Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Now here's an interesting idea. British scientists are urging the govt to invest in technology to allow for the underground storage of CO2. With such technology in place, Britain could build a series of new coal-fired power stations without having to worry about breaking its emissions targets.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

It looks like the wheels are finally beginning to turn: SABC reports that Mike Jackson, Britain's Chief of the General Staff, has announced that Britain could put together a brigade size force of about 5000 soldiers to intervene in Sudan should the need arise.

I'm not convinced that Blair has the guts to order an intervention on that scale whilst still immersed in Iraq, but there's no doubt that the threat of an intervention will have a very sobering effect on the Sudanese government. I hadn't realised it, but Britain is also apparently the largest aid donor to Sudan which, combined with an army brigade in the wings, puts it in a position to exert a lot of pressure on the Sudanese.

Despite my reservations, I have to say that this is the sort of thing that Blair usually revels in. The opportunity to expend British blood and treasure in pursuit of a better world is very much in keeping with his particular brand of liberal internationalism. The pity of the Iraq war of course is that it's undermined his moral authority abroad and raised questions about his real intentions at home. A successful intervention in Sudan may be just the ticket to restoring his position.

This month's Prospect has an excellent article on Israeli historian, Benny Morris, and the implosion of the Israeli left.

Friday, July 23, 2004

I've just stumbled across the website of OWL. OWL is the European project to build an OverWhelmingly Large telescope. The name is a play on the traditional astronomer's habit of describing telescopes as 'large', 'very large', 'extremely large' etc.

So how large is OWL? Well, the main reflective surface, consisting of a number of individual mirrors acting in consort, will measure 100m across. To put that in perspective, South Africa's Large Telescope (SALT), now nearing completion, is only 11m across, and it is the largest telescope in the southern hemisphere. OWL is so large that it is claimed it will be able to resolve planets orbiting neighbouring star systems!

At last some action on Sudan. The US Congress has described recent events in the Darfur region of Sudan as genocide. The US is also proposing a UN resolution that threatens Sudan with various forms of sanctions should the govt not act to reign in militia groups.

The US Congress move is significant because it holds out the hope that the US may also propose a UN motion codemning the genocide in Sudan. If this were to happen the UN would be legally obligated to act. As I mentioned yesterday, the US and Britain need to act quickly on this if they are to avert a major humanitarian crisis and to avoid accusations of hypocrisy. BBC has more.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Anatole Kaletsky has an excellent article in today's Times detailing the need for British intervention in the Sudan if Blair is to avoid charges of hypocrisy.

I agree wholeheartedly with him and was therefore glad to see that Blair has commanded the military to draw up plans for an armed intervention in that country. One might reasonably ask who he intends to send to the Sudan since the British armed forces are currently deployed to breaking point right around the world, a situation which is about to be exacerbated by the largest military cuts in a generation.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Gosh, the headline of one of today's Mail and Guardian stories had me going for a second:

Arrest Powell, says COSATU

In fact, its not a ham-fisted attempt by COSATU to intervene in SA's diplomatic relations with the US, but rather a call for former IFP bigwig, Philip Powell to be arrested for involvement in arms trafficking. Powell was the guy who supplied guns, formerly in the possession of Eugene de Kock and Vlakplaas, to the IFP before the 1994 elections. He also went to the same high-school as me, Martizburg College, and his name featured prominently on a board honouring oldboys who'd been successful after school. Which was nice!

Pursuant to an article in this month’s Prospect Magazine (which I heartily recommend, as usual) on Britain’s top 100 public intellectuals, I’d thought to compile a similar list for South Africa. As a concession to my own circumscribed view of SA and to the fact that we’re a much smaller country than Britain, I’d decided to limit it to the top 20. But I felt confident that using Prospect’s own definition (reproduced below) of a public intellectual I should be able to identify 20 people who make a significant impact on SA intellectual life.

