Archive for November, 2010
New York- I appeared on Saudi state television’s KSA 2 Friday to discuss the extension and, I suppose, expansion of the American war in Afghanistan (and to a lesser extent Pakistan) from the initially trumpeted July 2011 withdrawal to sometime at the end of 2014. I couldn’t help but reference the Gulf of Tonkin and President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s direct, televised deception to the American people in which he said damningly on on August 4th, 1964: “We still seek no wider war.” President Johnson had every intention of expanding American military and clandestine involvement in Indochina as a purported bulwark against a spreading communism and as an eventual boon to the military-industrial complex that the outgoing President Dwight David Eisenhower had warned the public to be skeptical of just three and a half years before, days before President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s swearing in.
Of course, there has been no knowably false or trumped up incident to act as a catalyst for President Obama’s (and Secretary Gates’ and General David Petraeus’) opaque decision to hugely extend the Afghan war. We haven’t been told of one suicide bombing in Kabul too many or one IED too far in Helmand that justifies making the Afghanistan conflict the longest foreign war fighting engagement in America’s history. The three principal players in this game are congressional republican politicians in Washington, General Ashfaq Kayani’s Pakistani Army, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s corrupt government in Kabul. Within the nexus of these interlinked but often hostile political actors, the Afghan war has been undemocratically extended for the foreseeable future. President Obama does not want to “appear weak on defense” in his 2012 reelection bid, General Kayani’s troops have thus far refused to mount a large scale COIN/scorched earth assault on South/Central Asia’s most hardcore militant outfits holed up in North Waziristan, and an increasingly paranoid and isolated President Karzai needs the US and it’s NATO and non-NATO military allies to stay in the country in order for him to remain in power coincidentally until sometime in 2014. After I left the studio, what I had said for broadcast sunk in and I then had to stave off depression. If only Obama and his underlings had understood how critically important the terribly flawed Afghan presidential campaign was last year, and had that election had a different more genuine outcome, perhaps much of the assured bloodshed on the horizon could have been avoided. Wishful thinking on my part, maybe, but one thing is for certain: there is a lot of death and destruction to be, though it mustn’t be so. Americans today would more likely pour out into the streets over a rigged vote on a reality show that one in reality as the era of mass civil disobedience long ago gave way to rampant consumer culture and hollow worship of false mass market idols. In all of this miasma, it would do many good to realize that it is principally the Afghan people who continue to suffer. It is Afghan civilians who continue to take the brunt of military and militant violence in Afghanistan. Outside of that country, Afghanistan is for most an abstraction or a set of misapplied cliches vaguely having to do with empires and their various downfalls as if empires with their ill advising courtesans, not the Afghans themselves, are the victims. In history the Afghan people are mostly an afterthought as their country is described coldly as a “graveyard,” as an ill conceived “buffer state” or as “AfPak.”
New York- Last Friday I attended an event at New York University’s School of Law’s Center on Law and Security that was an all day affair discussing a number of highly relevant topics relating to the United States Constitution and the overall constitutionality of many controversial issues within the war on terror. The final panel of the day, moderated by keynote speaker Noah Feldman, was titled “Protecting the Rights and Liberties of Americans: The Case of Islam.” This group debated issues related to so-called “Muslim-Americans,” and possible, real, and potential infringements on the rights of ordinary Americans (as well as a much higher degree of immigrant Americans) in a vaguely understood time of war.
Feldman stated that the term “Muslim-American” was ill suited in its very construct because Americans describe themselves mostly by their ethnicity than religious identity. In comparison, he highlighted an obscure example from history, in this particular case, an anti-Catholic premise in the presidential election of 1876 whereby government funding would have been cut from non-secular educational institutions meant as a discriminatory dig at the burgeoning Catholic schools of the era. The Republican wedge issue of its time, the bill put forth sought to conflate the Democratic Party with the Catholic Church and align the Republican Party with anti-immigration/catholic voters (see “The Blaine Amendment,” Encyclopedia of American civil liberties, Volume 1 By Paul Finkelman, p.152). Feldman said identity issues became confused when the term Jewish-American came into common usage because Jews, save for the very rare converts, are both an ethnic as well as a religious grouping unlike the Catholics of 1876 or the Muslims of today and as such the term “Catholic-American” never came into being then as “Muslim-American” should not now. As Catholics and Muslims are both faiths with strong missionary strains, adherents of these religions stem from a host of different ethnic and linguistic groupings across different continents and describing either as if they were an ethnic group and part of a coherent polity is not only highly inarticulate but laughable in terms of social science.
