Politics & Policy

In Davos, Part V

Welcome to the fifth installment of these notes on–and from–the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum. Here are the links to the previous installments: Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV

I know I’ve already talked about Kofi Annan, but may I talk about him again? He swans around the conference, in the midst of a huge entourage. He is like an old-style emperor (is there a new-style one?), this secretary general. That entourage is an irksome disruption. Hard to get from one place to another, when they happen to be nearby. This one enormous bodyguard shoves me aside, as though I’m a gum wrapper. But hang on: It gets even worse: It’s a woman. She is maybe the largest woman I have ever seen.

A friend of mine makes a wise–though not an original–comment on Annan: His style of leadership is the African style. (Tony Daniels once wrote a piece for us to this effect.) He moves around like the classic big man, with the big man’s retinue.

Why do I harp on this? Because one of the interesting things about Davos is that you bump–literally–into a world leader pretty much all the time. You jostle someone inadvertently, say excuse me, and it turns out to be Musharraf–not exactly a guy unthreatened.

Anyway . . . I think this is the last time I’ll comment on Annan in the course of this journal. But that is not an iron-clad guarantee.

‐Davos experiences a scandal, and I learn about it when an e-mail from Klaus Schwab appears in my inbox (and everyone else’s). (Schwab is the founder and executive chairman of the WEF.) It says:

With great concern and pain, I just learned that Global Agenda, a publication distributed to our members at the Annual Meeting 2006, contains an article calling for a boycott of Israel. This article is totally in contradiction to my own, and the Forum’s, mission and values. For 36 years I have been committed to fighting for mutual understanding in the world. The Forum has been deeply involved in the efforts to create better relations and reconciliation in the Middle East and throughout the world. . . .

This is a standup repudiation by a standup guy. But what would an international conference be without a call for the boycott of Israel? Listen, we’re lucky if the writer grants Israel’s right to exist (which I doubt). An international conference without boycott-Israel calls would be like a hockey game without fights.

‐I see in the paper that Saddam Hussein is going to sue. It’s true, then: America has imposed its values on Iraq.

‐A session in the Congress Center features Robert Mueller, director of the FBI; Michael Chertoff, the secretary for homeland security; Robert Zoellick, the deputy secretary of state; Gijs de Vries, EU counterterrorism coordinator; and August Hanning, the German intelligence chief. (Seems to me that head spooks are more visible than they used to be.) This panel is moderated by James Rubin, formerly a Madeleine Albright aide, now with CNN.

Hanning says that 9/11 was a “wakeup call,” not only for his own shop, but “for all Western intelligence services.” He speaks of “a new culture of cooperation” among these services. He also stresses that “you have to do your homework–you have to know what’s going on in your own country.” Before 9/11, “we were cautious about religion, mosques,” and the like. “But we have reorganized our work. We have gotten more resources, and I think we’ve made it far more difficult for these groups to prepare further terror attacks.”

De Vries–a mightily impressive figure, by the way–notes that France and Spain have cooperated to deliver “major blows” to ETA (the Basque terrorists). Germany and France teamed to stop an attack on the Christmas market at Strasbourg. Et cetera. The 9/11 report in America said that intelligence services had to move from a culture of the “need to know” to a culture of the “need to share.” And that has been taken to heart.

Chertoff asks, “How do you manage risk?” And the risks are multifarious. The media, he says, focus on a particular risk–whatever risk happens to be hot that week (ballparks, train stations). They do this much as children playing soccer chase the ball, to the neglect of everything else. But the Homeland Security Department–along with other agencies–has to look at a broad array of risks, including ones that people at large haven’t thought of. Perhaps especially those.

Bob Mueller? He has an amazingly–a fascinatingly–long face, and he looks like that bad cop from L.A. Confidential. What was his name? James Cromwell. (I’ve just looked it up.) One thing Mueller says is that the U.S. still considers Hamas–the electoral victors in the PA–a terrorist organization, “and we will proceed on the assumption that things will get worse rather than better,” what with suicide bombers and all.

De Vries has something to say about Hamas, too. “It’s bad enough to have the president of Iran denying the Holocaust, and pledging to wipe Israel off the map.” Hamas refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist–”and it’s hard to see how this will help the peace process.” Hamas “will have to change,” because “it cannot have it both ways: You cannot take part in a democracy, the essence of which is the peaceful resolution of conflict, and be a violent organization, a terror organization.”

Guess who’s sitting in the front row, dear readers? Amr Moussa, of course–the secretary general of the Arab League. He tends to sit in the front row, whenever he’s not on the panel itself. Could be he has an intimidating effect, especially on the Arab panelists. Who knows?

