David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

The Curious Case of Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi


The case of Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi raises several extremely disquieting questions. He is the Libyan imprisoned for blowing up Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland, killing 270 people, a majority of them American. He has been acknowledged as a Libyan secret agent. The Libyan dictator, Mu’ammar Gaddhafi, in power since 1969, handed al-Megrahi over to the Scottish courts and paid over a billion dollars in compensation to the families of victims, while also refusing to accept responsibility for the mass murder. When asked about this, he gives a derisive laugh by way of an answer.

Genuine doubt has always existed about the perpetrators. Some, especially in the United States, are convinced that this was indeed a Libyan operation. Others, equally firm in their opinion, hold that Iran and Syria together paid the Palestinian terrorist group led by Ahmed Jibril to blow up the jet — the spokesman for this line of thinking is Dr. Jim Swire, an Englishman whose daughter was killed that day. Dr. Swire has devoted time and energy to investigating this act of terrorism, and he believes that the imprisonment of al-Megrahi is a miscarriage of justice. Jibril was a particularly foul criminal who murdered a lot of people including many of his own men, and was himself finally murdered, seemingly at the orders of Saddam Hussein. That’s how they do things over there. The corpses pile up but the trail to establish culpability somehow always peters out, and you never know exactly whom to blame.

Al-Megrahi lost a first appeal for another hearing. In 2007 his lawyers put in a second appeal on the basis that more evidence was available and it would show the miscarriage of justice. The appeal was granted. The families of the victims were encouraged to believe that they might get closer to the truth. And now, suddenly, Al-Megrahi is said to be dying from prostate cancer, and therefore it would be only humanitarian to release him to Libya. Simultaneously, his lawyers happen to have withdrawn his second appeal.

The connection between these two events is murky. Pretty well everyone, however, concludes that the British authorities were well aware that Al-Megrahi would win his appeal, and they would be exposed as having framed him. So they offered to set him free in exchange for the dropping of the appeal. A former British ambassador to Libya has said that a deal of this kind was surely done — but this man is a typical Foreign Office specimen and from his record we ought to be grateful that he doesn’t think Ariel Sharon actually crashed Pan Am 103 in person. Magnus Linklater is a columnist in the London Times. A serious man who routinely beats a drum for his native Scotland, he wrote with incandescence about “what looks suspiciously like a cover-up.” Tony Blair forced through devolution, and this has made the Scottish legal system responsible for the Al-Megrahi case.  In Linklater’s opinion, this whole legal system has been compromised, as either ham-fisted, or duped by Libya, or worst of all, complicit. He throws about words like “farce” and “stitch-up” and “shameful.”

Other newspapers have published photographs of Blair or Gordon Brown shaking hands with Gaddhafi, evidently willing to rehabilitate this ruthless dictator whose record of terror goes back for forty years. The further suggestion is that B.P. has a concession for new oil and gas deposits in Libya, but this is conditional on the freeing of Al-Megrahi. The British government is certainly cynical and underhand enough to go along with an understanding of that kind. After all, Saudi Arabia threatened to cancel valuable arms contracts if the supplier, British Aerospace, was investigated for paying bribes to Saudi princes, whereupon Blair was quick to ensure that the Saudis got the immunity and anonymity they were wanting.

What events like these really prove is the way that the demands and practices of absolute Muslim states are encroaching on Europe, however dangerous this may be to democracy, justice, good governance, and in the final analysis, independence.

And if Al-Megrahi is indeed freed in the next few days, as widely forecast, you can safely bet that quite soon he will be giving an interview in some expensive villa on the beautiful Libyan coast, happily informing the world that his cancer has been miraculously cured.

Sandhurst: A Glimpse of the Future?


The Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst is the British equivalent of West Point, the barracks-cum-college where cadets train to become professional army officers. Every year there is a passing-out parade, and a fine affair it is too. The most outstanding cadet is awarded the Sword of Honour, and this year it went to E. A. Hillman of the Parachute Regiment. The future of the British army is in the hands of such men. Among the several hundred cadets listed as on parade, not one, as far as I could see, had a name that suggests Muslim identity.

Overseas cadets also train at Sandhurst, and in the past one such was King Hussein of Jordan. A Coldstream Guards drill sergeant earned a certain immortality by shouting at him on the drill square, “Stamp your feet, you idle little man, Mr. King of Jordan, Sir!” King Hussein liked to be reminded of it. This year — again as far as I could see — sixteen overseas cadets are identifiable by their names as Muslims. Two belonged to the Al Khalifa family ruling Bahrain. The others came from Brunei, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Qatar, Tanzania, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. The hope is that some fellow-feeling and maybe even gratitude towards Britain will have been instilled in them, as was the case with King Hussein. But what if the opposite occurs, and they put their training to wage jihad against British interests? On the same day as this parade, Israeli top brass was warning that the Palestinian forces trained on the West Bank by the American General Dayton for security in the Palestinian state on which Barack Obama’s heart is set are likely to use that training for another bout of fighting against Israel, another intifada. Where would that leave General Dayton and the policy of the United States?

David Randall Jaquith is the name of the one and only American who was on this parade, and he was awarded the Overseas Sword of Honour. It would be fascinating to know what this intrepid man can tell us about his time at Sandhurst. 


