Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Let's Not Rush To War, Again

The New York Times ran a story today highlighting the eerie similarities between the 2003 distortions, hyper-ventilating, and misuse of intelligence data that led to the disastrous Iraq war and what we are experiencing now regarding a possible war with Iran. The major difference now is that the United States now has a president and military establishment that seem far less eager than the Bush administration to rush headlong into another yet Middle Eastern quagmire.

Of course many members of Congress and some of the neo-cons are banging the drums for more resolute action (read military) against the potential Iranian nuclear threat. This being an election year Republicans  love accusing Obama of being weak in the face of the Iranian threat. This plays well to the Republican right wing that actually believes this kind of force makes American ‘look strong’. It would be gratifying if such people recognized that the Iraq war combined with the economic/financial mismanagement leading to the 2008 blow-up did more to create the widely accepted notion that America is on the downhill slope than anything Obama could possibly do, or not do. The fact that the US is using force intelligently for once (Libya, Osama bin Laden, and Anwar al-Awlaki) seems lost on the critics who won’t be happy until the 81st Airborne Division is descending on Teheran.

Some of the loudest voices for a pre-emptive strike against Iran are coming from Israel where government officials waste no effort to paint the nuclear situation in Iran in the most frightening way possible. Israel has legitimate fears of a nuclear-armed Iran whose leaders make even the North Koreans look reasonable. But is war the only answer, and, more specifically, should the United States be dragged into a war on the basis of Israeli intelligence that might , just might be tailored to frighten an uniformed American public and swing votes to jingoistic Republican presidential candidates trying to demonstrate their ‘toughness’?

The current Israeli government really has two fears: a justified fear of Iran with nuclear weapons and a lesser fear of the re-election of Barrack Obama. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu would love to see a friendly Republican replace a highly critical Obama after the election next fall.  He would love to be rid of Obama with his constant criticism of the West Bank settlements and Netanyahu’s steadfast refusal to enter into serious negotiations with the Palestinians. Republican hopefuls like Newt Gingrich already claim that the Palestinians are an ‘invented´ people. The other GOP candidates have fallen in line with the ‘Obama is timid toward Iran’ theme. Netanyahu’s only problem is that none of the current crop of Republican candidates looks capable at this point of beating Obama. And with a second-term Obama Netanyahu can expect even more criticism and pressure to do a deal with Palestinians.

There are serious doubts that Israel could actually pull off an effective attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities on its own. It’s a long way from Israel to Iran and the Israelis would have to get permission from people like the Jordanians and Iraqis to fly over those countries. Hard to see this happening. Even if they did get this permission, would Israeli planes have enough fuel for the long trip, dodging Iranian air defenses, and time over the target to knock out the facilities? If they could convince the United States to help the problem becomes much easier.

Of course there is another way, but Netanyahu shows no signs of even trying this. Israel could make common cause with a number of Arab countries – Saudi Arabia for a start - that also fear and loath Iran. But no Arab country would dare do this unless and until Israel reaches a reasonable agreement with the Palestinians that leads to a real Palestinian state. Among other things this would mean giving up the idea of Greater Israel incorporating the West Bank and agreeing to halt the settlements. The Israeli government may actually believe that the settlements are not a major issue, but every Palestinian and most of the other Arabs do. It is very difficult seeing how any Arab government would risk its very existence by forming an alliance with Israel until this situation is resolved. Until that time the Arabs will rely on American protection from any Iranian threat.

So far the US administration is keeping its cool. Intelligence analysts tell Congress that Iran has not reached the point of building a bomb. The U.S. Chief of Staff recently told his Israeli counterparts that an attack right now would not be ‘prudent.’

Given the nature of the Iranian government and the near-universal disbelief of its claim to be building plants for nuclear energy and not a bomb it is entirely possible that the situation may deteriorate into armed conflict. But right now we don’t know just how the Iranian regime will react to tougher sanctions. Nor, according to the U.S. Secretary of Defense, has Iran reached the point of no-return on the development of a nuclear weapon. If we do have to fight another war with unknown and potentially widespread, damaging consequences let’s at least be  sure we do so on the basis of real knowledge and commitment to avoid Iraq II.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Memo To The English: Winter Exists. Deal With It.

