Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 13, 2007

Weekend Reading

American movies show, with a contrast and vividness perhaps unmatched in any other medium, the depths and the heights of our collective culture. This goes some distance toward explaining why movies exert such an enduring fascination on the American mind. COMMENTARY has, for more than fifty years, published some of the most incisive and provocative writing on American films. We offer some of the best of that writing for this weekend’s reading.

The Movie Camera and the American
Robert Warshow – March 1952

The Strangely Polite “Dr. Strangelove”
Midge Decter – May 1964

The Man Who Refused to Watch the Academy Awards
David Evanier – April 1977

Woody Allen on the American Character
Richard Grenier — November 1983

A Dissent on “Schindler’s List”
Philip Gourevitch – February 1994

Journalism, Hollywood-Style
Terry Teachout – December 2005

Spielberg’s “Munich”
Gabriel Schoenfeld – February 2006

American movies show, with a contrast and vividness perhaps unmatched in any other medium, the depths and the heights of our collective culture. This goes some distance toward explaining why movies exert such an enduring fascination on the American mind. COMMENTARY has, for more than fifty years, published some of the most incisive and provocative writing on American films. We offer some of the best of that writing for this weekend’s reading.

The Movie Camera and the American
Robert Warshow – March 1952

The Strangely Polite “Dr. Strangelove”
Midge Decter – May 1964

The Man Who Refused to Watch the Academy Awards
David Evanier – April 1977

Woody Allen on the American Character
Richard Grenier — November 1983

A Dissent on “Schindler’s List”
Philip Gourevitch – February 1994

Journalism, Hollywood-Style
Terry Teachout – December 2005

Spielberg’s “Munich”
Gabriel Schoenfeld – February 2006

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Dept. of Walking and Chewing Gum

President Bush has reportedly cancelled his September 5 meeting with leaders of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The conclave was to mark the 30th anniversary of the opening official ties between the United States and this grouping of ten Asian nations. The cancellation comes a personal blow to Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, who arranged Bush’s attendance. (The island republic is a staunch American ally, one of the few remaining ones in the region.)

The President’s slight, which is keenly felt in Asia, was made worse by news that Condoleezza Rice will probably skip an ASEAN ministerial meeting next month. It is reported that the President and the secretary of state are staying close to home because of Iraq.

Arguments about whether we should stay in Iraq almost always focus on democratization, terrorism, and American resolve. Unless the subject is Afghanistan, we rarely talk about how this conflict is diverting the Bush administration’s attention from other parts of the planet. Even if the United States can prevail in Iraq, the President’s legacy will be clouded if he loses Asia to China. Whatever happens in the future, East Asia and the subcontinent now contain more than half the world’s population. In this area we find six of the world’s ten most populous states—including the largest democracy, the largest autocracy, and the largest Muslim society—and most of its vital economies, which account for almost a quarter of global gross domestic product.

If Washington cannot conduct an Asian and an Iraq policy at the same time—and so far the signs of its being able to do so are not good—we may need to broaden the definition of “American resolve” to include maintaining our presence in the far east.

President Bush has reportedly cancelled his September 5 meeting with leaders of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The conclave was to mark the 30th anniversary of the opening official ties between the United States and this grouping of ten Asian nations. The cancellation comes a personal blow to Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, who arranged Bush’s attendance. (The island republic is a staunch American ally, one of the few remaining ones in the region.)

The President’s slight, which is keenly felt in Asia, was made worse by news that Condoleezza Rice will probably skip an ASEAN ministerial meeting next month. It is reported that the President and the secretary of state are staying close to home because of Iraq.

Arguments about whether we should stay in Iraq almost always focus on democratization, terrorism, and American resolve. Unless the subject is Afghanistan, we rarely talk about how this conflict is diverting the Bush administration’s attention from other parts of the planet. Even if the United States can prevail in Iraq, the President’s legacy will be clouded if he loses Asia to China. Whatever happens in the future, East Asia and the subcontinent now contain more than half the world’s population. In this area we find six of the world’s ten most populous states—including the largest democracy, the largest autocracy, and the largest Muslim society—and most of its vital economies, which account for almost a quarter of global gross domestic product.

