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David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

Scotland’s Retro Moment



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The move for Scottish independence always seemed retrograde.  Whatever did the Scots need a state for?  For a long time they have been a very recognizable and successful nation thanks to being in the state of the English, Welsh and northern Irish. In an era when we are supposed to celebrate diversity, the Scottish National Party and its leader Alex Salmond sounded small-minded, provincial. A deputy of Salmond’s by the name of Jim Sillars suddenly blurted out that in the event of victory the SNP would nationalize banks and oil companies. Property holders had a whiff of 1917.

When it seemed that the Scots might really vote for statehood, I retrieved from my memory the account of the departure from Britain in 416 (I haven’t checked this date) of the Roman legions under Honorius.  Some native British apparently watched them leave, and realized that now they were on the own and wouldn’t survive. It felt as if the Dark Ages were again descending on a country where barbarians could do as they pleased.

“Good news! Salmond has resigned,” a smiling stranger said to me Friday afternoon in the street with tremendous pleasure. Coming to the house, an Arab friend from Lebanon is outraged that the tennis player Andy Murray lobbied for Salmond. “Nobody’s going to cheer him again, are they?” he asked, before we got on to the crimes of ISIS and the horrors of sectarianism. It’s been that kind of a moment.

Great Britain, R.I.P.?



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Great Britain might no longer exist a few days from now. On September 18 the Scots are holding a referendum to decide whether to break away from the union with England and become an independent state. Earlier in the summer the No-to-independence vote had a lead of 22 percent. When I met Professor Vernon Bogdanor, who has claims to be the leading expert on the British constitution, he assured me that there was no question of the Yes-to-independence winning. That 22 percent has vanished. For the first time, the Yes-vote is in the lead.

Panic is in the air. “Right: it’s time to speak for Britain,” is the opening sentence in a fighting article in today’s Daily Telegraph by Boris Johnson, one of the few politicians who may survive in the event of Yes-victory. He makes the point that Britain’s history, its empire, its contributions to law, government, medicine, invention, are joint efforts of all British people. The present fiasco of separation has been wished upon us by sheer ineptitude. Tony Blair is one culprit. Under a policy known as devolution, he gave the Scots a parliament with limited powers. Devolution was bound to lead to the demand for independence, but Blair ludicrously argued the opposite, that it made independence impossible. David Cameron is another culprit. His concession to the referendum was thoughtless, conceitedly assuming he’d get the vote he wanted. He’s probably lost Scotland as stupidly as Lord North lost the American colonies.

The prospective victor, the uncrowned king or future president, looks to be Alex Salmond. He has persuaded fellow Scots that the English do them down. His is the usual nationalism built on grievance and self-pity. A socialist on top of that, he keeps promising equality and justice and prosperity, none of which he can deliver. Nationalists and socialists are proven carriers of disease, not doctors. Currency, debt repayment, banking, defense, membership in the EU, are among the unknowns. Expropriation of Scottish estates seems quite likely. The English will have to live through the malign consequences to the pound, the flight of the disillusioned away from Scotland, and all the economic, social, and psychological consequences of rejection.

And to think that this creepy and outmoded manipulator could well go down in history for doing what Philip of Spain, Napoleon, and Hitler couldn’t do: bring down Great Britain.

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The Standard Middle East Strategy: Bewilderment



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“Strip Tease” is the title of an article I wrote about Gaza for The New Republic way back in 1988. Tidying up my papers, I found it and read something that with a minimum of updating would serve to describe the present. Gaza is like a laboratory repeating an experiment time after time to show there is no alternative to the rule of the strong. The British in their day had had no clue what to do about it, and simply went away bewildered to leave incompatible societies to fight it out.

At the time I wrote that article, the Israelis had taken over the Strip since the Six-Day War. Palestinians had no way of representing themselves except by violence. There were days when the Israelis would find that Yasser Arafat’s PLO had hung up the corpses of dissident Palestinians on meat hooks. Reacting, Ariel Sharon sent in tanks in the style of any Arab strongman. At which point a junior minister of the British Foreign Office by the name of David Mellor came to Gaza and uttered the words “Something must be done,” but what this something might be he couldn’t say. In the end, and ironically, it fell to Sharon to follow the British example and he and his soldiers and settlers simply went away bewildered. So Hamas has taken the chance it was given to come to absolute power, and resorts to violence against its own people as well as against Israel. In that article long ago I concluded that the pull-out of the Israelis would surrender the Gazans to anarchy or tyranny. That’s still how it is.

