Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 2007

Bookshelf: The Best of 2007

I’ve been reviewing books in this space for the past year, and instead of telling you about a new one this week, I thought I’d remind you of five of the ones I enjoyed most in 2007:

• Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage (HarperCollins, 208 pp., $19.95) is the best short book about Shakespeare that I know. Instead of writing about the plays, Bryson has chosen instead to concentrate on summarizing the known facts of Shakespeare’s life—of which there are precious few—and presenting them in a lively, literate manner.

• Joseph Epstein’s In a Cardboard Belt! (Houghton Mifflin, 410 pp., $26) will doubtless be self-recommending to regular readers of COMMENTARY and the Weekly Standard. It contains a wide-ranging selection of the familiar and literary essays that Epstein has published there and elsewhere in recent years, and like all his other books, it’s chatty, thoughtful and so irresistibly readable that the wise man will take care not to pick it up unless he has a free evening ahead of him.

• Andrew Ferguson’s Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America (Atlantic Monthly Press, 279 pp., $24) is a witty semi-memoir in which the author of Fools’ Names, Fools’ Faces tells us what it’s like to visit Lincoln-related sites and events throughout America. His adventures and misadventures among the Lincoln-lovers and Abe-haters are hugely amusing, but don’t let the one-liners throw you off the scent: Land of Lincoln is a deeply thoughtful consideration of Abraham Lincoln’s increasingly problematic place in postmodern American culture.

• Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts (W.W. Norton, 876 pp., $35) is a near-indescribable book whose virtues, like those of Land of Lincoln, are partially obscured by the fact that it’s so hard to pigeonhole. The best I can do is to quote myself:

[I]t’s a fat volume of short essays about a hundred or so people, most of them twentieth-century artists and writers of various kinds. Each essay is a commentary on a well-chosen quotation from its subject, and the essays are arranged alphabetically. The overarching theme of the book is the fate of humanism in what James describes as “an age of extermination, an epoch of the abattoir,” meaning that many of its subjects either ran afoul of Hitler and Stalin or sucked up to them.

Rarely has so gloomy a subject been written about with such infectious gusto. Don’t expect James to toe the right-of-center line, but the hard common sense with which he weighs the intellectual follies of the Low, Dishonest Century is arguably even more refreshing to hear from a littérateur of the center-left.

• Roger Scruton’s Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged (Encounter, 118 pp., $20) is an extended essay in which the noted philosopher makes the case for the primacy of Western culture at a moment when much of the West is experiencing “an acute crisis of identity” triggered by the twin challenges of radical Islam and the multicultural project. It is short, pointed, lucid, compelling and disturbing. Think of it as a stocking-stuffer for pessimists and you won’t be far wrong.

See you in 2008!

I’ve been reviewing books in this space for the past year, and instead of telling you about a new one this week, I thought I’d remind you of five of the ones I enjoyed most in 2007:

• Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage (HarperCollins, 208 pp., $19.95) is the best short book about Shakespeare that I know. Instead of writing about the plays, Bryson has chosen instead to concentrate on summarizing the known facts of Shakespeare’s life—of which there are precious few—and presenting them in a lively, literate manner.

• Joseph Epstein’s In a Cardboard Belt! (Houghton Mifflin, 410 pp., $26) will doubtless be self-recommending to regular readers of COMMENTARY and the Weekly Standard. It contains a wide-ranging selection of the familiar and literary essays that Epstein has published there and elsewhere in recent years, and like all his other books, it’s chatty, thoughtful and so irresistibly readable that the wise man will take care not to pick it up unless he has a free evening ahead of him.

• Andrew Ferguson’s Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America (Atlantic Monthly Press, 279 pp., $24) is a witty semi-memoir in which the author of Fools’ Names, Fools’ Faces tells us what it’s like to visit Lincoln-related sites and events throughout America. His adventures and misadventures among the Lincoln-lovers and Abe-haters are hugely amusing, but don’t let the one-liners throw you off the scent: Land of Lincoln is a deeply thoughtful consideration of Abraham Lincoln’s increasingly problematic place in postmodern American culture.

• Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts (W.W. Norton, 876 pp., $35) is a near-indescribable book whose virtues, like those of Land of Lincoln, are partially obscured by the fact that it’s so hard to pigeonhole. The best I can do is to quote myself:

[I]t’s a fat volume of short essays about a hundred or so people, most of them twentieth-century artists and writers of various kinds. Each essay is a commentary on a well-chosen quotation from its subject, and the essays are arranged alphabetically. The overarching theme of the book is the fate of humanism in what James describes as “an age of extermination, an epoch of the abattoir,” meaning that many of its subjects either ran afoul of Hitler and Stalin or sucked up to them.

Rarely has so gloomy a subject been written about with such infectious gusto. Don’t expect James to toe the right-of-center line, but the hard common sense with which he weighs the intellectual follies of the Low, Dishonest Century is arguably even more refreshing to hear from a littérateur of the center-left.

• Roger Scruton’s Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged (Encounter, 118 pp., $20) is an extended essay in which the noted philosopher makes the case for the primacy of Western culture at a moment when much of the West is experiencing “an acute crisis of identity” triggered by the twin challenges of radical Islam and the multicultural project. It is short, pointed, lucid, compelling and disturbing. Think of it as a stocking-stuffer for pessimists and you won’t be far wrong.

See you in 2008!

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Springtime for China and Japan

Yesterday, Japan’s Yasuo Fukuda returned from his first official visit to China as prime minister. During his four-day “ringing in the spring” trip, he received a red-carpet welcome, bowed to a statue of Confucius at the philosopher’s birthplace, held “heart-to-heart” talks with senior leaders in Beijing, and spoke to students at prestigious Peking University. Fukuda agreed to transfer environmental technology to China, promised to reflect on Japan’s historical mistakes, and abjectly said what Beijing demanded on the subject of Taiwan. In the midst of his heavy schedule he even had time for a game of catch with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, each of them decked out in a baseball uniform and wearing a red cap decorated by a “C.”

Yet the trip, to borrow the words of Tokyo political scientist Takeshi Inoguchi, “was not a home run.” Other leaders come away from Beijing with economic packages or concessions of some sort. Fukuda returned to Japan with only Beijing’s momentary goodwill. Perhaps that was all that Fukuda could achieve in these circumstances.

Yet the object of diplomacy is not maintaining good relations—the object is achieving national goals. Japan, unfortunately, has been particularly unable to do so when it comes to China. The most visible open sores between the two nations are their competing territorial claims, especially the one festering over the gas fields in the East China Sea. On the East China Sea dispute, Beijing issued a stream of wonderful-sounding but essentially meaningless words during Fukuda’s visit. “We feel each other’s sincerity and determination,” Premier Wen said after their talks on the subject.

Of course, we can’t be too tough on Japan for failing to craft a sensible approach to China, because Tokyo is merely taking its cue from a feckless Washington. As Michael Auslin pointed out recently, other nations will become allies of Beijing unless the United States can come up with more resolute policies. On his recently concluded trip, Fukuda said he wanted to establish a “creative partnership” with China and hoped both countries would team up on global issues. If Washington does not want to lose its remaining friends in East Asia—and at this point it cannot afford to give up any of them to Beijing—the Bush administration will have to start exercising effective leadership. Of course the Chinese will try to drive a wedge between Washington and Tokyo. It is up to President Bush to make sure that American alliances in Asia stand firm.

Yesterday, Japan’s Yasuo Fukuda returned from his first official visit to China as prime minister. During his four-day “ringing in the spring” trip, he received a red-carpet welcome, bowed to a statue of Confucius at the philosopher’s birthplace, held “heart-to-heart” talks with senior leaders in Beijing, and spoke to students at prestigious Peking University. Fukuda agreed to transfer environmental technology to China, promised to reflect on Japan’s historical mistakes, and abjectly said what Beijing demanded on the subject of Taiwan. In the midst of his heavy schedule he even had time for a game of catch with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, each of them decked out in a baseball uniform and wearing a red cap decorated by a “C.”

Yet the trip, to borrow the words of Tokyo political scientist Takeshi Inoguchi, “was not a home run.” Other leaders come away from Beijing with economic packages or concessions of some sort. Fukuda returned to Japan with only Beijing’s momentary goodwill. Perhaps that was all that Fukuda could achieve in these circumstances.

Yet the object of diplomacy is not maintaining good relations—the object is achieving national goals. Japan, unfortunately, has been particularly unable to do so when it comes to China. The most visible open sores between the two nations are their competing territorial claims, especially the one festering over the gas fields in the East China Sea. On the East China Sea dispute, Beijing issued a stream of wonderful-sounding but essentially meaningless words during Fukuda’s visit. “We feel each other’s sincerity and determination,” Premier Wen said after their talks on the subject.

Of course, we can’t be too tough on Japan for failing to craft a sensible approach to China, because Tokyo is merely taking its cue from a feckless Washington. As Michael Auslin pointed out recently, other nations will become allies of Beijing unless the United States can come up with more resolute policies. On his recently concluded trip, Fukuda said he wanted to establish a “creative partnership” with China and hoped both countries would team up on global issues. If Washington does not want to lose its remaining friends in East Asia—and at this point it cannot afford to give up any of them to Beijing—the Bush administration will have to start exercising effective leadership. Of course the Chinese will try to drive a wedge between Washington and Tokyo. It is up to President Bush to make sure that American alliances in Asia stand firm.

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Sarkozy & Syria

Syria’s role in the Middle East is far from constructive, to say the least. Jihadis en route to Iraq transit through Damascus international airport; Iranian weapons shipments to Hizballah go through Syria; Syria hosts Hamas and other radical Palestinian organizations; it co-sponsors Hizballah and has been busy destabilizing Lebanon since it had to precipitously leave the Land of the Cedars in 2005. Regardless, European foreign policy makers have been loath of cutting the Syrians off for a variety of reasons. Many EU capitals believe that Syria’s alliance with Iran is tactical and that Damascus can be persuaded to change course, provided the right incentives are on the table.

