David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

Much to Brussels’s Chagrin, the People Have Spoken


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


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


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


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?

Government Done Right?


Barack Obama and John Kerry and their spokesmen happily spread the word around the globe that Israel is on the wrong track, and this negative image takes deeper hold all the time.  What, one wonders, will they think of the fact that an Israeli court has just condemned a former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, to six years in prison on corruption charges. Offhand, it comes to me that plenty of former prime ministers  have been murdered in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and so on, but none put on trial for corruption. Olmert’s lawyers say he will appeal, so the judicial process essential to democracy is flourishing.

That’s not all. The former President of Israel, Moshe Katsav, is already serving a prison sentence for sexual offenses. Offhand again, I can’t think of any country in which a former president and a former prime minister are simultaneously sent to gaol. Is this breaking new ground?  Oh, nobody mentions that the judge who sentenced Katsav is an Arab. Is this injustice and apartheid, or a most remarkable example of a country living up to its ideals?


The Limitless Terror of Bashar Assad


Even in peacetime it used to be quite difficult to enter Syria. Once I found myself at the Lebanese-Syrian border, caught in a throng of men pushing and shoving to reach a booth in which sat a Syrian officer. I couldn’t face this and was about to abandon my journey when a small boy ran up, told me to put ten dollars into my passport and follow him. Stretching an arm behind him to the back of the booth, the officer extracted the dollar bill, stamped my passport and I was on my way.

These days it’s really dangerous. You have to find a fixer who knows the routes in, and he has to be trusted not to denounce or betray. Someone who has just been there has been describing to me how things are. Wasta is the Arabic word for getting what you want through connections and influence and dollar bills. Wasta has now turned into universal banditry. Everybody and anybody might be kidnapped held to ransom, and maybe killed even if money is paid over. In some places there is little or no food, and armed men break in to steal what there is. This is soon going to be worse because there won’t be much of a harvest this year. The contrast is grim between the parts of cities that have been flattened unrecognizably, and the parts that survive.

The number of the dead is now 165,000, a reliable figure. Of these, 2,000 have been killed by chemical weapons, the rest by conventional weaponry. The chemical weapons consist of sarin and chlorine, and their purpose is not so much to kill as to instil fear. Their use makes people feel that the Assad regime has no scruples, no limits.

A story is going the rounds that Syrians are delivering to Iraq sarin missiles originally engineered in Iraq and smuggled out at the time of the Second Gulf war. What Saddam Hussein sent out to be safe Bashar Assad is returning to be safe. So after all, President George W. Bush was in fact quite right to overthrow the double-dealing old warmonger.

Putin’s Brazen Humiliation of Obama


Previous occupants of the Kremlin would stand shoulder to shoulder with Vladimir Putin. From the mid-16th century to the end of Communism, Russia conquered territory the size of Holland every single year. At the treaty of Turkmanshai, Czarist Russia swallowed whole provinces of the Persian Empire, and Stalin nearly added to these gains. Russian support of today’s Iran is also predatory. The ayatollahs evidently believe that they are superior negotiators, and they may well be right, given the ease with which they are twisting President Obama round their fingers.

Putin does not even bother with twisting Obama, he merely sends in special forces without identification badges and lines up armored columns. He has the whip hand. Volodymyr Rybak was a pro-Ukrainian politician in the pro-Russian town of Slavyansk. His murder greatly increases the tension. Kiev is exaggerating when it claims that Russia wants world war, because there is nobody to fight it. But war will allow the dismemberment of Ukraine and the absorption of territory from which to make the next advance. When I heard the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov say that this crisis arises because the West wants territory, I knew the die is cast. Those previous occupants of the Kremlin perfected this tactic of accusing others of the crime they themselves were about to commit. The murder of Rybak may not provoke Kiev to retort with arms, in which case some other unfortunate Ukrainians will be murdered.