For the most part the English are an eminently practical race of people with their feet planted firmly on the ground in sensible shoes. No less than Napoleon thought he was insulting them when he borrowed Adam Smith’s phrase and sneeringly called them a ‘nation of shop keepers.’ Rather than be insulted the English took pride in the name, and smiled brightly as they packed Napoleon off to a rock in the South Atlantic to spend his sunset years.

Their national passion seems to be standing in line patiently for whatever reason, even sometimes no reason at all. Serious criminals may get off with a warning, but queue jumpers quickly become social pariahs. English drivers stop at red lights and actually let pedestrians cross the street safely at designated pedestrian crossing zones. “Keep Calm And Carry On” is more than a memorable World War II slogan. It has become ingrained in the English DNA.

For all that, they suffer from one serious blind spot. They refuse to believe that winter, more particularly snowy winter, usually comes every year. Temperatures drop. Snow falls. Yet the general attitude – especially in official circles – seems to be that this phenomenon is somehow unreasonable and really shouldn’t happen. Therefore, according to them, it doesn’t really happen. But winter does happen – every year. We have been back in London for several years now and every year it has snowed sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. But regardless of the amount the result is complete chaos.

London traffic snarled in 2 cm of snow
Every snowfall is preceded by dire weather announcements making it sound like a giant tsunami is rolling up the Thames or an errant asteroid is about to obliterate much of Scotland. Meteorologists react with wide-eyed wonder that such a thing could happen, as if this is the first time in recorded history snow has fallen on Britain. Every year the drama caused by as little as 2 cm of snow is the same. Britain’s largest airport Heathrow cancels flights, schools close, train service is disrupted, and the tube inevitably goes haywire. I’m not sure London even has a snow plough. I have never seen one. In any event, side streets remain snow covered, and no one even thinks about clearing the sidewalks. The attitude seems to be ‘God put it there. God can take it away.’ Maybe I’m a little prejudiced having recently returned from Canada where even a great deal of snow and freezing temperatures don’t cause a complete breakdown in daily life. But, really, one would think that official Britain would begin to get a grip and admit that winter comes around every year, and perhaps, just perhaps, they could learn from the Russians and Canadians and take some precautions.

Mariella on a snowy day in London

But you don’t really experience (endure?) a British winter until you have been invited to friend’s old country home that has been designated as architecturally significant. Forewarned is forearmed. The zealots of British architectural heritage have dictated that no amount of cold air sweeping through loose 18th century windows and thin, un-insulated walls should serve as an excuse to install useful things like double-glazing (Heaven forbid!) or modern insulation.

The Horse Guard braving a winter day
“Just put on another jumper and snuggle up to the fire,” they proclaim in their hearty, horsey tones, dripping with scorn that anyone would prefer warmth to architectural purity. This might be good advice if you weren’t already wearing two large sweaters and the fire actually generated some heat. Usually these homes come with enormous fireplaces better equipped for roasting an entire pig than heating a room. Any heat from the fire goes straight up into the huge chimney while acrid smoke from unseasoned logs soon fills the room. It is very bad form, of course, to notice any of this even as your eyes water and you start to lose sight of your hostess through the icy smog as she attempts to pass you a glass of champagne.

Planning commissions, in charge of guarding this dubious heritage, ignore completely that these houses are environmental disasters in wasting enormous amounts of heating oil and natural gas in a futile effort to heat them. Some brave soul even tried to put up, gasp, solar panels on a shed behind the main house. These were invisible to all except the planning authorities who quickly ruled that saving energy and limiting carbon emissions were far less important than maintaining the rather dubious architectural heritage of a 19th century barn.

Meanwhile, grab an extra hot water bottle as these two visions of ‘what’s good for us’ battle it out.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

This Modern Tragedy Requires Euripides

A front page headline in Saturday’s  International Herald Tribune says it all, really.

            “If Measured By Mistrust, Greece Is In A Class By Itself”

European leaders have finally reached the point of scepticism in their dealings with Greece that they should have reached when they let the country join the Euro several years ago. Both parties would have been spared the fiscal and monetary train wreck now in progress had there been a bit more scepticism about the numbers and a bit more concern about the reality of modern Greece rather than the ideal of ancient Greece.

But on a larger point, how has the nation once hailed as the proud successor to splendid Hellenism, the cradle of democracy and home to so many brilliant and artistic people fallen so far that it has now become synonymous with chiselling and cheating?

