July 31, 2006

One Fourth of Instapundit

I am going to be one fourth of Instapundit this week. Glenn Reynolds is on vacation and he asked me, Ann Althouse, Megan McArdle, and Brannon Denning to fill in for him.

So you'll see me there as well as here.

Thanks Glenn!

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 09:49 AM | Comments (53)

July 30, 2006

Grim Days Ahead

A Hezbollah member named Ali speaks to the Guardian:

Despite Israel's claims to have inflicted heavy losses on Hizbullah, Ali insists his side is in a strong position. "Things are going very well now, whatever happens we are winning. If they keep bombing us we will stay in the shelters, and with each bomb more people support the resistance. If they invade they will repeat the miserable fate they had in 1982, and if they hold one square foot they will give the Islamic resistance all the legitimacy. If they want to kill Hizbullah they have to kill every Shia in the south of Lebanon."

And even when the battle with the Israelis is over, he adds menacingly, Hizbullah will have other battles to fight. "The real battle is after the end of this war. We will have to settle score with the Lebanese politicians. We also have the best security and intelligence apparatus in this country, and we can reach any of those people who are speaking against us now. Let's finish with the Israelis and then we will settle scores later."

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:00 PM | Comments (91)

Hezbollah’s Coup d'État

The fog of war makes it impossible for me or anyone else to determine whether or not Israel’s war against Hezbollah is succeeding of failing militarily. But it’s painfully obvious that Israel’s attempt to influence Lebanese politics in its favor is an absolute catastrophe right now.

The (second in a decade) attack on Qana that killed scores of civilians has all but cemented the Lebanese public and Hezbollah together.

Cable news reports that 82 percent of Lebanese now support Hezbollah. Prime Minister Fouad Seniora – whatever his real opinion in private – is now closer to openly supporting Hezbollah in public than he has ever been.

The March 14 Movement (the Cedar Revolution) is, at best, in a coma if not outright dead.

Hezbollah was popular while Israel occupied South Lebanon. When Israel left Lebanon it finally became possible for Hezbollah's power to be strictly relegated to it own little corner because support for the organization evaporated.

Now that Israel is back, Hezbollah's support is back.

It doesn't matter if this support is reasonable or not. (It isn't reasonable. Israel wouldn't even be in Lebanon if it weren't for Hezbollah.) But it was entirely predictable.

Support for Hezbollah will drop again after Israel leaves. But Israel can't (or won't) leave until some kind of arrangement is hammered out. And Israel will now have to deal with a manifestly more hostile Lebanese public while working out that arrangement.

This is a disaster for Lebanon, a disaster for Israel, and a disaster for the United States. It is a tremendous boon to Syria and Iran.

I wish I knew what a possible solution might be, but I don’t. I’m pretty sure, though, that “more of the same” isn’t it.

UPDATE: Tony Badran says "Hezbollah's plan all along was a classic coup d'etat, very similar, as Pierre Akel recently wrote, to the fascisti's takeover in Italy." Seems to be working very well for them right about now.

I'm sorry for not being my usual more-optimistic self. What can I say? It is not always warranted.

When I first arrived in Beirut a British expat friend who lived there for nine years said "Do not underestimate them" when I told him I was going to meet and interview Hezbollah.

Please allow me to second that.

UPDATE: Mary at Exit Zero (no peacenik, she) wrote in my comments:
Asymetric warfare makes the military branch of a terrorist organization hard to hit - but it leaves the supporters of terrorism in a relatively vulnerable position. If the world were an intelligent place, we'd be fighting the strategy of asymetric warfare, not its army or its cities.

The state leaders, bureaucrats and bankers who support Hez would be our targets. As Sun Tsu said:

Thus, what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's strategy;

Next best is to disrupt his alliances;

The next best is to attack his army.

The worst policy is to attack cities. Attack cities only when there is no alternative.

The world in general seems to have read that advice backwards.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 03:44 PM | Comments (80)

Al Qaeda Heading to Lebanon - And Why Israel Needs to Help Reconstruct Lebanon

Before this war even started I wrote that Israel should leave Lebanon as a whole out of its fight with Hezbollah, that the real enemies were in Syria and Iran. War in Lebanon has destroyed almost every last scrap of political capital Israel had in that country, it has a reduced a modern almost-democracy to a Third World beggar nation de-facto ruled by Hassan Nasrallah, cruelly punished the most liberal and moderate Arab population in the world, and exploded the extraordinarily fragile stability that recently was.

Now Al Qaeda says they are heading to Lebanon.

There is a lot of talk now about a multinational force (made up of who?) to enter Lebanon to protect the Israelis. If there is to be a multinational force, it will also need to protect Lebanese.

The United States contributes millions of dollars to rebuild infrastructure (etc) destroyed in wars that it fights. Afghanistan received post-war aid. Iraq received post-war aid.

If Israel prefers Lebanon on its border instead of chaos, Israel needs to seriously consider paying war reparations. The US does this as a matter of course, out of a sense of decency as well as an understanding that it helps prevent even more conflict. I see no reason why Israel cannot or should not do the same, and for the same reasons.

UPDATE: DP points out in the comments:
The US had never paid war reparations and probably never will. War reparations are what you pay if you lose a war...What the US has done is give assistance in rebuilding. This might sound like the same thing, but it is not. War reparations are mandatory. Assistance in rebuilding is conditional...Assistance to rebuild a devastated country is a wise choice.
Okay then, if "reparations" is the wrong word (and perhaps it is) I suggest Israel contribute to the reconstruction of Lebanon. This will be good for Lebanon and good for Israel...assuming Hezbollah does not become the government or get any of the money.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 09:52 AM | Comments (71)

Too Perfect for This World

Lebanese blogger Ramzi posts a letter from a reader and his response:

hi ramzi:

I have been in the united states for 30 years. every year i think about going to visit Lebanon. but always something happens. this year my 18 year old daughter who was born in the USA graduated from high school and I had promised her 3 years ago that I will take her to Lebanon for a visit. but circumstances were that she had to go with my 20 year old son alone.

and now she cries that she does not want to leave even though she is scheduled to evacuate tomorrow on 7-20-2006. she keeps telling me but mom I did not see the cedars yet! and that tears my heart up.


(the reader)

Hey (the reader),

That story made me hang my head in sadness. But also in shame. In shame because we the Lebanese have failed Lebanon and failed your daughter. I too was like your daughter, at love with a country I have seen very little of. And when I returned after the war, I was on a constant quest to see, hear, smell Lebanon. To make up for years I could never have had anyway because of the war but still felt I owed.

And now, I have lived here enough to see what I observed rebuilt slowly and day by day destroyed in a single blow. I remember every construction site, every road diversion, every ditch. I remember taking a ride on every one of those bridges when they were fist built. And the innocent children killed were not even born when I first came here.

So, what can I say to you? nothing other than to let Lebanon always be in her heart and in her imagination. Let her fall in love with a Lebanon that neither exists nor could ever exist because it is too perfect for this world. And then let her return here when things are calmer, and let her search for that Lebanon in this Lebanon. She will not find it, but she will fall in love with the next best thing.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 09:01 AM | Comments (5)

Damning Photos

Here are pictures of Hezbollah setting up heavy artillery - military targets - in Christian suburbs east of Beirut.

UPDATE: Lots of people in the comments doubt the accuracy of the description of these photos. I cannot vouch for them. There could be any number of mistakes. Or not. (?)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 08:38 AM | Comments (55)

July 29, 2006

The Real Middle East

The Middle East isn't a cartoon. It's a rich and complex place. Many, if not most, of its citizens refuse to submit to the dumb little categories fanatics and outsiders like to impose on them.

Latest example:
Being interviewed on a European radio station, the interviewer snarls at me when I mention that Haifa has a mixed Jewish/Arab population and that as we speak, many of them were sitting in bomb shelters together, hiding from Nasrallah's rockets.

I was surprised this information could be so irritating. I didn't dare tell him about the guy who came up to me in downtown Haifa, showed me his bombed shop front and told me he was an Arab who wants the IDF to destroy the Hizbullah.

Hat tip: Allison Kaplan Sommer.

UPDATE: Here's another example, this one from Lebanon.

The situation in Ain Ebel is unbearable. Thousands of civilians have fled to the village from nearby villages and more than 1000 rockets have hit the village, there is no more food neither clean water and diseases r spreading.

Now here comes the most sickening part:

Hezbollah has been firing rockets from the village since Day 1 hiding behind innocent people’s places and even CHURCHES. No one is allowed to argue with the Hezbollah gunmen who wont hesitate to shoot you and i ve heard about more than one shooting incident including young men from the village and Hezbollah.

Urgent appeals have been done through phone calls from terrified people who wouldnt give out their name fearing Hezbollah might harm or even eliminate them.

This is the true image of our brave Islamic Resistance, putting the civilians and their homes as body shields to the Israeli bombardements.

Let the message spread and let those criminals move out of the village once and for all.

Free Ain Ebel from the terrorists !
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:18 AM | Comments (69)

July 28, 2006

More Opinions Than People

I once mentioned offhand in the comments section that Lebanon has more opinions than people. A Lebanese woman I had never met or encountered online before said she thought that remark was hilarious and gave me credit for "finally understanding Lebanon."

At the time I didn't feel like explaining what I meant. It didn't seem important. But now would be a good time.

Lebanon's bizarre internal political structure creates mental categories in its citizens that do not and never will exist in the West. It's hard enough to understand how Lebanese think even after living there myself for a while, so I don't expect casual readers to "get" this. But there are Lebanese (I know several) who are secular and pro-American, who want peace with Israel, and who also suppport Hezbollah.

I've been thinking for a while now about writing an essay explaining how this is possible, but Lebanon.Profile over at the Lebanese Political Journal beat me to it. So go read. Only a small minority of Shia think this way, but you should know about them. It means they're mentally flexible and can be brought around, under the right conditions, to healthier ways of thinking. Things will not always be as they are.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 07:38 PM | Comments (21)

Everything Exploded

In case you missed it the first time, or if (like me) you feel like re-reading it, exactly three months ago I published Everything Could Explode at Any Moment from the Lebanese/Israeli border. That piece feels heavier now than it did.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 03:01 PM | Comments (11)


Bush and Blair call for ceasefire.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 01:08 PM | Comments (13)

Off His Meds

Behold the unhinged.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:24 PM | Comments (45)

Hezbollah Cries Uncle?

Too soon to pop any champagne corks, but Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora may have convinced Hezbollah to submit to the government. The better of the two options highlighted by Michael Young (see below) might be kicking in.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:31 AM | Comments (11)

Human Shields

Caveman (formerly of Beirut) reports that Hezbollah may be using Druze villagers as human shields (after kidnapping a Druze soldier from Israel). This won't be over when it's over...

UPDATE: Hezbollah is doing the same thing to Christians, even shooting civilians who try to flee Israeli fire.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:23 AM | Comments (15)

The Stakes for Nasrallah...and Lebanon

Lebanese-American Michael Young in Beirut's Daily Star:

[H]ow long can Nasrallah last? Much has been made of the secretary general's celebrated steadfastness and the fact that he has before him only two choices - victory or defeat. If that's his narrow reading, then he is heading toward heartbreak, because sooner or later the weight of the Lebanese sectarian system is likely to impose defeat on him if he refuses to make necessary concessions. The reason is simple: No Lebanese leader - not Amin Gemayel in 1982, Michel Aoun in 1989, or Emile Lahoud in 2004 - can indefinitely bend the country to the breaking point, or push it toward communal destabilization, without the old sectarian ways kicking in to impose a correction. And in the absence of concessions by maximalist leaders, the system has usually collapsed into war.
Michael is one of the sharpest thinkers in Lebanon. (And he was kind enough to publish an article I wrote some time ago.) Read the whole thing.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 01:06 AM | Comments (48)

July 26, 2006

Lebanon’s Premature Liberalism

“This is not Norway here, and it is not Denmark.” -- Lebanese Christian militia leader Bashir Gemayel.

Beirut Destruction 2.jpg

Last month I made a terrible mistake.

A reader from Lake Oswego -- a suburb of my city of Portland -- emailed and asked if he thought he should take his wife and children to Lebanon on their next vacation. I said sure. Just stay out of the Hezbollah areas along the border with Israel and in the suburbs south of Beirut. And make sure your kids understand that Lebanese drivers are considerably more reckless than drivers in Oregon, that they should be more careful than usual when crossing the street.

Needless to say, this was absolutely awful advice.

My friend Sean LaFreniere - who drove with me to Northern Iraq on a whim -- was scheduled to be with me in Beirut right now. (I am at home and he is now blogging from Tunisia and Turkey.) He was slightly nervous, but I told him he did not need to worry. Lebanon could become a dangerous country again. There are warning signs to watch out for, I said, and I told him what they were. At the time (and this was only a few weeks ago) those warning signs were not yet flashing red. Who would have thought war could engulf the whole country, and not just the border, in one day with no warning?

I kept my eye on the country, even so, because potential medium-term trouble was quietly brewing. Many Lebanese Christians, Sunnis, and Druze were getting so impatient with the impasse over Hezbollah’s weapons they threatened to reconstitute their own armed militias that were disbanded after the war. Peaceful and diplomatic negotiation over Hezbollah’s role in a sovereign rather than schismatic Lebanon was not going to last very much longer. Once the rest of Lebanon armed itself against Hezbollah, a balance of terror would reign that could explode into war without any warning. That was the danger. That was the nightmare. That’s why Hezbollah had not been disarmed.

Syria’s Bashar Assad threatened to make Lebanon burn if his occupation troops were forced out of the country. Most Lebanese think that’s what last year’s car bombs were about. After former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, was assassinated downtown, all the car bomb victims were Christian. All the random car bombs exploded in Christian neighborhoods. The idea - or so the Lebanese thought - was to whip up sectarian hatred, to get Christian militias to rearm and retaliate, and to re-ignite the Lebanese war. Assad yearned to burn Lebanon, and he was not shy about saying so. Syria, or so he hoped, might be invited back in to stop the chaos with the soldier’s peace of the Baath.

That plan didn’t work. Hardly anyone wanted a return to civil war. No Christian vigilantes retaliated against Muslims (Sunni or Shia) because they knew it was a trap set by the Baath. That, most likely, is why the siege of the car bombs came to an end.

Sectarian tensions and hatreds run deep in Lebanon, even so, far deeper than those of us in the West can begin to relate to. 32 years ago Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East. But 15 years ago Lebanon was the Somalia of the Middle East. It made the current troubles in Iraq look like a polite debate in a Canadian coffeeshop by comparison. There is no ethnic-religious majority in that country, and every major sect has been, at one time or another, a victim of all the others.

I spent a total of seven months in Lebanon recently, and I never could quite figure out what prevented the country from flying apart into pieces. It barely held together like unstable chemicals in a nitro glycerin vat. The slightest ripple sent Lebanese scattering from the streets and into their homes. They were far more twitchy than I, in part (I think) because they understood better than I just how precarious their civilized anarchy was. Their country needed several more years of careful nurturing during peace time to fully recover from its status as a carved up failed state.

By bombing all of Lebanon rather than merely the concentrated Hezbollah strongholds, Israel is putting extraordinary pressure on Lebanese society at points of extreme vulnerability. The delicate post-war democratic culture has been brutally replaced, overnight, with a culture of rage and terror and war. Lebanon isn't Gaza, but nor is it Denmark.

Lebanese are temporarily more united than ever. No one is running off to join Hezbollah, but tensions are being smoothed over for now while everyone feels they are under attack by the same enemy. Most Lebanese who had warm feelings for Israel -- and there were more of these than you can possibly imagine -- no longer do.

This will not last.

My sources and friends in Beirut tell me most Lebanese are going easy on Hezbollah as much as they can while the bombs are still falling. But a terrible reckoning awaits them once this is over.

Some Lebanese can’t wait even that long.

Beirut Mob.jpg

Here a Christian mob smashes a car in Beirut for displaying a Hezbollah logo. My friend Carine says the atomosphere reeks of impending sectarian conflict like never before. Another Lebanese blogger quotes a radical Christian war criminal from the bad old days who says the civil war will resume a month after Israel cools its guns: "Christians, Sunnis and Druze will fight the 'fucker Shia', with arms from the US and France."

