Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 4, 2007

Huckabee-ing and Nothingness

Bill Kristol says flatly that if Mike Huckabee does as well in December as he did in November, he will win the Republican nomination for president. Two polls have Huckabee holding the lead in Iowa over Mitt Romney, and one national tracking poll now has him tied for the lead with a sinking Rudy Giuliani. What is going on here? How could this have happened?

Simple: Don’t think of Mike Huckabee as Mike Huckabee. Think of Mike Huckabee as Fred Thompson. Huckabee is filling the role Fred Thompson entered the race in September to fill. He is the socially conservative Southern pro-life candidate with a silver tongue and a pleasingly low-key affect. It was Fred Thompson who was supposed to overtake Mitt Romney in Iowa, and it was Fred Thompson who was supposed to be a force to reckon with in national polls in December. But as a candidate, Thompson has proved to have all the spark of a wet firecracker, and as John McIntyre points out,  “What we have developing is Huckabee stepping in and filling the void in the GOP field that was available to Thompson in the summer.”  Somebody was going to occupy that Thompson space.

The question was whether one of the three top-tier candidates — Giuliani, Romney, or McCain — would manage to convince that portion of the Republican base to make common cause with him. The answer, it seems, is no.

I said two weeks ago that the Republican race was down to two men, Giuliani and Romney. I still believe that is the case, because while Huckabee’s surge has given voice to an important segmentof the GOP’s electoral pie –  pro-life evangelical Christians primarily – his candidacy does not offer much, if anything, to any mainstream Republican voter who is not part of that segment. Huckabee has a record of supporting tax increases, and his major domestic policy plank is his advocacy of a wild notion called the “Fair Tax” that would replace all imposts with a national sales tax. He has little of moment to say about the war on terror, the war in Iraq, or the war against Islamic totalitarianism.

If the Republican party is still a party of policy, then Huckabee stands somewhat apart (with the exception of his stand on abortion) from the policies that have been supported by the vast majority of GOP voters and that polling tells us still unite Republicans today. Let’s say Huckabee manages to take a substantial swath of the Religious Right vote for himself — 60 percent or so. That will still leavae 75 to 80 percent of Republican voters in play — especially since there is that huge 21-state primary on February 5 dominated by the Northeast and West, which are dominated by more secular GOP voters. In a two-man showdown between Giuliani and Romney for those voters, the victor will get enough support to secure the nomination.

I can, however, see one other scenario. Say Giuliani melts down this month, owing to more revelations about the intersection of his private life and his public duties. Or Romney melts down, in part because Huckabee’s rise means he will lose Iowa and therefore make it impossible for him to win every early state and thereby “slingshot” his way into the nomination. Huckabee won’t be there to pick up the pieces, because he speaks to a different electorate.

But John McCain will….

Bill Kristol says flatly that if Mike Huckabee does as well in December as he did in November, he will win the Republican nomination for president. Two polls have Huckabee holding the lead in Iowa over Mitt Romney, and one national tracking poll now has him tied for the lead with a sinking Rudy Giuliani. What is going on here? How could this have happened?

Simple: Don’t think of Mike Huckabee as Mike Huckabee. Think of Mike Huckabee as Fred Thompson. Huckabee is filling the role Fred Thompson entered the race in September to fill. He is the socially conservative Southern pro-life candidate with a silver tongue and a pleasingly low-key affect. It was Fred Thompson who was supposed to overtake Mitt Romney in Iowa, and it was Fred Thompson who was supposed to be a force to reckon with in national polls in December. But as a candidate, Thompson has proved to have all the spark of a wet firecracker, and as John McIntyre points out,  “What we have developing is Huckabee stepping in and filling the void in the GOP field that was available to Thompson in the summer.”  Somebody was going to occupy that Thompson space.

The question was whether one of the three top-tier candidates — Giuliani, Romney, or McCain — would manage to convince that portion of the Republican base to make common cause with him. The answer, it seems, is no.

I said two weeks ago that the Republican race was down to two men, Giuliani and Romney. I still believe that is the case, because while Huckabee’s surge has given voice to an important segmentof the GOP’s electoral pie –  pro-life evangelical Christians primarily – his candidacy does not offer much, if anything, to any mainstream Republican voter who is not part of that segment. Huckabee has a record of supporting tax increases, and his major domestic policy plank is his advocacy of a wild notion called the “Fair Tax” that would replace all imposts with a national sales tax. He has little of moment to say about the war on terror, the war in Iraq, or the war against Islamic totalitarianism.

If the Republican party is still a party of policy, then Huckabee stands somewhat apart (with the exception of his stand on abortion) from the policies that have been supported by the vast majority of GOP voters and that polling tells us still unite Republicans today. Let’s say Huckabee manages to take a substantial swath of the Religious Right vote for himself — 60 percent or so. That will still leavae 75 to 80 percent of Republican voters in play — especially since there is that huge 21-state primary on February 5 dominated by the Northeast and West, which are dominated by more secular GOP voters. In a two-man showdown between Giuliani and Romney for those voters, the victor will get enough support to secure the nomination.

I can, however, see one other scenario. Say Giuliani melts down this month, owing to more revelations about the intersection of his private life and his public duties. Or Romney melts down, in part because Huckabee’s rise means he will lose Iowa and therefore make it impossible for him to win every early state and thereby “slingshot” his way into the nomination. Huckabee won’t be there to pick up the pieces, because he speaks to a different electorate.

