...Views from mid-Atlantic
06 May 2006

I'm beginning to have respect for this man Mahmoud Abbas. Since his party's defeat at the Palestinian polls some months ago, he's been like a chess piece that has been taken, but not removed from the board. Yet slowly, he has been building himself a little niche in the politics of the Middle East, and is now becoming a powerful force. Haaretz reports that: "Senior Palestinian officials told an Arabic-language newspaper published Friday that PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is seriously contemplating forming a new political movement headed by what has been dubbed the 'young guard' of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

"The London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper reported that such a movement would be headed by former Palestinian officials affiliated with Abbas' Fatah party, such as Rawhi Fattouh, Mohammed Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub. The paper said the proposed movement would be a Palestinian Kadima-style party, recalling Ariel Sharon's decision to break away from his Likud party and form a new one."

When Westminster-style governments suffer significant political setbacks, it is tactically correct for the sitting Prime Minister to shuffle his cabinet quickly, so as to avoid the appearance of doing so under pressure. Since the seriousness of the setback is generally reflected in the extent of the shuffle, one can say that the local election setback Tony Blair's government suffered last week must have been extremely serious. He hasn't simply shuffled his cabinet, he has torn it to bits. In an editorial, the Guardian said...well, groaned is probably a better word, given its political leanings: "Like a motorway pile-up, yesterday's cabinet reshuffle took place at high speed amid great confusion and left the landscape covered in wreckage. It was certainly dramatic and bloody, but that will do nothing to persuade voters and the Labour party that the government has recovered its nerve."

That's a bit of wishful thinking - Tony Blair's troubles with the voters and the Labour have little to do with lost nerve, and everything to do with respect, which has been leaking slowly away for years, and which now stands at a very low level indeed. In a sense, Blair holds his government together. He's a star, the rest of them are rather ordinary mortals, as the rollcall of scandal after scandal after scandal, especially in the last two or three weeks, has demonstrated. Without him, the government would likely have fallen.

But this is a young government, and Blair is carrying his own heavy baggage. So there are two problems mixed up in this mess - the challenge from the Tories to Labour's bid to continue in power is pretty standard stuff. The tricky one is the challenge of trying to figure out whether Labour would be better off trying to recover with Blair still in place, or whether they'd have a better chance with Gordon Brown as Prime Minister and Blair gone. Blair's shuffle has surprised many pundits in England...there's been talk of slapping fancy labels on empty suitcases. Blair seems to have taken more care in choosing which ministers should go than in who should replace them. Think that might have something to do with weakening a Gordon Brown challenge? Good guess.

Fortune Magazine has broken a story that is likely to have serious consequences in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East. The magazine claims that one of the reasons ex-Premier Rafik Hariri was assassinated was to prevent him re-opening an investigation into the looting of the Lebanese al-Madina Bank. The al-Madina was apparently being used to hide money being funnelled to a variety of UN officials, Middle Eastern government officials, and oil companies. The son of Lebanese President Lahoud was implicated, as were other prominent Lebanese and Syrian officials and businessmen.

Fortune says "Several sources, including one alleged conspirator in the oil-for-food scandal, who refuses to let his name be used for legal and safety reasons, put the amount transferred and laundered through al-Madina at more than $1 billion, with a 25 percent commission going to Syrian officials and their Lebanese allies. The source says that among the recipients of this money were Bashar Assad's brother Maher and the head of military intelligence in Lebanon at the time, Ghazi Kanaan. (Kanaan committed suicide last October after Mehlis questioned him about the plot to kill Hariri.)

The English-language Daily Star says President Emile Lahoud denied the allegations on Friday, telling reporters: 'We hear from time to time that I have committed crimes...Today we read a headline in [Al-Mustaqbal] newspaper saying that Fortune magazine had issued an article accusing both Lahoud and Assad of misusing Al-Madina Bank's money to assassinate Hariri.

"'We understand well their pattern,' he added, claiming that the Hariri family's Future Movement 'usually sends the news items to a foreign magazine or newspaper...and then again its media republishes what those papers or magazines wrote.'"

The reason the matter comes to light now, Fortune says, is that "Investigators looking into the looting at Bank al-Madina got a break in March, when Brazilian police arrested Rana Koleilat, al-Madina's former executive secretary. Koleilat, who jumped bail in Lebanon last year and eluded an international manhunt, is believed to have played a key role in the bank scandal.

