Commentary Magazine


Topic: Fouad Ajami

The Dream Palace and the Nightmare: Fouad Ajami’s Quest for Truth

In a Western world of carefully constructed comfort-myths, Fouad Ajami was a dangerous man. In life, Ajami was grudgingly respected by many of his critics because he was so much smarter than they were, and they knew it. In death, Ajami will receive no such professional courtesy. Exhibit A is today’s execrable New York Times obituary.

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In a Western world of carefully constructed comfort-myths, Fouad Ajami was a dangerous man. In life, Ajami was grudgingly respected by many of his critics because he was so much smarter than they were, and they knew it. In death, Ajami will receive no such professional courtesy. Exhibit A is today’s execrable New York Times obituary.

The Times’s remembrance of Ajami, who died yesterday at age 68, can be written off as another repulsive leftist tantrum. But it’s actually a museum-worthy display of the intellectual depths to which the left has sunk in recent years in an effort–ultimately doomed, one hopes–to erase history. Ajami had long put himself on the front lines of those trying to beat back this rebellion against knowledge. Defense of the truth was weakened by his passing, and the Times wasted not a moment to advance its assault.

It is unfortunate that to call out the Times requires quoting the editorial. Ajami had a long and distinguished career, yet the Times begins its obituary by apportioning a healthy share of blame for the Iraq war to him. And it just keeps sinking from there. Here is the first quote we get from elsewhere in the academy of Ajami’s thinking:

Mr. Ajami’s harshest criticism was leveled at Arab autocrats, who by definition lacked popular support. But his use of words like “tribal,” “atavistic” and “clannish” to describe Arab peoples rankled some. So did his belief that Western nations should intervene in the region to correct wrongs. Edward Said, the Palestinian cultural critic who died in 2003, accused him of having “unmistakably racist prescriptions.”

That is not the last time the obituary seeks to paint Ajami as a racist, a slander without a shred of truth to it–and so it is fitting, in a way, that Edward Said should be the vessel for it. Here is the Times on Ajami’s book The Dream Palace of the Arabs:

“The Dream Palace of the Arabs” told of how a generation of Arab intellectuals tried to renew their homelands’ culture through the forces of modernism and secularism. The Christian Science Monitor called it “a cleareyed look at the lost hopes of the Arabs.”

Partly because of that tone, some condemned the book as too negative. The scholar Andrew N. Rubin, writing in The Nation, said it “echoes the kind of anti-Arabism that both Washington and the pro-Israeli lobby have come to embrace.”

A twofer: calling both Ajami and the “Israel lobby” racist. But this is one of the obstacles Ajami faced in being so eloquent: Andrew Rubin may have read Ajami’s book, but he obviously didn’t understand a word of it. Dream Palace was a condemnation of Arab police-state autocrats precisely because it was a celebration of the potential of Arabs and Arab culture.

Here, for example, is Ajami writing of a popular Arab poet lashing out in verse against Israel:

The Qabbani poem became an overnight sensation. Political power was in the hands of kings and dictators, businessmen were coming and going to economic conferences and “summits” in Casablanca, Amman, and Cairo, trumpeting the advent of a new Middle Eastern economy, but this poet had his own kingdom. As he himself so defiantly put it, poetry was “written on the forehead of every Arab from his birth until his death.” The Arab was the “quintessential poetic being.” Poetry had its own dominion; sultat al-ski’r (the dominion of poetry), and was nobler and truer than the authority of “patriarchy and the authorities of marriage, and politics, and the military.” These later dominions were mere “soap bubbles.” Poetry was at the heart of the turath (heritage), and this turath is “our identity, our passport, our blood type; without it we will become bastard-children.”

Ajami could be proud of the Arab mind but uncomfortable with the ends to which it sometimes lent itself, as in the case of Qabbani’s poem. Such nuance was lost on his critics. Ajami thought higher of his people than did the condescending leftwing polemicists who encouraged their war against the Jews in their midst and against the Westerners seeking to open doors for them. In explaining the title of the book, Ajami wrote:

On their own, in the barracks and in the academies, in the principal cities of the Arab world—Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo—Arabs had built their own dream palace—an intellectual edifice of secular nationalism and modernity. In these pages I take up what had become of this edifice in the last quarter-century. The book is at once a book about public matters—a history of a people, the debates of its intellectuals, the fate of its dominant ideas—and a personal inquiry into the kind of world my generation of Arabs, men and women born in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, was bequeathed.

On their own. Though the Iraq war came after Dream Palace’s publication, it does offer something of a window into Ajami’s thinking. Ajami didn’t support the Iraq war because he thought his Shiite brethren needed a different master. He supported it because on their own they were capable of great things. They didn’t need a master, no matter his tone or tongue. They had rights and expectations and deserved more. This is anti-Arab? The claim is nothing more than extravagant idiocy.

The Times piece closes with another quote from the Nation, in which Ajami is accused of winning over his Western champions with his “almost flirtatious manner” and his pretensions to be “the good Arab.” The Times may not have written that deeply unintelligent nonsense, but reproducing it in its obituary is insulting; using it as the closing quote is spitting on the man’s grave.

The irony is that Ajami’s critics so easily appropriated the language of the authoritarian monsters Ajami wanted consigned to the dustbin, and they did so while Ajami was working tirelessly for the Arabs’ right to be free of such authoritarianism. Now they dismiss him as a traitor to his own people because he wanted them to be free. In life, Ajami was dangerous to them and their artificial world. In death, they fear him still.

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Fouad Ajami, American Patriot

Fouad Ajami, an American patriot, died Sunday at age 68. Professor Ajami was a magnificent Middle East scholar, a writer of rare beauty and elegance, and a man of considerable wit, charm, and dignity.

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Fouad Ajami, an American patriot, died Sunday at age 68. Professor Ajami was a magnificent Middle East scholar, a writer of rare beauty and elegance, and a man of considerable wit, charm, and dignity.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in southern Lebanon, Ajami helped generations of Americans better understand the complex and tortured history of the Middle East. He was a prolific writer, having authored a half-dozen books and more than 400 essays on Arab and Islamic politics. From what I can tell, he never wrote a single sentence that was anything less than superb.

One of my jobs in the White House was to organize meetings between President Bush and scholars and public intellectuals. Fouad Ajami was a guest more than once. Being in this man’s company was among the highlights of my professional life; and developing a friendship with Fouad was a great personal privilege.

Prescient, generous, humane, lyrical and learned, Fouad Ajami was a man who seemed to belong to another, more civilized era. He was taken from us too early. The world will miss him; and so will I.

Requiescat in pace.

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Afghanistan: Moscow to the Rescue

I’m almost always in agreement with Max Boot’s assessments of the tactical situation in Afghanistan, and I think he’s correct when he says Hamid Karzai is, to invoke the Margaret Thatcher phrase, “someone we can do business with.” He is right to point out that these factors are not cause for despair — that there are, in fact, positive signs to be seen in them. I would never accuse Fouad Ajami, whose opinion piece Max references, of a disingenuous approach to the Karzai question. But naysayers do seem to be latching on to every tactical setback and unsavory development in Afghanistan to encourage a growing sense that the conflict is unwinnable.

It’s not. That said, however, there are major factors mounting against it: not on the battlefield but in the halls of state power and diplomacy. I’m not sure Americans appreciate the extent to which the other nations no longer see this war as ours to win or lose — or victory as ours to define.

Once it became obvious that President Obama did not intend to pursue the focused, determined counterinsurgency course proposed by General McChrystal, the other players’ alternate views of the situation crystallized. Our NATO allies are eager to cut a deal with the Taliban because they perceive that Obama does not, in fact, have the will to reshape the situation on the ground through military action. European NATO is concerned about its troops ending up surrounded and on the defensive in a Central Asian redoubt. But that danger adds a vulnerability to Europe’s relations with Russia and the other Asian nations that concerns Europeans even more. These concerns are amplified by the increasing recalcitrance of Pakistan, which is based partly on Islamabad’s fear that the U.S. and NATO are seeking a “separate peace” with certain factions of the Taliban. The map is inexorable: if Pakistan is an unreliable path into Afghanistan, and Iran is not an option, then what’s left is the Central Asian land route under Russia’s security umbrella. Read More

I’m almost always in agreement with Max Boot’s assessments of the tactical situation in Afghanistan, and I think he’s correct when he says Hamid Karzai is, to invoke the Margaret Thatcher phrase, “someone we can do business with.” He is right to point out that these factors are not cause for despair — that there are, in fact, positive signs to be seen in them. I would never accuse Fouad Ajami, whose opinion piece Max references, of a disingenuous approach to the Karzai question. But naysayers do seem to be latching on to every tactical setback and unsavory development in Afghanistan to encourage a growing sense that the conflict is unwinnable.

