Friends, I’m writing you from the village of Davos, in Switzerland, where the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum is being held. I will report for the next few days, mixing items of some moment with items of a light nature. (How does that differ from the normal Impromptus, huh?)
Anyone and everyone is here, as is always the case. You have your heads of state: Abdullah, Klaus, Kwasniewski, Musharraf, Khatami, Erdogan. You have a slew of foreign ministers, and other ministers. U.S. Cabinet members include Ashcroft and Evans (Vice President Cheney will also show.) You have thinkers, deep and allegedly so (I don’t think I’ll venture a list). You have noted novelists like Ishiguro, Gordimer, Wiesel, and Theroux. (Granted, these folks–certainly Theroux and Wiesel–write more than novels.) You got a smattering of Hollywood types (Richard Gere, Julia Ormond, Ron Silver). You have musicians, for instance Quincy Jones and Valery Gergiev (since when have they been paired?).
And you have an assortment of wild cards, including–oh–Vladimir Pozner, the once-famous spokesman for the once-famous Soviet government. He may be holding forth next to a human-rights hero. Such is the world now.
Ah, I should have mentioned the businessmen, since this is the World Economic Forum: Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Carly Fiorina–all the heavy hitters. About them, I’ll say more in due course.
Every year, the Forum publishes a book of participants–there are some 2,100 this year, from 94 countries–with bios and photos of everyone. It’s really a rather fascinating book. Bill Clinton said in his lunchtime lecture on Wednesday (I paraphrase), “I want to come to Davos every year just to get that book. I love flipping through it.” He has a point.
‐Davos, to refresh your memory (I did a four-parter on the ‘03 Meeting a year ago), is the village in which Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain takes place. This is, indeed, the home of the Zauberberg (on which I’ve stayed–not that any literary inspiration flowed from it, to me). This is also the region of Heidi, the little girl famous for interrupting a football game. Davos is almost indescribably beautiful, “snowbound,” as all the journalists write, as pretty as a picture-postcard, or one of those shake-up globes. The trees and châlets are encased in snow, and it seems almost an Epcot–an idealized–presentation of an Alpine hamlet. The views of Davos are so beautiful that one hotel is called Belvedere, another is called Bella Vista, one is called Bellevue, and so on–it all means the same thing, that this place is something to look at (to put it mildly).
‐There is, as always, a great variety of panels–of sessions, lunches, dinners, and other gatherings–and signing up for them is rather like signing up for your university classes: You can’t take everything, and three things that capture your fancy may take place at the same time. You just have to bite the bullet and choose.
The Meeting is supposed to have gone informal this year, with men forbidden to wear ties. In fact, the main hall–the Congress Center–has been declared a tie-free zone. Signs, featuring a tie with a stern line through it, reinforce the point. Each man who wears a tie into the Center has to pay a fine of five Swiss francs, to be sent to Unicef. By the look of it, Unicef will make out pretty well. Old habits die hard, and some men feel naked without their ties. A few of them look it, too.
‐A panel on Iraq is hosted by the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, and features Jack Straw, the foreign secretary of the U.K., with Olivier Roy (of the Centre de la Recherche Scientifique) and Alyson Bailes (of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) commenting. I will relay a few points of interest.
Roy is asked to say something about Grand Ayatollah Sistani, leader of the Shiites. He notes that Sistani lived under Saddam Hussein for 30 years and managed not to be killed, so “he must be a cautious man”–a true insight. Roy relates that Sistani is in close touch with the mullahs of Iran, but that he supports the separation of church and state. “He wants democracy–one man, one vote–and the Americans can’t oppose that.”
As for Jack Straw, he makes a striking impression. The session begins at 10:45, but Tony Blair’s minister is not there. David Ignatius announces that he’s expected at 11:05. Straw actually arrives at 10:55. The moderator points out that the minister is ahead of schedule, whereupon Straw quips, “Do you want me to go?” So many of the British seem to have quickness and charm in their blood. One does not have to be an Anglophile to recognize this simple fact of life.
When it’s time to make his prepared remarks, Straw says, “As an adherent to the British parliamentary tradition, I find it physiologically difficult to sit and speak at the same time”–but he does so anyway. What he does is deliver a powerful defense of the Coalition invasion and occupation of Iraq. He gives a defiantly upbeat report on the situation now: the Iraqi police is being firmed up; 70 million revised (i.e., de-Saddamized) textbooks have been distributed; vaccines have been made available; electricity and water are improving; etc., etc.
