Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 2007

Dangerous Dialogue

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, spent a couple of hours gabbing with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, on Monday. According to the prevailing political wisdom in Washington—and within large sectors of the newly-chastened Bush administration itself—this kind of “dialogue” will somehow transform the situation in Iraq for the better. It will also, the theory runs, lead gradually to the resolution of our other major differences with Iran, such as its implacable pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The prevailing wisdom in Tehran is rather different. There, it seems, such talks merely provide another opportunity to humiliate the United States and underline our inability to stop the Iranian quest for regional dominance. In case anyone didn’t get the memo, the Iranian government charged three Iranian-Americans with spying the day after this grand dialogue convened in Baghdad. As noted by the Washington Post, “The three individuals charged are prominent Washington scholar Haleh Esfandiari, social scientist Kian Tajbakhsh of the New York-based Open Society Institute, and correspondent Parnaz Azima of U.S.-funded Radio Farda.”

None of them, needless to say, is an actual spy. But grabbing hostages has by now become a well-entrenched tradition in Iran—one proven to work over the years in bringing the West to its knees, whether through the seizure of the U.S. Embassy personnel in 1979, numerous Westerners in Lebanon in the 1980’s, or the more recent detention of British sailors in the Persian Gulf.

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The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, spent a couple of hours gabbing with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, on Monday. According to the prevailing political wisdom in Washington—and within large sectors of the newly-chastened Bush administration itself—this kind of “dialogue” will somehow transform the situation in Iraq for the better. It will also, the theory runs, lead gradually to the resolution of our other major differences with Iran, such as its implacable pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The prevailing wisdom in Tehran is rather different. There, it seems, such talks merely provide another opportunity to humiliate the United States and underline our inability to stop the Iranian quest for regional dominance. In case anyone didn’t get the memo, the Iranian government charged three Iranian-Americans with spying the day after this grand dialogue convened in Baghdad. As noted by the Washington Post, “The three individuals charged are prominent Washington scholar Haleh Esfandiari, social scientist Kian Tajbakhsh of the New York-based Open Society Institute, and correspondent Parnaz Azima of U.S.-funded Radio Farda.”

None of them, needless to say, is an actual spy. But grabbing hostages has by now become a well-entrenched tradition in Iran—one proven to work over the years in bringing the West to its knees, whether through the seizure of the U.S. Embassy personnel in 1979, numerous Westerners in Lebanon in the 1980’s, or the more recent detention of British sailors in the Persian Gulf.

To make this “up yours” a little more explicit, Ali Larijani, the chief Iranian nuclear negotiator, told the world’s press that he “rejected the possibility of Iran suspending its uranium enrichment program.” This, coming on the eve of talks between Larijani and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, will hardly improve the atmosphere for negotiations.

The only people who could possibly be surprised by the Iranian attitude are the architects of the Iraq Study Group report and other conveyors of wishful thinking in Washington. Naturally, their response will be that we should make even more concessions to Iran to overcome their “suspicions” about American behavior. What this rather naïve reasoning ignores are the big benefits that many in the Iranian leadership, especially in the Revolutionary Guard Corps, derive from the continuing Iranian policy of isolation and hostility. Not only does enmity with the West help to maintain their justification for a theocratic dictatorship, but, as Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explains in this interview, it also helps well-connected Iranians to profit by looting the economy.

It takes quite an effort of will to convince oneself that the real issue between the U.S. and Iran is a lack of understanding. The reality is that the U.S. and Iran have radically divergent interests. In the case of Iraq, Iran’s interest is to foment strife that will weaken the U.S. and our democratic allies and expand its sphere of control. It is currently achieving that goal. Why would it, suddenly, want to help the U.S. achieve its objectives in Iraq? Until someone can answer that question convincingly, perhaps we should hold off on any further coffee klatches with the mullahs.

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The Sinking Immigration Bill

President Bush seems determined to expend what remains of his dwindling reserves of political capital on his overwhelmingly unpopular (but Senate-supported) immigration bill. Directing his criticism at part of the very coalition that had elected him, he recently explained his reasoning:

I’m deeply concerned about America losing its soul. Immigration has been the lifeblood of a lot of our country’s history. And I am worried that a backlash to newcomers would cause our country to lose its great capacity to assimilate newcomers.

Those are worthy thoughts. But they’re disconnected from middle- and lower-middle-class voters who feel that the very size of the current, largely single-source immigration is forcing them (and not the newcomers) to adapt.

Despite the considerable efforts of Bush and the bi-partisan group of senators backing the bill, public support remains stuck at 26 percent. And Bush’s popularity on this score will only be further weakened by the loud and lusty booing of America’s entrant in the Miss Universe contest by a Mexican audience recently.

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President Bush seems determined to expend what remains of his dwindling reserves of political capital on his overwhelmingly unpopular (but Senate-supported) immigration bill. Directing his criticism at part of the very coalition that had elected him, he recently explained his reasoning:

I’m deeply concerned about America losing its soul. Immigration has been the lifeblood of a lot of our country’s history. And I am worried that a backlash to newcomers would cause our country to lose its great capacity to assimilate newcomers.

Those are worthy thoughts. But they’re disconnected from middle- and lower-middle-class voters who feel that the very size of the current, largely single-source immigration is forcing them (and not the newcomers) to adapt.

Despite the considerable efforts of Bush and the bi-partisan group of senators backing the bill, public support remains stuck at 26 percent. And Bush’s popularity on this score will only be further weakened by the loud and lusty booing of America’s entrant in the Miss Universe contest by a Mexican audience recently.

The White House has missed the fact that while 68 percent of those surveyed in Wednesday’s Rasmussen telephone poll do agree with President Bush that we need to establish a path to legalization for those already here, only one in six Americans believe that this particular bill will actually reduce illegal immigration. Forty-one percent think the legislation will lead to an increase in illegal immigration. (What’s especially striking about these numbers is that 81 percent of those surveyed said that are following the issue closely and 37 percent very closely, leaving little room for maneuver.)

McCain’s close identification with the bill has sent his poll numbers so far south that Mitt Romney (an opponent of the bill) has passed the Arizonan and moved into second place, behind the frontrunner Giuliani. The generally immigration-friendly former New York mayor, recognizing the core issue at stake—72 percent of those surveyed insist that enforcing border laws is the primary issue—has opposed the bill on security grounds. But the imminent entrance of Fred Thompson may give Giuliani competition on this score.

Thompson recently told a radio audience last week that “A nation without secure borders will not long be a sovereign nation.” “No matter how much lipstick Washington tries to slap onto this legislative pig,” he continued, “it’s not going to win any beauty contests.”

The beauty of this issue for both Giuliani and Thompson is that it allows them to separate themselves from an unpopular President and simultaneously appeal to the GOP base. This could set off a bidding war of sorts between Giuliani, Thompson, and Romney as to who is more strongly opposed to the Bush position.

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Off With Libby’s Head?

When he is sentenced this coming Tuesday, Scooter Libby may be sent directly to jail. If so, this would be grossly unfair since he stands an excellent chance of having the verdict against him overturned on appeal. But it would also be the moment for President Bush to pardon him immediately.

Back in March, when he was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice by a jury in federal court in Washington D.C., I explained why I thought the case “represents a terrible injustice.” The federal prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, had insisted to both the public and the jury that the disclosure of the identity of the CIA operative Valerie Plame—which was the underlying action he had been appointed to investigate—was in fact a crime. But this was a point that had never been established or even formally alleged. Fitzgerald’s overreaching on this colored the jury’s thinking about the gravity of the issues at stake, suggested a motive for Libby to lie that did not reside in proved facts, and conflicted with the judge’s ruling that the case would not hinge on Plame’s status.

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When he is sentenced this coming Tuesday, Scooter Libby may be sent directly to jail. If so, this would be grossly unfair since he stands an excellent chance of having the verdict against him overturned on appeal. But it would also be the moment for President Bush to pardon him immediately.

Back in March, when he was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice by a jury in federal court in Washington D.C., I explained why I thought the case “represents a terrible injustice.” The federal prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, had insisted to both the public and the jury that the disclosure of the identity of the CIA operative Valerie Plame—which was the underlying action he had been appointed to investigate—was in fact a crime. But this was a point that had never been established or even formally alleged. Fitzgerald’s overreaching on this colored the jury’s thinking about the gravity of the issues at stake, suggested a motive for Libby to lie that did not reside in proved facts, and conflicted with the judge’s ruling that the case would not hinge on Plame’s status.

Now Fitzgerald has been back in court, arguing that when Libby is sentenced on Tuesday, the judge should throw the book at him precisely on the grounds that he committed the underlying crime-that-was-not-a-crime. Fitzgerald approvingly cites Judge David S. Tatel’s ruling in the Judith Miller case that “because the charges contemplated here relate to false denials of responsibility for Plame’s exposure, prosecuting perjury or false statements would be tantamount to punishing the leak.”

