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Archives for December 2010

When White Christmas loses its charm, there's always YouTube

Matt Frei | 23:28 UK time, Tuesday, 21 December 2010

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In Chicago, Minneapolis and Boston - big cities with big airports - they must be laughing into their Christmas stockings - unless of course they had holidays booked in Ye Olde Europe.

Stranded passengers at London's Heathrow airport sleep in the terminal

In Chicago, the Windy City, they need at least a few feet of snow before they start cancelling flights. In fact snow doesn't tend to be a problem because O'Hare International Airport, one of the world's biggest, has plenty of other reasons all year round to dish up delays: from tornados to monsoon-like rains to soupy fog.

But that's beside the point. America does snow well. Britain is floored by a few inches. But so are France, Germany and Belgium, it turns out. I thought they had snow licked. Even the kids aren't happy anymore. They are off school anyway. And Father Christmas is stuck on the M4 with an overturned sleigh, spilled presents and some grumpy elves who are due to miss their return flight to the North Pole.

Brits normally love this kind of weather. In the country of light but near-permanent drizzle a snow storm is like a vodka slammer after a life of Bud Light. It is life-affirming. It brings out the worst in Mother Nature and the best in Human Nature. But, after a year of stiff upper lips and tightened belts, the island-dwellers were hoping for an easy ride over the holidays, not a camping expedition at a railway or airport terminal, armed with presents that seemed to get more cumbersome by the hour and clothes that could probably walk to their destination if liberated from their smelly bodies.

The Freis are staying put in the District of Columbia, hunkering down in front of the hearth, unwilling to pay a king's ransom for a flight anywhere (why are airline tickets so expensive this year?) and now feeling a little smug about our voluntary immobility.
Let's face it - travel itself has stopped being fun. First the involuntary striptease, courtesy of any number of terror alerts, and now this.

So, if you have an iPad or a laptop with WiFi access and you are living like a snowfugee at Heathrow, Frankfurt or Charles de Gaulle, cursing the great outdoors, dreaming of the homely indoors and close to tears I offer you this clip from YouTube as a pre-Xmas tonic.

Enjoy!

Could Assange give UK its 'Love Actually' moment?

Matt Frei | 20:01 UK time, Thursday, 16 December 2010

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Julian Assange

The British government must be quietly hoping that Julian Assange will still end up being extradicted to Sweden on charges of committing sex offences. What surely haunts them is an extradition battle launched by the United States - a scenario that federal prosecutors in Washington are already busying themselves with.


This would put the Cameron government in a tussle of wills, caught between a newly fired-up regiment of student protesters and its closest ally across the pond. Much of the country would be baying for David Cameron to have his "Love Actually" moment, named after the film starring Hugh Grant. The foppish, self-deprecating actor plays a British prime minister who, like all his predecessors, is reliably loyal to the American president -played by a mischevous Billy Bob Thornton.

The famed "special relationship" is marvellously intact until the prime minister catches the president in flagrante delicto, trying to seduce his secretary, a girl the PM also happens to fancy. The special relationship can withstand failing foreign wars and domestic party uprisings, but not a bruised prime ministerial libido.

I am not suggesting for a minute that Barack Obama has his eyes on one of David Cameron's aides. But Tony Blair and Gordon Brown never gave Britain their moment of defiance against the US. And Britain is still waiting. This yearning is like a distant throbbing ache. It needs to be satisfied at some stage, even with a more popular Barack Obama in the White House. It is about British self-esteem as much as about policy.

We saw stirrings of it with the mudslinging over BP's spilt oil. Opinion polls in the UK suggested that most Brits thought the embattled Obama administration was picking on a British company for political purposes. It takes a lot to protest FOR rather against an oil giant!

If the US starts extradition proceedings against Julian Assange on charges of espionage or the like you will see that yearning inflamed. Mr Assange is already the hero of a student movement that has lost faith in the current government. He embodies anti-establishment defiance. He is Marc Zuckerberg with an insurrectionist edge, made for and by the empowerment of the internet.

And don't think this will be confined to students who have discovered the joys of mounting barricades. The readers of Time Magazine, hardly a bunch of revolutionary "sans-culottes", wanted Assange as Person of the Year. The editor opted for Zuckerberg, arguably a safer choice.

We live in an age of popular insurrection, fuelled by a collapse of trust in the institutions, empowered by the web and social media. It is a rollicking tale with an uncertain outcome, but the latest chapter is about to be opened.

Why Kabul may miss Holbrooke's gritty style

Matt Frei | 21:47 UK time, Tuesday, 14 December 2010

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I had interviewed Richard Holbrooke on a few occasions. But the one that sticks out most was at the Democratic Convention in Denver 2008. A few months before the election, Holbrooke was being widely discussed as a possible US secretary of state if Barack Obama were to win.

The notion that the next president's most bitter rival on the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton, might one day be offered that job - and take it - was too far-fetched even for the most optimistic fence-menders.

We were interviewing Holbrooke in his hotel for a documentary on Barack Obama and what his foreign policy might look like. He was late, apologised and sat down. I asked my first question. I can't remember what it was. But I do remember the answer. The possible future secretary of state, one of America's most high-profile diplomats, former ambassador at the UN and in Germany looked at me intently and then cleared his throat with the decibels of a roaring lion.

"Sorry, Matt," he croaked. "Rough night, REALLY rough!" The word rough sounded like two pieces of sandpaper rubbed together. It was vintage Holbrooke. He was the embodiment of the undiplomatic diplomat and he knew how to flatter journalists with misbehaviour.

We know that "the bulldozer's" gritty style didn't go down well in the slippery sweetness of some capitals. He frequently came to verbal blows with Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai. He was said to be deeply frustrated by the obfuscations served up in Islamabad.

