Noah Isenberg reviews Communazis, by Alexander Stephan.
STILL LOSING RUSSIA
"As a result of the Yeltsin era, all the fundamental sectors of our state, economic, cultural and moral life have been destroyed or looted," lamented Alexander Solzhenitsyn earlier this year--quoted, with no doubt a great sense of historical irony, by Stephen F. Cohen in his latest book, Failed Crusade. Some of former "Sovieticus" columnist and frequent Nation contributor Cohen's reportage will be familiar to readers of the magazine, reprising pieces that appeared here and elsewhere, with new chapters bringing the perspectives up to the minute. He traces the history of the impulse to remake Russia in the US image and its resurgence in mainstream thinking by 1992, the first post-Soviet year and last gasp of the Bush Administration. Cohen then proceeds to chronicle how both Russia specialists and the press badly mischaracterized events, to the point of malpractice. In "Transition or Tragedy?" for instance, the most widely reprinted of his articles in the 1990s, Cohen warned that a national tragedy was unfolding about which Westerners would be told little but instead be assured that the transition to a free market "has progressed remarkably." No wonder, he writes, "few readers of the American press were prepared for Russia's economic collapse and financial scandals of the late 1990s." After a catalogue of how the picture has been distorted, the ensuing portions of the book present Cohen's analysis of developments from 1992 to 2000, arranged chronologically, and then his recommendations in working toward a new Russia policy.
In his bracingly corrective view, Cohen concludes that "the missionary crusade of the 1990s was not only the worst American foreign policy disaster since Vietnam; its consequences have contributed to new and unprecedented dangers." Among the necessary remedies: much new thinking in US circles, an openness to Russian-derived solutions and extension of substantial financial aid. His warning is dire, but so is the situation: "For the first time in history, a fully nuclearized country has already been perilously destabilized, but still there is no sufficient American understanding."
One of the many casualties of the Palestinian intifada in the occupied territories, now entering its third month, is the alliance between the Palestinian national movement and many members of the Israeli "peace camp." These links were forged in the first intifada between 1987 and 1992, when Israeli peace activists defied army curfews imposed on Palestinian villages and Israel's Peace Now movement called publicly for negotiations with the then-outlawed PLO--a call eventually adopted by the Israeli government in the 1993 Oslo accords.
But the initial response of the Israeli peace camp to the present uprising was "silence, recrimination, even a sense of betrayal," admits Arie Arnon, a leader of Peace Now. As for the Palestinians, they have looked instead for solidarity with the million or so Palestinian citizens of Israel and with the rest of the Arab world.
One reason for the breach has been the increasingly military cast of the conflict. The Israeli Army has sought to quell the revolt since its outbreak on September 28 through blockades on Palestinian Authority-controlled areas and aerial bombardments of Palestinian cities, villages and refugee camps. It has also deployed snipers, using live ammunition and sometimes silencers, against what remain overwhelmingly unarmed demonstrations.
In response, Palestinians--especially the cadre from Yasir Arafat's Fatah movement--have resorted to guerrilla warfare, targeting army bases, Jewish settlements and the roads that connect them. These have been joined by attacks on civilians inside Israel proper, with bomb blasts in West Jerusalem on November 2 and the Israeli town of Hadera on November 21, the first claimed by the Islamic Jihad movement.
The character of the war is reflected in the body count. According to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, by the end of November 247 Palestinians had been killed by army or settler fire and 9,640 wounded. The Israeli toll was thirty-three, with 230 wounded. Overall, this amounts to 80 percent of the total fatalities from the 1987-92 intifada. The difference is, that revolt lasted almost six years; this one, two months.
But a second reason for the breach between Israeli and Palestinian peace activists is that, to a large swath of the Israeli left, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's Camp David proposals of this past July "were a huge step forward in the direction of peace," says Arnon. Because of this perception many on the Israeli left bought the Israeli government's line--voiced most eloquently by acting Foreign Minister and former peace activist Shlomo Ben-Ami--that Arafat had orchestrated the uprising to evade the "difficult historical decisions" placed before him at the summit.
It was a charge that outraged the Palestinians, including those secular leftist intellectuals who had been the Israeli peace camp's natural allies during the first intifada. But they were not surprised by it. "It was the culmination of a process we had been witnessing for a long time," says Rema Hammami, a Palestinian feminist researcher at Birzeit University in the West Bank.
That process was called Oslo, which the Israeli peace camp embraced as a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. "The Israeli left was preoccupied with defining themselves vis-à-vis the anti-Oslo right," she says. "They never bothered to look at what Oslo meant on the ground for the Palestinians, which was not peace but a new form of Palestinian dispossession."
The clearest instance of that dispossession was Israel's ongoing settlement policies throughout the Oslo era, whether by pro-Oslo Labor or anti-Oslo Likud governments. The scale of colonization has been "amazing," admits Arnon of Peace Now, which has tracked Israel's settlement construction in the occupied territories. According to Peace Now, such construction has increased 52 percent since September 1993, including 17 percent (some 2,830 housing units) during the eighteen-month tenure of Barak's "One Israel" government. The expansion has swelled the settler population in the West Bank and Gaza by 72 percent, from 115,000 in 1993 to 195,000 today and a projected 200,000 by the end of the year. In addition, 180,000 Jewish settlers reside in occupied East Jerusalem, making an overall settler population of 380,000 amid 3.4 million Palestinians.
The settlers live in 145 official settlements and fifty-five unofficial outposts scattered throughout the territories and connected by a web of settlers-only bypass roads, totaling nearly 300 kilometers in length. During periods of quiet, the roads and settlements prevent any contiguous urban or rural development of the 700 Palestinian areas in the West Bank and Gaza. During periods of war--such as now--they effectively become Israel's new military borders in the occupied territories, not only severing Gaza and the West Bank from each other, and both from East Jerusalem, but also each Palestinian conurbation from others within the West Bank and Gaza.
For Palestinians it was these apartheid realities that caused the intifada, far more than the "very generous offers" Barak allegedly made at Camp David. And it was to address them that on November 10 Hammami and more than 120 other Palestinian intellectuals dispatched an "Urgent Statement to the Israeli Public."
