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David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

Will the Rebels Return Megrahi to Britain?



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Two full years have passed since Abdulbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, was reprieved from prison in Scotland and allowed to return to his native Libya. The Scottish authorities released him allegedly on compassionate grounds. The man had cancer, it was said, and would supposedly be dead within three months at most. Statements from the cancer specialists who pronounced this opinion are fishy, and it has long been clear that the Scottish and indeed British authorities were played for suckers — or possibly had reached some underhand deal with Qaddafi concerning profitable oil contracts. Megrahi has been received as a national hero in Libya, and has been supervising the building at the expense of the state of a splendid villa for his old age.

The rebels in Libya are poised to close in on Muammar Qaddafi in Tripoli and bring his regime to an end. Hitherto hardly more than a mob untrained in the use of weaponry, the rebels are showing signs of greater professionalism, deploying captured tanks and artillery. The presumption is that officers from NATO countries must be responsible for these improvements. In any case, earlier NATO intervention alone saved the rebels from certain extermination by Qaddafi’s loyalists.

Should the rebels take Tripoli, an immediate test of their character and purposes will be their handling of Megrahi. He should be returned to Britain, and the proposed tribunal should be held to determine his guilt or otherwise — lawyers say there is new evidence. Yet a spokesman for Prime Minister Cameron bleats, “I don’t think there is any mechanism by which he can be brought back.” If that is so, the British in NATO will have been simple mercenaries acting on behalf of the rebels, happy to accept the standards of the Third World as their own.

Smiling Rioters



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The prolonged rioting in England has evidently been the greatest fun to those participating. While they were smashing up shops and stealing whatever they could, the young rioters often found time to tell astonished reporters that they didn’t have any cares or worries about what they were doing, and they would carry on until caught. All the while they kept smiling because they knew they wouldn’t be caught.

Presumably from fear of being accused of overreacting, the police often stood by and took no action even when they could see the smashing and stealing in the street they were in. The rioters seem sure that they are in their rights to help themselves to whatever they want, to wreck shopkeepers, and set fires that burnt out homes and forced one woman to jump out of a blazing upper-floor window (she survived traumatised but miraculously unhurt).

After this party comes the hangover. Those caught looting are a cross-section of the population, they range in age from children to forty-year-olds; one is the daughter of a company director, another is a teaching assistant. What unites them is the sense that they were doing no wrong, and were entitled to take possession of desirable goods. The fact that the police didn’t or couldn’t prevent them but merely watched reinforced the sense of entitlement, as though they were tacitly being allowed to get on with it.

And that is the core of these events. Decades of misconceived social engineering by liberals has caught up with the country, and hit it in the face. Everything and anything that might have provided these rioters with grounds for respecting themselves and others has been systematically undermined by the they-must-be-free-to-express-themselves brigade of liberals. Post-1945 England has been remodeled to be rid of the values that made the country what it had been, and introduce new dogma. No family solidarity, no discipline, no culture, no education, no concept of law, no patriotism: Heavy-duty social engineering of the kind ends in a Hobbesian freedom that self-destructs. Politicians and intellectuals lost in ideological fantasies have made these rioters the pitiful mindless creatures that they are.

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Putin the He-man



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At this time of year Vladimir Putin likes to play the he-man. Usually he has himself photographed, stripped to the waist to show off his pectorals. Sometimes he poses as a sportsman with his rifle — at least he appears to be generally in a wood. Now he has been at a summer camp engaged in arm-wrestling with abashed teenagers, and bending something that looked like metal or reinforced plastic as though he were thestrong man in a circus act. As if this wasn’t preposterous enough, he had a comment to make on the debt-ceiling crisis in Washington. America, he said, is “acting as a parasite.” In the KGB-Stalinist vocabulary of abuse, “parasite” is a much-loved term, applicable to capitalists, Jews, dissidents, and those generally opposed to Communism. The term encapsulates a lifetime’s indoctrination. Just imagine Cadet Putin learning how to think in the compulsory Marxist-Leninist mode andpassing the lesson on now he is the Kremlin boss. A well-known psychological development is to accuse others of the misdeeds you yourself are committing. According to reports, Putin enjoys something like eight palaces, one on the Black Sea built to his specification for housing art collections that he has somehow acquired, and a fortune in the order of forty billion dollars. Which of the classic Soviet labels fits him better, proletarian or parasite?

