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Posts For: January 29, 2007

Beam Me Up, Scooter

Former presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer was on the witness stand in the Scooter Libby trial today and gave testimony that the New York Times says “could prove very damaging” to the former vice-presidential aide. Testifying under a grant of immunity, Fleischer told the court that Libby was the first person to tell him that Ambassador Joseph Wilson had been sent on a mission to Niger by the CIA at the suggestion of Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, who was herself, Libby disclosed to him, an employee of the CIA’s counterproliferation division.

Libby is contending that the false statements he gave to the FBI and to a grand jury–about how he learned the identity of Wilson’s wife, and to whom he passed on this knowledge–were the product of a faulty memory and do not amount to the perjury or obstruction of justice with which he has been charged. But according to Stacy Schiff, a guest op-ed columnist at the Times, Libby is reputed to have a prodigious memory and “remembers all 79 Star Trek episodes. And their titles, too.” His memory lapses, she says, amount to what is technically known as the “‘Honey, I was too busy preparing the family tax return to think clearly when you asked about the lap-dancers’ defense.”

For their part, Libby’s attorneys had hoped U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton would allow them to call an expert on human memory, who would help them make their case that “memory does not function like a tape recorder” and “a person is less likely to remember information if he is paying attention to several things at once.” For this purpose, the defense team had hired Daniel L. Schacter, professor of psychology at Harvard and the author of The Seven Sins of Memory and  Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind and the Past.  But Walton has ruled against them. No memory expert will appear in court.

Still, will a jury vote to convict? Even if a convincing case is made that Libby lied to investigators, it will be exceptionally difficult for prosecutors to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that he was prevaricating rather than merely confused. One does not need an expert in memory to persuade a jury that as events recede into the past they become more difficult to remember, or that what appears salient in retrospect might have been quite unremarkable at the time it originally occurred. 

As far as Star Trek is concerned, even if Libby does know all 79 episodes by heart–and this has not yet been demonstrated–it would not logically follow that he would remember every word of every conversation he held in a busy White House in the middle of a war. Like many Trekkies, he more likely viewed each of the episodes multiple times and talked about them at length with others who shared his particular passion, generating a much more firmly imprinted memory than one left by what was said in an offhand way over lunch with a colleague. 

Still, if Libby takes the witness stand in his own defense, as he is expected to do, he is going to have to walk a very fine line between remembering too little, thus sounding evasive, and remembering too much, thus undermining the core of his own defense.
 
For a full listing of the special counsel’s exhibits in the case, click here.

For a full listing of all 79 Star Trek episodes, click here.

Former presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer was on the witness stand in the Scooter Libby trial today and gave testimony that the New York Times says “could prove very damaging” to the former vice-presidential aide. Testifying under a grant of immunity, Fleischer told the court that Libby was the first person to tell him that Ambassador Joseph Wilson had been sent on a mission to Niger by the CIA at the suggestion of Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, who was herself, Libby disclosed to him, an employee of the CIA’s counterproliferation division.

Libby is contending that the false statements he gave to the FBI and to a grand jury–about how he learned the identity of Wilson’s wife, and to whom he passed on this knowledge–were the product of a faulty memory and do not amount to the perjury or obstruction of justice with which he has been charged. But according to Stacy Schiff, a guest op-ed columnist at the Times, Libby is reputed to have a prodigious memory and “remembers all 79 Star Trek episodes. And their titles, too.” His memory lapses, she says, amount to what is technically known as the “‘Honey, I was too busy preparing the family tax return to think clearly when you asked about the lap-dancers’ defense.”

For their part, Libby’s attorneys had hoped U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton would allow them to call an expert on human memory, who would help them make their case that “memory does not function like a tape recorder” and “a person is less likely to remember information if he is paying attention to several things at once.” For this purpose, the defense team had hired Daniel L. Schacter, professor of psychology at Harvard and the author of The Seven Sins of Memory and  Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind and the Past.  But Walton has ruled against them. No memory expert will appear in court.

Still, will a jury vote to convict? Even if a convincing case is made that Libby lied to investigators, it will be exceptionally difficult for prosecutors to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that he was prevaricating rather than merely confused. One does not need an expert in memory to persuade a jury that as events recede into the past they become more difficult to remember, or that what appears salient in retrospect might have been quite unremarkable at the time it originally occurred. 

As far as Star Trek is concerned, even if Libby does know all 79 episodes by heart–and this has not yet been demonstrated–it would not logically follow that he would remember every word of every conversation he held in a busy White House in the middle of a war. Like many Trekkies, he more likely viewed each of the episodes multiple times and talked about them at length with others who shared his particular passion, generating a much more firmly imprinted memory than one left by what was said in an offhand way over lunch with a colleague. 

