David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, R.I.P.


Paddy Leigh Fermor was someone very special, a clever and debonair man, an idiosyncratic writer, someone whose whole personality and career could only be British. Once I went out to dinner in London, and there he was. Another guest has grown up in Communist Bulgaria but had managed to defect. Paddy immediately sang one Bulgarian nursery song after another in the proper language. As a young man, he’d walked through pre-war Hungary and Romania, and I expect he could have sung songs in those languages too. Those walks provided the material for books that evoke Central Europe as it then was, now far away and long ago, before politics destroyed the picturesque.

Real heroes are modest, and Paddy proved it. You could never have guessed that this sociable fellow apparently eager to be friends with everyone had a war record that made him a living legend. Twenty-five in 1940, he was commissioned into the Brigade of Guards and then transferred to special services. He took part in the British fighting and withdrawal from Greece and Crete, but then set about organizing the Cretan resistance to the German occupation. Passing as a Cretan, speaking the language, he turned out to be a natural guerrilla. The great and unforgettable exploit was the kidnapping of General Kreipe, the German commanding officer in Crete. In pure James Bond style, he and Stanley Moss, another Guards officer, disguised themselves as German soldiers, stopped the General’s car, dealt with the driver, put a gun to the General’s head and drove the car through some 20 roadblocks where sentries were deceived by appearances into merely saluting. They then frog-marched the General across the island to a waiting British submarine. At one point, a German search party failed to find them hiding in a cave. At another point as dawn was coming up on Mount Ida, General Kreipe quoted the opening lines of Horace’s ode praising this very snow-capped sight, whereupon Paddy recited the remaining verses.

“Ach so, Herr Major,” was the compliment with which the general ended this exchange, as unexpected as it is chivalrous. Stanley Moss wrote up the whole exploit in a memoir, Ill Met by Moonlight. I could never get Paddy to say much about it, except that he thought the film of the book was not much good. Could there be men like that again? In these thin days I doubt it, which makes me wish I could turn out the guards and give him a proper salute as he passes. R.I.P.

Assad’s ‘Dangerous Path’


Videos of what is happening in Syria are revealing yet again how low the human animal can sink. How was it possible to torture the 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib to death, and then mutilate his corpse?  Or for five Syrian soldiers to kick a man senseless and then stand on his body and grin at the photographer, just as German soldiers were proud to do on the Eastern front? It is a fact of life that Bashar Assad is ordering helicopter gunships to fire on his people. Columns of tanks have forced whole populations to abandon provincial towns in order to seek safety in neighbouring Lebanon or Turkey. No Western journalist has entered the country, but still there are courageous Syrians filming the horror of it, persisting even though the Western media qualify these films with the weasel words, “We are unable to verify this.” The White House spokesman is another master of weasel words, saying, “there must be an immediate end to brutality and violence,” and warning Assad that he is leading his nation on “a dangerous path.” Must?  Why then is the United States doing nothing about it? And the path is merely dangerous, is it?  The American ambassador to Damascus, Robert Ford, is reported to be regularly applying to see Assad only to be refused. What insults would it take to withdraw him? Britain, France and Portugal are trying to get some motion through the Security Council. Portugal, that vast military power! Russia promises to save Assad by using its veto. Like Ambassador Ford, Ban Ki-Moon of the United Nations can’t get through to Assad who apparently refuses his calls. The feeling of being sickened contends with the shame of all this.


La Rafle


There is a journalist in London, quite a well-known figure and author of several books, who once began an article in a leading magazine with the sentence, “Now is the time for all good men to come to the destruction of Israel.” This is exactly what the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad likes to repeat whenever he gets the chance. At a literary occasion this week, I happened to run into this English journalist, and the very next day, by coincidence, I was invited to a press showing of La Rafle, or The Round Up, a French feature film dramatizing the German campaign to destroy the Jews in wartime France.

If our journalist and the ayatollahs had their way, then there would be more atrocious scenes of the kind shown in this very sobering film. Of course one cannot help wondering what the would-be Iranian mass-murderers owe emotionally or ideologically to the actual European mass-murderers of the Second World War.

