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Archives for November 2010

Where Wikileaks leaves diplomacy

Matt Frei | 16:02 UK time, Monday, 29 November 2010

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Pity the historians. In the past, we would leave the excavation of nuggets of candid observation about world leaders to academics who would spend hours sifting through documents in dimly-lit libraries many years, if not decades, after the events had occurred and when their subjects were probably nesting comfortably in the afterlife.

Wikileaks has changed that. For now, anyway. What we have courtesy of Julian Assange, the oddball impresario of political indiscretion, is a sudden splurge of nuggets, an incontinence of information. There is something for everyone. Isn't that the new normal in the age of social media? The dark art of diplomacy has been reduced to a giant chat-room of online bullies. The Royals are insulted. So is Britain's freshly minted prime minister. The Saudis want the US to bomb Iran. Do they mind, by the way, if the Israelis participate? Berlusconi is Putin's lapdog. Etc, etc.

None of these highly classified revelations, so far at least, comes as a complete shock. Prince Andrew behaving boorishly abroad. Really? David Cameron inexperienced. Duh? Sunni Arab leaders afraid of the Shia Persian bomb? We have been saying it for years. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi travelling to the UN with a busty blond Ukrainian nurse in tow? Well, his "international" guard of armed, voluptuous escorts has been well documented ever since he came to power some time in the last century.

So US diplomats have more or less the same insights as most foreign correspondents, although their language may be more uncouth. Perhaps, now that they know their telegrams will end up on the web, they will spend more time on the prose. Once they have stopped calling for the public lynching of Mr Assange and much tighter whistle-blower laws, some politicians are bound to take aim at the US state department and the harried ranks of exposed diplomats.

Well, Wikileaks may have revealed diplomacy at its most raw but the fragmented, messy new world order of today also demands their skills more than ever before in recent memory. The trouble with North Korea, the headaches over Ireland and Spain, the arm-twisting over Iran, all require the deft hand of diplomats who know how to mediate, sweet talk, negotiate and threaten without insult or injury. That takes skill and, as we now know, a better firewall.

Where can Obama 'find' himself?

Matt Frei | 21:47 UK time, Wednesday, 24 November 2010

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The president has pardoned a turkey from receiving a shellacking. Pat-down-phobia has not turned into pat-down-mania. The travelling nation's "junk" has remained largely untouched. And North and South Korea are poised on the edge of an abyss. It's the holiday season.

I had an interesting chat with presidential historian Robert Dallek yesterday about his latest book, The Lost Peace. It deals mainly with the big mistakes made by great men after World War II but, as expected, he has used the past to illuminate the present. The subject turned quickly to President Barack Obama.

Dallek was one of a dozen or so historians who were invited to the White House twice by Barack Obama. The first dinner was shortly after the inauguration and the 44th president's main concern was how he could become a transformational president. The second dinner was held last May and the main topic was how Mr Obama could reconnect with the American people.

The conversational menu was dominated by humble pie. Dallek told him a story about the death of FDR. When the funeral cortege passed through the towns along the Hudson River on the way to Roosevelt's family home at Hyde Park, a man was incandescent with grief. "Did you know the President?" a friend asked him. "No," he said. "But he knew me!" When Mr Obama heard the story, he nodded.

So what can he do to reconnect with people who found his story so compelling in 2008? The president first needs to find a place where he can reconnect with himself. President Kennedy had his yachts. Clinton had/has crowds. Bush had Crawford. What does Obama have?

Is Korean flare-up Obama's big foreign policy test?

Matt Frei | 23:06 UK time, Tuesday, 23 November 2010

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President Barack Obama has been told by his critics - especially those in his own party - to "man up" and show some leadership. Today's dangerous flare-up in the Korean Peninsula may end up giving him that opportunity. However, before he can respond to this crisis we all need to work out what's really going on.

Everyone knows the stakes are high. Seoul, a mega-city of more than 10 million South Koreans, is within artillery range of the North. Nearly 30,000 American troops are stationed close to the Demilitarized Zone. The North has nukes. The South has America watching its back. China is the North's estranged godfather. The peninsula is crowded with players and weapons.

But what does the North want? It is the Delphic oracle of international relations. One theory is that this is part of a power struggle or power projection involving the dynastic succession of Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un, the portly third son, whose only experience of the outside world was a stint at an elite Swiss boarding school.

The other theory is that this is another of North Korea's pleas for attention. The child is throwing the toys out of the pram in order to get back to the six-party talks, which were broken off after North Korea came out of the nuclear closet. Both these explanations make the situation sound more benign than it perhaps is. It implies that there is method in the madness. Perhaps. Let's hope so.

