Commentary Magazine


Topic: The New Yorker

A Glaring Omission

After years of telling us the war on terror was creating more terrorists, the mainstream media has mysteriously woken up to the fact that Islamic extremism is on the wane. Newsweek is the latest publication to run a support-for-jihad-is-fading piece. Readers of CONTENTIONS should by now be familiar with the evidence: Iraqis have turned against radical clerics, Pakistani voters have rejected Islamist leaders, Turkey’s ruling AKP party is trying to modernize Islam, etc. The critical thing is the shift in Islam, not the acknowledgment from Newsweek, of course.

But there is an important omission in the sudden coverage of moderate Muslims: No one talks about the effect of the Iraq War. The MSM can dodge the issue all they like, but the fact remains that the Coalition’s toppling of Saddam facilitated the first organized rejection of fanatical Islam in the Middle East. Back in November 2005, while everyone stateside was crying fiasco, a group of Sunnis in Anbar province joined forces with a clutch of U.S. Marines and began to wrest their country back from al-Qaeda and its sympathizers. That effort grew into a statewide political movement that saw AQI on the run within two years. The Sunni Awakening in itself would not have been enough to stave off the deadly threat of extremism in Iraq. Without Prime Minister al-Maliki’s commitment to take on fanatical Shia militias, both the indiscriminate killing and the political torpor would have continued to hamper any truly national progress.

Both efforts continue to this day. And the fragile achievements they’ve engendered have allowed Iraqis to choose freedom over servitude, industry over stagnation. To think the emerging freedoms of the new Iraq have played no role in the ideological modernization of a region that’s been politically and religiously stymied for the better part of a century is to bury your head in the sand. To point to Iraq as a hindrance in this development is pathological. The MSM cites Scott Mclellan’s “revelation” that George Bush’s motivation for invading Iraq was to transform the Middle East as if that were an ignoble pursuit. And at the same time they rave about the transformation of the Middle East.

The point of all this is not to say “I told you so.” The benefit of the truth is that it’s true regardless of when the New York Times or Newsweek or the New Yorker decides to admit it. And the point is not to give George W. Bush his due. America moves forward by the lights of its collective ideals, not by the reputation of its individuals (despite what Obama fans think). Rather, the point is the soldiers. The thousands of men and women who’ve given everything–so that the insurmountable challenge of Islamofascism could be surmounted–have been dogged by American cynicism at every step. While protecting us and liberating others all Americans in uniform have heard from their homeland is that their mission is wrong, misguided, impossible. Now that we’re seeing the fruits of their effort, is it too much to ask that we acknowledge their contribution? This fight is ongoing, and it’s never too late for Americans to realize that supporting the troops means more than saying you support the troops. It means acknowledging the rightness of their mission, regardless of one’s partisan distaste for various personalities. The Muslim world is indeed changing–and it’s time we do the same.

After years of telling us the war on terror was creating more terrorists, the mainstream media has mysteriously woken up to the fact that Islamic extremism is on the wane. Newsweek is the latest publication to run a support-for-jihad-is-fading piece. Readers of CONTENTIONS should by now be familiar with the evidence: Iraqis have turned against radical clerics, Pakistani voters have rejected Islamist leaders, Turkey’s ruling AKP party is trying to modernize Islam, etc. The critical thing is the shift in Islam, not the acknowledgment from Newsweek, of course.

But there is an important omission in the sudden coverage of moderate Muslims: No one talks about the effect of the Iraq War. The MSM can dodge the issue all they like, but the fact remains that the Coalition’s toppling of Saddam facilitated the first organized rejection of fanatical Islam in the Middle East. Back in November 2005, while everyone stateside was crying fiasco, a group of Sunnis in Anbar province joined forces with a clutch of U.S. Marines and began to wrest their country back from al-Qaeda and its sympathizers. That effort grew into a statewide political movement that saw AQI on the run within two years. The Sunni Awakening in itself would not have been enough to stave off the deadly threat of extremism in Iraq. Without Prime Minister al-Maliki’s commitment to take on fanatical Shia militias, both the indiscriminate killing and the political torpor would have continued to hamper any truly national progress.

Both efforts continue to this day. And the fragile achievements they’ve engendered have allowed Iraqis to choose freedom over servitude, industry over stagnation. To think the emerging freedoms of the new Iraq have played no role in the ideological modernization of a region that’s been politically and religiously stymied for the better part of a century is to bury your head in the sand. To point to Iraq as a hindrance in this development is pathological. The MSM cites Scott Mclellan’s “revelation” that George Bush’s motivation for invading Iraq was to transform the Middle East as if that were an ignoble pursuit. And at the same time they rave about the transformation of the Middle East.

The point of all this is not to say “I told you so.” The benefit of the truth is that it’s true regardless of when the New York Times or Newsweek or the New Yorker decides to admit it. And the point is not to give George W. Bush his due. America moves forward by the lights of its collective ideals, not by the reputation of its individuals (despite what Obama fans think). Rather, the point is the soldiers. The thousands of men and women who’ve given everything–so that the insurmountable challenge of Islamofascism could be surmounted–have been dogged by American cynicism at every step. While protecting us and liberating others all Americans in uniform have heard from their homeland is that their mission is wrong, misguided, impossible. Now that we’re seeing the fruits of their effort, is it too much to ask that we acknowledge their contribution? This fight is ongoing, and it’s never too late for Americans to realize that supporting the troops means more than saying you support the troops. It means acknowledging the rightness of their mission, regardless of one’s partisan distaste for various personalities. The Muslim world is indeed changing–and it’s time we do the same.

Read Less

Who Has Beaten Whom?

Back in October a cover story by Peter Bergen, author and senior fellow at the New America Foundation, graced the cover of the New Republic. Titled “War of Error: How Osama bin Laden Beat George W. Bush,” Bergen wrote

America’s most formidable foe — once practically dead — is back. This is one of the most historically significant legacies of President Bush. At nearly every turn, he has made the wrong strategic choices in battling Al Qaeda. To understand the terror network’s resurgence — and its continued ability to harm us — we need to reexamine all the ways in which the administration has failed to crush it. . . . If, as the president explained in a speech [in 2006], the United States is today engaged “in the decisive ideological struggle of the twenty-first century,” right now we are on the losing side of the battle of ideas.

This week Bergen is back with another cover story (this time written with Paul Cruickshank) gracing the cover of the New Republic. But this time his take is very different. Titled, “The Unraveling: Al Qaeda’s revolt against bin Laden,” the essay examines the turn against al Qaeda by clerics and militants who were once considered their allies. According to Bergen and Cruickshank, “The repudiation of Al Qaeda’s leaders by its former religious, military, and political guides will help hasten the implosion of the jihadist terrorist movement.” Al Qaeda’s new critics, in concert with mainstream Muslim leaders, “have created a powerful coalition countering Al Qaeda’s ideology.”

So it now looks as if al Qaeda is on the losing side of the battle of ideas. In fact, the tide was moving against al Qaeda even when Bergen wrote his original cover story in October 2007. As I wrote at the time

the most important ideological development in the last year is that the Sunni population in Iraq has turned against al Qaeda’s ideology and concomitant brutality. The “Anbar Awakening,” which is spreading to other regions in Iraq, is a sign of Muslims’ rejecting radical Islamist ideology. . . . This doesn’t mean we have decisively won the “war of ideas” in the Islamic world; that clash is still unfolding and will for some time to come. But Bergen’s claim that we are losing is belied by the most significant and encouraging ideological development we have seen in a great long while.

It turns out that on the cover of the current New Republic are excerpts of a letter chastising bin Laden, a letter written by Sheikh Salman al-Awdah, an influential Saudi cleric whom bin Laden once lionized. That letter was written a month before Bergen’s cover story declaring that al Qaeda was winning the war of ideas against America and the West. Bergen did not mention that letter in his original essay, though he devotes several paragraphs to it in this week’s cover story.

In addition, the same month Bergen’s “War of Error” cover story appeared (October 2007) the Washington Post reported, “The U.S. military believes it has dealt devastating and perhaps irreversible blows to al-Qaeda in Iraq in recent months . . .” It was clear, even seven months ago, that the tectonic plates were beginning to shift. And since then, things have gotten even worse for jihadists–as Bergen and Cruickshank admit:

Most of these clerics and former militants, of course, have not suddenly switched to particularly progressive forms of Islam or fallen in love with the United States (all those we talked to saw the Iraqi insurgency as a defensive jihad), but their anti-Al Qaeda positions are making Americans safer. If this is a war of ideas, it is their ideas, not the West’s, that matter. The U.S. government neither has the credibility nor the Islamic knowledge to effectively debate Al Qaeda’s leaders, but the clerics and militants who have turned against them do.

That is, I think, correct, as far as it goes. I would add a point I made back in October: Those who believe winning the (figurative) war of ideas is paramount might consider doing all they can to help win the (literal) war in Iraq. After all, the best way to discredit militant Islam as an ideology is to defeat those who are taking up the sword in its name.

In any event , Bergen and Cruickshank, echoing Lawrence Wright in his recent essay in the New Yorker, are onto something significant: the tide within the Islamic world is beginning to run strongly against al Qaeda specifically and jihadism more broadly. This surely ranks as among the most important ideological developments in years.

Bergen and Cruickshank’s piece concludes:

Al Qaeda’s leaders have been thrown on the defensive. In December, bin Laden released a tape that stressed that “the Muslim victims who fall during the operations against the infidel Crusaders . . . are not the intended targets.” Bin Laden warned the former mujahedin now turning on Al Qaeda that, whatever their track records as jihadists, they had now committed one of the “nullifiers of Islam,” which is helping the “infidels against the Muslims.”

Kamal El Helbawy, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who helped bring in moderates at the Finsbury Park mosque in London, believes that Al Qaeda’s days may be numbered: “No government, no police force, is achieving what these [religious] scholars are achieving. To defeat terrorism, to convince the radicals . . . you have to persuade them that theirs is not the path to paradise.”

It looks like Osama bin Laden might not have beaten George W. Bush after all.

Back in October a cover story by Peter Bergen, author and senior fellow at the New America Foundation, graced the cover of the New Republic. Titled “War of Error: How Osama bin Laden Beat George W. Bush,” Bergen wrote

America’s most formidable foe — once practically dead — is back. This is one of the most historically significant legacies of President Bush. At nearly every turn, he has made the wrong strategic choices in battling Al Qaeda. To understand the terror network’s resurgence — and its continued ability to harm us — we need to reexamine all the ways in which the administration has failed to crush it. . . . If, as the president explained in a speech [in 2006], the United States is today engaged “in the decisive ideological struggle of the twenty-first century,” right now we are on the losing side of the battle of ideas.

This week Bergen is back with another cover story (this time written with Paul Cruickshank) gracing the cover of the New Republic. But this time his take is very different. Titled, “The Unraveling: Al Qaeda’s revolt against bin Laden,” the essay examines the turn against al Qaeda by clerics and militants who were once considered their allies. According to Bergen and Cruickshank, “The repudiation of Al Qaeda’s leaders by its former religious, military, and political guides will help hasten the implosion of the jihadist terrorist movement.” Al Qaeda’s new critics, in concert with mainstream Muslim leaders, “have created a powerful coalition countering Al Qaeda’s ideology.”

So it now looks as if al Qaeda is on the losing side of the battle of ideas. In fact, the tide was moving against al Qaeda even when Bergen wrote his original cover story in October 2007. As I wrote at the time

the most important ideological development in the last year is that the Sunni population in Iraq has turned against al Qaeda’s ideology and concomitant brutality. The “Anbar Awakening,” which is spreading to other regions in Iraq, is a sign of Muslims’ rejecting radical Islamist ideology. . . . This doesn’t mean we have decisively won the “war of ideas” in the Islamic world; that clash is still unfolding and will for some time to come. But Bergen’s claim that we are losing is belied by the most significant and encouraging ideological development we have seen in a great long while.

It turns out that on the cover of the current New Republic are excerpts of a letter chastising bin Laden, a letter written by Sheikh Salman al-Awdah, an influential Saudi cleric whom bin Laden once lionized. That letter was written a month before Bergen’s cover story declaring that al Qaeda was winning the war of ideas against America and the West. Bergen did not mention that letter in his original essay, though he devotes several paragraphs to it in this week’s cover story.

