America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East

This review was first published at the New York Journal of Books.

Reviewed by: Erin Solaro

“. . . deep flaws of omission . . .”

With minor exceptions, most of America’s post-Vietnam interventions have been on behalf of Muslims, usually Muslim Arabs, often in an attempt to save them from themselves or the consequences of their actions. (Incidentally, although the Yom Kippur War is beyond the scope of this book, American support for Israel then probably prevented a catastrophe in the Arab world far beyond that of the Mongol invasions. Adjusted for population, Israeli losses during Yom Kippur were the equivalent of America suffering all its Vietname casualties within a week. Facing defeat and extermination, Israel would have taken the Arab world down with them: The mind quails at the thought of what a nuclear strike on the Aswan Dam would have done to Egypt.) Understandably, they have not been grateful.

Unfortunately, this important, engaging, and readable book also provides an inadequate explanation of the roots of this misguided foreign policy. It is the central thesis of Wilford’s book that, “The story of CIA involvement in the Arab world during the early years of the Cold War is therefore, in part at least, one of an internal struggle between two contradictory influences: the British imperial legacy and the American missionary tradition. If the latter, more moralistic, idealistic impulse shaped the Agency’s earlier operations, it was the former—comparatively pragmatic, realistic, even cynical—that eventually came to dominate, with the Iran coup acting as a sort of tipping point.”

America’s relationship with the Middle East, both in the longer term beyond the scope of Dr. Wilford’s book, and in the larger scope of the Cold War, calls the accuracy of this thesis into doubt. There are several possible approaches to the history of American involvement in the Middle East. Dr. Wilford has chosen the entirely legitimate device of a biographical approach. But there is a limit to what you can leave out.

America’s Great Game is biographically centered upon a trio of romantic adventurers. Two were cousins, Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt Jr. and Archie Roosevelt Jr., both grandsons of President Theodore Roosevelt, both of whom sought to make their own contributions to the family name. The third was an outsider to American elite society, Miles Copeland, a CIA officer who claims to have been a talented amateur musician, claims that must be viewed with some skepticism given his willingness to take liberties with the truth, whether for personal or operational reasons—although he is in fact the father of distinguished musician Stewart Copeland.

Although these men were different individuals, each also saw himself as playing a later-day Great Game, this one a contest between Americans, rather than British, and the Soviets, rather than Russians, for control of strategic resources. Rudyard Kipling, the British poet laureate and bard of the British Empire, was a Roosevelt family friend; Kermit Jr. chose his name Kim from Kipling’s novel of the same name. Indeed, as a child, Kim had regaled his tutor with stories about his childhood in Lahore, India—stories that were lifted from Kim.

And while America had a long history of religiously-inspired, humane benevolence in the Middle East, all three men would share in what would become the credo of mid-century America: that we were an exceptional nation, entitled to meddle in other nations’ politics and future.

It is not far-fetched to suspect that the tradition of muscular, generally Protestant, Christianity in which all these men were, to varying degrees, raised influenced their transitions from idealism to cynicism, sympathy with Arab nationalism to manipulation of Arabs and Persians—although of course the manipulation went the other way as well. Cynicism and idealism are not mutually exclusive, especially in the context of an overwhelming geopolitical reality of the early post-World War Two era.

That overwhelming reality was the Cold War and a sense of its importance is largely missing from America’s Great Game. Referring to Kim Roosevelt’s own concerns of creating an Occidental-Oriental hostility in his 1949 book Arabs, Oil and History Wilford asks, “Just what was Kim Roosevelt thinking when he carried out the Iran coup operation of August 19, 1953?” an operation that looms large in the relationship of the Middle East to America.

He goes on to answer, “Yet [his writings do not convey] the sense of intense, ideological anticommunism detectable in statements by other US Middle East hands from the early Cold War. . . . Other factors, of a cultural and psychological rather than political nature, seem to have been more important in shaping Kim’s behavior toward Iran.”

The fact is that no matter what length you write at, you can’t say everything. But this is a profound flaw in America’s Great Game that could have been resolved by several pages of explication about the Cold War.

Wilford is correct that cultural and psychological factors led members of America’s elite, such Kim Roosevelt, to believe that they could replace the old Anglo-French colonial regimes in the Middle East—first with something new, and then with something that would bear more than a passing resemblance to those old regimes.

All imperial powers, and the United States is one such (in that it takes it upon itself to intervene in the affairs of other nations) have elites that think they should rule over their inferiors; however, US foreign policy was shaped by the reality of the Cold War between itself and the Soviet Union, which was often expansionist and had been quite genuinely and terribly evil. CIA officers like Kim Roosevelt dreaded being asked questions like, “Who lost Iran?”

This was not simply because they feared malevolent clowns like Senator McCarthy, briefly mentioned in this book—although not for his chief accomplishment of giving responsible, adult anti-Communism a bad name—but because they felt a genuine, if muscularly Christian and thus culture-bound, sense of responsibility for the world and its civilizations.

A similar failure of omission attends to Wilford’s handling of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is a minor but important subtheme of this book. His attempts to distinguish anti-Semitism from anti-Zionism in the aftermath of the Holocaust are specious, given that he notes US journalist Dorothy Thompson’s objections to Jewish “acts of terrorism against the British [and] harsh treatment of Palestinian Arabs.”

Wilford writes sympathetically of Arab nationalism—even though Arab nationalists also attacked British troops—and never mentions the wave of expulsions of hundreds of thousands of Arab Jews from Muslim countries. Indeed, the modern Arab world’s fixation on Israel as a distraction from the failure of its elites to create a workable future has done nothing to create an independent Palestine, only further distracted Arabs and their elites from creating workable societies.

These deep flaws of omission leave the reader with the distasteful sense that Professor Wilford wishes he, too, had been a player America’s Great Game. Such emotions on the part of an author are entirely natural, even normal. But when the author does not understand them, acknowledge them, and control them, they can also deeply flaw the work as part of the quest for historical understanding writ large. And so it is here.