But when a plea for attention is expressed by firing off artillery on to an inhabited island or by apparently torpedoing a South Korean naval vessel - remember the March incident which killed 46 South Korean soldiers - then all bets are off. This could still become Obama's big foreign policy test. It is anyone's guess how he will respond.

The new Irish exodus

Matt Frei | 18:51 UK time, Monday, 22 November 2010

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Ireland's long suffering has become a short fuse. The coalition is teetering, fresh elections loom and there were angry scuffles in Dublin today. As Stephanie Flanders, our economics editor, points out, the Irish have gone from boom to bust without committing the same mistakes as Greece. The Irish did not cook their books. They merely indulged in the same frenzy of property speculation and easy credit that was rampant in the US and the UK.

What seems to have felled them is that Irish politicians thought they could spare their country some of the worst medicine by keeping corporate taxes low, preserving the competitive environment that made Ireland such an attractive haven for investors, and cutting a relatively small number of jobs.

This clearly hasn't been enough. In Europe these days, you have to prove that you're prepared to suffer in order to send the right signals to the markets.

There is one difference between Ireland and other stricken members of the EU. Despite the anger, the escape valve of emigration has already been opened. Until only two decades ago, the Irish escaped their island in order to pursue work and wealth abroad. Then the exodus became an introdus [sic] as hundreds of thousands flocked back to cash in on the home-grown boom.

The numbers of the last year already show that a new exodus has started. Most of them migrants are heading to New Zealand and Australia - anywhere but Europe and the US.

Ireland smiles in the face of adversity

Matt Frei | 14:55 UK time, Thursday, 18 November 2010

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Person_in_Dublin.jpgThe economic news from Ireland is stomach churning and yet friends tell me that the mood in Dublin is far from morose.

The Irish public, they say, is taking its problems on the chin, perhaps drawing on reserves of resilience built up in more stringent times that still clutter living memory. Let's wait and see if that remains true several months into an austerity package currently being hammered out by the International Monetary Fund and European Union.

Stephanie Flanders, our economics editor, has good piece on the stages of grief that Ireland and its government have been going through at breakneck speed. Ireland seems to have erred by taking on banks that should just have been allowed to fail. Two years after the beginning of the crisis, the state is saddled with a growing mountain of bad mortgages, the true cost of which is only now becoming clear. Every one of those deserted, half-built houses, festering among the weeds of an unfinished housing development with a fetching name, is a painful reminder of the lunacy of the property bubble.

Even if Ireland clings to its fiscal lifeline, the consequences for the eurozone won't go away. Spain and Portugal could be next. As pain increases, anti-EU populism is bound to rise and sober-minded economists are beginning to wonder what would happen if the euro split into two currencies.

How about one for the North and one for the South? Why not just say one robust euro for Protestant Europe and a more forgiving currency for Catholic Europe? If that's too inflammatory, one could always divide the eurozone into the Olive Belt and the Butter Belt.

All ideas are welcome but the New York Times has an excellent piece about the umbilical challenges of splitting from the euro, a currency that is barely more than a decade old and was once expected to elbow the dollar in terms of robust reliability.

Tricky questions in the eurozone

Matt Frei | 17:02 UK time, Wednesday, 17 November 2010

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The Irish have run out of luck. The Greeks have been grappling with a tragedy all year. The Germans are busy flogging their excellent washing machines and cars abroad. The EU crisis has allowed just about every member nation to revert to tired cliche.

But there is an existential problem that unites the eurozone in these times of looming bankruptcy and bail-outs. It touches on a question that was never fully, honestly, publicly addressed, when the plans for a common currency were being drawn up more than a decade ago. How much should each member nation be prepared to suffer and sacrifice in order to help out a less fortunate or profligate fellow member? Is the union precious enough to warrant the mantra of the Three Musketeers: all for one and one for all?

Judging from the finger wagging from Berlin this summer at Greece and the livid response in the form of burning Swastikas, I would say not. And it goes on. Will the exuberant Irish, drunk on a property bubble that has now burst, drag down the Euro? Will Spain follow suit? Why should we, the stricken taxpayers of Germany or Holland, step in to save them? In Britain, which is part of the EU but not the eurozone, they are asking the same question with even more acid poignancy.

The European Central Bank has made hundreds of billions of euros available for a bail-out fund. The constitutional mechanism exists for crisis management. But what is lacking is a genuine debate about the assumption on which the union is based in the first place. The EU project of an ever-closer union was born in the ashes of World War II. It was mainly motivated by a desire to tie Germany down like Gulliver, a desire which the Germans understood and applauded.

