocating in Ossetia the principles it repudiates in Kosovo.

Russia has claimed that its forces in Abkhazia, Ossetia, and Transdneister are the equivalent of UN peacekeepers. The first has a UN blue fig leaf, the other two have none. Of course the Russians are not alone in their expediency. The UN resolutions that mandated Russian presence in Georgia were the price Bill Clinton paid to acquire UN support for U.S. intervention in Haiti.

It would be simplistic to see Ossetia as payback for Kosovo, but it was certainly one element. Russia was clearly humiliated that it could not deliver for Serbia, one of the few countries left with any respect for the Kremlin. Even though Moscow has often been in the wrong, Washington has not seriously tried to engage the Kremlin, and its snubs have provoked understandable, if not always justifiable reactions. And the United States has often been in the wrong as well.

The Russian veto at the UN, less frequent but often as unprincipled as America’s, has been a demand for respect as well as a serious political gambit. Neither the French nor the British feel the need to use theirs, since they are treated as partners by Washington (albeit very junior ones). Russia has not even been given this junior status.

Although Russians have sent an effective message to their neighbors that neither NATO nor the USA can guarantee their safety, the strategy is all stick and no carrot. The response of the leaders of other ex-Soviet states and the immediate Polish-American agreement on missile bases demonstrates how counter-productive the Russian action has been. Add to that events in Ukraine, where the former Russian anti-missile system is on offer to NATO and the Sevastapol Russian Navy base has been called in question, and Moscow has actually consolidated an anti-Russian alliance.

Was this the covert plan of the United States: to provoke Georgia to attack South Ossetia, knowing that Russia would respond, and thereby create anti-Russian solidarity among its neighbors? When April Glaspie passed on Washington’s advice to Saddam Hussein that the United States did not take sides in the dispute, she did not expect him to invade Kuwait. It seems equally unlikely that the White House support for their latest man in Tbilisi was intended to encourage him to respond so vigorously. Some people in the Bush administration may have encouraged Saakashvili in his impetuousness. There are neocons around who are detached enough from reality to think that the United States could face Russia down and welcome the chance to humiliate the old enemy – but they are clearly not in the State Department at the moment.

Conversely, the readiness of Russian troops and the reported provocation by Ossetian militias could have been a trap sprung on the hapless Saakashvili. On the other hand Moscow’s calling of an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council and its seemingly exaggerated casualty figures could have been the result of credulity on its part in the face of manipulation by the KGB/Mafia figures who control South Ossetia.

It would be marginally more reassuring if the conflict had been caused by the irrationalities of local leaders on both sides, rather than by cold war calculations in either Moscow or Washington. That would at least imply that there was a basis for getting the parties to the negotiating table before matters escalate.
The Future

With even Germany now supporting extension of NATO to include countries with unresolved issues such as the enclaves in Georgia and even the Crimea, an action replay of 1939 threatens. Just as a bedrock principle of the African Union was acceptance of existing colonial boundaries, there were good reasons not to open the Pandora’s box of redrawing Stalin’s cartographic caprice.

Even so, however, there is room for legitimate mutually agreed boundary revisions, for example between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The Russians do have a point that self-determination is an important principle, even if they tend to ignore the detail that Abkhaz self-determination was a case of a minority expelling the majority.

Any U.S. administration that can restrain its scruples enough to deal with the House of Saud, or Pervez Musharraf can do business with Putin, or maybe even with Medvedev when we have sorted out if he is more than a ventriloquist’s dummy. Europe, despite its frequent diplomatic paraplegia can play a constructive role, and in fact already has done so by inhibiting NATO’s pull to the west.

Washington should begin by taking its declared European allies such as Germany and France seriously to work out a shared approach, and then jointly talking with Russia to build a framework to handle problems in the region. But any accommodation to the Russians (or indeed the Georgians) has to preclude the use of military force. In the Georgian enclaves, the Russian military are clearly part of the problem, not the solution. They need to be replaced with real peacekeepers who can guarantee the return of refugees and replace the KGB/Mafia rule in the enclaves. Certainly Russian monitors should be part of the force, but the substantial elements should come from elsewhere and be under actual UN auspices.

