Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 14, 2007

Prague, Part III

In addition to the very interesting speeches delivered by President Bush and Senator Lieberman at last week’s Prague Conference on Democracy and Security, there were some noteworthy moments during the panel discussions.

The most touching came during the remarks of Mithal Al-Alusi, a liberal secularist member of the Iraqi legislature. “We are fighting for you in Iraq,” he said, “because what we are fighting against is part of the Iran-Syria-Hamas-Hizballah axis.” Then he added that Iraqis were aware of and grateful for the losses of American sons and daughters in Iraq: “we have lost children, too.” What he was too dignified to mention was that he, himself, lost two grown sons to terrorists who were attempting to assassinate him after he had attended an anti-terrorism conference in Israel. He has somehow found the strength to continue the struggle to make his country peaceful and free.

The most welcome moment came during the remarks of Egyptian intellectual and leading dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim. Ibrahim has been an advocate of dialogue with Islamists ever since his prolonged jailhouse exchanges with Muslim Brotherhood prisoners during his own long incarceration. Last summer, however, during the war in Lebanon, Ibrahim appeared to veer toward a closer embrace of Islamists, freely granting their democratic bona fides, a position I criticized in COMMENTARY.

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In addition to the very interesting speeches delivered by President Bush and Senator Lieberman at last week’s Prague Conference on Democracy and Security, there were some noteworthy moments during the panel discussions.

The most touching came during the remarks of Mithal Al-Alusi, a liberal secularist member of the Iraqi legislature. “We are fighting for you in Iraq,” he said, “because what we are fighting against is part of the Iran-Syria-Hamas-Hizballah axis.” Then he added that Iraqis were aware of and grateful for the losses of American sons and daughters in Iraq: “we have lost children, too.” What he was too dignified to mention was that he, himself, lost two grown sons to terrorists who were attempting to assassinate him after he had attended an anti-terrorism conference in Israel. He has somehow found the strength to continue the struggle to make his country peaceful and free.

The most welcome moment came during the remarks of Egyptian intellectual and leading dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim. Ibrahim has been an advocate of dialogue with Islamists ever since his prolonged jailhouse exchanges with Muslim Brotherhood prisoners during his own long incarceration. Last summer, however, during the war in Lebanon, Ibrahim appeared to veer toward a closer embrace of Islamists, freely granting their democratic bona fides, a position I criticized in COMMENTARY.

In Prague, happily, the old Ibrahim seemed to be back. In addition to fighting the regime, he said, “we are also fighting against the darkness of the theocrats.” He added that because Arab democrats have to fight “both of these enemies,” they were up against a problem that “dissidents in other regions don’t face.”

Despite this problem, Ibrahim was hopeful. In Egypt’s most recent People’s Assembly election, the “autocrats” (i.e., the ruling National Democratic Party) won 19 percent of the vote; the “theocrats” (i.e., the Muslim Brotherhood) won 4 percent; while 77 percent of the electorate did not vote. This “silent majority,” he argued, cared for neither the autocrats nor theocrats. In America we know that the non-voters usually differ little in their preferences from those who make it to the polls. But in Egypt, who knows?

Finally, I continued a long-running debate with Martin Kramer, of the Washington Institute, about democracy and the Arabs. (I am a democratic universalist, while Kramer takes a view more common among Israelis, who fear that free voting among Arabs will only stoke radicalism.) In Prague, Kramer coined a useful term—“consensual authoritarianism.” He was alluding, I inferred, to Egypt and the various monarchies of Jordan, Morocco, and the rest of the Persian Gulf, all of them stable and moderate, and almost none of them viciously tyrannical. My response was that to encourage the overthrow of these regimes would indeed be counterproductive. Rather, we should press them to democratize at a measured pace.

But in the region’s trouble spots, the very places where democratization efforts have come in for most criticism, there is and was no “consensual authoritarian” option. Could we have installed a dictator in Iraq instead of trying to build democracy? Perhaps, but every one of the problems dogging us there today would be worse. In Lebanon or Afghanistan, would the installation of dictators have caused less or more resistance than the current governments are facing? The answer is obvious. And what about the Palestinian territories? There, we did in fact help install a “consensual authoritarian.” His name was Yassir Arafat. And he is more responsible than any other person for the sorry state in which America, Israel, and the Palestinians now find themselves.

Just as I conceded part of Kramer’s point, he, I believe, conceded part of mine. No doubt, our debate will continue.

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Was Kurt Waldheim Human?

Kurt Waldheim, the former Secretary General of the United Nations and president of Austria, has died at the age of eighty-eight. What will be history’s verdict?

The Washington Post’s obituary offers a good summary of the facts leading to his being placed on a watch list of “prohibited persons” that barred him from entry into the United States. Although his participation in Nazi war crimes was never proved in a court of law, it was enough that he had repeatedly lied about his military service during World War II, striving especially to conceal his role as a lieutenant in the Wehrmacht from 1942 through 1945 in a unit that had butchered Yugoslav partisans. Later disclosures in the mid-1980’s, reports the Post, “included a secret 1948 finding by the UN War Crimes Commission that there was sufficient evidence to prosecute Waldheim for ‘murder’ and ‘putting hostages to death.’”