It’s not. That said, however, there are major factors mounting against it: not on the battlefield but in the halls of state power and diplomacy. I’m not sure Americans appreciate the extent to which the other nations no longer see this war as ours to win or lose — or victory as ours to define.

Once it became obvious that President Obama did not intend to pursue the focused, determined counterinsurgency course proposed by General McChrystal, the other players’ alternate views of the situation crystallized. Our NATO allies are eager to cut a deal with the Taliban because they perceive that Obama does not, in fact, have the will to reshape the situation on the ground through military action. European NATO is concerned about its troops ending up surrounded and on the defensive in a Central Asian redoubt. But that danger adds a vulnerability to Europe’s relations with Russia and the other Asian nations that concerns Europeans even more. These concerns are amplified by the increasing recalcitrance of Pakistan, which is based partly on Islamabad’s fear that the U.S. and NATO are seeking a “separate peace” with certain factions of the Taliban. The map is inexorable: if Pakistan is an unreliable path into Afghanistan, and Iran is not an option, then what’s left is the Central Asian land route under Russia’s security umbrella.

A quiet announcement by NATO’s secretary-general on Monday indicates that the NATO nations, approaching this unpleasant reality head-on, have decided to do what they can to make a partnership out of the necessity of Russian involvement. The UK Independent reports that NATO (with full U.S. participation) is inviting Russia into Afghanistan in a military role. The acceptance from the Russians comes with strings, of course; as the Independent puts it, “Moscow is seeking what it terms as more cooperation from NATO.” Not defining this cooperative quid pro quo in advance would seem to indicate a colossal breakdown in NATO’s bargaining skills; what we can be sure of is that the price of Russian involvement will be political — and high.

With this agreement, Russia positions itself as a nexus of independent influence in the Afghan settlement: a new option for Pakistan — and Iran and India — to play Russia off against the U.S. These factors combine to produce a bottom line that is quickly outracing the American people’s lagging idea of our role Afghanistan. We have much the largest military commitment there, but we are dealing away the latitude to define victory and decide what the strategy will be.

No political leader ever announces he is doing this. Don’t expect Obama to be explicit about it. NATO has been working on the Russian accord without fanfare and will probably announce it as something of an afterthought in Lisbon, where the public emphasis is expected to be on missile-defense cooperation with Moscow. But this will be a decisive turn in the Afghan war. Assuming we proceed with this agreement, the war will, in fact, no longer be ours to wage as we see fit. Whatever his precise intentions, Obama probably couldn’t have found a better way to induce the war’s American supporters to want to get out of it on his timetable.

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A Counter View to Fouad Ajami’s Skepticism Regarding Afghanistan

Fouad Ajami is one of the world’s most respected and influential analysts of the Middle East — and for good reason. He has consistently spoken hard truths about the Arab world that few of his colleagues in academia dare broach. And he has been a staunch supporter of the war effort in Iraq even through its darkest of days — a deeply unfashionable view that speaks to his intellectual fearlessness and iconoclasm. So when he expresses deep doubts about the viability of the American mission in Afghanistan, it is well worth paying attention — even if you don’t necessarily agree with hm.

In the Wall Street Journal, Ajami castigates President Hamid Karzai for showing “little, if any, regard” for the “sacrifices” made by Americans to protect his country from the Taliban. He lashes at Karzai accepting cash from Iran — “He has been brazen to the point of vulgarity,” Ajami writes — and for his accusations that Americans are supporting private security companies that are killing Afghans, adding, “It is fully understood that Mr. Karzai and his clan want the business of the contractors for themselves.” Ajami endorses the publicly leaked 2009 cable from Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, which read: “Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner.” In disgust, he concludes, “Unlike the Third world clients of old, this one does not even bother to pay us the tribute of double-speak and hypocrisy.” This causes Ajami to doubt the entire mission:

The idealism has drained out of this project. Say what you will about the Iraq war — and there was disappointment and heartbreak aplenty — there always ran through that war the promise of a decent outcome: deliverance for the Kurds, an Iraqi democratic example in the heart of a despotic Arab world, the promise of a decent Shiite alternative in the holy city of Najaf that would compete with the influence of Qom. No such nobility, no such illusions now attend our war in Afghanistan.

As I suggested before, I respect Ajami’s views but in this case I do not agree with him. I believe there is just as much nobility to the war in Afghanistan as to the one in Iraq. We are, after all, fighting to make good on our post-9/11 promises to drive the Taliban out of power and establish a representative government in Afghanistan that will not sponsor terrorism or abuse its own people. The Taliban are as cruel as they come and sparing the people of Afghanistan from their misrule is a noble cause. So too is honoring the memory of America’s 9/11 shaheeds (martyrs) — the victims of al-Qaeda and their Taliban facilitators.

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Fouad Ajami is one of the world’s most respected and influential analysts of the Middle East — and for good reason. He has consistently spoken hard truths about the Arab world that few of his colleagues in academia dare broach. And he has been a staunch supporter of the war effort in Iraq even through its darkest of days — a deeply unfashionable view that speaks to his intellectual fearlessness and iconoclasm. So when he expresses deep doubts about the viability of the American mission in Afghanistan, it is well worth paying attention — even if you don’t necessarily agree with hm.

In the Wall Street Journal, Ajami castigates President Hamid Karzai for showing “little, if any, regard” for the “sacrifices” made by Americans to protect his country from the Taliban. He lashes at Karzai accepting cash from Iran — “He has been brazen to the point of vulgarity,” Ajami writes — and for his accusations that Americans are supporting private security companies that are killing Afghans, adding, “It is fully understood that Mr. Karzai and his clan want the business of the contractors for themselves.” Ajami endorses the publicly leaked 2009 cable from Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, which read: “Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner.” In disgust, he concludes, “Unlike the Third world clients of old, this one does not even bother to pay us the tribute of double-speak and hypocrisy.” This causes Ajami to doubt the entire mission:

The idealism has drained out of this project. Say what you will about the Iraq war — and there was disappointment and heartbreak aplenty — there always ran through that war the promise of a decent outcome: deliverance for the Kurds, an Iraqi democratic example in the heart of a despotic Arab world, the promise of a decent Shiite alternative in the holy city of Najaf that would compete with the influence of Qom. No such nobility, no such illusions now attend our war in Afghanistan.

As I suggested before, I respect Ajami’s views but in this case I do not agree with him. I believe there is just as much nobility to the war in Afghanistan as to the one in Iraq. We are, after all, fighting to make good on our post-9/11 promises to drive the Taliban out of power and establish a representative government in Afghanistan that will not sponsor terrorism or abuse its own people. The Taliban are as cruel as they come and sparing the people of Afghanistan from their misrule is a noble cause. So too is honoring the memory of America’s 9/11 shaheeds (martyrs) — the victims of al-Qaeda and their Taliban facilitators.

The problem is that in carrying out this mission we must work with wholly imperfect allies. Karzai is no angel. But then neither is Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq — a leader whom Ajami presciently championed even when others scoffed at his potential to rise above his sectarian roots. In many ways, Maliki has been an even more troubling ally than Karzai. For all his faults, Karzai is not known to be personally sympathetic to the Taliban, who killed his father. By contrast, Maliki had a lot of sympathy for Shiite sectarianism. He has been surrounded by Iranian agents and Shiite extremists, who were deeply implicated in the work of the death squads that were killing hundreds of Sunnis every night in 2006-2007. It may be discouraging to hear that Karzai accepts a couple of million dollars in cash from Iran but is there any doubt that Maliki has taken far more money from Tehran? And not just money. As this article noted, Iran actually provided Maliki with his presidential jet, complete with Iranian pilots. Say what you will about Karzai, but at least he doesn’t routinely entrust his life to an Iranian aircraft.

Moreover, Maliki has been as notorious as Karzai for showing a lack of gratitude toward American efforts to save his county. As I noted in this 2008 op-ed, Maliki has had a pattern of dismissing the American contribution to Iraqi security, saying, for instance, in May 2006, that “[Iraqi] forces are capable of taking over the security in all Iraqi provinces within a year and a half.” Maliki opposed the surge, which saved his country in 2007 and even when it succeeded refused to give us credit. As I noted:

In the famous interview with Der Spiegel last weekend, he was asked why Iraq has become more peaceful. He mentioned “many factors,” including “the political rapprochement we have managed to achieve,” “the progress being made by our security forces,” “the deep sense of abhorrence with which the population has reacted to the atrocities of al-Qaida and the militias,” and “the economic recovery.” No mention of the surge.

Yet for all of Maliki’s maddening imperfections — which stand in high relief now as he ruthlessly maneuvers for another term — he showed ability to rise above his sectarian origins. He displayed real political courage in ordering his forces to attack the Sadrists in Basra and Sadr City in 2008. Now, of course, he is cutting deals with those same Sadrists. That, alas, is how the political game is played in unstable countries like Iraq — or Afghanistan. That should not cause us to despair of either country’s future.

