Saturday, March 12, 2011

The One That Got Away

Memoirist Rumsfeld seems to forget why we went to Afghanistan.

By Peggy Noonan
The Wall Street Journal
March 10, 2011

I like Donald Rumsfeld. I’ve always thought he was a hard-working, intelligent man. I respected his life in public service at the highest and most demanding levels. So it was with some surprise that I found myself flinging his book against a wall in hopes I would break its stupid little spine.

“Known and Unknown,” his memoir of his tumultuous time in government, is so bad it’s news even a month after its debut. It takes a long time to read because there are a lot of words, most of them boring. At first I thought this an unfortunate flaw, but I came to see it as strategy. He’s going to overwhelm you with wordage, with dates and supposed data, he’s going to bore you into submission, and at the end you’re going to throw up your hands and shout, “I know Iraq and Afghanistan were not Don Rumsfeld’s fault! I know this because I’ve now read his memos, which explain at great length why nothing is his fault.”

Fault of course isn’t the point. You’d expect such a book (all right—you’d hope) to be reflective, to be self-questioning and questioning of others, and to grapple with the ruin of U.S. foreign policy circa 2001-08. He was secretary of defense until 2006, in the innermost councils. He heard all the conversations. He was in on the decisions. You’d expect him to explain the overall, overarching strategic thinking that guided them. Since some of those decisions are in the process of turning out badly, and since he obviously loves his country, you’d expect him to critique and correct certain mindsets and assumptions so that later generations will learn. When he doesn’t do this, when he merely asserts, defends and quotes his memos, you feel overwhelmed, again, by the terrible thought that there was no overall, overarching strategic thinking. There were only second-rate minds busily, consequentially at work

Second-rateness marks the book, which is an extended effort at blame deflection. Mr. Rumsfeld didn’t ignore the generals, he listened to them too much. Not enough troops in Iraq? That would be Gen. Tommy Franks. Turkey’s refusal to allow U.S. troop movements? Secretary of State Colin Powell. America’s failure to find weapons of mass destruction? “Obviously the focus on WMD to the exclusion of almost all else was a public relations error.” Yes, I’d say so. He warned early on in a memo he quotes that the administration was putting too much emphasis on WMD. But put it in context: “Recent history is abundant with examples of flawed intelligence that have affected key national security decisions and contingency planning.”

A word on the use of memos in memoirs. Everyone in government now knows his memos can serve, years later, to illustrate his farsightedness and defend against charges of blindness, indifference, stupidity. So people in government send a lot of memos! “Memo to self: I’m deeply worried about Mideast crisis. Let’s solve West Bank problem immediately.” “Memo to Steve: I’m concerned about China. I’d like you to make sure it becomes democratic. Please move on this soonest, before lunch if you can.” A man in the Bush administration once told me of a guy who used to change the name on memos when they turned out to be smart. He’d make himself the sender so that when future scholars pored over the presidential library, they’d discover what a genius he was.

Most memos prove nothing. It is disturbing that so many Bush-era memoirs rely so heavily on them.

But the terrible thing about the Rumsfeld book, and there is no polite way to say this, is the half-baked nature of the thinking within it. The quality of analysis and understanding of history is so mediocre, so insufficient to the moment.

Which gets me to the point at which I tried to break the book’s spine.

If you asked most Americans why we went into Afghanistan in the weeks after 9/11, they would answer, with perfect common sense, that it was to get the bad guys—to find or kill Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda followers, to topple the Taliban government that had given them aid and support, to destroy terrorist networks and operations. New York at the time of the invasion, October 2001, was still, literally, smoking; the whole town still carried the acrid smell of Ground Zero. The scenes of that day were still vivid and sharp. New York still isn’t over it and will never be over it, but what happened on 9/11 was fresh, and we wanted who did it to get caught.

America wanted—needed—to see U.S. troops pull Osama out of his cave by his beard and drag him in his urine-soaked robes into an American courtroom. Or, less good but still good, to find him, kill him, put his head in a Tiffany box with a bow, and hand-carry it to the president of the United States.

It wasn’t lust for vengeance, it was lust for justice, and for more than justice. Getting Osama would have shown the world what happens when you do a thing like 9/11 to a nation like America. It would have shown al Qaeda and their would-be camp followers what kind of unstoppable ferocity they were up against. It would have reminded the world that we are one great people with one terrible swift sword.

