Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 15, 2007

Sheehan Agonistes

For a healthy bit of schadenfreude, take a look at this blog post from Katha Pollitt, a columnist for the Nation. It is a plaintive letter begging Cindy Sheehan (the well-known anti-war activist) not to challenge Nancy Pelosi for her seat in Congress.

The appearance, in a major political weekly, of an earnest plea for a flaky anti-war activist not to run against the Speaker of the House may seem journalistically unserious. But this race would not, to put it kindly, help the image of the Democrats nationwide; Pollitt is doubtlessly aware of this. “Instead of showing the Democrats how strong is the threat from the Left, it will show them how weak it is,” she writes. But if someone as nutty as Sheehan did relatively well—say, winning over 30 percent of the vote (hardly an impossibility in San Francisco)—it would look rather bad for the Democrats, and not just for the hard Left.

Pollitt’s lamentations are most amusing because the Nation, after all, has been Sheehan’s most full-throated supporter. Here’s one typical paean to her, published last year. And here’s a piece Sheehan herself wrote for the magazine, in which she tells of her “meeting with the families of children murdered in George Bush’s War of Terror against the world,” and celebrates “being toasted by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingston.”

So it would be ironic to see a Sheehan candidacy that the Nation itself unwittingly launched. No matter how well Sheehan did, such a candidacy would be a lose/lose situation for the different wings of the anti-war Left. But, as the old song goes, “You dance with the one that brung ya.”

For a healthy bit of schadenfreude, take a look at this blog post from Katha Pollitt, a columnist for the Nation. It is a plaintive letter begging Cindy Sheehan (the well-known anti-war activist) not to challenge Nancy Pelosi for her seat in Congress.

The appearance, in a major political weekly, of an earnest plea for a flaky anti-war activist not to run against the Speaker of the House may seem journalistically unserious. But this race would not, to put it kindly, help the image of the Democrats nationwide; Pollitt is doubtlessly aware of this. “Instead of showing the Democrats how strong is the threat from the Left, it will show them how weak it is,” she writes. But if someone as nutty as Sheehan did relatively well—say, winning over 30 percent of the vote (hardly an impossibility in San Francisco)—it would look rather bad for the Democrats, and not just for the hard Left.

Pollitt’s lamentations are most amusing because the Nation, after all, has been Sheehan’s most full-throated supporter. Here’s one typical paean to her, published last year. And here’s a piece Sheehan herself wrote for the magazine, in which she tells of her “meeting with the families of children murdered in George Bush’s War of Terror against the world,” and celebrates “being toasted by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingston.”

So it would be ironic to see a Sheehan candidacy that the Nation itself unwittingly launched. No matter how well Sheehan did, such a candidacy would be a lose/lose situation for the different wings of the anti-war Left. But, as the old song goes, “You dance with the one that brung ya.”

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Douthat’s Doubts

Ross Douthat, one of the bright lights of the rising generation of young conservatives (boy, it makes me feel old to write that!), professes himself dissatisfied with my forthcoming COMMENTARY article, “How Not to Get out of Iraq.” On his Atlantic blog he pounces on my admission that “the surge might still fail in the long run if Iraqis prove incapable of reaching political compromises even in a more secure environment.”

“This is not satisfactory. . . .” he writes. “[I]f we are to continue on our current path, we need to have less talk about the dangers of the alternative military approaches, and more talk about our options on the political front.” Unless we can come up with a good political solution, Douthat suggests, we might as well pull out. “As bad as admitting defeat would be, it’s preferable to asking thousands more Americans to die for what ends up being judged a mistake.”

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Ross Douthat, one of the bright lights of the rising generation of young conservatives (boy, it makes me feel old to write that!), professes himself dissatisfied with my forthcoming COMMENTARY article, “How Not to Get out of Iraq.” On his Atlantic blog he pounces on my admission that “the surge might still fail in the long run if Iraqis prove incapable of reaching political compromises even in a more secure environment.”

“This is not satisfactory. . . .” he writes. “[I]f we are to continue on our current path, we need to have less talk about the dangers of the alternative military approaches, and more talk about our options on the political front.” Unless we can come up with a good political solution, Douthat suggests, we might as well pull out. “As bad as admitting defeat would be, it’s preferable to asking thousands more Americans to die for what ends up being judged a mistake.”

