Commentary Magazine


Magnificent, But Was It War?

C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.” Thus in 1854 did a French observer dismiss the Light Brigade’s charge into the Russian guns at Balaklava during the Crimean War. War consists less of shooting than it does of figuring out objectives worthy of killing and dying for, and then of applying means proportionate to the ends. Because the British commanders in the Crimea had not thought through the relationship between ends and means, the Light Brigade’s heroism produced only dead bodies.

One year after the Gulf War, are we, too, compelled to say that it was magnificent but that it was not war? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that the U.S. achieved disproportionately less than its massive and technically flawless military effort warranted—and precisely because George Bush failed at the essential test of thinking through what the enemy was about, what our objectives should be, and what we had to do to achieve them. But no, in the sense that there can be little doubt that the world is better off—at least for a little while—than it would have been had the war not been fought.

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By 1990 Saddam Hussein had become a clear and present danger to his Arab neighbors, to Israel, and to the world. His well-equipped, million-man army was developing medium-range ballistic missiles, and was within a year or two of producing atomic bombs. Saddam had already begun to overawe the region. At his insistence, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates had canceled billions of dollars’ worth of debts he had incurred during his war against Iran (1981-88). They were increasingly receptive to his calls for raising the world price of oil. And he was successfully portraying himself to the impoverished Arab masses as their champion against plutocratic rulers and, of course, against Israel.

In 1990, one could see over the horizon a time when Saddam’s nuclear weapons could shield whatever horrors he might choose to sponsor in the Middle East, and whatever convulsions his manipulations of the price of oil might force upon the world’s economy. Today, by contrast, Saddam is under siege. The flower of his air force is interned in Iran, the wrecks of about half his tanks litter the vicinity of Kuwait, and his ability to replenish his power by selling his country’s oil is restricted. A goodly portion of his nuclear-weapons program has been wrecked. His political power in the Arab world is diminished.

Saddam’s regime, however, may be compared to a bacterial infection that has been treated with enough antibiotics to make the patient feel better, but not enough to kill it. The patient has every reason to fear that in time the infection will become more virulent, and meet less resistance, than before.

The core of Saddam’s regime, its police, emerged unscathed from the Gulf War. He has reestablished his army, especially his six Republican Guard divisions, and has begun to play hide-and-seek with the international inspectors who are supposed to supervise his disarmament. As the CIA recently reported, the essence of the Iraqi nuclear program—its personnel—is intact and can be expected to produce weapons a few years after import restrictions are eased. Saddam knows, as do his neighbors, that absent America’s will to go to war again, there is every historical reason to believe that restrictions will fade away and that domestic hiders will prevail over foreign seekers.

Saddam’s Kuwaiti, Saudi, and other neighbors are politically weaker than ever, having shown that they can survive only through the support of infidels. Hence Saddam is well-positioned to resume both his military and his political threats. That is why his neighbors are beginning to make plans for living in his shadow—plans not so different from those they were making in 1990. Israel too has every reason to be worried. The principal long-term effect of the Gulf War seems to be a growing animosity toward Israel in the U.S., and the development of a Washington-Damascus axis.

Many who praise Bush for making war on Saddam cannot understand why he did not finish it. Yet Bush’s handling of the beginning and middle of the war was no less capricious, no more rational, no more respecting of the historical norms of war than was the end. Throughout, Bush showed a phobia against elaborating policy through the clash of ideas and thereby failed to clarify what he was really after, and whether this or that measure would achieve the desired result.

To make matters worse, he was not surrounded by self-respecting advisers like Dean Acheson, James Forrestal, or even Harold Brown—men who, right or wrong, would argue their point, and help the President they served reach informed decisions. Instead, books such as Jean Edward Smith’s George Bush’s War and Bob Woodward’s The Commanders confirm one’s impression that Bush’s advisers were yes-men. They also agreed with Bush’s preference for keeping Congress from exercising its responsibility to declare (or not to declare) war. But Congress too has taken a dislike to open discussion and accountable decisions. As a result, the U.S. government collectively made a series of decisions that would have seemed as absurd in the light of open discussion as they now seem in retrospect.

