Tuesday, November 27, 2001

An Ornamental Education? - Political relevance and the funding of Middle East studies in the U.S.

An Israeli-American scholar, Martin Kramer, has declared war on Middle East academe in the U.S., and the mortarboards are flying. Kramer, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, recently published a monograph titled Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle East Studies in America. In it he accuses Middle East academics of ignoring practical issues in contemporary Arab affairs. In a Wall Street Journal article, Kramer wrote that on September 11 experts of the Arab world failed to "prepare America for the encounter with Muslim extremism, and...can't contribute anything to America's defense."

To illustrate his point, Kramer quoted Edward Said's pre-September 11 dismissal of "speculations about the latest conspiracy to blow up buildings, sabotage commercial airliners and poison water supplies." At around the same time, Kramer's colleague, Daniel Pipes, wrote an article in the San Francisco Chronicle in which he cited another unfortunate pre-September 11 statement, this time by the Lebanese scholar Fawaz Gerges, to the effect that "the terrorist industry" had perpetuated an "irrational fear of terrorism by focusing too much on farfetched horrible scenarios."

Kramer believes it is time for Middle East studies to reform, and for the U.S. Congress to reexamine its financial aid to the discipline under Title VI of the International Education Act (1958). His attack is directed in particular at the 2,600-member Middle East Studies Association (MESA), a private nonprofit organization that brings together specialists studying the Middle East and Islam. Kramer asks that a utilitarian yardstick be used to consider Title VI funding, which is, he argues, "not an entitlement...[but] a discretionary appropriation. It has to be rationalized in terms of the public interest, on an ongoing basis."

The implications of Kramer's broadside go beyond Middle East studies. They address the rationale behind federal funding for education and culture. Some of Kramer's arguments in favor of reforming Title VI are similar to those raised, in a different context, on the future of the Public Broadcasting System. Kramer wants to introduce market mechanisms -- albeit policy-market mechanisms -- into Middle East studies, so that the government can draw greater advantage from what it funds. However, it is what Kramer's proposal might conceal that has fueled finger-pointing from his adversaries. And their accusations have not always been directly related to Kramer's contention that Middle East academia failed on September 11.

One assertion is that Kramer and his partisans have a "pro-Israel" agenda. They are accused of wanting to cut into MESA funding because the association (which includes American, Arab, and Israeli specialists) is frequently critical of Israeli policy. Neither Kramer, nor Pipes for that matter, denies a fondness for Israel. Indeed, that is probably why both men often are fixated on the behavior of Islamist movements. However, the fact remains that, whatever Kramer's agenda, Middle East academics have not really concerned themselves with the potential for Islamist attacks against the continental U.S., and have systematically played down latent threats to the U.S. emanating from the Arab world.

The problem is institutional, ideological, and definitional. Institutional, inasmuch as learning about the Middle East involves, as in all area studies, building up substantial political, cultural, economic, and linguistic competence. So those striving for academic promotion and recognition often have a natural (and laudable) tendency to move beyond the mundanely functional into history, theory, and ideas. Ideological, because Middle East academia is often favorably disposed towards the Arab world, while disapproving of Israeli and U.S. policy in the region. This is perfectly valid, but it has also dissuaded scholars from focusing on the insalubrious aspects of Arab states and Islamist militant groups, both for reasons of sympathy and out of concern that this might splinter the united front against Israel and the West.

But it is the definitional barrier -- notably regarding the word "terrorism" -- that is most intriguing. In his Wall Street Journal article, Kramer wrote that MESA has engaged in a "studied avoidance of the words 'terror', 'terrorism,' and 'terrorist.'" While no satisfactory definition of "terrorism" exists (and many MESA members employed far more condemnatory language to describe the September 11 attacks), the ensuing lack of a consensus on the term has been used by Middle East academia, consciously or not, to avoid researching the practical policy implications of, most conspicuously, violent Islamic militancy. Indeed, investigation of the topic is frequently perceived by the Middle East studies mainstream as philosophical surrender to those advocating the controversial terrorism definition. Rarely has discomfort with a word so pervasively shut down an entire branch of a discipline.

Kramer's demand that federal funding of Middle East studies be reconsidered (though not entirely terminated) has provoked anger in scholarly ranks. Some have openly accused Kramer of seeking to censor his ideological opponents and use the threat of a federal financial aid cutoff to push them into adopting his preferred political line. Others have gone further, stating that the underlying premises of Kramer's proposal are racist. As one scholar put it, Kramer is trying to peddle a message that Islamism is "inherently terroristic."

Charles Butterworth of the University of Maryland protests that congressional funding of area studies should not be a contractual arrangement, where specialists have their funding renewed only if they fulfill specified tasks. In a message sent to Gulf 2000, an interactive email list of individuals interested in Persian Gulf affairs, he wrote: "[A]t issue is ensuring that some citizens have the tools, especially the language tools, to study the literature, history, religion, mores, politics, and philosophy of peoples whose culture is expressed in something besides English. The goal of such study is to learn about others as part of understanding our own culture. Anything else is incidental."

Both criticisms expose the depth of difference between Kramer and Middle East academia. Where those who mistrust Kramer's politics converge on the surreptitious implications of his proposal, Butterworth outlines a theory of education. Kramer's response to Butterworth, also posted on Gulf 2000, was that he overlooked the wording of Title VI, which is robustly utilitarian. Kramer quoted from a Congressional finding on Title VI: "The security, stability, and economic vitality of the Unites States in a complex global era depend upon American experts in and citizens knowledgeable about world regions, foreign languages, and international affairs, as well as upon a strong research base in those areas."

