From left to right, they’re fronting for a tyrant.
Russia’s bald Annexation of Crimea has caused a great many American writers and thinkers to reconsider previous assumptions. A typical response came from the New Republic’s Isaac Chotiner: “Mitt Romney Was Right About Russia,” ran the headline of his blog post, citing the 2012 Republican presidential candidate’s comments, which characterized Russia as the most important antagonist of the United States. And yet the Russian strongman has found himself an eager and willing audience in the United States among a bizarre, bipartisan crew of intellectual, academic, and journalistic dupes. A new cohort of those Lenin once called the “useful idiots” is asserting itself.
First and foremost there is Stephen F. Cohen of the Nation. The New York University professor, who taught for decades at Princeton, has put his compatriots on the left in a bind. After all, Vladimir Putin has recently prosecuted a feminist performance-art group, instituted a harsh anti-gay law that equates homosexuality with pedophilia, and taken the side of dictators in the Arab Spring. His invasion of Ukraine was the last straw for many looking for an excuse to ditch the authoritarian thug without appearing too much like the conservative hawks they disdained. Not Cohen. He has doubled down.
On March 1, CNN asked Cohen for his perspective. “It’s a crisis of historic magnitude,” he intoned ominously. “If you ask how we got in it, how we got into the crisis, and how therefore do we get out, it is time to stop asking why Putin—why Putin is doing this or that, but ask about the American policy, and the European Union policy that led to this moment.”
The fault lies in Washington and Brussels, Cohen explained, for their attempts to forge closer military and economic ties with Ukraine. The following morning, Cohen was back on CNN, this time to lecture host Fareed Zakaria that we’ve got the Russian president all wrong: “Putin is not a thug. He’s not a neo-Soviet imperialist who’s trying to create—re-create the Soviet Union. He’s not even anti-American.” What is he then? Well, Cohen says, he’s just “intensely historically pro-Russian.”
Putin is also “the least authoritarian” Russian ruler “in centuries,” he explained. None of this is Putin’s fault anyway: “He did not create this Ukrainian crisis,” noted Cohen. “It was imposed on him and he had no choice to react.” The very next day Cohen was back on CNN, this time to offer Wolf Blitzer a CliffsNotes version of the entire Ukraine crisis: “Putin said to Washington and to Brussels, to the European Union, why are you forcing Ukraine to choose between Russia and the West? Why don’t we do a joint economic aid to Ukraine? And our answer was, ‘No, it’s either/or. It’s our way or the highway.’ And now you are where you are.”
Blitzer was baffled. Surely, he said, Putin was at least partly to blame. The professor’s response was that CNN would have to go elsewhere for the other perspective; Cohen’s purpose was “pushing back against the American narrative.” That was, in fact, exactly why he had been invited on the show. Cohen wrote a cover story for the Nation in early March that essentially declared everyone was wrong save Stephen F. Cohen.
Liberals scratched their heads. New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait dubbed Cohen’s apologetics “pathetic.” Newsweek called him “The American Who Dared Make Putin’s Case.” But Cohen deserves credit for his consistency. He has been apologizing for Russian strongmen for decades.
Cohen’s 50-year career in Russian studies arose from an early interest in seeking what he calls “political alternatives,” when he first began to contemplate whether there might have been a viable alternative to segregation in his native Kentucky. When he applied that “what if” template to the Soviet Union, he began seeing reformers everywhere—by which he did not mean the dissidents trying to delegitimize the regime but apparatchiks inside it who were interested in the possibilities of modernizing it.
Because potential reformers existed within the Soviet Union, Cohen argued then, the empire wasn’t a monstrous Communist dictatorship. It was something more complex, more interesting. “I was not surprised by the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev as the Soviet leader in 1985,” he crowed in his 2009 book Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives.
An earlier volume, Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia (2000), portrayed the post-Cold War order not as a massive liberation of the oppressed peoples of Europe but as an American-driven campaign to bring Russia to its knees.
Failed Crusade is primarily a compilation of Cohen’s columns and interviews from the 1990s, whose intent is to establish Cohen as a visionary and sage. When read today, after what has happened in Crimea, Failed Crusade establishes him as Putin’s own John the Baptist—his herald, his prophetic witness.
In it Cohen warns against “preventing Russia from regaining strong influence over the former republics.” He blames the “missionary and intrusive nature of U.S. policy” for Russia’s “growing anti-American backlash.” He accuses Bill Clinton of “becoming [Yeltsin’s] cheerleader, accomplice, and spin doctor, and thus implicating America in some of his most ill-advised and even wicked deeds.” He forecasts a return to dictatorship as an understandable Russian response to American support for Yeltsin’s policies, which “have awakened a historical demon.”
Putin is, according to Cohen’s 2009 book, the indispensable man. “Putin’s disappearance,” Cohen writes, could plunge Russia—and thus American security interests in the region—into crisis. Putin’s successor would probably be “less accommodating” and more hostile toward the United States than Soviet leaders had been. The reason for the belligerent Russian response, according to Cohen, is the “growing military encirclement of Russia, on and near its borders, by U.S. and NATO bases.”