Ban Ki Moon is not the type to use a bully pulpit, which is a shame since all sides deserve a hard talking to. However, Moon’s customary low profile does allow some possibilities for his “good offices.”Some form of UN mission could allow both sides to descend with dignity from the poles they have climbed. A good example would be the brokering role the UN played in ending the Iran-Iraq war. Such quiet diplomacy, in concert with UN monitors and peacekeepers, could produce a durable settlement without asking any of the parties to eat humble pie.

Ian Williams is a senior analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus ( More of his work is available on

Monday, August 18, 2008

Western Sahara; A Maghrebi Commonwealth?

Ha - the perils of deadline punditting - in the Guardian I reversed my Hassans and my Mohammeds... rectified in true Orwellian fashion in this version!

A very British compromise
Rather than shrugging its shoulders about Western Sahara, the UN should use the Commonwealth as a role model

Ian Williams, Friday August 15 2008 18:30 BST

It was a bit like telling a rape victim to stop struggling. Peter van Walsum, the Dutch diplomat who is the UN representative to Western Sahara, told the Spanish newspaper El Pais that Western Sahara will never achieve independence, even though he admitted that international law and successive UN resolutions have called for self determination in the vast desert country mostly occupied by the Moroccans.

He castigated Spanish civil society - which is very active on the issue since Western Sahara is a former Spanish colony that Franco threw to the Moroccans to protect his own "Gibraltars" in Morocco, the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta - for encouraging the Sahrawis in their resistance.

Van Walsum almost has a point when he says the UN security council "is not ready to exercise its authority under article VII of the UN charter, and impose it." But why is he attacking the victims and their friends? One would have thought a Dutch diplomat, with the record of acquiescence to "facts on the ground" in Srebrenica, would be more circumspect. Why has he not pilloried Morocco and its friends in the Security Council - the US, France and Britain?

The silence of the UN Secretariat over the years has been stunning, since Morocco reneged on its 1991 agreement to allow a referendum in the territory. Indeed, there has often been complicity and connivance, as when then UN secretary-general Perez de Cuellar, in his last week in office tried to get the security council to adopt a pro-Moroccan resolution over the Christmas and New Year's holidays.

I was at the press briefing back in 1991 when Johannes Mantz, the Swiss diplomat charged with heading MINURSO announced that it would only take a year to identify the voters and hold the referendum. I asked him at the time if he had consulted the King of Morocco, who had made it plain that the only referendum he would allow was one that he was guaranteed to win. Since then, Hassan and his heir Mohammed each refused to allow the referendum while the UN has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the sand dunes in preparation for it.

There is a deafening sound of silence about Morocco's refusal to accept international law and security council resolutions, let alone honour its own promises. Initially backed strongly by France, Morocco now has American support, which nowadays always carries automatic British acquiescence as an added bonus.

At least partly, Washington's support is because Morocco is Israel's closest partner in the Arab world, even though the King hedges his bets by being chair of the Arab League committee on Jerusalem. The latter position ensures that Arab states perennially concerned about Palestinian refugees and the separation wall are calmly insouciant about the Saharan refugees and the huge sand berm that Morocco has built across the territories it has occupied.

However, there is a solution from the example of the British Commonwealth, which has been endlessly inventive in finding ways to maintain symbolic ties without real authority or responsibility. When the Moroccans referred the issue to the World Court, the ICJ, the judgement found no evidence "of any legal tie of territorial sovereignty" between Western Sahara and Morocco and said that the territory needed an act of self-determination. Neverthless, it did detect "indication of a legal tie of allegiance between the [Moroccan] Sultan and some of the tribes of the territory."

So, enter King Mohammed of Western Sahara, with all the powers and honours of Queen Elizabeth in her realms of Canada, Australia, Barbados and so on. The security council can then tell the King that he gets his due, while the Western Saharans clearly get what they want: effective independence. Polisario would surely be happy to offer a 21-gun salute and a few garden parties every time the King visited – maybe even build him a royal sand-castle somewhere.

