As I write in early October, war may well lie before us in the Persian Gulf.
As I write in early October, war may well lie before us in the Persian Gulf. Even the most sanguine administration officials concede that Iraq can probably withstand an embargo for six or twelve months. It is also clear that the coalition of nations opposing Iraq will not allow that embargo to starve their enemy even if it looked likely to do so. Furthermore, with increasing asperity our Arab allies have argued that Saddam Hussein and his regime must be dispatched, and some European allies—the British most notably—appear to agree, however reluctantly. Something on the order of 170,000 American servicemen and women are now in the Persian Gulf or on the way there: others will follow. By mid- or late November at least two mechanized divisions, one air-assault division, and one Marine division will be in place, plus additional independent units. Hundreds of aircraft have deployed to air bases well stocked with ammunition and spare parts.
At the same time, Saddam’s troops are systematically pillaging Kuwait and beginning the work of destroying it as a state. By obliterating official records and encouraging the flight of Kuwaitis and resident foreigners, Saddam is seeking to create facts—to make the resurrection of an independent nation impossible. Perhaps over a third of a million Iraqi troops are digging in, constructing an array of fortifications, supply dumps, and communications that will render the country a permanently fortified zone.
It is, of course, conceivable that either George Bush or Saddam Hussein will back down before war erupts, but each man has made it clear that his personal prestige and power rest on the outcome of this confrontation.
If, then, war comes, what might it look like? What kind of military power might we bring to bear in the Persian Gulf, and to what end?
Without detailed knowledge of operational conditions and deployments, both friendly and hostile, it is impossible to make a complete assessment of our options, much less to make sound recommendations. On the larger questions of war and peace, however, it is possible to sketch out the dimensions of the problems that we face, and the choices available to us. Understanding that in war, more than in most human affairs, “the devil is in the details,” the commentator on strategy—and his readers—must treat all conclusions as tentative.
The problem is compounded by the uncertainty of the present situation, which is greater than that of many other military standoffs. The greatest philosopher of war, Carl von Clausewitz, has observed:
The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.
In the present case it may be unusually difficult to judge correctly the nature of the war upon which we will embark. For one thing, it will be hard to assess correctly the solidity of the Iraqi state and the Iraqi armed forces. On the one hand, Iraq fought an eight-year-long war with Iran with remarkable consistency of purpose; on the other hand, the Baathist leadership of Iraq appears to have bought support with a program of material benefits impossible to sustain now that the Iraqi economy is under embargo. Saddam has created a Stalinist state, and such politics may, paradoxically, combine great strength with equally great fragility, as the example of the Soviet Union in June 1941 would suggest. Unlike Noriega’s kleptocracy in Panama, however, this regime may have considerable staying power in adversity. And although Baathist ideology may have stifled initiative and professional expertise in the past, it is not necessarily true that Iraqi generals will be incompetents or amateurs. During the course of the Iran-Iraq war they, like the armies they commanded, improved in the art of war. As scholars of the Wehrmacht have reluctantly come to understand, ideological fanaticism is in no way incompatible with fighting spirit. And the sheer bulk and sophistication of Iraqi forces—whose crack units alone equal in number the American ground forces opposite them, and who have in their hands some of the best aircraft, long-range artillery, and tanks modern industry can produce—make them a difficult opponent.
If it comes to a clash of arms, very different kinds of forces will be opposed to one another. The Iraqis have a large and battle-experienced army; ours, and those of most of our allies, are considerably smaller, technologically more advanced, and not accustomed to large-scale warfare. Particularly if the United States and its allies undertake to drive the Iraqis from Kuwait on the ground—an operation that will become increasingly difficult as they dig themselves in—the asymmetry between the two forces will become an important imponderable.
The conduct and outcome of the first battles will be of particular importance. First impressions of an opponent have a lasting effect on the fighting power of one’s own forces. The Yom Kippur war of 1973, for example, was probably made far more difficult for the Israelis by virtue of the purely psychological effects of the initial Arab surprise and successes. The Egyptians and Syrians continued to fight hard throughout the war, understanding that their enemies had been proven fallible mortals. If in the initial clashes with the Iraqis the American forces are roughly handled, the rest of the war will go that much harder; but if American prowess is clearly demonstrated in the first day or so, the second-rate Iraqi troops who have been put in the front lines may fight with less determination. Fighting ability, then, is not a constant to be measured with precision before the battle.
A further source of uncertainty stems from the possibility that this may be a “tightly coupled” war—a war in which second- and third-order consequences of its outbreak spread extremely rapidly. The Iran-Iraq war, by contrast, was “loosely coupled,” in that it took years for the war to embroil other actors or to affect in a drastic way the domestic politics of the combatants and of other countries. Here, however, things may be different. The repercussions of such a war may be felt very fast in Iraq itself, on the Arab street in countries like Jordan, and in the United States.
Finally, such a war is made more uncertain by the American objectives in waging it. For Saddam the issue is clear: he must hold Kuwait or risk forfeiting his rule and his life. By giving away all of the gains from the war with Iran he has made some kind of success here imperative. And his task is simplified by the fact that he is on the strategic defensive—that is, he hopes to retain all or some of his gains. Our goals, conversely, are strategically offensive and hence more difficult to achieve. They are ambitious enough in themselves—securing an unconditional Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, restoring the Emirate, assuring the safety of all American citizens, and maintaining the security and stability of the gulf. The unstated objectives often bruited about in government circles—the destruction of Iraqi chemical and nuclear facilities, the permanent reduction of Iraqi military power, and the ejection of Saddam from power—are more ambitious yet. They are not necessarily harmonious with one another: the obliteration of Iraqi military power, for example, may breed new threats to Persian Gulf security from an Iran that has seen its traditional foe crushed without having to lift a finger.
