Politics & Policy

Davos Journal, Part IX

Friends, welcome to the final installment of this Davos Journal — these scribbles from the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, in this wondrous Alpine place. It seems to me that Davos is more beautiful than ever. When you’re up on a mountain, at night, the moon appears at eye level. (At least for a while.) And the stars are so close and clear, you might as well be in a planetarium — with better air.

Back down on earth, a group of us meets with Ali Babacan, the foreign minister of Turkey. But before we get to the foreign minister — have some links, to the previous parts of this journal: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, and VIII.

Ali Babacan is young (40), genial, and impressive. He’s smart, quick, informed to the gills — and very, very articulate. He has been minister for the economy, and he has held a number of other portfolios as well. He speaks accented but fluent and idiomatic English. A minute or two in his presence, you know he’s a wunderkind.

A WEF official and I discuss this later: How far will he go? Very, very far, it seems — although, if you’re foreign minister, how much higher do you have to rise?

Babacan tells us that Turkey is in the midst of major transformation. The country has changed dramatically in recent years. In 2008, Turkey is nothing like it was in 2002. “We’re talking about two different countries,” Babacan says. Turkey is making strides in civil rights, the economy, “the supremacy of law.” A lot has been done, he insists; and a lot more remains to be done.

He talks about Turkish accession to the EU — going through “the Copenhagen criteria” and so on. For some Davosers, the phrase “Copenhagen criteria” is as natural as “How are you?” Babacan says that Turkey is becoming “more and more an EU country.” And once — once! — the Turks join that union, they will strengthen it considerably. Turkey will have “weight” in the EU, he says.

He notes that Turkey is a striking multicultural society — bringing together different ethnicities, cultures, religions, languages.

About the PKK — the Turkish terror group — Babacan is no-nonsense: Turkey is going after them, hard. And succeeding. There is no problem between Turkey and Iraq, the foreign minister says; neither is there a problem between Turkey and the Kurds. The problem lies with the PKK.

In the course of his remarks, Babacan makes a favorite point of mine (and yours, I bet): Many countries that call themselves democracies or republics or “democratic republics” are no such thing. Their names are lies. Turkey does not want to be a lie, Babacan says. Turkey will only be the genuine article.

Yes, Turkey is different from the countries in the EU — but France and Germany have been pretty different too. (This is Babacan talking.) In fact, they warred against each other, killing millions of citizens. But they found common ground and united — in the EU. The EU is win-win — no losers.

And the EU should not, says Babacan, be a club of Christian nations. It should be a club for secular and democratic nations.

Yeah, but I’m thinkin’: How many countries are in the Islamic Conference? About a thousand? (Actually, 56 — including Turkey.)

I ask the foreign minister, “How does Turkey view the rise of Iran, and what does Turkey think about a nuclear Iran?” Babacan answers blandly. He says that Turkey is against the acquisition or proliferation of nuclear weapons. But Turkey has good relations with Iran. “The border between our countries has not changed since 1639 — almost 400 years.” Babacan says that the U.S., and the rest of the world, should not isolate Iran; nor should we apply sanctions against them. Diplomacy is the only way to go.

I wonder whether a private answer would differ from Babacan’s public one.

Another American journalist asks about anti-Americanism in Turkey, which has been high: Will it subside once Bush goes? (That Bush is poison is simply a given.) Babacan responds that anti-Americanism has subsided already. The reason is: Bush declared the PKK a common enemy — of Turkey, Iraq, the U.S., and the Kurdish people at large. That made a big difference in public opinion.

Babacan says something about the matter of headscarves — a very dicey issue in Turkey. He says that it’s a matter of religious freedom, not of religious imposition. And he stresses that Turkey is opening up, all the time. There are ever more TV stations, ever more satellites, ever more newspapers and magazines. Turkey “is not a closed country anymore.” I am struck by that word “anymore.”

Someone mentions that, according to polls, Turks are less keen on joining the EU than they once were. Babacan says, Sure — that’s what the polls say. But Turks figure, “If they don’t want us, to hell with them — we don’t want them either.” But Babacan believes that Turks, overwhelmingly, would welcome acceptance into the EU. They would be overjoyed by it.

And that answer — like most of the others — rings true.

‐From the Turkish foreign minister to the Iranian foreign minister: A group of us meets in the Rinaldi Hotel. While we are waiting for the foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, several journos are having a conversation. They are saying, basically, how stupid Americans are, for being hostile to the United Nations, or even skeptical of it, I guess. What a bunch of rubes, are these Americans.

And you know what I’m thinking: The U.N. was pathetic in the case of Bosnia, and in the case of Rwanda, and many others; they are pathetic now, in Sudan, and elsewhere. On their human-rights council have sat such beauties as Cuba, China, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia — and Sudan itself. At a minimum, shouldn’t genocidal regimes be kept off something called a human-rights council?

Americans are right to be skeptical of the U.N.; the wonder is why others are not.

Mr. Mottaki eventually walks in, and, though he speaks tolerable English — and has participated in Davos at large in English — he uses a translator. (He even corrects the translator, once or twice.) I am sitting two seats away from Mottaki. And I’m looking out the windows at gorgeous, majestic snow-covered Alps. A much overused word comes to me: “surreal.” The situation I’m in is surreal.

