Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 23, 2007

COMMENTARY Onscreen: Terry Teachout

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.

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.

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COMMENTARY Onscreen: Fred Siegel

Fred Siegel discusses his book Prince of the City, New York after 9/11, campaign politics, the war on terror, and much more.

Return to COMMENTARY.

Fred Siegel discusses his book Prince of the City, New York after 9/11, campaign politics, the war on terror, and much more.

Return to COMMENTARY.

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Right for the Wrong Reasons

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.

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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.

There is no doubt that nationalist resentment exists, but polling suggests that the biggest cause of that resentment in Afghanistan (as in Iraq) is not the presence of foreign troops per se, but the failure of the troops to provide basic security. In both places the U.S. strategy focused on training indigenous forces and trying to hand off responsibility to them as soon as possible. We know what a disaster that turned out to be in Iraq. It’s worked out a bit better in Afghanistan for a variety of factors but, given how long it takes to develop capable police and military forces, the only way to boost security in the short-term is to send in more foreign troops. That’s what NATO has done in southern Afghanistan, and I think it’s too early to say, as Stewart does, that this deployment has been a failure.

He writes that “the foreign presence has provoked a wide Taliban insurgency.” But isn’t it equally, if not more likely that the Taliban insurgency was growing in any case, and that the presence of more NATO troops has blunted the effects of that insurgency? We know that the much-ballyhooed “spring offensive” of the Taliban fizzled out. We’re not sure why, but a good part of the explanation is probably preemptive action on the part of a larger NATO force.

That said, I think Stewart is right to argue that it’s generally better to minimize the presence of foreign troops and to rely on local allies as much as possible. But while correct as a general prescription for the Global War on Terror, it’s hard to know whether that is the best solution to Afghanistan’s particular problems. Absent a substantial degree of foreign support, the government in Kabul risks being overwhelmed by jihadists with secure bases across the border in Pakistan. Relying simply on “intelligence, pragmatic politics, savvy use of our development assistance, and on special forces operations,” as Stewart suggests, may not be enough to hold the Islamist onslaught at bay.

Whatever the case, it doesn’t change the fact that a pullout from Iraq would not strengthen our efforts in Afghanistan. A “redeployment” from Iraq would be seen by the world as a defeat for America and a victory for al Qaeda and Iran. They would be emboldened to step up their attacks in Afghanistan, while our allies and our own troops there would be disheartened. In such circumstances, with America reeling from its worst military defeat since 1975, I doubt that there would be much political support back home for a heightened commitment to Afghanistan, regardless of whether or not it makes military sense. At worst, then, Stewart is right but for the wrong reasons.

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Brownian Motion on Iran

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.

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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.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton told the Sunday Times of London: “If Gordon Brown knew what he was doing when he appointed Mark Malloch Brown, it was a major signal that he wants a different relationship with the United States. If he didn’t know what he was doing, that is not a good sign either.”

By diverging from the European position on Iran and tacking closer to the American one, Gordon Brown is attempting to limit the damage done by the (soon-to-be-ennobled) Malloch Brown. In a recent interview, the latter’s elevation from bureaucrat to baron seemed to have gone to his head. He claimed that a “radical” change in British policy towards the U.S. was in the offing, with the two leaders no longer “joined at the hip”. He also boasted of his status as a “wise eminence” and his contacts in America. It was so embarrassing that his boss, Foreign Secretary David Miliband, was forced to go on TV himself to contradict his subordinate.

Gordon Brown has proved to be more nimble on his feet than his critics expected, and he is quite capable of creating some good publicity for himself in advance of his trip to confound the expectation that Mr. Blair, the darling of Washington, is an impossible act to follow. Iran, though, is too important to be treated as a pawn in a transatlantic diplomatic game. The decision that the President makes on this—whether to pre-empt Ahmadinejad’s armageddon—could be the most momentous of his presidency. Whatever he does, Bush needs to know that he can rely on Mr. Brown when the going gets tough.

By trying to impress both the President and his own largely anti-American party, Brown is trying to be too clever. Sooner or later, he will have to choose. Iran is actually destabilizing the entire region and potentially mobilizing the entire Muslim world against the West. Other European states may choose to turn a blind eye to the danger posed by Tehran’s nuclear program, but the British have had recent and painful experience of the regime’s hostility. Brown needs to erase the memory of the naval hostage crisis as soon as possible. He may not want to be the heir to Tony Blair’s role in the Iraq war, but the logic of the situation with Iran points to the same decision: to do nothing is the worst policy.

If Brown is wise, he will fire his grey eminence before he sets foot in the White House and instead echo one of the greatest of his predecessors, William Pitt the Elder: “Our watchword is security.” The most damaging impression about the liberation of Iraq is that it has made the West in general, and Britain in particular, less secure. If Bush can make a good case that destroying Iran’s nuclear facilities would make not only Israel but Europe and America more secure, Brown will surely have to support him.