The hidden agenda accusation is more pointed, but raises a question Kramer's critics must address. If Kramer is advancing Israeli interests, the way to derail his efforts -- at least regarding government funding -- is simply to insure that Middle East studies are more in-tune with everyday policy issues. That Middle East academia did not warn of Osama bin Laden is a serious problem. Congress is entitled to demand that taxpayer-funded experts be at least able to identify compelling threats to U.S. national security. Middle East studies would not suffer from competing in the marketplace of pertinence, particularly when there are plenty of private benefactors willing to finance more contemplative pursuits.

The two sides in the Middle East studies contest will continue to argue over what is the optimal way to survey the Arab world. For Kramer, Title VI must be modified because it essentially allows Middle East academics to disburse funds to themselves through a flawed peer review process, with little input from government officials and what Kramer calls "public consumers." Kramer's critics, in turn, charge that the process provides plenty of oversight and that federal funding for Middle East studies is negligible anyhow, and should be increased. At the heart of the dispute, however, is a more elemental divergence over how each side perceives the general welfare.

The implications are similar to those raised by supporters and opponents of public funding for PBS. For decades, PBS resisted reform by hiding behind a pretense of cultural uplift, where the station depicted itself as a citadel of enlightenment combating insidious commercialism. Middle East studies are in a similar predicament today. Under the guise of intellectual uplift, the discipline has often circumvented the bazaar of consequence. Butterworth is not wrong in arguing that general knowledge helps us learn about ourselves, but Kramer is right to say that this general knowledge must somehow profit its funders. Otherwise America's enemies will again pilot their commandeered aircraft through the gap between the supply and demand of relevant information furnished by Middle East academia.

Monday, October 29, 2001

Arabs, Anger, and America - The sources of Mideast aversion.

Beirut -- Recently, a foreign correspondent in Beirut asked the opinion-page editor of one of Lebanon's leading newspapers about the tenor of the essays he was receiving. The editor's response was revealing: "Most writers feel they have to be opposed to the United States, but in this case they are equally uncomfortable siding with Osama bin Laden."

Therein lies a recurring dilemma of Arab intellectuals, and indeed of many Arabs: How does one escape from siding with the unsavory enemies of the U.S. while avoiding landing in the U.S. camp? Or, how does one oppose the U.S. while not backing its more unpleasant antagonists? The fact is that America has long been a favorite enemy in the Middle East, even if the usual claim is that this loathing is directed at "the U.S. government, not the American people."

Of course, there are many Arab writers and thinkers who have differing views of the U.S. and its role in the world. But it is fair to say that intellectual credibility in the Arab world (as in many Western countries) requires adopting an outlook that is, at least, systematically critical of the U.S. This constraint has frequently obstructed sensible thought. The result has in some cases been a predicament reminiscent of that of Communist intellectuals in the 1930s, who accepted the diktats of the Comintern, even when they contradicted their better judgment.

It may be useful to examine the sources of this aversion, before asking a question that has been long avoided: Why, in seeking a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (without doubt the main bone of contention between the Arab states and the U.S.), have Arab elites agreed to operate through Washington? In other words why, in the defining event of the contemporary Middle East, have many Arabs been so dependent on a power they cannot quite bring themselves to like?

Generally speaking, Arab intellectuals and opinion-makers have been influenced by four long-term factors when censuring the U.S.: Cold War attitudes; the failure of secular regimes in the Middle East; the question of Palestine; and uneasiness with globalization. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but it is almost certainly one that applies to a vast majority of those who find the U.S. objectionable.

It is remarkable how many Arab intellectuals (often though not always older ones) revive Cold War preconceptions when judging the U.S. Like their liberal counterparts in the West, these Arab intellectuals continue to cast a tolerant eye on the former "peoples' democracies" for two reasons: first, Leftist values, allegedly embodied in various postwar socialisms, are still regarded as more humane than those of free-market capitalism; second, the U.S. is still perceived as an agent of neo-colonialism, whereas the U.S.S.R., despite unremitting proof to the contrary, is remembered as a sponsor of anti-colonialism.

Anachronistic Cold War responses dovetail with another conviction of Arab elites: that all-powerful states are acceptable, if they are politically and socially just. Most problems in the Arab world -- poverty, over-population, rural migration, the absence of democracy, etc. -- appear extensive enough to require state intervention. However, it is also true that the Arabs, throughout much of their history, have been accustomed to strong government, because it is virtually the only type of political system they have experienced. That is why Arab elites have sought deliverance not by jettisoning overbearing, paternalistic states, but by reforming and democratizing them. Lebanon alone has adopted a political model that limits central state power -- a result of the country's peculiar communal composition.

The rub came when post-colonial Middle Eastern secular regimes failed to reform, democratize, or resolve pressing social and economic problems. What the Arabs received instead was a diet of traditional autocracy in modern garb. In 1954 the Lebanese-British historian Albert Hourani, whose Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age remains a classic of Middle East intellectual history, could still yearn for an Arab world that integrated the Liberal values that earlier drove European modernism. The region's failure to do so demoralized many of its intellectuals, who would accuse the U.S. -- rightly in many cases -- of favoring the intolerant regimes that oppressed them.

This led to a paradox: the Arab intellectual elite, not wanting to adopt the free-market ways of an abhorred U.S., moved to the Left. In some countries this led to communist- or socialist-inspired coups, as in Iraq, Syria or Libya. Elsewhere, regimes unilaterally adopted socialist principles, as in Egypt. The obvious foe in the wake of these Leftwards movements was the U.S.

