We’re going to get to the amazing–the amazingly awful–Bill Clinton in a moment. (I know you’ve been waiting for him.) But first consider a panel discussion devoted to Iraq.
On this panel sit some Americans: Bob Zoellick, the deputy secretary of state, and Senator McCain. Also the British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, and that ol’ secretary general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa. But the most important members of the panel are the Iraqis: Humam Hammoudi, the constitution-drafting sheik; Barham Salih, the minister for planning and coordination; and Ahmad Chalabi, the deputy prime minister.
Let’s begin with the last of those–Chalabi. He sits serenely, smilingly, and if he’s aware that hundreds in the hall hate him, he doesn’t show it. Or maybe he’s smiling because he knows it. I find it remarkable that a man so vilified, so demonized–so lied about–should be so calm, almost beatific.
As usual, Chalabi is phenomenally eloquent–rather British in his speech. He speaks of the need to overcome fear, at all levels of Iraqi society. He also addresses the question of national unity. It’s one thing to talk about such unity, he says. It’s quite another actually to achieve it. National unity will be forged out of the “details,” not out of “platitudes.”
And he hits hard the theme of corruption–the need to fight it. (In an earlier interview with me, the president of the Iraqi National Assembly, Hajim Alhasani, sounded the same theme. We will get to that interview later.) Chalabi says that corruption is hard to root out, for it “has been ingrained in the Iraqi administrative process for decades.” What can you do, when “the money is so great,” and the opportunities for graft “so sweet”?
But Iraqis must find a way.
Incidentally, Chalabi is a man who was accused of corruption by Jordanian authorities. I must say, he doesn’t talk or act like a man vulnerable to corruption. At all.
And he has blown those Jordanian charges utterly out of the water.
The moderator of this panel, David Ignatius of the Washington Post, reminds Chalabi that Americans make a big deal out of “the first 100 days.” This stems from FDR’s time. So what can be expected from the new Iraqi government in its first 100 days?
Chalabi–ever smiling–says that America is about 250 years old, and government in Iraq about 7,000 years old. They do not think in terms of 100 days! This is a long, trying, necessary process.
Ignatius replies–nicely–that Chalabi was lucky he didn’t ask him what the government would do on Day One.
Hammoudi is a strange kind of sheik–not the kind of sheik you might expect. In his black robes and turban, he talks about government: how it must not be “dirigiste”; how the previous government was not at all “pluralist,” as the new government will be. In the old days, there was no “freedom of action, freedom of speech.” But today’s constitution “recognizes the rights of all.” Hammoudi says that, in his conception of society, there would be no law requiring women to wear a veil; then again, there would be no law prohibiting them from doing so.
This black-robed sheik sounds like an American civics teacher, circa 1965, when we pretty much all agreed on what good democracy was. Then the New Left came in. And although it is not New, it endures, powerfully and tragically.
Barham Salih is another smooth one–about as articulate as Chalabi. He stresses the importance of Iraq to the entire Middle East. In some ways, Iraq is the linchpin of the region. “I regret that Iraq is in the heart of the Middle East–it would be better if we were on a remote island of the Pacific.” But no such luck. On the subject of one particular neighbor, he says that, “next to the Iraqis, Iranians benefited the most from the removal of Saddam Hussein.” For a long time, “Iraq was the North Korea of the Middle East. And now it has a chance to be the South Korea.”
He speaks at length about Germany, Japan, and Korea. The world gave them space to rebuild, regroup. Iraq needs some of that same space. And “failure is not an option.” On the contrary, “failure would be catastrophic–not only for the Iraqis, but for the entire region.”
When David Ignatius introduces Amr Moussa, he makes me gag: He says that Moussa is one of those who “very much” want Iraq to succeed. Oh, yeah? Not the Amr Moussa I know!
But Moussa, in fact, talks in conciliatory, pro-Iraqi tones. I have not heard this from him before. He says that, whatever we thought of the war, or the initial post-war years, “we are now all on the same side, trying to help Iraq.”
From his mouth to God’s ear, if Moussa will excuse a Jewish expression.