But John McCain will….

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More on Chavez’s Defeat

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has lost his referendum. The margin was narrow—51 percent to 49 percent—and the turnout low—about 56 percent—but he has lost nonetheless. The U.S. media, adopting its usual non-judgmental tone towards the advance of tyranny abroad, often referred to the referendum as being on “constitutional reform,” but if Chavez was a reformer, then so are his friends Vladimir Putin and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The referendum threw a series of socio-economic bones to the poor, but at its heart was an attempt to rig the Venezuelan political system and allow Chavez to run for President indefinitely. If—and that is a very big if indeed—he abides by the results of the referendum, Chavez will now be barred from running again in 2012.

2012 is a very long way away. If a week is an eternity in politics, five years is a much longer eternity. Chavez is unlikely to be discouraged by his narrow loss: the only wonder is that he did not cheat more effectively this time round. His “victory” in the 2004 recall referendum was certified by almost no one except Jimmy Carter. Indeed, Chavez put so many restrictions in their way that the EU refused even to oversee the vote.

Sunday’s vote is a victory for democracy, in a part of the world where it is particularly embattled, but it is not even the end of the beginning of the struggle. Chavez is still popular, and not just among his cronies and henchmen: his left-wing populism, economically destructive and politically illiberal though it is, is an authentic part—though not the only part—of Latin American political culture. The price of oil continues to rise, which gives him a nuisance-making power immensely larger than his politics or the rest of the Venezuelan economy merits. He continues to consort with his fellow oil dictators, and to proclaim the necessity of an anti-American alliance, one based, like the Anti-Commintern Pact, solely on their shared hatreds. Sophisticated people laughed about the axis of evil: Chavez is proud to proclaim that he’s part of it. And we have to put democracy’s victory in Latin America alongside Putin’s simultaneous triumph in a very similar campaign.

But we can take a couple of lessons away from Venezuela. The first is that, while elections are not a cure-all, and while undemocratic parties can indeed triumph through the polls, there is no path to democracy that does not run through them. And sometimes, we get more out of supporting elections than we expect we will. The second is that our cause has more friends than we sometimes realize. Chavez is an incipient dictator, but the Venezuelan people are not unreservedly on his side. The dictator states always look strong until, as in 1989, they crack, fall, and disappear into the dustbin of history. The most important thing in thinking about such states is always to remember what they are, and never to mistake the silence of the people for their support.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has lost his referendum. The margin was narrow—51 percent to 49 percent—and the turnout low—about 56 percent—but he has lost nonetheless. The U.S. media, adopting its usual non-judgmental tone towards the advance of tyranny abroad, often referred to the referendum as being on “constitutional reform,” but if Chavez was a reformer, then so are his friends Vladimir Putin and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The referendum threw a series of socio-economic bones to the poor, but at its heart was an attempt to rig the Venezuelan political system and allow Chavez to run for President indefinitely. If—and that is a very big if indeed—he abides by the results of the referendum, Chavez will now be barred from running again in 2012.

2012 is a very long way away. If a week is an eternity in politics, five years is a much longer eternity. Chavez is unlikely to be discouraged by his narrow loss: the only wonder is that he did not cheat more effectively this time round. His “victory” in the 2004 recall referendum was certified by almost no one except Jimmy Carter. Indeed, Chavez put so many restrictions in their way that the EU refused even to oversee the vote.

Sunday’s vote is a victory for democracy, in a part of the world where it is particularly embattled, but it is not even the end of the beginning of the struggle. Chavez is still popular, and not just among his cronies and henchmen: his left-wing populism, economically destructive and politically illiberal though it is, is an authentic part—though not the only part—of Latin American political culture. The price of oil continues to rise, which gives him a nuisance-making power immensely larger than his politics or the rest of the Venezuelan economy merits. He continues to consort with his fellow oil dictators, and to proclaim the necessity of an anti-American alliance, one based, like the Anti-Commintern Pact, solely on their shared hatreds. Sophisticated people laughed about the axis of evil: Chavez is proud to proclaim that he’s part of it. And we have to put democracy’s victory in Latin America alongside Putin’s simultaneous triumph in a very similar campaign.

But we can take a couple of lessons away from Venezuela. The first is that, while elections are not a cure-all, and while undemocratic parties can indeed triumph through the polls, there is no path to democracy that does not run through them. And sometimes, we get more out of supporting elections than we expect we will. The second is that our cause has more friends than we sometimes realize. Chavez is an incipient dictator, but the Venezuelan people are not unreservedly on his side. The dictator states always look strong until, as in 1989, they crack, fall, and disappear into the dustbin of history. The most important thing in thinking about such states is always to remember what they are, and never to mistake the silence of the people for their support.

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Dems’ Contradictions After NIE

If Iran did halt its nuclear weaponization program in 2003, then we can thank the U.S. military presence in Iraq. Yet the Democrats consider the NIE an indication of the effectiveness of diplomacy. Here’s a round-up:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: “The Administration should begin this process by finally undertaking a diplomatic surge necessary to effectively address the challenges posed by Iran.”