But this a vicious circle. Convicted on the basis of something that was never proved or even formally alleged, is Libby now to be punished on the same basis? With Fitzgerald continuing to overreach, the case for a presidential pardon is growing stronger by the day. If Libby is imprisoned, will Bush do the right thing?

Meanwhile, in closely related news, Senator Kit Bond of Missouri, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wants Valerie Plame to be re-interviewed. Back in March, in a dispatch entitled Lying Liars and Their Lies, I asked whether Plame was under oath when she testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and declared that she played no role in sending her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, on a fact-finding trip to Niger. “I did not recommend him. I did not suggest him. There was no nepotism involved. I did not have the authority,” she said.

Plame was under oath, and Senator Bond has pointed out that she has put out three separate versions of the circumstances under which her husband was sent to Niger. According to USA Today‘s summary, they are:

*She told the CIA’s inspector general in 2003 or 2004 that she had suggested Wilson.

*Plame told Senate Intelligence Committee staffers in 2004 that she couldn’t remember whether she had suggested Wilson.

*She told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in March that an unidentified person in Vice President Cheney’s office asked a CIA colleague about the African uranium report in February 2002. A third officer, overhearing Plame and the colleague discussing this, suggested, “Well, why don’t we send Joe?” Plame told the committee.

Which of these is the real story? Is Plame telling three versions of the truth, or is she a lying liar, or even worse, a perjuring perjurer? Bond would like to find out.

But the Intelligence Committee is now under the control of the Democrats who have no interest in calling attention to the antics of the Plame-Wilson provocateurs. Stay tuned, in other words, for the cover-up of the cover-up.  

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Iran’s Enabler

Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, riled up Washington and Brussels earlier this month by declaring that they shouldn’t try to stop Iran from enriching uranium. The United Nations, prodded by the West, had imposed two sets of sanctions on Tehran for continuing enrichment in defiance of a Security Council resolution passed last July. The second set of sanctions was enacted this March, but Tehran has given no indication that it will halt its nuclear program. In response, Western diplomats are now considering a third set of sanctions. (COMMENTARY’s editor-at-large Norman Podhoretz has weighed in on this predicament, as well.)

ElBaradei stated that the UN demand to halt enrichment “has been superseded by events”—the Iranians have already obtained the necessary technology. The international community, he suggested, should engage the Iranians “in a comprehensive dialogue.” ElBaradei also suggested that Tehran be permitted to keep some elements of an enrichment program.

There are any number of fundamental objections to these comments. The chief of the UN’s nuclear watchdog group should not publicly undermine the acts of the world body. ElBaradei may have been handed humanity’s most coveted award, the Nobel Peace Prize, but he still has an obligation to support the Security Council.

Moreover, his suggested approach—“dialogue”—has been tried since 2002, when Iranian dissidents first disclosed the existence of Tehran’s nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak. A half-decade of meetings, talks, and discussions has conclusively demonstrated that the country’s leadership is not interested in good faith negotiations. ElBaradei’s comments also establish incentives for destabilizing the world’s arms-control regime. He is effectively saying to nuclearizing rogue states that the IAEA rewards successful defiance of UN prohibitions and sanctions.

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Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, riled up Washington and Brussels earlier this month by declaring that they shouldn’t try to stop Iran from enriching uranium. The United Nations, prodded by the West, had imposed two sets of sanctions on Tehran for continuing enrichment in defiance of a Security Council resolution passed last July. The second set of sanctions was enacted this March, but Tehran has given no indication that it will halt its nuclear program. In response, Western diplomats are now considering a third set of sanctions. (COMMENTARY’s editor-at-large Norman Podhoretz has weighed in on this predicament, as well.)

ElBaradei stated that the UN demand to halt enrichment “has been superseded by events”—the Iranians have already obtained the necessary technology. The international community, he suggested, should engage the Iranians “in a comprehensive dialogue.” ElBaradei also suggested that Tehran be permitted to keep some elements of an enrichment program.

There are any number of fundamental objections to these comments. The chief of the UN’s nuclear watchdog group should not publicly undermine the acts of the world body. ElBaradei may have been handed humanity’s most coveted award, the Nobel Peace Prize, but he still has an obligation to support the Security Council.

Moreover, his suggested approach—“dialogue”—has been tried since 2002, when Iranian dissidents first disclosed the existence of Tehran’s nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak. A half-decade of meetings, talks, and discussions has conclusively demonstrated that the country’s leadership is not interested in good faith negotiations. ElBaradei’s comments also establish incentives for destabilizing the world’s arms-control regime. He is effectively saying to nuclearizing rogue states that the IAEA rewards successful defiance of UN prohibitions and sanctions.

In doing so, he also makes war more likely—his comments undercut the force of the UN sanctions. Sanctions may ultimately not disarm the Iranian government, but at this moment they are the last tactic on the road to military action. They are contributing to the already severe woes of the Iranian economy, in the hopes of inducing Ahmadinejad to stop the nuclear program. Western banks are breaking off business ties with the regime, and pressure from Washington is persuading European energy companies to reevaluate investing in Iran.

Sanctions cannot work unless the international community joins together behind them. But Mohamed ElBaradei is standing in the way. He is not giving coercive diplomacy a chance, and if he succeeds in eroding support for still-tougher diplomatic measures, the only way to stop the Iranian mullahs will be war.

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Mosques Are Not above the Law

Last Sunday, I had reason to be grateful that places of worship are under the law of the land. At my local Catholic church in Kensington, I found myself helping to restrain a menacing and evidently inebriated young man who had ventured inside, accompanied by his German Shepherd dog.

Swaying slightly, the intruder advanced up the steps towards the altar during the most solemn part of the Mass, the prayers of consecration, and began to wave his arms about, mocking the priest—a newly ordained and rather nervous young Cuban—as he did so. On their knees, the congregation looked on aghast, wondering what the man would do next.

At this point I, together with another layman of military bearing and one of the older altar servers, took it upon ourselves to intervene. The parish priest (not the one celebrating Mass) quickly appeared and together we coaxed the man, uttering threats and racist abuse, out of the building. The police arrived and quietly took him away.

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Last Sunday, I had reason to be grateful that places of worship are under the law of the land. At my local Catholic church in Kensington, I found myself helping to restrain a menacing and evidently inebriated young man who had ventured inside, accompanied by his German Shepherd dog.

Swaying slightly, the intruder advanced up the steps towards the altar during the most solemn part of the Mass, the prayers of consecration, and began to wave his arms about, mocking the priest—a newly ordained and rather nervous young Cuban—as he did so. On their knees, the congregation looked on aghast, wondering what the man would do next.

At this point I, together with another layman of military bearing and one of the older altar servers, took it upon ourselves to intervene. The parish priest (not the one celebrating Mass) quickly appeared and together we coaxed the man, uttering threats and racist abuse, out of the building. The police arrived and quietly took him away.

Such an incident can and does take place regularly at churches and temples in this or any other capital. In the case of a London synagogue, the drunk would not have been able to get past the door: synagogue security is tight, due to the threat of Islamist terrorists and anti-Semitic vandals of various stripes. But if the police had requested access from a rabbi, it would have been granted without question. The same would have applied at most other places of worship.

Not necessarily, however, at a mosque. The British police practically never set foot inside a mosque, for fear of giving offense to the Muslim community.

The exception that proves this rule was the North London Central Mosque in Finsbury Park. Within a few years of its erection in 1990, this mosque had become associated with radical Islam and became notorious for its one-eyed, hook-handed preacher Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Masri, who is now in prison for terrorist crimes. In 2003, the Finsbury Park mosque was raided by hundreds of armed police, who arrested several men and found a terrorist arsenal. Those indoctrinated there by Abu Hamza have since been linked to many terrorist conspiracies around the world.

But the raid on Finsbury Park has never been repeated, despite plenty of evidence of illegal activities, such as the glorification of terrorism or incitement to hatred of Jews and “Crusaders,” in a number of other British mosques. Even when a fugitive from justice is believed to be hiding in a mosque or its outbuildings, the police decline to enter.

This wariness about mosques on the part of the British authorities is not only inimical to the rule of law, but also damaging to Muslim interests. Turning mosques into no-go areas fuels suspicions about what goes on inside. Mosques must indeed be treated with the same respect other places of worship are, but they are certainly not outside the jurisdiction of the secular law.

