Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 2007

Bookshelf

• If you like Donald E. Westlake, you’ve probably already bought his latest novel, What’s So Funny? (Warner, 359 pp., $24.99). If you haven’t, stop reading and start buying. This review is for everybody else.

It always surprises me to find out that there are people who don’t know Westlake’s crime novels, most of which are comic and all of which are intensely pleasurable. I’ve been reading him since 1967, which makes me not so much a fan as an addict, and though I’ve liked some of his books more than others, I can’t think of a single one that has failed to divert me, which is a pretty amazing track record.

Like P.G. Wodehouse, a writer with whom he has quite a lot in common, Westlake is usually at his best in his series books. The Parker novels (written under the tongue-in-cheek nom de plume of Richard Stark) feature a no-nonsense professional burglar who specializes in infallible capers that go wrong only because of the fallibility of his less single-minded associates. These books are dead serious. In the Dortmunder novels, by contrast, the premise of the Parker novels is cleverly shifted to an alternate world peopled with losers whose plans are infallible only in the sense that they never fail to go sour. These novels, of which Westlake has written thirteen since 1970, are incredibly, pulverizingly funny, and the only thing wrong with them is that there aren’t twice as many.

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• If you like Donald E. Westlake, you’ve probably already bought his latest novel, What’s So Funny? (Warner, 359 pp., $24.99). If you haven’t, stop reading and start buying. This review is for everybody else.

It always surprises me to find out that there are people who don’t know Westlake’s crime novels, most of which are comic and all of which are intensely pleasurable. I’ve been reading him since 1967, which makes me not so much a fan as an addict, and though I’ve liked some of his books more than others, I can’t think of a single one that has failed to divert me, which is a pretty amazing track record.

Like P.G. Wodehouse, a writer with whom he has quite a lot in common, Westlake is usually at his best in his series books. The Parker novels (written under the tongue-in-cheek nom de plume of Richard Stark) feature a no-nonsense professional burglar who specializes in infallible capers that go wrong only because of the fallibility of his less single-minded associates. These books are dead serious. In the Dortmunder novels, by contrast, the premise of the Parker novels is cleverly shifted to an alternate world peopled with losers whose plans are infallible only in the sense that they never fail to go sour. These novels, of which Westlake has written thirteen since 1970, are incredibly, pulverizingly funny, and the only thing wrong with them is that there aren’t twice as many.

What’s So Funny? is the latest episode in the life of John Archibald Dortmunder, a sad sack who has been on a losing streak ever since he emerged from the womb. As all true Westlake fans know, Dortmunder was born in Dead Indian, Illinois, raised in an orphanage run by the Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery, and thereafter relocated to Manhattan, where he now operates out of the O.J. Bar and Grill, a seedy Upper West Side joint whose obliging bartender allows small-time crooks to conspire in the back room. Dortmunder’s widely varied capers have two things in common: they always involve the same string of maladroit, maladjusted hoods, and they never quite work out.

The fun in the Dortmunder novels comes partly from the precision-tooled farce plots (one of them is called, appropriately enough, What’s the Worst That Could Happen?) and partly from what happens in between the disasters. Westlake is a master of droll description who loves to salt his books with sharp one-liners and amusingly testy digressions about whatever happens to be on his mind at the moment:

John said, “Can you tell the difference between ostrich burger and bison burger?”

“Bison’s got four legs.”

“Burger.”

“Oh. No. Turkey burger I can tell. All those others I think they come outa the same vat, back there in the kitchen.”

“I can remember,” John said, “when ‘burger’ only meant one thing, and the only word you ever had to stick in front of it was ‘cheese.’”

“You’re showing your age, John.”

“Yeah? That’s good. Usually I show twice my age.”

This time around, Dortmunder runs afoul of an ex-cop who blackmails him into trying to track down a Russian objet d’art that went missing in 1920. Hijinks ensue more or less promptly and escalate with the usual alarming rapidity, and by the time it’s all over you’ll know you’ve been well and truly entertained.

Donald Westlake’s admirers have been known on occasion to exaggerate his merits. One of them, the Irish novelist John Banfield, recently called him one of the “great writers of the 20th century,” which reminds me of the equally overenthusiastic critic who once compared Patrick O’Brian to Proust. He is, however, a consummate craftsman who makes fun in an exceedingly intelligent and imaginative way, and What’s So Funny? is one of his neatest, most satisfying pieces of work. Long may he reign.

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Hillary’s Time Tunnel: Episode 2

The 1960’s TV-program, The Time Tunnel, in which the central characters go back into the past and alter the course of history, was gripping science-fiction, at least gripping to me when I was eleven years old. But Hillary Clinton, who is older than I am by almost a decade, seems to have thought it was a reality show.

As I noted in an earlier post, her shifting position on the Iraq war is based upon the impossible idea—impossible except by entering the Time Tunnel—that if she knew what she knows now when she voted for the war, she would reverse her position and then our country (and her presidential candidacy) would be much better off.

Lo and behold, time-traveling is becoming a recurring theme in the Clinton campaign. Addressing an audience of Democratic activists in California on the weekend, the former first lady said “she wished she could turn the clock back to a different time.” In particular, she expressed a desire to “rewind the 21st century and just eliminate the Bush-Cheney administration, with all their mistakes and misjudgments.”

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The 1960’s TV-program, The Time Tunnel, in which the central characters go back into the past and alter the course of history, was gripping science-fiction, at least gripping to me when I was eleven years old. But Hillary Clinton, who is older than I am by almost a decade, seems to have thought it was a reality show.

As I noted in an earlier post, her shifting position on the Iraq war is based upon the impossible idea—impossible except by entering the Time Tunnel—that if she knew what she knows now when she voted for the war, she would reverse her position and then our country (and her presidential candidacy) would be much better off.

Lo and behold, time-traveling is becoming a recurring theme in the Clinton campaign. Addressing an audience of Democratic activists in California on the weekend, the former first lady said “she wished she could turn the clock back to a different time.” In particular, she expressed a desire to “rewind the 21st century and just eliminate the Bush-Cheney administration, with all their mistakes and misjudgments.”

Fascinating possibilities for radical change are opening up here. Before the Bush-Cheney administration, there was the Clinton-Gore administration, during which, if I remember correctly, some mistakes and misjudgments were also made. If only we could enter the Time Tunnel, we could go back and stop Monica from drawing the President aside into a White House alcove and revealing her thong.

A whole chain of events followed from that suggestive action, including the bombing—possibly—of a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan and the impeachment—not possibly, but definitely—of the President of the United States.

But one of the distinctive features of The Time Tunnel was that, try mightily as they did, the show’s protagonists never once succeeded in altering the course of history. Hillary’s wishes notwithstanding, we cannot rewind history, and, even if one agreed with Hillary that it would be desirable—which I do in the case of Monica’s thong and do not in the case of the Bush-Cheney administration—neither can be eliminated from the historical record. It is preposterous of Hillary to think otherwise.

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News from Ramadi

It is always tempting fate to write about a success story in Iraq: by the time your article sees print, some terrible atrocity may well have been perpetrated. Case in point: Ramadi.

Last week, I wrote in both the Weekly Standard and the Los Angeles Times about the remarkable success that U.S. forces have had recently in pacifying this one-time al-Qaeda stronghold. Sure enough, on Monday, April 23, and Tuesday, April 24, just as these articles were appearing, several car bombs went off near Ramadi.

Do these bombings call into question how much success U.S. forces have been having? I asked Colonel John Charlton, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division, with responsibility for Ramadi and the surrounding area. Below is the response he emailed back to me yesterday, which he agreed to let me share with contentions readers. (Note that the estimated toll he gives for the bombings—thirteen killed—is much lower than the death toll cited in most news accounts, such as this BBC story, which reported at least 45 dead).

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It is always tempting fate to write about a success story in Iraq: by the time your article sees print, some terrible atrocity may well have been perpetrated. Case in point: Ramadi.

Last week, I wrote in both the Weekly Standard and the Los Angeles Times about the remarkable success that U.S. forces have had recently in pacifying this one-time al-Qaeda stronghold. Sure enough, on Monday, April 23, and Tuesday, April 24, just as these articles were appearing, several car bombs went off near Ramadi.

Do these bombings call into question how much success U.S. forces have been having? I asked Colonel John Charlton, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division, with responsibility for Ramadi and the surrounding area. Below is the response he emailed back to me yesterday, which he agreed to let me share with contentions readers. (Note that the estimated toll he gives for the bombings—thirteen killed—is much lower than the death toll cited in most news accounts, such as this BBC story, which reported at least 45 dead).

Max,

Sorry about the delayed response, but email went down and then I had a couple real busy days. Bottom line on last week’s VBIED [vehicle-borne improvised explosive device] attacks—

The first one targeted an IP [Iraqi Police] station. It was intercepted and destroyed prior to reaching the station but caused 5 IP WIA’s [wounded in action] and over 20 civilian WIA’s. Another VBIED attacked an IP checkpoint on the highway resulting in 13 IP KIA [killed in action] and 8 IP WIA. This VBIED was also attempting to destroy an IP station but was intercepted before it could reach its target. The casualty count was so high because the IP’s were in the process of shift change at that location.

