Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 7, 2007

Exporting Repression

Is it wrong to help authoritarian states repress their own citizens? Of course. But the question is rarely posed in Washington these days, which is what made last week’s hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs so notable.

In a brief exchange, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a fiery Republican from Florida, questioned Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte about American exports of security-related articles and services to China for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Negroponte told her that the State Department is the lead agency in the American government for “supporting security for the Olympics,” and that there is a small task force in our embassy in Beijing working on this matter. He promised that in the future he would consult with the House committee, but said he knew nothing more about the issue.

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Is it wrong to help authoritarian states repress their own citizens? Of course. But the question is rarely posed in Washington these days, which is what made last week’s hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs so notable.

In a brief exchange, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a fiery Republican from Florida, questioned Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte about American exports of security-related articles and services to China for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Negroponte told her that the State Department is the lead agency in the American government for “supporting security for the Olympics,” and that there is a small task force in our embassy in Beijing working on this matter. He promised that in the future he would consult with the House committee, but said he knew nothing more about the issue.

Mr. Negroponte should have done his homework. For starters, legislation enacted in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre prohibits American companies from exporting crime-control or detection equipment to China. In other words, they cannot sell handcuffs, helmets, and shotguns. But the Commerce Department, which is supposed to enforce the sanctions, has gutted them by adopting a very narrow definition of security equipment. Police gear is out, but Oracle, Cisco, and Sybase are allowed to sell modern information technology that China needs to trace, track, and arrest drug dealers.

Representative Tom Lantos, the committee’s chairman, tried to draw a bright line between helping the Chinese prevent terrorist acts at the Olympic Games and contributing to the suppression of free speech by the Communist party. But that isn’t possible. If the U.S. helps Beijing track terrorists, it is also helping Beijing round up anyone else it pleases—not just drug dealers but dissidents and democracy activists too.

The U.S. does receive some benefit by cooperating on security matters with China. We win the right to screen American-bound containers on Chinese soil, get help in solving run-of-the-mill crimes, and obtain assistance in the global struggle against terrorists. Yet Beijing gets at least as much as it gives, especially in terms of help tracking down elements perceived as enemies by the regime.

The issues involved are complex, but Washington policymakers have not yet had honest conversations with the American people about the consequences of our assistance to China. As Representative Ros-Lehtinen suggests, the costs may end up being far too high.

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November Surprise

In spite of what the polls supposedly tell us, I strongly suspect that the Democrats may already have blown the 2008 election. Unlike the late Senator Aiken of Vermont, who proposed that we declare victory and get out of Vietnam, the Democrats want us to declare defeat and get out of Iraq. This, they imagine, is what the American people were demanding in the congressional election of 2006.

But it seems far more likely that the message of that election was not “Get out,” but rather “Win, or get out.” In any case, the position the Democrats are now taking can only have the effect of revivifying and reinforcing the sense of them as weak on national security. And this was the very factor that led to the ignominious defeat of their presidential candidate, George McGovern, in 1972, when they also misread the public temper by paying too much attention to the left wing of their party.

Furthermore, reading the first volume of Bill Bennett’s America: The Last Best Hope, I am reminded that the American distrust of defeatist political parties goes back beyond 1972—all the way back, in fact, to the War of 1812. Like Iraq, it was an unpopular war that its Federalist-party opponents called “Mr. Madison’s war,” just as the Democrats today call Iraq “Bush’s war.” In addition, just as the Democrats today keep threatening to cut off funds for Iraq, a number of state governments controlled by the Federalists “refused to supply militia troops for the war effort.” The end result, says Bennett, was that the Federalists would “never again seriously contend for the presidency.”

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In spite of what the polls supposedly tell us, I strongly suspect that the Democrats may already have blown the 2008 election. Unlike the late Senator Aiken of Vermont, who proposed that we declare victory and get out of Vietnam, the Democrats want us to declare defeat and get out of Iraq. This, they imagine, is what the American people were demanding in the congressional election of 2006.

But it seems far more likely that the message of that election was not “Get out,” but rather “Win, or get out.” In any case, the position the Democrats are now taking can only have the effect of revivifying and reinforcing the sense of them as weak on national security. And this was the very factor that led to the ignominious defeat of their presidential candidate, George McGovern, in 1972, when they also misread the public temper by paying too much attention to the left wing of their party.