I approached Feldman after the conference’s conclusion to ask his opinion on something that has been bothering me for the last seven years. The American government and military has marketed Iraq since March 2003, well since August of 2002 really, as being comprised of three groupings. Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Kurds the American people were told. Sunnis and Shi’ites are denominational groups within the house of Islam while the Kurds are a linguistically Indo-Iranian ethnic group that is made of a Sunni majority with a Shi’ite minority. But Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq began to sound like ethnic groups in America’s very confused political discourse regarding the Islamic world. The precedent for discussions about Iraq was Afghanistan which was invaded with an initially light footprint less than a year and half before the invasion of Iraq. Afghanistan was and is constantly talked about in terms of the cultural and linguistic divisions rather than religious ones. That blueprint was then sloppily applied to Iraq where instead of Arabs, Kurds and lest we forget the beleaguered Assyrians who are Christian, Iraq was talked of as Sunni, Shi’ite, and Kurd while for reasons I won’t take the time to get into in this post, the Assyrian minority was never spoken of outside of Iraq’s borders in the war until now. Feldman was a facilitator and enabler of the occupational administrations of both Jay Garner and Lewis Paul “Jerry” Bremer III in, at only 33, working on Iraq’s post-Saddam Hussein Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) in an advisory role. Feldman was quoted in the Village Voice in 2004, when asked about his somewhat controversial role in the creation of the TAL and subsequent criticism by the late Edward Said, “One of the things that always impressed me about the U.S. is that we choose people for jobs based on skill sets, not ethnicity.” I couldn’t agree with him more on this point but the occupation of which he was undeniably a part, helped very much to enshrine denominational differences among Iraq’s Muslims that educated classes found humiliating and patronizing.
As I love to say, there was no such place name in Iraq as the “Sunni Triangle” before the United States occupied the country with massive military force. I approached Feldman in a friendly attempt to make common cause over the issue and he quickly and dismissively brushed me off repeating, “there are very few Shi”ite Kurds.” Like the forgotten Assyrians for whom the whole “Islamic law as the inspiration for legislation” bit was actually a loss rather than a gain, the Assyrians were free people who were suddenly less free from both free roaming insurgents and the government, Iraq’s Fayli (Shia) Kurds were perhaps irrelevant as Feldman’s defensive sounding quip suggested. I won’t even get into Sunni and Shia Turkmen, Mandeans, Nestorians, Yazidis or any of the other free people that were left out because they weren’t strong enough numerically to matter much. Western powers, in Iraq’s case primarily the United States, love to describe post-imperial “failed” or “failing” states as false constructs rife with ethnic and sectarian division which the West can step into to help “reconstruct” in classic divide et impera. Feldman could not be any more right about the aims of a constitutionalist, virtuous, post-ethnic American ideal employed in the present day (which I share) but he and others like seem have no problem projecting even deeper sectarian divisions into already fractured societies in the Dar-ul-Islam otherwise known as Central Command (CENTCOM). Though Iraq was already divided along bitter ethnic lines between Arab and Kurd following decades long civil conflicts between the two, and reinforced by an American no-fly zone after 1991, the extreme religious divide that has destroyed much of Iraq since April 2003 was not always so. Now we have an Iraq where the West insists the Prime Minister must (for all intents) be a Shi’ite. Funny how that works.
