Woody Island is a speck of land in the middle of the South China Sea, not quite a square mile in size. Over the past 80 years it has been occupied by French Indochina, Imperial Japan, the Republic of China, the People’s Republic of China, South Vietnam, and, after a brief war in 1974, the People’s Republic again. Now known as Yongxing to the Chinese (or Phu Lam to the Vietnamese, who still lay claim to it), the island has an airstrip, a harbor, and a few hundred Chinese residents, none native-born, many of whom make their living as fishermen.
An obscure tropical island may seem an odd starting point for an essay on the coming global disorder. Yet great conflicts have been known to flare over little things in faraway places. “On the morning of July 1, [1911,] without more ado, it was announced that His Imperial Majesty the German Emperor had sent his gunboat the Panther to Agadir to maintain and protect German interests,” wrote Winston Churchill in his history of the First World War. The proximate causes of the German foray to this deserted Moroccan bay “were complicated and intrinsically extremely unimportant.” But the real purpose of the kaiser’s move was to test—and, he hoped, to break—Britain’s alliance with France and, perhaps, scope out the possibility of establishing a German naval base in the north Atlantic. “All the alarm bells throughout Europe,” Churchill recalled, “began immediately to quiver.”
Could another Agadir crisis be lurking in the South China Sea? On July 24, 2012, Beijing decreed that henceforth the little village of Sansha on Woody Island would be considered a “prefecture-level city,” complete with a mayor, a people’s congress, a military garrison—and claims to administer the 770,000 square miles of surrounding waters, an area larger than the Gulf of Mexico. Beijing’s coup was protested loudly by Vietnam and more quietly by the U.S. State Department, which fretted that the move ran “counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences” in the South China Sea. In response, Beijing called a U.S. embassy official to the carpet and demanded that the United States “shut up.”
China’s leaders are fond of advertising their country’s “peaceful rise,” and the pro-China chorus in the West has sought to engage Beijing as a “responsible stakeholder” in global affairs. Yet in the last three years alone, Beijing has provoked quasi-military confrontations over disputed waters with Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and even the United States, all the while insisting that it has “indisputable sovereignty” over nearly the whole of the sea. “China is a big country and other countries are small countries,” explained Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi at a regional summit in 2010. “And that is just a fact.”
What is also a fact is that the South China Sea sits on estimated oil reserves of 213 billion barrels and equally massive reserves of natural gas. Fully one-third of the world’s overall volume of trade passes across the sea every year. Each of the sea’s other claimants has reasons to accommodate Beijing even as they resent its bullying habits. China, it is sometimes noted, sees the sea not just as an economic resource and an extension of its sovereign domain, but as the natural basin for a 21st-century version of a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, this time under Beijing’s sway.
The United States also has core national interests at stake in the South China Sea. America has long stood for freedom of navigation and flatly rejects China’s territorial claims to the waters. A 1951 mutual defense treaty binds the United States to Manila, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act binds the United States to Taipei, and a 2005 Strategic Framework Agreement formalizes a defense relationship with Singapore. U.S. military ties to Hanoi have strengthened dramatically in recent years. Thousands of U.S. service members are permanently based in nearby Okinawa, Guam, and, as of this April, northern Australia. As part of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia, the United States plans to deploy more than 60 percent of its naval power to the Pacific by the end of the decade.
This would suggest that there is a limit to what the People’s Republic can hope to achieve in the South China Sea. In what seems like a textbook illustration of the balance of power, Beijing’s aggressiveness has alerted its neighbors to the common threat and drawn them closer to Washington. Perhaps all that would be required to head off future Chinese encroachments is an unequivocal message from Washington that the United States will not tolerate them. During the Agadir crisis, then Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George famously warned the Germans: “If Britain is treated badly where her interests are vitally affected…then I say emphatically that peace at that price would be a humiliation intolerable for a great country like ours to endure.”
That declaration did not, of course, prevent the ultimate outbreak of war. But it did help end the immediate crisis, reassure France that Britain would be at her side, and move statesmen like Churchill, soon to be at the Admiralty, to prepare for what was coming. Today it is hard to imagine the Obama administration speaking in a similar vein, which all but guarantees fresh provocations by Beijing in the months and years ahead.
Alarm bells should be quivering after what happened on Woody Island on July 24.
The frightening thing is that they are not.
How does global order come undone? How do the arrangements and understandings through which war is generally avoided, commerce generally protected, and the cause of civilization generally advanced, cease to function?
Historically, there is no single template. Appeasement was much to blame for 1939, but in 1914 Britain and France were nearly as ready for war as Germany. The two decades preceding the Second World War were economically bleak, particularly in Europe: Depression bred disorder, and vice versa. Yet the two decades before the First World War were exceptionally prosperous, with per capita GDP rising by about 20 percent in the UK, 30 percent in Germany, and 50 percent in France. The crises that led up to the assassination of the archduke in Sarajevo in 1914 represented a failure not only in, but of, the balance of power. What failed in the 1920s and ’30s was collective security, in concept and in practice. The kaiser and his generals anticipated a short, decisive, brilliant campaign in 1914; it is hard to imagine that even the most hardened Prussian militarists would have wished for the cataclysm they wound up provoking. By contrast, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Tojo summoned the whirlwind with their eyes wide open. Germany’s ambition in 1914 was to redraw the borders of Europe and its colonial possessions. Germany’s ambition in 1939 was to remake the face of man.
Still, a few common threads emerge. Revisionist regimes—states that want to overturn the established global order—will spy an opening through which they believe they can improve their international position, and jump. Those openings can be made possible by the inattention of the would-be keepers of global order, or by their wishful thinking, or by their lack of means to protect what they are supposed to protect and suppress what they are supposed to suppress. Global order can collapse when its keepers cease to believe they have the political obligation or the moral right to enforce that order against its challengers. Global order also collapses as a result of simple miscalculation: A regime assumes its opponents are fools who can easily be had; a government realizes too late that it cannot negotiate its way to peace.
Whatever the precise cause, global order has come undone in the past and may soon come apart again. The undoing will be preceded by a number of seemingly unconnected events and trends whose significance and direction become clear only in the wake of some spectacular event. What might some of those events and trends be today? And what might some of the spectacular events look like in the not-so-distant future?
FIVE HARD LANDINGS
It is March 2014. A surprise diplomatic overture by the Islamic Republic of Iran in the late fall of 2012 forestalled what many believed was an inevitable Israeli military strike by opening all Iran’s nuclear sites to international inspection and suspending the production of uranium enriched to a 20 percent level, which is near-bomb grade. The move was sufficient to convince the weight of international opinion that diplomacy could be given more time to work. Suspicions remained, however, that Iran had merely off-shored its uranium-enrichment program to North Korea, whose state-of-the-art facility at the Yongbyon nuclear complex was disclosed at the end of 2010.
In the late spring of 2013, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, an Iranian ally, was assassinated by a member of his own bodyguard. His death brought about the collapse of the regime, and then a period of reprisals against his political supporters and Alawite kinsmen. Assad’s death also further isolated Iran’s leaders, internationally as well as domestically. For the Iranian presidential election in June 2013, the regime—fearing a reprise of the aborted revolution of 2009—was careful to permit only those candidates whose anti-reformist credentials were unimpeachable.
It didn’t work. The combination of a transparently rigged election with the example of Assad’s fall sparked a series of massive anti-regime protests throughout the country that were met, but not suppressed, by bullets. Within weeks, the regime found itself facing the same slow-burning fuse that had ultimately toppled Assad. It feared its days were numbered.
Yet the regime had (or so it thought) an ace card: a small, secret arsenal of relatively compact nuclear warheads, fitted to ballistic missiles. What should be done with them? Merely declaring the possession of the weapons might not be believed, or it might invite military action by the United States or Israel, thereby accelerating the regime’s downfall. Keeping them a secret, on the other hand, would risk squandering an asset and potentially gifting them to their domestic enemies in the event the regime toppled.
As mass demonstrations turned into civil war, with army units defecting to the side of the opposition and waging increasingly successful battles with the loyal Revolutionary Guards Corps, the question of what, if anything, to do with the weapons became urgent. What about using them against Israel?
The temptation had always been present, but it was curbed by the fear of retaliation. But now the logic of such a strike—a jihadist Hail Mary—started to become persuasive. Assume Israel struck back with its own nuclear weapons: Whom would it be killing, except millions of Iranians also struggling to topple the regime? And assume the regime, at its dying breath, managed at least to fulfill its core ambition to destroy the Jewish state: Would it not be a worthy capstone for the Islamic Republic? Suicide is a sin, but this would be an act of martyrdom on a world-historical scale.
Such were the thoughts dominating the minds of Iran’s embattled leaders in March 2014.
I write this on September 1, 2012—one low, dishonest decade since the world first learned of Iran’s clandestine nuclear programs from an Iranian opposition group. The dishonesty cuts both ways. The International Atomic Energy Association has just issued another report that leaves little room for doubt that Iran continues to enrich uranium to ever higher levels of purity while seeking to cover its nuclear tracks. The report also notes that Iran’s efforts to master the technologies of nuclear weaponization persisted well after 2003, putting paid to the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that had claimed the contrary.
There has been abundant deceit—self-deceit—on the other side as well. Among those self-deceptions: that the intelligence on Iran had been “hyped” by a warmongering Bush administration. That Iran’s nuclear intentions were unknowable. That Iran was using its nuclear card not to build weapons but to seek a grand bargain through which it could normalize relations with the West. That punishing sanctions would swiftly bring the Iranians to heel. That the targeted assassinations of Iranian scientists could, in tandem with a cyberwarfare campaign, achieve decisive results without the risks of air strikes.
But perhaps the greatest of self-deceptions has been the view that Iran is a rational actor that would inevitably turn out to be a “responsible” nuclear power. This argument always suffered from many defects, among them the defect of assuming that rationality is understood the same way in Tehran as it is in Washington. But no less a problem with the argument is that it takes the stability of the Iranian regime as its premise. Iran’s leaders may not be “suicidal,” but that depends on the length of their time horizons. A regime that is planning for the long haul will probably want to husband its resources. But what if Iran’s leaders believe their regime doesn’t have long to go?
What makes matters worse—not in an imagined scenario but in the world as we find it today—is the confusion of signals between Iran and its adversaries. The West has repeatedly set red lines and Tehran has repeatedly transgressed them without consequence. Israel at this writing continues to threaten action even as its ability to act with decisive effect is increasingly in doubt. The United States, both during the Bush and Obama administrations, has repeatedly signaled its profound ambivalence about Iran’s nuclear bids, insisting they are “unacceptable” while indicating that we are unwilling to pay much of a price to prevent them by any means necessary.
The result is a case study for how global disorder emerges. None of the key players—Iran, the United States, or Israel—is quite sure of how the other will act (or react). The United States and Israel aren’t even sure of how they will act. U.S. policymakers seem to believe that a nuclear Iran would be terrible, but no more terrible than a pre-emptive attack. Israeli military and intelligence planners oppose a unilateral strike and are in near public revolt against their more hawkish civilian masters. Iran understands it has an opportunity to tiptoe across the nuclear threshold. On the other side of that threshold it sees a brighter horizon for itself: greater regime security, the unique prestige that comes from defying the West and winning, enhanced regional influence, and, above all, the opportunity to further revise an “arrogant” global order it believes it was created to replace.
It is October 2013, and Greece is out of the eurozone. Now who will be next?
Greece’s exit wasn’t exactly voluntary: Most Greeks had little appetite to exchange their euros for a new-old drachma they knew would soon be worthless. But neither were the Greeks seriously prepared to fire thousands of civil servants and privatize state-owned assets to meet the terms demanded by their international paymasters. Faced with an election, German chancellor Angela Merkel decided she could not make the political case for throwing more money down a bottomless Greek hole. And perhaps Greece’s exit would scare some of the next-in-lines—Portugal, Italy, Spain, and, yes, France—into some reform-minded sobriety. Or so she hoped.
Merkel’s show of spine did not, however, save her from a narrow defeat at the hands of a Social Democrat–Green coalition. Not that the change of government seemed to make much of a difference toward resolving the crisis, which European policymakers had failed to understand from the beginning. It was not a currency crisis. Nor was it a debt crisis. Yet the result of their misdiagnosis was to create both a debt and currency crisis. By the summer of 2013, every country in the European Union, with the exceptions of Estonia, Bulgaria, and Poland, was deep in recession.
Social unrest was soon to follow. Destitute Greeks began flooding into other European countries, somehow supposing that countries with 12 percent unemployment rates would have more opportunities than countries with 30 percent unemployment. With Greece already out of the euro-zone, calls mounted to kick it out of the European Union altogether. Neo-fascist parties such as France’s National Front and Austria’s Freedom Party were predictably vocal on the issue and scored well in municipal and parliamentary elections.
Europe’s Muslim minority was also badly affected. Muslim neighborhoods in Brussels, Berlin, Manchester, and Marseilles saw their murder rates rise sharply; jihadist cells became more widespread and better hidden. Criminal syndicates—many of them Russian, some linked to Russian intelligence—also gained leverage as more Europeans were driven into the gray- and black-market economies. In Italy, the size of the country’s gray-black market doubled to nearly 50 percent of the economy, further depressing tax revenue. Governments responded by yet again raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy, which also accelerated the trend toward tax evasion and avoidance.
Europe’s crisis had consequences beyond its own borders, too. European defense spending, already at rock-bottom levels, was gutted even further, leaving an already tottering NATO effectively defunct. The Russian government exploited opportunities to exert its leverage over peripheral EU members such as Romania and Cyprus. Ankara, breathing a loud sigh of relief that its previous bids to join the EU had been rejected, returned to its “neo-Ottoman” project of creating de facto satraps in northern Iraq, western Syria, and even pockets of neighboring Bulgaria and Greece.
But perhaps the most lasting consequence was ideological. With Europe as Exhibit A, leaders from Cairo to Tehran to Singapore to Beijing argued the case that liberal democracy was not, after all, the standard-bearer of political modernity, much less the logical endpoint of civilization. There could be a better way, one that did not put material considerations above spiritual ones, or individual interests above communal needs.
Reviewing this dire forecast, a skeptic might argue that it will all come out right in the end. As the late economist Herbert Stein once observed, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” European leaders may stumble along, but at some point the wisdom will be found to put things right. Britain, after all, finally got around to electing Thatcher. Why can’t we expect similar leadership to emerge in Italy, France, and Spain?