Keep Your Eye on Turkey



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The power struggle under way in Turkey is a vital issue for the rest of the world, potentially as important as the outcome of the uprisings in the Arab countries all around. Since his election in 2002 as Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been engaged in fashioning what had been a secular state and a Western ally into an Islamist state taking the lead in the Muslim and especially Arab world. According to the previous constitution, the army had been guardian of the secular state, and Erdogan therefore had to break it. In time-honoured style, he declared that the army had been plotting a coup, whose code name is Ergenekon. Since 2007 something like 270 senior officers have been arrested and some of have faced fantastic charges in court though so far none has been convicted.

Bringing matters to a head, fourteen more active-duty generals and admirals have been forced to resign. Another 22 senior officers have just been arrested.  At present, half of all Turkish admirals are under arrest. In response, General Isik Kosaner, head of the Turkish armed forces, has resigned. This may mean that the armed forces have decided to surrender their role as upholders of secular values, and Turkey will emerge as an Islamist power to emulate and rival Iran.  President Obama is a great self-proclaimed friend of Erdogan’s but will in return have been given only a head-ache. Alternatively, the armed forces may have had enough of being pushed around and are preparing to turn the Ergenekon fiction into a real-live coup. Watch this space.

The Wagner Taboo



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The Israeli Chamber Orchestra has just given a concert playing music by Richard Wagner, and what’s more in Bayreuth, the town where he lived and which has been a shrine to him ever since. There’s been a general but unwritten agreement in Israel that Wagner was such a rabid and stereotypical anti-Semite that his music should not be played there. Self-respect came into it. Some are rejoicing on the grounds that this concert breaks a taboo. But taboos arise for the very good reason that they define and protect civilized behavior, and it is a sensible precaution to examine the whys and wherefores whenever someone claims that it is right to be breaking them.

Every year in the 1930s the Wagner festival at Bayreuth was a leading fixture in the Nazi calendar. Adolf Hitler was the regular guest of honor. Of course Wagner cannot be blamed for the fact that Hitler adored his music. But he can be blamed for the fact that his music, even or especially at its most grandiose, promotes a vision of myth and myth-making, so to speak Harry Potter with a full orchestra attached. A kindred spirit, Hitler’s view of the world was also dependent on myth and myth-making, especially where Jews were concerned.

My father could have been a professional musician, and he took me as a teenager to the Bayreuth festival. We met Winifred Wagner, born Williams, whose marriage to Siegfried had made her the composer’s daughter-in-law. On her desk were signed photographs of Hitler and Goebbels. She paid them compliments, and regretted that they could no longer be patrons, they had so loved the arts. Myth-making was everywhere. Quite as creepy is Haus Wahnfried, the family house-cum-museum, where in one gloomy room after another the past of the composer is treated as holy and everything associated with him preserved like relics in a cathedral. Wagner himself has been captured as in a myth of his own making.

Wagner’s music is played everywhere, of course, and so it should be — except in Israel or by Israeli orchestras. More than a taboo, the Wagner boycott in that country is by consent a standing reproach to the fantasies about Jews common to him and to Hitler. That’s not a taboo at all, but a way of saying that some things are so evil that they can’t be normalized.

