Tag Archives: Middle East

Justifying the unjustifiable in Syria

Let’s start with the premise that some wars are justifiable. I’m with Jonathan Chait there. But he loses me very shortly thereafter in his piece from Tuesday:

The merits of intervening in Syria strike me as both a closer call and a lower-stakes matter than what we think of as “major wars.” The apparently forthcoming operation has much more modest ends than the intervention in Libya, which I supported and that succeeded in its aim. We will not be toppling a brutal regime or preventing an imminent massacre. The purpose of air strikes is to impose a cost on regimes that deploy chemical weapons against civilians. Attacking the Syrian regime won’t stop all future massacres of civilians, or even all chemical attacks on civilians, but it does strike, on balance, as better than doing nothing at all.

Essentially every line of this paragraph is inaccurate or incoherent. First, what, exactly, constitutes a “major war?” If a two-year-old civil war with a death toll exceeding 100,000 and displaced totals in the millions doesn’t count as one, then I’m not certain what it would take to persuade Chait of the war’s significance. (Like Mitt Romney’s conception of the upper class as households earning over $250,000 annually, it appears that Chait’s dataset of “major wars” is restricted to ones in which Americans die in sufficiently large numbers.)

I get what he’s trying to say: war may be devastating Syria, but an American intervention would pose little risk to the United States. To illustrate this point, he compares the proposed military action in Syria to that in Libya and concludes that the former actually represents the safer course of action.

This is, of course, absurd. Libya was led by Muammar Qaddafi, an increasingly isolated autocrat whose idiosyncrasies even his authoritarian Arab brothers despised, and they were only too happy to be rid of him. Virtually no one felt threatened, or was even particularly bothered, by what transpired in Libya: only a duped Russia (sign up for the no-fly zone, stay for regime change!) and a coterie of jittery Middle Eastern despots showed much concern. It was quite clear, in the end, that Qaddafi had no real leverage with anyone.

Contrast that with the situation in Syria today. Assad has the support of both Hezbollah and Iran. Oh, and Russia, which has already warned of the “catastrophic consequences” of an intervention in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Israel is standing ready to respond in case of retaliation in the event of an American-led strike in Syria. In short, it is really quite easy to imagine a scenario in which at least six nations (Syria, Lebanon, Russia, Iran, Israel, and the United States — and this doesn’t even include likely NATO partners such as the U.K.) are pulled into an increasingly intractable conflict. Syria is intricately woven into the political fabric of the Middle East in a way that Qaddafi’s Libya could only dream of being.

But Chait doesn’t stop there. He also insists, echoing a persistent journalistic theme that bears little resemblance to reality, that the Libya operation was a success. It is unclear whether he is referring to the prevention of a massacre in Benghazi or regime change itself as barometers of victory. In this failure, however, he is at least joined by the initial proponents of the Libya intervention, none of whom seemed to know the true objective either. In a preemptive rebuttal of his critics, he writes:

The argument for intervening in Libya was not that doing so would turn the country into a peaceful, Westernized democracy moving rapidly up the OECD rankings. It was that it would prevent an immediate, enormous massacre of civilians. Libya remains an ugly place; it would have been so regardless of whether NATO intervened. But the narrow, humanitarian goal that drove the U.S. to act was unambiguously accomplished without the larger dangers of mission creep that foes warned against.

Again, this is sheer madness. The “narrow, humanitarian goal” to which Libya intervention advocates staked their early justifications was to prevent a massacre in Benghazi by establishing a no-fly zone, and not regime change. Of course, we never had any definitive proof that such a massacre would take place, only the histrionics of a famously melodramatic leader. So was the intervention a success? Only if measured against the presumed alternative of a guaranteed massacre, an event that — by definition — we can never know for certain would have happened in the first place. The goal was far from “unambiguously accomplished.”

What really gets me, though, is this part: “…without the larger dangers of mission creep that foes warned against.” This is a truly astounding declaration. Here is a White House statement from March 22, 2011:

Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, issued a statement acknowledging that President Obama would like to see a democratic government in Libya, but explained that the aim of the U.S. military’s intervention there is not to enact regime change.