Washington D.C.- The Jamestown Foundation and the Central Asia Caucasus Institute hosted an event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace entitled, US-Azerbaijan Relations: State of the ‘Strategic Partnership’ featuring Ambassador Richard Morningstar, special envoy for Eurasian energy and Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The core issues at hand were the future of both Caspian and trans-Caspian oil and gas projects, the competition between the Nabucco and South Stream pipeline project proposals competing to bring Eurasian energy to European Union markets, as well as the inability to confirm the appointment of America’s ambassador to Azerbaijan in waiting Matthew Bryza who’s posting is currently being blocked by a hardline ethnic lobbyist group calling itself the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA). Longtime Jamestown analyst Vladimir Socor said that ANCA was linked to the radical Dashnaks. As with any Washington event, there were those in attendance espousing their own ethno-centric political positions, in this case hard line Armenians as well as a few Israel lobbyists stirring the Iran pot for good measure insofar as Iran is Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor. An AIPAC lobbyist, perhaps the city’s most dreaded, brought up the point about an Iranian state oil concern, the National Iranian Oil Company and it’s Swiss-based subsidiary Naftiran, having a 10% stake in the Shah Deniz 1 field 70 kms off the Azerbaijani coast (along with BP, Lukoil, and Statoil) in relation to U.S. backed, Israeli supported, sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
Of course, AIPAC, WINEP, and the others have it completely backward. Engaging Iranian bazaaris and oil technocrats despite Ahmadinejad is the obvious way forward to foment positive engagement with Iran that would likely dilute its rhetoric on the international stage. The Iran of today is not some analogy of the Soviet Union under the Jackson-Vanik act. Brzezinski told the audience of Israel’s objectives: “They are more dependent on our fate than we are on theirs.” On the Karabagh, Lachin corridor and seven adjoining districts of Azeri territory occupied by ethnic-Armenian forces (Armenian army regulars and the so-called Nagorno-Karabagh Republic Defense Army) and their supposed “strategic value” (to the Armenian diaspora I guess), Dr. Brzezinski stated that in global affairs as a whole, the idea of a disputed territory’s strategic value is applied very unevenly dependent upon the differing perspectives of the opposing belligerents. One country’s essential disputed or occupied territory may have little intrinsic value for the rest of the international community. His comments to me evoked the Indian establishments constant talk of Kashmir being strategically essential to India’s survival. Azerbaijan, despite having elections, is essentially a one-party state described as employing soft authoritarianism. It is also a pivotally important, if fractured, Eurasian state that is the scene of classic great power competition in the 21st century. Elkhan Nuriyev, basically representing President Ilham Aliyev, alluded to this by saying that Baku skillfully balances its relations between D.C., Tehran, Moscow and Brussels. The U.S. is desperately interested in getting the Nabucco pipeline project off the ground to counter Russian maneuverings in the region. The U.S. seeks to isolate both Russia and Iran in this sense and discourage the European Union market from being dependent on these two massive suppliers of natural gas and link Europe, specifically Austria, to the existing BTE (Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum) gas pipeline with the possibility of later hooking up an Iraqi (actually Kurdish) pipeline (if Erbil and Baghdad can ever come to an agreement on Kurdistan’s potential gas exports). Azerbaijan, sitting on the edge of the woefully polluted Caspian Sea (not to mention playing a sizable role in NATO’s NDN) is the total pivot state in today’s Eurasian realm. Geography is destiny as they used to say.
New York- Back in March, I’d read a piece in a New York magazine entitled “The Liveliest Mind in New York” that NYU historian and author of Postwar: A History of Europe Sine 1945, Tony Judt was on his deathbed suffering from what used to be called Lou Gehrig’s diesease, now known by its clinical abbreviation A.L.S. (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). Judt’s histories of both Western and Eastern Europe (and the two of them together) struck me as remarkable though I had put off reading them until a someday, later, quieter period in my life that may never come, obsessed as I am by the religious and ideological schisms of the Third World that the withered hands of empire left bare. Judt turned up on the radar of a mostly entirely new audience when he jumped into the Israel lobby debate spurred by the Stephen Walt & John Mearsheimer book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy most memorably at a debate with Israel firsters Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk at New York’s Cooper Union in the fall of 2006. Judt called out Ross and Indyk as “the core of the Israel Lobby” rather than as the dispassionate policy wonks they pretend to be.
