Commentary Magazine


Posts For: October 31, 2007

The Do-Nothing UN

In a development certain to shock nobody, the UN has released a report on the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701, the cease-fire agreement that paused the Israel-Hizballah war last summer. The new report confirms what most sentient people predicted: that Resolution 1701 would accomplish nothing. Ban Ki-moon’s report assents to what Israeli intelligence and military officials have been saying since the end of the war, namely that Iran and Syria have encountered few obstacles to rearming Hizballah with better weapons.

Detailed in Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post, the report says that, in addition to the establishment of surface-to-air missile capacity and the tripling of Hizballah’s arsenal of land-to-sea missiles,

Hizballah’s long-range missile teams are deployed north of the [Litani] river, and . . . most of the new missiles include [the Iranian-made] Zelzal and Fajr missiles that have a range of over 250 kilometers and are capable of hitting areas south of Tel Aviv.

Resolution 1701 and the “robust” UNIFIL that has been “patrolling” southern Lebanon for the past year have not been total non-entities in affecting the situation on the ground. Since the arrival of UNIFIL, Hizballah has focused its reconstruction and re-armament on the area of Lebanon north of the Litani, where UNIFIL does not enforce its paltry and symbolic suppression of Hizballah. Hizballah’s activity in this region, which also involves buying up land for Shia settlement, is actually quite strategically valuable—it allows the creation of physical contiguity between Hizballah’s two strongholds in Lebanon, the Bekaa valley/Syrian border area in the east and the Shia south. Creating this contiguity, and planting Shia civilians throughout this territory, are vital to Hizballah’s ability to deter encirclement by Israel in another round of war, and to wage war from among, and with the help of, Shia civilians.

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In a development certain to shock nobody, the UN has released a report on the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701, the cease-fire agreement that paused the Israel-Hizballah war last summer. The new report confirms what most sentient people predicted: that Resolution 1701 would accomplish nothing. Ban Ki-moon’s report assents to what Israeli intelligence and military officials have been saying since the end of the war, namely that Iran and Syria have encountered few obstacles to rearming Hizballah with better weapons.

Detailed in Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post, the report says that, in addition to the establishment of surface-to-air missile capacity and the tripling of Hizballah’s arsenal of land-to-sea missiles,

Hizballah’s long-range missile teams are deployed north of the [Litani] river, and . . . most of the new missiles include [the Iranian-made] Zelzal and Fajr missiles that have a range of over 250 kilometers and are capable of hitting areas south of Tel Aviv.

Resolution 1701 and the “robust” UNIFIL that has been “patrolling” southern Lebanon for the past year have not been total non-entities in affecting the situation on the ground. Since the arrival of UNIFIL, Hizballah has focused its reconstruction and re-armament on the area of Lebanon north of the Litani, where UNIFIL does not enforce its paltry and symbolic suppression of Hizballah. Hizballah’s activity in this region, which also involves buying up land for Shia settlement, is actually quite strategically valuable—it allows the creation of physical contiguity between Hizballah’s two strongholds in Lebanon, the Bekaa valley/Syrian border area in the east and the Shia south. Creating this contiguity, and planting Shia civilians throughout this territory, are vital to Hizballah’s ability to deter encirclement by Israel in another round of war, and to wage war from among, and with the help of, Shia civilians.

Ban Ki-moon says that the situation revealed by the UN report is “grave.” That is correct, but he obscures the UN’s culpability for today’s situation. What is equally grave is the demented state of the United Nations, whose central ambition of preventing Israel from defeating its enemies has provided aid and comfort to terror groups like Hizballah and terror states like Syria. And when the next round of this war arrives, Ban Ki-moon will no doubt be found before the cameras, pleading for a UN-brokered cease-fire instead of apologizing for the role that his organization has played in endangering the lives of innocents on both sides of the Israel-Lebanon border.

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Who is Michael J. Sulick and Does al Qaeda Have a Mole Inside the CIA?

Michael J. Sulick is the man CIA Director General Michael Hayden has put in charge of gathering HUMINT, i.e., human intelligence, i.e., old fashioned man-on-man, man-on-woman, and woman-on-man espionage.

According to Newsweek, “Sulick learned his tradecraft—the James Bond side of spying—in the old Soviet Union. Like other Western spies, he learned to follow ‘Moscow Rules,’ the rigorous countersurveillance measures used to avoid detection by the ubiquitous KGB.”

Sulick quit the agency in September 2004 in a highly public row with Porter Goss, the CIA director who ended getting chewed up by the agency’s permanent bureaucracy, readily helped along in the chewing by his own staff, one member of whom had an old shoplifting charge on his résumé.

The CIA has been repeatedly castigated for weakness in collecting HUMINT. And one root cause of its perpetual weakness is undoubtedly our national fascination with technology, which has led us to invest in hugely expensive satellite-reconnaissance systems while neglecting the relatively cheap art of recruiting spies in enemy ranks.

In the war on terrorism, HUMINT is essential. Satellites are good for tracking tanks and other masses of mobile metal, but communications-interception aside, they are far less valuable for finding out the whereabouts of an Osama bin Laden or a Genghis Khan.

But at the same time, not all HUMINT targets are the same. Soviet diplomats and KGB agents were one kind of target–many of them liked to drink, have sex, and spend money, and some even admired America—all of which made them susceptible to recruitment. Al-Qaeda cell members are something else. They do not like to drink or to admire America; whatever they might do in private with their multiple wives, they are far more puritanical in their attitude toward sex, and among suicide bombers money is seen as having little value in the world to come.

All of this makes them a hard target. And all of this raises a question: if Sulick cut his teeth playing by the “Moscow Rules,” is he the best man for the job?

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Michael J. Sulick is the man CIA Director General Michael Hayden has put in charge of gathering HUMINT, i.e., human intelligence, i.e., old fashioned man-on-man, man-on-woman, and woman-on-man espionage.

According to Newsweek, “Sulick learned his tradecraft—the James Bond side of spying—in the old Soviet Union. Like other Western spies, he learned to follow ‘Moscow Rules,’ the rigorous countersurveillance measures used to avoid detection by the ubiquitous KGB.”

