Blogroll: Lustig's Letter

I read blogs, as well as write one. The 'blogroll' on this site reproduces some posts from some of the people I enjoy reading. There are currently 8 posts from the blog 'Lustig's Letter.'

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Updated: 1 hour 22 min ago

The Mladić verdict: better than nothing

1 hour 57 min ago
Sometimes, the bad guys do get caught. And sometimes, the bad guys do get kicked out. Not often enough, admittedly, and usually, it's much too late, but still, I'd rather they were dealt with late than never.
General Ratko Mladić, former commander of the Serb forces in Bosnia, will spend the rest of his life in jail after being convicted of crimes that the judge at his trial in The Hague called 'among the most heinous known to humankind'.  Robert Mugabe, the brutal, corrupt autocrat who misruled Zimbabwe for much of the thirty-seven years he was in power, has been unceremoniously forced to resign.
I'll return to ex-President Mugabe in a moment, but let's concentrate first on Ratko Mladić. The war in Bosnia has already faded into history, yet it was -- and remains -- a stain on Europe's post-1945 history that shames us all to this day.
Just look at the list of Mladić's crimes, as set out in the judgement of the war crimes tribunal.  Genocide; persecution (a crime against humanity); extermination (a crime against humanity); murder (a crime against humanity); murder (a violation of the laws or customs of war); deportation (a crime against humanity); the inhumane act of forcible transfer (a crime against humanity); terror (a violation of the laws or customs of war); unlawful attacks on civilians (a violation of the laws or customs of war); and the taking of hostages (a violation of the laws or customs of war).
The dry legal terminology does little to reflect the sheer horror of the atrocities committed by fighters under Mladić's command. (And, it should be acknowledged, by others as well.) You can read the full judgement summary here if you have the stomach for it.
Mladić was a monster. But he was not unique. In Myanmar, there are generals engaging in their own version of ethnic cleansing against the Royingha. In Saudi Arabia, there are generals ordering air attacks and blockades on Yemen which are causing thousands of civilian deaths. And in Zimbabwe, irony of ironies, the man now being heralded as that benighted country's hope for a fresh start, Emmerson Mnangagwa, could -- had the cards fallen differently -- have equally have found himself accused of war crimes for his part in the massacres in Matabeleland in the 1980s.
But partial justice is still a sort of justice. There may well be an argument for examining whether US and British generals -- as well as their political masters -- should be prosecuted for their actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya. And what about President Putin, for his air force's bombing of civilians in Syria? The truth is that when the chips are down, international law can never overcome the dictates of political calculation. Even so, I don't believe the inadequacies of our system of international law invalidates the process that led to the conviction of Ratko Mladić.
As for Robert Mugabe, it seems he will be allowed to see out his days undisturbed by any threat of being held accountable for his decades of brutality. Perhaps it's the price that has to be paid for a peaceful, bloodless transition to a post-Mugabe era.
Mugabe has not ended up in a court of law, nor has he been toppled by a popular uprising. His rule was ended by what the Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai aptly characterised as a 'factional war of succession', in which the army backed Emmerson Mnangagwa over Mr Mugabe's wife Grace.
So peace is not the same as justice. As we know from northern Ireland, sometimes one comes at the expense of the other. And in South Africa, the post-apartheid settlement also accepted that: police officers, prison guards and others were spared prosecution in the interests of a peaceful transition from white minority rule.
As a result, a lot of bad guys got away with it, just as they did in northern Ireland. And many more -- in Myanmar, Russia, Syria, and Saudi Arabia -- will also get away with it. Not necessarily in the interests of peace, but in the interests of Big Power politics.
Ratko Mladić was prosecuted because he committed his crimes at a time when, briefly, the world's major powers were agreed that the most egregious of crimes had to be dealt with internationally, under the auspices of the United Nations.
But that moment has now passed. President Assad of Syria, the 'assertive' new crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammad bin Salman, and the generals who rule Myanmar in uneasy partnership with Aung San Suu Kyi, all have powerful Big Power patrons. They are all safe -- for now, at least.
But politics are fickle, as Ratko Mladić has learnt. The tide can turn -- and one day, today's war criminals may also find themselves facing justice.
As I wrote last February: 'Neither President Assad, nor anyone in his circle, can lie in their beds at night confident that they will never face justice. Their current protectors in Moscow and Tehran have their own interests to protect, and would quite happily throw Assad to the wolves if they considered it to be in their own national interests.'
I have to be honest, though -- I'm not holding my breath.

