Another win for US foreign policy

Tony Blair, the British prime minister, is once again getting stick from his European confrères for backing the US position on Israel’s attack on Lebanon. Now comes news that Washington’s takeover of the UK foreign policy establishment is complete.

Chatham House, the blue-chip royal think-tank, announced a new director with “transatlantic experience” on Wednesday. Though a Brit, Robin Niblett “has spent the past decade working at the heart of the US policy community”, it trumpeted.

Niblett is executive vice-president and director of the Europe programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. He replaces Victor Bulmer-Thomas, who is leaving Chatham House after six years and was best known for advising the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua in the early 1980s.

The appointment was announced by DeAnne Julius, the American chairman who was once a Central Intelligence Agency analyst.

A director of BP and Lloyds TSB among others, she has brought in much-needed corporate funding to Chatham House and rebranded it from the fusty Royal Institute for International Affairs. But more cash is always welcome.

Niblett, just 44, is an expert on European politics and on transatlantic relations and, as important, in raising money.

Day at the beach

What is it with Tony Blair and holidays? Barely a year seems to pass without the UK leader finding himself in hot water for vacation-related issues. One year it’s the fact that Blair – whose left-of-centre Labour party still likes to see itself as the friend of the working classes – has taken his family to the palazzo of an Italian aristocrat. The next it’s his decision to enjoy a well-earned break in the company of Silvio Berlusconi, the former centre-right Italian prime minister and media mogul.

This year Blair is under fire not just for his plans to head off later this week to Barbados. The fact that he will be doing so as the crisis in the Middle-East escalates has fuelled calls for the prime minister to delay stepping into his flip-flops.

The situation has not been helped by the fact that Margaret Beckett, the UK’s recently appointed foreign secretary, has delayed her own holiday due to events in Lebanon. With rumours of a cabinet split on the issue and talk of a rift between Downing Street and the Foreign Office over London’s stance towards Israel, this year’s episode of the politics of prime ministerial holidaying promises to be really hot.

Retail politics

Joe Lieberman, the Democratic senator for Connecticut, is being pilloried by many in his party for backing the Bush administration on Iraq.

He’s holding firm on his Iraq position, in spite of the strong challenge being mounted by anti-war campaigner Ned Lamont for the Democratic nomination. But when it comes to a certain big-box retailer, the two men seem to agree.

Both candidates were expected on Wednesday at an anti Wal-Mart rally in Bridgeport, where they were expected to inveigh against the retailer’s much-criticised benefits and low wages.

The event was organised by the union-backed Wake Up Wal-Mart campaign – marking the second stop on a 35-day bus tour by the Wal-Mart foes. Their campaign is led by former Democratic campaign staffers, who are hoping that Wal-Mart’s record on benefits and wages will become an issue in this year’s elections.

Fellow Democrat John Kerry seems to like that idea – on Sunday in Boston he railed against Wal-Mart in a speech on healthcare reform. The retailer’s strategy, he claimed, is: “Use workers until they get sick, don’t cover them for check-ups, and then tell them they’re on their own.”

Stay tuned. Wal-Mart – which is becoming increasingly politically savvy (if not always effective) – is unlikely to take the Democratic assault lying down.

In the spotlight

Few leaders know how to hold the spotlight better than the world’s longest-reigning dictator. So it seems fitting that Fidel Castro would grab the headlines himself after the Bush administration tried to spoil his 80th birthday by issuing a report titled “Compact with the People of Cuba”.

The report, released just weeks before Castro’s 80th birthday on August 13, details a US plan to help Cuba become a free-market economy. But with his brother, Raúl, in place while he is recovering from surgery, Fidel seems to be demonstrating he has his own ideas about succession.

Pay dirt

Mel Gibson’s drunken, anti-Semitic rant over the weekend has called into question his future prospects in Hollywood.

It has also placed Disney in an uncomfortable position. The Mouse House could court controversy and risk tarnishing its family-friendly brand if it goes ahead with plans to distribute Gibson’s forthcoming film, Apocalypto, in December.

But one conglomerate is quietly celebrating Gibson’s outburst: Time Warner. Its recently launched celebrity news website, TMZ, broke the Gibson story, generating traffic and publicity as a result.

The timing could not be better for Time Warner. Just on Wednesday, it laid out plans to turn its troubled AOL division from a dial-up internet business to an advertising-supported site. To succeed, AOL, which co-owns TMZ, will have to generate traffic.

So while Time Warner executives may not want to cast Gibson in any of their upcoming Warner Bros productions, they might want to send him a fruit basket or “get well soon” note while he sorts out his problems in rehab.

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