These essays range from big questions of definition and identity (“Islam in Europe”) to well known flashpoints (“The strange toppling of Slobodan Milosevic”, “9/11”) and contemporary predicaments (“Beauty and the Beast in Burma”). His main interests, as Oxford professor of European Studies, have been foreign policy — there is an extraordinary insider’s account of an attempt to brief George W. Bush about Yoorp, and another about Obama’s inauguration. To every subject he brings deft precision, like a peanuts cartoon — inscape in context.
TGA’s standpoint is classically Liberal. He articulates what the word could and should mean as more than just a hysterical reactionaries’ catch-all ra-ra term of abuse.
Only when we are prepared to allow our own most sacred cows to be poked in the eye can we credibly demand that Islamists, Turks and others do the same. This is a time not for erecting taboos but for dismantling them. We must practise what we preach.TGA is also highly articulate about the difference between secularism and new model atheism.
I do not believe there is a God and therefore assume that some 2007 years ago a couple called Joseph and Mary just had a baby. But what a man he turned out to be! Like the great Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, I can’t get anywhere with Christ as God, but as a human being Jesus Christ seems to me a constant and wonderful inspiration — perhaps even, as Burckhardt put it, “the most beautiful figure in world history.” And some of his later imitators didn’t do so badly, either.As historians get down to work on Bush foreign policy, TGA draws up a preliminary balance sheet, measured against the administration’s stated aims at the outset. He is no knee-jerk anti-Republican, indeed much of his journalism as I remember from the period tried to encourage people to stand back and give Bush what benefit of the doubt they could. As the roll begins to be called up yonder, however, as a former advisor to Bush, he has to conclude:
In every vital area of the wider Middle East, American policy over the last five years has taken a bad situation and made it worseHe then forensically sketches the whole “amazing bloody catastrophe ” —
- Afghanistan worse (more dangerous and hospitable to terrorists),
- Pakistan worse (even more unstable, radical and effective as a clearing station and training camp for terrorists from all over the world)
- Iraq worse (now radicalised and unstable),
- Iran worse (newly prestigious, confident and dabbling in WMD),
- Israel worse (more worried, less secure and self-confident),
- Palestine worse (with a new radical terrorist government)
- Lebanon worse (Bush scored an accidental early goal in the Cedar revolution, but latterly managed to muck it all up by undermining the very government he had supported, so, on balance, less stable).
- Egypt, the Islamists are now scoring at the ballot box as well as with their AK47’s: worse.
For me, the jewels in the crown of this collection, however, are TGA’s essays on Gunther Grass and George Orwell. Most of the pieces are very short. Keep this book for train journeys and occasional reading. Agree or disagree with his conclusions, it flags up the real issues, remarkably consistently for a collection of occasional pieces. TGA lays out in historical order the events and alarums of our age in a way nobody else has yet managed, and I salute it as a tremendous and surprisingly readable achievement.