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1.24.2011

Belgium: What Next After Your Shame March?

Regions of BelgiumImage via Wikipedia
Some 34,000 young and not so young, marched for hours through the streets of Brussels on Sunday 23 January 2011, carrying slogans putting to shame the political class for not having formed a government.The streets of the city centre were filled with flags and funny hats, making for nice photos that rebounded around the planet, surprising most people.

What, the jolly, beer-drinking Belgians, ever so peace-loving, are getting angry at their government, or rather, lack of it? The day before, a popular Belgian actor had vowed he wouldn't shave until a government was formed, and everybody thought that was "une bonne blague belge", a good Belgian joke: More and more beards in the street until finally politicians would deign to come together and form a government. Ha, et vive la barbe! Meantime, financial market are getting increasingly nervous, gossip about Belgium's sovereign debt is on the rise, and everyone wonders what will happen to Brussels, the seat of the European Union Commission and of Nato.

The Sunday Shame March may have been a turning point for Belgium, the one European country that is enmeshed in a political mess that has no comparison anywhere else in Western Europe. Seven months without a government - since the 13 June 2010 elections.  Something of a record, putting Belgium right behind Iraq in terms of the numbers of days it takes to form a government!

Why? In this case, I was baffled.

So far I haven't blogged about Belgium although I was born in Brussels and I still carry a Belgian passport - many of my friends have been asking me to do so, but I've always shied away from the subject. That may come as a surprise to most of you, since I happily blog away about all sorts of issues without apparently worrying too much about the amount of authority I may be able to command. But I always trust my instinct and try to make (hopefully) intelligent analyses of the situation before setting out to write about it.

So I did my research. Like everybody, I roughly knew what the country's division was about (I'd heard my father - a Belgian diplomat - countless times, as he explained it around to family and friends). It has its historical roots in 1830 when Belgium was created. Why was it created as a unified country in the first place? Good question. Because, culturally and language-wise, it is obvious that the Flemish part should have gone to the Netherlands, and the French part (Wallonia) to France, and the third little bit up in the north-east corner, to a German state. If that didn't happen, it is partly Talleyrand's doing: he embarked on a particularly subtle and complex negotiation with the then European powers when he was Ambassador of France in London. And he was very proud of himself when the result was the birth of Belgium, conceived as an "état-tampon" or buffer state to protect France from northern invasions (of course, we all know how well that worked out later...).

So what brought Belgium together and held it together up to our time? Two forces: the monarchy and religion. Yes, Belgians are very attached to their King and they are (mostly) Catholic, while their neighbours to the north are Protestants. Now both forces are in decline, especially the Catholic Church since its pedophilia scandals. The King apparently is still doing okay and trying his best to bring about a government.

When did things go really wrong? A long time ago, as the balance of economic power slowly switched through the 20th century, from French-speaking Wallonia, once the star region, with a flourishing industry based on coal-mining to Flanders. Once a backward, agricultural area, Flanders became increasingly important, with a rising population and a growing international port: Antwerp. With the closing of the coal mines in the 1950s, the power balance reversed, and Flanders became the star region, with more people, 6 million to Wallonia's four.

When did things start to sour up real bad? I'm  not sure, but as far as I can make out, it must have begun back in the 1960s. I'll never forget my father's surprise, and hurt feeling, when he - who was at the time an experienced diplomat in his fifties, posted at the United Nations in New York - was asked by the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to demonstrate his proficiency in Flemish by... taking a test in Flemish! Which he passed, of course. From the 1960s onwards, the country proceeded on its road to division, with three official languages (French, Flemish and German), regional administrations and creation of Brussels as an autonomous region - a perennial source of irritation since Brussels also happens to be the historical capital of Flanders (on the map it's the blue patch: as you can see, it's within the borders of Flanders).

You'd think that in our day and age, a Federal solution shouldn't be so hard to find. After all, this is a peaceful area, World War II was over 65 years ago. What's the problem?

Bottomline, it's a money problem. As always, people will fight to the death when money is the bone of contention. Compared to booming Flanders, Wallonia is a poor area in need of remedial social security and employment measures - they are costly and can only be financed if tax revenues are transfered from Flanders, something that drives the Flemish mad. Some of the anger is understandable: after all, when Wallonia was rich, Flanders was  the butt of endless, tasteless jokes, none of which helped civil conviviality. Now the balance is leaning the other way, and the Flemish mean to get back at the Walloons. The 13 June 2010 elections reinforced the Flemish desire for independance, particularly the success of its N-VA, the New Flemish Alliance party, with 1.2 million followers. The N-VA has dragged along the old Flemish Christian Democratic party and some others, so that now you've got about 45% of the Flemish electorate who'd like to see Flanders secede from Belgium.

