Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Annapolis: Why care?
It’s easy to brush off news of yet another Mideast peace meeting with a shrug and a groan. Who cares, one might ask. These people have been intermittently fighting and squabbling for decades. How is this round of talks - or this round of violence for that matter - any different from the last?

In this era when the media seems obsessed with sensation over substance, those of us who cover the less light-hearted matters of war and peace, in turn ask ourselves, if no one cares, why do we go to all the effort, risking our lives, worrying our loved ones, frittering away our youth covering a story with no end and no solution‹in sight?

Even though it would make not a fig of difference who Natalie Holloway’s murderer is or who killed the British exchange student in Perugia, if the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not eventually solved, the global consequences inevitably will be grave.

In this part of the world, it is generally taken for granted that the bitter struggle between Palestinians and Israelis for this small sliver of land in the eastern Mediterranean is one of the main sources of fuel for violence against the West, specifically the United States, due to its military, economic and political support for Israel. You can argue with that premise as much as you like, but that does not negate the fact that most people in this region feel that way.

And the Middle East has a way of rising up and violently slapping those who ignore it.

The October 1973 Arab-Israeli war, during which Egypt and Syria tried militarily to take back their territory Israel seized in the 1967 war, resulted in the Arab oil embargo, when most Arab oil producers refused to sell oil to the West in retaliation for its support of Israel.

In August 1990, Saddam Hussein sent his troops into Kuwait, sparking a war, and more than a decade of crippling sanctions against Iraq, which ended with another war, followed by a bloody and chaotic US-led occupation that continues to this day.

There have been several wars between Israel and its enemies in Lebanon, the latest just a year and a half ago. In the summer of 2006, Israel and Hizballah battled it out. For a few days, it looked like Syria, which supports Hizballah, would be dragged into the war, which in turn would raise the specter of bringing Iran (which backs both Syria and Hizballah) into the fray. The possibility of a regional war looked like a definite possibility.

And Iran, of course, sits on massive oil reserves and overlooks the Straights of Hormuz, through which much of the oil from the Middle East flows.

During that last twenty years, the Palestinians have twice risen up against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Thousands have died in the violence here, and unless the problem is solved, thousands more will die.

War and instability in the Middle East translate quickly into instability in world oil markets, and oil is the fuel on which all economies run. It should be obvious.

The United States, the world’s last remaining superpower, which has around 200,000 troops based in the Middle East, which spends billions of dollars in military and economic aid, which has vital economic and political interests stretching from Afghanistan to Morocco, has a direct stake in what goes on in the Middle East, in what comes out of the Annapolis summit.

The deliberations in Annapolis may not have a direct or obvious bearing on the lives of ordinary Americans at the moment. It may all seem confusing and complicated and hopeless and, yes, maybe even boring (despite the best efforts of journalists based here to convey the gravity of the situation).

But insignificant it is not. If the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not resolved, if the Arab-Israeli conflict continues to fester, violence, and specifically anti-American violence, in the Middle East and beyond, is a certainty.

What is puzzling is that given all that is at stake - global security and stability, the health of the world economy, the standing of the United States in a critically important part of the world - the American media seems obsessed with stories that, in the grand scheme of things, are utterly and completely devoid of any significance. The adventures of Paris Hilton, the travails of Brittany Spears, Michael Jackson, O.J. Simpson, etc., etc., are meaningless. War and peace in the Middle East are anything but that.

-- From Ben Wedeman, CNN International Correspondent.

Monday, November 26, 2007
Howard's End

Hair lurked in great thickets in his nostrils and sprouted wildly in his eyebrows. Only on his head did it grow more sparsely, combed over to disguise a creeping baldness.

Charisma eluded John Howard even at the height of his powers. Back then, in 1984, it seemed improbable he could ever rise to enjoy the lavish and repeated public praise of a US President. Or, for a long while, hold the admiration, respect and even affection of the majority of the Australian people.

That was the first time I met him. He was already a formidable political figure. He had run Australia’s treasury for five years. He was a policy man, with an impatience to lead his party. But it was a tiny human detail that stuck with me and which I remembered later many times as I tried to fathom the appeal he had to many people.

It was Perth. The day was formidably hot and I was late to the press conference. Embarrassed and sweating heavily, I crept in close to the candidate to position a radio microphone.