Obviously, the United States cannot “lose” this war in the sense that Germany or Japan lost World War II. But it is entirely possible for us to lose in the sense that we lost in Vietnam—that is, we may fail to achieve our objectives and our enemies may succeed in achieving theirs. Saddam’s strategic predicament requires that he make the war costly, long, and politically difficult, hoping for a compromise peace that will leave him some gains when peace is finally concluded.
The Instruments of Force
More important than any weapon deployed in the Persian Gulf is the character of the American armed forces. Because of the absence of the draft and the general lack of interest that the American middle class has in its armed forces, this world remains terra incognita to many Americans. Such ignorance is unfortunate from many points of view, and not least because it may pave the way for civil-military conflicts of a kind not seen since the Vietnam war. What follows is a brief sketch of the temperament of the officer corps, and particularly of those in the field grades and general-officer ranks who set the tone for all who serve under them. Their understanding of what war is and how it should be fought will shape the conflict and the mixture of force and diplomacy that will bring it to a close.
This is, first and foremost, an operationally self-confident military. Nearly a decade of high budgets have given it a large array of new hardware, and provided for ample training at remarkable new facilities like the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. At that Mojave Desert outpost, which is larger than the state of Rhode Island, American mechanized and armored battalions wage simulated war against a numerically superior mock-Soviet force. With the aid of superb technical systems (including remote-control cameras, laser scoring systems, and automated firing ranges), units can simulate close combat about as well as can be done without engaging in a shooting war. The Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force have similar facilities, and, what is more important, they have dedicated noncommissioned officers and enlisted personnel who are in uniform because they want to be. Furthermore, the successful invasion of Panama, with its dazzling feats of logistical planning, the coordination of hundreds of aircraft flying at night in radio silence, and simultaneous attacks against multiple targets, bolstered military self-confidence. Indeed, the field commander in Panama, Lieutenant General Carl Stiner, is reported to have declared that “there are no [negative] lessons to be learned from ‘Just Cause,’” as the operation was code-named.
The flip side of this pride and self-confidence is, potentially, arrogance. No peacetime maneuvers can substitute for combat experience, and American history is replete with the story of units discovering that the first battles they fought bore little resemblance to prewar exercises, no matter how elaborate. Invariably the stresses of war will reveal that some commanders who excel in garrison, or on exercises, will crack up in combat. Nor should it be assumed that American technology will always perform as advertised (for that matter, it cannot be assumed that it will not). The danger here lies less in the final outcome than in the creation of false expectations of complete and nearly effortless victory, an illusion that may be fostered unwittingly by a military that is justifiably proud of its professional skills.
The American military believes that war should be both swift and violent; that a quick win heads off doubt at home and the recuperation of the enemy in the theater. In part because of its reading of American popular impatience, the military wishes to win while the public backs the war effort, for above all it fears the consequences of a fractured home front. The Army, which has provided operation “Desert Shield” with its senior commander, firmly believes that wars can only be won on the ground, and this bit of folk wisdom is widely shared in the government. The Army too, however, would like a fast, smashing victory.
All this implies that the armed forces will be inclined to sit tight until they have enough men and machines on the ground to do the job thoroughly, and then to do the job fast. But these sensible wishes may cause problems because war sooner rather than later may be in our interest. Winston Churchill once observed:
I have often tried to set down the strategic truths I have comprehended in the form of simple anecdotes, and they rank this way in my mind. One of them is the celebrated tale of the man who gave the powder to the bear. He mixed the powder with the greatest care, making sure that not only the ingredients but the proportions were absolutely correct. He rolled it up in a large paper spill, and was about to blow it down the bear’s throat. But the bear blew first.
Saddam will not sit still waiting for us to choose the best moment to dispatch him. And the preference for the well-prepared blitzkrieg—in fact, the certainty that it is the only feasible strategy for impatient Americans—may produce bewilderment if it turns out not to work.
The preference for the quick blitz has other roots as well, among them a desire to avoid excessive political interference in the conduct of military operations. Convinced that civilian micro-management ruined us in Vietnam, and that a willingness to give wide discretion to the military in Panama made that operation a success, the officer corps fears close supervision by its political masters. Needless to say, it will submit to such controls, and it understands that war must serve the ends of policy. But the officer corps fears that sound military logic will go by the board if politicians begin to take too close an interest in the conduct of operations.
This reading of both Vietnam and Just Cause is at the very least grossly oversimplified. All great war leaders—Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill, Roosevelt, Ben-Gurion, to name but a few—“meddled,” and their meddling stemmed not from ignorance of war but from an understanding of its political character and an awareness of the limits of professional expertise. The formulation of strategy is, invariably, a messy business, not subject to purely military reasoning or indeed to elaborate preplanning for more than the opening stages of conflict. Luckily, because of the personalities of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, and his civilian superiors, many disputes may be solved amicably. But the potential will exist for paralyzing discord if things do not go well.
Civilian command errors may compound the problem. The abrupt dismissal in September of General Michael Dugan, chief of staff of the Air Force, for discussing possible bombing targets in Iraq raises a question mark in this regard. Dugan was foolish to speak as he did, but he revealed no secrets. The decision to sack the able and intelligent leader of the main service that would be thrown into the front line may come back to haunt those who took it. Should the sacking of other prominent generals be required (and it often is), old patterns of civil-military mistrust may recur. A statesman once observed that it is better to have to rein in the eager stallion than spur the reluctant plow horse. The message sent by this firing will surely reverberate in the minds of other generals, and not necessarily for the good.