In addition, the same month Bergen’s “War of Error” cover story appeared (October 2007) the Washington Post reported, “The U.S. military believes it has dealt devastating and perhaps irreversible blows to al-Qaeda in Iraq in recent months . . .” It was clear, even seven months ago, that the tectonic plates were beginning to shift. And since then, things have gotten even worse for jihadists–as Bergen and Cruickshank admit:

Most of these clerics and former militants, of course, have not suddenly switched to particularly progressive forms of Islam or fallen in love with the United States (all those we talked to saw the Iraqi insurgency as a defensive jihad), but their anti-Al Qaeda positions are making Americans safer. If this is a war of ideas, it is their ideas, not the West’s, that matter. The U.S. government neither has the credibility nor the Islamic knowledge to effectively debate Al Qaeda’s leaders, but the clerics and militants who have turned against them do.

That is, I think, correct, as far as it goes. I would add a point I made back in October: Those who believe winning the (figurative) war of ideas is paramount might consider doing all they can to help win the (literal) war in Iraq. After all, the best way to discredit militant Islam as an ideology is to defeat those who are taking up the sword in its name.

In any event , Bergen and Cruickshank, echoing Lawrence Wright in his recent essay in the New Yorker, are onto something significant: the tide within the Islamic world is beginning to run strongly against al Qaeda specifically and jihadism more broadly. This surely ranks as among the most important ideological developments in years.

Bergen and Cruickshank’s piece concludes:

Al Qaeda’s leaders have been thrown on the defensive. In December, bin Laden released a tape that stressed that “the Muslim victims who fall during the operations against the infidel Crusaders . . . are not the intended targets.” Bin Laden warned the former mujahedin now turning on Al Qaeda that, whatever their track records as jihadists, they had now committed one of the “nullifiers of Islam,” which is helping the “infidels against the Muslims.”

Kamal El Helbawy, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who helped bring in moderates at the Finsbury Park mosque in London, believes that Al Qaeda’s days may be numbered: “No government, no police force, is achieving what these [religious] scholars are achieving. To defeat terrorism, to convince the radicals . . . you have to persuade them that theirs is not the path to paradise.”

It looks like Osama bin Laden might not have beaten George W. Bush after all.

Read Less

Wright on al-Qaeda

Lawrence Wright, author of the brilliant book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, has written an extremely significant essay in The New Yorker, “The Rebellion Within.”

Wright’s article is devoted to an issue that has fascinated me for months now and which I have written on (see here and here): how the tide within the Islamic world is turning against jihadism and more specifically, the significance of Sayyid Imam al-Sharif–who is more widely known by the pseudonym Dr. Fadl–breaking with the extremist and violent ideology he helped develop and popularize. This is one of the most significant and, until now, unreported ideological developments within the Islamic world. (Wright wisely points out that Fadl’s defection is not the only relevant data point; we have seen key Saudi and Palestinian clerics make similar arguments. For example, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Aal al-Sheikh, the highest religious authority in Saudi Arabia, issued a fatwa in October 2007 forbidding Saudi youth from engaging in jihad abroad. And a month earlier, Sheikh Salman al-Awdah, an influential Saudi cleric whom Osama bin Laden once lionized, wrote an “open letter” condemning bin Laden).

By way of background: Fadl, an Egyptian, is a living legend within the Islamic world and former mentor to Ayman Zawahiri, the ideological leader of Al Qaeda. In November 2007, the first segment of Fadl’s book appeared in the newspapers Al Masri Al Youm and Al Jarida. Titled “Rationalizing Jihad in Egypt and the World,” it attempted to (in Wright’s words) “reconcile Fadl’s well-known views with his sweeping modifications.” The result is that “Fadl’s arguments undermined the entire intellectual framework of jihadist warfare.” Wright argues that Fadl’s book is “a trenchant attack on the immoral roots of Al Qaeda’s theology:”

The premise that opens “Rationalizing Jihad” is “There is nothing that invokes the anger of God and His wrath like the unwarranted spilling of blood and wrecking of property.” Fadl then establishes a new set of rules for jihad, which essentially define most forms of terrorism as illegal under Islamic law and restrict the possibility of holy war to extremely rare circumstances. His argument may seem arcane, even to most Muslims, but to men who had risked their lives in order to carry out what they saw as the authentic precepts of their religion, every word assaulted their world view and brought into question their own chances for salvation.

There is more:

Fadl repeatedly emphasizes that it is forbidden to kill civilians-including Christians and Jews-unless they are actively attacking Muslims. “There is nothing in the Sharia about killing Jews and the Nazarenes, referred to by some as the Crusaders,” Fadl observes. “They are the neighbors of the Muslims . . . and being kind to one’s neighbors is a religious duty.” Indiscriminate bombing-”such as blowing up of hotels, buildings, and public transportation”-is not permitted, because innocents will surely die. . . .

Speaking of Iraq, he notes that, without the jihad there, “America would have moved into Syria.” However, it is unrealistic to believe that, “under current circumstances,” such struggles will lead to Islamic states. Iraq is particularly troubling because of the sectarian cleansing that the war has generated. Fadl addresses the bloody division between Sunnis and Shiites at the heart of Islam: “Harming those who are affiliated with Islam but have a different creed is forbidden.” Al Qaeda is an entirely Sunni organization; the Shiites are its declared enemies. Fadl, however, quotes Ibn Taymiyya, one of the revered scholars of early Islam, who is also bin Laden’s favorite authority: “A Muslim’s blood and money are safeguarded even if his creed is different.”

Wright’s essay–which includes fascinating details on Fadl’s life, his relationship with Zawahiri, the rift that developed between them, and their recent debate about the nature of meaning of jihad–concludes:

One afternoon in Egypt, I visited Kamal Habib, a key leader of the first generation of Al Jihad, who is now a political scientist and analyst. His writing has gained him an audience of former radicals who, like him, have sought a path back to moderation. We met in the cafeteria of the Journalists’ Syndicate, in downtown Cairo. Habib is an energetic political theorist, unbroken by ten years in prison, despite having been tortured. (His arms are marked with scars from cigarette burns.) “We now have before us two schools of thought,” Habib told me. “The old school, which was expressed by Al Jihad and its spinoff, Al Qaeda, is the one that was led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Sheikh Maqdisi, Zarqawi. The new school, which Dr. Fadl has given expression to, represents a battle of faith. It’s deeper than just ideology.” He went on, “The general mood of Islamist movements in the seventies was intransigence. Now the general mood is toward harmony and coexistence. The distance between the two is a measure of their experience.” Ironically, Dr. Fadl’s thinking gave birth to both schools. “As long as a person lives in a world of jihad, the old vision will control his thinking,” Habib suggested. “When he’s in battle, he doesn’t wonder if he’s wrong or he’s right. When he’s arrested, he has time to wonder.”

“Dr. Fadl’s revisions and Zawahiri’s response show that the movement is disintegrating,” Karam Zuhdy, the Islamic Group leader, told me one afternoon, in his modest apartment in Alexandria. He is a striking figure, fifty-six years old, with blond hair and black eyebrows. His daughter, who is four, wrapped herself around his leg as an old black-and-white Egyptian movie played silently on a television. Such movies provide a glimpse of a more tolerant and hopeful time, before Egypt took its dark turn into revolution and Islamist violence. I asked Zuhdy how his country might have been different if he and his colleagues had never chosen the bloody path. “It would have been a lot better now,” he admitted. “Our opting for violence encouraged Al Jihad to emerge.” He even suggested that, had the Islamists not murdered Sadat thirty years ago, there would be peace today between the Palestinians and the Israelis. He quoted the Prophet Muhammad: “Only what benefits people stays on the earth.”

“It’s very easy to start violence,” Zuhdy said. “Peace is much more difficult.”

The tectonic plates have been shifting within the Islamic world for many months now. Thanks to Wright’s new essay, many more people in this country will recognize what is unfolding and its ramifications for al Qaeda specifically and jihadism more broadly. And while there is plenty of work that remains to be done and this struggle is far from over, what we have seen are heartening, far-reaching, and perhaps even pivotal developments in the history of jihad.

Lawrence Wright, author of the brilliant book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, has written an extremely significant essay in The New Yorker, “The Rebellion Within.”

Wright’s article is devoted to an issue that has fascinated me for months now and which I have written on (see here and here): how the tide within the Islamic world is turning against jihadism and more specifically, the significance of Sayyid Imam al-Sharif–who is more widely known by the pseudonym Dr. Fadl–breaking with the extremist and violent ideology he helped develop and popularize. This is one of the most significant and, until now, unreported ideological developments within the Islamic world. (Wright wisely points out that Fadl’s defection is not the only relevant data point; we have seen key Saudi and Palestinian clerics make similar arguments. For example, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Aal al-Sheikh, the highest religious authority in Saudi Arabia, issued a fatwa in October 2007 forbidding Saudi youth from engaging in jihad abroad. And a month earlier, Sheikh Salman al-Awdah, an influential Saudi cleric whom Osama bin Laden once lionized, wrote an “open letter” condemning bin Laden).

By way of background: Fadl, an Egyptian, is a living legend within the Islamic world and former mentor to Ayman Zawahiri, the ideological leader of Al Qaeda. In November 2007, the first segment of Fadl’s book appeared in the newspapers Al Masri Al Youm and Al Jarida. Titled “Rationalizing Jihad in Egypt and the World,” it attempted to (in Wright’s words) “reconcile Fadl’s well-known views with his sweeping modifications.” The result is that “Fadl’s arguments undermined the entire intellectual framework of jihadist warfare.” Wright argues that Fadl’s book is “a trenchant attack on the immoral roots of Al Qaeda’s theology:”

The premise that opens “Rationalizing Jihad” is “There is nothing that invokes the anger of God and His wrath like the unwarranted spilling of blood and wrecking of property.” Fadl then establishes a new set of rules for jihad, which essentially define most forms of terrorism as illegal under Islamic law and restrict the possibility of holy war to extremely rare circumstances. His argument may seem arcane, even to most Muslims, but to men who had risked their lives in order to carry out what they saw as the authentic precepts of their religion, every word assaulted their world view and brought into question their own chances for salvation.

There is more:

Fadl repeatedly emphasizes that it is forbidden to kill civilians-including Christians and Jews-unless they are actively attacking Muslims. “There is nothing in the Sharia about killing Jews and the Nazarenes, referred to by some as the Crusaders,” Fadl observes. “They are the neighbors of the Muslims . . . and being kind to one’s neighbors is a religious duty.” Indiscriminate bombing-”such as blowing up of hotels, buildings, and public transportation”-is not permitted, because innocents will surely die. . . .

Speaking of Iraq, he notes that, without the jihad there, “America would have moved into Syria.” However, it is unrealistic to believe that, “under current circumstances,” such struggles will lead to Islamic states. Iraq is particularly troubling because of the sectarian cleansing that the war has generated. Fadl addresses the bloody division between Sunnis and Shiites at the heart of Islam: “Harming those who are affiliated with Islam but have a different creed is forbidden.” Al Qaeda is an entirely Sunni organization; the Shiites are its declared enemies. Fadl, however, quotes Ibn Taymiyya, one of the revered scholars of early Islam, who is also bin Laden’s favorite authority: “A Muslim’s blood and money are safeguarded even if his creed is different.”

Wright’s essay–which includes fascinating details on Fadl’s life, his relationship with Zawahiri, the rift that developed between them, and their recent debate about the nature of meaning of jihad–concludes:

One afternoon in Egypt, I visited Kamal Habib, a key leader of the first generation of Al Jihad, who is now a political scientist and analyst. His writing has gained him an audience of former radicals who, like him, have sought a path back to moderation. We met in the cafeteria of the Journalists’ Syndicate, in downtown Cairo. Habib is an energetic political theorist, unbroken by ten years in prison, despite having been tortured. (His arms are marked with scars from cigarette burns.) “We now have before us two schools of thought,” Habib told me. “The old school, which was expressed by Al Jihad and its spinoff, Al Qaeda, is the one that was led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Sheikh Maqdisi, Zarqawi. The new school, which Dr. Fadl has given expression to, represents a battle of faith. It’s deeper than just ideology.” He went on, “The general mood of Islamist movements in the seventies was intransigence. Now the general mood is toward harmony and coexistence. The distance between the two is a measure of their experience.” Ironically, Dr. Fadl’s thinking gave birth to both schools. “As long as a person lives in a world of jihad, the old vision will control his thinking,” Habib suggested. “When he’s in battle, he doesn’t wonder if he’s wrong or he’s right. When he’s arrested, he has time to wonder.”

