Lifestyle sections have lately been detailing the public's renewed appetite for comfort food. If that rice-pudding desire translates to the big screen, then cinematic fairy tales that offer the reassurance of a bedtime story should benefit accordingly. Two such concoctions have arrived, one light as brioche and one grimmer than Grimm: Amélie, the latest fable from French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children), and its evil twin, Mulholland Drive, by America's own David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks). Visually dazzling and full of imagination, these fantasies by directors at the top of their game depict invented universes where happiness and unhappiness trade places in a flash and the world as we know it can be transformed by a fall down a rabbit hole.
Amélie owes its incredible success ($40 million in France alone since spring) in no small part to the immense appeal of newcomer Audrey Tautou in the lead role. Her very name invokes the actress with whom she's most likely to be compared--Audrey Hepburn at her Roman Holiday or Breakfast at Tiffany's stage, innocent still and ripe for discovery. For Frenchness, think Juliette Binoche--minus the sex appeal. Add a Louise Brooks haircut, the biggest eyes this side of cartoonland and a sense of prankishness borrowed from the Eloise books. Give the character a Mary Poppins way with magic and a sweetness that her surname ("Poulain" is a brand of chocolate) promises and, bon, there you have her: a child-woman for the ages.
Amélie introduces its heroine as a little girl, imprisoned in a childhood ruled by a remote father who barely touches her and a warped mother who dies when hit by a suicide-bent tourist outside Notre Dame. She quickly grows up into an adorable but shy young woman who works as a waitress in a quintessentially Parisian cafe packed equally with irritable and amiable characters. At home in her garret, she leads a solitary life reading, dreaming, watching television and spying on a neighboring recluse who endlessly repaints Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party. On her day off, she visits her daddy, who dotes on a garden shrine to his departed wife, topped by a colorful gnome.
On August 31, 1997, everything in Amélie's oddball universe changes with a thunderbolt: the death of Princess Diana! It is at this very moment that Amélie discovers a small tin box that's been hidden in her apartment for forty years. Inspired by Diana to make a difference in the world, she sets out to track down its owner. Her search is reminiscent of another French film, When the Cat's Away, in which a Parisian damsel sets off on a quest that leads her through the Bastille neighborhood and its picturesque characters. Where that film showed gentrification and evictions, though, this one's a magical mystery tour.
Voilà! Amélie is off and running when her once-upon-a-time boy is reunited with his beloved box of toys. When his destiny changes, so does hers: She commits herself, saintlike, to a life of good deeds. It's impossible not to be charmed by Amélie's missions, like her secret campaign for justice, centered on her mean neighborhood greengrocer who loves to demean his shy Algerian assistant in front of the customers. Amélie secretly copies the merchant's key, then sneaks into his apartment and subtly changes things in a manner calculated to drive him mad--such as replacing his beloved slippers with an identical pair, one size smaller. Amélie's more benign interventions--on behalf of a jilted widow, a hypochondriacal cashier and the reclusive painter--are equally inventive.
Unfortunately, Jeunet doesn't leave well enough alone. Dissatisfied with these minor intrusions, he dictates that Amélie must find love herself. But with whom? Whimsy takes over. Enter one eligible guy, Nino, whose hobby is hunting for torn-up pictures under photo booths in the Paris metro stations when he's not gainfully employed as a porn-shop assistant and funhouse spook. (Nino is played, incidentally, by Mathieu Kassovitz, director of 1995's gritty hit La Haine, a decidedly un-Amélie-like drama about racial tensions in Parisian projects.)
Bien sûr, this is a fairy tale, and so Nino's the one with whom Amélie must fall in love. But then there's the mystery of the stranger whose torn photo keeps turning up. And the mysterious notes delivered to Nino, stipulating mysterious rendezvous. And the paranoiac who stalks his ex-girlfriends with a tape recorder. Oh, there are dozens of zany pranks to escalate the irritation--oops, I mean charm--of Jeunet's conceit.
"Eurodisney in Montmartre" was one European critic's verdict. Actually, it's more like Jeunet let loose in the Disney archives. Piling cartoon references on top of his childhood visions of Paris-then, Jeunet has used a toolbox of stylized sets and special effects to create a world as quirky as his characters. Equally original but less phantasmagorical than the worlds he invented with former collaborator Marc Caro in Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, Jeunet here jettisons the nightmarish creatures that made them tick. Amélie's more reality-based world is magical in part because every trace of modernity has been erased. No Pompidou Center or Louvre pyramids intrude on the cityscapes. Virtually no immigrants, either. A glow of burnished memory polishes Montmartre, as its Frencher-than-French denizens, seemingly lifted straight out of some classic prewar French film, go about their pre-2001 lives.
Nobody is going to Amélie, of course, for a taste of realism. Rather, what it offers is a determinedly cinematic world in which references pile upon references to assemble a synthetic universe that resonates emotionally, reeking of familiarity and nostalgia. It is safe to speculate that Jeunet, who returned to France after an unsatisfying Hollywood stint on Alien: Resurrection, felt nostalgic himself for a golden age of French cinema unbeholden to the American movie juggernaut. With the trademark stylistic excess that he honed in his earlier features, and contentedly reunited with a screenwriter and cinematographer from his past, Jeunet has found a way to re-enter his own lost Paris.
For anyone loath to sign on to the Godiva-voltage sweetness of Amélie, there's a simple antidote: Mulholland Drive. Playing dark knight to Jeunet's virginal white one, David Lynch returns here to the pre-Straight Story vein of perversity that he mined for so long. It's a place where sweetness is preyed upon by maggots, where the dice are loaded and no one's hands are clean. Lynch polished his theme of innocence confronted by unspeakable evil in Blue Velvet, where youngsters Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern battled to free Isabella Rossellini from the grasp of psychotic evildoer Dennis Hopper. Twin Peaks introduced the moral and supernatural parlor games that Lynch has pretty much owned ever since: small towns in the grip of conspiracy, characters with secret lives, and forces of evil that might somehow be circumvented but probably never defeated. Basically, everyone's lying and nobody can escape.
Mulholland Drive is a fable of two women beset by mysteries. One blond, one brunette; one innocent, one not. The dark locale to counterbalance Montmartre? Los Angeles, of course--equally magical but dangerously so. Instead of sunshine, we get noir. Lynch wastes no time in having fun as he sends the luscious brunette Rita (Laura Harring) on the road to near-death in a car driven by hit men working for an unknown client. An amnesiac survivor, she takes refuge in an empty apartment. Of course, it's not empty for long. Along comes Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), a corn-fed blonde straight out of Deep River, Ontario, trailing the faint scent of Lynch's Twin Peaks ingénue Laura Palmer. Betty seems as innocent as Amélie and just as ready to throw herself into helping to sort out someone else's fate. And Rita? Well, her hair color alone marks her as untrustworthy for this particular sort of coded intrigue. Like a couple of sexy, breast-enhanced Girl Scouts, the pair sets off to solve the mystery. What happened to Rita, and why? Who was after her, and are they still? Like Rita and Betty, the audience has to play detective. And be prepared for the red herrings.
Mulholland Drive was originally meant as a television series, where Lynch might have spun its narrative into multiple complications week after week. Here, truncated into the ruthless logic of a finite cinematic form, it builds its meaning into a jigsaw puzzle of cinematic references. The brunette's name, Rita, is filched from a Gilda poster. Betty could be straight out of Hitchcock's Vertigo. An elderly, excessively enthusiastic, suspiciously helpful couple who share a taxi with Betty from the airport must be on loan from Rosemary's Baby. Betty's apartment, on loan from Aunt Ruth, could have been lifted from any postwar LA film noir, the kind peopled by unsavory men and untrustworthy women. For authoritative cinematic history, look no further than Coco, the landlady of the apartment complex. She's played by veteran actress Ann Miller. A living footnote, Miller was an RKO contract player from the age of 14, an ingénue in Stage Door in 1937, a dancer at MGM in its golden age of musicals and a star on Broadway. Her presence functions as legible commentary: With what she knows, no wonder her character is suspicious and prone to offering unsolicited advice.
Despite the film's considerable length, time flies as the audience is kept busy poring over the clues littering the subplots. One involves a self-important movie director named Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) who lives high off the hog until he's betrayed by his wife (with Billy Ray Cyrus, for gawd's sake) and threatened by the mob to hire a particular actress, or else. Then there's the Winkie's diner that one terrified guy has seen in his nightmares so many times that he finally goes there to eat. And there's a nightspot that Rita somehow remembers, El Club Silencio, where she and Betty witness a full-throttle rendition of Roy Orbison's "Crying" lip-synched in Spanish. This over-determined show-stopper is vintage Lynch, combining the pleasurable and the ominous with the savoir-faire of a bartender who knows full well that his cocktail is lethal.
Mulholland Drive has all the trappings of a fairy tale, from the monster hiding out back to the princess who's in danger. There's even a magic key and a magic box. When the two are combined, everyone is thrown into an alternate reality, where the actors are the same but their characters are completely different. There, good and evil are scrambled. The rules change, time runs backward and our hard-earned holdings fall subject to fraud. Have I mentioned that the film manages to seduce us and humble us, one after the other, with its cleverness?
If, in the end, Mulholland Drive is too clever by half (the final section really, really doesn't make sense), no matter. Lynch's superb command of mise en scène makes his images and situations their own reward, rendering even the simplest gesture creepy and imbuing any innocence with evil. Lynch's ending even takes the audience by surprise, leading moviegoers to ascribe its crossover plots to the effects of parallel universes or the unreliable testimony of self-serving narrators. So what if it ultimately makes a terribly imperfect sense? God is in the details, and its details are sublime.