The reluctance of police to enter a mosque actually betrays a dangerous ignorance about Islam. Mosques are modeled not on the Temple in Jerusalem (as both synagogues and churches are), but on the courtyard in Medina where Mohammed preached. They are places not of ceremony or sacrifice. Unlike synagogues or churches, mosques do not have an ark or sanctuary containing sacred objects, such as the Torah scroll for Jews or the consecrated host for Catholics. Islam does not teach that the mosque is a forbidden place to non-Muslims, nor is there a Muslim tradition of giving sanctuary to fugitives in mosques. It is precisely the simplicity and informality of the mosque that has always appealed, to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

The novelist E.M. Forster wrote a paean of praise to the mosque in his 1936 collection Abinger Harvest, and in his greatest novel, A Passage to India (1924), he sets the crucial opening scene in a mosque. The Muslim Dr. Aziz is sitting alone in the evening in his favorite mosque, when he notices the arrival of an elderly Englishwoman. Aziz is angry and shouts at her: “Madam, this is a mosque, you have no right here at all; you should have taken off your shoes; this is a holy place for Muslims.” The woman, Mrs. Moore, replies: “I have taken them off.” Aziz begs her pardon and apologizes. She asks whether, unshod, she is allowed to enter, and he says: “Of course, but so few ladies take the trouble, especially if thinking no one is there to see.” She replies: “That makes no difference. God is here.”

This is fiction, of course, and an Islamophile Englishman’s fiction, to boot. In most of the mosques in Britain today (let alone in the Middle East) even a Muslim woman would not gain entrance, let alone a Christian one. As I understand it, however, Forster is correct in his interpretation of Islamic doctrine, at least as Muhammad himself taught it. The mosque is in principle accessible to all, men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims, who treat it with due respect.

That ought to include the police, too.

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Polling American Muslims

Those wondering why we haven’t seen any domestic incidents of terrorism since 9/11 might turn for some answers to the new Pew Research Center survey of 55,000 Muslims in America. Compared to Muslims in Europe, the survey found, American Muslims are less numerous, wealthier, better educated, more assimilated, and more mainstream in their political and religious views.

Two statistics jumped out at me. First, the Pew center found that there are only 1.4 million Muslims aged 18 or older in the U.S. (there are another 850,000 under 18), or about 0.6 percent of the population. (Other studies have suggested the figure is as high as 6-7 million.) That compares to 10 percent or more in some European countries. Second, only 2 percent of them are low-income, compared to 22 percent in Britain, 18 percent in France and Germany, and 23 percent in Spain. There is simply not a large, alienated Muslim underclass in this country as there is in so many European states.

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Those wondering why we haven’t seen any domestic incidents of terrorism since 9/11 might turn for some answers to the new Pew Research Center survey of 55,000 Muslims in America. Compared to Muslims in Europe, the survey found, American Muslims are less numerous, wealthier, better educated, more assimilated, and more mainstream in their political and religious views.

Two statistics jumped out at me. First, the Pew center found that there are only 1.4 million Muslims aged 18 or older in the U.S. (there are another 850,000 under 18), or about 0.6 percent of the population. (Other studies have suggested the figure is as high as 6-7 million.) That compares to 10 percent or more in some European countries. Second, only 2 percent of them are low-income, compared to 22 percent in Britain, 18 percent in France and Germany, and 23 percent in Spain. There is simply not a large, alienated Muslim underclass in this country as there is in so many European states.

That forms the backdrop to Pew’s findings about the American Muslims’ outlook on the world:

As many Muslim Americans as members of the general public express satisfaction with the state of the nation. Moreover, 71 percent of Muslim Americans agree that most people who want to get ahead in the U.S. can make it if they are willing to work hard. The poll reveals that Muslims in the United States reject Islamic extremism by larger margins than do Muslim minorities in Western European countries, when compared with results from a 2006 Pew Global Attitudes Project survey. . .

On balance, they believe that Muslims coming to the U.S. should try and adopt American customs, rather than trying to remain distinct from the larger society. And by nearly two-to-one (63 percent-32 percent) Muslim Americans do not see a conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society.

We can also cheer this finding:

Very few Muslim Americans—just 1 percent—say that suicide bombings against civilian targets are often justified to defend Islam; an additional 7 percent say suicide bombings are sometimes justified in these circumstances. In Western Europe, higher percentages of Muslims in Great Britain, France, and Spain said that suicide bombings in the defense of Islam are often or sometimes justified.

That’s the good news. But if you read the report carefully you will find some worrisome nuggets amid the generally glad tidings. For instance:

Consistent with the views of Muslims in other countries, fewer than half of Muslim Americans—regardless of their age—accept the fact that groups of Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks. Just four-in-10 say that groups of Arabs engineered the attacks. Roughly a third (32 percent) expresses no opinion as to who was behind the attacks, while 28 percent flatly disbelieve that Arabs conducted the attacks.

Of even greater concern is that the most radical part of the Muslim-American population tends to be younger people (18-to-29 year-olds, who form a third of the total Muslim population here), suggesting that some of the positive trends noted above may disappear over time. Pew finds that

Younger Muslim Americans report attending services at a mosque more frequently than do older Muslims. And a greater percentage of younger Muslims in the U.S. think of themselves first as Muslims, rather than primarily as Americans (60 percent vs. 41 percent among Muslim Americans ages 30 and older). Moreover, more than twice as many Muslim Americans under age 30 as older Muslims believe that suicide bombings can be often or sometimes justified in the defense of Islam (15 percent vs. 6 percent).

Native-born African-American Muslims are another area of concern:

More generally, native-born African American Muslims are the most disillusioned segment of the U.S. Muslim population. When compared with other Muslims in the U.S., they are more skeptical of the view that hard work pays off, and more of them believe that Muslim immigrants in the U.S. should try to remain distinct from society. They also are far less satisfied with the way things are going in the United States. Just 13 percent of African American Muslims express satisfaction with national conditions, compared with 29 percent of other native-born Muslims, and 45 percent of Muslim immigrants.

Bottom line: The U.S. has done a much better job of assimilating Muslims than has Europe, and this means that we have a much lesser risk of homegrown terrorism. But lesser doesn’t mean zero, and, as we’ve seen in Iraq, it doesn’t take many fanatics to cause great damage. Moreover, as on 9/11, foreign groups can always smuggle in their operatives from abroad. So we shouldn’t get complacent. But we can take pride in America’s continuing accomplishments in assimilation, notwithstanding the fears of the nativist right.

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It’s the Sidewalks, Stupid

Should Michael Bloomberg run for President? He was elected mayor on the strength of his reputation as a business executive and a technocrat who gets things done. His popularity is high in New York. But is his sterling reputation as chief executive officer of the city based upon achievement or on the appearance of achievement?

I raise this question in an op-ed in today’s New York Sun. The Sun also published two of my photographs suggesting that appearances of one of the mayor’s signature projects are not what they should be. These photos are only available in the printed edition of the Sun, not on its website. But contentions has them below the jump. The full op-ed can be found here.

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Should Michael Bloomberg run for President? He was elected mayor on the strength of his reputation as a business executive and a technocrat who gets things done. His popularity is high in New York. But is his sterling reputation as chief executive officer of the city based upon achievement or on the appearance of achievement?

I raise this question in an op-ed in today’s New York Sun. The Sun also published two of my photographs suggesting that appearances of one of the mayor’s signature projects are not what they should be. These photos are only available in the printed edition of the Sun, not on its website. But contentions has them below the jump. The full op-ed can be found here.

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The sidewalk on W. 17th Street, Brooklyn, between Mermaid and Surf Avenue in Coney Island.

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A close up of the sidewalk on W. 17th Street, Brooklyn, between Mermaid and Surf Avenue in Coney Island.

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Assuring Assad

Last month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a delegation to Damascus in defiance of the express wishes of President Bush. In response, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s spokesman praised her “courageous position” and expressed the hope that it would inaugurate a dialogue between “the people of the United States” and the Syrian regime, despite President Bush’s efforts to isolate it. Pelosi explained her unusual action by saying that she was trying to “build some confidence” between Americans and the Assad government.

Apparently she has succeeded, after a fashion. Assad, at least, seems to have gained confidence that he can behave as brutally as he wishes without incurring too much international opprobrium. In the month since Pelosi’s visit, he has ratcheted up repression, all but snuffing out the lingering embers of the “Damascus spring” that followed his accession to power seven years ago. Six prominent dissidents were packed off to prison for sentences ranging from three to twelve years, the longest term being given to Kamal Labwani for “communicating with a foreign country,” i.e., the United States. “It’s back to the 1980’s, to the worst days of his father’s rule,” commented the exiled dissident Ammar Abdulhamid.

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Last month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a delegation to Damascus in defiance of the express wishes of President Bush. In response, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s spokesman praised her “courageous position” and expressed the hope that it would inaugurate a dialogue between “the people of the United States” and the Syrian regime, despite President Bush’s efforts to isolate it. Pelosi explained her unusual action by saying that she was trying to “build some confidence” between Americans and the Assad government.