Last week the IP’s successfully intercepted a VBIED on the highway with no civilian or IP casualties. The IP’s did the same thing yesterday with no casualties. I gave awards to last week’s heroes and will do the same for those who stopped yesterday’s VBIED attack.

The IP’s in Ramadi are constantly on guard against VBIED’s. Unfortunately, even if the VBIED fails to reach its target, they still are deadly to anyone nearby. Al Qaeda will continue to try to attack the Ramadi IP’s and civilians with these VBIED’s in order to gain headlines. They know they were defeated in Ramadi so this is their attempt to save face and strike back at the force that drove them out of town. These murderers don’t care how many civilians are killed as long as they get a headline. Unfortunately, U.S. media seems to reinforce this behavior. One thing is certain, the people of Anbar will never accept al Qaeda and the police here will continue to fight back regardless of the danger they face. These attacks only strengthen their resolve.

We are currently conducting a large operation to clear terrorists out of the Abu Bali tribal region east of Ramadi. This area developed into a terrorist safe haven after we cleared Ramadi. Using coalition forces and ISF [Iraqi Security Forces], we are doing the same, deliberate clearing methods that we used in our previous operations. We have encountered many IED’s (reminds me of [Operation] Murfreesboro [in February-March]) but have cleared the area and are building another new JSS [Joint Security Station]. Almost immediately, the local population asked to start a neighborhood watch, and now these citizens are pointing out caches and IED’s.

We also successfully cleared an area to our south called al Tash. This was another area al Qaeda moved to when we cleared the city. We started getting increased IED attacks from this area so we went and cleared this town and established a JSS. Locals there now want to join the police force, and we haven’t had a single incident down there in about 2 weeks. I think al Qaeda is beginning to get the idea that we don’t like them in the neighborhood.

We are also working very hard with local religious leaders to improve popular support and conditions here in Ramadi. I have been meeting with prominent Sunni clerics from Anbar, and we think we will be able to reopen the main mosque here in Ramadi next week (I’m sure you saw it while you were here—it’s the really big one just north of the Malaab). This will be a huge event since this mosque is the centerpiece of Islamic worship here in Ramadi and has not been in operation for years due to the fighting. We are working religious-leader engagement at every level, and it is really paying off. A couple months ago, about half the mosques in Ramadi were broadcasting anti-coalition messages. Last Friday, there wasn’t a single anti-coalition sermon, and there were even a couple mosques that broadcast a pro-coalition message—I’ve never seen that before in my three tours over here.

Have to get back to work now . . . will give you an update on our efforts to help the Iraqis rebuild in my next email. This is an important aspect of counterinsurgency that will take a little time to explain.

Take care, John.

Rock of the Marne!
John W. Charlton
COL, Infantry
Commanding
Camp Ar Ramadi, Iraq

As Colonel Charlton keeps me posted, I will pass along his updates. They are not all likely to be positive. There is a war on, after all, and the enemy remains tenacious and brutal. We mustn’t set unrealistic goals in Ramadi (or anywhere else in Iraq) and then engage in self-flagellation if we don’t achieve them. Anbar, and the rest of Iraq, will remain violent for years, probably decades, to come. The question is whether we can get that violence down to a sustainable level, a level that doesn’t threaten the functioning of Iraq’s emerging government and civil society. So far that’s just what Colonel Charlton and his men have managed to pull off in Ramadi. Even the New York Times is taking notice. But all such accomplishments are fragile.

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George Tenet: CIA or CYA?

Former CIA director George Tenet’s score-settling memoir, At the Center of the Storm, is rocking Washington, with officials in the Bush administration dashing for shelter from his charge that they ignored or distorted CIA intelligence findings as they hurtled toward war. Tenet’s signature line, a paraphrase of something clever said once by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, is: “Policymakers are entitled to their own opinions—but not to their own set of facts.”

True enough, but in evaluating the CIA’s intelligence in the run-up to the second Gulf war, could policymakers really trust the facts provided by the CIA, or would they have been justified in being quite skeptical of anything and everything the agency said?

The latter is far more likely, for despite the billions spent on intelligence (the exact sum is classified, but it is known that the U.S. paid out $26.7 billion in 1998), the track record of the CIA in this period, and on this critical subject, was not exactly stellar.

One event that loomed large in the mind of decision-makers at the time was a plot that came out of the blue skies on September 11, 2001. This was an event whose possibility the spy agency had caught glimpses of but mostly missed, and whose actuality it proved unable to stop—the most consequential intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor.

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Former CIA director George Tenet’s score-settling memoir, At the Center of the Storm, is rocking Washington, with officials in the Bush administration dashing for shelter from his charge that they ignored or distorted CIA intelligence findings as they hurtled toward war. Tenet’s signature line, a paraphrase of something clever said once by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, is: “Policymakers are entitled to their own opinions—but not to their own set of facts.”

True enough, but in evaluating the CIA’s intelligence in the run-up to the second Gulf war, could policymakers really trust the facts provided by the CIA, or would they have been justified in being quite skeptical of anything and everything the agency said?

The latter is far more likely, for despite the billions spent on intelligence (the exact sum is classified, but it is known that the U.S. paid out $26.7 billion in 1998), the track record of the CIA in this period, and on this critical subject, was not exactly stellar.

One event that loomed large in the mind of decision-makers at the time was a plot that came out of the blue skies on September 11, 2001. This was an event whose possibility the spy agency had caught glimpses of but mostly missed, and whose actuality it proved unable to stop—the most consequential intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor.

And the CIA had been horribly wrong about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the first Gulf war, when, despite blithe agency assurances, Saddam turned out to be far closer to putting the final screw in a nuclear bomb than any of its assessments had previously entertained.

Tenet faults the Bush administration for going beyond facts established by the CIA as, ten years later, it was gearing up for a campaign against Saddam. But even at that moment, the CIA had botched the facts. As Tenet himself concedes, the agency’s appraisal of Iraq’s WMD programs in its 2002 National Intelligence Estimate—the critical one on which the war was premised—was flawed.

Tenet implicitly wants to have it both ways: the Bush administration was reckless when it ignored “facts” put forward by the CIA, and it was equally reckless when it acted on those same supposed facts. Perhaps I am missing something, but this score-settling memoir appears to be more of a CYA operation than anything else.

George W. Bush has clearly made his share of serious mistakes, but one of the biggest ones, to my mind, was awarding America’s highest honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to George Tenet, a holdover from the Clinton administration, who presided over a series of critical intelligence failures and let the country down.

Why Bush bestowed this award is something about which one can only conjecture. Was it because Tenet had named the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, after Bush’s father, or was it a way—a successful way—to hedge in advance against criticism from Tenet? While Tenet skewers vice-president Cheney and cabinet-level figures one after the other in the book, he largely leaves the President alone.

A caveat: I have not yet read At the Center of the Storm in its entirety; I intend to review it in COMMENTARY; and I am reserving the right to change my mind.

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Weekend Reading

Terry Teachout has contributed to COMMENTARY for over twenty years, the last ten years of them as our regular music critic. One of our most versatile and wide-ranging writers, he has addressed subjects ranging from Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to Isaac Bashevis Singer, from Bruno Walter to Walt Disney—and everything in between. (He’s also written excellent biographies of H.L. Mencken and George Balanchine, and is now working on a life of Louis Armstrong.) This weekend, we offer a mere handful of some of his best work, while reminding you that Terry’s writings as deep as they are broad, and that you can browse all of them here.

Culture in the Age of Blogging
June 2005

I.B. Singer and Me
September 2004

Living with Art
February 2004

Taking Sinatra Seriously
September 1997

The Problem of Shostakovich
February 1995

Terry Teachout has contributed to COMMENTARY for over twenty years, the last ten years of them as our regular music critic. One of our most versatile and wide-ranging writers, he has addressed subjects ranging from Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to Isaac Bashevis Singer, from Bruno Walter to Walt Disney—and everything in between. (He’s also written excellent biographies of H.L. Mencken and George Balanchine, and is now working on a life of Louis Armstrong.) This weekend, we offer a mere handful of some of his best work, while reminding you that Terry’s writings as deep as they are broad, and that you can browse all of them here.

Culture in the Age of Blogging
June 2005

I.B. Singer and Me
September 2004

Living with Art
February 2004

Taking Sinatra Seriously
September 1997

The Problem of Shostakovich
February 1995

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Hillary’s Time Tunnel

In last night’s Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton continued to insist on her illogical disavowal of her 2002 vote in the Senate in favor of authorizing the use of force in Iraq: “It was a sincere vote,” she said, “based on the information available to me. And I’ve said many times that if I knew then what I now know, I would not have voted that way.”

But of course Clinton did not know then what she knows now. No one did. Those who voted for or against the war had to base their decision on the information available to them at the time. The TV program, The Time Tunnel, which I used to watch in the 1960’s, was not a reality show, but Clinton and others like her seem to think that if they could only go back in time, bringing their current knowledge with them, they could alter the course of history. Andrew Sullivan plays the same game, only, given his higher IQ and learning, even more dishonestly—see my Tiramisu, Andrew? for his particular recipe.

The decision to go to war can certainly be debated, as can the conduct of the war. If we are to find a good way forward, it is this latter subject that is now more pertinent.

