Monday, 1 February 2010

New books: Fogh’s premiership

Anders Fogh Rasmussen was Prime Minister of Denmark from 2001 to 2009 before resigning to become Secretary General of NATO. Unlike other Danish prime ministers he thereby left office of his own free will and in “triumph” rather than because of ill-health, death or defeat. His 7 ½ years in office were also one of the most successful Danish premierships, Troels Mylenberg and Bjarne Steensbeck, political journalists at Berlingske Tidende, argues in their new book Præsidenten – Foghs Danmark 2001-2009 (published by Gyldendal).
This is no full-scale biography of Fogh, but rather a book about the major events of his premiership. It begins with the end, charting the difficult and long drawn-out process which ended with his being chosen to lead NATO in April last year. The authors also take us back to the earlier stages of his political career, showing how Fogh was a more ideological politician than many of his colleagues in the Liberal Party.
Fogh was very narrowly defeated in the 1998 election by the incumbent Social Democrat Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, but succeeded in winning the premiership three years later. By then the parliamentary situation had changed, ejecting two of Fogh’s prospective coalition partners from Parliament, leaving him with a coalition of his own party and the Conservative Party and dependent on the far right-wing Danish People’s Party for a parliamentary majority. Fogh was the undisputed leader of Denmark for nearly eight years, something the authors argue was possible partly due to the fact that the main opposition party, the Social Democrats, was more preoccupied with internal wars than with opposing the government.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen had a clear agenda for his premiership and many (including me) think that he changed Denmark to the worse. Yet one must admit that he was very successful in achieving his goals and some of the changes he implemented are so thorough that they are nearly impossible to reverse. Some of it, such as his very strict immigration policy (it is perhaps a sign of xenophobia that the Danes call it “foreigner policy”), has even been adopted by his political opponents, which shows that Fogh was even able to alter political thinking in general.
Fogh chose confrontation rather than cooperation and his style of leadership was so authoritarian that it earned him the nickname “the President” among the Conservative ministers. According to Mylenberg and Steensbeck, he always got his way in cabinet and his treatment of his colleagues was not always pleasant. One of his party colleagues points out that the way Fogh centralised all decisions might be the reason why the party lost 20,000 members during his leadership, suggesting that his authoritarian style did not really inspire people to become involved. As a prime minister, he was more respected than well-liked, and as a person he projected a near-ascetic image, always completely in control of himself and events, almost entirely without a sense of humour. The authors point out that this was not wholly true, but again it shows how he succeeded in shaping the image he wanted.
This also showed in how he often got away with changing his opinion dramatically, yet insisting that he had held the same view throughout – the debacle over the Danish Mohamed caricatures (“the greatest foreign policy crisis since World War II”) is a prime example, the authors argue. Villy Søvndal, leader of the Socialist People’s Party, once said that Fogh had only three answers: “That I can most certainly deny”, “There is nothing to find there” and “Let us rather look ahead” and that he might rationalise by numbering them and answering any question with either “one”, “two” or “three”.
Some of the most interesting parts of this book are the interviews with Fogh himself, which reveal a lot of his way of thinking and arguing. To be tough on crime was one of Fogh’s election promises in 2001 and when the authors point out that the recent “gang wars” in Copenhagen may be a result of the government’s focus on harder sentences rather than preventing crime, Fogh replies that it should be seen “in relation to how things are in other countries and how it might have been. It might have been much worse”. The belief that things might have been worse is perhaps not the surest sign of success.
Fogh advocated a more activist foreign policy and this led to Denmark taking part in the war on Iraq as one of Bush’s most loyal allies. Although the Danish Parliament’s decision to take part in the war was formally based solely on Saddam Hussein’s failure to comply with UN resolutions, Fogh explicitly used the “fact” that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction as a key argument, such as on 22 September 2002 when he told his party conference that “it is too late when the toxic gas or the lethal illness has been spread over one of our big cities”. Later he has gone to great lengths to deny that he ever used such arguments and in this book even denies that it influenced his decision in any way.
During a visit to George W. Bush’s ranch in Texas in the spring of 2008, Fogh said publicly to Bush that “you, Mr President, and the USA have to a greater extent than anyone else advanced this vision of peace and democracy throughout the world. Allow me to praise you for that”. Now he says that it was only natural for him to consider the American request for assistance in a positive light. “Of course one has to make one’s own decision, but we are allies and partners, and when allies and partners ask for something, one is obliged to consider it positively”.
When asked what spoke against the war, Fogh mentions simply that war “might cost human lives”. The possible consequences of the war, such as destabilising the Middle East, an increase in terrorism and the destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure (dangers which were pointed out by many opponents, who, it should be added, turned out to be right) are not touched on by the man who is now Secretary General of NATO.
It is also interesting that he professes his belief that the “North Korean problem is hopefully solved someday” as if this will solve itself, and adds “I believe one should arm oneself with a certain degree of patience in international diplomacy”. This patience obviously did not extend to allowing the UN weapon inspectors to finish their work in Iraq in 2003.
While Tony Blair during his “testimony” for the Chilcot Inquiry on Friday was only willing to say that he was sorry his decisions over Iraq had proved divisive, Fogh is not even willing to admit that his actions were divisive.
The authors conclude that Fogh “did achieve his goals for Denmark. Particularly because he moved both the goals and himself. And at the same time even made it look like he and the goals were written in stone. Fogh was a deeply pragmatic prime minister. A prime minister who knew what he wanted, but was content with what he got”.
This book will certainly not be the last word on the decisive and divisive premiership of Anders Fogh Rasmussen and with the passing of time we will probably learn more about what went on behind the scenes than Mylenberg and Steensbeck have been able to find out so far. Until then this is an interesting and insightful contribution. The book would in my opinion have benefited from a more chronological approach – as it is it begins with the process leading to Fogh’s NATO appointment in which his handling of the Mohamed caricature crisis and the Iraq war played significant parts, but those events are only dealt with towards the end of the book. Several of the chapters also begin in media res before going back and telling the story from beginning to end, thereby becoming somewhat repetitive.

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