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David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

The Curious Case of Moazzam Begg



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Two Nigerian converts to Islam have just received life sentences for butchering a British soldier in the streets of London and were carried out of court screaming and cursing. I do not suppose that Moazzam Begg has done anything so frightful, but his story is hallucinating in its own way. Born in Britain of Pakistani parents, he claims to want to live in an Islamic state. He just happens to turn up in Afghanistan before the American army, he just happens to have fought in Bosnia and hoped to fight in Chechnya, and he just happens to have had night goggles and a bullet-proof vest in his house when the police searched it. The West Midlands Police arrested him on suspicion of attending a terrorist training camp and facilitating terrorism overseas. The police statement says, “This is an arrest, not a charge . . . our naming does not imply any guilt.” Make of that what you can.

It also just happens that in 2002 the Pakistani authorities handed him over to the United States, and he spent three years in Guantanamo. When he was released, he claimed he had been tortured and had known two other prisoners beaten to death. He’s founded a pressure group on behalf of Islamists held in prison. Would you say there is a pattern in what he does? The British government paid him one million pounds to compensate him for being in Guantanamo. Now he happens to have been stopped leaving the country with an aid convoy to Syria. How much compensation will he manage to extract for that? Those whom the gods wish to destroy give money to the likes of Moazzam Begg.

How Will Russia Punish Ukraine?



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Viktor Yanukovych evidently prepared his getaway from Kiev. Cars, a helicopter, a private plane, perhaps a yacht, were ready for him to make a run for it to Russia. Frustrated purely by chance, he has gone to ground in some safe house in the Crimea, the eastern part of Ukraine where Russian expatriates are the majority. He may well try to put himself at the head of these Russian nationalists.

The Hungarian revolution of 1956 offers quite a close precedent. The center of the capital, Budapest, was filled at that time with loyal Hungarians demanding reform, just as the center of Kiev these last days overflowed with loyal Ukrainians. New men came into power. Then suddenly Janos Kadar disappeared. He had slipped over the border in order to betray his country, bringing in Russian forces that maintained a hold over Hungary for the next three decades.

The Kremlin is thinking along those lines today. Dmitri Medvedev, the sinister Russian prime minister, calls the rejection of Yanukovych an “armed mutiny.” He goes on, “I see no legitimate Ukrainian partner for dialogue.” The general will has never been of much concern in Russia. Vladimir Putin has such contempt for Barack Obama that he might risk the Janos Kadar tactic of instigating Yanukovych to overthrow the protesters, and providing them the means for it. Perhaps the punishment meted out by Russia will be less than that, but it is a cultural and political certainty that there will be punishment. I wish I thought anyone in high office on the American or European side has any idea what to do about it.

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Ukraine and Putin’s Second Soviet Union



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Vladimir Putin is a throwback to the Age of Dictators. Cunning is usually enough for him to have his way. Rigging elections, for instance, is standard procedure. He and Dmitri Medvedev between them exchanged the offices of president and prime minister with open contempt that was bound to leave voters thinking they had better do what they were told. This pair of slippery thugs will be in power for years, most likely till biology takes its course. In the dictator’s playbook, force serves the purpose of backing up cunning, and Putin gives exemplary demonstrations of it.

Cyber war against Estonia was a preliminary warning. When Georgia was making friendly overtures to the European Union, armored divisions rolled in, Soviet-style, to put an end to it. In the instances of Ossetia and Abkhazia, Putin has taken over the territory of another state, actually shifting boundaries unilaterally in favor of Russia, just as Stalin used to do. He’s also arming and protecting regimes in Iran and Syria with a success that marks the end of American influence in the Middle East — how Stalin would approve! Supposedly there was “a peace dividend” at the close of the Cold War, and if so, then it’s been well and truly spent.

A key to what is happening now in Ukraine is Robert Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow. That authoritative book documents the terror-famine of the 1930s, in which Stalin sent 11 million Ukrainians to their death because they were peasants, kulaks as they were called. Nikita Khrushchev played the leading role in this genocidal procedure, and when he took over in the Kremlin he filled empty space in Ukraine with Russian immigrants and tried to buy the goodwill of Ukrainians by changing boundaries in their favor. Nobody could imagine a time when the Soviet Union would be no more, and an independent Ukraine would come into existence.

