Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 21, 2007

Come Home, Mr. Hill

The State Department’s chief North Korean negotiator, Christopher Hill, is currently in Pyongyang. He should not be there; his presence can only worsen the state of affairs between the U.S. and North Korea. In fact, it already has.

To understand why requires some background. In February of this year, Hill negotiated a two-stage interim arrangement with North Korea. During the first stage, the militant state agreed to shut down and seal by April 14 its reactor in Yongbyon, under the supervision of international inspectors. In the second, the North Koreans promised to disable all their nuclear facilities and to disclose all their nuclear programs. In return, the United States and Japan agreed to lift some sanctions and to start the process of normalizing relations—and to provide a million tons of heavy fuel oil or an equivalent amount of aid. The State Department called this deal a “breakthrough.”

Not formally part of the deal was America’s promise to allow the return of about $25 million in North Korean funds held in the Macau-based Banco Delta Asia (BDA). In September 2005, the Treasury Department effectively froze these assets by designating BDA a “primary money-laundering concern.” (BDA had previously helped North Korean leader Kim Jong Il hide his cash, distribute counterfeit American currency, and launder the proceeds of other state-sponsored criminal activities.) Pyongyang refused to continue participating in Beijing-sponsored disarmament talks until all frozen funds were returned, and the Chinese sided with Kim’s government. In a humiliating about-face, Washington ultimately bowed and freed all the monies as of April 11 of this year.

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The State Department’s chief North Korean negotiator, Christopher Hill, is currently in Pyongyang. He should not be there; his presence can only worsen the state of affairs between the U.S. and North Korea. In fact, it already has.

To understand why requires some background. In February of this year, Hill negotiated a two-stage interim arrangement with North Korea. During the first stage, the militant state agreed to shut down and seal by April 14 its reactor in Yongbyon, under the supervision of international inspectors. In the second, the North Koreans promised to disable all their nuclear facilities and to disclose all their nuclear programs. In return, the United States and Japan agreed to lift some sanctions and to start the process of normalizing relations—and to provide a million tons of heavy fuel oil or an equivalent amount of aid. The State Department called this deal a “breakthrough.”

Not formally part of the deal was America’s promise to allow the return of about $25 million in North Korean funds held in the Macau-based Banco Delta Asia (BDA). In September 2005, the Treasury Department effectively froze these assets by designating BDA a “primary money-laundering concern.” (BDA had previously helped North Korean leader Kim Jong Il hide his cash, distribute counterfeit American currency, and launder the proceeds of other state-sponsored criminal activities.) Pyongyang refused to continue participating in Beijing-sponsored disarmament talks until all frozen funds were returned, and the Chinese sided with Kim’s government. In a humiliating about-face, Washington ultimately bowed and freed all the monies as of April 11 of this year.

The North Koreans, however, did not attempt to repatriate the funds for more than two months. The money finally moved last week, passing through the New York branch of the Federal Reserve on its way to a North Korean account in Russia. Pyongyang subsequently invited inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog, to come to the North to prepare for Yongbyon’s shutdown. But today Kim Jong Il’s government told the IAEA inspectors to stay at home: reports had surfaced that the Banco Delta Asia money had not yet reached North Korean hands.

Hill is still in Pyongyang, presumably trying to get the February deal on track again. This is a mistake. It is now more than two months since April 14, the date the North Koreans should have shut down Yongbyon. The United States has already let them use the American banking system to return tainted funds, possibly in violation of American law.

What more can we do to accommodate Pyongyang? Hill has certainly done too much. The dispute over the funds in Macau was never about the $25 million—a relatively small sum even by North Korean standards. It was Pyongyang’s way of testing Washington’s will. Having prevailed in forcing America to unfreeze the money, North Korea is now pushing its advantage even further. And Hill’s continued presence is sure to be read as evidence of American weakness.

The New York Times this morning reported that the Bush administration is now considering buying the uranium-enrichment equipment the North Koreans purchased from Pakistan’s Dr. A.Q. Khan, the infamous nuclear black marketeer. But the U.S. government has tried repeatedly to acquire the North Korean nuclear program with cold, hard cash—and failed. (The first such attempt was in 1994, under the Agreed Framework brokered by Jimmy Carter.) By now, everyone should know that this approach is unworkable as long as Kim remains in power. And Christopher Hill should get back on his plane as soon as possible.

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Bookshelf

• Alan Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges, now playing at 59E59 Theaters through July 1 as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, is the talk of Manhattan—or at least that part of Manhattan whose residents go to the theater fairly often. I raved about it in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, describing it as “a cycle of eight head-bangingly funny plays that leaves no possible doubt of Mr. Ayckbourn’s seriousness—or his ingenuity.” Alas, Intimate Exchanges, like most of Ayckbourn’s 70-odd plays, is (A) out of print in the U.S. and (B) doesn’t read nearly as well as it acts, while Alain Resnais’ French-language film version, Smoking/No Smoking, is not available on video. If you can possibly get to Intimate Exchanges, or any other Ayckbourn play, by all means do so. (Relatively Speaking, one of his earlier efforts, is playing at Connecticut’s Westport Country Playhouse July 12-28.)

