Commentary Magazine


Topic: Sunday New York Times

Obama: ‘I Do Not Want to Screw This Up’

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Peter Baker’s massive front-page story in the Sunday New York Times about Obama as commander in chief. I share some of the disquiet expressed by Jennifer Rubin about the president’s lack of knowledge and interest in defense affairs, but that’s hardly unusual for a chief executive. With his focus on domestic policy and his view that foreign crises are an unwelcome “distraction,” Obama echoes most recent presidents, including both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Bush, of course, shed that outlook after 9/11, whereas Obama hasn’t — yet. I predict he will before long because he will realize what most presidents realize: that they have the greatest impact in foreign affairs and national-security policy, whereas on domestic issues, they have to beg for help from a recalcitrant Congress. So far, Obama has managed to push most of his agenda through the Hill, but that is likely to change after the November elections bring big gains for Republicans; after that he will probably find foreign affairs a relief rather than a burden.

In the meantime, however, I was not wholly depressed by Baker’s article. There were, I believe, some positives in it, including the revelation that it was Obama’s personal brainstorm to replace General McChrystal with David Petraeus in Afghanistan (Bob Gates evidently wanted to keep McChrystal on with a reprimand). That was surely a brilliant stroke and speaks well to his creativity and his ability to be decisive. More than that, I was cheered by this line:

When he held a videoconference on Iraq on his first full day in office, officials recalled, he said: “Guys, before you start, there’s one thing I want to say to you and that is I do not want to screw this up.”

That sentiment — “I do not want to screw this up” — explains a lot. It explains why Obama has gone more slowly on the Iraq withdrawal than the left would have liked and why he has bucked his liberal base to build up U.S. forces in Afghanistan. For all his obsession with domestic issues, he evidently realizes that losing wars is bad for a president’s reputation. That’s good for those of us who believe that it’s vitally important for the country’s interests to win the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. However reluctantly, Obama apparently has come to share that belief.

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Peter Baker’s massive front-page story in the Sunday New York Times about Obama as commander in chief. I share some of the disquiet expressed by Jennifer Rubin about the president’s lack of knowledge and interest in defense affairs, but that’s hardly unusual for a chief executive. With his focus on domestic policy and his view that foreign crises are an unwelcome “distraction,” Obama echoes most recent presidents, including both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Bush, of course, shed that outlook after 9/11, whereas Obama hasn’t — yet. I predict he will before long because he will realize what most presidents realize: that they have the greatest impact in foreign affairs and national-security policy, whereas on domestic issues, they have to beg for help from a recalcitrant Congress. So far, Obama has managed to push most of his agenda through the Hill, but that is likely to change after the November elections bring big gains for Republicans; after that he will probably find foreign affairs a relief rather than a burden.

In the meantime, however, I was not wholly depressed by Baker’s article. There were, I believe, some positives in it, including the revelation that it was Obama’s personal brainstorm to replace General McChrystal with David Petraeus in Afghanistan (Bob Gates evidently wanted to keep McChrystal on with a reprimand). That was surely a brilliant stroke and speaks well to his creativity and his ability to be decisive. More than that, I was cheered by this line:

When he held a videoconference on Iraq on his first full day in office, officials recalled, he said: “Guys, before you start, there’s one thing I want to say to you and that is I do not want to screw this up.”

That sentiment — “I do not want to screw this up” — explains a lot. It explains why Obama has gone more slowly on the Iraq withdrawal than the left would have liked and why he has bucked his liberal base to build up U.S. forces in Afghanistan. For all his obsession with domestic issues, he evidently realizes that losing wars is bad for a president’s reputation. That’s good for those of us who believe that it’s vitally important for the country’s interests to win the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. However reluctantly, Obama apparently has come to share that belief.

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Gaza Through Fresh Eyes Reveals Normality, Not Horror

The image of the Middle East in general and the Palestinian territories in particular is one of squalor and bloodshed. There has been plenty of the latter throughout the years, but anyone who visits the Palestinian areas knows how far from the truth is the commonly held assumption that the West Bank and Gaza in particular are awful places where the inhabitants are barely hanging on for dear life. There are plenty of poor Palestinians – and more than a few living in poverty across the border in Israel, too. But many of the towns and cities on the West Bank are bustling, prosperous, and largely middle-class. And while no one will mistake Gaza for the Cote d’Azure, the reality of even that unhappy place does not conform to the image of Israeli-imposed horror.

