...Views from mid-Atlantic
07 January 2006

Ian Buruma is a Brit writer who now lives and works in the United States. He's bothered by the role religion plays in the US, and worries that evangelicism could be spreading to Europe. In the Guardian, he writes: "Now, it may be that such voices will always be a small minority in Europe, because secularism is already too entrenched. But I wouldn't count on it. More and more people might start exercising their freedom of choice and choose to be born again. As a keen Atlanticist, I still like to think that Europe and the US are inseparable parts of the same civilisation, and deplore the current rifts. But it would be a sad thing indeed if the gap were to be narrowed, not by those who still believe in the worldly ideals of liberalism and reason, but by those who hope that Jesus will take them straight to heaven."

It's become a kind of passion in Europe, this sport of dissing Americans for their tolerance of religion, especially evangelicism (no prize for guessing it has something to do with George Bush). I remember reading something by a Brit blogger less careful about his language than a pro like Buruma, but no less convinced of his moral superiority, in which he said he saw "evangelical leaders as a threat to human decency, compassion, sanity, safety and survival." That makes it about as plain as it gets.

I have three thoughts. First, Europeans misunderstand the role of religion in American political life. I read a BBC story yesterday about Pat Robertson's disgusting 'God is punishing Ariel Sharon' remarks, which plainly assumed that Robertson, and people who share his religious beliefs, personified the right wing of the Republican Party. It seems to be understood in Europe that although they are far too smart to identify themselves or talk about their beliefs, the far right wing of the Republican Party...the evangelical wing, that is...pulls George Bush's strings in a big way. That's a misreading of the situation. Evangelicals are present all over the political spectrum of American politics, not just in the Republican Party. They are important to politicians because they have influence over a lot of votes, but they are not an important, coherent political group, and stand no chance of ever becoming one in a country which understands the separation of Church and State to be fundamental to the success of its democracy.

Second, Europeans misunderstand the place religion has in the lives of Americans. There are cults in existence, I'm sure, which control every facet of the lives of their members. They are in the tiniest of minorities. The vast majority of religious people in the United States look to their churches for spiritual and moral guidance, not for political instruction. Americans are people who see religion as a rewarding addition to their lives, not people who are being told what to do and think by some secret right-wing cabal.

Third, people like Ian Buruma overestimate the secularism of Europeans. The appeal of religion to people who find life confusing and frightening is as universal as a liking for sugar. It may be expressed in different ways in different places and at different times, but it is part of humanity and cannot be surpressed.

It is ironic that on the same day Buruma's article appeared, another Guardian journalist, Madeleine Bunting, wrote this piece, obviously under the influence of a considerable anger about Richard Dawkins's atheism: "There's an underlying anxiety that atheist humanism has failed. Over the 20th century, atheist political regimes racked up an appalling (and unmatched) record for violence. Atheist humanism hasn't generated a compelling popular narrative and ethic of what it is to be human and our place in the cosmos; where religion has retreated, the gap has been filled with consumerism, football, Strictly Come Dancing and a mindless absorption in passing desires.

"Not knowing how to answer the big questions of life, we shelve them - we certainly don't develop the awe towards and reverence for the natural world that Dawkins would want. So the atheist humanists have been betrayed by the irrational, credulous nature of human beings; a misanthropy is increasingly evident in Dawkins's anti-religious polemic and among his many admirers.

"This is the only context that can explain Dawkins's programme, a piece of intellectually lazy polemic which is not worthy of a great scientist. He uses his authority as a scientist to claim certainty where he himself knows, all too well, that there is none; for example, our sense of morality cannot simply be explained as a product of our genetic struggle for evolutionary advantage. More irritatingly, he doesn't apply to religion - the object of his repeated attacks - a fraction of the intellectual rigour or curiosity that he has applied to evolution (to deserved applause). Where is the grasp of the sociological or anthropological explanations of the centrality of religion? Sadly, there is no evolution of thought in Dawkins's position; he has been saying much the same thing about religion for a long time."

Poor old Richard Dawkins. He's a lovely man, really, and acts out of the best of motives. He doesn't deserve to be villified in this way, but he's butting up against human nature. Like sparks flying upwards, that dooms his, and in a slightly different way, Ian Buruma's argument to failure.