Prospect definition of Public Intellectual:
‘…distinction in a field of intellectual or cultural endeavour coupled with an ability to communicate well to generalist audiences through the written or spoken word. Identifying distinction is more subjective in some fields (literature, journalism) than in others (science). So two supplementary criteria were added for these more contested fields, somewhat in tension though they are: first, originality of contribution; second, ability to articulate or represent an important strand of cultural life’

Well, I think I was a little bit over-optimistic. Try as I might I simply couldn’t identify 20, or even 10 people, who have the same impact on SA life as say Anthony Giddens, Niall Ferguson, Christopher Hitchens or Amartya Sen do on British life. It’s true that I’ve been out of SA for a while now, and no doubt there are people who write for the papers or appear on television who do have an impact but whom I’ve simply not come across, but I doubt that that is the end of it.

SA certainly has a class of what might be termed intellectual politicians, chief amongst them being, of course, Thabo Mbeki. Honorable mention should also go to Pallo Jordan, although I haven’t heard much from him over the past couple of years, and Blade Nzimande. There may also be one or two academics who have an impact on national life. Murray mentioned Tom Lodge when I discussed this with him. I thought of Herman Giliomee. No doubt there are others, but they don’t exactly leap to mind. Iraj Abedian might be thought of as an SA equivalent to Britain’s Anatole Kaletsky but I suspect that this is partly because he is pretty much the only SA economist with any name recognition and so gets hauled in whenever SABC or e.tv need a comment on something. Certainly there are other areas we could look to. The arts have produced a few luminaries. Coetzee and Gordimer spring to mind although neither is exactly prolific in their public offerings. Has sport, an area rivalled only by politics in its domination of SA life, produced any intellectuals? I doubt it. The media? Robert Kirby makes me laugh, but he’s no intellectual. Darrel Bristow-Bovey got himself into a spot of bother a few years back over plagiarism if I recall. There are other well known columists but, again, it could hardly be said that they shape public opinion in any meaningful way. Perhaps the Afrikaans media fares better here. Perhaps there are columnists aiming for a black audience that I’ve simply never come across. Perhaps the problem is that my world view, white English speaker from the banana province, obscures the great bulk of SA public life.

Leaving those last reservations aside though, I think its worth pondering just why SA has failed, so singularly, to develop an open and contested public space in which experts debate points and try to enlighten the rest of us. As usual I’m sure that a lot of this has to do with Apartheid. I’ve mentioned it before but it bears repeating that the Nats had a pretty ambivalent relationship with the academy, a group which might be thought of as the natural birthing ground for public intellectuals. Throughout the long years of the 60s/70s/80s as first the English, and then the Afrikaans Universities started to question some of the received wisdom about apartheid, the government made pretty strenuous efforts to keep control of things. My own alma mata, UCT, was for a long time known as ‘Moscow on the Hill’. Wits, a perennial thorn in the NP’s side, suffered repeated police invasions. All universities were riddled with NP informers, all lecturers dealing with social issues had to be mindful, to some degree, of what they said. The result of this, I think, is that Universities came to be viewed with some suspicion by the population at large. I’m sure it’s not wildly off the mark to suggest that they were seen as breeding grounds for communists and revolutionaries. Of course things have changed now but the point is that social attitudes can take a long time to evolve and I sense that there is still a lingering suspicion of the Universities and the intellectuals that reside there.

Part of the University problem stems from the fact that SA has never developed a culture of dissent. I need to clarify this claim slightly before I get shouted down. Whilst SA certainly has a tradition of political opposition, it lacks the notion of a contestable public space in which ideas are legitimately debated. Think about the opposition to apartheid, it was widespread and often violent but on the part of the Nats, and most whites in general, it was not seen as legitimate. Likewise, the ANC certainly never saw itself as negotiating with a legitimate opponent. I’m certain that this has, and some extent still does, determine the way we see debate. There is a tendency to stigmatise opponents, to dismiss as racist or reactionary or stupid those with whom one disagrees. Dissent in SA is often seen, by all groups, as somehow unpatriotic or as revealing a disturbing and intolerable subversiveness.

Another factor, and one that I’ve alluded to in the past, is simply that SA’s brightest minds usually turned to politics rather than science or art or journalism. This should hardly surprise us. For generations the smartest black minds went into politics in an effort to overturn apartheid, whilst the smartest whites went into politics in an effort to prevent that from happening. This had the effect of limiting the number of smart people active in other areas who could engage the public in conversation about topical issues. It goes without saying too that the vast majority of non-white South Africans having received only a pittance of an education and were not even in a position to make a decision about where their lives where going to go.