Furthermore, reading the first volume of Bill Bennett’s America: The Last Best Hope, I am reminded that the American distrust of defeatist political parties goes back beyond 1972—all the way back, in fact, to the War of 1812. Like Iraq, it was an unpopular war that its Federalist-party opponents called “Mr. Madison’s war,” just as the Democrats today call Iraq “Bush’s war.” In addition, just as the Democrats today keep threatening to cut off funds for Iraq, a number of state governments controlled by the Federalists “refused to supply militia troops for the war effort.” The end result, says Bennett, was that the Federalists would “never again seriously contend for the presidency.”

Then, too, there was the Mexican war, into which a Democratic President (the “mendacious Polk,” as he was described by his Whig opponents) led the country in 1846. The Whigs, Bennett writes, were mindful of the damage done to the Federalists by their position on the War of 1812, and therefore they “made sure to vote to supply the troops.” Even so, the Whigs did themselves no political good by acting as though it was Polk’s war and not the nation’s. Although this was not the only or even the main reason they eventually followed the Federalists onto the ash heap of American political history, it surely played a part.

I am not predicting that the Democrats of today will suffer the same fate as the Federalists and the Whigs did. But I do think that they are in the process of ensuring their defeat in the next presidential election. In many respects, of course, the people of this country are very different from their forebears of 1812 and 1846. But I suspect that most of us are not all that different from them in how we view politicians who conspicuously fail to root for American troops fighting in the field, and who seem to think that they can get away with it by sticking the responsibility for the war on the sitting president of the other party. In 1972, this deeply ingrained American attitude still had enough life in it to give Richard Nixon, unpopular though he was, an overwhelming victory against George McGovern. Unless the American leopard has changed his spots since then, the Democrats are in for a very big surprise in November 2008.

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Will They Have Died in Vain?

On October 23, 1983, 241 American Marines were killed by a suicide bomber in Lebanon. “Not easy,” wrote Ronald Reagan in his diary about the painful task of telephoning the parents of the dead. “One father asked if they were in Lebanon for anything that was worth his son’s life.” The answer—not spoken but implicit in the fact that Reagan was shortly to withdraw all American forces from the war-torn country—was evidently “no.” Lebanon’s civil war raged on for almost another decade without further American interference. From the standpoint of history, the Marines had perished in vain.

We have now lost almost 3,400 soldiers in Iraq. Over the weekend another dozen Americans were added to the list, along with a great many more Iraqis. Will they, too, be seen to have perished in vain, their lives “wasted”—to employ the politically insensitive word that Barack Obama used earlier this year and then apologized for?

With each American casualty, the pressure is building for a rapid American withdrawal. The Democratic-controlled Congress wants to impose a deadline on the American presence. It is threatening to cut off funds for the war effort. Yet if the United States withdraws from Iraq, leaving in its wake a raging civil war and a fertile breeding ground for Islamic terrorists, history’s answer to that terrible question—have they died in vain?—will be all too clear.

But supporting a war that is going badly, in which American forces are getting continually hammered, is emotionally, morally, and intellectually arduous. To those of us who do not want to see American soldiers die and die needlessly, it may be time, then, to tip our hats to those in public life—soldiers, politicians, and intellectuals—who are not only being steadfast but are finding a way forward.

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On October 23, 1983, 241 American Marines were killed by a suicide bomber in Lebanon. “Not easy,” wrote Ronald Reagan in his diary about the painful task of telephoning the parents of the dead. “One father asked if they were in Lebanon for anything that was worth his son’s life.” The answer—not spoken but implicit in the fact that Reagan was shortly to withdraw all American forces from the war-torn country—was evidently “no.” Lebanon’s civil war raged on for almost another decade without further American interference. From the standpoint of history, the Marines had perished in vain.

We have now lost almost 3,400 soldiers in Iraq. Over the weekend another dozen Americans were added to the list, along with a great many more Iraqis. Will they, too, be seen to have perished in vain, their lives “wasted”—to employ the politically insensitive word that Barack Obama used earlier this year and then apologized for?

With each American casualty, the pressure is building for a rapid American withdrawal. The Democratic-controlled Congress wants to impose a deadline on the American presence. It is threatening to cut off funds for the war effort. Yet if the United States withdraws from Iraq, leaving in its wake a raging civil war and a fertile breeding ground for Islamic terrorists, history’s answer to that terrible question—have they died in vain?—will be all too clear.

But supporting a war that is going badly, in which American forces are getting continually hammered, is emotionally, morally, and intellectually arduous. To those of us who do not want to see American soldiers die and die needlessly, it may be time, then, to tip our hats to those in public life—soldiers, politicians, and intellectuals—who are not only being steadfast but are finding a way forward.