This is, finally, a military that will fight looking over its shoulder. The generous budgets, and more importantly the public approbation of the Reagan years, have healed the wounds inflicted by Vietnam, but the scars still ache and the tissue is tender. The armed forces fear that once again they will be made the scapegoat for foolish policy, and that once again the uniform their members wear with pride will become an object of derision or even loathing. Unlike their British counterparts of Kipling’s day, American officers find unbearable the thought of a population “making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep.” This concern will lead the military to search instinctively for popular strategies as well as quick ones. Yet, as has often been said, “war is an option of difficulties,” and a time may come when the military will have to think more about the battle before it than about popular support.
None of this should be taken to suggest that the American military is either incompetent or pathologically unsuited for the tasks that lie before it. It is, rather, to suggest the lines along which civil-military unity may be strained or even come undone. To ensure that these tensions are minimized (they cannot be avoided) is the task of statecraft.
Which raises perhaps the most important question of all: what is the quality of American political leadership as it confronts the prospect of war? George Bush has two great virtues as a potential war President, and one glaring flaw. His first-hand experience of war may count for relatively little—Jefferson Davis, a hero of the Mexican-American War, was much worse as a war President than Abraham Lincoln, who had trivial experience as a militia officer. No, this President’s strengths have more to do with innate character. First and foremost, Bush can make decisions, including the decision to go to war. Panama demonstrated that quality, and it is of cardinal importance in war. And unlike Jimmy Carter, he will not let his concern for hostages paralyze him. Secondly, Bush knows the importance of secrecy: as Churchill remarked during World War II, “in wartime truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” Democracies, which inspire contempt among dictators for their incessant parleying and squabbling, can exploit the surprise that resides in their capacity for swift decision if a leader wishes it.
Bush’s great weakness is his tin ear for the greater issues of democratic politics—the poverty of his rhetoric, using that overworked term in its ancient and proper sense. His willingness to send his National Security Adviser to bandy words with the butchers of Tiananmen Square soon after they had slaughtered protesting students; his failure to find ringing words to celebrate the liberation of Eastern Europe; his hesitation thus far in describing Saddam’s grisly cruelties in vivid terms—all bespeak an inability to portray the great themes of politics. Charming and gracious in personal encounters, he relies on the telephone and intimate conversation to conduct business, but these will not enable him to mobilize a nation for war. Fundamentally a moderate, he instinctively prefers the pastels of diplomacy to the bolder hues of grand policy. More sophisticated and probably more intelligent than his predecessor, he lacks Ronald Reagan’s grasp of the politics of passion—and yet war is above all a matter of passion. Notably, Bush’s one real stab at “vision” consisted of praise for “points of light,” an array of details, not a comprehensive vista of the American present and future.
Bush may well rise to the challenge. Even if he does not, so long as the war goes reasonably well, this flaw will not prove crucial. Bush and his advisers are competent and energetic, and that may turn out to be enough. It is fortunate that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the solid and politically savvy General Colin Powell, since the prominence assigned that post since the reorganization of the Department of Defense in 1986 makes it uniquely, indeed excessively, important. Congress has, thus far, supported the President generously. That too may change if the war goes poorly.
All this suggests, then, that the United States’ seemingly overwhelming military advantages in a war with Iraq are not quite as invincible as they may seem. Leadership at the highest levels, and not merely the quality of our weapons and tactics, will decide the outcome of the war. If President Bush can explain to the American people the necessity of this war, and if he can make them and their military understand that it may not be short and almost assuredly will not be easy, he will have gone a long way toward securing victory.
America’s Strategic Options
There are four operational patterns a war between Saddam Hussein and the American-led coalition might take. Conceivably, Saddam might lunge at Saudi Arabia, although it is hard to see why he would do that now, having failed to do it before substantial American forces were present on the ground. Saddam could perhaps be provoked to such action by intolerable pressure brought to bear through air power, but that would only play into our hands. For an armored battle along the Kuwait-Saudi border would favor the United States, with its superiority in the air, its more sophisticated command and control, and the flexibility of its tactical style.
But it is far more likely that the United States will have to take the initiative. If so, we will need a pretext, although a particular incident may be less necessary than a clear articulation of Saddam’s acts of war against us—i.e., the seizure of our nationals as hostages and the attempt to annihilate a small country aligned with us. But if a triggering event is required, it will easily be found, in the death or mistreatment of American hostages, a clash in the skies near the Saudi-Kuwait border brought about either by loose rules of engagement, or by more aggressive moves, like an invitation by the Emir of Kuwait for the United States to patrol Kuwaiti air space.
Should such incidents not be forthcoming, or should they appear unworthy of the United States and its allies, a simple ultimatum would suffice. It would be neither unjust nor (in the United States, at any rate) unpopular to tell Saddam that he had forty-eight hours to begin returning hostages and to pledge himself to withdraw from the gulf. But in any event, and however large-scale hostilities might start, it is imperative that Bush ask Congress for a declaration of war from the outset. Among other things, this would ward off some of the recriminations that would inevitably follow an attempt to wage war without the explicit consent of the American people and their elected representatives.
Our first offensive strategy would be that of siege. After several months of embargo the Iraqis may not—probably will not—be feeling economic effects so severe as to make them surrender on American terms. But military force could be used with the aim of creating in a few months the effects that would otherwise take a year or more to appear. This would entail more ruthless enforcement by mining and interdiction of a blockade by land, sea, and air, as well as limited raids against economic targets like power plants and oil-storage sites to accelerate the collapse of the Iraqi economy. Such a strategy would have the merit of relative cheapness (at least initially) in terms of human life. Presumably American allies would favor this, the least violent, military option, although the front-line Arab states might regard it as a mere half-measure likely to produce the adverse consequences of a more aggressive campaign but few of the benefits. Nonetheless, this option would allow the United States to begin working toward at least one unstated objective—namely, the reduction of Iraq’s long-term military potential.
