Commentary Magazine


Topic: commentator

Olmert the Etrog?

John wrote about this already, but I want to put in my two cents. Less than a day has passed since the Israeli Supreme Court dealt a major blow to Ehud Olmert’s bid to stay out of jail, by ruling that Israeli Police may take a deposition from the New York businessman who allegedly bribed him–and now we have the Prime Minister’s Office making a dramatic announcement that peace talks are under way with Syria.

Coincidence, you say? Unlikely. One of the most disturbing aspects of Ariel Sharon’s tenure as Prime Minister was the bizarre tendency for his criminal investigations to disappear from the public eye every time it seemed like he was about to do something that could be seen as leading to peace–especially the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. It has become something of an open secret in Israel that both the justice system and journalists bend for its leaders’ peace initiatives, and that a peace-seeking Prime Minister becomes, in the words of one commentator, an “etrog”–a beautiful fruit that must be handled with care and protected at all cost.

But there is reason to think that what worked for Sharon will not work for Olmert. Sharon knew how to cultivate his image, and he was far more respected by both the Israeli elites and the general public than is Olmert, whose popularity has dropped way below even Sharon’s lowest point as Prime Minister. But more importantly, Sharon’s government was, by all appearances at the time, far more likely to pull off the disengagement from Gaza than Olmert is to sign a peace accord with Syria. First, disengagement was a unilateral move, whereas a treaty with Syria will require that the Assad regime abandon the central cause it has rallied around for a generation: War with Israel. Second, the Golan Heights, which would be the necessary price Israel would pay for any peace deal, is seen by a far greater number of Israelis as an inseparable part of the Jewish state than the Gaza strip ever was. And third, Sharon always carried with him the mystique of a man who can be counted on to follow through with his plans, regardless of whether you agreed with him; while Olmert has proven time and again the triviality of his promises.

The biggest reason, however, might come from the sea of police and justice officials who have been working on the most important criminal investigation of their lives. After massive leaks have suggested that an indictment is on its way, and Olmert has pledged to resign if indicted–maybe this ball has too much momentum to be stopped by the unlikely prospect of peace with a member of the Axis of Evil? Maybe the etrog has already fallen?

John wrote about this already, but I want to put in my two cents. Less than a day has passed since the Israeli Supreme Court dealt a major blow to Ehud Olmert’s bid to stay out of jail, by ruling that Israeli Police may take a deposition from the New York businessman who allegedly bribed him–and now we have the Prime Minister’s Office making a dramatic announcement that peace talks are under way with Syria.

Coincidence, you say? Unlikely. One of the most disturbing aspects of Ariel Sharon’s tenure as Prime Minister was the bizarre tendency for his criminal investigations to disappear from the public eye every time it seemed like he was about to do something that could be seen as leading to peace–especially the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. It has become something of an open secret in Israel that both the justice system and journalists bend for its leaders’ peace initiatives, and that a peace-seeking Prime Minister becomes, in the words of one commentator, an “etrog”–a beautiful fruit that must be handled with care and protected at all cost.

But there is reason to think that what worked for Sharon will not work for Olmert. Sharon knew how to cultivate his image, and he was far more respected by both the Israeli elites and the general public than is Olmert, whose popularity has dropped way below even Sharon’s lowest point as Prime Minister. But more importantly, Sharon’s government was, by all appearances at the time, far more likely to pull off the disengagement from Gaza than Olmert is to sign a peace accord with Syria. First, disengagement was a unilateral move, whereas a treaty with Syria will require that the Assad regime abandon the central cause it has rallied around for a generation: War with Israel. Second, the Golan Heights, which would be the necessary price Israel would pay for any peace deal, is seen by a far greater number of Israelis as an inseparable part of the Jewish state than the Gaza strip ever was. And third, Sharon always carried with him the mystique of a man who can be counted on to follow through with his plans, regardless of whether you agreed with him; while Olmert has proven time and again the triviality of his promises.

The biggest reason, however, might come from the sea of police and justice officials who have been working on the most important criminal investigation of their lives. After massive leaks have suggested that an indictment is on its way, and Olmert has pledged to resign if indicted–maybe this ball has too much momentum to be stopped by the unlikely prospect of peace with a member of the Axis of Evil? Maybe the etrog has already fallen?

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What Pundits Will Talk About?

In West Virginia 51% of the voters think Barack Obama actually agrees with Reverend Wright, not just that Obama’s judgment in maintaining the relationship is a concern. But didn’t the punditocracy tell us this was all behind him?

And, John, never overlook the ire of a woman scorned. One commentator asks: “How would you feel if you had your eyes on a promotion at the office, had worked real hard, had the experience, had paid the dues, and then someone younger and less experienced, someone you’d given advice to, mentored a bit, came along and ruined your dream?” More importantly, from an electoral standpoint, how would her fans feel? Would they rather die than let the dream-stealer win?

