Success in this war requires clarity about exactly what and whom we are fighting--and how to fight them.
With whom, or what, is the United States at war? The answer to this question has far-reaching implications for strategy, for public diplomacy, and for foreign and domestic policy alike. It may seem that the answer is obvious; but it is not.
In the first few weeks after September 11, whenever President George W. Bush referred to enemies, he insisted they were neither Afghans nor even Muslims but rather people he called “evildoers” or “the evil ones.” This odd and somewhat comical-sounding phrasing seems to have been chosen deliberately so as not to offend anyone, or any group. It also permitted Bush to lump a variety of events under a single rubric even before it was known who was responsible for which of them. Thus, when mysterious anthrax letters began appearing, he again blamed these same amorphous “evildoers” for “continuing to try to harm America and Americans.”
What were the goals of these evildoers? Here, too, Bush was careful to speak in generalities. They were people “motivated by hate,” or, somewhat more specifically, “people that [had] no country,” or, on another occasion, “people that may try to take a country, parasites that may try to leech onto a host country.” When it came to what the United States was planning to do about them, the President was once more cautious to a fault, speaking mostly of “hunting down the evildoers and bringing them to justice.”
Not even after the war began in early October did Bush strive for greater precision, tending rather to refer to the hostilities as a “common effort to stamp out evil where we find it.” The one innovation was to introduce the concept of a “war on terrorism,” sometimes modified as a “war on terrorism and evil.” But this made arguably even less sense. Terrorism is a military tactic employed by different groups and individuals around the world for different ends. To speak of a “war on terrorism” is a little like speaking about a war on weapons of mass destruction. One needs to know who owns or is deploying these weapons, and for what reason.
What about the objectives of the war? These were (and still are) equally murky. When Bush announced the initiation of military action on October 7, he defined the goal as “the disruption and . . . defeat of the global terror network,” a neologism that once again begged the question. For what is the global terror network? Other than al Qaeda, what organizations belong to it? Does it include militant Islamic groups like Hizbullah and Hamas? Non-Muslim terrorist groups like the Irish Republican Army and the Tamil Tigers? States like Iraq?
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, for one, seemed troubled by the vagueness of this ambitious goal. At one early point, he dismissed as unrealistic “the idea of eliminating [terrorism] from the face of the earth.” But he proceeded to propose a no less elusive aim. Americans are a freedom-loving people, Rumsfeld said, so the definition of victory was an environment in which they could “in fact fulfill and live those freedoms,” and in which others would be prevented “from adversely affecting our way of life.” This was admirable, especially the last part, though hardly an objective to hand to a general and say, “Accomplish this.”
The actual unfolding of the “war on terrorism” has done little to dispel this lack of clarity. Initially, the declared purpose in Afghanistan was not to extirpate the Taliban regime but merely to compel it to hand over Osama bin Laden and his colleagues; only when the Taliban refused did the full force of the U.S. military descend on them. The same story may be repeating itself with respect to Iraq. In late November, the President demanded that Saddam Hussein permit the resumption of weapons inspections or face the consequences. When asked at a press conference what those consequences might be, Bush cryptically replied: “He’ll find out.”
At least one well-informed observer understood this to mean that Bush did not know what he was going to do next.1 Indeed, as of early December, it seemed safe to say that, beyond the fighting in Afghanistan, the U.S. government had not yet reached a decision on its future steps.
All this may be understandable enough. Conceptually, the conflict in which the United States is engaged is something new. It is being fought against shadows—no one, for instance, has yet made a completely forthcoming claim of responsibility for the atrocities of September 11—and this very fact has rendered meaningless such conventional war goals as defeating an army or seizing territory. Then, too, the United States was caught essentially unprepared on September 11. No matter how many times it had been hit by terrorists before—and there were many such occasions—Americans never expected to find themselves launching a full-scale war against this enemy.
Moreover, euphemisms in wartime can be beneficial, and all the more so when one is flying, so to speak, in the dark. Entering emergency mode on September 11, the government instinctively shied away from specifics lest they tie its hands. Targeting “evildoers” and “terrorism,” mentioning no names beyond Osama bin Laden, offered maximum flexibility. By not insulting anyone in particular, Washington could more easily woo potential partners for the U.S.-led “coalition against terror.” By the same token, the administration could, at least theoretically, add or subtract targets as circumstances warranted; today’s partner—Syria, for example—could become tomorrow’s evildoer.