In my papers were also notes about how the bewilderment of the British had developed. Sir Stafford Cripps belonged to an eminent family, and that added to the damage he could do. In a speech in 1935 he said, “You have only to look at the pages of British imperial history to hide your head in shame that you are British.” A year later, with Hitler already a threat, Cripps was even worse: “I do not think it would be a bad thing for the British working classes if Germany defeated us.” An economist and a Marxist, Cripps became British ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1940 on the grounds that he’d get on well with Stalin. Then his next mission was to India to be rid of the imperial “shame” that made him hide his head.

Public figures in these modern times habitually respond to trouble spots by saying that “something must be done.” In the absence of feeling for their own country and its interests, this can only mean bewilderment and surrender. An American president has gone a step further into the wilderness by announcing to a world in crisis that he hasn’t got a strategy yet.

Same as It Ever Was, Only Worse



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“Strip Tease” is the title of an article I wrote about Gaza for The New Republic way back in 1988.  Tidying up my papers, I found it and read something that with a minimum of updating would serve to describe the present. Gaza is like a laboratory repeating an experiment time after time to show there is no alternative to the rule of the strong. The British in their day had had no clue what to do about it, and simply went away bewildered to leave incompatible societies to fight it out.

At the time I wrote that article, the Israelis had taken over the Strip since the Six Day War. Palestinians had no way of representing themselves except by violence. There were days when the Israelis would find that Yasser Arafat’s PLO had hung up the corpses of dissident Palestinians on meat hooks. Reacting, Ariel Sharon sent in tanks in the style of any Arab strong man. At which point a junior minister of the British Foreign Office by the name of David Mellor came to Gaza and uttered the words, “Something must be done” but what this something might be he couldn’t say. In the end, and ironically, it fell to Sharon to follow the British example and he and his soldiers and settlers simply went away bewildered.  So Hamas has taken the chance it was given to come to absolute power, and resorts to violence against its own people as well as against Israel. In that article long ago I concluded that the pull-out of the Israelis would surrender the Gazans to anarchy or tyranny.  That’s still how it is.

In my papers were also notes about how the bewilderment of the British had developed. Sir Stafford Cripps belonged to an eminent family, and that added to the damage he could do. In a speech in 1935 he said, “You have only to look at the pages of British Imperial History to hide your head in shame that you are British.” A year later, with Hitler already a threat, Cripps was even worse.  “I do not think it would be a bad thing for the British working classes if Germany defeated us.”   An economist and a Marxist, Cripps became British ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1940 on the grounds that he’d get on well with Stalin.  Then his next mission was to India to be rid of the Imperial “shame” that made him hide his head.

Public figures in these modern times habitually respond to trouble spots by saying that “something must be done.” In the absence of feeling for their own country and its interests, this can only mean bewilderment and surrender. An American president has gone a step further into the wilderness by announcing to a world in crisis that he hasn’t got a strategy yet.

Dangerous Breeding Ground



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Some will say that Benjamin Netanyahu is wise to have let Hamas off the hook.  In war relentless but in victory magnanimous, was Winston Churchill’s advice.  This was applicable to European enemies with a long tradition of negotiation and diplomacy which could allow the victorious and the vanquished to come to terms. Israel and Hamas share no such tradition.  Hamas has the aim of wiping out Israel, and no amount of negotiation and diplomacy is ever going to change that.  This last attempt to attack Israel has evidently been a mistake, a very expensive mistake in terms of dead Gazans and the destruction of the Strip’s infrastructure. 

To Hamas, that is no concern at all.  Preparation for the next round will obviously be long and difficult, but they will find Iran or Turkey or some other sponsor to come to the rescue.  Hamas has to pretend that its defeat is no defeat at all, but brings the liberation of Palestine a stage nearer.  Defeat would also be shameful, and the culture forbids that.

The fight against people who do not share their culture, and do not want to understand it, puts Israel into a very difficult position. Its victory appears not to be a victory, and Hamas’s defeat not to be a defeat. The only possible issue out of this deadlock is an uprising in Gaza in which the population throw out the whole Hamas apparatus that has brought them to this calamity. Hamas has already  proved that it rules by fear, and does not hesitate to stage public executions.