Categories: Current Affairs

Secrets from the BBC newsroom

Mon, 20/11/2017 - 09:10
Only very rarely do we get a glimpse into the deepest recesses of the BBC newsroom. Who actually writes the news? How much power do the news readers have?
I may have been a BBC news presenter for more than twenty years, but during all that time, I never even came close to understanding the newsroom's arcane mysteries.
But today, I can offer you just a glimpse, to bring you an inside account of one of the newsroom's finest moments. The date is 14 September 2013. The Radio 4 newsreader is Neil Sleat -- this is him, by the way. 
Neil Sleat - at home on a tractor (I think)
And this is what he read, on that fateful day in history:
'The authorities in Hawaii are changing the format of the islands' ID cards because of complaints by a woman whose 35-letter surname wouldn't fit. Janice Keihanaikukauakahihuliheekahaunaele, whose traditional Hawaiian name comes from her late husband, said she would never consider using a shortened version because she loved the Polynesian culture. Ms Keihanaikukauakahihuliheekahaunaele also rejected suggestions that she could use her maiden name -- Worth.'
I suggest you try reading it yourself. Aloud. Then listen to how Neil did it by clicking here.
Impressive, huh?
But what I have always wanted to know was whose idea was it to run that story? Did Neil argue against it? Or did he regard it as the ultimate challenge to his professional skills, a challenge that no self-respecting newsreader could possibly duck?
I am now in a position to answer those questions, having finally had an opportunity to ask him directly. He tells me that when the newsroom suggested they should do it, his reaction was 'Great! Let me at it!' Not only that, but it was his idea to include the tongue-twister name twice rather than just once -- such is the reckless gambler nature of the Radio 4 newsreader. (I know, I know, you would never guess it when you hear them reading the Shipping Forecast. On the other hand, you should see them at the Newsroom Christmas party ...)
But how on earth did Neil know how to pronounce Janice's name? The people in the BBC's pronunciation unit are second to none in their encyclopedic knowledge -- but Polynesian?
Neil takes up the story: 'I was lucky enough to find a YouTube video of Janice herself pronouncing her name, so I set about rehearsing it.' (I have an image of him standing in a corner of the newsroom, muttering over and over again: 'Kei-han-ai-kuki- ..., no damn it, Kei-han-ai-kuko ...'
In the event, as you heard, it was faultless. Of course, it was. This, after all, was Radio 4.
At the end of the news, he walked out of the studio as a hero. His colleagues leapt to their feet and applauded loudly. Well, no, in fact, they didn't.
Neil describes what happened: 'After the broadcast, I returned to the newsroom, triumphant, arms held wide, palms upwards, like a goal scorer expecting the adulation of his team mates. But Matt [the editor] just looked at me, puzzled. "What?" he said.
'I said: "I DID IT!" Matt slapped his forehead. "Doh..." he said. "I missed it!" None of the rest of the radio news team had heard it either.'
Just another day at the office.

