Category Archives: International affairs

Margaret Thatcher: Her Master’s Voice

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis for Cartoon Movement http://www.cartoonmovement.com/p/6035

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis for Cartoon Movement http://www.cartoonmovement.com/p/6035

More than the bouffant hair, the handbags, the power suits and pussybow blouses, it was the voice that lingered.

For anyone growing up in the UK in the Eighties, Margaret Thatcher’s voice was unforgettable. Proceedings in the House of Commons were not televised until 1989 and, until then, TV news had to make to with displaying pictures of Parliament and playing audio of the debates, which often consisted of Thatcher swatting away her opponents with her polished vowels.

That memorable voice, though, was the product of elocution lessons, which were part of a wider effort to make Thatcher more appealing. This was not the only illusion of the Conservative leader’s time in power.

One cannot question that when she became prime minister in 1979, Thatcher took over a country in a steep decline. The economy was tanking, inflation was rising, industrial relations were mired and a general post-colonial malaise had descended over the UK. Getting out of this mess was an immense challenge.

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Hiroshima, peace by peace

I just noticed that Hiroshima is marking the 67th anniversary of the world’s first atomic attack. I started thinking back to my one and only trip – so far – to the Japanese city a few years ago. It was an unforgettable experience that I tried to capture in this article, which was originally published in Kathimerini English Edition in November 2007. I hope you will excuse me for reminiscing.

A group of World War II veterans gathered in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on Sunday to mark the 65th anniversary of the start of the Manhattan Project, which led to the building of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Debate over the moral as well as strategic validity of this action continues to rage while the peril of having weapons of mass destruction is as relevant as ever. This week Pakistan, one of the world’s nuclear powers, warned that it has “the capacity to defend itself” if the US attempts to grab its weapons amid growing political unrest in the country.

Against the background of this angst and strife, Hiroshima appears to be one of the few places in the world that is at peace with itself. It might not be such an irony that the first city in the world over which an atomic bomb exploded has become one of the most peace–loving spots on Earth. But it is surprising that it is so peaceful as well.

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Et tu, Obama?

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Having seen the caliber of some of the Republican Party’s presidential candidates, it’s hard not to want with every fiber in your body for Barack Obama to succeed during his first term in the White House. But this week, thanks to the comments he made aboutGreeceafter meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it was difficult not to feel respect for the American leader slipping away.

The headlines after the two politicians held their news conference inWashingtonrevolved around Obama and Merkel’s warning that the Greek debt crisis could bring the world economy to its knees if it’s not tackled properly. “America’s economic growth depends on a sensible resolution of this issue,” said Obama. “It would be disastrous for us to see an uncontrolled spiral and default inEuropebecause that could trigger a whole range of other events.”

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Europe and Asia to work together to fight piracy

Godollo, Hungary – Asian and European countries, including Greece, have agreed to cooperate more closely to tackle piracy off the coast of Somalia, which has been a particular problem for Greek-owned ships.

In a statement issued at the 10th Asia-Europe Foreign Ministers (ASEM) in Godollo, near Budapest in Hungary, the 48 members of ASEM described the frequent attacks on vessels in the Gulf of Aden as “a major security threat” to international maritime safety.

Piracy is estimated to cost shipping companies up to $12 billion a year, as insurance costs skyrocket.

While agreeing that a key to tackling the problem is to support, under the auspices of the United Nations, measures to establish law and order in Somalia and to encourage sustained economic development in the region, the ASEM partners, who comprise 60 percent of the world’s trade, agreed that they should work together to tackle the actual practice of piracy.

“Emphasis should be laid on the development of a long-term approach and on support for regional cooperation frameworks, including in the area of capacity-building through concrete activities such as information-sharing, training of officials and holding joint naval exercises as and when appropriate,” the ministers’ statement said.

The European Naval Force, Navfor, is currently patrolling the area but activity from gangs remains high. A Greek-owned freighter with 23 seamen on board was seized just last month. As of May, pirates in Somalia were thought to be holding more than 25 vessels. Over 400 sailors are currently being held hostage, the highest number since 2007.

Piracy has become a multi-million industry for the gangs, who demand large ransoms for the release of the vessels they seize.

In the most recent incident, Somali pirates released a Greek-owned, Cyprus-flagged ship for a reported ransom of $6 million. The MV Eagle, a 52,163-deadweight-ton merchant vessel and its crew of 24 Filipinos that was seized in January about 500 miles south-west of Oman, while it was en route to India from Jordan.