Magnanimity on Netanyahu’s part will not be understood as a Churchillian way of proceeding, but as weakness:  He did not possess the courage or determination to fulfill the war aim of wiping out the enemy. Hamas would have wiped Israel out, but instead of wiping Hamas out Israel instead offers to see Hamas’s point of view and to make concessions.  This cultural divergence is the breeding ground for wars past, present, and alas future.

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Et Tu?



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Those who knew James Foley speak well of him. He seems to have met a dreadful death with courage. His final statement as put out by his murderers was a puzzle, however. In a steady voice, he criticized the United States, and laid the blame for his fate on President Obama and what he saw as American anti-Muslim policy that is violent and unjust. Addressing his brother, an air force pilot, he told him coldly to think about what he was doing when he flew bomber missions over Iraq.  I assumed that his Islamic State murderers had dictated what he was to say, with the threat of torture if he did not sound sincere.

Not a bit of it. Daniel Greenfield is a reliable journalist, and he writes an article to spell out that Foley held the United States in contempt and had gone to Syria to associate with the Sunni rebels and help them overthrow Bashar Assad. The obituaries that I have seen make no mention of this.

My book Treason of the Heart examines people who have taken up foreign causes. In almost all cases, they resent what they imagine are the vices of their own nation and find the virtues they seek in other peoples, other nations. These virtues usually involve righting a perceived injustice, eliminating a regime, claiming territory, anyhow a struggle that grabs the heart and mind. Kill or be killed is the customary end of this story.

The idealist as victim of mistaken ideals is the theme of the greatest drama from the classical Greeks to Shakespeare and Racine. Rachel Corrie took up the cause of the Palestinians and was crushed to death in an accident in Gaza. Vittorio Arrigoni also took up the Palestinian cause, was held hostage in Gaza and strangled there by Palestinians. Ambassador Christopher Stevens took up the general cause of the Arabs, and was lynched by ungrateful Arabs. Now James Foley.

Can the West Weather the Islamist Storm?



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Three short years ago, we were being assured that a wonderful new Middle East was dawning. Arabs would no longer be downtrodden by cruel and unjust rulers. Intellect and conscience were said to be at last freeing the masses in a great movement generalized as the Arab Spring, supposedly a historic moment comparable to European Enlightenment. How and why outlets like the New York Times or the Guardian overflowed with rubbish about Arab progress and democracy will be a suitable subject for a future Edward Gibbon writing The Rise and Fall of the West. A month ago, President Obama speechified about Muslim Americans’ “building the very fabric of our nation and strengthening the core of our democracy.” In reality, a number of American and other radical Islamists are working as hard as they can to reconstitute the fabric of the nation and to smash the core of its democracy.

What the Arab Spring has actually led to is the Islamic State, the self-declared caliphate taking shape in the ruins of Syria and Iraq, and likely soon to have a go at Lebanon and Jordan. It’s a phenomenon indeed. There seem to be 10,000 Islamic State fighters, about 750 of them British, and hundreds more from many countries in a sort of Muslim International Brigade. Recently the seven-year-old son of one fighter featured in a photograph smiling shyly as he held up the severed head of a Syrian soldier. The Sunday Telegraph tells the story of one Aine Davis, aged 30, from London, a convert to Islam, also smiling in a group of heavily armed men. How has it come to this? Poverty, discrimination, and anti-British prejudice may be part of the explanation, but the life stories of such men make it plain that for them, killing is good fun — and they are loving the chance to go in for some. Society normally has laws, taboos, manners, and hierarchies such that men like these cannot act on their primitive instincts. Breaking through all restraints, Islamism frees such evil men to do their worst, just as Communism and Nazism once did.

The Sunday Telegraph also carries an article by Prime Minister David Cameron that is a response to the Islamic State, to the atrocities it is committing, and to the appeal it makes to the basest murderous instincts. He writes, “We are in the middle of a generational struggle against a poisonous and extremist ideology, which I believe we will be fighting for the rest of my life.” A difference opens between Cameron’s challenging prose and President Obama’s apologetics. If really there are to be no boots on the ground opposing the Islamic State, that projected history of the rise and fall of the West will not be long delayed.

