News & Current Affairs

November 11, 2010

Location, location and how the West was won

Filed under: Politics News, Reviews — Tags: , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 8:38 pm
Union flag hoisted in Beijing

On his current visit to Beijing, UK Prime Minister David Cameron has said China will soon reclaim its position as the world’s biggest economy – a role it has held for 18 of the past 20 centuries. But how did the US, Britain and the rest of Europe interrupt this reign of supremacy? It comes down to location.

Why does the West dominate the world?

Europeans have been asking this question since the 18th Century, and Africans and Asians since the 19th. But there is still not much agreement on the answers.

People once claimed Westerners were simply biologically superior. Others have argued Western religion, culture, ethics, or institutions are uniquely excellent, or that the West has had better leaders. Others still reject all these ideas, insisting that Western domination is just an accident.

But in the last few years, a new kind of theory has gained ground.

What is the West?

image of Ian Morris Ian Morris Professor, Stanford University


Distinctive ways of life began emerging in different parts of the world 11,000 years ago, when the first farmers created more complex societies. Great civilizations grew out of the original agricultural cores (in what we now call southwest Asia, China, Pakistan, Mexico, and Peru), all of which steadily expanded as population grew.

The westernmost of the Old World’s agricultural cores, in southwest Asia, was the foundation of what we now call Western Civilization. By 500 BC, the Western core had expanded across Europe, its centre of gravity shifting to the Mediterranean cultures of Greece and Rome. By 1500 AD it had expanded still further, and its centre was shifting into Western Europe. By 1900 AD it had expanded across the oceans, and its centre was shifting to North America.

People, it suggests, are much the same all over the world. The reason why some groups stuck with hunting and gathering while others built empires and had industrial revolutions has nothing to do with genetics, beliefs, attitudes, or great men: it was simply a matter of geography.

China and India are, of course poised to pick up the baton of global superpowers, but to explain why the West rules, we have to plunge back 15,000 years to the point when the world warmed up at the end of the last ice age.

Geography then dictated that there were only a few regions on the planet where farming was possible, because only they had the kinds of climate and landscape which allowed the evolution of wild plants and animals that could potentially be domesticated.

The densest concentrations of these plants and animals lay towards the western end of Eurasia, around the headwaters of the Euphrates, Tigris, and Jordan Rivers in what we now call south-west Asia. It was therefore here, around 9000 BC, that farming began, spreading outwards across Europe.

Farming also started independently in other areas, from China to Mexico; but because plants and animals that could be domesticated were somewhat less common in these zones than in the West, the process took thousands of years longer to get going. These other zones of complex agricultural societies also expanded, but the West long retained its early lead, producing the world’s first cities, states, and empires.

But if this were all that there was to the story – that the West got an early lead and held onto it – there would be no controversy over why the West rules. In reality, when we look back across history, we see that things were more complicated. Geography determined how societies developed; but how societies developed simultaneously determined what geography meant.


The first city – 6,000 years ago in Iraq

image of Richard Miles Richard Miles Archaeologist and historian


The ancient Greeks called it Mesopotamia, the land between two rivers – Tigris and Euphrates. But it is also the land between two seas – the Mediterranean Sea and Persia Gulf. It is also the land between mountain and desert, lagoon and salt marsh. All these geographical features have to be borne in mind when considering the birthplace of the first civilisations.

Geography v history – it’s impossible to know which takes precedence. There’s no getting away from the brutal facts of nature – rivers that flood will dry up, rainfall that’s intermittent, mountains that are impassable, deserts that are hostile.

Applying this kind of analysis to Mesopotamia, where summers are hot, winters are cold and rainfall is low, I’d sum it up like this: difficult but not impossible. No garden of Eden, but no howling wilderness either.

In the earliest days of agriculture, having the right temperatures, rainfall, and topography was all-important. But as villages grew into cities, these geographical facts became less important than living on a great river like the Nile, which made irrigation possible.

As states turned into empires, being on a river began mattering less than access to a navigable sea like the Mediterranean, which was what allowed Rome to move its food, armies, and taxes around.

As the ancient world’s empires expanded further, though, they changed the meanings of geography again. The long bands of steppes from Mongolia to Hungary turned into a kind of highway along which nomads moved at will, undermining the empires themselves.

In the first five centuries AD, the Old World’s great empires – from Rome in the West to Han China in the East – all came apart; but the political changes transformed geography once again. China recreated a unified empire in the 6th Century AD, while the West never did so.

For more than a millennium, until at least 1700, China was the richest, strongest, and most inventive place on earth, and the East pulled ahead of the West.

East Asian inventors came up with one breakthrough after another. By 1300 their ships could cross the oceans and their crude guns could shoot the people on the other side. But then, in the kind of paradox that fills human history, the East’s breakthroughs changed the meaning of geography once again.

Dr Richard MilesPlease turn on JavaScript. Media requires JavaScript to play.

Richard Miles at Tell Brak – a city first excavated by Agatha Christie’s husband Max Mallowan

Western Europe – sticking out into the cold North Atlantic, far from the centres of action – had always been a backwater. But when Europeans learned of the East’s ocean-going ships and guns, their location on the Atlantic abruptly became a huge geographical plus.

Before people could cross the oceans, it had not mattered that Europe was twice as close as China to the vast, rich lands of the Americas. But now that people could cross the oceans, this became the most important geographical fact in the world.

The Atlantic, 3,000 miles across, became a kind of Goldilocks Ocean, neither too big nor too small. It was just big enough that very different kinds of goods were produced around its shores in Europe, Africa, and America; and just small enough that the ships of Shakespeare’s age could cross it quite easily.

