May 20, 2015

Pakistan: With Friends Like These…

Seymour Hersh’s LRB scoop on the execution of Osama bin Laden – too hot, apparently, for the New Yorker to handle – is a persuasive and unnerving re-write of the Obama White House account. It ...

Seymour Hersh’s LRB scoop on the execution of Osama bin Laden – too hot, apparently, for the New Yorker to handle – is a persuasive and unnerving re-write of the Obama White House account. It was Pakistani spooks, not our CIA, who ran Osama to ground – more than five years before American intelligence learned he was under a comfortable sort of house arrest in Abbottabad. The Navy Seals who carried out the raid that killed Osama in 2011 probably didn’t know that Pakistan’s top brass and spymasters were helping in the shadows, to the extent of dropping their usual air alert against swooping US helicopters.

The sharpest point of the Hersh account comes in the demonstration of Pakistan’s “double game”– which must always be “plausibly deniable”– with its US patron. Pakistan’s army intelligence was in effect holding Osama bin Laden for trade with the Americans when the price was right and the politics was urgent. But what a strange stink comes off this misalliance – this miserable marriage – between the US and Pakistan.

1203342641_8919“This is an absurd relationship on both sides,” says our in-studio authority, Adil Najam, trained in Lahore, now dean of Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Affairs. “The Sy Hersh story is the perfect metaphor for the US-Pakistan relationship and the absurdity of it. Why? Because nothing that can be said or heard about it can or should be believed… It’s not about the details. What he’s really pointing out in stark ways…is: This is not a friendship. It is not an alliance…”

I would question whether any of [the US’s anti-terror partnerships] are alliances. The real imperialist powers – the British! – never called India their ally… They were much more honest about it. They said, “you’re a dominion.” And in some ways, I think maybe we need a little more honesty in this….

carlottaCarlotta Gall, the long-time New York Times correspondent between Kabul and Islamabad, is telling us that much of Hersh’s alternative history checks outs. Osama bin Laden regarded Pakistan as friendly territory and, in Abbottabad, a safe haven. He had to beware of official betrayal sooner or later, but admonished his followers not to attack “the mother ship.” Pakistan’s military returned the courtesy, Ms. Gall observed on our air:

One intelligence officer, years ago, told me [bin Laden] was a protege of Pakistan….I think the Pakistanis perhaps didn’t mind that he was always aiming his attacks to America. They saw him as something useful for their own reasons. And that’s what’s astonishing, that they could be an ally — a major non-NATO ally after all — winning billions of dollars over this last decade from America and yet they could be hiding the top target of the American war.

…America knew Pakistan was playing a double game… And at what cost? Thousands of Western soldiers died, over 2,000 American soldiers died there, and, by my count, tens of thousands of Afghans have died since 2001. The length and the horror of this war in Afghanistan was not necessary, and I think a lot of that happened on America’s watch when they knowingly were not confronting Pakistan about its involvement and stopping it and, meanwhile, were funding billions to the Pakistani military. And that very strange double-handed policy is very weird and to be condemned.

Fawaz Gerges, our biographer of terrorism, says that drawing American military forces into the back of beyond was the core of Al Qaeda’s strategy and its incredible success:

When the history of the global wars on terror is written…the question is not going to be why the United States invaded Iraq, why the United States invaded Afghanistan. The question that will basically fascinate historians is why the American system of checks and balances failed after 9/11? Why? Because the American perspective was blinded by dust, by pain, by fear, by pride, and by revenge. And you have a small group of ideologues…hijack American foreign policy that basically brought us to today.

There’s more here from our friend Muhammad Idrees Ahmad on the pain for Pakistan, which has taken more casualties from the war for Afghanistan than any other nation. Also, from Ayesha Jalal of Tufts University, the master historian of the India-Pakistan partition. She joins us from her hometown Lahore to speak of an almost empty “operational relationship” between the US and Pakistan. The better future for Pakistan, she suggests, will be with investment-ready China.

Leave a comment and let us know what you think.

This Week's Show •

Our Worst War

Legendary journalist Seymour Hersh helped us count the ways. Hersh returned to Vietnam this year for The New Yorker to visit the scene of the My Lai crime he broke in 1969. He spoke with ...

Legendary journalist Seymour Hersh helped us count the ways. Hersh returned to Vietnam this year for The New Yorker to visit the scene of the My Lai crime he broke in 1969. He spoke with an iconic Communist figure the Americans called Madame Binh about how America went wrong, and is still thinking wrong, about Vietnam:

“Oh, Seymour,” she said, “the only reason My Lai was important was because it was written by an American.” And her message was there were many My Lais. I thought, “Oh my god, she’s as tough as ever.” She’s saying to me, “Yes, I’m glad you wrote this story. Yes, I’m glad there was an anti-war movement in America, and I’m glad that your story did so much, which it did, to fuel the anti war movement.” But her message was, “Listen, we beat you. We didn’t do it because of the antiwar movement. We’re the ones who stood and dug holes, we got pounded by B-52 bombs and when the bombing was over, we climbed out and killed your boys. That’s what won the war. We stuck it out.” And that was really interesting to hear. You’ve got to know who you’re fighting against. We picked the wrong fight.

