DAWN - Opinion; February 26, 2007

Published February 26, 2007

Russia’s return to centre stage

By Tanvir Ahmad Khan

THE mid-1990s in Moscow was a time to reflect on history philosophically. Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost had come too late to save the Soviet Union from disintegration even though the Russian Federation, one of the successor states, still had as many time zones and enough potential assets to provide the building blocs of a great nation.

In a single day’s work, one came across waves of conflicting views and emotions: nostalgia for the lost empire, revanchism for it, quest for a new European identity, a deep- seated Eurasian self-awareness that found that identity inadequate, and above all, an all too visible ambivalence about the United States. What was perhaps not doubted was an abiding faith in Russia’s manifest destiny. The phoenix will rise again.Boris Yeltsin had played an important role in the last and final act before the curtain came down on Lenin’s great union of Soviet states. He was, however, now finding it difficult to contend with contrary winds that buffeted the new federation. It is easy to caricature him as was recently done. But he was by no means a disconnected man lost in his private pleasures. It was a time of troubles. Russia was inundated with foreign solutions and even more daunting pulls and pushes from within.

In retrospect, he has to be credited with success in warding off a lurch back to communism and/or a push sideways into the ultra-nationalism of a fascist right. He also was the author of a constitution with strong presidential powers that Vladimir Putin has used to bring about a remarkable recovery.

I was no longer in Moscow when the great meltdown of August 1998 took place but the fires that brought it about in the Russian economy had been smouldering for some time. Russia’s headlong plunge into privatisation had disturbed the traditional relationship between economic entrepreneurship and the state and not yet settled into a partnership of trust. It had produced the famous eight or more fabulously rich oligarchs who sought to create their own internal and foreign policy preferences. Russian economy had increasingly come under the strain of a downturn in the energy market and the creeping East Asian crisis.

Despite a $22.6 billion IMF/World Bank package, a 90-day moratorium on external debt repayments and quick reshuffle of key posts by Yeltsin, the currency crashed. By September 1998, exchange rate with dollar was 21 roubles, more than three times the rate of 14 August. Amongst the financial institutions that collapsed were Inkombank and Oneximbank.

As Russia fought its way out of this debacle, two important personalities emerged with a distinctive nationalistic vision of Russia’s place in the world. Yevgeny Primakov, whom I had met with much admiration as the intelligence czar and then as foreign minister, became prime minister on September 11. Earlier in July, Yeltsin had appointed Vladimir Putin as the head of the Federal Security Service. Yeltsin had tried hard to negotiate an honourable partnership with the West.

While economy was at the top of the agenda, he had also aimed at a stable relationship with Nato achieved through special consultative forums and councils and a broad understanding on Central Asia, the Baltic states, Ukraine and Belarus. Future historians would record that Russia was perceived by the West as negotiating from a position of weakness and, therefore, amenable to unequal policies. Even as Russia gradually shifted its red lines in favour of the West, an aggressive eastwards push of Nato, the European Union and other western institutions continued to tax Russian limits of tolerance.

President Putin’s authoritarian democracy yielded positive results even though the Euro-Atlantic community intensified its criticism. His battle with Mikhail Khodokovsky and his powerful company Yukos was not just another round against the oligarchs; it carried a strong international message that the state was no longer indifferent to planned mergers such as that of Yukos with Sibneft with support from Chevron Texaco and Exxon Mobil.

Putin welcomed western investment but would not compromise on the right to restructure vital sectors of the economy in national interest. The windfall profits in energy have helped President Putin realise Primakov’s dream of an independent foreign policy. Russia has paid off its external debt and adopted long-term strategies for future development. Putin is now free to launch fresh foreign policy initiatives.

He had spelt out his policy unambiguously in an important speech to the Federal Assembly in April 2005. The Russian dismay at pro-western developments in Ukraine was also known. Yet, at the Vilnius summit in May 2006, US Vice President Dick Cheney was characteristically harsh towards Russia. The G-8 summit in Moscow later in summer became an occasion for the Russian president to present his alternative worldview challenging basic assumptions driving the George Bush foreign policy. He was promptly accused by western analysts of engineering another Cold War.