In West Virginia 51% of the voters think Barack Obama actually agrees with Reverend Wright, not just that Obama’s judgment in maintaining the relationship is a concern. But didn’t the punditocracy tell us this was all behind him?

And, John, never overlook the ire of a woman scorned. One commentator asks: “How would you feel if you had your eyes on a promotion at the office, had worked real hard, had the experience, had paid the dues, and then someone younger and less experienced, someone you’d given advice to, mentored a bit, came along and ruined your dream?” More importantly, from an electoral standpoint, how would her fans feel? Would they rather die than let the dream-stealer win?

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Democratic Debate Preview

The Democratic debate tonight may be Hillary Clinton’s best chance to get back in the game. As one commentator succinctly put it, “She has to reduce Obama to an incompetent charlatan whispering sweet nothings in the country’s ear.” Or, as Karl Rove put it more tactfully:

Mrs. Clinton can do much more to draw attention to Mr. Obama’s lack of achievements. She can agree with Mr. Obama’s statement Tuesday night that change is difficult to achieve on health care, energy, poverty, schools and immigration–and then question his failure to provide any leadership on these or other major issues since his arrival in the Senate. His failure to act, advocate or lead on what he now claims are his priorities may be her last chance to make a winning argument.

However, all of this falls a little flat coming from a Senator who has not exactly been a whirlwind of legislative accomplishment. And that’s the rub: Is Clinton that much more competent or experienced than he is? What she is, rather, is more tenacious, sober minded and realistic about Washington and the world. But that’s not going to win the Democratic primary and, hence, her problem remains. And her lead in March 4 polls continue to erode.

The Democratic debate tonight may be Hillary Clinton’s best chance to get back in the game. As one commentator succinctly put it, “She has to reduce Obama to an incompetent charlatan whispering sweet nothings in the country’s ear.” Or, as Karl Rove put it more tactfully:

Mrs. Clinton can do much more to draw attention to Mr. Obama’s lack of achievements. She can agree with Mr. Obama’s statement Tuesday night that change is difficult to achieve on health care, energy, poverty, schools and immigration–and then question his failure to provide any leadership on these or other major issues since his arrival in the Senate. His failure to act, advocate or lead on what he now claims are his priorities may be her last chance to make a winning argument.

However, all of this falls a little flat coming from a Senator who has not exactly been a whirlwind of legislative accomplishment. And that’s the rub: Is Clinton that much more competent or experienced than he is? What she is, rather, is more tenacious, sober minded and realistic about Washington and the world. But that’s not going to win the Democratic primary and, hence, her problem remains. And her lead in March 4 polls continue to erode.

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At Least We Know Their Priorities

Some saner heads ask of the McCain villifiers: “Don’t they care about the greatest issue of our time anymore?” It’s one thing to try to mount an argument that Mitt Romney would be as strong a commander in chief as McCain (no easy task, which explains why they have stopped trying, but a respectable undertaking), but quite another to say, “Oh, Hillary — who we know wants to scramble out of Iraq — would be just as good a President.” You are left to conclude that the most vocal and frenzied voices simply cannot abide by someone who does not love them, as a commentator candidly observed.

Where is Romney in all this? Romney himself seems lost and dwarfed by the fury he has unleashed. He is, after all, nearly irrelevant to the argument which his nominal supporters are making. He is reduced to denigrating another war hero and conservative (not a great candidate, but undeserving of opprobrium from the likes of a man who cannot decide whether he ever wanted to serve in the military): Bob Dole. A few have kept their heads, but not many.

Some saner heads ask of the McCain villifiers: “Don’t they care about the greatest issue of our time anymore?” It’s one thing to try to mount an argument that Mitt Romney would be as strong a commander in chief as McCain (no easy task, which explains why they have stopped trying, but a respectable undertaking), but quite another to say, “Oh, Hillary — who we know wants to scramble out of Iraq — would be just as good a President.” You are left to conclude that the most vocal and frenzied voices simply cannot abide by someone who does not love them, as a commentator candidly observed.

Where is Romney in all this? Romney himself seems lost and dwarfed by the fury he has unleashed. He is, after all, nearly irrelevant to the argument which his nominal supporters are making. He is reduced to denigrating another war hero and conservative (not a great candidate, but undeserving of opprobrium from the likes of a man who cannot decide whether he ever wanted to serve in the military): Bob Dole. A few have kept their heads, but not many.