“We’re clarifying, as we’ve said repeatedly, that the effort of our military operation is not regime change, that as we actually say in this readout, it’s the Libyan people who are going to make their determinations about the future,” Rhodes said. “We support their aspirations, their democratic aspirations, and have stated that Gadhafi should go because he’s lost their confidence.”

This “narrow, humanitarian” NATO campaign to prevent a massacre eventually lasted seven months, included nearly 8,000 bombs and missiles, and played a decisive role in the rebels’ eventual capture of Qaddafi — long after he possessed any capacity to massacre anyone.

And yet even this incongruence is hardly the worst aspect of Chait’s argument. That prize is awarded to this sentence: “Libya remains an ugly place; it would have been so regardless of whether NATO intervened.”

Exactly. That’s just the point.

And so here we are again, pondering a supposedly limited engagement in Syria. Once again, the White House has explicitly denied that the goal of the (decreasingly hypothetical) intervention in Syria would be regime change. Once again, the objective is muddy: murkier, even, than the Libya strikes — which were at least superficially described, at the outset, as a response to an impending massacre. In Syria, the massacre has already taken place, and Obama has seemingly settled on the phrase “strong signal” (against the use of chemical weapons) as ample justification for a potential military mission.

And, once again, Syria will remain an ugly place with or without external intervention.

Chait concludes thusly:

But I continue to be amazed that some of my younger liberal friends find it so easy to dismiss any weighing of pros and cons by venturing arguments structurally identical to ones that, in a domestic context, they recognize as absurd.

I, in turn, continue to be amazed that Jonathan Chait finds war so casually justifiable. In the first quote I excerpted in this post, he wrote: “Attacking the Syrian regime won’t stop all future massacres of civilians, or even all chemical attacks on civilians, but it does strike, on balance, as better than doing nothing at all.”

That’s right: an intervention strikes him as better than doing nothing. That’s only slightly worse than going to war to send a “strong signal.” And yet, “doing nothing at all” isn’t even an option on the table. (For one, the U.S. has already promised to supply the rebels with arms, even if that vow has not necessarily been fulfilled yet.)

Indeed, this is the principal victory that the national security hawks have wrested from their dovish foes in the American political sphere: the idea that ever deciding not to intervene somewhere is a form of cowardice and isolationism. It’s why Rand Paul is consistently portrayed as a hermetic isolationist for the sole crime of opposing thoughtless military adventurism. (He’s rightly portrayed as a “wacko bird” for many other things, however.) And it’s why the decision to go to war is consistently portrayed as a garden-variety policy decision, like raising taxes or modifying vehicle emissions standards.

But it’s not. John Adams once said that “great is the guilt of an unnecessary war.” After a string of them — initiated via flawed reasoning and later feted for their imaginary victories — it appears that war remorse, like John Adams, is history.

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Journalism and the National Narrative

The New Republic‘s Amy Sullivan is upset over Joan Juliet Buck’s new essay for Newsweek, titled “Mrs. Assad Duped Me,” which details the circumstances surrounding Buck’s glowing and ill-timed interview of Bashar al-Assad’s glamorous British-born and -educated wife, Asma, for Vogue in December 2010.

Sullivan’s takeaway:

But to read Buck’s account that way, to assume that anyone could have found themselves in her shoes, would be an insult to most journalists. Unless Buck omitted a boatload of admirable details about Mrs. Assad in this current piece or only recognized the creepiness of her visit to Syria in hindsight, she most certainly was not duped. She knowingly wrote a glowing profile—“the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies”—about the wife of a murderous tyrant…

Again, call me crazy, but Vogue had an opportunity here to run a killer story and to avoid becoming morally bankrupt. A report from inside Syria, inside the dictator’s home, on the eve of the Arab Spring? What editor wouldn’t run that blockbuster in a heartbeat over a strained puff piece about a pretty dictator’s wife? That view of power isn’t glamorous. But it’s honest.

