Politics & Policy

In Davos, Part Vi (The End)

Welcome to the sixth and last part of this Davos journal, marking the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, 2005. Previous parts, in ascending order, are here, here, here, here, and here. Or you could check the archive. I forget how adept you all are.

You have perhaps heard about a brouhaha involving Eason Jordan, chief news executive of CNN. (Jordan, recall, is the guy who admitted in a New York Times op-ed piece that his network refrained from reporting horrible happenings in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. One wonders what they are holding back in Cuba, although one doesn’t have to wonder much. Many decent Cubans despise CNN almost as much as they do the Castro regime–but that is another, sad story.) Jordan is on a panel concerning democracy and the media. It is moderated by David Gergen. I am not present, but people I know are, and they fill me in. Also, one may read an account of this incident on the WEF blog, here. In addition, one may read an account at OpinionJournal.com’s Political Diary (subscription required).

Apparently, Eason Jordan states–or implies (on this, I am not quite clear)–that the U.S. military is targeting journalists for murder in Iraq. Yes, you read that right. Barney Frank–as it is told to me–goes nuts: What? Whoa, whoa, whoa. Youve reported this story, right? It is a momentous deal. Jordan starts to backpedal, realizing that he has gone too far, with this audience. (Not for the first time, incidentally, does Barney Frank show some cojones in Davos–see, for example, my Part I, which touches on Frank, China, and Taiwan.) Gergen, the moderator, is nonplussed at what Jordan has done.

Afterward–again, as it is reported to me–Jordan is surrounded by Arab attendees, who congratulate him on having the “courage” to speak the hard truth. Jordan accepts those congratulations.

To repeat: I am absent from this session, but I have no reason to doubt the testimony I hear. And one can consult the WEF blog and the Journal, measuring those accounts. As for Jordan’s performance, I suppose I should provide commentary, but what can one say?

‐Shimon Peres is a regular at Davos, the convocation’s favorite Israeli. He is out of power now, but Peres is never entirely out of power: He is “vice-prime minister” (your guess is as good as mine), and head of the Labor party (that, one can understand). He meets with a group of journalists over coffee.

Peres is 81, and a good 81–an excellent 81. He is suave, tan, elegant. He looks like a distinguished, retired Miami businessman. He has tons of hair, and not a follicle out of place. He has intelligent, engaging eyes, and offers intelligent, engaging conversation. No wonder he has lasted at top levels in Israeli politics for so long.

The Labor head speaks first about the need for the economic betterment of the PA: Europeans, and others, should invest there. In Gaza, for example, unemployment is over 45 percent. Someone asks, “What kinds of business would you like to see in the PA?” He answers–I like this phrase–”Everything that life calls for.” He then elaborates: “high tech, low tech, no tech.” He points out that Gaza, someday, should be ripe for tourism: It has “43 kilometers of the most beautiful beaches in the Mediterranean.” He wonders whether (abandoned) settlements can be converted to resorts.

A reporter suggests that Hamas has done well at the polls. Peres says, “Good–the better they do at the polls, the fonder they become of democracy.” (I paraphrase.) And “Hamas has developed a charitable organization–that’s what attracted votes, not terror.”

Another reporter prefaces his question with, “You’ve been around for a long time.” Peres interjects, with perfect timing and charm, “I beg your pardon?”

And, of course, the group baits him to criticize Sharon (bête noire of Davos, as of the world at large). Sharon’s career-long rival pretty much refrains, although he says, somewhat condescendingly, that Sharon has woken up to various “realities.”

Peres then gets the usual question about the compatibility of democracy with a Jewish state. He gives a good nutshell answer: “There are 22 Arab states, and one Jewish state. For thousands of years, we had no state, and we paid heavily for it. Why shouldn’t we have one Jewish state, amid 22 Arab ones?” (That’ll be 23, once Palestine is officially established.)

In a discussion of compensation for Palestinians, Peres mentions that Israel will demand compensation–for Jews. Over a million were expelled from Arab countries, and their property was stolen.

Someone asks–with a pro-Peres, anti-Sharon tone–what Peres’s “influence” is with the current government. Peres gives another nice answer: “I don’t know my influence, I know my responsibility.” (He later allows that his influence is nil.)