But his style famously worked with the Bosnian factions in the mid-1990s to end a brutal, bloody war. It was a brilliant idea to force them all into a US airforce base in Dayton, Ohio. Holbrooke created a diplomatic conclave - Latin for "with key". Like the original conclaves at the Vatican, he told the factions, all lodged in airforce barracks with questionable food: you're not leaving till you strike a deal.

Dayton was definitely not Paris, Geneva or Rome. It had become a one-star camp for misbehaving warlords and Holbrooke did what the UN, the EU and the US - so far - had failed to achieve. He turned compromise into a less unpleasant alternative. He also understood the psychology of the Serbs: they're not suicidal, he once said, but they are infatuated with the mythology of their victimhood.

They may not miss him in Kabul as much as they profess today but Holbrooke understood better than most in Washington that the only solution to the war in Afghanistan is political, not military. He endorsed conditional dialogue with the Taliban. He believed that the Taliban could be separated from al-Qaeda. Kabul may miss him yet.

Berlusconi's reinvention of Italian politics

Matt Frei | 23:04 UK time, Monday, 13 December 2010

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Berluscon1.jpgThe first time I met Silvio Berlusconi was in 1993, as Italy was engulfed in the 'Tangentopoli' corruption scandal which saw hundreds of politicians and business leaders, who had once been deemed untouchable, hauled into jail by crusading judges. The judiciary was mounting the barricades against an endemic culture of corruption. The Cold War had ended and Italy no longer felt the need to keep the Italian Communist Party out of power, even if meant the perpetual re-election of the increasingly dubious Christian Democrats.

Into this chaotically shifting landscape stepped a man who was then known mainly for being perhaps Italy's most successful business tycoon. Signor Berlusconi owned the country's biggest publishing houses, controlled most of the private TV channels, plus the biggest private life insurance company, as well as AC Milan, the best football team.

In a country where great wealth was often a question of inheritance, here was a self-made man who was determined to reinvent Italian politics. He called his party Forza Italia, a battle cry from the football terraces that means something like Go For It Italy!

He spent millions of his own cash on seducing the tired Italian electorate, which had seen more governments than Christmasses since World War II, that he was the strong leader that they had never had. He was also caked in make-up, insisted on being filmed - old Hollywood style - with a lady's stocking over the lens for soft focus and planned eventually on being buried in a huge sarcophagus in a pyramid in the garden of his villa outside Milan.

Silvio Berlusconi was phenomenally vain. His opponents feared that he was a corrupting influence on Italian democracy. A majority of the voting public increasingly saw him as a saviour and voted that way. Mr Berlusconi became the come-back kid who kept on coming back, defying court cases, corruption scandals and increasingly the buffoonery of his unfettered libido.

Italy is not a puritanical country but it resents the ridicule that comes with Mr Berlusconi's premiership. Whatever happens to him now, his legacy is that he has reinvented a corporate style of politics.

Sharp rebuke from Nobel Laureate to China

Matt Frei | 21:18 UK time, Tuesday, 7 December 2010

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Julian Assange may be currently fighting extradition to Sweden, but I have to confess a new found love for Stockholm.

It is my first visit. We are staying on Skeppsholmen, a small island in the centre of the city that once housed the Swedish Naval Academy. The orange coloured buildings are covered in a thick blanket of snow. The ice-cold winter air does strange and beautiful things to the sky, turning it somewhere between turquoise and purple.

I am here to host a debate with all the Nobel Laureates, who are not in jail in China or too frail to travel to Sweden to pick up their prize.

The Russian physicists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov patiently explained the astonishing properties of grapheme to me. Contained in carbon, it is fiendishly difficult to extract. But once you get your hands on it, you can process it for manufacturing - only the South Korean firm Samsung has managed to do this so far. It is heat resistant, conducts electricity, as tough as a diamond and as flexible as a marshmallow. It is also two-dimensional, which means it may be used in a flat screen in your home one day.

Lui_Xiaobo.jpgThe conversation turned inevitably to fellow Laureate, Liu Xiaobo, languishing in a jail in China. They lamented his incarceration but also thought that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to someone like him was a red rag to China's bull. The Laureate for literature Mario Vargas llosa had so such qualms. As someone who had experienced first hand military dictatorship in his home country of Peru and the dying days of the Franco regime in Spain, he said it was regrettable that democratic governments often show themselves as complaisant - not with the like of Mr Xiaobo, but with (his) tormentors. Ouch!

Although he didn't mention any countries by name, it was clear that he was sending a sharp rebuke to all those lily-livered countries who value business in China more than their professed principles.

Wikileaks: The Social Network meets geopolitics

Matt Frei | 15:00 UK time, Friday, 3 December 2010

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So Wikileaks has followed in the time honoured tradition of combat and sought digital refuge in neutral Switzerland after it was thrown off EveryDNS.net, the American owned web domain provider.

Meanwhile founder Julian Assange remains in hiding, newspapers like the Guardian and the New York Times continue to provide reams of hitherto secret information about the state of the planet and US diplomats are wrapped up in marathon damage control when they should be getting ready for the holidays.

I know there is a movie in there. I just wish I had the time to write the script. It's the Social Network transposed to geopolitics. The nerdy genius who made 500 million friends online and foes offline becomes the nerdy cyber insurgent/fugitive who turned the world's most powerful governments into enemies.

I have spent much of the week in London and I was struck by the anti-American tone of most of the newspapers who wrote up the Wikileaks revelations as an example of US high handedness and brutal diplomacy. I think they missed the point.

What the avalanche of cables provides is a brutally honest self-assessment of America's limitations. The overarching tone, often delivered with biting wit and telling detail, is frustration at a messy, chaotic and thoroughly disobedient world.

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