Transatlantic notes - Andrew Stephen clobbers a mugger

A florist in East Sheen had a sign saying that people could send flowers to Holly and Jessica from t

I've just returned from the brief leave I am allowed from my posting in Washington, spending time equally in Cornwall, Paris and London. My most triumphant moment away came when I foiled a professional pickpocketing team at the Sevres Babylone metro stop in Paris: as I turned a corner going upstairs, one man started shouting (presumably to cause a diversion) while I felt a faint fluttering at my hip pocket. The pocket in the trousers I was wearing is fortuitously small, making it difficult for me - let alone a pickpocket - to extract my wallet. But it is what happened next that most astonished me, particularly as I have nil memory of those few seconds.

My companions were walking ahead and, hearing a commotion behind them, turned round to see me busily clobbering the man: a completely visceral, instinctive reaction had overcome reason on my part. The man, aged about 40, and from his looks possibly part of one of the Latin American summer pickpocketing teams that haunt London and Paris, knew it was in his interests to walk (not run) away with as much dignity as he could muster and melt back into the metro crowds. I left with my wallet intact, feeling I had done my have-a-go bit to clean up crime.

I returned to find no interest whatsoever in the Johannesburg conference in the US, but plenty of war talk from the likes of Dick Cheney. It's always interesting to note that the most avid war threats tend to come from those who have had no experience of it themselves: Cheney had no fewer than five deferrals of his national service, and two other noted hawks - Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle - also managed to evade their own. But the one member of the Bush administration with plenty of war experience, Colin Powell - he won a Purple Heart in Vietnam - was pointedly excluded from an Iraq summit held at the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas. So when people in Europe asked me whether Bush is serious about unilaterally declaring war on Iraq, my reply was always yes - unless reason can yet overcome compulsive instinct.

My friend Sir Christopher Meyer, the British ambassador in Washington, will be leaving at just the right time - in February, to become head of the Press Complaints Commission. "Friends" of Peter Mandelson have frantically been putting it about that he is a shoo-in for the post; but that has always been a non-starter, if only because a Republican administration containing the likes of John Ashcroft could never accept Mandelson's gay lifestyle. The new ambassador who will find himself liaising between Washington and London over Iraq will almost certainly be Sir David Manning, 52, head of the defence and overseas secretariat of the Cabinet Office and a former ambassador to Israel. He is going to need all those diplomatic skills, I predict.

What Meyer will probably find himself dealing with, though, is a multitudinous file of complaints over press coverage of Holly and Jessica. I must take issue with my colleague Cristina Odone when she says that the chattering classes have some peculiar hang-up about showing grief; the abduction and murder of two ten-year-olds is too shocking to behold, but an outsider (as I fear I have now become) could not help noticing the gratification that came with mass vicarious grief.

As with Diana, it is a form of mourning for a society that has largely abandoned religious beliefs in favour of secular shrines and self-reflecting media images; I came across a florist in East Sheen exhibiting a sign to tell the public that they could send their Holly and Jessica flowers from there. That little bit of crass commercial opportunism said all too much.

The most fascinating development in Washington while I was away was the opening of a rift in Republican ranks between the likes of Wolfowitz and Cheney and older heads such as Brent Scowcroft and Jim Baker. Baker - who headed the legal team that won Bush the presidency in the post-election mayhem of Florida - had to write an op-ed page piece in the New York Times on 25 August in order to urge Bush to seek UN approval for action against Iraq; I'm told he does not now have the clout to pick up the phone and speak to Bush directly. Scowcroft, who is notorious to the Reaganites for his cautious approach as national security adviser at the end of the Gulf war, has come out on the side of the doves. Richard Perle, who has never worn a military uniform in his life, has smeared Scowcroft as "naive"; never mind that, like Bush's dad, Scowcroft was a Second World War fighter pilot and went on to become an air force general. There will be a truce between doves and hawks for all the 11 September memorials. But then the internecine Republican hostilities will resume, this time in earnest. So, as ever, watch this space.

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