Commentary Magazine


Topic: general secretary

The Non-Direct, Non-Peace Talks

This report is emblematic of the double-talk that now passes for the “peace process”:

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Sunday that he was holding Israel responsible for the impasse in direct negotiations, but vowed to continue to search for solutions that could yield to progress in the recently renewed peace process.

Speaking to reporters after his meeting with Jordanian King Abdullah II, Abbas said “there is an impasse, because we cannot carry on with the negotiations, and we have to follow up this impasse with the Arab side.”

“Of course, we are not going to sever ties with the Americans, and we will continue to have contacts with them to search for solutions, but the settlement building should stop and then we will return to the negotiating table,” Abbas said.

So Abbas will go back to talking to Mitchell but not to the Israelis? No, no, both sides really want to keep talking to each other, Mitchell assures us:

In Cairo earlier on Sunday, Mitchell said both Israel and the Palestinians wanted to continue direct peace negotiations, despite an ongoing dispute over Israel’s refusal to renew its moratorium on construction in West Bank settlements.

But Abbas said he didn’t want to keep talking to the Israelis. So is Mitchell, you know, dissembling? Meanwhile, we learn that the “Palestinian Liberation Organization announced it would halt direct talks with Israel as long as settlement construction continues. The decision was announced by the general secretary of the PLO, Yasser Abed Rabbo.” So no direct talks, right? Mitchell tries out this gibberish:

“Both the governments of Israel and the Palestinian Authority have asked us to continue these discussions in an effort to establish the conditions under which they can continue direct negotiations,” Mitchell wrote in a statement posted on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo’s website. “They do not want to stop the talks.”

But didn’t the Palestinians say that … oh never mind. We are now into the phase of the charade when Mitchell and the rest of the Obami try to pretend the direct talks haven’t broken off. But they have. Do they think we won’t notice? In this regard, the Palestinians are helping with the subterfuge: “Despite the PLO’s declaration, the Palestinian leadership and Arab countries appear in no hurry to actually make the decision final. In all probability the Americans have requested time from the Arab states to reach a compromise on the settlement issue.” Because it would look really bad if all that the Obama team could accomplish in two years was less than a month of “direct” negotiations.

This report is emblematic of the double-talk that now passes for the “peace process”:

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Sunday that he was holding Israel responsible for the impasse in direct negotiations, but vowed to continue to search for solutions that could yield to progress in the recently renewed peace process.

Speaking to reporters after his meeting with Jordanian King Abdullah II, Abbas said “there is an impasse, because we cannot carry on with the negotiations, and we have to follow up this impasse with the Arab side.”

“Of course, we are not going to sever ties with the Americans, and we will continue to have contacts with them to search for solutions, but the settlement building should stop and then we will return to the negotiating table,” Abbas said.

So Abbas will go back to talking to Mitchell but not to the Israelis? No, no, both sides really want to keep talking to each other, Mitchell assures us:

In Cairo earlier on Sunday, Mitchell said both Israel and the Palestinians wanted to continue direct peace negotiations, despite an ongoing dispute over Israel’s refusal to renew its moratorium on construction in West Bank settlements.

But Abbas said he didn’t want to keep talking to the Israelis. So is Mitchell, you know, dissembling? Meanwhile, we learn that the “Palestinian Liberation Organization announced it would halt direct talks with Israel as long as settlement construction continues. The decision was announced by the general secretary of the PLO, Yasser Abed Rabbo.” So no direct talks, right? Mitchell tries out this gibberish:

“Both the governments of Israel and the Palestinian Authority have asked us to continue these discussions in an effort to establish the conditions under which they can continue direct negotiations,” Mitchell wrote in a statement posted on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo’s website. “They do not want to stop the talks.”

But didn’t the Palestinians say that … oh never mind. We are now into the phase of the charade when Mitchell and the rest of the Obami try to pretend the direct talks haven’t broken off. But they have. Do they think we won’t notice? In this regard, the Palestinians are helping with the subterfuge: “Despite the PLO’s declaration, the Palestinian leadership and Arab countries appear in no hurry to actually make the decision final. In all probability the Americans have requested time from the Arab states to reach a compromise on the settlement issue.” Because it would look really bad if all that the Obama team could accomplish in two years was less than a month of “direct” negotiations.