As "firm believers in a just and equitable negotiated peace between Palestinians and Israelis," the signatories warned their Israeli peers that the "critical situation that confronts us now" will be "revisited again and again." The only lasting exit is for Israel finally to recognize Palestinian national rights as granted by international law. This would mean Israel's withdrawal from the territories it occupied in the 1967 war, Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem and a "just and lasting resolution of the refugee problem in accordance with relevant UN resolutions."
It is a message that appears at last to be hitting home. On November 17, twenty-four Israeli academics--including the writer Amos Oz and the former army general Shlomo Gazit--called on the Israeli government to "freeze its settlement policy and recognise the border of 4 June 1967 as the basis for the border between Israel and Palestine." And on December 1, Peace Now made perhaps its clearest call yet for the dismantling of the settlements and the "establishment of a Palestinian state next to Israel along the 1967 borders."
Arnon admits that the armed dimension of this intifada has brought a "reality check" to the Israeli public. "Above all, it has destroyed perhaps the greatest of all Oslo's illusions: that the historical reality of the Green Line could somehow be erased and a solution could be achieved based on a new division of the West Bank rather than on Israel's withdrawal from it."
But he also believes it essential that a renewed dialogue be attempted between the Israeli peace camp and the Palestinian national movement. This is not only because "the two sides have never been closer in their positions," he says, but because "it is vital for the left to demonstrate to the wider Israeli public that there is still a partner."
Hammami is less sanguine. "How can you have alliances with people who fundamentally misunderstand you?" she asks. "Throughout the Oslo years, the Israeli left acted as though all that was needed for 'peace' was to use Israel's balance of power to impose an agreement on Arafat. It never accepted that there was such a thing as a Palestinian public opinion, a Palestinian national consensus--which is a pretty sad commentary on a constituency that prides itself on its progressive and democratic credentials. We can have shared interests, not political alliances," she concludes.
One of those shared interests appears to lie in restoring the borders of June 4, 1967. There is no longer any alternative, says Arnon, "acceptable to both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples."
London's new mayor is Thatcher's old nemesis. Is he also a leading indicator?
Travel writing is a dismal art. From Herodotus, wide-eyed (and perhaps more than a little disoriented) in an India of man-eating ants and black sperm; to Ibn Batuta, the fourteenth-century Arab wanderer who endured the thirst and marauding tribesmen of the Sahara; to Graham Greene in lawless Mexico and Redmond O'Hanlon on the untamable Amazon: The classics of the genre are journeys into the night, tales of loneliness and hardship and danger. As Ian Jack puts it, no traveler has written a better--or more exemplary--sentence than Captain Scott, who stood at the South Pole in January 1912 and wrote in his diary, "Dear God, this is an awful place."
Certainly, one would be hard pressed to find many finer sentences in Eastward to Tartary, Robert Kaplan's latest installment of gloom and hopelessness, an account of his travels in the Balkans, the Middle East and the Caucasus. Kaplan likes to quote Shakespeare and Gogol, and he has elsewhere extolled the usefulness of Conrad's writing in political analysis, but his own prose chokes on stilted aphorisms and anodyne observations. "Relative change, more than absolute change, is what history is often about," he concludes at a Romanian border post. Traveling by train between Bulgaria and Turkey, Kaplan comes to the realization that "the idea that the Internet and other new technologies annihilate distance is a half-truth." "You see, Robert," one of his informants tells him, "Hungarian nationalism, Romanian nationalism--they're all bad."
Perhaps the best that can be said about Kaplan's writing is that what it lacks in elegance, it makes up for in earnestness: As V.S. Naipaul--another traveler with a dyspeptic view of the world--has written of Conrad, his vision is flawed and unremittingly "dismal, but deeply felt." As in his earlier books--cataclysmic travelogues with titles like The Coming Anarchy, The Ends of the Earth and An Empire Wilderness--Kaplan shrouds the world in darkness, lamenting the "imprisoning desolation" and "Brezhnevian gloom" of the lands he visits. In the former Yugoslavia, in Africa, even in his own United States, whose decline he predicted in An Empire Wilderness, Kaplan has never met a society that wasn't falling apart. This dogged credo has earned him much notoriety and a considerable degree of influence: A correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, his essays are circulated in the White House and National Security Council, and his portrait of intractable "ancient hatreds" in Bosnia famously led President Clinton to conclude that intervening in the Yugoslav war would result in a quagmire (a dubious achievement that Kaplan has himself disowned). Over the course of two decades, Kaplan has established himself as the leading chronicler of the post-Communist Pax Americana, a grim reaper whose seamy version of globalization contrasts sharply with so many of the sunny--and often flippant--promises of global culture and prosperity.
Like those of many doom-mongering travelers--and like Conrad, memorably called a "bloody racist" by Chinua Achebe--Kaplan's jeremiads against the rot of the non-Western world have drawn charges of ill-informed prejudice. The Somali writer Nuruddin Farah has even suggested that Kaplan's forlorn vision of Africa was the result of a mefloquine-induced hallucination. But while it is true that Kaplan sometimes slips into mortifying disquisitions on "Asiatic" despotism and "the exotic confusion of the Orient," he deserves to be taken more seriously. In retrospect, what's striking about his books is not so much their bleakness as their prescience. Balkan Ghosts, written in 1989 and rejected by fourteen publishers before it was finally published at the start of the Yugoslav war, was an unheeded warning of the disintegration to come. In 1997, as the West was only beginning to awaken from its "end of history" delirium, Kaplan published a provocative essay in which he asked if "democracy was just a moment." (The essay coincided with an influential article by Fareed Zakaria, then the editor of Foreign Affairs, in which he similarly lamented the rise of "illiberal democracy.") The Coming Anarchy, whose eponymous essay has earned Kaplan the greatest opprobrium, was less pessimistic than downright hysterical. But it, too, evinced a remarkable ability to pierce the self-serving delusions of an African revival being bandied about by Western policy-makers. Today, as Central Africa burns amid what Madeleine Albright has called "Africa's first world war," Kaplan's portrait of civil war and disease and institutional meltdown is sadly accurate.
