Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 23, 2007

Dollars for Dictators

Charles Taylor was a particularly loathsome African dictator, which is saying a lot. The former president of Liberia sowed misery and destruction throughout West Africa in the 1990′s, abetting civil wars in his own country and Sierra Leone, where he was notorious for his practice of lopping off the limbs of innocent people, and where a special court is trying him for crimes against humanity under the auspices of The Hague. Taylor’s crimes extend beyond the typical; he also stands accused of harboring al Qaeda suspects wanted for the bombings of two American embassies in 1998.

Taylor’s trial is being postponed until January, and according to this Guardian report, the Special Court for Sierra Leone (a joint operation of the United Nations and the government of Sierra Leone) is paying $100,000 per month so that Taylor “can hire a top legal team for his defense.” This means that the United States government and its citizens are paying no small part of Taylor’s legal expenses. Taylor, I might add, according to a UN panel, accrues about $100 million annually through unfrozen financial assets that he accumulated through his outright theft while in office.

For too long, the UN court has tolerated Taylor’s shenanigans. In June, he refused to appear for the start of his trial at The Hague, claiming that his court-appointed attorney was insufficient. Here is a proposal that the court ought to make to Mr. Taylor: pay for your own legal counsel with some of the hundreds of millions of dollars you have stashed away, or forgo your right to trial and spend the rest of your life in prison.

Of course, there is no good reason why Taylor should not be hanged or shot, a la Saddam Hussein or the Ceauşescus. Since his trial is being held under the auspices of a United Nations panel, the likelihood of this happening seems downright impossible.

Charles Taylor was a particularly loathsome African dictator, which is saying a lot. The former president of Liberia sowed misery and destruction throughout West Africa in the 1990′s, abetting civil wars in his own country and Sierra Leone, where he was notorious for his practice of lopping off the limbs of innocent people, and where a special court is trying him for crimes against humanity under the auspices of The Hague. Taylor’s crimes extend beyond the typical; he also stands accused of harboring al Qaeda suspects wanted for the bombings of two American embassies in 1998.

Taylor’s trial is being postponed until January, and according to this Guardian report, the Special Court for Sierra Leone (a joint operation of the United Nations and the government of Sierra Leone) is paying $100,000 per month so that Taylor “can hire a top legal team for his defense.” This means that the United States government and its citizens are paying no small part of Taylor’s legal expenses. Taylor, I might add, according to a UN panel, accrues about $100 million annually through unfrozen financial assets that he accumulated through his outright theft while in office.

For too long, the UN court has tolerated Taylor’s shenanigans. In June, he refused to appear for the start of his trial at The Hague, claiming that his court-appointed attorney was insufficient. Here is a proposal that the court ought to make to Mr. Taylor: pay for your own legal counsel with some of the hundreds of millions of dollars you have stashed away, or forgo your right to trial and spend the rest of your life in prison.

Of course, there is no good reason why Taylor should not be hanged or shot, a la Saddam Hussein or the Ceauşescus. Since his trial is being held under the auspices of a United Nations panel, the likelihood of this happening seems downright impossible.

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Russian Bare

My outrage over Beijing’s cruel treatment of dissidents will just have to wait for another day. I had promised contentions I would write about the release of Yang Jianli and his thoughts about the inevitability of democracy in China.

That’s a worthy topic to be sure. But this is August, the silly season, and it’s more fun to discuss the photos—which some interpret as making use of gay iconography—that President Vladimir Putin just posted on his website. Now we know that when he’s not sending Russian bombers on Soviet-era patrols or claiming the North Pole for Moscow, Vladimir Putin poses bare-chested in a cowboy hat and cargo pants with his fishing rod at a remarkably suggestive angle. (Did I mention his clearly defined abs, flexed biceps, and well-defined pecs? The hearts of women and men alike were fluttering all across the ten time zones of Mother Russia.)

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My outrage over Beijing’s cruel treatment of dissidents will just have to wait for another day. I had promised contentions I would write about the release of Yang Jianli and his thoughts about the inevitability of democracy in China.

