Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 2007

The London Bomb Plot: All the News That’s Fit to Spin

No sooner was the London car-bomb disaster averted, seemingly by poor tradecraft on the part of the bombers, than the spinning began. The New York Times, ever vigilant to explain the news in ways that comport with its editorial line, takes the lead.

“The idea of a multiple attack using car bombs,” reports Alan Cowell on the paper’s front page, has “raised concerns among security experts that jihadist groups linked to al Qaeda may have imported tactics more familiar in Iraq.”

“Imported tactics more familiar in Iraq”? In other words, what the Times is telling us, citing experts it declines to identify, is that this attempt to cause carnage in the heart of London is just more blowback from the American-led war to topple Saddam Hussein.

Is there anything to this?

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No sooner was the London car-bomb disaster averted, seemingly by poor tradecraft on the part of the bombers, than the spinning began. The New York Times, ever vigilant to explain the news in ways that comport with its editorial line, takes the lead.

“The idea of a multiple attack using car bombs,” reports Alan Cowell on the paper’s front page, has “raised concerns among security experts that jihadist groups linked to al Qaeda may have imported tactics more familiar in Iraq.”

“Imported tactics more familiar in Iraq”? In other words, what the Times is telling us, citing experts it declines to identify, is that this attempt to cause carnage in the heart of London is just more blowback from the American-led war to topple Saddam Hussein.

Is there anything to this?

Multiple simultaneous attacks have long been a hallmark of al Qaeda. The Times is suggesting that it is multiple simultaneous attacks using car bombs that is the unique Iraqi element in this instance. Is this so?

On August 7, 1998, two U.S. embassies were simultaneously blown up by al Qaeda, one in Tanzania, the other in Kenya. The method employed: car bombs. This particular weapon may be in wide use in Iraq, but car bombs were being employed by al Qaeda long before the United States became embroiled in a counterinsurgency there. The Times, for obvious reasons, would have us think otherwise.

The Washington Post, to its credit, does not even hint in this direction; indeed, it directly refutes the suggestion offered by the Times. Noting that the two rigged cars found in London were packed with gas cylinders and nails, it refers to the “Gas Limos Project,” a 39-page document written by a British citizen, Dhiren Barot, that was found by counterterrorism operatives in 2004 on a laptop in Pakistan, containing instructions on how to use gas cylinders and nails in cars to blow up an underground parking garage and cause maximum bloodshed:

The limousine scheme called for a six-man team to park the vehicles in a garage underneath a large building—the precise target wasn’t specified—and detonate the bombs by remote control.

According to the memo, Barot envisioned packing each limo with 12 or 13 cylinders of propane, acetylene or liquid oxygen, which would be detonated by a separate main charge of explosives. He also suggested packing the vehicles with nails—”preferably rusty”—to act as shrapnel.

The New York Times cites the Barot document but fails to mention that it was found in Pakistan. A multiple choice question for readers: is this latest bomb plot an example of (a) blowback from Iraq, (b) the continuation of al Qaeda’s war against the West, or (c) the continuation of the New York Times‘s war against the Bush administration? To ask the new ombudsman of the New York Times, Clark Hoyt, for the correct answer, write to public@nytimes.com.

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Weekend Reading

Whether you consider Rudolph Giuliani a visionary or a failure, it cannot be denied that he left an indelible mark on New York City. His record as mayor has come under close scrutiny as Giuliani begins his run for the Republican nomination, with pundits and campaign watchers searching for hints of what kind of candidate-or President-he might be. He has proved to be just as controversial a subject now as he was during the years he headed and transformed the city’s government. For this weekend’s reading we offer our best articles on Giuliani’s tenure as mayor.

Succeeding Giuliani
Fred Siegel—January 2002

Giuliani and After
Dan Seligman—November 2000

The War on the War on Crime
Arch Puddington—May 1999

Can Giuliani Save New York?
Irwin M. Stelzer—December 1995

The Making of the Mayor 1989
Scott McConnell—February 1990

Whether you consider Rudolph Giuliani a visionary or a failure, it cannot be denied that he left an indelible mark on New York City. His record as mayor has come under close scrutiny as Giuliani begins his run for the Republican nomination, with pundits and campaign watchers searching for hints of what kind of candidate-or President-he might be. He has proved to be just as controversial a subject now as he was during the years he headed and transformed the city’s government. For this weekend’s reading we offer our best articles on Giuliani’s tenure as mayor.

Succeeding Giuliani
Fred Siegel—January 2002

Giuliani and After
Dan Seligman—November 2000

The War on the War on Crime
Arch Puddington—May 1999

Can Giuliani Save New York?
Irwin M. Stelzer—December 1995

The Making of the Mayor 1989
Scott McConnell—February 1990

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Ten Years after the Handover

At midnight, July 1, it will have been exactly a decade since the great city of Hong Kong passed from one sovereign to another. One moment it was a British Dependent Territory of the United Kingdom; the next it was a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. (Why the fancy terminology? Neither London nor Beijing, apparently, liked using the word “colony.”)

Colony or not, Hong Kong was handed from a democracy to an authoritarian regime. It was a disgraceful exercise of state power for both countries involved. This was not the mere transfer of a “barren rock,” as Hong Kong was once known. The city had become, by the late 90’s, a major international center for trade, finance, and culture. More than six million citizens woke up on July 1, 1997 as subjects of a new regime—without their electoral consent. It was clear that, had there been an election, the people of Hong Kong would have voted not to return to the motherland. So it’s no surprise that the city’s Chinese rulers, who do not believe in elections (especially those held among uncontrollable populaces), have blocked the development of democratic institutions in Hong Kong for the past decade.

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At midnight, July 1, it will have been exactly a decade since the great city of Hong Kong passed from one sovereign to another. One moment it was a British Dependent Territory of the United Kingdom; the next it was a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. (Why the fancy terminology? Neither London nor Beijing, apparently, liked using the word “colony.”)

Colony or not, Hong Kong was handed from a democracy to an authoritarian regime. It was a disgraceful exercise of state power for both countries involved. This was not the mere transfer of a “barren rock,” as Hong Kong was once known. The city had become, by the late 90’s, a major international center for trade, finance, and culture. More than six million citizens woke up on July 1, 1997 as subjects of a new regime—without their electoral consent. It was clear that, had there been an election, the people of Hong Kong would have voted not to return to the motherland. So it’s no surprise that the city’s Chinese rulers, who do not believe in elections (especially those held among uncontrollable populaces), have blocked the development of democratic institutions in Hong Kong for the past decade.

This is not what the Basic Law—Hong-Kong’s “mini-constitution—intended. That document promises the city universal suffrage. Yet Beijing has time and again told the people of Hong Kong that they’re not ready to make decisions for themselves. In the interim, a system rigged in favor of a small group of China’s favorite Hong Kong citizens has been used to pick the chief executive, as the city’s leader is known. So add Hong Kong to the list of the broken promises of communism. Despite major pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong every year since the handover—especially in July 2003 and January 2004—Beijing has continued to sneer at its residents.

There is, however, a small measure of justice in this world. In the ten years since the “reunification,” the people of Taiwan have watched how Chinese leaders have failed to keep their word to Hong Kong. Today, a sharply declining portion of Taiwanese—usually no more than 15 percent in the polls—want their island to join the mainland. For the rest of us, Beijing’s high-handed treatment of Hong Kong is even more evidence that the Communist party has no intention of ever permitting meaningful political reform in China.

So where was I during the last seconds of British rule on June 30, 1997? Standing in the Hard Rock Café in Shanghai, in the middle of a crowd of inebriated Chuppies—members of China’s explosively burgeoning upper middle class. They were cheering as they watched televised images of the goose-stepping soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army at the handover ceremony taking place in Hong Kong. For them, it was a moment of pride and joy: a long-held British colony was finally returning to the bosom of the motherland. I had other emotions.

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Jimmy Carter’s Foreign Contacts

Ray Bowyer, a captain on Aurigny airlines, which services the British Channel Islands, has been flying commercial aircraft for 20 years. He’s a man who knows the skies. Last week, while flying over the channel, he spotted an enormous cigar-shaped object through his cockpit window. He told a British newspaper, the Sun, that “it was a sharp, thin yellow object with a green area. It was 2,000 feet up, stationary, and approximately 40 miles from us. It could have been as much as a mile wide.” This report has set the worldwide aviation community talking about what the Unidentified Flying Object might have been.