In recent months, however, it seemed that Nicolas Sarkozy was willing to reconsider the position that Jacques Chirac had taken on Syria. Sarkozy has now made it clear where France stands: he gave Assad plenty of time to show, through deeds, that Syria can play a positive role. Syria spoke peace aplenty but declined to match its words with deeds. And in consequence Syria now has France as a determined opponent, at the very least until Syria stops obstructing the election of a new Lebanese president.

Given this realization, it strikes me as odd that, at the very same time that Sarkozy told the Syrians off, a bipartisan congressional delegation emerged from a two-day visit to Damascus exuding optimism about peace and calling on “George W. Bush to be forthcoming in his dealings with Syria.” Republican Senator Arlen Specter and Democratic Congressman Patrick Kennedy spent only two days talking with Syrian oficials. France has spent a little longer monitoring their deeds. After so many years of wrongdoing, perhaps it’s time itinerant U.S. officials stop giving a free pass to one of the most radical state sponsors of terrorism in the region, whose role in every crisis in the area runs contrary to the interests and the values of the U.S.

Syria’s role in the Middle East is far from constructive, to say the least. Jihadis en route to Iraq transit through Damascus international airport; Iranian weapons shipments to Hizballah go through Syria; Syria hosts Hamas and other radical Palestinian organizations; it co-sponsors Hizballah and has been busy destabilizing Lebanon since it had to precipitously leave the Land of the Cedars in 2005. Regardless, European foreign policy makers have been loath of cutting the Syrians off for a variety of reasons. Many EU capitals believe that Syria’s alliance with Iran is tactical and that Damascus can be persuaded to change course, provided the right incentives are on the table.

In recent months, however, it seemed that Nicolas Sarkozy was willing to reconsider the position that Jacques Chirac had taken on Syria. Sarkozy has now made it clear where France stands: he gave Assad plenty of time to show, through deeds, that Syria can play a positive role. Syria spoke peace aplenty but declined to match its words with deeds. And in consequence Syria now has France as a determined opponent, at the very least until Syria stops obstructing the election of a new Lebanese president.

Given this realization, it strikes me as odd that, at the very same time that Sarkozy told the Syrians off, a bipartisan congressional delegation emerged from a two-day visit to Damascus exuding optimism about peace and calling on “George W. Bush to be forthcoming in his dealings with Syria.” Republican Senator Arlen Specter and Democratic Congressman Patrick Kennedy spent only two days talking with Syrian oficials. France has spent a little longer monitoring their deeds. After so many years of wrongdoing, perhaps it’s time itinerant U.S. officials stop giving a free pass to one of the most radical state sponsors of terrorism in the region, whose role in every crisis in the area runs contrary to the interests and the values of the U.S.

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The Most Unfair Blog Fight in History

Readers may recall an argument several weeks ago on the blogosphere between Oliver Kamm and Eric “frequent lecturer and contributor to virtually every significant national publication in the United States and many in Europe” Alterman, which I analyzed here and here. The debate concerned Alterman’s uninformed and typically dashed-off observation that Americans involved in the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were guilty of racism and of inflating potential wartime casualties should the bombs not be dropped. Kamm’s latest reply to the “unlettered and ignorant” Alterman can be read here.

This is a truly unfair fight: Kamm is a brilliant polemicist who is painstaking in his presentation of history; Alterman, meanwhile, seems capable only of vitriolic snarling. John Podhoretz remarked earlier this month that “making a pretense of civility toward Eric Alterman is like making a pretense of civility to a scorpion.” I’d say this is unfair to scorpions.

Readers may recall an argument several weeks ago on the blogosphere between Oliver Kamm and Eric “frequent lecturer and contributor to virtually every significant national publication in the United States and many in Europe” Alterman, which I analyzed here and here. The debate concerned Alterman’s uninformed and typically dashed-off observation that Americans involved in the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were guilty of racism and of inflating potential wartime casualties should the bombs not be dropped. Kamm’s latest reply to the “unlettered and ignorant” Alterman can be read here.

This is a truly unfair fight: Kamm is a brilliant polemicist who is painstaking in his presentation of history; Alterman, meanwhile, seems capable only of vitriolic snarling. John Podhoretz remarked earlier this month that “making a pretense of civility toward Eric Alterman is like making a pretense of civility to a scorpion.” I’d say this is unfair to scorpions.

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The Five Most Overrated Films of 2007

1. Michael Clayton. (90 percent favorable rating on the movie review website Rotten Tomatoes). Billed as a realistic walk through the corridors of power, Michael Clayton winds up being a tepid, lugubrious, and preposterous thriller—art-house Grisham. George Clooney plays a kind of lawyer who doesn’t even exist—though he works for a huge law firm, he runs around the greater New York area doling out expertise on criminal cases, immigration issues, family law, and a dozen other specialized areas. Can you picture big law firms sending out sneaky hit teams to take down anyone who might testify against them, even though that person might have told any number of others what he knows? Can you picture firms hiring mugs to blow up cars? Would a hit squad be so dumb that the car is primed to blow up at a seemingly random moment rather than when the ignition is turned on? And finally: if a car exploded and there was no body in or around the car, would a lawyer (or even the stupidest guy in your high school woodworking class) assume that the driver of the car was dead? Like a lawyer who falls asleep during his closing argument, Michael Clayton saves its stupidest trick for last: the wheezing old gag that goes, “Aha! As I just tricked you into giving an incredibly detailed confession, I was recording the whole thing on this little gizmo!”

2. Grindhouse (81 percent favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes)—It’s two, two, TWO movies in one: the first, Robert Rodriguez’s bloody, intentionally amateurish zombie flick parody Planet Terror, is a great success: There’s no denying that it meets or even exceeds its goal to be unwatchably awful, one of the worst movies of the year. Not this year: 1974. You have to be pretty meta to convince yourself you’re enjoying a rotten movie, though. The second part of the double feature, Quentin Tarantino’s talky but enjoyable Death Proof, doesn’t make the mistake of thinking bad writing is good writing if the whole thing is nestled between ironic quotation marks.

3. Enchanted. (93 percent). Great trailer! A story about an animated princess from a Disney movie who winds up as a real person wandering the mean streets of New York sustains its single joke for almost two solid minutes. After that, it’s just Splash with taffeta—but without Tom Hanks or John Candy. The unshaven, barely conscious TV soap star Patrick Dempsey turns out to be the prince of the city. Which, again, like every other plot point, was clear from the trailer. Every so often the movie breaks into song, but none of the lyrics are as funny and tongue-in-cheek as the ones from actual Disney cartoons like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

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1. Michael Clayton. (90 percent favorable rating on the movie review website Rotten Tomatoes). Billed as a realistic walk through the corridors of power, Michael Clayton winds up being a tepid, lugubrious, and preposterous thriller—art-house Grisham. George Clooney plays a kind of lawyer who doesn’t even exist—though he works for a huge law firm, he runs around the greater New York area doling out expertise on criminal cases, immigration issues, family law, and a dozen other specialized areas. Can you picture big law firms sending out sneaky hit teams to take down anyone who might testify against them, even though that person might have told any number of others what he knows? Can you picture firms hiring mugs to blow up cars? Would a hit squad be so dumb that the car is primed to blow up at a seemingly random moment rather than when the ignition is turned on? And finally: if a car exploded and there was no body in or around the car, would a lawyer (or even the stupidest guy in your high school woodworking class) assume that the driver of the car was dead? Like a lawyer who falls asleep during his closing argument, Michael Clayton saves its stupidest trick for last: the wheezing old gag that goes, “Aha! As I just tricked you into giving an incredibly detailed confession, I was recording the whole thing on this little gizmo!”

2. Grindhouse (81 percent favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes)—It’s two, two, TWO movies in one: the first, Robert Rodriguez’s bloody, intentionally amateurish zombie flick parody Planet Terror, is a great success: There’s no denying that it meets or even exceeds its goal to be unwatchably awful, one of the worst movies of the year. Not this year: 1974. You have to be pretty meta to convince yourself you’re enjoying a rotten movie, though. The second part of the double feature, Quentin Tarantino’s talky but enjoyable Death Proof, doesn’t make the mistake of thinking bad writing is good writing if the whole thing is nestled between ironic quotation marks.

3. Enchanted. (93 percent). Great trailer! A story about an animated princess from a Disney movie who winds up as a real person wandering the mean streets of New York sustains its single joke for almost two solid minutes. After that, it’s just Splash with taffeta—but without Tom Hanks or John Candy. The unshaven, barely conscious TV soap star Patrick Dempsey turns out to be the prince of the city. Which, again, like every other plot point, was clear from the trailer. Every so often the movie breaks into song, but none of the lyrics are as funny and tongue-in-cheek as the ones from actual Disney cartoons like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

4. Sicko (93 percent). A film that argues—seriously, it does; this part of the film isn’t meant to be funny—that health care in Castro’s Cuba is superior to that offered in the United States. Memo to critics who don’t read the papers much: Cuba has chronic shortages of aspirin. Michael Moore is an expert at being wrong, but it’s hard to believe he’ll ever be more detached from the truth than he is when he presents the legendarily dyspeptic, tranquilizer-addicted French as a delighted citizenry and deals with the copiously-documented issue of wait times in Canada by asking a couple of people in a single waiting room whether they had to wait long.

5. Persepolis. (98 percent). An animated movie so enticingly drawn, with charmingly childish line drawings and sweetly big-eyed characters, that it holds your interest for up to an hour. Rivetingly, Marjane Satrapi tells us about her childhood in pre-revolutionary Iran while dark clouds appear on the horizon. But it turns out that Iran’s history doesn’t have much to do with anything as Satrapi diverts the story from how her family dealt with the nation’s revolt to chat about her therapy sessions and boyfriend troubles. This isn’t a story; it’s a grab bag of anecdotes. Dead giveaway that this film is winning raves on affirmative action grounds: Critics keep using the word “vibrant.”