06 January 2006

Charles Krauthammer puts it best, as surgeons in Israel fight to save Ariel Sharon's life: "The stroke suffered by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon could prove to be one of the great disasters in the country's nearly 60-year history...Sharon was a historical actor of enormous proportion, having served in every one of Israel's wars since its founding in 1948, having almost single-handedly saved Israel with his daring crossing of the Suez Canal in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and now having broken Israel's left-right political duopoly that had left the country bereft of any strategic ideas to navigate the post-Oslo world. Sharon put Israel on the only rational strategic path out of that wreckage. But, alas, he had taken his country only halfway there when he himself was taken away. And he left no Joshua."

Michael Oren, who wrote the excellent Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, puts some flesh on those bones in a Wall Street Journal analysis: "No issue more starkly demonstrated the twists in Mr. Sharon's policies than the so-called Oslo peace accords Israel signed with Yasser Arafat in 1993. Whether as a leader of the rightwing opposition or as a minister in the Likud-led government of Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr. Sharon consistently warned that Arafat would never abandon terrorism, and that the Oslo process was leading Israel toward disaster.

"His predictions were borne out in 2000, when Arafat's al-Fatah faction joined with Islamic terrorist groups in launching a war of suicide bombers and roadside ambushes that devastated Israel's economy and nearly shattered its society. Elected in February 2001, Mr. Sharon refused to meet with Arafat, and eventually mounted a counteroffensive that destroyed the terrorists' infrastructure and left Arafat isolated and besieged in his West Bank headquarters. But then Mr. Sharon again pulled a volte-face and began stressing the need to make 'painful sacrifices' for peace, and became the first Israeli prime minister to publicly endorse the creation of a Palestinian state.

"But what appeared to be inconsistencies in Mr. Sharon's positions was often merely a reflection of his ability to sense out the preferences of the Israeli mainstream. When it became clear that the majority of Israelis would no longer fight to defend 8,000 Jewish settlers in Gaza and were no longer willing to occupy the strip, he evacuated settlements and left the Gaza Palestinians to shoot at one another. When Israelis overwhelmingly supported the construction of a West Bank fence, Mr. Sharon, who originally opposed the barrier, began to build it. When most Israelis despaired of the status quo with the Palestinians but gave up on the possibility of finding a Palestinian leadership able to negotiate Israel's borders, Mr. Sharon broke away from the status quo Likud and founded Kadima, a party capable of redrawing Israel's borders unilaterally."

Kadima will be busy at the moment, trying to figure out how to move from here. This is their moment, of course, and if they screw it up, Israel will suffer a severe political setback. But I don't think they will - I think we're going to find that Sharon's military background made him as good a judge of character as he was a seizer-of-opportunities. Shaul Mofaz? I think he has the mark.

I'm lucky in not suffering from depression, but I'm aware of the huge number of people who do. They'll be pleased to read this Toronto Globe and Mail story about a discovery which may open the door to a big improvement in treatment.

"Most depression medications used today are members of the Prozac family that work by making more serotonin available to brain cells. They stem from a theory that depression patients might not have enough serotonin, a neurotransmitter, or chemical that carries signals between nerve cells. Then scientists discovered the serotonin connection was more complicated, dependent on how well the neurotransmitter binds to receptors, or docking ports, on cell surfaces..."

What has been discovered now is a modulating substance that may make that binding process easier and better. The Globe and Mail quotes Oxford University pharmacologist Trevor Sharp, who reviewed the work of scientists who made the discovery as having said: "This finding represents compelling evidence that p11 has a pivotal role in both the cause of depression and perhaps its successful treatment."

Richard Rahn, who is director general of the Center for Global Economic Growth, is impatient about the slowness of American lawmakers to grasp that one of the lessons of the 2005 scandals at the United Nations is...well, I'll use his words, taken from a piece in the Washington Times.

"As the UN Oil-for-Food debacle and now IMF/Congo scandal (which he outlines) make abundantly clear, it is well beyond time for the world's multinational institutions - including not only the UN and IMF, but others, such as the OECD - to be held to the same standards of accountability regarding their performance and conflicts of interest as those to which advanced societies subject private enterprise. Many of us have been writing about the abuses in these organizations for years, but the US and other governments have been AWOL in protecting their taxpayers' interests and the rule of law (with the exception of the Bush administration's appointment of the brilliant and gutsy John Bolton as ambassador to the UN). Effective action would include stepping on the financial windpipes of these institutions. Wake up, Congress."

