Reviewing the Review: April 13 2008

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Today's cover article is on Terror and Consent by Philip Bobbitt, and it's by Niall Ferguson, who is (according to his reviewer credits) a "professor at Harvard University and Harvard Business School, a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford." Harvard, Oxford and Stanford. I'll tell you the honest truth -- when I hear that a critic is associated with one of these world-class institutions, I'm impressed. When I hear that a critic is associated with two of them, I'm very impressed and slightly intimidated. But when I hear that a critic is "a professor at Harvard University and Harvard Business School, a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford" I start to think that somebody ought to stop hoarding academic credentials and get in touch with the real world. This guy must have been to so many stuffy cocktail parties, he probably has nightmares involving trays of hors d'oeuvres.

Bobbitt's book sounds to me like yet another apocalyptic argument for total war against Islamic extremism -- the NYTBR is fond of these arguments -- and Niall Ferguson has absolutely massive praise for it:

This is quite simply the most profound book to have been written on the subject of American foreign policy since the attacks of 9/11 -- indeed, since the end of the cold war.

And what does this incredibly profound book offer? A blank, infinite fear of our enemies, of course:

The rats that transported the lethal fleas that transported the lethal enterobacteria Yersinia pestis did not mean to devastate the populations of Eurasia and Africa. The Black Death was a natural disaster. Al Qaeda is different. Its members seek to undermine the market-state by turning its own technological achievements against it in a protracted worldwide war, the ultimate goal of which is to create a Sharia-based "terror-state" in the form of a new caliphate. Osama bin Laden and his confederates want to acquire nuclear or biological weapons of mass destruction. Precisely because of the nature of the market-state, as well as the actions of rogue nation-states, the key components and knowledge are very close to being available to them -- witness the nuclear Wal-Mart run in Pakistan by A. Q. Khan. With such weapons, the terrorists will be able to unleash a super-9/11, with scarcely imaginable human and psychological costs.

Ferguson, enraptured, ends the article like this:

Yet it is striking that, despite being a Democrat, Philip Bobbitt so often echoes the arguments made by John McCain on foreign policy. He sees the terrorist threat as deadly serious. He is willing to fight it. But he wants to fight it within the law, and with our traditional allies.

Perhaps — who knows? — this brilliant book may also be an application for the post of national security adviser. In times of war, stranger bedfellows have been known than a Democratic Texas lawyer and a Republican Arizona soldier.


There is not the slightest suggestion in Ferguson's article that peaceful problem-solving could ease the tensions that roil our world. Instead ... well, as our next President John McCain sang: "bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran". And let's hope that President John McCain will bomb those Shiites who run Al Qaeda too, right? Bring on more war, better war, smarter war! The New York Times Book Review says Terror and Consent is the most important book about American foreign policy since 1991, and who on earth has the credentials to argue against "a professor at Harvard University and Harvard Business School, a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford"?

This cover article has ruined my aesthetic radar for the weekend, but several of the other pieces I'd like to discuss revolve around political questions too, so let's keep going. I wasn't sure whether or not I would read N+1 editor Keith Gessen's much-anticipated debut novel All the Sad Young Literary Men. I like N+1's sense of style and I love their inellectual (over-)confidence. But as I wrote when I reviewed the work of Keith Gessen and other N+1 writers a year ago, I am disappointed by Gessen's passive approach to politics, which seems to amount to a deeply internalized sense of hopelessness (precisely the same kind of hopelessness, I think, that one will feel after reading too many pro-war articles by senior fellows from Harvard, Oxford and Stanford).

Fortunately, according to Andrew O'Hagan in his favorable review of Sad Young Literary men, this novel adopts a bemused and self-critical tone towards the confused politics of modern young literate hipsters, mocking the same lack of conviction I described in my earlier review above. It sounds like Gessen has found the right angle from which to write this novel, and I bet I'll like the book once I read it.

Richard Brookhiser's summary of Steven Waldman's Founding Faith (about the religious beliefs of America's founding fathers) is satisfying and informative, and so is Jacob Heilbrunn's angry piece about Philip Shenon's The Commission, which describes several ways the Bush/Cheney administration manipulated the 9/11 commission to serve their plans for war in Iraq.

