Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 23, 2007

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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Is Democracy the Answer?

In an exchange on National Review Online (April 17), Andrew McCarthy takes Mario Loyola to task for suggesting that the Bush Doctrine is about spreading democracy. “That is just nonsense,” writes McCarthy. “The Bush Doctrine, as announced in the days after 9/11 . . . holds that jihadists are our enemies and that regimes that support their terror have the choice of being with us or against us.” It is only “revisionists,” he argues, who claim that “the Bush Doctrine means terrorism will be defeated by spreading democracy.” And this is “preposterous” since there is “is no evidence—NONE—that adopting democracy means defeating terrorism.”

On the historical record, McCarthy is wrong in claiming that promoting democracy somehow slipped into Bush’s rhetoric only in his second inaugural address. It was clearly set out in Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy (about which I wrote in COMMENTARY). But the important question is not the semantic one of whether promoting democracy deserves to be called part of the Bush Doctrine. It is whether it is a good idea for winning the war on terror.

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In an exchange on National Review Online (April 17), Andrew McCarthy takes Mario Loyola to task for suggesting that the Bush Doctrine is about spreading democracy. “That is just nonsense,” writes McCarthy. “The Bush Doctrine, as announced in the days after 9/11 . . . holds that jihadists are our enemies and that regimes that support their terror have the choice of being with us or against us.” It is only “revisionists,” he argues, who claim that “the Bush Doctrine means terrorism will be defeated by spreading democracy.” And this is “preposterous” since there is “is no evidence—NONE—that adopting democracy means defeating terrorism.”

On the historical record, McCarthy is wrong in claiming that promoting democracy somehow slipped into Bush’s rhetoric only in his second inaugural address. It was clearly set out in Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy (about which I wrote in COMMENTARY). But the important question is not the semantic one of whether promoting democracy deserves to be called part of the Bush Doctrine. It is whether it is a good idea for winning the war on terror.

McCarthy’s formula is inadequate. Yes, jihadists are our enemies. And, yes, we should pressure states to support us against them. But our old image of terrorism as something entirely dependent on state support is outdated.

Even more important than state sponsorship is the popular support that jihadism receives. Tens of thousands of young Muslims volunteer to be its warriors. Millions of Muslims support its activities. And even many non-supporters feel a certain understanding or sympathy for it. It is a monumentally important fact that the states of the Islamic Conference stand as a block against any blanket repudiation of terrorism. Their unswerving position is that terrorism is wrong—except if it is carried out for a good cause. Which means it is not wrong at all in principle.

What Bush recognized in repudiating 60 years of U.S. support for the Middle Eastern status quo is that we will not be safe from jihadism unless the mindset of the Middle East changes, and that we have to do whatever we can to try to precipitate such change. Jihadism is a movement that must be fought ideologically as well as militarily. As an enemy, the challenge it presents is more like that of Communism than that of Nazism.

McCarthy is right to say there is no proof that democracy will be the antidote to terrorism. But it is the best way we know to transform societies and the socialization that their citizens experience. What other strategies have been suggested? Just to declare that jihadism is our enemy is no strategy at all.

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Will the New York Times Wage Anti-Anti-Satellite Warfare?

On January 11, China rocked defense ministries around the world by testing an anti-satellite rocket, employing a medium-range ballistic missile to destroy a small target 537 miles above the earth. It was the first test of such a system by any country in more than 20 years. Among other consequences, it generated fears within the Pentagon that the Chinese are determined to develop the capacity to blind the United States as part of the opening shot of any future war.

I noted at the time, in Lost in Space, that the New York Times editorial page had a different view. The paper immediately suggested that the Chinese test might have been “intended to prod the United States to join serious negotiations” to limit anti-satellite warfare. And I called that view nonsense, noting that the Chinese might well “have very good reasons for developing an anti-satellite warfare capability, independently of whether the U.S. participates in arms-control talks or not.”

I am not a betting man, but in the wake of a story in the Times this morning, “U.S. Knew of China Missile Test, but Kept Silent,” I am willing to wager ten pounds of rice that the Times is poised to publish another editorial dilating further on the same nonsensical point. The only open question is whether this editorial will appear tomorrow, the day after, or later in the week.

