Politics & Policy

Davos Journal, Part IV

Yesterday’s installment was the third — and here it is. The first two are here and here. And I was talking about . . . the Middle East, I believe. But we’ll take a break from that to visit with David Cameron, the new, young (40) leader of Britain’s Conservative party.

It is rare for an opposition leader to be invited to Davos, as Cameron himself says when he sits down with a group of journalists. During his time in Switzerland, he has been meeting with various figures with whom he would have to deal if he were prime minister. Cameron is affable and fluent, and I must say that he does not strike me as very British. That’s an American Anglophile talking. He strikes me as Joe Euro, and thoroughly Davosian.

As I listen to him, I am reminded of Paul Tsongas, the late Massachusetts senator, and onetime presidential candidate. Remember him? In his words, formulations, and politics, Cameron reminds me of Tsongas. The top British Conservative sounds more DLC than Lady T. (For our foreign readers, “DLC” refers to the Democratic Leadership Council, home and springboard for such “moderate Democrats” as Bill Clinton and Al Gore.)

Cameron does concede, in answer to a question, that “the British model of multiculturalism is not working” — no scheisse, Sherlock. He says that there has been “too much emphasis on separatism.”

Later, he says, “I’m a quite practical politician.” He also refers to “what I call social responsibility.” Oh, you’re the one who calls it that, are you? (I am sure that Cameron didn’t mean for those words to come out so silly and pompous.)

Cameron is a huge, huge global warmingist, an Oxford-schooled Al Gore. The big question, he says, is, “Are we going to act before it’s too late?” (Cameron puts it just that way.) He believes that Americans are at last waking up to the warming threat, as evidenced by the reelection of Governor Schwarzenegger in California. Obviously, Cameron is not a student of American politics, at least of California. And he notes that many politicians are trekking to Norway, “to see the importance of climate change firsthand.” He is one of those pols.

Well, I hope at least they visit the Grieg home in Bergen, while in the White North. (The Melting North?)

Cameron talks about “green growth” and “green outcomes” and “gas-guzzling cars” and all the rest of it. Practically no one can out-climate change him in Davos, which is saying something.

I ask him about a statement he made on the fifth anniversary of September 11 — I believe he spoke about “slavishness” toward the United States. “When,” I say, “was a British government ever slavish toward the U.S.?” He says no, no, no — what he said, last September 11, was that Britain should be “solid, not slavish,” in its friendship with America. He says that, as a Tory, he believes in the “special relationship,” that it is “in my DNA.” But Thatcher was very blunt with Reagan, whereas Blair is not with Bush. He goes to Washington and is not “questioning” or “challenging” of the American president; he does not act with “clarity” and “candor.”

Cameron speaks in terms of “best friends,” not “newest friends.” Blair, he maintains, has been acting like a “newest friend” rather than a “best friend.”

He gestures toward another questioner, but I butt in to say, “Just so I can be super-clear: Has a British government ever been slavish toward the U.S.? I mean, the word must have occurred to you for a reason.” Cameron says no — no government has ever behaved slavishly.

A British reporter asks him about a controversy brewing back home: Catholic adoption agencies must serve gay couples who desire to be parents — or else. What does he think about that?

Cameron says something about respect for gays, and about non-discrimination; he further says something about religion, tradition, and conscience. When he is through with his answer, I’m not sure what side he is on — what his position is. (Later, post-Davos, he will say that all adoption agencies must comply.)

There are more questions about climate change, of course — climate change and climate change — and then another reporter says, What about Iran? Would Cameron rule out a military response, if the mullahs refuse to stop short of the A-bomb? Cameron says that every diplomatic channel must be tried, etc., etc. — but no. He would not take a military response off the table. A different reporter presses him and presses him to rule out that option — to say that it is unthinkable and absurd, and that America or Israel would be criminal for exercising it. Cameron will not.

When it comes to Iraq, he is an ISG man — a supporter of the Iraq Study Group. He says that Baker-Hamilton is “the right approach to follow.” Closing his answer on this subject, he says, “I want us to succeed” in Iraq. He says that as though it needed stating.

And he tells the following funny story: Here in Davos, he encountered Peter Mandelson, the European trade commissioner. Mandelson is very close to Blair, but he is at odds with Gordon Brown, the next Labour leader. Mandelson said to Cameron, “What are you doing here, David? Looking for votes? You won’t find many here.” Cameron said, “How about your vote, Peter? I always thought that, in the event of a Brown-Cameron election, your vote would be in the bag.” Mandelson answered, “That’s a no-brainer.”

Which did not indicate what his vote would be!

Friends, this may sound odd to you, but I found myself thinking, after our session with Cameron, that, if I were a British citizen and there were a race between Blair and Cameron — I would pull the lever for Blair. And that is a weird position for an American righty to be in.