Eastward to Tartary returns to many of Kaplan's pet themes--indeed, one of the troublesome aspects of the book is that it sometimes seems like a not-altogether-comfortable imposition of old ideas on new geography. Traveling through some fourteen countries, Kaplan finds the familiar "erosion of [the] nation-state," pull of "blood loyalties" and evidence that "democracy was leading to separation, not reconciliation." It's hard to discern an overarching argument within the book's peripatetic structure, but the general thrust of Eastward to Tartary appears to be a return to the inferno. "Anarchy in some form or other, as I had seen, was almost everywhere," Kaplan writes near the end of the book, foreseeing "revolutionary upheaval" and "disintegrated" nations in a region where institutions are weak and ethnic strife is filling the vacuum left by the Soviet Union's collapse. The book is also a restatement of Kaplan's philosophy of political realism, a cynical faith--with intellectual roots in the writing of Thucydides and Machiavelli, both of whom Kaplan cites repeatedly--that politics is the exercise of self-interest. "What had I learned?" Kaplan asks as he ponders 4,000 miles of travel. The answer: "That power and self-interest would shape the immediate future, at least in this part of the world."
These aren't cheerful thoughts, but I fear that Kaplan's Hobbesian vision will once again prove prophetic--although, as in those earlier books, only partly so. The problem with Kaplan's bleakness is that it tends to overreach, as though driven as much by a craving for attention as by the urge to report faithfully. Kaplan's gloom is narcissistic; in love with itself, it can't get enough of its own darkness, always grasping beyond the limits of reasonable skepticism toward apocalypticism. The result is a certain misalignment of vision: Taken with the momentum of his own morose logic, he misses the real story. This tendency was notoriously pronounced in The Coming Anarchy, in which Kaplan not only foresaw (quite reasonably) a "bifurcated world"--one populated by comfortable citizens of the West, the other by the deprived denizens of the Third World--but went on to argue that, gradually, the boundaries between the two worlds would blur. "West Africa's future," he wrote, "will also be that of most of the rest of the world." What's more, Kaplan suggested, casting the shadow of his pessimism even wider, Africa (and the rest of the Third World, where Kaplan saw similar anarchy) would be responsible for the West's collapse. Like insidious viruses, the shantytowns, civil wars and tribal hatreds would slip through the borders of disintegrating nation-states, infecting the West with a "terrifying array of problems that will define a new threat to our security."
The irony, of course, is that the tragedy of the earth's wretched is in many respects precisely the opposite: that they will never escape the centrifugal pull of their collapsing societies, that today's electrified fences and immigration counters keep misery in its place more effectively than the mountains and deserts and icescapes that separated nations in an earlier age of travel. Kaplan's ambition is large: He claims allegiance to "the lay of the land" and the stories of "individuals," but, setting himself alongside Herodotus and Gibbon (to whose contemporary relevance The Coming Anarchy includes a paean), his real master is the grand sweep of History.
Under such tutelage, Kaplan becomes an incorrigible didact, turning every anecdote into an occasion for explication and instruction. The "extortionist cost" ($45) of a Turkish visa, he writes, was "part of a larger political story...that had not quite made it through the world media filter." While getting his shoes polished on the street in Turkey, he reflects that "commonplace but elaborate traditions such as baking bread and shoe maintenance...[allow] Turks to enjoy the benefits of global materialism without losing their identity." Apart from making him sound like the quintessential American tourist, Kaplan's determination to squeeze meaning out of every incident strains credibility. Just outside a decrepit train station in Bulgaria, Kaplan sees "a city of homeless youth and impoverished gypsies." This innocuous scene of poverty surrounding a railway station--ubiquitous in transport centers throughout the Third World, or indeed, visible in New York's Port Authority terminal--is proof for Kaplan that "tyranny creates a social vacuum," evidence that "social anarchy was never far from the surface here." Such moments verge on the incomprehensible: Kaplan's barren moonscapes are so devoid of redemption, so overflowing with suffering, that they appear as from a different reality.
To be fair, Eastward to Tartary's prognosis is, overall, more reasonable than The Coming Anarchy's, but it displays the same propensity for exaggeration. Kaplan is probably right that the countries he visits--the Caucasus in particular--are a caldron of ethnic hatred and political instability. He may be right, too, that a democratic free-for-all could exacerbate that instability (which is not an argument against democracy but against demagogic practitioners of democracy). But Kaplan is not satisfied with these insights. Donning his soothsayer's mantle, he prophesies Yugoslavia Round Two. "In the Caucasus, tribe and clan--not formal institutions--have always been the key to politics," he argues, apparently resurrecting the "ancient hatreds" that got him into such trouble in Balkan Ghosts. And, in fact, close on the heels of his recycled tribalism come predictions of Bosnia-style implosion. Eastward to Tartary, billed as a sequel to Balkan Ghosts, is overflowing with analogies and references to another war, in another part of the world. Indeed, part of Kaplan's purpose in writing this book is to "introduce Tartary (known today as Central Asia) as a place that has more in common with the Western Balkan countries than with the Oriental images conjured up by its exotic name." Thus, in Jordan, Prince Hassan shares with Kaplan his fears of a "balkanized Middle East with ethnic-sectarian conflict"; in Georgia, Kaplan hypothesizes that "the West would have to prove as muscular...as in the Balkans if it chose to keep these states alive"; and the Caucasus in general, for which Kaplan reserves his most ominous warnings, is destined to slide into chaos, abandoned and ignored by the West, "the Balkans of the future."
This is too dire, and sits uncomfortably with some of Kaplan's own observations. Although he pays less attention to it than might be expected, Kaplan discusses what the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, referring to the nineteenth-century quest for empire in Central Asia known as "the great game," has called "the new great game" of pipeline politics. In Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, Kaplan discovers the scramble for oil wealth that has transformed what would no doubt be another neglected corner of the world into a game of "geostrategic poker." At times, discussing this game of stakes, Kaplan seems to backtrack on his grim predictions that the West will abandon Central Asia to its fate. But the clouds never lift completely, and he is soon back on song, remarking skeptically that "remaking this part of the world...would take both the resolve of a missionary and a sheer appetite for power that the West could probably never muster." This is a curious--not to mention naïve--position for someone so wedded to the belief that states act in their self-interest. Surely the lesson of the Gulf War is that the West is quite prepared to go to battle over oil? Bosnia is a poor prism for this part of the world. Despite all the pieties about the West's fundamental interests--motivated in no small part by memories of Sarajevo's ignition of World War I and a questionable faith in the cyclical nature of history--the greatest threat posed by the implosion of Yugoslavia to its powerful neighbors was never more than a wave of refugees (and a certain aesthetic discomfort). There was no oil to defend in Bosnia; as David Rieff and Michael Ignatieff, among others, have consistently argued, the case for intervention was always based on an idealistic commitment to the alleviation of misery, and that commitment--as evidenced by Boutros Boutros-Ghali's infamous assertion to the citizens of Sarajevo that he could list at least ten places in the world worse off than they were--never ranked very high in Western priorities.