But vagueness also exacts costs. If politicians impart imprecise or contradictory goals to their military leaders, wrote Carl von Clausewitz in On War (1832), their efforts will almost certainly run up against major difficulties. The history of warfare throughout the ages confirms this iron rule, as Americans have had occasion to note in recent decades (from Eisenhower’s not traversing Europe fast enough to fend off the Soviet advance in World War II to Norman Schwarzkopf’s not eliminating Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard in Operation Desert Storm). Nor are generals the only ones who need to know whom they are fighting and what they are fighting for; so do others in government, so do foreign friends and enemies alike, and so, of course, do the American people.
Who, then, is the enemy? The message of September 11 was loud and clear, allowing for no ambiguity: the enemy is militant Islam. No wonder, then, that even before knowing who exactly was responsible, the government has been reluctant to say so. In addition to the considerations I have already enumerated, there was the precedent of recent history to deter it.
In February 1995, at the peak of the horrific violence in Algeria that pitted armed and brutal Islamist groups against a repressive government, NATO Secretary General Willy Claes declared that, since the end of the cold war, “Islamic militancy has emerged as perhaps the single gravest threat to the NATO alliance and to Western security.” Indeed, Claes said, not only did militant Islam pose the same kind of threat to the West as Communism before it, but the scale of the danger was greater, for militant Islam encompassed elements of “terrorism, religious fanaticism, and the exploitation of social and economic injustice.”
Claes was absolutely correct. But his statements met with outrage from all over the Muslim world, and he was quickly forced to retract and to withdraw. “Religious fundamentalism,” he explained lamely, “whether Islamic or of other varieties, is not a concern for NATO.”
In the wake of September 11, it may be somewhat easier to say what Claes was not allowed to say then; but only somewhat, and not for anyone in a position of authority. Certain it is that no one wants to have to retrace Claes’s red-faced retreat. And yet, awkward as it may be to say, there is no getting around the fact.
At least since 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran with the war-cry, “Death to America,” militant Islam, also known as Islamism, has been the self-declared enemy of the United States. It has now become enemy number one. Whether it is the terrorist organizations and individuals Washington is targeting, the immigrants it is questioning, or the states it is holding under suspicion, virtually all are Islamist or connected with Islamists. Washington may not speak its mind, but its actions express its real views.
I want to be clear. To define militant Islam as the country’s most worrisome, long-term opponent is hardly to deny the existence of other opponents. There is no single danger as terrifying as Saddam Hussein with nuclear weapons. Nor is there any dearth of other non-Islamist adversaries around the globe, whether within the Muslim orbit (Syria, Libya, the PA) or outside it (North Korea, Cuba, etc.). But these adversaries lack several features that make militant Islam so threatening—its ideological fervency, its reach, its ambitiousness, and its staying power. However great the Iraqi threat, it is limited to the military dimension, to one odious dictator and his circle, and to raw intimidation. Although the constituency of militant Islam is limited to Muslims, this constituency represents, after all, about a sixth of the human race, enjoys a very high birth rate, and is found in nearly every part of the world.
At a moment when the European-derived extremes of the Communist Left and fascist Right are tired and on the whole ineffectual, militant Islam has proved itself to be the only truly vital totalitarian movement in the world today. As one after another of its leaders has made clear, it regards itself as the only rival, and the inevitable successor, to Western civilization. Although a number of (wrong-headed) Western observers have declared it to be a dying creed,2 it is likely to remain a force to contend with for years if not for long decades to come.
Let me try to specify with greater exactness the constituency for militant Islam. It is divisible into three main elements.
The first is the inner core, made up of the likes of Osama bin Laden, the nineteen hijackers, al Qaeda, leaders of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and the rest of the network of violent groups inspired by militant Islamic ideology. Such groups have mostly come into existence since 1970, becoming since then a more and more important force in the Muslim world. The network, dubbed the “Islamintern” by some Muslim critics, contains both Shiite and Sunni variants, appeals to rich and poor alike, and is active in such far-flung locations as Afghanistan, Algeria, and Argentina. In 1983 some of its members initiated a campaign of violence against the United States whose greatest triumph so far was the spectacular operation on September 11. In all, the network’s adherents are as few as they are fanatical, numbering perhaps in the thousands.
The second ring comprises a much larger population of militants who are sympathetic to al Qaeda’s radical Utopian vision without themselves being a part of it. Their views were on display daily as soon as hostilities began in Afghanistan: protesters and mujahideen by the tens of thousands, all expressing a determined loathing of the United States and an enthusiasm for further acts of violence. Countries not normally heard from, and hardly hotbeds of radicalism, came to life to protest the U.S. campaign.