Howard interrupted his flow to look at me in good humor, and to grin sympathetically.

The Prime Minister of the day, the silvery, mob-beloved Bob Hawke, might have snarled or delivered a put down joke to play up to the crowd.

Howard didn’t. I sensed he was an awkward man, forgiving of awkwardness.

The natural graces of the star politician seemed beyond John Howard. In the late 1980s, I covered a speech he gave in rural Bendigo. His voice was whiney and strident. He hammered away his policy points with a metronomic jabbing of his arm. His audience were party supporters. They listened politely but drifted away.

In 1993, when his career was at its lowest point, rejected by his party and apparently doomed to see out his service on the backbenches, John Howard turned up in France. It was the 75th anniversary of the end of World War One and an official party of surviving Australian “diggers” was being guided around the slaughter fields of their youth.

Howard, whose father and grandfather both fought in the trenches, was tagging along. At one point, a trail of elderly men was tottering across a road between a restaurant and their bus. Howard, instinctively helpful, respectful of elders, leapt into the road to try to manage the traffic. The French drivers ignored this nondescript man. One old soldier muttered contemptuously, “What’s he doing here?”

Two and a half years later, John Howard would be Australia’s prime minister. Ultimately he would serve in that job longer than any other but one – the post-war leader Sir Robert Menzies.

How could the same man be those two men?

John Howard said himself the times would suit him. Australians were exasperated by the Labor Prime Minister. Paul Keating was brilliant and charismatic but never disguised his belief in his own intellectual superiority.

John Howard won the vote in 1996. Within weeks, Australia faced the Port Arthur massacre, still the world’s worst peacetime slaughter by a single gunman. At a Tasmanian historical prison site a young man killed 35 people, including children he chased down and shot at point blank range.

Howard did something conventional conservative political thought said was impossible and improper to do. He instituted gun control legislation and forced it through. Such was the fear of backlash, for a brief while he took to delivering public speeches with a bullet-proof vest beneath his suit. There has not been a large-scale shooting in Australia since.

He barely survived his first electoral test, losing the popular vote but scraping back in 1998 on a narrow majority of Parliamentary seats.

His main achievements were pushing through an unpopular consumption tax and ordering a military intervention to support East Timor, after the population voted for independence from their occupiers, Indonesia.

However, that seemed likely to be Howard’s end. By early 2001 he was trailing so badly in the polls that only he seemed to sustain any faith in his party’s survival.

But the defining Howard years were still ahead.

Weeks from the 2001 election he seemed likely to lose, Howard tightened his line on asylum seekers trying to enter Australia by sea from Indonesia. The refugees were chiefly from Afghanistan and Iraq.

When the crew of a Norwegian freighter, the Tampa, rescued several hundred asylum seekers from a sinking vessel, Howard ordered that they be banned from being landed on Australian territory.

He sent the military, including special forces troops, to keep the Tampa at bay. The action outraged human rights groups and raised cries of racism. But it was popular with the electorate. Howard’s declamation, “we will decide who comes to Australia and the circumstances in which they come” quickly appeared on campaign posters.

Then came 9/11.

John Howard was in Washington when it happened. In the global shock that followed, voters went to the security they knew and Howard’s re-election was assured.

His prime ministership can ultimately be divided into two near-equal periods. Before 9/11 and after. Post 9/11, his philosophical closeness to George W. Bush gave him unprecedented access in Washington and made Australia’s voice more prominent than a nation of barely 20 million people has a right to expect.

The Iraq war was not all that popular at any stage in Australia. By now, the opposition Labor Party had turned to an articulate and iconoclastic young leader. Mark Latham was a self-described “hater”. People were initially drawn towards him but quickly found they liked him less the more they knew of him. In 2004, Howard was returned with a larger majority.

By then the man of bristling eyebrows and nostrils, of jagged teeth and barbershop hair, had been groomed into the best possible approximation of an elder statesman. He remained personally courteous, but seemed to tolerate policies that trampled the rights and dignities of people outside his beloved “mainstream Australia.” Those less likely to speak fluent English, seemed more likely to find themselves on the outer.