Categories: Current Affairs

Zimbabwe: the day of the crocodile

Fri, 17/11/2017 - 09:05
The toppling of a tyrant is usually an occasion for celebration: fireworks, dancing in the streets, general merry-making. But not -- so far, at least -- in Zimbabwe.
First, no one is quite sure that Robert Mugabe has been truly toppled. He's been around for so long that it is still hard to comprehend that 93-year-old Comrade Bob may no longer be in charge. And second, the man most likely to succeed him, the former vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa, is not exactly a poster boy for the ideals of liberal democracy.
He has been known since his days as a fighter against white minority rule as 'the crocodile' because of his survival skills, cunning and cruelty. His followers are said to belong to the 'Lacoste' faction of the ruling party. Loveable, he ain't.
A US embassy cable published by WikiLeaks said of him: 'Mnangagwa, widely feared and despised throughout the country, could be an even more repressive leader if he turns out to be Mugabe's anointed one.'
Well, he isn't Mugabe's anointed one any more, but that doesn't mean he'll be any less feared. According to the Labour MP Kate Hoey: 'He is in many ways the one figure in Zimbabwe who inspires even greater terror than Mugabe.'
So why the fearsome reputation? Cast your mind back to the 1980s, not long after Mugabe came to power, when an estimated 20,000 people were massacred in Matabeleland, a centre of opposition to his rule. Mnangagwa, Mugabe's enforcer as head of the secret police, the Central Intelligence Organisation, was held responsible for those killings -- and for much brutality since then as well.
In the words of Wilf Mbanga, editor of The Zimbabwean: 'Over the years, like his master Mugabe, he has been accused of masterminding election violence, kidnappings, extortion, plundering national resources, and other crimes.'
But crucially, as a veteran of Zimbabwe's liberation struggle, he has retained the support of the country's military. That's why when the men in uniform insist that what has happened is not a coup, what they mean is that they do not want power for themselves; they want power for a 'legitimate' political leader, by the name of Emmerson Mnangagwa.
(By the way, if, like some of my former BBC colleagues, you can't quite get your tongue round his name, just think of it as four separate syllables: Mmm-nan-gag-wa.)
It is important for Zimbabwe that its post-Mugabe rulers are not regarded by their neighbours as having seized power illegally by force of arms. (These days, both the African Union and the regional grouping the Southern Africa Development Community take a dim view of military take-overs.) So the pro-Mnangagwa forces were careful to win the backing of both their most powerful neighbour, South Africa, and the country's biggest foreign investor, China, before they made their move.
According to the respected specialist newsletter Africa Confidential: 'Although the [military] action was triggered by the sacking of Mnangagwa on 6 November, it had been planned several weeks earlier, with senior officers consulting South African and Chinese officials.'
So was it a coup? It definitely looked like one, and it definitely sounded like one, complete with men in fatigues reading army statements on national TV -- so yes, I'd say it was a coup. The president is confined to his residence, but he does seem to be in some sort of negotiation with the generals. So let's call it a 'soft coup', which might end up as an agreed transfer of powers to -- oh, I don't know -- perhaps the former vice-president, a certain Emmerson Mnangagwa?
Which leaves the question of Mrs Mugabe, who had hoped to supplant Mr Mnangagwa as her husband's successor and who was the real target of the army's takeover.
Grace Mugabe is, if anything, even more reviled than her rival for the throne -- known variously as the First Shopper, or Gucci Grace, because of her well-developed taste for bling, she now faces the unwelcome prospect of spending the rest of her life in exile. (She is four decades younger than her husband, and it is impossible to imagine that she'd have much fun in a Zimbabwe run by Mr Mnangagwa.)
The sad truth is that the events of the past few days offer little hope that the country's future will be any better than its immediate past. One tyrant is gone; another looks set to take his place.

