Monday, 29 January 2007

What it is safe to claim about climate change

This week's TCS exclusive:

The only way to save the planet is to distort the truth.

Sceptical? Good - there is life in democracy yet. But in discussions of global warming fact and fiction frequently blur.

Climate change is the single greatest threat to mankind in the 21st century. But specific weather events can rarely be explicitly linked to climate change; the troposphere is far to complex a system to allow such categorical connections. Nevertheless, those championing action to limit the impact of global warming often invoke specific weather events to buttress their case, and the public doesn’t seem to pay attention unless they do. Can a distinct lack of candour be justified if it serves to help avert global climatic catastrophe?

Scientists and politicians rising to the challenges posed by global warming face a dilemma: humanity has long taken Gaia as a resource to exploit rather than protect, and will only tolerate the inconvenience of saving her if it otherwise stands to suffer itself. The warnings of the scientific community, however, have never been enough. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change felt able to state in 1995 that “the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate”, and, by 2001, that “most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities”. Yet it took Hurricane Katrina to force the realities of global warming into the American popular consciousness, while current water shortages in Australia were similarly needed to stimulate our antipodean cousins. In making the case for a concerted response to the prospect of severe climatic dislocation, the persuasive effects of specific weather events have proved invaluable. Climate change is an otherwise diffuse, long-term and uneven process; extreme weather allows climatologists to illustrate its catastrophic potential. Shrinking glaciers simply don’t have the propagandistic value of devastated cities.

But is it dishonest to connect climate change with meteorology? Not if the link made is indirect. Climate models do indeed project extreme weather conditions of increased intensity and frequency as the earth heats up. Such was, quite legitimately, the central thrust of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. But we are on dangerous ground if we make the further claim of a direct causal link between recent global warming and specific meteorological disasters, for humanity has long borne crippling droughts, floods and hurricanes. Littering his documentary with references to the 2005 devastation of America’s Gulf Coast, Gore goes on to claim that “what changed in the US with Hurricane Katrina was a feeling that we have entered a period of consequences”. His Oscar-nominated documentary demonstrates the worrying propensity for slippage between claims of direct and indirect connection. Far from an ‘inconvenient truth’, to cite Katrina as evidence of the impact of climate change is a convenient fiction. Concluding that Katrina was the consequence of global warming is blurring the facts to suit a political agenda.

But if doing so creates a mandate to mitigate climate change, perhaps muddying the issue can be defended. Being a stickler for accuracy today will seem a perverse luxury in 50 years time if central London is underwater. Scientists need to keep global warming in the news if politicians are to have a hope of convincing their citizens to make painful sacrifices. As the costs of climate change limitation begin to bite, and as other causes jostle with global warming for politicians’ and the public’s attention, there will be an ever greater temptation to bind all weather related news with climate change. But this would be profoundly disingenuous, and carries unjustifiable dangers. With climate-change sceptics ready to expose any fallacy, increasingly tenuous claims risk undermining the hard science on which global warming rests. Furthermore, human induced global warming may be the first truly global challenge humanity has faced, but it won’t - unless climate change cripples civilisation beyond recognition - be the last. We owe it to future generations not to devalue the notion of expert opinion. Climate change is a subject in which passions run high and immediate action is needed; the exaggeration of high spirits can perhaps at times be excused. But the truth should not be sacrificed along with our cheap flights and 4x4s.

Thursday, 25 January 2007

The environment resuscitated

In the run up to the 2005 general election, the New Statesman led with “how the greens were choked to death” - “why the environment isn’t an election issue”. Lacking vision and leadership, green groups had been compromised and marginalised within Labour’s “big tent” after throwing their lot in with the government in 1997. By 2005, only the Liberal Democrat's had a manifesto presenting green issues as fundamental to their platform - Labour gave the environment only a few paragraphs at the end of its ‘International policy’ and ‘Quality of life’ sections, while for the Conservatives it was buried within ‘Accountability’. But, since then, we have had the Stern Review and a growing acknowledgement of the potential impact of climate change, while the Tories have reinvented themselves as the party of the scribbled tree.