This idea—that the United States didn’t help collapse the Iron Curtain but simply relocated it from Berlin to Russia’s border through the expansion of NATO in the 1990s—is not Cohen’s exclusive property. It forms the basis for the Putin apologia across the political spectrum. So-called foreign-policy realists have rallied around this view, as have old-school paleoconservatives and some of Cohen’s fellow leftists. That NATO, a defensive alliance dedicated to promoting and preserving democracy in Europe, would be blamed by so many for the thuggish actions of a revanchist autocrat is an abject lesson in how those hostile to the projection of American and Western power have adapted to the post–Cold War world.
The realists found their champion in the retired diplomat Jack Matlock, who served as U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He took to the pages of the Washington Post on March 14 to echo Cohen’s analysis. Expanding NATO, he said, “seemed to violate the understanding that the United States would not take advantage of the Soviet retreat from Eastern Europe.” Even so, Matlock says, Putin came to power in 2000 displaying a “pro-Western orientation.” And what, Matlock asked, “did he get in return?
“Some meaningless praise from President George W. Bush, who then delivered the diplomatic equivalent of swift kicks to the groin: further expansion of NATO in the Baltics and the Balkans, and plans for American bases there; withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; invasion of Iraq without U.N. Security Council approval; overt participation in the ‘color revolutions’ in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan; and then, testing some of the firmest red lines any Russian leader would draw, talk of taking Georgia and Ukraine into NATO.”
Now that Russia was on the march, Matlock continued, the Obama administration appeared intent on “encouraging a more obstructive Russia”—as if Barack Obama, the champion of the “reset,” actually would want to spend his second term flicking the ears of his counterpart in Moscow.
Matlock’s column tracked closely with the grudge the academic-realist community has long held against NATO, which had been voiced the day before in the New York Times by the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer, best known as co-author (with Stephen Walt) of the seminal text for the “Israel Lobby” conspiracy theorists.
“The taproot of the current crisis is NATO expansion and Washington’s commitment to move Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit and integrate it into the West,” Mearsheimer wrote. According to Mearsheimer, the West further provoked Putin by offering Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych a trade agreement with Europe. Mearsheimer writes, “Mr. Putin offered Ukraine a better deal in response, which Mr. Yanukovych accepted.” Well, of course he did. Yanukovych was a pro-Putin autocrat who had thrown his leading political rival into prison. And Mearsheimer conveniently neglected to mention that Putin’s method of “negotiation” included the viable threat of invasion and cutting off winter gas shipments along with levying billions in sanctions against Kiev.
The deal Mearsheimer considered superior spurred popular protests in the Ukrainian capital that hurled the country’s politics into a state of chaos. Mearsheimer blamed the United States for “backing” the protesters—that is, vocally supporting self-determination and human rights. Putin viewed the pro-Western government that took over after Yanukovych took flight as a “direct threat”—and no wonder! “Who can blame him?” Mearsheimer asked rhetorically, as if the question were self-evidently rational instead of quite piercingly ludicrous.
Mearsheimer’s collaborator, Stephen Walt, was waving the same realist flag from his perch at Foreign Policy magazine. “The real question,” he wrote, “is why Obama and his advisers thought the United States and the European Union could help engineer the ouster of a democratically elected and pro-Russian leader in Ukraine and expect Vladimir Putin to go along with it?” The casting of Barack Obama and John Kerry as imperial putschists circling Putin’s palace speaks volumes about the intellectually adrift state of noninterventionism and great power politics in 2014. This is “realism” in its current, most debased form.
The Paleoconservatives have been having their say as well. One clearinghouse for Putin apologia is the website of the The American Conservative, the magazine founded by Patrick J. Buchanan. Senior editor Daniel Larison is the resident NATO skeptic and anti-interventionist, and he has found creative ways to punch the American bullies breathing down Putin’s neck. As Russia prepared to annex Crimea, Larison declared that “the case for a punitive response to Russia’s incursion is remarkably weak.”
When the Russian attack inspired the bout of “Romney was right” admissions on the right and the left, Larison unloaded: “All that Romney demonstrated as a candidate was a knee-jerk hostility to Obama’s policies and equally reflexive hostility to improving relations with Russia. To the extent that he had a coherent idea for how to approach Russia differently, he thought that Russia should be provoked at every turn and that cooperation should be avoided.” Romney never said any such thing, but forget it, Larison was rolling.
A few days later, at the suggestion that Ukraine might need Western support now more than ever, Larison raged: “Pursuing NATO membership would be exactly the sort of divisive and controversial move that Western governments should be discouraging the new government from making, and it could end up triggering more Russian intervention.” There was that formulation again: could end up triggering more Russian intervention. A more straightforward way to say that would be: The states in Russia’s near-abroad are perpetually at risk of Russian invasion. Interestingly, the two countries Russia has invaded under Putin are not members of NATO. This key fact undermines the notion that Putin is the one who needs protection from the expansionism of others.
When New York Times columnist Ross Douthat called for abandoning illusions about Putin’s Russia, Larison was happy to offer his own example of just such an illusion: “If there’s one constant in U.S. Russia policy, it is the belief that the U.S. and our allies can goad and irritate Russia as often as they want on as many issues as they like without having to worry about the consequences. Western governments are allowed to goad Russia on many issues, but Moscow mustn’t ever respond in kind, and when it does Western leaders express shock that it would do such a thing.”