Should Americans be more involved in the “peace process”? Yet another neat answer: “I’m a provincial man. Peace should not be imposed; it should be born on native ground.”

Toward the end of this session, he relates an anecdote involving Arafat. It’s a little too charming for me–given Arafat’s involvement in it–but here it is: “I said to him, ‘You have to have transparency.’ He said, ‘You want me to become a belly dancer?’ I said, ‘No, but I do want the naked truth.’”

There you go.

‐A couple of us meet Phil Gramm at a coatcheck. He talks about what it takes to keep your footing in Davos. (I mean this in a literal sense.) I say, “What’s a Georgia boy know about walking on the snow and ice?” He says, “Well, I’ve learned.”

(By the way, before you write me to say that Gramm is from Texas–he had his career in Texas; he was born and raised in Georgia, lived there through graduate school, and has always talked like a Georgian. So keep your gun in its holster, okay?)

‐In yesterday’s installment, I mentioned Victor Yushchenko’s speech in the Congress Center. He is even more impressive–more moving–at lunch, with a passel of journalists.

Amazingly candid, the new president of Ukraine. He says, “My country is a deeply corrupt country.” He appeals to investors, and anyone else doing business in Ukraine: “Do not offer bribes to anyone.” In fact, you can enter a new line, when you do your accounting: “Saved expenses on ungiven bribes to Ukrainian officials.”

Although corruption in Ukraine is a “huge problem,” other countries have “cured” it, and Yushchenko expects his to do the same. “And as an economist, I’m especially aware that over 50 percent of our economy is in the shadows. These people pay not a penny in taxes, and it hurts us all.”

He discourses on the state of free speech in Ukraine–not good. Journalists have been murdered “for telling the truth.” The “information domain is controlled by two or three families. Our goal is an information market that is public and transparent.” (There’s that Davosian word again, “transparency.”)

After his formal remarks, and before we begin our lunch, Yushchenko offers a toast: “I wish you prosperity in all your endeavors. I wish you physical and moral health. [A striking phrase, that.] And may you have a white angel sitting on your left shoulder, taking care of you.”

There is some dispute after whether Yushchenko has said “wise angel” or “white angel,” but it was one or the other.

Then he claims that the toast–the act of toasting–originated in Kiev, anciently. You see, the most popular method of eliminating one’s opponents was poison. (This, of course, is all too meaningful, coming from Yushchenko.) So you clinked your glasses extra hard, so that some of his drink would spill into yours, and some of yours would spill into his.

I’ve said before, and ought to say again: To be in the amazingly noble and dignified presence of Victor Yushchenko is probably the highlight of the Annual Meeting. Not to take anything away from Bill Clinton, of course . . .

‐On Opening Day, I remarked that the “friendliest” name in the entire Davos directory was that of Giuseppe Buongiorno, an Italian journalist. (He is with Panorama, a newsweekly.) The name can be construed as “Joe Hello, How Are You?” I said that I was almost afraid to meet the man, lest he be unfriendly. Well, I meet him–and he is quite friendly. Lived in New York for seven years–knows it well.

Thought you’d like to know.

‐I have a friend who lives in Zurich (German-born). He’s going to visit Israel in a couple of months. If he told people, however, he would be doing the equivalent of telling them he’s a child molester. (Except that child molesters can be understood.) “If I said, ‘I’m going to Saudi Arabia, to witness the stoning of a rape victim,’ they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s nice–cultural diversity, blah, blah, blah.’ But if I said, ‘I’m going to Israel’–they would be wide-eyed in horror.”

‐The Iranian foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, is on a panel concerning nuclear non-proliferation (yes). Its moderator is Graham Allison, of the Kennedy School. Also on this panel is Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA chief. Kharrazi explains–if I have understood him correctly, and I believe I have–that al Qaeda was created by the United States for the purpose of destroying the Iranian government. (If this is true, they’ve done a poor job of it.) And it’s amusing to see the foreign minister distance himself from North Korea. He says, in essence, “Those people are crazy!”

My favorite line of this session, however, comes from Chae Su-Chan, a congressman from Korea (the Korea that could credibly have a congress). He refers to terrorists as–this is a direct quote, now–”perverts and cowards.” He continues, “They hate civilization, and they hate prosperity.” Right-o, CS-C.