Green issues have accordingly risen in prominence on the major parties’ respective websites. Labour now place ‘Climate change and energy’ fourth on their list of policy areas, while the Lib Dems place the ‘Environment’ fifth. The Tories’ ‘Quality of Life Challenge’, which unlike Labour’s 2005 manifesto namesake is more or less exclusively devoted to environmental concerns, is second in its set of six key policy ‘challenges'. But don’t bank on the environment as a decisive factor in any future general election. As the parties gear up for this years’ polls in Scotland and Wales, the Welsh Conservatives may hope that emphasising ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’ gets them greater representation in the Senedd, but by burying their own track record on the environment the Scottish Labour party clearly doesn’t consider it crucial in determining whether they retain control of Holyrood. All parties want to talk tough on the environment, but none are going to feel particularly inclined to ask too many sacrifices of the electorate. The Conservatives at least seem likely to follow the Lib Dems in sweetening the pill of eco-taxes with tax reductions elsewhere. Labour are currently saying the least about climate change, but, after commisioning the Stern Report, expect Gordon Brown to make important announcements once Tony Blair steps down. 2006 was a year of environmental awakening, and it is hard to imagine a repeat of 2005’s electoral indifference to climate change. The main parties have accepted the prospect of global environmental catastrophe. But none yet seem ready to stake out a daring position to lead the electorate where they don't neccesarily want to go.

Wednesday, 24 January 2007

The BMA wades in

The British Medical Association has become the latest organisation to propose channelling Afghanistan’s opium into legal pain-relief. With a diamorphine shortage in the UK, the medical experts are demanding greater access to the drug after forced recourse to less-effective alternatives. But as the International Narcotics Control Board reports, there remain substantial global reserves of morphine; as the British government recognises, dwindling stocks of diamorphine stem from a lack of facilities for chemically converting morphine, not from a lack of supply. The BMA is using this bottleneck to make a geopolitical point.

The proposals of the Senlis Council to licence Afghanistan’s opium are becoming increasingly fashionable but remain seriously flawed. Constructing the facilities to produce diamorphine - heroin - in disparate factories across Afghanistan’s badlands, as Senlis proposes, promises to shove the high-value end of the drugs trade into the hands of insurgents. Few Afghans would reap the benefits of poppy licensing, with only 1% of the cultivatable land dedicated to poppy. Other charities in the country, such as Christian Aid, stress long term support such as irrigation for the other 99%. If Afghanistan stabilises, and if a chronic shortage of morphine does emerge, there will come a time when legalising and regulating the opium trade makes sense. The Senlis Council may be making inroads into western liberal opinion, but its proposals, for now, are good for neither Afghanistan nor the world.

Monday, 22 January 2007

The US and the executions

Another short piece for TCS, answering the question as one of a group of panelists, "Should the US have done anything to stop the execution of Saddam Hussein and his co-defendants?":

Capital punishment is wrong in principle. The sordid hanging of Saddam Hussein after a partial trial was not just wrong but abhorrent. But the US was nevertheless right to leave to Iraqi’s the business of punishing their former dictator and his co-defendants.

By executing leaders of the former Baathist regime, the Iraqi administration missed a rare opportunity to take the moral high ground, and sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shia have probably widened as a result. But Saddam and his associates were undoubtedly guilty of crimes against humanity and responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Shia and Kurds. Many victims and their relatives would have seen a reprieve for Saddam as irresponsibly unjust, and the government calculated that the good will of the previously persecuted was worth the further alienation of the Sunni community. Whether or not we in the West agree with this assessment, it was one for the Iraqi government to make; if Iraq is ever to develop as a functioning state it must be given room for independent policy, and arguably-hypocritical US intervention to stop the executions would have served only to erode the Iraqi government’s fragile legitimacy. Coalition governments ripped Iraq apart by demolishing Saddam’s regime and imposing a new one. Imposing our values as well would have only deepened the chaos.

Sunday, 21 January 2007

Freedom of expression in TCS

My considered thoughts on freedom of expression, as summed up for TCS:

It has been a sad week for freedom of expression. Hrant Dink, a prominent journalist convicted last year of insulting Turkish identity in an article about the Armenian genocide of 1915, was shot in Istanbul. Brigitte Zypries, the German minister of justice, announced that Germany would be using its current presidency of the European Union to push for an EU-wide ban on Holocaust denial and the display of Nazi insignia. There is obvious gulf between these two cases, and it might be considered crass to compare the killers of a man who fought for the recognition of a genocide with a government intent on making denial of another genocide a crime. But the death of Hrant Dink is a sickening illustration of the dangers of government enforced versions of the past.