I think about what the Iranian government does: kidnap people, torture people, brutalize them in almost every way conceivable. This is a government that stones girls to death for the crime of having been gang-raped. And then there are the nuclear threats. This is a government that richly deserves its place in the Axis of Evil.

I grope for an analogy: Am I doing the equivalent of sitting next to, or very near, Foreign Minister Ribbentrop in the 1930s? (Ribbentrop saw an Alp or two too.)

And what do you ask the foreign minister of Iran? I think of a story told about Lady Astor. Don’t know whether it’s true. She meets Stalin at an affair in the Kremlin and says, “Hello — when are you going to stop killing people?”

Mottaki goes into his act — an act he has performed at Davos conferences before. Israel is an abomination, an offense to human rights; the United States is a bully and a menace. Under the shah, Iran had good relations with two apartheid states: South Africa and Israel. (I’m giving Mottaki’s view.) The Iranian government that replaced the shah cut off those relations. When South Africa became democratic, Iran restored relations.

Israel, of course, is uncontemplatable.

Every people has a right to its own government, says Mottaki. It was the Iranian people that overthrew the shah and installed the current government: a legitimate government. Why can’t the United States respect that?

And why, by the way, are people obsessed with whether women are allowed to drive cars in Muslim countries? In our country, says Mottaki, women serve in government ministries, in parliament — there is no problem here. Gloria Steinem would bless us (he seems to be saying).

At one point, Mottaki uses a phrase that pricks my ears: “peace-loving nation.” Iran is a “peace-loving nation,” he says. I don’t think I’ve heard that phrase since Soviet days. That’s what the Soviet Union used to call itself: a “peace-loving nation.” And all the members of its bloc were “peace-loving nations.” The United States and its allies, on the other hand, were warmongers — first-strikers.

(Funny, but many of my teachers — Americans — said that too. Anyway . . .)

Several of the journalists present in the Rinaldi are concerned about Iranian interference in Lebanon. There is not so great a concern about Iran’s stance toward Israel. In fact, one journalist sort of taunts Mottaki about the Summer ’06 war in Lebanon: Who was it that defeated the Israelis in the south? (The implied answer: Not Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah.)

Mottaki is dismissive of the mere suggestion that Iran funds, and arms, Hezbollah. It is nothing but an “allegation,” he says. Some of the assembled journalists openly laugh at him — I have never seen this at Davos.

On it goes. Before asking questions, the journalists are supposed to give their name and affiliation. One woman, addressing Mottaki, says that she is from Israel. The foreign minister refuses to take her question. So, another journalist offers to ask it for her. (It is a general, innocuous question about what Mottaki thinks of the Middle East peace process.)

After about 45 minutes, we tumble back into the streets of Davos, on to further meetings, or massages, or ski runs. Surreal.


‐Every year at Davos, there is a concert, on the final night. This year, the performers are the Bern Symphony Orchestra — from not far away — under Maestro Eliahu Inbal. As you might guess from his name, this conductor’s Israeli-born. Luckily, he does not wish to ask Mottaki a question, so far as I know. The soloist is Akiko Suwanai, a Japanese violinist who was the youngest ever to win the Tchaikovsky Competition.

Do you think I reviewed this concert? I did indeed — that review was published in the New York Sun, and can be found here.

‐Tony Blair is not prime minister anymore, but he has several roles on the world stage, and he’s all over Davos. Every time I see him, he seems chipper. That’s the word to apply to him: chipper. He’s a chipper chap from a fish-and-chips country. (Sorry.) And, as Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and others seemed, Blair seems awfully young to be an ex-head of state (or, in Blair’s case, government). (No, I did not forget Her Majesty the Queen.)

‐Curiously, I see Bono’s glasses before I quite see him. Do you know what I mean?

‐I hate to tell you this, but George Soros is kind of a handsome old coot — deeply injurious, both in America and Europe. And a fascinating psychological study. But a handsome old billionaire lefty coot. Owl-like.

‐Leaving the BSO concert — not a concert by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but a concert by the Bern people — I see a woman who looks a lot like Marilyn Quayle. Then I see a man beside her: Dan Quayle. So that is, in fact, Marilyn Quayle. I ask the former vice president whether he’s enjoying Davos. He is. And how’s he being treated? “Perfectly.” Which is grand to hear.

‐Post-Davos — post-Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum — I receive an e-mail:

Dear WEF Annual Delegate

A short note to say we hope that last week’s Davos Forum was a success for you and your firm. If you would like to register retrospectively for Barclays Capital to offset the carbon cost of your transport to and from the Forum, free of charge, please register at . . .

It may be too late for the planet, but it’s not too late to offset your carbon cost . . .

‐Friends, thanks so much for joining me for this Davos Journal — these 2008 scribbles. As usual, the journal has gone on long past the Annual Meeting itself. It must be so, given the amount of material to record and relate. I have written the bulk of this journal in London; and I am finishing it in Bombay. Would you like to hear some about England and India? I’ll have some reports and observations in future Impromptuses (awkward plural, I know).

This column will be on hiatus until the February 20s — at least, that’s my guess. By then, will we have a nominee? Two nominees? And, if so — will we want others?

Ah, the American electorate is wise, we’re told again and again. Let’s hope so.


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