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Citizen-based Immigration Reform

America is once again tying itself in knots about immigration reform. In truth, it’s not a difficult problem if you really want to end the practice of importing people while recognizing that their only crime has been to believe in the American dream while being exploited themselves.

Because surplus labor benefits capital.

That’s why America (and many countries) have the immigration problem they do. Both legal and illegal immigrants have little job security and can be exploited by their employers. And the corporations like it that way.

I’ve published an excellent essay on how to resolve the immigration problem—if in fact Americans object to having nearly 10% of the work force in this exploitable position—without creating an endless pool of immigrants.

The title is #Fixing Immigration.

Why I Knit: Part 2

There’s a bumper sticker that says, I knit so I don’t kill people. A more genteel way to put it is, I knit to stay sane. (For knitting, as always, you may substitute any craft you practice, particularly to mastery.)

I once attended a knit night at a yarn shop and asked if there was a connection between knitting and sanity or at least the act of imposing a rational order upon an incoherent mind, and a woman wearing a beautiful sweater (her work, of course), told me, “I think every one of us has a strong streak of the obsessive-compulsive.”


I don’t have obsessive-compulsive disorder, but I do have a streak of both obsessions and compulsions and I found myself deliberately using knitting to satisfy that streak. When I feel the need to do something over and over again, I pick up my knitting. When I feel my attention wandering from my writing, I pick up my knitting to refocus my mind. The necessity I feel to do things right, perfect, has led to me making garments that look right and fit me well. Something that could have been very damaging to me, especially during very difficult times, has now become a useful skill, a source of beauty and satisfaction.

I am not suggesting that dealing with mental illness is so easy, it’s not: when the organ that is causing the problems is also the organ responsible for resolving those problems, it can be horrendously difficult. People with OCD, for example, often recognize their behaviors and thoughts as irrational and are extremely distressed by them. That does not mean that they can control their obsessions and compulsions, much less expunge them.

Yet much therapy for mental illness involves sufferers learning to change and control their thoughts and emotions, to strengthen their intellects so that they can master the weird and self-destructive thoughts and emotions we all have. This is because most of what is called mental illness is not a genuine illness deeply rooted in brain chemistry and physiology, such as schizophrenia, for whom medication can be a lifeline. Psychoactive medication can also be extremely helpful in stabilizing a person’s emotions so that they can function—and even live. However, much of mental illness, particularly depression, is not an organic problem, per se. It is a problem of living.

The Centers for Disease Control estimate that 1 in 10 American adults suffers from depression, with a higher incidence of major depression in those who are

  • persons 45-64 years of age
  • women
  • blacks, Hispanics, non-Hispanic persons of other races or multiple races
  • persons with less than a high school education
  • those previously married
  • individuals unable to work or unemployed
  • persons without health insurance coverage

We may be sure that underrepresented in those suffering from major depression are people with a secure and stable life with interesting satisfying work that they know will not vanish when a corporate board somewhere decides that profits—to be swallowed up in the CEO’s salary—are more important than the human beings all profits depend upon. We may be sure that those underrepresented amongst those suffering from major depression are not those who experience racism and not those who experience sexual violence, for which they are also belittled and blamed. The suicides of people like James Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense—who was in fact emotionally shattered when President Truman asked for his resignation when it became clear that Forrestal was suffering severe depression caused by the operational fatigue known to be quite common during World War Two—are actually rather rare. Forrestal had the friends and the means to continue to lead a life of extraordinary accomplishment and satisfaction. He apparently lost a long-term battle with his demons and could no longer bear to live with them. This does not apply to the rise in suicide rates that does with recession and economic hardship, the suffering caused by austerity: these suicides are the refusal of human beings to live in the degradation that deemed their lot by the greedy and the cruel.

Freud famously described depression as anger turned inward and it is: the anger of being required to live far too small a life, the anger of feeling your society doesn’t need your energy, your talent, even your spending power, much less for you to live a complete life in which you contribute to your society. Depression is turning inward the absolutely justified anger of our society wanting us to be so much less than we could and should be. And depression is also shame for the state to which we have been reduced. And while there appears to be a strong genetic component to obsessive compulsion and OCD itself, these behaviors are also a horribly perverse, destructive twisting of the human need to control our lives.

Indeed, the misslabelling of tens of millions of Americans as mentally ill when their behavior is an absolutely reasonable response to the conditions under which we are forced to live is reminiscent of Soviet-era psychiatric abuse of dissidents. The singular difference is that dissidents were arrested and forcibly confined and forcibly drugged and otherwise tortured by the KGB. Of course, conditioning help upon ingestion of psychoactive drugs is coercive in itself, and some segments of society, most notably the military, use mental illness to stigmatize, marginalize and eliminate from professional and human consideration, those who are crime victims, particularly sex crime victims. Generally speaking, however, Americans are so unwilling to engage the socio-economic—which is to say the political—roots of much of what they are told is their private, personal mental illness that they accept these definitions. We have been told for so long that America is Number One, the freest and best place in the world to live, and any change in the status quo will put us on a fast track to Soviet-style economic totalitarianism that many of us, especially those terrified of losing what little they have, still believe it. While many more Americans are starting to realize this is a big, fat lie, many of us have lost our ability to create serious, alternative political movements and socio-economic standards: we comfort ourselves with drugs and alcohol, porn and learned helplessness.

Knitting—or any other craft practiced to mastery—is not a cure, per se, for America’s profound social and economic problems and the willful failure of our politics to create a workable future. Knitting, like other crafts practiced to mastery, is, however, a means to that end, just like psychoactive drugs when used appropriately under careful supervision, save people’s lives and help them function while they do the hard work of reasserting control over their own thoughts. It is a means to an end. However, knitting does something no psychoactive drug can do.

At the end of a project, you have something worthy of you. When you produce something beautiful, whether it is an intricate shawl or the simplest pullover, carefully fitted and finished, you are making a statement of your own worth. For the masters of the universe who currently rule us, virtually all of them sociopaths who cannot stop gorging themselves while others go hungry, their net worth is their money. And so they display it by buying and wearing things they do not have the slightest understanding of how to actually make: yachts and bespoke suits, watches whose movements are feats of aesthetic engineering.