Viewers of the old spy spoof Get Smart will remember the Cone of Silence--that giant plastic hair-salon dryer that descended over Maxwell Smart and Control when they held a sensitive conversation. Today, a Cone of Silence has descended over all of Washington: From four-star generals to lowly webmasters, the town is in information lockdown. Never in the nation's history has the flow of information from government to press and public been shut off so comprehensively and quickly as in the weeks following September 11. Much of the shutdown seems to have little to do with preventing future terrorism and everything to do with the Administration's laying down a new across-the-board standard for centralized control of the public's right to know.
The most alarming evidence of the new climate emanates from the Justice Department. Investigators still hold in custody 150 of the 800 people rounded up in the aftermath of the attacks. (One detainee died in custody in New Jersey.) No charges have been filed, no hearings convened. The names of nearly all those still held remain classified, as do the reasons for their incarceration. Lawyers for some of the hundreds cleared and released have told reporters of questionable treatment of their clients--food withheld, attorneys blocked from access. Of the 150 who remain detained, only four presumed Al Qaeda suspects have been publicly named. FBI agents frustrated at the lack of progress in their interrogations of those four now mutter in the Washington Post about using sodium pentothal, or turning the suspects over to a country where beatings or other torture is used. The government's stranglehold on information about other arrests makes it impossible to know just how far agents have already gone down that road, or whether the dragnet was mainly a public-relations exercise.
Just as damaging as these detentions is an October 12 memo from Attorney General John Ashcroft reversing longstanding Freedom of Information Act policies. In 1993 then-Attorney General Janet Reno directed agencies to disclose any government information upon request unless it was "reasonably foreseeable that disclosure would be harmful." Ashcroft reverses this presumption, instead calling on agencies to withhold information whenever the law permits: "You can be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions," he writes. Ashcroft is in effect creating a "born secret" standard; in the words of the Federation of American Scientists, the order "appears to exploit the current circumstances" to turn FOIA into an Official Secrets Act.
One after another, federal agencies are removing public data from their websites or restricting access to their public reading rooms. Caution is understandable, but OMB Watch and Investigative Reporters and Editors have both documented egregious examples that seem at best tangentially related to terrorism and more likely designed as butt-coverage for mid-level bureaucrats. The Energy Department has removed information from its web-posted Occurrence Reporting Program, which provides news of events that could adversely affect public health or worker safety. The EPA removed information from its site about the dangers of chemical accidents and how to prevent them, information the FBI says carries no threat of terrorism. More relevant than Al Qaeda, it appears, was hard lobbying by the chemical industry, which found the site an annoyance. The FAA pulled the plug on long-available lists of its security sanctions against airports around the country--depriving reporters of their only tool for evaluating the agency's considerable failures to enforce its own public safety findings. At the Pentagon, news has been reduced to a trickle far more constricted than anything during Kosovo, which in turn was more restrictive than during the Gulf War. So comprehensive is the shutdown that on October 13, presidents of twenty major journalists' organizations declared in a joint statement that "these restrictions pose dangers to American democracy and prevent American citizens from obtaining the information they need."
In the short run, the Cone of Silence did most damage at the Centers for Disease Control. Could the two (at this writing) Washington, DC, postal workers who died of inhalation anthrax have been protected by earlier treatment? Did any of the CDC's doctors or scientists recommend a course of antibiotics for postal workers along the trajectory of anthrax-laden letters? Who knows? With the CDC's staff muzzled, the public and postal workers alike were left with politicians as the conduits for contradictory and inadequate information about the risk.
The uncertain dimensions of the Al Qaeda threat make equally uncertain which information the government publishes might contribute to another attack and what to do about it. But it should be noted that the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks apparently involved data no more confidential than an airline schedule. The Administration's response has been to treat all information and press access as suspect--an approach that will subvert public confidence and undercut legitimate media scrutiny more than it will damage Al Qaeda. During Vietnam, the famous credibility gap resided at the Pentagon, with briefings and Congressional testimony at odds with battlefield evidence. Just weeks into this war, the Bush Administration is risking a new credibility gap roughly the size of the District of Columbia.
(With apologies to Harry Belafonte, among others)
Bombed all night by dat Yankee bunch
Daylight come and de bombers go home
Now dey'll drop some cashew crunch
Daylight come and de bombers go home
Bad guys hide in dere catacomb
'Til dose bombers have said shalom.
Hey, Mr. Taliban, shoutin' your hosannas
Daylight come and de bombers go home
You're de Kool-Aid makin' dese Guyanas
Daylight come and de bombers go home
Daylight come and de bombers go home
Daylight come and de bombers go home.
Alongside the White House and the Capitol building on the alleged terrorist hit list for September 11 was another, little-noticed target: Incirlik, a US airbase in southern Turkey. In a recent raid on a suspect's apartment in Detroit, the FBI found extensive drawings and materials relating to the base. Why Incirlik?
For the past ten years the base has been home to several thousand US military personnel and the fifty US fighter planes used for bombing the northern no-fly zone in Iraq. But it was during the Gulf War that the base earned its notoriety in the region. Throughout the war, Incirlik served as a headquarters of US operations, providing the launching pad for major troop offensives and thousands of bombing missions.
Built in 1951 by US Army engineers as a cold war outpost, Incirlik is one of the most strategically important footholds for the United States in the Middle East. It is not only within striking distance of Iran and Syria but also a short flight from the oil- and gas-rich former Soviet republics. Recent events have further enhanced the base's value; Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has even floated the idea of shifting the center of future regional operations there. With the imminent possibility of stepped-up attacks on Iraq, this shift could occur sooner rather than later.
The recent history of Incirlik offers a small window on the moral incoherence and dubious alliances that characterize US foreign policy in the region. Since Turkey reviews US access to the base every six months, it has had a powerful lever with which to influence the United States--and in turn, the United States has made costly compromises to preserve its access. "If a Turkish Ayatollah Khomeini came to power tomorrow," a high-level military official recently commented to me, "the US would still stay on bended knee to avoid losing that base."
The most scandalous of these compromises involves the US role in northern Iraq. The ostensible humanitarian purpose of the northern no-fly zone is to safeguard 3.3 million Iraqi Kurds. Unfortunately, US concern for the Kurds extends only to those being attacked by our enemy Saddam, not to those being attacked by our ally Turkey. Over the past fourteen years more than 23,000 Kurds fighting for greater autonomy and self-determination in southern Turkey and northern Iraq have died at Turkish hands. When Turkey sends US-made F-16s or thousands of troops to attack the Kurds across the border, as it did last December, Washington looks the other way. It's an "obscene piece of hypocrisy," writes John Nichol, the British pilot who was shot down in 1991 and tortured by Iraqi forces. "Turkish authorities ground our aircraft so that their own can attack the very Kurds that [we were] protecting just a few hours before." One investigation by Air Force Times revealed that the Turks were grounding more than 50 percent of US missions.
Incirlik is a factor on other fronts as well. Last year our House of Representatives was poised to vote on a resolution to recognize the 1915 Turkish massacre of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians. As the bill gathered support, Turkish officials threatened to end US access to Incirlik. President Clinton quickly persuaded the bill's sponsor to drop it.
After September 11, Washington immediately turned to Turkey, the only Muslim nation in NATO, for public support. Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit enthusiastically stepped forward, while also criticizing past US softness toward terrorism as an attitude of "let the snake that does not bite me live for a thousand years." Meanwhile, despite the fact that more than 70 percent of Turkish citizens oppose US military action against Afghanistan, the government has already begun making widespread arrests of human rights workers and leftists protesting the recent airstrikes.
Emboldened by a sense of indispensability, Turkish generals have been appearing regularly on television boasting that Turkey will be admitted to the European Union, a long-sought goal. But the constitutional reforms recently passed by the Turkish Parliament duck the main human rights requirements demanded by the EU as a condition of admission. "It's a step backward," says Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. Where real improvements might previously have been possible, the Turks are now advancing mere "cosmetic measures to ease relations with international partners." The death penalty and basic limitations on the right of ethnic minorities to free expression are safeguarded, and provisions in the Constitution that facilitate the widespread use of torture remain unchanged. The few improvements Turkey has made do not apply to the southern Kurdish regions, where almost all of the cases of torture occur.
Despite its abysmal human rights record, Turkey is one of the largest recipients of US arms, which average more than $800 million annually. This number is sure to grow now that Washington plans to pay for Turkish support with increased weapons transfers. Soon after George W. Bush announced that he would ease restrictions, Turkish military officials called an emergency meeting to speed up negotiations on a range of major purchases, including a $4.5 billion deal to buy 145 King Cobra attack helicopters from US defense contractor Bell Textron. The deal had been blocked by a dispute over whether a portion of the source code for the helicopters' mission computers could be withheld for security reasons. Since US officials have not ruled out an invasion of Iraq as part of its antiterrorist campaign, Incirlik's value is at a premium. "Now more than ever, no one needs to mention the base by name," remarked Kate Kaufer, analyst for the Arms Trade Oversight Project. "It forms the backdrop to all these military transactions."
Not everyone in Turkey will fare as well as the military. Already in a deep recession, the Turkish economy took a further dive last February, leaving some 600,000 Turks without jobs. Unemployment has risen by 42 percent in the past year, while the Turkish lira has shed half its value. IMF austerity formulas such as tighter controls on unions and social spending come at a particularly vulnerable time. Suicides, domestic violence, prostitution and petty theft are all up. Turkey is currently the single largest debtor to the IMF, owing more than $9.6 billion, which gives the Bush Administration leverage to use for its own strategic purposes. When Turkey needed an emergency bailout this past summer, it was Bush who did the bidding. After September 11, Turkey again turned to the United States to pressure the IMF for a delay of loan repayment.