Every demonstrator in Kiev and Lviv and elsewhere is sure to have relations and friends victimized by the Communists, and will be throwing a home-made firebomb in their memory. In Putin’s view, these Ukrainians must understand that their nation and aspirations cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the Second Soviet Union. Russia wants a strong government, in the words of the creepy Dmitri Medvedev, “so that people don’t wipe their feet on the authorities like a doormat.”

Repression at home, proxy wars abroad, humiliation and whimpering on the part of the United States — the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Vasil Bilak



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Czechoslovakia under the Communists was a sad place. Oppression seemed to be in the air; there was no escaping it. One of the most brutal Party bosses was Vasil Bilak. His moment came in 1968. The Party leader then was Alexander Dubcek, whose proposals for reform were well-meant, though he lacked the psychological resources to carry them through. Even so, Leonid Brezhnev and the Politburo panicked, and had Dubcek flown to the Kremlin. To make their point, Dubcek was kept in chains during the flight. Bilak went too, and he signed the plea to the Soviet leadership to invade Czechoslovakia. Sure enough, the tanks rolled in. Dubcek was allowed to survive as a forester.

The reward for Bilak was promotion to be the ideological secretary of the Czech Communist Party. In that position he did what he could to turn the clock back, becoming known as “more Stalinist than Stalin.” Gorbachev was his nemesis. I always believed that the day would come when Gorbachev would do what every previous General Secretary of the Soviet Party would have done, and give the order to shoot as many demonstrators as he had to in order to maintain control. When this did not happen, I set about searching for an explanation, and my book The Strange Death of the Soviet Union duly emerged. The ideological secretaries in the Soviet bloc were key figures. Bilak was eager to open fire and put an end to an experiment he couldn’t understand. He put his downfall with wit that nobody had ever associated with him.  Picture yourself as the Cardinal Archbishop of Toledo in the middle of the Inquisition, he said, and suddenly a message arrives from the pope to say, Hold your horses; don’t light the bonfires — I have converted to Judaism. He was never put on trial or obliged to be a forester, but just died aged 96. R.I.P.

Fear and Cowardice



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“If you haven’t met Jesus and Mo yet,” Salman Rushdie has said, speaking of a cartoon strip that has been running on a website since 2005, “It’s about time you did.” Well, Salman had his troubles about publication of his work, and now so has Mohammed Jones, the nom de plume of the man who draws the cartoon strip. It’s rather thin artwork, and rather feeble jokes too, but apparently Muslims follow it. A recent drawing shows Jesus saying “Hey,” to Mohammed who responds with, “How ya doin.’” Not exactly Emile Zola, is it? 

Brouhaha erupted all the same. Thousands of Muslims complained. Accordingly, the artist was invited to appear on the BBC’s flagship program Newsnight. The anchorman there is Jeremy Paxman, a clever fellow whose stock in trade is to give offense to whomever he is quizzing. On this occasion, the artist sat with his back to the camera, presumably for fear of being recognized. All he ever had in mind with the cartoon, he said, was to make people laugh. His Muslim opponents were “self-serving rabble-rousers.” Dropping his voice as though to bring out the seriousness of the charge, Paxman persisted in trying to wring out an admission that the artist was guilty of giving offense. Truly, this was rich. The cartoon was not shown on Newsnight or other television programs or in the print media.

That’s by no means all. Maajid Nawaz is a British Pakistani, a former member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamist group with the usual agenda of taking over the whole world. Egypt is one of the numerous Muslim countries that ban it, and Nawaz spent six years in an Egyptian prison in the days when Hosni Mubarak was cracking down on the group. Since then, Nawaz has rethought his position, and on the basis of his experience is now one of the more prominent Muslims taking a position against Islamism. A writer, he is standing for parliament for the Liberal Democrat party. Out of solidarity, he tweeted the cartoon. Thousands more Muslims were immediately up in arms, threatening fatwas and cutting off his neck. When these Muslims say Nawaz is not fit to stand for parliament, the Liberal Democrats — how to put it? — quake. It isn’t conscience that makes cowards of us all, as Shakespeare thought, it’s fear.

