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 5 posts from the blog 'Lustig's Letter.'

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Updated: 3 hours 5 min ago

Values? What values?

Fri, 14/07/2017 - 09:03
When Donald Trump addressed the people of Poland last week, just before he headed off to Germany for the G20 summit, he spoke in glowing terms of what he called Western civilisation.
'We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression,' he said. 'We value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom.'
I wonder if the Chinese pro-democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo heard those words. We'll never know, because now Liu is dead, the first Nobel peace prize winner to die in custody since the German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, who was imprisoned by the Nazis and died in 1938.
Western civilisation? The right to free speech? The dignity of every human life? Rarely have those words sounded as hollow as they do today, less than a week after China's president, Xi Jinping, was fêted by his G20 fellow-leaders.
(It's not entirely fair, incidentally, to single out President Trump for criticism. Liu's American lawyer Jared Genser wrote in the Washington Post two weeks ago that Barack Obama 'led the West in playing down concerns with China on human rights and was conspicuous by his unwillingness to help Liu, his fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate.')
But let's not confine ourselves to the abysmal record of China. Also at the G20 summit, looking like the cat who got the cream as he wrapped Mr Trump round his little finger (if you'll excuse the mixed imagery), was President Vladimir Putin, a man whose political enemies have a remarkable habit of ending up dead.
Enemies like Boris Nemtsov, whom I met in Moscow in December 2013, as he campaigned to reveal the appalling corruption in which the Sochi Winter Olympics were mired. He was shot dead on a Moscow street just over a year later. Or like the campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead in 2006. Or the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in police custody in 2009.
(We'll return to the Magnitsky case another day, as it's part of the increasingly surreal Donald Trump Jr emails saga. The Russian lawyer whom the young Trump met in the hope that she was about to hand over some dirt on Hillary Clinton was best known as a lobbyist against the Magnitsky Act, which blacklists Russian officials suspected of involvement in Magnitsky's death.)
Standing right next to Mr Putin in the G20 family photo was President Erdoğan of Turkey, who just a year ago survived what may or may not have been an attempted coup against him and who then embarked on a crackdown in which an estimated 50,000 people have been arrested and another 150,000 have been either sacked or suspended from their jobs.
The inescapable conclusion? That Western civilisation defends the right to free speech except where it doesn't.
Certainly not in Egypt, for example, where a military coup that put an end to an inglorious -- but democratically-elected -- Muslim Brotherhood administration was greeted with a deafening sigh of relief from Western capitals.
And definitely not in Saudi Arabia, where a ruling royal family riddled with corruption has been fawned over shamelessly for decades in return for billions of dollars-worth of arms contracts. (Last month marked the fifth anniversary of the arrest of the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who had the temerity to write in favour of such outlandish ideas as secularism and democracy.)
I wasn't born yesterday. I know that strategic and commercial considerations will always take precedence over such wishy-washy things as 'values'. What sticks in my throat is the cant, the absurd pretence that somehow the West stands for all that is best about the human condition.
Donald Trump, as it happens, pretends much less often than most of his fellow Western leaders. His speech in Warsaw was a rare exception, but not to be taken seriously, given that no one was fooled for one moment into believing that he had written it, that he meant it, or even that he understood it.
At least Trump is open in his admiration of despots: Putin, Xi, Erdoğan, Sisi of Egypt and even the truly appalling Duterte of the Philippines. I suspect he would love to be able to behave as they do: locking up his opponents, ruling by decree, and governing by fear.
To his credit, the US secretary of state Rex Tillerson did issue a statement paying tribute to Liu Xiaobo after his death on Thursday and calling for the release from house arrest of his wife, Liu Xia. It was the very least he could have done.

President Trump, tone deaf as ever, chose instead to praise President Xi Jinping as a 'very talented man, a good man, a terrific guy and a very special person'.  A few hours later, the White House had to issue a follow-up statement: the president had been 'deeply saddened' to learn of Liu's death and offered his condolences. So that's all right.
Categories: Current Affairs

Will Trump go to war over North Korea?