Recently, at a reception in the US Embassy in Ankara, Gen. Carlton Fulford Jr., deputy commander of US forces in Europe, spoke of the ever-growing closeness of US and Turkish armed forces. He closed by saying that this relationship "will only get stronger in the days ahead." The question not answered was: at what cost?
It is hard to write a column like this under the present circumstances. It is hard to comment on what is happening in the world if the military regulates everything. And yet it is impossible not to write about this moment when civil rights and liberties seem under attack from both within and without. "Civil libertarians should not become Luddites," says Alan Dershowitz, who spent most of the past decade railing against identity politics. These days, he's suggesting that we loosen up and get national identity cards. Sure it's been used by repressive regimes the world over, he admits, but "the reasons for not having them don't really apply here."
The gently centered Quaker part of me is trying hard to calm the Help!-Flee!-We're-Going-to-Hell-in-a-Handbasket! part of me. I do that by settling down to the task of stringing random notes together, a scattered kind of witness.
First, we are at war. Although no one but the Pentagon admits to knowing what is happening, one sign is the dark whumpa-whumpa sound of the quiet, low-flying surveillance planes. Last night, when my son had finished practicing "Three Blind Mice" on his trombone, my ears were filled with a dull reverberation somewhat greater than that which ordinarily troubles the air in the wake of his prodigious renditions. We looked out the window and saw three large lights on a dark aircraft that was floating along only a little way above the treetops. It looked as though aliens were landing--it slid quietly overhead like something out of The Empire Strikes Back. "They're on the watch for submarines," said a friend whose father is in the military. So I know we are at war.
Even my son has been recruited. He came home from school and looked for ways to earn a dollar. "I need money to send to George Bush," he explained. "Come wha...?" I asked. It turned out he was answering the President's call for every child in America to donate a dollar to help feed refugee children. "I think this money is probably for UNICEF," I said. "No," insisted my son, who has heard a little about a lot. "George Bush is going to use it to give Afghan children some social security."
Second, our public health system is imploding. You can tell how panicked officials are by their bizarre yet perky incoherence in the face of emergency. "No cause for worry," they keep saying while trotting out the law of averages, like a schoolboy by the ear, to show how much more dangerous it is to drive a car. "Since 1975 there has been only one case...uh, make that two...uh, three...oops, a fourth...uh, maybe a fifth..." They spent the last week proclaiming that even though they had closed down Congress and the Capitol building, "no one should worry"--that phrase again--because there was no way that the bacterium "would present itself outside a sealed envelope."
They had to revise that assessment, of course, after four people at the Brentwood Postal Facility in Washington, DC, came down with the inhaled form. Since then, the government says it's going to set things right by mailing nearly every US household a postcard with reassuring words and information listing the characteristics of missives worthy of suspicion. They will be mailing this bit of reassurance, presumably, from a large central postal facility. I wake up in the middle of the night imagining spores hitching rides on the coattails of mailmen as they fan out from our nation's capital and spread across the homeland. I know that this is an irrational thought, but still--it wakes me up. A former student tells me that he was sitting around at his cigar club (doesn't it just beg for parody? But... another time) and everyone was puffing away and asking each other how many units of Cipro they had "scored." "It's the new Ecstasy," he marvels. I see it as more like the new Agony.
Third, the word "homeland" has burrowed its way into ordinary conversation and multiplied with astonishing rapidity. It is not just the curious name of an office merging police and intelligence functions. It is a lowercase reference to purple mountains' majesty and all those fruited plains. Suddenly, "America the Beautiful" has become some sort of bad translation from the German. Like "Fatherland" or "empire," labels channel unspoken allegiances. I wonder about the line-drawing such an odd term was calculated to evoke--it sounds at once intimate and abstract--like the good-guy quadrant in some strategic computer game? Like the Bush team's attempt to sound epic? Like some effort to denationalize and fuse enemy status with that of domestic criminality--as in home-wreckers, home invaders, domestic abusers? "Homeland Security" is the new office of what they keep calling "psy-ops," after all. There's gotta be an angle.
The thing that worries me most about this time is how hard it is to talk about anything but fear. The fight has been framed as a war with "terror," a battle against an unruly if deadly emotionalism, rather than a war against specific bodies, specific land, specific resources. A war against terrorism is the inverse of a war "for" courage. It is a war of the mind, so broadly defined that the enemy becomes anybody who makes you afraid.
National Public Radio broadcast a conversation with Dr. Jerrold Post, a professor of something called "political psychology." Dr. Post discussed passages from an Al Qaeda training handbook in which operatives are advised to "blend in," to stay clean-shaven, not to talk too much over coffee and to pay their parking tickets in a timely fashion. The conversation was a classic bind in which the implied message is to trust no one, just tell the authorities every move your suspiciously average neighbors make.
It seduces, this corrosive distrust. Call me a Luddite, but I think this is a formula for panic. There are, of course, perfectly rational reasons to be afraid just now, but our unalloyed ideology of efficiency combined with a traumatic amount of actual bureaucratic bumbling has left us poised at the gateway of an even more fearsome world in which the "comfort" and convenience of high-tech totalitarianism gleam temptingly, yet in which our American-ness endures only with hands up! so that our fingerprints can be scanned, and our nationalized identity scrutinized for militarily defined signs of abnormal normativity.
New York City
On October 11, an alliance of Latinos, blacks and union members came close to a historic victory in New York. Alas, media ranging from The Nation to the New York Post rallied enough white votes to keep Fernando Ferrer from becoming mayor. Even after Mark Green cravenly agreed that Rudolph Giuliani's term of office should be extended, The Nation reaffirmed its endorsement in an introduction to an editorial by Michael Tomasky that correctly identified Green as "the white-backlash candidate" ["NYC's Mayoral Muddle," Oct. 22]. Green played that role with vigor. After having groveled for the support of the Rev. Al Sharpton, he then invoked Sharpton as an evil shade in a Ferrer administration. He denounced Ferrer's talk of serving "the other New York" as divisive--the classic Republican retort to criticism of legislation favoring the rich.
It is true that Ferrer and Green are both flawed men who have changed their positions. But Ferrer has turned to the left, Green to the right. The Nation's editors were evidently muddled by what has lingered of Green's Naderite past. They overlooked his climbing aboard the Clinton bandwagon in 1990 and his advocacy, in The Nation itself, of "pragmatic idealism," a neoliberal equivalent to "compassionate conservatism." If, as Tomasky wrote, many white liberals have been voting for Giuliani, Tomasky himself is partly at fault. He wrote a whole bookaccusing liberals of having all but destroyed New York with their political correctness and their misguided generosity.
Only recently, many good liberals were berating Naderites for clinging to their ideals. They had a chance to go for reform within the Democratic Party, and they blew it. We'll just have to try again, won't we?
JOHN L. HESS
We agree with Ferrer that between Green and Michael Bloomberg there's no contest. We also believe that both our candidate, Green, and Ferrer, regrettably, made it possible for racist demagogues to distort and exploit their nonracist positions; and now Bloomberg, in an ill-advised TV commercial, has entered the demagogy business too. We stand by our endorsement of Green and are pleased that most elements of the Democratic Party, including people of color, seem to be getting behind his candidacy.
THE RIGHT TO DIE IN DIGNITY
Carol Bernstein Ferry, in her well-written posthumous essay, "A Good Death" [Sept. 17/24], exemplifies high intelligence, clear insight and a firm resolve that goes beyond courage. By acting with steadfast adherence to the essence of the creed below, Ferry manifested the strength of character it takes to honor in action the axioms of a secular morality worthy of a truly civilized society, tragically not the one we have today. The following four-point creed of a free human being has to be the guide for my colleagues and me, as well as for the patients we have helped:
(1) I know myself.
(2) I have sovereignty over myself.
(3) I will do and say what I firmly believe to be correct.
(4) I will in no way unjustifiably harm other beings.
JACK KEVORKIAN, MD
GIVE PEACE A CHANCE
Santa Monica, Calif.
Following your publication of my letter and Katha Pollitt's mention of our Peace Flags website, Peaceflags.org ["Letters" and "Subject to Debate," Oct. 22], we received a barrage of hate e-mail ("the Taliban is first, you and your peacenik buddies could be next!"). Complaints were filed against us to Yahoo, to our web host and to our own e-mail boxes. A businessman threatened to do everything in his power to see that we were put out of business. Someone hacked into our computers and prevented us from communicating with customers. Domain Direct shut us down because someone sent a series of porn spam from our website to create a backlash of complaints. Before all this, orders were swelling daily, and hundreds of people were expressing relief to find that we existed. We started Peaceflags.org to prove a point--that people are conscious, and have a right to dissent against this "war." We're now back in business again, very much sadder but wiser.
RELIGIONS [HEART] WOMEN--REALLY
Katha Pollitt is incorrect when she states that all major religions attempt to subjugate and marginalize women from the very first ["Subject to Debate," Oct. 22]. I am an atheist, but I'll point out that, for example, early Christianity was fairly liberal in its treatment of women (agape being as close to genderless communism as you're likely to see in human history), even if the establishment church in Rome later became virulently "antifeminist" and produced misogynist ideologues like the notorious St. Jerome. Buddhism and Hinduism are also, at base, not antifemale. Rather, as happens with any system of belief, secondary interpreters and "scholars" introduce their own biases, and patriarchy being what it is, those biases come out as antifemale dogma in secondary texts.
