Forgive me, if I indulge in a traditional journalist’s device – namely drawing sweeping conclusions from passing through an airport. But it is hard not to be impressed when you land in Madrid, as I did on Tuesday. The new terminal at Barajas airport opened in February and was awarded the prestigious Sterling architecture prize on October 15th. Its spaciousness, beauty and unhurried feel are particularly striking for anyone who has just arrived from the hell-hole that is Heathrow.
But the contrast that most impresses me is not between Britain and Spain, but between the relative fortunes of Spain and Italy. Madrid’s new airport is a symbol of the confidence and growing prosperity of the country. By comparison, the run-down airport and infrastructure of Rome seem to reflect Italy’s sagging spirits.
The Spanish tell me that within two years, they expect Spain’s GDP-per-capita (measured in purchasing-power-parity) to overtake that of Italy. At the moment Spain’s GDP-per-capita is 98.2 per cent of the EU average, while Italy’s is 100.5 per cent. But Spain grew at 3.5 per cent last year and is expected to rack up 3.1 per cent growth this year. By contrast Italy registered 0 per cent growth last year and is expected to grow by 1.3 per cent this year. Last week Italian government debt was downgraded. Italy’s debt-to-GDP ratio stands at a frightening 106.6 per cent; compare that with Spain’s 43.1 per cent. The Spanish government is running budget surpluses, Italy is struggling with persistent deficits.
It will be a deeply symbolic moment in both countries, if and when it is announced that the average Spaniard is richer than the average Italian. The Italians have always looked down on the Spanish a little bit. (Much as the French have always looked down on the Italians). Italy is a member of the G8; Spain is not. Italy was a leading industrial democracy, when Spain was struck in Francoist isolation. Tourism in Italy was associated with high culture, while Spain had sun, sea and sangria. But these days it is Spain which is growing fastest and which is exhibiting a new cultural confidence. The Spanish film director Pedro Almodovar is globally celebrated - much as the Italian director, Fellini, was in the 1960s and 1970s. It is Spain that is full of exciting new architecture from Madrid airport to the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
What accounts for the difference between Spanish and Italian fortunes? A blog entry is perhaps not the place to attempt a full-scale analysis. But three things strike me. First, Spain has had very few governments compared to Italy’s fragile and revolving coalition. The Spanish governments of Gonzalez, Aznar and now Zapatero have had time to put sound policies in place and see them through to fruition. Second, the Spanish welfare state is much less generous than Italy’s – and organised labour is weaker, as is the extreme left. Finally, the magic ingredient – confidence. Spain has bags of it at the moment. Italy seems gloomy and fearful by contrast.
So what do the neo-cons make of the "Iraq study group" – the much-ballyhooed commission, headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, and charged with re-thinking American policy on Iraq? Predictably enough – not very much.
The Baker-Hamilton commission is probably not going to report until the new year. But there have been enough leaks about its possible recommendations for the neo-cons to sniff betrayal in the air. The "Weekly Standard" – the house journal of the neo-cons – currently features two pre-emptive strikes against the Baker commission.
Michael Rubin, a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute who once worked for the coalition authority in Baghdad, argues that the Baker commission is only nominally impartial. He regards it as so stacked against the neo-con viewpoint that he resigned from one of its four advisory groups. Rubin is dismayed by the suggestion that Baker will argue for American discussions with Iran and Syria – after all the neo-cons have sometimes urged widening the conflict to target precisely these two countries. Rubin thinks Iran is certain to double cross America and to continue to fuel the conflict in Iraq.
Are bloggers capable of coherent thought? Or does the pressure to keep gabbing work against sustaining a complex argument? For obvious reasons, this is a question that interests me quite a lot. And I must say that reading Andrew Sullivan’s newly-published "The Conservative Soul" (HarperCollins) is mildly encouraging.
Sullivan is one of America’s famous bloggers
. He keeps up a frenetic pace of publication – generally focusing on his particular obsessions: American politics, torture, gay rights, the Iraq war, the evils of Islamism, the evils of the Christian right.
In his new book he focuses on the nature of conservatism. A key part of the argument is that in the United States, the Reaganite conservative tradition which focused on liberty and small government has been subverted by the growing power of Christian fundamentalism over the Republican party. Sullivan calls George W. Bush "the most powerful Christian fundamentalist in the world." While traditional conservatism is a humble creed, based on an awareness of the imperfection of human knowledge, Christian fundamentalism is characterised by a dangerous certainty.