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Party Games

The New York Times reports that, just days before the start of a major conclave, the senior leaders of China’s Communist Party are deadlocked on choosing the organization’s next set of bosses. At stake is the future of the world’s most populous—and potentially dangerous—state. The Times repeats rumors that General Secretary Hu Jintao, the country’s current supremo, is thinking of threatening war with Taiwan to help him obtain the support of the generals so that he can prevail in the increasingly unpredictable succession struggle. After years of relative political calm, the Party now appears headed for a period of heightened internal stress.

China watchers are fond of saying that Deng Xiaoping picked three of the four leaders of the People’s Republic. Deng picked himself and his two successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu. Hu now wants to choose his successor in Deng-like fashion. He is in favor of elevating Li Keqiang to the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of political power in today’s China. Many others, however, are trying to thwart Hu by promoting Xi Jinping. Li is a modestly talented cadre known to be totally loyal to Hu. Xi, on the other hand, is closer to Jiang and is thought to be more acceptable to other elements of the Party.

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The New York Times reports that, just days before the start of a major conclave, the senior leaders of China’s Communist Party are deadlocked on choosing the organization’s next set of bosses. At stake is the future of the world’s most populous—and potentially dangerous—state. The Times repeats rumors that General Secretary Hu Jintao, the country’s current supremo, is thinking of threatening war with Taiwan to help him obtain the support of the generals so that he can prevail in the increasingly unpredictable succession struggle. After years of relative political calm, the Party now appears headed for a period of heightened internal stress.

China watchers are fond of saying that Deng Xiaoping picked three of the four leaders of the People’s Republic. Deng picked himself and his two successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu. Hu now wants to choose his successor in Deng-like fashion. He is in favor of elevating Li Keqiang to the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of political power in today’s China. Many others, however, are trying to thwart Hu by promoting Xi Jinping. Li is a modestly talented cadre known to be totally loyal to Hu. Xi, on the other hand, is closer to Jiang and is thought to be more acceptable to other elements of the Party.

The lineup of the Standing Committee will be revealed when seven to nine men walk from behind a curtain onto the stage of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing at the 17th Party Congress, scheduled to begin on October 15. We are certain there will be great applause when they appear. What we don’t know is their identity or the order in which they come out, an indication of their rank. When the men emerge, we will learn who is the favorite to succeed Hu, scheduled to step down five years from now at the 18th Congress.

A half-decade ago most China watchers had said that the organization’s succession troubles were a thing of the past. Yet the transition from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao looked smooth only because it had been decided in 1992 by Deng. Now, Deng is gone and Party members are on their own. Whoever prevails later this month—Li, Xi, or some other official—will face years of infighting. The risk is that the struggle could spill out beyond China’s borders and end the long spell of peace in Asia.

Of course, if the Communists find it hard to pick their next chieftain, they could hold a free election. That would be better for everyone (except a handful of men who do not, frankly, deserve to lead a great people).

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Fascism Old and New

As the jury and contestants entered the second round of Stuttgart’s triennial classical song competition last week, organized by the Internationale Hugo Wolf Akademie, idealistic young singers and pianists performed lieder by Robert Schumann and Wolf, often alluding optimistically to a better world. A brief break offered time for a stroll through one of Stuttgart’s parks, where high school girls jogged dispiritedly, sidestepping piles of horse dung. I walked to the Hegel-Haus, the birthplace of the philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. On display in the charmingly spare little house were letters from Hegel’s friends, stressing the importance of freedom: “Vive la liberté” writes one, while another quotes Klopstock, an 18th century German poet who cheered the American Revolution.

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As the jury and contestants entered the second round of Stuttgart’s triennial classical song competition last week, organized by the Internationale Hugo Wolf Akademie, idealistic young singers and pianists performed lieder by Robert Schumann and Wolf, often alluding optimistically to a better world. A brief break offered time for a stroll through one of Stuttgart’s parks, where high school girls jogged dispiritedly, sidestepping piles of horse dung. I walked to the Hegel-Haus, the birthplace of the philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. On display in the charmingly spare little house were letters from Hegel’s friends, stressing the importance of freedom: “Vive la liberté” writes one, while another quotes Klopstock, an 18th century German poet who cheered the American Revolution.

