Commentary Magazine


Posts For: November 7, 2007

“Churchillian” Statesmanship

The Washington, D.C.-based Churchill Centre has just awarded the first Winston Churchill Award for Statesmanship to James A. Baker and Lee Hamilton.

This is the same James A. Baker who, as Secretary of State, when asked what the U.S. would do about aggression, ethnic cleansing, and mass murder in Bosnia-Herzegovina, replied: “We have no dog in that fight.” It is hard to say which was more Churchillian, the sentiment or the eloquence.

By this standard, Hamilton, former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was even more Churchillian. His reaction to the Bosnia debacle was described thus by Congressional Quarterly:

Hamilton was a well-modulated voice for cautious diplomacy…. Early in the Clinton administration, he agreed to a strategy under which Bosnia’s factions would agree to a partition of the republic…. But when Bosnia’s militarily dominant Serbs resisted, putting pressure on Clinton for U.S. military action…Hamilton suggested more time was needed to allow diplomacy and economic sanctions to work. To Hamilton’s many admirers, his caution as a foreign policy-maker is an aid in deterring the nation from rushing into foreign policy mistakes.

Other equally Churchillian moments in Hamilton’s legislative career include leading the opposition to military action against Iraq when it occupied Kuwait in 1990; opposition to aid to the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980’s as well as to the besieged anti-Communist government in neighboring El Salvador; votes against a raft of weapons systems from the B-1 bomber to missile defense; and championing of the nuclear freeze.

Of course, the Churchill Centre was not honoring this pair for their past records but rather, as it explained, for their leadership of “the Iraq Study group, which resulted in critical policy recommendations.” The essence of those recommendations was to abandon hope of victory, begin to withdraw our soldiers, and cushion our defeat by appealing for help to the government of Iran (whose official slogan is “death to America”).

There’s a solution that would have done Churchill proud.

If you find the Baker-Hamilton legacy incongruent with that of Churchill, the Churchill Centre is out to reshape your memory of him, much as various academics lately have redefined Ronald Reagan as a liberal or moderate in noble contrast to the odious conservative, George W. Bush. The Centre explains: “The political precept that won Churchill respect from all sides was his belief that in difficult times the best results follow when people of differing beliefs and backgrounds come together, the greatest example of which was the ‘Grand Alliance’ of World War II.” In other words, Churchill’s great feat was not his resistance to Hitler but his embrace of Stalin.

Next, perhaps, the Centre will create a Churchill Award for Appeasement.

The Washington, D.C.-based Churchill Centre has just awarded the first Winston Churchill Award for Statesmanship to James A. Baker and Lee Hamilton.

This is the same James A. Baker who, as Secretary of State, when asked what the U.S. would do about aggression, ethnic cleansing, and mass murder in Bosnia-Herzegovina, replied: “We have no dog in that fight.” It is hard to say which was more Churchillian, the sentiment or the eloquence.

By this standard, Hamilton, former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was even more Churchillian. His reaction to the Bosnia debacle was described thus by Congressional Quarterly:

Hamilton was a well-modulated voice for cautious diplomacy…. Early in the Clinton administration, he agreed to a strategy under which Bosnia’s factions would agree to a partition of the republic…. But when Bosnia’s militarily dominant Serbs resisted, putting pressure on Clinton for U.S. military action…Hamilton suggested more time was needed to allow diplomacy and economic sanctions to work. To Hamilton’s many admirers, his caution as a foreign policy-maker is an aid in deterring the nation from rushing into foreign policy mistakes.

Other equally Churchillian moments in Hamilton’s legislative career include leading the opposition to military action against Iraq when it occupied Kuwait in 1990; opposition to aid to the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980’s as well as to the besieged anti-Communist government in neighboring El Salvador; votes against a raft of weapons systems from the B-1 bomber to missile defense; and championing of the nuclear freeze.

Of course, the Churchill Centre was not honoring this pair for their past records but rather, as it explained, for their leadership of “the Iraq Study group, which resulted in critical policy recommendations.” The essence of those recommendations was to abandon hope of victory, begin to withdraw our soldiers, and cushion our defeat by appealing for help to the government of Iran (whose official slogan is “death to America”).

There’s a solution that would have done Churchill proud.