By 2007, Australians knew John Howard intimately. They knew his tricks and the levers he pulled. The Labor Party, in the Chinese-speaking former diplomat Kevin Rudd, had at last an Opposition leader who didn’t scare school-children, who wasn’t tainted by unpleasant memories of the previous Labor government, and who seemed socially and economically disciplined. So much so that revelations of a boozed-up night at a New York strip club years before actually boosted his poll numbers.

Howard had the chance to leave as an undefeated Prime Minister. He could have handed over to his long-time deputy and treasurer, Peter Costello. He didn’t. In fairness, he might have believed – as many of his own MPs believed – that he was the best chance his government had of re-election.

Late polls showed the opposite was true. But by then it was too late.

A friend of mine who was with the Prime Minister on Saturday November 24th at his official Sydney resident, described him as being somber and drained, with bloodshot eyes and utterly lacking his customary bounce. The most astute political operator of his generation knew better than anyone the game was up.

That evening, the votes were counted. Howard was swept out in a landslide.

-- From Hugh Riminton, CNN International Correspondent, in Sydney.

Friday, November 23, 2007
A Thanksgiving Toast from Bangladesh
When I sat down to write this, my immediate thought was: what do I have to be thankful for? I'm surrounded by death, disease and destruction. The airlines lost literally everything I own - I've been wearing the same clothes for over a week, and I just got done with a 12 hour round trip boat ride to an Island of death that involved a death defying motorbike ride (the 2nd in two days).

But then I remembered what thanksgiving is all about. And so I stand and toast to the following:

First, to our crew of misfits. Cameraman Sanjiv Talreja, who I saw leap off a ferry to get a shot as his blackberry flew into the water - also a man who can sleep anywhere - including on the back of flying motorbikes. Producer Ayanjit Sen, who can speak more languages than I knew existed, somehow managing to keep our expenses in line, when you're tipping local boys on barren islands who help carry our gear that can't be an easy feat. To producer extraordinaire Tim Schwarz who swooped into country from Hong Kong with gear and the heart to carry the story forward - literally editing pieces in speedboats across the vast Bangladesh delta. All the while, never once did they complain about the smell emanating from their fore mentioned dirty and smelly reporter.

To our foreign desk - always a calm voice on the other end, making our pieces stronger, available 24 hours a day for anything, and making sure the world sees the tragedy that has struck this beautiful nation.

To our London bureau - for running around like crazy and making sure all our paperwork was in order. Our editorial head in London for recognizing early as she did that this was an important story, and coordinating with our incredible futures department to deploy quickly.

To our families - who put up with so much. So many missed holidays, year after year - checking the TV to see how we're doing instead of watching football as many others are, and always looking on the Internet to see how we're doing. Text messages in the middle of the night, expecting the worst, but always sending supportive messages. Our wives and significant others - who groan when that phone rings and we leap out the door - another holiday burned . they still stand by our side.

To all journalists, who are in war zones and disaster areas around the world - from Iraq to Africa to tents in Bangladesh - speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves, acting as a global megaphone, showing how the majority of the world really lives.

To the people of this beautiful country who have lost so much - but still try to hand us what little water they have left - when we look thirsty and insisting all the way through thick jungle and past mass graves to carry our heavy gear.

To the children of Bangladesh whose faces tell the story of death - as they carry forward, one foot in front of the other.

Finally and most important - the people who live on the island of Char Andar, all the way in Southern Bangladesh - in the Bay of Bengal. They have very little to be thankful for - other than for just being alive - surviving the storm.

I hope they know somehow, I will never forget the day I met them, Thanksgiving Day, 2007.

-- From Cal Perry, CNN International Correspondent, in Bangladesh.

Australia's Election Showdown
First a confession – just don’t tell the boss. I don’t care who wins the Australian election, although I think it’s a fascinating clash with implications particularly for the endless campaign in the US.

My first focus whenever I arrive in Sydney is simply to race to the harborside or the beach, and suck in a huge lungful of Australian coastal air. Say what you like about the Chinese economic miracle but to live in China, as I do, tends to bring home every noxious particle of its miraculous growth.

On the Australian coastline, where most of the continent’s population lives, it feels easy to be happy.

Which raises the first mystery of this Australian election. Economic growth has been churning along for more than a decade, largely fueled by funneling resources into the mighty engine of China. Almost every Australian has a job. Unemployment is at a generational low of barely 4% and getting lower.