Israeli partisans may think this is terrific. The Lebanese may take care of Hezbollah at last! But democratic Lebanon cannot win a war against Hezbollah, not even after Hezbollah is weakened by IAF raids. Hezbollah is the most effective Arab fighting force in the world, and the Lebanese army is the weakest and most divided. The Israelis beat three Arab armies in six days in 1967, but a decade was not enough for the IDF to take down Hezbollah.

The majority of Lebanon’s people were wise and civilized enough to take the gun out of politics after the fifteen year war. Lebanon was the only Arab country to do this, the only Arab country that preferred dialogue, elections, compromise, and debate to the rule of the boot and the rifle. But Hezbollah remained outside that mainstream consensus and did everything it could, with backing from the Syrian Baath and the Iranian Jihad, to strangle Lebanon’s democracy in its cradle.

Disarming Hezbollah through persuasion and consensus was not possible in the first year of Lebanon’s independence. Disarming Hezbollah by force wasn’t possible either. The Lebanese people have been called irresponsible and cowardly by some of their friends in America for refusing to resume the civil war. Unlike Hezbollah, though, most Lebanese know better than to start unwinnable wars. This is wisdom, not cowardice, and it's sadly rare in the Arab world now. They are being punished entirely too much for what they have done and for what they can't do.

Israel and Lebanon (especially Lebanon) will continue to burn as long as Hezbollah exists as a terror miltia freed from the leash of the state. The punishment for taking on Hezbollah is war. The punishment for not taking on Hezbollah is war. Lebanese were doomed to suffer war no matter what. Their liberal democratic project could not withstand the threat from within and the assaults from the east, and it could not stave off another assault from the south. War, as it turned out, was inevitable even if the actual shape of it wasn’t. Peace was not in the cards for Lebanon. Its democracy turned out to be neither a strength nor a weakness. It was irrelevant.

Holding up as a democracy in a dictatorial region isn’t easy. Chalk this up as yet another thing Israel and Lebanon have in common with each other that they don’t have in common with anyone else in the Middle East -- except, perhaps, for the Kurds in Northern Iraq. Unlike Israeli democracy, though, Lebanese democracy may not have the strength to keep breathing. Already some right-wing American "realists" are suggesting Syria return its forces to Lebanon. (Bashar Assad may be as much a foreign policy genius as his late father.) The March 14 Movement, the Cedar Revolution, may be too weak to survive until the region as a whole is transformed. If the Lebanese, the Americans, and the Israelis are not wise in the coming days, weeks, and months it could die the same death as the Prague Spring in the late 1960s, crushed under the treads of Soviet tanks and smothered until the day the world around it had changed.

When Israel and Hezbollah reach a ceasefire at last, round two of this conflict will commence in short order. No one knows if the Lebanese will be able to keep the gun out of politics after all that has happened. A tiny minority of Lebanese (with help from the remaining Syrian agents) can burn the country to the ground all over again.

“What will become of us?” is the question on everyone’s mind. No one can know what will happen after Israel lifts its siege and the temporary national unity flies apart into pieces. And it will fly apart into pieces. The only question is how far the pieces will fly and how hard they'll land.

During all seven months I spent in Lebanon the overwhelming majority feared an imminent return to civil war. I always told them they were too pessimistic even while I wondered if I was too naïve. Perhaps I’ve absorbed too much of that Lebanese fatalism by spending so much of my time among them. And perhaps my naivete has finally been washed away. I really don't know. It’s an old question that I don’t know how to answer.

Either way, the odds are quite a lot grimmer than they recently were. Lebanon could, indeed, become a free fire zone even if most Lebanese do everything they can to make it not so. Just a few thousand Hezbollah fighters set two countries on fire all by themselves. Don’t discount what bloody mayhem and hell a few thousand armed Druze, Christians, and Sunni can do if they decide to go hunting Shia in revenge for destroying their country. Don't forget, also, that Lebanon is now surging with tens of thousands of furious, displaced, homeless, unemployed, and undisciplined young Shia men enthralled with Iranian-style jihad.

Insha Allah, Lebanon might be okay. Perhaps the status quo ante will return, only with a weaker and even more marginalized Hezbollah seething in its corner and thrown off the border. There may be scattered acts of sectarian violence that threaten to ignite into war and never quite do. Kidnappings could come back in style. Al Qaeda may finally have its turn at the Israeli border if their Hezbollah enemy is no longer there to keep them away. I do not know. The Lebanese themselves do not know. But one thing I do know is that after the first war ends there really could be another.

Don’t take your kids. Stay out until further notice.

Post-script: I was planning a trip to Iran in the near future, but of course I did not see this coming. Iran will have to wait. I’m returning to Lebanon as soon as the airport re-opens. Please hit the Pay Pal button and help me buy airfare.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

Michael Totten
P.O. Box 312
Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 08:03 PM | Comments (196)

July 25, 2006

Please Be Patient

I'm still recovering from jet lag and general exhaustion while scrambling to catch up on everything that got put on hold while I went to Iraq on short notice. (I didn't tell you this before, but I was scheduled to be in Lebanon right now before the Iraq gig came up. Looks like I would not have made it in any case.)

I don't want to get into the quick response style of blogging just yet. First I'm composing a longish essay, a more careful and measured response than what I banged out in haste from Suleimaniya, Iraq, when I didn't really have time.

More soon.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 03:41 PM | Comments (7)

July 24, 2006

What Now?

by Michael J. Totten

I find myself unsure what to write about now that I’m back and can blog again. I worked in tranquil Northern Iraq -- the Kurdistan region -- for two weeks. I also visited Amman, Jordan, and Tel Aviv, Israel for about 24 hours each during a time of chaos and war.

Because I signed a confidentiality agreement before starting my consulting job in Northern Iraq, there is little I can write about. But of course I learned some things unreleated to my job while I was there, and I took over 1,000 photographs with my spiffy new professional photojournalist camera. There isn’t anything stricly newsy out of Iraqi Kurdistan right now, but it’s an interesting part of the world all the same.

I’ll get to everything in due time, but what do you want first? Posts from Northern Iraq? Brief dispatches from Amman and Tel Aviv? Or my armchair reaction to events in Lebanon and Israel?

Many of you hit my Pal Pay donations button recently, so you tell me what you want most and when you want it.

What do you want me to write about first?
Northern Iraq
Amman and Tel Aviv
Armchair response to Lebanon/Israel conflict
Free polls from Pollhost.com
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 04:06 PM | Comments (48)

July 23, 2006

I'm Back

by Michael J. Totten

Me and Sign to Baghdad.jpg

I'm back from my consulting job. As you can see from the photograph I spent most of my time in Iraq, in the Kurdistan region. (Jeez, it is hot there in July!) I wasn't misleading you when I said my work was non-writing related. I don't have nearly as many stories as I would have had if I went there as a journalist. Unfortunately I can't tell you what I was doing or who I was working for. For now, though, I will say that I was not there working for any government. My gig was a temporary private sector one, and maybe (I don't know yet) I'll be able to explain it sometime in the future.

Getting out of the Middle East during the Lebanon/Israeli conflict was a lot more...interesting than being in Iraq. War and the flow of refugees put the kibosh on my travel plans home, and I had to route through Tel Aviv at a time of war to get back. This was totally unexpected and -- I imagine this goes without saying -- unpleasant. I will explain when I recover from exhaustion and jet lag.

Many thanks again to Callimachus for filling in for me when blogging just wasn't possible. Many thanks also to those of you who sent Pay Pal donations while I was away from regular email access. I will try to send individual thank you notes as soon as I can, late though they may be.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 07:37 PM | Comments (24)

July 21, 2006


By Callimachus:

This John Kifner piece is on the New York Times wire tonight:
The Hezbollah guerrilla campaign that ended Israel's 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000 was in many ways a precursor to the kind of asymmetrical warfare U.S. troops are facing in Iraq — and Israeli troops would face again if they entered Lebanon in large numbers.

Suicide bombers, roadside explosives and ambushes were the weapons the shadowy force that called itself the resistance used to drive out a superior conventional army.

"By limiting the firing, we were able to keep the cards in our hands," said Sheik Nabil Qaouk, then and now the Hezbollah commander in the south, in a rare interview six years ago, shortly after the Israeli withdrawal.

"We were able to do small, little battles where we had the advantage," the sheik, a Shiite imam who is also referred to as a general, said at the time in Tyre, Lebanon.

Now, as Israel contemplates the possibility of another land invasion of Lebanon, its commando reconnaissance teams are meeting stiff fighting as they discover that Hezbollah has spent much of the past six years constructing networks of fortified bunkers and tunnels and amassing stores of thousands of rockets.

This article, "Why the Strong Lose," by Jeffrey Record, turned up in the winter 2005 edition of "Parameters." It might be worth a re-visit.
[A]ll major failed US uses of force since 1945 — in Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia — have been against materially weaker enemies. In wars both hot and cold, the United States has fared consistently well against such powerful enemies as Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union, but the record against lesser foes is decidedly mixed. ... In each case the American Goliath was militarily stalemated or politically defeated by the local David. The phenomenon of the weak defeating the strong, though exceptional, is as old as war itself. Sparta finally beat Athens; Frederick the Great always punched well above his weight; American rebels overturned British rule in the Thirteen Colonies; the Spanish guerrilla bled Napoleon white; Jewish terrorists forced the British out of Palestine; Vietnamese communists drove France and then the United States out of Indochina; and mujahideen handed the Soviet Union its own “Vietnam” in Afghanistan. Relative military power is hardly a reliable predictor of war outcomes.
Record's piece summarizes observations that others have made -- tentatively, perhaps because they are so disturbing to us. Democracies are particularly vulnerable to losing "protracted conflicts against irregular foes." He cites Gil Merom's observation that "democracies fail in small wars because they find it extremely difficult to escalate the level of violence and brutality to that which can secure victory.”

True. And an honorable military tradition in a free people, even when they face defeat, also recoils from such brutality. The Confederate generals in the Civil War, West Pointers, deliberately rejected the option of guerrilla warfare, though many saw it as their best chance for independence. Forrest, a private man with no military education, proved how effective insurgency could be against the Yankees in Mississippi in 1862. But Lee did not follow his path. After the war, Forrest proved it again by founding the Klan. Americans today routinely list him among the nation's 10 greatest villains.

But the cruel truth is, barbarism works -- if by "works" you means defeats the insurgents at a horrific cost in innocent human lives. The French learned that in Algeria, and they also learned the consequence; a free and democratic state with an civilized population simply cannot sustain such a war.

By 1955, the revolutionary FLN was pursuing a policy of open genocide in Algeria: Kill all the French. Civilians of all ages and conditions were hacked to pieces, infants ripped from the womb and dashed to pieces in front of dying mothers, all the depths of depravity of terrorism. If it managed to kill a French official, it then tried to bomb his funeral, too.

The violence spiraled in 1956. The French got tough. In January 1957, Gen. Jacques Massu and his 4,600 men got carte blanche to clean the insurgents out of Algiers. Torture, which had been banned to French soldiers since the Revolution, crept back into use.
The argument was that successful interrogation saved lives, chiefly of Arabs; that Arabs who gave information would be tortured to death, without restraint, by the FLN, and it was vital for the French to make themselves feared more. It was the Arab belief that Massu operated without restraint, as much as the torture itself, which caused prisoners to talk. [Paul Johnson, "Modern Times"]
Torture was not the end of it. According to one French official in a position to know, some 3,000 prisoners "disappeared" during the Algiers battle. It was the one battle in the insurgency that the French clearly won. Fighting the FLN near its own level, with matching weapons of terror, Massu won the fight for Algiers. But civilized France all but tore itself to pieces in the process.
On the one hand, by freeing army units from political control and stressing the personalities of commanders, it encouraged private armies: colonels increasingly regarded themselves as proprietors of their regiments, as under the monarchy, and began to manipulate their generals into disobedience. In the moral confusion, officers began to see their primary obligation as towards their own men rather than the state. At the same time, news leaking out of what the army had done in Algiers began to turn French liberal and centre opinion against the war. From 1957 onward, many Frenchmen came to regard Algerian independence, however distasteful, as preferable to the total corruption of the French public conscience. Thus the demand for the restoration of political control of the war -- including negotiations with the FLN -- intensified just as the French army was, as it believed, winning by asserting its independence.
This irreconcilable conflict produced the explosion of May 1958 which collapsed the Fourth Republic and returned de Gaulle to power. Record adds:
For democracies, the strategy of “barbarism” against the weaker side’s noncombatant social and political support base is neither morally acceptable nor, over time, politically sustainable. Since 1945, wars against colonial or ex-colonial peoples have become increasingly unacceptable to most democratic states’ political and moral sensibilities. Merom says that “what fails democracies in small wars is the interaction of sensitivity to casualties, repugnance to brutal military behavior, and commitment to democratic life.” Democracies fail in small wars because, more specifically, they are unable to resolve three related dilemmas: “how to reconcile the humanitarian values of a portion of the educated class with the brutal requirements of counterinsurgency warfare, ... how to find a domestically acceptable trade-off between brutality and sacrifice, [and] how to preserve support for the war without undermining the democratic order.”
Dictatorships, of course, have no such constraint. And insurgents seem instinctively to grasp this weakness in their democratic foes. Record introduces Robert Pape's landmark study of suicide terrorism from 1980 through 2003, which speculated that suicide terrorism, like guerrilla warfare, is “a strategy of coercion, a means to compel a target government to change policy.” It is felt to be especially effective against democracies, Record notes, for three reasons:
First, democracies “are thought to be especially vulnerable to coercive punishment.” Their threshold of intolerable pain is lower than that of dictatorships. Second, democracies are believed to be more restrained than authoritarian regimes in their use of force, especially against noncombatants. “Democracies are widely perceived as less likely to harm civilians, and no democratic regime has committed genocide in the twentieth century.” Third, “suicide attacks may also be harder to organize or publicize in authoritarian police states.”
Do you think Israel has learned all this? They could teach us the lessons. Every time the Americans make a military display then pull back rather than bringing down the hammer, as they did in Fallujah in April 2004, the jihadis surge. They make sure the message gets through: We defeated the infidel Marines. We are strong, they are weak. And when they do so they draw power, they suck in thousands of young men with their mirage of victory. And more blood and carnage follows. The image of America pulling back from a fight is what inspired bin Laden in the first place:
"After leaving Afghanistan, the Muslim fighters headed for Somalia and prepared for a long battle, thinking that the Americans were like the Russians. The youth were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers and realized more than before that the American soldier was a paper tiger and after a few blows ran in defeat. And America forgot all the hoopla and media propaganda ... about being the world leader and the leader of the New World Order, and after a few blows they forgot about this title and left, dragging their corpses and their shameful defeat."
And ... well, I'll let the interviewer tell the rest of the story:
The Somalia operation, in some ways, made bin Laden. During the Afghan war, the CIA had been very aware of him (although the agency now insists it never "controlled" him), but in Somalia, bin Laden had taken a swing at the biggest kid in the school yard and given him a black eye.
This is no secret. CNN's Jeff Greenfield, for example, has connect the same three dots:
It began as a peacekeeping mission in March, 1983. U.S. Marines were sent to Lebanon to try to stop a bloody civil war. Seven months later, 20 years ago today, a massive truck bomb blew up the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 U.S. servicemen -- the worst single-day loss of life for the American military since Korea.

Grim as the news was, it was, in part, overshadowed by the U.S. invasion of Grenada two days later, to overthrow a hard-left pro-Cuban government.

And when President Reagan ordered the Marines to leave Lebanon in January, 1984, not many Americans paid attention.

But by some accounts, others did pay attention. That terrorist act of 20 years ago may have helped to convince some of America's adversaries that the United States, for all of its might, was vulnerable, that heavy losses could be inflicted upon it at a relatively low price.

After all, the reasoning went, the U.S. had lost a war in Vietnam, not because it was militarily weak, but because it did not have the political will to bear the costs. And over the years, these adversaries seemed to take heart from what they saw as American weakness, from what the U.S. did not do when it left Saddam Hussein in power after the first Gulf War, when it pulled troops out of Somalia in 1993 after 18 Americans were killed -- the Black Hawk down incident -- when it failed to strike hard after the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing or the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa that killed 19 Americans, or the attack in 2000 on the USS Cole that left 17 dead.

That history may have been what Osama bin Laden had in mind when he said, three months after 9/11: "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse." Indeed, one of the principle arguments made for American military action in Afghanistan and in Iraq was that the U.S. had to prove by direct action that America was not a weak horse, that al Qaeda and its allies were misreading America's resolve. If that's true, that Beirut bombing of 20 years ago may have been where that miscalculation began.