For a long time the French have been unable or unwilling to face their collaboration with the occupying Nazis. Marcel Ophuls’ pioneering film Le Chagrin et la Pitié was for years virtually boycotted. The films Au revoir les Enfants and Lucien Lacombe broke the taboo, and French historians at last began to research occupation and collaboration. The Round Up is based on the reality of the first mass arrest of Jews in Paris in July 1942. The Germans did not have the manpower or the desk-work intelligence for this, but relied on the French authorities, the police and the transport systems, to do it for them. The Vichy politicians, Marshal Pétain and Prime Minister Laval, are depicted in this film as the deliberate accomplices in crime that they were. Jean Leguay was a civil servant who organized the eventual deportations to Auschwitz, and he too is portrayed here truthfully. He’s the sole Frenchman ever accused of crimes against humanity, but he managed to escape justice. When I interviewed him for my book Paris in the Third Reich he was still trying to excuse and justify himself.

Annette Monod was a heroic and devoted nurse, a Protestant assigned by the Red Cross to help the Jews. Her eye-witness account of that July round up and deportation is a moving document in itself, and serves as the peg for the film — Melanie Laurent impersonates her beautifully and the well-known actor Jean Reno magisterially plays the part of the Jewish doctor with whom she works. In the film, as in real life, children were separated from their parents, and deported by themselves, some too young to know their names. This horror could not be hidden completely. Pastor Boegner, head of the Protestant church, protested to Laval who knowingly lied that the children were to be agricultural workers in Poland. Boegner left a rebuke which should be remembered, “Je lui parlais meurtre, il me répondait jardinage,” that is, “I was speaking to him of murder, he answered about gardening.”

And here they go again, speaking as though the destruction of this whole people were a perfectly normal process that anyone might anticipate.

The Preemptive Cringe


This week I happened to meet one of the panjandrums of the British Foreign Office, a man who has been at the center of issues involving the Middle East and Afghanistan. What he had to say was a fine example of the FO’s persistent institutional personality. The invasion of Iraq, this man held, had been a mistake, and he was against it. The campaign in Afghanistan is an even more dire mistake. George W. Bush, he believed, had greatly over-reacted to 9/11. The Taliban were disposed at first to throw al-Qaeda out of the country, and a subtler president could have served the national interest better and at less cost by manipulating an open split between the two groups. In his view, fighting has achieved nothing, and never will. The only course of action now is to strike a deal that gives the Taliban what they want. You cannot put down an insurgency with military measures, he concluded as though this was the last word, and the Communist insurgency in Malaya, for instance, had not been defeated.

Listening to this Foreign Office grandee, I couldn’t help being reminded of my old friend Professor J. B. Kelly, in his day the foremost authority on the Persian Gulf and who also coined the immortal phrase “the preemptive cringe” to describe the FO’s manner of operating. In a rather obscure but telling dispute, the Sultan of Oman had retained him as an adviser when Saudi Arabia seized the Omani oasis of Buraimi. The Saudis were completely in the wrong, but they were more important than the Omanis and therefore the Foreign Office was determined to let them have their way. Just a glance round the room was enough, John Kelly told me, to reveal officials whose careers had been devoted to internalizing all the bad things ambitious foreigners charged them with, and consequently devising how best to haul down the flag. They were so long accustomed to appease and surrender to strength and violence that they couldn’t imagine anything else.

To come to terms with the Taliban now would expose Afghans and Pakistanis to tyranny, with many of them becoming refugees or corpses. In his recent pronouncements, President Obama is similarly pressuring Israelis to come to terms with Fatah-Hamas who would make refugees or corpses of them. The preemptive cringe is turning into policy, and it’s deadly.

Unreality Diplomacy


President Obama’s latest thoughts about the Middle East add to the confusion that seems to be his special contribution to American policy. It is right to support Arabs and Muslims who are in the street demanding justice and freedom. Unfortunately, Obama is too late in the day to have much practical effect. He should have spoken out two years ago, when the Iranian extremists rigged their election and fired on demonstrators, just as he should have spoken out two or three months ago when the Syrian president Bashar Assad started to kill his people. In both cases, silence indicated that Obama’s heart wasn’t in it. To say now that Assad must make a transition to democracy or “get out of the way” is just verbiage. What transition? And how is he to get out of the way without being helped at gunpoint to do so? And there is no explanation of the utterly mysterious approach to Libya; Obama demanded that Qaddafi get out of the way but refuses to implement such a policy. Obama has infuriated the Saudis, which in itself is no bad thing; the kingdom is monstrously unjust and unfree. But when he omits any mention of the Saudis themselves and comes down heavily on their little dependency of Bahrain for shooting protesters, he’s either resorting to hypocrisy in the hope everyone will understand that American national interests have priority over morality, or he’s just unaware of reality.