 

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Grievous Cultural Harm



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Here’s a glimpse into modern times. Andrew Woodhouse lives in Wales and runs a garage business with tires. His premises have been burgled previously. And about a year ago here come two more burglars to steal diesel from his yard.  Mr. Woodhouse is 44 and in the videos he looks fit. At any rate he tackles the burglars, and overpowers them until the police come. In the kerfuffle, he has happened to break both legs of Kevin Green, one of the burglars. Green is taken to hospital where of course he is treated free. Yes, you guessed right — Mr. Woodhouse is arrested on a charge of Grievous Bodily Harm. The months waiting for the case to be heard, Mr Woodhouse says, have been hell. All he was doing was defending his property. Meanwhile the burglar Green claims that he is the victim and asks for compensation. The case has just come before the Crown Court in Cardiff, where the jury threw it out in a matter of minutes. You could hear the sigh of relief all over Wales. But how, and why, have we institutionalized  the astonishing moral confusion this incident exposes?

 

John Kerry and the Truth



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Moshe Ya’alon is probably the best minister of defense that Israel has had since Moshe Dayan. Clear-minded and determined, he has experience of military combat and its civilian equivalent of domestic politics. He must have known what he was doing when he spoke his mind to a journalist about John Kerry. In other words, he arranged a handy leak.

Kerry is probably the least impressive secretary of state since . . . oh never mind, there are contenders. With the Arab world in turmoil, and half a dozen wars shaping up over the horizon, this is the moment Kerry chooses to lean on Israel to make concessions that imperil its future. In Ya’alon’s opinion, the American plan isn’t worth the paper it is written on. What we know of it is a proposal that Israel abandons the West Bank and relies for security on technology. A lot of use that is going to be against salafists and jihadis intent on one-man suicide bombings.

Kerry, Ya’alon says, “can’t teach me anything about the conflict with the Palestinians.” Which of them is the most believable on the score? The Palestinians are split into two irreconcilable armed camps, Fatah and the PLO under Mahmoud Abbas on the West Bank, and Hamas under Islamists in Gaza. Ya’alon clinches his case with the observation that the Israeli army is all that maintains Abbas in power. Hamas is waiting to stage a coup. Remove the Israelis and you remove Abbas, and so you have a war with unforeseeable consequences.

Ya’alon is particularly criticized for saying that Kerry is “acting out an incomprehensible obsession and a messianic feeling.” Could this be expressed better? He’s been out to the Middle East ten times. His fancies about the future delights of peace are met persistently by Palestinian insistence that they will never accept a Jewish state.

The State Department finds Ya’alon’s analysis “offensive and inappropriate.” It is as good an example as any of the sad fact that people in positions of power go to any length to hide behind words and avoid analysis of their deeds and misdeeds. Ya’alon told the truth, that’s what’s upsetting them. “What is truth? said jesting Pilate and would not stay for an answer.” 

 

Ariel Sharon, R.I.P.



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Ariel Sharon lived right through the heroic age of Israel and in many ways he was its permanent representative. Born in 1928 in the days of the British Mandate, he grew up in the certain knowledge that there would have to be a fight for independence and quite possibly even for survival.  In the present age, our politicians blather about sending signals and crossing red lines and involving the United Nations but for Sharon the whole point of fighting was victory, to crush the enemy so that it wouldn’t be necessary to do it again. Like Achilles, he had to have his way or he’d stay in his tent.

As a reporter for the Sunday Telegraph I covered the Yom Kippur war of October 1973. The Egyptians had overcome the Israeli line of defense along the Suez Canal. The Egyptian Third Army had taken up positions in the southern Sinai desert that they now occupied. Catching a rumor of a coming counter-attack, I went down to the Canal. I was alone under a blue sky, wondering if I had made a mistake. Out of nowhere, Israeli engineers arrived and with tremendous speed threw a pontoon bridge over the Canal. Then the tanks appeared, and there on the open turret of one of them sat Sharon. An Egyptian sniper could easily have shot him. No helmet. Looking as though off to a sporting occasion, he was like one of the great inspiring generals of the past who led their troops into battle.