So why, despite his own apparent misgivings, is Kaplan so stubbornly attached to his trope of the Balkans? Ego may have something to do with it, as may, ironically, a certain sentimentalism. Tucked between the lines of his hard-nosed realism, Kaplan often displays a certain missionary zeal to save the miserable societies he visits. "Travel writing is only a vehicle to do something else," he has said. But a vehicle for what? Read enough of Kaplan and you start thinking that he protests too much--that all the sound and fury could well be partly an attempt to frighten the West into action. Perhaps this explains the poignant sense of loss, the almost elegiac quality, that sometimes infuses his descriptions of political and social breakdown. In Turkmenistan, in a vacant lot "filled with rusty metal and the omnipresent smell of oil," Kaplan meets his friend Anna, part Armenian, part Azeri Turk. Anna admires a rose; Kaplan reflects that, in this dismal landscape, "you must learn to extract pleasure from small things." Anna tells him--"in anguish"--about the loss of her cosmopolitan world and the rise of ethnic politics that has followed the Soviet Union's collapse. Kaplan sums it up in a line: "An empire had collapsed," he writes, "and all that remained were blood loyalties."
It's an evocative and perhaps even profound sentence--but it also suggests what seems to be the real reason for Kaplan's attachment to Bosnia. His repeated invocations of collapsing empires and orphaned states are indications of his lingering fascination with the death of what the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski has called the Soviet "imperium." Kaplan is a man of his times: He sees the world as a chessboard of competing empires, and his sepulchral vision is filtered through the lens of that era's paradigmatic political disasters. "What Vietnam was to the 1960s and 1970s, what Lebanon and Afghanistan were to the 1980s, and what the Balkans were to the 1990s, the Caspian region might be to the first decade of the new century," he writes. This is formulaic and, eleven years after the collapse of the Berlin wall, anachronistic. The world has moved on, new political forces are emerging--forces that Kaplan, ever with one eye on History, overlooks.
There is an important piece of the puzzle missing in Kaplan's descriptions of Islamic revivalism and Central Asian ferment. Although it does contain a few cameo appearances, Eastward to Tartary has surprisingly little to say about the clerical warriors of the Taliban, whose revolution in Afghanistan is sending tremors across South and Central Asia and reshaping the area Kaplan explores. As Ahmed Rashid argues in Taliban, his excellent insider's account of the continental upheaval, Afghanistan has "held Central Asia in a tight embrace for centuries," and now the rise of Taliban-sponsored fundamentalism is "sending shock waves" throughout the region. Kaplan encounters the pan-Islamic sentiments sweeping the region, but he hardly mentions the movement from which those sentiments are drawing inspiration, and in many cases material support. He describes some of the strange bedfellows emerging in Central Asia, but he only scratches the surface of the geopolitical transformations. From Russia (struggling with Islamic rebellion in Chechnya) to India (bearing the brunt of Taliban-trained militancy in Kashmir) to Shiite Iran (determined to limit the influence of the Taliban's Sunni revolution) to the United States (which has already sent its missiles in search of Afghanistan-sheltered Osama bin Laden), the world's powers are suddenly finding that they have a stake in Central Asia. Russia, which recently bullied its former Central Asian colonies into a security alliance to combat Islamic terrorism, just signed a similar agreement with India. The United States, too, has signed a counterterrorism memorandum with India, and--as Rashid recently told me--it has been conducting talks with Iran on a common strategy to handle the Taliban. China (with a nervous eye on its separatist Muslim province of Xinjiang), Pakistan and the Arab monarchies (confronted with a genie they unleashed but can no longer control), and even Indonesia and Malaysia (where the economic crisis has led to a resurgence of Islamic sentiment) are being drawn into a complex and treacherous struggle for influence in South and Central Asia.
None of this suggests that the region will be spared the mayhem envisioned by Kaplan--in fact, the mosaic of outside interests may only make matters worse. But it does suggest that far from being an orphaned corner of the post-Communist world--another Bosnia--Central Asia is emerging as the fault line in a new ideological conflict. Kaplan's view of the impending chaos is resolutely local: In his version of the post-Soviet vacuum, there is no room for such transnational alliances and interests, only for primeval ethnic and tribal ties, countries tearing themselves apart from within. Indeed, in a recent article on Pakistan, Kaplan discounts the role of the Taliban in South Asian instability, blaming instead the "bewildering complexity of ethnic and religious divisions" in Pakistan. In the process, he ignores the extent to which those divisions are being exacerbated by the fundamentalist influence of the Taliban.
Given his penchant for grand narratives, it's a little strange that Kaplan misses the larger picture, the broad canvas upon which the events he describes are unfolding. But that's the danger of serving history too faithfully. In Georgia, a man named Alexander Rondeli warns Kaplan about this. "All of us," he says, speaking of the stubbornness of ethnic animosity, "have this heavy weight from the past attached to our legs. We can only move forward while looking back." Kaplan is like Rondeli: Standing at ground zero of an emerging geopolitical order, he remains haunted by his Balkan ghosts, predicting the future while staring at the past.
Do we want a Vice President who endorses illegal detention and torture of Palestinians? Anthony Cordesman, a national security type frequently deployed as a television pundit, recently posted a paper on the website for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies recommending that Yasir Arafat's Palestinian Authority engage in just these practices to repress the latest intifada.
"Halt civil violence," Cordesman counsels, "even if it means using excessive force by the standards of Western police forces." But this is only a warm-up. "Halt terrorist and paramilitary action by Hamas and Islamic Jihad," Cordesman continues, "even if this means interrogations, detentions, and trials that are too rapid and lack due process." Still not clear enough. "Effective counter-terrorism relies on interrogation methods that border on psychological and/or physical torture, arrests and detention that violate the normal rights of privacy, [with] levels of violence in making arrests that are unacceptable in civil cases, and measures that involve the innocent (or at least the not provably directly guilty) in arrests and penalties."