Such echoes of the so-called German Idealism movement are all the more timely as the current talk of the town is about Cardinal Joachim Meisner, Archbishop of Cologne, who on September 14th made a speech at the opening of a new art museum in which he stated: “Wherever culture is separated from the worship of God, cult atrophies into ritualism and art becomes degenerate.” The word “degenerate” inevitably hearkens back to Nazi-era jargon, as local newspapers were quick to point out; the Nazi’s notorious 1937 Munich “Degenerate Art” exhibit was intended to ridicule modernist paintings. Meisner’s statement was followed by a backlash of articles defending the Cardinal from “Meisner-Bashing” by the so-called “word-police” This vehement support was to be expected, since Meisner controls a vast empire of real estate and church-owned media, stoked by the highest annual donation rate in Germany, estimated at around 680 million euros per annum. In 2005, Meisner asserted that women who have an abortion are comparable to mass killers like Hitler and Stalin. Stephan Kramer, General Secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, noted that Meisner repeatedly “misuses language as a taboo-breaker. If that sets an example, we should not be surprised if Nazi beliefs become respectable again.”

Meanwhile, in between sessions of idealistic song, equal concern is devoted to the Swiss national elections scheduled for October 21, where the front-runner is a billionaire named Christoph Blocher, Switzerland’s current Justice Minister. Blocher’s campaign, featuring a poster of a black sheep kicked off the Swiss flag by three white sheep under the caption: “For More Security,” has been called fascist, racist, and perhaps worst of all, “un-Swiss.” Blocher’s wealth has also bought him a TV program during which servile interviewers, likened to East German broadcasters in the old Communist days, ask him adoring questions. While Europe ponders these reminders of oppression old and new, it is particularly useful to focus on the optimistic message of an international gathering like the Wolf Akademie’s lieder contest, where the sheep are dismissed only if they hit wrong notes, not if the color of their wool offends.

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Two Collapses

Japan, according to Thursday’s New York Times, is in “disarray.” Its government, rocked by a series of resignations, has fallen apart. Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, in office for only a year, checked himself into a hospital for stress after announcing his intent to step down. The country may be on the verge of a historic transfer of power: the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has governed the country almost continuously for a half century, looks exhausted after its crushing defeat in elections at the end of July. There will undoubtedly be a period of extended infighting, even after a new prime minister is finally selected. The financial community seems to think the stock market will fall and the economy will stumble. Foreign investors look as if they will flee. The outlook for Japan is grim.

The country’s prospects may be even darker than that. Yuichi Yamamoto, a Tokyo blogger, thinks Japan has already collapsed. The old system has failed, he notes, and the nation resembles the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s. If he’s right, then the only reason the Japanese aren’t surrendering to neighboring China is because they’re too moribund to raise the white flag.

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Japan, according to Thursday’s New York Times, is in “disarray.” Its government, rocked by a series of resignations, has fallen apart. Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, in office for only a year, checked himself into a hospital for stress after announcing his intent to step down. The country may be on the verge of a historic transfer of power: the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has governed the country almost continuously for a half century, looks exhausted after its crushing defeat in elections at the end of July. There will undoubtedly be a period of extended infighting, even after a new prime minister is finally selected. The financial community seems to think the stock market will fall and the economy will stumble. Foreign investors look as if they will flee. The outlook for Japan is grim.

The country’s prospects may be even darker than that. Yuichi Yamamoto, a Tokyo blogger, thinks Japan has already collapsed. The old system has failed, he notes, and the nation resembles the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s. If he’s right, then the only reason the Japanese aren’t surrendering to neighboring China is because they’re too moribund to raise the white flag.

The Chinese, in comparison, look full of vim and vigor. They are also heading to a political transition. The so-called Fourth Generation leadership, led by General Secretary Hu Jintao, is beginning to select the Fifth. The Communist Party will hold its elaborately staged 17th Congress next month. When the last speech is finished to great applause—as such speeches inevitably are—we will know the lineup of the Politburo Standing Committee and thus be able to guess who is in the running to succeed the inscrutable Hu at the 18th Congress, scheduled for five years from now.