The tanks rumbled across, and in a very short time Sharon and his armored column had cut off the retreat of the Egyptian Third Army and was poised to move on Cairo.  The politics of the Cold War imposed a cease-fire that saved Egyptian face, and meant that Israel would one day have to fight for survival all over again. In 1982, Sharon as minister of defense took it on himself to ensure Israel’s future by driving the Palestine Liberation Organization out of Lebanon and installing a friendly Christian government in that country. This was as bold in conception as the earlier crossing of the Canal. A Christian militia then massacred Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila. Again in the politics of the Cold War, this atrocity was enough to deprive Sharon of any victory and perpetuate the Israeli-Arab confrontation.

Israelis nonetheless were to elect him prime minister. His decision to uproot and evacuate Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip was a final boldness. The supposition was that Palestinians would not want to fight if their demands were met.  It hasn’t worked out, perhaps someone or something will always stop it working out and Israel will have to fight all over again, but it was evidence of greatness that at the end of his life Sharon tried for more than military victory.

 

Be Careful What You Wish For



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All my life I have been hearing the Left criticizing the idea of empire. The line is pretty simple: materialistic amoral white men occupied the territories of people of another color who were leading blameless lives. This must stop. When the whites have gone back where they came from and the people of another color do things their own way, the world will revert to peace and harmony. 

In boring fact, Empire keeps the peace and spreads civilization. The end of the Roman Empire introduced the Dark Ages.  The end of the Habsburg Empire was the prerequisite of European war and revolution.  Various lands and populations were destabilized at the fall of the Mughal and Ottoman Empires, and again at the fall of the British and French Empires.

The administration of President Barack Obama has already created the chaos and bloodshed bound up in the end of Empire. Withdrawal of the American presence in the Middle East fits perfectly into the Left Wing fantasy that whole populations will be happy if only they can do things their way. What actually happens is that ruthless thugs see their chance. The United States is allowing Iran to build its rival Empire, and into the political vacuum of the moment rush the Muslim Brothers, Hezbollah, the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the many other jihadi groups.

Things in Syria have come to such a pass that the thugs are fighting it out between them. Bashar Assad has already killed about 200,000 of his subjects indiscriminately. The Free Syrian Army, FSA for short, tries to dislodge him in the name of nationalism. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams, ISIS for short, is trying to dislodge him in the name of Islam. Net result: The FSA and ISIS engage in a new civil war within the old civil war. The barbarism of both parties shames the human race.  From Assad’s point of view, it is a bonus that his enemies have turned on one another.  The United States has an interest in the destruction of ISIS, and objectively, as the Marxists used to say, is now siding with Assad who lets the dirty work take its course. The steadily mounting disaster seems to stem from Obama’s fantasy that peace is something that can safely be left to others.  

A Culture’s Heroes



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How a society makes its heroes is a fascinating process, and a good example of it involves Alan Turing. No doubt he was exceptionally brilliant, a pioneer of computers. In the war he worked at Bletchley, the secret center where German codes were broken. It seems generally agreed that his contribution was important, even vital. A homosexual, after the war he was prosecuted, chemically castrated, and in 1952 committed suicide.

Chris Grayling, justice minister in the present British government, has just issued an apology for Turing’s tragic fate. Of course Grayling bears no responsibility, he was not even alive at the time. Too late to be in any sense a reparation, it is just a gesture. Apologies of the kind are now common everywhere, for instance for the Crusades, for Empire, for famines, for slavery, and so on. Obviously the apologists are making use of the past to support the very different values of the present. The assumption that present values are moral absolutes falsifies history and in the end is demoralizing. Our forebears are made to look irredeemably cruel and there is nothing to done about it except abase ourselves in penance. The cruelty done to Turing certifies his status as a hero.

Eight thousand people worked at Bletchley, my father was one of them, and so was a lady called Pamela Egremont. Her husband John had been personal assistant to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. She knew everybody who was anybody, among them Alan Turing. According to her, people in the know at Bletchley forecast that after the war the price of silver would soar. Turing, she told me, got together as much money as he could, bought physical silver and buried it in the grounds of Bletchley. After the war, the price of silver indeed rose as predicted. When Turing went to dig up his investment, he found that housing had been built over his plot. A few weeks ago, Pamela Egremont died, so this story can no longer be checked; maybe it is urban myth, or a fantasy arising from a persisting sense that Turing was after all his own victim.