In 1981 the Lebanese-American political scientist, Fouad Ajami, wrote The Arab Predicament, a gloomy extension of Hourani's hopeful Arabic Thought. Ajami, who is routinely disparaged by Arab intellectuals for his overt pro-Americanism, examined the failure of the Middle East's secular regimes in light of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The war was a disaster for the Arabs, and as Ajami recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal, it led to an Islamic revival that alone seemed to offer a chance for success. "The secular fathers begot this strange breed of holy warriors," noted Ajami, a view undisputed by Arab Leftists. Once again America could not escape condemnation: the Islamists had no patience for its corrupt ways, while the disappointed secularists associated the U.S. with Israel, the instrument of their defeat in the 1967 war

It is after 1967 that Palestine became the paramount sticking point between the Arab world and the U.S. No issue provokes as much unanimity in a fractured Arab world as the sorry fate of the Palestinians. The U.S. stands at the center of this drama, both as culprit and vehicle for salvation. The Arabs have for decades been on solid ground morally when addressing the Palestinian problem. Proof of this is that both the U.S. and Israel have steadily moved towards recognition of Palestinian national rights, the very same ones that they refused to consider two decades ago. This progress, however, has not been sufficiently appreciated or exploited by Arab opinion-makers, who still use the term "Oslo process" pejoratively. They refuse to accept that Oslo returned Yasser Arafat to his land and legitimized Palestinian statehood.

In the past year, following the outbreak of the Intifada, the Arabs have related to the Palestinian problem almost exclusively in emotional terms. There is some justification in doing so, if only because of the imbalance in firepower -- and casualties -- between the Palestinians and Israel. The Arabs have been particularly incensed with the policies of the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, who is believed to oppose giving up significant amounts of land to reach a settlement with the Palestinians. They are probably right in thinking so, and the U.S. has taken a great deal of time before giving this hypothesis serious consideration.

The problem is that even as the U.S. swerved on Palestinian rights -- a few weeks ago it formally endorsed a Palestinian state -- the Arab public and intellectuals continued to regard U.S. intentions suspiciously. More seriously, no Arab state picked up politically on the changes in Washington in order to corner Sharon. On the contrary, most Middle Eastern regimes continue to curry favor at home by supporting a continuation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, deterring U.S. efforts to mediate between the parties.

The final motivation for opposing the U.S. -- nervousness with globalization -- is complex, so defining a single Arab point of view would be inaccurate. However, the misgivings that many Arab intellectuals have toward globalization emerged naturally from the inability of Arab states to modernize adequately. In general, many Arab intellectuals perceive globalization as a byword for U.S. hegemony. In this they are influenced by leftist ideologies, by past anti-colonialist attitudes, and by a feeling that globalization is socially inequitable -- the last not altogether untrue.

On the other hand, quite a few Arab intellectuals consistently overlook the potential advantages that their countries might derive from globalization, and dismiss the rewards of genuinely free markets. The appearance of Al-Jazeera as a singular global Arab source of information has shown how shortsighted this bias may be. The appeal and reputation of the station might help reconcile Arab opinion-makers somewhat with a phenomenon that allows them, for once, to disseminate their messages worldwide.

Much must be done by both the Arab countries and the U.S. if relations are to improve. However, the Arab states in particular should develop a more confident autonomy -- free of knee-jerk anti-Americanism or unpopular subservience to the U.S. -- on specific major issues, so that the U.S. can be regarded as either friend or adversary, depending on the situation. In changing their assessments of the U.S., however, many in the Arab world will have to alter their perceptions of their own societies, since the U.S. is often a convenient scapegoat to explain domestic ills.

The place to start is Palestine. If the U.S. has been so intolerably partial on the Palestinian issue, then it's time for the Arabs to circumvent Washington. There are two options: to declare war on Israel, something few Arabs desire or expect will succeed; or to address the Israelis directly and set down realistic demands for a settlement of the Palestinian imbroglio. Palestine was always primarily an Arab-Israeli concern. There is no reason why it should not again be so. It's time for the Arab elites solve a half-century conundrum that still baffles them.

Many opinion-makers in the Arab world today find themselves in an intellectual no-man's land: neither with bin Laden nor with the U.S.; angry at U.S. behavior towards the Palestinians, but unwilling, or unable, to address Israel in a unified way. The Arabs have legitimate beefs, but the U.S. is not the source of all their problems. On the contrary, the Arab elites' obsession with America, by deflecting self-questioning and self-criticism, has become an obstacle to breaking free from the cliches that tend to pervade the Middle East. It is only beyond those cliches that the true emancipation of Arab intellect and culture awaits.

Monday, October 8, 2001

Air War - The Bush administration's efforts to censor a leading Arab TV station are dumb

Beirut - On Sunday, as the U.S and Britain began their long-awaited attack against Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden took to the airwaves. In a videotaped transmission he articulated a typically apocalyptic message, noting how his world was divided between believers and infidels. It was noticeable that he did so not on CNN, but on the Arab world's premier satellite channel, Qatar's Al-Jazeera.

It is not often that Arab leaders defend domestic media freedoms before their American interlocutors. However, that's exactly what occurred last week when the secretary of state, Colin Powell, asked the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, to put a lid on Al-Jazeera because of its hostility to recent U.S. actions in the region. The emir diplomatically told Powell to mind his own business.

Powell blundered. He not only ignored America's own constitutional principles, but also underestimated the station's importance to Emir Hamad. Nevertheless, Powell was right in seeing Al-Jazeera as a serious obstacle blocking U.S. efforts to win over Arab public opinion in the fight against Bin Laden and his disciples. The station has refused to toe the official U.S. line on the "War on Terrorism." It routinely hosts angry critics of U.S. Middle East policy and it plainly sympathizes with the Taliban regime.

Al-Jazeera also happens to be the most uninhibited and freewheeling Arab news outlet around. It was established five years ago by Emir Hamad, and has never looked back. In a region where television, radio, and newspapers are usually state-owned and crushingly dreary, Al-Jazeera has been a popular breath of fresh air. The station is disliked by most Arab regimes because it invites their opposition in for interviews. Its anchors see themselves as journalists rather than as government functionaries. And its discussion panels provide rare opportunities for genuine debate.