In other words, protected only by the weasel phrase "border on," Cordesman urges that Israel's security forces return to the torture techniques that were finally abandoned under High Court order a year ago. Joe Lieberman is one of the senators belonging to the CSIS Middle East Task Force. Thus far, despite explicit requests for comment, he has not disavowed Cordesman's prescriptions, which have been condemned by Amnesty International USA.
For two months now Israel has laid barbarous siege to Palestinians throughout the occupied territories. The Israeli Army is busily cordoning Palestinian areas behind trenches and barbed wire, making Gaza and the West Bank one vast prison--or rather, many separate prisons, all barred from communicating with one another.
The policy of "closure," initiated after the Gulf War, continued unabated during the so-called Oslo peace process, in violation of Israeli government obligations. The strategy of apartheid and imprisonment is now accelerating, accompanied by bombardment of heavily populated areas, as well as incessant attacks from settlers (all courtesy of the US government, as always, with vast new military subventions rolling in after the Al-Aksa intifada began).
Even the relatively better-informed mainstream accounts fail to convey the brutality of this policy. There are a number of excellent news outlets for those who want unjaundiced reporting. The website for Middle East Research and Information Project is trustworthy (www.merip.org), as is the Electronic Intifada (electronicintifada.net/new.html). For the latter, the intro essay by Nigel Parry gives a useful overview of media coverage. Electronic Intifada also has links to other sites, as does ZNet's Mideast Watch (www.zmag.org/meastwatch/meastwat.htm). Particularly comprehensive is Birzeit University's (www.birzeit.edu/links).
Five fine specimens of Meleagris gallopavo--wild turkey to you--wandered onto my property here in Humboldt County, Northern California, a few days ago. I assume they forgot to check the calendar. Under California fish and game regs, you can shoot them legally for two weeks around Thanksgiving. Out came my 12-gauge, and I loosed off a shot that at some 100 feet did no discernible damage, and after a brief bout of what-the-hell-was-that the turkeys continued to forage. A fusillade of two more shots finally brought down a fourteen-pounder. I hung him for four days, plucked him and by Thanksgiving's end he was history. This was all easier than sporting manuals suggest, where hunters take enormous trouble to decoy the turkeys with fake gobbles.
Wild turkeys haven't been seen in California since earlier in the Cenozoic era, but in recent years two ranchers in my valley imported a few and now they've begun to appear in our neighborhood in Humboldt County in substantial numbers. I've heard reports of flocks of up to a hundred wild turkeys fifteen miles up the Mattole River around Honeydew, an impressive quantity though still far short of the thousand birds counted in one day by two hunters in New England in the 1630s.
The speed with which New World foods spread across Europe and Asia is astounding. Cortez brought turkeys back to Europe from Mexico, and by the 1530s they were well-known in Germany and England. The Puritans had domestic turkeys with them in New England, gazing out at their wild relatives, offered by the Indians who regarded them as somewhat second-rate as food.
Of course, wild turkeys have many enemies aside from the Beast called Man. There are swaths of Humboldt and Mendocino counties where coyotes and mountain lions now hold near-exclusive sway. Ranchers running sheep used to hold off the coyotes with M-80 poison-gas canisters that exploded at muzzle touch, but these are now illegal, and the alternatives are either trapping, which is a difficult and time-consuming job, or getting Great Pyrenees dogs to guard the flock. But the coyotes are crafty and wait till the sheep have scattered, then prey on the unguarded half.
Gabbing on the phone to my friend Ford Roosevelt, who lives in Los Angeles, I mentioned my turkey kill, and he reacted with revulsion, not so much to the fate of Meleagris gallopavo but to the fact that I have a shotgun at all. I told Ford that it was this sort of city-slicker foolishness that cost Gore states like West Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas and Ohio. Ford, a grandson of FDR, then disclosed that the Democratic National Committee had asked him to campaign in various states, including West Virginia. "Well Ford, didn't you find that the gun issue was on people's minds?" "Yes, as a matter of fact. I was talking to some miners and they brought it up. I told them that as far as I was concerned, guns should be banned altogether. They weren't pleased." "So it was you, Ford, who lost West Virginia." He didn't seem contrite.
A few years back, critics of postmodernism, both left and right, chuckled at the academic sting pulled on the journal Social Text when it published Alan Sokal's bogus article on the socially constructed nature of nature. For conservatives, that the journal ran Sokal's fuzzy call for a progressive postmodern science confirmed the fundamental divide between the politicized humanities and the objective sciences--proof positive of cultural studies run amok. In all the discussion that followed, however, little notice was paid to the origins of post-World War II radical critiques of science. In the shadow of Hitler and Stalin and in the wake of the Vietnam War, theorists from Theodor Adorno to Donna Haraway have been concerned with the ways in which science has colluded with acts of barbarism.
Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado examines the tragic consequences of medical and social science research on the Venezuelan Yanomami and reminds us why scientific practices and theories should indeed be the domain of social critics. White scientists in the jungle have long been central characters in the stories the West tells about itself. Alongside Humboldt and Mengele, Tierney's book now adds to the tropical pantheon James Neel, founder of the University of Michigan's human genetics department, and Napoleon Chagnon, perhaps the world's most infamous living anthropologist.
Well before Darkness's publication, Tierney's most damning charge--that Neel and Chagnon provoked, perhaps knowingly, a fatal 1968 measles epidemic responsible for "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of deaths--has created a scandal that threatens to distract from the real significance of his research. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the book may create a crisis "unparalleled in the history of anthropology." At a special American Anthropological Association forum in mid-November, defenders of Neel charged libel and politicized agendas. One panelist proclaimed that Tierney's "anti-science views" would jeopardize future vaccine efforts and lead to more deaths from disease. Chagnon, evoking the terms of the Sokal affair, has responded that only "cultural anthropologists from the Academic Left" who "despise the words 'empirical evidence' would take Tierney's claims seriously."
Empirical evidence is not lacking in Tierney's copiously footnoted book. Like all good chronicles of Western rationalists who lose their mind among primitives, Darkness in El Dorado is filled with absurd and disgraceful behavior: a French anthropologist who loses himself for decades in a sexual Eden; the world's wealthy holding a tuxedo dinner catered by helicopters on a jungle mountain; researchers who try to kill one another with machetes or commit suicide after being spurned by a Yanomami lover. But aside from his Joseph Conrad-like musings as to what it is about the Yanomami that made white people crazy, Tierney has written a fascinating, but also frustrating, ethnography of the practices and beliefs of cold war medical and social science researchers.
