David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

Russia and Iran: the Kinship of Tyranny


Vladimir Putin was expected to get around 64 percent of the vote for his latest seizure of the Russian presidency, and so he did. And a very nice number it is too, not too little and not too much. These arrangements are simplicity itself. Employees of the state, including the armed forces, are ordered which way to vote. Buses transport all sorts of innocents and dupes from the provinces to vote early and often. Loyalists feed the voting booths with bundles of votes from absentees to create what is jocularly known as the “carrousel” effect — one fellow was actually filmed shoving photo-copied sheets into a ballot box. Observers unanimously concur that this election has been another staged performance having nothing to do with political representation or the law.

Simultaneously the election to the Iranian majlis, or parliament, was rigged. Developments between Russia and Iran have run more or less parallel for a long time. It wasn’t an accident that Stalin read all the books about Persian despotism that he laid hands on. Neighbors borrowing from one another, both countries experienced constitutional crises starting in 1905; both after the First War had revolutions ending in dictatorship; and both are comparable police states. Although still lagging behind the figures of the Soviet gulag, Iran nowadays takes an easy lead in killing its citizens: Last year alone there were 161 secret executions there, never mind the hundreds more that were publicized, including women and children and homosexuals. But Putin copies Stalin’s famous guideline, “no man, no problem,” and he has seen to the murder of no less than 144 journalists, all carried out by anonymous killers never brought to justice. Identification, almost a kinship, underlines Russia’s arming of Iran and its defense of the Iranian nuclear program.

Huge numbers of Russians are all too well aware that Putin has set up one-man rule, enforced by a neo-KGB quite as powerful and secretive as the old Soviet KGB, reversing the reforms of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin era. What was once the protest of individual dissidents has swelled into large demonstrations against Putin and the corruption of politics and morality that he has set in place. As in the Iranian and Arab world, bloggers mobilize discontent. One such blogger, Alexei Navalny, seems to be gathering a mass movement in order to make peaceful protest a constant feature of the street.

On the day of the phony election, military vehicles lined the square in front of the Kremlin. The show of force was certainly forbidding. General Ion Pacepa, head of the Romanian secret police when he defected to the West in Communist days, calls Putin “Vladimir the Bare-Chested,” a perfect nickname. This president, self-elected into the indefinite future, is in the position of Bashar Assad. Refusing to reform, the Syrian president prefers to slaughter his fellow citizens, an atrocity he is able to carry out only with the help of the Iranian regime. Putin’s decision about the level of repression to come will almost certainly reflect the conviction common to the tyrants of Russia and Iran that harming their own people is the right and necessary prelude to harming everyone else.

At Sea and in Buenos Aires


For the last twelve days I have been sailing up the Brazilian and Argentine coast giving a lecture or two to a group from Hillsdale College. That remarkable institution takes pride in refusing financing from the government and therefore enjoys an independence that differentiates it from other universities. But for much of the time the mysteries of wi-fi and the Internet at sea blocked David Calling.

In Buenos Aires I had a small personal project. My grandfather was one of eight children. He used to tell how a brother of his claimed to have a brilliant idea and approached his siblings to invest their money with him. He then absconded with their various fortunes to the Argentine. This was just before the First World War when there was no extradition treaty.

I hesitated. I had often fantasized about this branch of the family tree. Rumor has it that they have been successful in the Argentine. It was easy to imagine my runaway cousins hanging up if I telephoned, perhaps bringing a grudge or even a claim. Maybe it was only kind to leave them alone. One Alan Pryce-Jones (also my father’s name) is to be found on Facebook, but that is another mystery to me. I could get no further than discovering that he lives in Chile. To avoid contact in the end came to seem like cowardice, and a lost opportunity. The Buenos Aires directory lists Caroline Pryce-Jones and Maria Pryce-Jones. Whoever answered the first number said that Caroline had not lived there for four years, and Maria’s number was steadily engaged and I never got through. A line in a play by the once fashionable but now neglected Christopher Fry speaks of the “unhoming” of human beings, and that seems the right word to describe the dispersal of family members too far out of touch to be contacted.

Normal service will be resumed shortly.


Marie Colvin, R. I. P.


Marie Colvin was one of the small band of absolutely fearless reporters. She was determined to find out what was going on in the front line and tell the world about it. Some are attracted by danger, but she obviously wanted to understand and present the sufferings of other people. She had lost an eye some years ago in the course of covering the suppression of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. By hook or crook she would have found some way to enter Syria at this moment of the country’s ordeal at the hands of the bloody Bashar Assad. The inhuman shelling of Homs by Assad’s stormtroopers provided the sort of atrocity that she was in the habit of exposing. Homs is the center of Bashar’s campaign to keep power by means of unlimited repression. It seems that she was sheltering in a house there when Syrian artillery opened fire and killed her.