On the other hand, it is hard to see why such a strategy would work quickly. Saddam would retain the initiative, and could react by lashing out at Israel, at Saudi Arabia and the other Arab gulf states, or by unleashing terrorism in the United States. Nor can the Bush administration assume that so constrained a use of military power would find favor either with the American public or with the American military, which would detect in this approach shades of the “signaling” strategy that failed so dismally against Ho Chi Minh in the first years of the Vietnam war. Finally, the siege strategy would undoubtedly bring about some discord in the alliance, for not all allies (particularly the Europeans) would go along with it.
The second offensive strategy might be termed “Victory Through Air Power.” It would involve launching a massive aerial-bombardment campaign against Iraq of the kind outlined by the ill-fated General Dugan. Dugan, an extremely able if indiscreet officer who paid for his loose tongue with his job, told newspapermen that the United States would first win command of the air and then go not only after air fields and other conventional military targets, but after Saddam himself, as well as his family and the Takriti clan that dominates the Iraqi regime.
This strategy would take as its point of departure the argument that Iraq would make an ideal target for such a campaign. Unlike Vietnam, Iraq has no triple canopy jungle to impede targeting, and no superpower patron to resupply it. In the absence of other major threats to American security, particularly in Europe, the United States would be free to concentrate its attention and its resources on a single campaign. Improved munitions would allow far greater precision in the conduct of air strikes than at any time in military history, and the lack of Iraqi experience in air defense would make it difficult for them to react directly. American losses could be kept relatively low—say, in the hundreds at most—and many of our objectives could be achieved directly, possibly including the elimination of Saddam, but also the damaging of his nuclear, chemical, and conventional-arms industries. It is true that they could not be completely eliminated, but Iraqi progress in these areas could be set back years if not decades. Just as important, a valuable lesson could be administered to Iraq and to other potential outlaw states about the penalties of a drive to power of this kind. The “Victory Through Air Power” strategy has the further merits of speed and of allowing for allied participation, including substantial Saudi involvement, that of the British Royal Air Force, and of the air detachments of Canada, France, and other countries that may arrive in the theater.
But such a scheme has its drawbacks as well. No air campaign by itself is likely to turn the Iraqis out of Kuwait, nor could the destruction of particular targets, Saddam included, be assured. It is virtually certain that thousands of hostages and Iraqi civilians would perish in a campaign of this kind, creating domestic revulsion in the West and in the region. Barring some major Iraqi provocation, one would have to assume that this strategy would fracture the anti-Iraq coalition, and possibly allow some of its more reluctant members to declare their neutrality between the two sides.
To be sure, given time and an absence of restrictions, an air campaign might be as effective as it proved in late 1944 and in 1945 against Germany and Japan. (Contrary to a commonly heard view, the leveling of Dresden and Tokyo did not build up the Axis will to resist; nor is it the case that economic life could persist in the face of such an onslaught.) But neither time nor the willingness to wage war à l’outrance may exist in this instance: 1990 is not 1945, and although Saddam’s regime may be as evil in some sense as those of Tojo or Hitler, the United States does not yet see him as an enemy of the same class.
An Air Strategy would be hard to maintain for months without action on the ground as well. If the Iraqis held out, the urge to finish the job once and for all would become too strong to resist. This leads us to our third and final offensive option, which one might call “Normandy Revisited”—an attempt to liberate Kuwait after an air campaign as intense as, but briefer than, that which preceded the invasion of France in June 1944.
Here we have a strategy that would achieve America’s openly stated objectives, although most of the unstated ones would require a larger air campaign not directly in support of the liberation of Kuwait. Depending on their reading of the terrain, Iraqi deployments, and the morale of their enemy, the American commanders might try to encircle Kuwait by swinging around the Iraqi right flank or by amphibious landings near the Iraq-Kuwait border. They could, just as well, feint these maneuvers and try to break into the fortified region of Kuwait City. But in any event, they would attempt to settle the issue by main force.
This strategy, even if pursued through indirect operations and clever maneuvers, would be a head-on approach to the problem of war with Iraq. But unless the Iraqis prove a fragile opponent, the strategy would have many costs. It could actually meet with failure, the kind of rebuff that American forces have often suffered in their first clashes with an enemy, and this could have incalculable consequences at home and abroad. Barring a quick Iraqi collapse it could cost thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of American casualties. Although some Egyptians and Saudi units might take heavy losses, the grim fact would be that the United States would probably bear the brunt. And the President would have to explain to the American people why there were thousands of American widows and orphans, but no grieving German or Japanese wives and children, in a war fought in part on their behalf.
“Normandy Revisited” thus could easily bring us face to face with horrors that we have successfully avoided thus far, including the death or mutilation of soldiers who are also the mothers of young children, or their rape at the hands of an enemy soldiery. Such a war could also be seen as a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight”—the poor in this situation being those upwardly mobile lower-income youths who fill the enlisted ranks, while their college-bred, more affluent peers shun service in what is, after all, a volunteer military. Under all these circumstances, the Bush administration could soon find itself caught between the pressure either to end the war quickly, with an unsatisfactory compromise, or to escalate, even to the point of using nuclear weapons.
In all three offensive scenarios, a number of difficulties lurk. First among these is managing the cumbersome alliance that Bush has so proudly assembled. Even if, as is reasonable, the administration decides that it must wage war with a core coalition of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Britain, it faces tremendous problems of command and control. The histories of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam suggest that—with the best will in the world—there can be no substitute for a unified command in the field. Yet no Arab state will openly place its forces under American command, and vice versa. This may be unavoidable, but we must understand that it will exact a price in terms of military effectiveness.