For the knitter, too, to wear her work is also to display her net worth. Every well-executed, well-made garment or accessory represents intellect and perseverance and aesthetic sensibilities, as well as—often—the taming of demons in the service of creation.

As for all those who say, this thing is too beautiful for a hefalump like me to wear (a sentiment that is shockingly common), I can only say, Big Food wants you to be fat just as Big Pharma wants you to be drugged. It is time to apply your intellect and rationality, your sense of aesthetics and your discipline—all abundantly displayed in your work—to your body. You deserve to wear with pride your beautiful work, to display it appropriately.

This is not sufficient for a political movement, but being proud of our work, and the minds and bodies that created our work, is a necessary place to start. Until we conceive of ourselves as deserving a politics worthy of us, we cannot begin to create those politics.

Why I Knit, Part 1

In lieu of a coarser term, I knit to anger persons.

By which I do not mean, I knit to annoy real human beings with the click-click-click of my needles. (They don’t click.) Or with the movements of my arms: as a “production” and public-transport knitter, I have taught myself to knit with minimal motion, and if the movements of my fingers and forearm muscles annoy people, that’s their problem. They can play with their smartphones. Nor do I mean that I knit to annoy real human beings by bragging about what I produce, although I love to reply to those who ask me where I bought my top, I made it. (Then there are those who recognize the absolutely outrageous quality of a good hand knit and confront me: You made this! What yarn? What pattern? What needles? What is the gauge, or stitches per centimeter or inch?)

No, I knit to anger the corporations known as persons, who have flooded the world with so much cheap junk we are drowning in it, be it junk food or junk clothing. I knit to make my own clothing (this is what I mean by being a “production knitter”, rather than a real production knitter) because the results are so much better than anything I can buy. My choice of pattern, my choice of colors and material, my measurements, for well under $100 for most garments—for materials. As for the cost of my time, let us just say knitting is entertainment and a channel for OCD as well. Is it cost effective? Not if my competition is Wal-Mart or Target or H&M. In fact, however, I compare my work to Chanel, Dior, Hermes, and Big Pharma. Compared to their prices, my work is incredibly cost-effective. I am, after all, uninterested in producing the cheap and the disposable; I am interested in producing the beautiful and durable.

I knit to also, as I alluded to in the previous paragraph, make a political statement. I knit to deny the persons who are actually corporations producing junk, my money. I knit to deny them legitimacy. I knit to say not only, I can do better, but, What do I need you for? I knit to prove to my fellow citizens that we do not need junk.

If every one of us decided to make just some our own clothing, if every man and woman alike—for I am not saying women should do unpaid labor as family knitters and tailors; in fact, I am saying the opposite—made just one beautiful garment each season, what would happen to the corporations that get rich by selling us the cheap and quickly outmoded? What would happen if a man who wanted a sweater decided that he wasn’t going to buy a fleece thing that pilled and looked shabby and instead decided to knit Ronaldsay out of a good, hard, durable wool? This is would be a fun knit: just difficult enough to be interesting, and the wow-to-effort factor is incredible. It wouldn’t take more than a few hours to learn to make, in fact, if you joined a helpful knitting group of enablers and addicts. Cast-on, bind-off, knit, purl, left and right cable crosses (it looks like 8-stitch cables) every few rows. That’s it. Well, you do need to count. Maximilian, Jade Starmore’s rather Landsknecht-y pullover, is also seriously covetable and far easier than it looks. I plan to make that for me.

What happened if we all did this? What happened if each of us chose to master an important craft: sewing, gardening, butchery, preserving, carpentry, pottery, cooking, metalwork?

We would each produce some of the things we need and use every day. If we bought some or all the materials we used from our communities, particularly from local merchants and manufacturers, we would keep our money circulating within our communities. We would also be able to better evaluate so much of what we are sold at places like Wal-Mart and the Gap, Macy’s and Target as what it actually is. Junk, produced at a terrible cost in human lives and dignity, be it of those exploited even unto death, of the unemployed and underemployed here in America and every other country where corporations and their profits are regarded as more important than human beings—including the human beings without whom no corporation can exist, much less be profitable.

Below is approximately a year’s production: I pulled stuff out of my closet, placed it on a white sheet and photographed it. I did not have the time to steam everything, the more so because it will just be folded back up and need to be steamed the next time I wear it.


Annie Modessit’s Corset Top, knit from a blend of cotton, cashmere, wool and viscose. I ought to wear it more often than I do—it is all that. I’ve never been able to photograph this properly; there is a certain sheen to the yarn that I think may not help.

I call this a Klingon Battle Dress Tunic; it’s actually a Vogue Knitting pattern knit from Schaeffer’s Susan, a sport-weight cotton in the colorway Althea Gibson. Handpainted yarns can pool in ways that are dreadful (known as Clown Barf) or delightful. I really ought to edge the arms with crochet; I love to wear this over a tank top and tight trousers or jeans.

This is a free Pierrot pattern knit from a blend of acrylic and cotton. I’ve decided that I really rather dislike soft yarns, like this one, because they pill too much. I’ll probably reknit this out of silk. I love to wear this over a particular green tank top and some really ugly cargo shorts.

A Jade Starmore pattern, Elizabeth the First; I ended up altering the off-the-shoulder neckline to something squarer and more in keeping with contemporary fashions. It’s knit from 50/50 silk/cashmere, which is soft but not that pilly.

These are my first pair of socks and my introduction to Noro, which I hate because of the knots. It’s an arch-shaped pattern that I had to alter to get right the heels, and my feet love because I have high arches; if you don’t, your feet probably won’t. I think there are more hand-knitted socks in my future.

I just finished this homage to Lilly Pulitzer. The pattern is Helga Isager’s Coral, and the body is 50/50 silk/linen; the accent is some nameless handpainted merino cashmere that I have about 40 g of scrap left. It’s a beautiful yarn that pills madly; for that matter, the silk/linen is more hairy than I like, but for a summer top, I can accept it. I thought this would be a tank top; it’s a mid-thigh tunic that I wear over loose culottes because it is very body conscious.