But first, the western members of the security council have to put some truth to the rumours they keep spreading about their attachment to international law, democracy and the rights of small countries not to be bullied and occupied by their neighbours.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

UN Goes Dutch with Polisario

If you go to the site you can can click on and get the radio interview

Western Sahara
UN rep claims Western Sahara has the law on their side, but not the UN Security Council

Article published on the 2008-08-13 Latest update 2008-08-13 17:29 TU
Soldiers from the United Nations mission for the organization of a referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) at Oum Dreyga(File Photo: AFP)

Soldiers from the United Nations mission for the organization of a referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) at Oum Dreyga
(File Photo: AFP)
The UN mediator on the Western Sahara Peter van Walsum told the Spanish paper El Pais that the Frente Polisario, the group representing the Sahrawi people will never achieve independence, even though international law in on their side. Part of the problem, according to the Dutch diplomat, is that the UN Security Council "is not ready to exercise its authority under Article VII of the UN Charter, and impose it."

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Ian Williams, a senior analyst for Washington DC-based think tank Foreign Policy in Focus, spoke to RFI about the El Pais interview, noting that the more interesting statement was what van Walsum did not say.

"What he actually did was told off Spanish NGOs for what he said was supporting Polisario's 'unreasonable' aims... he wasn't castigating the US, or France or Britain or the UN for not fulfilling international law," said Williams.

"His advice to the Polisario is basically fairly scandalous. It's like telling a rape victim that she should lie back and enjoy it because there is nothing she can do about it," he added.
Ian Williams, a senior analyst for Washington DC-based think tank Foreign Policy in Focus

listen 2 minutes 42 seconds

13/08/2008 by Laura Angela Bagnetto

Van Walsum's declaration comes before the renewal of his mandate on as UN special representative on the Western Sahara later this month.

The Frente Polisario have indicated that van Walsum "is biased in favour of Morocco after a declaration that the independence of Western Sahara is an unrealistic option," according to a report published by Algeria's APS news agency.

Talks between the Frente Polisario and the Kingdom of Morocco have been going on since June 2007 under the auspices of the UN in New York. The fifth round of talks, scheduled for later this month, have been postponed, according to the office of spokesperson for the UN Secretary General.

The former Spanish colony was illegally annexed by neighboring Morocco in 1975. Fighting between the Frente Polisario and Morocco ensued until both sides agreed to a UN-brokered truce in 1991.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Edwards, Pants on Fire

The dissimulation of John Edwards
The former Democratic senator joins Gary Hart and Bill Clinton in the despised National Enquirer's hall of shame
All comments (54)
Ian Williams, Saturday August 09 2008 01:23 BST

When I came to the US, I thought I was in journalist's heaven. Any serious revelations in the British press would be followed by lawyers' letters threatening writs and sometimes, for well-heeled litigants, actual libel writs to match. As several jurisdiction-miners have discovered, even telling the truth can on occasion be no defence in British courts. Hell, as recently as 1977 they even reinvented a centuries-old offence of "blasphemous libel," to convict a poet for writing about sex with a long-deceased Jesus Christ. But in the US, it was virtually impossible to libel even a live public figure!

But then I discovered that this was much less significant than I thought, since the US media is normally so deferential of politicians that one almost admires the National Enquirer – not least because it knows the difference between "inquire" and "enquire".

One can see why so many of the supermarket tabloid reporters were refugees from British media law, where a judge can rule a story about the former British fascist leader's son having S&M with prostitutes as an invasion of privacy. He did not deny the story as such – but simply said it was none of the press's business. Nor was it.

When British Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown and former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook were outed for having affairs with their secretaries, they fessed up and their popularity rose. But note the difference.