That, of course, also means that you have a majority (55%) who don't. Belgium still means one country to most Belgians. And that was what the Shame March of this past Sunday was supposed to mean. Started by five "dudes" (read: French-speaking and Flemish students) on Facebook, calling for the Sunday march, it's not a political movement. Just a web generation manifestation - joined in by quite a few older people, judging from the photos.

To try to understand more about this march and where it might eventually lead - because remarkably enough, journalists around the world, while reporting on the Shame March all shied away from analysis - I had to turn directly (oh, the wonders of Internet!) to the Belgian press: La Libre Belgique, Le Soir and a series of Flemish papers. It was interesting to see how differently commentators reacted: in the French-speaking press with favour, while the Flemish were more contained, agreeing that the political class should show more interest in moving negotiations forward but wondering where it might all lead, actually implying it was leading nowhere(!).

Okay, the Flemish are looking at this street protest with a jaundiced eye. A quick survey commissioned by Le Soir, reported (from just walking around the participants in the march - some 1000 were included in the sample) that only 21 percent came from Flanders, 35 percent from Wallonia and the rest (44%) from Brussels. Is 21% so little, emerging as it did in a "spontaneous" protest? An N-VA spokesman immediately noted that "one should recognize these differences and give more autonomy to Federal entities".

So the answer on the Flemish side is always the same: more autonomy. In short, what we have here is an extraordinary breakdown in communications. Why?

Roaming around the Belgian blogosphere and Internet, I believe I've finally come across the reason. Simple: Belgium, unlike other democracries around the world, has DIFFERENT parties in each region. Yes, you read this right: for instance, the Christian Democrats in Belgium are not a single party but two, one for the Flemish side, the other for the Walloon, and they don't speak to each other. They don't coordinate, they are two distinct parties in every way.

Amazing! It would be like having in the United States a Republican party that was only allowed to operate, say, in the South, and the Democrats in the North. Don't be surprised if that would result in another War of Secession - of course, that is exactly what is happening in Belgium (without gunshots, thank God!) And to make matters worse, the political shading of Belgium is very different: the Flemish are on the conservative and extreme right, while Wallonia has gone pinkish, mostly on the left.

When shall the two ever meet? In my view, it will take more than one Shame March to bring a modicum of common sense to the Belgian political class...Or the creation of a single "unity" party to cover the whole of Belgium, but that doesn't appear to be in the works.
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1.21.2011

Tunisia: Where is Your Jasmine Revolution Going?

TUNIS, TUNISIA - JANUARY 20:  Tunisians protes...January 20 2011 Protests in front of the RCD party HQImage by Getty Images via @daylife
When the long-time autocratic President of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, fled Tunisia last week after weeks of riotous street protests and one hundred dead, everybody was surprised. First, at how quickly Ben Ali vanished - and still no one tells us where he's gone to. France? Probably not, the French denied him entry. But then where?  For the moment, his assets are frozen and there aren't probably too many places for him to go to, except the usual ones for people like him...

The other ground for surprise was Tunisia's image as a quiet country where tourists are safe to enjoy sun, sea and golf. A sort of peaceful Muslim version of the Spanish coast, with a nice, growing economy.

How could anything go wrong here? All went well until 2009 when Italy and Spain - both Tunisia's main markets - were hit by the Great Recession. Then the recession ricocheted back to Tunisia, and economic woes, particularly in the poorer areas in the centre of the country, set the stage for the insurrection. The classic spark that set fire to the whole place.

But the fire has been long simmering underneath a false appearance of peace. This was a revolution some 20 years in the making, stoked by a highly repressive and corrupt government that hadn't hesitated to ban the only serious opposition party, the islamist al Nahda movement or Renaissance party, back in...1991 - mainly because it had gained some 20 percent of the votes in the 1989 elections that had confirmed Ben Ali in power: too much for comfort. Ben Ali has always used fear of religious extremism, especially after 9/11, and in particular militant Islam, as his main excuse to crack down on opposition parties.

An excuse French and American diplomacy pretended to believe in, while they closed an eye on the repression which increased when a new anti-terror law was passed in 2003. According to a 2006 Human Rights Watch report, while some 1700 political prisoners were released that year, they were given a particularly hard time once outside, with the police closely monitoring them. They were denied passports and most jobs, and those who dared to speak out against the repression were threatened with re-arrest: the definition of terrorism under the 2003 law was so broad that it could be used to prosecute even when people merely exercised their right to dissent. In short, what awaited any dissenter was civilian death.

So I was wondering when the international press would come to grips with the central issue here: the freedom of expression. It happened today with an excellent article in the New York Times, entitled "Opposition in Tunisia Finds Chance for Rebirth", which tries to assess the chances for the banned Al Nahda party to make a comeback.

