Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Chiseling Crooks

London Mayor Ken Livingstone is embroiled in another minor scandal. Livingstone has a big mouth that he's stretched out over the years with his foot. He's no Silvio Berlusconi, but he can say some stupid, offensive things. But this time I'm on his side.

Livingston called US ambassador Robert Tuttle a "chiseling little crook" because since he took office last July the ambassador has refused to pay the City of London's £8-per-day-per-car congestion charge for all official US cars. Tuttle calls the charge a tax and points out that the Vienna Convention exempts foreign diplomats from local taxes. Livingstone says it's a toll, which diplomats have to pay for just like everbody else.

I'm with Livingstone. London charges the £8 for driving through its downtown area. If you don't go downtown, you don't pay the charge. Just like if you don't drive through a tollbooth, you don't pay a toll. It's a pretty straightforward point, and the ambassadors of fifty-five other countries pay the fee because they see it that way too.

The £400,000 that the US owes London isn't exactly chump change, but it's not a huge fraction of the embassy's budget either. And that's not the point, anyway. The point is that when you operate an embassy in a foreign country, you obey that country's laws when you're off embassy grounds and you uphold your treaty obligations at all times.

And, just as important, it's profoundly undiplomatic to alienate people in the country where you have your embassy. And make no mistake, whatever the British think of Livingstone, they're annoyed with the US. They want that money paid.

It's a really bad idea to let pettiness or stinginess hurt our relations with the UK. The UK is one of the few countries in the world willing to shoulder any of the financial and human cost of the Iraq war. If we send the message that money matters more than good relations, they might just start thinking the same thing on a much bigger scale.


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