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In last night’s Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton continued to insist on her illogical disavowal of her 2002 vote in the Senate in favor of authorizing the use of force in Iraq: “It was a sincere vote,” she said, “based on the information available to me. And I’ve said many times that if I knew then what I now know, I would not have voted that way.”

But of course Clinton did not know then what she knows now. No one did. Those who voted for or against the war had to base their decision on the information available to them at the time. The TV program, The Time Tunnel, which I used to watch in the 1960’s, was not a reality show, but Clinton and others like her seem to think that if they could only go back in time, bringing their current knowledge with them, they could alter the course of history. Andrew Sullivan plays the same game, only, given his higher IQ and learning, even more dishonestly—see my Tiramisu, Andrew? for his particular recipe.

The decision to go to war can certainly be debated, as can the conduct of the war. If we are to find a good way forward, it is this latter subject that is now more pertinent.

Today’s Washington Post, for example, calls attention to an article in Armed Forces Journal by Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, an Iraq veteran who is deputy commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. This was the unit that won the battle of Tal Afar in 2006, the success of which, as the Post points out, was cited by President Bush as “the model for the new security plan under way in Baghdad.”

Yingling charges that “America’s generals have repeated the mistakes of Vietnam in Iraq.” He then proceeds to elaborate a devastating critique of the American high command, who

spent the years following the 1991 Gulf War mastering a system of war without thinking deeply about the ever changing nature of war. They marched into Iraq having assumed without much reflection that the wars of the future would look much like the wars of the past. Those few who saw clearly our vulnerability to insurgent tactics said and did little to prepare for these dangers.

Whether Yingling is right or wrong about the conduct of the war I do not know. There is also a serious question of whether an officer serving on active duty should be free to eviscerate his superiors in this way. In a better world, it might be preferable if those who want to issue such a challenge should first resign.

But we do not live in a better world, and we do not want to drive mavericks and innovators from military service. In any case, the relevant point here is that Yingling is not seeking a way for the United States to shirk its responsibilities. On the contrary. The “hour is late,” he writes,

but not too late to prepare for the challenges of the Long War. We still have time to select as our generals those who possess the intelligence to visualize future conflicts and the moral courage to advise civilian policymakers on the preparations needed for our security.

We also will have time—a year and a half—to select new leaders from among the candidates for President. Let us hope they have the intelligence and the moral courage not to seek clever ways to dodge responsibility for the decisions they made in the past.

Clinton the time-traveler is not such a leader. She wants to have it every which way: she was right back then, she is right now, and she will be right in the future. And it is all probably true: she always will be right. Her position on the war is based upon the Time Tunnel episode “Rendezvous With Yesterday.”

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Mstislav Rostropovich, 1927-2007

Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich, world-renowned cellist and conductor, has died. Rostropovich, born in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1927, made his Russian debut at 13 and his American debut (at Carnegie Hall) in 1956. He leaves behind important recordings of composers ranging from Bach to Bartók (particularly noteworthy is his 1995 recording of the former’s cello suites), as well as a National Symphony Orchestra vastly improved by his 27-year tenure as its conductor. Rostropovich, famously, had his Soviet citizenship revoked in 1978, after an eight-year-long series of public skirmishes with the Brezhnev regime over the censorship and suppression of artists and intellectuals—particularly of Rostropovich’s friend Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The world’s loss of Rostropovich is a serious one, for music lovers and defenders of artistic and intellectual freedom alike.

Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich, world-renowned cellist and conductor, has died. Rostropovich, born in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1927, made his Russian debut at 13 and his American debut (at Carnegie Hall) in 1956. He leaves behind important recordings of composers ranging from Bach to Bartók (particularly noteworthy is his 1995 recording of the former’s cello suites), as well as a National Symphony Orchestra vastly improved by his 27-year tenure as its conductor. Rostropovich, famously, had his Soviet citizenship revoked in 1978, after an eight-year-long series of public skirmishes with the Brezhnev regime over the censorship and suppression of artists and intellectuals—particularly of Rostropovich’s friend Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The world’s loss of Rostropovich is a serious one, for music lovers and defenders of artistic and intellectual freedom alike.

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The New York Times vs. Floyd Abrams

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in a case involving the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law, and touching on basic issues of freedom of speech and of the press.

I read about it in the New York Times in an article by Linda Greenhouse, whose credibility as an objective reporter of the Supreme Court’s doings was forever shredded, at least for me, by a speech she gave at Harvard last summer lamenting, among other things, the Right’s “sustained assault on women’s reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism.”

Still, even if Greenhouse came out of the ideological closet in a way that makes a mockery of the Times’s posture of political neutrality, as best I can tell she did a creditable job in the basic task of laying out the facts of who said what in the case that was before the Court yesterday. The provision of McCain-Feingold in question, which prohibits certain kinds of advertisements just before an election, had been upheld by the Supremes by a margin of 5 to 4 in a December 2003 decision, which is now being revisited.

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The Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in a case involving the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law, and touching on basic issues of freedom of speech and of the press.

I read about it in the New York Times in an article by Linda Greenhouse, whose credibility as an objective reporter of the Supreme Court’s doings was forever shredded, at least for me, by a speech she gave at Harvard last summer lamenting, among other things, the Right’s “sustained assault on women’s reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism.”

Still, even if Greenhouse came out of the ideological closet in a way that makes a mockery of the Times’s posture of political neutrality, as best I can tell she did a creditable job in the basic task of laying out the facts of who said what in the case that was before the Court yesterday. The provision of McCain-Feingold in question, which prohibits certain kinds of advertisements just before an election, had been upheld by the Supremes by a margin of 5 to 4 in a December 2003 decision, which is now being revisited.

The New York Times has a stake in this case. Although the newspaper positions itself as a champion of the First Amendment—and has even intrepidly broken federal laws that crimp its freedom to print whatever it pleases—its editorial page nevertheless avidly supports the restrictions on issue ads contained in McCain-Feingold, insouciantly declaring that the “Constitution permits reasonable limits designed to prevent what the Court has called ‘corruption and the appearance of corruption.’” The law, it says flatly, “does not prohibit any speech.”

But liberals are deeply riven over McCain-Feingold. And the Times is itself sharply at odds with the leading First Amendment lawyer of our era, Floyd Abrams—who also happens to be the attorney to whom the paper has turned for defense in cases ranging from the Judith Miller affair back to the Pentagon Papers in the early 1970’s.

In his exceptionally compelling memoir, Speaking Freely, Abrams recounts a 2003 conversation with Alex Gigante, general counsel of Penguin Group USA, which was poised to publish a new book about Senator John Kerry, then in the midst of a campaign for the presidency:

“Is there anything in the new campaign finance law that could be problematic?” Gigante asked me. “Yes,” I said. “There is one thing: you can’t advertise the book on radio or television at all for the entire month of July leading up to the Democratic convention, for almost all of September, and for every day of October.” That antidemocratic achievement, I said, was directly attributable to McCain-Feingold.

Gigante listened to me in disbelief and then asked the unavoidable question: “Is that law constitutional?”

“Not under my First Amendment,” I told him. “Not under mine.”

Abrams calls the provisions of McCain-Feingold governing political advertising “nothing less than outright suppression of speech of the most odious nature.” Could he have been any clearer?

Next time the Times cites the First Amendment when it publishes a vital national-security secret in violation of the law, let us not forget the hypocrisy of its position on McCain-Feingold. And a health warning: do not hold your breath waiting to read about this internecine dispute in the news columns of Linda Greenhouse. It could cause asphyxia.

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Lessons of Lepanto

In his excellent new book about the Battle of Lepanto of 1571, Victory of the West, Niccoló Capponi describes the reaction of the Ottoman Sultan, Selim II, when his courtiers finally dared to tell him the news of the Turkish defeat. Everyone else in Edirne had known about the disaster for two days, and the sultan had repeatedly inquired about the cause of the cries and lamentations to be heard outside the palace. Capponi quotes an account given by Don Cesare Carafa to the Duke of Urbino, based on information from Venetian spies:

The third night, with the whole city wailing and screaming because no one could hide any more the grief for such a loss, the Great Turk, concerned and irked by all the moans and tears, demanded to hear the truth. It was answered that it was impossible now to hide the news that his fleet had been all burnt, sunk and taken by the Christians, with the death of all his great soldiers, captains and his General. Hearing this he gave a deep sigh and said, “So, these treacherous Jews have deceived me!” And having the Lord’s utterance spread through the palace and the streets, everyone started shouting, “Death to the Jews; death to the Jews!” and there was much fear that this would degenerate into a general massacre.

Christians defeat Muslims; Muslims blame the Jews. Haven’t we heard this somewhere before? The creation of Israel by the United Nations was followed by the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Muslim world. In the first Gulf war, an American-led coalition expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait, so Saddam Hussein fired missiles at Israel. The destruction of al Qaeda’s base in Afghanistan was followed by attacks on Jewish targets. In the second Gulf war, Iraq was liberated by an American-led coalition, so Ahmadinejad threatened to wipe Israel off the map.