What kind of moral relativism does it require to believe that Russia’s repeated invasions of its neighbors are “in kind” responses to American policy toward Europe? There was something of an answer in Larison’s next post. He admitted that Russia’s invocation of “the Kosovo precedent”—the NATO-backed humanitarian intervention that ended the Balkan wars, creating an independent Kosovo—was not precisely analogous to Russia’s intervention in Crimea. But he readily picked up the cudgel of Western hypocrisy: “The Kosovo intervention,” he writes, “was one of the most egregious examples of Western double standards on international law and sovereignty of the last twenty-five years, and it was only a matter of time and circumstances before other governments would make use of it to justify their own interference in the internal affairs of other states.”
This is another throwback to the Cold War, and one Putin himself is fond of, called “Whataboutism.” The essence of Whataboutism is to turn any complaint about Russia into an accusation that whatever it might be doing, the West is doing and has done worse. Despite the constant protestations that the Cold War is over, these attempts to turn criticism of the Kremlin back on the critics are often nothing more than a Putin-era version of anti-anti-Communism.
Whataboutism is only one half of the paleoconservative defense of Putin. The other half verges on outright admiration for him. And no one has so seamlessly floated from the sympathetic to the sycophantic as Patrick J. Buchanan himself.
Buchanan opened his December 17 column with a question: “Is Vladimir Putin a paleoconservative?” He elaborated a bit, following up with: “In the culture war for mankind’s future, is he one of us?” Buchanan went on to discuss a 2013 Putin speech railing against progressive cultural values. Buchanan beseeched his readers to consider if the blood-soaked tinpot kleptocrat wasn’t on to something. After all, here in America, Buchanan complained, the judiciary took it upon themselves to declare “homosexual acts to be constitutionally protected rights.”
Buchanan then added: “While his stance as a defender of traditional values has drawn the mockery of Western media and cultural elites, Putin is not wrong in saying that he can speak for much of mankind.” The whole column was like a paleocon inversion of a Yakov Smirnoff routine. What a country! Buchanan seems to be saying admiringly—of Russia.
And Buchanan isn’t the only one saying it. In Moscow last June, Republican Representatives Dana Rohrabacher and Steve King described the results of a fact-finding mission to Russia they took after two Russian Americans set off bombs at the Boston Marathon. After dismissing concerns about the brutality of Russia’s antiterror operations in the North Caucasus, the two Americans played up Putin’s cynical embrace of the Russian Orthodox Church and his defense of the Christian faith in making their argument that he was an ally in the fight against Islamic extremism.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine did not change Rohrabacher’s view. On March 25, he chided his fellow congressmen for condemning Russia “when no one lost their life in an attempt to make sure the people of Crimea had a right to control their destiny and their own self-determination.” It is sad to note that Rohrabacher had spent eight years as a speechwriter in the Reagan White House before his election to Congress.
In the midst of the Ukraine crisis, leftist journalists found themselves in the remarkable position of feeling it necessary to defend Putin’s own propaganda network against a fellow journalist who had decided to cleanse herself. In 2011, Liz Wahl was working as a reporter in the Northern Mariana Islands when RT offered her a position in Washington D.C. Wahl was soon one of the network’s brightest on-air proponents of Whataboutism. She grew increasingly uncomfortable with the coverage, however, and the way RT took advantage of inexperienced journalists such as herself. So, at the end of her live broadcast on March 5, she looked into the camera and said: “I cannot be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin. I’m proud to be an American and believe in disseminating the truth. And that is why after this newscast, I’m resigning.”
The reaction from the left was swift. A writer for the liberal website Firedoglake.com named Kevin Gosztola left Wahl a message saying that he was working on a piece about her for a new media organization. He was particularly exercised about Wahl’s friendship with the writer James Kirchick,1 with whom she had been in touch both before and after her resignation. According to Wahl, Gosztola threatened her: “We’re going to be putting forward some allegations about you and your time at RT…If you have something to say for this story to defend yourself before we go ahead and publish, you have about 24 hours.” Gosztola left Kirchick a similar message.
Gosztola’s angry voicemail messages were posted online, and his piece on Wahl never materialized. But an article titled “How Cold War-Hungry Neocons Stage Managed RT Anchor Liz Wahl’s Resignation,” by Max Blumenthal and Rania Khalek, did pop up on March 19. Their piece was a textbook example of character assassination of someone the left now viewed as a traitor to the cause. Blumenthal and Khalek portrayed Wahl as a “disgruntled” employee whose “unprofessional behavior” earned her censure from her employers. Neoconservatives such as Kirchick, applauding Wahl for standing up to the Kremlin, were really manipulating her “to propel the agenda of a powerful pro-war lobby in Washington.”
The previous week, a writer for Buzzfeed named Rosie Gray had published a deeply reported piece about RT, exposing the atmosphere of censorship and the Kremlin’s heavy-handed oversight of the network. Blumenthal and Khalek declared Gray an unacknowledged mouthpiece for the Georgian government, while another writer for Firedoglake accused her of sleeping with another reporter in order to get access to negative information about Russia. He also took aim at Gray’s father, the novelist Peter Abrahams. None of Gray’s meticulous reporting was challenged on factual grounds. She had simply been asking questions, and that was sufficient cause for the Kremlin’s defenders on the American left to drag her name through the mud, derogate her family, and seek to sully her professional reputation.