When the Iraqi threat loomed, the U.S. government appeased. When Saddam invaded Kuwait, the U.S. government treated the invasion as the problem to be solved rather than as a symptom of the problem, which was Saddam Hussein’s hostile priorities. By focusing on the Kuwaiti symptom rather than on the Iraqi disease, Bush put himself in the worst of positions: Iraq could meet his maximum demand, and yet win the confrontation. During the war, Bush and his team finally came to see that they had to eliminate Saddam or lose. Yet no sooner did Bush have Saddam in his power than the same advice he had received during the years of appeasement, plus fear of the responsibilities of victory, convinced him to let the Iraqi dictator go.

A year later, the first and most difficult prerequisite for fixing the mistakes of the past is admitting them. But before that, one must understand them.

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The roots of the Gulf War go back to the U.S. government’s decision in 1956 to sabotage Britain and France’s defense of their contractual rights in the Suez Canal. Britain soon responded by renouncing all its commitments “east of Suez,” and ever since then the U.S. government, while refusing to take on the role of colonial power, has tried any number of schemes to bring to the oil-rich Persian Gulf the friendly stability that the British had enforced in the past. As befits self-contradictory attempts, these schemes have all failed.

First, in the aftermath of Suez, the U.S. counted on the Baghdad Pact, which tied Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan into an alliance that geographically connected NATO Europe with America’s Asian allies. This paper alliance fell apart in 1958 when Abdul Karim Kassem, an admirer of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser (whom the U.S. had made a hero in 1956), took power in Baghdad and gave Iraq the first of a series of regimes that have been as nasty at home as they have been abroad.

For the next twenty years, the U.S. depended on the Shah of Iran to act as its “pillar” in the region. So axiomatic was the Shah’s importance that the U.S. government considered discussions of flaws in his regime to be in bad taste and lacking in “realism.” That, and not any lack of information, is why the Shah’s total collapse in 1979 came as such a great surprise to Washington.

Soon thereafter, when President Jimmy Carter faced the “nightmare scenario” that the Persian Gulf—Europe’s and Japan’s principal source of oil—might be conquered by a now-hostile Iran, and possibly by the Soviet Union, he reluctantly proclaimed as a “doctrine” that the U.S. would fight to prevent it. But it was only under George Bush in 1991 that the Carter Doctrine was actually brought into play, albeit against a new devil, Saddam Hussein.

Yet this same Saddam Hussein had for the previous ten years been regarded as growing into the role of pillar previously played by the Shah and as (in the words of Brent Scowcroft, Bush’s National Security Adviser) “a reasonably responsible member of the international community.” During Iraq’s war against Iran, Saddam had been seen as the bulwark against Washington’s bête noire du jour, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s “Shiite fundamentalism.” And so, in 1981, when Israeli bombers destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, the U.S. government’s best and brightest trooped to Capitol Hill to express heartfelt rage. Bobby Ray Inman, the deputy director of the CIA, accused Israel of having set back a delicate plan to make Saddam play a useful role in the region. (Indeed, the CIA would soon supply Iraq with satellite photos of Iranian units.) In March 1982, the State Department removed Iraq from the list of states sponsoring terrorism—and kept it off despite the fact that the PLO’s Abu Abbas and others continued to operate out of Baghdad. In 1982 also, the U.S. began to give Iraq credits for the purchase of American grain. In 1987, the U.S. uncritically accepted Iraq’s explanation that its attack on the USS Stark (which cost 37 American lives) was an accident. In 1988, while the world (and much of the U.S. Congress) gasped at Saddam’s gas attack on a Kurdish village, the U.S. government concluded that it too might have been an accident of the Iran-Iraq war. In 1990, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, apologized for a Voice of America (VOA) editorial that had criticized Saddam as a “brutal dictator.” Secretary of State James A. Baker 3d, angry at the VOA, insisted that all of its broadcasts dealing with Iraq be cleared by his (supposedly wiser) staff. On the eve of the invasion of Kuwait, the State Department killed a VOA editorial restating the U.S. commitment to its friends in the Gulf.

