Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 17, 2007

Bring on Bolton

Why isn’t John Bolton running for President? In contrast to a line-up of Republican candidates that seems, at least from a transatlantic perspective, somewhat lackluster, the former ambassador to the U.N. looks and sounds like a real leader. As he is not yet running for office, why doesn’t one of the candidates—Rudy Giuliani, for instance—consider him seriously as a running mate? Bolton looks like Teddy Roosevelt and talks like Ronald Reagan. What more do you want?

On Wednesday, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Bolton gave us a series of robust reminders of why his tenure at the U.N. was so controversial. He has no difficulty comparing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler in public, as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney reportedly do in private, and he thinks the present situation with Iran is analogous to that of 1936, when the appeasers in Europe and isolationists in America carried the day: “I think you’re at a Hitler marching into the Rhineland point. If you don’t stop it then, the future is in his hands, not in your hands, just as the future decisions on their nuclear program would be in Iran’s hands, not ours.”

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Why isn’t John Bolton running for President? In contrast to a line-up of Republican candidates that seems, at least from a transatlantic perspective, somewhat lackluster, the former ambassador to the U.N. looks and sounds like a real leader. As he is not yet running for office, why doesn’t one of the candidates—Rudy Giuliani, for instance—consider him seriously as a running mate? Bolton looks like Teddy Roosevelt and talks like Ronald Reagan. What more do you want?

On Wednesday, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Bolton gave us a series of robust reminders of why his tenure at the U.N. was so controversial. He has no difficulty comparing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler in public, as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney reportedly do in private, and he thinks the present situation with Iran is analogous to that of 1936, when the appeasers in Europe and isolationists in America carried the day: “I think you’re at a Hitler marching into the Rhineland point. If you don’t stop it then, the future is in his hands, not in your hands, just as the future decisions on their nuclear program would be in Iran’s hands, not ours.”

Bolton warns that Iran “is not going to be talked out of its nuclear program. So to stop them from doing it, we have to massively increase the pressure.” It is too late to halt the uranium enrichment program, so the priority now is to prevent industrial-scale production. He favors economic sanctions “with pain” as the next step, followed by a serious attempt to bring about regime change from within. “And if all else fails, if the choice is between a nuclear-capable Iran and the use of force, then I think we need to look at the use of force.”

He is not insouciant about the risks of air-strikes: “It’s very risky for the price of oil, risky because you could, let’s say, take out their enrichment capabilities at Natanz, and they may have enrichment capabilities elsewhere you don’t know about.” But he is clear-sighted about the much greater risk of doing nothing: “Imagine what it would be like with a nuclear Iran. Imagine the influence Iran could have over the entire region.”

He is scathing about the “doomed” European attempt to negotiate with Tehran, which Tony Blair reluctantly went along with: “Blair just didn’t focus on it as much as [former Foreign Secretary] Jack Straw did, and it was very much a Foreign Office thing because they wanted to show their European credentials, wanted to work with the Germans and the French to show ‘we’ll solve Iran in a way differently than those cowboy Americans solved Iraq.’” He accuses Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the former British ambassador in Iraq, and other Foreign Office officials of deliberately undermining Mr. Blair’s pro-American policy on a wide range of issues. But he rebuts the claim that Mr. Blair was a “poodle” of Mr. Bush: “Nobody in this administration has thought that. Nobody.”

War leaders are as rare today as they have ever been, and just as precious. I published an essay on the Iranian problem in the current issue of the New Criterion. My conclusion is as follows:

The Iranian regime has been at war with us from the moment it seized power 28 years ago. Ahmadinejad’s Iran represents a lethal combination of nuclear technology and Islamist eschatology. Détente is not an option. Ahmadinejad is not interested in peace; he longs for paradise. The duty of saving the world from the Persian peril falls to us. Leonidas, “the bravest of men,” was said to be descended from Heracles himself. Let us hope and pray that our leaders are made of the same stuff.

John Bolton, for one, most certainly is.