But don’t take my word for it; just read this week’s Sunday New York Times Week in Review section for a glimpse of “Gaza Through Fresh Eyes,” a photo essay by Katie Orlinsky with text by Ethan Bronner. What did Orlinsky find in Gaza? As Bronner writes:

For some, it’s the relative modernity — the jazzy cellphone stores and pricey restaurants. For others, it’s the endless beaches with children whooping it up. But for nearly everyone who visits Gaza, often with worry of danger and hostility, what’s surprising is the fact that daily life, while troubled, often has the staggering quality of the very ordinary.

The pictures show that life is going on in a very normal fashion. They depict a busy intersection in Rafah, a Gaza beach scene, shoppers in Gaza city where wedding dresses are on sale, and fishermen and farmers. Even the photos that show the less happy side of Gaza – a girl living in a tent, a crowded tenement, and a pregnant widow whose husband died of unspecified war-related injuries (had he been a truly innocent bystander who fell to Israeli fire, we probably would have been told as much, which means it’s just as likely as anything else that he was a Hamas terrorist who died in a “work accident” when explosives blew up prematurely or that he was killed while trying to kill Israelis) – show scenes that are not exactly depictions of the Israeli atrocities that so many around the world are so worked up about.

Even more interesting is what the pictures don’t show. None tell us about the Islamist government of the region, which is imposing on the people not only its vow of war to the death against Israel but also an extremist religion. None, not even the saddest picture, tells the reader the true context of life in Gaza: the refusal of the Palestinian leadership to make peace despite many offers of statehood and recognition from Israel. And none show the fact that the region was completely evacuated by Israel five years ago, but instead of using their independence to better their lives, the Palestinians have chosen more war.

While pictures can tell us a lot about Gaza and even make it plain that life there isn’t all that terrible, they can’t tell us why Hamas and its followers still prefer war to peace.

The image of the Middle East in general and the Palestinian territories in particular is one of squalor and bloodshed. There has been plenty of the latter throughout the years, but anyone who visits the Palestinian areas knows how far from the truth is the commonly held assumption that the West Bank and Gaza in particular are awful places where the inhabitants are barely hanging on for dear life. There are plenty of poor Palestinians – and more than a few living in poverty across the border in Israel, too. But many of the towns and cities on the West Bank are bustling, prosperous, and largely middle-class. And while no one will mistake Gaza for the Cote d’Azure, the reality of even that unhappy place does not conform to the image of Israeli-imposed horror.

But don’t take my word for it; just read this week’s Sunday New York Times Week in Review section for a glimpse of “Gaza Through Fresh Eyes,” a photo essay by Katie Orlinsky with text by Ethan Bronner. What did Orlinsky find in Gaza? As Bronner writes:

For some, it’s the relative modernity — the jazzy cellphone stores and pricey restaurants. For others, it’s the endless beaches with children whooping it up. But for nearly everyone who visits Gaza, often with worry of danger and hostility, what’s surprising is the fact that daily life, while troubled, often has the staggering quality of the very ordinary.

The pictures show that life is going on in a very normal fashion. They depict a busy intersection in Rafah, a Gaza beach scene, shoppers in Gaza city where wedding dresses are on sale, and fishermen and farmers. Even the photos that show the less happy side of Gaza – a girl living in a tent, a crowded tenement, and a pregnant widow whose husband died of unspecified war-related injuries (had he been a truly innocent bystander who fell to Israeli fire, we probably would have been told as much, which means it’s just as likely as anything else that he was a Hamas terrorist who died in a “work accident” when explosives blew up prematurely or that he was killed while trying to kill Israelis) – show scenes that are not exactly depictions of the Israeli atrocities that so many around the world are so worked up about.

Even more interesting is what the pictures don’t show. None tell us about the Islamist government of the region, which is imposing on the people not only its vow of war to the death against Israel but also an extremist religion. None, not even the saddest picture, tells the reader the true context of life in Gaza: the refusal of the Palestinian leadership to make peace despite many offers of statehood and recognition from Israel. And none show the fact that the region was completely evacuated by Israel five years ago, but instead of using their independence to better their lives, the Palestinians have chosen more war.