During 1990, as Saddam stepped up his anti-Israel, anti-Saudi, and anti-American rhetoric, plus pressure on Kuwait for territorial concessions and money, the question arose of what he wanted. The consensus in the administration was that he wanted nothing that was incompatible with U.S. interests. On July 24, 1990, Baker cabled instructions to Glaspie for her dealings with the Iraqi government. The next day she met with Saddam and followed her script: the U.S. sought good relations with Saddam; the President would not be unhappy to see the price of oil rise to $25 a barrel; the U.S. had no opinion on the substance of conflicts between Arab states, and specifically on Saddam’s quarrel with Kuwait.

The day before Iraq’s invasion, with Saddam’s divisions poised on the Kuwaiti border, Assistant Secretary of State John Kelly told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the U.S. had no obligation to intervene on behalf of any country in the Persian Gulf. On August 2, 1990, the day of the invasion, Glaspie was quoted as being surprised that Saddam had taken all of Kuwait. She and the administration had expected him to take only a part, and had not been particularly concerned.

On the morning of August 2, President Bush met with the National Security Council to consider the Iraqi invasion. The desultory conversation came to a unanimous conclusion by default: the Persian Gulf was too far away and Iraq too powerful for the U.S. to affect events except through a gigantic effort. Besides, although Saddam had done more than all but one (low-ranking) intelligence analyst had expected, he was not threatening any vital American interests. Nor were Iraqi troops mistreating civilians.

Later that day Bush spoke with Egypt’s President Mubarak and Jordan’s King Hussein, who shared these views and thought that the Arab countries might well reach some sort of settlement. Saddam might keep a few pieces of Kuwait, and the Kuwaiti royal family might have to move to Switzerland, but nothing much would change.

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Why, then, did the U.S. government go on to make Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait a casus belli?

Because that same afternoon Bush spoke with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who convinced him that Saddam was Hitler, Kuwait was the Rhineland, and this was 1936. Thatcher having, in the words of the Manchester Guardian, performed a “backbone transplant” on him, Bush now declared: “This will not stand.” Thereafter, he consistently denounced Saddam as evil and affirmed that he would stand up for good.

But in turning against Saddam, Bush seems never to have asked himself a number of necessary questions: What is it about Saddam that I object to? Is it the invasion of Kuwait? Is it the possibility that he might invade other countries? Is it that he might exercise the wrong kind of leadership in the Arab world? Was I dreadfully wrong in trying to get along with Saddam while I knew that he was building nuclear weapons and awesome conventional forces but thought that he was going to take only part of Kuwait? If I was not dreadfully wrong, then what difference does the invasion of Kuwait make? Why am I even thinking of sending Americans to kill and die in the Arabian desert? And if my policy of relying on the strongest regional power in the Gulf—regardless of its internal character—was mistaken, or if it quite simply failed, am I willing to adopt the alternative? Am I willing to interfere in the internal affairs of the Gulf countries to make sure that they respect one another as well as the interests of the West?

Since the decision to send American troops was made without answering such questions, different sets of people within the government were left to develop their own diagnoses and prescriptions. The National Security Council staff and the Defense Department civilians—the hawks who focused on the President’s dictum that the invasion of Kuwait must not stand—saw U.S. forces as a shield behind which the U.S. and the UN would squeeze Iraq until Saddam realized that the costs of occupying Kuwait exceeded the benefits. Then he would pull out. But these people did not consider that perhaps the real problem—the military and political primacy of a hostile Iraqi regime—was broader than Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait and could not be fixed by a pull-out. For after Iraqi troops had retreated a few miles and the Americans had gone back to the other side of the globe, the problem might well be worse.