You might have expected that assessment to have come from Al Jazeera, but no. So far, the Qatar-financed TV has been true to its anti-authoritarian image and its reporting has focussed on violent protest, particularly "if it bleeds, it leads" but has been short on analysis. That, of course, is actually normal for TV as a news medium: there are always more images than analysis - which, in this particular case, makes Al Jazeera a potentially dangerous conduit to spread anger and protest among Arab states similar to Tunisia, or who see themselves as similar. But that's another question for another post.

What I'd like to address here is: what are the chances that Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution" (or Palm Date revolution as some have called it) will lay the ground for democracy?

The chances are slim: opposition parties are weak and Al Nahda was decapitated and hunted down for so long that no one really knows how much of a solid following it has. Or even how democratic and liberal it is, though there are claims that it is at least as, or more liberal than the Justice and Development party, the Turkish Islamist party now ruling Turkey.

The idea of a liberal, democratic Al Nahda doesn't convince everybody. There's general agreement that Al Qaeda - although it is trying hard these days - will not succeed in recruiting much of Tunisia's youth in its ranks because of the country's cultural tradition of peace and respect for human life. But islamic extremism cannot be entirely ruled out. At least some form of it. It is worth recalling in this connection that Al Nahda was the brain child of intellectual radicals back in the 1950s and 1960s, men who felt close to the Egyptian Islamic Brotherhood. Initially established as Mouvement de la Tendance Islamique (MTI) in 1981, with the objective to give a role to Islam in Tunisian politics and obtain an Islamic constitution, it became more moderate over time. Particularly when it changed its name to the current one in 1988 and signed with Ben Ali a "National Pact" which sought to separate religion from politics, in preparation to the 1989 elections. So it denied its MTI origins, but for how long? The fact that Ben Ali banned it after the elections, jailed its historic leader (Rached Ghannouchi) and sent him into exile (he's now in London, waiting to return) must have had a negative fallout: one possible outcome would have been a return of Al Nahda to its radical origins. Current militants interviewed by the NYT claim that is not the case, but who knows...

Yet, without a vigorous opposition and one that is respectful of democratic rules, it is difficult to see how Tunisia can progress towards a full democracy. Ben Ali's party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), is hopeless and should probably be dismantled. To be replaced by what? There's no easy answer, as demonstrated by the wobbly "unity government" hastily put in place by RCD politicians once Ben Ali had fled. Within hours, the three opposition leaders co-opted in this government (to unimportant ministerial jobs, that is true), had resigned. The objective of this new government is to "help the transition" and "prepare new elections". So far 1800 political prisoners have been released, so it is moving in the right direction. But an amnesty law still needs to be passed before Al Nahda can be re-instated as an operational party.

All this however are details. The fundamental problem is that most of the political class has been tainted by the RCD. Other forces in society are the trade unions and the military. Indeed, if the new government fails in its task of ferrying the country to democracy, the military are likely to move in - basically, following the Turkish model, that has only recently been upended by Mr. Erdogan's Justice and Development party. What about the trade unions? I'll admit my ignorance: if anyone has information, please make comments!

What I am convinced of is that Tunisia is to a large extent a case apart. There's much enthusiasm in Arab countries - and several people have set themselves on fire, hoping to emulate Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution which is supposed to have started with just such a self-immolation. But in fact, Tunisia had what practically no other country in the region has: a large, well-educated middle class, thorougly familiar with French liberal ideas.

So the Jasmine Revolution is not easily exportable. And my hope is that Tunisian cultural traditions, deeply rooted in liberalism as they are, will carry the day and make a real democracy possible.

Post-scriptum: In case you're wondering why I have followed the Tunisian case in so much depth, the explanation is that I happen to be finishing a novel where the protagonist, the rich, fat and bored wife of an expat banker living in Rome, has a wild affair with a fascinating Tunisian. Naturally I had to have Al Nahda enter the picture - fiction is fun only if it is way out, right? So I did a lot of research, and when the rioting broke out in Tunisia, I watched TV, fascinated, wondering when Al Nahda would come out of the woodwork...


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1.15.2011

If the Euro Crashes, so will the European Union!

Eurozone map in 2009 Category:Maps of the EurozoneImage via Wikipedia
The British and other European Union members who don't belong to the Euro-zone are gloating these days: they've escaped the fate of the silly Euro! Little do they realize that if the Euro crashes, so will the European Union, including Britain and all the other gloaters...

The Euro is the end product of the European Union dream: if it goes down, so will the rest. And Britain will find itself belonging to a Europe that is likely to be run-down and depressed for a very long time: hardly a good platform to work from on the international scene!

If you don't believe me, read Krugman's major magazine article in the New York Times on the subject: he's just come out with an extraordinarily clear and pointed analysis of the Euro - a must read! Here's the link:
Krugman: CAN EUROPE BE SAVED?

