David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

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.

The State of Syria


The Syrian crisis is gathering inexorably, and has the potential to do open-ended harm. Bashar Assad, the Syrian president, is evidently determined to do whatever is necessary to maintain his absolute rule. In the last few days at least 100 people have been shot dead in separate cities in Syria. Some of these were government soldiers or security men engaged in repression. The choices facing Bashar are narrowing. The more he raises the level of violence, the greater the likelihood that in the end he will meet the fate of Muammar Qaddafi. Should he go down, he can always try to take other countries with him.

This last possibility implies regional war with all sorts of unforeseen consequences. Fear of chaos, foreign intervention, and spreading sectarian civil warfare is at last gripping other Arab power-holders. Meeting in Cairo, the Arab League has voted to impose sanctions on Syria in the hope of quarantining it. Assets of high-level Syrians are to be frozen and their visits abroad banned. Videos of the occasion show a solemn conclave of elderly men, some in well-cut suits and others in Arab dress, but a show is all it is. The Arab League is comprised of the 22 Arab countries. Supposedly a bloc representing Arab interests, in fact fundamental national differences have invariably reduced the Arab League to the output of mere verbiage. So it is now with sanctions on Syria. Iraq and Lebanon are dominated politically by Syria, while Algeria might be next for an uprising and foreign intervention, so all three countries have abstained from voting for sanctions. Business as usual, then.
The horror in Syria and its fall-out reveal the dangers inherent in an order in which one-man rule and absolutism is so easily able to suppress all aspirations to democracy. All that’s uncertain is the number of deaths for which Bashar will be responsible.

Sunday Schooling


The Sunday newspapers in London carry a revealing crop of stories about the way Britain is evolving. The Sunday Telegraph reports the case of Mrs. Nohad Halawi. A Christian, she came to Britain in 1977 from Lebanon, a country being torn apart at that time by civil war, with Muslim and Christian militias at each others’ throats. Mrs. Halawi has worked for the past thirteen years in a duty-free shop in one of the terminals at Heathrow airport. According to her, “fundamentalist” Muslims also working in the airport have a habit of harassing Christians there. She says, “One man brought in the Koran to work and insisted I read it and another brought in Islamic leaflets and handed them out to other employees. They said that 9/11 served the Americans right and that they hated the West, but that they had come here because they wanted to convert people to Islam.” And more yet cruder in that vein. Muslims were quick to put in a preemptive complaint about Mrs. Halawi, and the management responded by immediately getting rid of her. That would no doubt be that, except for a small private outfit called the Christian Legal Centre publicizing her case and going to court.

Another page describes how a special fund of public money is giving £35,500 to a project to study the life and times of Muhammad Abdullah Hassan, a Somali. For many years at the end of the nineteenth century he raised an army of Dervishes to fight the British, and earned the popular nickname “the Mad Mullah.” Highlighting Somali resistance to British rule is supposed to be the way “to engage disaffected Somali teenagers” who are today’s fodder for Islamism. And on yet another page is an article about how the army in Afghanistan is paying the Taliban not to fight.

The Sunday Times adds to the picture by quoting two well-known professors, Steve Jones and Richard Dawkins, each saying that Muslim biology students are boycotting their lectures, or walk out of them, on the grounds that what is being taught “is incompatible with their conviction that Allah created mankind and all the other species in a single act of will.” 

Both Sunday papers of course devote space to the gathering civil wars in Egypt and Syria. Islamists are poised to take power in both those countries, as well as in Tunisia and Libya. The evidence of British self-abasement and appeasement may be anecdotal, but in the wider context it is enough to give Islamists and “fundamentalists” every ground for hope.

While I Was Away


In common with other fortunate folk, I have just enjoyed time out of life on the latest NR cruise. While we were sailing in the sunshine oblivious to events, the international order was shaking to pieces that little bit faster. So many decisions taken by the powers-that-be are irrational or mistaken that we have no choice except to endure. To step off the cruise ship and catch up with what’s happening in the Middle East and Europe illustrates the great human lesson that actions really do have consequences, and we all have to pay the price for rulers or politicians who behave as if that wasn’t the case.

Egypt is in the hands of a few senior officers who have no intention of giving up their financial and political hold on the country. The Muslim Brotherhood believes the moment has come to start a test of strength. The Brothers are dragging hapless liberals along with them into protesting in Tahrir Square in the centre of Cairo. The military junta is responding with force, and it is an illusion to suppose that this is any kind of solution. Syria is in the hands of Bashar Assad and his family, and there again the Muslim Brothers are dragging hapless liberals along with them into protesting ever more violently. Civil war is quite likely, with the further spectre of intervention by outside powers such as Turkey or Iran, even the United States and NATO. Responsible for the irrational and mistaken measures that have led to these crises, the Egyptian committee of generals and Bashar and his hangers-on show themselves incapable of comprehending how human beings react. All they seem able to do is to count their money and their guns.

