Commentary Magazine


Posts For: November 12, 2007

Eric Alterman’s Alternate History

One of the first things you learn as a journalist is that the biographies of writers which appear on the backs of their books, at the end of their articles, or on websites are not written by editors or interns at publications, but the journalists themselves. Most journalists provide their place of employment and list any books they have authored. Some go further, listing awards or scholarships they have won (and even, should they have won too many, declined). Others feel the need to share their incomparable brilliance with the world. Reading the biography of Nation columnist and CUNY professor Eric Alterman, “a frequent lecturer and contributor to virtually every significant national publication in the United States and many in Europe,” you get a sense of the man’s mammoth importance (in his own mind) to the world of American arts and letters.
Alterman is usually better left unread. (This parody, presented as a greeting card Alterman wrote to his grandmother explaining why he did not “forget” her birthday, hilariously captures his pretentious, ad hominem attack style.) But the indefatigable Times of London columnist Oliver Kamm could not allow the ubiquitous pundit’s column last week to stand uncorrected.

Alterman claims, in this column, that “no reputable historian would put the casualty figure for a U.S. invasion of Japan anywhere near” one million, as Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbets suggested it would be. Alterman makes this claim in the course of articulating a familiar argument: that the U.S. media, as a whole, serves a right-wing agenda. Kamm begs to disagree, painstakingly showing why Alterman’s off-the-cuff assertion is baseless:

One of my regular correspondents, the military historian D.M. Giangreco, wrote a definitive paper on the administration’s casualty estimates, published as “‘A Score of Bloody Okinawas and Iwo Jimas': President Truman and Casualty Estimates for the Invasion of Japan”, in Pacific Historical Review, Feb 2003, and reprinted in Hiroshima in History: The Myths of Revisionism, ed. Robert J. Maddox, 2007, pp. 76-115. From his scrutiny of primary sources, he observed: “Truman’s much-derided accounts of massive casualties projected for the two-phase invasion of Japan are richly supported by US Army, White House, Selective Service and War Department documents produced before the use of nuclear weapons against Japan and stretching back through the last nine months of the Roosevelt administration.”

In his paper, Dennis quotes from a letter to him by George F. Kennan, the most significant figure in US diplomacy in the past century and chief of policy planning to General George Marshall immediately after the War. Writing in 1997, Kennan concurred: “I have no doubt that our leaders, General Marshall among them, had good reason to anticipate a casualty rate of dreadful and sickening proportions in any invasion of Japan.” After the publication of his paper, Dennis also received the views of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (quoted in a letter by Dennis published in The Journal of Military History, January 2004): “The Pacific Historical Review paper is a masterful job of historical research and argument . . . . You have demolished the claim that President Truman’s high casualty estimates were a postwar invention.”

Kamm also knocks down, in the course of his piece, Alterman’s May 2007 assertion that “you have be some combination of crazy, ignorant, dishonest, or ideologically obsessed to believe that Islamic fundamentalists want to kill us because of ‘who we are’ rather than ‘what we do.'” Alterman’s journalism is sadly replete with such blithe assertions and accusations. The work of Kamm, and of other serious political journalists, is an unfortunately necessary corrective.

One of the first things you learn as a journalist is that the biographies of writers which appear on the backs of their books, at the end of their articles, or on websites are not written by editors or interns at publications, but the journalists themselves. Most journalists provide their place of employment and list any books they have authored. Some go further, listing awards or scholarships they have won (and even, should they have won too many, declined). Others feel the need to share their incomparable brilliance with the world. Reading the biography of Nation columnist and CUNY professor Eric Alterman, “a frequent lecturer and contributor to virtually every significant national publication in the United States and many in Europe,” you get a sense of the man’s mammoth importance (in his own mind) to the world of American arts and letters.
Alterman is usually better left unread. (This parody, presented as a greeting card Alterman wrote to his grandmother explaining why he did not “forget” her birthday, hilariously captures his pretentious, ad hominem attack style.) But the indefatigable Times of London columnist Oliver Kamm could not allow the ubiquitous pundit’s column last week to stand uncorrected.