Apparently she has succeeded, after a fashion. Assad, at least, seems to have gained confidence that he can behave as brutally as he wishes without incurring too much international opprobrium. In the month since Pelosi’s visit, he has ratcheted up repression, all but snuffing out the lingering embers of the “Damascus spring” that followed his accession to power seven years ago. Six prominent dissidents were packed off to prison for sentences ranging from three to twelve years, the longest term being given to Kamal Labwani for “communicating with a foreign country,” i.e., the United States. “It’s back to the 1980’s, to the worst days of his father’s rule,” commented the exiled dissident Ammar Abdulhamid.

Pelosi reportedly raised Labwani’s case, specifically, with Syrian authorities during her visit. His crime, after all, consisted solely of talking to Americans, and here she was to promote dialogue. The specially long sentence now slapped on him amounts to a direct rebuff of her appeal, an expression of disdain. So how has she reacted?

Not at all. There is nothing about Labwani’s sentencing, or about any of the other dissidents, on her website. So I put in a call to her press spokesman, Brendan Daly, asking if the Speaker had commented on these events. I received a call back from a deputy of his who assured me that Assad’s actions were in “the opposite direction” from the course she had urged on him when she was there. In view of that, I asked, what was her reaction? She had not addressed it yet, he said, but he promised to get me a statement from her by the end of the next business day. That was ten days ago, and I am still waiting. Meanwhile, she has left the country yet again, this time leading a congressional delegation to Greenland, Germany, and Belgium to discuss global warming. Presumably this will build Assad’s confidence even further.

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Secretary Slaughter?

Who will be Secretary of State or National Security Adviser in the Hillary Rodham Clinton administration? The answer as of now is still rather unclear. But one woman who might be angling for the job—as we see from her essay, “Undoing Bush: How to Repair Eight Years of Sabotage, Bungling, and Neglect,” (link requires a subscription) in the latest issue of Harper’s—is Anne-Marie Slaughter, Dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School.

Of course, just because she wants such an important job, doesn’t mean she’ll get it. Dean Slaughter may think of herself as a Democratic Condoleezza Rice, but she does not yet have even the minimal level of experience Condi had when Bush tapped her for office. What’s more, she’ll be up against some very power-thirsty competitors. Perhaps, given her interest in international organizations—the subject of her academic research—she will end up as Ambassador to the United Nations, or some such mid-level post.

Whatever her prospects, Slaughter’s Harper’s essay is significant. It casts light on what mainstream Democratic foreign-policy thinkers are talking about at a moment when George Bush has “taken a prosperous nation and mired it in war, replaced our national composure with terror, and left behind him a legacy of damage so profound that repairing it will likely be the work of generations.” Or so the editors of Harper’s say in their preface. 

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Who will be Secretary of State or National Security Adviser in the Hillary Rodham Clinton administration? The answer as of now is still rather unclear. But one woman who might be angling for the job—as we see from her essay, “Undoing Bush: How to Repair Eight Years of Sabotage, Bungling, and Neglect,” (link requires a subscription) in the latest issue of Harper’s—is Anne-Marie Slaughter, Dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School.

Of course, just because she wants such an important job, doesn’t mean she’ll get it. Dean Slaughter may think of herself as a Democratic Condoleezza Rice, but she does not yet have even the minimal level of experience Condi had when Bush tapped her for office. What’s more, she’ll be up against some very power-thirsty competitors. Perhaps, given her interest in international organizations—the subject of her academic research—she will end up as Ambassador to the United Nations, or some such mid-level post.

Whatever her prospects, Slaughter’s Harper’s essay is significant. It casts light on what mainstream Democratic foreign-policy thinkers are talking about at a moment when George Bush has “taken a prosperous nation and mired it in war, replaced our national composure with terror, and left behind him a legacy of damage so profound that repairing it will likely be the work of generations.” Or so the editors of Harper’s say in their preface. 

Interestingly, Slaughter is not quite as pessimistic as they are. According to her, undoing the damage wrought by Bush won’t take generations; it can be done right away. “The paradox of American foreign policy,” she writes, “is that the United States, though more powerful than ever, has rarely been so lost in the world and never more reviled.” But as recently as September 12, 2001, “everyone was with us—until we told them, both in word and in deed, that if they weren’t with us they were against us.” All a new President need do is “restore American moral and political leadership in the world” by taking five steps.

The first of these is very simple: “we must close Guantanamo.”

The second is a little less simple: “we must get serious about nuclear disarmament.” It is time, says Slaughter, for America to reduce its nuclear arsenal. If we do, and if we provide them with civilian nuclear aid, even the three members of the “axis of evil” might agree “not to pursue nuclear weapons”—a remarkably elegant solution to a perplexing problem. It is a wonder that no one (apart from Jimmy Carter) ever thought of it before.

Steps three and four are a little more simple: the U.S. should join the International Criminal Court and reform the United Nations to expand the Security Council. “Why isn’t a single African, Middle Eastern, or Latin American country permanently represented on the world’s highest decision-making body?” she asks. The time for global inclusiveness has come.

The final item, number five, is very simple: “we must try to stop global warming.”

Is number five a case of hedging one’s bets in case Al Gore becomes President? Perhaps. But such long-range calculations can be as difficult as forecasting the climate.

My favorite among Slaughter’s easy steps is number four: expanding the Security Council to bring in a third-world country. Consensus in the Council itself will of course be required to implement any such proposal. So which country should be invited by us to join? Sudan? Venezuela? Syria? I am sure our good friends on the Security Council, the Russians and the Chinese, would be very happy with any or all of the three.

Let’s wish Anne-Marie Slaughter godspeed in her pursuit of high office. Even if many of her ideas are ludicrous, she’s right about one thing. When it comes to foreign policy, the Bush coterie can be strikingly incompetent. Exhibit A is the fact that even as Slaughter trashes the President for “sabotage, bungling, and neglect,” his administration has turned around and showered her with honors, naming her to chair an important State Department initiative to promote democracy. It is going to take more than five easy steps to undo that particular piece of damage.

 

 

 

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Jamestown, 400 Years Later

We mark our wedding anniversaries with ever more precious materials—progressing from paper to gold to diamonds—but the process seems to be reversed with our national anniversaries. Over the years, the establishment of the first successful English colony in North America, which took place in 1607 at Jamestown, Virginia, has been commemorated with ever diminishing means. This month, the 400th anniversary of the settlement was marked with a curiously stilted ceremony that, by official policy, actually avoided the word “celebration” itself.

One can understand why Native Americans and blacks might find little in this anniversary to celebrate. But it is noteworthy that the angriest attack of all should come from a British newspaper. According to the Guardian, if Jamestown is to be remembered at all, it should be as “the birthplace of African slavery, Native American genocide, and the global tobacco trade,” a veritable trifecta of human misery.

The newspaper has been widely and justly ridiculed for its remarks. African slavery, of course, existed long before 1607. It’s true that the American colonies served as a point of expansion for the international slave market into the New World. But the nation that grew from those colonies, along with its mother country, participated powerfully in the moral critique of slavery that led to its eventual extirpation in the West.

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We mark our wedding anniversaries with ever more precious materials—progressing from paper to gold to diamonds—but the process seems to be reversed with our national anniversaries. Over the years, the establishment of the first successful English colony in North America, which took place in 1607 at Jamestown, Virginia, has been commemorated with ever diminishing means. This month, the 400th anniversary of the settlement was marked with a curiously stilted ceremony that, by official policy, actually avoided the word “celebration” itself.

One can understand why Native Americans and blacks might find little in this anniversary to celebrate. But it is noteworthy that the angriest attack of all should come from a British newspaper. According to the Guardian, if Jamestown is to be remembered at all, it should be as “the birthplace of African slavery, Native American genocide, and the global tobacco trade,” a veritable trifecta of human misery.

The newspaper has been widely and justly ridiculed for its remarks. African slavery, of course, existed long before 1607. It’s true that the American colonies served as a point of expansion for the international slave market into the New World. But the nation that grew from those colonies, along with its mother country, participated powerfully in the moral critique of slavery that led to its eventual extirpation in the West.

But this is not the most remarkable part of the Guardian’s essay. What really shocks the reader is the casual way in which it lists the export of tobacco as a historical crime alongside slavery and genocide. This is morally ridiculous, and factually inaccurate to boot. Tobacco was given by Native Americans (the Powhatan, specifically) to the Europeans, not the other way round. (The Guardian is evasive on this, speaking only of the “global tobacco trade,” as if the truly heinous crime were not the health risks of tobacco but capitalism itself.)