The theme of this year’s ASEM meeting, which concluded on Tuesday, was “non-traditional security challenges,” which energy security, climate change, growth and poverty reduction.

Nick Malkoutzis

Ask not

Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” President John F. Kennedy’s words have been repeated, relayed and reinterpreted so many times since he uttered them on a chilly January morning in Washington in 1961 that their inspiration and impact has been severely diluted. They remain, however, relevant — but in a very different way now than they were almost 50 years ago.

The man who helped Kennedy construct this memorable sentence — his adviser Ted Sorensen – died just over a week ago. Apart from signifying the passing of someone who had a deep understanding of public service, his death also comes as a timely reminder that we have entered an era when the essence of “ask not” is being turned on its head. The financial crisis that emanated from the United States followed by the debt crisis that has battered many European countries, like Greece, is creating a new dynamic in the relationship between people and their leaders. Politicians from Washington to Athens are discovering that voters who have seen their livelihoods threatened and their quality of life compromised feel they have done enough for their countries; they now want their countries, and the people that lead them, to start giving something back.

This was one of the messages evident from the walloping that President Barack Obama’s Democrats received in last week’s mid-term elections. It’s clear many of those who voted for Obama two years ago feel there has been too little progress in terms of addressing day-to-day problems that stem from the state of the economy. No matter that Obama, in the words of New York Times opinion writer Timothy Egan, “saved capitalism.” After suffering the impact of the near-collapse of a system they helped build at the behest of their politicians and financiers, Americans aren’t concerned about theoretical arguments or long-term groundwork — they want the basics: jobs, prospects and security, or at least they want to be convinced that these basics are on the way. “Monetary stimulus is near exhausted; another big fiscal stimulus is now unthinkable. Obama has to stimulate something intangible: confidence,” writes the International Herald Tribune’s Roger Cohen.

Although PASOK did not suffer the “shellacking,” as Obama termed it, that the Democrats did at Sunday’s local elections, in what was effectively Greece’s version of the mid-term, it did receive a strong buffeting. It seems the source of this backlash, which saw PASOK’s share of the vote on a national projection fall by 9.5 percent compared to the 2009 parliamentary polls, was very similar to the fatigue that undid the Democrats. Even before Sunday’s elections, Papandreou and his government had demanded a lot from Greeks: They had asked them to put up more of their salaries for taxation, to give up jobs they thought were secure and to shut up if they disagreed. But ahead of the local elections, Papandreou had one more request to make: that Greeks vote for PASOK to avoid creating political instability in the country. He was asking too much.
Having pushed through the Kallikratis program, a much-heralded groundbreaking overhaul of local government, Papandreou and his team did not have the courage to stand by it. They tried to cajole the Greek people into voting not based on local issues – such as who would ensure their streets are clean or even preventing corrupt and ineffective mayors from being voted back into power – but along the same old tired party political lines.

The prime minister said that an unfavorable result would trigger snap national elections. He no doubt expected this to appear a bold move but it ended up looking like a childish stunt. There was absolutely no basis for seeking a fresh mandate: Having signed a three-year agreement with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, the government had made a public commitment to see through a package of reforms that would secure the loans Greece needs to avoid bankruptcy. To put this at risk with a show of supposed bravado, when there was absolutely no evidence of a mass public movement against the government or the memorandum, was an idea mined from the same vein of irresponsibility and self-absorption that brought Greece to the brink of collapse in the first place.

Having leveled the threat of snap polls, Papandreou said Sunday’s result proved Greeks still had “the same will for change” as at last year’s general election. How he arrived at this conclusion when PASOK garnered a million less voters than in October 2009 was never explained. Nor did he go into the details of how he derived a fresh mandate from the outcome when, for roughly every one person who voted for PASOK’s candidates, two people stayed at home, as abstention reached almost 40 percent. The near-record disinterest in the local elections was confirmation that, burdened by concerns about their immediate future, such as whether they will have jobs next year, few had the time or appetite for Papandreou’s power games.