Sulick quit the agency in September 2004 in a highly public row with Porter Goss, the CIA director who ended getting chewed up by the agency’s permanent bureaucracy, readily helped along in the chewing by his own staff, one member of whom had an old shoplifting charge on his résumé.

The CIA has been repeatedly castigated for weakness in collecting HUMINT. And one root cause of its perpetual weakness is undoubtedly our national fascination with technology, which has led us to invest in hugely expensive satellite-reconnaissance systems while neglecting the relatively cheap art of recruiting spies in enemy ranks.

In the war on terrorism, HUMINT is essential. Satellites are good for tracking tanks and other masses of mobile metal, but communications-interception aside, they are far less valuable for finding out the whereabouts of an Osama bin Laden or a Genghis Khan.

But at the same time, not all HUMINT targets are the same. Soviet diplomats and KGB agents were one kind of target–many of them liked to drink, have sex, and spend money, and some even admired America—all of which made them susceptible to recruitment. Al-Qaeda cell members are something else. They do not like to drink or to admire America; whatever they might do in private with their multiple wives, they are far more puritanical in their attitude toward sex, and among suicide bombers money is seen as having little value in the world to come.

All of this makes them a hard target. And all of this raises a question: if Sulick cut his teeth playing by the “Moscow Rules,” is he the best man for the job?

To Sulick’s credit, as evidenced by the talk he gave last month at the Harvard Seminar on Intelligence, Command, and Control, he has an acute understanding of what he is up against:

Unlike the Soviet Union—one large land mass—the terrorists operate in very small cells. They cross borders easily. They’re very compartmented. They screen their recruits probably better than the U.S. government does. They can work in a bank, in the real-estate industry, or for an Islamic relief organization. Basically they are less vulnerable as targets to all the other means of intelligence collection the United States has at its disposal. In the cold war, the satellites in the sky could see if Russian missiles were moving between silos or if troops were moving. The NSA was even able to intercept conversations between members of the Politburo as they traveled around Moscow in their cars. You can’t do that with terrorists. You don’t know where to point those eyes and ears in the sky unless you have a human agent—a spy—who tells you where to direct those things.

Unfortunately, though, Sulick didn’t offer much in the way of a solution beyond having the CIA and FBI work more closely with local police departments in tracking suspects in places like New York City. That’s a great idea, but it’s not the same thing as working to recruit operatives in Londonistan or Waziristan.

In part, the CIA, and Sulick himself, might be hamstrung, and traumatized, by our cold-war past. Key counterintelligence officials—Aldrich Ames in the CIA, Robert Hanssen in the FBI—were working for the other side. Could this happen again?

Sulick not only believes it’s a possibility, he’s actively troubled by it, and believes that the implications would be far graver than they were in the cold war:

What if you had somebody like Robert Hanssen working for al Qaeda? Try to imagine that! All the stuff that Hanssen and other spies gave away was in the cold war. Nobody was locked in combat. There was time to compensate, take countermeasures, for what those spies gave away. You’re not going to have that time in the war on terrorism. Imagine that you hire somebody, because you need a speaker of Farsi or Arabic, and that person is a spy. That allows the terrorists to launch attacks a lot more easily when they know what the intelligence community’s capabilities are and who their assets are. That’s my big bugaboo: the terrorist spy.

In short, we’re engaged in an intelligence war and we’re on the defensive, worried about an al-Qaeda mole in our ranks even as we are unable to place a mole in theirs.

This is not exactly an encouraging indicator of our progress in the war on terrorism. But it is difficult, for one simple reason, to be harshly critical of Sulick and the CIA: I know that I don’t know what I don’t know.

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The Sun Sets on British Airways

The very first thing you see upon entering Harare International Airport is a portrait of His Excellency, the President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe. I recall my very first steps off the South African Airways flight from Johannesburg last year, seeing that grim visage and understanding immediately that I was entering a totalitarian state (the photo below is from the entrance to the departure lounge).

kirchick-image-3.jpg
As a prominent South African told me before I left for Zimbabwe, a surefire sign that you’re in an undemocratic country is the proliferation of presidential pictures. Writing in the Sowetan, a South African newspaper serving the country’s black townships, about a recent trip to Harare Airport, Andrew Molefe observers:

To step out of an aircraft at Harare International Airport is to step into a chamber of horrors.

If an international airport is supposed to be the face of a country, Zimbabwe is slipping dangerously towards the edge of a precipice.

The airport ablution facilities aren’t working. Human waste greets visitors who need to use the toilets. The taps have run dry.

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The very first thing you see upon entering Harare International Airport is a portrait of His Excellency, the President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe. I recall my very first steps off the South African Airways flight from Johannesburg last year, seeing that grim visage and understanding immediately that I was entering a totalitarian state (the photo below is from the entrance to the departure lounge).

kirchick-image-3.jpg
As a prominent South African told me before I left for Zimbabwe, a surefire sign that you’re in an undemocratic country is the proliferation of presidential pictures. Writing in the Sowetan, a South African newspaper serving the country’s black townships, about a recent trip to Harare Airport, Andrew Molefe observers:

To step out of an aircraft at Harare International Airport is to step into a chamber of horrors.

If an international airport is supposed to be the face of a country, Zimbabwe is slipping dangerously towards the edge of a precipice.

The airport ablution facilities aren’t working. Human waste greets visitors who need to use the toilets. The taps have run dry.

The latest bad news to emerge about Zimbabwe is that British Airlines has decided to cut all flights to and from the country due to the fluctuating state of the economy. This is a major development, considering Britain’s historic ties to Zimbabwe and the relatively large number of people holding British citizenship who live in Zimbabwe. BA has also been an important transport method by which Zimbabwean asylum seekers have made their way into the United Kingdom. To understand the gravity of this news, keep in mind that the only other time in history that British Airways cut off service to Zimbabwe was in 1965 after the then-rebel colony of Rhodesia declared a Unilateral Declaration of Independence from the United Kingdom, which the British government declared to be an act of treason warranting severe international sanctions. Things have changed considerably for this service cutoff, however: Zimbabwe is no longer a fledgling nation, but a failing or failed state run by a brutal autocrat.