Among the last-named group is Frederick W. Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, a penetrating analyst of military affairs and one of the initial proponents of the current “surge.” In yesterday’s New York Times, Kagan offered some preliminary evidence suggesting that the new strategy is working. He also offered compelling answers to the many critics of the war who are eager to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

We cannot know yet whether Kagan will be proved right or wrong. History may charge the Bush administration with the unforgivable offense of having done too little too late when it moved in this new direction. But what Kagan’s analysis does make plain is that the decisive battle is not in Iraq, but here at home.

There are many—liberals and conservatives alike—who initially supported the war but who now appear to believe that defeat is inevitable. Some of them are busy retroactively revising their own earlier hawkish positions by means of flimsily constructed, ex-post-facto analyses of what led us into what one such intellectual—Andrew Sullivan—has called “a bloody and endless trap.” His reversal—see my Tiramisu Andrew?—is a case study in irresponsibility in wartime.

Giving in to such pessimism now would generate a self-fulfilling prophecy. But pushing forward without regaining the backing of the public may just prolong the agony—which is why the Bush administration and supporters of the war need to mount a concentrated campaign to persuade the American people to give our forces time to let the new strategy succeed.

If we fail in this, and if the Democrats make good on their promise to pull the plug, then the American soldiers who are killed between now and then will be added by history to the tally of those who died pointlessly.

That would be both a disaster and a crime.

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Is Abstract Back?

Is abstraction in the midst of a revival? In a lengthy essay in ARTnews, deputy editor Barbara A. MacAdam makes the case that it is:

Just as the figure—once disparaged as academic, facile, or simply frumpy—experienced a renascence, showing up in numerous guises to suit the social, political, and artistic moment, abstract art has been flaunting its brilliant past and reconfiguring itself for the present and future.

As evidence she cites the flurry of recent exhibitions highlighting both contemporary abstract painters and those of the 1960’s. Moreover, England’s Turner Prize, that bellwether of academic trendiness, recently went to Tomma Abts, a German-born painter known for her cool geometric abstraction. Just a year earlier the prize was awarded to Simon Starling, whose project involved converting a vacant wooden shack into a boat, sailing it to Basel, and reassembling it into a shack. The Turner has been taken home often in recent years by conceptual tricksters such as Gilbert and George (1986) and Damien Hirst (1995). That it has now gone to a lyrical painter is indeed a sign that things have changed.

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Is abstraction in the midst of a revival? In a lengthy essay in ARTnews, deputy editor Barbara A. MacAdam makes the case that it is:

Just as the figure—once disparaged as academic, facile, or simply frumpy—experienced a renascence, showing up in numerous guises to suit the social, political, and artistic moment, abstract art has been flaunting its brilliant past and reconfiguring itself for the present and future.

As evidence she cites the flurry of recent exhibitions highlighting both contemporary abstract painters and those of the 1960’s. Moreover, England’s Turner Prize, that bellwether of academic trendiness, recently went to Tomma Abts, a German-born painter known for her cool geometric abstraction. Just a year earlier the prize was awarded to Simon Starling, whose project involved converting a vacant wooden shack into a boat, sailing it to Basel, and reassembling it into a shack. The Turner has been taken home often in recent years by conceptual tricksters such as Gilbert and George (1986) and Damien Hirst (1995). That it has now gone to a lyrical painter is indeed a sign that things have changed.

Such is the influence of ARTnews, of course, that for it to pose the question of abstraction’s return is probably enough to make that return happen. But is this a genuine revival, in the sense of a living renewal? Or is it merely a return to proven material during a time of creative doldrums, as with Hollywood’s endless recycling of plots, themes, and brands?

What MacAdam does not acknowledge is the extent to which America’s postwar abstraction was the product of a peculiar cultural moment. The forces that gave it its deeper resonance—the social pressures released by the end of a world war, the rise of psychology and psychiatry, the unleashing of atomic power—cannot be repeated. One might revive its techniques and mannerisms, one might mimic its swagger, but one cannot summon back its euphoric urgency. And without those underlying tensions, abstraction is less of a spiritual language, proclaiming the collective passions and anxieties of the age, than a decorative vernacular.

It is striking that the abstract artists now being revived are those of the 1960’s—those whose work had already absorbed the deadpan austerity of Minimalism—and not the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950’s. Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Willem DeKooning are not mentioned in MacAdam’s piece. The trend that she has identified is fascinating. But it is not so much an “abstract revival” as a kind of neo-minimalism—gratefully embraced by artists and public alike in a state of collective fatigue over the stridently politicized art of the past generation.

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