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Posts For: June 15, 2007

Weekend Reading

The bloody events of the past week in Gaza have shown just how precarious the Palestinian unity government actually was. COMMENTARY has a wealth of material in its archives dealing with the various crises provoked by the Palestinian leadership (such as it was and is), and the West’s conciliatory responses to it, over the past thirty years. We offer a few of the best for this weekend’s reading.

Israel After Disengagement
Hillel Halkin – October 2005

Wye and the Road to War
Douglas J. Feith – January 1999

Can the Palestinians Make Peace?
Daniel Pipes – April 1990

How the PLO Was Legitimized
Jeane J. Kirkpatrick – July 1989

The Palestinians and the PLO
Bernard Lewis – January 1975

Guerrillas and Terrorists
Walter Laqueur – October 1974

The bloody events of the past week in Gaza have shown just how precarious the Palestinian unity government actually was. COMMENTARY has a wealth of material in its archives dealing with the various crises provoked by the Palestinian leadership (such as it was and is), and the West’s conciliatory responses to it, over the past thirty years. We offer a few of the best for this weekend’s reading.

Israel After Disengagement
Hillel Halkin – October 2005

Wye and the Road to War
Douglas J. Feith – January 1999

Can the Palestinians Make Peace?
Daniel Pipes – April 1990

How the PLO Was Legitimized
Jeane J. Kirkpatrick – July 1989

The Palestinians and the PLO
Bernard Lewis – January 1975

Guerrillas and Terrorists
Walter Laqueur – October 1974

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The Sound of Silence

The West is host to many organizations—the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the International Solidarity Movement, and countless others—dedicated to supporting the Palestinian cause. Given mounting casualties among Palestinian civilians under fire in Lebanon and Gaza this week, one would expect these organizations to voice their shock, outrage, or simple concern at these events. Take the plight of Palestinians in the northern Lebanese camp of Nahr el Bared: according to recent news reports, more than 130 people have died during the past three weeks of fighting there. The escalating violence in Gaza has claimed the lives of more than 70.

Surprisingly, none of these groups—always dutifully prompt to denounce Palestinian deaths at Israeli hands—has much to say about Palestinian deaths at the hands of Lebanese soldiers, or of fellow Palestinians. From France’s Campagne Civile Internationale pour la Protection des Palestiniens, from the Alternative News Center, from the new Free Gaza organization: not a word. This is puzzling, given the particularly brutal nature of the violence. Hamas gunmen threw a Fatah official from the 15th floor of an apartment building; Fatah later avenged his death by throwing a Hamas man off the 12th floor of another building. Fatah gunmen taken prisoner were shot in the head, execution-style, in the streets. (To its credit, Human Rights Watch quickly condemned these actions as war crimes, even in the face of this silence.)

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The West is host to many organizations—the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the International Solidarity Movement, and countless others—dedicated to supporting the Palestinian cause. Given mounting casualties among Palestinian civilians under fire in Lebanon and Gaza this week, one would expect these organizations to voice their shock, outrage, or simple concern at these events. Take the plight of Palestinians in the northern Lebanese camp of Nahr el Bared: according to recent news reports, more than 130 people have died during the past three weeks of fighting there. The escalating violence in Gaza has claimed the lives of more than 70.

Surprisingly, none of these groups—always dutifully prompt to denounce Palestinian deaths at Israeli hands—has much to say about Palestinian deaths at the hands of Lebanese soldiers, or of fellow Palestinians. From France’s Campagne Civile Internationale pour la Protection des Palestiniens, from the Alternative News Center, from the new Free Gaza organization: not a word. This is puzzling, given the particularly brutal nature of the violence. Hamas gunmen threw a Fatah official from the 15th floor of an apartment building; Fatah later avenged his death by throwing a Hamas man off the 12th floor of another building. Fatah gunmen taken prisoner were shot in the head, execution-style, in the streets. (To its credit, Human Rights Watch quickly condemned these actions as war crimes, even in the face of this silence.)

At least these organizations have an implicit rationale for their selectiveness in pointing out human-rights violations—their mission, more or less explicitly, is to aid the Palestinians in their struggle against the state of Israel. Criticizing others who inflict suffering on Palestinians would only be a distraction. Their calling is narrow—particularly when compared to organizations such as Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), whose mission statement defines human rights as being “universal and indivisible,” and demands that they be “upheld without exception” in “Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.” Yet, with all of IJV’s hand-wringing over the 40th anniversary of the “occupation,” they have found not a word to spare about these current cases of Palestinian suffering.