While pictures can tell us a lot about Gaza and even make it plain that life there isn’t all that terrible, they can’t tell us why Hamas and its followers still prefer war to peace.

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Chabon Swings at Israel — and Hits Peter Beinart!

Novelist Michael Chabon is generally coy about his position on the Jewish state. Unlike his wife, writer Ayelet Waldman, Chabon tends to refrain from open anti-Zionism, although as the author of a bestselling novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, whose premise was the destruction of the state of Israel soon after its birth and the fanaticism of those who wished to bring it back into existence, it’s not as if his views are much of a mystery.

Therefore, one read his 1,700-word essay in the Sunday New York Times Week in Review section with interest to see how he would react to the Gaza flotilla. But Chabon is too nuanced a writer to pen a standard condemnation of Israel’s blockade of Hamas-run Gaza. Instead, his target was the whole notion that Jews are special or smart. Chabon approvingly quoted Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg as saying Israel’s actions demonstrated a lack of seichel, the Yiddish word for wisdom. Chabon goes on at considerable length to make a very small argument that few serious people would really disagree with: that Jews are as capable of making blunders as any other people.

Though some writers, like the estimable Charles Murray, have written in COMMENTARY about the special genius of the Jewish people, the majority of us who have spent our lives covering Jewish institutions and communities and following Israeli politics would probably have to side with Chabon rather than Murray on this one. At times, Israeli politics and, indeed, the politics of most Jewish communities do resemble the legendary village of Chelm — the place where Jewish folklore tells us an errant angel dropped a boatload of foolish souls — more than they do Plato’s Republic. The sectarian madness of Israel’s proportional system of representation in the Knesset and the lockstep liberalism of American Jews certainly is more than ample testimony of the Jewish capacity for foolishness.

But Chabon has bigger fish to fry than just saying that Jews can be dumb. His genuine target is not a poorly planned military expedition but rather “the foundational ambiguity of Judaism and Jewish identity; the idea of chosenness” — a concept that some of the most vicious critics of Judaism and Jews through the ages, such as Voltaire, have always found particularly distasteful.

Chabon sneers at what he considers the hypocrisy of a Jewish people that accepts the idea of being chosen (a religious concept that involves obligation to observe the Torah, not privilege) but then complains when “the world — cynically or sincerely — holds Israel to a different, higher standard as beneficiaries of that dispensation.” He goes on to cite Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which declares that the Jewish people have a right “to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state.” For him, this foundational document of Zionism also means that Jews “are every bit as capable of barbarism or stupidity.”

Leave aside the fact that blockading an area controlled by an Islamist terrorist group bent on Israel’s destruction is, by any reasonable standard, neither barbaric nor stupid, but actually a normal and quite restrained manner of self-defense against a lethal threat. Rather, let us focus on Chabon’s point that it is the Zionists who demand special treatment from the world or say that Israel’s legitimacy is based on any special Jewish attributes or genius.

If anything, what Chabon has done in this long, confused essay is to unwittingly skewer the Peter Beinarts of the world, the “liberal Zionists” for whom Israel is only worthy of existence if it conforms to their vision of what a Jewish state should be. For Beinart, an “illiberal” Israel — which is to say a democracy that chooses leaders and policies of self-defense that he disapproves of and that freely rejects those he likes — must expect American Jewish disdain. Contrary to the so-called “liberal Zionists” who are swarming to attack after the flotilla incident, Israel and its people have many virtues, but the state’s right to exist is predicated on the simple right of the Jews to rule over their own historic homeland. It is not the supporters of Israel who ask for that nation to be judged on the intelligence or the special righteousness of its people. They just ask that Israel not be judged more harshly or by different and more stringent standards of morality or justice than other nations (as it almost always is).

The “exceptionalism” of Jewish civilization rests in a religious and moral tradition that transcends politics or even the novels of a Michael Chabon. But Israel’s right to defend itself against terror is rooted in the simple demands of justice that apply to all peoples and for which Jews — be they smart or stupid — need not apologize. For all of their reputation for brilliance, that’s a lesson liberal Jews like Beinart and Chabon have yet to learn.