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In his excellent new book about the Battle of Lepanto of 1571, Victory of the West, Niccoló Capponi describes the reaction of the Ottoman Sultan, Selim II, when his courtiers finally dared to tell him the news of the Turkish defeat. Everyone else in Edirne had known about the disaster for two days, and the sultan had repeatedly inquired about the cause of the cries and lamentations to be heard outside the palace. Capponi quotes an account given by Don Cesare Carafa to the Duke of Urbino, based on information from Venetian spies:

The third night, with the whole city wailing and screaming because no one could hide any more the grief for such a loss, the Great Turk, concerned and irked by all the moans and tears, demanded to hear the truth. It was answered that it was impossible now to hide the news that his fleet had been all burnt, sunk and taken by the Christians, with the death of all his great soldiers, captains and his General. Hearing this he gave a deep sigh and said, “So, these treacherous Jews have deceived me!” And having the Lord’s utterance spread through the palace and the streets, everyone started shouting, “Death to the Jews; death to the Jews!” and there was much fear that this would degenerate into a general massacre.

Christians defeat Muslims; Muslims blame the Jews. Haven’t we heard this somewhere before? The creation of Israel by the United Nations was followed by the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Muslim world. In the first Gulf war, an American-led coalition expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait, so Saddam Hussein fired missiles at Israel. The destruction of al Qaeda’s base in Afghanistan was followed by attacks on Jewish targets. In the second Gulf war, Iraq was liberated by an American-led coalition, so Ahmadinejad threatened to wipe Israel off the map.

Anti-Semites usually react to defeat in this way. Hitler came to power partly because he was able to persuade Germans that their defeat in the Great War was the fault of the Jews. Hitler himself exhibited the same pathology. Though it is difficult to prove a causal connection, the Wannsee conference, at which the orders for the “Final Solution” were given to Nazi officials, came within weeks of Hitler’s defeat at Moscow and his declaration of war on the United States. Realizing that the war was ultimately lost, Hitler blamed the Jews and tried to annihilate them.

What is even more insidious, however, has been the way in which many people who do not consider themselves anti-Semites have adopted this mindset. Every al-Qaeda attack is blamed on Israel, directly or indirectly. The misfortunes of the United States in Iraq are blamed on the “Israel lobby,” while many Europeans blame Israel for everything they resent about America.

The re-emergence of this syndrome in Europe bodes ill for the Jews of that continent, but it also implies that the transatlantic community of values and interests is in danger of breaking down. What else is meant by the unity of “the West” if not a common rejection of the old reflexes that made scapegoats of the Jews on the slightest pretext?

Sultan Selim “the Sallow” had not been systematically anti-Semitic: his chief adviser was a Jew, Joseph Nassi, whom he made Duke of Naxos. Capponi describes Nassi as “something of a proto-Zionist,” for he tried to persuade the King of France to establish a Jewish settlement on Lake Tiberias. This improbable project failed. But Nassi, too, was made a scapegoat: when he died in 1579, Selim’s successor Murad III seized all his possessions. Behind the paranoid accusations against the “treacherous Jews,” greed and avarice lurked, as so often before and since. The Venetians, to whom we owe much of the traditional narrative of Lepanto, depicted Nassi as the “evil genius” who had egged on Selim II to conquer the Mediterranean—another anti-Semitic stereotype commonly encountered today.

Lepanto was indeed a decisive victory for the West—but that does not exhaust its most pertinent lessons for our time. I have reviewed Victory of the West (Da Capo Press, $27.50) at greater length in a forthcoming issue of the New Criterion. Capponi’s book should be required reading for those who lack historical perspective on the present jihad—which means most of us.

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Collaboration and Creativity

A recent article in the New York Times looked at the phenomenon of architectural firms run by husbands and wives. It was a novelty when Robert Venturi and his wife Denise Scott Brown formed an architectural partnership in 1967. But since then it has become commonplace. Some of today’s most active young firms, including Diller-Scofidio and Tsien-Williams, comprise married couples.

For Robin Pogrebin, the article’s author, such merging of personal and professional lives is a boon for the practice of architecture, “allowing for an unsparing candor that takes the work to a higher level.” (What it might mean for the marriage is not examined.)

But the article glosses over the issue of collaboration itself, a fascinating but generally neglected category of creativity. Historically, many of the great figures of American architecture have worked in partnership, from McKim, Mead & White (founded in 1879) to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (founded in 1936 and still active today).

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A recent article in the New York Times looked at the phenomenon of architectural firms run by husbands and wives. It was a novelty when Robert Venturi and his wife Denise Scott Brown formed an architectural partnership in 1967. But since then it has become commonplace. Some of today’s most active young firms, including Diller-Scofidio and Tsien-Williams, comprise married couples.

For Robin Pogrebin, the article’s author, such merging of personal and professional lives is a boon for the practice of architecture, “allowing for an unsparing candor that takes the work to a higher level.” (What it might mean for the marriage is not examined.)

But the article glosses over the issue of collaboration itself, a fascinating but generally neglected category of creativity. Historically, many of the great figures of American architecture have worked in partnership, from McKim, Mead & White (founded in 1879) to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (founded in 1936 and still active today).

Yet when we discuss the achievements of these firms, we tend to think of one member of the firm as the “creative” partner, while treating the others as non-entities. Stanford White, an erratic and volatile genius, is made in our minds into the “artist” of the partnership, while William Rutherford Mead is relegated to the role of a business partner who presumably spent his days answering White’s fan mail. Louis Sullivan is celebrated for his doctrine of “form follows function,” while his senior partner Dankmar Adler is written off as the engineer who calculated the stresses on bolts and beams. That Adler was the principal planner of the firm’s buildings, and that Sullivan’s role was more that of decorative draftsman, is invariably left out of the story.

The process of collaboration is notoriously difficult to talk about. The Times offers only the vague platitude quoted above. We still tend to think of creativity in Romantic terms, in images of solitary genius and lightning flashes of inspiration. We are in need of an expanded vocabulary to address the subject properly, one complex enough to describe the complicated interactions between individuals involved in the same artistic endeavor.

These interactions, when successful, produce an outcome of a different order than anything White, Sullivan, or anyone else might have achieved on their own. Anyone who has listened to the music of John Lennon and Paul McCartney—singly and jointly—knows this to be true. Perhaps collaboration is a process akin to the operation of our own two-sided brain; perhaps every great collaboration itself becomes a kind of unruly, asymmetrically functioning brain. At any rate, the Times has found a fascinating story, of which the tale of marital bed and drafting table is perhaps the least interesting part.

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Force Protection vs. Force Effectiveness

The recent truck bombing of the U.S. combat outpost in the village of Sadah in Diyala province—a bombing that killed nine soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division and injured twenty others—reveals one of the trade-offs of the new strategy that General David Petraeus is adopting. By pushing more troops off their giant Forward Operating Bases (FOB’s), Petraeus is, at least in the short term, increasing their vulnerability. The smaller the outpost, the harder it is to defend.

Giant FOB’s like the Camp Victory/Camp Liberty complex near Baghdad Airport are almost invulnerable to ground attack. They are heavily barricaded and guarded; any VBIED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device) going off at an entrance would do scant damage because the bulk of American personnel are miles away. The only real danger is occasional mortar or rocket fire—what the military calls “IDF,” indirect fire—which occasionally hurts someone but more often lands harmlessly. (There were several such attacks while I was at Camp Victory recently.)

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The recent truck bombing of the U.S. combat outpost in the village of Sadah in Diyala province—a bombing that killed nine soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division and injured twenty others—reveals one of the trade-offs of the new strategy that General David Petraeus is adopting. By pushing more troops off their giant Forward Operating Bases (FOB’s), Petraeus is, at least in the short term, increasing their vulnerability. The smaller the outpost, the harder it is to defend.

Giant FOB’s like the Camp Victory/Camp Liberty complex near Baghdad Airport are almost invulnerable to ground attack. They are heavily barricaded and guarded; any VBIED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device) going off at an entrance would do scant damage because the bulk of American personnel are miles away. The only real danger is occasional mortar or rocket fire—what the military calls “IDF,” indirect fire—which occasionally hurts someone but more often lands harmlessly. (There were several such attacks while I was at Camp Victory recently.)

By contrast, the Sadah outpost was set up in a school, with the perimeter relatively close to the building that housed American troops. According to Sudarsan Raghavan and Thomas E. Ricks of the Washington Post, one suicide bomber was able to ram his truck into a checkpoint, blasting a hole. Another truck filled with explosives passed through this hole, reaching a concrete wall only 90 feet from the building housing our troops. This building itself was not penetrated by either truck, but the blast waves were close enough to do serious structural damage, causing death and injury to those nearby and inside. Some soldiers were even buried in the rubble.

This is a tragedy. And, unfortunately, we can expect more of the same. Insurgents will continue testing our new Combat Outposts (COP’s) and Joint Security Stations (JSS’s) with car bombs, mortars, and perhaps even infantry assaults until they are convinced that these attacks will not deter us from expanding our presence. (Or until we decide to pull back.)

But the strategy of concentrating U.S. troops in giant bases, though superficially alluring, carries its own heavy risks. The biggest risk of all is that the troops won’t be able to accomplish the job they were sent to do. You can’t wage counterinsurgency from a long distance. You have to live among the people you’re defending. When U.S. soldiers commute to work in Humvees, not only do they find themselves unable to control their AOR’s (Areas of Responsibility), they also find themselves vulnerable to roadside bombs. By getting to know their neighborhoods—which, in most cases, requires foot patrols—troops can gather the intelligence necessary to round up insurgents and establish security for the population.

