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Monthly Archives: September 2011

Totalitarian Temptations from Carter to Obama

September 28th, 2011 - 1:28 pm

I keep having flashbacks to Jimmy Carter.  The Cairo speech was in many ways a throwback to Carter’s famous “we are now free of that inordinate fear of communism” pronunciamento at Notre Dame. Those old enough, will recall that President Carter in essence said the Soviet Union and international Communism were really nothing to worry about, that the Cold War was over, and that we would henceforth conduct a suitably modest foreign policy instead of the strident, aggressive, morally improper kind that his predecessors had waged. We would support human rights everywhere, but not in such a way as to threaten hostile tyrants.

Thereafter, throughout what used to be known as the Third World, Carter not only abandoned several friendly tyrants (the most famous was the shah of Iran) to insurrections organized by our enemies, but piously acted as if we couldn’t do anything about it anyway, nor should we wish to do so.  After all, we had sinned by supporting those tyrants, and it was only right for them to be overthrown.

In like manner, in today’s Third World, Obama has shown great sympathy for anti-American “revolutionaries,” and abandoned friendly tyrannies such as Mubarak’s Egypt and ben Ali’s Tunisia.  And just as Carter was reluctant to challenge Communist control in the Soviet bloc, Cuba, and Nicaragua, so Obama has been reluctant to support the domestic opponents of Islamist regimes in Damascus and Tehran.  One of the best short summaries of the dangerous foolishness of our current foreign policy goes like this:

Inconsistencies are a familiar part of politics in most societies. Usually, however, governments behave hypocritically when their principles conflict with the national interest. What makes the inconsistencies of the Obama administration noteworthy are, first, the administration’s moralism, which renders it especially vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy; and, second, the administration’s predilection for policies that violate the strategic and economic interests of the United States. The administration’s conception of national interest borders on doublethink: it finds friendly powers to be guilty representatives of the status quo and views the triumph of unfriendly groups as beneficial to America’s “true interests.”

I made one change in the original text.  I inserted “Obama” in place of “Carter.”  The paragraph comes from Jeane Kirkpatrick’s essay, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” which appeared in Commentary magazine in November, 1979.

Kirkpatrick’s critique of Carter is presciently appropriate for Obama.  Like Carter, President Obama is very vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy (if it was right to intervene in Libya, why not in Syria and Iran, two regimes that kill Americans in addition to slaughtering their own?), and there is an additional convergence:  both have instinctive sympathy, even enthusiasm, for self-proclaimed anti-American “revolutionaries.”  Here’s Kirkpatrick again:

…a posture of continuous self-abasement and apology vis-a-vis the Third World is neither morally necessary nor politically appropriate. No more is it necessary or appropriate to support vocal enemies of the United States because they invoke the rhetoric of popular liberation…Liberal idealism need not be identical with masochism, and need not be incompatible with the defense of freedom and the national interest.

Indeed, if you’re really interested in advancing freedom (which those of my ilk believe is of a piece with the American national interest), you should fight against our vocal enemies.  They invariably turn out to be real enemies once they’ve consolidated power.  Barack Obama, say hello to Hugo Chavez.  Try getting along with Ali Khamenei or Bashar Assad.  We told you it wouldn’t work.

But both, to repeat, had a curious sympathy with our enemies.  Carter told the dictator of Poland that he had not given up on bringing the Communist “back to Christianity,” and Obama bows deeply to the Saudi king and has striven mightily to make a deal with the Iranians.

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The Shuttered White House and Its Fantasies

September 21st, 2011 - 3:11 pm

I know exactly what is going on inside the Obama White House; the outside world has been banned and only the true believers are welcome.

This has very little to do with the many unique features of this administration. It is typical of any administration under siege, and it is as understandable and inevitable as it is unfortunate and even dangerous.  I know it well, having seen it with my own eyes during the Iran-Contra siege of the Reagan White House 25 years ago, when the president’s men and women concentrated all their energies and all their passions on “saving” the president from what many of them believed was the return of Watergate. I don’t know if the Obama faithful have an historical template for the current crisis, but their behavior, like Obama’s, is altogether familiar. The White House is hermetically sealed to reality and the president simply repeats his mantras and tries to look unconcerned, even confident and feisty.