Not all that far away, at approximately the same time, Jimmy Carter was addressing a human-rights conference in Dublin, Ireland, where he branded the Bush administration’s refusal to accept Hamas’s 2006 election victory as “criminal.” The United States and Israel, he continued, “decided to punish all the people in Palestine and did everything they could to deter a compromise between Hamas and Fatah.”

Investor’s Business Daily called Carter’s statement “nutzpah” and “so malevolent and illogical as to border on insane.” But is there another possible explanation for the former President’s increasingly bizarre conduct, one connected to the cigar-shaped object in the sky over the channel?

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Ray Bowyer, a captain on Aurigny airlines, which services the British Channel Islands, has been flying commercial aircraft for 20 years. He’s a man who knows the skies. Last week, while flying over the channel, he spotted an enormous cigar-shaped object through his cockpit window. He told a British newspaper, the Sun, that “it was a sharp, thin yellow object with a green area. It was 2,000 feet up, stationary, and approximately 40 miles from us. It could have been as much as a mile wide.” This report has set the worldwide aviation community talking about what the Unidentified Flying Object might have been.

Not all that far away, at approximately the same time, Jimmy Carter was addressing a human-rights conference in Dublin, Ireland, where he branded the Bush administration’s refusal to accept Hamas’s 2006 election victory as “criminal.” The United States and Israel, he continued, “decided to punish all the people in Palestine and did everything they could to deter a compromise between Hamas and Fatah.”

Investor’s Business Daily called Carter’s statement “nutzpah” and “so malevolent and illogical as to border on insane.” But is there another possible explanation for the former President’s increasingly bizarre conduct, one connected to the cigar-shaped object in the sky over the channel?

We have to return to an episode more than three and a half decades ago in Carter’s past. In 1969, two years before he became governor of Georgia, Carter was about to address a Lion’s Club meeting in the town of Leary, Georgia, when he witnessed a strange object in the sky; it was 30 degrees above the horizon to the west of where he was standing. At first it was bright white, but then, according to Carter, it changed color, going through a variety of hues: red, blue, black, white, and then disappearing.

His account was reported in the Atlanta Constitution by a young reporter named Howell Raines, who went on to become commander in chief of the New York Times. As governor, Carter also filed an official report of his sighting with the the International UFO Bureau in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

When he was elected President in 1976, was it this episode that prompted Carter to make efforts to get in touch with alien life? On June 16, 1977, Carter placed a communication on board the Voyager I spacecraft for its trip outside our solar system. It was addressed to the “inhabited-planet and space-faring civilizations.” If one such civilization, he wrote

intercepts Voyager and can understand these recorded contents, here is our message: We are trying to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope some day, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations.

It is perhaps only in light of these chapters of his past that we can understand Carter’s bizarre behavior in Ireland and around the world. “Nutzpah” may be the least of it. On foreign policy, Jimmy Carter stands more and more outside the American mainstream. Some have attributed this to bitterness over his failed one-term presidency. The true source of his disaffection may be something far more alien than that.

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Remembering Oskar Morawetz

The New York media have paid scant attention to the passing of the Czech-born Canadian composer Oskar Morawetz (1917-2007), who died this month at 90. One of Canada’s few internationally known composers, Morawetz wrote in an accessibly melodic style and disputed the notion that contemporary classical music needed to be abstruse, famously saying “I can’t agree with these people who say you have to listen to a work ten to fifteen times to understand it; if I don’t like a piece of food, I don’t eat it ten more times to persuade myself that I do.”

The most widely known recording of Morawetz’s music is undoubtedly Glenn Gould’s recording of his dynamic, urban, and humorous Fantasy for piano on Sony/ BMG. The Fantasy is very Czech in spirit, recalling the writings of Karel Čapek or Jaroslav Hašek. And Gould’s recording is very enjoyable, although Morawetz carped at the liberties in tempo and dynamics Gould took, causing the pianist to exclaim: “The trouble with you, Oskar, is you don’t understand your own music!”

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The New York media have paid scant attention to the passing of the Czech-born Canadian composer Oskar Morawetz (1917-2007), who died this month at 90. One of Canada’s few internationally known composers, Morawetz wrote in an accessibly melodic style and disputed the notion that contemporary classical music needed to be abstruse, famously saying “I can’t agree with these people who say you have to listen to a work ten to fifteen times to understand it; if I don’t like a piece of food, I don’t eat it ten more times to persuade myself that I do.”

The most widely known recording of Morawetz’s music is undoubtedly Glenn Gould’s recording of his dynamic, urban, and humorous Fantasy for piano on Sony/ BMG. The Fantasy is very Czech in spirit, recalling the writings of Karel Čapek or Jaroslav Hašek. And Gould’s recording is very enjoyable, although Morawetz carped at the liberties in tempo and dynamics Gould took, causing the pianist to exclaim: “The trouble with you, Oskar, is you don’t understand your own music!”

Morawetz composed a meditative concerto for harp (an instrument that rarely seems pensive) available on CBC Records, and a rambunctious Carnival Overture in the tradition of Dvorák, available on Naxos, and a deft, angular clarinet sonata (sensitively played by the virtuoso soloist Joaquin Valdepeñas) on CD from Musica Viva. Morawetz also wrote more somber works inspired by historical figures such as Anne Frank and Martin Luther King; these are frequently performed, although they lack the appealing lightness of his other compositions. Prone to severe depression, Morawetz composed sprightly works with an element of triumph over his natural low spirits, born of a lifetime of historical and personal struggle. A longtime bachelor, he embarked at the age of 40 on a miserable marriage lasting a quarter-century, through which he continued to compose. Only the death of his mother ten years ago at the age of 103 silenced him.

Lest Canada feel too proprietary about his achievements, it is useful to recall that Morawetz was almost refused admission as a refugee. Canada’s wartime director of immigration, Frederick Charles Blair, blocked the entry of all but a paltry 5,000 Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis between 1933 and 1939 (by comparison, Mexico accepted around 20,000 escapees from Hitler and the U.S. around 140,000). When asked how many imperiled Jews Canada should offer refuge to, Blair notoriously replied, “None is too many.” Still, Morawetz was finally allowed to join his family in Toronto in June 1940.

An apt memorial tribute to Oskar Morawetz would be the long-overdue transfer to CD of a brilliant recording on Capitol Records of his Piano Concerto No. 1 by the Canadian pianist Anton Kuerti with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (led by another Czech-born refugee, Walter Susskind). Morawetz (a trained pianist) made his own recordings of piano pieces like Scherzo and Scherzino, which would also be well worth transferring to CD. CBC Records, which has kept a quantity of other Morawetz CD’s in print, should consider releasing these valuable documents of his talent.

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The War on the War on Terrorism

The Senate Judiciary Committee has issued subpoenas for documents concerning the legal basis of the Bush administration’s terrorist-surveillance program. The New York Times calls it “the most aggressive move yet by lawmakers to investigate the wiretapping program since the Democrats gained control of Congress this year.”

The program enabled the National Security Agency to monitor telephone calls and emails of persons in the United States, including U.S. citizens, whom the agency believed were linked to al Qaeda. The interception of such calls is the very core of counterterrorism. If our intelligence agencies are to connect the dots that will prevent another 9/11, these calls and emails constitute the critical dots.

The program was already damaged, if not completely compromised, when its existence was disclosed by the New York Times in December 2005. Senator Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and other allies of the Times on Capitol Hill are now coming in for the kill.

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The Senate Judiciary Committee has issued subpoenas for documents concerning the legal basis of the Bush administration’s terrorist-surveillance program. The New York Times calls it “the most aggressive move yet by lawmakers to investigate the wiretapping program since the Democrats gained control of Congress this year.”

The program enabled the National Security Agency to monitor telephone calls and emails of persons in the United States, including U.S. citizens, whom the agency believed were linked to al Qaeda. The interception of such calls is the very core of counterterrorism. If our intelligence agencies are to connect the dots that will prevent another 9/11, these calls and emails constitute the critical dots.

The program was already damaged, if not completely compromised, when its existence was disclosed by the New York Times in December 2005. Senator Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and other allies of the Times on Capitol Hill are now coming in for the kill.