This is Carol Sunday’s Tapestry, modified to be a pullover rather than a cardigan. I knit in the round to the armholes and almost finished the back when my math went wrong, so I set it aside to do my summer knitting. The yarn was a really ugly flesh-colored, 50/50 silk/wool that I bought for $10/pound and overdyed a saffron red that is much deeper and browner than the picture shows.

Missing is a shawl, called Echoflowers, in a lovely orchid mercerized cotton and frosted iridescent amber glass beads that I gave to a friend before I thought to photograph it. Also on my needles is another Vogue pattern in a deep, dirty gold silk that is ribbed lace and cables. For details, I’m Warmare on Ravelry.


Bloodlands: What Happens When Nations Go Mad

I have been pondering the fate of Someone Else’s War—I believe it will be part of a trilogy—and so not posting further chapters while I sort out my thoughts. Instead, I decided to read a book I have wanted to, if you can apply “long wanted to read” about Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. I told my husband this and he replied, “Maybe it’s time we got a TV?”

Bloodlands is a history of political mass killing, often but far from always along ethnic lines, in what we now call Eastern Europe, particularly in Ukraine, between 1933-1945. Like any book on a comparable subject, Bloodlands is very tough to read if you have any human feelings at all. It is also a superb work of revisionist history, revising the historical record to take into account what we now know about the killings in Eastern Europe with the collapse of Communism. Finally, the language is extremely accessible.

But there is another reason Bloodlands is an important book that should be far more widely read in American than it is. Bloodlands shows what happens when entire nations go bonkers—as America is doing now, and I write this without once pretending that America is in anything close to the situation of Germany in 1932 or Russia or the Soviet Union in 1924, when Lenin died. The parallels are very far from exact.

America has gone bonkers before, although we usually do it overseas. The last time we really went full-scale, all-out bonkers on our own soil was our Civil War, and the savagery and cruelty of that conflict is something Americans have never really come to grips with. Revised estimates of its toll, from the traditional 620,000 deaths, range from 650,000 to 850,000; 750,000 is now an accepted central figure, out of a pre-war population of 31.4 million. The revised estimate may still be too low: Francis Amisa Walker, superintendent of the 1870 census, estimated male deaths as not lower than 850,000. In modern American terms, those 750,000 deaths approximately equate to 7 million male deaths in 4 years; in the terms of Soviet Russia in 1932, about 2.4 million deaths. (Table “Before WWII.”) This dwarfs the approximately 700,000 Soviets, particularly Poles and Ukrainians, shot during the Great Terror of 1937-38 and is more than 70% of the 3.3 million Soviets, mostly Ukrainians, starved in the Collectivization campaign of the Soviet Union of 1932-33. (Figures are Snyder, in “Numbers and Terms.”)

Moreover, the numbers citied for the American Civil War do not include the appalling suffering of African-Americans after the Civil War, suffering that was a direct consequence of slavery. It should also be remembered that Communism, including Stalinism, was a demented attempt to create a workable future for Russia because its Tsarist past was largely garbage. The cause of the American Civil War was the South’s insistence that some human beings be allowed to own other human beings. Yet our understanding of our Civil War is sanitized nearly beyond recognition: we have never really come to terms with the war in the West, the appalling suffering of newly-freed slaves and the near-immediate campaign of Southern whites to reimpose conditions on African-Americans that might best be described as serfdom. Some states still have the Confederate stars and bars, a banner of treason in an evil cause, as part of their state flag and “heritage.” Without mentioning three hundred years of Indian wars, or the horrendous destruction we let loose upon Southeast Asia, we have turned America’s episodes of madness into entertainment and psychobabble.

While there has been some serious historical examination of American insanity, that examination is not part of our canon—more Americans have probably seen and heard of John Wayne’s The Green Berets than have read Loren Baritz’ Backfire. Instead, America’s madness—and the huge number of bodies it, like any other nation, stacks when it goes mad—is nothing more than a cause of non-binding self-flagellation for most of the Americans inclined to attempt to understand these parts of our history, a source of unearned moral superiority. Most American opposition to our disastrous war in Iraq was not about Americans reasserting their citizenship and their right to demand that the Senate, and the Senate alone, could declare and commit the nation to war. The Anti-Iraq War movement was about people feeling good about themselves, nothing more elevated. (My husband was a conservative who lost his job for his kind of adult, serious opposition.)

The result is that not only does America not realize that it is living within sight of an abyss, with tens of millions of people out of work and tens of millions more with no realistic hope for a stable, satisfying career that allows them to live in dignity and comfort while contributing to their own society, American politics are not equal to America’s situation. The right is stuck with its own viciousness, the left a disorganized coalition of activists in search of unearned moral superiority as much as social and economic justice.

I find the greatest flaw in Snyder’s book, which is necessarily limited in time and geographic scope, is that it does not address the coarsening of societies through mass violence. The enormous scope of Russian losses during the First World War that led to the Revolution and the horrendous Civil War that followed coarsened Russians, who had a lower cultural level than Germans—themselves coarsened by World War One and their own nascent civil war that followed. You subject people to enough violence and what was once unthinkable becomes ordinary; people become coarsened and their souls intincted by violence. Some shut down; others, while remaining functional, even superbly competent, are also quite insane. Stalin himself was as insane as any senior (and perhaps not-so-senior) Soviet of his era, but he was considerably more intelligent than most of his comrades. Above all, Stalin understood how to use their common madness better than his peers and near-peers. When your nation’s past has produced nothing but garbage for quite a long time, insanity can look quite rational. Unsere letzte Hoffnung: Hitler.