Alterman claims, in this column, that “no reputable historian would put the casualty figure for a U.S. invasion of Japan anywhere near” one million, as Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbets suggested it would be. Alterman makes this claim in the course of articulating a familiar argument: that the U.S. media, as a whole, serves a right-wing agenda. Kamm begs to disagree, painstakingly showing why Alterman’s off-the-cuff assertion is baseless:

One of my regular correspondents, the military historian D.M. Giangreco, wrote a definitive paper on the administration’s casualty estimates, published as “‘A Score of Bloody Okinawas and Iwo Jimas': President Truman and Casualty Estimates for the Invasion of Japan”, in Pacific Historical Review, Feb 2003, and reprinted in Hiroshima in History: The Myths of Revisionism, ed. Robert J. Maddox, 2007, pp. 76-115. From his scrutiny of primary sources, he observed: “Truman’s much-derided accounts of massive casualties projected for the two-phase invasion of Japan are richly supported by US Army, White House, Selective Service and War Department documents produced before the use of nuclear weapons against Japan and stretching back through the last nine months of the Roosevelt administration.”

In his paper, Dennis quotes from a letter to him by George F. Kennan, the most significant figure in US diplomacy in the past century and chief of policy planning to General George Marshall immediately after the War. Writing in 1997, Kennan concurred: “I have no doubt that our leaders, General Marshall among them, had good reason to anticipate a casualty rate of dreadful and sickening proportions in any invasion of Japan.” After the publication of his paper, Dennis also received the views of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (quoted in a letter by Dennis published in The Journal of Military History, January 2004): “The Pacific Historical Review paper is a masterful job of historical research and argument . . . . You have demolished the claim that President Truman’s high casualty estimates were a postwar invention.”

Kamm also knocks down, in the course of his piece, Alterman’s May 2007 assertion that “you have be some combination of crazy, ignorant, dishonest, or ideologically obsessed to believe that Islamic fundamentalists want to kill us because of ‘who we are’ rather than ‘what we do.'” Alterman’s journalism is sadly replete with such blithe assertions and accusations. The work of Kamm, and of other serious political journalists, is an unfortunately necessary corrective.

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Don’t Believe Your Ears

Saeb Erekat, the longstanding Palestinian negotiator, announced on Israeli radio today that the Palestinians will not accept Israel as a “Jewish state” (never mind that it already is)—that description carrying with it, of course, a prohibition on Israel’s being flooded with the millions of descendants of the Arabs who left Palestine before and during the 1948 War of Independence, people currently languishing under the awful custodianship of UNRWA in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria.

Erekat is legendary for what could politely be called his casual relationship to the truth. In one of his finer moments, in 2002, he was shrieking to every Western reporter who would listen that the IDF had slaughtered over 500 civilians in Jenin and buried them in mass graves (the reporters not only were listening but believing, and thereafter not caring very much at having been lied to). But all of that unpleasantness is so much water under the bridge at this point. Erekat is a favorite of the press corps, and little things like false accusations of a massacre should never be permitted to undercut future media appearances.

And so today, in refusing to assent to the existence of something that is already real—a Jewish homeland—he said that “no state in the world connects its national identity to a religious identity.” I wonder if Erekat is familiar with the two largest states in the Middle East—Saudi Arabia and Iran—that do exactly that, and in far more sensational fashion than liberal, democratic Israel? Are any of the journalists who routinely make themselves the receptacles for Erekat’s garbage going to ask him, in his next media appearance (occurring moments from now, I feel safe predicting) to explain this strange proposition? It is amazing that this clown continues to command attention from journalists.

Saeb Erekat, the longstanding Palestinian negotiator, announced on Israeli radio today that the Palestinians will not accept Israel as a “Jewish state” (never mind that it already is)—that description carrying with it, of course, a prohibition on Israel’s being flooded with the millions of descendants of the Arabs who left Palestine before and during the 1948 War of Independence, people currently languishing under the awful custodianship of UNRWA in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria.

Erekat is legendary for what could politely be called his casual relationship to the truth. In one of his finer moments, in 2002, he was shrieking to every Western reporter who would listen that the IDF had slaughtered over 500 civilians in Jenin and buried them in mass graves (the reporters not only were listening but believing, and thereafter not caring very much at having been lied to). But all of that unpleasantness is so much water under the bridge at this point. Erekat is a favorite of the press corps, and little things like false accusations of a massacre should never be permitted to undercut future media appearances.