The “doves”—James Baker’s State Department, backed by the editorial page of the New York Times—thought that the situation was comparable not to Hitler’s occupation of the Rhineland in 1936 but to the Soviet Union’s occupation of Eastern Europe. Hence their prescription was to “contain” Iraq with a political-military commitment analogous to NATO. But this group did not realize that what had worked in Europe was—physically, socially, and politically—a non-starter in the Persian Gulf. Whereas two generations of American personnel had enjoyed Germany’s beer, fräuleins, and conferences on the Rhine or in the Alps, American endurance of a Saudi populace at least as forbidding as the burning sand could be measured only in months. Moreover, whereas the Soviet Communists’ anti-American appeals had found resonance only in a small and decreasing percentage of Europe’s population, Saddam’s call to rally against an army of Christians, women, and Jews on Muslim soil appealed to a large and growing population of Arabs. NATO in the Gulf or, as the columnist William Safire of the Times dubbed it, Gulfo, should never have received a second thought.

The point is that Bush and his people should have seen that the problem lay in the very existence of Saddam’s regime. As such, it presented the U.S. with only two real alternatives: either to overthrow and replace that regime with an acceptable one (or at least to overthrow it and retain the capacity to crush any unacceptable successor), or to do whatever necessary to appease it. One is reminded of Machiavelli’s rule of thumb: enemies are either to be caressed or extinguished. Yet since the two real alternatives were so demanding, the Bush administration preferred not to look at either, but to imagine that there existed easier diagnoses and prescriptions somewhere in the middle.

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One reason the Bush administration was so unclear about what it wanted in the Gulf was that it avoided domestic debate and concentrated on securing authorization for its plans from the United Nations, and above all from Mikhail Gorbachev.

Perhaps the most pernicious, and the least warranted, of the hangovers from the Vietnam era is the Beltway conservatives’ veneration of presidential prerogative and their mistrust of the American people. Never mind that, at every point of the Vietnam decade, public-opinion polls were more hawkish than administration policy. Never mind that, whenever Presidents have undertaken vigorous action abroad—from Nixon’s Cambodian invasion to Bush’s invasion of Panama—public opinion has rallied behind them and dragged Congress along. It was still an article of faith in the Bush White House that the American people could not be trusted to hear the real number of troops being sent to the Gulf without gagging, that they would not stand for any talk of offensive warfare, and that they would not tolerate the killing of Saddam Hussein—even after the polls showed that some 80 percent of Americans wanted him dead.

It was also White House dogma that Congress was a treacherous enemy. Again, never mind that Congress has asserted itself in foreign affairs only when Presidents have been hesitant, and that Presidents who press their foreign agenda on Congress invariably win. Never mind, too, that the Constitution confers upon Congress alone the power to declare war. The Bush administration still did everything in its power to prevent Congress from exercising its responsibility, including, in the end, proposing that a congressional debate be held the week after it had planned to start hostilities.

This attachment to executive prerogative is most unconservative. Indeed, it stems most immediately from the belief of the liberal sophisticates in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations that they could manage the Vietnam conflict to a mutually acceptable solution if only they could resist the American people’s simplistic demand, echoed by Senator Barry Goldwater, to “win or get out.” But as Colonel Harry Summers points out in On Strategy, not declaring war turned out to be the biggest mistake the U.S. made in Vietnam. Summers shows that when entering major commitments—war quite as much as marriage—the most important thing people can do is declare their intentions. This is not so much out of “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind” as because declaring commitments forces people to face the implications of what they are doing, and presses them to “do it right” or not at all.

During the Gulf War the Bush administration’s self-styled conservatives, far from negating the Vietnam heritage, personified it in the sense that they too thought themselves more sophisticated than the people, and they too feared that a declaration of war would limit their flexibility.

Instead of Congress, therefore, it was foreign leaders with whom George Bush worked out what U.S. forces would and would not do in the Gulf. But these leaders had their own priorities.

Gorbachev played both sides. He supported Bush’s demand that Saddam leave Kuwait, but he clearly opposed interference in the internal affairs of Iraq. The great importance that Bush placed on acting in concert with Gorbachev is one of the principal reasons the U.S. never made changing the Iraqi regime part of its policy.