Novelist Michael Chabon is generally coy about his position on the Jewish state. Unlike his wife, writer Ayelet Waldman, Chabon tends to refrain from open anti-Zionism, although as the author of a bestselling novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, whose premise was the destruction of the state of Israel soon after its birth and the fanaticism of those who wished to bring it back into existence, it’s not as if his views are much of a mystery.

Therefore, one read his 1,700-word essay in the Sunday New York Times Week in Review section with interest to see how he would react to the Gaza flotilla. But Chabon is too nuanced a writer to pen a standard condemnation of Israel’s blockade of Hamas-run Gaza. Instead, his target was the whole notion that Jews are special or smart. Chabon approvingly quoted Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg as saying Israel’s actions demonstrated a lack of seichel, the Yiddish word for wisdom. Chabon goes on at considerable length to make a very small argument that few serious people would really disagree with: that Jews are as capable of making blunders as any other people.

Though some writers, like the estimable Charles Murray, have written in COMMENTARY about the special genius of the Jewish people, the majority of us who have spent our lives covering Jewish institutions and communities and following Israeli politics would probably have to side with Chabon rather than Murray on this one. At times, Israeli politics and, indeed, the politics of most Jewish communities do resemble the legendary village of Chelm — the place where Jewish folklore tells us an errant angel dropped a boatload of foolish souls — more than they do Plato’s Republic. The sectarian madness of Israel’s proportional system of representation in the Knesset and the lockstep liberalism of American Jews certainly is more than ample testimony of the Jewish capacity for foolishness.

But Chabon has bigger fish to fry than just saying that Jews can be dumb. His genuine target is not a poorly planned military expedition but rather “the foundational ambiguity of Judaism and Jewish identity; the idea of chosenness” — a concept that some of the most vicious critics of Judaism and Jews through the ages, such as Voltaire, have always found particularly distasteful.

Chabon sneers at what he considers the hypocrisy of a Jewish people that accepts the idea of being chosen (a religious concept that involves obligation to observe the Torah, not privilege) but then complains when “the world — cynically or sincerely — holds Israel to a different, higher standard as beneficiaries of that dispensation.” He goes on to cite Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which declares that the Jewish people have a right “to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state.” For him, this foundational document of Zionism also means that Jews “are every bit as capable of barbarism or stupidity.”

Leave aside the fact that blockading an area controlled by an Islamist terrorist group bent on Israel’s destruction is, by any reasonable standard, neither barbaric nor stupid, but actually a normal and quite restrained manner of self-defense against a lethal threat. Rather, let us focus on Chabon’s point that it is the Zionists who demand special treatment from the world or say that Israel’s legitimacy is based on any special Jewish attributes or genius.

If anything, what Chabon has done in this long, confused essay is to unwittingly skewer the Peter Beinarts of the world, the “liberal Zionists” for whom Israel is only worthy of existence if it conforms to their vision of what a Jewish state should be. For Beinart, an “illiberal” Israel — which is to say a democracy that chooses leaders and policies of self-defense that he disapproves of and that freely rejects those he likes — must expect American Jewish disdain. Contrary to the so-called “liberal Zionists” who are swarming to attack after the flotilla incident, Israel and its people have many virtues, but the state’s right to exist is predicated on the simple right of the Jews to rule over their own historic homeland. It is not the supporters of Israel who ask for that nation to be judged on the intelligence or the special righteousness of its people. They just ask that Israel not be judged more harshly or by different and more stringent standards of morality or justice than other nations (as it almost always is).

The “exceptionalism” of Jewish civilization rests in a religious and moral tradition that transcends politics or even the novels of a Michael Chabon. But Israel’s right to defend itself against terror is rooted in the simple demands of justice that apply to all peoples and for which Jews — be they smart or stupid — need not apologize. For all of their reputation for brilliance, that’s a lesson liberal Jews like Beinart and Chabon have yet to learn.