Moreover, a persistent deployment in the Persian Gulf, much less a war there, will have a pernicious long-term impact on American defense planning. Even if the Arab states, the Europeans, and the Japanese pick up the tab (another way in which this could be seen as “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight”), there will be indirect costs which the United States will have to bear. Barring a decision to stop the decline in the defense budget, a prolonged commitment in the gulf will come at the expense of large-scale development of new military technologies. In other words, a Persian Gulf war will consume some of our defense seed corn. Congress has squelched the administration’s efforts to pour $20 billion in new arms into Saudi Arabia in one shot; it has similarly put paid to an effort to allow the Defense Department to accept and spend as it saw fit any amount of money donated by a foreign government to the Pentagon. These moves by the Pentagon bespeak a thoughtless focus on immediate concerns in making decisions about how best to defend the Persian Gulf over the long haul. Loose talk by administration officials about using the Persian Gulf crisis as an opportunity to create enduring alliances in that region, and possibly even a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement, have a similar quality. Only after a war will the United States be in a position to figure out how much freedom it will have to reshape the Middle East, let alone to what extent it will wish to reshape it.
All of the options outlined above, then, have their drawbacks. On balance, however, we would be well-advised to move sooner rather than later, and to do so with a prolonged and intensive air campaign followed up some time—weeks or even months later—by advances on the ground. For not only are the uncertainties of an early ground operation enormous, the domestic political consequences could be catastrophic. The reason the United States should strike sooner rather than later is that Saddam is a dangerous man to whom to concede the initiative. By attacking Israel, destabilizing Jordan, or concluding a treaty of convenience with Iran (shades of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, save that this would follow rather than precede a bloody war between the two), Saddam can redefine the conflict in terms unfavorable to us. Nor are his military preparations to be dismissed. The longer he has to fortify Kuwait, to prepare his armies and people for war, and to lay the groundwork for a campaign of terror and subversion overseas, the harder he will make it for us. The crest of peacetime popular support for intervention in the gulf is near or even past. As time wears on, fears for the hostages, confusion about the worth of our objectives, recriminations about America’s prewar policy toward Iraq will sap our will to fight.
Without a war we will probably not turn Saddam out of Kuwait, and we will certainly fail to set back his programs of chemical and nuclear armament. Unless we crush him and batter his war machine we will open the way to schemes of Iraqi hegemony in the Arab world fed by vast financial resources, a surprisingly sophisticated technological base, and absolute ruthlessness. The stakes are not merely politically unimpeded access to oil, or the life of an independent Kuwait, or even the stability of the global economy, but the very nature of the world our children and grandchildren will inhabit. A world safe for Saddam Hussein is a world safe, ultimately, for nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare waged to feed or, in defensive desperation, to thwart the ambitions of Saddam and his ilk. That world looms less than ten years ahead of us. The Hitler analogy may be overdone, but at the end of the day there is a good bit to be said for it. Saddam Hussein is a man who must be stopped, his sword broken, and his plunder wrested from him. Other nations must play their part, but only the United States can lead the fight.
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Terror is a choice.
Ari Fuld described himself on Twitter as a marketer and social media consultant “when not defending Israel by exposing the lies and strengthening the truth.” On Sunday, a Palestinian terrorist stabbed Fuld at a shopping mall in Gush Etzion, a settlement south of Jerusalem. The Queens-born father of four died from his wounds, but not before he chased down his assailant and neutralized the threat to other civilians. Fuld thus gave the full measure of devotion to the Jewish people he loved. He was 45.
The episode is a grim reminder of the wisdom and essential justice of the Trump administration’s tough stance on the Palestinians.
Start with the Taylor Force Act. The act, named for another U.S. citizen felled by Palestinian terror, stanched the flow of American taxpayer fund to the Palestinian Authority’s civilian programs. Though it is small consolation to Fuld’s family, Americans can breathe a sigh of relief that they are no longer underwriting the PA slush fund used to pay stipends to the family members of dead, imprisoned, or injured terrorists, like the one who murdered Ari Fuld.
No principle of justice or sound statesmanship requires Washington to spend $200 million—the amount of PA aid funding slashed by the Trump administration last month—on an agency that financially induces the Palestinian people to commit acts of terror. The PA’s terrorism-incentive budget—“pay-to-slay,” as Douglas Feith called it—ranges from $50 million to $350 million annually. Footing even a fraction of that bill is tantamount to the American government subsidizing terrorism against its citizens.
If we don’t pay the Palestinians, the main line of reasoning runs, frustration will lead them to commit still more and bloodier acts of terror. But U.S. assistance to the PA dates to the PA’s founding in the Oslo Accords, and Palestinian terrorists have shed American and Israeli blood through all the years since then. What does it say about Palestinian leaders that they would unleash more terror unless we cross their palms with silver?
President Trump likewise deserves praise for booting Palestinian diplomats from U.S. soil. This past weekend, the State Department revoked a visa for Husam Zomlot, the highest-ranking Palestinian official in Washington. The State Department cited the Palestinians’ years-long refusal to sit down for peace talks with Israel. The better reason for expelling them is that the label “envoy” sits uneasily next to the names of Palestinian officials, given the links between the Palestine Liberation Organization, President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, and various armed terrorist groups.
Fatah, for example, praised the Fuld murder. As the Jerusalem Post reported, the “al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of Fatah . . . welcomed the attack, stressing the necessity of resistance ‘against settlements, Judaization of the land, and occupation crimes.’” It is up to Palestinian leaders to decide whether they want to be terrorists or statesmen. Pretending that they can be both at once was the height of Western folly, as Ari Fuld no doubt recognized.
May his memory be a blessing.
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The end of the water's edge.
It was the blatant subversion of the president’s sole authority to conduct American foreign policy, and the political class received it with fury. It was called “mutinous,” and the conspirators were deemed “traitors” to the Republic. Those who thought “sedition” went too far were still incensed over the breach of protocol and the reckless way in which the president’s mandate was undermined. Yes, times have certainly changed since 2015, when a series of Republican senators signed a letter warning Iran’s theocratic government that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka, the Iran nuclear deal) was built on a foundation of sand.