If we could work with Maliki, we can certainly work with Karzai. The former, after all, does not speak English and spent years of exile living in Syria and Iran, two of the most anti-American states in the world. Karzai, by contrast, is a fluent English-speaker with several brothers who have lived in the U.S. for years and even hold U.S. citizenship. He is, in many ways, a more natural fit as an ally than Maliki. There is little doubt that he and his brothers are implicated in the corruption of Afghani politics, but at least, unlike Maliki, they are not cozying up to Iranian-backed death squads. To the extent that Karzai has cozied up to Ahmadinejad and the mullahs, it has been as a hedge against a precipitous American pullout. But Karzai also knows that the Iranians are double-dealing — they are supporting the Taliban too — which can give Karzai little confidence that Iran would be a reliable ally. At the end of the day, Karzai knows that his future and his country’s rests with the United States and NATO; that we are all that is keeping him from death or exile.

It would be nice if Karzai showed more political courage in working with us and refrained from denouncing us, but some of his denunciations have, alas, the ring of truth — and some of his actions are actually well intentioned. Take his attempts to close down private security companies that are terrorizing ordinary Afghanis and driving them into the arms of the Taliban. Most of these companies are, in fact, directly or indirectly, funded by American taxpayers — just as Karzai alleges. Many of them are also run by Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, and by others linked to the Karzai clan. (See this report from the Institute for the Study of War for details.) So by closing down these firms, Karzai seems to be moving against his family’s economic interests. If he were simply interested in continuing to exploit this lucrative economic niche, he would leave the existing situation alone.

I don’t know what motivates Karzai but I suspect that, like most people, he is moved by a combination of noble and ignoble impulses — idealism and selfishness, self-interest and the public interest. He is no Adenaeur or De Gaulle or Ataturk or Washington — but then neither is Maliki. He is deeply imperfect, but he is the president of Afghanistan, and I do believe it is possible to work with him. Luckily, we have in Kabul the same general — David Petraeus — who skillfully worked with Maliki at a time when many Americans wrote him off as incorrigible. Already Petreaus has shown a similar ability to get useful concessions out of Karzai, for instance winning the president’s approval for setting up the Afghan Local Police, an initiative to supplement the Afghan Security Forces, which Karzai initially opposed.

Running through Ajami’s article is a deep skepticism not only about Karzai but also about Barack Obama. He criticizes Obama, rightly, for displaying irresolution. I too have been dismayed by the deadline Obama laid out for our withdrawal from Afghanistan — but I have been cheered to see, as I have noted in previous posts, that Obama is backing off that deadline. What foes for Karzai also goes for Obama: you go to war with the leaders you have — not the ones you would like to have. But I don’t believe that either Karzai or Obama is so flawed that it is impossible to prevail in Afghanistan — especially not when we have so many outstanding troops on the ground led by our greatest general.

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The Broken Promises of an ‘Untested Redeemer’

Fouad Ajami, a brilliant Middle East scholar, has penned a masterpiece on Barack Obama for the Wall Street Journal. Here’s a portion of what Ajami writes:

It is in the nature of charisma that it rises out of thin air, out of need and distress, and then dissipates when the magic fails. The country has had its fill with a scapegoating that knows no end from a president who had vowed to break with recriminations and partisanship. The magic of 2008 can’t be recreated, and good riddance to it. Slowly, the nation has recovered its poise. There is a widespread sense of unstated embarrassment that a political majority, if only for a moment, fell for the promise of an untested redeemer—a belief alien to the temperament of this so practical and sober a nation.

You must read the whole thing.

Fouad Ajami, a brilliant Middle East scholar, has penned a masterpiece on Barack Obama for the Wall Street Journal. Here’s a portion of what Ajami writes:

It is in the nature of charisma that it rises out of thin air, out of need and distress, and then dissipates when the magic fails. The country has had its fill with a scapegoating that knows no end from a president who had vowed to break with recriminations and partisanship. The magic of 2008 can’t be recreated, and good riddance to it. Slowly, the nation has recovered its poise. There is a widespread sense of unstated embarrassment that a political majority, if only for a moment, fell for the promise of an untested redeemer—a belief alien to the temperament of this so practical and sober a nation.

You must read the whole thing.

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Success Without Victory

Developments with the war in Afghanistan are causing us to question our methods of warfare as we have not since Vietnam. Comparisons of Afghanistan to Vietnam are mushrooming, of course; Fouad Ajami has a useful one today, in which he considers the effect of withdrawal deadlines on the American people’s expectations as well as the enemy’s. But on Friday, Caroline Glick took a broader view of contemporary Western methods, comparing the U.S. operating profile in Afghanistan to that of the IDF in Lebanon in the 1990s.

As I have done here, she invoked the White House guidance report in December, according to which “we’re not doing everything, and we’re not doing it forever.” Such guidance, she says, “when executed … brings not victory nor even stability.” She is right; Fouad Ajami is right; and both are focusing where our attention should be right now, which is on the conduct of the war at the political level.

There’s a good reason why comparisons with Vietnam are gathering steam. It’s not the geography, the campaign plan, or the details of the historical context, alliances, or political purposes: it’s the behavior of the American leadership. As Senator McCain points out, President Obama has steadfastly refused to affirm that the July 2011 deadline is conditions-based. But I was particularly struck by the recent words of Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy for the “AfPak” problem, because they evoke a whole political doctrine of “limited war,” which dates back to the Vietnam era.

Holbrooke has been keeping a low profile. But he’s a crucial actor in this drama, and in early June he made these observations:

Let me be clear on one thing, everybody understands that this war will not end in a clear-cut military victory. It’s not going to end on the deck of a battleship like World War Two, or Dayton, Ohio, like the Bosnian war. …

It’s going to have some different ending from that, some form of political settlements are necessary … you can’t have a settlement with al-Qaeda, you can’t talk to them, you can’t negotiate with them, it’s out of the question. But it is possible to talk to Taliban leaders. …

What do [critics] mean by win? We don’t use the word win, we use the word succeed.

As an aside, I would have thought the Dayton process did, in fact, have relevance for the “peace jirga” process now underway with the Afghan factions, and that we might expect an outcome with some similarities to the Dayton Accords. But my central concern here is the virtually exact overlap of Holbrooke’s conceptual language with that of the Johnson-era prosecution of the Vietnam War.

That we had to seek a “settlement” with North Vietnam and the Viet Cong was received wisdom under Lyndon Johnson; in this memo from a key reevaluation of the war effort in 1965, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara leads off with it. His reference to “creating conditions for a favorable settlement” by demonstrating to the North Vietnamese that “the odds are against their winning” is a near-perfect statement of the limited-war proposition encapsulated by Henry Kissinger in his influential 1958 book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (quotations are from the W. W. Norton & Co. edition of 1969). Said Kissinger:

The goal of war can no longer be military victory, strictly speaking, but the attainment of certain specific political conditions, which are fully understood by the opponent. … Our purpose is to affect the will of the enemy, not to destroy him. … War can be limited only by presenting the enemy with an unfavorable calculus of risks. (p. 189)

Kissinger’s title reminds us that it was the emerging nuclear threat that galvanized limited-war thinking in the period leading up to Vietnam. But that was only one of the factors in our selection of limited objectives for that conflict. Another was an attribution to the enemy of aspirations that mirrored ours, with the persistent characterization of the North Vietnamese Communists – much like Richard Holbrooke’s of the Taliban – as potential partners in negotiation. A seminal example of that occurred in Johnson’s celebrated “Peace without Conquest” speech of April 7, 1965:

For what do the people of North Vietnam want? They want what their neighbors also desire: food for their hunger; health for their bodies; a chance to learn; progress for their country; and an end to the bondage of material misery. And they would find all these things far more readily in peaceful association with others than in the endless course of battle.

It was not, of course, what the people of North Vietnam wanted that mattered; this political factor was sadly miscast. The LBJ speech was beautifully crafted and full of poignant and powerful rhetoric. But the rhetoric could not ultimately hide the bald facts, which were that Johnson wanted a settlement in Vietnam, that he had no concept of victory to outline, and that his main desire was to get out.

The speech was recognized at the time as “defensive” in character. And we must not deceive ourselves that Holbrooke’s words from earlier this month are being interpreted abroad in any other way. I’ve seen no reference to his comments in a leading American publication, but media outlets across Asia, Europe, and Africa have quoted him. It’s interesting that in 2010, he feels no need to cloak his blunt observations – so consonant with Kissinger’s dryly precise limited-war formulation – in the elliptical, emotive language favored by the Johnson administration in its public utterances. In the 1960s, the limited-war concept of disclaiming all desire to “win” was still suspect. But, as much as we have criticized it in the decades since, we have internalized and mainstreamed it as well. Holbrooke apparently feels empowered to speak clearly in these terms, without euphemism or caveat.

