Monday, 31 March 2014

White supremacy and the birth of American democracy

Had the Union soundly and quickly defeated the Confederacy, it's very likely that slavery would have remained. Instead the war dragged on, and the Union was forced to employ blacks in its ranks. The end result—total emancipation—was more a matter of military necessity than moral progress...
The United States did not save black people; black people saved the United States of America.  With that task complete, our "ally" proceeded to repay its debt to its black citizens by pretending they did not exist.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has written one of the most powerful essays on American history, and the black experience within it, that I have ever read.  I hesitated about including the words "and the black experience within it" because, at its core, it runs against the spirit of the truths that Coates writes.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Tony Benn honoured on streets of London

In the midst of a lot of other things happening, the death of Tony Benn slightly passed me by. Mark Hennessy has a rather simple but touching piece on the funeral a man who, irrespective of whether one agreed or disagreed with his political outlook, was decent and honourable, and for whom the struggle for social justice and democracy never ended. His absence from British public life will be missed.

Tony Benn honoured on streets of London

Peace brings no dividend to the poorest in Northern Ireland, but how do we measure poverty anyway?

Peace brings no dividend to the poorest in Northern Ireland - Eamonn McCann

There is an interesting opinion piece in today's Irish Times, discussing a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report into economic deprivation in Northern Ireland, and concluding that devolved government has made things worse, economically, for the poorest in Northern Ireland rather than better.

This could come as no surprise.  While the involuntary coalition system that arose from the Good Friday Agreement might have had a chance of working if the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP had remained the two largest parties, it creaks under the strain of domination by two parties whose existence and electoral success depends on perpetuating the division of Northern Ireland into us and them (or as we say in Northern Ireland "usuns" and "themmuns").

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Aim High Vote Lo; Vote Yellow Get Green?

Let me start by saying that the yellow in the blog post title refers to the colours of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, and nothing else.  It might seem like a strange disclaimer with which to start a blogpost, but TWGOOFBTO in Northern Ireland (those who get out of bed to be offended) caused Ulster Unionist councillor Michael Copeland to have to issue an apology to the Alliance Party's candidate in the European elections over a tweet of his expressing similar sentiments.

One of Northern Ireland's claims to fame is that it is home to the the highest concentration in the world of TWGOOFBTO's.  In fact, Michael Copeland's tweet was part of a wave of reaction from TWGOOFBTO's to comments by Anna Lo, in which she expressed her support for the idea of a united Ireland, and said that perspective stemmed from being "anti-colonial".  (That being so, more than anything else, it is an indictment of the SDLP that they couldn't attract her into their ranks.)

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

"The Russians are a tough bunch of bastards"

That, at least, was Richard Nixon's verdict on November 1971.  His successors in office since 1989 would have done well to remember that.  The oafish, drunk, incompetent Boris Yeltsin was an exception and a national embarrassment to most Russians.  He is widely reviled for precipitating the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and facilitating the theft of the state's wealth by a small number of oligarchs.  The Clinton era is remembered in the US as the good times.  In Russia they were, for most people, a time frightening change and economic hardship, with a dose of national humiliation layered on top.

The years of the Bush administration saw better economic times in Russia, as Vladimir Putin brought a degree of stability to the country, but in foreign policy, the former KGB man Putin saw his country suffer (what were in his eyes) repeated indignities.  The US embarked on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  NATO and the EU's borders raced eastwards, pushing up against the Russian frontier itself.  The fruits of Clinton's air war against Serbia (Russia's long-standing friend and ally) were reaped by Kosovar independence.  George W barely missed an opportunity to kick the Russian bear in Poland, the Czech Republic and Georgia.  In the dying days of the crippled Bush presidency the bear gnarled, briefly, over the latter.

And while Obama and Secretary of State Clinon famously (embarrassingly now, looking back) tried to "reset" relations with Russia, preoccupied with Libya, Syria and a "pivot to Asia", when the Obama administration did pay attention to Europe, its focus was on the crisis in eurozone.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Colombian President pisses away poll lead

I'll freely admit, this is puerile, childish, base and beneath me, but I could not resist the headline once I had come up with it in my head.