If you find the Baker-Hamilton legacy incongruent with that of Churchill, the Churchill Centre is out to reshape your memory of him, much as various academics lately have redefined Ronald Reagan as a liberal or moderate in noble contrast to the odious conservative, George W. Bush. The Centre explains: “The political precept that won Churchill respect from all sides was his belief that in difficult times the best results follow when people of differing beliefs and backgrounds come together, the greatest example of which was the ‘Grand Alliance’ of World War II.” In other words, Churchill’s great feat was not his resistance to Hitler but his embrace of Stalin.

Next, perhaps, the Centre will create a Churchill Award for Appeasement.

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Out of the CFE

Today, in a Soviet-era margin of 418-0, the Duma approved a law to end compliance with the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty. The legislation still has to go to the upper house. If passed there—which is most likely because the Russian political system is becoming more predictable by the day—the legislation will go to the desk of President Vladimir Putin for signature. The suspension is slated to take effect on December 12. In July, Putin gave the formal 150-day notice of the suspension.

The West considers the CFE, as the pact is known, the cornerstone of security on the continent. The 1990 agreement limits the number of tanks, armored combat vehicles, artillery pieces, attack helicopters, and combat aircraft between the Atlantic and the Urals. No one expects a large set-piece battle on the European plains, so Russia’s suspension is seen as a sign of unhappiness about the treaty and a gambit to gain an edge in negotiations to change its terms.

Each side has numerous complaints about the other’s fulfillment of CFE obligations. The West, for instance, is concerned about Moscow’s failure to withdraw troops from Georgia and Moldova. The Kremlin, for its part, is upset over the temporary basing of American troops in Romania and Bulgaria. In addition, each side has non-CFE complaints against the other involving security in Europe.

So it’s time for us to confront reality. Relations between the Atlantic partners and Russia are now approaching those of a failing marriage. Whether we blame the Russians or the West for the breakdown, we should recognize that broad partnership with Moscow is no longer possible (or at least not possible for the foreseeable future). We cannot continue living the one-world dream. In short, we need to begin building a new security architecture not based on cooperation with the Russians. As a first step, the first seven members of the G-8 should disinvite Moscow. After all, what is an angry mafia state doing in a group of free-market economies? Will Putin be upset? Undoubtedly. But what problems in the world is he helping to solve now?

Today, in a Soviet-era margin of 418-0, the Duma approved a law to end compliance with the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty. The legislation still has to go to the upper house. If passed there—which is most likely because the Russian political system is becoming more predictable by the day—the legislation will go to the desk of President Vladimir Putin for signature. The suspension is slated to take effect on December 12. In July, Putin gave the formal 150-day notice of the suspension.

The West considers the CFE, as the pact is known, the cornerstone of security on the continent. The 1990 agreement limits the number of tanks, armored combat vehicles, artillery pieces, attack helicopters, and combat aircraft between the Atlantic and the Urals. No one expects a large set-piece battle on the European plains, so Russia’s suspension is seen as a sign of unhappiness about the treaty and a gambit to gain an edge in negotiations to change its terms.

Each side has numerous complaints about the other’s fulfillment of CFE obligations. The West, for instance, is concerned about Moscow’s failure to withdraw troops from Georgia and Moldova. The Kremlin, for its part, is upset over the temporary basing of American troops in Romania and Bulgaria. In addition, each side has non-CFE complaints against the other involving security in Europe.

So it’s time for us to confront reality. Relations between the Atlantic partners and Russia are now approaching those of a failing marriage. Whether we blame the Russians or the West for the breakdown, we should recognize that broad partnership with Moscow is no longer possible (or at least not possible for the foreseeable future). We cannot continue living the one-world dream. In short, we need to begin building a new security architecture not based on cooperation with the Russians. As a first step, the first seven members of the G-8 should disinvite Moscow. After all, what is an angry mafia state doing in a group of free-market economies? Will Putin be upset? Undoubtedly. But what problems in the world is he helping to solve now?

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Immigration Politics: Again, a Loser for the GOP

Another election day has come and gone, and we’ve seen another, admittedly surprising, failure for those who believe anti-immigration fervor is the new driving force in American politics. Virginia Republicans were counting on the matter to help them retain control of the State Senate there, but it did not do the trick, and for the first time in a decade, Democrats are in control of the legislature in Richmond.