There is no good record to invoke for pursuing the strategy of “peace without conquest.” It took almost exactly 10 years after the LBJ speech for the strategy to produce the total collapse of the U.S. effort in Vietnam; a wealthy superpower can keep “not-winning” for a long time. All but 400 of the 58,000 American lives given to Vietnam were lost in that 10-year period, along with the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese lives taken in the fighting and the Communist victory.

But there was a lot of success in that period too. U.S. troops won every tactical engagement, including the defeat of the Tet Offensive in 1968. Under Nixon, North Vietnam was isolated and driven to the bargaining table. Under General Creighton Abrams, the defense of the South had, with the exception of air support, been successfully “Vietnamized” when the U.S. pulled out our last ground forces in 1972. But these successes could not establish a sustainable status quo.

Vietnam is our example of what “success without victory” looks like. We should be alarmed that the current administration seeks that defensive objective in Afghanistan. Such a pursuit is, itself, one of the main conditions for producing failure – and failure that is compounded by being protracted and bloody. As for the reason why that should be, Dr. Kissinger, with his clinical precision, must have the last word:

In any conflict the side which is animated by faith in victory has a decided advantage over an opponent who wishes above all to preserve the status quo. It will be prepared to run greater risks because its purpose will be stronger. (p. 246)

Kissinger acknowledged when he wrote these words – having both Vietnam and the larger Soviet threat in mind – that this was a limiting factor the Western powers had not devised a means of overcoming. In Afghanistan today, meanwhile, by Team Obama’s affirmation, we are the side not animated by faith in victory.

Developments with the war in Afghanistan are causing us to question our methods of warfare as we have not since Vietnam. Comparisons of Afghanistan to Vietnam are mushrooming, of course; Fouad Ajami has a useful one today, in which he considers the effect of withdrawal deadlines on the American people’s expectations as well as the enemy’s. But on Friday, Caroline Glick took a broader view of contemporary Western methods, comparing the U.S. operating profile in Afghanistan to that of the IDF in Lebanon in the 1990s.

As I have done here, she invoked the White House guidance report in December, according to which “we’re not doing everything, and we’re not doing it forever.” Such guidance, she says, “when executed … brings not victory nor even stability.” She is right; Fouad Ajami is right; and both are focusing where our attention should be right now, which is on the conduct of the war at the political level.

There’s a good reason why comparisons with Vietnam are gathering steam. It’s not the geography, the campaign plan, or the details of the historical context, alliances, or political purposes: it’s the behavior of the American leadership. As Senator McCain points out, President Obama has steadfastly refused to affirm that the July 2011 deadline is conditions-based. But I was particularly struck by the recent words of Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy for the “AfPak” problem, because they evoke a whole political doctrine of “limited war,” which dates back to the Vietnam era.

Holbrooke has been keeping a low profile. But he’s a crucial actor in this drama, and in early June he made these observations:

Let me be clear on one thing, everybody understands that this war will not end in a clear-cut military victory. It’s not going to end on the deck of a battleship like World War Two, or Dayton, Ohio, like the Bosnian war. …

It’s going to have some different ending from that, some form of political settlements are necessary … you can’t have a settlement with al-Qaeda, you can’t talk to them, you can’t negotiate with them, it’s out of the question. But it is possible to talk to Taliban leaders. …

What do [critics] mean by win? We don’t use the word win, we use the word succeed.

As an aside, I would have thought the Dayton process did, in fact, have relevance for the “peace jirga” process now underway with the Afghan factions, and that we might expect an outcome with some similarities to the Dayton Accords. But my central concern here is the virtually exact overlap of Holbrooke’s conceptual language with that of the Johnson-era prosecution of the Vietnam War.

That we had to seek a “settlement” with North Vietnam and the Viet Cong was received wisdom under Lyndon Johnson; in this memo from a key reevaluation of the war effort in 1965, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara leads off with it. His reference to “creating conditions for a favorable settlement” by demonstrating to the North Vietnamese that “the odds are against their winning” is a near-perfect statement of the limited-war proposition encapsulated by Henry Kissinger in his influential 1958 book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (quotations are from the W. W. Norton & Co. edition of 1969). Said Kissinger:

The goal of war can no longer be military victory, strictly speaking, but the attainment of certain specific political conditions, which are fully understood by the opponent. … Our purpose is to affect the will of the enemy, not to destroy him. … War can be limited only by presenting the enemy with an unfavorable calculus of risks. (p. 189)

Kissinger’s title reminds us that it was the emerging nuclear threat that galvanized limited-war thinking in the period leading up to Vietnam. But that was only one of the factors in our selection of limited objectives for that conflict. Another was an attribution to the enemy of aspirations that mirrored ours, with the persistent characterization of the North Vietnamese Communists – much like Richard Holbrooke’s of the Taliban – as potential partners in negotiation. A seminal example of that occurred in Johnson’s celebrated “Peace without Conquest” speech of April 7, 1965:

For what do the people of North Vietnam want? They want what their neighbors also desire: food for their hunger; health for their bodies; a chance to learn; progress for their country; and an end to the bondage of material misery. And they would find all these things far more readily in peaceful association with others than in the endless course of battle.

It was not, of course, what the people of North Vietnam wanted that mattered; this political factor was sadly miscast. The LBJ speech was beautifully crafted and full of poignant and powerful rhetoric. But the rhetoric could not ultimately hide the bald facts, which were that Johnson wanted a settlement in Vietnam, that he had no concept of victory to outline, and that his main desire was to get out.

The speech was recognized at the time as “defensive” in character. And we must not deceive ourselves that Holbrooke’s words from earlier this month are being interpreted abroad in any other way. I’ve seen no reference to his comments in a leading American publication, but media outlets across Asia, Europe, and Africa have quoted him. It’s interesting that in 2010, he feels no need to cloak his blunt observations – so consonant with Kissinger’s dryly precise limited-war formulation – in the elliptical, emotive language favored by the Johnson administration in its public utterances. In the 1960s, the limited-war concept of disclaiming all desire to “win” was still suspect. But, as much as we have criticized it in the decades since, we have internalized and mainstreamed it as well. Holbrooke apparently feels empowered to speak clearly in these terms, without euphemism or caveat.

There is no good record to invoke for pursuing the strategy of “peace without conquest.” It took almost exactly 10 years after the LBJ speech for the strategy to produce the total collapse of the U.S. effort in Vietnam; a wealthy superpower can keep “not-winning” for a long time. All but 400 of the 58,000 American lives given to Vietnam were lost in that 10-year period, along with the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese lives taken in the fighting and the Communist victory.

But there was a lot of success in that period too. U.S. troops won every tactical engagement, including the defeat of the Tet Offensive in 1968. Under Nixon, North Vietnam was isolated and driven to the bargaining table. Under General Creighton Abrams, the defense of the South had, with the exception of air support, been successfully “Vietnamized” when the U.S. pulled out our last ground forces in 1972. But these successes could not establish a sustainable status quo.

Vietnam is our example of what “success without victory” looks like. We should be alarmed that the current administration seeks that defensive objective in Afghanistan. Such a pursuit is, itself, one of the main conditions for producing failure – and failure that is compounded by being protracted and bloody. As for the reason why that should be, Dr. Kissinger, with his clinical precision, must have the last word:

In any conflict the side which is animated by faith in victory has a decided advantage over an opponent who wishes above all to preserve the status quo. It will be prepared to run greater risks because its purpose will be stronger. (p. 246)

Kissinger acknowledged when he wrote these words – having both Vietnam and the larger Soviet threat in mind – that this was a limiting factor the Western powers had not devised a means of overcoming. In Afghanistan today, meanwhile, by Team Obama’s affirmation, we are the side not animated by faith in victory.

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Obama’s Wasted Chance with Iran

Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of the fraudulent Iranian elections, which led to a popular uprising against the regime that was brutally put down. In today’s Wall Street Journal, Fouad Ajami offers this scorching indictment:

There is no guarantee that categorical American support would have altered the outcome of the struggle between autocracy and liberty in Iran. But it shall now be part of the narrative of liberty that when Persia rose in the summer of 2009 the steward of American power ducked for cover, and that a president who prided himself on his eloquence couldn’t even find the words to tell the forces of liberty that he understood the wellsprings of their revolt.

For an American president to have been on the wrong side of this struggle — he lost his voice during this crucial moment, when the Green movement represented genuine hope and change for Iran — is shameful. And unfortunately, Obama’s actions fit into a perfectly predictable pattern. He has shown himself largely indifferent to the human-rights struggles of people around the globe. That message, having been sent, has also been received. Dissidents, and the cause of liberty, are paying the price for it.

Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of the fraudulent Iranian elections, which led to a popular uprising against the regime that was brutally put down. In today’s Wall Street Journal, Fouad Ajami offers this scorching indictment:

There is no guarantee that categorical American support would have altered the outcome of the struggle between autocracy and liberty in Iran. But it shall now be part of the narrative of liberty that when Persia rose in the summer of 2009 the steward of American power ducked for cover, and that a president who prided himself on his eloquence couldn’t even find the words to tell the forces of liberty that he understood the wellsprings of their revolt.

For an American president to have been on the wrong side of this struggle — he lost his voice during this crucial moment, when the Green movement represented genuine hope and change for Iran — is shameful. And unfortunately, Obama’s actions fit into a perfectly predictable pattern. He has shown himself largely indifferent to the human-rights struggles of people around the globe. That message, having been sent, has also been received. Dissidents, and the cause of liberty, are paying the price for it.

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Sadly True

The outstanding Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami has written an important piece in today’s Wall Street Journal. Among other points, he makes this one:

All this plays out under the gaze of an Islamic world that is coming to a consensus that a discernible American retreat in the region is in the works. America’s enemies are increasingly brazen, its friends unnerved. … The shadow of American power is receding; the rogues are emboldened. The world has a way of calling the bluff of leaders and nations summoned to difficult endeavors. Would that our biggest source of worry in that arc of trouble was the intemperate outburst of our ally in Kabul.

These are typically elegant words by Ajami. And they are, unfortunately, apposite.

The outstanding Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami has written an important piece in today’s Wall Street Journal. Among other points, he makes this one:

All this plays out under the gaze of an Islamic world that is coming to a consensus that a discernible American retreat in the region is in the works. America’s enemies are increasingly brazen, its friends unnerved. … The shadow of American power is receding; the rogues are emboldened. The world has a way of calling the bluff of leaders and nations summoned to difficult endeavors. Would that our biggest source of worry in that arc of trouble was the intemperate outburst of our ally in Kabul.

These are typically elegant words by Ajami. And they are, unfortunately, apposite.

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Waiting for “Isratine”

In Monday’s Washington Post, Jackson Diehl reminds us of what the true stumbling block is on the road to peace. Referring to Condoleezza Rice’s peace efforts during George W. Bush’s second term, he has this to say:

Eventually, Olmert presented Abbas with a detailed plan for a final settlement — one that, in its concessions to Palestinian demands, went beyond anything either Israel or the United States had ever put forward. Among other things it mandated a Palestinian state with a capital in Jerusalem and would have allowed 10,000 refugees to return to Israel. That’s when Rice learned another lesson the new administration seems not to have picked up: This Palestinian leadership has trouble saying “yes.” Confronted with a draft deal that would have been cheered by most of the world, Abbas balked. He refused to sign on; he refused to present a counteroffer. Rice and Bush implored him to join Olmert at the White House for a summit. Olmert would present his plan to Bush, and Abbas would say only that he found it worth discussing. The Palestinian president refused.

Three times in the past 10 years, the Palestinians were presented with comprehensive peace proposals that would establish a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and Gaza, would put its internationally recognized capital in Arab Jerusalem, would offer a solidly funded, reasonable and dignified solution to the refugee issue, and would put an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict once and for all. First, it was Ehud Barak’s Camp David proposal. Then it was the Clinton Parameters. Then it was Olmert’s peace plan. Each time, confronted with an Israeli prime minister who was ready, pen in hand, to put his name on the dotted line and face the fury and discontent of part of his political constituency to take a risky peace gamble, Palestine’s acclaimed peace seekers — Yassir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas — walked away.

This history alone should encourage U.S. and European leaders to recognize that the burden of proof, when it comes to peace credentials and readiness for compromise, is on the Palestinian side, not the Israeli one. But history lessons and Aristotelian logic do not always intersect.

For one thing, the Palestinians have learned that every time they say no, sooner or later pressure will be brought to bear on Israel, and a new offer — better than the previous one — will be coming their way. Meanwhile, their tireless efforts to undermine, isolate, delegitimize, and demonize Israel in the international arena strengthen their bargaining position over time and enable them to expect more for less.

This, incidentally, offers at least a partial answer to David Hazony’s post from the other day, when my colleague was understandably puzzled about a growing support for a one-state solution among Palestinians. Why would a national movement give up its dream and settle for such a solution? After all, the Palestinians never seriously entertained this notion when a handful of Jewish intellectuals were toying with the idea in the 1930s and early 1940s. Brith Shalom and Ihud, the two small organizations that counted Yehuda Magnes and Martin Buber in their ranks, after all, not only could not get traction within the Yishuv — they never even got a single Arab leader interested in discussing their vision of a bi-national state for the Palestine Mandate, where Jews would forever be relegated to the role of a minority.

Clearly, the difference is that, back then, the Zionist movement was weak, its staying power in Palestine was questionable, its backing from Britain was waning, and its reservoir of support in Europe’s Jewish Diaspora under mortal threat of annihilation. Why would the Palestinians concede little when they believed — as they certainly did then — that they could have it all?

History offers some reckoning and what looked like a flight of fancy in the mid-1930s is more attractive today. A bi-national state is actually more promising than a nation-state, at least for Palestinian intellectuals, not so much because it would force them to renounce their aspirations but because it would keep their nationalist dream alive — a dream whereby, as Professor Fouad Ajami once so artfully put it, “there still lurks in the Palestinian and Arab imagination a view, depicted by the Moroccan historian Abdallah Laroui, that “on a certain day, everything would be obliterated and instantaneously reconstructed and the new inhabitants would leave, as if by magic, the land they had despoiled.” Arafat knew the power of this redemptive idea. He must have reasoned that it is safer to ride that idea, and that there will always be another day and another offer.”

Little by little, the sands are shifting in the Middle East — or rather, in the perception of the Middle East as seen from Western capitals. Why sign on the dotted line when more pressure will be brought to bear on Israel? Why agree to end the conflict when Israel’s legitimacy is eroded day by day, with its traditional allies ready to do less and less to support the Jewish state? Why not embrace the rhetoric of a bi-national state — in the silly spirit of our irresponsible age — where you can plan the destruction of your adversary and make it look like a human-rights crusade?

A bi-national state is just a stage to redress the balance of power between the two conflicting national claims. It would not be the end of the story though but the beginning of another chapter where the Zionist movement would be stripped of its national symbols, its power to control immigration, and its ability to define national security exclusively in the name of the Jewish people. Meanwhile, the keys to the Middle East’s most prosperous economy and most powerful army would have to be handed over to the Palestinians for power-sharing. It would be a stage on the way to fulfilling the dream of obliterating the consequences of the last century of Middle East history.

Fanciful? Maybe, but if you take the long view of history, and the mismatch between the reality of a small shoe-box-size Palestinian state and the dream of a whole “Isratine” is unbearable, it makes perfect sense.

In Monday’s Washington Post, Jackson Diehl reminds us of what the true stumbling block is on the road to peace. Referring to Condoleezza Rice’s peace efforts during George W. Bush’s second term, he has this to say:

Eventually, Olmert presented Abbas with a detailed plan for a final settlement — one that, in its concessions to Palestinian demands, went beyond anything either Israel or the United States had ever put forward. Among other things it mandated a Palestinian state with a capital in Jerusalem and would have allowed 10,000 refugees to return to Israel. That’s when Rice learned another lesson the new administration seems not to have picked up: This Palestinian leadership has trouble saying “yes.” Confronted with a draft deal that would have been cheered by most of the world, Abbas balked. He refused to sign on; he refused to present a counteroffer. Rice and Bush implored him to join Olmert at the White House for a summit. Olmert would present his plan to Bush, and Abbas would say only that he found it worth discussing. The Palestinian president refused.

Three times in the past 10 years, the Palestinians were presented with comprehensive peace proposals that would establish a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and Gaza, would put its internationally recognized capital in Arab Jerusalem, would offer a solidly funded, reasonable and dignified solution to the refugee issue, and would put an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict once and for all. First, it was Ehud Barak’s Camp David proposal. Then it was the Clinton Parameters. Then it was Olmert’s peace plan. Each time, confronted with an Israeli prime minister who was ready, pen in hand, to put his name on the dotted line and face the fury and discontent of part of his political constituency to take a risky peace gamble, Palestine’s acclaimed peace seekers — Yassir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas — walked away.

This history alone should encourage U.S. and European leaders to recognize that the burden of proof, when it comes to peace credentials and readiness for compromise, is on the Palestinian side, not the Israeli one. But history lessons and Aristotelian logic do not always intersect.