And then again it's not every day that a world leader, up for re-election in 8 weeks' time, pees himself in public.

The Crimean hostage crisis

The Hindustan Times, 18th March 2014
This morning Russia and the newly declared independent Republic of Crimea (along with the city of Sevastopol) signed a treaty with Crimea to accept it as a subject of the Russian Federation on 1st January 2015.

For Russia's take on what this all means, Russia Today has some interesting coverage here, including Putin's placing the blame squarely at the feet of the "neo-Nazis, nationalists and anti-Semites" who seized power in a coup on Kiev.  (Not that adherence to the Ukrainian constitution and removal of Viktor Yanukovich from office by the legal method of impeachment would have made much difference, but the failure to do so certainly did give ammo to Moscow to de-legitimize the new Ukrainian government).

Amidst my musings on Twitter yesterday, I observed that the biggest threat of conflict in Crimea came from the plight of the Ukrainian military now trapped on the peninsula.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

A message from Ireland to the peoples of the New World

Not ever!

More Obamacare lies and bull

Consider this story I just came across, admittedly on 'LifeChoice News', but carrying a local television story from Sherman, Texas.

The story is this: this self-employed contractor was previously on his wife's insurance, but her employer stopped providing coverage.  A lot of employers have used the excuse of the Affordable Care Act to stop providing spousal coverage, when Obamacare in fact has little to do with it.

Anyway, back to the Hubbses.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

The ultimate hypocrisy of being anti-abortion and anti-Obamacare

I feel the need to get something off my chest on what is just about the liveliest third-rail topic in any country's politics.

One of the things that has bothered me for a very long time (amid a very long list) about those who scream from the rooftops that the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") is going to destroy civilisation and America's health care system ("the greatest in the world" unless you use pretty much any metric used to measure the quality of health care systems) is the fact that very, very many of them identify as being anti-abortion (or "pro-life" as they would like to put it).

Watch The Daily Show's Asif Mandvi render a Fox News correspondent speechless while covering "the greatest health care system in the world (if you are outside the US you are going to have to Google the video and try and find it yourself this time!)

Now, there are of course all sorts of arguments to be had about when life begins and if and when abortion should be an appropriate option for a woman to have, but we don't need to go into that here.  What we do need to do is to take, at face value, the beliefs of people who call themselves pro-life, that they believe that abortion is murder.  Not only murder, but the most wicked and nefarious form of murder: the murder of a totally defenceless child (so defenceless that it couldn't even survive outside its mother's womb).  And to make matters worse, the person instigating this heinous act, is none other than the child's own mother.

Viewed from that perspective and holding those views, abortion really is a very wicked thing.

Is MH370 in Central Asia?

This is the question that Slate is asking.

This thesis hinges on the idea that a large civilian aircraft flew across either Indian or Chinese airspace without either of the militaries noticing.

It would also depend on the aircraft flying close to the Indian-Chinese border, above Tibet, which is a tense and tightly guarded frontier.

Let's just say I am very skeptical.

16/3/14 UPDATE:

No runways in Central Asia were even in range.


There is a new sensation sweeping the nation thanks to Jon Stewart at The Daily Show, and the slightly surprising figure of Senate Minority Leader and Senator for the great state of Kentucky, Mitch McConnell.

McConnell is up for re-election in the fall, and his team last week released a 2.5 minute long campaign video, featuring Mitch doing things that people in campaign videos do: walking with students; sitting with his wife; making a speech; meeting workers.

And the message that went with it?  Well, there wasn't one.  There were no words at all in the video, just a weird background elevator-type piece of music.  The video is being put out so that so-called Super-PACs (political action committees) that are allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money in support of McConnell's campaign so long as he does not co-ordinate or direct them can use the footage to make their own videos in support of him.

Viewers in the UK or Ireland should be able to see some of the DS footage here.

Friday, 14 March 2014

38 reasons we should hate the French (or at least dislike them mildly)

I posted this earlier today, and then realised that it probably requires a bit of context.

France v Ireland: preview

There is a big rugby match on tomorrow between Ireland and France.  A really big one, that will see the greatest rugby player of his generation, and the greatest Irish rugby player of all time, Brian O'Driscoll, retire from international play on the same turf where he first shot to stardom.