Some partisans on the issue claim a partial victory because of a Republican win by an anti-immigration guy in Virginia’s Prince William County, but since the victor was reelected, it is a mite questionable how potent the issue was in securing his return to his own seat. What is unquestionable, though, is that in a fascinating repeat of a failed electoral strategy in Virginia’s governor’s race last year, Republicans thought they saw a way to win by thumping hard on immigration — and they lost instead.

You would think, from the bottomless depths of the populist sentiment on the matter dating back to 2004, that anti-immigration fervor would be a potent issue at the ballot box. After all, despite polling that showed majority support for most of the provisions in the immigration-reform bill proposed earlier this year, the measure fell apart owing largely to a potent grass-roots revolt on the Right. (The bill deserved its fate; it was disastrously constructed and internally inconsistent, but the proximate cause of its failure was not in the drafting but in the wild hostility to any manner of immigration reform that was not exclusively punitive.)

And yet, in almost every recent electoral contest in which a candidate has sought to harness the emotional power of the anti-immigration cause to propel him to victory, the issue hasn’t done the trick.

In San Diego two years ago, Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist tried to get himself elected to the House as a single-issue anti-immigration candidate and failed twice. Vulnerable Arizona Rep. J.D. Hayworth preached fire and brimstone on the issue last November and was turned out anyway. Another Arizonan, Randy Graf, sought victory with immigration as a single issue last year and was slaughtered at the polls. Only California Rep. Brian Bilbray, in a complex special election in 2005, made effective use of anti-immigration fervor to get himself back to Washington.

The common presumption is that immigration has become an issue of central importance in electoral politics. At some point, pretty soon, there’s going to have to be hard evidence of that or Republican politicians will begin to face the very real possibility that their party is turning Hispanics into an implacably hostile anti-GOP bloc without securing any real political gain for it.

Another election day has come and gone, and we’ve seen another, admittedly surprising, failure for those who believe anti-immigration fervor is the new driving force in American politics. Virginia Republicans were counting on the matter to help them retain control of the State Senate there, but it did not do the trick, and for the first time in a decade, Democrats are in control of the legislature in Richmond.

Some partisans on the issue claim a partial victory because of a Republican win by an anti-immigration guy in Virginia’s Prince William County, but since the victor was reelected, it is a mite questionable how potent the issue was in securing his return to his own seat. What is unquestionable, though, is that in a fascinating repeat of a failed electoral strategy in Virginia’s governor’s race last year, Republicans thought they saw a way to win by thumping hard on immigration — and they lost instead.

You would think, from the bottomless depths of the populist sentiment on the matter dating back to 2004, that anti-immigration fervor would be a potent issue at the ballot box. After all, despite polling that showed majority support for most of the provisions in the immigration-reform bill proposed earlier this year, the measure fell apart owing largely to a potent grass-roots revolt on the Right. (The bill deserved its fate; it was disastrously constructed and internally inconsistent, but the proximate cause of its failure was not in the drafting but in the wild hostility to any manner of immigration reform that was not exclusively punitive.)

And yet, in almost every recent electoral contest in which a candidate has sought to harness the emotional power of the anti-immigration cause to propel him to victory, the issue hasn’t done the trick.

In San Diego two years ago, Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist tried to get himself elected to the House as a single-issue anti-immigration candidate and failed twice. Vulnerable Arizona Rep. J.D. Hayworth preached fire and brimstone on the issue last November and was turned out anyway. Another Arizonan, Randy Graf, sought victory with immigration as a single issue last year and was slaughtered at the polls. Only California Rep. Brian Bilbray, in a complex special election in 2005, made effective use of anti-immigration fervor to get himself back to Washington.

The common presumption is that immigration has become an issue of central importance in electoral politics. At some point, pretty soon, there’s going to have to be hard evidence of that or Republican politicians will begin to face the very real possibility that their party is turning Hispanics into an implacably hostile anti-GOP bloc without securing any real political gain for it.

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Bush Backs Off on Taiwan

Though there’s been little notice of it in the press, the Bush administration appears to have made an enormous change in its Taiwan policy of the last three decades, abandoning the careful hedging that has long characterized it, and instead lining up with Beijing to force the island nation to agree to the mainland’s terms. The reason appears to be that harsh Chinese military threats intimidated Washington.