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New World’s Record for Chutzpah: Obama’s Seder

Some 19 years ago, the first president Bush earned the enmity of American Jews with his rant about being “one lone guy” standing up against the horde of AIPAC activists exercising their constitutional right to petition Congress. Bush’s statement symbolized the intolerance and enmity that his administration felt toward Israel and its American friends. But say one thing for that Bush and his secretary of state, James “f@#$ the Jews” Baker: at least they never pretended to be anything but what they were, country-club establishment Republicans who were not comfortable with Israel or Jewish symbols. Not so Barack Hussein Obama.

After a week spent beating up on Israel, blowing a minor gaffe into an international incident, subjecting Israel’s prime minister to unprecedented insults that Obama would never think of trying on even the most humble Third World leader, and establishing the principle that the Jewish presence in eastern Jerusalem — even in existing Jewish neighborhoods — is illegal and an affront to American interests – after all that, Obama plans on spending Monday night mouthing a few lines from the Passover Haggadah at a Seder held in the White House.

According to the New York Times, Obama will take part in a Seder in the Old Family Dining Room along with a band of court Jews such as David Axelrod. The Seder, as the newspaper notes, will end, according to tradition, with the declaration of ‘next year in Jerusalem.’ (Never mind the current chill in the administration’s relationship with Israel.)”

There will, no doubt, be many American Jews who are still so insecure in their place in American society that they will feel flattered that even a president who has proved himself the most hostile chief executive to Israel in a generation will pay lip service to Judaism in this way. No doubt the planting of this sympathetic story on the front page of the Sunday New York Times is calculated to soften the blow of his Jerusalem policy and his disdain for Israel in the eyes of many of Obama’s loyal Jewish supporters.

The vast majority of American Jews are not only liberals; they are, as they say in Texas, “yellow dog Democrats,” meaning they would vote for a yellow dog if it were on the Democratic ticket. But surely a sycophantic article like the Times feature must grate on even their sensibilities. Can any Jew with a smidgeon of self-respect or affection for Israel think that having a president say “Next year in Jerusalem!” while sitting at a table with matzo and macaroons makes up for policies that treat the 200,000 Jews living in the post-1967 Jewish neighborhoods of their own ancient capital as illegal settlers on stolen land?

Perhaps Obama and his coterie of Jewish advisers think they are entitled to expropriate the symbols of Judaism to lend legitimacy to their anti-Israel policies. Of course, if Obama had any real sympathy for the people of Israel or the Jewish people, he might instead spend Monday night reevaluating a policy that appears to concede nuclear weapons to the rabid Jew-haters of Islamist Iran and reinforces the intransigence of the supposedly moderate Palestinian Authority and its allies across the Muslim world.

This week, Alan Dershowitz, who still counts himself among Obama’s supporters, warned the president that if he failed on Iran, his legacy would be indistinguishable from that of Neville Chamberlain, who appeased Hitler. He’s right, but it looks as though Chamberlain is becoming Obama’s model because, in addition to employing appeasement strategies, the president’s diktat on Jerusalem and the West Bank is faintly reminiscent of the British White Paper of 1939, which forbade the entrance of more Jewish immigrants into Palestine as the Holocaust loomed and sought to restrict the Jewish presence in most of the country.

But like the elder George Bush, at least Neville Chamberlain had the good manners not to try to portray himself as a friend of the Jews by having a Passover Seder at Number Ten Downing Street while simultaneously pursuing such policies.

Some 19 years ago, the first president Bush earned the enmity of American Jews with his rant about being “one lone guy” standing up against the horde of AIPAC activists exercising their constitutional right to petition Congress. Bush’s statement symbolized the intolerance and enmity that his administration felt toward Israel and its American friends. But say one thing for that Bush and his secretary of state, James “f@#$ the Jews” Baker: at least they never pretended to be anything but what they were, country-club establishment Republicans who were not comfortable with Israel or Jewish symbols. Not so Barack Hussein Obama.

After a week spent beating up on Israel, blowing a minor gaffe into an international incident, subjecting Israel’s prime minister to unprecedented insults that Obama would never think of trying on even the most humble Third World leader, and establishing the principle that the Jewish presence in eastern Jerusalem — even in existing Jewish neighborhoods — is illegal and an affront to American interests – after all that, Obama plans on spending Monday night mouthing a few lines from the Passover Haggadah at a Seder held in the White House.

