Category Archives: From Abroad

It’s 3 a.m. in the White House

Oh how we laughed.

“It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safely asleep”, began the deep, urgent voice in Hillary Clinton’s 2008 TV ad.

“But there’s a phone in the White House, and it’s ringing,” the voice went on, over pictures of a sleeping child.

At the time, then-Senator Clinton was slugging it out for the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination against young upstart Barack Obama. The ad was supposed to convince primary voters that in a dangerous and unpredictable world, her experience in international affairs trumped his.

Who did you want to answer that phone?

“Someone who already knows world leaders, knows the military, someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world,” the ad replied.

That’s why some of us covering the campaign laughed. Was all this experience accumulated during Hillary Clinton’s eight years as First Lady? Okay, she might have slept close to that ringing phone, but surely she had never actually dealt with the calls?

Or was it her time in the interminably slow, endlessly deliberative Senate that meant she was “tested and ready to lead”?  It sounded like a desperate attempt to scare Democratic voters into rejecting the charismatic young man running against her.

Light on experience Mr Obama might have been, but he was also free of the political baggage and controversial Senate votes that weighed Mrs Clinton down.

I’m not laughing now.

Granted, President Obama has faced unprecedented levels of hostility from his Republican opponents. Some in his own party are barely more cooperative. It’s been a long hard slog on the domestic policy front.

And fair enough, on foreign policy, he kept his promise to bring American troops home from Iraq; he’s on course to do the same in Afghanistan. He was decisive enough when he ordered the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. And when he escalated attacks on suspected terrorists with the use of drones.

But extracting the US from deeply unpopular wars wasn’t that difficult. Bumping off America’s most wanted man was a no-brainer. Dropping bombs from pilotless planes that the American public hardly ever hear about is easier still.

Sometimes though, decisions are not so black and white. And Mr Obama’s consensus-building, consultative style doesn’t work well with the greys.

Egypt was complex and messy. The White House embraced its elections but was never comfortable with the result. It wasn’t sorry to see the Muslim Brotherhood ousted but didn’t like the way it was done. It couldn’t call the military takeover a coup – that would have meant cutting off aid. It fudged and fumbled and lost credibility and influence in the process.

As for Syria, it was already a horrendous mess before President Obama imposed his arbitrary chemical weapons red line. Once Assad’s murderous forces crossed that line, he had to respond. Military action was on the cards. But then, possibly influenced by the vote in the British Parliament, the President shoved the problem at Congress to decide.

Now, suddenly, the focus has shifted to chemical weapons stocks and away from the grinding toll of Syria’s brutal civil war. In short, when the talking and voting is over, nothing much is likely to have changed.

This is not in any way a call for action. On the contrary: it would have been both honest and accurate if, early in the crisis and repeatedly since, Mr Obama had said, “This is all terrible but there’s nothing we can do.”

It’s the lack of clarity and appearance of dithering that’s bothering me – and opinion polls suggest, the American people too. The failure to articulate any policies or even to define simple bilateral relationships with the volatile countries of the Middle East.

Which is not to say that Hillary Clinton would have done it better (though she may yet try).

But back in 2008, she was right about one thing: It is the President’s job to pick up that phone.

Right now, it’s 3 a.m. and all  the callers have been placed on hold.


(For more on who takes the decision to send American forces to war tune in to my World Service documentary “Congress and the Commander in Chief”)

Making MINTs from BRICS

Indonesia rice harvest

      1. BBC R4 World Tonight Indonesia Report

Remember the BRICS? Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa were the future of the world economy once upon a time. Fast-growing countries with either abundant natural resources or vast forces of cheap labour (or both) and business-friendly governments happily creating middle class wealth.

You don’t hear so much about them these days. Slowing growth, regulatory problems, labour unrest and, in the case of Brazil, massive demonstrations on the streets have rather taken the shine off the BRICS.

So, enter the new darlings of the foreign investor community, the MINTs. 

I can’t speak for Mexico beyond the highly Americanised resorts (complete with their Walmarts and Sam’s Clubs) I’ve visited. I do wonder though about the wisdom of investing in a country where more than fifty thousand people (possibly double that) have died in the violent drugs wars of the past six years.