Posted by Callimachus at 09:09 PM | Comments (118)

Quick Hits

By Callimachus:

A few bytes from around the Web today:

Emergency relief aid should start reaching Lebanon soon.
France mobilized Friday to send urgent aid to Lebanon, the Red Cross managed to get relief supplies to the south — and Israel agreed to allow a safe corridor crucial to ensuring that food and medicine reaches those in need.
We can only hope. But if you're tired of feeling helpless on the sidelines, Beirut Spring has got a donations board up, listing places you can give to help.

Abu Aardvark has a telling piece on the images that the Arab world is seeing in its media. If you want to understand popular reactions, this always is a good place to start.

There's no such thing as a clean war. A nasty oil slick is fouling Beirut's beaches. Doha has a picture.

Posted by Callimachus at 03:06 PM | Comments (23)

July 20, 2006

What the World Needs Now

By Callimachus:

Tom Friedman, walled up like a Poe character behind the NYT's Internet subscription jealousies, has thoughts on what Lebanon needs:
Even though it had members in the national cabinet, Hezbollah built up a state-within-a state in Lebanon, and then insisted on the right to launch its own attack on Israel that exposed the entire Lebanese nation to retaliation. Moreover, unprovoked, it violated an international border with Israel that was sanctified by the United Nations.

So this is not just another Arab-Israeli war. It is about some of the most basic foundations of the international order — borders and sovereignty — and the erosion of those foundations would spell disaster for the quality of life all across the globe.

Lebanon, alas, has not been able to produce the internal coherence to control Hezbollah, and is not likely to soon. The only way this war is going to come to some stable conclusion anytime soon is if The World of Order — and I don't just mean "the West," but countries like Russia, China, India, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia too — puts together an international force that can escort the Lebanese army to the Israeli border and remain on hand to protect it against Hezbollah.

I am not talking about a U.N. peacekeeping force. I am talking about an international force, like the one that liberated Kosovo, with robust rules of engagement, heavy weapons and troops from countries like France, Russia, India and China that Iran and its proxies will not want to fight.

Israel does not like international forces on its borders and worries they will not be effective. But it will be better than a war of attrition, and nothing would set back the forces of disorder in Lebanon more than The World of Order helping to extend the power of the democratically elected Lebanese government to its border with Israel.

Posted by Callimachus at 07:23 PM | Comments (57)

Viva la Muerte!

By Callimachus:

Hezbollah rockets kill two Arab Israeli boys in Nazareth, but the Arab resident of the town blame Israel, at least when the microphones are turned on.
"It's war, and we are stuck in the middle," said his brother, Omar Talussi. "All the world knows the reason, everybody knows."

Another mourner chimed in: "It's Israel's fault."

"That's it," Omar Talussi said, wiping his hands in a motion of disgust.

Many Arabs here, who are Israeli citizens, feel they are involved in their own low-level fight with Israel.

Though they make up about 20 percent of Israel's population, their towns often get less development money than comparable Jewish areas and their average incomes are usually far less than those of the general population.

For that you feed your children to the missiles?
"Everybody knows it was an accident," said Afif Zidani, who acted as a translator for the grieving family. Though Hezbollah offered no public apology for the killings, many here heard rumors of one and that was good enough for them.
It would be morbidly funny if it were's so sad. As Amba says:
A supporter of Israel cannot help but writhe in agony at the horrible spectacle of the suffering, death and displacement of Lebanese civilians, their neighborhoods and lives shattered by the wrath of Israeli warplanes hunting down Hezbollah terrorists who hide in their midst.

How do you deal a decisive, clean blow to a terrorist organization that uses its own neighbors as human shields? You don't. You either grant them an unacceptable kind of immunity, or you go after them, whatever it takes, and become a hated slaughterer yourself. The terrorists are not blamed, because, after all, they were not harming their neighbors; only living and quietly stockpiling arms among them, and even dispensing social services. The death and destruction they call down on their neighbors serves their purposes, and they have proven before that they have no scruples about sacrificing Muslim lives for the cause. (Two Israeli Arab boys were killed by a Hezbollah rocket that struck Nazareth.) But they are not blamed. Even though the catastrophe for their people may prove a perverse victory for them. Because their power feeds on chaos, suffering, and rage.

This is how terrorists have the world by the balls.

Posted by Callimachus at 05:51 PM | Comments (50)

July 19, 2006

On the Other Hand

By Callimachus:

The idea of proportionate Israeli action in Lebanon, which I advocate, is getting a lot of slagging from some people who are technically on the same team I am.
And one other note: the "disproportionate" meme is an insult to our intelligence. I do not think it is worth discussing. It should be obvious that the best way to deter a bully is to use overwhelming force so that he will never again be tempted to provoke you. Anything less than that is simply an invitation for further troubles down the road.
Or this:
As an American, I recognize my constitutional right to take whatever measures are necessary to protect myself, my family, and my home. If someone comes after my wife and child, tearing him limb from limb would not be disproportionate. If I showed mercy, and subdued him by other means, that would be my prerogative. But I am in no way required to.
The most vigorous arguments along that line often are cast in such terms. But at the risk of doing a Dukakis, I think this is one case where the metaphor of war as a knife-fight with a lunatic to protect your wife doesn't hold up so well.

There's also a perplexing tendency to couple a solid argument that Israel has too used proportion and restraint in its attempts to snipe Hezbollah, with a "to hell with proportion" call to set loose the dogs of war.

Proportionate response is just. Justice isn't always a sure path to physical victory. In this case, the cost of physical defeat is extermination.

Proportionate use of force is not an absolute; it's a guide. It doesn't mean civilians don't get killed. It doesn't mean you've failed if they do.

It doesn't negate the gunman's rule that, if you're going to shoot, shoot to kill. It doesn't negate the ugly truth that, in many wars, a short-term burst of extreme violence seems to actually save lives in the long run.

You don't do it because you expect the other side to follow suit. You don't do it so people will like you. You don't ever want to do it out of weakness or fear.

Hezbollah wants a fight to the death. With flamethrowers. In a crowded old wooden orphanage. It means you're not required to do it their way.

Posted by Callimachus at 09:27 PM | Comments (101)

Turkey and the Kurds

By Callimachus

The latest lede from AP faces both ways:
ANKARA, Turkey - The Turkish military is moving forward with plans to send forces into northern Iraq to clear out Turkish Kurdish guerrilla bases, the prime minister said Wednesday. But Recep Tayyip Erdogan also said officials were holding talks with the United States and Iraq in an attempt to defuse tensions.
Posted by Callimachus at 05:36 PM | Comments (11)

Warrior Code

By Callimachus:

I want to take another stab at convincing some of you there's an important -- essential -- distinction between a warrior and a terrorist, and it's not based on the cause they're fighting for. It's a theme I've brought up from time to time in the blogging I've done.

In Greek histories, Spartan mothers sent their sons to war with the commandment, "Come back with your shield, or on it."

Spartan mothers loved their babies, too -- they did not want to see dead bodies of their son brought back, as was the custom, sprawled on their shields. But if a warrior returned alive and unarmed it meant he had broken ranks and run. It meant he had thrown away the shield that protected -- not his own life, but, in the old method of fighting in phalanxes, the life of the man next to him. He had broken faith with his comrades; he had forgotten his warrior's code.

They wanted their sons back alive, but whole in spirit as well as body. They wanted them with honor intact. Everyone today who loves a soldier, sailor or Marine understand this. We want them alive, we want them victorious -- and we want them to have lives worth living when their battles are over.

Modern armies sweep into their ranks hundreds of thousands of people. Not all are fit to be soldiers. Those who are not, when discovered, should be weeded out and sent home, and if they have committed crimes in the meanwhile they should be punished for them.

But this is not a matter of good soldiers and bad apples. Certain kinds of combat, or duty, wear down the military codes of honor. The warrior's code frays, then the seams fall apart. Then horrible things begin to happen.

Warrior codes, whether in Sparta or in West Point, distinguish soldiers from murderers. Warriors have rules that govern when and how they kill. Learning them is part of the purpose of military training. We give soldiers the power to take lives, but only certain lives, in certain ways, at certain times, and for certain reasons.

The purpose of a code "is to restrain warriors, for their own good as much as for the good of others," writes Shannon E. French, an assistant professor of philosophy and author of "The Code of the Warrior: Exploring Warrior Values Past and Present." "The essential element of a warrior's code is that it must set definite limits on what warriors can and cannot do if they want to continue to be regarded as warriors, not murderers or cowards. For the warrior who has such a code, certain actions remain unthinkable, even in the most dire or extreme circumstances."

Yet the greatest danger of crossing that thin, sharp line that separates warriors from murderers is not in a war not among great powers, evenly matched. But it lurks when well-equipped armies are pitted against weak but merciless foes who hit and run and hide among civilians. It lurks in the places where people blow up public buildings to make a political point. There is no warrior code in that; a terrorist is a terrorist, however he justifies himself.

It is not the justness, or lack of it, in a war that makes this happen. Japanese soldiers, brutalized by experience in China, massacred and mutilated surrendering American soldiers in the Pacific in World War II, and Americans did it in turn to the Japanese when they found out about it. Tennessee soldiers who fought with honor and discipline at Shiloh in 1862 turned into murderous bushwhackers by 1864. Many soldiers in Hitler's army behaved to the end with utmost military discipline. Some of the Soviet troops who defeated the Nazis raped and pillaged their path halfway across Europe.

When warriors and murderers clash, the murderers risk nothing but death. The warriors risk more. "Their only protection is their code of honor," French writes. "The professional military ethics that restrain warriors -- that keep them from targeting those who cannot fight back, from taking pleasure in killing, from striking harder than is necessary, and that encourage them to offer mercy to their defeated enemies and even to help rebuild their countries and communities -- are also their own protection against becoming what they abhor."

[That's something written three years ago, thinking of the U.S. in Iraq. I could make the same point again in fresh words, with references to the current situation in the Mideast. But here it is with nothing tilted or spun for the sake of the case in view.]

Posted by Callimachus at 05:13 PM | Comments (22)

Back in Three Days

by Michael J. Totten

Once again, I apologize for not being able to write much right now, especially at a time like this.

I am in a Third World country (to be revealed after I leave). I have limited access to telecommunications, and I have little or no time to write. I also have little or no time to moderate comments, and that is one of the reasons I felt the need to temporarily shut them down earlier. (They're back now. Please be reasonable. Thanks in advance.) I have not been in a time or place where I can deal with this crisis properly. Please cut me some slack. I'll be back in three days. Thanks again to Callimachus for helping me out when I really need it.

Some people have emailed and asked if my consulting job is just a ruse, that perhaps I'm in Iran and don't want to say so. I really am consulting right now, and no I am not in Iran.

I won't have much material for the blog because I'm not doing journalism work. But I did get a professional photojournalist camera, and I will have lots of better-quality photographs to publish.

The people of both Lebanon and Israel have my deepest sympathies. The Israelis do not deserve to be bombed by Hezbollah, and the Lebanese do not deserve to be bombed because of Hezbollah.

Hezbollah, though, deserves every last bomb that lands on their heads. There is a special circle in Hell dedicated to terrorists who hijack countries and use civilian populations as human shields. Hassan Nasrallah is using some of my personal friends as human shields, and for that I hope he dies twice.

UPDATE: A tiny scrap of good news. Thank you, Lisa.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 08:07 AM | Comments (64)

July 18, 2006

Hezbollah Flexes its Missiles

By Callimachus:

NYT reports:
The power and sophistication of the missile and rocket arsenal that Hezbollah has used in recent days has caught the United States and Israel off guard, and officials in both countries are just now learning the extent to which the militant group has succeeded in getting weapons from Iran and Syria.

While the Bush administration has stated that cracking down on weapons proliferation is one of its top priorities, the arming of Hezbollah shows the blind spots of American and other Western intelligence services in assessing the threat, officials from across those governments said.

American and Israeli officials said the successful attack last Friday on an Israeli naval vessel was the strongest evidence to date of direct support by Iran to Hezbollah. The attack was carried out with a sophisticated antiship cruise missile, the C-802, an Iranian-made variant of the Chinese Silkworm, an American intelligence official said.

At the same time, American and Israeli officials cautioned that they had found no evidence that Iranian operatives working in Lebanon launched the antiship missile themselves.

But neither Jerusalem nor Washington had any idea that Hezbollah had such a missile in its arsenal, the officials said, adding that the Israeli ship had not even activated its missile defense system because intelligence assessments had not identified a threat from such a radar-guided cruise missile.


But it was Friday’s successful launching of a C-802 cruise missile that most alarmed officials in Washington and Jerusalem.

Iran began buying dozens of those sophisticated antiship missiles from the Chinese during the 1990’s, until the United States pressured Beijing to cease the sales.

Until Friday, however, Western intelligence services did not know that Iran had managed to ship C-802 missiles to Hezbollah.

Officials said it was likely that Iran trained Hezbollah fighters on how to successfully fire and guide the missiles, and that members of Iran’s Al Quds force — the faction of the Revolutionary Guards that trains foreign forces — would not necessarily have to be on the scene to launch the C-802.

At the same time, some experts said Iran was not likely to deploy such a sophisticated weapon without also sending Revolutionary Guard crews with the expertise to fire the missile.

One wonders what else they have we don't know about.
Posted by Callimachus at 08:51 PM | Comments (26)

Force in Proportion

By Callimachus

One of the most interesting and in some ways infuriating books I've read recently is A.C. Grayling's "Among the Dead Cities," a book by philosopher that argues that much of the Allied air war -- British bombing of German cities and the U.S. bombings of Japanese cities, including the A-bomb attacks -- was an unjustifiable moral crime. I wrote about it (extensively) here but here's a short version, focusing on the salient points.

Grayling's central precept is that "the means used to conduct the war must be proportional to the ends sought." This notion is not entirely accepted today, he acknowledges, but he shows it to be the essential quality of a just war, as that concept has evolved since Aquinas.

He is not concerned here with war crimes law so much as morality. Grayling's non-pacifist stance allows him to invoke the doctrine of double effect: "No wrong is committed by the belligerent if the harm he does to innocents is an unaviodable ancillary to military operations -- even if such harm can be foreseen." In other words, if the primary goal is good and legitimate, the negative secondary effect, even if foreseen, is -- not good, but not wrong.

This, too, is a controversial notion and one rejected outright by strict pacifists, for it legitimatizes some collateral damage. Grayling says the proportion doctrine applies:
Take the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: if these were claimed to be attacks on targets of military value, assuming there to have been industrial units or military barracks in these cities which 'military necessity' demanded should be destroyed, dropping an atom bomb on them is the equivalent to chopping off a man's head to cure his toothache, such is the degree of disproportion involved.
He lists the large arguments in favor of such bombing, then pushes them back. Was area bombing worse than what the Germans did to the Jews or the Japanese did in Nanking? Certainly not. But "the fact that a wrong is less than a competing wrong does not make it a right."

Did bombing civilians hasten the end of the war and thus spare the Allies greater battlefield casualties? Some say so. But saving military lives by substituting civilian ones is, Grayling says, like using civilians as human shields on the battlefield.

What's left among justifications are the lesser ones of whether the bombing did in fact have a military objective important enough to justify the civilian deaths and wanton destruction of culture and property. Grayling enlists the many historians who have argued effectively against this conclusion.

Grayling declares precision bombing aimed at specific military targets as legitimate and morally acceptable. This exempts most of the raids by the American air forces in Europe from his indictment, since they targeted German oil facilities and similar targets. The American bombing campaign "proved highly effective" and "was proportionate and pertinent; it could also legitimately claim to be a necessary part of the effort to defeat Germany. The area bombing of civilian populations was not necessary."

But this has problems, too. The Americans, in avoiding the heavy concentration of anti-aircraft fire around military targets, dropped from high altitudes and often with little ability to really aim for what they were after. The fact that such military targets as rail junctions and large-scale processing and manufacturing industries tend naturally to be surrounded by dense blocks of homes meant this tactic could be, and often was, as lethal as deliberate city-bombing.

And how do the ethics of air power apply to a ground war? The U.S. Army pushed through central Germany in the spring of 1945, with the German military before it mostly reduced to small ill-trained units, but when the Americans met any sustained resistance they pulled back, called in artillery, and blasted whatever was in front of them, whether it was a wooded ridge or a farming village.