Dink was the editor of the bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos, which published a series of articles examining the Ottoman Empire’s treatment of Armenians during World War One. One of these contained a line in which prosecutors claimed Dink denigrated the purity of Turkish blood, and in October 2005 he was convicted under article 301 of the Turkish penal code - an article which makes it an offence to insult ‘Turkishness’ - and given a six-month suspended sentence. With the state having declared his guilt, Dink began receiving an increasing volume of threats and feared for his safety, a fear realised on Friday with a bullet to the back of his head.

The intentions of those seeking to criminalise Holocaust denial are admirable. To distort the past and accuse a people who suffered so much of the greatest fraud in history is a loathsome and dangerous act, and it is already illegal to do so in nine EU member states. But by claiming the right to silence contrary opinion the state empowers individuals to do the same, and silence their opponents as Hrant Dink was silenced on Friday. Free debate in Europe will not undermine the factuality of the Holocaust, but across the Bosporus a frank discussion of the events of 1915 might reconcile modern Turkey with a fuller account of its recent past. As part of Turkey’s stalling accession talks, the EU is pushing for legal reform. If it wants article 301 written out of the statute books, member states should argue from a position of enshrined free speech and not hypocrisy, and instead of extending the illegality of Holocaust denial, abandon attempts to cosset the past.

The BBC

The latest TCS article...

Last Thursday Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell announced that the perennial bug-bear of penny-pinching students everywhere, the television licence-fee, would, as expected, fail to rise in line with the standard rate of inflation over the next decade. Dashing the hopes of the corporation’s director-general Mark Thompson, the unions and even the minister herself, this treasury-imposed cap might well threaten BBC content and jobs. But in no developed country bar Germany does the government spend a higher proportion of GDP on broadcasting, and the BBC will still have over £20 billion to spend over the next six years. In this 21st century world of ever-faster internet and multi-channel television, is there really a case for the BBC’s model of licence-fee-funded public-service broadcasting?

The BBC is easy to criticise but impossible to replace. A blanket licence-fee covering all who own a television effectively subsidises the viewing habits of the more privileged sections of society; a disproportionate number of people who tune in to the BBC are elderly, wealthy and white. Public funding allows it to provide television, radio and web-based content free, squeezing commercial stations and online newspapers. The government will begin considering possible alternatives to the licence fee early next decade, and next time the BBC applies for a renewal of its royal charter in 2016 it may find the case for a subscription based service hard to resist.

But the very fact of its near universality makes the BBC a unique institution. Headline figures of audience share, in which all the terrestrial channels have been in freefall over the past decade, are misleading. Few institutions can claim that over 90% of the UK population uses its services every week. 37% of all British respondents to a Media Centre Poll last year spontaneously mentioned the BBC as their most trusted specific news source, four times as many as its nearest competitor. In an era when national narratives are thin on the ground, a brand which engenders such respect is not to be lightly thrown away. On the international stage, we saw last week how quickly Britain’s national reputation can be tarnished by its broadcasting with the Big Brother racism row, but the BBC remains an unparalleled means of enhancing the country’s standing abroad. Its website, currently ranked as the 15th most popular English language site in the world by online traffic monitor Alexa, is in many ways now taking the baton from its venerable World Service in spreading a British message across the globe.

Both global and domestic media environments will evolve rapidly over the next decade, and the BBC’s place within in them in 2016 is hard to predict. But for now, at least, the license-fee remains the surest way of maintaining the quality and independence of the greatest national institution in Britain. Forking out £135.50 for a television licence, as we will from 1 April, may hurt the pocket, but it is a small price to pay for the BBC as we know it, even if its bosses will complain they wanted more.

Saturday, 20 January 2007

Turkey and free speech

"A bullet has been fired at democracy and freedom of expression": the reaction of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the assassination of Turkish journalist Hrant Dink, the prominent editor of Agos, a bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper. Dink’s death further underlines the dangers of government-sponsored versions of the past; if the state claims the right to silence contrary opinion, individuals are empowered to arrogate this right too. Convicted in October 2005 of insulting Turkishness under article 301 of Turkey’s penal code, Dink was of Armenian descent, and wrote fearlessly about the genocide of Armenians which occurred at the hands of the Ottoman Empire in 1915, a genocide which is denied by Turkey’s nationalist community. The EU is seeking reform of the Turkish justice system as part of its application for membership, but by having laws against Holocaust denial it is arguing from a position of hypocrisy, while French flirtation with criminalising denial of the Armenian genocide last October served only to inflame and entrench Turkish nationalist opinion. Far better for a free debate on all topics and all sides, and truth will out. Prime Minister Erdogan has been courting the nationalist vote in the run up to elections this year. But if he is really serious about freedom of expression, it is time to dismantle 301.