The failure to find bin Laden was a seminal moment in the history of the war in Afghanistan. And it was a catastrophe. From that moment—the moment he escaped his apparent hideout in Tora Bora and went on to make his sneering speeches and send them out to the world—from that moment everything about the Afghanistan war became unclear, unfocused, murky and confused. The administration in Washington, emboldened by what it called its victory over the Taliban, decided to move on Iraq. Its focus shifted, it took its eye off the ball, and Afghanistan is now what it is.

You’d think, nearly a decade after the events of Tora Bora, that Mr. Rumsfeld would understand the extent of the error and the breadth of its implications. He does not. Needless to say, Tora Bora was the fault of someone else—Gen. Franks of course, and CIA Director George Tenet. “Franks had to determine whether attempting to apprehend one man on the run” was “worth the risks.” Needless to say “there were numerous operational details.” And of course, in a typical Rumsfeldian touch, he says he later learned CIA operatives on the ground had asked for help, but “I never received such a request from either Franks or Tenet and cannot imagine denying it if I had.” I can.

Osama bin Laden was not “one man on the run.” He is the man who did 9/11. He had just killed almost 3,000 people at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon, in a field in Pennsylvania. He’s the reason people held hands and jumped off the buildings. He’s the reason the towers groaned to the ground.

It is the great scandal of the wars of the Bush era that the U.S. government failed to get him and bring him to justice. It is the shame of this book that Don Rumsfeld lacks the brains to see it, or the guts to admit it.

Cowboy Subsidies

In Harry Reid’s world, the cowboy embodies dependency without end.

By Mark Steyn
March 12, 2011 4:00 A.M.

How mean-spirited are House Republicans? So mean-spirited that they would end federally funded cowboy poetry! Last Tuesday, Harry Reid, the majority leader, took to the Senate floor to thunder that this town ain’t big enough for both him and the Mean-Spirited Kid (John Boehner).

“The mean-spirited bill, HR 1 . . . eliminates the National Endowment of the Humanities, National Endowment of the Arts,” said Senator Reid. “These programs create jobs. The National Endowment of the Humanities is the reason we have in northern Nevada every January a cowboy-poetry festival. Had that program not been around, the tens of thousands of people who come there every year would not exist.”

“Tens of thousands” would “not exist”? There can’t be that many cowboy poets, can there? Oh, c’mon, don’t be naïve. Where there are taxpayer-funded cowboy poets, there must surely be cowboy-poetry festival administrators, and a Bureau of Cowboy-Poetry Festival Licensing, and cowboy-poetry festival administration grant-writers, and a Department of Cowboy Poetry Festival Administration Grant Application Processing, and Professors of Cowboy-Poetry Festival Educational Workshop Management at dozens of American colleges credentialing thousands of cowboy-poetry festival workshop coordinating majors every year.

It all adds up. In western railroad halts where the Last Chance Saloon shuttered in 1893, dusty one-horse towns are now glittering one-grant towns, where elderly hoochie-koochie dancers are being retrained to lead rewarding lives as inspectors from the Agency of Cowboy-Poetry Festival Handicapped-Access Compliance. Used to be a man could ride the range for days on end under lonesome skies with nuthin’ on the horizon ’cept a withered mesquite and a clump of sagebrush, but now all you see are clouds of dust and all you hear’s the mighty roar of thundering hooves as every gnarled ol’ wrangler in the territory races for the last hitching post outside creative-writing class.

Well, it’s easy to mock, and in the hours after Senator Reid’s effusions many of us on the Internet did. I liked Mary Katherine Ham’s channeling of Ted Kennedy: “John Boehner’s America is a land in which cowboys would be forced into back-alley poetry recitations.” Funny — although, being an example of private-sector non-government-funded wordsmithing, it obviously doesn’t “create jobs.”

But what’s more difficult to figure out is why everyone doesn’t mock — and why Senator Reid (and presumably senior flunkies in the bloated emir-sized retinues that now attend our “citizen-legislators”) thought this would be a persuasive line of argument. This year, the NEA will be giving $50,000 toward the exhibition “Ranchlines: Verses And Visions Of The Rural West” in Elko.

What’s the big deal? It’s 50 grand, a couple of saddlebags in small bills. Not a large sum. But then when you’re Harry Reid staggering around in your trillion-gallon hat, it’s all small potatoes, isn’t it?

He and too many other Americans seem to be living their version of the old line: If you owe the bank a thousand dollars, you have a problem; if you owe the bank a million dollars, the bank has a problem. America owes the world $14 trillion, so the world has a problem.