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The Anti-Americanism of George Weigel

How should we think about the religious fanaticism that fuels al Qaeda’s war against the West? One set of penetrating answers can be found in George Weigel’s Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action. Weigel, of course, is a frequent contributor to COMMENTARY and one of the most acute religious and political thinkers on the scene today. He sees a United States intellectually ill-equipped to deal with the challenge we are facing, in no small part because of “tone deafness to the fact that for the overwhelming majority of humanity, religious conviction provides the story line through which life’s meaning is read.” 

The existence of this tone deafness is indisputable. One might go further and say that it is not merely tones that go unheard, but sound itself. Some of us are suffering from just plain old deafness. Who has forgotten Silvestre Reyes, the current chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who after five years of service on that committee could not answer the softball question, pitched to him by Congressional Quarterly, of whether al Qaeda is Sunni or Shiite? “They have both,” was his ignorant guess. Silvestre is the man who now holds the pivotal responsibility of overseeing the U.S. intelligence agencies fighting the war against Jihadism.

Weigel ranges over the issues with deep learning in measured tones. It is interesting therefore, to note some of the fierce passions his book has unleashed. One sample comes from our old friend Michael Scheuer, who regards Weigel as anti-American:

What, one wonders, can possibly inspire the neoconservatives’ hate for Americans, their history, their traditions, and their ideas? In the context of this question, George Weigel’s new book, Faith, Reason, and the War against Jihadism. A Call to Action, is more troubling than Norman Podhoretz’s viciously anti-American World War IV: The Long War Against Islamofacism because of Mr. Weigel’s reputation as a brilliant Catholic scholar, confidant of popes, and commentator on Catholicism’s role in America. In Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism, however, Mr. Weigel reveals himself as just one more America-hating neoconservative; he is a clone of Mr. Podhoretz and his acolytes, and, like them, can barely constrain his contempt for his countrymen, saying, for example, that it is the “sovereign prerogative” of these fools to elect non-neoconservative candidates who are incompetent, naive, and clueless. [p. 142].

I went to page 142 of Weigel’s book, where the contemptuous remarks about Americans were supposedly to be found, and I am afraid I came up blank. 

It seems, once again, that Scheuer, along with a penchant for bizarre outbursts, has trouble checking the checkables. A fair conclusion from reading George Weigel’s book is that Weigel is about as anti-American as Michael Scheuer is calm and rational.  

For previous Connecting the Dots postings about Michael Scheuer, click here.

How should we think about the religious fanaticism that fuels al Qaeda’s war against the West? One set of penetrating answers can be found in George Weigel’s Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action. Weigel, of course, is a frequent contributor to COMMENTARY and one of the most acute religious and political thinkers on the scene today. He sees a United States intellectually ill-equipped to deal with the challenge we are facing, in no small part because of “tone deafness to the fact that for the overwhelming majority of humanity, religious conviction provides the story line through which life’s meaning is read.” 

The existence of this tone deafness is indisputable. One might go further and say that it is not merely tones that go unheard, but sound itself. Some of us are suffering from just plain old deafness. Who has forgotten Silvestre Reyes, the current chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who after five years of service on that committee could not answer the softball question, pitched to him by Congressional Quarterly, of whether al Qaeda is Sunni or Shiite? “They have both,” was his ignorant guess. Silvestre is the man who now holds the pivotal responsibility of overseeing the U.S. intelligence agencies fighting the war against Jihadism.

Weigel ranges over the issues with deep learning in measured tones. It is interesting therefore, to note some of the fierce passions his book has unleashed. One sample comes from our old friend Michael Scheuer, who regards Weigel as anti-American:

What, one wonders, can possibly inspire the neoconservatives’ hate for Americans, their history, their traditions, and their ideas? In the context of this question, George Weigel’s new book, Faith, Reason, and the War against Jihadism. A Call to Action, is more troubling than Norman Podhoretz’s viciously anti-American World War IV: The Long War Against Islamofacism because of Mr. Weigel’s reputation as a brilliant Catholic scholar, confidant of popes, and commentator on Catholicism’s role in America. In Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism, however, Mr. Weigel reveals himself as just one more America-hating neoconservative; he is a clone of Mr. Podhoretz and his acolytes, and, like them, can barely constrain his contempt for his countrymen, saying, for example, that it is the “sovereign prerogative” of these fools to elect non-neoconservative candidates who are incompetent, naive, and clueless. [p. 142].

I went to page 142 of Weigel’s book, where the contemptuous remarks about Americans were supposedly to be found, and I am afraid I came up blank. 

It seems, once again, that Scheuer, along with a penchant for bizarre outbursts, has trouble checking the checkables. A fair conclusion from reading George Weigel’s book is that Weigel is about as anti-American as Michael Scheuer is calm and rational.  

For previous Connecting the Dots postings about Michael Scheuer, click here.

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Jihad Comes to Facebook

An intrepid operative over at The Jawa Report has posted a revelatory survey of jihadists and jihad sympathizers who’ve established “groups” on the social networking site Facebook.com.