I wonder too about the fact that we’re so far from the great centres. Living in Britain I’m struck by the constant back and forth of ideas between this country, the Continent and North America. The daily press, the magazines, the opinion formers, are constantly engaged in conversation with the world around them. In a sense, the public intellectual domain transcends any one country such that public intellectuals and the people who read them are part of an international community. This doesn’t seem to have happened in SA. Partly, as I say, this is because we are so far from anywhere that it is difficult for noted individuals to visit us. I’ve lost count of the number of interesting people that have come through Oxford over the three years that I’ve been here. Indeed, the first time that I saw Trevor Manuel and Nelson Mandela was at Oxford. I never saw either of them at UCT! Partly, as a poor country, it is just much harder for people to access this international intellectual domain. The costs of good quality magazines such as Prospect, The Economist, The Spectator, TLS etc is negligible in comparison with other daily expenses in Britain. But purchasing such magazines in SA would make a significant dent in one’s disposable income. Of course SA could produce its own equivalents but it doesn’t seem to, mostly, I suspect, because of the costs and the very limited readership.

What are we to do about this? Perhaps nothing. With a bit of luck as the country continues to transform we’ll experience a blossoming of thought and an opening up  of the public sphere. The ANC doesn’t exactly seem to be promoting this but one can hope. Perhaps too the Internet will help us get around some of the obstacles. If my argument is correct it won’t really matter if SA never produces its own group of public intellectuals as long as those of us who’re interested in the big issues are able to access them. And maybe we should accept that as a small, poor country our concerns should be different. Possibly it’s a good thing that our finest minds are focusing on transformation, on getting the basics right rather than engaging in interesting but, at times, unproductive debate.

Monday, July 19, 2004

I'm amazed at the rhetoric that Tony Blair deployed in a speech outlining Labour's plans for fighting crime over the next 5 years:

'Today's strategy is the culmination of a journey of change both for progressive politics and for the country. It marks the end of the 1960s liberal, social consensus on law and order. The 1960s saw a huge breakthrough in terms of freedom of expression, of lifestyle, of the individual's right to live their own personal life in the way they choose. It was the beginning of a consensus against discrimination, in favour of women's equality, and the end of any sense of respectability in racism or homophobia. Not that discrimination didn't any longer exist - or doesn't now - but the gradual acceptance that it was contrary to the spirit of a new time. Deference, too, was on the way out and rightly. It spoke to an increasing rejection of rigid class divisions. All of this has survived and strengthened in today's generation. But with this change in the 1960s came something else, not necessarily because of it but alongside it. It was John Stuart Mill who articulated the modern concept that with freedom comes responsibility. But in the 1960's revolution, that didn't always happen.'

One of the things that interests me about contemporary US and British politics is just how badly wrong-footed the left has found itself. Blair rightly looks to the 60s as the high-point of liberalism, it was a decade which marked the relaxation of rules and mores across the spectrum of society. More to the point it also marked the last time in recent history when there was broad consensus about the way forward. Call it the ratchet effect if you like but in Britain, and the States too I think, even Conservatives were broadly sympathetic to the changes underway. That consensus has long since changed. First to go was the economic theory that underpinned the welfare state, Keynesianism and the legitimacy of wholesale government intervention in the economy. Remember all those wage councils in Britain and Nixon's attempt to impose price targets? All swept away by Thatcher and Reagan, and rightly so. Keynes has a role to play in the economy, of course, but it isn't the central role. What's more interesting is that having abandoned the liberal economic model it appears that the left is now retreating from much of the theory that underpinned its model of the future of society itself. To hear Blair talk about targeting hardened criminals and cracking down on yobs is to be reminded of some of the stuff that Michael Howard used to say when he was Home Secretary.