Although their governments are completely different in structure, both Japan and China will pick their next leaders in backroom deals arranged by heads of factions wielding immense power. Both governing systems are rotten in their own ways, and both are fragile. The only difference is that the breakdown of Japan’s “1955 System”—yes, it’s that old—is taking place in public view and change will eventually come at the ballot box. In China, the Communist Party will not give up power without the loss of even more life.

So Japan only looks like it’s failing. We are seeing the regeneration of politics in Japanese society as the old is reluctantly making way for the new. In China, the transition to the next form of governance—coming soon—will not be as smooth.

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The PLA at 80

Yesterday was the 80th anniversary of the founding of the world’s largest private army: China’s. The biggest misconception about China’s military is that it belongs to China. Yes, the Chinese state pays for the People’s Liberation Army, but the PLA reports to—and pledges to defend—the Communist Party. On this Army Day, Beijing’s propaganda saluted (as it always does) the army’s 2.3 million members in their capacity as employees and defenders of China’s leading political organization.

This year’s ritualistic expressions of mutual party-army appreciation seem more numerous and passionate than on past anniversaries. President Hu Jintao mentioned the party’s total control over the military at least 15 times in his Army Day speech. Some foreign observers speculate that the excessive declarations are meant to cover up rifts in the military’s leadership or the failure of Hu—who is also the party’s general secretary—to consolidate control over his generals and admirals. (Others say that he is already in charge.)

Here’s a shortcut for those who do not want to devote their lives to studying this impenetrable issue: Beijing operates an abnormal political system and maintains an abnormal relationship with its armed forces. And here’s something else: because the party controls the army (or at least tries to do so), our attempts to establish military-to-military ties are bound to end in failure. It is not just that the Chinese generally believe in secrecy as a powerful military tool (though they do): secrecy lies at the heart of China’s political system, and of its peculiar government-military relationship.

The Bush White House should know this by now. It has done all it can to try to build functional military-to-military relations with China, but has not succeeded. The Chinese continue to ask for assistance—their more recent requests included the arresting gear of aircraft carriers and the training of carrier crews—but they are not willing to reciprocate. We let them tour our navy’s most important base—in Norfolk, VA—in April of this year, but they were not willing to let our Chief of Naval Operations, Mike Mullen, make a visit to a comparable Chinese naval facility. (In response, Mullen, departing from the Bush administration’s renewed emphasis on military ties with China, canceled his planned trip to Beijing.)

On this anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army let’s send the Chinese our birthday greetings—but let’s stop making gifts of our know-how and technology.

Yesterday was the 80th anniversary of the founding of the world’s largest private army: China’s. The biggest misconception about China’s military is that it belongs to China. Yes, the Chinese state pays for the People’s Liberation Army, but the PLA reports to—and pledges to defend—the Communist Party. On this Army Day, Beijing’s propaganda saluted (as it always does) the army’s 2.3 million members in their capacity as employees and defenders of China’s leading political organization.

This year’s ritualistic expressions of mutual party-army appreciation seem more numerous and passionate than on past anniversaries. President Hu Jintao mentioned the party’s total control over the military at least 15 times in his Army Day speech. Some foreign observers speculate that the excessive declarations are meant to cover up rifts in the military’s leadership or the failure of Hu—who is also the party’s general secretary—to consolidate control over his generals and admirals. (Others say that he is already in charge.)

Here’s a shortcut for those who do not want to devote their lives to studying this impenetrable issue: Beijing operates an abnormal political system and maintains an abnormal relationship with its armed forces. And here’s something else: because the party controls the army (or at least tries to do so), our attempts to establish military-to-military ties are bound to end in failure. It is not just that the Chinese generally believe in secrecy as a powerful military tool (though they do): secrecy lies at the heart of China’s political system, and of its peculiar government-military relationship.

The Bush White House should know this by now. It has done all it can to try to build functional military-to-military relations with China, but has not succeeded. The Chinese continue to ask for assistance—their more recent requests included the arresting gear of aircraft carriers and the training of carrier crews—but they are not willing to reciprocate. We let them tour our navy’s most important base—in Norfolk, VA—in April of this year, but they were not willing to let our Chief of Naval Operations, Mike Mullen, make a visit to a comparable Chinese naval facility. (In response, Mullen, departing from the Bush administration’s renewed emphasis on military ties with China, canceled his planned trip to Beijing.)