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More Dangerous Than Insane



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Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass-murderer, the pundits and psychiatrists are quick to say, is insane. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London and one of the most intelligent men in public life, considers that there is nothing to study in Breivik’s mind. That seems altogether too easy a dismissal. All the evidence is that Breivik set about this crime with unusual forethought and a thoroughness which the would-be bomber in Times Square, for example, or the man with explosives in his underwear on the flight to Detroit, were quite incapable of. Breivik is an educated man, he can make good use of a phrase of John Stuart Mill’s. For a long time he has been writing a document of 1,500 pages, a testament in which he lays out that he has enemies, in this case Muslims whom he sees taking over Europe, and the social democrat politicians, all traitors, who collude in their own downfall and the end of Christian culture in the West by encouraging Muslim immigration.

Comparison with the preoccupations of Mein Kampf leaps to mind. Bolstering the Nazi analogy is Breivik’s love of dressing up in bogus uniforms complete with orders and medals. The murderous premeditated attack on the island near Oslo seems his version of the 1923 coup which landed Hitler in prison but gave him the chance to broadcast his ideology. Insane mass killers usually turn their gun on themselves but Breivik has made sure to stay alive in order to oblige people to listen to his explanations of what he has done.

Coincidentally, that same week brought unexpected news of Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy. In May 1941, Hess flew to England on a mission that has never been fully explained. Captured, he was held for the rest of the war and tried at Nuremburg where he spoke and acted as though insane, much to the irritation of former colleagues in the dock with him. He spent the rest of his life in a Berlin prison. I once interviewed Frau Hess, herself an unrepentant Nazi, and she proudly showed me among other memorabilia a specially printed copy of Mein Kampf with Hitler’s dedication. Fanatics never give up.

Those executed after the Nuremburg trial were cremated and their ashes scattered. Hess was buried in a family grave at Wunsiedel, in Bavaria. Over the years neo-Nazis have treated Hess’s grave as a place of pilgrimage. Thousands of them parade there, sing their Party songs, give their Party salute, and threaten the peace. At last, the church authorities have cancelled the rights of the Hess family to their plot, and the corpse has been removed and cremated, the ashes now scattered in untraceable water.

Breivik fits into this neo-Nazi underworld now swarming in large numbers, and far more dangerous than insane. They are the mirror image of the militant Islamists busy building a society apart, and if really nobody can devise how this culture-clash should be dealt with, then Breivik may come to be a role model.

England’s Revenge



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On one occasion in New York, I listened to a speech by Mr. Rupert Murdoch in which he said something to the effect that at Oxford he had received a second-rate education in a third-rate country. Quite a few in that audience had been to Oxford and thought well of England, so a sort of shudder went through the room. Success of course led him to talk like that quite often and openly, making him unpopular, the envy and the hatred all mixed up. Right now, England is having its revenge on the man.

A miasma of accusation is sweeping the country. Murdoch journalists evidently hacked into private telephones, which is forbidden by law. Money has passed between such journalists and the police, which is also forbidden by law. So far, ten journalists have been arrested, and two senior police officers have resigned. There seems to be evidence of lying and prevaricating. Gagging orders have been placed on lawyers to prevent them from revealing what they know. Two committees have been set up to investigate, and parliament was recalled for a debate. One of the arrested journalists was the chief of communications for Prime Minister David Cameron, and he was obliged to resign. The issue enlarges into party politics.

Mr. Murdoch may have been far and away the richest and most influential media baron, but his competitors are showing neither respect nor mercy.

Photographers are sure to have caught him looking all his 80 years, badly dressed, harassed, past it. Questioned by one of the committees, he often hesitated, and of course the cameras dwelled on his apparent failure to find the answer he needed. At that committee some intruder threw a carton of some kind of cream in his face, and he could be made to look ridiculous for that — he seemed like some malefactor put into the stocks in a medieval village to be pelted with rubbish. He also apologised for his papers’ misdeeds, and the Daily Telegraph then ran the exultant headline in gigantic type, “Murdoch eats humble pie.” As for the BBC, it makes no pretence at objective reporting, glorying in one program after another in Mr. Murdoch’s predicament, exaggerating it with speculation that places him and all who come into this story in the worst possible light. Neither they, nor I, are in possession of enough hard facts on which to base a properly judged conclusion.

