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David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

Obama and the King



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President Obama’s tour round the world has been absolutely surreal, as he could not stop making promises he is in no position to fulfill, or apologizing for perceived American misdemeanors he is in no position to prove, never mind redress. Surely the unforgettable highpoint of this festival of illusion was in London, when Obama encountered King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. It’s an accepted courtesy to royalty to make a little nod with the head, but film and photographs show Obama bending from the waist in a gesture of humble obeisance, as it were, acknowledging his inferior status. And there were the rest of us foolishly thinking that the whole purpose of the republic set up by the founding fathers was that its representatives would be on equal footing with monarchs. Obama further has gone out of his way to praise a so-called “peace” initiative proposed some years ago by King Abdullah. This calls for Israel to give the Palestinians everything they demand, including the return of all refugees. According to Obama, Israel would be “crazy” not to do what King Abdullah specifies, although this means that it must dissolve itself.

At the Arab summit just held in Qatar, King Abdullah had quite the opposite experience. Where Obama fawned, Muammar Gaddafi, the dictator of Libya these many years, showed open disrespect for the king, telling him to his face in front of assembled Arab power-holders, “It has been proven that it is you who have lies behind you and the grave ahead, and it is you who were created by the British and protected by America.” And he went on, “I am an internationalist leader and the dean of Arab rulers and the King of African Kings, and the Imam of Muslims, and my international stature does not permit me to descend to any other level. Thanks.” Gaddafi then walked out and visited the local (and superlative) museum of Islamic art. All right, Obama needn’t talk in that comically high-flown idiom, but it would be nice if he stated firmly and unmistakably that he’s the leader of the free world, and therefore that he’s the true internationalist, and as such has no call to bow and scrape to absolute rulers and despots.

Today’s news is that three Pakistanis have just been publicly beheaded in Saudi Arabia, bringing to twenty the number of those executed in that country so far this year. And an American president bows to the man ultimately responsible for that?

A World Candy Committee?



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President Obama and Dmitri Medvedev have met and put out a joint statement. Quite like old times, eh? The USA and the USSR divvying up the globe. But times have changed, and, in any case, Medvedev is a cipher, conjured into the Kremlin by Vladimir Putin who is today’s Strong Man of Russia.

Diplomats naturally employ a language of boiler-plate, and this statement is a fine specimen of it. “We agreed . . . ” the paragraphs begin, and then “We will strive . . . ” the subsequent paragraphs continue. What a lot of alternate agreeing and striving! The two of them are to “demonstrate leadership in reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world.” Next please: “We committed our two countries to achieving a nuclear free world while recognising that this long-term goal will require a new emphasis on arms control and conflict resolution measures.” New emphasis, really? In boring fact, the Russians are completing the process of making Iran a nuclear power, and protecting North Korea’s nuclear armaments as well as rebuilding their former empire by subterfuge and force. What leadership? What reduction?

Apparently lost in mutual admiration, Obama and Medvedev are also going immediately to sort out the world’s economic crisis, to bring al Qaeda and the Taliban to heel, to stop terrorism, to end the narcotic trade, in short, to ensure sweetness and light in a dozen other festering issues — as the statement lengthened I was expecting to learn that the World Candy Committee had been set up for the benefit of everyone under 18. Incidentally, all the agreeing and striving has to be over and done with by this July. Of course.

Could it be that Obama only put his name to this preposterous statement in the hopes of building up a possible rival to Putin? But I fear he meant it sincerely and it’s sending shivers down my spine.

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The Saudi Version of Events



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Saudi Arabia is as impenetrable a country as the old Soviet Union. The ruling family occupy much the same place as the former Soviet Politburo. The King and his close relations decide everything in closed sessions, and no outsider can really know who among them argues for what, or on what basis. This murky personalization of the political process means that favours have to be done, people have to be bribed, honor has to be saved, and so moral and financial corruption comes to be institutionalized.

Saudi Arabia spreads this corruption far and wide, simply because it has oil that outsiders need and for which they prepared to abase themselves. Death of a Princess was a British film some 20 years ago about the judicial murder of a member of the Saudi royal family, and the Saudi man she had eloped with. The Saudis did everything they could to have the film banned, so much so that the British Foreign Secretary said he regretted being powerless to oblige, and could only apologize. A major British company, BAE, seemingly bribed the relevant Saudis to obtain lucrative contracts. If the matter were investigated, the Saudis threatened, there would be no more contracts. This blackmail worked. The then Prime Minister Blair squashed police procedures on the specious grounds of national security.

