Monthly Archives: July 2007

This may not come as a massive surprise, but the West Bank is a pretty depressing place at the moment. Moderate Palestinians in particular are really worried, not just about the rise of Hamas, but also about how splits in the Palestinian ranks will enfeeble them ahead of international talks later this year.

I met a particularly eloquent pessimist in Ramallah yesterday. Mustafa Barghouti, ran second in the Palestinian presidential election and is now head of a big NGO. He sees three major risks in the current situation. The first is the “liquidation of the whole Palestinian cause”. This sounds so serious that I’m not really sure that you need to move onto points two and three. But, for the record, the second problem is the destruction of the democratic system built in the Palestinian territories. The third is popular disillusionment with both Hamas and Fatah.   

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[This is my latest FT newspaper column, drawing on suggestions from an earlier blog post. My other newspaper columns can be read here -- most require an subscription.]

Conspiracy theorists have a bad reputation. They are usually portrayed as paranoid, isolated, deluded people, best avoided.

It is true that there are many sinister and unpleasant conspiracy theories. These are usually the ones that seek to blame all the world’s ills on a single racial or social group – Jews, Catholics, Freemasons.

But there are also conspiracy theories that are delightfully dotty. A friend in Ankara tells me many Turks are convinced that, during the cold war, the Russians infested the Sea of Marmara with a sturgeon-devouring predator that sent these valuable fish fleeing into the Russian bit of the Black Sea – thus allowing the Russians to control the world’s supply of caviar. That is a theory worthy of James Bond.

The idea that conspiracy theorists are an isolated bunch, on the fringes of society, is also wide of the mark. Some theories are so widely believed that they are now almost mainstream. A recent BBC opinion poll suggested that only 43 per cent of Britons accept the official verdict that the car crash that killed Diana, Princess of Wales, was an accident. The countless “9/11” conspiracy theories also have a surprisingly wide audience – even in America. A Zogby poll last year found that 42 per cent of Americans think the US government is “covering up” facts about the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001.

Why do conspiracy theories command such a wide audience? I have my own theory about that.

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Well, I think the experiment in crowd-sourcing (otherwise known as picking the brains of readers of this blog) has been a great success. It would be invidious to pick out particular contributions. But I was struck by how interesting and rational most of the posts were – so unlike the forums in other newspapers. I mention no names. I think I’ll definitely repeat the experiment, after the summer break.

In the end I’ve decided to do the conspiracy theories column. In the course of the research I came across two particularly striking conspiracy websites. (There are zillions of them) The editor of Conspiracy Planet sent a rather aggressive letter to the editor, accusing me of being a "shill" for the establishment. Fortunately, he is based in Montana – so I doubt I’ll ever have to argue this one out in person. Then there is the Lobster site, which has long had a devoted following in Britain.

Meanwhile, out in the real world  – things still look bad in Pakistan, with a resurgence of violence at the Red Mosque.

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With half of Britain under water after heavy rain, it is now clear to me what Tony Blair should have said when he left Downing Street a few weeks ago: "Apres moi, le deluge."

Now – onto the main business of the day. I see that PL is worried that I am blurring the line between the column and the blog. I must admit that it is rather odd maintaining two personalities and two voices – one for the newspaper and one for the blog. But I have decided to go for a bit more line-blurring. Specifically, I wonder whether readers of the blog might help me do some research for my newspaper columns. I did hesitate before making this suggestion, since it involves dropping the pretence of omniscience which is an important part of the persona of any newspaper columnist. But I’m not sure I can even spell omniscience – let alone claim it – so what the hell. Anyway, the people who run the website tell me that what I’m proposing to do is called "crowdsourcing" (rather than laziness, as some might have it) and is extremely cutting edge. So that is some consolation.

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Lord Salisbury, a British prime minister of the imperial age, once remarked that a great deal of strategic confusion can be caused by "using maps with too small a scale". This warning should be remembered when comparing Turkey and Pakistan – two very different countries, thousands of miles apart.

But the fact remains that – viewed from Washington or London – Turkey and Pakistan do present similar problems. They are both pro-western, non-Arab, Muslim countries. They are both front-line states, bordering countries where the US and its allies are fighting a war. (Turkey borders Iraq and Pakistan borders Afghanistan, in case you had forgotten.) In both countries, the nightmare scenario for the west is a takeover by Muslim fundamentalists. And in both Turkey and Pakistan, the military has traditionally presented itself as the bulwark against extremism.

Turkey and Pakistan are also both going through periods of real political turmoil. But that is where the comparison stops. Viewed from the west events in Turkey – although cause for anxiety – look a great deal more promising than the goings-on in Pakistan.

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The Russian decision to expel four British diplomats sounds like a straightforward tit-for-tat response to the British decision to kick out four Russians. In fact, as the FT pointed out, the Russians have gone a little bit further than expected – by also extending the diplomatic cold war to co-operation on terrorism and tougher rules on visas.

