Sunday, April 29, 2007

Up and Down

Byline By M.J. Akbar : UP and Down

When you can’t win, the best thing to do, naturally, is to change the definition of victory. Since no political party can win in Uttar Pradesh, all of them are in the process of redefining success.
This is a clever massage, done with much kneading by psephologists and media pundits. Victory is a clear measure; success is a comparative call. If you can keep the bar of expectations low enough, then you can always sound jubilant after crossing it. It is a high jump battle played by low jump standards.

The Samajwadi Party is in power, and began the election campaign promising it would return to power. It will now declare victory if it is the second largest party. The Bahujan Samaj Party thought it was riding a wave. There will be garlands of currency notes if it gets between 130 and 140 seats.

The BJP is best positioned to smile, since it began with no expectations at all after its disastrous collapse in the general elections three years ago. If the BJP crosses a hundred seats, its president Rajnath Singh can assert that its revival is now a fact. If it crosses 120 seats, it can bring out the drums.

The Congress is best positioned to cry, since its unexpected success in the general elections of 2004 lifted expectations skywards. Three years later, when it should have been looking at three-digit results, it has lowered the bar so far that it has become a very low jump. Congress strategists are getting ready to congratulate themselves if the party gets 35 seats out of over 400. A person who was not born in the winter of 1984-85, when the Congress swept every seat in Uttar Pradesh, has voted for the first time in this Assembly election. A generation has matured into a voter, but twenty years and three presidents later, the Congress has still not found the political pulse of India’s most important electoral state.

In a normal election, arithmetic should be sufficient to determine who has won. In Uttar Pradesh, the victor will be determined by algebra. Alliances will be shaped after the results. The chief minister will be selected not on the basis of what matters to voters, but on what matters to politicians.

Discount therefore all the statements about integrity being made during the polls. All options are open. Everyone is ready to sleep with anyone, as long as the pre-nuptial agreement is acceptable. The only possibility that can be ruled out is an alliance between the BJP and the Congress, but that is a non-starter even in mathematical terms: the two together will not add up to a majority in the House.

Rahul Gandhi, who seems to be campaigning as much against former Congress Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao as anyone else, remarked that the 1996 Congress alliance with the BSP, fashioned by Rao, was a historic blunder. That assessment is absolutely accurate, but it will not prevent Congress from supporting, or even joining, a Mayawati government if the Congress gets 40 seats and the BSP can top 140. (They can always turn that into a majority with the help of independents and defectors.)

Rajnath Singh might assert, with a straight face (and if you look at his picture, you will notice that he has a very straight face indeed), that the BJP treats every other party as untouchable but cometh the hour, cometh the touchability. If the numbers add up, both Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav will happily take BJP’s support to form a government. They might be less happy about lending support to a BJP government, but the future is all in the numbers. Crunch those UP numbers and you never know what might fall out.

The Congress, which keeps a lot hidden up its long khadi sleeve, also has what might be called a post-democratic option: to use the fractured result as an opportunity to impose President’s Rule so that it can exercise hundred per cent authority despite getting less than ten per cent of the seats. The governor of Uttar Pradesh will happily issue an edict declaring that no party is in a position to form a stable government, and therefore he should become the fountainhead from which all decisions and privileges flow. The snag, of course, is that while the Congress might have an obedient governor, it does not have a pliable President of India. President Kalam’s popularity ratings are exploding upwards precisely because he has been correct and Constitutional instead of tweaking ethics to play politics. He is not going to compromise in the last days of his first term.
It is entirely appropriate, then, that a second Kalam term will be heavily influenced by the election results of Uttar Pradesh. There should have been no debate. A direct election for President of India would have been no contest. Opinion polls show something in the nature of 80% support for President Kalam. But the electorate consists of MPs and MLAs so it becomes a game between political parties.

