Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 19, 2007

Kristof’s Sick Column

A few months ago, before Nicholas Kristof’s appearance in the Tufts University Hillel’s “Moral Voices” lecture series, a Tufts student asked him to define his own “guiding moral doctrine.” The New York Times columnist was able to articulate only this in response: “I don’t think I have any sort of, you know, particularly unusual or even sophisticated moral doctrine.” Kristof proves this, abundantly, in his column today: “Cheney’s Long-Lost Twin.”

Kristof ponders: “Could Dick Cheney and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad be twins separated at birth?” The suggestion that Cheney and Ahmadinejad are “jingoistic twins” is fatuous, absurd on its face, whatever you may think of the Vice President. But the real damage that rhetoric of this kind does is to obscure the evil that Ahmadinejad represents. Suppose that the very worst accusations—cronyism, power-grabbing, even the subversion of the Constitution—leveled against Cheney by his fieriest critics were true. It’s hard to see how they would rank alongside the actions of which Ahmadinejad makes no secret: plans for genocide, a millenarian nuclearization program, proud sponsorship of Hizballah, interference in Iraq, scoffing at the IAEA. (David Billet exposes more of Kristof’s fatuities here.)

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A few months ago, before Nicholas Kristof’s appearance in the Tufts University Hillel’s “Moral Voices” lecture series, a Tufts student asked him to define his own “guiding moral doctrine.” The New York Times columnist was able to articulate only this in response: “I don’t think I have any sort of, you know, particularly unusual or even sophisticated moral doctrine.” Kristof proves this, abundantly, in his column today: “Cheney’s Long-Lost Twin.”

Kristof ponders: “Could Dick Cheney and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad be twins separated at birth?” The suggestion that Cheney and Ahmadinejad are “jingoistic twins” is fatuous, absurd on its face, whatever you may think of the Vice President. But the real damage that rhetoric of this kind does is to obscure the evil that Ahmadinejad represents. Suppose that the very worst accusations—cronyism, power-grabbing, even the subversion of the Constitution—leveled against Cheney by his fieriest critics were true. It’s hard to see how they would rank alongside the actions of which Ahmadinejad makes no secret: plans for genocide, a millenarian nuclearization program, proud sponsorship of Hizballah, interference in Iraq, scoffing at the IAEA. (David Billet exposes more of Kristof’s fatuities here.)

Kristof contends that, as “61 percent [of Iranians] oppose the current Iranian system of government,” America should not bomb Iran, “the most pro-American Muslim country in the region.” But the props of his argument actually suggest a conclusion opposite from the one he draws: removing Ahmadinejad from power would be a welcome intervention for brutalized Iranians. Leaving the threat of a nuclear Islamic republic aside for a moment, one would think that Kristof, so concerned about the genocide in Sudan, would be in favor of removing Iran’s “wipe-Israel-off-the-map” president, and the regime that is the biggest sponsor of terror in the state system.

In a sorry irony, Kristof cites, as source of this wisdom, Gary Sick of Columbia University, perhaps the last man whose advice our country should heed. Sick oversaw Iranian affairs on Jimmy Carter’s National Security Council. Together with Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Sick presided over the worst blunder in American postwar foreign policy: our inaction in the face of the fall of the Shah, and his replacement by revolutionary Islamists. As Jeane Kirkpatrick wrote in “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” “the Carter administration not only failed to prevent the undesired outcome, it actively collaborated in the replacement of moderate autocrats friendly to American interests with less friendly autocrats of extremist persuasion.”

And this is Kristof’s sage?

COMMENTARY research assistant Daniel Halper collaborated on this post.

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New York City Under Attack

Walking out of COMMENTARY’s offices yesterday on my way home, I stepped into the street at exactly 6:00 PM. Minutes earlier, a powerful explosion had blown a huge hole in the street at 41st and Lexington Avenue. Reaching the corner of 56th and Lex., I became aware of the blast and could see a huge column of smoke rising into the sky, dwarfing even the skyscrapers surrounding it.

A great many pedestrians were staring straight south. Others were fleeing north. Traffic was at a standstill. Everyone seemed to be dialing cell phones, but with circuits overloaded it was difficult to get through. No one knew what had happened. A colleague I ran into was wondering whether to walk home to Riverdale seven miles to the north or find a hotel room. A policeman I asked told me that it was a manhole explosion, which weirdly turned out to be true, but was in no way commensurate with the power of the blast and the scale of the plume. It took quite a while before word came via the news that it was a ruptured steam pipe and not an al Qaeda summer spectacular, one exquisitely timed to accompany the CIA’s latest warning, issued earlier in the week, about continuing threats to the U.S. homeland.

