A revealing book offers a portrait of untamed hubris and unstable policy
From the outset, the Obama administration’s handling of the most sensitive secrets of the war on terror has been worrisome. In April 2009, the Justice Department released previously classified memoranda that described the standards of the CIA’s interrogation program, thereby making known to our enemies the limits of what they might face if captured. The release also demoralized those within the intelligence agency who were told they could no longer rely on the memoranda—and would, therefore, be judged by a standard different from the one in place when they acted.
Two years later, following the killing of Osama bin Laden, revelations about the intelligence recovered in the raid on his Pakistan compound rendered much of that intelligence useless, because terrorists found out what we had learned. A few months after that, administration officials confirmed to the media that the United States had been involved along with Israel in implanting a computer virus in Iranian nuclear-enrichment centrifuges that caused physical damage, thereby justifying by our own professed standards any retaliation Iran might undertake. And, most recently, newspaper reports have disclosed planning for retaliatory operations against the terrorists who murdered our ambassador to Libya and military and other personnel present in our consulate in Benghazi.
The recklessness with which the Obama administration has allowed these precious and deadly secrets to be revealed in the light of day—and in all cases for political reasons, to buff the president’s image—is a little-covered national scandal. And it is on display throughout the text of Daniel Klaidman’s Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pages). There are several details in this book that Klaidman, a veteran Newsweek correspondent, could only have uncovered from leaks of classified information at the highest levels. At least two revelations have the potential to do real damage. Some of the details Klaidman reveals about the nature of the evidence gathered at Guantanamo Bay—gleaned from what was, until this book was published, secret surveillance of detainees—are bound to complicate prosecution of suspected terrorists who were held there, including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who also personally beheaded (“with my sacred right hand”) the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002.
The other revelation involves foreign policy. We are told that a plan to release Yemeni prisoners from Guantanamo to the Saudis so that they could be put into the intermittently effective Saudi deprogramming regimen for al-Qaeda associates came undone when the Yemeni president affronted the Saudi king by suggesting Yemen was doing the monarch a favor in allowing the kingdom to take those Yemenis. This mildly titillating story may well make it more difficult for the United States to conduct diplomacy in a part of the world where it is not helpful to be the source of gossip that embarrasses those in power.
But leaving aside the sloppy handling of such sensitive information, the public has reason to be disturbed by Klaidman’s account of the way the administration made its decisions in the war on terror. For example, Klaidman reports that President Obama is unwilling to use conventional law-of-war detention, which could take terrorist combatants off the battlefield for the duration of the conflict. Because this is not a conventional war, we can’t predict when or how it will end and therefore detention could be indefinite—indeed, even perpetual. The possibility that a system of ongoing review might be put in place to assure at least that no prisoner is held beyond a time when he presents any realistic danger seems either not to have occurred to anyone, or to have been rejected as too similar to what was in place under George W. Bush.
Harsh political reality thus far has prevented Obama from releasing prisoners at Guantanamo, notwithstanding his pledge to close that facility, indeed his order that it be closed—because they are simply too dangerous to release. He has determined that henceforth no new prisoners will be brought to Guantanamo and the only prisoners who remain there will be the legacy of his predecessor. Klaidman portrays the president as far more concerned with the imagined excesses of the war on terror than with the consequences of another attack. And he fears his possible successors as well. Discussing the possible use of detention power, Obama has supposedly said: “You never know who is going to be president four years from now. I have to think about how Mitt Romney would use that power.”
The options now in place for dealing with terrorists who obey no laws of war is that they will be either killed by remotely piloted drones or captured and tried and thereby treated better than lawful combatants who obey the laws of war. So the administration that wears its concern for human rights on the sleeve of its military has defaulted to kill rather than capture. The introduction of drone technology was the achievement of then Defense Secretary Robert Gates, initially motivated in part by budgetary constraints; however, the technology was not as developed nor its use as widespread during the Bush administration as it has become during Obama’s tenure. Thus, drones do not bear the dreaded Bush trademark. An administration that seeks at all costs to avoid being identified with its predecessor—even to the point of substituting the terms “unlawful enemy combatant,” used in legal literature for about a century, for “unprivileged enemy belligerent” and “foreign contingency operation” for “war”—feels comfortable, unlike its predecessor, having lethal force as its default enforcement method.