Over time this strategy will decrease risks not only for Iraqis but also for American troops. But the short-term costs will be real, as the Sadah bombing showed.

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A Wolf in Wolf’s Clothing

Anti-Americanism is rife in the Middle East and in Europe, and even in the land of our mother tongue, Great Britain, it has grown remarkably intense. Why?

Undoubtedly, the Bush administration must get some of the blame; it has pursued policies that are unpopular among Middle Easterners and Europeans. But there are other sources, too, like Americans who go abroad to peddle the intoxicating—and toxic—elixir.

The latest entry in this import-export business is Naomi Wolf, not long ago an adviser to Vice President Al Gore. In the pages of the Guardian, she has published an essay under the title Fascist America, in 10 Easy Steps. Though lengthy, it is worth summarizing in a few words.

Wolf tries to show that our freedoms and the checks and balances that restrain our government are being “systematically dismantled.” Beneath our noses, she writes, “George Bush and his administration are using time-tested tactics to close down an open society.”

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Anti-Americanism is rife in the Middle East and in Europe, and even in the land of our mother tongue, Great Britain, it has grown remarkably intense. Why?

Undoubtedly, the Bush administration must get some of the blame; it has pursued policies that are unpopular among Middle Easterners and Europeans. But there are other sources, too, like Americans who go abroad to peddle the intoxicating—and toxic—elixir.

The latest entry in this import-export business is Naomi Wolf, not long ago an adviser to Vice President Al Gore. In the pages of the Guardian, she has published an essay under the title Fascist America, in 10 Easy Steps. Though lengthy, it is worth summarizing in a few words.

Wolf tries to show that our freedoms and the checks and balances that restrain our government are being “systematically dismantled.” Beneath our noses, she writes, “George Bush and his administration are using time-tested tactics to close down an open society.”

Their first action in this campaign was to use the attacks of September 11 to create an image of “a terrifying threat—hydra-like, secretive, [and] evil.” What the U.S. has done with al Qaeda, she says, is a time-tested technique, one that, “like Hitler’s invocation of a Communist threat to the nation’s security, [can] be based on actual events.” An instance of this is the way the Nazis used the “Reichstag fire of February 1933” to gain “passage of the Enabling Act, which replaced constitutional law with an open-ended state of emergency.”

Never mind that the Reichstag fire was set by the Nazis themselves. Wolf continues on in this vein, drawing comparisons between the U.S. government and the Nazis with abandon. A few juxtapositions of America to the Soviet Gulag are also tossed in. Concentration camps like Guantanamo, she says, “tend to metastasize,” starting small and growing uncontrollably large. Indeed, the procedures set up by the Pentagon to try terrorists are things that tend to crop up “early on in a fascist shift;” it is not an accident that both “Mussolini and Stalin set up such tribunals.”

Of course, all this is Wolf’s fantasy, and like any satisfying fantasy it has, along with its obvious villains, a set of heroes. In our dire situation, Wolf informs readers of the Guardian, “only a handful of patriots are trying to hold back the tide of tyranny for the rest of us.”

Along with herself, Wolf names the ACLU and other left-wing advocacy groups. These saviors need to be joined by decent Europeans to reverse America’s drift into fascism. If action does not come in time, we will all discover “what a U.S. unrestrained by real democracy at home can mean for the rest of the world.”

How many readers of the Guardian and other Europeans actually believe any of this drivel is hard to say, but some fraction must. Presumably the editors who published it regard it as meritorious. But should Americans accept such insults with equanimity? What choice do we have, except to point out that Naomi Wolf’s case demonstrates once again that the pursuit of writerly fame is a tough business and often requires one to say the most outlandish things? Even so, it would be difficult to imagine anything more reprehensible than Wolf’s latest foray. Her journey from The Beauty Myth to Promiscuities to The Porn Myth to Fascist America, in 10 Easy Steps has been a long way down, and it did not exactly begin in a high place.

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No “Plan B”

In one of the more insightful assessments of the Jewish situation of late, Martin Kramer (of the Washington Institute, the Shalem Center, and Harvard University) stated:

[T]he geopolitical situation of the Jews hasn’t ever been stable. As a people, our geopolitics are one part our preferences, and two parts historical forces. These forces never rest. Seventy years ago, the Jewish world was centered in Europe. Now we mostly just fly over it.

The United States and Israel are today the poles of the Jewish world, because some Jews sensed tremors before the earthquake. When the earth opened up and Europe descended into the inferno, parts of the Jewish people already had a Plan B in place. We are living that Plan B.

Today the Jewish people is in an enviable geopolitical position. It has one foot planted in a Jewish sovereign state, and the other in the world’s most open and powerful society. One is tempted to say that never in their long history has the geopolitical situation of the Jews been better. Jews did have sovereignty before, in antiquity, but they did not have a strategic alliance with the greatest power on earth. And since it is difficult to imagine a better geopolitical position, the Jewish people has become a status-quo people.

Kramer then lays out five scenarios that would seriously undermine this desirable status quo: the waning of American influence; the “subtraction” of Europe from the power of the West; the emergence of Iran as a regional power on par with Israel; the disintegration of Arab states into Iraq-style internal conflict, producing multiple Hezbollah’s on Israel’s borders; and finally, the failure of the Palestinians as a nation, leading to the collapse of the two-state paradigm.

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In one of the more insightful assessments of the Jewish situation of late, Martin Kramer (of the Washington Institute, the Shalem Center, and Harvard University) stated:

[T]he geopolitical situation of the Jews hasn’t ever been stable. As a people, our geopolitics are one part our preferences, and two parts historical forces. These forces never rest. Seventy years ago, the Jewish world was centered in Europe. Now we mostly just fly over it.

The United States and Israel are today the poles of the Jewish world, because some Jews sensed tremors before the earthquake. When the earth opened up and Europe descended into the inferno, parts of the Jewish people already had a Plan B in place. We are living that Plan B.

Today the Jewish people is in an enviable geopolitical position. It has one foot planted in a Jewish sovereign state, and the other in the world’s most open and powerful society. One is tempted to say that never in their long history has the geopolitical situation of the Jews been better. Jews did have sovereignty before, in antiquity, but they did not have a strategic alliance with the greatest power on earth. And since it is difficult to imagine a better geopolitical position, the Jewish people has become a status-quo people.

Kramer then lays out five scenarios that would seriously undermine this desirable status quo: the waning of American influence; the “subtraction” of Europe from the power of the West; the emergence of Iran as a regional power on par with Israel; the disintegration of Arab states into Iraq-style internal conflict, producing multiple Hezbollah’s on Israel’s borders; and finally, the failure of the Palestinians as a nation, leading to the collapse of the two-state paradigm.

Each of these scenarios, Kramer suggests, requires a Jewish “Plan B.” He continues:

Now one would have to be a grim pessimist to believe that all five of these trends could merge into a perfect storm. But one would have to be an incurable optimist to believe that that we won’t be lashed by any of these storms. And what I am arguing is that we should anticipate conditions that will make storms more frequent than they have been in the last few decades.

Kramer does not suggest what our “Plan B” should be, except to say that “Israel will have to make alliances, strike targets, and redraw borders—and they won’t necessarily be the familiar ones.” What he does not offer is the scenario that has the only real chance of success, which is to stop “Plan A” from falling apart.

We are at war, a war between the liberal democracies and totalitarian Islamism. If we lose this war, many scenarios can be added to Kramer’s five, far worse than the ones he has devised. If we win, all of his bad scenarios can be prevented or accommodated.

We gain nothing by planning to lose. America, Israel, and Europe will not be safe in such a scenario; there is no “Plan B” that avoids catastrophe. Our only viable plan is to use all our resources to ensure the West’s victory. Those resources are substantial—and are nowhere near full mobilization.

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Our Chandelier Problem

While we are on the subject of the USSR—Boris Yeltsin’s death was the subject of one of my posts here yesterday—it is a good moment to remember that one of the very best things about the now defunct Soviet Union was its centrally planned economy. If nothing else, it could be counted on to produce an endless series of amusing anecdotes. In the topsy-turvy world of the five-year plan, factory managers and workers were rewarded not for profits but for maximizing other success indicators, like gross physical output, often with bizarre results.

Nikita Khrushchev famously complained about the immense size and weight of chandeliers. It turned out that workers at a Moscow lamp factory were awarded bonuses for production measured in tons. The chandeliers they produced grew ever heavier until they led to a rash of ceiling collapses.

The United States has a market economy—but we also have a huge government sector, where amusing Soviet-style distortions often creep in. Yesterday’s Washington Post reported on the “Metrochek” program in Washington D.C. These transportation vouchers are issued to government employees to encourage use of subways, buses, and trains. But it turns out, unsurprisingly to any student of the old Soviet economy, that a thriving black market has emerged.

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While we are on the subject of the USSR—Boris Yeltsin’s death was the subject of one of my posts here yesterday—it is a good moment to remember that one of the very best things about the now defunct Soviet Union was its centrally planned economy. If nothing else, it could be counted on to produce an endless series of amusing anecdotes. In the topsy-turvy world of the five-year plan, factory managers and workers were rewarded not for profits but for maximizing other success indicators, like gross physical output, often with bizarre results.