The outrage that was heaped upon Senate Republicans for freelancing on foreign policy in the final years of Barack Obama’s administration has not been visited upon former Secretary of State John Kerry, though he arguably deserves it. In the publicity tour for his recently published memoir, Kerry confessed to conducting meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif “three or four times” as a private citizen. When asked by Fox News Channel’s Dana Perino if Kerry had advised his Iranian interlocutor to “wait out” the Trump administration to get a better set of terms from the president’s successor, Kerry did not deny the charge. “I think everybody in the world is sitting around talking about waiting out President Trump,” he said.
Think about that. This is a former secretary of state who all but confirmed that he is actively conducting what the Boston Globe described in May as “shadow diplomacy” designed to preserve not just the Iran deal but all the associated economic relief and security guarantees it provided Tehran. The abrogation of that deal has put new pressure on the Iranians to liberalize domestically, withdraw their support for terrorism, and abandon their provocative weapons development programs—pressures that the deal’s proponents once supported.
“We’ve got Iran on the ropes now,” said former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, “and a meeting between John Kerry and the Iranian foreign minister really sends a message to them that somebody in America who’s important may be trying to revive them and let them wait and be stronger against what the administration is trying to do.” This is absolutely correct because the threat Iran poses to American national security and geopolitical stability is not limited to its nuclear program. The Iranian threat will not be neutralized until it abandons its support for terror and the repression of its people, and that will not end until the Iranian regime is no more.
While Kerry’s decision to hold a variety of meetings with a representative of a nation hostile to U.S. interests is surely careless and unhelpful, it is not uncommon. During his 1984 campaign for the presidency, Jesse Jackson visited the Soviet Union and Cuba to raise his own public profile and lend credence to Democratic claims that Ronald Reagan’s confrontational foreign policy was unproductive. House Speaker Jim Wright’s trip to Nicaragua to meet with the Sandinista government was a direct repudiation of the Reagan administration’s support for the country’s anti-Communist rebels. In 2007, as Bashar al-Assad’s government was providing material support for the insurgency in Iraq, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sojourned to Damascus to shower the genocidal dictator in good publicity. “The road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Pelosi insisted. “Unfortunately,” replied George W. Bush’s national security council spokesman, “that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq.”
Honest observers must reluctantly conclude that the adage is wrong. American politics does not, in fact, stop at the water’s edge. It never has, and maybe it shouldn’t. Though it may be commonplace, American political actors who contradict the president in the conduct of their own foreign policy should be judged on the policies they are advocating. In the case of Iran, those who seek to convince the mullahs and their representatives that repressive theocracy and a terroristic foreign policy are dead-ends are advancing the interests not just of the United States but all mankind. Those who provide this hopelessly backward autocracy with the hope that America’s resolve is fleeting are, as John Kerry might say, on “the wrong side of history.”
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Michael Wolff is its Marquis de Sade. Released on January 5, 2018, Wolff’s Fire and Fury became a template for authors eager to satiate the growing demand for unverified stories of Trump at his worst. Wolff filled his pages with tales of the president’s ignorant rants, his raging emotions, his television addiction, his fast-food diet, his unfamiliarity with and contempt for Beltway conventions and manners. Wolff made shocking insinuations about Trump’s mental state, not to mention his relationship with UN ambassador Nikki Haley. Wolff’s Trump is nothing more than a knave, dunce, and commedia dell’arte villain. The hero of his saga is, bizarrely, Steve Bannon, who in Wolff’s telling recognized Trump’s inadequacies, manipulated him to advance a nationalist-populist agenda, and tried to block his worst impulses.
Wolff’s sources are anonymous. That did not slow down the press from calling his accusations “mind-blowing” (Mashable.com), “wild” (Variety), and “bizarre” (Entertainment Weekly). Unlike most pornographers, he had a lesson in mind. He wanted to demonstrate Trump’s unfitness for office. “The story that I’ve told seems to present this presidency in such a way that it says that he can’t do this job, the emperor has no clothes,” Wolff told the BBC. “And suddenly everywhere people are going, ‘Oh, my God, it’s true—he has no clothes.’ That’s the background to the perception and the understanding that will finally end this, that will end this presidency.”
Nothing excites the Resistance more than the prospect of Trump leaving office before the end of his term. Hence the most stirring examples of Resistance Porn take the president’s all-too-real weaknesses and eccentricities and imbue them with apocalyptic significance. In what would become the standard response to accusations of Trumpian perfidy, reviewers of Fire and Fury were less interested in the truth of Wolff’s assertions than in the fact that his argument confirmed their preexisting biases.
Saying he agreed with President Trump that the book is “fiction,” the Guardian’s critic didn’t “doubt its overall veracity.” It was, he said, “what Mailer and Capote once called a nonfiction novel.” Writing in the Atlantic, Adam Kirsch asked: “No wonder, then, Wolff has written a self-conscious, untrustworthy, postmodern White House book. How else, he might argue, can you write about a group as self-conscious, untrustworthy, and postmodern as this crew?” Complaining in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen said Wolff broke no new ground: “Everybody” knew that the “president of the United States is a deranged liar who surrounded himself with sycophants. He is also functionally illiterate and intellectually unsound.” Remind me never to get on Gessen’s bad side.
What Fire and Fury lacked in journalistic ethics, it made up in receipts. By the third week of its release, Wolff’s book had sold more than 1.7 million copies. His talent for spinning second- and third-hand accounts of the president’s oddity and depravity into bestselling prose was unmistakable. Imitators were sure to follow, especially after Wolff alienated himself from the mainstream media by defending his innuendos about Haley.