Groups like 14 Shabat, Muslim Brotherhood, and even some al Qaeda wannabes are featured. . .

Other groups are more general, such as “Resistance Movement Supporters,” where group members are greeted with pictures [sic] Hamas leaders.

A group of Islamist hackers calling themselves “Islamic Force” has only a few members, but many other less specialized groups have memberships numbering in the hundreds.

Group pages offer a selection of boilerplate anti-Israel and anti-American propaganda, complete with videos depicting alleged “atrocities” enacted upon Lebanese, Palestinians, and so on.

The preponderance of Western supporters is arresting. At one pro-Hizballah group page, a commentator left this heart-warming observation (both tellingly un-capitalized and capitalized):

im christian english but all I can say is, my heart my soul and my love are behind you. fight for your freedom because no one else will. I pray God and Allah will destroy your enemies.

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An intrepid operative over at The Jawa Report has posted a revelatory survey of jihadists and jihad sympathizers who’ve established “groups” on the social networking site Facebook.com.

Groups like 14 Shabat, Muslim Brotherhood, and even some al Qaeda wannabes are featured. . .

Other groups are more general, such as “Resistance Movement Supporters,” where group members are greeted with pictures [sic] Hamas leaders.

A group of Islamist hackers calling themselves “Islamic Force” has only a few members, but many other less specialized groups have memberships numbering in the hundreds.

Group pages offer a selection of boilerplate anti-Israel and anti-American propaganda, complete with videos depicting alleged “atrocities” enacted upon Lebanese, Palestinians, and so on.

The preponderance of Western supporters is arresting. At one pro-Hizballah group page, a commentator left this heart-warming observation (both tellingly un-capitalized and capitalized):

im christian english but all I can say is, my heart my soul and my love are behind you. fight for your freedom because no one else will. I pray God and Allah will destroy your enemies.

The administrator of the group “Support Our Troops!” hails from the University of Arizona; its 128 members come from Texas, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and New York. The troops in this case, however, are not American—they are the terrorists and insurgents of Iraq and Afghanistan.

There’s an additional noteworthy point about these Facebook pages: no faces. The groups’ organizers tend to hide behind Palestinian flags or portraits of terrorists like Hassan Nasrallah. There’s something particularly noxious about the marriage of extremism and the Internet. The absence of regulation, the medium’s ubiquity, and the impressionable nature of the Internet’s demography make for a perfect storm. On the bright side, such flagrant PR and recruitment methods make these groups easy to track.

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Obama Fumbles

Presidential campaigns have come to look like the Major League Baseball playoffs: drawn out, not really as competitive as the media would prefer, and loaded with filler material. Had Barack Obama simply viewed the mass-e-mailing of a photo allegedly depicting himself without his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance through this lens, perhaps this story would have joined other items in the filler graveyard.

But Obama chose to respond. “This is so irritating,” he told a crowd in Burlington, Iowa on Thursday. “My grandfather taught me how to say the Pledge of Allegiance when I was one or two.”

According to speech/language pathologist Dorothy Dougherty, the average infant starts babbling from the age of two to seven months, babbles with more sounds by nine months, articulates “real-sounding” words by twelve months, and should use 10-20 words regularly by eighteen months. Between the ages of two and three, children will answer questions with three-to-five word sentences, and have a vocabulary of 450 words.

Granted, like most individuals who seriously contend for the American presidency, young Obama was likely well ahead of the average infant. But his claim that he was taught how to pledge allegiance to his country while most babies are learning to say their own names is downright silly.

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Presidential campaigns have come to look like the Major League Baseball playoffs: drawn out, not really as competitive as the media would prefer, and loaded with filler material. Had Barack Obama simply viewed the mass-e-mailing of a photo allegedly depicting himself without his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance through this lens, perhaps this story would have joined other items in the filler graveyard.

But Obama chose to respond. “This is so irritating,” he told a crowd in Burlington, Iowa on Thursday. “My grandfather taught me how to say the Pledge of Allegiance when I was one or two.”

According to speech/language pathologist Dorothy Dougherty, the average infant starts babbling from the age of two to seven months, babbles with more sounds by nine months, articulates “real-sounding” words by twelve months, and should use 10-20 words regularly by eighteen months. Between the ages of two and three, children will answer questions with three-to-five word sentences, and have a vocabulary of 450 words.

Granted, like most individuals who seriously contend for the American presidency, young Obama was likely well ahead of the average infant. But his claim that he was taught how to pledge allegiance to his country while most babies are learning to say their own names is downright silly.