Despite his sinister past, Waldheim did have his admirers. One of them, remarkably enough, was the writer Gitta Sereny, whose anti-Nazi credentials, as a member of the French resistance and as a historian, are not in doubt. When she interviewed Waldheim in the late 1980’s about his activities in the Balkans, he explained to her that it was “a ‘savage war,’ like ‘Vietnam, and now the West Bank,’ where the Israelis ‘are breaking people’s bones.’”

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Kurt Waldheim, the former Secretary General of the United Nations and president of Austria, has died at the age of eighty-eight. What will be history’s verdict?

The Washington Post’s obituary offers a good summary of the facts leading to his being placed on a watch list of “prohibited persons” that barred him from entry into the United States. Although his participation in Nazi war crimes was never proved in a court of law, it was enough that he had repeatedly lied about his military service during World War II, striving especially to conceal his role as a lieutenant in the Wehrmacht from 1942 through 1945 in a unit that had butchered Yugoslav partisans. Later disclosures in the mid-1980’s, reports the Post, “included a secret 1948 finding by the UN War Crimes Commission that there was sufficient evidence to prosecute Waldheim for ‘murder’ and ‘putting hostages to death.’”

Despite his sinister past, Waldheim did have his admirers. One of them, remarkably enough, was the writer Gitta Sereny, whose anti-Nazi credentials, as a member of the French resistance and as a historian, are not in doubt. When she interviewed Waldheim in the late 1980’s about his activities in the Balkans, he explained to her that it was “a ‘savage war,’ like ‘Vietnam, and now the West Bank,’ where the Israelis ‘are breaking people’s bones.’”

Sereny, despite all her talents as a writer and as investigator into the history of Nazi evil, raised only the barest challenge to her interlocutor’s likening of the Nazis to the Americans and the Israelis. She then went on to judge Waldheim a “fundamentally decent man.”

It was this, among other things, that led me to conclude in a review of her book, The Healing Wound, in the New York Times, that she was “incapable of. . . grasping, after a lifetime of studying it, the radical nature of Nazi evil.”

My appraisal of her then drew a letter to the editor defending Sereny. I still remember it today for its timeless encapsulation of a certain extreme but all-too-popular moral inversion: “It is precisely by rejecting the atavistic, thought-foreclosing notion of evil, and instead insisting on the complex humanity of her subjects,” wrote an indignant reader, “that Sereny has made fascism at all comprehensible to us. The enemy is human: that is a lesson today’s policymakers would do well to learn.”

Yes, Waldheim, was human. But he was also evil, and it is evil not to judge him so.

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China’s Visible Hand

Yesterday, Senators Baucus, Grassley, Schumer, and Graham unveiled legislation aimed at China’s currency-fixing practices. The bill, which does not mention any country by name, targets “fundamentally misaligned currencies.” If enacted, it would require the Treasury and Commerce Departments first to determine if the “misalignment” is intentional and then to take a series of actions—ranging from suspension of that country’s procurement rights to intervention by the WTO and the Federal Reserve—if the problem is not remedied.

There seems little question that the misalignment of China’s renminbi is intentional. The currency was pegged to the dollar until July 2005. After intense pressure from the international community, Beijing made a slight upward adjustment—about 2 percent—and then freed its currency to trade within an extremely tight band. Since then, the renminbi has appreciated about 6 percent against the greenback. Today, some think the yuan, as the renminbi is informally known, is still undervalued by as much as 15 to 40 percent. Beijing keeps the renminbi undervalued by intervening in domestic money markets almost every day.

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Yesterday, Senators Baucus, Grassley, Schumer, and Graham unveiled legislation aimed at China’s currency-fixing practices. The bill, which does not mention any country by name, targets “fundamentally misaligned currencies.” If enacted, it would require the Treasury and Commerce Departments first to determine if the “misalignment” is intentional and then to take a series of actions—ranging from suspension of that country’s procurement rights to intervention by the WTO and the Federal Reserve—if the problem is not remedied.

There seems little question that the misalignment of China’s renminbi is intentional. The currency was pegged to the dollar until July 2005. After intense pressure from the international community, Beijing made a slight upward adjustment—about 2 percent—and then freed its currency to trade within an extremely tight band. Since then, the renminbi has appreciated about 6 percent against the greenback. Today, some think the yuan, as the renminbi is informally known, is still undervalued by as much as 15 to 40 percent. Beijing keeps the renminbi undervalued by intervening in domestic money markets almost every day.

Nonetheless, in its twice-yearly currency report, released yesterday, the Treasury Department again declined to label China a currency manipulator. Treasury said it was

unable to determine that China’s exchange-rate policy was carried out for the purpose of preventing effective balance of payments adjustment or gaining unfair competitive advantage in international trade.