The Pacific, by contrast, was much too big. Following the prevailing tides and winds, it was an 8,000-mile trip from China to California – just about possible 500 years ago, but too far to make trade profitable.

Geography determined that it was western Europeans, rather than the 15th Century’s finest sailors – the Chinese – who discovered, plundered, and colonised the Americas. Chinese sailors were just as daring as Spaniards; Chinese settlers just as intrepid as Britons; but Europeans, not Chinese, seized the Americas because Europeans only had to go half as far.

Europeans went on in the 17th Century to create a new market economy around the shores of the Atlantic, exploiting comparative advantages between continents. This forced European thinkers to confront new questions about how the winds and tides worked. They learned to measure and count in better ways, and cracked the codes of physics, chemistry, and biology.

As a result, Europe, not China, had a scientific revolution. Europeans, not Chinese, turned science’s insights onto society itself in the 18th Century in what we now call the Enlightenment.


Will China soon rival the US?

George Bush

Many observers think so, but not George W Bush. In an interview with the Times this week, he said that “internal problems” meant it was unlikely to rival the US any time soon. “Do I think America will remain sole superpower? I do.”

By 1800, science and the Atlantic market economy pushed western Europeans into mechanising production and tapping the power of fossil fuels. Britain had the world’s first industrial revolution, and by 1850 bestrode the world like a colossus.

But the transforming power of geography did not stop there. By 1900 the British-dominated global economy had drawn in the resources of North America, changing the meaning of geography once again. The US, until recently a rather backward periphery, became the new global core.

And still the process did not stop. In the 20th Century, the American-dominated global economy in turn drew in the resources of Asia. As container ships and jet airliners turned even the vast Pacific Ocean into a puddle, the apparently backward peripheries of Japan, then the “Asian Tigers”, and eventually China and India turned into even newer global cores.

The “rise of the East”, so shocking to so many Westerners, was entirely predictable to those who understood that geography determines how societies develop, and that how societies develop simultaneously determines what geography means.

When power and wealth shifted across the Atlantic from Europe to America in the mid-20th Century, the process was horrifyingly violent. As we move into the mid-21st century, power and wealth will shift across the Pacific from America to China.

The great challenge for the next generation is not how to stop geography from working; it is how to manage its effects without a Third World War.

Why the West Rules – For Now: The Patterns of History, and What they Reveal About the Future is published by Profile.

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June 22, 2009

West ‘seeks Iran disintegration’

West ‘seeks Iran disintegration’

A protester throws an object towards police in Tehran, 20 June 2009

Saturday saw some of the worst violence since the election

Iranian authorities have deployed thousands of security officers on the streets of Tehran, after a week of mass protests over a disputed election.

Witnesses said there were no rallies in the capital on Sunday, a day after 10 people were reported killed in clashes between police and protesters.

State media said 457 people had been detained over Saturday’s violence.

The authorities have also continued a crackdown on foreign media – expelling the BBC’s Tehran correspondent.

The corporation confirmed Jon Leyne had been asked to leave the country, but said the BBC office in Tehran would remain open.

Campaign group Reporters Without Borders says 23 local journalists and bloggers have been arrested over the past week.

Roof-top chanting

The protests were sparked by the presidential election on 12 June, which officials said incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won by a landslide.

Supporters of his nearest rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi, believe the election was rigged and have demonstrated since the results were announced.

But Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has backed Mr Ahmadinejad and made it clear in a speech on Friday that no further protests would be tolerated.

Some analysts interpreted the ayatollah’s speech as giving a green light for security forces to use live ammunition.

Iranian state TV reported that 10 people had died and 100 were injured when protesters and police clashed on Saturday.

On Sunday, thousands of security officers were out on the streets but protesters stayed away.

The BBC’s Jeremy Bowen, in Tehran, says many residents of northern Tehran could be heard shouting from the rooftops “death to the dictator” and “Allahu akbar” on Sunday evening.

The chants have become a popular form of protest, and our correspondents says men, women and children joined in and Sunday’s chanting was much louder than on previous days.

Mousavi’s plea

Security forces continued to round up protesters on Saturday – with state media saying 457 people had been arrested.

Among the detained were several family members of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – a powerful opponent of Mr Ahmadinejad.

Analysts said the arrests came as a surprise because Mr Rafsanjani is head of the Assembly of Experts – a cleric run group which has the power to remove the supreme leader.

All of Mr Rafsanjani’s relatives were reported to have been freed by Sunday evening.

Meanwhile, Mr Mousavi, whose supporters make up most of the protesting crowds, urged them to continue their rallies.

“Protesting against lies and fraud is your right. In your protests continue to show restraint,” a statement on his website said.

Analysts say Mr Mousavi’s statements and the street protests his supporters have organised represent the biggest challenge to the state in the Islamic republic’s 30-year history.


Are you in Iran? What do you think of the current situation? Are you taking part in the demonstrations?

If you have any information you would like to share us!

September 24, 2008

Which direction for Turkey now?

Filed under: Latest, Politics News, Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 5:24 pm

Which direction for Turkey now?

Guards at Ataturk's Mausoleum in Ankara

The US had feared Turkey was facing too much towards the East

Not so long ago the question of “who lost Turkey?” seemed to dominate US think tank discussions and conferences.

Turkey’s refusal to allow US troops to use its territory to open a second front against Saddam Hussein provoked the worst crisis in relations between Ankara and Washington that many commentators could remember.