The experience of Neuhof in the Frankenhöhe was typical of hundreds of other small German towns. The 92nd Cav. Recon Squadron reached it toward evening on April 15 and ran into a battle group of young SS soldiers north of the town. The Americans held off and pounded the town with artillery all night. In the morning, they waited for the fog to lift, then blasted Neuhof with phosphorous shells, setting everything ablaze. They attacked again at noon with infantry and tanks, but they still met resistance, so they poured more artillery and tank fire into the town. They finally took it at 5 p.m. that evening.
By that time only a few buildings still stood intact in Neuhof, most of the ancient village having been reduced to a glowing pile of ash and shattered stone. Cries from the wounded, strewn about with a dozen or so dead, intermingled with shouts for help from those still fighting fires and the occasional shots from American tanks to create a Dantesque atmosphere. [Stephen G. Fritz, "Endkampf," p.170]
In measuring the "proportion" and "double effect" rules, a philosopher can be content with images of cutting off heads to cure toothaches. A military commander in the field has to deal in more tangible material. Am I more responsible for protecting the lives of the men in my command than I am for those in the enemy's ranks? Yes. What about their civilians? If I kill 50 enemy soldiers and 1 civilian, is that proportionate? Are 10 civilians? If we have a 60 percent chance of killing Hitler if we bomb a certain city of 20,000 on a certain date without warning, is that legitimate?

These are questions more pertinent to the modern face of warfare. But Grayling's book is mute on them. In the end he's shone such a narrow shaft of illumination that "Among the Dead Cities" doesn't add much to what Billy Sherman said about war and hell.

My question is, how does this apply to what's going on now between Israel and Hezbollah and the Palestinians? One obvious point of departure is that World War II was fought in a time when only nation-states had the ability to rain death from the air, and thus the responsibility to consider questions of proportionality and double effect. That's no longer the case.

Posted by Callimachus at 01:19 PM | Comments (67)

July 17, 2006

No Easy Answers

The National Council of Churches wonders, why can't everyone just get along?
Is there ever to be an end to violence in the land we call holy? What has violence solved these last 60 years? What has violence solved these past weeks?
Maybe I've been in the cynical newspaper business too long, but isn't that rather simple-minded? "Give peace a chance" feels good when you chant it, but shouldn't we expect more hard thinking from theologists? What has chanting matras of peace from a safe distance solved these past 60 years other than making the chanters feel good?

What's odd is that after describing the all around mess and chaos of the present Middle East, the NCC calls upon "our own government and all governments, recognizing the success of former peace initiatives ...."

Well, it's a bit hard to recognize them amid the smoke and flying shards and collapsing apartment blocks, isn't it? If it doesn't stick for more than a few months, is it really success?

The NCC statement is absolutist pacifist. That's probably (but not certainly) what Jesus Would Have typed up in a press-release, right?

But maybe a better step, for serious thinkers about religion, would have been to take notice of the fact that not all the faiths involves have the same scriptural foundation. Or to consider the doctrine of just and appropriate use of force as it has been shaped by men and women of faith over the centuries since Augustine.

Posted by Callimachus at 03:28 PM | Comments (90)

July 16, 2006

War Stories

By Callimachus:

Some quick looks around the Web:

Stratfor says the next likely scenario is an Insraeli invasion of Lebanon. And the likely collateral casualty will be Beirut.
1. Israel cannot tolerate an insurgency on its northern frontier; if there is one, it wants it farther north.

2. It cannot tolerate attacks on Haifa.

3. It cannot endure a crisis of confidence in its military

4. Hezbollah cannot back off of its engagement with Israel.

5. Syria can stop this, but the cost to it stopping it is higher than the cost of letting it go on.

It would appear Israel will invade Lebanon. The global response will be noisy. There will be no substantial international action against Israel. Beirut's tourism and transportation industry, as well as its financial sectors, are very much at risk.

* * *

The Independent tells the story of a survivor of one of the Haifa rocket attacks:
Yossi Amergi, a 46-year-old mechanic lay in the emergency ward of Haifa's Rambam hospital, tubes sticking out of his arm, raw skin showing through a bandage on his right leg.

A few hours earlier eight of his workmates were killed by a rocket that burst through the corrugated iron roof of their railway maintenance depot, sending arc lights crashing, splintering carriage windows and covering the concrete platforms with gore.

... "I heard a boom," he recalled. "My ears were bursting; blood was spurting from my leg. I lost friends, Jews and Arabs who worked together."

* * *
Some blogs are pointing to a news release by Lebanese Foundation for Peace, an organization of Lebanese Christian exiles, praising the Israeli attacks.
"We urge you to hit [Hezbollah] hard and destroy their terror infrastructure. It is not [only] Israel who is fed up with this situation, but the majority of the silent Lebanese in Lebanon who are fed up with Hezbollah and are powerless to do anything out of fear of terror retaliation."
Be that as it may, the press release begins with a very unfortunate preposition:
For the millions of Christian Lebanese, driven out of our homeland, "Thank you Israel," is the sentiment echoing from around the world.
I suspect they meant "from," or "on behalf of."

* * *

An L.A. Times piece (subscription required) paints the picture in other Arab capitals:
In Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, governments with ties to the United States have guardedly denounced Hezbollah for the attack on Israel that triggered the fighting -- even as the people began tacking up posters of Hassan Nasrallah, the bearded, turbaned cleric who heads the Shiite militia group and has vowed to bring "war on every level" to Israel's door.

The disconnect between the broad range of public support for Hezbollah and the unease felt by many Arab leaders is one of many reasons that Arab governments have been largely unable to mount an effective diplomatic response to Israel's 5-day-old bombing campaign.

Over the weekend, for example, the Arab League, meeting in Cairo, was able to agree on little more than a statement that urged all parties to avoid actions that may "undermine peace and security," appealed to the United Nations for intervention and unsurprisingly declared the Middle East peace process "dead."

On one level, the divide pits Syria and Iran, long-time backers of Hezbollah, against Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, whose Sunni-led governments fear the rise of Islamic militancy and the influence of Iran.

"The resistance will win, and the Israeli aggression will fail," said Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal in a statement Sunday, pledging a "firm and direct response" if Syria is hit. "The resistance has hit deep inside Israel, and the enemy did not expect this."

Iran, meanwhile, threatened that Israel would suffer "unimaginable losses" if it widened the conflict with an attack on Syria.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei on Sunday rallied behind Hezbollah, describing Israel as "an evil, cancerous tumor" in the midst of the Islamic world.

Posted by Callimachus at 04:57 PM | Comments (40)

Turkey and the Kurds

By Callimachus

The Middle East this morning faces many possible next steps to Hell. Certainly one of them is a flare-up of fighting between Turks and Kurds, which would take place in a region Michael has criss-crossed several times and written about eloquently.

Now it looks like that possible next step is a step closer. Here's the AP version:
Turkey said Sunday that it was weighing an escalation of its fight against Kurdish rebels after the guerillas killed seven Turkish soldiers and a village guard.

The outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, wants autonomy for Turkey's Kurdish-dominated southeast. Its Saturday ambush, which Turkish officials said was launched from neighboring northern Iraq, drove the number of Turks it has killed since Thursday to 13.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed outrage, signaling that Turkey could step up its battle against the rebel group. And high-ranking military, civilian, police and intelligence officials held an emergency meeting of Turkey's High Anti-Terrorism Council to discuss possible new measures against the guerrillas.

Here's the Al Jazeera version.

[I'm going to leave comments open here, but please don't use them to continue grudge matches begun elsewhere.]

Posted by Callimachus at 01:56 PM | Comments (21)


By Callimachus


The caption currently accompanying this Associated Press photo, both online and on the AP media wire, is:
Syrian men touring Damascus streets on Sunday, July 16, 2006, in their cars, waving the flags of the Lebanese Hezbollah Party, in a show of solidarity with the Lebanese resistance. A picture of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, is seen in the rear window of the front car.
Emphasis added. That strikes me as a politically loaded description of Hezbollah, and a word choice that's ... unfortunate, to say the best for AP.
Posted by Callimachus at 01:52 PM | Comments (59)

July 15, 2006

Comments are Closed, and Some Clarifications - UPDATED BELOW

by Michael J. Totten

Insulting my personal friends while they are driven out of their homes as war refugees is not acceptable. My old neighborhood is under attack. My friends are terrified and in danger. How on earth do you expect me to feel about this right now? If you can't factor these things into account before bloviating in the comments, then you do not get to comment. Comments are closed until further notice.

In the meantime, allow me to clarify a few things so (some of you) can stop thinking I've decided Israel is the enemy or that Hassan Nasrallah deserves anything but a headstone or a war crimes tribunal.

Obviously Hezbollah started this and Hezbollah is the main problem. Not only did they drag my second home into a war, the bastards also threatened me personally. So I hardly see the point in telling you what I think about them right about now. I'll get to them later.

I sympathize one hundred percent with what Israel is trying to do here. But they aren't going about it the right way, and they're punishing far too many of the wrong people. Lord knows I could be wrong, and the situation is rapidly changing, but at this particular moment it looks bad for Israel, bad for Lebanon, bad for the United States, good for Syria, and good for Iran.

There is no alternate universe where the Lebanese government could have disarmed an Iranian-trained terrorist/guerilla militia that even the Israelis could not defeat in years of grinding war. There is no alternate universe where it was in Lebanon's interest to restart the civil war on Israel's behalf, to burn down their country all over again right at the moment where they finally had hope after 30 years of convulsive conflict and Baath Party overlordship.

The Lebanese government should have asked for more help from the international community. The Lebanese government should have been far less reactionary in its attitude toward the Israelis. They made more mistakes than just two, but I'd say these are the principal ones.

What should the Israelis have done instead? They should have treated Hezbollahland as a country, which it basically is, and attacked it. They should have treated Lebanon as a separate country, which it basically is, and left it alone. Mainstream Lebanese have no problem when Israel hammers Hezbollah in its little enclave. Somebody has to do it, and it cannot be them. If you want to embolden Lebanese to work with Israelis against Hezbollah, or at least move in to Hezbollah's bombed out positions, don't attack all of Lebanon.

Israel should not have bombed Central Beirut, which was almost monolithically anti-Hezbollah. They should not have bombed my old neighborhood, which was almost monolithically anti-Hezbollah. They should not have bombed the Maronite city of Jounieh, which was not merely anti-Hezbollah but also somewhat pro-Israel.

Israelis thinks everyone hates them. It isn't true, especially not in Lebanon. But they will make it so if they do not pay more attention to the internal characteristics of neighboring countries. "The Arabs" do not exist as a bloc except in the feverish dreams of the Nasserists and the Baath.

UPDATE: I hate closing the comments, and I'm sorry for having to do that. I just simply will not stand seeing some of my dear friends insulted -- some of whom are Americans as well as Lebanese -- while their neighborhoods are on fire and they're being driven to Syria -- Syria! -- as war refugees.

The following comment, sent by email from Shalom Deen, is what I would like to see if I could stand to keep comments open.
Guys- This is one of the greatest blogs for honest analysis of what goes on in the Middle East, so let's try to maintain civility and understanding here as heated emotions are sorted out (which, admittedly, might take a while). Obviously, both Israel and Lebanon are very close to the hearts of many of this blogs' readers and writers. The current situation is going to introduce some strong feelings, and since most participants here are reasonable, intelligent, and informed people, let's just be careful about things getting too heated.

LP certainly has the right at this point to rant, as does Michael. Lebanon is obviously getting the short end of the stick at the moment, and it remains to be seen whether Israel's actions are responsibly calculated for the desired result--and most of all, whether they succeed--or if they're just looking to inflict damage. None of us really know the answer at this point. So at the very least, no matter what our opinion is regarding Israel's operations, we should be understanding of the fear and frustrations of those who are affected--especially when they're the good guys.

For Lebanon it's not just scores killed and hundreds wounded; it's sweat, blood, tears, and money invested in an infrastructure and a fledgling economy that will now take months or even years to rebuild. Whatever the fault of the Lebanese government (and reasonable people can argue the extent of it), it is not the time to berate those who have been passionately committed to peace and dialogue for being very angry at the moment.

I pray (my agnosticism notwithstanding) for the safety of all, and for the successful elimination of those vile Hizbullah murderers. Hopefully, some good will come of this in the end.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:27 PM | Comments (0)

My Friend is a Refugee

by Michael J. Totten

My friend Lebanon.Profile at the Lebanese Political Journal once guest blogged for me while I was in Egypt. He is one of the most open-minded people in Lebanon when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and I have linked to some of his posts in the past on this very subject. Israel has lost him. And he has lost his country.
You've made this country unliveable for the people fighting to disarm Hezbollah.

Guess what? I'm leaving. Yep. Me.

Where am I going? Syria. Didn't want to, but I have to. The people we marched against are the ones you sent us begging to. The people who assassinated our leaders, kept us from having an operating democracy, and who armed Hezbollah are laughing it up because they've won the game because of you.

Bashar Assad said Lebanon would be destroyed if he left. I didn't know the Israelis would play into his game. It's not surprising that Syrian-allied Hezbollah started the mess, but you guys are just vicious.

All my Hezbollah supporting friends are sticking around. They call the rest of us cowards. I guess we are. We want to do scientific research. We want our children to learn how to play the piano. We want to watch our stock porfolios burgeon. We can't do that here any more.

I tried to sympathize with you. I didn't support Hezbollah, and if you look at the posts before this conflict began, I was maligning the political parties that oppose Hezbollah for not doing enough.

I even gave you guys the benefit of the doubt at the beginning of this, as did most Lebanese. Even the Shia, Christians, and Druze in South Lebanon understood your position. Not any more.

Oh, well. I'm a refugee.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 08:40 AM | Comments (84)

July 14, 2006


by Michael J. Totten

I'm sorry to be gone and (mostly) unable to blog at a horrible time like this, when a city I love and used to live in is under attack by an ally of my country. I'm scrambling to keep up with what's going on while trying to do my temporary full-time and all-consuming job, which ends in a week. Meanwhile I try, as much as is possible, to console some of my friends while their country burns, while fighter jets scream over head, while columns of filthy black smoke blot out the sun.

Israel has a right - nay, a moral obligation - to defend itself and rescue the kidnapped. But what kind of down-the-rabbit-hole war is this, where the guilty parties - the Baath regime in Syria and the Jihad regime in Iran - sleep warm in their beds while Beirut, a libertine city they hate, takes the punishment for them?

The dictators in the region have always been happy to fight the Israelis to the last Palestinian. Now it looks like they're happy to fight the Israelis to the last Lebanese, too. And why not? Lebanon is a relatively liberal and almost half Christian sort-of democracy. Can't have any of that in the region if you're a totalitarian mullah. It suits Tehran just fine if the Jews slug it out with such people.

Bashar al-Assad promised to make Lebanon burn if his Syrian occupation soldiers were forced out of the country. No doubt he is ecstatic at this latest turn of events. His principal enemies are killing each other instead of teaming up against him like they would in a better and more intelligent world.

Israel and Lebanon are the two freest countries in the Middle East. They are the only countries, aside from tortured Iraq, that hold unrigged elections for parliaments and heads of state. The tyrants to their east have pulled quite a coup, haven't they? The two countries friendliest to America and to liberal Western values are now shooting each other. (The Lebanese army, which has cooperated with Israel in the past behind the scenes, is now firing anti-aircraft guns at Israeli planes.)

It's a catastrophe for Lebanon, which is now under siege because Iran took it hostage. It's a catastrophe for Israel, which could have, and should have, worked toward a peace process with the Lebanese. Lebanese are (were?) far and away the most likely of all Arabs to sign a genuine treaty at some point down the road. And it's a catastrophe for the United States. We have few friends in the region already, none of whom get along well with each other as it is.

The Middle East was in a holding pattern until two days ago. No one knew what would happen next, what the next big thing would be. Now we know. The democracies suffer and bleed and turn on each other while their enemies, our enemies, sit back and watch. The Baath regime and the Jihad regime rest easy knowing that Israel is too cautious or gutless to take the fight to the source and chooses to hit the country of the Cedar Revolution instead.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 09:12 PM | Comments (62)

Closer to War

... or already there?