Putinism, it appears, has something for everyone. No ideological glue binds the Putin fan club together. For paleoconservatives unnerved by the spread of progressive cultural values and willing to empower the state to stem the tide, Putinism clothes the naked public square. For liberals who see unrestrained capitalism as a form of anarchic looting, Putinism puts the state back where it belongs: in control. For the anti-war left, Putinism means standing up to American imperialism when the rest of the world will not. For the anti-interventionist right, Putinism acts as a necessary break on American proclivities to participate in global alliances instead of minding our own business. And for the anti-anti-Communists, Putinism is their delayed gratification at the expense of the Cold Warriors who invited this backlash by pressing their victory.
In reality, Putinism is a violent, paranoid kleptocracy with no moral force, and those who make common cause with it, or seek to excuse it away, have surrendered any claim to moral probity.
1 Kirchick, a COMMENTARY contributor, has an article in this issue on page 37.
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Justice both delayed and denied.
According to Senate Judiciary Committee Democrat Chris Coons, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who has accused Judge Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when she was a minor, did not want to come forward. In an eerie echo of Anita Hill’s public ordeal, her accusations were “leaked to the media.” With her confidentiality violated, Ford had no choice but to go public. Coons could not say where that leak came from, but he did confess that “people on committee staff” had access to the letter in which Ford made her allegations. Draw your own conclusions.
Though many observers insist that what we have witnessed since Ford’s allegations were made public is about justice, it’s hard to see any rectitude in this process. Ford has been transformed into a public figure apparently against her wishes. The details of the attack that Ford alleges are deeply disturbing, but they are not prosecutable. Ford’s recollection of the events 36 years ago is understandably hazy, but what she alleges to have occurred is too vague to establish with much accuracy. She cannot recall the precise date or location in which she was supposedly attacked. Contrary to the protestations of Senate Democrats like Kamala Harris, the FBI cannot get involved in a matter that is not within the federal government’s jurisdiction. And even if local authorities were inclined to involve themselves, the statute of limitations long ago elapsed.
With precious few facts available to congressional investigators and without the sobriety that public scrutiny in the age of social media abhors, the spectacle to which the nation is about to be privy is undoubtedly going to make things worse. A public hearing featuring both Ford and Kavanaugh will be a performative and political display, if it happens at all. It will be adorned with the trappings of courtroom proceedings but with none of the associated protections afforded accused and accuser alike. It will further polarize the nation such that, whether Kavanaugh is confirmed or not, public confidence in Congress and the Supreme Court will be severely damaged. And no matter what is said in that hearing, it is unlikely to change many minds.
Given the dearth of hard evidence, it is understandable that observers have begun to look to their own experiences to evaluate the veracity of Ford’s allegations. The Atlantic contributor Caitlin Flanagan is the author of a powerful and compelling example of this kind of work. Her essay, entitled “I Believe Her,” is important for a variety of reasons. Maybe foremost among them is how she all but invalidates defenses of Kavanaugh that are based on the positive character references he’s assembled from former female acquaintances and ex-girlfriends. Flanagan was assaulted as a young woman, and her abuser—a man she says drove her to a suicidal depression similar to what Ford has described to her therapist—was not interested in a romantic relationship. CNN political commenter Symone Sanders, too, confessed that “there is no debate” in her mind as to Kavanaugh’s guilt, in part, because she was the victim of a sexual assault in college. The similarities between what she endured and what Ford says occurred are too hard for her to ignore.
These are harrowing stories, but they also reveal how little any of this has to do with Brett Kavanaugh anymore. For some, this has become a proxy battle in the broader cultural reckoning that began with the #MeToo moment. Quite unlike the many abusive men who were outed by this movement, though, the evidentiary standard being applied to Kavanaugh’s case is remarkably low. His innocence has not been presumed, and a preponderance of evidence has not been marshaled against him. It is not even clear as of this writing that Kavanaugh will be allowed to confront his accuser. At a certain point, honest observers must concede that getting to the truth has not been a defining feature of this process.
In the face of this adversity, there are some Republicans who are willing to sacrifice Kavanaugh’s nomination. Some appear to think that Kavanaugh’s troubles present them with an opportunity to advance their own political prospects and to promote a replacement nominee with whom they feel a closer ideological affinity. Others simply don’t want to risk standing by a tainted nominee. The stakes associated with a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court are too high to confirm a justice with an asterisk next to his name—a justice who may tarnish future rulings on sensitive cases by association. Those Republicans are either capitulatory or craven.
Based on what we know now, Kavanaugh does not deserve an asterisk. Maybe he will tomorrow, but he doesn’t today. Those who would allow what is by almost all accounts an exemplary legal career to be destroyed by unconfirmable accusations or outright innuendo will not get a better deal down the line. Some Republicans are agnostic about Kavanaugh’s fate and believe that his being stopped will make room for a more doctrinaire conservative like Amy Coney Barrett. But they will not get their ideologically simpatico justice if they allow the defiling of the process by which she could be confirmed.