The United States tolerates far more violence than we like to think, and this violence is not just gun violence. It is our rising suicide rate, our incredible tolerance of homelessness, of prostitution and pornography—all of which vomit out mountains of corpses; the use of nuisance ordinances to evict women attempting to prosecute domestic violence; the military’s tolerance of rape and predilection for retaining rapists and discharging their victims; the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans every year from preventable causes due to lack of basic medical care. It is the on-going attempts to deny women contraception and access to abortion in order to force them to bear children, and the only adequate term for forced pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood is slavery. And all of this violence has its defenders: those who make money off the porn and the prostitution and the warping of medicine from a profession into a consumer good, from housing as a basic right to a speculative investment by big institutions, to those who prefer women to be a safety valve for absolutely justified male rage and anger and hurt and humiliation—all of which are shared by American women—as well as those who just think that women are there for their sexual usage. There is also the violence of our immigration system: those who come to American, with or without legal documents, seeking a better life, have their hopes and dreams and aspirations used to expand the pool of desperate workers and depress American wages.

In 1986, the group David + David released their Boomtown album with these lyrics from the song “Heroes”:

Fifteen long years on a losing streak

And a lot of bodies unburied

And there comes a time

When you cannot turn the other cheek

The date on that was pretty good, because by 1971 it was clear that America had serious problems: except for 1973 and 1975, the US has run trade deficits every single year since 1971. Our politics have yet to equal our problems, in no small part because Americans do not demand serious politics. Indeed, we are a fundamentally unserious people. We prefer the right-wing politics of national exceptionalism and the left-wing politics of passive-aggressive temper tantrums and ideological purity. We have escaped serious violence until now because of many factors, one of which is that with all their human flaws and failings, Americans are very often the people or the descendants of people who came here to escape the cruelties of their ethnic and national pasts. But eventually time will run out for America: the Devil makes work for idle hands and above all, idle brains. Tens of millions of Americans are being told they are useless and worthless to their society. Eventually, they will take action against that. We are already seeing sparks of action in Europe. America and Europe today do not have to go mad in ways that parallel the madness of other countries, or even their own past, to do horrendous damage when and if they go mad again.

America desperately needs a politics of standards. We don’t need ideology. Ideology—the ideology of free-market capitalism, and a leftist ideology seemingly more interested in doctrinal squabbles than creating a coherent, humane alternative to capitalism—got us here. Besides, ideals have a habit of being transformed into altars upon which sacrifices are offered. Instead, America needs a politics of standards, a single humane standard by which every American can be judged and measured and treated, a standard to which we hold our government, a standard by which all of us have the right to live.

As for Bloodlands, which is a glimpse, no more, certainly not a mirror, of where America’s—and Europe’s—failed politics can lead us, it is a terrific book, an important new way of looking at and a better understanding of the greatest concentrated violence of the 20th Century.


What President Putin Can Teach Us About Citizenship

There is only one real standard by which a national leader can be judged: did you leave your country better than you found it? By that standard, President of the Russian[i] Federation Vladimir V. Putin was, along with Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev, one of the great leaders of the 20th Century. Khrushchev exhibited enormous physical and moral courage in initiating his country’s long, slow, very painful recovery from Stalinism. Putin took control of Russia when President Boris N. Yeltsin’s policies had brought it to the brink of an abyss such as America has not looked into since the aftermath of our Civil War. He has managed to more-or-less end a simmering war in Chechnya and stabilize his country. But stability within sight of an abyss is no way for a country to live, and so Kremlin-watchers have always wondered what Putin’s second-tenure agenda might be.

We now have an idea.

On 12 December, Putin delivered the President of Russia’s Annual Presidential Address, outlining priority targets for national political and economic development. Analysis of the speech was minimal and very superficial in both the New York Times and the Washington Post, to the point that even though the reporters use recognizable quotes and talking points from the speech, you have to wonder if they even read the thing. (You should, even though it is 11,000 words.) For it is a speech that in its broad outlines any serious American politician would have been proud to give, did he hold his audience in any respect.

It is always possible that this is the completely cynical speech of an utterly corrupt man who will say and do anything to achieve and keep power. But I doubt it. And this is why.

Within the first ten short paragraphs, Putin refers to two individuals by name, references which should have sent any responsible journalist running off to Wikipedia, asking Who are these people? The first name is of Soviet historian, ethnologist and anthropologist Lev N. Gumilev. Lev spent most of the years between 1938 to 1956 for the son of the poets Nikolai S. Gumilev, murdered on 25 August 1921, on the completely fabricated charge of participating in a monarchist conspiracy, and his ex-wife Anna A. Akhmatova. The second person Putin quotes is the writer Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago. Solzhenitsyn served 8 years in the gulag and during the Brezhnev years was subject to intense KGB pressure, culminating in the seizure of his drafts and a botched assassination attempt. He was awarded the Nobel for literature in 1970 and deported from the Soviet Union and stripped of his citizenship in 1974. (He returned to Russia in 1994 and was buried there with honor in 2008.) These references are not tainopis, or secret writing: any half-cultured Russian high school student knows this history.

Putin was a lieutenant colonel in the KGB, the direct, lineal descendent of the NKVD and the Cheka, the secret police of Stalin and before him Lenin that inflicted such harm on Russia during its madness, while the KGB did its own damage under Brezhnev. For such a man to mention those two writers there in the equivalent of a State of the Union speech, is to acknowledge the role your organization played in your country’s madness and all the horror and human waste that followed from that madness. In that context, one of the few positive points of the speech is a mention that the Russian population is finally starting to grow, that births are finally starting to exceed deaths. This has a cultural meaning Americans don’t really grasp. It means that Russians are starting to turn away from all the death and suffering of their recent past. It means that Russians, especially women, believe their children might have a future. It means that more Russian women are finding more Russian men worth breeding from. In Russia. Here in America, a Republican party that supposedly believes in human freedom has attempted to force American women to bear children by resisting equal pay for equal work and restricting women’s access to abortion and contraception. Putin’s policy recommendation to increase female fertility is better, more flexible jobs for women and more and better child care: in short, to increase women’s life options. And he isn’t very subtle in his call for Russians, particularly middle-aged men, to stop killing themselves out of self-pity, which is what eating, drinking, drugging and smoking yourself to death amounts to.