For one thing, the Palestinians have learned that every time they say no, sooner or later pressure will be brought to bear on Israel, and a new offer — better than the previous one — will be coming their way. Meanwhile, their tireless efforts to undermine, isolate, delegitimize, and demonize Israel in the international arena strengthen their bargaining position over time and enable them to expect more for less.

This, incidentally, offers at least a partial answer to David Hazony’s post from the other day, when my colleague was understandably puzzled about a growing support for a one-state solution among Palestinians. Why would a national movement give up its dream and settle for such a solution? After all, the Palestinians never seriously entertained this notion when a handful of Jewish intellectuals were toying with the idea in the 1930s and early 1940s. Brith Shalom and Ihud, the two small organizations that counted Yehuda Magnes and Martin Buber in their ranks, after all, not only could not get traction within the Yishuv — they never even got a single Arab leader interested in discussing their vision of a bi-national state for the Palestine Mandate, where Jews would forever be relegated to the role of a minority.

Clearly, the difference is that, back then, the Zionist movement was weak, its staying power in Palestine was questionable, its backing from Britain was waning, and its reservoir of support in Europe’s Jewish Diaspora under mortal threat of annihilation. Why would the Palestinians concede little when they believed — as they certainly did then — that they could have it all?

History offers some reckoning and what looked like a flight of fancy in the mid-1930s is more attractive today. A bi-national state is actually more promising than a nation-state, at least for Palestinian intellectuals, not so much because it would force them to renounce their aspirations but because it would keep their nationalist dream alive — a dream whereby, as Professor Fouad Ajami once so artfully put it, “there still lurks in the Palestinian and Arab imagination a view, depicted by the Moroccan historian Abdallah Laroui, that “on a certain day, everything would be obliterated and instantaneously reconstructed and the new inhabitants would leave, as if by magic, the land they had despoiled.” Arafat knew the power of this redemptive idea. He must have reasoned that it is safer to ride that idea, and that there will always be another day and another offer.”

Little by little, the sands are shifting in the Middle East — or rather, in the perception of the Middle East as seen from Western capitals. Why sign on the dotted line when more pressure will be brought to bear on Israel? Why agree to end the conflict when Israel’s legitimacy is eroded day by day, with its traditional allies ready to do less and less to support the Jewish state? Why not embrace the rhetoric of a bi-national state — in the silly spirit of our irresponsible age — where you can plan the destruction of your adversary and make it look like a human-rights crusade?

A bi-national state is just a stage to redress the balance of power between the two conflicting national claims. It would not be the end of the story though but the beginning of another chapter where the Zionist movement would be stripped of its national symbols, its power to control immigration, and its ability to define national security exclusively in the name of the Jewish people. Meanwhile, the keys to the Middle East’s most prosperous economy and most powerful army would have to be handed over to the Palestinians for power-sharing. It would be a stage on the way to fulfilling the dream of obliterating the consequences of the last century of Middle East history.

Fanciful? Maybe, but if you take the long view of history, and the mismatch between the reality of a small shoe-box-size Palestinian state and the dream of a whole “Isratine” is unbearable, it makes perfect sense.

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Joe Klein’s Almost Pathological Love Affairs

Time magazine’s Joe Klein is angry. Again. This time his animus is aimed at the Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami and yours truly. Again. And so, one more time — just for the fun of it — let’s take a look at what is fueling Joe’s fury and see if we can make some sense of it.

Here’s what Klein writes:

But there is another, more troubling and outrageous aspect of the Ajami argument: the conservative fetish about the President’s “self-regard.” Ajami is not alone here. Former Bush Deputy Minister of Propaganda–and now a daily predictor of falling skies and presidential implosions–Pete Wehner referred to Obama’s “pathological self-regard” a few weeks ago. Pathological? Where on earth does that come from? And where on earth does Ajami’s notion that Obama “succumbed” to the “Awaited One” expectations that his followers had of him? Where’s the evidence?

Oh, I dunno. But if I had to pick some examples, I might begin with the fact that (according to the book Game Change) during the campaign Obama surrounded himself with aides who referred to Obama as a “Black Jesus.” Obama didn’t appear to object. Or I might mention Obama’s comment to a Chicago Tribune reporter a few hours before his 2004 convention speech. “I’m LeBron, baby,” Obama said. “I can play on this level. I got some game.” Or I might point people to Obama’s comments made during the campaign, when he said:

I am absolutely certain that, generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless, this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal, this was the moment when we ended a war, and secured our nation, and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.

Let’s see: Jesus, LeBron, and King Canute. That’s quite a threesome.  I won’t even mention Obama’s campaign slogan, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

On second thought, maybe I will.

Perhaps Klein’s unhappiness with Ajami and me is rooted in the fact that, from time to time, Joe succumbs to an almost pathological love affair when it comes to presidents. Well, Democratic presidents, anyway. That was certainly the case with Bill Clinton, at least for a time. In his book All Too Human, George Stephanopoulos, in recounting a Clinton speech during the 1992 campaign, wrote this:

Joe Klein and I took it all in from the back of the room with tears in our eyes – moved by the emotional moment, expectation, and apprehension. Reporters are paid to be dispassionate, but Joe was either smitten with Clinton or doing a smooth job of spinning me. We talked openly and often now, either on the phone or when we hooked up with us on the road. As the paying guests sat down to dinner, we retreated to the basement. The campaign was going so well that we slipped into what Joe called a ‘dark-off,’ whispering fears of  future misfortune like a couple of black-robed crones spitting in the wind to ward off the evil eye. We’re peaking too early. It can’t stay this good. Too tempting a target. What goes up must come down.

“I come from Russian Jews,” Joe said. “Whenever things are good, we start to hear hoofbeats — the Cossacks.”

Fast-forward to the Age of Obama when Klein, in a recent interview with our 44th president, had this blistering exchange:

Klein: Let me ask you one foreign policy question. My sense is that — just my own personal sense, but also from people I talk to — the overall conception of your foreign policy has been absolutely right. Necessary, corrective. Subtle, comprehensive.

Obama: We have a good team.

Klein: But there have been some problems in execution.

Obama: Well, I would not deny that, but let me say that given what’s on our plate — and you know the list. I don’t need to tick them off.

I guess this qualifies as speaking truth to power.

For the record, what Joe reports isn’t quite accurate. I wrote about Obama’s “almost pathological self-regard” in my piece [emphasis added]. (The context was a story in which Representative Marion Berry recounted his meetings with White House officials, reminiscent of some during the Clinton days, Berry said, where he and others urged them not to force Blue Dogs “off into that swamp” of supporting bills that would be unpopular with voters back home. “I’ve been doing that with this White House, and they just don’t seem to give it any credibility at all,” Berry said. “They just kept telling us how good it was going to be. The president himself, when that was brought up in one group, said, ‘Well, the big difference here and in ’94 was you’ve got me.’”)

But on reflection, and in light of Klein’s comments, I do think I phrased things in an inappropriate manner. I probably should have dropped the adverb “almost.”

Time magazine’s Joe Klein is angry. Again. This time his animus is aimed at the Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami and yours truly. Again. And so, one more time — just for the fun of it — let’s take a look at what is fueling Joe’s fury and see if we can make some sense of it.

Here’s what Klein writes:

But there is another, more troubling and outrageous aspect of the Ajami argument: the conservative fetish about the President’s “self-regard.” Ajami is not alone here. Former Bush Deputy Minister of Propaganda–and now a daily predictor of falling skies and presidential implosions–Pete Wehner referred to Obama’s “pathological self-regard” a few weeks ago. Pathological? Where on earth does that come from? And where on earth does Ajami’s notion that Obama “succumbed” to the “Awaited One” expectations that his followers had of him? Where’s the evidence?

Oh, I dunno. But if I had to pick some examples, I might begin with the fact that (according to the book Game Change) during the campaign Obama surrounded himself with aides who referred to Obama as a “Black Jesus.” Obama didn’t appear to object. Or I might mention Obama’s comment to a Chicago Tribune reporter a few hours before his 2004 convention speech. “I’m LeBron, baby,” Obama said. “I can play on this level. I got some game.” Or I might point people to Obama’s comments made during the campaign, when he said:

I am absolutely certain that, generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless, this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal, this was the moment when we ended a war, and secured our nation, and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.

Let’s see: Jesus, LeBron, and King Canute. That’s quite a threesome.  I won’t even mention Obama’s campaign slogan, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

On second thought, maybe I will.