Several people will undoubtedly write lengthy, learned books about this situation, but it would really take a modern Euripides -- not some bloodless accountant -- to capture the pathos and scale of this tragic descent. All these works may well all start at the same point . . . the abject failure of Greece’s self-appointed and self-perpetuating political elite. The current crop of Greek leaders didn’t invent this situation, but they certainly continued ‘con gusto’ the age-old system of patronage and corruption that spawned a crippling, nationwide sense of entitlement.

“Somebody owes me. I’m entitled. Why should I work until I am 60 get a pension? I voted for him, now I want to get my reward” are common refrains from Crete in the south to the Albanian border in the north.  The politicians were brilliant at fostering and manipulating this attitude. They created a direct link between do-nothing jobs for you and your family and votes for themselves. They built an economic system designed to keep themselves in power and anyone else out. It is no accident that the Greek economy has been called the last Stalinist economy in the world. Even Cuba shows signs of coming out of its cocoon. Not Greece.

Now, suddenly and cruelly, it has become crystal clear that this entire system was a complete fraud. The emperor really has no clothes, and the torrent of money has ended. Not a single person in any position of authority in Greece prepared the people for this jarring confrontation with economic reality. No wonder the average person is frightened and very, very angry.

At some point one would not be surprised to see a latter-day Oliver Cromwell stand up and repeat the furious charge he levelled at the Rump Parliament in 1653.

You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately . . . Depart I say and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”
But do any of the political elite show the least sign of changing or showing even the smallest amount of contrition? Has anyone actually apologized for dragging the Greek people through this chaos? Do they sound responsible for the almost punitive conditions laid down for the financial rescue plan? They do not. That would be too much to expect from people still consumed about being elected band leader on the Titanic. Ideally there would be an entire new cast of young leaders champing at the bit to take over and reform the country’s outdated and inefficient institutions. Sadly, nothing like this is on the horizon.

Greece is now faced with a bitter choice – accept the harsh terms for financial rescue or default and most likely get thrown out of the Euro. I’m not at all sure that the very cynical, self-interested Greek politicians would be against a return to the drachma. It’s going to be very difficult to continue business-as-usual with some humourless, anal-retentive German or Dutchman managing the purse strings if Greece manages to stay in the Euro. A return to the drachma might cause serious economic problems in Greece, but the ‘unbearable’ external pressure for reform would be removed allowing the discredited political class to continue as before.

The only good news is that is over-long drama is about to end. The author very cleverly came up with two possible endings. We’re just not sure which one we will see.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Very Old Grievances In A New Context

The tensions between Greece and northern European countries regarding repayment of huge financial obligations are nothing new. To many hard working northerners the Greeks have always been and are now nothing but a bunch of lazy, corrupt spend-thrifts with an inflated self-image. Many Greeks have tended to view the northerners as a bunch of voracious boors with no appreciation for the finer things in life whose unstated goal is to loot even more Greek antiquities like the Elgin Marbles, the Zeus Altar and the Four Horses of the Hippodrome whose replicas now grace Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice. These age-old mutual misperceptions would be comical if they were not interfering in the deadly serious business of trying to solve the massive Greek debt problem without having it spread to other countries in the Euro zone.

Efforts by the so-called Troika -- the IMF, the European Union, and the European Central Bank – to get Greece to implement drastic economic and social reforms required for further financial assistance are seen as nothing more than an extension of the pressure and excuses the Crusaders and Venetians used in 1204 during the misnamed Fourth Crusade when they sacked the glittering, golden capital of Greek Byzantium, Constantinople, filled with art treasures, splendid palaces, public buildings and monuments never seen in Western Europe at that time. Some in Greece accuse their current creditors of acting no better, using the crisis as an excuse to reduce Greece’s economic sovereignty – bringing it down effectively to something like the state of Rhode Island in the United States – broke and powerless.

Many of us have trouble remembering what we had for lunch yesterday let alone what happened more than 800 years ago in the long-deceased Byzantine Empire. Not so with many Greeks who still tend to see their current relations with northern Europe through that prism. Just how Christian crusaders theoretically motivated by religious zeal to reclaim Jerusalem wound up sacking not one but two other Christian cities is an interesting question that has been examined by a number of scholars whose work provides valuable insights into these events that resonate in today’s highly charged negotiations.