This death brought back memories of Nicholas Tomalin, another fearless and professional reporter, who made a reputation in the Vietnam War. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War he was on the Golan Heights. A heat-seeking missile found the car he had hired and in which he happened to be sitting. It happens that I had spent the previous day with him, and had listened to his mockery of journalists who run unnecessary risks just to prove how macho they are.

These two are numbered along with the many innocent victims of brutish Syrians. A special aura of regret surrounds those who have sacrificed their lives in pursuit of information, the life-blood of democracy. Both these professionals were working for the Sunday Times of London, which says something about that newspaper.

Austerity Macht Frei


Greece has been governed these many years with recklessness and incompetence. Its politicians sought votes by creating a welfare state that the country could not afford. The introduction of the euro in place of the drachma, the national currency, seemed an unsolicited gift from heaven. Greece could spend what it liked and the bill would go to others, first of all Germany, the economic power of the euro zone. Dispensing with the strong deutschmark, its national currency, Germany was able to export more in the weak euro. For a few years, everyone pretended that this was the best of all possible arrangements for all concerned. Critics who pointed out that the euro has an insuperable design fault were dismissed with scorn as xenophobes and fuddy-duddies who couldn’t keep up with the times. As though lightning struck, at last it became obvious that Greece could never earn enough money to repay the incredible debt it had so genially built up. More dire still, other euro zone countries have been almost as profligate.

Germany’s hour had come. Today’s Germans, it must be stressed, are not in any respect like their forebears under Hitler. Of course it is hard for them to accept responsibility for other peoples’ foolish desire to have a higher standard of living than they can afford. For understandable reasons, they have balked at standing guarantor for others in the euro zone, and they search for some way around the obligation when there is no other way. What this amounts to is an exercise of power unprecedented since Hitler overran the continent. The Germans are dictating to other countries. Removing elected prime ministers and installing men chosen as “technocrats” — a synonym for obedient — they have turned Greece and Italy into protectorates. With staggering disregard of manners and statesmanship, the German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble recommends that Greece postpone forthcoming elections and install a government with no representatives of the key parties. To which the Greek president, the elderly Karolos Papoulias who as a teenager fought the Nazis, asked, “Who is Mr. Schaeuble to insult Greece?”

The German recipe is to make the debtor countries acknowledge their manifold faults and pay as much of their debts as is feasible. Austerity is the watchword. Greeks must cut expenditure, raise taxes, and hand the money over. The new Greek government under its approved prime minister Lucas Papademos has the grim task of enforcing this policy. This at once invites the comparison, too close for comfort, with General Tsolakoglou or Ioannis Rallis, prime ministers who collaborated under German occupation in the war. Then as now, the economy collapsed. Greeks were made to pay the costs of the occupation and they were forced to sell whatever supplies the Germans wanted. In return they received worthless paper marks, issued locally. In Athens alone, 300,000 people died of starvation. Mussolini’s son-in-law and his foreign minister, no soft heart either, noted in his diary, “The Germans have taken from the Greeks even their shoelaces.” The costs of the occupation and a compulsory “war loan” were never repaid. Jacques Delpla, an economist and adviser to the French government, estimated in July 2011 that Germany owes Greece 575 billion euros.

Today the Greek government has long since ceased to pay its bills. Pensions have been slashed, the budgets of schools and hospitals cut. Unemployment is over 20 percent. The middle classes are ruined. People accustomed to look after themselves and their families, to run a business and provide work, are becoming homeless and living off charity and public soup kitchens. It is not surprising that newspapers are drawing comparisons with the Nazi-dominated past. At Kalavryta in December 1943 the Germans in one among scores of massacres summarily executed 696 men. Thirteen survived, and the last one still alive gives interviews. In a celebrated act of resistance, 82-year-old Manolis Glezos pulled the swastika flag off the Acropolis, and he too is giving interviews. A columnist in the Daily Telegraph reproaches German policy for its unbelievably heedless cruelty towards Greece.

It is a strange freak of history that Greece was the staunch ally of Britain from the first days of the war onwards, and resisted the German occupation with courage, only to find itself under the German cosh at a moment when Britain has rejected the euro zone and cannot be a meaningful ally. A debate has taken place in the House of Lords, in which Lord Lamont, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, pointed out that Greece is being forced to choose between the “utterly impossible and utterly incredible.” A friend of mine, Lord Willoughby de Broke, went further. German policy, he said, was down to “austerity macht frei,” an echo of the slogan “work makes you free” set over the entrance to Auschwitz. The past is catching up with the present and the European Union autodestructs.

The West’s Weakness on Syria



What’s happening in Syria proves yet again the difficulties and disadvantages of dealing with tyranny. The diplomatic ineptitude of the good guys merges with their lack of will to evolve a military strategy. Poor Ban Ki-moon, the mouse-like U.N. secretary general, can only moan about Bashar Assad’s “appalling brutality” and the Russian and Chinese veto on what might otherwise have led to unanimous condemnation and perhaps eventual action, Kosovo style. Hillary Clinton speaks of “sending a clear message of support” to the Free Syrian Army, and invites Assad to step down — that will really rattle the brute. William Hague talks of “tightening the stranglehold” while also assuring everyone that he is in touch with dissidents abroad and no arms are being sent to those who are fighting on the streets for regime change. The response to Assad’s mass murder of his people, then, is meaningless cliché-mongering and pitiful evasion.


