Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 10, 2007

Not Time to Come Home

It’s time to declare victory and go home. That was the formula that Senator George Aiken famously suggested for Vietnam in 1966. Today, it bears relevance to Iraq. No, not to the U. S. military presence in that country, but to the Democrats in Congress.

Since November, the Pelosi-Reid Democrats have demonstrated shocking disdain for the well-being of our country. Their only concern has been to defeat or embarrass George W. Bush. Once, one of the noblest American traditions held that politics stops at the water’s edge. But, for the Pelosi-Reid Democrats, it seems that the inverse is true: namely, that national interests stop when the opportunity arises for partisan point-scoring.

In the last few weeks, however, a number of Democratic voices have been raised to observe that General Petraeus’s surge strategy seems to be working in Iraq. “We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms,” wrote Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of The Brookings Institution in a widely quoted op-ed. Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois reported from Baghdad that our forces are “making some measurable progress.” And Anthony Cordesman, a strong critic of the war, said after a recent visit to the country, “real military progress is taking place.”

In view of these hopeful assessments, it would be criminally irresponsible to deny Petraeus the time and resources he needs to see if he can pull America’s chestnuts from the fire. It would also, in the end, be bad politics. Congressional Democrats should drop their efforts to force surrender upon us. Instead, they should try to take credit for the fact that things are improving. They can argue plausibly that by holding Bush’s feet to the fire, they forced him to adjust strategy, bringing on a new field commander and authorizing the surge. The Democrats should, in short, declare victory and go home.

It’s time to declare victory and go home. That was the formula that Senator George Aiken famously suggested for Vietnam in 1966. Today, it bears relevance to Iraq. No, not to the U. S. military presence in that country, but to the Democrats in Congress.

Since November, the Pelosi-Reid Democrats have demonstrated shocking disdain for the well-being of our country. Their only concern has been to defeat or embarrass George W. Bush. Once, one of the noblest American traditions held that politics stops at the water’s edge. But, for the Pelosi-Reid Democrats, it seems that the inverse is true: namely, that national interests stop when the opportunity arises for partisan point-scoring.

In the last few weeks, however, a number of Democratic voices have been raised to observe that General Petraeus’s surge strategy seems to be working in Iraq. “We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms,” wrote Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of The Brookings Institution in a widely quoted op-ed. Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois reported from Baghdad that our forces are “making some measurable progress.” And Anthony Cordesman, a strong critic of the war, said after a recent visit to the country, “real military progress is taking place.”

In view of these hopeful assessments, it would be criminally irresponsible to deny Petraeus the time and resources he needs to see if he can pull America’s chestnuts from the fire. It would also, in the end, be bad politics. Congressional Democrats should drop their efforts to force surrender upon us. Instead, they should try to take credit for the fact that things are improving. They can argue plausibly that by holding Bush’s feet to the fire, they forced him to adjust strategy, bringing on a new field commander and authorizing the surge. The Democrats should, in short, declare victory and go home.

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The Two of Us

As summer wears on, and movie houses offer ghastly fare like Underdog and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, film lovers may choose to stay home and watch a classic film on DVD. One such classic, now happily available from the Criterion Collection (which has reissued Night and Fog, Alain Resnais’s 1955 meditation about the Holocaust), is a newly restored version of French writer/director Claude Berri’s The Two of Us. The 1967 film fictionalizes Berri’s own real-life experiences, those of a Jewish boy in wartime Paris who is sent to the countryside to live with an old Catholic couple until France is liberated from Nazi rule. Born Claude Langmann, Berri narrates the film’s beginning, as he announces: “I was eight years old and already a Jew.”

Young Claude (portrayed by Alain Cohen) pretends to be Catholic in order not to alarm the rural couple, and amuses himself by teasing his anti-Semitic old host (Michel Simon). This playfulness infuses the film with a childish joy, despite the tragic context. In a bonus interview featured in the DVD release, a fiftyish Alain Cohen today admits that Berri’s film “does not show the horror” of the Holocaust. Instead, The Two of Us (its original French title, Le Vieil homme et l’enfant—The Old Man and the Boy—has an abstract, Hemingwayesque sound) is a “parable about prejudice.” The old man who hates Jews without ever having met one is like someone, says Cohen, “who says he hates tomatoes without ever having tasted one.”