The people of Zimbabwe, worn down by economic collapse, political atrophy and a regime of relentless cruelty, surely deserve better.
Categories: Current Affairs

The dead parrot of Downing Street

Fri, 10/11/2017 - 09:10
Theresa May's government is finished. It is no more, it has ceased to be. It has expired and gone to meet its maker.
It has, in the immortal words of the Monty Python dead parrot sketch, kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible. It is, in other words, an ex-government. (If you haven't seen the Monty Python sketch, or want to see it again, click here. You won't regret it.)
The government is a total shambles. Cabinet discipline has broken down, ministers make up policy as they go along, and Mrs May, described by George Osborne after her election debâcleas 'a dead woman walking', is now barely even walking.
Later this month, the chancellor of the exchequer will deliver his budget. If he gets it even slightly wrong -- which must be a pretty safe bet, given his record -- the government will be back on the canvas yet again. And so it goes on.
Politics-watching these days has become a truly gruesome spectacle -- the Westminster jungle is now at the mercy of sexual predators, lying ministers (sorry, ministers who 'may inadvertently have given a misleading impression'), and an incompetent prime minister paralysed by political weakness.
No wonder that, according to The Times, EU leaders are now actively preparing for the fall of Theresa May before the end of the year. After all, what's the point of continuing with the Brexit negotiations if she and her motley band of Brexiteers may be gone by Christmas?
The political paralysis risks doing serious damage to the UK economy, and by extension, to the lives of every one of us. The economic alarm bells are already ringing -- and there is no reason to disbelieve business leaders who say they will soon have to start implementing their Brexit contingency plans unless there is a breakthrough. If we are hurtling towards a cliff edge, the last thing we need is a government paralysed by deep internal divisions.
In one sense, none of this should surprise us. Even politicians, who like Lewis Carroll's Red Queen, are perfectly capable of believing six impossible things before breakfast, are bound to run into trouble eventually if they persist with implementing a policy that they believe to be fundamentally misconceived. Never forget: Theresa May voted Remain, and refuses to say how she would vote if there were another referendum.
Mrs May should resign. Her successor should call an election, which Labour may well win. Let Jeremy Corbyn have a go. He is at last showing some signs of understanding what a catastrophe Brexit is turning into -- so let the clever Keir Starmer chart a path to a so-called 'soft Brexit', in which the UK leaves the EU but remains part of the single market and the customs union. Put the deal to a referendum, and get it approved.
The NHS is heading for a winter of crisis. Homelessness is now once again a major issue in our biggest cities. (Last night, there were eight homeless people shivering beneath a railway bridge close to where I live in north London. A year ago, there were none.)
The introduction of the new 'universal credit' system of welfare payments is responsible for real human misery. Food banks are reporting huge increases in the number of people in need of help. The collapse in the number of EU workers taking up jobs in the UK (farmers and the NHS are already feeling the pinch) will soon translate into higher food prices and longer NHS waiting lists.
But none of this is on the political radar. The Tories' civil war is sucking all the air out of the body politic -- while the Labour party try to say as little as possible in the hope that the fruits of political power will soon fall into their laps.
Useless ministers like Jeremy Hunt, Andrea Leadsom and Chris Grayling should have been sacked months ago -- as should Boris Johnson, whose skin has only been saved this time by the reckless foreign policy freelancing of his over-ambitious ex-Cabinet colleague Priti Patel. (If a foreign secretary can keep his job even after he has carelessly buttressed a fraudulent prosecution case against a British citizen jailed in Iran, we have truly reached a new low in political probity.) 
The prime minister has outlived her sell-by date. She apparently believes that she has a duty to stay at the helm until a Brexit deal is done. But her colleagues must surely have realised by now that she is a busted flush; the only reason they are not telling her that her time is up is that they fear their party rivals would gain the upper hand under a new leader.
So she needs all the friends she can get. Which presumably is why as soon as she had dispatched Ms Patel on Wednesday evening, she changed into her glad rags and swanned off to a black-tie City dinner in honour of Paul Dacre's twenty-five years as editor of the Daily Mail.
And by the way, if you thought I was exaggerating when I referred to the Tories' civil war, how's this for a reaction to Mrs May's dinner engagement from David Cameron's former head of strategy, Andrew Cooper: 'The Prime Minister attending the "celebration" of the repulsive Paul Dacre's 25 years as editor of the disgusting Daily Mail is another depressing sign of the sickness at the heart of UK politics and the Tory Party weakly traipsing towards the edge of a cliff.'
Indeed ...