Surprised? Don’t be. After all, IJV has also been silent about the boycott against Israeli academia, despite its proclamation that “there is no justification for any form of racism, including anti-Semitism, anti-Arab racism, or Islamophobia, in any circumstance.” Well said, indeed. But like so many other paladins of universalist values—John Pilger, for example, who habitually invokes human rights to bash Israel for its behavior while reliably supporting dictators the world over—IJV has so far shown fastidious care in executing its mission.

The group’s technique is eerily similar to the approach of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), as noted by UN Watch director Hillel Neuer. Like the HRC, IJV has made sure that its commitment to universal human rights never interferes with making political hay of Palestinian suffering—an activity requiring silence when that suffering comes at the hands of Arabs.

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Let’s Welcome Hamas

History has a way of repeating itself, and not always proceeding from tragedy to farce, as the shopworn quotation from Karl Marx would have it.

“Calm settled over Gaza today,” reports the New York Times this morning. In the wake of Israel’s complete withdrawal in 2005, and the ensuing jockeying for power between Hamas and Fatah, the former has now come to power in the strip. What now?

Already there are voices explaining that if Hamas is to satisfy the aspirations of the long-suffering residents of Gaza, it will inevitably be compelled to abandon its terroristic tactics and to embrace a more pragmatic and realistic approach to Israel and to the world around it. And as if on cue, we have a confirming dispatch this morning from the Associated Press: “Hamas vowed Friday to secure the release of kidnapped British journalist Alan Johnston, a promise seemingly meant to avoid alienating the outside world and to tell other armed groups in Gaza that it intends to impose order.” Britain’s Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell, visiting Israel earlier this week, “held out hope that Hamas or some within it would yet moderate,” telling the Jerusalem Post that “I genuinely don’t think that [Hamas’s] positions are set in tablets of stone forever and a day.”

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History has a way of repeating itself, and not always proceeding from tragedy to farce, as the shopworn quotation from Karl Marx would have it.

“Calm settled over Gaza today,” reports the New York Times this morning. In the wake of Israel’s complete withdrawal in 2005, and the ensuing jockeying for power between Hamas and Fatah, the former has now come to power in the strip. What now?

Already there are voices explaining that if Hamas is to satisfy the aspirations of the long-suffering residents of Gaza, it will inevitably be compelled to abandon its terroristic tactics and to embrace a more pragmatic and realistic approach to Israel and to the world around it. And as if on cue, we have a confirming dispatch this morning from the Associated Press: “Hamas vowed Friday to secure the release of kidnapped British journalist Alan Johnston, a promise seemingly meant to avoid alienating the outside world and to tell other armed groups in Gaza that it intends to impose order.” Britain’s Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell, visiting Israel earlier this week, “held out hope that Hamas or some within it would yet moderate,” telling the Jerusalem Post that “I genuinely don’t think that [Hamas’s] positions are set in tablets of stone forever and a day.”

Perhaps, but what can we learn from the recent past?

When Israel withdrew from the security zone it had established in southern Lebanon in 2000, there were numerous predictions, noted the Israeli analyst Gal Luft in 2003, “that the radical Shiite group Hizballah, whose forces had relentlessly attacked the occupying Israeli troops, would close up military operations and henceforth focus solely on Lebanese domestic affairs.”

But what actually happened? First, wrote Luft, Hizballah declared that its “objective was the liberation of the entire land of Palestine and the destruction of the ‘Zionist entity.” It then seized control of the entire buffer zone that had been occupied by Israel and turned it into “a de facto state within a state.” Hizballahland” was what Luft christened this territory as he pointed to the fact that the terrorist organization had “managed to amass an impressive stockpile of weapons, including 10,000 rockets and missiles capable of hitting a quarter of Israel’s population.”

That was 2003. By 2006, Hizballah had 20,000 rockets and missiles, and its depredations led Israel and Lebanon into a massive and bloody war.

What lies ahead for Hamastan? It is of course conceivable—anything being conceivable—that the newly empowered Hamas leadership will move in the direction of pragmatism; that is what our own pragmatic logic suggests they should do. But perhaps these Islamic radicals operate under a different system of reasoning. The spectacle of the losers of the Gaza power struggle—their fellow Palestinians—being tossed from fifteen-story buildings and shot in the knees before being shot in the head suggests that sometimes it is not only history that goes in cycles, but illusions about history as well.