That is what has made the station's performance in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks so disappointing. A more objective Arab voice could have helped reduce the expanding cultural rift between the West and the Muslim world over U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Instead, Al-Jazeera has emerged as just another mouthpiece for Arab frustration. Though the Bush administration might benefit from listening to dissent, Al-Jazeera has had profit as well as rebellion on its mind: As the only station broadcasting from Taliban-controlled territory, its audience has soared. As a result, Al-Jazeera lately signed a lucrative agreement with CNN, granting the Atlanta-based station priority in broadcasting its footage from inside Afghanistan.

But Powell's efforts to lobby Emir Hamad exposed the worst in U.S. behavior. It was less the administration's effort to curb freedom of expression that was significant-though it certainly was-than the fact that it revealed how the U.S. feels most comfortable when dealing with Middle Eastern societies through their unaccountable despots. This has splendidly backfired on occasion, as in Iraq and Iran. However, successive administrations have continued to pursue the policy, believing that autocracy, particularly in a region awash with oil, is synonymous with predictability.

Qatar in particular has been a sporadic target of U.S. ire. In the past few years the emirate has affirmed its independence from Saudi Arabia in Gulf affairs, provoking irritation in Washington and Riyadh. Emir Hamad has also displeased the U.S. and some of its Gulf allies by staking out a role as mediator in the crisis with Iraq. On the other hand, the U.S. welcomed Qatar's efforts to develop ties with Israel several years ago -- an effort since frozen by the intifada -- which earned the emir bitter criticism in the Arab world. In this intricate ambiance, Emir Hamad has used Al-Jazeera's overt militancy as a shield protecting him from his domestic and regional antagonists.

The Bush administration would do best to adopt a different tack when dealing with Al-Jazeera. It should use the station as a means of getting its point across to an Arab public highly skeptical of whatever the U.S. does in the Middle East. It might also try to demonstrate that the attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania had nothing to do with the suffering of the Palestinian people. Al-Jazeera has proven that the Arabs are not sheep when granted legitimate forums for argument and dissension. That Powell should treat them as such by trying to hush their favorite station is not only insulting, it seems to suggest that the U.S. has no serious arguments to offer in defending its actions against Osama bin Laden.

Saturday, September 29, 2001

The Occidental Tourist - Dangerous Burba-lings from OpinionJournal.com

One rarely has to wait long to enjoy those moments when blue chip publications print the worst sort of hogwash. Such was the case last week when the Wall Street Journal’s Opinion Journal Web site published a commentary by one Elisabetta Burba, an Italian lady who, we were warned, is a journalist.

Under the title "Whooping it Up: In Beirut, even Christians celebrated the atrocity," Burba wrote of her experiences in Lebanon, where she was visiting during the homicidal September 11 attacks against New York and Washington. Her argument, as the title suggests and as she wrote, was that "the offspring of [the] great [Phoenician] civilization were celebrating a terrorist outrage. And I am not talking about destitute people. Those who were cheering belonged to the elite of the Paris of the Middle East."

One can instantly spot the usual affliction of tourists visiting Lebanon, namely a fondness for obsolete clichés. Perhaps Burba hadn’t heard, but a 15-year war and over 100,000 deaths pretty much did in Beirut’s "Paris of the Middle East" reputation. But there is much more in her essay: In addition to the clichés, there is flimsy evidence, reliance on hearsay, and awe-inspiring laziness.

First, flimsy evidence. Our journalist has just heard news of the U.S. attacks: "[We] went into an America-style café in the Hamra district…rated as one of the most expensive shopping streets in the world…The café’s sophisticated clientele was celebrating, laughing, cheering and making jokes, as waiters served hamburgers and Diet Pepsi. Nobody looked shocked or moved. They were excited, very excited."

Forget for the moment that Burba’s guidebook prose merely recycles the pre-civil war description of a no-longer-opulent Hamra. It is her insistence that people were rejoicing at the attacks that is especially unconvincing. Couldn’t it be that they were laughing for some other reason? Burba doesn’t speak Arabic, so she wouldn’t know. Did failing to silently grieve for the U.S. victims mean the café’s patrons endorsed their collective murder? Alas, people, as Burba’s subsequent sightseeing in Lebanon showed, do go on functioning as before.

Then there is hearsay. Burba has a tendency to believe whatever she’s told, particularly when it squares with her preconceptions. Still reeling from her traumatic encounter with the happy throngs in Hamra, she asks "some moderate Arabs" if those approving of the attacks are a minority. The person answering spoke for many, Burba supinely explains, when he remarked: "Ninety percent of the Arab world believes that Americans got what they deserved."

But the high point of Burba’s laziness comes one evening when she is "in the Christian northern part of Beirut [and hears] some loud noises." Ever the intrepid reporter, Burba asks what the sounds are. Someone responds: "Probably they are celebrating the attacks." Burba is dumbfounded: "You mean the Maronite Christians are also celebrating?" "Yes," comes the answer, "they also feel betrayed by the Americans." Burba, naturally, swallows this hook, line, and sinker.

How both passages got by Opinion Journal's editors is astonishing. This isn’t news. It’s not even propaganda. What we have here is the chambermaid exchanging gossip with the milkman. One need not even bother picking the passages apart, they are so poor, their assumptions so shaky, the author’s gullibility, or bad faith, so pervasive. But then Burba’s article is a veritable forest of such commentary. One can devote an evening listing her errors, and invite friends in to participate.

At this stage, two warnings are in order. The point here is not to target a dreadful piece of writing, nor even chastise Opinion Journal for publishing something so simplistic, but to engage in self-defense. There is a sincere belief in the U.S. that the Lebanese were fully behind the air attacks. When the attitude in Washington is "You are against us if you are not with us," irresponsible pieces like Burba’s are downright dangerous.

