Commentary Magazine


Topic: Kiev

Egypt: Why America Can’t Work to Prevent Change

What is happening in the streets of Egypt is not about the United States or its relation to Hosni Mubarak. The drama has to do with life inside Egypt after 30 years of Mubarak’s autocratic rule, which was preceded by 30 years of similarly autocratic rule by Nasser and Sadat. And yet there seems to be an idea, which one can find suggested in the latest writings of Caroline Glick and Stanley Kurtz, among others, that the United States might have played a crucial role in preventing what appears to be the inevitable Mubarak ouster — and that the U.S. is thereby acceding to the takeover of Egypt by a government that will make the region less safe, less hospitable to us, and of greater danger to Israel.

That may all be so. But it doesn’t actually matter as a practical reality. Kurtz and Glick and some others are, I think, guilty of reiterating a great foreign-policy fallacy, which is that the United States has the power to control the outcomes of large-scale events in faraway lands even when it does not have a direct hand to play with troops and planes and bombs.

Where is the evidence that the United States has a role to play in the prevention of change? Recent history suggests that our only really effective role when it comes to change is when we involve ourselves in hastening it, as we did with assassinations in the 1950s and 1960s, or by choosing sides with the forces of change, as we did in the 1980s in places as various as El Salvador and the Philippines and in the 1990s in Haiti and Bosnia.

Think of the times we have attempted to slow down or impede change. We did in Iran in the late 1970s in a way that came a terrible cropper. We did again, to our shame, at the beginning of the 1990s, when “Chicken Kiev” Bush tried to slam the brakes on the dissolution of the Soviet Empire. And is anyone happy with the way the Obama administration handled the post-election revolt in Iran in 2009?

The implicit notion in these analyses is that the United States should be backing Mubarak to the hilt so that he could put down the revolt before the Muslim Brotherhood takes over. But aside from the highly questionable proposition that our encouragement and support would change the balance of forces in Mubarak’s favor, doing any such thing is akin to suggesting that we ignore the forces of gravity. It is unrealistic in the most basic sense. It is written into the DNA of the United States that, when push comes to shove, we cannot support the forces of tyranny over mass protest.

Hardheaded choices must be made at times, and indeed have been made at times, especially when the options were a regime friendly to the United States vs. a regime that would have been friendly to the Soviet Union. But those choices did not come at moments of flash-point crisis, with a regime’s legitimacy crumbling before the world’s eyes. And they didn’t come at a time when worldwide instant communications make it impossible for the regime to black out the evidence of its suppression.

In warning us not to view the goings-on with unwarranted optimism, those expressing profound concern about what will come next in Egypt are performing a great service. We are heading into rough waters that had been largely stilled in recent decades. But that is why, perhaps, they should have been more supportive of the idea that Mubarak and others should have been pushed toward democratic reform so that the transition to change might have been managed rather than simply observed powerlessly as it turns into a runaway steamroller.

What is happening in the streets of Egypt is not about the United States or its relation to Hosni Mubarak. The drama has to do with life inside Egypt after 30 years of Mubarak’s autocratic rule, which was preceded by 30 years of similarly autocratic rule by Nasser and Sadat. And yet there seems to be an idea, which one can find suggested in the latest writings of Caroline Glick and Stanley Kurtz, among others, that the United States might have played a crucial role in preventing what appears to be the inevitable Mubarak ouster — and that the U.S. is thereby acceding to the takeover of Egypt by a government that will make the region less safe, less hospitable to us, and of greater danger to Israel.

That may all be so. But it doesn’t actually matter as a practical reality. Kurtz and Glick and some others are, I think, guilty of reiterating a great foreign-policy fallacy, which is that the United States has the power to control the outcomes of large-scale events in faraway lands even when it does not have a direct hand to play with troops and planes and bombs.

Where is the evidence that the United States has a role to play in the prevention of change? Recent history suggests that our only really effective role when it comes to change is when we involve ourselves in hastening it, as we did with assassinations in the 1950s and 1960s, or by choosing sides with the forces of change, as we did in the 1980s in places as various as El Salvador and the Philippines and in the 1990s in Haiti and Bosnia.

