Category Archives: Foreign Policy


Torture is a complex subject. Senator John McCain, who knows a thing or two about it, says torture is beneath us. “We are always Americans, and different, stronger and better than those who would destroy us.” That sounds good, but is it realistic? If a terrorist kidnapped a newborn baby, and left it to die of exposure at an undisclosed location, what mother would balk at using torture to force the terrorist to reveal the baby’s whereabouts? I suspect most mothers would eagerly torture a terrorist personally if necessary to save their newborns.

So the morality of torture comes down to a question of when, not whether, it is justified.

Torturing the English language, on the other hand, is never justified. It is always unpardonable.

That’s what makes the Senate report so disturbing. What kind of government manacles our language, rips into its verbal womb, and extracts such lexical malformations as “enhanced interrogation techniques” or “rectal rehydration”?

Truthful language“The truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow,” Senator McCain said last week, presumably meaning orally, not rectally.  “But the American people are entitled to it, nonetheless.”

So here’s the truth, America. Our government is a serial torturer of the English language. Continue reading


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Daniel Pearl.  Nicholas Berg.  James Foley.  Steven Sotloff.

Four American noncombatants have been beheaded by Islamic fanatics, and the videos of their murders brazenly circulated over the internet for the world to witness.  Another Westerner — David Cawthorne Haines, a security expert hired by international aid organizations – faces the same gruesome fate.

Why do they behead us?Sotloff.Foley

The question goes to the method, not the motive, of the madness. Murderers’ motives don’t matter much in the Middle East.  In local eyes, there are so many causes to kill for, and so many victims deserving death.  But assuming one is inclined to butcher, why do so by the particularly peculiar method of beheading?  Why not butcher by shooting, or by hanging, or by detonation?

This is, to put it mildly, a grim inquiry.  But it is worth the trouble to explore.  For the answer may tell us something about the nature of the evil we face. Continue reading


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Richard Nixon and Barack Obama are rarely compared.  But the way these two presidents have dealt with crises in the Middle East provides instructive contrasts on the nature of leadership.

This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the resignation of President Nixon, a man more associated with skullduggery than leadership.  But in October 1973, when his Vice President was resigning in disgrace and the congressional investigation into his own misconduct was moving to its fatal conclusion, Nixon demonstrated how a leader can take command, master events, and shape history.


His example provides a contrast to the current President, whose concept of leadership involves “leading from behind.”  To the extent it involves taking initiative, it is the initiative of “avoiding doing stupid shit.” Continue reading


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“Then the Philistines seized Samson, gouged out his eyes and took him down to Gaza.”   Judges 16:21.

Something about Gaza, and the way its Hamas bosses periodically goad  Israel into military action, turn otherwise sensible observers into sightless chumps — incapable of distinguishing between initiating and responding to force, and blind to the difference between attempted murder and self-defense.


We see that day after day after day in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, CNN, and other mainstream media outlets, which report on the crisis as if it were a contest between two antagonists competing on a morally level playing field.  It appears in the television graphics of careful neutrality: charts showing the number of Israeli air strikes compared to the number of Hamas missiles and mortars; comparisons of the number of casualties on both sides; and reports on the relative suffering of the noncombatants.

This is nonsense.  Three important principles underlie this crisis, which ought to be evident to anyone with eyes to see.   First, there is no equivalence between Israel and Hamas.  Second, inchoate crimes are still crimes, and in wartime, they are war crimes.  And third, “proportionality” has no proper role when thugs are trying to murder your children. Continue reading


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Margaret Thatcher and Her Sisters


Today, the Baroness Thatcher (after her retirement from politics, she was given a peerage) was laid to rest.  In death as in life, Margaret Thatcher poses problems for feminists.  As the first and the only female Prime Minister of Great Britain, she shattered a ceiling whose hardness resembled granite more than glass.  Yet once in office, she did not fit the role expected of women pioneers.  She did not merely part company with contemporary feminists.  She disdained and ridiculed them.

The feminists hate me, don’t they?” she asked in a 1982 interview, three years into her tenure as Prime Minister.  “And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison.”

“I owe nothing to women’s lib,” she announced, and many feminists gladly returned the compliment.  They have accused her of pulling up the drawbridge behind her once she had gained entry into the corridors of power.   They have noted that in her eleven years at Ten Downing Street, she appointed only one woman cabinet member, and that one was to a rather unimportant position in the House of Lords.   Alexandra Petri, a Washington Post blogger, has recorded Thatcher’s place in feminist history.  Or rather, her lack of place.