For now, the only way Zimbabweans will be able to travel to England is via Air Zimbabwe, which, in the words one Zimbabwean, “has developed what you might call a reputation for being unreliable.” Not only is jet fuel hard to come by in Zimbabwe—causing flights to be delayed for days—but the carrier has only one international aircraft, which Mugabe frequently commandeers for his jaunts abroad, oftentimes without advance notice.

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The Future of Afghanistan

Trying to gauge the state of the conflict in Afghanistan from thousands of miles away is extraordinarily difficult and I hesitate to draw any firm conclusions from recent press reports. But even discounting for the “bad news” bias in most articles, their general tenor is cause for concern.

This article notes that hundreds of Taliban fighters are massing near Kandahar, the largest city in southern Afghanistan, for the first time since 2001.

This article notes that the warlords who once made up the Northern Alliance are hording their weapons and not complying with promises to disarm militias.

This article notes that the drug trade in Afghanistan is booming, with “a 17 percent rise in poppy cultivation from 2006 to 2007, and a 34 percent rise in opium production.”

• And this article notes that more foreign jihadists are infiltrating Afghanistan, and they are even more bloodthirsty and savage than the native Taliban. “Foreign fighters,” writes David Rohde of the New York Times, “are coming from Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, various Arab countries, and perhaps also Turkey and western China.”

Admittedly, there is a positive aspect to this story—the foreigners are needed to fill Taliban ranks because of the losses they have suffered in fighting with coalition forces. But the fact that replacements are able to infiltrate so easily is a major problem, insofar as one of the major factors determining the success or failure of an insurgency is whether or not the counterinsurgents are able to seal the border to prevent the rebels from gaining reinforcements and supplies.

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Trying to gauge the state of the conflict in Afghanistan from thousands of miles away is extraordinarily difficult and I hesitate to draw any firm conclusions from recent press reports. But even discounting for the “bad news” bias in most articles, their general tenor is cause for concern.

This article notes that hundreds of Taliban fighters are massing near Kandahar, the largest city in southern Afghanistan, for the first time since 2001.

This article notes that the warlords who once made up the Northern Alliance are hording their weapons and not complying with promises to disarm militias.

This article notes that the drug trade in Afghanistan is booming, with “a 17 percent rise in poppy cultivation from 2006 to 2007, and a 34 percent rise in opium production.”

• And this article notes that more foreign jihadists are infiltrating Afghanistan, and they are even more bloodthirsty and savage than the native Taliban. “Foreign fighters,” writes David Rohde of the New York Times, “are coming from Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, various Arab countries, and perhaps also Turkey and western China.”

Admittedly, there is a positive aspect to this story—the foreigners are needed to fill Taliban ranks because of the losses they have suffered in fighting with coalition forces. But the fact that replacements are able to infiltrate so easily is a major problem, insofar as one of the major factors determining the success or failure of an insurgency is whether or not the counterinsurgents are able to seal the border to prevent the rebels from gaining reinforcements and supplies.

So far attempts to seal the borders between Afghanistan and Iran and Pakistan have not borne much fruit. This is to be expected because of the difficult terrain involved, and because the same tribesmen are to be found on both sides of the frontier, which has always been more of a theoretical construct than an on-the-ground reality. It doesn’t help that both Iran and Pakistan appear to be involved actively in aiding the Taliban.

The case of Pakistan is particularly vexing because, unlike Iran, it is nominally an American ally, yet its armed forces have been either unwilling or unable to take strong action against the Taliban and their supporters, who have come to dominate the border areas.

This article raises questions about whether the Pakistani military is making good use of some $11 billion in assistance received from the United States since 2001. Much of the assistance has gone for high-ticket items like F-16’s that aren’t very useful for fighting shadowy insurgents; Pakistan wants them primarily for reasons of prestige and for saber-rattling with India. But the primary problem is summed up by a scholar:

“U.S. equipment is not being used ‘in a sustained way,'” said Seth Jones, a Rand Corp. researcher who recently visited the region. “The army is not very effective, and there have been elements of the government that have worked with the Taliban in the tribal areas in the past,” making them ambivalent about the current fight against those forces, he said.

This really comes down to an issue of Pakistani politics. Pervez Musharraf, the military chief and dictator, repeatedly has promised to crack down on the Taliban and other extremist Islamic groups, but he has not delivered enough results. Benazir Bhutto, the opposition leader who has returned recently from exile, is talking a tougher game. As this New York Times article notes:

Using the news media unabashedly, Ms. Bhutto has been outspoken in particular against terrorism, saying things that few local politicians dare to against the religious and jihadi groups. She is the only politician in Pakistan saying loudly and clearly that suicide bombing is against the teaching of Islam. She has also attacked conservatives in the government, including officials close to the President, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, accusing them of aiding and abetting extremists, and supporting the bombers who attacked her.

This kind of talk is brave and encouraging. The question is whether Bhutto (assuming she gets that far) would be able effectively to carry out an anti-terrorist agenda in office, given that she would be reliant on the very same armed forces that have so often collaborated with the Taliban in the past and that have repeatedly undermined civilian leaders, including Bhutto herself. American leverage is limited here; we’ll have to let the Pakistanis sort out their own problems.

But we should continue to make clear our commitment to a restoration of democracy and our willingness, à la Barack Obama, to act unilaterally, if necessary, to hit terrorist targets in Pakistan. If we can’t do a better job of stopping the terrorists in Pakistan, Afghanistan’s future will not be terribly promising.

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Bad Hair Day

As an editor at COMMENTARY, all sorts of article ideas are constantly being pitched my way, some of them brilliant, some of them not. Here’s the pitch of the day, which came to me from a PR firm in Beverly Hills:

Dear Gabriel,

We seem to readily accept baldness among actors, musicians, and sports figures, but haven’t elected a bald President for more than 50 years (Dwight Eisenhower). Now it remains to be seen if the most prominently balding of the current candidates—Rudy Guiliani—makes the cut.

