Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 24, 2007

Cry for Harry, England, and Saint George

The British Army’s decision last week not to send Prince Harry to Iraq is unfortunate on at least three counts. It is a personal blow for the prince himself, who despite his off-duty antics is by all accounts a highly professional young officer eager to share the perils faced by his comrades. It will do nothing for British morale, already damaged by the humiliation of their naval hostages by Iran. Most importantly, the decision is a propaganda coup for the Islamist terrorists. Britain’s reluctance to commit the third-in-line to its throne to battle makes the West in general look weak. In doing so it places all coalition troops at greater risk.

Why, then, did General Sir Richard Dannatt, the chief of the British general staff, reverse his announcement only three weeks ago that the prince would be deployed? The answer is: Iran. British forces in Basra and the provinces bordering Iran lost twelve soldier in April—a higher casualty rate in proportion to their numbers (about 7,000) than those suffered by the much larger American forces. These heavier losses are attributed by the British to Iranian agents, who are supplying sophisticated weaponry and intelligence to the local insurgency. According to American Special Forces, they are doing the same for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Islamist websites have been threatening to target Prince Harry ever since his deployment was—most unwisely—made public in February. The kidnapping of three U.S. soldiers two weeks ago will have added to the credibility of these threats.

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The British Army’s decision last week not to send Prince Harry to Iraq is unfortunate on at least three counts. It is a personal blow for the prince himself, who despite his off-duty antics is by all accounts a highly professional young officer eager to share the perils faced by his comrades. It will do nothing for British morale, already damaged by the humiliation of their naval hostages by Iran. Most importantly, the decision is a propaganda coup for the Islamist terrorists. Britain’s reluctance to commit the third-in-line to its throne to battle makes the West in general look weak. In doing so it places all coalition troops at greater risk.

Why, then, did General Sir Richard Dannatt, the chief of the British general staff, reverse his announcement only three weeks ago that the prince would be deployed? The answer is: Iran. British forces in Basra and the provinces bordering Iran lost twelve soldier in April—a higher casualty rate in proportion to their numbers (about 7,000) than those suffered by the much larger American forces. These heavier losses are attributed by the British to Iranian agents, who are supplying sophisticated weaponry and intelligence to the local insurgency. According to American Special Forces, they are doing the same for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Islamist websites have been threatening to target Prince Harry ever since his deployment was—most unwisely—made public in February. The kidnapping of three U.S. soldiers two weeks ago will have added to the credibility of these threats.

In the light of new intelligence about ever-bolder Iranian activity in Iraq, General Dannatt found himself between a rock and a hard place. If he had stuck to his guns and sent Harry into action, not only the prince but those under his command would be vulnerable. Thanks to ubiquitous media coverage, which the British authorities had initially encouraged, the terrorists knew both where the prince could be found and even what type of vehicle he would use. Iran would almost certainly have put a price on his head to encourage assassins to try their luck. To kill such a high-profile “crusader” would be portrayed as a great victory by Islamists everywhere. To capture him would create the mother of all hostage crises. Militarily, Harry would be more trouble than he was worth. (Politically, too, his deployment had become a liability for the incoming administration of Gordon Brown.)

Discretion may often be the better part of valor, but this affair has been handled with indiscretion. Only a mind no longer confident of ultimate victory would have made such a hash of it. Just as the British navy mishandled the abduction of sailors and marines by the Iranians, so the British army has mishandled what ought to have been an operational decision.

And General Dannatt has a record of indiscretion. Last year he gave an interview in which he claimed that the British presence in Iraq was “exacerbating” instability. The general beat a hasty retreat, but not fast enough to dispel he impression that he was at odds with his government. Now he has again been forced to countermand his original decision. As the French military proverb has it: order, counter-order, disorder.

The vacillation over Prince Harry is all the more regrettable because British royalty has an admirable tradition of taking their places in the firing line. No British monarch has led his troops into battle since George II at Dettingen in 1743, but lesser members of the royal family have often seen combat, most recently in the Falklands war. As anyone who has seen The Queen will know, the young Princess Elizabeth served (at her own insistence) as a driver in the armed forces at the end of the Second World War. In those days, Shakespeare’s Henry V was still the model for soldiers going into battle: “Cry God for Harry, England, and Saint George!” Iraq may not be Agincourt, but even modern armies need their officers to set them an example of courage. Prince Harry should not have been denied the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of his forefathers.

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Let’s Not Worry Too Much About North Korea

Yes, they are developing nuclear weapons and tested one last October, but it may have been a partial dud. And apart from that, and apart from the fact that some 57 years ago they launched the Korean war, they’ve been a law-abiding member of the community of nations ever since, haven’t they? What have they done recently to violate the rules of comity? What in the world led President Bush to include them in his “axis of evil”? 

