Thoughts (An update)

18 December, 2006

Thoughts on a number of key current issues:

Fiji – I am tired of the Australian government and media’s handling of the Fiji situation. I believe that history will eventually show what many of us who watch the Pacific scene already know, that Laisenia Qarase’s government was corrupt and racist, and was on the cusp of freeing George Speight, the guy who ran the last coup when his business interests weren’t being served by the new Labour government in 2000. People seem to forget too quickly that the hero of that situation was none other than Commodore Frank Bainimarama, who restored order and democracy in record time considering the bizarre circumstances. In my view, he has acted honourably in this matter and with a genuine view to fixing intractable problems that the constitution and democracy have proved useless in resolving (Qarase ignored the constitution for years in refusing to allow Opposition members to sit on Cabinet). The constitution Bainimarama has suspended was decried in the West as a racist document at the time of its formation, yet now the West (including Australia and, surprisingly, New Zealand) are condemning Bainimarama’s suspension of that very constitution. Alexander Downer’s incitements to violence from the floor of the Australian Parliament under parliamentary privilege, rightly criticised by the Commodore, show a government in this country that has as much respect for the rule of law and international diplomacy as they showed during the Iraq war. I think the coup is the best thing to happen for Fiji in some time, I only hope that the Commodore can control the actions of his men. One of my friends has refused to cancel her holiday there and from recent emails, seems to be enjoying the sunshine and the hospitality, cuisine and culture of the local people.

Rudd – Kevin Rudd has so far lived up to my expectations. While I don’t agree with some of the things he is putting forward, the fact he is putting forward a solid platform of ideas and benchmarks on a range of issues across the political and economic spectrum is the most positive thing the Federal Opposition has done since it lost the 1998 election. Howard is still a skilled operator and one mustn’t underestimate him, but I think Labor is really in with a chance in 2007. My own views on politics are that no party should be in too long at any level – especially if no serious opposition exists (as in WA at present), governments have a tendency to become complacent and arrogant. It happens to both Labor and Liberal governments and is symptomatic of the increasing polarisation of Australian politics and the weaknesses of the two-party system which mean it has to be one or the other, rather than the superior European systems which, although not always granting stable majorities, are true to the people’s wishes and ensure that politicians have to listen to more than simply their own constituency in the electorate.

Iraq Study Group – This was worth a full post when it came out but I was otherwise occupied. The actual report (519k PDF) is well worth a read, but basically it says what we’ve all known for years and requires something of a backflip by Bush in order to succeed – one that I sadly doubt is forthcoming. Colin Powell‘s statement broadly in support of the ISG report, that “it’s grave and deteriorating, and we’re not winning, we are losing”, is critical, but if he wasn’t listened to when in power, all this will do is persist in convincing a largely-convinced electorate that their president is aloof and out of touch with reality.

For more on Iraq, some very interesting comments at Didge – The View From Down Under.

Palm Island – Quick one. Why should murder or manslaughter be ignored by the law because the perpetrator is a police officer and the victim is an Aboriginal not being held for any major offence? This is a day of shame for the Beattie government in Queensland.

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Guardian editorial – The morning after

9 November, 2006

From the Guardian (UK) newspaper:

For six years, latterly with the backing of both houses of a markedly conservative Republican Congress, George Bush has led an American administration that has played an unprecedentedly negative and polarising role in the world’s affairs. On Tuesday, in the midterm US congressional elections, American voters rebuffed Mr Bush in spectacular style and with both instant and lasting political consequences. By large numbers and across almost every state of the union, the voters defeated Republican candidates and put the opposition Democrats back in charge of the House of Representatives for the first time in a dozen years.

When the remaining recounts and legal challenges are over, the Democrats may even have narrowly won control of the Senate too. Either way, the results change the political landscape in Washington for the final two years of this now thankfully diminished presidency. They also reassert a different and better United States that can again offer hope instead of despair to the world. Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation last night was a fitting climax to the voters’ verdict. Thank you, America.

In US domestic terms, the 2006 midterms bring to an end the 12 intensely divisive years of Republican House rule that began under Newt Gingrich in 1994. These have been years of zealously and confrontational conservative politics that have shocked the world and, under Mr Bush, have sent America’s global standing plummeting. That long political hurricane has now at last blown itself out for a while, but not before leaving America with a terrible legacy that includes climate-change denial, the end of biological stem-cell research, an aid programme tied to abortion bans, a shockingly permissive gun culture, an embrace of capital punishment equalled only by some of the world’s worst tyrannies, the impeachment of Bill Clinton and his replacement by a president who does not believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution. The approval by voters in at least five more states of same-sex marriage bans – on top of 13 similar votes in 2004 – shows that culture-war politics are far from over.