The president’s take on Islamism emerges as a fabric of platitudes: Obama’s “cosmopolitan background…gave him a more visceral feel [than his predecessor had] for how much of the world lived—and how they viewed America.” He had traveled abroad to visit his relatives and spent three weeks in Karachi, “a sprawling, congested city throbbing with sectarian strife.” “These experiences helped shape Obama’s belief that what most people around the world desired was adequate food, shelter, and security—lives of dignity, free of the daily humiliations of poverty and ignorance. They were the basis for a coherent set of views about the roots of Islamic rage and the underlying conditions that breed Islamic extremism—the economic despair, the social and political dysfunction that lead young men to become terrorists.” As portrayed here, the president does not seem to have factored into his “coherent set of views” that Osama bin Laden was a millionaire many times over; or that Mohammed Atta, the lead operative in the September 11 attacks, was an upper-middle-class university student, as were other participants in that atrocity; or that those who plotted in 2007 to blow up the Glasgow airport were physicians, as is Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri; or that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to detonate himself and his fellow passengers aboard an airplane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, was the son of a Nigerian cabinet minister; or that those implicated in plots in the UK are principally those born there who had no connection to a city “throbbing with sectarian strife.”
Nor does the book contain any hint that the president may have considered the possibility that “Islamic rage” and “Islamic extremism” may have some connection to Islam.
President Obama is not the only actor in Klaidman’s book. There was, it seems, a struggle for the soul of his presidency between what Klaidman calls the “Tammany Hall” element, led principally by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and representing the forces of political expediency, and “the Aspen Institute” element, led by State Department legal adviser and former Yale Law School dean Harold Koh, representing the forces of high-minded idealism.
Koh is shown wielding influence that far outstrips his rank because President Obama values his academic heft in pushing the debate leftward. He is described as having “an enormous intellect” and a background congenial to the president, a “former constitutional law professor himself.”
Koh’s lofty disdain, moreover, for settled notions of process—he tried to get the deputy attorney general to take away from Solicitor General Elena Kagan the authority inherent in her office to determine the government’s litigation position in certain detainee cases because he disagreed with her views—appears to resonate with the president’s own approach to governance. Thus, in the summer of 2009, the president convened a meeting at the White House in which Koh was invited to brief him and certain others in the administration on issues relating to detention. This was a meeting to which others with a stake in that issue, including the CIA and the Defense Department, were not invited, apparently so that Koh could try to influence the president without the inconvenience of contrary views.
Koh’s presentation as described here was less an intellectually disciplined briefing than a locker room pep talk, ending with, “Don’t let the past control the future.” Klaidman summons the characteristic eloquence of Vice President Joe Biden, in memorable prose uttered after the president left the room, to establish that the pep talk seemed to have worked: “‘You f—king did it,’ the vice president said, jabbing Koh in the chest. ‘You f—king connected with him, and that’s not easy.’”
Although Klaidman blandly describes this episode as “a departure from protocol that ruffled some feathers,” it was actually a fundamental departure from basic rules of the road that normally define how decisions are taken on matters of national concern. Such rules—prosaically referred to as the “inter-agency process”—are designed to assure that those with a stake in any such decision participate in a way that assures both that the president will get the benefit of their advice, and that they will be able to go forward at least with an understanding of how and why a result they may oppose was reached. Disdain for that process results in not only sloppy execution, but also bad decisions, and it raises serious questions about the competence of those who are supposed to be in charge.
