Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Biden’s speech not reassuring

THE early reaction to US Vice President Joe Biden’s Munich foreign policy speech has been one of mild disappointment. This was the first opportunity for the new Obama administration to set out its stall before a high-powered international audience. Much was expected — even an announcement that Bush’s provocative missile defense shield was to be scrapped. In the event, as one commentator noted, the Biden speech could very well have been delivered word for word by the former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

All the talk of a “new tone” was fine as far as it went but in one particular area the tone was anything but new. Biden parroted the old carrot-and-stick Bush approach to the Iranians. Being willing to talk, as Obama said in his campaign for the White House is a start, but it is how Washington chooses to talk to Tehran that is important. If as Biden also said, the new administration is pressing the reset button on foreign policy, then that reset ought to apply across the piece. Moderate opinion in Iran, according to some US observers, has become concerned at the militant and uncompromising approach of the Ahmadinejad administration. They also claim the Iranian president’s widespread economic failures have added to discontent. Now that former President Mohammad Khatami has announced he will run again this June, there is a chance that Obama will have a less strident Iranian leader to deal with in five months’ time. It, therefore, might seem foolish to give Ahmadinejad the same belligerent Bush rhetoric for the Iranian president to push back against. Biden was equally disappointing on Gaza. Obama intends to keep the Bush policy of excluding Hamas from talks. Indeed Biden even echoed Bush ignorance when he stated blithely “Hamas represents a small — and I believe a very small — number of violent extremists (who) are beyond the call of reason”. Does he not know that just over three years ago, Hamas won an outright majority in a free and fair election throughout the Palestinian territories? Despite this disappointingly tentative start elsewhere, Biden’s speech clearly did chime with the Russians. The warmth with which Biden and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ivanov greeted each other yesterday seemed testimony to this.

Maybe too much was expected of this first exposure of White House foreign policy intentions. Of considerable interest, however, is the fact that it was the vice president, not the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who came to Europe to deliver the message. Biden is clearly not going to be a sleeping partner in the administration. Clinton, meanwhile, has yet to define her role. Obama has appointed George Mitchell as his special Middle East envoy and Richard Holbrooke has the same job with Pakistan and Afghanistan. US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is reportedly fighting to maintain his department’s long-standing control of Chinese relations. The US foreign policy portfolio does not, therefore, rest entirely with Clinton. Given Clinton’s views on Israel (or Palestinians) and Iran, the people in the Middle East may welcome this. But a softer version of Dick Cheney is not going to reassure them.

West’s next move in Zimbabwe

THE West should do what it can to hasten the success of Zimbabwe’s unity government, said the Christian Science Monitor in an editorial yesterday. Excerpts:

A sliver of light is shining in Zimbabwe, once a star nation in Africa that’s been brutally mismanaged by dictator Robert Mugabe. This week, Mugabe’s rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, is expected to become prime minister in a new power-sharing government. Few give the deal much hope, yet it must be given the opportunity to succeed.

How big an opportunity? Africa’s leaders, as voiced by the 53-member African Union, say the new unity government is cause for the international community to lift sanctions on Zimbabwe. Now’s the time, it argues, to help to its feet a country staggering under hyperinflation and near-total joblessness, hunger and severe health problems — including a cholera epidemic. Not so fast, caution the United States and European Union. They’re lukewarm to the new political arrangement, and want to see proof of power-sharing and effective governance before they’ll ease sanctions. But doing nothing also leaves Tsvangirai with nothing — no leverage to succeed.

What the West can and should do is publicly offer limited humanitarian assistance to Tsvangirai, channeled through the ministries that the opposition in theory will control. Food, medical assistance, and temporary shelter could be funneled through the Health Ministry, for instance. The West should demand accountability along with this help, then be willing to pull the plug if the aid is blocked by Mugabe and his supporters, or diverted to them — as it has been in the past.

With such a strategy, Tsvangirai has something to work with, and, if he can deliver, perhaps show even Mugabe’s supporters that he’s the one to back.

A unity government in Zimbabwe may last only weeks. But the West should do what it can to hasten success — not failure.

Arab News

Saturday, 7 February 2009

The all-seeing eye of state surveillance

The all-seeing eye of state surveillance
Comments (75)

* Editorial
* The Guardian, Friday 6 February 2009
* Article history

It is not any one cigarette or one extra drink that is ruinous to the health. The damage is done over the years, almost imperceptibly. Grave threats to the health of democracy can also accrue so incrementally that they draw little attention. A committee of peers diagnose one such danger today in a report on the steady creep of surveillance. The charge of hysteria is routinely used to sweep aside such talk when it comes from crusading journalists and pressure groups. The Lords constitutional affairs committee, however, cannot be dismissed the same way. A more dignified band of dignitaries would be hard to imagine - it includes a former attorney general who is a conservative champion of that antiquated role, a Tory expert on the constitution, and a founder of that force of militant moderation that was called the SDP.

Their insistence that mundane data collection "risks undermining the fundamental relationship between the state and the citizen" may be dramatic, but it is rooted in careful argument. Privacy is not only a precondition to a life of any quality, it is part of the meaning of liberty. The rule of law in Britain is not codified in a constitution, but underpinned by shared support for the twin ideals of executive restraint and individual freedom. Under the gaze of 4 million CCTV cameras, and in the face of the burgeoning electronic tabs being kept on citizens, both ideals are strained. Bit by bit the state - and private firms - cease to believe that the courtroom is the place to hold individuals to account, and instead grow used to monitoring them in all sorts of contexts in the name of convenience. Bit by bit, meanwhile, individuals learn to live with the ubiquitous prying eye.

Technical change rather than political choice explains much of this drift. As collecting information gets cheaper and easier, it starts being collated in ways that no one would have dreamed up in the past. The committee does not dispute that this can bring gains, from cracking crimes to ensuring patients receive consistent treatment. As with complex derivatives in the City, however, the great problem has been that regulation has not kept pace with innovation. The peers suggest sensible steps to redress the balance - for instance, a new requirement on public bodies and firms to encrypt the personal data they hold to cut the risk of it falling into the wrong hands. An independent review of the proclaimed but largely unproven benefits of CCTV could help ensure it is used only where it really does make a difference. Automatic assessment of what government announcements mean for privacy - something already required for race equality and red tape - would build a prompt into the system so that Whitehall would get into the habit of considering the issue, a prompt that could help to turn the tide.

Failure to think is not always the problem - sometimes it is bad deliberate decisions. The peers rightly insist that it is just not acceptable for the state to hang on to the DNA of individuals never convicted of a crime, purely on the arbitrary basis that they once came under suspicion. Strasbourg recently said the same thing, in a ruling that must now be given effect. The wide powers to snoop that council officers have been handed need to be trimmed. Judicial oversight is part of the answer; another part is making sure the powers are used proportionately. Following someone suspected of a violent crime is one thing; following a parent suspected of fibbing about their address to get their child into the right school is quite another.

One of the few shortcomings of the Lords report is its silence on those threats to privacy that ministers are currently pushing, notably the super-database on mobile communications. That silence may be the price for achieving all-party consensus. Even after that price has been paid, however, the committee has done invaluable work. It has nailed the age-old lie on surveillance - by asserting that those with nothing to hide can still have a great deal to fear.

The Guardian Editorial