Exit polls suggest that four issues counted most in these elections – corruption scandals, the economy, terrorism and Iraq. In the end, though, it was the continuing failure of the war in Iraq that has galvanised many Americans to do what much of the rest of the world had longed for them to do much earlier. It is too soon to say whether 2006 now marks a decisive rejection of the rest of the conservative agenda as well. Only those who do not know America well will imagine that it does.

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US wakes up to a new world order.

8 November, 2006

It appears that the US Democrats have easily secured the House of Representatives with nearly twice the number of seats they needed to gain in the mid-term election. Media commentators have suggested that the Iraq war, economic management and various scandals in which the Republicans have been involved (most recently the Abramoff affair, claiming a high-profile scalp in House leader and key Bush ally Tom DeLay, and the case of Florida congressman Mark Foley sending sick messages to teenage Congressional work experience students) are uppermost in voters’ minds, while local issues played a part in many of the races. A moderate Muslim has won a historic seat in the US House of Representatives, and left-leaning Nancy Pelosi may well be the new House Leader.

The Senate is looking more tricky – whatever way it plays in Virginia, the Senate will be finely divided, and its history of dissent and independence from party bosses (unlike Australia, the US system does not enforce party discipline particularly strictly, but openly publishes voting records) means that no matter who is elected, it will be far less predictable or dependable than previously, and is likely to oppose economic policies that excessively favour the wealthy. Critically, horrendously anti-gay Pennsylvania senator and Republican rising star Rick Santorum has lost his job, with more than 60% of the vote going against him.

The most interesting product is Bush’s response – commentators were unsure whether he would finally compromise, or fight. Bush finally seems to have got the message. Donald Rumsfeld is gone. Old Donald, once famously seen shaking hands with Saddam, before becoming a founding member of the Project for the New American Century in 1997 and becoming Bush’s defence minister in January 2001 and architect of the Iraq war strategy in 2002-03, believing the war to be a done deal with a small commitment. Barely 5 years into the “New American Century”, things weren’t looking very new, or very American. PNAC itself had fallen apart over internal divisions resulting from the conduct of the war in Iraq. As a salon.com article said today (can’t find it right now), American public opinion in November 2006 seems finally to have caught up with the rest of the world. Now if only Dick Cheney would take a similar path…

We now find ourselves with a rather different USA. Perhaps a less confident, more inward looking, but maybe a more principled one. Alternatively, a USA which wants a change, but knows not what change it actually wants and ends up stalling or, worse, contradicting itself on a weekly or monthly basis. Either is possible. We still don’t quite know where the Democrats will position themselves, whether they will follow up on commitments to use the powerful House inquiry system to investigate the war in Iraq and other issues, and what they will be capable of achieving in tandem with a Republican President and administration hellbent on salvaging and interpreting their legacy for history, and whether Bush will prefer deadlock to progress. We also don’t know whether the intense partisan divisions that have categorised US politics at the population level since about a year before Bush came to power promising to be “a uniter, not a divider” will start to disappear as has happened at state level in California, where Arnie (after several rather public teething problems) has figured out how to work with a Democratic house and senate productively.

(The people, by the way, rewarded Arnie by letting him stay on as governor. He reportedly said he loves sequels but this was the best.)

As President, Bush is still in control of foreign policy, but the Congress controls the spending and as such may limit his options considerably. But Bush has been told loud and clear what the people think. If he wants to be remembered as a democratic leader in the free world, ignoring their wishes is poison to his legacy.


Small Arms Trade Treaty

25 October, 2006

I don’t normally give a lot of attention to specific causes – I work on the basis that people in the field are far better at handling these matters and answering questions. But later this week, the United Nations will be considering a General Assembly resolution to open the way for an arms trade treaty. For those not in the know, small arms are basically anything a soldier can carry, ranging from pistols and shotguns through rifles, automatic weapons and even some types of launchers. The significance of this relates to the unregulated trade of small arms such as AK-47s in world trouble spots. The fact that companies from mainly western countries supply these to pretty much anyone on the open market has kept many fires blazing all over the world.

Governments have tended to turn a blind eye to things their companies do in the developing world – I need only remind Australians of the Kilwa incident in the Congo, the Esmerelda mine in Romania as well as incidents involving Australian staples Rio Tinto and BHP in the near-Pacific, not to mention the unfolding story of AWB’s dealings with Iraq where an arm of the government may have assisted in breaches of UN sanctions, to emphasise that the Australian government (irrespective of party) is often fairly blasé about its companies’ behaviour in less regulated parts of the world. There is less international regulation on small arms than there is on wheat, coal or sugar.

The impact of a supplier country pulling their support can be seen in my homeland of Northern Ireland, and also in Israel/Palestine, where one side suddenly realised peace was in its best interests when its means of fighting a protracted war evaporated due to the sudden termination of overseas support. One only needs to look at Sudan, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and some former parts of the Soviet Union to see the worst that can happen – Amnesty claims 1,000 people are dying per day as a result of unregulated small arms.