These disgraceful episodes are preludes to understanding what has happened to Mrs. Jane Rodway. She and her husband Christopher, an engineer, were once living and working in Riyadh. One day in November 2000 they drove to a garden centre. A bomb had been set under their car, and its explosion killed Mr. Rodway and concussed Mrs. Rodway. It is unmistakably clear that Saudi jihadis were responsible, just as later they were responsible for shooting the BBC’s defense correspondent, and killing the photographer he was working with. But that casts shame on the Saudis, so the authorities concocted a fable that the Rodways’ bomb had been set by expatriates engaged in illicit brewing and selling of alcohol. Fourteen expatriates were arrested, beaten, and tortured. None of them knew how to handle explosives and there was no evidence against them. But Sandy Mitchell, an anaesthetist, was made to confess on television and was then sentenced to be beheaded. William Sampson, a Canadian, also was made to confess. After three years of this travesty, when the Saudis could feel their honor was safe, all were released.

Mrs. Rodway is now a school secretary back in England. I read in the Times that she has written time and again to the Saudi royal family and their London embassy to ask for an explanation of her husband’s murder, but has never received so much as a reply. I also read that the British Foreign Office offers “sympathy” to Mrs. Rodway but denies her request to receive compensation from a fund designed to relieve British victims of terrorism abroad. As Mrs. Rodway says, the Foreign Office has accepted the Saudi version of events.

Submitting to injustice like this, the Foreign Office is ensuring that Britain becomes a vassal state, adopting the Saudi ways of doing things secretly and corruptly. The scandal is enormous, and the consequences dire. 

Understanding Iran



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Whoever drafted President Obama’s public appeal to Iran has little or no idea about the way minds work out there. This gust of hot air spouting from the president of the United States was disconnected from reality, and so more than enough to make the heart sink. Obama invited Iran to “take its rightful place in the community of nations.” This, he went on, “cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization.”

Oh yes it can. The ayatollahs are certain that terror and arms will advance the greatness of Iran better than anything else. History, culture, daily experience, assures them that this is a fact of life, and that peaceful action is only for the weak. Centuries of fighting, much of it unsuccessful, have formed their identity, and now they believe that they are on a winning streak, with a victorious Islam for inspiration. What need have they of the ruins of Persepolis or the poetry of Saadi and Rumi when they are developing nuclear bombs and missile-delivery systems? Appeals like Obama’s merely sound patronizing. Who the devil is he to be burbling at them about their rightful place and true greatness?

The patronization is not the worst of the damage, however. Here is the president of the United States, occupying the position hitherto openly acknowledged as speaking for the West, turning himself of his own free will into a petitioner. The ayatollahs are bound to treat this approach as a humiliation for Obama, and broad evidence that victory is in their grasp. Over and above that, Obama has shown that he is willing to pay a price to come to terms with Iran, and naturally they will want to find out how much more he might be forced to pay. They will therefore scorn any element of good will, and continually raise the stakes to test out how far to go in cashing in on their perception of American weakness and humiliation. And sure enough, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei lost no time at all brushing aside Obama’s appeal as a mere slogan, while a crowd of tens of thousands were out in the streets chanting their well-practised refrain of “Death to America.”  Many epithets are applicable to the ayatollahs ruling Tehran, but naïve and sentimental are not among them.

The End of Israel?



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“CIA report: Israel will fall in 20 years.” That is the title of an email that I received 48 hours ago. Pretty sensational too. My first reaction, I admit, was: So that’s what Chas Freeman and like-minded friends of his must be cooking up in American intelligence circles. Apparently a study had been carried out and “made available only to a certain number of individuals.” And who was leaking it? Someone by the name of Franklin Lamb, described here as an international lawyer, in an interview with Press TV.

That same evening I happened to be giving a talk and I mentioned this email. Shocks all round. On proper inspection, however, the quoted language was certainly suspect. What projects the demise of Israel in this report is “the looming spectre of colonial Apartheid” — a phrase lifted straight from the loony Left lexicon.  The rapid disintegration of South Africa and the Soviet Union offers precedents for what would occur in Israel — a notion also current on the loony Left. Israelis are said to be applying for visas and fleeing abroad, with California or even Russia as their destination. Having supported Israel for so many years, the American public “may not take it any more.” That, of course, is the deepest wish-fulfilment of every anti-Zionist and Muslim hater of Israel. Anything is possible these days, but could the CIA really have put its hand to anything of the kind?