The UP results will not affect the numbers too much, but they will affect the course that different parties choose to take. Without anyone realising it, support for the ruling UPA coalition has whittled down by over 45 MPs. The government still enjoys a majority, but it is an open question how comfortable that will be in a secret ballot. Partners must have confidence in the popularity of the core party in any coalition. That confidence is ebbing from the Congress, and if it shows no hope of revival in Uttar Pradesh, after having displayed none in Bihar and Bengal in the last two years, then tiny little question marks begin to form in the mind, waiting to grow up into huge exclamation marks.

The Congress government in Delhi has been singularly responsible for wasting a historic opportunity to rebuild the party’s momentum, and rediscover its place as the preferred home of Indian politics. Government is an opportunity to put together the blocks that can establish a network of voting groups that can re-elect you. In 2004 the Congress skilfully created a coalition at the top, of parties who could dominate Parliament. It then forgot to create a coalition of voters, who would have kept the ruling alliance’s feet anchored to the ground. When power goes to your head, you can’t look down.

From the head, power seeped into the ozone layer. I wish I could say that it slipped through the fingers, but the metaphor refuses to descend. It is only when you live in the stratosphere that you believe that votes will come when a golden chariot ploughs through an election crowd. Votes stick in a honeycomb, patiently constructed, cell-by-cell, village-by-village. The Congress has no party structure left from one end of the Ganga to the other, in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar or Bengal, and no leader with the time, or interest, to do hard, street-level work.

If semantics were sufficient there could have been four chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh, and maybe five Prime Ministers of India. There is a solution for such an inconvenient Constitution. Our legislators could always amend it. With three Prime Ministers acting as co-brothers, which coalition could ever fail?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

If Rahul is future, who is the past?

Byline By M.J. Akbar : If Rahul is future, who is the past?

If Rahul Gandhi is the future of the Congress, then Dr Manmohan Singh must surely be its past. The Prime Minister’s definitive statement linking the future of the Congress to Rahul Gandhi, made in the midst of a faltering UP election campaign, suggests many things. But the most important surely is that the dynamic of Congress politics has shifted from preserving Dr Singh in office to making Rahul Gandhi the next Prime Minister.

Was Dr Singh mature, or premature, in being so specific?

It was not a casual remark. Nor was it meant merely to please. If the second were the reason then Dr Singh would have been parroting it ever since he was sworn in as Prime Minister three years ago. The point of the message lies not in the content of the remark but in the timing.

The content is not news. Rahul Gandhi did not win an election from his father’s constituency, Amethi, to become minister of information and broadcasting. The tea leaves could be read in the list of Congress ministers sworn in along with Dr Singh. No one from Rahul Gandhi’s age group was given a place in government, although you could virtually hear the crash of broken young hearts as the queue formed before the President of India. The young were told to wait their turn. It was implicit that their turn would come along with Rahul Gandhi. But in those early days an ‘if’ was attached to the ‘when’, as Rahul Gandhi’s will often seemed to veer towards won’t. Dr Singh’s statement is evidence that the ‘if’ has been deleted; the ‘when’ has been notified.

The statement is clear indication to two generations of Congressmen that they have no hope of taking Dr Singh’s place; that if the Congress returns to power, it will go unambiguously to the Gandhi family.

There has been much background jostling in the past few months, as the government’s failure to protect the party vote takes its toll at the state level. The Prime Minister is head of government and must take the blame. One politician’s failure is always another politician’s hope. There is a common view that if the Congress comes a poor fourth in UP, there will be turbulence in Delhi. There is also uncertainty about whether a government candidate can win the coming elections for President of the country. It is merely human if such circumstances encourage hope in the minds of stalwarts like Pranab Mukherjee, or old hands like Sushil Shinde. The Prime Minister has informed his generation of hopefuls that they can stop hoping.

Manmohan Singh belongs to GenerationWas.
Rahul Gandhi represents GenerationNext.
What happens to GenerationInbetween?