Egypt’s President Mubarak, Syria’s dictator Hafez al-Assad, and other Arab leaders also helped to entangle U.S. policy. These Arabs were willing enough for the U.S. to save them from Saddam. But they asked Bush to pay for the privilege of doing so by distancing the U.S. from Israel. And, as we shall soon see, they were instrumental in Bush’s decision to preserve Saddam’s regime.

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As in Vietnam, then, America’s war in the Gulf was essentially military, conducted largely without regard to creating specific postwar conditions. “First we’re going to cut it off, then we’re going to kill it,” said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, referring to America’s primary focus, the Iraqi army in Kuwait. But the bombing of central Iraq that accomplished the cutoff also gave the U.S. its main opportunity to affect the postwar world. To the limits of the intelligence information available (which was not very good), the U.S. Air Force set back Iraq’s nuclear- and chemical-weapons establishment. It also dropped bombs on military headquarters. But—true to repeated declarations by Bush and Powell—the U.S. never targeted any individual. Indeed, when, during the last week of the war, the U.S. Air Force located Saddam Hussein and asked for permission to bomb him, the President said no. He would kill the draftees, not the drafter.

Ironically, killing the Iraqi army was not a prerequisite for a real victory. Because the bulk of it was dug into the Kuwaiti sands, pinned down by U.S. air power, the Iraqi army could not have stopped any U.S. move either to Baghdad or to support the self-determination of Kurds and Shiites. Any such move would have doomed Saddam. But U.S. military leaders nowadays do not think in such terms. For them, high strategy means flanking maneuvers. Hence, war meant killing the Iraqi army.

To kill the Iraqi army the U.S. planned first to secure control of the air by destroying radars, communications, aircraft, and other equipment associated with air defense; second, to destroy the military’s command, control, communications, and logistical systems; third, to destroy up to one-half of the tanks, planes, and people in the bunkers. Having done this, U.S. ground forces would flush the remaining Iraqis out of their bunkers, exposing them to the full fury of U.S. combined arms. The Americans would be able to approach Iraqi positions in relative safety because accurate fire from airplanes and helicopters would keep the Iraqis’ heads down. Meanwhile, an encircling maneuver from the west would trap the survivors and make them prisoners. The U.S. armed forces were confident that they could execute what they had planned. And they did, brilliantly.

Once defeated, the Iraqi army began to dissolve, much as the slave armies of the region have done after every defeat they have suffered since the time of Alexander the Great.1 Had the historic pattern been allowed to play itself out, the long-oppressed subjects of the tyrant’s empire, who had already taken arms, would have been joined by a rabble of defeated troops, and would have found that the tyrant’s defenders had melted away or had killed him themselves. But George Bush arrested that pattern. Forced to choose between, on the one hand, superintending Iraq’s revolution and reconstruction, and, on the other, saving Saddam and thus permitting him to seek hegemony another day, he chose the latter.

Thus, Bush’s unilateral cease-fire of February 27, 1991, saved two heavily armed Republican Guard divisions from being disarmed or destroyed. Immediately after the cease-fire, the U.S. had to deal with thousands of prisoners of war who were eager to take refuge indefinitely in American-held territory, or to fight Saddam, or simply to wander home. On orders from Washington, U.S. forces turned them over to the Iraqi army, sending an unmistakable signal that since the army had nothing more to fear from the Americans, civilians should start fearing the army again. Later, civilian refugees flocked to U.S.-held territory. On orders from Washington, U.S. forces sent them back. Same signal.

On March 3, 1991, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf forbade Iraqi commanders to fly their helicopters or fixed-wing planes, and made a partial exception for supply flights. Ten days later, the world learned that, immediately, the Iraqis had begun using helicopters to bomb and strafe rebellious Kurds and Shiites. The rebellions had been incited a bit by the CIA, more by Bush’s February 15 call for the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam, but most of all by the near-dissolution of Saddam’s army. Yet even though U.S. policy had quickly stopped this dissolution, the Kurdish and Shiite rebels had been able to take control of the major cities in their respective regions.