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As summer wears on, and movie houses offer ghastly fare like Underdog and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, film lovers may choose to stay home and watch a classic film on DVD. One such classic, now happily available from the Criterion Collection (which has reissued Night and Fog, Alain Resnais’s 1955 meditation about the Holocaust), is a newly restored version of French writer/director Claude Berri’s The Two of Us. The 1967 film fictionalizes Berri’s own real-life experiences, those of a Jewish boy in wartime Paris who is sent to the countryside to live with an old Catholic couple until France is liberated from Nazi rule. Born Claude Langmann, Berri narrates the film’s beginning, as he announces: “I was eight years old and already a Jew.”

Young Claude (portrayed by Alain Cohen) pretends to be Catholic in order not to alarm the rural couple, and amuses himself by teasing his anti-Semitic old host (Michel Simon). This playfulness infuses the film with a childish joy, despite the tragic context. In a bonus interview featured in the DVD release, a fiftyish Alain Cohen today admits that Berri’s film “does not show the horror” of the Holocaust. Instead, The Two of Us (its original French title, Le Vieil homme et l’enfant—The Old Man and the Boy—has an abstract, Hemingwayesque sound) is a “parable about prejudice.” The old man who hates Jews without ever having met one is like someone, says Cohen, “who says he hates tomatoes without ever having tasted one.”

Berri densely interweaves visual metaphor, showing the shaved heads of Frenchwomen punished after the Liberation for bearing the children of German soldiers, and the shaved heads of country children stricken with lice. Young Claude’s head is also shaved by a teacher, in punishment for addressing a love letter to a schoolgirl.

Alain Cohen gives a gentle, intuitive performance (Claude Berri recalls in an interview that Cohen’s own grandparents had been murdered in Auschwitz, so the boy fully understood the film’s historical setting). Michel Simon is astonishingly (almost animalistically) vital, rivaling other actors who are forces of nature, like Raimu or Zero Mostel. As he demonstrates in other Criterion releases like Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning and Marcel Carné’s Quai des brumes, Simon can shift instantly from tragedy to comedy. He tends tearfully to an invalid dog and roars out with vulgar abandon marching songs from World War I.

In another bonus feature from the DVD, the actual woman who sheltered Berri at her parents’ farm explains how “shocked and hurt” she was at the way The Two of Us portrayed her parents: “They were not uncouth people or alcoholics!” François Truffaut alleged that The Two of Us reveals how most French people endured the Occupation, frozen like “characters in a Beckett play,” being neither collaborators nor resisters. More to the point, the film shows how a number of Jews survived the Nazi Occupation in France, shielded by French people who happened to hate Germans even more than they hated Jews.

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Fear of Western Medicine

Last week, the New York Times published a curious op-ed entitled “Why Africa Fears Western Medicine,” by Harriet A. Washington. The piece was published days after the Libyan government’s release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, who had been falsely accused of injecting hundreds of children with H.I.V., and then sentenced to death (the release was arranged, with much fanfare, via a $426 million ransom paid by European governments). Washington writes that “to dismiss the Libyan accusations of medical malfeasance out of hand means losing an opportunity to understand why a dangerous suspicion of medicine is so widespread in Africa.”

Washington has little to say about the wisdom of Africans’ rejection of advanced Western medicine in favor of “traditional” African remedies. Instead of an explanation, she cites a list of “high-profile Western medical miscreants who have intentionally administered deadly agents under the guise of providing health care or conducting research.” And it’s true that the quacks she lists—like Wouter Basson, the former head of the apartheid South African regime’s chemical weapons program (though he is a white South African, not “Western”)—have sowed distrust among Africans about the intentions of Western doctors.

But what of the Western doctors welcomed to South Africa by President Thabo Mbeki? Washington neglects to mention, for instance, Peter Duesberg, one of the leaders of the H.I.V. denialist movement, which seeks to discredit the contention that H.I.V. causes AIDS. Nor does Washington note Matthias Rath, a German doctor who peddles vitamins and promises of a cure for AIDS to poor blacks in shantytowns. And of course there is the South African Minister of Health, widely derided as “Dr. Beetroot,” for suggesting that AIDS sufferers eat Beetroot and African potatoes to treat AIDS. Earlier this week, President Mbeki fired his deputy health minister, one of the few people in his government deserving of praise for anti-AIDS prevention work. Perhaps Harriet A. Washington should start asking African leaders to look at their own failings on the AIDS front before blaming the West for the continent’s problems.

Last week, the New York Times published a curious op-ed entitled “Why Africa Fears Western Medicine,” by Harriet A. Washington. The piece was published days after the Libyan government’s release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, who had been falsely accused of injecting hundreds of children with H.I.V., and then sentenced to death (the release was arranged, with much fanfare, via a $426 million ransom paid by European governments). Washington writes that “to dismiss the Libyan accusations of medical malfeasance out of hand means losing an opportunity to understand why a dangerous suspicion of medicine is so widespread in Africa.”