Categories: Current Affairs

Reporters: who needs 'em?

Fri, 27/10/2017 - 09:02
Last Monday, the Russian radio broadcaster Tatyana Felgenhauer was stabbed in the neck by an attacker who broke into the offices of the independent radio station Echo of Moscow. (Her father Pavel is a respected military analyst whom I often used to interview on The World Tonight.)
Exactly seven days earlier, the Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed when a bomb that had been planted in her car exploded.
In Mexico, eleven journalists have been murdered so far this year -- more than a hundred have been killed since 2000.
In Iran, the authorities have opened a criminal investigation into 150 staff, former staff and contributors to the BBC's Persian service for 'conspiracy against national security'. The BBC's director-general, Tony Hall, called the action 'an unprecedented collective punishment of journalists'.
In China, several Western news organisations,  including the BBC, the Financial Times, the Economist, the New York Times and the Guardian, were banned from the unveiling of the Communist party's new ruling council.
In Turkey, there are currently thought to be more than a hundred journalists behind bars; 48 more went on trial this week. Earlier this month, a Wall Street Journalreporter, Ayla Albayrak, was sentenced in her absence to two years in prison for spreading 'terrorist propaganda' in her coverage of the Kurdish insurgency.
This is the price journalists pay for insisting on their right to report without fear or favour, wherever there is criminality, corruption and injustice. And they need your support, because it is not only in faraway places with few established democratic traditions that they are under threat.
Do you remember who said this? 'It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write.' (Thank you, Donald Trump.)
Or this? 'It would be helpful if broadcasters were willing to be a bit patriotic.' (Take a bow, Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom.)
Wherever there are despots and dictators, so too there are muzzled media and jailed journalists. Even in the most well-established liberal democracies, the first instinct of any politician in trouble is to turn against the messengers.
In Montana last May, a Republican party congressional candidate, Greg Gianforte, assaulted a Guardian reporter. (A day later, notwithstanding the assault, he won a convincing election victory.) A few days ago, a party official in the same state said she would have shot the reporter if he had approached her.   
No one, not even me, would argue that the Western media are invariably saints. But I wish more media critics would give credit where credit is due. In my memoir, Is Anything Happening?, I list some of the world's iniquities that never would have been exposed without the courage and diligence of journalists: the corruption at the heart of international football, the sexual abuse of young English footballers by their coaches, drug-taking in sport, MPs’ expenses-fiddling, police corruption, corporate tax-dodging, offshore banking malpractice. Not to mention the crimes and alleged crimes of men like Jimmy Savile and Harvey Weinstein.
As Tom Stoppard wrote in his play Night and Day: 'No matter how imperfect things are, if you’ve got a free press everything is correctable, and without it everything is concealable.'
With liberal democracies under increasing attack, it is more important than ever to be clear where the dangers really come from. Is it from authoritarians like Vladimir Putin, who seek to undermine trust in legitimate reporting by peddling fake news and propaganda, or from mainstream media organisations like the BBC, which, for all their short-comings, strive mightily to get most things right most of the time?
According to one recent survey, the proportion of British voters who say they trust  British news outlets has now fallen to a dismal 24%. Another survey found that just 41% of British people think the news media do a good job in helping them distinguish fact from fiction.
Those figures worry me, and I think they should worry you, too. No democracy can survive without a healthy -- and trusted -- press. Just last weekend, a jubilant Donald Trump tweeted: 'It is finally sinking through. 46% of people believe major national news orgs fabricate stories about me. Fake news, even worse. Lost cred.'
No prizes for guessing why he was so gleeful. After all, if nearly half the country don't believe what the press say about him, it won't matter in the slightest how many scandals or how much corruption reporters manage to unearth. 
I've just finished writing a play (are there any producers out there who might be interested in staging it?), at the end of which the central character, a journalist -- more anti-hero than hero, to be honest -- desperately tries to defend the traditional notion of a free press.
'Even when we print utter garbage,' he says, 'a free press is something we cannot afford to do without. Even when we get things wrong, we must have the freedom to be wrong. Even when we behave badly, we must have the freedom to behave badly. Do we want a government that has the power to tell us what we can and can’t print? What we can and can’t say? There’s a name for that kind of government: it’s tyranny.'

