Politics & Policy

Davos Journal, Part IV

Davos, Switzerland

Ladies and gentlemen, this is your fourth installment from Davos — Part IV of these notes on the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum. For the previous installments, please go here, here, and here. The Annual Meeting has been described as a “global summit” — and that’s not too much of a stretch, really.

What were we saying at the end of Part III? It matters not, we’ll just march on with the prime minister of Pakistan, Yousaf Raza Gilani (sometimes “Gillani”). And I’ll tell you how to pronounce his last name: The G is hard — you say (approximately), “Ghee-lah-NEE.”

As readers may recall, I met him last spring, at the “Middle East Davos” in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. He was new then — almost brand new (in his job). I moderated a panel on Pakistan, on which he was the featured speaker (natch). Outwardly, he is a gentle, mild, serene man. He looks like he would barely swat away a fly. But you cannot have survived, and risen, in Pakistani politics without reserves of toughness, I would guess. Wouldn’t you?

Gilani has a coffee with a group of us journalists. And, as I listen to him answer questions and discuss the problems of Pakistan, I am struck by one thing, forcefully: He sounds just like Pervez Musharraf — the widely criticized and downgraded former president of Pakistan. Musharraf was a reliable attendee at Davos, and he often had these coffees with journalists. And Gilani answers questions in the same way, using the identical language: about combating Taliban and other extremists, about weaning the reachable ones away from violence, about the economic development of the country, about relations with India and other neighbors, and so on.

But he says something that does not sound very Musharraf-like — not to me, anyway: He says that the cause of terrorism is poverty — is deprivation, a lack of development, etc. My own view is that that is an insult to the poor. There are plenty of poor people — very poor people — in the world. And, funnily enough, they don’t have the urge to torture, maim, kill, and subjugate people.

What about the role of radical religion and ideology in terror?

Moreover, as you know, plenty of terrorists come from economically comfortable, or privileged, or even elite backgrounds — think merely of the leader of al-Qaeda.

In the course of our discussion, I ask Gilani how the fight against extremists in Pakistan is going. Gilani says that they are lashing out — staging attacks and so on — because they are “feeling the heat.” Because the government is applying considerable pressure. That happens to be the same thing I have heard Afghan president Karzai say, more than once. I hope it’s true.

‐Here is something different: a “refugee run.” The following has arrived in my inbox:

Invitation to an event you will never forget: EXPERIENCE LIFE AS A REFUGEE IN DAVOS!

During this year’s Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, we would like to invite you to an experience unlike any other on the agenda: an opportunity to step into the world of conflict and experience life as a refugee.

Just five minutes’ walk from the Congress Centre [the main building in town], you can enter a simulated environment that will thrust you into a war zone. You will meet a rebel attack, navigate a mine field and battle life in a refugee camp. (Spoiler alert: No harm will come to you!)

A debrief will follow in which you will discuss your experience. . . .

Highly interesting, and maybe beneficial to some. But shouldn’t the powers of sympathy preclude the necessity for such a “run”?

‐In the window of a local establishment, I see a sign I like very much. The Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, is here in Davos, as I mentioned in a previous installment. (At least he was here.) And the sign I see shows his picture and says, “Freedom for Tibet: W(h)en?” Well done.

‐Here’s a session, a panel, with an interesting title: “Can the World Live with the Frugal American?” “As US consumption begins its expected rebalancing, how will the frugality of American consumers change the face of future global growth?” A good, and worrisome, question.

‐Another panel examines “The Values Behind Market Capitalism.” Tony Blair is slated for that one, and Indra Nooyi (Pepsi), and Shimon Peres, and Jim Wallis (of the “Religious Left” in America). Others are slated too. I wish Michael Novak could be here for that panel. Also, do you know John Chamberlain’s book The Roots of Capitalism? Larry Kudlow introduced me to that one, and it is invaluable.

‐A session on Iran promises two speakers: One is the foreign minister of Turkey, Ali Babacan. I have heard him speak before — he is very keen on harmony with his neighbor, Iran. (Understandably so, you might say.) The other panelist is a member of the Iranian regime — Seyed Mojtaba Samare Hashemi Shajareh, First Adviser to the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Will that discussion include a great deal of clarity, or reality?

‐Here is something appetizing: “The Great Game Revisited.” On this panel are the president of Azerbaijan, the prime minister of Turkey, a Russian banker, the president of Kazakhstan, and the president of Armenia.

I must say, the WEF can really pull them in.

‐Couple of items above, I mentioned a representative of the Iranian regime. I should say, too, that the foreign minister of Iran, Manouchehr Mottaki, is here once more. You may recall that, last year, I sat next to him in a coffee, looking out the windows at the Alps. In this glorious, divine setting, I was sitting next to a high representative of a regime that — to cite just one crime — stones young girls to death for having been gang-raped.

Words fail me.

‐A dinner session this year is titled “From GDP to Gross National Happiness.” You will allow that GDP has something to do with “GNH,” yes?

‐The finance minister of France, Christine Lagarde, is an interesting person. In a flavorful French accent, she speaks idiomatic English — including such phrases as “nitty-gritty.” And I learn a couple of unexpected things from her bio: She was once an intern to the Maine politician Bill Cohen. And she is a champion synchronized swimmer.

And, of course, finance minister of France. Beat that, as Bill Buckley would say . . .