Straw notes that Iraq has established a currency and a central bank with remarkable speed, but that the press has not taken notice–a well-placed shot. He tells his listeners that they have no idea of the “extravagances” in which Saddam and his “ruling clique” indulged–the palaces boggle the mind. The plunder of the Iraqi people wounds the heart.
Also, Iraqis, during the long Baathist tyranny, were kept in deplorable ignorance. But now they have satellite dishes, which were banned under Saddam, and about 200 newspapers, and unfettered access to the Internet–also banned under Saddam. (Banned in Castro’s Cuba, too, by the way. That is not a datum you’re apt to learn in our media.)
The foreign secretary reminds his audience that Saddam Hussein had violated no fewer than 17 U.N. agreements, and that the U.N. had 173 pages’ worth of WMD concerns. He says–as before, I will paraphrase–”I respect the views of those who disagreed with our action in Iraq. But I would ask them to look back and consider what the situation would be if we had allowed Saddam to continue to defy the U.N. I submit that if we had sat on our hands and not acted, the world today would be a much more dangerous place.”
Someone asks whether Iraq will have to be split apart, given the inharmonious peoples. He responds that the territorial integrity of Iraq must be “absolute,” and points out that we are in a country–Switzerland–that is “highly federated” but “still unified.” He also cites Belgium, with its different regions and tongues–”so these models exist.”
Secretary Straw is sort of needled about Iraq contracts flowing to U.S. companies. He says something arresting, from a foreign official: Again, paraphrasing, “The U.S. taxpayer has put an astonishing amount of money in Iraq, through Congress–and that’s democracy, by the way. It’s only natural that they should want some of the money to come back to American firms. But plenty of subcontracts are going to other Coalition partners. I applaud the astounding generosity of the American people, and I would remind you that the ultimate benefit, of course, accrues to the people of Iraq.”
You can live for many days–or years or decades–and not hear such an evaluation of the American people from any foreign leader.
Olivier Roy interjects that it has been demonstrated that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction and no link to al Qaeda–therefore, the only reason to have gone into Iraq was to build a stable democracy, and that the Coalition is doing badly.
Straw does not sit on his hands. He again refers to those 173 pages, in which was mentioned “the strong presumption”–the U.N.’s words–that the regime harbored 10,000 liters of anthrax. “Were we to do nothing?” asks Straw. “Nothing?” It is probably the most dramatic moment of the session.
The secretary adds that he has never claimed a link between Saddam and al-Qaeda–although Saddam had his hands in terror generally (e.g., in the Intifada). (I myself always like to point out that Saddam, after all, gave refuge to Abu Abbas–the Achille Lauro mastermind–and Abu Nidal, an Arab Carlos the Jackal, whom Saddam, in all likelihood, wound up killing, for reasons that make for interesting speculation.)
Straw robustly defends our democracy-building efforts in Iraq, then goes on to sing an ode to democracy at large. He comes from a party, he says, “that lost four elections on the trot” (a wonderful Britishism for “in a row”). “We won the last two. That’s called democracy, and sometimes the side you favor doesn’t win.”
He also explains that he doesn’t especially mind religious parties, which dot Europe (even if they do not tend to be especially religious–think the Christian Democrats, in any country). When an Islamic party in Turkey won power, there was “shock, horror,” but everyone now agrees that that government is “a delight to do business with.”
A questioner notes that all of the experts on an earlier panel–all of them, to a man–averred that the Iraq campaign had made the War on Terror harder. Straw snorts this claim out of school, pointing out that, at a minimum, the Coalition has removed Afghanistan and Iraq from the terror business, and can that be counted as nothing?
Another questioner alleges that Britain et al. are “cooking the books” in Iraq–placing their thumbs heavily on any electoral scale. Straw himself describes this as a charge of “a stitch-up job,” then knocks it down, in no uncertain terms. He again avows his special love of democracy: “I have been democratically elected to public office. Who else in this room can say the same? Let me see hands, please. One? Fine. But I don’t care to take lectures on democracy and democratic legitimacy. Elective office in a democracy has been my life.” What’s more, “‘legitimacy’ is an easy word to mouth, but those who question our methods in Iraq should be asked, ‘What would you do that would be an improvement on what we’re doing?’”
That is a question that tends to shut mouths.
A Turkish participant expresses concern that the Kurds are feeling their oats (so to speak), and cites at least one Kurd who has made loud independence noises. Straw (in paraphrase): “People will take positions, ’twas ever thus. But when Saddam Hussein was in power, people could not take positions, lest they be killed. True, we’ve found fewer WMD than expected, but we’ve found more mass graves. And now, people don’t get shot for expressing their opinion.”