But the whole point of the surge is to set the conditions for political progress. We’ve already seen considerable movement at the grass-roots level. There has not been comparable political progress in Baghdad, but it’s too early to expect that. First, the surge has to create a climate in which compromise is possible. Short-cut political solutions—Douthat mentions moving up the elections or instituting a “soft partition” (the latter is an option I discuss in “How Not to Get out of Iraq”)—won’t work absent a basic level of security, which American and Iraqi forces are just now in the process of establishing. This is a long-overdue correction to the failed strategy of the past four years: putting politics before security. Douthat seems strangely enamored of that plan.

If we’d taken the right approach from the beginning and emphasized security, as any seasoned counterinsurgency strategist would counsel, we would probably be much further along than we are today. Because we made so many mistakes in the first four years of the war, any strategy that we implement now, no matter how sound, faces daunting odds. But that doesn’t mean, as Douthat implies, that we should simply throw up our hands in despair and withdraw. At least the surge gives us a reasonable chance to succeed. Any other option would be virtually certain to result in a catastrophic defeat.

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For Shame!

Parliaments the world over have attempted to emulate Westminster, the mother of modern Western democracy. Clearly, Westminster’s aura and glory have more to do with its enduring legacy as an institution than with the men and women who rotate in and out of its austere hall. Nevertheless, those men and women will, sooner or later, contribute to Westminster’s reputation. Indeed, a few weeks ago, when one of their committees released a report on the Middle East peace process, the Lords did their share to tarnish the credibility of their unelected house. Not to be outdone, the Commons have now produced their own report. A selection of its recommendations does little to honor its compilers.

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Parliaments the world over have attempted to emulate Westminster, the mother of modern Western democracy. Clearly, Westminster’s aura and glory have more to do with its enduring legacy as an institution than with the men and women who rotate in and out of its austere hall. Nevertheless, those men and women will, sooner or later, contribute to Westminster’s reputation. Indeed, a few weeks ago, when one of their committees released a report on the Middle East peace process, the Lords did their share to tarnish the credibility of their unelected house. Not to be outdone, the Commons have now produced their own report. A selection of its recommendations does little to honor its compilers.

On Iran: “[I]t is vital that the UK and the international community engage constructively and coherently with Iran.”

On Iraq: “[I]t is too early to provide a definitive assessment of the U.S. ‘surge’ but . . . it does not look likely to succeed.”

On the Muslim Brotherhood: “The Muslim Brotherhood is a powerful and important force in Egypt. As long as the Muslim Brotherhood expresses a commitment to the democratic process and non-violence, we recommend that the British Government should engage with it and seek to influence its members.”

On Syria: “Syria plays a significant role in most of the key areas in the Middle East and . . . this role may slowly be changing for the better . . . the European Union Association Agreement with Syria presents a powerful incentive for President Assad to remedy his country’s political behavior, particularly given Syria’s current efforts towards economic reform.”

On Lebanon and Hizballah: “Hizballah is undeniably an important element in Lebanon’s politics, although its influence, along with Iran’s and Syria’s, continues to be a malign one.” Therefore, “the Government should engage directly with moderate Hizballah Parliamentarians. The Government should continue to refuse to engage with the military wing of Hizballah.” [A largely specious distinction.]

A cursory glance at those providing evidence—Chatham House Arabists, Assad clan apologists, and other self-styled Middle East advisers—shows the overwhelming influence of people who have a proven record of NOT understanding the region, and of speaking on behalf of its worst elements. The 236-page report can be summed up as such: Betray your friends, appease your enemies, pay ransom, surrender, and, where possible and lucrative, collaborate. Not Westminster’s finest hour.

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“Blowback” in Lebanon?

The State Department has designated Fatah al-Islam, a self-declared al-Qaeda affiliate of Sunni Muslim extremists based in northern Lebanon, a “terrorist” group.

Back in March, the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, writing in the New Yorker, explained that this outfit, consisting of a relatively small number of fighters but heavily armed, was actually a creature of the United States. In line with a reorientation of U.S. policy to bolster Sunni Muslims in the growing contest with the Shiites of Hizballah and its controlling hands in Iran, the U.S. had covertly joined with Saudi Arabia to support the terrorists of Fatah al-Islam.