Yet perhaps more disturbing than what Obama claims to have known as a baby is what he—and those circulating the photo in question—clearly haven’t learned as adults: the difference between the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem. A video available on CNN clearly shows that Obama’s missing hand-over-heart moment occurred during the chanting of the Star Spangled Banner. And unlike for the Pledge of Allegiance—which, as an oath, is practically always said with a hand over one’s heart—protocol during the National Anthem has always been more environment-dependent. As for the Pledge, the law states that civilians are to place their hands over their hearts and face the flag, but anyone who’s ever attended a baseball game knows that it’s most common simply to remove ones cap, stand respectfully and, if so moved, sing.

Of course, the whole issue of Barack Obama’s behavior has been generated by those who wish to insinuate that Obama is not a true patriot, with one commentator—on an Obama campaign-sponsored blog, no less—implying that “ . . .he is still a Muslim, intent on destroying America.” However, secular dissidents have shunned protocol by either turning away from the flag, or momentarily leaving during patriotic songs. Nor is this Obama’s Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf moment—the former basketball player, much unlike the non-Muslim Senator from Illinois, prayed during the National Anthem.

Obama could have made any of these obvious points in response to the circulated photo in question, if he was so bothered by it. Instead, he sought to rebut it with an embellished depiction of his youth—a campaign theme that is becoming grossly overplayed, to the extent that his official campaign bio contains more information about his upbringing than about his eight years in the Illinois State Senate. By constantly referring to his childhood—and, in this case, resorting to absurd claims about his infancy—Obama is exposing a weird political and tactical shallowness.

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Pete Seeger or Philip Johnson?

A commentator on my recent post about Philip Johnson’s Glass House asks: “Can we enjoy the art and ignore the politics?” This contentions reader compares Johnson’s support of Nazism with the political leanings of folksinger Pete Seeger, who, during the early 1940′s, was called “Stalin’s songbird” by critics of his politics (his political views have raised the ire of some recent commentators, too).

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A commentator on my recent post about Philip Johnson’s Glass House asks: “Can we enjoy the art and ignore the politics?” This contentions reader compares Johnson’s support of Nazism with the political leanings of folksinger Pete Seeger, who, during the early 1940′s, was called “Stalin’s songbird” by critics of his politics (his political views have raised the ire of some recent commentators, too).

Unlike Johnson, Pete Seeger explicitly apologized for his political past, repenting, in a 1972 memoir, for “not seeing that Stalin was a supremely cruel misleader.” Seeger joined the American Communist party circa 1940 and left circa 1950.

Seeger has done work of indisputable social value: entertaining the troops while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, working for 40 years with the Clearwater group to clean the Hudson River. But I would argue that his musical performances, like this 1949 TV version of the Hebrew song “Tzena Tzena” by Seeger and his quartet The Weavers, are his most lasting achievements. But whatever Seeger’s motivations in performing it may have been, his buoyant bluegrass style in “Tzena Tzena” echoes the majesty of band member Ronnie Gilbert’s contralto, one of folk music’s great voices.

Seeger’s own voice, though fragile, possessed an ineffable charm, which may have lessened the bite of his topical songs like “Waist Deep in Big Muddy” or “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” (Marlene Dietrich, no less, became a frequent performer of “Flowers” both in English and in German.) What music fan, whatever political accounting he might have with Seeger, would want to be without those unexpected performances?

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No Taliban Offensive—Yet

The Taliban continue to perpetrate atrocities, the latest being a bombing in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, which is said to have killed nine police officers. This was a bit unusual, insofar as the north is generally pretty peaceful. The Taliban are much stronger in the southern and eastern provinces. But even there their activities have not, so far, lived up to their advance billing.

For months Taliban spokesmen have been bragging about—and coalition soldiers have been dreading—a “spring offensive.” Well, spring began a month ago (March 21 was the vernal equinox), and, though Taliban attacks continue, there has been no substantial spike. So far no offensive has materialized—a fact that has gone largely unreported in the press but that is being commented upon by some NATO ministers and soldiers.

If there had been a Tet-style offensive in Afghanistan it would certainly be big news. But nothing much happening passes without much comment. I was only made aware of the lack of news while chatting with a Special Forces soldier in Iraq who had served not long ago in Afghanistan.

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The Taliban continue to perpetrate atrocities, the latest being a bombing in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, which is said to have killed nine police officers. This was a bit unusual, insofar as the north is generally pretty peaceful. The Taliban are much stronger in the southern and eastern provinces. But even there their activities have not, so far, lived up to their advance billing.

For months Taliban spokesmen have been bragging about—and coalition soldiers have been dreading—a “spring offensive.” Well, spring began a month ago (March 21 was the vernal equinox), and, though Taliban attacks continue, there has been no substantial spike. So far no offensive has materialized—a fact that has gone largely unreported in the press but that is being commented upon by some NATO ministers and soldiers.