Think of the times we have attempted to slow down or impede change. We did in Iran in the late 1970s in a way that came a terrible cropper. We did again, to our shame, at the beginning of the 1990s, when “Chicken Kiev” Bush tried to slam the brakes on the dissolution of the Soviet Empire. And is anyone happy with the way the Obama administration handled the post-election revolt in Iran in 2009?

The implicit notion in these analyses is that the United States should be backing Mubarak to the hilt so that he could put down the revolt before the Muslim Brotherhood takes over. But aside from the highly questionable proposition that our encouragement and support would change the balance of forces in Mubarak’s favor, doing any such thing is akin to suggesting that we ignore the forces of gravity. It is unrealistic in the most basic sense. It is written into the DNA of the United States that, when push comes to shove, we cannot support the forces of tyranny over mass protest.

Hardheaded choices must be made at times, and indeed have been made at times, especially when the options were a regime friendly to the United States vs. a regime that would have been friendly to the Soviet Union. But those choices did not come at moments of flash-point crisis, with a regime’s legitimacy crumbling before the world’s eyes. And they didn’t come at a time when worldwide instant communications make it impossible for the regime to black out the evidence of its suppression.

In warning us not to view the goings-on with unwarranted optimism, those expressing profound concern about what will come next in Egypt are performing a great service. We are heading into rough waters that had been largely stilled in recent decades. But that is why, perhaps, they should have been more supportive of the idea that Mubarak and others should have been pushed toward democratic reform so that the transition to change might have been managed rather than simply observed powerlessly as it turns into a runaway steamroller.

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Obama’s Moment to Redefine the Modern Middle East

Somehow it’s hard to get too worked up about the formalized rituals of the State of the Union when real news is happening half a world away. In the Middle East, revolutions, for good and for ill, are breaking out, while back in Washington, President Obama is touting the latest clean-energy boondoggles. All he had to say about the ongoing, exciting events was one line: “the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of the people.” What about the people of Lebanon? Or of Egypt? Don’t they deserve support too? And don’t the Tunisians battling for democracy against the security forces of the old regime deserve more than a throwaway line near the end of an hour-long address?

It is quite possible, even likely, that recent upheavals will amount to little. Many people, myself included, got our hopes up in 2005 when the Cedar Revolution overthrew Syrian domination in Lebanon and the people of Iraq turned out in droves to vote. Those hopes were swiftly dashed; indeed, this week the representative of the Cedar Revolution, Saad Hariri, ignominiously lost the prime minister’s job as Hezbollah and its patrons in Syria and Iran flexed their muscles. But it is also possible — not likely but possible — that the toppling of the Tunisian regime could have a ripple effect in this sclerotic region. This could be the most important moment for American diplomacy since the toppling of the Berlin Wall.

Certainly there is little precedent for the mass outpouring of protest in Egypt against the Mubarak regime, which is just as decrepit as was the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia. The stakes in Egypt, however, are much higher, given that it’s much bigger than Tunisia and has a much larger, active Muslim Brotherhood that could take advantage of chaos to seize power.

At a moment like this, it would be comforting to see in the Oval Office an old diplomatic hand like George H.W. Bush — and I say this as someone who was never a big fan of the elder Bush. I do think, however, that despite some missteps (google the Chicken Kiev speech if you’re under 40), he did a brilliant job of managing a volatile situation. I do not mean to slight the contributions of brave dissidents or even of Mikhail Gorbachev, but nevertheless, the creation of democracies across Eastern Europe is in substantial measure the legacy of Ronald Reagan and his predecessors going back to Truman, who confronted the “evil empire,” and of Bush the Elder, who skillfully managed its dissolution. Read More

Somehow it’s hard to get too worked up about the formalized rituals of the State of the Union when real news is happening half a world away. In the Middle East, revolutions, for good and for ill, are breaking out, while back in Washington, President Obama is touting the latest clean-energy boondoggles. All he had to say about the ongoing, exciting events was one line: “the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of the people.” What about the people of Lebanon? Or of Egypt? Don’t they deserve support too? And don’t the Tunisians battling for democracy against the security forces of the old regime deserve more than a throwaway line near the end of an hour-long address?