The consequences of tobacco’s importation were momentous, affecting everything from the balance of economic power in Europe to the rhythm and pattern of everyday life; only the potato (another New World product) rivaled its impact. The usual term for such a dynamic exchange of products, customs, and ideas between peoples is multiculturalism. It is amusing that the Guardian, a stalwart champion of “multicultural Britain” (as one can confirm by a simple check on Google) should be so squeamish about this.

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More on Bowden

As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently finished reading Mark Bowden’s Guests of the Ayatollah, the definitive account of the 1979-1981 Iranian hostage crisis.

Among other things, it serves as another reminder, as if any were needed, that no matter how nicely (or not) we treat prisoners captured in the Global War on Terror, our enemies will seldom reciprocate. The embassy workers seized by the Iranians were repeatedly beaten, coerced into signing statements denouncing their country, paraded before the world’s TV cameras, and threatened with execution—all war crimes, all expressly forbidden by the U.S. armed forces interrogation manual, and all made even worse by the fact that the victims were not combatants but embassy personnel with diplomatic immunity. They were also denied adequate quarters, exercise, letters from loved ones, medical care, and other comforts that detainees at Guantanamo take for granted.

Of course the prisoners held in earlier wars by the Japanese, North Koreans, and North Vietnamese endured far worse. Read Faith of My Fathers by John McCain and Mark Salter, for an account of life in the infamous Hanoi Hilton. The book’s descriptions of torture are as harrowing as its accounts ofPOW resistance to torture, including that of McCain himself, are inspirational.

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As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently finished reading Mark Bowden’s Guests of the Ayatollah, the definitive account of the 1979-1981 Iranian hostage crisis.

Among other things, it serves as another reminder, as if any were needed, that no matter how nicely (or not) we treat prisoners captured in the Global War on Terror, our enemies will seldom reciprocate. The embassy workers seized by the Iranians were repeatedly beaten, coerced into signing statements denouncing their country, paraded before the world’s TV cameras, and threatened with execution—all war crimes, all expressly forbidden by the U.S. armed forces interrogation manual, and all made even worse by the fact that the victims were not combatants but embassy personnel with diplomatic immunity. They were also denied adequate quarters, exercise, letters from loved ones, medical care, and other comforts that detainees at Guantanamo take for granted.

Of course the prisoners held in earlier wars by the Japanese, North Koreans, and North Vietnamese endured far worse. Read Faith of My Fathers by John McCain and Mark Salter, for an account of life in the infamous Hanoi Hilton. The book’s descriptions of torture are as harrowing as its accounts ofPOW resistance to torture, including that of McCain himself, are inspirational.

While the bravery of the Vietnam War prisoners is well-known, until Bowden’s book came along I had not been aware of the heroism of some of Iran’s hostages, in particular a 34-year-old political officer named Michael Metrinko. (He is now a retired Foreign Service officer who has worked in recent years in Afghanistan and Iraq.) A former Peace Corps volunteer and fluent Farsi speaker, Metrinko turned out to be the biggest thorn in the hostage-takers’ side. Bowden’s accounts of his exploits are awe-inspiring.

Metrinko spent days tied to a chair and many months in solitary confinement in a “tiny storage room . . . with no fresh air and no companionship.” Yet when the hostage-takers tried to play nice for the cameras and stage a Christmas party for the hostages, Metrinko (unlike most of his fellow hostages) refused to be part of the propaganda show. When his jailers brought Christmas dinner to his cell, he refused a plate loaded with turkey, cookies, and other goodies that he badly wanted. Writes Bowden: “Metrinko marched down the hall and dumped the contents into the toilet. He made sure the guards saw him do it.”

On another occasion, the authorities brought to his cell an Iranian acquaintance of Metrinko’s in an attempt to prove that he was an American spy. Metrinko refused to be questioned about his relationship with the Iranian. “I’m not going to answer questions from anyone wearing a dress,” Metrinko told a mullah. “Shut up, you motherfucker,” one of the jailers told Metrinko. Metrinko: “You are the motherfuckers! The real motherfucker is Khomeini. Fuck him and fuck you all”—an outburst for which Metrinko was beaten.

Metrinko’s inventiveness at insulting his captors in their own language knew no bounds. He told another jailer: “You know the imam is not a man . . . The Ayatollah Khomeini, he is not a man . . . He does not have a wife . . . The only pictures I have ever seen of the ayatollah with anyone else are always pictures of him with a small boy beside him.” Bowden writes: “The guards caught his drift; he was suggesting that their imam was a pederast. Metrinko was grabbed by the hair—it had grown quite long—and dragged from the room. The angry guards took turns kicking and punching him . . . Then they locked the door and left him there and refused to bring him food for three days.”

Not even the prospect of release could still Metrinko’s obstreperousness. On the bus taking the hostages to the airport in 1981, one of the guards shouted for the hostages to stop whispering to one another. Metrinko responded in Farsi, “You shut up, you son of a Persian whore.” The bus halted and Metrinko was dragged out for another beating. Only the intercession of a high-ranking guard made it possible for Metrinko to be put on the plane with the other hostages.

Metrinko and some of the other hostages were real heroes who have never really gotten the public recognition they deserved, no doubt because the country wanted to forget this whole disgraceful episode. Bowden’s book provides a welcome opportunity to remember the good along with the bad.

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Amnesty International’s Doublespeak

Amnesty International is beating its anti-American drum again. In 2005, AI’s secretary-general Irene Khan called the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo “the gulag of our time.” Aside from defaming the U.S., this grotesque metaphor belittled the martyrdom of the millions of victims of the real gulags, most of whom did not survive the experience and none of whom were terrorists. Rather, they were sent to their doom for such offenses as being “the wife of an enemy of the people.”

On Wednesday, AI issued its 2007 report, and Khan was back at it. “One of the biggest blows to human rights has been the attempt of Western democratic states to roll back some fundamental principles of human rights,” she said. Which “democratic states”? As Khan continued, with characteristic restraint, “the U.S. administration’s doublespeak has been breathtakingly shameless. It is unrepentant about the global web of abuse it has spun in the name of counterterrorism.”

But who is doing the doublespeak? The war against terrorism is the supreme human-rights struggle of our time. This is so because the first human right is the right to life, and scores of innocents every day have it brutally snatched from them by terrorists. It is so, too, because the regimes that succor terrorists are themselves among the world’s most repressive and because the jihadists and other radicals who carry out terrorism aim to become rulers themselves. If they succeed, they will show their subjects no more mercy than they do their victims today. And the war on terror is doubly a campaign for human rights because the Bush administration has “shamelessly” built its anti-terror strategy around the objective of promoting freedom and democracy in the Middle East.

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Amnesty International is beating its anti-American drum again. In 2005, AI’s secretary-general Irene Khan called the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo “the gulag of our time.” Aside from defaming the U.S., this grotesque metaphor belittled the martyrdom of the millions of victims of the real gulags, most of whom did not survive the experience and none of whom were terrorists. Rather, they were sent to their doom for such offenses as being “the wife of an enemy of the people.”

On Wednesday, AI issued its 2007 report, and Khan was back at it. “One of the biggest blows to human rights has been the attempt of Western democratic states to roll back some fundamental principles of human rights,” she said. Which “democratic states”? As Khan continued, with characteristic restraint, “the U.S. administration’s doublespeak has been breathtakingly shameless. It is unrepentant about the global web of abuse it has spun in the name of counterterrorism.”

But who is doing the doublespeak? The war against terrorism is the supreme human-rights struggle of our time. This is so because the first human right is the right to life, and scores of innocents every day have it brutally snatched from them by terrorists. It is so, too, because the regimes that succor terrorists are themselves among the world’s most repressive and because the jihadists and other radicals who carry out terrorism aim to become rulers themselves. If they succeed, they will show their subjects no more mercy than they do their victims today. And the war on terror is doubly a campaign for human rights because the Bush administration has “shamelessly” built its anti-terror strategy around the objective of promoting freedom and democracy in the Middle East.

Is it odd for a bloody war to be the fulcrum of the struggle for human rights? Not at all. The two greatest victories for human rights of the last century (and probably of all time) were the allied victory over the Axis in World War II and the West’s victory over the Soviet Union in the cold war. These spelled the difference between life and death, freedom and slavery, for hundreds of millions of people. The greatest victory for human rights in American history was the North’s victory in the Civil War, ending slavery. (Amnesty International was not around, of course, at the time of the Civil War or World War II. But it was in business during the cold war, toward which it adopted a posture of studied neutrality. In other words, in the great human-rights battle of its time, Amnesty went AWOL.)