Still, if Libby takes the witness stand in his own defense, as he is expected to do, he is going to have to walk a very fine line between remembering too little, thus sounding evasive, and remembering too much, thus undermining the core of his own defense.
 
For a full listing of the special counsel’s exhibits in the case, click here.

For a full listing of all 79 Star Trek episodes, click here.

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An Exchange on Iraq

contentions is delighted to welcome Max Boot and Victor Davis Hanson—two of the country’s most distinguished military historians (and contributors to COMMENTARY)—for a week-long discussion of the state of the Iraq war and its regional and global implications.

contentions is delighted to welcome Max Boot and Victor Davis Hanson—two of the country’s most distinguished military historians (and contributors to COMMENTARY)—for a week-long discussion of the state of the Iraq war and its regional and global implications.

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Boot and Hanson, Round One: Grim and Grimmer

Dear Victor,

Remember that inspired 1994 flick Dumb and Dumber? If I were to make a movie about the Middle East today it would have to be called Grim and Grimmer—and it would be a tragedy, not a farce.

There hasn’t been a whole lot to cheer since the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and the elections in Iraq in 2005. In fact both achievements have been undermined in the past year by relentless violence on the part of anti-democratic militias—Hizballah in Lebanon and various Sunni and Shiite factions in Iraq. Lebanon is on the verge of a civil war (as is the Palestinian Authority) and Iraq is already in the early stages of its own civil war.

I am especially crestfallen to see how the situation in Iraq has deteriorated over the past few years. According to the UN, over 34,000 Iraqi civilians died violently last year, more than 36,000 were injured, and more than 470,000 were displaced from their homes. It is scant comfort to say that the violence is confined to four or five provinces out of eighteen. Even if that were true (and recent fighting in Karbala and Najaf undermines the claim), it would be like saying of 9/11, “What’s the big deal? Only two American cities were struck. Hundreds of others remained safe.”

I really, truly hope that Bush’s plan to send reinforcements and to place them under General David Petraeus—one of our most capable officers—can reverse the slide. U.S. troops should be able to increase security in those areas of Baghdad where they establish outposts and do active patrolling. In fact there are already reports that Moqtada Sadr’s Mahdist army is going to ground to avoid a clash with U.S. soldiers. The real challenge will be to make any decrease in violence sustainable in the long term—especially if we don’t have the political will to keep tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Baghdad for decades to come. Our only chance is to commit more resources to building up the Iraqi army (the police are a hopeless cause at the moment). But the likelihood is that the Iraqi Security Forces will come apart if we start to draw down our troops—as a majority of Congress seems to be pining for.

Things aren’t going much better in the rest of the region. From Afghanistan to Iran to Egypt to the Palestinian Authority, the forces of freedom seem to be in serious jeopardy. Everywhere despots are ascendant.

I realize that there are setbacks in any long-term struggle and that the war on Islamist terrorism will not proceed any more smoothly than World War II or the cold war. Still, it’s hard not to be a bit depressed at the moment.

To keep some perspective, I’ve been reading Field Marshal William Slim’s classic World War II memoir, Defeat Into Victory. It’s reassuring to read of the terrible setbacks suffered by the Allied forces in Burma in 1942—far, far worse than anything that has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan—while knowing that just a few hundred pages later all will be redeemed by the attainment of total victory.

Cordially,

Max

Boot IHanson IBoot IIHanson IIBoot IIIHanson IIIBoot IVHanson IV

Dear Victor,

Remember that inspired 1994 flick Dumb and Dumber? If I were to make a movie about the Middle East today it would have to be called Grim and Grimmer—and it would be a tragedy, not a farce.

There hasn’t been a whole lot to cheer since the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and the elections in Iraq in 2005. In fact both achievements have been undermined in the past year by relentless violence on the part of anti-democratic militias—Hizballah in Lebanon and various Sunni and Shiite factions in Iraq. Lebanon is on the verge of a civil war (as is the Palestinian Authority) and Iraq is already in the early stages of its own civil war.

I am especially crestfallen to see how the situation in Iraq has deteriorated over the past few years. According to the UN, over 34,000 Iraqi civilians died violently last year, more than 36,000 were injured, and more than 470,000 were displaced from their homes. It is scant comfort to say that the violence is confined to four or five provinces out of eighteen. Even if that were true (and recent fighting in Karbala and Najaf undermines the claim), it would be like saying of 9/11, “What’s the big deal? Only two American cities were struck. Hundreds of others remained safe.”