It is quite possible, even likely, that recent upheavals will amount to little. Many people, myself included, got our hopes up in 2005 when the Cedar Revolution overthrew Syrian domination in Lebanon and the people of Iraq turned out in droves to vote. Those hopes were swiftly dashed; indeed, this week the representative of the Cedar Revolution, Saad Hariri, ignominiously lost the prime minister’s job as Hezbollah and its patrons in Syria and Iran flexed their muscles. But it is also possible — not likely but possible — that the toppling of the Tunisian regime could have a ripple effect in this sclerotic region. This could be the most important moment for American diplomacy since the toppling of the Berlin Wall.

Certainly there is little precedent for the mass outpouring of protest in Egypt against the Mubarak regime, which is just as decrepit as was the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia. The stakes in Egypt, however, are much higher, given that it’s much bigger than Tunisia and has a much larger, active Muslim Brotherhood that could take advantage of chaos to seize power.

At a moment like this, it would be comforting to see in the Oval Office an old diplomatic hand like George H.W. Bush — and I say this as someone who was never a big fan of the elder Bush. I do think, however, that despite some missteps (google the Chicken Kiev speech if you’re under 40), he did a brilliant job of managing a volatile situation. I do not mean to slight the contributions of brave dissidents or even of Mikhail Gorbachev, but nevertheless, the creation of democracies across Eastern Europe is in substantial measure the legacy of Ronald Reagan and his predecessors going back to Truman, who confronted the “evil empire,” and of Bush the Elder, who skillfully managed its dissolution.

Unfortunately, instead of someone like Bush, who had served as an ambassador, CIA director, and vice president, we have in the Oval Office a president with no foreign-policy credentials. This president seems to think that the entire region revolves around the moribund Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” Already Obama missed a crucial opportunity in the summer of 2009 to encourage the Green Revolution in Iran. Let us hope that will be a learning experience. This time around, we need a president fully engaged in the moment — a president who will speak for the aspirations of the people of the Middle East (more than one line, please), while also working to provide a soft landing for longtime dictators and to ensure that radicals don’t seize power.

For all his lack of experience, Obama is no newcomer to the job. He is a fast learner, and he has a gift for rhetoric the likes of which always eluded George H.W. Bush. This may very well be his moment: the moment for redefining the modern Middle East. He should seize it — if he’s not too distracted with the domestic priorities that as usual dominated the State of the Union.

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Obama’s Role Model?

David Brooks reports today that, like a lot of other Democrats, Barack Obama has become a born-again believer in the presidency of George H.W. Bush. The Democratic candidate tells Brooks: “I have enormous sympathy for the foreign policy of George H. W. Bush. I don’t have a lot of complaints about their handling of Desert Storm. I don’t have a lot of complaints with their handling of the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

This new-found admiration conveniently overlooks some decisions by the elder President Bush that were roundly and correctly criticized at the time by many liberals as well as conservatives: decisions such as the botched aftermath of the Gulf War, which resulted in Shiites and Kurds getting slaughtered after they heeded the President’s call to rise up; the notorious “Chicken Kiev” speech in which he urged Ukrainians to remain part of a dissolving Soviet Union; and the failure to intervene in Bosnia.

Instead, Obama focuses on a couple of the high points of the Bush presidency, even though the elder Bush’s realpolitik doctrine was as responsible for his failures as for his successes. But even taking Obama’s compliments at face value, how likely is it that he could or would replicate such achievements?

Although everyone supported Operation Desert Storm after its success became evident, it was a different story when Bush asked Congress to authorize the mission. Even after winning United Nations approval, he had trouble getting a Democrat-dominated Congress to sign off. The vote in favor of the war resolution was 52-47 in the Senate, with 45 Democrats voting nay. Only 10 Democrats voted for the resolution, mostly conservative Southerners. Even such moderates as Sam Nunn opposed the use of force. How likely is it that if Barack Obama-the most liberal member of the Senate last year-had been in the Senate that year that he would have voted for the resolution?

As for the other Bush administration achievement that he cites-“their handling of the fall of the Berlin Wall”-that was made possible by the long personal experience and contacts built up by the President over the course of many years on the international stage as an ambassador to China and the UN, CIA director, and vice president. That allowed Bush to conduct adroit diplomacy with Helmut Kohl, Mikhail Gorbachev, and other world leaders. Obama has almost no experience in international affairs beyond having lived in Indonesia as a child; certainly he has never held a job in any field related to foreign affairs before entering the Senate three years ago. Granted, he is charming and charismatic. But what are the odds that he can replicate the kind of skilled diplomacy pursued by an old hand like George H.W. Bush?