Nikita Khrushchev famously complained about the immense size and weight of chandeliers. It turned out that workers at a Moscow lamp factory were awarded bonuses for production measured in tons. The chandeliers they produced grew ever heavier until they led to a rash of ceiling collapses.

The United States has a market economy—but we also have a huge government sector, where amusing Soviet-style distortions often creep in. Yesterday’s Washington Post reported on the “Metrochek” program in Washington D.C. These transportation vouchers are issued to government employees to encourage use of subways, buses, and trains. But it turns out, unsurprisingly to any student of the old Soviet economy, that a thriving black market has emerged.

Some 300,000 federal employees across the country receive the transportation vouchers, and some unknown number of them are not using them but rather driving to work and reselling the coupons to others, sometimes in the hyper-efficient auction marketplace of ebay (where, as of yesterday, a $100 metrochek was selling for $75).

Predictably, in the face of the emergence of a market for these discounted vouchers, there are calls for tighter controls, like verification of commuting expenses and ensuring that government employees who use the program do not also receive parking spaces. Administrative sanctions and criminal prosecutions are also now being contemplated. But as in the Soviet economy, more controls will only produce more ingenious forms of evasion, followed by calls for even more stringent controls.

Congress, in its wisdom, has also created Metrochek-type programs in the private sector, where they are known as “cafeteria” or “flexible-benefit” plans. Employees can set aside pre-tax money for transportation, medical expenses, and childcare. The rules include a use-it or lose-it feature, rife with perverse effects. If one sets aside too much money for, say, medical care in a given year, at the end of the year the money is lost. To avoid wasting hard-earned funds, employees are sometimes compelled to go on spending binges at the end of the year, stocking up on approved items like extra eye-glasses that they do not need. Unsurprisingly, optometrists love the flexible spending plans every bit as much as Soviet chandelier workers loved the weight-output norms.

Here in New York City, there are other curious effects. Even as the city tries to discourage drivers from commuting to work in congested Manhattan, the flexible-spending programs cover parking, making it available at a significant discount. And because parking in the city is so expensive, the benefit for driving to work can far exceed the benefit for traveling on mass transit, sometimes by a factor of two or three.

Public-policy objectives are being tied in knots by such programs, but reform or outright abolition is not in the cards. The reason why is that everyone who takes part in them profits (full disclosure: Commentary Inc. has a flexible-benefit program for its employees and I am enrolled in it) even as the net result is economic distortion and waste. Nikita Khrushchev would have smiled.

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Russia’s New Dissidents

Anne Applebaum has a troubling piece in the Spectator on the new dissidents in Russia, the anti-Western rhetoric permeating Pravda and political discourse generally, and the rapidly growing authoritarianism that has characterized Putin’s presidency. Near the piece’s end, she makes this disturbing observation:

Slowly, Russia’s new political class is bringing not just a change in rhetorical tone, but a familiar kind of violence. Last weekend, some 2,000 members of the political opposition—among them Kasyanov, Kasparov, and Limonov—organized a march in Moscow. They were met by 9,000 club-wielding riot police. At least 170 people were arrested, among them Kasparov, who was charged with “shouting anti-government slogans in the presence of a large group of people.”

Kasparov has deemed these harsh new police tactics evidence that the regime is “scared.” Others suspect the Kremlin fears a repeat of the Ukrainian Orange Revolution, whose adherents used street protests to change the regime. I am not so sure. The new aggression might, on the contrary, be evidence that the Kremlin is now so self-confident that it no longer needs to make any gestures to Western public sensibilities at all.

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Anne Applebaum has a troubling piece in the Spectator on the new dissidents in Russia, the anti-Western rhetoric permeating Pravda and political discourse generally, and the rapidly growing authoritarianism that has characterized Putin’s presidency. Near the piece’s end, she makes this disturbing observation:

Slowly, Russia’s new political class is bringing not just a change in rhetorical tone, but a familiar kind of violence. Last weekend, some 2,000 members of the political opposition—among them Kasyanov, Kasparov, and Limonov—organized a march in Moscow. They were met by 9,000 club-wielding riot police. At least 170 people were arrested, among them Kasparov, who was charged with “shouting anti-government slogans in the presence of a large group of people.”

Kasparov has deemed these harsh new police tactics evidence that the regime is “scared.” Others suspect the Kremlin fears a repeat of the Ukrainian Orange Revolution, whose adherents used street protests to change the regime. I am not so sure. The new aggression might, on the contrary, be evidence that the Kremlin is now so self-confident that it no longer needs to make any gestures to Western public sensibilities at all.

Applebaum also notes that the new generation of dissidents—including Garry Kasparov and ex-PM Mikhail Kasyanov—have joined forces with older ones, like the the human-rights activist Lyudmila Alekseyeva. But to little avail:

Oddly enough, in their mixed motives and varying backgrounds, this new generation of dissidents does resemble its Soviet predecessors. They, too, were unpopular. Peter Reddaway, then the leading scholar on the subject, reckoned that at its zenith in the early 1980′s the dissident movement had made “little or no headway among the mass of ordinary people.” Today, the mass of ordinary people are probably not merely indifferent but actively hostile to Kasyanov with his liberal economics; to Kasparov with his mixed ethnic origins; to Alekseyeva with her high principles; to Limonov with his madness. Yet despite this—or perhaps because of it—the Putin regime increasingly treats these new dissidents in much the same manner as the Soviet regime once treated its dissidents.

The whole piece deserves your attention.

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David Halberstam’s All-Too-Prescient Forecast

David Halberstam was killed yesterday in an automobile accident in Menlo Park, California, bringing to a close a legendary journalistic career. Plaudits for the Pulitzer-prize winning author are flowing with abandon. Here is a bit of hagiography from the New York Times:

Tall, square-jawed, and graced with an imposing voice so deep that it seemed to begin at his ankles, Mr. Halberstam came into his own as a journalist in the early 1960′s covering the nascent American war in South Vietnam for the New York Times.

This reporting, along with that of several colleagues, left little doubt that a corrupt South Vietnamese government supported by the United States was no match for Communist guerrillas and their North Vietnamese allies. His dispatches infuriated American military commanders and policy makers in Washington, but they accurately reflected the realities on the ground.

This is fascinating stuff, for what the Times omits to say is that Halberstam, who did come to deride the war in Vietnam ferociously, began his career as one of its most avid supporters. Indeed, as late as 1965 Halberstam was telling his readers that if America pulled out of Southeast Asia, a moral tragedy and strategic debacle would ensue:

[T]hose Vietnamese who committed themselves fully to the United States will suffer the most under a Communist government, while we lucky few with blue passports retire unharmed; it means a drab, lifeless, and controlled society for a people who deserve better. Withdrawal also means that the United States’s prestige will be lowered throughout the world, and it means that the pressure of Communism on the rest of Southeast Asia will intensify. Lastly, withdrawal means that throughout the world the enemies of the West will be encouraged to try insurgencies like the one in Vietnam.

Halberstam never came to terms with his past view of the war; he just silently shifted away from it.

As I wrote in my review of Robert S. McNamara’s memoirs in Commentary, “considering what happened to the South Vietnamese after America did pull out—hundreds of thousands bidding farewell forever to their ancestors’ sacred graves to flee ‘reeducation camps’ and other appurtenances of Communist rule, and so many perishing at sea at the hands of pirates or with the foundering of their rickety ships, not to mention the even more unspeakable fate suffered by millions in the mass graveyard that the entire nation of neighboring Cambodia became—surely Halberstam’s is the most clear-sighted forecast ever to be quietly disavowed.”

David Halberstam was killed yesterday in an automobile accident in Menlo Park, California, bringing to a close a legendary journalistic career. Plaudits for the Pulitzer-prize winning author are flowing with abandon. Here is a bit of hagiography from the New York Times:

Tall, square-jawed, and graced with an imposing voice so deep that it seemed to begin at his ankles, Mr. Halberstam came into his own as a journalist in the early 1960′s covering the nascent American war in South Vietnam for the New York Times.

This reporting, along with that of several colleagues, left little doubt that a corrupt South Vietnamese government supported by the United States was no match for Communist guerrillas and their North Vietnamese allies. His dispatches infuriated American military commanders and policy makers in Washington, but they accurately reflected the realities on the ground.

This is fascinating stuff, for what the Times omits to say is that Halberstam, who did come to deride the war in Vietnam ferociously, began his career as one of its most avid supporters. Indeed, as late as 1965 Halberstam was telling his readers that if America pulled out of Southeast Asia, a moral tragedy and strategic debacle would ensue:

[T]hose Vietnamese who committed themselves fully to the United States will suffer the most under a Communist government, while we lucky few with blue passports retire unharmed; it means a drab, lifeless, and controlled society for a people who deserve better. Withdrawal also means that the United States’s prestige will be lowered throughout the world, and it means that the pressure of Communism on the rest of Southeast Asia will intensify. Lastly, withdrawal means that throughout the world the enemies of the West will be encouraged to try insurgencies like the one in Vietnam.

Halberstam never came to terms with his past view of the war; he just silently shifted away from it.