The story began when Taiwan’s president Chen Shuibian announced a referendum, to be held March 20, asking whether Taiwan should apply to the United Nations under the name Taiwan. Such a referendum may seem the right of any democratic people. But since the UN accepts only “sovereign states,” were Taiwan to enter under that name, its status as a country and not a territory would be confirmed.

This possibility set alarm bells ringing in Beijing, which successfully enlisted Washington to pressure Taiwan not to hold the vote, but with no success. Both major parties in the island support it.

Instead of wisely saying “no comment,” we adopted China’s definitions–again, one suspects, out of fear. Thus a recent U.S. Defense Department document reportedly “labeled the government’s proposed referendum on joining the UN under the name ‘Taiwan’ as an ‘independence referendum.'”

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Though there’s been little notice of it in the press, the Bush administration appears to have made an enormous change in its Taiwan policy of the last three decades, abandoning the careful hedging that has long characterized it, and instead lining up with Beijing to force the island nation to agree to the mainland’s terms. The reason appears to be that harsh Chinese military threats intimidated Washington.

The story began when Taiwan’s president Chen Shuibian announced a referendum, to be held March 20, asking whether Taiwan should apply to the United Nations under the name Taiwan. Such a referendum may seem the right of any democratic people. But since the UN accepts only “sovereign states,” were Taiwan to enter under that name, its status as a country and not a territory would be confirmed.

This possibility set alarm bells ringing in Beijing, which successfully enlisted Washington to pressure Taiwan not to hold the vote, but with no success. Both major parties in the island support it.

Instead of wisely saying “no comment,” we adopted China’s definitions–again, one suspects, out of fear. Thus a recent U.S. Defense Department document reportedly “labeled the government’s proposed referendum on joining the UN under the name ‘Taiwan’ as an ‘independence referendum.'”

China has already enacted legislation that provides for automatic war in case of “Taiwan secession.”

Article 8 of China’s Anti-Secession Law, promulgated on March 14, 2005 provides that:

In the event that the “Taiwan independence” secessionist forces should act under any name or by any means to cause the fact of Taiwan’s secession from China, or that major incidents entailing Taiwan’s secession from China should occur, or that possibilities for a peaceful re-unification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. (Italics mine.)

Taiwan is already a nation state in every respect but certain Chinese claims. The U.S., moreover, has never recognized any Chinese sovereignty over the island. But when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates met Chinese General Cao Gangchuan yesterday, he got a dose of saber-rattling. The general stated menacingly that “the Chinese government will act in accordance with its anti-secession law to take any necessary actions for unification of the country.” That is to say: China will go to war.

President Bush appeared frightened as well. According to the American Forces Press Service, “President [George W.] Bush has said the United States is against independence for the island nation.” Make no mistake: these are fundamental changes in the American position. Worse, they confirm to Beijing that she can intimidate the United States. Washington undoubtedly sees this change as wise and expedient, given China’s growing power. What Washington misses are the longer term implications. To name but one, the security of Japan, our most important ally in the region, depends upon Taiwan’s continued independence. A strong stance, and a flat “no” to Chinese demands would, I suspect, have been the better road to peace.

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Giuliani’s Pseudo-Coup

Pat Robertson endorsed Rudy Giuliani for president today. This is a coup, but not for any substantive reason. Taken strictly as an electoral matter, the Robertson imprimatur is almost certainly a wash — meaning that any votes it will generate will be offset by votes it will cost among those, even on the Republican side, who find Robertson a singularly unappetizing figure (including among Evangelical Christians, many of whom come from a different eschatalogical tradition from Robertson’s).

There are times when an endorsement really does mean something substantial — when, say, a governor with a powerful political machine at his disposal anoints a presidential candidate with the understanding that his machine will do whatever it can to get the candidate elected. This is not the case here, for the reasons I’ve outlined.

That Giuliani has managed to secure the endorsement of a formerly significant leader of the Religious Right was to be expected, if for no other reason that the endorser was bound to get a lot of attention from a hungry media that can’t get enough of this pre-primary season and the intriguing fact of a pro-choice candidate sitting atop the Republican leaderboard. That Giuliani’s endorser would be Robertson is also not surprising, because he has spent years trying to make up for his disgusting assent to the repugnant claims of the late Jerry Falwell that the American Civil Liberties Union and other secularist organizations bore some responsibility for the attacks of 9/11.