How about a story—lighthearted or serious—looking at the connection between leadership and balding. Whether in the White House or in just about any other public environment?

If you’re interested, perhaps you will include comments from one of the nation’s leading hair-transplant surgeons, Dr. William Rassman (www.newhair.com; www.baldingblog.com), who can discuss the psychological forces which drive so many of his patients to him and how transformed they feel after the restoration process is over.

Thank you so much for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Peter Berk
Partner
Crier Communications
Beverly Hills, CA  90210

As an editor at COMMENTARY, all sorts of article ideas are constantly being pitched my way, some of them brilliant, some of them not. Here’s the pitch of the day, which came to me from a PR firm in Beverly Hills:

Dear Gabriel,

We seem to readily accept baldness among actors, musicians, and sports figures, but haven’t elected a bald President for more than 50 years (Dwight Eisenhower). Now it remains to be seen if the most prominently balding of the current candidates—Rudy Guiliani—makes the cut.

How about a story—lighthearted or serious—looking at the connection between leadership and balding. Whether in the White House or in just about any other public environment?

If you’re interested, perhaps you will include comments from one of the nation’s leading hair-transplant surgeons, Dr. William Rassman (www.newhair.com; www.baldingblog.com), who can discuss the psychological forces which drive so many of his patients to him and how transformed they feel after the restoration process is over.

Thank you so much for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Peter Berk
Partner
Crier Communications
Beverly Hills, CA  90210

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Bookshelf

• I envy Joseph Epstein, who writes exactly the pieces I wish I’d written in exactly the way I wish I’d written them. From time to time he collects his latest efforts into a book, and I’d say that In a Cardboard Belt! (Houghton Mifflin, 410 pp., $26) was one of the best of these collections were it not for the fact that all of its predecessors have been so consistently high in quality. This one, however, is by design more wide-ranging than many of the volumes that came before it. In the past Epstein segregated his familiar and literary essays into separate books, but In a Cardboard Belt! is an omnium gatherum whose subtitle, “Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage,” accurately describes its contents. Unless you prefer jargon-clotted academic prose to lucidly conversational writing, it contains something for everybody. The titles tell the tale: “Memoirs of a Cheap and Finicky Glutton,” “Vin Audenaire,” “Forgetting Edmund Wilson,” “The Torture of Writer’s Block,” “Why Are Academics So Unhappy?” (A good question, that.) Who wouldn’t want to read a bookful of such pieces?

These days Epstein is more than usually conscious of time’s winged chariot—he just turned seventy—and the introduction to In a Cardboard Belt! offers a wry perspective on his inexorable progress toward the inevitable encounter with what Henry James called “the distinguished thing”:

“Bodily decreptitude,” says Yeats, “is wisdom.” I seem to have accrued more of the former than the latter. Of wisdom generally, I haven’t all that much to declare. I find myself more impressed by the mysteries of life and more certain that most of the interesting questions it poses have no persuasive answers, or at least none likely to arrive before I depart the planet. . . . You live and you learn, the proverb has it, but in my face, You live and you yearn seems closer to it.

About wisdom Epstein is, for once, all wet. In a Cardboard Belt! contains no shortage of glinting nuggets of truth, many of them packed into single-sentence parcels: “Charm is the desire to delight, light-handedly executed.” “Teaching is arduous work, entailing much grinding detail and boring repetition, interrupted only occasionally by moments of always surprising exultation.” Epstein the critic is similiarly capable of saying the maximum about a writer in the minimum number of words: “Was there ever a genius more stupid than Tolstoy?” “I find the domestic Auden, if not the better poet, certainly the more impressive human being.” “I liked Lillian Hellman and thought her very smart, except when the initials CIA or FBI appeared in her sentences.”

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• I envy Joseph Epstein, who writes exactly the pieces I wish I’d written in exactly the way I wish I’d written them. From time to time he collects his latest efforts into a book, and I’d say that In a Cardboard Belt! (Houghton Mifflin, 410 pp., $26) was one of the best of these collections were it not for the fact that all of its predecessors have been so consistently high in quality. This one, however, is by design more wide-ranging than many of the volumes that came before it. In the past Epstein segregated his familiar and literary essays into separate books, but In a Cardboard Belt! is an omnium gatherum whose subtitle, “Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage,” accurately describes its contents. Unless you prefer jargon-clotted academic prose to lucidly conversational writing, it contains something for everybody. The titles tell the tale: “Memoirs of a Cheap and Finicky Glutton,” “Vin Audenaire,” “Forgetting Edmund Wilson,” “The Torture of Writer’s Block,” “Why Are Academics So Unhappy?” (A good question, that.) Who wouldn’t want to read a bookful of such pieces?

These days Epstein is more than usually conscious of time’s winged chariot—he just turned seventy—and the introduction to In a Cardboard Belt! offers a wry perspective on his inexorable progress toward the inevitable encounter with what Henry James called “the distinguished thing”:

“Bodily decreptitude,” says Yeats, “is wisdom.” I seem to have accrued more of the former than the latter. Of wisdom generally, I haven’t all that much to declare. I find myself more impressed by the mysteries of life and more certain that most of the interesting questions it poses have no persuasive answers, or at least none likely to arrive before I depart the planet. . . . You live and you learn, the proverb has it, but in my face, You live and you yearn seems closer to it.

About wisdom Epstein is, for once, all wet. In a Cardboard Belt! contains no shortage of glinting nuggets of truth, many of them packed into single-sentence parcels: “Charm is the desire to delight, light-handedly executed.” “Teaching is arduous work, entailing much grinding detail and boring repetition, interrupted only occasionally by moments of always surprising exultation.” Epstein the critic is similiarly capable of saying the maximum about a writer in the minimum number of words: “Was there ever a genius more stupid than Tolstoy?” “I find the domestic Auden, if not the better poet, certainly the more impressive human being.” “I liked Lillian Hellman and thought her very smart, except when the initials CIA or FBI appeared in her sentences.”