Worse, the arrival into power of the Justice and Development Party (the AKP) with its Islamist roots, which then embarked upon a new foreign policy of outreach towards the Middle East, seemed to confirm the fears of many in Washington.

Turkey, they felt, was inexorably being drawn back into the Middle East and Asia and away from its long-standing anchorage in Nato and the West.

With the US presidential election fast approaching, and with the multiplicity of problems in the Middle East set to be at the top of the next administration’s agenda, I came to Turkey to try to answer the question – was this staunch Cold War ally being lost to the West?

Surely things were more complicated? Was Turkey’s new orientation being misunderstood by some in Washington? And what did Turkey itself want from the next US administration?

‘Meaningful contribution’

My first port of call was a pavilion in the grounds of the last sultan’s palace on the edge of the Bosphorus. It is now the Turkish prime minister’s Istanbul office.

There I met Ambassador Ahmet Davutoglu, a quietly spoken academic who is widely acknowledged as the architect of the Turkish government’s new foreign policy.

Ambassador Ahmet Davutoglu (February 2008)
Turkey’s diplomatic power is an asset for our western orientation
Ambassador Ahmet Davutoglu

His 2001 book, entitled Strategic Depth, sought to chart a new course for Turkey in the aftermath of the Cold War.

“There was a need to reinterpret the geographical and historical context of Turkey,” he told me.

“The aim was to reintegrate the country into its surrounding region.”

Nonetheless, he was at pains to point out that these new relationships were compatible with Turkey’s long-standing Atlanticist and European tilt.

“If you have more influence in your own hinterland, you will be a more meaningful contributor to the EU or to Nato,” he told me.

“Turkey’s diplomatic power,” he said, “is an asset for our western orientation.”

There is no doubting the extent to which Turkey has played upon its extraordinary geographical position to develop new diplomatic and trading links.

Today it is as friendly with Syria as it is with Israel. It has close ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia. It has good relations with both Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah.

It has developed a strong relationship with Russia and it maintains its strong links with the US and western Europe.

Iraq concern

 

Mr Davutoglu is now the Turkish prime minister’s chief foreign policy adviser.

Turkey, he told me, was looking to play an ever-greater role in the Middle East, and despite all of the ups and downs between Ankara and Washington, ties between them were firm.

A Turkish youth holds a PKK flag (file image)

The US views the Turkish separatist PKK as a security threat

“The Turkish-American relationship is not an ordinary relationship,” he told me.

“It is well-established, it is well-institutionalised, and very sophisticated. Whoever comes to power in Washington, that institutionalised framework will set the basic parameters for the new president.”

It is certainly true that the Bush administration’s decision to view the Kurdish separatist organisation, the PKK, as a threat to US security interests as well as those of Turkey has gone some way to restoring trust between the two governments.

Iraq though, and especially the circumstances of any US troop withdrawal by a new US president, is a major concern for the Turkish authorities.

Veteran commentator Professor Iltar Turan told me that Turkey fears Iraq might simply break up if there is a too hasty US withdrawal; it might degenerate into full-scale civil war.

“Iraq needs to be integrated better,” he told me, “before a full US withdrawal can be entertained.”

We expect and hope that the new US administration will be more supportive of Turkey, but we will have to see
Suat Kiniklioglu
MP

There is also a strong sense here that Turkey’s diplomatic initiatives have not been fully understood or welcomed in Washington.

The Bush administration has been at best indifferent to Turkey’s major initiative in the region – its efforts to broker a peace deal between Israel and Syria.

Four rounds of indirect talks have been held in Istanbul, mediated by Mr Davutoglu himself.

He refused to touch on any detail, such were the sensitivities, but, he assured me, the progress had been remarkable.

Security matters

In Ankara, I went to see one of the AKP’s most prominent foreign policy experts, Suat Kiniklioglu, an MP and spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Committee.

On Syria, he said that the US administration “had been very distant”.

But he believed that the US was belatedly coming around, though he acknowledged that Turkey’s ties with Iran were something that the Bush administration would not favour.

“We expect and hope that the new US administration will be more supportive of Turkey. But you know,” he mused, “we will have to see – there are two very different candidates and there could be two very different Americas, depending upon who will win in November.”

 

So who do the Turks want to see as the next US president?

Not surprisingly, opinions differ.

I think a McCain presidency – especially with Ms Palin as vice-president, would be nothing short of catastrophic
Soli Ozel
Writer and academic

Prof Turan told me that Senator Barack Obama’s inexperience in foreign policy worries many Turks, along with some of the things he has said on issues that matter greatly to Turkey.

“Many of us,” Prof Turan told me, “think that the election of Senator John McCain who is familiar with security matters – and the US-Turkish relationship is to a large extent based on security concerns – is better.”

The leading writer and academic Soli Ozel took a different view. He told me that he favours Mr Obama.

“I think a McCain presidency – especially with Ms Palin as vice-president – would be nothing short of catastrophic,” he said.

“A white man of 72 years of age who is a Republican – I don’t think that is what the world looks to in order to mend relations with America around the globe, so I think that whatever is going to be good for the world, ought to be necessarily good for Turkey.”

Official spokesmen obviously do not want to be drawn into the political fray.

But Mr Davutoglu told me that Turkey wanted greater US attention to the crisis around its borders.

“The Turkish foreign agenda is like the United Nation’s agenda”, he argues.

“What do you have on UN agenda today? The Palestinian question, the Iraqi question, the Iranian question, the Caucasian question, the Kosovo question – they are all on Turkish foreign policy agenda too,” he said.