Fri, 07/07/2017 - 08:55
It's three a.m. in Washington DC and the President of the United States suddenly appears in the White House Situation Room. He's ranting about North Korea and 'Option B' and 'teaching those motherfuckers a lesson.'
Trailing after him is his military aide, clutching the briefcase that contains the black book and the nuclear code. The nuclear football. ('Option B', by the way, envisages a nuclear attack against both North Korea and China.)
According to a military official who's present: 'The rules say that if the President wants to order a military strike, then he can do it. Just like that. Doesn't need to consult anyone.'
It's all right. You can breathe out. It's a scene from a novel: 'To Kill The President', by Sam Bourne, also known as the award-winning Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland. It was published this week (Harper Collins, £7.99), with astonishingly good timing, just as Donald Trump (the real one, this time) threatened North Korea with 'severe things' following what appears to have been Pyongyang's successful test of an inter-continental ballistic missile.
This is the same Donald Trump who boasted (on Twitter, of course) just weeks before his inauguration last January: 'North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen!'
Well, Mr President, it has happened -- or at least North Korea has now built a missile that appears to be capable of reaching Alaska or even Hawaii. (Why would it want to attack Hawaii? First, because the US maintains a substantial military presence there, and second, because it's a lot closer than the US mainland. Remember Pearl Harbor.)
But North Korea has not -- as far as we know -- developed a nuclear weapon small enough to be carried on an ICBM, nor one that is able to withstand re-entry into the earth's atmosphere. So the threat, while real, remains potential rather than actual.
Let us agree that the world would be a much better place if no one had any nuclear weapons at all. Let us also agree that we might sleep easier in our beds if Mr Trump had not reportedly asked a foreign policy expert last summer: 'If we have them [nuclear weapons], why can't we use them?'
If I were the North Korean leader Kim Jung-un, my question to Mr Trump would be this: 'How come it's OK for Israel to have nuclear weapons (although of course it still denies that it does have them); how come it's OK for the UK, France, Russia, China, India and Pakistan to have them; oh, and how come you, as leader of the only country in the world that has actually used nuclear weapons, get to decide who else can have them?'
Hypocrisy rules. All that North Korea wants is what we Brits like to call an 'independent nuclear deterrent.' (When countries that we don't approve of have the same thing, it's called 'weapons of mass destruction'.) In other words, it wants to be sure it can defend itself against possible attack -- and it wants to terrify its neighbours.
Mission accomplished, you might say, even before Pyongyang has shown that it does have both a nuclear weapons capability and the ability to use it. Its neighbours -- especially South Korea and Japan -- are duly terrified, and, understandably enough, they're extremely keen for the US to protect them.
So what might the unpredictable, impatient, under-informed and irascible Mr Trump do? If he bombs North Korea's missile sites, he risks hundreds of thousands of deaths as soon as Pyongyang retaliates against South Korea. (Nearly half the South Korean population lives within fifty miles of the border between the two countries.)
He already seems to have had second thoughts about relying on China to turn the screws -- surprise, surprise, President Xi Jinping turns out not to be prepared to act as the US president's poodle. (Trump tweet: 'Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us - but we had to give it a try!')
And as for internationally agreed sanctions, well, Mr Trump hasn't exactly gone out of his way to build strategic alliances, has he?
The US news network CNNhas very helpfully compiled a handy list of all the issues on which Mr Trump has put himself at odds with the US's G20 partners.
Climate change? The US is in a minority of one.
Trade? From Canada and Mexico to China, Japan and the EU, the US is on the wrong side of the free trade fence. (Eg the just-signed free trade deal between Japan and the EU.)
Muslim travel ban? Even Theresa May has called it 'divisive and wrong'.
And even if the UN agrees to authorise a tightening of sanctions on Pyongyang (for example, by targeting Chinese banks that do business in North Korea), the precedents do not suggest that they would make a ha'penny-worth of difference. As Simon Jenkins pointed out in The Guardian: 'Cuba, Serbia, Iraq, Libya, Iran, Myanmar and Korea: history tells us that sanctions merely give longevity to entrenched regimes.' 
Which leaves diplomacy. Admittedly, it's been tried before, with only limited success. Years of talks involving the US, China, Russia, Japan, and North and South Korea halted Pyongyang's nuclear programme temporarily, but broke down when North Korea pulled out in 2009.
So it might be a good idea if North Korea's neighbours started by recognising that North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons programme. As I wrote last April, the Kim dynasty are convinced that without it, they're as good as dead. After all, Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya both gave up their nuclear programmes, and look what happened to them.
The best hope now is that China, Russia, and Japan will put their heads together and devise a new proposal to put to President Kim. And the best chance they have of getting anywhere is by making sure that President Trump is kept well away from anywhere where he could do real harm.