In each of these wars, our side was guilty of human-rights violations more egregious than anything that has happened at Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib. Some of those were necessary—as President Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus may have been—and others were shameful, like the detention of Japanese-American citizens by FDR. But even these egregious abuses pale in comparison to the stakes of the wars, stakes that had everything to do with human rights.

Today, it may be that some U.S. actions in the war on terror are questionable or blameworthy. But such derogations are trivial in comparison with what is at issue between us and the terrorists. No one genuinely devoted to human rights can be blind to this. Those who ignore it are using the lingo of human rights to pursue some other agenda.

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Hillary’s Undamaged Hopes

Republicans hoping that the two new biographies of Hillary Clinton (one with a first printing of 275,000, the other of 175,000) will throw the Democrats’ strongest candidate into a tailspin may be disappointed. I’ve yet to get my hands on either of the books, which will be published later this week. But to judge by the leaks to date, neither A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton, by Carl Bernstein, nor Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton, by former New York Times reporter Jeff Gerth (who was one of the first to write about the Whitewater scandal) and current Timesman Don Van Natta Jr., is likely to have an effect on the race.

The books appear to contain interesting details about Bill Clinton’s affairs, including one so serious that he nearly divorced Hillary to marry the other woman. And there are said to be juicy quotes, in particular one from George Stephanopoulos on Hillary’s Jesuitical lying about Travelgate. But these are familiar tropes.

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Republicans hoping that the two new biographies of Hillary Clinton (one with a first printing of 275,000, the other of 175,000) will throw the Democrats’ strongest candidate into a tailspin may be disappointed. I’ve yet to get my hands on either of the books, which will be published later this week. But to judge by the leaks to date, neither A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton, by Carl Bernstein, nor Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton, by former New York Times reporter Jeff Gerth (who was one of the first to write about the Whitewater scandal) and current Timesman Don Van Natta Jr., is likely to have an effect on the race.

The books appear to contain interesting details about Bill Clinton’s affairs, including one so serious that he nearly divorced Hillary to marry the other woman. And there are said to be juicy quotes, in particular one from George Stephanopoulos on Hillary’s Jesuitical lying about Travelgate. But these are familiar tropes.

The most interesting chapters may come from Gerth and Van Atta. These two are really the first to take an extended, in-depth look at Hillary’s record as a Senator. But that’s precisely the rub. Senator Clinton has played it close to the vest in Congress, emphasizing her competence and bi-partisan instincts largely to the exclusion of any political skywriting. And unless there are hitherto unsuspected revelations about her Senate career, any damage caused by Her Way may be minimal. The book comes early in the campaign; most likely voters already have a strong sense of what they think of Hillary.

As things now stand, the relentless, low-key emphasis on competence which served Hillary so well in her 2000 Senate campaign will also help her in 2008. Not least because it plays off of President Bush’s marked incompetence, the latest example of which is his ill-drafted immigration reform bill.

When it comes to the Clinton campaign it is important to remember that she’s engaged not in one but in two primary races (political consultant Craig Charney first formulated this idea). One is against Obama for the upper-middle-class vote; the other against John Edwards for the blue-collar vote. She can lose both and still likely win the nomination: neither of her rivals has any cross-class appeal. Which is why, these new exposés notwithstanding, Hillary still remains the favorite.

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Memorial Day, 2007

Back in 2005, Andrew Bacevich, a professor at Boston University, a longtime student of American military affairs, and a veteran of both Vietnam and the first Gulf war, came out with a book called The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War. By my lights, it was quite wrongheaded, stridently attacking the Bush administration for imprudently promoting democracy in the Middle East at the point of a gun, which he contended was actually a disguise for advancing some narrower and more traditional geopolitical interests, and was entered into without weighing the costs and the second-order effects.

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Back in 2005, Andrew Bacevich, a professor at Boston University, a longtime student of American military affairs, and a veteran of both Vietnam and the first Gulf war, came out with a book called The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War. By my lights, it was quite wrongheaded, stridently attacking the Bush administration for imprudently promoting democracy in the Middle East at the point of a gun, which he contended was actually a disguise for advancing some narrower and more traditional geopolitical interests, and was entered into without weighing the costs and the second-order effects.

For one reason or another, COMMENTARY did not review that book, although we did comment on another one of Bacevich’s books, American Empire, the Reality and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy. Not all that long before that but in a different age entirely, in January 2001, Bacevich himself appeared in COMMENTARY, writing a review of a book about the transformation of air power.

Two weeks ago came the news that Bacevich’s son, First Lt. Andrew J. Bacevich, died fighting in Iraq, the victim of a bomb. What can I say to a man whose only son dies fighting in a war he opposes, and which I supported and, not seeing any acceptable alternative, continue to support? I am still struggling for an answer.

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The Case of Cho-Liang Lin

Suppose the music world had a violinist with the elegance and eloquence of the legendary Arthur Grumiaux (1921–1986), yet all too few listeners seemed to care? This unlikely scenario is apparently the case for the Taiwan-born Cho-Liang Lin (b. 1960), long a New York City resident. Lin made a series of resplendent recordings of concertos by Jean Sibelius, Carl Nielsen, Igor Stravinsky, and Sergei Prokofiev, all conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen—plus Camille Saint-Saëns’s Concerto No.3 led by Michael Tilson Thomas, and a French chamber music program with pianist Paul Crossley.

Lin’s tone is sunny and life-enhancing (like that of his idol, the late French violinist Zino Francescatti) in this series of CD’s made for Sony, which has since dropped Lin and allowed many of his CD’s to languish out of print. This is surely in part because Lin refuses to dabble in “crossover” music (unlike his friend the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who remains a Sony headliner). Lin told me a few years ago with characteristic modesty: “I’d be thrilled to play jazz, blues, and bluegrass with ease, but it’s not in my blood, I’m afraid.” What is in his blood is classical music; Lin concertizes constantly and runs music festivals in Taipei and La Jolla, the latter a chamber-music extravaganza.

New Yorkers most recently heard Lin on May 22 under the auspices of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the concerts of which have been exiled during Alice Tully Hall’s renovation to the garage-like acoustics—totally inappropriate for chamber music—of the Time Warner Center’s chilly Rose Theater, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Even so, alongside the accomplished violist Paul Neubauer and others in works by Ernö Dohnányi and Antonín Dvořák, Lin’s qualities of crystalline clarity and passionate involvement shone through.

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Suppose the music world had a violinist with the elegance and eloquence of the legendary Arthur Grumiaux (1921–1986), yet all too few listeners seemed to care? This unlikely scenario is apparently the case for the Taiwan-born Cho-Liang Lin (b. 1960), long a New York City resident. Lin made a series of resplendent recordings of concertos by Jean Sibelius, Carl Nielsen, Igor Stravinsky, and Sergei Prokofiev, all conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen—plus Camille Saint-Saëns’s Concerto No.3 led by Michael Tilson Thomas, and a French chamber music program with pianist Paul Crossley.

Lin’s tone is sunny and life-enhancing (like that of his idol, the late French violinist Zino Francescatti) in this series of CD’s made for Sony, which has since dropped Lin and allowed many of his CD’s to languish out of print. This is surely in part because Lin refuses to dabble in “crossover” music (unlike his friend the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who remains a Sony headliner). Lin told me a few years ago with characteristic modesty: “I’d be thrilled to play jazz, blues, and bluegrass with ease, but it’s not in my blood, I’m afraid.” What is in his blood is classical music; Lin concertizes constantly and runs music festivals in Taipei and La Jolla, the latter a chamber-music extravaganza.

New Yorkers most recently heard Lin on May 22 under the auspices of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the concerts of which have been exiled during Alice Tully Hall’s renovation to the garage-like acoustics—totally inappropriate for chamber music—of the Time Warner Center’s chilly Rose Theater, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Even so, alongside the accomplished violist Paul Neubauer and others in works by Ernö Dohnányi and Antonín Dvořák, Lin’s qualities of crystalline clarity and passionate involvement shone through.

The same is true of his recordings, of late limited to new or offbeat works for smaller labels. Lin has just released a CD on Naxos featuring the violin sonata of Georg Tintner (1917–1999), a conductor best known as an interpreter of Bruckner, and who wrote music most charitably described as the obiter dicta of a masterful interpreter. Other recent recordings for Ondine include the bombastic violin concerto by the Baltimore-born composer Christopher Rouse (b. 1949) as well as the tedious Maoist folklore of Tan Dun’s Out of Peking opera. Doubtless the best of Lin’s forays into new or rare music is his CD on BIS of the music of Chen Yi (b. 1953), an extremely refined composer of quality, currently teaching at the University of Missouri–Kansas City Conservatory of Music.