Perhaps Klein’s unhappiness with Ajami and me is rooted in the fact that, from time to time, Joe succumbs to an almost pathological love affair when it comes to presidents. Well, Democratic presidents, anyway. That was certainly the case with Bill Clinton, at least for a time. In his book All Too Human, George Stephanopoulos, in recounting a Clinton speech during the 1992 campaign, wrote this:

Joe Klein and I took it all in from the back of the room with tears in our eyes – moved by the emotional moment, expectation, and apprehension. Reporters are paid to be dispassionate, but Joe was either smitten with Clinton or doing a smooth job of spinning me. We talked openly and often now, either on the phone or when we hooked up with us on the road. As the paying guests sat down to dinner, we retreated to the basement. The campaign was going so well that we slipped into what Joe called a ‘dark-off,’ whispering fears of  future misfortune like a couple of black-robed crones spitting in the wind to ward off the evil eye. We’re peaking too early. It can’t stay this good. Too tempting a target. What goes up must come down.

“I come from Russian Jews,” Joe said. “Whenever things are good, we start to hear hoofbeats — the Cossacks.”

Fast-forward to the Age of Obama when Klein, in a recent interview with our 44th president, had this blistering exchange:

Klein: Let me ask you one foreign policy question. My sense is that — just my own personal sense, but also from people I talk to — the overall conception of your foreign policy has been absolutely right. Necessary, corrective. Subtle, comprehensive.

Obama: We have a good team.

Klein: But there have been some problems in execution.

Obama: Well, I would not deny that, but let me say that given what’s on our plate — and you know the list. I don’t need to tick them off.

I guess this qualifies as speaking truth to power.

For the record, what Joe reports isn’t quite accurate. I wrote about Obama’s “almost pathological self-regard” in my piece [emphasis added]. (The context was a story in which Representative Marion Berry recounted his meetings with White House officials, reminiscent of some during the Clinton days, Berry said, where he and others urged them not to force Blue Dogs “off into that swamp” of supporting bills that would be unpopular with voters back home. “I’ve been doing that with this White House, and they just don’t seem to give it any credibility at all,” Berry said. “They just kept telling us how good it was going to be. The president himself, when that was brought up in one group, said, ‘Well, the big difference here and in ’94 was you’ve got me.’”)

But on reflection, and in light of Klein’s comments, I do think I phrased things in an inappropriate manner. I probably should have dropped the adverb “almost.”

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Our Place In the World

Barack Obama rode into office promising to “restore our place in the world.” Many thought this meant that Obama intended to elevate America’s profile, make us more popular and more effective, and soothe the feelings of hurt allies. But “our place in the world,” it has turned out, means a smaller place from which a less confident and assertive America simply “bears witness” as events swirl around us.

In a must-read piece, Fouad Ajami argues persuasively that Obama would rather we do less in the world and turn our attention to his quite radical plans for refashioning America. He writes of the Obama mindset:

We’re weary, the disillusioned liberalism maintains, and we’re broke, and there are those millions of Americans aching for health care and an economic lifeline. We can’t care for both Ohio and the Anbar, Peoria and Peshawar. It is either those embattled people in Iran or a rescue package for Chrysler.

The joke is on the enthralled crowds in Cairo, Ankara, Berlin and Oslo. The new American president they had fallen for had no genuine calling or attachments abroad. In their enthusiasm for Mr. Obama, and their eagerness to proclaim themselves at one with the postracial meaning of his election, they had missed his aloofness from the genuine struggles in the foreign world.

The catch in all this is that America’s retreat and equivocation neither keeps our enemies at bay nor frees the president to focus on the home front. To the contrary, our foes become emboldened and the dangers rage. As Ajami observes: “History and its furies have their logic, and they have not bent to Mr. Obama’s will. He had declared a unilateral end to the ‘war on terror,’ but the jihadists and their mentors are yet to call their war to a halt. From Yemen to Fort Hood and Detroit, the terror continues.” And while Obama is obsessed with half-a-loaf policies (e.g., surge in Afghanistan but with a deadline, sanctions in Iran but just little bitty ones) our adversaries in Afghanistan, Iran, Yemen, North Korea, Syria, and elsewhere remain unimpressed, if not emboldened, by what appears to be irresolution, not “nuance,” and hesitancy, not “smart diplomacy.”

So after nearly a year, what has Obama accomplished? The world is no less dangerous, our allies (Britain, Israel, Honduras, Poland, and the Czech Republic, among others) are not cheered, and America has made it clear to human-rights activists and their oppressors that there is little this administration is willing to say (and even less it is willing to do) to advance democracy and freedom. The result? Ajami sums up: “We’re smaller for accepting that false choice between burdens at home and burdens abroad, and the world beyond our shores is more hazardous and cynical for our retrenchment and our self-flagellation.”

Anxious conservatives keep waiting for the “Ah ha!” moment when Obama will recognize the folly of his effort to turn away from the demands of a dangerous world, will instead embrace American exceptionalism, and unabashedly assert American values and interests. Yet he continues to nibble around the edges of an effective foreign policy. He drops the more ludicrous gambits (e.g., backing Hugo Chavez’s flunky in Honduras and demanding a unilateral settlement freeze by Israel) but has yet to match action with revised rhetoric. He continues to do the least possible when the most is required. His idea of America’s place in the world seems not so majestic as some had imagined. And the world, as a result, is more dangerous, and America is less enamored and respected. Alas, it is not at all what was promised.

Barack Obama rode into office promising to “restore our place in the world.” Many thought this meant that Obama intended to elevate America’s profile, make us more popular and more effective, and soothe the feelings of hurt allies. But “our place in the world,” it has turned out, means a smaller place from which a less confident and assertive America simply “bears witness” as events swirl around us.

In a must-read piece, Fouad Ajami argues persuasively that Obama would rather we do less in the world and turn our attention to his quite radical plans for refashioning America. He writes of the Obama mindset:

We’re weary, the disillusioned liberalism maintains, and we’re broke, and there are those millions of Americans aching for health care and an economic lifeline. We can’t care for both Ohio and the Anbar, Peoria and Peshawar. It is either those embattled people in Iran or a rescue package for Chrysler.

The joke is on the enthralled crowds in Cairo, Ankara, Berlin and Oslo. The new American president they had fallen for had no genuine calling or attachments abroad. In their enthusiasm for Mr. Obama, and their eagerness to proclaim themselves at one with the postracial meaning of his election, they had missed his aloofness from the genuine struggles in the foreign world.

The catch in all this is that America’s retreat and equivocation neither keeps our enemies at bay nor frees the president to focus on the home front. To the contrary, our foes become emboldened and the dangers rage. As Ajami observes: “History and its furies have their logic, and they have not bent to Mr. Obama’s will. He had declared a unilateral end to the ‘war on terror,’ but the jihadists and their mentors are yet to call their war to a halt. From Yemen to Fort Hood and Detroit, the terror continues.” And while Obama is obsessed with half-a-loaf policies (e.g., surge in Afghanistan but with a deadline, sanctions in Iran but just little bitty ones) our adversaries in Afghanistan, Iran, Yemen, North Korea, Syria, and elsewhere remain unimpressed, if not emboldened, by what appears to be irresolution, not “nuance,” and hesitancy, not “smart diplomacy.”

So after nearly a year, what has Obama accomplished? The world is no less dangerous, our allies (Britain, Israel, Honduras, Poland, and the Czech Republic, among others) are not cheered, and America has made it clear to human-rights activists and their oppressors that there is little this administration is willing to say (and even less it is willing to do) to advance democracy and freedom. The result? Ajami sums up: “We’re smaller for accepting that false choice between burdens at home and burdens abroad, and the world beyond our shores is more hazardous and cynical for our retrenchment and our self-flagellation.”

Anxious conservatives keep waiting for the “Ah ha!” moment when Obama will recognize the folly of his effort to turn away from the demands of a dangerous world, will instead embrace American exceptionalism, and unabashedly assert American values and interests. Yet he continues to nibble around the edges of an effective foreign policy. He drops the more ludicrous gambits (e.g., backing Hugo Chavez’s flunky in Honduras and demanding a unilateral settlement freeze by Israel) but has yet to match action with revised rhetoric. He continues to do the least possible when the most is required. His idea of America’s place in the world seems not so majestic as some had imagined. And the world, as a result, is more dangerous, and America is less enamored and respected. Alas, it is not at all what was promised.

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A Fighting Chance

The decision President Obama made was better than the speech he gave. What will matter, long after his address is forgotten, is that Barack Obama gave Generals McChrystal and Petraeus, two of our greatest military minds, the troops (30,000, plus additional allied troops) and strategy (counterinsurgency) they need to prevail in Afghanistan.

To the president’s credit, this is the second wave of troops he has sent to Afghanistan (in February, he approved sending 17,000). Mr. Obama, in siding with McChrystal and Petraeus, wisely ignored the counsel of his vice president, Joe Biden, whose 35-year track record on national-security matters is an almost unbroken string of unwise decisions. And the president made a decision that puts him at odds with his liberal/left-wing base, which seems as eager to lose in Afghanistan as it was eager to lose in Iraq.