According to the New York Times, Obama will take part in a Seder in the Old Family Dining Room along with a band of court Jews such as David Axelrod. The Seder, as the newspaper notes, will end, according to tradition, with the declaration of ‘next year in Jerusalem.’ (Never mind the current chill in the administration’s relationship with Israel.)”

There will, no doubt, be many American Jews who are still so insecure in their place in American society that they will feel flattered that even a president who has proved himself the most hostile chief executive to Israel in a generation will pay lip service to Judaism in this way. No doubt the planting of this sympathetic story on the front page of the Sunday New York Times is calculated to soften the blow of his Jerusalem policy and his disdain for Israel in the eyes of many of Obama’s loyal Jewish supporters.

The vast majority of American Jews are not only liberals; they are, as they say in Texas, “yellow dog Democrats,” meaning they would vote for a yellow dog if it were on the Democratic ticket. But surely a sycophantic article like the Times feature must grate on even their sensibilities. Can any Jew with a smidgeon of self-respect or affection for Israel think that having a president say “Next year in Jerusalem!” while sitting at a table with matzo and macaroons makes up for policies that treat the 200,000 Jews living in the post-1967 Jewish neighborhoods of their own ancient capital as illegal settlers on stolen land?

Perhaps Obama and his coterie of Jewish advisers think they are entitled to expropriate the symbols of Judaism to lend legitimacy to their anti-Israel policies. Of course, if Obama had any real sympathy for the people of Israel or the Jewish people, he might instead spend Monday night reevaluating a policy that appears to concede nuclear weapons to the rabid Jew-haters of Islamist Iran and reinforces the intransigence of the supposedly moderate Palestinian Authority and its allies across the Muslim world.

This week, Alan Dershowitz, who still counts himself among Obama’s supporters, warned the president that if he failed on Iran, his legacy would be indistinguishable from that of Neville Chamberlain, who appeased Hitler. He’s right, but it looks as though Chamberlain is becoming Obama’s model because, in addition to employing appeasement strategies, the president’s diktat on Jerusalem and the West Bank is faintly reminiscent of the British White Paper of 1939, which forbade the entrance of more Jewish immigrants into Palestine as the Holocaust loomed and sought to restrict the Jewish presence in most of the country.

But like the elder George Bush, at least Neville Chamberlain had the good manners not to try to portray himself as a friend of the Jews by having a Passover Seder at Number Ten Downing Street while simultaneously pursuing such policies.

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One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

An interesting article appeared in the Sunday New York Times updating developments in Basra. Things are not going so well in this large city in southern Iraq, where various Shiite militias are battling one another for control of political power, oil, and various criminal enterprises.

The British had prided themselves for years on having a better approach than their more heavy-handed American counterparts to counterinsurgency, but, lo and behold, four years into the war, the trends seem more positive in Anbar than in Basra.

What went wrong?

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An interesting article appeared in the Sunday New York Times updating developments in Basra. Things are not going so well in this large city in southern Iraq, where various Shiite militias are battling one another for control of political power, oil, and various criminal enterprises.

The British had prided themselves for years on having a better approach than their more heavy-handed American counterparts to counterinsurgency, but, lo and behold, four years into the war, the trends seem more positive in Anbar than in Basra.

What went wrong?

A recent military visitor from Iraq posited that the British tried a mild peacekeeping approach in an environment that instead called for a tough counterinsurgency strategy. As the Times’s Stephen Ferrell notes, “the British-led coalition forces have adopted a far less aggressive and interventionist stance than American troops have farther north.” That approach seemed to work initially because there wasn’t much violence, but it came at a cost. As Farrell writes, “critics accuse the British of simply allowing the Shiite militias free rein to carry out their intolerant Islamist agenda, which involved killing merchants who sell alcohol, driving out Christians and infiltrating state institutions and the security forces.”

Now the militias are feeling their oats and the British are feeling under siege. The palace in Basra that serves as their headquarters has become one of the most-mortared positions in all of Iraq—according to the Times, the troopers call it the “worst palace in the world.”

The British difficulties have been exacerbated by their well-publicized decision to reduce their troop levels in Iraq, and to pull back from the center of Basra to a compound located outside of town. Far from placating the armed gangs, the British decision has only emboldened them. Everyone, it seems, is determined to get a last lick in—no doubt trying to establish “anti-colonial” bona fides in the coming struggle for power.