The European Union proves an equally efficient mechanism for destabilization. The governments of Greece and Italy, Portugal and Ireland, have been put through the inflexible grinder devised by the Eurocrats to serve their interests, and now it is the turn of Spain. As outgoing prime minister, Luis Zapatero gladly fulfilled all the demands the EU made of him, and has consequently and deservedly lost the trust of the voters. His successor, Mariano Rajoy, nominally a conservative, has no prospect of being able to make the rational policy choices that might rescue the country. No government can expect to survive in conditions when politicians and bureaucrats in other countries are able to impose their will upon them.

The Arab Spring has long since been a misnomer for the attempt to introduce more rational governance. The European Spring with luck will not involve resorting to force and bloodshed in the Arab style, but it will last so long as the Eurocrats refuse to understand that the malignant turn of events is the outcome of their illusions and mistakes.

Two Dismissals


So Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy have got rid of the prime ministers of Greece and Italy within a few days of each other. It’s very remarkable that two politicians can take it upon themselves to throw out of office the democratically elected prime ministers in other countries where they themselves have no vote. They sacked George Papandreou and Silvio Berlusconi in exactly the way that the man in the Kremlin used to dismiss first secretaries or Party bosses in satellite republics. The moment Papandreou proposed to call a referendum he was doomed. Ask the people what they want? The very idea of it! Greece and Italy are now German protectorates.

At a press conference, in full view of the public, Merkel and Sarkozy gave amused grimaces at the mention of Berlusconi. Actually the latter is still quite popular at home. He fits a national stereotype immortalised in Donizetti’s masterpiece Don Pasquale of an elderly rich man deceived by the wiles of young ladies until in the end everyone contrives to live happily ever after. That he could fall asleep during an international gathering of politicians out to finish him off brings these proceedings down to their proper level of comic opera.

Greece has already defaulted, and Italy looks like doing so in the face of debt that cannot be repaid. Merkel and Sarkozy can’t remedy this, they haven’t access to funds on the scale required, and their electorates wouldn’t allow them to make fiscal transfers even if they could. Their unilateral and undemocratic decisions to prop up the euro will finish by destroying it, and the European Union into the bargain. The capitalisation of French banks is already under question, and here is Sarkozy begging China for money, in other words so desperate than he is ready for any humiliation. In another form of begging, namely anxiety to please, he didn’t realise journalists could hear him telling Obama, “I cannot bear Netanyahu any more, he is a liar.” (And if the Israeli prime minister had been a European no doubt he too would be pushed out of office.) To which Obama replies, “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him every day.” This happens just when the Atomic Energy Agency provides the information that Iran’s nuclear program has military purposes. And these two are going to take care of that? The fate of millions is in their hands?

The Eurocrats in Brussels have just decreed that all jars of honey must carry a label specifying that there might be pollen in the contents. Let nobody say that those people can’t recognise a crisis when they see one.

Like Inspector Clouseau


Someone has thrown Molotov cocktails into the offices in Paris of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine (whose title amalgamates the first name of the founder and a shortened version of the French for weekly). Computers, files, everything has been burnt out though nobody was hurt. The French Minister of the Interior, Claude Guéant by name, said the police were looking into the possibility that this was an act of terrorism. This is pretty brilliant detective work on the part of the Minister and the authorities.

Charlie Hebdo was in the process of bringing out  an issue with the title “Shariah Weekly,” leading with a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad and a promise put into his mouth, “100 lashes if you don’t die from laughter.” The front cover reports the laws forbidding representation of the Prophet, and there had been quite a bit of media coverage about this. Journalists at the paper were receiving anonymous threats and their website was hacked. These threats, Claude Guéant said with that flash of intuition that makes him so great a Minister and defender of Europe, might imply Muslim terrorists and “we can’t ignore this lead.”

Surely not, but fishermen in the Faroe Islands are upset by quotas on their catches, and sports coaches in Germany are complaining about inadequate facilities. They are far likelier suspects of throwing Molotov cocktails at satirists and the French law enforcement agencies, inspired by the memory of Peter Sellers’ immortal Inspector Clouseau, must pursue them with diligence.

Will the Greeks Save Democracy?


