Archive for December 2006

Man of the Year?

December 17, 2006

I am currently watching a really self-indulgent program on CNN in which they take cameras behind the scenes at TIME magazine while the editors deliberate who should be the TIME Man of the Year. It is kind of a sad personal admission. But there it is.

In any event, right now they are rolling through the finalists and one of the figures being debated as a potential “Man of the Year” is Iranian President and demagogic scourge Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who, if selected, the editors think would stand for the rise of Shiism as a force in the Middle East and the growing trend of nations hostile to the United States implacably pursuing nuclear weapons. Fair enough. But it occurs to me, and it is more a hunch than it is borne out by an overwhelming array of facts, that Ahmadinejad will be an historical footnote – at best – in five years. He is a product of the moment, an unfortunate consequence of America being in a weakened position on the heels of the Iraq debacle.

Of course, the important question when it comes to Iran has always been how much power does Ahmadinejad actually wield. The Iranian governing system is notoriously ambiguous. To the outside eye – and maybe the inside eye – it is maddeningly difficult to ascertain who is holding the cards, especially when it comes to forging foreign policy. My completely arm chair, no doubt ill-informed, sense is that the clerical circles who actually control policy see Ahmadinejad’s (completely sincere) madman routine as beneficial in the current political climate. I simply do not think this dynamic can sustain itself. He will become a liability. He is already an embarrassment to many Iranians. Turnout for the city council elections is very high, suggesting strong support for reform candidates. It is not a vote cast with enthusiasm, but it is a significant decision to cast a vote. After the disillusioning reign of Khatami many in the reform movement simply checked-out of politics. Now, as one voter told The New York Times, it is a choice between “bad and worse.” But it is a choice.

On a related note, much of the chatter about the Iraq Study Group report has focused on their recommendation that the Bush administration talk to Iran and explain how it is in their interest to prevent the bloody dissolution of Iraq. Condi Rice made clear in an interview last week with The Washington Post that there will be no new diplomatic initiatives with Tehran, saying the “compensation” required by any deal might be too high. While it is ridiculous to base foreign policy on what “might” be the case (unclear if this was Rice’s language or the Post‘s) it is equally ludicrous to believe that Tehran will do anything to alleviate the American predicament in Iraq. It is unclear what they could even do to help if they wanted to. Iraq is solvable from the outside. It is an Iraqi problem (which is also why the notion that movement on the Palestinian-Israeli front will have any bearing on what happens in Baghdad is ridiculous. More American resources should be invested in that arena, but not because of Iraq, but because it is smart policy and the right thing to do.)

(In the off-chance you care, TIME selected “you” as person of the year.)

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Sacre Merde

December 14, 2006

Troubling news from the land of froggery. Ultra right-wing National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen (proof that in France the more rabidly draconian one’s politics, the girlier your name) has taken a significant hop in the opinion polls. According to a survey conducted for Le Monde and reported in Le Figaro (sorry, in French. You should have paid more attention to Madame Guillotine in high school) , indicates that about one in four people in France agree with Le Pen’s basic positions, which roughly consist of persecuting and expelling anyone not considered sufficiently “French.”

Le Pen shocked France’s political establishment in the country’s last presidential election by knocking the socialist candidate out of the running and going through to a second round against Gaullist Jacques Chirac. This survey shows that was no freak occurrence. His ideas have never been so popular. The number of people who consider them “unacceptable” has plummeted from 48 percent in 1997 to 42 percent in 2003 to 34 percent today. Sixty-five percent of the population still consider Le Pen a “danger to democracy” but that itself is a new low. Just another sign that if European nations can’t find a way to deal with the profound anxiety over rapidly shifting demographics and conflicting cultures Le Pen’s brand of racist xenophobia will continue to spread.

A Reminder

December 11, 2006

Making my way through the Sunday papers I was floored by a small article buried on page A33 of The Washington Post.  The article is an Associated Press dispatch from Kabul that reports that 20 teachers that have been murdered by the resurgent Taliban this year. (198 schools have been burned down as well). Apparently the targeting of teachers is outlined in a 30-point strategy document that was drafted in September by the Taliban leadership – including Mullah Mohammad Omar – to coordinate their stepped-up campaign to reclaim their tyrannical perch atop the beleaguered Afghani nation.