Unawareness of reality is the least that can be said about his approach to Israel and Palestine. His promotion of the Palestinians rests on the pretense that their state would be normal. In fact, the Palestine Authority is only a miniature version of the usual one-man tyranny that millions of Arabs are now doing their utmost to reject. Moreover, the rivalry between Islamist Hamas and the quasi-secular rival Fatah is already a civil war in embryo, and their agreement to cooperate is a stage in the power struggle between them. Never mind that previous American presidents committed the United States to support border revisions and land swaps; no Israeli government can possibly agree to return to the pre-1967 borders. Besides, if more than a million Arabs live in Israel, why is the future state of Palestine permitted to declare that it will be Jew-free?

Obama advises Israel to be bold. “Bold” here means dividing Jerusalem, leaving the West Bank and in particular the Jordan valley in hostile hands, and it is really a euphemism for risking Israel’s security. His heart is evidently engaged in promoting the Palestinian cause, and it won’t take much more for this to end in another bout of armed conflict.


French Socialism’s State


The French Socialist party has been in disarray since its leaders Ségolène Royale and François Hollande could not make up their minds whether they were unmarried partners in domesticity or rivals in politics. Dominique Strauss-Kahn bills himself as a Socialist. Presidential elections are due to be held in France a year from now. Nicolas Sarkozy has poll numbers suggesting that he is unlikely to be reelected, leaving the field open to the Socialists and their candidate Strauss-Kahn — or in these dramatic circumstances perhaps to Marine Le Pen of the revitalized Front National. The mind boggles at what the thoughts of the one in the Elysée Palace in Paris must be, as also the thoughts of the one in Rikers Island jail in New York. The writer of a letter in the Daily Telegraph has a special line, finding it refreshing that in this time of austerity Strauss-Kahn “sticks to his socialist principles by flying first class and staying in a $3,000-a-night suite in New York.” Strauss-Kahn’s wife, a celebrity in her own right and very rich too, immediately posted bail for one million dollars, but the judge seemed unimpressed by this evidence of how far socialism has come.

Sulphuric Injustice


Majid Movahedi is an Iranian and in the available photograph he looks like any other young man. He pursued a woman called Ameneh Bahrami, and in the available photograph she is very pretty, smiling under the black niqab that covers her hair and head. She rejected his advances, whereupon he threw a bucket of sulphuric acid over her. In spite of seventeen operations her face is still appallingly disfigured, unrecognizable, and she remains blinded. Under the operative law of retribution, known as qisas, she has the right to blind him, literally to take “an eye for an eye.” The man’s father, and bodies like Amnesty, have tried to pressure her into showing mercy. She would relent, she says, if she received two million euros to take care of her future needs. In the absence of money, she will have retribution. A doctor is due today to pour sulphuric acid into the man’s eyes. “I wish I could drip it myself,” so Radio Free Europe quotes Ameneh. It is impossible to decide which of these stricken people, the doctor included, deserves the most pity. Imagine a country which likes to boast of its moral and spiritual superiority, its supposedly universal values, but where a horror of this kind passes for justice.

Decomposition of the Social Body


In one Arab country after another, some small local outrage has been enough to spark revolution across the nation. The pattern began in France. In October 2005, two young Muslims escaping from the police jumped over a fence into an electricity sub-station and were electrocuted. Sure that some injustice had been done, disaffected and angry Muslims launched a proto-uprising. In over 300 cities and towns, according to official statistics, there were 110,206 incidents of urban violence. One leading commentator thought he was witnessing “the decomposition of the social body.”

A court in Paris has just absolved the policemen who chased the two young Muslims, finding that there was no case to answer. However, it is doubtful that the issue has died. France has passed a law imposing penalties on women wearing a burqa in public. Whole quarters of Paris seem arabised, as shops advertise halal products often in Arabic, and agencies exist to transfer money to Arab or Muslim countries. The relation of the French to the large and growing and ever more militant Arab minority in the country is more and more fraught, and sure to be an essential feature in next year’s presidential elections.

It was impossible to put these details out of mind on the National Review cruise that has just sailed up the Seine from Paris to Normandy. The ship had no facilities for the internet — hence the prolonged silence of David Calling. The countryside was summery, idyllic, offering houses and views much the same as once Van Gogh, Manet, Flaubert, and other famous men had seen them. Crowded cafes and restaurants seemed recession-proof.

Yet that is not a complete or realistic picture. Just a few short years ago it was unimaginable that we should have to be vitally concerned with the fate of one of the many sons of a Saudi building contractor.