Putin Flexes


Every summer Vladimir Putin, the Dracula figure now in charge of Russia, likes to strip down to his trunks and invite the world to admire his bulging pectorals. In the same spirit of showing off, he also likes to go shooting — whether bears or Georgians. Newspapers are again carrying their seasonal photographs of Putin in physical mode. And in case anyone fails to pay due tribute to his power, the Russian navy is doing its duty by sending two nuclear-powered attack submarines of the Akula class to the eastern coast of the United States, some 200 miles out in international waters.

Reporting this fact, the New York Times quotes a Defense official saying that it has been fifteen years since the Russians have seen fit to take such a step — in plain words, it’s back to the Cold War.  One of the submarines even headed off to Cuba.

Perhaps Putin thinks he’s set to run rings round Obama. Perhaps the test of Obama that Joe Biden forecast during the electoral campaign is getting under way. The Times speculated alternatively that the submarines might be a cover for the failure of a test-firing on July 15 of the Bulova long-range missile. Dictators like to start wars in August, and there’s yet another possibility that the Russians are distracting us from keeping a close watch on the way they are suddenly stepping up their bullying of Georgia. All in his own locker-room idiom, Putin has said that the Georgian president, Saakashvili, ought to be hanged in a particularly degrading manner, and maybe those bulging pectorals are meant to indicate that he’s the one to do this job.

The Book of Isaiah Berlin


Literary London is buzzing with reactions to the harsh and patronizing review by A. N. Wilson in the Times Literary Supplement of a book with the title Enlightening, consisting of the letters from 1946 to 1960 of Isaiah Berlin, and edited by Henry Hardy and Jennifer Holmes. Hatchet jobs like this are rarely printed. He judges Berlin to have been no sort of philosopher but merely a lightweight historian of ideas whose best book, The Hedgehog and the Fox, survives as “an after-dinner game.” In these letters realistically but ludicrously he was dictating streams of malice about his academic colleagues; he was self-important, finally “malicious, snobbish, boastful, cowardly, pompous.” Somewhat contradictorily, Wilson thinks that the letters are “thunderingly boring” and not worth the effort required of them.

Now the editors of these letters wrote in to the TLS to concede that Berlin was no saint, but they took issue with Wilson’s “bizarre and petulant judgements,” correcting many errors of his. In the Spectator, in contrast, Paul Johnson praised the book, ending “thanks be to God” that another volume of letters would follow.

The one issue that really mattered to Berlin — and he made no secret of it — was his Jewishness. He was a Zionist through and through. Chaim Weizmaann was a friend and correspondent. We find David Ben Gurion calling on him, and asking him for definitions of being Jewish. We also find many observations about Israel and people living there. Although certainly disliking controversy, he was still prepared to confront critics of Israel or blinkered Arabists like E. L. Hodgkin and Harold Beeley.

Wilson wrote a biography praising Hilaire Belloc, one of the premier Jew-baiters of his day, a man who believed that the Bolshevik revolution was a conspiracy of Jews. Wilson has several times proclaimed in print the intelligence of Diana Mosley, the wife of the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley and an unreconstructed Nazi to the end of her days. He has also copied word for word in a column of his the anti-Israeli remarks of an American Holocaust denier, he has asserted that the creation of the state of Israel was a historic mistake, and signed letters in the press about the supposed mischief of Israeli policy. Can anyone see a pattern that would explain his rubbishing of Berlin? 

R.I.P. Bela Kiraly


The death of Gen. Bela Kiraly at the age of 97 ought not to pass unnoticed. At the time of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, he commanded the National Guard, and had the distinction of fighting the invading Soviet forces to the bitter end. Everyone in the Europe of the 20th century suffered at the hands of the Nazis and Communists, but Bela Kiraly met the history of his times with particular courage. A conspicuously handsome and commanding man, he’d been a professional soldier in World War II, and a marked man because the course of events had left Hungary an ally of Germany against the Soviet Union. At one point Kiraly had a labor battalion of Jews under his command and saved them by putting them into Hungarian uniforms, for which afterwards the Israelis honoured him as a Righteous Gentile. Captured by the Russians in 1944, he escaped from the train carrying him and others to Siberia. Joining the Communist party then didn’t save him. Stalin apparently had singled him out. In 1951 he was arrested and sentenced to death for subversion and spying for the United States. After years in the death cell he was released just in time for his leadership in the Revolution. Fighting lasted nearly a fortnight after which the Soviets pretended to be ready to come to terms. It was a trick right out of primitive times. They arrested and hanged all their guests, and pushed their traitorous stooge Janos Kadar into power. In this respect, Nikita Khrushchev was a faithful pupil of Stalin. Staying in his headquarters, Kiraly avoided the trap, fortunate once again to escape in an armoured column that crossed the Iron Curtain frontier into Austria. For the next three decades, he was a professor in the United States, and the author of important books. Returning to Hungary after the collapse of Hungary, he became a member of parliament, and a living legend.


The Vitality of Israel


George Gilder was one of the speakers on the recent National Review cruise round the Mediterranean, and he gave me a copy of his new book The Israel Test — there, I’ve declared an interest. He can be relied on to say striking and original things. At the moment, Israel is treated as a pariah among the nations, blamed for defending itself against the various Arab and Muslim states or terrorist groups trying to destroy it. To support the Arabs and Muslims in this endeavor has become a moral imperative for the Left everywhere. So figureheads like Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have revived and updated anti-Semitism: That is their contribution to the world we live in.