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Bookshelf

• “The aim of poetry,” H.L. Mencken once claimed, “is to give a high and voluptuous plausibility to what is palpably not true.” It would be hard to come up with a less apt explanation of Shakespeare’s eternal appeal. We read him for many reasons, but surely the most basic one is that he tells us—beautifully—what we know is so, in the process strengthening our sense of reality. That such a man must have been by definition intelligent would seem self-evident, but in the never-never land of contemporary academic criticism, nothing is self-evident, and so A.D. Nuttall, lately of Oxford, has written Shakespeare the Thinker (Yale, 428 pp., $30), a book dedicated to the proposition that the Bard was smart.

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• “The aim of poetry,” H.L. Mencken once claimed, “is to give a high and voluptuous plausibility to what is palpably not true.” It would be hard to come up with a less apt explanation of Shakespeare’s eternal appeal. We read him for many reasons, but surely the most basic one is that he tells us—beautifully—what we know is so, in the process strengthening our sense of reality. That such a man must have been by definition intelligent would seem self-evident, but in the never-never land of contemporary academic criticism, nothing is self-evident, and so A.D. Nuttall, lately of Oxford, has written Shakespeare the Thinker (Yale, 428 pp., $30), a book dedicated to the proposition that the Bard was smart.

Nuttall starts off with a bang:

We know what Milton thought about many things. He didn’t believe in the doctrine of the Trinity; he thought the execution of Charles I was morally right; he believed that married couples who didn’t get on should be allowed to divorce. But we have no idea what Shakespeare thought, finally, about any major question. The man is elusive—one might almost say, systematically elusive. There is something eerie about a figure that can write so much and give so little away.

The point, of course, is that Shakespeare’s plays exist in a realm beyond ideology, and that his intelligence consists in his extreme responsiveness to the essential, transhistorical facts of human nature:

Has no one noticed how, while the scholars increasingly seek to confine the meaning of a play to its immediate historical context, directors and actors are playing Shakespeare in 17th-, 18th-, 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century dress, and even, on occasion, in “mixed period” settings? . . . Such productions seem not to destroy or even diminish the force of the plays presented.

Why not? Because Shakespeare is preoccupied with human action and its motivations—and because he is smart about them, very possibly smarter than any other artist who has ever lived:

He thinks about causes and motives, identity and relation, about how pretence can convey truth, or language (by becoming conscious of its own formal character) can actually impede communication. . . . His thought is never still. No sooner has one identified a philosophical “position” than one is forced, by the succeeding play, to modify or extend one’s account.

Having staked his claim, Nuttall bears it out by serving up a series of close, richly idiosyncratic readings of virtually all of Shakespeare’s plays (he skips over King John and The Merry Wives of Windsor). These are not for novices—Shakespeare the Thinker was written for readers already familiar with the plays—but if you know the territory, you will find them immensely illuminating.

I have quoted at length from Shakespeare the Thinker because its quality is not readily communicable in snippets. Nuttall writes in periods, not epigrams. Here is one of his best, a reflection on Hal’s curt dismissal of Falstaff at the end of Henry IV:

The King slaps down Falstaff, but at the same time he is slapping down something in himself. When at the end of the speech the King rules that Falstaff is not to come within ten miles of his person, we sense that he fears the attraction of Falstaff; a truly cold manipulator would not need to make any such provision, would simply forget Falstaff at this point. Despite these moments, the speech of rejection rolls forward unstoppably. It breaks Falstaff’s heart and does the trick, politically. We hate Henry as we watch, but then we have to think, if we are English, “He is doing this for us.”

The whole book is like that, sometimes dense with allusion but always—like Shakespeare himself—bristlingly, stimulatingly intelligent. It is the best book about Shakespeare to cross my desk since I began covering theater for the Wall Street Journal four years ago. I expect to read it more than once, each time with increasing profit. So will you.