Speaker of The House, Nancy Pelosi: “[T]he new Iran NIE suggests there is time for a new policy toward Iran that deters it from restarting its nuclear program while also improving relations overall.

Senator John Edwards: “The new NIE finds that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that Iran can be dissuaded from pursuing a nuclear weapon through diplomacy.”

Senator Chris Dodd: “Taken together these findings make a strong case for pursuing robust diplomacy to resolve our differences with Iran . . .”

The logical bind here is evident. If the President hasn’t been pursuing diplomacy to their satisfaction, how can diplomacy be responsible for Iran’s turnaround? This rush to doubletalk may haunt these Democrats in the near future.

But it’s Senator Hillary Clinton who makes the most transparent mess of things. Here’s Lee Feinstein, her Campaign National Security Director:

The assessment of the NIE vindicates the policy Senator Clinton will pursue as President: vigorous American-led diplomacy, close international cooperation, and effective economic pressure, with the prospect of carefully calibrated incentives if Iran addresses our concerns. Neither saber rattling nor unconditional meetings with Ahmadinejad will stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Clinton supported the Lieberman-Kyl Amendment, which turned up the heat on Iran, via military threat. Claiming vindication of her imagined diplomatic policy is as strange as her husband’s comments on Iraq last week. And that last bit about unconditional meetings is too telegraphed a jab at Obama for anyone to stomach.

If Iran did halt its nuclear weaponization program in 2003, then we can thank the U.S. military presence in Iraq. Yet the Democrats consider the NIE an indication of the effectiveness of diplomacy. Here’s a round-up:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: “The Administration should begin this process by finally undertaking a diplomatic surge necessary to effectively address the challenges posed by Iran.”

Speaker of The House, Nancy Pelosi: “[T]he new Iran NIE suggests there is time for a new policy toward Iran that deters it from restarting its nuclear program while also improving relations overall.

Senator John Edwards: “The new NIE finds that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that Iran can be dissuaded from pursuing a nuclear weapon through diplomacy.”

Senator Chris Dodd: “Taken together these findings make a strong case for pursuing robust diplomacy to resolve our differences with Iran . . .”

The logical bind here is evident. If the President hasn’t been pursuing diplomacy to their satisfaction, how can diplomacy be responsible for Iran’s turnaround? This rush to doubletalk may haunt these Democrats in the near future.

But it’s Senator Hillary Clinton who makes the most transparent mess of things. Here’s Lee Feinstein, her Campaign National Security Director:

The assessment of the NIE vindicates the policy Senator Clinton will pursue as President: vigorous American-led diplomacy, close international cooperation, and effective economic pressure, with the prospect of carefully calibrated incentives if Iran addresses our concerns. Neither saber rattling nor unconditional meetings with Ahmadinejad will stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Clinton supported the Lieberman-Kyl Amendment, which turned up the heat on Iran, via military threat. Claiming vindication of her imagined diplomatic policy is as strange as her husband’s comments on Iraq last week. And that last bit about unconditional meetings is too telegraphed a jab at Obama for anyone to stomach.

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Hang on a Minute, Scrooge

I admire Christopher Hitchens as a fierce critic of Islamist violence, and his thunderbolts against organized religion are unfailingly entertaining. But he makes a couple of easy elisions in his Slate essay about Hanukkah that need addressing.

Hitchens claims that:

About a century and a half before the alleged birth of the supposed Jesus of Nazareth (another event that receives semiofficial recognition at this time of the year), the Greek or Epicurean style had begun to gain immense ground among the Jews of Syria and Palestine. The Seleucid Empire, an inheritance of Alexander the Great—Alexander still being a popular name among Jews—had weaned many people away from the sacrifices, the circumcisions, the belief in a special relationship with God, and the other reactionary manifestations of an ancient and cruel faith.

Hitchens goes on to cite Michael Lerner of Tikkun fame:

Along with Greek science and military prowess came a whole culture that celebrated beauty both in art and in the human body, presented the world with the triumph of rational thought in the works of Plato and Aristotle, and rejoiced in the complexities of life presented in the theater of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes.

Sounds pretty great, right? But as it happens, the specific events commemorated by Hanukkah have a rather different cast. The Maccabees were not so much fighting to destroy Hellenism as to drive out the occupying forces of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid king of Syria, who had banned (in an unprecedented step for a Seleucid) the practice of Judaism as a whole.

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I admire Christopher Hitchens as a fierce critic of Islamist violence, and his thunderbolts against organized religion are unfailingly entertaining. But he makes a couple of easy elisions in his Slate essay about Hanukkah that need addressing.

Hitchens claims that:

About a century and a half before the alleged birth of the supposed Jesus of Nazareth (another event that receives semiofficial recognition at this time of the year), the Greek or Epicurean style had begun to gain immense ground among the Jews of Syria and Palestine. The Seleucid Empire, an inheritance of Alexander the Great—Alexander still being a popular name among Jews—had weaned many people away from the sacrifices, the circumcisions, the belief in a special relationship with God, and the other reactionary manifestations of an ancient and cruel faith.

Hitchens goes on to cite Michael Lerner of Tikkun fame:

Along with Greek science and military prowess came a whole culture that celebrated beauty both in art and in the human body, presented the world with the triumph of rational thought in the works of Plato and Aristotle, and rejoiced in the complexities of life presented in the theater of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes.