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Libya and Iran

On Thursday, I listed French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s welcoming of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi in Paris as the fourth best handshake of 2007. Qaddafi’s controversial mid-December visit to France—his first in 34 years—marked the first step in the West’s normalization with Libya, a reward for Qaddafi’s promise to end Libya’s nuclear weapons program, cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, accept responsibility for airline terrorist attacks that killed 440 people, and compensate the victims’ families. In her year-end press conference, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hailed these “strategic decisions,” vowing to meet with the Libyan foreign minister in early January 2008 and to visit Tripoli later in the year.

But before Rice cements Libya’s acceptability and enters Qaddafi’s ceremonial Bedouin tent, perhaps she should scrutinize Libya’s strategic decisions more carefully. Last week, Libya announced that it was expanding its cooperation with Iran, with the two states declaring “close attitudes over many issues including Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Lebanon.” Iran further expressed its appreciation for “Libya’s logical stances in regard to the country’s nuclear issue and human rights issues,” and announced that it would seek additional partners in Africa and Latin America. That means that Hugo Chavez should expect a phone call in the near future.

For the Bush administration, Libya has long been the epitome of successful foreign policy: a rogue regime that—immediately following the U.S. invasion of Iraq—destroyed its weapons of mass destruction, renounced terrorism, and sought respectability. Indeed, little has deterred the administration’s mission-accomplished attitude towards Libya. When a Libyan court sentenced five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor to death earlier this year for infecting 400 children with HIV—the medics confessed under electric-shock torture—the administration never threatened to rethink normalization with Tripoli, simply calling for the medics’ release and applauding the Libyan government when it complied.

If severe human rights concerns were not reason enough to reconsider our rapprochement with Libya, its strategic alignment with Iran must raise some red flags. Normalization with Libya is only valuable when it rewards nuclear disarmament and western alignment, ideally setting an example for similar states to follow. But with Libya now leaning towards Iran, endorsing its nuclear position, and seeking joint ventures in other hemispheres, Rice needs to reassess whether Libya is deserving of its newly elevated status.

On Thursday, I listed French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s welcoming of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi in Paris as the fourth best handshake of 2007. Qaddafi’s controversial mid-December visit to France—his first in 34 years—marked the first step in the West’s normalization with Libya, a reward for Qaddafi’s promise to end Libya’s nuclear weapons program, cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, accept responsibility for airline terrorist attacks that killed 440 people, and compensate the victims’ families. In her year-end press conference, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hailed these “strategic decisions,” vowing to meet with the Libyan foreign minister in early January 2008 and to visit Tripoli later in the year.

But before Rice cements Libya’s acceptability and enters Qaddafi’s ceremonial Bedouin tent, perhaps she should scrutinize Libya’s strategic decisions more carefully. Last week, Libya announced that it was expanding its cooperation with Iran, with the two states declaring “close attitudes over many issues including Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Lebanon.” Iran further expressed its appreciation for “Libya’s logical stances in regard to the country’s nuclear issue and human rights issues,” and announced that it would seek additional partners in Africa and Latin America. That means that Hugo Chavez should expect a phone call in the near future.

For the Bush administration, Libya has long been the epitome of successful foreign policy: a rogue regime that—immediately following the U.S. invasion of Iraq—destroyed its weapons of mass destruction, renounced terrorism, and sought respectability. Indeed, little has deterred the administration’s mission-accomplished attitude towards Libya. When a Libyan court sentenced five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor to death earlier this year for infecting 400 children with HIV—the medics confessed under electric-shock torture—the administration never threatened to rethink normalization with Tripoli, simply calling for the medics’ release and applauding the Libyan government when it complied.

If severe human rights concerns were not reason enough to reconsider our rapprochement with Libya, its strategic alignment with Iran must raise some red flags. Normalization with Libya is only valuable when it rewards nuclear disarmament and western alignment, ideally setting an example for similar states to follow. But with Libya now leaning towards Iran, endorsing its nuclear position, and seeking joint ventures in other hemispheres, Rice needs to reassess whether Libya is deserving of its newly elevated status.

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More Than a Rag on a Stick

What does a nation’s flag really stand for? That’s the question posed by researchers at Hebrew University, who studied the effect of flashing subliminal images of the Israeli flag at subjects of a study aimed at measuring the images’ effect on political behavior and beliefs among Israelis. The results are surprising: Rather than making Israelis more nationalistic (i.e., shifting them to the right), the effect of the images was to shift their opinions away from extremes and towards the political center. As the Jerusalem Post reports:

In the first experiment, the Israeli participants—divided into two groups chosen at random—were asked about their attitudes toward core issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They were then asked again to share their opinions on the subject, but this time, prior to answering the researchers’ questions, half of the participants were exposed to subliminal images of the Israeli flag projected on a monitor and the rest were not. The results showed that the former group tended to shift to the political center.

Another experiment, which was conducted in the weeks leading up the the disengagement from Gaza, replicated these results whereby participants subliminally exposed to the Israeli flag expressed centrist views in relation to the withdrawal and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza.

The third experiment was held just prior to Israel’s last general election. Here too, the subliminal presentation of Israel’s flag drew right-wing, as well as left-wing, Israelis toward the political center.

Participants who were subliminally exposed to the flag said they intended to vote for more central parties than those who had not been exposed to the subliminal message. The researchers then called the participants after the elections and discovered that people who were exposed to the flag indeed voted for more moderate candidates.

Neither the report nor the article ventures a guess as to why Israelis moderate their views in light of their own flag. One answer might be that citizens are reminded of the high responsibility that a national conscience represents, and of the nuance of belief that such responsibility may sometimes entail.

Yet there is another possibility. As the Post reports, “The team did not study the effect of subliminal images of the Palestinian Authority or Hamas flag on Palestinian political leanings.” Perhaps Palestinians would moderate their views in light of their own flag, just as Israelis do—but perhaps not. One wonders whether some flags (such as those flown over free, democratic countries) trigger a different set of unconscious associations than do others. To find this out, we’ll have to wait for the comparative study.

What does a nation’s flag really stand for? That’s the question posed by researchers at Hebrew University, who studied the effect of flashing subliminal images of the Israeli flag at subjects of a study aimed at measuring the images’ effect on political behavior and beliefs among Israelis. The results are surprising: Rather than making Israelis more nationalistic (i.e., shifting them to the right), the effect of the images was to shift their opinions away from extremes and towards the political center. As the Jerusalem Post reports:

In the first experiment, the Israeli participants—divided into two groups chosen at random—were asked about their attitudes toward core issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They were then asked again to share their opinions on the subject, but this time, prior to answering the researchers’ questions, half of the participants were exposed to subliminal images of the Israeli flag projected on a monitor and the rest were not. The results showed that the former group tended to shift to the political center.

Another experiment, which was conducted in the weeks leading up the the disengagement from Gaza, replicated these results whereby participants subliminally exposed to the Israeli flag expressed centrist views in relation to the withdrawal and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza.

The third experiment was held just prior to Israel’s last general election. Here too, the subliminal presentation of Israel’s flag drew right-wing, as well as left-wing, Israelis toward the political center.

Participants who were subliminally exposed to the flag said they intended to vote for more central parties than those who had not been exposed to the subliminal message. The researchers then called the participants after the elections and discovered that people who were exposed to the flag indeed voted for more moderate candidates.

Neither the report nor the article ventures a guess as to why Israelis moderate their views in light of their own flag. One answer might be that citizens are reminded of the high responsibility that a national conscience represents, and of the nuance of belief that such responsibility may sometimes entail.

Yet there is another possibility. As the Post reports, “The team did not study the effect of subliminal images of the Palestinian Authority or Hamas flag on Palestinian political leanings.” Perhaps Palestinians would moderate their views in light of their own flag, just as Israelis do—but perhaps not. One wonders whether some flags (such as those flown over free, democratic countries) trigger a different set of unconscious associations than do others. To find this out, we’ll have to wait for the comparative study.

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Doubling Down in Pakistan

Washington is in disarray after Thursday’s assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The United States did not have a Pakistan policy. We only had a Musharraf one. Since Musharraf deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and ended democracy in the 1999 coup, Washington has backed the man who returned the country to dictatorial rule. When the strongman in Islamabad appeared weak, the United States tried to arrange a power-sharing agreement between Musharraf and Bhutto, also a failed leader in her two stints as prime minister. The idea—“like putting two pythons in the same cage” according to a Bush administration official—was an act of desperation or perhaps just folly.

American policymakers always get themselves into trouble when they compromise the principles of the people they lead. Washington’s response to troubling events in Pakistan—as in other places—has been to try to broker even more cynical arrangements, doubling down and making the situation even worse. We are always in a dilemma, and so we continue to put off lasting solutions. This rationale underpins the Bush administration’s policy of supporting Musharraf. Yet as RAND’s Christine Fair noted on Thursday, “Six years into this mess, we’re still saying now is not the right time. There’s always an excuse to defer those things that need to be done.”

What needs to be done at this moment is to withdraw our backing for Musharraf. Of course he continues to do things that are inimical to the interests of the United States and the rest of the international community—he knows we will continue to stand behind him, no matter what. Why should he ever truly cooperate?

As Max Boot has regularly pointed out in this forum, the majority of the Pakistani people are in favor of democracy. It never occurred to the set in Washington that we should just let them run their own country. The longer we stand against their legitimate aspirations, the less likely the responsible center will hold. And one more thing: a political result engineered by the United States—even if one were possible—would lack legitimacy.

Yes, Pakistan has nukes and plenty of terrorists, yet these facts are not arguments for supporting whichever autocrat is in control in Islamabad. If anything, the facts should persuade us to permit an enduring solution as quickly as possible. Pakistan will continue to get worse until Washington allows the country to heal itself. This may be a particularly bad time to stop helping Musharraf, but the moments ahead will even be worse.

Washington is in disarray after Thursday’s assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The United States did not have a Pakistan policy. We only had a Musharraf one. Since Musharraf deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and ended democracy in the 1999 coup, Washington has backed the man who returned the country to dictatorial rule. When the strongman in Islamabad appeared weak, the United States tried to arrange a power-sharing agreement between Musharraf and Bhutto, also a failed leader in her two stints as prime minister. The idea—“like putting two pythons in the same cage” according to a Bush administration official—was an act of desperation or perhaps just folly.