Dr Singh is over 70. Rahul Gandhi will soon be 40. Quite a few Congressmen, some of them with substance, are trapped in between, in that last decade of hope called the Sixties. They don’t seem to be in their Sixties, for two reasons. First, because the men dye their hair. Second, most of them came to prominence after Rajiv Gandhi’s victory at the end of 1984, when they were in their early Forties. More than 22 years have passed but we still subconsciously think of them as young. They will be squeezed, but they will adjust with the future as best as they can, keeping any regret intensely personal.

The problem will be with ambitions within the same age group outside the Congress. If the Congress could win a majority on its own, this would not be a problem. But that is not possible in the foreseeable future. Will non-Congress parties within the UPA coalition accept Rahul Gandhi as easily as Congress MPs? Lalu Prasad Yadav, for instance, has not been shy of claiming the prime ministership for himself at some future date; and it is difficult to see Sharad Pawar in a Rahul Gandhi Cabinet. But all options will be subject to a single consideration: how many seats Congress wins in the next general election under Rahul Gandhi’s leadership.

In 2004, Dr Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister because Mrs Sonia Gandhi stepped aside and Rahul Gandhi did not have sufficient experience. You could argue, of course, that he still does not have sufficient experience, or he would not have made the gaffes he did on the UP campaign trail. But you don’t get experience by staring at the computer screen. Experience comes when you have stumbled on the wrong phrase, or made some exorbitant claim that induces friends to search for worry beads and opponents to check out their potential for sarcasm.

Politics at the highest level, in a democracy, is above all the art of communication. Some masters, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Narasimha Rao, or Kamaraj, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Govind Ballabh Pant and Sardar Patel from an older lot — know that to talk less is to say more. To rise beyond this you need the confidence of a post-1969 Indira Gandhi, or a Jyoti Basu at any time in his career. A genius like Jawaharlal Nehru is exceptional. But neither confidence nor genius is achieved without effort. Indira Gandhi’s composure was not an overnight phenomenon. It did not descend upon her the moment Shastri made her minister of information and broadcasting in his first Cabinet in 1964. For years, the Socialist leader Dr Ram Manohar Lohia described her derisively as "Gungi Guriya", or the silent doll. But her silence had the last word over his eloquence. Indira Gandhi understood that silence is preferable to a mistaken assertion.

Rahul Gandhi needs to appreciate the virtues of minimalism until moderation is within his reach. The past is a trap if you do not appreciate its nuances. It helps to have a speechwriter who remembers Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the Mukti Bahini, and the innumerable Bengali refugees who fled Army repression in East Bengal in 1971. Politics is an examination in which the voter awards marks, and the voter is one tough invigilator. Rahul Gandhi can become leader of the Congress, but he cannot become leader of India without winning an election. Rajiv Gandhi emerged from his election at the crest of an unprecedented tide. Rahul Gandhi is swimming against an ebb current, for which he has no one to blame but his own government.

So was Dr Manmohan Singh’s remark mature or premature? His realism may have eliminated ambiguity in the Congress, but injected uncertainty into the coalition that he heads. If the other parties are uncomfortable with the transition in the Congress, and they know that the change is scheduled to take place before the next elections, then they could look for other alliance options. The Prime Minister might have been wiser to remain vague about the future. Could it be that there was a decision that the ground had to be prepared just in case unpredictable events catapulted the government towards an early election? We do not know.

Power is not stagnant energy; it is high voltage electricity that switches from one point to another without compunction. But you cannot indulge in too much voltage fluctuation without hurting the machinery.

If the past has beckoned the future, then it cannot allow the future to hang around idly outside the door because those with an interest in the future (which means everyone except the Prime Minister of India) will spend their time outside the room rather than inside it. A government works only when there is a sense of fusion. Confusion is its death certificate.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

World Strikes Back

Byline by M J Akbar: World Strikes Back

Is peace patriotic? That is the nub of the debate consuming America, as it debates the meaning of victory and the implications of defeat in Iraq.

War, of course, has always been patriotic. Any leader with a gun in one hand and a bugle in the other takes care to wrap himself in a flag. As long as you have acquired sole-selling rights to the motherland you can always send young men and women to their graves. Militant patriotism is such a powerful mantle that it cloaks even the most irresponsible clutter of inefficient sins. Protecting the halo of the "Commander in Chief" becomes a patriotic duty if not a compulsion.