Tierney focuses primarily on the long and strange career of Napoleon Chagnon, who originated the myth of Yanomami aggression in his book The Fierce People, the all-time-bestselling ethnography. Chagnon portrayed the Yanomami as one of the most violent cultures on earth, where villages went to war to procure women and serial murderers bred at a higher rate than men who did not kill.
Tierney convincingly demonstrates his charge that unethical methodology and false science produced this myth. He also describes its often fatal consequences.
Most cultural anthropologists now believe that the wars Chagnon witnessed were provoked by Chagnon himself. He offered axes, machetes, fishhooks and pots in exchange for ethnographic information, creating tensions among villages that vied for monopoly control of his wares. Within months of Chagnon's arrival in 1964, three different fights broke out between villages that had previously been at peace for decades. Anthropologist Brian Ferguson reports that Chagnon was "very much involved in the fighting and the wars. Chagnon becomes a central figure in determining battles over trade goods and machetes."A Yanomami reports that Chagnon offered him an outboard motor in exchange for help, including the procurement of a Yanomami wife. Shotguns, a seemingly unlimited supply of trade goods and willingness to don feathers, face paint and a loincloth allowed Chagnon to transform himself from an "impoverished Ph.D. student at the bottom of the totem pole to being a figure of preternatural power."
Tierney argues that many of Chagnon's data are simply false. The Yanomami do not have a particularly high murder rate, nor do men who kill reproduce more than those who don't. Neither are the Yanomami particularly well-nourished--a claim that Chagnon uses to argue that men fight over women and not food.
In the United States, Chagnon and his sociobiologist allies continue to portray the Yanomami as an untainted relic of our past--a handy control group used to prove the biological basis of a range of aggressive human traits. In Latin America, the endurance of the myth of Yanomami aggression has reinforced racism and justified indifference. Both the Venezuelan and Brazilian governments have used unfavorable images of the Yanomami to justify their failure to protect them from migrants, who, starting in the late 1980s, increasingly entered the region, resulting in the death from disease and violence of untold numbers of Yanomami.
Tierney is at his best when he discusses Chagnon's career within the cultural history of the cold war. Born poor in Michigan, Chagnon used the expanding university system to climb out of poverty. Like many at the time who through discipline and hard work improved their class standing, Chagnon developed a visceral antipathy toward communism. It manifested itself in an intense masculine persona that earned Chagnon a reputation for barfighting and academic brawling. One of Tierney's insights is that Chagnon's theories had their "genesis during the Vietnam War and its cultural equivalent on the University of Michigan's Ann Arbor campus, where hippies in tepees chanted slogans like 'Make love, not war.' The whole point...was that you had to make war in order to make love--that violence was part of the natural order.... As a cold war metaphor, the Yanomami's 'ceaseless warfare' over women proved, that even in a society without property, hierarchies prevailed."
Tierney is on to something important here. The Fierce People was published in 1968, a particularly tough year for the United States abroad. American officials justified counterinsurgency campaigns that were taking place in the jungles of Latin America, Africa and Asia in decidedly Chagnonian terms. As one 1968 dissenting State Department memo put it: "We have condoned counter-terror.... We suspected that maybe it is a good tactic, and that... murder, torture, and mutilation are alright if our side is doing it and the victims are communists. After all hasn't man been a savage from the beginning of time so let us not be too queasy about terror. I have literally heard these arguments from our people."
Tierney rightly reads The Fierce People as a piece of home-front propaganda. To counter those who argued that war was caused by struggles over resources (a central claim of New Left interpretations of both the cold war and the Vietnam War), Chagnon "engineered a bold creation myth, a ferocious Garden of Eden, where the healthy, well-fed Yanomami fought for... sexual pleasure.... It was not the Yanomami but Chagnon's fellow Americans who belonged, in reality, to one of the best-fed, healthiest societies in history. America enjoyed abundance so delirious that it seemed, for a short time in the 1960s, that its citizens would not agree to the stress of world combat against Communism.... At that critical moment, The Fierce People... came to reverse a dangerous complacency, proof that the battle is never won, that the fight can never be abandoned."
By the late 1980s Chagnon was in trouble. Tierney misses an important opportunity to discuss how the decline in Chagnon's fortunes was tied to the end of superpower tensions. At home, a generation of anthropologists critical of its discipline's role in justifying US foreign policy came into professional power. In Venezuela his former research subjects were demanding that he be barred from entering their territory. And reflecting the post-cold war extension of economic activity into areas previously off-limits, gold miners poured into the Amazon, causing widespread ecological destruction and social dislocation. Challenged by his liberal colleagues, harangued by feminists, threatened by dark-skinned peoples and adrift in the new post-cold war economy, Chagnon became an international version of the angry white man.
Chagnon did what many did at the end of the cold war--he went private. He teamed up with a flamboyant Venezuelan industrial gold miner, who turned "tracts of forest into mud soup," and the mistress of the Venezuelan president, who has since fled the country following indictments for corruption and fraud. The three came close to establishing a private biosphere in Yanomami territory that would have given them political authority over the Yanomami and monopoly rights over mineral and scientific claims. In order to muster international support for their scheme, they shuttled journalists and scientists in and out of remote Yanomami communities on lightning helicopter tours, without providing protection against possible contagion. Newspapers and television news ran stories of recently discovered "lost villages," while "foreign scientists carried out huge amounts of plant and animal samples."
When Venezuelan and international opposition scuttled his plan to set up a fiefdom in his former field site, Chagnon, now largely shut out of anthropology journals, stepped up efforts to disseminate his theories in the popular press. Although Chagnon often casts himself as an embattled truth-seeker--the preferred role of most biological determinists, no matter how much funding or open access to the media they have--Tierney points out the "abject admiration many male journalists apparently felt for the great anthropologist." He cites a fax that Matt Ridley, the science reporter at The Economist, sent to Chagnon apologizing for not writing a more sympathetic piece: "I have written it in the way that the International Editor wanted, which means 'impartially.' (She is a bit PC, herself.) So you may find it less unambiguously sympathetic to you than you might have hoped, but it is about as far as I dare go.... I do hope you like it."
What will make and, unfortunately, probably break Darkness in El Dorado is its description of the deadly 1968 outbreak of measles that coincided with the arrival of an expedition, funded by the Atomic Energy Commission and headed by Neel and Chagnon, to collect Yanomami blood samples.