Friday, 19 January 2007

Holocaust denial

Germany wants to use its current presidency of the EU to outlaw Holocaust denial and the public display of Nazi insignia across Europe. Britain should take the lead in opposing this direct attack on freedom of expression, as it did when similar proposals were successfully blocked in 2005. But any response to the ideas of Brigitte Zypries, the German Justice minister pushing for an EU-wide ban, has to be more than an automatic dismissal, however tempting a simple assertion of a supposedly quintessential British value might be. Undoubted harm is caused by so-called ‘revisionists’ spinning dangerous lies which feed modern anti-Semitism and its associated conspiracy theories, and if we are to oppose the criminalisation of Holocaust denial we have to show that free expression is the greater good. This challenge is to be welcomed, for confidence in our values can only be strengthened when we rise to their defence.

As it happens, such a claim is one important aspect of John Stuart Mill’s seminal championing of freedom of speech and deed, On Liberty. Mill contends that:
“the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error”.


How do Mill’s precepts relate to Holocaust denial? Scholars, survivors and witnesses are certain that the Holocaust was a very real, and very terrible, historical event. Why risk exchanging fact for dangerous error by allowing a free debate on the subject? Mill would argue that unless a case against the Holocaust is made, our belief in it will be a “dead dogma, not a living truth.”
“Unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds”.


But do these passages from On Liberty really ring true in the case of Holocaust denial? Pace Mill, allowing extremists and their apologists to set forth their poisonous arguments clouds rather than enhances society’s understanding of the Holocaust by implying unwarranted doubt. A sounder defence of freedom of speech in this instance is more prosaic than Mill’s idealism. It is that denying free speech only gives those who challenge society’s sacred beliefs needless publicity and an artificial moral high ground. In an interesting piece for yesterday’s Guardian, Timothy Garton Ash argues that “well-intentioned bans actually feed the flames they are meant to quench".
“Nine EU member states currently have laws against Holocaust denial: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. That happens to be a list of countries with some of the strongest rightwing xenophobic parties in the EU, from France's National Front and the Vlaams Belang in Belgium to the NPD in Germany and the Greater Romania party. Self-evidently those parties don't exist as a result of Holocaust denial laws. Indeed, the existence of such parties is one of the reasons given for having the laws, but the laws have obviously not prevented their vigorous and dangerous growth. If anything, the bans and resulting court cases have given them a nimbus of persecution, that far-right populists love to exploit.”
Holocaust denial is abhorrent, but that is all the more reason not to make martyrs of Holocaust deniers.

But don’t abandon John Stuart Mill just yet. If he is na├»ve on the dangers of unchecked prejudice, he is right to assert that free speech is the most effective mechanism for allowing truth to trump error. Europeans, even in the nine EU states where Holocaust denial is a crime, are truely blessed with a vast arena of free expression. Holocaust denial laws chip away only at the very edges of this space. But others elsewhere are less fortunate, and curtailing freedom of speech in Europe sends out the message that it is for the state to decide which version of history to trumpet and protect. A frank discussion of the past is the best hope people in places such as Iran, whose president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has described the Holocaust as a ‘myth’ will ever have of getting at the facts. Europe should demonstrate that the Holocaust is a living truth which doesn’t need to be propped up by law.

Saturday, 13 January 2007

Poppycock?

Here's a full (and, exclusive to Constitutional Lore, hyperlinked) copy of an article I penned with Peter Inglesby for this week's TCS.

The international community should allow Afghanistan to legally grow and export opium. Or at least so says the Senlis Council, a European think tank with field offices across the central Asian country. Illicit poppy cultivation already dominates the Afghan economy, and American-led counter-narcotics strategies are only exacerbating Afghanistan’s development crisis. Meanwhile, across the world many of the poorest go without effective pain-relief for want of opiate-based medicines. Licence opium production, argue the policy-wonks at Senlis, and allow Afghan farmers a livelihood easing the world’s pain.