And if not? Then allow me to direct you to The Crafty Art of Playmaking (Palgrave/Macmillan, 173 pp., $22.95). Practicing artists rarely take the time to sit down and write books about how they do what they do—they’re usually too busy doing it. I don’t know what possessed Ayckbourn to make himself an exception to that rule, but his nuts-and-bolts guide to playwriting and directing, originally published in 2002, is one of the most readable and revealing books ever written about the stage.

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• Alan Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges, now playing at 59E59 Theaters through July 1 as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, is the talk of Manhattan—or at least that part of Manhattan whose residents go to the theater fairly often. I raved about it in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, describing it as “a cycle of eight head-bangingly funny plays that leaves no possible doubt of Mr. Ayckbourn’s seriousness—or his ingenuity.” Alas, Intimate Exchanges, like most of Ayckbourn’s 70-odd plays, is (A) out of print in the U.S. and (B) doesn’t read nearly as well as it acts, while Alain Resnais’ French-language film version, Smoking/No Smoking, is not available on video. If you can possibly get to Intimate Exchanges, or any other Ayckbourn play, by all means do so. (Relatively Speaking, one of his earlier efforts, is playing at Connecticut’s Westport Country Playhouse July 12-28.)

And if not? Then allow me to direct you to The Crafty Art of Playmaking (Palgrave/Macmillan, 173 pp., $22.95). Practicing artists rarely take the time to sit down and write books about how they do what they do—they’re usually too busy doing it. I don’t know what possessed Ayckbourn to make himself an exception to that rule, but his nuts-and-bolts guide to playwriting and directing, originally published in 2002, is one of the most readable and revealing books ever written about the stage.

Part of what makes it so interesting, of course, is that it’s not so much a how-to-do-it book as a how-Ayckbourn-does-it book. He is best known for writing comedies with unhappy endings about members of the British middle class who are too proper to get what they want out of life, and The Crafty Art of Playmaking contains several sections that shed light on that fascinating preference:

We often dismiss our light comedies and farces as trivia with nothing to say. With the successful ones, this is generally untrue. . . . We are most of us by nature secretive creatures. We guard our inner selves carefully—even sometimes from those we love. In making characters reveal themselves they must be given a cause, a motive. The classic, slightly corny one is to get them drunk. Otherwise, they probably only open up through desperation, or anger, or deliberately to hurt each other or, most usually, because they’ve no idea they’re doing it.

But Ayckbourn, who has been running a Yorkshire theater company for the past quarter-century in between writing plays, is a pragmatist who never lets his private obsessions stand in the way of getting the curtain up, and most of the 101 “obvious rules” that are the heart of The Crafty Art of Playmaking are universally applicable to any production of anything: “Information gleaned indirectly by an audience is far more effective. . . . Explore the unsaid. If it’s clear enough the actor will say it for you. . . . Concentrate on the truth of the scene. Let the comedy take care of itself.”

In addition to these rules, The Crafty Art of Playmaking is salted with acute observations gleaned from hard experience, some aphoristic (“Charm is very difficult to write”) and others illuminatingly expansive:

There is no requirement for the actors to be consciously “funny.” On the contrary, there’s no quicker way to kill the comedy should they attempt to be. . . . If you ever see an actor giving a scene of yours a helping hand with a bit of extra comic business, there can be one of three reasons for this: either the scene is badly written, or it has been misunderstood and misdirected, or it’s being played by a poor or unconfident actor with no judgment.

Reading this brief book in tandem with the equally penetrating Notes on Directing, by Frank Hauser and Russell Reich (RCR Creative Press, 160 pp., $19.95), is the next best thing to watching a play being rehearsed.

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Male Genital Mutilation?

As the father of three daughters, and as someone whose intellectual interests lie lately in the realm of intelligence and counter-terrorism, I can’t say that the subject of circumcision is one that I find myself particularly interested in or eager to write about. But I cannot refrain.

Andrew Sullivan has published a Male Genital Mutilation Update, in which he argues that circumcision is a crime, a form of “child abuse,” being committed on “millions of men without their consent.” It is one of a series of posts by him in the same vein over the years. John Podhoretz has called Sullivan’s argument a “psychotic diatribe,” but calling it “psychotic” lets Sullivan off far too easily.

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As the father of three daughters, and as someone whose intellectual interests lie lately in the realm of intelligence and counter-terrorism, I can’t say that the subject of circumcision is one that I find myself particularly interested in or eager to write about. But I cannot refrain.

Andrew Sullivan has published a Male Genital Mutilation Update, in which he argues that circumcision is a crime, a form of “child abuse,” being committed on “millions of men without their consent.” It is one of a series of posts by him in the same vein over the years. John Podhoretz has called Sullivan’s argument a “psychotic diatribe,” but calling it “psychotic” lets Sullivan off far too easily.