Tierney's speculation that Neel may have been responsible for the epidemic is based on Neel's decision to use what was by 1968 an antiquated vaccine, Edmonston B, which was contraindicated for isolated populations such as the Yanomami. Tierney suggests that Neel chose this vaccine to prove that American Indians were not genetically vulnerable to European germs. Since Edmonston B produced the same level of antibodies as an infection of real measles, follow-up antibody tests would allow for a comparison of European and Yanomami immune systems. This may be why, according to Tierney, Neel opted for Edmonston B even though it was known to cause measleslike symptoms among isolated groups and even though a cheaper, safer vaccine (but one that did not produce antibodies comparable to the disease) was available. Tierney argues that because Edmonston B produces symptoms similar to measles, its use may have ignited the outbreak; he goes even further by proxy, citing a medical historian who ventures that Neel may have intentionally started the epidemic.
Tierney unfortunately has presented his case in a way that allows for easy dismissal. He provides compelling evidence that Neel and Chagnon did indeed treat the vaccination campaign as an experiment. For instance, by Neel's own telling, in the first village, before the epidemic, the team inexplicably vaccinated only forty Yanomami out of a total population of seventy-six, even though it had enough doses for all. Combined with the fact that most in this village had been tested for measles antibodies two years earlier, the inoculation of half the village created a fortuitous control group for Neel's published findings. It also seems that the vaccine did induce fevers and rashes in many Yanomami. Nevertheless, the fact that Tierney gives no direct evidence to back up his most serious conjecture--that the measles epidemic was caused by the vaccine--threatens to discredit his entire study. (Also, in response to the pre-publication controversy, most medical experts insist that it is impossible for a vaccine, no matter what symptoms it may bring on in the inoculated, to spread as an epidemic.)
Tierney's missteps here speak to a larger problem with his book, which draws its inspiration more from The X-Files than from the Frankfurt School. Tierney tries too hard to link the actions and motives of the individuals involved in a tight net of intrigue, misrepresenting cold war social science as a secret society of an elected few.
Of course, for many, the actions of the United States during the cold war don't make sense any other way. Consider this history: Neel, who did research on Hiroshima survivors, was funded by the Atomic Energy Commission to collect thousands of samples of Yanomami blood because it was thought it could be used as a baseline to measure degrees of genetic mutation. In 1958 the AEC, which in other instances engaged in deadly human radiation experiments, paid Marcel Roche, a Venezuelan doctor who worked on Neel's 1968 expedition, to inject the Yanomami, without their knowledge, of course, with radioactive iodine to study why they did not suffer from goiters. Tierney should not be entirely blamed if he didn't have a theory, other than conspiracy, to explain this.
Darkness in El Dorado unconvincingly attempts to trace this shameful history directly to Neel ("I felt that Neel was the key"), unfairly describing him as an extreme eugenicist. This is unfortunate, for Tierney could have written a more powerful book by demonstrating how the cold war produced acts of barbarism regardless of individual motive.
This is not to let Neel and Chagnon off the hook. They were instrumental in the creation of a body of knowledge that valued the Yanomami not for their own sake but for what they could provide cold war science. Their blood was believed to contain answers to questions raised by the new post-Hiroshima world, while their culture was thought to be a distilled version of what the West once was and, for some, should be again.
In the documentary made of the 1968 expedition, Neel and others are shown professionally inoculating Yanomami, who are presented as pictures of vibrant health. Sound outtakes reveal a different story. The team was exhausted, sick and panicked as the epidemic escaped their control and ravaged the Yanomami. Neel can be heard ordering the cameraman to stop filming a sick Yanomami. Whatever the cause of the measles outbreak, it is probable that the research team exposed the Yanomami to respiratory infections and other illnesses. The outtakes also reveal that Neel and Chagnon were much more concerned with making the documentary and collecting blood samples than with containing the epidemic. They broke quarantine lines to procure donors and quickly abandoned the area so that their blood would not be ruined in the tropical heat.
Tierney's effort to pin the tragic history of the Yanomami on Neel speaks to a larger problem, both in his book and in current ways of thinking about colonialism. With the failure of socialism and the discrediting of revolutionary movements and governments, many First World activists have thrown their energy into advocating on behalf of the cultural rights of native peoples. Much of this work is profoundly apolitical, justified more by appeals to Indian virtue than by critical analysis. This kind of activism too easily sets itself up for dismissal when it is revealed that Indians may have their own interests and may not be as innocent as portrayed.
This problem is reproduced in Tierney's book. It speaks to the poverty of our political culture that Tierney, an experienced investigative reporter, refuses, either out of ignorance or bias, to discuss the history of the Amazon in reference to colonialism, capitalism or racism. Instead, he searches for the mastermind behind the mayhem. Tierney creates a kitschy Heart of Darkness-like tale and casts himself as Marlow and Chagnon as Kurtz (Neel, perhaps, could be King Leopold). Well before we hear any Yanomami voices, we learn of Tierney's battles against jungle thieves and malaria, heroically rescuing Yanomami children and fending off evil gold miners.
Tierney's narrative rightly demonstrates how objective scientists can be implicated in a history of atrocity--and his gaffes should not distract from this history--but it can't account for the fact that while the AEC was paying for Neel's and Chagnon's jungle excursions, it was also funding the work of Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin, along with other progressive scientists and anthropologists. These scholars became powerful critics of how the supposed objective research of their colleagues served not-so-objective agendas and had not-so-benign consequences. These politicized scholars have served science well--proof positive that Adorno was right, that "science needs those who disobey it."
"Actions approved by the U.S. government aggravated political polarization and affected Chile's long tradition of democratic elections and respect for constitutional order and the rule of law," reads a White House press release that accompanied the November 13 declassification of 16,000 secret government documents on Chile. That statement, contorted bureaucratese for admitting a US contribution to undermining Chilean democracy and backing a brutal dictatorship, falls far short of accepting US accountability for the national and human horror experienced in Chile--an acknowledgment necessary for Chileans and Americans to reach closure on this shameful history.
The release marks the final installment of the Clinton Administration's special Chile Declassification Project. "One goal of the project," according to the White House statement--issued by the press secretary rather than in the name of the President--"is to put original documents before the public so that it may judge for itself the extent to which US actions undercut the cause of democracy and human rights in Chile." Among the 24,000 documents declassified over the past two years are secret cables, memorandums and reports making that judgment perfectly clear.