Why the change? Why has the left given up so much of the territory that it occupied in the 60s? The answer, I think, is partly a function of increasing wealth. The 50s and 60s, particularly, in Britain marked the high-point of the battle to provide the poor and working classes with access to education and healthcare and, more broadly, opportunities. But those battles have been won. The majority of Briton's nowadays have access to all these things and furthermore, far from being impoverished, now live very comfortable lives. Even the modestly well-off in Britain enjoy overseas holidays, the use of motorcars, decent schooling etc. That being the case thoughts are now turning to those 'quality of life' items which tend to have been ignored aver the last 30 years. Yobism, unruly neighbours, out-of-control youths etc etc. On these issues the left struggles to come up with credible solutions. It's all well and good to talk about the causes of crime and the need for understanding but if your neighbours repeatedly vandalise your property you're likely to seek a sterner form of retribution

The other point of course is that the liberals of the post-war period made the mistake of promising the Earth. Remember Lyndon Johnson's 'Great Society' or Labour's 'New Jerusalem'. None of it came to pass and, more to the point, it has become clear that we can have the benefits of a liberal society without necessarily having to put up with all the side-effects. There's a peculiar lacuna at the centre of a lot of liberal thinking in which the notion that the 'idea' is more important than the people has been able to develop. It's not. All political, social and economic theory is simply a means to an end. When people lose sight of that they end up losing the support of the great unaffiliated centre. The left is in a state of disarray. Labour sounds increasingly Thatcherite with each passing day, the Democrats in America are struggling to present themselves as a softer version of the Republicans. They have only themselves to blame.

Nick Graham's a smart guy but by god he says stupid things sometimes. Writing about the rise of poor whites, he states:

'This situation, where blacks move up on the economic ladder and whites move down a notch or two, is exactly what affirmative action and black economic empowerment is intended to do, and, in my opinion, should do. It is all part of transforming and equalising our society; whites have to get poor. It is unfortunate for those people who are marginalised, but that is the way it has to be. We should no longer be surprised, and they should no longer be pitied, unless you feel the same for all the rest of our fellow South Africans in similar situations.'

This stuff is positively Bolshevik. Transformation is not about making whites poorer, it is about making blacks richer. To argue otherwise is simply asinine. Nick, on the basis of your logic the simplest route to fixing SA's problems would be to enact a Zimbabwe-style land and assets grab aimed at whites. If we could impoverish all whites this way (or perhaps just the 17 percent that you deem to be statistically acceptable) then we wouldn't need to re-structure the economy or boost productivity or, come to think of it, educate our people. We could avoid all that hard stuff in pursuit of some easy solution that salves your mis-placed liberalism but does nothing to actually make us ready to face the future. Transformation is not about getting the numbers right it is about changing society so that all citizens benefit.
 
Update: Laurence Caromba also has something to say on this.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Raymond Parsons has an interesting article on the curent strength of the Rand. He rightly points out that whatever its value there are always going to be winners and losers. The important thing is to reduce the currency's volatility and make it easier for investors to predict the medium and long term outlook.

What the F*** is the ANC thinking? Sunday Times is reporting a secret meeting held recently between the ANC and Mugabe's ZANU-PF to strengthen political ties.

Look, Thabo, it's really not that difficult. ZANU-PF has destroyed the economy of our largest and most important neighbour. Along the way they've used every repressive measure in the book, including torture, against dissenters. They've ridden all over the most basic principles of democracy, shut down the independent media, hounded the opposition and engaged in corruption and theft on a vast scale. Now, nobody expects you to turn on them or suddenly start funneling resources to the opposition but we do expect a bit of impartiality. At the very least we hope that you are sensible enough to see that appearing to connive with the bastards not only makes you look stupid but it poses very serious questions about your own commitment to democracy and to promoting stability in the region. Thabo, we want a bit of leadership from you not this lilly-livered, friends before principles bullshit that you've given us so far. Zimbabwe is a wreck, even you must acknowledge that.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Interesting study on the EU Commission's website ranking the world's top 500 Universities.

A couple of things stand out. The US completely dominates the top 50, talking 35 places including the top 4 (Harvard at number 1). The UK is the only other country which makes the top 10 with the filthy Tabs at 5 and Oxford at 9. The first non US/UK university is Tokyo at 19 and the first European is the Swiss Federal institute of Technology at 25. In a pretty damning indictment of the state of the EU's tertiary education (outside Britain) the EU's first entry is Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. Continental EU gets just 2 more entries in the top 50, giving it fewer than Britain and only one more than Canada. In fact the other thing that really emerges from the list is how the English-speaking world dominates the top spots. Just 7 of the top 50 are non-English.