By Callimachus

Grist for the conversation mill. I don't necessarily agree with all or any of what's said in all or any of these, but they advance arguments worth considering, or refuting:

Ammar Abdulhamid:
All wishful thinking aside, I just don’t think Israel is going to lose this round, and I think the going-ons in Lebanon are only a prelude for the eventual and now inevitable confrontation with Syria, with all sort of disastrous implications and consequences for our people. Some people see this differently I know, they see the Assads and Mullahs emerging as serious contenders in the arena once again, and that they have embarrassed the US and Israel. I kindly disagree. But, be that as it may, the winner of this round notwithstanding, we, the people, are the ones who will get screwed.
Sayyid Nasrallah is still alive and declaring an open war. Where is our President? Where are our Ministers? Prime Minister? Members of Parliament? All these institutions and the guardians of these institutions are obsolete at this point. Nasrallah is leading the show. He's defying everything and everyone. He is assuming the position of the guardian of the Prophet's Family, against all odds. This is not about Lebanon anymore; this is about Nasrallah's pride.
Michael Ledeen:
No one should have any lingering doubts about what’s going on in the Middle East. It’s war, and it now runs from Gaza into Israel, through Lebanon and thence to Iraq via Syria. There are different instruments, ranging from Hamas in Gaza to Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon and on to the multifaceted “insurgency” in Iraq. But there is a common prime mover, and that is the Iranian mullahcracy, the revolutionary Islamic fascist state that declared war on us 27 years ago and has yet to be held accountable.
Mark Perry:
Hezbollah and Israel stand along this border every day observing each other through binoculars and waiting for an opportunity to kill each other. They are at war. They have been for 25 years, no one ever declared a cease-fire between them. … They stand on the border every day and just wait for an opportunity. And on Tuesday morning there were two Humvees full of Israeli soldiers, not under observation from the Israeli side, not under covering fire, sitting out there all alone. The Hezbollah militia commander just couldn’t believe it -- so he went and got them.

The Israeli captain in charge of that unit knew he had really screwed up, so he sent an armored personnel carrier to go get them in hot pursuit, and Hezbollah led them right through a minefield.

Now if you’re sitting in Tehran or Damascus or Beirut, and you are part of the terrorist Politburo so to speak, you have a choice. With your head sunk in your hands, thinking "Oh my God," you can either give [the kidnapped soldiers] back and say "Oops, sorry, wrong time" or you can say, "Hey, this is war."

It is absolutely ridiculous to believe that the Hezbollah commander on the ground said Tuesday morning, "Go get two Israeli soldiers, would you please?”

Posted by Callimachus at 05:24 PM | Comments (13)

July 13, 2006

Israel vs. Lebanon

By Callimachus

So they say:
The violence pitting Arabs and Jews in the Middle East has spilled from the physical into the virtual world, as combatants on both sides lay siege to the Internet sites of one another.
And why should we be left out?

Honestly, though, I'm on a learning curve trying to figure out what's happening. It's times like this I used to go to Michael's site to see what insights he had from his ringside seat. Instead, I'm here with more questions than answers.

Make this an open thread on the current Mideast crisis. What sites or publications do you look to for unbiased information? Or is it more a matter of taking a bite from both sides and trying to find the center of gravity between them?

Also, I've had a nagging feeling that the current Israeli government, being headed by men who, I think, lack the military leadership experience and hawkish track record of many of their predecessors, might feel it has to hit back especially hard in its first test. Is that possibly the case here?

UPDATE: Just after writing this I see my blog-partner Reader_I_Am also is in "read and learn" mode, and she's got a list started of some of the sites that are putting up good information, including the indispensible Lebanese Political Journal.

Bloggers try to emulate journalists in being the first to report. But sometimes it's difficult to write an intelligent opinion until the smoke clears a bit and you can see what's happening.

Posted by Callimachus at 02:37 PM | Comments (73)

July 11, 2006

And Now for Something Completely Different

By Callimachus

Here's one I used to do at my home place, based on one of my odd-ball hobbies. I don't know if it will entertain you folks or not; consider it a summer diversion. Are these pairs of modern English words related to each other or not?

Click to see the answers.
1. cult/occult

2. climate/climax

3. priest/preacher

4. defense/offense

5. wine/vine

6. book/beech

7. grave (n.)/gravel

8. proper/property


Cult comes from Latin cultus, which meant "care, cultivation, worship," but originally "tended, cultivated." It is the past particple of colere "to till" (the source of colony, among other modern English words, and ultimately related to the root of cycle and circle).

Occult, on the other hand , is from Latin occultus "hidden, concealed, secret," which is the past participle of the verb occulere "cover over, conceal." This is a compound of ob "over" and a verb related to celare "to hide." The ultimate roots of this are in a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European base *kel- "conceal," which also has yielded, via Latin, cell and cellar, and, via its Germanic branch, holster, hole, and helm.


They come from a pair of Greek nouns, klima "region, zone," and klimax "ladder," both derived from the base of the noun klinein "to slope."

The notion behind klima is "the slope of the Earth from equator to pole." The Greek geographers used the angle of the sun to define the Earth's zones.

From Greek, the words took off down diverging paths. The Romans picked up clima (genitive climatis) in its sense of "region, slope of the Earth," and by Chaucer's time it had made its way into English. But by c.1600 the meaning had shifted from "region" to "weather associated with that region."

Greek klimax "ladder," meanwhile, acquired a metaphoric meaning "propositions rising in effectiveness." The rhetorical meaning evolved in English through "series of steps by which a goal is achieved," to "escalating steps," to (1789) "high point," a usage credited by the Oxford English Dictionary "to popular ignorance." The meaning "orgasm" is first recorded in 1918, apparently coined by birth-control pioneer Marie Stopes as a more accessible word than orgasm.


Priest is Old English preost, shortened from the older Germanic form represented by Old High German prestar and Old Frisian prestere. All are very early Germanic borrowings from Late Latin presbyter "presbyter, elder." Presumably the words came to the Germanic tribes along with the Christian missionaries who converted them.

The Latin word in turn was a borrowing of Greek presbyteros "an elder," which also was an adjective meaning "older." It is the comparative form of presbys "old."

This word is something of a mystery, but one suggested origin is that it meant "one who leads the cattle," and is a compound of *pres- "before" and the root of bous "cow."

Preach also was an Old English word borrowed from Church Latin. The Anglo-Saxon form was predician, but the word was re-borrowed in Middle English in the Frenchified form preachen.

The source of both forms is Late Latin predicare "to proclaim publicly, announce" (in Medieval Latin "to preach"), a compound of præ- "forth" and dicare "to proclaim, to say."


The base is a Latin verb (found only in compounds) fendere "to strike, push." Add the prefix de- "from, away" and you get defendere "ward off, protect." Add the prefix ob "against" and you get offendere "to strike against, stumble." The sense of "commit a fault, displease" also was in Latin.


In fact, pretty much the same word. The Latin root is vinum "wine." From this came vinea "vine, vineyard," which passed into Old French as vigne and thence into Middle Enaglish as vine.

Latin vimun had gone directly into Old English (and most other Germanic languages) as win, which became modern English wine.

The Latin word for "wine" also passed into Old Church Slavonic (vino), Lithuanian (vynas), Welsh (gwin), and Old Irish (fin).

The ultimate root of the Latin word appears to be from a lost language that was spoken in the Mediterranean before the Indo-European peoples arrived there more than 6,000 years ago, which makes it an ancient word indeed. Its other descendants include Greek oinos and words for "wine" in Armenian, Hittite, and non-Indo-European Georgian and West Semitic (cf. Arabic wain, Hebrew yayin, Ethiopian wayn).


At least we think so. The traditional derivation of the common Germanic word for "book" (Old English boc, German Buch) is from Proto-Germanic *bokjon "beech" (Old English bece, German Buche).

The notion is that the original written documents of the northern European peoples were beechwood tablets on which runes were inscribed, but the derivation also may be from the tree itself; people still carve their initials into them. This is not so far-fetched, as Latin and Sanskrit also have words for "writing" that are based on tree names ("birch" and "ash," respectively).

The base of beech and its Germanic relatives is Proto-Indo-European *bhagos a tree name that has come to mean different things in different places (cf. Greek phegos "oak," Latin fagus "beech," Russian buzina "elder"). It's not unusual for tree names to switch around like this.

The ground sense of the Proto-Indo-European word may well be "edible," if it is related, as some thing, to Greek phagein "to eat." Beech mast was an ancient food source for agricultural animals across a wide stretch of Europe.


Grave is Old English græf "grave, ditch," from a Proto-Germanic *graban that also yielded Old High German grab "grave, tomb;" Old Norse gröf "cave," and Gothic graba "ditch"). This evolved from a Proto-Indo-European root *ghrebh-/*ghrobh- "to dig, to scratch, to scrape," which also yielded Old Church Slavonic grobu "grave, tomb"). IT is unrelated to the adjective grave.

Gravel is from Old French gravele, a diminutive of grave "sand, seashore," which came into French from one of the Celtic peoples who once inhabited Gaul. IT is related, thus, to Welsh gro "coarse gravel," Breton grouan, and Cornish grow "gravel."


The roots of both are in Latin proprius "one's own, special, particular to itself."

The Latin word came directly into English (via French) as proper by the early 13th century. In English it originally meant "adapted to some purpose, fit, apt;" the meaning "socially appropriate" is first recorded in 1704. The original sense is preserved in proper name and astronomical proper motion.

Latin proprietas was a noun formed from proprius that literally meant "special character." The Romans coined this to be an exact translation of Greek idioma once they began to absorb Greek ideas. But the Latin word also took on a specific sense of "ownership, property, propriety," in which sense it passed through French and into English by 1300.

But the earliest English usages were in the more vague sense of "nature, quality." The typical modern meaning "possession" was rare before the 17th century. One of the dangers of interpreting old texts is that you may encounter familiar words with meanings that have shifted or narrowed.

Latin proprius is a compound formed from the phrase pro privo, literally "for the individual."

Posted by Callimachus at 04:56 PM | Comments (22)

July 10, 2006

Eisenhower's Ghost

By Callimachus

When President Bush visited Hungary, he helped the nation commemorate its failed 1956 uprising against Soviet domination. But Charles Gati wrote that a Clinton-style apology would have been more in order:
The truth is that at a critical juncture in the Cold War, when Hungarians rose against their Soviet oppressors, the United States abandoned them. After 13 days of high drama, hope and despair, the mighty Soviet army prevailed. For its part, Washington offered a sad variation on "NATO": no action, talk only. The Eisenhower administration's policy of "liberation" and "rollback" turned out to be a hoax -- hypocrisy mitigated only by self-delusion. The more evident, if unstated, goal was to roll back the Democrats from Capitol Hill rather than liberate Central and Eastern Europe from Soviet tyranny.
Gati is an academic and a researcher. It is apparent from his column that he's formed his opinions about 1956 at least in part from digging he's done in the CIA's archives to research a book. They also owe much, it seems, to material from Soviet archives that were available to researchers after the fall of the USSR.
We now know from Russian archives that the Hungarians did have a chance to gain some of what they sought.
I have every sympathy with the Hungarians. I remember reading a white paper account of the events of 1956 when I was a teenager and thinking it was one of the great tragedies of the Cold War. And seeing how the Red Army brought in its Asian units to grind the boot down on genuine factory workers gave the lie to the whole cardboard edifice of Marxist-Leninist rhetoric.

But Gati seems to me to be in violation of one of my cardinal rules: In judging the acts and words of people of the past, judge from what they knew, not what you know now.

The United States, according to the usual version of what happened, could not help the Hungarians because any action would have triggered a military confrontation with Moscow. This explanation misses the point: There were actions short of war that Washington might have taken. It could certainly have urged the Hungarians to temporize and pursue limited, evolutionary goals. It could have taken the issue to the United Nations before, and not after, the Soviet crackdown. In an imaginative move toward post-Stalin detente, it could have proposed immediate talks about withdrawing American forces from a small Western European country in exchange for Soviet withdrawal from Hungary.
Instead, Gati writes, and probably correctly, "[T]he United States had no means available to aid, let alone 'liberate,' Hungary. For despite all the talk about 'liberation' since 1952, neither the National Security Council nor the State Department had devised plans for diplomatic or any other form of assistance. Nor was the CIA ready."

Thanks to people like Gati, we know what the American and Soviet leaders of 1956 said among themselves. But they couldn't hear each other at the time.

Gati says other U.S. approaches to the Hungary crisis would have succeeded. But even after you've read all the archives, you don't know that. Once you take a single step outside the historical flow of events, once you introduce a single "what-if," the butterfly effect kicks in and the entire course of events becomes utterly unpredictable.

It is possible to see similarities between the 1956 uprisings in Poland and Hungary and the events of 1989: A new leader in the East was denouncing old tyrants, admitting mistakes, and promising more openness and better lives for people. Subject populations reacted by rising up not only against their local overlords but the entire Soviet system.

But the similarities mask deep differences. Khrushchev, for instance, was under intense pressure from Mao not to let the Soviet system run off the rails. The audacity, or genius -- or luck -- of Reagan was to see that the moment had come to press against the rotten regime. The mass rising from below in Eastern Europe was strong enough in 1989, and the change at the top was real enough, and the hollowness of the regimes was so advanced, that the circumstances were just right.

But the main thing Gati seems to have forgotten is the awful dilemma that chilled every day of the Cold War. Every international crisis brought a risk of nuclear annihilation. After a few of them in the first post-war years, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. learned to avoid them -- without making that too obviously the main rule of the game.

Stability always is the ideal for world powers, in any era, but in the Cold War it became the only guarantee of survival. Both sides, though they occasionally tested each other (especially at times of a change in administration in Washington) quickly retreated into the fetish for stability. When the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, Kennedy in public used it as an excuse to, correctly, lambaste the Soviet "worker's paradise" ideal as a sham. But privately he accepted it: "It's not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war."

The U.S. invested thousands of lives and millions of dollars in maintaining a status quo that was morally indefensible and that compromised our ideals. We muzzled our commitment to democracy and embraced dictators if they pronounced themselves anti-communists. And what was the inhumane doctrine of "mutually assured destruction" but hostage-taking on a global scale?

It was a system that elevated stability over justice. What was the alternative? Bold moves only drove the world closer to the thermonuclear precipice. Before it's all forgotten, let someone write down the helpless terror felt by average people during the Cuban Missile Crisis; how my parents said good-bye to each other every morning as he went to work, crying and thinking this would be the day the skies blossomed obliteration all over them.

The Cold War need to deter a nuclear war at all costs short of surrender evolved in the minds of leaders from being a temporary and very regrettable condition, to a necessity, to a proper relationship, and finally to a positive good.

In 1956, it had at least reached the level of "necessity." John Foster Dulles said in a public interview during the crisis that American military intervention to free the Hungarians would "precipitate a full-scale world war and probably the result would be all these people wiped out."

The lines had congealed on the map when the armies halted in 1945. As Gati writes the rhetoric was launched over the barbed wire, but not the soldiers. Dean Rusk, later and in another context, said what happened in Eastern Europe had "never been an issue of war and peace between us and the Soviet Union -- however ignoble this sounds."

Do you wonder why some of us literally felt born-again in 1989, and why we still prefer the current idealistic follies in the name of freedom and gambles on nation-building? Better that than the grim death match grappling of the Cold War. Yet many people yearn for the "balance" of the past, and want something/anything -- Europe, the U.N., even the Islamists -- to rise up and force America to back down and return to all talk, no action.

Gati rails against the hypocrisy of an America that talked a good game of liberation and the rights of people everywhere to live free, but was unwilling to put any muscle into the promises:
The president should tell the Hungarians that in the 1950s Congress issued politically inspired "Captive Nations" resolutions and held self-satisfying "prayer breakfasts," while Eisenhower delivered empty promises about "liberation" during presidential campaigns in 1952 and 1956 to please Hungarian (and other Eastern European) ethnics in Ohio and elsewhere -- with no plans to carry them out. The Hungarians need to hear what happened 50 years ago -- and Americans need to hear that in the future we will not say we seek clearly unattainable goals abroad for political ends at home.
That's an artful conclusion. It can be read two ways: "We should back up our talk with robust action," or "we should stop talking about freedom being a human right since we're not sincere about helping make it happen."
Posted by Callimachus at 03:19 PM | Comments (17)

July 09, 2006

Tolerating the Intolerant

By Callimachus

I've been going back to the sources to try to discover whether the religious tolerance of the American Founders would or should extend to Islamist preaching. Even in a tolerant society, not all things are or should be tolerated. You have freedom of speech, but you can't shout "fire" in a crowded theater.

