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Posts For: March 12, 2007

Reform Judaism and the War

I have always laughed at the old joke about how Reform Judaism is “the Democratic party with holidays.” But at the moment, watching the spiritual leaders of the Reform movement repackage left-wing anti-war boilerplate language in the trappings of Judaism, it isn’t so funny.

To see why, pay a quick visit to the Union of Reform Judaism’s website and read the statement that the movement’s leadership wishes to have ratified today at a meeting of the Executive Committee of the URJ’s board of trustees.

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I have always laughed at the old joke about how Reform Judaism is “the Democratic party with holidays.” But at the moment, watching the spiritual leaders of the Reform movement repackage left-wing anti-war boilerplate language in the trappings of Judaism, it isn’t so funny.

To see why, pay a quick visit to the Union of Reform Judaism’s website and read the statement that the movement’s leadership wishes to have ratified today at a meeting of the Executive Committee of the URJ’s board of trustees.

In case its thirteen pages are a little turgid for you, let me summarize: We were opposed to this from the start, even though you could make a “just war” case for deposing Saddam. In 2005 we said it was time to leave. We are upset about the “surge.” We want President Bush to announce a timetable for withdrawal. And, of course, we must ensure that the cost of the war does not fall only on the poor and future generations.

The URJ, a religious organization, justifies taking this expressly political position, replete with policy suggestions, on rather thin grounds: in a Gallup Poll which the organization cites, 77 percent of the 303 Jews polled agreed that “the war is a mistake.” And what of the significant minority of Jews affiliated with Reform congregations who disagree with these views? Republican Jewish Coalition leader Adam Cohen argues forcefully that this is an illegitimate use of power by Reform leaders putting politics ahead of religion.

Given that there is no end in sight to the global war on terror, and given that Jews—even peace-loving Reform Jews—are a targeted population in this war, the URJ’s statement sends a message of utter lack of seriousness to both allies and enemies.

In case it’s still unclear why a religious movement believes so fervently that the world awaits its evaluation of the war and of U.S. policy and strategy, the URJ’s website helpfully includes a long essay: “Why Advocacy Is Central to Reform Judaism.” And no, it doesn’t come out and admit, “because politics is more fun than spiritual self-improvement.”

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The UN’s Human-Rights Debacle

The announcement last Tuesday by the State Department that, for a second straight year, the U.S. would decline to seek a seat on the UN Human Rights Council inscribes finis on a landmark effort to reform the UN—and suggests that all such efforts are doomed to fail.

In the wake of the oil-for-food scandal and the rending of the Security Council over the Iraq war, Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed a High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change, with an unusually ambitious mandate for UN reform. It issued a report in late 2004, which was largely incorporated in Annan’s own reform package formulated for the UN summit of September 2005. Both the panel and Annan asserted in unusually blunt terms that the longstanding UN Commission on Human Rights had strayed so far from its original purposes that, in Annan’s words, it “cast . . . a shadow on the reputation” of the whole UN. Therefore, it was to be abolished in favor of a new body designed to avoid the faults of the old.

Going into the summit, the U.S. worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Annan toward this goal, combining the clout of Washington with that of the UN establishment, two powerful forces that have often been at cross purposes. Even this alliance, however, proved too weak to achieve its key goals in the design of the new Human Rights Council.

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The announcement last Tuesday by the State Department that, for a second straight year, the U.S. would decline to seek a seat on the UN Human Rights Council inscribes finis on a landmark effort to reform the UN—and suggests that all such efforts are doomed to fail.

In the wake of the oil-for-food scandal and the rending of the Security Council over the Iraq war, Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed a High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change, with an unusually ambitious mandate for UN reform. It issued a report in late 2004, which was largely incorporated in Annan’s own reform package formulated for the UN summit of September 2005. Both the panel and Annan asserted in unusually blunt terms that the longstanding UN Commission on Human Rights had strayed so far from its original purposes that, in Annan’s words, it “cast . . . a shadow on the reputation” of the whole UN. Therefore, it was to be abolished in favor of a new body designed to avoid the faults of the old.

Going into the summit, the U.S. worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Annan toward this goal, combining the clout of Washington with that of the UN establishment, two powerful forces that have often been at cross purposes. Even this alliance, however, proved too weak to achieve its key goals in the design of the new Human Rights Council.

