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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Piece on Bohemian Grove

I know from reading Jon Ronson's book Themthat many American political radicals from both "left" and "right" are fascinated, to say the least, about what goes on at Bohemian Grove. In yesterday's Guardian there was an extract from the memoirs of Christopher Meyer, UK ambassador to the US at the start of the Iraq war, which is about visiting the Grove.

Sir Christopher Meyer: Around the campfire with America's elite
The Guardian,Wednesday November 9, 2005

In July 2002 I was invited to spend a long weekend at something called the Bohemian Grove, an institution that has its origins in the 19th century. It started out as a club in San Francisco for writers, artists and intellectuals. It purchased a large tract of virgin land in northern California for summer retreats. There, among the giant redwoods, the members of the club could draw inspiration from nature and discuss the meaning of life over campfires in the evenings. It was and remains for men only.

Over the decades the summer retreat has grown into an elaborate phenomenon. It now comprises a series of weekends to which the elite of the entire United States flock. But the Grove itself remains largely unspoilt and undeveloped. Its hundreds of denizens are lodged in dozens of individual camps, each with its own name and traditions. The accommodation varies from spartan to very spartan. There is more than a whiff of the English public school.

It is considered a great honour to be invited. Despite the scale of the summer weekends, the Grove is an exclusive club. To join you must be proposed and seconded in the usual way by members; but the wait can then be so long that by the time the Grove is ready to admit you, your proposer and seconder may be dead. The members and their guests are among the most powerful and famous men in America: politicians, including ex-presidents, captains of industry, Hollywood notables and artists of all kinds. There is a smattering of foreign guests. The rules of the Grove forbid the conduct of business; but it is hog heaven for the professional networker like an ambassador. There is a multitude of events to keep everyone amused and intellectually nourished. Each year an original musical is commissioned and performed. Distinguished guests are invited to give outdoor lectures alongside a lake. I stretched out on the grass and listened to the film director William Friedkin talk fascinatingly about movie-making. I heard talks on genetic engineering and astronomy. The individual camps organise their own events, to which other camps are invited. Often the event is musical. There is a lot of jazz at the Bohemian Grove. The veteran rock artist Steve Miller is a member and performs most evenings.

As is the way of the world, some camps have greater lustre than others. Invitations to them are highly prized.

One morning we went to one of the great institutions of the Bohemian Grove, the breakfast lecture given by Henry Kissinger. He was flanked by former President Bush and Jim Baker, Bush's secretary of state. Part of the tradition is that Henry should be interrupted at the start of his talk by a Mariachi band. This is apparently in homage to his weakness for Mexican music. As usual, after playing a tune, the band withdrew and Henry continued his talk. In 2002 Henry Kissinger's theme was Iraq. He agreed that after 9/11, pre-emptive action against threats to the nation's security could be justified. It was the beginning, he said, of a new era in international relations. It marked the end of a period inaugurated by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, one of the treaty's principles was the sanctity of national sovereignty: on this basis the modern nation-state had come into being.

Now, in certain circumstances, continued Kissinger, action violating a national frontier could be justified. (The historical reference, so typical of Kissinger, was appropriated by Tony Blair in a 2004 speech, when to the surprise of many to whom Blair the historian was a revelation, the prime minister referred to the Treaty of Westphalia.) This was prologue to Kissinger's saying that a war in Iraq could be justified.

But he set out three conditions: military action must be brought to a rapid and successful conclusion - a prolonged war would be very dangerous for America; the US had to get the diplomacy right; and it had to arrive in Baghdad with a clear plan for the succession to Saddam. It would be disastrous to begin debating a successor regime after deposing him.

Kissinger's standing was such that he continued to be consulted by the White House. When I told some of my closest contacts in Washington what he had said at the Grove, they took careful note. In the event, none of Kissinger's conditions was met.


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