Freedom of religion -- or liberty of conscience to give it its broadest name -- seems to admit very few exceptions. An astonishing range of religions thrive among us, from Santaria to Southern Baptism. In the name of liberty of conscience we tolerate religions that require their followers to surrender liberty of conscience and follow a preacher or a book.

But what about Islamist religion, which preaches identification with the worldwide Muslim ummah rather than local civic society, which sets religious authority above any secular state power, and which has a long-term goal of plowing under Western freedoms, including liberty of conscience, and replacing them with shari'a law? Such things existed in the world in the 18th century, too, but the American Founders never addressed them.

America is not re-invented every generation, despite the appearance, and it has underpinnings in certain currents of philosophy and the thoughts of specific men. Yet to discuss the Founders as a guide to present policy seems anathema to many otherwise thoughtful people on the liberal side; as if to accept the relevance of Madison and Jefferson is to accept the conservative vision of America. To less thoughtful leftists, I suspect, the past is a dead land, populated by monstrous slave-owning philosophes and Indian-killers and sexually repressed Puritans.

John Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration is the philosophical foundation of the American separation of church and state, religious equality and freedom of conscience -- key elements of the Western pantheon, and hateful poisons to its Islamist enemies.

When it comes to religion, Locke politely tells the political authorites to butt out. He enjoins the would-be religious meddlers:
If any man err from the right way, it is his own misfortune, no injury to thee; nor therefore art thou to punish him in the things of this life because thou supposest he will be miserable in that which is to come. Nobody, therefore, in fine, neither single persons nor churches, nay, nor even commonwealths, have any just title to invade the civil rights and worldly goods of each other upon pretence of religion.
Locke mainly was concerned with mutual toleration among Christians in England. But he extended this philosophy beyond the Christian churches. Even pagans, who in his day would have been regarded with abhorrence, came in for the hands-off treatment.
But, indeed, if any people congregated upon account of religion should be desirous to sacrifice a calf, I deny that that ought to be prohibited by a law. Meliboeus, whose calf it is, may lawfully kill his calf at home, and burn any part of it that he thinks fit. For no injury is thereby done to any one, no prejudice to another man's goods. And for the same reason he may kill his calf also in a religious meeting. Whether the doing so be well-pleasing to God or no, it is their part to consider that do it. The part of the magistrate is only to take care that the commonwealth receive no prejudice, and that there be no injury done to any man, either in life or estate.
Locke wrote at the close of a generation rent by a civil war and a revolution, and in a century when the clash of Crown and Parliament and the overlapping conflicts between Protestants, Anglicans and Catholics, bloodied England.

Locke's "toleration," however, was not universal. It expressly excluded atheists, because, as is still commonly believed, they had no motive to be moral and therefore could not be trusted to be so. And Locke's toleration, like John Milton's, excluded Catholics, who, at that time, acknowledged the authority of a Pope who was prince of a secular realm, and a power-rival and dangerous enemy of the ruler of Britain.

And it certainly would have excluded the type of religion preached in the West by many Islamist imams. Locke excludes the intolerant from his toleration, a needle's eye that probably excludes a few modern Christian fundamentalists as well.
These, therefore, and the like, who attribute unto the faithful, religious, and orthodox, that is, in plain terms, unto themselves, any peculiar privilege or power above other mortals, in civil concernments; or who upon pretence of religion do challenge any manner of authority over such as are not associated with them in their ecclesiastical communion, I say these have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate; as neither those that will not own and teach the duty of tolerating all men in matters of mere religion. For what do all these and the like doctrines signify, but that they may and are ready upon any occasion to seize the Government and possess themselves of the estates and fortunes of their fellow subjects; and that they only ask leave to be tolerated by the magistrate so long until they find themselves strong enough to effect it?
In America a century later, James Madison took Locke one step further. Madison scholar Robert Alley writes that, "toleration presumed a state perogative that, for Madison, did not exist." Madison wrote that "the right to tolerate religion presumes the right to persecute it." Instead Madison argued for "liberty of conscience." The "natural rights of man," centering in the concept of "liberty of conscience," stand, without question for Madison, above and before any other authority.

No religion, or irreligion, can be banned by the state, even religions that make it a central aim to overthrow the state (up until the point where they act on that aim).

When Madison took his place in the Virginia legislature after the Revolutionary War, a bill stood in the General Assessment, sponsored by Patrick Henry, that would funnel tax money to support religious education in all denominations.

Henry justified this as a way to curtail the sin and immorality of young people. But the General Assessment bill would have hatched the monster Madison feared most: a "tyranny of the majority." If the ministers from all the major Protestant denominations were paid from the state treasury, a coalition of Protestant groups would relegate minority views to a "tolerated" status or worse.

The legislature was on the verge of passing the bill, but Madison convinced his colleagues to postpone a vote until the next session in 1785. Madison used the postponement to take his case to the public, writing a broadside critique, the "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments," which has become the classic statement for religious freedom in North America.

I cannot find that Madison, here or anywhere else, made exceptions, as Locke did, to what the state ought to tolerate in the way of religion. His sole concern was protecting the individual conscience from the intrusion of state power.
The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.
Madison insisted government keep its hands absolutely off religion.
Before any man can be considerd as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign. We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man's right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.
Madison, it seems, took no cognizance of what Karl Popper, in a later, darker century than the 18th, would describe as the “paradox of tolerance.”
Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even though those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.

In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols.

We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade as criminal.
Who is more suited to the 21st century, Locke, Madison, or Popper? Popper's answer seems closer to the European laws regarding liberty of conscience: General tolerance up to a point, but with clear exceptions. Though Locke is in both the American heritage and the European, America alone seems to have Madison's radical insight that government has no right to "tolerate," because doing so implies a right to refuse toleration.
Posted by Callimachus at 01:12 PM | Comments (86)

July 06, 2006

Rant Control

By Callimachus

I'm grateful to Mark Kurlansky for busting loose and saying what a lot of people think, but are too intimidated to say. That doesn't mean he's not grossly wrong about every sentence he writes in this Fourth of July fireworks assault on the Founders.

Kurlansky is the author of food-themed history books (*Salt," "Cod") which may or may not be good history; I've never read them. Based on this column, though, I don't think I'd rely on him to teach me much about America's past. Put on your Fisking hats and let's go inside:

SOMEONE HAS TO SAY IT or we are never going to get out of this rut: I am sick and tired of the founding fathers and all their intents.
There's some sort of pleasure, I suppose, in watching an annoying house mouse start banging its nose on the trigger plate of an unbaited mousetrap. Not that a mouse ever was that stupid. But it's what I thought of when reading this.
The real American question of our times is how our country in a little over 200 years sank from the great hope to the most backward democracy in the West.
But already he's tripping over his argument, which is the opposite of what he says here: The point of his piece is to assert that the country's foundation was the work of an oligarchy of backwards, racist, sexist, militaristic genocide-approving hypocrites. And that the achievements we revere them for deserve no praise.

Rather than being a "great hope," a beacon to follow, Kurlansky writes, the deeds and words of 1776 ought to be scorned as a mistake we tack away from as rapidly as possible.

The whole piece veers schizophrenically between an attempt to be scathing in denouncing the worthless Founders and an attempt to be scathing in denouncing modern America for not being true to their vision. He wants to hurl rotten tomatoes at that marble statue of Thomas Jefferson and beat you over the head with it at the same time.
The U.S. offers the worst healthcare program, one of the worst public school systems and the worst benefits for workers. The margin between rich and poor has been growing precipitously while it has been decreasing in Europe. Among the great democracies, we use military might less cautiously, show less respect for international law and are the stumbling block in international environmental cooperation. Few informed people look to the United States anymore for progressive ideas.
A predictable litany, and yes, these are real and serious problems for America. But they are societal problems. Kurlansky elides a mass of political experience to connect them to the work of declaring independence from Britain and writing the Constitution. His implication is not only that these are the government's problems to solve, but that 18th century Americans should have perceived the world through the eyes of a 21st century statist liberal. It's a common enough error, but its frequency doesn't make it less hubristic, infantile, and historically foolish.

To treat it in detail: If you could resurrect the Founders and show them modern America, they would not be appalled that we had "one of the worst public school systems" in the world. Most of them would be appalled that a nationwide, government-run, federally controlled and mandated education system existed at all.

That the government had any business regulating the gap between rich and poor also would strike them as outlandish. It's not that they relished poverty, or thought it was God's judgment on the wicked, or any such thing. But the idea that the government should stage-manage the national economy with equality of outcome as a goal wouldn't have occurred even to a Hamilton.

I do agree, however, that they would be appalled by the way the American military is ordered around the world and involved in foreign wars. But before they got to that, they'd be appalled by the very idea of a paid, professional standing American army.
We ought to do something. Instead, we keep worrying about the vision of a bunch of sexist, slave-owning 18th century white men in wigs and breeches. Even in the 18th century, the founding fathers were not the most enlightened thinkers available. They were the ones whose ideas prevailed.
That's the kind of dismissive jaw-jaw you expect from a smart junior high school student, not a historian. But Kurlansky does us the favor of nominating a contemporary American he evidently considers a more "enlightened thinker" than the Founders in the pantheon:
Those who favored independence but were not in favor of war are not called founding fathers. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania — with whom John Adams bitterly fought in the Constitutional Congress of 1776 because Dickinson did not believe it was necessary to engage in bloody warfare in order to achieve independence — is not a founding father.
Wait a minute. That's not the history. That's "1776 The Musical." For dramatic reason, the musical needed a villain. The lyricists picked on good, honest John Dickinson, who simply was too conservative to support the Revolution. Kurlansky seems to have learned his history from the movies. Perhaps he hummed "He Plays the Violin" to himself as he typed this screed.

Merely provoking the irrascible John Adams hardly was a distinguishing mark for a politician, and "because Dickinson did not believe it was necessary to engage in bloody warfare in order to achieve independence" grossly misstates the man's position, making him look like a Cindy Sheehan pacifist.

Now, I like John Dickinson; I graduated from the college named in his honor by his friend Benjamin Rush. But let me assure you (and Kurlansky) that he was every inch the "sexist, slave-owning 18th century white man in wigs and breeches" that the rest of them were.

Perhaps moreso. Dickinson, like most of the rest, was proud of the liberal constitutional heritage of England and felt he was upholding it in protesting the Crown and Parliament policies of the 1760s and '70s. He never gave up hope of reconciliation with the Mother Country, which is why he did not support the Declaration. He was a centrist, true to his principles, and he paid for it by seeing his property attacked by mobs of both loyalists and revolutionaries.

But he was no pacifist, and willingly fought for independence. He was appointed a brigadier general in the Pennsylvania militia and led 10,000 soldiers into New Jersey to throw back an anticipated British thrust toward Philadelphia from Staten Island. His political unpopularity drove him from a leadership position in the army, but even though he was one of the wealthiest men in the colonies he served as a private with the Kent County, Delaware, militia during the Philadelphia campaign in 1777.

It was Dickinson, after all, who wrote the famous conclusion that Americans were resolved to die freemen rather than live slaves.

As for real, not rhetorical, slaves, Dickinson owned more of them than anyone else in Delaware. And, like Washington and other Founders, he thought the institution inconsistent with liberty and eventually found a way to set his slaves free.

Not so different after all.
You could speak out against slavery and still be a founding father, as long as you did not insist on its abolition, as many did who aren't in the pantheon.
But Kurlansky names no one in 1776 who "insisted" on this. Because no one did. The very idea of an "abolitionist," much less an immediatist abolitionist, hadn't come into existence. Once again, he's unfairly projecting the present into the past.
The Constitution produced by the founding fathers lacked the enlightenment of some of the colonial charters of several generations earlier, most notably the laws of Pennsylvania that barred slavery, refused to raise militias and insisted on fair-minded treaties with Indians. Benjamin Franklin despised these "Quaker laws" of his colony and even published a pamphlet denouncing the Pennsylvania Assembly for not sending young men to fight the French and Indians.
Which Pennsylvania was that? I'm not aware of another one, but this description sounds nothing like the one I live in and have studied.

True Penn's Charter of Libertie contained many provisions that would please a modern secular liberal American such as myself. Penn was tolerant of other religions and treated Indians well, all of which were marks of distinction. But these things grew not out of a modern secular liberal conscience, but rather from the purely religious roots of the Quaker colony. So embrace them if you wish, but they come in a package with some of the most restrictive blue laws in American history including a ban on card-playing and all theater.

Pennsylvania colony never "barred slavery." It tried to halt the import of slaves, several times, as did many other colonies, out of racist fears of the baleful moral influence of Africans and out of economic fears of slavery driving out white labor. But the colony hardly was more fair-minded than the others on this matter.

William Penn himself owned slaves and used them to work his estate, Pennsbury. He wrote that he preferred them to white indentured servants, "for then a man has them while they live." By 1693, Africans were so numerous in the colony's capital that the Philadelphia Council complained of "the tumultuous gatherings of the Negroes in the town of Philadelphia." Prominent Philadelphia Quaker families like the Carpenters, Dickinsons, Norrises, and Claypooles brought slaves to the colony. By 1700, one in 10 Philadelphians owned slaves. Slaves were used in the manufacturing sector, notably the iron works, and in shipbuilding.

Not only was colonial Pennsylvania a slave-owning society, but the lives of free blacks in the colony were controlled by law. The restrictions had begun almost with the colony itself. After 1700, when Pennsylvania was not yet 20 years old, blacks, free or slave, were tried in special courts, without the benefit of a jury. For a people who later protested against the fugitive slave laws, Pennsylvanians, when they had slaves themselves as property, used the full power of the law to protect them. "An Act for the better Regulation of Negroes" passed in the 1725-26 session, set especially high penalties for free blacks who harbored runaway slaves or received property stolen from masters. The penalties in such cases were potentially much higher than those applied to whites, and if the considerable fines that might accrue could not be paid, the justices had the power to order a free black person put into servitude.

Under other provisions of the 1725-26 act, free negroes who married whites were to be sold into slavery for life; for mere fornication or adultery involving blacks and whites, the penalty for the black person was to be sold as a servant for seven years. Whites in such cases faced different or lighter punishment. The law effectively blocked marriage between the races in Pennsylvania.

Throughout Pennsylvania colony, the children of free blacks, without exception, were bound out by the local justices of the peace until age 24 (if male) or 21 (if female). All in all, the "free" blacks of colonial Pennsylvania led severely circumscribed lives; they had no control even over their own family arrangements, and they could be put back into servitude for "laziness" or petty crimes, at the mercy of the local authorities.