The tyrants are free as usual to do their worst. Far from stepping down, Assad is fighting for his life while nothing and nobody prevents him from deploying tanks and artillery against towns like Homs, and villages in the provinces. Clips of film show housing on fire and men filling mass graves under cover of night. The Russian foreign minister, a man as cold and mendacious as any commissar from Soviet times, says it is not illegal to arm Assad. Themselves experts in suppressing populations, the ayatollahs of Tehran have seconded hundreds and perhaps thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and their general commanding as well, to help kill Syrians. These various promoters of tyranny have no compunction either about getting their way through brutal diplomacy or by reducing politics to simple murder.


As things now stand, Assad looks likely to stay in power at the head of a hateful police state for an indefinite time. The Iranian ayatollahs will be handed a victory in that case, leaving them well placed to manipulate Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, to provoke revolts of fellow Shiites in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and to finalize their nuclear-weapons program against Israel. To arm the Free Syrian Army is self-defense, as it may be the only measure still available to prevent the Syrian civil war from swelling and bursting from a regional issue into an international crisis.


The Queen and Abu Qatada


Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her diamond jubilee on the throne. In a statement characteristic of the lady, she said that she would continue to serve for the rest of her life. A few years more, and she will have exceeded even Queen Victoria’s reign. Both queens succeeded in giving Britain a sense of continuity and stability. In Queen Victoria’s case, this corresponded to reality. The abiding symbol was a coinage that did not change. Queen Elizabeth has lived in the same palaces as her august predecessor, performed the same ceremonial duties, set an extraordinary example of dedication, and won the admiration of pretty well all her subjects.

As bad luck would have it, the actual day on which the diamond jubilee was celebrated was also the day when Abu Qatada, the European representative of Osama bin Laden, was released from prison on bail. The man is wanted in his native Jordan on charges of murder and terrorism, but the European Court of Human Rights forbids the British from deporting him, and the British comply. Abu Qatada’s defending counsel concedes that his client poses a danger to national security, but the hapless judge babbles about assurances from Jordan without which “a continued deprivation of liberty is no longer justified” and in the end Abu Qatada will simply go free.

Britain is no longer a sovereign country, in plain language, but subject to another jurisdiction. By force of personality, the Queen holds to precedence and example. When she is no longer there, the institutions of the country will be seen to have the substance of mirage.

Netanyahu’s Existential Choice


 I wouldn’t like to be in Bibi Netanyahu’s shoes right now. The moment is approaching when finally Iran possesses a weaponized nuclear bomb and is in a position to carry out its repeated threat to wipe Israel off the map, or clandestinely pass the bomb to a terrorist proxy like Hezbollah. World opinion invariably condemns Israel’s measures of self-defense as aggression. Iranian nuclear production is scattered over more than twenty sites, some of them deep underground and all well fortified. Partially successful military measures might commit Israel to all manner of reprisals. The fate of the Jews, then, rests on decisions that Netanyahu will have to take.

The fundamental ideology of the state of Israel is that Jews can rely only on themselves. It is obvious from hints dropped that Netanyahu perceives Barack Obama as a typical false friend of the Jews, deceiving them with promises of support that he has no intention of delivering. Obama plays up shamelessly to the ayatollahs of Iran, even when they rig elections and silence opponents, if necessary by murder. American (and European) policy of using sanctions to persuade Iran to drop its nuclear ambition is too half-hearted, too selective, and too pathetic to amount to more than make-believe. The latest agreed sanctions to suspend buying Iranian oil are not to apply until July, for instance, and ignore the willingness of China, Russia, and India to carry on buying regardless. Just a placebo, in fact, and quite probably designed to give Israel an impression of activity enough to stop it from attacking Iran. And if by July the Iranians still need more time they will offer to negotiate, and yet again prove that their diplomacy makes rings round everyone else.

According to the Washington Post, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran this April, May, or June. It is hard to work out whether the primary intention here is to warn Iran or to thwart Israel. The New York Times has just carried a long article by Ronen Bergman, a very well-informed security expert who has done a number of high-level interviews with politicians and soldiers, though not with Netanyahu. On balance, he too thinks that an Israeli attack will soon occur. On the other hand, the prolific and equally well-informed Professor Barry Rubin puts his foot down firmly that there will be no attack.

Out of this confusion Netanyahu has to come to a conclusion with existential dimensions. Only someone with a sense of destiny could do that.