There is also the matter of distributing collective responsibility. Undoubtedly, there were people in Lebanon happy with the mass murders in Washington and New York. There were even a few in the U.S. who applauded them -- and that's not even including such serial cretins as Jerry Falwell, who interpreted the attacks as divine intervention to punish the extravagances of sinful Americans. However, extending such alleged approval to Lebanese society as a whole is not only a no-no in serious journalism, it is factually wrong.

Many Lebanese watched with horror what took place on September 11, and they did so because many of them knew, or feared they knew, people in and around the World Trade Center. There were ceremonies in Beirut to honor the victims, and the U.S. embassy welcomed many people presenting their condolences. There are countless Lebanese living in the U.S., and countless others here who await -- and who will now have to wait for much longer -- a chance to follow them.

I assume that Burba knew she wouldn’t have much of a story if she described the nuances in Lebanese reaction to the attacks. She knew Opinion Journal would likely not run a piece that banally argued how divided an Arab society could be over the horrendous loss of life in the U.S.

Good for you Signora Burba. Though you used fraudulent means, you sold your piece. Bravissima!

Thursday, September 20, 2001

Glory Days for Government

As Operation Infinite Justice gets underway, the war drums are beating across the land and a battle will surely come, although we know neither when nor what particular form it will take. Only this much is certain: Though our government didn't bring on last week's terrorist attacks and everyone in Washington would certainly give plenty for them not to have occurred, war is a great friend of the state. In such troubled times, people look to the federal government for action and assurance. To get predictions about what we might expect to happen this time around, I checked in with economic historian Robert Higgs, whose book Crisis And Leviathan (1987) insightfully chronicled how national crises in the 20th century consistently helped grow the size and scope of our federal government. Higgs is a senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of the institute's quarterly journal, The Independent Review.

Robert Higgs: In a nutshell, it's that when a crisis of major significance occurs--something as large-scale and pervasive as the Great Depression or the World Wars--there's an overwhelming public demand for government to act. In the 20th century, every national emergency has seen federal government take unprecedented action to somehow allay the perceived threat to our security. These actions have taken a great many forms, but the common denominator is that they all entail the increased exercise of power by government over society and the economy. When the crisis ends, many of the emergency actions cease. But not all of them. Each emergency ratchets up the size and scope of the federal government. In some cases, agencies that had a very strict relation to the emergency transform to take on new missions.

REASON: What's an example of an agency that transformed itself?

Higgs: The War Finance Corporation in World War I was created to provide funds for various munitions enterprises. When the war ended, the War Finance Corporation turned to financing agricultural cooperatives and the export of agricultural products to Europe. It lived on until 1925. In 1932, it was revived to bail out railroads and other big companies that were going bankrupt during the Great Depression. During World War II, it was used for a multitude of new missions, including building new defense plants and stockpiling defense materials. When it was finally abolished in the 1950s because of scandals, it was immediately recreated in part as the Small Business Administration, which itself has taken on a variety of tasks over time.

REASON: Are the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon a large enough crisis to feed Leviathan?

Higgs: It's a big enough perceived emergency to cause the government to extend into areas it may not have moved into so quickly, particularly surveillance of ordinary citizens and ordinary locations where people might congregate for business or recreational purposes.

REASON: Is it appropriate for individuals to worry about government expanding at this time?

Higgs: It's extremely appropriate because historically, a large proportion of all government expansion has taken place as an emergency or crisis action. It's precisely under conditions such as those that exist at present that we ought to worry the most about the expansion of government.

REASON: What ought we to look for this time?

Higgs: We can expect thousands of reservists to be called to active duty and taken away from their ordinary jobs. We can expect the assignment of military forces to some unprecedented duties. It appears that some military units are going to be used for domestic police activities. It is clearly going to be the case that the FBI will become far more active in surveillance activities. The government will mount a variety of overseas actions requiring the armed forces, and perhaps a number of civilian employees, to attempt to kill, to disable, or to damage what are taken to be terrorist camps, facilities, or cadres. It is also fairly clear that the government is going to have to bail out the airline industry and maybe the insurance industry. When the government takes large-scale, unprecedented actions of this sort, unanticipated consequences always occur. Then the government has to expand even further to deal with those consequences.

REASON: Civil liberties always take a beating in war. Do the restrictions recede after wars are over?

Higgs: The civil liberties violations during the World Wars were, for the most part, abandoned after the wars, but not entirely. But they left institutional residues and changes in public attitudes and outlooks that could be exploited afterward. For example, it's pretty clear that World War I hysteria directed at the Germans was later directed at individuals caught up in the so-called Red Scare. People were already in a high state of excitement about "un-Americanism." That was instrumental in the ability of the government to persecute, deport, and otherwise harm a number of foreigners who were in the country at that time. The FBI expanded during World War II. After the war, FBI activities were often directed at dissident political factions, especially in the 1960s. Wars have increased state power both directly and indirectly. I've been talking about fairly direct ways in which the government changed opinions and institutions to enable it to do new things after a crisis ended. But a very important way in which both World Wars enlarged the power of government was through the effect on government budgets. We can see that same effect operating now. Governments at war spend much more money than they otherwise would. In doing so, normal constraints on government spending are broken--particularly people's attitudes about the importance of balancing the budget or belief that no more than x dollars ought to be spent for a certain purpose. Both World Wars caused the size of government relative to Gross Domestic Product to take a jump up and there was never retrenchment to the relative levels before the wars. We see something similar in the current episode. Until recently, there was a great deal of political struggle over not spending the supposed Social Security surplus. As soon as the crisis burst forth, that concern evaporated. Congress gave the president twice as much money as he asked for when he went in for an emergency appropriation. That is pretty much in character with past crises. Fiscal constraints break down very quickly in the face of perceived emergency conditions.

REASON: What's the nature of the coming crisis?