BACK INTO THE QUAGMIRE
Mount Vernon, Wash.
I was impressed with your editorial "A Great Wound" [Oct. 1]. It is painfully clear that George W. Bush is using this tragedy to crush all violent opposition to US and Israeli domination of the Muslim world. There will be no national debate; Bush has already decided for us. George and his party have accepted $400 million in bribes from the energy lobby, among whom are the "Seven Sisters"--American oil companies operating in Saudi Arabia. I'd like to know how much George and his party received from the Jewish lobby and how many Americans will die in battle as a consequence of this bribery.
Bush & Co. believe they can destroy the terrorists, just as LBJ & Co. believed they could crush the Vietcong. So now we're back in 1964: The Tonkin Gulf Resolution has been passed by Congress; our carriers, special forces, CIA and troops are ready to go in, allies are being cajoled to join. Only this Vietnam stretches around the world, and no place on earth will be safe.
We can end this conflict by working through the UN, Interpol, the Arab League and the World Court to attain justice. We can pull out of the Persian Gulf and allow the UN to bring peace to that region. We can "bomb" Afghanistan with water, food and money. We can land troops of experts and equipment to get Afghanistan back on its feet. Or we can seek a worldwide military solution and go back into "Vietnam."
'ENLIGHTENING & COMPASSIONATE'
The reverberating trauma of September 11 called for a poet, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko's "Babi Yar in Manhattan" [Oct. 15] was enlightening and compassionate, pointing us with the language of poetry to a reasoned response to crimes against the sanctity of life. The smart bombs are falling on Kabul, but will they remove the cancer in the hearts and minds of those so committed to their cause that suicide is an accepted weapon of war?
OUR OWN ANTHRAX TERRORISTS
Anthrax suddenly has become major news [Bruce Shapiro, "Anthrax Anxiety," Nov. 5]. The media and the legislature now face the same fear as abortion providers, who have received anthrax letters and threats from "right to life" extremists for at least five years. But it was never front-page news because it "only" involved abortion clinics. From January 1998 to April 2001 there were 172 anthrax threats in the United States, a third of them against abortion clinics. In one recent week, 110 Planned Parenthood affiliates received envelopes of white powder and a letter stating it was anthrax. The media report these threats under the general category of "terrorism," which they have made synonymous with "Muslim terrorism." Antiabortion terrorism is not by Muslims but by our own home-grown Christian terrorists. The violence at our clinics is the product of religious extremism, no different from the mindless extremism that brought down the twin towers.
Perhaps when Americans must routinely wear bulletproof vests to go to work, as abortion providers do now, they will understand the meaning of terror and the determination not to let the terrorists win!
Oklahoma National Abortion and
Reproductive Rights Action League
FROM THE BELLY OF THE AGRO-BEAST
Thank you so much for your attention to the Slow Food movement [Alexander Stille, "Slow Food," Aug. 20/27]. It is often surprising to many that slow food has become so strong in America, the birthplace of fast food. Even more surprising is discovering that it is not merely a bicoastal phenomenon but that it's here in the heartland. We have branches in Champaign, Illinois; Madison, Wisconsin; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and even here in Iowa. It's quite appropriate that slow food established a "beachhead" here, because it is certainly the belly of the agro-industrial beast.
Slow Food Iowa
I'd like to pass on to your readers a brief description of an excellent nutrition group, the Nutrition for Optimal Health Association (NOHA), located near Chicago, and the URLs of two websites. NOHA has always opposed the use of toxic pesticides in agriculture and has tried to encourage more consumption and growth of organic food. For more information, visit www.nutrition4health.org and www.puregrassrootsinfo.org.
ANDREW T. FISHER
ABOUT THAT $43 MILLION...
Christopher Hitchens, in his October 8 "Minority Report," referred to the Bush Administration's $43 million "subsidy to the Taliban." Many readers have asked for more information. At a May 17 press briefing, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced a "package of $43 million in new humanitarian assistance for the people of Afghanistan" that "bypasses the Taliban" and includes wheat, food commodities and a search "for ways to provide assistance to farmers who have felt the impact of the ban on poppy cultivation, a decision by the Taliban that we welcome."
Serendipity is rotten cotton candy. No, more like actual cotton dipped in rich, drippy chocolate--the confection hawked by Catch-22's greedhead Milo Minderbinder. About a quarter of the audience I saw Serendipity with (evidently a fair national sample) wolfed it down and clamored for more. Newcomer Marc Klein's script is so insidiously predictable, it won him a three-picture deal. Suits are scared; they reward reassurance, as long as they can respect its cynicism. Still, the flick is worth a look, because it's a station of the cross in the career of John Cusack, the Ninth-Greatest Actor of All Time (so says an Empire Magazine poll) and the unwitting recipient of a grassroots campaign to draft him for President (hey, stranger Presidents have happened).
Stop me if you've seen the trailer, but here's the gist: Jon (Cusack) and Sara (Kate Beckinsale) tussle over a pair of gloves at Christmas. Each has a squeeze to shop for. They shouldn't but they spark, they skate, they float beneath improbably starry skies through enchanted Manhattan, skillfully fairytale-ified by director Peter Chelsom and cinematographer Jon de Borman, who enclose the two beauties in a space like a big snow globe with swirling plastic flakes.
Cusack's droll, knowing, McCartney bedroom eyes glint with Lennon venom, and he stammers romance with convincing conviction. He's still very much that heartbreak kid Lloyd in Say Anything, hoisting the boombox to serenade his girl. Back then, young Cusack lobbied director Cameron Crowe to file his moral sweet tooth down to fangs--he wanted Lloyd, a kickboxing fanatic, to assault and batter the girl's oppressive dad. "Yeah, I can see that," said Crowe sweetly, "but this is the movie where he doesn't throw the dad up against the fence." Crowe and Cusack likened themselves to Lennon and McCartney, temperaments clashing in harmony.
Cusack, a born director, an actor in training since 8, soaked up the lesson: Now he's sweetness and blight in one smart package. He can lend heft to featherweight lines, pull moments out of thin air, even defuse Hollywood bombs. Like the hunky sapper in The English Patient, Cusack is cool.
Beckinsale, a call-all-your-friends find in Cold Comfort Farm, remains too chipper and remote--she's still got the Oxford chill in her bones. Too bad--her feebly imagined Serendipity role needs all the humanity it can get. She and Cusack have potential chemistry, but not the heat required to bring the experiment to a rolling boil. It's cold fusion at best. She would've been ideal for High Fidelity, but she was sixty-five pounds bigger then, pregnant, so Cusack had to wait for her until now. Pity.
Jon jots his phone number on a $5 bill; Sara promptly spends it on mints, then jots her number in a copy of García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera. She says she'll sell it, and then if fate places that fiver and that book in each other's hands someday, they'll know they were meant to be together. (Does Sara know that before fate reunites the couple in García Márquez's book, the guy cheats on the girl with 622 women?) Sara, dimwit mystic tease that she is, devises yet another trial: They'll simultaneously punch random buttons in separate elevators at the Waldorf, and if they emerge on the same floor, it'll be kismet. What is this, the Immunity Challenge on Survivor? Sara's not a maiden, she's a MacGuffin, a plot point, a marketing concept.
Flash forward a few years. Jon's about to marry some girl so devoid of personality she's practically transparent. It's Bridget Moynahan, who induces in the viewer total short-term memory loss of her existence. Sara has a more engaging fiancé, a musician (John Corbett) who comes off like Kenny G playing a hookah. Corbett gets one fun bit, agonizing over the motivations of the Vikings in his music video. But his courtship with Sara exists solely to receive a decent Viking funeral--she burns him to return to the New York site of her old flame. Horribly, pointlessly, she's accompanied by her best friend (Molly Shannon, who specializes in one emotion, awkward discomfort). At least Moynahan is forgettable; Shannon's performance is the stuff of nightmares. She ought not to be in pictures.
Jon has the film's only beautiful relationship, with his best friend, a New York Times obituary writer (Jeremy Piven, Cusack's best friend for life, and the hungriest actor you ever saw). Piven gets two fine scenes: his wedding-rehearsal toast, which hails himself as the true love of Jon's life (there's lots of weird homophobia in the film, but this bit at least is funny), and his attempt to tackle Jon on Sara's front lawn to prevent him from seeing an apparently naked Sara in flagrante delicto through a window. The good scenes start strong and go nowhere, but most scenes in this film start nowhere and wander off into nothingness.
Serendipity, like Cusack's whole career, illustrates the New Auteur Theory in action: Forget the old heroes, the people with the camera--they can't save us. Who could have more heart and soul than Chelsom (Funny Bones) and de Borman (Saving Grace, The Full Monty)? All Chelsom can do here is smuggle in the odd slice of life: a random Hasidic golfer glimpsed at a driving range, a bracing swoosh of the camera here and there. If you want to work, you've got to cast your style before swine.
No, our sole hope is the enlightened despotism of actors. Look what Cusack's ornery independence has achieved. He broke out of the Brat Pack by renouncing and artistically trouncing the soulless corporate youth movie, etched his Grifters role in righteous acid, co-wrote the against-the-grain High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank, and made the screen world safe for Spike Jonze and Nick Hornby. When he does a big, dumb film, it's to collect clout for art, and he subverts Mammon at every opportunity. If he must do an action hero in Con Air, he does it in Birkenstocks. He forced a wholesale rewrite of America's Sweethearts when he took the lead from Billy Crystal, trying to put some English on the gags, some backspin. Cusack may even reverse Woody Allen's creative death spiral in the film they're cooking up. The key is that Cusack is savvy, pragmatic, yet skew to the plane of all that makes movies so bad.