Sounds pretty great, right? But as it happens, the specific events commemorated by Hanukkah have a rather different cast. The Maccabees were not so much fighting to destroy Hellenism as to drive out the occupying forces of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid king of Syria, who had banned (in an unprecedented step for a Seleucid) the practice of Judaism as a whole.

As Sam Schulman, reviewing Hitchens’s God Is Not Great in the June 2007 issue of COMMENTARY, notes:

[Hitchens’s] stroke of counterhistory has been heavily prettified in the details. On the one hand, as Hitchens tells it, there were the Hellenized Jews of Palestine—suave, cosmopolitan, athletic, well educated, yearning to enjoy the finer things in life as represented by their Greek overlords. On the other hand, there were the religious fundamentalists of the day, the Jewish reactionaries seeking only to proscribe and to prescribe. In Hitchens’s reconstruction, the Maccabean revolt sounds like nothing so much as the struggle between “aesthetes” and “hearties” in the Oxford of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

But the Maccabean wars were not like that. The Greeks were not fighting for the mellow and the metrosexual. They aimed to pour hogs’ blood over the altar, erect statues of Jove in the sanctuary, eradicate Jewish identity itself. Had the Maccabees failed, there would have been a victory not of secular humanism over religious fundamentalism but of the pitiless Olympian gods—and their Egyptian co-deities—over monotheism and the complexities of ethical life.

It’s all very well for Hitchens to call Hanukkah a celebration of tribal Jewish backwardness. But were the practices of the Greeks any less backward? No to circumcision but yes to exposing imperfect infants? No to the special relationship with God but yes to the Oracles of Delphi and Dodona?

A little thought experiment: can you think of a more theologically “complex” story than the binding of Isaac by his father Abraham, after Abraham was commanded to sacrifice him? Ah, the binding of Isaac, you say! The signal example of Judaism’s “cruelty”! But hang on. Those Aeschylean and Euripidean “complexities of life” so beloved of Rabbi Lerner and cited with such approval by Hitchens—does anyone really need to be reminded of how blood-drenched they were? How Orestes suffers in their toils? How Medea’s children die? Isaac, you’ll remember, lives.

But there’s something even more troubling about Hitchens’s reading of Hanukkah:

To celebrate Hanukkah is to celebrate not just the triumph of tribal Jewish backwardness but also the accidental birth of Judaism’s bastard child in the shape of Christianity. You might think that masochism could do no more. Except that it always can. Without the precedents of rabbinic Judaism and Roman Christianity, on which it is based and from which it is borrowed, there would be no Islam, either. . . . And this is not just a disaster for the Jews. When the fanatics of Palestine won that victory, and when Judaism repudiated Athens for Jerusalem, the development of the whole of humanity was terribly retarded.

Umberto Eco once observed that counterfactual conditionals are always true, because their premises are always false. Hitchens’s thumbnail sketch is too deterministic a reading to bear much scrutiny. Let me see if I have this right: because an obscure sect of Jewish guerrillas defeated an occupying Syrian army in Jerusalem in 165 B.C.E., we got . . . the Christian Church astride the globe like a colossus, the Crusades, the Muslim conquest of Spain, the Inquisition, all the depredations of the monotheistic religions against each other and against secularists ever since, up to and including 9/11? So, if the Maccabees had lost in Jerusalem, absolutely none of this would have happened? That contention, at least, seems ridiculous on its face.

Hitchens complains that Hanukkah has become a Jewish analogue for Christmas. Sociologically that is trivially true; theologically and historically it’s nonsense. Yet Hitchens can now say that:

Every Jew who honors the Hanukkah holiday because it gives his child an excuse to mingle the dreidel with the Christmas tree and the sleigh (neither of these absurd symbols having the least thing to do with Palestine two millenniums past) is celebrating the making of a series of rods for his own back.

Coming from him, this is a remarkable statement. Strange, isn’t it, how much Hitchens the secularist can sound like a militant Jewish purist? Even (dare I say it) a Maccabee?

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Words, Words, Words

Here at the horizon, Dara Mandle wonders about the death of reading. Over at The New Republic, James Wolcott offers a lengthy and vastly entertaining piece on the decline of book reviewing (the piece itself is a review of Gail Pool’s Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America), a topic also explored recently by Steve Wasserman in the Columbia Journalism Review. All seem to agree that reading (and serious thinking on it) is in a state of flux, and probably on the wane. Mandle’s post, for example, ends with the question, “Do electronics like the Kindle have what it takes to save reading?” The underlying assumption is that reading needs saving, and that recent cultural and technological shifts are part of what’s killing it.

It’s an easy assumption to make, of course, but as Wolcott’s essay points out, it’s hardly a novel idea. Academics, intellectuals, and ordinary book lovers have been fretting over the decline of serious writing and serious thinking about writing for decades. As always, reactions vary. Many, like Adam Kirsch in The New York Sun, have simply given up, pronouncing the internet-dominated literary scene a total loss. Others, including critics like Terry Teachout and journalists like Megan McArdle (now of the Atlantic), are more enthusiastic.