Higgs: The whole concept of wiping out terrorism is completely misguided. It simply can't be done. Terrorism is a simple act for any determined adult to perpetrate no matter what kind of security measures are taken. I suspect that after the government finishes making its show [of force] in the next few weeks, it will only inspire new acts of terrorism--if not immediately, then eventually. If the government was really serious about diminishing the amount of effective terrorist acts, it would set about creating a global corps of truly unsavory informants on the ground. But it's never shown in the past that it's had the wit to do that. I don't expect it to have the wit to do it this time. I expect to see a lot of huffing and puffing, calling up troops, dropping bombs and missiles, and maybe this time even sending in special forces for attacks on one group or another. But this is all politics. It's not going to make a dent in the genuine threat of terrorism.

REASON: What do you expect in terms of Leviathan at the end of the day?

Higgs: The ultimate result will be an enlargement of the Big Brother state. We were moving that way already. This will accelerate it.

Wednesday, September 12, 2001

What's the Message? - Deciphering terrorist actions that have no clear political objectives

Beirut -- The first images from the Middle East following the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks showed Palestinian refugees exulting. However, assuming a Middle East angle to the attacks, there was a more compelling story from the region than what was, for all its crudeness, celebration by a defeated people for a perceived victory against an uncaring foe. The story was that the perpetrators of the attacks offered the U.S. no obvious message as regards its activities in the Middle East.

Particularly since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has had to face frequent and contradictory accusations that it meddles excessively in international affairs, and that it doesn't meddle enough. This paradoxical reaction has been at the heart of Arab displeasure with the Bush administration in recent months. Many Arabs have openly criticized what they deemed overbearing U.S. behavior in the region, particularly towards Iraq, while also demanding a new administration initiative to resolve the ongoing war between Palestinians and Israelis.

This paradox can be easily explained away by the Arabs' desire to see what they consider a more balanced U.S. attitude towards the Palestinians. However, it leads to an absurdity in the case of the airline attacks -- particularly regarding the explanation that they were designed to protest U.S. policy in the Middle East. Arab states may be appalled at U.S. unconcern, but the attackers were in no way demanding greater U.S. involvement in the region. Indeed, exactly the opposite was the case. That was why the U.S. was left deciphering actions that had no clear political objectives.

This alone differentiated Tuesday's hijackings from those organized by Palestinian organizations in the late 1960s and '70s, or militant Islamic movements in the 1980s. The earlier operations were carried out to secure the release of prisoners, earn ransoms, or enhance the political influence of the perpetrators. Their architects not only sought well-defined ends, but also usually were more than eager to identify themselves.

The airline attacks are far more difficult to read. They seem to have no explicit aim, though that did not mean they had no aim whatsoever: The U.S. was humiliated, the president was, for several hours, barred from his own capital and compelled to flee to the security of a Nebraska bunker. The World Trade Center's twin towers and the Pentagon -- bywords for U.S. economic and military might -- were literally demolished. And nightmares of U.S. vulnerability, reminiscent of the science fiction films of the 1950s (themselves representations of the Communist threat), became real.

Still, what this meant for the Middle East was ambiguous. The Bush administration must not only retaliate against an enemy it does not really know, it must interpret actions that make little political sense -- beyond a desire to maximize death and destruction. That's because the likely U.S. responses can only further anger those behind the attacks. The U.S. will, initially at least, reinforce its relationship with Israel; and might, ultimately, be encouraged to return in force to the region to help solve a Palestinian-Israeli conflict dangerously augmenting Arab antipathy towards the U.S.

The ultimate crime is the one committed for no reason. When an act cannot be explained it is infinitely more menacing. What then of a crime sending contradictory messages? The Bush administration finds itself in a quandary in the Middle East, but doesn't know which policy to adopt in order to reduce its risk. More involvement or less? Which should it be? The attackers wouldn't say.

Sunday, July 1, 2001

Literary Legislators - In praise of partisan writers

Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere, by Christopher Hitchens, London: Verso, 358 pages, $25

Christopher Hitchens' recently published indictment of Henry Kissinger rather too quickly overshadowed his Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere, a collection of literary essays produced over the past eight years. This was ironic, if only because Hitchens has so often mocked the former secretary of state's propensity for attracting publicity. Hitchens has sought, like George Orwell, to turn political writing into an art, his starting point being "a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice." In Unacknowledged Legislation, however, his aim is primarily to reveal the politics in literature.

Three things stand out when reading Hitchens' essays. The first is his attitude toward public intellectuals, the "unacknowledged legislators" of Shelley's In Defense of Poetry. Hitchens also invites reflection on the ecumenism of literature--good literature--that seems to water down the "feeling of partisanship" that so pervades his writings. There is, finally, something to be said of the Hitchens style, which can be characterized as relentless provocationthough within disciplined boundariesand bold willingness to attack others on their own terrain.

For Hitchens' insights into the duties of public intellectuals, turn to a forum on the subject that ran in the February 12 edition of The Nation. There Hitchens stated: "I've increasingly become convinced that in order to be any kind of a public-intellectual commentator or combatant, one has to be unafraid of the charges of elitism. One has to have, actually, more and more contempt for public opinion and for the way in which it's constructed and aggregated, and polled and played back and manufactured and manipulated."

In an essay on H.L. Mencken titled "Critic of the Booboisie," Hitchens goes further, arguing: "Populism, which is in the last instance always an illiberal style, may come tricked out as folkish emancipation." Hitchens cites Murray Kempton and Gore Vidal as examples of "radical critics," a more partisan characterization than "public-intellectual commentator or combatant."

The reference to Vidal, in particular, is revealing. Hitchens' respect for Vidal runs deep and the two share several similarities (beyond the fact that they call Washington, D.C., their "hometown "). Though considered luminaries of the left, both have mostly classical bearings, and are more comfortable with the game of ideas and the attractions of style than with the dictates of ideology-an ideology of both left and right that tends to exalt "the public." As Unacknowledged Legislation continually makes clear, Hitchens has a rather quaint notion that the public intellectual represents a vanguard of sorts. "The sword, as we have reason to know, is often much mightier than the pen. However, there are things that pens can do, and swords cannot."