Graham Allison does something a little disheartening. He says–”speaking as an American”–that the U.S. government claimed that Saddam had nukes, while ElBaradei’s IAEA said no–and the invasion proved that the Bush administration was wrong, and ElBaradei right.

That is not how I remember this recent history, but what can one say? And what government in its right mind could invade a country that has nukes? That is the whole, friggin’ point of preemption.

But you know all this, and one grows weary.

‐Small world–such a small world. I sit down at dinner. Next to me–an American. Home state–the same. Home town–the same. His mother taught at the junior high school I attended.

How does that Walt Disney song go again?

‐Speaking before a huge room of journalists at a final-night dinner is John McCain, and I’ve really looked forward to hearing from him. As I’ve said–this year and in the past–Sander Levin, Ed Markey, and Barney Frank can look like George Patton, Douglas MacArthur, and Curtis LeMay at Davos. How about John McCain?

What a letdown. I’ll provide a few excerpts from McCain’s performance, starting with the issue of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

One barrier to going after them, McCain says, is that we said there were WMD in Iraq, and there were not. Therefore, the administration would have to make extra sure that people were convinced of Iran’s capabilities.

This is a fair point, but I wish McCain hadn’t given up so easily on the Iraq/WMD issue. There is more to the story than that. And he has unfortunately buttressed a general Davos line. (The invasion was proven unnecessary and wrong.)

And how about the Guantanamo Bay prisoners? They are, of course, a hot topic at the Annual Meeting (have been from the beginning–you never hear about innocent, democratic prisoners in Cuba, chained by Fidel Castro). McCain is a “try ‘em or release ‘em” man. How you try terrorists nabbed on the Afghan battlefield, he does not venture to say. He does say, “Even Eichmann got a trial,” which is one of the cheapest things I have ever heard out of a politician’s mouth.

(For one thing, no one proposes to execute the Guantanamo Bay prisoners–so far as I know.)

But it gets worse. The word “neocon,” as you know, is a great bogey, in Davos and elsewhere, and an Arab journalist gives McCain a golden opportunity: She says, “Are the neocons still controlling policy in Washington?” I repeat: What an opportunity! McCain has a chance to dispel a pervasive, somewhat sinister myth, before an important audience. He can do some real good. As respected as he is, he can administer some sanity.

But instead of dispelling the myth–that Bush is a puppet of wily neocons–he more like reinforces it. He says, There are always power struggles in Washington; sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down; if you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog. What’s more, Bush is feeling “more secure” in this second term–which implies that an insecure Bush could have been manipulated by others in the first.

McCain concludes, “Have I done a good enough job ducking that question?”

The questioner has a look that says, “I am vindicated in my suspicions.” It’s plain.

The senator then goes on to talk about himself. Without prompting, he brings up his loss to Bush in the 2000 primaries (“not that I’m not over it or anything”). He uses the old politician’s line about sleeping like a baby the night of his ultimate defeat: “I woke up every few hours, crying.” No one asks whether he’ll run for president in ‘08, so he poses the question himself. And his answer: “Anyone who’s a U.S. senator or governor, and not under indictment or in detox, thinks about running for president.” Then he does his riff on how Arizonans can’t grow up to be president (given Goldwater, Udall, etc.).

I will say this for McCain, however: A journalist stands up and discusses what he considers atrocities committed by Americans in Iraq. McCain responds that we regret every loss of life–but that perhaps our journalist should think about those tortured, raped, and killed under Saddam. This is pretty elementary stuff, but, at Davos, it can seem Churchillian.

There is much to admire in McCain, and I don’t scoff at his supporters–far from it. But, as I leave this dinner, I think of Bush’s critics in general: Sure, the president has made mistakes, as anyone would in a job so big (and as we all do, in jobs much smaller). But I believe that history will remember him as a man who did miraculous things for liberty–and hence for the well-being of the world–in the first decade of the 21st century. And his critics will seem like so many gnats around the ankles of a great, beneficent beast.

‐Friends, I’m spent, and I imagine you are too. Remember the slogan the Republicans used in 1946, after umpteen years of Democratic rule? It was, “Had Enough?” Well, we have. So I’ll see you later, and thank you for reading.

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