And so today, in refusing to assent to the existence of something that is already real—a Jewish homeland—he said that “no state in the world connects its national identity to a religious identity.” I wonder if Erekat is familiar with the two largest states in the Middle East—Saudi Arabia and Iran—that do exactly that, and in far more sensational fashion than liberal, democratic Israel? Are any of the journalists who routinely make themselves the receptacles for Erekat’s garbage going to ask him, in his next media appearance (occurring moments from now, I feel safe predicting) to explain this strange proposition? It is amazing that this clown continues to command attention from journalists.

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Khan and Kim

On Saturday, the Washington Post reported that North Korea is trying to convince the United States that it never intended to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. “Some explanations make sense; some are a bit of a stretch,” said one American official involved in the discussions with Pyongyang. Whether or not the North Koreans are telling the truth, we have now reached the critical phase of negotiations that formally started in April 2003.

In February of this year, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea agreed to a two-part deal to shut down its nuclear weapons program. The North already has completed its first-stage obligations by turning off and sealing its only working reactor, which is located in Yongbyon. At this moment, American and other officials are implementing the second part by “disabling” the reactor. The North Koreans will complete their second-stage promises when they disclose all nuclear programs.

Why do we suspect that Kim Jong Il’s technicians have been trying to enrich uranium? Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb and the ringleader of a global black market in nuke technology, says he began working with North Korea around 1991. Among other things, Khan supplied equipment for centrifuges—supersonic-speed machines that separate uranium’s different isotopes so as to permit the collection of weapons-grade material—until as late as the middle of 2002, shortly before he admitted his black-market activities. North Korean agents also have been caught buying items that are useful in a uranium-bomb program, such as aluminum tubes suitable for Khan-type centrifuges. Pakistan’s help may have continued until as recently as 2003: Khan has been sighted in the North more than a dozen times.

So far, the North Koreans have denied virtually everything, calling allegations a “whopping lie” fabricated by the United States. Yet there is one way to get to the bottom of this matter: talk to Khan face-to-face. Seymour Hersh, writing in the New Yorker, claims that American officials have had “access” to him, but the preponderance of evidence indicates that General Pervez Musharraf has rebuffed the Bush administration’s requests for one-on-one contact. There are reports that the Pakistani leader has turned down Washington to prevent the exposure of China’s ties with Khan.

If the embattled strongman is such a good friend of America, as the White House claims he is, then let him prove it. We need to talk to Khan directly now—and General Musharraf can make it happen.

On Saturday, the Washington Post reported that North Korea is trying to convince the United States that it never intended to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. “Some explanations make sense; some are a bit of a stretch,” said one American official involved in the discussions with Pyongyang. Whether or not the North Koreans are telling the truth, we have now reached the critical phase of negotiations that formally started in April 2003.

In February of this year, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea agreed to a two-part deal to shut down its nuclear weapons program. The North already has completed its first-stage obligations by turning off and sealing its only working reactor, which is located in Yongbyon. At this moment, American and other officials are implementing the second part by “disabling” the reactor. The North Koreans will complete their second-stage promises when they disclose all nuclear programs.

Why do we suspect that Kim Jong Il’s technicians have been trying to enrich uranium? Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb and the ringleader of a global black market in nuke technology, says he began working with North Korea around 1991. Among other things, Khan supplied equipment for centrifuges—supersonic-speed machines that separate uranium’s different isotopes so as to permit the collection of weapons-grade material—until as late as the middle of 2002, shortly before he admitted his black-market activities. North Korean agents also have been caught buying items that are useful in a uranium-bomb program, such as aluminum tubes suitable for Khan-type centrifuges. Pakistan’s help may have continued until as recently as 2003: Khan has been sighted in the North more than a dozen times.

So far, the North Koreans have denied virtually everything, calling allegations a “whopping lie” fabricated by the United States. Yet there is one way to get to the bottom of this matter: talk to Khan face-to-face. Seymour Hersh, writing in the New Yorker, claims that American officials have had “access” to him, but the preponderance of evidence indicates that General Pervez Musharraf has rebuffed the Bush administration’s requests for one-on-one contact. There are reports that the Pakistani leader has turned down Washington to prevent the exposure of China’s ties with Khan.

