Sunday, December 30, 2007

Who Killed Benazir?

If mass media coverage of Benazir's murder were a screenplay, it would begin with the directions: "Spotlight crime scene. Background is impenetrably dark."

A week after the event, political analysts and opinion mongers have expanded only minimally on reportage: the country is in turmoil; there are concerns about the security of its nuclear weapons; suspicion that President Musharraf had a hand in the assassination is widespread, but Al Qaeda cannot be ruled out. For the United States, which pushed for Benazir's return as a way to ease the country out of military rule, the assassination is a disaster. Instead of a half-step towards a more legitimate government in Islamabad, it is now stuck with a seriously weakened Musharraf.

The only analyst to go beyond that tight spotlight has been Tariq Ali, the Trotskyist enfant terrible of the 1960s who has evolved into a biriyani-scotch radical welcome on the BBC. The strange thing is, Ali wrote his trenchant analysis well before Benazir was killed, for it appeared in the 11 December issue of the London Review of Books. "The Daughter of the West" is a a total dump on Benazir, dwelling on the corruption of her family and her personal involvement in the killing of her brother Murtaza; one might almost read it as an explanation of why she deserved to be offed. Coming from as well connected a figure as Ali, whose uncle was a former chief of Pakistani military intelligence, and whose relationship with MI-5 must remain a matter of interesting speculation, it is more than the preternatural "scoop" that Robert Fisk of The Independent declared it to be.

It is quite possible that Musharraf ordered the murder; but is it likely? What would be his motivation? He had much more to gain from playing ball with Benazir than from bumping her off; Musharraf is damaged goods in everyone's book and now that he is sans military uniform, there is very little to prevent another ambitious General from elbowing him aside. He would have to be a complete political moron to throw away the only prop that would have allowed him to hobble off the scene with a modicum of dignity.

If Musharraf is not behind Benazir's murder, who is? Certainly not the CIA; Benazir was Washington's baby. And almost certainly not Al Qaeda. The Pakistani government has claimed to have evidence that Al Qaeda was responsible but the alleged perp, a Taliban commander by the name of Baitullah Mehsud, took the unusual step of issuing a public denial. A spokesman for Mehsud called reporters in Peshawar to say (according to one published report): "We are sad over Benazir Bhutto's death. We do not have any enmity with Pakistani leaders and are only opposed to the United States"

The last of the usual suspects is Pakistan's spy service, the infamous Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The evidence here is mute but graphic: video footage of the assassination shows a clean-shaven man with a sleeveless vest, rimless sun glasses and close-cropped hair -- the stereotypical ISI operative -- pointing a gun at Benazir. The fact that the crime scene was immediately hosed clean, as was the bloodied interior of the SUV in which Benazir was riding, also points to an inside job. But why would the ISI kill Bhutto? It is hard to imagine that her third ascent to the prime ministership would have been a threat to its power or many privileges.

It could be that the murder is a calculated response to a too forceful American effort to order Pakistan's internal affairs: the Benazir-Musharraf partnership deal was put in place by gimlet-eyed John Negroponte, whose experience in kicking butt in Cold War Latin America might not have translated well into the izzat-ridden world of Punjabi Islam. If this is a case of the worm turning, then the ISI's British connection becomes a live matter. The ISI was established by the British immediately after Indian independence, at a time when they were stage-managing the first India-Pakistan war over Kashmir. (Armies on both sides were led by British officers, and Luis "Dickie" Mountbatten was not only free India's first Governor-General, but chairman of the cabinet committee handling the situation in Delhi.)

London maintained a close working relationship with the ISI throughout the Cold War, its influence strengthened by its intimacy with Saudi royals who had clout in Islamabad. A common element binding the intelligence agencies of all three countries -- Britiain, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia -- was resentment at the CIA's dominating role. In the post Cold War era that resentment led Osama bin Laden to (ostensibly) break with his handlers in Saudi intelligence and set up shop in Afghanistan. It caused Pakistani operative Mir Amar Kansi to go on a shooting rampage outside the CIA's headquarters building in Langley, Virginia, in January 1993; and it led to the broad Pakistani role in supporting the 9/11 attacks. British authorities, though swallowing hard over American intervention to force a peace settlement in Ireland, have been less open in expressing their displeasure with Washington, for they have far more at stake; but there is no denying that in recent years London has moved towards an increasingly independent line. The decision to halve the number of British troops in Iraq at a time when the United States is in the middle of a desperate pacification effort is only the most visible indication.

At the United Nations the British ambassador outfoxed American envoy John Bolton and slipped Beijing's candidate for Secretary-General into office, gaining in the process a greater command over high-level UN appointments than London has had for decades. Newly appointed Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon handed Britain the post of Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs (which gives it ready access to all the world's trouble spots), and appointed Britons as his political representatives for the peace processes in Nepal and the Middle East, both areas in which British policy has a long and invidious history. Washington neutralized the latter appointment by pushing Tony Blair into the role of Middle East mediator. Such fencing has reached the ground level: a British UN staffer was recently expelled from Afghanistan by President Karzai for having unauthorized contact with the Taliban.