To be sure, the legal status of the program is a crown of thorny issues. In various memos and briefs prepared by the administration, they have relied on Congress’s 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force, which they claim trumps the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that formerly had governed all such wiretapping. They have also suggested that such surveillance is an inherent power of the President under Article II of the Constitution.

One of the most compelling briefs against the program was written by Louis Fisher, an estimable scholar at the Library of Congress, and I have yet to see it comprehensively answered. But I also have few doubts that, at the end of the day, the courts will side with the President on this one, based upon some variation of the premise that the Constitution is not a suicide pact. The fact is that if Bush had failed to authorize such monitoring, and we were struck by another major attack on our homeland that had been planned and executed by terrorists employing cross-border communications, that presidential lapse would itself probably be grounds for his impeachment.

All the same, one of the actions of the Bush administration that has long troubled me, and which has made it the target of withering criticism, was its failure to ask Congress to amend FISA when the program first began. The whole immensely damaging controversy would have been skirted if the administration, in the wake of 9/11, had simply worked with Congress to engage in this kind of surveillance within the framework of a revised law.

Why did that not happen?

We now have an answer: it can be found on page 238 of George Tenet’s new memoir. Tenet writes:

At one point in 2004 there was even a discussion with the congressional leadership in the White House Situation Room with regard to whether new legislation would be introduced to amend the FISA statute, to put the program on a broader legal foundation. The view that day on the part of members of Congress was that this could not be done without jeopardizing the program (emphasis added).

Is Tenet simply passing the buck by blaming Congress? I don’t think so, but since he does a lot of other buck-passing in his buck-passing memoir (see my analysis of it here), I can’t be sure. But Tenet has no particular reason to cover his tracks in this instance. For once, he had helped put in place an effective program.

If senior members of Congress of both parties rejected the idea of congressional action to amend FISA, the Judiciary Committee’s grandstanding now on this critical matter of national defense is even more disgraceful than it already appears.

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Good Bad News from Iran

Good news from Iran. The Associated Press reports that “Iranians smashed shop windows and set fire to a dozen gas stations in the capital Wednesday, angered by the sudden start of a fuel rationing system that threatens to further increase the unpopularity of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.” Why is this good news? Because it reveals the unpopularity of the theocratic dictatorship in Tehran, and its vulnerability to pressure.

As the AP article goes on to note: “The rationing is part of a government attempt to reduce the $10 billion it spends each year to import fuel that is then sold to Iranian drivers at less than cost, to keep prices low. Iran is one of the world’s biggest oil producers, but it doesn’t have enough refineries, so it must import more than 50 percent of the gasoline its people use.”

That’s a point of leverage that various analysts have suggested exploiting. In the pages of COMMENTARY, Arthur Herman argued for (among other things) imposing a naval blockade to stop the gasoline imports and oil exports that are the lifeblood of the Iranian economy. In USA Today this week, Peter Schweizer of the Hoover Institution suggested not only imposing a blockade, but also counterfeiting Iranian currency to drive its economy deeper into crisis.

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Good news from Iran. The Associated Press reports that “Iranians smashed shop windows and set fire to a dozen gas stations in the capital Wednesday, angered by the sudden start of a fuel rationing system that threatens to further increase the unpopularity of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.” Why is this good news? Because it reveals the unpopularity of the theocratic dictatorship in Tehran, and its vulnerability to pressure.

As the AP article goes on to note: “The rationing is part of a government attempt to reduce the $10 billion it spends each year to import fuel that is then sold to Iranian drivers at less than cost, to keep prices low. Iran is one of the world’s biggest oil producers, but it doesn’t have enough refineries, so it must import more than 50 percent of the gasoline its people use.”

That’s a point of leverage that various analysts have suggested exploiting. In the pages of COMMENTARY, Arthur Herman argued for (among other things) imposing a naval blockade to stop the gasoline imports and oil exports that are the lifeblood of the Iranian economy. In USA Today this week, Peter Schweizer of the Hoover Institution suggested not only imposing a blockade, but also counterfeiting Iranian currency to drive its economy deeper into crisis.

Those may seem like radical steps. But they are in fact amply justified by Iran’s continuing development of nuclear weapons and its support for terrorists in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan, among other places. Iranian proxies have been killing Americans in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and yet we have been looking the other way for fear of seeming too “warlike.” Even if we don’t have the political will to meet Iranian attacks with military force—and we don’t at this point—we could still try to make the Iranian government pay a price for its aggression. An embargo would be one way to do it. It’s an act of war, but not as extreme as air strikes.

Even if we’re not prepared to go that far yet, greater economic sanctions could have an impact given another fact noted in the AP story: “Iran’s government is seeking $12 billion in investments to boost refining capacity from 1.6 million barrels a day to 2.9 million barrels in the next five years. It also hopes to increase oil production to 5.3 million barrels a day by 2014, from the current 4.3 million.” If the U.S. could convince other countries in Europe and Asia to join our boycott of Iran, the investment that the mullahs need to buy off their own people might not be forthcoming.

That’s the intent of the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act, a bill sponsored by Representative Tom Lantos, which just passed in the House Foreign Affairs Committee by a vote of 37-1. Among other things, it would end the President’s authority to waive penalties under existing sanctions laws on companies that do business with Iran. (This waiver authority has been used to let European firms off the hook.) Unfortunately, the Bush administration, which talks tough on Iran, opposes this genuinely tough legislation.

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Lugar on the Surge

Senator Richard Lugar is winning encomia from all the predictable quarters—e.g., Joe Conason in the New York Observer—for his supposed wisdom and independence in declaring the surge a failure before it has barely begun.

Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declared in a widely covered speech that he doesn’t think “that the current ‘surge’ strategy will succeed in the way originally envisioned by the President” and that we should therefore “downsize the U.S. military’s role in Iraq.” Interestingly, Lugar does “not doubt the assessments of military commanders that there has been some progress in security” as a result of the surge. He just doesn’t think that the surge will succeed in the long run because “three factors—the political fragmentation in Iraq, the growing stress on our military, and the constraints of our own domestic political process—are converging to make it almost impossible for the United States to engineer a stable, multi-sectarian government in Iraq in a reasonable time frame.”

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Senator Richard Lugar is winning encomia from all the predictable quarters—e.g., Joe Conason in the New York Observer—for his supposed wisdom and independence in declaring the surge a failure before it has barely begun.

Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declared in a widely covered speech that he doesn’t think “that the current ‘surge’ strategy will succeed in the way originally envisioned by the President” and that we should therefore “downsize the U.S. military’s role in Iraq.” Interestingly, Lugar does “not doubt the assessments of military commanders that there has been some progress in security” as a result of the surge. He just doesn’t think that the surge will succeed in the long run because “three factors—the political fragmentation in Iraq, the growing stress on our military, and the constraints of our own domestic political process—are converging to make it almost impossible for the United States to engineer a stable, multi-sectarian government in Iraq in a reasonable time frame.”

But of those three factors it is the last that is clearly the biggest impediment to success. Yes, Iraqi politicians are at loggerheads over difficult issues; so are Senator Lugar and his colleagues. The whole surge strategy rests on the notion that improving the security climate will improve the political climate in Iraq. Since the attempts to improve the security situation have only just started—the final surge forces only recently arrived in Iraq—it is too soon to write off the chances of political progress. And, yes, there is “growing stress on our military,” but reenlistment rates remain strong, and, based on current projections, the army and Marine Corps can continue the surge until at least next April. (Longer if more National Guard and Reserve forces are mobilized.) Lugar seems to be asking for the surge to be called off not for these reasons, but because he doubts that any progress on the ground can be made fast enough to keep up with “the timetable imposed by our own domestic political process.”

Fair point, but that’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Democrats are certainly eager to cut off funding for the war effort. But they are unlikely to succeed in the face of united GOP opposition, given that Republicans not only control the White House, but also maintain substantial minorities in both houses of Congress. If Republicans keep their nerve, there is a good chance that, as happened recently, they can win a showdown with Democrats over war-funding.

But if leading Republicans like Richard Lugar write off the surge prematurely, they are likely to set off a bidding war over troop withdrawals—a bidding war that Republicans cannot win and one for which they are likely to get scant credit from the electorate, given that troop withdrawals will almost certainly make the situation in Iraq even worse than it is today. The few undeniable signs of progress—e.g., the great improvements made recently in Anbar province—are likely to disappear if American forces start heading for the exits. That, in turn, will make it harder politically to keep even a minimal force in Iraq to continue missions—such as chasing al Qaeda and training the Iraqi Security Forces—which most Republican and Democratic leaders agree are still necessary.