Occupation of territory is not the end of it. Putin is in the process of humiliating Obama so brazenly that international perceptions of the United States must change. He may see himself as the avenger of Mikhail Gorbachev. Each time Secretary of State John Kerry promises to apply more sanctions in the indefinite future, the impotence of the United States to take immediate and effective action becomes more visible and the humiliation of Obama more certain. I wonder whether NATO can survive. Oswald Spengler forecast something like this a century ago, and I am off to the library to re-read his gloomy book.

On Gabriel Garcia Marquez


Many people have thought Gabriel Garcia Marquez a great writer. It is a commonplace to bracket him with Cervantes as a giant of Spanish-language literature. In particular, he is credited with a style of writing known as magic realism, whereby strange things pass as ordinary and the law of cause and effect is suspended.

A humanist myself, I hold the view that every man’s death diminishes me. Marquez the writer is something very different. If it is to matter, literature has to say something about the world as it is and our place in it. Magic realism does the exact opposite. To make of everything just what you want is to make nothing of everything. Marquez is not so much writing as sleepwalking. Would it make any difference if his books were One Hundred Years of Cholera, Love in the Time of Solitude Autumn of a Death Foretold?

Playing havoc with reality presents a false view of the world, one in which everyone feels sorry for himself because good and bad, right and wrong, are interchangeable. Self-pity is the basis of Marquez’s popularity. Anti-Americanism is the form of self-pity that seems indigenous to Latin America and Marquez was its virtuoso. He expressed, so I read, “principled opposition to the global status quo dominated by the United States.” 

Dictatorship is the main arena in which good and bad proves interchangeable. Marquez could hardly wait for Pinochet to be overthrown in Chile, while in Cuba he was hero-worshipping Fidel Castro, a criminal with far more blood on his hands. The limit of credulity was reached when Marquez described Castro as an intellectual.

Presidents Clinton and Obama lead the chorus of academics and literary critics singing praise to Marquez. This reveals how natural the internalization of anti-Americanism now is. But when Marquez was in need of proper medical care, it was in a Los Angeles hospital that he found it. Nobody knows why another Latin American writer, Mario Vargas Llosa, one day punched Marquez in the face. What symbolism, though, in this encounter between two incompatible mind-sets. Vargas is free from self-pity, therefore free from anti-Americanism. At some time in the future, the independent and vital Latin America that Vargas stands for will exist with no dictators in sight, and then Marquez will be seen as the seller of a snake oil that did no good to anybody.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the True Values of Brandeis


Brandeis University awarded Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree and has now withdrawn it. In a peculiarly disgusting statement, Frederick Lawrence, the president of Brandeis, claims to have uncovered opinions of Ayaan’s that are not in accord with the values of Brandeis. Adding insult to injury, he invites Ayaan to a debate.

Where do they find these weasels? I know Ayaan, and I am familiar with her writings. She is a steadfast champion of human rights. She suffered genital mutilation as a child in Somalia and thinks this is a rite that must be abolished for the sake of common humanity. Millions of women are misled into thinking that this mutilation is Islamic, and Ayaan puts the record straight.

Any objections so far? Ah, Ayaan has renounced Islam. I am not at Brandeis and now would never go there, but I can visualize faculty and students huddling in little groups and caucuses to say that she betrays the Third World, is un-Islamic, and if people have a custom of cutting up the genitals of little girls, who are we to stand in their way? To call customs like that barbarous and ignorant is nothing short of racist. Pens out, everybody, sign a petition to President Lawrence.

Ayaan tells the truth, quietly but irrefutably, and that is why the Left hates her. As a Somali and a born Muslim, she is supposed to be militant, anti-West, and fist-clenched in a caricature that is actually close to racist. Let them sign their petitions, these people are beyond the reach of argument and intelligence. But this President Lawrence is another matter.  Wastepaper baskets are made for petitions got up like this. We are lucky to have Ayaan, and this disgraceful moral and intellectual defective cannot stand up for her. Not in accord with the values of Brandeis, indeed. If those values mean anything, he should be withdrawn from office, right here and now.    