As I wrote in my review of Robert S. McNamara’s memoirs in Commentary, “considering what happened to the South Vietnamese after America did pull out—hundreds of thousands bidding farewell forever to their ancestors’ sacred graves to flee ‘reeducation camps’ and other appurtenances of Communist rule, and so many perishing at sea at the hands of pirates or with the foundering of their rickety ships, not to mention the even more unspeakable fate suffered by millions in the mass graveyard that the entire nation of neighboring Cambodia became—surely Halberstam’s is the most clear-sighted forecast ever to be quietly disavowed.”

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The Walls of Baghdad

Confusion persists about the erection of walls in Baghdad. Some critics of this joint Iraqi-U.S. military project are raising the specter of the Berlin Wall or of a West Bank-style barrier separating Sunnis and Shiites. Reacting to such criticism, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced, while attending a meeting in Cairo, that he did not want to see a twelve-foot-high wall built around the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah.

Odds are, however, that the building of walls will persist, though most of them will be made up of shorter, three-foot-tall “Jersey” barriers rather than the taller “Texas” barriers that stretch twelve feet high. Most American and Iraqi security officials are convinced that the barriers are the way to go. (In fact, in one Baghdad meeting recently, I listened to an Iraqi general ask for taller barriers to go in faster.) An increasing number of ordinary Iraqis agree.

It’s not hard to see why: Concrete saves lives by impeding the movement of terrorists. In fact, as Linda Robinson reports in U.S. News & World Report, last week’s car bombing of the Sadriya market, which killed over a hundred people, might have been averted had not local complaints led Iraqi security officials to remove several Texas barriers arrayed around the market prior to the blast.

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Confusion persists about the erection of walls in Baghdad. Some critics of this joint Iraqi-U.S. military project are raising the specter of the Berlin Wall or of a West Bank-style barrier separating Sunnis and Shiites. Reacting to such criticism, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced, while attending a meeting in Cairo, that he did not want to see a twelve-foot-high wall built around the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah.

Odds are, however, that the building of walls will persist, though most of them will be made up of shorter, three-foot-tall “Jersey” barriers rather than the taller “Texas” barriers that stretch twelve feet high. Most American and Iraqi security officials are convinced that the barriers are the way to go. (In fact, in one Baghdad meeting recently, I listened to an Iraqi general ask for taller barriers to go in faster.) An increasing number of ordinary Iraqis agree.

It’s not hard to see why: Concrete saves lives by impeding the movement of terrorists. In fact, as Linda Robinson reports in U.S. News & World Report, last week’s car bombing of the Sadriya market, which killed over a hundred people, might have been averted had not local complaints led Iraqi security officials to remove several Texas barriers arrayed around the market prior to the blast.

The point of these barriers isn’t to create a dividing line between Sunnis and Shiites, although admittedly that would be their effect in some places. The real point is to allow Iraqi and American security forces to keep a neighborhood free of terrorists once it has been cleared. Concrete barriers limit movement, channeling cars and pedestrians through a handful of checkpoints (known formally as ECP’s, or entry control points). Security personnel manning those checkpoints can turn away anyone who doesn’t have any business being in the neighborhood.

And how will they know who belongs and who doesn’t? In order to make this policy effective, officials or soldiers need to canvas the neighborhood, gathering census-style data about every household. It would help tremendously if Iraq launched a formal census and issued biometric identity cards to everyone. Such a step is under discussion by the Maliki government, but don’t hold your breath—it won’t happen anytime soon. Even short of such a solution, U.S. and Iraqi security forces are already improvising population surveys in their areas using handheld computers.

The whole process ought to be familiar to students of counterinsurgency. It is, in essence, an update of the old plan known as “concentration” zones or camps. The latter name causes understandable confusion, since we’re not talking about extermination camps of the kind that Hitler built, but rather of settlements where locals can be moved to live under guard, thereby preventing insurgent infiltration. The British used this strategy in the Boer war, the Americans during the Philippine war, and many other powers took similar steps in many other conflicts. In Vietnam they were known as “strategic hamlets.”

This type of massive population movement is not practical today given Iraq’s dense urban environment and nationalist sensitivities, but concrete barriers and tamper-proof identity cards can achieve some of the same result. There’s nothing nefarious about the process. It’s Counterinsurgency 101. The only wonder is that it’s taken so long for this obvious strategy to be implemented.

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Boris Yeltsin’s Ambiguous Legacy

Back in 1994, while on a state visit to Germany, a visibly intoxicated Boris Yeltsin snatched the baton from the conductor of the Berlin Police Orchestra and attempted to lead the musicians, embarrassing himself and his country before the world. Now, after years of ill-health exacerbated by excessive consumption of alcohol, Yeltsin has passed away. How will he be remembered?

Back in 2000, I reviewed Leon Aron’s vividly drawn biography of Russia’s first post-Soviet leader, Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life, for the National Interest, and I began by asking whether “any peacetime political leader ever [has] brought his country as low as Boris Yeltsin brought Russia”? At the end of his reign that year—and in what follows, I have drawn liberally from my review—the Russian economy was a shambles, crime and corruption were rampant, the armed forces were a shadow of their former might, and much of the society had been thrust into poverty.

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Back in 1994, while on a state visit to Germany, a visibly intoxicated Boris Yeltsin snatched the baton from the conductor of the Berlin Police Orchestra and attempted to lead the musicians, embarrassing himself and his country before the world. Now, after years of ill-health exacerbated by excessive consumption of alcohol, Yeltsin has passed away. How will he be remembered?

Back in 2000, I reviewed Leon Aron’s vividly drawn biography of Russia’s first post-Soviet leader, Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life, for the National Interest, and I began by asking whether “any peacetime political leader ever [has] brought his country as low as Boris Yeltsin brought Russia”? At the end of his reign that year—and in what follows, I have drawn liberally from my review—the Russian economy was a shambles, crime and corruption were rampant, the armed forces were a shadow of their former might, and much of the society had been thrust into poverty.

Nonetheless, despised as he was at home, and in sharp contrast to his predecessor Mikhail Gorbachev, having few if any admirers abroad, Yeltsin still had achievements that are far more significant than many of his critics have ever been willing to acknowledge.

Like Gorbachev, Yeltsin was an example of a rare but not entirely unknown species: an honest Communist, a man of integrity like Gorbachev, but, unlike Gorbachev, far more earthy and practical and not so deeply in the grip of Communism’s ideological inanities. This is not to suggest that Yeltsin in his early years was in any way a heretic. After he became head of the Sverdlovsk party apparatus in 1976, his speeches were as fawning toward the “deep and profound” Leonid Brezhnev as those of any other Communist apparatchik.

Appointed by Gorbachev to run the Moscow party machine in 1985, at the dawn of the era of perestroika and glasnost, Yeltsin used his Moscow perch to declare war on the hidebound and highly recalcitrant local bureaucracy. His vigorous attacks on the establishment’s privileges gained him an appeal across the strata of the nominally classless Soviet society that rapidly outstripped Gorbachev’s. His rise as an authentic leader coincided with so many other tectonic shifts that it was little appreciated in the West, particularly a West that was in the grip of a Gorbomania that the Russian populace never shared or grasped.

Like Gorbachev, Yeltsin appears initially to have been convinced that the Soviet system could be repaired by shining a spotlight on corruption, malingering, and privilege. But unlike Gorbachev, as he ran into a brick wall of resistance from conservative elements above and desperate bureaucratic infighters below, his essentially pragmatic disposition led him to jettison cherished dogmas with relative ease. By the close of 1991, when the Soviet system dissolved, Gorbachev was pushed aside, and power fell into the hands of Russia’s first-ever democratically elected president.

Russia’s problems in every sphere were so acute that no leader, no matter how wise and no matter how stalwart, could have successfully grappled with all of them at once. And Yeltsin was not always wise or stalwart. Certainly, his personal shortcomings, including his drinking, must be weighed in the balance. But Yeltsin’s real and imputed character flaws must be placed in context. Many of Yeltsin’s critics suffered from amnesia with respect to the USSR’s recent and not-so-recent past. If one considers the morass that was Russian society under Communist rule, not to mention the rivers of blood that were flowing there another five or so decades earlier, the Yeltsin era appears in a rather favorable light.

Russia held more than a half-dozen democratic elections under Yeltsin’s tutelage, and his rule was followed by the peaceful transfer of power to a newly elected president; these were no small accomplishments for what had been recently a totalitarian regime. By the end of his presidency, he left Russia with a press that was freer and more vigorous than anything throughout its long history of dictatorship and oppression. He presided over the dismantlement of a cutting-edge army that once drained the coffers of the government. Russia, at the turn of the millennium, was no longer a military-industrial state.

It is unquestionably true that millions were thrust into poverty by the transition to a market economy, and thousands upon thousands were unduly enriched, but it is too easily forgotten that virtually the entire citizenry lived in poverty under the old regime, while a privileged elite governed every last detail of their life and squeezed every last breath out of society.

In the end, Leon Aron was quite persuasive when he argued in his biography that Yeltsin would have had to work “miracles” in order to transform Russia in the way that his foreign critics, and much of the Russian populace, seem to have assumed was possible. Russia under Yeltsin may not have done all that well, but in comparison to what it was before him, and in comparison to the resurgent authoritarianism that has come after under Vladimir Putin, it did well enough. That is Boris Yeltsin’s ambiguous legacy.