Unlike their British counterparts, the National Enquirer did not make stories up. When Gary Hart told them to bring it on: they did. When Bill Clinton denied Gennifer Flowers, they got him. And now John Edwards is admitting they got him as well. And they all dissimulated. Extra-marital sex may be one of the fringe benefits of political life, but getting caught in the lie outright could be fatal.

Even so, the hypocrisy of Democratic party leaders now working out how to keep Edwards off the podium at their convention does show double standards. They would certainly welcome former President Bill Clinton up there, whom the Enquirer also got bang to rights, as it were. Even more tellingly, when did Newt Gingrich ever lack for a platform in the party of family values and the religious right despite his trying to bully his wife into more favourable divorce terms in her cancer recovery ward?

John McCain himself divorced the wife who had stayed married to him during the years he spent in a Vietnamese prison, and married into the money that now helps bankroll his political ambitions. Rudy Giuliani, while mayor of New York, announced his divorce at a press conference without telling his wife beforehand. Neither of these men seems to have suffered politically within the party of the teenage abstinence, familial integrity and marital fidelity.

A senior UN official once asked another official why I had not carried a story about his affair with his secretary, since I knew about it. The accurate reply was I saw no public - that is, civic - interest. He was not committing any crime and had not made a public career of parading family values and feigned Pauline Christian morality. It was irresistible to gossip about in the bar of the Delegates' Lounge, but entirely resistible to write about it. "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone", is the relevant text.

American law does not protect privacy, unlike European law, but it certainly has a point in excluding public figures from libel protection. On a pragmatic point, people who run for public office should be savvy enough to do the Caesar's wife thing. How can you expect someone who is indiscreet enough to get caught to run a superpower, with its necessary lies and secrets?

In addition, hypocrisy should always be the subject of journalists' attention. Lying and then getting caught out will always prolong the media attention. Take a tip from Rudy and Newt, be brazen in your hypocrisy, and even the religious right will forget about it in a very short time.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Chalabi vs Suskind,

The White House's implausible deniability
Why should anyone believe the Bush administration's weak denials that it forged a link between Saddam and al-Qaida?

Ian Williams, Thursday August 07 2008 15:30 BST
Article history
The White House has categorically denied that it ordered the CIA to forge evidence that Saddam Hussein was conspiring with al-Qaida, a charge made by journalist Ron Suskind in his new book The Way of the World. The credibility of the Bush press office is such that one is tempted to take it as confirmation.

There is an old joke about the guy who claimed he could tell when Henry Kissinger was lying, and when tested had a 100% success rate. When asked his secret, he says: "His lips were moving."

In the great tradition of White House weaselling, in part revealed by Scott McClellan's book, one notes that there is no denial that the so-called evidence was a forgery, and a very tightly specific repudiation of the White House's role that actually leaves ten thousand several other ways for forgeries to make their entrances. Indeed, in the light of Suskind's descriptions of Dick Cheney's hard work on providing deniability, the vice-president's office is one such.

One question asked in the language of another expansive militarist empire is "Cui bono?" Who would benefit from such a forgery? It is clear that the allegations of an al-Qaida connection, like the equally spurious Niger yellowcake document, were intended to justify the war. Suskind's book should not be shocking to anyone.

Like Hitler's Gleiwitz attack, and the Tonkin Gulf incident, the carefully fed suggestions of Iraqi involvement in the 9/11 attacks were crucial to getting public and political support for war. That was what made the spurious WMDs so threatening. Washington Post polls showed that 70% of the American public bought the al-Qaida connection, and indeed many of the troops apparently still do.

But there were no proven, or even likely ties between al-Qaida and Saddam. Let us do the "just the facts" thing before the inevitable ad-hominem attacks on Suskind drive out his message. The Ba'athists were secular nationalists until Saddam became expediently pious after the first Gulf war. In addition, at no point did Saddam's regime allow any Islamist organisations to threaten his monopoly of political power. It was with mixed shock and amusement that I read Iraq's answer to the UN anti-terrorism committee's questionnaire, where the regime proved its impeccable credentials by citing its use of the death penalty for any remotely terrorist-linked offence.