If the embattled strongman is such a good friend of America, as the White House claims he is, then let him prove it. We need to talk to Khan directly now—and General Musharraf can make it happen.

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Terror’s Advocate

Jacques Vergès is a lawyer—a lawyer who makes Lynne Stewart seem like Atticus Finch. At the conclusion of Barbet Schroeder’s new documentary on Vergès, Terror’s Advocate, snapshots of a handful of his clients appear on the screen. It’s not a pretty list: Vergès has served as legal counsel for Slobodan Milosevic, Klaus Barbie, Carlos the Jackal, and Tariq Aziz, to name a few. A die-hard radical born to a Vietnamese mother and French father, Vergès cut his teeth defending members of the Algerian National Liberation Front. From there, supposedly in the name of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism, he has represented and associated with a smorgasbord of terrorists, Nazi-sympathizers, Islamists, dictators, and thugs.

It is to Schroeder’s great credit that his documentary avoids grandstanding and allows the viewer to come to his own conclusions about its subject. One might have expected this to be the case: Schroeder’s previous films include General Idi Amin Dada (1974), a fascinating and poker-faced examination of the psychopathic Ugandan dictator.

Whereas Idi Amin came across in the earlier film as creepily genial and unhinged, Vergès seems smug and self-important. As he chirpily recaps his career for the camera, he appears utterly oblivious to its moral dubiousness. And no wonder: At one point in the film, a good friend of his claims that Vergès would blithely be a terrorist himself, except for the fact that such a career wouldn’t allow him to indulge in his expensive tastes.

The end result is an engaging and disturbing documentary that investigates the relationship between revolutionary idealism and moral odiousness.

Jacques Vergès is a lawyer—a lawyer who makes Lynne Stewart seem like Atticus Finch. At the conclusion of Barbet Schroeder’s new documentary on Vergès, Terror’s Advocate, snapshots of a handful of his clients appear on the screen. It’s not a pretty list: Vergès has served as legal counsel for Slobodan Milosevic, Klaus Barbie, Carlos the Jackal, and Tariq Aziz, to name a few. A die-hard radical born to a Vietnamese mother and French father, Vergès cut his teeth defending members of the Algerian National Liberation Front. From there, supposedly in the name of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism, he has represented and associated with a smorgasbord of terrorists, Nazi-sympathizers, Islamists, dictators, and thugs.

It is to Schroeder’s great credit that his documentary avoids grandstanding and allows the viewer to come to his own conclusions about its subject. One might have expected this to be the case: Schroeder’s previous films include General Idi Amin Dada (1974), a fascinating and poker-faced examination of the psychopathic Ugandan dictator.

Whereas Idi Amin came across in the earlier film as creepily genial and unhinged, Vergès seems smug and self-important. As he chirpily recaps his career for the camera, he appears utterly oblivious to its moral dubiousness. And no wonder: At one point in the film, a good friend of his claims that Vergès would blithely be a terrorist himself, except for the fact that such a career wouldn’t allow him to indulge in his expensive tastes.

The end result is an engaging and disturbing documentary that investigates the relationship between revolutionary idealism and moral odiousness.

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“Free Speech” at Harvard

A new drama loosely focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about to unfold at Harvard. Professor J. Lorand Matory, a signatory of the 2002 Israel divestment petition, plans to introduce a resolution calling for “free speech” at the next faculty meeting. Foremost among Matory’s concerns is his belief that criticism of Israel has been stifled on campus.

It’s no longer interesting to note that those accusing Israel’s supporters of stifling speech are among the least-stifled people in the world. Indeed, Matory is so uncensored that he recently published an article alleging censorship—a right that true victims of censorship do not, by definition, enjoy. As he has frequently spoken out against Israel in statements and articles, his opponents have a strong case in declaring his proposed motion bogus.