My alma mata, UCT is the top ranked SA university placing in the 250 to 300 band. Overall South Africa has 4 in the top 500. See here for the methodology and rankings.

Friday, July 09, 2004

Via Cherryflava: an article on the latest trend amongst New York singles - 'updating'.

Dating in New York can seem like a never-ending loser parade. That's why the urge to "update" — intentionally aiming for a mate who's classier or richer — hits many singles.

Take Courtney, who dove into the bachelorette pool recently after ending a decade-long relationship.

"I felt like a kid in a candy store at first," says the 30-something TV producer (like the other women interviewed, she prefers not to use her last name for fear of scaring off potential upgrades), "because it was exhilarating to start with a clean slate. At first I was just having fun, but now that I'm looking for a more serious relationship, I'm more selective about the places I go. I tend to go to places that attract people who might be potential life mates, in terms of their qualities and lifestyle."


Maybe its because I'm a boy but I find this all completely alien. 'Intentionally aiming for a mate who's classier or richer'? What on Earth is that all about? I thought the point of dating was that you found people who you liked, based upon shared interests. Come to think of it this is probably why I'm still single after all this time - 'hopeless romantic' is certainly not classy and I'm sure that it won't lead to great riches either.

Has Labour's enormous increase in spending on the public services had an impact? The Economist thinks it may have in the NHS but probably not in schooling.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Laurence is getting excited about Chrysler's new 300. I don't disagree with his comment that, '...it's downright evil looking.'

I have two words for you, Laurence, 'Aston Martin'. Specifically the AMV8. This is the car that is going to take the fight back to Porsche and the 911 and if it drives anything like it looks then the Germans better start worrying. The engine is a 4.3 litre all alloy V8 which is unique to Aston Martin. So no more hand-me downs from Ford. The layout of the powertrain adopts a transaxle configuration, whereby the front mid-mounted engine is connected to the transmission, at the rear of the car, via a torque tube. This means that the thing is almost perfectly balanced and that means great handling.

More cool photo's here, here and here.

Now all I need to do is find 50 000 pounds. Grrr, somebody give me a job interview.

Monday, July 05, 2004

This weeks Economist has a good article on New Labour's conversion, finally, to the idea that choice has a place in Britain's school system. It's hardly revolutionary stuff and I expect that, apart from junkies like me, it won't excite too many people. Nevertheless, it did set me to thinking about the state of schooling in South Africa...

To my mind one of the big surprises of the post-94 governments has been the relatively hands-off approach that they've adopted towards SA's schools. If we overlook Sibusiso Bengu's disastrous efforts with Curriculum 2005, the overwhelming impression that one gets is of a government content to let things carry on as before. That's not to deny that there has been change, of course. The fact that the intake at most formerly white schools is now more representative of the countries demographic profile being the most obvious. But the structure of, particularly, secondary schooling is more or less unchanged. All those plush formerly white sub-urban schools have been allowed to continue unchanged, a remarkable fact if you think about it.

Despite the ANC's lurch to the right on economic matters (which appears to be running out of steam incidentally) it has remained, if one believes the rhetoric, a progressive movement at heart. It is committed to improving the life-chances of all South Africans, to reducing the glaring gaps in equality, in access to education etc. What strikes me is that, faced with similar problems after the War, Labour set about dis-mantling Britain's Grammar School system and replacing it with a more egalitarian, and ultimately less effective, system of Comprehensives. But the ANC, whose problems are much larger than those faced by any recent British government, has done virtually nothing to reduce the discrepancy in the education available to South Africans of different classes. The formerly white schools (are they still called Model C schools?) provide an education far superior to that received in most townships and, rather strikingly, nobody appears to think that this is a bad thing. Indeed, the ANC itself has appeared to concede the point and now typically argues that it is important to maintain centres of excellence. Presumably they've accepted that this means entrenching social and economic divisions in South Africa for another generation or so.