A bombshell! This is one to bring the house down. The Greeks are to have a referendum on whether to accept the terms of the bail-out cobbled together a few days ago in crisis conditions. The country has no possible means ever of repaying its debt, and the Brussels mob came up with a bail-out, inadequate in itself, vague except for the strings attached. Essentially they issued a diktat whereby in return for token cash, Greeks are to hand their economy to the Brussels mob, or in plain language, give up their sovereignty. Aux barricades! Of course, they have taken to the streets. Much more of it, and the country will reach social break-down.

Prime Minister George Papandreou may look moth-eaten, but the announcement of this referendum is pretty brilliant politics. He ducks the blame for giving in to the Brussels mob, and he heads off the threat of a general election that he and his Socialist Party are certain to lose. Better still, he can be sure that the voters are going to say no and reject the bail-out by a large margin. Ouf! Greece will then be able officially to default, scrap the doom-laden euro, return to the drachma that it should never have abandoned, and devalue. That way, they can become competitive again, and the society will hold together.

The panic of the Brussels mob is wonderful to behold. Of course they may yet devise another of their anti-democratic tricks to keep the show on the road, and in the great quip of long ago British prime minister David Lloyd George, die with their drawn salaries in their hand.  They may somehow rout Papandreou, or refuse to accept a referendum that says No, and insist on a second one that delivers Yes.

Everybody with a head on their shoulders has been forecasting for years that the euro was certain to come to a crisis like this. The sovereignty of nations is stronger than the Brussels mob. Union was a historic mistake. The Greeks invented democracy, and it will be poetic justice if they save it now and free us all.

A Shameful Stand-off


Put yourself in the shoes of Bashar Assad, the fellow who inherited the presidency of Syria from his father Hafez Assad. Everyone in the country knows that Bashar hasn’t a shred of legitimacy, and most of them want him out. Fearing that the successor might be an Islamist monster, a minority hope Bashar can somehow hold things together. And how to do that?  In the ten years that he has been in power, he has regularly dropped hints about reform. This is only pro forma. Reform, he knows, is the slippery slope that leads to the end of his power. So when the Arab Spring forced the issue, he chose repression. Now he has been responsible for the deaths of 3,000 people and the arrest or disappearance of probably 30,000 or more. A film on television just now shows a large apartment block in the city of Homs being shelled by tank fire. This is war against the people he is supposed to be presiding over. Protesters are in the streets in growing numbers and he cannot fail to realise that if they lay hands on him he will be executed in the Qaddafi style. An American president who understood the Middle East would have long since made it impossible for Bashar to stay in office. Now even the protective Russia and China are pressuring him. Turkey is openly backing the embryo Syrian opposition. The defection of soldiers from the Syrian armed forces has the prospect of civil war.

As an urgent exercise in public relations, he has to get across that he’s not your usual blood-stained Arab dictator but just doing what anybody would do in his position. So he gives an interview to the Sunday Telegraph, a media outlet supposed to be conservative. Sure enough, Andrew Gilligan, an investigative journalist and no fool, gives Bashar the chance to describe himself as a perfectly normal chap, living in a bungalow without security, driving his own car to take the kids to school, concluding, “That’s why I am popular.” What he’s bringing, he wants Gilligan to report, is stability, keeping down the ill-wishers of the Muslim Brotherhood paid and armed to create trouble. The pitch is that everyone should back his stand against the Islamists. “If you play with the ground you will cause an earthquake … Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistan?”

“I will do such things —” raved King Lear, “What they are yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth.” Bashar’s threats of more Afghanistans reveals how deeply he fears Western intervention, and like King Lear would ward it off with rhetoric, the only available weapon. What we have here, then, is a shameful stand-off between an individual who has no idea what to do except kill, and the international collective that has no idea at all, period.

The Ephrussis Brought to Life


I have just returned from Vienna, where I went to celebrate the launch of the German edition of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes. This tells the story of the Ephrussi family, who were bankers and businessmen originally from Odessa and once household names. Edmund has an Ephrussi grandmother (to declare an interest, I have an Ephrussi great-grandmother). By profession he is a ceramicist, very well known.  This is his first book, and a runaway success everywhere. I think the Viennese publisher Zsolnay said to me that he had already sold 30,000 copies in a few days.

The book is marvellously well written, but that doesn’t explain why it is such a hit. The reason seems to be that what happened to the Ephrussis is something everyone can identify with, something of a parable. Settling in Vienna, in the 1860s they built a Palace on the Ringstrasse, a huge and extraordinary monument on six floors around an enclosed courtyard. Here was standing evidence to their wealth, success, and their evident belief that they were assimilated, so socially acceptable that the city’s rabid anti-Semitism wouldn’t affect them. Wrong, of course. Fortune, creativity, taste, enterprise, social connections, counted for nothing when the Gestapo had its day.