Former President Jimmy Carter believes that Bush’s statement was a reckless disaster that had the effect of tossing the fruits of his diplomacy “in the wastebasket.” Carter may be right. Or, on the other hand, he may be wrong. The non-partisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) has just issued an update of its report on Pyongyong’s international behavior, titled North Korean Provocative Actions, 1950-2007, which is helpful in sorting things out (hat tip: Secrecy News).

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Yes, they are developing nuclear weapons and tested one last October, but it may have been a partial dud. And apart from that, and apart from the fact that some 57 years ago they launched the Korean war, they’ve been a law-abiding member of the community of nations ever since, haven’t they? What have they done recently to violate the rules of comity? What in the world led President Bush to include them in his “axis of evil”? 

Former President Jimmy Carter believes that Bush’s statement was a reckless disaster that had the effect of tossing the fruits of his diplomacy “in the wastebasket.” Carter may be right. Or, on the other hand, he may be wrong. The non-partisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) has just issued an update of its report on Pyongyong’s international behavior, titled North Korean Provocative Actions, 1950-2007, which is helpful in sorting things out (hat tip: Secrecy News).

The report begins with some definitions. The term “provocation,” is defined to include the following activities: “armed invasion; border violations; infiltration of armed saboteurs and spies; hijacking; kidnapping; terrorism (including assassination and bombing); threats/intimidation against political leaders, media personnel, and institutions; incitement aimed at the overthrow of the South Korean government; actions undertaken to impede progress in major negotiations; and tests of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.”

Over the years, the North has done all these things, many of them more than once. The bellicose activity was particularly intense in the 1960’s and the decades surrounding it, i.e., in the 50′s and the 70′s, and also in the 80′s and 90′s: “From 1954 to 1992, North Korea is reported to have infiltrated a total of 3,693 armed agents into South Korea, with 1967 and 1968 accounting for 20% of the total.” But lately the North Koreans have appeared to calm down:

Reported provocations have continued intermittently in recent years, in the form of armed incursions, kidnappings, and occasional threats to turn the South Korean capital of Seoul into “a sea of fire” and to silence or tame South Korean critics of North Korea. Then, in July 2006, North Korea launched seven missiles into the Sea of Japan, and in October 2006, it tested a nuclear bomb.

Thus, there is nothing to worry about, nothing at all.

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Immigration Priorities

Considered piece by piece, the proposed immigration-reform bill hammered out last week has more to recommend it than many conservatives acknowledge. But considered as a whole, the bill (or at least the version of it that made the rounds online this weekend) suffers from a disturbing confusion of priorities. It aims, above all, at normalizing the status of illegal immigrants already in the United States. It certainly does other things, like re-arranging the categories of legal immigrants and requiring 370 miles of new fencing along the 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border, but only as an afterthought.

Unlike most opponents of the bill, I support finding some way to normalize the status of illegal immigrants now in America. But to give that goal top priority—as the authors of this bill clearly have, apart from all the talk of “triggers”—strikes me as a serious mistake, both tactically and substantively.

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Considered piece by piece, the proposed immigration-reform bill hammered out last week has more to recommend it than many conservatives acknowledge. But considered as a whole, the bill (or at least the version of it that made the rounds online this weekend) suffers from a disturbing confusion of priorities. It aims, above all, at normalizing the status of illegal immigrants already in the United States. It certainly does other things, like re-arranging the categories of legal immigrants and requiring 370 miles of new fencing along the 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border, but only as an afterthought.

Unlike most opponents of the bill, I support finding some way to normalize the status of illegal immigrants now in America. But to give that goal top priority—as the authors of this bill clearly have, apart from all the talk of “triggers”—strikes me as a serious mistake, both tactically and substantively.

“Living in the shadows” is a serious problem for those here illegally. But for America as a whole, there are two much larger problems: that our borders are not secure, and that our legal immigration system is badly broken.

True control of the border should not be a controversial goal, and taking serious steps in that direction would go far toward calming public concerns about immigration and diffusing the populist time-bomb that immigration has become. Reforming legal immigration should also get more attention than it does in this debate.

In this regard, the proposed bill actually takes steps in the right direction—toward eliminating the visa lottery, for example, and shifting the focus of our immigration policy away from extended-family unification toward skills- and employment-based immigration. But the way the bill is structured and written employs all those bits and pieces in the service of the larger goal of normalizing the status of illegal immigrants, mistaking the smaller problem for the larger.