Such disdain, and such results, are on gaudy display here. A case in point is the decision made in November 2009 to abort the military-commission trial of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and transfer him to a civilian Article III court in Manhattan—this, when KSM already had announced his intention to plead guilty and proceed to sentencing and, presumably, martyrdom. Attorney General Eric Holder sought and received the authority to decide where the Guantanamo detainees would be tried once the prison was closed. This was true even in those cases in which military-commission proceedings had already commenced—notwithstanding that all detainees were in the formal legal custody of the Department of Defense, not the Department of Justice. Holder first made his leaning toward a civilian court known to Obama while the two were watching the fireworks on July 4, 2009, from a terrace at the White House. “It’s your call, you’re the attorney general,” the president responded.
That result was in full accord with the preference of Harold Koh, expressed in terms not of rigorous jurisprudence, but of pop psychology. To try KSM in Manhattan, according to Koh, would “‘show confidence in our system,’ it would be a ‘redemptive act’ precisely because it is what the terrorists don’t want us to do.” Yet, whatever Koh’s “enormous intellect” may have revealed about what terrorists might want, actual events demonstrate that real terrorists often show a decided preference for making a hash out of legal processes by turning them into political theater. That was what we learned from the year-long circus that was the sentencing proceeding in a civilian court of Zacarias Moussaoui following his guilty plea as the so-called 20th hijacker. Tossing terrorists into the civilian legal system because they are purportedly afraid of it is rather like tossing Brer Rabbit into the briar patch because he purportedly was afraid of it—and it’s likely to yield the same success.
By the time Holder announced that KSM would be tried in New York, he had not discussed the decision with anyone who would face its consequences, notably local authorities in New York, who turned against it when they came to realize the chaos such a proceeding would bring to lower Manhattan. Klaidman describes some of the episodes that marked the course from the announcement of that decision in November 2009 to the announcement in April 2011 that it had been reversed. Along the way, Holder provided the curious assurance to the Senate that, the niceties of due process notwithstanding, a conviction in the KSM trial was assured. There was also the near acquittal of a defendant brought to New York from Guantanamo and charged in the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, a proceeding that was supposed to illustrate the near certainty of convictions in civilian terrorism trials but wound up so rattling Congress that it passed a statute barring the use of any funds to bring defendants from Guantanamo to trial in the United States. That is what necessitated Holder’s retreat.
These episodes included a squabble among Holder, Koh, and Emanuel at a White House meeting that ended with what Klaidman describes as the president’s attempt “to lead his team to higher ground,” but winds up in the telling as a descent into bathos. The president read aloud from the oration of the judge who sentenced would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid; the judge told Reid he was “not a soldier” and “no big deal” and then reached through fractured paraphrase for the eloquence of John F. Kennedy (“we will bear any burden, pay any price, to preserve our freedoms”) and Abraham Lincoln (“the world is not going to long remember what you or I say here”), only to achieve principally the grandiloquence of Douglas MacArthur (“See that flag, Mr. Reid?…That flag will fly there long after this is all forgotten”). As Klaidman describes it:
Obama put down the speech and looked around the room. He didn’t fix his gaze on anyone in particular; he just stared for several moments. Then he spoke. “Why can’t I give that speech?” Without another word, he rose and walked out of the room.
No less disconcerting is Klaidman’s account of how the attorney general decided to open—or reopen—an investigation into whether CIA agents had committed crimes when they questioned some high-value detainees using “enhanced interrogation techniques.” That dreadfully inartistic term falsely suggested the concealment of unspeakable criminality, but in fact, the techniques were analyzed in detailed legal memos by Justice Department lawyers that, although revised at least once, concluded uniformly that they violated no standards applicable when the memos were written. Even more notably, these techniques had not been used since 2003. Holder, over the objection of every living former CIA director and the then incumbent director, Leon Panetta, released those memos.
When the public outrage Holder expected failed to materialize, he pressed on with investigations of the intelligence officers who carried out the interrogations. Career prosecutors in the eastern district of Virginia had investigated each instance of claimed unlawfulness and had concluded that none merited prosecution, drafting detailed memoranda describing their conclusions and the reasons for closing each of the investigations. Holder, by his own account in testimony, and by the account in this book, never read those memoranda. Moreover, he was well aware that such an investigation could damage morale within the agency, not to mention the damage it could cause to the careers of those under investigation regardless of the outcome—which came years later when the reopened investigations were closed again for lack of evidence of illegality.