I have often wondered how people in the past joined in witch-hunts, suspending reason and passing sentence of death on the basis of prejudice and mass hysteria. Now I know how it happens.

Hari, Disgrace to the George Orwell Prize, Suspended



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More news about Johann Hari, a journalist on the Independent, a British newspaper very keen to claim the moral high ground and to rubbish everyone else. This Hari has an outstanding reputation for trickery. On one occasion he joined a National Review cruise passing himself off as an ordinary passenger and writing it up as though he’d been behind enemy lines. If that’s not being an imposter, what is it? But his speciality is to do interviews and incorporate into the published article whole passages as though they had been spoken to him when actually they have been written elsewhere. The Daily Telegraph for instance singles out that in a nearly 5,000-word interview with Ann Leslie, a very experienced reporter, he took 545 words from an article she had written in the Daily Mail. If that’s not plagiarism, what is it? His editor has now suspended him “pending the outcome of an internal inquiry.” This Hari was once awarded the George Orwell Prize, and those judges are having an investigation into what he did. Orwell is known to have attacked nuisance-types with an uplifted chair, and that is what he’d have done to this Hari trading on his name and reputation.

Another Era of Peace and Justice for Sudan?



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A Sudanese novelist by the name of Tayyib Salih has retired to London. I practiced my Arabic by translating his novel Season of Migration to the North. Here is a tragic story of a Sudanese who tries to live up to the standards of the British, fails to do so, and kills his English girlfriend and then himself. And this is also pretty close to the story of Sudan.

True, at the battle of Omdurman at the close of the nineteenth century, the British sealed their occupation by killing ten thousand Sudanese, the bravest of the brave, in the face of machine-guns. The young Winston Churchill rode in the decisive cavalry charge and remained proud of it for the rest of his life. But it didn’t take long for Sudan to become the outstanding example of enlightened colonialism. About 200 British officials administered this vast country with its 500 or so tribes of different religion and ethnicity and language, and brought them peace and justice. Tayyib Salih acknowledges it in his book.

The news that Sudan has just split led me to look again at the writings of some of these former governors and district commissioners, men of immense experience and devotion to Sudan like Sir Reginald Wingate and Colonel Hugh Boustead. Wilfred Thesiger, the great explorer, joined the Sudan Service and left an unforgettable portrait of his time there in the 1930s and the humanity that he learnt. “Ever since then it has been people that have mattered to me,” he writes in his autobiography.

How long ago that all was, and how much better that lost world seems than the ghastly murderous decades since then. The Sudanese have been fighting each other now for almost half a century, in a free-for-all of Muslims, Christians, and animists, tribe against tribe, with women and children raped and left to die, villages burnt, wells poisoned, anything cruel that the strong can devise to send the weak to the wall.

The criminals who did this will be remembered for a long time as the janjawid, a local version of the Gestapo. It is said that between two or three million defenseless Sudanese were killed, and as many displaced, but the real numbers will never be known.

Sudan has just divided with the Muslims keeping the north, and the Christians and animists forming a new country, to be known as the Republic of South Sudan. Having lived and suffered under the rule of Islam in the north, the southerners voted almost unanimously to secede and they are celebrating their independence accordingly. They have a president, a capital at Juba, a flag, and an anthem. There are about eight or nine million South Sudanese, most of whom live on one dollar a day, and are illiterate. When Libya became independent, that country had nobody with a Ph.D, and I wonder if South Sudan is any better off.

Just about fifty miles of roads are paved. The country is potentially fertile for agriculture, and it has oil. This may lead to extended warfare, since the boundary with the north is not yet properly demarcated and it is not clear to whom the oil money should go. Equally ominous, it is an article of faith in Islam that territory once held by Muslims cannot be given up. The likes of those English officials are required if there’s to be another period of peace and justice.