Nobody but Gilder could have written this book. Israel of course has its defenders, but they use arguments based on nationalism, territory, ethnicity, defence of minorities, rights, historicism, and so on. Gilder sees Jews since their emancipation as the vanguard of human achievement. They may be few in numbers, but their creativity has brought prosperity to themselves and those around them, and that prosperity in turn has brought freedom. Thus Jews spearhead capitalism and the democracy indispensable to its proper functioning. Marxists, Nazis, and now Muslims and their apologists envy Jews because they cannot emulate them, and so set out to destroy the success that shows up their failure. The attitude you take towards Israel and Jews decides whether you love or hate freedom, and beyond that, mankind — that’s the test he is proposing in the book’s title. And just in case the reader risks failing this test by jumping to a false conclusion, Gilder has a portrait of his very non-Jewish ancestry, saying, “We were classic WASPS all.”

To go to Israel even for a brief visit is to be struck by the vitality of the country. Everyone seems to be in a whirl of fulfilment, grabbing life with both hands. The middle part of this book is an account of some prominent Israeli inventors in computer science and physics, fascinating personalities at least the equal of their great Jewish forebears like Heinrich Hertz, Robert Oppenheimer, or John von Neumann, the latter a particular hero of Gilder’s. An essential aspect of the test he thinks we all face when it comes to taking a position about Israel and Jews is to value the exceptional individual because, as he puts it, “the good fortune of others is also one’s own” — simple, brilliant, and true! These rare people, he thinks, will see Israel safely through whatever trials lie ahead, and they are also benefactors of us all. An attack on Israel is a blow against the entire West. And alas for the Arabs and Muslims, stuck in their hate and envy when they are lucky enough to be so close to Israel that they could join in its success. By the time they get the point of this book a bright future may have passed them by.

Self-Destruction as Art


The National Review cruise around the Mediterranean these last ten days included Rome, Dubrovnik, Corfu, Ephesus, Athens, all places where our civilization took shape. Ruins from the classical period, mosaics and painted rooms, medieval fortresses, churches and cloisters, sculpture, pictures, variously amount to a statement of what mankind at its best can create, and what these works tell us about ourselves and why they are worth visiting and preserving. And then almost the first thing I encounter back on shore is the obituary in the Daily Telegraph of one Dashiell Snow. This told a sad story, but more than that, it was a negation of everything we’d been seeing and doing on the way round the Mediterranean, a sort of anti-cruise.

I had never heard of this poor Dash Snow, needless to say. He had been born in New York in 1981, into the very well known de Menil family, heirs to the Schlumberger fortune that comes from oil and related technology, and collectors of art as well. Here was one of the lucky ones for whom privilege was a birth-right. And what did he make of it? Already at 13, he had to be sent to reform school in Georgia. Soon he was stealing, drifting to the lower East Side in Manhattan, drinking himself silly, and then starting the “Irak graffiti crew” specialising in theft and in daubing walls. Through pursed lips, the Telegraph says the photographs these people took were “explicit portrayals of the sexual and drug-taking excesses of his circle,” and they “created a popular stir.” Hedge-fund managers, visual-arts editors, gallery owners, and such like, thought he was one of the most talented artists in New York. But this involved shredding phone books, blankets, and curtains, to make “a hamster nest” in which to curl up and take drugs. Once he destroyed 2,000 phone books over five nights. A drug overdose killed him at the age of 27.

What a mirror held up to our times! For Snow himself, it is possible only to feel pity. What he was doing has nothing to tell other people, but was merely bad mannered, devoid of anything imaginative, creative, and human. The de Menil wealth probably gave him some sense that he didn’t have to work but was free to indulge in whatever he liked. For the fawning gallery owners and visual-arts editors, though, it is possible only to feel rage. Those who flattered and encouraged Snow should properly be held responsible for his degradation and early death. Everything he did was bogus or self-destructing, and they called it art. 

What Counts When It Comes to Nuclear Weapons


So President Obama and the Russians have apparently struck a deal to reduce their nuclear weapons. Perhaps I am too wary, but it seems to me to be of little practical significance, but rather a cosmetic measure. Russia at present is in an aggressive mood, and Medvedev and his prime minister, Vladimir Putin, excel at playing hard cop, soft cop. They seek by various methods including the use of force and chicanery to reincorporate former Soviet republics like Ukraine, Georgia, and Estonia into its sphere of control. The supply of gas is treated as a tool to dominate supine European customers. Unlike the cold and brutal Putin, Medvedev says he believes in the rule of law, but his election was flagrantly rigged, critics and Muslim dissidents have a way of being murdered, and the unfortunate former oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky has already served eight years in prison on trumped-up charges and looks likely to have the sentence indefinitely extended. Obama babbles that he and Medvedev together can aspire “to strengthen democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.” Oh please!