With deep apologies to the scholars, it might be fair to say that the Venetians and Crusaders viewed the conquest of Constantinople in commercial terms (‘Nothing personal, you understand. Just pay us what you owe us and we’ll be out of here.’) while the Greeks viewed the assault as nothing more than a crude attack on their city, their imperial sovereignty, and, most important of all, their Greek Orthodox religion that refused to bow down to Rome. In the end the Venetian navy and Crusader army proved much better at warfare than the Greeks and their assorted allies including other Italians and the Viking imperial guard.

In short summary the Venetians had charged the French, German and Flemish Crusaders an exorbitant amount that would make the Mafia wince to transport their army from Italy to the Holy Land. The Crusaders were short of funds and had to agree to a Venetian alternative that included helping Venice recapture a Christian city across the Adriatic called Zara. The city was duly taken, but the Crusaders were still short of men and money. Enter a feckless young man called Alexius IV who wanted to recapture the throne of Byzantium from those who had overthrown and blinded his father Isaac II in one of the many Byzantine orgies of self-destruction. Here was a deal ready to be made. And the very commercially minded Doge of Venice Enrico Dandolo wasted no time.

Dandolo extracted promises of riches beyond belief, ships, men for the Holy Land, and even a pledge to renounce the Orthodox heresy and return to the Roman Catholic faith if the Venetians and Crusaders would just help restore Isaac II and young Alexius IV to their rightful throne.

Thus the stage was set for yet another diversion to sack another Christian – albeit what the Crusaders regarded as a heretical branch of Christianity – city. Putting Alexius IV and his father back in power proved much more complicated than anyone anticipated. The young man was not popular, and very few in the city liked the deal he made with the Venetians and Crusaders. In too deep to back out, the Crusaders persisted in their efforts to put him on the throne. Ultimately they succeeded but then Alexius began to renege on his promises of wealth and return to Roman Catholicism. The deal really went bad when Alexius himself was overthrown and strangled. His successors told the Crusaders in no uncertain terms that any deal Alexius made was off.

“We’ll see about that,” Dandolo must have said. In short order the Venetians and Crusaders conquered the city and stripped it of much of its finery – the Four Horses were shipped back to the basilica of Saint Mark in Venice for example – in payment of debts they felt they were owed. “We had a deal, and you tried to stiff us,” you can just hear the Crusaders telling the Greeks.

The Latin rule of Constantinople lasted only about 50 years, but the entire Byzantine Empire never really recovered from the sack of the city, and it fell totally to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Was this fate caused by insufferable pressures from the Roman Catholic Crusaders or did it reflect the internal weaknesses of the Greeks? In short, as one French crusader leader Geoffrey de Villehardouin claims again and again the Greeks got nothing more than what they deserved as regicides, heretics and generally untrustworthy people. He even gets some support from a highly placed contemporary Byzantine official Nicetas Choniates who laments in his history the deep divisions of Greek political society, the lack of respect for authority, the mob rule of the streets, and the family groupings who pursued their own interests at the expense of the common good.

Sound familiar in today’s context? It should. And sad to say very few people seem to have learned the ruinous cost of these continued misperceptions.

Note: Anyone wishing to get a more complete view of the fascinating and disastrous Fourth Crusade will enjoy the following works:

The Fourth Crusade: Event & Context. Michael Angold
The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople .Donald Queller
The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople. Jonathan Phillips
Geoffrey de Villehardouin: The Conquest of Constantinople. Villehardouin was a high ranking French crusader whose work drips with self-righteous criticism of the Greeks.
Robert di Clari: The Conquest of Constantinople. Di Clari was another French knight who adopted a less formal style than Villehardouin and gives more the sense of the splendour of Constantinople, especially when you think about his home of Picardy in northern France in 1204. No comparison.
Nicetas Choniates: O City of Byzantium. This literate, articulate high ranking Greek official gives perhaps the best account of the internal decay of the Byzantine Empire at this time. Highly critical of the Latins, he is honest enough to say that in many ways the Greeks dug their own grave.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Hi! My Name's Ralph. I'll Be Your Guide Tonight.

Even though I live in London I consider myself a loyal American. I pay taxes, I vote, I start tapping my feet when I hear John Philip Sousa, and I still think baseball is a much better game than cricket with its completely unintelligible set of rules. And there is only one kind of ‘football’ -- one that doesn’t involve overpaid delinquents running around in shorts and flopping on the ground like beached seals when the opposition growls at them.