"She is alleged in lawsuits brought by the bank's owners to have used false withdrawals and bogus loans to enrich her family and pay off authorities. Even as al-Madina failed, she is said by investigators to have extracted millions of dollars from owner Adnan Abou Ayyash, a construction magnate who lives in Saudi Arabia, through a series of wire transfers and check exchanges...

"When the dust settled in the summer of 2003, after depositors were paid and assets liquidated, the Abou Ayyash family found itself about $1.5 billion poorer, a stunning turn of events for a Lebanese family that controlled a vast business empire.

"But those amounts pale when compared to the piles of cash laundered by Iraqi officials and their partners in illegally gaming the UN's oil-for-food program. Designed for humanitarian reasons to allow Iraq to sell oil through vouchers that could be used to purchase food and medicine, the program became a hotbed of corruption that Saddam and his loyalists used to earn illegal money. By the late 1990s, proceeds flooded the Middle East as favored allies of the regime received coupons good for oil purchases at lower-than-market prices."

05 May 2006

The Guardian seems fascinated by the fact that a new survey shows that newly-wealthy Britons still call themselves working class. What did they expect in a country so obsessed with class? Really, there are two significant facts in the study. The first is that the middle class in Britain has grown substantially since the last survey of this kind (what on earth does their statistics department do if not this kind of thing?) 40 years ago, and will have outgrown the working class in 15 years. Second, it shows that the economic model designed in Maggie Thatcher's time and carried on through Tony Blair's does work. One hopes the Europeans, who criticise Britain's economy for its uber-capitalist overtones, even as they lament the lack of chink in their own pockets, will learn something.

You can hardly call this Boston Globe piece a review of The Poem That Changed America: 'Howl' Fifty Years Later. The book is "a collection of essays commissioned by Beat hagiographer Jason Shinder to mark the golden anniversary of Allen Ginsberg's epochal barbaric yawp." Barber's piece is more a series of reflections about Howl on the occasion. "The appeal in Howl is to the secret or hermetical tradition of art 'justifying' or 'making up for' defeat in worldly life,' Ginsberg later wrote, but the erudite ring of that remark is just one more chastening reminder of how the spirit in which his poem was conceived has been swallowed up by the theatrical spectacle of its public acclaim. The notoriety of Ginsberg's opus as an all-purpose, pocket-sized rite of passage-part do-it-yourself kit for demolishing taboos, part passport to polymorphous permissiveness-scarcely afforded Howl the fighting chance to earn its keep as a poem. Indeed, it's hard to dispel the impression that the most dated thing about the poem is that it is a poem.

"So are Howl's latter-day adherents succumbing to false nostalgia in proclaiming the poem as a national monument? Not at all: The nostalgia is genuine. It's surely wishful thinking to imagine that poetry was ever close to the center of American public life, but in the clear light of hindsight it sure looks like it was within closer hailing distance once upon a time than seems remotely plausible today. If Ginsberg's message has stood the test of time better than his medium, that may be the real secret as to why his dirge still touches such a raw nerve. Poems don't set our ears on fire like that anymore, and they know better than to even try."

Good piece, which I found on my home page, Arts & Letters Daily.

That raid on an al Zarqawi safe house south of Baghdad the other day has given the Americans some powerful intelligence to use against the terrorists. He would be, in his job, no front-line fighter. Probably a good thing, because he turns out to be a bit of a klutz.

But in addition, among documents that were captured was one discussing al Qaeda in Iraq's battle plan. The more the Iraqi people know about what al Zarqawi's plans are, and about his personal failings, the less they are likely to fear him. The Boston Globe said that battle plan document "outlines plans to ignite sectarian war by targeting Shi'ites and to shift the battle toward the capital and religiously mixed parts of the country. The memo, which the military said was seized during a raid last month, ordered followers to 'Make the struggle entirely between Shi'ites and the mujahideen,' or holy warriors, and lambasted moderate Sunni groups. It included a call for insurgents to 'displace the Shi'ites and displace their shops and businesses from our areas. Expel those black market sellers of gas, bread, or meat or anyone that is suspected of spying against us.'"

04 May 2006

Claudia Rosett's doing another number on her favourite, Kofi Annan, in the National Review: "Here's one for the new ethics office at the United Nations: Not only do we now know that Secretary-General Kofi Annan accepted a $500,000 prize from the ruler of Dubai, courtesy of a judges' panel rife with UN connections, one member of which Annan then appointed to a high UN job. Less well known is that Annan was advised to take the prize money by another senior UN official, Mark Malloch Brown - according to Malloch Brown himself in an interview this past February. Since then, Annan has promoted Malloch Brown from UN chief of staff to the UN's number-two post of deputy secretary-general. With role models like these in the executive suite, small wonder the UN remains gridlocked over reform."

