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Archive for the ‘Foreign affairs’ Category

Why Spy?

James Bond: does he serve a useful purpose?

Inspired by recent events, I argue in the Globe and Mail that spies aren’t all that important. You can read the article here.

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Jonas Savimbi: A Black African worthy of Peter Worthington's respect.

Over at Vanity Fair, James Wolcott is puzzled by the presence of Peter Worthington at the Frumforum site. Wolcott quotes a Worthington column on the World Cup which includes this observation, “And as a reflection of African ethnicity, well, maybe the vuvuzelas are the apex of cultural achievement.” Wolcott rightly describes Worthington’s column as a “moldy crumb of racial condescension” and doubts that it “will make FrumForum a lot of friends in the African community.”
As a cultural commenter Wolcott is dauntingly erudite. He can write with informed verve about everything ranging from the film noir classics of the 1940s to the novels of Norman Mailer to the peculiar humour of Benny Hill. But even Wolcott can’t be expected to understand the genealogy of Canadian conservative journalists.

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Mikhail Gorbachev: More dangerious than Stalin, according to Commentary magazine

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the tendency of neo-conservatives such as Norman Podhoretz to celebrate Ronald Reagan as a great president is more than a little disingenuous. Back when Reagan was actually in power, the neo-cons supported the president against his liberal and leftist critics but had their own problems with the Gipper, who they regarded as a weak appeaser all too willing to negotiate with an implacable enemy, Soviet Communism. This neo-conservative critique of Reagan was especially virulent in President’s second term when he came to the conclusion that Gorbachev was a sincere reformer worth doing business with.

In his book The New American Militarism, Andrew Bacevich acutely sums up this phase of neo-conservatism:

Podhoretz found much to like in Reagan’s rhetoric, but he warned against confusing words with actions. The two differed, often drastically. To take Reagan’s famous condemnation of Moscow’s “evil empire” at face value was “to fall victim to a campaign of disinformation.” In practice, Reagan had proven himself “unwilling to take the political risks and expend the political energy” to break with the Nixon-Ford-Carter policy of détente. Like his immediate predecessors, the president seemed obsessed with making the world safe for Communism, thus implementing “a strategy of helping the Soviet Union stabilize its empire.” Indeed, to Podhoretz, Reagan appeared “ready to embrace the course of détente wholeheartedly as his own.”

For all of his high-sounding talk, the fortieth president of the UnitedStates, Podhoretz reluctantly concluded, lacked backbone. Although he “seems to have a few strong convictions,” wrote Podhoretz in 1985, Reagan “invariably backed away from acting on them” if they threatened to “cost him more political approval than he might gain by tacking and trimming.” As late as 1986—three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall—Podhoretz was still insisting that “‘the present danger’ of 1980 is still present today, and the question of whether ‘we have the will to reverse the decline of American power’ still hangs ominously as it did then in the troubled American air.” As the end of the 1980s approached, the threat posed by Communism was becoming, if anything, greater than ever. That Reagan was apparently falling victim to Mikhail Gorbachev’s charm offensive was almost unbearable. In Podhoretz’s eyes, to parley with the enemy was to appease him.

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Over at the National Post I have an essay about the “peace process”. You can read it here. This is the opening:

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John Wayne: the great hero of 1960s counterinsurgency.

The romance of war doesn’t just appeal to conservatives who have spent too much time reading Kipling and watching old John Wayne movies. Liberals also have their own tendency to glamorize war, going back at least as far as Woodrow Wilson’s absurd celebration of the First World War as a great battle for democracy.

For the last half-century, counterinsurgency has been the type of war that liberals are most likely to idealize. In theory, counterinsurgency sounds great: it’s war fought to win “the hearts and minds” of the people, war that involves building alliances with the local population, war done with the best of intentions, war as a giant social welfare program (with guns).

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We’ve seen this in the movies dozens of times: highly-trained Western special forces burst suddenly into a target building, their weapons at shoulder height. Moving rapidly from room to room, they identify each potential target within a second, unhesitatingly shooting the bad guys while keeping safe the unarmed and innocent. When it is over, the audience breathes a sigh of mixed relief and admiration.