Against that background Benazir's murder might portend much more than instability in Pakistan. It might mean we are in the middle of a large power struggle in Asia, and that could have very dire consequences.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Playing Chicken at the United Nations

It was a game of chicken in which neither side gave way. As the General Assembly raced to finish the work of its fall 2007 session the week before Christmas, it was the United States against the rest of the world on whether to approve the $4.17 billion budget of the United Nations for the 2008-2009 biennium.

Things came to a head before the sun was up on Saturday morning, the 22nd of December. In the 142 to 1 vote all the Western allies of the United States sided with the 132-member Group of 77 (which takes its name from the number of developing countries that founded the caucus in 1964). Of the UN's 192 members, 49 were absent when the predawn vote was taken, including Israel.

The United States opposed the budget ostensibly because it did not want $6.7 million spent on a world conference in 2011 to review implementation of an action plan against racism and racial discrimination adopted in 2001. It had walked out of the 2001 conference, accompanied by Israel, to protest a drive by Arab states to paint the Palestinians as victims of racism; Washington thought any review should be voluntarily funded, not paid from the regular UN budget, to which it is the largest contributor.

American criticism of the UN might seem picayune in monetary terms, but substantively it is much more significant. At a time when international cooperation is not just important but urgent on a broad range of global issues, the United Nations is almost totally dysfunctional. Over the decades the General Assembly has excelled in formulating international laws and norms, and the organization's statistical services perform a vital function; but otherwise the organization has done little good. Peacekeeping and emergency humanitarian aid, often cited as areas of UN success are, in fact, indicative of its core failures. The Security Council is almost pathetically ineffective. Most of its 50+ resolutions in 2007 (down significantly from 86 in 2006), deal with housekeeping matters, and its various "thematic" pronouncements have reached a level of irrelevance equaled only by the General Assembly, which has adopted over 250 resolutions just in the last four months. Most of the Assembly resolutions are on long-standing agenda items and their texts are little changed from those that have been adopted in previous years; as in the past, they are destined to slip into instant obscurity, serving only to provide an annual update of the concerns of the UN membership.

Reform efforts, which were seriously taken in hand only after 1985, when the United States began withholding increasing portions of its share of the UN budget, have gone nowhere in over two decades. The Secretariat has been trimmed dramatically and the intergovernmental structures of the organization have been repeatedly reshaped, but without improved effectiveness. Yet, delegations and senior UN staff often cite those changes as mileposts of change.

Most disappointing has been the lack of progress on human rights after the 1989 end of the Cold War. Although the dissolution of the Soviet Union a decade later was a major advance, its successor States have stumbled badly on the path to democracy. Meanwhile, major Western States have used the "war on terrorism" to justify their own increasingly regressive policies on human rights and liberties. In most developing countries those rights and liberties continue to take a back seat to political and economic survival. It is not surprising that under such circumstances UN human rights machinery has not functioned well. The Human Rights Commission was largely ineffective for over five decades, and its 2006 successor, the supposedly "strengthened" Human Rights Council, has brought little improvement.

Despite this long record of failed reform efforts, there has been no move to consider the reasons why. Reform itself has become a permanent fixture on the UN agenda, as unsolvable a mystery as the Palestinian issue or the distress of Africa. In April 2008 the General Assembly will consider the way forward on management reform and begin consultations on "system-wide coherence," areas on which panels of eminent personalities have spoken with little insight or inspiration. A "full review"is to begin next September on counter-terrorism, with the aim of identifying "gaps in implementation." Expectations from these exercises should be low, for neither the Secretariat nor delegations have yet conducted an honest analysis of why the UN has failed on so broad a front. If they ever do, it will become apparent that reform cannot be achieved structurally. The UN is conceptually out of date. So are key policies and attitudes of governments (including, and perhaps especially, those of the United States). Unless this problem is rigorously addressed, efforts at UN reform will continue to be no more than a rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Dark Thought on Climate Change

Been reading the coverage of the conference on climate change in Bali, Indonesia, and am struck by the fact that no one is questioning a basic assumption on which the entire international effort on global warming is predicated: that the problem can be fixed by cutting the emission of greenhouse gases. That is somewhat like accepting Gas-ex as appropriate treatment for intestinal cancer. For greenhouse gases, along with a host of other problems, including industrial pollution which now contaminates every part of the planet's surface, the mass poverty of over three billion people, and the highest level of military expenditure in history, are only symptomatic of the core problem: the nature of modern civilization. Unless we change the way we live -- and that means more than adopting "green technology" -- it seems to me there is no way of avoiding general disaster.