The experiences that Dr. Ford described are appalling. Even for those who are inclined to believe her account and think that she is due some restitution, no true justice can be meted out that doesn’t infringe on the rights of the accused. Those in the commentary class who would use Kavanaugh as a stand-in for every abuser who got away, every preppy white boy who benefited from unearned privilege, every hypocritical conservative moralizer to exact some karmic vengeance are not interested in justice. They want a political victory, even at the expense of the integrity of the American ideal. If there is a fight worth having, it’s the fight against that.
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Terror is a choice.
Ari Fuld described himself on Twitter as a marketer and social media consultant “when not defending Israel by exposing the lies and strengthening the truth.” On Sunday, a Palestinian terrorist stabbed Fuld at a shopping mall in Gush Etzion, a settlement south of Jerusalem. The Queens-born father of four died from his wounds, but not before he chased down his assailant and neutralized the threat to other civilians. Fuld thus gave the full measure of devotion to the Jewish people he loved. He was 45.
The episode is a grim reminder of the wisdom and essential justice of the Trump administration’s tough stance on the Palestinians.
Start with the Taylor Force Act. The act, named for another U.S. citizen felled by Palestinian terror, stanched the flow of American taxpayer fund to the Palestinian Authority’s civilian programs. Though it is small consolation to Fuld’s family, Americans can breathe a sigh of relief that they are no longer underwriting the PA slush fund used to pay stipends to the family members of dead, imprisoned, or injured terrorists, like the one who murdered Ari Fuld.
No principle of justice or sound statesmanship requires Washington to spend $200 million—the amount of PA aid funding slashed by the Trump administration last month—on an agency that financially induces the Palestinian people to commit acts of terror. The PA’s terrorism-incentive budget—“pay-to-slay,” as Douglas Feith called it—ranges from $50 million to $350 million annually. Footing even a fraction of that bill is tantamount to the American government subsidizing terrorism against its citizens.
If we don’t pay the Palestinians, the main line of reasoning runs, frustration will lead them to commit still more and bloodier acts of terror. But U.S. assistance to the PA dates to the PA’s founding in the Oslo Accords, and Palestinian terrorists have shed American and Israeli blood through all the years since then. What does it say about Palestinian leaders that they would unleash more terror unless we cross their palms with silver?
President Trump likewise deserves praise for booting Palestinian diplomats from U.S. soil. This past weekend, the State Department revoked a visa for Husam Zomlot, the highest-ranking Palestinian official in Washington. The State Department cited the Palestinians’ years-long refusal to sit down for peace talks with Israel. The better reason for expelling them is that the label “envoy” sits uneasily next to the names of Palestinian officials, given the links between the Palestine Liberation Organization, President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, and various armed terrorist groups.
Fatah, for example, praised the Fuld murder. As the Jerusalem Post reported, the “al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of Fatah . . . welcomed the attack, stressing the necessity of resistance ‘against settlements, Judaization of the land, and occupation crimes.’” It is up to Palestinian leaders to decide whether they want to be terrorists or statesmen. Pretending that they can be both at once was the height of Western folly, as Ari Fuld no doubt recognized.
May his memory be a blessing.
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The end of the water's edge.
It was the blatant subversion of the president’s sole authority to conduct American foreign policy, and the political class received it with fury. It was called “mutinous,” and the conspirators were deemed “traitors” to the Republic. Those who thought “sedition” went too far were still incensed over the breach of protocol and the reckless way in which the president’s mandate was undermined. Yes, times have certainly changed since 2015, when a series of Republican senators signed a letter warning Iran’s theocratic government that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka, the Iran nuclear deal) was built on a foundation of sand.
The outrage that was heaped upon Senate Republicans for freelancing on foreign policy in the final years of Barack Obama’s administration has not been visited upon former Secretary of State John Kerry, though he arguably deserves it. In the publicity tour for his recently published memoir, Kerry confessed to conducting meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif “three or four times” as a private citizen. When asked by Fox News Channel’s Dana Perino if Kerry had advised his Iranian interlocutor to “wait out” the Trump administration to get a better set of terms from the president’s successor, Kerry did not deny the charge. “I think everybody in the world is sitting around talking about waiting out President Trump,” he said.
Think about that. This is a former secretary of state who all but confirmed that he is actively conducting what the Boston Globe described in May as “shadow diplomacy” designed to preserve not just the Iran deal but all the associated economic relief and security guarantees it provided Tehran. The abrogation of that deal has put new pressure on the Iranians to liberalize domestically, withdraw their support for terrorism, and abandon their provocative weapons development programs—pressures that the deal’s proponents once supported.
“We’ve got Iran on the ropes now,” said former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, “and a meeting between John Kerry and the Iranian foreign minister really sends a message to them that somebody in America who’s important may be trying to revive them and let them wait and be stronger against what the administration is trying to do.” This is absolutely correct because the threat Iran poses to American national security and geopolitical stability is not limited to its nuclear program. The Iranian threat will not be neutralized until it abandons its support for terror and the repression of its people, and that will not end until the Iranian regime is no more.