Four reasons, mainly. The first is institutional. The politics of Europe are now hopelessly split between national institutions that have democratic legitimacy but lack the necessary scope and pan-European institutions that have the scope but lack the legitimacy. The result is the kind of split-the-difference, consensus-based, and often undemocratic decision-making that has prolonged and deepened the crisis.
This has raised some hopes among ardent Europeanists that the crisis will ultimately force EU member states to cede more of their authority to central management in Brussels. They shouldn’t count on it. Political leaders don’t easily part with their executive prerogatives. Nor will many ordinary Europeans be eager to have their budgets—meaning their pensions and welfare checks—dictated by remote bureaucrats and minor parliamentarians living in Belgium. Indeed, nothing would more quickly spell the collapse of the European Union itself than that kind of supra-democratic power grab.
Next there is demography. It’s true that demography isn’t destiny—quite. But it’s close. A recent report from the European Commission notes that by 2060 the EU’s overall population will increase by about 15 million people, but the number of working-age Europeans will, over the same period, decline by 15 million. The percentage of people over the age of 65 will nearly double, to 30 percent from 17 percent today.
“The decline in the workforce will act as a drag on growth and per capita income, with a consequent trend decline in potential growth,” the commission reports. “The latter is estimated to converge to below 1.5 percent in real terms in the long-term in the EU” (emphasis added). Translated into American, the Commission anticipates that Europe will have Obama-era levels of growth for the next half-century.
The third factor is the poverty of ideas, at least good ones. It is hard to overstate the extent to which classical free-market concepts have been demonized in Europe. Efforts to reform entitlements or labor-market restrictions—the real source of Europe’s economic woes—are almost invariably portrayed as immoral assaults on “social solidarity.” The notion that cutting marginal income-tax rates can spur dramatic economic growth is considered passé at best, if not vaguely sinister.
This has had profound effects on the quality of economic management throughout the euro crisis, beginning with Greece. Greece had a solvency problem that was treated as a liquidity problem. This led to the creation of huge bailout mechanisms for Europe, which explicitly violated the “no-bailouts” clause that is a central pillar in the single currency’s legal and economic architecture. The very term “euro crisis” gave rise to the notion that the solution to the problem was monetary and could come from a central bank. Yet what mainly ails European economies isn’t that they need looser credit: Britain, for instance, has had four straight years of rock-bottom interest rates without any economic growth to speak of. The problem with European economies, very simply, is that they are uncompetitive and unfriendly to business creation, which in turn is due to a cosseted labor market, sky-high taxes, and complex economic regulations.
Finally there is the grip that the beneficiaries of Europe’s massive entitlement state—accounting for 25 percent of European GDP as against 17 percent in the United States—have on their elected leaders. Not many retirees will support candidates who might put their pensions at risk, and the growing rolls of unemployed are not about to vote away their unemployment checks on the speculative hope that less government will someday lead to more jobs. What’s more, government workers are amazingly numerous in Europe, reaching an astounding 38 percent of the workforce in Belgium. And, as many an unlucky tourist will attest, they are also well unionized. That’s one reason why even right-wing parties such as Britain’s Conservatives or Spain’s Partido Popular have not been willing to do more than tinker around the edges of the welfare state.
The marriage of interest-group politics and welfarism has always been the Achilles’ heel of modern democracy. The present crisis has driven a spear through it. What Europe has isn’t merely an economic or even a political crisis. It is a civilizational crisis. A critical mass of Europeans has become addicted to the very stuff that ails them. Maybe they will, in time, sober up. Or maybe not. Sometimes decadent democracies find their Thatcher. Other times, they find their Juan Perón.
It is October 2012, just weeks after the murder of the U.S. ambassador in Libya and the near-storming of the U.S. embassy in Cairo. The liberals who formed the early vanguard in the protests that overthrew Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak—and who gave some Western observers hope that an “Arab Spring” would bring progressive governance to the Arab world’s most important state—were quickly sidelined by the country’s Islamist political forces. These include the Muslim Brotherhood and the more extreme Salafists of the Nour Party, which together took three-quarters of the vote in parliamentary elections.
In June the Muslim Brotherhood narrowly won the presidential election with Mohamed Morsi, an engineer with a U.S. doctorate, as its candidate. Morsi was not the Brotherhood’s first choice, and he was widely dismissed as a political lightweight who would also be a figurehead for the country’s real powerbrokers in the military. Yet within two months of his election, Morsi—using the pretext of a terrorist attack on soldiers in the Sinai—dismissed the defense minister and the chiefs of staff and replaced them with his own men. The military raised no objection. Nor was there any objection when Morsi revoked “constitutional edicts,” issued by the military and rubberstamped by the judiciary just before his election, intended to curtail the powers of the presidency.
The unwillingness of the military to assert itself over the Brotherhood should not have surprised knowledgeable observers: A conscript army was always unlikely to fire on its fellow citizens (at least Muslim ones) at the behest of senior officers seeking to preserve the political prerogatives and financial perquisites they had enjoyed under the detested ancien régime.
What has happened in Egypt is part of a larger Middle Eastern pattern. Islamist parties now dominate the politics of Turkey, Lebanon, Gaza, and Tunisia (though they lost decisively in Libya). In Morocco, Islamists run the parliament, though they remain subservient to the king. A post-Assad Syria will probably feature a large if not dominant role for the Brotherhood.
How is the U.S. to navigate this new landscape? American options aren’t good—and they’re getting narrower. The administration’s decision to withdraw all troops from Iraq has left us with no leverage over a government we brought into existence and once hoped could be a reliable bulwark against Iranian encroachments. The administration’s refusal to intercede in Syria is quickly spawning the very conditions the administration cited as its reasons not to intercede in the first place: civil war, regional instability, an increasingly prominent role for Islamist radicals in the opposition. In Egypt, we must try to purchase favors with a regime whose principles and instincts are fundamentally anti-American and violently anti-Semitic.
Once again, the country most threatened by these transformations is Israel. Its embassy in Cairo was nearly sacked. Gas no longer flows from the Sinai. The frequency of attacks coming from the peninsula has forced Israel to once more fortify its southern border. Gaza has broken free of its former encirclement: Sooner or later, Israel will have to choose between retaking the Philadelphi corridor separating the Strip from Egypt, allowing Hamas to further arm itself, or agreeing to a much larger Egyptian troop presence in Sinai as the price Cairo will surely exact in order to purchase calm in Gaza.
The conditions that existed between Israel and its largest neighbor immediately prior to both 1956 and 1967 are again coming into view.
This is just a summary of the turn the Arab world has taken over the past 18 months. Had it been written two years ago, it may have struck many readers as fanciful. The largest Arab state is now in the hands of a movement whose nearest political relation, in Gaza, is Hamas. The looming prospect of nuclear Islamism is being joined with the rise of democratic Islamism, which mixes international legitimacy with political discipline and moral fervor.
What does the future hold for democratic Islamism? There is a view that power and accountability will make it pragmatic and responsive and ultimately moderate. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, the estimable Fouad Ajami argued in June: “If any overarching vision inspires the Brotherhood, it is the Turkish model. The Iranian theocracy claims Morsi’s victory is a vindication of its model, but nothing could be further from the truth. The Shia theocracy is anathema to Egypt’s Islamists, alien to their idea of Islam and its workings and rituals.”
There is something to Ajami’s view. The Brotherhood, for instance, has promised to revive Egypt’s decimated tourism industry—and says it won’t allow its views on beers or bikinis to get in the way. Morsi appointed an ambassador to Israel. And the sharp differences between the Egyptian president and his Iranian hosts at the August meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran suggest that Islamism, like Communism before it, is hardly an ideological monolith.
Yet the “Turkish model” Ajami cites should give us all pause. The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has delivered nearly a decade of economic growth. It also makes common cause with Hamas and imprisons more journalists—94 at last count—than any other country in the world. “The arrests of journalists are part of a larger campaign by Erdogan to crush domestic opposition to his rule,” Dexter Filkins noted in the New Yorker earlier this year. “Since 2007, more than 700 people have been arrested, including members of parliament, army officers, university rectors, the heads of aid organizations, and owners of television networks.”
As for Morsi, the analyst Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution reports that the new Egyptian president is (like many members of the Brotherhood) a 9/11 conspiracy theorist: “When you come and tell me that the plane hit the tower like a knife in butter,” Morsi has said, “then you are insulting us.”
Then there is Khairat el-Shater, still the most powerful man in the Brotherhood and the movement’s leading ideologist. In a talk in Alexandria last year, Shater spelled out the purposes of Islamist government: “restoring Islam in its all-encompassing conception, subjugating people to God…the Islamization of life.” Shater believes that securing such a government requires “one or two million” cadres to maintain a “perpetual” revolution. He also believes that the ultimate goal of the movement is unalterable: “No one can come and say, ‘let’s change the overall mission’….No one can say, ‘forget about obedience, discipline, and structures.’…No. All of these are constants that represent the fundamental framework for our method, the method of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is not open for developing or change.”
Shater may or may not have the last word on the direction of the Brotherhood. But nobody should doubt that his is a totalitarian vision. In a kind of nightmare fulfillment of George W. Bush’s freedom agenda, millions of Muslims are consenting to leaders who have long looked askance at the traditions and types of freedoms familiar to the West: freedom of speech and conscience, equality between the sexes, a tolerance for intellectual provocation and dissent.
“It is ultimately a cruel misunderstanding of youth to believe it will find its heart’s desire in freedom,” says Leo Naphta, the totalitarian avatar in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. “Its deepest desire is to obey.” In today’s Middle East, Naphta’s dismal proposition is being vindicated.
It is July 2016, and there’s yet another show trial for yet another fallen top party official. Neither the verdict nor the sentence is in any doubt: guilty as charged, suspended death sentence, free in about 10 years.
Following the 2012 drama of Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai—the ambitious Chongqing power couple whose murder of a British businessman accidentally went public—most observers expected the party to do a better job at keeping its scandals under wraps. But revelations about Bo’s immense wealth whetted the public’s appetite for details about the ill-gotten personal fortunes of other senior officials, and internecine rivalries within the party would, from time to time, set someone up for a fall. The general secretary turned out to have a puritanical streak and believed that the trials could both clean out the stables and reconnect the party to the masses.
It was an idea straight out of the Gorbachev playbook, and equally ill-conceived. Nor did it help the party that growth had come to a standstill, thanks to the never-ending crisis in Europe, cheaper labor in Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Burma, persistently high inflation, a burst real-estate bubble, and tapped-out stimulus spending.
Under these conditions, it was not a surprise when, following the victory of the independence-minded Pan-Green coalition in Taiwan in March 2016, the Chinese army abruptly landed on the Taiwanese island of Quemoy. Though Quemoy, which lies just a mile from the Fujian coast, had once been a Cold War flashpoint, Taipei had long since opted to demilitarize the picturesque island and turn it into a showcase for better cross-Strait relations.
The takeover was bloodless; the diplomatic fallout was not. A U.S. carrier battle group was sent through the Taiwan Strait. The State Department recalled its ambassador from Beijing, claiming the takeover violated the One-China Policy. Congress immediately approved a large military-aid package to Taiwan.
By then, however, the quality of U.S. guarantees was increasingly in doubt. The U.S. Navy, nearly 600 ships and 15 carrier battle groups strong at the end of the Reagan arms buildup, had fallen to 240 ships and just 10 carriers. The result was a force that was both overstretched and hollow, a fact lost on neither U.S. nor Chinese military planners. And although the Quemoy landing had led to a burst of public support for Taiwan and its freedom, it didn’t take long before pundits and lawmakers began asking whether the United States should risk war with China for the sake of a country that spent so little—less than 2 percent of GDP—on its own defense. Indeed, wasn’t it the same story when it came to most of America’s allies in the region, such as Japan and the Philippines: that we were prepared to fight for the freedom of people who weren’t prepared to fight for their own?
Congressional hearings and media debates on this question were, of course, keenly followed by the Chinese embassy in Washington.
The “rise of China” is the cliché of our age. Predictions of just when the Chinese economy will overtake America’s as the largest in the world range from a pessimistic 2016, according to the International Monetary Fund, to a more optimistic 2020, according to the Economist. What memories there may be of the similar fantasies that once were seriously entertained about the Soviet Union, Japan, and the European Union seem not to embarrass today’s China boosters.
Nonetheless, in many ways the world would be a safer place if China really were on its way to the top: A rising power that benefits from the existing global order has more incentive to bide its time than to overthrow that order, particularly if doing so carries potentially large penalties. If Chinese leaders really believed they would soon run the world thanks to the mere arithmetic of compounding GDP figures, why would they bother picking needless quarrels over tiny islands in the South China Sea?
Yet there are good reasons to suspect that China is neither rising nor even stable. Since Mao Zedong’s death and the initiation of economic reform under Deng Xiaoping, the twin foundations of Communist Party rule have been economic prosperity and Chinese nationalism. A Chinese regime that cannot deliver consistently high rates of economic growth will emphasize its claims as the keeper of China’s national interest, from the South and East China Seas to Xinjiang and Tibet to the Korean peninsula. And doing so will mean picking fights, lots of them.
What are some of the signs of Chinese weakness? Indicators include stagnant or declining rates of electricity consumption, rising inventories of unsold goods, and a glut of unsold housing. As for the official statistics, the New York Times reported in August that “the severity of China’s inventory overhang has been carefully masked by the blocking or adjusting of economic data by the Chinese government—all part of an effort to prop up confidence in the economy among business managers and investors.”
China’s economic problems hardly end there, however. The Obama administration’s near-trillion-dollar figure in stimulus spending may have seemed wasteful to many Americans, but it pales next to Beijing’s stimulus program, which came to more than 15 percent of Chinese GDP, along with local government spending that collectively was more than three times as much. Much of the money was spent on infrastructure projects. How did that go? In the last five years alone, 18 bridges have collapsed in China. “These are not mere footbridges,” Bloomberg reports: “They are major, expensive spans.” That’s an indicator not only of shoddy construction standards and abusive labor practices but also of massive graft falling into the laps of local party bosses and well-connected middlemen. Foreigners in China, at least the more credulous ones, may admire China’s trophy projects, such as high-speed rail networks and mega-tall buildings. The Chinese themselves take a more cynical view.