I think I agree with that. After all, I wrote it.
Categories: Current Affairs

Hey guys, it's really not complicated

Fri, 20/10/2017 - 09:11
There seems to be a view in some quarters, following the grotesque disclosures about the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, that men are confused about what is, and is not, acceptable behaviour.
Well, I'm a man, and I'm not confused. (Nor am I a paragon of virtue, but we'll come to that later.) So, in an attempt to be helpful to my fellow males, and to even up the balance a bit after a deluge of articles about 'What women should do about sexual abuse in the workplace', here are my thoughts about what men should do instead.
1. Understand the nature of power relationships. In the words of the US Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast McKayla Maroney, who says she was sexually abused by a team doctor over a period of several years: 'Wherever there is a position of power, there seems to be potential for abuse.'
If you're a boss, or in any kind of a senior position, you do not flirt with, or make advances towards, or suggestive remarks to, younger or more junior colleagues. Nor do you ever suggest, explicitly or otherwise, that you might be prepared to advance their careers in return for sexual favours. (This applies especially, of course, to teachers and lecturers.)
Boss to employee: 'Hey, your tits look great in that top. Fancy a drink later, and then maybe come back to my place to talk about that promotion you're hoping for?' Not acceptable. Never was, never will be.
Colleague to colleague, equal status: 'Fancy a drink after work? I'd love a chance for a proper chat.' Perfectly acceptable. Always was, always will be.
2. Think carefully at office parties, or other social gatherings away from the workplace. (Take special care at 'awaydays' in country hotels.) Boss to employee: 'See you in the bar later? Wear something sexy and who knows what might happen.' Not acceptable.
Colleague to colleague: 'I think I need some fresh air -- fancy a walk outside?' Acceptable -- but be prepared to take No for an answer. 
3. Be aware of the importance of personal space. At the photocopier, or the coffee machine, or squeezing through a doorway, don't 'accidentally' brush against a colleague's body.
4. Be aware of the importance of words. 'New hairstyle? It suits you.' Not a problem. 'Wow, that skirt is a real turn-on.' No. 
5. Take seriously -- and act on -- anything you're told about inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. All men know of other men who are sleazebags -- remember the line often attributed to Edmund Burke: 'The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.'
Harvey Weinstein is not a unique monster. There are probably mini-Weinsteins in just about every single office and workplace -- men who believe that being in a position of power offers them a degree of immunity when they intimidate, humiliate or harass women who need their support to stay in work or make progress in their career.
I am sure I have sometimes made inappropriate remarks or behaved inappropriately to fermale colleagues, and I have squirmed with shame on reading the flood of personal testimonies from friends and colleagues who have joined the #metoo campaign on social media. (If you want an example, read this deeply distressing account by my former BBC colleague Rajini Vaidyanathan.)
There's no point telling us men to imagine what it must feel like to be a woman subject to abuse, harassment and worse -- we are not women and we will never be able to imagine what it is like. (You might just as well tell us to imagine the experience of giving birth.)
But how about we try to imagine what it might be like to be admitted to prison, where we might feel uniquely vulnerable, and then be subjected to a never-ending litany of sexual taunts and threats? 'Hey, lads, look what we've got here. Anyone fancy a go?'
If more women now know that they are not expected to suffer abuse, humiliation and harassment in silence, then some good may come from this after all. And perhaps more men will learn how to behave like decent human beings -- and employers will be obliged to adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards offenders.
Inappropriate behaviour was never acceptable, but too often, it was accepted. No longer.