Stalingrad, Again



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Security services in many European countries are letting it be known how worried they are about Islamists slipping into Syria, acquiring training and battle experience, and returning to their countries of origin to perform acts of terrorism. Estimates of numbers are pretty fluid, but there may be 2,000 such volunteer terrorists. Some are European converts to Islam, all the more dangerous because they are familiar with home ground and they pass easily in the crowd.

The city of Volgograd in southern Russia used to be called Stalingrad, and so they know about destruction there. Anyone who wanted to sabotage the Winter Olympics billed to start in Russia in February might well start by showing their capacities in a place of such symbolism. And that’s just what they have done. Two suicide bombers on successive days in Volgograd have exploded themselves, killing about 30 people and wounding over twice as many. Of course this is not so devastating as the wartime fighting there, but the aim is to frighten and it succeeds in this. One of the bombers has already been identified as Oksana Aslanova, shown in a photograph as a “black widow” in Islamist gear that hides half her face. She’s from the Caucasus where Russian forces have been brutally suppressing Islamism for a couple of decades, with nothing to show for it except ruins and hatred. President Vladimir Putin has ground down Islamism here as hard as he could. President Obama and the United States have gone out to lunch, which is restoring Russia as a superpower.

There are plenty more black widows in the wings waiting to explode themselves. Who wants to be a spectator at the Winter Olympics so badly that they will take the risk of being blown up? This should put a spoke in Putin’s wheel. How odd it is that Islamists in Russia — like Islamists in Syria — should be doing dirty work helpful to a United States that doesn’t and won’t lift a finger on its own behalf.

 

Khodorkovsky’s Future



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The injustice done to Mikhail Khodorkovsky will be held against Vladimir Putin as long as anyone has an interest in history.  One of the first and richest Russian oligarchs, he ran Yukos, an oil company second only to the giant Gazprom.  The moment he looked like moving into politics, Vladimir Putin fixed him by inventing charges of tax evasion and having him sent to a prison camp in Siberia. When the five-year sentence ran out, Putin had it extended for another five. That’s how they do things over there, and always have, from the czars to the Communists.

Nobody knows what’s been going on behind the scene, but there has been some deal. Khodorkovsky asked for a pardon, saying that this was not an admission of guilt but a request to see his aged and infirm parents. You wouldn’t want to ask Vladimir Putin for mercy, would you, but Putin has let him go. The poor man looks like a zek, as they used to call political prisoners in old days — the skull shaven, trying to make the grimace on his face look like a smile.

Germans received him in Berlin, just as 40 years ago Germans had received Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The more things change, as the French put it, the more they stay the same. Published in exile, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago changed perceptions in the West. Khodorkovsky is a businessman not a writer, but he too could change perceptions. The injustice done to him is the basis for a political platform, if he so chooses. Quite a few commentators are comparing his situation to that of Nelson Mandela — it’s a winning hand to enter politics to rectify a wrong that everyone can recognize.

Unfortunately quite a few other commentators argue that Putin would never have let him go if he foresaw any danger of Khodorkovsky becoming a figure in the opposition. They say Putin did it to smooth the way of the winter Olympics coming up soon at Sochi in Russia. It will be intriguing to see who is right.

Not a Religion of Peace



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Islam, so say apologists, is a religion of peace. If so, how come that Muslims happen to be fighting Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and animists right across the world? The official body representing Muslim countries has recently put out a statement that the question reveals prejudice they like to call Islamophobia. For them, the price for freedom of speech is too high, and they recommend banning criticism of Islam altogether.

As it happens, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale are now standing trial for the murder and partial decapitation of a soldier in an open London street in front of passers-by. Of Nigerian origins but born British, they are both converts from Christianity to Islam. They plead not guilty and express no regret on the grounds that they are “soldiers of Allah,” engaged in war with enemies. On account of many passages in the Koran, they explain, “We must fight them as they fight us.”