Look at your average list of Female Trailblazers and Great Women in History and Women Leaders — Ashley Judd’s there, Chelsea Clinton, even Princess Diana — but there’s a giant hole shaped like the Iron Lady. The Guardian’s list of 10 Best Female Pioneers includes Coco Chanel and Kathryn Bigelow, but Margaret Thatcher? Go fish.

The Guardian’s list of the Ten Best Female Pioneers includes Eva Peron, but Thatcher’s nowhere to be seen. She does make’s list of Top 100 Women of History, but then again, so does Rosie the Riveter, who is literally a fictional character.

Yet Thatcher’s position on feminism was more nuanced than her critics, and Thatcher’s own dismissive comments, might suggest. Continue reading


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Usama bin Laden’s Trademark Concerns

One year after the killing of Usama bin Laden, the U.S. Government has declassified some of the materials seized during the raid on his compound.  The media had earlier reported that the terrorist leader was concerned that his organization’s brand had become tarnished by its association with attacks on noncombatants.  CNN gave this account last April:

Bin Laden well understood that al Qaeda’s brand name was in deep trouble, in particular, because the group and its affiliates had killed so many civilians.  ….  So badly tarnished had the al Qaeda brand become that bin Laden noodled with changing the name of his group. In an internal memo, bin Laden pointed out that “[President] Obama [says] that our war is not on Islam or the Muslim people, but rather our war is on the al Qaeda organization. So if the word al Qaeda was derived from or had strong ties to the word ‘Islam’ or ‘Muslims,’ or if it had the name ‘Islamic party’ it would be difficult for Obama to say that.”usama.trademark

A recently declassified transcript of an audiotape seized during the raid documents bin Laden’s trademark concerns.  The following transcript was translated by the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, located in Monterey, California.  Continue reading

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Grading Hillary

As the guard changes at the State Department, speculation is rife regarding Hillary Clinton’s future.   Will Hillary run for President?  If she does, her star power will be a formidable asset.  After all, how many politicians are instantly recognized by his or her first name?  (You don’t read columns wondering whether “Paul” or “Mark” or “Chris” will run.)hillary

To move from cabinet member to President is of course a promotion. For mere mortals known by both their first and last names, promotions usually depend on how well they handled their prior jobs. Do the same rules apply to Hillary? If they do, has her performance as Secretary of State earned her a promotion?

Hillary Clinton (the switchover to using both names signals that we’re about to get serious here) is a polarizing figure. To her admirers, especially those in the media and the entertainment industry, she is a rock star, a glittering symbol of what modern American womanhood can be. To her detractors, she is a doctrinaire ice queen, with all the ideological baggage of her husband but without her husband’s warmth and humanity.

What does an objective assessment reveal? Continue reading


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The Children of Israel

As I write this, the war of the missiles continues in the skies over Israel and Gaza.  IDF troops are massing on the border.  Mediation efforts are underway in Cairo.  By the time you read this, the fighting may have intensified into a ground war, or it may have fizzled out into another uneasy peace.

But for now, while the fighting continues, the news media engage in the familiar spectacle of twinning.  Under the rules of twinning, the conflict is portrayed as a contest between two opposing sides, each inflicting damage on the other and each suffering casualties in a symmetry of belligerence.  The titles of two videos now up on illustrate the phenomenon: “Comparing Israel’s and Hamas’ Firepower” and “Life Now for an Israeli and a Gazan.”   One story for one side, another story for the other.

The rules of twinning, as with any competition, require comparison and scorekeeping.  How many rockets have been launched from Gaza?  How many Israeli air strikes have hit targets there?  How many Gazans are dead?  How many Israelis?

One of the main fictions of twinning is that it considers only physical casualties: how many have been killed, how many have been maimed.  By that calculus, Hamas has been laughably ineffective over the years.  Before the recent escalation in violence, they had fired over 8,000 missiles at Israel since its withdrawal from Gaza.  Under the rules of twinning, those thousands of missiles hardly count, because very few led to Israeli deaths or amputations.

But the children of Israel know too well that  every single one of those missiles and mortar rounds inflicted casualties.  Every single one.

Continue reading

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