As those last two observations make clear, autobiography is never very far away in Epstein’s work. No small part of the kick of his criticism comes from the fact that, like his familiar essays, it is so unabashedly personal—and that he so well exemplifies his own preferred virtues:

I have a weakness for minor artists. But they must be genuinely minor, by which I mean that they mustn’t lapse into minority through overreaching, want of energy, crudity, or any other kind of ineptitude. They must not be failed major artists merely. The true minor artist eschews the noble and the solemn. He fears tedium for his audience, but even more for himself. He sets out to be, and is perfectly content to remain, less than great. The minor artist knows his limits and lives comfortably within them. To delight, to charm, to entertain, such are the goals the minor artist sets himself, and, when brought off with style and verve and elegant lucidity, they are—more than sufficient—wholly admirable.

This is the first paragraph of an appreciation of Lord Berners, a writer (and sometime composer) whom Epstein places alongside Max Beerbohm in his personal pantheon of admirable artists. It has the smack of a credo, one to which Epstein himself lives up with the utmost completeness, though I find it no less interesting that he can write about the truly great without the slightest touch of deprecating envy. W.H. Auden, Marcel Proust, I.B. Singer: all these heavy hitters are summed up in the pages of In a Cardboard Belt! with the same appreciation extended to the lesser likes of Berners and Beerbohm.

If I had to choose a favorite piece in this collection, it would be “Books Won’t Furnish a Room,” in which the author tells what it felt like to get rid of the greater part of his personal library in the hope of simplifying his life: “Behind my selling all these books was a longing to streamline my life a bit, make it feel less cluttered, encumbered, book-bound. In doing so, I feel as if I had gathered my desert-island books about me without actually having to sail off for the island.” For me this essay passes the ultimate test of literary effectiveness: not long after I read it, I did as Epstein had done, and have never once regretted my decision. Talk about practical criticism!

Oh, yes, the title: it comes from The Producers. For further information, buy the book.

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More on the Surge

During the last week there have been three noteworthy news stories regarding Iraq and what is unfolding there. There is this from yesterday’s Associated Press:

The monthly toll of U.S. service members who have died in Iraq is on track to being the lowest in nearly two years, with at least 36 troop deaths recorded as of Tuesday, but the military cautioned it’s too early to declare a long-term trend . . . At least 36 American service members have died so far in October, nearly a quarter from non-combat causes . . . It is the lowest number since 32 troops died in March 2006 and the second-lowest since 20 troop deaths in February 2004. . . . [Maj. Winfield Danielson, a military spokesman in Baghdad], welcomed the lower numbers but stressed it was too early to say it was a downward trend. “Have we turned a corner? It might be a little too early to say that,” he said. “It’s certainly encouraging.”

And this from Sunday’s Washington Post:

The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, said on Saturday that the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq is disrupted and no longer operates in large numbers in any neighborhood of the capital. “In general, we think that there are no al-Qaeda strongholds at this point,” Petraeus said. He added: “They remain very lethal, very dangerous, capable at any point in time, if you will, of coming back off the canvas and landing a big punch, and we have to be aware of that.”

And this from the AP last week:

October is on course to record the second consecutive decline in U.S. military and Iraqi civilian deaths and Americans commanders say they know why: the U.S. troop increase and an Iraqi groundswell against al-Qaida and Shiite militia extremists. Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch points to what the military calls “Concerned Citizens”—both Shiites and Sunnis who have joined the American fight. He says he’s signed up 20,000 of them in the past four months. “I’ve never been more optimistic than I am right now with the progress we’ve made in Iraq. The only people who are going to win this counterinsurgency project are the people of Iraq. We’ve said that all along. And now they’re coming forward in masses,” Lynch said in a recent interview.

This is additional evidence that the security situation in Iraq has made remarkable strides this year. Security is not the only metric of success—but it is vital. Nothing good could possibly happen in Iraq until we restored some measure of calm and order there. That is being done, in large measure because al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is absorbing devastating blows.

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During the last week there have been three noteworthy news stories regarding Iraq and what is unfolding there. There is this from yesterday’s Associated Press:

The monthly toll of U.S. service members who have died in Iraq is on track to being the lowest in nearly two years, with at least 36 troop deaths recorded as of Tuesday, but the military cautioned it’s too early to declare a long-term trend . . . At least 36 American service members have died so far in October, nearly a quarter from non-combat causes . . . It is the lowest number since 32 troops died in March 2006 and the second-lowest since 20 troop deaths in February 2004. . . . [Maj. Winfield Danielson, a military spokesman in Baghdad], welcomed the lower numbers but stressed it was too early to say it was a downward trend. “Have we turned a corner? It might be a little too early to say that,” he said. “It’s certainly encouraging.”

And this from Sunday’s Washington Post:

The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, said on Saturday that the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq is disrupted and no longer operates in large numbers in any neighborhood of the capital. “In general, we think that there are no al-Qaeda strongholds at this point,” Petraeus said. He added: “They remain very lethal, very dangerous, capable at any point in time, if you will, of coming back off the canvas and landing a big punch, and we have to be aware of that.”

And this from the AP last week:

October is on course to record the second consecutive decline in U.S. military and Iraqi civilian deaths and Americans commanders say they know why: the U.S. troop increase and an Iraqi groundswell against al-Qaida and Shiite militia extremists. Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch points to what the military calls “Concerned Citizens”—both Shiites and Sunnis who have joined the American fight. He says he’s signed up 20,000 of them in the past four months. “I’ve never been more optimistic than I am right now with the progress we’ve made in Iraq. The only people who are going to win this counterinsurgency project are the people of Iraq. We’ve said that all along. And now they’re coming forward in masses,” Lynch said in a recent interview.

This is additional evidence that the security situation in Iraq has made remarkable strides this year. Security is not the only metric of success—but it is vital. Nothing good could possibly happen in Iraq until we restored some measure of calm and order there. That is being done, in large measure because al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is absorbing devastating blows.

They, rather than we, look to be the “weak horse” right now.