Washington has little to say about the wisdom of Africans’ rejection of advanced Western medicine in favor of “traditional” African remedies. Instead of an explanation, she cites a list of “high-profile Western medical miscreants who have intentionally administered deadly agents under the guise of providing health care or conducting research.” And it’s true that the quacks she lists—like Wouter Basson, the former head of the apartheid South African regime’s chemical weapons program (though he is a white South African, not “Western”)—have sowed distrust among Africans about the intentions of Western doctors.

But what of the Western doctors welcomed to South Africa by President Thabo Mbeki? Washington neglects to mention, for instance, Peter Duesberg, one of the leaders of the H.I.V. denialist movement, which seeks to discredit the contention that H.I.V. causes AIDS. Nor does Washington note Matthias Rath, a German doctor who peddles vitamins and promises of a cure for AIDS to poor blacks in shantytowns. And of course there is the South African Minister of Health, widely derided as “Dr. Beetroot,” for suggesting that AIDS sufferers eat Beetroot and African potatoes to treat AIDS. Earlier this week, President Mbeki fired his deputy health minister, one of the few people in his government deserving of praise for anti-AIDS prevention work. Perhaps Harriet A. Washington should start asking African leaders to look at their own failings on the AIDS front before blaming the West for the continent’s problems.

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Calm Kadhimiya

If you want an illustration of the old adage that “good news is no news,” simply try to find stories about the pilgrimage by tens of thousands of Shiites to the Kadhimiya shrine in northwest Baghdad on Thursday. There were a few accounts—see, for instance, this New York Times article and this from the Los Angeles Times—but they were buried deep inside the newspapers.

What happened on Thursday was pretty remarkable: nothing. At least nothing terribly violent. Last year at least twenty pilgrims were killed by sniper and mortar attacks. In 2005, 1,000 pilgrims died on a bridge after rumors of a suicide bomber caused mass hysteria. This year, the death toll was two—and they died not as a result of an insurgent attack, but in a crush to get onto a train. A sniper did open fire at the procession from a Sunni neighborhood, but he was gunned down by Iraqi security forces without any of the pilgrims being killed.

The success of the march cannot be ascribed entirely to American and Iraqi security forces lining the parade route. Moqtada al-Sadr’s Jaish al-Mahdi militia also played a role in protecting the Shiite pilgrims. And it didn’t hurt that Sunnis effectively have been pushed out (or cleansed) from Kadhimiya, thereby creating a more secure environment for the Shiites. Nevertheless, the peaceful pilgrimage was a heartening sign of how, at long last, a modicum of security is coming to Baghdad.

If you want an illustration of the old adage that “good news is no news,” simply try to find stories about the pilgrimage by tens of thousands of Shiites to the Kadhimiya shrine in northwest Baghdad on Thursday. There were a few accounts—see, for instance, this New York Times article and this from the Los Angeles Times—but they were buried deep inside the newspapers.

What happened on Thursday was pretty remarkable: nothing. At least nothing terribly violent. Last year at least twenty pilgrims were killed by sniper and mortar attacks. In 2005, 1,000 pilgrims died on a bridge after rumors of a suicide bomber caused mass hysteria. This year, the death toll was two—and they died not as a result of an insurgent attack, but in a crush to get onto a train. A sniper did open fire at the procession from a Sunni neighborhood, but he was gunned down by Iraqi security forces without any of the pilgrims being killed.

The success of the march cannot be ascribed entirely to American and Iraqi security forces lining the parade route. Moqtada al-Sadr’s Jaish al-Mahdi militia also played a role in protecting the Shiite pilgrims. And it didn’t hurt that Sunnis effectively have been pushed out (or cleansed) from Kadhimiya, thereby creating a more secure environment for the Shiites. Nevertheless, the peaceful pilgrimage was a heartening sign of how, at long last, a modicum of security is coming to Baghdad.

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Let’s Help al Qaeda to Kill Americans

What is the best way for terrorists to wreak havoc in the United States? That was the question posed, and answered, yesterday on the New York Times website by Steven D. Levitt, the University of Chicago professor of economics and author of the best-selling book, Freakonomics.