The more likely comparison is not to Bush but to two previous Democratic nominees who had no experience in foreign policy before entering the White House: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. In both cases they learned on the job and gradually improved, but the world paid a high price for their stumbles from Iran (Carter) to Somalia (Clinton).

David Brooks reports today that, like a lot of other Democrats, Barack Obama has become a born-again believer in the presidency of George H.W. Bush. The Democratic candidate tells Brooks: “I have enormous sympathy for the foreign policy of George H. W. Bush. I don’t have a lot of complaints about their handling of Desert Storm. I don’t have a lot of complaints with their handling of the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

This new-found admiration conveniently overlooks some decisions by the elder President Bush that were roundly and correctly criticized at the time by many liberals as well as conservatives: decisions such as the botched aftermath of the Gulf War, which resulted in Shiites and Kurds getting slaughtered after they heeded the President’s call to rise up; the notorious “Chicken Kiev” speech in which he urged Ukrainians to remain part of a dissolving Soviet Union; and the failure to intervene in Bosnia.

Instead, Obama focuses on a couple of the high points of the Bush presidency, even though the elder Bush’s realpolitik doctrine was as responsible for his failures as for his successes. But even taking Obama’s compliments at face value, how likely is it that he could or would replicate such achievements?

Although everyone supported Operation Desert Storm after its success became evident, it was a different story when Bush asked Congress to authorize the mission. Even after winning United Nations approval, he had trouble getting a Democrat-dominated Congress to sign off. The vote in favor of the war resolution was 52-47 in the Senate, with 45 Democrats voting nay. Only 10 Democrats voted for the resolution, mostly conservative Southerners. Even such moderates as Sam Nunn opposed the use of force. How likely is it that if Barack Obama-the most liberal member of the Senate last year-had been in the Senate that year that he would have voted for the resolution?

As for the other Bush administration achievement that he cites-“their handling of the fall of the Berlin Wall”-that was made possible by the long personal experience and contacts built up by the President over the course of many years on the international stage as an ambassador to China and the UN, CIA director, and vice president. That allowed Bush to conduct adroit diplomacy with Helmut Kohl, Mikhail Gorbachev, and other world leaders. Obama has almost no experience in international affairs beyond having lived in Indonesia as a child; certainly he has never held a job in any field related to foreign affairs before entering the Senate three years ago. Granted, he is charming and charismatic. But what are the odds that he can replicate the kind of skilled diplomacy pursued by an old hand like George H.W. Bush?

The more likely comparison is not to Bush but to two previous Democratic nominees who had no experience in foreign policy before entering the White House: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. In both cases they learned on the job and gradually improved, but the world paid a high price for their stumbles from Iran (Carter) to Somalia (Clinton).

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Russia Threatens Europe–Again

Dmitry Medvedev, who will become Russia’s next president on May 7, warned NATO about admitting two former Soviet republics. “We are not happy about the situation around Georgia and Ukraine,” he said in an interview published yesterday in the Financial Times. “We consider that it is extremely troublesome for the existing structure of European security.”

Whether troublesome to Europe or not, the two nations want the grand alliance to grant them a Membership Action Plan, the first step to admission. The United States is in favor of taking them on board. President Bush met with his Georgian counterpart last week in Washington and will travel to Kiev before attending the NATO summit in Bucharest, scheduled for the first week of next month. Putin said he will also attend the summit, but he may back out to show displeasure if the alliance proceeds with admitting the pair.

So should we poke Russia in the eye over Georgia and Ukraine? As Medvedev said to the FT, “No state can be pleased about having representatives of a military bloc to which it does not belong coming close to its borders.” Yes, Dmitry, but it’s not our fault that your nation is not a member. “NATO’s position is quite clear: democratic states in Europe have the right to aspire to, and work towards, NATO membership,” said a spokesman for the organization in Brussels. “It is their choice, not NATO’s.” Moscow is in Europe, and, if I understand the above spokesman rightly, can join. All it has to do is become a democracy—and stop threatening its neighbors. Russian admission, in short, is in the hands of the Kremlin.