Evil on Attack



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Videos currently reaching me are unbearable. I have no means of knowing if scenes in Syria and Iraq of Gestapo-style mass executions, beheadings and crucifixion really took place, or are faked to frighten everyone. However, tens of thousands of Christians and Yazidis are fleeing from the so-called Islamic State on the only possible route across inhospitable mountains. An Iraqi general is on the record saying that 70 percent of these unfortunates have already died. President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron are convinced that the plight of these refugees is real enough to fly in “humanitarian aid,” that sticking plaster for the liberal conscience, but not frightening enough for them to send in troops or to suspend their own carefree summer vacations.

Writing in Latin shortly before the birth of Jesus Christ, Lucretius is remembered for a hard-hitting line which I shall render as, “who would have thought that religion is capable of such evil acts.” Islamists everywhere are engaged in a war of religion, that most savage of wars. Those waging it are too self-righteous to compromise, and in the name of their religion they rejoice in the evil of suppressing, expelling, or murdering each and every minority in their midst.

Islamist Hamas is a model of uncompromising self-righteousness. For that reason, many throughout Europe support Hamas in its war to eject the Jewish minority from their midst. For reasons that must go deep into Europe’s history, this reaction serves the deluded purpose of landing responsibility for Hamas’s evil acts on to Israel. But the choice facing Israel is either to be another minority running away for dear life like Christians and Yazidis, or to take up arms and defend themselves. There are no two ways about it.                                   

The Horror of Hamas’s Tunnels



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Israeli intelligence has not lived up to its reputation in the matter of the tunnels dug by Hamas under the Gaza Strip.  These tunnels were perceived primarily as routes for smuggling, giving Hamas leaders the chance to line their pockets by charging tolls.  In fact, here was a concealed battlefield serving multiple purposes. The tunnels ran under the border with Israel, permitting surprise attacks, and also served as command-and-control centers and weapons depots out of sight and out of reach. All this, it turns out, was constructed and paid for by Iran, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Equipment for detection was missing, and an Israeli geologist who sounded a warning was disregarded.

Captured Hamas men now reveal that a massive attack had been planned to coincide with the Jewish New Year due in September. Hundreds of Hamas men were to emerge from the tunnels, and take Israelis by surprise in what might have been a local equivalent of 9/11. The narrow escape from this horror seems to be determining the Israeli government to obliterate the tunnel network.

But there is an unanswered question. If there was to be this coup in September, why did Hamas take steps like firing rockets ahead of time that were bound to lead to open fighting and lose the element of surprise? The ruin of the massive investment in anti-Israel terror must be the cause of great pain in Tehran.

Hezbollah, the Iranian proxy akin to Hamas, is busy obeying orders from Tehran to defend the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad. Several hundred Hezbollahis have been killed but the few thousand others in the ranks have at their disposal an arsenal larger and more dangerous that everything in the Hamas tunnels. The days pass, however, and Hezbollah does not open a second front. Another unanswered question with importance for the future is whether its strength has been dissipated, or Israel’s self-defense is proving a deterrent.

The Twilight of Middle Eastern Christianity



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Taking shape in parts of Iraq and Syria, the Islamist caliphate known as ISIS is already a rival in lunacy and horror to North Korea. The caliph has decreed that women from puberty up to the age of the menopause — estimated to be as many as four million — must undergo compulsory genital mutilation. I am waiting to find out what feminists have to say about this.

Christianity has roots in that same territory going back to the first centuries after Jesus Christ. Raqqa in Syria is one of the cities under ISIS, and Assyrian Christians there are the oldest Christian community in the world. In a few villages Aramaic, the language of Christ, has remained current. An elderly Jesuit has been murdered, monks have been chased out of their monastery, nuns have been taken into custody, and churches burnt.

Things are worse in Mosul, the large city in northern Iraq recently captured by ISIS. Christians there are under orders to convert to Islam or face the sword. Fanatics have just blown up the mosque where the tomb of biblical Jonah had survived for centuries.  The Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Emil Nona restricted himself to saying, “I’m very sorry to see this place destroyed.” Many tens of thousands have fled for their lives and will never return home. The Christian communities of Iraq and Syria re finished.  There’s been no persecution of Christians on this scale since the Turkish genocide of the Armenians in 1916. I am waiting to find out what those responsible for defending Christianity have to say about this.

