This morning I woke up with a start and immediately reached for the Blackberry on my bedside table. This is an incredibly bad habit, which I must rid myself of. Among the messages that had come in overnight was this comment posted on the blog by WCM, who makes "no apologies" for his rudeness. He suggests that I am not doing my job properly because I am writing about trivia and neglecting important issues like developments on the Turkish-Kurdish border, developments in Pakistan, the world of private equity etc…
WCM is not alone in his concerns. When I mentioned to my colleague Lucy Kellaway that I was planning to write about celebrities this week, she looked slightly concerned and said – "Isn’t that a bit moronic?" However, since her previous column had been devoted to seeing how many swear-words she could get into the FT in one go, I did not feel Lucy was in a position to preach. (I recommend the podcast incidentally).
However, the issue raised by WCM and LK is a valid one. My answer is that the question I ask when choosing a topic for my column (or indeed for the blog) is not – what is the most important thing going on in the world? It is – do I have anything original to say about this?
Here is a selection of recent newspaper headlines: "Redford slams Bush over Iraq"; "Bono takes IMF to task over Liberia"; "Jolie blasts US military spending"; "Clooney’s foreign policy – sexiest man has a plan to save Darfur". Read more
Nicolas Sarkozy is shaping up well as the politician who provides best value on YouTube. In an earlier entry, I posted the video of Sarko’s giggly press conference at an EU summit. Now the French president has surpassed himself by walking out of an interview with CBS’s "60 Minutes" programme, because the interviewer asked him about his divorce.
Well done, indeed. This interesting footage, got me thinking about a hit parade of political moments on YouTube. I think Sarko’s walk-out goes straight to the top.
I will stop banging on about Russia soon. But as well as the Kremlin meeting I recorded in the blog earlier in the week, I had lots of other meetings, kindly organised by the Heinrich Boll Stiftung, a German foundation.
Among the people we met was Yury Schmidt, the lawyer for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the imprisoned former boss of Yukos. Schmidt is still doing his best by his client. But since he – like most people I spoke to – assume the legal process around Yukos is entirely politicised, it is difficult to hold out much hope. Much of what Schmidt had to say was convincing, even moving. But some of it seemed a little too ingenious. He argued that many of Khodorkovsky’s alleged crimes were committed in a period when the Soviet legal system had collapsed, but new laws had not yet been passed. I asked, "So you are saying since there were no laws, it was imposssible to break the law?" He replied, "Exactly."
I’m struggling a bit today. By Wednesday afternoon, I like to have a vague idea of what my column next week will be about. But I’m feeling uninspired. Of course, it is quite likely that there will be a rush of news later this week, which will provide an obvious topic. Last week, for example, by the weekend there were three good subjects – Benazir’s bloody return to Pakistan, the Polish elections, the signature of the new EU treaty. In the end, I ignored them all. But, if required, I’m sure I could have worked anyone of them up into a column of the required standard (β++∕∂-?).
At the moment, I am reduced to reading over my dog-eared list of “ideas for future columns”. The one I feel most like reviving at the moment is the article on what’s wrong with Bono. This got quite a big reaction when I first suggested it on the blog a few weeks ago – so there is an archive of stuff for me to work through. Also, I’ve just been forwarded a new article on celebrities in global politics, which looks promising. But I have had another idea, which at least has the merit of being new – the potential impact of $100 oil on global politics.
Last Friday I met Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, and so had a chance to put to him some of the criticisms of the Putin government, listed in my post "Fulminating against Russia." I will give an account of his views on missile defence et al, lower down.
However, I have found that most people I have spoken to about the meeting are far more interested in the question of what the Kremlin is actually like inside, than in what its representatives have to say to the world. The answer is that it is surprisingly dingy. Admittedly, it is also huge – and I only went into the first building that faces onto Red Square. However this is where, I am told, President Putin himself works. The corridors are long, sparse and lit by low wattage light bulbs. The lifts are elderly. And the security seems relatively lax, certainly compared to Downing Street or the White House. Peskov’s office has a great view over St Basil’s cathedral. But it is hardly opulent. There is a workaday conference table and a couple of beaten-up old sofas. I do not mean this as a criticism. Given that Mr Putin’s circle are regularly accused of enriching themselves, it is quite interesting that their working surroundings are not particularly flashy.