Buck’s account, to which Sullivan is referring, is remarkably self-serving. Here’s one representative passage:

I should have said no right then.

I said yes.

It was an assignment. I was curious. That’s why I’d become a writer. Vogue wanted a description of the good-looking first lady of a questionable country; I wanted to see the cradle of civilization. Syria gave off a toxic aura. But what was the worst that could happen? I would write a piece for Vogue that missed the deeper truth about its subject. I had learned long ago that the only person I could ever be truthful about was myself.

I didn’t know I was going to meet a murderer.

But I think there are two things going on here simultaneously. One is fairly obvious, and the other less so. Firstly, Buck’s account is fairly transparently attempting to contain the (likely permanent) damage done to her journalistic reputation by her stenographic paean to the complicit wife of a brutal dictator. And no, I don’t mean “brutal dictator” in the even more obvious sense that it’s taken on since the onset of the Arab Spring, but even from long before. Describing him, rather generously, as an ophthalmologist and publishing pictures of him playing with his children doesn’t change the fact that Bashar al-Assad engaged in brutal, heavyhanded, oppressive tactics long before Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated in Tunisia.

And Buck really does try to have it both ways. She simultaneously feigns utter naïveté — describing how Bashar al-Assad showed her his many cameras (“he didn’t strike me as much of a monster”) and later anguishing over Asma’s role in the brutal suppression of Syrian protesters (“Through 2011, I wondered about Asma al-Assad, the woman who cared so much about the youth of Syria. How could she not know what was happening?”) — even while casually analyzing the country’s political intricacies (“Damascus was home base for Hizbullah and Hamas; Syria was close to Iran. But these alliances also made Syria a viable interlocutor for the West, even a potential conduit to peace in the Middle East.”).

But the second element of this scenario, and the dynamic I find far more interesting, is Sullivan’s harsh critique of Buck’s self-described ignorance. If Buck’s self-justifying explanation represents an ill-conceived, long-shot effort to shield herself from the onslaught of public criticism, Sullivan’s comments are the mirror image: just another few extremely convenient and risk-free paragraphs to add to the mountain of condemnation for Buck.

I’m interested in the “risk-free” aspect. There is a curious dynamic at play, one that has been percolating in fits and starts ever since the Arab Spring began. Like it or not, those of us living in Western nations have had to wrestle with the uncomfortable fact that the dictators whose newly emboldened populations are now intent on eliminating their rule were, for all intents and purposes, strong allies of ours. This is true across North America and Western Europe, and the guilty parties are not few.

All it takes is a routine Google search to reveal a small library of photos of a smiling Colonel Muammar Qaddafi shaking hands, or otherwise interacting, with various European and American heads of government. The same can be said of Hosni Mubarak and others. This has made Middle Eastern leaders’ rapid transitions from ally — “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family,” Hillary Clinton famously said in 2009 — to brutal, repressive tyrant an especially awkward journey for their Western interlocutors.

But fortunately for our heads of state, the vacuum of reliable allies left by the forced departure of Arab dictators has been ably filled by an even more pliable replacement: the American news media. Nothing comes as easily as adherence to the National Narrative.

And this is what really irks me about Amy Sullivan’s high-minded putdown of Joan Juliet Buck. It is perhaps true that the Vogue columnist should have thought twice about running such an unqualified puff piece. It is also true, however, that this bears repeating for the entirety of the American press corps, whose largely mute acquiescence to decades of American alliances with cruel and brutal dictators was bizarrely abrogated the very moment those same leaders became personae non gratae to the Obama administration.

This is not to say that these alliances have not served their purposes at times. We live in a messy world; messy alliances are practically inevitable. But Buck’s case of bad timing is still, in some ways, a more honest journalistic effort than the 180-degree turn perfectly executed by the bulk of the American press without so much as a blink of the eye.

As George Orwell famously wrote, “We are at war with Eastasia. We have always been at war with Eastasia.”