John Kerry’s Dangerous Diplomacy


I don’t know what Secretary of State John Kerry does to those he’s up against, but he scares me — to paraphrase a comment of the great Duke of Wellington on his soldiers. The ease with which others get the better of him is dangerous on several fronts. It is probable that under his watch, Iran will have the best of two worlds, in effect possessing a nuclear weapon around which there is enough uncertainty about finalization to protect it from military counter-measures. The Russians hold Ukraine in the palm of their hand, and are in a position to choose between manipulating the overthrow of the government, civil war or prolonged instability until Vladimir Putin gets what he wants. Kerry’s resort to the dread words that this is “totally unacceptable” underlines that here again, there are no real counter-measures.

The Middle East is tending as a whole towards the stark alternatives of anarchy and tyranny that comprise the region’s history. It is incomprehensible that Kerry thought this was a moment for Israel and the Palestinians to make a final peace on long-standing and irreconcilable issues, and all within a short fixed period. Did nobody in the State Department tell him that President Clinton tried this out and an intifada with many dead was the result?

The dozen trips to the Middle East, the sessions with Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, are evidence of fantasy. There’s more: Israel was supposed to release a hundred Palestinians serving sentences for murder, and in return Jonathan Pollard, convicted of spying for Israel, would be released. Detached from reality, this proposal has come unstuck before it could be completed. Being detached from reality makes things worse. Hopefully, this marks the end of the peacemaking fantasy and both sides can live with reality, namely a stand-off until such time as compromise is possible. Kerry has nonetheless committed the gravest mistake that a diplomat can make, namely to raise expectations that have no prospect of being met. Ethnic, sectarian, and nationalist violence in the region is rising to higher levels, and it will be good luck if he turns out not to have added to it.


Defeatism in Afghanistan


The pull-out from Afghanistan is under way. The British have handed their command of Helmand province over to the Americans. For the past seventy or so years, the British have been mounting ceremonies of withdrawal in which the flag is pulled down, a commanding officer praises the soldiers, and a chaplain has a trope about sacrifice. 448 British soldiers were killed in Helmand and hundreds more have been horribly maimed by anti-personnel explosives. A consensus is forming that these deaths and injuries have been in vain, and the campaign should never have been fought. Roger Boyes of The Times, a serious and generally robust commentator on foreign affairs, has the ingenious refinement that clearing off home is “a form of military success,” and in addition will take away the raison d’être of the Taliban. In his view, a vibrant middle class is going to install a functioning state, by voting for it, if you please.

Far from taking note of their vanishing raison d’être, the Taliban are as prominent and violent as ever. They do not have the education or sophistication of Roger Boyes, but they are able to distinguish between victory and defeat. Coincidental with the ceremony of handing over Helmand, a sniper from the Coldstream Guards spotted the approach of some Taliban. The one he shot was wearing a suicide vest; it exploded and killed five other Taliban as well. Are tribal and religious fanatics like that really going to be convinced to give way to voting?

Defeatism began with Iraq. The mess there is the centerpiece of the argument that a campaign of this kind serves no useful purpose. But Iran’s expansionist and anti-Western policy is responsible for the mess, not us. The American military was the only possible check on Iran’s attempts at takeover, but President Obama withdrew the troops, leaving not even a token garrison. Of all his incomprehensible policy decisions, this is the most incomprehensible. Enemies of the United States were handed an easy victory in Iraq, and they look set to have another in Afghanistan.

Hypocrisy Celebrated with Sentimentality


The life and times of Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn had the richest flavor of hypocrisy. Born an aristocrat, he inherited the title of Viscount Stansgate but dropped it and then constructed a phoney proletarian personality as Tony Benn. Marrying a rich American heiress ensured that he would not have to suffer the penalties of the hardline socialism he was wishing onto everyone else. A pacifist, promoter of a Soviet-style economy, giving Soviet Communism the sole credit for winning the World War, praising Mao, he was wrong about almost everything, and oh! so sincere about it that large parts of the public overlooked the fact that Tony Benn was only exercising in modern guise the privilege of Viscount Stansgate to tell everybody else what to do.