Hitchens is of course right about that. And a good case can be made that most great literary or artistic works were produced by individuals who were out of step with their environment. Where Hitchens is less convincing, however, is in so sternly positing an antagonism between the public intellectual and public opinion. The effective intellectual, even the radical, can also be the one who manages, while daring to be different, to discern and express what the public's opinion really is. For example, we may assume that in their moments of greatest relevance, Vaclav Havel, Boris Pasternak, or Richard Wright, "combatants" all, expressed what their peoples wanted to say but could not.

Hitchens might not disagree with this, inasmuch as it supposes that the credible intellectual is especially sensitive to the public's consciousness. But this raises a second problem: What allows us to accept that "intellectuals" have any greater feeling for the Truth than anyone else? Obviously some do and others don't, but what criteria permit the anointing of an amorphous assemblage of gatekeepers? Hitchens argues that populism has become the "vernacular for elitism." Perhaps in some circles it has. However, it is not particularly clear, on the basis of Hitchens' guidelines, what differentiates "acceptable" intellectual elitism from the elitism public intellectuals are supposed to combat.

A third problem is that Hitchens, who rightly assumes the public can be easily gulled, underestimates its aptitude for indifference--at least toward public intellectuals. Often there is simply no discord between the public and intellectuals, faute de combattants. Public intellectuals in much of the developed world-including the more luminous members of Hitchens' literary pantheon-often seem to interest a relatively small number of people. On top of this, much of the public is armed with a technology that allows it to circumvent gatekeepers when defining taste, style, quality, and social merit. It is not so much that public intellectuals are unacknowledged--which they are-but that they are incapable of legislating anymore.

But not to kill the beast too soon: What of the ecumenism of good literature, which gains its resonance in, and must provoke, contradictory sensations? Those in search of an answer will find few pens sharper than Hitchens'. The reason is that he invariably allows art to transcend dogma in his writings. That may sound like a cliche, but one apparently not so readily embraced by Hitchens' political comrades. Propping up a favorite straw man, former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz, Hitchens writes that "Podhoretz is accidentally right, as it happens, in maintaining that there is...a special ad hominem venom on the Left, and an extreme willingness to attribute the very lowest motives to those who transgress its codes." Thus speaks the unmade friend of Sidney Blumenthal-Hitchens was famously set upon by the left after he accused the former Clinton administration strategist of being deceitful on behalf of the president.

Friday, June 1, 2001

Art for Money's Sake - Hollywood's uneasy relationship with the almighty dollar

Next time you see a film produced by the contemporary corporate progeny of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, be sure to read the Latin phrase above the roaring lion's head: ars gratia artis -- translated as "art for art's sake." This enduring manifestation of Hollywood kitsch -- what you can't understand must be classy -- is all the more exotic in that MGM always made its films for money's sake. And yet the phrase reveals a peculiar tendency of film executives, both past and present, to inject respectability into their mainly mercenary ventures by claiming artistry and good taste.

Taste and commerce have long had a difficult relationship. No cultural High Mass reveals this better than the annual Academy Awards ceremony, in which a small coterie of Hollywood film people congratulates, mostly, a small coterie of Hollywood film people. Every year one hears the customary moaning that it is the expensive productions that win the awards, while the smaller, independently produced films are left picking up, at best, soon-forgotten Oscar nominations. The implicit assumption is that commerce undermines art, so the pocket-sized films shot on paltry budgets by directors whose names no one can pronounce are good, while ostentatious super-productions are vulgarity incarnate.

Obviously the problem is elsewhere. A mountain of money won't save a badly scripted, indifferently directed film. Nor can hell be quite as well approximated as that tranquil, intimate oeuvre by the hot new Manhattan-based Mongolian director who refuses to sell out to Hollywood by cutting down his six-hour meditation on yaks to a mere four hours. Yet as Salman Rushdie suggested recently in the New York Times, a crop of new and popular international films, most notably Ang Lee's "shoestring" $15 million epic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, might take U.S. viewers back to the days when they could "accept subtitled foreign films in the giant cineplexes where the big money is made." Crouching Tiger, which took home an Oscar for best foreign film, has certainly made big money: The film has already grossed well over $100 million in American theaters and is still going strong.

What Rushdie implied was that the public would go for taste. Indeed, but just how the public defines what is tasteful, and through what means, has changed considerably over time. Gone are the days when critics and intellectual gatekeepers had an overpowering influence over the public's artistic preferences. Part of the reason is that such figures no longer have a commanding hold on status; in the case of movies, nobody really cares what latter-day Pauline Kaels and Bosley Crowthers have to say. At a time of Internet and satellite communications -- in other words, in an age of choice -- the public can easily circumvent tastemakers, deal directly with like-minded consumers, and set down subjective guidelines for what they like and dislike in films and other art forms.

Which brings us back to commerce and art. While Crouching Tiger was indeed fine fare, its success had nothing to do with its purported similarity to the art-house films favored by the critics decades ago. Its success came from Lee's ability to read what the market demanded and to fulfill this demand by crafting a Kung Fu fantasy that abided by the infallible rules of commercially successful popular narratives. That he did so while managing to leave behind a piece of himself was all the more commendable. In the end, the public enjoyed Crouching Tiger instinctively, not according to supposedly objective artistic criteria set down by critics who spent several years hacking through impenetrable Amazonian lianas of film theory.

But is that enough? Commerce and art have in fact often been complementary. For example, the creative genius of Renaissance art, despite the aesthetically weighed spin critics have deployed to explain it, was primarily the result of an expansion in commerce that made art consumers (then mostly the upper crust) wealthy and eager to own a larger number of more varied paintings. This, in turn, prompted painters to innovate in order to compete for customers, with success bringing wealth and social status. As historian Lisa Jardine has noted, a Renaissance painter's reputation did not rest "on some intrinsic criteria of intellectual worth," but on market appeal. (See "Buying Into Culture," June 1998.)