It was not just Papandreou that showed he was completely out of touch with public sentiment. New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras also displayed a talent for getting carried away with trivialities. After campaigning on an ultra-populist anti-memorandum ticket supported by absurd claims such as being able to wipe out the public deficit in a year, Samaras suggested Sunday’s result, which helped the conservatives secure only a handful of municipalities and no regions, was a triumph. He said ND’s share of the national vote, which put the conservatives just 2 percent behind PASOK, was a “total reversal” of the conservatives’ fortunes since they hit rock bottom in last year’s general elections. Well, if Samaras thinks it was a total reversal, he should demand a total recount because the result shows that ND received about 550,000 fewer voters than it did last October and its share of the national vote was slightly beneath its record low.

At the end of a year of unprecedented austerity and abrupt reforms, rather than displaying respect for the electorate and regret for their part in leading Greece to the edge of oblivion, the country’s politicians had nothing to show but hubris and disinterest for people’s real concerns. The result of last Sunday’s local elections was the first sign that the public’s tolerance for making sacrifices when their leaders are not willing to give up their comfortable seats in the land of oblivion is being stretched to breaking point. Just as the Democrats’ defeat in the US mid-terms will focus Obama’s mind on achieving tangible results, so Greece’s local elections should force Papandreou and Samaras to concentrate on providing real solutions to real problems and not creating imaginary ones.
There is a closing line in the speech that Sorensen wrote for Kennedy’s inauguration that is rarely quoted, possibly because it is not in the interest of those in power. “… ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice that we ask of you.” Greeks have every right after being asked for months to do more for their country, to now ask what their country, its leaders and its political parties are doing for them.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on November 12, 2010.

Out of the darkness

Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis

There’s a short audio clip played almost on a daily basis on Skai radio’s political satire program, Ellinofrenia. It’s of Prime Minister George Papandreou saying: “Viva Chile, viva Grecia.” Presumably, it was recorded when Papandreou, then head of the opposition, visited Vina del Mar in Chile last March for a meeting of Socialist leaders. The clip is played randomly during the irreverent show. Its effect is to make Papandreou seem a dreamy globetrotter with an appetite to pursue international contacts rather than solve Greece’s problems. But since the rescue of the 33 miners from the San Jose gold and copper mine last week, those four words have taken on a new life and their abstractness has been replaced by an urgent relevance.

Watching Luis Urzua, the last miner to be winched to safety, sing the Chilean anthem as he stood next to President Sebastian Pinera and the team of rescuers in the early hours of Thursday morning, the parallels between Chile and Greece seemed as crisp and clear as the night air in the Atacama Desert. The Chilean anthem has a line, which seems prescient in the case of the miners who spent 70 days in an underground shelter fearing for their lives: “Either the tomb will be of the free / Or the refuge against oppression.” In this respect, it is very similar to Greece’s national anthem, Dionysios Solomos’s “Hymn to Liberty,” which is also dedicated to the ideal of freedom and contains the lines: “From the graves of our slain / Shall thy valor prevail.”

Freedom is such a highly valued concept in Greece and Chile because they wear the scars of oppression — from outside forces but also from within: Both countries have experienced damaging military dictatorships in their recent histories. But even in 2010, there are still struggles for freedom in Chile and Greece. In the Latin American country, despite the economic prosperity and political stability it has enjoyed over the past two decades, some of its people still feel the tug of history’s shackles. Despite the fact that Chile produces more than a quarter of the world’s copper and that prices for the metal are at a two-year high, bringing the country almost 4 billion euros a month in export revenues, some miners are still not truly free from the exploitation of firms taking deadly risks for profits.

In Greece, freedom has been compromised in different ways. As a result of its irresponsibility in the past, Greece’s economic sovereignty is largely in the hands of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund rather than the country’s elected government. While the foreign overseers plot a course for economic recovery, Greece is trying to free itself of the stale ideologies, practices and hangups of the past that held it captive.

It’s in this effort to save itself that the rescue of the Chilean miners provides Greece with food for thought. Speaking of the mesmerizing effort to pull the miners to safety, Chilean writer Isabel Allende said it had been an “odyssey of solidarity,” just as Prime Minister George Papandreou had said Greece was embarking on a “new odyssey” when he announced in April that Athens was turning to its eurozone partners and the IMF for financial assistance. Solidarity, however, has been in short supply in Greece, as opposition parties, unions and even aloof members of government continue to play the same tired roles to which the Greek people have become accustomed over the last three decade. Even at this most crucial hour, there is only the flimsiest of consensus on the gravity of the situation and what needs to be done. For instance, the country’s two main parties, New Democracy and PASOK, have been able to agree on few strands of economic policy, such as the opening of closed professions and the overhaul of the Hellenic Railways Organization (OSE), which is losing 1 billion euros a year. It is hardly as if they have become brothers in arms.