That argument no longer sounds relevant to a post-war generation. The ease and cross-border practicality of the euro pale in comparison to the currency's woes. There is talk of a two-tier eurozone. The 'A' team, led by Germany, and the 'B' team, for the fiscally less-responsible. That is bound to cause a food fight in dozens of languages. What's needed is something that the public will increasingly demand if the crisis worsens and governments will be loath to grant: a wholesale debate about the reasons for the euro.

A royal wedding to bring smiles for a day

Matt Frei | 15:50 UK time, Tuesday, 16 November 2010

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Williams_and_Kate.jpgThank God for constitutional monarchy. We no longer have to rely on the accident of genes and inheritance to determine who governs the realm. But we rely on royalty to put on a good show now and again. We, the tax payer, can expect a bit of pomp and circumstance.

Britain may be having its annus horribilis, but a royal engagement - THE royal engagement - has come along to cheer us up or at least change the conversation for a day. This, too, is a well-worn British tradition of uncanny coincidences.

Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953 when post-war Britain feared that the world might be plunged into another conflagration.

I still remember the Silver Jubilee of 1977. There were so many power cuts, and we were having dinner in central London by candlelight. Britain was the sick man of Europe, plagued by strikes and plummeting self-esteem. But the Silver Jubilee provided the kind of show I had never seen before.

The last time an heir to the throne married a future queen was in 1981. Charles and Diana graced tea towels and tea mugs. Summer street parties distracted from the economic gloom and the strikes that pitted coal miners against the new Thatcher government. These were angry times, and the royal couple was cheered by both sides on the picket lines.

Royal marriages are as brittle as any other, and the merits of monarchy are debatable. There will be grumbles about the cost of a royal wedding to the tax payer.

Perhaps William and Kate will have a simpler service, streamed online with a live Twitter feed. But the world - whether it beheaded, dethroned or deposed its own monarchs in the past or not - will be watching and smiling for a day.

Aung San Suu Kyi's granite resolve

Matt Frei | 18:06 UK time, Monday, 15 November 2010

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Aung San Suu Kyi greets supporters on Monday, 15 November

Reading about John Simpson's interview with Aung San Suu Kyi reminded me of the last time I met her in Rangoon. It was March 1999, in the same location at the headquarters of her party, the National League for Democracy. When we came out of the building, three groups of Burmese secret service agents in civilian clothes on motorbikes followed us. We had entered the country as tourists. What we were doing was illegal and could - in theory - land us in jail.

After the interview, the three of us - producer, cameraman and reporter - split up and headed in three different directions, each of us carrying a copy of the tape, each of us pursued by the men on bikes. It was a game of cat and mouse verging on the comical. At one stage, I hid in the cupboard of a hotel gents' toilet. At another, I climbed through the window of a hotel kitchen. I finally lost my minders when I disappeared into an underground car park, while they had stopped to answer the call of nature by the side of the street. I never understood why they didn't just arrest me or my colleagues, who had a similar experience. They had plenty of opportunities.

But what really sticks in my mind from that day was the interview itself. Aung San Suu Kyi was living through a genuine tragedy, a terrible dilemma foisted upon her by the junta. Her husband, Michael Aris, a mild-mannered academic of Tibetan studies, lay dying of prostate cancer in the family home in Oxford. The Burmese authorities would not grant him a visa to make one last visit. Instead, they hoped to use his imminent death to lure her out of the country. She knew she would never be allowed back again.

She was caught between loyalty to her people and loyalty to her family. "What's the hardest part of this?" I asked her. "It's when Kim and Alexander [her sons] ring me and beg me to come home." She spoke quietly in impeccable English, with astonishing poise and the granite determination that has driven her jailers to distraction over the years.

She didn't even want to be interviewed about Michael because she thought that her family's suffering paled in significance compared to those of thousands of her followers who were languishing, tortured and forgotten in jail. She only agreed to give the interview when we persuaded her that her own dilemma said so much about the nature of the regime.

We left Rangoon safely with our tapes hidden inside sports shoes or wash kits. When we arrived in Bangkok later that day, we heard that Michael had died. It was one of the saddest days I can remember as a reporter.

Could UK students' rage find echo in US?

Matt Frei | 23:13 UK time, Wednesday, 10 November 2010

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protestor.jpgStudents in America may marvel at the gall of their British counterparts, who are mounting the barricades over a proposed threefold increase of student fees to a whopping $14,500 (£9,000) a year. That is, of course, a bargain compared to the $45,000 or more that American students frequently pay for their tuition per year - saddling them with back-breaking debts for the first decade of their working life or longer.

President Barack Obama only paid off his Harvard debts when he was a US senator, and that involved writing a brace of bestsellers.