Dmitry Peskov, official spokesman for the Russian president, likes a joke. Visitors to his Kremlin office last week noticed that the screensaver on his computer is a series of revolving quotes from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Big Brother is watching you”, “war is peace”, “freedom is slavery”, “ignorance is strength”.
Since Mr Peskov works from the same building from which Stalin operated – and now speaks for Vladimir Putin, who is often accused of establishing a new Russian autocracy – this is all rather daring. Or tasteless. Possibly both.
Mr Peskov speaks with the relaxed good humour – and even the accent – of an American spin-doctor. But listening to some of what he had to say, I experienced a strong sense of déjà vu – and it was not the US that was brought to mind. It was China.
I keep being told that there is no such thing as the rule of law here in Russia. And now I know it’s true. That was never a penalty.
For those of you who have not been following events in Moscow, I refer to the Russia-England football match, and the unjustly awarded spot kick that turned the game. This evening I had decided to give maximum space to my inner moron – and so quietly excused myself from a dinner with Russian NGOs, in favour of watching the match on television. All England needed was a draw – and with just 20 minutes to go, we were winning. Wayne Rooney – that epitome of all that is finest in English manhood – had put England ahead. But then came the imaginary penalty, awarded against poor, bewildered Rooney. Then another Russian goal (fluke) – and we had lost.
I will be in Moscow later this week which should be fascinating since I haven’t been for a couple of years. For reasons too tedious to go into, I won’t be able to do the blog from Russia. So, after this post, there will be a short period of silence.
In preparation for the trip, however, I’ve been talking to lots of people. The single most memorable conversation I have had about Russia was with a "senior administration official" in Washington,a few weeks ago. The man in question is not generally regarded as a hardliner or a hawk. But his view of developments in Russia was extraordinary bleak. Here are the edited highlights:
I think I may be some sort of genius. Six weeks ago – at the beginning of the Rugby world cup – I put £10 on England to win the tournament at 33-1. Now England are through to next weekend’s final against South Africa. Just one more win and I will have the satisfaction of picking up £340 from Ladbrokes of King Street, Hammersmith. I never bet online, since I like to see the look of defeat in the bookmakers’ eyes when they hand over the money.
I would not claim genius simply on the basis of this one bet. But I’ve done this sort of thing before. Before the 2002 soccer World Cup I made a winning bet on Ronaldo of Brazil to be top scorer at 25-1. (He was long odds because he had been injured for two years). I did it again at the 2006 World Cup, where I bet on Miroslav Klose of Germany, who was mystifyingly well-priced at 28-1. On that occasion – to my infinite satisfaction – the bookie actually said "well done, sir", as gave me the cash. If England beat South Africa, I may finally get the courage to abandon journalism and become a professional gambler.
Who knew that the US had such a powerful Armenian community? Nobody doubts it now – after the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee voted to label the mass killings of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire as genocide. The vote has already caused a minor diplomatic crisis – with potentially serious implications.
But it also underlines something really important about US foreign policy – the extent to which it is driven by ethnic lobbies. The most famous is the Jewish lobby – call it the Israel lobby, if you want to be more precise and less controversial.
To Britons of a certain generation – my generation – the name George Soros will always carry a certain mystique. In the US he may be regarded primarily as a billionaire with liberal views and in Eastern Europe he is associated with the Open Society institutes. But in Britain he will always be thought of above all as "the man who broke the Bank of England". Soros’s successful speculation against the pound in 1992 is widely believed to have caused "Black Wednesday", when Britain was forced out of the European exchange rate mechanism. The whole experience was a memorable crash course for the British public (and indeed the British government) in the power of global financial markets.