There is a lesson to be learned here by advocates of an American troop drawdown. Even if the drawdown were to be only partial, it could easily get out of hand by creating the perception that we’re on the way out and can be attacked with impunity. As Napoleon said, “In war, moral considerations account for three-quarters, the actual balance of forces only for the other quarter.” If we set a withdrawal timetable, the moral balance will tip against us even faster than the actual balance of forces—with deadly consequences.

We can avoid that problem by sticking with the “surge,” which, as another Times article notes, is working. This one is an op-ed written by Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, who have just returned from Iraq with a glowing report on all the progress that General David Petraeus and his soldiers are making. Pollack and O’Hanlon echo the sense of cautious optimism that I have been feeling for the past several months. That’s pretty significant coming from two Democratic analysts who, as they note, “have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq.”

A White House official has labeled their article “significant, and possibly climate-changing.” Let’s hope that’s the case.

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Sam Tanenhaus: Arsonist

The current issue of the New Republic contains a caustic exchange between me and Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the Sunday New York Times book review.

Tanenhaus had written an article in TNR about William F. Buckley, Jr., the broader conservative movement, and today’s war on terror. In an aside, he said that COMMENTARY had called for the prosecution of the editors of the New York Times for “treason.” He also characterized the NSA terrorist surveillance program—the highly classified counterterrorism program disclosed by his newspaper in December 2005—as a “domestic surveillance program.”

I wrote a letter pointing out that in my March 2006 COMMENTARY article about the affair, I never accused the editors of the Times of treason. I did not use the T-word at all—precisely because, whatever else they did, the Times’s editors had not committed that particular crime. Nor did I say they had committed espionage. What I argued was that they had violated a U.S. statute proscribing the publication of classified information pertaining to communications intelligence.

In my letter to TNR, I further pointed out that it was inexact to call the NSA program “domestic.” In fact it was international, tapping only those conversations or intercepting those emails that had crossed borders, and in which one party was a suspected al-Qaeda operative either in the United States or abroad.

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The current issue of the New Republic contains a caustic exchange between me and Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the Sunday New York Times book review.

Tanenhaus had written an article in TNR about William F. Buckley, Jr., the broader conservative movement, and today’s war on terror. In an aside, he said that COMMENTARY had called for the prosecution of the editors of the New York Times for “treason.” He also characterized the NSA terrorist surveillance program—the highly classified counterterrorism program disclosed by his newspaper in December 2005—as a “domestic surveillance program.”

I wrote a letter pointing out that in my March 2006 COMMENTARY article about the affair, I never accused the editors of the Times of treason. I did not use the T-word at all—precisely because, whatever else they did, the Times’s editors had not committed that particular crime. Nor did I say they had committed espionage. What I argued was that they had violated a U.S. statute proscribing the publication of classified information pertaining to communications intelligence.

In my letter to TNR, I further pointed out that it was inexact to call the NSA program “domestic.” In fact it was international, tapping only those conversations or intercepting those emails that had crossed borders, and in which one party was a suspected al-Qaeda operative either in the United States or abroad.

Summing up both of my objections to Tanenhaus’s article, I wrote: “To confuse an international surveillance program with a domestic one is to be as imprecise and inflammatory as to use the word ‘treason’ in describing a much less serious violation of the law.”

“Inflammatory” was the right word. For if in his initial article Tanenhaus was tending toward the incendiary, his response to my letter, now published in TNR, is a Molotov cocktail.

First he accuses me of propagating “nonsense.” Then he pours a bit of gasoline into the bottle, saying that the “charge of espionage implies a corollary charge of treason,” and that in distinguishing between the two I was employing a “mode of clarification” that is precisely like “one used a half-century ago by Joseph McCarthy.”

But I never said, to repeat, that editors at the Times committed either treason or espionage. Section 798 of Title 18, the provision at issue, is entitled “Disclosure of classified information” and it is very easy to understand. Even analysts who disagree with me about the desirability of prosecuting the Times—Morton Halperin, for example, of George Soros’s Open Society Institute—concur that the Times did indeed break this law.