So the market can produce quality, but isn't there something irritating, some will protest, in the arrogant way with which Hollywood carries itself? Isn't there something indecent in those astronomical film budgets that provide individual movie stars with more money than most of us could hope to steal in several lifetimes? The first comment is irrelevant, since success belies irritation, while the second is misguided, since the market is impatient with morality. The fact is that Hollywood, for all its flamboyance, is remarkably democratic: If the public doesn't like a film, it avoids watching it. Nor are film budgets in the U.S. paid out of the public's pocket, as they often are in other supposedly more enlightened countries. If Julia Roberts can pout her way to fortune, then it means that she can bring in a great deal more money than the fees she demands.

It is forgotten that Hollywood became what it is, or was, because it had vast reserves of money to throw around. The old studio system was extravagant, but it allowed Hollywood to collect a farrago of the finest directors and actors ever. It was also -- as profitable undertakings inevitably are -- ecumenical in its voracity, importing regiments of talented foreigners, from Jean Renoir to Alfred Hitchcock to Greta Garbo to Luis Bunuel to Fritz Lang to, well, Ang Lee -- the list is endless. Commerce brought these people to the U.S., allowing them to make great films and bad. Money and competition made them ever more innovative. It was art for money's sake. Or better still, money for art's sake.

Wednesday, March 7, 2001

Powell Play - Smart sanctions, stupid policy?

Colin Powell chose the Middle East as the first place to alight as Secretary of State, and it was no coincidence. That's because the secretary had Washington on his mind, and his perambulations were mainly aimed at imposing his agenda on a Bush administration whose Middle East policy is still ill-defined and potentially malleable.

However, if the past weeks are any indication, what lies ahead is pandemonium. When first taking office, Powell remarked that the United States would deal with the Middle East in its "totality." What he meant was that there would be less attention reserved for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement (which Bill Clinton helped undermine by pushing too hard too soon). Recently, the State Department broke all ties to the past when it announced that the expression "peace process" had been dropped from its lexicon -- an admission of rhetorical, and so political, loss of control over the Arab-Israeli negotiations.

The administration's minimalism on negotiations has been accompanied by a consensus to focus on Iraq. But the harmony within the Bush White House ends there. On the one side there is Powell who wants to pressure Iraq but also spare the U.S. growing censure for a sanctions policy that is seen as unreasonably open-ended and cruel. Powell's favored alternative is to introduce so-called smart sanctions, which would prevent the importation mainly of military material into Iraq. The idea is to lessen the burden on Iraqi civilians while targeting Saddam Hussein's weapons programs and security apparatus.

On the other side is Vice President Dick Cheney, and his ally and former patron, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who is assisted by Paul Wolfowitz. All three men regard sanctions as less important than overthrowing Saddam. The best way to do so, they feel, is for the U.S. to amply fund and militarily assist the opposition Iraqi National Congress, thereby reversing the debacle of 1996, when desultory U.S. backing for the INC allowed Saddam to expel the group from northern Iraq.

Here's the crux of the problem: Powell doesn't believe in the INC, and yet it is the State Department that disburses congressional funds to the Iraqi opposition. Money may become an issue elsewhere, too. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz know that a "smart sanctions" regime may in time lead to the abolition of "no-fly" zones over northern and southern Iraq. The Pentagon could lose billions of dollars available to patrol the zones -- $1.4 billion for the southern zone alone in FY 2000 -- and an attendant loss of influence over Iraq policy.

Bureaucratic skirmishing often conceals latent alliances. Since being president of Halliburton, Cheney has been especially sympathetic to the oil interests. Powell concurs, and both men realize that the U.S. absorbs some 60 percent to 70 percent of Iraqi oil exports. So if there is a compromise to be worked out on Iraq between the different Washington factions, oil may provide the impetus. But before then, Powell will have to clear up several glaring ambiguities.

The first is that he will have to square overexertion in Iraq with minimalism on the Palestinian-Israeli track. Powell needs the Arabs to back his "smart sanctions" stratagem. While most Arab regimes like the idea of less pressure on the Iraqi people, they are reluctant to help the U.S. because they believe Washington is acquiescing in the killing of Palestinians by Israelis. Powell has not found a way out of the dilemma. His only solution may be to reinvolve the U.S. in the details of the Arab-Israeli negotiations, something he has vowed not to do.

A second problem is Iran. Powell cannot fully implement "smart sanctions" without somehow bringing the Iranians in on the arrangement. Recently, the head of State's policy planning staff, Richard Haass, proposed a dialogue between the U.S. and a Tehran-based Shia Iraqi opposition group. The idea was that the U.S. might support the movement's activities in southern Iraq. Haass could be trying to pay off the Iranians to ease them into informally implementing "smart sanctions." However, selling a pro-Iranian movement in Washington could also be suicide.

A third problem is that the sanctions on Iraq are eroding daily. Powell will have a rough time convincing Saddam's neighbors that "smart sanctions" are worth implementing. Everything about the current sanctions regime encourages Iraq's neighbors to benefit from the illegal transit trade. Powell's Washington rivals will be delighted to see him fumble as he tries to corral the Syrians, Jordanians, Turks, and others into a compact most couldn't care less about. If he fails, the hardliners will be on hand to push ever more aggressively for Saddam's ouster.

In administration disputes, a frequent method of compromise is to simultaneously run diametrically opposed policies. There's a good chance the U.S. may end up backing both "smart sanctions" and a regime change. This will mean confusion and more, not less U.S. involvement in the region. Who knows? It could be time for George W. Bush to read up a bit and weigh in on his Middle East priorities.