The only connection is that the invasion let al-Qaida and sundry other fundamentalists into Iraq, and Saddam's viciously efficient secret police were no longer in a position to deal with them.

As for the weapons, by the time President Bush ordered the attack, Hans Blix's UN inspectors were in Iraq coming up blank in their search for weapons, confirming what Saddam's own son-in-law Hussein Kamal had said during his defection, that Saddam had indeed disarmed years before. It would certainly be likely that any defector like Tahir Jalil Habbush would say the same.

But former CIA director George Tenet's statement in large measure vindicates Suskind's points. Intelligence agencies are there to provide evidence that suits their masters, not the truth. Tenet says that Habbush "failed to persuade his British interlocutors that he had anything new to offer by way of intelligence, concessions or negotiations with regard to the Iraq crisis," and that "There were many Iraqi officials who said both publicly and privately that Iraq had no WMD – but our foreign intelligence colleagues and we assessed that these individuals were parroting the Ba'ath party line and trying to delay any coalition attack. The particular source that Suskind cites offered no evidence to back up his assertion and acted in an evasive and unconvincing manner."

That meant that, unlike Ahmed Chalabi's inventive sources, they were not providing the necessary excuses for war that their interrogators wanted to hear.

In summary, who are you going to believe: a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist or a White House that has provably lied about WMDs, about al-Qaida, about torture and indeed about almost any other subject?

In face of the fear of lese-majesté that afflicts most of Washington's media and political operatives, Ron Suskind deserves support. Although one has to wonder. He is being published by Rupert Murdoch, whose hands-on approach to publishing leads one to wonder whether Fox, the Wall Street Journal and the rest are about to eat eight years' worth of mendacious words.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

A Penny For Your Air Travel Thoughts

Blue sky thinking

July, 2008
IR Magazine Speculator Column

Ian Williams takes a flying leap

Modern flying is such a disagreeable experience and airlines are such unprofitable businesses, I wonder why anyone bothers to be either a provider or a consumer of air transport. The International Air Transport Association estimated at the beginning of the year that the whole global industry would make just $5 bn in profit in 2008, and that was before oil prices vindicated the gloomy prophesies of cynical Jeremiahs like me.

It has been suggested that if you want a close simulation of being booked and held by the NYPD, the best way – short of poking a cop in the nose – is to fly out of a New York airport, or indeed almost any major airport.

Peremptory officials demanding ID; the paranoid humiliation of multiple lines; removing jackets, shoes and belts; giving up phones, keys and computers. Above all, there’s the knowledge that once you enter that airport perimeter, you have, in effect, forfeited all your normal citizen’s rights. Like a prisoner, you have every right to complain or to argue back. But if you do, like prison warders ‘dressed in a little brief authority’, airline and airport personnel can remove you from your flight or even lock you up. And the more you argue with the short-tempered, harassed airline staff, the worse it gets for you.

Because of the inane restrictions at security, passengers can’t even bring their own drinks on planes but have to pay inflated prices inside the zone. There is nothing more annoying, however, than seeing a company neglect revenue. On my last grueling trip hopping from hub to hub, I saw some potential profit centers being ignored by the airlines.

What sense is there in burning up investors’ cash ferrying people between facilities to be incarcerated for hours at a time, unless the airlines can derive revenue from the ‘airport experience’? There are lots of terminally bored, restless people lingering on uncomfortable seats, deafened by announcements from people who have clearly served their apprenticeships in incomprehensibility on the New York subway system. So why can’t the airlines run the franchises there themselves and overcharge their own captive customers for nasty burgers and frankfurters?

Indeed – even better – why not open mini-casinos in the hubs? As certain long-established Italian family firms will testify, that is a much surer way of making money than flying airplanes.

Maybe massage parlors would relieve the tedium and tension of the air travel experience. They would also generate revenue while gainfully employing the cabin crews no longer needed to serve meals and drinks on board.