“Dr. Fadl’s revisions and Zawahiri’s response show that the movement is disintegrating,” Karam Zuhdy, the Islamic Group leader, told me one afternoon, in his modest apartment in Alexandria. He is a striking figure, fifty-six years old, with blond hair and black eyebrows. His daughter, who is four, wrapped herself around his leg as an old black-and-white Egyptian movie played silently on a television. Such movies provide a glimpse of a more tolerant and hopeful time, before Egypt took its dark turn into revolution and Islamist violence. I asked Zuhdy how his country might have been different if he and his colleagues had never chosen the bloody path. “It would have been a lot better now,” he admitted. “Our opting for violence encouraged Al Jihad to emerge.” He even suggested that, had the Islamists not murdered Sadat thirty years ago, there would be peace today between the Palestinians and the Israelis. He quoted the Prophet Muhammad: “Only what benefits people stays on the earth.”

“It’s very easy to start violence,” Zuhdy said. “Peace is much more difficult.”

The tectonic plates have been shifting within the Islamic world for many months now. Thanks to Wright’s new essay, many more people in this country will recognize what is unfolding and its ramifications for al Qaeda specifically and jihadism more broadly. And while there is plenty of work that remains to be done and this struggle is far from over, what we have seen are heartening, far-reaching, and perhaps even pivotal developments in the history of jihad.

Read Less

Fool Me Once…

On September 6, 2007, Israel destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor at al Kibar. Writing about the raid in the New Yorker on February 11, 2008, Seymour Hersh cast doubt on the contention that it was in fact a nuclear facility:

in three months of reporting for this article, I was repeatedly told by current and former intelligence, diplomatic, and congressional officials that they were not aware of any solid evidence of ongoing nuclear-weapons programs in Syria. It is possible that Israel conveyed intelligence directly to senior members of the Bush Administration, without it being vetted by intelligence agencies. (This process, known as “stovepiping,” overwhelmed U.S. intelligence before the war in Iraq.) But Mohamed ElBaradei, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations group responsible for monitoring compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, said, “Our experts who have carefully analyzed the satellite imagery say it is unlikely that this building was a nuclear facility.”

One of Hersh’s sources was Barack Obama’s non-proliferation adviser, Joseph Cirincione, who told Hersh flatly that

Syria does not have the technical, industrial, or financial ability to support a nuclear-weapons program. I’ve been following this issue for fifteen years, and every once in a while a suspicion arises and we investigate and there’s nothing.

In the face of unequivocal evidence, Cirincione has acknowledged his error, saying “no one bats 1000.” That of course is true. And the difficulty of assessing what Syria was up to was certainly compounded by Syrian deception. David Albright’s outfit, the Institute for Science and International Security, has put out an important study (complete with photographs) of the “extraordinary camouflage” methods the Syrians employed to disguise the facility.

In assessing the track record of an expert like Cirincione, let’s also keep in mind that tight secrecy, camouflage, and deception in nuclear affairs are nothing new. On the eve of the first Gulf war, thanks to secrecy, the United States was almost completely in the dark about the far-reaching scope of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program.

In the run-up to the second Gulf war, the problem was reversed. The intelligence community persuaded itself that Saddam had an active nuclear program when in fact he had none.

One would expect experts to draw appropriate lessons from both experiences. First among them is that humility and a measure of self-doubt are important when trying to penetrate other countries’ secrets.

Such qualities were conspicuously absent in Cirincione’s analysis of al Kibar: “There was and is no nuclear-weapons threat from Syria. This is all political,” is what he categorically told Hersh.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

On September 6, 2007, Israel destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor at al Kibar. Writing about the raid in the New Yorker on February 11, 2008, Seymour Hersh cast doubt on the contention that it was in fact a nuclear facility:

in three months of reporting for this article, I was repeatedly told by current and former intelligence, diplomatic, and congressional officials that they were not aware of any solid evidence of ongoing nuclear-weapons programs in Syria. It is possible that Israel conveyed intelligence directly to senior members of the Bush Administration, without it being vetted by intelligence agencies. (This process, known as “stovepiping,” overwhelmed U.S. intelligence before the war in Iraq.) But Mohamed ElBaradei, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations group responsible for monitoring compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, said, “Our experts who have carefully analyzed the satellite imagery say it is unlikely that this building was a nuclear facility.”

One of Hersh’s sources was Barack Obama’s non-proliferation adviser, Joseph Cirincione, who told Hersh flatly that

Syria does not have the technical, industrial, or financial ability to support a nuclear-weapons program. I’ve been following this issue for fifteen years, and every once in a while a suspicion arises and we investigate and there’s nothing.

In the face of unequivocal evidence, Cirincione has acknowledged his error, saying “no one bats 1000.” That of course is true. And the difficulty of assessing what Syria was up to was certainly compounded by Syrian deception. David Albright’s outfit, the Institute for Science and International Security, has put out an important study (complete with photographs) of the “extraordinary camouflage” methods the Syrians employed to disguise the facility.

In assessing the track record of an expert like Cirincione, let’s also keep in mind that tight secrecy, camouflage, and deception in nuclear affairs are nothing new. On the eve of the first Gulf war, thanks to secrecy, the United States was almost completely in the dark about the far-reaching scope of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program.

In the run-up to the second Gulf war, the problem was reversed. The intelligence community persuaded itself that Saddam had an active nuclear program when in fact he had none.

One would expect experts to draw appropriate lessons from both experiences. First among them is that humility and a measure of self-doubt are important when trying to penetrate other countries’ secrets.

Such qualities were conspicuously absent in Cirincione’s analysis of al Kibar: “There was and is no nuclear-weapons threat from Syria. This is all political,” is what he categorically told Hersh.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Read Less

Bookshelf

How exasperating can a very short book be? I give you Josh Ozersky’s The Hamburger: A History (Yale, 141 pp., $22). Ozersky, whose official title is “Food Editor/Online for New York Magazine” (love that slash), has contrived in not much more than a hundred pages of heavily leaded text to cram in everything I find most irksome about the postmodern branch of semi-scholarship known as cultural studies: the jaw-breaking jargon, the sniggering coyness, the don’t-take-me-too-seriously irony.

The irritation starts on the second page:

Even before the hamburger became a universal signifier of imperialism abroad and unwholesomeness at home, it had a special semiotic power-a quality not shared even by other great American sandwiches like the hot dog, the patty melt, the Dagwood, the Reuben, the po’boy, or even such totemic standards as fried chicken and apple pie. At the end of the day, nothing says America like a hamburger . . . . Is it a sizzling disc of goodness, served in a roadside restaurant dense with local lore, or the grim end product of a secret, sinister empire of tormented animals and unspeakable slaughtering practices? Is it cooking or commodity? An icon of freedom or the quintessence of conformity?

The Hamburger is like that from start to finish. Is the hamburger a Bad Thing? Well, yes, it must be, if only because it is an American Thing beloved of ordinary folk, and you know all about those pesky ordinary folk, right? But the damn thing still tastes good, so Ozersky writes about its cultural history in such a way as to suggest at all times his superiority to that which he nonetheless allows himself to enjoy–and the benighted Americans who continue to insist on enjoying it unselfconsciously. Like a limousine liberal of fast-food cuisine, he wanders in and out of both camps, nibbling his medium-rare cheeseburgers with just the right amount of ennobling guilt.

The have-it-both-ways trickery of The Hamburger is displayed at length in the chapter devoted to McDonald’s, which Ozersky calls “the most symbolically loaded business in the world,” one that “represents America to the world in a way no other business ever has or likely ever will.” We are simultaneously invited to admire the ingenuity with which the founders of McDonald’s contrived to automate the production of 15-cent hamburgers and to tremble at the larger implications of unleashing such a technology on an unprepared world–yet at no time does Ozersky ever commit himself to the loony leftism of the anti-McDonald’s fanatics who regard Ray Kroc as the source of all evil in the modern world. In describing the experience of Sandy Agate, one of the first McDonald’s franchisees, Ozersky assures us that his story “doesn’t end happily. (Arguably, the same could be said of the McDonald’s Corporation or for that matter America.)” That throwaway parenthesis says everything about The Hamburger.

Robert Warshow first anatomized Ozersky’s politico-literary technique in his 1947 Partisan Review essay on the New Yorker:

The New Yorker has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it. This makes it possible to feel intelligent without thinking, and it is a way of making everything tolerable, for the assumption of a suitable attitude toward experience can give one the illusion of having dealt with it adequately.

Who could have predicted in 1947 that someone would come along six decades later who could write about the lowly hamburger in such a manner? Of such is the kingdom of cultural studies, where everything is permitted, even the consumption of ground beef on a white-bread bun–so long as you do it with the right attitude.

How exasperating can a very short book be? I give you Josh Ozersky’s The Hamburger: A History (Yale, 141 pp., $22). Ozersky, whose official title is “Food Editor/Online for New York Magazine” (love that slash), has contrived in not much more than a hundred pages of heavily leaded text to cram in everything I find most irksome about the postmodern branch of semi-scholarship known as cultural studies: the jaw-breaking jargon, the sniggering coyness, the don’t-take-me-too-seriously irony.

The irritation starts on the second page:

Even before the hamburger became a universal signifier of imperialism abroad and unwholesomeness at home, it had a special semiotic power-a quality not shared even by other great American sandwiches like the hot dog, the patty melt, the Dagwood, the Reuben, the po’boy, or even such totemic standards as fried chicken and apple pie. At the end of the day, nothing says America like a hamburger . . . . Is it a sizzling disc of goodness, served in a roadside restaurant dense with local lore, or the grim end product of a secret, sinister empire of tormented animals and unspeakable slaughtering practices? Is it cooking or commodity? An icon of freedom or the quintessence of conformity?

The Hamburger is like that from start to finish. Is the hamburger a Bad Thing? Well, yes, it must be, if only because it is an American Thing beloved of ordinary folk, and you know all about those pesky ordinary folk, right? But the damn thing still tastes good, so Ozersky writes about its cultural history in such a way as to suggest at all times his superiority to that which he nonetheless allows himself to enjoy–and the benighted Americans who continue to insist on enjoying it unselfconsciously. Like a limousine liberal of fast-food cuisine, he wanders in and out of both camps, nibbling his medium-rare cheeseburgers with just the right amount of ennobling guilt.

The have-it-both-ways trickery of The Hamburger is displayed at length in the chapter devoted to McDonald’s, which Ozersky calls “the most symbolically loaded business in the world,” one that “represents America to the world in a way no other business ever has or likely ever will.” We are simultaneously invited to admire the ingenuity with which the founders of McDonald’s contrived to automate the production of 15-cent hamburgers and to tremble at the larger implications of unleashing such a technology on an unprepared world–yet at no time does Ozersky ever commit himself to the loony leftism of the anti-McDonald’s fanatics who regard Ray Kroc as the source of all evil in the modern world. In describing the experience of Sandy Agate, one of the first McDonald’s franchisees, Ozersky assures us that his story “doesn’t end happily. (Arguably, the same could be said of the McDonald’s Corporation or for that matter America.)” That throwaway parenthesis says everything about The Hamburger.

Robert Warshow first anatomized Ozersky’s politico-literary technique in his 1947 Partisan Review essay on the New Yorker:

The New Yorker has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it. This makes it possible to feel intelligent without thinking, and it is a way of making everything tolerable, for the assumption of a suitable attitude toward experience can give one the illusion of having dealt with it adequately.

Who could have predicted in 1947 that someone would come along six decades later who could write about the lowly hamburger in such a manner? Of such is the kingdom of cultural studies, where everything is permitted, even the consumption of ground beef on a white-bread bun–so long as you do it with the right attitude.