The argument is seductive in its simplicity, and an array of facts can be marshalled to back it up. According to a report of November last year by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “the opium sector remains Afghanistan's largest source of export earnings and a major source of incomes in the rural areas”. Afghanistan’s ‘Opium GDP’ amounted to $2.7 billion in 2005/6, equivalent to 27% of the country’s total (drug-inclusive) GDP and 36% of licit GDP. A successful eradication campaign would by 2010 shrink the economy by 8.7%. Yet why eradicate when the Afghan poppy can be put to legal use? The International Narcotics Control Board estimates that developing nations - four fifths of the world’s population - account for just 6% of global morphine consumption. “If the availability of drugs in developing countries is not improved”, argues the INCB’s President, Professor Hamid Ghodse, “lack of access to opioid analgesics will cause massive amounts of unnecessary pain and suffering.” Sadly, legalising and licensing the Afghan opium trade isn’t the panacea Senlis claims it is.

The benchmark transition from illegal to licensed poppy cultivation occurred in Turkey in the 1970s. With American backing, Turkey went from a major source of heroin, feeding 80% of the US market, to one of the largest suppliers of medical opiates. But the situation in Afghanistan today is simply incomparable to that in Turkey 35 years ago. To be sure, Turkish politics was fractured and unstable, but it possessed a modern state capable of the strict regulation and control of its agriculture, industry and exports. The Afghan government’s writ barely runs beyond Kabul. Narco-corruption is endemic and reaches the highest levels of government, and it would be all but impossible to prevent the channelling of legal cultivation into illegal processing and trade. The UN and the Afghan government have come out against the Senlis Council’s idea, as has the INCB itself, fulminating in an annual report “the idea that legalizing opium poppy cultivation would somehow enable the Government to obtain control over the drug trade and exclude the involvement of criminal organizations is simplistic and does not take into account the complex situation in the country.”

Senlis are also wrong in their diagnosis of the global ‘pain crisis’. The INCB reports that for the foreseeable future, such is the “high level of stocks of raw materials held in producer countries, the total supply of opiate raw materials (production and stocks) will be sufficient to cover the expected demand.” Inadequate access to opiate-based pain relief in developing countries is primarily due to the basic nature of their healthcare systems. The world’s pain would not be eased by a sudden new source of licit morphine, and in any case it is far from clear how Senlis propose to establish the pharmaceutical industry needed to produce the “‘Fair Trade’ Brand of Afghan Morphine” they envisage.

But if the Senlis Council’s scheme is currently impractical, it should not be dismissed out of hand. Licensed opium production could at some point in the future form an important facet of the legal Afghan economy and should not be ruled out. It needs to be recognised that the West’s home-grown problems and prejudices, feeding into the opinions of bodies such as the UN or the INCB, clouds its handling of the Afghan situation. To condemn poppy cultivation for the production of pain relieving drugs on the basis that doing so would fuel the trade in illicit opiates is to prioritise Western concerns with drug crime over the economic development of Afghanistan. It would be wrong to argue that Afghan farmers should not be allowed to cultivate poppies simply because the profits accrued might be diverted to fund terrorists and criminals, for to do so would rule out any economically productive activity, clearly ludicrous if Afghanistan is to find its feet as a unified and stable country. Fetishising prohibition can perhaps be compared to US policies on HIV/AIDS, or to some of the knee-jerk pronouncements by those on the anti-capitalist ecological left about climate change. Automatic reactions based on blinkered ideological prejudices are never the way to decide policy or to win an argument. The proposal of the Senlis Council to regulate a legal Afghan opium industry is perhaps an idea whose time has not yet come, but concepts which challenge the cosy consensus of the international community and champion development are surely the best hope of future prosperity that Afghanistan has.

Thursday, 11 January 2007

The 'surge' emerged

United States President George Bush has finally announced a long anticipated 'surge' in American service personnel in Iraq during a televised ‘address to the nation’ last night. The announcement was met with predicable condemnation from the Democratic Party, dismayed at having so little influence over Iraq policy despite fighting and winning Congressional elections on the issue, yet commentators who support the continued presence of coalition forces in Iraq should also have misgivings that the 21,500 extra troops which Bush is sending number considerably fewer than the leading figures behind the new plan, former general Jack Keane and conservative scholar Frederick Kagan, had hoped for and proposed. As a military advisor to the Iraq Study Group, James Carafano, notes, Bush’s policy is essentially a gamble that the tens of thousands of Iraqi troops with which Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki proposes to secure Baghdad will do more than simply make up the numbers.