I really, truly hope that Bush’s plan to send reinforcements and to place them under General David Petraeus—one of our most capable officers—can reverse the slide. U.S. troops should be able to increase security in those areas of Baghdad where they establish outposts and do active patrolling. In fact there are already reports that Moqtada Sadr’s Mahdist army is going to ground to avoid a clash with U.S. soldiers. The real challenge will be to make any decrease in violence sustainable in the long term—especially if we don’t have the political will to keep tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Baghdad for decades to come. Our only chance is to commit more resources to building up the Iraqi army (the police are a hopeless cause at the moment). But the likelihood is that the Iraqi Security Forces will come apart if we start to draw down our troops—as a majority of Congress seems to be pining for.

Things aren’t going much better in the rest of the region. From Afghanistan to Iran to Egypt to the Palestinian Authority, the forces of freedom seem to be in serious jeopardy. Everywhere despots are ascendant.

I realize that there are setbacks in any long-term struggle and that the war on Islamist terrorism will not proceed any more smoothly than World War II or the cold war. Still, it’s hard not to be a bit depressed at the moment.

To keep some perspective, I’ve been reading Field Marshal William Slim’s classic World War II memoir, Defeat Into Victory. It’s reassuring to read of the terrible setbacks suffered by the Allied forces in Burma in 1942—far, far worse than anything that has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan—while knowing that just a few hundred pages later all will be redeemed by the attainment of total victory.

Cordially,

Max

Boot IHanson IBoot IIHanson IIBoot IIIHanson IIIBoot IVHanson IV

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Boot and Hanson, Round One: Victory Before Peace

Dear Max,

The surge, in my opinion, could very well work—if it is the catalyst for a change in tactics. In COMMENTARY and elsewhere, many observers have noted that the number of troops, per se, has not been, historically, the sole arbiter of military success. If the administration sends more soldiers to Iraq without new, clear directives, it will only breed more Iraqi dependency, create more targets for insurgents, and cost America more prestige.

But if we change our way of doing business tactically, operationally, and psychologically—stop the arrest-and-release insanity, eliminate key militia leaders and disband their followers, expand the rules of engagement, accelerate cash payments for salaried Iraqis, patrol the borders, all while maintaining the veneer of Iraqi autonomy—even at this 11th hour we could entice the proverbial bystanders (a majority of the country) to cast their lot with the perceived winners: namely, us.

And if we can kill more insurgents, we can still overcome what has been our chief obstacle throughout this war—the lingering idea that Iraq was simply to be liberated, without its military (and paramilitary organizations) first being conquered and humiliated. It is hard, as we have seen, to achieve full reconstruction (which is what is entailed in bringing constitutional government, a market economy, and civil rights to Saddam’s Iraq) when “peace” means killing thousands of terrorists under postmodern rules of engagement before the world’s hypercritical television audience.

So where does that leave us? In a race of sorts. On the one side, the Democrats realize that anger over the perceived stasis in Iraq has brought them the Congress and possibly the White House in 2008. On the other side, the administration’s personnel changes, the surge, and a belated public-relations counteroffensive have bought six months to a year (at most) to secure and quiet Baghdad. Democratic critics claimed that they wanted more troops, Rumsfeld’s resignation, and mavericks like General Petraeus in charge—thinking, probably, that President Bush would probably never accede. Now that he has, it will take a few weeks for the Democrats to re-triangulate and refashion credible new opposition to their own earlier demands. (And they must tread carefully while doing it: if the surge works as planned, the Democrats will end up looking foolish on the eve of the 2008 election.)

Meanwhile, the terrorists know that the more carnage they inflict and Americans they kill, the more this window of time closes. So in fine American fashion (consider Grant and Sherman’s onus of turning the tide of the Civil War in 1864, or the assumption that Ridgeway was to save post-Yalu Korea), our national subconscious has decreed: “OK, General Petraeus. Preserve Iraqi democracy and don’t lose any more Americans in the process. You have less than a year. By the way: we’ll be passing hourly televised judgment on your progress!”

Yours,

Victor

Boot IHanson IBoot IIHanson IIBoot IIIHanson IIIBoot IVHanson IV

Dear Max,

The surge, in my opinion, could very well work—if it is the catalyst for a change in tactics. In COMMENTARY and elsewhere, many observers have noted that the number of troops, per se, has not been, historically, the sole arbiter of military success. If the administration sends more soldiers to Iraq without new, clear directives, it will only breed more Iraqi dependency, create more targets for insurgents, and cost America more prestige.