The worldview of Islamists and their supporters has no room in it for Israelis any more than Christians. “Every Israeli is a legitimate target,” so the rocketeers of Gaza like to boast, evidently infuriated that Israelis, unlike the Christians, have weapons and are ready to defend themselves. Ayatollah Khamenei and huge crowds of Iranians are calling for genocide. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan considers Israelis “worse than Hitler.” Tens of thousands of Muslims in European countries mobilize around slogans such as, “Hitler was right,” and “Jews to the gas chamber.”  In France Guy Millière, a rare individual scandalized by bigotry and physical violence not witnessed since the Nazi occupation, speaks of a French Kristallnacht.  Guillaume Faye, an academic not afraid of controversy, is confidently predicting that France is heading for certain civil war. I am waiting to find out how those in charge of public life will respond.

‘Hamas’ and ‘Free Palestine’ Are Mutually Exclusive Slogans



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Demonstrators have been gathering outside the Israeli embassy in London these last few days. Huge numbers of police form a cordon that keeps the peace and a helicopter buzzes overhead for long hours. Those in the street who seem to look English are mostly either superannuated Sixties hippies with white hair tied in a ponytail, or student types with a keffiyeh to help them act the part. What experience or thought process has made them into a mob shouting slogans against Jews? And what is the world picture of the women in burqas or hijabs, and the men speaking Arabic or Urdu? Many carry placards, the most popular of which say “Hamas” and “Free Palestine.” But if there were a Palestine under Hamas, it would be a clerico-fascist tyranny not free at all. As things are already in Gaza, the law is what Hamas says it is. Arbitrary execution, torture, suppression of freedom of speech and assembly, the militarization of children and the embezzling of public funds, are all commonplace. Should these people get their wish, then, they will have condemned tragic numbers of Palestinians to live without freedom. 

Death and Destruction as Ideology Trumps Rationality



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“The rage of imbeciles is filling the world, “ is a sentence I’ve just come across in the fine book in which the French and Catholic Georges Bernanos expressed the dismay he felt at the time of the Spanish civil war. Worse was soon to come, of course.

On the face of it, the Hamas onslaught against Israel is indeed the rage of imbeciles. It is the third such onslaught in the space of the last seven years.  Nothing has come out of the first two except death and destruction, the major part falling on the Palestinians whose cause Hamas claims to be promoting. The third spells more death and destruction.

Not imbeciles at all, the Hamas leadership consists of hard realistic cynics, experienced in conspiracy and crime. Why then do they fire barrages of rockets that twice have provoked a severe Israeli response, and are doing so a third time likely to be more devastating still? To Israelis, as to all Westerners with their costs-and-benefits calculations, this repetition is imbecilic. To Hamas, however, any other course of action would look like surrender and dishonor, both of which are worse than defeat. Since codes dictated by ideology trump rationality, it’s not open to doubt, nor even to discussion.

The recent call for ceasefire illustrates the non-meeting of minds that follows from these cultural differences. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s offer to suspend bombing was presented by Hamas as evidence that they had him on the run. The mere suggestion of peace was enough to land him and Israel in a position of weakness. Vice versa, Hamas felt that the moment had come to act like the stronger party, demanding concessions and firing off yet larger barrages at civilian centers.

The sole positive course left to Netanyahu is to show that Israel is not in fact the weaker party. Israeli troops have accordingly moved into Gaza. The one and only way to make sure that there will not be a fourth Hamas onslaught down the road is to neutralize and destroy the rocket arsenals in Gaza. Disengagement of those troops without having first destroyed these stock-piled rockets would be evidence of genuine imbecility — worse is then bound to come, and quite soon too.

 

Why Israel Must Enter Gaza



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The time for decisions faces the Israeli government. In recent hours, the Islamist group Hamas has fired 250 rockets into Israel. Some have had a range of 70 miles, reaching the urban centers of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Hadera. The defensive system known as Iron Dome is destroying these incoming rockets. So extraordinary is this technological feat that no Israelis so far have been killed or wounded. Retaliating, the Israeli air force has taken out a number of missile launching sites in Gaza. That is merely a palliative. Hamas is known to have hundreds more rockets in store. The sole realistic counter-measure is an armed incursion to capture and neutralize these arsenals.

Two previous attempts by Israeli forces to put an end to Hamas aggression stopped short of this definitive step. Hamas was therefore left in a position to start again as and when it chose to. Left to fire rockets another day, Hamas seems to have inferred either that Israel did not have strength sufficient for the task of ensuring its own safety or that outside powers would pressure it and so rescue Hamas from the consequences of its policy. And sure enough, here come Washington, London, the United Nations, and the media urging Israel to show “restraint,” or in plain language, leave Hamas to dictate its campaign.