I think that in its way this speaks to the true heart of the ANCs reforming agenda. It is not nearly so radical as the rhetoric would suggest. Indeed it seems that the ANC now thinks that it's primary role is to facilitate the emergence of a prosperous black middle-class even at the expense of the majority of the country's citizens. This is a remarkable conclusion for an organisation of the ANC's provenance and which still claims to be committed to an egalitarian outcome to South Africa's problems. I should add that I don't necessarily think that it is the wrong course either. Clearly nobodies interests would've been served by an Education Minister hell-bent on destroying the structures of white education and replacing them with some sort of utopian people's education. That said it is still tough to have to concede that the country's immediate future is better served by granting a small-ish elite access to a good education and then leaving the rest of the youth to the tender mercies of township and rural schooling.

I had a chat a few months back with a woman who'd been involved in education in Pretoria and who informed me that there's been a veritable explosion of private schools offering stripped bare schooling to black families desperate to get their kids out of the township schools. These people scrimp and save in order to put together the several thousand rand a year that these new private schools charge, and good for them. But the suggestion was that government is failing to provide something pretty fundamental and that those who can have opted out. Of course there are many thousands who are trapped in the townships and on the farms and whose prospects for a decent education are pretty grim. That there is so little debate about this confirms, once again, something that I have long suspected about South African's of all hues: we do and think whatever our leaders tell us to.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

A couple of weeks ago James Myburgh sent me this Slate article on the beer war brewing (sorry, I couldn't resist) between SAB and Anheuser-Busch in the US.

I can't really get too riled about this sort of thing. Every country has companies that have tried to wrap themselves in the national flag when their market share has come under attack from foreign competition. I suppose it's a testament to just how seriously A-B is taking the threat from SAB that they've launched a series of adverts pointing out that Miller beer is now part of SAB's expanding empire.

I can't resist recalling an interview in, I think, Forbes magazine with SABMiller CEO, Graham Mackay. The interview took place just after SAB brought Miller and it was pretty clear that the good gents at Forbes were rather bemused at the notion of a South African company buying this icon of the American drinks industry. A couple of questions into the interview the Forbes journalist asked the obvious question, 'How do you think that you're going to succeed where several American management teams before you have failed?' Mackay's response: 'Well, the first thing we did was get rid of the entire upper management echelon and replace them with South Africans.' Score one for the Republic.

On a more sober note (sorry, again) I'm told that SA's two biggest export earners are now booze and arms. I'm sure this says something about us but I'm not in the mood to speculate about what that might be right now.

Unbelievable: The Greeks have won Euro 2004. Not since the Battle of Marathon have the Greeks won such an unlikely victory.

Ambedextri Football has more.

For anybody who hasn't yet got their fill of SpaceShipOne information, I refer you to this photo essay on the first privately funded trip into space.

One thing I hadn't realised, as a result of several much reported upon malfunctions, SpaceShipOne only just made it over the official space 'threshold'. By roughly 110 metres in fact. Still, a magnificent achievement and I have no doubt that once Burt Rutan has ironed out the problems they'll achieve even greater things.

But to my mind the biggest news in space at the moment has got to be Cassini-Huygens arrival at Saturn. Orbital insertion burn was completed earlier this week during which it took these spectacular pictures of the Saturnian ring system. Today's revelation is a series of images of Titan, Saturn's largest moon and current best candidate for non-Earth based life in the Solar System. This is shaping up to be one of the most interesting space missions of the last decade or so.

Michael Portillo, a man whom I very much admire, has a telling indictment of the Bush administration in today's Sunday Times.

'I do not repent of having supported the war in Iraq. Saddam Hussein's defiance of international law posed a danger to the region and as his scientists worked on weapons of mass destruction the risks could soon have spread wider. American weakness in confronting both him and, separately, Al-Qaeda between 1991 and 2001 increased the West's vulnerability. Particularly after withdrawing from Somalia, following the loss of a few men in 1993, the United States looked timid. Its responses to terrorist outrages and Saddam's provocations were half-baked. The younger Bush's robust foreign policy was a welcome change from Clinton's.

If Bush had other motives, too, so much the better. People who like conspiracy theories say the war in Iraq was really about oil. Well, if America is anxious to secure the energy supplies that make life possible in the modern world, that is not an unworthy aim. In fact, America was not especially interested in Iraq's oil because we can just about do without it.

It was concerned to have troops in the Middle East who could move to protect oilfields and pipelines elsewhere. But keeping forces in Saudi Arabia, the land of the holy places, was proving offensive to Muslim sensitivities. We Europeans, who showed little gratitude to America for decades of protection against the Soviet Union, have also shown Olympian disdain for what is in effect an American investment in keeping our schools and hospitals heated and lit.