On this anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army let’s send the Chinese our birthday greetings—but let’s stop making gifts of our know-how and technology.

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Among the Collaborationists

Maurice Papon has just died at the age of ninety-six, but his name will always stand for France’s moral collapse in 1940, and that country’s inability—or reluctance—to redress matters afterwards. In his capacity as a ranking Vichy official, the documentation proves, he signed the deportation orders to Auschwitz for 1,690 Jews, 223 of whom were children, organizing sixteen trains for them, the last in June 1944 when German defeat was certain. It was also his idea to send the bill for the expense of the requisite cattle-trucks to the Jewish representative council, thus obliging the victims to pay for their journey to be murdered. One of his German superiors described him as a sincere collaborator, “co-operating correctly with the Feldkommandatur.”

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Maurice Papon has just died at the age of ninety-six, but his name will always stand for France’s moral collapse in 1940, and that country’s inability—or reluctance—to redress matters afterwards. In his capacity as a ranking Vichy official, the documentation proves, he signed the deportation orders to Auschwitz for 1,690 Jews, 223 of whom were children, organizing sixteen trains for them, the last in June 1944 when German defeat was certain. It was also his idea to send the bill for the expense of the requisite cattle-trucks to the Jewish representative council, thus obliging the victims to pay for their journey to be murdered. One of his German superiors described him as a sincere collaborator, “co-operating correctly with the Feldkommandatur.”

Collaboration with Nazism was the political choice taken by Marshal Pétain after the fall of France; it was pre-war appeasement in the new context of military defeat. Pétain and his Vichy regime imagined that they were sparing France the sort of horrors inflicted on Poland, but in reality they were facilitating them. In the absence of enough German personnel trained in mass murder, the Nazi authorities had to rely on the French to do their work. The turning point was the accord signed in May 1942 between General Karl Oberg of the SS, and René Bousquet, general secretary of the French police. That accord placed the French gendarmerie at the service of the Nazi machinery of murder. One among many who could now obey orders zealously was Papon, and another was Jean Leguay, Bousquet’s representative.

At the end of the war, Bousquet was condemned to five years of “national indignity,” a somewhat unspecific term, then immediately granted reprieve and decorated for “resistance,” in this case an even less specific term. Bousquet then enjoyed a spectacular career as an industrialist, protected by President Mitterand for no very evident reason except that he too had a compromising Vichy past. Leguay also had a successful business career. Papon fared best of all. General de Gaulle, no less, protected him, appointing him prefect of police in Paris. In that capacity, he supervised a crack-down on Algerians with thousands of arrests, and the massacre of perhaps a hundred of them, their corpses simply thrown into the Seine. Papon showed himself as adept at murdering Muslims as Jews. Under President Giscard d’Estaing, he entered the cabinet as budget minister.

Researching in the archives, Michel Slitinsky came across his own death warrant with Papon’s signature on it. Slitinsky’s father had been killed in Auschwitz, while he himself only just managed to escape arrest. In 1986, more than twenty years after the event, he brought Papon to justice. At his trial, Papon denounced the proceedings as “fake,” claimed to have helped the resistance, and dismissed the evidence as lies, speaking of “plots,” the usual fascist code for supposed Jewish world domination. Sentenced to ten years in prison for crimes against humanity, he fled defiantly to Switzerland, but was sent back and imprisoned. After he had served three years, the Chirac government had him released. The protection of such people by so many French presidents speaks volumes.

Like Papon, Leguay was indicted for crimes against humanity (though he died before going to prison). When I was writing my book Paris in the Third Reich, in which I describe his role in deporting Jews, he used to seek me out in order to plead that he had not really done anything wrong, and in any case had no choice, and would I please understand his predicament. Like Papon again, but in his more oily way, he showed no trace of remorse. Nor did Bousquet, who became more and more arrogant with the passing of time even though he too was facing a trial for crimes against humanity. One day, someone named Christian Didier—always labelled as “unbalanced”—turned up at his house and shot him dead.

The wish to hide complicity in mass murder may be humanly understandable, but it has rotted France’s national conscience and self-respect. Unwillingness to acknowledge complicity in Nazi crime explains the lack of conscience—the sheer bad faith—of the French stance in so many post-war issues.

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