Another participant chides Secretary Straw for putting the judiciary last in his list of recent Iraqi accomplishments. Obviously, says this man, the government of the U.K. can’t care terribly much about the rule of law. Straw, barely patient, responds that he put the judiciary last because it’s most important, not least, “and I say this as a lawyer.”
So that’s that.
I have gone on about this performance simply because it’s not the kind I am accustomed to witnessing. Certainly we don’t often see such things at international conferences, including the Davos Forum. Straw was commanding, unflinching, persuasive, affable, willing, and factual. He was informed to the gills. He proved a superb explainer/defender of all that we are doing, and have done, and will do in Iraq. I dare say that no American official has performed as well–certainly not Straw’s counterpart, Colin Powell. How much good it would do, around the world and at home, for Powell to make such efforts, with such conviction and knowledge! My suspicion is that most people would come around to the Coalition point of view–or at least not be hostile to it–if it were explained sufficiently well. This has been a failure of the post-9/11 period. But Jack Straw, trust me, is up to the job.
I doubt that we will ever, dear Impromptus-ites, find a foreign minister of a socialist government more congenial. Ever.
The same goes for his PM, actually.
‐I’ve gone on at some length, so I think I’ll give it a rest, coming back with Clinton and other luminaries tomorrow. But let me give you a couple of short items, since you so patiently waded through a long one. (Did you?)
I ran into a guy who was small, but unbudging–and all business. (When I say “ran into,” I mean literally.) Turned out he was one of Barak’s bodyguards, and the Israeli bodyguards, though no linebackers–far from it–look like some tough hombres. No surprise there, huh?
‐Bill Daley–the ex-commerce secretary and chairman of the Gore-Lieberman campaign–is here, and the last I’d seen him was on a huge television screen, on Election Night 2000. I was in the plaza down in Austin, Texas, where Governor Bush was about to come out to give his victory speech (a gracious, uplifting one). But there appeared Billy Daley–son of Mayor Daley, one of the fabled fixers of 1960–saying, “No, sorry, folks, the election ain’t over.”
Here, I’m happy to report, he seems much less menacing than he was, to me, that night, on that giant screen.
‐When I was in college–studying anthropology–Ruth Benedict was a big joke. Yes, she was. She had written her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword–a study of Japan–at the request of the government (for we had been attacked by the Japanese and were fighting them). She had done so without benefit of visiting Japan, using only the resources of libraries in New York. In my circles, the book was thought to be a hoot: slipshod, ill informed, tainted because it was requested by the government, imperialist, etc. (You remember what it was like to be in college.)
I took the opportunity to ask a distinguished Japanese intellectual here about the book. He replied that it was a great one, still holding up, still widely read and studied in Japan, a masterpiece of national and cultural analysis.
Who’s laughin’ now, homies? Who? Who?
‐Okay, you’ve twisted my arm, I’ll give you a little U.S. politics:
Bob Dole informed Time that he was “thinking about doing a real book . . . I probably won’t run for anything again, so I can tell the truth now.”
It was refreshing to hear a politician refer to a “real” book, effectively acknowledging that the books “written” by politicians–including Dole–aren’t “real.” (George W. Bush–who is almost always refreshing–once referred to a volume–a 2000 campaign book–as “the book they say I wrote.”) And the telling-the-truth-part?
Refreshing, yes, but a little depressing, too–even if Senator Dole (for whom I interned, by the way, when I was in college) likes to be a jokester.
‐I’ve been talking in this column about Wesley Clark’s breathtaking arrogance (among other things). He can’t seem to hear himself talk–for instance, “It may be that the very kinds of skills that made me so successful as a military commentator–the ability to think in nuance and be clear–are not the kind of skills you need in a political leader.”
The skills that made me so successful as a military commentator.
He also said of John Kerry that “it’s one thing to be a hero as a junior officer” (as Kerry was in Vietnam), but something else altogether to have proved it “at the top.”
As I’ve said before about Clark: I–any normal person, I would think–would be ashamed to think such things. But can you imagine saying them? In public? As a candidate? For president?
‐Finally, on Dean: Faced with some heckling, he got his crowd to start up a chorus of the National Anthem, drowning out the hecklers.
There was a neighborhood girl, when I was young, who, when she didn’t want to hear something, stuck her fingers in her ears and sang. She was about ten, I’d imagine. Governor Dean? How old is he? And he wants to be president?
Never mind. Tomorrow, y’all.