The New York Sun is singing the praises of an exhibition opening this week at the New York Public Library: "Once again, the New York Public Library has brought us one of the city's best museum shows outside a museum. 'French Book Art: Artists and Poets in Dialogue', which opens tomorrow, includes collaborative books by Malraux and Leger, Eluard and Picasso, Apollinaire and Dufy, Breton and Giacometti, as well as works by Chagall, de Chirico, Derain, Matisse, Man Ray, and Masson. A bibliophile's dream, the exhibition is a veritable wonderland tour of some of the most beautiful and pioneering collaborative books made between poets and artists during the last 125 years."

My particular interest, though, is generated by this part of the article: "Included here is The Prose of the Transsiberian and of Little Jeannie of France (1913). One of the most innovative masterpieces of 20th-century book design, The Prose of the Transsiberian is the second collaborative work between the poet Blaise Cendrars and the painter Sonia Delaunay. Delaunay, along with her husband Robert, was one of the founders of 20th-century European abstraction. Cendrars, a man built equally out of fact and fiction, was a vagabond and one of the first truly self-invented personalities of the modern era - a time in which everything, including the book form, was to be called into question and rethought.

"The Prose of the Transsiberian, a long, Proustian poem, evokes images, memories, and experiences during a train ride with a Parisian prostitute, from Moscow to the Sea of Japan. It is in this book - an accordion-style scroll 6 1/2 feet long - that abstract color, a Michelin map, and the poem, in 12 various-sized and colored typefaces, all interact fluidly and harmonically. It is here, for the first time in modern book design, that hierarchy, time, and the separation between illustration and text are all truly dissolved into pure music. It is here that, for the first time since the Medieval manuscript, image and word are abstractly fused and emotionally equivalent; and in the library's exhibition, it is here that I first sense something revolutionary."

Cendrars' wonderful poem is a favourite of mine (you can read it here). It does have to do with his memory, in that it is the reflection of a 26-year-old about a journey he made as a young man of 16. But I don't think that justifies calling it Proustian any more than it does calling it a travelogue. It is in a fine, and long tradition of, let's say, vagabondian writing that includes Down and Out in Paris and London, Hunger and, more recently On the Road. And it is poetry that strikes more sparks than a steel foundry at full bore. Cendrars was travelling on the Trans-Siberian Express when defeated Russian troops were fleeing from the Japanese after Port Arthur:

At Khilok we met a long convoy of soldiers gone insaneā€¦
Idiot fingers drumming on all the windowpanes
And under the pressure of fear an expression would burst like an abscess
In all the stations they had set fire to all the cars
And I saw
I saw trains with 60 locomotives streaking away chased by hot horizons and desperate crows

He was still only a teenager. He had a little nickel-plated Browning pistol in his pocket, and his business on the train was guarding boxes of jewellery for a travelling merchant. One suspects he'd have confidently taken on half the Russian army.

(He liked his travel - he later wrote, in a book about a journey to Panama to try to trace one of his uncles:

With the Milky Way around my neck
And the two hemispheres for goggles
Full speed ahead!

He might not have been a first-tier poet, but he was about as splendid as they come, nonetheless.

Hank Greenberg, the ousted chairman and founder of the American International Group, is starting again, at the age of 81. The Washington Post reports that's starting another business: "This time, the ousted chairman of American International Group Inc. is building a privately held insurance firm, with an 'emphasis on private,' he said in a recent interview, with a wry nod to the regulatory troubles that led to his current position. Last spring, AIG's board severed ties with its longtime leader over a 2000 reinsurance transaction - initiated by Greenberg - that resulted in a Justice Department investigation and a civil fraud suit by New York Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer. The suit is still pending, and Greenberg has denied any wrongdoing."

Coincidentally, the Wall Street Journal yesterday ran an article written by a member of its editorial board about "disturbing suggestions" that some of what Spitzer says publicly about his legal targets has more to do with his campaign to be elected governor of New York than the truth.

"Mr. Spitzer's office has clearly spun his verbal tirades as mere differences in recollection, and since most took place in private, he's so far received the benefit of the doubt. But in other instances - Mr. Grasso, H&R Block and Mr. Greenberg - there are disturbing suggestions that Mr. Spitzer is peddling information to the public that may not be accurate. You can bet that if this were President Bush, the press would be all over the disparate versions of events. But this is Mr. Spitzer, who at this very moment is running campaign ads that are nothing more than a compilation of the adulatory headlines he's received over his tenure.