The neo-conservatives who came to office with George W Bush are experienced advisers who form a sophisticated cabinet. Some are my friends. I have a lot of sympathy with their views. For example: their lack of enthusiasm for a United Nations bedevilled by corruption. Bush, though inarticulate, may be a second Ronald Reagan, able to set clear and simple policy objectives. But it is astonishing that such a formidable executive has made so many disastrous mistakes.

After September 11 the script for the war on terror wrote itself. Not since the days of Adolf Hitler had allies been so certain of being in the right, battling against an unspeakable evil. Brutal terrorists born and bred in the darkness of repressive regimes threatened our freedom and plotted to smash the value system that brought the world justice and prosperity.

It beggars belief that the US government did not see from the outset that its conduct in the wars against the Taliban and Saddam had to be beyond reproach and that if it were not, the whole moral basis of the West's campaign would collapse.

I do not often agree with our archbishops, but their letter to Tony Blair (it came to light last week) is spot on. Referring to the prison atrocities it said 'the appearance of double standards inevitably diminishes the credibility of western governments with the people of Iraq and of the Islamic world'.

Winning the support of Muslims was bound to be hard. An Arab street which thinks that the CIA and Mossad flew the airliners into the twin towers would believe anything, but the photographs from Abu Ghraib have humiliated the democracies. We have been left speechless in the face of atrocities committed by other regimes.

The British government's indignation at the humiliation of our servicemen by Iran rings hollow. During his visit to Britain the Chinese prime minister could hardly contain his mirth when the subject of human rights abuses was raised at a joint press conference with Blair.

In part my indignation against the American administration arises from sympathy for our prime minister. No leader of this country would by a nod or a wink condone the mistreatment of detainees. I empathised with Blair during the war as he strode forward in a glow of idealism. Proudly Britain stood shoulder to shoulder with the land of the free against the tyrant. Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib have mocked us all. Nonetheless Blair has failed to answer satisfactorily about when he first knew of the atrocities and when, if ever, he protested to Bush about them. When this issue was hot a few weeks ago I believe I saw a look of terror in the prime minister's eyes. Those who want to bring him down should probe further.'


Coming from a Tory MP and Defence Minister under Margaret Thatcher makes this even more compelling. Portillo is a man whose instincts have always been sympathetic to the Republicans, the neo-con coterie that seems to direct US foreign policy and to Bush himself. The fact that he ends the article by advocating a vote for the Democracts (follow the link for the full thing) ought to send a message to Americans who care about the good opinion of the rest of the world that their foreign policy is now miles off track.

I too supported the war in Iraq and, on balance, I still believe that it was the right thing to do. But I have lost all sympathy for the Bush administration. The flagrant disregard for the rights of non-Americans demonstrated in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib reveals a hypocrisy so large as to eradicate a good measure of the moral authority that America should by rights be able to lay claim to in a war against fundamentalist terror. Time and again when I've had this debate with Americans in Oxford they've responded by saying something along the lines of, 'America has a right to defend itself and to do whatever is necessary to achieve that end.' What these people don't realise, indeed what the Bush administration itself appears not to realise, is that the war on terror is about more than simply America's right to defend itself. It is, at heart, a battle for the soul of modernity. Is the West going to continue to act as a beacon to the rest of the world, as an example of what liberty and enlightenment can achieve. Or is it going to be drawn into the morass? Is it going to allow itself to be drawn down to the same level as the terrorists, using tools that it wouldn't use on its own people but which are deemed acceptable for others. The moment those photo's from Abu Ghraib emerged something cracked in the claim that this was a war about values. If the Bush administration really believed that this was about competing value systems it wouldn't, as now appears fairly certain, have entertained investigations into the use of torture, it wouldn't have tacitly condoned the use of extreme methods in Abu Ghraib and Afghanistan, and it wouldn't have people in Guantanamo Bay who still have to be charged and whose chances of a fair trial appear shaky at best.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Good luck to them: SA lawyers acting on behalf of the family of Solomon Linda are suing Walt Disney for infringement of copyright on 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight'. SABC has more.