Reviewing the Review: August 24 2008

Middle East politics takes the cover of this weekend’s New York Times Book Review. Kenneth Pollack, a so-called liberal intellectual from the Brookings Institution who urged the Bush administration to invade Iraq in 2002 before apologizing for this bad call quickly after, has now written A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East, and critic Max Rodenbeck has no intention of letting Pollack off easy. Rodenbeck hammers Pollack’s simplistic interventionist strategy to shards, and it’s a pleasure to watch him work:

Among other things, he proposes to increase military aid to friendly regimes. This, he says, can create a kind of golden leash that makes governments more compliant to American wishes.

But surely, one can’t help gasping, the last thing more guns will bring is political reform. And surely, those Arabs are not so dumb that they don’t read this stuff.

Rodenbeck points out the many ways that Kenneth Pollack’s blatantly pro-military political ideology fails to convince (and Pollack still calls himself a liberal? Well, hell, Napoleon Bonaparte was a liberal too). A concern for the security of Israel seems to be at the core of Pollack’s entire vision, but I begin to yearn for a third path once Rodenbeck begins tearing Pollack apart on this point:

Can’t we just admit that American support for Israel is strategically burdensome and is driven by the passion of several domestic constituencies rather than cold cost-benefit geopolitics?

This is a popular belief, but bears examination. If “several domestic constituencies” refers to American Jews, it’s worth pointing out that American Jews were unable to budge the Roosevelt Administration a bloody inch on Jewish immigration from Nazi-occupied Europe during the horrific decade leading to the formation of Israel. Rodenbeck may also be referring to evangelical Christians who support Israel, but the influence there is more vocal and demonstrative than actual. At this point, any reasonable person who does not wish to see a new war ignited in the Levant can support Israel simply because the 7.2 million people who live there are not welcome anywhere else in the world, and the terrible stalemate that exists in the region now is less harmful to all of humanity than any imaginable alternative would be.

Rodenbeck’s article is powerful, despite the lack of clarity on this point. The Middle East shows up again in Michael Goldfarb’s review of Invisible Nation: How the Kurds’ Quest for Statehood Is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East by Quil Lawrence, though Goldfarb’s performance is much less impressive. He generally ignores Lawrence’s book, instead taking the opportunity to write his own article about the Kurds in Iraq (he finally gives the book under review a polite nod in the last paragraph). This misdirection might be forgiveable if Goldfarb had something new to say, but instead he writes a conventional encyclopedia entry, complete with dull phraseology:

For any author, writing a history of the Kurds presents a challenge, because the Kurdish story has more switchbacks than a shepherd’s trail into the mountains.

Barf. I guess any old metaphor will do? The dullness continues:

Then, in a region where Western reporters are not liked very much, Kurds are exceptionally friendly.

Let’s give them candy! Better yet, let’s step away from the depressing world of global ethnic strife for the happier realms of experimental fiction and enjoy Charles Taylor’s consideration of The Unfortunates by B. S. Johnson, which was apparently originally published in 1969 as an unbound collection of 27 chapters designed to be read in random order, and has now been republished with an enthusiastic introduction by Jonathan Coe.

Taylor satisfies here, as does Paul Berman with a deep and passionate dissection of another new edition of a work from the 1960s, Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago, which Berman says “gives him the willies” (this is meant as a compliment, I think).

As is so often the case, the most satisfying articles in this New York Times Book Review are the ones that dive deep into classic literature. Brenda Wineapple’s White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an inquiry into the mysterious poet’s correspondence with a robust abolitionist who wrote for the Atlantic Monthly and adored her poems, sounds like a real corker. It was only last month that I rudely scoffed at a book about a quaint English estate written by Miranda Seymour; I still don’t want to read that book, but Seymour quickly closes the sale for me on this one.

Steve Coates doesn’t quite rise to the occasion in reviewing Edith Hall’s The Return of Ulysses: A Cultural History of Homer’s Odyssey — I don’t think the NYTBR should ever publish a phrase as generic as:

Hall … fills her pages with sharp and often surprising observations about the “Odyssey”

Sharp and surprising — is that the best Coates can do? Also, his long list of works influenced by Homer’s epic could be more original (for instance, I would certainly have included the Who’s first rock opera, “A Quick One”, an early prototype for “Tommy”, which was based on The Odyssey and has aged better than some of the dusty titles cited here).

Still, this book and Brenda Wineapple’s are the kinds of books I love to read about on a Sunday morning, and I bet many others feel the same way.

5 Responses

  1. Levi,

    What about the

    What about the connection between evangelicals, neo-cons, and Isreal since the days of Kissenger and Nixon? I don’t begrudge Isreal any of the power that it has earned in this world (against rediculous odds), and I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy nut. But Evangelicals have real power in america (I think it could be fading), and some of that power comes from and goes to Isreal.

  2. Can’t we just admit that
    Can’t we just admit that American support for Israel is strategically burdensome and is driven by the passion of several domestic constituencies rather than cold cost-benefit geopolitics?

    I’m assuming Pat Buchanan is this guy’s Ghost Wrtiter.

    It is Ghost Month, you know. So burn your Bank of Hell money, boys and girls, appease those spirits. Everyone knows burning play money will make ghosts happy, makes total sense.

    Appease appease appease. Always makes such perfect sense, doesn’t it.

    Like clockwork, the ghosts will be back next year in the seventh month, so more appeasement. And then there will be a double ghost month — wow, we will have to burn a whole lot of ghost money in those years.

    It never ends, but as long as we keep appeasing we’ll be OK.

  3. Hey Levi,

    The article by the
    Hey Levi,

    The article by the NY Times dude on Fa Lun Gong was one of the most despicable articles I’ve ever seen in the book review.

  4. Ben, I agree with you. I
    Ben, I agree with you. I guess that’s why I say I yearn for a third path — a third path between the cynicism towards Israel expressed by Max Rodenbeck and the credulousness expressed by Kenneth Pollack.

  5. TKG, I agree with you about
    TKG, I agree with you about the China article too. I would have mentioned it earlier but I neglected to read the piece until you pointed it out.

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