Finally, while marooned for three hours in Fort Lauderdale, I saw a rare sight: long lines for the men’s room. So if airlines charge for food and water, why not charge for using the restrooms? And not just in the airports. Why not put meters on the doors of the aircraft lavatories? It would shorten the waiting times and be entirely in keeping with the essential process of petty humiliation needed to condition the modern airline passenger – and it would make s***loads of money.

FBI: Federal Bureau of Idiots

Given its previous bungling, can anyone believe the FBI's claim to have solved the 2001 anthrax mystery?

When confronted with anthrax-laced letters that misspell the world's best known antibiotic as "penacilin" (rather than penicilin), who immediately suspects highly-trained scientists? Enter the Keystone Cops in their latest manifestation, the FBI: busy trying to wrap up the deadly 2001 anthrax case by fingering someone it had already driven to suicide.

One would have thought that the certainty of the FBI's investigators in this new posthumous revelation might have been dented by wake of a $5.8m damages award to the previous quarry of the Bureau for the anthrax cases, Steven Hatfill. But it seems unblushing in its attachment to its own omniscience.

Sometimes incompetence is so spectacular it looks like a conspiracy. Since its manifest Clouseau-like failures with the big one – the attack on the World Trade Centre, it seems to have indulged in a frenzy of persecutions to cover its stupidity with more examples of malicious incompetence.

The Bureau is a fitting faith-based institution for the times. It has a definite and distinctive modus operandi: to decide upon unlikely suspects and then to pursue them with an unshakeable conviction of guilt regardless of the failure to win conviction. In a sadistic form of barratry, the Bureau treats each failure to secure a conviction as an opportunity to raise new and ancillary charges and all the time leaks to reporters in a way that would in most common law jurisdictions have the judge throwing the case out.

The pressure on the media can be seen in the Washington Post's Orwellian memory hole, where on Friday the paper exposed the weakness of the Bureau's "Gotcha!" leaks, on Saturday completely reversed it with the official version, and then on Sunday re-reversed itself.

Looking at the record of investigative and prosecutorial harassment, it would be presumptuous to take Ivins' suicide as in anyway an admission of guilt. One only has to think of Wen Ho Lee, the manifestly innocent scientist at Los Alamos who faced with a relentless legal war of attrition pled guilty to a token count simply to remove the hazard of a life sentence that accompanied the other 59 spurious espionage charges. It is fitting that in their faith-based fervour the FBI still believes in pseudoscientific polygraphs and then lied to him about the results. Perhaps we should count our blessings that they haven't yet reinvented the ducking stool and left its modern variant to CIA

In the case of Florida professor Sami al-Arian. Despite being acquitted by a jury and entering a plea bargain to be deported to escape the harassment, the FBI now has Arian in prison for contempt charges for refusing to appear as a witness in an entirely unrelated case. Typically, the US justice department has spent $50m on this case. With the happy exception of Hatfill, one sure consequence of their persecution is that their victims have to bankrupt themselves paying lawyers to defend against the charges. Their persecutors just send their bills to the taxpayers. No wonder that suicide seemed a reasonable way out to Ivins, even if he were innocent.

Certainly the pattern is so pronounced that I would seriously consider signing a petition to re-examine Al Capone's case. The Bureau convicted him, you may recall, of tax evasion after a similar trial-by-complaisant-media. Admittedly, there were a few smoking guns in his case. But too many recent cases have been all smoke with no fire - unless you count the burning zeal of close-minded investigators and their willing dupes in the media.

Ian Williams: The anthrax investigation is far from over
This article was first published on on Monday August 04 2008. It was last updated at 21:00 on August 04 2008.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Federal Bureau of Idiots, Ivins & Anthrax

Latest in today's Guardian site

What Rush Limbaugh Wrought

For the last 20 years, the right-wing radio host has distilled the essence of redneck prejudice

Ian Williams, Friday August 1 2008

This week, Human Events, which has been "leading the conservative revolution since 1944", is celebrating the 20th-anniversary of Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh, of course, is the right-wing radio monologuer who has "remade American politics", according to Karl Rove, or is a "big fat liar" as Al Franken has called him, in homage to the man's own distinctively rebarbative style. A distinctively American phenomenon, his partisan rants would lose any British station broadcasting him its license.