The fact that AQI no longer operates in large numbers in any neighborhood in Baghdad is accepted in many quarters as almost commonplace (the story appeared on page A17 of the Washington Post). Yet this development is in reality staggering, especially if you consider where we were in December 2006, an awful month that was the capstone of an awful year. That this achievement occurred in only ten months ranks among the more impressive military operations we have ever seen. Even those who strongly supported the surge could not have imagined that it would do so much, so fast.

General Petraeus’ qualifications on the progress we’ve made are wise. We need to be vigilant and purposeful, since the task before us is still enormously difficult. Iraq remains a fragile, traumatized land, with between 1,000 and 2,000 Iraqis still fleeing their homes each day. The lives of Iraqis are still filled with daily hardships. The ethnic divisions remain real and deep. And the Iraqis must take greater responsibility for rebuilding and uniting their society. But we can now say, with some certainty, that the surge, rather than a failure (as Majority Leader Harry Reid recklessly declared months ago), has been hugely successful, and other good things (including efforts at ethnic reconciliation) are coming to pass.

The facts on the ground have changed dramatically in Iraq. What is notable is that many in the political class, weary of the war (and in some instances ideologically opposed to it), remain wedded to the old narrative. They have decided Iraq is a lost cause, regardless of evidence to the contrary (last night’s Democratic debate merely highlights this disposition). But a new narrative, with all the appropriate caveats, will eventually take hold. And those who declared Iraq as hopeless and therefore worth handing over to the enemies of civilization will be forced by developments to reconsider their judgment.

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Pernicious Pentagon Software

Yesterday I wrote about the danger that the Pentagon might inadvertently purchase foreign-produced “malicious” software to run some of its most critical computer systems.

Now comes news that some new Pentagon software—pernicious if not malicious—is to be domestically produced, and on orders from the Pentagon itself.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded Lockheed Martin a $1.3-million contract to develop something called “the Predicting Stability through Analyzing Germane Events (PRESAGE) system.” Typical events that will be predicted “may include rebellions, insurgencies, ethnic/religious violence, civil war, and major economic crises.”

How will it work?

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Yesterday I wrote about the danger that the Pentagon might inadvertently purchase foreign-produced “malicious” software to run some of its most critical computer systems.

Now comes news that some new Pentagon software—pernicious if not malicious—is to be domestically produced, and on orders from the Pentagon itself.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded Lockheed Martin a $1.3-million contract to develop something called “the Predicting Stability through Analyzing Germane Events (PRESAGE) system.” Typical events that will be predicted “may include rebellions, insurgencies, ethnic/religious violence, civil war, and major economic crises.”

How will it work?

According to the announcement, PRESAGE will “combine a portfolio of state-of-the-art and operationally deployed social-science models and technologies” that will let “military commanders anticipate and respond to world-wide political crises and predict events of interest and stability of countries of interest with greater than 80-percent accuracy.”

Eighty-percent accuracy? That’s far better than the CIA’s rate of accuracy in predicting  “political events of interest.” And it is far better than Merrill Lynch does in predicting economic ones (Stan O’Neal please call your former office).

Perhaps we should now do as my former boss, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, proposed: abolish the spy agency altogether. Moynihan wanted the State Department to take responsibility for gathering intelligence. But it seems we could let computers carry out our intelligence functions instead. 

There is only one small hitch. When it comes to predicting the future, computers are not likely to do a better job than the CIA, or Goldman Sachs, or even Connecting the Dots. I haven’t had a chance to examine the algorithms in PRESAGE, but as Vladimir Ilych Lenin said, when you see a heap of dung in the road, you don’t need to stick your nose in it to know what it is. And I know enough about junk political science to know it when I see it.

Does anyone disagree? The Lockheed team building PRESAGE includes specialists from the University of Pennsylvania, University of Kansas, University of Washington, and University of Georgia. Despite this stellar lineup, I can predict with more than 80-percent accuracy that the program will flop, at a cost of $1.3 million. That money would be far better spent repairing dangerous dams built by Saddam Hussein.

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Overseeing Contractors

It’s good news that Secretary of Defense Bob Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have agreed that the armed forces will supervise all security contractors operating in Iraq, including those like Blackwater, Triple Canopy, and DynCorp that guard State Department officials. This is a welcome step toward achieving greater unity of command and making contractors more useful in aiding the overall coalition effort to stabilize Iraq.

Unfortunately, as this New York Times article points out,

the Defense Department has had its own difficulties controlling its nearly 130,000 contractors, who handle a variety of jobs including interrogations of prisoners and transportation of fuel and ammunition. Auditors have uncovered numerous instances of cost overruns, sloppy work, theft, and corruption in the tens of billions of dollars in logistics and reconstruction contracts in Iraq.

The core problem was laid out in July in this Washington Post article:

The Defense Department’s civilian acquisition workforce has shrunk by about 40 percent since the early 1990s and now has about 270,000 employees, according to Pentagon statistics and Government Accountability Office reports. Yet defense spending on service contracts increased 78 percent, to $151 billion, from 1996 to 2006, the reports said.

There are 7.5 million federal contractors, 1.5 million more than in 2002, without a corresponding increase in government officials to oversee them, said Paul C. Light, a public service professor at New York University.

There is nothing wrong with contracting per se, but there needs to be appropriate oversight, which, as these statistics suggest, has been lacking. The problems are compounded in Iraq, where it’s much harder for federal employees to get around, and which therefore gives contractors much greater leeway.

If the Defense Department is serious about overseeing Blackwater and other contractors, it will have to devote serious resources to the effort. As suggested by veteran contractor Malcolm Nance, the military may even have to set up a new Force Protection Command. While the Gates-Rice agreement is a step forward, the real test will be in implementation.

It’s good news that Secretary of Defense Bob Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have agreed that the armed forces will supervise all security contractors operating in Iraq, including those like Blackwater, Triple Canopy, and DynCorp that guard State Department officials. This is a welcome step toward achieving greater unity of command and making contractors more useful in aiding the overall coalition effort to stabilize Iraq.