To those of us who were in New York on September 11, 2001, yesterday’s episode brought back terrifying memories. But it also made many of us more acute observers of what we were experiencing, as if for a second time. My own thoughts were focused on the complete lack of information about what had just happened. To be sure, the authorities themselves were initially in the dark. But what struck me was that there was no single emergency channel on television, radio, the Internet, on PDA’s, etc., to which one could turn for reliable information.

What were we facing? Were the subways functioning? Where should one go? Even if the authorities themselves could not yet answer such questions, it would still have been useful at least to know that they too were in the dark and that we would eventually get from them a steady stream of established facts as they were received. Six years after 9/11, putting in place such an emergency information service is a good idea whose time is past due.

Walking out of COMMENTARY’s offices yesterday on my way home, I stepped into the street at exactly 6:00 PM. Minutes earlier, a powerful explosion had blown a huge hole in the street at 41st and Lexington Avenue. Reaching the corner of 56th and Lex., I became aware of the blast and could see a huge column of smoke rising into the sky, dwarfing even the skyscrapers surrounding it.

A great many pedestrians were staring straight south. Others were fleeing north. Traffic was at a standstill. Everyone seemed to be dialing cell phones, but with circuits overloaded it was difficult to get through. No one knew what had happened. A colleague I ran into was wondering whether to walk home to Riverdale seven miles to the north or find a hotel room. A policeman I asked told me that it was a manhole explosion, which weirdly turned out to be true, but was in no way commensurate with the power of the blast and the scale of the plume. It took quite a while before word came via the news that it was a ruptured steam pipe and not an al Qaeda summer spectacular, one exquisitely timed to accompany the CIA’s latest warning, issued earlier in the week, about continuing threats to the U.S. homeland.

To those of us who were in New York on September 11, 2001, yesterday’s episode brought back terrifying memories. But it also made many of us more acute observers of what we were experiencing, as if for a second time. My own thoughts were focused on the complete lack of information about what had just happened. To be sure, the authorities themselves were initially in the dark. But what struck me was that there was no single emergency channel on television, radio, the Internet, on PDA’s, etc., to which one could turn for reliable information.

What were we facing? Were the subways functioning? Where should one go? Even if the authorities themselves could not yet answer such questions, it would still have been useful at least to know that they too were in the dark and that we would eventually get from them a steady stream of established facts as they were received. Six years after 9/11, putting in place such an emergency information service is a good idea whose time is past due.

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“War Control”?

China thinks it can, on its own, modulate the scale, intensity, and pace of a war with Taiwan, according to a senior U.S. intelligence officer. On Tuesday, Lonnie Henley, an East Asia specialist in the office of the Director of National Intelligence, told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that Beijing’s confidence in “war control” is “probably misplaced,” and argued that this view “is dangerous for all concerned.”

Given the overwhelming superiority of American forces in the Pacific, Beijing is probably thinking it can force the Taiwanese to surrender before the United States shows up on the scene. Yet there is one other, far more disturbing, possibility. Chinese officials might believe they can prevent the United States from even trying to defend Taiwan, despite the clear Congressional intent behind the Taiwan Relations Act. After all, Beijing has been surprisingly successful in recent years in getting the Bush administration to side with it in matters involving the island republic, a democracy of 23 million citizens.

President Bush apparently no longer stands behind his initial “whatever it takes” approach to defending Taiwan. (He’s reverted, it would seem, to the more nuanced “strategic ambiguity” policy of his predecessors.) The Chinese have noted (and welcomed) this shift. America’s failing to confront Beijing’s autocrats has made them overconfident, as Henley’s assessment shows. Washington, by wavering in the face of Chinese aggressiveness, is helping to create precisely the kind of unstable, dangerous conditions it seeks to avoid. Bush needs to start acting like Bush.

China thinks it can, on its own, modulate the scale, intensity, and pace of a war with Taiwan, according to a senior U.S. intelligence officer. On Tuesday, Lonnie Henley, an East Asia specialist in the office of the Director of National Intelligence, told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that Beijing’s confidence in “war control” is “probably misplaced,” and argued that this view “is dangerous for all concerned.”

Given the overwhelming superiority of American forces in the Pacific, Beijing is probably thinking it can force the Taiwanese to surrender before the United States shows up on the scene. Yet there is one other, far more disturbing, possibility. Chinese officials might believe they can prevent the United States from even trying to defend Taiwan, despite the clear Congressional intent behind the Taiwan Relations Act. After all, Beijing has been surprisingly successful in recent years in getting the Bush administration to side with it in matters involving the island republic, a democracy of 23 million citizens.