In the current issue of COMMENTARY, I discuss why reforms to the legal immigration system (together with improvements in our approach to the assimilation of immigrants) matter more than what we do about the status of illegal immigrants, and I try to show how such reforms can help us remain a society that welcomes and appreciates immigrants. But these reforms are clearly secondary in the bill.

Washington has to take this issue up in the way the American public understands the problem—as a problem of respect for the law and of our future as a nation that can successfully integrate newcomers. Instead, the President and Congress have presented it in the most divisive way possible—treating the lawbreaker, not the law, as in need of protection.

A bill that included only the border-protection and legal-immigration reforms of the new proposal could be a unifying measure. But by assigning top priority to normalization, the new bill will only exacerbate concerns about immigration—and about the ability of our leaders to understand the public’s concerns. It has done serious damage to the prospects for meaningful change.

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Why The Four Seasons ?

The Four Seasons, a set of four violin concertos by the Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), remains one of the all-time bestsellers in classical recording, with over 200 CD versions currently in print (the large majority of them bad, it must be added as a caveat). Written in 1723 as part of a twelve-concerto series entitled “The Contest Between Harmony and Invention,” The Four Seasons has appeared in endless guises in pop culture, particularly on the soundtracks of films: The Banger Sisters, A View to a Kill, Flubber, Up Close and Personal, Tin Cup, and Salem’s Lot, among countless others.

What makes Vivaldi’s work such an all-encompassing hit? The Four Seasons is a pioneering example of program music, evoking the sounds of nature (birdsong, the buzz of insects, dogs barking, and other effects) with the orchestral ensemble and solo violin. By basing his music on nature, Vivaldi attained lasting universality; had he chosen a subject from Greek mythology as a theme, audiences today might find the subjects arcane. Instead, the “Spring” concerto expresses sprightly high spirits, while the “Winter” concerto still sounds starkly moving. Some listeners disagree, like the composer Igor Stravinsky, who made the oft-reprinted crack that Vivaldi wrote the “same concerto four hundred times.” In fact, Vivaldi wrote even more concertos than that; 500 or so survive. (Some sifting is clearly necessary among the many recordings available.)

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The Four Seasons, a set of four violin concertos by the Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), remains one of the all-time bestsellers in classical recording, with over 200 CD versions currently in print (the large majority of them bad, it must be added as a caveat). Written in 1723 as part of a twelve-concerto series entitled “The Contest Between Harmony and Invention,” The Four Seasons has appeared in endless guises in pop culture, particularly on the soundtracks of films: The Banger Sisters, A View to a Kill, Flubber, Up Close and Personal, Tin Cup, and Salem’s Lot, among countless others.

What makes Vivaldi’s work such an all-encompassing hit? The Four Seasons is a pioneering example of program music, evoking the sounds of nature (birdsong, the buzz of insects, dogs barking, and other effects) with the orchestral ensemble and solo violin. By basing his music on nature, Vivaldi attained lasting universality; had he chosen a subject from Greek mythology as a theme, audiences today might find the subjects arcane. Instead, the “Spring” concerto expresses sprightly high spirits, while the “Winter” concerto still sounds starkly moving. Some listeners disagree, like the composer Igor Stravinsky, who made the oft-reprinted crack that Vivaldi wrote the “same concerto four hundred times.” In fact, Vivaldi wrote even more concertos than that; 500 or so survive. (Some sifting is clearly necessary among the many recordings available.)

The Italian maestro Guido Cantelli (1920-1956) conducted the NBC Symphony in “Winter” from The Four Seasons in 1950, recently transferred to CD by Testament. As conducted by Cantelli, Vivaldi’s work reflects the harsh postwar European winters and stark sufferings of his generation. Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) was another sensualist in sound, which made him a delectable conductor of Vivaldi. His 1966 recording of The Four Seasons, reprinted on Cala, is with the New Philharmonia Orchestra. The performance is distinguished by contributions from some of Britain’s finest orchestral musicians, like the stellar violinist Hugh Bean (1929-2003) and harpsichordist Charles Spinks (1915-1992).

The clarity and balance of the British orchestral ideal, which also allows for the expression of passion, is found on another CD of The Four Seasons played by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, led by its first violinist, Iona Brown (available on Hänssler). When Ms. Brown (1941-2004) died, conductor Neville Marriner offered this apt estimation of her talents: “As a violinist, she embraced the Romantic movement with warmth and passion, and in the early classical repertoire she displayed a fastidious elegance that observed the performing conventions of the 18th century without letting the music dry out.”