If Ireland beat France, and England don't run up a victory margin of 50-odd points against Italy, then Ireland will win the 6 Nations Championship.

But, we are really bad at beating the French, especially in Paris.  In fact we have only managed it twice in the past 40 years.

But this one's for BO'D.  For BO'D and Ireland.

38 reasons we should hate the French (or at least dislike them mildly) - The Irish Times - Fri, Mar 14, 2014

Numbers 1, 18 and 38:

Thierry Henry

Jesus chose 12 men first time round

This time it looks like he's settled on 5 Guys.

I was surprised when the cashier told me that water and wine were free.

You want to speak Belfast Northern Irish so you do?

With St. Patrick's Day coming up, there will be a lot of green shamrocks and leprechaun costumes being waved about, particularly here in the U.S. (where St. Patrick's Day was largely invented).

So, in honour of Ireland's patron saint, I was reminded of this little educational video, in case anybody happens to be planning on visiting my own little corner of Ireland to take part in the festivities.

It is a handy guide for learning to speak like a Belfast local, and in no time at all you'll blend in while you are there so you will.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

A way out of the crisis over Crimea: sell it

After having fought the Crimean War, Russia felt that its possessions in North America were vulnerable from attack by Britain from British North America (Canada) in the event of the outbreak of future hostilities.  Tsar Alexander II resolved that it was better to get something in exchange for what is now Alaska than to lose it and be left empty handed.

And so what is called in the United States the Alaska Purchase took place in 1867, turning sovereignty over Russian North America to the United States, in exchange for $7.2 million ($116 million in today's money).

Could a similar strategy offer a way out of the current crisis?

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Health care: US v Canada

Senator Dick Burr: Dr. Martin, how many Canadians die on waiting lists each year, do you know?

Dr. Martin: I don't sir, but I do know that 45,000 die in America because they don't have insurance at all.

BOOM! She knocks it out of the park.

Watch this clip to see a superb Canadian doctor effortlessly bat away Republican senator Dick Burr's questions and red herrings about a single-payer health system.

Contempt: what unites Labour and the Conservatives

Despite their obvious differences, there is one thing that unites significant sections, if not all, of the Conservative and Labour parties: contempt for the Liberal Democrats.  An Economist Intelligence Unit report from just a few weeks ago highlighted how the Tories' contempt for the Lib Dems could well have the result of putting David Cameron out of office after the next general election, due to be held in May 2015.

(I would quibble with the author's assertion that many Conservatives "now are" contemptuous of the Lib Dems: 'twas ever thus).

As the EIU hints, neither Labour nor the Tories have come to terms with the fact that the days when they shared 97% of the vote between them (such as in 1951) are long gone and are never to return.  Many Tory backbenchers on the right of the party continue to cling to the fantasy that David Cameron could have formed a minority government in Amy 2010 that would have allowed him to call a snap general election some time after that would have delivered the Tories an overall majority.

The attitude is reminiscent of former Irish Prime Minister Charlie Haughey's remark after the 1989 Irish general election, describing the first-ever coalition his Fianna Fáil party had ever had to enter into as "a temporary little arrangement".  (Fianna Fáil have not won an overall majority since).

This is, of course, as Mike Smithson has pointed out repeatedly on PoliticalBetting just that: a Conservative fantasy.  Nonetheless, the spirit of Britain's "natural party of government" refuses to reconcile itself to the fact that they didn't win the 2010 general election, bringing to four the number of successive general elections the Tories have failed in.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Russia: the Ukrainian February 21st agreement should stand

In an insighful piece in last Sunday's Observer, Dmitri Trenin drew attention to the importance, from Moscow's perspective, of the aborted 21st February agreement between ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich and the Ukrainian opposition:
The agreement, signed on 21 February, was a delayed capitulation by Yanukovych – who had been seen triumphant only a couple of days earlier. An even bigger surprise was the rejection of these capitulation terms by the radicals, and the opposition supporting Yanukovych's immediate resignation. Finally, the German, Polish and French governments, who had just witnessed the Kiev accord, raised no objection to the just-signed agreement being scrapped within hours.
Russia, whose representative had been invited to witness the signing of the 21 February document, but who wisely refused to co-sign it, was incensed. What Moscow saw on 21-22 February was a coup d'état in Kiev. This development led to a fundamental reassessment of Russian policy in Ukraine, and vis-à-vis the West.
In a few blog posts I have drawn attention to this element, but in various interactions have been accused of placing too much importance on it.