Politicians in search of votes prefer the war ticket to the peace flag. Peace is fuzzy while war is muscular. While common sense suggests that any voter should prefer peace, common experience tells us that he can be milked more easily with the promise of war when war is justified as the answer to that most evocative of emotions, fear. This is the powerful combination of sentiment and logic that has sustained the Bush momentum for five years.

Bush did not inject fear into the American consciousness. That was done by 9/11. But he has been masterful at exploiting this fear for a Bush agenda rather than an American agenda. In its simplest manifestation, this might be called the difference between his war in Afghanistan and his war in Iraq. There was an explicit legitimacy to his attack on the Taliban state after it refused to hand over Osama bin Laden. But the war against Saddam Hussein had absolutely nothing to do with the "war on terror". It has been proved over and over again that Bush and his Vice-President, Dick Cheney, who has turned a sneer into an art form, used a deliberate maze of distortion, exaggeration and lies to turn Saddam into an ally of bin Laden.

The phrase, "war on terror", is a curious one. How do you fight a war against an abstract noun? But it did not emerge by accident. It is consciously elastic, to enable the White House to drag who it will into the target area. The mistake made by the Bush White House was to believe that the target would always remain a static fact, willing to take any punishment. The unexpected insurgency in Iraq has proved that a target can hit back with devastating results.

The daily count in casualties, an overstretched army, a soaring bill and an angry public opinion should suggest that Bush has exhausted the political lode which proved so lucrative for him and the Republicans. It says something about the tenacity of the "war-appeal" that it can be mined even after it has clearly outlived its utility. The debate for Bush and the Democrats now is whether there should be a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. Democrats want the boys back home within 18 months, or just before America elects its next President. Bush accuses them of "losing the war" by setting a deadline.

There is something bogus about Bush’s argument. His current strategy, known as the "surge", which means an increase in American troop levels in order to bring "peace" to Iraq, has received the support of unconvinced Republicans only because there is an implicit time-line. If the "surge" does not work by October or November, Bush will have to change track, and the only change can now be a form of disengagement. In other words, the Republicans are in reality giving Bush less time to succeed than the Democrats.

But of course the Bush rhetoric is different, despite every sign of military and public exhaustion. The Pentagon admits that the armed forces are hugely overstretched. This week, the rules were changed to extend a normal tour of duty in Iraq to 15 months. Even at the height of Vietnam, a soldier on active duty knew that his nightmare would end in 12 months. The army claims that it has maintained its level at 1.4 million, but this is because it recruited (at very high cost) 80,000 men within last year. The number is not indicative of normal retirement; it also suggests the high attrition rate in Iraq. Most of the soldiers at war have joined because the armed forces offer much-needed money or incentives that can help them in the future. They come from the poorer families of America. Some Democrat politicians are even urging the return of the draft, which would force rich kids to go into battle. They add that the war would end very quickly if the elite had to send its children to die for George Bush’s policies.

No one knows either which generation will pay for them. The bill for Iraq has crossed $500 billion. The first casualty in war is clearly the accountant. Blood on the battlefield is paid for by red ink on the balance sheet. In September a new generation of flying machines will replace the helicopters in use in Iraq. This is the V-22 Osprey, a chopper with less manoeuvrability but more speed than the helicopter. There is uncertainty about its value against an insurgency, but there is great certainty about its cost: $80 million a piece. Someone in the offense industry is becoming very rich.

The American people have begun to realise that money, or rhetoric, cannot purchase victory in a war without horizons. The trick that sustains the Bush rhetoric is a simple one: there is no definition of victory, and hence no talk of objectives achieved. If you think about it, both the declared objectives of the Iraq war have been achieved. It is now definite that there were no weapons of mass destruction with Saddam Hussein, and Iraq is not capable of producing them for a hundred years. And Saddam is now dead, his regime destroyed. So why are American and British troops still there? To become the policemen of Baghdad? If that is their mission then it is mission impossible. Any day’s newspapers will tell you that every claim of "success" by the White House or the Pentagon is answered by an attack on the heart of the American and British presence. The insurgency will not end as long as foreign troops remain on Iraqi soil.