"Far better for the public if a little more light were directed on these discrepancies. Mr. Spitzer is asking to govern one of the most populous states in the nation. Politicians are certainly allowed 'passion,' but given the power they wield they also have to demonstrate restraint, honesty and good judgment. Voters deserve to know if Mr. Spitzer has the character to hold such a job."

I had a glass of Bekaa Valley Chardonnay last night in Byblos (dating officially from 7,000 BC, unofficially from 10,000 BC), where, among other things, the alphabet is said to have been invented to help speed up the paperwork caused by a torrent of commerce. This Lebanese Lobby site article focuses on the transformation of the valley from the home of Lebanese hashish and a wartime training ground for a generation of guerrillas, to vineyards.

"Stretched out around 1,000 metres (3,280 ft) above sea level, the area is blessed with long, dry summers and wet winters that moisten a soil well suited to grapes such as Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

"The reputation of Lebanese wine was firmly established among connoisseurs when Chateau Musar won 'find of the fair' at the Bristol Wine Fair in 1979, during Lebanon's civil war."

Incidentally, my notion that the exuberance of traffic in Beirut is caused by a lack of traffic signs was only partly correct. It is true the parking laws here are a little on the liberal side - not only can you park right at a corner, but many of the corners are rounded off to facilitate parking on the corner. But the real culprit is the attitude of the Beiruti drivers, who are unanimous that traffic signs of whatever kind do not apply to them.

03 May 2006

It may be a little difficult to see the same phenomenon at work with other, more politically-charged issues, but Darfur, argues Rich Lowry in the National Review demonstrates quite clearly that "'the international community' offers only bad faith, selfish business deals, absurd political pandering, and moral obtuseness. With any truly nettlesome international issue, it is almost always thus, which is why the world leadership of the United States is so important. The Left pours scorn on the administration's concept of 'coalitions of the willing', since it is associated with the Iraq war that the Left so hates. But often the only alternative that traditional international fora offer to such ad hoc alliances is coalitions of the complacent, cowardly, and cretinous.

"Leading the coalition of the willingly self-interested on Darfur has been China. With the veto power that comes with its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, China has been determined to block sanctions against Sudan. Most of Sudan's oil goes to China, and the African nation is China's fourth-largest supplier of oil. This trumps all other considerations for Beijing: Oil is thicker than blood, at least the blood of villagers who are the victims of the government-supported Janjaweed militias in Darfur."

A report seems to have been leaked to the Guardian (no need to wonder from which political side of the river it's coming from) making the astonishing assertion that while the BBC's coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is certainly biased, its fault is that it not sufficiently biased in favour of the Palestinian side. The Guardian says: "The BBC's coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is 'incomplete' and 'misleading', including failing to adequately report the hardships of Palestinians living under occupation, an independent review commissioned by the corporation's board of governors has found.

The Guardian says the report urges the BBC to be "bolder in setting a policy for using the word 'terrorism' to describe acts of violence perpetrated against either side," a recommendation that one feels may not, in the circumstances, have the meaning it appears to have.

If it weren't happening in France, I would say there is little change Mr Villepin is going to survive this Clearstream mess, despite a very game attempt to defend himself in the French Parliament yesterday. The Telegraph says: "Mr de Villepin is under pressure over the so-called Clearstream affair, dubbed the 'French Watergate', in which an anonymous whistle-blower alleged without foundation that senior political and business figures took kickbacks from the sale of French frigates to Taiwan in 1991. The money was allegedly laundered through secret accounts with Clearstream, a Luxembourg-based bank. Individuals were named in anonymous letters and a CD-ROM sent two years ago to an investigating judge, who established that they were bogus.

"Mr de Villepin's future may depend on the truth of what happened at a meeting in January 2004, when he was foreign secretary, with the intelligence official Gen Philippe Rondot. Gen Rondot reportedly told judges hunting the author of the false allegations that Mr de Villepin ordered him, on the authority of President Jacques Chirac, to investigate Mr Sarkozy.

"Both the prime minister and president deny this, and Gen Rondot now says he was given no such instruction, suggesting that the judges may have misunderstood his evidence."