Anyway, he grabs the microphone, during the Q&A, to defend Hamas: You cannot call for democracy and then lament the results of democracy, he says. (Actually, you can.) “Hamas in the past has been accused by some countries of being a terrorist organization. But this didn’t send any message to the Palestinian people, who have their own life and difficulties. It takes two to tango. Israel must act, Israel must cooperate,” blah, blah, blah. Israel, Israel, Israel.

Even when change sweeps the Middle East, Amr Moussa will be Amr Moussa, eternally, I’m afraid.

And then comes maybe the most delicious moment of the entire Annual Meeting, my friends: A lady in the audience accosts Michael Chertoff. She says, “You’re always focusing on the symptoms–what about the root causes?” (I’m abridging her question substantially. But she’s a root-causes lady.) Chertoff says, “We focus on the symptoms, because the symptoms kill you. And our first obligation is to make sure people don’t get killed. But we focus on the root causes as well, and . . .”

Chertoff speaks very well about the root causes. But that initial answer–”The symptoms kill you”–weighs heavily on the mind. Outstanding.

Another lady stands up: She objects to something August Hanning has said. What Hanning did was quote Osama bin Laden, on the subject of “the Islamic bomb.” Those were bin Laden’s words. The lady passionately says that there is no such thing as an “Islamic bomb,” just as there wouldn’t be a Christian bomb, or a Jewish one. Hanning protests–several times–that he was merely quoting bin Laden. The terror leader’s words were key to the point that he, Hanning, was making.

The moderator, James Rubin, says, “If it had been me, I would have said, ‘I stand corrected.’” At this point, August Hanning becomes my hero. Good for him–sticking to his guns, to the mere facts at hand.

Have some more de Vries, who is absolutely commanding, both in language (English) and in argumentation. “I am uncomfortable,” he says, “with this notion of ‘root causes,’ because it suggests a nice, lineal relationship between a cause and terror. The more we explore, the more we find that no such simple relationship exists.” But there are problems that feed terror: lack of good governance, for one. Lack of freedom, really.

That seems almost too simple to state, but it’s far from too simple for some. For a great many, actually.

Mike Chertoff addresses the issue of a nuclear weapon, and makes the point–in arresting language–that a nuclear attack is “a society-wrecking event.” He also wishes to make “an observation about terrorism”: People are no different than they were 200 years ago, or 500 years ago, or 1,500 years ago. What has happened is that individuals have acquired tremendous leverage, with the acceleration of technology. The task of keeping destructive technology out of the wrong hands is tremendously hard.

And that is the task of the Homeland Security Department, and other groups of people.

James Rubin closes the session with a remark totally out of the blue. We’re all in this together, he says (essentially). Don’t be callin’ your opponents weak or unpatriotic.

Where did that come from? The administration officials–Chertoff, Mueller, Zoellick–had said nothing of the kind. Neither had anyone else on the panel. Perhaps Rubin was playing to the Davosian “base.” Perhaps he was seizing an opportunity to “speak truth to power” (without letting “the power” speak back–the session was adjourned immediately after Rubin made his remark). Maybe he was feeling piqued about something in particular, unknown to others.

I think he was, basically, being a good Democrat.

It’s often said that the administration calls its opponents weak and unpatriotic. I’m not sure I hear the administration do this very often. But I hear–every day–prominent Democrats accuse the president of treason: of lying the country into war. Of “shredding” the Constitution. Blah, blah, blah.

That’s pretty rough stuff. So if you get a response every once in a while . . .

‐Speaking of prominent Democrats: All the clichés–the physical clichés–about John Kerry are true: “lantern-jawed,” “blow-dried,” “stiff.” I believe there is a bullying quality about Kerry, too. But I don’t accept that he is “patrician” (another word often used to describe him). To me, he lacks the elegance and presumed decency of true patricianness.

But then, I’m a vicious partisan . . .

Kerry leaves the meeting early, to go filibuster Judge Alito. He looked awfully comfortable in Switzerland, though–his home turf, in a way. He went to finishing school here. Someone asks me whether I lifted a glass of Chardonnay with the senator. No–didn’t even get to talk wind-surfing with him.

‐Funny thing about Switzerland? You look forward to having hot chocolate here, in the land of chocolate? You know, après-ski and all that? They give you this mediocre powder in a packet, and a cup of hot water. Strange. I think I had better hot chocolate from Meijer’s Thrifty Acres circa 1972.

I’ll see you tomorrow, Davosers.


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