Nothing very positive can be achieved in talks about any of these issues. One thing matters at present, and only one thing, and that is Russia’s stance towards Iran and the nuclear program being developed in that country with Russian technological input and anti-aircraft weaponry to defend the sites involved. What counts is who has the nuclear weapon, not the numbers in the stockpile.We’re told that the Russians object to the missile shield against Iran that the United States would like to build in Poland and the Czech Republic on the grounds that it is aimed against Russia. This objection has no validity, and it is raised evidently for the Russians to be able to bargain about it and extract something they want. To give way on the missile shield is bad, but to leave the Russians in a position of supporting Iran is deadly.

Take the Inverse of the Times


One of those spats that from time to time give the literary world the appearance of animation has just occurred. Alain de Botton has published a book on the subject of work, and someone dismissed this book in the loftiest manner in a review in the New York Times. So lofty was this reviewer that he has enraged Alain de Botton enough to write a response. He cursed the reviewer with the words, “I will hate you until the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make.”

Now Alain de Botton is quite a friend of mine, and I know him to be mild-mannered, modest, and full of humor. He is also formidably intelligent and wide-ranging. Needless to say, the New York Times reviewer is totally unknown, ignorant, and uses this column as an opportunity to preen himself, like most of those who write for that paper. And that is why Alain ought not to have lost his temper, but be grateful for this bad review, because it must mean that he has written a good book.

In old Soviet days, the reader of Pravda was obliged to interpret things by simply reversing whatever the paper was saying about them as it was only reporting the party line. So it is with the New York Times book reviews. An apparatchik in charge of that section equally makes sure to cleave to the party line, which in this case involves 100-percent political correctness plus worship of popular culture. Any good or original book is certain to be ignored there, side-lined, or given to some wretch for a hatchet job. Speaking for myself, I take it that the snubbing or boycotting my books have received in the New York Times over the years is evidence that I must be on the right lines, and praise there would make me anxious that I hadn’t thought through what I was writing. Now when Mark Steyn published his wonderfully rumbustious book America Alone, it was on the New York Times bestseller list for six months but never got a review there nonetheless. Let’s all buy Alain’s new book, and get it too on their bestseller list, for another loud laugh at the small-mindedness of these comrades.  

Mullahs Make Mistakes


The arrest of eight people on the staff of the British Embassy in Tehran is a clear portent of what is to come. The eight are themselves Iranian, but that is of no great significance. They are innocent victims of a series of mistakes on the part of the mullahs, one mistake leading with grim logic to the next. The process of repression is gathering. Informed sources say that as many as 4,000 have been arrested, not just activists but journalists and bloggers. To involve embassy staff, however, with its echo of the 1978 hostage-taking that destroyed the pitiful Carter presidency, is to contrive to conceal a domestic issue by externalizing it. 

The mullahs’ initial mistake was to fix the election so blatantly that nobody could possibly credit its outcome. The percentage of the vote allocated to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was absurdly high, evidently in order to boost his image as really popular in every section of the community. Similarly the percentage allocated to the other candidates was absurdly low, evidently with the purpose of showing that they were unsupported even by their own clansmen and people in their home areas and towns.

The outburst of anger that followed was a spontaneous mass protest. How could this anger be explained away?  The mullahs are never going to blame themselves. Instead they resort to the hallowed conspiracy theory that outsiders have been interfering. To believe that there are outsiders with the power to mobilise the masses requires the suspension of reason. But still, this is a country in which the slogan “Khomeini, tool of the British” was once painted on the walls – the idea being that Khomeini was so damaging the country that only the British could have had the malevolence to put him into power.

The next step now is to fabricate a case against Britain. Not long ago, the Iranians took hostage fifteen British sailors in the Gulf, and paraded them on television in a humiliating piece of theatre. The mullahs can calculate that the British government will be as supine about its diplomatic staff as it was about its sailors. A dim and ineffectual Foreign Secretary says that he is “deeply concerned,” thus airing what must be the most pointless cliché in the entire vocabulary of politics. If the arrest of these staff members does not lead to anything much that the mullahs can exploit, then the Foreign Office can expect that British diplomats and even visitors will become hostages, in a reprise of that tactic. One lie engenders another.  “O what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive.”  The mullahs are proving the truth of Walter Scott’s famous lines. 

The length of time that passes before some British or even American official says that none of this bears on willingness to enter negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program will be the measure of Western defeatism and masochism. And the mullahs will then conclude that they have only to extend the chain of mistakes and lying. 

People Power


These are heart-stopping times in Iran. Two rival blocs are jockeying for power, two mass movements capable of mobilizing hundreds of thousands on the streets. No way exists of measuring numbers and giving victory to the larger. One bloc or the other is likely to make a mistake, and that will settle it.

In this plight in 1979 the Shah made the mistake of ordering his troops to open fire, on a scale not enough to terrify everyone but only to enrage them. In the Shia practice, moreover, the dead are commemorated after a certain period, and these commemorations were the occasions for yet larger and more and more violent demonstrations. So the Shah fell, the Islamic Republic of Iran took his place, and the world has had to deal with militant Islamism at the cost of much fighting and many lives.

It is possible, even likely, that the ruling mullahs will repeat the Shah’s mistake and try to settle the issue of who has power by ordering the troops or secret police to fire on the demonstrations. In that case, the loyalty of the troops becomes the question of the moment. Already there are reports that some secret policemen have gone over to the protesters.