What motivated him to press the issue? By Klaidman’s account, Holder was influenced strongly by an article in Vanity Fair by Christopher Hitchens, who had volunteered to be waterboarded and videotaped his experience of the procedure. Waterboarding was the most celebrated and severe of the CIA techniques and had been imposed on precisely three senior al-Qaeda terrorists. After his own experiment, Hitchens wrote an article pronouncing the technique torture.
The word torture, in addition to being a handy epithet, is defined in the applicable statute that criminalizes torture as acting under color of law with the specific intent to cause “severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” “Severe mental pain or suffering” is defined as “prolonged mental harm” resulting from any of several causes, including “severe physical pain or suffering” or the threat thereof, or the threat of imminent death; “severe physical pain or suffering” is not defined. Hitchens, a talented journalist and critic whose renown as a drinker matched his renown as an atheist, never claimed to have consulted the applicable law or to have experienced any prolonged effects from his ordeal; he simply announced that what he had experienced was torture. According to Klaidman, Holder watched the video of Hitchens’s experience, which showed that Hitchens had “lasted for fewer than 10 seconds before asking for mercy” and was “both mesmerized and repulsed.”
Klaidman says Holder was so dogged because he carried a lingering sense of guilt from the time of his service as deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration when he had helped bring about the pardon of Marc Rich, a financier charged with tax evasion whose wife had contributed huge sums to the Clinton campaign and library. (Notably, although unmentioned in this book, Holder failed on that occasion as well to consult with prosecutors in his own department who had brought the Rich prosecution.)
So there you have it. The chief law-enforcement officer of the United States knowingly damaged morale in the nation’s principal intelligence agency by reopening investigations previously closed by career prosecutors within his own department without bothering to read why they did so. Holder acted on the strength of a fewer-than-10-second simulation of waterboarding performed on a writer devoid of any acquaintance with the law, and on his own guilty conscience over a previous lifting of tax-evasion charges in a case in which he also did not bother to determine why career prosecutors in his own department had acted. In so doing, he moved with exquisite efficiency to undermine faith simultaneously in law enforcement and national security.
Klaidman does not disclose his sources for the account he presents, although the book is preceded by two pages entitled “A Note on Sources,” in which he outlines the steps he took to assure accuracy. The only source he appears to deny using directly, and it is a fairly casual denial, is the president himself:
Occasionally I write about the emotional state and interior thoughts of President Obama and his top aides. In doing so, I am not taking literary license. Those accounts are based on reporting—either from specific comments the president has made that directly express his state of mind, or from reasonable inferences from sources I have interviewed who have observed and spoken to him.
The president is portrayed often as maddeningly detached and above the fray, but it is impossible to believe that the accounts of private conversations between him and members of his administration were not cleared with him.
One obvious source is Holder. This emerges not only from such apparent accounts as his one-on-one discussion with Obama about bringing KSM to trial in the United States—a story that could have had only two authoritative sources—but also from less obvious data points. For example, the account of Holder’s friction with Rahm Emanuel consistently portrays Emanuel as unprincipled and narrowly political and Holder as idealistic and thoughtful—always a telling indicator in a behind-the-scenes account.
Consider as well how Klaidman accounts for Holder’s absence from the famous photo of the president, an open-mouthed Hillary Clinton, and others gathered in the White House Situation Room watching in real time the operation that killed Bin Laden:
The operational planning surrounding Bin Laden was known to only a tiny circle of national security officials, on a need-to-know basis. One person who was not brought into the loop was the attorney general. He was Obama’s closest friend on the cabinet and the proposed raid raised important legal questions. But Obama determined that the mission would be a “Title 50 operation,” conducted under the auspices of the CIA. As a covert action, there had already been a legal finding prepared, so additional Justice Department approval was not required.