The chants of these Islamists across the world bore a certain family resemblance:
Indonesia: “U.S., Go to Hell!”
Malaysia: “Go To Hell America” and “Destroy
Bangladesh: “Death to America” and “Osama
is our hero.”
India: “Death to America. Death to Israel. Taliban,
Taliban, we salute you.”
Sri Lanka: “Bin Laden we are with you.”
Oman: “America is the enemy of God.”
Yemen: “America is a great Satan.”
Egypt: “U.S. go to hell, Afghans will prevail.”
Sudan: “Down, down USA!”
Bosnia: “Long live bin Laden.”
United Kingdom: “Tony Blair burn in hell.”
As best I can estimate from election data, survey research, anecdotal evidence, and the opinions of informed observers, this Islamist element constitutes some 10 to 15 percent of the total Muslim world population of roughly one billion—that is, some 100 to 150 million persons worldwide.
The third ring consists of Muslims who do not accept the militant Islamic program in all its particulars but do concur with its rank anti-Americanism. This sentiment is found at almost every point along the political spectrum. A secular fascist like Saddam Hussein shares a hatred of the United States with the far leftists of the PKK Kurdish group, who in turn share it with an eccentric figure like Muammar Qaddafi. Reliable statistics on opinion in the Muslim world do not exist, but my sense is that one half of the world’s Muslims—or some 500 million persons—sympathize more with Osama bin Laden and the Taliban than with the United States. That such a vast multitude hates the United States is sobering indeed.
That is not to say, of course, that anti-Americanism is universal among Muslims, for important bastions of pro-American sentiment do exist. These include the officer corps of the Turkish military, who are the final arbiters of their country’s destiny; several leaders of Muslim-majority states in the former Soviet Union; the emerging dissident element in the Islamic Republic of Iran; and, more generally, those Muslims who have experienced at first hand the dominion of militant Islam.
But these constitute a minority. Elsewhere, and everywhere, anti-Americanism rears its head: among the sheltered females of the Saudi elite and the male denizens of Cairo’s vast slums, among the aged in remote reaches of Pakistan, and among the students at a Muslim school in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Nor is hostility always limited to feelings. Since Vietnam, and even before September 11, more Americans died at the hands of Muslim radicals than from any other enemy.
The situation, then, is grim. But it is not hopeless, any more than the situation at the height of the cold war with the Soviet Union was hopeless. What is required, now as then, is not just precision and honesty in defining the enemy but conceptual clarity in confronting it. And perhaps the first step toward that end is to understand that, paradoxical as it may seem in the light of the statistics I have presented above, Americans are not involved in a battle royal between Islam and the West, or what has been called a “clash of civilizations.”
This famous term was first given wide currency by the political scientist Samuel Huntington. It has been seconded, in his own diabolical way, by Osama bin Laden. The idea exercises an undoubted appeal, but it happens not to be accurate. True, many Islamist elements do seek such a confrontation, out of a conviction that Islam will prevail and go on to achieve global supremacy. But several facts militate against so sweeping a view of the objective situation.
For one thing, violence against Americans—and against Israelis, Westerners, and non-Muslims in general—is just part of the story; Islamist enmity toward Muslims who do not share the Islamist outlook is no less vicious. Did not the Taliban reign in Afghanistan make this clear? Their multiple atrocities and gratuitous acts of cruelty toward their fellow Muslims suggested an attitude that bordered on the genocidal; what it felt like to be liberated from that repressive cruelty was well captured in a New York Times report from a town in Afghanistan on November 13:
In the twelve hours since the Taliban soldiers left this town, a joyous mood has spread. The people of Taliqan, who lived for two years under the Taliban’s oppressive Islamic rule, burst onto the streets to toss off the restrictions that had burrowed into the most intimate aspects of their lives. Men tossed their turbans into the gutters. Families dug up their long-hidden television sets. Restaurants blared music. Cigarettes flared, and young men talked of growing their hair long.
Nor are the Taliban an exception: militant Islam has brutalized Muslims wherever it has achieved power, and wherever it has striven for power. I have already mentioned Algeria, a country that, thanks to a decade of barbarity by Islamists, and with something like 100,000 fatalities and counting, has become a byword for violence against fellow believers. But comparable if smaller-scale orgies of killing have taken place in Egypt, Lebanon, and Turkey. And what can one say of Islamist Iran’s war on non-Islamist Iraq after 1982, with its hundreds of thousands of Muslim dead? Militant Islam is an aggressive totalitarian ideology that ultimately discriminates barely if at all among those who stand in its path.