Here was Hersh in May amplifying his point on CNN:

Key player are the Saudis, of course, and [Saudi Prince] Bandar. What I was writing about was a sort of a private agreement that was made between the White House, we’re talking about [Vice-President] Dick Cheney and Elliott Abrams, who is one of the key aides in the White House, with Bandar. And the idea was to get support, covert support—money, from the Saudis to support various hard-line jihadists, Sunni groups, particularly in Lebanon, who would be seen in case of an actual confrontation with Hezbollah.

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The State Department has designated Fatah al-Islam, a self-declared al-Qaeda affiliate of Sunni Muslim extremists based in northern Lebanon, a “terrorist” group.

Back in March, the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, writing in the New Yorker, explained that this outfit, consisting of a relatively small number of fighters but heavily armed, was actually a creature of the United States. In line with a reorientation of U.S. policy to bolster Sunni Muslims in the growing contest with the Shiites of Hizballah and its controlling hands in Iran, the U.S. had covertly joined with Saudi Arabia to support the terrorists of Fatah al-Islam.

Here was Hersh in May amplifying his point on CNN:

Key player are the Saudis, of course, and [Saudi Prince] Bandar. What I was writing about was a sort of a private agreement that was made between the White House, we’re talking about [Vice-President] Dick Cheney and Elliott Abrams, who is one of the key aides in the White House, with Bandar. And the idea was to get support, covert support—money, from the Saudis to support various hard-line jihadists, Sunni groups, particularly in Lebanon, who would be seen in case of an actual confrontation with Hezbollah.

If Hersh was right, and that was indeed the U.S. plan, it badly backfired. Fatah al-Islam, holed up in a Palestinian refugee camp near the city of Tripoli, was then and still is locked in combat with the Lebanese army. “Unintended consequences,” was Hersh’s explanation for the contradiction.

But Hersh is a serial confabulist. In the pages of the New Yorker, he is kept somewhat in accord with reality by the demands of fact-checkers. But off that magazine’s pages, and on the lecture circuit and TV, he feels free to say all sorts of things that do not exist in the here and now but only in the not-here and never.

Hersh thus explained, in the same CNN interview, how in this latest Lebanese case of “blowback” history is repeating itself:

If you remember, you know, we got into the war in Afghanistan with supporting Osama bin Laden, the Mujahadeen back there in the late 1980’s with Bandar, and with people like Elliott Abrams around, the idea being that the Saudis promise us they could control—they could control the jihadists.

Even when Hersh is making things up, he is nothing if not skilled at maintaining an aura of plausibility. Thus, his account of U.S. support for Osama bin Laden in the Afghan war will ring a bell of truth in many minds. But that is only because it is a myth that has been put in circulation for years thanks to people like Hersh himself. It too is false.

I do not trust everything that the former director of the CIA, George Tenet, says. As I have shown here, he is fully capable of prevaricating. But here is Tenet on this point in his memoir, At the Center of the Storm:

Internet-based conspiracy theorists keep alive the rumor that bin Laden had somehow worked for the CIA during the Afghan-Soviet war or had more informal contacts with American officials during that time. Let me state categorically that CIA had no contact with bin Laden during the Soviet’s Afghanistan misadventure.

Denials do not come any more unequivocal than that.

On the one hand, allegations can be generated at will. On the other hand, hard facts, accompanied by documents and proof, are far tougher to produce. Are we are dealing, in the case of Seymour Hersh, with an instance of asymmetrical information warfare?

Hersh’s charges raise another question seldom asked by his fellow national-security journalists in Washington: what are his sources? Or to put a follow-up question in a leading fashion, is Hersh a journalist or a propagandist or, as is becoming increasingly common in the American media, a hybrid of the two?

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Bookshelf

• “Once or twice in a generation—if that often—a very wise person writes a very pithy book that compresses everything that needs to be said about a given topic into the briefest of compasses. The Road to Serfdom, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, The Abolition of Man: books like these are made to be given to puzzled friends. They change minds, and lives.”