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Bookshelf

• Kingsley Amis, who specialized in writing pithy comic novels that cut to the chase in the very first sentence, would doubtless have been amused to find himself the subject of a thousand-page authorized biography. I don’t presume to know how he would have felt if he’d known how brutally revealing it was going to be. Zachary Leader’s The Life of Kingsley Amis (Pantheon, 1,008 pp., $39.95) leaves no doubt whatsoever that the author of Lucky Jim was a dreadful, pitiful man who, like so many other great comedians, contrived through inexplicable acts of literary alchemy to wrench amusement out of his awfulness.

I led with my chin in that last sentence. I do indeed think Amis was a “great” comedian, by which I don’t mean great as in Shakespeare—but not as in Jack Benny, either. He wrote laugh-out-loud novels in which he cast the coldest possible eye on the manners and morals of postwar England. A highly intelligent middle-class populist with a powerful aesthetic streak and a long nose for humbug, he listened to Mozart with the same gusto that he read the novels of Ian Fleming. (He even turned out a fair amount of far-better-than-average poetry.) For all his love of art in its myriad manifestations, rage was the fuel on which Amis’s engine ran, and he was never funnier than when he was most disgusted. As a no-longer-young man he became ferociously conservative, having decided that the enemies of all he held dear were (mostly) on the Left. Yet even in his belligerently crusty old age, he never ceased to live by Noël Coward’s credo: “Laugh at everything, all their sacred shibboleths. Flippancy brings out the acid in their damned sweetness and light.”

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• Kingsley Amis, who specialized in writing pithy comic novels that cut to the chase in the very first sentence, would doubtless have been amused to find himself the subject of a thousand-page authorized biography. I don’t presume to know how he would have felt if he’d known how brutally revealing it was going to be. Zachary Leader’s The Life of Kingsley Amis (Pantheon, 1,008 pp., $39.95) leaves no doubt whatsoever that the author of Lucky Jim was a dreadful, pitiful man who, like so many other great comedians, contrived through inexplicable acts of literary alchemy to wrench amusement out of his awfulness.

I led with my chin in that last sentence. I do indeed think Amis was a “great” comedian, by which I don’t mean great as in Shakespeare—but not as in Jack Benny, either. He wrote laugh-out-loud novels in which he cast the coldest possible eye on the manners and morals of postwar England. A highly intelligent middle-class populist with a powerful aesthetic streak and a long nose for humbug, he listened to Mozart with the same gusto that he read the novels of Ian Fleming. (He even turned out a fair amount of far-better-than-average poetry.) For all his love of art in its myriad manifestations, rage was the fuel on which Amis’s engine ran, and he was never funnier than when he was most disgusted. As a no-longer-young man he became ferociously conservative, having decided that the enemies of all he held dear were (mostly) on the Left. Yet even in his belligerently crusty old age, he never ceased to live by Noël Coward’s credo: “Laugh at everything, all their sacred shibboleths. Flippancy brings out the acid in their damned sweetness and light.”

In private life, alas, Amis was a caddish, self-absorbed pleasure-seeker not unlike Roger Micheldene, the hideous anti-hero of One Fat Englishman, one of his sharpest and least appreciated novels, and The Life of Kingsley Amis is crammed to overflowing with well-sourced tales of his beastliness. Such things should of course be known, but Leader could have made his point four times as effectively in half the space, though he writes well enough to make his excesses palatable. He also has a sharp eye for self-revealing passages in Amis’s novels, as in this striking excerpt from The Green Man: “You just have your own ideas about what to do and when and how, about everything, and they always stay the same, doesn’t matter who you’re dealing with or what they say to you. . . . I don’t know what you think about people, which is bad enough, but you certainly go on as if they’re all in the way.”

By all means read The Life of Kingsley Amis if you’re familiar with his work. It will tell you everything you could ever want to know about him, along with a lot of things you’d just as soon not know. If, on the other hand, Amis is only a name to you, go first to Lucky Jim, which is as funny as anything by Waugh or Wodehouse (from both of whom he learned a lot). Thereafter I suggest Girl, 20, The Green Man, That Uncertain Feeling, One Fat Englishman, The Alteration, and The Russian Girl, in that order. Somewhere along the way, you should also dip into Amis’s Memoirs, which are as irresistible as they are unreliable. From there you can branch out to the lesser novels, poetry and nonfiction (The Amis Collection contains a representative selection of essays and reviews). Not all of Amis’s books are worth the trouble—Russian Hide-and-Seek is a dud—but few 20th-century writers have been more consistently entertaining.

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Via Romana

Until April 2006, Italy was America’s staunchest ally in Europe after Tony Blair’s Great Britain. The Italian government supported the war in Iraq, despite its unpopularity in Italy, and sent troops there to participate in the post-war efforts to stabilize the country. Ex-PM Silvio Berlusconi was a regular guest at the White House, and even visited President George W. Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas—a privilege extended only to the nation’s closest allies. But in April of last year a Center-Left coalition unseated Mr. Berlusconi; now, scarcely a year later, the once-friendly relations between Italy and the U.S. have gravely deteriorated.

First, Prodi’s government made good on its promise to withdraw Italian troops from Iraq. Then came last summer’s war in Lebanon. Though Italy pledged troops for the new UNIFIL, Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema’s excessive display of affection for Hizbullah MP Hussein Haji Hassan during a visit to Beirut did not help matters between Italy and the U.S. Italy was elected to one of the rotating seats on the UN Security Council with America’s blessing, but the U.S.-backed candidate from the Latin American bloc—Guatemala—failed to obtain Italy’s support in the face of Venezuela’s challenge. Despite Condoleezza Rice’s personal call to D’Alema to express American concern, Italy abstained. Thus, while a constant stream of Europe’s other Center-Left ministers has visited Washington, Prodi and D’Alema have been left to wait in Rome.

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Until April 2006, Italy was America’s staunchest ally in Europe after Tony Blair’s Great Britain. The Italian government supported the war in Iraq, despite its unpopularity in Italy, and sent troops there to participate in the post-war efforts to stabilize the country. Ex-PM Silvio Berlusconi was a regular guest at the White House, and even visited President George W. Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas—a privilege extended only to the nation’s closest allies. But in April of last year a Center-Left coalition unseated Mr. Berlusconi; now, scarcely a year later, the once-friendly relations between Italy and the U.S. have gravely deteriorated.

First, Prodi’s government made good on its promise to withdraw Italian troops from Iraq. Then came last summer’s war in Lebanon. Though Italy pledged troops for the new UNIFIL, Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema’s excessive display of affection for Hizbullah MP Hussein Haji Hassan during a visit to Beirut did not help matters between Italy and the U.S. Italy was elected to one of the rotating seats on the UN Security Council with America’s blessing, but the U.S.-backed candidate from the Latin American bloc—Guatemala—failed to obtain Italy’s support in the face of Venezuela’s challenge. Despite Condoleezza Rice’s personal call to D’Alema to express American concern, Italy abstained. Thus, while a constant stream of Europe’s other Center-Left ministers has visited Washington, Prodi and D’Alema have been left to wait in Rome.

The refinancing of Italy’s mission in Afghanistan proved to be another point of contention. Though Italy’s presence in Herat and Kabul is appreciated, Americans have been growing resentful of the unwillingness of the Italian government to commit troops to the fight against the Taliban in the south. Italy is not alone in its reluctance—Germany and Spain also have not committed military resources to the south. But a recent article by the ambassadors to Italy of six NATO countries whose troops are fighting—and dying—in southern Afghanistan irked the Italian foreign minister. The article called on Italy not to disengage. D’Alema called it “inopportune.”

In the last three weeks, Italy further tarnished its government’s credibility with the U.S. Under pressure from Rome, the Afghan government agreed to let five Taliban terrorists loose in exchange for an Italian hostage, Daniele Mastrogiacomo, a correspondent for La Repubblica. The Prodi government’s deal with the Taliban did nothing for Mastrogiacomo’s Afghan driver and interpreter, who were beheaded.

In a twist of fate, Kabul then arrested Rahmatullah Hanefi, the local point man of an Italian NGO called Emergency, headed by the renowned leftist radical Gino Strada, who had mediated the hostage release. The Afghan government accused Hanefi of double-dealing with the Taliban. Defending his associate, Strada retorted that Hanefi was beyond reproach: he had performed honorably last fall, when he delivered the Taliban a substantial sum of money for the release of another Italian hostage. Relying on Strada—who equates Bush with Osama bin Laden and considers the U.S. the chief perpetrator of international terrorism—proved to have been a terrible error. Italy now stands accused of bringing about the release of terrorists, of having sacrificed two Afghans to rescue one Italian, of having damaged Hamid Karzai’s government, and of having emboldened the Taliban.

Even outside the theater of the global war on terror, Italy’s government shows a new hostility to America. When a joint venture of AT&T and Mexico’s America Movil sought to buy a stake in Italian telecommunications giant Telecom, government ministers raised the banner of the “national interest” to prevent the company from falling into foreign hands. Prodi said he would be happy if Telecom were to remain under Italian ownership, though he promised no interference. D’Alema went a little farther, expressing his hope for an “Italian initiative” to keep Telecom from a foreign take-over and hinting that the parliament could override market considerations.

In less than a year, Prodi and D’Alema have caused, more or less, a complete breakdown in Italo-American relations. Is it any wonder that they are still waiting for an invitation to the White House?

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