Guys, it's really not complicated.   
Categories: Current Affairs

The White House babbler

Fri, 13/10/2017 - 09:18
It may or not have been Plato who said it first, but I like it anyway: 'As empty vessels make the loudest sound, so they that have the least wit are the greatest babblers.'
If it isn't already, I suggest it should be inscribed in gold lettering over the entrance to the White House. After all, it is the home -- at least for now -- of the US's undisputed Babbler-in-Chief.
I have, belatedly, learnt to stop worrying so much about his babblings, because I have come to the conclusion that they have little or no significance beyond signalling the emptiness of the vessel from which they emanate. (I am well aware of the risks of tempting fate, but I still think the point is worth making.)
Pride of place in the Babblers' Hall of Fame came just a couple of days ago when, as the New York Timesheadline put it: 'Trump Makes Puzzling Claim That Rising Stock Market Erases Debt.' The story's first line said it all: 'President Trump suggested on Wednesday evening that a soaring stock market might be “in a sense” reducing the national debt, a statement that is not true, in any sense.'
As for the much-heralded wall along the border with Mexico? Babble. The repeal of Obamacare? More babble. (His latest attempt, by cutting off government subsidies to health insurers, faces immediate challenge in the courts.) The 'total destruction' of North Korea? Babble, babble. (Thank goodness.)
Over the past few days, we've had threats to revoke the broadcasting licences of TV networks such as NBC (the babbler doesn't have the power to do that), and the staggeringly inane remark that 'It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write.' (I'd love to be the White House aide who draws his attention to the first amendment to the US constitution: 'Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech or of the press ...)
So I'm not exactly surprised that, according to a hair-raising account in Vanity Fair, the president 'seems to be increasingly unfocused and consumed by dark moods', largely because he hasn't been able to do any of the things he wants to do.
Those of us who are terrified by the prospect of him actually achieving any of his policy objectives have some reason to be thankful. But that is not the same as being complacent -- one thing he can do is launch a nuclear attack, and there have been several reports suggesting that he sometimes seems to be itching to do just that.
According to Vanity Fair, 'One former official even speculated that [White House chief of staff John] Kelly and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have discussed what they would do in the event Trump ordered a nuclear first strike.' The question being, of course, would they be able to stop him?
None of this is meant to suggest that the Trump presidency has had no impact anywhere. According to the New York Times, the Environmental Protection Agency, which under its Trump-appointed director has adopted a policy of doing as little as possible to protect the environment, has 'moved to undo, delay or otherwise block more than 30 environmental rules, a regulatory rollback larger in scope than any other over so short a time in the agency’s 47-year history.'
And even without a border wall, the number of illegal immigrants caught trying to get into the US from Mexico has dropped by 20% compared to last year. Mind you, this is in large part the continuation of a well-established trend: when I was last in Mexico four years ago, there were already more migrants crossing south from the US into Mexico, because of economic stagnation north of the border, than there were crossing in the opposite direction.
The truth is that when the babbling emanates from the White House, it can sometimes have an impact even if it is not translated into executive action. It makes a noise, and people adjust their behaviour accordingly. The number of refugees being admitted from Muslim-majority countries has fallen, for example, even though the president's 'Muslim travel ban' has remained largely frozen by court rulings.
It also has an obvious impact on the way the rest of the world regards the US. The president is its symbol, and if the president is an incoherent babbler with only the most tenuous grasp of reality, well, that's not great news for the nation's global reputation or its ability to protect its national interests.
Which brings us to the Iran nuclear deal, which at the time of writing, President Trump is reported to be preparing to 'decertify'. But again, it is perfectly possible that whatever he says (remember 'the worst deal ever negotiated'?), it may amount to little more than yet more babbling.
All the other signatories to the agreement -- Russia, China, France, Germany, the UK, and the European Union -- are determined to make it stick. How Iran might react to more Trump babble, however, remains an open question. As does the reaction from Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang.
The US secretary of state Rex Tillerson is reported to have called Trump 'a (expletive deleted) moron' after a meeting in which the president apparently suggested that the US should increase its nuclear arsenal ten-fold. So in future, when Tillerson seeks to reassure nervous allies abroad, I suggest he simply tells them that the Babbler-in-Chief is babbling again, and they should take no notice.