Today is the official culmination of the Limbaugh dancing week – but meaner souls will think it overshadowed by last Sunday's events, when Jim Adkisson, a Tennessee aficionado of conservative talkshows, took their hosts' invective all too literally and shot up a "liberal" Unitarian Universalist congregation, killing two and wounding six congregants watching a children's musical. Caught up in a world of conservative talk radio, he reportedly expected to be able to carry on shooting unimpeded by the spineless, gay-loving pacifists, and was surprised when they tackled him and brought him down.

In keeping with a more reality-based liberal stereotype, the Rev William Sinkford, national president of the Unitarian Universalists Association of Congregations, provocatively turned the other cheek. "This crime was the action of one man who clearly must have lost the battle with his personal demons," he said. "When I was asked if the shooter would go to hell, I replied that he must have been living in his own private hell for years."

In fact, hell is listening to Limbaugh. However, I must admit, listening to the liberal opposition radio can be like languishing in limbo. Too many of them are dourly earnest and humourless, while, evil-minded, fact-free and malicious as Limbaugh is, he is a good performer with sense of humour that is wicked in senses ancient and modern.

The distilled essence of redneck prejudice is bound to appeal to an audience. Hell, if Father Coughlin, the anti-Semitic radio priest of the 1930s were around now, he would have an audience. And for many of the same reasons. There are indeed many people out there suffering financially who feel their plight is ignored and want to hit out at clear and identifiable targets.

"I'm not making this up," is Limbaugh's catchphrase. But, in fact, he often does just that. Rory O'Connor's book Shock Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio, details the right-wing talkshow univers,e and makes the point that it was not just Limbaugh's native charm that got him launched on the airwaves. Rather, the concentration of media ownership, under a complaisant FCC, paved his way, along with the inspired political entrepreneurship of Fox CEO Roger Ailes, who offered the show free to local stations.

Adkisson and other angry listeners are more often than not the victims of precisely those unregulated concentrations of capital that put Limbaugh on the air, Chinese goods on the shelves of Wal-Mart and them on welfare. With Democratic leaders too wary to bite the hands that write the contribution cheques, but also too residually honest to invent scapegoats, no wonder an incisive populism can win listeners

Limbaugh's audience is so overwhelmed that they suffer from amnesia on the same scale as his megalomania. As he now boosts John McCain against Barack Obama, who remembers his comment that "all the candidates on our side, for various reasons, are uninspiring, or worse"? Who remembers the campaigner for drug-takers to go "down the river", as the same pill-popping poly-prescriptive panjandrum who copped a plea deal for going into treatment? Then, maybe he thought that OxyContin, like nicotine, was non- addictive, just as, in fact, he thinks carbon monoxide is non-toxic.

Nonetheless, there are times when Limbaugh's displays inner angst and rational thinking, not least when on the horns of a dilemma over whether to prefer a Clintonian "feminazi" or a "magic negro" as presidential candidate. The woman won in this battle of prejudices but only to sabotage the Democratic candidacy all together.

Nevertheless, if there is a clear and disturbing distinction between liberalism and Limbaughism, the reverend's comment expressed it. A liberal may hate the thought, but not necessarily the thinker. For the Limbaughs of this world, gays, blacks, liberals, feminazis, Clintons, Obamas and all the rest of his Grand Guignol dramatis personae are unpatriotic, not real citizens, maybe not even human. They deserve neither rights nor respect. This is Bush's Radio G'tmo. It epitomises the ethos of the age.

Twenty years of Rush Limbaugh radio? Eight years consecutive of Bush and Cheney? Surely it's time for parole?

Friday, August 01, 2008

Labour Lemmings Sell Lemons

Labour Lemmings should Follow Washington Reverse
Tribune 1st August
Ian Williams

The ordinary average lemming has an excuse for following everyone else off the cliff, but what kind of lemming keeps on running when it sees the guys in front peeling off before the precipice? Well a New Labour lemming would be one such.