But Matory’s proposal deserves more consideration. After all, it calls for affirming “free speech,” strangely scorning “academic freedom,” the typical catchphrase employed by professors defending their vocal disdain for Israel. No doubt unintentionally, this selective phraseology properly accounts for Matory’s own limitations: he possesses no professional or experiential qualifications that would make his criticisms of Israel remotely academic. Constitutionally guaranteed “free speech” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however uninformed, is thus the most he can reasonably demand.

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A new drama loosely focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about to unfold at Harvard. Professor J. Lorand Matory, a signatory of the 2002 Israel divestment petition, plans to introduce a resolution calling for “free speech” at the next faculty meeting. Foremost among Matory’s concerns is his belief that criticism of Israel has been stifled on campus.

It’s no longer interesting to note that those accusing Israel’s supporters of stifling speech are among the least-stifled people in the world. Indeed, Matory is so uncensored that he recently published an article alleging censorship—a right that true victims of censorship do not, by definition, enjoy. As he has frequently spoken out against Israel in statements and articles, his opponents have a strong case in declaring his proposed motion bogus.

But Matory’s proposal deserves more consideration. After all, it calls for affirming “free speech,” strangely scorning “academic freedom,” the typical catchphrase employed by professors defending their vocal disdain for Israel. No doubt unintentionally, this selective phraseology properly accounts for Matory’s own limitations: he possesses no professional or experiential qualifications that would make his criticisms of Israel remotely academic. Constitutionally guaranteed “free speech” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however uninformed, is thus the most he can reasonably demand.

In this vein, his admissions during a lengthy phone interview I conducted with him were stunning. After he presented his essential thesis that Israel is a racist, apartheid state, I asked Matory what books had inspired his views. Matory was unable to name a single book or author, saying that he was “largely informed by the international press.” When asked why he hadn’t traveled to the region to examine the conflict’s complexities firsthand, Matory said that he wouldn’t go to Israel on principle, but that such a trip was hardly necessary: he has plenty of Israeli friends and neighbors, stateside. But had he ever spoken with these Israeli friends and neighbors, or Israeli colleagues and students—he claimed to have had many—regarding the conflict? “Not that I recall,” he conceded.

The most bizarre moment in our conversation, however, involved a biographical detail. Matory recalled that the Sabra and Shatilla massacre had catalyzed his disillusionment with Israel, saying that he read about the massacre in the Boston Globe while eating lunch as an undergraduate at Harvard’s old Union dining hall, and had vomited at the table in disgust. Yet this story is impossible: Matory graduated in June 1982, while the massacre took place in September 1982—when he would have been studying in Nigeria on a Rotary Scholarship. “I hadn’t realized that,” Matory said.

Naturally, Matory’s severe gaps in memory, research, experience, intellectual curiosity, and knowledge of the Arab-Israeli conflict should prevent him from achieving academic credibility in this area. And his proposed resolution (perhaps unintentionally) recognizes this, calling for “free speech” rather than “academic freedom”—an appreciable distinction insofar as Matory often speaks on Israel freely, but not in an academically serious manner.

Rather than making him a martyr by contesting his proposal, the faculty should unanimously approve his superfluous demand for free speech with a yawn. Or perhaps some apprehension: the more freely Matory speaks on foreign affairs, the more his lack of seriousness will be exposed, and the worse Harvard looks.

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I’m Not There—Until They Hand Out Oscars

Midway through I’m Not There, director Todd Haynes’s soon-to-open film fantasia in which Bob Dylan is played by six different actors to signify different phases in the life of the Bard of Hibbing, the Australian actress Cate Blanchett pops up—and as was the case with her appearance as Kate Hepburn in The Aviator, Blanchett makes it immediately clear that this is an Oscar™ role.

Though Blanchett is strenuously coiffed and made up to look like Dylan, with a frizzy wig and Ray-Bans and loose-fitting shirts, never for a moment do you forget that this is Cate Blanchett Acting The Hell Out Of This Role. The clatter of Blanchett’s acting drowns out everything around her.

Within the cubist style of the movie, it isn’t particularly surprising to see a woman play Dylan—he’s also played here by a black kid calling himself “Woody Guthrie.” To have a black kid portray the larval Dylan makes a kind of sense, since, as a troubadour in training, young Robert Zimmerman cooked up a Guthrie-like legend for himself to hide his shame over his white middle-classness while singing about Blind Willie McTell. But there is nothing feminine about Dylan in this movie.