Nigeria’s not a place I know well either, though I’d think twice before setting up shop in a country with an increasingly violent al-Qaeda related insurgency in the north and decades of seething resentment in the oil-rich but corrupt south.

Turkey on the other hand always looked like a good bet. You couldn’t hear a word against it from the tourists at Istanbul’s chi chi restaurants and boutique hotels. Foreign investment doubled in the five years from 2007 as Turkey started to emulate the capitalist West.

But it all went a bit pear-shaped in last month’s unprecedented protests. Egged on by a belligerent Prime Minister, the police attacked demonstrators in a city centre park. The stock market plunged, and suddenly we all fell out of love with Turkey. It turned out they weren’t “people like us” after all.

So that leaves Indonesia – a place I do know quite a bit about having started my reporting career there as BBC correspondent 22 years ago. It’s a vast, complicated country. Not really a country at all given its stitched together diversity. For more detail and far better insight than I can ever deliver, read Elizabeth Pisani’s excellent blog and then the book she’s publishing next year.

In the meantime, here’s my  short overview of the economy of the world’s fourth biggest country.

      2. BBC R4 World Tonight Indonesia Report

And in case you’re wondering, no, I’m not rushing to invest in Indonesia just yet.

Delusions of Empire

Honouring the Queen in the Turks and CaicosAll Empires like to think their colonial subjects love them.

Which is why the undying devotion of the Falkland Islanders is so satisfying for the British.

But it’s also dangerous. It helps us maintain the myth of benevolent motherland and grateful locals. And that in turn means we’ve convinced ourselves that Empire – and what now remains of it – is no bad thing.

For the Falkland Islanders, that may be true. Thirty years ago, they suffered Argentina’s sudden invasion and the trauma of the war that forced the invaders out.

The renewed (and remarkably bellicose) claims of sovereignty coming from Buenos Aires must be unnerving – hence the referendum underway right now. Islanders are being asked if they want to remain as a British Overseas Territory.

There’s no doubt at all that the overwhelming answer will be yes.

There’s no doubt either that many in Britain will view the result of this essentially anti-Argie vote as an affirmation of the UK’s good relations with the last scraps of Empire.

That would be a big mistake. There are 14 Overseas Territories (essentially colonies but with varying degrees of local autonomy). The Falklands is one of the smallest. And thanks largely to that constant Argentine threat, its rapport with Britain is unique.

In most of the others, the relationship is far more complex and uncomfortable.

We send them funds, grudgingly for the most part. But until recently, nobody in London was very interested in how they conducted their affairs. The attitude was that they should be grateful for British Citizenship and should get on with learning to look after themselves.

Except they didn’t. Take for example, the revelations of child sex abuse in tiny Pitcairn that affected almost every family and had been going on in some cases for 40 years.

Then there was the spectacular collapse of the Turks and Caicos Islands (see previous post). For years, residents of these Caribbean islands begged London to step in and do something, as government ministers allegedly sold off crown land to developer friends, renting private jets and building luxury homes with the proceeds.

It happened right under the nose of the British governor. Yet London said it had no evidence of wrongdoing and turned a blind eye.

Eventually (under pressure from Parliament and the global economic crash) the Foreign Office had to step in, sack the local officials and run the place directly. Initially pleased, the Islanders were soon accusing the new governor of ruling with a very heavy hand.

Then last November, after three years of direct rule from London, the Turks and Caicos Islanders were allowed to elect their own representatives again. Local government was restored. But rows with the Governor (who has a veto over all important decisions) have continued.

It’s a sign of a new, more paternalistic approach from a Tory government far less embarrassed by Empire than its Labour predecessor.

But the newly elected premier warned recently of “chaos” in the Islands if the relationship  doesn’t improve.

Meanwhile there’s trouble in the wealthy tax haven of the Cayman Islands.

Late last year, the Premier was arrested on suspicion of corruption and forced to resign. He denies the allegations and says he’s the victim of a witch-hunt – led by the British governor. The two men had been at loggerheads over economic policy.

In all the Caribbean territories (except for poor Montserrat, devastated by a volcano and totally dependent on British aid) there are sporadic calls for independence.

They won’t get very far – yet. The islands are too small and the benefits of UK citizenship too great.

But the affection for Britain is nowhere near as strong as we like to think.