Unfortunately, as this New York Times article points out,

the Defense Department has had its own difficulties controlling its nearly 130,000 contractors, who handle a variety of jobs including interrogations of prisoners and transportation of fuel and ammunition. Auditors have uncovered numerous instances of cost overruns, sloppy work, theft, and corruption in the tens of billions of dollars in logistics and reconstruction contracts in Iraq.

The core problem was laid out in July in this Washington Post article:

The Defense Department’s civilian acquisition workforce has shrunk by about 40 percent since the early 1990s and now has about 270,000 employees, according to Pentagon statistics and Government Accountability Office reports. Yet defense spending on service contracts increased 78 percent, to $151 billion, from 1996 to 2006, the reports said.

There are 7.5 million federal contractors, 1.5 million more than in 2002, without a corresponding increase in government officials to oversee them, said Paul C. Light, a public service professor at New York University.

There is nothing wrong with contracting per se, but there needs to be appropriate oversight, which, as these statistics suggest, has been lacking. The problems are compounded in Iraq, where it’s much harder for federal employees to get around, and which therefore gives contractors much greater leeway.

If the Defense Department is serious about overseeing Blackwater and other contractors, it will have to devote serious resources to the effort. As suggested by veteran contractor Malcolm Nance, the military may even have to set up a new Force Protection Command. While the Gates-Rice agreement is a step forward, the real test will be in implementation.

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Michael Scheuer Watch #5: The Danish Affair, Cont.

A couple of days ago, I started this new department devoted to monitoring Michael Scheuer. I don’t think it will be a long-term proposition. The television shows that regularly bring on this former CIA official as an expert in counterterrorism, I believe, will soon be getting wise, if they haven’t gotten wise already, that they’ve been dealing with a loose potato. Scheuer will soon fade even further to the margins, appearing not in the mainstream media but in far-out places that he has already begun to write for, like antiwar.com, where one of his recent pieces appears under the headline: Why Does Norman Podhoretz Hate America?

Scheuer has previously responded to some of my comments about him, which have appeared under the titles:

Michael Scheuer Watch, Vol 1, #1

Michael Scheuer: Innocent Until Proven Guilty 

Osama bin Laden’s Favorite Pundit 

The Jewish Conspiracy.

And his responses have consistently dodged the issues being raised. In my last post about him, with this record in mind, I posed some questions about his role in disclosing classified information that has ignited an anti-American firestorm in Denmark. I predicted that he would answer these questions “with either a telling silence or with even more telling and more irrelevant evasions.”

Scheuer has now answered:

Read More

A couple of days ago, I started this new department devoted to monitoring Michael Scheuer. I don’t think it will be a long-term proposition. The television shows that regularly bring on this former CIA official as an expert in counterterrorism, I believe, will soon be getting wise, if they haven’t gotten wise already, that they’ve been dealing with a loose potato. Scheuer will soon fade even further to the margins, appearing not in the mainstream media but in far-out places that he has already begun to write for, like antiwar.com, where one of his recent pieces appears under the headline: Why Does Norman Podhoretz Hate America?

Scheuer has previously responded to some of my comments about him, which have appeared under the titles:

Michael Scheuer Watch, Vol 1, #1

Michael Scheuer: Innocent Until Proven Guilty 

Osama bin Laden’s Favorite Pundit 

The Jewish Conspiracy.

And his responses have consistently dodged the issues being raised. In my last post about him, with this record in mind, I posed some questions about his role in disclosing classified information that has ignited an anti-American firestorm in Denmark. I predicted that he would answer these questions “with either a telling silence or with even more telling and more irrelevant evasions.”

Scheuer has now answered:

Again, I thank Mr. Schoenfeld and COMMENTARY for drawing attention to my work. And here is what I have to say, as requested by Mr. Schoenfeld.

Regarding the subject at hand—rendition and my public comments thereon—I encourage Mr. Schoenfeld and his anti-American colleagues—that is the neoconservatives/Israel-firsters—to push every button and every friend they have to get me investigated so that I can testify under oath about the rendition program. Before either or both of the congressional intelligence committees would be ideal, as long as the session is under oath and public. The American public needs the truth about the effectiveness of the program, the debt they owe to the men and women of CIA, and the efforts of Mr. Schoenfeld and others to damage the CIA because its officers do not share their love for foreign powers. Press on, Mr. Schoenfeld, press on. Rather then rattling me, you are merely doing my bidding.

This is clearly not a telling silence. But is it a telling evasion? I would love to hear the telling opinions of readers. My own view is that it is sometimes tellingly easy to connect the dots.

A complete guide to other items in this Michael Scheuer Watch series can be found here.

 

 

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Pelosi’s Record

Let us stipulate that it is not easy to run the House of Representatives. With its 435 massive egos, each subject to unique pressures and whims, each accustomed to being the biggest fish in his or her own district pond, the House is bound to be unruly. The culture of the place is also not always conducive to following a leader. It hasn’t changed all that much from the scene Alexis de Tocqueville encountered when he visited the Capitol in the early 1830’s:

When you enter the House of Representatives in Washington, you feel yourself struck by the vulgar aspect of this great assembly. Often the eye seeks in vain for a celebrated man within it. Almost all its members are obscure persons, whose name furnishes no image to one’s thought. They are, for the most part, village attorneys, or those in trade. . . . In a country where instruction is almost universally widespread, it is said that the people’s representatives do not always know how to write correctly.

A tough crowd to corral, surely. But looking at Nancy Pelosi’s record of accomplishment after nearly a year, the question arises: can it really be this hard to run things?

For the first time in two decades, the Congress has failed to send the President even one budget bill before the end of October. The Democrats have failed, too, to make much of a dent in the war effort—after having promised their party’s most ardent constituents to reverse course. They have so far failed to capitalize on the opening offered them by the fight over the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, and they’re plotting an effort to combine the Veterans and Defense appropriations bills with a bloated Health, Education, and Labor bill—which would allow Republicans to paint them as holding American troops hostage to the pet projects of Democratic interest groups.