It may well be that the surge won’t, in fact, work. But General David Petraeus and the 160,000 troops who are putting their lives on the line under his command deserve at least a decent chance to succeed without having the carpet pulled out from under them on Capitol Hill. Especially by Republicans.

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Do Not Bluff

Why did the CIA botch its Iraq-WMD estimate so badly? One factor was appalling tradecraft, some of it touched on in George Tenet’s memoir and all of it explored thoroughly by the Silberman-Robb commission.

Another factor was the unexpected behavior of Saddam himself. Saddam, to state the obvious, knew that he had no WMD program or stocks of any note. He also knew that we suspected him of having them and that we were threatening to take action against him on those very grounds. He also knew that if he cooperated fully with the UN inspectors, they would find next to nothing. But instead of cooperating, he chose a very different course.

Saddam, it would seem, wanted to appear to have the WMD. He evidently did not want hostile powers, like Iran or the U.S., to think that military action against him would go unpunished. It was thus a matter of keeping up appearances. Bluffing was a means of deterrence.

The CIA was surprised by this. Should it have been?

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Why did the CIA botch its Iraq-WMD estimate so badly? One factor was appalling tradecraft, some of it touched on in George Tenet’s memoir and all of it explored thoroughly by the Silberman-Robb commission.

Another factor was the unexpected behavior of Saddam himself. Saddam, to state the obvious, knew that he had no WMD program or stocks of any note. He also knew that we suspected him of having them and that we were threatening to take action against him on those very grounds. He also knew that if he cooperated fully with the UN inspectors, they would find next to nothing. But instead of cooperating, he chose a very different course.

Saddam, it would seem, wanted to appear to have the WMD. He evidently did not want hostile powers, like Iran or the U.S., to think that military action against him would go unpunished. It was thus a matter of keeping up appearances. Bluffing was a means of deterrence.

The CIA was surprised by this. Should it have been?

In addition to the CIA’s Family Jewels, which are stealing all the headlines, astonishing cold-war documents—the CEASAR, POLO, and ESAU papers—have been declassified by the spy agency in the last few days. The flood of information summons to mind a peculiarity of the Aldrich Ames espionage case. Ames was promoted repeatedly within the CIA’s counterintelligence division while actually working as a Soviet and then a Russian spy until his arrest in 1994.

Ames and the American agents he betrayed were used to convey disinformation to the United States. The KGB employed this devious channel to create the impression that the USSR’s military prowess was stronger than it actually was. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan characterized the gist of the disinformation campaign, it was designed to create “the effect that the Soviet colossus was growing in economic strength and military might and spoiling for a confrontation with the decadent and divided West.”

Moynihan, writing in 1996, was vastly overstating what the USSR was up to, but he was pointing in the right direction. The CIA’s own review, prepared by a Damage Assessment Team [DAT], put the matter in more measured terms. Ames’s activities, it stated:

facilitated the Soviet, and later the Russian, effort to engage in “perception management operations” by feeding carefully selected information to the United States through agents whom they were controlling without our knowledge. Although the extent and success of this effort cannot now be determined with certainty, we know that some of this information did reach senior decision-makers of the United States. . . .

it is very likely that the KGB, and later the SVR [the KGB successor organization], sought to influence U.S. decision-makers by providing controlled information designed to affect R&D [research and development] and procurement decisions of the Department of Defense. The DAT believes one of the primary purposes of the perception management program was to convince us that the Soviets remained a superpower and that their military R&D program was robust.

So the fact remains that, at least to some degree, the Kremlin was bluffing. But as both the Soviet leaders and Saddam were to find out, this was not a smart strategy.

In the Soviet case, perceptions of Moscow’s military might helped to sustain a U.S. counter-buildup, which the USSR could not compete against without straining itself to the breaking point. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, it broke.

Saddam Hussein, for his part, got himself into a shooting war that he rapidly lost, and he soon found himself hiding for his life in the basement of a hut.

A cautionary conclusion for U.S. policymakers: some authoritarian regimes have a desperate desire to appear strong, even if it means exaggerating their capabilities and risking a tougher or more vigorous response from their enemies.

A second cautionary conclusion for U.S. policymakers: not every authoritarian regime is always bluffing. There is not a shred of evidence that Iran, for example, is bluffing about its growing nuclear program.

A third cautionary conclusion is for foreign dictators: when dealing with the United States, it is generally not smart to bluff.

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A Weekend in Kennebunkport

President Bush and his Russian counterpart have not yet met in Kennebunkport, but Lou Dobbs has already figured out what will happen this coming Sunday and Monday in Maine. A few weeks ago, the CNN anchor had this to say about the upcoming summit between the American leader and Vladimir Putin: “A meeting in which I’m sure both men will look deeply into one another’s eyes and come up with the architecture of a brilliant geopolitical relationship between the two countries.”

Who can blame Dobbs for sounding so cynical and sarcastic? He has, after all, identified the one thing that will not happen during the upcoming talks. Bush and Putin will undoubtedly trade many fine words during their session in the sun, but they will not do much to improve ties between America and Russia.

Moscow, unfortunately, now has an agenda that clashes with ours. The Kremlin no longer feels itself tethered to America—or even to Europe. “Until recently, Russia saw itself as Pluto in the Western solar system, very far from the center but still fundamentally a part of it,” wrote Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center last year. “Now it has left that orbit entirely.”

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President Bush and his Russian counterpart have not yet met in Kennebunkport, but Lou Dobbs has already figured out what will happen this coming Sunday and Monday in Maine. A few weeks ago, the CNN anchor had this to say about the upcoming summit between the American leader and Vladimir Putin: “A meeting in which I’m sure both men will look deeply into one another’s eyes and come up with the architecture of a brilliant geopolitical relationship between the two countries.”

Who can blame Dobbs for sounding so cynical and sarcastic? He has, after all, identified the one thing that will not happen during the upcoming talks. Bush and Putin will undoubtedly trade many fine words during their session in the sun, but they will not do much to improve ties between America and Russia.

Moscow, unfortunately, now has an agenda that clashes with ours. The Kremlin no longer feels itself tethered to America—or even to Europe. “Until recently, Russia saw itself as Pluto in the Western solar system, very far from the center but still fundamentally a part of it,” wrote Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center last year. “Now it has left that orbit entirely.”

As Russia leaves the West’s orbit, it is making common cause with China and regimes that are challenging America. As a result, the authoritarian states are now acting in like-minded fashion. And as they do so, they are changing the international system.

Why is the world in such disarray? Because America has been so powerful, analysts believe the answer must lie in some recent defect in Washington’s stewardship of global affairs. The common assessment is that the Bush administration is unnecessarily belligerent, inexcusably clumsy, and otherwise ill-advised. But criticisms of this sort fail to take into account the context in which American policy-makers must operate today. As Henry Kissinger said in July of last year, “There’s never been a period in history in which so many changes were taking place simultaneously.” In particular, we are passing from the post-cold war hegemonic era. What we see today is the emergence of a balance-of-power arrangement in which weaker nations can easily frustrate the United States. The world can be stable in any sort of system, but it is almost never safe when it transitions from one system to another.

So the stakes will be high this weekend when George Bush sits down with Vladimir Putin. But as Dobbs suggests, no amount of eye contact between the two men will settle the differences between America and Russia. They seem to be meeting more—they last got together earlier this month at the G8 conclave in Germany—and accomplishing ever less.

Of course, there is no harm in the occasional chat in a shoreline setting, but it is time for our President to begin thinking more about how the world is changing—and how the U.S. can continue to lead in a new and much more difficult environment.

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Kilcullen’s War

Readers of contentions interested in learning more about current military operations in Iraq than what they get from the headlines (which invariably focus on casualties, not on why or how they were incurred) would be well advised to read two Internet postings. The first is a report by Kimberly Kagan, an independent military historian and analyst, on the website of her think tank, the Institute for the Study of War. The second is a blog post written by David Kilcullen, a former officer in the Australian army with a Ph.D. in anthropology who has been serving as General David Petraeus’s chief counterinsurgency adviser. Kilcullen’s item is especially interesting because for the past few months he has had an insider’s perspective on the operations conducted and planned by U.S. forces in Iraq; in fact, he has been helping to shape the very operations that he explains here.