So President Bush has finally acknowledged the ghost of Vietnam. In a television interview, he talked about the parallel between the current surge of bloodshed in Iraq and the Tet offensive of 1968, which did so much to turn America against the Vietnam war.
This may sounds like defeatism. But, in fact, Bush is making a quite different point. The conservative analysis of the Tet offensive is that militarily it was a disaster for the Vietcong, who were killed in large numbers as they came out into the open to attack American targets. But Tet became a broader success for the Vietcong, because it helped to convince the American public that they were losing the war – and so set the stage for withdrawal. The sight of the US embassy in Saigon under attack convinced Americans that after four years of war, they were going backwards.
In Europe, the big development of the week is the announcement that Romania and Bulgaria will indeed join the European Union next January. The Union will henceforth have 27 members and over half a billion citizens. But, at least in western Europe, it is a peculiarly joyless moment, as the FT reports this morning. When the first eight countries from Central Europe were admitted in 2004 there was certainly ambivalence in the rest of the EU – but also a genuine sense that this was a historic moment. The division of Europe was finally over.
But while Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary have histories and literatures that are familiar to many in western Europe, this is much less true of Romania and Bulgaria. Plus, there is a widespread feeling that the rules have been bent to let these two countries in. The sourness of the mood in France in particular was captured by an online poll of readers of Le Monde; more than two-thirds feel that Romania and Bulgaria are being admitted prematurely. My guess is, however, that all this furore will die down. Within a few years it will probably seem entirely natural that the Romanians and Bulgarians are EU members. But there are two big provisos. First, there must be no nasty political shocks in either country. Second, the flows of people out of the country must be of an order that the richer bits of Europe can cope with. I’m reasonably optimistic on both grounds.
These days I have to force myself to read the news from Iraq. Developments there are so unremittingly bleak, and the details of the conflict are so horrifying, that it is tempting just to start tuning it out. That, I suspect, is the option that most of the American and British public have already chosen.
The debate about whether Iraq is "sliding towards civil war" seems almost academic. I would say that it has already got there, as Tuesday’s reports of Sunni-Shia warfare make clear.
Yes – it may be true that there are large parts of the country where things are relatively peaceful. But the numbers of people being killed in inter-communal violence is now well over 100 a day – some put it much higher than that.
Earlier this year Radek Sikorski, the Polish defence minister, raised a few eyebrows when he compared the current Russo-German project to build a gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea to the "Molotov-Ribbentrop pact" – the Nazi-Soviet agreement, which laid the groundwork for the invasion of Poland. The Poles are worried that the new pipeline might allow Russia to keep supplying German energy needs, while submitting the Poles to "energy blackmail" of the sort the Russians tried out on Ukraine, at the turn of the year. Once again, the Poles fear, their biggest neighbours are making an anti-Polish deal over their heads.
I am currently in Warsaw and I have to say that the mood among government officials here has not lightened up since Sikorski made his comments. On the contrary, the Poles feel that current events in Russia are vindicating the warnings they have been making for years.
It must be irritating – not to say alarming – for the world’s superpowers to be outwitted by a lunatic, operating from the world’s most isolated state, North Korea. But if it’s any consolation, in the game of nuclear brinkmanship, lunatics may actually start with an advantage.
This theory was outlined by Richard Nixon to Bob Halderman during the Vietnam War. As Halderman recalled in his memoirs Nixon explained that he wanted the Vietnamese to believe that he might just be crazy enough to use nuclear weapons. Halderman recalled him saying: "I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button’ — and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace."
It seems entirely possible that Kim Jong Il is following Nixonian logic – and was hoping that North Korea’s nuclear test will persuade the United States and his Asian neighbours to treat him with a little more kindness and consideration.
If you asked the average member of the European elite when world affairs began to take a turn for the worse, my guess is that many of them would plump not for 9/11, but instead for the moment when the US Supreme Court ruled that George W. Bush had won the 2000 presidential election. As President Bush’s reputation has sunk in Europe, so the reputation of Al Gore – the "lost leader" – has soared. The fact that Gore has become a standard bearer for action on climate change has only added to his saintly reputation.
I got a taste of Europe’s "adoration of Al" on Sunday night in Brussels, when Gore passed through town for a gala showing of his film, An Inconvenient Truth. No fewer than four worthies lined up to introduce Gore’s brief speech. One of them, a Swedish academic whose name escapes me, managed to liken Gore to both Albert Schweitzer and Gandhi.