In the hope of assuring a council made up of states that themselves respect human rights, Annan had proposed election by a two-thirds majority. This measure was rejected. Then, in the hope of setting a minimum standard for election to the council, the U.S. proposed that states under UN Security Council sanction for human-rights abuses be barred from membership. This barrier was so nominal that it would have excluded only two of the UN’s 193 members—Sudan and the Ivory Coast. But even this was too much for the UN majority, and it too was rejected.

In the face of these defeats, the U.S. announced last year that it would not seek a seat on the new council, for fear of legitimating a body that might prove as unfaithful to the cause of human rights as its predecessor. The U.S. expressed its hope that the performance of the body would allow us to join in subsequent years. The reality, however, has exceeded our fears.

The old commission would rebuke only a few dictatorships while directing its main fire against Israel. The new Human Rights Council has gone farther. It has remained in almost perpetual session castigating Israel and has not seen fit to utter a word of criticism of any other state. (It did pass one resolution on Darfur. This lauded the government of Sudan for its cooperation. It was supported by all the Muslim members and opposed by all Western members.)

Compared to other UN failings, those of the Human Rights Commission seemed easy to fix. That this has proved utterly impossible speaks volumes about the chances that the institution as a whole can ever be fixed.

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The Lessons of Grenada

Like so many “small wars,” the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada has been all but forgotten. But the death of Joseph Metcalf III, the vice admiral who commanded the U.S. invasion force, provides an opportunity to recall the impact of this operation.

The Reagan administration was concerned about Grenada because of the presence of Cuban engineers who were building a large airfield that, it was feared, could become a platform for Soviet combat aircraft. The immediate trigger for the invasion was a coup by hardline Marxists in the army who overthrew Maurice Bishop’s government, which was already radical enough. There were fears that the resulting chaos could endanger 1,000 American medical students on the Caribbean island.

An initial landing of 1,500 American troops who went ashore on October 25 met stiffer-than-expected resistance from the Grenadian army and its Cuban allies. The island was not declared secure until November 2. By then some 8,000 American troops had been committed to fight an estimated 1,200 Grenadian soldiers and 780 Cubans. Nineteen U.S. service personnel died. Cuban and Grenadian forces lost 70 men.

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Like so many “small wars,” the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada has been all but forgotten. But the death of Joseph Metcalf III, the vice admiral who commanded the U.S. invasion force, provides an opportunity to recall the impact of this operation.

The Reagan administration was concerned about Grenada because of the presence of Cuban engineers who were building a large airfield that, it was feared, could become a platform for Soviet combat aircraft. The immediate trigger for the invasion was a coup by hardline Marxists in the army who overthrew Maurice Bishop’s government, which was already radical enough. There were fears that the resulting chaos could endanger 1,000 American medical students on the Caribbean island.

An initial landing of 1,500 American troops who went ashore on October 25 met stiffer-than-expected resistance from the Grenadian army and its Cuban allies. The island was not declared secure until November 2. By then some 8,000 American troops had been committed to fight an estimated 1,200 Grenadian soldiers and 780 Cubans. Nineteen U.S. service personnel died. Cuban and Grenadian forces lost 70 men.

Operation Urgent Fury was a success—just what America needed at the time. It was the first successful American military operation since Vietnam, and came just two days after the devastating bombing of the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut. However small, the victory in Grenada helped to revive American morale, solidify support for Ronald Reagan, and increase confidence in the armed forces.

But from a military viewpoint, Grenada was full of frustrations—as made clear in this study by the historian Ronald H. Cole for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The whole operation was put together at the last minute, with inadequate intelligence and confusing lines of command. Admiral Metcalf, commander of the U.S. Second Fleet, was placed in charge, but he and his staff had no experience of ground operations. A major general named H. Norman Schwarzkopf was abruptly dispatched to offer advice—but not given the authority to command ground forces.

The plan called for a simultaneous assault by Army Rangers on one part of the island and Marines on the other. But the Rangers were landed late and in the wrong order, costing them the element of surprise. A SEAL team was trapped and outgunned at the residence of the British governor general, and had to be rescued by the Marines. Navy A-7 Corsairs attacked a brigade headquarters of the 82nd Airborne, wounding seventeen soldiers.

Some snafus are to be expected in combat, of course, but what made Operation Urgent Fury so frustrating was that the Army, Marines, and Navy literally couldn’t talk to one another. “Because of incompatible radios,” Cole writes, “Navy ships within sight of Rangers and airborne troops could not initially receive or respond to their requests for fire support.” Nor could Marines and Army soldiers talk to one another. This led to an incident in which one soldier (not, as in the Clint Eastwood movie Heartbreak Ridge, a marine) was said to have placed a long-distance commercial telephone call to Ft. Bragg, N.C., to get fire support for his unit.