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Bookshelf

• Back when I was flogging my H.L. Mencken biography on the book-tour circuit, people were always asking me if I thought there were any contemporary writers who were comparable in quality to Mencken, and I always gave the same answer: Tom Wolfe and Andrew Ferguson. Wolfe can take care of himself, but if I were to awake tomorrow morning and find myself in charge of a great big foundation, the first thing I’d do would be to award a great big grant to Ferguson so that he could quit his day job and do nothing but write books like Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America (Atlantic Monthly Press, 279 pp., $24). He is that rarest of birds, a writer who is at one and the same time very funny and very serious. Alas, he labors in the time-gobbling vineyards of weekly journalism, and his only previous book, Fools’ Names, Fools’ Faces (1996), was a collection of his wonderful magazine essays. Now he’s followed up that debut with a full-fledged book, and it is, not at all surprisingly, even better.

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• Back when I was flogging my H.L. Mencken biography on the book-tour circuit, people were always asking me if I thought there were any contemporary writers who were comparable in quality to Mencken, and I always gave the same answer: Tom Wolfe and Andrew Ferguson. Wolfe can take care of himself, but if I were to awake tomorrow morning and find myself in charge of a great big foundation, the first thing I’d do would be to award a great big grant to Ferguson so that he could quit his day job and do nothing but write books like Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America (Atlantic Monthly Press, 279 pp., $24). He is that rarest of birds, a writer who is at one and the same time very funny and very serious. Alas, he labors in the time-gobbling vineyards of weekly journalism, and his only previous book, Fools’ Names, Fools’ Faces (1996), was a collection of his wonderful magazine essays. Now he’s followed up that debut with a full-fledged book, and it is, not at all surprisingly, even better.

Land of Lincoln is not a biography of Abraham Lincoln, or a scholarly monograph on some aspect or other of Lincoln’s life and thought. It is, rather, a kind of intellectual travel book, an account of Ferguson’s visits to Lincoln-related sites and events across America, in the course of which he meets a wildly diverse assortment of Lincoln-lovers and Abe-haters, most of them eccentric in degrees varying from mildly aberrant to near-pathological. (Did you know that there’s an annual convention of Lincoln impersonators?) Everything he sees and everyone he encounters along the way is described with an engaging combination of dry, sly wit and what can only be described as empathy, for Ferguson is himself a recovering Lincoln buff who spent much of his Illinois childhood in the grip of a historical obsession:

I cleared my schedule—not so hard to do when you’re ten—whenever Abe Lincoln in Illinois or Young Mr. Lincoln was to show up on TV. My favorite book was a photographic album as thick and heavy as a plank of oak, called Lincoln in Every Known Pose. . . . Photographs of Lincoln hung on the walls of my bedroom. Sometimes at night, wakened by a bad dream, I’d rise from my bed and go to my desk and pull from the center drawer a sheaf of papers written in Lincoln’s own hand. I’d bought a packet of these yellowed, crinkly reproductions, reeking of the rust-colored dye that was meant to make them look antique, at a cavernous gift shop near his birthplace. The words carried the force of an incantation—entrancing, if not, to me, thoroughly comprehensible.

As always with Ferguson, his purpose in introducing us to the shadowland of Lincoln buffery is to make a deeply serious point about postmodern American life:

Lincoln hasn’t been forgotten, but he’s shrunk. From the enormous figure of the past he’s been reduced to a hobbyist’s eccentricity, a charming obsession shared by a self-selected subculture, like quilting or Irish step dancing. He has been detached from the national patrimony, if we can be said to have a national patrimony any longer. He is no longer a common possession. That earlier Lincoln, that large Lincoln, seems to be slipping away, a misty figure, incapable of rousing a reaction from anyone but buffs.

This is a very powerful theme, and though Ferguson states and varies it with the lightest of touches in Land of Lincoln, you are never in doubt of his underlying purpose. He visits Springfield’s Disney-style Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and captures its cheery essence in a single devastating sentence: “Cute and chilling and sad and chipper—and fun!—and never, not for a moment, more realistic than an animated movie.” He attends a workshop for businessmen who long to learn how to run their corporations along Lincolnian lines and imagines how the Gettysburg Address might have been reconceived as a PowerPoint presentation (“Key Proposition: Everybody Equal”). It’s all laughable, but the joke, we know, is on us, and on America as well.

“I’m just a journalist, not a scholar,” Ferguson says at book’s end. True enough, but journalism like Land of Lincoln beats most scholarship hollow. John Coltrane once said of Stan Getz, “We’d all play like that . . . if we could.” I wish I could write like Andrew Ferguson, but at least I can read him, as can you. Do so.

