Afghanistan & Obama

Lewisburg, Pa.

Congratulations on the excellent coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan in your November 9 special issue, "Obama’s Fateful Choice." Counterinsurgency has fascinated Western policy-makers since at least World War II, but it has almost always failed. The reason is simply that we and other defenders of indefensible regimes can never "be to the people as the fish is to water," as Mao Zedong said. Even George Will recognizes that. It is tragic that President Obama is temporizing. He’s apparently going to send more troops, which is just a recipe for more death and destruction: we cannot win, but if we send enough troops, we can stave off losing.




Boulder, Colo.

The several authors in your recent special issue on Afghanistan agree that Obama’s stated goal of defeating the terrorists is not achievable, and all suggest different routes to withdrawal. But watch: the Obama administration will not withdraw. Why? For the reason mentioned by none of your analysts, all apparently having accepted the administration’s "anti-terrorism" story: it’s all about (again) control of gas and oil; in this case pipelines. The administration has set the frame, and your analysts are running around within it. The Great Game goes on.




Goleta, Calif.

What is missing in this forum? Any discussion of what is good for the people of Afghanistan. It is false to say there is no way to help them. From the 1950s until 1979 the Soviets built schools, roads, hospitals and a secular society with rights for women. It was US support for the jihadi extremists that ended this progress and destroyed Afghanistan. The debate should be about how to help the people rebuild. To get back to creating jobs, building schools, hospitals, transportation and a government respecting human rights for all. We should do this not because it is best for us–it is–but because it is the right thing to do.





‘Feline’ Hostility?

Cuttingsville, Vt.

I’m not sure what Corey Robin means by Isaiah Berlin’s "feline hostility to the left" in his review of Quentin Skinner’s Hobbes and Republican Liberty ["The First Counterrevolutionary," Oct. 19]. "Graceful"? "Ungovernable"? "Independent"?

Probably not. Robin seems determined to turn Berlin into a Hobbesian by quoting him without citation or context, and portraying as definitive Berlin’s carefully qualified remark that freedom "is not incompatible with some kinds of autocracy." Berlin’s personal experience as a cultural attaché in the Soviet Union would have led him to a different conclusion; in 1946, immediately after Berlin visited Anna Akhmatova, Stalin banned publication of her work, citing her contact with "spies" from the West. And, of course, Berlin was aware of Stalin’s persecution of other writers–Mandelstam, Babel, Bulgakov–and cat-and-mouse relationship with Pasternak.

Berlin’s later definitions of "negative" and "positive" freedoms led him to see the dangers of unrestricted state intervention in individual lives; unlike many cold war liberals, he never became a neoconservative but was skeptical of political extremes on the right and the left.




San Francisco

Corey Robin errs badly when he calls the divine right of kings a recent innovation promulgated by James I (recent in 1650). Divine right is all over Shakespeare. In Richard II, written about ten years before James became James I, a king is "the figure of God’s majesty, His captain, steward, deputy elect, Anointed…." Indeed, the concept of divine right goes back at least to Homer: kings like Agamemnon have a right to rule because Zeus has chosen them. The king of the gods even provides his earthly counterparts with a royal staff to prove their provenance: "the sceptre-bearing king, whose powerful authority comes from Zeus" (The Iliad).





Robin Replies

Brooklyn, N.Y.

Joan Aleshire claims that Isaiah Berlin never became a neoconservative. I agree, which is why I declined to say that he did. What I did say was that he was a counterrevolutionary–Berlin’s opposition to revolutionary politics and the generative effect of that opposition on his thinking are well-known–and a Hobbesian. One piece of evidence I cited in support of the latter claim was Berlin’s statement that freedom "is not incompatible with some kinds of autocracy."

Aleshire states that I am quoting "without citation or context." Fair enough. The citation is Berlin’s essay "Two Concepts of Liberty" (1958), and here’s some context: after making the statement, which he says is the third "and more important" attribute of his preferred account of liberty, Berlin defends it in two lengthy paragraphs, in which he mentions among other things the happy experience of "men of imagination, originality and creative genius" under the repressive rule of Frederick the Great and Joseph II. "Carefully qualified"? I don’t think so. Aleshire’s statement that Berlin’s time in the Soviet Union "would have led him to a different conclusion" seems plausible–until one remembers that it didn’t.

It is Douglas O’Keefe, I’m afraid, who errs when he writes that the theory of the divine right of kings dates back to Homer. Divine right is more than a simple claim about the godly sources of a king’s rule. It holds that only the king’s power is divine in origin, that the king is bound only to God, and that his power should not be limited by or shared with other people or institutions. Prior accounts, especially in the Middle Ages, had treated all forms of political power–whether the king’s or the nobility’s, the law or the courts–as divine in origin; power was thus to be exercised by many rather than one. That is why Carlisle’s statement in Richard II is more plea than prescription and is definitely not description: after all, Richard has just agreed to hand over his throne to Bolingbroke, and for his ill-timed eloquence Carlisle will be arrested for treason. Before abdicating, Richard says, "God save the King! Will no man say amen?" Not exactly the stuff of absolutism.





Leonard Cohen Plays Tel Aviv

East Orange, N.J.

We are great admirers of Leonard Cohen’s brilliant poetry and music, which has always reflected not only artistic inspiration but also a profound, if subtle, social critique. Consequently, we were all the more disappointed and saddened by his September concert in Tel Aviv in defiance of the cultural boycott of Israel, even in the face of the opposition of Amnesty International and thousands of others. This essential fact is omitted from David Yaffe’s otherwise comprehensive "Waiting for the Miracle" [Oct. 26].

Leonard’s creative vision, his Buddhist practice and his Jewish faith should all have schooled him to stand at the side of the victim, no matter the cost. The increasingly cruel repression and killing of Palestinians, the accelerated building of illegal settlements and the apartheidlike restriction of freedom of movement now summon all people of conscience to take a stand. Not even the recent, objective Goldstone Report brought any semblance of shame to the Israeli government, or to our own, which also rejected it. (The fact that Hamas is not investigating the lesser, but still serious, charges against it is unfortunate but is no excuse for any of the ongoing Israeli atrocities.)

Neither Leonard’s compromise offer of another concert in the West Bank nor giving the concert proceeds to a good cause was acceptable to most Palestinians or many others. The boycott of South Africa ultimately succeeded because it was uncompromising.

We strongly share the courageous sentiments of Neve Gordon, Israeli scholar and peacemaker, about the urgency of the boycott: "I am convinced that it is the only way that Israel can be saved from itself." This is the vision that an artist of Leonard Cohen’s brilliance and value system should embrace.






In Ed Morales’s "Outrageous Fortuño" [Nov. 30], Puerto Rico was mischaracterized as having been an incorporated–instead of an unincorporated–territory.