Well, no, it didn’t. Press TV exists to promote Iran. Franklin Lamb may or may not be real. The internet carries the information that someone of that name is associated with the American University of Beirut, and also wrote a rather childish primer in praise of Hizbollah, which is a strange thing for a real, live American to be doing. What we’re dealing with here is disinformation pure and simple. The usual smearing of Israel is made that much more believable by being put into the purported mouth of the CIA. In Tehran and Beirut they must be congratulating themselves on this wheeze and hoping that it will become an established fable manipulating public opinion in their favour.

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Freedom of Movement under Attack



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Revolution takes freedom away in one big bang, whereas democratic governments erode it one step at a time. And usually the step is stealthy, so that most people are lulled into a sense there is nothing much to be done about it except shrug. This is the case in Britain, where freedom of speech and freedom of association have already been drastically curtailed under the present New Labour regime. Freedom of movement is now also under assault. Anyone who leaves the country by land, sea, or air is to have the trip recorded, which involves tracking 250 million journeys annually. At least 24 hours ahead of the journey, travelers will have to supply addresses, credit card details, and exact itineraries (quite often impossible, of course). This information will be stored for ten years. Preposterously, the purpose is said to be catching terrorists as they leave for home in après-bomb mood. What will actually happen is bureaucratic oppression and loss of liberty on a yet more unprecedented scale for everyone law-abiding.

Needless to say, there has been no consultation or parliamentary debate. This is the kind of measure that police states undertake. In Soviet Russia, the passport system meant that the authorities could control the movements of the entire population. The Pass Laws of apartheid South Africa were similar instruments of total surveillance. Britain must evidently expect its own version of Pass Laws. As was the case in Communist countries and South Africa, what actually happens is that government abuses soon become unbearable, and infuriated subjects become ever more ingenious at cheating and lying and forgery until the whole system of checking essential freedoms collapses under the weight of its contradictions and bullying. The British are at this point with New Labour.

Talk or Bomb?



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The issue of Iran going nuclear is shrouded in secrecy. Most of us just don’t have the information to form a worthwhile opinion about it. Someone who does is Emanuele Ottolenghi, who has been an Oxford academic and is now with a think tank in Brussels. Under a Mushroom Cloud is the title of his book on the subject. I went to a talk he gave in the appropriate setting of the House of Commons under the auspices of the Henry Jackson Society.

To the question, why does Iran want the nuclear weapon, he gave the straightforward answer that the bomb is an instrument for the projection of power. In his opinion, the Islamic regime is not so much apocalyptic as out to change the balance of power in the region — not that their rationality can be depended upon. A combination of Persian nationalism, Shia identity, and Marxism is at work, altogether mixing the divine with the subversive. Once Iran has the bomb, others in the region will want it too, as self-protection. Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt or even Turkey fear that the United States, nominally their protector, may not wish to embroil itself when push comes to shove. A nuclear Iran also means that the difficulties of Lebanon and Israel will be impossible to resolve. The dire alternatives appear to be bombing Iran or accepting its nuclear weapon, and Ottolenghi could not decide which was the worst-case scenario.

What to do? Options are limited. The United States can either talk or bomb. Israel can only bomb. Europe can only talk, but it could talk tough. European exports to Iran account for almost half the national total and an embargo on them would thwart and complicate Iranian ambitions. Given the current economic recession, I doubt whether anyone in the audience believed that the European countries would ever commit themselves publicly to a policy of trade embargo, or stick to it privately if they did commit to it. As things stand, the offer of the United States to engage in talks with Iran is bound to increase the influence of Iran, and Ottolenghi raised the grim prospect of a Middle East Yalta.

As I left, I made my way down the corridors of the House of Commons past the marble statues and busts of Gladstone, Disraeli, Palmerston, Canning, and could not help contrasting present doubt with past conviction. The free world is at a crossroads. There’s not much time left for President Obama to clarify the decisions he has to take on what surely will be the defining issue of his presidency.

Sir Teddy



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The news that Sen. Edward Kennedy is to be awarded an honorary knighthood adds to the battering that Britain is currently enduring. People no doubt feel sorry that the man has a brain tumor, but at the same time few Americans have ever been so disliked and resented by British public opinion. The honour of a knighthood to foreigners is itself quite rare. Kennedy is supposedly singled out for services to Britain. When President Obama was running for office, Kennedy’s endorsement of him seemed to matter, and plainly Prime Minister Gordon Brown calculated that on his recent visit he could please the White House by laying before it this piece of personal tribute. This is misconceived and humiliating.