What we have here, then, is a Giuliani “pseudo-coup,” to adapt Daniel Boorstin’s great neologism about staged media events that have no intrinsic meaning. In 1961, Boorstin described a “pseudo-event” as a

happening that possesses the following characteristics:

(1) It is not spontaneous, but comes about because someone has planned, planted, or incited it. Typically, it is not a train wreck or an earthquake, but an interview.
(2) It is planted primarily (not always exclusively) for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced. Therefore, its occurrence is arranged for the convenience of the reporting or reproducing media. Its success is measured by how widely it is reported…

Endorsements these days are almost exclusively pseudo-events, and this one more than most. The reason it’s a pseudo-coup is that it’s become the story of the day. It will be discussed for the remainder of the week. It is an attention-generator, and a spotlight-stealer, since the news has drawn the media’s attention away from the endorsement of John McCain by Sen. Sam Brownback, who just dropped out of the presidential race.

Pat Robertson endorsed Rudy Giuliani for president today. This is a coup, but not for any substantive reason. Taken strictly as an electoral matter, the Robertson imprimatur is almost certainly a wash — meaning that any votes it will generate will be offset by votes it will cost among those, even on the Republican side, who find Robertson a singularly unappetizing figure (including among Evangelical Christians, many of whom come from a different eschatalogical tradition from Robertson’s).

There are times when an endorsement really does mean something substantial — when, say, a governor with a powerful political machine at his disposal anoints a presidential candidate with the understanding that his machine will do whatever it can to get the candidate elected. This is not the case here, for the reasons I’ve outlined.

That Giuliani has managed to secure the endorsement of a formerly significant leader of the Religious Right was to be expected, if for no other reason that the endorser was bound to get a lot of attention from a hungry media that can’t get enough of this pre-primary season and the intriguing fact of a pro-choice candidate sitting atop the Republican leaderboard. That Giuliani’s endorser would be Robertson is also not surprising, because he has spent years trying to make up for his disgusting assent to the repugnant claims of the late Jerry Falwell that the American Civil Liberties Union and other secularist organizations bore some responsibility for the attacks of 9/11.

What we have here, then, is a Giuliani “pseudo-coup,” to adapt Daniel Boorstin’s great neologism about staged media events that have no intrinsic meaning. In 1961, Boorstin described a “pseudo-event” as a

happening that possesses the following characteristics:

(1) It is not spontaneous, but comes about because someone has planned, planted, or incited it. Typically, it is not a train wreck or an earthquake, but an interview.
(2) It is planted primarily (not always exclusively) for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced. Therefore, its occurrence is arranged for the convenience of the reporting or reproducing media. Its success is measured by how widely it is reported…

Endorsements these days are almost exclusively pseudo-events, and this one more than most. The reason it’s a pseudo-coup is that it’s become the story of the day. It will be discussed for the remainder of the week. It is an attention-generator, and a spotlight-stealer, since the news has drawn the media’s attention away from the endorsement of John McCain by Sen. Sam Brownback, who just dropped out of the presidential race.

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Academic Mobbery

The students at American University in Cairo (AUC), where I studied last year, are furious. Last week, a rumor spread via Facebook that “The AUC administration has decided to start open relations with academic circles in the Israeli state, despite the general boycott of Israeli academics that exists in Egypt until today.” In protest, students disrupted the faculty senate’s November 1 meeting, forcing its adjournment. This soon became national news.

But was the faculty actually discussing opening exchanges with Israeli academics and universities? Even Walid Kazziha, chair of the Political Science Department and a vocal opponent of these allegedly proposed exchanges, wasn’t sure. “It became an issue when, in summer 2006, a conference was held at AUC which was attended by several Israeli teachers,” he said in a phone interview. “Since then, there were no further contacts as far as I know.” Meanwhile, AUC has refused to answer whether academic exchanges with Israel are even being considered on any official level, releasing this ambiguous statement:

…. In the spirit of free and open debate on issues of academic governance, the administration welcomes the discussions now taking place within the AUC community regarding academic cooperation with scholars and universities in other countries, including Israel. The administration views this as an on-going discussion and looks forward to continuing to work with the faculty senate in addressing this and other issues.