Most signs of life in Serendipity were planted furtively by actors desperate to escape the story's shackles. Eugene Levy does much with little as a martinet sales clerk who briefly torments Cusack. (But see how much more he can do in Best in Show or the lost worlds of SCTV or Splash, where he was unconfined by formulas.) Most of the film's best moments are the largely improvised scenes of Cusack and Piven cracking wise. Those spontaneous looks of shock you see on the wedding party's faces in Piven's toast scene are reactions to startlingly off-the-script things he made up on the spot. It would be grimly charmless to hear Jon and Sara quiz each other about their favorite sex positions on their first skating-rink date without Beckinsale's expert pratfall on the ice and the nice-guy naturalness of Cusack's quip, "Yeah, that's my favorite position too." His performance has qualities the studio system can't grasp: It's humane, understated, seemingly uncorrupt.
When I'm on movie sets with big male stars, I'm always struck by how small they are--I feel like I could carry Nicolas Cage or Sly Stallone off under my arm, like Dino grabbing Sammy Davis and saying, "I'd like to thank the NAACP for this award!" Yet how they strut and puff themselves up! One $20 million star actually has a colleague slap his face to ready him for the camera, shouting, "You're [name of $20 million star]!" causing the star to bellow, "I'm [name of $20 million star]!" until he really feels big. It's Pathetic Method acting.
John Cusack, by contrast, really is big, over six feet tall. He flying-tackled me in the snow once on a film set, just for fun and out of boredom (and maybe to express his opinion of the press). It hurt: The guy is all muscle. But instead of acting big, he does the opposite. He crouches, makes himself look smaller, a rather cryptic human question mark in place of the human exclamation point that most stars aspire to become. (The scene in Being John Malkovich where he's on the 7 1/2 floor of a building with extremely low ceilings uses this Cusack tendency to excellent comic effect.) He always ducks the obvious, loud, self-aggrandizing statement in favor of the quiet, inquisitive, other-focused, elusively self-concealing statement. Not that he's any less of an egomaniac than most other stars--just more interesting.
Every love story on film is contrived, and we're all inclined to give the most rickety fairy tale the benefit of the doubt. All it takes is the illusion of spontaneity. Serendipity should have heeded the stern Correct Usage warning under "serendipity" in my Encarta dictionary: "The idea of discovery is necessary to the word." As John Barth put it, "You don't reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings." But nothing is left to chance in Serendipity. The film should have been as open to discovery as its star is. As it is, the whole excessively premeditated thing has less emotional resonance than that single quick scene in Being John Malkovich where Cusack's puppeteer character manipulates a pair of marionettes miming a tortured embrace. You know they're made of wood, you can clearly see the strings--everything you see on a screen is a manipulation--yet you can feel an unmistakable human pain and passion.
John Cusack probably won't get elected President of the United States. But maybe he should be President of Hollywood.
As a child, while waiting for my weekly piano lesson to start, I used to read with pleasure Erma Bombeck's column as it appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette. What prehomosexual boy can resist a sardonic housewife? Somewhere in my teenage years, however, I lost the taste, and so it was difficult for me to enjoy Douglas Coupland's latest novel, All Families Are Psychotic, even though the tone of voice was unexpectedly familiar.
"Life is a bowl of chainsaws," says Janet Drummond, the novel's 65-year-old heroine, as she establishes a rapport with Florian, the fey, Eurotrashy villain who is heir to a pharmaceuticals fortune. Bombeck added cherry pits to the proverb; Coupland has added chainsaws. But the sensibility is the same: a comfortable, petulant knowingness about the world. It's wacky out there, or so Coupland would have you believe.
The speech rhythms in All Families Are Psychotic derive from sitcoms. Characters describe each other with tags like "That cheesy slut," and they silence each other with lines like "Drive, Howie." The prose style is aesthetically bankrupt, so much so that a reviewer feels a little silly and priggish for pointing it out. A lake is described as "a very lake-y looking lake." A house is described as "an event in itself." One suspects Coupland of writing badly on purpose, as if he meant to suggest that sloppiness of perception might be raised to a metaphysical disposition--a strategy for approaching the world.
Either that or he's just sloppy. On page 25, the one-armed astronaut Sarah Drummond explains to her underachieving brother Wade, "In a weird way I think doing things is easier than not doing things." Evidently the lesson does not sink in, because on page 73, Sarah feels obliged to repeat herself: "There are simply these things that need to be done, and it's simpler to do them than to not do them." (Now how did that note card get back in the pile?) On page 254, Coupland has Janet's ex-husband Ted speak a line of dialogue in a room that he and his second wife left two pages before. By the time Wade explains to his mother on page 270 which super power he would have if he were a cartoon character, he seems to have forgotten the details of the conversation he had with his girlfriend on the same topic, back on page 130.
It's no doubt unwise to take this novel too seriously. Unfortunately, Coupland, famous for having tapped into the zeitgeist of 1991 with Generation X, has chosen a topic that is hard to take unseriously: AIDS. Janet becomes infected with HIV when a bullet fired by Ted passes through their HIV-positive son Wade and into her. Ted happens to be shooting at Wade because he has just discovered that Wade has slept with Ted's new wife, Nickie, and Nickie, too, becomes infected. Another character, Beth, thinks she has HIV, but her case turns out to be a false positive. Ted, in turn, comes down with liver cancer (though no one suggests that it's HIV-related).
Or maybe Coupland isn't writing about AIDS. It's hard to tell. The name of the disease is not mentioned until page 46; everyone infected with HIV is cured, more or less by magic; and the plot is so baroque that Wade's recap of events to Sarah, two-thirds of the way into the book, omits AIDS altogether. (Skip to the next paragraph if you don't like plot summaries.)
"I'm standing outside a trailer in Orlando's shittiest neighborhood. It belongs to a guy named Kevin whose arm was shot up in the restaurant holdup yesterday. By the way, Mom and Nickie are best friends now. What else..." Probably best not to tell her that we're hiding out here from the thugs who kidnapped her husband. Should I go on? Why not. "And then a few hours ago, me, Mom, Dad and Bryan rescued Shw from these freaky rich people in Daytona Beach who were going to lock Shw in their basement prison, steal her baby, and then probably kill her--so suddenly Shw's all nicey-nicey, and Bryan's like a pig in clover. Oh, by the way, Shw's real name is Emily."
Kevin is the book's one gay character, a waiter kept mostly offstage, whose trailer home is described as "faggy." Shw was not toilet-trained as a child and was allowed to choose her own name (it stands for Sogetsu Hernando Watanabe) as a teenager.
Should I go on? Not for much longer. There's nothing wrong in principle with a farce about AIDS. I liked David Feinberg's Eighty-Sixed, for example. Everything is or should be laughable, even sad and infuriating things. But Coupland jump-cuts directly from smarty-pants mania to saccharine happy ending, with no emotional in-between. In this novel, the feelings stirred up by AIDS range from "And these HIV drug cocktail thingies make you grow fat deposits in the weirdest places--I could end up with six tits" to "This HIV thing, now that I think about it, is almost like a relief--it's like we're a part of a big death club," until finally the reader witnesses "a simple peaceful wave of light passing through" the characters as they are cured. At best, Coupland's humor will help to exhaust the shock value of the disease.
All Families Are Psychotic is not a meanspirited book. Nor is there any psychosis in it. "Psychotic," here, is just a synonym for "wacky"--a word to athetize people who can't be understood without the expense of further attention. In fact, Coupland's characters are homely, safe neurotics. As Janet shouts to Florian, late in the novel, "Don't let Bryan or Emily be killed or beaten--they're not evil--they're merely idiots." Fair enough. But it's not quite fair of Janet to claim that "we're people, not cartoons" when her son discovers her in bed with her ex-husband. Coupland hasn't spent enough attention on the Drummond family for us to see how it is unhappy in its own way.
It's been three years since Gen. Augusto Pinochet was detained in London under the European Anti-Terrorism Convention for crimes that included terrorist atrocities. If George W. Bush is serious about directing "every resource at our command" to defeating terrorism, Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive reminds us, there's one relatively easy step he can take: Indict the former Chilean dictator.
General Pinochet, whose rise to power with US support in 1973 first marked September 11 as a bloody day in history, is responsible for what was considered until that hijacked jet rammed the Pentagon as the most infamous act of political terrorism committed in our nation's capital--the September 21, 1976, car-bombing murders of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt. Janet Reno's Justice Department concluded as much after reopening an investigation into his culpability in 1998, sending a team of FBI agents to Chile and reviewing hundreds of still top-secret intelligence reports. But Attorney General John Ashcroft's Justice Department, which inherited the all-but-signed indictment, has refused to prosecute the case--without explanation.
"There is no room for neutrality on terrorism," New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said in his October 1 speech to the United Nations. "On one side is democracy, the rule of law and respect for human life. On the other is tyranny, arbitrary executions and mass murder." Pinochet clearly falls into the latter camp. By indicting the general, George W. Bush can signal the world that the United States will use international law-enforcement powers to pursue those who commit atrocities on our soil. And it would show that Washington's "zero tolerance" for terrorism extends to those who were once our allies, as well as those who are our sworn enemies.