I have little to add except to note the cognitive dissonance I feel reading Kilcullen’s report alongside the news media accounts. The former conveys a sense of purpose and planning behind current operations, while the latter present the news from Iraq as a senseless parade of mayhem. The reality, of course, lies somewhere in between—there is only so much that even the most astute military commanders can control in the heat of battle, and much of what happens is outside their design. But it is important to realize that what we’re seeing in Iraq is not just random, meaningless violence. Both sides—coalition and Iraqi forces, as well as the Sunni and Shiite extremists—put a lot of thought into what they do. This is a war, even if a very decentralized one, and needs to be understood as such. Kilcullen’s post furthers that crucial understanding.

Readers of contentions interested in learning more about current military operations in Iraq than what they get from the headlines (which invariably focus on casualties, not on why or how they were incurred) would be well advised to read two Internet postings. The first is a report by Kimberly Kagan, an independent military historian and analyst, on the website of her think tank, the Institute for the Study of War. The second is a blog post written by David Kilcullen, a former officer in the Australian army with a Ph.D. in anthropology who has been serving as General David Petraeus’s chief counterinsurgency adviser. Kilcullen’s item is especially interesting because for the past few months he has had an insider’s perspective on the operations conducted and planned by U.S. forces in Iraq; in fact, he has been helping to shape the very operations that he explains here.

I have little to add except to note the cognitive dissonance I feel reading Kilcullen’s report alongside the news media accounts. The former conveys a sense of purpose and planning behind current operations, while the latter present the news from Iraq as a senseless parade of mayhem. The reality, of course, lies somewhere in between—there is only so much that even the most astute military commanders can control in the heat of battle, and much of what happens is outside their design. But it is important to realize that what we’re seeing in Iraq is not just random, meaningless violence. Both sides—coalition and Iraqi forces, as well as the Sunni and Shiite extremists—put a lot of thought into what they do. This is a war, even if a very decentralized one, and needs to be understood as such. Kilcullen’s post furthers that crucial understanding.

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Bookshelf

• Erskine Caldwell’s novels of rural Georgia life are so completely forgotten that it is hard to grasp how popular they were a half-century ago, much less how seriously he was taken by his colleagues. Saul Bellow actually thought that the author of Tobacco Road (1932) and God’s Little Acre (1933) rated a Nobel Prize, while William Faulkner, who got one, regarded Caldwell as one of America’s top five novelists (his other picks, for the record, were John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and Faulkner himself). He was one of the most successful ones, anyway. God’s Little Acre sold 10 million copies—one of which was read and underlined by Ensign Pulver in Mister Roberts*—while Jack Kirkland’s stage version of Tobacco Road ran on Broadway for 3,180 performances, still the longest run ever racked up by a straight play.

So what happened to Caldwell, who died in obscurity in 1987? I can’t tell you—I’m no better at forecasting the changing winds of literary fortune than the next man—but I now know that at least one of his books is worth remembering. I’d never read a word of Caldwell when I flew down to Greensboro, N.C., to see Triad Stage give the first professional revival of Tobacco Road in some twenty-odd years. I found it hugely impressive, not just as a stage production but also as a work of theatrical art. “It combines humor and horror to strikingly modern effect,” I wrote in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, “and its unattractive characters are portrayed with an unsentimental sympathy that fills the viewer with pity.”

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• Erskine Caldwell’s novels of rural Georgia life are so completely forgotten that it is hard to grasp how popular they were a half-century ago, much less how seriously he was taken by his colleagues. Saul Bellow actually thought that the author of Tobacco Road (1932) and God’s Little Acre (1933) rated a Nobel Prize, while William Faulkner, who got one, regarded Caldwell as one of America’s top five novelists (his other picks, for the record, were John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and Faulkner himself). He was one of the most successful ones, anyway. God’s Little Acre sold 10 million copies—one of which was read and underlined by Ensign Pulver in Mister Roberts*—while Jack Kirkland’s stage version of Tobacco Road ran on Broadway for 3,180 performances, still the longest run ever racked up by a straight play.

So what happened to Caldwell, who died in obscurity in 1987? I can’t tell you—I’m no better at forecasting the changing winds of literary fortune than the next man—but I now know that at least one of his books is worth remembering. I’d never read a word of Caldwell when I flew down to Greensboro, N.C., to see Triad Stage give the first professional revival of Tobacco Road in some twenty-odd years. I found it hugely impressive, not just as a stage production but also as a work of theatrical art. “It combines humor and horror to strikingly modern effect,” I wrote in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, “and its unattractive characters are portrayed with an unsentimental sympathy that fills the viewer with pity.”

Curious as to whether the novel was as good as the play, I procured a copy of Tobacco Road (University of Georgia Press, $16.95 paper), which was reissued in 1995 and remains in print to this day. (The stage version, alas, is unavailable, though used copies can be found online.) Somewhat to my surprise, I found that Kirkland’s play tracks the events of Tobacco Road very closely indeed, and that most of the dialogue comes more or less directly from Caldwell’s novel. To be sure, the play is tighter and more conventionally “effective,” but in either form Tobacco Road, if by no means a masterpiece, is still quite remarkably compelling.

What is most striking about Tobacco Road is the unsparing frankness with which Caldwell writes about what we now call the underclass. Despite his sympathy for the backwoods sharecroppers who are his characters, he never makes the mistake of supposing that they bear no responsibility for their desperate plight, and his candor on this score is far more likely to shock modern readers than the comparative sexual explicitness that got him in trouble with the censors seven decades ago. Jeeter Lester, the coarse, illiterate anti-hero of Tobacco Road, may have a certain primitive dignity arising from his unswerving (if ineffectual) commitment to “the struggle to break the land each spring and plant cotton,” but his inability to support his family is unambiguously presented by Caldwell as a failure of character, and we are made to see that the tragedy of his life is in large part one of his own making:

There were always well-developed plans in Jeeter’s mind for the things he intended doing; but somehow he never got around to doing them. One day led to the next, and it was much more easy to say he would wait until tomorrow. When that day arrived, he invariably postponed action until a more convenient time. Things had been going along in that easy way for almost a lifetime now.

Such implicit censoriousness long ago went out of literary fashion, and I suspect that it is one of the reasons why Tobacco Road is no longer looked upon with favor by the literati, though there are other passages more likely to please them:

“I reckon Jeeter done right,” Lov contended. “He was a man who liked to grow things in the ground. The mills ain’t no place for a human who’s got that in his bones. The mills is sort of like automobiles—they’re all right to fool around in and have a good time in, but they don’t offer no love like the ground does. The ground sort of looks out after the people who keeps their feet on it. When people stand on planks in buildings all the time, and walk around on hard streets, the ground sort of loses interest in the human.”

Fortunately, that kind of Popular Front pseudo-poetry is rarely to be found in Tobacco Road (and is almost completely missing from the leaner stage version). For the most part Caldwell laid it on the line, leaving the reader in no possible doubt that Jeeter and his family were what the rural folk of my own Midwestern youth called “white trash.” That doesn’t make their terrible fate less tragic, but it definitely makes it more interesting.

*Editorial error originally reversed the name of the play and the name of the character.

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Relative Intelligence

A study published last Friday in the journal Science reopens the heated debate over environmental (as opposed to genetic) effects on intelligence. An enormous survey of sibling IQ scores in Norway found that firstborn sons had IQ scores about three points higher than second-born sons, and four points higher than the third-born (the study looked only at men, because it was based on IQ tests given to newly-drafted Norwegian soldiers in the 1960’s and 70’s.)

At first glance, this birth order effect would seem to suggest a biological cause—having to do perhaps with the higher levels of immune antibodies in the womb after a first pregnancy. But the study also looked at second-born siblings whose older brothers died in infancy, and found that in terms of IQ scores and relation to younger siblings, they belonged with the firstborns, not the second-borns. In other words, the cause seems more likely to have to do with how parents (or others) treat the oldest brother. (For Joseph Epstein’s meditations on birth-order theory, read his 1997 article O, Brother.)

But as large-scale as this study is (it examined almost a quarter million men), it still acts to highlight just how little we understand about intelligence and its relation to genetics and environment, and how prone we are to over-read and misread statistical data on intelligence.