He makes several major points (many of which for those of us who live in Europe are quite familiar):

- the Eurozone is an INCOMPLETE monetary union (read: no fiscal integration, no over-riding Federal structures like those that govern the dollar zone: the Federal Reserve system and the US Treasury); as a consequence, there is NO TRANSFER of shock waves across the union. To put it more clearly as Krugman did in his example comparing Nevada and Ireland (two states with similar problems): Nevada will recover sooner and with less trauma than Ireland precisely because it doesn't have to save its banking system like the Irish do, or cut back on its pensions. Washington will see to that. As to labour moving out in search of jobs elsewhere in the union, that is the one thing the two states have in common. And a lot of Irish are emigrating while many of those who had come to Ireland during the good times have already left.

- internal deflation is the only way Euro zone members can tackle their deficit: that is the policy currently pursued in Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain. And it is something that entails tremendous sacrifices and costs to the citizens.

- currency devaluation is not an option for Euro-zone members; but as the amount of the public debt cannot be devalued/deflated, it means that the deficit problem remains whole, no matter how much you tighten your belt.

Krugman offers four possible scenarios for the future: toughing it out; debt restructuring; full Argentina; and revived Europeanism.  Here they are in his own words (in italics):

(1) Toughing it out: Troubled European economies could, conceivably, reassure creditors by showing sufficient willingness to endure pain and thereby avoid either default or devaluation. The role models here are the Baltic nations: Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. These countries are small and poor by European standards; they want very badly to gain the long-term advantages they believe will accrue from joining the euro and becoming part of a greater Europe. And so they have been willing to endure very harsh fiscal austerity while wages gradually come down in the hope of restoring competitiveness — a process known in Eurospeak as “internal devaluation.” 

Does it work? Yes, but at a very high cost, both economic and political. I don't think other European countries, such as Greece, will endure it.

(2) Debt restructuring: At the time of writing, Irish 10-year bonds were yielding about 9 percent, while Greek 10-years were yielding 12½ percent. At the same time, German 10-years — which, like Irish and Greek bonds, are denominated in euros — were yielding less than 3 percent. The message from the markets was clear: investors don’t expect Greece and Ireland to pay their debts in full. They are, in other words, expecting some kind of debt restructuring, like the restructuring that reduced Argentina’s debt by two-thirds.
   
In Krugman's view, this would work - and is probably inevitable in the case of Greece and Ireland - but it wouldn't avoid the pains of deflation but, as he put it:  debt restructuring could bring the vicious circle of falling confidence and rising interest costs to an end, potentially making internal devaluation a workable if brutal strategy. 

(3) Full Argentina: Argentina didn’t simply default on its foreign debt; it also abandoned its link to the dollar, allowing the peso’s value to fall by more than two-thirds. And this devaluation worked: from 2003 onward, Argentina experienced a rapid export-led economic rebound. 

As Krugman points out, the one European country that was able to pull it off successfully was Iceland - but then, it could devalue since it isn't part of the Euro-zone. Can a Euro-zone member do it? No. As Krugman put it: any euro-zone country that even hinted at leaving the currency would trigger a devastating run on its banks, as depositors rushed to move their funds to safer locales. In short, in the words of Professor Eichengreen,  this “procedural” obstacle to exit made the euro irreversible. But, argues Krugman, Argentina's link to the dollar was also supposed to be irreversible, yet it did it.

Frankly, I think that is Krugman's weakest argument. The fact that it is theoretically possible - anything is - doesn't mean it will happen. There is simpy NO WAY Euro-zone members can pull out and return to their national currencies: the disruption to the national banking and commercial system would be so catastrophic that it is unthinkable. And this is an important point: Germany, Europe's locomotive, the one that has seen its GDP grow last year and a recovery in employment thanks to stellar exports, would be the nation that would suffer the most: after all, the Euro was modelled after the Deutsche Mark and Germany gained from the Euro more than anyone else. It also stands to lose more than anyone else.

(4) Revived Europeanism: The preceding three scenarios were grim. Is there any hope of an outcome less grim? To the extent that there is, it would have to involve taking further major steps toward that “European federation” Robert Schuman wanted 60 years ago.

And Krugman recalls here the suggestion made last month by Juncker and Tremonti to float Euro-bonds. It would indeed be a "step in the right direction" but Germany is having none of it. As Krugman put it: the Germans are adamant that Europe must not become a “transfer union,” in which stronger governments and nations routinely provide aid to weaker. Indeed, Germany, of late, has gone into a Deutschland Uber Alles mode and they don't want to give up any bit of their fiscal and other sovereignty in the name of Europe. Of course, joint European bonds would require a management structure and that would mean coming too close for comfort to the concept of a federal treasury.

The way out? None for the moment. Scenario n. 1 is the on-going one, and moving to scenario n.4 seems, for the time being, highly unlikely.