Read Less

Toobin on Gitmo

Jeffrey Toobin has a pretty good overview in the current issue of the New Yorker of the whole issue of Guatanamo and the handling of terrorist detainees–especially useful for those like me who have not followed the issue super-closely. Two points in particular jumped out at me.

1) “But, in 2004, the Supreme Court ruled, in Rasul v. Bush, that, because the Guantánamo base was under the exclusive control of the U.S. military, the detainees were effectively on American soil and had the right to bring habeas-corpus petitions in federal court.”

This is something that conservative critics of John McCain don’t seem to have grasped–that, rightly or wrongly, the Supreme Court has already conferred rights on detainees at Gitmo and they probably won’t gain any more rights simply by being transferred to the mainland, as McCain has proposed. (Full disclosure: I am a foreign policy adviser to the McCain campaign.)

2) Neal Katyal and Jack Goldsmith–a liberal and a conservative law professor–have come up with an idea for trying detainees: “a national-security court:”

According to their proposal, which was recently the subject of a conference sponsored by American University’s Washington College of Law and the Brookings Institution, sitting federal judges would preside over proceedings in which prosecutors would make the case that a person should be detained. There would be trials of sorts, and detainees would have lawyers, but they would have fewer rights than in a criminal case. Hearsay evidence may be admissible-so government agents could testify about what informants told them-and there would be no requirement for Miranda warnings before interrogations.

This seems like an excellent idea and one that could address concerns that if detainees are moved from Gitmo they will be afforded all the same rights as normal criminal defendants.

Of course even beyond the issue of trials there is the equally vital issue of preventative detention: There is insufficient evidence against many of the Gitmo detainees to convict them in a court of law but sufficient evidence to hold them indefinitely because of the risk that if released they would go back to terrorism. Obviously this needs to be part of any longterm legal solution. But simply keeping them at Gitmo will not do anything to resolve this thorny issue–and all the while it will continue to cost us international support.

Jeffrey Toobin has a pretty good overview in the current issue of the New Yorker of the whole issue of Guatanamo and the handling of terrorist detainees–especially useful for those like me who have not followed the issue super-closely. Two points in particular jumped out at me.

1) “But, in 2004, the Supreme Court ruled, in Rasul v. Bush, that, because the Guantánamo base was under the exclusive control of the U.S. military, the detainees were effectively on American soil and had the right to bring habeas-corpus petitions in federal court.”

This is something that conservative critics of John McCain don’t seem to have grasped–that, rightly or wrongly, the Supreme Court has already conferred rights on detainees at Gitmo and they probably won’t gain any more rights simply by being transferred to the mainland, as McCain has proposed. (Full disclosure: I am a foreign policy adviser to the McCain campaign.)

2) Neal Katyal and Jack Goldsmith–a liberal and a conservative law professor–have come up with an idea for trying detainees: “a national-security court:”

According to their proposal, which was recently the subject of a conference sponsored by American University’s Washington College of Law and the Brookings Institution, sitting federal judges would preside over proceedings in which prosecutors would make the case that a person should be detained. There would be trials of sorts, and detainees would have lawyers, but they would have fewer rights than in a criminal case. Hearsay evidence may be admissible-so government agents could testify about what informants told them-and there would be no requirement for Miranda warnings before interrogations.

This seems like an excellent idea and one that could address concerns that if detainees are moved from Gitmo they will be afforded all the same rights as normal criminal defendants.

Of course even beyond the issue of trials there is the equally vital issue of preventative detention: There is insufficient evidence against many of the Gitmo detainees to convict them in a court of law but sufficient evidence to hold them indefinitely because of the risk that if released they would go back to terrorism. Obviously this needs to be part of any longterm legal solution. But simply keeping them at Gitmo will not do anything to resolve this thorny issue–and all the while it will continue to cost us international support.

Read Less

Bookshelf

Jennifer 8. Lee, the New York Times metro reporter with the numerical middle name, has written a funny, informative book about a subject likely to be near and dear to the hearts of most of the people who are reading these words. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food (Twelve, 308 pp., $24.99) is a pop history of what should really be called Chinese-American cuisine, since it bears only a glancing resemblance to the style of cooking practiced in China and in the homes of Chinese immigrants. It is not, however, a clip job: Ms. Lee, as befits a reporter, has done an awesome amount of legwork, both here and abroad, in order to track down the hazy and oft-disputed origins of chop suey, General Tso’s chicken, and the fortune cookie.

Written in a breezy manner that grates only occasionally, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles really does tell you just about everything you could possibly want to know about how Chinese cooking was modified for American palates and marketed in such a way as to become the most ubiquitous of ethnic cuisines—and yes, it even contains a chapter called “Why Chow Mein is the Chosen Food of the Chosen People.” I commend it to your attention.

• A.J. Liebling, who was generously represented in the Library of America’s Reporting World War II, now has a volume of his own. World War II Writings (Library of America, 1089 pp., $40), edited by Pete Hamill, contains the complete texts of The Road Back to Paris (1944) and Mollie and Other War Pieces (1964), the two books of wartime reportage assembled by Liebling during his lifetime, plus Normandy Revisited, the uncommonly elegant 1958 memoir in which he weaves together present- and past-tense accounts of his wartime and postwar visits to Normandy. Also included are 28 uncollected pieces about World War II, most of which originally appeared in The New Yorker, and two excerpts from The Republic of Silence, Liebling’s 1947 anthology of articles from the French resistance press.

If all this sounds a bit dry, allow me to disabuse you of any such notion. Liebling’s wartime dispatches to The New Yorker were the finest work of their kind to be published by any American journalist during World War II. Ernie Pyle was his only rival, and Pyle was a very different sort of writer, unadorned and homespun where Liebling was ornate and self-revealing—though never self-regarding. He portrayed himself as a character in his own pieces, an out-of-place urbanite who somehow ended up in the middle of great events, and the humor with which he describes them does not diminish in the least the immense gravity underlying his writing. The chapters of The Road Back to Paris in which he describes the fall of France, for instance, combine lightness of touch with high seriousness to tremendously powerful effect: “You cannot keep your mind indefinitely on a war that does not begin. Toward the end of the year many of the people who three months before had been ready to pop into their cellars like prairie dogs at the first purring of an airplane motor, expecting Paris to be expunged between dark and dawn, were complaining because restaurants did not serve beefsteak on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays, and because the season had produced no new plays worth seeing.” (Modern-day New Yorkers will know exactly what Liebling was talking about.)

Many of Liebling’s most memorable dispatches are included in Reporting World War II, but by no means all of them, and those whose copies of the cheaply bound 1981 omnibus anthology Liebling At War are now falling to pieces will be delighted to replace it with this compact, handsomely printed collection. “Of all the specifically literary American journalism to come out of World War II, A.J. Liebling’s was by a long shot the very best,” I wrote on another occasion. Nothing in World War II Writings has made me change my mind.

Jennifer 8. Lee, the New York Times metro reporter with the numerical middle name, has written a funny, informative book about a subject likely to be near and dear to the hearts of most of the people who are reading these words. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food (Twelve, 308 pp., $24.99) is a pop history of what should really be called Chinese-American cuisine, since it bears only a glancing resemblance to the style of cooking practiced in China and in the homes of Chinese immigrants. It is not, however, a clip job: Ms. Lee, as befits a reporter, has done an awesome amount of legwork, both here and abroad, in order to track down the hazy and oft-disputed origins of chop suey, General Tso’s chicken, and the fortune cookie.

Written in a breezy manner that grates only occasionally, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles really does tell you just about everything you could possibly want to know about how Chinese cooking was modified for American palates and marketed in such a way as to become the most ubiquitous of ethnic cuisines—and yes, it even contains a chapter called “Why Chow Mein is the Chosen Food of the Chosen People.” I commend it to your attention.

• A.J. Liebling, who was generously represented in the Library of America’s Reporting World War II, now has a volume of his own. World War II Writings (Library of America, 1089 pp., $40), edited by Pete Hamill, contains the complete texts of The Road Back to Paris (1944) and Mollie and Other War Pieces (1964), the two books of wartime reportage assembled by Liebling during his lifetime, plus Normandy Revisited, the uncommonly elegant 1958 memoir in which he weaves together present- and past-tense accounts of his wartime and postwar visits to Normandy. Also included are 28 uncollected pieces about World War II, most of which originally appeared in The New Yorker, and two excerpts from The Republic of Silence, Liebling’s 1947 anthology of articles from the French resistance press.

If all this sounds a bit dry, allow me to disabuse you of any such notion. Liebling’s wartime dispatches to The New Yorker were the finest work of their kind to be published by any American journalist during World War II. Ernie Pyle was his only rival, and Pyle was a very different sort of writer, unadorned and homespun where Liebling was ornate and self-revealing—though never self-regarding. He portrayed himself as a character in his own pieces, an out-of-place urbanite who somehow ended up in the middle of great events, and the humor with which he describes them does not diminish in the least the immense gravity underlying his writing. The chapters of The Road Back to Paris in which he describes the fall of France, for instance, combine lightness of touch with high seriousness to tremendously powerful effect: “You cannot keep your mind indefinitely on a war that does not begin. Toward the end of the year many of the people who three months before had been ready to pop into their cellars like prairie dogs at the first purring of an airplane motor, expecting Paris to be expunged between dark and dawn, were complaining because restaurants did not serve beefsteak on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays, and because the season had produced no new plays worth seeing.” (Modern-day New Yorkers will know exactly what Liebling was talking about.)

Many of Liebling’s most memorable dispatches are included in Reporting World War II, but by no means all of them, and those whose copies of the cheaply bound 1981 omnibus anthology Liebling At War are now falling to pieces will be delighted to replace it with this compact, handsomely printed collection. “Of all the specifically literary American journalism to come out of World War II, A.J. Liebling’s was by a long shot the very best,” I wrote on another occasion. Nothing in World War II Writings has made me change my mind.

Read Less

Wolff & Tolstoy

I don’t often make the time to listen to The New Yorker‘s fiction podcast, but this month’s is a treat: T. C. Boyle reading and discussing Tobias Wolff’s short story “Bullet in the Brain,” which first appeared in the magazine in 1995 and was included in Wolff’s 1996 collection The Night in Question. It’s also reprinted in Wolff’s forthcoming collection Our Story Begins, and was even made into a short film. (I can’t bring myself to watch it, though; I like the story too much.) In other words, it’s a very popular story, and I don’t think Boyle exaggerates in saying that it is, “at its length, perfect.” It’s six pages long.

“Bullet in the Brain” goes like this: A deeply cynical and vicious book critic named Anders walks into a bank. The bank gets held up. Anders cannot help laughing at the robbers’ clichéd lingo, at what he calls a “great script . . . the stern, brass-knuckled poetry of the dangerous classes.” Fans of the crime genre will think of Sam Spade’s remark in The Maltese Falcon: “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.” But Anders’s words to that effect don’t intimidate. They only earn him the titular bullet.

That isn’t a spoiler. The real story is what happened after “the bullet smashed Anders’s skull and plowed through his brain and exited behind his right ear, scattering shards of bone into the cerebral cortex, the corpus callosum, back toward the basal ganglia, and down into the thalamus.” Wolff’s autopsy deadpan gives way to a miraculously condensed account of the life that doesn’t and the moment that does flash before Anders’s eyes. We see, in effect, what made Anders who he is—and the memory of who he used to be bubbling up in the final seconds of his life.

Boyle notes how like Flannery O’Connor’s writing this story is, in that it takes an essentially comical or cartoonish situation and transforms it into something “poignant.” Indeed, O’Connor’s story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” has much in common with “Bullet in the Brain,” right down to the bullets and where they wind up. But I think Wolff’s story should be read alongside Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. It’s every bit as merciless in laying bare the accretions and losses of a lifetime, and what they might mean to us as life comes to an end. Ilyich’s death is as slow and agonizing as Anders’s is not. Compare these very different approaches, and I think you’ll agree that these very different approaches achieve similar effects. And “poignant” doesn’t come close to describing them.