The greatest threat to China’s rulers is the widening gap not between rich and poor, or country and city, or even Han and non-Han Chinese. It’s between popular expectations and their delivery by the party. More Chinese are graduating from college than ever, only to discover that academic performance counts for little next to political connections when it comes to landing a good job. The rise of a caste of “princelings”—the well-heeled children of high-party officials—further sharpens the sense of injustice. Any country whose top universities become factories of unemployment will in time face a crisis of social order.
The question to ask about China, then, isn’t when it will overtake America as the world’s leading power. It’s whether Chinese leaders will seek to divert growing popular discontent with party rule into a series of confrontations with China’s neighbors, and perhaps with the United States as well. The little islands of the South China Sea beckon like any tropical paradise, offering the hope of respite and distraction from mounting troubles at home.
It is January 20, 2013, and Barack Obama has been inaugurated for a second term, following a convulsive post-election period.
The drama began on election night. Obama’s decisive 324–214 electoral-vote margin belied doubts about the integrity of the vote. Mitt Romney won the overall popular vote by racking up wide margins in the states he carried. But Obama won with razor-thin margins in Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Ohio, and Wisconsin. The president claimed victory late that night, after Romney decided the country would be ill-served by a succession of brutally fought recounts.
On Wednesday, November 7, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by more than 1,600 points, forcing an automatic shutdown of the New York Stock Exchange. By the end of the month, the Dow had lost 30 percent of its value. The Federal Reserve had little to offer: Its third round of quantitative easing had done nothing to stimulate the economy. Hiring freezes became the order of the day. The unemployment rate moved above 9 percent. Unchecked federal spending and a weaker economy also appeared to guarantee a debt-to-GDP ratio well above the 100 percent mark. The economic shockwaves—instantly dubbed the Second Great Recession—were felt throughout the world, but especially in countries with export-dependent economies: Germany, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and China.
Not all the news was bad. The president nominated Erskine Bowles as treasury secretary, the pick of a deficit hawk reassuring markets. Budget sequestration was avoided thanks to an 11th-hour deal to extend Bush-era tax rates, though again only for another two years. After running a soak-the-rich campaign, the reelected Obama seemed to lose interest in raising rates. Indeed it was unclear what, if anything, Obama intended to do with a second term except preside over the implementation of his Affordable Care Act, which became a certainty when the outcome of Senate races split the chamber 50–50, with Joe Biden as tie-breaker.
Abroad, Obama’s reelection was greeted with undisguised dismay in Israel, which only deepened when incoming Secretary of State John Kerry called for renewed talks with Iran. (Kerry’s appointment made it possible for Massachusetts’s governor, Deval Patrick, to appoint Elizabeth Warren, narrowly defeated in her contest to unseat incumbent senator Scott Brown, to serve in the Senate after all.)
Elsewhere, Obama’s reelection seemed to confirm an impression that the United States had entered a long and perhaps irreversible period of decline. The impression was especially pronounced in Tehran, Moscow, and Beijing. In Islamabad and Kabul, expectations of a complete American exit from Afghanistan went from probability to certainty. Reports circulated of secret meetings between the head of Pakistan’s intelligence agency and Iran’s defense minister to divvy up Afghanistan into Iranian and Pakistani spheres of influence. The news prompted more than one observer to recall the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939.
Obama had won the reelection he coveted. Yet just a few thousand people came out to hear him deliver his second inaugural address, despite the unseasonably warm weather. Four years earlier, more than one million people had braved arctic weather and filled the Washington mall to hear their new president speak.
Even with this scenario, good reasons remain to be confident in America, at least in the long term. Things could always turn out better. Half the value (and all the fun) of offering forecasts for the very-near future is to see how they check out.
Walter Russell Mead has observed that the United States continues to hold most of the good geopolitical cards—it’s just forgotten how to play them. Those cards include North America’s fracking revolution in oil and natural gas, which over time will mitigate (though not eliminate) the geopolitical risks in the energy markets and create new opportunities for domestic manufacturing and industry. They include America’s continuing appeal to hearts and minds in much of the world, including the East Asian periphery that China is so keen to bring within its sphere. They include the inherent weakness of all America’s principal geopolitical competitors, not only Iran and China but also Russia and the European Union. They include the natural resilience of the U.S. economy and the continuing innovative nature of our people, whose products others may imitate but whose soul, as it were, remains distinctively American. They include a political culture that, thanks to our federalist structure, is immensely varied and experiment-minded. They include popular attitudes toward politics that are individualistic to the core and disdain conformity and taboo.
Put another way, the prospect that we may soon live in a much more disordered world does not necessarily put the United States on a path toward terminal decline. Modern Europe emerged as a world power in the 16th and 17th centuries, a period of interminable religious wars that decimated much of the Continent. The United States emerged as a superpower in the early 20th century during another long period of global disorder that exacted its toll on us. We can emerge that way again.
To do so, however, it’s essential to be mindful of what soon may be coming our way. I have mostly treated the prospective travails of Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East as separate and self-contained issues. They are not. As the late Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley was fond of saying, there is only one economy—the world economy. That’s something American conservatives especially should bear in mind before taking a told-you-so satisfaction in Europe’s sinking economic state. Social democracy will look good if what succeeds it is either a more hard-edged socialism or a more soft-edged fascism. Both political strains are, distressingly, alive and on the upswing throughout Europe today.
Then, too, politics in one region affect politics in another in unpredictable ways. Chess has always been a problematic metaphor for the way in which great powers plot their course in the world; the reality is somewhat closer to a game of billiards, played by a cast of incompetents and pretenders. Where will the cue ball carom next? How will the disorders of one region knock into the disorders of another?
Since 1945, American power has been the principal guarantor of world order. This was never a perfect world order, and it certainly was never anything approaching a perfectly peaceful one. But the United States did provide a variety of what one might call umbrella services for the rest of the world. Under those umbrellas, trade flourished, free societies took root and grew, aggressors were usually held at bay if not always defeated, and a relatively stable and predictable pattern of global conduct emerged. It was a civilized world that could afford to cultivate its anxieties about nuclear winters, global warming, and carcinogens in our coffee.
On November 9, 1989, the pattern was disturbed—to most everyone’s joy and relief—by the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It was an event that, much as it seemed predestined in retrospect, took nearly everyone by surprise. Twelve years later, the pattern was disturbed again—this time to near universal horror—by the events of 9/11. Again this was not, in hindsight, a bolt from the blue (hadn’t Islamic terrorists nearly succeeded in doing as much during the first attack in 1993?), but it seemed that way. Predictability attenuates our capacity for surprise, in global and daily affairs alike. Yet as Paul Berman once observed, maintaining the capacity for surprise is among the most essential attributes of political wisdom.
It would be banal to say that conditions are present today that could lead to another world-historical “surprise” on the scale of 9/11. Such conditions are always out there, waiting to be made sense of in light of some culminating event. What differs today is that a series of distinctive trend lines, having developed over long periods, all are coming to a head almost at once. What differs also is that they are coming to a head when American power has abruptly gone into an eclipse. Like a perfect storm, bad weather and bad luck are striking at the same time.
Perhaps the storm metaphor is inapt, however: It calls to mind too many trite expressions such as “batten down the hatches” and “run to higher ground.” It is a recommendation for isolationism and protectionism. It is the opposite of what the world needs today, which is the unequivocal reassertion of U.S. determination and power—evidence that Americans, at least, do not consider themselves a nation in retreat.
The crucible is Iran.
It may take a decade or more before Europe sorts itself out. In the Arab world, the process is likely to last at least a generation. China’s internal politics will mostly operate at their own pace, though the United States can do more to encourage Chinese economic development—not least by refusing to pick needless trade fights—while forcefully obstructing Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea and elsewhere. As for the United States, the prospective Europeanization of the economy through Obama-
Care, which is a recipe for 1.5 percent trend growth and skyrocketing debt for as long as the eye can see, must be reversed.
Iran, however, is a clear and present danger to the stability of the Middle East and the security of the United States. It presents Western policymakers with a clear, binary choice: Avoid a confrontation now because it will likely entail unforeseen and unpleasant consequences, or accept a nuclear Iran soon, which will entail easily foreseeable and utterly disastrous consequences. It says something about the quality of statesmanship and public discourse in the West today that the choice should be presented as a difficult one and that the decision—at least as of this writing—should be so much in doubt.
As she opened her famous survey of U.S. foreign policy in the November 1979 issue of COMMENTARY, Jeane Kirkpatrick looked out to a world in which a pro-American dictator in Iran had fallen to religious fanatics, another pro-American dictator in Nicaragua had fallen to Communist guerrillas, Soviet influence was on the rise in Africa, central Asia, and the Caribbean, and the U.S. military had become a shell of its former self. “The U.S. has never tried so hard and failed so utterly to make and keep friends in the Third World,” wrote the woman who would soon be Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the UN in the article that got her the job, “Dictatorships and Double Standards.”
The Berlin Wall fell exactly a decade later. With the perspective of time, this does not make Kirkpatrick’s analysis seem misguided or overblown: It merely underscores how much the West and its allies were able to achieve in the space of a few years. The same possibilities are with us today, whatever the apparent trend lines. Pace Marx, and pace the declinists of our own era, history makes nothing inevitable, and nothing is forever, either. This essay has tried to show why there are good reasons to fear we may be entering a long and damaging period of global disorder. A democracy that is as great as America’s may yet summon the leadership to chart our way through it.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
The Coming Global Disorder
Must-Reads from Magazine
f all the surprises of the Trump era, none is more notable than the pronounced shift toward Israel. Such a shift was not predictable from Donald Trump’s conduct on the campaign trail; as he sought the Republican nomination, Trump distinguished himself by his refusal to express unqualified support for Israel and his airy conviction that his business experience gave him unique insight into how to strike “a real-estate deal” to resolve the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. In addition, his isolationist talk alarmed Israel’s friends in the United States and elsewhere if for no other reason than that isolationism, anti-Zionism, and anti-Semitism often go hand in hand in hand.
But shift he did. In the 14 months since his inauguration, the new president has announced that the United States accepts Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and has declared his intention to build a new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, first mandated by U.S. law in 1996. He has installed one of his Orthodox Jewish lawyers as the U.S. ambassador and another as his key envoy on Israeli–Palestinian issues. America’s ambassador to the United Nations has not only spoken out on Israel’s behalf forcefully and repeatedly; Nikki Haley has also led the way in cutting the U.S. stipend to the refugee relief agency that is an effective front for the Palestinian terror state in Gaza. And, as Meir Y. Soloveichik and Michael Medved both detail elsewhere in this issue, his vice president traveled to Israel in January and delivered the most pro-Zionist speech any major American politician has ever given.
Part of this shift can also be seen in what Trump has not done. He has not signaled, in interviews or in policy formulations, that the United States views Israeli actions in and around Gaza and the West Bank as injurious to a future peace. And his administration has not complained about Israeli actions taken in self-defense in Lebanon and Syria but has, instead, supported Israel’s right to defend itself.
This marks a breathtaking contrast with the tone and spirit of the relationship between the two countries during the previous administration. The eight Obama years were characterized by what can only be called a gut hostility rooted in the president’s own ideological distaste for the Jewish state.
The intensity of that hostility ebbed and flowed depending on circumstances, but from early 2009, it kept the relationship between the United States and Israel in a condition of low-grade fever throughout Barack Obama’s tenure—never comfortable, never easy, always a bit off-kilter, always with a bit of a headache that never went away, and always in danger of spiking into a dangerous pyrexia. That fever spike happened no fewer than five times during the Obama presidency. Although these spikes were usually portrayed as the consequences of the personal friction between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that friction was itself the result of the ideas about the Middle East and the world in general Obama had brought with him to the White House. In this case, the political became the personal, not the other way around.
Given the general leftish direction of his foreign-policy views from college onward, it would have been a miracle had Obama felt kindly disposed toward the Jewish state’s own understanding of its tactical and strategic condition. And Netanyahu spoke out openly and forcefully to kindly disposed Americans—from evangelical Christians to congressional Republicans—about the threats to his country from nearby terrorism and rockets, and a developing nuclear Iran 900 miles away. His candor proved a perpetual irritant to a president whose opening desire was to see “daylight” (as he said in February 2009) between the two countries. Obama caused one final fever spike as he left office by refusing to veto a hostile United Nations resolution. This appeared churlish but was, in fact, Obama allowing himself the full rein of his true and long-standing convictions on his way out the door.T
he things Trump both has and has not done should not seem startling. They constitute the baseline of what we ought to expect one ally would say and not say about the behavior of another ally. But as Obama’s disgraceful conduct demonstrated, Israel is not just another ally and never has been. It is a unique experiment in statehood—a Western country on Mideast soil, born from an anti-colonialist movement that is now viewed by many former colonial powers as an unjust colonial power, created by an international organization that is now largely organized as a means of expressing rage against it.
Historically, American leaders have had to reckon with these unique realities—and the fact that the hostile nations surrounding Israel and hungering for its destruction happen to sit atop the lifeblood of the industrial economy. The so-called realists who claim to view the world and the pursuit of America’s interests through cold and unsentimental eyes have experienced Israel mostly as a burden.
Through many twists and turns over the seven decades of Israel’s existence, they have felt that America’s support for Israel is mostly the result of short-sighted domestic political concerns for which they have little patience—the wishes of Jewish voters, or the religious concerns of evangelical voters, or post-Holocaust sympathy that has required (though they would never say it aloud) an unnatural suspension of our pursuit of the American national interest.
Israel created problems with oil countries, and with the United Nations, and with those who see the claims for the necessity of a Jewish state as a form of special pleading. As a result, the realists have spent the past seven decades whispering in the ears of America’s leaders that they have the right to expect Israel to do things we would not expect of another ally and to demand it behave in ways we would not demand of any other friendly country.
The realists and others have spent nearly 50 years propounding a unified-field theory of Middle East turmoil according to which many if not all of the region’s problems are the result of Israel’s existence. Were it not for Israel, there would not have been regional wars in 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982—no matter who might have borne the greatest degree of responsibility for them. There would have been other conflicts, but not this one. There would have been no world-recession-inducing oil embargo in 1973 because there would have been no response to the Yom Kippur War. Were it not for Israel, for example, there would be no Israeli–Palestinian problem; there would have been some other version of the problem, but not this one.