The Palace today belongs to a company called Casino Austria. The rooms are a riot of painted ceilings, ornament, gilding, massive panelling and doors, all restored to former standards. A throng of maybe 200 or more gathered in the courtyard. There were speeches. A representative of the city council asked the crucial question: What had Austria lost by expelling or killing its Jews? Edmund followed up: The book was an act of restitution, meaning that memory of the expunged family was returning to Vienna. He spoke as he writes, movingly free from the anger or self-pity that might have come naturally.

Enthusiastic Nazis and anti-Semites, Austrians like to pretend that they were victims of Hitler. This is how they cover the fact that Casino Austria owns this Palace, and not the Ephrussis, or that when the family bank was Aryanised Herr Steinhausser, its manager for twenty-seven years, took possession of it and after the war saw nothing wrong in what he’d done.  If anyone can humanise the Austrians and get them to see the truth of their conduct and their history, it is Edmund de Waal.

A Moment of Respite


The death of Muammar Qaddafi is a cautionary tale. He had the chance to make his native Libya a model country, thanks to its oil wealth, and very deliberately he did not take it. For him, power had nothing to do with such a humdrum purpose as improving the lot of ordinary people, but everything to do with personal aggrandizement. Looking for some way to dignify his ambition, he experimented in turn with Arab nationalism or pan-Arabism, Islamism, expansion into Africa, Soviet freelancing, and anti-Americanism. Violence was the common denominator. Misspent and wasted, the oil revenues sponsored war, invasion of neighbours, and international terror. One abiding mark of his infamy is the Lockerbie bombing.

Qaddafi took care that nobody and nothing could challenge his one-man rule. As his whims developed into daily injustices, the Libyan people paid the highest price. Those who dared to raise their voices were arrested, silenced, and sometimes killed in public. Dissidents disappeared. In one atrocity he ordered the mass-murder of prisoners. Absence of conscience was made both sinister and ludicrous by his poses of grandeur.  Medals and orders covered his uniforms. Bevies of girls acted as security guards. At home and abroad on official visits, he insisted on pitching a tent. But outward Bedouin simplicity masked inner dissolute indulgence.

The capture, trial, and hanging of Saddam Hussein first showed Arabs that they could be masters of their fate. The so-called Arab Spring is the principal consequence. In one Arab country after another, people have risen in large numbers to prove that they are ready to oust rulers who have been inflicting needless injustices and cruelties on them. Like so many other Arabs, Libyans revolted earlier this year to demand to be heard. To a man of Qaddafi’s character, reform is indistinguishable from surrender. He chose repression and rage, he cursed and threatened and set about killing. Western intervention alone has warded off what otherwise would have been the tyrant’s vengeance.

Qaddafi was found sheltering in a sewage drain, and then and there met the summary execution reserved for the Benito Mussolinis, Ceausescus, and their like. He deserved it, but the chance has been lost to bring him to court and confront him with his crimes. That might have been exemplary. The future of Libya is uncertain, and the Transitional Council now ruling in Tripoli is more than likely to have rocky months ahead. Libyans have to acquire in a hurry some experience in self-government, toleration, and equitable conduct. To put it no higher, at least they and the rest of the world have a moment of respite and relief.

The Dilemmas of the Gilad Shalit Case


What has happened to Gilad Shalit is outrageous. He is the Israeli soldier who was snatched by Hamas terrorists and held in Gaza for five years. During that time, he was denied communication with the outside world, and there was every likelihood that Hamas killers had murdered him.  Hamas denied the Red Cross access to him, which was a defiance of all international practice as well as unprecedented cruelty. The Israeli government handled his case ineptly. The Israeli army entered Gaza in force in 2008 to put an end to the ceaseless firing of rockets into Israel. The release of Shalit should have been made a condition of withdrawal. In the absence of means of compulsion, the Israeli governments of Ehud Olmert and Bibi Netanyahu could do nothing except bleat. For five long years Hamas has laughed in their face.

Shalit’s case presents a horrible moral dilemma. On the one hand, his release is imperative, and it is right to pay a high price for it, even though the Hamas brutes gain by it. On the other hand, this price rewards terrorism and inhuman cruelty. Worse still, kidnapping Israelis and holding them to ransom is evidently a paying proposition. The incentive to repeat the operation could hardly be clearer. One would expect Hamas to try to do so immediately.