This is hardly the first time that rumors of exchanges with Israel have surfaced at AUC. Back in June 2007, the Office of Communications and Marketing frantically dashed this e-mail off to students:

The American University in Cairo would like to state that it has made no invitation to the Israeli ambassador in Egypt to attend any of its upcoming events. Recent news reports claiming that it has invited the ambassador to attend a forum at the university are completely false.

At the time, AUC President David Arnold conceded to the mob. “In deciding whether to sponsor or host international seminars, public lectures, or conferences that could include Israeli participants or attendees,” he said, “the university has exercised discretion on a case-by-case basis, taking local conditions and campus safety factors into account.”

Now that the issue has resurfaced, perhaps Arnold will recognize that he has a teachable moment on his hands. It’s high time for him to fulfill AUC’s own declared mission of promoting “the ideals of an American liberal-arts education” and encouraging “the exchange of ideas,” rather than conceding weakly to “local conditions”—i.e., hatred for Israel.

Should Israelis come to AUC, students have vowed to hold strikes and sit-ins. In the meantime, they are pushing for a written policy banning Israelis from campus. This sort of exclusionary behavior is simply below any university that claims to be inspired by American ideals. President Arnold, who has dedicated his career to promoting intercultural academic exchange, needs to say so.

The students at American University in Cairo (AUC), where I studied last year, are furious. Last week, a rumor spread via Facebook that “The AUC administration has decided to start open relations with academic circles in the Israeli state, despite the general boycott of Israeli academics that exists in Egypt until today.” In protest, students disrupted the faculty senate’s November 1 meeting, forcing its adjournment. This soon became national news.

But was the faculty actually discussing opening exchanges with Israeli academics and universities? Even Walid Kazziha, chair of the Political Science Department and a vocal opponent of these allegedly proposed exchanges, wasn’t sure. “It became an issue when, in summer 2006, a conference was held at AUC which was attended by several Israeli teachers,” he said in a phone interview. “Since then, there were no further contacts as far as I know.” Meanwhile, AUC has refused to answer whether academic exchanges with Israel are even being considered on any official level, releasing this ambiguous statement:

…. In the spirit of free and open debate on issues of academic governance, the administration welcomes the discussions now taking place within the AUC community regarding academic cooperation with scholars and universities in other countries, including Israel. The administration views this as an on-going discussion and looks forward to continuing to work with the faculty senate in addressing this and other issues.

This is hardly the first time that rumors of exchanges with Israel have surfaced at AUC. Back in June 2007, the Office of Communications and Marketing frantically dashed this e-mail off to students:

The American University in Cairo would like to state that it has made no invitation to the Israeli ambassador in Egypt to attend any of its upcoming events. Recent news reports claiming that it has invited the ambassador to attend a forum at the university are completely false.

At the time, AUC President David Arnold conceded to the mob. “In deciding whether to sponsor or host international seminars, public lectures, or conferences that could include Israeli participants or attendees,” he said, “the university has exercised discretion on a case-by-case basis, taking local conditions and campus safety factors into account.”

Now that the issue has resurfaced, perhaps Arnold will recognize that he has a teachable moment on his hands. It’s high time for him to fulfill AUC’s own declared mission of promoting “the ideals of an American liberal-arts education” and encouraging “the exchange of ideas,” rather than conceding weakly to “local conditions”—i.e., hatred for Israel.

Should Israelis come to AUC, students have vowed to hold strikes and sit-ins. In the meantime, they are pushing for a written policy banning Israelis from campus. This sort of exclusionary behavior is simply below any university that claims to be inspired by American ideals. President Arnold, who has dedicated his career to promoting intercultural academic exchange, needs to say so.

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Really Terrible Music

The whimsical Scottish novelist Alexander McCall Smith, author of the popular No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series of mysteries, as well as academic works on his research specialty of medical law, has an unexpected new hit on his hands. As McCall Smith told the Daily Telegraph, he and his wife founded the Edinburgh-based Really Terrible Orchestra (RTO) for self-confessedly poor amateur players, as a fun form of musical therapy. A mainstay since 1995 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the RTO sold out its London debut on November 3, and doubtless will soon make its New York debut.

Manhattan audiences are always eager to witness a musical car wreck, and the RTO guarantees just that, as McCall Smith, the orchestra’s bassoonist, explains: “Various sections of the orchestra stop playing if the music becomes a little bit too complex. There are all sorts of things that can go wrong and occasionally our conductor has to stop us and take us back to the beginning again and the audience absolutely loves that.” The subject of a 2005 short documentary, the RTO has even released CD’s, featuring mangled versions of pop songs like King of the Road and Yellow Submarine.

