Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 28, 2007

Talking with the Taliban

Today, after face-to-face negotiations in Afghanistan with the Taliban, South Korean officials announced a tentative arrangement to free nineteen South Koreans, who were seized on July 19. Seoul said that more discussion would be needed before the hostages, Christian aid workers, actually would be released. The Taliban has already killed two of the hostages and freed two others. The State Department’s Christopher Hill, acting on behalf of President Bush, had recently pledged support for South Korea’s efforts to negotiate with the kidnappers.

As a condition of the release of the remaining nineteen, South Korea confirmed (as it had previously announced) that it would withdraw its 200 non-combat troops from Afghanistan. Seoul also said it would stop all missionary activity in the country. The Taliban said that South Korea would withdraw all South Koreans from Afghanistan. The South Koreans did not meet the two most important Taliban demands: the payment of a ransom and the release of Taliban prisoners held by Kabul.

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Today, after face-to-face negotiations in Afghanistan with the Taliban, South Korean officials announced a tentative arrangement to free nineteen South Koreans, who were seized on July 19. Seoul said that more discussion would be needed before the hostages, Christian aid workers, actually would be released. The Taliban has already killed two of the hostages and freed two others. The State Department’s Christopher Hill, acting on behalf of President Bush, had recently pledged support for South Korea’s efforts to negotiate with the kidnappers.

As a condition of the release of the remaining nineteen, South Korea confirmed (as it had previously announced) that it would withdraw its 200 non-combat troops from Afghanistan. Seoul also said it would stop all missionary activity in the country. The Taliban said that South Korea would withdraw all South Koreans from Afghanistan. The South Koreans did not meet the two most important Taliban demands: the payment of a ransom and the release of Taliban prisoners held by Kabul.

The South Korean government has, in reality, not given up anything. It had already banned its citizens from traveling to Afghanistan. The Taliban also conceded little. It would have risked even more international condemnation if it had executed the remaining nineteen hostages, who over time would have become a liability in the hands of their captors. Their release, therefore, avoided a dilemma for the Taliban.

The whole incident, of course, further weakened the Karzai government. Yet it also demonstrated once again the inability of today’s democracies to defeat Islamic militants. Despite what they say, elected leaders these days will negotiate with thugs, fanatics, and terrorists.

In a peaceful world, presidents’ making deals with criminals, although deplorable, may not result in lasting injury to the international system. Yet President Bush tells us we are involved in a global death match with terrorists. If we are, in fact, fighting for civilization—which I believe we are—then Bush’s facilitation of the negotiations with the Taliban makes all of us appear feckless.

Either we are involved in an existential struggle or we are not. President Bush should let us know, and act accordingly.

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Debating Cancer

Several of the Democratic presidential candidates gathered yesterday in Iowa for a debate and forum on cancer sponsored by the Lance Armstrong Foundation. Armstrong, a cancer survivor and advocate for research, began the event by telling the crowd that “the next occupant of the Oval Office must discuss this critical issue with voters.”

But as the forum went on, it became increasingly difficult to see what exactly there is to discuss. Of course everyone agrees that cancer treatment and research are critically important. Cancer in its various forms kills more Americans than any other disease (having surpassed heart disease for that top spot in 2005). And cancer research receives about $5.5 billion a year in funding from the National Institutes of Health, far more than is allocated to any other disease and about 25 percent more than was spent on cancer research in 2001.

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Several of the Democratic presidential candidates gathered yesterday in Iowa for a debate and forum on cancer sponsored by the Lance Armstrong Foundation. Armstrong, a cancer survivor and advocate for research, began the event by telling the crowd that “the next occupant of the Oval Office must discuss this critical issue with voters.”

But as the forum went on, it became increasingly difficult to see what exactly there is to discuss. Of course everyone agrees that cancer treatment and research are critically important. Cancer in its various forms kills more Americans than any other disease (having surpassed heart disease for that top spot in 2005). And cancer research receives about $5.5 billion a year in funding from the National Institutes of Health, far more than is allocated to any other disease and about 25 percent more than was spent on cancer research in 2001.

So what is there for candidates to say? “Even more money” is the easy refrain: both John Edwards and Hillary Clinton promised to double the budget of the NIH (which currently stands at $28 billion). But throwing money at medical research can have unintended consequences. When the NIH budget doubled between 1998 and 2003, the many cautionary lessons that emerged pointed to the hidden dangers of rapid growth in research funding. Beyond funding, candidates described more and more extreme ways to limit smoking (while acknowledging he wasn’t sure if it would be constitutional, Edwards endorsed a national ban on smoking in public places).