But let's try to gaze into the future using Krugman's plotlines. Scenario n. 2 - debt restructuring - is in the cards: it is the natural outcome of scenatio n. 1 - toughing it out -. Sooner or later, countries living through bouts of high social tension as disgruntled citizens take to the streets, will have to bend back and restructure their debt.

Once that happens, will anybody move out of the Euro? No, too disruptive.

So what will happen? I would bet on devaluation. There is no escaping it: if the sovereign debt of several Euro-zone members is restructured, then the Euro will necessarily lose value. Not perhaps a lot, particularly if the stronger Euro-zone members pull their act together (read: France and Germany) and realize that it is in their interest to guide the Euro towards a soft landing.

But a devalued Euro it will be. In spite of what anyone says about the joys of having a strong currency, in this case it would be a manna: it would help exports and revive employment. Germany would of course stand to gain most since it is the biggest exporter (50 percent of its exports go outside the Euro-zone). And surely it could afford the "transfer" aspects of a full monetary union.

But when will the Germans ever understand that it is in their interest? Soon, I hope... 


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1.13.2011

HAITI: A Year Later and Still So Much to Do...But One Clever Project is Completed!

Port-au-Prince's old Iron Market in ruinsOld Iron Market in ruins after earthquakeImage by NewsHour via Flickr
A year later, after the terrible earthquake that killed 220,000 Haitians and left 1.5 million homeless, over 700,000 people are still living in tents, many with no access to clean water - which means they have little or no defense against the on-going cholera epidemic which has already claimed 3600 lives. And women living in tents find themselves the constant target of sexual assaults. Every day, at least two women report being raped but the victims are probably many more as this is the kind of crime that is classically under-reported.

Only five percent of the rubble has been removed...You read that right: FIVE percent! You'd think that was the first thing that would have been done with the billions of aid pouring in. $500 billions were pledged and so far only some $6 billion have turned up. Where has the money gone? But it should come as no surprise in a situation where there is a continuing political vacuum and corruption is rampant.

International NGOs present on the ground, from Médecins sans Frontières to the Order of Malta, are doing their best to contain cholera while the United Nations is fighting an image of the Big Bad Boy who has brought cholera to Haiti (apparently the doing of Nepali soldiers - an investigation is on-going).

But not all is dire and catastrophic. An Irish billionaire, Denis O'Brien,  has managed one extraordinary project in less than a year with the help of famous British architect John McAslan: the restoration of Port-au-Prince's historic "marché en fer" or iron market. A bizarre but enchanting iron contraption - a little like the Eiffel tower - built in France and meant as a train station for Cairo, it unaccountably ended up in Haiti. It was a lively trade centre in spite of its horrendous run-down condition, but the earthquake brought it down flat. That did not discourage Mr. O'Brien who spent $12 million of his own money on the renovation (he has deep pockets: his company, Digicel, dominates the Haitian cell phone market).

The result is astonishing: rebuilt to the latest specifications, with solar panels and earthquake-resistant structures, it is not just a simple restoration of a landmark meant to please Bill Clinton, who, as the UN's special envoy in Haiti, would  like to see Haiti "built back better". It is a working project meant to allow vendors and small traders (mostly women) to push their wares and make a living, reviving at the same time agriculture and artisanal activities. In short, it has multiplier effects or, if you prefer the term, back links to other economic sectors, precisely the sort of thing you need to revive an economy.

But it has one more thing that makes it a truly interesting and innovative project: Mr. O'Brien has also signed on to help the management of the market for the next 50 years. That's very important because that's precisely where most projects - however excellent and useful - come crashing down. While they're on-going, there's always a management structure of some sort (the World Bank loves to set them up to ensure their projects are successfully brought to completion). But after a few years - at most, two or three - the project is "handed over" to the locals and the management structure is dismantled. With usually disastrous results, as corruption and laxness kick in. The idea of setting up a management structure for 50 years to ensure the project's sustainability is a truly bold initiative, and to be highly commended.

Hopefully, Mr. O'Brien's management model for the iron market will be self-perpetuating beyond the 50 years he envisages - and for that to happen, he should make sure that the management structure he's setting up will draw in some locals: if Haitians are not directly involved in the management of their market, then it will collapse again. Ok, it'll happen 50 years later, and that's a gain on run-of-the-mill projects, but it will still collapse...


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1.11.2011

Gun Control in America: an almost Taboo Subject in spite of Rep. Giffords Tragic Shooting!

National Rifle AssociationImage via Wikipedia

Three days after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (Dem) was shot, and six innocent bystanders along with her, including a Federal judge and a 9 year old girl, the reactions in America have all been about the "terrible" political climate that has supposedly promoted this kind of violence.

A climate in which Ms. Palin played no small role with her map of 20 House politicians adverse to the Tea Party and that needed to be targetted - the map, published on her Facebook page, unfortunately bearing crosshairs like gun sights.

