Saturday, February 24, 2007

The "Presidentiables"

AOG, London

I am saddened by the current state of affairs within the Democratic party and the upcoming presidential election in the US.
A couple of weeks ago I was semi-content with the idea that the next president of the US could have been a woman-Mrs. Clinton, or Mr. Obama. Yet, as the pre-presidential pageant runs, a few bits and pieces have begun to surface that make me think that, unfortunately, the next president of the US will be a Republican, if not, in fact, Senator MaCain.

I remember life in the US back in 1988, and the presidential election that year. The Democratic party, boldly endorsed the nomination of a certain, unheard of, Mr. Michael Dukakis. For a while, I believed he could be electable, though I remember thinking at the time that I preferred Reagan. I even remember a bumpersticker that read: "Let Dukakis become President, lets make Reagan King!" Ha ha ha... but I do think it represented the popular feeling at the time. Mr. Reagan had been a good president. At least I thought so at the time. So did many others.

I also remember that the media were very much against Mr. Bush Sr. at the time. I remember the quips about Bush Sr being boring, about not having served much in war, about being weak and a bit of a coward.

All looked good for Mr. Dukakis.

And then I saw it. I saw the one thing which made me understand immediatly that Mr. Dukakis would not win. There was a skit on Saturday Night Live on NBC, which parodied the presidential election. To this day I remember its slogan "Vote for Bush, he is more white!"

And then I knew it. Somebody somewhere had stumbled upon the one thing which would turn the election in favor of the weak, cowardly, tiger tatoo on his buttcheek Mr. Bush: his whiteness, or rather, his "more whiteness".

Sure enough, as my family flew out of the US on election day 1988 headed for a new life in Europe, voters in the US elected Mr. Bush.

I think this week it happened again. Whilst both camps intermittently boo and cheer their candidates, someone somewhere has stumbled upon the one thing which will turn the election away from Mr. Obama: his religion. As ridiculous as this may sound to most people, the mud has been flung about Mr. Obama being a Muslim -the bit about his middle name being Hussein has also taken its toll, but, it being just a name, and the infamous Saddam being dead, it is a bit of a "so?" issue- and it has begun to stick.

Fox news constantly decries that he has attended a muslim school in Indonesia, that he has tried to hide his past. That...well, lets face, that Mr. Obama "...just ain't a Christian!" And guess what? I don't think the US is about to elect a non-Christian into the White House. Mr. Obama has already decided not to favor Fox news any further during his campaign. Although this says a lot about the current state of affairs in America's partisan media, it also shows Mr. Obama may have noticed that Fox has struck upon something which may hurt his campaign no end.

As for Mrs. Clinton, the current climate looks less rosy with each passing day. The latest pecadillo by the "presidentiables" (Spanish word neologised into english to mean "those who are eligible of being elected to president") is the running spat between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama. is this a good thing? It is if you are a Republican.

So far, the only thing the Democrats have against them is that their candidates are seen as a) a woman, and b) a Muslim. So far, the only electable candidates the Democrats have are a) a woman and b) a Christian who used to be a Muslim.

Are these things important? Well, in any other country on earth, probably not. But in the USA, perhaps both these things are seen as much too important. If you take a look at the american press, it soon becomes obvious that no one is talking about major issues yet, and most everyone is talking about how each candidate is running their campaign- not what their campaign is about.

Is this democratic? Oh, of course it is. Democracy is the rule of the people. And if the people elect politicians on looks, religion, gender and...what else is there? I forget...

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Success in North Korea but will Iran follow?

AOG, Madrid

North Korea has agreed to take steps toward nuclear disarmament under a groundbreaking deal struck on Tuesday that will bring the impoverished communist state some $300 million in aid.

Under the agreement, it will freeze the reactor at the heart of its nuclear program and allow international inspections of the site. The US and Japan -albeit belatedly- also said they would take early steps toward normalizing relations with North Korea, although a long running dispute between Japan and North Korea over kidnapping of its nationals by its communist neighbor, is still far from solved.

Washington agreed to resolve the issue of frozen North Korean bank accounts in Macau's Banco Delta Asia within 30 days, chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill told reporters.

As a special treat, the US will also initiate -under a separate bilateral forum- a process to remove North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. This must be because the US have proof that North Korea no longer sponsors terrorism, or proof that it never did. Either way I think it is in everyone's interest to know which is it of the two possibilities.