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Historian Christian Appy has recounted a “fall from grace” in individual revelations one after another: from Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, the line that “We didn’t know who we were till we got here. We thought we were something else,” to the booming “exceptionalist” American historian Henry Steele Commager who roared in 1972: “This is not only a war we cannot win, it is a war we must lose if we are to survive morally.” The “Paper Tigers” in his Appy’s American Reckoning are David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, but they seem more vicious at this distance. McGeorge Bundy, for example, a former Harvard Dean, entered the war as a game of dominoes with Moscow, fueled it with theories of social engineering and “modernization”, and refused to end it — citing concern for American “credibility”:

This whole idea of credibility was at stake, that we had to demonstrate, even if it doesn’t work. [Bundy’s] memos that to LBJ were just astonishing. He would say things like, “I am recommending daily systematic bombing of North Vietnam, but I can’t assure that it will work. It may fail. The odds may be 25% to 75%. Even if it fails, it’s worth it because it will demonstrate to the world that — like a good doctor — we did everything possible to save the patient of South Vietnam. But he’s not talking about medicine, he’s advocating mass killing to prove a point and preserve a reputation.

Christian Appy, at our office.

Christian Appy.

Noam Chomsky wrote back in the LBJ phase of the war that it was “simply an obscenity, a depraved act by weak and miserable men,” “including all of us,” as he added in a memorable exchange with William F. Buckley. What strikes Chomsky to this day is our ugly American flight to fantasy and euphemism on the matter of our intentions: we are encouraged by our commentariat to look back at our catastrophes, including Iraq and Afghanistan, and pat ourselves on the back.

Anything we do is at worst “blundering efforts to do good.” No matter how horrendous it is. After the second world war, there is no crime that begins to compare with the war in Indochina. It’s not just Vietnam. It’s destruction of Laos. Cambodia was bombed more heavily than any country in history. It’s a monstrous war, but it passes in history as “blundering efforts to do good.”

01 Oct 1972, Boston, Massachusetts, USA --- American writer, educator, and linguist Noam Chomsky, at home in Boston. Also know for his political activism he was an early and outspoken critic of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War having written . --- Image by © JP Laffont/Sygma/Corbis

01 Oct 1972, Boston, Massachusetts, USA — American writer, educator, and linguist Noam Chomsky, at home in Boston. Also know for his political activism he was an early and outspoken critic of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War having written . — Image by © JP Laffont/Sygma/Corbis

Finally, Harvard’s Steven Biel talked us through some of the pop that helped us to understand Vietnam as a tragedy. In films like Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and even (especially?) Rambo, Hollywood says that America lost some ineffable, macro-psychological thing in the jungles of Vietnam. We were humiliated in Vietnam, but not humbled.

Podcast • June 5, 2014

How Would Burke Makeover the GOP?

Next time on Open Source, the conservative hero Edmund Burke, the 18th-century British statesman who befriended the American Revolution, hated the French version, loved liberty and hated violence, and believed that empires like his and ours must answer to the whole world. Move over, Bush and Boehner. What if Edmund Burke were leading our Republicans in 2014?

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Guest List

David Bromwich introduces us to the conservative hero Edmund Burke, the 18th-century British statesman who befriended the American Revolution, hated the French version, loved liberty and hated violence, and believed that empires like his and ours must answer to the whole world. Move over, Bush and Boehner. What if Edmund Burke were leading our Republicans in 2014?

Ever wondered how the political map of the United States has changed over the past 225 years. Here’s an interactive map showing the liberal-conservative spectrum of the first 112 Congresses.

 

Reading List 

• Adam Gopnik offers a smart survey of the many Burkes in The New Yorker (paywall);

• Robert Kagan, “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire”, from Foreign Policy, to be read against Professor Bromwich’s excellent essay, “Moral Imagination.”

• Yuval Levin, presented as a Burkean intellectual historian and the new Irving Kristol;

• Mike Lind on the coming realignment of the political tendencies in America, breaking along more traditional conservative lines.

Podcast • November 27, 2013

Graham Robb: Rescuing those Celts!

Graham Robb, stellar historian and writer, draws on the “archives of the bicycle,” much as Simon Schama says he draws on the “archives of the feet,” walking battlefields and inaugural parades. Graham Robb pedaled 14,000 ...

celt village 2Graham Robb, stellar historian and writer, draws on the “archives of the bicycle,” much as Simon Schama says he draws on the “archives of the feet,” walking battlefields and inaugural parades. Graham Robb pedaled 14,000 miles through France in the course of re-casting the evolution of a nation of Frenchmen (just in the 20th Century) out of a wild diversity of villages.
And now he’s applied the bicycle method to rediscover a Celtic world of Stone Age Europe, six to eight centuries before Christ – a world built of wood that’s long since disappeared. And yet the bicyclist sees more than meets the eye of the documentary historian, specially with computer maps to draw on.