Does it all come down to a climate of hate and one unbalanced young man?

May be.

What is absolutely astounding is that virtually no one in the media is raising the issue of gun control. With one notable exception: New York Times Op-Ed columnist Gail Collins  Click the link and read it: a very courageous bid for more gun control. You'll see however that even Ms. Collins is careful about where she treads. She'd like to see Glocks banned - because they're not for hunting or self-defense: they're deadly weapons for straight out killing and nothing else - . But there's not a word about banning regular pistols... True, there are a few lone voices in the blogosphere, especially in politico.com. And maybe one House member is ready to introduce some new gun legislation. Let's see how serious Capitol Hill is about gun control... The fact remains that the NRA remains the strongest lobby in the land and no one dares stand up to it.

Carrying a gun around remains one fundamental, untouchable right of every American citizen worth his salt.

So, in future, expect many more political killings with lots of Glock-murdered innocent bystanders...And forget all that self-righteous talk about a "climate of hate": that's just icing on the cake.
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1.09.2011

Violence in America: Why its Political Class Bears the Brunt

Gabrielle Giffords, Democratic nominee and gen...Image via Wikipedia
Everything in the USA tends to be bigger than elsewhere in the developed world, from skyscrapers to violence. The recent shooting in Arizona of  Democrat Rep, Gabrielle Giffords, that left her clinging to life - the bullet travelled through her brain - and killed six people, including a child (9 years old) and a Federal judge, is a case in point.

The blogosphere and the media immediately went a-twitter: this was so much better than Wikileaks! Of course, Arizona is a state awash with anti-immigrant and anti-government passions, so assigning the blame to the political right was a no-brainer. The fact that she's a pretty, 40 year-old woman, wife of an astronaut and Navy captain, added to the unholy glitter of the news.

Politicians jumped on the bandwagon of comments: starting with the local county sherif (a Democrat) raging about "the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on this country", a direct result, as he saw it, of Republican Tea Party rants against the government, all the way to President Obama who immediately condemned the shooting and said "we're going to get to the bottom of this and we're going to get through with this".

The bottom seems to be rather shallow: for the moment, the culprit, already arrested, is an unbalanced young man who'd been putting threatening messages on YouTube. But he might have had an accomplice and things could get more complicated. Local law enforcement authoricities believe Giffords was specifically targetted.

Reactions in the political world in Washington have been fairly uniform. Beyond expressions of sorrow, Democrats have fairly uniformly pointed the finger to "inflammatory rethoric that incites political violence". Republicans have vigorously denied the accusation but some among them have admitted that it amounts to a "cautionary tale".

Cautionaury? Indeed! We're back to the usual formula: violence + politics= social unrest. By the way, that's a formula you can read both ways: from left to right and from right to left. Definitely America is going through a very, very difficult period. The Great Recession is hardly over, unemployment has given no sign of improvement for the last 19 months. Even the news that unemployment went from 9.8% to 9.4% last month didn't bring smiles on anyone's lips, since it was clearly not near enough to solve the problem. Economists and various other pundits had hoped for the creation of 200,000 new jobs when in fact (depending on how you crunch the statistics) probably some 50,000 were created - way below what's needed just to mop up the people who've been laid off in the past 6 months. And let's not talk about the chances of the thousands of new, young college graduates out there, trying to land their first job...

From our standpoint in Europe, it is always surprising to see how violent America gets. One can sympathize with the glum climate in the US - things are not any better on this side of the Atlantic: indeed, on the unemployment front, especially in Southern Europe, they are much worse. Unemployment can reach 40, even 50 percent among certain segments of the population, particularly the young. And the kind of job on offer, mostly in services (like for example, call centres or washing dishes) are definite downers, especially for the hopeful young with a university degree.

But political violence in Europe tends to be expressed in street protests and near-riots, burning cars and breaking up shop windows, rather than political killings like in the US.We all remember the ghastly and spectacular shooting of President Kennedy in 1963. Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that only Democrats get shot. President Reagan was also subject to attack. It's just that America is a trigger-happy country, all the more so that it is the only democracy in the world with such liberal gun laws.

How about considering a tightening of gun laws? I'd love to know how my American readers feel about this. That issue so far, in the first hours and days following the shooting, remarkably, has hardly come up, either in official comments, the media or the blogosphere. With a rare exception, like Keith Olbermann who aired a special session on TV to condemn "violence in democracy" and called on Americans to "put their guns down". While a highly commendable stand, it is still clearly rethorical. What is needed is a call to legislative action to curb the reach of the gun laws. If anyone has made that call, I haven't seen it. Please tell me I'm wrong and that the issue IS coming up!

Interestingly enough, Gabrielle Giffords, like most Americans, was not in favour of cutting back on the gun laws. For some unfathomable reason, Americans see toting a gun around as part of their fundamental citizen rights. If she ever recovers from her wounds and makes it back in political life (something I fervently wish for her sake), I wonder how she'll feel about her country's gun laws...
 
