Friday, August 18, 2006

A Tragedy From Iraq

Just under a year ago, I found myself outside the door of the United Nations (yes, without realising). Given that I had little else to do that afternoon, I decided to go inside and have a look round. Understandably, security at the complex is tight and access is limited. I was able, nevertheless, to have a good look round a few displays into the history of the UN and its work, before resisting the temptation of sending a postcard with a United Nations stamp and postmark.

The displays were a PR masterpiece. One in particular sticks in my mind. It was a collection of photographs of various children in developing countries. A boy from the favelas in Brazil; a girl who wants to escape the sex industry in Thailand by becoming a cook; a child in Africa who has lost much of his family to AIDS. Each picture had an explanation of its place in the child's life, coupled with an explanation of the UN's Millennium Development Goals.

The use of pictures to illustrate progress on these goals is very apt. After all, pictures can show whatever you want them to show. Bloggers have demonstrated that quite aptly in the past week with their juxtaposition of BBC and Channel 4 reporting from Lebanon. How much the Millennium Development Goals have translated into real action affected the lives of the children depicted, I don't know. But the UN definitely talks a good game.

International institutions have not covered themselves in glory in the last five years, however. Since 9/11, the UN has proved utterly incapable of making progress on key international issues. After the genocide in Rwanda, the UN admitted action should have been taken more swiftly, and vowed "never again". Yet when crisis struck in Darfur, nobody was able to organise the necessary action to create the sort of force to prevent massacres there.

Iraq, of course, was the archetypal issue that proved how organisationally weak the UN is. Far from being able to achieve any settlement, instead the selfish interests of both sides saw an institution paralysed. The need for both Bush and Chirac to posture in front of the world's media prevented the chance of any compromise, or any UN-sanctioned plan for future progress in dealing with Saddam's regime.

It's a pattern that has been repeated yet again in the UN's handling of the current crisis in the Middle East. Pious calls for both sides to end the fighting have been heard, many heartstrings have been tugged at, but when it comes to cold, hard, action, it took over a month for any sort of plan to be agreed to.

Then again, when you think of Kofi Annan being the Secretary General, it's hardly surprising, is it? He comes across as a bit of a granddad figure. A pleasant chap, who doesn't offend anyone. When it comes down to it, though, no-one is really going to listen to him when it comes to a plan of action. His respect, you see, doesn't come from his actions. It comes from having been promoted in an organisation out of an ability to make friends.

Tony Blair, on the other hand, has staked his personal and political reputation on the line when it matters - and as a result, his character has been crucified. His chances of retiring from British politics to take up a position in charge of an international organisation are now slim to none. Iraq has poisoned his reputation so much that he could not command the respect of the UN organisation.

Yet if you were appointing someone to be the Chief Executive of a business, would anyone in their right mind appoint Annan over Blair? Annan is a grandad, moaning down the pub that "these bloody kids these days, they do nothing but hang out on street corners causing trouble", but lacking the desire or the commitment or the ability to make a positive difference to the community. Blair, for all his faults, would get something done - organising and running a football team, for example. Sure, he might be a teensy bit sanctimonious, but at the end of the day, communities - neighbourhood or international - need people like him.

Governments need people who aren't necessarily popular, but get things done, and get people to talk to each other. It is a crying shame Peter Mandelson is currently causing trouble in Brussels - for he is a man who will get intractably opposed groups talking to each other. That's why his appointment as NI Secretary was a masterstroke of Blair's. Blair is a similar character. He won't shirk from a fight, but his commitment and his passion (which are undoubtedly evident in foreign affairs) mean that he will try every last avenue to get things done. Whereas Annan would stand impassively by, trying desperately to pass the buck.

Nice words do not get you anywhere in the arena of international diplomacy. A well-presented statement may attract media coverage, but it won't effect necessary change. What's needed is someone who will force people to sit together and lock them there until they come out with a settlement. Who's prepared to forego diplomatic niceties to get something done. Blair could have been that man. Unfortunately, Annan's successor will likely be someone else insipid and uninspiring.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

A Sledgehammer To Crack A Nut?

It's not surprising that passengers have borne the huge delays at airports today with good humour. After all, given the choice between a large explosion on your plane and hefty delays at the airport, I know which one I'd choose. However, I can't help but feel that part of the reaction of the government is akin to using a sledgehammer to crack an admittedly large nut.

It's about time some restrictions were placed on hand luggage - increasingly it's been used as an excuse to up the baggage allowance rather than taking essential items for the journey. But the restrictions placed today by the Government seem to be excessive. Banning liquids and electronic devices makes a lot of sense. But why should people be prevented from taking a book, or a magazine or two on to a flight with them?

And perhaps more to the point, what's going to happen to all the shops after the security checks?

Sunday, August 06, 2006

No Excuses

The latest victim culture in Britain is springing up around Wayne Rooney. So used to being heralded as the saviour of English football, it seems as if he's starting to believe the hype. Whenever a red card is brandished his way, he suddenly plays dumb and looks disbelieving. Worse still, he's got an army of cheerleaders - led by Sir Alex Ferguson, no less - who seem determined to try and absolve him of any blame. The sad truth is, he doesn't deserve it.

There is no doubt Rooney is a fantastic talent. His greatest skill of all, moreover, is the one that is picked up least frequently by the media. Quite simply, his positional sense for someone so young is outstanding. In Euro 2004, I can't remember an instance where he wasn't in the right position for the rest of the team. Supplying a quality player is made even easier when he knows exactly where to be.

The downside, however, is that he has a brattish temperament. Playing for England in a friendly against Spain, he became so impetuous he had to be substituted early to avoid what was surely an inevitable red card. Any substitution is met with a very public display of throwing the toys out of the pram (or, more accurately, the water bottles from the dugout). And the scowl on his face when the referee blows the whistle against him isn't one of frustration, it's one of hate. He has an anger management problem, and if he's not careful, he's going to go the same way as Roy Keane. A fantastic player who couldn't stop his competitive streak boiling over - and who ruined his career as a result.

The other similarity, of course, is that Ferguson is prepared to defend Rooney to the hilt, as indulging his ego is vital to the well-being of the team. A sulking van Nistelrooy can be dispatched to Madrid; a sulking Rooney would rip the heartbeat from the Red Devils. But it's about time Ferguson told Rooney to stop being an impetuous brat, and to stand up and take some responsibility for his actions. For someone who has allegedly asked Steve McClaren to make him England captain, Rooney is an extraordinarily selfish player.

His sending off in the Amsterdam tournament, just like his dismissal against Portugal, was a thoroughly deserved card caused by needless, reckless violence. He knows full well he stamped on Carvalho's testicles; that's why he didn't make an apology (it would have been very easy for him to say "I didn't mean to make contact, but if the video shows I have, then I'm sorry"). Likewise on Friday - his arm was so far away from his body, it took some effort to connect with his opponent. If he has a reputation, it is deserved - he is a hothead who will lash out unnecessarily at any perceived injustice.

Yet while the apologists, both in fandom and in the media, continue to herald him and overlook his glaring faults, he will never have the impact that he should. There's a time when you have to grow up and shoulder the responsibility that your talent demands. While Rooney is allowed to consider himself a victim whenever things don't go according to plan, we stand to see another fantastic talent wasted.