The bulk of the debate, however, was taken up with arguments about a federally financed single-payer health care system. Not arguments pro and contra, mind you, but arguments about just how far to go and how to get there—with John Edwards again taking the cake by promising he wouldn’t even let the insurance and drug companies be involved in the development of his system. A serious moderator (i.e., not Chris Matthews) might have brought up the comparatively dismal figures for cancer treatment in several developed nations that have universal health care systems. But Matthews just let the aimless arguments continue.

Meanwhile, in the real world of cancer research, serious progress is being made, in no small part because of the work of those evil pharmaceutical companies. Cancer death rates have declined by about 1.5 percent per year for the last fifteen years, and cancer is slowly becoming more like a chronic disease than a swift killer. Much work remains, but, as yesterday’s forum made clear, it’s not the work of politicians.

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So Long, Lu Xun

From China comes news, reported in the Chinese-language newspaper World Journal, that the works of Lu Xun—the country’s greatest modern author, a founder of the Chinese League of Left-Wing Writers, and a longtime favorite of the Communists—are being removed from high school curricula. These classics will be replaced by contemporary fantasies about ancient knights and swordplay by the popular Hong Kong author Jin Yong. The reason for this censorship? The Tiananmen Massacre, of which Lu Xun’s works uncomfortably remind the Chinese government.

The most troublesome of Lu Xun’s writings, from this perspective, is In Memory of Miss Liu Hezhen, a story about the death of a student shot as she and her colleagues attempted peacefully to present a petition to the military government of Duan Qirui on March 18, 1926. Lu addresses the events with his characteristic mixture of detachment and suppressed passion:

I did not see this, but I heard that she—Liu Hezhen—went forward gaily. Of course it was only a petition, and no one with any conscience could imagine such a trap. But then she was shot before Government House, shot from behind, and the bullet pierced her lung and heart.

Many a Tiananmen parent could speak similarly of the final moments of their dead son or daughter. Those parents and others may share as well Lu’s anger and despair:

[W]e are not living in the world of men. In a welter of . . . young people’s blood I can barely see, hear or breathe, so what can I say? We can make no long lament till after our pain is dulled. And the insidious talk of some so-called scholars since this incident has added to my sense of desolation. I am beyond indignation.

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From China comes news, reported in the Chinese-language newspaper World Journal, that the works of Lu Xun—the country’s greatest modern author, a founder of the Chinese League of Left-Wing Writers, and a longtime favorite of the Communists—are being removed from high school curricula. These classics will be replaced by contemporary fantasies about ancient knights and swordplay by the popular Hong Kong author Jin Yong. The reason for this censorship? The Tiananmen Massacre, of which Lu Xun’s works uncomfortably remind the Chinese government.

The most troublesome of Lu Xun’s writings, from this perspective, is In Memory of Miss Liu Hezhen, a story about the death of a student shot as she and her colleagues attempted peacefully to present a petition to the military government of Duan Qirui on March 18, 1926. Lu addresses the events with his characteristic mixture of detachment and suppressed passion:

I did not see this, but I heard that she—Liu Hezhen—went forward gaily. Of course it was only a petition, and no one with any conscience could imagine such a trap. But then she was shot before Government House, shot from behind, and the bullet pierced her lung and heart.

Many a Tiananmen parent could speak similarly of the final moments of their dead son or daughter. Those parents and others may share as well Lu’s anger and despair:

[W]e are not living in the world of men. In a welter of . . . young people’s blood I can barely see, hear or breathe, so what can I say? We can make no long lament till after our pain is dulled. And the insidious talk of some so-called scholars since this incident has added to my sense of desolation. I am beyond indignation.

General Duan’s government showed public remorse for the murder of Liu Hezhen. (The junta, in fact, fell from power just one month later.) By contrast, since 1989 Chinese governments consistently have refused to say anything at all about the Tiananmen Massacre, every trace of which they have sought obsessively to remove. Google has agreed not to provide images or information about the massacre for its Chinese service; the asphalt in Tiananmen Square, formerly marked by the prints of tank treads, has been replaced by granite slabs. New flowerbeds have been planted. Bullet marks in walls have been plastered over. Public denial has been complete for seventeen years.