Another reason to question the notion of a clash of civilizations is that it inevitably leads one to ignore important and possibly crucial distinctions within civilizations. Such distinctions emerged with particular poignancy in 1989, when a significant minority of Muslims around the world denounced the death edict issued by Ayatollah Khomeini against the novelist Salman Rushdie—in Iran itself, 127 intellectuals signed a protest against the Khomeini edict—even as more than a few prominent Westerners, secular and religious alike, were apologizing for it or finding some way to “understand” it. (In one typical statement, the president of the French bishops’ conference explained that The Satanic Verses was an “insult to religion,” as though this in some way accounted adequately for the threat on Rushdie’s life.)
Or take an example nearer to home and closer in time. After September 11, polls in Catholic Italy found a quarter of Italians holding the view that Americans had gotten what they deserved. Even some Americans sided with the attackers, or at least with their choice of target: “Anyone who can blow up the Pentagon has my vote,” announced a professor of history at the University of New Mexico. Does that make these people part of the Muslim world? And what about the tens and hundreds of millions of Muslims who were horrified by the suicide hijackings? Are they not part of the Muslim world?
This brings us to a large and closely related issue—namely, whether the problem is Islam itself. Like all great religions, Islam is susceptible of a number of interpretations, from the mystical to the militant, from the quietist to the revolutionary. Over a millennium and a half, its most basic ideas have been subjected to highly contrasting explications. That having been said, Islam also differs from other religions in that it includes a large body of regulations about public life that are quite at variance with modern sensibilities and that have not yet been left behind. In short, the hard work of adjusting Islam to the contemporary world has yet really to begin—a fact that itself goes far to explain the attraction of militant Islamic ideology.
That ideology is not an entirely new phenomenon. Its roots go back in some form to the Wahhabi movement of the 18th century, to the writings of Ibn Taymiya in the 13th century, even to the Kharijites of the 7th century. But, as befits a modern-style ideology, today’s version covers more aspects of life (including, for example, the economic dimension) than any premodern iteration. It has also enjoyed much greater political success. A radicalized understanding of Islam has taken hold, possibly over a wider swath than at any other time in the fourteen centuries of Muslim history, and it has driven out or silenced every serious rival.
This radicalism is today’s enraged answer to the question that has bedeviled Muslims for 200 years, as the power and wealth that once blessed the world of Islam dribbled away over the five centuries before 1800 and other peoples and nations surged ahead. What went wrong? If Islam brings God’s grace, as was widely assumed, why do Muslims fare so poorly? Muslims turned to a number of extremist ideologies in the modern period—from fascism and Leninism to pan-Arabism and pan-Syrianism—all in an attempt to answer that question by almost any means other than introspection, moderation, and self-help. Militant Islam has turned out to be the most popular, the most deluded, and the most disastrous of these ideologies.
But the unprecedented nature of its dominance, ironically, offers hope. However ascendant the militant interpretation may be at present, it need not be so in the future. The terroristic jihad against the West is one reading of Islam, but it is not the eternal essence of Islam. Forty years ago, at the height of the Soviet Union’s prestige, and during the heyday of pan-Arab nationalism, militant Islam had scarcely any political influence. What then happened to bring it to the fore is itself a fascinating question, but the point for our purposes is that, just as militant Islam was not a powerful force a scant four decades ago, it is perfectly reasonable to expect that it may not be a powerful force four decades hence.
By contrast, if today’s extremism were truly inextricable from Islam, then there would be no solution but to try to quarantine or convert one sixth of humanity. To say the least, neither of those is a realistic prospect.
If the earth-shaking clash of our time is not between two civilizations, it is and must be a clash among the members of one civilization—specifically, between Islamists and those who, for want of a better term, we may call moderate Muslims (understanding that “moderate” does not mean liberal or democratic but only anti-Islamist). Just as the deviant Western ideologies of fascism and Communism challenged and shook and had to be expelled from the West, so it is with militant Islam and the Muslim world. The battle for the soul of Islam will undoubtedly last many years and take many lives, and is likely to be the greatest ideological battle of the post-cold-war era.
Where, then, does that leave us? The United States, an overwhelmingly non-Muslim country, obviously cannot fix the problems of the Muslim world. It can neither solve the trauma of modern Islam nor do a great deal even to reduce the anti-Americanism that is rife among Muslims. As the internal battle unfolds, non-Muslims will mostly find themselves in the role of outsiders.