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On January 11, China rocked defense ministries around the world by testing an anti-satellite rocket, employing a medium-range ballistic missile to destroy a small target 537 miles above the earth. It was the first test of such a system by any country in more than 20 years. Among other consequences, it generated fears within the Pentagon that the Chinese are determined to develop the capacity to blind the United States as part of the opening shot of any future war.

I noted at the time, in Lost in Space, that the New York Times editorial page had a different view. The paper immediately suggested that the Chinese test might have been “intended to prod the United States to join serious negotiations” to limit anti-satellite warfare. And I called that view nonsense, noting that the Chinese might well “have very good reasons for developing an anti-satellite warfare capability, independently of whether the U.S. participates in arms-control talks or not.”

I am not a betting man, but in the wake of a story in the Times this morning, “U.S. Knew of China Missile Test, but Kept Silent,” I am willing to wager ten pounds of rice that the Times is poised to publish another editorial dilating further on the same nonsensical point. The only open question is whether this editorial will appear tomorrow, the day after, or later in the week.

The reason for my confidence is simple. It turns out, according to this morning’s paper, that U.S. intelligence had advance warning of January’s anti-satellite test but American officials declined to tell the Chinese to stop. If only the Bush administration had spoken out, goes the implication, the Chinese would not have felt compelled to misbehave.

Indeed, according to “experts outside government,” the Times informs us, smarter and more sensible policymakers

might have been able to discourage the Chinese from launching the missile, had [administration] officials been willing to enter into a broader discussion of ways to regulate the military competition in space. China had long advocated an agreement to ban weapons in space, an approach the Bush administration has rejected in order to maintain maximum flexibility for developing antimissile defenses.

In other words, fault for the Chinese action does not lie with the Chinese but with ourselves.
Not only that, but according to these same experts, halting this and future Chinese tests would have been remarkably simple, almost as easy as waving a wand. All the Bush administration had to do was talk.

“Had the United States been willing to discuss the military use of space with the Chinese in Geneva,” the Times quotes Jeffrey G. Lewis of the New America Foundation, “that might have been enough to dissuade them from going through with it.” “This was absolutely preventable,” chimes in Joseph Cirincione of the Center for American Progress. “The Chinese have been proposing a treaty to ban weapons in space for years.” Yet the United States has obstinately and blindly demurred: “We have refused,” says Cirincione, “in order to pursue this fantasy of space-based antimissile weapons.”

To be sure, the Times reporters do offer a number of countervailing voices: Peter Rodman, until recently in the Bush administration and an occasional Commentary contributor, notes that the Chinese “have been patiently developing this capability. I don’t see why they would trade it away.” The military authority John E. Pike says, “I don’t think we could have talked them out of testing against a target.” So at the very least, the Times makes apparent, there is a debate.

The issues in that debate are fairly clear. The U.S. currently enjoys immense military superiority over China. Why would it be surprising for the Chinese military to seek a relatively low-cost way to offset American advantages? Investing in anti-satellite warfare would be a quite logical direction in which to proceed. As the Pentagon’s most recent Quadrennial Defense Review concludes, “[o]f the major and emerging powers, China has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States and field disruptive military technologies that could over time offset traditional U.S. military advantages.”

But whatever the Chinese are really up to, I am making a prediction: as sure as yin is followed by yang, later this week the Times will publish an editorial blaming the belligerent, recalcitrant Bush administration for its failure to engage in dialogue, and thereby provoking the Chinese test.

If I am wrong about the Times, you can collect your ten pounds of rice by sending an empty self-addressed, postage-paid sack to Commentary at 165 E. 56th Street, New York, NY, 10022.

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On Chesil Beach

Among living British novelists, Ian McEwan is widely thought to have the highest intellect and the widest frame of reference. On Chesil Beach, his latest novel (a novella, really) has been extravagantly praised for its subtle evocation of English sexual mores in 1961, on the eve of the sexual revolution. Edward and Florence—“young, educated, and both virgins”—endure the wedding night from hell. As a tragedy of manners, it is indeed faultless.

The new work is no less worthy of attention, though, for what it tells us about its author’s political evolution. Mr. McEwan’s stature as a public intellectual has grown in recent years as his views have developed from the predictable platitudes of a conventional leftist to an unconventionally robust defence of Western civilization and an equally sharp critique of Islamist designs upon it.