When the orthodox Communists staged their coup against Gorbachev in August 1989, Boris Yeltsin put himself at the head of the protesters, famously climbing on to a tank to address the crowd. The troops under General Grachev had already been called out by the Communists. But Yeltsin had telephoned Grachev to plead with him not to give the fire orders. Telling the story afterwards, Yeltsin said he heard Grachev sigh into the receiver at the burden of responsibility. The troops withdrew. Yeltsin said of this call to Grachev, “He was deciding not only his fate, but also mine. And the fate of millions of people.”

Who says that the individual and his choices do not count in the making of history?  A repeat of that fateful exchange is surely taking place in Tehran, and the fate of millions once more hangs on how it is resolved.

1984 in 2009


Sixty years ago, George Orwell published 1984, and I can think of no work of fiction in the past century with a comparable influence right across the world. Plenty of writers had already warned about the twin horrors of Nazism and Communism, and many of them had first-hand experience of these totalitarianisms. Orwell was telling a story about what it would be like to live in such a nightmare society. From the novel’s opening sentence in which the clocks are striking thirteen, the reader finds himself in the grip of an imagination so true and so detailed that it has far more power than any political tract could have.

At that time editor of the Times Literary Supplement, my father had received a proof copy of the book. I remember the well-known critic Raymond Mortimer coming to the house to say how important this book was and to ask how the TLS was going to review it. Overhearing the excitement, I managed to get my hands on this proof but could read only a little before I had to return to school. When I then asked for 1984 in the school library, the librarian, a desiccated figure by the name of Mr. Cattley, said it was “filth,” and reported me. My 12-year-old self was scared, but “You must forgive Mr. Cattley,” said the master in charge, “he is a very simple soul.” (Incidentally, Orwell had been a scholar at the school and another of the masters had been his contemporary. This man was bald, with a strange blotch or even growth on his scalp, rumoured to have been caused by Orwell pouring chemicals on him in the laboratory. We used to pester him, “Please sir, tell us what Orwell was like, was he good at science?”)

The love-making of Julia and Winston, it is true, stands out as pure escapism from everything around, so appealing (and thus upsetting to poor Mr. Cattley) because it is the one remaining individual experience.  Privacy allows them to be happy and free at least temporarily from state control — which is why it cannot be tolerated and the supervising tele-screens and the Junior Spies are ubiquitous. Winston is always searching for other things that might free him, for instance, nursery songs or well-made artifacts from the past. The really frightening element in 1984 is the manipulation of the past, the whole social record, even language itself, so that truth and reality become irrecoverable and Big Brother can make of them what he likes. A Western historian at a conference, so the story goes, once said that the future is unpredictable, to which a Soviet historian replied that for him the past was unpredictable.

The Left has tried, and still does spasmodically, to pretend that the novel is not really anti-Soviet. But 1984’s Big Brother is undoubtedly Stalin, and the figure of Goldstein is Trotsky. Orwell had lived through such murderous events as the Communists turning on the Trotskyists and anarchists in the Spanish civil war, and the Hitler-Stalin pact. It is particularly penetrating to have invented the phrase of the Two Minute Hate to describe the totalitarian mechanism for falsifying public opinion to suit the ends of power. Two Minute Hates occur all the time. Just look at the way the Left switched from supporting Israel to lambasting it, or how the Shah’s pro-American Iran converted overnight into Khomeini’s anti-American Iran.

To travel in old days in Soviet Russia and the Soviet bloc was to find oneself deep in 1984. The hopelessness of daily life was exactly as Orwell had captured it. How sinister it was too, how thoroughly Orwellian. Everyone was against everyone else; under the all-encompassing propaganda about progressiveness there was no communal or social spirit, only the Party. One of the compulsory Intourist or KGB guides once told me proudly that she had renounced her mother for failing to be a Communist. “Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you and you sold me.” Orwell’s imagination had been exactly right.

Orwell agonized over the writing of the book, and he was anyhow stricken with the tuberculosis that killed him six months after publication. Drugs to cure the disease had just become available in the United States, and had Orwell been a different character he might have procured them but seems instead to have thought this would be exercizing privilege. At that time, France and Italy appeared likely to go Communist, and in both countries extremists in the Party were ready for a coup. The Soviets occupied East Germany, were isolating West Germany, provoking the Berlin airlift, and opening the whole German future to doubt. The fact that the worst did not happen does not detract from Orwell’s vision. 1984, it seems to me, had the effect of saving the English-speaking intelligentsia from the Communist snares and delusions rampant on the continent of Europe, and any future totalitarian society will be obliged to ban it just as the Soviet Union did. That’s an immortal achievement.

The Cedar Freeze


Grimly foreboding though the Middle East looks, things could be worse. For instance, the general election in Lebanon has left the country almost exactly unchanged. Things will stagger on as before in all their contradictions and dangers. The coalition of Fouad Siniora, comprising Christians and Sunnis, has the slight majority required to govern.  The opposition, Hezbollah, the Shia party, is really only a foreign-policy arm of Iran, and quite a few Lebanese Shias are brave enough to defy it.  Most observers thought it would win, but it got only 58 seats in a parliament of 120. Enough to be wreckers but not to form a government. That passes for good news in these parts.