“Gone are the Days of Defeat: Victory is Close,” is a slogan current in Gaza. Hamas leaders speak as if they are operating from a position of superior strength, willing and able to commit genocide on Israel. To anyone with a memory, this will seem like the run-up to the Six Day War of 1967 when Gamal Abdul Nasser on behalf of Egypt was welcoming the assured and imminent end of Israel. Israeli victory in that war changed the disposition of the Arab world. The global jihad now under way is changing it yet again, this time setting all against all, sect against sect, community against community, in vicious self-perpetuating spirals. Hamas attacking Israel is different in name but not in motivation from Sunnis attacking Alawites in Syria, or Shiites attacking Kurds in Iraq.

Forty thousand Israeli soldiers are now in position along the Gaza border. Should they wait there and eventually turn for home leaving Hamas in possession of its rocket arsenals, they will be in the position of having made a threat that they did not carry through. The world would once again applaud, and Hamas crow that it is winning. Prevarication in pursuing the national interest has discredited President Obama and would similarly discredit Prime Minister Netanyahu. The choice before Netanyahu, then, is a true test of the man. 

The ISIS Caliphate and Other Empires of Fantasy



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Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS for short, are a threat to the settled order of the Middle East. A new empire is taking shape before our eyes, complete with the change of authority and frontiers that are the objectives of all empire-building. Abu Bakr and ISIS may look like another tribal horde riding over the horizon to take power. However they have the very different purpose of restoring the Caliphate with Abu Bakr as Caliph. Muslim fanaticism motivates them to civil war that is actually a war of conquest, complete with barbarities like the public crucifixion of anyone whose ideas are different. Abu Bakr and ISIS, it has to be said, have got this far only because his opponents have been so reckless and inept. Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, created conditions leading to civil war, and President Obama removed the American forces that alone could have kept the peace.

The real Caliphate was at best honorific, even fictional. The title of caliph had been vested in the Ottoman sultan from the Middle Ages on, and was abolished after the First World War without any fuss. The Khedive of Egypt was then a pretender who got nowhere with it. Restoration of this ghost is a fantasy, as unreal and irrational as the comintern or the Thousand Year Reich, with the same sort of emotional appeal to believers.

Another empire in the process of formation is the European Union. The EU is of course not to be compared to the Caliphate, though both share the essential feature that they operate without the consent of those they claim to represent. The process whereby someone called Jean-Claude Juncker has emerged as President of the European Commission is blindingly obscure. Virtually no Europeans have ever heard of this former prime minister of Luxemburg, just as virtually no Arab had ever heard of Abu Bakr. An unseen and mysterious horse-trading took place. Apparently he is a federalist, which in the context means moving towards a United State of Europe. This attempted revival of the Holy Roman Empire is a fantasy quite as irrational as Abu Bakr’s Caliphate. And there’s nothing to be done except to wait and see what price will be paid for these fantasies.

In Hungary, Remembrance of Things Past



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John O’Sullivan of our parish lives in Budapest and edits The Hungarian Review, a bi-monthly journal in the English language. In the current number, I reminisce about Hungary at length. My parents owned a property there called Pusztaszabolcs, and my father, half Welsh and half English, fantasized about settling down in the country as an eccentric Hungarian gentleman. The property came through my mother’s mother, and she owned a house at Kapuvar, a town near Gyor in Western Hungary. She bred race horses at a stud called Lesvar, and the family rented a shoot at Pokvar nearby.

I first went to Hungary after the 1956 revolution. Everything was inconceivably depressing. Bullet holes everywhere. Soviet patrols. Nobody dared speak to you. Freedom, normal life, had been stolen and would never return. For years afterwards I used to revisit the country to check that pensions my grandmother was paying got into the right hands. The country was corpse-like.

Coming in from the airport now is enough to bring a lump to my throat. Budapest has returned to being a great capital city. The communists could not even run Gerbeaud’s, one of the world’s greatest cafes — it is now worth flying to Budapest just for that. Playing truant away from my desk (and from David Calling too, apologies!) I roped John into an expedition into the country in a Proustian search for lost time. We found what we were looking for. The house at Kapuvar has become municipal offices. When I visited Pokvar in the 1960s it was being used as a Soviet tank garage and looked completely dilapidated. Restored, the house now belongs to the Minister of Finance. Only the staircase remains of the interior my parents knew but it was enough to link past and present. The Soviets shot, slaughtered, or stole the horses at Lesvar, and nothing remains of the stud that we could find. I finished my essay by observing that it isn’t the loss of property I mind, but the chance to know this country and these people from the inside. Why, I have twice tried, and failed, to learn Hungarian.