The proposed plan hammered out by the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, Russia and China after nearly a week of intensive talks will only be the first step in locating and dismantling North Korea's nuclear arms activities, leaving many questions to future negotiations.

"These talks represent the best opportunity to use diplomacy to address North Korea''s nuclear programs," President Bush said in a statement.

White House spokesman Tony Snow called it a "very important first step toward the denuclearization of North Korea" but said Pyongyang still faces sanctions if it reneges. Which it may do, as it has done before.

Iran standing by....

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Iran, another country at loggerheads with the West over its nuclear program, should see North Korea as an example. Indeed.

"Why should it not be seen as a message to Iran that the international community is able to bring together its resources?" she asked at a news conference.

Perhaps what Iran will see is that it is not enough to appear to be a nuclear power to get the US to the negotiating table; it might come to the conslusion that it is, in fact, a sine qua non condition for american collaboration.

As a morsel of things to come, Pyongyang's official KCNA news agency said the other parties decided to offer economic and energy aid equivalent to one million tonnes of heavy oil in connection with North Korea''s "temporary" suspension of the operation of its nuclear facilities. Hill dismissed that report as posturing. "Any action to restart the reactors would be a violation of the agreement," he told reporters. And yet....straight from the mouth of babes...

U.S. trade sanctions will also begin to be lifted from a country Bush once lumped with Iran and Iraq on an "axis of evil."

But is it a good deal after all?

One area of uncertainty is whether North Korea has a highly enriched uranium program as alleged by the USA. North Korea has not acknowledged the existence of such a program. Highly enriched uranium can be the fissile material for nuclear weapons and its production can be much harder to detect than plutonium refinement.

"We have to get a mutually satisfactory outcome on this. We need to know precisely what is involved," Hill said.

As details of the draft leaked out, Japan was already voicing doubt that any agreement could be made to stick.

John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and outspoken conservative, said the Communist state should not be rewarded with "massive shipments of heavy fuel oil" for only partially dismantling its nuclear program.

"It sends exactly the wrong signal to would-be proliferators around the world," he told CNN.

The deal says North Korea must take steps to shut down its main nuclear reactor within 60 days. In return, it will receive 50,000 tonnes of fuel oil or economic aid of equal value. It will also receive another 950,000 tonnes of fuel oil or equivalent when it takes further steps to disable its nuclear capabilities, including providing a complete inventory of its plutonium -- the fuel used in Pyongyang's first nuclear test blast in October 2006. The 1 million tonnes of fuel would be worth around US$300 million at current prices.

The steps for now do not involve providing 2,000 megawatts of electricity - at an estimated cost of $8.55 billion over 10 years and about equal to North Korea's current output - that South Korea pledged in September 2005 and which is due after North Korea's denuclearization is completed.

The deal is obviously less than perfect. It involves the cooperation of a distrustful North Korea and its only-too-willing donors

North Korea has been here before. In 1994 there was an agreement with the Clinton administration which would only collapse in 2002 after Washington accused Pyongyang of seeking to produce weapons-grade uranium.

And lets not forget that between the two Koreas there is a truce, not a peace treaty. The US maintains some 30,000 troops on the Korean peninsula, which has remained in a technical state of war since the 1950-53 Korean War truce.

Can it get worse...? Japan will not join in giving aid to North Korea because of past abductions of its nationals by Pyongyang's agents, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in Tokyo.

Monday, February 12, 2007

US Election candidates 2008

AOG, Madrid

Here are some of the declared (and potential) presidential candidates for the Republican and Democratic Party nominations for the 2008 US Presidential election.


Announced candidates:

Joseph Biden- U.S. senator from Delaware and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Chris Dodd- U.S. senator from Connecticut.

John Edwards- former U.S. senator from North Carolina and the vice presidential nominee in 2004.

Mike Gravel- former U.S. senator from Alaska

Dennis Kucinich- U.S. representative from Ohio and 2004 presidential candidate.

Barack Obama- U.S. senator from Illinois.

Tom Vilsack- former Iowa governor.

Formed exploratory committee:

Hillary Rodham Clinton- U.S. senator from New York and former first lady.

Bill Richardson- New Mexico governor.

Expected or possible candidate:

Wesley Clark, retired U.S. Army general and 2004 presidential candidate.


Announced candidates:

Sam Brownback- U.S. senator from Kansas.

Duncan Hunter- U.S. representative from California.

Formed exploratory committee:

James Gilmore- former Virginia governor.

Rudolph Giuliani- former New York mayor.

Mike Huckabee- former Arkansas governor.