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A study published last Friday in the journal Science reopens the heated debate over environmental (as opposed to genetic) effects on intelligence. An enormous survey of sibling IQ scores in Norway found that firstborn sons had IQ scores about three points higher than second-born sons, and four points higher than the third-born (the study looked only at men, because it was based on IQ tests given to newly-drafted Norwegian soldiers in the 1960’s and 70’s.)

At first glance, this birth order effect would seem to suggest a biological cause—having to do perhaps with the higher levels of immune antibodies in the womb after a first pregnancy. But the study also looked at second-born siblings whose older brothers died in infancy, and found that in terms of IQ scores and relation to younger siblings, they belonged with the firstborns, not the second-borns. In other words, the cause seems more likely to have to do with how parents (or others) treat the oldest brother. (For Joseph Epstein’s meditations on birth-order theory, read his 1997 article O, Brother.)

But as large-scale as this study is (it examined almost a quarter million men), it still acts to highlight just how little we understand about intelligence and its relation to genetics and environment, and how prone we are to over-read and misread statistical data on intelligence.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, coverage of the study was rampant with speculation. The New York Times imagined all manner of possible reasons for the IQ difference—none of them supported by the newly published research. The story’s most developed conjecture ran as follows:

Firstborns have their parents’ undivided attention as infants, and even if that attention is later divided evenly with a sibling or more, it means that over time they will have more cumulative adult attention, in theory enriching their vocabulary and reasoning abilities.

But there’s a small problem. This explanation is flatly contradicted by an extensive literature (actually acknowledged in the same Times story) showing that before about the age of twelve, younger siblings actually score higher on IQ tests than older. This latest study strongly suggests that disparity is reversed by the time the siblings reach early adulthood, though it offers little sense of how or why.

Inconsistencies like these tell us less about the state of intelligence research than they do about our social sensitivity regarding this subject. Our egalitarian culture is implicitly committed to a blank-slate notion of intelligence, by which we are all born with the same capacities, and what matters is the chance we are given to hone them. Research that tends to support this view, as the Norwegian study does, is held to prove it utterly (the Times quotes one of the study’s authors as saying “This is quite firm evidence that the biological explanation is not true”), while every study suggesting otherwise is cut down by a thousand counter-explanations.

From all this speculation, though, there does emerge something like a general conclusion: much of the research on intelligence in recent decades has shown that genetics sets a general range above (and below) which particular individuals will not go. But that range is reasonably broad, and where an individual falls within it is affected by parenting, by culture and community, and by nutrition and health—factors, it seems, which tend to gang up against us younger siblings. (Don’t tell my brother.)

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What is MTHEL?

What should be done about the “the ignominy of Sderot”? That is Hillel Halkin’s term for the fact that a “reasonably prosperous city of some 20,000 inhabitants, an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv, [has been] reduced to a state of shell-shocked panic by scattershot Qassam attacks from the Gaza Strip, its life paralyzed . . . while the country’s government and army seem powerless to do anything about it.”

How can the Qassam rockets be countered?
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What should be done about the “the ignominy of Sderot”? That is Hillel Halkin’s term for the fact that a “reasonably prosperous city of some 20,000 inhabitants, an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv, [has been] reduced to a state of shell-shocked panic by scattershot Qassam attacks from the Gaza Strip, its life paralyzed . . . while the country’s government and army seem powerless to do anything about it.”

How can the Qassam rockets be countered?

That is a vital question, requiring an urgent answer. Writing in the New York Sun, Halkin suggested three: none of them at all appealing.

The first is using air power to destroy rocket launchers as they are discovered and killing the organizers of such attacks with targeted assassinations. But Halkin is not convinced this will be successful: “the anarchy in Palestinian society has reached the point that not even the heads of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, were they to seek to stop the Qassam attacks because they feared for their own lives, would necessarily be able to do so.”

A second approach would be to reoccupy Gaza. But this has significant drawbacks: “the price Israel would pay for this in terms of military casualties would be high” and the last thing Israel needs “is once again to have to police this tiny, overpopulated strip of human misery that is an ideal place for urban guerrilla warfare.”

Another idea is for Israel to answer rocket attacks with artillery fire, leveling those portions of the Gaza strip from which the rocket-fire emanates. Halkin finds this solution to be “ugly,” but also the “best” of the three. It might, he suggests, “put an end to violence very quickly, once Palestinians in Gaza became as panicky as Israelis in Sderot and screamed at their leaders to put an end to it.”

Halkin might well be right in his ranking, but there is a fourth approach that should be considered—not just considered but made an urgent priority. It has implications not just for facing down the terrorists of Hamastan but also for pacifying the rocket-rich territory of Hizbollahland to the north and for contending with other dangers yet to emerge.

It is called MTHEL. Both the Pentagon and Israel were investing heavily in it up until 2005, when spending was abruptly cut. Although not much discussed, that decision seems to have been a far worse Israeli blunder than any committed in the course of last summer’s war. But what is MTHEL? It stands for Mobile Tactical High-Energy Laser. To watch it in action, click on the video below.

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Flawed Logic on Iran

Dissecting and analyzing what passes for news in the New York Times can be a full-time job. (The estimable Hilton Kramer used to do precisely that for the New York Post.) I generally try to steer clear of doing it, for fear of getting nothing else accomplished. But a longish piece that appeared this Sunday in the New York Times magazine cries out for a critical reading.

The article, “Hard Realities of Soft Power,” is by Negar Azimi, identified as an “editor at Bidoun, a cultural magazine based in New York City.” (Bidoun’s website provides further information: she is a 2001 Stanford graduate and a current Harvard grad student who spent a few years living in Cairo.) Its premise is summarized in a lengthy subtitle: “The United States has dedicated tens of millions of dollars to promoting democracy in Iran. But for Iranian democrats and America alike, the effort may be more trouble than it’s worth.”

This “may” is a bit coy: the article itself makes clear that, in the author’s opinion, American support for democracy promotion is counterproductive. Its only result, she implies, is to get Iranian reformers into trouble with a regime intensely suspicious of external subversion, and to undermine the reformers’ credibility.

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Dissecting and analyzing what passes for news in the New York Times can be a full-time job. (The estimable Hilton Kramer used to do precisely that for the New York Post.) I generally try to steer clear of doing it, for fear of getting nothing else accomplished. But a longish piece that appeared this Sunday in the New York Times magazine cries out for a critical reading.

The article, “Hard Realities of Soft Power,” is by Negar Azimi, identified as an “editor at Bidoun, a cultural magazine based in New York City.” (Bidoun’s website provides further information: she is a 2001 Stanford graduate and a current Harvard grad student who spent a few years living in Cairo.) Its premise is summarized in a lengthy subtitle: “The United States has dedicated tens of millions of dollars to promoting democracy in Iran. But for Iranian democrats and America alike, the effort may be more trouble than it’s worth.”

This “may” is a bit coy: the article itself makes clear that, in the author’s opinion, American support for democracy promotion is counterproductive. Its only result, she implies, is to get Iranian reformers into trouble with a regime intensely suspicious of external subversion, and to undermine the reformers’ credibility.

In one of the article’s more dubious conceits, Azimi even links an increase in U.S. funding for democracy promotion in Iran—Congress budgeted $75 million for this fiscal year, up from just a few million in the past—to the increased repression of the regime, including the detention of four Iranian-Americans on risible charges of spying. Deep in the article, Azimi actually undercuts this argument when she notes that there is nothing exactly new about the Islamic Republic of Iran cracking down on perceived threats to its authority: “The postrevolutionary regime has been attacking its domestic opponents as Western lackeys for 27 years.”

Indeed. Even back in 1979, the Iranian hardliners were determined to believe that the U.S. was plotting against their revolution from our embassy, which they dubbed a “Den of Spies.” No such plot existed, but it didn’t stop the Islamofascists in Tehran then or now from using such suspicions as a convenient cudgel against anyone they don’t like. And if the recent arrests are linked to increased American efforts at democracy promotion, it may confirm that the U.S. program makes sense. If the Iranian regime is so afraid of such pressure, shouldn’t we keep the squeeze on?

But in truth we have no real idea why the Iranian-Americans—and many others, such as the fifteen British sailors seized in March and subsequently released—have been arrested recently. It may well be a show of Iranian muscle-flexing aimed at deterring the U.S. from pressing too hard not only on regime change, but on Iran’s nuclear weapons program and its support of terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The decision-making processes of the Iranian regime remain opaque, so it’s a bit of a stretch to blame the latest repression on the actions of the United States Congress or the State Department. The real culprit here is the odious nature of the Iranian regime.