It was during the first week of September that Resistance Porn became a competitive industry. On the afternoon of September 4, the first tidbits from Bob Woodward’s Fear appeared in the Washington Post, along with a recording of an 11-minute phone call between Trump and the white knight of Watergate. The opposition began panting soon after. Woodward, who like Wolff relies on anonymous sources, “paints a harrowing portrait” of the Trump White House, reported the Post.
No one looks good in Woodward’s telling other than former economics adviser Gary Cohn and—again bizarrely—the former White House staff secretary who was forced to resign after his two ex-wives accused him of domestic violence. The depiction of chaos, backstabbing, and mutual contempt between the president and high-level advisers who don’t much care for either his agenda or his personality was not so different from Wolff’s. What gave it added heft was Woodward’s status, his inviolable reputation.
“Nothing in Bob Woodward’s sober and grainy new book…is especially surprising,” wrote Dwight Garner at the New York Times. That was the point. The audience for Wolff and Woodward does not want to be surprised. Fear is not a book that will change minds. Nor is it intended to be. “Bob Woodward’s peek behind the Trump curtain is 100 percent as terrifying as we feared,” read a CNN headline. “President Trump is unfit for office. Bob Woodward’s ‘Fear’ confirms it,” read an op-ed headline in the Post. “There’s Always a New Low for the Trump White House,” said the Atlantic. “Amazingly,” wrote Susan Glasser in the New Yorker, “it is no longer big news when the occupant of the Oval Office is shown to be callous, ignorant, nasty, and untruthful.” How could it be, when the press has emphasized nothing but these aspects of Trump for the last three years?
The popular fixation with Trump the man, and with the turbulence, mania, frenzy, confusion, silliness, and unpredictability that have surrounded him for decades, serves two functions. It inoculates the press from having to engage in serious research into the causes of Trump’s success in business, entertainment, and politics, and into the crises of borders, opioids, stagnation, and conformity of opinion that occasioned his rise. Resistance Porn also endows Trump’s critics, both external and internal, with world-historical importance. No longer are they merely journalists, wonks, pundits, and activists sniping at a most unlikely president. They are politically correct versions of Charles Martel, the last line of defense preventing Trump the barbarian from enacting the policies on which he campaigned and was elected.
How closely their sensational claims and inflated self-conceptions track with reality is largely beside the point. When the New York Times published the op-ed “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” by an anonymous “senior official” on September 5, few readers bothered to care that the piece contained no original material. The author turned policy disagreements over trade and national security into a psychiatric diagnosis. In what can only be described as a journalistic innovation, the author dispensed with middlemen such as Wolff and Woodward, providing the Times the longest background quote in American history. That the author’s identity remains a secret only adds to its prurient appeal.
“The bigger concern,” the author wrote, “is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency but what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us.” Speak for yourself, bud. What President Trump has done to the Resistance is driven it batty. He’s made an untold number of people willing to entertain conspiracy theories, and to believe rumor is fact, hyperbole is truth, self-interested portrayals are incontrovertible evidence, credulity is virtue, and betrayal is fidelity—so long as all of this is done to stop that man in the White House.
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Review of 'Stanley Kubrick' By Nathan Abrams
Except for Stanley Donen, every director I have worked with has been prone to the idea, first propounded in the 1950s by François Truffaut and his tendentious chums in Cahiers du Cinéma, that directors alone are authors, screenwriters merely contingent. In singular cases—Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Woody Allen, Kubrick himself—the claim can be valid, though all of them had recourse, regular or occasional, to helping hands to spice their confections.
Kubrick’s variety of topics, themes, and periods testifies both to his curiosity and to his determination to “make it new.” Because his grades were not high enough (except in physics), this son of a Bronx doctor could not get into colleges crammed with returning GIs. The nearest he came to higher education was when he slipped into accessible lectures at Columbia. He told me, when discussing the possibility of a movie about Julius Caesar, that the great classicist Moses Hadas made a particularly strong impression.
While others were studying for degrees, solitary Stanley was out shooting photographs (sometimes with a hidden camera) for Look magazine. As a movie director, he often insisted on take after take. This gave him choices of the kind available on the still photographer’s contact sheets. Only Peter Sellers and Jack Nicholson had the nerve, and irreplaceable talent, to tell him, ahead of shooting, that they could not do a particular scene more than two or three times. The energy to electrify “Mein Führer, I can walk” and “Here’s Johnny!” could not recur indefinitely. For everyone else, “Can you do it again?” was the exhausting demand, and it could come close to being sadistic.
The same method could be applied to writers. Kubrick might recognize what he wanted when it was served up to him, but he could never articulate, ahead of time, even roughly what it was. Picking and choosing was very much his style. Cogitation and opportunism went together: The story goes that he attached Strauss’s Blue Danube to the opening sequence of 2001 because it happened to be playing in the sound studio when he came to dub the music. Genius puts chance to work.
Until academics intruded lofty criteria into cinema/film, the better to dignify their speciality, Alfred Hitchcock’s attitude covered most cases: When Ingrid Bergman asked for her motivation in walking to the window, Hitch replied, fatly, “Your salary.” On another occasion, told that some scene was not plausible, Hitch said, “It’s only a movie.” He did not take himself seriously until the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd elected to make him iconic. At dinner, I once asked Marcello Mastroianni why he was so willing to play losers or clowns. Marcello said, “Beh, cinema non e gran’ cosa” (cinema is no big deal). Orson Welles called movie-making the ultimate model-train set.
