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The one-man global content provider

By Steven Martinovich
web posted May 12, 2003

Mark SteynMark Steyn jokingly, we think, bills himself as a one-man global content provider and it's a claim he has evidence for. He appears regularly in The Daily Telegraph, the National Post, The Spectator, The Sunday Telegraph, the Jerusalem Post -- among others -- and refuses to write for the New York Times. Mark refused to do an interview with ESR unless he could pose nude on our cover but relented and gave us one anyway.

First, thanks very much for joining us despite our waffling on allowing you to pose nude for ESR's cover.

Now that the U.S.-led coalition has won in Iraq, what do you think the next step in the war on terrorism is?

Well, we're moving into a non-military phase, or at any rate a non-large-scale-combat phase. As I said somewhere or other, you don't invade Iraq in order to invade everywhere else, you invade Iraq so you don't have to invade everywhere else. That doesn't mean we're in for a period of "containment" or "détente". If Iraq teaches us anything, it's that "containment" is hell if you happen to be one of the vast supporting cast being contained - and, if an unsatisfactory status quo is artificially maintained long enough, you wind up with an almost entirely wrecked people, as the Palestinians are after half-a-century under the care of the UN's so-called "refugee" "camps". So, instead of the status quo, we're in a potentially fast-moving phase, and what comes next for the US should be a twin strategy of what you might call "pushing and pulling". "Pushing" is about nudging certain regimes to tipping point - Iran and Syria, for example. "Pulling" is about pulling in the right direction certain imperfect regimes that are either the best of a bad lot, potential forces for reform or if nothing else a useful transitional administration: you have to keep tugging them to prevent them from lapsing into their worse instincts. I would put Pakistan's General Musharraf in this category. Also Vladimir Putin 's Russia - although, after being holed up in the axis of losers with Jacques and Gerhard for another year, he'll be pining for an invite to Crawford.

Of course, if pushing and pulling doesn't work, the message of Iraq is that the Americans and a few real allies can take you out very quickly, and all that stuff you bought from the French and Russians won't make any difference.

London Arabic newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi has just run a letter purportedly from Saddam Hussein. Is he dead or alive?

I've been calling him "the late Saddam Hussein" for a couple months now and I'll stick with that. But the point is that being a totalitarian dictator is like being in showbiz: if you're not working, you're effectively dead. And right now Saddam and the Ba'ath Party, like Osama and al-Qa'eda, are not working. It doesn't matter if he's holed up on the North-West Frontier at the back of the cave with Mullah Omar, or in the honeymoon suite at the Damascus Holiday Inn, or living on welfare in Ontario: if he's not dictator of Iraq, he's dead.

Noah Feldman, who's just been named head of the constitutional team with the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq -- the team's responsibility to oversee and advise on drafting the constitution for a democratic Iraq -- argues in his new book After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy that it's not unreasonable to expect a free and democratic Middle East one day. Do you share that optimism and if so, what would be your roadmap?

I do share that optimism. Liberty isn't just some white European thing. South Pacific islanders and Latin Americans and West Indians and much of Asia live in liberty, so to argue that Arabs are uniquely unqualified to do so is surely racist. I don't believe they're genetically incompatible with freedom, as I've been saying for over a year and a half now. What amazes me is the speed with which what, in October 2001, was just the ravings of a couple of glib fringe columnists has become the received wisdom. Nobody now defends the old methods - shoveling money and access at Mubarak and the House of Saud. Indeed, in some ways, precisely because of the way those regimes have grown bloated on US favours, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the trickiest countries to fix. But look at how detailed President Bush's recent speech in South Carolina was: he's proposing a US/Middle East free trade area within the decade; Sandra Day O'Connor will be heading a forum on Middle East judicial reform.