That was how I heralded, in National Review eight years ago, the publication of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s One Nation, Two Cultures. Roger Scruton’s Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged is no less concise—and significant. Like One Nation, Two Cultures, it is a small masterpiece of lucid compression that appears at a timely moment, and my guess is that its brevity will cause it to be read by a great many people who might not otherwise choose to grapple with a book by a philosopher.

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• “Once or twice in a generation—if that often—a very wise person writes a very pithy book that compresses everything that needs to be said about a given topic into the briefest of compasses. The Road to Serfdom, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, The Abolition of Man: books like these are made to be given to puzzled friends. They change minds, and lives.”

That was how I heralded, in National Review eight years ago, the publication of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s One Nation, Two Cultures. Roger Scruton’s Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged is no less concise—and significant. Like One Nation, Two Cultures, it is a small masterpiece of lucid compression that appears at a timely moment, and my guess is that its brevity will cause it to be read by a great many people who might not otherwise choose to grapple with a book by a philosopher.

An essay so pithy is made to be quoted in extenso, so I’ll let Scruton do the talking. He begins by observing that the West is experiencing “an acute crisis of identity” triggered by the twin challenges of radical Islam and the multicultural project—and that Old Europe has no moral or intellectual troops left to send into battle. The fate of the West, Scruton declares flatly, will be determined in America:

Take away America, its freedom, its optimism, its institutions, its Judeo-Christian beliefs, and its educational tradition, and little would remain of the West, besides the geriatric routines of a now toothless Europe. Add America to the discussion, and all the dire prophecies and mournful valedictions of the twentieth century seem faintly ridiculous.

But is America’s understanding of its Western heritage sufficiently profound to stand up to the high winds of cultural change? Scruton has his doubts:

The American experiment has placed two great gifts at the feet of mankind: viable democracy and masterful technology. But those benefits, which attract our praise and our pride, do not conquer the heart. They do not, in themselves, create the deep attachment on which the future of our civilization depends. They provide no outlook on human life and its meaning that can stand up either to the sarcastic nihilism of the West’s internal critics or to the humorless bigotry of Islam. In the face of such enemies we need to affirm not our achievements, but our right to exist.

Readers familiar with Gentle Regrets, Scruton’s 2005 memoir, will doubtless catch the elegiac undertone in his defiant assertion of the primacy of Western culture, for he is himself an uncomfortable skeptic who has thought long and hard about whether an unbelieving West can long survive its loss of faith. Indeed, Culture Counts is best understood as an attempt to answer that question, and the answer, not surprisingly, is a challenging one:

Art has gradually taken over from religion the task of symbolizing the spiritual realities that elude the reach of science. In this way, as religion has lost its hold over the collective imagination, culture has come to seem increasingly important, being the most reliable channel through which exalted ethical ideas can enter the minds of skeptical people. . . . Culture inherits from religion the “knowledge of the heart” whose essence is sympathy. But it can be passed on and enhanced, even when the religion that first engendered it has died. Indeed, in these circumstances, it is all the more important that culture be passed on, since it has become the sole communicable testimony to the higher life of mankind.

To be sure, Scruton astutely acknowledges that “culture cannot be a religion substitute, even though, in a sense, religion is a culture substitute in the lives of those who lack ‘aesthetic education.’” And those for whom Judeo-Christian belief remains what Justice Holmes contemptuously dismissed as a “fighting faith” may well find Scruton’s reasoning to be provocative, but ultimately superfluous—just as those aesthetes who have come to terms with the modern movement in art will likely be ill-at-ease with certain parts of his wide-ranging, near-sweeping dismissal of its fruits. But one need not agree with every aspect of Scruton’s conservative cure for the ills of Western civilization to be impressed by the illuminating rigor of his diagnosis:

The suspicion of tonality, like Marx’s suspicion of private property, or Sartre’s suspicion of the bourgeois family, or the abstractionist suspicion of figurative painting, should be seen as an act of rebellion against the only way we have of making sense of things. The root cause of our musical crisis is the same as the root cause of so many other crises during our time: namely, the rise of the intellectual class, and the culture of repudiation upon which it depends for its adversarial standpoint.

In any case, Culture Counts is far better read than summarized, and anyone who cares about the fate of the Western remnant that is postmodern America should read Scruton’s book at once.

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