The reason why such a large issue has not been raised at the United Nations is that the place is run by diplomats, and as a breed, they are reluctant to do anything that might require breaking with precedent. Outside the UN, those best equipped to make the case are Western leaders and intellectuals, the very people most invested in presenting modern civilization -- their civilization -- as an unprecedented success. To change to a position that it has, in fact, brought the world to a dead end, will require the entire historical narrative of the West to be rewritten, not an easy prospect to face. Non-Westerners trying to make the case face almost unsurmountable obstacles of mistrust and hostility, for we still live in a world of unreconstructed loyalties to race and national culture. But for all that, the issue must be faced honestly.

There was little honesty at the Bali conference. In a situation where the common interest far outweighed the usual international divisions, governments squabbled like four-year olds over all kinds of petty issues. As a result, the "roadmap" the conference agreed upon envisages nothing more than a two-year program of talks to conclude in 2009 with agreement -- it is hoped -- on new targets for (undefined) "deep cuts" in the emission of greenhouse gases. There was little other meaningful action. The conference urged the creation of a new UN fund to help poor countries cope with problems associated with global warming; it recommended pilot projects aimed at finding how best to incorporate forestry into a future emissions-control deal; and it recognized that poor countries will need money to pay for green technologies (without suggesting who might provide it).

Nothing was said about how poor countries were to fit into the overall emissions control effort, and with good reason: there is no way that the three billion people now living in wretched poverty will be able to "develop"to any reasonable level of comfort without skyrocketing emission levels. That unspoken quandary, which the UN has steadfastly ignored for over two decades, is a dangerous one. For if the concept of "development" is not radically changed, the only viable alternative to planetary ecocide is genocide directed at the poor.

Tragicomedy Central

The tragicomedy of the UN comes in high and low variants.

The latest Press briefing by the President of the General Assembly, Srgjan Kerim (Macedonia) would be high comedy if we didn't hear Wagnerian notes of doom in the background.

Kerim told journalists he had succeeded in making the 192-nation Assembly more “dynamic” during its fall 2007 session. As evidence of the new dynamism he pointed to "crucial negotiations" on such important issues as climate change, development financing and Security Council reform.

“We have made obvious and tangible progress in improving the working methods of the General Assembly, thus making it very dynamic and vital,” Mr. Kerim said. In fact, the "agenda had been so impressive and cooperation among Member States had been so inspired," he even thought it was unnecessary to adopt the traditional draft resolution on “Assembly revitalization.” And what was the evidence of this new vitality? The new spirit delegations had shown in negotiations on climate change, financing for development, the Millennium Development Goals, countering terrorism, and UN reform, including expansion of the Security Council. "Business as usual” was at an end, Mr. Kerim declared. He had also detected progress on the review of the General Assembly's numerous mandates.

Other examples of vitality: a resolution on “social justice” put forward by Kyrgyzstan, and one on “agricultural technology for development” sponsored by Israel. Yet another example of Assembly vitality was the decision to hold a thematic debate in February (11-12) on the outcome of the Bali conference on climate change last week. There would be "two important panel discussions: on creating synergies and support for the post-Bali negotiating process; and on how United Nations agencies would play a role in that process." The Secretary-General had been asked to report on all UN activities touching on climate change by 25 January.

Also in January, the General Assembly would begin substantive discussions of the review of progress since the 2002 Monterrey International Conference on Financing for Development; the process would culminate in a meeting at Doha, Qatar next November. In April, the Assembly had set a thematic debate on UN reform. A newly established Task Force -- Portugal, Chile and Bangladesh along with the President -- was discussing how and when a paper could be produced on Security Council reform that would be the basis for intergovernmental negotiations on expanding the membership of the Council. Mr. Kerim hoped that if the paper was ready in time the negotiations could begin in February.

To appreciate the comic element in all this, one has to keep in mind that the General Assembly has been vastly productive in declaring standards and laws, but with very little effect on the behavior of States. For instance, the 2002 Monterrey Conference heard firm pledges from rich countries to significantly increase aid to the poor and render more equitable the architecture of international financial relations; but nothing much happened: the increased aid went largely to emergency relief or to pay down debt, while poor countries continued their decades-long export of funds to the rich. In 2006 poor countries exported $667 billion (net) to rich countries, up from $500 billion in 2005.

Similarly, talk of Security Council reform has gone in circles for over a decade, as has UN reform. The "negotiations" on climate have been the worst boondoggle of all, for they have seemed to hold out hope of stopping the planet's inexorable slide towards cataclysmic disasters without having any real impact. (More on all this in later posts).