As for his calling the NSA surveillance program “domestic,” Tanenhaus justifies this with a single citation from the December 16, 2005 Washington Post in which it was called “domestic spying”—as if that settled the matter. It doesn’t. And it doesn’t add a single fact to the discussion, except that someone at the Washington Post is also confused.

I have read a lot of Tanenhaus’s writings over the years in the Times, in Vanity Fair, in Slate, and even in COMMENTARY. I have never known him to break into a sweat or even get hot under the collar. For that matter, though he writes at great length about current events, I have never seen him stake out a genuinely controversial position on anything—attacks on safe targets like Pat Buchanan or Ann Coulter clearly do not count. His past reticence on matters of importance was always something of a mystery to me, although I have had my theories. Whatever explains that past reticence, his present act of minor intellectual arson in defense of his employer, in which he does not hesitate to toss in the name of Joseph McCarthy as tinder, offers an additional clue to the puzzle—about which, once again, I have my theories.

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Legitimate Complaints

Polemicists being what they are, it’s no surprise that many have used the death of celebrity centerfold Anna Nicole Smith to suggest that our society is overly sexualized, that girls need better role models, that the relentless seeking of celebrity leads to pathetic endings.

Much stranger, and far more perverse, was the Sunday New York Times op-ed by Stephanie Coontz, a scholar of the family who has long argued that traditional family structure is a locus of evil, and that efforts to strengthen marriage or the family are exercises in unjustified nostalgia. She made the case that the five-month-old daughter Smith left behind was in better shape than she likely would have been if the U.S. had failed in the late 1970’s to do away with all legal demarcations between legitimacy and illegitimacy as conditions for inheritance.

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Polemicists being what they are, it’s no surprise that many have used the death of celebrity centerfold Anna Nicole Smith to suggest that our society is overly sexualized, that girls need better role models, that the relentless seeking of celebrity leads to pathetic endings.

Much stranger, and far more perverse, was the Sunday New York Times op-ed by Stephanie Coontz, a scholar of the family who has long argued that traditional family structure is a locus of evil, and that efforts to strengthen marriage or the family are exercises in unjustified nostalgia. She made the case that the five-month-old daughter Smith left behind was in better shape than she likely would have been if the U.S. had failed in the late 1970’s to do away with all legal demarcations between legitimacy and illegitimacy as conditions for inheritance.


For those who have not followed the case: the baby in question, Dannielynn, is the prize in a grotesque custody circus. Four or five men who have had sexual relations with Smith are lining up to take paternity tests. They want to claim fatherhood of Dannielynn, because she might—might—inherit roughly $400 million from the still-contested estate of Smith’s late husband, the Texas billionaire Howard Marshall.

Coontz tells us that “For thousands of years the future of a child born out of wedlock was of no interest to anyone, especially if she was an orphan. The only people likely to take her in were people who needed free labor on their farms. . . . Little Dannielynn would not have had a right to her mother’s inheritance, much less a legal claim to receive support from the family of either her deceased mother or her father.” Coontz then links Dannielynn’s good fortune to court decisions in the 1960’s and 70’s, which she does not cite by name.

As it happens, illegitimate children could inherit from their mothers for a century or more before that time—a fact that Coontz tries to fudge. As for the right to inherit from an unwed father–which has nothing to do with this case, since the potential inheritance comes from the mother—this was established in 1977, in Trimble v. Gordon. There the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision striking down an Illinois statute, enabled a young Deta Trimble to inherit the worldly goods of her father, who had been murdered. His estate amounted to an old Plymouth car, worth roughly $2,500.

Coontz regards that decision as a major step toward justice for children born out of wedlock. But if this selling-out of support for the institution of marriage for $2,500 isn’t the proverbial exchange of a birthright for a mess of pottage, what is? At the time, the affirming Justices conceded that legitimacy was a pillar of the institution of the family, and the dissenting ones warned that the consequences of the decision would be grave.

The United States now has an illegitimacy rate of 38 percent. Very few of these fatherless children, who will inherit nothing, and who are without famous mothers or gigolos vying to support them, are better off for being born into a society where, thanks to the decisions Coontz celebrates, women have fewer and fewer incentives to be married to the fathers of their babies.

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