And yet, Blanchett’s wisp of a figure and porcelain cheekbones make it impossible to forget this is a drag performance. In a scene in which her Dylan chases an Edie Sedgwick-like object of obsession around a park, she doesn’t seem remotely masculine. She gives off no sexual hunger, no sense of need. In the end, all Blanchett ever needs in any film is our rapt attention.

Midway through I’m Not There, director Todd Haynes’s soon-to-open film fantasia in which Bob Dylan is played by six different actors to signify different phases in the life of the Bard of Hibbing, the Australian actress Cate Blanchett pops up—and as was the case with her appearance as Kate Hepburn in The Aviator, Blanchett makes it immediately clear that this is an Oscar™ role.

Though Blanchett is strenuously coiffed and made up to look like Dylan, with a frizzy wig and Ray-Bans and loose-fitting shirts, never for a moment do you forget that this is Cate Blanchett Acting The Hell Out Of This Role. The clatter of Blanchett’s acting drowns out everything around her.

Within the cubist style of the movie, it isn’t particularly surprising to see a woman play Dylan—he’s also played here by a black kid calling himself “Woody Guthrie.” To have a black kid portray the larval Dylan makes a kind of sense, since, as a troubadour in training, young Robert Zimmerman cooked up a Guthrie-like legend for himself to hide his shame over his white middle-classness while singing about Blind Willie McTell. But there is nothing feminine about Dylan in this movie.

And yet, Blanchett’s wisp of a figure and porcelain cheekbones make it impossible to forget this is a drag performance. In a scene in which her Dylan chases an Edie Sedgwick-like object of obsession around a park, she doesn’t seem remotely masculine. She gives off no sexual hunger, no sense of need. In the end, all Blanchett ever needs in any film is our rapt attention.

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Name Game Endgame

The United States continues to position itself on the losing side in the increasingly heated Taiwan name game—which appears to be approaching a resolution that Washington and Beijing will dislike, but be at a loss to handle.

Reports by Agence France Presse indicate that the U.S.’s de facto Ambassador to Taipei, Stephen Young, has reiterated Washington’s opposition to the UN referendum to be held in March of next year. Although Washington is coy about its reasons for opposition, they rest on the long-standing assumption that whatever anyone else does, the Taiwan government will insist its island is part of China, by using the official name “Republic of China.” The referendum would call for the name “Taiwan” to be used in applying for UN membership, which suggests no connection to China. Therefore Washington is dead set against it—and, even as it encourages the island to improve its defenses, is withholding sales of necessary F-16’s in an attempt to exert pressure.

Washington has always relied on the (formerly dictatorial) party of Chiang Kai-shek, officially known as “The Chinese Kuomintang,” but now a democratic player in Taiwan politics, to hold the line on Taiwan’s Chineseness. But that party is now reconsidering its position, for the simple reason that to be pro-China in democratic Taiwan is electoral poison. Thus, the China Post, a pro-China paper, has just run an editorial suggesting that voters will ask Kuomintang candidates, “If you love Taiwan and are loyal to it, why do you have the name China in your party’s title?” Calling this an “Achilles’ heel,” the newspaper urges that presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou might do well to change that name to “Taiwan” Kuomintang before the elections (in November and March). Otherwise, they argue, the China issue could lead the party to yet another loss.

Sooner or later, we may be certain, the Kuomintang will heed that advice and remake itself as a purely Taiwanese party. When that happens, the basic plank of U.S. China policy will collapse. As was stated in the Shanghai Communique of February 28, 1972, published after Richard Nixon’s pathbreaking visit to China:

The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.

This was clever wording at a time when the dictatorship in Taipei insisted that Taiwan was part of China. But under a less repressive regime Taiwanese are expressing their true feelings, and even the party that ran the dictatorship is on track to go Taiwanese. The United States will soon find no one on the Taiwan side of the strait to “maintain that there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.” Washington and Beijing will have to adjust to this new situation. But neither has any idea how.

The United States continues to position itself on the losing side in the increasingly heated Taiwan name game—which appears to be approaching a resolution that Washington and Beijing will dislike, but be at a loss to handle.