Many, probably most, people are glad that Osama bin Laden has been killed. The end of the cruise, though, and therefore access at last to the internet, brought a quite contrary opinion. Many were distressed and angered by his death. They spoke of him as a martyr. To the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the most extreme Islamist group in Pakistan, bin Laden was “a great person.” Ismail Haniya, leader of Hamas, thinks him “the prince of jihad fighters,” while for the militant branch of Fatah his death is “catastrophic.” Indeed, a poll shows that just under two thirds of Palestinians would like him to have been buried among them.

The BBC loves to give broadcasting opportunities to Abdul Bari Atwan, a newspaper editor, who referred to bin Laden as “our dear sheikh,” and who doesn’t believe the Americans are telling the truth about his death. The chorus of lamentation included Tariq Ramadan, a specialist in selling Islamist snake-oil, Moazzam Begg who has made a career out of his time in detention in Guantanamo, assorted Muslim Brotherhood spokesmen, and Salafist demonstrators in Cairo. Useful idiots, that is to say non-Muslim critics of the operation, are of course totally predictable, most of them professors sheltering in a library. Noam Chomsky can be relied on to defend the indefensible. There cannot ever have been an Archbishop of Canterbury so unworldly as Rowan Williams.

The moral confusion of such people is a warning of the imminent decomposition of the social body.

As the cruise ended, news became available that Qaddafi’s soldiers were shelling a Red Cross ship with medical supplies; a Tunisian had shot dead a protestor; Yemeni forces had killed three people and wounded eighty; in Cairo, Muslims had burnt down two churches, twelve people had died, and the Archbishop of Canterbury found nothing to say on that subject. In Syria, snatch squads are arresting and then torturing in prison those judged to be potential rioters, probably up to 10,000 in number; tanks are out in the streets of several towns; and nobody knows how many have been shot dead, at least 800 but probably many more. This is what happens when the social body finally decomposes.

The Death of a Disastrous Fantasy


The death of Osama bin Laden is many things, for instance a reckoning with an enemy, an enforcement of justice, a feat of arms, evidence that the United States is after all prepared to defend its interests, also evidence that its old relationship of giving way to Pakistan is over. But there is more. The Arab and Muslim world spent the twentieth century lamenting that the West had overtaken it in terms of power, creativity, political stability, and so on. What was to be done? In mid-century, Arab and Muslim intellectuals came to London and Paris and there they studied the ideologies of the day. The likes of Michel Aflaq and Sami al-Jundi were hypnotized by nationalism, and army officers such as Gamal Abdul Nasser and Anwar Sadat imitated them. The Arab one-party dictatorship followed. This failed utterly. Osama bin Laden tried something else, the installation of a Muslim caliphate. This is a disastrous fantasy. The death of bin Laden ends it.

How Many Torments Lie . . .


No foreign journalists appear to be in Syria. It is hard to be sure what is going on there. Such reporting as there is depends on local demonstrators with modern pocket cameras. The film that comes through is flickering, obscure, perhaps with momentary glimpses of unfortunates killed by gunfire on the street. Our newscasters and editors have to intone each time that what they are showing cannot be verified. The Sky TV reporter of the Syrian crisis is actually broadcasting out of Israel. What a comment that is on the difference between a free society and a tyranny, though the media would not pause to make the comment.

The similarity of tyrannies is also striking. Moammar Qaddhafi and Bashar Assad, Abdullah Ali Saleh in Yemen and the al-Khalifa ruler of Bahrain are all engaged in having their subjects shot in the street during peaceful demonstrations. In the background, Iran and China and Russia back them out precisely because of their similarities.

These are important developments with the potential to change the balance of power in the world. Whether Syria ends up as an even more subservient colony of Iran in its campaign against the United States, or on the contrary becomes independent and — who knows — free, is an issue of life and death. Nobody would think so from the lukewarm responses of Washington and London. It is hallucinating to hear that the White House is examining policy choices towards Syria and considering imposing sanctions. How urgent is “considering?” The president is not even recalling the American ambassador who has just arrived in Damascus, which is inexplicable. William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, trots out the word “unacceptable” about the crimes of Assad against his subjects. Unacceptable, from the man who occupies the office once held by Lord Palmerston, Canning, Curzon.