Take this business of U.K.-U.S. relations. All my life, I have heard the same thing: When a British leader allies with the Americans, his opposition says, “Mr. [So-and-So] has turned the British bulldog into an American poodle!” Yeah, yeah, yeah. Must we hear this every year until we die? What if a British leader — e.g., Tony Blair — honestly thinks that the British interest, and the world interest, coincides with that of the U.S.?

When I get before a computer, I look up that Cameron 9/11 speech. He additionally said, “We have never, until recently, been uncritical allies of America.” Tony Blair, uncritical of anything?

Anyway . . . I will have more to say on this later. But we will move on to . . .

‐. . . Rania. Yes, Queen Rania of Jordan. By their e-mails, Impromptus readers want to know whether she is here in Davos, and as beautiful as ever. Yes, she is in Davos; no, I do not see her, because, when she appears on panels, I do other things; but I see her husband, as I will explain later in this journal; and I can only assume that Rania is as beautiful as ever.

‐I do have a session with another Palestinian: Mahmoud Abbas, a.k.a. Abu Mazen, the president of the PA. In appearance, he is as usual: gruff, scowling, and determined. Saeb Erekat — whom I discussed at length in yesterday’s installment — interprets for him. (Abbas listens to the questions in English, not requiring interpretation, and answers in Arabic.) He says what we have already heard, from Erekat: Palestinians and Israelis will go right to the “endgame”; they will negotiate a two-state solution along the ’67 borders.

Abbas further says that “the essence of the problems in the Middle East is the Palestinian question.” What this had to do with, say, the Iraq-Iran War, or Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait . . . But we must not think about such questions.

I will make some language notes instead: Abbas’s Arabic is peppered with English words and phrases, among them “backchannel,” “pretext,” and “timelines.” And, not wanting to be held to a particular election date, he says, “It is not Koranic; it does not fall from the sky.” I rather like that.

A word about Arab journalists. You know how Helen Thomas attacks American presidents, when she stands up to question? In dealing with Arab leaders, these journalists do not . . . um . . . do not . . . um . . . do that.

(By the way, Helen Thomas is an Arab journalist — an Arab-American journalist. If she were dealing with Arab officials, would she behave in her customary way? Would be a pleasure to see.)

A Western journo asks Abbas about America’s moves toward Iran. The journalist seems to be inviting Abbas to condemn these moves as belligerent, provocative, stirring up greater problems in the region, blah, blah, blah. Abbas does not take the bait. He says he has enough trouble — “enough complexities” — with the Palestinian-Israeli standoff. He does not need to get into the question of Iran.

This strikes me as admirably wise.

I ask him about that Palestinian state along the ’67 borders: Will Palestinians accept that state, or will they regard it as a prelude to more? In other words, will the bulk of Palestinians accept the permanence of Israel? (A prominent Arab journalist groans, clucks, rolls eyes.) Abbas says yes, yes, yes: “We want to live in peace and end the conflict. Just give me the guarantees on the ’67 borders,” and that will be it.

As we so often say, in affairs both personal and societal: We’ll see.

‐I thought this might interest and amuse you: Yesterday, when I was writing Installment III, I did a spell check — and the checker knew “Hamas” but not “Fatah.” What does that tell us? Does this checker know which way the wind is blowing? Who’s on top, who’s on the bottom, who is the future, who is the past?

Just kidding, sort of.

‐A female American journalist approaches an Arab official she has known for a long time. She says, “You can kiss me, we’re in Europe!”

‐I meet a local man, a Davoser, who is driving a bus. His English sounds a little American. Turns out he spent five years in Florida — north of Orlando. “Did you like it?” “Loved it. Would give anything to go back. I would leave tomorrow if I could get a green card.”

I meet many such people in travels around the world. I know bankers, teachers, entrepreneurs — people who long for America, who feel American in their bones, who have much to contribute, who would give their eye teeth to join us. Yet they are kept out, and some have given up hope of ever being let in. Meanwhile, millions of illegals stream across the southern border, and . . .

This is not the time for an immigration rant (and regular readers know that my views on immigration are mixed). But — it’s frustrating.

‐In the course of the Davos-fest, I meet a distinguished English gentleman who has long worked in Germany. His views are obviously modish — left — but we are going along fairly nicely. (I try to steer the conversation to arts and literature, which is still politically dangerous, the way this fellow talks.) He takes up the subject of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who, in addition to being a statesman, is a physicist. She has a Ph.D. in physics. Very rare, says the Englishman, for a political leader to be educated at that level. Why, he declares, “Mister George W. Bush could not even say what physics was.” He says that with a certainty and sanctimony that would curl your hair.

There are many such encounters in Davos, and in life. I extricate myself speedily. And I reflect that, when this dear man is long forgotten, George W. Bush will be remembered as a leader who looked the evil of his time in the eye and did something about it.

On that defiant, quasi-triumphant note . . . I will see you tomorrow, when we’ll have the prime minister of Vietnam, and Mohamed ElBaradei, and a couple of other characters, surely.


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