Curiously, perhaps, very little odium attached to Soros himself, after this unfortunate incident. He might have humiliated the government and forced a devaluation. But nobody seems to hold it against him. On the contrary, he is widely admired in Britain and is regarded as a something of a guru. I am as vulnerable to the Soros mystique as the next man, so I was intriuged to meet him for the first time at a small(ish) dinner for the launch of the European Council on Foreign Relations last week.
Thanks to everyone who took part in the impromptu Iraq discussion. I was pleased to see that the contributors span the ideological spectrum from "Bush is a war criminal" to "secure the oil and let the hopeless Iraqis slug it out" (I paraphrase obviously). Since much of the blogosphere seems to be chopped up into the ideological equivalent of gated communities, it’s good to see such a range of opinions.
As for myself, I think the discussion helped clarify my thinking a bit – although I don’t think I’ve yet found "the solution". Rather than comment on each and every posting, I thought it might be useful to react to groups of ideas that cropped up.
First – Belgium. I’m fond of the place myself, since I used to live there. And a couple of correspondents seem to regard it as a possible model for Iraq – as does Volker Perthes, whose article I linked to. I’m not convinced however. The temptations of federalism or even partition are obvious – and that may be where we end up eventually. But any attempt to force the situation might involve further mass movements of people and killings – which looked more like the partition of India and Pakistan than the creation of Belgium (which I seem to remember is the only revolution ever to have started in an opera house.) Also partition might invite outside intervention and therefore a wider war. Would Turkey tolerate an independent Kurdistan? How would the Saudis feel about an Iranian-linked Shiastan in the south?
In a recent book John Mueller, an American academic, notes that the number of his fellow-countrymen killed by terrorists since 1960 “is about the same as the number killed over the same period by accident-causing deer”. Read more
I have written a lot about Iraq in the FT. But readers of my column might have noticed that – while not slow to dish out criticism – I have usually dodged the big question: so what would you do?
There is a simple reason for this evasiveness. I don’t know really know what I would do. Like most people, I am better at defining the question than providing the answer. So once again, I would like to turn to the readers of this blog for ideas and suggestions.
Going straight from New York to Blackpool is a disorientating experience – a journey from the centre of western civilisation to its very edge. There are a couple of similarities, however. They are both seaside towns, full of tourists and neon lighting. After that, I’m struggling.
I was in Blackpool for the Tory Party conference. The main topic of conversation there is the possibility of an election in Britain. But the most interesting event I went to (apart from the Foreign Policy Centre event I spoke at, obviously) was a fringe meeting on "interventionism – and the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan." The big draw there was John Bolton, America’s former UN ambassador, who can usually be relied upon to offend large parts of the audience.
Over the years, I’ve seen most of America’s leading neo-cons in actions – and their styles differ markedly. Paul Wolfowitz is diffident and rather bookish in manner. Richard Perle is a bully, but can also speak persuasively. Bill Kristol is combative – but also intellectually agile and keen to engage in debate. John Bolton, however, had always struck me as a charmless thug. I once saw him addressing a high-level conference, full of reasonably sympathetic Europeans. Even they were shocked by Bolton’s raw nationalism and open contempt for much of his audience. On that occasion, even some of the Americans in the audience were embarrassed. One of them said to me afterwards, "I think John has forgotten that technically his job description is diplomat."
On my first visit to Burma in the early 1990s, I met an elderly man who had fought with the British in the second world war – and who rolled up his sleeve to show the scars left by a Japanese machine gun. The old man was scathing in his contempt for his country’s military government. But when I asked him if he wanted tougher sanctions against Burma he looked alarmed: “No,” he protested, “we are far too isolated already.”
Fifteen years have passed since then and the military junta is still in charge – and once again has resorted to murderous repression in the streets. The western world is aghast. At a meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York last week, Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, got a wry laugh when he announced that something must be done, but he had no idea what that something might be. Under such circumstances, “something” usually turns out to be economic and political sanctions. Read more