President Bush apparently no longer stands behind his initial “whatever it takes” approach to defending Taiwan. (He’s reverted, it would seem, to the more nuanced “strategic ambiguity” policy of his predecessors.) The Chinese have noted (and welcomed) this shift. America’s failing to confront Beijing’s autocrats has made them overconfident, as Henley’s assessment shows. Washington, by wavering in the face of Chinese aggressiveness, is helping to create precisely the kind of unstable, dangerous conditions it seeks to avoid. Bush needs to start acting like Bush.

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Jerry Hadley, R.I.P.

cross-posted at About Last Night

Jerry Hadley’s suicide has set the small town that is American opera to buzzing. It was a surprise—I can’t think of another well-known classical singer who has killed himself—but on further reflection I didn’t find it all that shocking. Hadley’s career had been in decline for a number of years, and he’d long since dropped off my scope. The last time I saw him on stage was in the 1999 Metropolitan Opera premiere of John Harbison’s operatic version of The Great Gatsby, which didn’t make much of an impression on me. The New York Sun‘s obituary quoted something I’d said about him in my 1988 High Fidelity review of his recording of Show Boat, and it took me a moment to remember that I’d written the piece. To outlive your own fame is a terrible fate, and it is all the more poignant for a performer. As I wrote when Johnny Carson died:

I wonder what he thought of his life’s work? Or how he felt about having lived long enough to disappear into the memory hole? At least he had the dignity to vanish completely, retreating into private life instead of trying to hang on to celebrity by his fingernails. Perhaps he knew how little it means to have once been famous.

Alas, Hadley, unlike Carson, lost his fame comparatively early, and all too clearly longed in vain for its return. He was, of course, an operatic tenor, and as such the closest thing in music to an athlete, which suggests an appropriate epitaph: Now you will not swell the rout/Of lads that wore their honours out,/Runners whom renown outran/And the name died before the man.

cross-posted at About Last Night

Jerry Hadley’s suicide has set the small town that is American opera to buzzing. It was a surprise—I can’t think of another well-known classical singer who has killed himself—but on further reflection I didn’t find it all that shocking. Hadley’s career had been in decline for a number of years, and he’d long since dropped off my scope. The last time I saw him on stage was in the 1999 Metropolitan Opera premiere of John Harbison’s operatic version of The Great Gatsby, which didn’t make much of an impression on me. The New York Sun‘s obituary quoted something I’d said about him in my 1988 High Fidelity review of his recording of Show Boat, and it took me a moment to remember that I’d written the piece. To outlive your own fame is a terrible fate, and it is all the more poignant for a performer. As I wrote when Johnny Carson died:

I wonder what he thought of his life’s work? Or how he felt about having lived long enough to disappear into the memory hole? At least he had the dignity to vanish completely, retreating into private life instead of trying to hang on to celebrity by his fingernails. Perhaps he knew how little it means to have once been famous.

Alas, Hadley, unlike Carson, lost his fame comparatively early, and all too clearly longed in vain for its return. He was, of course, an operatic tenor, and as such the closest thing in music to an athlete, which suggests an appropriate epitaph: Now you will not swell the rout/Of lads that wore their honours out,/Runners whom renown outran/And the name died before the man.

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Friedman’s Folly

Thomas Friedman is the second- or third-best columnist at the New York Times. Admittedly that’s damning with faint praise. But he does know a fair amount about the Middle East and some other topics, and even if he repeats himself far too often (especially on the need for ending oil dependency), and gets a lot of things wrong (such as his support for the Oslo Peace Process), and exaggerates in those areas where he’s basically right (his support of globalization), I find him often worth a read, which is more than I can say for some of his colleagues. But in yesterday’s newspaper, Friedman sounded more like a talk-radio blowhard than the Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign-affairs columnist for the Newspaper of Record. (Read his column free here.)

In yesterday’s Times, Friedman went for cheap and easy populist point-scoring. He excoriated Iraqi parliamentarians for taking August off while our troops swelter in the Iraq heat wearing body armor. “Here’s what I think of that: I think it’s a travesty,” he exclaimed—words you can easily imagine coming out of the mouth of Lou Dobbs or Bill O’Reilly or someone else not normally to be confused with Tom Friedman.

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Thomas Friedman is the second- or third-best columnist at the New York Times. Admittedly that’s damning with faint praise. But he does know a fair amount about the Middle East and some other topics, and even if he repeats himself far too often (especially on the need for ending oil dependency), and gets a lot of things wrong (such as his support for the Oslo Peace Process), and exaggerates in those areas where he’s basically right (his support of globalization), I find him often worth a read, which is more than I can say for some of his colleagues. But in yesterday’s newspaper, Friedman sounded more like a talk-radio blowhard than the Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign-affairs columnist for the Newspaper of Record. (Read his column free here.)