Hezbollah’s leader is Hassan Nasrallah, and he offers an outstanding example of the kind of men who come to the top in Arab and Muslim politics. He knows exactly how to obtain arms and financing, how to organize his supporters into a militia that will jump to do whatever he wants on pain of death and disgrace. He’s a perfect miniature of the one-man ruler that this system of politics invariably throws up. Within hours of the election results, he made a distinction between a parliamentary majority and a popular majority. In plain language he is reserving the right to use force if he sees advantage in doing so. More blunt still, a spokesman of his lays down that the Siniora majority must promise not to question Hezbollah’s role or the legitimacy of its weapons. That means reserving another right, namely to fight Israel again, when convenient.

Hezbollah only has its numbers thanks to General Michel Aoun, another outstanding example of the kind of men who thrive in an absolute political system like this. A renegade Christian, a warlord, Aoun fought for years against Muslims, in the end fleeing to Paris as an exile. Throwing his lot in with Hezbollah is purely and simply a careerist move, quite natural, however unnatural it may look. A Lebanese Christian friend of mine sends him e-mails imploring him to abandon personal aggrandizement that could bring down the whole country. There is never an answer, needless to say.

The Lebanese election freezes the situation, unless or until the imminent and more decisive election in Iran heats it up again.

Europe’s Backlash


Britain is engulfed in political turmoil. And about time too. Prime Minister Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair two years ago, and has shown consistently poor judgement ever since. For reasons that must stem from a narrow and self-regarding character he is unable to admit to mistakes, but always justifies them, thus reinforcing these poor judgements. In local elections in England (i.e. not Wales or Scotland), his Labour Party has been more or less wiped out, left without control of a single council even in its heartlands.

In simultaneous elections for the European parliament in Brussels, Labour has done even worse. In a very minimal turnout of 34 percent, Labour received only 15 percent of the vote, lower than the Conservatives by a long margin and UKIP — the United Kingdom Independence Party, a ramshackle single-issue party aimed at getting the country out of the European Union. Third, after UKIP! This is really unprecedented. Socialism itself is becoming a thing of the past.

Also unprecedented for Britain is the election to the Brussels Parliament of two members of the British National Party, which undoubtedly has a fascist core. Sir Oswald Mosley, the fascist leader of the 1930s, never succeeded in having a member of his party elected to parliament. Nick Griffin, today’s fascist leader, is a good deal less intimidating than Mosley, an uncharismatic man without much powers of speech or intellect. But the Brussels Parliament is elected by proportional representation, and the BNP will therefore find quite a like-minded fascist bloc in it, comprised of various nationalities, including now Hungary which in the Jobbik Party has a real throwback to the 1930s.

However, this voting pattern does not derive from nostalgia for Hitler and Mussolini, but far more simply from the way that every European government has bent over backwards to favor Muslim immigrants over local populations. In one country after another, the government has privileged Muslim immigrants in matters of welfare benefits, housing, communal subsidies, concessions over customs that are illegal and brutal but supposed to be untouchable because sanctioned by Islam, and even in the practice of law. The ensuing Islamization of the continent is the source of immense popular anger, hitherto unexpressed. Put another way, European governments may have had benevolent intentions towards Muslims, but in practice they prove to be efficient fascist-making machines.

Obama in Egypt


President Obama has been signaling since well before his election that he would be making an important address to the whole Muslim world. Expectation had therefore been aroused that the United States is about to change its policy in the Middle East and perhaps everywhere with a Muslim population. There was widespread but largely unspoken anxiety that the Islamic element in his family tree might give precedence to emotion over national interest. The post-election interview with al-Arabiyya television and the bow to the Saudi King in London seemed ominous omens. I think I was hardly alone in expecting bad things when at last Obama arrived in Cairo, the venue chosen to broadcast what is in his mind about Muslims.

A new beginning for the relationship between the Unites States and Muslims, that is what he puts on offer. A certain high rhetorical style is becoming his trademark and it allows him the appeal almost of preaching, able to switch from sounding tough to appearing frail — an unusual gift in a politician. This speech has an element of apology, with its implicit acceptance that the United States is responsible for the bad old relationship, and surely that is how most of his Muslim listeners will take it. It’s all George W. Bush’s fault, is it not? The Arabic language greeting, and several references to the Koran, will have served to suggest to his listeners that really he is one of them. And under cover of this bit of play-acting, he advised tolerance, repudiation of violence, rights for men and women, and a carefully measured move towards democracy and universal values.

In reality, one good reason why there is no democracy is that the United States has been a steady supporter over decades of authoritarian regimes, for instance in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. George W. Bush made serious attempts to bring democracy to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon, and look how unpopular that made him. Obama does not propose stopping the supply of advanced weaponry which actually keeps in power Arab dictators and allies who are prime obstacles to everything he is asking for, democracy included. Humbug? Probably not. The situation is just more complex than he allows.

Another flaw in the reasoning is the two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian stand-off. No progress is possible unless and until Hamas forswears violence, but that means tackling Iran as it is orchestrating that violence. He offered no practical proposals about to do this, only reiterating that Israel has to stop settlements on the West Bank, something about which Obama seems to be obsessing. Israel dismantled its settlements on the Gaza Strip and instantly was repaid with terror. Iran anyhow wants a one-state Islamist solution, and that is another issue too complex to be raised in Cairo.