Then we all trooped into Brussels’s grandest theatre for a showing of the film. Gore was introduced yet again, this time by the EU’s environment commissioner, Stavros Dimas. Mr Dimas ended his peroration by lamenting the fact that Europeans aren’t allowed to vote in American elections. Ain’t life a bitch, as they say on the other side of the Atlantic. Maybe the EU should take the issue up in trade talks with the United States. Perhaps there could be some sort of reciprocal arrangement. Greeks like Mr Dimas get to vote in the American presidential election – and in return Texans get to vote in the French presidential election.
As for the Gore film itself – it pulled off the unusual feat of being simultaneously very compelling and strangely dull. The overall message is convincing, depressing and powerfully presented. But the film also drags a little, since it is essentially a glorified power-point presentation, with a few home movies from the Gore family album thrown in.
It seems to be Islam and Europe week for this blog. I apologise if I appear like a monomaniac – partly, it’s just a reflection of the books that I’m reading as research for next week’s column. But it also reflects events out there in the “real world”. Take last night’s BBC news. The first item was about a request by Jack Straw, the leader of the House of Commons, for Muslim women not to wear a full face-covering veil, when they visit him in his constituency in Blackburn in north-west England. (He has no problem with a veil that simply covers the hair.) The second item was about a Muslim British policeman who – at his own request – had been excused from guard duty at the Israeli embassy. And then in the middle of the bulletin there was a long report about radical Islamists recruiting at British universities, which ended with a bleak prediction that – if nothing is done – some British students would emerge as suicide bombers. A certain poignancy was added to the story by the fact that the reporter, Frank Gardner, is in a wheelchair – after having been shot and paralysed by Islamists, while reporting in Saudi Arabia. Read more
I am currently ploughing my way through a lot of American books, whose general theme could be summarised as “Europe is doomed”. While I find a lot of the stuff in these books irritating or off-the-mark, there is one recurrent theme that does seem particularly apposite at the moment – the threat to free speech in Europe posed by the fear of Islamist militants. This has been a continuing concern, ever since the eruption of the Salman Rushdie affair in the late 1980s. But it does seem to be getting worse. In the past couple of years Europe has had at least two more cause celebres – the murder of Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands, after his film “Submission” had offended radical Islamists; and the worldwide row over Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. But these incidents seem to be becoming more frequent. In the past fortnight, a German opera company has cancelled a performance – for fear of inciting Islamist rage. And meanwhile, an even more serious incident is unfolding in France where a well-known philosophy teacher has gone into hiding – after publishing a strong critique of Islam in Le Figaro, one of France’s two main national papers. Robert Redeker, the philosopher in question, was himself provoked by the fierce reaction in the Islamic world to the Pope’s recent speech on Islam and the west. Anne Applebaum, an American columnist based in Europe, sees the Papal row as the most serious of the lot. But perhaps the most disturbing element is not this or that incident – but the accumulation of pressure, the self-censorship it undoubtedly provokes and the way in which the gradual restriction of free speech is becoming less commented-upon, as it simply becomes part of normal life in Europe.
When President Bush started using the term “Islamofascism”, I’m afraid that I instinctively bridled. Perhaps it is because I went to university in Britain in the 1980s, when many of my fellow students seemed to be convinced that Margaret Thatcher was a “fascist”. The very word simply became a synonym for “somebody whose politics I violently disapprove of”. Even when I thought about Bush’s comparison a little harder, it still didn’t seem to me to work. I find it hard to see much in common between the Nazi brownshirts and the Saudi students or disaffected British Muslims who are intent on waging “jihad” against the west. Quite apart from the social and cultural differences, the Nazis actually controlled a modern state. The jihadists are stuck in some of the most backward bits of the world or on the margins of western society. Of course modern technology makes them dangerous. But comparing them to the Nazis seems to me to be a wilful over-statement of the threat. Read more
America’s latest political scandal sounds like it has been ripped from the pages of Carl Hiaasen (if you have never read his comic thrillers set in Florida, go out and buy one now.) It has the combination of hilarity, hypocrisy, sleaze and sheer ludicrousness that are Hiaasen trademarks. It even features a Republican Congressman – Mark Foley – from Hiaasen’s home state of Florida. Mr Foley has sponsored legislation protecting children from sexual predators. But unfortunately, he has also sent sexually suggestive text messages to a 16-year-old male pageboy from the House of Representatives. Many of the newspapers who have reported the story have been distressingly vague about what exactly Foley’s messages said. Here is a full account with an appropriate health-warning at the top. Liberal America is naturally gleeful about this latest scandal – espescially since Congressman Foley was a particular favourite of conservative talk-show hosts.