In yesterday’s Times, Friedman went for cheap and easy populist point-scoring. He excoriated Iraqi parliamentarians for taking August off while our troops swelter in the Iraq heat wearing body armor. “Here’s what I think of that: I think it’s a travesty,” he exclaimed—words you can easily imagine coming out of the mouth of Lou Dobbs or Bill O’Reilly or someone else not normally to be confused with Tom Friedman.

The rest of Friedman’s column was equally simplistic. He proposes that we “draft the country’s best negotiators—Henry Kissinger, Jim Baker, George Shultz, George Mitchell, Dennis Ross, or Richard Holbrooke” and send them to Baghdad to either force the Iraqi factions to reach a political deal to settle all their problems, or report back that no such deal is possible. Friedman gives no reason to think that any of these gentlemen would have any better luck than the negotiators we’ve had in Baghdad before—diplomats of formidable accomplishment such as John Negroponte and Zalmay Khalilzad.

While it’s true that the long-term solution in Iraq must be political, we won’t achieve a political deal unless we can create a more secure environment in which to negotiate. Thus, as I argued on the Times op-ed page in an article designed to deflate the very argument that Friedman now makes, our focus at the moment has to be military, not political or diplomatic.

We need above all to defeat Shiite and Sunni extremists who are holding the more moderate elements of their communities hostage. In this endeavor, U.S. troops are hardly alone. Iraqi cops and soldiers are fighting alongside them and actually suffering higher casualties—two to three times more killed and wounded. So much for Friedman’s offensive inference that Americans are dying to save Iraq while Iraqis won’t lift a finger to help their own country.

His attempted analogy between U.S. troops (“fighting in the heat”) and Iraqi legislators (“on vacation in August so they can be cool”) is bogus in any case. The better parallel is between Iraqi and American legislators. The Iraqis could certainly do better, but they are also risking their lives and their relatives’ lives to serve, not something that could be said of American senators and congressmen.

For the past few weeks—before they take off on their own August recess—our legislators have hardly been a profile in courage or perspicacity. Democrats and some Republicans have been loudly screaming to “end the war” even while showing scant interest in what will happen after U.S. troops are gone.

This Los Angeles Times story features some hair-raising quotes from the advocates of withdrawal about the consequences of their preferred strategy:

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s horrendous,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.), who has helped spearhead efforts against the war. “The only hope for the Iraqis is their own damned government, and there’s slim hope for that.”

“I believe, if we leave, the region will pull together,” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma), a founding member of the influential House Out of Iraq caucus. “It’s important to them that Iraq stabilize.”

“The Out of Iraq caucus really has not looked beyond ending military involvement,” acknowledged Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a caucus leader and Pelosi ally. “Now that the environment is changing pretty significantly . . . everybody may be starting to look at what happens after the United States leaves.”

In their combination of naiveté, ignorance, and irresponsibility, our lawmakers almost make the Iraqis look good.

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A Nation of Secrets?

Are we becoming A Nation of Secrets? That is the title of a new book by Ted Gup, a former investigative reporter at Time magazine and the Washington Post and now a journalism professor at Case Western Reserve University. In it, he argues that a wave of secrecy is washing over our country that “threatens to engulf democratic institutions and irrevocably alter the landscape of America.” Dan Seligman took a dim view of this contention in his review of the book in the June issue of COMMENTARY, and I offer my own dim view of it in a review in today’s Wall Street Journal.

As I try to show in the Journal, Gup is engaged in fear-mongering about government secrecy. But even if his book is flawed in this way, Gup does have interesting things to say about secrecy in other spheres of American life, especially the media.

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Are we becoming A Nation of Secrets? That is the title of a new book by Ted Gup, a former investigative reporter at Time magazine and the Washington Post and now a journalism professor at Case Western Reserve University. In it, he argues that a wave of secrecy is washing over our country that “threatens to engulf democratic institutions and irrevocably alter the landscape of America.” Dan Seligman took a dim view of this contention in his review of the book in the June issue of COMMENTARY, and I offer my own dim view of it in a review in today’s Wall Street Journal.

As I try to show in the Journal, Gup is engaged in fear-mongering about government secrecy. But even if his book is flawed in this way, Gup does have interesting things to say about secrecy in other spheres of American life, especially the media.