The fate of Mary Jo Kopechne has not been forgotten. As for Kennedy’s services to Britain, they involved playing the Irish nationalist card and promoting the IRA throughout his career. Most probably he did not really believe in this cause but was grandstanding for the sake of the Irish vote in Massachusetts. The effect was to generate violence, cynicism, and falsehoods. The British, he said in 1971, were in Ulster the way the Americans were in Vietnam. Anticipating ethnic cleansing, he proposed that the Protestant majority there “should be given a decent opportunity to go back to Britain.” He made a particular point of welcoming Gerry Adams to the United States, lobbying to have him invited to the White House, fundraising and posing for photo-ops with that deceitful agent of nationalist violence. Nobody has a comparable record of trying to make Gerry Adams and the IRA seem respectable. That too has not been forgotten.
   
Compared to the major ills afflicting Britain, this knighthood is a minor issue, but nevertheless illustrates Brown’s special flair for rewarding those who don’t deserve it, and it is another step towards the terminal fate of him and his government.

The Rentier Population



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$4.5 billion: That’s what a conference of donors has just decided to give to Gaza, and that’s in addition to the hundreds of millions already paid out by United Nations agencies. True, about half the new money is due to come from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates, and they rarely deliver what they promise. According to Mrs. Clinton, the United States is in for almost a billion, and she seems to think this is fine. A rentier is someone who lives off the labour of others by simply cashing dividends, and this cascade of dollars makes the Gazans a unique example of an entire rentier population. No other people in the history of the world have ever lived at the expense of others on this scale.

And what did they do to deserve their rentier dividends? Easy. They elected Hamas to govern them, in the certain knowledge that Hamas as good Islamists are bound to declare jihad with the purpose of wiping out Israel. Sure enough. Hamas duly fired daily barrages of rockets and mortars into Israel. Polls show that large percentages of the Gazans approved. A day came earlier this year when Israel had had enough, and went to war.

By and large, the Gazans are not in a position to weigh whether or not Hamas’s policies are realistic and beneficial. Of course it is right and proper to feel pity that they are poorly equipped to make sound judgements about the balance of forces in the region, the certain consequences of resorting to force, and the morality of doing so. Nevertheless they freely elected Hamas and it has been acting in their name, attacking Israel on their behalf.

To reward Gazans now with $4.5 billion shows that Hamas needs make no amends for the disaster its jihad brought down on everyone. On the contrary, the decision to attack Israel has proved a wonderfully paying proposition. Stick to Hamas, the Gazans can tell each other, and your status as a rentier is assured. Hamas has already resumed firing rockets in the certainty that it is cost-free and richly rewarding to do so. The donors have laid the foundation for the next round of warfare. This is hallucinating; this is madness.

Who Ensures the Peace?



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A bomb exploded this week in the Khan al-Khalili in Cairo, and killed a seventeen-year-old French girl, severely wounding a score of other visitors, some of them naturally Egyptians or other Arabs. The Khan al-Khalili is one of the great picturesque souks for which the Arab world is famous. What a place, and what a crowd! All human life seems to be there. When last I was in the Khan, I saw a man selling assorted second-hand plastic spoons, which seemed to tell me something all too real about Egypt and poverty today.

When I think of the Khan, I recall Lord Cromer, who in the days of the British governed Egypt more or less like a viceroy for over twenty years. Before obtaining his peerage, he was Evelyn Baring, and so quickly known in Egypt as Over-Baring. Modern Egypt is the lengthy memoir that he published in 1906, and well worth reading today. In it, he describes how he used to enjoy a regular walk by himself through the Khan al-Khalili. Anyone could have shot him. One day, he records, he met an Italian lady of his acquaintance, and while they were chatting a young British officer, beautifully turned out, and on a magnificent horse, came clattering past. Everyone, including Lord Cromer and the lady, had to get out of the way in a hurry. “Che bella razzia,” the lady exclaimed, meaning how fine and commanding the English looked. Lord Cromer then reflects upon the redcoats up in the citadel who are actually ensuring the peace.

No Egyptian ruler since Cromer could have dared to stroll freely like that in the Khan — not King Farouk, not Nasser, not Sadat, not Mubarak. Thanks to the invaluable service of Memri, I have lately been catching up on some Egyptian clerics. One, Amin Al-Ansari, showed scenes of wartime genocide on an Islamic television channel and preached, “This is what we hope will happen, but, Allah willing, at the hand of Muslims.” Another, Zaghloul Al-Naggar, thinks the West wants to avenge its defeat in the Crusades, and also that the Arab world is ruled by the scum of the earth because none of its leaders have declared jihad.

When ignorance and hatred come together like that, some poor fellow is left sitting on a pavement selling second-hand plastic spoons, an unfortunate French girl is blown to bits simply for passing by at that moment, and innocent bystanders have to be maimed. That Italian lady may have been a bit gushing, but the Islamists of Egypt (not to mention those of Iran, Hamas, or the Taliban) prove that Lord Cromer was surely right to maintain that if there isn’t any enforcement in these circumstances, there won’t be any peace either.