“Without Turkish involvement,” he went on, “it is going to be difficult to solve any of these crises. So Turkish strength, in terms of hard power, of soft power, in terms of economic relations, is an asset for any American administration.”

‘Derivative policies’

 

To get the perspective of someone with a foot in both countries, I went to see Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

He heads their Turkish research programme and is currently in Istanbul teaching for three months.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana (R) welcomes Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan at the EU headquarters in Brussels (15/09/2008)

Turkey can look elsewhere if it is rejected by the EU

“Turkey policy in Washington,” he says, “has always been a derivative of other policies – of Iraq policy, of Afghanistan policy and maybe now even of Georgia policy.

“Turkey is important as a secondary partner, not as a primary partner, with which the US envisions its big foreign policy debate.”

Whoever takes over in Washington, he says, needs to take a view of Turkey from 30,000 feet up; to realise that it is important when the US plans policies, not only when it is implementing them.

“This,” he argues, “would probably give the Turks the sense of importance they are trying to find in the region, and it would be one way for the next US president to counter Turkey’s ongoing rapprochement with Russia and Iran.”

In my week shuttling between Istanbul and Ankara, it seemed clear that Turkey was proud and confident of its considerable diplomatic achievements .

It wants these to be seen as an asset by the West too.

Turkey’s new regional aspirations are not to be seen as being in conflict with its anchorage in the western camp.

But if the West rejects Turkey – and by this Turkish commentators generally mean the European Union – then Turkey does have other cards to play.

No wonder then that the EU’s ambivalence towards Turkey creates so much unease in Washington.

September 19, 2008

‘Ibuprofen best’ for child fevers

‘Ibuprofen best’ for child fevers

Baby with father

Most symptoms of a fever in young children can be managed at home

Ibuprofen is better at alleviating childhood fever than paracetamol and should be the drug of first choice, say UK researchers.

The Bristol-based trial involving 156 children aged between six months and six years showed ibuprofen reduced temperature faster than paracetamol.

The British Medical Journal work also says alternating the two drugs could help, which some GPs already recommend.

But experts advised against this, in line with official guidance.

The concern is the relative ease with which children could receive an overdose.

Fever is very common in young children, affecting seven in every 10 preschool children each year.

Parents wanting to use medicines to treat young, unwell children with fever should be advised to use ibuprofen first
Lead researcher Dr Alastair Hay

It can be miserable for the child and cause anxiety for parents. Most fevers will settle by themselves but a few are caused by serious infections such as pneumonia.

Guidelines published last year by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) say either ibuprofen or paracetamol can be used for children unwell or distressed with fever.

But they say that, due to the lack of evidence, the two drugs should not be given together or alternated.

The researchers from the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England, recruited children who had a temperature between 37.8 and 41 degrees centigrade, due to an illness that could be managed at home.

Alternating drugs

Children were randomised to receive either paracetamol plus ibuprofen, just paracetamol, or just ibuprofen.

The medicines were given over a 48-hour period, with the group of children on both paracetamol and ibuprofen receiving them as separate doses.

This group received one dose of paracetamol every four to six hours (maximum of four doses in 24 hours) and then one dose of ibuprofen every six to eight hours (maximum of three doses in 24 hours).

Childhood fever
A normal temperature is between 36-36.8C (96.8-98.24F)
In children, any temperature of 38C (100.4F) or above is considered high and is called a fever
To find out if your child has a fever, place a thermometer under your child’s armpit or use a special ear thermometer

The children’s condition was followed up at 24 hours, 48 hours and at day five.

The researchers found that in the first four hours children given both medicines spent 55 minutes less time with fever compared to those given paracetamol alone.

But giving two medicines was not markedly better than just giving ibuprofen.

However, over a 24 hour period, children given both medicines experienced 4.4 hours less time with fever than those given just paracetamol, and 2.5 hours less time with fever than those just given ibuprofen.

Safety issues

Dr Alastair Hay, consultant senior lecturer in primary health care at the University of Bristol, who led the study, said: “Doctors, nurses, pharmacists and parents wanting to use medicines to treat young, unwell children with fever should be advised to use ibuprofen first.

“If more sustained symptom control over a 24-hour period is wanted, giving both medicines alternately is better than giving one on its own.

“However, parents should keep a careful record of when doses are given to avoid accidentally giving too much.”

We believe parents should keep it simple. We do not see at this moment any need to change the advice
Professor Steve Fields, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners

He said he thought it would be appropriate for NICE to review its guidance in light of the new study, saying the current guidance was too cautious.

In an accompanying editorial in the BMJ, Dr Anthony Harnden from the University of Oxford, warned of the relative ease with which children could receive an overdose.

He said that a “more complicated alternating regimen of paracetamol and ibuprofen may be less safe than using either drug alone”.

A spokeswoman for NICE said the 2007 guidance recommended that more research should be conducted on the effectiveness and safety of alternating doses of paracetamol and ibuprofen in reducing fever in children who remain febrile after the first fever-reducing medicine.

She said: “Any newly published research will need to be thoroughly assessed by independent experts as part of the process of updating clinical guidelines.

“This is essential to ensure that any new evidence is of the highest standards before any potential updates can be made to existing guidance.”

Professor Steve Fields, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, advised parents and carers of children with fever to follow the NICE guidance.

“We believe parents should keep it simple. We do not see at this moment any need to change the advice.

“However, this paper does demonstrate that using ibuprofen initially is more effective at reducing temperature and may demonstrate that using both ibuprofen and paracetamol together could have a positive effect.”

September 15, 2008

Insight: Who runs Russia?

Insight: Who runs Russia?