Unhappiness about the condition of the Palestinians in a world with Israel was held to be the cause of existential unhappiness on the Arab street and therefore of instability in friendly authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East. Meanwhile, Israel’s own pursuit of what it and its voting populace took to be their national interests was usually treated with disdain at the very least and outright fury at moments of crisis.
It was therefore axiomatic that the solution to many if not most of the region’s problems ran right though the center of Jerusalem. It would take a complex process, a peace process, that would lead to a deal—a deal no one who believed in this magical process could actually describe honestly and forthrightly or give a sense as to what its final contours would be. If you could create a peace process leading to a deal, though, that deal itself would work like a bone-marrow transplant—through a mysterious process spreading new immunities to instability in the Middle East that would heal the causes of conflict and bring about a new era.
Again, this was the view of the realists. With Israel’s 70th anniversary coming hard upon us, the question one needs to ask is this: What if the realists were nothing but fantasists? What if their approach to the Middle East from the time of Israel’s founding was based in wildly unrealistic ideas and emotions? Central to their gullibility was the wild and irrational idea that peace was or ever could be the result of a process. No, peace is a condition of soul, an exhaustion from the impact of conflict, born of a desire to end hostilities. Only after this state is achieved can there be a workable process, because both parties would already have crossed the Rubicon dividing them and would only then need to work out the details of coexistence.
There was no peace to be had. The Arab states didn’t want it. The Palestinians didn’t want it. The Israelis did and do, but not at the expense of their existence. The Arabs demanded concessions, and the Israelis have made many over the years, but they could not concede the security of the millions of Israel’s citizens who had made this miracle of a country an enduring reality. The realists fetishized “process” because it seemed the only way to compel change from the outside. And so Israel has borne the brunt of the anger that follows whenever a fantasist is forced to confront a reality he would rather close his eyes to.
That is why I think what Trump and his people have done over the past 14 months represents a new and genuine realism. They are dealing with Israel and its relationships in the region as they are, not as they would wish them to be. They are seeing how the government of Egypt under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is making common cause with Israel against the Hamas entity in Gaza and against ISIS forces in the Suez. They are witness to the effort at radical reformation in Saudi Arabia under Muhammad bin-Salman—and how that seems to be going hand in hand with an astonishing new concord between Israel and the Desert Kingdom over the common threat from Iran. This is a harmonizing of interests that would have seemed positively science-fictional in living memory.
Mostly, what they are seeing is that an ally is an ally. Israel’s intelligence agencies are providing the kind of information America cannot get on its own about Syria and Iran and the threat from ISIS. Israel is a technological powerhouse whose innovations are already helping to revolutionize American military know-how. Israel’s army is the strongest in the world apart from the regional superpowers—and the only one outside Western Europe and the United States firmly locked in alliance with the West. Things are changing radically in the Middle East, and as the 21st century progresses it is possible that Israel will play a constructive and influential role outside its borders in helping to maintain and strengthen a Pax Americana.
Donald Trump is a flighty man. All of this could change. But for now, the replacement of the false realism of the past with a new realism for the 21st century seems like a revolutionary development that needs to be taken very, very seriously.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
f the making of Washington movies, there is no end. Kohelet said this in Ecclesiastes, I think. Or maybe it was Gene Shalit on the Today Show. It’s a truism in any case. Steven Spielberg’s latest entry in the genre, The Post, is for many Washingtonians the most powerful example in the long line. When the movie opened here in late December, there were reports of audiences cheering lustily and even dissolving in tears at the movie’s end, as if they were watching a speech by President Obama. The local paper ran news articles about it, along with numberless feature stories, interviews, op-eds, fact-checks, reviews, and reviews of reviews.
Which is excusable, I guess, since the movie is about the Washington Post. But then The Post is supposed to be about so many things. It’s about the First Amendment, depicting the agonies of the Post’s editor Ben Bradlee, and its owner, Katharine Graham, as they defy the Nixon administration to publish the top-secret Pentagon Papers. It’s about feminism and the personal evolution of Mrs. Graham from an insecure Georgetown socialite to Master of the Boardroom. It’s the story of the lonely courage of the leaker/whistleblower/traitor (your call) Daniel Ellsberg. It is also, so I read in the Post, a warning about the imperial designs of President Trump to smother a free press. And it’s been understood as a straightforward tale of political history, though the liberties Spielberg takes with his based-on-a-true-story are so extreme as to render it useless as a guide to what happened in the summer of 1971.
Running beneath it all is the motive that animates so many Washington movies: an impatience with the stuttering, halting processes of self-government. The wellspring from which the Washington movie flows is Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The plot is familiar to everyone. Mr. Smith, a small-town bumpkin played by Jimmy Stewart—talk about stuttering and halting!—is appointed by sinister political bosses to a vacant Senate seat, on the assumption that he will be easily manipulated, like a movie audience. Instead, Smith stumbles upon an illicit land deal and exposes the Senate as a den of thieves. His filibustering floor speech rouses a populist outpouring from an army of alarmingly cute children. By the end of the movie, Mr. Smith has restored the nation to its democratic ideals.
Capra intended his movie to be a hymn to those ideals, and for nearly 80 years that’s what audiences have taken it to be. It is no such thing. Mr. Smith seethes with contempt for the raw materials of democracy: debate, quid pro quo deal-making, back-scratching compromise—all the tedious, unsightly mechanics that turn democratic ideals into functioning self-government. In Capra’s telling, democracy can be rescued only by anti-democratic means. An appointed charismatic savior (he’s not even elected!) uses a filibuster (favorite parliamentary trick of bullies and autocrats) to release the volatile pressure of a disenfranchised mob (the great fear of every democratic theorist since Aristotle). From Mr. Smith to Legally Blonde 2, the point of the Washington movie is clear: Left to its own devices, without an outside agent to penetrate it and cleanse it of its sins, self-government sinks into corruption and despotism.
Steven Spielberg is the closest thing we have to Capra’s successor. Like all his movies, The Post has many charms: a running visual joke about Bradlee’s daughter making a killing with her lemonade stand threads in and out of the heavier moments like a rope light. On the other hand, his painstaking obsession with period detail often fails: A hippie demonstration against the Vietnam War looks as if it’s been staged by the cast of Hair. The set-piece speeches are insufferable, an icky glue of sanctimony and sentimentality. What we call the Pentagon Papers was a classified history of the lies, misjudgments, and incompetence of four presidents, from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson, ending in 1968. Sometimes the speechifying is directed at the malfeasance of these men, as when Bradlee bellows: “The way they lied—those days have to be over!”
Weirdly, though, the full force of the movie’s indignation is aimed at Richard Nixon. Historians might point out that Nixon wasn’t even president during the period covered by the Pentagon Papers. Intelligence officials told the president that the release of the papers would pose an unprecedented threat to national security. He ordered the Justice Department to sue to prevent the New York Times and the Post from publishing the top-secret material. In the movie’s account, this ill-judged if understandable response is equivalent to the official, strategic lies that accompanied tens of thousands of American soldiers to their deaths.
A particularly rich moment comes when Robert McNamara warns Mrs. Graham about Nixon’s capacity for evil. As Kennedy and Johnson’s defense secretary, McNamara was an early version of Saturday Night Live’s Tommy Flanagan, Pathological Liar: The Viet Cong are on the run! Yeah, sure, that’s the ticket! As much as anyone, McNamara, with his stupidity and dishonesty, guaranteed the tragedy of Vietnam. And yet here he is, issuing a clarion call to Mrs. Graham. “Nixon will muster the full power of the presidency, and if there’s a way to destroy you, by God, he’ll find it!” Later Bradlee compares Nixon to his predecessors: “He’s doing the same thing!”
Um, no. From his inauguration in 1969 onward, Nixon’s every move in Vietnam was intended to extricate the U.S. from the quicksand previous presidents had led us (and him) into. In this case, if in no other, Nixon was the good guy. He had nothing to lose, personally, from the publication of the Pentagon Papers, and maybe a lot to gain. After all, they demonstrated the villainy of his predecessors, not his own. (That came later.)
Yet the movie can’t entertain the possibility that Nixon could act on anything but the basest motives. He is a sinister presence. We see him through the Oval Office window, always alone, with his back turned, stabbing the air with a pudgy finger and cursing the Washington Post to subordinates over the phone. It’s actually Nixon’s voice in the movie, taken from the infamous tapes. Unfortunately, the actor’s movements don’t synchronize with the words; in such a somber thriller, the effect is inadvertently comic. It reminded me of watching the back of George Steinbrenner’s head in Seinfeld while Larry David spoke the Yankee owner’s dialogue. And Nixon was no Steinbrenner.
The most plausible explanation is that Nixon, in trying to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers, was doing what he said he was doing: his job. American voters had elected him to protect national security and, not incidentally, the prerogative of the president and the federal government to determine how best to protect it, including determining whether sensitive information should be kept secret. If he didn’t do his job the way voters wanted him to, they could get rid of him next time. You know, like in a democracy.
Ben Bradlee, Katharine Graham, and Stephen Spielberg, not to mention those teary audiences, have no patience with such niceties. As it happens, in the end, the Pentagon Papers were a bust. The sickening detail they disclosed deepened but did not broaden the historical record, and by all accounts their impact on national security was negligible. Those facts don’t alter the creepiness of The Post’s premise—that the antagonists of an elected regime are allowed to go outside the law when it suits their view of the national interest. Charismatic saviors (and few people were more charismatic than Ben Bradlee) can save democracy from itself, but only by ignoring the requirements of democracy. Spielberg continues the tradition of the Washington movie. The Post is Capraesque—in the only true sense of the word.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
Is Harvard assaulting the rights of students to free association in the name of a diversity standard it doesn’t live up to itself?
arvard College is home to six all-male “final clubs.” Their members have access to houses in which they eat, socialize, and form bonds with their fellows. These clubs are as historic as they are renowned; most were formed in the 19th century and have had Kennedys, Roosevelts, and an endless procession of politicians, writers, and businessmen as former members. From the time of their origination, these exclusive institutions have been an object of fascination. When doors are closed, and only a small, elite group selected from an already hyper-elite campus has been invited inside, jealousy, curiosity, and frustration are sure to prevail.
The final clubs are financially independent from Harvard and have been entirely unaffiliated with the university since the 1980s, when the administration and the clubs clashed over the latter’s refusal to admit women. But that conflict, which had cooled over time, has recently resurfaced in a new and heightened manner.
In March 2016 Rakesh Khurana, the dean of Harvard College, set an April 15 deadline for the final clubs, at which time they were to inform the administration whether they would change course and become co-ed. Two forces drove Khurana’s action. The first was a report by Harvard’s Task Force on Sexual Assault Prevention released days earlier, after years of research. The report indicated that students who were involved with the final clubs were significantly more likely to have experienced some form of assault than those who were not. The second impetus was the administration’s position that the final clubs—and the ways in which they screened members—were in direct conflict with the ethos of the university.
The deadline passed without response from the clubs. On May 6, 2016, Dean Khurana wrote a letter to Harvard President Drew Faust. He proposed that, beginning with incoming freshmen who would matriculate in the fall of 2017, students who became members of what he termed “unrecognized single-gender social organizations” should be ineligible for leadership positions in Harvard organizations—meaning they could not serve as publication editors, captains of sports teams, leaders of theatrical troupes, and the like. And they would also be ineligible for letters of recommendation from the dean, necessary for many prestigious postgraduate opportunities such as the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.
Khurana’s letter, and the sanctions proposed within, quickly became a cause célèbre. Harry R. Lewis, a professor of computer science and himself a former dean of the college, wrote Khurana a letter expressing his concern that “by asserting, for the first time, such broad authority over Harvard students’ off-campus associations, the good you may achieve will in the long run be eclipsed by the bad: a College culture of fear and anxiety about nonconformity.” Lewis went on to note:
The reliance on your judgement of what count[s] as Harvard’s values, and using that judgment to decide which students will receive institutional support, is a frightening prospect….The discretion exercised by the dean and his representatives will chill the activism of students in causes that might also be considered noncompliant with Harvard standards—for example, advocacy for a religion that does not allow women to be full participants, or a political party that opposes affirmative action. Such groups are excluded from your mandate, but only as a matter of your discretion. Why wouldn’t activism for such organizations color the support the College would offer their members, on the basis that such students are showing that their true colors are not pure Crimson?
Lewis also referenced the faculty’s responsibilities and noted that there was no precedent in Harvard’s Handbook for Students for the sanctions, thus suggesting that Khurana’s proposals might be outside the administration’s jurisdiction.
In September 2016, Khurana detailed the responsibilities of the “Single-Gender Social Organizations Implementation Committee.” The committee was tasked with
consulting broadly with the College community to address the following questions: 1) What leadership roles and endorsements are affected by the policy; 2) How organizations can transition to fulfill the expectations of inclusive membership practices; and 3) How the College should handle transgressions of the policy.
In addition to the committee’s work, the faculty went through several rounds of motions and debate, discussing myriad permutations of the sanctions, as well as the validity of the sanctions themselves.
In December 2017, the discussions came to a halt. Harvard’s administration flatly announced it would engage in sanctions against students who joined those “unrecognized single-gender social organizations,” or USGSOs. This ostensibly final decision has provoked renewed outrage from students, faculty, and alumni, who have grounded their varied objections in ethical, philosophical, and legal concerns.U
ntil the 1960s shattered the American elite consensus on such matters, the collegiate experience was vastly different for students. Universities used to view their role as being in loco parentis—serving in place of the parents from whom their charges had recently separated. Today, on Harvard’s enchanting campus, teenagers and twentysomethings tend to rule the roost. Students have tremendous flexibility in building their course schedules, and rare is the lecture professor who takes attendance. Undergraduates come and go as they please, to and from wherever they please, with whomever they please, from the darkest hours of the night to the earliest hours of the morning.
But from the time America’s colleges came into being in the 17th and 18th centuries until just a few decades ago, these institutions imposed rules and regulations, curtailed freedoms, and designed a microcosmic world in which young adults would—in theory—learn how to navigate the reality that awaited them after graduation. They were eased into the world in a setting that constricted their choices and where the powers that be very consciously, and intentionally, refrained from treating them like adults. This was most evident in the controls placed on contact between the sexes.