That’s a worthy topic to be sure. But this is August, the silly season, and it’s more fun to discuss the photos—which some interpret as making use of gay iconography—that President Vladimir Putin just posted on his website. Now we know that when he’s not sending Russian bombers on Soviet-era patrols or claiming the North Pole for Moscow, Vladimir Putin poses bare-chested in a cowboy hat and cargo pants with his fishing rod at a remarkably suggestive angle. (Did I mention his clearly defined abs, flexed biceps, and well-defined pecs? The hearts of women and men alike were fluttering all across the ten time zones of Mother Russia.)

Of course, the exhibitionism of Putin contrasts with the indignation of Nicolas Sarkozy, on display earlier this month. Photographers snapped the French leader, wearing only swimming trunks, as he vacationed in New Hampshire. He actually climbed aboard the photographers’ boat and shouted at them. That’s understandable, because Sarkozy, although trim, is evidently not as chiseled as his Russian counterpart.

Is American political leadership being left behind in the male physique department? Perhaps not. George W. Bush is an exercise fanatic, for one thing. And Putin, for all his Spetsnaz training, is still not as buff as Barack Obama, who was photographed coming out of the Hawaiian surf on New Year’s Day. Some suspect that the Kremlin’s leader was attempting, in publishing these photos, to make a statement about the health of his nation. But, it looks like Russia still takes a backseat to the Land of Lincoln as far as the buffness of its leaders is concerned.

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Stalin’s Music Master

Press reports recently announced the death, at age 94, of Russian composer Tikhon Khrennikov (1913-2007). For four decades, Khrennikov headed the Union of Soviet Composers and advanced his own career, while terrorizing musicians like Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. In 1949, Khrennikov scorned Prokofiev for creating works that “smell of the marazm (decay) of bourgeois culture” and failing to draw the “necessary conclusions from the decree of the Central Committee.” Khrennikov expected musicians to “reorganize” themselves and “rebuild their work” to suit Stalinist requirements; he also dismissed Shostakovich as “frantically gloomy and neurotic,” and persecuted recent modern masters, like Edison Denisov and Sofia Gubaidulina, by denying them teaching jobs, performances, and travel permits.

Yet Khrennikov’s own music is still feted with annual festival concerts in Moscow. In 1995, the conductor Evgeny Svetlanov (1928-2002), who recorded many of Khrennikov’s pieces (including his drab, plodding Violin Concerto), was asked by Le Monde de la Musique if he performed Khrennikov’s music “for artistic or political reasons.” Svetlanov candidly replied: “Both.” The star baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (b. 1962) included on his recent CD of Russian songs for Delos Khrennikov’s syrupy Moscow Windows.

Why should Russian performers and CD companies continue to perform and record Khrennikov so adamantly? One answer may lie in the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a big Khrennikov fan; Putin arranged for Khrennikov to receive UNESCO’s Mozart Medal “for contribution to world peace through music and the arts” (ha!) on his 90th birthday in 2003. This award was bestowed years after UNESCO supposedly had reformed, after long and harsh criticism for its service as a blatant platform for Communist propaganda.

Khrennikov outlived the composers he tormented, and even appeared in several documentary films—such as 1997’s Shostakovich Against Stalin and Khachaturian: A Musician and His Fatherland—trying to justify his own actions. In Shostakovich Against Stalin, Khrennikov claims that the fear under which Shostakovich lived in the USSR “has been terribly exaggerated. There was nothing for him to be afraid of.” To which another persecuted interviewee replies: “The wolf cannot speak about the fear of the sheep.” In the gospel of Matthew, the Lord divides the “sheep from the goats.” Posterity already knows to which category Khrennikov belongs.

Press reports recently announced the death, at age 94, of Russian composer Tikhon Khrennikov (1913-2007). For four decades, Khrennikov headed the Union of Soviet Composers and advanced his own career, while terrorizing musicians like Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. In 1949, Khrennikov scorned Prokofiev for creating works that “smell of the marazm (decay) of bourgeois culture” and failing to draw the “necessary conclusions from the decree of the Central Committee.” Khrennikov expected musicians to “reorganize” themselves and “rebuild their work” to suit Stalinist requirements; he also dismissed Shostakovich as “frantically gloomy and neurotic,” and persecuted recent modern masters, like Edison Denisov and Sofia Gubaidulina, by denying them teaching jobs, performances, and travel permits.