Still, I think that both sides are keen to keep a lid on the dispute. The economic interests at stake are huge and could be easily damaged if the Russo-British row really gets out of control. That still seems to me to be likely to keep the dispute within bounds. If there are any Marxists left in the Kremlin, I’m sure they would agree. Read more

Conspiracy theorists who would like to believe that the invasion of Iraq was all about oil will be tempted to fork out £17 for a new book – "Oil Wars" (Pluto Press). The editors carry the stamp of academic respectability – they hail from the LSE and Stanford. And they definitely flirt with the "war for oil" thesis.

The book’s introduction starts with a very suggestive quote from Paul Wolfowitz – "The most important difference between North Korea and Iraq is that economically we just had no choice in Iraq. The country swims on a sea of oil." Infuriatingly this quote is not footnoted. I would love to read it in context.

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Over the weekend, I watched one of the worst films I have ever seen. "Love Actually" features Hugh Grant, cast as Britain’s prime minister. In one of the film’s most important moments, Grant insults the American president at a joint press conference. The scene has become so famous that when Douglas Alexander, a minister in the Brown government, made some ambiguous comments about the US in a recent speech, pundits eagerly debated whether Britain was having a "Love Actually" moment.

I have no interest in the thought of Hugh Grant as prime minister. But I would pay money to see Boris Johnson in 10 Downing Street – just for the pleasure of seeing him conduct a joint press conference with the US president. I am sure Johnson would be perfectly polite. But the contrast between a shambling, unkempt and inarticulate "Boris" and the slick polished style of a US president would be a wonderful practical joke to play on the Americans.

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The United States is meant to be a country that celebrates wealth. Making millions is part of the American dream, and only Europeans are meant to succumb to mean-minded envy.

I have often suspected, however, that Americans are much less relaxed about the "filthy rich" than they think. Conrad Black – who has just been found guilty of fraud in Chicago – may be about to feel the brunt of all that pent-up rage about huge salaries and perks for the super rich. Even though he was not convicted on all charges, he seems likely to get a long sentence – which could be a life sentence, for a man of 62.

The prosecution in the Black case certainly laid on the details of his opulent lifestyle with a trowel. This may have been because opulence is easier for a jury to grasp than the complicated technical details of a fraud. A colleague who reported on the trial says that two of the jurors were asleep for large
parts of the case. But everyone sat up and paid attention when the details of lavish Black parties and extravagant homes were laid out.

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President Bush is now engaged in a two-fronts war over Iraq. There is the battle in Iraq itself, and then there is the political battle back in Washington. To win the struggle in Washington, he needs to convince American politicians and the public that there is hope in Iraq. And that – in a modest and halting way – is what the interim report issued today does. It claims that progress has been made and pleads for more time.

The trouble is, how much time is enough? In a dangerous moment of candour earlier this week, General David Petraeus – the US commander in Iraq – told the BBC that typical counter-insurgenices can take decades to succeed. He cited the British experience in Northern Ireland, which actually took more than 30 years – and ended with a political settlement.

The trouble is that Iraq is considerably more daunting than Northern Ireland. The Americans have lost 3,600 troops, which is far more men than Britain ever lost in Ulster. Nor does there seem to be any prospect of reaching a political deal with the hard core of the insurgency – al-Qaeda.

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"Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world" is one of those cliches that you often hear when people discuss world affairs. The basic equation is: unstable country + nuclear weapons + mad mullahs + base for al Qaeda = Big Trouble.

For the past few years, the west’s backing for President Musharraf has been based largely on the idea that,  for all his flaws, he remains a reliable ally in the "war on terror" and the best insurance against the radicialisation of Pakistan. It is a policy reminiscent of Hilaire Belloc’s advice to "Always keep a hold of nurse/For fear of finding something worse".

The storming of the Red Mosque will bolster Musharraf’s reputation as a bulwark against Islamist extremism. When I visited Pakistan a couple of months ago, western diplomats in Islamabad were clearly nervous about the development of a Taliban-style mosque just down the road. Many middle-class Pakistanis didn’t seem too delighted either.

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It will be interesting to see if the revelation that the terrorist plot in London and Glasgow was allegedly organised by doctors will finally knock on the head one of the most ingrained myths about al-Qaeda – that this is an organisation manned by the oppressed of the earth.

I remember, shortly after 9/11, hearing a left-wing British MP on the radio. He confidently predicted that it would turn out that the terrorists had been victims of western policy in the Middle East – Palestinian refugees perhaps. As it turned out they were middle-class, educated and with plenty of opportunities in life. Mohammed Atta was an architect.

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The front page of the evening paper in London this evening proclaims "Muslim leaders condemn bombers". It is rather sad that this should be considered front page news. None of the people arrested in connection with the London and Glasgow bomb plots have, so far, been British Muslims. But it is still clear that we are embarking on another round of the agonised debate about the relationship between Muslims, Islam, Islamism and terrorism.

The Brown government has been praised in many quarters for avoiding the "I" word in condemning the would-be terrorists. They have been characterised as criminals, rather than Islamic terrorists. But some people think the government is being a bit too tactful.

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