This very briefly is the backdrop to the candid speech President Putin made to the Munich Security Conference on February 10, 2007, just before he left for his trail-blazing visits to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan. This was no outburst. He said he was going to avoid “excessive politeness and the need to speak in roundabout, pleasant but empty diplomatic terms.” “However one might embellish this term (a unipolar world),” he said, it “refers to one type of situation, namely one centre of authority, one centre of force, one centre of decision-making”, a world “in which there is one master, one sovereign”. The unipolar world, he declared is not only unacceptable but also impossible in today’s world.

In a direct reference to the United States, he said that “we are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper use of force – military force – in international relations.” First and foremost, he alleged, the United States has overstepped its national borders in every way. He took issue with it on several counts -- forward bases, intermediate range missiles, militarisation of space, the “pitiable condition” of the treaty on conventional armed forces in Europe, expansion of Nato, non-proliferation – and visualised a multipolar world as an unstoppable outcome of present political and economic dynamics all over the world.

In Riyadh, Doha and Amman, President Putin projected Russia as a reliable partner in inter-state dealings, a friend of the Arab world and a traditional supporter of the Palestinians. The visit to Jordan meant that he was in the region not only for consultations amongst energy giants but also as an independent stakeholder in Middle East issues.

The positive view taken by him of the Makkah accord between Fatah and Hamas contrasted with certain discomfiture with it that American diplomacy has not cared to conceal. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s half-hearted bid to generate a peace momentum could only have substantiated Putin’s thesis. She was not seen by the Arabs as an impartial honest broker in the joint consultations with President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert.

Saudi Arabia and Russia are today the largest producers of oil in the world, the pillars of global energy security. President Putin broke new ground by offering nuclear power reactors to Riyadh. The oil-rich GCC states are currently debating acquisition of nuclear power technology. By making this offer and by simultaneously welcoming Saudi investment in Russia, Putin sent a strong signal for long-term economic cooperation.

If the moderate Arab states were willing to break out of western monopoly, Russia would be a partner in the diversification of choices. Russia is also willing to explore new avenues in the management of energy resources. It has held discussions with Iran, Algeria and others about a global gas syndicate, an idea widely seen in the West as a thinly veiled proposal for a natural gas cartel. The message is that the West alone cannot lay down the rules of global energy politics

Energy is fast becoming an important vector of efforts to replace a unipolar world by a new world order characterised by several power centres. There is clearly a new élan in the traditional Russian approach to the states of Central Asia. During my Moscow years, Russia was too preoccupied with the challenges of crafting an honourable relationship with the United States, Nato and the European Union to pay full attention to East Asia. But things have changed and today Russian energy supplies are beginning to flag a new strategic space in that region. This space impinges on the policies of China, Japan, the Korean peninsula, India and the Asean countries. It should be noted that immediately after Putin’s Middle East trip, the foreign ministers of Russia, China and India met in New Delhi. One thing which probably was never mentioned explicitly but must have been in the thoughts of all participants in that conference would be that the evolving strategic environment ruled out India playing the planned counterweight to China in the region.

The latest Indo-Russian talks on future arms sales to India are another important development. In Pakistan, we need to take a correct measure of the situation and I hope to devote more than one article to this and allied considerations in the weeks ahead.

The writer is a former ambassador to the Russian Federation.

Blair’s purblind view of Iraq

By Marina Hyde

IF ONE is to endure a prime ministerial discourse on Iraq for any length of time these days, it is necessary — in the name of sanity — to cultivate strategies of detachment.

Destroying another radio solves nothing, and there may be health risks associated with beginning one's waking day shouting dementedly at the glottal-stopped voice drifting over the airwaves. And so it was, listening to Tony Blair sing the praises of his Iraq adventure on the Today programme on Thursday, that my mind began to wander.

If it wasn't all such a bleeding mess, I thought vaguely, the prime minister's delusions of success would be almost comical. Comical ... comical ... the word triggered some neural connection. But what? Gradually but inexorably, the memory of another charismatic proselytiser for Iraq's rude health began to resolve itself.

Cast your mind back to the Iraq war as it was originally billed -- the one where we won in three weeks -- and which revisionist historians may just come to classify as a kind of phoney war curtain-raiser to the prolonged horror that succeeded it. Quite the most entertaining cameo of the day -- even counting Clare Short's hilarious insistence on staying in the cabinet so she could oversee the reconstruction effort -- was that played by Saddam's information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who we came to know as 'Comical Ali’.