This year the Nobel Peace Prize committee got it stunningly right when it honored the United Nations and Secretary General Kofi Annan. For all its bureaucratic and political timidity, the UN has kept alive and vital the idea of collective action for peace by the nations of the world that was central to its founding--an idea of particular importance right now as the world struggles to find a way to deal with terrorism. Despite being handicapped by US indifference, if not hostility, it has made a major contribution in places like East Timor and Cambodia and has galvanized international action on problems like small arms and AIDS.
Central to the UN's renewed credibility on the world stage has been the leadership of Kofi Annan, which has elevated morale within the organization and won the trust of its 189 fractious members. Annan has exhibited a talent for soothing the tender egos of potentates and chieftains jealous of their sovereignty--including the US Congress, whose members he charmed into paying up a portion of America's back dues.
Of course, much of what the UN has accomplished in recent years has been in spite of the United States, which has used it to advance parochial interests or dumped it whenever it wanted to act unilaterally. This do-it-our-way-or-we're-picking-up-our-marbles relationship is unworthy of the UN's importance. It is also contrary to America's national interest.
US foreign policy would be better served if Washington let the UN be a moral as well as a practical guide to American diplomacy. As Washington has discovered, the battle against terrorism is also a battle for the political soul of millions in the Arab and Islamic worlds. Conferences like the recent one in Durban, on racism, tell us just how out of touch America is with the sentiments of many people around the globe.
Now with the bombing in Afghanistan sparking upheavals in the Muslim world and threatening to create a humanitarian crisis, the need for Washington to work with and through the UN has never been more compelling. The allies need a large blue UN umbrella to counter Muslim charges of a US holy war against Islam. Significantly, Iran, a theocracy at odds with America, endorsed the concept of a UN-led fight against terrorism and offered assistance in rescuing downed US fliers. UN participation is essential to preserving a broad coalition against terrorism, and even George W. Bush admits that the UN has a role to play in planning for reconstruction in Afghanistan. Washington should throw full support behind Annan's seasoned special representative for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi. But the real test of Washington's newfound appreciation of the UN is whether America will provide the resources the UN needs to carry out its mission.
Even more urgent is action on the humanitarian front, as Afghans flee their homes and food supplies dwindle. Here the call by UN human rights commissioner Mary Robinson for a pause in the bombing to permit a massive international relief effort before the imminent arrival of winter makes great sense. The US should heed Robinson's call, simultaneously advancing a political vision for Afghanistan in which the UN plays the leading role. Preventing widespread starvation should be a major concern of the United States and its allies. If it is not, all the claimed moral and legal justifications for military action vanish.
The twin towers had barely toppled before the ubiquitous Henry Kissinger was on TV proclaiming the gravity of the assault and the urgency of American retaliation. The Forrest Gump of international disaster, Kissinger has been repeating the identical commentary for thirty years: Other countries commit inexplicable crimes against the United States; our national will is being tested; military power must be relentlessly employed. No matter how ponderous the tone or predictable the message, the networks never seem to tire of him.
Why is this guy still on the air? We can set aside the irony of an individual who has caused so many civilian deaths in the world moralizing about "terrorism." The fact remains that when Kissinger and Richard Nixon were in charge, their biggest military project--the war in Vietnam--ended in humiliating defeat. Although this enterprise devastated three countries, produced upward of a million casualties and left 20,000 American soldiers dead on their watch alone, it has never diminished Kissinger's stature as a pundit.
As is well known, during their tenure in office both Nixon and Kissinger were obsessed with matters of secrecy. And it turns out that they were wise. Without nosy reporters on the ground, the two benefited from those government regulations that have kept the important records of their international activities concealed for all these years. For extra insurance, Kissinger carefully stashed his official papers in the Library of Congress, with instructions that they not be opened until five years after his death.
But now the relevant documents and tapes are finally being declassified. And since Kissinger's transactions involved more people than himself, copies of his hidden papers are turning up in other collections. It is on these rich materials that Larry Berman has based No Peace, No Honor, his provocative new study of the 1968-73 Vietnam peace negotiations and the final treaty, for which Kissinger and his North Vietnamese adversary Le Duc Tho received the Nobel Peace Prize.
It is hardly a revelation that this agreement was a failure, but what Berman makes clear is that it was also a fraud. The North Vietnamese had no intention of abiding by its provisions, having dedicated their lives to reunifying their country. Nor did Kissinger and Nixon intend any halt in the hostilities: Once the remaining American troops were home and the POWs released, they expected Saigon to continue the fight, while the US government would return to bombing.
In the President's address to the nation on January 23, 1973, he exhorted his listeners to "be proud that America did not settle for a peace that would have betrayed our allies, that would have abandoned our prisoners of war, or that would have ended the war for us but would have continued the war for the 50 million people of Indochina."
This was gross deception. As finally drafted, the Paris accords made no mention of the more than 150,000 North Vietnamese soldiers remaining in the South. Their presence virtually guaranteed continued warfare. While a central feature of the agreement was "a cease-fire in place," Berman demonstrates in painstaking detail how nonsensical that provision really was.
For a cease-fire to have worked, there would have to have been a mutually accepted definition of who controlled what area. Yet this task was never undertaken. Instead, the responsibility was left to a future Two-Power Joint Military Commission, composed of the Saigon regime and the communist Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) in the South. Yet neither side had accepted the legitimacy of the other, nor given the slightest indication that it would cooperate on anything. This flawed procedure reflected the "total disinterest at the highest levels in any of the details for securing the peace."
Indeed, US officials had signaled their true expectations by rushing millions of dollars of new military equipment to South Vietnam, transferring to it the title of US bases and assisting the South Vietnamese Army to gain as much territory as possible before US troops withdrew. Despite these efforts, there was fury in Saigon when the provisions of the accord became known in mid-October 1972. President Nguyen Van Thieu assailed Kissinger: "The South Vietnamese people will assume that we have been sold out by the United States and that North Vietnam has won the war." His country might be "scarcely more than a dot on the map of the world to you," but "for us, the choice is between life and death." To sign the agreement "would be accepting a death sentence."
From the South Vietnamese perspective, the crucial point was that the United States was withdrawing its troops while leaving in place the soldiers of North Vietnam. The United States was also accepting the principle that Vietnam was one country, that the PRG was a valid entity with the right to negotiate with the Saigon government on the basis of equality, and that a tripartite Committee of National Reconciliation would be created to oversee the elections. In Thieu's assessment, this latter body was tantamount to a new coalition government.
Faced with Saigon's recalcitrance, Kissinger was beside himself. For years, Le Duc Tho had been insisting on Thieu's removal as the condition for peace, and now that position had been abandoned. Yet the South Vietnamese leadership was ungrateful. Kissinger warned that "if we have to, the United States can sign a separate peace treaty with Hanoi," but "as for me, I'll never set foot in Saigon again. Not after this. This is the worst failure of my diplomatic career!"
Had the choice been his alone, Kissinger would probably have held Thieu's feet to the fire. But in the weeks preceding the US presidential election, Nixon did not want to be perceived as betraying an ally, especially when more than 50,000 young Americans had laid down their lives for the alleged purpose of saving it. However, by temporizing with Saigon, the Administration provoked Hanoi into withdrawing some previous concessions.
Using the new documents, Berman does an exemplary job of showing how the peace negotiations fell apart in December 1972, and how Nixon chose to bomb North Vietnam "in order to pressure the South, yet happy that the American public would believe that he had succeeded in pressuring the North." He also makes clear how, in the aftermath of the famous "Christmas bombing," Nixon forced Thieu to sign an agreement that the latter believed would destroy his country.
Several of these points have appeared in earlier works, by Seymour Hersh, Walter Isaacson and historian Jeffrey Kimball. Berman's special contribution is to show that both Kissinger and Nixon recognized that the Paris accords were inherently unworkable; that they took no serious steps to insure their implementation; and that they were primarily concerned with circumventing the newly elected Congress, which was expected to cut off all funding for American involvement in Vietnam, come January 1973.
By completing the peace settlement and freeing the POWs, they hoped for public acquiescence in their resumption of the bombing. This was a recipe for "permanent war (air war, not ground operations)," a program of "indefinite stalemate by using the B-52s to prop up the government of South Vietnam" until the end of Nixon's second term.
Along with other writers, Berman acknowledges the resemblance between the final Paris treaty and proposals offered by North Vietnam as early as 1969. From this standpoint, "we can only conclude that many tens of thousands died for very little, or simply while waiting for Thieu to give in." And there is the obvious implication that, had Congress permitted, Kissinger and Nixon would have continued to use the B-52s for four more years, yielding even more destruction and human suffering.
Had Berman stopped here, No Peace, No Honor would have stood as a tightly argued, clear contribution to the literature on the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, he muddies the waters by his repeated suggestion that Kissinger and Nixon betrayed the South Vietnamese regime by bludgeoning it into a disadvantageous peace agreement. He actually concludes his book with the sorrowful reflection of Gen. Vernon Walters: "We let 39 million people fall into slavery."
For decades this has been the outlook of former South Vietnamese officials, as well as that of some US military people. But it is curious to find it here, since the entire thrust of Berman's narrative is to show the exact opposite, i.e., that Nixon and Kissinger did not plan to abandon South Vietnam. Though deceiving the American public that the war was finished, they were never planning to leave.
Indeed, Berman clearly demonstrates that the main obstacle to an early peace treaty was the US insistence on keeping Thieu in power. One motivation was Nixon's dirty deal back in 1968, when in order to win the election he encouraged the South Vietnamese leader to undermine Lyndon Johnson's peace efforts. This had left him in Thieu's debt. But what was more important, Thieu was needed for the guaranteed return of American air power. Any one else was "likely to move toward a coalition government and would reject B-52s," propelling South Vietnam into the neutralist camp.