I traveled around Central and Southeast Asia this past summer working on my own history of the present day and was not aware that Tony Judt died on August 6. My impression from the New York article was that Judt was only months away from death at best beset by an incurable degenerative disorder that affects the brain. I saw this op-ed with great interest today thinking, “oh wow, he must still be alive” until I got to the bottom. The debate over the Levants most tortured corners will be that much less nuanced without him (not to mention his precision critiques of the European Union’s tiresome faults). I am reprinting this article without permission (obviously). Apologies to Arthur Sulzberger Jr.
My Endless New York
By TONY JUDT
Published: November 7, 2010
I CAME to New York University in 1987 on a whim. The Thatcherite assault on British higher education was just beginning and even in Oxford the prospects were grim. N.Y.U. appealed to me: by no means a recent foundation — it was established in 1831 — it is nevertheless the junior of New York City’s great universities. Less of a “city on a hill,” it is more open to new directions: in contrast to the cloistered collegiate worlds of Oxbridge, it brazenly advertises itself as a “global” university at the heart of a world city.
But just what is a “world city”? Mexico City, at 18 million people, or São Paulo at near that, are unmanageable urban sprawls; they are not “world cities.” Conversely, Paris — whose central districts have never exceeded three million inhabitants — was the capital of the 19th century.
Is it a function of the number of visitors? In that case, Orlando, Fla., would be a great metropolis. Being the capital of a country guarantees nothing: think of Madrid or Washington (the Brasília of its time). It may not even be a matter of wealth: within the foreseeable future Shanghai (14 million people) will surely be among the richest places on earth; Singapore already is. Will they be “world cities”?
I have lived in four such cities. London was the commercial and financial center of the world from the defeat of Napoleon until the rise of Hitler; Paris, its perennial competitor, was an international cultural magnet from the building of Versailles through the death of Albert Camus. Vienna’s apogee was perhaps the shortest: its rise and fall coincided with the last years of the Hapsburg Empire, though in intensity it outshone them all. And then came New York.
It has been my mixed fortune to experience these cities at twilight. In their prime they were arrogant and self-assured. In decline, their minor virtues come into focus: people spend less time telling you how fortunate you are to be there. Even at the height of “Swinging London” there was something brittle about the city’s self-promotion, as though it knew this was but an Indian summer.
Today, the British capital is doubtless geographically central, its awful bling-bloated airport one of the world’s busiest. And the city can boast the best theater and a multicolored cosmopolitanism sadly lacking in years past. But it all rests precariously on an unsustainable heap of other peoples’ money: the capital of capital.
By the time I got to Paris, most people in the world had stopped speaking French (something the French have been slow to acknowledge). Who now would deliberately reconstruct their city — as the Romanians did in Bucharest in the late 19th century — to become “the Paris of the East,” complete with grand boulevards like the Calea Victoria? The French have a word for the disposition to look insecurely inward, to be preoccupied with self-interrogation: nombrilisme — “navel-gazing.” They have been doing it for over a century.
I arrived in New York just in time to experience the bittersweet taste of loss. In the arts the city led the world from 1945 through the 1970s. If you wanted to experience modern painting, music or dance, you came to the New York of Clement Greenberg, Leonard Bernstein and George Balanchine. Culture was more than an object of consumption: people thronged to New York to produce it too. Manhattan in those decades was the crossroads where original minds lingered — drawing others in their wake. Nothing else came close.
Jewish New York too is past its peak. Who now cares what Dissent or Commentary says to the world or each other? In 1979, Woody Allen could count on a wide audience for a joke about the two magazines merging and forming “Dissentary” (see “Annie Hall”). Today? A disproportionate amount of the energy invested in these and certain other small journals goes to the Israel question: perhaps the closest that Americans get to nombrilisme.