Revolutionary Road



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Revolutionary Road is the movie of the moment, and a well-made and well-acted movie it is, too. But the view of the world that it conveys is a very familiar one indeed, namely that suburban life in America stifles individuality and creativity, and, in fact, is a form of living death. Inescapable frustration drives the film’s heroine to measures that kill her. Hopes and dreams in such a setting are impossible, just delusion.

Richard Yates, author of the novel on which this movie is rather faithfully based, was a colleague of mine in the mid-1960s when we were both teaching creative writing in the University of Iowa. Dick, as he was known, presented himself as an East Coast gentleman, wearing a three-piece suit for his classes, superior in manner to everyone, not to say snobbish. One day, he urged me to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s diaries, and quoted how Fitzgerald on a visit to Princeton had observed (I haven’t checked my memory of the exact wording), “the faded banners on the chapel wall.” Dick was on the look-out for memorials. A glance at his pale and pudgy face was enough to reveal that here was a deeply unhappy man, so unhappy that he could not tolerate anything like happiness in others. By the end of the evening, he would be in his shirtsleeves, drunken and perspiring and vituperating about a failed marriage, and savagely resenting that he was not a household name.  The identification with F. Scott Fitzgerald meant that he too had escaped the suburbs and was aspiring to a higher tragic fate. This cast of mind surely typifies the loathing of so many intellectuals in America and Europe for themselves and their own society.

His closest — perhaps only — friend in the English department was the writer R.V. Cassill, a native Iowan. At the time, Cassill was publishing obsessive articles to the effect that President Kennedy had been the victim of a giant conspiracy, and the Warren Report was a cover-up. Cassill also believed that the Jews of New York controlled national publishing, and made sure that he did not have the reputation he thought he deserved. One professor had a young wife from Czechoslovakia whose parents had been murdered in the war by the Nazis, and Cassill said to her, “Next time we’ll be sure to get you too.” After that, and the row that then exploded, Dick Yates was almost alone in sticking with Cassill, perhaps more out of bravado than shared prejudice. The pair of them would stalk together through the campus, as though the surrounding unhappiness they had created was final proof of their innate superiority.  

Like Fitzgerald, Dick Yates died too young, with the pathos of unfulfilment clinging to him. As I sat through the movie, I couldn’t help wondering whether he would have changed now that his name and his work are suddenly in the headlines. Might his unhappiness have dissolved, and could he have found a wife and settled with her in the kind of pretty house with a lawn and trees that he had held in such contempt? As the film’s heroine takes the fatal steps leading to bloodshed and death, a man in a nearby seat suddenly fell to the floor, and cries and calls for an ambulance broke out in the cinema. But he had only fainted. The sight of blood had been too much for him. That fitted in very well with Dick’s view of the world.

Postscript Concerning Abu Qatada



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Abu Qatada is indeed appealing to the European court in Strasbourg, and the appeal carries with it a claim to compensation for wrongful imprisonment and infringement of his human rights. There is no limit to the sum that the court decrees, which the British taxpayer must pay. How delighted Abu Qatada and jihadis everywhere must be with the turn of events. What an encouragement to violence! These barbarians come to kill us, and we reward them for their efforts. Only a society that has lost the basic instinct of self-preservation could get itself into such a mess.

The Case of Abu Qatada



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Abu Qatada can be deported from this country, so the Law Lords today have decided, and they are the British equivalent to the Supreme Court. And about time too. This case has exposed manifest absurdities in the way the British handle their affairs.

A Palestinian-Jordanian by birth, Abu Qatada came to Britain in 1993 on a forged United Arab Emirate passport. He wasn’t thrown out. On the contrary, the following year he and his family of five children applied for asylum and were granted it. Pretty soon the lot of them were living on benefits paid by the British taxpayer. The man is wanted for murder and terrorism in Jordan and several other countries, and they have asked for his extradition. In vain, of course. Meanwhile he specialised in inflammatory sermons, tapes of which were found in a Hamburg apartment used by some of the 9/11 terrorists. Reputedly raising funds in Europe for Osama bin Laden, he had £170,000 in cash in his house when the police at last came for him. And still he wasn’t thrown out.