Until Russia makes itself eligible for membership, NATO nations should ignore its threats and admit the two former Soviet republics. Despite what Medvedev says, it will be good for European security.

Dmitry Medvedev, who will become Russia’s next president on May 7, warned NATO about admitting two former Soviet republics. “We are not happy about the situation around Georgia and Ukraine,” he said in an interview published yesterday in the Financial Times. “We consider that it is extremely troublesome for the existing structure of European security.”

Whether troublesome to Europe or not, the two nations want the grand alliance to grant them a Membership Action Plan, the first step to admission. The United States is in favor of taking them on board. President Bush met with his Georgian counterpart last week in Washington and will travel to Kiev before attending the NATO summit in Bucharest, scheduled for the first week of next month. Putin said he will also attend the summit, but he may back out to show displeasure if the alliance proceeds with admitting the pair.

So should we poke Russia in the eye over Georgia and Ukraine? As Medvedev said to the FT, “No state can be pleased about having representatives of a military bloc to which it does not belong coming close to its borders.” Yes, Dmitry, but it’s not our fault that your nation is not a member. “NATO’s position is quite clear: democratic states in Europe have the right to aspire to, and work towards, NATO membership,” said a spokesman for the organization in Brussels. “It is their choice, not NATO’s.” Moscow is in Europe, and, if I understand the above spokesman rightly, can join. All it has to do is become a democracy—and stop threatening its neighbors. Russian admission, in short, is in the hands of the Kremlin.

Until Russia makes itself eligible for membership, NATO nations should ignore its threats and admit the two former Soviet republics. Despite what Medvedev says, it will be good for European security.

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Bookshelf

• Why are so many Americans unaware that Joseph Stalin was as brutal, systematic and effective a killer as Adolf Hitler? One reason is because so much of the Old Left looked the other way at Stalin’s nefarious activities, and was unwilling later on to admit that it had done so. Another is that the Soviet Union remained a closed society long after the killing stopped, making it vastly more difficult for interested Westerners to study the Great Terror in the way that the Holocaust became a subject of detailed historical inquiry. As a result, we know far more about the individual innocents who died in the Holocaust than about those who were murdered at Stalin’s command.

Will this situation continue? Now that the Old Left is dying out, it has become somewhat more acceptable for American academics to study the Great Terror and report on it in a straightforward way, which doubtless explains the publication of The Voices of the Dead: Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s (Yale, 295 pp., $30), a new book by Hiroaki Kuromiya, a professor of history at Indiana University. For the past several years, Kuromiya has been examining the files of the secret police in Kiev, which in the 30’s was the Soviet Union’s third-largest city. (Now it is part of the independent state of Ukraine, whose rulers are more willing than their opposite numbers in Moscow to let outsiders study what Stalin wrought.) Like all bureaucrats, the killers of Kiev kept detailed records of their activities, right down to the late-night death warrants that were signed minutes before their prisoners were hustled out of their cells, shot in the nape of the neck and dumped into mass graves. In order to write The Voices of the Dead, Kuromiya examined the surviving dossiers of several dozen victims of the Great Terror, paying special attention to the handwritten notes in which official interrogators recorded the results of their attempts to extract confessions out of their prisoners prior to having them executed. The result is a book whose deliberate flatness of tone does not make it any less sickening.

Kuromiya’s own description of The Voices of the Dead is no less eloquent in its plainness:

The present book is a modest attempt to allow some of those executed in 1937-38 a voice. The focus is on individuals, in particular those whose lives meant absolutely nothing to Stalin: innocent people who were swept up in the maelstrom of political terror he unleashed. Most of the people discussed here are “unremarkable”: they left no conspicuous imprint on history. . . . Stalin was certain that no one would remember them. The “all-conquering power of Bolshevism” condemned them to oblivion, but it could not suppress their voices completely. Ironically, Stalin’s efforts to extinguish their voices helped preserve them, in the depths of their case files.