I lean towards enthusiasm, but I think some of the worries and criticisms are valid, if somewhat misplaced. The danger to reading, it seems to me, is less of the lack of respect for books and book criticism, or the uninformed opinions of amateurs replacing the thoughtful screeds of professionals, or the diminishing number of book reviews in newspapers, but instead, the glut of written material fighting for our collective attention. Even the most robust literary scene would have difficulty keeping up with the truckloads of books published each year. And although newspapers may be publishing fewer book reviews, the internet, by giving free and easy access to all those with internet access, has actually expanded access to top-tier reviews for nearly everyone.

Book review pages in medium sized newspapers have fallen off in large part because they are unnecessary in a world where nearly everyone can easily browse the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the L.A. Times. Meanwhile, smaller publications, including blogs, but also established print journals, are flourishing on the web, creating a wealth of easy-to-access material for every niche. The difficulty with reading these days is not that there is too little being written, or that no one is doing it, or even that no one is doing it well. It’s that there’s too much to read, too much to process. We are not short for words. We are drowning in them.

Here at the horizon, Dara Mandle wonders about the death of reading. Over at The New Republic, James Wolcott offers a lengthy and vastly entertaining piece on the decline of book reviewing (the piece itself is a review of Gail Pool’s Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America), a topic also explored recently by Steve Wasserman in the Columbia Journalism Review. All seem to agree that reading (and serious thinking on it) is in a state of flux, and probably on the wane. Mandle’s post, for example, ends with the question, “Do electronics like the Kindle have what it takes to save reading?” The underlying assumption is that reading needs saving, and that recent cultural and technological shifts are part of what’s killing it.

It’s an easy assumption to make, of course, but as Wolcott’s essay points out, it’s hardly a novel idea. Academics, intellectuals, and ordinary book lovers have been fretting over the decline of serious writing and serious thinking about writing for decades. As always, reactions vary. Many, like Adam Kirsch in The New York Sun, have simply given up, pronouncing the internet-dominated literary scene a total loss. Others, including critics like Terry Teachout and journalists like Megan McArdle (now of the Atlantic), are more enthusiastic.

I lean towards enthusiasm, but I think some of the worries and criticisms are valid, if somewhat misplaced. The danger to reading, it seems to me, is less of the lack of respect for books and book criticism, or the uninformed opinions of amateurs replacing the thoughtful screeds of professionals, or the diminishing number of book reviews in newspapers, but instead, the glut of written material fighting for our collective attention. Even the most robust literary scene would have difficulty keeping up with the truckloads of books published each year. And although newspapers may be publishing fewer book reviews, the internet, by giving free and easy access to all those with internet access, has actually expanded access to top-tier reviews for nearly everyone.

Book review pages in medium sized newspapers have fallen off in large part because they are unnecessary in a world where nearly everyone can easily browse the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the L.A. Times. Meanwhile, smaller publications, including blogs, but also established print journals, are flourishing on the web, creating a wealth of easy-to-access material for every niche. The difficulty with reading these days is not that there is too little being written, or that no one is doing it, or even that no one is doing it well. It’s that there’s too much to read, too much to process. We are not short for words. We are drowning in them.

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Hitting Them Where it Hurts Most

The State Department yesterday announced a new round of sanctions on Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe, and they are significant because they will hit the regime’s leaders where it hurts most: their ability to live luxurious lives at the expense of their oppressed people.

For many years, Zimbabwe’s elite have been sending their children abroad for education, and this phenomenon has increased with the rapid decline of Zimbabwe’s once-highly regarded educational system (the one thing Mugabe got right was investment in education; Zimbabweans had the highest literacy rates of any people on the African continent). The State Department has decided to expand the list of those Zimbabweans under U.S. sanction, which means that five adult children studying here will soon be deported. Good riddance.

The State Department yesterday announced a new round of sanctions on Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe, and they are significant because they will hit the regime’s leaders where it hurts most: their ability to live luxurious lives at the expense of their oppressed people.

For many years, Zimbabwe’s elite have been sending their children abroad for education, and this phenomenon has increased with the rapid decline of Zimbabwe’s once-highly regarded educational system (the one thing Mugabe got right was investment in education; Zimbabweans had the highest literacy rates of any people on the African continent). The State Department has decided to expand the list of those Zimbabweans under U.S. sanction, which means that five adult children studying here will soon be deported. Good riddance.

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Against (Archaeological) Interpretation

This week, archaeologists in Jerusalem reported the discovery of a great wall dating to the sixth century B.C.E., likely to be part of the very city walls built by the Israelite leader Nehemia as described in the Bible. The archaeologist, Eilat Mazar, of Hebrew University and the Shalem Center, made major headlines two years ago with the discovery of what is likely the remains of King David’s palace. (I wrote an essay in Azure about this at the time.)

The debate over archaeological support for the Bible has, over the past years, gotten weirder and weirder. As more evidence like Mazar’s discovery emerges supporting the historical account of an Israelite people centered in Jerusalem, opponents are driven further into the arms of post-modernism: Not that the evidence doesn’t prove the hypothesis, but that all evidence and hypothesis are not real but political manipulation. I remember hearing a talk by Israel Finkelstein, head of Tel Aviv University’s archaeology department and the leading promoter of the theory that David and Solomon’s kingdom never really existed. When asked to provide proofs for his alternative theory of how to know the dates of archaeological finds (upon which he based his whole pitch), he began citing the 1960’s philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn—who famously argued that science is not about truth but about shifting “paradigms,” driven as much by politics as anything else—to justify why he didn’t need proofs at all.