One of the greatest lessons of the San Jose rescue is that when suspicion and anger — as the miners were justified in feeling after being sent into a patently unsafe mine — and scepticism and doubt — as Chile’s government and the rescuers would have felt in launching a seemingly futile rescue mission — are set aside, wonderful things can happen. “It is proof that when men unite in favor of life, when they offer their knowledge and effort to the service of life, life responds with more life,” wrote Chilean novelist Hernan Rivera Letelier in Spanish daily El Pais. But for life, or at least a life worth living, to have a chance of existing, people have to put their faith in each other. “You just have to speak the truth and believe in democracy,” said shift foreman Urzua in his first post-rescue interview.

In Greece, the truth is a rare commodity at the moment. From deficit figures that keep changing to the cagey talk of ministers and the unfeasible promises of opposition politicians, nobody speaks honestly. The failure of our democracy was evident last week right in front of its greatest symbol, the Acropolis. Culture Ministry contract workers protested the non-renewal of their contracts in the hope that this government, like others before it, would cave in and ignore the law limiting such agreements to two years. The government, on the other hand, dodged a face-to-face meeting with the protesters because it had not paid some of them for 20 months.

The rescue is also evidence that for society to function, all its agents need to work together. State mining company, Codelco, led the effort to save the 33 miners, who had been working for a private firm, but it relied on help from other countries and private-sector funding. It was on the basis of this sound structure that the emotional support network for the miners, made up of families, friends, doctors and psychologists was built. “What we have recovered here… is our self-confidence as a nation, and sense of community, of Roman ‘communitas,’ of some well-being which depends on others: our neighbors, our friends, our most efficient [political] representatives,” explained Chilean writer Jaime Collyer. In Greece, the individualism that came with the economic prosperity of recent decades stands as one of the biggest obstacles to progress. Those who for so many years have evaded tax, landed themselves comfortable public sector jobs, enjoyed the privileges of closed professions, lived off state subsidies or simply disregarded the laws of their state are not going to trade this bliss of isolation for the give-and-take of a functioning community very easily. The decision this week of many bar and restaurant owners to flout the recent ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces because they feel it harms their business is evidence of how deeply mired Greece is in the “me first, me only” way of thinking.

The successful rescue of the miners, though, is a reminder of the reward of overcoming fear, selfishness and lack of vision. “We aren’t the same as we were before the collapse on August 5,” said Pinera. “Today, Chile is a country much more unified, stronger and much more respected and loved in the entire world.” Unlike the burst of media interest in the Chilean miners’ plight, Greece has been the subject of prolonged media exposure this year. There were roughly 60 journalists for each miner at the San Jose mine and at times Athens has felt a bit like that with the international media probing every aspect of Greece’s misfortune. It has been uncomfortable but, as Chile has shown, there is no bigger news in the world than a catastrophe being turned into a triumph. “For the moment, Chile has received a reputational windfall,” wrote Mary Dejevsky in UK newspaper The Independent. “It has a chance to join countries such as Canada and Finland that genuinely do punch above their weight internationally by virtue of the benevolent impression they create on visitors, their quiet diplomacy and the competence with which they seem to run themselves.” A trickle of positive comments about Greece’s economic reforms has already begun but it can’t compare to the cathartic effect that a deluge of praise would have if the country completes the metamorphosis from pariah to shining example.

Chile experienced a moment of salvation when the miners were lifted safely from the depths of the Atacama Desert. “It started as a tragedy but ended as a blessing,” said Pinera. As a result, the South American country can now look to the future with more hope and its spirits lifted: Viva Chile. For Greece, redemption still seems to be at the end of a long, dark tunnel. It’s now clear that grabbing a lifeline will not be enough — the country needs togetherness and belief to haul itself into the light. Only then will it be in a position to turn to the world and shout: “Viva Grecia.”

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on October 22, 2010.

Mission unaccomplished

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

There have been many occasions during the Iraq War when the conflict has felt like a badly stage-managed show rather than a chaotic, bloody affair: from the sound and light display of the “shock and awe” bombing campaign of late March 2003, to the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square the following month and George W. Bush landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003 to declare “mission accomplished.”