But if we change our way of doing business tactically, operationally, and psychologically—stop the arrest-and-release insanity, eliminate key militia leaders and disband their followers, expand the rules of engagement, accelerate cash payments for salaried Iraqis, patrol the borders, all while maintaining the veneer of Iraqi autonomy—even at this 11th hour we could entice the proverbial bystanders (a majority of the country) to cast their lot with the perceived winners: namely, us.

And if we can kill more insurgents, we can still overcome what has been our chief obstacle throughout this war—the lingering idea that Iraq was simply to be liberated, without its military (and paramilitary organizations) first being conquered and humiliated. It is hard, as we have seen, to achieve full reconstruction (which is what is entailed in bringing constitutional government, a market economy, and civil rights to Saddam’s Iraq) when “peace” means killing thousands of terrorists under postmodern rules of engagement before the world’s hypercritical television audience.

So where does that leave us? In a race of sorts. On the one side, the Democrats realize that anger over the perceived stasis in Iraq has brought them the Congress and possibly the White House in 2008. On the other side, the administration’s personnel changes, the surge, and a belated public-relations counteroffensive have bought six months to a year (at most) to secure and quiet Baghdad. Democratic critics claimed that they wanted more troops, Rumsfeld’s resignation, and mavericks like General Petraeus in charge—thinking, probably, that President Bush would probably never accede. Now that he has, it will take a few weeks for the Democrats to re-triangulate and refashion credible new opposition to their own earlier demands. (And they must tread carefully while doing it: if the surge works as planned, the Democrats will end up looking foolish on the eve of the 2008 election.)

Meanwhile, the terrorists know that the more carnage they inflict and Americans they kill, the more this window of time closes. So in fine American fashion (consider Grant and Sherman’s onus of turning the tide of the Civil War in 1864, or the assumption that Ridgeway was to save post-Yalu Korea), our national subconscious has decreed: “OK, General Petraeus. Preserve Iraqi democracy and don’t lose any more Americans in the process. You have less than a year. By the way: we’ll be passing hourly televised judgment on your progress!”

Yours,

Victor

Boot IHanson IBoot IIHanson IIBoot IIIHanson IIIBoot IVHanson IV

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Does Israel Need a President?

Maybe. But it certainly doesn’t need the one it has now. Whether because his term of office runs out next July or because, before that, he will be impeached by the Knesset for criminal sexual conduct, Moshe Katzav will not be around much longer. Campaigning has already begun for the Knesset’s election of a new president, who will probably be either the main candidate of the Center and Left, Shimon Peres, or the main candidate of the Right, Likud politician and former speaker of the Knesset Ruvi Rivlin, but it is not clear that the country needs either of them, either.

It’s not that their qualifications are unimpressive. Peres can boast the longest losing streak of any major politician in the world—he has been defeated in something like six consecutive national and party elections since he was last prime minister in 1986, including a failed bid against Katzav for the presidency—and definitely deserves to be elected to something. Rivlin is a friendly man with no criminal record and would never consider raping a secretary. Either man, it is generally conceded, would make a fine president.

But does Israel need a president at all? In favor of continuing the office—the quality of whose occupants has gone steadily downhill from the days of the first of them, the great Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann—are two arguments: 1) someone is needed to accept the credentials of foreign diplomats, to present government awards, and to give speeches at ceremonial functions when no one else is available; and 2) it is comforting to have a head of state who is above the political fray, even if the fray decides everything and the head of state nothing.

Against it, on the other hand, is one argument alone, but a strong one: it is an expensive institution to maintain, what with the president’s salary, budget, expense account, pension, assistants, aides, drivers, junkets, Jerusalem mansion, and now, in addition, private jail cell.

Does Israel need a president? Does England need a king?

Maybe. But it certainly doesn’t need the one it has now. Whether because his term of office runs out next July or because, before that, he will be impeached by the Knesset for criminal sexual conduct, Moshe Katzav will not be around much longer. Campaigning has already begun for the Knesset’s election of a new president, who will probably be either the main candidate of the Center and Left, Shimon Peres, or the main candidate of the Right, Likud politician and former speaker of the Knesset Ruvi Rivlin, but it is not clear that the country needs either of them, either.

It’s not that their qualifications are unimpressive. Peres can boast the longest losing streak of any major politician in the world—he has been defeated in something like six consecutive national and party elections since he was last prime minister in 1986, including a failed bid against Katzav for the presidency—and definitely deserves to be elected to something. Rivlin is a friendly man with no criminal record and would never consider raping a secretary. Either man, it is generally conceded, would make a fine president.