John McCain- U.S. senator from Arizona and 2000 presidential candidate.

Mitt Romney- former Massachusetts governor.

Tom Tancredo- U.S. representative from Colorado.

Tommy Thompson- former Wisconsin governor.

Other expected or possible candidates:

Newt Gingrich- former U.S. House of Representatives speaker.

Chuck Hagel- U.S. senator from Nebraska.

Cold War 2 or how Russia manages to upset things once again

AOG, Madrid

U.S. plans to deploy parts of an anti-missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic have become a fresh irritant in US-Russian relations. Washington says the system is needed for defence against rockets launched by Iran and North Korea - an argument rejected by Moscow. Russia is wary of US missiles close to its borders.

Who is at fault?

NATO should heed Russian President Vladimir Putin's call for talks about a U.S. missile shield to be built in formerly communist eastern Europe, German Deputy Foreign Minister Gernot Erler said on Monday.

Russian premier Vladimir Putin used this weekend's high-profile security conference in Munich to accuse the US of sparking a new arms race by trying to become the world's "one single master", a speech U.S. senator Joseph Lieberman said smacked of Cold War rhetoric.

Putin, understandably, has attacked the missile shield to be located in Poland and the Czech Republic and has warned that enlargement of NATO was "a serious factor provoking reduced mutual trust". Nothing new perhaps, except that now Russia is more powerful and influential than it was, say, 5 years ago.
Russia 2007 is resurgent, mostly due to its being flush with oil and gas money. It has paid off its debts and is thus no longer corsetted by the constraints of international financial organizations. Putin is tightening controls at home, increasingly bullying its neighbors and acting almost reflexively antagonistic to American interests around the world. The US needs Russian support abroad but it is finding it hard to get. Russia, erratically perhaps, has been seen more intent to cooperate with countries such as Iran than to join the West and give more aplomb to UN resolutions and international pressure.

Should the US antagonise its former rival further?

Washington has suggested the shield in question is needed to protect Europe from Iranian missiles, however Moscow believes Washington and its NATO allies are building the shield because of Russia- if not that, then certainly they are being built too close to home. The Warsaw pact died a long time ago, however NATO is still running strong and it has declined on numerous occassions to allow Russia in. Russia sees a nuclear threat on its border once again. Only this time, they have not provoked it. There is no Cold War in 2007.

"I think it would make sense to take the Russian president's comments about the perception of NATO seriously" Germany's Erler said.

Although NATO has had years of good cooperation with Russia-especially in the former Yugoslavia- Putin fears the missile shield would "bring NATO capabilities closer to the Russian border and this without any intensive discussions or negotiations with Russia", Erler said.

"There is something that needs to be clarified here, namely what actually is the relationship between NATO and Russia". It was also important to consider whether talks could avoid any irritation on Russia's part so that Moscow would not take any military steps that would lead to a new arms race, he said.

The idea of negotiating the missile shield with Russia would not be pleasant for the Czech Republic. Czechs remain suspicious of Putin's Russia and fear the new Moscow wants to make old Russia a dominant power in Europe the way the Soviet Union once was. After all, same country, different name.

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg shrugged off Moscow''s criticisms. "Demands from other states will not influence our government" Schwarzenberg told the Munich conference, adding it was "an internal issue" for Prague. So is Russia to believe that the Czech republic is under threat from Iran? Poland too? But not Italy, Greece, Portugal or Spain?

No new Cold War

German government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm told reporters that Berlin did not see Putin's speech as a sign that Russia was trying to revive Cold War animosities.

After Putin''s speech Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied the Russian president was trying to provoke Washington, saying it was a call for thought and dialogue. Perhaps the West should take heed. America's recent foreign policy has more than paved the way for Russia to increase its sphere of influence, especially over former Soviet client-states such as Iran.

Erler said he viewed Putin's speech in the context of Russia's search for its proper place on the international stage- whatever this might be- its increasing self-confidence and the increasing significance of its vast oil and gas resources.

Well, naturlich! If anyone thought that 1991 was the end of Russia, they were very mistaken. It is only a matter of time before that particular Bear begins to flex its muscle once again. Europe and the US should be prepared for what looks to be an aggressive power in search of influence and prestige.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Shock, fear, and amazement. February 2007

AOG, Madrid

You learn a little bit about your stupid self each day, don't you? I have sat in front of my laptop since about 11pm trying to find something to write about. I have checked emails, signed up my spanish blog on a website which somehow trades with personal blogs (why? well obviously because I was bored!!) checked emails, read various newspaper websites, emails, watched tv, had dinner, spoken to my partner who is in Bucharest tonight and tells me that the 4 star hotel's guestlist is filled with the photographs of various women (prostitutes), spoken to Madame Mère on the phone to London, emails encore, read a couple of blogs, and finally, after hours of uselessness, I turn the TV volume down. Suddenly, I start writing.