I don’t often make the time to listen to The New Yorker‘s fiction podcast, but this month’s is a treat: T. C. Boyle reading and discussing Tobias Wolff’s short story “Bullet in the Brain,” which first appeared in the magazine in 1995 and was included in Wolff’s 1996 collection The Night in Question. It’s also reprinted in Wolff’s forthcoming collection Our Story Begins, and was even made into a short film. (I can’t bring myself to watch it, though; I like the story too much.) In other words, it’s a very popular story, and I don’t think Boyle exaggerates in saying that it is, “at its length, perfect.” It’s six pages long.

“Bullet in the Brain” goes like this: A deeply cynical and vicious book critic named Anders walks into a bank. The bank gets held up. Anders cannot help laughing at the robbers’ clichéd lingo, at what he calls a “great script . . . the stern, brass-knuckled poetry of the dangerous classes.” Fans of the crime genre will think of Sam Spade’s remark in The Maltese Falcon: “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.” But Anders’s words to that effect don’t intimidate. They only earn him the titular bullet.

That isn’t a spoiler. The real story is what happened after “the bullet smashed Anders’s skull and plowed through his brain and exited behind his right ear, scattering shards of bone into the cerebral cortex, the corpus callosum, back toward the basal ganglia, and down into the thalamus.” Wolff’s autopsy deadpan gives way to a miraculously condensed account of the life that doesn’t and the moment that does flash before Anders’s eyes. We see, in effect, what made Anders who he is—and the memory of who he used to be bubbling up in the final seconds of his life.

Boyle notes how like Flannery O’Connor’s writing this story is, in that it takes an essentially comical or cartoonish situation and transforms it into something “poignant.” Indeed, O’Connor’s story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” has much in common with “Bullet in the Brain,” right down to the bullets and where they wind up. But I think Wolff’s story should be read alongside Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. It’s every bit as merciless in laying bare the accretions and losses of a lifetime, and what they might mean to us as life comes to an end. Ilyich’s death is as slow and agonizing as Anders’s is not. Compare these very different approaches, and I think you’ll agree that these very different approaches achieve similar effects. And “poignant” doesn’t come close to describing them.

Read Less

Goldberg Vituperations

An editorial that appeared today in the New York Sun goes a long way toward straightening out the record on what it calls “a kerfuffle [that] has been sputtering on the World Wide Web over a question [Norman] Podhoretz asked in respect of the Kurds.”

Mr. Podhoretz asked the question five years ago at a banquet in New York honoring Robert L. Bartley of the Wall Street Journal, Bernard Lewis of Princeton, and Jeffrey Goldberg, then of the New Yorker. Mr. Goldberg, a marvelous reporter, was being saluted for a dispatch from Kurdistan that had helped light the way for American entry into the Battle of Iraq. Mr. Goldberg had just come in from Northern Iraq and spoke about Kurdistan. In a tour d’horizon of the Middle East in the January/February number of the Atlantic, Mr. Goldberg relates that after the event, Mr. Podhoretz asked him, “What’s a Kurd, anyway?” Mr. Podhoretz, in Mr. Goldberg’s account, “seemed authentically bewildered.”

Goldberg is surely capable of giving an accurate description of an event in which he himself was a participant. Yet what he does here is to make it sound as though I had never even heard of the Kurds. And this indeed is precisely how the story has been widely interpreted.

That his portrayal is false is confirmed by the author of the Sun editorial, who was also present at the banquet:

As it happens, we were either in the same or a similar conversation with Mr. Podhoretz at the same banquet, and we took him not as being ignorant of the Kurdish question; after all, Commentary during his years as editor in chief contained plenty of references to Kurdistan. We took him to be curious as to how Mr. Goldberg would answer a question of ethnography that has never been resolved.

The Sun editorial is right: I was, in fact, asking Goldberg about the ethnic and/or racial character of the Kurds. And that, as it happens, was and is a very good question — since, as I have since discovered, no one seems to know the answer. According to Wikipedia, “There are many different and diverging views on the origin of the Kurds,” and according to no less an authority than the Encyclopaedia Britannica, their ethnic origins remain uncertain. The only points on which there seems to be general agreement are (1) that they are not Arabs; (2) that they are mainly Sunni Muslims; and (3) that they speak “an Indo-European language of the Iranian branch.”

To tell the truth, after five years I don’t remember what Goldberg said in answer to my question, and neither, I would bet, does he. Why then does he go out of his way to bring it up after such a long time?

The answer is that, in his Atlantic article, Goldberg was trying to show that “neoconservative ideologues” are not “interested in the Kurdish cause, or even particularly knowledgeable about its history,” and having no solid evidence to back up this smear, he settled for a malicious representation of an old conversation with me (“the vicariously martial neoconservative who is now a Middle East adviser to Rudolph Giuliani”).

Thus did an animus against neoconservatism lead Goldberg to violate the most elementary standards of journalistic fairness. And there is an additional factor, which is that Goldberg, whose views are often dangerously close to those held by us “neoconservative ideologues,” is (like others I could name) so fearful of being stigmatized by that dread label that he can never resist an opportunity to demonstrate through smears and sneers that he is nothing of the kind. But that is another story, for another day.

An editorial that appeared today in the New York Sun goes a long way toward straightening out the record on what it calls “a kerfuffle [that] has been sputtering on the World Wide Web over a question [Norman] Podhoretz asked in respect of the Kurds.”

Mr. Podhoretz asked the question five years ago at a banquet in New York honoring Robert L. Bartley of the Wall Street Journal, Bernard Lewis of Princeton, and Jeffrey Goldberg, then of the New Yorker. Mr. Goldberg, a marvelous reporter, was being saluted for a dispatch from Kurdistan that had helped light the way for American entry into the Battle of Iraq. Mr. Goldberg had just come in from Northern Iraq and spoke about Kurdistan. In a tour d’horizon of the Middle East in the January/February number of the Atlantic, Mr. Goldberg relates that after the event, Mr. Podhoretz asked him, “What’s a Kurd, anyway?” Mr. Podhoretz, in Mr. Goldberg’s account, “seemed authentically bewildered.”

Goldberg is surely capable of giving an accurate description of an event in which he himself was a participant. Yet what he does here is to make it sound as though I had never even heard of the Kurds. And this indeed is precisely how the story has been widely interpreted.

That his portrayal is false is confirmed by the author of the Sun editorial, who was also present at the banquet:

As it happens, we were either in the same or a similar conversation with Mr. Podhoretz at the same banquet, and we took him not as being ignorant of the Kurdish question; after all, Commentary during his years as editor in chief contained plenty of references to Kurdistan. We took him to be curious as to how Mr. Goldberg would answer a question of ethnography that has never been resolved.

The Sun editorial is right: I was, in fact, asking Goldberg about the ethnic and/or racial character of the Kurds. And that, as it happens, was and is a very good question — since, as I have since discovered, no one seems to know the answer. According to Wikipedia, “There are many different and diverging views on the origin of the Kurds,” and according to no less an authority than the Encyclopaedia Britannica, their ethnic origins remain uncertain. The only points on which there seems to be general agreement are (1) that they are not Arabs; (2) that they are mainly Sunni Muslims; and (3) that they speak “an Indo-European language of the Iranian branch.”

To tell the truth, after five years I don’t remember what Goldberg said in answer to my question, and neither, I would bet, does he. Why then does he go out of his way to bring it up after such a long time?

The answer is that, in his Atlantic article, Goldberg was trying to show that “neoconservative ideologues” are not “interested in the Kurdish cause, or even particularly knowledgeable about its history,” and having no solid evidence to back up this smear, he settled for a malicious representation of an old conversation with me (“the vicariously martial neoconservative who is now a Middle East adviser to Rudolph Giuliani”).

Thus did an animus against neoconservatism lead Goldberg to violate the most elementary standards of journalistic fairness. And there is an additional factor, which is that Goldberg, whose views are often dangerously close to those held by us “neoconservative ideologues,” is (like others I could name) so fearful of being stigmatized by that dread label that he can never resist an opportunity to demonstrate through smears and sneers that he is nothing of the kind. But that is another story, for another day.

Read Less

Hersh Comes Up Empty

Last week I mentioned that a Seymour Hersh piece would be coming out in the New Yorker attempting to show that the Syrian site Israel bombed in September 2007 was not a nuclear facility.

Well, Hersh’s piece is out now, and it’s a giant whiff, even by Hersh’s standards. He quotes a couple of people from left-wing American think tanks saying that claims of a nuclear-related target are “all political.” There are the standard anonymous quotes from diplomats close to the IAEA casting doubt on the operation. A staffer at the lefty New America Foundation in Washington says about the satellite imagery of the site, “all you could see was a box. You couldn’t see enough to know how big it will be or what it will do. It’s just a box.” Well, Jeffrey Lewis, maybe Israel has better satellite imagery than you do, and maybe Israel also has some people inside Syria who are supplying information on the mysterious box. Ever thought of that?

Hersh casts some legitimate doubt on the story of the Al Hamed, the ship that docked in Syria a few days before the strike and has been said to have originated in North Korea. But one of his sources is a Greenpeace employee who monitors illegal fishing, who he quotes saying “I can tell you, as a captain, that the Al Hamed was nothing–in rotten shape. You wouldn’t be able to load heavy cargo on it, as the floorboards wouldn’t be that strong.” Well that settles it!

Hersh spent three months researching this piece and traveled several times to Israel and Syria to conduct interviews with his armies of anonymous sources. After all that time and effort, he couldn’t have simply said to his editors, “I’ve got nothing.” But if you read between the lines, that’s exactly the message he’s sending.

Last week I mentioned that a Seymour Hersh piece would be coming out in the New Yorker attempting to show that the Syrian site Israel bombed in September 2007 was not a nuclear facility.

Well, Hersh’s piece is out now, and it’s a giant whiff, even by Hersh’s standards. He quotes a couple of people from left-wing American think tanks saying that claims of a nuclear-related target are “all political.” There are the standard anonymous quotes from diplomats close to the IAEA casting doubt on the operation. A staffer at the lefty New America Foundation in Washington says about the satellite imagery of the site, “all you could see was a box. You couldn’t see enough to know how big it will be or what it will do. It’s just a box.” Well, Jeffrey Lewis, maybe Israel has better satellite imagery than you do, and maybe Israel also has some people inside Syria who are supplying information on the mysterious box. Ever thought of that?

Hersh casts some legitimate doubt on the story of the Al Hamed, the ship that docked in Syria a few days before the strike and has been said to have originated in North Korea. But one of his sources is a Greenpeace employee who monitors illegal fishing, who he quotes saying “I can tell you, as a captain, that the Al Hamed was nothing–in rotten shape. You wouldn’t be able to load heavy cargo on it, as the floorboards wouldn’t be that strong.” Well that settles it!

Hersh spent three months researching this piece and traveled several times to Israel and Syria to conduct interviews with his armies of anonymous sources. After all that time and effort, he couldn’t have simply said to his editors, “I’ve got nothing.” But if you read between the lines, that’s exactly the message he’s sending.

Read Less

A Strike in the Dark?

A Strike in the Dark” is what Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker calls Israel’s September raid on a facility in Syria that may or may not have been nuclear in nature and may or may not have been in the process of being supplied with nuclear materials from North Korea.

Hersh is skeptical of the idea that there was anything untoward going on: “In three months of reporting for this article,” he writes, “I was repeatedly told by current and former intelligence, diplomatic, and congressional officials that they were not aware of any solid evidence of ongoing nuclear-weapons programs in Syria.”

He suggests that reports to the contrary were transmitted directly from Israeli intelligence to senior members of the Bush administration in a way that kept the CIA from vetting them. In other words, it was the same “process, known as ‘stovepiping,” [that] overwhelmed U.S. intelligence before the war in Iraq.”

In writing his piece, Hersh seems to have interviewed every source in the Washington DC telephone book, and also every source in Damascus, where he traveled to interview Syrian officials. I have no evidence that contradicts his impressive reporting. But I am still skeptical of his skepticism.

For one thing, Hersh is remarkably predictable. No matter what happens in the world, Israel and the United States (especially under the Bush administration) are always made by him to look trigger-happy and sinister. But could events consistently break in one way? Or is this an artifact of Hersh’s well-known biases? 