Quakers felt uneasy about slavery; in part because they had doubts about the propriety of owning another person, but also because they feared it was a luxury that marked them as worldly, and in part because they feared Africans would be a bad influence on their families. Pennsylvania Mennonites had expressed concerns about slavery since the 17th century, but it was only in 1758 that Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends made buying or selling a slave a bar to leadership in the Quaker meetings. In 1774 it became cause for disowning. Moral arguments were advanced against slave-owning. But the main motive for the Society's shift against slavery seems to have been an internal clash of values between the few wealthy Quakers who owned the slaves and the many poor ones who did not.
To be honest, the U.S. was never as good as it was supposed to be. Perhaps no nation is. Henry David Thoreau wrote of nations, "The historian strives in vain to make them memorable." Even in the first few decades, most Europeans who came to see the great new experiment were disappointed. Writer after writer, from British novelist Charles Dickens to the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, arrived to discover less than they imagined. Tocqueville observed of American character: "They unceasingly harass you to extort praise and if you resist their entreaties, they fall to praising themselves." Fanny Trollope, the English writer, made a similar observation in 1832: "A slight word indicative of doubt, that any thing, or every thing, in that country is not the very best in the world, produces an effect which must be seen and felt to be understood." I have no doubt the response to this article will show an America still unwilling to be criticized. But it is difficult for a society that accepts no criticism to progress.
Enlisting de Tocqueville on the side of the America-bashers is false enough. Worse still is pretending the British literati crossed the Atlantic as open-minded observers, not as calculating writers bent on dredging up the most miserable specimens of American degradation, the better to sell their subsequent horror-story books about the experience. But the audacity of invoking the shrilly vituperative Fanny Trollope as a reliable observer of American life is beyond absurd. And sillier still is Kurlansky's claim that, "if you don't like what I say, that proves I'm right." It's the sort of schoolyard excuse for an argument that's become depressingly common on the left, which not so long ago used to be able to sneer at the conservatives as "the stupid party." What's next? "Nyah-nyah; you're it I quit touch black."
Slavery was the most celebrated flaw of the founding fathers, but they also set the stage for the genocide of about 10 million American Indians and did not even entirely reject colonialism. They believed that it was wrong to tax colonists who did not have representation in the legislature, but the tax, not the lack of representation, was the grievance. They were affluent men of property, and they hated paying taxes. Ironically, they repeatedly used words like "enslavement" and "slavery" to criticize taxes while at the same time accepting real slavery.
Old Beard-Hacker Marxist interpretations dredged up from the dustbins of history-writing. The "genocide" began again in earnest under Andrew Jackson's presidency, which made the most radical departure from the system set up by the Founders and was the most "democratic" to date. The guilt for the genocide lies with we the people, not they the Founders.
The founding fathers were all men of the establishment who wanted what Robespierre sneeringly called, when his own French Revolution was accused of excess, "a revolution without a revolution." John Steinbeck noted that the American Revolution was different from that of France's or Russia's because the so-called revolutionaries "did not want a new form of government; they wanted the same kind, only run by themselves."
More Marxist boilerplate, but the invocation of Robespierre as a more approved type of a revolutionary is terribly illuminating of the mind at work.
Yet it is only with anti-establishment thinkers that a society progresses. The reason that there is always more disillusionment with Democrats than Republicans is that Democrats raise the expectation of being anti-establishment when, in reality, both parties are committed to maintaining the status quo and the "intent of the founding fathers."
And it is only when following anti-establishment thinkers that a functioning society quickly goes to hell. The passage about disillusionment with Democrats looks sound to me, though.
But the founding fathers, unlike the Americans of today, understood their own shortcomings. Thomas Jefferson warned against a slavish worship of their work, which he referred to as "sanctimonious reverence" for the Constitution. Jefferson believed in the ability of humans to grow wiser, of humankind to make progress, and he believed that the Constitution should be rewritten in every generation. "Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind," Jefferson wrote in 1816. "As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstance, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors."
The quote comes from a letter to Samuel Kercheval, supporting efforts to rewrite Virginia's state constitution to eliminate woefully unfair voting rules that restricted power to a Chesapeake aristocracy that was increasingly the minority in the state.

Somebody please tell Kurlansky that, in spite of what he thinks, Jefferson was not referring to the U.S. Constitution here. Though I don't doubt Jefferson would approve modifications in the form of government to suit changes in times and the nation. So would they all. It was part of their genius and part of why they are rightly revered down to the present day.

Jefferson's correspondence with Kercheval touched on other matters, too. Such as justifying national policies that Kurlansky deplores, and criticizing the Quakers, whom Kurlansky reveres. Jefferson wrote:
Our efforts to preserve peace, our measures as to the Indians, as to slavery, as to religious freedom, were all in consonance with [the Quakers'] professions. Yet I never expected we should get a vote from them, and in this I was neither deceived nor disappointed. There is no riddle in this, to those who do not suffer themselves to be duped by the professions of religious sectaries. The theory of American Quakerism is a very obvious one. The mother society is in England. Its members are English by birth and residence, devoted to their own country, as good citizens ought to be. The Quakers of these States are colonies or filiations from the mother society, to whom that society sends its yearly lessons. On these the filiated societies model their opinions, their conduct, their passions and attachments. A Quaker is, essentially, an Englishman, in whatever part of the earth he is born or lives.
Back to Kurlansky:
It is surprising that these words are not more often quoted in Washington because they are literally carved in stone — on a wall of the Jefferson Memorial to be exact.
And so the gear-jamming schizophrenic article turns, at last, into a paean to the revolutionary foresight of the Founders, after having dismissed them as silk stockings full of shit. But not before packing all the loopiness of that into one tight sentence:
So let us stop worshiping the founding fathers and allow our minds to progress and try to build a nation of great new ideas. That is, after all, the intent of the founding fathers.
Let us forget what they wanted us to do, and live as though they had never lived and rule as though they had never ruled, because that is what they wanted us to do.

Now, give your head a few minutes to stop spinning. Then realize that the shame of it is, Kurlansky can have much of what he wants in modern America without jettisoning the Founders. They were learned political theorists, but they also were practical men. They dealt with America as they found it, not as a nation of angels or apes. They built a constitution meant to govern that America, but with provisions to grow and change -- and they knew it would. It was another of Jefferson's dictums, as a president, to be progressive but to do no more good than the country can bear all at once.

Kurlansky, if he can get over his need to order the world -- past, present, and future -- exactly as it suits him, might learn something from reading what Jefferson wrote about the rule of the people. What Kurlansky wants is what we've been doing all along: using the fluid qualities of the Constitution to run a continuous, but evolving, nation.

That Kurlansky doesn't like where we've turned out is probably less a testimony to his ambivalent feelings about the Founders. More likely, I think, is that he, like Fanny Trollope, simply detests the majority of Americans.

Kurlansky might even learn to appreciate the discovery of one of his own essay's inappropriately dragooned anti-Americans, de Tocqueville, who wrote: "I have never been more struck by the good sense and the practical judgment of the Americans than in the manner in which they elude the numberless difficulties resulting from their Federal Constitution."

Posted by Callimachus at 06:22 PM | Comments (47)

July 05, 2006

Necessary Blasphemy

By Callimachus

Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University, opens his defense of offensive free speech with a simple absolutist statement that I wholeheartedly share: "Freedom of speech is important, and it must include the freedom to say what everyone else believes to be false, and even what many people take to be offensive."

His very next sentence is a slam against religion, as a "major obstacle to basic reforms that reduce unnecessary suffering." His list of religion's faults is the usual one for a left-side American secularist: it includes contraception, abortion, stem-cell research, and homosexuality. (It closes with "the treatment of animals" which seems an odd outrider in this posse.) "In each case, somewhere in the world, religious beliefs have been a barrier to changes that would make the world more sustainable, freer, and more humane."

What sustainable means in such a case eludes me; it is a value-neutral word (you can sustain evil as well as good) but when certain people use it it seems to have been pre-packed with a set of meanings (perhaps ecological) like a gag store's spring-loaded "snakes in a can" toy.

Singer and I start at the same mountaintop of ethics and proceed down different paths. But do we end up at the same place?

In this article, yes. The logical next stop, in such a discussion today, is the Jyllands Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy. And while we both find the outcome of the controversy tragic, we both agree that this was a valid expression of free speech, though for slightly different reasons.

"In hindsight," Singer writes, "it would have been wiser not to publish the cartoons. The benefits were not worth the costs."

I'm not sure freedom of any sort is the kind of thing you measure on a cost-benefits basis. If there's to be a measure of it, I'd say the one that matters is the personal courage required: Nobody's going to cut your head off for mocking American fundamentalist Christians who oppose physician-assisted suicide. That's hardly a test case for free speech. It's more important to hold up a candle in the demon-haunted darkness than in broad daylight.

But, Singer adds, "To restrict freedom of expression because we fear such consequences would not be the right response. It would only provide an incentive for those who do not want to see their views criticized to engage in violent protests in future." And a hearty hear, hear to that.

And I think he's right in the main thrust of his article, which is not the Muhammad cartoons but the jailed Holocaust-denier David Irving.
I support efforts to prevent any return to Nazism in Austria or anywhere else. But how is the cause of truth served by prohibiting Holocaust denial? If there are still people crazy enough to deny that the Holocaust occurred, will they be persuaded by imprisoning some who express that view? On the contrary, they will be more likely to think that views people are being imprisoned for expressing cannot be refuted by evidence and argument alone.
Exactly. Irving should be freed, not because he's right, but because being wrong in words ought not to be a crime. Singer, before going further, lays out his credentials as a grandson of three Holocaust victims. This is a poignant, but unnecessary, aside. This is not a Jewish issue; it is a freedom issue, and as such it affects every person in a free society.

Irving, 67, is a formidable amateur historian who has worked from primary sources to build up his picture of a Third Reich in which Jews certainly were mistreated and died in large numbers, but not by a methodical genocide ordered by Hitler.

He already has been financially ruined and professionally disgraced by his persistence in Holocaust denial. But he should not be in jail; he should be out in the public arena trying to prove his case and seeing it shreded by the historical record. Like Jefferson, we are willing to “tolerate error as long as reason is free to combat it.”

In history as in all intellectual activities, questioning and probing makes a strong case stronger. The truth need not fear a Devil’s advocate.

There's a flaw in Singer's argument, however: He overlooks the difference between Europe and America in this matter, and he seems inclined to extend American ideas to European realities. Americans have steeled ourselves to an ugly truth: Our commitment to free expression means we must tolerate freedom of expression for people we despise, or else it means nothing. It's a daily battle to maintain that, as the brouhaha over the "South Park" blasphemies revealed. But generally the principal of free speech comes out on top.

But Europe is different. Public Holocaust denial is a crime in 10 European countries, from France to Lithuania. All of them not only suffered under Nazi occupation but were, in some degree, complicit in the deportation and killing of Jews during the war.

After the war, laws were enacted that banned Nazi insignia and the stiff-arm salute. It was not just a question of muzzling Jew-baiters; the European nations remember that fascists came to power within the mechanism of democratic electoral systems and with a great deal of popular enthusiasm. The laws were meant, in part, to prevent the rebirth of a lethal political movement.

As Hajo Funke, a German historian, put it: “We can’t afford the luxury of the Anglo-Saxon freedom of speech argument in this regard. It’s not that I don’t understand it, it’s just not for us. Not yet. Not for a long time.”

Hence the 1992 Austrian law Irving was convicted under, which applies to “whoever denies, grossly plays down, approves or tries to excuse the National Socialist genocide or other National Socialist crimes against humanity in a print publication, in broadcast or other media.”

It's an unfortunate side-effect of Irving's trial that Islamists around the world have been able to point to it as proof of hypocrisy in the Western commitment to freedom of speech as invoked in the case of the Danish cartoon drawings of Muhammad. That's the point Singer wishes to make, too:
[E]ven while the protests about the cartoons were still underway, a new problem about convincing Muslims of the genuineness of our respect for freedom of expression has arisen because of Austria's conviction and imprisonment of David Irving for denying the existence of the Holocaust. We cannot consistently hold that it should be a criminal offense to deny the existence of the Holocaust and that cartoonists have a right to mock religious figures.
Aside from the curious "we" (perhaps Sinbger is uncomfortable with the idea of being an American hectoring Europeans about freedom) that's a strong argument. Irving’s writings feed the Islamists’ warped ideology, which run a close parallel to Hitler’s. But jailing Irving only adds the martyr’s halo to his sad career. It’s an unfortunate side-effect of Irving’s trial that Islamists around the world have been able to point to it as proof of hypocrisy in the Western commitment to freedom of speech as invoked in the case of the Danish cartoon drawings of Muhammad. I would not go as far as Singer in saying "In the current climate in Western nations, the suspicion of a particular hostility towards Islam, rather than other religions, is well justified." For one, the Europe-America distinction remains important here. But I understand such suspicion, even if I don't find it "well-justified." And Singer and I agree in this:
Only when David Irving has been freed will it be possible for Europeans to turn to the Islamic protesters and say: "We apply the principle of freedom of expression evenhandedly, whether it offends Muslims, Christians, Jews, or anyone else."
Posted by Callimachus at 05:43 PM | Comments (67)

BS Detectors

By Callimachus

One of the undisputed virtues of blogs is their role as bullshit detectors. The Internet can seem like an endless font of wrong information, urban legends, and conspiracy theories, but somewhere out there is a person able to pop one of the balloons of error, and chances are he's got a blog.

Think of the experts in 1970s typewriter technology and fonts who let the air out of Dan Rather during the last election season.

Sometimes a little learning and a little common sense are all you need. That's all it took for one astute blogger to deflate a supposed secret gospel of Jesus based simply on the book blurb.

Sometimes a little more speciality is required. Airminded specializes in British military aviation in the World War I-and-after years. He looks at some popular photos purporting to show German zeppelins in action over London, and finds much to doubt about them.

He's also pretty sure this one is a fake:


Posted by Callimachus at 02:41 PM | Comments (15)

July 04, 2006

Uncle Gulliver

By Callimachus

"They apprehended my breaking loose, that my Diet would be very expensive, and might cause a Famine. Sometimes they determined to starve me, or at least to shoot me in the Face and Hands with poisoned Arrows, which would soon dispatch me: But again they considered, that the Stench of so large a Carcass might produce a Plague in the Metropolis, and probably spread through the whole Kingdom." Jonathan Swift, "A Voyage to Lilliput," in Gulliver's Travels
Uncle Sam, the American Gulliver, peers down at edgy Europe in "Überpower: The Imperial Temptation of America," a new book by Josef Joffe, editor of the scrupulously centrist German newspaper "Die Zeit." The book gets a review by William Grimes here (and last time I checked the review had not been banished behind the subscription wall). Joffe gets an essential truth out in the open that is too often forgotten.
It does not matter what the United States does, Mr. Joffe argues. The mere fact that it can act with impunity causes alarm. To Europeans, the new United States looks like Gulliver did to the Lilliputians: a giant whose intentions are uncertain and whom they would prefer to see bound by a thousand little ropes. "Their motto is: let him be strong as long as he is in harness, be it self-chosen or imposed," he writes.
Understanding that could help a lot of us here in America grasp the otherwise (to us) baffling poll results that show whomping majorities in Europe find America a greater threat to peace than Iran or North Korea. It also explains the perverse rooting for American failure in Iraq among many Europeans who ought to know better. Joffe seems to agree:
European opposition to the current Iraq war, in this analysis, becomes clearer. France and Germany, joined by Russia and China, joined forces to frustrate American designs, not simply on the merits of the case, but also as a matter of principle or instinct. Success in Iraq would only make the United States more powerful and therefore more unpredictable and threatening: "America's triumph would grant yet more power to the one and only superpower — and this on a stage where it had already reduced France and Russia, the E.U. and the U.N., to bit players," Mr. Joffe writes.
There's a danger, of course, in treating Gulliver psychology as though it explains everything. One may oppose the American experiment in Iraq on perfectly principled grounds, or even out of a genuine love for the United States. More likely, based on my discussions with European friends, Gulliver syndrome and principled arguments are so woven into each other they're a seamless fabric. My German friends especially tell me to just get used to the fact that America is going to be hated and resented, rationally or not, simply because it is powerful. But the taint of irrationality makes the resentment too easy to dismiss. Joffe expresses it well:
Anti-Americanism, Mr. Joffe argues, can sometimes be as complex, paranoid and all-encompassing as anti-Semitism. "Like the Jews who were simultaneously denounced as capitalist bloodsuckers and communist subversives, America gets it coming and going," he writes. It is puritanical and self-indulgent, philistine and elitist, ultrareligious and materialist. When it does not intervene, say, in Rwanda, it is wrong. When it does intervene, it is accused of naked imperialism.
Or, as the "Telegraph" put it in a recent editorial:
Americans find themselves damned either way. If they remain within their own borders, they are isolationist hicks who are shirking their responsibilities. If they intervene, they are rapacious imperialists. Indeed, many of their detractors manage to hold these two ideas in their heads simultaneously. Yet a moment's thought should reveal that they are both unfair.
The Telegraph editorial was written in response to a recent poll in Britain which reveal the utter contempt most of them have for most of us:
In answer to other questions, a majority of the Britons questions described Americans as uncaring, divided by class, awash in violent crime, vulgar, preoccupied with money, ignorant of the outside world, racially divided, uncultured and in the most overwhelming result (90 percent of respondents) dominated by big business.
Which might sting, but only if you don't know your history. In the 18th century Thomas Jefferson had to work hard to rebut Comte de Buffon's scietific assertion that American mammals -- including, according to some of Buffon's French naturalist followers, Americans themselves -- were degenerate runts. Ninteenth century British publications poured out invective on everything they deigned to notice from the United States. The usual practice of British authors was to take every slander of one American by another in a hot political campaign as an absolute truth, and to present the most degraded characters from the frontier or the slum as the typical inhabitant of the United States.

"Both the travelers and the literary journalists of [England]," wrote Timothy Dwight the elder, "have, for reasons which it would be idle to inquire after and useless to allege, thought it proper to caricature the Americans. Their pens have been dipped in gall, and their representations have been, almost merely, a mixture of malevolence and falsehood."