Not for him the relentless negativity that so exasperates Tony Blair where critics of his mission's success are concerned. “There are only two American tanks in the city,”the information minister would beam beatifically during one of his must-watch daily briefings in early 2003, surrounded by reporters who would have been to able to count at least three if they stood on a low chair. Or recall his declaration as news channels screened footage of coalition troops patrolling Saddam international airport: “They are not in control of any airport.”

Listening again to Blair's Today interview, it is easy to imagine his declarations as simply one melody in a discordant symphony, a series of those beloved soundbites that could be spliced with contrapuntal news of actual events. “We should be immensely proud.” Crash! A six-hour firefight in Ramadi leaves 12 dead. “What we had to do was rebuild an Iraqi army and police -- we did that.” Bang! A US soldier dies and three are injured by a roadside bomb in Diwaniya. “It is better now that [Saddam] has gone.” Wallop! A car bomb factory is discovered in Baghdad. Just as it was with his apparent inspiration, Comical Ali, it becomes ever more difficult to avoid the suspicion that the prime minister is living in a parallel universe, where success and failure are merely states of mind.

Of course, as mentioned, the information minister's input in this historic saga was limited to a cameo. After being captured by coalition forces, he was almost instantly released, evidently deemed to have known so little as to be useless. Unlike Mr Blair, al-Sahaf seems to have become swiftly aware of the limits of his appeal, and after a few TV appearances, he now lives an unassuming existence in the United Arab Emirates.

His prime ministerial imitator, however, is assumed to have far loftier plans, with the North American lecture tour a seeming inevitability. Enthralled audiences can no doubt expect more insights such as we gained on Thursday, when the PM appeared to justify Iraq's sprightly journey in the direction of civil war with the observation: "You can't absolutely predict every set of circumstances that comes about." Well quite. You can, however, have a vague punt on possible outcomes, and if you are over the age of 15, not involved in a still-unfathomed platonic infatuation with the US president, and willing to listen to intelligence you didn't pilfer off the internet, you might hazard the road ahead was slightly more pitfall-ridden than seems to have been judged.

But will the time ever come, one wonders idly, when our revisionist historians reconsider the ravings of Comical Ali? The idiocy of most of his statements will, admittedly, endure. Footwear-based supremacy has not been achieved, despite the much-vaunted boast that the Iraqis would be waiting for the coalition forces "with shoes". But the smile fades when recalling other pronouncements. “Do not be hasty because your disappointment will be huge,” the old crazy warned. “You will reap nothing from this aggressive war, which you launched on Iraq, except for disgrace and defeat.” “We will embroil them, confuse them, and keep them in the quagmire,” he said later, adding that “they cannot just enter a country of 26 million people and lay besiege to them! They are the ones who will find themselves under siege.”

There are, of course, rather fewer than 26 million people in Iraq these days, but even those who dispute the precise extent of the population depletion might agree that it comes to something when, in hindsight, several statements by this preposterous character seem more prophetic than anything spouted by the government. Fortunately for Mr Blair, this kind of cynicism is not voguish in the hotel ballrooms of North America. There he may expect to be permanently cosseted against any unwelcome intrusions of reality, and we can only wish him the speediest of journeys.—Dawn/ Guardian Service

Practising torture

By Rosa Brooks

IT was much like the usual Nigerian e-mail scam, but it had a dispiriting twist.

"Greetings," went the e-mail, "I am Captain Smith Scott of the US Marine Force … in Baghdad-Iraq. On the 10th day of February 2007 … we captured three (3) of the Terrorists…. In the process of torture they confessed being rebels for late Ayman al-Zawahiri and took us to a cave in Karbala…. Here we recovered…. some US dollars amounting to $10.2M…. I am in keen need of a Reliable and Trustworthy person like you who would receive, secure and protect these boxes containing the US dollars for me up on till my assignment elapses here in Iraq."

Apparently, savvy e-mail scammers now assume that a reference to US marines torturing prisoners lends credibility to their come-ons.

Well, why not? Thanks to Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, "extraordinary renditions" and "black sites," many people now take for granted the image of the American as torturer. At least 100 prisoners have been killed while in US custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many more have been beaten, humiliated and abused. Still others have been secretly handed over to our even less-scrupulous friends in various Middle Eastern intelligence services. And though the vast majority of our troops and officials abide by both the spirit and the letter of US and international laws, such abusive tactics have been authorised by officials at the highest level of the US government.