Otto von Habsburg, RIP



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All things considered, Otto von Habsburg was pretty modest. Had history turned out differently he would have been Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. Born in 1912 he had memories, just, of the old world destroyed by the First World War. Aged four, he had walked with his parents behind the coffin of his grandfather, Emperor Franz Josef, who had reigned for 68 years, the final crescendo of the Habsburg Empire and a dynasty that had ruled for six and a half centuries. Succeeding to the throne, Otto’s father, Karl, had to play a dreadful hand. On the losing side at the end of the First War, Austria had the makings of revolution. The British King George V was haunted by the recent assassination of his Romanov cousins by the Bolsheviks, and he sent a train to rescue the Habsburgs. Otto was nine when his father died in exile, and he became head of the house, with a few loyalists calling him “Your Majesty.”

Otto learnt the main European languages, and could speak Latin, appropriate for the devout Catholic that he was. He hated Hitler, who hated him in return. Otto spent the Second World War in Washington, and had contact with President Roosevelt. Then he hated the Communists and they hated him. He never raised his voice, he had humdrum looks not improved by the spectacles he wore, but in his presence you knew that he had natural authority and would always do what he thought right. It was impossible to avoid imagining how much better and safer the world would have been if he were still ruling Austria.

The Habsburg Empire comprised sixteen different nationalities, and the Emperors always tried to find some way of avoiding national strife by constructing over-arching institutions that would make unity out of diversity. It didn’t work, it couldn’t be done. Otto became a member of the European parliament in Brussels, and for twenty years pursued the old illusion of unity there. The attempt to put together incompatible nations had ruined Austria as it must ruin the Brussels experiment. Croatia had been a Habsburg possession, and at the end of his life he was lobbying for it to join the EU. It seemed magnificently stubborn that he was so concerned with a country he might have ruled, and still refusing to learn what ought to have been the lesson of so long ago. He was 98 when he died. R.I.P.

Reagan Honored in London



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The centenary of President Ronald Reagan has just been marked in London by the inauguration of a statue of him in Grosvenor Square under the shadow of the American embassy. The larger-than-life bronze statue is a likeness of the man, with a smile and a stance that catch his spirit too. The American ambassador, Louis B. Susman, gave a breakfast for VIPs including Condoleezza Rice, former governor of California Pete Wilson, and a number of congressmen and a senator. But he earned poor headlines in the press by failing to attend a grand dinner in the Guildhall, where other guests were former Prime Minister John Major and four Cabinet ministers (Mrs. Thatcher declined for health reasons). One of these ministers, William Hague, earned good headlines with a speech containing an anecdote about the recent royal wedding. He had told an Arab ambassador, he said, “Look, a million people are heading for the palace — and we’re totally relaxed.”

Humiliated Hari’s NR Connection



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Someone called Johann Hari has provoked a great burst of laughter throughout Britain. It’s always a joy when someone who strikes a fierce and moral pose is revealed openly and irredeemably as a hypocrite and cheapskate. And that’s our Hari, who is a journalist very keen to give us the benefit of his opinion, and at the top of his voice too.

He specialises in interviews, and one was with an Afghan women’s-rights activist by the name of Malalai Joya. A blogger spotted that the published interview passed off a number of quotes and formulations lifted word for word from a book by this lady as if they were direct speech. In the immediate wake of this plagiaristic subterfuge other bloggers showed that Hari had done the same in previous interviews, for instance with Toni Negri, the last surviving anti-capitalist Marxist-Leninist, and with Gideon Levy, an Israeli who thinks we all ought to bring down that country. Hari at once began wittering about “interview etiquette” in his “intellectual portraits,” and pretended that he wasn’t a plagiarist at all but quoting ideas as expressed by his subjects in writing rather than how they’d expressed it in speech. The belly laughs reached a crescendo before he confessed, “Now I see it was wrong, and I wouldn’t do it again.”