An appalling game began as he played upon the weaknesses of the law. The British Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights protected him. He would be arrested, given bail, and either freed by the court or else went on the run. When the government tried to change the law to detain people like him without trial, the judges saved him. Lord Hoffman, a Law Lord, earned his place in British history alongside Ethelred the Unready by pronouncing that “the real threat to the life of the nation” does not come from terrorists but from the kind of law the government was seeking to introduce in this case. Today’s ruling by his colleagues may well upset Lord Hoffman, but there’s still a possible last chance for Abu Qatada. Three legal systems actually apply in Britain: its own code, sharia, and the European Court; and Abu Qatada may try to appeal to the latter. In which case, he may yet again avoid being flown home to stand trial in Jordan. This is not just a story about tying ourselves up in legal red tape on behalf of someone able to take advantage in order to abuse and injure us. Absurdities, did I say? Death wish is more like it.   

Parliamentary Procedure, Apparently



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Things are happening on the political scene in Britain which even a few short years ago would have been unthinkable. Police have entered the House of Commons to arrest a Conservative Member of Parliament. The Home Secretary, one Jacqui Smith, is revealed to have claimed a six-figure sum for expenses in her home when she is living all the while in her sister’s house, and this enormity is apparently within the rules parliamentarians have drafted for themselves. And now Geert Wilders, a member of the Dutch Parliament, and therefore an elected democratic politician, has been refused entry at London airport and deported back to the Netherlands. He is, Jacqui Smith’s Home Office pretends, nothing less than a threat to “public security.”

How so? Wilders was invited by a member of the House of Lords to show their lordships his film Fitna, all seventeen minutes of it. Among the meanings of this Arabic word in Wehr’s Dictionary are “sedition, riot, discord, dissension, civil strife.” The film is out to show that the Qur’an contains verses that encourage these bad outcomes, setting Muslims against themselves and others. This is a serious argument, even if clips of terror outrages make the film deliberately sensational, even lurid. Unfortunately, the acts of terror are real, and readings from the Qur’an bear upon them.

Free speech has been a particularly English glory since Milton first argued that it was a principle of freedom itself. Dissidents, rebels, and freedom fighters from Karl Marx and Mazzini to Stalin and Salman Rushdie have had the opportunity to say what they wanted, whether or not anyone disapproved. Now thanks to one Jacqui Smith, so comfortably padded by the taxpayer, this principle of freedom is suspended.

There is more. Lord Ahmed is a Muslim born in Kashmir and put into the House of Lords by Tony Blair. Two years ago, Lord Ahmed invited Mahmoud Abu Rideh, a Palestinian previously detained on suspicion of fundraising for groups associated with al-Qaeda, into the House of Lords. It was his parliamentary duty, he told critics, to listen to what Abu Rideh had to say. Evidently it’s that self-same parliamentary duty to ban and suppress Wilders. It is reported that he warned the authorities that 10,000 Muslims would bring real Fitna to the streets by demonstrating in the event that the film was shown, though he denies this. But clearly intimidation has trumped free speech. “Public security” is just humbug. This is not a minor issue. On his way out, Wilders openly called the English “cowards.”  Losers, he might have added, shamed and shaming, people untrue to themselves.

World of Corruption



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You expect that Russians in the position of Vladimir Putin or the oligarchs will find ways of diverting millions of dollars to themselves. Of course the Palestinian big-shots of Fatah or Hamas  are going to steal all the humanitarian aid they can lay hands on, down to blankets provided by the United Nations. It is always in the forefront of the minds of the likes of President Robert Mugabe and the thugs around him that they must appropriate whatever property they can while the going is good. These all live in kleptocracies.

But what about public figures in democracies supposedly governed by the rule of law? The scandals come thick and fast. Look at the governor of Illinois. Look at Bernard Kouchner, the one-time founder of Medicins sans Frontières, and presently French foreign minister. Pierre Péan, one of the most prominent investigative journalists in France, accuses him of a conflict of interest, taking millions of euros from two African countries, Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville, on behalf of associates. Péan’s book prints relevant contracts signed by Kouchner. In a previous book, Péan established Mitterand’s disgraceful past as a collaborationist in wartime Vichy, and he looks like having a lock on Kouchner–who says, however, that everything he did is transparent and he’ll sue. We shall see.

And look at Britain, where four members of the House of Lords have been revealed taking large sums of money in return for influencing legislation. Other peers have evidently been bribed, obscuring the line between their functions as legislators and consultants. You have to go back to the eighteenth century for corruption like this. And look at Ehud Olmert, outgoing Prime Minister of Israel, who must soon go to court to answer several charges, among them one of putting in false expenses.

Evidently the imaginary world of rules hardly coincides with the real world of cash passing from hand to hand.

Obama’s Carter Moment?