This afternoon (Washington time) the Russian Foreign Ministry carried a series of tweets from Russian Foreign Minister Dmitri Lavrov.  One of them in particular grabbed my attention:

Friday, 7 March 2014

Jon Stewart on why the GOP love Putin (it to Obama)

This is all you will ever know about the ridiculous Republic hypocrisy that criticizes Obama for being simultaneously weak and an unconstitutional tyrant, and then praises Putin, for being a strong unconstitutional tyrant.

Hmm... fascinating.  Let me see if I have this straight.  Barack Obama is a weak, mom jeans-wearing DICTATOR-KING!!!  Weak mom jean tyrants are the worst tyrants of all!

Juncker is EPP's candidate but still may not get the job

EPP elects Juncker as candidate for EC presidency - Political News | Irish & International Politics | The Irish Times - Fri, Mar 07, 2014

A funny sort of election took place in Dublin yesterday, when the luminaries and MEPs of the European People's Party gathered to select the man (for the candidates were all men) they want to put forward for President of the European Commission and who will be the face of the EPP's Europe-wide campaign in the European Parliament elections in a few months' time.

The EPP is the Christian Democrat (and largest) grouping in the European Parliament, and includes many several governing parties, such as Ireland's Fine Gael party, Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk's Civil Platform, and Greece's New Democracy.  (It doesn't include, of course, David Cameron's Conservative Party, who took the Tories out of the EPP's grouping and set up a more Eurosceptic grouping - European Conservatives and Reformists, which is basically the Tories with a smattering of of other odds and sods of European elections sitting like sprinkles atop the Tory Eurosceptic cake).  They selected former Luxembourgish Prime Minister and Eurogroup President, Jean-Claude Juncker as the man for the job meaning, in the normal run of things, that one could expect Juncker to be the new President should the EPP emerge as the dominant force in the European Parliament after May's elections.

The choice of Juncker has, interestingly, given rise to a certain amount of commentary about his smoking and drinking habits, about which I had previously been unaware.

Consider this:

And then this gem from a Brussels gossipy twitter account:

It should be noted that Juncker's Eurozone successor belongs to the Party of European Socialists whose candidate Martin Schultz is Juncker's main opponent for the job of Commission President. Still...

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Kissinger is mostly correct on Ukraine

Some of you may not realize that I have a personal relationship with Henry Kissinger.

Now, in the interests of fairness, I should admit that it is more akin to the sort of relationship that some people have with Jesus, than the one you have with your BFF: which is to say that only one party to the relationship knows it exists.

Nonetheless, over the course of the best part of four years of my life, poring over HAK's memos and conversations and briefing notes and doodles in the margins of the aforementioned, having read all volumes of his autobiography and just about every biography written about him, I feel that I have a connection with Henry Alfred Kissinger.  I feel I know a little bit about how his mind works.

Henry Kissinger (l) and me, when I used to be Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus.

And having written previously about the parallels, as I see them, between HAK's boss and Putin (and even having had a twitter interaction with @dick_nixon about it),  I was surprised that Kissinger had not yet weighed in on the Ukrainian crisis.  Thankfully, that wait was ended yesterday evening when an opinion piece by him was published in the Washington Post online, and which is presumably in today's print edition.

Although it was still a number of years before my birth, my relationship with Kissinger ended, more or less, in the summer of 1973, just before he was sworn in as Secretary of State, so I was delighted to see that, unlike when he was just National Security Adviser in the first Nixon White House (as opposed to both NSA and Secretary of State from September 1973 to November 1975), the good folks down in Foggy Bottom appear to have taught Henry a thing or two about the power of ideas and ideologies, about which he was somewhat scornful and dismissive when he worked in the White House.

On the whole, if you rolled up my own thoughts on what has been happening in Ukraine, and combined them with decades of experience as, for better or worse, one of the world's most prominent statesmen and thinkers on international affairs, you could say that Henry and I have arrived at almost the same conclusions.