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Have NoFEAR: The CIA Is on the Case

Not long after the attacks of 9/11 took the lives of some 3,000 Americans, Congress acted to pass the NoFEAR Act of 2002, putting the CIA under its strictures. If one were to guess by the title and the timing, one might conclude that the NoFEAR Act was designed to reconfigure our lead intelligence agency so that it would be well organized to locate, capture, and/or kill our terrorist adversaries. But one would be wrong. All that the the NoFear Act required was for the CIA to work harder in weeding out discrimination and to post summary statistics on its website about its progress in resolving complaints about things like “sexual” and “non-sexual” harassment. In 2005, the typical such complaint was under investigation for an average of 897 days. By the following year, the CIA had made a huge stride forward and the typical complaint was investigated for an average of only 396 days. 

Meanwhile, Mahmoud Ahmadenijad, Iran’s stark raving president, is bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. Does the CIA have inside sources in Tehran that report to us what he tells his cabinet members, or microphones in his home so that we know what he chats about with his charming wife through her chador? I wouldn’t count on it.

Once upon a time, though, we had a very different kind of intelligence agency.

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Not long after the attacks of 9/11 took the lives of some 3,000 Americans, Congress acted to pass the NoFEAR Act of 2002, putting the CIA under its strictures. If one were to guess by the title and the timing, one might conclude that the NoFEAR Act was designed to reconfigure our lead intelligence agency so that it would be well organized to locate, capture, and/or kill our terrorist adversaries. But one would be wrong. All that the the NoFear Act required was for the CIA to work harder in weeding out discrimination and to post summary statistics on its website about its progress in resolving complaints about things like “sexual” and “non-sexual” harassment. In 2005, the typical such complaint was under investigation for an average of 897 days. By the following year, the CIA had made a huge stride forward and the typical complaint was investigated for an average of only 396 days. 

Meanwhile, Mahmoud Ahmadenijad, Iran’s stark raving president, is bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. Does the CIA have inside sources in Tehran that report to us what he tells his cabinet members, or microphones in his home so that we know what he chats about with his charming wife through her chador? I wouldn’t count on it.

Once upon a time, though, we had a very different kind of intelligence agency.

During the cold war, when the divided city of Berlin was regularly the pivot point of world crises, America’s lead spy agency was vitally interested in knowing what the Russian military high command was talking about in its local headquarters and in its discussions with Moscow. As early as 1948, U.S. intelligence officers began to contemplate the possibility of tapping Soviet and East German communication lines. Sometime in 1952, an actual operation to do just that was set in motion: the Berlin Tunnel project, codenamed PBJOINTLY.  

A clandestine tunnel was mapped out—some 1,500 feet long, extending well into the Soviet zone where military communication cables were known to be buried. A major problem was how to handle the huge volume of extracted dirt without tipping off the omnipresent guards along the border. A number of different ideas were entertained. One CIA employee proposed digging a hole and dumping the dirt into it; out of this facetious suggestion a real solution to the problem was found.

That piquant detail, and the story of the tunnel operation in full, are recounted in an internal CIA history of the operation written in 1967 and only recently declassified (and made available in the invaluable online document repository maintained by the Federation of American Scientists). The episode may have been one of the great U.S. intelligence triumphs of the cold war. But as with all things in the intelligence wilderness of mirrors, maybe not.

The official history notes that the existence of the tunnel was disclosed to the Russians at its inception by a Soviet mole inside British intelligence. For unknown reasons Moscow may then have let it operate only to terminate it on their own schedule. But a good deal of countervailing evidence suggests that PBJOINTLY came to a more prosaic end brought about by bad weather.

In April 1956, heavy rain caused some short-circuits in Soviet cables; repair efforts were made to restore the broken links; in the course of replacing aging lines, Soviet technicians found the equipment chamber at the end of the tunnel where the Americans were tapping their communications. But the CIA, which was very clever back then, had put an official looking sign on the entrance in Russian and German: “Entry Forbidden by Order of the Commanding General.” In case the instruction was disobeyed, they had also placed a microphone inside the chamber. The conversations the CIA picked up made it clear that the Soviets had no idea what they had stumbled upon. Only gradually, as they Russians investigated further, did the nature of the chamber dawn on them.