But outsiders, and the United States in particular, can critically help in precipitating the battle and in influencing its outcome. They can do so both by weakening the militant side and by helping the moderate one. The process has in fact already begun in the so-called war on terrorism, and in miniature the results have been dramatically on display in Afghanistan. So long as Washington stayed aloof, the Taliban held sway in that country and the Northern Alliance appeared to be, and was, a hapless force. Once the U.S. military became involved, the Taliban crumbled and the Northern Alliance swept through the country in a few weeks. On the larger front the task is the same: weaken Islamists where they are in power, deter their expansion, and encourage and support moderate elements.
Weakening militant Islam will require an imaginative and assertive policy, one tailored to the needs of each country. Already the impress of American power has been felt in a number of places, from Afghanistan, where it toppled a government, to the Philippines, where $93 million in military and security aid, plus a contingent of advisers, is helping the government defeat a militant Islamic insurgency. In Pakistan, the FBI is training immigration officers to detect suspected terrorists infiltrating from Afghanistan. The anarchic areas of Somalia may be next on the list.
In some cases, change can be effected dramatically and swiftly; in others, the evolution will be long and slow. In Pakistan the state must be forced to take control of the notorious madrasas (religious schools) that inculcate extremism and advocate violence. In Iran and Sudan, a far more vigorous and multi-pronged effort will be required to end the rule of militant Islam. In Qatar, the home of al-Jazeera television, Osama bin Laden’s mouthpiece, pressure has to be put on the government to promote the teachings of a moderate sheikh rather than those of the entrenched and vastly influential extremist Yusuf al-Qaradawi (“On the hour of judgment, Muslims will fight the Jews and kill them”).
Saudi Arabia is a special case, being the home of Osama bin Laden himself and fifteen of the nineteen suicide hijackers, the seedbed of the ideas that stand at the heart of the Taliban, and the source of much of the funding of Islamist networks around the world. Although Saudi authorities have managed a working relationship with the West for decades, they have also permitted the kingdom’s public discourse to be taken over by militant Islam. It must be urgently expunged from a school system in which, for example, 10th-grade textbooks warn students that “It is compulsory for the Muslims to be loyal to each other and to consider the infidels their enemy,” and from the media, not to speak of other areas of public life.
On other fronts, money centers around the world, from the United Arab Emirates to Hong Kong, will have to be forced to crack down on the laundering of funds via “Islamic charities” to al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. French President Jacques Chirac has acknowledged that “Europe has been a haven” for Islamic extremists; the problem has to be taken seriously, and acted upon.
The war against militant Islam has domestic implications as well, for the danger within is no less ominous than the danger abroad. The goal is to prevent harm being done by radical anti-Westerners among us, and the means must include expelling, jailing, or otherwise restraining them. This implies an active revision of immigration laws and in particular an end to the innocent assumption that all who intend to visit or immigrate to the United States wish the country well. It means adding an ideological filter to the admissions procedure and, in the President’s words, “asking a lot of questions that heretofore have not been asked.”
It means enhanced border patrols; cracking down on Islamic “charitable” foundations that funnel money to militant Islamic groups; military tribunals where needed; restrictions on lawyer-client privilege in certain cases; and, when appropriate, the serious use of “profiling” to uncover sleepers and other terrorists. Most obviously, it means that the President must stop meeting with and legitimizing militant Islamic leaders as he has done repeatedly both before and after September 11.3
But let us not delude ourselves. If the United States has over 100 million Islamist enemies (not to speak of an even larger number of Muslims who wish us ill on assorted other grounds), they cannot all be incapacitated. Instead, the goal must be to deter and contain them. Militant Islam is too popular and widespread to be destroyed militarily. It can only be fended off.
To adopt the phrasing of George Kennan in “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” his famous 1947 article about the threat of Soviet Communism, the “main element of any United States policy toward [militant Islam] must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of [its] expansive tendencies.” The goal must be to convince its adherents that the use of force against Americans is at best ineffectual and at worst counterproductive—that Algerians and Malaysians are entitled to their anti-American views, but they may not act on them by harming Americans. The only way to achieve this goal is by scaring them. And that requires toughness and determination—and perseverance—of a sort that Americans have not mustered for a long time. It will also require allies.
That is where the moderate Muslims come in. If roughly half the population across the Muslim world hates America, the other half does not. Unfortunately, they are disarmed, in disarray, and nearly voiceless. But the United States does not need them for their power. It needs them for their ideas and for the legitimacy they confer, and in these respects their strengths exactly complement Washington’s.