If Washington cannot conduct an Asian and an Iraq policy at the same time—and so far the signs of its being able to do so are not good—we may need to broaden the definition of “American resolve” to include maintaining our presence in the far east.

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This Just In: The CIA? Fallible.

On its front page yesterday, the Washington Post breathlessly touted a Bob Woodward scoop—namely that CIA Director Michael Hayden told the Iraq Study Group on November 13, 2006, that “the inability of the [Iraqi] government to govern seems irreversible.”

If you read deep into the article you find that there is some doubt about what Hayden actually said. Not surprising, since Woodward seems to be working from interviews with participants relying on their memories rather than from a transcript. He quotes a “senior intelligence official familiar with Hayden’s session with the Iraq Study Group” who qoates Hayden as saying “The current situation, with regard to governance in Iraq, was probably irreversible in the short term. . .” [emphasis added]

Whatever Hayden said, it’s hard to see why this is treated as front-page news. Is there anyone left in Washington who thinks that the CIA is an infallible oracle when it comes to the future of Iraq? (Or anyplace else, for that matter?) Its track record is spotty, to say the least. But then no intelligence analyst, no matter how astute, can predict all the twists in turns in a conflict that changes all the time.

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On its front page yesterday, the Washington Post breathlessly touted a Bob Woodward scoop—namely that CIA Director Michael Hayden told the Iraq Study Group on November 13, 2006, that “the inability of the [Iraqi] government to govern seems irreversible.”

If you read deep into the article you find that there is some doubt about what Hayden actually said. Not surprising, since Woodward seems to be working from interviews with participants relying on their memories rather than from a transcript. He quotes a “senior intelligence official familiar with Hayden’s session with the Iraq Study Group” who qoates Hayden as saying “The current situation, with regard to governance in Iraq, was probably irreversible in the short term. . .” [emphasis added]

Whatever Hayden said, it’s hard to see why this is treated as front-page news. Is there anyone left in Washington who thinks that the CIA is an infallible oracle when it comes to the future of Iraq? (Or anyplace else, for that matter?) Its track record is spotty, to say the least. But then no intelligence analyst, no matter how astute, can predict all the twists in turns in a conflict that changes all the time.

I am reminded by this of another Washington Post scoop, by Tom Ricks, that ran on September 11, 2006:

The chief of intelligence for the Marine Corps in Iraq recently filed an unusual secret report concluding that the prospects for securing that country’s western Anbar province are dim and that there is almost nothing the U.S. military can do to improve the political and social situation there, said several military officers and intelligence officials familiar with its contents.

Just as that dim assessment was being issued, the tribes in Anbar Province were turning against Al Qaeda. The result, almost a year later, is that violence in the province is down 80 percent and the political outlook is improving. In fact, the phenomenon of tribes turning against Al Qaeda is spreading from Anbar to neighboring provinces.

The CIA was undoubtedly right back in November that the short-term political outlook for Iraq was not good. It still isn’t. But as we have seen in Anbar, trends can change—dramatically.

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Are You Kidding Me?

Reading Pat Buchanan’s superb appreciation of Robert Novak and his new memoir, Prince of Darkness, one is reminded of what a great writer and historian of Republican politics Buchanan can be. What a pity that, fifteen years ago, he headed off to the fever swamps of the conservative movement as he pursued a series of failed presidential runs. Although today he remains a staple of talking-head TV, his presidential campaigns, loaded with xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and protectionist messages, make him impossible to take seriously.

But I’m also reminded of something I witnessed, involving Novak, in 1996. I was in Des Moines, on the eve of the 1996 Iowa caucuses. Although there were many semi-viable Republican candidates that year, in the final few days before caucus day, the contest had suddenly become a hot three-way race among Bob Dole, Pat Buchanan, and Lamar Alexander (I was Lamar’s policy director that year). I was at a high-spirited Alexander rally that night and found myself talking with Novak and Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes. As the three of us left the rally to go to dinner, Novak, apropos of nothing, suddenly declared: “Wouldn’t it be great if Pat won this whole thing.” Fred and I chuckled at this—until suddenly there was an awkward silence. The two of us had realized that Novak was dead serious.