A 1989 Harvard Crimson article by Katherine E. Bliss detailed the so-called parietal rules of the 1960s. It noted that “in 1964, the primary goal of College administrators was maintaining ‘an open door and one foot on the floor’ policy for students entertaining guests of the opposite sex in their rooms.” At that time, the student body and the administration were in conflict over the right to do as they pleased in their own dorms: “Students in 1964 were concerned with lengthening the number of hours they were allowed to spend with members of the opposite sex in the privacy of their own rooms.” If this sounds quaint, consider Bliss’s next point. “Few,” she observed, “could appreciate the fact that only a decade earlier, men and women were not allowed to enter the dormitories of the opposite sex at all.”
The original parietal rules meant that the women of Radcliffe, Harvard’s sister college, could have been in the Harvard Houses only between the hours of 4 and 7 p.m. Robert Watson, a Harvard dean, explained at the time: “We have to watch the mores of our students. I do not want to see Harvard play a leading role in relaxing the moral code of college youth.” Indeed, he went on to say that “the college must follow the customs of the time and the community.…We cannot have rules more liberal than a standard generally accepted by the American public.”
Is there a single standard generally accepted by the American public today? For most of the country—with exceptions in deeply religious Jewish, Christian, and Islamic communities—ours is not an age that concerns itself with the amount of time that men and women spend together in solitude. But that doesn’t mean our era isn’t concerned with the moral development of our youth. On the contrary, leaders of America’s elite institutions today are as preoccupied with strengthening the souls of their charges as were the men who designed the parietal codes all those years ago. Only their aim is not sexual purity anymore, but rather social diversity. It is the heart and soul of the moral vision of our times, and administrators today are no less determined to see that students hew to that standard. But in their effort to serve in loco parentis in this fashion, educators are leaping across ethical—and possibly, legal—lines.
The fraternity-like final clubs have always been difficult to get into, much like Harvard itself. And for many years, the all-male final clubs were certainly characterized by discrimination. In a 1965 piece for the Crimson, Herbert H. Denton Jr., then an undergraduate, noted that while “the tacit ban on Jews has been relaxed in most clubs,” the “ban on Negroes is still in effect.” The same cannot be said today; while several of the final clubs are trying to retain their character by remaining single-gender organizations, they do not screen would-be members on the basis of race or religion.
Nonetheless, the administration has determined that they espouse values and ideas contrary to the Harvard spirit and must consequently be treated as an anachronistic wrong to be extirpated. In a statement issued in December, President Faust (along with William F. Lee, senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation) declared that
the final clubs in particular are a product of another era, a time when Harvard’s student body was all male, culturally homogenous, and overwhelmingly white and affluent. Our student body today is significantly different. We self-consciously seek to admit a class that is diverse on many dimensions, including on gender, race, and socioeconomic status.
The clubs have strict rules about speaking with the press, and every member I spoke with—both former and current students—did so on the condition of anonymity. Many brought up the topic of diversity, noting that in their experience, the members of their clubs were diverse in both ethnic and socioeconomic respects. Members of multiple clubs told me about policies under which an inability to pay club dues has no bearing on whether or not a student will be accepted. Indeed, one went so far as to note that the financial-aid offer is blatantly highlighted during the initiation process, so that those lower on the socioeconomic ladder are not even temporarily burdened by the misconception that their financial status might affect their membership.
The final clubs, like Harvard itself, may indeed be a product of another era. But just as Harvard has evolved, the final clubs have changed. Faust, Lee, and all of the actors in the anti-final-clubs camp, ignore this. They also espouse a position that is as illogical as it is incoherent: Faust and Lee claim both that “students may decide to join a USGSO and remain in good standing” and that “decisions often have consequences, as they do here in terms of students’ eligibility for decanal1 endorsements and leadership positions supported by institutional resources.”
Most parents would not believe that their sons and daughters were in “good standing” if they came home from campus for winter break and told them they would be unable to be editor of the newspaper, captain of the debate team, or eligible for a Rhodes or Marshall scholarship. Yet Faust and Lee insist that “the policy does not discipline or punish the students.” It merely “recognizes that students who serve as leaders of our community should exemplify the characteristics of non-discrimination and inclusivity that are so important to our campus.” It’s hard to believe that Faust and Lee might honestly think that excluding students from leadership roles or prestigious postgrad opportunities would be construed as anything other than a punishment.
So why the insistence to the contrary? If the final clubs are, in the administration’s eyes, archaic, narrow-minded, discriminatory organizations, why not come out with an honest statement that calls for disciplining the students who dare to participate in these institutions? Lewis, the former dean, has explained this by making reference to what Faust and Lee do not mention—namely, Harvard’s Statutes—the internal bylaws governing the institution. Lewis cites part of the 12th statute, which lays out that “the several faculties have authority…to inflict at their discretion, all proper means of discipline.” He notes that “by declaring that ineligibility for honors and distinctions are ‘not discipline,’ what President Faust and Mr. Lee are saying is that the Statutes are not implicated, the matter is not one for the Faculty to decide, and no Faculty vote is needed to carry out the policy.” Indeed, Lewis notes that “it is important that the…policy not be discipline, because if it were discipline, and disciplinary action were taken against a student without a Faculty vote authorizing that policy, that student could challenge the action as not properly authorized.”
There is something else the Faust-Lee statement does not reference—and tellingly. In the beginning of the Harvard administration’s war on final clubs, concerns over sexual assault seemed to form the core of the issue. The Task Force on Sexual Assault Prevention reported that 47 percent of female college seniors who were in some way involved in final clubs—either because they attend events at the male clubs, or because they themselves are members of female clubs—said they had experienced “nonconsensual sexual contact since entering college.” Since “31 percent of female Harvard seniors reported nonconsensual sexual contact since entering college,” the report said, the data proved that “a Harvard College woman is half again more likely to experience sexual assault if she is involved with a Club than the average female Harvard College senior.” But Harvard’s sexual assault survey also found that 75 percent of “incidents of nonconsensual complete and attempted penetration reported by Harvard College females” happened in…Harvard dorms.
The report is sloppy and lumps together things that are not alike. For example, the Porcellian—Harvard’s oldest final club—does not allow any nonmembers through its doors. Charles Storey, who was then the Porcellian’s graduate president, provided a statement to the Crimson in which, among other things, he claimed that the club was “being used as a scapegoat for the sexual assault problem at Harvard despite its policies to help avoid the potential for sexual assault.” The Porcellian, he said, was “mystified as to why the current administration feels that forcing our club to accept female members would reduce the incidence of sexual assault on campus.” Indeed, Storey said, “forcing single gender organizations to accept members of the opposite sex could potentially increase, not decrease the potential for sexual misconduct.”
A day later, Storey apologized for his statement. A few days after that, he resigned as the Porcellian’s graduate president. His reasoning was admittedly inelegant, as it could be interpreted to suggest that club members would be unable to restrain themselves from committing sexual assault should women enter their domain. But Storey was not incorrect in pointing out that, by definition, women could not be subjected to unwanted touching in the Porcellian clubhouse if they were not allowed inside. For a club like the Porcellian, then, where instances of male-on-female sexual assault within the house are currently nonexistent, going co-ed would inherently guarantee that the opportunity for assault would expand. And that is why it is noteworthy (Storey’s humiliation notwithstanding) that the Faust-Lee declaration eliminated the attack on the final clubs for their ostensibly heightened role in unwanted sexual conduct. And why the entirety of the case against them now rests on their failure to hew to the administration’s convictions on gender egalitarianism.
The role that final clubs play in Harvard social life has been a contentious topic for decades. The perception has long been that socially, the members of Harvard’s male final clubs have too much power. On a campus with limited space for social gathering, the final-club mansions are often the source of the college’s most sought-after nightlife. Arguments have been made consistently over time that the exclusionary practices of the clubs—they typically accept only 10 to 25 new members a year—make for unpleasant and unfair campus social dynamics. But again, this conversation is happening at Harvard, an institution that prides itself on its prestige and exclusivity, and which accepted a mere 5.2 percent of its applicants to the 2021 class.
Lewis, the former dean, is not exactly a natural ally for the clubs. He told me that he was “pretty tough with them” during his tenure, and that he was “instrumental in trying to get some of the bad behavior of some of the final clubs under control.” The issues that arose during his time as dean seem to have mostly been related to parties that grew too loud or students who became too drunk. But confronting specific problems as they arise is an approach entirely different from issuing an all-encompassing sanction on free association. At Harvard, specifically, the implications of such a policy could have long-term ramifications. “As an educational institution that, for better or worse, graduates more than its fair share of the leadership of the country, in both industry and technology, and government and law,” Lewis said, “we should not be teaching students that the way you control social problems is by creating bans and penalties against joining organizations.” His “bigger worry,” he said, is that “students will come to think it’s a reasonable thing to do.”
Beyond all these considerations lies an additional layer of complication: legality. Even as a private institution, Harvard’s autonomy may not be as absolute as it seems to believe. I spoke by phone with Harvey Silverglate, a lawyer who is currently representing the Fly, one of the clubs. He told me that “Harvard is misinformed if it has been told by its lawyers or by the office of the general counsel that it can do what it is trying to do, that is to say, punish a private off-campus club, punish Harvard students for joining a legal off-campus club, that is not on Harvard property, and over which the university has no control.” If Harvard goes forward with its plan, Silverglate noted, it will have “overstepped its legal powers.” He spoke extensively about the specific challenges that Harvard would face under Massachusetts state law, explaining that there are free-speech provisions in the Massachusetts constitution that are more protective of speech than the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In fact, Silverglate noted, the state’s supreme court has ruled in several instances that Massachusetts’s declaration of rights “limits the power of private institutions over the people it governs.”
In its desire to avoid a lawsuit, the Harvard administration—or the team of lawyers that doubtlessly advised it—carefully crafted a rule that would apply equally to men and women. Had the sanctions applied solely to male-only clubs, the university would likely have been faced with a federal lawsuit or investigation into gender discrimination. Yet despite the male final clubs being the primary target of the sanctions, they seem to have done the most harm so far to Harvard’s fraternities, sororities, and female final clubs.
One female student I spoke with is a member of one of the originally all-female final clubs that has recently gone co-ed rather than face the sanctions. She explained that within the club, there is a “feeling of resentment.” The USGSOs were all given the choice to either go co-ed or face the sanctions. “The girls clubs,” she told me, “have accepted it because they don’t have a lot of money.” While the male clubs have old and powerful alumni—and the money that comes with them—the female clubs are young and, by comparison, poor. “The boys can all sue,” she said, but “the girls clubs don’t have that privilege.” Having men in the club has certainly changed things for her. She explained: “It’s definitely different—I loved having an all-female space, and there was lots of merit to that socially and even in terms of networking.… I had this strong female network, and that was kind of eroded by going co-ed.”
Sorority members are facing similar challenges, but unlike the male and female final clubs that do not answer to a national body, they are unable to adapt as they see fit. Sororities and fraternities are unable to go co-ed without violating the rules of their national charters; the sanctions policy therefore affects their organizations most.
I spoke by phone with Evan Ribot, a Harvard alumnus from the class of 2014 who was president of the fraternity AEPI while on campus. Stressing that he could speak only for himself, and not on behalf of AEPI or the AEPI alumni network, he told me there was a “tenuous relationship between the administration and the fraternities” when he was on campus. “There was a sense that we operated in a gray zone because the university knew we existed,” he told me. “So we weren’t underground, but we also were not a recognized group.” As a result of the sanctions, AEPI at Harvard has dissolved itself and become a new organization, the gender-neutral “Aleph.” The organization is no longer affiliated with AEPI national.
“It’s a shame,” he said, “because some of my best friends were looking to join AEPI not because they wanted to be in an exclusionary single-sex organization but because they were looking for a place to fit in on a challenging campus.” The same is true for women: Ribot noted “The sororities were an avenue for women to find their own spaces—not because they were looking to exclude men but because there is an inherent value to a group of women hanging out, just like there can be an inherent value to have men hanging out.… It’s not rooted in exclusion.”
In some circumstances, it appears, Faust agrees. She herself attended Bryn Mawr—a women’s college— and serves as a special representative on the board of trustees of her alma mater. “It is impossible to figure out how Faust can reconcile helping to provide that singular experience to women while at the same time denying any portion of that experience to the women she is responsible for at Harvard,” said Richard Porteus, graduate president of the Fly Club. He graduated from Harvard in 1978 and was elected a member of the Fly Club in 1976. He spoke of the diversity of his club class and reflected that while “there were some people whose names also appeared on Harvard buildings,” he “didn’t come from wealth” and was not only elected to the club but became an officer. Porteus explained that “one’s socioeconomic standing did not matter.” All that mattered, he said, was “the potential for forming life-long friendships.”
The debate over Harvard’s final clubs would have taken place in an entirely different framework if we were still living in a time when university administrators saw their role as fill-in parents—and if that role were viewed as a comfort by the parents themselves. But today’s universities are, for better or worse, largely a free-for-all. The curtailing of certain freedoms thus becomes all the more apparent, and all the more disturbing, when measured against the backdrop of a prevailing “you do you” attitude. The core of the administration’s position seems to be reinforced by an overwhelming need to groom a student body that shares all the same beliefs and values—those that echo the principles that the administration itself espouses. If it deems single-sex social groups discriminatory, then there is no room for those students who see them not as beacons of gender exclusivity but as opportunities for friendship and support. In an educational institution, the only kind of diversity that should matter is diversity of thought. That’s a lesson the Harvard administration desperately needs to learn.
Harvard’s own questionable record on diversity is currently under harsh scrutiny—and not because of the behavior of clubs that have a tenuous connection to the university’s educational mission. Research has demonstrated that to gain entry into an institution like Harvard, Asian-American applicants must score an average of 140 points higher on their SATs than white applicants, 270 points higher than Hispanic applicants, and an astonishing 450 points higher than African-American applicants. The Justice Department has taken note and is investigating the matter. In December, the New York Times reported that the university has agreed to give the DOJ access to applicant and student records. That Harvard’s administration has become consumed with the goal of bringing an end to institutions that fail to meet a 21st-century standard for diversity is not without its savage ironies.