Vladimir Putin (L) and Dmitri Medvedev

Vladimir Putin (L) and Dmitri Medvedev must agree policy decisions

Getting to the bottom of the shadowy depths of Kremlin decision-making is tricky. Machiavellian power struggles, dark paranoia of security chiefs and long fingers of corruption can turn seemingly rational and transparent explanations inside out.

But even public signals are instructive, and in the wake of the Georgia crisis, Russia’s leadership is taking stock and has several messages for the West.

The first key question about Russia is – who is really in charge?

The standard answer is President Medvedev as Commander in Chief. He, and only he, ordered Russian troops across the border to hit back when Georgia attacked on South Ossetia.

But presidential power is now the tip of an iceberg. What murky currents swirl beneath the surface is less clear.

Dmitry Medvedev says he was caught unawares and admits his relative inexperience.

“I was on holiday on the Volga when the defence minister called,” he said at a conference of the so-called ‘Valdai Club’ of foreign academics and journalists who specialize in Russia.

“I’ll never forget that night, knowing the consequences there would be when I gave the order to return fire… especially when I’d only been president for 95 days,” he said.

But what about Russia’s ex-president, now his prime minister, who was also at the conference?

“However much authority I have, whoever I may be talking to, none of the troops or tanks would have moved an inch until President Medvedev’s order,” was Vladimir Putin’s attempt to deny his own importance when we asked about his role, thereby indicating that his clout and involvement were considerable.

Bridget Kendall
1998 to present: BBC diplomatic correspondent
1994-98: Washington correspondent
1989-94: Moscow correspondent

What is more, at the outset of the crisis, when Mr Putin was in Beijing for the opening of the Olympic Games, he was already thinking about Russia moving swiftly to recognize the two enclaves at the heart of the crisis.

He had taken the time, he told us, to inform the Chinese leadership that Russia would understand if Beijing chose not to react.

Double act

It begs the question – who is really driving policy, the president or the prime minister?

The choreography and timing of our audiences with both were instructive.

A pair of three-hour meetings, two elegant luncheon settings, two declarative statements for Russian TV cameras at the start, and even two carefully informal blue suits with matching ties.

All to signal, perhaps, that their status is equal – a dual leadership exercising power in tandem.

I never thought I’d need to use harsh rhetoric when I began this job. But there are some moments as president when you are left with no choice
Russian President, Dmitri Medvedev

Indeed one senior government official made a point of emphasizing the duality, constantly referring to them in the same breath.

Policy decisions had to be cleared with both, he said. And what was wrong with that? A double act surely strengthened, not muddled governance, requiring a green light from two instead of one.

We met Mr Putin first. Almost the entire discussion was devoted to foreign policy.

He was burning to give his point of view. He seemed supremely confident, engaged and in charge. His anger at the way he felt Russia had been treated in recent years blazed through, as though it was his own personal animosity which is now firing and fuelling current policy.

It was hard to remember he was no longer president.

Economic policy, supposedly at the heart of his new job as prime minister, came up sporadically and he admitted he is still mastering his new brief.

When he did comment directly on Dmitry Medvedev, the impression he left was curious.

Mr Putin seemed to want to play up the differences between them, as though suggesting a “good cop, bad cop” routine.

He described himself as “conservative” and with an uncharacteristic flash of self-deprecation admitted his penchant for blunt speaking was sometimes a liability.

Whereas he described Dmitry Medvedev as bright, young and highly educated, with modern and – he stressed this twice – liberal views.

“He’s a good lad,” said Mr Putin a touch condescendingly, as though recommending his young protege to a would-be employer for a new job.

The aim, it seemed, was to send a signal to the West that Dmitry Medvedev is indeed more flexible and reformist than Putin himself – and was forced to act tough because the crisis left him no option.

Moral high ground

So the US and its allies should understand they had made a big mistake by allowing this conflict to happen – and they would make an even bigger mistake unless they made the compromises Russia now wants.

When we met Dmitry Medvedev he underscored the point.

“I never thought I’d need to use harsh rhetoric when I began this job. But there are some moments as president when you are left with no choice,” he said.

“I very much don’t want the Caucasus crisis to destroy Russian co-operation with Europe and the United States,” he elaborated, and suggested he felt frustrated at his new role of “President of War”.

He’s a good politician, I think I have a better opinion of George than most Americans
Vladimir Putin on George W Bush

“A whole month has been lost on this war… I’d rather have been doing other things,” he said. “Yesterday when I met the defence and finance ministers, instead of talking about car and tractor production, we had to discuss where to deploy the Russian army. Priorities have had to change.”

So what, then, at this juncture does Russia want from the West?

The first message is that the Russian government is in no mood to compromise.

It insists it occupies the moral high ground in this crisis and sees no reason to give way.

This was tantamount to Russia’s 9/11, President Dmitry Medvedev declared to us, a defining moment in national policy and in relations with the outside world.

That conviction was echoed from top to bottom in our discussions with government officials, mainstream academics and journalists, all of them insisting Russia had no choice but to respond militarily and take South Ossetia and Abkhazia under its wing.

Any suspicion that Russia cunningly laid a trap that Georgia rashly walked into was dismissed as an outrageous lie.

The idea that by deploying troops deep inside Georgia and unilaterally recognising the two disputed enclaves’ independence Russia had gone too far was rejected out of hand.

The suggestion that by invading Georgian territory, and asserting its right to redraw the map, Russia made itself look like a bully, was also thrown out.

Instead President Saakashvili was blamed for triggering the conflict.

The United States had nudged him into it and rashly armed and trained his men while Europeans had looked the other way.