With his Rediscovery of Middle Earth, the idea was to bicycle through the fantasy land of Camelot and Tolkein’s landscape of the Hobbit and the Rings. And then surprise, surprise: a real civilization appears in the mist of those “middle places.” Robb’s rediscovered Celts were a scientific people with a well-schooled culture in many ways more attractive than Caesar’s Roman juggernaut that crushed the Celts and drove their Druids out of continental Europe – out to the British Isles and the wide world’s imagination. So the conversation here is about what Graham Robb found out about the Celts, and crucially, too, about how he found it.

We think of the Celts as the people who were defeated and crushed by the Romans. Caesar himself explained that his policy included deliberate genocide. He would wipe out entire tribes, either by killing them all or by selling most of them into slavery or multilating all the male members of a particular tribe so they would never bother Rome again. Good old Caesar. His history was a work of propaganda, because even in Rome some people were appalled at what he was doing in Gaul. And the crucial thing about the Roman conquest of the Celtic world is that this wasn’t a simple military conquest. Caesar traveled with huge numbers of merchants and traders who were prospecting the new market in basically gold, precious metals and slaves. And that was going to be the basis of Caesar’s political power, because he was reducing people’s taxes back in Rome and creating a safe buffer zone between Rome and the barbarian world. And that’s why he tends to present the Celts as mud-smeared hooligan barbarians, and that image still survives today, at least in Britain. Certainly when the English think of the Scottish or Welsh or Irish Celts, those are the kinds of images that still come up…

In many ways it was a more sophisticated civilization than Rome. And one of the reasons the Romans were so keen to make the Celts look ridiculous is that every Roman knew that in 387 B.C., before there was a Roman empire, the Celtic army marched into Rome and captured it and plundered it and massacred the citizens of Rome. That was a huge humiliation which the Romans never forgot. So when they set about massacring Celtic tribes that was something in the back of their minds. This was the enormous threat beyond the Alps that had to be eradicated. Ironically it’s because the Celts had moved into Northern Italy and colonized it, and created towns like Milan and Turin and Bologna – which all have Celtic names, not Roman names, not from Latin — they had been driven out by the Romans when the empire began to expand. But it was the Celts who first introduced the Romans to all the sophisticated technology, particularly of transport: the carts and carriages and high-speed chariots and roads. And that’s why in Latin almost every word for wheeled vehicle is actually a Celtic word. For example… there’s the word for chariot itself: currus in Latin, which comes from a Celtic word. Which means that the Celts gave us the word: car. That’s where the word comes from.

Graham Robb in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, November, 2013

Graham Robb calls to mind the amazing persistence of regional-tribal folkways and social-cultural traits as David Hackett Fisher traced them from 17th Century England to modern America in the classic Albion’s Seed. He reminds me also of the recent novel of New York, Open City, imagined by the Nigerian-American Teju Cole. Teju Cole and Graham Robb share a gifted eye for stripping away the visible and seeing history and pre-history, half-hidden like the thousands of miles of stone walls in the re-grown forests of New England, for example. The way to imagine the Middle Earth of Tolkein and King Arthur and the Celts, Graham Robb is telling us, is as a world many of us are still living in.

Podcast • November 8, 2013

Stephen Kinzer on the Dulles Brothers

Steve Kinzer is raising sharp questions for today about the late, unlamented Dulles brothers — John Foster and Allen Dulles, who ruled US diplomacy and spy-craft in the Eisenhower 1950s. The Brothers are the subjects now of Kinzer’s double biography and eye-popping polemic. Are the Dulleses the missing keys to our 50-year understanding of John F. Kennedy’s tortured foreign adventures in office, and perhaps of his death?


Steve Kinzer
is raising sharp questions for today about the late, unlamented Dulles brothers — John Foster and Allen Dulles, who ruled US diplomacy and spy-craft in the Eisenhower 1950s. The Brothers are the subjects now of Kinzer’s double biography and eye-popping polemic. Are the Dulleses the missing keys to our 50-year understanding of John F. Kennedy’s tortured foreign adventures in office, and perhaps of his death? How and why did the “compulsive activism” and “secret world war” of the Dulles brothers persist for five decades after they were gone? In President Obama’s big turn in the Middle East — that is, in the refusal to bomb Syria and the warming contacts with Iran — is it too much to see that the Dulleses’ open and covert Cold War ways of waging world dominance are coming apart even as we speak? Of the Obama re-direction since late August, Steve Kinzer is telling me:

I found those two episodes most interesting. First, the President of the US announced… he was going to bomb Syria, but many in Congress and in the country were against it, and he called it off. I can’t remember any episode like this in my lifetime, where a president of the United States announced he wanted to bomb a country — but the American people were against it? This is something quite remarkable. We’ve always supported military action when presidents decide to launch them. Then came the telephone call between President Obama and the president of Iran. This is another supreme violation of another basic Dulles principle. The Dulles brothers believed you should never have dialogue with your enemy. They were strong against, for example, any summits between American leaders and Soviet leaders. They felt that this would only destroy the paradigm of conflict. It makes the other person seem possibly sane and rational, and then you can no longer portray them as evil and threatening. So these two episodes — the refusal to bomb Syria and the contact with Iran — make me ask this question: did the Dulles Era just end?