The measure is being supported by Britain, not to mention a heap of well-respected Nobel laureates, and France is now on board (important as France is/was the largest trader in these items), but the US, Russia and China, whose corporate interests earn quite a fair amount from the trade, are all opposed to it. Nevertheless, it is likely to pass with majority support in the General Assembly, with Britain saying it has the support of 107 of the UN’s 192 member states, with a vote on a finished treaty likely in 2008.

Amnesty International is one of the key drivers of this campaign, as part of the joint Control Arms campaign. Their secretary-general told the Guardian newspaper, “It is crunch time at the UN. Governments should take a historic step to stop irresponsible and immoral arms transfers by voting to develop a treaty that will prevent the death, rape and displacement of thousands of people.” They have been essential in getting many smaller countries on board with this.
I am already supporting Amnesty International but I urge you all to support them either by making others aware of this campaign, or by making donations to them, so that they can ensure that any carried vote is actually enforced and doesn’t go the route of so many other well-intentioned plans (NPT or START I, anyone?)
Amnesty Australia’s page on the campaign is here.


What does war cost? 10c a litre, says Australian politician

19 August, 2006

According to an article in the Sunday Herald-Sun’s online edition, Kevin Rudd, Australia’s shadow (i.e. opposition) foreign minister estimated that the war has cost Australian motorists between 5c and 10c a litre in higher petrol prices. This is the first time the Labor Opposition has linked higher petrol prices to the war.

The estimate was based on an estimate of US$5 to US$10 per barrel by Nobel-Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, who gave an interview to Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine. In the interview, he raises many general issues related to costs of the war. Key points:

  • He estimates the war cost the US between $1 trillion and $2 trillion. This was very much greater than original US expectations – he repeats a widely held view that the White House’s assistant for economic policy, Larry Lindsey, was fired because he suggested it might cost $200 billion, but so far it has cost $500 billion. (“Bush wanted only certain information, and that’s mostly what they supplied him with.”)
  • His estimate includes “full budgetary costs to the government” which he says are “but a fraction of the costs to the economy as a whole”. He includes the cost of injury to soldiers – “17,000 so far including roughly 20% with serious brain and head injuries” – and talks about the lifetime cost of disabilities and injuries.
  • He says the US can afford it, but asks whether this is an appropriate use of funds, giving the example of Hurricane Katrina. “We could have spent trillions on research or education instead. This would have led to future productivity increases.”
  • “When demand rises, so does supply – that’s how markets usually work. Now we’re seeing that demand for oil is rising, but we’re not getting a commensurate increase in supply. And there’s a simple answer, it’s Iraq. […] The Middle East is the lowest cost producer in the world. […] Who wants to develop fields or invest in new technologies elsewhere if they know that in five years’ time, the Middle East may be supplying oil at previous prices?”
  • He sees possible sanctions against Iran as “an enormous disruption”, arguing that the world can’t afford sanctions and the poor right here will suffer.

Overall, an enlightening read.


Undiplomatic diplomacy on display

17 August, 2006

In a dramatic interview on the BBC last night Perth time, a senior Chinese diplomat has blasted the US, telling it to “shut up” over Chinese military spending amid growing criticism.

Chinese ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Sha Zukang, made the following comments:

Are you the number one? Is it true that you have over 50% of world military budget? I mean, China’s population is 6 times, or 5 times that of the United States. Why blame China?! No. Forget it. It’s high time to shut up. It’s the US’s sovereign right to do whatever they deem good for them. But (shouts) don’t tell us what’s good for China! Thank you very much! … … It’s better that the US shut up and keep quiet. It’s much, much better.

The ambassador also addressed the Taiwan question, saying that China would sacrifice the lives of its own people if any country were to support any future Chinese declaration of independence.

At the same time, UK Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott is denying that he called the Bush administration “crap” due to its lack of effort on the Israel-Palestine roadmap for peace in a private meeting with MPs recently, at which east London Labour MP Harry Cohen, who reported the comments, was present. When asked, the White House said that the President has been called worse.

What a day for diplomacy!


Anyone else noticed this?

19 February, 2004

Interesting…

According to Internet Corporation for Assigned Names/Numbers, Iraq’s country domain is registered in Texas, the home state of George Bush. (Richardson is a NE suburb of Dallas, by the looks of things). (Update 2006: it now seems to be based in Iraq as of August 2005)

The last updated date is 13 October 2002, 6 days after Bush made the case for war against Iraq (see chronology at this site – ctrl-F for “October”)

Is there something in this or is this just another whacked conspiracy theory on my part? 😛

Speaking of which, Amazon’s recommendation service seems to have concluded that I’m a loony leftie who listens primarily to Canadian and American nu-metal.

Finally, happy birthday to three of my friends for today.