Henry Green, like Anthony Powell, is a little-known, but highly significant British writer. Cyril Connolly counts his novel, Living, among the 100 key books of the Modern Movement. Connolly says: "Written (his second book) by a young man of twenty-four, it is a work of astonishing maturity and brilliance, showing a complete mastery of unfamiliar speech patterns and a grasp of working-class character, especially of the sixty-year olds, who are so set in their ways, yet so afraid of the future. It is also a poetic novel, rich in unusual imagery and juxtapositions and with a bubbling and lacerating wit..."

The Times Literary Supplement has just published an edited version of a lecture given at Warwick University last October, during a conference to celebrate the centenary of Henry Green's birth. It's well worth reading.

"To devotees of Henry Green, it seems extraordinary that a writer who gives so much pleasure should remain so essentially neglected: the unstopping, tissueless sentences travelling without delay of punctuation - those sentences which seem to drop a stitch and unravel just as you thought you were sewing up their meaning ('We lived here in the early years, in soft lands and climate influenced by the Severn, until my grandfather died and we moved to the big house a mile nearer the river where it went along below the garden'); the metaphors and similes, which float the strangest, rarest likenesses (a character's eyes catching the light 'like plums dipped in cold water'); the psychological subtlety, with its deep, delicate understanding of tragicomic fantasy; the authorial tact, content to let the reader move without explanatory signals, so that, as Coleridge said of Shakespeare, his characters 'like people in real life, are to be inferred by the reader'; and above all the genius for speech, especially working-class, regional, and dialect speech, perhaps the greatest facility for the writing of dialogue in twentieth-century English fiction (less hammy than Kipling, more various than Lawrence, more inventive than Pritchett)."

(Speaking of unstopping sentences, as we were.)

05 January 2006

In Israel, they're trying to make all the right noises about the possibility that Ariel Sharon might not be able to return to his leadership role - Haaretz quotes an Israeli government official as stressing that "the government was functioning despite Sharon's illness. 'A state isn't run only by the people who stand at its head... all the ministers and all the ministries are functioning - whether that's the Defense Ministry, the Health Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Interior Ministry - there's no power vacuum situation in a democratic state like Israel.'"

It's a nice thought, and true in a narrow sense. But in the sense that counts, it is not true. Israel, if Sharon is unable to recover, will have lost a leader who stood head and shoulders above the rest. No one else in Israel has the grip that Sharon had, or the creativity, or the courage. The search for peace in the Middle East, if he does not recover, will have suffered a grievous blow.

David Horowitz puts it well in the Jerusalem Post: "It was not so many years ago that he was a national and international pariah, barred from ministerial office, reviled and spent. Yet as Wednesday night turned to Thursday morning, and the full extent of Ariel Sharon's incapacitation became plain, it was already clear that ours is a changed and uncertain country without him at its helm, and that many Israelis feel thoroughly bereft without his massive, overwhelming presence."

04 January 2006

They were meant to last only for 90 days, but Spirit and Opportunity, those two little machines NASA sent to Mars, are still at it after two years, says SpaceDaily.

Thomas Sowell, in the Washington Times, recalls that "Many years ago, there was a book with the title The Suicide of the West. It may have been ahead of its time.

"The squeamishness, indecision and wishful thinking of the West are its greatest dangers because the West has the power to destroy any other danger. But it does not have the will. Partly this is because most of our Western allies have been sheltered from the brutal realities of the international jungle for more than half a century under the American nuclear umbrella. People insulated from dangers for generations can indulge themselves in the illusion that there are no dangers - as much of Western Europe has. This is part of the 'world opinion' that makes us hesitant to take any decisive action to prevent a nightmare scenario of nuclear weapons in the hands of hate-filled fanatics.

"Do not look for Europe to support any decisive action against Iran. But look for much of their intelligentsia, and much of our own intelligentsia as well, to be alert for any opportunity to wax morally superior if we do act."

He's not the only one writing in this vein at the moment. Joseph Loconte, who is an author and research fellow in religion at the Heritage Foundation, writes in the Weekly Standard that "Hardly anything has infuriated certain critics of the Bush Administration more than the president's vocabulary to describe the war on terrorism. Bush warns of an 'axis of evil,' in which rogue nations collude with Muslim extremists to acquire nuclear weapons. He regards Osama bin Laden and his cadre of suicide bombers as 'evildoers.' He compares the theology of radical Islam to that of European fascism and 'all the murderous ideologies' of the twentieth century. Intellectuals and others reject this talk as sophomoric and supremely arrogant - just another manifestation of Bush's cowboy diplomacy. Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor in the Carter Administration, voices a typical note of contempt: 'We have increasingly embraced at the highest official level what I think can fairly be called a paranoiac view of the world.'

"Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that these same critics remain mostly mute over the stunning remarks of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Two weeks ago the Iranian president shocked Western leaders when he claimed that the Holocaust was 'a myth' created by Jews and 'Zionist historians.' This followed a previous slander against Israel as 'a tumor' to be 'wiped off the map' - or, at best, relocated to Europe. 'Anybody who recognizes Israel will burn in the fire of the Islamic nation's fury,' Ahmadinejad told the Organization of the Islamic Conference. His anti-Semitic tirade comes as the Iranian leader continues to defy the United Nations to pursue a nuclear weapons program. 'I thought, my God, he's a Nazi,' a German resident told Knight Ridder. 'I couldn't believe that again the world was faced with a Nazi as a head of state. It's beyond comprehension.'"

And Mark Steyn, writing in the Wall Street Journal, begins his long, rather pessimistic piece this way: "Most people reading this have strong stomachs, so let me lay it out as baldly as I can: Much of what we loosely call the Western world will not survive this century, and much of it will effectively disappear within our lifetimes, including many if not most Western European countries. There'll probably still be a geographical area on the map marked as Italy or the Netherlands - probably - just as in Istanbul there's still a building called St. Sophia's Cathedral. But it's not a cathedral; it's merely a designation for a piece of real estate. Likewise, Italy and the Netherlands will merely be designations for real estate. The challenge for those who reckon Western civilization is on balance better than the alternatives is to figure out a way to save at least some parts of the West."

Germaine Greer reviews a book that makes a case for Mary Cassatt having been a feminist painter - a categorisation that seems to me as unnecessary as it is improbable, since Cassatt seemed drawn to such feminine subjects. I read it on the assumption that I must be mistaken, though, since I'm far from an expert on either Cassatt or the application of labels like feminism. Having read Greer's Guardian article, I'm still not sure Mary Cassatt was even conscious the word feminist existed, and I'm still assuming she would have had to make some kind of commitment to the movement to be considered a feminist. Am I wrong?

But judge for yourself: "Griselda Pollock's Mary Cassatt is an impressive feminist analysis of the works we have come to know and love, as well as some works that are by no means so familiar or so impressive. Pollock provides us with 85 reproductions; the earliest surviving work is dated at 1868, through rather clunky Spanish genre pieces, to the first real stunner, Girl in a Blue Armchair, about which Pollock has surprisingly little to say.

"The little girl, togged up in white lace with a tartan sash and matching socks, and silver buckles on her shoes, flops back in her outsize electric blue armchair, with her knees spread, one arm jammed behind her head and the other draped awkwardly over the armrest. Any other adult in the room would tell her to sit up nicely and put her knees together, but there is no one in the room, only three more overstuffed pieces of matching furniture and one small bored dog. As an icon of the awfulness of being at once controlled by adults and ignored by them, this bold work could hardly be bettered. The jaggedness of the brushwork is unusual in Cassatt's work at any time; the furniture sprouts from the neutral floor space like malign vegetable life. Nothing could be more different in spirit and execution than the contemporaneous portrait of the artist's mother (who chooses to be nameless) reading Le Figaro."

A body affiliated with the African Union, the Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, is circulating a report condemning the Zimbabwe regime's record and policies. The Guardian says the move significantly increases the pressure on Zimbabwe's government: "The African Union, the successor to the Organisation of African Unity, is made up of all the continent's political leaders. It also made statements on the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, the Darfur area of Sudan, and Uganda. The resolution on Zimbabwe was adopted in December, but it has only begun circulating now, after the government was given time to respond to the document.

"'This is a highly significant report coming as it does from an affiliate body of the African Union,' said Iden Wetherell, an editor with the Zimbabwe Independent group of newspapers. 'It will be difficult for the government to counter this. African institutions are now holding their leaders accountable. Zimbabwe's delinquency can no longer be swept under the carpet of African solidarity. This is peer review as it should be, and it makes grim reading.'"

If the Zimbabwe government runs true to form, though, it will simply ignore the report, not bothering to counter it.