Stephen Kinzer in conversation with Chris Lydon about The Brothers in Boston, November, 2013

The Kennedy term began in 1961 with two explosive mines hidden in the works: the CIA’s Bay of Pigs raid on Cuba by mercenaries and Cuban exiles; and the assassination of the Congo’s first independent Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Three weeks into his term, Kennedy urged that Lumumba, beleaguered by Belgian interests and the CIA, be restored to power. “It was a remarkable change of heart for the United States,” Kinzer writes in The Brothers, “but it came too late.” Unknown to the new president of the United States, Lumumba had been kidnapped, brutalized, butchered and dissolved in acid three days before JFK’s inauguration. The Congo has never had a popular democratic government since then.

The two operations at the end of the Dulles era, the one against Fidel Castro in Cuba and the one against Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, have a number of interesting aspects in common. One of the most interesting ones is that President Eisenhower — who fervently supported covert action, though nobody understood that at the time, of course — personally, though slightly indirectly, ordered not just those operations in Cuba and the Congo, but the assassination of those two leaders. So we have in the space of one summer Eisenhower ordering two assassinations, and as far as we know, no president had done that before. The way that Allen Dulles electrified Eisenhower and the National Security Council to galvanize them into action in the Congo was to say to them – Lumumba is going to become the African Castro… When Lumumba came to New York to the United Nations, he gave a number of press conferences and at one of them he was asked whether he feared for his life, and he said: “if I am killed, it will be because a foreigner has paid a Conglolese,” and that is exactly what happened!

Stephen Kinzer in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, November, 2013

JFK fired Allen Dulles for the Bay of Pigs fiasco and started cutting the CIA budgets sharply. After his death, Kennedy was quoted by intimates to the effect that he wanted “to splinter the CIA in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.” But of course Allen Dulles not only outlived Kennedy but got to have a strong voice on the Warren Commission that investigated Kennedy’s murder. Kinzer writes that Allen Dulles took the opportunity to coach the Warren Commmission staff on what questions to ask the CIA — and to coach the CIA on how to answer them. I’m asking Steve Kinzer if Allen Dulles — exiled from his agency, shamed by President Kennedy — shouldn’t be classified by 1963 as “rogue CIA,” and whether, when Robert F. Kennedy Jr. tells Charlie Rose that “rogue CIA” may have killed his uncle, Allen Dulles should not be on the list of suspects:

I find it a fascinating possibility. Nonetheless I’ve never seen any real evidence of it. So if there is ‘plausible deniability,’ it’s still in effect. Of course, ‘rogue CIA’ and Allen Dulles are not necessarily the same thing. If Allen Dulles was not involved, there could still be a rogue CIA. I mean, Richard Bissell was still involved in this project. We had a number of other figures, still very active, many of whom were very angry at Kennedy. I guess the pieces are out there, but I still have never seen anything that makes me seriously believe that the CIA could have been involved. That means either that they weren’t, or that they cover up things just as well as the CIA has sometimes been able to do.

Stephen Kinzer in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, November, 2013

Stephen Kinzer’s double biography of The Brothers is part of an epic series by now of Kinzer takes on All the Shah’s Men in Iran, on Overthrow as a habit in American foreign policy, on a Reset of US alliances that may be evolving in the Middle East. Check our several conversations with Steve Kinzer over the years — on the original sin of American policy in the Mideast, on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and on the changing balance of interests out there. And please add your responses in a comment here.

Podcast • October 5, 2013

James Douglass: JFK and the Unspeakable, Part Two

James Douglass is laying out a version of John F. Kennedy’s assassination that is sickening, in every way outrageous, but not exactly unfamiliar. In JFK and the Unspeakable Douglass makes it the story a plot ...


James Douglass
is laying out a version of John F. Kennedy’s assassination that is sickening, in every way outrageous, but not exactly unfamiliar. In JFK and the Unspeakable Douglass makes it the story a plot inside the national security apparatus and the Central Intelligence Agency to kill the president and stop his turn toward peace, toward ending the Cold War with the Soviet Union and exiting the war in Vietnam.

The very thought is appalling and should be unbelievable — of an anti-democratic insurrection that could go unacknowledged and unpunished in the United States for 50 years. But James Douglass is not alone in his suspicion. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., nephew of the president and son of his Attorney General, has called the Douglass version the best book on the subject. In a remarkably under-noticed public conversation in Dallas last January — hosted by Charlie Rose of PBS, but not broadcast — RFK Jr. recounted his father’s view that the Warren Commmission inquiry on JFK’s assassination “was a shoddy piece of craftsmanship.” Further, he said, the Kennedy family long ago rejected the official finding that Lee Harvey Oswald was the “lone assassin.” His father was “fairly convinced,” said RFK Jr., that others were involved. “Organized crime, Cubans?” Charlie Rose asked. “Or rogue CIA,” RFK Jr. answered.

