Monday message board

It’s time once again for your comments on any topic. I’d be particularly interested in how people’s views about the war have changed (or been confirmed) now that it’s actually happening. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language, please.

Confiscating Iraqi funds

I haven’t seen any comment on this rather troubling item. The Bush Administration is confiscating frozen Iraqi funds and demanding, with the threat of exclusion from the US banking system that others do likewise. The concern is that countries such as France will seek to use the money to repay debts, rather than giving it back for the benefit of the Iraqi people. But the Administration is keeping $300 million to settle suits brought by US citizens against Saddam Hussein’s regime. As with the announcement that only US firms will be permitted to tender for reconstruction work, there are defences that can be offered for this inconsistent treatment. But a pattern is starting to form, and it’s not looking good.

What I'm reading

I’m resorting my bookshelves following the move to Brisbane and doing a lot of rereading, including The Aleph and other Stories by Jorge Luis Borges. Given the depressing state of reality at present, a bit of magical realism makes for a pleasant escape.

A new book I’m reading is The Man who knew Infinity a biography of the Indian mathematical prodigy Ramanujan. Although a lot of my work is highly mathematical, I can’t imagine having Ramanujan’s amazing ability to mainpulate infinite series.

The dog that didn't bark

The war is only two days old, but it’s already clear that its central rationale is fatally flawed. If Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction represented a threat to the US under any circumstances, they would already have been used, against US forces or against Israel.

The absence of an attack on Israel is particularly striking. US forces are already seizing possible bases for Scud attacks in Western Iraq (finding no Scuds apparently) so the opportunity for such an attack will be over very shortly. There is no reason why Saddam should refrain from such an attack except that he lacks any capacity. Similarly, the Iraqi forces in Southern Iraq are throwing everything they have at Kuwait. This clearly doesn’t include WMDs and, despite early reports, apparently doesn’t include Scuds either.

Crucial tests

Although the war has just begin, a lot of crucial decisions about the post-war shape of the Middle East are going to be made over the next day or so. The post of Palestinian PM has been accepted by Mahmoud Abbas, thus meeting Bush’s stated condition for the publication of a “roadmap” for an Israel-Palestine settlement. Sharon has already rejected crucial elements of the roadmap inclduing the ultimate goal of an independent Palestinian state.

Bush has the choice between publishing the roadmap now, as he is committed to do, or deferring it until after the war with Iraq is resolved, as the Israeli government hopes and expects, knowing that delay will give them enough time either to force their desired changes through or to derail the process altogether. I expect he will defer, but I would be very glad to be proved wrong.

On another front, it appears likely that the Turkish government will mount what is, in effect, an independent invasion of Iraq, with the stated objective of coping with refugees, but the barely-concealed motive of keeping the Kurds in check. Ken Parish has a good post on the problems this will raise.

Turkey’s moral position may be weak, but, as I note in Ken’s comment box, the legal position is trickier. Turkey can use all the same arguments as the US about resolutions 678, 687 and 1441, as well as the right of self-defence. Again this will be a big, and difficult, test for Bush. Will he seek to protect the Kurds, risking the loss of Turkish airbases and airspace, or leave the problem to be resolved after the war, when the Turkish army may be well-entrenched? Again, I expect the worst, but hope for the best.

One hopeful sign is that the much-heralded “shock and awe” attack has not been launched (at least not yet). Again, Ken Parish has a good post on this. I expressed the hope a few days ago that talk of “shock and awe” was the product of a misinformation campaign. It’s still unclear whether this is correct or whether the delay has been due to the confusion about whether Saddam had been killed in the opening surprise attack. Given that war had effectively been declared, an attempt to end it quickly by killing Saddam was justified, but it appears not to have succeeded. The chances of a sustainable peace will be greatly enhanced if the “shock and awe” option is forsworn.

Outbreak of war

Now that war has started we can only hope that that it will be over quickly and that there will be as little bloodshed as possible on all sides. While all loss of life is equally tragic. it’s natural for us to think particularly about Australians. One thing I learned in listening to Question Time is that in addition to our troops (about 2000), there are about a dozen other Australian citizens known to be in Iraq (some media people, some human shields and a handful of others) as well as an unknown number of people with dual Australian-Iraqi citizenship. Regardless of their reason for being there, I hope that all will survive unharmed and that no Australian families will be bereaved by this war.

My big news

I had to be a bit mysterious about my visit to Canberra, as my big news was subject to an embargo. I’ve been awarded a Federation Fellowship, which is one of the biggest awards going for Australian academics ( you can read more here if you’re interested). The award ceremony was yesterday and involved a hastily-arranged flying visit to Canberra. I’ll be working on one of my abiding research interests – the management of the Murray-Darling Basin – along with a continuation of interests in uncertainty and sustainability.

It wasn’t exactly an auspicious day for such an event – the war began a few hours before the awards – but the problems I’m working on will be around long after Saddam has been forgotten.

PS: Along with the award comes a very nice lapel pin – free of charge!

Brush with history

I’m unexpectedly going on a very brief visit to Canberra tomorrow, and my itinerary includes attendance at Question Time, which should be a historic occasion. I’ll give a full report when I can, but there will probably be no more blogging until Friday.