American policymakers always get themselves into trouble when they compromise the principles of the people they lead. Washington’s response to troubling events in Pakistan—as in other places—has been to try to broker even more cynical arrangements, doubling down and making the situation even worse. We are always in a dilemma, and so we continue to put off lasting solutions. This rationale underpins the Bush administration’s policy of supporting Musharraf. Yet as RAND’s Christine Fair noted on Thursday, “Six years into this mess, we’re still saying now is not the right time. There’s always an excuse to defer those things that need to be done.”

What needs to be done at this moment is to withdraw our backing for Musharraf. Of course he continues to do things that are inimical to the interests of the United States and the rest of the international community—he knows we will continue to stand behind him, no matter what. Why should he ever truly cooperate?

As Max Boot has regularly pointed out in this forum, the majority of the Pakistani people are in favor of democracy. It never occurred to the set in Washington that we should just let them run their own country. The longer we stand against their legitimate aspirations, the less likely the responsible center will hold. And one more thing: a political result engineered by the United States—even if one were possible—would lack legitimacy.

Yes, Pakistan has nukes and plenty of terrorists, yet these facts are not arguments for supporting whichever autocrat is in control in Islamabad. If anything, the facts should persuade us to permit an enduring solution as quickly as possible. Pakistan will continue to get worse until Washington allows the country to heal itself. This may be a particularly bad time to stop helping Musharraf, but the moments ahead will even be worse.

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The Real Benazir Bhutto

Never mind the mystery of who killed Benazir Bhutto and what method was used. There’s an emerging chorus of conflicting opinions about just who the late prime minister was. Liberator? Operator? Criminal?

Bernard-Henri Levy’s encomium in today’s Wall Street Journal skips beatification and plunges straight into sainthood:

And now they have killed Benazir Bhutto—killed her because she was a woman, because she had a woman’s face, unadorned yet filled with an unswerving strength, because she was living out her destiny and refusing the curse that, according to the new fascists (the jihadists) floats over the human face of women. They killed this woman incarnation of hope, of spirit, of the will to democracy, not only in Pakistan, but in all the lands of Islam.

Thomas Barnett brings Ms. Bhutto back down to earth:

Bhutto, despite our mythologizing of her past rule and future potential, was not going to fix Pakistan. As such, her passing matters only to the extent it creates short-term instability. But, in the end, I don’t expect to change much about the correlation of forces right now in Pakistan.

In Slate, Christopher Hitchens offers tempered admiration:

The fact of the matter is that Benazir’s undoubted courage had a certain fanaticism to it. She had the largest Electra complex of any female politician in modern history, entirely consecrated to the memory of her executed father . . .

It’s hard to beat Mark Steyn’s early assessment:

She was beautiful and charming and sophisticated and smart and modern, and everything we in the west would like a Muslim leader to be—though in practice, as Pakistan’s Prime Minister, she was just another grubby wardheeler from one of the world’s most corrupt political classes.

Steyn is particularly dead-on about the West. We’ll never know what Benazir Bhutto would have meant to Pakistan’s future, but perhaps we should re-calibrate our expectations about what’s next—and start by softening the sharp lines along which we demonize or celebrate Pervez Musharraf.

Never mind the mystery of who killed Benazir Bhutto and what method was used. There’s an emerging chorus of conflicting opinions about just who the late prime minister was. Liberator? Operator? Criminal?

Bernard-Henri Levy’s encomium in today’s Wall Street Journal skips beatification and plunges straight into sainthood:

And now they have killed Benazir Bhutto—killed her because she was a woman, because she had a woman’s face, unadorned yet filled with an unswerving strength, because she was living out her destiny and refusing the curse that, according to the new fascists (the jihadists) floats over the human face of women. They killed this woman incarnation of hope, of spirit, of the will to democracy, not only in Pakistan, but in all the lands of Islam.

Thomas Barnett brings Ms. Bhutto back down to earth:

Bhutto, despite our mythologizing of her past rule and future potential, was not going to fix Pakistan. As such, her passing matters only to the extent it creates short-term instability. But, in the end, I don’t expect to change much about the correlation of forces right now in Pakistan.

In Slate, Christopher Hitchens offers tempered admiration:

The fact of the matter is that Benazir’s undoubted courage had a certain fanaticism to it. She had the largest Electra complex of any female politician in modern history, entirely consecrated to the memory of her executed father . . .

It’s hard to beat Mark Steyn’s early assessment:

She was beautiful and charming and sophisticated and smart and modern, and everything we in the west would like a Muslim leader to be—though in practice, as Pakistan’s Prime Minister, she was just another grubby wardheeler from one of the world’s most corrupt political classes.

Steyn is particularly dead-on about the West. We’ll never know what Benazir Bhutto would have meant to Pakistan’s future, but perhaps we should re-calibrate our expectations about what’s next—and start by softening the sharp lines along which we demonize or celebrate Pervez Musharraf.

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The Most-Viewed Posts of 2007

In the spirit of the season (top ten lists!), we give you here, in descending order, the top ten most viewed and talked about posts on contentions for 2007. Consider it a crash-course, if you’re new to our blog, or a way to find all your favorite posts in one place.

The Two-Man Republican Race by John Podhoretz

Dark Suspicions about the NIE by Norman Podhoretz

What the Army Wants You to See by Michael J. Totten

Not Surrender Monkeys Anymore by Max Boot

ANNAPOLIS: Bush’s Opening Remarks by Noah Pollak

Cheapening Free Speech by James Kirchick

New York is Not in Mexico by Gordon G. Chang

William Jennings Huckabee by Fred Siegel

Candidate Gore? by Gary Rosen

Olmert’s Bizarre Reading List by Eric Trager

In the spirit of the season (top ten lists!), we give you here, in descending order, the top ten most viewed and talked about posts on contentions for 2007. Consider it a crash-course, if you’re new to our blog, or a way to find all your favorite posts in one place.

The Two-Man Republican Race by John Podhoretz

Dark Suspicions about the NIE by Norman Podhoretz

What the Army Wants You to See by Michael J. Totten

Not Surrender Monkeys Anymore by Max Boot

ANNAPOLIS: Bush’s Opening Remarks by Noah Pollak

Cheapening Free Speech by James Kirchick

New York is Not in Mexico by Gordon G. Chang

William Jennings Huckabee by Fred Siegel

Candidate Gore? by Gary Rosen

Olmert’s Bizarre Reading List by Eric Trager

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Changing the Ground Rules in Gaza

I’ve never quite understood the uproar that Israel’s targeted killings of terrorists always causes. These assassinations are surely the most morally pure way to wage war: they allow minimal, often zero, civilian casualties or collateral damage; the people who bear the greatest culpability for terror attacks are eliminated instead of the lower echelons, which inevitably are comprised of fevered, brainwashed young men; their deterrent power is immense, as terror leaders are driven underground in fear for their lives and are forced to invest large amounts of time in the avoidance of being killed; and perhaps best of all, they instantaneously impose a debilitating paranoia on terror organizations, as the leadership scrambles to figure out who among them is collaborating. All in all, a morally righteous and devastating way to wage war — which is perhaps exactly why the tactic is so frequently condemned.

Over the past two weeks Israel has revived its targeted killing policy, re-instituting a tactic that was vital to winning the second intifada. In Gaza, the IDF and Shin Bet have been methodically picking off Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror leaders, creating a situation, in remarkably short order, in which Hamas is begging for a “cease-fire” (that is, a reprieve from the war it started), and both Hamas and Islamic Jihad are now turning on themselves, desperate to figure out how their rocket crews and terror chiefs continue to be plucked from existence by precision munitions while driving anonymously around the Gaza strip.

Khaled Abu Toameh has an interesting piece in the Jerusalem Post today about the inner chaos that Israel’s assassinations are causing:

The turmoil in Hamas reached its peak this week when a number of top Hamas officials were summoned for questioning by the movement’s security forces on suspicion of involvement in the alleged plot. Among those interrogated was Sami Abu Zuhri, a prominent spokesman for Hamas, the sources told the Post. . . .
The Hamas security forces have also interrogated Muhammad Abdel Al (Abu Abir), a senior commander of the Popular Resistance Committees, an alliance of radical armed groups closely associated with Hamas.

The sources said Abdel Al was questioned following the assassination of one of his colleagues, Mubarak al-Hasanat, and a top Islamic Jihad commander, Majed al-Harazeen. The two, who were responsible for firing rockets at Israel, were killed by the IDF. Abdel Al has also denied the charges.

The arrests have left the top brass of Hamas in disarray, the sources said, noting that tensions between top members of the movement reached a boiling point late Wednesday with the assassination of Hazem Muhammad Khalil.

The only thing more remarkable than the IDF and Shin Bet’s penetration of Palestinian terror groups is the continued calls on the part of a few Israeli politicians — and of course, among so many members of the international cognoscenti — to accept Hamas’s truce. No such cessation should happen. Israel demarcated terrible boundaries for itself after it disengaged from Gaza and allowed rocket fire to go unanswered; that acquiescence vindicated Hamas’s belief that its resistance forced Israel out of Gaza and that Israelis have a weak will to fight. Those boundaries are now, finally, being redrawn — and only the continuation of a relentless military campaign against Hamas will finish the job.

12/29 Update: This piece in Ynet by Uri Elitzur — titled, “Keep on striking” — makes some of the same points. Elitzur, writing about the targeted killings that helped win the second intifada: “very quickly the moment arrived where reality is stronger than fury. People who must hide all the time, who cannot sleep two nights in one place, who cannot speak on the phone, are unable to run a terror group or plan terror attacks. Their motivation may be growing, yet the tools at their disposal are increasingly declining.”