And, if it’s the world’s problem, why bother our pretty little heads about it? I’m struck by the number of times I’ve been blithely assured by insiders in D.C. and elsewhere that “it’s not in China’s interest” to yank the rug out from under America: We don’t need to do anything drastic, because they won’t do anything drastic. I’m not so sure I could claim with any degree of confidence to know what China considered to be in its interest. But we have the planet’s most lavishly funded intelligence agency, so they’re bound to be on top of it, aren’t they?

In the new budget, there’s a request from the CIA for an emergency appropriation of $513.7 million. Great! A mere half-billion. That’s enough for 10,000 cowboy-poetry festivals. So what’s it for? Toppling Kim Jong-Il? Taking out the Iranian nuclear program?

Er, no. It’s an emergency payment to stop the CIA pension fund from going bankrupt next year with unfunded liabilities of $6.4 billion. The CIA failed to foresee the collapse of the Iron Curtain until it happened. It failed to spot that Pakistan was going nuclear until it happened. But, when the world’s most bounteously endowed intelligence agency fails to spot that its own pension fund is going bankrupt until it happens, I wouldn’t bet the future on anyone in the United States government having much of a clue about what is or isn’t “in China’s interest.”

That leaves America to calculate what’s in America’s interest. And Harry Reid seems to have figured that it’s in America’s interest (or, at any rate, his) to spend like there’s no tomorrow even as the clock chimes quarter-to-midnight. And, when the Complacent Caballero tells you that we cannot contemplate doing anything as “mean-spirited” as a $50,000 cut in a poetry festival, he’s telling you it’s over.

What else do we fund apart from cowboy poetry? Well, American taxpayers fund the vast bulk of the rapidly expanding Chinese military merely through interest payments on the debt. This is the point in the cowboy movie when the guy squints through the window of the shack and says, “It’s quiet out there. Too quiet.”

What do you need to write cowboy poetry? Words like “tumbleweed” and “chaps.” Also, trochees, spondees, and dactyls. Pencil and paper. Total cost: 79 cents. Maybe you and a half-dozen other cowboy poets like to book the back room at the local bar once a month for an evening of cowboy poetry and a few beers. Total cost: couple hundred bucks. Maybe folks get word and you figure you should get a bigger room and invite the public and charge a three-dollar admission. Why does any of this require national subsidies managed by a distant bureaucracy thousands of miles away?

Well, because these days, what doesn’t? Once upon a time, the cowboy embodied the rugged individualism of the frontier. In Harry Reid’s world, he embodies dependency without end. To “preserve” the “tradition,” it is necessary to invert everything the tradition represents: From true grit to federally funded grit. Thus America, bouncing along in the Dead Wood Stage of history.

Whipcrack-away, whipcrack-away, whipcrack-away!

— Mark Steyn, a National Review columnist, is author of America Alone.© 2011 Mark Steyn.

Friday, March 11, 2011

When bishops brawled: An interview with Philip Jenkins

Have you ever had a fist fight about the natures of Christ? If you have, you would fit right in among ancient Christians, says this church historian.

By Meghan Murphy-Gill
A U.S. Catholic interview
Friday, January 15, 2010

Christians today may take it on faith that Jesus has both human and divine natures, but any church historian will tell you that in the early church the question sparked a wild and even deadly debate that lasted for centuries, centering on three church councils in the mid-400s.

Professor Philip Jenkins, who studies Christianity both ancient and modern, devotes a whole book to the story, but there's more to it than just airy theological questions. Scheming bishops, monastic militias, and the imperial court all played their parts, along with a healthy dose of chance.

"When you look at history, you realize that what we think of as orthodoxy gets established only gradually by a long series of events, which seem to be almost random," says Jenkins of the story he tells in Jesus Wars (HarperOne, 2010). "Is it pure chance or, looking at it in a good Old Testament way, is it providence?"

Theological questions aside, Jenkins argues that ancient conflict among Christians contributed to the rapid spread of Islam in the seventh century in what had been the heartland of Christianity. "Where did Islam come from? You cannot understand how Islam appears in the seventh century unless you understand the world of the divided churches," he says. "A lot of problems that we think about as modern actually go back 1,500 years or more."

Your new book is called Jesus Wars. Why would you describe the debate over the natures of Christ as a war?

For several hundred years, especially in the 400s and following centuries, the whole world revolved around literal and figurative wars over who Jesus was. That basic question ultimately destroyed the Roman Empire and led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people during the fifth century.

What were they fighting about?

The basic question was: Who is Christ? Today we have the phrase "fully God and fully human." But when you think that through, you end up with a lot of questions, which maybe we don't pursue logically anymore.