03 January 2006

Retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales, a former commander of the Army War College, has a characteristically straighforward message in his op-ed piece in the Washington Times: "If the American people believe this war is not worth the cost then the war is lost. It's as simple as that. So watch the polls very carefully. If support at home for immediate and unconditional withdrawal accelerates with mounting deaths, then the culminating point has been reached and not in our favor."

What a life Candy Barr led! I saw her dance at the old Casino Theatre in Toronto when I was a tadpole. The memory is still almost too big to fit into my head! The LA Times has an obit: "Candy Barr, infamous 1950s stripper and stag film star once romantically linked to mobster Mickey Cohen and associated with Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby, has died. She was 70. Barr died Friday of pneumonia in an Abilene, Texas, hospital. She had lived quietly in her native south Texas for several years."

Gerard Baker has written a lucid, intelligent piece on the inversion of the yield curve - that long-term vs short-term interest rates anomaly that so upset the stock market the other day. In the Times, he writes, wryly, that: "The stock market has correctly forecast nine of the past three recessions, economists like to joke. It's a gentle put-down to the idea that financial markets have any genuine predictive power with respect to the so-called real economy.

"It certainly holds up as far as volatile stock markets go, but it ought to be a different story when it comes to the bond markets. The prices of fixed-income assets are, after all, moved much more directly by variables such as short-term interest rates and hard economic and inflation data. We should not be surprised to find some link between bond yields and the business cycle...

"In the past, when the yield curve has inverted, real short-term rates have been much higher. In 2000, for example, the Fed funds rate stood at 6.5 per cent, more than 4.5 per cent in real terms. That is a recession-inducing squeeze; 2 per cent real rates are not."

Blogger Oliver Kamm is a guest contributor at the London Times today, with an article which begins as a discussion of the recent poll which demonstrated that Britons don't know much about classical music (with questions only someone obsessed with music would have been able to answer correctly). But then it rises to something much more interesting - Brecht vs Beerbohm: "Of all the cultural anniversaries touted in the newspaper supplements in since the new year, the most risible is the coupling of the 50th anniversary of the deaths of Bertolt Brecht and Max Beerbohm. Brecht is a giant of modern drama. Beerbohm was a quintessentially Edwardian satirist and caricaturist who worked on a minor scale. He is now best - and perhaps only - remembered for his satirical novel Zuleika Dobson. Yet of the two, Beerbohm is far the more worthy of celebration. I modestly suggest, even at this late stage, a series of events to celebrate the one and damn the other. Doing so would not only reintroduce into the public realm the work of a real craftsman, but also underline the merits of an essentially English suspicion of the power of all-embracing ideas.

"The last century was big on absolutist ideas, and Brecht was a big propagandist for one of the worst: an orthodox Communism that followed every twist of Stalin's whims. Brecht's best plays transcend his political vision to speak to the human condition. In The Good Woman of Setzuan (1943), he movingly depicts a prostitute corrupted by her struggle for survival. In Mother Courage (1941), his heroine is unaware of the role of her original moral compromises in her troubles. But these are exceptions to an exhortatory theatre that mirrored Brecht's corrosive political obsessions. The philosopher Sidney Hook recorded in his memoirs that Brecht, when visiting him in New York in 1935, had remarked of the victims of Stalin's show trials: 'The more innocent they are, the more they deserve to be shot.' Hook gave him his hat and coat, and showed him the door."

The difficulty - we face something similar today with the writing and the politics of Noam Chomsky - is that Brecht's plays succeed as plays, despite his poor political judgement. So although Kamm does the right thing to remind us of his weakness, ultimately, it will be Brecht's writing strength that will set the level of respect he gets. It's interesting to note that, taken away from its context, that 'The more innocent they are' line is a show-stopper. If he was just trying it out, he would have been thrilled to have been shown the door.

I'm doing a special on bloggers today. Michael J. Totten, who moved there fairly recently, says Lebanon is already the democratic model that other Middle East states should follow. He is writing in this morning's Wall Street Journal: "Beirut is where the taboos in the region - against alcohol, dating, sex, scandalous clothing, homosexuality, body modification, free speech and dissident politics - break down. Its culture is liberal and tolerant, even anarchic and libertarian. The state barely exists. The city's pleasures are physical and decadent. Beirut is where American and European tourists used to go to loosen up, gamble, drink booze and pick up women--and that was in the 1950s. Today it is where Saudis and other Gulf Arabs like to vacation because they can do, think, wear, and say whatever they want.