While Kerry’s decision to hold a variety of meetings with a representative of a nation hostile to U.S. interests is surely careless and unhelpful, it is not uncommon. During his 1984 campaign for the presidency, Jesse Jackson visited the Soviet Union and Cuba to raise his own public profile and lend credence to Democratic claims that Ronald Reagan’s confrontational foreign policy was unproductive. House Speaker Jim Wright’s trip to Nicaragua to meet with the Sandinista government was a direct repudiation of the Reagan administration’s support for the country’s anti-Communist rebels. In 2007, as Bashar al-Assad’s government was providing material support for the insurgency in Iraq, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sojourned to Damascus to shower the genocidal dictator in good publicity. “The road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Pelosi insisted. “Unfortunately,” replied George W. Bush’s national security council spokesman, “that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq.”
Honest observers must reluctantly conclude that the adage is wrong. American politics does not, in fact, stop at the water’s edge. It never has, and maybe it shouldn’t. Though it may be commonplace, American political actors who contradict the president in the conduct of their own foreign policy should be judged on the policies they are advocating. In the case of Iran, those who seek to convince the mullahs and their representatives that repressive theocracy and a terroristic foreign policy are dead-ends are advancing the interests not just of the United States but all mankind. Those who provide this hopelessly backward autocracy with the hope that America’s resolve is fleeting are, as John Kerry might say, on “the wrong side of history.”
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Michael Wolff is its Marquis de Sade. Released on January 5, 2018, Wolff’s Fire and Fury became a template for authors eager to satiate the growing demand for unverified stories of Trump at his worst. Wolff filled his pages with tales of the president’s ignorant rants, his raging emotions, his television addiction, his fast-food diet, his unfamiliarity with and contempt for Beltway conventions and manners. Wolff made shocking insinuations about Trump’s mental state, not to mention his relationship with UN ambassador Nikki Haley. Wolff’s Trump is nothing more than a knave, dunce, and commedia dell’arte villain. The hero of his saga is, bizarrely, Steve Bannon, who in Wolff’s telling recognized Trump’s inadequacies, manipulated him to advance a nationalist-populist agenda, and tried to block his worst impulses.
Wolff’s sources are anonymous. That did not slow down the press from calling his accusations “mind-blowing” (Mashable.com), “wild” (Variety), and “bizarre” (Entertainment Weekly). Unlike most pornographers, he had a lesson in mind. He wanted to demonstrate Trump’s unfitness for office. “The story that I’ve told seems to present this presidency in such a way that it says that he can’t do this job, the emperor has no clothes,” Wolff told the BBC. “And suddenly everywhere people are going, ‘Oh, my God, it’s true—he has no clothes.’ That’s the background to the perception and the understanding that will finally end this, that will end this presidency.”
Nothing excites the Resistance more than the prospect of Trump leaving office before the end of his term. Hence the most stirring examples of Resistance Porn take the president’s all-too-real weaknesses and eccentricities and imbue them with apocalyptic significance. In what would become the standard response to accusations of Trumpian perfidy, reviewers of Fire and Fury were less interested in the truth of Wolff’s assertions than in the fact that his argument confirmed their preexisting biases.
Saying he agreed with President Trump that the book is “fiction,” the Guardian’s critic didn’t “doubt its overall veracity.” It was, he said, “what Mailer and Capote once called a nonfiction novel.” Writing in the Atlantic, Adam Kirsch asked: “No wonder, then, Wolff has written a self-conscious, untrustworthy, postmodern White House book. How else, he might argue, can you write about a group as self-conscious, untrustworthy, and postmodern as this crew?” Complaining in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen said Wolff broke no new ground: “Everybody” knew that the “president of the United States is a deranged liar who surrounded himself with sycophants. He is also functionally illiterate and intellectually unsound.” Remind me never to get on Gessen’s bad side.
What Fire and Fury lacked in journalistic ethics, it made up in receipts. By the third week of its release, Wolff’s book had sold more than 1.7 million copies. His talent for spinning second- and third-hand accounts of the president’s oddity and depravity into bestselling prose was unmistakable. Imitators were sure to follow, especially after Wolff alienated himself from the mainstream media by defending his innuendos about Haley.
It was during the first week of September that Resistance Porn became a competitive industry. On the afternoon of September 4, the first tidbits from Bob Woodward’s Fear appeared in the Washington Post, along with a recording of an 11-minute phone call between Trump and the white knight of Watergate. The opposition began panting soon after. Woodward, who like Wolff relies on anonymous sources, “paints a harrowing portrait” of the Trump White House, reported the Post.
No one looks good in Woodward’s telling other than former economics adviser Gary Cohn and—again bizarrely—the former White House staff secretary who was forced to resign after his two ex-wives accused him of domestic violence. The depiction of chaos, backstabbing, and mutual contempt between the president and high-level advisers who don’t much care for either his agenda or his personality was not so different from Wolff’s. What gave it added heft was Woodward’s status, his inviolable reputation.
“Nothing in Bob Woodward’s sober and grainy new book…is especially surprising,” wrote Dwight Garner at the New York Times. That was the point. The audience for Wolff and Woodward does not want to be surprised. Fear is not a book that will change minds. Nor is it intended to be. “Bob Woodward’s peek behind the Trump curtain is 100 percent as terrifying as we feared,” read a CNN headline. “President Trump is unfit for office. Bob Woodward’s ‘Fear’ confirms it,” read an op-ed headline in the Post. “There’s Always a New Low for the Trump White House,” said the Atlantic. “Amazingly,” wrote Susan Glasser in the New Yorker, “it is no longer big news when the occupant of the Oval Office is shown to be callous, ignorant, nasty, and untruthful.” How could it be, when the press has emphasized nothing but these aspects of Trump for the last three years?