The Iron Lady


How the media hated Mrs. Thatcher! A very British snobbery was the basic impulse. The op-eds used to make sure to remind readers that her views about politics and economics derived from her upbringing as the daughter of a grocer. A blue-stocking by the name of Lady Warnock, foremost among the great and the good, once said seriously that Mrs. Thatcher couldn’t be up to much because she bought her clothes at popular stores like Marks and Spencer, while others accused her of wearing a hat and a brooch as though imitating the Queen. And her accent was much mocked. Why, she took elocution lessons. I well remember the disdain with which fellow Conservatives up to the level of her Cabinet ministers used to speak about her. In the end, they contrived to get her out, and in the process wrecked their party.

Mrs. Thatcher has been out of office for years now. A widow, whenever she appears in public she looks frail and vulnerable. Roman emperors used to have a slave behind them whispering, “Remember you must die.” That is the spirit infusing today’s much-touted docudrama, The Iron Lady. The film opens with Meryl Streep impersonating Mrs. Thatcher as a sad old crone having trouble taking the top off a boiled egg. This is a metaphor for her whole life. Yes, the film-makers allow, she had her triumphs in her day, privatizing state concerns, making Britain competitive, regaining the independence of the Falkland Islands, but all was futile, a waste of energy. Vanity of vanity, all is vanity, this Mrs. Thatcher is at last revealed as someone with no grasp of reality, hallucinating about her dead husband Denis Thatcher. The film reaches some sort of emotional climax when she throws his wardrobe out, a scene surely as fictitious as it is displeasing.

I suppose it makes some people feel better to think that old age has caught up with Mrs. Thatcher and overwhelmed her. The film convinced me that as long as there is any living memory of her, such people will always believe that intelligence and will power were qualities unsuitable in a woman like her.

‘The Pre-emptive Cringe’


Thirty years ago, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. At least when Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait, there was some reasoning behind his adventure, namely to grab vast oil reserves. The Falklands have nothing but flocks of sheep to offer. The 3,000 inhabitants are all British, unpretentious people not very skilled at speaking up for them. Unanimously they insist on staying British, and so they shall, if self-determination still has any meaning when applied to the British. Taking the Falklands, Argentina would have on its hands a die-hard group unable to accept the cultural change imposed on them. Another classic colonialist confrontation would arise as the police would have to begin arresting recalcitrant natives and deporting them to some gulag in Argentina.

The Prince of Wales is due to be posted in the Falklands. He is a helicopter pilot serving in the Air Force like any other airman. For Cristina de Kirchner, president of Argentina, however, the presence of Pilot Officer Wales is an intolerable insult to national pride. Dispensing with rationality or national interest, she is threatening another invasion.

In 1982 the Foreign Office advised Mrs. Thatcher to hand the Falklands over rather than defend it. And right on cue the second time round, a Foreign Office grandee by the name of Sir Christopher Audland writes to The Times that holding sovereignty over the Falklands brings no benefit but only substantial economic costs and political rows. Britain should negotiate transfer of sovereignty to Argentina. It is a wonderfully pure example of what the great Professor John Kelly called with memorable scorn, “the pre-emptive cringe.”

This Audland has had a long career of handing British sovereignty and self-determination away to others. He was in the team under Edward Heath negotiating entry into the European Union, lying to the public that this meant only joining a single market and there would never be any loss of independence. Whereupon this Audland became an official of the European Union, working to dismantle what was left of Britain’s historic identity. Where do these people come from, and why do they despise their own identity to the point that they must diminish and even vandalize it, institutionalizing “the pre-emptive cringe.”

A Cautionary Tale



The story of Omar Othman, known as Abu Qatada, ought to be a cautionary tale. The right hand man of bin Laden in Europe, associated with Muhammad Atta and other murderous Islamists, he has nevertheless contrived to make utter fools of the British. His instrument was the law. It turns out, unbelievably, that the Islamist damage he has done is far outstripped by the damage inflicted by lawyers.

Abu Qatada and his wife and children entered Britain in 1993 on forged United Emirate passports — reason enough, you might think, to deport them. A skilled claimant of every available welfare, he lived at a high standard off the British tax-payer. When arrested, he had a six figure account of money due to be remitted to al-Qaeda. Jordan was pursuing him on a murder charge. He claimed that one of the witnesses against him had been tortured. There appears to be no independent corroboration of this, only his say so. The deportation order worked its way for years through the appeal courts, until the Supreme Court finally came to the conclusion to return him to his home country.

Ah, not so fast. British law is splintering and there are plenty of lawyers willing to finish it off. The European Court of Human Rights, sitting in Strasbourg, was brought in on the case. All but one of them foreign nationals, the judges there also had no evidence that this putative witness in Jordan might have been tortured, but the mere possibility was enough for them. To return Abu Qatada might risk committing an injustice, infringing his rights. The government can appeal, but in the event that the European Court verdict stands, Abu Qatada will have to be set free, in effect having discovered how to make his projected victims complicit in their own destruction, while he remains a well-rewarded and successful criminal.

A country that surrenders its legal persona will not survive long, nor does it deserve to. But who could have imagined that a pack of progressive lawyers could achieve in a few years what Britain’s armed enemies could not over many centuries.