In this second half of our long conversation James Douglass is recounting disparate voices — of a Trappist monk, a dissident film-maker, and JFK’s White House counsellor — that contributed to his reconstruction of the narrative. Douglass is building obviously on Oliver Stone’s film “JFK” (1991), both celebrated and pilloried, which made it the story, in effect, of a military coup. Is it fair, I ask Douglass, to think of his book as “Oliver Stone with Footnotes”? Not really, Douglass says. He is indebted to Stone for endorsing his work, but mainly for the film that prompted Congress to liberate a flood of evidence that Oliver Stone hadn’t seen when he made his movie.

Douglass seems to me over-correct or perhaps coy in protecting the confidence of the late Ted Sorensen, JFK’s alter-ego and wordsmith. Six months before Sorensen died three years ago, he initiated contacts with Douglass, “spoke supportively” of his book, and shared views of the assassination story that he did not want to voice in public. “Why not?” I ask. Because, Douglass says, the speechwriter credited with the noblest lines of Kennedy’s “peace speech” at American University in 1963, wanted to focus on Kennedy’s legacy, as if his murder five months later were not the centerpiece of our awful inheritance. We are still confounded by the silences in this saga.

Strange to say, the most memorable witness to the mystery of JFK in Jim Douglass’s telling is the monk and venerated author Thomas Merton, observing Kennedy from afar a year before the president was killed. In the remoteness of the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, Thomas Merton, two years older than the Catholic president, was watching Kennedy carefully and not without sympathy: “… he is, without doubt, in a position sometimes so impossible as to be absurd,” Merton wrote in 1962. But facing the “suicidal moral evil” of nuclear war, Merton measured Kennedy without great confidence either.

I think he cannot fully measure up to the magnitude of his task and lacks creative imagination and the deeper kind of sensivity that is needed. Too much the Time and Life mentality, than which I can imagine nothing further, in reality, from, say, Lincoln. What is needed is really not shrewdness or craft, but what politicians don’t have: depth, humanity and a certain totality of self forgetfulness and compassion, not just for individuals but for man as a whole: a deeper kind of dedication. Maybe Kennedy will break through into that someday by miracle. But such people are before long marked out for assassination.

Thomas Merton in a letter to his friend W. H. Ferry, quoted by James Douglass in JFK and the Unspeakable, p. 11.

Merton’s prophecy provides the framework of the Douglass narrative which I read and reread, and find inconclusive but compelling. Douglass is not casting John Kennedy for sainthood but he is telling the story as holy tragedy, in which JFK with enormous courage accepted a miracle knowing that the price might be his life.

Is there an under-50 reader or listener, I wonder, who feels with my generation that we’ve all been orphaned by our enforced ignorance around the crash of John Kennedy’s vision?

Podcast • July 1, 2013

Qais Akbar Omar: What We Owe the Afghans

Qais Akbar Omar might persuade you that “poetry is the essence of Afghanistan,” and that story telling is still the soul of the place. He is giving us a young Afghan writer’s impressions of boyhood ...
Qais Akbar Omar's view of the Bamyan plain in Central Afghanistan, from one of the caves behind the ancient Buddha statutes.  The author and his family took refuge here for a couple of months in 2006, in flight from the fighting in Kabul.

Qais Akbar Omar’s view of the Bamyan plain in Central Afghanistan, from one of the caves behind the ancient Buddha statutes. The author and his family took refuge here for a couple of months in 1993 When he went back and took this photo in 2006, the Buddhas were gone.

qais omar akbar

Qais Akbar Omar might persuade you that “poetry is the essence of Afghanistan,” and that story telling is still the soul of the place. He is giving us a young Afghan writer’s impressions of boyhood in Heaven and a civil war in Hell. In the most exciting days of his life, we’re sharing his idyllic view of the Bamyan valley from the eyes of the giant Buddha statues, before the Taliban blew them up. Then come the breakdown years of holy gangsterism and grotesque cruelty. Alongside young Qais, we’re staring down mad dogs who mean to tear him apart — and a man, believe it or not, making ready to bite him to death.

Qais Akbar Omar was studying business at Brandeis University when we started our conversations a year ago. Since then he has entered Leslie Epstein’s graduate program in novel writing at Boston University. Rug making is the link, as it also underlies the “strategic patience” he is recommending to Americans in the world. His grandfather was a rug trader, but young Qais was the first in his line to learn the rug-maker’s knots. When he started writing his personal history, he started noticing “how words are like knots in a carpet. One connects to the next until several make a thought, the way knots make a pattern.” He speaks now of this first book, A Fort of Nine Towers, as “the most complex and difficult carpet I have ever woven.” Of the post-American Afghanistan emerging, he says: “I know it will take a long time. I am a carpet weaver. I know how, slowly, one knot follows another until a pattern appears.”

In all his adventures and in his cathartic recounting of horrific fear, pain and loss, Qais has absorbed and adopted the stoic voice of his beloved grandfather. Old man and teenager are held together at one point in a ditch filled with dead bodies, under a sign promising “you will not walk out alive.” His grandfather tells Qais to write an answer in charcoal on their cell wall: “Death only breaks the cage, but it does not hurt the bird.”