The popular fixation with Trump the man, and with the turbulence, mania, frenzy, confusion, silliness, and unpredictability that have surrounded him for decades, serves two functions. It inoculates the press from having to engage in serious research into the causes of Trump’s success in business, entertainment, and politics, and into the crises of borders, opioids, stagnation, and conformity of opinion that occasioned his rise. Resistance Porn also endows Trump’s critics, both external and internal, with world-historical importance. No longer are they merely journalists, wonks, pundits, and activists sniping at a most unlikely president. They are politically correct versions of Charles Martel, the last line of defense preventing Trump the barbarian from enacting the policies on which he campaigned and was elected.
How closely their sensational claims and inflated self-conceptions track with reality is largely beside the point. When the New York Times published the op-ed “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” by an anonymous “senior official” on September 5, few readers bothered to care that the piece contained no original material. The author turned policy disagreements over trade and national security into a psychiatric diagnosis. In what can only be described as a journalistic innovation, the author dispensed with middlemen such as Wolff and Woodward, providing the Times the longest background quote in American history. That the author’s identity remains a secret only adds to its prurient appeal.
“The bigger concern,” the author wrote, “is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency but what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us.” Speak for yourself, bud. What President Trump has done to the Resistance is driven it batty. He’s made an untold number of people willing to entertain conspiracy theories, and to believe rumor is fact, hyperbole is truth, self-interested portrayals are incontrovertible evidence, credulity is virtue, and betrayal is fidelity—so long as all of this is done to stop that man in the White House.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Review of 'Stanley Kubrick' By Nathan Abrams
Except for Stanley Donen, every director I have worked with has been prone to the idea, first propounded in the 1950s by François Truffaut and his tendentious chums in Cahiers du Cinéma, that directors alone are authors, screenwriters merely contingent. In singular cases—Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Woody Allen, Kubrick himself—the claim can be valid, though all of them had recourse, regular or occasional, to helping hands to spice their confections.
Kubrick’s variety of topics, themes, and periods testifies both to his curiosity and to his determination to “make it new.” Because his grades were not high enough (except in physics), this son of a Bronx doctor could not get into colleges crammed with returning GIs. The nearest he came to higher education was when he slipped into accessible lectures at Columbia. He told me, when discussing the possibility of a movie about Julius Caesar, that the great classicist Moses Hadas made a particularly strong impression.
While others were studying for degrees, solitary Stanley was out shooting photographs (sometimes with a hidden camera) for Look magazine. As a movie director, he often insisted on take after take. This gave him choices of the kind available on the still photographer’s contact sheets. Only Peter Sellers and Jack Nicholson had the nerve, and irreplaceable talent, to tell him, ahead of shooting, that they could not do a particular scene more than two or three times. The energy to electrify “Mein Führer, I can walk” and “Here’s Johnny!” could not recur indefinitely. For everyone else, “Can you do it again?” was the exhausting demand, and it could come close to being sadistic.
The same method could be applied to writers. Kubrick might recognize what he wanted when it was served up to him, but he could never articulate, ahead of time, even roughly what it was. Picking and choosing was very much his style. Cogitation and opportunism went together: The story goes that he attached Strauss’s Blue Danube to the opening sequence of 2001 because it happened to be playing in the sound studio when he came to dub the music. Genius puts chance to work.
Until academics intruded lofty criteria into cinema/film, the better to dignify their speciality, Alfred Hitchcock’s attitude covered most cases: When Ingrid Bergman asked for her motivation in walking to the window, Hitch replied, fatly, “Your salary.” On another occasion, told that some scene was not plausible, Hitch said, “It’s only a movie.” He did not take himself seriously until the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd elected to make him iconic. At dinner, I once asked Marcello Mastroianni why he was so willing to play losers or clowns. Marcello said, “Beh, cinema non e gran’ cosa” (cinema is no big deal). Orson Welles called movie-making the ultimate model-train set.
That was then; now we have “film studies.” After they moved in, academics were determined that their subject be a very big deal indeed. Comedy became no laughing matter. In his monotonous new book, the film scholar Nathan Abrams would have it that Stanley Kubrick was, in essence, a “New York Jewish intellectual.” Abrams affects to unlock what Stanley was “really” dealing with, in all his movies, never mind their apparent diversity. It is declared to be, yes, Yiddishkeit, and in particular, the Holocaust. This ground has been tilled before by Geoffrey Cocks, when he argued that the room numbers in the empty Overlook Hotel in The Shining encrypted references to the Final Solution. Abrams would have it that even Barry Lyndon is really all about the outsider seeking, and failing, to make his awkward way in (Gentile) Society. On this reading, Ryan O’Neal is seen as Hannah Arendt’s pariah in 18th-century drag. The movie’s other characters are all engaged in the enjoyment of “goyim-naches,” an expression—like menschlichkayit—he repeats ad nauseam, lest we fail to get the stretched point.