It's come to this: one ill-considered 6.30a.m. tweet from the Trump bed chamber could tip the Korean peninsula into open war. Appallingly, we are now reduced to relying on Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping to find a way back from the brink.
Categories: Current Affairs

Grenfell Tower: still burning with anger

Fri, 30/06/2017 - 09:25
It is now more than two weeks since the Grenfell Tower fire disaster, and I am still very, very angry.
The people who died that night should not have died. They need not have died. They died because over several decades, successive governments presided over a progressive weakening of regulation and inspection systems that they knew would one day lead to tragedy.
How did they know? Because they had been warned -- not once, not twice, but again and again, by fire officers, buildings inspectors, MPs, insurers, everyone who knew anything at all about fire safety.
In Scotland, after a man died in a tower block fire in 1999, the rules on permissible building materials were changed and the inspection regime tightened. Was the same done in England? It was not.
In 2013, after six people died in a tower block fire in London, a coroner recommended a review of fire safety regulations 'with particular regard to the spread of fire over the external envelope of a building'. Was a review carried out? It was not.
I  hope no one will dare ever again to mock health and safety rules. They save lives. And although tearing up 'red tape' is always good for an easy headline, it can lead directly to the appalling sight of the charred remains of Grenfell Tower.
But here's what angers me most -- and bear with me, because it gets a bit technical. The cladding panels which were bolted to the outside of Grenfell Tower last year to improve the insulation of the building (and thereby reduce tenants' heating bills and energy consumption) were a 'multicomponent rainscreen cladding system' made up of an insulating core, marketed as Celotex RS5000, and exterior decorative cladding, made of aluminium sheets, sold as Reynobond PE. 
But the company that makes the panels says in its marketing material that the version used on Grenfell Tower is suitable only for buildings no more than 10 metres high. (Grenfell Tower is 67 metres high.) It makes two other versions -- one that is fire-resistant, and one that is non-combustible -- for higher buildings. So someone, somewhere, ordered the wrong version.
Knowingly, or unknowingly? To save money, or because they didn't know the difference? Questions for the public inquiry. (The Times reports that internal emails suggest the cheaper version was chosen deliberately to keep costs down, saving £293,368 on an £8.6 million refurbishment programme.)
What's more, someone else checked the panels' specifications, and said: 'Yeah, fine. No problem. Go ahead.'
Knowingly, or unknowingly? Another question for the public inquiry.
The prime minister said in the House of Commons on Wednesday that the Grenfell Tower cladding was 'non-compliant' with current building regulations. (So, it seems, is the cladding on every other tower block in England.) But two of the key issues for the inquiry will be to ascertain whether the testing processes used to certify building materials are adequate, and how well qualified are the inspectors who approve them. There are also suggestions that the relevant regulations are now so opaque that no one can be exactly sure what is, and is not, permissible.
I have spent a lot of time in hotels during my time as a journalist -- and the vast majority of them were equipped, thank goodness, with fire doors, smoke alarms and sprinkler systems. The same goes for office blocks, of course -- so why are the rules different for tower blocks? I think we know the answer ...
All tower blocks built after 2007 have to be fitted with sprinkler systems. But older blocks don't have to be retro-fitted. There can be only one explanation: to save money. And there can be only one conclusion: saving money matters more than saving lives. Tens of thousands -- perhaps hundreds of thousands -- of people go to sleep every night in over-crowded, sub-standard homes that are just one faulty fridge away from being death traps. (Interesting fact: the Conservative-run Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which owns Grenfell Tower, currently has a £274 million surplus sitting in the bank.)
The Grenfell Tower disaster was not an unavoidable accident. It was avoidable. And it wasn't an accident. It was the result of culpable, criminal negligence.
I just hope that the survivors and the relatives and friends of all those who died -- and we will probably never know for sure exactly how many perished -- will not have to wait 28 years for justice to be done, as have the families affected by the Hillsborough stadium disaster of 1989.
And I hope that Sir Martin Moore-Bick, the retired judge who will be chairing the public inquiry, is up to the task he has been given. He will need to be utterly fearless and ruthlessly determined. And he must be prepared to apportion blame.

Categories: Current Affairs

Another fine mess ...