The speech is neither an anti-American rant nor a paean to his past accomplishments at stabilizing a country in chaos. It is a sober, straightforward speech that lays out what Russia will have to do to survive. “Either right now we can open up a lifelong outlook for the young generation to secure good, interesting jobs, to create their own businesses, to buy housing, to build large and strong families and bring up many children, to be happy in their own country, or in just a few decades, Russia will become a poor, hopelessly aged (in the literal sense of the word) country, unable to preserve its independence and even its territory.” That last word means: China. American meddling in Russian internal affairs is an annoyance, an affront to national pride and self-respect. Chinese meddling is a matter of life and death, of territorial integrity and national survival.

When Putin says that “Russia’s unity, integrity and sovereignty are unconditional” he is not particularly referring to the rags of Chechen and Dagestani separatist movements. He is speaking of the Russian Far East: Russia and China fought a border war in 1969 and neither country has forgotten it. Although President Obama would do well to steal Putin’s words, “Any manifestations of separatism and nationalism must be completely removed from the political agenda,” and use those in a speech to Americans. We’ve been there once, we don’t need to go there again and those who propose doing so are not engaged in civilized dialogue.

Speaking of civilized dialoque, Putin says, “Civilised dialogue is possible only with those political forces that make, justify and articulate their demands in a civilised way, defending them in compliance with the law. The change and modernisation of the political system are natural and even necessary, but I have said in the past that it would be inadmissible to allow for the destruction of the state to satisfy this thirst for change.”[ii] This is not a man who says: shut up. This is a man who says, speak like a citizen, in words of meaning and dignity. It is one of Russia’s tragedies that with all the ways Russians now have to communicate with each other and its great literary history, it is a long and graceless distance from Akhmatova to Pussy Riot. And when Putin concludes his words on civilized dialogue by saying, “The whole history of Russia screams about it,” he is saying, we are not going back to people dying screaming. Not even in the name of political change and modernization.

It is a fact that the collapses of the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union happened at a time of increasing liberalization. And you don’t have to hold a brief for either the Tsar or the Premier Gorbachev to understand that those consequences had very real, very bad consequences for a lot of human beings who deserved better. Like the collapse of the Kerensky government, the collapse of the Soviet Union was an unmitigated catastrophe. Everything that should have happened—Soviet withdrawal from Eastern Europe, the independence of the Baltic Republics (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) and renegotiation of the status and boundaries of the former Soviet Republics (except for the Baltic Republics and Georgia, they are now loosely organized into the Commonwealth of Independent States)—could have happened without the collapse of the Soviet state. When the state collapsed, whole industries vanished, people lost their entire life savings, life expectancy fell due to the collapse of the medical system, as well as people drinking and drugging themselves to death in despair. A massive upsurge in organized crime cost more lives through contract murders and human trafficking, as did a vast increase in disorganized crime—and tolerance thereof—such as street crime and domestic violence. There was also serious ethnic violence ranging from pogroms to border wars.

Few Americans know or care about this. We were too busy congratulating ourselves on the Soviet Union’s collapse. America always maintained that it wasn’t anti-Russian, it was only anti-Communist. And if Russia ever got rid of that damned Communism, we could be friends. Well, they did—and we were very pleased to see them humiliated, powerless, on the verge of famine, an object of our pity and scorn. Western financial institutions also served as a conduit for the wholesale looting of Russian resources.

Putin knows all this. He also knows that—all the screeching by conservative commentators aside—in Western Europe, Marxism helped create the welfare state but the attempt to import Marxism into Russia led to the Gulag, the famines, the purges. The issue, then, was not Marxism but Russia: Putin may love Russia and Russian culture very much, but even a child’s understanding of Russian history leads one to realize that as Solzhenitsyn himself once very uncharacteristically admitted, this wolf comes from our own blood. One significant reason for Russia’s descent into Communist madness was that while it was liberalizing before the First World War, serfdom’s very long, slow abolition, the power of the nobility and the collusion of the Russian Orthodox Church with the nobility meant that its intellectual and material culture was very low. A good education, sincere appreciation for genuine beauty and a life of material dignity will prevent an awful lot of moral trouble and those were missing from the broad base of Russian society, urban or rural. Add to that cultural background Russia’s dreadful losses during World War One and the savagery of the Civil War, and you have a recipe for catastrophe. That much killing and suffering coarsens and brutalizes people—in any culture. And it takes a long time for that culture to recover.

So any attempt to modernize and liberalize Russia means that Russia has to look within itself, cultivate its best and deal with its worst: it can borrow from other cultures and political systems for its own use but those any cultural borrowings must be viewed through the prism of its culture. Russia cannot be a cheap knock-off of America; these years, America these years is a cheap knock-off of our past and what we could be in the future and it’s been very bad for us; our model would be an unmitigated catastrophe for Russia. In her New York Times op-ed, “Backtracking in Russia,” Lyudmilla Alexeyevna—who is the grand old woman of Russia’s human rights movement—writes, “I am absolutely certain they mean to send a signal across the country that we should all re-grow our forgotten Soviet instincts of fear and wariness of foreigners.” But as much harm as foreign invasions and financial institutions have done to Russia, and as great a threat as China poses to Russia, one significant concern any half-decent Russian president must have is the real harm Russians have done to other Russians—including in the aftermath of Communism. While China in particular would be ready to exploit that harm. A little fear of that is wise, prudent, humane.

The means Putin says he is choosing to modernize and liberalize Russia are, in the context of recent American history, conservative. It is an article of faith in political science that a large-broad-based middle class is the key to democracy. It has long been gospel in the Republican Party that education, hard work and home ownership made people more conservative, natural Republican voters. Putin says he want to greatly expand the Russian middle class by creating some 25 million good jobs and making decent housing affordable to people of average and below-average means. He also wants to strengthen Russia’s educational system by supporting “the revival of provincial intelligentsia [“doctors, teachers, university educators, workers in science and culture”], which was once Russia’s professional and moral backbone.” He is, in short, proposing to make good education and a materially dignified life widely available to average Russians, including in Russia’s vast and often poor provinces.