With that, after eleven months and eleven days of operation, the CIA tunnel project came to an end.  While it was running, however, it provided a wealth of highly sensitive information about Soviet politics and military developments in a range of spheres, including discussion of unrest among Soviet nuclear scientists. The official history comments on the information’s reliability: “Despite our knowledge that certain elements of the Soviet government were aware of our plans to tap these cables, we have no evidence that the Soviets attempted to feed us deception material through this source.”

Could American intelligence replicate such a feat today? We don’t know what we don’t know about the CIA’s successes, so it may be unfair to judge. But with the agency attempting to comply with a hundred absurd congressional mandates that have turned it into a timid and paralytic bureaucracy, it seems highly unlikely. We are in the midst of one of the most dangerous moments in our history, and given what it tells us about our own lack of seriousness in matters of intelligence, the NoFEAR Act itself is one of the major things we have to fear.

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Dispatch from Baghdad

I recently wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal counseling patience in allowing the troop surge in Baghdad to show its impact. This is an e-mail that I received in response from Lieutenant Colonel Steven Miska, commander of a small base that I recently visited in northwest Baghdad, called Forward Operating Base Justice. He agreed to let me share it with COMMENTARY readers:

Max,

Great article. Keep beating this drum. Most of the leaders on the ground simply ignore the political discourse, as it is not helpful to our mission. Nobody wants to be in the middle of a civil war, low-grade or not, but we have found ourselves here. The only solution military leaders on the ground have is to work with the good allies we have made in Iraq.

We have some true patriots that are sacrificing everything and betting on the U.S. to be there for them. How could we look them in the eye if given the order to pull out? The vast majority of the people on the street want what every American wants—hope for tomorrow, good schools and opportunity for their children, a safe neighborhood, employment. Almost nobody trusts the politicians, but they might if they see the coalition forces standing side by side with Iraqi Security Forces for long enough. As the public begins to develop confidence in the Iraqi formations, that trust could rub off into government legitimacy. Our only other option would be to replace the government, which nobody in the U.S. seems to have the political stomach for at this juncture.

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I recently wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal counseling patience in allowing the troop surge in Baghdad to show its impact. This is an e-mail that I received in response from Lieutenant Colonel Steven Miska, commander of a small base that I recently visited in northwest Baghdad, called Forward Operating Base Justice. He agreed to let me share it with COMMENTARY readers:

Max,

Great article. Keep beating this drum. Most of the leaders on the ground simply ignore the political discourse, as it is not helpful to our mission. Nobody wants to be in the middle of a civil war, low-grade or not, but we have found ourselves here. The only solution military leaders on the ground have is to work with the good allies we have made in Iraq.

We have some true patriots that are sacrificing everything and betting on the U.S. to be there for them. How could we look them in the eye if given the order to pull out? The vast majority of the people on the street want what every American wants—hope for tomorrow, good schools and opportunity for their children, a safe neighborhood, employment. Almost nobody trusts the politicians, but they might if they see the coalition forces standing side by side with Iraqi Security Forces for long enough. As the public begins to develop confidence in the Iraqi formations, that trust could rub off into government legitimacy. Our only other option would be to replace the government, which nobody in the U.S. seems to have the political stomach for at this juncture.

Given that reality, we need to stand by the Iraqis. How long, you ask? I am on my second tour following a year in Tikrit from 2004-2005. A realistic goal is to have stabilized this region by the time my eleven-year-old son is old enough to serve in the military. Not that he is preordained to serve, but my hope is he will not have to deal with the complexity and tragedies that I have witnessed in Baghdad over the last eight months. My only other goal is to be able to look myself in the mirror every day, knowing that I stuck to my principles and did as much as possible to win in this very dangerous environment.

If our government decides to prematurely pull out, I would fail to reach both goals, and my son and his generation may find themselves embroiled in something far worse than what we experience now—all because my generation couldn’t get the job done.

Thanks for your continued intelligent contributions to the current debate. I will try to ignore it all and stay focused on the reality of real people trying to find hope for tomorrow on the streets of the most lethal city in the world.

Sincerely,
Steve Miska
LTC, Infantry
Task Force Justice Commander

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