That there is little room for reality at the highest levels of the administration is all too obvious. The president’s public statements are repeatedly off key, responding to imaginary events rather than real ones, and sometimes totally dissonant, as when he gave a speech about jobs at a company that was closing down, or in his increasingly odd and incoherent efforts in foreign policy. For example, consider these amazing lines from a story by Helene Cooper in the New York Times, concerning administration planning for Syria after the now-anticipated fall of Bashar Assad:

…the Obama administration has begun to make plans for American policy in the region after he exits.

In coordination with Turkey, the United States has been exploring how to deal with the possibility of a civil war among Syria’s Alawite, Druse, Christian and Sunni sects, a conflict that could quickly ignite other tensions in an already volatile region.

As Ms. Cooper explains, these explorations are driven by a desire to avoid repetition of the Bush administration’s errors in Iraq, where the United States did not adequately prepare for what came after the successful invasion of the country. A laudable goal, although the description of what happened in Iraq is typically misguided (there was no civil war; Syria and Iran supported a guerrilla war against the allied coalition), and the list of potential fighters in Syria surprisingly omits the Kurds, arguably the most important of all because they are a major factor in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. But it is the four words “in coordination with Turkey” that demonstrate the extent to which wishful thinking has trumped reality in the Obama White House, for the Turks are hardly ideal allies in the Middle East these days — they are seeking to establish their own hegemony — and as long as he is in that dangerous frame of mind, Erdogan is a totally unsuitable partner.  Listen to our own Barry Rubin sum it up:

Turkey’s Islamist regime subverted and then opposed sanctions against Iran. That regime also declared Iran and Syria, Hamas and Hizballah to be its friends. It also sponsored a terrorist group (the IHH) to provoke Israel into an international incident that would generate Islamist martyrs and dead Israeli soldiers. Now, rejecting Israeli conciliation attempts (regrets; donations to families of jihadists who got killed trying to kill Israelis), the Turkish regime escalated to the verge of war.

Worse yet, Obama isn’t actively trying to help the victims of the mass murder in Syria, let alone bring down Assad, despite his proclamation that  “Assad must go.”  He is simply reading tea leaves, trying to avoid looking like an imperialist, and hoping to be able to take credit if anything good should happen.

But what if nothing good does happen?  What if Assad wins?  Ms. Cooper knows it’s possible, but the folks talking to her have a strange way of discussing it:

To be sure, Mr. Assad may yet prove as immovable as his father, Hafez al-Assad, was before him. Many foreign policy analysts say that the longer Mr. Assad remains in power, the more violent the country will become. And that violence, they say, could unintentionally serve Mr. Assad’s interests by allowing him to use it to justify a continuing crackdown.

As if there weren’t already a “continuing crackdown”?  As if Assad weren’t already ordering the slaughter of his citizens — sometimes randomly, as when his artillery lobs shells into cities full of protesters?  His violence is quite intentional, and he doesn’t “use it” to justify the slaughter.  It’s what he does, as his father before him.

Let’s put it in simple English:  Assad is slaughtering the Syrians who are challenging him.  The longer he stays, the more he slaughters.  And he may win.  Then what?  There’s no answer to this obvious question, because the White House is planning its moves after the happy moment when Assad falls and Obama takes credit for it and Erdogan calls the White House to get his orders.

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Naples: the Miracle of San Gennaro

September 19th, 2011 - 7:03 pm

Monday was San Gennaro Day in Naples, honoring the city’s patron saint.  The linked article is quite good, but there is a lot more you need to know, both about the saint himself, and about Naples.  I’ve just published a blessedly short book about Naples, and San Gennaro makes multiple appearances.  He’s an unusual sort of saint, like many of his Neapolitan cohorts.  His miracle, which takes place (or sometimes doesn’t, an omen of impending doom) three times a year, is typical of Neapolitan miracles.  His congealed blood liquefies and bubbles, in front of an assembly of the faithful who call upon him to get on with it so they can get on with their affairs.  If he dawdles, they shout, and sometimes even curse, until the deed is done.  Or not.

San Gennaro is one of several Neapolitan saints whose blood flows on certain days of the year.  Indeed, this sort of miracle is so common that you can buy a book called “Bloody City,” which tells you all about whose blood is liquefying on which day.  I’ve given some of the details in Virgil’s Golden Egg, and tried to explain the significance of the phenomenon.