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Latent violence is pretty much everywhere in the world in these days of recession. Britain and France have already seen strikes aimed at protecting local jobs, and both their governments have been lucky so far to escape an escalating crisis. But the more eastward you go in Europe the closer this violence comes to the surface. In Latvia, Lithuania, and Bulgaria the various police forces have been very rough. Roughest of all, though, is Russia, where the authorities very well know where protest might lead, and so have never taken kindly to it. When in doubt, use the knout. Its riot police have been handily beating demonstrators to the ground everywhere from St Petersburg to Vladivostok.

Unemployment in Russia is rising fast, and the currency, the ruble, has lost about a fifth of its value. $200 billion–a third of the reserves–have already been spent supporting the ruble, so that further devaluation seems a virtual certainty Foreign investors have withdrawn billions of dollars.

All of which encourages the Kremlin to go on the attack in classic style. We already know how Putin and company treat Georgia. Now they are in the process of reestablishing their hold on the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. The Kremlin plans to form a force in the region, and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev specifically declares that it will be a match for NATO.

To get off the mark, Russia has ensnared Kirghizstan with the usual blend of violence, cunning and bribery. In recent weeks, Russia began by attacking the Kirghiz internet infrastructure. Then it simply bought the country with a multi-billion dollar loan to plug the deficit in the Kirghiz budget, with additional hundreds of millions of dollars in write-offs and grants. More than that, according to the Daily Telegraph, what are delicately called “bonuses” and “emoluments” were paid to officials. The money may be running out in Moscow, and the currency about to crash, but power still remains power.

As part of this murky business, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the Kirghiz president, has ordered the United States to quit the former Soviet base it rented at Manas, close to the country’s capital of Bishkek. Manas is needed to ferry supplies to American and other forces over the border in Afghanistan, and squadrons of fighter jets are also stationed there. President Obama has been promising increased operations against Afghan Islamists, but the closing of Manas will seriously impede any such development. And simultaneously there are to be renewed arms’ control negotiations, aimed at reducing nuclear stockpiles to achieve parity–that is to say, boosting Russia at American expense.

When the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan back in 1979 and began that poor country’s destruction, then President Jimmy Carter feebly lamented that he’d just learned what he was up against. Obama looks like having his Carter moment.

John Updike, R.I.P.



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One fine summer day, I was walking home through the park. When I sat down on a bench, I noticed that the man already on it was wearing khaki fatigues and heavy combat boots. He had a huge notebook on his knee, and was writing in it in green ink, very very very carefully, one word at a time–a long pause, pen in air–and then one more word. The whole page was entirely free from erasures. This procedure was fascinating. I squinted in order to read what he could possibly be writing. It was pure vituperation against his wife and his marriage by someone staying in a Holiday Inn. I shrank away, and looked at this man next to me on the bench. He had a nose as shaped and individual as the nose of Federico di Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino, in Piero della Francesca’s magnificent portrait. The penny dropped. The boots and fatigues were misleading. I had had the privilege of catching John Updike in the midst of his astonishing method of composition. It happened that Updike had not long before reviewed very generously a book of mine. I was just working out how to introduce myself without seeming a Peeping Tom when a beautiful woman arrived, he folded his notebook and off they sauntered arm in arm under the evening sun. Oh, the style of the man and the writer! 

Murder Most Foul



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There’s been another example of it in Moscow, where they specialize in violence and outrage. A man in his twenties, Stanislav Markelov, was walking down a central street in the middle of the morning when a gunman wearing a woollen balaclava came up and shot him in the head. Anastasia Baburova, a young freelance journalist accompanying Markelov, went to help him on the pavement, whereupon the gunman shot her dead as well. Then he walked away in his own time, apparently confident that nobody would interfere with him.

A photograph of Markelov shows him to have had the face of an idealistic student. In fact, he was a lawyer and human-rights activist. He’d taken up the case of a 19-year-old Chechen girl who had been arrested and murdered by a Colonel Yuri Budanov. Budanov confessed, and was sentenced to prison, only to be reprieved. Markelov was using legal procedures to try to keep Budanov in gaol. Nobody knows who shot Markelov and his companion, but it hardly takes Sherlock Holmes to figure out who had an interest in having them out of the way.