Whether or not all these things will work in every country is debatable, but there's no doubt that Iraq is the best place to start the experiment. Just having a country with a free press, free radio stations, etc, will have an enormous impact on its neighbours. It was the knowledge of the reality on the other side of the Iron Curtain that helped tip the Warsaw Pact states, and it's much harder these days to keep your people in a hermetically sealed fantasy. A free Iraq will hasten reforms in the so-called "moderate" states - the Gulf Emirates and Jordan - and put pressure on Syria, which is already in the unusual position for an Arab tyranny of being surrounded by reasonably civilized societies - Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel.

One thing we should do immediately is drop the lazy concept of "the Arab street": it means nothing, it doesn't exist. Like most formulations beloved by the left, it's an excuse to avoid having to learn anything hard or specific - facts, dates, trade patterns, economic relationships. The Bahraini street has nothing in common with the Ramallah street. The "Arab street" is as useless a notion as the "European street": Americans should compare, for example, France and Belgium with Kuwait and Qatar. Who are the real allies? The difference at Arab League meetings henceforth will be between those members of a moderate, modernizing tendency and a dwindling number of decrepit thug states who prefer to carry on taking refuge in pan-Arabism's perversion of traditional Arab fatalism and celebrating their failure.

So that's the real "roadmap" - the one that starts in Baghdad, nudges Amman and others down the road to reform, and tips Assad and Mubarak into oblivion. What's going on in the Palestinian Authority is, by comparison, a non-scenic detour. But it teaches one important lesson: there's no point betting on a proven failure. The Sultan of Oman and the King of Jordan may be improvable, but Yasser Arafat never was: he's good at nothing but killing and corruption, and the decision to invest the entire cause of Palestinian nationalism in one worthless incompetent terrorist was the worst decision of the last 30 years. Whatever idiotic remarks Powell may make in the course of his travels, Bush knows the reality. But the bottom line is this: by 2010, Arafat, the Assads, the Ayatollahs and the loopier factions of the House of Saud will all be gone.

What are your thoughts on the democracy protests in Iran? Is this the beginning of a people's revolution like we saw in the Philippines or will it end up as another Tiananmen Square?

The comparison I used last year was Hungary: it wasn't clear then whether this was 1956 or 1989. I'd say it's looking more like the latter. The question now for the Ayatollahs is whether, like Gustav Husak in Czechoslovakia, they can negotiate a face-saving transfer to the new forces or whether they'll cling on and get taken down more bloodily. There are at the moment conflicting indications.

What do you think is the significance of the United States pulling up stakes in Saudi Arabia and moving its military assets elsewhere in the Middle East? Do you think the House of Saud has much longer?

This is the biggest favour the US has done Saudi Arabia. As a general rule, American forces should not be in countries where they become a factor in the local politics, and these days they don't have to be: you can reach an awful lot of places from Diego Garcia. Osama was right: it is pathetic that the wealthiest nation in the Middle East and guardian of Islam's holiest sites is incapable of defending itself. It increases the perception that the House of Saud are the later Ottoman sultans to the nth degree - soft, flabby, decadent. Saudi Arabia is a roadmap for how not to run a state - how not to educate your people and liberate their talents - and in the end human resources define the kind of society you'll be a lot more than oil does. The present Wahhabist Saudi Arabia with its current borders will not survive beyond 2010.

It didn't take long for North Korea to once again rattling its sabre after what looked like some initial openness in discussing their nuclear weapons program. Is another war on the Korean peninsula inevitable?

No. But it remains a strong possibility. North Korea is a slight exception to my "pushing and pulling" strategy. The country's like the ticking counter of Blofeld's secret weapon in a Bond movie: the regime has to be very carefully but speedily defused. If that's not possible, war is the next least worst option.

In an April 26 Spectator column you wrote that you agreed with the notion that the United Nations is a full-fledged member of the axis of evil. Given its failure over Iraq, not to mention Kosovo, Rwanda, Bosnia and a number of other crises, do you think it has a future? Should the United States withdraw?