The lessons of Grenada helped lead to the passage of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, which established a more unified command structure for the armed forces, and the 1987 Nunn-Cohen Amendment, which established the U.S. Special Operations Command. Not incidentally, it also helped Schwarzkopf go on to greater glory as a unified combatant commander—a job that didn’t exist in 1983.

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Bookshelf

• Of the making of books about Miles Davis, the most influential figure in post-1950 jazz, there is no end. The latest one, Richard Cook’s It’s About That Time: Miles Davis On and Off Record (Oxford, 373 pp., $27) is a sort-of-biography that tells the story of the trumpeter’s tempestuous life by describing the making of sixteen of his key albums, with extensive digressions along the way. Though this approach isn’t exactly new—Jack Chambers’s Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis did the same thing at much greater length, discussing all of Davis’s recordings through 1985—Cook’s more concentrated treatment is both readable and accessible, though jazz novices in search of a primer on Davis will likely find it too detailed. If, on the other hand, you know your way around Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain but have yet to sample any of the rock-flavored recordings Davis started making in 1969, the second half of It’s About That Time offers a (mostly) reliable roadmap to that underexplored territory.

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• Of the making of books about Miles Davis, the most influential figure in post-1950 jazz, there is no end. The latest one, Richard Cook’s It’s About That Time: Miles Davis On and Off Record (Oxford, 373 pp., $27) is a sort-of-biography that tells the story of the trumpeter’s tempestuous life by describing the making of sixteen of his key albums, with extensive digressions along the way. Though this approach isn’t exactly new—Jack Chambers’s Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis did the same thing at much greater length, discussing all of Davis’s recordings through 1985—Cook’s more concentrated treatment is both readable and accessible, though jazz novices in search of a primer on Davis will likely find it too detailed. If, on the other hand, you know your way around Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain but have yet to sample any of the rock-flavored recordings Davis started making in 1969, the second half of It’s About That Time offers a (mostly) reliable roadmap to that underexplored territory.

Somebody really ought to write a brief life of Davis. In the meantime, the best first book about him remains So What, John Szwed’s 2002 biography, after which interested readers should go straight to Bill Kirchner’s Miles Davis Reader, an exceptionally well-chosen collection of essays, articles, and reviews. Quincy Troupe’s Miles: The Autobiography is a ghostwritten memoir whose authenticity is by now notoriously suspect, though much of it sounds quite like the man himself.

• My distinguished colleague John Simon brought out three fat self-anthologies late last year that failed to attract the critical attention they deserved. John Simon on Theater: Criticism, 1974-2003 (Applause, 837 pp., $32.95), John Simon on Film: Criticism, 1982-2001 (Applause, 662 pp., $29.95) and John Simon on Music: Criticism, 1979-2005 (Applause, 504 pp., $27.95) are not the career-spanning compendia they appear at first glance to be, for Simon has opted to include nothing from his previously published collections, all of which are out of print. In addition, none of the three volumes is adequately indexed—all you get is a pseudo-index of works reviewed—and the dates of publication of the original essays are not included. These omissions are regrettable in the extreme, but that doesn’t make the books any less readable, just harder to use.

Simon is, of course, the most controversial critic ever to have covered theater in New York, give or take George Jean Nathan. He is famously willing to get personal in a way that makes many of his readers uncomfortable—myself sometimes included—and I doubt that those who have good reason to despise his sharp tongue will change their minds after reading him in bulk. But he is also the most knowledgeable theater critic alive, and though I often disagree with his negative judgments, I rarely fail to like what he likes, or to learn from his reasons for liking it. His film criticism is no less penetrating, and I’ve always had a special love for his intelligent, sympathetic writing about classical music, which is the least well known of the many arrows in his critical quiver.

The octogenarian Simon is now the dean of New York drama critics, and I see him on the aisle once or twice a week, usually looking as though he expects to be displeased, which he usually is. His standards are still fearsomely high, though he’s mellowed a bit in recent years, and he continues to teach me things I didn’t know about an art form with which he was grappling when I was in diapers. I hope Applause Books eventually gets around to reissuing Acid Test, Private Screenings, Uneasy Stages, Movies into Film, Reverse Angle, and Something to Declare, his previous books about theater and film, or at least to bringing out a volume of selections from his writings of the 60’s and early 70’s. Still, these three fat collections leave no doubt that for all his flaws, John Simon has been—and remains—one of America’s greatest working critics.