Nor are the cultural links. In the Turks and Caicos they drive on the left as we do – but in cars that are all imported from the US.  Everyone’s steering wheel is on the wrong side.

Residents go for medical treatment in Florida. Many have dual US citizenship. The accents are American-tinged. The TV the kids watch, the music they listen to and the food they eat is all from North America.

There’s a picture of the Queen in the airport arrivals hall, and plaques marking her various jubilees. But there’s also a growing Haitian migrant population (now far outnumbering the native islanders). In truth, there’s little about the islands or their people that feels British at all.

But you don’t hear much about that in the UK.

We like news of flag waving by people who look and sound like us. More English than the English with undying loyalty to the Crown – the Falklands, in other words. (How else to explain the dozens of journalists now in the Islands to cover a referendum whose result was known long before the first vote was cast?)

We don’t want to be reminded that many of our remaining territories are inhabited by black or brown people, who resent being told what to do by white men sent from London. Just as they have for hundreds of years.



Don’t mention the C word

How should we deal with our remnants of Empire?

Some (the Falklands, Gibraltar) cling to us, more British than Britain, terrified of the alien nations next door.

Others grudgingly accept our existence (and our financial help) when they need it but feel little real affection for the UK – especially when we start bossing them around.

That’s the case today in the Turks and Caicos Islands, where I recently watched the very British governor open a new radar station as a choir of local school children sang “God Save the Queen.”

The Turks and Caicos are a string of flat, rocky islands atop stunning reefs in the Caribbean. The white sand beaches run for miles, the sea is warm, calm and crystal clear.

But the politics are a lot murkier.

The islands, one of 14 British Overseas Territories,  have been plagued by jaw-dropping corruption allegations and chronic mismanagement for years.  Though London knew of the wheeling and dealing that was plundering local resources and, allegedly, making certain officials (and foreign developers) very rich indeed, nobody did anything about it. (It was the same when I drew attention to serious human rights abuses there for a 2002 BBC documentary. The Foreign Office refused my repeated requests for an interview.)

Eventually the pleas of the local residents (and the collapse of the economy) couldn’t be ignored. An inquiry was set up and stories of corruption poured forth.

In 2009, the UK had no choice but to kick out the locally elected government and take full control.  Today, the Turks and Caicos are a proper old fashioned colony run by the Governor sent from London, supported by advisory bodies hand-picked by him.

The islanders, including some of those who screamed “Do something!” at London, don’t like it very much.

“They can’t just come in when it suits them and rule with an iron fist,” a young tourist guide tells me.

“They came in thinking everyone here is corrupt” grumbles an older businessman in the sleepy capital Grand Turk.

Certain people arrived “with a Big Stick approach” says a leading politician (in a thinly disguised attack on the current Governor). And so on.

Their grievances are many and varied. From complaints about the length of time it’s taken to bring alleged miscreants to court (trials start later this year) to the slowness in producing an economic plan to revive the islands. They were whacked in 2008 not just by the mess of their own leadership’s creation but also by the global economic crash and a direct hit from a Hurricane.

“There’s no hope on the horizon,” says the Grand Turk businessman, “nothing to tell us things are going to get better”.

Instead, islanders complain, what they’re getting is a very unpopular (and possibly unworkable) Value Added Tax and an even more hated European Union-standard Equalities Law which, rumour has it, will force recognition of same-sex marriage in this very conservative Christian territory (it won’t).

Plus, of course, many long overdue rules and regulations aimed at cleaning up politics, which were viciously cliquey and nepotistic long before the serious corruption appeared. In fact the entire public sector is being reformed and independent institutions given more clout.

The Governor says his administration does consult widely. That people always grumble about government and it just so happens that here, the government is him.  Another official suggests that when islanders say they haven’t been consulted, what they really mean is the discussion didn’t go their way.

But it’s more than that.

Next month, elections will see the restoration of local government. The campaign is in full swing and, with little to be proud of in their own past behaviour, the political parties are rounding on the British as a common enemy.

“The British government must know there will be resistance when these parties take office,” says one candidate ominously. Another islander says that because the Governor will retain significant powers even after the election, “the politicians will get frustrated and then they’ll mobilise the masses.”