Why has Lin not recorded the solo works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Schubert’s chamber works, and other standard repertory pieces which would suit him perfectly? Lin did recently release a CD on Naxos of Vivaldi’s familiar Four Seasons, but unfortunately the conductor was the fussy and fidgety Anthony Newman. It is imperative, for the sake of music-lovers in general and especially violin fans, that some record label with taste (EMI? Philips?) take Lin’s recording schedule in hand and produce the CD’s that this brilliant talent deserves. Even in our distinctly unclassical age, a classical artist of this soaring brilliance must be given his due.

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Our Fallible CIA

I just finished reading Mark Bowden’s gripping account of the Iranian hostage crisis, Guests of the Ayatollah. And just in time, it seems. The Washington Post is proclaiming “A New Iranian Hostage Crisis” caused by Tehran’s illegal detention of Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari.

Bowden’s book has been extensively reviewed (including by Gabriel Schoenfeld in COMMENTARY), and I won’t bother to go over the same ground here. But one point that emerged from his account and that bears emphasizing is the CIA’s long track record of incompetence.

The “students” who took over the U.S. embassy in 1979 were convinced it was a “Den of Spies” plotting to overthrow the Islamic revolution and to assassinate their beloved Ayatollah Khomeini. In reality, as Bowden notes, the entire CIA presence consisted of three newly arrived officers, none of whom spoke Farsi, and who had no useful agents in the entire country. (The agency’s level of perceptiveness is suggested by an August 1978 analysis which concluded that Iran “is not in a revolutionary or even a prerevolutionary situation.”)

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I just finished reading Mark Bowden’s gripping account of the Iranian hostage crisis, Guests of the Ayatollah. And just in time, it seems. The Washington Post is proclaiming “A New Iranian Hostage Crisis” caused by Tehran’s illegal detention of Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari.

Bowden’s book has been extensively reviewed (including by Gabriel Schoenfeld in COMMENTARY), and I won’t bother to go over the same ground here. But one point that emerged from his account and that bears emphasizing is the CIA’s long track record of incompetence.

The “students” who took over the U.S. embassy in 1979 were convinced it was a “Den of Spies” plotting to overthrow the Islamic revolution and to assassinate their beloved Ayatollah Khomeini. In reality, as Bowden notes, the entire CIA presence consisted of three newly arrived officers, none of whom spoke Farsi, and who had no useful agents in the entire country. (The agency’s level of perceptiveness is suggested by an August 1978 analysis which concluded that Iran “is not in a revolutionary or even a prerevolutionary situation.”)

It’s no wonder the agency was so deceived. The CIA had depended for its knowledge of Iran on the Shah’s intelligence service, and when the Shah was overthrown, America’s intelligence agencies were left dumb and blind.

Unfortunately, there is good cause to suspect that conditions have not improved substantially in the past 28 years. The CIA has never had much luck operating in countries where there is not even an American embassy, and it would be remarkable if Iran today were an exception.

In fact, the Robb-Silberman Commission’s 2005 report strongly suggested—with details omitted in its unclassified version—that the American intelligence community has scant knowledge of what’s happening behind the scenes in either the North Korean or Iranian nuclear programs:

We found an intelligence community that has had some significant successes, but that is, on balance, badly equipped and badly organized to confront today’s threats. We found human intelligence collectors who have struggled in vain to find sources with valuable information—and often failed to vet properly the sources they did find. We found technical intelligence collectors whose traditional techniques have declining utility against threats that are increasingly elusive and diffuse. And we found an analytical community too quick to rely upon assumptions or conjecture, and too slow to communicate gaps and uncertainties to policymakers.

But above all, we found an intelligence community that was too disorganized and fragmented to use its many talented people and sophisticated tools effectively.

Keep the above in mind if you happen to read David Samuels’s cover story in the current issue of the Atlantic. Called “Grand Illusions,” it is a veeeery long account of the author’s travels and interviews with Condi Rice during her Middle Eastern diplomatic efforts. Amid the stultifying litany of meetings and press conferences, Samuels nonchalantly passes along a rather startling claim. A claim, in fact, that suggests the CIA is having a lot more behind-the-scenes success in Iran than anyone suspects.

Citing “[s]ources in the United States and the Middle East familiar with the covert side of the American-led effort to push back Iran,” Samuels claims that American agents are responsible for a series of recent events in Iran:

a bomb in Zahedan, the economic center of the province of Baluchistan, that killed 11 soldiers in the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on February 14; the mysterious death of the Iranian scientist Ardashir Hosseinpour, who worked on uranium enrichment at the Isfahan nuclear facility; and the defection of a high ranking Iranian general named Ali Asgari.

If true, this would be good news, indicating that the CIA is conducting an effective covert action against the Iranian regime currently making war on us in Iraq and other places. But a healthy measure of skepticism is warranted. I asked a friend, a former CIA clandestine-service officer, about the veracity of Samuels’s reporting. His response: “It’s all crap. The Atlantic should not have put that in. It couldn’t be further from the truth. The Atlantic should not descend to the level of the New Yorker.”

Of course my friend’s dismissal of these allegations will not convince hardcore conspiracy theorists. They will think that his words are part of an elaborate disinformation campaign. There is, apparently, no shortage of people, especially abroad, who watch movies like Spy Game (2001) and The Bourne Identity (2002) and think that they provide an accurate picture of CIA capabilities—that with a few words the CIA director can launch a commando mission to free a spy from a Chinese prison or send hit teams to Europe to hunt down a renegade agent. While Hollywood often depicts the CIA and other intelligence agencies such as the NSA (Enemy of the State, 1998) as malevolent entities, it inevitably presents them as nearly omnipotent.

Too bad the real world doesn’t bear much resemblance to the reel world. In fact, the upcoming film based on the classic TV series Get Smart might provide a more accurate picture of our intelligence capabilities.

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Tutoiement Partout

Tu or vous? Du or Sie? In English, the second person singular has long since ceased to be a source of political controversy—though in the days when Quakers insisted on calling their social superiors “Thee” and “Thou,” it mattered very much. In French and German, it still matters.

Newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy raised eyebrows in Berlin last week on his first official visit by presuming to tutoie Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor: “Chère Angela . . . J’ai confiance en toi.” (Dear Angela . . . I have confidence in you.) Frau Merkel, who addressed him as “Lieber Nicolas” (Dear Nicolas), responded with the formal Sie, at least in public. The French press noted the disparity and gently mocked Mr. Sarkozy—though not nearly as harshly as they did Tony Blair. Blair once dared to tutoie Jacques Chirac, who liked to stand on his dignity as a head of state, deserving deference from mere heads of government. The British prime minister was firmly put in his place. What sounded to British ears like Mr. Chirac’s pomposity was, however, approved of by the French. His Socialist predecessor François Mitterrand was once asked if he would mind if he were addressed as tu: “Si vous voulez” was his reply.

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Tu or vous? Du or Sie? In English, the second person singular has long since ceased to be a source of political controversy—though in the days when Quakers insisted on calling their social superiors “Thee” and “Thou,” it mattered very much. In French and German, it still matters.

Newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy raised eyebrows in Berlin last week on his first official visit by presuming to tutoie Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor: “Chère Angela . . . J’ai confiance en toi.” (Dear Angela . . . I have confidence in you.) Frau Merkel, who addressed him as “Lieber Nicolas” (Dear Nicolas), responded with the formal Sie, at least in public. The French press noted the disparity and gently mocked Mr. Sarkozy—though not nearly as harshly as they did Tony Blair. Blair once dared to tutoie Jacques Chirac, who liked to stand on his dignity as a head of state, deserving deference from mere heads of government. The British prime minister was firmly put in his place. What sounded to British ears like Mr. Chirac’s pomposity was, however, approved of by the French. His Socialist predecessor François Mitterrand was once asked if he would mind if he were addressed as tu: “Si vous voulez” was his reply.

But the proper use of tu and vous is complex. After the French Revolution, the distinction was abolished in the interests of egalité et fraternité. In 1793, the Directory even banned vous altogether. It did not take long, however, for the formal mode of address to make a comeback. In the sixth edition of the great dictionary of the Académie Française, published in 1835, the article on tu is quite explicit: “One does not normally use these pronouns . . . except when speaking to very inferior persons, or to those with whom one is on terms of very great familiarity.” The lexicographer notes various exceptions, including the poetic use of tu when addressing kings, princes, and even God. Foreigners, “particularly Orientals,” were sometimes made to use tu in literary texts “in order to preserve their alien character.” In all other contexts, vous is mandatory.

Now Mr. Sarkozy has decreed that French schools must insist on students saying vous to their teachers. Les profs are strongly advised to pay their older pupils the same compliment. This order represents a minor cultural counter-revolution, in line with the new president’s promise to “liquidate the legacy of May 1968, with its abandonment of moral codes.” But according to an excellent report by Charles Bremner in the London Times, the conservative French newspaper Le Figaro sees the “rampant tutoiement” as “spreading from the business world imitating the Anglo-Saxons and now invading private life.”