If there had been a Tet-style offensive in Afghanistan it would certainly be big news. But nothing much happening passes without much comment. I was only made aware of the lack of news while chatting with a Special Forces soldier in Iraq who had served not long ago in Afghanistan.

This is the point where any commentator who is not an utter nitwit inserts the usual CYA language: just because an offensive hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it won’t happen. I don’t mean to discount the possibility of some terrible Taliban atrocity tomorrow. Etc, etc. With that out of the way, it’s worth pondering why an offensive hasn’t happened so far.

Frankly, I have no idea. But I can speculate. Perhaps the Taliban threat has been exaggerated? Not likely. By all accounts the Taliban are indeed getting stronger and more brazen, thanks to the training and support they are now receiving in Pakistan while Pervez Musharraf runs around like Sgt. Schulz proclaiming, “I know nut-zeeng.” A more likely explanation is that the buildup of coalition forces—British and American especially—in the south and east has helped to preempt the offensive. Or at least delay it.

This brings me to Boot’s Law of Disasters: disasters that are widely predicted don’t occur. To cite just two examples: Y2K and the bird flu. Both were expected to be catastrophes, but for this very reason they turned out to be pretty harmless. Their potential victims took the necessary steps to blunt their impact. At this point there may even be a few readers scratching their heads, trying to remember what Y2K was all about. Remember how all the world’s computers were supposed to stop functioning when 1999 ended and 2000 began? Didn’t happen, needless to say. And bird flu mainly has been killing birds. The real nightmares are those, like 9/11 or the Virginia Tech shooting, that no one expects.

It may well be that the spring offensive hasn’t been sprung because it was so widely anticipated. But some other Taliban or al-Qaeda move may well be in the offing. We certainly can’t be complacent. But we can expect that the enemy—like any good guerrilla—will strike where and when least expected.

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Boot and Hanson, Final Round: Fixing Our Mistakes

Dear Max,

I wouldn’t necessarily conflate being more aggressive with being more brutal. We can patrol more, embed more advisors, shoot and arrest more insurgents, all without being gratuitously cruel or needlessly overbearing to civilian sensibilities.

Here is what I think happened in Iraq after April 2003. Bolstered by a 70-percent approval rating, and still smarting from all the prewar hysteria from the Left, the Bush administration felt that it could run out the clock, so to speak.

Thus, each time a challenge arose—looting, the Fallujah outbreak, the Sadr uprising—their idea was to finesse the crisis as much as possible. They were afraid to squander the capital of hard-won public support through (unneeded?) escalation, escalation that would increase casualties and only encourage further domestic and international condemnation of the war.

As a result of this policy, public support vanished anyway, in dribs and drabs, each time we did not react strongly and decisively enough to a provocation. The administration thought, apparently, that using more aggressive tactics would only further incite the growing anti-war movement and that the good news of progress in reconstruction would only continue to be ignored by a biased media.

And so with a whimper rather than a bang, our complacency and over-sensitive attention to perceived public opinion made us ever less aggressive and ever more attuned to “force protection”—at precisely the time more and more offensive operations were needed to break the insurgency and win back public opinion.

Now we must shatter that complacency and do in nine months what textbooks warn takes years. It is still not too late; history might still record as a considerable military achievement the removal of Saddam and the creation of a constitutional government in Iraq. The President and the military believe they can pull it off, while the opposition (whose proposals to withdraw are not matched by votes to reduce budget appropriations) remains, to say the least, doubtful. But the American public’s patience will, apparently, tolerate this final effort.

I am tired of reading the latest declarations of moral outrage from politicians and pundits blaming Rumsfeld, Bush, Cheney, Franks, Sanchez, Casey, Abizaid, etc., for “their” three-year-long occupation that ruined “our” perfect three-week war. What happened in Iraq pales when compared to the horrifying mistakes our government and military made in the Civil War, in World War I and World War II, in Korea and Vietnam. What would this generation of politicians and journalists have said after Cold Harbor and the Battle of the Wilderness, after the two-year-long nightmare of the fall of France, after our World War II losses in the Atlantic, after the debacle in Greece, after the surrenders at Singapore and Tobruk? One can only imagine.

All that matters now is correcting our mistakes, countering the defeatists, and defeating the insurgents. We have to keep firmly in mind the correct notion that a functional democracy in Iraq would be the worst nightmare of jihadists the world over, of Iran, Syria, and the royal Gulf “moderates.” Allowing Iraq to devolve into the Lebanon of the 1980’s or the Afghanistan of the 1990’s, on the other hand, would restore al Qaeda’s lost sanctuary and provide a new base of operations for Iranian-backed terrorists. To paraphrase one commentator, such a failure would inflict “1,000 Mogadishus”-worth of damage on the reputation of the U.S. military and on a nascent and necessary U.S. Middle East policy, a policy seeking to transcend the dangerous (and cynical) “realism” of the past.