Almost as important, though, has been the basic failure of day-to-day management by Speaker Pelosi. Again and again, she has allowed her most vulnerable members to be trapped by Republican floor tactics. Again and again she has been too aggressive with the most moderate Republicans, costing her party a chance to win crucial cross-over votes at key moments. Again and again she’s spoken too quickly and had to backtrack embarrassingly (this week, for instance, her staff was caught trying to edit a transcript of a public event to make it appear that she didn’t mean what she clearly said.)

The public has noticed, of course. Congress’s approval ratings are significantly lower than even President Bush’s. Pelosi’s standings in her home state have fallen sharply (as have those of the Senate’s Democratic leader Harry Reid).

Before the 2006 elections, some conservatives argued that a loss in Congress would have a silver lining for Republicans, by giving the GOP a chance to regroup and refocus, and especially by showing voters what the Democrats were like in power. Almost a year into the 110th Congress, it is hard to argue with them.

Let us stipulate that it is not easy to run the House of Representatives. With its 435 massive egos, each subject to unique pressures and whims, each accustomed to being the biggest fish in his or her own district pond, the House is bound to be unruly. The culture of the place is also not always conducive to following a leader. It hasn’t changed all that much from the scene Alexis de Tocqueville encountered when he visited the Capitol in the early 1830’s:

When you enter the House of Representatives in Washington, you feel yourself struck by the vulgar aspect of this great assembly. Often the eye seeks in vain for a celebrated man within it. Almost all its members are obscure persons, whose name furnishes no image to one’s thought. They are, for the most part, village attorneys, or those in trade. . . . In a country where instruction is almost universally widespread, it is said that the people’s representatives do not always know how to write correctly.

A tough crowd to corral, surely. But looking at Nancy Pelosi’s record of accomplishment after nearly a year, the question arises: can it really be this hard to run things?

For the first time in two decades, the Congress has failed to send the President even one budget bill before the end of October. The Democrats have failed, too, to make much of a dent in the war effort—after having promised their party’s most ardent constituents to reverse course. They have so far failed to capitalize on the opening offered them by the fight over the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, and they’re plotting an effort to combine the Veterans and Defense appropriations bills with a bloated Health, Education, and Labor bill—which would allow Republicans to paint them as holding American troops hostage to the pet projects of Democratic interest groups.

Almost as important, though, has been the basic failure of day-to-day management by Speaker Pelosi. Again and again, she has allowed her most vulnerable members to be trapped by Republican floor tactics. Again and again she has been too aggressive with the most moderate Republicans, costing her party a chance to win crucial cross-over votes at key moments. Again and again she’s spoken too quickly and had to backtrack embarrassingly (this week, for instance, her staff was caught trying to edit a transcript of a public event to make it appear that she didn’t mean what she clearly said.)

The public has noticed, of course. Congress’s approval ratings are significantly lower than even President Bush’s. Pelosi’s standings in her home state have fallen sharply (as have those of the Senate’s Democratic leader Harry Reid).

Before the 2006 elections, some conservatives argued that a loss in Congress would have a silver lining for Republicans, by giving the GOP a chance to regroup and refocus, and especially by showing voters what the Democrats were like in power. Almost a year into the 110th Congress, it is hard to argue with them.

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Michael Scheuer Watch: Table of Contents

Michael Scheuer Watch #1: The Jewish Conspiracy

Michael Scheuer Watch #2: Osama bin Laden’s Favorite Pundit

Michael Scheuer Watch #3: Innocent Until Proven Guilty

Michael Scheuer Watch #4: The Danish Affair

Michael Scheuer Watch #5: The Danish Affair, Cont.

Michael Scheuer Watch #6: Bad Apples and Basic Questions

Michael Scheuer Watch #7: Heavy Medal

Michael Scheuer Watch #8: Please Pass the Truth Serum

Michael Scheuer Watch #9: AWOL

Michael Scheuer Watch #10: The Cheese Danish Affair and Ron Paul

Michael Scheuer Watch #11: The Danish Affair Is Not Yet Over

Michael Scheuer Watch #12: Expletive Deleted

Michael Scheuer Watch #13: Guilt By Association

In addition to posts here on Connecting the Dots, readers can also find my discussion of Scheuer’s book, Imperial Hubris, in What Became of the CIA in the March 2005 COMMENTARY.

Scheuer subsequently responded to that piece, and I then responded to his response, both of which appeared in the correspondence pages of the June 2005 COMMENTARY.

More recently I examined Scheuer’s performance (or malperformance) as a counterterrorism official in The CIA Examines Itself in the September 17, 2007 Weekly Standard.

Michael Scheuer’s Wikipedia page can be found here. Resources and links to his writings and media appearances found here on the Michael Scheuer Watch can be used to keep it accurate and up to date.

Michael Scheuer Watch #1: The Jewish Conspiracy

Michael Scheuer Watch #2: Osama bin Laden’s Favorite Pundit

Michael Scheuer Watch #3: Innocent Until Proven Guilty

Michael Scheuer Watch #4: The Danish Affair

Michael Scheuer Watch #5: The Danish Affair, Cont.

Michael Scheuer Watch #6: Bad Apples and Basic Questions

Michael Scheuer Watch #7: Heavy Medal

Michael Scheuer Watch #8: Please Pass the Truth Serum

Michael Scheuer Watch #9: AWOL

Michael Scheuer Watch #10: The Cheese Danish Affair and Ron Paul

Michael Scheuer Watch #11: The Danish Affair Is Not Yet Over

Michael Scheuer Watch #12: Expletive Deleted

Michael Scheuer Watch #13: Guilt By Association

In addition to posts here on Connecting the Dots, readers can also find my discussion of Scheuer’s book, Imperial Hubris, in What Became of the CIA in the March 2005 COMMENTARY.

Scheuer subsequently responded to that piece, and I then responded to his response, both of which appeared in the correspondence pages of the June 2005 COMMENTARY.

More recently I examined Scheuer’s performance (or malperformance) as a counterterrorism official in The CIA Examines Itself in the September 17, 2007 Weekly Standard.

Michael Scheuer’s Wikipedia page can be found here. Resources and links to his writings and media appearances found here on the Michael Scheuer Watch can be used to keep it accurate and up to date.

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