It’s not Iran crossing the red line. It’s Israel.

Yesterday, Robert Wright wrote a piece called “AIPAC’s Push Toward War” for The Atlantic. In it, he notes:

Late last week, amid little fanfare, Senators Joseph Lieberman, Lindsey Graham, and Robert Casey introduced a resolution that would move America further down the path toward war with Iran.

The good news is that the resolution hasn’t been universally embraced in the Senate. As Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports, the resolution has “provoked jitters among Democrats anxious over the specter of war.” The bad news is that, as Kampeas also reports, “AIPAC is expected to make the resolution an ‘ask’ in three weeks when up to 10,000 activists culminate its annual conference with a day of Capitol Hill lobbying.”

In standard media accounts, the resolution is being described as an attempt to move the “red line”–the line that, if crossed by Iran, could trigger a US military strike. The Obama administration has said that what’s unacceptable is for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. This resolution speaks instead of a “nuclear weaponscapability.” In other words, Iran shouldn’t be allowed to get to a point where, should it decide to produce a nuclear weapon, it would have the wherewithal to do so.

At what point are we, as Americans, allowed to stand up and say what needs to be said: It is Israel, not Iran, that presents the greatest danger to the Middle East right now. Their government is unpredictable; it is a coalition government aligned with some truly despicable, racist warmongers (hello, Avigdor Lieberman and Danny Ayalon); and its perpetual saber-rattling, deceptions, lies, and misdirection has played a large role in making the Middle East a constantly volatile region.

There are other provocations, to be sure — most notably the Arab Spring, despotic dictators clinging to power, and so forth. Then, perhaps most obviously, there is Iran itself, whose leader’s anti-Semitic rants and Holocaust denials are certainly cause for concern. But another preemptive strike on a Middle Eastern country based on flimsy evidence? Not only does this sound familiar, but the advocacy for it is led by the same neocons who started us off on our glorious path in Iraq. That these people are still afforded even the tiniest sliver of credibility is testament to our woeful media’s inability to stand up for facts, as well a searing condemnation of the American public’s ever-dwindling attention spans.

Let’s please, please, not make another mistake. Constant war is not the answer.

Just an observation

From the New York Times today:

The BBC and other British news organizations reported Tuesday that the police may be permitted to use rubber bullets for the first time as part of the government’s strengthened response to any resumption of the mayhem. David Lammy, Britain’s intellectual-property minister, also called for a suspension of Blackberry’s encrypted instant message service. Many rioters, exploiting that service, had been able to organize mobs and outmaneuver the police, who were ill-equipped to monitor it. [emphasis mine] “It is unfortunate, but for the very short term, London can’t have a night like the last,” Mr. Lammy said in a Twitter post.

This sounds awfully familiar. It is also, as Andrew Sullivan would likely dub it, Greenwald bait.

It goes without saying that most aspects of the London riots are entirely different than those that have been taking place all over the Middle East this year. Nevertheless, it is sometimes helpful to remind ourselves what exactly separates “us” from “them,” as a preemptive guard against a gradual erosion of civil liberties. We’ve learned that lesson the hard way in the United States since 9/11 — and perhaps more depressingly, many have yet to grasp it.

The good, the bad, and the ugly

The Good: Egypt permanently opens the border crossing with Gaza.

The Bad: The Saudis are aggressively promoting their vision of stable monarchical rule in order to counteract the protest movements spreading throughout the Middle East.

The Ugly: Freed journalists recount their despair over a colleague’s execution while in captivity in Libya.

These thoughts don’t fit together

The following two snippets aren’t necessarily related, but they’ve been percolating in my mind for a few days now, so I thought I’d include a little of each.

1) Buy Andrew Bacevich’s book Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War. Bacevich is currently a professor of history and international relations at Boston University and was formerly a colonel in the U.S. Army. Washington Rules is a deeply insightful critique of what Dwight Eisenhower so presciently labeled the “military-industrial complex.”