This is not about creating a new Soviet man. This is about raising the standards by which Russians treat each other and live. This is about creating a broad, deep foundation for a serious civil society upon which a democracy can be built. And for that reason, Putin explicitly proposes moving away from Russia’s current extractive economy: “A lopsided raw materials economy, as has been pointed out on many occasions, is not just vulnerable to external shocks. Most importantly, it does not allow for developing and putting to adequate use human potential; it is incapable of giving most of our people the opportunity to make use of their strengths, talents, labour and education, which means, by definition, that it breeds inequality.”

So far, I’ve pulled quotes from the speech in a rather linear manner. Now to loop back to the second way Putin proposes to build this civil society.

He says that ordinary Russians must make common cause against “poor government efficiency and corruption”: “Public opinion must become the main criterion for assessing the effectiveness of state bodies that provide public services as well as institutions in the social sphere.”

A model of bureaucratic reform is laid out, reform that includes “limiting the rights of state officials and politicians [as well as “their immediate families”] to hold foreign accounts, stocks and shares” while “the ownership of foreign real estate…must be declared in accordance with the law, and the official must submit a report on the cost of the property and the origin of the funds used to purchase it.”

Not only did Putin provoke a number of small heart attacks with that statement, he earned a number of deadly enemies. He proceeds to make more when he spoke of reducing the number of people exercising regulatory oversight, introducing public reports by oversight agencies, and “monitoring the expenditures and major acquisitions of civil servants, executives of state companies and their close relatives”. He did not even need to discuss tax reform and reversing the off-shoring of Russia’s economy, although he does. The sums at stake are worth killing over.

Generally speaking, sane politicians do not make the number of deadly enemies Putin acquired with those passages, in order to score cheap political points. To read this speech is to enter the realm of meaningful language: Russia is not America, where we can say anything we want, provided it is sufficiently outrageous. And there are a lot of things you can call Putin—ruthless, cynical, perhaps not a nice man the way Americans wish to be nice—but stupid and naive are not two of them.

And yet the reactions to this speech have been—demonstrations. One of the leaders has been Aleksei Navalny, who founded the website Roszkh, which simplifies the process of complaining about the wretched maintenance of the public areas of apartment buildings. (In America, these areas would be covered by home owner’s association fees and while Russians also pay fees to maintain them, these areas are public, state, property. The flats themselves are private property.) As Mr. Navalny likes to point out—and quite rightly—this means that broken light bulbs and the like are the problems of United Russia, Putin’s party. (Source here.) His website has helped significantly improve building maintenance in the few weeks it has been in operation and Putin devoted an entire paragraph to this: “Active civic participation and effective public monitoring are necessary conditions for effectively fighting corruption. Today, many citizens are already building a system of public control at the municipal level on their own initiative, including for the housing and utilities sector. We are obligated to support this this type of attitude. Just recently, the day before yesterday, we spoke on this topic at a meeting with election campaign activists.”

In American terms, this is the equivalent of inviting Navalny to attend the State of the Union speech, then telling his story: it’s not an olive branch, it’s an entire wreath of olive branches. To quote Navalny: “We are trying to attract people who can fight corruption together with us…It’s clear that an ordinary person has a hard time helping us fight corruption at Gazprom [the big state energy company]…[b]ut unfortunately in Russia, corruption surrounds a person everywhere. We are trying to create a mechanism for people to fight corruption themselves.”

The problem is that corruption cannot be fought with demonstrations. It has to be fought the way Navalny himself is doing: the daily pressure of ordinary people on other ordinary people to do the right thing, one thing at a time. It’s not sexy, it’s not glamorous, it takes energy and drive and determination and sometimes shouting at people. It is not only refusing to take bribes, it is refusing to pay bribes. Or as was quoted in the article liked to above, “People long ago stopped coming to these because of euphoria,” said Zhenya Devyatkina, 30. Instead they show up now out of a sense of duty, she said, “sort of like going to work.”

But that is what government is: work, not euphoria. Especially the work that goes into the constant refusal to accept—or pay; this cannot be stressed enough—bribes. And if people were to take Putin’s speech seriously, “opposition bloggers” like Navalny—a real estate lawyer—would be out of a job in the sense of, they couldn’t mug for cameras. They might have a real job, running a serious department of civil servants—but that’s a different thing altogether. Or to quote Chekov, Any idiot can meet a crisis, it’s the day-to-day living that wears you out.

When Putin delivered this particular speech, he was operating on the premise that a lot of Russians would be willing to face the day-to-day living. Might be cynical enough and compromised enough and tired enough of corruption to find the day-to-day, wearing-out of integrity a way to recover themselves and begin the process not of stabilizing their country—that has been done—but making their country and their lives what they ought to be. We do not know. Pundits risk little—and doubt it not, Putin risked his life when he made that speech. People died for far less in the Yeltsin years. In other words, for all the work Putin had to do—the gathering of resources, the making of alliances, the deal-making—just in order to be able to deliver that speech and have a chance of implementing it, his agenda has no hope without widespread, day-to-day support by average Russians. Putin may realistically think he can bank on that support, he may think it’s a risk he can survive, he may be straight-out gambling, but there is no serious media coverage of Russia for us to be able to estimate that.

We only know two things.

The American left, when it thinks of Putin at all, does not like him: he is too tough, too plain-spoken to go down easy. He stabilized his country within sight of an abyss, prevented Chechnya from breaking away, brought Russian organized crime under some measure of control, and reestablished the Russian state. These are not the accomplishments of a saint or anyone likely to ever be admitted to their communion. Also, he’s just a tiny little bit arrogant. While the American right hates him because—for all the unsavory things implicit in those accomplishments—he is not a monster. He just might be the best tsar Russia has ever had, determined to bring his country into the modern world as part of civilization.

There’s a third thing we know about this speech. It’s worth reading, highlighting the parts that apply to America, and sending to our elected representatives. Because its subject is: how to create a democracy of citizens from a nation that has been through the depths.