But does Israel need a president at all? In favor of continuing the office—the quality of whose occupants has gone steadily downhill from the days of the first of them, the great Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann—are two arguments: 1) someone is needed to accept the credentials of foreign diplomats, to present government awards, and to give speeches at ceremonial functions when no one else is available; and 2) it is comforting to have a head of state who is above the political fray, even if the fray decides everything and the head of state nothing.

Against it, on the other hand, is one argument alone, but a strong one: it is an expensive institution to maintain, what with the president’s salary, budget, expense account, pension, assistants, aides, drivers, junkets, Jerusalem mansion, and now, in addition, private jail cell.

Does Israel need a president? Does England need a king?

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Mr. Wynn’s Elbow

The strangest art story of the year grows stranger yet. Last October, Steve Wynn, the Las Vegas developer and art collector, accidentally shoved his elbow through Picasso’s Le Rêve (The Dream), the single most valuable work in his collection. Among the eyewitnesses were Barbara Walters and Nora Ephron, who amusingly detailed the mishap on her blog. In a bizarre coincidence, Wynn had agreed only the day before to sell Le Rêve to Steven Cohen, a hedge-fund tycoon, for $139 million. Now that deal is off and Wynn is suing Lloyd’s of London, the painting’s insurers, for its drop in value, which he puts at $58 million dollars. (He has blamed the accident on a medical condition that deprived him of his peripheral vision.)

In most accounts, the story has been played for laughs—the casino billionaire who is all elbows. The painting’s erotic subject matter has also drawn comment: it shows Marie-Thérèse Walther, the artist’s young mistress. It was painted in 1932, long after Picasso’s Cubist heyday, but some of its value can be ascribed to the light it casts on his personal life. Less has been said, however, about the peculiar sequence of events: one day the purchase agreement for the painting is signed, establishing its market value, and the next day the painting is mutilated before a large gathering of witnesses, instantly reducing its value and—in Wynn’s view—earning him a check for the difference.

Equally strange are the mechanics of the damage to the painting. An elbow thrust, however fierce or well-aimed, is not likely to puncture a linen canvas. Paintings are not stretched tight as a drum and have a certain degree of give, and the tendency of the fabric when struck by a blunt instrument is to dent or else to give way where it is nailed to the stretcher. In order to confirm this, I asked a painter friend to take a taut canvas and see if he could pierce it with his elbow. Working with heavy cotton duck canvas (a weaker fabric than the Belgian linen that Picasso likely used), he was only able to put a bowl-shaped depression into the canvas, despite repeated attempts.

The insurers will be investigating this case carefully. Perhaps they’ll ask to take a cast of Mr. Wynn’s elbow.

The strangest art story of the year grows stranger yet. Last October, Steve Wynn, the Las Vegas developer and art collector, accidentally shoved his elbow through Picasso’s Le Rêve (The Dream), the single most valuable work in his collection. Among the eyewitnesses were Barbara Walters and Nora Ephron, who amusingly detailed the mishap on her blog. In a bizarre coincidence, Wynn had agreed only the day before to sell Le Rêve to Steven Cohen, a hedge-fund tycoon, for $139 million. Now that deal is off and Wynn is suing Lloyd’s of London, the painting’s insurers, for its drop in value, which he puts at $58 million dollars. (He has blamed the accident on a medical condition that deprived him of his peripheral vision.)

In most accounts, the story has been played for laughs—the casino billionaire who is all elbows. The painting’s erotic subject matter has also drawn comment: it shows Marie-Thérèse Walther, the artist’s young mistress. It was painted in 1932, long after Picasso’s Cubist heyday, but some of its value can be ascribed to the light it casts on his personal life. Less has been said, however, about the peculiar sequence of events: one day the purchase agreement for the painting is signed, establishing its market value, and the next day the painting is mutilated before a large gathering of witnesses, instantly reducing its value and—in Wynn’s view—earning him a check for the difference.

Equally strange are the mechanics of the damage to the painting. An elbow thrust, however fierce or well-aimed, is not likely to puncture a linen canvas. Paintings are not stretched tight as a drum and have a certain degree of give, and the tendency of the fabric when struck by a blunt instrument is to dent or else to give way where it is nailed to the stretcher. In order to confirm this, I asked a painter friend to take a taut canvas and see if he could pierce it with his elbow. Working with heavy cotton duck canvas (a weaker fabric than the Belgian linen that Picasso likely used), he was only able to put a bowl-shaped depression into the canvas, despite repeated attempts.

The insurers will be investigating this case carefully. Perhaps they’ll ask to take a cast of Mr. Wynn’s elbow.

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