Reading Pat Buchanan’s superb appreciation of Robert Novak and his new memoir, Prince of Darkness, one is reminded of what a great writer and historian of Republican politics Buchanan can be. What a pity that, fifteen years ago, he headed off to the fever swamps of the conservative movement as he pursued a series of failed presidential runs. Although today he remains a staple of talking-head TV, his presidential campaigns, loaded with xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and protectionist messages, make him impossible to take seriously.

But I’m also reminded of something I witnessed, involving Novak, in 1996. I was in Des Moines, on the eve of the 1996 Iowa caucuses. Although there were many semi-viable Republican candidates that year, in the final few days before caucus day, the contest had suddenly become a hot three-way race among Bob Dole, Pat Buchanan, and Lamar Alexander (I was Lamar’s policy director that year). I was at a high-spirited Alexander rally that night and found myself talking with Novak and Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes. As the three of us left the rally to go to dinner, Novak, apropos of nothing, suddenly declared: “Wouldn’t it be great if Pat won this whole thing.” Fred and I chuckled at this—until suddenly there was an awkward silence. The two of us had realized that Novak was dead serious.

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Who Won the Second Lebanon War?

Who won last summer’s Lebanon war, Israel or Hizballah? A year after combat ceased that question remains hotly controverted. If nothing else, the continuing debate is testimony to the ambiguous nature of the outcome between one of the world’s most powerful armies and the rag-tag Islamic militia that it faced.

Since neither side suffered a knock-out blow, what indicators, short of total defeat and surrender, can be employed to evaluate the conflict? Because Hizballah was fighting a rocket war, firing a variety of projectiles into Israel’s north, one key question that must be posed is: how effective was Hizballah’s rocket campaign, and how effective was Israel’s response?

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Who won last summer’s Lebanon war, Israel or Hizballah? A year after combat ceased that question remains hotly controverted. If nothing else, the continuing debate is testimony to the ambiguous nature of the outcome between one of the world’s most powerful armies and the rag-tag Islamic militia that it faced.

Since neither side suffered a knock-out blow, what indicators, short of total defeat and surrender, can be employed to evaluate the conflict? Because Hizballah was fighting a rocket war, firing a variety of projectiles into Israel’s north, one key question that must be posed is: how effective was Hizballah’s rocket campaign, and how effective was Israel’s response?

One exceedingly well-researched answer comes from Uzi Rubin, who served as the first director of Israel’s Missile Defense Organization in the 1990’s, where he managed development of the Arrow missile-defense system.

The picture that emerges from Rubin’s analysis is of an Islamic militia force that was astonishingly well prepared for the conflict, and which had thought carefully about matching means and ends. Even if Hizballah’s head, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, had misjudged the scope and scale of Israel’s response to the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, Hizballah’s basic approach was vindicated by the course of the fighting.

“[I]t can now be seen,” writes Rubin, that Hizballah had “devised a two-pronged strategy to overturn Israel’s predominance in terms of manpower, machinery, and technology.” In the first prong, “massive rocket fire was used against Israel’s homeland in order to provoke Israel into launching a ground offensive.” In the second prong, “well-entrenched defense in depth was employed in order to defeat the ground offensive.”

In other words, Hizballah, “aimed to bait Israel into entering its carefully laid trap with rocket fire.” The key for Israel would have been successfully suppressing the rocket fire that for 33 days rained destruction on its north, thereby avoiding having to pay the “butcher’s bill” for an incursion on the ground.

But even as the Israeli air force succeeded in destroying most if not all of Hizballah’s longer-range missiles, it was unable to deal with the short-range ones. On the final day of the war, to demonstrate that it had preserved quite a few arrows in its quiver, and that its lines of communication had survived Israel’s best destructive efforts, Hizballah launched a coordinated salvo, hurling a record 232 rockets over the Lebanese border at one time.

What can be learned from the war? Israel’s adversaries are certainly studying it carefully. Rubin notes that the outcome

may well prompt the Palestinian factions to intensify their already ongoing rocket attacks against southern Israel, both in terms of quality and quantity. Hamas in Gaza is already stocking up on longer-range rockets, and may well adapt the Hizballah’s two-pronged strategy. Syria, a patron of the Hizballah with its own vast stockpile of rockets and ballistic missiles, might be tempted to devise a doctrine of attrition by rocket and missile fire instead of a full-scale, 1973-style invasion, to gain back the Golan Heights.