This excuse makes no sense. Title 50 is that part of the U.S. Code that sets forth, among other things, the authorities of the CIA. It authorizes the agency to enlist the military in the conduct of covert actions when finding that such an action is appropriate has been signed by the president. In this case, that put Leon Panetta, director of the CIA, in command, directing the operation carried out by Navy SEALs overseen by Admiral William McRaven.
But the Bin Laden operation bristled with legal questions, or at least questions that lent themselves to the kind of analysis that lawyers bring to bear, beyond those answered simply by finding that such an operation could be authorized. These included questions relating to mounting such an operation in a country that was a nominal ally of the United States, and ones related to risks, if any, of collateral damage.
Indeed, a memorandum from Panetta that surfaced after the operation disclosed that McRaven’s forces were authorized to do only what had been briefed to the president—without specifying what that was—and that if anything not included in that briefing was encountered, they were required to seek further guidance. The possible need for additional guidance that could have engaged legal questions was and is apparent. That the naked finding necessary to authorize the operation had been made simply does not suffice to explain the attorney general’s absence.
Here’s what does make sense, even though Klaidman does not connect these dots. Holder, he tells us, was regarded by many in the White House as a loose cannon. And his legal pursuit of intelligence officers made certain that his fellow cabinet members at the State Department and the CIA would have every reason to distrust him. That is a far more plausible explanation for Holder’s absence than the suggestion he was kept out of the loop because the he did not have a need to know. That notion simply does not hold water.
In the end, like all insider accounts written with the cooperation of insiders, what we have in Kill or Capture is a portrait the Obama administration wants available as he seeks reelection. This is how Obama and his men wish to be perceived. So beyond the question of whether everything really happened as Klaidman describes lies the key question: Does this portrait of the people close to Obama and the process by which they managed the war on terror recommend four more years of stewardship?
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Obama and Terror: A Four-Year Scandal
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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.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Is American opera in terminal condition?
At the Met, distinguished singers and conductors, mostly born and trained in Europe, appeared in theatrically conservative big-budget productions of the popular operas of the 19th century, with a sprinkling of pre-romantic and modern works thrown in to leaven the loaf. City Opera, by contrast, presented younger artists—many, like Beverly Sills, born in this country—in a wider-ranging, more adventurously staged repertoire that often included new operas, some of them written by American composers, to which the public was admitted at what were then called “popular prices.”
Between them, the companies represented a feast for culture-consuming New Yorkers, though complaints were already being heard that their new theaters were too big. Moreover, neither the Met nor City Opera was having any luck at commissioning memorable new operas and thereby expanding and refreshing the operatic repertoire, to which only a handful of significant new works—none of them, then or since, premiered by either company—had been added since World War I.
A half-century later, the feast has turned to famine. In 2011, New York City Opera left Lincoln Center, declaring bankruptcy. It closed its doors forever two years later. The Met has weathered a nearly uninterrupted string of crises that climaxed earlier this year with the firing of James Levine, the company’s once-celebrated music director emeritus. He was accused in 2017 of molesting teenage musicians and was dismissed from all of his conducting posts in New York and elsewhere. Today the Met is in dire financial straits that threaten its long-term survival.
And while newer opera companies in such other American cities as Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Santa Fe, and Seattle now offer alternative models of leadership, none has established itself as a potential successor either to the Met or the now-defunct NYCO.1
Is American opera as a whole in a terminal condition? Or are the collapse of the New York City Opera and the Met’s ongoing struggle to survive purely local matters of no relevance elsewhere? Heidi Waleson addresses these questions in Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America.2 Waleson draws on her experience as the opera critic of the Wall Street Journal to speculate on the prospects for an art form that has never quite managed to set down firm roots in American culture.