My biases tilt the other way. I haven’t interviewed 734 sources, some of whom may or not exist, or even if they do exist may not be telling the truth. But I recently re-read a 2005 statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that is quite relevant to Israeli fears about the Syrian facility:

We remain concerned about North Korea’s potential for exporting nuclear materials or technology. At the April 2003 trilateral talks in Beijing, North Korea privately threatened to export nuclear weapons. During the third round of Six-Party Talks on the North Korean nuclear issue in June 2004, Pyongyang included a ban on nuclear transfers in its nuclear freeze proposal. In April 2005, North Korea told a US academic that it could transfer nuclear weapons to terrorists if driven into a corner. IAEA inspectors in May 2004 recovered two tons of uranium hexafluoride from Libya that is belied to have originated in North Korea.

Perhaps Israel’s action was “a strike in the dark.” But so what? Even if the intelligence leading Israel to hit the Syrian facility was incomplete or wrong, this was one of those cases where it would not be wise to wait until the evidence comes in the form of a mushroom cloud.

A Strike in the Dark” is what Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker calls Israel’s September raid on a facility in Syria that may or may not have been nuclear in nature and may or may not have been in the process of being supplied with nuclear materials from North Korea.

Hersh is skeptical of the idea that there was anything untoward going on: “In three months of reporting for this article,” he writes, “I was repeatedly told by current and former intelligence, diplomatic, and congressional officials that they were not aware of any solid evidence of ongoing nuclear-weapons programs in Syria.”

He suggests that reports to the contrary were transmitted directly from Israeli intelligence to senior members of the Bush administration in a way that kept the CIA from vetting them. In other words, it was the same “process, known as ‘stovepiping,” [that] overwhelmed U.S. intelligence before the war in Iraq.”

In writing his piece, Hersh seems to have interviewed every source in the Washington DC telephone book, and also every source in Damascus, where he traveled to interview Syrian officials. I have no evidence that contradicts his impressive reporting. But I am still skeptical of his skepticism.

For one thing, Hersh is remarkably predictable. No matter what happens in the world, Israel and the United States (especially under the Bush administration) are always made by him to look trigger-happy and sinister. But could events consistently break in one way? Or is this an artifact of Hersh’s well-known biases? 

My biases tilt the other way. I haven’t interviewed 734 sources, some of whom may or not exist, or even if they do exist may not be telling the truth. But I recently re-read a 2005 statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that is quite relevant to Israeli fears about the Syrian facility:

We remain concerned about North Korea’s potential for exporting nuclear materials or technology. At the April 2003 trilateral talks in Beijing, North Korea privately threatened to export nuclear weapons. During the third round of Six-Party Talks on the North Korean nuclear issue in June 2004, Pyongyang included a ban on nuclear transfers in its nuclear freeze proposal. In April 2005, North Korea told a US academic that it could transfer nuclear weapons to terrorists if driven into a corner. IAEA inspectors in May 2004 recovered two tons of uranium hexafluoride from Libya that is belied to have originated in North Korea.

Perhaps Israel’s action was “a strike in the dark.” But so what? Even if the intelligence leading Israel to hit the Syrian facility was incomplete or wrong, this was one of those cases where it would not be wise to wait until the evidence comes in the form of a mushroom cloud.

Read Less

The Bloody End

Despite the consensus view that P.T. Anderson’s latest film is a searing, visionary work, numerous critics have complained about the final scene of There Will Be Blood. The New Yorker’s David Denby calls it “a mistake.” Ross Douthat writes in the most recent National Review that the film’s weakest part is its end. And Chris Orr, writing for The New Republic, argues that it “runs aground in its final act and, especially, its final scene.” But although the final scene is jarring, I think it’s a perfect close for both the director and the film’s central character. (As you might expect, spoilers lie ahead.)

A quick recap: After two and a half hours of quiet, tightly-controlled, poetic naturalism, in which Daniel Day Lewis’s fiercely independent oil baron Daniel Plainview manipulates and dominates everything and everyone around him, the film explodes into a wild—some might say unhinged—absurdism. He confronts Eli (Paul Dano), a wily spiritual huckster—and something of a competitor—who has come begging for help, and then, after growling and howling his way through a riveting, if borderline insane, monologue that features the line, “I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE,” he begins hurling bowling balls at Eli and eventually kills him. It’s transfixing, brutal, uncomfortable, and defiantly weird.

Read More

Despite the consensus view that P.T. Anderson’s latest film is a searing, visionary work, numerous critics have complained about the final scene of There Will Be Blood. The New Yorker’s David Denby calls it “a mistake.” Ross Douthat writes in the most recent National Review that the film’s weakest part is its end. And Chris Orr, writing for The New Republic, argues that it “runs aground in its final act and, especially, its final scene.” But although the final scene is jarring, I think it’s a perfect close for both the director and the film’s central character. (As you might expect, spoilers lie ahead.)

A quick recap: After two and a half hours of quiet, tightly-controlled, poetic naturalism, in which Daniel Day Lewis’s fiercely independent oil baron Daniel Plainview manipulates and dominates everything and everyone around him, the film explodes into a wild—some might say unhinged—absurdism. He confronts Eli (Paul Dano), a wily spiritual huckster—and something of a competitor—who has come begging for help, and then, after growling and howling his way through a riveting, if borderline insane, monologue that features the line, “I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE,” he begins hurling bowling balls at Eli and eventually kills him. It’s transfixing, brutal, uncomfortable, and defiantly weird.

The first thing worth noting is that Anderson has finished other films with similar tonal shifts. Indeed, he seems to enjoy pushing his films both over the top and out of this world in their final moments. His last two pictures both started relatively small and naturalistic, but built towards grand, fanciful scenes of magical realism. Magnolia, an Altman-style California character drama, ended with a literal plague of frogs descending upon Los Angeles, and Punch-Drunk Love ended with a dream-like flight out of L.A. to a confrontation with a surly pimp in mattress warehouse. Anderson, in other words, has never been much for restraint in his finales.

And it seems to me that restraint—emotional restraint—is what finally does Plainview in. Lewis’s phenomenal performance (favored, correctly, I think, to win an Oscar) is centrally about one thing: domination. He’s a conqueror of men, land, and fortunes—not because he particularly cares for any of those things, but because he is driven to conquer simply for conquering’s sake.

And for Plainview, the will to conquer and dominate requires emotional constriction of the sort that is ultimately unsustainable. For most of the film, he’s a sharp tactical manipulator, coolly and calmly assessing his opponents—which is to say everyone—and how he can best them. But such a drive must, at some point erupt, must blow up, and is likely to result in the sort of hysterical violence found in the final scene.
There’s a reason, I think, that Plainview is drawn to oil; they share many of the same qualities, and they grow more alike as the film goes on. Like him, it is a source of great power, great wealth, and great misery, always pulsing, always flowing, always threatening to explode or ignite when others try to control it. One might even say the violent, oddly spectacular explosion in the final scene was inevitable: Like so many of the oil wells he built through his life, eventually Daniel Plainview was bound to blow his top.

Read Less

Bearding the Prophet

I’d like to confess a few literary sins. In high school, I read, along with usual suspects like The Dharma Bums, Naked Lunch, and A Coney Island of the Mind, certifiable nonsense like Carlos Castaneda’s Journey to Ixtlan and Ram Dass’s The Only Dance There Is. (I don’t mean that this is all I read, though to have read any of it is sufficiently embarrassing.) All the really zonked-out Mr. Natural stuff belonged to my parents (sorry, guys), the cringe-making detritus of college in the 1970s. I’m sure now they’d say they were only holding it for a friend.

Yes, I have read these terrible things—but I’ve never read Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. I’ve browsed in copies of it, copies usually found sandwiched between Steppenwolf and the Kama Sutra on dorm-issue bookshelves; it strikes me as a kind of ecumenical “Footprints,” only longer and thus not so easily translated into needlepoint. According to Joan Acocella’s piece in The New Yorker, occasioned by the rerelease of Gibran’s works, such as they are, by the Everyman’s Library, he is the third best-selling poet of all time, after Shakespeare and Lao-tzu. Gibran was also a draftsman of sorts:

[The drawings] were products of their time, or a slightly earlier time, that of the European Symbolist painters: Puvis de Chavannes, Eugène Carrière, Gustave Moreau. Often, in the foreground, one saw a sort of pileup of faceless humanity, while in the background there hovered a Greater Power—an angel, perhaps, or just a sort of milky miasma, suggestive of mystery and the soul.

“Milky miasma” describes more than just his art, alas. If the reader thinks I’m being unkind, he should direct his attention to Theodore Dalrymple’s hilarious essay on Gibran from the December 2007 New Criterion. It focuses on The Prophet in particular, so those who want a peek at the biographical details of a fabricator, bloviator, and kept man par excellence should stick with Acocella, hilarious in her own right. She even writes, inviting the ire of millions of public-transit users: “Gibran’s closest counterpart today is the Brazilian sage Paulo Coelho, and his books have sold nearly a hundred million copies.”

What about Elizabeth Gilbert’s ubiquitous Eat, Pray, Love? Amazon.com tells me that its Statistically Improbable Phrases are “four spirit brothers, kundalini shakti, magic drawing, meditation cave, old medicine man.” Am I back with my former spirit guide, Carlos Castaneda? I’ll have to check it out, for old time’s sake. At any rate, Acocella writes:

[Gibran] had intuited the theory of relativity before Einstein; he just hadn’t written it down. Thousands of times, he said, he had been sucked up into the air as dew, and “risen into clouds, then fallen as rain. . . . I’ve been a rock too, but I’m more of an air person.”

Air of an extremely high temperature, no doubt.

I’d like to confess a few literary sins. In high school, I read, along with usual suspects like The Dharma Bums, Naked Lunch, and A Coney Island of the Mind, certifiable nonsense like Carlos Castaneda’s Journey to Ixtlan and Ram Dass’s The Only Dance There Is. (I don’t mean that this is all I read, though to have read any of it is sufficiently embarrassing.) All the really zonked-out Mr. Natural stuff belonged to my parents (sorry, guys), the cringe-making detritus of college in the 1970s. I’m sure now they’d say they were only holding it for a friend.

Yes, I have read these terrible things—but I’ve never read Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. I’ve browsed in copies of it, copies usually found sandwiched between Steppenwolf and the Kama Sutra on dorm-issue bookshelves; it strikes me as a kind of ecumenical “Footprints,” only longer and thus not so easily translated into needlepoint. According to Joan Acocella’s piece in The New Yorker, occasioned by the rerelease of Gibran’s works, such as they are, by the Everyman’s Library, he is the third best-selling poet of all time, after Shakespeare and Lao-tzu. Gibran was also a draftsman of sorts:

[The drawings] were products of their time, or a slightly earlier time, that of the European Symbolist painters: Puvis de Chavannes, Eugène Carrière, Gustave Moreau. Often, in the foreground, one saw a sort of pileup of faceless humanity, while in the background there hovered a Greater Power—an angel, perhaps, or just a sort of milky miasma, suggestive of mystery and the soul.

“Milky miasma” describes more than just his art, alas. If the reader thinks I’m being unkind, he should direct his attention to Theodore Dalrymple’s hilarious essay on Gibran from the December 2007 New Criterion. It focuses on The Prophet in particular, so those who want a peek at the biographical details of a fabricator, bloviator, and kept man par excellence should stick with Acocella, hilarious in her own right. She even writes, inviting the ire of millions of public-transit users: “Gibran’s closest counterpart today is the Brazilian sage Paulo Coelho, and his books have sold nearly a hundred million copies.”

What about Elizabeth Gilbert’s ubiquitous Eat, Pray, Love? Amazon.com tells me that its Statistically Improbable Phrases are “four spirit brothers, kundalini shakti, magic drawing, meditation cave, old medicine man.” Am I back with my former spirit guide, Carlos Castaneda? I’ll have to check it out, for old time’s sake. At any rate, Acocella writes:

[Gibran] had intuited the theory of relativity before Einstein; he just hadn’t written it down. Thousands of times, he said, he had been sucked up into the air as dew, and “risen into clouds, then fallen as rain. . . . I’ve been a rock too, but I’m more of an air person.”