“The Washington rules” of the title, Bacevich explains in his introduction, “were forged at a moment when American influence and power were approaching their acme. That moment has now passed.” What follows is a brilliant historical overview of the American drift from moderate isolationism to strident interventionism. Bacevich, like many on the disaffected left, fears perpetual war. Entrenched interests in both the public and private sectors never cease to make use of fear-mongering tactics to frighten a restive population into acquiescence. This is how the CIA and Strategic Air Command, two institutions whose central role in establishing American militarism is thoroughly dissected in Washington Rules, managed to upend decades upon decades of American reluctance to flex its muscles in the global arena.

It is also how the United States finds itself enmeshed in three simultaneous wars right now. The legacy of George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden (and yes, their legacies are forever linked) is not simply the overreaction, the blind rage that led the United States into endless wars against unseen enemies with unclear objectives, all accompanied by the impossibility of victory. More enduring still is the zombie-like, unquestioning deference with which American citizens approach their warrior-leaders. Bush accomplished in eight years what the decades-long Cold War never could: permanent war, it seems, has become the new norm. Civil liberties are but a noble casualty along the way.

All one needs to do to confirm this sudden, collective disavowal of the pursuit of peace is to witness the nearly inaudible protest to President Barack Obama’s decision to intervene in the Libyan revolution. Where the war in Iraq invited some (albeit relatively muted, especially in light of the still-heightened emotions following September 11) immediate condemnation, our Libyan incursion barely raised eyebrows. Osama bin Laden may be dead, but the terror attacks he masterminded laid bare an uncomfortable truth: it takes very little to galvanize the American public in support of a perceived cause, however dubious the rationale and however vague the endgame.

Washington Rules was published in 2010, before the Jasmine Revolution and before today, when the key provisions of the Patriot Act that authorize controversial surveillance techniques were renewed for four years by Congress, despite the warnings of two U.S. senators that the bill is being interpreted in very dangerous ways. One can only imagine the blistering new foreword Bacevich could pen now.

2) Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress this week was chock-full of half-truths, prevarications, and outright lies. In fact, his entire visit to the States was an exercise in exaggeration and hyperbole, as the reaction he provoked following Obama’s speech on the Middle East was completely unwarranted. Obama stated that Israeli-Palestinian borders must be based on the 1967 lines, something every American and Israeli leader has known for years. (This includes Netanyahu himself as recently as six months ago.)

Ultimately, Netanyahu is a coward, and his intransigence will only harm Israel in the long run. What I found far more disturbing was the appalling sycophancy displayed by the United States Congress, which was roused to twenty-nine standing ovations, including once — inexplicably — that immediately followed Netanyahu’s statement that Israel was not occupying Palestinian land.

As Glenn Greenwald of Salon has demonstrated on many occasions, American politicians’ obsequiousness to the Israeli right-wing knows no bounds. This absurd rubber-stamping (not to mention heavy financing) of what is in many ways a racist regime owes in large part to the enormous influence of the Israel lobby (yes, the one so strongly debated following the eponymous book by Walt and Mearsheimer).

But a word of caution may be in order. As any sane person who follows Middle Eastern politics with even a passing interest knows, yes, the Israel lobby is indeed a powerful force, perhaps the most influential outside group (especially in proportion to its immediate constituency, American Jews) affecting American politics today. One of the hallmarks of this lobby is to stifle any critique of Israel, no matter how thoughtful or well-reasoned, by using the threat of being branded an anti-Semite as a deterrent.

Of course, anti-Semitism does exist, and whether it’s John Galliano or Lars von Trier spouting racist ideas in public, it’s wrong, always. But wielding the “anti-Semite” label as a baton in order to smother dissent is not just wrong, it’s undemocratic. The dilemma, then, lies in criticizing the lobby itself. Care must be taken to avoid being perceived as an adherent of the age-old, harebrained conspiracy theories that “Jews control the media,” “Jews control the government,” and so on. They do not. But they do, unlike many underrepresented minority groups in the U.S., exert enormous influence on American policy. To acknowledge this fact is not to exhibit anti-Semitism; it simply proves one has eyes and ears.