I thought I could get through my Davos series without groaning over John McCain–but I’m not going to make it. Ignatius introduces him as one who has “worried,” even “anguished,” over Iraq. Sure–because the rest of us have been absolutely sunny about it, and that includes the Iraqis. We have never experienced any worry or anguish. That belongs to the discerning John McCain.
I guarantee you that McCain’s “worry” and “anguish” over Iraq has been a fraction of what President Bush’s has been.
Anyway, McCain tells the crowd that Iraq poses great “challenges,” and that, recent progress notwithstanding, “there’s room for improvement.” In many respects, the Iraqis are “way, way behind.” For example, security is lacking.
Gee, thanks, senator. Good thing he has informed the Iraqis of this–the people who are being shot at every day.
About McCain there is a glibness, a shallowness, a moralism, and this is most unattractive, especially in the midst of those Iraqi democrats, whose necks are on the line.
But everybody loves John McCain. The bandwagon is full to overflowing.
The last word–or one of them–belongs to Jack Straw. What one thing, asks Ignatius, would he say about Iraq? Straw says, “Don’t freak out” about the presence of religious parties in Iraq. In Europe, lots of countries have state religions. They have Christian Democratic parties and so on. France is a rare secular state. Straw himself has sworn in bishops and the like. Again: “Don’t freak out.”
And that is very sound advice.
There are protesters here in Davos, and they do my heart good. They are Chinese protesters against the Communist dictatorship in Beijing. They stand at the perimeter of town, with their banners–one of which proclaims that many, many have quit the Chinese Communist party. They have been persecuted for their trouble, too.
One of the big themes at the Annual Meeting this year is “the emergence of China” (along with that of India). I wish that more people could see this reminder of the iniquity of the government whose nation is emerging.
And wouldn’t it be nice to see someone from Taiwan–a free China–around?
As you may remember, from my past reports, Bill Clinton is king of Davos–the ultimate Davos man (political branch–business is something else). The guy is idolized. And he shows up for an hour-long conversation with Klaus Schwab (father of Davos), on the stage of the Congress Center.
Many people remark that Clinton looks unwell: thin, haggard, big bags under his eyes. That may be so, but I’m pretty sure he still gets his share of play.
I can see–on the large video screen above the stage–that Clinton is wearing some kind of bracelet: blue and red. Not sure of the significance of that. Or maybe it’s just a bracelet.
Dr. Schwab asks him what his three great concerns for the world are. And Clinton first says “climate change.” Yes, he’s a complete global warmingist. I don’t think it’s mere lip service (and this is a thoroughly global-warmingist crowd)–he sounds like a true believer. He says that global warming “has the power to end the march of civilization as we know it.” He’s out-Gore-ing Gore.
His other two concerns are inequality and cultural divides. As a friend of mine points out, no terrorism, no nuclear proliferation–they don’t crack the top three.
He speaks of the need to “revive” the American economy. Revive? Is it not going gangbusters? Not according to Clinton. According to him, the rich are getting richer, the middle class is “stagnating,” and poverty is “rising.”
He talks about China, and its traditional policy of “nonintervention in the affairs of nations.” I’m thinking: “Tell it to the Tibetans.”
He talks about “modernizing” the U.N.–which is nice. (By the way, in the Bush campaign of 2000, we talked about “modernizing” Social Security and Medicare. That was the approved word: “modernizing.” Somehow less scary than “reforming,” and infinitely less scary than “privatizing.”)
Clinton says, “I believe in a market economy”–and notes that, during his presidency, some member of “the Democratic caucus” described him as “the most conservative Democratic president since Grover Cleveland.” Clinton found that guy and said, “Thank you: I’ll take that as a compliment.”
This triggers a memory (in me): Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called Carter “the most conservative Democratic president since Grover Cleveland.” I imagine that’s where Clinton’s guy got it.
A couple of language notes: Clinton says “Hamas” in a charmingly southern way–accent on the first syllable. He talks about a “higher consciousness,” then says, “Forgive the touchy-feely word.” At another point, he says (something like) “how many humpity-dump ways . . .” I had never heard that: “humpity-dump.” But I like it, a lot.
John McCain is in the audience, and Clinton says, “I’ll get him in trouble if I start braggin’ on him,” but he does: Hails McCain as a great fellow global warmingist, someone who really understands this growing existential threat.