“It is one of the crueler ironies of the post-9/11 era,” Gup writes, “that the press, whose raison d’etre is to hold government accountable and promote transparency, should itself have become a casualty of secrecy, its methods and manners eerily mimicking those its monitors.”

In demonstrating this proposition, Gup explores a number of recent media controversies, including the New York Times’s December 2005 decision to reveal the highly classified National Security Agency’s Terrorist Surveillance Program, thus tipping off al Qaeda to one of our most critical counterterrorism efforts. He goes into considerable depth into the “secret” editorial decision-making leading up to publication. He is particularly hard on the paper for concealing the various conflicts of interest it had with its own reporters, especially James Risen, one of two reporters who broke the NSA story. He also points to many of the credibility problems that arise from the press’s excessive use of anonymous sources.

I found myself disagreeing with almost all of Gup’s broad conclusions, and was especially put off by the overheated rhetoric with which they are presented, but Nation of Secrets does contain valuable observations about the workings of the press, and a good deal of reporting about other facets of secrecy in American life, that make it still worth reading.

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Two Mayors

With Mayor Bloomberg now making eyes at the presidency, there are three New Yorkers running for the office—and two of them are in the race because of 9/11.

Rudy Giuliani, who remains unpopular in the city he brought back from the brink of economic and social collapse (a recent Daily News poll showed New Yorkers favored Bloomberg over Giuliani as mayor by 56 percent to 29 percent, or nearly two to one), has been running as America’s Mayor, the leader who emerged from the smoke of the fallen towers.

Giuliani had been preparing for that moment since 1993, when he took office months after the tower bombing, which took pride of place in his first State of the City address. Later, he was widely mocked for constructing a bunker for the city’s new Office of Emergency Management, and for expelling Yasir Arafat from Lincoln Center. He’d also been preparing the city. Imagine the same attack in the terribly different New York of 1989—first violence erupting elsewhere while the police are at the towers, and later an out-migration of businesses and citizens.

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With Mayor Bloomberg now making eyes at the presidency, there are three New Yorkers running for the office—and two of them are in the race because of 9/11.

Rudy Giuliani, who remains unpopular in the city he brought back from the brink of economic and social collapse (a recent Daily News poll showed New Yorkers favored Bloomberg over Giuliani as mayor by 56 percent to 29 percent, or nearly two to one), has been running as America’s Mayor, the leader who emerged from the smoke of the fallen towers.

Giuliani had been preparing for that moment since 1993, when he took office months after the tower bombing, which took pride of place in his first State of the City address. Later, he was widely mocked for constructing a bunker for the city’s new Office of Emergency Management, and for expelling Yasir Arafat from Lincoln Center. He’d also been preparing the city. Imagine the same attack in the terribly different New York of 1989—first violence erupting elsewhere while the police are at the towers, and later an out-migration of businesses and citizens.

While his stump speech touches on the return of order to what’s been famously dubbed the ungovernable city, Giuliani’s been loath to connect his role after the attack with the rest of his mayoralty. Before the towers fell, his local approval rating had dropped below 40 percent. So he’s quarantined his shining hour from his time in office by treating 9/11 as Americans largely understood it: The moment when Everything Changed.

It’s a bad idea. Outside of New York, Giuliani’s widely considered a great mayor. What’s more, the strategy exposes him to swift-boating. Already, Wayne Barrett of the Village Voice and Dan Collins (husband of Times editorial board head Gail Collins) have published Grand Illusion, a harsh critique of Giuliani’s reputation as terror fighter. The International Association of Fire Fighters has put out a video that paints him as an ill-prepared coward, and even the Onion has joined the attack.

Though Bloomberg spent a then-record $74 million (nearly $100 per vote!) of his own money in 2001, it wasn’t until Giuliani endorsed him shortly after 9/11 that he emerged as more than just another rich man indulging a Quixotic mid-life crisis. Though he deserves a share of the credit for New York’s recovery from it, Bloomberg rarely mentions the attack that elected him.

There’s a reason for his reticence. Nearly seven years later, nothing has been built at Ground Zero, largely because Bloomberg instead developed parts of the city a safe distance from his predecessor’s oversized shadow, still looming over the site. Bloomberg’s silence is mirrored by a mayoralty and now a presidential run entirely without a foreign policy, an omission which will prove damaging as he faces increased national scrutiny.

As in 2001, Bloomberg is again a longshot candidate sidestepping the primaries to come in late with money to spend (and spend well) in pursuit of an office for which he’s expressed no particular vision. Should Giuliani win the Republican nomination, expect Bloomberg to claim that a few weeks of symbolism aside, it’s Mayor Mike who deserves the credit for the city’s post-attack fortunes.

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