Yet Khrennikov’s own music is still feted with annual festival concerts in Moscow. In 1995, the conductor Evgeny Svetlanov (1928-2002), who recorded many of Khrennikov’s pieces (including his drab, plodding Violin Concerto), was asked by Le Monde de la Musique if he performed Khrennikov’s music “for artistic or political reasons.” Svetlanov candidly replied: “Both.” The star baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (b. 1962) included on his recent CD of Russian songs for Delos Khrennikov’s syrupy Moscow Windows.

Why should Russian performers and CD companies continue to perform and record Khrennikov so adamantly? One answer may lie in the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a big Khrennikov fan; Putin arranged for Khrennikov to receive UNESCO’s Mozart Medal “for contribution to world peace through music and the arts” (ha!) on his 90th birthday in 2003. This award was bestowed years after UNESCO supposedly had reformed, after long and harsh criticism for its service as a blatant platform for Communist propaganda.

Khrennikov outlived the composers he tormented, and even appeared in several documentary films—such as 1997’s Shostakovich Against Stalin and Khachaturian: A Musician and His Fatherland—trying to justify his own actions. In Shostakovich Against Stalin, Khrennikov claims that the fear under which Shostakovich lived in the USSR “has been terribly exaggerated. There was nothing for him to be afraid of.” To which another persecuted interviewee replies: “The wolf cannot speak about the fear of the sheep.” In the gospel of Matthew, the Lord divides the “sheep from the goats.” Posterity already knows to which category Khrennikov belongs.

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No More Vietnams (or Cambodias)

In his speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars yesterday, President Bush reminded us of the agony and genocide that followed the American retreat in Vietnam:

In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge began a murderous rule in which hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died by starvation and torture and execution. In Vietnam, former allies of the United States and government workers and intellectuals and businessmen were sent off to prison camps, where tens of thousands perished. Hundreds of thousands more fled the country on rickety boats, many of them going to their graves in the South China Sea. Three decades later, there is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam War and how we left. . . . Whatever your position is on that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like “boat people,” “re-education camps,” and “killing fields.”

These words summon to mind a powerful passage from the third volume of Henry Kissinger’s memoirs, Years of Renewal, about the horror that befell Cambodia in the wake of Congress’s decision to cut off funding to the governments of Cambodia and South Vietnam.

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In his speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars yesterday, President Bush reminded us of the agony and genocide that followed the American retreat in Vietnam:

In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge began a murderous rule in which hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died by starvation and torture and execution. In Vietnam, former allies of the United States and government workers and intellectuals and businessmen were sent off to prison camps, where tens of thousands perished. Hundreds of thousands more fled the country on rickety boats, many of them going to their graves in the South China Sea. Three decades later, there is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam War and how we left. . . . Whatever your position is on that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like “boat people,” “re-education camps,” and “killing fields.”

These words summon to mind a powerful passage from the third volume of Henry Kissinger’s memoirs, Years of Renewal, about the horror that befell Cambodia in the wake of Congress’s decision to cut off funding to the governments of Cambodia and South Vietnam.

Kissinger writes that messages were sent to top-level Cambodians offering to evacuate them, but to the astonishment and shame of Americans, the vast majority refused. Responding to one such offer, the former Prime Minister Sirik Matak sent a handwritten note to John Gunther Dean, the U.S. Ambassador, while the evacuation was in progress:

Dear Excellency and Friend:

I thank you very sincerely for your letter and for your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion. As for you, and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection, and we can do nothing about it.

You leave, and my wish is that you and your country will find happiness under this sky. But, mark it well, that if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is no matter, because we all are born and must die. I have only committed this mistake of believing in you [the Americans].

Please accept, Excellency and dear friend, my faithful and friendly sentiments.

S/Sirik Matak

Kissinger continues:

On April 13th, the New York Times correspondent [Sydney Schanberg] reported the American departure under the headline, “Indochina Without Americans: For Most, a Better Life.” The Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh on April 17th . . . . The 2 million citizens of Phnom Penh were ordered to evacuate the city for the countryside ravaged by war and incapable of supporting urban dwellers unused to fending for themselves. Between 1 and 2 million Khmer were murdered by the Khmer Rouge until Hanoi occupied the country at the end of 1978, after which a civil war raged for another decade. Sirik Matak was shot in the stomach and left without medical help. It took him three days to die.

This is a sober reminder that there are enormous human, as well as geopolitical, consequences when nations that fight for human rights and liberty grow weary and give way to barbaric and bloodthirsty enemies.

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