A crucial distinction is in order, then. The Israel lobby exists, and it is powerful. But it is not synonymous with Judaism, nor even American Judaism. AIPAC, while purporting to act on behalf of both American Jews and the state of Israel, in reality is little more than a well-connected conduit between the most radically right-wing voices in both camps and the United States government. So while many are understandably reluctant to give voice to their misgivings about the Israel lobby for fear of conflation with actual anti-Semites, it is vital to differentiate between criticism of Israeli policies and hatred of a race. It is also important to remember that AIPAC, in portraying itself as the public mouthpiece of Jews in both the U.S. and Israel, is actually doing both nations a huge disservice in its unquestioning support of continually failing policies. It is only when reasoned criticism becomes the norm that the United States and Israel will both be able to enact sensible policies with regard to the Holy Land.

A rant, following the good news from Palestine

The below was taken from an email I sent earlier today and has been slightly edited for this blog:

Today, The New York Times is reporting that Fatah, the Palestinian government in the West Bank, and Hamas, the government in Gaza, have announced a plan for a reunified government and are planning elections within a year.

This is huge news. For one, the West Bank is looking more and more like a stable economy and quasi-nation and is, in fact, planning to declare itself a sovereign state in September in the UN. By joining with Hamas, they can lend legitimacy to the idea that the Palestinian people finally speak with one voice, as opposed to being divided between two mutually hostile governments. This is especially important in peace negotiations with Israel, since one of the principal complaints by pro-Israel supporters is that they don’t have anyone to negotiate with that represents all Palestinians.

So you’d think Israel would welcome this news of reunification. But no. Here’s the NYT quote:

While the deal, reached after secret Egyptian-brokered talks, promised a potentially historic reconciliation for the Palestinians, Israel warned that a formal agreement would spell the end of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

In a televised address on Wednesday, even before the Fatah-Hamas press conference, the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, sent a stern warning to the Palestinian Authority president and Fatah chief, Mahmoud Abbas.

“The Palestinian Authority has to choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas,” Mr. Netanyahu said, adding, “Peace with both of them is impossible, because Hamas aspires to destroy the state of Israel and says so openly.”

The choice, he said, was in the authority’s hands.

So now, after years of claiming it didn’t want to negotiate because Palestine was divided, Israel now threatens to cut off peace negotiations as soon as they announce reunification. The irony is unreal. Every single time Palestinian leadership concedes something in negotiations that Israel claims was necessary, it brings up something new to hold against them. They’re in the process of a perpetual “peace process” so they can continue siphoning off land through “settlements” until there’s nothing left. (Imagine negotiating with someone else over how much cake to eat, but as you’re negotiating they’re eating it piece by piece. Israel’s been doing this for 43 years.)

One last point: “Asked why the deadlocked talks had come back to life, Mr. Nounou said, “The will was there for everyone.” He also credited the new mediators from Egypt, put in place after that country’s revolution, with “an exemplary performance,” including weeks of courtship at private meetings with each side before they met face to face with each other for the first time today” (bold font mine).

Yet another reason US support of dictators in the Middle East serves no one’s best interests, and in fact inhibits real progress. Fatah and Hamas have been at odds for years; and yet two months after the Egyptian revolution, they’re announcing a deal. This is how democracy works, and it’s why Israel, far from being our “only democratic ally in the Middle East,” is in fact inhibiting democracy all across the region, by handcuffing US foreign policy in incredibly damaging ways.