And this was long before America threatened anyone else's sense of national security. The hatred was strong enough to overpower logic, even then. In 1863 the Very Rev. Henry Alford, DD, dean of Canterbury, wrote a "Plea for the Queen's English" which decried the "deterioration" of English in American mouths. He warned Englishmen to hold aloof from the American way with the language and compared the state of English in America to "the character and history of the nation":
its blunted sense of moral obligations and duties to man; its open disregard of conventional right when aggrandizement is to be obtained; and I may now say, its reckless and fruitless maintenance of the most cruel and unprincipled war in the history of the world.
It was the familiar list of crimes and vices and hypocrisies. Every learned Englishman could rehearse it and many of the finest writers, such as Coleridge and Sydney Smith, bent their considerable talents to spelling it out at length. Except that, coming in the middle of the American Civil War, Alford's screed replaced a now-doubtful entry in the catalogue of American vice with a freshly minted one. As H.L. Mencken noted, "Smith had denounced slavery, whereas Alford, by a tremendous feat of moral virtuosity, was now denouncing the war to put it down." Eventually America, emerging into a world power, found itself in a world shaped -- or unshaped -- by 300 years of European dominance: Artificial nations strewn across the map of Africa and the Middle East, dysfunctional ex-colonies, all that seething resentment of "the West" in Arab and Asian peoples. Joffe picks up the plot:
The United States is on top for the foreseeable future, in Mr. Joffe's view. That is its inescapable fate. "America has interests everywhere; it cannot withdraw into indifference or isolation, and so all the world's troubles land on its plate," he writes. The problem, as Henry A. Kissinger put it recently, is how to translate power into consensus. Without it, the United States can act, but it cannot succeed.
Kissinger's dilemma seems impossible to solve. How can you convince people they agree with you because they want to, when they -- and you -- know perfectly well you can act without them, or coerce them, or even force them. But we could do better at it than we have, and we should try. What should the Lilliputians try in return? How about trying to swallow some of the stupid and senseless expressions of contempt. As the "Telegraph" Editorial puts it:
To dislike a country as diverse as America is misanthropic: America, more than any other state, contains the full range of humanity between its coasts.
Posted by Callimachus at 07:00 PM | Comments (54)

Welcome Callimachus

Some things you do for love. Other things you do for money. Right now I’m working on a temporary consulting job (not writing-related) that is taking up most of my time and all of my energy. I haven’t had a normal 9-5 “job” for more than two years, so once in a while I do random side projects like this one to keep my bank account solvent.

The job won’t last very long, but long enough that I don’t want the blog to suffer too much while I’m mentally consumed with something else.

So I’ve asked Callimachus to help me out around here in the meantime. “Callimachus,” for those of you won’t don’t know him already, is the editor-in-chief of a daily American newspaper. He writes on his blog Done With Mirrors using a pseudonym because the publisher of his newspaper believes journalists are not supposed to have opinions. Like all human beings, though, Callimachus has opinions. Unlike most publicly opinionated people these days, Callimachus doesn’t fit into anyone’s convenient “left” or “right” box.

He is also a historian and one of the best writers in blogland. I’m happy to have his help around here. Please be nice to him in the comments.

I’ll be back soon enough, and I’ll post what I can until then.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 05:38 AM | Comments (10)

July 01, 2006

Moderate Islamists Found

I wrote a shorter version of this piece for one of the largest American newspapers, one that gets a hefty dose of criticism almost every day. The editor rejected it because it wasn’t “groundbreaking enough.” I wish he would have been honest with me. Genuinely moderate Islamists are about as hard to find as Zoroastrians in Nebraska. So I rewrote the piece - in blog narrative style instead of newspaper style - and published it here. I don't have time to submit it to other editors right now, but I do think it should get out into the world rather than languish unread on my computer. Please hit the Pay Pal link at the bottom so I can justify my decision to give it to you for free.

SULEIMANIYA, IRAQ - When I went to the Middle East for a six-month extended visit I wanted to see if I could find a genuinely moderate Islamist political party, one that not only practices democracy but also believes in it. There was a slight chance Hezbollah might fit that description. Lebanon’s Party of God has mellowed somewhat with age and participates in elections. But Hezbollah, unfortunately, is psychotic as ever. Hassan Nasrallah and his goon squad are instinctively belligerent and authoritarian even if Lebanon’s post-war democratic culture keeps them in check. Hezbollah is liberal and even pacifist compared with Hamas and Al Qaeda, but they nevertheless are a violent warmongering proxy militia for two despotic regimes in the Middle East.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is better. They aren’t armed, they don’t even try to kill Israeli soldiers (let alone civilians), and they at least pretend to be opposed to terrorism. But they are only moderate compared with their violent fellow Islamists. Ideologically they don’t differ much.

The Kurdistan Islamic Union, though, does seem to be genuinely moderate. Its leaders appear to have more in common with conservative Christian Democrats in Europe than with any terrorist organization or Middle Eastern religious dictatorship.

I met with Ali Muhammad, Director of the Suleimaniya bureau of the KIU, Iraqi Kurdistan’s third largest (and growing) political party, in his office. He provided his own in-house translator, a plump woman in a dark brown abaya. My own translator, because he was a stranger, was not to be trusted.

Ali looked to be in his sixties. He wore a trimmed beard, glasses, and a distinctly unfashionable Western suit and tie. He greeted me warmly in English. I greeted him and thanked him in Kurdish. Then we spoke to each other through our translator.

"How do you feel about the U.S. occupation of Iraq?" I said.

“We blame Saddam for the occupation," he said. "Life is much better here now. But of course no one wants his country to be occupied.”

"Do you think the U.S. soldiers should leave now?" I said. "Or would it be better if they waited until later?"

“It is better to wait until the Iraqi army is strong and the country is calm," he said.

"What do you think of the West in general?" I said.

“The West is a successful civilization," he said. "But we think it is too materialistic and technological. If the Islamic East united with the civilized West, all of humanity would benefit.”

Isn’t materialism a problem in the Middle East, too? Saddam’s palaces, the skyscrapers and malls in Dubai...

“When I talked about materialism, I did not mean wealth," he said. "I mean that humans need both the material and spiritual sides of existence. Each civilization has a material side and a soul side. Western people are missing parts of the soul side. But the soul side in the West isn’t zero. Human rights are much more respected there than here." His translator spoke slowly and gave me time to write everything down. “Islam is the medium between socialism and capitalism. In socialism everything is soulless. In capitalism there is a huge gap between the rich and the poor. In Islam we can possess things, but not with such a huge distance between the rich and the poor.”

One of Ali Muhammad’s office assistants brought me hot milk in a Turkish coffee glass, a tall thin can of 7-UP with a straw, and a plate of fresh fruit.

Ali Muhammad wanted to keep talking, so I let him.

“In the West there is absolute freedom,” he said. “In Islam there is not. Our freedom as individuals is combined with the freedom of the whole society. General customs must be regarded in Islam. Our families are stronger than yours. There are many problems in the West when young people leave home at 18.” (Middle Easterners tend to leave home when they are closer to 30.) “You have unmarried mothers. Abortion. Crime. Gay marriage. These things are completely against the soul of human beings. They reduce the brightness of the West.”

"Are you opposed to Western culture then?" I said.

“The West is not an enemy," he said. "We think about Western Civilization as part of the whole human experience. We would like to help you reform it, but we do not want to destroy it. We are not violent. We support civil mechanisms for change.”

"What do you think about Sayyid Qutb and the Hideous Schizophrenia?" I said. Sayyid Qutb is considered the founder of modern Islamism and the intellect behind Al Qaeda theology. He believed - until he was executed by Gamal Abdel Nasser in the dungeons of Egypt - that the liberal post-Christian West threatens Islamic civilization because it promotes, among other things, the separation of religion and the state. Qutb believed this separation triggered an epidemic psychological breakdown in the West that he dubbed the Hideous Schizophrenia, and that this breakdown is spreading to the Middle East.

"Qutb was wrong," he said, parting ways with Osama bin Laden on the most elementary level. “Compare Islam and Christianity. In the Middle Ages, Christians were burning scientists. Then Muslims had a great civilization. The Christians were theocratic then. Muslims were not. We do not believe in a theocratic government that rules the people in the name of Allah. Power should come from the people. Christianity wasn’t weakened because it was separate from the state. Christianity was weakened when it supported oppressive states. The same thing is happening in Iran. Iranians are turning against the religion itself along with the theocratic oppressive state."

“Are you opposed to theocracy then?” I said. “If you win power in Kurdistan will you not govern according to Islamic law?”

“In Islam we have stable things and changeable things,” he said. “80 percent of Islam is changeable things.” Say what you will about Islamists. Ali Muhammad’s religious-political ideology is a long way from the iron rule of 7th Century Taliban.

“Should alcohol be legal or banned?” I said. When I asked this question of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Essem El-Erian he refused to give me a straight answer.

“In Islam it is prohibited to drink alcohol in public,” Ali Muhammad said. “Drinking at home is fine. If someone wants to buy alcohol and drink it in his house, we should not chase him. We prefer to treat alcohol the same way we treat cigarettes when we create non-smoking sections.”

“Should women be required to wear the hijab over their hair?” I said, referring to the modest Islamic headscarf worn by conservative women in public.

“We don’t force people to wear the hijab,” he said. “There are two types of Islamic rules: personal and general. Individual matters are advised, not required. Advisements by Islam should not be imposed. Islam prohibits only things that harm an entire society.”

Ali Muhammad believes this is the right balance, that Islam is therefore superior to Judaism and Christianity.

“The Koran includes both regulation and advice,” he said. “The Torah included only regulation. The New Testament included only advice.”

Whether the Koran advises certain behaviors or imposes them is a matter of debate within the Islamic world. Most Kurds are conservative compared with, say, Lebanese, Turks, and Tunisians. But their religious tradition, the thing they are conserving, is more lenient than the traditions in some parts of the Middle East. Kurdistan is a blessedly undogmatic place. My translator Birzo Abdulkadir seemed to speak for many when he explained why, despite Kurdistan’s conservatism, it isn’t a backwater like some other places I’ve been: “I have read the Koran in its original language. I know it’s more flexible than most Arab imams admit.”

“There is nothing about Islam that we should be afraid to talk about,” Ali Muhammad said. “It is the best system. But there are and have been problems. We don’t deny that.”

I started to ask another question, and he changed the subject. He wanted to make sure I heard the following and wrote it down:

“We have five members in our leadership committee who are women,” he said. “They were elected, and we do not use quotas. We also have a woman in our political bureau. Women and men work together. Below the leadership level, the numbers of men and women are the same.”

I looked at our translator, a woman, in the eye. There was no need for me to say what I was thinking, to ask the obvious question. She knew. And she nodded. What Ali Muhammad just told me was true.

Assuming Ali Muhammad was honest with me, the very existence of the Kurdistan Islamic Union is a relief. Osama bin Laden will never calm down and become a mainstream religious conservative. He will be a radical and a fascist until somebody punches his ticket. But if the KIU can find a way to reconcile an authoritarian religion with modern democracy there is no reason other similar moderately conservative political parties can’t form elsewhere to compete with the likes of Hamas, Hezbollah, and the theocratic Iranian state.

I do believe Ali Muhammad was sincere in his moderation, that he wasn't just jerking me around for good press. It was painfully obvious that Essam El-Erian of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood was concealing his real opinions from me so I wouldn't expose him and his organization as radical nutjobs.

As a reality check, though, I asked my translator Alan Atoof in Suleimaniya about the KIU. Alan is a secular liberal whose family is from the part of Iraqi Kurdistan that was besieged by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Ansar al Islam until U.S. Special Forces and the Peshmerga drove them into Iran three years ago. You have to look long and hard to find someone more opposed to violent jihadists. He simply will not put up with these people, and I wanted to know what he thought of the Kurdistan Islamic Union. Do they practice taqiyya? Are they Salafists or Wahhabis in moderate drag?

Not according to Alan, they aren't. His uncle is a member of the KIU, and he knows them well and in person. He confirms that they are genuinely moderate and reasonable people who don't pose a threat to Kurdistan's secular culture and politics.

Before leaving his office I asked Ali Muhammad if he could recommend a nice restaurant for dinner. He suggested what he thought of as a “Western” restaurant (it wasn’t) in suburban Suleimaniya. And he sent his son Iqbal Ali Muhammad to pick me up at my hotel, take me to the restaurant, and continue discussing religion and politics.

So Iqbal met me in the lobby of the Suleimaniya Palace hotel, a shabby place whose name is a ridiculous lie. At first Iqbal was fantastically uptight and humorless, a grim caricature of an Islamist in a blue suit and tie. He was Scandinavian in his stiffness and in his unwillingness to smile or laugh or show human warmth. Most Kurds are outgoing and gregarious, but this guy acted like he was dropped from outer space. Well, I thought, he is an Islamist.

As it turned out, though, he wasn’t uptight at all. He was just a bit shy. He drove us to the restaurant in his SUV, ordered us fresh fish from one of Kurdistan’s lakes, and loosened up as though we were sharing a bottle of wine. We did not share a bottle of wine even though it was available. He would have said nothing if I ordered a glass for myself. But I did not wish to be rude so I ordered a soft drink instead.

He was less interested in politics than his father. Mostly we talked about more casual matters. It was a conversation, not an interview, so I didn't bust out my notebook and grill him. But he was a smart young man - a lawyer - and I did jot down a few things he said.

“We will go to war with Christians against Muslims if the Muslims are on the wrong side," he said. That’s exactly what the Kurds did when they sided with the United States against Saddam Hussein, just as the U.S. sided with Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims against Slobo and his exterminationist regime in Belgrade. This casual comment by Iqbal, a self-identifying Islamist, was perhaps the most poignant refutation of the "clash of civilizations" idea I have yet heard.

Iqbal did turn out to be a bit of a bigot, but not in an anti-Western or anti-American way. “The Arab, he is wild,” he said. “He is not a civilized person.”

I tried to defend Arabs generally. He knew I lived in Beirut at the time, that I had experienced a different side of Arab culture than he had. He smiled patiently while I sat there picking the bones out of my fish and sounding like a self-conscious politically correct American naif. But I wasn't naive. I knew very well what Saddam Hussein and his Baath regime did to the Kurds. Iqbal Ali Muhammad was born in Halabja. He was six years old when the Anfal Campaign reached his home town, when Saddam Hussein doused him and his family with chemical weapons. He still has a hard time breathing when walking up stairs. And he would not let me convince him that most Arabs are more civilized than those who nearly killed him.

Just as I was beginning to think he and his father had no good reason to refer to themselves as Islamists, that the Kurds therefore really - truly! - are different, out came the sadly typical (for the region) paranoid comment: "I think America let Osama bin Laden go free on purpose."

Look, I said. He killed thousands of Americans. We don't let a guy like that get away. Just because we have not killed or captured him yet doesn't mean that's by design.

So many Middle Easterners think the United States is so all-powerful that we can do anything at any time, that nothing is beyond our capabilities, that everything wrong is therefore designed to be wrong on purpose.

I explained to him that the U.S. is a powerful country, but it's still just one country. Americans are flawed and limited humans just like the Kurds. He took me seriously, and he was willing to climb down from his crazy position much faster and more completely than I expected.

“It is good that we are having this conversation,” he said. “We can tell each other when we are wrong.”

Iqbal Ali Muhammad.jpg
Iqbal Ali Muhammad

If all the world’s Islamists were like these mellow Kurdish Islamists there would be no Terror War and there would be no talk of any clash of civilizations. It’s no accident, nor is it merely a convenience, that the Kurds of Iraq are American allies.

Not all Muslims are terrorists, obviously. Most people in the world know that much at least. It’s also apparently true that not all Islamists are terrorists or even extremists. These guys made me rethink my idea of what an Islamist even is. Call me foolish if you like. But Iqbal repeated the same refrain I heard over and over again in Iraqi Kurdistan, something I almost never hear in Arab countries: “Extremes are bad. The middle is better.”

Postscript: Please don’t forget to hit the tip jar. I went all the way to Iraq to get this interview and - let’s be honest - you probably never would have heard of these people if I hadn’t done that.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

Michael Totten
P.O. Box 312
Portland, OR 97207-0312

Thanks so much to all of you who encouraged me to get a PO box. And thanks once again to everyone who helps out through Pay Pal. Your donations are the only reason this kind of blogging is possible.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 03:30 AM | Comments (76)