I’ve never quite understood the uproar that Israel’s targeted killings of terrorists always causes. These assassinations are surely the most morally pure way to wage war: they allow minimal, often zero, civilian casualties or collateral damage; the people who bear the greatest culpability for terror attacks are eliminated instead of the lower echelons, which inevitably are comprised of fevered, brainwashed young men; their deterrent power is immense, as terror leaders are driven underground in fear for their lives and are forced to invest large amounts of time in the avoidance of being killed; and perhaps best of all, they instantaneously impose a debilitating paranoia on terror organizations, as the leadership scrambles to figure out who among them is collaborating. All in all, a morally righteous and devastating way to wage war — which is perhaps exactly why the tactic is so frequently condemned.

Over the past two weeks Israel has revived its targeted killing policy, re-instituting a tactic that was vital to winning the second intifada. In Gaza, the IDF and Shin Bet have been methodically picking off Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror leaders, creating a situation, in remarkably short order, in which Hamas is begging for a “cease-fire” (that is, a reprieve from the war it started), and both Hamas and Islamic Jihad are now turning on themselves, desperate to figure out how their rocket crews and terror chiefs continue to be plucked from existence by precision munitions while driving anonymously around the Gaza strip.

Khaled Abu Toameh has an interesting piece in the Jerusalem Post today about the inner chaos that Israel’s assassinations are causing:

The turmoil in Hamas reached its peak this week when a number of top Hamas officials were summoned for questioning by the movement’s security forces on suspicion of involvement in the alleged plot. Among those interrogated was Sami Abu Zuhri, a prominent spokesman for Hamas, the sources told the Post. . . .
The Hamas security forces have also interrogated Muhammad Abdel Al (Abu Abir), a senior commander of the Popular Resistance Committees, an alliance of radical armed groups closely associated with Hamas.

The sources said Abdel Al was questioned following the assassination of one of his colleagues, Mubarak al-Hasanat, and a top Islamic Jihad commander, Majed al-Harazeen. The two, who were responsible for firing rockets at Israel, were killed by the IDF. Abdel Al has also denied the charges.

The arrests have left the top brass of Hamas in disarray, the sources said, noting that tensions between top members of the movement reached a boiling point late Wednesday with the assassination of Hazem Muhammad Khalil.

The only thing more remarkable than the IDF and Shin Bet’s penetration of Palestinian terror groups is the continued calls on the part of a few Israeli politicians — and of course, among so many members of the international cognoscenti — to accept Hamas’s truce. No such cessation should happen. Israel demarcated terrible boundaries for itself after it disengaged from Gaza and allowed rocket fire to go unanswered; that acquiescence vindicated Hamas’s belief that its resistance forced Israel out of Gaza and that Israelis have a weak will to fight. Those boundaries are now, finally, being redrawn — and only the continuation of a relentless military campaign against Hamas will finish the job.

12/29 Update: This piece in Ynet by Uri Elitzur — titled, “Keep on striking” — makes some of the same points. Elitzur, writing about the targeted killings that helped win the second intifada: “very quickly the moment arrived where reality is stronger than fury. People who must hide all the time, who cannot sleep two nights in one place, who cannot speak on the phone, are unable to run a terror group or plan terror attacks. Their motivation may be growing, yet the tools at their disposal are increasingly declining.”

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Who Killed Bhutto?

Today, the Pakistani government identified the killer of Benazir Bhutto, a day after her assassination at a campaign rally in Rawalpindi. The Interior Ministry has fingered Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni militant group linked to al Qaeda.

That was fast police work, but President Bush was even faster. He blamed “murderous extremists” in his statement issued from Crawford just a few hours after the horrible event. Rudy Giuliani, for his part, connected the assassination to “the terrorists’ war against us.” Barack Obama referred to “this terrorist atrocity” that killed Bhutto.

The senator from Illinois is undoubtedly correct. It was a terrorist act—a suicide bombing—that killed Bhutto. Yet that does not necessarily mean that “terrorists” were the ones behind this hideous deed.

It’s clear that al Qaeda wanted Bhutto dead, but we do not know if that organization or its offshoots had a hand in killing her. There are, after all, many others who wanted to get the popular opposition leader out of the way. There are, for instance, elements in the Pakistani intelligence services who feared what she might do if she came to power. And then there is the ruthless individual who had the most to gain from her death. His name is Pervez Musharraf.

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Today, the Pakistani government identified the killer of Benazir Bhutto, a day after her assassination at a campaign rally in Rawalpindi. The Interior Ministry has fingered Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni militant group linked to al Qaeda.

That was fast police work, but President Bush was even faster. He blamed “murderous extremists” in his statement issued from Crawford just a few hours after the horrible event. Rudy Giuliani, for his part, connected the assassination to “the terrorists’ war against us.” Barack Obama referred to “this terrorist atrocity” that killed Bhutto.

The senator from Illinois is undoubtedly correct. It was a terrorist act—a suicide bombing—that killed Bhutto. Yet that does not necessarily mean that “terrorists” were the ones behind this hideous deed.

It’s clear that al Qaeda wanted Bhutto dead, but we do not know if that organization or its offshoots had a hand in killing her. There are, after all, many others who wanted to get the popular opposition leader out of the way. There are, for instance, elements in the Pakistani intelligence services who feared what she might do if she came to power. And then there is the ruthless individual who had the most to gain from her death. His name is Pervez Musharraf.

Mrs. Bhutto, in fact, blamed the Pakistani president. CNN reports it had received an October 26 message from her, through spokesman Mark Siegel, saying that if anything happened to her, it was because Musharraf had refused to provide adequate security. This sounds like campaign rhetoric from Bhutto, but it’s time that we look at the man who has so far refused to cede power.

We know that the former general is capable of almost anything. A German diplomat serving in Asia at the time told me that his country’s intelligence officials were convinced that Musharraf had staged two bombings of his own convoys in December 2003—one of them a deadly suicide attack—to scare the West into supporting him as a bulwark against terrorism. A terrorist attack on Mrs. Bhutto would serve two crucial purposes for the Pakistani president—get his only serious rival out of the way and again buttress his support from concerned Western governments. Musharraf had motive and opportunity to kill Bhutto, and the crime fits a suspected M.O. At the very least, the United States should consider him a prime suspect.

In any event, he has let terrorists run free in his country and is primarily responsible for triggering the long-running constitutional and political crises that ultimately led to Mrs. Bhutto’s death. In a larger sense, therefore, he is responsible for yesterday’s tragedy. He is either a murderer or a failing autocrat. In either case, the United States should stop supporting him in his ongoing struggle against the Pakistani people.

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Let’s Keep Our Eye on the (Nuclear) Ball

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto is a terrible tragedy. It is also a strategic nightmare for the United States and much of the world.

Estimates vary, but Pakistan is believed to possess an arsenal consisting of perhaps as many as 120 nuclear weapons. Its population is riddled with Islamic fundamentalists and supporters of the Taliban and of al Qaeda, the very forces who are claiming credit for carrying out this brutal killing. These radicals are said to have links to Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI.

If the country’s nuclear weapons ever appeared in danger of falling into the hands of the Islamists, Pakistan’s neighbors would almost certainly feel compelled to act. India, a nuclear power itself, would be the most apprehensive among them all.

The United States could also easily be drawn into the fray. If Washington cannot accept an Islamic regime in Iran that would have one or two bombs, it could hardly accept a similar or even more radical regime in Pakistan that would have more than 100.

Even under our ostensible ally, General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan became the world’s worst proliferator of nuclear weapons, the site of the worldwide atomic bazaar set up by the country’s most famous scientist, A. Q. Khan. The dangers that far worse might come are obvious and would pose a severe challenge to the United States, even as we are focused on two other wars in the same “arc of crisis” — to use Zbigniew Brzezinski’s term for the region.

To contemplate a scenario in which one of Pakistan’s neighbors or the United States attempts to disarm Pakistan by force is to contemplate a chain of events that could easily result in a major war. Could such a scenario unfold? Where are Pakistan’s nuclear weapons stored, and could they be captured or destroyed by an outside country? Who guards them, and who guards the guards?

These are only some of the questions that should be occupying U.S. intelligence on an urgent basis. For anyone interested in answers that are in the public domain, The Security of Nuclear Weapons in Pakistan by Shaun Gregory is an excellent place to start.

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto is a terrible tragedy. It is also a strategic nightmare for the United States and much of the world.

Estimates vary, but Pakistan is believed to possess an arsenal consisting of perhaps as many as 120 nuclear weapons. Its population is riddled with Islamic fundamentalists and supporters of the Taliban and of al Qaeda, the very forces who are claiming credit for carrying out this brutal killing. These radicals are said to have links to Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI.

If the country’s nuclear weapons ever appeared in danger of falling into the hands of the Islamists, Pakistan’s neighbors would almost certainly feel compelled to act. India, a nuclear power itself, would be the most apprehensive among them all.

The United States could also easily be drawn into the fray. If Washington cannot accept an Islamic regime in Iran that would have one or two bombs, it could hardly accept a similar or even more radical regime in Pakistan that would have more than 100.

Even under our ostensible ally, General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan became the world’s worst proliferator of nuclear weapons, the site of the worldwide atomic bazaar set up by the country’s most famous scientist, A. Q. Khan. The dangers that far worse might come are obvious and would pose a severe challenge to the United States, even as we are focused on two other wars in the same “arc of crisis” — to use Zbigniew Brzezinski’s term for the region.

To contemplate a scenario in which one of Pakistan’s neighbors or the United States attempts to disarm Pakistan by force is to contemplate a chain of events that could easily result in a major war. Could such a scenario unfold? Where are Pakistan’s nuclear weapons stored, and could they be captured or destroyed by an outside country? Who guards them, and who guards the guards?

These are only some of the questions that should be occupying U.S. intelligence on an urgent basis. For anyone interested in answers that are in the public domain, The Security of Nuclear Weapons in Pakistan by Shaun Gregory is an excellent place to start.