Although crowds will flock to see ineptitude on display, as fans of the 1962 New York Mets proved, the RTO’s stance of proudly self-proclaimed incapacity is an innovation. A detailed new documentary from VAI, Florence Foster Jenkins: A World of Her Own tells everything one would ever want to know about the excruciatingly bad coloratura soprano, who drew crowds to recital in the 1940’s.

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The whimsical Scottish novelist Alexander McCall Smith, author of the popular No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series of mysteries, as well as academic works on his research specialty of medical law, has an unexpected new hit on his hands. As McCall Smith told the Daily Telegraph, he and his wife founded the Edinburgh-based Really Terrible Orchestra (RTO) for self-confessedly poor amateur players, as a fun form of musical therapy. A mainstay since 1995 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the RTO sold out its London debut on November 3, and doubtless will soon make its New York debut.

Manhattan audiences are always eager to witness a musical car wreck, and the RTO guarantees just that, as McCall Smith, the orchestra’s bassoonist, explains: “Various sections of the orchestra stop playing if the music becomes a little bit too complex. There are all sorts of things that can go wrong and occasionally our conductor has to stop us and take us back to the beginning again and the audience absolutely loves that.” The subject of a 2005 short documentary, the RTO has even released CD’s, featuring mangled versions of pop songs like King of the Road and Yellow Submarine.

Although crowds will flock to see ineptitude on display, as fans of the 1962 New York Mets proved, the RTO’s stance of proudly self-proclaimed incapacity is an innovation. A detailed new documentary from VAI, Florence Foster Jenkins: A World of Her Own tells everything one would ever want to know about the excruciatingly bad coloratura soprano, who drew crowds to recital in the 1940’s.

The self-delusion of Jenkins (1868–1944) inspired a number of recent plays, like Stephen Temperley’s 2005 Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, as well as a ballet choreographed by Ohad Naharin of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company to Jenkins’s caterwauling of an aria from Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. These works mix the pathos of failed aspirations with laughs at punctured pretensions. Yet many who laugh at Jenkins’s recordings are motivated by plain old cattiness, as the arch notes to VAI’s The Muse Surmounted—Florence Foster Jenkins and Eleven Rivals show, ridiculing elderly women who were unfortunate enough to preserve their singing on tape for derision by later generations. This mean-spiritedness happily is absent from McCall Smith’s venture, yet the RTO on display is still uncomfortably close to audience fascination with past spectacles, like the Australian pianist David Helfgott, whose life inspired the 1996 film Shine. Helfgott’s celebrity led for a time to a spate of unlistenable Helfgott concerts and even CD’s.

Classical music may not be in its death throes, as some critics adamantly claim, but it surely does not need concerts and CD’s from the orchestral equivalent of the American Idol auditioner William Hung, who himself has launched a performing and recording career. Performers should not be encouraged to believe that the more objectionable they sound, the more the world will approve of them.

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Supporting Democracy in Pakistan

General Pervez Musharraf justifies his imposition of martial law—he prefers to call it a “state of emergency,” which makes him sound like one of the sinister characters from a Costa-Gavras movie—by citing the increase in terrorist attacks across his country. There has indeed been growing militancy by extremist Islamic groups, which serves as a severe indictment of Musharraf’s eight years in power.

And yet he is using his “emergency” powers not to crack down on Islamic terrorists, but on peaceful civil society activists. As this Washington Post dispatch from Lahore notes:

Over the weekend . . . an estimated 70 community leaders were arrested here during a cookies-and-tea meeting of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Those detained included a college dean, a well-known poet, an economics professor, and a board member of the International Crisis Group.

Through such actions, Musharraf is undermining the anti-terrorist coalition that should include the vast majority of Pakistan’s people and its leading political parties. He is also casting the United States into ever deeper obloquy because the Bush administration has provided such unstinting and uncritical support of his misrule. The administration should now make clear, by holding back further aid to Pakistan if necessary, that its support for democracy is more than rhetorical.