There’s a challenge in this tempered memoir of a people, a culture and a U.S. warzone we barely got to know: “I have long carried this load of griefs in the cage of my heart,” Qais writes. “Now I have given them to you. I hope you are strong enough to hold them.” For American readers the particular challenge, as I take it, is to look inward at the presumption and folly of our faraway military interventions. In this case: our appropriation of Afghanistan as a key battlefield of the Cold War.

Of the Americans’ long half-trillion-dollar engagement, direct and covert, for 30 years (his own lifetime) Qais Akbar Omar writes scathingly: “We are waiting to see what they will build, besides their military bases.” What Americans have not helped Afghans build is sewers, a electrical grid or clean-water systems. What we have not learned is the double lesson dealt to Alexander the Great in the 4th Century B.C.: that the Pushtun tribesmen of the Central Asian mountains are not to be dominated by outsiders; and that they have their own venerable shuras and the loya jirga, or grand council, for managing their many differences.

“One thing Afghans talk about,” Omar is saying, “is that Europeans and Americans owe Afghanistan this much — to bring peace to this country for defeating the Soviets and ending the Cold War.”

The way it works in Afghanistan is that with the local shura or jirga you invite the head of the town or the heads of each tribe and you sit together in a big mosque. Whether it takes one day or one month you talk about things and you come to solutions, and go on to the next thing… Militarily you fight with them for centuries. And they fight back. Afghanistan is 75 percent mountain, and every Afghan who fights back believes he is a child of the mountain. How do you fight the mountain and its children? It just doesn’t work that way. The best way is the tradition of the jirga or shura. Where is the problem? Where is the solution everyone benefits from? And then let’s go for that.

Qais Akbar Omar in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, June 2013.

Podcast • October 7, 2012

Pankaj Mishra: Briefing our “Foreign Policy” Debate

“What a disaster! What an affliction! What kind of a situation is this? …England has occupied Egypt, the Sudan, and the great Indian Peninsula which are large parts of the Islamic states; the French have ...

“What a disaster! What an affliction! What kind of a situation is this? …England has occupied Egypt, the Sudan, and the great Indian Peninsula which are large parts of the Islamic states; the French have taken possession of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria; the Netherlands have become a despotic ruler of Java and the Oceanic islands; Russia has captured West Turkistan… What is the cause of this measureless decline? … God protect us! What should be done then? … except to say that ‘God changes not what is in a people, until they change what is in themselves.'”

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, (1838 – 97), itinerant writer and activist, perhaps a British spy, but remembered as “the father of Islamic modernism” and also “the man who first raised the voice of awareness in the dormant East.”


Pankaj Mishra
is sounding a wake-up call about “angry Asia” — from an alarm clock that, he’ll tell you, has been ringing for more than a century. He’s made it a story for today on the conviction that de-colonization is still the world’s pre-occupying project: to regain dignity that non-Westerners remember enjoying before the Europeans came. From the Ruins of Empire is Pankaj Mishra’s re-introduction of “The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” the god-parents of Gandhi, Ho Chi Minh and Nasser. No less an icon on the East-West bridge than Nobel-laureate Orham Pamauk testifies that Pankaj Mishra is giving us “modern history as it has been felt by the majority of the world’s population from Turkey to China.”

Are we ready for this? Not the least of the story is why American ears generally tune it out. But Mishra has addressed his polemical history sharply to us and our 2012 moment. You can read From the Ruins of Empire as a riposte, a decade later, to Mishra’s bête noire Niall Ferguson, the Scots’ historian and self-styled captain of the “neo-imperialist gang,” who argued on the eve of the Iraq War that it was the Americans’ turn to take up the “white man’s burden” and rule the world.

Since then, Mishra writes, “the spell of Western power has finally been broken” — by the abandonment of a smashed Iraq and the US-NATO retreat from Afghanistan, also of course by the global finance bust. But the argument is still out there in our presidential race, between Mitt Romney, of No Apology, and Barack Obama, of the faint-hearted gestures of friendship with the Muslim world and the Arab Spring. Mishra’s issues are urgently in the news, moreover, when President Morsi of Egypt, the first national chief from the long-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood, tells the New York Times that it’s time for new terms in an American relationship that was “essentially purchased” over the years — at a price of “the dislike, if not hatred, of the peoples of the region.”

What’s called the “Arab Spring” of 2011 and now “the Arab revolution” looks to Pankaj Mishra like a piece from an old pattern, “a form of delayed de-colonization where people who were denied sovereignty and self-determination have now finally broken through and ended this unnaturally prolonged Western domination over their countries… ” He sees big risks and maybe bad collisions ahead. In the long history of empires, he observes, there are few graceful exits.