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Command Performance

The recent spate of appointments of admirals to top “joint” jobs within the U.S. armed forces is, so to speak, making waves within the military. The Army feels especially miffed that, at a time when it is carrying the major burden of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, its representation in the most senior jobs is as low as it’s ever been.

As an Associated Press article notes, “Of the U.S. military’s nine combat commands, only two are run by Army generals, and that number will be cut in half when Bryan Brown retires next month as the senior officer at U.S. Special Operations Command.”

General Brown, a veteran of Army Special Operations Forces, is being replaced by Admiral Eric Olson, a veteran SEAL. At the same time, Admiral Mike Mullen, the current Chief of Naval Operations (i.e., the Navy chief of staff), has been nominated to replace Marine General Peter Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; his deputy will be Marine General James Cartwright.

In other personnel shifts, Admiral James Stavridis became head of Southern Command last fall, while more recently Admiral Timothy Keating has become head of Pacific Command. The latter is a traditional Navy billet. But what really rankles the Army is that Keating’s predecessor, Admiral William Fallon, has taken over Central Command (covering the Middle East, East Africa, and Central Asia), whose leadership traditionally has rotated between the Army and Marine Corps. Of the nine unified combatant commands, the Army will be left with just one—European Command, where General Bantz Craddock is the boss.

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The recent spate of appointments of admirals to top “joint” jobs within the U.S. armed forces is, so to speak, making waves within the military. The Army feels especially miffed that, at a time when it is carrying the major burden of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, its representation in the most senior jobs is as low as it’s ever been.

As an Associated Press article notes, “Of the U.S. military’s nine combat commands, only two are run by Army generals, and that number will be cut in half when Bryan Brown retires next month as the senior officer at U.S. Special Operations Command.”

General Brown, a veteran of Army Special Operations Forces, is being replaced by Admiral Eric Olson, a veteran SEAL. At the same time, Admiral Mike Mullen, the current Chief of Naval Operations (i.e., the Navy chief of staff), has been nominated to replace Marine General Peter Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; his deputy will be Marine General James Cartwright.

In other personnel shifts, Admiral James Stavridis became head of Southern Command last fall, while more recently Admiral Timothy Keating has become head of Pacific Command. The latter is a traditional Navy billet. But what really rankles the Army is that Keating’s predecessor, Admiral William Fallon, has taken over Central Command (covering the Middle East, East Africa, and Central Asia), whose leadership traditionally has rotated between the Army and Marine Corps. Of the nine unified combatant commands, the Army will be left with just one—European Command, where General Bantz Craddock is the boss.

Suspicious souls within the Army are starting to wonder if there is a conspiracy against the men and women in green, perhaps a holdover from the tenure of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld was intensely suspicious of the Army for not being in synch with his high-tech (and highly misguided) plans to “transform” the armed forces. Or perhaps, some self-flagellating Army officers speculate, this is a sign that their service isn’t doing a good job of producing competent senior leaders.

Both explanations are plausible. But it’s also possible that there may be less here than meets the eye.

Consider that the Army at the moment holds the two most important combat commands in the entire U.S. armed forces. General David Petraeus is the senior commander in Iraq, while General Dan McNeill is the senior commander in Afghanistan. Neither position is as publicly prestigious as that of combatant commander. But those jobs are of much greater actual significance at the moment than running, say, Southern Command (with responsibility for Latin America). They are probably even more significant than running Central Command—which may be why Defense Secretary Robert Gates felt free to appoint an admiral to that position, knowing that our land wars would still be run by army four-stars.

These trends also tend to go in cycles. Not long ago the Army was grousing not about Navy admirals but about Marine Corps generals, said to be “overrepresented” in senior Army ranks. Marines, for their part, were upset that two Army generals—Tommy Franks and John Abizaid—had taken successive charge of Centcom. Many wondered why a leatherneck (such as the eminently qualified Lieutenant General Jim Mattis) wasn’t picked.

My sense—and it’s only a sense, since I have no inside information—is that the top jobs are filled nowadays based more on personal qualifications than on service politics. It’s who you know and what your reputation is that count, rather than which uniform you wear. And since the top jobs are so political, it’s often the most astute political infighter, rather than the most brilliant and inspired leader, who gets the appointment.

But the recent appointments do seem to reflect a decline in intra-service parochialism—precisely what the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act was supposed to accomplish. So the latest appointments should not occasion too much grinding of teeth, even in the Army. After all, before long the other services may well be complaining about too many green-suiters at the top.

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