Reports by Agence France Presse indicate that the U.S.’s de facto Ambassador to Taipei, Stephen Young, has reiterated Washington’s opposition to the UN referendum to be held in March of next year. Although Washington is coy about its reasons for opposition, they rest on the long-standing assumption that whatever anyone else does, the Taiwan government will insist its island is part of China, by using the official name “Republic of China.” The referendum would call for the name “Taiwan” to be used in applying for UN membership, which suggests no connection to China. Therefore Washington is dead set against it—and, even as it encourages the island to improve its defenses, is withholding sales of necessary F-16’s in an attempt to exert pressure.

Washington has always relied on the (formerly dictatorial) party of Chiang Kai-shek, officially known as “The Chinese Kuomintang,” but now a democratic player in Taiwan politics, to hold the line on Taiwan’s Chineseness. But that party is now reconsidering its position, for the simple reason that to be pro-China in democratic Taiwan is electoral poison. Thus, the China Post, a pro-China paper, has just run an editorial suggesting that voters will ask Kuomintang candidates, “If you love Taiwan and are loyal to it, why do you have the name China in your party’s title?” Calling this an “Achilles’ heel,” the newspaper urges that presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou might do well to change that name to “Taiwan” Kuomintang before the elections (in November and March). Otherwise, they argue, the China issue could lead the party to yet another loss.

Sooner or later, we may be certain, the Kuomintang will heed that advice and remake itself as a purely Taiwanese party. When that happens, the basic plank of U.S. China policy will collapse. As was stated in the Shanghai Communique of February 28, 1972, published after Richard Nixon’s pathbreaking visit to China:

The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.

This was clever wording at a time when the dictatorship in Taipei insisted that Taiwan was part of China. But under a less repressive regime Taiwanese are expressing their true feelings, and even the party that ran the dictatorship is on track to go Taiwanese. The United States will soon find no one on the Taiwan side of the strait to “maintain that there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.” Washington and Beijing will have to adjust to this new situation. But neither has any idea how.

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The Seventh-Best World War II Novel

Roger Kimball, one of our finest critics, has delivered a devastating dissection of Norman Mailer’s overrated career, which consisted of political posturing and juvenile behavior interspersed with the production of mediocre novels—at best. (Kimball’s critique may be found here.)

I have very little to add beyond a few thoughts on the book that launched Mailer’s career—The Naked and the Dead, written in 1948 when its author was a 25-year-old unknown. Kimball is dead right when he describes this work as “pretentious,” not particularly “well-crafted,” and lacking in narrative “momentum.” Kimball writes, “Its heavy-handed psychologizing and use of four-letter words were thought smart in 1948; most contemporary readers will find them quaint if not downright embarrassing.” That was certainly my reaction upon reading The Naked and the Dead years ago. What was all the fuss about, I wondered? (I recently had a similar feeling on reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.)

Yet The Naked and the Dead continues to win gushing praise. David Ulin in the Los Angeles Times writes that it “ is considered by many the greatest American war novel ever written.”

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Roger Kimball, one of our finest critics, has delivered a devastating dissection of Norman Mailer’s overrated career, which consisted of political posturing and juvenile behavior interspersed with the production of mediocre novels—at best. (Kimball’s critique may be found here.)

I have very little to add beyond a few thoughts on the book that launched Mailer’s career—The Naked and the Dead, written in 1948 when its author was a 25-year-old unknown. Kimball is dead right when he describes this work as “pretentious,” not particularly “well-crafted,” and lacking in narrative “momentum.” Kimball writes, “Its heavy-handed psychologizing and use of four-letter words were thought smart in 1948; most contemporary readers will find them quaint if not downright embarrassing.” That was certainly my reaction upon reading The Naked and the Dead years ago. What was all the fuss about, I wondered? (I recently had a similar feeling on reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.)

Yet The Naked and the Dead continues to win gushing praise. David Ulin in the Los Angeles Times writes that it “ is considered by many the greatest American war novel ever written.”

Really? It’s better than Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (the greatest novel of the Civil War), Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (the greatest American novel of World War I), or James Webb’s Fields of Fire (the greatest novel of the Vietnam War)? I think not.