I think American loans to a country like Egypt, which were predicated on Egypt being a loyal and pliant ally in the region and essentially signing off on most of what Israel does, for instance, in that part of the world, and keeping Gaza more or less an open prison — those kinds of long-term commitments made to Egypt are now going to collide with the Egyptian search for dignity in that region and Egypt’s search for an older leadership role in the region…

“So I think all of these previous alliances with the United Statres and various deals will now be under pressure from these new promises and commitments the Egyptian leadership to accommodate the aspirations and longings of its own people. Morsi was very clear about this in the interview he gave the New York Times just now. ‘The people are paramount’ — wasn’t it fascinating? He was very blunt. ‘We cannot simply do what the United States tells us to do. We are now accountable to the people.’ And the people — he was too polite to say — are deeply distrustful of the United States for its role in the country’s politics. Until the very last moment, Hillary Clinton was claiming Mubarak as a family friend; people in Egypt don’t forget this, and they haven’t forgotten the way the Mubaraks were being propped up and their brutality was being justified by successive American administrations. So much of what was being projected as American soft power and American military power has lost its potency in that part of the world. One has to remember that so much of the decline of that soft power has also coincided with the emergence of different kinds of Arab media, whether it’s Al Jazeera or satellite television or televangelism, which is a huge phenomenon in large parts of the Arab world. So they have their own sources of moral and cultural authority, and the shaping of political imaginations that happens in those cutures is a process over which the American media have no control whatsoever.”

Pankaj Mishra with Chris Lydon, October 1, 2012

“This is not at all,” as Pankra Mishrea notes, “the way Americans or Western Europeans have seen the same history. We do inhabit different universes altogether.”

Podcast • April 24, 2012

Andrew Bacevich: Here’s who Lost the American Century!

Andrew Bacevich is marking The Short American Century as the span of less than 70 years between Henry Luce’s momentous 1941 essay in LIFE magazine and the decay of our Iraq War and the Wall ...

Andrew Bacevich is marking The Short American Century as the span of less than 70 years between Henry Luce’s momentous 1941 essay in LIFE magazine and the decay of our Iraq War and the Wall Street meltdown of 2008. I take it personally, still with a pang — seeing the American glory days of my boyhood through rose-tinted glasses, Bacevich tells me. But I might also date our downfall much earlier than Bacevich does — in 1971, one could argue, the year when the cosmopolitan giant of our journalism Walter Lippmann, stricken by the heedless slaughter in Vietnam, declared: “I am a neo-isolationist and proud of it.”

I’ve always told my kids that the American Century could be summed up on two fingers: (1) the timely and decisive — late! — entry of US fighting forces into the European War; and (2) the sound of Count Basie’s band. You can still hear in the Basie recordings: the rhythm of our industrial production, the cultural glory of the great black migration out of the South, not to mention the transnational chic of Basie’s big hit in 1955, “April in Paris,” written by the Russian-American Vernon Duke, born Vladimir Dukelsky. Now there was American power! What happened?

If the erosion of “social democracy” is the great lament of Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land, which prompted this series of conversations, it’s the want of “pragmatic realism” in American foreign policy that binds the eight striking essays Andrew Bacevich has gathered into The Short American Century. Jackson Lears contributes the definition of pragmatic realism, from William James, as the tradition that, “at its best, counseled war only as the last resort — the least desirable alternative in the policy maker’s arsenal.” Others recount the decline of our postwar multi-lateralism — remember the Marshall Plan, the creation of the United Nations and NATO — and the eclipse, especially under George W. Bush, of Jefferson’s “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” And meantime our Empire of Production became an Empire of Consumption, then of trillion-dollar deficits, an Empire of Debt.

Andrew Bacevich likes to describe himself as a conservative Catholic from the Midwest. He is a West Pointer who served in Vietnam and the first Gulf War. Long before his son and namesake was killed in action in the Iraq War, Bacevich had taken his history Ph.D. at Princeton and embarked on a series of studies of The Limits of Power and American Militarism — of the arrogance of empire, in the spirit of Reinhold Niebuhr. In the spirit of the “Who lost China?” nagging in the McCarthy era, I am asking him simply: “Who lost our Century?”

I’d probably nominate the post-Cold War presidents as a group — for the remilitarization of American foreign policy. Reagan’s role, of course, is to revise the image of the American military and the American soldier — in a sense to banish the negative image from Vietnam. George Herbert Walker Bush’s contribution was to inaugurate a new era of interventionism — in Panama certainly, in the first Persian Gulf War, but also not to be forgotten, in Somalia — his going-away gift to the nation. But I would very much then include Bill Clinton in my list of villains, because it is really during the Clinton era — this draft-dodger of the Vietnam era who seemed to represent the inverse of the militarist. But it’s Bill Clinton who becomes more promiscuous in his use of American military power than any preceding American president: upping the ante in Somalia; intervention in Haiti, intervention in Bosnia, intervention in Kosovo, any number of dust-ups with Saddam Hussein… That’s the circumstance that George W. Bush inherits, and I certainly don’t want to let him off the hook. But to understand the hubris of George W. Bush’s vision of a “global war on terror” that is going to liberate the Islamic world — that vision is rooted in expectations about the efficacy of military power that grew out of the Clinton years and the years when his father was president. So all these people, I think, should plead guilty to the charge of abusing and misusing American military power and accelerating the end of the American Century…