Let’s devote only a little attention to Sullivan’s contention that circumcised men have had “most of their sexual pleasure zones destroyed” and experience less pleasure from sex than uncircumcised men. He points to some pseudo-scientific studies that purport to demonstrate this. But these studies, and Sullivan’s basic premise, rest on what is known in economics as an interpersonal comparison of utility. Such comparisons are inherently problematic if not impossible; it is like asking two people which of them enjoys listening to Mozart more; there is no conceivable way that such a comparison can be performed.

But a far more serious objection can be leveled to Sullivan’s enterprise. As Jon Levenson has noted in a brilliant Commentary article, The New Enemies of Circumcision, a “veritable alphabet soup of activist organizations has sprung up” to fight against the practice.

Their names offer a clue as to what kinds of people we are dealing with here. They include, in Levenson’s listing:

BUFF (Brothers United for Future Foreskins), UNCIRC (UNCircumcising Information and Resources Center), NOHARMM (the National Organization to Halt the Abuse and Routine Mutilation of Males), and NORM (the National Organization of Restoring Men) and its predecessor, RECAP (Recover a Penis).

Many of these organizations, as Levenson writes, “are not content to limit their efforts to public persuasion but seek nothing less than to make the practice a criminal offense.”

And there is more. Quite apart from the fact that circumcision is a widespread and accepted American medical practice, it is an essential rite of Judaism, a religious obligation that has bound the Jewish people together from time immemorial. However secular a Jew like me may be, it is clear that the idea of forbidding circumcision by law is a dagger aimed at the freedom to be Jewish. Nor is that merely accidental: some of the leading exponents of the anti-circumcision movement have in fact employed arguments, as Levenson shows, that are themselves openly anti-Semitic, including repetition of the ancient blood-libel.

Andrew Sullivan does not go forthrightly in the direction of a ban; he is disingenuously silent on the issue. Yet since in describing the practice he employs terms with criminal import like “child abuse” and “genital mutilation,” can there be any doubt that a ban is what he is seeking or, at the very least, that this is the logical sequel of his stance?

“Because American Jews live in one of the few countries in which hygienic circumcision is widely practiced,” notes Levenson, “they easily forget the role that contempt for the practice has played in the history of anti-Semitism.” Andrew Sullivan’s arguments may not be psychotic, but they are certainly bizarre and even freakish, they rest on a shaky premise, and they are definitely pernicious. That is plenty bad enough.

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The HRC’s Failed First Year

The UN’s Human Rights Council (HRC) on Tuesday marked the end of its disappointing first year of existence by terminating independent human-rights monitoring for Belarus and Cuba. To make matters worse, the HRC adopted two measures to continue its special scrutiny of Israel.

These actions were part of a last-minute compromise. As incredible as it may seem, the final agreement could have been even more atrocious. In the days leading up to the deal, China worked hard to weaken the council’s power in selecting nations to be monitored for human-rights violations. Fortunately, Beijing did not achieve its objectives: “It is not a perfect text, but it represents the maximum common understanding,” said the Chinese representative, Jingye Cheng.

That assessment is on the mark, though not in the way Jingye intended. The 47-member council has become another battleground between the democracies of the world and their antagonists. The compromises that have been reached are “seriously flawed,” to borrow language from the State Department’s reaction to Tuesday’s deal.

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The UN’s Human Rights Council (HRC) on Tuesday marked the end of its disappointing first year of existence by terminating independent human-rights monitoring for Belarus and Cuba. To make matters worse, the HRC adopted two measures to continue its special scrutiny of Israel.

These actions were part of a last-minute compromise. As incredible as it may seem, the final agreement could have been even more atrocious. In the days leading up to the deal, China worked hard to weaken the council’s power in selecting nations to be monitored for human-rights violations. Fortunately, Beijing did not achieve its objectives: “It is not a perfect text, but it represents the maximum common understanding,” said the Chinese representative, Jingye Cheng.

That assessment is on the mark, though not in the way Jingye intended. The 47-member council has become another battleground between the democracies of the world and their antagonists. The compromises that have been reached are “seriously flawed,” to borrow language from the State Department’s reaction to Tuesday’s deal.

The U.S., in fact, initially refused to join the council, on the grounds that there were too many members with poor human-rights records, and now participates only as an observer. But Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has a better idea than limited involvement. On Tuesday, she announced that she will seek to cut off the $3 million of American funding for the council.

Her proposal, which will doubtlessly cause grave concern in some quarters, gives us the perfect opportunity to examine the assumptions that have guided Washington through the post-cold war period. During this time, the U.S. has sought to engage authoritarian regimes by bringing them into multilateral organizations. Our goal was to change them, or at least to attempt to enmesh them in the fabric of a liberal international order. But such governments have ended up changing these institutions more than these institutions have changed them. One need only look at the behavior of the HRC to confirm this.

As China and other such regimes continue to de-legitimize the UN and its various organs, it’s time to bring the world’s democracies together into an effective organization of their own. If President Bush can invite Putin to Kennebunkport, he also can ask the leaders of the free world to come down to Crawford for a little barbecue—and a talk about reinvigorating the Community of Democracies. Until the world’s free nations start cooperating, in a framework excluding authoritarian states and states with abominable human-rights records, we will see more appalling agreements like the one reached yesterday at the Human Rights Council.

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