In the US, the high tide of laisser-faire is receding rapidly as even Republicans can see what Wall Street unrestrained has wrought. In the UK, New Labour ministers are thinking of even more privatizations, more ways to get the City’s greedy snouts firmly planted into the public trough.

New Labour’s views on these issues came from a combination of the shared awe of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair for American enterprise – and the latter’s puppy love for Margaret Thatcher.

Margaret Thatcher was not that much of an economic ideologue. For example, she had never quibbled about comprehensive schools when she was Education Minister, and drew back from privatising railways. However, she was determined to break the back of the Labour Party, and she knew that the unions were essential to it (an apercu that escaped her admiring successor Tony Blair).

Her dissolution of state industries to break the back of their unions, together with the distribution of discount shares to consumers of utilities and the sale of council houses was intended to create a whole new property-owning conservative constituency while breaking Labour’s foundations.

Keith Joseph added the ideological veneer, invoking Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics, which also succeeded in usurping the international financial institutions.

The expat Labour Party branch in New York used to write regularly to the New York Times to challenge their epithet machine that regularly described Thatcher as the “British Prime Minister who privatised the loss-making state industries.” Unavailingly, we pointed out that the companies she sold off, cheaply to her friends in the City, were in fact making loads of money. BP, British Gas and the rest were profitable and well-run businesses. In fact, studies showed that they actually had better earnings in the public domain than they did when their Executives started looting them for outrageous salaries and stock options.

We should remember the other pressures. This month, I was remembering the old Clause 4, and its invocation of the “best obtainable system of popular administration and control” of industry. As an old customer of the mutually owned Bradford and Bingley Building Society, I voted against its conversion to a company, but took the shares when offered. They are now trading down at one sixth their price, giving me wry thoughts on the vaunted superiority of corporate management.

I used to be on the executive of what is now the RMT, and I cannot put my hand on my heart and declare that state ownership, per se, was idyllic. The Treasury, traditionally the bane of any long term public enterprise, used the state-owned industries to regulate wages, and switched major capital expenditure plans on or off as a regulator for the economy at large.

On the other hand, while BR managers had their faults, but most of them had a public service ethos. If they had had access to the grants that flow to the privately owned rail companies, they would have done a much better job, much more cheaply, and with fares that are far more reasonable. The rail companies get almost six times more government money than British Rail.

No more than rail passengers faced with another weekend without service console themselves with the thought that at least the shareholders are making a mint, British customers of privatised water faced with escalating prices and erratic quality may not consider public ownership automatically bad,

“Market forces” translated to paying the former managements of state enterprise huge bonuses and salary rises to run the same business when taken private. They dictated that workers are best kept in line with the stick while the asses who lead need fat juicy carrots.

In fact, New York City, whose water supply is still municipally-owned, has spent billions since 1970 on a fifty-year tunnelling project that few if any companies would consider. If I go to Washington, I go on federally owned Amtrak. The buses and trains of New York and most metropolitan regions are firmly in public hands, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, running one of the biggest ports in the world is in public ownership – if barely under public control.

In reaction to collateralised mortgage bonds, Enron, the rescue of Bear Sterns and other debacles, there is a growing demand in the US for stronger state direction. Socialism for big corporations is to be extended to citizens. If the freewheeling financial entrepreneurs demand that the tax-payers cough up to rescue them from their own folly, they can hardly cry foul when the government decides to regulate their affairs more closely.

Even in the heartland of capitalism, politicians are calling time on the depredations of naked greed. The once globally dominant “Washington Consensus”, is clearly failing. Chancellor Brown had the excuse of needing to stroke the bankers to keep the ship of state stable in the open seas of the global economy. Prime Minister Brown has no need. He really must show how he can go with the change of the tide in his American model and articulate the vision that lurks, euphemised, even in Tony Blair’s anodyne rephrasing of Clause 4.