When an administration begins to crumble, it does not fall on only one pillar. The erosion of credibility affects the whole base. All the high-flyers of this government are on the front pages for the wrong reasons. Karl Rove, mastermind of victory, is trying to explain why millions — yes, millions — of emails have been erased from the White House archives. Paul Wolfowitz, mastermind of Iraq and now head of the World Bank, is trying to explain why he used his influence to get his girlfriend a much bigger salary.

Some of Wolfowitz’s accusers believe that he does not care about the World Bank. That is not true. Paul Wolfowitz, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and George Bush care very deeply about the World Bank. They just don’t care about the world.

The world is now striking back.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Gore’s Revenge

Byline By M.J. Akbar : Gore’s Revenge

I love America! The New York Times has four pages of sports news and not a single word on cricket. The eastern coast of the United States is the only region in the English-speaking world that can claim to be in more or less the same time zone as the West Indies; over here, you don’t have to keep awake all night to watch India lose. But as far as the World Cup is concerned, we might as well be on another planet. Newspapers do not deign to publish a line of results in small type. What a blessing! One sub-section of an intermittent television channel in New York plays a few Hindi film songs in the morning, interrupting the music only to inform the world about the miraculous ability of Baba Manjhi or Sanjhi to foresee your future for the usual cash compensation, as well as to warn you that every other astrologer in the city is a fraud. But there is no creepy crawler at the bottom of the screen giving running details of the score or, worse, advertisements featuring the unique contralto of the Sachin Squeak. What bliss!

The only intrusion from Mars is the regrettable presence of the BBC, regrettable because BBC has the effrontery to attach World Cup news to its sports section. I see no future for BBC America in America if it continues this head-in-the-sand obstinacy. America plays something called baseball. It is a game played in which the players are required to chew tobacco very slowly before someone behind the bat makes a strange gesture and everyone starts hugging one another. When I checked with an expert, a former government official who has become a fulltime intellectual, during dinner he told me that baseball has been at least partly inspired by an Indian game. Gulli danda? I ask incredulously. He lowers the rim of his spectacles and answers with a meaningful silence. It proves my theory that when government officials grow up to become intellectuals, they become very kind to temporary visitors.

This is what happens when you don’t make Al Gore President of the United States just because of a few chads in Florida. He takes his revenge by changing the climate of the world. Spring has arrived in New York, but instead of fragrant breezes through Central Park, the city is shivering under snow flurries and a wind that was so cold that Canada let it go to America. In the BG Era (Before Gore), sturdy New Yorkers would have called this unseasonal, put on their overcoats and gone off to church on Easter Sunday. But now we have to discuss the litany of a parallel faith, Earth Science, full of measurements of carbon emission and dire predictions that the polar bear will be extinct in fifty years unless of course drought kills us all before that. Progress now is recognition of the evils of progress. Amen.

Al Gore may be able to convert summer into winter, and win an Oscar for being the prophet of gloom, but every serious political pundit believes that he cannot really win the next election for President. Gore himself is in a mood to tease, saying no with such a heavy implied wink that it would take an extinct polar bear to miss the point. However, the pundits would prefer that he save his cash and stay at home. Why? Because he is still too fat to contest. Unless he loses about fifty pounds, he has no hope in this telegenic age. Television puts on ten pounds to your image, and Internet is worse, but that is where elections are won and lost these days. Weight shifts ratings down. The surprise package of this election season, Barack Obama, who stunned the system by raising as much in the first quarter as the Clintons ($25 million) is lean, lithe, lissom. His equivalent on the Republican side, Mitt Romney, might not be able to reach the White House, but he is a perfect candidate for any casting couch which wants a President in a soap opera or polopera. Romney has raised $20 million, largely from his fellow Mormons, but I doubt if he would have survived if his stomach sagged like an obese gunny bag. Looks matter. Rudy Giuliani, the thrice married mayor of New York during 9/11with a thrice married wife, moves with the light step of a man who has known a treadmill on intimate terms. He is the current favourite, having overtaken yesterday’s frontrunner, John McCain. Has McCain slipped because of his expanding jowl? After all, we are still in the cosmetic stage of the campaign. Bill Clinton, who had begun to bloat as President, now looks like Cary Grant with a round nose, having cut down his consumption after his heart attack (barring ice creams, that is). Hillary is a bit stolid on the frame front, but fine. She has fat legs, but never shows them. That is why she always wears pants.

