Monthly Archives: May 2007

Yesterday evening was an interesting exercise in "compare and contrast". It started with drinks with Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, at the American ambassador’s residence in London. And then it was onto a dinner with Boris Berezovsky, former oligarch and arch enemy of Vladimir Putin.

It is striking how national loyalties kick in and override partisan disputes, once senior Americans are overseas. Mrs P is over in Europe primarily to discuss climate change. But when I suggested to her that a Democratic Party president might be a little more willing to reach an international agreement than the present incumbent of the White House, she was clearly reluctant to put the boot into George W. Bush. Yes, she agreed the Democrats are in general a bit more fired up about climate change than the Republicans. But the important thing is to identify "things we can all agree on" – Democrats and Republicans, Europeans and Americans. Unfortunately, the area of agreement she identified didn’t seem to go much beyond – "climate change is happening, it’s a big problem and something needs to be done about it."

I asked her if it was a problem that the Europeans still seem wedded to the Kyoto approach, since Kyoto is such a dirty word in Congress. She took a pragmatic approach. If you want to bring something like Kyoto back, "you would have to call it something else."

After a while the ambassador arrived to usher the speaker away for photos. We shook hands. Or rather, we didn’t.

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The decision by Congress to authorise extra funding for the Iraq war – without setting a deadline for withdrawal – is being portrayed in some places as a capitulation by the anti-war crowd. Not at all. It simply means that the crucial political struggle over withdrawal from Iraq has been delayed a few months.

The real battle is going to take place in September. At that point, all of the American troops set aside for "the surge" will have been in Iraq for several months. In September General David Petraeus, on whom so many American hopes are hanging, is also due to give a crucial "status report" to Congress. If the news looks bad, then Congressional moves to get the troops out will begin in earnest. The Iraqi insurgents will doubtless factor this into their calculations. President Bush is already predicting a bloody August.

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If you happen to be passing though Malibu next month, why not pop into an intriguing-sounding conference at Pepperdine University on "The Collapse of Europe". One of the early sessions is entitled – "Eurabia: Is Muslim domination of Europe inevitable?"

My answer to this is "No" it’s not inevitable. In fact, given that the Muslim population of Europe is just 4% at the moment, I would say it’s highly unlikely. But don’t trying telling that to an audience of American conservatives. The idea that Europe is about to be submerged by the Muslim hordes seems to be almost recieved wisdom over there. It is certainly a notion that has launched a great many books. There is “Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis” by Bat Ye’or; “While Europe Slept – How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within” by Bruce Bawer; “The Death of the West” by Pat Buchanan; and “The Cube and the Cathedral” by George Weigel.

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Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s north-west frontier province, is a depressing place to visit at the moment. Islamic militancy and violence are spilling over the border from Afghanistan. Suicide bombings used to be unknown in Peshawar. But there have been 16 since September. A bombing in January killed the local police chief, who had been cracking down on militants. Another bombing last week blew up a local hotel and killed about 24 people. This is following the pattern of Afghanistan itself. Suicide bombings did not happen there until 2005. Now they are a deadly, weekly occurrence in Afghanistan, and have spilled across the border into Pakistan.

The phrase "climate of fear" is a cliche. But it is an accurate description of the current mood in Peshawar. The American consultate – the last major western diplomatic representation in the city – is surrounded by Green-Zone style fortifications. Moderate Muslims are intimidated. Threats have been made to shops selling CDs, barbers who have the temerity to cut mens’ beards and to girls’ schools.

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This morning I called upon a senior member of the Pakistani government in his rather splendid offices in Islamabad. You will be pleased to know that he seems unruffled by current events. Karachi, he informed me, has gone back to normal after Sunday’s killings. As for Monday’s murder of a senior Supreme Court official, this was – “A most unfortunate incident, but these things happen.”

Meanwhile in Peshawar, the police have discovered the severed limbs of the suicide bomber who blew up a hotel there earlier this week. He had thoughtfully taped a little note to his leg, which read – “Death to American spies.” This is a bit of a downer, since I’m planning to travel to Peshawar tomorrow morning in the company of some Americans. I hope none of them are spies.

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I seem to have arrived in Pakistan at a lively time. On Sunday more than 40 demonstrators were shot and killed at an anti-government rally in Karachi. On Monday there was a general strike and the mysterious murder of a senior official of the Supreme Court. Yesterday there was a suicide bombing in Peshawar and 25 people were killed. I wonder what will happen today?

The Pakistani opposition seem convinced that this is beginning of the end for President Musharraf. One of the people I called on yesterday was Avida Hussein, an ebullient woman who is a former ambassador to Washington and now a leading opponent of the president. She was caught up in the shootings in Karachi on Sunday and says – “I’ve been mucking around in politics for over 30 years and the first time I saw a human being shot dead in front of me was on Sunday in Karachi.”

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This is a very big moment in British politics. Tony Blair announced his retirement as prime minister yesterday. Gordon Brown has just launched his bid to be the next Labour leader and prime minister. And which stories are readers flocking to on the BBC website – the most popular in Britain? Top of the ratings is a story about Google; second most popular is a macabre little tale about vultures; and the fourth-rated story is about a penguin who went for a very long walk. In one recent week, the BBC’s most popular story was headlined – "Man cuts off own penis in restaurant".

This is entirely typical. My analysis of the "most read" stories on the BBC and at most newspaper web-sites suggests that the most popular broad topics are – in rough order of preference – sex (preferably deviant), animals (preferably cute) and anything really macabre.