The new documents dramatically record the imperial spectacle of high-level US efforts to destroy Chilean democracy in order to prevent an elected socialist, Salvador Allende, from governing. In a declassified transcript of a November 6, 1970, National Security Council meeting, President Nixon and selected Cabinet members casually discuss the need to "do everything we can to hurt [Allende] and bring him down." There, in bald terms, the historical record reveals the callous willingness to promote upheaval and bloodshed to achieve this goal. "You have asked us to provoke chaos in Chile," the CIA station chief in Santiago cabled headquarters in October 1970 during covert efforts to foment a coup; "we provide you with [a] formula for chaos." The CIA Chilean coup-plotters predicted at least 10,000 casualties if the military coup went forward. "Carnage could be considerable and prolonged i.e. civil war."
The CIA knew a year before the coup that Pinochet was prone to ruthlessness. An intriguing intelligence report records Pinochet as saying in September 1972 that "Allende must be forced to step down or be eliminated." A Chilean informant, who apparently accompanied Pinochet on a trip to Panama to purchase US tanks for the Chilean military, told the CIA that US Army personnel based at the Southern Command had assured them, "US will support coup against Allende 'with whatever means necessary,' when time comes."
In the United States, revelations of covert operations to destabilize the Allende government caused a major scandal in the mid-1970s. In Chile, where even the pro-Pinochet media have been forced to report on the declassified US records, this history is only now having a major impact on the national psyche. Throughout the country, there is outrage at this dramatic evidence of US intervention in Chile's internal affairs. A group of prominent senators has demanded that the Chilean government formally protest US "violations of our sovereignty and dignity" and have summoned the foreign minister to explain what action the government of Ricardo Lagos intends to take toward Washington. Privately, Chilean government officials have requested that the United States clearly acknowledge actions that helped change the course of Chilean history.
The Clinton White House considered such an acknowledgment to accompany the final documents' release--but in the end decided against it. Some officials fear that Washington could be held liable for covert war crimes in Chile--that the long arm of international justice that nabbed Augusto Pinochet could someday reach US officials. Although President Clinton did apologize to Guatemala for Washington's cold war policy of aiding and abetting repression--"support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression," the President stated in Guatemala City last year, "was wrong, and the United States will not repeat that mistake"--no similar statement on Chile will be forthcoming. With the declassified documents, we now have a fuller accounting of the US role in Chile--but with no accountability.
The President has gone to Vietnam,
A smallish country that we used to bomb
But now would like to send our products to.
And so our corporations take the view
That if the country's ruling class has picked
A form of rule that can be somewhat strict,
That's up to them. And Clinton went to say
That there is nothing standing in the way
Of being friends with them forevermore.
Remind me, please: Why did we fight that war?
The throngs of Vietnamese who hailed Bill Clinton as "the antiwar President" demonstrated that they as a people remember something that we as a people have chosen to forget. It is time to restore our memory of that great antiwar movement by tens of millions of Americans, a movement that began with the first US acts of war in 1945.
Yes, 1945. In September and October of that year, eight troopships were diverted from their task of bringing American troops home from Europe to transport US-armed French soldiers and Foreign Legionnaires from France to recolonize Vietnam. The enlisted seamen on those ships immediately began organized protests. On arriving in Vietnam, the entire crews of the first four troopships met in Saigon and drew up a resolution condemning the US government for using American ships to transport an invasion army "to subjugate the native population" of Vietnam.
The movement kept growing. In 1954, when Vice President Nixon suggested sending American troops to replace the French because "the Vietnamese lack the ability to conduct a war or govern themselves," thousands of letters and telegrams opposing US intervention deluged the White House. An American Legion division with 78,000 members demanded that "the United States should refrain from dispatching any of its Armed Forces to participate as combatants in the fighting in Indochina or in southeast Asia." On the Senate floor, Senator Ed Johnson of Colorado declared, "I am against sending American GIs into the mud and muck of Indochina on a blood-letting spree to perpetuate colonialism and white man's exploitation in Asia." A Gallup poll revealed that 68 percent of those surveyed were against sending US troops to Indochina. Because of the American people's opposition, the US war had to be waged by four administrations under the cloak of plausible deniability.
We have been depriving ourselves of pride about the finest American behavior during that war. In most wars, a nation dehumanizes and demonizes the people on the other side. Almost the opposite happened during the Vietnam War. Tens of millions of Americans sympathized with the Vietnamese people's suffering, many came to identify with their 2,000-year struggle for independence and some even found them an inspiration for their own lives.
But in the decades since the war's conclusion, American consciousness of the Vietnamese people, with all its potential for healing and redemption, has been systematically obliterated. Ironically, it was after the war that demonization of the Vietnamese began to succeed, thanks in part to the national beatification of POWs and the myth of POWs as martyrs still being tortured by Vietnam. Soon those who had fought against the war became, as a corollary, a despised enemy. They also became the villains in another myth, developed from the 1980s to the present: the spat-upon veteran. As Vietnam veteran and sociologist Jerry Lembcke has shown in The Spitting Image, there is not a shred of evidence of this supposedly widespread phenomenon.
In fact, Vietnam veterans and active-duty soldiers and sailors became the vanguard of the antiwar movement. At home, veterans led the marches and demonstrations, including the 1971 assembly of a half-million protesters headed by a thousand Vietnam veterans, many in wheelchairs and on crutches, who paraded up to a barricade erected to keep them from the Capitol and hurled their Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars and Silver Stars at the government that had bestowed them. In Vietnam, fraggings and mutinies helped compel the withdrawal of most of the ground forces, while rebellions and sabotage put at least five aircraft carriers out of combat. (Who today can believe that 1,500 crew members of the USS Constellation signed a petition demanding that Jane Fonda's antiwar show be allowed to perform on board?)
As the antiwar movement spread even into the intelligence establishment, the American people got access to the most damning truths in the leaked Pentagon Papers. As Senator Mike Gravel noted in 1971, only a person who "has failed to read the Pentagon Papers" could believe we were fighting for "freedom and liberty in Southeast Asia."
But we as a nation have forgotten all that, just as we have forgotten our government's pledge to help rebuild the country it destroyed despite all our opposition.