As for the understandable concern some people have about Obama’s 18-month time line: it is, at least for now, less worrisome than it might appear. In his speech, Obama said we will “begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground.” That is a key caveat; if conditions on the ground change, Obama has left himself plenty of room to revisit his decision. Nothing is etched in stone. Read More

The decision President Obama made was better than the speech he gave. What will matter, long after his address is forgotten, is that Barack Obama gave Generals McChrystal and Petraeus, two of our greatest military minds, the troops (30,000, plus additional allied troops) and strategy (counterinsurgency) they need to prevail in Afghanistan.

To the president’s credit, this is the second wave of troops he has sent to Afghanistan (in February, he approved sending 17,000). Mr. Obama, in siding with McChrystal and Petraeus, wisely ignored the counsel of his vice president, Joe Biden, whose 35-year track record on national-security matters is an almost unbroken string of unwise decisions. And the president made a decision that puts him at odds with his liberal/left-wing base, which seems as eager to lose in Afghanistan as it was eager to lose in Iraq.

As for the understandable concern some people have about Obama’s 18-month time line: it is, at least for now, less worrisome than it might appear. In his speech, Obama said we will “begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground.” That is a key caveat; if conditions on the ground change, Obama has left himself plenty of room to revisit his decision. Nothing is etched in stone.

The president wisely backed away from bashing President Karzai, which at this point would only have been counterproductive. The focus on Pakistan was appropriate and intelligently stated. There was a degree of realism and candor about the situation that was impressive. Obama skillfully dispatched some of the concerns about his policy. And the president did something that was, for him, rare: he spoke about human rights and American achievements in a manner that was less than grudging.

At the same time, the speech did almost nothing to advance the public’s understanding of what is at the core of a counterinsurgency (as opposed to a counterterrorism) strategy. Obama’s remarks were also another instance of his being ungracious and unfair to his predecessor. You would think that given Obama’s haplessness on a whole range of foreign-policy issues, he would begin to show a smidgen of humility. Not a chance. In addition, the West Point address was far too self-referential and self-justifying, invoking imaginary achievements (such as forging a “new beginning between America and the Muslim World”; Fouad Ajami explodes that myth here). We were reminded by Obama, several times, that “I do not make this decision [to deploy additional troops] lightly.” Nor, he could have added, did he make it expeditiously. And the address included paragraphs that President Bush used to call “cram-ins” — in this instance, a poll-tested section on the economy that was undoubtedly put in by political advisers and that did a fine job of breaking the flow of the speech.

The most worrisome thing about last night, though, is that Obama’s statement that “our resolve [is] unwavering” came across as words on parchment rather than a deep, unwavering commitment. Will he hold shape if the summer of 2010 turns out to be a difficult and bloody one, as it may very well be? I hope so, and I choose to believe so. Will he continue to make the case for this war publicly and repeatedly, to explain to the citizenry why this conflict is worth waging and winning? We shall see. These are open questions. But one cannot help but get the sense that Obama is dealing with Afghanistan only with great reluctance, that he views it as an unwelcome distraction from his domestic agenda. He does not seem to view this war in the context of any great cause, whether it is the liberation of captive peoples or prevailing against men of almost unimaginable cruelty and malevolence. The president came across last night as clinical and detached, somewhat distant and weary. He seemed to be reporting to the nation rather than trying to rally it. You do not sense that this is a man whose heart has been touched by fire.

In the end, though, Obama’s decision will, I think, turn out to be far more important than his words. Having been given the tools, the exceptionally skilled McChrystal and Petraeus, backed up by the greatest fighting force on earth, can finish the job. They at least have a fighting chance, thanks to their commander in chief. At this juncture, that’s about as much as they, and we, could ask for.

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The Unmasking of Barack Obama

The overseas reviews for President Obama’s foreign policy are starting to pour in — and they’re not favorable. Bob Ainsworth, the British defense secretary, has blamed Obama for the decline in British public support for the war in Afghanistan. According to the Telegraph:

Mr. Ainsworth took the unprecedented step of publicly criticizing the U.S. President and his delays in sending more troops to bolster the mission against the Taliban. A “period of hiatus” in Washington — and a lack of clear direction — had made it harder for ministers to persuade the British public to go on backing the Afghan mission in the face of a rising death toll, he said. Senior British Government sources have become increasingly frustrated with Mr. Obama’s “dithering” on Afghanistan, the Daily Telegraph disclosed earlier this month, with several former British defense chiefs echoing the concerns.

The President is “Obama the Impotent,” according to Steven Hill of the Guardian. The Economist calls Obama the “Pacific (and pussyfooting) president.” The Financial Times refers to “relations between the U.S. and Europe, which started the year of talks as allies, near breakdown.” The German magazine Der Spiegel accuses the president of being “dishonest with Europe” on the subject of climate change. Another withering piece in Der Spiegel, titled “Obama’s Nice Guy Act Gets Him Nowhere on the World Stage,” lists the instances in which Obama is being rolled. The Jerusalem Post puts it this way: “Everybody is saying no to the American president these days. And it’s not just that they’re saying no, it’s also the way they’re saying no.” “He talks too much,” a Saudi academic who had once been smitten with Barack Obama tells the Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami. The Saudi “has wearied of Mr. Obama and now does not bother with the Obama oratory,” according to Ajami. But “he is hardly alone, this academic. In the endless chatter of this region, and in the commentaries offered by the press, the theme is one of disappointment. In the Arab-Islamic world, Barack Obama has come down to earth.”

Indeed he has — and only Obama and his increasingly clueless administration seem unaware of this. Read More

The overseas reviews for President Obama’s foreign policy are starting to pour in — and they’re not favorable. Bob Ainsworth, the British defense secretary, has blamed Obama for the decline in British public support for the war in Afghanistan. According to the Telegraph:

Mr. Ainsworth took the unprecedented step of publicly criticizing the U.S. President and his delays in sending more troops to bolster the mission against the Taliban. A “period of hiatus” in Washington — and a lack of clear direction — had made it harder for ministers to persuade the British public to go on backing the Afghan mission in the face of a rising death toll, he said. Senior British Government sources have become increasingly frustrated with Mr. Obama’s “dithering” on Afghanistan, the Daily Telegraph disclosed earlier this month, with several former British defense chiefs echoing the concerns.

The President is “Obama the Impotent,” according to Steven Hill of the Guardian. The Economist calls Obama the “Pacific (and pussyfooting) president.” The Financial Times refers to “relations between the U.S. and Europe, which started the year of talks as allies, near breakdown.” The German magazine Der Spiegel accuses the president of being “dishonest with Europe” on the subject of climate change. Another withering piece in Der Spiegel, titled “Obama’s Nice Guy Act Gets Him Nowhere on the World Stage,” lists the instances in which Obama is being rolled. The Jerusalem Post puts it this way: “Everybody is saying no to the American president these days. And it’s not just that they’re saying no, it’s also the way they’re saying no.” “He talks too much,” a Saudi academic who had once been smitten with Barack Obama tells the Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami. The Saudi “has wearied of Mr. Obama and now does not bother with the Obama oratory,” according to Ajami. But “he is hardly alone, this academic. In the endless chatter of this region, and in the commentaries offered by the press, the theme is one of disappointment. In the Arab-Islamic world, Barack Obama has come down to earth.”

Indeed he has — and only Obama and his increasingly clueless administration seem unaware of this.

On almost every front, progress is nonexistent. In many instances, things are getting worse rather than better. The enormous goodwill that Obama’s election was met with hasn’t been leveraged into anything useful and tangible. Rather, our allies are now questioning America’s will, while our adversaries are becoming increasingly emboldened. The United States looks weak and uncertain. It’s “amateur hour at the White House,” according to Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former official in the Carter administration. “Not only are things not getting fixed, they may be getting more broken,” according to Michael Hirsh at Newsweek. When even such strong Obama supporters as Gelb and Hirsh reach these conclusions, you know things must be unraveling.

It’s no mystery as to why. President Obama’s approach to international relations is simplistic and misguided. It is premised on the belief that American concessions to our adversaries will beget goodwill and concessions in return; that American self-abasement is justified; that the American decline is inevitable (and in some respects welcome); and that diplomacy and multilateralism are ends rather than means to an end.

Right now the overwhelming issue on the public’s mind is the economy, where Obama is also having serious problems. But national-security issues matter a great deal, and they remain the unique responsibility of the president. With every passing month, Barack Obama looks more and more like his Democratic predecessor Jimmy Carter: irresolute, unsteady, and overmatched. The president and members of his own party will find out soon enough, though, that Obama the Impotent isn’t what they had in mind when they elected him. We are witnessing the unmasking, and perhaps the unmaking, of Barack Obama.

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