"Last month the Economist Intelligence Unit's Index of Political Freedom ranked Lebanon the freest Arab country, followed by Morocco. Iraq came in third. (Libya brought up the rear, below even Syria and Saudi Arabia.) Lebanon's Cedar Revolution peacefully ousted the Syrian military, which had ruled the country as a raw imperial power since the end of the civil war in 1990. Free and orderly elections promptly followed. If Iraq becomes a success in the end, it won't be the first Arab democracy. It will be the second."

02 January 2006

Our friend Britgirl volunteered to take on a Pondblog mission over the New Year period, sussing out Corinne Bailey Rae (she was on a late night TV special on New Year's eve), a young British singer who was compared to Billie Holliday in a recent Guardian article. Britgirl's got an edge in this kind of thing, since she's done a bit of warbling herself.

Here's what she said: "I am always resistant to the idea of anyone said to sound like Billie Holiday, and vowed I would not detect this in a new young British singer.

"I did a little research before setting the video recorder and going off to welcome in 2006. Corinne Bailey Rae was 'born in Leeds, has a degree in English Lit, and as a teenager was lead singer and guitarist for the Indie band, Helen.' She was also called 'a young Minnie Ripperton'.

"On her website, the featured song sounded so English, estuary English - 'three li-ul birds'. Interesting, but not Billie.

"Today I have been watching the video recordings I made of Jools Holland's Annual Hootenanny and a previous show. Corinne Bailey Rae sang on the New Year's show, only one song with Jools and his big band. Yes, she was good, more soul than Billie, great to watch as she enjoys it all so much. On a show that featured Irma Thomas, Ruby Turner and KT Tunstall, her singing was good but not quite in their league yet, I thought.

"I'm glad I then watched my recording of the earlier show, to which she was probably referring in the Guardian article. On this show, Corinne Bailey Rae was outstanding, just singing with her own guitar and one guy on guitar for accompaniment. Beautiful voice, lovely to watch, again for that feeling of enjoyment she shows. A simple song, Like a Star, which I think she wrote. Skilled, effortless, and I can remember it (unlike the New Year's more popular song). Burt Bacharach, on the same show, thought she had a beautiful voice, as did Jools!

"Last time I took the Guardian article and waved it at someone in HMV they couldn't find the CD. I bet they will have it in stock now and I will definitely buy a copy of her EP. I would also very much like to hear her in concert.

"So yes, a rave revue from me!"

Look for Corinne Baily Rae, then, in 2006. Thanks, Britgirl. Great review!

Many commentators seem to be thinking of the young man who ran away to Iraq over Christmas to find out what was going on there as some kind of weak-brained tatterhead. I don't see it that way at all - the kid ran away to see (I apologise, but it was irresistible). Boys with balls have been doing that since the year dot. Thank Heavens for them! I predict a bright future, and if I were running a newspaper, I'd give him a job in a heartbeat. The Boston Globe seems to have a better-researched story than most I've read.

The Khaddam story I posted about on New Year's Eve has turned into really quite a major development in the UN investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese President Rafik Hariri. As the LA Times says, "UN investigators want to question Syria's president and foreign minister about the assassination of a former Lebanese leader and have made a request to that effect...Nasra Hassan, who speaks for the UN commission heading the inquiry, also said investigators want to interview former Syrian Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam 'as soon as possible.'"

Khaddam said on Al Arabia television from Paris, to which he fled some months ago, that Bashar Assad threatened Hariri some months before he was blown up, that the assassination was carried out by General Rustoum Ghazaleh, the former Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, and that the general would not have acted without Assad's authority.

The official Syrian news agency, Sana, reported yesterday, as the Globe and Mail records, that the Syrians have reacted furiously to Khaddam's allegations. "Syria's ruling Baath Party stripped former Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam of membership and joined parliament in demanding his trial on a charge of high treason.

It's not being reported so far in the West, but DEBKAfile in Israel is making two additional allegations - first, that demonstrators stormed Khaddam's mansion in the northern city of Banias on the Mediterranean and began to torch it. The police and fire brigade quenched the flames after some of the wings were destroyed.

