Friday, April 28, 2006

Unintentional humour

A while ago AtlanticBlog had a very amusing analysis of an article that appeared in the Guardian:
The Guardian can sometimes be very funny, sometimes intentionally, but I never expected to see vicious satire at the expense of a left winger. Dea Birkett writes about the joys of having a nanny.
Do read the whole thing, which is priceless.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The next thing to do in Iraq

Jonah Goldberg makes an excellent proposal in the National Review (via Instapundit):
President Bush has said that if a democratically elected government of Iraq asked us to leave, we would. I think Bush is sincere, but the truth is that no Iraqi government is going to ask U.S. troops to withdraw anytime soon, because American troops are the only thing holding the country together.
The Iraqi people understand this, too. In the town of Talafar, for example, American troops are keeping Iraqi factions from killing each other. Sheik Abdullah Al Yawar, a leading Sunni in the province, recently told The New Republic's Lawrence Kaplan that if U.S. soldiers withdraw, "there will be rivers of blood." The Atlantic Monthly's Robert Kaplan (no relation) recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "My most recent searing, first-hand impression of Iraq, from last December, is this one: one town and village after another getting back on its feet, with residents telling American troops not to leave."
This is the linchpin to my idea. Having Iraqis vote on the continued presence of American troops is not some starry-eyed affair. It depends as much on fear as it does on hope.
An Iraqi referendum would counter all of that. A national debate in Iraq over the continued presence of American troops would force many Iraqis to stop taking our protection for granted. Not everyone there craves democracy, but very few of them relish the idea of a civil war. Politicians, now invested in the survival of the political system, would be forced to take the responsible position if they wanted to keep their jobs. Indeed, rhetoric and interests would converge nicely for the first time in a while. Some would undoubtedly campaign for American withdrawal, but this would probably marginalize them and show the whole world where the hearts of Iraqis really lie.
If Iraqis voted to keep American troops, everything would change. The "occupation" and "war for oil" rhetoric would be discredited overnight. America would have put its vital interest money where its principled mouth is. Iraq's anti-American factions would be further pulled into the process, even if they voted "no." The Iraqi people would "own" this project in their own right. Iraqi politicians would no longer have to worry about being called lapdogs to America — "the people have spoken," they could respond. Arab nations couldn't claim that the democratization of Iraq was inauthentic or imposed by "imperialists." Even the Europeans would be floored by the audacity of the gesture. And our own troops would have the idealism of their project reaffirmed.
But what if it failed? What if the Iraqis voted to kick us out? Well, again let me say I think this idea only makes sense if, after consulting with Iraqi politicians and others, we determine that it would likely pass. It would have to be worded in a creative way and all that. But at the end of the day, America still might lose. I'd hate to see that happen. But I can't think of a more honorable way for America to withdraw from Iraq and to prove it respects democracy. America won't bow to bullets and bombs — but it will to ballots.
Do read the whole thing. I think this is a brilliant idea, and as soon as the new Iraqi government has taken office, it should be implemented. As the article itself points out, the benefits would be numerous, both for the political discourse in Iraq, in the West and in the other Arab countries. Obviously I would expect and hope the Iraqis would ask the US to keep its troops in the country for longer, and such a result would do wonders in terms of framing the debate, not least in Italy where the Prime Minister-elect, Romano Prodi, says he wants to pull out the troops and send aid workers instead. But even if the referendum is lost, not only would it give the US the best possible justification to pull out the troops without giving in to terrorism, but it would send an incredibly strong signal about the value of democracy to the whole world. As Jonah says, the message would be: "America won't bow to bullets and bombs — but it will to ballots." This seems just what is needed in Iraq's current situation and it would earn America a lot of respect and legitimacy in the eyes of the world if they followed the result of such a referendum, whatever it may be.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Remembering the good