What does this say about me? That I am very bad at time management. Did I learn this today? Well, I'm not sure that I've actually learnt anything. There are people in this world who operate best when things stick to a well laid-out plan. Who can work to a deadline because they have worked out what to do at any given moment. I wish I were one of these people. But I am not.

I live and operate in something approaching chaos. Not entirely chaos of course, because I do sometimes manage to amaze myself and can follow an unwritten plan from beginning to end and things turn out well. Somehow. And, I am sure, also in spite of myself.

Last year, during my Master, we had a writer give us a chat about her work and work schedule. Almudena Grandes, told us how manic she was about work outlines. How any novel she wrote had to be outlined and planned out from beginning to end. I listened in complete amazement. It was as if I had been living in a separate planet all my life.

Later on, the "Culture" tutor asked if any of us wrote. A couple of us raised our hands. A guy had actually published a couple of short stories, and this girl had also had some work published. And then there was me. Unpublished, with a dozen or so unfinished short stories. "Do you have an outline?" he asked. "No. In fact the mere thought of writing to an outline fills me with horror". Some thought it was funny. Our tutor replied "then it must all be in your head. Don't start changing it!!" More laughter. But for me, although still in a slight state of shock, a new road had been laid out. One I could choose not to travel on, but one which did show a prize of sorts at the end.

So what has happened since? A couple of weeks ago, on my way to London, I began writing again. I spent about 45 minutes looking for a pad at Barajas airport whilst waiting for my 2 and a half hours late flight to land. And I began to write. A whole page and a half. And it remains unfinished and unworked on. But I have been thinking about it a lot. Which I don't normally do. Has my writing changed? I think so. For the better? I doubt it. I am obviously at the "not finished yet" stage.

I have never welcomed distraction. Nor routine. I know I sound contradictory. I can't help it.

But not all was lost. I did find an interesting thing online when I was surfing the net a few hours ago (it is now 2:26 AM). There is a gay retirement village being built in the US.

A few years ago, having a partner had never entered my mind. Never mind spending your life with another person. Suddenly, retirement beckons. I am in my 30s and this pops up. Is it a message from the future? Whatever it is, it is nice to know that such a place exists. I did wonder what and where I would be when that time comes. Better stop now before this gets too depressing. For me that is.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

No longer the hero

AOG, Madrid

Navy Capt. Lisa Marie Nowak is, (was)? an astronaut and a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Discovery.
Today she was arrested on battery and attempted kidnapping charges after allegedly trying to subdue Colleen Shipman, her romantic rival for the affections of astronaut and US Navy Commander Bill Oefelein, with pepper spray and abduct her from a parking lot at Orlando International Airport. The image below is her mug shot. How low have the mighty fallen?

Apparently both were "in a relationship" with Mr. Oefelein.

Nowak, who is 43 and married with three children (and has been an astronaut since 1996), has been charged with battery, attempted kidnapping, attempted burglary to a vehicle and destruction of evidence. Police have recommended Nowak be held without bond. She is thought to have travelled over 9,000 miles in order to murder the proverbial "other woman". Although in her case, she herself might be the "other, other woman".

This is the link to the story as told by CNN, who have been following the story.

There are a few occupations left from which we hear precious little about. Dictator is one of them, as is hand model, nuclear scientist and palace majordomo. But none of these is one which small children would choose as a life path. Perhaps Dictator.

However Astronaut is one of those professions small children dream about. So do the not-so-small children.

Since its inception, no one has looked upon this profession with anything but awe and respect. Amazingly, up until today, astronauts and their personal lives were largely off-hands for the general public.

Not anymore. Today the veil was lifted and astronauts and their personal lives, as it were, were brought down to earth. They were humanised. Granted, for all the wrong reasons, but today we saw human drama and tragedy in a group of people so removed from mainstream life that any information, positive or negative, is welcome. And ridiculed and talked about and everything else. But, collectively, we all lost something today.

The cynics amongst us will say things like "they are people after all", "what did you expect?", "those crazy americans". They will be right in thinking so. However....all I know is that I will go to bed tonight with one less hero in my mind.