The evidence that the faith conditions Muslims to fight for it is by now overwhelming. Yet every horror precipitates Western leaders to parrot that Islam is a religion of peace. This is a classic case of transference in the jargon of psychology, whereby the aggressor and the victim exchange roles and responsibility.

Apologetics of the kind are escapes from reality, a refusal to look at consequences, accepting blame that belongs to others in the hope that a quiet life will follow. A Muslim who calls himself Ibn Warraq is the only writer I have come across who addresses this crucial phenomenon. Why I am Not a Muslim, an early book of his, openly condemns Islam as backward and bigoted, totalitarian and unreformable. He was the first to point out that Western apologists for Islam are simply not telling the truth. Sir Walter Scott’s Crusades and Other Fantasies, his new book, is a bit more specialized but still for the general reader. He makes the point that Arabs conquered the Middle East and it was only after centuries of abuse and persecution that Christians tried to recapture it. Popes and presidents apologizing for the Crusades are out of order, absurd even. Walter Scott put in place the falsification reaching down to the present that Muslims are peace-loving gentlemen and Crusaders war-mongering thugs. Not even Ibn Warraq can explain the transference, but his description of its sources is enough to clear the air.

In that great anti-totalitarian novel 1984, the hero Winston tries to reassure himself that people don’t really surrender to deception and lies, thinking, “If there’s hope, it lies with the proles.”  Today, if there’s hope it lies with finding many more Muslims like Ibn Warraq.

 

Thought for the Day



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Four American presidents are attending Nelson Mandela’s funeral, and not one attended Mrs. Thatcher’s funeral.

 

Praising Mandela, with Gratitude and Guilt



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Nelson Mandela leaves this world amid a massed chorus of praise. A colossus, a hero, a statesman, another Churchill, he “guided the world” according to Mr. Blair, “a legend in life and now in death,” according to Mr. Cameron. Public figures of all kinds are speaking in those high tones. Apartheid in South Africa was inhuman, and the part that Mandela played in bringing about its collapse is indeed historic. In the 1950s and 1960s, so it appears, the banned Communist Party of South Africa and the African National Congress started an armed struggle. In a much-publicized speech, British prime minister Harold Macmillan had encouraged “the winds of change” throughout Africa. National movements duly recruited followers and the likes of Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya and Julius Nyerere in Tanzania took advantage of these movements to come to power.

The question then was the fate of the whites. On what terms could they stay in independent African states? Might they be expropriated or killed? French, Portuguese, Belgian, and some British settlers thought it prudent to flee, and some were expelled — this transfer of land and power is still current, for instance in Zimbabwe. These various collapses on the part of European settlers radically changed perceptions of Empire. Hitherto Empire had been seen as positive, developing what needed to be developed, introducing the infrastructure of hospitals, communications, transport, resolving tribal disputes, and keeping the peace. Nationalist Africans could now claim that Empire had served only to enrich Europeans, and was nothing more than a criminal enterprise. Most Europeans have internalized the accusation, and believe it.

Apartheid South Africa fought with arms to survive, and when that proved a failure the victorious Africans were expected to exact revenge. Seemingly, it was not in Mandela’s character to shed blood and that is most certainly to his lasting credit. A lesser man might have behaved like Robert Mugabe and attacked the whites, wrecking the political and economic future of the Africans in the process. Now and again, Mandela showed that he could have been another Third World tyrant, sincerely embracing and approving Fidel Castro, Moammar Qaddafi, Yasser Arafat, and others. Instead he let the whites off the hook, and the massed chorus of praise rests partly on gratitude over the present, partly on guilt over the past.

Meanwhile in Ukraine . . .



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Things were going so well for Vladimir Putin. He’s fixed himself another ten years or so in the Kremlin. He’s getting the Russians back in the Middle East, arming Iran and Syria and most likely Egypt too, all the while making child’s play of outsmarting President Obama. The intention is to put in place a modernized Soviet Union, that is to say a Russia without Communism but obtaining what it wants by throwing its weight about as it used to do. It’s vital to regain control of Ukraine, the huge country that is Russia’s Near Abroad. In old days an armored division or two would have rolled. Now trickery has to serve. Putin has come so close, putting Viktor Yanukovych in as president of Ukraine; tucking Yulia Tymoshenko, the leader of the opposition, away in prison for years; and practicing some neat commercial and financial blackmail. So close!