Best,
Victor

Boot IHanson IBoot IIHanson IIBoot IIIHanson IIIBoot IV

Dear Max,

I wouldn’t necessarily conflate being more aggressive with being more brutal. We can patrol more, embed more advisors, shoot and arrest more insurgents, all without being gratuitously cruel or needlessly overbearing to civilian sensibilities.

Here is what I think happened in Iraq after April 2003. Bolstered by a 70-percent approval rating, and still smarting from all the prewar hysteria from the Left, the Bush administration felt that it could run out the clock, so to speak.

Thus, each time a challenge arose—looting, the Fallujah outbreak, the Sadr uprising—their idea was to finesse the crisis as much as possible. They were afraid to squander the capital of hard-won public support through (unneeded?) escalation, escalation that would increase casualties and only encourage further domestic and international condemnation of the war.

As a result of this policy, public support vanished anyway, in dribs and drabs, each time we did not react strongly and decisively enough to a provocation. The administration thought, apparently, that using more aggressive tactics would only further incite the growing anti-war movement and that the good news of progress in reconstruction would only continue to be ignored by a biased media.

And so with a whimper rather than a bang, our complacency and over-sensitive attention to perceived public opinion made us ever less aggressive and ever more attuned to “force protection”—at precisely the time more and more offensive operations were needed to break the insurgency and win back public opinion.

Now we must shatter that complacency and do in nine months what textbooks warn takes years. It is still not too late; history might still record as a considerable military achievement the removal of Saddam and the creation of a constitutional government in Iraq. The President and the military believe they can pull it off, while the opposition (whose proposals to withdraw are not matched by votes to reduce budget appropriations) remains, to say the least, doubtful. But the American public’s patience will, apparently, tolerate this final effort.

I am tired of reading the latest declarations of moral outrage from politicians and pundits blaming Rumsfeld, Bush, Cheney, Franks, Sanchez, Casey, Abizaid, etc., for “their” three-year-long occupation that ruined “our” perfect three-week war. What happened in Iraq pales when compared to the horrifying mistakes our government and military made in the Civil War, in World War I and World War II, in Korea and Vietnam. What would this generation of politicians and journalists have said after Cold Harbor and the Battle of the Wilderness, after the two-year-long nightmare of the fall of France, after our World War II losses in the Atlantic, after the debacle in Greece, after the surrenders at Singapore and Tobruk? One can only imagine.

All that matters now is correcting our mistakes, countering the defeatists, and defeating the insurgents. We have to keep firmly in mind the correct notion that a functional democracy in Iraq would be the worst nightmare of jihadists the world over, of Iran, Syria, and the royal Gulf “moderates.” Allowing Iraq to devolve into the Lebanon of the 1980’s or the Afghanistan of the 1990’s, on the other hand, would restore al Qaeda’s lost sanctuary and provide a new base of operations for Iranian-backed terrorists. To paraphrase one commentator, such a failure would inflict “1,000 Mogadishus”-worth of damage on the reputation of the U.S. military and on a nascent and necessary U.S. Middle East policy, a policy seeking to transcend the dangerous (and cynical) “realism” of the past.

Best,
Victor

Boot IHanson IBoot IIHanson IIBoot IIIHanson IIIBoot IV

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The Bible as Blank Slate

In an ongoing, multi-part series called Blogging the Bible on Slate, David Plotz offers comments on his first reading of large parts of the Hebrew Bible. At his best he is superb. He is selling innocence and a new viewpoint—two commodities you might have believed the world was fresh out of when it comes to the Bible, the mightiest text of all, most famous and most exhaustively-studied book known to man. Yet, amazingly, it is all new to Plotz, and his loss is our gain: we experience his fascination, excitement, and occasional joy alongside him as he discovers the narrative genius and moral profundity of the good book.

But to reach these peaks of fine writing Plotz’s readers must slog through the usual nonsense about the alleged contradictions and cruelties of the Hebrew Bible, written with as much vigorous outrage as if these observations had just occurred to mankind yesterday afternoon. Worse is Plotz’s passivity: repeatedly he writes (frankly and openly) that “I don’t know” or “I wonder”—but virtually never cracks a book or calls in an expert to find out. He waits for the answer to come to him, in the form of emails from readers. His commentary suggests a whole new way to do research: if you want to learn about topic X, write an essay about it and your readers will teach you.
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In an ongoing, multi-part series called Blogging the Bible on Slate, David Plotz offers comments on his first reading of large parts of the Hebrew Bible. At his best he is superb. He is selling innocence and a new viewpoint—two commodities you might have believed the world was fresh out of when it comes to the Bible, the mightiest text of all, most famous and most exhaustively-studied book known to man. Yet, amazingly, it is all new to Plotz, and his loss is our gain: we experience his fascination, excitement, and occasional joy alongside him as he discovers the narrative genius and moral profundity of the good book.