The campaign is about Iraq, and will continue to be so. One day’s news story, on an inside page, is enough to indicate why. This is what appeared in the papers on Good Friday: "Six Americans and four British soldiers were killed in separate attacks around Iraq ... an American helicopter crashed south of Baghdad, wounding four soldiers. Reuters quoted witnesses as saying that they heard heavy gunfire before the crash, suggesting that the helicopter had been shot down... (The British) unit repelled an insurgent attack... Later, the unit was hit west of Basra by a roadside bomb, followed by small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades... Iraqi-American security stations in three Baghdad neighbourhoods were attacked in what may have been a coordinated offensive, American military commanders said..." This is after the surge in troops ordered by George Bush, and the "success" of this strategy peddled by the administration and its supporters. If this is success, what could failure look like?

Would Jesus have gone to war in Iraq? Part of the answer may lie in the fact that the question is being asked. Four Easters ago there was conviction, as much in the newsroom as the White House. Doubt is a necessary precondition for peace, or at least reconciliation. The question was posed repeatedly on Saturday morning Easter TV programmes as a resplendent variety of pastors queued up to address dilemmas on war, peace and whether the Church of Poverty had been consumed by the Church of Prosperity. The contemporary heirs of the Church Militant, like Jerry Falwell, are certain that Jesus would have been an excellent commander-in-chief in a holy war between Good Guys and Bad Guys. Others are less sanguine. Two thousand years ago the Romans were the Bad Guys, with some assistance from the Pharisees. Jesus was angry at usurers who cheated the poor and false leaders who misled the innocent; he left war to Caesar. The Sermon on the Mount would probably be too liberal a manifesto for today’s realists. But enough. This is a faith weekend and this column is in serious danger of drifting towards a sermon.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Double or Quits

Byline By M.J. Akbar : Double or Quits

It is an error to confuse the first of April with jokes; what is celebrated this day by those within the penumbra of "western civilisation", once lauded by President Woodrow Wilson as capable of doing the thinking on behalf of the world, is surprise. The civilised reaction, when you do get surprised, is to grin and bear it.

Grins in official Washington are noticeable by their absence in April this year, but then surprise is perhaps too mild a word for what it is reeling under. Shock is the more appropriate term. America’s Middle East policy is in free fall, its crucial support system knocked out by the most trusted Arab ally in the region, Saudi Arabia.

On 28 March the venerable Saudi monarch, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, told the Arab summit in Riyadh that the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq was illegal. The damage that this has done to America’s presence in Iraq, and its credibility in the region, is immense. King Abdullah’s precise words were, "In beloved Iraq, blood flows between brothers in the shadow of illegitimate foreign occupation and hateful sectarianism… We will not allow forces from outside the region to determine the future of the region."

This public snub was probably the good news. The private snub was, if anything, worse. King Abdullah sent his national security adviser, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, to tell President George Bush that he was a bit tied up at the moment, and therefore could not fly over for a state dinner on 17 April: maybe they could do dinner another time? When your best friend is not free for dinner, it is time to look in the mirror.