Any Western criticism to the contrary was hypocritical, given interventions in Kosovo and Iraq, and yet another example of anti-Russian hysteria and unfair stereotyping, based on prejudices left over from the Cold War.

Red line

Curiously both Mr Putin and President Medvedev were carefully respectful when it came to President Bush.

“He’s a good politician, I think I have a better opinion of George than most Americans,” said Mr Putin, at the same time complaining that he had twice tried to get the US president to intervene.

Instead it was Vice-President Cheney and the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with their Soviet expertise, who were targeted as villains, suspected of fueling anti-Russian sentiment in the US administration and egging Georgia on.

“We need to get rid of stereotypes. The US president has too many Sovietologists in his entourage,” observed Dmitry Medvedev caustically.

A Russian tank crosses a main route in Georgia

Russia is keen to avoid accusations of annexing Georgian territory

The second message that came through clearly was that Russia’s “red line” – any move to extend Nato to Russia’s borders by seeking to incorporate Georgia or Ukraine – still stands.

What Russia really wants is a new discussion on European security arrangements to replace Nato with something else entirely.

But short of that, attempts by the United States or Nato to rearm Georgia or to extend formal invitations to either Georgia or Ukraine to join the alliance seem likely to prompt a furious Russian response.

“Russia has zones that are part of its interests. For the West to deny it is pointless and even dangerous,” said President Medvedev.

“It’s unjust, it’s humiliating, and we’ve had enough. It’s something we are no longer prepared to endure,” he said. “You have a very clear choice here. Let there be no doubt about it.”

What exactly Russia would do to try to prevent this further Nato enlargement was left unclear.

“We’ll do all we can to make sure it doesn’t happen,” said Mr Putin carefully, talking about Ukraine.

Although on Georgia he noted Russian tanks had been within 15 kilometres of Tbilisi and could have taken the capital in four hours.

Economic concerns

So the hints of a threat, but not exactly – and that is interesting. Because the third message that came through was that Russia would like to think a major East-West confrontation can still be avoided.

There may well be powerful forces in Russia’s military and security elite, ultra nationalists who would like to see their country retreat from global integration and rely once more on internal resources – economic and military – as in Soviet days, to reclaim influence geographically and show the outside world Russia’s might can no longer be ignored.

Roubles being sorted at the Goznak mint in Moscow

Russia’s stock market value has fallen by 50% since May this year

But diplomatic and economic isolation does not seem to be what the Kremlin leadership currently wants to embrace.

The haste with which both Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev shrugged off the notion that Russia might have to pay a price for this crisis was telling.

They denied that the loss of nearly 50% of Russia’s stock market value from its all time high in May had much to do with the Georgia crisis.

A far more likely cause, they argued – with some justification, given what is happening on Wall Street – was the impact of global financial instability.

In comparison to many other countries, they insisted, Russia’s economy was in good shape – signs of capital flight were temporary. Foreign investors would be back. Russia’s energy resources were needed by everyone and it had weathered economic storms before.

The fact only Nicaragua had joined Russia in recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia was also dismissed as unimportant, even if the glaring lack of overt diplomatic support for Russia’s actions appears to be a sensitive point.

When the leader of South Ossetia told us he intended to follow up independence by amalgamating his tiny republic with North Ossetia and becoming part of the Russian Federation, he was hurriedly slapped down. Within hours he had issued a retraction.

Outright annexation by Russia of what is, after all, legally speaking Georgian territory is an accusation Moscow seems anxious to avoid.

Yes, Russia wants to claim that the ball is now firmly in the court of the US and its allies – that it is up to them, not Russia, to decide how this geopolitical crisis plays out.

But behind all the moral outrage, I felt there was also a nervousness, a worry that if Russia’s bluff is called and further tensions with the West ensue, it might force a stand-off from which neither side could back down.

“There is a chill in the air and a loss of trust,” said Dmitry Medvedev, “but I don’t think this is a corner turn that will lead to a long confrontation. This is not what we want. And it’s not what you want either.”

September 12, 2008

Deadly strike in Pakistan hotspot

Deadly strike in Pakistan hotspot

Map

At least 10 people have been killed in north-west Pakistan in a suspected missile strike, officials say.

The missile struck a home before dawn near Miranshah, the main town in the North Waziristan region on the Afghan border, intelligence officials said.

Some reports, quoting local officials and eyewitnesses, said the missile was fired by a US drone.

The attack comes amid growing concern in Pakistan over unilateral military action by the US.

American and international troops are fighting Taleban and al-Qaeda militants in Afghanistan.

Cross-border

“The pre-dawn strike destroyed the house,” news agency AFP quoted an unnamed official as saying.

Another 10 people were wounded, he said.

The missile landed in a house in the Tol Khel area on the outskirts of Miranshah, the agency reported.

It would be the fifth cross-border attack since the beginning of this month allegedly carried out by US forces, who have not officially confirmed their involvement.

On Monday, at least 14 people were killed and 15 injured in a suspected US missile strike in North Waziristan, witnesses and officials said.

The attacks follow persistent US accusations that Pakistan is not doing enough to eliminate Taleban and al-Qaeda sanctuaries in the border region.

The upsurge in strikes has alarmed Pakistani military and government officials, who say it seriously undermines their counter-insurgency operations.

Putin defends Georgia offensive

Putin defends Georgia offensive

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Sochi (August 2008)

Mr Putin said Russia was prepared to work with Western partners

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has made an impassioned defence of Russia’s military intervention in Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Mr Putin accused the Western press of an “immoral and dishonest account of what happened”.