Until now, Americans have tolerated this tuition-for-debt pact because they could expect to earn healthy salaries once they entered the job market. But graduates are standing in ever-longer lines for jobs that no longer exist.

Will we see students demonstrating here too?

Musharraf and his Facebook friends

Matt Frei | 22:01 UK time, Tuesday, 9 November 2010

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President George W Bush may have given his interview in a cramped room that could have passed for a police interrogation cell, but former Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf opted for the library backdrop of the Council on Foreign Relations studio in New York, when I spoke to him today.

He wasn't in the best of moods when I asked him why his country wanted, let alone needed, him back, as he claimed it did - given that he had left just a couple of years ago under a monsoon-sized cloud.

"My countrymen are clamouring for my return," Mr Musharraf told me.

"How do you know?" I asked.

"It's on Facebook... more than 300,000 friends on my page."

The general who came to power with a coup is now contemplating a return to the presidency via Facebook. The marriage of new media and old power. LOL. OMG.

Character traits with far-reaching consequences

Matt Frei | 17:21 UK time, Tuesday, 9 November 2010

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George W Bush signs copies of his memoir

Bill Clinton has been busy squeezing hands and gripping shoulders on the mid-term campaign trail. Jimmy Carter orbits the global stage like an omnipresent moon, churning out one book after another, liberated by age and a long retirement to speak his mind boldly. But until today's publication of Decision Points, with its small smattering of publicity interviews, George W Bush seems to have been in a witness protection programme. He seems to have been swallowed by Texas since leaving office.

The former president is perhaps still seen as too toxic to be summoned back on the hustings for the Republican cause. But today he had a moment in the limelight.

His interview with Matt Lauer on NBC, where the two faced each other across a simple table in a featureless room, looked more like the setting for a police interrogation or a job interview. Usually retired presidents like to give signature interviews sunk in winged leather chairs, surrounded by books and illuminated by soft low light. This was businesslike and Spartan, which is actually the way Bush likes to keep his relations with journalists.

There are many things to take away from his book - the justification of waterboarding, the agony when he discovered that Iraq had no WMD, the complex relationship with his father. But there is also the author's clear love of making decisions.

The decider, as he used to call himself, relished deciding - which is just as well. Like the MBA that he was, Mr Bush ticked off life-changing, history-making decisions with brutal efficiency and speed. Mr Clinton dithered - over Bosnia and Rwanda. Mr Obama deliberated - over healthcare and Afghanistan. Bush decided, but often in haste without the necessary homework - remember those weapons of mass destruction (or not) in Iraq?

Perhaps Decision Points should carry a subtitle: character traits with far reaching consequences.

Obama visits India with an eye on China

Matt Frei | 14:38 UK time, Monday, 8 November 2010

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Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama and the First Lady - or Potus and Flotus as White House aides refer to them with acronymical affection - are clearly having a ball in India.

Plumed hats, bugles, red carpets and adoring school children - what's there not to love?

First there was the welcome escape from political humiliation at home, even though Mr Obama is bound to be peppered by irritating questions from the accompanying press corps about Ron Paul chairing the House monetary policy subcommittee and Eric Cantor vowing to roll back healthcare reform. The travelling White House press is the modern equivalent of the lictor that used to accompany the Roman Caesar on his chariot during a triumph, whispering: "You are not a god".

But then there is the potent imagery of a black presidential couple being feted by the Indian elite. America and much of the world have probably forgotten that this picture was once a beguiling novelty.

In his speech, the president has explicitly drawn the line between Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Implicitly he surely hopes the line will continue to his own presidency.

I am not sure if Middle America will be impressed or even interested by this. Aware of the PR pitfalls of a foreign trip so soon after a domestic "shellacking", the White House has re-branded this tour as a massive job creation exercise, drumming up work for Americans in Ohio or Michigan by doing deals with India. The proof of that pudding is surely in the hiring.

On his visit to India earlier this year Prime Minister David Cameron offered Delhi a "special" relationship and was greeted with a shrug that implied brutally, why would we want especially close ties with our former colonial masters. What's in it for us?

Mr Obama, by contrast, has offered the Indians a strategic partnership that could define the geopolitics of the century. The Pakistanis will doubtless see this as a slap in the face. But it wouldn't be the first time that these two step-sisters have fallen out over America's affections.

Far more interesting is the fact that Obama's 10-day tour involves most of the countries in the region who potentially feel the menace of a muscular China. With Afghanistan, Yemen and Iran occupying much of our attention far too little has been paid to the Great Game being played out slowly but deliberately around the South China Sea.