1 Meaning something a dean does.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Review of 'In the Enemy’s House' By Howard Blum
Nearly a decade would pass until the FBI and NSA began to release the actual Venona transcripts in 1995. In the years since, a number of books (including several co-authored by me) have analyzed the Venona revelations, while others have mined Communist International files and the KGB archives. Virtually all the major mysteries about Soviet espionage in the United States have been resolved by these once-secret documents. In addition to confirming the guilt of the Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, and virtually every other person accused of spying in the 1940s by the ex-spies Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, these books have exposed several important and previously unknown agents such as Theodore Hall, Russell McNutt, and I.F. Stone. Indeed, the only accused spy who turns out to have been innocent (although he was a secret Communist almost up until the day he took charge of developing an atomic bomb) was J. Robert Oppenheimer.
A handful of espionage deniers, centered around the Nation magazine, continue to argue, against all evidence and logic, that Alger Hiss is still innocent. The Rosenberg children continue to distort their mother’s role in espionage. And some hard-core McCarthyites still demonize Oppenheimer. But in truth, the bloody battle over who spied is over.
Lamphere’s book emphasized his collaboration with the Army cryptographer Meredith Gardner in the hard work of unraveling the spy rings using the Venona cables. Employing those 1986 recollections as a template, the Vanity Fair contributor Howard Blum has now given us In the Enemy’s House, an overly dramatized but largely accurate account of the friendship between the outgoing, hard-driving, atypical G-man Lamphere and the shy, scholarly, soft-spoken Gardner as they worked together to find and prosecute those Americans who had betrayed their nation.
Blum intersperses the American hunt for spies with the recollections of Julius Rosenberg’s KGB controller, Alexander Feklisov, who ran Rosenberg in 1944 and 1945 and supervised Fuchs in Great Britain from 1947 to 1949. Feklisov watched with mounting dread as the KGB’s atomic spy networks were exposed, both because of Venona and the KGB’s own blunders—most notably because the Russians used Harry Gold, Fuch’s contact, to pick up espionage material from David Greenglass, who was Julius Rosenberg’s brother-in-law and part of his spy ring.
Blum also uses information from many of the scholarly accounts that have already appeared, although not always carefully. His only new source of data comes from interviews with members of the Lamphere and Gardner families and access to their personal notebooks. But while he provides a list of his sources for each chapter, Blum does not use footnotes, so that although many of the personal and emotional reactions to the investigation he attributes to people, and especially to Lamphere, presumably come from these sources, it is never clear whether they are based on contemporaneous written notes or third-party recollections of events more than 50 years in the past.
Such objections are not mere academic carping. While Blum successfully turns this oft-told story into an interesting and suspenseful narrative, his approach comes at a cost. For example: He is eager to transform Lamphere from a diligent and resourceful FBI investigator who often chafed at the bureaucracy and petty rules that governed the agency into a full-blown rebel who almost singlehandedly forced the FBI to take up the problem of Soviet espionage. To do so, Blum suggests that until the FBI received an anonymous letter in Russian in August 1943 alleging widespread spying and naming KGB operatives, the Bureau regarded the investigation of potential Soviet spies as useless because allies did not spy on each other.
This is wrong. In fact, the FBI had already mounted two large-scale investigations—one of Comintern activities in the United States undertaken in 1940 and the other of attempted espionage directed at atomic-bomb research at the Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley, which began in early 1943. Both had unearthed information on atomic espionage. These included discomfiting details about Robert Oppenheimer’s Communist connections; efforts by Steve Nelson, a CPUSA leader in the Bay Area in contact with known Soviet spies, to obtain atomic information; and contacts between a Soviet spy and Clarence Hiskey, a chemist on the Manhattan Project.
At one point, Blum renders one of Hiskey’s contacts, Zalmond Franklin, as Franklin Zelman and mischaracterizes him as “a KGB spook working under student cover.” In fact, Franklin was a veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade working as a KGB courier. In any event, the FBI neutralized this threat by transferring Hiskey from Chicago to a military base near the Arctic Circle, thereby scaring his scientific contacts (whom he had introduced to a Soviet agent) into cooperating with the Bureau.
There are other occasions where Blum demonstrates an uncertain grasp of the history of Soviet intelligence. He misstates Elizabeth Bentley’s motives for defecting; angry at being pushed aside by the Soviets, she feared she was under FBI surveillance. And he claims that only three witnesses testified against the Rosenbergs (Ethel’s brother and sister-in-law and Harry Gold), which leaves off others (Bentley, Max Elitcher, and the photographer who had taken passport photos for the family just prior to their arrests).
Blum’s account of the way the KGB encoded and enciphered its messages is oversimplified. The mistake that made it possible for American counterintelligence to break into the Soviet messages was their intelligence services’ use of some one-use-only pads a second time. Not all of the one-time pads were used twice, and only if such a pad was used twice could the FBI strip the random numbers from the message sent by Western Union. That process allowed Gardner to attempt to break the underlying code. The vast majority of the Soviet cables remained unbreakable, and many could be only partially decrypted. And most of the decrypted cables had nothing to do with atomic espionage but concerned the stealing of diplomatic, political, industrial, and other military secrets.
Partly to heighten suspense, Blum misrepresents or distorts the timelines on matters involving Klaus Fuchs and the Rosenberg ring. He harps on Lamphere’s frustration about not being able to use the decrypts in court, but the FBI had concluded it was highly unlikely that they could be legally introduced into evidence without exposing valuable cryptological techniques, a conflict Lamphere surely understood. That very problem helps explain the FBI’s inability to prosecute Theodore Hall, the youngest physicist at Los Alamos, who had been exposed as a Soviet spy. Blum mistakenly suggests that the FBI agent in Chicago who investigated Hall was unaware of Venona. But that agent did know; the problem was that when the FBI began its investigation in the spring of 1950, Hall had temporarily ceased spying. He was eventually brought in for questioning, but neither he nor his one-time courier and friend, Saville Sax, broke and confessed. Lacking independent evidence, the FBI was stymied.T he most significant flaw of In the Enemy’s House is its assertion that Ethel Rosenberg’s conviction and execution were monumental acts of injustice that disillusioned both Lamphere and Gardner, soured their sense of accomplishment, and left them consumed by guilt. It is true that Lamphere had opposed Ethel’s execution and had drafted a memo that J. Edgar Hoover sent to the judge urging she be spared as the mother of two young sons. Gardner had translated one Venona message that indicated Ethel knew of her husband’s espionage but because of her delicate health “did not work,” which Gardner interpreted to mean she was not part of the spy ring. But, as Lamphere pointed out in his own book, her brother David Greenglass had testified to her involvement in his recruitment. And KGB messages available following the collapse of the Soviet Union now make clear that Ethel had played a key role in persuading her sister-in-law, Ruth Greenglass, to urge her husband to spy.
In The FBI-KGB War, Lamphere never evinced deep moral qualms about their fate. He expressed a more complex set of emotions. “I knew the Rosenbergs were guilty,” he writes, “but that did not lessen my sense of grim responsibility at their deaths.” And he calls claims that the case was a mockery of freedom and justice both “abominable and untruthful.” Blum insists that Gardner was “stunned” by their deaths and quotes him as saying somewhere: “I never wanted to get anyone in trouble” (which would suggest a monumental naiveté if true).
Blum’s claim that Lamphere and Gardner had condemned themselves “to another sort of death sentence” for their roles is a wild exaggeration. So, too, is his charge that Lamphere believed that in the Rosenberg case the United States “might prove to be as ruthless and vindictive as its enemies.”
Finally, Blum links Lamphere’s decision to leave the FBI for a high-level position in the Veteran’s Administration to a sense of lingering guilt. But in his own book, Lamphere attributes the move to the frustration he felt once he realized he would be stuck as a Soviet espionage supervisor for years to come. Blum links Gardner’s brief posting to Great Britain to work with its code-breaking agency as an effort to escape his guilt, but he never mentions that Gardner returned to work at the National Security Agency for many years.
Retired intelligence agents friendly with both men have no recollection of their expressing regret about their role in the Rosenberg case. It is possible that they may have made some such comment to a family member or jotted down something in a notebook, but without very specific and sourced comments, the idea that they ever regretted their work exposing Soviet spies is nonsense that mars Blum’s otherwise entertaining account.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
What we got instead was a combination of celebrity puffery and partisan cheap shots at the Trump administration. The politics of North and South Korea, and the equally complex and intricate relations between these two countries and China, Japan, Russia, and the United States, were reduced to just another amateur sport. Ignorant and supercilious reporters transposed the clichés of the electoral horse race, complete with winners, losers, buzz, and sick burns, to nuclear brinkmanship. Major news organizations could not have done Kim’s job any better for her.
A representative example was written by no less than seven CNN reporters and researchers who concluded, “Kim Jong Un’s sister is stealing the show at the Winter Olympics.” The lead of this news article—I repeat, news article—was the following: “If ‘diplomatic dance’ were an event at the Winter Olympics, Kim Jong Un’s younger sister would be favored to win gold.” Gag me.
Then the authors let loose this howler: “Seen by some as her brother’s answer to American first daughter Ivanka Trump, Kim, 30, is not only a powerful member of Kim Jong Un’s kitchen cabinet but also a foil to the perception of North Korea as antiquated and militaristic.” Kim’s “Kitchen Cabinet”—why, he’s just like Andrew Jackson. And how could anyone have the “perception” that North Korea is “antiquated” and “militaristic”? Sure, they might threaten the world with nuclear annihilation. But have you seen Donald Trump’s latest tweet?
New York Times reporters are either smarter or more efficient than their peers at CNN, because it took only two of them to write “Kim Jong-Un’s sister turns on the charm, taking Pence’s spotlight.” Motoko Rich and Choe Sang-Hun described Kim’s “sphinx-like smile” and “no-nonsense hairstyle and dress, her low-key makeup, and the sprinkle of freckles on her cheeks.” They contrasted the “old message” of Vice President Pence, who has no freckles, with Kim’s “messages of reconciliation.” They cited one Mintaro Oba, a “former diplomat at the State Department specializing in the Koreas, who now works as a speechwriter in Washington.” What they did not mention is that Oba worked at Barack Obama’s State Department and writes speeches for a Democratic firm. Not that he has an axe to grind or anything.
The typical Kim puff piece began with her charm, grace, poise, statesmanship, and desire for unity and peace. Then, 10 paragraphs later, the journalist would mention that oh, by the way, North Korea is a totalitarian hellscape that Kim’s family has been plundering for over half a century. For instance, describing the South Korean reaction to Kim, Anna Fifield of the Washington Post wrote,
They marveled at her barely-there makeup and her lack of bling. They commented on her plain black outfits and simple purse. They noted the flower-shaped clip that kept her hair back in a no-nonsense style. Here she was, a political princess, but the North Korean “first sister” had none of the hallmarks of power and wealth that Koreans south of the divide have come to expect.
A political princess! It’s like Enchanted, except with gulags and famine.
Deep in Fifield’s article, however, we come across this sentence: “Certainly, Kim, who is under U.S. sanctions for human rights abuses related to her role in censoring information, was treated like royalty during her visit.” Just thinking out loud here, but maybe human-rights abuses and censorship deserve more than a glancing reference in a subordinate clause. Fifield went on to say that “Vice President Pence, who was also in South Korea for the opening of the Winter Olympics but studiously avoided Kim, had worried in advance that North Korea would ‘hijack’ the Olympic Games with its ‘propaganda.’” Now where could he have gotten that idea?
The fascination with Kim revealed both the superficiality and condescension of much of our press. Fifield’s colleague, national correspondent Philip Bump, tweeted out (and later deleted) a photo of Kim sitting behind Pence at the opening ceremonies with the comment, “Kim Jong Un’s sister with deadly side-eye at Pence,” as if he were being snarky about an episode of Real Housewives.
When Kim departed the Olympics, Christine Kim of Reuters wrote an article headlined, “Head held high, Kim’s sister returns to North Korea.” Here’s how it began:
A prim, young woman with a high forehead and hair half-swept back quietly gazes at the throngs of people pushing for a glimpse of her, a faint smile on her lips and eyelids low as four bodyguards jostle around her.
The Reuters piece ends this way: “Her big smiles and relaxed manner left a largely positive impression on the South Korean public. But her sometimes aloof expression and high-tilted chin also spoke of someone who sees herself ‘of royalty’ and ‘above anyone else,’ leadership experts and some critics said.” Thank goodness for the experts.
Kim Jong Un could not have anticipated more glowing coverage for his sister, for the robot-like cheerleaders he sent alongside her, or for his transparent attempt to drive a wedge between South Korea and its democratic allies. “North Korea has emerged as the early favorite to grab one of the Winter Olympics’ most important medals: the diplomatic gold,” wrote Soyoung Kim and James Pearson of Reuters, who called Pence “one of the loneliest figures at the opening event.” Quoting on background “a senior diplomatic source close to North Korea,” Will Ripley of CNN wrote an article headlined, “Pence’s Olympic trip a ‘missed opportunity’ for North Korea diplomacy.” But who was Ripley’s source? Dennis Rodman?
What most disturbed me was the difference in coverage of Kim Yo Jong and Fred Warmbier, whose son Otto died last year after being tortured and held captive in North Korea. Fred Warmbier accompanied Pence to the Olympics as a reminder of the North’s inhumanity and menace. Journalists ignored, dismissed, and even criticized this grieving man. Among many examples of thoughtlessness and callousness was a Politico tweet that read: “Fred Warmbier criticizes North Korean Olympic spirit.” He must have missed Kim’s freckles.
Washington Post columnist Christine Emba asked: “Is Otto Warmbier a symbol, or a prop?” You see, Emba wrote, “Otto’s father may want his son to be a symbol. But the nature of his escort risks turning him into a prop.” Why? Well, because “symbols stand for something” while “props are used by someone.” And “the Trump administration, which hosted Warmbier, is made up of shameless instrumentalizers who have made clear that they stand for very little.” So there you go. We should be skeptical of Fred Warmbier because Trump.
Emba’s not all wrong. There were a lot of props and tools at the Olympics. You could find them in the press box.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
was nine when I made my first trip to Israel in June of 1968, almost exactly a year after the Six-Day War. My parents had been in Italy the autumn before, and while vacationing in Rome they learned that there were inexpensive flights leaving twice a week for Tel Aviv. The whole of Israel was giddy at the time, unburdened by their insecurities for the moment with the stunning success of their having just won the Six-Day War and their having increased the total size of their young, besieged nation by more than two-thirds.