The speech was shown in full on Egyptian television, and listeners everywhere in whatever languages can hardly doubt Obama’s well-meaning intentions (an exception is Osama bin Laden who at the very same moment chose to put out his Islamist counter-proposals). The audience applauded. President Obama smiled, he waved, but as he left the platform he seemed mysteriously frail. On balance, he probably did not much good, but no harm either.

Amos Elon, R.I.P.


Amos Elon was one of the most prominent Israeli writers. He’s just died at the age of 82. By coincidence, we were both born in Vienna, where his father was a businessman, and my father had gone as a concert pianist. There was a sense that we were two of a kind, who should have been arguing in a café late into the night, except that the Nazis and the Communists had stolen the life we might have led as though characters in a novel by Arthur Schnitzler or Joseph Roth. Amos’s last and finest book, The Pity of It All, is about the tragic interaction of Germans and the Jews in their midst, and it is filled with a kind of historic regret that mass-murder was the end of it.

So — some vignettes. I was a correspondent in the Six Day War in 1967. I called on Amos in Tel Aviv. Exhausted, he just wanted to sleep. He’d been in the Sinai, a junior officer in a jeep with General Avram Joffe, a large and rumbustious figure who’d been surveying the battlefield through field-glasses. When the Egyptians began firing at them, Amos told how he had taken cover by lying on the floor, but General Joffe remained upright, and Amos heard him say, “God, war is so boring!” The Duke of Wellington at Waterloo couldn’t have bettered it.

Then at the time of the first Gulf War, with Saddam Hussein threatening to burn half of Israel, Amos appeared on Austrian television. Walking to his hotel in Vienna after the program, he passed a bookshop with a lighted window containing a mass of Middle East material. Standing there, a little old man said to Amos that he hoped Saddam would drive the Jews into the sea. Rather dismayed, Amos asked him why. Because then, came the unexpected answer, some of the Jews might come back to Vienna, and life would become interesting and tolerable once more.

Amos was a man of the Left, contentious and caustic. For reasons I could never quite fathom, I had some special license to debate with him, pressing him to admit the false assumptions, inconsistencies, and follies of the Left, and especially the belief that the famous two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation is practical politics rather than the Utopian fantasy it so clearly is. It really was as though we were out-of-date cosmopolitans from a Viennese café. One day I was about to go on a National Review cruise and he was about to go on a similar cruise for The Nation. He suggested that the two cruises ought to meet on the ocean like pirates and do battle, all of us naturally wearing formal evening dress and black tie.

A Serious Menace


The news that North Korea has just exploded another nuclear device is a heavy slap in the face for President Obama. The explosion was underground, but as big as Hiroshima. Obama pleads for a world free from nuclear weapons, and holds out the prospect of diminishing the stock held by the United States. He proposes more of the six-nation negotiations on the issue begun under President Bush but which got nowhere, indeed strengthened the hand of North Korea. That state is a tin-pot dictatorship held together by fear and oppression, but instead of collapsing as it ought to, it has become a serious menace.

We know that North Korea was in the process of building the nuclear weapons’ facility in Syria that Israel bombed and destroyed — it therefore has an active foreign policy on behalf of what used to be called the axis of evil.  North Korea is intimately connected with the Iranian nuclear weapon now thought to be in the final stages of production. This April, North Korea launched a long-range missile that flew over the Pacific. And maybe things are coming together. Holding out that famous open hand of his, President Obama expects to negotiate Iran into desisting with its nuclear development. The only realistic alternative is a military strike by the United States or Israel, or both. But in that event, North Korea might freeze the situation by brandishing its nuclear weapon on behalf of Iran.

Time is running out. The more sincere Obama is, the more naïve he seems.  

‘In the name of God, go’


The mood in Britain is unlike anything I have experienced. The electorate is enraged by the conduct of its representatives. Some members of parliament daren’t show their face, a former Labour foreign secretary has been booed by a television audience, and a Conservative member has had a brick heaved through her office window. It is all about expenses, fraudulent claims, tax evasion, making private fortunes by looting the public purse. Worse still, much of it has been legitimate, within what MPs are calling “the system,” and that is what is provoking the revulsion and rage.

It turns out that the Blair-Brown Labour government could not bring itself to raise salaries for MPs, but instead set up “the system” of allowances that were privileged and kept secret. An MP could claim thousands of pounds more or less on his own say-so, with shaky receipts for dubious expenditure, and the result is that some have built property portfolios worth a million pounds or more. Some of the claimants were already rich in their own right, others used to be poor. All but a handful have been shamelessly greedy, and brought disgrace upon themselves and Westminster. The spectacle of them pretending that “the system” is to blame, or that they made accounting mistakes and are offering now to return ill-gotten gains has added elements of farce.

Supervising this milking of “the system” was Michael Martin, the Speaker. In the early days of Tony Blair, this man was press-ganged into a job for which he was unfit. An old hardline socialist and trade-union man, he saw himself as defender of entitlements rather than liberty and proper government. He put in outrageous claims for himself and his wife. He did his very best to suppress information about the embezzling and spivery going on under him, in the classic manner of a trade unionist getting whatever he could for his comrades. Someone leaked the facts and figures to the Daily Telegraph, which has been publishing them for the past fortnight. Demonstrating folly and arrogance, Speaker Martin tried to cover up, seeking to set the police on whoever leaked rather than on malefactors. He has personally insulted the handful of MPs who had the courage to criticize him. The Telegraph exposes MPs who have claimed a range of things from porn videos, bath plugs, and dog food up to horse manure, building work to eliminate dry rot from a home, and clearing the moat of a stately manor house. The revelations have been appalling. People ordinarily do not live like this.