That was then; now we have “film studies.” After they moved in, academics were determined that their subject be a very big deal indeed. Comedy became no laughing matter. In his monotonous new book, the film scholar Nathan Abrams would have it that Stanley Kubrick was, in essence, a “New York Jewish intellectual.” Abrams affects to unlock what Stanley was “really” dealing with, in all his movies, never mind their apparent diversity. It is declared to be, yes, Yiddishkeit, and in particular, the Holocaust. This ground has been tilled before by Geoffrey Cocks, when he argued that the room numbers in the empty Overlook Hotel in The Shining encrypted references to the Final Solution. Abrams would have it that even Barry Lyndon is really all about the outsider seeking, and failing, to make his awkward way in (Gentile) Society. On this reading, Ryan O’Neal is seen as Hannah Arendt’s pariah in 18th-century drag. The movie’s other characters are all engaged in the enjoyment of “goyim-naches,” an expression—like menschlichkayit—he repeats ad nauseam, lest we fail to get the stretched point.
Theory is all when it comes to the apotheosis of our Jew-ridden Übermensch. So what if, in order to make a topic his own, Kubrick found it useful to translate its logic into terms familiar to him from his New York youth? In Abrams’s scheme, other mundane biographical facts count for little. No mention is made of Stanley’s displeasure when his 14-year-old daughter took a fancy to O’Neal. The latter was punished, some sources say, by having Barry’s voiceover converted from first person so that Michael Hordern would displace the star as narrator. By lending dispassionate irony to the narrative, it proved a pettish fluke of genius.
While conning Abrams’s volume, I discovered, not greatly to my chagrin, that I am the sole villain of the piece. Abrams calls me “self-serving” and “unreliable” in my accounts of my working and personal relationship with Stanley. He insinuates that I had less to do with Eyes Wide Shut than I pretend and that Stanley regretted my involvement. It is hard for him to deny (but convenient to omit) that, after trying for some 30 years to get a succession of writers to “crack” how to do Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, Kubrick greeted my first draft with “I’m absolutely thrilled.” A source whose anonymity I respect told me that he had never seen Stanley so happy since the day he received his first royalty check (for $5 million) for 2001. No matter.
Were Abrams (the author also of a book as hostile to Commentary as this one is to me) able to put aside his waxed wrath, he might have quoted what I reported in my memoir Eyes Wide Open to support his Jewish-intellectual thesis. One day, Stanley asked me what a couple of hospital doctors, walking away with their backs to the camera, would be talking about. We were never going to hear or care what it was, but Stanley—at that early stage of development—said he wanted to know everything. I said, “Women, golf, the stock market, you know…”
“Couple of Gentiles, right?”
“That’s what you said you wanted them to be.”
“Those people, how do we ever know what they’re talking about when they’re alone together?”
“Come on, Stanley, haven’t you overheard them in trains and planes and places?”
Kubrick said, “Sure, but…they always know you’re there.”
If he was even halfway serious, Abrams’s banal thesis that, despite decades of living in England, Stanley never escaped the Old Country, might have been given some ballast.
Now, as for Stanley Kubrick’s being an “intellectual.” If this implies membership in some literary or quasi-philosophical elite, there’s a Jewish joke to dispense with it. It’s the one about the man who makes a fortune, buys himself a fancy yacht, and invites his mother to come and see it. He greets her on the gangway in full nautical rig. She says, “What’s with the gold braid already?”
“Mama, you have to realize, I’m a captain now.”
She says, “By you, you’re a captain, by me, you’re a captain, but by a captain, are you a captain?”
As New York intellectuals all used to know, Karl Popper’s definition of bad science, and bad faith, involves positing a theory and then selecting only whatever data help to furnish its validity. The honest scholar makes it a matter of principle to seek out elements that might render his thesis questionable.
Abrams seeks to enroll Lolita in his obsessive Jewish-intellectual scheme by referring to Peter Arno, a New Yorker cartoonist whom Kubrick photographed in 1949. The caption attached to Kubrick’s photograph in Look asserted that Arno liked to date “fresh, unspoiled girls,” and Abrams says this “hint[s] at Humbert Humbert in Lolita.” Ah, but Lolita was published, in Paris, in 1955, six years later. And how likely is it, in any case, that Kubrick wrote the caption?
The film of Lolita is unusual for its garrulity. Abrams’s insistence on the sinister Semitic aspect of both Clare Quilty and Humbert Humbert supposedly drawing Kubrick like moth to flame is a ridiculous camouflage of the commercial opportunism that led Stanley to seek to film the most notorious novel of the day, while fudging its scandalous eroticism.
That said, in my view, The Killing, Paths of Glory, Barry Lyndon, and Clockwork Orange were and are sans pareil. The great French poet Paul Valéry wrote of “the profundity of the surface” of a work of art. Add D.H. Lawrence’s “never trust the teller, trust the tale,” and you have two authoritative reasons for looking at or reading original works of art yourself and not relying on academic exegetes—especially when they write in the solemn, sometimes ungrammatical style of Professor Abrams, who takes time out to tell those of us at the back of his class that padre “is derived from the Latin pater.”
Abrams writes that I “claim” that I was told to exclude all overt reference to Jews in my Eyes Wide Shut screenplay, with the fatuous implication that I am lying. I am again accused of “claiming” to have given the name Ziegler to the character played by Sidney Pollack, because I once had a (quite famous) Hollywood agent called Evarts Ziegler. So I did. The principal reason for Abrams to doubt my veracity is that my having chosen the name renders irrelevant his subsequent fanciful digression on the deep, deep meanings of the name Ziegler in Jewish lore; hence he wishes to assign the naming to Kubrick. Pop goes another wished-for proof of Stanley’s deep and scholarly obsession with Yiddishkeit.
Abrams would be a more formidable enemy if he could turn a single witty phrase or even abstain from what Karl Kraus called mauscheln, the giveaway jargon of Jewish journalists straining to pass for sophisticates at home in Gentile circles. If you choose, you can apply, on line, for screenwriting lessons from Nathan Abrams, who does not have a single cinematic credit to his name. It would be cheaper, and wiser, to look again, and then again, at Kubrick’s masterpieces.