In this richly informative chronicle of NYCO’s decline and fall, Waleson persuasively argues that what happened to City Opera (and, by extension, the Met) could happen to other opera companies as well. The days in which an ambitious community sought successfully to elevate itself into the first rank of world cities by building and manning an opera house are long past, and Mad Scenes and Exit Arias helps us understand why.As Waleson reminds us, it was Fiorello LaGuardia, the New York mayor who played a central role in the creation of the NYCO, who dubbed the company “the people’s opera” when it was founded in 1943. According to LaGuardia, NYCO existed to perform popular operas at popular prices for a mass audience. In later years, it moved away from that goal, but the slogan stuck. Indeed, no opera company has ever formulated a clearer statement of its institutional mission.
Even after it moved to Lincoln Center in 1966, NYCO had an equally coherent and similarly appealing purpose: It was where you went to see the opera stars of tomorrow, foremost among them Sills and Plácido Domingo, in inexpensively but imaginatively staged productions of the classics. The company went out of its way to present modern operas, too, but it never did so at the expense of its central repertoire—and tickets to its performances cost half of what the Met charged. Well into the 21st century, City Opera stuck more or less closely to its redefined mission. Under Paul Kellogg, the general and artistic director from 1996 to 2007, it did so with consistent artistic success. But revenues declined throughout the latter part of Kellogg’s tenure, in part because younger New Yorkers were unwilling to become subscribers.
In those days, the Metropolitan Opera, NYCO’s next-door neighbor, was still one of the world’s most conservative opera houses. That changed when Peter Gelb became its general manager in 2006. Gelb was resolved to modernize the Met’s productions and, to a lesser extent, its repertoire, and he simultaneously sought to heighten its national profile by digitally simulcasting live performances into movie theaters throughout America.
Kellogg was frustrated by the chronic acoustic inadequacies of the New York State Theater and sought in vain to move City Opera to a three-theater complex that was to be built (but never was) on the World Trade Center site. He retired soon after Gelb came to the Met. Kellogg was succeeded by Gérard Mortier, a European impresario who was accustomed to working in state-subsidized theaters. Mortier made a pair of fateful decisions. First, he canceled City Opera’s entire 2008–2009 season while the interior of the State Theater underwent much-needed renovations. Then he announced a follow-up season of 20th-century operas that lacked audience appeal.
That follow-up season never happened, because Mortier resigned in 2008 and fled New York. He was replaced by George Steel, who had previously served for just three months as general manager of the Dallas Opera. Under Steel, NYCO slashed its schedule to ribbons in a futile attempt to get back on its financial feet after Mortier’s financially ruinous year-long hiatus. Then he mounted a series of productions of nonstandard repertory that received mixed reviews and flopped at the box office.
The combined effect of Gelb’s innovations and the inept leadership of Mortier and Steel all but obliterated City Opera’s reason for existing. Under Gelb, the Met’s repertory ranged from such warhorses as Rigoletto and Tosca to 20th-century masterpieces like Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, and tickets could be bought for as little as $20. With the Met performing a more interesting repertoire under a wider range of directors, and in part at “people’s prices,” City Opera no longer did anything that the Met wasn’t already doing on a far larger and better-financed scale. What, then, was its mission now? The truth was that it had none, and when the company went under in 2013, few mourned its passing.
As it happened, Gelb’s own innovations were a mere artistic Band-aid, for he was unwilling or unable to trim the Met’s bloated budget to any meaningful extent. He made no serious attempt to cut the company’s labor costs until a budget crisis in 2014 forced him to confront its unions, which he did with limited success. In addition, his new productions of the standard-repertory operas on which the Met relied to draw and hold older subscribers were felt by many to be trashily trendy.
The Met had particular difficulty managing the reduced circumstances of the 21st century when it came to opera. Its 3,800-seat theater has an 80-foot-deep stage with a proscenium opening that measures 54 feet on each side. (Bayreuth, by contrast, seats 1,925, La Scala 2,030, and the Vienna State Opera 2,200.) As a result, it is all but impossible to mount low-to-medium-budget shows in the Metropolitan Opera House, even as the company finds it is no longer able to fill its increasingly empty house. Two decades ago, the Met earned 90 percent of its potential box-office revenue. That figure plummeted to 66 percent by 2015, forcing Gelb to raise ticket prices to an average of $158.50 per head. On Broadway, the average price of a ticket that season was $103.86.