My mother finally found a use for the crumpled phone numbers of distant Israeli relatives she’d been carrying in her purse for the past several months, relatives on both her father’s and her mother’s side, Romanians all. Osnat, my mother’s second cousin once removed, had had the misfortune of remaining in Europe while the Nazis were on the move. She spoke of having spent five days hiding from the Germans in the liquid filth of an outhouse and breathing through a tube when they came near.
Meeting scores of warm and loving relatives and having been feted by them as “our dear American Mishpacha” was partly why my parents were both so taken with Israel—that and the Israeli people themselves, the Sabras, so proud and brash, and the ancient beauty of the land. With some talk of perhaps making Aliyah, or at least exploring the idea of our moving to Israel, my parents, my siblings, my first cousins, and my Grandma Rose and her younger brother, Uncle Sol, gathered up a month’s worth of warm-weather clothing and flew en masse to Tel Aviv. We were greeted at Lod Airport by a crush of relations, all of them clambering to hug and kiss us. And then as the sun descended into the Mediterranean and night fell over the coastal plain, they drove us all north in a rag-tag caravan of tiny old Fiats, Renaults, and Peugeots to the beach town of Netanya, where we stayed for the entire summer in a tiny flat just behind the home Osnat shared with her husband, Shlomo.
Days later, I’m with my father and my brother Paul at the Wailing Wall. It’s weird to think that only a week ago I was at home watching Gilligan’s Island and looking for my dad’s Japanese Playboys in the bottom drawer of his bedroom closet during the commercials. Now, I’m in Jerusalem, in the glaring sun beneath this gigantic wall of stone. When I’m sure no one’s looking, I put both hands on the wall, and then I touch my forehead to it. The stones are colder than you’d think they’d be in all this heat.
For reasons I don’t understand, I start to cry. I’d be embarrassed if my brother or my dad saw me like this, so I pretend that I’m praying. I wonder, though, am I just crying because you’re supposed to cry here? If the rabbis from the Talmud Torah had shown me pictures of some random bridge in Saint Paul from the time I was in nursery school, would I have cried at that, too?
When I look up at the wall again, I see some birds’ nests and a million pieces of paper with people’s prayers in them, all stuffed into the cracks between the stones. Everyone who comes here wants God’s attention. I’ll bet He loves all the notes. They probably make Him feel like someone gives a shit about the cool stuff He does.I
had been born a Jew in Minneapolis. Growing up Jewish there wasn’t a good or a bad thing any more than growing up with snow was good or bad. It just was. Because we Jews were so few, being one made us all feel different. It wasn’t a difference we’d asked for or earned either. It, too, just was. It was natural for us, that is, becoming somewhat Jew-centric. We were fond of staying close to one another, close to our causes and to our history, it was just a natural reaction to being the “other.”
It’s 1970 and I’m in junior high, on my way to English, when I see Nelson Gomez, Stuey Nyberg, and Craig Walner. They’re hip-checking kids into the tall metal lockers that line the hall. They are the three kings of the Westwood Junior High’s dirtball dynasty, young hoodlums who regularly and without fear skip school, smoke filter-less Marlboros, and shout “Fuck you, faggot” to students and staff members alike, save perhaps for Mr. H, the anti-Semitic shop teacher with whom they have forged an abiding friendship.
To the left and right of me, hapless students fly, body-slammed with alarming speed into the lockers by the three of them. It doesn’t escape my notice that these unfortunates have not been chosen randomly. There goes Brian Resnick. Next it’s Shelly Abramovitz and then Alvin Fishbein. As I round the corner, Stuey Nyberg grabs my second cousin, Elaine Kamel, by the shoulders and slams her face-first into her own locker. She and they were selected for no other reason than their Jewishness.
I grab Stuey by his neck with both hands and I claw at him until my fingernails pierce his pale skin and blood spurts from his jugular. Now I take the clear plastic aquarium algae scraper that I made in Mr. H’s shop class this very morning and use it to gouge out one of Nelson Gomez’s eyeballs, making sure he can see it in the palm of my hand with his remaining eye. Craig Walner tries to run, but I catch him by his mullet and shove his head into Elaine Kamel’s locker. I slam her locker door on him again and again. I don’t stop until his head is severed from his neck…
…and my daydream comes to an abrupt halt when Stuey Nyberg says, “Himmelman, it’s your turn to meet the lockers, you fucking kike.” Without a word of warning, he clouts me with a stinging jab right to my nose. It’s the first time I’ve ever been hit in the face, and while it’s agonizing, the blow is also somehow euphoric. I’m supercharged with adrenaline, I feel as if I’m on fire. But of course, I don’t hit Stuey back. God, no. I simply stand there glowering at the three of them, blood dripping from my large Jewish nose. And for the first time in my life, I feel downright heroic. I look around me and I see that, for now at least, our bitterest enemies have stopped hip-checking what feels like the entire Jewish nation.
Six months later it’s summer vacation, and we Himmelmans fly from Minneapolis to New York and connect with a nonstop to Tel Aviv. In less than two days, I’m on a towel on the beach in Netanya looking out at the cerulean blue of the Mediterranean.
As I lay on the hot sand, Mirage fighter jets with blue Jewish stars emblazoned under their wings suddenly streak so low across the water that I can smell jet fuel. As they scream overhead, the whole beach seems to shake. With a strange sense of clannish pride, I laugh and stare up at the planes as they accelerate and finally rocket out of range.
My father died, after suffering from Stage IV lymphoma for five years, in 1984. I was 25 years old. A year later, I was living in the Twin Cities working on music with my band when I received a call from a woman named Ruth Grosh. She asked if I’d be willing to write some songs for a therapeutic teddy bear she’d dreamed up called Spinoza Bear. Ruth, a bona fide subversive by nature and New Age before anyone had even come up with the term, named her ursine brainchild after Baruch Spinoza, the heretical 17th-century Jewish philosopher. Spinoza was seen as harmful to, and at odds with, the views of the Jewish establishment of Amsterdam at the time. Eventually, both he and his writings were placed under a religious ban called a “cherem” by the Dutch Jewish community where he lived and worked. Aside from the fact that he was reviled for his modernist views, no one had much bad to say about him personally, except that “he was fond of watching spiders chase flies.”
The songs were to play off a battery-operated tape deck that fit into a zippered pouch beneath the soft brown fur of the bear’s stomach. A red heart-shaped knob on the bear’s chest served as the on-off switch. By today’s standards, the technology would seem crude, but at the time, with just a modicum of suspension of disbelief, it was possible to feel that the voice of the bear along with the music was issuing directly from its cheery muzzle. As to whom to hire to be the voice of Spinoza Bear, it was decided after some deliberation that not only would I write and sing the songs, I should also be the kind, concerned voice of the bear itself.
Each of the dozen or so cassette tapes that were eventually recorded had themes of self-empowerment, a kind of you-can-make-it-if-you-try bent. After just two years, the bear became a huge success—not as some plebeian, retail teddy, but as something greater. Spinoza Bear soon found his way into hospitals, health clinics, and centers for healing of all kinds. By holding the bear and listening closely to his stories and songs of wellness and inner light, rape victims, grief-stricken parents, bone-lonely pensioners, autistic kids, as well as children on cancer wards all across America found it possible to relieve some of their pain and fear.
Aside from the good works, the bear provided me with twenty grand in seed money that our band, Sussman Lawrence, used to set sail for New York City in 1985.
We were five new-wave rockers in an Oldsmobile Regal Vista Cruiser wagon, and two roadies in a spanking-new Dodge cube van. The van, which we were overjoyed to discover, had been hastily christened from bumper to bumper with graffiti sometime during our 45-minute debut set at CBGBs, the legendary East Village rock-and-roll club, only days after arriving on the East Coast.
Given the high cost of living in New York City, New Jersey seemed the next best thing. As it turned out, there were very few homeowners interested in renting a house to a band. I hatched a plan, which involved my calling on a middle-aged real-estate agent named Carol we’d found advertising in a Bergen County newspaper. When I finally got her on the line, I explained to her that we were medical students enrolled that fall at nearby Rutgers University and in need of a quiet place to live and study.
The following morning, as the rest of the guys waited outside in the Oldsmobile, I and my cousin Jeff, our band’s gifted keyboard player, showed up at Carol’s office in suits and ties we’d purchased at a local thrift shop and carrying responsible-looking briefcases. I had boned up on some medical terms as well, orthopedic surgical techniques mostly, in case she needed proof that we were actually who we were claiming to be. But there had been no need. We had the cash and seemed honest enough—“honest enough” to let her know that a few of us were also part-time musicians and that there might be some music playing, quietly of course, from time to time, just to ease the strain of our intense studies.
Two days later, Jeff and I woke up early, signed the lease papers, and pulled our now multihued, invective-laden cube van into the driveway of 133 Busteed Drive in Midland Park, New Jersey.
Trying for as much discretion as possible, lest the neighbors notice anything out of the ordinary, we backed the van up to the garage, lugged the gear up a short flight of stairs and into a large, unfurnished living room. Once upstairs, we began unloading beer-stained amplifiers, at least a dozen guitar cases, a drum set packed tightly into three large metal flight cases, assorted keyboards, and an entire public-address system and lighting rig. Aside from some bad scrapes in the hardwood floor and a gaping hole or two in the walls on our way in, the load-in was accomplished with speed and efficiency. We were up and practicing by late afternoon, our new-wave rock blaring fast and loud into the New Jersey autumn night.
A month after settling in, Ruth Grosh reached me at dinnertime by long distance, in the squalor of our band-house collective. After some catching up, she gently let me know me that some psychic friends had explained to her that I had just a few months left on the planet. “What!” I said, “they told you I was gonna die?” Ruth was practiced at this kind of thing, it seemed, although her nonchalance about my imminent demise didn’t make me feel any less concerned. “They asked me to find out if you’d like to come in for a free consultation,” she said. I was due to fly back to Minneapolis later that week anyway, and I figured I might as well find out what all this planet-leaving nonsense was about.
Back home, on the morning of my appointment with the psychics, I found my mother, who was normally quite composed, flitting around the kitchen and singing quietly to herself. She had agreed to a lunch date that afternoon with the contra bass player from the Minnesota symphony, her first since my dad had died almost two years before.
“Does this blouse look good on me?” she asked. “Be honest.”
“Yeah, it looks great,” I said.
I was uncomfortable in the extreme watching my mother dart around the house like a schoolgirl primping for a date with some dude who wasn’t my dad. True, it’d been two years since he’d died, and given all that she’d been through, it wasn’t like she didn’t deserve to live a little. After all, I thought, it was just lunch. But the more I saw of this weird, giddy side of her, the less I liked it. A car honked. It was Ruth.
She and I rode wordlessly as Japanese New Age wooden flutes intoned from her car stereo. We arrived after twenty minutes at the northern suburb of Brooklyn Center, and Ruth parked her car near a long row of newly built town houses. A man and a woman in their mid-forties greeted us at the front door, both smiling in a scary, off-putting way. They appeared to be a kind of husband-and-wife psychic tag team, and they rushed headlong into the consultation by asking if I’d like to give them some names of people I knew.
“We’ll be able to tell you all about them,” the woman said and smiled again. I thought it was just some cheesy method of showing off.
“The first names are enough,” said the man.
“Okay, let’s go with Jeff,” I said.
My cousin Jeff is a musical genius, a pianist of remarkable facility, who’s had to contend with neuromuscular tics most of his life. The two psychics were seated facing each other in cheap leather armchairs. In an instant, they were both precisely mimicking my cousin’s facial tics. I recognized each of them from the names Jeff and I had given them. When Jeff’s thumbs bent downward spasmodically, we called it “Southerner.” When his palms flexed upward in a sort of hand-waving motion, we called it “Reckless Greeter.” In another, with his eyebrows pinched together, lips compressed, and eyes blinking, Jeff looked like someone who was very curious about his environment. We called that one “Curious Man.” His most frequent tic was also his most unsettling. We called that one “Round the World.” It involved his eyeballs rolling uncontrollably in their sockets. Suddenly, to my astonishment, the corners of both of the psychics’ mouths had formed narrow half smiles. Their eyebrows began squeezing together; their eyes were blinking—open-shut-open-shut—perfectly mimicking Jeff’s Curious Man.
“The music, he can’t stop the music,” the woman shouted in excitement. Her husband, whose hands then began a remarkable imitation of Reckless Greeter added, “Yes, good God, the music! Can’t you feel it just pouring out of him?”
I was thinking this had to be some kind of brilliant trick, albeit a devilish one. It was astonishing, yes, but I wasn’t yet convinced that they were real. Next, I said the name “Beverly,” my mother’s, and they both giggled. It’s disconcerting to see adults giggle at any time, but when a pair of middle-aged psychics giggle at the mention of your bereaved mother’s name, it’s triply so.
“She’s doing something she feels guilty about,” the woman offered.
“Yes,” said the man. “Something she’s afraid of doing, but it seems to us that she’s also very excited.”
Almost in unison, the psychics said, “She’s acting like a little schoolgirl today!”
How in hell could they have known what I’d just experienced myself for the first time in my life that very morning? If these two freaks had wanted my undivided attention, they sure as hell had it now.
The room fell silent. I didn’t dare speak. They had officially scared the living daylights out of me with their last trick. Soon, they broached the subject I’d come all this way to talk about.
“Is it your wish to leave the planet?” the woman asked, more casually than I would have imagined possible for someone questioning a fellow human being about whether he wanted to live or die.
I paused and breathed deeply for a minute or so. It was a question I stopped and thought about longer than a mentally stable person might have.
“No,” I finally told them, “I have no intention of leaving anytime soon.”
This seemed to relieve them. The man said, “The reason we’ve been so concerned about you is that we believe music is more important to you than you may be aware. It represents your very essence, and by working as single-mindedly as you have to get a record deal, with the kind of music you’ve been making with your band, you’ve been cheapening and compromising your integrity. You’ve been, in a sense, unfaithful to your muse. That’s what’s causing this spiritual disconnect and, should it continue, my wife and I both feel like it will shorten your stay here.”