Unable or unwilling to get into Syria, the British media instead report on such things as the color and consistency of the icing on the wedding cakes baked for Prince William and the bride he marries in a few days. Of course the British are fortunate to have a constitutional monarchy, and no doubt this attractive couple in due course will do their duty to the best of their ability. But there is only one word for the way their wedding crowds out the news of the future taking shape in the Middle East, and that word is — hallucinating.

High Stakes in Syria


Elie Kedourie, the most far-sighted and informed of commentators, always used to say that Syria held the key to the future of Palestine, Israel, and the wider region. It seems true right now. But how Bashar Assad will take the determining decisions is unclear. He seems to be leaving open all options, hesitating between the alternatives of reform and harsh repression but giving signs that either response remains possible and depends on the strength of the protests. He has the security forces shoot four demonstrators here, two there, six in another place, as it were showing that he could mow down thousands if their disobedience obliges him to do so. Is this a sign of strength? Or on the contrary that he doesn’t really know what to do? Either reading of the situation is valid.

In a dictatorship like his, the change of prime minister and cabinet is an empty token. The promise to rescind the emergency law still leaves him in absolute power, and he is resorting to the traditional fiction that he needs absolute power in order to deal with the “armed gangs” supposedly threatening the country’s “stability.” It would be equally traditional to create some diversion involving Lebanon or Israel.

Presumably there are telephone calls in which the King of Saudi Arabia makes threats of retribution and promises of aid, and then more telephone calls from Tehran in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warns Bashar not to listen to the Saudis, and makes his rival threats and promises.

The voices must be rising along with the stakes. A wrong decision, even a small slip, can lead to sectarian or ethnic massacre on a hideous scale. And it is all in the hands of a one-time ophthalmologist who accidentally became a dictator because his elder brother was killed driving too fast.

In the Phony “Spring,” Arab Politics Stay the Same


Any day these last few weeks you could turn on the television and hear some media pundit promoting the idea of an Arab Spring. Arabs in their hundreds of thousands supposedly were going into some central public place to free themselves from tyranny. Democracy at last! Elections! Freedom! The media pundits compared what was happening to the storming of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is all too possible to see now that the Arab Spring is a Eurocentric fantasy resting on the inability to grasp how other societies actually operate.

Moammar Qaddafi and Bashar Assad are making sure to smash up their own cities, killing at random by way of exercising power. It is the same in Yemen and Bahrain, and might well replicate elsewhere, for instance Jordan and Algeria. The Iranian regime shoots and executes its people on a horrifying scale, and sees fit to support Assad’s repression in Syria while condemning the repression in Bahrain. Such cruelty and hypocrisy may look like evidence of bad character, but more to the point derive from the fact that the Arab and Muslim order does not have, and never has had, any agreed means of handing power over peacefully. Those in power or who want it have to be ready to resort to violence. At this moment rival forces — Islamists, secular Westernised folk, the military — are frustrated because absolute power so far has escaped their grasp, and now they have the chance to grab hold of it. Ersatz nations are dissolving as their constituent sects and tribes jostle with each other for supremacy.

What is passed off as a Spring, in other words, is really a repeat of the brutality that is the age-old instrument of everyone who has ever sought power in the Arab and Muslim order. The process is self-perpetuating, as vital as it is lethal. The would-be power-holder has only his family, tribe or sect to rely on, and he has to be rid of everyone in his way, exactly as Qaddafi and Assad and the rest of them are doing. So the former Tunisian and Egyptian ministers are already in prison. So the Egyptian security forces are already arresting dissidents and beating them to death in prison. As the French proverb puts it, the more things change the more they stay the same.

Finally a train of thought for the pundits and politicians: What induces the likes of Barack Obama and Tony Blair to keep on trying to breathe life into the defunct peace process? It defies history, custom and political reality to believe that a Palestinian state will abolish violence in the Middle East. In Gaza and the West Bank they too have only set up tribal or sectarian tyranny. Meanwhile Israeli Arabs are going about their business peacefully instead of holding mass demonstrations in some central public place. They’re the only Arabs living in a real democracy and maybe that enables them to recognize a phony Spring when they see it.

The 20th Century in Miniature


Someone called Frank Lampl has just died, and his life is a short history of the twentieth century. The son of a landowner, he was born in 1926 in Brno, in Czechoslovakia. He was still a teenager when the Germans deported him to Auschwitz. From there, he was sent to Dachau, to be a slave laborer in the BMW factory nearby. (Incidentally, the makers of that admired German car have not made reparations.) Lampl was the only member of his family to survive. In old age, he might cry out in his sleep “Are you still alive?”