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Tony Blair’s farewell speech was a reminder of why he is such a gifted politician – and why he has to go. All the familiar Blair traits were there: the folksy introduction; the catch-in-the-voice; the self-deprecation mixed with the high moral purpose; the anecdotes mixed with the grand vision.

The trouble is that they are now so familiar that they have begun to grate. What seemed natural and beguiling in 1997 looks tired and false in 2007.

So what did I think of the speech itself? Four things struck me.

First, it was very defensive – almost pleading – in tone. Blair’s appeal for understanding – "I ask you to accept one thing – hand on heart I did what I thought was right" – was ridiculous. Of course, I accept that. I didn’t imagine that Tony Blair went to bed in Downing Street every night, chuckling evilly to himself – and asking, "now what I can do tomorrow, that’s really bad."

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The 1970s are always portrayed as Britain’s dark decade. I’m as guilty of slamming the 70s as anybody else – just take a look at my column in today’s FT. The litany of gloom is familiar: strikes, power-cuts, riots, economic decline.

But the funny thing is that I grew up in 1970s Britain and it didn’t seem so bad. Or rather – the things that look terrible now were quite exciting at the time.

Take the “three-day-week” of early 1974. I was at primary school then and hugely enjoyed the drama every time the lights went out – and my parents started fumbling around for candles and matches. Even some adults enjoyed the situation. I recently met a British diplomat who said that he and his Foreign Office colleagues liked the power-cuts, because it meant that it was impossible to do any work – leaving them with no option but to go to the pub. (He did not explain how they drank pints in the dark.)

Even the occasional riots were fun. Read more

The election of Nicolas Sarkozy as the next president of France was greeted with a light smattering of riots across the country. Mr Sarkozy knows that could be just the aperitif. There is a real risk of social unrest, as France’s new president tries to deliver on his promise of “rupture” with the past.

Mr Sarkozy knows that three prime ministers of the Chirac era – Alain Juppé, Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Dominique de Villepin – were forced to abandon economic reforms in the face of popular demonstrations. But he is determined that things will be different this time. One member of the Sarkozy inner circle argues that previous rounds of reform failed because President Jacques Chirac lost his nerve. With “Nicolas” in the Élysée palace, things will be different. Read more

It’s past midnight in Paris and I’ve just finished watching the great debate – the long-awaited face-off between Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal.

My verdict? Bizarrely boring; bizarrely parochial – and probably a narrow victory for Sarkozy.

I know France is a serious country – but letting the debate run for two and a half hours seemed to be a bit of a punishment for even the most serious-minded of citizens. Worse, despite the acres of time available to them, they barely discussed some of the most serious issues facing France. There was no discussion  – and I mean none – of the fact that in 2005 France faced over three weeks of nightly riots. You might have thought that rated a mention. And in 150 minutes of debate, they spent barely 15 minutes discussing the outside world.

Instead, the two candidates got lost in the finer details of social and economic policy. I know that France faces serious economic problems. And they had a good and fairly clear discussion of the economics of the 35-hour-week. (I thought Sarkozy scored heavily there – but then I agree with him that it’s a mad law) But was it really necessary to spend quite so much time on issues like civil-service reform, nuclear power and the school curriculum – while barely discussing the social problems of France’s  suburbs, or the collapse of France’s European policy?

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Yesterday evening I went to see Ségolène Royal give a speech in Paris. It was a hot May Day afernoon – the perfect moment to see the Socialist Party candidate start her final assault on the presidency.

I saw Nicolas Sarkozy – Ségolène’s rival – speak a couple of weeks ago. But that was before a small audience in a five-star hotel in a smart part of Paris. Ségolène’s event was very different – a huge rally and pop concert in a stadium in the 13th arrondissement (not very smart). I took a taxi to the stadium with John Thornhill, the FT’s Europe editor. The roads were closed off and we had to walk the last few blocks. John remarked – slightly  nervously I thought – "I don’t really know this part of Paris."

When we arrived at the stadium, the concert was still going on, the gates were barred and there were huge crowds milling around outside. Eventually I elbowed my way up to a gate with a big sign on it saying "Press". Normally in France, brandishing a press card has a magical – almost embarrassing – effect. (It’s particularly effective for queue-jumping at museums.) But not this time. The mixture of riot police and Socialist Party organisers were unimpressed. Ségolène wasn’t due on stage for 45 minutes. But they weren’t letting anyone else in.

Annoyed by this, I decided to walk around the stadium and look for a gap in the security. About 100 yards further on, I came across some people – mainly young blacks and Arabs – who had found a way into the stadium. They had turned a crash barrier on its side and were using it as a makeshift ladder, allowing them to clamber up to the top of the metal fence surrounding the stadium– and then leap down onto the other side. I climbed up myself and took a look.

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What is the answer to the rise of fundamentalism across the Muslim world? For years Europeans and Americans thought they knew the antidote: secular democracy.

In the Islamic world, Turkey has been the shining example. Not only is the country a member of Nato; it has also been held up as proof that a country can be simultaneously Muslim, prosperous, secular and democratic. So what are we to make of events in Turkey now? Secularists have demonstrated in huge numbers because they are terrified by the prospect of the indirect election of a mildly Islamist president, and the army has hinted that it may stage a coup to protect the secular character of the state. Secularism and democracy seem to be at war. Read more