Putin and Yanukovych rely on the ethnic Russians who settled in the country in the Communist era. Ethnic Ukrainians are first and foremost nationalists. For them, membership in the European Union appears to offer an escape route from the new aggressive Russia and a safeguard of identity. Rejecting the EU option, Yanukovych has brought huge numbers of Ukrainians out into the street in most cities. In Kiev, the capital, an attack on the statue of Lenin shows that they’d got the point.

This isn’t a demonstration, said one of the leaders, it’s a revolution. Sure enough, barricades are up, government buildings are under occupation, riot police are beating people up though so far nobody has been killed. President Obama and the EU have no idea what to do, except to utter pro forma condemnations of violence. Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, is a new convert to the idea of the EU, and he and his Swedish counterpart are backing Ukrainian membership, no doubt seeing this as a way to block Russian expansion. At the moment, an international issue is shaping and there’s no good resolution in the offing. There’s irony too! Away in the background, Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front in France, is only one politician among others describing the EU as the old Soviet Union in disguise, and predicting its collapse.

Surrender



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I tend to think of Harvard as an abode of lost souls, but it can’t be all bad since Ruth R. Wisse is a professor there. In these confusing times, she is a humanist who does what humanists ought to do, namely sort out what is right from what is wrong. Just now, she sent me her newest book, No Joke. Making Jewish Humor. In the trade, you are not supposed to write about books by people you know and think well of; “puffing” is the word for it.

 

Well, here goes. This short book is a unique comment on the condition of Jews. Jewish humor, as Mrs. Wisse puts it, has been a chronic habit of mind. Sometimes the joke is at the expense of Jews, sometimes at the expense of their enemies. Sometimes a joke implies surrender to what cannot be reformed or resisted; sometimes a joke is “creative defiance,” in another of her sharp definitions. In whatever the language and whatever the country, even in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, a joke is able to pose the essential question whether to accept reality or to deny it. Life and death can turn upon it.

Hours after I finished reading this brilliant book, the news came through that the Western powers had come to an agreement with Iran. Iran is supposed to delay opening a plant with a program for developing an atom bomb and to curtail its production of fissile material. In return, seven billion dollars held back under sanctions will be released. The Iranians confidently claim that their right to go nuclear has been recognized. After six months, all being well, there will be further agreements. The West has surrendered, with further surrenders implicit down the road.

Responding to this triumph, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rejoiced that God’s grace had given him what he hoped for. Huge and attentive crowds shout, “Death to America, Death to Israel.” The ayatollah also broadcasts that Israel is an “unclean, rabid dog,” and vows it will soon be destroyed. In the night, a BBC reporter laid out what this might mean, describing how Syrians are cutting the penises off boys and chopping them up in front of the victims as they die. Of the 120,000 or so Syrians killed so far, 11,000 are children.

Easily outplayed by the Iranians, the Western representatives have proved intellectually and morally unable to stand up to determined enemies. The will has gone. All Iran has to do now is to lie though lip service and prevarication while continuing its nuclear program in secret, as North Korea did. Western intelligence services are in the dark. Jews are once more on their own. It is inconceivable that they would wait and see if the ayatollah means what he says and tries to chop them up too. Formerly they might have made a tragic-comedy out of their plight by denying reality along the lines explained by Ruth Wisse. This time, they have the means of defending themselves and the price the West will have to pay for its pitiful surrender lies in their hands.

Power, Money & the Prime Minister Turned ‘Hermit’



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What do presidents and prime ministers these days have to show for their time in office? Maybe a library or an arts center. Tony Blair, lately British prime minister, is said to have made between 20 and 40 million pounds but all he seems to have done with it is buy a portfolio of properties. Sir Robert Walpole is generally considered the politician who established the role of prime minister and the parliamentary system recognizable today. In the 1730s and 1740s he built himself Houghton, far away from London in Norfolk where the great unwashed could not see what he was doing. Among those he employed was the architect William Kent and the sculptor Rysbrack. He had also amassed one of the finest and largest collections of pictures in Europe.