The Liam O’Flahertys of Today



Time was when intelligent men and women in all countries and all walks of life used to write books and articles in praise of Soviet Communism. The phenomenon is well known by now, but it is still an abiding example of how easily wishful thinking triumphs over rationality. Those testimonies are perpetual reminders of the frailty of civilization, and the latest example that I have come across is I Went to Russia, by Liam O’Flaherty, published in 1931. Quite a decent vaguely free-thinking fellow, O’Flaherty had knocked about the world a bit. He didn’t lose all sense of reality in Russia but nonetheless without apparent irony could let drop phrases like “this great headquarters of the world revolution.” The book ends with an account of meeting Walter Duranty of the New York Times, who spouted, “Bolshevism is real religious antidote to the materialism of the twentieth century.” The Five Year Plan was going to make Russia “exceedingly prosperous.” They do not discuss Gulag.

Today, praise for sharia or Islamic law has the same function of surrendering to wishful thinking at the expense of rationality. If only non-Muslims were to allow sharia for Muslims living in their midst, according to this line, all would be well. In England, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the head of the Supreme Court have both recommended sharia. Quite a number of Muslims in European countries have obliged by proclaiming the areas where they live as enclaves under sharia, with punishments for those who infringe the code. So honour killings, female genital mutilation, polygamy, a ban on alcohol, and other dietary taboos are normalized. Extremist Muslims openly proclaim that this is the way to install the rule of Islam, predicting that they will be colonizing non-Muslim countries by the middle of the century.

“Why Sharia deserves a fairer hearing” is the title of an article published on the News page of the London Times by Ziauddin Sardar, a university professor in Britain. Why the newspaper of record should give over this space to a opinion piece is as mysterious as the Archbishop’s endorsement of Islamic law. Sardar takes up what he considers “a captivating book,” by one Sadakat Kadri. In the manner of those who once sympathized with Communism, he glosses over the facts. Sharia law is made to seem universal — the euphemism he uses is “interconnected.” Just as the wrongs committed under Communism had nothing to do with the ideology, so whatever is wrong in Islam has nothing to do with sharia. And just as there were always progressive aspects of Communism to be found somewhere, so Ziauddin Sardar holds up Morocco and Malaysia as countries with “new and exciting” changes in sharia. In Indonesia, he says, “humanistic principles” are replacing the politics of sharia. He does not discuss the regular killings of Christians there, or the firing of churches.

Exam question. Describe in your own words what unites the Liam O’Flahertys and Ziauddin Sardars of this world, and draw your conclusions.

The Arab Jet Set



The first time I realised that there is a lot more to the Middle East than meets the eye was in the days of the Arab economic boycott of Israel. The Egyptian cotton crop was threatened by some worm, and Egypt had appealed to Israel to supply the chemical to save it. I heard about this from an Israeli friend, an industrialist, who was ordered to supply the steel barrels required for the shipment. Nor do I forget the Black September moment in Amman when I saw Palestinian women streaming out of a refugee camp to escape Jordanian troops coming for them. “We go to Moshe Dayan,” the women were shouting, perfectly well able to distinguish between potential killers and potential rescuers. Not so long afterwards, in a smart hotel in Tel Aviv I met a Palestinian poet who had become notorious for writing a verse boasting about eating the livers of Jews. Here was the poet socialising and drinking with the Israeli elite. Another friend, a specialist in the Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem, used to tell me how Saudis and Iraqis and even militant PLO members would insist on making difficult trips to have consultations with him.

Aisha Qaddafi, daughter of the late dictator, has the bad record that is only to be expected. Hers was a life of Arab jet set privilege. She was on the defense team of Saddam Hussein, whose daughters are in exile in Jordan. Now she is in exile in Algeria, and hopes to have the International Criminal Court investigate the deaths of her father and brothers. Who is she employing for her lawyer? One Nick Kaufman, an Israeli.

Perhaps there is an echo here of an ancient stereotype that the best doctors and lawyers are Jewish. And perhaps like others, Aisha Qaddafi is a realist for whom results have priority over ideology. Every so often, these intimations of a quite alternative and practical routine of accommodation and co-operation arise in the Middle East — and about which the media, either out of prejudice or ignorance, are silent.

The Church of the Nativity


The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem celebrates the birth-place of Jesus. The entrance is deliberately narrow and small so that everyone has to stoop in humility. Columns appropriated from Roman temples line the nave. Cramped stairs lead down to a cave. Even if everything here is a matter of tradition and has no historic foundation, the Church has the numinous atmosphere fitting for the essential role it has in Christianity.