Now comes Barnard anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj, who received tenure for a book she wrote claiming that the entire field of biblical archaeology is nothing but a political manipulation to justify the Jewish state and the oppression of Palestinians. But unlike Finkelstein, whose post-modern approach is often obscured by his archaeological knowledge, El-Haj is up-front about her intentions. As cited in Haaretz this week, she describes her research as building upon “post-structuralism, philosophical critiques of foundationalism, Marxism, and critical theory”—and therefore on “rejecting a positivist commitment to scientific method.” Ultimately, she is guided by a “commitment to understanding archaeology as necessarily political.”

This is a sign of desperation. As the evidence continues to mount, and the truthful nature of much of the biblical history becomes increasingly clear, these critics have little left to say but that evidence doesn’t matter. Students of Said, take note.

This week, archaeologists in Jerusalem reported the discovery of a great wall dating to the sixth century B.C.E., likely to be part of the very city walls built by the Israelite leader Nehemia as described in the Bible. The archaeologist, Eilat Mazar, of Hebrew University and the Shalem Center, made major headlines two years ago with the discovery of what is likely the remains of King David’s palace. (I wrote an essay in Azure about this at the time.)

The debate over archaeological support for the Bible has, over the past years, gotten weirder and weirder. As more evidence like Mazar’s discovery emerges supporting the historical account of an Israelite people centered in Jerusalem, opponents are driven further into the arms of post-modernism: Not that the evidence doesn’t prove the hypothesis, but that all evidence and hypothesis are not real but political manipulation. I remember hearing a talk by Israel Finkelstein, head of Tel Aviv University’s archaeology department and the leading promoter of the theory that David and Solomon’s kingdom never really existed. When asked to provide proofs for his alternative theory of how to know the dates of archaeological finds (upon which he based his whole pitch), he began citing the 1960’s philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn—who famously argued that science is not about truth but about shifting “paradigms,” driven as much by politics as anything else—to justify why he didn’t need proofs at all.

Now comes Barnard anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj, who received tenure for a book she wrote claiming that the entire field of biblical archaeology is nothing but a political manipulation to justify the Jewish state and the oppression of Palestinians. But unlike Finkelstein, whose post-modern approach is often obscured by his archaeological knowledge, El-Haj is up-front about her intentions. As cited in Haaretz this week, she describes her research as building upon “post-structuralism, philosophical critiques of foundationalism, Marxism, and critical theory”—and therefore on “rejecting a positivist commitment to scientific method.” Ultimately, she is guided by a “commitment to understanding archaeology as necessarily political.”

This is a sign of desperation. As the evidence continues to mount, and the truthful nature of much of the biblical history becomes increasingly clear, these critics have little left to say but that evidence doesn’t matter. Students of Said, take note.

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How To Sell An HDTV to a Jew

This may be the greatest television advertisement of all time.

This may be the greatest television advertisement of all time.

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Sharif’s Return

The differences are greater than the similarities, but somehow the Saudi decision to send exiled politician Nawaz Sharif back to Pakistan on an airplane belonging to King Abdullah reminds me of the Germans’ decision to transport V.I. Lenin from his exile in Switzerland back to Russia in a sealed railway car in 1917. Winston Churchill famously wrote of the Germans: “It was with a sense of awe that they turned upon Russia the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus into Russia.”

The German hope that Lenin would launch a revolution that would undermine the czarist regime fighting Germany was fully realized. But, while the short-term consequences were extremely favorable to Germany (the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, concluded by the new Bolshevik regime, took Russia out of the war and granted Germany huge territorial concessions), in the long term, the German move backfired. The Communist regime proved to be a more formidable and ruthless adversary to Germany than its czarist predecessor had been. By 1945 Russian soldiers were wandering through the ruins of Berlin, thanks to an offensive overseen by Lenin’s successor.

Will the Saudi move to send Sharif to Pakistan backfire as badly? Probably not. But it could still have negative repercussions.

The Saudis are more comfortable with Nawaz Sharif, an Islamic conservative who tried to impose sharia law during his tenure as prime minister in the 1990′s, than with Benazir Bhutto, a liberal, pro-Western woman. From the Saudi perspective, a woman shouldn’t be driving a car, much less running a country, especially not an Islamic country. No doubt the Saudis were alarmed by the sight of Bhutto returning to Pakistan with American help, and they wanted to get “their” candidate back into the political arena. Significantly, Sharif had spent the past eight years living on Saudi soil, while Bhutto spent her wilderness years in the freer air of Dubai and London.

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The differences are greater than the similarities, but somehow the Saudi decision to send exiled politician Nawaz Sharif back to Pakistan on an airplane belonging to King Abdullah reminds me of the Germans’ decision to transport V.I. Lenin from his exile in Switzerland back to Russia in a sealed railway car in 1917. Winston Churchill famously wrote of the Germans: “It was with a sense of awe that they turned upon Russia the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus into Russia.”

The German hope that Lenin would launch a revolution that would undermine the czarist regime fighting Germany was fully realized. But, while the short-term consequences were extremely favorable to Germany (the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, concluded by the new Bolshevik regime, took Russia out of the war and granted Germany huge territorial concessions), in the long term, the German move backfired. The Communist regime proved to be a more formidable and ruthless adversary to Germany than its czarist predecessor had been. By 1945 Russian soldiers were wandering through the ruins of Berlin, thanks to an offensive overseen by Lenin’s successor.