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Ron Paul on Benazir Bhutto

At last! To makes sense of things, here’s Ron Paul on Benazir Bhutto’s assassination:

We’ve been supporting the, um, Musharraf government and he’s a military dictator who overthrew an elected government. We just gave him $10 billion over the last seven years. He’s supported by 8 percent of the people, and, and that does annoy some people. And there’s so many factions over there. There’s the Bhutto faction, the Musharraf faction and it just gives incentives for people to resort to violence, and I’m opposed to that. We, we, don’t need to be further involved over there. We shouldn’t have been supporting this military dictator anyway.

After a while I realized why this elliptical rant rang a bell:

I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, uh, some people out there in our nation don’t have maps and, uh, I believe that our, uh, education like such as in, uh, South Africa and, uh, the Iraq and everywhere like such as, and I believe that they should, uh, our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S.

Those are the words of Miss South Carolina 2007.

In Ron Paul’s sci-fi analysis the fact that there are Bhutto supporters and Musharraf supporters “gives incentives for people to resort to violence.” Furthermore, it’s somehow Musharraf’s unpopularity that inspired the murder of his opposition. I suppose if Musharraf had been adored, Bhutto would have remained safe.

At last! To makes sense of things, here’s Ron Paul on Benazir Bhutto’s assassination:

We’ve been supporting the, um, Musharraf government and he’s a military dictator who overthrew an elected government. We just gave him $10 billion over the last seven years. He’s supported by 8 percent of the people, and, and that does annoy some people. And there’s so many factions over there. There’s the Bhutto faction, the Musharraf faction and it just gives incentives for people to resort to violence, and I’m opposed to that. We, we, don’t need to be further involved over there. We shouldn’t have been supporting this military dictator anyway.

After a while I realized why this elliptical rant rang a bell:

I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, uh, some people out there in our nation don’t have maps and, uh, I believe that our, uh, education like such as in, uh, South Africa and, uh, the Iraq and everywhere like such as, and I believe that they should, uh, our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S.

Those are the words of Miss South Carolina 2007.

In Ron Paul’s sci-fi analysis the fact that there are Bhutto supporters and Musharraf supporters “gives incentives for people to resort to violence.” Furthermore, it’s somehow Musharraf’s unpopularity that inspired the murder of his opposition. I suppose if Musharraf had been adored, Bhutto would have remained safe.

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Iraq in Fragments

COMMENTARY’s online editor Sam Munson asked if I’d like to write a short piece about what I think are the top five movies of 2007 from and about the Middle East. Sure, I said. But once I got started I found I couldn’t write about five. I started with a two-paragraph blurb about James Longley’s masterful Iraq in Fragments, but I exceeded the word limit before I could even get to the second film on the list. Iraq in Fragments is too good for a blurb. So here, instead, is a piece about the top single film from the Middle East, or at least Iraq. One caveat: Iraq in Fragments actually dates from 2005, but it was released on DVD only a few months ago, and it’s such a powerful and important film that it should make the cut.

Most recent documentaries filmed in Iraq can be fairly categorized as liberal or conservative. All are about the war, and most are cinematic equivalents of op-eds. James Longley’s lush and intimate Iraq in Fragments is different. While the director appears to be some kind of liberal or leftist, his film is refreshingly none of the above. Iraq in Fragmentsis about the war only insomuch as it was shot in Iraq during the war. This film is a collection of portraits of Iraqis, not Americans or the American military. And unlike almost any other documentary out there, Longley’s includes the Kurds.The director is invisible. We never see him or hear him, and he uses his camera as though he were shooting a fictional film. This is emphatically not the kind of documentary you’re accustomed to seeing. Longley’s camera and editing work are so stylish and deft that the end result is perhaps the most artful documentary ever made on any subject. (Watch the high-definition trailer here for a powerful preview.)

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COMMENTARY’s online editor Sam Munson asked if I’d like to write a short piece about what I think are the top five movies of 2007 from and about the Middle East. Sure, I said. But once I got started I found I couldn’t write about five. I started with a two-paragraph blurb about James Longley’s masterful Iraq in Fragments, but I exceeded the word limit before I could even get to the second film on the list. Iraq in Fragments is too good for a blurb. So here, instead, is a piece about the top single film from the Middle East, or at least Iraq. One caveat: Iraq in Fragments actually dates from 2005, but it was released on DVD only a few months ago, and it’s such a powerful and important film that it should make the cut.

Most recent documentaries filmed in Iraq can be fairly categorized as liberal or conservative. All are about the war, and most are cinematic equivalents of op-eds. James Longley’s lush and intimate Iraq in Fragments is different. While the director appears to be some kind of liberal or leftist, his film is refreshingly none of the above. Iraq in Fragmentsis about the war only insomuch as it was shot in Iraq during the war. This film is a collection of portraits of Iraqis, not Americans or the American military. And unlike almost any other documentary out there, Longley’s includes the Kurds.The director is invisible. We never see him or hear him, and he uses his camera as though he were shooting a fictional film. This is emphatically not the kind of documentary you’re accustomed to seeing. Longley’s camera and editing work are so stylish and deft that the end result is perhaps the most artful documentary ever made on any subject. (Watch the high-definition trailer here for a powerful preview.)

The title refers to Iraq as it is now—a geographic abstraction made up of fragments. But it also refers to the film’s structure. The first third is a story of Sunni Arabs in Baghdad, the middle chapter covers Moqtada al-Sadr’s radical Shia Mahdi Army militia, and the final third is about the Kurdish Spring in the northern autonomous region.

A Sunni Arab boy named Muhammad anchors the film’s opening segment. He works for his cruel and abusive uncle in a machine shop, and his ability to lie to himself and the camera is a painful revelation.

“He loves me, he loves me,” the boy says about his tyrannical guardian as we see him smacked in the head and called a dog. “He’s nice to me. He doesn’t swear at me or beat me.” What are we then to make of Muhammad’s uncle when he says he wishes Saddam Hussein were still in charge? “So what if he oppressed us and was hard on us,” he says.

Muhammad knows cruelty and loss, as do all Iraqis. His father was a police officer. “Then he started talking about Saddam,” he tells us. “They put him in prison.” We never find out what happened to his father, but he appears to have vanished forever. Contrary to what some naïve Westerners seem to believe, Iraqis, even children, know very well that they live in a hard and tragic country even if they have never known anything else.

“It’s not safe here,” Muhammad says. “It’s scary. There is no security. I want to go abroad. When you are abroad, nothing will happen to you. My teacher told me I could be a pilot. I want to fly the plane, to see a place that’s beautiful and nice. Not Iraq, but a beautiful place. I imagine . . . I imagine . . . I’m high in the sky. I can see the doves, the sky. I can see the birds. I am in the plane and seeing countries beautiful and nice. I fly down to those countries. I’ll go to that country. The beautiful one.”

Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia is the focus of the middle third of the film. Longley was given access to the Mahdi Army’s political meetings where they discuss their revolutionary strategy. It amounts, basically, to one part democracy and one part thuggery. Amazingly, the director was allowed to bring his camera along while some of the militiamen don masks, storm a local market, and beat and kidnap men selling alcohol. The decades-long tragedy in Iraq is summed up in a few short, devastating sentences from a blindfolded and kidnapped man who weeps on the floor.

“We were saved from tyranny,” he says while he cries. “And you brought another. How can it be, brother? When Saddam fell I rejoiced, but now again I am blindfolded.”

The radical Shias who simultaneously defend and terrorize their community constantly rail against America as the “enemy of God.” It’s excruciatingly hard to take after a while. But just as emotional exhaustion sets in, Longley gives us relief by ending his film with the Kurds.

He takes a train from the south of Iraq to the north and delivers a breathtaking time-lapsed montage of scenery shot through smudged and broken windows. We know he is leaving the Arabs behind and going north to Iraqi Kurdistan. The haunting music—which he himself wrote—is somehow sad and hopeful at the same time. The simple yet unforgettable score resonates with the both the tragedy of the Arabs and the hopeful rebirth of the Kurds.

The striking differences between Arabic and Kurdish cultures in Iraq are felt at once. The lighting, the music, the characters, the tones of voice—everything changes dramatically. Kurdistan is the part of Iraq where the war is already over, and it has been finished there for a long time.

The culture in Kurdistan is non-violent, pro-American, and moderate to the core. There isn’t much drama to capture on film in this part of Iraq, so Longley contents himself with a quiet study of a family of farmers who are grateful for the chance to rest after so many years of oppression and war. It’s enough to make you wonder all over again how Iraq can possibly continue to exist as a country. Some of Longley’s subjects wonder, as well.

“The future of Iraq will be in three pieces,” says an old man with certainty. But a very young child, perhaps the man’s grandchild, answers him this way: “Iraq is not something you can cut into pieces. Iraq is a country. How do you cut a country into pieces? With a saw?”

America is not the enemy of God in Kurdistan, as it is to the ideologues in al Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia. God plays a very different role in that part of Iraq.

“Two men are wrestling,” says the main character in this segment as he sums up the realism and pragmatism that hold sway in his country-in-all-but-name. “Someone asks, Whose side is God on? They answer, God is always on the side of the winner.”

Iraq in Fragmentsisn’t the whole story of Iraq. It doesn’t pretend to be. It is an album of fragments of that story. And what gorgeous, striking, and unforgettable fragments they are.

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Castro, Clinging

Last Monday, Fidel Castro, in a letter read on state television, stated that “My elemental duty is not to cling to positions, or even less to obstruct the path of younger people.” This Monday, however, his younger brother gave every indication that Fidel has no intention of giving up his formal positions of power. Raul, who has been running the country for seventeen months as “provisional” president, claimed that the 81-year-old leader is fine and hampered only by “some small physical limitations.” Said the younger Castro: “We consult him on principal matters, that is why we the leaders of the party defend his right to run again as deputy of the National Assembly as a first step.”

First step? Castro must keep his National Assembly seat in order to retain his official position atop the Cuban political order as president of the Council of State. Elections take place January 20. Despite his I-won’t-cling declarations, Fidel this month announced he would run for the legislative seat.