Another journalistic subterfuge of Hari’s should be out in the blogosphere as it helps to fill in the portrait of this fine fellow. He signed on for an NR cruise under false pretences, pretending to be on board like everyone else when his intention was to ridicule the magazine, its ideas, and the readers he was meeting.  What goes around always comes around. He’s now the object of ridicule, and has only his own untrustworthiness to blame for it.

Being a Panelist on Russia Today



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Russia Today is an English-language television station in Moscow. Out of the blue, an e-mail invited me to participate in a panel discussion on the subject of the Arab Spring. I happened to have caught a friend, a Washington insider, on a previous RT panel, and he had pulled no punches. So I accepted. Except that I am now in Florence, Italy, and it wasn’t clear that a studio could be found. Florence in fact has what was needed in its studio for Italy’s main television channel, the state-owned RAI Uno. At the gate on the day, a uniformed keeper said he had to see my passport if he was to let me in. I had no documents of any kind. I smiled. He smiled, and waved me through. I couldn’t help remembering how in the days of Tsar Yeltsin a huge Italian delegation had turned up in the hotel where I was staying, itself belonging to the KGB. They were manufacturers of leather goods come to exhibit and sell, only to discover that all prior arrangements were null and void. By next day, however, they had a hall and had already set their wares up. Moral: Italians, like Russians, have learnt how to negotiate their way through anything.

Russian foreign policy at the moment is every bit as misguided as it was in Soviet days, principally designed to recover its lost superpower status by playing the anti-American card. The power maniacs in the Kremlin are consistent spoilers. Building on Syria’s sovietised past, they have become the leading supporters of Bashar Assad, and make it plain that Russia will use its full influence to oppose any international measures against him. In other words, the Syrian people can go hang. And next week, a Russian minister will be in Iran attending the inauguration of the nuclear plant at Bushehr, the work of Russian engineers and a step in the ayatollahs’ nuclear ambitions that the West tried hard to prevent and Russia will one day regret. The ayatollahs’ missiles have Moscow in range.

I had worked out how to make these points in the hope that some Russians might take them on board. Instead the very articulate anchorman and the other two panelists stuck with generalities about democracy, human rights, intervention in Arab affairs, the mess NATO has got itself into in Libya. No opening for specifics about Russia, Syria, and Iran. That’s how public opinion takes shape. Or fails to.

Another Day . . .



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Another day, another Soviet spy revealed in the heart of the British establishment. The spy this time is James MacGibbon, who in the war worked in a special department of the War Office and passed documents to his Soviet handler in London. A Russian historian, Svetlana Chervonnaya, has been exploring the relevant files. At the same time, MacGibbon’s son, Hamish, has published an article in the London Review of Books, a left magazine that rejoices in anything harmful to Britain.

This article explains how James MacGibbon had been a member of the Communist party before the war but still passed the War Office vetting, like so many other dubious figures. German intelligence had penetrated parts of the Soviet secret service, and MacGibbbon could have given away information that exposed Ultra, the code name for British interception of German radio traffic unknown to the Germans. In that case, as Ben Macintyre, a specialist in these matters, points out in The Times, the Germans could have known in advance the details of D-Day, and the invasion would have ended in disaster. MacGibbon is thought to have received the Order of Lenin for his services.

After the war MacGibbon became a publisher, and it was easy to meet him in literary London. Suave and amiable, he seemed the standard fashionable lefty. As a matter of fact, he looked very like Kim Philby, and had much the same deceptive charm. In itself, his treachery hardly matters now, but it is yet one more illustration of the Soviet Britain that was taking shape in the shadows. Here was a failure of morals and intellect affecting a significant part of the elite, and you have only to read the London Review of Books to realize that the British are still paying for it.

Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, R.I.P.



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

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

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

Assad’s ‘Dangerous Path’



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

La Rafle



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

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

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

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

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

The Preemptive Cringe



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

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

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

Unreality Diplomacy



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

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

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

French Socialism’s State



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

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