Why change?

After eleven and a half years as Prime Minister, John Howard is urging voters to ask themselves the same question.

The latest polls show a tightening of sentiment, but the Labor Opposition is still the bookies’ favorite to form government once Saturday’s vote is counted. Some polls still put them nearly ten percentage points ahead.

The last time Labor toppled a conservative Coalition government was 1983. Ronald Reagan was still a first term president.

Such momentous changes – should they be confirmed by the voters - indicate something important. The Bill Clinton/James Carville mantra, taken up since by both sides, “It’s the economy, stupid” will have been turned on its head.

If that happens, climate change may emerge as a decisive issue. Indeed, global warming may have contributed for the first time ever to the toppling of a national government.

Of Australia’s two major parties, Labor has made climate change its issue. Howard’s coalition has been far too late to spot the danger.

Until recently, Howard enjoyed the sport of dismissing global warming as the obsession of a crackpot fringe. It left him flatfooted. His attempted re-positioning, promoting nuclear power as a potential answer, failed to grip in a country that currently has only a single research reactor. No-one has yet found a community keen to have one built down the road.

Now not just country areas, grappling with a record drought but middle class suburbanites fret over a warming planet. Already farms are reverting to deserts and urban water supplies are strained.

Veteran conservative commentator Piers Akerman says there is a warning here for US Republicans. “Climate change is definitely a vote winner with younger voters these days,” he says. “You must be aware of it and you must have a coherent policy to address it.”

Associate Professor Rodney Smith from the politics department of the University of Sydney goes further, saying the Australian experience is that it is not just young voters taking it up. Polls show it draws a strong response, he says, among older voters too. And it crosses traditional party lines.

Expect a scramble in conservative politics to reposition more convincingly. Less Bush, more Schwarzenegger.

As an Australian who no longer lives here, there is much to be proud about this country. The melding of so many nationalities is one great achievement, a process far more successful than is sometimes projected.

But it is the air and the water, the spectacular clarity that strikes every visitor, that is influencing this election. Perhaps after years of growth, Australians are expressing the truest conservativism of all: they like things as they are. They worry that change is coming. They are weighing their votes.

-- From Hugh Riminton, CNN International Correspondent, in Sydney.
Monday, November 12, 2007
Pakistan's unanswered question
How popular is Benazir Bhutto?

It is one of the central questions in Pakistan politics right now. No one knows for sure. She would have the world believe she can mobilize millions of supporters at the click of her fingers, but so far she’s been unable to do so.

But Bhutto is a master of rhetoric and hyperbole. Take, for example, her claim that 3 million people turned out to greet her in Karachi last month as she returned to Pakistan after eight years of self-imposed exile. The police and most media put the figure at closer to 200,000. We were there filming for CNN and certainly didn’t see crowds anywhere near 3 million.

Since then, her Pakistan People’s Party has been ruthlessly hounded by the authorities, amid a widespread crackdown on opposition by General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president. As a result, the PPP’s organizational structure has been decimated, with many activists behind bars, and has been unable to orchestrate rallies against the government. Last Friday’s failed demonstration in Rawalpindi – which was successfully blocked by security forces acting under Musharraf’s ongoing state of emergency decree -- state of was testament to just how crippled the PPP now is.

Now, Musharraf has gone on the offensive, suggesting Bhutto is not nearly as popular as she claims.

“Go into the rural areas of Punjab, go into the cities of Punjab, and see whether she has gained in popularity or gone down in popularity because of certain actions, certain comments she has been making,” he told a press conference in Islamabad this weekend –- implying that journalists would discover that many of the rural poor traditionally identified as being Bhutto supporters have in fact become disenchanted with her.

What the General didn’t spell out is that could be in part because she had started cozying up to him after years of being one of his harshest critics while in exile. That was all part of a power-sharing deal, being brokered by the United States. That deal now appears to lie in tatters, with Bhutto and Musharraf on a dangerous collision course.

But amid the ever-shifting sands of Pakistan politics, it’s almost impossible to gauge how each side is faring in the court of public opinion.

“It is very difficult to find out how popular she is,” Rahul Roy-Chaudhary of the International Institute of Strategic Studies said. “I mean, one basis of course is the last election, where the PPP came out as single largest political party. But since then several years have passed, and Benazir Bhutto has been in exile.