I'm still incredibly busy, not to mention that it's the middle of Pesach, so regular posting won't resume for a few days at least. Anyway, here is an interesting tidbit I saw recently.
These days, when everyone seems to be convinced that President Bush is a failure (which I don't agree with), Megan McArdle at Asymmetrical Information reminds us of some of the good things he has done:
It may not have suffered from the brutal Afghan winter, but the Bush administration certainly seems to be caught in a political quagmire these days. As pundits debate whether the Bush administration is evil or merely egregiously incompetent, it's easy to forget that the administration has done some big things right.
The first is trade. The Bush administration's committment to free trade has been downright inspiring. Sadly, the intransigence of Europe and the G20 block of developing nations over agricultural subsidies loks like it is going to derail any substantial progress in the Doha round of WTO negotiations. But the Bush administration has pushed the ag subsidies issue farther and faster than any previous president has dared. Even the abominable steel tariffs seem, in retrospect, to have been a way to gain street cred with protectionist factions at almost no expense--since the steel tariffs were designed in a way that was certain to be overturned at the WTO, "forcing" the administration to repeal them. The administration could have crafted some protectionist sop that wasn't so easily negated; it is to their credit that they did so.
The other things she mentions are education and foreign aid. Do read the whole thing. Though I do have my complaints about the US President (government spending, for instance), I still feel strongly that an Al Gore or a John Kerry would have been infinitely worse, and that on balance history will judge "Dubya" kindly.