A young friend of mine from France has been living and working in Russia these past 18 months. He came round yesterday to ask advice about a book he intends to write. The social and ethnic mix of Russia fascinates him. He describes parts of the country that modernity, even in the form of Communism, couldn’t touch. Russians, he says, are good at putting up a Potemkin façade of being European, but they’re different underneath, they have their traditional codes, and know how to live within them. A network of family, friends, employers, patrons, has to protect you. He was shocked by the Markelov murder, and compared it to similar outrages such as the gunning down of the journalist Anna Politskovskaia. And yet it has its context, as he confirms. In the absence of law that can be enforced, there is a sort of balance of power that every group senses and whose limits they understand. The murderer of Markelov certainly had the backing of some very powerful people probably right at the top, so there’s absolutely no question of anyone ever being arrested for it. End of story, then. No man, no problem, as Stalin liked to say. That’s how they’ve always done things in the days of the czars and of the Bolsheviks, and they will go on doing them that way, my young friend said as though stating the simplest matter of fact.   

Animal Farm Come to Life



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This past fortnight I have been in the United States, hence the silence of David Calling. One of the purposes of my journey was to do some research in the Beinecke Library at Yale, where my father’s papers are housed. Here is a mass of material for the memoir I hope to write. To be reading the correspondence between one’s parents gives a creepy sense of peeping through a keyhole. It is altogether strange to confront letters from all my relations, my wife and children, and finally from myself–many rather insignificant family matters beautifully preserved. But for whom? The library came to seem something like a cemetery.

The Britain I came back to is in full crisis. There is a run on sterling, as the pound has lost at least a third against the dollar and looks like it will be losing more. The stock market sinks. Unemployment is about two million, or seven percent and rising as businesses go bust. The folly of bankers has been almost unimaginable, and one insolvent bank after another is being nationalized, a sort of backstairs socialism that is likely to prove no kind of solution. Presiding over the meltdown, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer evidently have no coherent idea what to do to prevent recession blooming into a major depression.

Familiar pieces of the landscape are falling away, and the Evening Standard is only the most recent. For a century and a half, this has been London’s leading evening paper. Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail picked it up cheap when the previous owners, the Beaverbrook empire, got into financial trouble. Under Rothermere, the paper was pretty feeble and shallow, therefore making huge losses, said to be at least ten million pounds a year. And now Lord Rothermere has sold it on to one Alexander Lebedev for a nominal one pound.

Lebedev is a former KGB agent, once stationed in London, and he glories in that fact. Nobody knows how he became an oligarch, but according to Forbes he is the world’s 194th richest man, worth two billion dollars or more. He is said to have been a friend of Yeltsin, and now is on good terms with Putin. So a title with influence comes into the hands of a former Communist secret policeman and spy, whose past is as invisible as his present activities. Reportedly, Mikhail Gorbachev and Tony Blair will sit on some advisory board. The cabinet minister with responsibility for approving the transfer of title is Peter Mandelson, himself once a Communist and now a good friend of Oleg Deripaska, another dubious Russian oligarch.

Does this not remind you of the end of Animal Farm, George Orwell’s satirical masterpiece, when the revolutionary pigs and the capitalist humans celebrate together whatever they can grab, and nobody can tell which is which.

Totalitarians of the World Unite



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Russia has built into its armory the new weapon of natural gas. This may not have the immediate clear-your-mind impact of the former SS-20 inter-ballistic missiles, but it will do to be going on with. The Russians have only to cut off the supplies to their customers, and watch them come begging to heel. And that is what Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has done. He staged a little scene for the television cameras at which he was seen triumphantly ordering the CEO of Gazprom to shut down the pipe-line running through Ukraine. The intention is to punish Ukraine for its independence, its application to join NATO, its parting of the ways with Mother Russia, the rightful overlord of that country in the view of people like Putin.

The best of it for the Kremlin is that customers further down the line are sufferers, for instance Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, and Hungary, vassals from the Cold War for which Putin and his advisors feel Soviet-style contempt. Don’t forget Germany, which depends on Russia for about a third of its gas. Of its own free will, Germany has made itself dependent on Russia honouring gas contracts — and this when Russia is a country without the rule of law, and the whole point is for the strong to acquire power and use it against the weak as they are in the process of doing.

The former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has played a leading part in making sure that his country is subject to Russian gas policy, more likely to become an enduring colony than the late lamented German Democratic Republic. Leaving office, he became a hired hand of Gazprom. This is absolutely typical of Europe today. European politicians appear to be running around in search of someone, Arab, Iranian, Russian, Chinese, anyone, even each other, to whom they can consign their independence. When the Russians cut off the gas, the Europeans said that they insisted forthwith on sending monitors to talks between Russia and Ukraine. Now that’s an ultimatum! We may shiver from cold, they’ll shiver from fear. Quite as effective as ferrying teams of politicians round the Middle East to make sure that Hamas remains strong enough to work whatever mischief it can. Totalitarians of the world unite; you cannot lose to headless chickens. 

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