Israel has been studying the conflict, too. The most obvious lesson, as Rubin writes, is that “[a]s long as simple, unsophisticated, cheaply produced rockets cannot be overcome, they are now and will remain in the future a veritable strategic threat to Israel’s national security.”

What is to be done to counter this strategic threat? Click here to learn about MTHEL. It is not a silver bullet, but one vital component of a successful Israeli response.

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Notorious Sarkozy

French popular music is notable for its tradition of countercultural balladeers, like Aristide Bruant in Toulouse-Lautrec’s day, or Léo Ferré in the 1960′s. Today, this mantle has been inherited by French rap performers, who are vastly superior to the (mostly execrable) American variety.

Instead of being obsessed with bling or women, French rap stars, mostly of African origin, are highly literate and even intellectual, with a sense of social responsibility. In 2002, Mohamed Bourokba, known as Hamé, of the French rap group La Rumeur (Rumor) published an article to accompany a CD release, asserting that the French “Ministry of Interior’s reports will never take into account the hundreds of our brothers who are slaughtered by the police force.” Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s then-Minister of the Interior, prosecuted Hamé for “public defamation of the nation’s police.” (By contrast, our American rapper Ice-T, who co-wrote the infamous 1992 song “Cop Killer,” has been given a high-paying role on TV’s stultifying Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.)

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French popular music is notable for its tradition of countercultural balladeers, like Aristide Bruant in Toulouse-Lautrec’s day, or Léo Ferré in the 1960′s. Today, this mantle has been inherited by French rap performers, who are vastly superior to the (mostly execrable) American variety.

Instead of being obsessed with bling or women, French rap stars, mostly of African origin, are highly literate and even intellectual, with a sense of social responsibility. In 2002, Mohamed Bourokba, known as Hamé, of the French rap group La Rumeur (Rumor) published an article to accompany a CD release, asserting that the French “Ministry of Interior’s reports will never take into account the hundreds of our brothers who are slaughtered by the police force.” Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s then-Minister of the Interior, prosecuted Hamé for “public defamation of the nation’s police.” (By contrast, our American rapper Ice-T, who co-wrote the infamous 1992 song “Cop Killer,” has been given a high-paying role on TV’s stultifying Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.)

Over the past few years in France, the case against Hamé was repeatedly dismissed by lower courts on the grounds of freedom of speech, supported by testimony from defense witnesses like Maurice Rajsfus, a Holocaust historian who testified that the article in question merely reflected a “general feeling” among French youth. Yet on July 11, the Cour de Cassation, France’s highest court, reversed previous judgments by deciding that Hamé should be tried after all, at the beginning of 2008.

Despite this uniquely persistent prosecution, Sarkozy may not actually hate rap. Among his most publicized supporters during the past presidential election was Bruno Beausir, who performs under the suggestive name of Doc Gynéco (Doctor Gynecologist). Not only did Doc Gynéco support Sarkozy, he even expressed a desire (as yet unrealized) to record with him.

President Sarkozy may never follow in the footsteps of Karl Rove. Yet it would be unfortunate if the trial which he instigated tarnishes the image of French rap, redeemed by its current superstar Claude M’Barali, born in Dakar, Sénégal in 1969 and an audience favorite since 1990 under the stage name of MC Solaar. Seductively listenable, Solaar’s songs feature witty and poetic wordplay. In “Obsolete,” he laments mechanization with the nostalgic regret of a latter-day François Villon: “Once concierges were in vogue; nowadays they are replaced by digicodes.” Or take the euphonic “An Angel in Danger,” the title of which sums up the condition of modern man for Solaar. In “Baby Love,” Solaar spoofs pop culture by declaring: “Women are from Venus. Men munch on Mars Bars.” In “To Ten of My Disciples,” Solaar expresses his musical debt to past influences: “If rap music is a lark, then jazz provided its spark.” Sarkozy might do well to sing along with performers of this quality, instead of dragging them through the courts.

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