Yesterday a motion of no-confidence in the speaker came before the house. A number of MPs called for his resignation. One of them likened the moment to the debate in 1940 when Leo Amery borrowed Cromwell’s rebuke to parliamentarians, “In the name of God, go,” and so got rid of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Speaker Martin gave an evidently insincere apology, fluffed his words, couldn’t read his statement, and had to refer to his clerk about procedure. The media of course had a field day.

Today Speaker Martin resigned in a speech lasting half a minute and without apology, forced out as he should have been long ago. The last speaker to suffer this indignity was Sir John Trevor, in 1695, for taking bribes. Prime Minister Gordon Brown knew the outline of the MPs’ misdemeanours if not the details, and if the speaker implicates him the scandal may not stop at this point. The Mother of Parliaments has had to endure a lot in its history, but previous rogues like Charles James Fox or Horatio Bottomley at least had a certain style. This lot are just tawdry.

The English Schindler


On May 19, Sir Nicholas Winton will be celebrating his hundredth birthday. My colleague Jay Nordlinger, always quick to praise those who deserve it, reminded me of this man. He did something memorable in the last months of peace in 1939, when the Nazis were dismembering Czechoslovakia and it was clear that soon they’d begin persecutions. Winton was then aged 29, and a stock-broker’s clerk, not someone special but a person as ordinary as any other. He went to Prague, set up an office there, and organised eight trains that brought Jewish children to London. These children needed sponsors, papers, and funding, all of which Winton arranged. The ninth train was due to leave on September 3, the day war was declared, and therefore it was cancelled. The 250 children who would have been on that train were soon murdered.

Winton saved 667 children in all, though sometimes this figure is given as 669. There’s been some recognition. Books have been written about him, and films made, and he’s been called the English Schindler. The Queen knighted him, Vaclav Havel decorated him, and the Czechs proposed him for the Nobel Peace Prize. It so happens that a few years ago I caught him on a television programme, being interviewed by David Frost, he of the Nixon tapes. Frost brought in Alfred Dubs, one of the children saved, and who has made a success of his life in England, becoming a member of the House of Lords. Winton kept his composure even during this emotional encounter. His modesty is as exemplary as his conduct. He says of himself, “I just saw what was going on and did what I could to help.” The reward of the virtuous, according to the psalmist, is a long life, and that’s the case here. Happy Birthday!

The Two-State Solution Is No Solution


In a few days Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, will be meeting President Obama in the White House. There is something imperial, almost Roman, about these occasions. The satrap of some distant province is coming to bend the knee in obeisance to the emperor wearing a laurel crown. Last time Netanyahu visited as prime minister, Bill Clinton was in the emperor’s role, and he let it be known that he greatly resented the visitor’s independence of mind. Wasn’t this arrogant fellow really just a petitioner, and didn’t the emperor have only to snap his fingers to have his way?

Nobody knows what is going on in the head under Obama’s laurel crown, but the vice-president and the national security advisor are among well-placed personalities to declare that the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock is about to be broken. They are going to put pressure on Israel to accept the famous two-state solution; peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians will follow once they live in states side by side. In the background, voices are prophesying that Israel will have similar negotiations with Syria, and that the United States and Iran are going to lie down together the way lions and lambs do, according to the psalmist in a rare liberal mode.

You hardly need to be a Middle East expert to realise that none of this is probable. Recent concessions by Israel — evacuating southern Lebanon or Gaza, for example — have merely opened new areas for terrorism against it. Like other Arab societies, the Palestinians are so irrevocably divided between secular nationalists and Islamists that they are in a state of latent civil war. Besides, both Palestinian parties are so richly subsidised by outsiders that neither truly wants a state and the demands of government that this would involve — better, easier, more continuously rewarding, to make nuisances of themselves and be paid for it. Syria makes the return of the Golan Heights a pre-condition of any talks. Iran has arrested, tried, and sentenced Roxana Saberi, only to release her, a cat-and-mouse game that allows the mullahs to conclude they can do whatever they like to anyone, and Obama is an imaginary emperor whose feet are clay.

The two-state solution is, anyhow, an anachronism. The failure of the Oslo accords and the character of Yasser Arafat killed the whole idea. The one conceivable move at present is to return to pre-1967 conditions, and for Egypt to have the Gaza Strip and Jordan the West Bank. The snags involved might be surmountable. But right on cue, here comes King Abdullah of Jordan to say at the top of his voice that Israel and the Palestinians must make peace immediately, and failure to do so means a war with a year or 18 months. No responsible leader should hold out such a threat — but let that pass, the king doesn’t really mean it. Palestinians already comprise three-quarters of his population, and he is fearful of acquiring the West Bank and a couple of million more. The threat of imminent war is a way of issuing a caution, “If the Israelis won’t have the Palestinians, I’m not having them either; get them off my back.” In other words, he’s anticipating that whatever Obama ordains won’t work out, and he’s not the only one to be doing so.


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