Socialism, said John at one point, is a sickness, and incurable. Hungary gets a bad press because its Prime Minister Viktor Orban is a conservative. Also because Jobbik, a neo-fascist party, has seats in the parliament. The Hungarians I spoke to all think that Jobbik has lost whatever popularity it had, and from here on can only decline.

John has been in London to speak at a conference on the legacy of Mrs Thatcher. When next we meet, I must find out if he thinks present-day Hungary is an outsanding example of how right she was.

The Doors of Hell Open in Iraq



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The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham,  ISIS for short, is a scratch group of men who have found a cause that bands them together and offers them power. Arab history has scores of examples of it, from the days of the Prophet Mohammed down to the present. When victorious, the power-seeking group sets up a state that serves its cause until the next power-seeking group comes along. This method of state-formation has every disadvantage; it is inefficient, temporary, and unjust with in-built violence. The entirely predictable consequence has been that Ottomans, British, French, and Americans have done the state-building for Arabs.

The state ISIS aims to build is pure fantasy. A caliphate is supposed to unite the Arabs on the grounds that Islam is their one and only nationality, in itself a complete identity. There is no caliphate, and if ISIS were, successful a number of self-appointed caliphs would suddenly appear and settle the issue in bloodshed. But this group has already destroyed the old state-system that was a vestige of the past. There is no state now of Syria or Iraq and no prospect of any outcome except violence. The U.S. and the U.K. have armed and trained security forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Lebanon, and yet they all run away at the first shot, not because they are cowards, but because they are asked to defend a state that is not a state to them. Now it is absurd to rush extra weaponry to security forces unable or unwilling to use them, because it is sure to be a bonus to ISIS.

A catastrophe is arising. The destruction of the former state structures and the fantasy of a caliphate open the space for Sunnis and Shias to test their mutual religious opposition to the very end. ISIS will most likely next plunge Lebanon into chaos. The Sunnis of Saudi Arabia and Turkey will have to take a position against the Shias of Iran. Further down that line is regional war involving Israel.

President George W. Bush is vindicated. The sole way Iraq could have continued was under a permanent American presence that gave and guaranteed state functions. President Obama’s withdrawal of American forces is already a historic error. They alone could have kept the peace. Arabs have a phrase to the effect that some mistake has opened the doors of Hell.

President Obama has opened those doors.

Much to Brussels’s Chagrin, the People Have Spoken



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Throw the bastards out! That time-honored war cry wraps up democracy. The Sunday Times, a repository of genteel language, has lately run an editorial with the title, “The People Have Spoken, the Bastards.” This referred to the European Union elections in which a whole lot of Euro-sceptic parties made gains that momentarily seemed to favor the reforms that are necessary and that the majority hanker for. A few days have been enough to show that the numbers are meaningless, the bastards have not been thrown out but will carry on as before. It used to be that far-flung peoples imitated the practice of Europeans. Now Europeans are imitating the practice of far-flung people.

The symmetry of the Egyptian and Syrian elections is marvelous. The winners, the Egyptian Abdul Fattah el-Sisi and the Syrian Bashar Assad, declared votes in the range of 90 percent or higher. The single opposition candidate in Egypt got 3 percent, and the two opposition candidates in Syria got 4and 3 percent. Observers report all the usual underhand tricks.

Nobody is taken in by charades that have nothing to do with legitimacy, choice, representation, and other features of democracy. They are shows of strength, pure and simple. Sisi is making plain that he will continue to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood. He will arrest, imprison, and sentence them to death, and if need be, execute some by way of example. Bashar Assad is making plain that he will continue to hold power even if he has to destroy Syria in the process and kill tens of thousands.

Things are less fraught in Europe for the moment, so the comparison doesn’t hold exactly, but those who run the EU are making plain that it is the public who will be dismissed as a result of elections, not them.