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Terror and the Teapacks

The Teapacks are an Israeli pop group, said to be punk-influenced, whose music is no doubt as ghastly as that of all such groups—if music is indeed the right generic description. “Push the Button,” the title of their latest song, is sung in English, French, and Hebrew, and contains the lines, “The world is full of terror/ If someone makes an error/ He’s gonna blow us up to biddy biddy kingdom come.” Also, “I don’t want to die/ I want to see the flowers bloom/ Don’t want to go kapoot-kaboom.” Not likely to be mistaken for Byron or even Shelley, certainly. But it is, nonetheless, this year’s Israeli entry for the Eurovision Song Contest.

Europe is at best a notional, perhaps geographical, concept, lacking unity or a specific character. Each of its component countries cherishes its own culture and language. Constructed in defiance of this reality, the European Union has been trying to evolve a culture that it can pretend is common (in the sense of general participation). The project is hopeless. All that the controlling bureaucrats in Brussels have been able to come up with are little stunts (such as soccer matches or golf teams) to challenge the United States. The Eurovision Song Contest is their prize exhibit, and indeed common—but in the sense of low and vulgar.

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The Teapacks are an Israeli pop group, said to be punk-influenced, whose music is no doubt as ghastly as that of all such groups—if music is indeed the right generic description. “Push the Button,” the title of their latest song, is sung in English, French, and Hebrew, and contains the lines, “The world is full of terror/ If someone makes an error/ He’s gonna blow us up to biddy biddy kingdom come.” Also, “I don’t want to die/ I want to see the flowers bloom/ Don’t want to go kapoot-kaboom.” Not likely to be mistaken for Byron or even Shelley, certainly. But it is, nonetheless, this year’s Israeli entry for the Eurovision Song Contest.

Europe is at best a notional, perhaps geographical, concept, lacking unity or a specific character. Each of its component countries cherishes its own culture and language. Constructed in defiance of this reality, the European Union has been trying to evolve a culture that it can pretend is common (in the sense of general participation). The project is hopeless. All that the controlling bureaucrats in Brussels have been able to come up with are little stunts (such as soccer matches or golf teams) to challenge the United States. The Eurovision Song Contest is their prize exhibit, and indeed common—but in the sense of low and vulgar.

Last year the winner was a so-called “local monster group” from Finland with the enticing and original name of Lordi, and their song was called, equally enticingly and originally, “Hard Rock Hallelujah.” The members of the group were dressed in what might best be described as Star Wars-style, their ghoulish other-planetary costumes decorated with deaths-head badges reminiscent of the SS. Their song warned of an impending “arockalypse.”

The Finns have the right to call the shots for this year’s contest, which is to be held in their country. One Heikki Seppala, described as an executive producer of Eurovision on radio, says of the Teapacks’ contribution, “I understand this song is clearly political” and this is not “what people are looking for.” And one Kjell Ekholm, apparently an organizer of the contest, explains, “It’s absolutely clear that this kind of message is not appropriate for the competition.” A typically bureaucratic body known as the European Broadcasting Union will be discussing whether to throw out the Israeli entry.

Any sensible person would want to run a mile to escape the banalities of the Teapacks, but Heikki and Kjell and their like have certainly hit upon a novel way to suppress any recognition of the threats that Israel faces. (And if the watered-down Satanism of “Hard Rock Hallelujah” meets Eurovision’s standards of propriety, it’s difficult to see how the Teapacks’ mild commentary violates them.) On the other hand, Israel won the contest in 1998 with a song called “Diva,” sung by a performer identified as Dana International, a transsexual. So in respects that really matter, it seems, Europe can recognize that Israel is a country like any other.

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The “Pragmatists” in Tehran

Staking out a distinctive position in today’s debate over Iran is no easy matter. Every foreign-policy maven has a formula to suggest or a wider strategy in which to embed our dealings with the Islamic republic. Regime change or containment, carrier groups or sanctions, rhetorical confrontation or bilateral talks, Sunni balancing or Shiite cooptation—what’s the right mix? But most analysts agree on one thing: Iran is a problem, a growing threat, an ambitious and aggressively ideological power with designs on regional domination. Here, then, is where there’s room to make a mark with a bold counterintuitive claim: maybe Iran isn’t so bad.