The people we meet in The Voices of the Dead are indeed “utterly unknown, ‘ordinary’ Soviet citizens: workers, peasants, homemakers, teachers, priests, musicians, soldiers, pensioners, ballerinas, beggars.” All they had in common was that they ran afoul of Stalin’s killing machine. Many appear to have been tortured before being sent to the execution chamber. Some confessed to crimes that they may or may not have committed, while others went to their graves swearing that they had done nothing wrong. To read about them is a jolting experience, no matter how much you may already know about the regime that sentenced them to die.

The Voices of the Dead is illustrated with reproductions of some of the documents examined by Kuromiya, including two harrowing “mug shots” of a pair of victims that appear to have been taken not long before they were executed. The book also contains contemporary photographs taken at the site of the mass graves on the outskirts of Kiev where tens of thousands of Stalin’s victims are buried. It is now a memorial park dotted with crosses, though few go there: “Except on commemorative occasions…the graves are deserted—dark, serene and eerie. History weighs on visitors here.” The main grave is marked with a monument inscribed with just two words: Vechnaya pamyat—eternal memory. It is a devastatingly simple reminder of the evil that men do in the name of ideas. So is this disturbing, invaluable book.

• Why are so many Americans unaware that Joseph Stalin was as brutal, systematic and effective a killer as Adolf Hitler? One reason is because so much of the Old Left looked the other way at Stalin’s nefarious activities, and was unwilling later on to admit that it had done so. Another is that the Soviet Union remained a closed society long after the killing stopped, making it vastly more difficult for interested Westerners to study the Great Terror in the way that the Holocaust became a subject of detailed historical inquiry. As a result, we know far more about the individual innocents who died in the Holocaust than about those who were murdered at Stalin’s command.

Will this situation continue? Now that the Old Left is dying out, it has become somewhat more acceptable for American academics to study the Great Terror and report on it in a straightforward way, which doubtless explains the publication of The Voices of the Dead: Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s (Yale, 295 pp., $30), a new book by Hiroaki Kuromiya, a professor of history at Indiana University. For the past several years, Kuromiya has been examining the files of the secret police in Kiev, which in the 30’s was the Soviet Union’s third-largest city. (Now it is part of the independent state of Ukraine, whose rulers are more willing than their opposite numbers in Moscow to let outsiders study what Stalin wrought.) Like all bureaucrats, the killers of Kiev kept detailed records of their activities, right down to the late-night death warrants that were signed minutes before their prisoners were hustled out of their cells, shot in the nape of the neck and dumped into mass graves. In order to write The Voices of the Dead, Kuromiya examined the surviving dossiers of several dozen victims of the Great Terror, paying special attention to the handwritten notes in which official interrogators recorded the results of their attempts to extract confessions out of their prisoners prior to having them executed. The result is a book whose deliberate flatness of tone does not make it any less sickening.

Kuromiya’s own description of The Voices of the Dead is no less eloquent in its plainness:

The present book is a modest attempt to allow some of those executed in 1937-38 a voice. The focus is on individuals, in particular those whose lives meant absolutely nothing to Stalin: innocent people who were swept up in the maelstrom of political terror he unleashed. Most of the people discussed here are “unremarkable”: they left no conspicuous imprint on history. . . . Stalin was certain that no one would remember them. The “all-conquering power of Bolshevism” condemned them to oblivion, but it could not suppress their voices completely. Ironically, Stalin’s efforts to extinguish their voices helped preserve them, in the depths of their case files.

The people we meet in The Voices of the Dead are indeed “utterly unknown, ‘ordinary’ Soviet citizens: workers, peasants, homemakers, teachers, priests, musicians, soldiers, pensioners, ballerinas, beggars.” All they had in common was that they ran afoul of Stalin’s killing machine. Many appear to have been tortured before being sent to the execution chamber. Some confessed to crimes that they may or may not have committed, while others went to their graves swearing that they had done nothing wrong. To read about them is a jolting experience, no matter how much you may already know about the regime that sentenced them to die.

The Voices of the Dead is illustrated with reproductions of some of the documents examined by Kuromiya, including two harrowing “mug shots” of a pair of victims that appear to have been taken not long before they were executed. The book also contains contemporary photographs taken at the site of the mass graves on the outskirts of Kiev where tens of thousands of Stalin’s victims are buried. It is now a memorial park dotted with crosses, though few go there: “Except on commemorative occasions…the graves are deserted—dark, serene and eerie. History weighs on visitors here.” The main grave is marked with a monument inscribed with just two words: Vechnaya pamyat—eternal memory. It is a devastatingly simple reminder of the evil that men do in the name of ideas. So is this disturbing, invaluable book.