Levitt’s advice to al Qaeda, based upon the economic principle of generating the greatest quantity of harm with the least possible input of resources, would be to learn from the Washington D.C snipers of 2002. He suggests arming

20 terrorists with rifles and cars, and arrang[ing] to have them begin shooting randomly at pre-set times all across the country. Big cities, little cities, suburbs, etc. Have them move around a lot. No one will know when and where the next attack will be. The chaos would be unbelievable, especially considering how few resources it would require of the terrorists. It would also be extremely hard to catch these guys. The damage wouldn’t be as extreme as detonating a nuclear bomb in New York City, of course; but it sure would be a lot easier to obtain a handful of guns than a nuclear weapon.

This does indeed sound like a terrifying scenario and perhaps there is a terrorist cell hidden here that will carry it out.

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What is the best way for terrorists to wreak havoc in the United States? That was the question posed, and answered, yesterday on the New York Times website by Steven D. Levitt, the University of Chicago professor of economics and author of the best-selling book, Freakonomics.

Levitt’s advice to al Qaeda, based upon the economic principle of generating the greatest quantity of harm with the least possible input of resources, would be to learn from the Washington D.C snipers of 2002. He suggests arming

20 terrorists with rifles and cars, and arrang[ing] to have them begin shooting randomly at pre-set times all across the country. Big cities, little cities, suburbs, etc. Have them move around a lot. No one will know when and where the next attack will be. The chaos would be unbelievable, especially considering how few resources it would require of the terrorists. It would also be extremely hard to catch these guys. The damage wouldn’t be as extreme as detonating a nuclear bomb in New York City, of course; but it sure would be a lot easier to obtain a handful of guns than a nuclear weapon.

This does indeed sound like a terrifying scenario and perhaps there is a terrorist cell hidden here that will carry it out.

Levitt believes that putting such suggestions in print for terrorists to read is “a form of public service.” By thinking of plausible ways of causing violent destruction, he writes, “it gives terror fighters a chance to consider and plan for these scenarios before they occur.”

Levitt’s column generated what he says today, in a subsequent posting on the Times website, was an immense amount of hate mail: “The people e-mailing me can’t decide whether I am a moron, a traitor, or both.”

But there are also quite a few letters on the site applauding Levitt, like this one from a person who identifies herself simply as Kelly: “I think you are doing a terrific job actually THINKING about our situation rather than reacting like so many of our fellow Americans.”

Is Levitt indeed performing a public service, or is he a moron, traitor, or both?

Answering this is not as easy as it might appear at first glance. The fact is that we do need to think carefully about the manifold ways terrorists might attack us again. The U.S. government has failed abysmally at that task in the past.

In his memoir, At the Center of the Storm, CIA Director George Tenet recalls with some pride how on the evening of September 12, 2001, he was sitting in his office “kicking around ideas” with a senior agency official when they hit upon the idea of creating “a group with the CIA whose sole purpose in life would be to think contrarian thoughts.” Such a unit, duly created by Tenet and dubbed the “Red Cell,” was given the assignment of “speculat[ing] on what was going through Osama bin Laden’s mind.”

In other words, up until September 11, it never occurred to the clueless Tenet or anyone else in a position of responsibility at our premier intelligence agency to perform the elementary task of thinking systematically about how our terrorist adversaries were thinking about us, including about how they might attack us.

There is thus a case for a public discussion of the issue raised by Levitt. But raising the issue and generating actual scenarios in public are two different things. Levitt defends himself on this point by noting that “a lot of the angry responses [he received made] me wonder what everyday Americans think terrorists do all day. My guess is that they brainstorm ideas for terrorist plots. And you have to believe that terrorists are total idiots if it never occurred to them after the Washington D.C. sniper shootings that maybe a sniper plot wasn’t a bad idea.”

True enough. Or is it true at all?

Yes, there are terrorist masterminds out there who do not need our help cooking up the most intricate and lethal plots against the United States. The attacks of September 11 alone are sufficient evidence of that.

But there are also more than a few terrorists and would-be terrorists roaming around who might qualify as “idiots,” or something close. Most recruits for terrorist action in the Islamist cause are not sophisticated planner types like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed but angry, ignorant, low-level figures, used by the higher-level terrorist plotters as expendable “muscle.”

Richard Reid is one such figure. If he had been smart enough to set off his shoe-bomb in the privacy of the bathroom instead of while remaining in his seat, American Airlines Flight 63 might now be resting quietly on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean with all of it 197 passengers and crew.

Then there was Zacharias Moussaoui, who was encountering trouble in his Minnesota flight school. This deranged fanatic might have only needed scant prompting, perhaps by stumbling across a clever scenario cooked up by Steven Levitt, to find a way to work al Qaeda’s will that was easier than poring through aviation manuals and struggling to operate a Boeing 747 simulator.