The U.S. government lacks any religious authority to speak about Islam, though it does not seem to realize this. Here is Osama bin Laden claiming that the world divides into good Muslims and evil non-Muslims, then calling for a jihad against the West; how can a secular Western government possibly respond? Assuredly not directly—although the administration has ineffectively tried to do just that.
Thus, on November 3, Christopher Ross, a former U.S. ambassador, spoke on behalf of the U.S. government in Arabic for fifteen minutes on al-Jazeera television. His task? Nothing less than to rebut Osama bin Laden’s accusations that America is the enemy of Islam. Ross also went on the offensive, telling his audience that the “perpetrators of these crimes have no regard for human life, even among Muslims,” and that bin Laden was the real enemy of Islam.
Ross’s appearance on al-Jazeera was just one of the many gambits developed by Charlotte Beers, the Under Secretary of State charged with getting America’s message out to the Muslim world. Beers, formerly the head of J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather and nicknamed the “queen of branding,” is partly responsible for opening the Coalition Information Center (CIC), a public-relations “war room.” With two dozen staffers, it offers daily and weekly talking points for journalists and has developed a campaign to convince Muslims of the benign American attitude toward them and their faith. It made sure that more humanitarian supplies were dropped in Afghanistan as the holy month of Ramadan began, sent a “catalog of [Taliban] lies” to Pakistani newspapers, and arranged for journalists from Muslim-majority countries to meet with U.S. policymakers. It is also using popular culture to shift perceptions in the Muslim world, by, according to Variety, encouraging dialogue between young American and young Middle Eastern viewers of the music video channel MTV.
With regard to Islam itself, CIC aims, in Beers’s words, to make it “hard to miss” that Americans recognize and respect the religion. This means having public officials talk about the compatibility of American and Islamic values, sending out tapes of a Muslim imam delivering the invocation to Congress, and printing posters depicting “Mosques of America.” Of particular note was the President’s invitation to 50 Muslim ambassadors to break the Ramadan fast in the White House, with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and U.S. ambassadors around the world following suit. A senior State Department official explained the implausible goal of all this as demonstrating to the Muslim world that “Americans take [Islamic] holidays as seriously as they do Christian and Jewish holidays.” Plans for the future are far more ambitious, centering around a Middle East Radio Network that is scheduled to start transmission in February with a plan to broadcast in 26 languages and an orientation toward Muslim youth.
Will these programs have the intended effect? Not likely. Put aside the more absurdist aspects—using MTV to build civilizational bridges, establishing that Eid ul-Fitr is as precious to Americans as Christmas. Even the Christopher Ross episode bombed: “His performance was terrible. . . . He was like a robot who speaks Arabic,” commented one Arab critic. More profoundly, although the goal of CIC is a worthwhile one—this is, after all, a war of ideas—the premises of its campaign are deeply flawed. Someone other than Madison Avenue types, and other than Americans, will be needed to conceptualize and deliver the anti-bin Laden message, someone with the necessary Islamic credentials and deep understanding of the culture. That someone is the moderate Muslim, the Muslim who hates the prospect of living under the reign of militant Islam and can envisage something better.
When it comes to Islam, the U.S. role is less to offer its own views than to help those Muslims with compatible views, especially on such issues as relations with non-Muslims, modernization, and the rights of women and minorities. This means helping moderates get their ideas out on U.S.-funded radio stations like the newly-created Radio Free Afghanistan and, as Paula Dobriansky, the Undersecretary of State for global affairs, has suggested, making sure that tolerant Islamic figures—scholars, imams, and others—are included in U.S.-funded academic- and cultural-exchange programs.
Anti-Islamists today are weak, divided, intimidated, and generally ineffectual. Indeed, the prospects for Muslim revitalization have rarely looked dimmer than at this moment of radicalism, jihad, extremist rhetoric, conspiratorial thinking, and the cult of death. But moderates do exist, and they have much to offer the United States in its own battle against militant Islam, not least their intimate knowledge of the phenomenon and of its potential weaknesses. In addition, the legitimacy they bring to any campaign against militant Islam, simply by rendering the charge of “Islamophobia” unsustainable, is invaluable.
In Afghanistan, the United States first crushed the Taliban regime, then turned the country over to the more moderate Northern Alliance; it is up to the Alliance to make something of the opportunity the U.S. created. The same holds with Islam writ large. Washington can go only so far. Whether its military victories turn into political ones depends ultimately on Muslims. The fight against militant Islam will be won if America has the will and persistence to see it through, and the wit to understand that its message must be carried in the end by other hands than its own.