Sorry to take so long to re-appear. I'm in Beirut, visiting a university professor of my acquaintance. My computer connection has required more than a little adjustment, a work still in process. As a result, despite having been here for 24 hours, my observations are precious few. The weather is beautiful. The Lebanese people that I have met are very friendly, and proud of a country they say is the most beautiful on earth. On the narrow street I am on, there is a lot of tooting of horns, which may have something to do a certain illiberality in the use of things like stop signs, one-way signs and no-parking signs.

Here yesterday, according to Aljazeera, the government "decided to ask the United Nations to extend the mandate of an ongoing inquiry into the killing of Rafiq al-Hariri, the former prime minister. Official sources said the cabinet passed the decision at an emergency session on Tuesday to ask for a one-year extension.

"The mandate of the 11-month inquiry expires on June 15 but the investigation has run into difficulties, partly due to Syrian reluctance to cooperate and disputes over the veracity of witness statements."

30 April 2006

This is a crunch weekend for Tony Blair's British Government. Two of his Ministers are under pressure to resign that must be excruciating for them. Home Secretary Charles Clarke, whose department is under fire for failing to deport foreign prisoners at the end of their jail terms, is under additional pressure as the result of the publication of a report, commissioned quite a long time ago, that brands his immigration service as 'unaccountable', 'unreliable' and a 'generation in the past'. Clarke is trying to hold on, but this, combined with a Blair admission to the Telegraph today that he may be forced to fire him, may sink Clarke.

John Prescott woke up this morning to a nation busy reading nine pages of the salacious details of his relationship with a civil service secretary, Tracey Temple, who sold her story to the Mail on Sunday. She seems...well, you'll figure it out for yourself. In the Guardian, she says: "she decided to go public because she felt abandoned by Prescott and his aides after news of the affair broke, receiving just one telephone call from the Deputy Prime Minister. 'I feel I have been used and am being used as a scapegoat,' she said. 'They have abandoned me and hung me out to dry. I have been left completely alone.'"

Prescott, who has a reputation for being judgemental with his colleagues, is said to feel humiliated, and on the verge of resignation.

It's been a week, for me, of listening to and reading about antiwar people who seem to think that if they could just get the American government to stop what it's doing in Iraq, everything would be all right again. Frustrating. Canadian columnist David Warren, a reasonable man equipped with an intelligence a little more penetrating than that of most people, understands what we're up against a little better than that. How big is this war, he asks in a recent column.

"It is the first true 'world war', in the sense that the battlefield can be anywhere at all on the planet. One might even consider it the unexpected fruit of 'globalization' - for the West (including all countries which aspire to Western standards of development), and Islam, as any other players (mainland China comes to mind), now have an interest in every location. Increasingly, the battlefronts become - this is what I observe, hardly what I want - wherever there is a Western presence in the Islamic world, and wherever there is an Islamic presence elsewhere. Israel is symbolic, because it is the one completely autonomous Western enclave in the Arab Muslim world. It is therefore detested as an alien lump: as if it were a cancer on the body of Islam."

The glass, says Victor Davis Hansen, is half full...a long, long way from half empty. In the National Review, he writes: "Middle Easterners wish that we would be humbler, that we would let more Arabs into the United States, that we would not lecture them so, that we had not used force to remove Saddam, that we did not seem so self-righteous when promoting Western democracy, that we could express our intentions in a more sympathetic and articulate fashion. It is true that at critical junctures we did not explain ourselves well, and did not apprise the public candidly here and abroad about the range of poor options that confronted this nation after September 11.

"But aside from these complaints, the people of the Middle East for the first time are watching on television a voting parliament in Iraq - and what sort of killers are trying to stop it. They know that oil skyrocketed and that the petroleum of Mesopotamia was not appropriated by the United States - and that huge windfall profits in the Middle East are still not likely to trickle down their way. They also accept that China in the Middle East cares only for petroleum, Russia only to cause others trouble, and Europe mostly to talk.

"Those in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, as elsewhere in the Arab world, want closer, not more distant, relations with the United States. Ever so slowly the Arab Street is grasping that the more its own governments are angry at us for prodding them, the more it is a sign that we are on the right side of history."

I won't be able to post here for a couple of days because I'm on rather a long journey. I should be back in business on Tuesday.


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
Race and Bermuda's Election
The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Gift of Slang
The Limits of Knowledge
The Nature of Intelligence
The Shared European Dream
The US Supreme Court's First Terrorism Decisions
Useful Yiddish
Yukio Mishima's Death

Article Archive

2003 Index


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