All this denial has had some success. Chinese born after 1989 have only vague notions of what happened at Tiananmen. Foreigners are far too courteous to mention the massacre. The media are silent. But have the bloodstains truly been washed away? Evidently not.

In Memory of Miss Liu Hezhen is being censored, after all, despite it’s once having received praise from Mao himself. (As one of the censors responsible explains, “[W]e are touching things that previously one dared not touch.”) Even the Soviets, no great appreciators of literature, taught Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. To exile Lu Xun from Chinese school curricula reveals the wide-ranging and desperate nature of the government’s effort to efface completely the memory of Tiananmen.

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No Hysteria on Syria

On Andrew Sullivan’s website, guest blogger Gregory Djerejian (whose normal home is The Belgravia Dispatch) bemoans what he calls “Syria Hysteria.” The supposed hysterics in question include Senator Joe Lieberman, former Bush speechwriter (and my current colleague at the Council on Foreign Relations) Mike Gerson, and yours truly, who is dubbed “our favorite Rudyard Kipling-lite.” That’s pretty distinguished company, even without the flattering comparison to one of the greatest writers in the history of the English language.

Djerejian, a lawyer who works at a financial services company in New York, is aghast that all of us have been sounding the alarm about Syria’s role in facilitating the infiltration of dozens of jihadists into Iraq, where they are responsible for carrying out some of the worst terrorist outrages. The fact that dozens of jihadists are entering Iraq from Syria every month is incontestable; this has been stated publicly by General David Petraeus and numerous other officials, who have based their claims on interrogations of captured terrorists and other hard intelligence.

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On Andrew Sullivan’s website, guest blogger Gregory Djerejian (whose normal home is The Belgravia Dispatch) bemoans what he calls “Syria Hysteria.” The supposed hysterics in question include Senator Joe Lieberman, former Bush speechwriter (and my current colleague at the Council on Foreign Relations) Mike Gerson, and yours truly, who is dubbed “our favorite Rudyard Kipling-lite.” That’s pretty distinguished company, even without the flattering comparison to one of the greatest writers in the history of the English language.

Djerejian, a lawyer who works at a financial services company in New York, is aghast that all of us have been sounding the alarm about Syria’s role in facilitating the infiltration of dozens of jihadists into Iraq, where they are responsible for carrying out some of the worst terrorist outrages. The fact that dozens of jihadists are entering Iraq from Syria every month is incontestable; this has been stated publicly by General David Petraeus and numerous other officials, who have based their claims on interrogations of captured terrorists and other hard intelligence.

Djerejian tries to wave away Syrian guilt by pointing to the recently released National Intelligence Estimate, which states, “Syria has cracked down on some Sunni extremist groups attempting to infiltrate fighters into Iraq through Syria because of threats they pose to Syrian stability, but the IC now assesses that Damascus is providing support to non-al-Qaeda-in-Iraq groups inside Iraq in a bid to increase Syrian influence.” That’s not much of an exoneration. Note the word “some”; Syria obviously has not cracked down on most Sunni extremist groups. And although the NIE says that Bashar Assad is not “providing support” to al Qaeda in Iraq (what’s the definition of “support”?), it is silent on whether the Syrian strongman is looking the other way as would-be suicide bombers transit his soil.

Djerejian naively imagines that the Damascus regime would have nothing to do with such Islamic radicals, since in 1982 Bashar’s father crushed an Islamist uprising in the Syrian city of Hama. This is, of course, the same mistake made by those who imagine that, evidence to the contrary, Saddam Hussein would never have made common cause with Islamic radicals. In fact, both the Baathist regime in Baghdad in its later years, and now the Baathist regime in Damascus increasingly rely on Islamic imagery to cement their authority.

For all Assad’s claims that he doesn’t want to allow an Islamic takeover of Syria, the evidence is overwhelming that he is deeply complicit with Islamic radicals operating against neighboring states. Damascus, after all, is the headquarters of Hamas, led by Sunni radical Khalid Meshal. Damascus has also established a very close alliance with the Shiite radical regime in Tehran. Syria, in fact, acts as principal middleman between Iran and the Shiite radicals of Hizballah in Lebanon. Imagine that—a supposedly secular Baathist regime led by Alawites (a Shiite sect) making common cause with both Sunni and Shiite radicals. Since all of this is common knowledge, the only surprise here is that Djerejian is surprised.