‐A global-warming panel includes the prime minister of Denmark, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. It’s appropriate that he is on the panel: because Copenhagen is the site of the big U.N. climate-change affair. Rasmussen talks about a certain economic creativity in his country — and yet assures the audience that “Denmark is still a welfare state.” My American — my Reaganite — ears are conditioned to hear “welfare state” as something negative, or undesirable; it takes a moment to adjust to hearing “welfare state” as something positive.

Also on this panel is the Nobel laureate and Oscar winner Al Gore. (Also former senator and former vice president.) He has high hopes for the Obama administration where global warming is concerned, because, when a meeting of Obamites occurs, the president “is always the greenest person in the room.”

This reminds me of something I once heard a Bush 2000 staffer say: “In just about every meeting, the governor is the most conservative person in the room.”

To Al Gore, it’s perfectly clear that global warming is a major threat, and that governments must act dramatically to meet it. This is perfectly clear to the moderator, too. He is Thomas L. Friedman, the prize-winning columnist of the New York Times. He says, “Al, you and I are preaching to the converted — but why is it such a hard sell with the party of business in America, namely the Republican party?”

In answer, Gore talks about the “collection of constituencies” that make up the GOP, which includes old-style companies that “until very recently were digging in their heels, and shamefully funding deniers, and trying to interrupt a consensus that says reality is reality.”

Well, nothing immodest about that, huh? So sorry for the attempt to “interrupt a consensus” — some call it democracy. Also, note that insidious use of the word “deniers,” making those who aren’t aboard the global-warming bandwagon parallel to Holocaust deniers.

Furthermore, Gore says that “only the Scandinavian countries and a few provinces in Canada” have done what is necessary on global warming. Conservatives have long joked that the likes of Al Gore pine to remake America in the image of Scandinavia or Canada. Is it such a joke?

Continuing about the Republicans, he says, “There has been a lot of philosophical fear that a transition to a low-carbon economy would be equivalent to enlarging the government’s role.” He is absolutely correct about that. “But we saw in response to the credit crisis that government’s role expanded very dramatically. It can be done in a right way,” to help out the market. “Capitalism itself is under challenge in this crisis.” And “we all know that capitalism unlocks a higher fraction of human ability than any other system.”

Bless him for saying that.

But bless him not for this: He says “the science” a lot, as in, “what the science tells us,” “ignoring the science,” “believing the science,” and so on. This is a fantastically annoying, and arrogant, habit (especially when scientists disagree). My wish for Gore is twofold: that he stop saying “the science” and that he stop calling those who disagree with him “deniers.” If he accomplished those two things, he would be far less hard to listen to.

Couple of other notes, from this session: You may have noticed that Friedman refers to the former vice president as “Al.” A little cozy? No, not really: The way I figure it, Friedman is an opinion journalist (like me), and can be as personal, cozy, or partisan as he wants. Moderating this panel, he says such things as, “We must not fail in Copenhagen.” Well, he’s entitled.

A quick language note: Friedman turns to one of the panelists and says, “Can you green the bailout?” I have never before heard “green” as a verb. The whole world has gone green-mad.

A final observation: When Gore talks, he sounds much like his mimics — like Darrell Hammond, formerly of Saturday Night Live. Also, the older Gore gets, the more he looks like his dad, the old senator.

‐I meet a distinguished European journalist, prominent in a distinguished European newspaper. He has heard me on the “American” panel, concerning Obama, Bush, and the War on Terror. He says — sort of sotto voce — “You know, you are right. In a few years, the world will appreciate Bush, in the area of security.” We also talk about Reagan. Remember how Euros, Democrats, and others hated him — bitterly and sometimes violently? Oh, yes.

‐There are conservatives here — Bush supporters, Reagan supporters. They are not loud, they are not too overt, of course. But they come up to me, which is very gratifying. You never know — never really know — who’s in the room. (Well, sometimes you know: If you’re speaking to the Amherst sociology department, you know you’re pretty much screwedola.)

‐Check this out, y’all — kind of interesting:

Geneva, Switzerland, 26 January 2009 − Two “citizen reporters” from MySpace and YouTubeTM have been invited to the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2009 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, following online contests on both sites. These citizen reporters won the opportunity to attend the prestigious Meeting and will report to their respective communities using the MySpace and YouTube platforms. . . .

Rebecca McQuigg will receive all-expense-paid travel to/from Davos, Switzerland, and media access to the venue. She will document her Davos experience via blogging/vlogging on MySpace . . .

Pablo Camacho from Bogotá, Colombia, has been chosen to represent the YouTube community. Pablo is a student and an independent writer. He is also singer and guitarist in the band The Mmodcats.

Just so you know.

‐Throw some more language at you? I’m talking with some French-speaking journalists. And, for some reason, the expression “Use it or lose it” comes up. In French, Ou l’utiliser, ou le perdre. Says one of the journos, “Sounds much better in English.” I say, “Well, it rhymes.” He says, “No, all such expressions — expressions in general — sound better in English.” Another journo says, “And you know what the best language for journalism is?” “What?” I say. “American,” he says. “Why?” I say. He says, “Because you can do anything in it — and it’s short and direct. Short, direct, clear words.”

‐Speaking of short and direct — and usually pretty clear: Howard Dean is here in Davos, and no doubt feeling right at home, what with the air of celebration, where the Democratic party is concerned.

‐I am reminded: Is there anything worse than Euro-rock? Yeah, probably: what plays on American radio, most of the time. (Do we still have radio? Not sure.)

In any case, see you tomorrow and thereafter, when we’ll have Angela Merkel, Gordon Brown, Václav Klaus, Japanese prime minister Aso, the Thai prime minister (new, young, under challenge), and other fun-lovers.

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