The rebels, however, had no aircraft and no means of defending against aircraft. Hence the Iraqi army’s use of helicopters would doom them. Between March 13 and March 24, Bush issued warnings to Iraq against so using helicopters. But he did nothing to enforce the warnings, and his lieutenants told the press that they were “rhetorical.” Finally, on March 27, the New York Times reported that Bush, at a meeting with his seven top military and national-security advisers, “reaffirmed” a policy “to let President Saddam Hussein put down rebellions in his country without American intervention.”

Bush, it turns out, had made this choice at the urging of “Washington’s Arab allies,” who did not want to see the “splintering of the country”—i.e., who wanted Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority to continue ruling Kurds and Shiites. Over the following days high administration officials told reporters that these wise Arab (and Soviet) allies, backed by the wise CIA, were confident that after the army had reestablished the empire, “someone from Hussein’s own group” would do him in. Bush and his advisers seem never to have asked why Saddam would let this happen, or if it did happen, why a successor similar to Saddam would be preferable to a splintered Iraq—or to a democratic Iraq—or why it would be an acceptable result after the expenditure of blood and treasure.2

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During March and April, by the rule “I slaughter, therefore I am,” Saddam restored his authority at home, and some of the regional prestige that he had lost in the military rout. The Republican Guard, having escaped the Americans through no merit of its own, took out its rage on Shiite and Kurdish civilians. They shelled and rolled over them, raped and murdered so genocidally as to send millions fleeing for the nearest border. The borders nearest the Kurds were snowy mountains, where they died at the rate of up to 1,000 per day.

Bush claimed that the Gulf War had been a great moral victory. But Saddam’s conspicuous carnage challenged Bush either to acknowledge that his victory had made things worse, or that it had been incomplete and that further military involvement was needed. Bush equivocated: he extended humanitarian aid to the refugees under U.S. military protection, while doing his best to withdraw that protection as soon as he could do so without embarrassing himself before American voters.

As UN “peacekeeping troops” replaced Americans in town after town, the Iraqi secret police would tighten its grip. Within hours, pro-Saddam posters would appear on the walls, and ordinary people would refuse to be seen with reporters. The people of Iraq behaved as if Saddam had won the war.

The Saudi and Kuwaiti governments also did not behave as if America had won. When the U.S. government asked the Saudis to take the lead in eliminating the Arab world’s state of war with Israel, they responded by adding another hundred American companies to the list of those whom they boycott for doing business with Israel. The Saudis did cut out their subsidies to the PLO, but they increased their aid to Syria, which used it to buy Scud-C missiles to be aimed at Israel. Then the Saudis cut production of crude oil enough to cause the price to rise roughly to where it had been in August 1990, before Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait was challenged. They had to be aggressive on oil and Israel, explained the Saudis, because Saddam had renewed his propaganda to the Arab masses, charging Saudi Arabia with being a tool of the Zionists and the Americans.

Once again, the U.S. government, unwilling to involve itself decisively in the Middle East yet desirous of influence, felt obliged to approve as its surrogates in the region (this time, Syria and Saudi Arabia) adopted policies harmful to the American people. And once again, the government considered criticism of its surrogates to be in bad taste and lacking in realism.

“No one,” wrote Clausewitz, ought to start a war “without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” It was good that the U.S. went to war against Iraq, but because George Bush and his team violated Clausewitz’s basic rule, they cannot now fully enjoy the fruits of peace. And neither can the rest of us.


Footnotes

1 The pattern has been noted by, among others, Xenophon, Livy, and Machiavelli—not the bedside companions of the Bush administration.

2 A year later, with Saddam still in power, the Saudis would be giving Bush the opposite advice—to stir the Kurds and the Shiites into revolt yet again, but this time supporting them with air strikes. But neither the Saudis nor their supporters in Washington would be able to explain why the administration should do something under the relatively difficult conditions of 1992 that it had chosen not to do in 1991, when it would have been easy.

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