Rule No. 24 of the document forbids anyone to work as a teacher under the current Karzai-led regime because, “this strengthens the system of the infidels.” The document stipulates that Taliban henchman should first warn the teachers, then beat the teachers, and if they continue to insist on educating the young minds of Afghanistan, slaughter the teachers.

As I mentioned above, I was staggered by this article. And I think my shock is telling. The headlines are so dominated with news out of Iraq – horrible, grim news – that I have lost sight of the barbarity in Afghanistan. But not just that, I had become numb to the inexplicably evil nature of the Taliban movement. One of the most compelling critiques of the War on Iraq is that it took our focus of Afghanistan, where we really had (and I hope “have”) a chance to build something decent. (I thought the Bush Administration could walk and chew gum. I thought wrong.) The debate over the next few months will be about what to do in Iraq – and rightfully so – but Afghanistan should not stray too far off our radar screens. In addition, it is worth mentioning Barack Obama’s idea that as we draw down troop levels in Iraq (which he is in favor of on some sort of timetable) we should redeploy those troops to Afghanistan to bolster the faltering NATO-led effort. Food for thought.

A Stronger Advocate Than Sen. Kennedy?

December 9, 2006

Can Mitt Romney’s stance on gay rights really be as opportunistically bigoted as this 1994 letter suggests?

Banal-Retentive

December 8, 2006

It is the centennial of Hannah Arendt’s birth and the business of commemoration and hagiography is in full-swing. Several prominent writers have taken to the page to re-assert her relevance to contemporary politics.

Arendt is certainly and revered and controversial figure, especially when it came to Jewish affairs where Arendt seemed of two minds. In Germany she was intimately involved with European Zionists but when she fled to America she adopted a prickly attitude when it came to organized Jewish life and a hostile attitude towards Zionism. She wrote very prescient essays in which she fretted about what kind of future a Jewish state would have surrounded on all sides by implacable foes and therefore forced to concern this new society almost exclusively with matters of security.

These tensions burst into an inferno of controversy in 1963 when Arendt published her much-anticipated chronicle of covering the trail of Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem. In particular, she set tempers ablaze and friendships into ruin by her use of the (often misunderstood) phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the notorious exploits of Eichmann and his efficient command of the Nazi death machine. To Arendt, Eichmann’s mendacity and crimes were compelled more by bureaucratic imperatives than ideological poison. To her Eichmann was still the salesman for the Vacuum Oil Company in Vienna.

Her numerous critics were quick and right to point out that despite the fact that Eichmann looked like you and me, most of us would not say – as Eichmann did – that he “would jump into my grave laughing because of the fact that I have the death of five million Jews on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction.” Saul Bellow acerbically remarked that, “banality is the adopted disguise of a very powerful will to abolish conscience.”

But to many, the dispute over banality paled in comparison to her charge that the Jewish Councils established by the Nazis to temporarily rule over Jewish populations was evidence of European Jewry conspiring in its own destruction. The victims complicit in their own victimization. “Wherever Jews lived, there were recognized Jewish leaders, and this leadership, almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis…To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.”

One fierce critic was Irving Howe. In his youth Howe had been Arendt’s assistant for a time when she was an editor at the Schocken publishing house, though they were never very close. In his exquisite memoir, A Margin of Hope, Howe reflects on why the controversy of the book was so intense, namely that it touched the raw nerve of American Jewish guilt about the Holocaust, an event that had not become the mainstream, de-Judaized phenomenon it is today. “It was as if her views, which roused many of us to fury, enabled us to finally speak about the unspeakable,” Howe wrote.

(more…)

The Post Weighs In…

December 8, 2006

 …with characteristic subtlety.

Quote of the Day

December 7, 2006

George Will on last week’s leaked Donald Rumsfeld Memo:

“It is beyond dispiriting that after 45 months of war an American official can think that this semi-genocidal conflict over the survival of groups divided about the meaning of God’s will can now be dampened by clever economics.”