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Nuking Ukraine

On Tuesday, Vladimir Putin threatened to nuke Ukraine over the deployment of America’s missile defense systems. “It is horrible to say and even horrible to think that, in response to the deployment of such facilities in Ukrainian territory, which cannot theoretically be ruled out, Russia could target its missile systems at Ukraine,” the outgoing Russian president said. “Imagine this just for a second.”

Talk about imagining things. Ukraine is not yet a member of NATO, and Washington has not asked Kiev to host missile shield facilities. Yet it’s not too hard for us to imagine that the Kremlin would raise the prospect of incinerating nearby countries. Putin has already threatened to obliterate Poland and the Czech Republic over their tentative agreements to host missile defense radars and interceptors.

We say missile defense is intended to stop Iran, but the Russians seem to think our ten-interceptor system is aimed only at them and that it can bring down every one of their almost 800 missiles. In order to convince us that we are the ones who are being duplicitous, Moscow is now saying that Iran poses no threat to anybody. Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that the Iranians will need ten years to develop a long-range missile. “Our position is based on facts, and the facts are as follows: Iran, which is thought to be the main threat, does not have and will not have missiles from which one has to protect itself in the long term.”

Thanks, Sergei, but Iran hopes to put a satellite into orbit by next March and has been testing its intermediate-range missiles with distressing regularity. And just yesterday you said this: “We do not approve of Iran’s action in constantly demonstrating its intentions to develop its rocket sector and continue enriching uranium.”

So don’t look for consistency in Kremlin pronouncements. Russia, which is helping Iran arm itself with the ultimate weapon, does not want us to try to protect ourselves. In a campaign reminiscent of its efforts to stop the deployment of the Pershing missile in Europe in the 1980s, it is willing to say anything, no matter how ludicrous. It is, therefore, time for the Bush administration to stop trying to placate Putin and force him to make a choice: either accept missile defense in Europe or help us stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program. It is not surprising that he is trying to make inconsistent arguments to get whatever he wants, but it is not acceptable that we let him.

And one more thing. We need to tell Putin, in public, that he must stop threatening Ukraine—or others—with his nukes. And if he should continue, it is up to us to remind him of our ability and willingness to use all the weapons we possess. The best way to slide into worldwide war is to ignore autocrats when they make unprovoked threats of unimaginable devastation.

On Tuesday, Vladimir Putin threatened to nuke Ukraine over the deployment of America’s missile defense systems. “It is horrible to say and even horrible to think that, in response to the deployment of such facilities in Ukrainian territory, which cannot theoretically be ruled out, Russia could target its missile systems at Ukraine,” the outgoing Russian president said. “Imagine this just for a second.”

Talk about imagining things. Ukraine is not yet a member of NATO, and Washington has not asked Kiev to host missile shield facilities. Yet it’s not too hard for us to imagine that the Kremlin would raise the prospect of incinerating nearby countries. Putin has already threatened to obliterate Poland and the Czech Republic over their tentative agreements to host missile defense radars and interceptors.

We say missile defense is intended to stop Iran, but the Russians seem to think our ten-interceptor system is aimed only at them and that it can bring down every one of their almost 800 missiles. In order to convince us that we are the ones who are being duplicitous, Moscow is now saying that Iran poses no threat to anybody. Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that the Iranians will need ten years to develop a long-range missile. “Our position is based on facts, and the facts are as follows: Iran, which is thought to be the main threat, does not have and will not have missiles from which one has to protect itself in the long term.”

Thanks, Sergei, but Iran hopes to put a satellite into orbit by next March and has been testing its intermediate-range missiles with distressing regularity. And just yesterday you said this: “We do not approve of Iran’s action in constantly demonstrating its intentions to develop its rocket sector and continue enriching uranium.”