He said Russia had had no choice but to intervene following what he alleged was Georgian aggression.

And he went on to dismiss out of hand European criticism of Russian force as “disproportionate”.

“What did you want us to do? Wave our penknives in the air and wipe the bloody snot off our noses?” he asked, adding: “When an aggressor comes into your territory, you need to punch him in the face – an aggressor needs to punished.”

He added that Russian tanks had, after all, only been 15km from Tbilisi and could easily have taken the Georgian capital and ousted President Mikhail Saakashvilli if they had wanted to.

Mr Putin also accused the US of behaving like the Roman Empire by believing it could pursue its own interests and extending its influence to the Caucasus without regard for Russia’s point of view.

“God forbid that we should tread on US toes in its backyard,” he said, expressing frustration that the United States seemed to think it was alright to arm Georgia on Russia’s border – a move which he repeatedly argued had provoked Georgia to take up military action.

‘Anti-Russian hysteria’

On wider relations with the West, he insisted that current tensions did not amount to the start of a new Cold War, and dismissed arguments that Russia might suffer diplomatic or economic isolation because of the crisis.

SOUTH OSSETIA & ABKHAZIA
BBC map

But he also said Russia was prepared to work with Western partners and wanted a constructive relationship with the European Union but only if what he called “realities” were taken into account.

Russia, said the prime minister, should be treated as an equal partner and all sides agree on new common rules of behavior based on international law.

“The problem is not with us,” Mr Putin said, “it lies with political groups in the West who use old phobias to whip up anti-Russian hysteria.”

However, he warned that tensions between Russia and the EU may well worsen if, as expected, US missiles are deployed in Poland as part of the controversial missile shield.

He said he expected that to be the moment that Russia would reposition its missiles to point at European targets.

“Why have you placed missiles under our nose?” he said, and warned it would ratchet up an extra notch the nuclear arms race in Europe.

UK relations

Mr Putin also indicated that relations with Britain were unlikely to improve while Russian emigres remained in the UK despite Russia’s requests to extradite them to stand trial – an apparent reference to the Russian business tycoon Boris Berezovsky and the former Chechen spokesman, Ahmed Zakayev.

Vladimir Putin (L) talks with George Bush in Beijing (8 August)

Putin said the US had not intervened early on in the Georgian crisis

“Why do you allow UK territory to be used a launching pad to fight Russia?” he asked.”Imagine if we gave sanctuary to armed members of the IRA – that’s why its not possible to build normal relations with Britain,” he said.

Mr Putin also threw new light on the crisis in South Ossetia.

On 8 August, when he was in Beijing for the start of the Olympic Games, he had spoken to US President George W Bush soon after hearing of the attack by Georgian troops on the South Ossetian capital – but the United States had failed to intervene.

In Beijing, he had already raised the question of Russia recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent territories with the Chinese government, and told them Russia did not expect Chinese support.

This is an interesting comment that suggests Russia was already planning to recognise the two enclaves from very early on in the crisis.

September 8, 2008

Spears dominates MTV awards show

Spears dominates MTV awards show

Britney Spears

Spears had been nominated 16 times before but had never won

Singer Britney Spears has swept the board at the MTV Video Music Awards show in Los Angeles, collecting three prizes for her track Piece of Me.

The 26-year-old, whose performance at last year’s ceremony was widely panned, thanked “God first and foremost for just blessing me like this”.

The other winners at the show in Hollywood included the Pussycat Dolls, Linkin Park, Lil Wayne and Chris Brown.

And there were performances from Kanye West, Rihanna and Christina Aguilera.

West left the ceremony – hosted by British comic Russell Brand – empty-handed.

He fell out with MTV after last year’s show when he failed to win any prizes and had vowed never to perform at the awards again.

MTV MUSIC VIDEO AWARDS
Pussycat Dolls
Best video: Britney Spears, Piece of Me
Best pop video: Britney Spears, Piece of Me
Best female video: Britney Spears, Piece of Me
Best male video: Chris Brown, With You
Best rock video: Linkin Park, Shadow of the Day
Best hip-hop video: Lil Wayne, Lollipop
Best dancing: Pussycat Dolls (pictured), When I Grow Up
Best new artist: Tokio Hotel

And in 2006 he publicly complained about not winning best video at the MTV Europe awards.

Spears has suffered a year of health problems and legal difficulties which saw her lose custody of her children, while her father James has taken legal control of her affairs.

Her video for Piece of Me won the main prize – video of the year.

It beat Chris Brown’s Forever, Burnin’ Up by the Jonas Brothers, When I Grow Up by the Pussycat Dolls and the Ting Tings’ Shut Up and Let Me Go to the coveted prize.

The same promo also earned Spears the awards for best video by a female artist and top pop video.

She had been nominated for MTV video awards 16 times before but had never won.

“Wow, thank you, I’m in shock right now,” she said as she collected her third and final trophy.

“I was not expecting this. This is such an honor to have this award right now. I want to thank my fans. This is dedicated to you.”

Presidential race

Brand said the night marked the “launch of a very new Britney Spears era”.

“Consider this the resurrection of Britney Spears,” he said. “If there was a female Christ, it’s Britney.”

During his innuendo-laden opening monologue, Brand discussed the upcoming US presidential election, publicly backing presidential hopeful Barack Obama.

“Some people, I think they’re called racists, say America is not ready for a black president,” he said.

“But I know America to be a forward-thinking country because otherwise why would you have let that retarded cowboy fella be president for eight years.

“We were very impressed. We thought it was nice of you to let him have a go, because, in England, he wouldn’t be trusted with a pair of scissors.”