In dealing with Saigon's officials, Kissinger could be insulting and inclined to treat them like lackeys, but he was understandably frustrated by their inability to grasp the real situation. Nixon was giving them the best deal they could get. As Kissinger lamented, "Haig and I, who have saved you before, are in despair about you." Of course, the North Vietnamese would cheat, but with a peace treaty, the United States would have the legal basis to strike back. Without one, "all our aid will be cut off, that is why we who support you despair of your short-sightedness."
By illogically endorsing the notion that the Nixon Administration handed South Vietnam to the Communists, Berman has given fresh grist to the American right. He has also neglected the point that South Vietnam was never a country in any ordinary sense of the term, that the regimes in place during the period of US involvement were always artifacts of American power and that South Vietnam's governing class was corrupt, incompetent and cruel.
Berman expresses no curiosity about the fact that as of January 1973, Saigon had an estimated 38,000 political prisoners in its jails; nor does he wonder why it was that despite an army of 1 million men, equipped with the most modern American weapons, it was afraid to face a much smaller enemy.
Had this book been written thirty years ago, one might say that all this was widely known and did not bear repeating. But the majority of Berman's readers will have little information about the Saigon regime, nor will they necessarily understand that three US administrations, including that of Richard Nixon, had used unprecedented levels of firepower to expel the Communists from South Vietnam, with the perverse result that they grew stronger.
From this narrative, one could even gain the impression that it was the US peace movement that was at fault, since it narrowed White House options. What Berman does not adequately explain is that the peace movement was itself the product of a brutal, ineffectual war that by 1972 appeared to millions of Americans, and indeed to many of Kissinger's and Nixon's most prominent colleagues, as pointless murder.
It is true that in their conduct of the Vietnam War, Nixon and Kissinger were continuing many of the appalling practices of their predecessors. Yet it matters that they came later, when there was strong political support for withdrawal. While previous administrations clung to the illusion of victory, theirs did not. Moreover, with the opening to China and the improved relations with the Soviet Union, any geopolitical rationale for the war had evaporated.
And yet they persisted. There is betrayal in this story. However, it was the betrayal not of the puppet regime in Saigon but of the people in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and the United States who lost their lives needlessly.
At the controls of an overgrown national security state, Nixon and Kissinger had become unhooked even from their own bureaucracies. Indifferent to the human costs and with no practical objectives to be achieved, the two were indulging their own predilection for violence while asserting the power of the United States as a goal in itself.
From the presidential tapes, Berman quotes Nixon: "I'm not worried about bombing pauses, I'm, we're gonna take out...the power plants, we're gonna take out Haiphong, we're gonna...level that goddamn country!" And Kissinger: "Mr. President, I think, I think the American people understand that."
Sometimes fanatics wear business suits. Why is Henry Kissinger still on television? Because as a society we have denied our own history, and we confront the frightening present in a state of ill-founded innocence.
While the United States has spent the past few weeks imploring other countries to cooperate with our war on terrorism, behind the scenes it's apparently retaining an isolationist agenda. In a particularly ill-timed maneuver, the Administration on September 25 pledged to support the deceptively titled American Servicemembers Protection Act (ASPA), sponsored by Republicans Jesse Helms, Henry Hyde and Tom DeLay.
Although it has largely eluded public attention, ASPA is a slap in the face to the many allies that have spent years struggling to construct a legitimate vehicle for combating the most vicious war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. For ASPA not only prohibits all US cooperation with the International Criminal Court (ICC), it suspends military assistance to any non-NATO member (except certain allies like Israel, Japan and Egypt) that joins the court, rejects participation in any UN peacekeeping operations unless the Security Council exempts American soldiers from prosecution by the court and authorizes the President to use "all means necessary" to liberate Americans or allies held by the international tribunal (hence its European nickname, "The Hague Invasion Act").
Until now, the bill might have been dismissed as meaningless venting by a handful of extremists. But the Administration's support gives it a far more sober--and sinister--tone. The Administration signed on after negotiating changes that eliminate some of the original bill's thornier constitutional problems. (The President could now provide military assistance to a country that participates in the ICC if he deems it in the national interest, for example.) But those changes and Bush's support also make it far more likely that this public proclamation opposing an international effort to bring perpetrators of terrorism and genocide to justice will become law.
This obstruction is particularly ironic now, when the United States is insisting on world collaboration against terrorism. But it's also distressing because our government is a signatory to the 1998 Rome treaty that created the court. Although Clinton expressed reservations when he signed it, he at least committed the United States to work toward creating an international court it could support. Even if this Administration won't ratify the treaty in its current form, supporting a bill that undermines a treaty we've already signed and threatening the treaty's supporters is a remarkably underhanded maneuver, given the mask of international cooperation we're now strutting out on the world stage.
Sure, Jesse Helms labels it a "kangaroo court," but keep in mind what the International Criminal Court will be. Hammered out over more than five years by hundreds of international lawyers, scholars and diplomats, including many Americans, the court--which is expected to receive the necessary sixty ratifications by next summer--will be a permanent institution based in The Hague equipped to try, in addition to genocide and strictly defined war crimes, just the sort of crime against humanity we saw on September 11. Setting aside whether military action is justified to seize the perpetrators, if the court existed today it's possible we could have avoided the issue altogether. An international court holds a legitimacy in the eyes of the international community that a United States court cannot. Even a government like the Taliban might have a harder time refusing to turn over suspected terrorists to an international tribunal than to what it views as suspect US authorities.
Opponents claim the court would place American soldiers and officials at risk of frivolous political prosecutions. That ignores the many elaborate constraints written into the Rome statute. Moreover, the court will be controlled by our allies. Right now, we're aligned with countries like Iraq that oppose it. But all NATO members (except Turkey) have signed and most have ratified the treaty, as have most of the nations in the EU, which has announced its intent to ratify, calling it "an essential means of promoting respect for international humanitarian law and human rights." Recently, Great Britain--now our closest ally in the war against terrorism--became the forty-second country to ratify. (Switzerland is the latest to follow suit.)
Republicans have whipped up fears that the ICC is a rogue court that would prosecute Americans and deny them due process. But the treaty provides virtually all rights guaranteed by the US Constitution except a jury trial. Notably, the American Bar Association--always sensitive to such concerns and hardly a body of radicals--is a strong ICC supporter.
Given all the statute's safeguards, the only people truly threatened by the International Criminal Court are those who commit genocide, intentional large-scale war crimes or "widespread or systematic" crimes against humanity. The Administration's support for ASPA suggests it wants to raise American officials above international law. This is a bad time to be pressing that point, both on our allies and before our enemies. For if part of what sparks hostility toward the United States is our arrogance, then actively undermining this landmark step toward worldwide enforcement of the rule of law will only fuel it.
I would like an unbroken stretch of drizzly
weekday afternoons, in a moulting season:
nowhere else to go but across the street for
bread, and the paper.
Later, faces, voices across a table,
or an autumn fricassee, cèpes and shallots,
sipping Gigandas as I dice and hum to
No one's waiting for me across an ocean.
What I can't understand or change is distant.
War is a debate, or at worst, a headlined
nightmare. But waking
it will be there still, and one morning closer
to my implication in what I never
chose, elected, as my natal sky rains down
Although it may appear that the aftershocks of September 11 have somewhat deposed the discourse of human rights and international law and replaced it with that of law and order, there is still a great deal to fight for. If anything, in fact, the new context makes it more urgent that there be solid rules of international criminal evidence and reliable institutions of international law. . . .The most vocal public opponent of the principles of "universal jurisdiction" is Henry Kissinger, who has a laughably self-interested chapter on the subject in his turgid new book Does America Need a Foreign Policy? (a volume, incidentally, that if it had any other merit might be considered as a candidate for title of the year). . . . It was utterly nauseating to see Kissinger re-enthroned as a pundit in the aftermath of September 11, talking his usual "windy, militant trash," to borrow Auden's phrase for it.
"God Diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder," the satirical magazine The Onion has proclaimed, citing "His confusing propensity to alternately reward and punish His creations with little rhyme or reason." Given His omnipotence, it's hardly surprising that God often drives people crazy: His affliction becomes our own. Consider the violent mood swings, between ecstasy and despair, that characterized historic religious revivals. As eighteenth-century evangelist Jonathan Edwards attested, "Those who are saved are successively in two extremely different states--first in a state of condemnation and then in a state of justification and blessedness." There is method to this madness, Edwards explained. God wanted us to appreciate the "evil from which he delivers us, in order that we may know and feel the importance of salvation."
More than 200 years later, Americans are still wrestling with evil, quite literally, according to sociologist Michael Cuneo. In American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty, he examines popular notions of demonic possession and rituals of deliverance from evil. Exorcism is a "booming business" (if not a highly visible one), Cuneo claims, particularly among charismatic Protestants and Catholics. The Catholic Church has been skeptical of demonic-possession cases, he notes, but "maverick priests" began performing exorcisms during the 1970s and '80s. Meanwhile, Pentecostalism, an ecstatic form of worship institutionalized in the early 1900s, involving spirit baptism and speaking in tongues, began to influence mainline Protestant churches, contributing to the rise of charismatic "deliverance ministries."