In November 2001, 66 per cent of Americans said they "could not support government-sanctioned torture of suspects" as part of the war on terrorism. And when photos of abuses at Abu Ghraib surfaced in the spring of 2004, the US news media treated it — rightly — as a major scandal. In October 2005, the US Senate voted 90-9 in support of legislation prohibiting the inhumane treatment of prisoners, sponsored by Sen. John McCain.

But over the last year, we seem to have lost our former sense of outrage, though prisoner abuse has hardly ended. A handful of low-ranking people have been convicted for their roles in abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, but the bigger fish carry on as usual. In September, President Bush gave a speech defending the use of "alternative" interrogation methods; a poll shortly after that found public opposition to torture was down to 56%. In October, Congress obligingly passed the Military Commissions Act, which permits the use of coerced testimony in trials of suspected enemy combatants and restricts the ability of US courts to examine allegations of abuse.

Lately, news relating to torture has been greeted by a collective yawn. On Jan. 31, German prosecutors issued a warrant for the arrest of 13 CIA operatives involved in the illegal abduction of Khaled Masri, a German citizen who was taken to Afghanistan for a little "alternative" interrogation — and then unceremoniously abandoned in Albania when the CIA realised that it had grabbed the wrong guy. On Feb. 16, an Italian court indicted 26 US intelligence operatives and contractors accused of kidnapping an Islamic cleric and taking him to Egypt, where, he says, he was tortured.

It should be huge news when two of our European allies demand the arrest of US government agents — but these stories were rapidly superseded on the front pages by news of Anna Nicole Smith's embalming and matters of similarly pressing national interest. (This newspaper learned the names of several of the indicted officials but declined to print them "because they have been charged only under their aliases.")

If you need any more evidence that the American public has gotten blasé about torture, consider the hit Fox action drama "24." The show featured 67 torture scenes during its first five seasons, and most of those depicted torture being used by "heroic" US counter-terror agents.

In this week's New Yorker, Jane Mayer reported on the efforts of human rights groups, interrogation experts and military leaders to persuade the show's producers to stop glamorising torture. A few days after her story was posted on the New Yorker's website, executive producer Howard Gordon announced that "24" will indeed have fewer torture scenes in the future — but not because of the complaints. The reason for the shift? Torture "is starting to feel a little trite," Gordon explained. "The idea of physical coercion or torture is no longer a novelty or surprise."

We've come a long way since 1630, when John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, told the settlers on the Arabella that "we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us." If we failed to live up to the high standards we set for ourselves, warned Winthrop, "we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world."

His prediction, it turns out, was absolutely right. Just ask the Nigerian e-mail scammers.—Dawn/Los Angeles Times Service

A quick fix

By Gwynne Dyer

ASTONISHINGLY, it was Australia's Liberal government, so deeply sunk in climate change denial for so long, that took the radical step of banning incandescent light-bulbs. But then, Prime Minister John Howard faces an election later this year, and Australia has been suffering from the worst and longest drought in its modern history, so the electorate has been getting worried about climate change.

Severe drought is the main predicted effect of global warming in the temperate regions of the globe. Australia is already the most arid of the world's inhabited continents, and speculation has been mounting that the current drought may portend a drastic fall in the country's ability to grow food. A political gesture was needed, and the light-bulb industry is a lot easier to take on than the coal industry.

The gesture is cynical, but it is also amazingly effective. As Australia's Environment Minister Bill Turnbull pointed out, "If the whole world switches to these (fluorescent) bulbs today, we would reduce our consumption of electricity (worldwide) by an amount equal to five times Australia's annual consumption of electricity." In other words, it would be like turning off all the lights, fans, televisions, computers, fridges, ovens and air conditioners in Japan, and most of the industrial machinery as well. That is a quick fix that would really make a difference.

The incandescent bulb was invented 125 years ago, and has changed little since. Only five per cent of the electricity it consumes is converted into light, with most being wasted as heat, but it still accounts for the vast majority of the bulbs that light homes and workplaces around the world. The compact florescent bulb that should have replaced it long ago uses only one-fifth as much electricity, and lasts ten to twenty times as long.