Fri, 09/06/2017 - 12:00
To choose one party leader who makes a catastrophic error of judgement may be regarded, to borrow from Oscar Wilde, as a misfortune; but to choose two in quick succession looks like carelessness.
First David Cameron gambled and lost with the Brexit referendum. Now Theresa May has done the same by calling a wholly unnecessary general election. What is it with these people? Do the words hubris and nemesis mean nothing to them?
Thank you, young voters, who seem to have woken from their Brexit nightmare and flocked to the polling stations. (According to Lord Ashcroft’s post-election survey, two-thirds of voters aged 18-24 voted Labour.)
Thank you, fellow Remainers, who seem to have decided, despite the confused message from party leaders, that Labour was their best chance of softening the terms of the UK’s departure from the EU. (According to Ashcroft, more than half Remain voters went for Labour.)
Thank you, voters in Scotland, who gave the SNP a bloody nose, kicked a second independence referendum out of sight and thereby saved the Union for the foreseeable future. (Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson both defeated? Wow …)
And thank you, voters everywhere, who ignored the pundits (yes, including me), who said Jeremy Corbyn could never be an election winner, and ignored the right-wing tabloids who spewed their usual poison all over the body politic. Last night, it most definitely was neither The Sun nor the Daily Mailwhat won it.
It is at times like this that I cherish democracy and the determination of voters to make up their own minds, for their own reasons, how to cast their votes.
Back in April, when Mrs May announced the snap election, I recalled the fate of Edward Heath in 1974, when he called an election to answer the question ‘Who governs Britain?’ and received, much to his surprise, the answer ‘Not you, matey.’ Mrs May may think that she can hang on as a busted flush PM (does she really think that her harping on about the need for ‘stability’ convinces anyone at all?), but she must know that her days are numbered.
The election result was an unusually personal defeat for the prime minister: the Tory campaign was built around her, and her alone, to a ridiculous degree. The Tory manifesto offered nothing of note save the unlamented ‘dementia tax’, and the party’s messaging barely included even the party’s name.
Contrary-wise, the result was a personal triumph for Jeremy Corbyn. He stuck to his guns, remained true to himself, and allowed himself to be steered into a commanding position at the head of an impressively effective campaign. (According to Ashcroft, more than half of Labour’s voters made up their minds after the campaign had started. So goodbye to the notion that campaigns make no difference to the outcome.)
But once the Labour cheers have died down (after all, they still didn’t win), and the Tory tears have dried, one huge black cloud remains casting a pall over Westminster. What happens now to Brexit?
Theresa May wanted a strong Brexit mandate. Instead, she has emerged weakened and humiliated. Jeremy Corbyn wanted … well, to this day, I’m still not sure what he wanted. In theory, formal negotiations begin in less than two weeks’ time. Good luck with that, to whoever has to pretend to be representing Britain.
It is not entirely fanciful to see the election result, at least in part, as the Revenge of the Remainers. If all those young voters yesterday had turned out for the referendum, things would be looking very different.
So: before long, a new Conservative party leader. A rethought approach to Brexit. Perhaps even a cross-party negotiating committee? And an entirely new political landscape.
Back to a two-party system. A re-energised youth vote. A much diminished nationalism in both Scotland and the UKIP heartlands of England.
Don’t anyone dare tell me that politics is boring.

And in case you were wondering, yes, I have already applied to join the International Federation of Hat-Eaters, but I’m told there is a huge waiting list. In the circumstances, it's hardly surprising.
Categories: Current Affairs

Confronting terrorism: the challenge

Mon, 05/06/2017 - 20:13
Discussing an appropriate response to terrorism just a few days before a general election is far from ideal. Perhaps that’s why so much of what has been said and written since Manchester – and even more so since the London Bridge attack – has been of so little value.
So here’s an attempt to contribute to the debate as if there were no election on the horizon.
In my view, there are two essential elements to any successful counter-terrorism strategy: first, to identify and monitor those who are likely to plan and launch terrorist attacks, and if necessary to arrest them before they execute their plans; and second, to do everything possible to minimise the number of potential terrorists who are tempted to plan and execute attacks in the future.
This approach, incidentally, applies equally to terrorists motivated by jihadi zeal, or by Irish republicanism, or by extreme nativism and nationalism (eg Thomas Mair, who murdered the Labour MP Jo Cox in west Yorkshire, or Jeremy Christian, who is alleged to have killed two men who intervened to stop him screaming anti-Muslim abuse at two teenage girls in Portland, Oregon).
The identification and monitoring of those likely to launch terrorist attacks is the job of the security services and the police. It is also, of course, the responsibility of relatives, friends and neighbours whose suspicions are raised. (In both the Manchester and London Bridge cases, it appears that family members and neighbours had done exactly that – and we need to know much more about why their suspicions were not acted on.)
If more resources are to be made available to confront the terrorism threat, surely it makes more sense to use the extra cash to recruit more intelligence analysts and more specialist anti-terrorism police officers, who can sift through the mountain of material already available and make better-informed decisions about where the main threats lie. So far, I have seen nothing to suggest that more armed police on the streets would do anything to prevent more attacks – and the responses to the Westminster and London Bridge attacks suggest that the armed police we do have are already extraordinarily good at their jobs.
Nor do I believe that they need extra powers. The problem is not that they aren’t able to find the potential terrorists, but that they don’t have the resources to analyse the information that they have to act effectively and in time.
As for reducing the numbers of new terrorists, surely the priority must be to work much more imaginatively – in schools, in prisons and in social service provision – to counter the alienation and anger felt mainly by a tiny minority of second generation immigrants who are lured by the siren call of jihadi recruiters.
It should not be forgotten that the deluded young men who become mass murderers are also committing suicide – so we need to understand much more about why they are so angry and devoid of hope that they are prepared to die while killing as many others as they can.

It is complex and difficult and will take time. But somehow, Western liberal democracies will have to learn how to encourage vulnerable young men to value their lives – and ours -- more than their, and our, deaths.  
Categories: Current Affairs
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