1 Robert Kagan, “On to Phase II,” Washington Post, November 27, 2001.
2 See my review of The Failure of Political Islam by Oliver Roy in COMMENTARY, June 1995.
3 See my “The Danger Within: Militant Islam in America” in the November 2001 COMMENTARY.
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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.
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Review of 'Stanley Kubrick' By Nathan Abrams
Except for Stanley Donen, every director I have worked with has been prone to the idea, first propounded in the 1950s by François Truffaut and his tendentious chums in Cahiers du Cinéma, that directors alone are authors, screenwriters merely contingent. In singular cases—Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Woody Allen, Kubrick himself—the claim can be valid, though all of them had recourse, regular or occasional, to helping hands to spice their confections.
Kubrick’s variety of topics, themes, and periods testifies both to his curiosity and to his determination to “make it new.” Because his grades were not high enough (except in physics), this son of a Bronx doctor could not get into colleges crammed with returning GIs. The nearest he came to higher education was when he slipped into accessible lectures at Columbia. He told me, when discussing the possibility of a movie about Julius Caesar, that the great classicist Moses Hadas made a particularly strong impression.
While others were studying for degrees, solitary Stanley was out shooting photographs (sometimes with a hidden camera) for Look magazine. As a movie director, he often insisted on take after take. This gave him choices of the kind available on the still photographer’s contact sheets. Only Peter Sellers and Jack Nicholson had the nerve, and irreplaceable talent, to tell him, ahead of shooting, that they could not do a particular scene more than two or three times. The energy to electrify “Mein Führer, I can walk” and “Here’s Johnny!” could not recur indefinitely. For everyone else, “Can you do it again?” was the exhausting demand, and it could come close to being sadistic.
The same method could be applied to writers. Kubrick might recognize what he wanted when it was served up to him, but he could never articulate, ahead of time, even roughly what it was. Picking and choosing was very much his style. Cogitation and opportunism went together: The story goes that he attached Strauss’s Blue Danube to the opening sequence of 2001 because it happened to be playing in the sound studio when he came to dub the music. Genius puts chance to work.
Until academics intruded lofty criteria into cinema/film, the better to dignify their speciality, Alfred Hitchcock’s attitude covered most cases: When Ingrid Bergman asked for her motivation in walking to the window, Hitch replied, fatly, “Your salary.” On another occasion, told that some scene was not plausible, Hitch said, “It’s only a movie.” He did not take himself seriously until the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd elected to make him iconic. At dinner, I once asked Marcello Mastroianni why he was so willing to play losers or clowns. Marcello said, “Beh, cinema non e gran’ cosa” (cinema is no big deal). Orson Welles called movie-making the ultimate model-train set.
That was then; now we have “film studies.” After they moved in, academics were determined that their subject be a very big deal indeed. Comedy became no laughing matter. In his monotonous new book, the film scholar Nathan Abrams would have it that Stanley Kubrick was, in essence, a “New York Jewish intellectual.” Abrams affects to unlock what Stanley was “really” dealing with, in all his movies, never mind their apparent diversity. It is declared to be, yes, Yiddishkeit, and in particular, the Holocaust. This ground has been tilled before by Geoffrey Cocks, when he argued that the room numbers in the empty Overlook Hotel in The Shining encrypted references to the Final Solution. Abrams would have it that even Barry Lyndon is really all about the outsider seeking, and failing, to make his awkward way in (Gentile) Society. On this reading, Ryan O’Neal is seen as Hannah Arendt’s pariah in 18th-century drag. The movie’s other characters are all engaged in the enjoyment of “goyim-naches,” an expression—like menschlichkayit—he repeats ad nauseam, lest we fail to get the stretched point.
Theory is all when it comes to the apotheosis of our Jew-ridden Übermensch. So what if, in order to make a topic his own, Kubrick found it useful to translate its logic into terms familiar to him from his New York youth? In Abrams’s scheme, other mundane biographical facts count for little. No mention is made of Stanley’s displeasure when his 14-year-old daughter took a fancy to O’Neal. The latter was punished, some sources say, by having Barry’s voiceover converted from first person so that Michael Hordern would displace the star as narrator. By lending dispassionate irony to the narrative, it proved a pettish fluke of genius.