His wife took over: “What you need to do is uncover a deeper, more honest expression in your music, something closer to the bone. We know you love the blues and reggae. We think it’ll be helpful to start playing music you love, rather than music you think will sell.”
By this time, tears were spilling down my cheeks. “There’s this song,” I began telling them, “that I wrote for my dad over two years ago on Father’s Day, that almost no one has heard. It’s something that was written with the sole intention of connecting with him before he died. It’s on a cassette tape, just sitting there on a shelf in my closet.”
“Why not put that song out as your next single,” the man said.
I was suddenly speechless. Why had I never thought of this? It was such a simple yet profound idea. I flew back to New Jersey, determined to release not just the one song, but an entire album dedicated to my father.
The guys picked me up in the Oldsmobile at Newark Airport the next day. We were standing around the luggage carousel waiting for my bags when I told them I was going to record a solo record, a tribute to my father, whom they all loved and respected.
My bandmates understood this was something I needed to do. They also knew it wasn’t just talk. A solo album, produced for whatever reasons, also signaled the possibility that the ethos of the band may well have been coming to an end. Nevertheless, they played their hearts out on the record and, by doing so, tacitly gave me their blessings and their assurances that whatever happened with it would be for the best.
The recording featured the song I’d written for my dad, and it eventually became my debut album, This Father’s Day, for Island Records.
Its release also became a powerful catalyst for me personally. It took me from where I had been, locked up in pain and confusion, to some other, more hopeful place. Even before my meeting with the psychics, I thought I’d gotten beyond most of the hurt, that it was simply time to grit my teeth and persevere. It had been two years, after all. But I was mistaken. The process of mending broken hearts is never as pat as that. As much as I needed to forget, to emerge clear-eyed from the jumble and rawness of my father’s death, I knew I’d have to face my worst fears again and again. But I felt ready. I also knew, in a way I hadn’t before, that I really didn’t want to die.
While my father was suffering in the last five years of his life, I found myself in a different state of mind from that of my friends and bandmates, who were, for the most part, blithely moving through their young lives. I’m not saying pain made me wise; it’s just that it can, for those willing to accept its hard lessons, provide a bit of perspective, shine some light on what’s sacred and what’s less so.
During those years I was working very hard to become famous, whatever that might have meant. I felt that I needed to reach some level of achievement before my dad died. I suppose I was conducting a search for miracles. It’s no wonder. For my family and for me at least, miracles seemed to have been in very short supply back then.
It’s miracles after all, that compel us forward, that encourage us to move with some degree of willingness into the next day. But, despite what we might believe, it’s hardly ever the big ones that truly move us. The sea can split, we can win the lottery, we can even become rock stars, and still, those phenomenal circumstances are never what matter most. In the end, the only miracle worth wishing for is the ability to be made aware of the smallest splendors, the most inconsequential truths, and the overlooked rhythms that connect us to the people and things we love.
I felt a kind of heat rising up around me in those days, a sense that what had long been static was now stuttering back into motion. There was a pleasant strangeness to the feeling, but like many things that at first strike us as unusual, it wasn’t wholly unfamiliar, either. I’d felt that same unnamable sensation, lying awake in my bed in the dark as a young child, focusing on individual moonlit snowflakes as they fell outside my window. I felt it again in Jerusalem, at nine years old, when I first touched the sunbaked stones of the Western Wall. I felt it the first time I’d snorkeled in the Red Sea and became drunk from sheer beauty. I felt it the frigid November morning we buried my father. I felt it on the evening I finally met my wife, and again, the moment when each of my children was born.
The circumstances were wildly varying, but in each instance there was a sense of being taken from one place to another, of inertia finally giving way to movement. It was as if my mundane life had cracked open and I saw, arrayed in front of me, some image of the unseen hand that forms and directs the universe.M
y first experiences in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, at age 27 were catalytic. A rabbi named Simon Jacobson had posed a single question and it, too, set me into motion: “Why is walking on the surface of the Earth any less miraculous than flying above it?” he’d asked.
The idea that the world is a wondrous, mysterious place—even as we are destined to walk on the mundane surface of it, even if we cannot truly fly—is both a liberating and comforting notion. Being attuned to wonder is my preferred condition. Perhaps it’s natural for each of us. But why, then, are so many moments not imbued with this sense of the miraculous? Why is there such a divide between barely sensing and deeply feeling?
What I did know in the autumn of 1987, with a certainty I hadn’t known before—perhaps couldn’t have known—was that I needed to get married. I had awakened to the idea that there was nothing I was doing with my life, not my music, not my friendships, not my finally getting that almighty record deal, more important than finding the right woman with whom to create a family and live out my days. I also knew that to do this, I would need to create a powerful forcing frame for myself, not one that would constrict or limit me, but one that would allow me to channel my outsized ego and my creative proclivities toward more productive ends than I’d ever dreamed possible.
Eventually, I made a sort of pact with myself, a silent, personal agreement. It came down to this simple declaration: The next time I sleep with a woman, it will be with my wife. This meant that I had to extricate myself from my longtime girlfriend. Though I was, and still am, extremely fond of her, I could never envision her as a lifetime partner or the mother of my children. In addition, our arrangement was somewhat nebulous, and so this new, self-imposed structure also meant that I’d have to cut off any contact with the other women with whom I was having casual sex. I had to make a fundamental cultural and emotional shift. I would need to wean myself away from years of assumptions about the very nature of what a modern relationship meant. I would have to forge a new way of looking at women, at my role as a man, and at the world at large.
It became clear to me that the freedom I had always longed for could be obtained only through the somewhat paradoxical means of setting limits, delaying gratification, and cutting away many experiences that an all-pervasive consumerist culture had been (and continues to be) hell-bent on selling. If you’ll allow me, I’ll explain this further by way of metaphor.
Music is among the most transcendent of all art forms, both for the performer and listener. Since it has no form or substance, it can easily serve as a model for the boundlessness of spirituality. But as anyone who has mastered a musical instrument knows, musical ideas are expressed almost exclusively by means of structure and restriction, words very few of us would correlate with freedom.
At first glance, this seems like a paradox. How could something as liberating and intangible as music be based on restriction? Not only is music based on restriction, I’d go so far as to say that, aside from the existence of raw sound—elemental white noise, if you will—the only other thing that allows music to take place, the only thing that differentiates it from this pure noise, is what sounds the musician chooses to leave behind. In this sense, music comes about not by choosing notes but by the elimination of notes. Take a look at the idea in this somewhat inverse manner: Only by rejecting all other sonic choices are we left with the ones we truly desire. To make music, we don’t add, we subtract.
Here’s how something as commonplace as the key signature of a particular piece of music also reflects this idea. Unless you were trying to achieve a harsh atonal musical effect, you wouldn’t want to be playing in the key of B-flat minor while your key signature called for you to be playing in A major. The ensuing “music” would sound like a chaotic racket to most people. The time signatures of compositions, along with their tempos, which require that a particular note last only so long and that it be played at a particular speed, also function with this same principle—creation by negation. Avoiding the time signature, or playing at any speed without regard for the overall tempo, is another good way to produce only noise.
It is only through adherence to the limiting factors of time and tempo that music can take shape. In that same sense, if it weren’t for the constraint of playing only certain keys on a piano, and thereby negating all other choices, you would hear only noise. Anyone who has heard his or her toddler pounding away on a piano knows exactly what this sounds like.
Most, if not all, musical instruments also work on this principle of restriction. The trumpet, for example, is based upon compression and restriction. If the air a player blows into the trumpet’s mouthpiece weren’t compressed and regulated by the embouchure, the only sound you’d be able to hear would be a soft wind-like noise passing through the horn.
As I became more and more immersed in the wisdom of Jewish thought and practice, the idea of freedom-in-structure became clearer and ever more personally relevant. If it was true for music I wondered, how much more true must it be for all of life itself? And given that human sexuality (whether or not the participants engaged in a sexual act are conscious of it) concerns the creation of life, it occurred to me that causing dissonance in that most meaningful—dare I say mystical—arena of life was something I definitely needed to avoid.
I knew I had to place a set of restrictions on myself in order to make music out of my life, as opposed to just raw sound. Although this conception of the universe felt new to me, new in the sense that it was radically different from the one I’d been acting on for so many years, it wasn’t unfamiliar. Without my knowing it, I had undergone an awakening. I became alert to a perspective I recalled vaguely, even from my earliest childhood. It was as if I could see something important forming (though what it was, was still unclear) out of a barely examined and often fleeting sliver of thought. All at once, the world around me seemed to feel very much as it did when I was a child. I could remember clearly, lying feverish in bed, waiting for sleep, with every last thing in the world unknown and unexplained.
It was frightening as an adult to feel these thoughts growing stronger and more pervasive, but it also felt safe in ways—as though there’d been a kind of revelation, one that seemed to say: “Peter, son of David, there is a purpose to everything you’ve experienced in the recent past and everything you see before you now. From this moment on, there are things you must do and ways you must act.”
The mantra to live without restrictions, which had guided me for most of my life, seemed at that point to be leading me only to chaos. I believed I could, and must, do better for myself. My most fervent wish was no longer to become a rock star; it was to create my own family, one that could become a replacement for the one I’d been missing, the one that had changed so drastically when my father died.
So, in a tour bus rolling across the American continent, I did the three most practical things I could think of: I stuck to my private pact, I dreamed, and I prayed several times a day to an unseen Deity for strength and for love.
This part of the story really begins a few months after my dad’s funeral, when I found myself in a cramped apartment in South Minneapolis auditioning some songs I’d written for a local performer named Doug Maynard. I sang him a few things and he nodded quietly. Doug wasn’t a big talker. Finally he chose one. “Man, I think I could do this justice,” he said. It was called “My First Mistake.”
You taste like pepper frosting on a granite cake.
Baby fallin’ in love with you was my first mistake…
Less than a year later, Doug was found dead in his living room, stone-drunk and drowned on his own vomit at the age of forty. Before this happened, however, he had introduced me to his manager, who had introduced me to a New York City music lawyer, who had introduced me to a record producer named Kenny Vance.
Kenny had worked with a lot of famous people and he wasn’t particularly shy about mentioning just whom. “I used to date Diane Keaton,” he told me. “I know Woody Allen—been in a couple of his films. I was the music director for Saturday Night Live.” Then he said, “Tonight I’m gonna take you to my main connection, a religious Jew in Brooklyn.”
Before long, Kenny and I were crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. We arrived at an apartment in Crown Heights where Kenny’s friend, Simon Jacobson, greeted us. I liked Simon right off the bat. His eyes reflected some essential paradox, some awareness that being alive is both a source of great humor and great sadness. His wife, Shaindy, introduced herself with a gracious smile and placed glass bowls of almonds and chocolate-covered coffee beans on a yacht-sized table before excusing herself to tend to her young children. The thing I didn’t understand at first was how a big hirsute guy like Simon, in an oversize yarmulke, with a massive beard and in a white polyester button-up, was able to land such a good-looking wife. I soon learned that around these parts, it wasn’t the guy who could throw a football the farthest who got the girl. Simon had another thing going for him.
His, at the time, was to memorize every word of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Shabbos dissertations and record them on Saturday night for publication later in the week. To understand the scope of the job, it’s necessary to know that when the Rebbe spoke, it was often for four or more hours straight, without breaks, without notes, and in a manner of cyclical and increasing complexity. To make things even more challenging, the Rebbe wasn’t freestyling. Everything he taught was derived from a compendium of source materials that ranged into the tens of thousands of books. And they could not be recorded because it was the Sabbath and no electricity could be used.
When I once mentioned to Simon how awed I was at his ability to memorize this much information, he looked at me and said: “The memorization is the least of it. It’s the task of compiling it with the proper source notes that’s the real challenge. Every day I correspond with the Rebbe, and he writes me back with perfect editor’s notes. Once I wrote and said I didn’t understand a particular passage and couldn’t find the source for it. The Rebbe had a sharp sense of humor. He sent me back a markup with a big red circle, not just on the sentence I was having an issue with, but around the whole page, with the words, ‘What do you understand?’”
It was getting late. Kenny had left me there and driven back to the city. As Simon spoke to me, I kept looking up at the oil paintings of shtetl life and the Rebbe hanging on the walls. I was prodded more by fatigue than bravado when I finally asked, “What’s the deal with those pictures of the Rebbe? They seem sort of cultish to me.”
“I like the pictures,” he said, “To me, the Rebbe is like a very inspiring grandfather, and I get a lot out of reflecting on the things he says and the way he lives his life. There are people for whom there is no sense of self. People called Tzadikim, and they have no need for personal gain. A Tzadik lives only to serve others and they can do anything they wish.”
“Really,” I asked with just a hint of comic disdain. “Can they fly?”
“Understand, I’ve never seen anyone fly,” Simon answered. “But for a Tzadik, the act of flying is no greater miracle than the act of walking.”
This idea stunned me. Not because it was new. The things that move us most never are. They are things we already know, beliefs that are buried away inside us. Of course, when you stop and think about it, there’s absolutely no difference between the weights of the two miracles, walking and flight. It’s just that we non-Tzadikim get so tired of the one that happens all the time.
At that moment, at that table in Brooklyn, I started thinking about the little-known rhythm-and-blues singer Doug Maynard. I was remembering the sound of his voice and simultaneously considering the infinite number, the impossible number, of tiny coincidences—the tendrils, if you will, that in their unfathomable complexity, had guided me to that particular apartment on that particular night. The thought was so vivid, it was as if I could hear Doug singing again. Singing most soulfully, most truthfully about the joy, and the sweat, and the pain of this world. It wasn’t long after that I met the Lubavitcher Rebbe for the first time. He handed me a bottle of vodka and a blessing for success, and I started becoming more Jewishly observant right away: keeping Shabbos in my tiny apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, keeping kosher, and putting on tefillin. I married Maria two years later. We’ve been married for nearly 30 years.
About a year ago my cousin Jeff asked me what it had been like to meet the Rebbe. This is exactly how I answered him.
“You know when you’ve done something you think is horrible (whatever the hell it may be) and you start going down—deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of regret? When you’re in so deep that you start to feel like the biggest loser ever born, like nothing is possible, that nothing good is ever gonna come your way, and that you can’t even face yourself in the mirror?”
“Sure,” Jeff said. “I’ve been there.”
“Well,” I said, “meeting the Rebbe was the exact opposite of what I just described.”