Very interesting person ... from Jay Nordlinger's Impromptous for today, http://www.nationalreview.com/impromptus/impromptus200401220849.asp
When it's time to make his prepared remarks, Straw says, "As an adherent to the British parliamentary tradition, I find it physiologically difficult to sit and speak at the same time" — but he does so anyway. What he does is deliver a powerful defense of the Coalition invasion and occupation of Iraq. He gives a defiantly upbeat report on the situation now: the Iraqi police is being firmed up; 70 million revised (i.e., de-Saddamized) textbooks have been distributed; vaccines have been made available; electricity and water are improving; etc., etc.
Straw notes that Iraq has established a currency and a central bank with remarkable speed, but that the press has not taken notice — a well-placed shot. He tells his listeners that they have no idea of the "extravagances" in which Saddam and his "ruling clique" indulged — the palaces boggle the mind. The plunder of the Iraqi people wounds the heart.
Also, Iraqis, during the long Baathist tyranny, were kept in deplorable ignorance. But now they have satellite dishes, which were banned under Saddam, and about 200 newspapers, and unfettered access to the Internet — also banned under Saddam. (Banned in Castro's Cuba, too, by the way. That is not a datum you're apt to learn in our media.)
The foreign secretary reminds his audience that Saddam Hussein had violated no fewer than 17 U.N. agreements, and that the U.N. had 173 pages' worth of WMD concerns. He says — as before, I will paraphrase — "I respect the views of those who disagreed with our action in Iraq. But I would ask them to look back and consider what the situation would be if we had allowed Saddam to continue to defy the U.N. I submit that if we had sat on our hands and not acted, the world today would be a much more dangerous place."
Someone asks whether Iraq will have to be split apart, given the inharmonious peoples. He responds that the territorial integrity of Iraq must be "absolute," and points out that we are in a country — Switzerland — that is "highly federated" but "still unified." He also cites Belgium, with its different regions and tongues — "so these models exist."
Secretary Straw is sort of needled about Iraq contracts flowing to U.S. companies. He says something arresting, from a foreign official: Again, paraphrasing, "The U.S. taxpayer has put an astonishing amount of money in Iraq, through Congress — and that's democracy, by the way. It's only natural that they should want some of the money to come back to American firms. But plenty of subcontracts are going to other Coalition partners. I applaud the astounding generosity of the American people, and I would remind you that the ultimate benefit, of course, accrues to the people of Iraq."
You can live for many days — or years or decades — and not hear such an evaluation of the American people from any foreign leader.
Olivier Roy interjects that it has been demonstrated that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction and no link to al Qaeda — therefore, the only reason to have gone into Iraq was to build a stable democracy, and that the Coalition is doing badly.
Straw does not sit on his hands. He again refers to those 173 pages, in which was mentioned "the strong presumption" — the U.N.'s words — that the regime harbored 10,000 liters of anthrax. "Were we to do nothing?" asks Straw. "Nothing?" It is probably the most dramatic moment of the session.
The secretary adds that he has never claimed a link between Saddam and al-Qaeda — although Saddam had his hands in terror generally (e.g., in the Intifada). (I myself always like to point out that Saddam, after all, gave refuge to Abu Abbas — the Achille Lauro mastermind — and Abu Nidal, an Arab Carlos the Jackal, whom Saddam, in all likelihood, wound up killing, for reasons that make for interesting speculation.)
Straw robustly defends our democracy-building efforts in Iraq, then goes on to sing an ode to democracy at large. He comes from a party, he says, "that lost four elections on the trot" (a wonderful Britishism for "in a row"). "We won the last two. That's called democracy, and sometimes the side you favor doesn't win."
He also explains that he doesn't especially mind religious parties, which dot Europe (even if they do not tend to be especially religious — think the Christian Democrats, in any country). When an Islamic party in Turkey won power, there was "shock, horror," but everyone now agrees that that government is "a delight to do business with."
A questioner notes that all of the experts on an earlier panel — all of them, to a man — averred that the Iraq campaign had made the War on Terror harder. Straw snorts this claim out of school, pointing out that, at a minimum, the Coalition has removed Afghanistan and Iraq from the terror business, and can that be counted as nothing?
Another questioner alleges that Britain et al. are "cooking the books" in Iraq — placing their thumbs heavily on any electoral scale. Straw himself describes this as a charge of "a stitch-up job," then knocks it down, in no uncertain terms. He again avows his special love of democracy: "I have been democratically elected to public office. Who else in this room can say the same? Let me see hands, please. One? Fine. But I don't care to take lectures on democracy and democratic legitimacy. Elective office in a democracy has been my life." What's more, "'legitimacy' is an easy word to mouth, but those who question our methods in Iraq should be asked, 'What would you do that would be an improvement on what we're doing?'"
That is a question that tends to shut mouths.
A Turkish participant expresses concern that the Kurds are feeling their oats (so to speak), and cites at least one Kurd who has made loud independence noises. Straw (in paraphrase): "People will take positions, 'twas ever thus. But when Saddam Hussein was in power, people could not take positions, lest they be killed. True, we've found fewer WMD than expected, but we've found more mass graves. And now, people don't get shot for expressing their opinion."
Another participant chides Secretary Straw for putting the judiciary last in his list of recent Iraqi accomplishments. Obviously, says this man, the government of the U.K. can't care terribly much about the rule of law. Straw, barely patient, responds that he put the judiciary last because it's most important, not least, "and I say this as a lawyer."
So that's that.
I have gone on about this performance simply because it's not the kind I am accustomed to witnessing. Certainly we don't often see such things at international conferences, including the Davos Forum. Straw was commanding, unflinching, persuasive, affable, willing, and factual. He was informed to the gills. He proved a superb explainer/defender of all that we are doing, and have done, and will do in Iraq. I dare say that no American official has performed as well — certainly not Straw's counterpart, Colin Powell. How much good it would do, around the world and at home, for Powell to make such efforts, with such conviction and knowledge! My suspicion is that most people would come around to the Coalition point of view — or at least not be hostile to it — if it were explained sufficiently well. This has been a failure of the post-9/11 period. But Jack Straw, trust me, is up to the job.
I doubt that we will ever, dear Impromptus-ites, find a foreign minister of a socialist government more congenial. Ever.
The same goes for his PM