Common sense tells us this can’t be true. A cheap renminbi keeps Chinese goods less costly, conferring a huge advantage on manufacturers looking to export. And export is perhaps the most significant prop of the Chinese economy. China’s trade surplus against the United States amounted to $232.5 billion in 2006. This year, Beijing’s overall trade surplus is projected to grow an astonishing 43 percent.

The Bush administration will undoubtedly fight hard against the new Senate bill, just as it will try to derail other pending China-currency legislation, including the Hunter-Ryan bill in the House and the Dodd-Shelby bill in the Senate. The White House and the Treasury Department say that only engagement and dialogue will work—a point Beijing also maintains—but China has rebuffed American advances on this issue for years.

The President’s policies have obviously been ineffective. Worse, by allowing China to continue to game the international system, the White House may erode the American public’s support for multilateral trade. China’s predatory policies are de-legitimizing the basic concept of free trade: just as bad currencies drive out good ones—Gresham’s Law—irresponsible trade practices undermine responsible ones.

This week Beijing unleashed a blistering attack on Congress for merely considering currency legislation, saying the Chinese government would not “obey an order from Capitol Hill.” Such a response from that quarter is only to be expected. What is slightly harder to explain is the President’s taking the side of mercantilist Chinese autocrats on an issue of such importance to America’s economic health.

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Music from Kids of All Ages

Lunch-hour pedestrians in midtown Manhattan from June 4th to 8th may have stumbled across one of five consecutive mid-day recitals (part of Bryant Park’s Piano in the Park series) by Roy Eaton, an African-American musician born in Harlem in 1930, gifted with unusual poise and calm grace. Mr. Eaton, who has released CD’s of Chopin on Summit Records and Scott Joplin’s ragtime music on Sony, has a new Summit CD out, Keyboard Classics for Children, which reveals unusual insight into the world of childhood. The disc includes works by J.S. Bach and Claude Debussy, as well as Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen, played in deliberate (yet never heavy) tempos and with unshowy intimacy, in the spirit of the acclaimed British pianist Clifford Curzon (1907-1982).

Eaton was born, sadly, before it was possible for an African-American classical pianist seriously to envisage a concert career. Instead, he became an advertising executive for Young & Rubicam and Benton & Bowles. (Eaton is responsible for several popular TV jingles, including You can trust your car/ to the man that wears the star/ the big, bright, Texaco star and Beefaroni’s full of meat/ Beefaroni’s really neat./ Hooray for Beefaroni!). After being downsized in 1980, Eaton (who now teaches at the Manhattan School of Music) found time to rediscover his inner child and his musical ambitions.

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Lunch-hour pedestrians in midtown Manhattan from June 4th to 8th may have stumbled across one of five consecutive mid-day recitals (part of Bryant Park’s Piano in the Park series) by Roy Eaton, an African-American musician born in Harlem in 1930, gifted with unusual poise and calm grace. Mr. Eaton, who has released CD’s of Chopin on Summit Records and Scott Joplin’s ragtime music on Sony, has a new Summit CD out, Keyboard Classics for Children, which reveals unusual insight into the world of childhood. The disc includes works by J.S. Bach and Claude Debussy, as well as Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen, played in deliberate (yet never heavy) tempos and with unshowy intimacy, in the spirit of the acclaimed British pianist Clifford Curzon (1907-1982).

Eaton was born, sadly, before it was possible for an African-American classical pianist seriously to envisage a concert career. Instead, he became an advertising executive for Young & Rubicam and Benton & Bowles. (Eaton is responsible for several popular TV jingles, including You can trust your car/ to the man that wears the star/ the big, bright, Texaco star and Beefaroni’s full of meat/ Beefaroni’s really neat./ Hooray for Beefaroni!). After being downsized in 1980, Eaton (who now teaches at the Manhattan School of Music) found time to rediscover his inner child and his musical ambitions.

An equally moving expression of childhood in classical music can be heard in the merry, radiant works of Conrad Tao, a composer, pianist, and violinist born in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois in 1994. Tao, a student at Juilliard’s preparatory program, has produced a CD of his pieces, Silhouettes & Shadows, expressing a balletic musical grace. His Sonata for Cello and Piano ranges in mood from the impish to the searching. Another disc available on Tao’s website, a 2006 solo piano recital at Juilliard, includes tenderly exalted performances of works by Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt.

Tao has a sense of musical line—a conviction that each note is part of the total fabric of a given work—found only in the greatest musicians, like the conductor Arturo Toscanini and the tenor Peter Pears. This quality, plus the congenial sense of community endeavor that marks everything Tao does, augurs very well indeed for his future as a musician. He has nothing in common with the usual image of the child prodigy, an isolated misfit in a media fishbowl.

Whether an aging musician re-awakens a talent long ignored, or a child possessing unusual gifts writes music with adult acumen, it’s clear that music can provide an exception to the otherwise cruelly rigid laws of Father Time.

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