For royalty and prime ministers there is a ceremony known as lying in state, whereby their coffin is placed in Westminster. Mr. Wedgwood Benn was not given the full works, but his coffin was nevertheless placed in Westminster — the last person honored in this way was Mrs. Thatcher. Next to Parliament and Westminster Abbey is Saint Margaret’s Church, traditionally associated with weddings and memorial services for aristocrats. The funeral service for Mr. Wedgwood Benn was some sort of ultimate instance of double standards. Here was an assembly of Communists, IRA leaders, oddballs like Mr. George Galloway who so much admired Saddam Hussein, and Michael Heseltine, the Tory politician who brought down Mrs. Thatcher. The theme that seemed to unify the congregation was that they had all done damage to Britain. At the close of the service, they sang The Red Flag not once but twice.

What explains this hallucinating nonsense? I suggest that Mr. Wedgwood Benn can be sentimentalized like this precisely because he achieved nothing and turned out to be a danger to nobody. Had he been successful and Britain gone through the revolution that he preached, half this weeping congregation would have been suddenly dry-eyed and busy cutting down the other half. Failure has its mercies.

Telling the Truth about Weakness


Coincidental positions taken by President Obama and Moshe Ya’alon, the Israeli Minister of Defense, tell us what a sad state we have fallen into. Obama has just received Mahmoud Abbas, the spokesman for Palestinians on the West Bank, and he came out saying that Abbas has “consistently renounced violence, has consistently sought a diplomatic and peaceful solution that allows for two states.” This of a man who has done everything in his power to replace the state of Israel with the state of Palestine, and is frustrated only because he lacks the means.

Ya’alon at that same time was telling an audience in Tel Aviv that the United States is “demonstrating weakness.” Ya’alon is responsible for his country’s security against an Iran that is all the time more deceitful and aggressive. When it comes to negotiating, he emphasizes, the Iranians are better. He puts it directly, “This is a war of civilization. If your image is feebleness, it doesn’t pay in the world.” So the conclusion for Israelis is straightforward. “We have to behave as though we have nobody to look out for us but ourselves.”

The Obama administration immediately claimed to be shocked and angry and mystified. Of course nobody wants to be told they are demonstrating weakness when that is exactly what they are doing on all fronts, with Russia, Iran, China, Egypt, even the Palestinian Authority. Telling the truth used to be considered not just a virtue but a necessity. One of these two men is confronting unpleasant facts, and one is hiding from them. I know whom I would choose to take decisions for my country.

Of the Dead, Nothing Unless Good


De Mortuis nil nisi bunkum is a truth currently being illustrated in Britain.  Consider first a Union boss by the name of Bob Crow.  1983 was the year this man showed how well he could look into the future by joining the Communist Party. He exploited his Union to wage class war unremittingly. Planning the latest shutdown of the London subway, he himself happened to be with his girlfriend on a cruise in Brazil. His abuse of power and privilege was feudal in character. As Mayor of London, Boris Johnson had to deal with the consequences.  Crow’s sudden death in time to avert strike action prompted Boris Johnson to call him “a fighter and a man of character” whose loss was “tragic,” when in reality for the traveling public it was timely.

Consider next Anthony Wedgwood Benn, a cast-iron member of the ruling establishment. Inheriting the title of Viscount Stansgate and a property to go with it, and marrying an American heiress, he forged a completely phony political career for himself under the would-be proletarian guise of Tony Benn.  Doing whatever he could to transform Britain into a Soviet-style economy and society, he actually succeeded in breaking the Labour Party and unintentionally paving the way for Mrs Thatcher. A greater abuse of power and privilege is hard to imagine. Now that he has died, the BBC naturally praises him on the news and in talk shows, but mysteriously the Conservative press almost unanimously thinks he was a political giant and will be much missed.