I'm excited to learn of a new book about Allen Ginsberg and other Beat writers' adventures in India, A Blue Hand by Deborah Baker. Critic Celia McGee is a talented writer -- several phrasings in this review caused me to pause with admiration -- but I regret her attitude of condescension towards Ginsberg and towards Indian religion:

Baker keeps tabs on a certain Asoke Sarkar, whose genie-like materializing in a saffron robe turns out to be somewhat responsible -- or, depending on the viewpoint, to blame -- for Ginsberg’s loosing the Hare Krishna chant on the United States.

I don't blame anybody for spreading the ancient practice of praying to Krishna to the United States. I'd rather hear chants of "Hare Krishna" than chants of "let's bomb those motherfuckers back to the stone age". Guess which chant I hear more often these days?

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Finally, having witnessed countless failed attempts at literary satire in the New York Times Book Review in recent years (particularly within the endpaper essay), I just have to point to Sarah Weinman's New York Magazine piece on Philip Roth's 75th Birthday. Why doesn't the NYTBR ever run a funny piece like this?
This article is part of the series Reviewing the New York Times Book Review. The next post in the series is Reviewing the Review: April 20 2008. The previous post in the series is Reviewing the Review: April 6 2008.
15 Responses to "Reviewing the Review: April 13 2008"

by Levi Asher on

Fair question, TKG, thanks for asking.

One thing I don't believe is that Al Qaeda is different from any other ethnic-based or nationalist-based militant group throughout history. They don't blow up buildings because they think they will get 72 virgins in heaven. They blow up buildings because it works to their political advantage to do so (especially when their opposition is run by a bumbling fool like George Bush, who has made them look brilliant since 2001).

As I've written before, I also don't believe that Islamic extremism has much to do with the Muslim religion. It's a nationalist/ethnic movement. In scenarios like this, throughout history, religion plays a strong role as a surrogate for ethnic identity. But decisions are usually made based on military strategy, and you can bet that Al Qaeda's decisions are based on strategy. So are Iran's decisions. I wish I could say the same for my President's decisions.

by Levi Asher on

Oh, and ... I also believe that John McCain -- who still believes that Al Qaeda must be secretly a Shiite group, because Iran is Shiite and Iran is bad and Al Qaeda is bad -- is not qualified to be our next President. His fondness for war as an instrument of policy is the exact opposite of what the USA needs in its next President, so I am not pleased to see the NYTBR unofficially endorsing McCain for President on its front cover.

The US needs to get out of Irak, the sooner the better. The adventurism of the right, who now look at Iran as the next stop on their war tour, has to be stopped. By the way, how can they justify invading Iran - because they did such a good job in Iraq?

With the US economy in the pits, the financial markets in crisis, the dollar at it's lowest point ever, and the US leading the most colossal mongolian clusterfuck of a war since Vietnam: if there is a god a Republican will not be elected president for the next thousand years. I hope the rallying cry of the American people will not be
"We *want* to be fooled again".

And as for 9/11 - it's over. Why is it over? Because the Bush administration has used the tragedy of this day in history to justify insane military adventurism (weapons of mass destruction, anyone?), torture, attacks on our constitutional rights, and an incredibal buildup of government bureaucracy that looks like Big Brother to me. When I hear the words 9/11, I feel nothing but shame. We had the sympathy of the entire world on that day, and we turned it into suspicion, fear and loathing.

by TKG on

Hi Levi,

I don't see any contradiction or anything mutually exclusive between the passage you quoted from the book and your response to my question.

What am I missing?

by Ben on

The leaders of Al Qaeda might be jaded politicos, but I think the people that actually commit to suicide missions are deeply motivated by religious beliefs. It is their blind ignorance and misplaced faith that makes terrorism possible. And it is the blind religious ignorance of so called Christians in this country that makes any hope of peace a fool's dream.

by Levi Asher on

TKG, I'm glad you're pointing out that I'm not making my argument as clear as I think I am -- this is helpful feedback for me, and I will try harder to express what I mean now.

First, I'm reacting to the very common angle of "Al Qaeda is different", which Ferguson says directly in the quoted paragraph. Since 2001 we have heard over and over that Al Qaeda is "a new kind of enemy", which usually means that their religious fanaticism makes them irrational, self-destructive and reckless. We also hear that extremist groups like Al Qaeda aim to create totalitarian "terror states", which would suggest that they can be combatted by enabling freedom-loving citizens of Arab nations to fight against Islamic extremist influence (and to support, against Islamic extremists, a friendly USA occupation of Arab lands). I hear strong echoes of these ideas in the Ferguson paragraph above -- the sharia "terror state", the "Al Qaeda is different" line.