But to reach these peaks of fine writing Plotz’s readers must slog through the usual nonsense about the alleged contradictions and cruelties of the Hebrew Bible, written with as much vigorous outrage as if these observations had just occurred to mankind yesterday afternoon. Worse is Plotz’s passivity: repeatedly he writes (frankly and openly) that “I don’t know” or “I wonder”—but virtually never cracks a book or calls in an expert to find out. He waits for the answer to come to him, in the form of emails from readers. His commentary suggests a whole new way to do research: if you want to learn about topic X, write an essay about it and your readers will teach you.

This lack of curiosity may be deliberate. In his introduction to the series, Plotz tells us that his aim is to “find out what happens when an ignorant person actually reads the book on which his religion is based.” Undeniably this approach has its moments. When David sings his lament on the death of Saul and Jonathan, Plotz doesn’t recognize this most famous elegy in the history of the world. Yet he does recognize its greatness (all on his own, not because anyone tipped him off); and he is unfailingly honest about his ignorance. “David sings a gorgeous lament about the deaths [of Saul and son]. (Hey, language mavens! This song is the source of the phrase: `How the mighty are fallen.’)”

But innocence can be overdone—to the point where you question the author’s competence as a literate reader. In the middle of his discussion of Leviticus 19, which Plotz calls the “most glorious chapter of the Bible” (a lovely phrase), we read: “’Love your fellow as yourself’—Ever wonder where Jesus got ‘Love thy neighbor’? Not anymore.” The most famous sentence in the Hebrew Bible is news to Plotz. What does a man know if he doesn’t know this? Not that Plotz is alone in his ignorance—but ignorance this dramatic makes a peculiar basis for offering yourself as a commentator.

Of course any way you look at it, it takes plenty of swagger, arrogance, or what you will to write a commentary on a book you have only read in translation, consulting no commentaries in the process. Plotz notes that “In second Creation [the story beginning in Genesis 2:4], the woman is made to be man’s ‘helper.’ In Chapter 1 they are made equal.” But this word “helper,” which troubles Plotz, originates in one of the most celebrated untranslatables of the Bible. God actually says, in Genesis 2:18, that He will create Eve to be ezer k’negdo; the King James Bible translates, “I will make him [Adam] an help meet for him” (whence the word “helpmeet”). Actually the preposition neged (as in k’negdo) means “in sight of” or “standing opposite to” or “over and against.” The sentence ought to be translated, “I will make him a helper standing eye-to-eye with him,” or “a helper as his counterpart”—as most modern commentaries point out. Eve is Adam’s assistant, but she measures up to Adam; she is Adam’s counterpart; in no sense is she a lesser human being. Hence one of the most astounding sentences in the Bible, which Plotz passes over without a word, in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” A man will leave his parents, a man will cleave to his wife? Ancient listeners would have stopped dead in their tracks. But Plotz keeps right on going.

It is sadly typical of modern intellectual life that Plotz is willing to be honestly, innocently surprised by nearly anything in the Bible except its frequent departures from anti-feminist type-casting. But his most serious error is to misrepresent the very process of Jewish Bible reading. He calls himself a “proud Jew” (more power to him); he acknowledges the immense quantity of rabbinic Bible commentary (in the Talmud and midrash) of which he is ignorant. But he fails to grasp that normative Jewish authorities do not read the Bible alongside the Talmud but through the Talmud. Thus he includes, for example, the usual tiresome stuff about all the death sentences imposed by Biblical law. But as Judaism reads these verses, there are no death sentences in the Bible: the Talmud (for better or worse) erects such elaborate procedural protections for the accused in capital cases that it virtually rules executions out. Which has been pointed out innumerable times before.

It might be fairest to say in the end that Plotz’s sins are the sins of his era and medium, but his virtues are his own. He is sometimes rambling and shallow—but Internet prose encourages shallow rambles. He is ignorant of religion and the Bible, but so are most educated people nowadays. On political topics he speaks with the freshness and spontaneity of a wind-up doll—after the defeat of the Israelites at Ai, Plotz writes, “A devastated Joshua tears his clothes in mourning, and tries to figure out what went wrong (Don’t you wish our leaders took war as seriously?)” But that’s life in America’s intellectual elite. On the other hand he writes with honesty and integrity and—on the whole—a sharp eye for brilliant prose and deep moral philosophy. Blogging the Bible is illuminating in more ways than one. Enjoy it, but read at your own risk.

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