Theory is all when it comes to the apotheosis of our Jew-ridden Übermensch. So what if, in order to make a topic his own, Kubrick found it useful to translate its logic into terms familiar to him from his New York youth? In Abrams’s scheme, other mundane biographical facts count for little. No mention is made of Stanley’s displeasure when his 14-year-old daughter took a fancy to O’Neal. The latter was punished, some sources say, by having Barry’s voiceover converted from first person so that Michael Hordern would displace the star as narrator. By lending dispassionate irony to the narrative, it proved a pettish fluke of genius.
While conning Abrams’s volume, I discovered, not greatly to my chagrin, that I am the sole villain of the piece. Abrams calls me “self-serving” and “unreliable” in my accounts of my working and personal relationship with Stanley. He insinuates that I had less to do with Eyes Wide Shut than I pretend and that Stanley regretted my involvement. It is hard for him to deny (but convenient to omit) that, after trying for some 30 years to get a succession of writers to “crack” how to do Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, Kubrick greeted my first draft with “I’m absolutely thrilled.” A source whose anonymity I respect told me that he had never seen Stanley so happy since the day he received his first royalty check (for $5 million) for 2001. No matter.
Were Abrams (the author also of a book as hostile to Commentary as this one is to me) able to put aside his waxed wrath, he might have quoted what I reported in my memoir Eyes Wide Open to support his Jewish-intellectual thesis. One day, Stanley asked me what a couple of hospital doctors, walking away with their backs to the camera, would be talking about. We were never going to hear or care what it was, but Stanley—at that early stage of development—said he wanted to know everything. I said, “Women, golf, the stock market, you know…”
“Couple of Gentiles, right?”
“That’s what you said you wanted them to be.”
“Those people, how do we ever know what they’re talking about when they’re alone together?”
“Come on, Stanley, haven’t you overheard them in trains and planes and places?”
Kubrick said, “Sure, but…they always know you’re there.”
If he was even halfway serious, Abrams’s banal thesis that, despite decades of living in England, Stanley never escaped the Old Country, might have been given some ballast.
Now, as for Stanley Kubrick’s being an “intellectual.” If this implies membership in some literary or quasi-philosophical elite, there’s a Jewish joke to dispense with it. It’s the one about the man who makes a fortune, buys himself a fancy yacht, and invites his mother to come and see it. He greets her on the gangway in full nautical rig. She says, “What’s with the gold braid already?”
“Mama, you have to realize, I’m a captain now.”
She says, “By you, you’re a captain, by me, you’re a captain, but by a captain, are you a captain?”
As New York intellectuals all used to know, Karl Popper’s definition of bad science, and bad faith, involves positing a theory and then selecting only whatever data help to furnish its validity. The honest scholar makes it a matter of principle to seek out elements that might render his thesis questionable.
Abrams seeks to enroll Lolita in his obsessive Jewish-intellectual scheme by referring to Peter Arno, a New Yorker cartoonist whom Kubrick photographed in 1949. The caption attached to Kubrick’s photograph in Look asserted that Arno liked to date “fresh, unspoiled girls,” and Abrams says this “hint[s] at Humbert Humbert in Lolita.” Ah, but Lolita was published, in Paris, in 1955, six years later. And how likely is it, in any case, that Kubrick wrote the caption?
The film of Lolita is unusual for its garrulity. Abrams’s insistence on the sinister Semitic aspect of both Clare Quilty and Humbert Humbert supposedly drawing Kubrick like moth to flame is a ridiculous camouflage of the commercial opportunism that led Stanley to seek to film the most notorious novel of the day, while fudging its scandalous eroticism.
That said, in my view, The Killing, Paths of Glory, Barry Lyndon, and Clockwork Orange were and are sans pareil. The great French poet Paul Valéry wrote of “the profundity of the surface” of a work of art. Add D.H. Lawrence’s “never trust the teller, trust the tale,” and you have two authoritative reasons for looking at or reading original works of art yourself and not relying on academic exegetes—especially when they write in the solemn, sometimes ungrammatical style of Professor Abrams, who takes time out to tell those of us at the back of his class that padre “is derived from the Latin pater.”
Abrams writes that I “claim” that I was told to exclude all overt reference to Jews in my Eyes Wide Shut screenplay, with the fatuous implication that I am lying. I am again accused of “claiming” to have given the name Ziegler to the character played by Sidney Pollack, because I once had a (quite famous) Hollywood agent called Evarts Ziegler. So I did. The principal reason for Abrams to doubt my veracity is that my having chosen the name renders irrelevant his subsequent fanciful digression on the deep, deep meanings of the name Ziegler in Jewish lore; hence he wishes to assign the naming to Kubrick. Pop goes another wished-for proof of Stanley’s deep and scholarly obsession with Yiddishkeit.
Abrams would be a more formidable enemy if he could turn a single witty phrase or even abstain from what Karl Kraus called mauscheln, the giveaway jargon of Jewish journalists straining to pass for sophisticates at home in Gentile circles. If you choose, you can apply, on line, for screenwriting lessons from Nathan Abrams, who does not have a single cinematic credit to his name. It would be cheaper, and wiser, to look again, and then again, at Kubrick’s masterpieces.