Later, he says he’s going to engage in some “self-criticism”–uh-oh. I figure this will be self-praise, disguised as self-criticism. He says that, in foreign affairs, sometimes presidents follow “politically correct” policies in order not to look “weak and naïve.” You can’t “deviate” from these politically correct policies, especially if you have no military experience, and “I did not, unlike Senator McCain or Senator Kerry.”
Clinton says that you should not be “afraid” to talk to people who offend you. For instance, sometimes the American government refuses to talk to people “who kill people in ways we don’t like.”
Now, what could he be talking about here? He seems to be talking about Hamas, and suicide bombers–you know, Hamas wages war through suicide bombings (and the slaughter of innocents); Israel wages war more conventionally (and honorably). But killing is killing.
Clinton says, “I should have promoted more of that kind of talking”–talking to abhorrent groups and governments. “But I didn’t want to appear weak or naïve. I don’t want to even now, in my dotage.” (A fairly endearing line, I grant.)
The bottom line is: “You ought not to be scared to talk to anybody.”
Huge, huge applause in the Congress Center.
This is offensive in a million ways. Here’s one of them: George W. Bush is not “afraid” to talk to anybody. If he did not talk to Arafat, for example, it was out of hard-headed strategic calculation. And Bush was absolutely right. It had nothing to do with fear. Arafat was the most frequent foreign visitor to the White House during the eight years of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Bush–after the Karine A–decided it was time for a new strategy.
Again: Absolutely right.
And if Bush doesn’t talk to the Iranian regime now, it’s not because of fear–it’s because of strategic calculation. He may be wrong (though I doubt it)–but fear doesn’t have anything to do with it, and Clinton is outrageous to suggest so.
Anyway . . .
Clinton makes one noteworthy comment about Iraq: “It’d really be a good thing in the world if this Iraq deal works.”
He expresses the hope that Hamas will become like the IRA/Sinn Fein. Terrorism in Northern Ireland lost its grip, he says, when people grew disgusted with it, and merely wanted a better, less destructive life.
Clinton refers to Evo Morales, the new Bolivian president, as “that interesting Indian fellow–fascinating.”
At one point, he uses “guys,” and says, “That’s a generic term, in America.” I wish he’d tell it to my readers: The other day, I got an e-mail saying, “You keep saying ‘guys’–don’t you realize you have female readers?”
Toward the end of the conversation, Klaus Schwab asks what advice he would have for the 44th president. It could be someone in the room, Schwab says (meaning McCain); or it could be someone you’re married to.
Clinton quips, “I better make it clear, given the current context, that Senator McCain and I are not married.” After the tumultuous laughter, he says, “Oh, we’ll be on the news for that tonight, for sure.”
His advice, essentially, is to go for hard and necessary things, even if you can’t achieve them–they may be achieved later, after your time. (I’m thinking: If ever there were a president who went after hard and necessary things, it’s George W. Bush.)
Clinton observes–wisely–”An election is basically a job interview. But a candidate has to define the job as well as apply for it.”
He says, “I told my friends in France and the Netherlands not to be discouraged,” after the defeat of the EU constitution. The people will come around. The EU will succeed.
Clinton cites his health-care initiative, from the early ’90s. “Sooner or later, we’re going to have to do this,” he says–that is, America will have to adopt ClintonCare. It is inevitable.
Both McCain and Hillary are “passionate about climate change.” That is Bill Clinton’s assertion. And if one of them gets in, he–or she–will have to address it with unswerving commitment.
Had you known about McCain’s passion for climate change? I hadn’t.
Clinton talks about the essay, or lecture, he recommends to young people: Max Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation” (1918). He says something about “going back to an ice age.” (Clinton, I mean, not Weber.) He says, “Don’t use your political disappointment as an excuse to avoid personal commitment.” (A nice line–applicable to people of all persuasions.)
Finally, he quotes Churchill, who said, during World War II, before America had joined the fight, “Oh, I don’t worry about America. They always do the right thing–after exhausting every other possibility.”
This provokes great guffaws and applause in the Davos congregation. But I wonder: Well, what do other countries do for the world? And do they act with sufficient speed? Must America break the fall of every sparrow?
But that’s enough of Bill Clinton, and, I am sure, of me.