It’s not even the best American novel of World War II. Not by a long shot. A number of books are actually much better, starting with, in no particular order, James Gould Cozzens’s Guard of Honor, James Jones’s From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny. I even prefer John Hersey’s slight work, A Bell for Adano, which is more like a long short story than a full-blown novel.

Let’s see. By my count that would make The Naked and the Dead at most the seventh-best novel written by an American about World War II, to say nothing of all American war novels. Of course the best novel about WWII wasn’t penned by an American. It was the three-volume Sword of Honour trilogy by Evelyn Waugh, whose biting wit, compelling plotting, vivid irony, and sparkling writing puts the puerile efforts of Norman Mailer to shame.

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Surprise, Surprise — Kaboom!

As early as 1965, the U.S. intelligence community began reporting that India was capable of producing a nuclear weapon and would detonate one “within the next few years.” Nearly a decade later, India tested its first nuclear bomb. Despite months of preparation around the test site, the CIA missed signs of the impending blast and failed to warn policymakers in advance, depriving them of any possibility of persuading India not to go ahead.

As we learn from a top-secret CIA post-mortem released to the public earlier this month (click here to enter the CIA library, and click once again on the document dated 7/1/1974 to read the heavily redacted report), the failure to connect the dots was due to two factors: “inadequate priority against an admittedly difficult target,” and “lack of adequate communications among those elements of the [intelligence] community, both collectors and producers, whose combined talents were essential to resolving the problem.

Today, Iran is also a difficult target. Will Iran one day in the not too distant future surprise us with a nuclear test? Pakistan is another difficult target. Will a Pakistan mired in chaos one day in the not too distant future surprise us with one of its weapons coming loose?

By the logic of things, the U.S. intelligence community doesn’t know what it doesn’t know about both countries. By the same logic, it also doesn’t know what it doesn’t know about its own continuing internal coordination problems. Despite massive efforts to foster better sharing of information, including especially the establishing of a new layer of bureaucracy over the intelligence community –– the Office of the Director of National Intelligence –– the possibility of communication lapses remains alive. Periodic failure is in the nature of the intelligence business, and connecting the dots is not an activity at which the U.S. in recent years has done particularly well.

The lesson for policymakers is obvious. On the one hand, they must rely on intelligence to formulate policy. On the other, they must bear in mind that intelligence can be badly flawed and formulate policies that take into account the ever-present possibility of unpleasant surprise.

As early as 1965, the U.S. intelligence community began reporting that India was capable of producing a nuclear weapon and would detonate one “within the next few years.” Nearly a decade later, India tested its first nuclear bomb. Despite months of preparation around the test site, the CIA missed signs of the impending blast and failed to warn policymakers in advance, depriving them of any possibility of persuading India not to go ahead.

As we learn from a top-secret CIA post-mortem released to the public earlier this month (click here to enter the CIA library, and click once again on the document dated 7/1/1974 to read the heavily redacted report), the failure to connect the dots was due to two factors: “inadequate priority against an admittedly difficult target,” and “lack of adequate communications among those elements of the [intelligence] community, both collectors and producers, whose combined talents were essential to resolving the problem.

Today, Iran is also a difficult target. Will Iran one day in the not too distant future surprise us with a nuclear test? Pakistan is another difficult target. Will a Pakistan mired in chaos one day in the not too distant future surprise us with one of its weapons coming loose?

By the logic of things, the U.S. intelligence community doesn’t know what it doesn’t know about both countries. By the same logic, it also doesn’t know what it doesn’t know about its own continuing internal coordination problems. Despite massive efforts to foster better sharing of information, including especially the establishing of a new layer of bureaucracy over the intelligence community –– the Office of the Director of National Intelligence –– the possibility of communication lapses remains alive. Periodic failure is in the nature of the intelligence business, and connecting the dots is not an activity at which the U.S. in recent years has done particularly well.

The lesson for policymakers is obvious. On the one hand, they must rely on intelligence to formulate policy. On the other, they must bear in mind that intelligence can be badly flawed and formulate policies that take into account the ever-present possibility of unpleasant surprise.

Read Less




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