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Some prime ministers settle immediately on the international stage, others take their time to adjust to the nuances required in dealing with the assortment of democratically elected politicians, benign dictators and outright rogues who lead the world. David Cameron, so far, has struggled, achieving within three months something that took Blair six years: having his effigy burnt on the streets of a foreign capital, just weeks before a meeting with the president of that country. At least Mr Cameron and Pakistan’s President Zardari should be able to talk convivially about the cricket — unlike the last one, the current England vs Pakistan Test series has not been sullied by accusations of ball-tampering.
The Prime Minister was not wrong to suggest that Pakistan looks both ways on terrorism. No matter how much Pakistan’s government protests, the country’s intelligence agency, the ISI, has long been a law unto itself. It is widely suspected of having links with the Taleban and of aiding military insurgency in Afghanistan. It has been accused by India of involvement in the Mumbai bombings. Mr Cameron may well have been influenced by a report by an LSE academic last month which claimed to have found evidence of meetings between the ISI and the Taleban and concluded that ‘Pakistan appears to be playing a double game of astonishing magnitude’. President Zardari, for his part, can hardly defend the ISI: he complained about it bitterly in opposition and last year accused it of having created the Taleban in conjunction with the CIA. What the Prime Minister misjudged was the time and place. He was unwise to bring up the subject during a trade mission to India; it is a subject which deserved a statesmanlike speech on another occasion. It is too big and important an issue to slip into conversation, to try to help British businessmen flog ball-bearings in Mumbai. He could not have predicted the air crash and disastrous floods in Pakistan, but he should know that diplomacy always pays off.
But David Cameron now has an opportunity to put things right, and he should not miss it. Pakistan is far from a model of Western democracy and its president is not the greatest statesman, but it is an ally in a part of the world that is not thick with them. The Prime Minister must begin by acknowledging that Pakistan is itself a victim of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. Indeed, they have killed 3,500 Pakistani citizens during the past three years: more than died on 9/11.
Islamic terrorist groups were allowed to grow before 9/11 partly because the West failed to take enough notice of the warnings that came from Islamic countries themselves. Rather than co-operate in the battle against al-Qa’eda, we invited terrorists to claim asylum in London and carry on their operations here. Take Abu Qatada, wanted by Jordan in connection with bomb attacks in Amman in 1998 and since named by the UN Security Council as an al-Qa’eda operative. Under the Human Rights Act, he cannot be deported on the grounds that Jordan can’t be trusted not to torture him, and so he has instead been allowed to set up in a council house in west London. Or take Abid Naseer, accepted by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission to have been behind a planned al-Qa’eda attack, but nevertheless rejected for deportation to the US.
Zadari could, if he chose, accuse Britain, too, of looking both ways on terrorism: barking at foreign countries for doing too little to combat Islamists, yet at the same time allowing terrorists to operate beneath our noses. Pakistan is a poorly functioning state, but we must do business with it if we want to defeat al-Qa’eda. David Cameron must take some time out from wooing India to extend the hand of friendship to its enemy.
Boris Johnson’s new bicycle-sharing scheme has had its share of ‘teething problems’, as the Mayor himself admits. Some Londoners have had to be refunded, for instance, after they were overcharged by the complicated bike ‘docking’ system. But it’s a tribute to Boris that Londoners have taken the difficulties in their stride as part of the general fun, and with their jolly, chunky design, the London bikes could become icons of the capital — thought of as fondly as red buses or black cabs.
Boris’s cycling revolution has begun: bright blue ‘cycle superhighways’ come next, and a new unit of bicycling bobbies. The bicycle-sharing scheme is a cheering reminder that even on a budget, even in these sceptical times, an imaginative politician can still have good ideas.
Our former editor this month also helped launch a citywide ping-pong tournament — free tables have been set up across London. The project is not just fun, it’s practical. Perhaps it will unearth a British champ in time for the 2012 London Olympic Games. Wiff Waff may yet come home.
So, though he’s taken his fair share of criticism this year, there are lessons every minister can learn from the London Mayor. His counterparts in national government seem obliged to wear pompous or stony faces as they go about the important business of cutting public spending. Yet, with his bikes and sunny outlook, Boris satisfies no less valuable a need. He cheers us up. What other politician can say the same?
THE SPECTATOR 7 August 2010 3