Monday, April 10, 2006

The Italian election

Yesterday and today Italians went (and are still going) to the polls, which means the composition of parliament will be determined, and as a result, who will be the next Prime Minister. It will only become clear later in the day who has won the election. In the meantime, the Economist has unquestionably the best analysis of the issues (also see their more detailed Special Report; requires subs.) and makes a recommendation to vote Berlusconi out of office, though it is unenthusiastic about Romano Prodi, his opponent. This is a position which I fundamentally agree with (even though I'm a hawkish supporter of the Iraq War). I think it is particularly important for non-Italians to read it, because it concisely explains aspects of Italian politics which are not immediately apparent, as terms are often not used in the same way: there are practically libertarian parties running under a "socialist" banner, classically liberal-leaning reform-minded factions which are outgrowths of the former Communist Party, and members of the center-left who are quite conservative (in a Catholic sense).
I was not able to return to Italy on this occasion, so this will be the first Italian election since I turned 18 that I haven't voted in. I generally think that considering that so many people in history gave their lives to obtain this right for themselves and for us, we owe it to them to cherish it and exercise it, though I have to admit that low voter turnout is one of the signs of a developed democracy (which is clearly not a problem in Italy - last time around, in 2001, it was 81.4%). At any rate, I'm not very happy with either candidate, so I don’t feel like I'm missing out on anything.
However there is one thing that worries me. Romano Prodi, the center-left candidate, is the favourite to oust current Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. For all his flaws the one thing I quite liked about Berlusconi was his Euroscepticism and Pro-Americanism, which his opponents do not share (though they are not half as bad as Schroeder, Chirac or Zapatero – only recall that when Serbia was bombed by NATO without a UN mandate, Massimo D’Alema the then left-wing PM sent military support). Nonetheless I think it is important to stress that no honest commentator can say, as surely will be said, particularly abroad, that Berlusconi's (expected) ouster has something to do with the Bush Doctrine. The Economist lucidly explains what the real problems are:
Our verdict against Mr Berlusconi in 2001 rested on two broad considerations. The first was the glaring conflict of interest created by his ownership, via his biggest company, Mediaset, of the three main private television stations in Italy. The second was the morass of legal cases and investigations against him and his associates for a wide variety of alleged offences, ranging from money-laundering and dealing with the Mafia to false accounting and the bribing of judges. We concluded that no businessman with such a background was fit to lead one of the world's richest democracies.
That view stands: we continue to think that Mr Berlusconi is unfit to be prime minister, both because of the conflict of interest arising from his media assets and because of his continuing legal travails (he may shortly go on trial yet again for alleged bribery, this time of a British witness, David Mills, who happens to be married to a minister in Tony Blair's cabinet, Tessa Jowell). But five years on we have a new and even more devastating reason to call for Mr Berlusconi's removal from office: his record in power.
As we predicted in 2001, his premiership has been disfigured by repeated attempts, including an avalanche of new laws, to help him avoid conviction in legal trials. He has devoted much time not only to changing the law to benefit himself and his friends, but also to besmirching Italy's prosecutors and judges, undermining the credibility of the country's entire judicial system. It is not surprising that tax evasion, illegal building and corruption all seem to have increased over the past five years. And, again as we predicted, he has done little to resolve his conflicts of interest: instead, he has shamelessly exploited the government's control of the state-owned RAI television network. Directly or indirectly, Mr Berlusconi now wields influence over some 90% of Italy's broadcast media, a situation that no serious democracy should tolerate.
Italian voters knew most of this in 2001, of course. Yet they still chose to give Mr Berlusconi their backing, for quite another reason. They hoped that he would deploy the business skills that had helped to make him so rich to reform their weak economy, making all Italians richer as well.
On this count, however, Mr Berlusconi's government must be judged an abject failure. Italy now has the slowest-growing large economy in Europe. With wages still rising even though productivity is not, and with currency devaluation no longer possible now that Italy is in the euro, Italian business is fast losing competitiveness. Many of the country's traditional producers in such industries as textiles, shoes and white goods are under devastating attack from lower-cost Chinese competitors. The Berlusconi government has also undone much of the improvement to the public finances made by its predecessor: the budget deficit and the public debt, the world's third-biggest, are both rising once more.
Therefore I would like to stress that Berlusconi is a deeply flawed leader for reasons totally unrelated to the Iraq war; the election campaign has essetially skirted over most foreign policy issues, and Italians – though generally against the war – are not very focused on such things anyway, particularly considering the significant domestic issues Italy is facing at the moment. Therefore, the probable ouster of Berlusconi may have (limited, in my view) adverse effects on the "Coalition of the Willing" which the US prefers to use, but that is only an unavoidable side-product, and certainly not an electoral rejection of a policy that was part of the public debate.
An Italian friend of mine gave a rather sweeping interpretation of Italian politics while we were chatting last night, which I think hits the mark quite nicely: the few unaffiliated voters who actually have to think about what side they are going to vote for hand the reins of power to whomever is not in power, in the vain hope that they will "make things better." After five years the voters realise that things aren't getting better so in their desperation they give the other side a chance. This is in fact what has been going on since two major coalitions emerged a decade ago. In 1996 Prodi beat Berlusconi and the center-left was in power until 2001 (Prodi’s government fell in 1998, after which the center-left formed two successive governments under Massimo D'Alema, and – if memory serves – one government under Giuliano Amato). In 2001 voters handed the reins to Berlusconi (who beat Francesco Rutelli) and now, according to this theory, which I'll call "Chiara's Theory of Alternation," it should be Prodi's turn. No worries though, he'll probably get little done, and Berlusconi will be back in power in 2011 (and age is not a consideration).

Sunday, April 09, 2006

I'm back...

I feel bad for not having blogged in a while, but I've been overwhelmed with things to do at work and in my personal life. At any rate, in case anyone is wondering, I'm fine and I hope to resume regular writing from now on (though there will be further breaks, as Pesach is soon upon us).
Although it was raining, today I took quite a refreshing walk with a friend along the south bank (of the Thames) from Westminster to Tower Bridge and then back along the north bank, past the Savoy Hotel and the Old War Office. However I'm happy to be home now, as it was quite cold outside.
In other news, because of a (hopefully short-lived) glitch in "my" internet connection I cannot access Google, so I've been forced to use Yahoo as a search engine, which I had never done before, and now I've realized why: it is truly appallingly bad at returning useful and relevant results!