It might make them -- and us -- feel just a little bit safer. Or not.
Categories: Current Affairs

Oh, Theresa May ...

Wed, 04/10/2017 - 17:46
She spoke of giving a voice to the voiceless -- and then she lost her voice.  A comedian handed her a P45, and the stage set started collapsing before she had croaked her way to the end of her speech.
Apart from that, Theresa May's make-or-break appearance at the Tory party conference in Manchester was a triumph. Well, no, in fact, it wasn't. Even without the chapter of calamities for which the prime minister could hardly be blamed, her speech was utterly dismal.
Listening to her, I was reminded variously of John Major (a series of underwhelming policy announcements), Iain Duncan Smith (the cough) and Ed Miliband (some good ideas unimpressively delivered) -- three of the least impressive public speakers of the post-war era. The best that could be said of her was that -- like them -- she was dogged in the face of adversity. She may, as she likes to claim, not be a quitter -- but that doesn't mean she won't soon be gone.
We knew she was weak politically. In Manchester, she looked -- and sounded -- frail physically. OK, it was just a cold and a cough, but politics is a cruel business. Optics matter. And the optics for Theresa May were terrible. If a script-writer had provided for the letters to start dropping off the party slogan behind her as she spoke -- 'Bui ding a c  ntry tha  orks  or    ryon ' -- an editor would have thrown it back. Don't over-egg it, kiddo.
To say it was painful to watch is like saying Boris Johnson perhaps lacks certain diplomatic skills. Yes, of course one can feel sympathy for a fellow human being under pressure -- the vultures are circling, and a frog has settled in her throat. But her party will not quickly forgive what she did to them last June --  and whatever side of the Brexit debate you're on, I doubt that you're filled with confidence about how she is handling the negotiations.
Ah yes, Boris Johnson. A man who -- like Donald Trump -- plainly hates his job. Why can't I say what I want any more? Why can't I display my bigotry whenever I feel like it? The people love me, so why are my colleagues and the media so horrid to me?
On the one hand, Johnson extols the virtues of a country that, as he put it, 'welcomed my ancestors from France, Russia, Turkey and heaven knows where ... that is proud of the EU and other nationals that want to come here and that have enriched our lives.'
And on the other, he dismisses in a grotesquely offensive quip the appalling death toll in Libya since the overthrow and murder of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. (The city of Sirte could be a great centre for tourism and business, Johnson said -- 'the only thing they’ve got to do is clear the dead bodies away.')
This is the man who composed a piece of doggerel in which he called President Erdoğan of Turkey a 'wankerer', simply because it rhymed with Ankara -- and who thought it was fun to recite a piece of colonial tosh by Rudyard Kipling while visiting the Buddhist Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, where they're not keen on being reminded about British colonial rule. ('Not appropriate,' muttered an embarrassed UK ambassador within earshot of the TV cameras. Indeed.)
Until Mrs May's cough, the P45 prankster, and the collapsing stage set, Johnson was the prime minister's number one problem. Ever since the Tories' election debâcle last June, her credibility has been dangling by a thread. Johnson has been furiously tugging at it with his serial acts of disloyalty; now, circumstances have conspired to fray that thread even further.

If she hangs on, it'll be for one reason and one reason alone. Her party can't think of anyone who they'd prefer. I suspect Jeremy Corbyn is smiling contentedly as he does some gentle digging in his allotment.
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