Air of an extremely high temperature, no doubt.

Read Less

Politics of Unity?

For more than a year the two leading Democratic candidates for President, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, have chided President Bush for being a “divider instead of a uniter.” The President is, it is said, a “polarizing” figure. Clinton and Obama promise to bring an end to all that. Obama in particular has made the cornerstone of his campaign a kind of tonal argument. He will, he has said, turn the page on the bitterness of the past and transcend the usual partisan sniping. He seems to be arguing that by the force and charisma of his personality he will, like Isaiah the prophet, bring us together so we can reason together.

Before bringing his healing balm to the country, however, we’ll see if Senator Obama can bring it to the Democratic Party.
The emerging battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is getting very personal very fast – with the toxic issue of race now being added to the mix in the last few days. Ugly charges and counter-charges are being made at an almost hourly rate. By the time this competition is done, there may be a lot of scorched earth left in its aftermath.

If Obama had won in New Hampshire, the Clinton campaign would have been badly, and perhaps mortally, wounded, and the attacks we are now seeing would look desperate and graceless. But having prevailed in New Hampshire, Mrs. Clinton re-set the dynamics of the race. And so Senator Obama will now be on the receiving end of a ferocious attack machine, one that over the years has left its critics and opponents shattered and their reputations shredded. Ken Starr, it’s worth recalling, was a well-respected figure before he began his investigation into the Clinton scandals; when he was done, he was portrayed by the Clinton team as a sex-obsessed independent counsel, “Captain Ahab,” a “spineless, gutless weasel” who was the leader of an “inquisition.”

Read More

For more than a year the two leading Democratic candidates for President, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, have chided President Bush for being a “divider instead of a uniter.” The President is, it is said, a “polarizing” figure. Clinton and Obama promise to bring an end to all that. Obama in particular has made the cornerstone of his campaign a kind of tonal argument. He will, he has said, turn the page on the bitterness of the past and transcend the usual partisan sniping. He seems to be arguing that by the force and charisma of his personality he will, like Isaiah the prophet, bring us together so we can reason together.

Before bringing his healing balm to the country, however, we’ll see if Senator Obama can bring it to the Democratic Party.
The emerging battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is getting very personal very fast – with the toxic issue of race now being added to the mix in the last few days. Ugly charges and counter-charges are being made at an almost hourly rate. By the time this competition is done, there may be a lot of scorched earth left in its aftermath.

If Obama had won in New Hampshire, the Clinton campaign would have been badly, and perhaps mortally, wounded, and the attacks we are now seeing would look desperate and graceless. But having prevailed in New Hampshire, Mrs. Clinton re-set the dynamics of the race. And so Senator Obama will now be on the receiving end of a ferocious attack machine, one that over the years has left its critics and opponents shattered and their reputations shredded. Ken Starr, it’s worth recalling, was a well-respected figure before he began his investigation into the Clinton scandals; when he was done, he was portrayed by the Clinton team as a sex-obsessed independent counsel, “Captain Ahab,” a “spineless, gutless weasel” who was the leader of an “inquisition.”

For a preview of things to come, see this, from Ryan Lizza’s article in The New Yorker:

On the morning after Clinton’s victory [in New Hampshire], I talked to Sergio Bendixen, one of her pollsters, who specializes in the Hispanic vote. “In all honesty, the Hispanic vote is extremely important to the Clinton campaign, and the polls have shown—and today is not a great day to cite polls—that even though she was slipping with women in Iowa and blacks in South Carolina, she was not slipping with Hispanics,” he said. “The fire wall doesn’t apply now, because she is in good shape, but before last night the Hispanic vote was going to be the most important part of her fire wall on February 5th.” The implications of that strategy are not necessarily uplifting. When I asked Bendixen about the source of Clinton’s strength in the Hispanic community, he mentioned her support for health care, and Hispanic voters’ affinity for the Clinton era. “It’s one group where going back to the past really works,” he said. “All you need to say in focus groups is ‘Let’s go back to the nineties.’ ” But he was also frank about the fact that the Clintons, long beloved in the black community, are now dependent on a less edifying political dynamic: “The Hispanic voter—and I want to say this very carefully—has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates.”

It’ll be interesting to see how Obama’s “politics of hope” responds to those who have perfected the Politics of Personal Destruction. Will he be able to respond persuasively and aggressively without getting himself filthy in the process? Will he be able to turn the chapter on the divisive politics of the past–or will he merely add to what we have seen before?

Regardless of the results, after this nomination process it may be a lot harder for either Clinton or Obama to put forward the argument that they are figures who can bring America together, especially if they succeed in driving various constituencies within the Democratic Party apart. The politics of unity aren’t, apparently, as easy as people think.

Read Less

Widespread Warrantless Wiretapping of the American Media?

Are the internal communications of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Washington Times, ABC, CBS, and NBC news routinely being intercepted and analyzed without warrants? The shocking answer is probably yes.

These news outfits all regularly collect classified information from the U.S. national- security apparatus. Some of the highly sensitive secrets they gather are put before the public, as when as in 2006 the New York Times disclosed a joint CIA-Treasury program to track al-Qaeda finances. But some secrets, the media decline to publish, making their own judgments that to do so would damage national security or imperil American lives.

But as editors deliberate about such sensitive matters, public officials may well be listening in, trying to uncover exactly what journalists know. Only they are not officials from our government.

In November 1983, Ronald Reagan issued a top-secret directive, which has now been declassified and posted on the web by the Federation of American Scientists. It explained that:

Mobile and fixed communications systems used by key U.S. Government officials in the Nation’s capital and surrounding areas are especially vulnerable to intercept and exploitation by foreign intelligence services. Information transmitted by such systems often is extremely sensitive. Even information which in isolation is unclassified can reveal highly sensitive classified information when taken in aggregate.

And Reagan imposed a solution:

To limit this aspect of the hostile intelligence threat, I direct immediate action be taken to provide secure mobile and fixed official telecommunication systems to support the U.S Government officials in the following categories.

The directive proceeded to list the various officials whose communications were to be immediately secured. We can assume, once this directive was fulfilled, that foreign intelligence agencies found it much harder to conduct electronic surveillance of the U.S. government.

But what about protecting the communications of the press?

Let’s take an editor like Bill Keller of the Times at his word when he says that his paper, in the name of safeguarding American security, only publishes a fraction of the classification information it unearths from the U.S. government.  Even if it is true, it is irrelevant.

For technologically sophisticated foreign spy outfits, like Russian and Chinese intelligence, directing antennae toward the headquarters of the Washington Post or the Washington bureau of the New York Times, or for that matter, the New Yorker — the home of that master liberator of American secrets, Seymour Hersh — would be a perfectly logical and highly fruitful move. What better way to get up-to-date assessments of high-level U.S. government deliberations? And what better way to uncover the occasional highly significant classified fact?

Is such surveillance really going on? Connecting the Dots has no direct evidence that it is. We can only conjecture. And ask knowledgeable readers to help connect the dots.

Are the internal communications of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Washington Times, ABC, CBS, and NBC news routinely being intercepted and analyzed without warrants? The shocking answer is probably yes.

These news outfits all regularly collect classified information from the U.S. national- security apparatus. Some of the highly sensitive secrets they gather are put before the public, as when as in 2006 the New York Times disclosed a joint CIA-Treasury program to track al-Qaeda finances. But some secrets, the media decline to publish, making their own judgments that to do so would damage national security or imperil American lives.

But as editors deliberate about such sensitive matters, public officials may well be listening in, trying to uncover exactly what journalists know. Only they are not officials from our government.

In November 1983, Ronald Reagan issued a top-secret directive, which has now been declassified and posted on the web by the Federation of American Scientists. It explained that:

Mobile and fixed communications systems used by key U.S. Government officials in the Nation’s capital and surrounding areas are especially vulnerable to intercept and exploitation by foreign intelligence services. Information transmitted by such systems often is extremely sensitive. Even information which in isolation is unclassified can reveal highly sensitive classified information when taken in aggregate.

And Reagan imposed a solution:

To limit this aspect of the hostile intelligence threat, I direct immediate action be taken to provide secure mobile and fixed official telecommunication systems to support the U.S Government officials in the following categories.

The directive proceeded to list the various officials whose communications were to be immediately secured. We can assume, once this directive was fulfilled, that foreign intelligence agencies found it much harder to conduct electronic surveillance of the U.S. government.

But what about protecting the communications of the press?

Let’s take an editor like Bill Keller of the Times at his word when he says that his paper, in the name of safeguarding American security, only publishes a fraction of the classification information it unearths from the U.S. government.  Even if it is true, it is irrelevant.

For technologically sophisticated foreign spy outfits, like Russian and Chinese intelligence, directing antennae toward the headquarters of the Washington Post or the Washington bureau of the New York Times, or for that matter, the New Yorker — the home of that master liberator of American secrets, Seymour Hersh — would be a perfectly logical and highly fruitful move. What better way to get up-to-date assessments of high-level U.S. government deliberations? And what better way to uncover the occasional highly significant classified fact?

Is such surveillance really going on? Connecting the Dots has no direct evidence that it is. We can only conjecture. And ask knowledgeable readers to help connect the dots.

Read Less

Álvaro Rousselot’s Journey

Roberto Bolaño, the author of the much-lauded novels The Savage Detectives and 2666 (the latter still unfinished at the time of his death in 2003), and one of the most serious and gifted modern writers, has enjoyed over the past year a highly public upswing in his American reputation. (The Savage Detectives became for a time, in my anecdotal experience, one of those books large numbers of people read on the subway, a sure sign of critical success.) One of the benefits of the rise in his stock is the interest high-profile magazines have taken in him: he has a newly-translated story in this week’s issue of The New Yorker, the subtle and disturbing “Álvaro Rousselot’s Journey,” a Borgesian meditation on artistic identity.

Roberto Bolaño, the author of the much-lauded novels The Savage Detectives and 2666 (the latter still unfinished at the time of his death in 2003), and one of the most serious and gifted modern writers, has enjoyed over the past year a highly public upswing in his American reputation. (The Savage Detectives became for a time, in my anecdotal experience, one of those books large numbers of people read on the subway, a sure sign of critical success.) One of the benefits of the rise in his stock is the interest high-profile magazines have taken in him: he has a newly-translated story in this week’s issue of The New Yorker, the subtle and disturbing “Álvaro Rousselot’s Journey,” a Borgesian meditation on artistic identity.

Read Less

A Wonderful Essay…

…by James Wood, writing in the New Yorker about the new translation of War and Peace, which captures with gorgeous urgency the extraordinary contradictions of Tolstoy’s vision and finds the friction they generate one of the causes of the book’s unsurpassed evocation and replication of life itself in fictional prose:

The irony is that this novel about great egotists and solipsists (Pierre and Andrei are just the chief representatives), written by perhaps the greatest egotist ever to put pen to paper, is a cannon aimed directly at the egotism of Napoleon. As a result, Tolstoy the novelist, whenever he describes Napoleon dramatically, cannot help crediting the very vitality that Tolstoy the Russian patriot hates.

This is one of Wood’s finest pieces, which is saying a lot.

…by James Wood, writing in the New Yorker about the new translation of War and Peace, which captures with gorgeous urgency the extraordinary contradictions of Tolstoy’s vision and finds the friction they generate one of the causes of the book’s unsurpassed evocation and replication of life itself in fictional prose:

The irony is that this novel about great egotists and solipsists (Pierre and Andrei are just the chief representatives), written by perhaps the greatest egotist ever to put pen to paper, is a cannon aimed directly at the egotism of Napoleon. As a result, Tolstoy the novelist, whenever he describes Napoleon dramatically, cannot help crediting the very vitality that Tolstoy the Russian patriot hates.

This is one of Wood’s finest pieces, which is saying a lot.

Read Less

Bookshelf

• Would Truman Capote now be read if he hadn’t written In Cold Blood? I wonder, and Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote makes me wonder all the more.