Of course, it’s unlikely his constituents will see much of him on the stump. Since last July, when he was hospitalized for intestinal problems, he has released photos of himself in his Adidas track suits, he has met with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, and he has issued written pronouncements with great regularity, yet he has not been well enough to appear in public. Not surprisingly, therefore, he’s asked Raul to campaign for him for the National Assembly seat.

And there is something else he has been asking Raul. Fidel evidently wants his brother to take over formally when he dies. That will be only the second dynastic succession in a Communist state. In the first, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il assumed power after his father, Great Leader Kim Il Sung, died in 1994. At the time, virtually every analyst assumed that the North Korean state would collapse without its charismatic founder. Today, history is repeating itself as most every Cuba watcher thinks there will be great changes after Fidel, who brought Communism to Cuba, goes. Raul is said to be more pragmatic than his hardline brother and appears to want reform.

There is always optimism when leaders in Communist nations change. We hope that Raul is indeed a reformer, yet we have to remember that Marxist states operate according to their own logic. The risk is that, when Fidel finally passes from the scene, the West will reward Cuba in anticipation of changes we assume his successor will make. The better approach is to first watch what happens. After all, North Korea is still the same North Korea, just more dangerous.

Last Monday, Fidel Castro, in a letter read on state television, stated that “My elemental duty is not to cling to positions, or even less to obstruct the path of younger people.” This Monday, however, his younger brother gave every indication that Fidel has no intention of giving up his formal positions of power. Raul, who has been running the country for seventeen months as “provisional” president, claimed that the 81-year-old leader is fine and hampered only by “some small physical limitations.” Said the younger Castro: “We consult him on principal matters, that is why we the leaders of the party defend his right to run again as deputy of the National Assembly as a first step.”

First step? Castro must keep his National Assembly seat in order to retain his official position atop the Cuban political order as president of the Council of State. Elections take place January 20. Despite his I-won’t-cling declarations, Fidel this month announced he would run for the legislative seat.

Of course, it’s unlikely his constituents will see much of him on the stump. Since last July, when he was hospitalized for intestinal problems, he has released photos of himself in his Adidas track suits, he has met with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, and he has issued written pronouncements with great regularity, yet he has not been well enough to appear in public. Not surprisingly, therefore, he’s asked Raul to campaign for him for the National Assembly seat.

And there is something else he has been asking Raul. Fidel evidently wants his brother to take over formally when he dies. That will be only the second dynastic succession in a Communist state. In the first, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il assumed power after his father, Great Leader Kim Il Sung, died in 1994. At the time, virtually every analyst assumed that the North Korean state would collapse without its charismatic founder. Today, history is repeating itself as most every Cuba watcher thinks there will be great changes after Fidel, who brought Communism to Cuba, goes. Raul is said to be more pragmatic than his hardline brother and appears to want reform.

There is always optimism when leaders in Communist nations change. We hope that Raul is indeed a reformer, yet we have to remember that Marxist states operate according to their own logic. The risk is that, when Fidel finally passes from the scene, the West will reward Cuba in anticipation of changes we assume his successor will make. The better approach is to first watch what happens. After all, North Korea is still the same North Korea, just more dangerous.

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The Real Real Pakistan

It is rare for me to agree with a writer from the New Republic over one from National Review, but I have to do so in the case of former prosecutor Andrew McCarthy’s intemperate denunciation of Pakistan. In this post, McCarthy claims that the extremists who murdered Benazir Bhutto represent the “real Pakistan”—a country that is “an enemy of the United States and the West” and “a breeding ground of Islamic holy war”. “Whether we get round to admitting it or not, in Pakistan, our quarrel is with the people,” McCarthy claims. In support of this alarming proposition he cites public opinion polls:

A recent CNN poll showed that 46 percent of Pakistanis approve of Osama bin Laden.

Aspirants to the American presidency should hope to score so highly in the United States. In Pakistan, though, the al-Qaeda emir easily beat out that country’s current president, Pervez Musharraf, who polled at 38 percent.

President George Bush, the face of a campaign to bring democracy — or, at least, some form of sharia-lite that might pass for democracy — to the Islamic world, registered nine percent. Nine!

McCarthy, who now works, ironically, at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, concludes that Pakistan offers evidence “that placing democratization at the top of our foreign policy priorities is high-order folly.”

Josh Patashnik at the Plank dissents from this judgment, and so do I. The poll evidence that McCarthy cites—which, incidentally, was compiled by an organization called Terror Free Tomorrow, not by CNN—is more ambiguous than he suggests. Yes, bin Laden scores 46 percent approval, but Bhutto, a symbol of opposition to the Islamists, scored considerably higher—63 percent. And: “Seventy-five percent of poll respondents said suicide bombings are rarely or never justified.”

As for Bush’s rock-bottom rating, that’s easy to explain. It’s not because of our “campaign to bring democracy . . . to the Islamic world.” It’s because in Pakistan (as in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia) we have been associated with dictatorship, not democracy. Bush has not pressed for free elections; he has been a steadfast supporter of Musharraf’s dictatorship. The result is that, as Musharraf has gotten more unpopular, so has the United States.

This might be a price worth paying if Musharraf were actually the great ally that Bush (and McCarthy) imagine him to be. He’s not. The jihadists have gotten considerably stronger on his watch, and the military he leads has long been complicit with the extremists.

McCarthy and others suggest that holding elections in Pakistan would be as misguided as holding them in the Palestinian Authority. But the differences are greater than the similarities. Notwithstanding its long history of military coups, Pakistan has over the years developed much more robust democratic institutions than the Palestinian Authority. Admittedly that’s not saying much, but Pakistan does have a relatively free press (at least it did before Musharraf imposed his State of Emergency), an independent judiciary (Musharraf’s attempts to compromise that independence have turned public opinion against him), and opposition parties that rely on the ballot box, not bullets, to win power (although Musharraf has hindered both the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League from freely competing in elections).

The best news of all is that, while there are far too many Islamist sympathizers for comfort in Pakistan, by all indications they do not represent the majority of the population. Nowhere close to it. There is simply no Islamic party in Pakistan with the kind of popular following that Hamas has in Palestine. As I have mentioned before, only 4 percent of Pakistanis in a recent poll said they were planning to support religious parties in the next election. As McCarthy might say: “Four!”
The prospects of democracy in Pakistan, in short, are much more favorable than in Palestine. In any case, the Musharraf dictatorship has lost its last scraps of legitimacy. Sticking with Musharraf is no longer a serious option. As Hussain Haqqani argues in the Wall Street Journal, America has no choice but to press for a return to democracy.

It is rare for me to agree with a writer from the New Republic over one from National Review, but I have to do so in the case of former prosecutor Andrew McCarthy’s intemperate denunciation of Pakistan. In this post, McCarthy claims that the extremists who murdered Benazir Bhutto represent the “real Pakistan”—a country that is “an enemy of the United States and the West” and “a breeding ground of Islamic holy war”. “Whether we get round to admitting it or not, in Pakistan, our quarrel is with the people,” McCarthy claims. In support of this alarming proposition he cites public opinion polls:

A recent CNN poll showed that 46 percent of Pakistanis approve of Osama bin Laden.

Aspirants to the American presidency should hope to score so highly in the United States. In Pakistan, though, the al-Qaeda emir easily beat out that country’s current president, Pervez Musharraf, who polled at 38 percent.

President George Bush, the face of a campaign to bring democracy — or, at least, some form of sharia-lite that might pass for democracy — to the Islamic world, registered nine percent. Nine!

McCarthy, who now works, ironically, at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, concludes that Pakistan offers evidence “that placing democratization at the top of our foreign policy priorities is high-order folly.”

Josh Patashnik at the Plank dissents from this judgment, and so do I. The poll evidence that McCarthy cites—which, incidentally, was compiled by an organization called Terror Free Tomorrow, not by CNN—is more ambiguous than he suggests. Yes, bin Laden scores 46 percent approval, but Bhutto, a symbol of opposition to the Islamists, scored considerably higher—63 percent. And: “Seventy-five percent of poll respondents said suicide bombings are rarely or never justified.”

As for Bush’s rock-bottom rating, that’s easy to explain. It’s not because of our “campaign to bring democracy . . . to the Islamic world.” It’s because in Pakistan (as in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia) we have been associated with dictatorship, not democracy. Bush has not pressed for free elections; he has been a steadfast supporter of Musharraf’s dictatorship. The result is that, as Musharraf has gotten more unpopular, so has the United States.

This might be a price worth paying if Musharraf were actually the great ally that Bush (and McCarthy) imagine him to be. He’s not. The jihadists have gotten considerably stronger on his watch, and the military he leads has long been complicit with the extremists.

McCarthy and others suggest that holding elections in Pakistan would be as misguided as holding them in the Palestinian Authority. But the differences are greater than the similarities. Notwithstanding its long history of military coups, Pakistan has over the years developed much more robust democratic institutions than the Palestinian Authority. Admittedly that’s not saying much, but Pakistan does have a relatively free press (at least it did before Musharraf imposed his State of Emergency), an independent judiciary (Musharraf’s attempts to compromise that independence have turned public opinion against him), and opposition parties that rely on the ballot box, not bullets, to win power (although Musharraf has hindered both the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League from freely competing in elections).

The best news of all is that, while there are far too many Islamist sympathizers for comfort in Pakistan, by all indications they do not represent the majority of the population. Nowhere close to it. There is simply no Islamic party in Pakistan with the kind of popular following that Hamas has in Palestine. As I have mentioned before, only 4 percent of Pakistanis in a recent poll said they were planning to support religious parties in the next election. As McCarthy might say: “Four!”
The prospects of democracy in Pakistan, in short, are much more favorable than in Palestine. In any case, the Musharraf dictatorship has lost its last scraps of legitimacy. Sticking with Musharraf is no longer a serious option. As Hussain Haqqani argues in the Wall Street Journal, America has no choice but to press for a return to democracy.