For those listeners who prefer an “original instruments” approach, a persuasively affectionate rendition is led by Rinaldo Alessandrini in a CD from Naïve that radiates Mediterranean warmth. The Sicilian violinist and conductor Fabio Biondi (b. 1961) offers a more driven, agitated, and dramatic view of The Four Seasons, without going off the rails into mere hysteria, as some of the “authentic approach” versions do. Biondi’s Europa Galante recorded its first attempt at The Four Seasons in 1991 for the brilliant small label Opus 111. It is well worth hunting down the earlier version, yet his 2003 remake for Virgin Classics also contains supplementary works, as well as dazzling musicianship.

Unlike works of visual art made ridiculous through over-familiarity, like the Mona Lisa, over-recorded music, like The Four Seasons, can be eternally renewed by performances as fine as those mentioned above.

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Pragmatism, Hamas-Style

The world woke up this morning to read that Israel had rounded up more than 30 senior members of Hamas, including Nasser Shaer, the education minister in the Palestinian Authority’s cabinet. Was this a mistake on Israel’s part? After all, Shaer is “considered a pragmatist in the movement,” according to the Associated Press.

Hamas is on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. But if one is to judge by much of the reporting about Hamas in recent years, the Islamic organization is a veritable hotbed not of terrorism but of pragmatism.

Thus, according to an April dispatch from the AP, Hamas filled its seats in the Palestinian Authority cabinet “with professionals and pragmatists, keeping its ideologues at home.”

Azik Dweik, the Hamas speaker of the parliament, is “viewed as a pragmatist,” according to the New York Times.

And then, of course, there is the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, whose “folksy nature,” reports the AP, “has won him the label of pragmatist.”

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The world woke up this morning to read that Israel had rounded up more than 30 senior members of Hamas, including Nasser Shaer, the education minister in the Palestinian Authority’s cabinet. Was this a mistake on Israel’s part? After all, Shaer is “considered a pragmatist in the movement,” according to the Associated Press.

Hamas is on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. But if one is to judge by much of the reporting about Hamas in recent years, the Islamic organization is a veritable hotbed not of terrorism but of pragmatism.

Thus, according to an April dispatch from the AP, Hamas filled its seats in the Palestinian Authority cabinet “with professionals and pragmatists, keeping its ideologues at home.”

Azik Dweik, the Hamas speaker of the parliament, is “viewed as a pragmatist,” according to the New York Times.

And then, of course, there is the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, whose “folksy nature,” reports the AP, “has won him the label of pragmatist.”

For its part, the Economist sees a path to end the “cycle of violence”: interested parties should seek to “cajole the relative pragmatists in Hamas (yes, they do exist) into accepting the reality of Israel and, of course, into disavowing violence.”

What exactly is pragmatism in the context of Hamas? It is rarely defined. One exception can be found in a 2003 column in the Washington Post by a Jerusalem-based producer for ABC news under the headline “A True Palestinian Pragmatist.” It was a portrait of a senior member of Hamas, who had only just been killed by missiles fired from an Israeli helicopter. “The last time I visited Ismail Abu Shanab three weeks ago he was smiling” and “[s]troking his daughter’s head.” His death “affords a glimpse into the paradoxical life of a Palestinian pragmatist—a person who backs peace while railing against it.”

Of course, this “true Palestinian pragmatist,” the Post column was careful to caution, “was no saint.” He was an active participant in “an Islamic terrorist organization that has killed hundreds of Israeli civilians in suicide bombings. He served time in prison for the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier. He denounced American imperialism and Washington’s conspiracies against the Arabs. He often spoke of how the Zionist lobby controlled the United States.”

Yet on the other side of the coin, Shanab “was not your average terrorist either” and he “tried to avoid praising suicide bombings.” In the end, he only “grudgingly offered himself as a martyr for the national cause.” But grudging martyr for the national cause or not, at least he was a pragmatist—“a person who backs peace while railing against it.”

Even though Shanab was killed by Israel, Hamas seems to contain many more pragmatists just like him. They fervently back peace even as they grudgingly, or not so grudgingly, fire Qassam rockets into Israel and call for its inhabitants to be driven into the sea. As journalists around the world all seem to know—perhaps it is something taught in journalism school—pragmatism is a wonderfully flexible term. 

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Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

There is no shortage of bad news from Iraq, such as the bombing of another market in Baghdad that reportedly killed 25 people on Tuesday, another suicide bombing near the Iranian border that killed fifteen people on Wednesday, and various other attacks around the country that killed seven U.S. soldiers and two marines. Yet amid the inevitable setbacks there are also some modest signs of progress.

On Saturday, U.S. Special Operations forces killed Sheikh Azhar al-Dulaymi, a major-league bad guy responsible for the daring operation in Karbala on January 20th, in which attackers disguised as U.S. troops invaded a government compound and killed five American soldiers. The U.S. military command said that intelligence indicated that Dulaymi had received training from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and their Lebanese Hizballah puppets.