“Plus, of course, there is a prospective relationship deal between Benazir Bhutto and President Musharraf which would weaken her position and her public support,” he added.

Many of her traditional constituency would support her no matter what she does. Her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who during his career served as both the country’s president and its prime minister, is still revered here, and the Bhutto family name carries a lot of weight, especially in Sindh province. But some of her supporters have become disillusioned by the allegations of corruption and incompetence that dogged Benazir Bhutto’s first two terms as prime minister.

Lt. Gen. Talat Masood retired from the Pakistan army some years ago, but is a seasoned observer of politics here. He acknowledges Bhutto has a long way to go to convince the educated middle classes that she should be given another chance.

“She has a major problem of trust –- both with the political parties and with many with many people of Pakistan, so I think she has to revive that trust,” he said.

But reviving that trust will not be easy – first she has to get into office. She is threatening to conduct a “long march” to democracy, leading tens of thousands of supporters from Lahore to Islamabad.

There’s just one problem -– the military is again attempting to block her path, using the excuse that her life could be in danger from suicide bombers and pointing to the attack in Karachi the day she returned to Pakistan as proof. And that will mean that we won’t be able to see how many people she could actually get onto the streets –- and the central question in Pakistani politics will remain unanswered.

-- From Dan Rivers, CNN International Correspondent.
Thursday, November 01, 2007
Reflections in Madrid
Thursday November 1st is a national holiday in Spain, All Saints Day, to be precise. The city is quiet, even the politicians. It’s a great day for sober second thought in Spain and people here surely need it. The Madrid bombing verdicts were decidedly mixed, but as we searched out the survivors and the families of those who were killed, the interviews weren’t about loud outrage, but quiet frustration. I remember the first day of the trial and the mood couldn’t have been more different. Six months ago, families were still expecting and demanding answers, now they’re resigned. As a journalist it was much easier to illicit comment from survivors and families when the trial still held such promise.

A lot of the expectation for this trial rested on the shoulders of prosecutor Olga Sanchez. I just couldn’t believe it when shortly after the verdict I saw her march out of the courthouse and head straight for a makeshift Spanish TV studio just outside the front steps. We all settled in, watched the interview and waited to pounce as she took her microphone off and walked towards us. I was shocked; an interview was no problem she said. Her reaction and interview were completely disarming. She seemed to be content with the verdicts and relieved it was over. She cautioned that as disappointed as the survivors and victims’ families might me, this was a legal victory. She confidently, resolutely told me this was a legal landmark because as least three defendants were convicted of direct involvement in mass murder.

So we return to the day of rest here. We journalists would love to attend an early morning press conference, as if those ever happen in Spain anyway. But they definitely won’t be happening today. This is a day of bright sunshine, autumn strolls, long café conversations and above all quiet reflection. I sensed the families were relieved the verdict would come the day before this holiday, All Saints Day. As is custom, many of the victims’ families will go to their loved ones’ graves today. This will be a slow, sobering day best suited to truly digest these verdicts and what they achieved or didn’t achieve without the clamour from politicians and journalists.

-- From Paula Newton, CNN International Security Correspondent, in Madrid
Hear from CNN reporters across the globe. "In the Field" is a unique blog that will let you share the thoughts and observations of CNN's award-winning international journalists from their far-flung bureaus or on assignment. Whether it's from conflict zone, a summit gathering, or the path least traveled, "In the Field" gives you a personal, front row seat to CNN's global newsgathering team.
    What's this?
CNN Comment Policy: CNN encourages you to add a comment to this discussion. You may not post any unlawful, threatening, libelous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic or other material that would violate the law. Please note that CNN makes reasonable efforts to review all comments prior to posting and CNN may edit comments for clarity or to keep out questionable or off-topic material. All comments should be relevant to the post and remain respectful of other authors and commenters. By submitting your comment, you hereby give CNN the right, but not the obligation, to post, air, edit, exhibit, telecast, cablecast, webcast, re-use, publish, reproduce, use, license, print, distribute or otherwise use your comment(s) and accompanying personal identifying information via all forms of media now known or hereafter devised, worldwide, in perpetuity. CNN Privacy Statement.