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1.07.2011

Christians Crucified Everywhere in the Muslim World...Except in Turkey!

Logo Muslim BrotherhoodLogo Muslim BrotherhoodImage via Wikipedia

A powerful bomb exploded in front of a Christian Coptic Church in Egypt, killing 21 and wounding nearly 100 of the faithful who were attending New Year's mass. When, on the following day, the Pope in Rome called for world leaders to protect Christians, he immediately drew criticism from the Great Imam of Egypt. The Pope's call, he said, was tantamout to interference in internal Egyptian affairs...

Internal affairs? Since when killing religious minorities is an "internal affair"? Of course, killing people from other faiths has been a regular activity in the Middle East since earliest times - starting with the Hashashin sect in the 11th and 12th century, that fought other Muslims for political power and Christians for religious reasons.

In case you're wondering why all this hatred was exploding back then... remember? That was the time of the first Crusade. Christ's teaching of tolerance and forgiveness had already been forgotten by Christians then, and now it is ignored by everybody!

In other words, religion and politics was intimately meshed in the Middle East back then, and it still is today, a thousand years later. So, indeed, one may speak of "internal affairs" insofar as the killings are political.

Who's behind these killings? The biggest fundamentalist group in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, has condemned the bombing. So the mostly likely culprit is, as always, Al Qaeda. The Hashashins pale by comparison. We all remember the ruthless killing of Christians in Baghdad on 31 October 2010. The virtual cancellation of Christian observances in Iraq has been an immediate result. More than 50 innocent lives were sacrificed to the altar of Religious Hatred - undoubtedly one of the strongest and deadliest of human emotions.

More and more Christians are fleeing Muslim countries. Because it's not just Iraq that is "bleeding" Christians, but also Pakistan and even India. Things are getting really bad of late in Pakistan, with the assassination of Mr. Taseer, Punjab's governor, by one of his bodyguards while the others looked on without lifting a finger (in fact four of them are in custody in addition to the murderer). Here was a man with liberal ideas, in favour of pardoning a Christian woman condemned to death under Pakistan's infamous "blasphemy law". He was killed by a religious fanatic precisely because he showed religious tolerance. His funeral was shunned by top Pakistani politicians, including President Zardari who was Taseer's friend. And of course, Muslim leaders all over Pakistan (who are all supporting the blasphemy law) have told their followers not to attend the funeral nor pray for Mr. Taseer. Religious fury knows no bounds...

And, alas, it is not certain that Christian refugees in the West can fully escape Al Qaeda. There have been reports that Al Qaeda has made a list of Christian Copts they want to eliminate: 200 in Canada and 15 in Austria and in other countries too: Germany, the Netherlands... What is remarkable is that some people on this list are Copts who have become Canadian or Austrian citizens and have left Egypt many decades ago! That's how far religious hatred will go...

So what about human rights? Where does the humanitarian community stand on this? Well...at least, it always makes the right sounds. Following the killing in Egypt, President Obama has condemned it as a "heinous and barbaric act" and asked that the culprits be brought to justice. The Pope has called for all religious leaders in the world to meet together at Assisi next October in a "summit to discuss how they can promote "world peace"  - a repeat of the event Pope John Paul II held 25 years ago (with unfortunately, precious little results as the current outburst in religious violence seems to indicate). The press on both sides of the Atlantic, from the New York Times to La Stampa in Italy have loudly and rightfully condemned it and mused on about how religious minorities are increasingly "pushed out" and the Muslim world is becoming "homogenized". That's a nice way of saying that religious intolerance is exploding...

Against this sombre backdrop of religious violence, Turkey stands out as a haven of tolerance. On Monday 3 January, There was an official visit to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul by the number two man in the Erdogan government, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc. Mr. Arinc’s visit reportedly coincided with government promises to consider reopening an Orthodox seminary and returning properties confiscated by the state to Christian and Jewish minorities. Consider that no Turkish government official had ever paid such a visit in the past five decades, even when the government was in the hands of a secular party. Yet Mr. Erdogan is notoriously known as a non-secular, Muslim leader with a wife who always keeps a head scarf.  

This heralds a sea change in that big country on the doorstep of Europe (77 million people), a country with a huge Muslim majority (97% of the population) in spite of its Ata-Turk induced secular tendencies. But I believe Ata-Turk, the father of the Turkish Republic established in 1923, may have had less to do with this than older memories - those of the Ottoman Empire that was famously tolerant of the religious minorities within its borders, when the Empire was one of the biggest in the world, covering three continents. Indeed, Turkey seems to follow in the footsteps of this glorious past in its expanding presence in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, and more precisely in Northern Iraq where it has established good commercial relations with the local Kurds. Of the 700 foreign businesses established there, more than half are Turkish...And the Turks are busy building roads to Iraq and opening Turkish schools.