In the war of 1967, an Israeli shell came through the roof. A cleric who identified himself as the Archbishop of Pella was standing fully robed in a cloud of dust and smoke as I entered, reporting for the Daily Telegraph. Israeli paratroopers were also present. In later years I often went there, and once saw the novelist Graham Greene with his lady friend crossing Holy Manger Square in front of the church.
Gunmen from the PLO occupied the church for five weeks in the intifada of 2002, defiling and fouling it until the Israelis got them out. A two-state solution is improbable, to say the bare minimum, but if it were to materialize, the church would again be under the PLO, this time by consent.
Bethlehem used to be at least three-quarters Christian, but that figure is down to about a quarter as its inhabitants emigrate to escape the PLO. Christmas is of course the high point of the town’s calendar. Victor Batarseh, the mayor, is a distinguished medical specialist, aged 76, and Roman Catholic.  He marked this Christmas with a speech calling for a complete boycott of Israel. This would be suicide. The day the Christians are at the exclusive mercy of the PLO, and never mind their Hamas compatriots, is when this church would become a mosque. An omen: Ayia Sofia, once the Byzantine cathedral of Istanbul, was converted into a mosque, then a museum, and under rising Islamism is now a mosque again.
While the mayor was setting out his proposal, a hundred or so Greek Orthodox and Armenian monks were fighting each other in the body of the church, armed with the broomsticks they were supposed to use for a clean-up. Such disgraces have a history going back a long way. Robert Curzon describes in his classic Monasteries in the Levant a fight he witnessed in the 1830s in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre in which Ottoman soldiers had to intervene to stop Christians killing each other. Once I had cause to go to the Ecumenical Institute at Tantur outside Jerusalem, only to find that a monk of one Christian persuasion had murdered a monk of another persuasion. Rivalry between Christians was one reason why the Holy Land of the Crusaders was lost to Islam. The bigotry remains as primitive and destructive as the Sunni–Shia divide is to Islam, and when there are no more Christians in any Muslim country it will be too late for regrets.
The front page of La Repubblica, the respectable Italian daily, reports a bit of news that it finds as comic and futile as children building a sandcastle. The European Union is proposing to take out a patent for broccoli. Yes, that green vegetable. Aubergines and tomatoes are to follow, but apparently not potatoes. It’s to do with genetic modification. The EU is another arena where rivals who ought to know better go in for this kind of assault under the guise of protection. The British Treasury has let it be known that preparations are in hand to deal with the collapse of the euro. With any luck, plain broccoli will outlive the EU.

To Soothe the Savage Breast




Someone I know breeds turkeys on a large scale. The birds have to be fenced behind wire. At any unexpected noise, especially at night, they panic quickly and huddle together in a corner where many of the birds suffocate to death. Music soothes them: A system has been installed and Mozart concertos have been found to be literally life-savers.


It’s much the same story in Birmingham, a pretty rough place. Assorted yobs have been in the habit of congregating in a particular mall there. All sorts of crimes, including murder, then occur. The police decided that broadcasting Mozart would give this crowd something to distract and pacify them. In fact, Mozart has dispersed them, the mall has become safe, the crime rate has dropped.


Christmas cheer, is it not?



Jacques Chirac, former French president, has just received a two-year prison sentence for corruption.  He wasn’t in court. His lawyers pleaded that he is 79 and a most important person but unfortunately bad at remembering.  The prosecution went so far as to ask for his acquittal. The court’s sentence was suspended, so justice has not caught up with Chirac.

French presidents, it is true, have their own standards. Valery Giscard d’Estaing accepted diamonds from the murderous Emperor Bokassa. Francois Mitterand was caught in an illegal deal involving an oil refinery in East Germany. Nicolas Sarkozy is accused of being mixed up in an arms deal with Pakistan, and French voters think he may well have set up the sex scandal that destroyed his political opponent Dominique Strauss-Kahn. 

Chirac beats them all hands down. He was in the habit of appropriating public money for private or political party ends. Thousands of properties in Paris are unclaimed because in the war their Jewish owners were deported and murdered, and Chirac made sure that selected cronies could live cheaply in these apartments or houses. One day Chirac was discovered at the Gazelle d’Or, a fabulously expensive hotel in Morocco, paying the bill out of a plastic bag containing hundreds of thousands of dollars. It then turned out that French presidents were allocated funds for which they do not have to account. Nobody ever quite got to the bottom of how some fields around Chirac’s country house were due to be developed as a holiday site for children but instead were transferred to Chirac. Giscard d’Estaing is on record saying that if Chirac was caught holding a pot of jam and with his mouth full of that jam, he would swear that he had never eaten the stuff. Perhaps Chirac’s greatest coup was to get through a resolution that no president could be prosecuted for anything while in office. Which meant that he would do anything, no matter how cynical or misjudged, to cling to office. It says a lot about the French way of doing things that he’s got away with just two years, suspended.

In the Wake of Every Tyrant



Today 28 people are reported in one newspaper to have been shot dead in Syria, thirteen of them in two villages near the Turkish border. Furthermore, the United Nations, a body instinctively pro-Syrian, announces that the death toll has now passed 5,000 — surely an underestimate. One Syrian also describes how he was tortured, and one of his legs is gangrenous. Yet elsewhere, Muhammad Bassam Imadi, a former Syrian ambassador, has given an interview to say that popular anger could have been corrected by reforms but “the Government instead responded with repression and killing.”