Last year’s big winners were Justin Timberlake with four awards, including top male artist, and R&B star Rihanna, who won video of the year for Umbrella.

The 2008 ceremony is being broadcast by MTV in the UK on Monday at 2100 BST.

September 5, 2008

Rice making historic Libya visit

Rice making historic Libya visit

Condoleezza Rice in Lisbon before going to Libya - 5/9/2008

The US state department described the visit as a “new chapter” in relations

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hailed as “historic” her visit to Libya to meet its leader Muammar Gaddafi.

But she pointed out the “suffering” caused by the North African country’s long stand-off with the West.

Libya was on the US state department list of sponsors of terrorism until 2003, when it abandoned weapons of mass destruction and renounced terrorism.

Ms Rice will be the first US secretary of state to visit Libya since 1953.

“It is a historic moment and it is one that has come after a lot of difficulty, the suffering of many people that will never be forgotten or assuaged,” Ms Rice told a news conference in Lisbon, Portugal, before leaving for Libya.

Her trip will also include visits to Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.

But the visit could be overshadowed by Libya’s failure so far to honour a deal offering compensation to families of victims of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

Six years ago, such a visit would have seemed far-fetched, but diplomacy and political will have overcome the obstacles.

The US State Department have described it as a “new chapter” in relations between the two countries, following on from the restoration of diplomatic ties in 2006.

‘Way forward’

Earlier this month, Libya agreed to pay compensation to families of the victims of the Lockerbie aircraft bombing, for which it formally accepted responsibility in 2003.

The deal includes compensation for Libyan victims of the United States’ retaliatory bombing raid over Libya in 1986.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi  (file image)

Ms Rice’s visit was partly intended to be a reward for successful completion of the deal, but Libya has not yet transferred the promised hundreds of millions of dollars into a humanitarian account.

The US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, David Welch, told Reuters that he was optimistic the transfer would happen soon but that Ms Rice would press Libya on this issue.

Col Gaddafi has stopped short of referring to America as a friend, but in a televised speech this week he said improved relations were a way for both countries to leave each other alone.

Assistant Secretary of State Paula DeSutter told a briefing in Washington on Thursday that the visit would show other countries they have “a way forward” if they change their behaviour and co-operate with the US.

Our correspondent says that although the visit is largely symbolic diplomacy, many in Libya hope that US-Libyan relations will only improve in the long-run.


What do you think about Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Libya? Send us your comments

Ukraine ‘must live without fear’

Ukraine ‘must live without fear’

US Vice-President Dick Cheney (r) and Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko

Mr Cheney aims to strengthen ties with Russia’s neighbours

US Vice-President Dick Cheney has said Ukraine has the right to live without fear of invasion, adding that the US stands by its bid for NATO membership.

Mr Cheney met both the prime minister and president in Kiev, the last stop of a tour aimed at underlining support for US allies in the former Soviet Union.

Mr Cheney reassured the president that the US had a “deep and abiding interest” in Ukraine’s security.

Analysts fear Ukraine could be the next flashpoint between Russia and the West.

“We believe in the right of men and women to live without the threat of tyranny, economic blackmail or military invasion or intimidation,” Mr Cheney said, in an apparent reference to Russia’s military intervention in Georgia.

‘Hostage’

Mr Cheney arrived in Ukraine just days after the country was plunged into political turmoil.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s party blocked a motion condemning Russia’s actions in Georgia, and sided with the opposition to vote for a curb on the president’s powers.

Members of President Viktor Yushchenko’s party walked out of the coalition government in protest, leading the president to warn that he could be forced to call a snap general election.

Mr Cheney urged the politicians to heal their divisions and be “united domestically first and foremost”.

“Ukraine’s best hope to overcome these threats is to be united,” he said following separate meetings with Mr Yushchenko and his former ally turned political rival, Yulia Tymoshenko.

Mr Cheney expressed support for Ukraine’s bid to become a member of Nato.

Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yushchenko (image from February 25, 2008)

“Ukrainians have a right to choose whether they wish to join Nato, and Nato has a right to invite Ukraine to join the alliance when we believe they are ready and that the time is right,” he said.

Russia is strongly opposed to any further expansion eastwards of Nato, and is furious that Ukraine and Georgia have been told that, one day, they will be offered membership.

But Mr Cheney – recognizing Ukraine’s contributions to NATO missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo – said that no country beyond NATO would be able to block Ukraine’s membership bid.

President Yushchenko says Ukraine is a hostage in a war waged by Russia against ex-Soviet bloc states.

The strategically-located country is important to Russia, with pipelines that carry Russian gas to European consumers and its Black Sea port, home to a key Russian naval base.

Russia has a powerful tool at its disposal, namely the large ethnic Russian population in Ukraine’s southern province of Crimea.

Open aggression

Mr Yushchenko has restricted Russia’s naval operations, and insists Moscow must leave when an inter-state treaty expires in 2017.

Ukraine has said it is ready to make its missile early warning systems available to European nations following Russia’s conflict with Georgia.

Mr Cheney’s visit comes at an awkward time for President Yushchenko, with the country’s largely pro-Western ruling coalition divided in its attitude toward Russia.

The leaders’ faltering relationship has now boiled over into open aggression, with Mr Yushchenko threatening to dissolve parliament and call a snap election.

The president has been a staunch supporter of his Georgian counterpart, Mikhail Saakashvili.

But Ms Tymoshenko has avoided outright condemnation of Russia, leading analysts to suggest she may be hoping for Moscow’s backing in a possible bid for the presidency in 2010.

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