While conning Abrams’s volume, I discovered, not greatly to my chagrin, that I am the sole villain of the piece. Abrams calls me “self-serving” and “unreliable” in my accounts of my working and personal relationship with Stanley. He insinuates that I had less to do with Eyes Wide Shut than I pretend and that Stanley regretted my involvement. It is hard for him to deny (but convenient to omit) that, after trying for some 30 years to get a succession of writers to “crack” how to do Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, Kubrick greeted my first draft with “I’m absolutely thrilled.” A source whose anonymity I respect told me that he had never seen Stanley so happy since the day he received his first royalty check (for $5 million) for 2001. No matter.
Were Abrams (the author also of a book as hostile to Commentary as this one is to me) able to put aside his waxed wrath, he might have quoted what I reported in my memoir Eyes Wide Open to support his Jewish-intellectual thesis. One day, Stanley asked me what a couple of hospital doctors, walking away with their backs to the camera, would be talking about. We were never going to hear or care what it was, but Stanley—at that early stage of development—said he wanted to know everything. I said, “Women, golf, the stock market, you know…”
“Couple of Gentiles, right?”
“That’s what you said you wanted them to be.”
“Those people, how do we ever know what they’re talking about when they’re alone together?”
“Come on, Stanley, haven’t you overheard them in trains and planes and places?”
Kubrick said, “Sure, but…they always know you’re there.”
If he was even halfway serious, Abrams’s banal thesis that, despite decades of living in England, Stanley never escaped the Old Country, might have been given some ballast.
Now, as for Stanley Kubrick’s being an “intellectual.” If this implies membership in some literary or quasi-philosophical elite, there’s a Jewish joke to dispense with it. It’s the one about the man who makes a fortune, buys himself a fancy yacht, and invites his mother to come and see it. He greets her on the gangway in full nautical rig. She says, “What’s with the gold braid already?”
“Mama, you have to realize, I’m a captain now.”
She says, “By you, you’re a captain, by me, you’re a captain, but by a captain, are you a captain?”
As New York intellectuals all used to know, Karl Popper’s definition of bad science, and bad faith, involves positing a theory and then selecting only whatever data help to furnish its validity. The honest scholar makes it a matter of principle to seek out elements that might render his thesis questionable.
Abrams seeks to enroll Lolita in his obsessive Jewish-intellectual scheme by referring to Peter Arno, a New Yorker cartoonist whom Kubrick photographed in 1949. The caption attached to Kubrick’s photograph in Look asserted that Arno liked to date “fresh, unspoiled girls,” and Abrams says this “hint[s] at Humbert Humbert in Lolita.” Ah, but Lolita was published, in Paris, in 1955, six years later. And how likely is it, in any case, that Kubrick wrote the caption?
The film of Lolita is unusual for its garrulity. Abrams’s insistence on the sinister Semitic aspect of both Clare Quilty and Humbert Humbert supposedly drawing Kubrick like moth to flame is a ridiculous camouflage of the commercial opportunism that led Stanley to seek to film the most notorious novel of the day, while fudging its scandalous eroticism.
That said, in my view, The Killing, Paths of Glory, Barry Lyndon, and Clockwork Orange were and are sans pareil. The great French poet Paul Valéry wrote of “the profundity of the surface” of a work of art. Add D.H. Lawrence’s “never trust the teller, trust the tale,” and you have two authoritative reasons for looking at or reading original works of art yourself and not relying on academic exegetes—especially when they write in the solemn, sometimes ungrammatical style of Professor Abrams, who takes time out to tell those of us at the back of his class that padre “is derived from the Latin pater.”
Abrams writes that I “claim” that I was told to exclude all overt reference to Jews in my Eyes Wide Shut screenplay, with the fatuous implication that I am lying. I am again accused of “claiming” to have given the name Ziegler to the character played by Sidney Pollack, because I once had a (quite famous) Hollywood agent called Evarts Ziegler. So I did. The principal reason for Abrams to doubt my veracity is that my having chosen the name renders irrelevant his subsequent fanciful digression on the deep, deep meanings of the name Ziegler in Jewish lore; hence he wishes to assign the naming to Kubrick. Pop goes another wished-for proof of Stanley’s deep and scholarly obsession with Yiddishkeit.
Abrams would be a more formidable enemy if he could turn a single witty phrase or even abstain from what Karl Kraus called mauscheln, the giveaway jargon of Jewish journalists straining to pass for sophisticates at home in Gentile circles. If you choose, you can apply, on line, for screenwriting lessons from Nathan Abrams, who does not have a single cinematic credit to his name. It would be cheaper, and wiser, to look again, and then again, at Kubrick’s masterpieces.