So says Ray Takeyh in an article entitled “Time for Détente with Iran” in the new issue of Foreign Affairs. Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that the Islamic republic has been misunderstood. In the American imagination, “a perception of Iran as a destabilizing force” has been allowed to “congeal,” based on little more than “visceral suspicion.” Whatever Iran may have been in the early days of its Islamic revolution, it is no longer, in Takeyh’s estimation, a “revisionist” or “revolutionary” state. Indeed, its foreign policy has long been “quite pragmatic.” To take advantage of this fact—and to deal with the “manageable challenges” posed by Iran’s nuclear program and its “penchant for terrorism”—the U.S. must accept a “paradigm shift,” offering immediate normalization as the “starting point of talks” and ending the regime’s economic and diplomatic isolation.

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Staking out a distinctive position in today’s debate over Iran is no easy matter. Every foreign-policy maven has a formula to suggest or a wider strategy in which to embed our dealings with the Islamic republic. Regime change or containment, carrier groups or sanctions, rhetorical confrontation or bilateral talks, Sunni balancing or Shiite cooptation—what’s the right mix? But most analysts agree on one thing: Iran is a problem, a growing threat, an ambitious and aggressively ideological power with designs on regional domination. Here, then, is where there’s room to make a mark with a bold counterintuitive claim: maybe Iran isn’t so bad.

So says Ray Takeyh in an article entitled “Time for Détente with Iran” in the new issue of Foreign Affairs. Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that the Islamic republic has been misunderstood. In the American imagination, “a perception of Iran as a destabilizing force” has been allowed to “congeal,” based on little more than “visceral suspicion.” Whatever Iran may have been in the early days of its Islamic revolution, it is no longer, in Takeyh’s estimation, a “revisionist” or “revolutionary” state. Indeed, its foreign policy has long been “quite pragmatic.” To take advantage of this fact—and to deal with the “manageable challenges” posed by Iran’s nuclear program and its “penchant for terrorism”—the U.S. must accept a “paradigm shift,” offering immediate normalization as the “starting point of talks” and ending the regime’s economic and diplomatic isolation.

Takeyh’s benign assessment of Iran’s intentions will come as news, of course, to its increasingly alarmed neighbors. It’s hard to name a major conflict or tension in the region that hasn’t been inflamed by the Islamic republic. Iraq has been thoroughly penetrated by Iran’s political and military agents. Syria has become its pliant ally. Hezbollah—a creation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards—has established itself as an Islamist state-within-a-state in Lebanon, while at the same time importing weapons of unprecedented sophistication with which to threaten Israel. Iran has become the leading patron of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and has talked openly of using its emerging nuclear capacities to rid the world of the Jewish state. For their part, the region’s Sunni powers—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Gulf states—have embarked on an arms build-up to counter the Iranian threat, and are even declaring an interest in nuclear programs of their own. Can the regime responsible for this turmoil and escalation really be described as a pragmatic, status-quo power?

In fairness to Takeyh, even he cannot consistently defend the proposition that Iran is just an ordinary mid-sized state looking to solidify its regional influence. While paying tribute to the supposed pragmatism of Iranian foreign policy in recent years, he also (and with no awareness of the self-contradiction) argues that “the prospect of a new relationship with the United States” would tip the “balance of power” in Tehran to the “pragmatists” and put them in a position “to sideline the radicals.” But why would the U.S. want or need such a shift? If current worries about Iran are just a bogeyman invented by the American Right, why not embrace Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei?

Like other practitioners of foreign-policy “realism,” Takeyh cannot resist the wiles of the occasional “pragmatist” who pops up in an expansionist, ideologically aggressive regime. During the cold war, some Kremlin figure or another was always being touted as a clear-eyed moderate, ready to do business with the U.S. in the name of shared “national interests.” Today, Takeyh tells us, there is a promising “new generation of leaders” rising in Tehran. Reformers? Liberals? No, let’s not get carried away. They are “young conservatives” who, while still deferring to “the elders of the revolution,” stress “Iranian nationalism over Islamic identity and pragmatism over ideology.” But of course.

Takeyh doesn’t say how long we should wait for these peace-minded theocratic mavericks to produce an Iranian Gorbachev, but he seems to think that such figures can prosper only if the U.S. rains down sweet carrots on the Islamic republic instead of brandishing long, pointed sticks. His logic here is hard to follow, though. Won’t the “pragmatists” (such as they are) look all the wiser for their counsels of restraint if Iran suffers for the excesses of its “radicals”? Are conciliatory gestures really the only way for the U.S. to try to change the balance of power in Tehran? Judging by Takeyh’s delusions, these are questions that need further study in the more sober precincts of the realists.

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