Yes, there does seem to be a silver lining on the horizon, and, surprisingly, it is Turkish!  



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12.30.2010

WikiLeaks Drip, Drip, Drip...For How Long?

Julian AssangeJulian Assange Image by Poster Boy NYC via Flickr
WikiLeaks is like a dripping faucet on the international political scene, creating puddles and craters everwhere, much to the dismay of most politicians and the glee of a few, like Putin. He'd like to see Mr. Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, get the Nobel Prize! And the French newspaper Le Monde has named him Man of the Year.

That's pushing it a bit, and it doesn't recognize the damage done - and the numerous people who are losing their job or seeing their career collapse. There is no question that WikiLeaks should have redacted names more carefully. Most unprofessional. There is a rising tide against Assange and he knows it. The US government is trying to build up a case against him and they may get him yet.


There's also been an over-reaction in the financial world - from PayPal to Switzerland - closing down the avenues to support Assange in his self-appointed "crusade". On the other hand, the publishing industry, eager to publish his memoirs, thinks differently. Actually, there'll always be somebody who thinks differently and who'll support Assange. There are even people in America supporting Bradley Manning, the US Army soldier who copied the diplomatic cables, passed them on to Assange and got arrested (so far with $ 100,000 for his legal expenses).

Assange's first counter move has been to sell his memoirs (quite a coup considering he's only 39) for the remarkable sum of $1.3 million or 1.5 million (it's not clear how much, but quite a lot anyway) to, inter aliaAlfred A. Knopf, the American publisher. The memoirs are set to come out in March 2011. Before they do, one of his former colleagues, Daniel Domscheit-Berg is coming out with his own version of what it's like to work at WikiLeaks. Since he's left WikiLeaks and is disenchanted with Assange, we're in for some interesting "memoirs" next year...

Incidentally, what Assange got is the kind of advance any debut writer would dream of! To think that the publishing industry, pretexting the onslought of e-readers and digital books, speaks of reducing advances to all writers, especially start-ups. Of course, Assange is no start-up and he's built for himself quite a "platform" - that's the publishing industry jargon for a person's following, guaranteeing that his book will be sold. And he's going to need the money to defend himself once the Justice Department gets ready to attack.

That they will attack is understandable: the biggest victims are the Americans. Nobody in his right mind will ever want to talk again to an American diplomat, and that diffidence around the world is likely to last a very long time...

How long? Probably a generation. Take note Mrs. Clinton!

What is truly astounding is how silly the State Department - Foggy Bottom as American diplomats affectionately call it - has been over the matter of protecting the privacy of its diplomatic communications. To entrust all their cables to Pentagon protection is surprising - since when do diplomats trust the military? Worse, to send confidential stuff over the Internet when everybody knows that it's next to impossible to keep things secret out there, in the ether, is an astonishing display of ingenuity. Leaks just had to happen sooner or later, WikiLeaks notwithstanding.

In the past, diplomats used to entrust their confidential reports to the good old diplomatic pouch that travelled back to the capital with one or two bodyguards to ensure safety. Over the centuries, that's what diplomats have always done. In this day and age of media, technology and instant news around the world, there is NO single diplomatic communication that needs to be sent over in "real time".There's no rush, and why should there be?

Think of the nature of diplomatic work. Diplomatic reports are the careful distillation of what diplomats learn of a situation over time, from local journalists, politicians and businessmen, in short all kinds of people they meet in the course of their diplomatic activities (read: round of national day receptions, official celebrations, dinner parties with the locals etc). A diplomatic report is rarely if ever "front-line news": that's the job of reporters working for Reuters, AP and the like. What a good diplomatic report adds to the news that you and I read is the man's experience of the local situation and his knowledge of international relations. That's the diplomat's comparative advantage with respect to reporters and journalists. An ambassador is a man, with the help of his team (from young attachés to counsellors and ministers), who can ponder the situation, distinguish between the good, the bad and the irrelevant and give his government a balanced, well thought-out view that helps in shaping foreign policy.

So there's absolutely no need to cable. Most reports could be sent via the diplomatic pouch and reach the State Department in 12 hours from just about anywhere in the world. For the few urgent communications, there's always the telephone with a good encrypted programme to discourage unwanted listeners...

But even if American diplomacy returns to using well-tried tools like the diplomatic pouch, it's obviously too late and the damage is done. From now on, a new dimension is added to World News: the WikiLeaked article. How does it differ from an Op Ed piece? Go to the WikiLeaks site, you'll see how it differs. There is a telling line right up front which reveals how the WikiLeaks people view their mission:
"We are of assistance to peoples of all countries who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and institutions. We aim for maximum political impact."
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