The Vatican has mixed feelings about San Gennaro, and a few years back he was demoted in the saintly hierarchy.  The locals couldn’t care less.  “Don’t worry about it, San Gennaro,” they sprayed on the walls of the cathedral.  They remained faithful.  They had learned from an earlier abandonment that San Gennaro deserved their loyalty.

When French troops took Naples at the end of the eighteenth century, the Napoleonic general went to the archbishop and asked him to celebrate the miracle, thereby implicitly blessing the French conquest.  The faithful were not enthusiastic about this blackmail, especially because the battle for Naples had been very fierce and bloody.  Nonetheless, the audience gathered, the archbishop prayed…and nothing happened.  After a few hours, General Championnet gave the archbishop an ultimatum:  either the blood liquefied within ten minutes, or the archbishop would become a martyr and join San Gennaro in paradise.  A few minutes later, the miracle took place.

The Neapolitans were enraged, and they carried the silver bust of San Gennaro from the cathedral, down Via Duomo to the port, and dumped him in the bay.  A few days later they adopted San Antonio as their new patron.  But after some years, the great volcano Vesuvius erupted, and the lava flowed toward the city.  San Antonio was asked to save Naples, but the lava flowed onward.  In desperation, San Gennaro was fished out of the bay, and brought face to face with the molten lava, which promptly stopped.   San Gennaro was restored to his chapel in the cathedral, where he remains, except for “his days,” on which he is paraded through the city, accompanied by the civic leaders of Naples.

Many famous writers have been drawn to San Gennaro, and indeed one of the best descriptions of the miracle, and the crowd that gathers for it, was done by Charles Dickens (British writers often developed an intense affection for Naples;  my favorite is Mary Shelley, who went there to write Frankenstein).

As I say at the beginning of the book, Naples is all about magic (Virgil himself was a sorcerer, and his golden egg is a magical device protecting a beautiful castle from destruction, and guarantees Naples eternal life).  From San Gennaro to the pizza (which the Neapolitans invented).  It’s well worth your time;  whether you visit it physically or intellectually, it’s fascinating, beautiful and enchanting.

According to several recent reports, the Obama administration is now considering more forceful action against Iran in Iraq.  This is as understandable as it was inevitable;  as I wrote many months before the invasion of Iraq, it is folly to expect to maintain decent security there so long as the current regime remains in power in Tehran.  Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his henchmen cannot tolerate the existence of a free, stable democratic society in its Shi’ite neighbor to the West, nor in Afghanistan to the East.

The Iranian tyrant is threatened by an ongoing mass uprising by his own people, and he desperately wants to demonstrate that the Islamic Republic can destroy and eventually dominate any would-be free state in the region.  No surprise, then, that just as Iran arms, funds, indoctrinates and trains its proxies in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is providing all manner of assistance to Bashar al Assad in Syria to crush the insurrection there, and is supporting Islamist forces in other Arab countries, notably Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, to wrest control of the evolving governments from the hands of the freedom-seeking people who were in the front lines of the successful revolutions.

President Obama’s search for an effective strategy to thwart Iran’s murderous activity is driven by two developments:  the mounting tempo of violence against American and allied troops and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the failure of his “outreach” to the mullahs.  After two and a half years, the president has apparently realized that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will not clasp our outstretched hand;  he wants to kill, kidnap and humiliate Americans whenever and wherever possible.  At the same time, Khamenei and his henchmen are mounting all manner of charm deceptions:  releasing some political prisoners (even the two American “hikers” convicted of espionage), calling for Syria’s dictator to talk nicely to his victims, promising to be forthcoming on the nuclear question, and even permitting his arch-rival, Green Movement leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, to leave his heavily guarded house for a few hours to chat with his daughters.  But such ploys no longer seem to entrance this administration.  By now it is evident that Iran does not want a bargain with the United States.  The Ayatollah Khomeini declared war on us in 1979, and he and his successors have waged that war ever since.  Yes, the Iranians are quite capable of tactical retreats;  I am told that Khamenei has ordered his killers in Iraq to refrain from attacking Americans, in order to deny us an excuse to reduce or delay our withdrawal.  But the overall strategy remains the same:  kill and dominate the Great Satan (us).