What inspired a cultural preoccupation with demons? Tracing the apparent rise of demonology in late-twentieth-century America, Cuneo attributes contemporary interest in exorcism partly to popular entertainments (the 1973 film version of William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist is often cited for inspiring belief in possession). He also sees in the demand for exorcisms a stereotypically American quest for reinvention. Cuneo attended "dozens" of exorcisms and talked to "hundreds" of people (Catholic and Protestant) who believe that demonic possession (or the lesser evil of demonic affliction) are routine occurrences in contemporary America. "Untold numbers" of ordinary middle-class people believe that they have been possessed or afflicted by demons and have undergone exorcisms, he asserts.
It's difficult to evaluate this claim: You can't substantiate, much less confirm, a number that's "untold." According to Michael Cromartie, director of the Evangelical Studies Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, there was a surge of interest in exorcism in the 1970s, but ministries that practice exorcisms or deliverance rituals constitute a very small, almost imperceptible subculture of conservative Protestantism today. Cuneo's evidence of exorcism's entrenched popularity is mainly anecdotal and circumstantial. In addition to accounts of the exorcisms he's witnessed and the exorcists he's interviewed, he relies on cultural indications of a widespread belief in demonism, like hysteria about satanic cults that emerged in the late 1980s and early '90s.
But whether exorcisms and an underlying belief in demonic influences are practically mainstream or merely fringe phenomena, they're worth considering, partly because they demonstrate the connections between religion and therapy in America. Cuneo is both a skeptical and sensitive observer; if his work does not stand up as social science, it includes some astute social criticism. As he observes, these outré religious rituals and beliefs mirror the preoccupations of popular therapeutic culture (partly because some popular therapies are rooted in religion). The notion of addiction promoted by the recovery movement resembles possession: Addiction is a disease of the will that takes control of its victims and can be cured only by surrender to the will of a Higher Power. The notion of demonic affliction promoted by some deliverance ministries, according to Cuneo, resembles addiction: Sometimes people are delivered merely from unwanted habits and impulses--like gluttony or lust (what a twelve-stepper might call a sex or food addiction). And, like familial dysfunction, demons can apparently be inherited: Some people, it seems, suffer from "congenital demonism" or "transgenerational evil."
As it made its way into American culture, demonism became rather banal, Cuneo observes: Exorcism "was converted... into a kind of suburban home remedy," and by the early 1980s, middle-class charismatics were seeking to expel their "demons" of anger, resentment, frustration, lust and addiction. Like co-dependency, demonic affliction was apt to be blamed for a multitude of "symptoms" from which everyone was bound to suffer, or simply for a sense of discontent or unease. "I felt there was something inside me, holding me back, dragging me down," one woman says, describing her affliction. An exorcist recalls delivering a woman from "seventy different demons--demons of lust and violence and duplicity--they just kept manifesting." It's not hard to imagine the same woman being diagnosed with multiple personality disorder, had she been in recovered-memory therapy instead of church. Meanwhile, people engaged in psychotherapy talk about exorcising demons.
Some of the exorcists Cuneo interviews lament the trivialization of demonism and advise some people demanding exorcisms to seek counseling instead. Others who are less honorable or more certain of their own righteousness, as well as their ability to identify demons, engage in "blatant emotional manipulation," Cuneo writes: Just as recovered memory therapists supplied their patients with incest stories, some prayer groups pressure people into acknowledging that they're demonized. A belief in your own affliction may be hard to resist, Cuneo surmises, if you want to participate in the agony and ecstasy that deliverance provides. And once delivered, you can be part of an elite, like someone who has survived co-dependency or been enlightened by therapy.
Of course, a sociological analysis of exorcism or any form of therapy seems uninformed, unenlightened and insulting to people who believe in demons (literal or metaphoric) and consider themselves saved by an exorcism, a twelve-step group or some other curative ritual. Cuneo suspects that exorcisms conducted with compassion and humility can be genuinely therapeutic, whether the demons they expel are real or imagined. But, as he observes, the dearth of hard data makes it impossible to know whether exorcisms are generally helpful or hurtful. There are no longitudinal studies of people who've undergone exorcisms (just as there are virtually no reliable outcome studies of various pop therapies). All we have is the personal testimony of believers.
Cuneo seems surprised that exorcism can flourish in contemporary America; despite his sympathy for the possessed and the exorcists who try to help them, his book has the tone of an exposé. But the news is familiar. According to a 2000 Gallup poll, some 79 percent of Americans believe in angels. Why shouldn't they believe in demons as well? There's less virtue in going to heaven if you haven't been tempted by hell.
Since September 11, Thomas Friedman has been in fine form. In his New York Times column, he has composed a letter for George W. Bush to send to Osama bin Laden, urged Vladimir Putin to enlist the Russian mafia to rub him out and berated those who would use the Trade Center and Pentagon attacks to raise questions about US foreign policy. In an October 5 column headlined, "Yes, but What?" Friedman wrote, "One can only be amazed at the ease with which some people abroad and at campus teach-ins now tell us what motivated the terrorists. Guess what? The terrorists didn't leave an explanatory note. Because their deed was their note: We want to destroy America, starting with its military and financial centers." Friedman reserved special scorn for those seeking to use the attacks to renew the Israeli-Palestinian peace process: "Have you ever seen Osama bin Laden say, 'I just want to see a smaller Israel in its pre-1967 borders,' or 'I have no problem with America, it just needs to have a lower cultural and military profile in the Muslim world'? These terrorists aren't out for a new kind of coexistence with us. They are out for our nonexistence. None of this seems to have seeped into the 'Yes, but...' crowd, whose most prominent 'Yes, but' states: This terrorist act would never have happened if America hadn't been so supportive of Israel."
Friedman is hardly alone in pushing this line. In Newsweek, for instance, Jonathan Alter blasted "Blame America Firsters" who have "repeatedly breached" the line "between explaining terrorism and rationalizing it." Jim Hoagland, in the Washington Post, warned that the United States should not be inhibited from using "coercive power" in the Middle East by "excessive fear of reaction in the so-called 'Arab street.'" The New Republic has repeatedly inveighed against what it sees as the capitulationism of the Yes, but-ers, and Christopher Hitchens in these pages kicked up a storm by arguing against "rationalization" of terror. "Does anyone suppose that an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza would have forestalled the slaughter in Manhattan?" he asked.
Against this backdrop, I was fascinated to read "Why Do They Hate Us?" Fareed Zakaria's cover story in the October 15 Newsweek. Zakaria is a blue-chip member of the foreign policy establishment. A native of India who earned a BA from Yale and a PhD from Harvard, he served from 1993 to 2000 as managing editor of Foreign Affairs. A sort of junior Kissinger, Zakaria has never hidden his disdain for those naïve souls who do not share his hardheaded balance-of-power worldview. I recall attending a discussion group several years ago, when the Clinton Administration was still debating whether to intervene in Bosnia; Zakaria expressed world-weary impatience with those who argued for humanitarian intervention and nation-building.
I was thus surprised by his 7,000-word take on the current crisis. Zakaria devotes the first part of his article to an astute dissection of the failures of the Arab world. Today, he observed, almost every Arab country "is less free than it was 30 years ago." Analyzing the causes of that decline, Zakaria described how young Arab men, often better educated than their parents, leave their villages in search of work and "arrive in noisy, crowded cities like Cairo, Beirut and Damascus." Here, "they see great disparities of wealth and the disorienting effects of modernity; most unsettlingly, they see women, unveiled and in public places, taking buses, eating in cafes and working alongside them." Surrounded by the shiny products of globalization but unable to consume them, and denied all outlets for venting their frustrations, these alienated young men have fed a resurgence of Islam.
That, in turn, has sparked a wave of what he calls "raw anti-Americanism." In exploring the roots of this, Zakaria harshly scrutinizes US policies in the region. As recently as the 1960s, he writes, America was widely admired in the Arab world. Since then, however, "the daily exposure to Israel's iron-fisted rule over the occupied territories has turned this into the great cause of the Arab--and indeed the broader Islamic--world. Elsewhere, they look at American policy in the region as cynically geared to America's oil interests, supporting thugs and tyrants without any hesitation. Finally, the bombing and isolation of Iraq have become fodder for daily attacks on the United States." Zakaria especially faults the United States for its "sins of omission," including its failure to press Arab regimes to open up. In response to the current crisis, he goes on, the United States should adopt a long-term strategy on three fronts--a military effort, aimed at the "total destruction of Al Qaeda"; a political effort, stressing multilateralism, cooperation with the United Nations and a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and a cultural strategy seeking to help Islam "enter the modern world," in part by pressing Muslim nations to reform.
This seems a far cry from Henry Kissinger. And, toward the end of his piece, Zakaria acknowledges his changing views: "I have myself been skeptical of nation-building in places where our interests were unclear and it seemed unlikely that we would stay the course." In the current instance, he added, "stable political development is the key to reducing our single greatest security threat. We have no option but to get back into the nation-building business."
Zakaria's interest in nation-building and a peace settlement in the Middle East does not mean he's rationalizing terrorism. On the contrary, he fully supports the current campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. His position shows that re-examining the US role in the region does not preclude taking a tough stand on terrorism. In fact, it can be argued that adjusting US policies in the Middle East--for instance, by resolving the Palestinian problem--could further the campaign against bin Laden by making it easier for Washington to keep its coalition together.
At least one other conservative has made an about-face similar to Zakaria's. George Bush's recent endorsement of nation-building in Afghanistan and his expressions of support for a Palestinian state show that he readily accepts the need to reassess US policies in the Islamic world. To the extent that there is a "Yes, but..." crowd, the President seems to be its leading member.