Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 31, 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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