Will the Saudi move to send Sharif to Pakistan backfire as badly? Probably not. But it could still have negative repercussions.

The Saudis are more comfortable with Nawaz Sharif, an Islamic conservative who tried to impose sharia law during his tenure as prime minister in the 1990′s, than with Benazir Bhutto, a liberal, pro-Western woman. From the Saudi perspective, a woman shouldn’t be driving a car, much less running a country, especially not an Islamic country. No doubt the Saudis were alarmed by the sight of Bhutto returning to Pakistan with American help, and they wanted to get “their” candidate back into the political arena. Significantly, Sharif had spent the past eight years living on Saudi soil, while Bhutto spent her wilderness years in the freer air of Dubai and London.

The Saudis are understandably determined to preserve their long-standing links with Pakistan. The ties are long and deep: the Saudis and Pakistanis worked closely together in the 1980′s, for example, to support the mujahideen fighting the Red Army in Afghanistan. The Pakistanis provided bases, training, and handlers; the Saudis (along with the Americans) provided the cash.

There are even unproven suspicions (denied vehemently by both sides) that the links may include Saudi financial contributions for the development of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, in return perhaps for an understanding that Pakistani nuclear technology will be made available to the Saudis should they ever need it. That possibility is no longer so far-fetched: If Iran develops its own nuclear bomb, Saudi Arabia may well feel compelled to match the “Persians.”

That could set off a destabilizing Middle Eastern arms race and raise the odds that a nuclear weapon could fall into the hands of jihadist terrorists. But from the Saudi perspective, going nuclear could be a necessary step toward preserving their security and prestige. If so, it would be helpful to the Saudis to have in Pakistan a leader who would offer Riyadh all the cooperation it needs. And Sharif fits the bill better than Bhutto.

But the Saudis had better be careful what they wish for. If Sharif is less dogged than, say, Bhutto would be in cracking down on jihadists, the results could come back to haunt the Saudis. Pakistan, after all, has become a haven of al Qaeda extremists who hate the Saudi regime at least as much as they hate America and Israel. It is in the Saudis’ interests to have the Pakistan government defeat the jihadists—something that Pervez Musharraf has not been willing or able to do and that Sharif may or may not be willing to do either, but that Bhutto has promised to do. Of course the ability of any of these leaders to stop the growth of Islamic radicalism may be limited because of the unwillingness or inability of many in the Pakistani security forces to fight especially hard against their Muslim “brothers.” But it would certainly be helpful to have a leader who appears more emotionally committed to the fight than Musharraf has been or than Sharif may be.

There is nothing wrong with allowing Sharif to compete in free elections; they would not have any credibility if he were barred. But one wonders how much covert support the Saudis may be providing him beyond simply his plush ticket back.

The Saudis had better be careful not to compromise their long-term interests in return for short-term gain—a mistake they last made in the 1990′s when, working hand-in-glove with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, they funded the most radical mujahideen groups fighting in Afghanistan. Many of those Afghan veterans then journeyed back to Saudi Arabia and formed the nucleus of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group that Saudi security forces have been battling for the last several years.

Saudi Arabia has already imported one plague bacillus; it should be wary of a re-infection.

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Is the NIE Part of a Plot to Undermine President Bush?

Writing about the new National Intelligence Estimate reporting that Iran’s nuclear program came to a halt in 2003, Norman Podhoretz entertains “dark suspicions” that the intelligence community, “which has for some years now been leaking material calculated to undermine George W. Bush, is doing it again.”

The purpose, he speculates

is to head off the possibility that the President may order air strikes on the Iranian nuclear installations. As the intelligence community must know, if he were to do so, it would be as a last resort, only after it had become undeniable that neither negotiations nor sanctions could prevent Iran from getting the bomb, and only after being convinced that it was very close to succeeding.

Mimicking the language of the NIE itself, Podhoretz concludes by noting that he offers “these assessments and judgments with no more than ‘moderate confidence.’”

Could Podhoretz be right?

He is certainly right that a long series of leaks have emanated from the intelligence community, many of them clearly designed to undermine or embarrass the Bush administration. Some of these leaks appear to have come from ranking officials.

Could the same thing be true of an NIE? An NIE is the intelligence community’s “most
authoritative written judgments on national security issues.” Here is the official explanation of how these are produced:

NIEs are typically requested by senior civilian and military policymakers, Congressional leaders and at times are initiated by the National Intelligence Council (NIC). Before a NIE is drafted, the relevant NIO [National Intelligence Officer] is responsible for producing a concept paper or terms of reference (TOR) and circulates it throughout the Intelligence Community for comment. The TOR defines the key estimative questions, determines drafting responsibilities, and sets the drafting and publication schedule. One or more IC analysts are usually assigned to produce the initial text. The NIC then meets to critique the draft before it is circulated to the broader IC. Representatives from the relevant IC agencies meet to hone and coordinate line-by-line the full text of the NIE. Working with their Agencies, reps also assign the level of confidence they have in each key judgment. IC reps discuss the quality of sources with collectors, and the National Clandestine Service vets the sources used to ensure the draft does not include any that have been recalled or otherwise seriously questioned. All NIEs are reviewed by National Intelligence Board, which is chaired by the DNI and is composed of the heads of relevant IC agencies. Once approved by the NIB, NIEs are briefed to the President and senior policymakers. The whole process of producing NIEs normally takes at least several months.