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Among living British novelists, Ian McEwan is widely thought to have the highest intellect and the widest frame of reference. On Chesil Beach, his latest novel (a novella, really) has been extravagantly praised for its subtle evocation of English sexual mores in 1961, on the eve of the sexual revolution. Edward and Florence—“young, educated, and both virgins”—endure the wedding night from hell. As a tragedy of manners, it is indeed faultless.

The new work is no less worthy of attention, though, for what it tells us about its author’s political evolution. Mr. McEwan’s stature as a public intellectual has grown in recent years as his views have developed from the predictable platitudes of a conventional leftist to an unconventionally robust defence of Western civilization and an equally sharp critique of Islamist designs upon it.

On Chesil Beach makes scarcely any reference to Islam, which is hardly surprising given the date. As Edward and Florence enjoy—if that is the word—a large dinner of roast beef in their hotel room for which neither has any appetite, they overhear the news on the wireless from the sitting room downstairs. Harold Macmillan is in Washington to make the case for a test-ban treaty. “Who could disagree that it was folly to go on testing H-bombs in the atmosphere and irradiating the whole planet?” the author asks. “But no one under thirty—certainly not Edward and Florence—believed that a British prime minister held much sway in global affairs.” Next they hear a story from Berlin, where refugees flee Communism just before the erection of the wall. The third “intolerable” item is “the concluding session of an Islamic conference in Baghdad.” By this time the tension between Edward and Florence has diverted their attention back to thoughts of the night ahead.

Later we are shown flashbacks that throw more light on McEwan’s politics seen through the prism of the early 1960′s. The young couple, whose political attitudes are typical of their generation, meet at a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament event in Oxford. But Florence’s mother Violet, an Oxford philosophy don, takes a dim view of her daughter’s politics. Violet’s “objectionable” opinions about the evils of Communism include comparing the Soviet Union to Nazi Germany—a comparison that “disgusts” Florence. “She recognized in Violet’s opinions a typical pattern of pro-American propaganda. She was disappointed in her mother, and even said so.”

Violet also gives her prospective son-in-law a tutorial while he chauffeurs her to academic gatherings. Knowing his interest in medieval millenarian cults, she goads him by comparing these movements to early socialists and their apocalyptic beliefs to contemporary fear of nuclear war. Edward prefers to focus on the “difference between, on the one had, a lurid and absurd fantasy devised by a post-Iron Age mystic, then embellished by his credulous medieval equivalents, and, on the other, the rational fear of a possible and terrifying event it was in our power to prevent.” Violet responds “in tones of crisp reprimand that effectively closed the conversation.” Her point is not whether either the medieval cultists or the CND supporters were wrong, but that they sincerely believed they were right and acted accordingly. “Surely, as a historian, he had learned that down through the centuries mass delusions had common themes.”

Is it far-fetched to detect here a gentle authorial admonition—if not a warning—to the present-day equivalents of Edward and Florence? They, too, deny that a British prime minister could “hold much sway in world affairs”—which Tony Blair, and before him Margaret Thatcher, have palpably done. They, too, prefer to ignore the latter-day manifestations of tyranny around them—whether Communist or Islamist. They, too, object to talk of “Islamofascism” and comparisons with the Nazis, which they dismiss as “pro-American propaganda.” They, too, attend mass protests against the Iraq war and other aspects of U.S. or British foreign policy, but refuse to countenance any suggestion that these rallies might have anything in common with “mass delusions,” Islamist or otherwise. True: Edward takes a side-swipe at Jesus—McEwan’s hostility to Christianity has been widely noted—but the author has Islam in his sights at least as much as Christianity.

These few passages I have quoted are by no means the most powerful or important in the book, but they are enough to suggest that McEwan is by no means resiling from his tough pronouncements in articles and interviews. Just how unusual his stance is among British writers may be surmised from an interview given last week to the Berliner Zeitung by the Scottish novelist A.L. Kennedy, who compared Britain under Blair to Germany under Hitler. There was not a trace of humor in her remarks, which equated the fate of Muslims in present-day Bradford or Birmingham to that of Jews in the Holocaust.

At least McEwan, describing Edward’s later life, has him repudiate his former view that “everyone knew that [the press] was controlled by state, military, or financial interests.” It takes courage to admit that one has been wrong about politics—and courage is a virtue that seems to be in singularly short supply among British writers just now.

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