When Chou En-Lai was asked about the long-term impact of the French revolution, he famously replied: “It’s too soon to tell.” That sort of lofty vagueness can earn you a reputation for great wisdom if you happen to be a Chinese revolutionary leader. But for a journalist to adopt a similar approach would be professional suicide – rushing to judgment is all part of the job.
So, in that spirit, my offering this week is a shortlist of the five most significant events of 2006. Here they are, in chronological order.
One of the unpleasant side effects of global warming is that it makes good weather seem faintly sinister. I enjoyed wandering around London without having to wear a coat this weekend – but should this really be happening in December? Fortunately, the weather today is foul. So now I am feeling more relaxed about global warming.
David Miliband, Britain’s environment secretary and climate change evangelist, is operating on a similarly elevated intellectual level. In a blog entry he seeks to put the recent warm weather into some context.
But British climate-change sceptics –a fairly beleaguered bunch until recently – have had their morale boosted by a long and closely-argued attack on the science of global warming, published last month in the Sunday Telegraph. It seems to have become a new sacred text for climate-change sceptics.
Finland’s six-month presidency of the European Union has been pretty unremarkable in most ways. But I will miss Erkki Tuomioja, the Finnish foreign minister – who has been thrust into the spotlight as the chairman of all the EU’s foreign policy deliberations over the past six months.
I first came across him when I was doing a TV interview outside an EU summit a couple of years ago. As I was standing on the BBC’s gantry, I noticed an unkempt figure, with a straggly beard, a rucksack and a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament badge in his lapel. I was a little alarmed by this, and was hoping that somebody from security would turn up and move him on. But then it turned out that he was the other guest – and, in fact, Finland’s foreign minister. He has made a striking chairman of the EU’s foreign affairs council.
As for the European summit, which is the nominal reason for my presence in Brussels. It’s a bits-and-pieces occasion. The EU has managed to avert a major crisis over Turkey’s bid to join the EU, by cooking up one of its traditional half-baked compromises, which successfully pushes the problem a few months down the road. There is a bit of discussion about the Balkan countries’ prospects of joining the EU – not too great, in the medium-term at least. And a half-hearted row about what the EU should do about Russia banning Polish food imports.
The news that David Duke has turned up in Tehran to speak at the Holocaust denial conference, brings back fond(ish) memories of interviewing the former KKK leader, when his political career was really on a tear in Louisiana in 1990. It is startling to remember that – in that year – Duke got 43 per cent of the vote in the Senatorial race.
I did a formal interview with a rather evasive Duke in the garden of his house in New Orleans. My main memory of this was his rather peculiar appearance: following recent plastic surgery – he had very tight skin, highlighted hair and a very prominent chin. (He had recently had chin implants).
I then had a much more interesting conversation with Duke’s campaign manager, who gave me a lift to a campaign rally – somewhere out in the state’s backwoods. It was a long drive and the manager (I’ve forgotten his name) had a large gun on the floor of his pick-up truck, which kept sliding around beneath my feet.
It is somehow fitting that Jeane Kirkpatrick and Augusto Pinochet should die within a week of each other. For it was Kirkpatrick who did most to provide an intellectual justification for American tolerance for Latin American dictators, like Pinochet.
By making a now famous distinction between “authoritarian” and “totalitarian” regimes, Kirkpatrick sought to defeat the idea that there was a “moral equivalence” between American support for right-wing dictators and Soviet support for their own client regimes. The general idea was that authoritarian regimes were less awful than the totalitarian variety – because they allowed more space for civil society and free markets and were, partly as a result, much more likely eventually to give way to democracy. The fact that the Pinochet regime did eventually give way to a restoration of democracy in Chile was hailed by some as a perfect illustration of the Kirkpatrick thesis.