There was also el Sayyid Nosair, an operative in the nascent al Qaeda operation, part of the band that was to attack the World Trade Center the first time around in 1993. In 1990, Nosair spent his time and energy planning and carrying out the assassination of the firebrand rabbi Meir Kahane. Given the combination of Kahane’s extremist views and marginal status, this act was senseless, and even counterproductive, from the point of view of Nosair’s own cause. In choosing his victim, Nosair could well have used some help from an economist like Levitt. Will Levitt now offer to provide a public list of superior human targets, whose deaths would be far more useful to the Islamist cause? The logic of his argument suggests that the answer would be yes.

But beyond the logic or illogic of Levitt’s argument, there is something else. Thousands of Americans died on September 11. Although Levitt minimizes the dangers that lie ahead, blithely writing that his guess is that “the terrorism threat just isn’t that great,” the fact is that, like everyone else, he does not know what he does not know. It is entirely possible that the United States will be hit again, and hit harder than we were on September 11.

To Levitt, however, this solemn subject is not solemn at all. He writes about it in a glib and flippant tone, as in his summons to the public to come up with even more lethal scenarios by which al Qaeda might wreak death and destruction on the United States: “I’m sure many readers have far better ideas. I would love to hear them.”

One of the better ripostes to Levitt on the Times website came from a reader named Steve: “Sir, unable to determine if you are demonic, but your actions are demonic. Contemplate this name, Christine Lee Hanson.”

Christine Lee Hanson was a two-year old who perished on board United Airlines Flight 175 when it plowed into the World Trade Center on September 11.

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Georgia on My Mind

Georgia is on my mind. Although the facts are in dispute—they always are when Moscow is involved—it seems clear that a Russian plane entered Georgian airspace on Monday night and fired a missile at a radar station. The Kremlin, absurdly, is suggesting Tbilisi attacked itself. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe confirms there was an intrusion, and there is no evidence supporting Moscow’s version of events. If this sounds familiar, don’t be surprised: Russian helicopters flew over and fired on another part of Georgia in March of this year.

The State Department calls the more recent incident an “attack against Georgia” and says there was a “violation of Georgia’s airspace.” Then it suggests that Georgia and Russia work it out peacefully.

How’s that for an inspiring response from the final guarantor of the world’s democracies? I will skip the if-we-don’t-stop-them-in-Georgia-we-will-only-have-to-fight-them-on-the-Potomac argument and move on to the broader point. Our belief that we need the assistance of other great powers to solve the problems of the world inhibits us from confronting an aggressive Moscow. Yes, in a strict sense, we do need others’ cooperation; unfortunately, we’re not getting it. The last few years show that Russia, China, and their friends do not want to become “responsible stakeholders”—if I may use the State Department’s optimistic term—in the world as it is.

Call it what you wish—World War III, World War IV, or the Long War—but the existing international system is disintegrating. We have to confront the reality that we are already involved in destabilizing competition with other great powers. Not supporting Georgia and other democracies under attack will only hand victory to the aggressors.

Georgia is on my mind. Although the facts are in dispute—they always are when Moscow is involved—it seems clear that a Russian plane entered Georgian airspace on Monday night and fired a missile at a radar station. The Kremlin, absurdly, is suggesting Tbilisi attacked itself. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe confirms there was an intrusion, and there is no evidence supporting Moscow’s version of events. If this sounds familiar, don’t be surprised: Russian helicopters flew over and fired on another part of Georgia in March of this year.

The State Department calls the more recent incident an “attack against Georgia” and says there was a “violation of Georgia’s airspace.” Then it suggests that Georgia and Russia work it out peacefully.

How’s that for an inspiring response from the final guarantor of the world’s democracies? I will skip the if-we-don’t-stop-them-in-Georgia-we-will-only-have-to-fight-them-on-the-Potomac argument and move on to the broader point. Our belief that we need the assistance of other great powers to solve the problems of the world inhibits us from confronting an aggressive Moscow. Yes, in a strict sense, we do need others’ cooperation; unfortunately, we’re not getting it. The last few years show that Russia, China, and their friends do not want to become “responsible stakeholders”—if I may use the State Department’s optimistic term—in the world as it is.

Call it what you wish—World War III, World War IV, or the Long War—but the existing international system is disintegrating. We have to confront the reality that we are already involved in destabilizing competition with other great powers. Not supporting Georgia and other democracies under attack will only hand victory to the aggressors.

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