So don’t look for consistency in Kremlin pronouncements. Russia, which is helping Iran arm itself with the ultimate weapon, does not want us to try to protect ourselves. In a campaign reminiscent of its efforts to stop the deployment of the Pershing missile in Europe in the 1980s, it is willing to say anything, no matter how ludicrous. It is, therefore, time for the Bush administration to stop trying to placate Putin and force him to make a choice: either accept missile defense in Europe or help us stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program. It is not surprising that he is trying to make inconsistent arguments to get whatever he wants, but it is not acceptable that we let him.

And one more thing. We need to tell Putin, in public, that he must stop threatening Ukraine—or others—with his nukes. And if he should continue, it is up to us to remind him of our ability and willingness to use all the weapons we possess. The best way to slide into worldwide war is to ignore autocrats when they make unprovoked threats of unimaginable devastation.

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Discovering Nemirovsky

Until 2005, the French novelist Irène Nemirovsky, author of the much-lauded Suite Française, had been more or less completely forgotten, even by specialists in French literature between the wars. Her name did not feature in critical surveys or in the memoirs of contemporaries. Pure chance has led to the discovery of this gifted woman and her work.

She was born in Kiev in 1903, the child of Léon Nemirovsky, a rich Jewish banker, and Faiga (or Fanny, as she called herself), a self-regarding and unfeeling mother. Fleeing the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the family settled in Paris, where Léon rebuilt his fortune. Outwardly Irène seems to have been something of a Jazz-age, party-going flapper, but in fact she was observing the human behavior around her with penetrating originality.

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Until 2005, the French novelist Irène Nemirovsky, author of the much-lauded Suite Française, had been more or less completely forgotten, even by specialists in French literature between the wars. Her name did not feature in critical surveys or in the memoirs of contemporaries. Pure chance has led to the discovery of this gifted woman and her work.

She was born in Kiev in 1903, the child of Léon Nemirovsky, a rich Jewish banker, and Faiga (or Fanny, as she called herself), a self-regarding and unfeeling mother. Fleeing the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the family settled in Paris, where Léon rebuilt his fortune. Outwardly Irène seems to have been something of a Jazz-age, party-going flapper, but in fact she was observing the human behavior around her with penetrating originality.

She was only twenty-three when she married Michel Epstein, whose origins were Russian and Jewish like hers. Three years later, in 1929, she published her first novel, David Golder. No doubt it is painfully autobiographical: Golder, like her father, has risen from poverty by taking huge financial risks. His name “evoked an old, hardened Jew, who all his life had been hated and feared.” Golder’s friend Soifer, a miser, leaves thirty million francs, “thus fulfilling to the end the incomprehensible destiny of every good Jew on this earth.” (Nemirovsky drops summary sentences of the kind with terrible simplicity.)

The superficial shame in her depictions of nouveaux-riches Jews might be considered a type of self-hatred, except that Nemirovsky evidently felt pity for them, along with an underlying pride in the way that they dealt with so much contempt from everyone else. Old and hardened Jews do what they have to: they are not allowed a choice. In another early novella, The Ball, she describes Kampf, “a dry small Jew, whose eyes have fire in them,” and the pretentious Madame Kampf, no doubt modelled closely on her own mother. Their daughter wreaks a frightful revenge on them for the sin of social-climbing. And yet, under the savagery of the fiction is a redeeming quality—these people really do love, but don’t know how to show it. In her understanding of the waywardness of the heart, Irène Nemirovsky is the equal of Katherine Mansfield.

After the collapse of France in June 1940, and the installation of the Vichy regime, Irène and Michel were in mortal danger as foreign-born Jews. They hid their small daughters Denise and Elisabeth, but did not themselves try to escape. Instead, Irène’s artistry rose to the drama of the moment, and she wrote Suite Française, a full-length novel that describes the German occupation and the disintegration of France and its society. The novel is so detailed and vivid that it becomes, more or less, a historical document.

The French police came for her in July 1942, and she was murdered in Auschwitz the following month. That November, her husband Michel was also deported and murdered there. The manuscript remained in a suitcase in the possession of the two daughters who for more than sixty years found it too painful to deal with. Its survival and eventual publication was quite outside the bounds of probability.

The role of the artist ultimately is to bear witness. Irène Nemirovsky is in the select company of those who were able to do so in the face of death, thus bringing some hope to others. And how many of those murdered like her, one cannot help wondering, would also have been in that company if only they had been allowed the chance?

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