Compact fluorescent bulbs are more expensive, and early ones gave a cold white light that many people did not like (but that has been remedied in newer models). They cannot replace spotlights, candle bulbs, or halogen lights, and they are trickier to recycle. But they could replace 99 per cent of conventional incandescent bulbs in a year or two (since the latter burn out so often), and the average country's electricity consumption would immediately fall by about two percent. Domestic electricity bills would fall by around 15 per cent.

It's a cheap, quick, one-time fix, but we need such fixes, because the situation is much worse than the experts thought even five years ago. What we do in the next ten or twenty years will make the difference between a 1.5 degrees C hotter world and a 3 degrees C hotter world in the 2060s and 2070s. That is probably the difference between great discomfort and inconvenience on the one hand, and global famine, global refugee flows and global war on the other.

Climate change is cumulative, with the greenhouse gases we emit today hanging around year after year to distort the climate further, so quick fixes are not to be despised. Even if the tipping point has finally arrived in terms of public attitudes towards climate change, it will take years to translate good intentions into global treaties -- and a one percent cut in emissions this year is as good as a two or three percent cut in 2015. Changing the light-bulbs is something we can do this year.

There are other quick fixes that could offer comparable returns. Just banning all electrical appliances whose "standby" function consumes more than one watt of power would cut global CO2 emissions by an estimated one per cent. (The "standby" function means that the appliance comes on right away, rather than warming up for a few seconds first -- but current "standby" programmes use up to 10 watts of power.)

Similarly, two measures would cut aviation's contribution to the emissions problem by up to one per cent. One would be to tow departing airliners out to the end of the runway, rather than have them start their engines up about half an hour early and get there under their own power. The other would be to create continent-wide air traffic control systems with a single fee structure, thus ending the nonsense of flying around the more expensive countries to save on fees, at a cost of 6-12 percent higher emissions.


A Congressional duty

ON the first day of the new Congress, two leading senators announced they would join in an attempt to reverse the hasty and ill-considered decision of the previous Congress to deprive foreign prisoners at Guantanamo Bay of the ancient right of habeas corpus, which allows the appeal of imprisonment to a judge.

One of the senators, Arlen Specter, predicted that the courts would rule that the provision of the Military Commissions Act eliminating habeas corpus was unconstitutional; he nevertheless joined the incoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick J. Leahy, in sponsoring a bill restoring the appeal right.

Now Mr. Specter's prediction is looking less sure: The US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled last week that Congress's act was constitutional, and it threw the cases of dozens of Guantanamo detainees out of federal court. That ruling will almost certainly be reviewed by the Supreme Court on appeal, but Congress should not wait for its decision. It should move quickly on the Habeas Corpus Restoration Act.

The Supreme Court has already twice overruled decisions by the D.C. Circuit denying Guantanamo detainees habeas rights, but it is hard to predict whether it will do so again. The court's composition has changed since those rulings, with the addition of justices more likely to be sympathetic to the arguments of the Bush administration. Congress has reversed part of the basis for the court's previous rulings by enacting a statute saying that persons found to be "enemy combatants" by military review panels, including detainees held at Guantanamo, have only a limited right of appeal.

The principal remaining question is whether Congress's action is permitted under Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution, which says, "The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended" except in cases of "Rebellion or Invasion." Two judges of the three-member appeals court panel ruled that the provision does not apply at Guantanamo because it is not on US territory and the detainees are foreigners. A dissent written by Judge Judith Rogers pointed out that one of the earlier Supreme Court rulings stated that giving appeal rights to Guantanamo inmates "is consistent with the historical reach of the writ of habeas corpus." But the court has not ruled squarely on the constitutional issue.

Rather than wait for the court's decision, Congress should correct its own mistake. The 51 to 48 vote rejecting Mr. Specter's previous attempt to restore habeas condemned hundreds of foreign prisoners to indefinite detention without trial at Guantanamo; only a few score are expected to be prosecuted by the military commissions.

Since 2002 it has become clear that a number of prisoners at the facility were arrested in error, are not terrorists and pose no threat to the United States. Moreover, improvements in the prisoners' treatment have come about largely because of their court appeals. Congress has both a practical and a moral interest in ensuring that this basic human right is restored.

—The Washington Post

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007



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