Of course it did. Bashar Assad is a one-man ruler who has done great harm to his country for the usual selfish ends of accumulating power and wealth. Challenged, he and anyone in his position is certain to respond with repression and killing. Reform on his part would be interpreted as weakness and readiness to give up. The very idea of reform in these circumstances is either a chimera or the prelude to revolution. Witness the Arab Spring.

David W. Lesch is the author of The New Lion of Damascus, subtitled “Bashar al Asad and Modern Syria,” published in 2005 by Yale University Press. The dust-jacket describes him as a professor in a university in Texas and no doubt he has professional credentials. I have the book in my library, but couldn’t recall what it said so I had another go at reading it. Here is a full-throated hymn of praise to Bashar, modest, studious, good-natured, pushed about by neo-conservatives, et cetera. Lesch’s credulity is impressive. Bashar, he asks us to believe, “is, indeed the hope — and the promise of a better future.” Again, “He has the opportunity to be at the vanguard of change in the Arab world … He has the intellect, the drive, the energy, and the ideas.”

Bashar’s fiefdom of murder is completely unpredictable from this characterization of the man. It is bewildering that events can prove a qualified professor to be so wrong. The axiom of Lord Acton comes to mind: “In the wake of every tyrant comes an apologist with a sponge.” Talk of reform and democracy and hope was drivel put out for Lesch’s benefit. He uses a sponge all right, not in order to defend crime but because the imagination required to understand this very different political order is missing. With academics like that, no wonder the public can’t come to grips with Middle Eastern reality.

Russia Looking Stormy



The demonstrations in Moscow illuminate a dark sky like a flash of lightning. A storm might be on its way. Vladimir Putin has corrupted the country and thousands of outraged Russians are prepared to take to the streets in protest. More than just a reactionary, Putin is a throwback who in a process as inexorable as it is tragic has built what can only be called the post-modern version of Communism. In the manner of the old Soviet Central Committee, he and his cronies have made sure to monopolize power and wealth, those two engines of the Kremlin.

It is common knowledge that Putin has stolen an immense fortune, and has the state building him palaces and amassing collections of art for him. He has cut down freedom of speech to the point where it is virtually non-existent. It is taken for granted that he authorised the murder of anyone standing in his way, many of them journalists like Anna Politkovskaya or dissident exiles like Alexander Litvinenko. The way he bankrupted, imprisoned and arbitrarily extended the massive sentence of the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky is perhaps the greatest running scandal anywhere on the continent. Press-ganged, the judiciary has no independence. Grigory Yavlinsky, a possible future democratic leader, comments bleakly about these demonstrations that in Russia, “There is no rule of law.”

Accustomed to centuries of misrule, Russians know how to steer a course through injustice and make what life for themselves they can. They might have let Putin do his worst, and he must have thought so too. When his presidential term expired according to the constitution, he devised a trick to return to office for another eight years. The result of the presidential election due next year is already known. Now he has been caught rigging the parliamentary elections. People can stand hardship and absence of law, but this open contempt was really too insulting.

Demonstrators turned out in thousands, only to be outnumbered by secret police and riot troops. In Soviet days, live ammunition would have been used. Times have changed in that many more people refuse to be intimidated. So far, about 250 arrests have been made, among them some well-known bloggers and free spirits.

Oleg Gordievsky was the head of the KGB station in Britain until he defected a few years before Communism imploded. He told me that one look into the cold and utterly expressionless eyes of Putin gives away all that anyone needs to know about the man. Should demonstrations recur in the immediate future as planned, Putin is virtually certain to go down the Bashar al-Assad route and order repression. Beggars can’t be choosers, and the same goes for pocket dictators.

Twilight of the Nerocrats?


The euro may very well be enjoying its fond farewell within a matter of days. And if the currency goes, then the European Union will also be no more, as the German chancellor and the French president moan in chorus. At which timely moment, the Daily Mail reports a special contribution of the Brussels bureaucracy: Musicians may no longer be allowed to play instruments whose strings are made of the traditional cow gut. The prohibition was apparently brought in a decade ago; there were dispensations, but these are not being renewed.

Oh, how they care for our well-being! They’ve spotted a health risk. Nobody has ever caught mad-cow disease from a stringed instrument, but you never know, they just might. Not long ago, these bureaucrats put a similar ban on organ pipes. Nobody in a thousand years has been ill from the lead content of organ pipes, but again they might have been. Never mind that we shall never be able to hear the music of Bach as he heard it. Think of the committees and the hundreds and perhaps thousands of hours spent on correspondence, consultations, and drafting the means to achieve this peculiar end, when with any luck all 25,000 of these paper-mongers will be sent back to their own countries by the end of the year, and have to begin paying taxes into the bargain. The precedent of the Emperor Nero playing his fiddle, I find, has come to mind.