And it’s absurd to complain, as Azimi does, that the American program hasn’t borne any fruit; it’s just getting started. (Only in the past year, for example, has the Voice of America increased its Farsi programming from one hour a night to five hours.) Democracy-promotion is a long-term enterprise and can’t be expected to reap overnight results.

There is no question that the obstacles to overthrowing the mullahs—obstacles that Azimi amply highlights—are such that we may never succeed. But what’s the alternative? Negar doesn’t explore that in her article. But the usual alternative cited in Washington circles is outreach to, and accommodation with, the Iranian regime—the essence of the Baker-Hamilton Commission’s thinking. And how likely is that to work?

Two of the Iranian-Americans now languishing in Iranian prison, ironically, are advocates of this approach. They were against regime change and received no money from the U.S. democracy promotion funds. According to Azimi, one of them (Haleh Esfandiari, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center) even “declined offers to appear on Voice of America, for fear of being tied to an American agenda.” Their shabby treatment indicates what the mullahs think of well-intentioned (if deeply naïve) attempts to find common ground between the Iranian government and the Great Satan.

This was, incidentally, precisely the point that Reuel Gerecht made a month ago in a New York Times op-ed. Perhaps Negar’s editors should have been paying closer attention to what their paper’s op-ed page has to say.

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We’re (Allegedly) Number One!

Do I really teach at America’s best liberal arts college? Absolutely, according to the annual college ranking system published by the U.S. News and World Report, which assesses academic quality by looking at such factors as class size, graduation rate, and student SAT scores. For those of us on whom the list smiles, it seems to have the finely calibrated authority of an astronomical instrument. For those further down the list, it seems on the order of goat entrails, or something even less innocent. To be sure, a slight change of position on the list—especially one into or out of the top ten—can have dire consequences for student applications, institutional morale, and even the job security of administrators.

Now a revolt against the ranking system is in full swing. Last week, a meeting of college presidents and administrators in Annapolis discussed a boycott of the questionnaire the magazine uses to compile its annual ranking. Although a total boycott was rejected, most colleges represented at the meeting pledged that they will cease cooperating with the most controversial aspect of the magazine’s ranking, its “peer assessment score.” Whether this will make the ranking a better or worse proxy of academic quality remains to be seen.

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Do I really teach at America’s best liberal arts college? Absolutely, according to the annual college ranking system published by the U.S. News and World Report, which assesses academic quality by looking at such factors as class size, graduation rate, and student SAT scores. For those of us on whom the list smiles, it seems to have the finely calibrated authority of an astronomical instrument. For those further down the list, it seems on the order of goat entrails, or something even less innocent. To be sure, a slight change of position on the list—especially one into or out of the top ten—can have dire consequences for student applications, institutional morale, and even the job security of administrators.

Now a revolt against the ranking system is in full swing. Last week, a meeting of college presidents and administrators in Annapolis discussed a boycott of the questionnaire the magazine uses to compile its annual ranking. Although a total boycott was rejected, most colleges represented at the meeting pledged that they will cease cooperating with the most controversial aspect of the magazine’s ranking, its “peer assessment score.” Whether this will make the ranking a better or worse proxy of academic quality remains to be seen.

The revolt was set in motion earlier this year when Sarah Lawrence (currently ranked 45) decided it would no longer use the SAT as a basis for admission. Many schools do not require SAT scores but Sarah Lawrence was the first to refuse to even look at them. Since the collective SAT is a major component of the U.S. News ranking, the magazine decided to find another way of measuring it. According to the indignant president of the college, she

was recently informed by the director of data research at U.S. News, the person at the magazine who has a lot to say about how the rankings are computed, that absent students’ SAT scores, the magazine will calculate the college’s ranking by assuming an arbitrary average SAT score of one standard deviation (roughly 200 points) below the average score of our peer group.

“In other words,” as she put it, “in the absence of real data, they will make up a number.” It was precisely this sort of high-handedness that has led colleges to consider pulling out of the U.S. News survey entirely, as Reed College has. Now at Annapolis, they have chosen to boycott the “beauty contest” aspect of evaluation, the peer-assessment of reputation that tends to be a self-perpetuating phenomenon.

Meanwhile, the beleaguered news magazine has responded, arguing that peer assessment is “by nature subjective, but the technique of asking industry leaders to rate their competitors is a commonly accepted practice,” which measures the “‘intangibles’ of a college that we can’t measure through statistical data.”

The stakes are high here, and it is not easy to separate self-interest from principle—on either side. Expect this story to play out over the coming academic year.

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Bad Character Assassination

Is torture ever permissible? The U.S. is in the midst of a great debate on this subject as the exigencies of counterterrorism collide with peacetime norms and traditions. But if inflicting pain during an interrogation is highly controversial, what about inflicting death before an interrogation?

We do this all the time on the battlefield, where killing enemy combatants before they kill us is accepted as the ordinary course of war. But now we are engaged in a shadow war off the battlefield, against terrorists who do not wear uniforms and operate in stealth. Is it permissible to strike them before they strike us?

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Is torture ever permissible? The U.S. is in the midst of a great debate on this subject as the exigencies of counterterrorism collide with peacetime norms and traditions. But if inflicting pain during an interrogation is highly controversial, what about inflicting death before an interrogation?

We do this all the time on the battlefield, where killing enemy combatants before they kill us is accepted as the ordinary course of war. But now we are engaged in a shadow war off the battlefield, against terrorists who do not wear uniforms and operate in stealth. Is it permissible to strike them before they strike us?

Let me be more specific. In 1981, Ronald Reagan promulgated Executive Order 12333, which, among other provisions, declared that “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.” This had been preceded by similar such restrictions issued by Presidents Ford and Carter.

These assassination bans, as the 9/11 Commission report makes clear, came to hamstring our policy against al Qaeda in the late 1990’s. After Osama bin Laden had successfully launched terrorist attacks against American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the CIA was ordered to find ways to put al Qaeda out of business. Elaborate plans were drawn up, but the assassination ban dominated the agency’s thinking; the upshot of all the preparations, states the 9/11 Commission staff report, was that “the only acceptable context for killing bin Laden was a credible capture operation.”

A plan designed to kill bin Laden outright was deemed unacceptable and illegal. Never mind that the U.S. had launched a fusillade of cruise missiles at one of his camps in 1998 to do just that; that was a military action, not a CIA covert operation.

One of the most memorable sentences in the entire 9/11 Commission report concerns the CIA contemplating action against bin Laden on a road leading to the Afghan city of Kandahar. James Pavitt, the assistant head of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, “expressed concern that people might get killed; it appears he thought the operation had at least a slight flavor of a plan for an assassination.”

Not long afterward, the operation was called off. As a result, people did get killed—thousands of them—and not on the road to Kandahar but in lower Manhattan, at the Pentagon, and in rural Pennsylvania.

Islamist clerics around the world are still calling for suicide bombers to attack the United States. Jane Perlez of the New York Times reports on one such Pakistani cleric in today’s paper. If the CIA could from time to time engage in covert action against such avowed advocates of violence against the U.S., would they be so brazen? Would the madrassas in which they preach their hatred continue to be multiplying homicidal graduates?

President Bush can revoke the assassination ban at will. As the Congressional Research Service explains, he can most obviously do so by issuing a new Executive Order. As the CRS also points out, under certain circumstances, like an attack or an impending attack on the United States, such an Executive Order need not be published. In other words, Bush might already have revoked the ban and we would not know it—at least until homicidal clerics start disappearing.

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Messiaen’s Dark Past, II

After the German invasion of France in 1940, a so-called “renewal” began at the Paris Conservatory with the firing of all Jewish teachers. Among the five professors eliminated were the eminent piano teacher Lazare Lévy and the harmony professor André Bloch. Messiaen, returning early and in good health from the prison camp at Görlitz, was handed the job of teaching Bloch’s harmony class.

Odette Gartenlaub (b. 1922), the noted pianist, professor, and composer, was one of the students in Messiaen’s first class in May, 1941. (Despite her historical closeness to the composer, she has generally been ignored in the Messiaen literature.) When Bloch was fired, Gartenlaub knew that her future was imperiled because she too was Jewish. Yet she remained at the Conservatory because she enjoyed Messiaen’s unorthodox and wide-ranging lectures.