I am not given to rude language, and so can’t bring myself to quote what Kingsley Amis has to say about Wedgwood Benn in his Memoirs.  The insult on page 298 of that book is one I have found nowhere else.  I have reason to agree with Kingsley and object to the line taken these days in the obituaries that Wedgwood Benn was decent and meant well. Sir Oswald Mosley, the British Fascist, openly threatened me with violence for what I had written.  Wedgwood Benn did it more surreptitiously.  I had imagined that he had published memoirs under the title I Did It, and I wrote a spoof review of it forPunch, a humorous magazine. Peter Jenkins was a political writer on the Guardian, but in spite of that quite a friend. He didn’t enjoy telling me that Wedgwood Benn had sent him round. He’d read my spoof review, did not enjoy it, and he would choose his moment for revenge. I’d been warned.


Roaring Bill Wins Again


“Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight,
But Roaring Bill (who killed him) thought it right.”

Hilaire Belloc’s famous couplet springs unbidden into the mind these days. Vladimir Putin couldn’t make it plainer that he thinks it right to fight. He began by devastating Chechnyna, killing an estimated hundred thousand Chechens who were of course his own citizens. No wonder he thinks it perfectly natural to support Bashar Assad in the killing of an even higher number of his own Syrian citizens. Next he invaded Georgia, and has unilaterally incorporated into Russia sovereign Georgian territory. Nobody objects. Israel builds a settlement on the West Bank and the White House and the United Nations have fits. Putin steals another people’s land and the White House and the United Nations have nothing to say.

Now it is the turn of Crimea. A land-grab, pure and simple. Russian troops are there in force. It’s always the same argument, that they’re defending Russians. It’s always the same scenario, that they find expatriate Russians who claim to need being defended. The former pliant Ukrainian President Yanukovych is in Moscow where his presence is taken as cover for the Russian troops. In a few days’ time there will be a referendum arranged to finalize the grab.

Putin is not Adolf Hitler, not by a long chalk, but he has taken a leaf from Hitler’s playbook. Hitler claimed to be defending Germans when he overpowered Austria, Czechoslovakia, Danzig, Memel, and other points east. He had Czech president Hacha brought to Germany; he fixed referendums. Hitler told lies about Bolsheviks; Putin is telling lies about Nazis and neo-fascists.

The very first reaction of our Ebenezers in high places is that fighting is so wrong that anything that could possibly be considered resistance is also wrong. A historian friend of mine has studied the many times Obama has said that yet another anti-American head of state is “on the wrong side of history.” Which is more remarkable, the meaninglessness of the idea that history has sides, or the inbuilt patronizing sneer? In any case, it raises the white flag. Roaring Bill wins again. Next stop a move westwards, towards the Baltic republics where expatriate Russians can be worked up to demand liberation. The expression on the face of Polish foreign secretary Radek Sikorski has suddenly changed from smugness to fear that Putin will overplay his hand as Hitler did, but this time nobody intends to help.

Dancing on the Volcano


Russian forces are mobilized on the borders of Ukraine. Troops from the Russian Interior Ministry have taken control of the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol, and Russian gunmen have raised the Russian flag over other government buildings in Crimea. In Moscow, the fugitive Viktor Yanukovych is asserting that he has not been deposed. Vladimir Putin has in place all the instruments for a military campaign.

Meanwhile in London, the German Chanceller Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron greet one another with kisses on the steps of Downing Street. She apparently considers him her “naughty nephew.”  They are distracted in a little to-and-fro of their own devising about what the European Union may or may not do.  What they have in place are all the instruments of tragic-comedy.

Who would have imagined that at such a moment of European crisis the German Chancellor and the British Prime Minister count for nothing? Is there a better illustration of the time-honored phrase, Dancing on the Volcano?


The Curious Case of Moazzam Begg


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?


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.

Ukraine and Putin’s Second Soviet Union


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


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.


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

Subscribe to National Review