Yes, but they won't, because no matter how disgustingly they behave a substantial chunk of the American electorate and big majorities in every other western nation hear the words "United Nations" and automatically associate it with benign multilateralism. They've got some old Polaroid of Audrey Hepburn surrounded by multiethnic UNICEF moppets lodged in the back of their heads, and it never fades. So I'm in favour of the serious powers allowing the UN to decay into an irrelevant talking-shop for Third World dictators and their European apologists. Lots of offices linger on long after they've outlived their usefulness: in England, there's still a Sheriff of Nottingham, but he doesn't chase Robin Hood and guys in green tights through Sherwood Forest any more; it's just an empty ceremonial office. That 's what the UN should be. The big message of the last year is bilateralism is back - Bush-Blair, Bush-Howard, relationships that aren't anything to do with global bureaucracies and rotating committees.

You threatened, perhaps tongue in cheek, to resign from the Spectator in that same column because it advocated placing the UN in charge of Iraq, this from an ostensibly conservative newspaper. The fact that there is a gulf between the United States and European liberals is no surprise, but why does there seem to be a gulf between European, and even British, conservatives and the United States?

Well, The Spectator had a very bad war, and that UN editorial was an example of why: no particular commitment pro- or anti-, but a sort of torpid retreat to the most undemanding position. I'm not saying anything I haven't told the boss, but there we are. On the more general point, it's a snob thing. When Margaret Drabble raged the other day about how she hated Bush and Rumsfeld and Coca-Cola and burgers, many patrician Tories would agree wholeheartedly, at least on the last two. And once you've decided that Coke and burgers are unspeakably vulgar it's a small step to feeling uncomfortable about Bush's hokey invocations of God and love, and from there to not being entirely on board with Rummy's go-ahead-make-my-day shtick with Boy Assad. American conservatism is much more populist than British conservatism or what passes for conservatism on the Continent. There are simply no equivalents to, say, the gun nuts or the religious right in Britain or Europe. You can imagine what American conservatism would be like without those big grass-roots forces, and in Britain it is.

Let's switch to Canada. Out of the current Liberal leadership candidates, which one would you think would best breakaway from the Chretien government's current schizophrenic foreign policy and institute a more consistent one?

Doesn't make any difference. Canada has a schizophrenic foreign policy because it's now a schizophrenic land: on the one hand, it's deeply embedded into the US economy, to the exclusion of the rest of the world; on the other hand, the country's raison d'etre, its official Multiculturalism ministry, its media, education system and immigration policies are all deeply invested in anti-Americanism as a state religion. The other day The Ottawa Citizen had a letter from a Vancouver lady objecting to any Canadian participation in continental missile defence on the grounds that an intercepted nuke could wind up scattering contaminated debris over the Canadian countryside. The logic of her position is that she'd rather that nuke continued on its way over the border and took out Dallas or St Louis. Say what you like, but that 's consistent.

Why do you think the Canadian Alliance failed so badly in capturing the public's hearts? Do you think Canadians naturally tend towards center-left politics or did Canada's conservative movement fail in its mission?

Federal politics in Canada is set up so that only the Liberals have the only viable combination - lock up Ontario, ignore the west, bribe the east and kiss up to Quebec. It's nothing really to do with a coherent political philosophy: in Ontario, they're the party of business; in Nova Scotia, the party of handouts. They're very good at identifying the two sides to every issue and then co-opting both of them.

If you look at the early campaign polls, the Alliance came a lot closer in 2000 than we remember, and if Conrad had still owned all the newspapers, who knows? (The National Post is sounding more Paul Martinised every day, don't you think?) But in the end, when you're in Quebec or New Brunswick, guys like Stockwell Day and Preston Manning are like foreigners - you might as well run Strom Thurmond or Emperor Bokassa. The only possible realignment will come from regional alienation - if Alberta gets tired of being milked and Newfoundland gets tired of being maintained in tenured poverty. But a right-wing party sweeping to national power? Not any time soon.

It's early admittedly, but do you think George W. Bush is a lock for a second term?

