In the first of a series of monthly video interviews, Terry Teachout talks about “Our Creed and Our Character” (his article in the July/August issue of COMMENTARY), music, movies, John Marin, and much more.
Return to COMMENTARY.
I hesitate to disagree about Afghanistan with Rory Stewart, who has spent a lot more time there than I have. A former British officer and diplomat, he walked across the entire country shortly after the fall of the Taliban, a madcap escapade gracefully chronicled in his book, The Places in Between. He now runs an NGO, the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, which is rebuilding the ancient heart of Kabul, where he lives.
On today’s New York Times op-ed page, Stewart has a provocative article entitled “Where Less is More.” His argument is that it would be counterproductive to act as the Democrats suggest by pulling out of Iraq and beefing up the foreign troop contingent in Afghanistan. I agree with this conclusion, but am dubious about his reasoning: namely, that sending more troops to Afghanistan would simply produce a backlash among nationalist Afghans.
Gordon Brown yesterday surprised commentators by refusing to rule out military action against Iran. “I firmly believe that the sanctions policy that we are pursuing will work, but I’m not one who’s going forward to say that we rule out any particular form of action,” the new British Prime Minister told a news conference. While Brown had previously seemed to follow his European partners France and Germany by playing down the idea of using force against Tehran, his line on Iran yesterday was compatible with the more hawkish position of President Bush.
What are we to make of these maneuvers? Brown’s remarks come just a few days before he is due to make his first visit to Washington since taking over from Tony Blair earlier this month. He can expect a polite but cool reception from Bush. The appointment of former United Nations deputy secretary general Mark Malloch Brown as Foreign Office minister for Africa, Asia and the UN has predictably exasperated the Bush administration.
“If Tony Blair thinks we’re going to roll out a red carpet for him, he’s in for a surprise.”
This is what a senior Palestinian official in the office of Mahmoud Abbas told me when I asked him over the weekend about the visit to the region by the former British prime minister, now a special envoy of the Middle East Quartet.
“The president is not going to welcome him at the entrance to his office and we will send only one police car to accompany his motorcade when it enters Ramallah.”
The Palestinians have never liked Blair, largely because of his close alliance with George W. Bush, and his role in the Iraq war. That’s why it was hard this week to find one Palestinian who was pinning high hopes on Blair’s new mission as the top representative of the Quartet.
School textbooks used by Israeli Arabs will henceforth embrace the new historians’ version of history: the 1948 Israeli War of Independence is now officially “al-Naqba” (the Catastrophe), in books vetted by Israel’s Education Ministry. Education Minister Yuli Tamir defended her decision by saying that “the Arab public deserves to be allowed to express their feelings.” The Minister is entitled to believe, of course, that textbooks are the natural conduit for the expression of collective feelings—rather than the preferred instrument of instruction in history. But the real question is not whether Israeli Arabs—or a guilt-ridden minister—should be allowed to “express their feelings.” They are, and they do (as anyone who has spent any time in Israel can tell you). The real question is: should the discipline of history be the victim of those feelings? (Hillel Halkin’s 1999 COMMENTARY article “Was Zionism Unjust?” suggests an answer.)
Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, calls the Bush presidency the “most secretive of administrations.”
Helen Thomas of UPI says “[t]his is the most secretive administration I have ever covered.”
Caroline Fredrickson of the ACLU says “this has been the most secretive administration since the Nixon years.”
Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, says “it is one of the most secretive administrations in recent history.”
The British Guardian Weekly calls it “the most secretive administration in U.S. history.”
Glenn Greenwald of Salon, call it “the most secretive in history.”
Is Bush really so secretive, and if so, so what?
Writing in Saturday’s Guardian, Karen Armstrong, a popular historian of comparative religion, describes how she was invited by the Malaysian government last month to give two public lectures. On arriving in Kuala Lumpur, however, she was “surprised” to discover that this same government had banned three of her books as “incompatible with peace and social harmony.”
She does not mention the fact that the government in question is an Islamist one, which relentlessly persecutes the 40 percent of Malays who are non-Muslims. This is in spite of the fact that the Malaysian constitution, while establishing Islam as Malaysia’s official religion, also guarantees that “other religions may be practised in peace and harmony”—the same phrase that was used as an excuse to suppress Ms. Armstrong’s books.
On Friday, the Taipei government announced that it had applied for U.N. membership under its commonly used name, Taiwan. Previous attempts to gain admission under the official designation of Republic of China have failed, due to opposition from Beijing.
The Mainland was quick to denounce Taipei’s most recent move. “We resolutely oppose it,” said Liu Jianchao, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman. “The Taiwan authorities’ attempt to split China will absolutely not succeed.” Beijing’s is not the only government that is peeved. I predict that the Bush administration will, as a means of expressing its irritation at President Chen Shui-bian’s attempt to assert his nation’s sovereignty, offer no support to Taiwan’s bid.
The United States has tried to keep the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. But now the democracy of 23 million people has expressed its desire to be recognized as a sovereign political entity. The issue for President Bush at this time is clear: is all his talk about freedom just rhetoric?