Taking over post-war Czechoslovakia, the Communists defined him as a “bourgeois undesirable,” and condemned him to more slave labor in the uranium mines of Jachymov. After Stalin’s death, he worked in construction as a laborer and then a foreman, until in the Prague Spring of 1968 he escaped to England with just one suitcase. There he joined Bovis, a construction firm, and over the years he became managing director and chairman. By the time he had finished, Bovis had grown into one of the largest international construction companies with a presence in 40 countries. (Incidentally again, Mrs. Thatcher became a friend of his; she could spot a great man and she gave him a knighthood.)

At any point he might have become just another of the anonymous millions who were murdered. Who knows what contributions they too might have made to the stock of human achievements?

Preparation for mass murder now comes from a different direction. The moment Hosni Mubarak was thrown out of the Egyptian presidency, Sheikh Qaradawi, probably the most influential Muslim preacher today, addressed an enormous crowd in Cairo. He has often called for the extermination of Jews, and in present circumstances, he told the crowd, the hope is to conquer Israel as soon as possible. The rulers in Tehran and their jihadist cronies in Hamas and Hezbollah are winding themselves up to that same end of racism and blood-lust. So will successors who escape as Frank Lampl did then be representative of the twenty-first century?

On the Road to Stalemate



Reporting from Libya and Syria is controlled and therefore sketchy, but videos show that Muammar Qaddafi’s artillery has bombarded Misurata and Bashar Assad’s security forces have shot up Deraa and other towns in Syria. In a display of random violence snipers in both countries are picking off men and women venturing out.   Destruction of buildings and murder of individuals may look like mindless brutality but they have the exemplary purpose of showing that these two dictators are ready and willing always to crush opposition by taking whatever measures are necessary. In their perspective, massacre, terror, hostage-taking, hijacking, Lockerbie bombings, are merely instrumental. 

It follows that the only way to deal with the Qaddafis and the Bashars is through force superior to anything available to them. That is how Saddam met his end. The “international community” — that strange fiction — has made sure to limit and constrain the force to be used against Qaddafi, and therefore it further follows that some sort of stalemate is the best to be hoped for. That same “international community” has decided that Bashar must be left to do his worst and pay no cost. At a minimum, Ambassador Ford, the Obama administration’s gift to Bashar, should be recalled, sanctions increased, and Syria placed in political quarantine. Instead, Mrs. Clinton describes as a reformer a man who rules by an emergency law that has lasted four decades, and whose security forces are blithely killing unknown numbers.    

In 1983, Reagan sent American troops to keep the peace in Lebanon. When a suicide bomber attacked and killed many of them, the force was withdrawn. A single bomb thus proved more powerful than the United States. Hezbollah quickly filled the political vacuum and the balance of power in the Middle East began what has been a steady tip against the West.. And should Qaddafi and Bashar today subdue their people and remain in power, dictatorship will thrive as before throughout the region, the present turmoil will have come to nothing, and democracy will have hollowed out that much more. 

Syria’s Moment


Syrians in the town of Deraa have overthrown a statue of the late dictator Hafez Assad, father of the present dictator Bashar Assad. This heroic feat brings to mind the tremendous moment in Baghdad when the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled. The difference is that American forces brought down Saddam, while the Syrians themselves have smashed this vainglorious statue. Their bravery is immense. This is a moment which Syrians will speak about to their children and grandchildren.

What will happen next? Bashar is in a quandary, and his confusion shows. On the one hand he is promising reform, offering to raise salaries for those already in his pay and releasing political prisoners. Like Qaddafi, he is staging demonstrations in support but these crowds are either Alawis like himself or fodder paid to turn out and shout. And on the other hand, his security forces are shooting in Deraa and apparently other towns too. They are using automatic weapons and snatching protesters. Nobody knows how many have been killed and arrested. Repression is fueling rage.

Around Bashar are his relations and cronies who form the Baath Party, the single party that is the core of this loathsome and murderous regime. It is a certainty that they are prepared to kill as many thousands as required to crush the country. We will be told by Bashar and his mouthpieces that the protestors are “armed gangs,” or vicious Sunni Islamists or Kurdish nationalists, anything except people trampled on for as long as anyone can remember.

The outcome will affect world politics. Bashar’s Syria is a danger to peace, to its neighbors, to the United States, to the Arab future. Our understanding of the world as well as our humanity are being put to the test.

