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Choosing When To Eat Crow

by Alexander Cockburn

19th century local despots twisted the tail of the British imperial lion
Our Commander-in-Chief Bush doesn't want to eat crow, but the truly big question is whether those captive boys and girls from the U.S. surveillance plane are being forced to eat dog without their knowledge. The Canadians, eager to discredit their rival, China, as a host of the 2008 Olympics, have been putting out stories about the Middle Kingdom's trade in St. Bernard dogs, which the Chinese fatten to succulence, then slaughter and prepare in various delectable dishes too numerous for individual citation at this time.

The Turks, also vying to host those 2008 games, are similarly printing St. Bernard atrocity stories discreditable to the Chinese Peoples' Republic. Will the Olympic Committee, of which Henry Kissinger (a lobbyist for the PRC) is a member, order tests of Chinese athletes to see if they have been strengthened by the tasty musculature of the St. Bernards?

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department labors to define the calibrations of nuance between "apology" and "regret," along with, perhaps, other delicate terms (contrition, anguish, remorse, etc.), to indicate an effort to clear up the whole laughable misunderstanding about the spy plane and the dead Chinese pilot who, according to a U.S. senator on the Intelligence Committee, apparently liked to flutter his Website address through the canopy of his plane.

The matter of expressions of "apology" by the White House to the Chinese government, as opposed to "regrets" is obviously delicate, but the notion that an apology necessarily involves remorse or contrition is wrong. "Apology" primarily means "vindication" or "explanation," as in Plato's well-known piece about Socrates. In my 14-volume Oxford English Dictionary the element of remorse is included only in the third definition of the word.

So the U.S. State Department, headed by that peacenik Powell (who is reputedly leaking the news that he recommended an apology from the outset) could issue a formal document, titled Apology for the U.S. Surveillance Mission for the Benefit of the Chinese Government, wave it at the Chinese and tell them to load up our boys and girls, plump from their mushu dog and send them home.

Many entertaining passages in international relations concern detention and poor treatment of diplomats, spies or simple travelers. The nineteenth century is replete with incidents where local despots twisted the tail of the British imperial lion, often with impunity.

For example, one nineteenth century president of Bolivia in the 1860s was a rough diamond called Belzu. He was described by the snooty Brazilian diplomat Duarte Ponte Ribeiro as "a soldier who had his home in the barracks or the brothel, who never appeared in decent society, and who never opened a book." Ribeiro was angered by Belzu's threat to shoot Brazil's commercial attache in a public square in La Paz, thus prompting the timid envoy to flee.

Another Bolivian caudillo, Mariano Melgarejo, wearied of the complaints of the British ambassador in La Paz, lifted his mistress' skirts and told the uppity envoy to kiss her bare bottom. When the diplomat declined the honor, Melgarejo had him paraded on an ass, facing backwards. Queen Victoria and Prime Minister Palmerston ordered landlocked Bolivia's capital to be bombarded by ships of Her Majesty's navy. Told that La Paz, 200 miles inland from the Pacific, was out of gunshot range, they contented themselves with having Bolivia erased from British maps.

A few years earlier Britons boiled out the outrageous conduct of Nasrullah, the Emir of Bokhara toward two British officers, Colonel Charles Stoddart and Captain Arthur Conolly. Stoddart arrived in Bokhara on a spying mission in 1838 and, "unschooled in the sycophantic ways of oriental diplomacy (Peter Hopkirk's phrase in his book "The Great Game")," didn't dismount from his horse on approaching the Emir's palace. The Emir promptly threw Stoddart into a rat-infested black hole, without even dog on the menu.

The executioner soon dropped by to advise that unless he embraced Islam, Stoddart's head would come off in very short order. Confronted with the option of betraying the faith of his fathers, Stoddart behaved as would any honorable fellow officer in such circumstances and swiftly perceived the superior merits of Islam. His conditions improved markedly. Word of his forcible conversion reached England, where the national blood boiled.

Then another British officer, Conolly, turned up in the Bokhara region. Other emirs warned him not to trifle with Bokhara's erratic boss but Conolly, distraught after being dumped by his fiancee, failed to heed their warning.

The Emir of Bokhara suggested he drop by for a friendly chat, and the foolish Conolly took up this invitation. The Emir was polite at first, but soon changed tack and Conolly was also hurled into a rat-infested hole. The Emir had become mightily angry at the slight of receiving no personal reply to his letter to Queen Victoria. Worse, Palmerston dropped him a note saying the letter had been forwarded to Calcutta for consideration by local British colonial officials. The British government took to describing the two officers as "private travelers."

That settled Conolly and Stoddart's hash.

Then matters went downhill. A British force in Kabul was massacred to the last man (a doctor who managed an amazing escape), and Britain's reputation sank throughout the region. The two British officers were made to dig their own graves in the main square in Bokhara. Stoddart denounced the emir in his apopemptic remarks and was promptly beheaded. The executioner then invited Conolly asked to convert. Citing Stoddart's unprofitable flirtation with Islam, Conolly declined, and his head instantly joined that of Stoddart in the dust.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor April 11, 2001 (

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