Given Djerejian’s stubborn unwillingness to grasp the fact that Syria has been waging war on the U.S. and our allies (viz., Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, and, in the past, Turkey), correspondingly he is agape at the arguments made by Lieberman, Gerson, and me to get tough with the Damascus regime. I suggested in contentions, for instance, that we might use our airpower to close Damascus airport until Assad cuts off the flow of foreign fighters, who mostly travel to Iraq through that same airport. Writes Djerejian, with heavy-handed irony: “A peachy idea! Save that using airpower against a sovereign nation’s airport is an act of war, you know.”

So is providing support to terrorist groups that are operating in another nation’s sovereign territory. Our inexplicable failure to respond accordingly does not change the fact that Syria (and Iran) is waging war on us. To speak bluntly about these matters does not constitute, as Djerejian huffily has it, “ignorance and adventurism.” It is no more than an acknowledgment of reality.

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Fare Thee Well, Alberto Gonzales, and Good Riddance

Alberto Gonzales is leaving the Justice Department with a lot of sensitive business pending. One open case of exceptional importance concerns the leak of highly classified information about the National Security Agency’s terrorist-surveillance program. Details of the program were published in the New York Times in a series of articles beginning on December 16, 2005, and supplemented in State of War, a book by Times reporter James Risen, which came out the following month.

A grand jury has been investigating the leak since January 2006. Earlier this month, a former Justice Department lawyer by the name of Thomas M. Tamm had his home searched and his computers, including two of his children’s laptops, seized, along with his personal papers, in a raid by the FBI. Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff reported that the raid was connected to a criminal probe into the NSA wiretapping leak.

Gonzales’s own participation in this case is of a piece with his overall performance: fecklessness combined with an inability to articulate a clear position. The fact is that the NSA leak in the Times occurred in the middle of a war. It concerned not secrets from the past, as in the 1971 Pentagon Papers case (also involving a leak to the Times), but an ongoing operational-intelligence program designed to prevent a second September 11. On its face, as I argued in COMMENTARY, the Times had violated Section 798 of Title 18, which makes it a crime to disclose classified information pertaining to communications intelligence.

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Alberto Gonzales is leaving the Justice Department with a lot of sensitive business pending. One open case of exceptional importance concerns the leak of highly classified information about the National Security Agency’s terrorist-surveillance program. Details of the program were published in the New York Times in a series of articles beginning on December 16, 2005, and supplemented in State of War, a book by Times reporter James Risen, which came out the following month.

A grand jury has been investigating the leak since January 2006. Earlier this month, a former Justice Department lawyer by the name of Thomas M. Tamm had his home searched and his computers, including two of his children’s laptops, seized, along with his personal papers, in a raid by the FBI. Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff reported that the raid was connected to a criminal probe into the NSA wiretapping leak.

Gonzales’s own participation in this case is of a piece with his overall performance: fecklessness combined with an inability to articulate a clear position. The fact is that the NSA leak in the Times occurred in the middle of a war. It concerned not secrets from the past, as in the 1971 Pentagon Papers case (also involving a leak to the Times), but an ongoing operational-intelligence program designed to prevent a second September 11. On its face, as I argued in COMMENTARY, the Times had violated Section 798 of Title 18, which makes it a crime to disclose classified information pertaining to communications intelligence.

In making the argument in COMMENTARY for prosecution, I understood full well that the probability that the Justice Department would bring an indictment of the editors and reporters of our leading newspaper was close to nil, and I said so at the time. But at the very least, a competent and articulate Attorney General, even if he saw compelling reasons not to proceed with a prosecution, could have stood up to explain both the law and its significance in wartime. A proper and much-needed public discussion would have ensued.

Gonzales did neither. Instead, he issued a very general statement: “Our prosecutors are going to look to see all the laws that have been violated. And if the evidence is there, they’re going to prosecute those violations,” and he did not follow up with any sort of action or further explanation.

The nation was rewarded for Justice’s forbearance by the subsequent publication in the Times of details of still another highly classified counterterrorism program involving terrorist financing.

Gonzales is now gone, but it is obvious that, with respect to the NSA terrorist-surveillance program, he has left us in the worst of all possible worlds. Liberals continue to express outrage at what they regard as a mortal threat to the First Amendment. The Justice Department has let stand unrebutted the false proposition that our Constitution is incompatible with laws forbidding the media to publish vital secrets. And the press continues to feel free to publish counterterrorism secrets with abandon.

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