When I was there a couple of days ago, the immense pile loomed out of the mist, as much as to warn visitors of the huge gap in standing between their insignificant selves and the great prime minister. As a history student I knew that Walpole had robbed the public purse but I hadn’t prepared myself to see his corruption commemorated in stone like this, in effect boasting of his shamelessness. Walpole, I told myself, had been the English Putin. In a recent essay in Commentary, the reliable scholar Leon Aron quotes estimates of Putin’s fortune between 40 and 70 billion dollars, “which would make him one of the three richest men in the world.”

Walpole’s grandson was a wastrel. In need of money, he sold the entire collection of pictures in 1779 to Catherine the Great and they have been ever since in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The collection should have been the core of the British National Gallery, but the public knew how Walpole had acquired it at their expense, and was not prepared to pay for it twice over.

In a generous loan, the Hermitage has helped to stage an exhibition of these pictures so that they hang once more on the walls where they used to be. The exhibition has been much publicized and there was a big throng of visitors. The rooms are all marble and gilt and frescoes, and the ensemble with the pictures is no doubt very splendid. More than that, though, we were all being given a chastening lesson in the effect of power and money, especially on people in high places.  

Italy Shrugs



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A friend in Italy sends me what he calls some food for thought about that country.  The coalition government under Enrico Letta is trying to push through the Legge di Stabilita, the term for a budget that satisfies the requirements of “the wise men in Brussels,” in the euphemism of my friend. This budget has provoked 3,093 amendments. Here goes: “Assuming it would take five minutes to read and understand each amendment, this would translate to some 250 hours. If they worked continuously for five hours a day it would take 50 days just to read the amendments, let alone debate them.”

Meanwhile the National Debt has reached two trillion euros. With an interest rate of a modest 3%, interest payments come to some 60 billion euros a year before any repayment of capital. A new tax on property was due to collect 4 billion euros but proved so unpopular that the government renounced it and now debates how to replace it.  My friend has a nasty feeling of living in the collapsing world Ayn Rand describes in Atlas Shrugged.  Where he lives, shops, and services are closing down, and people just shrug their shoulders. “Another Italian miracle is needed. Will there be one?” he asks.

Arafat Exhumed



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The death of Yasser Arafat is the stuff of conspiracy theories. The cause of it is unknown. Aged 75 when he died in 2004, he had not been in good health. One rumor was that he had cancer, probably leukemia, and another was that he had AIDS. Ion Pacepa, head of the Securitate, or secret police, in Communist Romania described in a memoir how his organization had to procure young boys for Arafat. Was this true, or disinformation? Announcing that Arafat was so ill that he had to be flown to Paris for treatment, BBC reporter Barbara Plett wept, one of millions who wanted to believe that Arafat’s career of terror and corruption was really liberation from the cruelties of Israel. When Arafat then died in Paris, yet another rumor sprang up that these selfsame cruel Israelis had poisoned him. It is fair to say that most Arabs and maybe almost all Palestinians are convinced of this.

Of all American presidents, Bill Clinton came closest to getting Arafat to compromise, and Hillary Clinton famously exchanged kisses with Suha, Arafat’s wife. Until recently, Suha refused to allow the exhumation of Arafat’s remains or the analysis of his clothes. Once she had given permission, forensic teams from Switzerland, Russia, and France got to work. The Swiss have now reported levels of Polonium-210 high enough to support “moderately” that this is what killed him. Does that “moderately” convey a little, a lot, or nothing? Nine years have passed since the death, and anyone could have tampered with the remains and especially the clothing. Suha has been quick to say categorically that the death was a crime, adding that he had many enemies who might have committed it.

Needless to say, fingers are already pointing at Israel. They certainly had the capacity and have conducted targeted assassinations. But Israeli politicians and the military always said that Arafat invariably took decisions that did harm to his cause, and therefore Israel had an interest in preserving him as Palestinian leader. Again, true or disinformation? The Russians used polonium to kill Alexander Litvinenko, so they know the form. Their forensic experts have not yet reported, nor have the French. If they too come up with a verdict supporting that “moderately,” the conspiracy-mongers will be occupied for years to come.

 

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