There was another moment like this on August 19, when the 4th Stryker Brigade, Second Infantry Division, rolled over Iraq’s border with Kuwait to signal the end of US combat troops’ involvement in the war. Almost two weeks ahead of the deadline that President Barack Obama had set, American soldiers left the country they had invaded on March 20, 2003. In another piece of slick presentation work, Obama is due to deliver an address on August 31 from the White House, in which he will officially declare the USA’s participation in fighting in Iraq over.

Like the media-set pieces that went before it, though, Obama’s speech will ring hollow. At the same time that the President will be addressing the nation, there will still be about 50,000 US troops active in Iraq. Technically, they’re not “combat teams” but “advisory and assistance brigades.” But these soldiers will be accompanying Iraq troops on missions and if they come under fire from insurgents, I imagine the Americans will not hesitate to turn their “advice” on the enemy combatants and “assist” them to death.

Perhaps it’s fitting that a war born out of mendacity, falsehoods and exaggerations should be ushered into its closing stages – although clearly not its end – by half-truths and manipulation. Like his predecessor and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Obama, who is desperate for a public relations windfall, appears to be relegating the Iraq War to nothing more than a media spectacle. It also devalues his stance on ending US involvement in Iraq, making it seem a policy of convenience rather than an attempt to provide answers to the very profound and troubling questions posed by the conflict.

More than seven years after the first coalition troops moved in to find weapons of mass destruction and overthrow Hussein, the West – the countries that backed the war and those that opposed it – still desperately lacks self-knowledge. For all the flag waving on one side and the banner unfurling on the other, we are in a state of ambivalence about if or when it is right to use force. Apart from the deaths (between 97,000 and 106,000 civilians according to the Iraq Body Count website), the destruction and the geopolitical ramifications which have seen Iran and Turkey drawn into events, the Iraq War has had another devastating impact – it proved to be the moment when democratic politics broke down.

It failed on two accounts: firstly because Bush, Blair and several other leaders chose not to be straight with their electorates about an issue as important as going to war. This breakdown in the democratic process was compounded by the fact that, despite the attempts of their leaders to obfuscate, voters who knew they were being hustled still remained powerless to prevent the relentless march to war. Secondly, the right and the left both produced very shallow responses in the face of a complex situation. The neoconservative-led right claimed the moral high ground because it was supporting the ousting of a dictator and moves to bring democracy to not just a country but a whole region. The left felt it was superior because it was rejecting armed conflict as an option and drawing attention to possible ulterior motives for the conflict. To a small extent, both sides could claim to be right but in actual fact they were mostly wrong.

The moral bankruptcy of the neocons has long been proven. For all the bluster of bringing freedom to Iraq, it soon became obvious that there was no reconstruction plan to ensure its people were free to lead normal lives. For all the talk of wiping out “evil” with democracy, there was clearly never any intention of tackling dictators in other countries, such as Zimbabwe, or intervening to stop innocent people being slaughtered in places like Darfur.

The weakness of the left’s position took a bit more time to become evident but it’s clear now that it too has been guilty of treating the Iraq War as a zero-sum issue, when it’s actually a much more complex equation. Although the left clearly had plenty of fodder to support its argument against the war, it has not come up with a convincing alternative. As British journalist Nick Cohen wrote in “What’s Left?”, his 2007 critique of the antiwar movement: “They didn’t support fascism but they didn’t oppose it either. Their silence did not bode well for the future.”

Well, the future has arrived and the silence is still ringing in our ears. We have a Democratic president in the White House who appears to have no moral blueprint to guide him on US intervention around the world. We have European leaders who have plenty to say about fiscal deficits but nothing to say about democratic deficits. We have a feeble United Nations that seems unable to have an impact even in places where it has mustered up a presence – an investigation has been launched this week into how its troops missed the rape of 150 women and boys in the Democratic Republic of Congo when they were patrolling the area. In Greece, we have a prime minister who is a democratic idealist that wants to contribute to the Middle East peace process but is not willing to commit more than a few dozen troops to Afghanistan, where the specter of another brutal Taliban regime hangs over the country.

Iraq, many thought, was going to be the watershed moment for this generation, when beliefs would be honed and theories sharpened — but now that the dust is subsiding, it’s clear we’ve been left with only an ideological bomb crater. When lines were drawn over the invasion, it gave decision makers a chance to turn their backs on vital moral and political questions. More than seven years later, we have made no apparent progress in being clearer about when there is legitimate cause for intervention. In that sense, as well as others, Iraq has been a failure.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on August 27, 2010.