If we are going to fight back, what is the best method?  Covert action—something between pure diplomacy and open conflict—is the favored method of this administration, which has greatly increased America’s use of lethal drones and US Special Forces against Iranian killers and (mostly Arab) proxies.  But our most effective weapon against the Iranian regime is political, not military.   Khamenei fears his own people, as can be seen from the iron fist he has deployed against them.  He is so frightened by any sign of freedom in Iran, that he has even taken to arresting young people who engage in water fights in public parks.

He is right to be afraid;  the Iranian people are the silver bullet aimed at the dark heart of the Islamic Republic, and we should support them, openly, vigorously, and non-violently whenever possible.  If it was proper to support the Libyans against Colonel Qaddafi, all  the more reason to support the Iranians against Khamenei, who, like Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, not only oppresses his own people but is the driving force behind the terrorists who kill, maim, and kidnap Americans.

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The Global Tea Party and Its Enemies

September 8th, 2011 - 8:49 pm

The Tea Party is at once a very traditional American phenomenon — generally known as a “Great Awakening” — and part of a global insurrection.  In both cases, the status quo is portrayed as oppressive and corrupt, and the rebellion against it is highly moralistic and flows from religious sources.

There is a considerable scholarly literature about America’s Great Awakenings, most recently by the Nobel Economist Robert Fogel.  He describes it thus:

A cycle begins with a…religious revival…followed by (a phase) of rising political effect and reform, followed by a phase in which the new ethics and politics of the religious awakening come under increasing challenge and the political coalition promoted by the awakening goes into decline.  These cycles overlap, the end of one cycle coinciding with the beginning of the next.

Fogel writes of four Great Awakenings:  the first inspired the American Revolution and the triumph of the ideal of human equality.  The second, associated with millenarian convictions, inspired the generation of the Civil War and the women’s suffrage movement.  The third, beginning at the end of the 19th century, embraced the notion of social sin, according to which personal misery was not necessarily due to an individual’s shortcomings, but a societal failure.  This religious conviction fed into the period of the New Deal and its attendant social engineering.  The fourth — current — Great Awakening started in the 1960s and was marked by a revival of enthusiastic religious practices and by “born again” conversions.  It drove the Reagan Revolution, and inspires the Tea Party’s tax revolt, the attacks on entitlements, and a return to ethics of individual responsibility after the embrace of collective sin in the previous phase.

The Second Great Awakening was well described by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831, and shaped his view of religion in America.  The country was swept by an explosion of faith, spread by impassioned preachers claiming direct contact with the Almighty, and demanding that Americans rededicate themselves to the high moral calling of their religion.  As it always does, the Great Awakening surged into public life, producing a new moralism in politics (the Temperance Movement, the Abolitionists, campaigns against the dramatic increase in illegitimate births, renewed concern for the poor and disadvantaged, and several utopian communities featuring a fusion of radical social experimentation and a highly personalized religion).  A generation later, the passions, ideals, and language of the Great Awakening defined the Civil War.

Whether focused against British governors, slave owners, captains of industry, or bureaucrats of the nanny state, Great Awakenings combine religion and politics in ways that enrage the ruling elites.  Many of the furious denunciations of the Tea Party — from accusations of racism to claims that the tea partiers are “religious fundamentalists” — come from members of the current Establishment, who have abandoned the (similarly “fundamentalist”) religious ideals that contributed so greatly to their own success.   This further stimulates the newly awakened, who believe the members of the ruling elites have become corrupt, and abandoned the values that made America great.

Religious revival inspires social and political movements that change America.  And not just America.

We are in the midst of a global religious expansion that goes hand in hand with a widespread political uprising against oppression and corruption.  It is commonly assumed that the most dynamic faith in the global revival is militant Islam, but it isn’t.  The blue ribbon goes to American-style evangelical Christianity.  You might not know, for example, that a leading Chinese government economist recently wrote a famous study of market economies, in which he concluded that successful capitalist countries have successful churches, and thus that China should embrace religious organizations.  As two sharp-eyed British journalists note in their recent book, God is Back, (Evangelical) Christianity is booming in the People’s Republic (and most everywhere else Christians are free to practice their faith), and the Chinese Constitution has actually been amended to make room for it.

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Ten Years Later

September 7th, 2011 - 2:53 pm

September 11, September 11, for me it’s all about friend and family.  Above all the others, the friend is — was — Barbara Olson, who was murdered by al-Qaeda on the airplane that crashed into the Pentagon. A really great woman, the life force in flesh and blood, how I miss her.