A return to democracy is certainly no cure-all for Pakistan’s ills. The country will continue to face a determined Islamic insurgency no matter what happens. But Musharraf’s legitimacy clearly is reaching a nadir, and his efforts to suppress the extremists have largely failed. There is at least a possibility that a more popular and more legitimate government may have more success than the isolated dictator who is fast turning his own people against him.

General Pervez Musharraf justifies his imposition of martial law—he prefers to call it a “state of emergency,” which makes him sound like one of the sinister characters from a Costa-Gavras movie—by citing the increase in terrorist attacks across his country. There has indeed been growing militancy by extremist Islamic groups, which serves as a severe indictment of Musharraf’s eight years in power.

And yet he is using his “emergency” powers not to crack down on Islamic terrorists, but on peaceful civil society activists. As this Washington Post dispatch from Lahore notes:

Over the weekend . . . an estimated 70 community leaders were arrested here during a cookies-and-tea meeting of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Those detained included a college dean, a well-known poet, an economics professor, and a board member of the International Crisis Group.

Through such actions, Musharraf is undermining the anti-terrorist coalition that should include the vast majority of Pakistan’s people and its leading political parties. He is also casting the United States into ever deeper obloquy because the Bush administration has provided such unstinting and uncritical support of his misrule. The administration should now make clear, by holding back further aid to Pakistan if necessary, that its support for democracy is more than rhetorical.

A return to democracy is certainly no cure-all for Pakistan’s ills. The country will continue to face a determined Islamic insurgency no matter what happens. But Musharraf’s legitimacy clearly is reaching a nadir, and his efforts to suppress the extremists have largely failed. There is at least a possibility that a more popular and more legitimate government may have more success than the isolated dictator who is fast turning his own people against him.

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Who is Michael J. Sulick? #2

That is the question I posed here a few days back. And of course, as readers of Connecting the Dots now know, Michael J. Sulick is the man in charge of the CIA’s worldwide efforts to gather human intelligence, or Humint as it is called in the trade.

Mr. Sulick’s background, which consists largely of conducting espionage against Soviet and East bloc countries, made me wonder if he is the right man for the job, given that our principal intelligence target these days — al Qaeda and affiliated Islamic terrorists — is located in a different quadrant of the world and, more significantly, is of an entirely different character than the sovereign states against which Mr. Sulick was operating in the past.

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That is the question I posed here a few days back. And of course, as readers of Connecting the Dots now know, Michael J. Sulick is the man in charge of the CIA’s worldwide efforts to gather human intelligence, or Humint as it is called in the trade.

Mr. Sulick’s background, which consists largely of conducting espionage against Soviet and East bloc countries, made me wonder if he is the right man for the job, given that our principal intelligence target these days — al Qaeda and affiliated Islamic terrorists — is located in a different quadrant of the world and, more significantly, is of an entirely different character than the sovereign states against which Mr. Sulick was operating in the past.

I also was left wondering if Sulick’s appointment telegraphed the fact that the CIA has not yet managed to assemble a staff of officers competent in conducting operations in the countries comprising the Islamic world.

A friend who is quite conversant with such things and whose judgment I trust, has responded by writing to me that, despite my impressions about Sulick’s off-kilter background, he is “very capable, experienced, and open-minded,” and also familiar with the Islamic world from his years as the agency’s associate deputy director for operations and also as CIA counterintelligence chief. Sulick is thus the “best bet” the agency has.

But my friend’s comments also confirm my assessment that Sulick’s appointment reflects an overall weakness in our intelligence efforts. None of the agencies that comprise the U.S. intelligence community appears to have “an Arabic expert capable of leading the clandestine service.” But this is not an insuperable gap. Sulick “has the ability and expertise to find/groom such a person, who can direct collection and operations in the Islamic world.” My friend acknowledged that “the agency needs [to build] an expert cadre of such intelligence officers and that takes time.”

This also involves overcoming certain delicate obstacles. One such, as my friend pointed out, is the “reliability” of CIA applicants who are natives or former natives of target countries. In other words, it is proving difficult to find recruits who are both knowledgeable and who can make it through the agency’s stringent security-clearance process. Fear of an al Qaeda mole making his way into the CIA remains high.

A terrorist sympathizer inside the CIA would be a terrifying prospect. It is bad enough that agency has had its share of pathological misfits, and it is bad enough that in the last few years the CIA has made a number of disastrous blunders even without an enemy mole to help it along.

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