Above all, Gelb was swimming against the cultural tide. Asked about the effects on audience development of the Met simulcasts, he admitted that three-quarters of the people who attended them were “over 65, and 30 percent of them are over 75.” As he explained: “Grand opera is in itself a kind of a dinosaur of an art form…. The question is not whether I think I’m doing a good job or not in trying to keep the [Metropolitan Opera] alive. It’s whether I’m doing a good job or not in the face of a cultural and social rejection of opera as an art form. And what I’m doing is fighting an uphill battle to try and maintain an audience in a very difficult time.”
Was that statement buck-passing defeatism, or a fair appraisal of the state of American opera? Other opera executives distanced themselves from Gelb’s remarks, and it was true—and still is—that smaller American companies have done a somewhat better job of attracting younger audiences than the top-heavy Met. But according to the National Endowment for the Arts, the percentage of U.S. adults who attend at least one operatic performance each year declined from 3.2 percent in 2002 to 2.1 percent in 2012. This problem, of course, is not limited to opera. As I wrote in these pages in 2010, the disappearance of secondary-school arts education and the rise of digital media may well be leading to “not merely a decline in public interest in the fine arts but the death of the live audience as a cultural phenomenon.”3D oes American opera have a future in an era of what Heidi Waleson succinctly describes as “flat ticket income and rising expenses”? In the last chapter of Mad Scenes and Exit Arias, she chronicles the activities of a group of innovative smaller troupes that are “rethinking what an opera company is, what it does, and who it serves.” Yet in the same breath, she acknowledges the possibility that “filling a giant theater for multiple productions of grand operas [is] no longer an achievable goal.”
If that is so, then it may be worth asking a different question: Did American opera ever have a past? It is true that opera in America has had a great and glorious history, but virtually the whole of that history consisted of American productions of 18th- and 19th-century European operas. By contrast, no opera by an American classical composer has ever entered the international major-house repertoire. Indeed, while new American operas are still commissioned and premiered at an impressive rate, few things are so rare as a second production of any of these works.
While a handful continue to be performed—John Adams’s Nixon in China (1987), André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1995), Mark Adamo’s Little Women (1998), and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (2000)—their success is a tribute to the familiarity of their subject matter and source material, not their musico-theatrical quality. As for the rest, the hard but inescapable truth is that with the exception of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), virtually all large-scale American operas have been purpose-written novelties that were shelved and forgotten immediately after their premieres.
The success of Porgy and Bess, which received its premiere not in an opera house but on Broadway, reminds us that American musical comedy, unlike American opera, is deeply rooted in our national culture, in much the same way that grand opera is no less deeply rooted in the national cultures of Germany and Italy, where it is still genuinely popular (if less so today than a half-century ago). By comparison with Porgy, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, or My Fair Lady, American opera as a homegrown form simply does not exist: It is merely an obscure offshoot of its European counterpart. Aaron Copland, America’s greatest composer, was not really joking when he wittily described opera as “la forme fatale,” and his own failed attempts to compose an audience-friendly opera that would be as successful as his folk-flavored ballet scores say much about the difficulties facing any composer who seeks to follow in his footsteps.
It is not that grand opera is incapable of appealing to American theatergoers. Even now, there are many Americans who love it passionately, just as there are regional companies such as Chicago’s Lyric Opera and San Francisco Opera that have avoided making the mistakes that closed City Opera’s doors. Yet the crises from which the Metropolitan Opera has so far failed to extricate itself suggest that in the absence of the generous state subsidies that keep European opera houses in business, large-house grand opera in America may simply be too expensive to thrive—or, ultimately, to survive. At its best, no art form is more thrilling or seductive. But none is at greater risk of following the dinosaurs down the cold road to extinction.
1 The “New York City Opera” founded in 2016 that now mounts operas in various New York theaters on an ad hoc basis is a brand-new enterprise that has no connection with its predecessor.
2 Metropolitan Books, 304 pages