It happens that I hadn’t read any of Capote’s early essays for a number of years prior to the publication of this posthumous collection, but the impression they made on me when I was in college remained unchanged after I looked through Portraits and Observations. The young Capote was a very talented, very precious journalist who had a knack for travel writing and literary portraiture but was greatly in need of precisely the kind of rigorous editing he got when he started writing for the New Yorker. There is an unmistakable difference between the flossy essaylets he was writing for Vogue and Mademoiselle in the 40’s and early 50’s and the long, elaborately reported pieces on Marlon Brando and Porgy and Bess in Russia that passed through the scrupulous hands of William Shawn before seeing print. In “The Duke in His Domain” and “The Muses Are Heard” we meet for the first time the “nonfiction novelist” who poured all the tricks he’d learned from writing fiction into the creation of In Cold Blood, a book that for all its undeniable flaws remains a classic of postwar American journalism.

Capote never wrote anything better than In Cold Blood—and next to nothing after it that was any good at all. Once he made his bundle, he let loose the reins of his craft and succumbed to self-indulgence. The results can be seen in Portraits and Observations, the first half of which consists of pieces written between 1946 and 1959, not a few of which are very fine indeed. In that year Capote departed for Holcomb, Kansas and his rendezvous with the murderers of the Clutter family, and from then onward Portraits and Observations becomes increasingly uneven and ultimately pointless.

Read More

• Would Truman Capote now be read if he hadn’t written In Cold Blood? I wonder, and Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote makes me wonder all the more.

It happens that I hadn’t read any of Capote’s early essays for a number of years prior to the publication of this posthumous collection, but the impression they made on me when I was in college remained unchanged after I looked through Portraits and Observations. The young Capote was a very talented, very precious journalist who had a knack for travel writing and literary portraiture but was greatly in need of precisely the kind of rigorous editing he got when he started writing for the New Yorker. There is an unmistakable difference between the flossy essaylets he was writing for Vogue and Mademoiselle in the 40’s and early 50’s and the long, elaborately reported pieces on Marlon Brando and Porgy and Bess in Russia that passed through the scrupulous hands of William Shawn before seeing print. In “The Duke in His Domain” and “The Muses Are Heard” we meet for the first time the “nonfiction novelist” who poured all the tricks he’d learned from writing fiction into the creation of In Cold Blood, a book that for all its undeniable flaws remains a classic of postwar American journalism.

Capote never wrote anything better than In Cold Blood—and next to nothing after it that was any good at all. Once he made his bundle, he let loose the reins of his craft and succumbed to self-indulgence. The results can be seen in Portraits and Observations, the first half of which consists of pieces written between 1946 and 1959, not a few of which are very fine indeed. In that year Capote departed for Holcomb, Kansas and his rendezvous with the murderers of the Clutter family, and from then onward Portraits and Observations becomes increasingly uneven and ultimately pointless.

In 1963, Random House brought out Selected Writings of Truman Capote, a neat little anthology of Capote’s fiction and journalism that contains the best of his work prior to In Cold Blood, including “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “A Christmas Memory” and the two big New Yorker pieces reprinted in Portraits and Observations. Selected Writings is out of print, alas, but I suggest that you seek out a used copy, since this new volume is not an adequate substitute for it, unless you feel an irresistible desire to wallow in Capote’s later writings. The only “late” piece in Portraits and Observations that I was glad to add to my shelf was “Ghosts in Sunlight: The Filming of In Cold Blood,” an interesting 1967 reminiscence of the making of Richard Brooks’s film. The rest is dross.

Incidentally, Capote makes the following nostalgic claim in a 1959 essay about Louis Armstrong:

I met him when I was four, that would be around 1928, and he, a hard-plump and belligerently happy brown Buddha, was playing aboard a pleasure steamer that paddled between New Orleans and St. Louis…. The Satch, he was good to me, he told me I had talent, that I ought to be in vaudeville; he gave me a bamboo cane and a straw boater with a peppermint headband; and every night from the stand announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, now we’re going to present you one of America’s nice kids, he’s going to do a little tap dance.” Afterward I passed among the passengers, collecting in my hat nickels and dimes.

As the Brits say, no doubt this is true, but the fact is that “the Satch” stopped playing on New Orleans excursion boats in 1921, three years before Capote was born. It seems that the author of In Cold Blood was fabricating material long before the reliability of his most successful and admired book was challenged by those in a position to know. William Shawn wouldn’t have liked that one bit.

Read Less

Khan and Kim

On Saturday, the Washington Post reported that North Korea is trying to convince the United States that it never intended to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. “Some explanations make sense; some are a bit of a stretch,” said one American official involved in the discussions with Pyongyang. Whether or not the North Koreans are telling the truth, we have now reached the critical phase of negotiations that formally started in April 2003.

In February of this year, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea agreed to a two-part deal to shut down its nuclear weapons program. The North already has completed its first-stage obligations by turning off and sealing its only working reactor, which is located in Yongbyon. At this moment, American and other officials are implementing the second part by “disabling” the reactor. The North Koreans will complete their second-stage promises when they disclose all nuclear programs.

Why do we suspect that Kim Jong Il’s technicians have been trying to enrich uranium? Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb and the ringleader of a global black market in nuke technology, says he began working with North Korea around 1991. Among other things, Khan supplied equipment for centrifuges—supersonic-speed machines that separate uranium’s different isotopes so as to permit the collection of weapons-grade material—until as late as the middle of 2002, shortly before he admitted his black-market activities. North Korean agents also have been caught buying items that are useful in a uranium-bomb program, such as aluminum tubes suitable for Khan-type centrifuges. Pakistan’s help may have continued until as recently as 2003: Khan has been sighted in the North more than a dozen times.

So far, the North Koreans have denied virtually everything, calling allegations a “whopping lie” fabricated by the United States. Yet there is one way to get to the bottom of this matter: talk to Khan face-to-face. Seymour Hersh, writing in the New Yorker, claims that American officials have had “access” to him, but the preponderance of evidence indicates that General Pervez Musharraf has rebuffed the Bush administration’s requests for one-on-one contact. There are reports that the Pakistani leader has turned down Washington to prevent the exposure of China’s ties with Khan.

If the embattled strongman is such a good friend of America, as the White House claims he is, then let him prove it. We need to talk to Khan directly now—and General Musharraf can make it happen.

On Saturday, the Washington Post reported that North Korea is trying to convince the United States that it never intended to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. “Some explanations make sense; some are a bit of a stretch,” said one American official involved in the discussions with Pyongyang. Whether or not the North Koreans are telling the truth, we have now reached the critical phase of negotiations that formally started in April 2003.

In February of this year, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea agreed to a two-part deal to shut down its nuclear weapons program. The North already has completed its first-stage obligations by turning off and sealing its only working reactor, which is located in Yongbyon. At this moment, American and other officials are implementing the second part by “disabling” the reactor. The North Koreans will complete their second-stage promises when they disclose all nuclear programs.

Why do we suspect that Kim Jong Il’s technicians have been trying to enrich uranium? Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb and the ringleader of a global black market in nuke technology, says he began working with North Korea around 1991. Among other things, Khan supplied equipment for centrifuges—supersonic-speed machines that separate uranium’s different isotopes so as to permit the collection of weapons-grade material—until as late as the middle of 2002, shortly before he admitted his black-market activities. North Korean agents also have been caught buying items that are useful in a uranium-bomb program, such as aluminum tubes suitable for Khan-type centrifuges. Pakistan’s help may have continued until as recently as 2003: Khan has been sighted in the North more than a dozen times.

So far, the North Koreans have denied virtually everything, calling allegations a “whopping lie” fabricated by the United States. Yet there is one way to get to the bottom of this matter: talk to Khan face-to-face. Seymour Hersh, writing in the New Yorker, claims that American officials have had “access” to him, but the preponderance of evidence indicates that General Pervez Musharraf has rebuffed the Bush administration’s requests for one-on-one contact. There are reports that the Pakistani leader has turned down Washington to prevent the exposure of China’s ties with Khan.

If the embattled strongman is such a good friend of America, as the White House claims he is, then let him prove it. We need to talk to Khan directly now—and General Musharraf can make it happen.

Read Less

Like Mother, Like Son

The New Yorker carried a piece last week in its “Talk of the Town” section about a gathering of graying (and not so graying) leftists at a West Village bar, celebrating and commiserating over the 40th anniversary of Che Guevara’s death. Among the luminaries was Tariq Ali, an editor of the New Left Review, the cover of whose book Clash of Fundamentalisms is a case study in the Left’s post-September 11 moral equivalence.

Other such lions of the modern far-Left abounded at this kaffeeklatsch, prominent among them my old Yale chum Chesa Boudin, class of 2003 and “radical chic Rhodes Scholar.” He’s the son of Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, Weathermen terrorists responsible for the deaths of two police officers and a Brinks Security guard killed during a botched 1981 bank heist. Kathy Boudin is herself the daughter of Leonard Boudin, the famous leftist defense lawyer who represented Castro’s Cuba, Paul Robeson, and was a leading member of the fellow-traveling National Lawyers Guild. Chesa’s genealogy would be of little concern were it not for his obnoxious penchant for invoking his parents in the name of his own radical ideology. As he told the New York Times upon winning the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship:

“We have a different name for the war we’re fighting now—now we call it the war on terrorism, then they called it the war on Communism,” Mr. Boudin said. ”My parents were all dedicated to fighting U.S. imperialism around the world. I’m dedicated to the same thing.”

”I don’t know that much about my parents’ tactics; I’ll talk about my tactics,” he added. ”The historical moment we find ourselves in determines what is most appropriate for social change.”

Read More

The New Yorker carried a piece last week in its “Talk of the Town” section about a gathering of graying (and not so graying) leftists at a West Village bar, celebrating and commiserating over the 40th anniversary of Che Guevara’s death. Among the luminaries was Tariq Ali, an editor of the New Left Review, the cover of whose book Clash of Fundamentalisms is a case study in the Left’s post-September 11 moral equivalence.

Other such lions of the modern far-Left abounded at this kaffeeklatsch, prominent among them my old Yale chum Chesa Boudin, class of 2003 and “radical chic Rhodes Scholar.” He’s the son of Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, Weathermen terrorists responsible for the deaths of two police officers and a Brinks Security guard killed during a botched 1981 bank heist. Kathy Boudin is herself the daughter of Leonard Boudin, the famous leftist defense lawyer who represented Castro’s Cuba, Paul Robeson, and was a leading member of the fellow-traveling National Lawyers Guild. Chesa’s genealogy would be of little concern were it not for his obnoxious penchant for invoking his parents in the name of his own radical ideology. As he told the New York Times upon winning the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship:

“We have a different name for the war we’re fighting now—now we call it the war on terrorism, then they called it the war on Communism,” Mr. Boudin said. ”My parents were all dedicated to fighting U.S. imperialism around the world. I’m dedicated to the same thing.”

”I don’t know that much about my parents’ tactics; I’ll talk about my tactics,” he added. ”The historical moment we find ourselves in determines what is most appropriate for social change.”

Only in the mind of a closet totalitarian could killing a black police officer be construed as “fighting U.S. imperialism around the world.” This is to say nothing of Boudin’s dishonesty in claiming not to “know that much” about his parent’s tactics, which are a matter of public and legal record. The Boudin family legacy has been one of defending and propagandizing on behalf of despots who rob and murder their own people in the name of “progressive ideals,” and Boudin is doing a bang-up job of carrying forward that tradition. The New Yorker reports on his homilies for Che Guevara:

At seven-thirty, the partygoers gathered in an auditorium to hear from the new guard of Che admirers, including Chesa Boudin, the twenty-seven-year-old son of Kathy Boudin, who was jailed after serving as an accomplice in the 1981 Brink’s robbery. Boudin, a Rhodes scholar, author, and political consultant, had a neat, buzzed haircut and wore a pink lattice-patterned shirt and gray pants. He said that he had to make a 6:30 A.M. flight to Caracas (“I was in twenty-six countries last year”), and he spoke to the crowd about Che’s legacy: “Most of us don’t remember when he was killed. But all of us have seen Che Guevara T-shirts.”

I wrote a piece for the Yale Daily News several years ago about Boudin, after he was quoted in a New York Times story about credulous Westerners traveling to Chavez’s Venezuela in hopes of finding the New Jerusalem.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.