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After the German invasion of France in 1940, a so-called “renewal” began at the Paris Conservatory with the firing of all Jewish teachers. Among the five professors eliminated were the eminent piano teacher Lazare Lévy and the harmony professor André Bloch. Messiaen, returning early and in good health from the prison camp at Görlitz, was handed the job of teaching Bloch’s harmony class.

Odette Gartenlaub (b. 1922), the noted pianist, professor, and composer, was one of the students in Messiaen’s first class in May, 1941. (Despite her historical closeness to the composer, she has generally been ignored in the Messiaen literature.) When Bloch was fired, Gartenlaub knew that her future was imperiled because she too was Jewish. Yet she remained at the Conservatory because she enjoyed Messiaen’s unorthodox and wide-ranging lectures.

Odette’s studies with Messiaen were interrupted in the fall of 1941, when she received a letter from the Conservatory’s director, Claude Delvincourt, who had received his appointment as a reward for his right–wing political beliefs. (Gartenlaub would tell me decades later: “Delvincourt might at least have summoned me to his office to tell me this, instead of just sending a letter.”) Delvincourt cited a decree by the French Ministry of National Education stating that it was forbidden to admit or instruct any Jewish student, and explained that Odette would be removed from the student lists in a week. The prominent musicologist Jacques Chailley, then secretary general of the Conservatory, went so far as to chase after Odette during one of her last days at school, saying, “After September 30, you are no longer allowed to eat in the student cafeteria. Don’t forget!”

Odette managed to survive the German occupation of Paris, and although her Conservatory friends knew where to find her, Messiaen never wrote to her during the War. After the Americans liberated Paris, Messiaen finally sent Odette a letter dated September 1, 1944, declaring that it was now possible for her to take his course and that he’d be happy if she could resume. She felt odd about returning to the harmony class after her wartime difficulties, and did not accept the offer. On December 30, 1944 Messiaen wrote to Odette again, announcing that he was offering a free class in composition, during which Stravinsky’s Petrushka would be analyzed. Gartenlaub still refused to become one of Messiaen’s regular students.

Gartenlaub told me that during the War, “Messiaen had my address; he just didn’t want to compromise himself.” She added: “After the War when I returned, all the Conservatory people were very friendly and pleasant again, but these were the same people who ignored me after I’d been thrown out. I might have wound up in a crematory oven.” Fortunately, unlike Messaien’s previous hagiographers, his new biographers show an interest in examining the composer’s political commitments and motivations during and after the war years.

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Tipping Off the Enemy

Did a 2002 story in the Los Angeles Times contribute to Iran’s detention of four Americans as spies? I raised that question in two previous postings here and here, taking the newspaper to task for endangering fellow citizens and jeopardizing an ongoing intelligence operation against a critical target.

Based on what we know so far, it is not yet possible to posit a definitive link between the story and the arrests. There is more digging to be done. I have not yet been able to check the Iranian press for references to the Los Angeles Times story when it first came out; how it was treated might shed light on current developments. When and if the ayatollahs are toppled from power, there will also be archives to scour—but that could be a long-time coming.

Meanwhile, how has the Los Angeles Times responded?

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Did a 2002 story in the Los Angeles Times contribute to Iran’s detention of four Americans as spies? I raised that question in two previous postings here and here, taking the newspaper to task for endangering fellow citizens and jeopardizing an ongoing intelligence operation against a critical target.

Based on what we know so far, it is not yet possible to posit a definitive link between the story and the arrests. There is more digging to be done. I have not yet been able to check the Iranian press for references to the Los Angeles Times story when it first came out; how it was treated might shed light on current developments. When and if the ayatollahs are toppled from power, there will also be archives to scour—but that could be a long-time coming.

Meanwhile, how has the Los Angeles Times responded?

A different editorial team was in place back then. And the current one may or may not accept the merits of my argument. Perhaps the editors would handle such a story quite differently today, or perhaps not; they have not said a word. But, to their credit, they have done something else.

The impressive thing about this newspaper, in contrast to, say, the New York Times, is that they are open to airing criticism from outsiders. Today, they’ve run an op-ed in which I lay out the facts of the case as best we know them.

To subscribe to the Los Angeles Times, click here.

To cancel a subscription to the New York Times, call 1-800-NYTIMES.

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Messiaen’s Dark Past

The French composer and organist Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) is one of modern music’s most prominent figures. Although he died in 1992, Messiaen’s CD’s are sold in the classical music section of most stores, instead of the less commercially viable contemporary music bins. Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, written in 1940-41 for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano (and dedicated to the Angel of the Apocalypse) has become particularly popular for its spirituality and accessible tonal style. There are currently seventeen versions of the Quartet in print, of which the most fervent remains the one by pianist Peter Serkin and the chamber group Tashi on RCA Victor. Likewise infused with Messiaen’s ardent Catholic piety, his Twenty Gazes at Baby Jesus (Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus) has been brilliantly recorded by Serkin on RCA and with stark conviction by the gifted Norwegian virtuoso Håkon Austbø on Naxos.

Recently Messiaen has been the subject of a flood of books, including For the End of Time: the Story of the Messiaen Quartet by Rebecca Rischin (Cornell University Press); Messiaen by Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone (Yale University Press); and The Life of Messiaen by Christopher Dingle (Cambridge University Press). These books reveal a long-overlooked shadow on the composer’s history: his ambiguous relationship with the Nazi occupiers of his native country.

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The French composer and organist Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) is one of modern music’s most prominent figures. Although he died in 1992, Messiaen’s CD’s are sold in the classical music section of most stores, instead of the less commercially viable contemporary music bins. Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, written in 1940-41 for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano (and dedicated to the Angel of the Apocalypse) has become particularly popular for its spirituality and accessible tonal style. There are currently seventeen versions of the Quartet in print, of which the most fervent remains the one by pianist Peter Serkin and the chamber group Tashi on RCA Victor. Likewise infused with Messiaen’s ardent Catholic piety, his Twenty Gazes at Baby Jesus (Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus) has been brilliantly recorded by Serkin on RCA and with stark conviction by the gifted Norwegian virtuoso Håkon Austbø on Naxos.

Recently Messiaen has been the subject of a flood of books, including For the End of Time: the Story of the Messiaen Quartet by Rebecca Rischin (Cornell University Press); Messiaen by Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone (Yale University Press); and The Life of Messiaen by Christopher Dingle (Cambridge University Press). These books reveal a long-overlooked shadow on the composer’s history: his ambiguous relationship with the Nazi occupiers of his native country.

In 1939, Messiaen was mobilized as a soldier, assigned to carry stretchers. After the French surrender in 1940, Messiaen was imprisoned at Görlitz in Silesia. There, a German sergeant took a liking to Messiaen after learning he was a composer. He gave Messiaen extra rations of bread to eat and allowed him to write undisturbed in the afternoon. The product of these afternoon sessions was the Quartet for the End of Time, which the other prisoners were even commanded to stand and listen to when it was first performed in the camp.

Insofar as Nazi officers made the work materially possible to compose, and incited Messiaen to write it, his Quartet was a Nazi commission. Messiaen himself never explicitly denied this, stating decades later in an interview, “As Germans always admire music, wherever it may be found, not only did they leave me my scores, but an officer gave me pencils, erasers, and music paper.” In the 1960’s, he went so far as to object when an American recording was published with a cover design of a swastika torn into pieces: “This hideous and stupid drawing is the complete opposite of what I intended to do!”

All of the books mentioned above are huge improvements over earlier hagiographies of Messaien. The composer is frankly overdue for a clear-eyed estimation of his co-relationship with the Nazis and his anti-Semitic statements, such as this one, made to the interviewer Claude Samuel in 1987:

What I am going to say is horrible, but the Jews as a people committed a deicide. No doubt they didn’t know what they were doing . . . but finally they did pronounce that terrible sentence “May his blood fall on us and our children.”

Someone close enough to observe at first hand Messiaen’s relations with the Nazis, and a figure generally ignored in Messiaen literature, was his former student and eventual colleague at the Paris Conservatory, Odette Gartenlaub. I interviewed Gartenlaub in the early 90’s about her relationship with the composer and her Vichy-era vicissitudes as part of a research project about French music. So stay tuned for the follow-up to this post, which will be drawn from that interview.

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