Rant over.
Updated (11:30 PM 4/27): In the above portion of this post, I stated: “So now, after years of claiming it didn’t want to negotiate because Palestine was divided, Israel now threatens to cut off peace negotiations as soon as they announce reunification.” Documentation is provided below:
The dozens of Israelis we interviewed, whether they were members of the Knesset, academics, or local entrepreneurs, all communicated a depressing lack of hope about the prospects for a peace settlement. Their main explanation for this failure was that the Palestinian leadership was divided between Fatah in the West Bank and the “terrorist group” Hamas in Gaza. As one Knesset member put it, “We simply do not have a viable political partner in peace.”
Israelis and Palestinians each placed the onus for fruitful peace negotiations on the other side Sunday, with Benjamin Netanyahu saying Israel needed a “real partner” for peace, and Saeb Erekat warning that the upcoming talks were a test for the Jewish state, dpa reported.Commenting on the proposed negotiations, announced Friday by the US and the EU, Netanyahu told his cabinet Sunday morning that the talks required both sides to take the necessary steps, “and not just the Israelis side and not just the Palestinian side.”

“If we find that we have a genuine partner on the Palestinian side, an honest and serious negotiating partner … if we find such a partner, we can soon reach a historic peace agreement between the two peoples,” he said at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.

Surely the place for setting out stalls is precisely at the negotiating table away from the glare of the media? Israel has been sitting at that table for 21 months, waiting for a negotiating partner to arrive at the other side.

The world is flat, and so is your writing

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman can be forgiven for getting a little repetitive at times. (After all, there are only so many ways you can mention China without accidentally saying the same things over again.)

But he seems to have taken things a little too far with his latest column published on December 11, titled “Reality Check.” In the article, which revolves around the American role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Friedman argues: “You can’t want peace more than the parties themselves, and that is exactly where America is today. The people running Israel and Palestine have other priorities. It is time we left them alone to pursue them — and to live with the consequences.”

He may have a point, but it appears that he stole the idea from another article written a year earlier…by himself. In his column from November 7, 2009, “Call White House, Ask for Barack,” Friedman boldly declares: “This peace process movie is not going to end differently just because we keep playing the same reel. It is time for a radically new approach. And I mean radical. I mean something no U.S. administration has ever dared to do: Take down our “Peace-Processing-Is-Us” sign and just go home.”

The op-ed section has never been The New York Times’ strongest department, and such lazy writing will only serve to drive this point home. As for Thomas Friedman, who is almost as obsessed with “clean energy” as he is with China (a paradox of sorts in and of itself), at least give the man credit for consistency: he’s so green-friendly, he recycles his own columns.

#37: Super Sad True Love Story

There are many aspects of a book, aside from the text itself, that effectively preclude it from being taken seriously. It would seem that a title like Super Sad True Love Story falls squarely into this arena. Safe to say, in any case, that Gary Shteyngart is lucky to have been a known commodity before he burdened libraries and bookstores worldwide with his latest effort.

I say “burdened” not because the novel is so hard to read. If anything, the prose is easy on the eyes, and the brain. An average Shteyngartian observation is, “I just wanted to hold her. She was wearing an oatmeal sweatshirt, beneath which I could espy the twin straps of a bra she did not need.” This is actually a perfect microcosmic sentence in a way, since it also illustrates the author’s frustrating (and all-too-frequent) displays of paternalism. Time and again, Lenny Abramov, the thirty-nine-year-old love-tortured protagonist, finds himself involuntarily expressing his infatuation with Eunice Park, his twenty-something muse, through a decidedly condescending lens. “A child, just a child,” he muses as he watches her shiver from alcoholic over-consumption. Elsewhere, Lenny makes an effort to convey this thought to Eunice: “Soon you will be home and in my arms and the world will reconfigure itself around you and there will be enough compassion for you to feel scared by how much I care for you.

What say ye? Shteyngart is too self-aware as a writer to commit to such indulgent (not to mention italicized) sentences without at least the light sauté of irony thrown in. This is a man who casually remarks that “Dr. Park was landing the plane of his soliloquy,” or that “I prepared myself to become Chekhov’s ugly merchant Laptev again.” Shteyngart’s transparent ease with language renders his patriarchal episodes all the more confusing, and I’m not persuaded this ambiguity benefits anyone.