But the fact that the death of Pinochet has provoked some bitterly divided reactions in the west, is a reminder that his name can still revive memories of the political battles of the Cold War. For some on the right in Britain, America and parts of Europe, the Pinochet regime had a lot to be said for it. Not only did it prevent Chile “going communist”, it also served as a testing ground for important free-market economic reforms – such as the privatisation of pensions. The fact that Chile today is both democratic and more prosperous than the Latin American average is used to illustrate the argument that a “Pinochet period” might be necessary in some countries. I’ve heard that argument made by Thatcherites, by American right-wingers and even (oddly enough) by officials in Singapore.
Following the Baker report and the Blair visit to Washington, Iraq is on everybody’s minds. But – behind the scenes – almost as urgent a debate is taking place about Iran.
So it’s "troops out by 2008". That, clearly, is going to be the headline that comes out of the Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq which has just been unveiled in Washington. If only. Unfortunately, the report also contains the crucial qualifying phrase – "absent unforeseen developments". The entire Iraqi misadventure has been one long unforeseen development.
If the Americans are really going to make achieving "success" in Iraq (Baker does not talk of "victory") a condition for withdrawal, I suspect they are going to be there for a long time yet. So the real question ultimately may be at what point does the United States wash its hand of the whole situation – and walk away regardless of the consequences? And that – for understandable reasons – is not a question that Baker-Hamilton can explicitly address.
Apart from the headline goal of withdrawal by early 2008, what else is striking about the report. Three things, I think.
The Baker report has been comprehensively leaked and almost equally comprehensively trashed – even though it is not due to be released until Wednesday.
But – for all the leaks – I’m still confused as to what exactly Baker and Co are going to recommend on the crucial question of troop withdrawals. It has been variously reported that Baker will call for a phased withdrawal, a redeployment of troops to an advisory role or – even – a new surge in troop levels, in a last ditch effort to stabilise the situation in Baghdad.
The one thing that everybody seems to agree is that Baker and Co will call for new diplomatic efforts in the region: fresh efforts to talk to Iran and Syria – and, almost certainly, more pressure on Israel to do a deal with the Palestinians.
But there are three big problems. First, none of these ideas are particularly new or radical. Second, there is strong evidence that President Bush is preparing to reject anything that smacks of “cut and run”, and is highly sceptical of the idea of engaging Iran and Syria. And finally – and worst of all – the situation in Iraq is so dreadful, that even the keenest advocates of the Baker group seem to fear that nothing it suggests is likely to make much difference anyway.
Faced with growing evidence of an uncontrollable debacle in Iraq, Washington insiders are doing what comes naturally – trying to make sure that somebody else takes the blame. Newsweek reports that one of Baker’s goals is to “cover your rear” – and I don’t think they mean this in a military sense.
In the US, outstanding investigative journalists win Pulitzer prizes. In Russia, they get shot. Browsing through the shelves of recent books on modern Russia it is chilling to realise that the authors of two of the most interesting volumes – Anna Politkovskaya and Paul Klebnikov – were subsequently murdered.
It is another killing – the poisoning in London of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian agent – which is today’s cause célèbre. Yegor Gaidar, a former prime minister, is also in hospital – perhaps another victim of a poisoning.
For any of you still harbouring the illusion that life might be fun under an Islamist regime, may I draw your attention to this dismal little tale from Somalia. Last weekend, a cinema in a small town in central Somalia put on a broadcast of the Manchester United-Chelsea match, live from Manchester. The fact that amidst the poverty and danger of modern Somalia, people are still watching live football from England is – to my mind – moving testimony to (among other things) the indomitable spirit of man, the true meaning of globalisation and the worldwide appeal of Premiership football. But the local Islamist government did not see things that way. They moved in and arrested all the fans, some of them as young as ten years old, and held them in prison.
Somalia’s Islamists are causing great concern in the west at the moment, where many fear that they are linked to al-Qaeda. But if so, the Islamic Courts Union might consider adopting a more tolerant attitude to soccer. For is there some evidence that Osama bin Laden is, in fact, a football fan himself. A book published in 2001 suggested that during a period living in London, he developed a strong affinity for Arsenal football club – and was a regular at the Clock End at Highbury.