As for low tragicomedy, it comes from The Analyst of Monrovia, which reports that the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) has refused to examine the penis of a person under trial for treason. A local court had written to the head of UNMIL asking that two medical officers be delegated to examine the prisoner to verify whether he was telling the truth about torture that had left him unable to have sexual relations. UNMIL declined to comply with the court's request on the grounds that its mandate would not allow it.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Tunzelmann's Indian Summer

Just finished reading Alex von Tunzelmann's book "Indian Summer: the secret history of the end of an empire. An amazingly dishonest piece of work.
It doesn't take a literary detective to find out that Tunzelmann is a propagandist more than a historian. The very first paragraph of the book is a tipoff. "On a warm summer night in 1947, the largest empire the world has ever seen did something no empire had done before. It gave up. The British empire did not decfline, it simply fell; and it fell proudly and majestically onto its own sword. It was not forced out by revolution, nor defeated by a greater rival in battle. Its leaders did not tire or weaken. Its culture was strong and vibrant. Recently it had ben victorious in the century's definitive war."
The only truth in that paragraph is that the summer night in Delhi was warm. For the rest: imperial rule ended in India in a welter of blood and treafcheries after the second World War left Britain bankrupt and without the will or means to resist the nationalist movement under Gandhi or the pressure from Washington to decolonize. The last British viceroy, Luis "Dickie" Mountbatten engineered one of the great atrocities of the 20th century when, in a fomented atmosphere of fear, panic and violence he rushed to divide the country to create a "homeland" for India's Muslims. As the communal animosities the British had promoted for nearly a century boiled over in a brutal civil war that killed about a million people, Mountbatten and the British military forces in India sat back and watched. It was as ignoble an end to empire as anyone could imagine.
Later in the book Tunzelmann quo0tes a highly questionable passage in Louis Fischer's The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, which portrays the most temperate of leaders in the summer of 1946 "at his most intemperate." The quoted passage has Gandhi, who was then amidst the most delicate political balancing act of life as saying: "Jinnah is an evil genius' Gandhi told him. He believes he is a prophet." Tunzelmann goes on: "He alleged that Jinnah had 'cast a spell over the Muslim who is a simple-minded man.' He concluded that he thought the Muslim League would ultimately join the interim government. 'But the Sikhs have refused. They are stiff-necked like the Jews.'"

The quotation is so obviously aimed at riling up Muslims and Sikhs, one has to wonder about the author's motivation. Or perhaps it is her connection with reality that should cause concern. For a few pages later, she comes up with this: "As the chimes sounded and the unexpected blast from a conch shell startled the delegates in the chamber of the Constituent Assembly, a nation that had struggled for so many years, and sacrificed so much, was freed at last fromthe shackles of empire. Yes, Britain was finally free." The idea of imperialism as humanitarian service was, of course, not a Tunzelmann invention; Rudyard Kipling gave self-pitying voice to it long before she was born:

"Take up the White Man's burden
Send forth the best ye breed
Go bind your son's to exile
To serve your captive's need"

But Kipling wrote that in 1899, when it was fashionable to be racist; in 2007 it is merely loony.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Gloom at the UN

Went into the United Nations yesterday to pick up the daily pile of documents and found that the Spokesman of the Secretary-General had invited all correspondents to stop by her office for a drink to celebrate the end of the year. Expecting the usual merry throng I went by. But approaching the office I was met with silence. There was just one correspondent in there, Edie from the Associated Press, and by the look of it she was about to leave. Not to embarrass our host I quickly pretended to be about some other business and kept going down the corridor, to the escalators that led to the main floor and the cafeteria.

Over a bowl of tasteless vegetable soup in the cafeteria I pondered over the year, which has been pretty dead at the UN. Deader than anything I've seen over the last 3+ decades. Well, perhaps those years when Kurt Waldheim was Secretary-General were worse, but I was young then, and the bar in the Delegate's Lounge offered enough diversions to keep my mind off the stultified politics of the Cold War. Now the bar is rarely busy except for Friday evenings, and the politics of the "war on terrorism" are too scary to ignore. So I decided to start up this blog. It's going to be focused on the UN, but with frequent forays into everything else.

Among the documents I picked up at the UN was a little blue pamphlet. "A stronger United Nations for a Better World" it said: "My Priorities as United Nations Secretary-General." It was by Ban Ki-moon, the South Korean diplomat who has held the UN's top job for a year now. It began: "The spirit and vision that infused world leaders in 1945 inspire me every day." The rest of it was downhill. Under "Guiding Principles That Will Drive My Actions" was the following:

"Lead by example;
Seek excellence with humility;
Set the highest ethical standard;
Pursue dialogue and engagement;
Play the role of harmonizer and bridge-builder;
Make transparency and accountability the corner-stone of my tenure;
Be animated by both passion and compassion in achieving our goals;
Be sensitive to the concern of all member States big and small."

Did no one on Ban's staff have the gumption to tell him those are not principles but good resolutions?