The pattern continues. The expectation of the people who voted for Obama — and that certainly includes me — was that his ascendance would mark a break in the trajectory of ever-increasing emphasis on military power to try to sustain what remains of the American Century. And he has been a major disappointment. Now he would say: hey, I promised to end the Iraq War, and I ended it. I would respond: Yes, Mr. President, but in addition you both expanded and prolonged the Aghanistan war; you extended the Afghan war into Pakistan. You opened up new fronts in this supposed global war on terror — in Yemen, in Somalia. A couple of weeks ago there was a drone strike in the Philippines…

That hard experience and candor haven’t made it to the presidential campaign where, as Jackson Lears writes, “The vision of the American Century persists, even as its economic basis crumbles.” To Andrew Bacevich, we look like a chicken just after it’s lost its head.

We are running around the world using hard power in questionable circumstances, yielding ambiguous results. And meanwhile here at home we’ve had five years, is it, of trillion-dollar deficits. The American Century is running on fumes at this point.

Andrew Bacevich with Chris Lydon in Boston, April 20, 2012

Next round: Daron Acemoglu of MIT and Why Nations Fail on the political structure of inequality.

Podcast • April 3, 2012

Daisy Rockwell and the Iconography of Terror

Daisy Rockwell is making sport with the icons of terror, rattling the cage of images we’re in. She’s a painter who tweets — who’s becoming famous and controversial for her artful irreverence online and her ...

Daisy Rockwell is making sport with the icons of terror, rattling the cage of images we’re in. She’s a painter who tweets — who’s becoming famous and controversial for her artful irreverence online and her written commentary in The Little Book of Terror. In her studio in Lebanon, New Hampshire, I’m looking and listening and feeling, finally — Bravo! Shame on us if we can’t take the joke.

Daisy Rockwell is a portraitist whose subjects are dead, generally remembered for mug-shot images. One of her takes on Saddam Hussein is a painter’s improvisation on a news photo of the late Iraqi dictator in the hands of American dentists. “He wasn’t actually wearing that clownish nightgown; I just put that in there. But the rest of it is truthful,” she says, reconsidering “a masterful piece of propaganda” in the original that said: we’re giving him the best dental care in the world! with the coded message that we’re torturing him. He’s getting a root canal, she supposes, “with a little too little anesthesia.”

Her painting of Osama Bin Laden’s death mask draws on her fascination with the gruesome beauty of medieval Italian paintings — of crucifixions and beheadings. “I was interested in the idea that pictures of people in death are seen differently depending on who’s looking: to some people it might be triumphant blood lust, to others it’s a scene of martyrdom.” Daisy Rockwell’s last glimpse of OBL suggests a Russian icon — if not of a saint, perhaps of a wan old man waving a helpless goodbye at a killer force of US Navy Seals who will riddle him with bullets and dump him in the sea. It’s a commentary on overkill.

For many Americans it has taken the horror story of Army Sergeant Robert Bales in Afghanistan last month to focus the point that we ask such different questions about “our” killing sprees and “theirs.” When one of our own (“Our Bobby” back in hometown Ohio) runs amok and wastes 16 unarmed Afghan villagers, our serious media show us his high-school yearbook and query whether a good soldier was unhinged by drink or grief or too many tours of duty, or “just snapped.” A raggedy-bearded Muslim terrorist, or suspect, can be classified by his picture alone as a religious maniac, a hater, a personification of evil. Daisy Rockwell’s modest project is to apply concentrated curiosity, imagination and a certain bleak humor to every face she studies. “I look as hard as I can at somebody. I have to get to know them. My research findings are the painting. What you see is what I got out of it.”

In the sometimes fierce reactions to her work, it’s is part of the story that Daisy inherited both her name and a gift for iconic imagery from her grandfather. Norman Rockwell is remembered for enshrining mid-century American contentment and small-town goodness in the brilliant anecdotes he painted on the covers of the Saturday Evening Post. Daisy is dug in against the grain of a different era, maybe a different country. Looking at her story-telling brushwork, I feel both continuity and defiance. But then Daisy suggests with a laugh that we knew all along that Norman Rockwell — the man his analyst Erik Erikson said “painted his happiness, but did not live it” — was not quite as simple as the stories he told.

There’s more continuity than even I would originally have thought. I paint portraits. I’m interested in the Zeitgeist — that kind of thing… Norman Rockwell is hugely symbolic in American culture. His name is an adjective. People say: ‘oh, they have such a Norman Rockwell family.’ In fact I was in the locker room of the gym shortly after Christmas and I heard a woman say: ‘Every year I invite my family over the holidays and I expect Norman Rockwell’s family. But instead they come.’ And then she said on second thought as she walked away, ‘but then I expect his family was just as bad.’ … I’m not being a disloyal grandchild by painting terrorists. I’m just looking at the imagery we’re being presented and questioning it.

Daisy Rockwell with Chris Lydon in Lebanon, New Hampshire. March 26, 2012

Norman Rockwell’s Post cover ‘Freedom from Fear’ 1943