These ideas are dangerously wrong. As our military has learned the hard way, there is little support for a "benevolent" USA occupation among Arab populations. Al Qaeda may very well be aiming for a totalitarian "terror-state" -- who knows? -- but it's clear that the USA cannot get away with invading and occupying oil-rich Arab nations to "protect them from Al Qaeda".

I read Ferguson's article as supporting the Bush/Cheney/McCain effort to protect USA's security by military domination of the Middle East. I believe this approach to our problems in the Middle East is completely wrong, and I believe that Ferguson's article (in the paragraph I quoted and elsewhere) supports the idea that we can achieve security in the Middle East only by increasing use of force.

by Levi Asher on

Ben, I don't wildly disagree with you, but I would point out that there have been "suicide missions" throughout history, some of them involving religion, others not. The Japanese kamikaze pilots were on suicide missions, but their training and indoctrination was nationalistic rather than religious. Worked just as well, though.

Look at the German soldiers in World War II, who were also indoctrinated with the belief that they should die for the (largely atheistic) Nazi cause. I've read that every member of the Hitler Youth was given a dagger to carry and cherish -- this dagger was not represented as a weapon with which to kill others but as weapons with which to kill themselves before facing dishonor or defeat. Nazi military training, in fact, was drenched in the romanticization of suicide. And, as many historians have shown, the Nazis had little use for the Jewish-based religion of Christianity, which they endeavored to replace with a homespun Aryan religious identity -- no cross, no God, just a swastika and a Fuhrer. Millions of German soldiers were willing to face likely death for this cause, with no religion anywhere in sight.

by Ben on

Actually Hitler made references to the Christian God in his speeches, and he clearly influenced the German people into believing that the Jews were godless animals, unlike the "true" Germans, or Aryans. Now whether Hitler thought he was truly on God's side or not, you cannot argue that Germany in WW2 was an atheist state. I believe every serious historian would say that I am correct here.

by Ben on

And I should have been more clear Levi, I was writing with suicide bombers in Iraq in mind, not necessarily suicide in a historical military context. I think generally most suicide bombers in Iraq are young, misguided people who have been brainwashed by military leaders masquerading as religious leaders.

by Levi Asher on

I believe you're wrong, Ben. I'm sure you'll agree that William Shirer was a serious historian of World War II. His "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" states: "the Nazi regime intended to eventually destroy Christianity in Germany" and describes repeatedly the battles between the Nazi rulers and the clergy class. Nazi symbology replaced the cross with the swastika and replaced Jesus with a living Fuhrer. While you can find quotes where Hitler paid lip service to Christianity in his speeches, you cannot present a credible case that Nazi citizens and soldiers who died or were willing to die for the Nazi cause were motivated by religion. Their enthusiasm for German victory was all the motivation they needed.

Even if you could make a credible case that Christianity was what motivated Nazis to fight to the death, what about Japan's kamikaze pilots? What about Mao's armies, Stalin's armies?

What about the American hero Nathan Hale, who said "I only regret that I have but one life to live for my country" before being executed?

The idea that only religious fervor can motivate a person to die for a cause simply doesn't match the facts of history.

by Ben on

I am not saying that only religious fervor can motivate a person to commit suicide.

by Ben on

And I am not trying to demean the people who have committed suicide out of religious or patriotic fervor, I just think that religious faith is being used to blind a lot of the people all over the world right now, and Iraq is certainly no exception.

by Levi Asher on

That makes sense, Ben -- sorry if I jumped down your throat. Yes, I do agree with that, though obviously at the same time I also think the Bush/Cheney administration and others use fear of a foreign religion to fool voters into thinking that Islamic holy war in the Middle East is inevitable.

by Carol on

The Bush/Cheney administration were not trying to fool voters into thinking anything.
Islamic Extremists have been preaching about the inevitable holy war with the West for decades now. September 11 was a mighty beautiful sight for them to behold and they certainly deemed it a gift to them from Allah himself. The attack on the twin towers told them that somebody finally quit talking and put a plan into action that actually worked. It also made the CIA look like absolute fools in front of the entire world because they didn’t see that one coming.