On Stalin’s Daughter



A story is told about Svetlana, the daughter of Stalin, that soon after she had arrived in the United States George Kennan, the scholar of things Russian and Soviet, took her to Princeton. They called on Prince Paul Chavchavadze, a Georgian émigré married to a Romanov Grand Duchess and on the faculty. It so happened that something had gone wrong with the plumbing. Entering the house, Svetlana rolled up her sleeves and got to work. If someone had told me that Stalin’s daughter would one day clear up my kitchen, the Grand Duchess supposedly said, they would have been thought completely crazy.

Apocryphal or not, this story is in keeping with Svetlana’s character. Determined, strong willed, she asked for no favors. Mutual friends with an interest in Russia introduced me to her. She had never been to Wales, so I invited her to stay and she came for ten days. The cottage is uncomfortable, I warned her. Does it have running water? she asked. She was to spend most of the time in her room, except when she wanted to cook. She showed no interest in the Welsh landscape or the ancient churches nearby. The hooting of an owl in the wood bothered her.

Our friends had advised me that any questions about her father or her past made her angry. Anger did indeed rise quickly in her, and then she looked astonishingly like Stalin, with a sort of animal glare in her eyes. But at meals she reminisced of her own free choice. She evidently loved her father, remembering how he had spoiled her and called her his princess, helped with homework in the Kremlin, and educated her, insisting that she learn foreign languages. No less evidently, she couldn’t accommodate the knowledge that he was as frightening a murderer as anyone in history. She was sure in herself that Stalin was responsible for the death of her mother, whether he shot her or she shot herself. A photograph shows her as a child on the knee of Lavrenti Beria, head of the secret police, a Soviet Himmler. Her father’s crimes were really Beria’s, she badly wanted to believe, with that animal glare shining in her eyes.

I have a copy of her book Letters to a Friend, which in its way is a unique document because she emended it, restoring passages that had been cut out and adding commentary. After the interlude in Wales, she left for Spring Green, Wis. I suggested that we sit down with a tape recorder and collaborate on a book that would do justice to her feelings about her mother and father, to the significance of Communism and the Soviet experiment, to experiences of a life so unlike any other. It might have been a lasting memorial to the 20th century, but the wish to be anonymous proved stronger than the impulse to put herself into print for all to read. Hers was a genuinely tragic destiny, and she met it with dignity, and I am happy to add, anger.

‘Death to England’


About 50 Iranian protesters screaming “Death to England!” climbed the wall surrounding the British embassy in Tehran, entered the building, and scattered some files. At the same time, two or three hundred students gathered in the street. According to most reports, the police stood and watched. Of course they did. Demonstrations of this kind are organized by the authorities. It’s time off and a nice little earner for all participants. Capture the embassy, and they might be allowed to live in it with all expenses paid for months, like the lucky gang once before in the American embassy.

These Iranian protestors are always shouting death to someone — to the United States, to Britain, to Israel, to Saddam Hussein in old days, to poor old Salman Rushdie — and there must be quite a production of the requisite flags for them to burn. The rhetoric makes them look stuck in medieval mindlessness. A firm belief in conspiracy further testifies to it. Walls used to be defaced with the graffiti, “Khomeini, Tool of the British.” The ayatollah had done such damage to Iran, in other words, that he must have been a secret British agent. What a one-track man he was. The great Oriana Fallaci asked him what he thought of Bach and Beethoven. Those names, he answered, were not familiar to him.

His successor as Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, still singles Britain out as “an icon of Western imperialist arrogance.” He thinks Britain has destroyed his cultural heritage when it has in fact done a great deal to rescue it. Evidently he has not heard of Henry Rawlinson roped up on the cliff face at Isfahan to record the ancient hieroglyphs; he does not know about the explorer Armin Vambéry, Professor E.G.Browne and his enthusiastic book A Year Among the Persians, or the throng of politicians, officials, and scholars from Lord Curzon and Sir Percy Sykes to Anne Lambton who one way and another publicized and interpreted the Persian heritage.

In the course of some research, I discovered that the ayatollahs had invariably written nothing except commentaries on the commentaries of others. Only a single one out of more than a hundred had chosen a subject after 1800. This ignorance from above drives the ignorance below. It is also the reason why Islamism in general, and the Islamic Republic of Iran in particular, will come to nothing. The mind-set can be expressed as “Death to creativity and invention.”

Actually, I suspect that those slogan-shouters outside the embassy are well aware that they have been put up to something worthless, and it would take very little to have them shouting meaningfully and without bakshish, “Death to the mullahs!” That was the cry in the Green Revolution a couple of years ago. The Jimmy Carters and Barack Obamas of the world do their best to appease and flatter the foolish clerics instead of showing the courage that would oblige them to change. Fifteen British sailors simply surrendered to Iranian hijackers in the Persian Gulf. The Foreign Office can’t do better than mumble about the embassy invasion being “utterly unacceptable,” when action is required to put a limit to the very real imperialist arrogance that does such harm to Iranians and so many others.


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