A Revolt against the EU’s Bureacratic Despots



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It’s an earthquake, say the pundits as they shake their heads over the elections to the European Parliament in Brussels. That parliament has hitherto been a rubber stamp to the political arrangements and deals done behind closed doors by the ruling class in Brussels. Suddenly it has become the one and only arena in which the inhabitants of Europe can express their anger and fear over what the ruling class has been doing to them. Decisions over which they have no influence bedevil them. Austerity, falling living standards, mass immigration including men and women of very different cultures, regulation, intrusion into privacy, new crimes and conflicting legal systems have materialized out of nowhere. European politicians and the people they are supposed to be representing appear to be unrelated.

These elections have thrown up substantial political parties whose main plank is to get out of the European Union. Defenders of the EU stigmatize these parties and their voters as reactionaries, certainly racist and maybe anti-Semitic. The United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP, has taken England by storm, for instance, but rather than woo them, Prime Minister David Cameron writes them off as “fruitcakes.” Actually they are protesting against a future they never asked for. Faced with unconditional surrender to the ruling elite, growing numbers of voters choose to rebel.

I happen to have been reading a new book, a collection of letters written by Hugh Trevor-Roper, the Regius Professor of History at Oxford and a brilliant man with an understanding of the whole sweep of history. He refers to someone I’d never heard of, Professor Samuel Dill, also of Oxford, who as long ago as 1898 wrote a book about the end of the Roman Empire. The London Library had this book. In elegiac language that hasn’t dated, Dill might just as well have been writing about the EU as it proceeds on the selfsame way to disaster. The Roman Empire did not have to experience what Dill calls “the great social catastrophe” but this was brought on by “a ruinous system of finance,” a corrupt civil service, a torrent of oppressive laws, “bureaucratic despotism,” (yes, the phrase is his) the destruction of agriculture and the decline of the military profession. Barbarians like the Goths, Vandals, and pagan tribes were welcomed as immigrants but in the end they turned on their hosts and captured Rome and the Empire. Dill finishes his account of one thoughtful writer who “watched with anxious foreboding the darkness which was descending on the West.”

It might be a good idea to reprint Dill and hand a free copy to each of the 50,000 or so bureaucratic despots of the EU who have contrived to repeat in close detail the mess that put paid to the Romans and no doubt are preparing to fight their critics to a finish.

The Prince and the Putin



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In a conversation with an elderly lady in Canada who was a refugee from wartime Europe, Prince Charles let drop that “now Mr Putin is doing just about the same as Hitler.”  This is true in some respects, exaggerated in others.  Both men have justified aggression on the ethnic grounds that they were defending people of their race.  Both have intervened across a border to take advantage of turmoil they attribute to others but which in fact they themselves had stirred up. Opponents of Putin have been murdered and falsely imprisoned, but of course that is in no way comparable to Hitler’s planned exterminations.

“He is an educated man. He is a well-brought-up person,” Putin rebukes the Prince. “This is unroyal behavior. This is not what monarchs do.” It is rather — how shall we put it — enjoyable that a former KGB officer has this kind of advice to give.

Nigel Farage and the Future of Britain



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Elections will be held in a couple of days for the European Parliament in Brussels. Nobody really gives a toss. Nobody knows or cares what goes on in that parliament. I did a straw poll asking people who is their representative in Brussels, and nobody knew. I have no idea who represents me.

And yet these elections matter, because an outsider is cracking the hardened mold of British politics.  His name is Nigel Farage.  He has founded, formed and now leads the United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP for short.  Initially a pressure group for getting out of the European Union, UKIP has blossomed into a political party. Some polls show that it will obtain a higher vote than the conventional political parties. Farage has achieved this break-through by force of character. He speaks his mind about the loss of national independence, the perversion of democracy, the replacement of English law and custom with foreign law and custom, uncontrolled immigration, gay marriage, corruption, and the way the world is going generally. People haven’t heard anything like this before; they have had it forced upon them that only bigots think like this and if they are wise they will shut up and hide. And Farage has a sense of humor too.

UKIP flourishes because the personalities and politics of the Conservative and Labour parties have lost touch with the country. Confronting Farage, they have no idea what to do except bad-mouth him as a racist, nationalist, and crackpot among crackpots. The media follow suit. The press campaign against Farage is personal and poisonous. Such toadying up to the hack leaders of the main political parties goes to show that journalists are also out of touch with public opinion.

The likelihood is that UKIP will cause a sensation in the European election, and nothing will then happen.  The established parties have too tight a hold on power for Farage to break it.  Even if he fails, he will have dramatized today’s great issue: What sort of country does Britain want to be?

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