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There is no shortage of bad news from Iraq, such as the bombing of another market in Baghdad that reportedly killed 25 people on Tuesday, another suicide bombing near the Iranian border that killed fifteen people on Wednesday, and various other attacks around the country that killed seven U.S. soldiers and two marines. Yet amid the inevitable setbacks there are also some modest signs of progress.

On Saturday, U.S. Special Operations forces killed Sheikh Azhar al-Dulaymi, a major-league bad guy responsible for the daring operation in Karbala on January 20th, in which attackers disguised as U.S. troops invaded a government compound and killed five American soldiers. The U.S. military command said that intelligence indicated that Dulaymi had received training from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and their Lebanese Hizballah puppets.

U.S. forces have also rolled up a gang of insurgents responsible for downing a string of our helicopters. As summarized by USA Today:

Enemy fighters shot down six military helicopters in January and February, killing 23 servicemembers. Heavy machine guns were used in four attacks and small arms in one assault. A missile was used to down one of the six helicopters. Two private contractor helicopters were also shot down during that time.

But, as the newspaper continues, “There haven’t been any fatal helicopter attacks since February.” This may be attributed to a combination of factors. One shouldn’t discount the role of pure, dumb luck, but American aviators have also successfully changed their operating procedures and have even managed to ambush the ambushers. As USA Today notes:

During the raids, U.S. forces combined air attacks with ground assaults that captured insurgents, [Maj. Gen. James] Simmons said. Information gathered in those raids revealed anti-helicopter tactics used by insurgents. The military used that knowledge to launch counter-ambushes, using U.S. aircraft to target the [insurgent] teams.

There is also some good news on the political front. This Washington Post story reports that Moqtada Al-Sadr, head of the Jaish al-Mahdi (the Mahdist Army, JMA), one of the largest and most violent Shiite factions, professes to be moderating:

The 33-year-old populist is reaching out to a broad array of Sunni leaders, from politicians to insurgents, and purging extremist members of his Mahdi Army militia who target Sunnis. . . . And moderates are taking up key roles in Sadr’s movement, professing to be less anti-American and more nationalist as they seek to improve Sadr’s image and position him in the middle of Iraq’s ideological spectrum.

Meanwhile, the other leading Shiite party is changing its name from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, dropping the “revolution” in its name to make clear that it is not seeking a radical overhaul of Iraqi society. This faction, led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, is trying to lessen its ties to Iran and to remake itself as an Iraqi nationalist movement.

A measure of skepticism is in order about both changes—elements of JAM remain extremely violent, and both it and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council maintain strong subterranean links with the Iranian leadership. The latest steps may simply be tactical adjustments in their ultimate pursuit of power. Nevertheless they are positive steps, and they are being met with some Sunni reciprocation. There are reports of Sunni tribes in Diyala and other provinces forming their own groups to resist al Qaeda, following in the footsteps of the Anbar Salvation Council. And the original Anbar group is expanding its activities to other parts of the country. As this New York Times story reports:

In a hopeful sign on Tuesday, a Sunni tribal leader made a conciliatory public visit to Sadr City, the Shiite enclave in western Baghdad. Sheikh Hamid al-Hayis, leader of an alliance of Sunni tribes that recently began providing men to fight al Qaeda beside the marines in Anbar Province, met with backers of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr.

Salih al-Ugaily, a Sadr supporter in Parliament, said in an interview that the two sides had agreed on the need for reconciliation and to expedite holding provincial elections, a major demand of Sunni Iraqis, many of whom have said they feel disenfranchised after boycotting previous elections.

Neither security operations nor the political process is moving as quickly as anyone would like, but it would be a mistake to despair too soon. In particular it would be a mistake to give up on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and try to replace him with someone more to America’s liking—an option suggested in this Los Angeles Times article.

Maliki, for all his faults, has only been in office a year, and he is by many accounts improving. He is the third Iraqi leader hand-picked by American officials since Jerry Bremer gave up power in 2004. The previous two—Ayad Allawi and Ibrahim al Jaafari—weren’t so hot. There is no reason to think that anyone who replaces Maliki would be any better, especially when one of the top potential replacements (at least in his own mind) is Allawi.

Replacing prime ministers means going back to square one. Better to work with the leader already in place, however imperfect, and to strengthen his hand by weakening through military action the Shiite and Sunni extremists who threaten the fragile political process. And this is, more or less, the strategy that General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker plan to follow, according to this Washington Post dispatch. We can only wait and hope for results.

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