No. I think he's vulnerable. But to take advantage of that you'd need a non-inept Dem candidate. And, of the nine currently running, it's not just that three are joke candidates - Sharpton, Kucinich, Moseley-Braun - but that so many of the supposedly serious candidates are jokes - John Kerry, Bob Graham, Howard Dean.

A lot of us here at Enter Stage Right have a bit of a crush on Condoleeza Rice. Do you think Bush should name her his running mate if Dick Cheney decides to sit 2004 out?

I've been inches away from Condi a couple of times and she has just gorgeous eyes. I wanted to dive in and drown in her erotic braininess. But Cheney says he's running, so I guess we'll have to wait till 2008.

The Face of the TigerFor those who haven't read your latest book, The Face of the Tiger, what is it and what's the core message or messages you tried to put across when selecting which essays to include?

Well, the trick with collections of columns is not just to shovel a lot of old junk in and hope the public will fall for it. So I personally combed through the material and replaced several lame jokes with marginally less lame jokes. But it seemed to me, going back through this or that essay since September 11th, that certain themes emerged, and indeed a narrative. 9/11 was a great clarifying moment, it exposed the world of September 10th as a fiction, a collection of soft-focus illusions, and what's happened in the period since is that the world has divided into those who recognized that and those who are still trying to patch up the Humpty Dumpty world of September 10th and prop it back in place - as the French are trying to do, and the UN, and much of the US Federal bureaucracy. That's really what the book's about but we have a lotta laughs along the way.

You occasionally reference blogs and web sites in your columns. Do you visit any web sites regularly and which are your favourites?

Well, let me come at that a roundabout way. In my small town in New Hampshire, most of the local history was compiled and written down by various octogenarian ladies. What I find interesting is how vividly these widows and spinsters write, even though most of them left school at 14, if that. But you read their accounts of their great-great-grandfather's adventures in the Revolutionary War and it's full of wit, insight, imagery. Anyone can write - anyone with an interest in words and an engagement with the world they live in. Writing isn't a profession like medicine or accountancy, and pretending it is - as North America's journalism-school culture does - is worse than a harmless affectation, it's actually an obstacle to good readable writing. In most parts of the US, if you go to the local store, you've a choice between a dull local paper with an op-ed page filled on the cheap from a handful of dominant syndicates and a dull regional paper like The Boston Globe or The LA Times. On the Internet, you can find strong individual voices, the sort of thing the portentous J-school newspapers have all but bred out of the system. I know what I prefer to read.

As to sites I like, a lot of them are the obvious ones, like National Review, but if I had to single out a non-big-media site, I'd put in a word for Natalie Solent, who writes from somewhere in England and has a way of looking at subjects from odd angles with interesting historical allusions.

How do you account for your fervent following among bloggers, at least the conservative and libertarian bloggers? You may actually be more famous on the Web then in print, and your hardly an unknown in the print world.

Well, see that last answer: If I'm in London, I buy a big bunch of papers and read them over breakfast. But, in much of America, the papers aren't worth buying, and political commentary means David Broder or Daniel Schnurr dragging their gravitas like a ball and chain.

What's the one thing that few people know about you that would shock your readers?

I'm actually a lesbian of colour and Women's Studies professor at Berkeley. I can't believe you right-wingers are so ideological you fell for such a crude and obvious parody of conservative male warmongering.

Thanks very much. And if you ever do resign from the Spectator rest assured you can find a home here at Enter Stage Right. We might even be able to scare up some money to pay you.

What's really scary is that, the way things are going at the Spec and the National Post, I may have to take you up on that.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

For all things Mark Steyn you can visit his web site and you can buy his book at Amazon.com.

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  • Destroying polite fictions by Steven Martinovich (January 13, 2003)
    Mark Steyn's The Face of the Tiger, a collection of his columns exploring the world after September 11, 2001, has become one of Steve Martinovich's favourite books
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