Being the movies, this cannot really depict reality — and in fact, it doesn’t. It turns out that when special forces burst into a house, they keep their eyes closed.

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Lawrence of Arabia: In the closet and a servant of empire.

My previous essay about Commentary earned me a rebuke from a friend who happens to be a former contributor to that journal. I had suggested that Robert Alter was the only first-rate writer still contributing to Commentary.

What about Joseph Epstein? My friend asked. Or Terry Teachout? Or Ruth Wisse? Or Victor Hanson Davis? Or James Q. Wilson? Or Daniel Pipes?

Most of these are not names that make my heart beat faster when I see them plastered on a magazine cover but I’m happy to make exceptions for Terry Teachout and most especially for Joseph Epstein. I’ve praised both men repeatedly in book reviews.

Epstein is a top-notch personal essayist, who has revived the ruminative, free-ranging tradition of Montaigne and Hazlitt. Among more modern essayists, he’s the peer of Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, and Gore Vidal (not company he’d be completely comfortable with, sadly).  He’s also a very entertaining short story writer. Mind you, if literature were organized the way baseball was, Epstein wouldn’t be playing with the New York Yankees against heavy-hitters like Alice Munro or Mavis Gallant but would have to have to content himself with life on a farm team in Albany or Akron. Still, the Akron Aeros have some good players and Epstein’s fiction has given me a great deal of pleasure.

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Over at Commentary, John Podhoretz responds  to my earlier post where I contended that the magazine had compared President Obama to Hitler.  Mr. Podhoretz argues that my post was based on “a patently deliberate misreading” of a post written by Jennifer Rubin. I’ve already responded to Mr. Podhoretz’s clarification of the original Rubin post in the comment section of my own earlier post, but I thought the issue is important enough to deserve its own separate statement. 

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It won. This narrow, simplistic, disappointing little film won the Oscar.

No, I’m not shocked. Nor am I disappointed with the Academy — though it has been on an admirably strong run in this century (No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire), this is also the group that elevated both Shakespeare in Love and Titanic to the pantheon. But I am annoyed that such a flawed movie has managed to achieve this amount of acclaim, and that The Hurt Locker is, even more gratingly, regarded now as an “important” film. It is not important – not in the way, at least, that great works of art (cinema included) are capable of being.

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The following is the first of several (slightly modified) excerpts I’d like to share from my book Japan’s Open Future.

The Japanese government affirms that “refugee assistance is a bounden duty of a member of the international community,” and “one of the important pillars of Japan’s contribution to world peace and prosperity.” The country does send money to support refugees overseas—it gave $75 million in 2006 to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). But the reality inside Japan is a far cry from its rhetoric and money sent abroad; any refugee who seeks a home in Japan is playing against terrible odds. Between 1981, when Japan ratified the UN Convention on Refugees, and 2002, Japan accepted just over 300 people as refugees. Put differently, all the refugees Japan admitted over a twenty-year period under the convention could fit onto a single airplane. Consider the difference: whereas in 2001 Japan admitted 26 refugees out of about a million asylumseekers worldwide, in that same year the US admitted more than 20,000, Germany admitted more than 17,000 and Britain admitted more than 14,000. Even though the US and Europe have tightened their rules since 9/11, they still admit far more refugees than Japan. As TAKIZAWA Saburo, the UNHCR Representative in Japan, commented in a 2008 speech, “The ratio of asylum seekers coming to Japan is only 0.0013%”; when they look to Japan as a potential home, he said, they see “walls” and “structural barriers.”

Drilling down from the aggregate numbers, what is it like for an individual asylum-seeker in Japan? Saul Takahashi, former Refugee Coordinator for Amnesty International in Japan, tells the story of meeting with Mohammed, a Nuba from Sudan, who had been tortured and whipped by the army. Takahashi tries to get Mohammed to understand what he is up against in hoping to become a refugee in Japan: “I tell him that it is practically impossible to get asylum in Japan … It will take years and during this time he will not get a work permit or any aid at all, [and] after they turn him down, he may be detained and deported.” In response, “Mohammed is silent for a minute. Then he says that he must try. He has no choice. He can’t go home. He has no place to go.”

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