Hamas have obtained the exchange of 1,000 Palestinians against a single Israeli, and their spokesmen are claiming this as a great victory. They are mistaken. The 1,000 Palestinians are all terrorists caught in the act and convicted in court, while the Israeli was doing his duty only to become the victim of subterfuge and violence to his person. There is no moral equivalence between the parties. Treating Shalit as they have, Hamas reveal their viciousness in full view of the watching world. We understand whom we have to deal with. However apprehensive I am about this exchange, I find I shall be glad when Shalit is finally out of their hands, and also full of pity for the unfortunate Gazans who voted Hamas into power, only to discover that they have put themselves at the mercy of these violent and lawless men, and can do nothing about it.

Oligarchs in London


The High Court in London is offering a fascinating insight into Russian reality. Boris Berezovsky, one of the richest Russian oligarchs and now resident in London, is suing Roman Abramovich, another of the richest Russian oligarchs and also resident in London. $6 billion seems to be at stake.

The case goes back to the unholy scramble to lay hands on state assets after the collapse of Soviet Communism. Boris Yeltsin was in the Kremlin and those who knew the ropes carved up whole industries and took them over; robber barons on an unprecedented scale. A report in the London Times describes Abramovich as “an uneducated mechanic” who once needed Berezovsky to introduce him to banks and provide “political patronage,” the euphemism covering who exactly had to be bribed, and how this was to be done. Berezovsky also alleges breach of trust and of contract. Trust? Contract?

After the collapse of Communism, as one of the lawyers explained in the British judge, ”There was no rule of law. The police were corrupt. The courts were unpredictable at best — at worst open to manipulation. Nobody could go into business without access to political power. If you didn’t have access to political power you needed access to a godfather who did.” According to the London Times, Berezovsky had indeed been “indispensable” in helping the uneducated mechanic to acquire an oil company from the Russian state “in a corrupt auction.” In return he had received $2 billion. This was not a fee, even less a dividend, just a gratuity. Yes, that is the word the lawyers used for this sum. “Libel tourism” is a well-known scandal whereby foreigners find a pretext to get damages under British law for libel committed in some other country. Legal tourism for oligarchs is a novelty.

Vladimir Putin emerged fully-fledged from these swamps. He doesn’t bother with the London courts. On the contrary, he protected one Lugovoi from extradition and trial on suspicion of murdering Litvinenko in London on behalf of the Kremlin. He simply has his opponents put away in Siberia. Time was when Mikhail Khodorkovsky was as rich as any Russian oligarch, and in the Kremlin godfather business too. Putin had no trouble sending him to prison for eight years on charges of financial irregularity, further extending the sentence by seven more. Khodorkovsky has just published a book with reflections on prison and on Russia, concluding: “Until Russia has independent courts, it will not have freedom.” There is no foreseeable chance of that. When the Soviet Union collapsed, General Shebarshin, head of the First Division of the KGB, told me in an interview that the weight of Russia one day would be enough to reconstruct the lost Communist empire. Today’s proposal of a Eurasian Union is Putin’s attempt to regroup under Russian control as many former Soviet republics and countries as possible. “We have a great inheritance from the Soviet Union,” an Izvestia article written in his name has just proclaimed. Didn’t someone say that those who do not learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat their mistakes?

The Targeted Killing of a Formidable Enemy


Anwar al-Awlaki had attributes that made him a serious enemy. A promoter of Islamist fanaticism, he had become the leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen, and was set for greater things in the jihad against the West.

Granted the limitations of his intellectual horizon, he was intelligent and certainly capable. Born and brought up in the United States, he spoke fluent English and could give the impression to his acolytes that he knew from experience how decadent and wicked the ways of the West are. The Fort Hood murderer, the underpants bomber, and the Time Square fire-raiser are evidence that he had the power to persuade people that killing is a God-given task.

His death while on the road in Yemen is obviously the result of first-rate intelligence. Somebody must have got close enough to discover his movements and then be able to pass the information on to controllers of the Predator that then took Awlaki out. Three other Islamist fanatics are said to have died in this targeted killing.

The Israelis have similarly killed Hamas leaders in Gaza and Hezbollah sheiks in Lebanon, and the threat of repeating such attacks constrains the movements of some major enemies, for instance keeping the Lebanese Hezbollah Sheikh Nasrallah in permanent hiding. Contentious as it is sometimes made out to be, targeted killing is a war measure. In the Second World War, the Allies made deliberate efforts to take down everything and everyone military or civilian contributing to the German cause. Some are delving now into all sorts of legalisms to make targeted killings illegal on grounds of nationality or the absence of declared war. That is the way to ensure that the present civilizational and cultural confrontation is extended indefinitely.


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