The intellectual gangs of New York have folded their knives and gone home to the suburbs — or else they fight it out in academic departments to the utter indifference of the rest of humanity. The same, of course, is true of the self-referential squabbles of the cultural elites of Russia or Argentina. But that is one reason neither Moscow nor Buenos Aires matters on the world stage. New York intellectuals once did, but most of them have gone the way of Viennese cafe society: they have become a parody of themselves, their institutions and controversies of predominantly local concern.
And yet, New York remains a world city. It is not the great American city — that will always be Chicago. New York sits at the edge: like Istanbul or Mumbai, it has a distinctive appeal that lies precisely in its cantankerous relationship to the metropolitan territory beyond. It looks outward, and is thus attractive to people who would not feel comfortable further inland. It has never been American in the way that Paris is French: New York has always been about something else as well.
Today I drop my cleaning off with Joseph the tailor and we exchange Yiddishisms and reminiscences (his) of Jewish Russia. Two blocks south I lunch at a place whose Florentine owner disdains credit cards and prepares the best Tuscan food in New York. In a hurry, I can opt instead for a falafel from the Israelis on the next block; I might do even better with the sizzling lamb from the Arab at the corner.
Fifty yards away are my barbers: Giuseppe, Franco and Salvatore, all from Sicily — their “English” echoing Chico Marx. They have been in Greenwich Village forever but never really settled: how should they? They shout at one another all day in Sicilian dialect, drowning out their main source of entertainment and information: a 24-hour Italian-language radio station. On my way home, I enjoy a mille-feuille from a surly Breton pâtissier who has put his daughter through the London School of Economics, one exquisite éclair at a time.
All this within two square blocks of my apartment — and I am neglecting the Sikh newsstand, the Hungarian bakery and the Greek diner (actually Albanian but we pretend otherwise). Three streets east and I have Little Hapsburgia: Ukrainian restaurant, Uniate church, Polish grocery and, of course, the long-established Jewish deli serving Eastern European staples under kosher labels. All that is missing is a Viennese cafe — for this, symptomatically, you must go uptown to the wealthy quarters of the city.
Such variety is doubtless available in London. But the cultures of contemporary London are balkanized by district and income — Canary Wharf, the financial hub, keeps its distance from the ethnic enclaves at the center. Contrast Wall Street, within easy walking distance of my neighborhood. As for Paris, it has its sequestered quarters where the grandchildren of Algerian guest workers rub shoulders with Senegalese street vendors, while Amsterdam has its Surinamese and Indonesian districts: but these are the backwash of empire, what Europeans now refer to as the “immigrant question.”
One must not romanticize. I am sure that most of my neighborhood traders and artisans have never met and would have little to say to one another: at night they return home to Queens or New Jersey. If I told Joseph and Sal they had the good fortune to live in a “world city,” they would probably snort. But they do — just as the barrow boys of early 20th-century Hoxton were citizens of the same cosmopolitan London that Keynes memorialized in “The Economic Consequences of the Peace,” even though they would have had no idea what he was talking about.
We are experiencing the decline of the American age. But how does national or imperial decay influence the lifecycle of a world city? Modern-day Berlin is a cultural metropolis on the make, despite being the capital of a medium-sized and rather self-absorbed nation. Meanwhile, Paris retained its allure for nearly two centuries after the onset of French national decline.
New York — a city more at home in the world than in its home country — may do better still. As a European, I feel more myself in New York than in the European Union’s semi-detached British satellite, and I have Brazilian and Arab friends here who share the sentiment.
To be sure, we all have our complaints. And while there is no other city where I could imagine living, there are many places that, for different purposes, I would rather be. But this too is a very New York sentiment. Chance made me an American, but I chose to be a New Yorker. I probably always was.
Tony Judt, who died in August, was the director of the Remarque Institute at New York University. He is the author of the forthcoming collection, “The Memory Chalet,” from which this essay is adapted.