‘God, Syria, Freedom’


The Arab protest movement is spreading to Syria. The security forces are reported to have shot and killed 22 people in Deraa, the largest town on the Hauran in eastern Syria. They have also shelled the mosque. Reformist sources say that demonstrations have broken out in about 20 towns and villages. I have seen a video of a huge and angry crowd shouting “God, Syria, Freedom.”

This is potentially far more important than events in Libya or Yemen. A successful uprising in Syria would at last check Iran, whose imperialist expansion is threatening the whole the Middle East. Iran is reaching for power in Bahrain, Yemen, and Iraq. Simultaneously, Syria offers Iran access to Lebanon, Hezbollah and a foothold on the Mediterranean with an agreement for a naval base at Tartus. In the complexity of internal Arab politics, Syria has made headway by being intolerable, sponsoring terror, and blocking all peace initiatives, in the process becoming more a dependency of Iran than an ally. A national uprising in Syria could be the surest way to avoid the large-scale regional war that otherwise looms.

One of the impenetrable mysteries of the Obama foreign policy is the appeasement of Syria. Obama seems to believe that he can split Syria away from Iran imply by being nice and kind. But Syria and Iran are both spoilers as well as united by religious sectarianism. In Syria, the Alawis are a minority of not more than fifteen percent, the huge majority being Sunni. Half a century ago, the Alawis seized power when Hafiz Assad mounted a coup. He and his son Bashar have formed an Alawi dynasty ever since. They have kept control through a tried and tested blend of murder and ruthlessness, bribery and corruption. In 1982 Hafiz Assad ordered his artillery to flatten Hama where the Muslim Brothers were staging an uprising. At least 30,000 were killed. Great courage is needed to protest today. Alawis and Sunnis are well aware that any break in the policing is likely to end in mutual massacres.

The Syrian regime makes sure to keep all journalists under control, and there seem to only one or two Western reporters in the country. The Bashar regime attributes the demonstrations to armed gangs, which is a transparent lie. It is hard to follow events there, but the fall of the vile Assad regime really would be a step forward for everyone.

A Test of Character for Arab Despots


Violence is spreading incrementally throughout the Arab world, with repercussions in Iran and Turkey. Plainly something big, something that could be historic, is at hand. The world, the “international community” that is such a figment in the speeches of President Obama, does not know how to interpret this violence, and even less how to react to it. Not so long ago Colonel Qaddafi was an honored guest in Western capitals, and Western air strikes on Libyan military installations were unimaginable.

The root of the trouble seems obvious enough, namely that every Arab state is a despotism. Arab kings and presidents are nowhere ruling with the consent of the ruled. All alike depend on their police and security apparatus. Fear and the absence of freedom stifle creativity and choke progress in every respect. People are frustrated enough to be permanently close to insurrection, and their rulers are likewise permanently prepared to oppress. Even quite small crises therefore have the seeds of violence.

The present unanimous demonstration of Arab unhappiness may have some copy-cat aspect, but it is impressive: All want their rulers out and a different life. Rulers have little leeway in responding. The Saudi king is attempting to buy his subjects off with handouts of billions of dollars. Less wealthy, the Algerian, Moroccan, and Jordanian rulers are offering subsidies for food and fuel. Since the people are asking for justice, money is here more of a placebo than a remedy. As the stakes rise, the ruler has to decide what degree of violence will preserve his rule. For every one of them, that is a test of character intimately connected to the reliability of the police and security apparatus. The systemic defect of despotism could hardly be clearer.

The ruler of Tunisia flunked. The ruler of Egypt tried to survive through cunning but his military colleagues wouldn’t let him get away with it. The rulers of Bahrain and Yemen are calibrating how much violence is needed to keep control; small numbers of the dead may be enough. The ruler of Syria began by bribing his people, but in the face of their desperation he is preparing for the bloodbath that may occur any day now. Carrying the logic of despotism to the bitter end, Qaddafi will either kill enough people to subdue the population and baffle the West, or be killed. We’ve been here before. Invading Iraq, President George W. Bush installed a rule that has the consent of the ruled. However long and difficult, that’s how to be rid of despotism. Reluctantly, almost accidentally, Obama could introduce in Libya the pluralism Bush deliberately gave Iraq. That’s marvelously ironic, or maybe the course of history is determined after all.

Disappointed People


“From Benghazi to Bahrain, Mr Obama is proving to be a brutal disappointment.” That is the concluding sentence of today’s editorial in the London Times. There it is — the editorial is reflecting a sea-change in public opinion. And it’s not just the persecuted inhabitants of contested Arab cities who feel this disappointment, but also people all over the world who not so long ago decided that Mr. Obama was hope personified.