This is a bit rich: how often do you hear Americans or Britons say “thee” or “thou” to one another—unless they are performing Shakespeare? The truth is that the informal second person singular in English went out with the Victorians, except in poetry (and was considered old-fashioned even then). Blame for the triumph of tutoiement simply cannot be assigned to the Anglosphere. But you can’t keep the French from blaming everything they don’t like about themselves on “les Anglo-Saxons.”

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Weekend Reading

In 1982, COMMENTARY published in English for the first time The Rebbetzin, a 1974 novella by the Lithuanian writer Chaim Grade (1910-1982). Born in Vilnius, Grade began his intellectual life as a student of the noted Torah scholar Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, but by his late twenties had become one of his city’s most admired writers. The introduction accompanying COMMENTARY’S original publication of the story notes that Grade “specialized in exploring the inner life of East European Jewry between the two world wars—a period when such modernizing forces as secularism, socialism, and Zionism were in active and often ugly conflict with one another and with traditional religious beliefs and practices. No other writer rendered that world and its conflicts more vividly or with more intimate authority than Grade.” Set in Lithuania in the late 1920’s or early 1930’s The Rebbetzin takes as its subject the trials and tribulations of the aging rabbi Koenisgberg, his wife Perele, and their adult children. This weekend, we offer The Rebbetzin in its entirety, as translated from the Yiddish by Harold Rabinowitz and Inna Hecker Grade.

In 1982, COMMENTARY published in English for the first time The Rebbetzin, a 1974 novella by the Lithuanian writer Chaim Grade (1910-1982). Born in Vilnius, Grade began his intellectual life as a student of the noted Torah scholar Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, but by his late twenties had become one of his city’s most admired writers. The introduction accompanying COMMENTARY’S original publication of the story notes that Grade “specialized in exploring the inner life of East European Jewry between the two world wars—a period when such modernizing forces as secularism, socialism, and Zionism were in active and often ugly conflict with one another and with traditional religious beliefs and practices. No other writer rendered that world and its conflicts more vividly or with more intimate authority than Grade.” Set in Lithuania in the late 1920’s or early 1930’s The Rebbetzin takes as its subject the trials and tribulations of the aging rabbi Koenisgberg, his wife Perele, and their adult children. This weekend, we offer The Rebbetzin in its entirety, as translated from the Yiddish by Harold Rabinowitz and Inna Hecker Grade.

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All You Have to Do Is DREAM

It hasn’t received much attention, but added at that last minute to the recent immigration reform bill was a provision called the DREAM Act, which has strong bipartisan support from such disparate backers as John Kerry and Orrin Hatch. This legislation would create a fast-track toward citizenship for a select group of undocumented immigrants—those who entered the U.S. before age 16, have no criminal record, graduate from high school, and then complete two years either in the military or in college.

This is a good step but doesn’t go nearly far enough for my liking. The essential principle of the DREAM Act—that you can earn citizenship through productive behavior—ought to be expanded. We should offer citizenship to anyone who is willing to serve a set term in the U.S. armed forces—say, four years. This is a proposal that I’ve made in several articles over the past few years, and one that could address a number of problems at once. It could lessen our current recruiting difficulties, increase the knowledge of foreign languages and cultures within the armed forces, and provide a fresh path to assimilation for a self-selected group of highly motivated immigrants.

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It hasn’t received much attention, but added at that last minute to the recent immigration reform bill was a provision called the DREAM Act, which has strong bipartisan support from such disparate backers as John Kerry and Orrin Hatch. This legislation would create a fast-track toward citizenship for a select group of undocumented immigrants—those who entered the U.S. before age 16, have no criminal record, graduate from high school, and then complete two years either in the military or in college.

This is a good step but doesn’t go nearly far enough for my liking. The essential principle of the DREAM Act—that you can earn citizenship through productive behavior—ought to be expanded. We should offer citizenship to anyone who is willing to serve a set term in the U.S. armed forces—say, four years. This is a proposal that I’ve made in several articles over the past few years, and one that could address a number of problems at once. It could lessen our current recruiting difficulties, increase the knowledge of foreign languages and cultures within the armed forces, and provide a fresh path to assimilation for a self-selected group of highly motivated immigrants.

Under this plan, standards would not be dropped for our armed forces—they would actually be increased. At the moment, to maintain recruiting numbers, the army, in particular, is accepting more recruits who would not have been signed up a few years ago—those with low intelligence scores and records of minor criminal offenses. The army is also flunking fewer recruits out of boot camp. By dramatically expanding the recruiting pool—from only American citizens or green card holders to anyone anywhere on earth who would like to become an American citizen—we would make it easier to maintain the high standards that our professional military requires. All recruits, American or not, would have to know English, pass background checks, have a high-school diploma, and so forth.

This would be a natural expansion not only of the DREAM Act but of existing legislation which provides a faster path to citizenship for the 40,000 green card holders currently serving in the U.S. military. Many of them have distinguished themselves on the battlefield, as this Washington Post article notes.

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Seoul Train

On May 17, two trains, one moving south and the other north, crossed the demilitarized zone, the strip of land that divides the two Koreas. The last time a train traveled through what is now the DMZ was in 1951 during the Korean war.

“It is not simply a test run,” proclaimed South Korea’s unification minister, Lee Jae-jeong. “It means reconnecting the severed bloodline of our people.” But the reconnection lasted for only a few hours. There are no plans for regular service, or even further tests. There will be no more train runs until the south comes up with even more piles of cash. Seoul underwrote the entire cost of about $600 million to remove mines from the DMZ, reconnect the rail lines, and build stations. The work was completed in 2003, but no test run occurred until this month because of North Korea’s intransigence. To permit the trains to make their short runs last week, the south had to fork over another $86.5 million in aid to Pyongyang.

“I cannot understand why we should give rice, flour, fertilizer, and everything else the North Koreans want when they don’t do anything for us,” said Hong Moo-sun, a South Korean who demonstrated against last week’s test. Many foreigners would agree with Hong, especially because North Korea’s missile tests last July and nuclear detonation in October implicitly threatened the south. Yet there is a perfectly logical reason why the South Korean government engages in diplomacy that appears to be utterly inexplicable: the quest for political popularity.

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On May 17, two trains, one moving south and the other north, crossed the demilitarized zone, the strip of land that divides the two Koreas. The last time a train traveled through what is now the DMZ was in 1951 during the Korean war.

“It is not simply a test run,” proclaimed South Korea’s unification minister, Lee Jae-jeong. “It means reconnecting the severed bloodline of our people.” But the reconnection lasted for only a few hours. There are no plans for regular service, or even further tests. There will be no more train runs until the south comes up with even more piles of cash. Seoul underwrote the entire cost of about $600 million to remove mines from the DMZ, reconnect the rail lines, and build stations. The work was completed in 2003, but no test run occurred until this month because of North Korea’s intransigence. To permit the trains to make their short runs last week, the south had to fork over another $86.5 million in aid to Pyongyang.

“I cannot understand why we should give rice, flour, fertilizer, and everything else the North Koreans want when they don’t do anything for us,” said Hong Moo-sun, a South Korean who demonstrated against last week’s test. Many foreigners would agree with Hong, especially because North Korea’s missile tests last July and nuclear detonation in October implicitly threatened the south. Yet there is a perfectly logical reason why the South Korean government engages in diplomacy that appears to be utterly inexplicable: the quest for political popularity.

President Roh Moo-hyun’s approval rating has at times dipped to single digits this year, with his leftist Uri party scoring around 10 percent. Roh’s “peace and prosperity policy”—the continuation of his predecessor Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine policy” of engaging the north—has produced few results. For this and other reasons, the conservative Grand National party looks likely to win the next presidential election, which will be held in December. Roh and the Uri party are desperate to show the electorate that the North Koreans are responding to Seoul’s especially soft brand of diplomacy. The train test, therefore, is essentially an expensive campaign maneuver intended to bolster the chances of Roh’s so-called “progressives” in December.

It is in the interest of the U.S. to keep these staged extravaganzas to a minimum, and to restrict Kim Jong Il’s sway with the South Korean electorate. If Kim is successful in influencing the next election, it will be our own fault. The train test could not have occurred if the Bush administration had not reversed its long-held position last February and agreed to an interim—and deeply flawed—nuclear deal with Pyongyang. That arrangement, which Kim has so far failed to honor, has given an excuse to South Korean politicians to restart aid to Pyongyang.

Why has the U.S., the strongest nation in history, been unable to disarm one of the world’s most destitute states? In part because our own diplomacy undermines that effort by helping our adversary.

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