But there is one part of American life that can drive me to drink even warm English beer. I realize American business people think they invented the concept of upward marketing, constantly trying to get you to spend more than you wanted to, or perhaps should. In some cases like the department store Nordstrom this is done with skill and often a little humor. Once I dared to venture alone (my wife was back in London and my daughter was busy elsewhere) into the Nordstrom store in Seattle to buy a couple of shirts and some ties. Simple transaction, right? Not so simple. The attractive sales assistant didn’t say anything at my choice of ties. She didn’t have to. Her somewhat pitying expression said that perhaps, just perhaps, the chartreuse tie might not be the best combination for the blue checked shirt. About an hour later I walked out with better shirts, ties that actually matched the shirts, and a blazer that I had no idea I needed when I went into the store. Other than a sizeable dent in my credit card it was not an unpleasant experience.

But this approach fails utterly in restaurants. At many American restaurants you’re barely seated at your table when an eager waiter person with the glazed expression of a devout missionary steams across the floor in the direction of your table. Fresh from an inspiring pep talk from the manager (Get this mark’s bill up to $300 or your fired!) he launches into his spiel.

Frozen Customers Don't Cause Problems

“Hi, my name’s Ralph. I’ll be your guide tonight. I’m not really a waiter (no kidding), but I’m happy to help guide you through the menu, chef’s specials, our own very special wine selection.” This rapid fire monologue is delivered as he pours freezing water and ice into your glass despite the fact that the air conditioning is working overtime and the outside temperature is -20 centigrade. He hasn’t really noticed that you’re still bundled up in coat and scarf. American restaurant managers must believe you will eat more if you’re semi-congealed.

Various replies to Ralph’s introductory salvo come to mind, but after your wife delivers a quick kick to your shins and a clenched-teeth “Be Nice!” you limit your remarks to assuring Ralph that your reading skills aren’t all that bad and that the menu does not seem to have too many tricky words.

Oblivious to sarcasm Ralph plunges ahead and gives you the pedigree of each item on the menu. “The meat comes from George Jones’s special farm where the animals are given loving care and fed only the most wholesome grains. The lettuces come from Arthur’s farm garden and never, never come in contact with any chemicals.” He shudders a little at the thought of any chemical coming anywhere near Arthur’s lettuces.

You'll Just Love Our Special Tonight
But this is just a warm-up to his description of the chef’s special. He leans over confidentially and informs us that we are so lucky tonight to have the chance to experience the special – which just happens to be the most expensive item on offer – of a fusion (watch out for that word) of slow roasted bison with prairie grass, tacos, chili peppers, celeriac, etc. etc. By the time he’s through you’re not quite sure what’s getting fused, except perhaps your digestive system.

By this time you’re thinking that maybe a tuna fish sandwich on toast would not be bad at all, but Ralph hasn’t finished with you yet. He has to go through the wine list bottle by bottle only to point out that the $250 bottle from some vineyard you have never heard of would go perfectly with the bison and tacos. Even a glass of Coca Cola sounds good after this.

All this brought back fond memories of a lugubrious Viennese waiter called Gotwald. Gotwald comes from a family of waiters (his ancestors probably served Charlemagne his morning mash) and has spent his entire career in one of Vienna’s finest restaurants. Wearing his starched white jacket with a discreet badge of some medieval Viennese guild he greets you with the barest of nods no matter how many times you have been to this restaurant. He places the menu in front of you and would sooner run naked through the streets than interrupt your contemplation with mindless chatter. Questions are answered intelligently, and if the wine choice is not quite right he might offer the slightest grimace without ever – of course – suggesting that your knowledge of wines is painfully limited. He has perfected the art of profiling his customers and knows instinctively what price range of wine to suggest without a hint of condescension.

Meanwhile Ralph is beginning to wind down and is waiting eagerly with poised pencil to take our orders so he can return to his acting career. His interest in our table drops sharply when we limit our order to grilled sole and a simple veal chop accompanied by two glasses of the house red. He quickly overcomes his disappointment when the food comes and he inevitably waits until our mouths are full before asking if we are enjoying ourselves. The service is remarkably quick, however, because the sooner we leave the sooner another ‘mark’ will come in and be offered the unique opportunity to experience the chef’s special.