Second, "DEBKAfile's Middle East sources report that Monday, Jan 2, the presidential bureau in Damascus summoned dozens of Arab reporters for a 'briefing' on the extent of the former vice president's corrupt practices, notably his illicit business ties with the murdered Hariri. Many in the Arab world were amazed. Disclosures of Haddam's corruption were no eye-opener; but the fact that the Syrian president was willing to expose them was seen as a grave blunder.

"Assad, they figured, must be in a state of blind panic to reveal misdeeds that must reflect badly on the entire Assad clan and regime. He has opened himself up to the embarrassing question of how could Bashar and his father, president Hafez Assad, have kept a man guilty of these goings-on in their most intimate circle for thirty years?

"The obvious answer: the entire Assad gang shares the same taint.

"Here are some of the charges the presidential bureau in Damascus published against the former close adviser to two Syrian presidents:

"1. In his three decades at the top of the Syrian tree, Khaddam amassed a personal fortune of $1.1bn.

"2. In the 20 years that Khaddam was the senior Syrian official responsible for Lebanon he received $50m in bribes from Hariri.

"3. The Hariris presented Khaddam with the gift of a palace purchased from the Onassis family on the Avenue Foch, Paris, near the Israeli embassy and a second villa in Nice.

"4. The Hariris and Khaddams went into joint ownership of Saudi companies including the Coca Cola concession in the kingdom, a computer outlet and the Happy Land restaurant chain.

"DEBKAfile's intelligence sources report that the former vice president is sheltering in his grand Avenue Foch mansion. President Jacques Chirac has placed him under the protection of French intelligence. It was therefore with French blessing that he gave the interview incriminating president Assad to the Arab television last Friday."

Speaking of tatterheads and the Middle East, as we have been, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has clarified his views on Jews and Europe, just in case you didn't take his meaning the first time. Haaretz says, "In written answers to questions from the public reproduced in several newspapers...Ahmadinejad said the creation of Israel after World War Two had 'killed two birds with one stone' for Europe. The objectives achieved by Europe were: 'Sweeping the Jews out of Europe and at the same time creating a European appendix with a Zionist and anti-Islamic nature in the heart of the Islamic world,' he said.

"'Zionism is a Western ideology and a colonialist idea ... and right now it massacres Muslims with direct guidance and help from the United States and a part of Europe...Zionism is basically a new (form of) fascism,' he added."

DRUDGE seems to feel it is a significant development in the New York Times leaked bugging programme case, but I have a different view of Byron Calame's column about the story, published yesterday. Yes, it makes all the right noises - "For the first time since I became public editor, the executive editor and the publisher have declined to respond to my requests for information about news-related decision-making." But given the Times has a public editor, who can hardly keep quiet about the Times's extraordinary decision to publish this story the morning of the Senate debate on the renewal of the Patriot bill, it is the very least that Calame could have said. In fact, it is so nicely-judged a minimum that I can't believe it's genuine. I think what must have happened is that the Times, faced with involvement in a criminal investigation into who leaked the story, had an 'all hands to the pumps' moment, and persuaded Calame to go along. Read this and see if you don't agree:

"I e-mailed a list of 28 questions to Bill Keller, the executive editor, on Dec. 19, three days after the article appeared. He promptly declined to respond to them. I then sent the same questions to Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher, who also declined to respond. They held out no hope for a fuller explanation in the future.

"Despite this stonewalling, my objectives today are to assess the flawed handling of the original explanation of the article's path into print, and to offer a few thoughts on some factors that could have affected the timing of the article. My intention is to do so with special care, because my 40-plus years of newspapering leave me keenly aware that some of the toughest calls an editor can face are involved here - those related to intelligence gathering, election-time investigative articles and protection of sources. On these matters, reasonable disagreements can abound inside the newsroom."

I'd say that's Grade A waddling and quacking.


Art in Bermuda
Bermuda's Cuban Connection
Death of the Nation State
Helen Lives!
Joe Wilson and Michael Moore
Linton Kwesi Johnson's Dub Poetry
Me and Evergreen Review
Michael Howard's Vision
Miss Lou and Jamaican Patois
More Doomsday Nonsense
Mullah Nasrudin's Lessons
New York Dogs
OECD's Unfair to Competition
On Catullus
On Charles Ives
On Colin MacInnes
On Collecting Books
On Collecting Books - Part Two
On Gambling in Bermuda
On Napoleon
On Patrick Leigh Fermor
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