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Oscar Peterson, RIP

cross-posted at About Last Night

Oscar Peterson, who died on Sunday, was one of a handful of jazz musicians to have cultivated a virtuoso technique comparable to that of the greatest classical instrumentalists. In part for this reason, he never got along well with jazz critics, most of whom were (and are) too musically ignorant to appreciate the near-unique nature of his achievement. Peterson’s peers knew better. He was very, very popular—every great virtuoso is—but it was his fellow artists who gauged his worth most accurately. Like Buddy Rich, he left a trail of collegial awe behind him wherever he went.

Peterson got more bad reviews than any other major jazz pianist, and on occasion he deserved them. Miles Davis, one of the few musicians of importance to have said anything unpleasant about him, famously remarked that Peterson “makes me sick because he copies everybody. He even had to learn how to play the blues.” That was both nasty and untrue, but it did point to the chink in his armor. Unlimited virtuosity is a snare for the unwary artist. “Only in limitation,” Goethe wrote, “is mastery revealed.” Peterson’s extreme technical facility, by contrast, sometimes lured him into the trap of glibness. When he was coasting, all you heard was the fireworks. Nor did it help that he recorded so prolifically throughout his seven-decade-long career. No one can make that many records save at the price of consistent inspiration, and Peterson paid that price too often for comfort.

Read More

cross-posted at About Last Night

Oscar Peterson, who died on Sunday, was one of a handful of jazz musicians to have cultivated a virtuoso technique comparable to that of the greatest classical instrumentalists. In part for this reason, he never got along well with jazz critics, most of whom were (and are) too musically ignorant to appreciate the near-unique nature of his achievement. Peterson’s peers knew better. He was very, very popular—every great virtuoso is—but it was his fellow artists who gauged his worth most accurately. Like Buddy Rich, he left a trail of collegial awe behind him wherever he went.

Peterson got more bad reviews than any other major jazz pianist, and on occasion he deserved them. Miles Davis, one of the few musicians of importance to have said anything unpleasant about him, famously remarked that Peterson “makes me sick because he copies everybody. He even had to learn how to play the blues.” That was both nasty and untrue, but it did point to the chink in his armor. Unlimited virtuosity is a snare for the unwary artist. “Only in limitation,” Goethe wrote, “is mastery revealed.” Peterson’s extreme technical facility, by contrast, sometimes lured him into the trap of glibness. When he was coasting, all you heard was the fireworks. Nor did it help that he recorded so prolifically throughout his seven-decade-long career. No one can make that many records save at the price of consistent inspiration, and Peterson paid that price too often for comfort.

He was at his best from 1953 to 1958, when he led a drummerless trio featuring the guitarist Herb Ellis and the bassist Ray Brown that was celebrated for its aggressive, unrelenting swing. Peterson and his colleagues modeled themselves on the legendary King Cole Trio, but unlike that deliciously easy-going ensemble, the Peterson Trio was a straight-ahead group whose members favored fast tempos and liked nothing better than to light the afterburner and take off. Most of their recordings are out of print, but The Oscar Peterson Trio at Zardi’s, a thrilling live album recorded in 1955 at a Los Angeles nightclub, captures them at their most characteristic.

When Ellis decided to quit the road, Peterson replaced him not with another guitarist but with a drummer, the tasteful and elegant Ed Thigpen, thereby recharging his creative batteries for another half-dozen years. It was this version of the Oscar Peterson Trio that recorded most frequently, and one must pick and choose carefully among its many albums to get a clear sense of how good the group could be. Fortunately—and not coincidentally—the most popular of its recordings, Night Train, is also one of the finest. An after-hours 1962 studio set devoted to blues tunes and blues-flavored pop songs, Night Train shows how deeply Peterson could dig when he felt like laying back instead of showing off.

Peterson’s later albums are typically less interesting than the ones he made with Brown, Ellis, and Thigpen, but My Favorite Instrument, a 1968 collection of unaccompanied piano solos called that was privately recorded in Germany under optimal circumstances, is worthy of special mention. His playing here is both carefully controlled and consistently inspired, and even his harshest critics have singled it out as noteworthy. I also like The Trio, a live set from 1973 featuring the guitarist Joe Pass and the bassist Niels Pedersen, which contains a version of Nat Cole’s “Easy Listening Blues” that shows how much Peterson learned from his nonpareil predecessor.

In addition to recording with his own groups, Peterson cut hundreds of albums as a sideman, most of them made in the days when he was barnstorming with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic concert troupes and doubling as house pianist for Verve, Granz’s record label. He recorded with everyone who worked for Granz—Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, Lester Young, even Fred Astaire—and his sensitive, discreet support rarely failed to stimulate those for whom he played. Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson Trio, recorded in 1957, is an especially choice example of his prowess as an accompanist.

Peterson also wrote a memoir, A Jazz Odyssey, about which I wrote in COMMENTARY when it was published in 2002:

I can think of no other jazz autobiography that has made the mysteries of music-making so readily accessible to the lay reader. Even those who dislike Oscar Peterson’s playing will find his book informative—surely a near-unprecedented achievement…. Despite his gifts as a raconteur, Peterson is not a natural writer—his ghostwritten prose is too often stiff and ostentatious—but when he speaks of music, the results have a clarity and specificity rarely found in books of this genre. And unlike most jazz memoirists, he is even willing to be critical of other players, including some of the most admired musicians in jazz. Peterson’s analysis of the “uneven and unfinished” playing of the bebop pianist Bud Powell, for instance, cuts sharply against the grain of conventional critical wisdom, and whether or not one agrees with his conclusions, they merit close scrutiny, not only in their own right but for the perspective they offer on his own remarkable technical achievements.

Alas, A Jazz Odyssey is out of print, but Gene Lees’s Oscar Peterson: The Will to Swing is still available in paperback. An intelligent and warmly sympathetic biography by one of the few jazz critics who appreciated Peterson properly, it profits from Lees’s close friendship with his subject.

Peterson was crippled by a stroke in 1993, and though he continued to play in public, his last performances added no luster to his reputation. Now that the long sunset of his post-stroke career is over, my guess is that he will fade from view for a time—perhaps even a long time. But sooner or later some patient and industrious critic will sift through the mountain of variably inspired recordings that he left behind, separate the wheat from the chaff, and tell a later generation of listeners what those who admired Oscar Peterson in his lifetime already know: when he was good, no one was better.

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2007′s Oddest Political Moments

There’s been a huge amount of talk this election season about the potential impact Youtube might have on the election specifically and on our political life in general. While that impact remains unclear, what is certain is that Youtube has made it more or less impossible for candidates to escape moments like these. And for that, we should all be thankful.

1. John McCain sings!

2. Larry Craig denies!

3. Karl Rove rocks the mike!

4. Rudy’s wife calls!

5. John Edwards primps!

6. Hillary gets patriotic!

7. Here’s one from across the pond: Sarkozy stumbles!

8. Andrew Young “clowns”!

9. Mitt Romney misidentifies!

There’s been a huge amount of talk this election season about the potential impact Youtube might have on the election specifically and on our political life in general. While that impact remains unclear, what is certain is that Youtube has made it more or less impossible for candidates to escape moments like these. And for that, we should all be thankful.

1. John McCain sings!

2. Larry Craig denies!

3. Karl Rove rocks the mike!

4. Rudy’s wife calls!

5. John Edwards primps!

6. Hillary gets patriotic!

7. Here’s one from across the pond: Sarkozy stumbles!

8. Andrew Young “clowns”!

9. Mitt Romney misidentifies!

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A Turning Point?

At least one report has al Qaeda claiming responsibility for today’s assassination of Benazir Bhutto. When it comes to Pakistan, determining guilt for this bombing or that assassination is a humbling task. But if the former prime minister was, in fact, killed by al Qaeda, then they may have once again overplayed their hand.

After years of al Qaeda carnage, people reached a saturation point in Iraq when they found their every effort at forward momentum stifled. Pakistan may be nearing something like the nihilistic burnout that drove Iraqis to turn en masse on al Qaeda. The situations are different, for sure, but there are key similarities—the most important being the frustration of citizens as they approach democracy. As Max Boot has pointed out, Pakistanis are already underwhelmed by extremist efforts at responsible governance. Benazir Bhutto had her detractors, but she had more than enough support to put fear into President Musharraf. If Pakistanis have to endure another stretch of emergency crackdowns they’ll be loath to tolerate the further debilitating efforts of al Qaeda and their ilk. After all, hopes for the Parliamentary elections (slated to take place in two weeks) are now shot once more.

Reports of looting and rioting are coming in from Pakistan. Undoubtedly, that country is in the onset of dangerously violent convulsions. Security is the immediate concern, and restoring order will be a gargantuan feat. But after the dust settles, we may see the kind of organic desire for consensual government that no outside ally or diplomat has yet been able to consolidate or mobilize.

At least one report has al Qaeda claiming responsibility for today’s assassination of Benazir Bhutto. When it comes to Pakistan, determining guilt for this bombing or that assassination is a humbling task. But if the former prime minister was, in fact, killed by al Qaeda, then they may have once again overplayed their hand.

After years of al Qaeda carnage, people reached a saturation point in Iraq when they found their every effort at forward momentum stifled. Pakistan may be nearing something like the nihilistic burnout that drove Iraqis to turn en masse on al Qaeda. The situations are different, for sure, but there are key similarities—the most important being the frustration of citizens as they approach democracy. As Max Boot has pointed out, Pakistanis are already underwhelmed by extremist efforts at responsible governance. Benazir Bhutto had her detractors, but she had more than enough support to put fear into President Musharraf. If Pakistanis have to endure another stretch of emergency crackdowns they’ll be loath to tolerate the further debilitating efforts of al Qaeda and their ilk. After all, hopes for the Parliamentary elections (slated to take place in two weeks) are now shot once more.

Reports of looting and rioting are coming in from Pakistan. Undoubtedly, that country is in the onset of dangerously violent convulsions. Security is the immediate concern, and restoring order will be a gargantuan feat. But after the dust settles, we may see the kind of organic desire for consensual government that no outside ally or diplomat has yet been able to consolidate or mobilize.

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