As we know all too well, NIEs have been strikingly wrong in the past; the “slam-dunk” assessment issued on the eve of the second Gulf war that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was built on a remarkably thin body of evidence, much of which turned out be false. The 2005 assessment warning of Iran’s active nuclear program, the intelligence community is now telling us, was also wrong.

But being mistaken, even disastrously mistaken, is one thing: producing an NIE with the naked purpose of undermining a President and foreclosing a policy option is another. Could this happen? It seems highly unlikely if for no other reason then that sixteen different government agencies are involved in the production of such documents, and the classified evidence on which NIEs are based is available for inspection and debate by senior policymakers.

There are significant ambiguities in this NIE, and as Max Boot rightly points out, it still leaves ample reason to worry about Iranian nuclear ambitions. But in the current climate of skepticism about the competence of the CIA and other intelligence bodies, the idea that intelligence officials engaged in a coordinated effort to cook the evidence seems impossible to credit. Even if there was a shared desire among all sixteen agencies to do such a thing (which seems implausible on its face) pulling off such a caper would be a hugely difficult task, and almost certainly beyond the capacity even of America’s most ingenious spies — assuming we even have any ingenious spies.

Although I remain as worried as Norman Podhoretz about the dangers posed by an Iran armed with nuclear weapons, and though there is ample reason to wonder about the quality of U.S. intelligence, I would still have to put “low confidence” in his dark suspicions.

Writing about the new National Intelligence Estimate reporting that Iran’s nuclear program came to a halt in 2003, Norman Podhoretz entertains “dark suspicions” that the intelligence community, “which has for some years now been leaking material calculated to undermine George W. Bush, is doing it again.”

The purpose, he speculates

is to head off the possibility that the President may order air strikes on the Iranian nuclear installations. As the intelligence community must know, if he were to do so, it would be as a last resort, only after it had become undeniable that neither negotiations nor sanctions could prevent Iran from getting the bomb, and only after being convinced that it was very close to succeeding.

Mimicking the language of the NIE itself, Podhoretz concludes by noting that he offers “these assessments and judgments with no more than ‘moderate confidence.’”

Could Podhoretz be right?

He is certainly right that a long series of leaks have emanated from the intelligence community, many of them clearly designed to undermine or embarrass the Bush administration. Some of these leaks appear to have come from ranking officials.

Could the same thing be true of an NIE? An NIE is the intelligence community’s “most
authoritative written judgments on national security issues.” Here is the official explanation of how these are produced:

NIEs are typically requested by senior civilian and military policymakers, Congressional leaders and at times are initiated by the National Intelligence Council (NIC). Before a NIE is drafted, the relevant NIO [National Intelligence Officer] is responsible for producing a concept paper or terms of reference (TOR) and circulates it throughout the Intelligence Community for comment. The TOR defines the key estimative questions, determines drafting responsibilities, and sets the drafting and publication schedule. One or more IC analysts are usually assigned to produce the initial text. The NIC then meets to critique the draft before it is circulated to the broader IC. Representatives from the relevant IC agencies meet to hone and coordinate line-by-line the full text of the NIE. Working with their Agencies, reps also assign the level of confidence they have in each key judgment. IC reps discuss the quality of sources with collectors, and the National Clandestine Service vets the sources used to ensure the draft does not include any that have been recalled or otherwise seriously questioned. All NIEs are reviewed by National Intelligence Board, which is chaired by the DNI and is composed of the heads of relevant IC agencies. Once approved by the NIB, NIEs are briefed to the President and senior policymakers. The whole process of producing NIEs normally takes at least several months.

As we know all too well, NIEs have been strikingly wrong in the past; the “slam-dunk” assessment issued on the eve of the second Gulf war that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was built on a remarkably thin body of evidence, much of which turned out be false. The 2005 assessment warning of Iran’s active nuclear program, the intelligence community is now telling us, was also wrong.

But being mistaken, even disastrously mistaken, is one thing: producing an NIE with the naked purpose of undermining a President and foreclosing a policy option is another. Could this happen? It seems highly unlikely if for no other reason then that sixteen different government agencies are involved in the production of such documents, and the classified evidence on which NIEs are based is available for inspection and debate by senior policymakers.

There are significant ambiguities in this NIE, and as Max Boot rightly points out, it still leaves ample reason to worry about Iranian nuclear ambitions. But in the current climate of skepticism about the competence of the CIA and other intelligence bodies, the idea that intelligence officials engaged in a coordinated effort to cook the evidence seems impossible to credit. Even if there was a shared desire among all sixteen agencies to do such a thing (which seems implausible on its face) pulling off such a caper would be a hugely difficult task, and almost certainly beyond the capacity even of America’s most ingenious spies — assuming we even have any ingenious spies.

Although I remain as worried as Norman Podhoretz about the dangers posed by an Iran armed with nuclear weapons, and though there is ample reason to wonder about the quality of U.S. intelligence, I would still have to put “low confidence” in his dark suspicions.

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