At stake is not just the future of Iraq, but the future electoral prospects of the Republican Party. As GOP support for the President begins to fissure, many in the leadership are stressing the transitory nature of the boost, yet the strategy set out by Kagan and Keane commits troops to Baghdad for 18 months and then to the province at the heart of the Sunni insurgency, Anbar, for the rest of 2008. Even success in Anbar risks looking like bloody chaos in a year when Bush’s successor on the Republican presidential ticket will have to face an already sceptical electorate. Bush’s policy may yet secure stability in Iraq at the price of Republican victory in America.

Tuesday, 9 January 2007

The fall of Eden

Britain’s Prime Minister, discredited by a foreign policy disaster in the Middle East, is manoeuvred into resignation by an ambitious Chancellor of the Exchequer who goes on to replace him in the top job. 50 years ago today Sir Anthony Eden left office after a period in power judged by a 2004 MORI survey to have been the least successful of the 20th century. The legacy of a Prime Minister in similar straits, the current incumbent Tony Blair, is perhaps more secure, but then he has had a decade to nurture it rather than a bare twenty months. Blair’s New Year message set out his personal vision of the past decade, citing improving public services, falling crime, and winning the right to host the Olympics in 2012 as among his proudest achievements while in number ten. But in truth, if he is to be remembered for anything other than misadventures in Iraq, it will be for his demonstration that accommodating the market is a prerequisite of sustained power for the British centre-left. Blair used his New Year message to urge his party to stay ‘New Labour’, a warning to Gordon Brown, the Chancellor set to succeed him, not to tinker with the winning formula which has thus far granted Labour an unprecedented three terms of government. Harold Macmillan, the Chancellor who succeeded Eden, went on to increase his party’s majority to over 100 seats at the 1959 general election despite a significant Labour lead in the opinion polls when he took power in 1957. Whether Brown can pull off a similar feat will of course depend on how he handles the legacy of Blair.

Monday, 8 January 2007

Military dawns in the East

The Japan Defence Agency is set to upgrade to a full cabinet-level ministry tomorrow, in an historic dismantling of Japan’s post-war pacifistic constitutional settlement. Following recent Chinese moves to bolster their naval capacity, it seems we are witnessing a renewed desire on the part of East Asian nations to exercise military muscle. Yet despite this, repeats of the 20th century’s Sino-Japanese conflicts look more distant than ever. Both countries' economies are benefiting from increasing integration, and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has gone much further than his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi in attempting to normalise relations with his neighbours, visiting both South Korea and China in the first days of his premiership, and pursuing a policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ regarding the controversial Yasukuni shrine . Arguably of equal importance for regional security in 2007 are the continuing domestic woes of Taiwan’s pro-independence President Chen Shui-Bian.

East Asian military renewal is not primarily aimed at fighting East Asian wars. It rather marks the beginnings of a global projection of East Asian power not seen since the days of Genghis Khan. As China scours the globe for the natural resources it needs to fuel its roaring economy, there is every sign that those traditional theatres of Great Power competition, the Middle East and Africa, will yet again witness a scramble for influence. The prospect of a newly assertive China rubbing against western interests might be viewed as a crisis. But the components of the Chinese ideogram for ‘crisis’, romanised as wei ji, famously signify ‘opportunity’ as well as ‘danger’. Japan’s moves to modernise its military structures are aimed largely at facilitating future peacekeeping operations, building on its recent involvement in southern Iraq. As it invests ever more capital overseas, China will develop an unprecedented stake in global security, and its 3.25 million men under arms could go long way towards plugging the growing peacekeeping gap. The early 1990s saw a boom in global peacekeeping which hasn’t abated since, and UN officials were last year warning of unsustainable ‘overstretch’. American and Chinese forces have recently taken the encouraging step of conducting joint search and rescue operations, and the sooner China is integrated into the global system of security the better. Peace in the 21st century could well come to rest on Eastern might.