[i] Throughout this essay, I use the term Russia or Russian in several ways. The first is to refer to the Russian federation and before that the Russian empire—or a resident of the Federation or that empire, regardless of actual ethnicity. In that sense, I also refer to the Soviet Union as a Russian state because it was not only the successor to the Russian Empire, but also very Russian in terms of the dominant ethnicity.

[ii] All spellings are in the original, using British rather than American English.

Netanyahu, Israel and President Obama’s Re-Election

With his crude political support of a personal friend and his attempts to badger the President of the United States into a war with Iran, Prime Minister Netanyahu has deeply damaged the American-Israeli relationship. Yes, many things at the working level will proceed, but at the higher level, one can only suspect that the President does not want Prime Minister Netanyahu in America’s national house. And with good reason. Prime Minister Netanyahu committed the cardinal sin of a national leader: he confused what he wanted and what would benefit him with the good of his country. L’etat, c’est moi! is how a Persian-Israeli sabra friend who is “Likud and love(s) Bibi” described him to me.

There are deep, old ties between Israel and the United States: an enormous amount of two-way traffic and business between the countries, and many Israelis have a great and real love for America. However, on a national level, Israelis have also tended to look at America as Uncle Sugar, not because American aid is so generous (it’s not) but because so many Israelis have lived or travelled in America (often before moving back to Israel), worked hard, made good, and sent money and gifts back to family and friends in Israel.

The result is that Israelis tend to think of Israel as the 51st state, forgetting that Israel is not, that Israelis generally don’t vote in American elections unless they are dual nationals, and that they also generally don’t pay US taxes.

What Israelis don’t do is understand the United States. Worse, they think they do. And much worse, when Americans try to explain America to Israelis, they run into the Israeli attitude of, If we don’t know it, it’s not worth knowing. Their attitude is, we live in a tough neighborhood. Which is true: look at Syria and shudder. And at least that’s in a civil war with real-world power at stake. Look at Egypt, where as girls, most women were and are still mutilated expressly to deny them sexual pleasure so that men with few real-world options can lord it over them, and tremble. Syria and Egypt’s political brutality and the domestic sadism from which it springs and in which it is embedded is more-or-less the norm in the Arab world. While Israel is largely populated by the immediate descendants of people who were driven out of communities they had lived in for generations, often centuries, and in the case of the North African and Arab exiles, for millennia. Indeed, Israel is the only country on earth whose existence is debated and people express the opinion that it would somehow be a good thing to destroy a nation of some seven million human beings. Scratch an Israeli and tremendous pain wells up; it ought to be the cruelest country on earth, and it isn’t even close. Yet all of this is an explanation, not an excuse for Israeli ruthlessness, self-centeredness and coarseness. That is because Israel is a minor power and could easily become one of the most remarkable countries on the planet. When you aspire to play in the big leagues, you need to behave according to big league rules.

One of those rules is: one country does not owe another country a war. Certainly great powers do not owe client states wars: and Netanyahu reduced Israel to the status of a client state when demanding that America make war upon Iran on Israel’s behalf; in the past, Israel has always insisted upon fighting its own wars. Let alone when that great power is trying to extricate themselves from two other wars that have wrecked its economy and military. Above all, a great power that has rejected religious messianism as the basis for national policy does not owe a client leader a war so he can continue to pursue religious-based messianic policies. Even if that great power owes Iran some serious payback in an undeclared war waged since 1979.

And no country should ever be in haste to go to war. War should only ever be a last resort, when advocates of war put all and every one of their cards on the table in a transparent fashion—the how, the why, the when, the means in troops and material and funding as well as the opportunity costs of those lives and that money, the ends, the threats, the reasons the threats can’t be contained. The national leader who says, “Can’t tell you. National security. Classified.”, who is any less than completely, entirely forthcoming and honest should be permanently stripped of all creditability. The wreckage, the waste, the callous, unforgivable loss caused by America in Southeast Asia and now in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the sheer deceit and national self-delusion that attended those wars should serve as a profound warning to anyone who is tempted to roll the iron dice and engage in a war of choice—no matter how deliberately provoked.

America is in the process of deciding what country it wants to be; to a significant extent Americans contemplated an ultra-religious agenda on Election Day and said, No. You’re ugly, mean and ignorant, and those are your good points. This is a problem for Israel because Netanyahu has helped turn good relationships with Israel from a bipartisan consensus into the province of America’s ultra-religious, just as his coalition partners in Israel are largely the ultra-religious, and Netanyahu is known to have few, if any, limits in satisfying them.

Now, facing their own January elections, Israelis find themselves in the position of Americans. What do they want their country to look like? Is Israel to be the plaything of the ever-fewer and richer, its policies based upon old stories and myths, when slavery was acceptable and half the population was the sexual and reproductive property of the other half? What is its role in the world and yes, in the occupied territories? Will it continue to tolerate the states within the state that are subject to different laws than secular Jews? The Israeli left, like the American left, needs to begin to create a serious, coherent philosophy to govern their country, and the Israeli (and American) left needs to do so without sneering at people who disagree with them because they genuinely fear for themselves and the future of their country.

As Israelis ponder these questions, it would be well for them to remember two things. In the end, the survival of Israel—and of the Middle East generally—does not depend on the existence of the Palestinian state that Israel is helping to create on the West Bank, or who controls the last few square kilometers under dispute.

America has problems of its own and it is going to take America some time to get right with itself. To the extent that America needs to get right with itself, the Israeli-Palestinian issue serves as a distraction from issues that America does not wish to talk about, such as Chinese influence in American political and economic institutions. (Americans also fail to understand that a lot of Palestinians and other Arabs don’t want a two-state solution and are prepared to kill Palestinians and other Arabs who do.)

Like America, Israel has serious problems that it needs to resolve, and until Israelis get right with themselves about such issues as the structure of the economy and the role of religion in public life, they aren’t going to be able to get right with the Palestinians, either, presuming the Palestinians want a two-state solution, which is extremely questionable. To the extent that Israel needs to get right with itself, Iran and other related security questions are deliberately used to distract Israelis from the even more important issue: how do we wish to live? Who do we wish to be?

Clear Ideas for Difficult Times

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