Of course there is some humbug in the air as well. Those disappointed people have suddenly discovered that the United States is not going to be looking after them and they will be on their own. Europeans and Asians have devoted so many of their resources to creature comforts that they are not in a position to protect their peace and security. It’s a shock that Obama is the one leaving them to be self-sufficient, a condition to which so many have been unaccustomed for so long.

A White House deputy by the name of Ben Rhodes has explained that the Obama conception of the U.S. role in the world is “to work through multinational organizations and bilateral relationships to make sure that the steps we are taking are amplified.” (You don’t “amplify steps” unless you are trying to be misleading, but let that pass.) This multinational and bilateral stuff is just that — stuff — a recipe for inertia, arenas for self-important diplomats in which to generate hot air, to propose meetings and postpone them, to pass resolutions watered down until they are meaningless.

The Libyan tragedy illustrates this higher vacuity. Institutions designed for the multilateral and the bilateral, the Security Council, the European Union, the Arab League, daily prove that they serve no useful purpose. Worse, while they posture among themselves, Moammar Qaddafi and his thugs have been allowed to massacre those asking for their rights. That is the direct consequence of Obama’s decision that the United States no longer entertains an independent foreign policy but leaves everyone, including the likes of Qaddafi, to do as they please.

Shame is one aspect of it, and the surrender of the West is another. Qaddafi has a long record of terror. Once he has committed enough mass-murder to stay in power, he can take revenge by brandishing oil contracts as blackmail, restarting his nuclear program, joining forces with the al-Qaeda or other Islamists he pretends are his enemies, and much else. Obama’s refusal to commit the United States over Libya has given Qaddafi an international Get-Out-of-Jail card. First disappointment, then danger.

The Fruits of ‘Concern’


President Obama’s responses to the Libyan crisis are deeply mysterious. What does he want, and how does he envisage the future of the Arab world and its relationship to the United States? The U.S., he says, “strongly supports the universal rights of the Libyan people.” But they have no rights at all, neither universal nor particular, and far from supporting the Libyan people in even their basic right to survival, Obama has apparently decided on a non-show. Then he has said he is “very concerned.” Is there any cliché more feeble in the entire political lexicon? “Very concerned” means, “I’m doing nothing, you may get on with your plans.”

Since he is limiting himself to “concern,” whatever was the purpose of saying that Moammar Qaddafi must go? Why should the brute go if all he faces is “concern”? Told to be gone but certain that Obama would do nothing to make him go, Qaddafi naturally went on the offensive. What will it do for the standing of the United States that its president has opened himself to ridicule in this way, broadcasting his impotence? And why should anyone trust the United States in the future? Facing even greater violence than the Libyans, the Green Movement in Iran can only conclude that the most to be expected from Obama is more “concern.”

In the event that Qaddafi’s forces retake Benghazi and crush the rebellion, there will be a horrific purge. Many will flee to Egypt though their reception there is most uncertain. Some will try to escape in small boats across the Mediterranean — Italy is already unable to cope with Tunisians in search of safety and a better life. Those who stay are at the mercy of the secret police, torturers, informers, and looters, all giving themselves license to do their worst. Qaddafi and his disgusting sons will have got the better of the United States while their victims will be cursing it. Can Obama really be happy to have helped bring about such an outcome? Is that to be his presidential legacy?

Built into the System


Moammar Qaddafi’s forces are now pounding Libyan towns to pieces. Tanks have shelled Zawiya, for instance, destroying its center and knocking down mosques. Aircraft are bombing Ras Lanuf and other places in the eastern province of Libya. It is a peculiar horror to watch a ruler attacking his own country, but it is not a novelty in the Arab world. When Hafiz Assad, the Syrian president, faced a challenge from the Muslim Brothers, he turned his artillery on their stronghold of Hama, and flattened it. Nobody knows how many died — at least 20,000 and maybe 30,000. They were buried in the rubble of the main square, and the area was then cemented over. Similarly, when Saddam Hussein was challenged by the Kurds he had them gassed, and when challenged by the Shia he had them shot. Ahmad Chalabi speaks of 300,000 dead in Iraq in over 300 mass graves.

Qaddafi is already displaying this inexorable kind of dictatorship, with the deployment of force built into the system. The only way to deal with it is to mount superior force against it, but democracies rarely have the will for that, and so Arabs time and again are killed for no better reason than that they are protesting against insufferable injustice.


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