The White House chose to grin and deny that any invitation had been sent, but it was impossible to deny the contents of the Abdullah speech. The State Department asked Nicholas Burns, still looking depressed after his non-talks on the nuclear deal in Delhi, to explain on television that the American presence in Iraq had UN sanction as well as the invitation of the Iraqi government. Mr Burns did not dwell on the finer points of both: that the Security Council held another view before the war began, and that the Iraqi government whose invitation he so admires did not exist then. And now comes news that young King Abdullah of Jordan has no time for dinner either. Although the Jordan monarch is so often in America that he could qualify for a frequent flyer programme were he plebeian enough to fly on a commercial liner, he too has sent word that it might be wiser to postpone a planned state visit in September. Would 2008 do?

It is not that America’s friends have become stronger, but that, under Bush, America has become weaker. Even genuine friends are tired of Bush’s posturing on fundamental issues like Palestine, and his self-defeating, lacerating war agenda. Five years ago, only a few months after 9/11, King Abdullah floated a plan for peace in the region which, in essence, was a land-for-peace option: if Israel returned to its 1967 borders, all the Arab states would accept it as a neighbour with whom they could live in peace. Only two Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan, have full relations with Israel at the moment.

In 2002, America was the most powerful country in the world, not because of the Pentagon, but because it had the genuine sympathy of the international community which condemned 9/11 as an outrageous act of wanton terrorism. America possessed the steel of moral strength. Bush has squandered an asset which history endows upon nations only occasionally, with the petulance of swagger. A wiser man might have chosen his enemies with more care, and used his friends to more purpose. The Abdullah plan still has legs when Bush has lost his. This is unfortunate, because every proposal still needs the momentum of American support to travel forward. Iraq has become the graveyard of Bush’s presidency.

George Bush has destroyed Iraq and wounded America deeply. It is a legacy that will take time to repair.

Weakness can be more dangerous than strength, since ebbing confidence often tempts you towards the irrational. The loser’s dream, when his stake has disappeared, is to take a chance one last time: double or quits. Another loss will not change his status as a loser, but a victory can bring the windfall that turns you into an unexpected hero. Will Bush add a third war, with Iran, in the hope that he can compensate for the two he is losing, in Iraq and Afghanistan?

The drama of 15 sailors being captured by Iran near the mouth of the Shatt al Arab waterway is not the only incident reminiscent of the Cold War. It might be pertinent to note that both Britain and Iran may be right in their claims about the boundary, since that line on the sea has been in dispute ever since it was drawn. (I can’t help wondering, incidentally, about the fate of the Indian "smuggling" ship which was searched by the British: did it escape in the turmoil?) But the reasons for the escalation in the confrontation between Iran and Britain may lie in an episode that took place five weeks earlier.

On 7 February, an Iranian official, Brigadier General Ali Reza Asgari, a former deputy defence minister, vanished in Istanbul. He was on more than one intelligence watch-list since he was known to have helped organise the Hezbollah in the 1980s and 1990s. An Israeli daily, Yedioth Aharonoth, broke the silence around the mystery by reporting that Mossad, Israel’s much-admired intelligence agency, had organised Asgari’s defection. Other reports suggest that Mossad, always in control of his case, may have misled Asgari into believing that he was a mole for a European country rather than for Israel. No one has any idea of where he is now, but when Franz Jung, Germany’s defence minister, was asked during a visit to Turkey whether Asgari was in Germany, he declined to give any answer.

There is never one single reason for chess moves in a complicated conflict. And spies may be knights and castles when they are at work, but become pawns when they are caught. That is the normal law of this game. There is no good reason why Iran should risk a larger battle for the sake of a mole. But governments are not one-dimensional either, and this dangerous chess tournament is played simultaneously on more than one table. Iran might be sending just this message: that Britain cannot patrol those waters with impunity, or that the probing missions that do take place in preparation for war will not get the kind of free run that they got in Iraq before 2003.

What is evident is that events could run in either direction. There is a peace plan on the table, and there is a war plan on the seas — and the skies. Perhaps we have no right to expect a victory for good sense, when so many powerful players believe that they can build something fresh out of rubble.

But since surprise is the theme of the first of April, which option do you think would surprise you more? A collective rush towards chaos, or a constructive step towards peace?