Hard News by Russell Brown

Very big mess

So rumours of the demise of al-Qaeda have, clearly, been greatly exaggerated. Barely has victory been claimed in Iraq than murderous millennial terrorism is back on the agenda.

A series of recent news stories have held that al-Qaeda - like any well-organised gang - has simply retired one set of footsoldiers and replaced them with another. The attack in Riyadh makes last week's unseemly post-war bragging by US intelligence officials look pretty sick.

The Saudi-based Arab News expressed shock, revulsion and outrage at the attack, and called on Saudis to "face up to the fact that we have a terrorist problem here ... There is much in US policy to condemn; there are many aspects of Western society that offend - and where necessary, Arab governments condemn. But anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism for their own sake are crude, ignorant and destructive. They create hate. They must end. Otherwise there will be more barbarities."

The Christian Science Monitor, on the other hand, said that "Americans are stuck in the middle of what is essentially a civil war - a monarchy vs. Mr. bin Laden's drive for an Islamic state - because of their dependency on the largest oil reserves in the world."

The Riyadh attacks pre-empted what was to have been the first speech by America's new man in Iraq. The Americans have replaced their previous senior civilian in Iraq after a stark failure to restore public order and services to the country for which they are now responsible. Iraqis are still dying needlessly in ravaged hospitals in Baghdad. And there is speculation that locals may be suffering radiation poisoning after US forces' unaccountable failure to safeguard Iraq's nuclear facilities, which have been looted. An Arab News editorial put it this way:

It is an irony that a nation so often accused of imperialism should prove so incompetent when it comes to playing the colonial administrator; the French and British are still so much better at these things, even decades after their empires have gone, as the latter have demonstrated in Basra. But those who gloat at American failures should examine their own consciences. No one should want the US to fail in Iraq at this point in time - because the people who suffer all the more if they do are the Iraqis. Better that they do the job of rebuilding the country quickly and well, and then get out as soon as possible. Those who want it all to go pear-shaped self-evidently do not care anything about the well-being of the Iraqis.

Frankly, if the White House does care for the welfare of the people it so noisily liberated, it should get with the damn programme and make way for an organisation with some skills in nation-building: the United Nations. (The gulf in competence between America's war-fighting and peace-making efforts tends to endorse Norman Mailer's assessment of the US military leadership as "intelligent, articulate and considerably less corrupt than any other power group in America".)

Unfortunately, Clare Short seems to believe that the UN has already been stitched up and says her resignation from the Blair government is a consequence of that.

Meanwhile, the estimated toll of civilian dead in Iraq is steadily heading for twice that suffered in the September 11 attacks. Add in the slaughter of the hapless Iraqi soldiers - for which you can start the counting at five figures - and it's starting to look like a lot of blood.

The main US weapons inspection team is preparing to give up and go home. Regardless of whether someone will eventually find something banned it is now clear that the daunting arsenal described before the war by Bush and Blair - literally tons of chemicals and biological agents, able to be deployed against a foreign power within 45 minutes - simply does not exist. Was it a dangerous distraction from the real threats?

While the Republican Party tries to engineer what can only be seen as a cynical gerrymander in Texas (aimed, like a similar move in Colorado, at cementing their hold on Congress) its very good friend Richard Prebble continues to conduct himself as a man with no discernable principles, having this week heartily endorsed the new US policy of using trade as a weapon. So what happens when, say the Chinese, start tying foreign policy demands to trade concessions? Do we really want, as our Prime Minister asked last week, to go back the nineteenth century? Apparently some people do. As The Guardian pointed out:

Against richer rivals, Mr Bush views trade as war by other means. Washington faces a trade battle with Europe over illegal $4bn tax breaks for big US exporters such as Microsoft and Boeing. Last year, Mr Bush imposed plainly illegal tariffs on steel imports, hurting Chinese and European companies.

What the world is witnessing is America as a mercantilist power - protecting domestic industries while pursuing free trade abroad. Britain, which advanced this concept in the 19th century, built an empire which rested on incomparable military and economic might.

Yet US trade policy now seems not only capricious but confused. The White House is behaving like an angry drunk over trade issues. Is the administration for the Latin American free-trade region or not? And if the plan is still on, why did the White House so merrily stick it to Mexico and Chile last week? And shouldn't they decide on that before they hare off and declare a free trade zone in the Middle East? The Times correspondent, meanwhile, noted that the fanfare for the Middle East proposal was coming exclusively from one side, and that Middle Eastern countries were struggling to work out what it was all about:

For the US, it is all so simple. Arab states should open the door, privatise and stop running countries like corrupt family businesses. Saudi Arabia must admit foreign investors and diversify from oil. From the Arab perspective, it looks more like a poker game with a loaded deck and an opportunity for the subsidised Israeli economy to make further land grabs in the Middle East.

Unless, America shows [it is] willing by making sacrifices. One of Egypt's exports is cotton but last year it had to cut prices to remain competitive. Egyptian and other African cotton farmers struggled last year because 25,000 US farmers receive $4 billion (£2.5 billion) in subsidies, a sum 30 per cent larger than the value of the cotton produced. Hardly free trade.

At the same time, the US has launched a WTO case against Europe over GM regulations which The Times points out looks more like a political than a commercial move. Canada has joined the US action but is simultaneously preparing to work on a new trade deal with the European Union. And the US's second-highest monthly trade deficit ever - $US43.5 billion - is, according to some American commentators, merely a symptom of the US economy's rude health compared to the rest of the world. But no one seems to know what the US "strong dollar" policy actually means.

No doubt the Bush club's cheerleaders will keep on wittering about leadership and decisiveness. The evidence suggests that a more humble virtue - simple competence - wouldn't go astray. This is all looking like a very big mess.