The family was totally transformed by September 11. Not that the terror attack opened anybody’s eyes; those eyes were already wide open. We had had plenty of death threats, and had taken them seriously. But September 11 convinced our children, all three, that their generation would be judged on how it reacted, and they all resolved to go to war. They could not look in the mirror unless they saw a warrior. And so Simone, without ever asking what we thought, signed up for (civilian) service in Iraq for the Department of Defense, and Gabe informed us that he would try to become a Marine officer, and hoped we approved. A few years later, Daniel also became a Marine officer. And so, just like that, we had become a military family.

We had not really considered that possibility when they were born, or while they were growing up. We thought we were preparing them for very different challenges – call them intellectual or professional if you wish. When people ask us what we did to get such amazing children, we don’t have the sort of answer they’re looking for, because we did what parents are supposed to do. We gave them all our love and total support in their endeavors. We set standards. And there was no television during the week (but I personally took them out of school to see important movies like Star Wars and Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings). And of course we talked to them like serious people all along, respected their opinions, and provided religious education.

They have performed exceptionally well on the battlefield, which I believe tells us less about our parenting skills than it does about America and Americans.  America is the one truly revolutionary country on earth, because Americans are willing to fight for our freedoms. Like al-Qaeda, our enemies do not get this, because they cannot imagine the incredible power of free people uniting to defend themselves. Osama bin Laden believed that 9/11 would bring us down, but instead it took us to a war that defeated him and his Syrian and Iranian allies in Iraq, and has reversed the gains of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

It’s not smart to challenge Americans. We love that. Yeah, we’re very slow to get on with it, and yeah, we get tired and forget our mission every so often, and yeah, we make mistakes choosing our leaders. But when we do get on with it, it’s awesome.

Just ask our kids.

The New, Neoconservative, New York Times

September 2nd, 2011 - 9:30 am

At first I thought it was an anomaly, a personal thing.  One New York Times  columnist has an epiphany.  But now there are two  of them, two very liberal Timesmen embracing the use of military force in Libya.  And invoking a quintessential “neoconservative” justification for it.  I  think  it’s a trend.

First, Roger Cohen, now living in London:

The Libyan people have been freed from a crazed tyranny. Unlike in Iraq, burdens were shared: America flew the intelligence missions and did the refueling while the French, British, Dutch and others did most of the bombing. Iraq was the wrong prism through which to look at Libya. I’m glad I resisted that temptation. Another cycle has begun.

In the end, I think interventionism is inextricable from the American idea. If the United States retreats into isolationism, it ceases to be itself — a nation dedicated, however much it falls short, to a universalist ideal of freedom.

There are no fixed doctrinal answers — a successful Libyan intervention does not mean one in Syria is feasible — but the idea that the West must at times be prepared to fight for its values against barbarism is the best hope for a 21st century less cruel than the 20th.

“Interventionism is inextricable from the American idea…a universalist ideal of freedom.”  Got it?

Now here’s Nicholas Kristof, writing from Tripoli, surrounded by America-loving, anti-Qaddafi rebels:

“Libya is a reminder that sometimes it is possible to use military tools to advance humanitarian causes.”

I know exactly what you’re going to say.  You’re going to say that this is Obama’s war, and Obama is their guy, and so of course they’re going to endorse it.  Iraq was Bush’s war, so of course they’re going to continue to damn it.  And I’ll give you another bit of grist for your mill:  Cohen cites another “good war”–Bosnia, Clinton’s war — which he also endorsed, and he’s proud of it, even though he’s ashamed that he supported the Iraq war early, before he saw the light.  So when Democrat presidents wage war, they’re ok, even noble. But when Republicans wage war, it’s bad.  Check.

All true.  But it is still notable that these two are now textbook neocons, “liberals mugged by reality.”  To be sure, they may not get all the way to embracing support for freedom against tyrants as a fundamental principle of American foreign policy — although Cohen’s last graph could have been written by Norman Podhoretz — but they’re en route, at a minimum.

I wonder if they have thought this through.  The obvious question, as Achilles once said to the tortoise, is:   if it’s right to intervene in  Libya to stop the carnage, is there not even more reason to stop the greater carnage in Syria and Iran?  And while we’re on the subject, don’t forget that the Syrian and Iranian regimes not only slaughter their own people, but also American soldiers, and civilians from Iraq and Afghanistan to Somalia and Argentina.

What will they say?

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