As the critical praise splotched onto the book’s back cover makes abundantly clear, Super Sad True Love Story is a satire — of contemporary American culture, our youth-obsessed society, and the vapidity of unchecked materialism. I usually stumble over faux-prophetical gazes into the future, precisely because these hypothetical apocalypses nearly always go too far. So hypnotized are many authors, by the creative license afforded them by the fiction/sci-fi genre, that they fail to pump the brakes on the less accessible elements of their vivid imaginations.

Nevertheless, in this particular case, resistance, as they say, was futile. Shteyngart’s American dystopia is littered with such head-scratchers as Credit Poles (containing “little LED counters at eye level that registered your Credit ranking as you walked by”), Onionskins (entirely see-through jeans worn by fashionable women), and the ubiquitous äppäräti, high-tech portable devices that seem to straddle the line between a camcorder and the iPhone. And yet, the ugly shades of gray that comprise Lenny Abramov’s values-depraved universe remain strikingly, even maddeningly, believable. Chalk it up to Shteyngart’s installment of the Chinese as the ascending global hegemon, or perhaps the futile American war in Venezuela that practically begs for the reference to our contemporary military expeditions in the Middle East. Whatever the reasons, the depressing world of Super Sad True Love Story retains more than enough real-life potentiality to prevent itself from being dismissed out of hand. Whether this is sufficient for it to be included in the pantheon of classic contemporary literature may, however, require a slightly further suspension of disbelief.

#30: The Ghosts of Martyrs Square

In my junior year of college, I spent a semester studying in the Middle East. My program was based in Cairo but we traveled throughout the region. By the end of the spring, we’d made it to Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Israel. Even so, if I could change any one aspect of that semester, it would be to visit Lebanon.

As detailed in Michael Young’s The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle, the nation has an irregular heartbeat and constantly appears under threat of cardiac arrest. And yet somehow, democracy, or some semblance of it, insists on habitual self-resurrection in the area of the world seemingly most hostile to the democratizing impulse. History and the present, the liberal and the traditional, even the nation’s dual languages, Arabic and French, serve as constant reminders of democracy’s promise in a culturally diverse populace. Young, in recounting Lebanon’s recent history (2005-present), writes, “What makes Lebanon relatively free in an unfree Middle East is that the country’s sectarian system, its faults notwithstanding, has ensured that the society’s parts are stronger than the state; and where the state is weak, individuals are usually freer to function.”

In this interpretation, the same national character that so infuriates international observers is actually responsible for Lebanon’s fragile peace. As the Sunnis bedevil the Shiites, the Christians ally themselves with the power of the moment, and the Druze follow suit, the collective political incoherence renders centralized governing nearly impossible.

Not that Syria didn’t give it the old college try. On February 14, 2005, former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri was assassinated via a truck-bomb in Beirut. The Syrians were widely viewed as the perpetrators, and thus was launched the Cedar Revolution, a series of protests against Syrian intervention that eventually led to its expulsion from Lebanon.

This is, roughly, where Michael Young’s national history begins. He recounts how, merely one year after the impossible became reality as Syria left Lebanon, the war with Israel threatened to reverse the year of progress; Hezbollah, acting in compliance with its Syrian and Iranian patrons, destabilized a country still reeling in the aftermath of al-Hariri’s untimely death. Interestingly, Young takes this opportunity to chide progressive Western journalists and observers for their embrace, however tentative, of the self-described Party of God: “Lebanon loved the resistance, the statistics proved it, and the good word was beamed out to an unquestioning world,” he writes, sarcastically describing the West’s perception of Hezbollah’s domestic standing during the 2006 war against Israel.

Young can be forgiven his zeal; as a Lebanese citizen he is justifiably nonplussed by incomplete international characterizations of his country. And yet, like many journalists dipping their toes into full-length books, he proffers a smorgasbord of ideas and counterpoints without progressing between themes in a cohesive manner. At times, The Ghosts of Martyrs Square reads like a 254-page op-ed column; I suppose that’s the point. But in regards to this country that defies all description, I was hoping for a little less theorizing and a little more substance.