Sunday, 7 January 2007

Brown's election choices

Amid rumours of a snap election to give the next Labour leader a mandate as Prime Minister, the other main parties have been bullish about their readiness and willingness to fight one. Their brash confidence perhaps stems less from assured self-belief than the near certainty that they won’t in fact have to - even if the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats could afford an election in the next year or so, Labour as we know it might implode if it tried.

So it probably won’t bother, especially since Gordon Brown, the prime-minister-in-waiting, won’t necessarily feel obliged to seek a fresh mandate at all. The current incumbent, Tony Blair, might have promised before the last election to remain in office for a full third term, but few believed that Brown would not at some point take over, and the government has long been a partnership, at least in presentation, between the two great men.

If Brown does call an early election before 2010, therefore, it will be a tactical choice to exploit weaknesses in the Conservative position. The Tories might have secured a lead in opinion polls, but their Leader, David Cameron, faces a trickier twelve months ahead than he did this time last year. While 2006 was a year of reinvigorating a damaged brand, the future will be full of tough policy choices aimed at keeping both his own party and moderate public opinion on board project Cameron.

Alongside speculations concerning snap polls, there has been much talk of a swath of new policies in the early days of a Brown premiership, and it would clear up much of the cloud currently hanging over British politics if these included party finance reform. In order to be seen to be both transparent and fair, comprehensive reform would require the patient building up of consensus and compromise between the main parties, but it might well suit Brown to get it over with quickly, thus allowing him to exploit any downturn in Tory fortunes by calling a fresh poll, as Blair did in 2001 and 2005, the year before one is due, and once the parties have (as seems likely) been partially bailed out by the state. For Labour and thus Brown himself, however, elections in the next 18 months might be suicidally too soon.

Wednesday, 3 January 2007

Maliki should 'stay the course' too

Following a leaked American administration memo casting doubt on his competence late last year, Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki has given a personal account of his premiership to the American media, telling the Wall Street Journal of his loathing for the top job and his wish to 'be done with it' before the end of his mandate. Criticised for failing to contain factional strife across the country and even within his own government, he has presided over the bloodiest eight months of Iraq's abominably violent recent history. It is probable that his comments embody nothing more than an attempt to secure an increase in the American military presence which, pace the Iraq Study Group, seems certain to be announced. Should, however, Maliki's language signal an intent to quit in the short term, or if his comments are thus interpreted in Iraq, the Shia-dominated government risks squandering an unrivalled opportunity to pull the country back from the brink of civil war. In the coming months it will be in a unique situation, possessing both bankable political capital within the wider Shia community following the execution of Saddam Hussein and the unprecedented ability to enforce its will through that extra American firepower. It is just conceivable that in 2007 an Iraqi statesman will mollify moderate Sunni opinion and put Iraq back on the path to stability by making vital concessions on the constitution - guaranteeing an equitable allocation of oil revenue and ruling out a Shia ‘super-region’ - and reining in the Shia militia. Such a rosy scenario is most likely if the figure attempting to be that statesman is Nuri al-Maliki.

If he were to quit now, Maliki would risk paralysing the highest levels of Iraqi government just as they needed to be at their most dynamic. It took the UIA five months from the December 2005 elections to anoint a leader acceptable to the requisite two thirds of the Iraqi National Assembly. Moreover, a likely outcome of a repeat of such protracted wrangling would be the messy collapse of the UIA itself and the emergence of a new coalition, lead by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the assembly’s largest party, and excluding the supporters of radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The SCIRI’s leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, whose family has an historical animosity to that of Sadr, was reported by Associated Press as attempting to form such a government in December after meeting US President George Bush. But even if an alternative government was swiftly cobbled together, the expulsion of the Sadrists from the government would be worrying. The two largest Shia militia are the SCIRI’s Badr Organisation and Sadr’s Mahdi Army, whose forces have frequently skirmished in the Shia heartlands. A political coup against Sadr risks the implosion of the Shia community, while ultimately disarming these groups depends on the government retaining some influence over them, and they in turn retaining a stake in government. Maliki was elected as a compromise candidate, and he represents the best hope of keeping both the SCIRI and the Sadrists on board. As a relatively neutral figure, he is also a man with whom dissident Sunnis would be more comfortable in dealing with than a figure from the SCIRI, which is seen as a Trojan Horse for Iranian influence. Maliki has come in for much criticism over recent months, but his departure would create more problems than it solves. Like the foreign troops which prop up his government, Maliki should, at least for now, ‘stay the course’.