I also think it is fair to say that Henry's analysis of the current crisis has gained him some respect from those who would not normally be inclined towards him:

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Estonian FM: Maidan snipers were with the opposition

16H00 UPDATE: Both the Estonian Foreign Ministry and Olga Bogolomets have denied that she implicated the opposition in the sniper attacks in Kiev.

Russia Today (not generally a news source in which I would have a lot of confidence) has tweeted a story a link to a story, which appears to contain a genuine leaked telephone conversation in which the Estonian Foreign Minister tells the EU's foreign policy chief, Cathy Ashton, that Olga Bogomolets that it was the same snipers in Kiev who shot both protesters and police (jump to 8:22 for the relevant snippet).
Behind the snipers was not Yanukovich, but somebody from the new coalition.
It is pretty amazing that what appears to be a genuine phone conversation has been leaked.

Who would do so and why?  My guess is that it is a pretty underhand attempt to pushback on Washington's attempts to implement tough sanctions on Russia that would have an extremely detrimental effect on a number of European economies, Estonia's included.

And then, of course, there's the possibility that it was Russian intelligence.

What's certain, however, is that the (mis-)information war is heating up.

Warning: some of the footage attached to the telephone conversation is graphic.

Is Russia really America's greatest geopolitical foe?

In the past few days it has become very fashionable to rehabilitate Mitt Romney's foreign affairs credentials, and to assert that he was "right" about Russia in the presidential foreign policy debates, and President Obama was wrong.

Dave Weigel at Slate was one of the first out of the blocks.

There followed a piece in The New Republic by Isaac Chotiner, for which Julia Ioffe tweeted her support,

and then yesterday evening The Daily Beast published a piece by Stuart Stevens, making essentially the same argument.

 It is, superficially at least, an attractive argument.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Is Putin putting the mad back into madman?

As if on cue from my blog post yesterday that compared Russian president Vladimir Putin and former U.S. president Richard Nixon, Putin today obliged with two perfect illustrations of the 'madman theory' I was referring to.

Holding what New Republic journalist Julia Ioffe described as a "dada press conference", the Russian president rambled and roamed.  I'll let Julia fill in the gaps from her article (the whole thing is worth a read):

"And much of that, by the way, is direct quotes."

Monday, 3 March 2014

Ukrainian news website reporting the (probably untrue) death of Yanukovich

UPDATE: Although the tweet claiming that Yanukovich is dead remains on Michael Lebed's Twitter feed, (see below), the story that originally carried the report on has been updated to include a denial from the cardiac surgeon in the Rostov hospital that Yanukovich was ever there.

Putin and Nixon: birds of a feather

If you have been confused about what has been happening in Ukraine over the past week and went online or picked up a paper to try and find out, chances are you would come away not much the wiser.

Depending on what you read, Russian President Vladimir Putin is either a strategic genius, playing a long game of chess while the West plays marbles, or a short-sighted opportunist, constantly reacting to events but never able to control them.

Putin is either taking advantage of American weakness to throw Russian weight around, or is threatened by American and Western power pushing further against his borders.

Putin is either a hard-nosed realist, who will only respond to force and understands the importance of a balance-of-power, or an ideological Russian nationalist, prepared to risk Russia's material wellbeing and international standing in order to poke his perceived enemies in the eye.

In reading the multiple accounts and analyses of what is going on in Russia and Ukraine, I couldn't help but think of a comment by Henry Kissinger to TV presenter Dick Cavett, when discussing his former boss, Richard Nixon:
There are so many strands to his personality that almost everything you would say about Richard Nixon is true.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Boy, that escalated quickly

Obama during his 90-minute phone all with Putin.

I've been pretty busy these past few days and am just properly catching up on events in Ukraine and Crimea.

I am beginning to wonder whether I have underestimated Putin's intentions. AP are quoting him having told Obama that Russia has the right to take action to protect Russian lives and interests, and Russian speakers.

That last point is the most significant: the majority of Crimeans are ethnic Russians. People in the east of Ukraine are Russian speaking Ukrainians.  Putin has reserved the right to take further intervention from across Ukraine's eastern border.