To do what though? The former premier, Michael Misick (currently on the run from an international arrest warrant) used to talk of independence. But there’s never been a formal request for it. Lets face it, who wants to give up the benefits of British citizenship? Plus they all know investors gain confidence when they arrive in the hot, scruffy airport and see a picture of the Queen.

Local politicians talk of “personalities,” of how given the right type of Governor they could all get along just fine.  I think what they mean is the type who – with a neglectful London’s connivance – will turn a blind eye to some shameful goings on.

And what’s in it for Britain?  Nothing. We don’t want the Turks and Caicos Islands. We did once, centuries ago when they were the centre of Caribbean salt production. But that industry is long dead. Now there are just beaches filled with sun-seeking condo owners – mostly from Canada and the US.

We have been hopeless at helping the islands develop democratically, unable or unwilling to challenge blatantly outrageous behaviour in what one former UK official calls “a mini-failed state.” In part that’s because we’ve got a lot of problems of our own. Who’s got  the time or money for a scrap of territory in the Caribbean?

But it’s also because Britain is embarrassed by reminders of Empire. Particularly in a place where many islanders are the descendants of slaves. Our slaves.

Mr Misick used to play on that, warning his compatriots to watch what they said in front of UK officials he’d call “the enemy.” More recently, from hiding, his charges of racism have been more direct. London he said, wasn’t bothered when white expats were doing well. They only started asking questions when black islanders got their hands on Crown lands.

One should take Mr Misick’s Mugabe-esque rantings with a large pinch of the salt that used to be raked from Grand Turk’s vast salinas.

But he’s right about one thing. Call it cleaning up government and sorting out the finances if you like but there is no way around it:

There is something very uncomfortable about Britain’s pukka imperialism in this post-colonial age.


Letter from Spain

If, as Mahatma Ghandi said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members,” then I might move to Spain.

 True, Spain is going through unprecedented economic turmoil. The $36bn in spending cuts planned this year probably won’t be enough to get its budget deficit under control. Unemployment is at a record high 24.4% (twice that rate amongst the young), public sector salaries are being frozen and taxes are going up. It’s tough for everyone certainly. But there’s something about the language of austerity – and the values that reflects – that gives one hope. Neither unemployment benefits nor public pensions are being cut, value added tax is left unchanged while taxes on the wealthy have already been raised.  Plenty of critics of Spain’s bloated public sector and generous welfare state would quibble with the economics of that, but what about the values it reflects? Aiming for healthy public finances is all very well, the deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria explained at the time of the budget “but not at any price.” And (bear in mind it’s a centre-right government in Spain) she added that “we have to support those who are in most need and not slow down the necessary recovery.” Quite a contrast to George Osborne’s “tough but fair” welfare cutting, VAT raising budgets in the UK.

I was reminded of this on a warm June evening in Barcelona, as several hundred elderly people gathered around a band on the sea-front. Most sat watching and listening but in a large space at the front, many others danced. There was a waltz, a paso doble, a bolero, every conceivable style – all announced by one of the young women on the stage. The couples (a shortage of men meant some women danced together) launched into steps learned decades earlier but still remembered and executed perfectly. Young carers spun and slid the wheelchair users around. Volunteers stood ready to hand out sandwiches and drinks. All of it was organised by the City government. And why not said one volunteer: “There are so many things for young people, it’s only fair to provide something for the elderly too.”  


That fits with the Mayor of Barcelona’s plans for getting through the tough times. Xavier Trias, who’s from a liberal regional party, wants to make Barcelona a centre of economic innovation and growth for the whole of Catalonia. But he says his priority is “improving the well being and quality of life of the people.” It’s probably easier for him than most other mayors to increase spending on social services as he’s done. Tourist heaven Barcelona is doing better than many other cities. In Spain’s patchwork of autonomous regions, the economic pain is not evenly spread. 

I’m no expert on the Spanish economy and I know many of its people are struggling every day – and preparing for worse still to come.  As in many countries, the elderly are having to support children they’d seen off into the world years ago while at the same time, paying higher prices for electricity and food. But at least they’re not blamed for their predicament as the vulnerable so often are in austerity Britain. At least they’re not patronised with the “we’re all in this together” mantra while cuts and tax rises fall disproportionately on the poor. Instead, dignity intact, they’re invited to dance as the sun sets on the waterfront.