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Blair in the West Bank

“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.

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“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.

As far as most Palestinians and Arabs are concerned, Blair is nothing but a puppet in the hands of Bush. “He’s coming here to help Bush and the Jews,” another Palestinian official in Ramallah told me. “For us, Blair is not an honest broker because he’s biased in favor of Israel.

So if the Palestinians don’t trust Blair and don’t believe that he can make a contribution to the peace process, why are they still willing to deal with him?

The answer is simple: Mahmoud Abbas and his corruption-riddled Fatah faction, beaten harshly by Hamas, need money and cash, even from “infidels and Crusaders” like Bush and Blair. Abbas and his Fatah lieutenants have only one thing in mind: avenging their humiliating defeat in the Gaza Strip at the hands of Hamas.

To this end, they are prepared to ally themselves with anyone who is willing to provide them with millions of dollars and thousands of rifles so that they can fight Hamas. But Abbas is not going to fight Hamas—he never has, which is why Hamas managed to overrun the Gaza Strip so easily.

The name of the game in Middle East diplomacy these days is: “Let’s support the moderate Palestinians against the radicals.” Over the past two years, millions of dollars have been poured on Abbas and Fatah to help them undermine the growing power of Hamas. This tactic has not worked.

On Tuesday, Blair will hear from Abbas and his aides that only if the international community gives them more money and weapons will they be able to wipe out Hamas. Blair, of course, is most likely to buy this plea. He will go back to his partners in the Quartet and urge them to channel more funds to Abbas. And for his part, Abbas will fail to combat Hamas.

Blair is welcome in the Fatah-controlled West Bank only as long as he can promise financial aid and weapons. But it’s only a matter of time before Blair and Bush wake up to find that Hamas has devoured the West Bank. If Bush and Blair want to help Abbas, they must pressure him to establish good governance and to end rampant corruption. That’s the best way to undermine Hamas.

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Another Catastrophe

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.)

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.)

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The Bush Administration’s Secret Secret

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?

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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?

The U.S. was struck by terrorists on 9/11 killing thousands. Our troops are now engaged in two hot wars overseas. If under those circumstances our government were not generating lots of secrets, that would be a cause for worry and alarm.

But the biggest secret of all is that, despite what one hears incessantly from the New York Times and its echo chamber, the Bush administration has been making significant strides toward more open government.

The Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) in Washington D.C. is the official body that keeps tracks of such things. According to its latest report, the executive branch declassified 37,647,993 pages of “permanently valuable historical records” in fiscal year 2006, which is a 27-percent increase over the previous fiscal year.

At the same time, the number of newly classified documents—called “original classification decisions” in the lingo of the bureaucracy—declined by 10 percent. Perhaps of even greater significance is the fact that for the second year in a row, the majority of new secrets have been assigned a ten-year classification period. Historically, only 34 percent of new secrets were given such a short life; 25-year sentences used to be the norm.

Obviously, secrecy has many dimensions, and such statistics do not tell the whole story about current trends. But they do tell a part of it. Why are they not better known?

This brings us to one of the major hidden sources of secrecy in recent years. For even as the media and the interest groups lambaste the Bush administration for being the most secretive of all time, they are keeping these numbers from the public. One certainly can not read about them in the New York Times.

The exception that proves the rule comes from Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientist, who has posted a notice about the ISOO report on his invaluable blog, Secrecy News.

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Karen Armstrong, Islam, and Intolerance

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.
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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.

Malaysia is sometimes cited as a model for a Muslim state. Yet it is a country where children have their identity cards stamped with their faith, which they are then not allowed to change for the rest of their lives. Malays must be Muslim, or else lose their legal status as Malays, which entitles them to preferential treatment. Some 9 percent of the population are Christians, but they enjoy no official status, and are subject to constant harrassment. Conversion to Christianity is a criminal offense in most of the country. Ethnic Indians, who are mostly Hindu, and ethnic Chinese, who are mostly Buddhist or Confucian, are also treated as second-class citizens. All other religions are persecuted by shari’a courts and by an increasingly intolerant government. Churches and temples are often demolished. None of this is mentioned in Karen Armstrong’s article.

Most authors react to censorship with anger and indignation. Not Ms. Armstrong, who says that “my books seemed so popular in Malaysia that I found myself wondering if the veto was part of a Machiavellian plot to entice the public to read them.” She blithely ignores both the censorship and the campaign of forced Islamicization of which it forms a part, and instead takes the opportunity to wag her finger at those in the West who defend free speech.

She chastises the Danish cartoonists and their publishers who lampooned Muhammad for “failing to live up to their own liberal values, since the principle of free speech implies respect for the opinions of others.” So free speech is only permissible as long as nobody raises an objection? One begins to see why Ms. Armstrong is so unconcerned about governments like that of Malaysia.

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Let Taiwan In

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?

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?

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