How Obama's rush to make history cost votes

Matt Frei | 21:05 UK time, Wednesday, 3 November 2010

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President Obama is no stranger to contrition. At the beginning of his term, he didn't shy away from saying that he had messed up, screwed up, made mistakes and so on. But he was apologising about the small stuff from a position of supreme confidence. The buck stops with me, he was fond of saying serenely, confident that the buck wouldn't give him too much trouble.

The Barack Obama we saw today looked crestfallen and sounded chastened.

He made a few admissions today. The most charmingly understated one was that some election nights are more fun than others. The most interesting one was explained by the president when he said: "We were in such a hurry to get things done, we didn't change the way things are done in Washington."

Having ridden a wave to history, Mr Obama thought he could ride it on into power. He was told he was transformational. He was compared to Abraham Lincoln before he had even put his feet under the desk in the Oval Office. The administration made the most of the crisis it inherited.

Laid low by economic fever, America was like a patient on a slab, with the administration using the opportunity to fix the body. Once the economic pulse had been restored, the surgeons at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue decided that this was their perfect chance to do the nose job, also known as health care, nip and tuck the jowls, financial reform, and so on.

Obama_looking_down.jpgThe patient came to from a coma and didn't like that things were happening in a hurry, especially since the patient's pulse, the economy, was still weak.

I remember how we all marvelled at the way Mr Obama had learnt from the messiness of Mr Clinton's transition to power in 1992-1993 and had appointed his team in a flash.

He laid out his agenda clearly before taking office.

On day one, President Obama signed the bill to shut down Guantanamo Bay, using his left hand. "Get used to it!" he said. "I am a lefty."

But what millions of Americans, especially those who had cast their vote for him reluctantly couldn't get used to, was this impatience to make history, coupled with an instinctive, historically-grounded distrust of one party rule.

Having experienced hubris, Mr Obama now has to undertake divided government work. But can he?

Does he have the schmooze to play golf and share a cigarette with John Boehner? Will they let him?

The era of booting out

Matt Frei | 14:53 UK time, Monday, 1 November 2010

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All the polls indicate that tomorrow America will swing from "YES, We can!" to "NO, YOU CAN'T!".

The Grand Old Party will most likely deliver a historic thumping and we will be scratching our heads to remember election night in 2008 when so many - like this New Republic columnist - predicted an era of undiluted supremacy of the Democratic Party.

It would be equally foolish to use tomorrow night's result and bury the Democrats in an unmarked mass grave.

Obama can still get re-elected. History here is on his side. The Republicans could start a civil war between GOP grandees and grass roots rebels. The Tea Party could become a Food Fight. Indications are that the campaign to stop or at least rein in the pitbull with lipstick - Sarah Palin - starts on Tuesday night. This Fox News analysis shows the fault-lines.

The only hope the White House clings to is that the Republicans will tear themselves apart like a dysfunctional family.

Meanwhile, America's policy making machine, already creaking and old fashioned, will probably grind to a halt as China, unencumbered by the bother of the ballot, will just motor on.

But what does the GOP's resurgence mean? Yes, it will be seen as a rejection of big government, incumbency - as this poll notes - and one party rule.

But I think it is much more than that. This is a wave of insurrection that started in 2006, crested in 2008 for the Democrats, and then like a tsunami which causes the water to be sucked out to sea before the wave crashes in, now sees its reaction in 2010.

This is the third "change" election in four years. The number of independents is growing exponentially. They now form the biggest voting block, as this Wall Street Journal piece notes.

Indecision has reached epidemic proportions. Show me a moderate Republican who is going to the polls because he believes the GOP actually has a programme and policies that will fix America's problems.

This vote is first and foremost about rejection.

America used to be called the 50/50 nation. Those days of predictable, genteel, division are gone. The mood swings have become chronic, fueled by a deep-rooted suspicion that the system and the country aren't working any more.

Uncle Sam's erstwhile optimism, a natural resource more precious than any rare earth metal, has been depleted in the era of incompetence.

This era started with the botched approach to Hurricane Katrina and destroyed the Bush presidency.

It has continued with the inability of the world's most powerful military machine to win wars against Taliban or Iraqi insurgents armed with exploding coke bottles and a willingness to die.

The most brazen aspect of this incompetence, and one which will pummel the Democrats on Tuesday and could defenestrate Obama is the inability of his administration to fix the economy.

The accusation may be partially unfair. And yes, Obama inherited this mess from his predecessor but he now owns the problems and the solution.

Telling people it could have been so much worse does not amount to a rallying cry. The absence of calamity is not enough to win an election.

The next two years should be all about recognising America's limits while rekindling the lost optimism. But can America reboot itself when booting out is all the rage?

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