For example there's the common belief that Mary is the mother of God. Does that mean that Mary was literally and directly the mother of the God who created the universe? Does that mean when Jesus was a toddler crawling around on the floor, he was God?

If you worship Christ, what are you worshiping? If Christ is God, then you worship him as you worship God, but he's not really somebody you can identify with. If Christ is just human, then you're worshiping a man, and you do not have access to the full power of God.

This sounds like a debate for theologians. Did common people really care?

Back then, good Christians understood that if your bishop believed something that was flat wrong, you would pay for it in direct terms. There would be floods and famine and earthquakes. Why was there an earthquake that killed 10,000 people, as there was in ancient Antioch? Well, it's obviously because the bishop believed this weird nonsense about Christ.

It mattered to the politicians, too. The Roman Empire was in crisis in the fifth century: This was the time of the great barbarian invasions. Everyone's wondering which part of the Roman Empire would collapse next. How did you know you'd done something wrong? You lost your next battle with Attila the Hun.

Theological ideas don't exist in a vacuum. The toughest thing to explain to people in the fifth century would be the difference between politics and religion. They would see the distinction as meaningless. Religion was about God and how God took care of the world, including how God rewarded and punished states.

So people talked about this on the streets?

Famous passages from Christian writers of the fourth and fifth centuries claim that if you asked the baker for a couple of loaves, you'd get a lecture on whether the Son is greater than the Father in the Trinity. If you went to a bank and asked for the exchange rate, they would explain that the Holy Spirit comes forth from the Father and from the Son.

How much understanding people had, we don't know. But they certainly knew the slogans.

How did Christians line up?

There were basically two parties, which I call "one-nature" and "two-nature." The one-nature believers emphasized the divine character of Christ. Some of them just said simply that Christ is God, though there are variations. We generally call these people Monophysites.

The two-nature believers argued that divine and human both exist within Christ but are not fully merged. These people tend to get called "Nestorians" after a bishop named Nestorius, who was condemned as a heretic, though he would probably be considered orthodox today.

Both sides tended to exaggerate how weird the other was. The two-nature believers looked at the one-nature folks and said they believed that Christ is God merely visiting earth as a tourist. The Monophysites said that two-nature believers must think Christ has multiple personalities, divine and human.

How did people show what side they were on?

This sounds very modern, but it was like being a fan of a particular sports team. The big social events in the Roman cities, especially Constantinople, were chariot races, and people started wearing different colors. You were either a blue (two-nature) or a green (one-nature).

These groups were basically like soccer hooligans or street gangs, but were also connected with political factions. Sometimes tensions erupted and people were killed in riots and protests.

Were there any religious "weapons"?

Christians at this time had strict rules that people had to share the same beliefs to be part of the same church. If they weren't, they were heretics and you couldn't share Communion with them. If the bishop had a different view from his people, nobody would take Communion with him.

Ancient Christians would be appalled that bishops today are not excluding more people from Communion. Denying Communion was a standard tactic.

Sometimes Communion was even forced on people. In one story soldiers grabbed nuns of one faction in Constantinople and basically forced Communion into their mouths. The nuns literally took Communion kicking and screaming. One man became famous as Cyrus the Spitter, because he spit out the host, which then got him tortured to death.

Interestingly that is how the fight is taking place today in the Anglican Communion over homosexuality and the role of women. Many African bishops are refusing to share Communion with bishops of churches they disagree with because the Africans do not see the other bishops as orthodox.

Why were these questions arising at this point in history?

A large part of it was connected with establishment. Christianity received toleration in 313, but then the empire had to decide which particular part of Christianity it was going to tolerate. In the fourth century the Roman Empire got more specific about who it recognized as legitimately Christian. There was a lot at stake, because once you said that somebody was not legitimately Christian, they didn't have the right to have church buildings and would have to operate secretly.
The world became a lot less tolerant as the fourth century went on. In 385 the Roman Empire executed its first heretic, and by the 430s people talked about burning heretics quite regularly. By the year 500 your life depended on whether you were the right kind of Christian.

Was there more than just a theological debate going on?

A large part of this was power politics. Today we are used to a Christian world that has two main historical "centers": Rome (Catholic) and Constantinople (Orthodox). That's how it's been since the 800s. But in the fourth century the bishops of cities like Antioch and Jerusalem and Alexandria in Egypt were also powerful and important. So there was a lot of jockeying about for power.

The Alexandrian bishops can be compared to the Soprano crime family. Their greatest representative was Cyril, but there was a series of powerful, savvy Alexandrian bishops. The patriarchs conspired especially against Constantinople, the imperial capital, but also against anyone who stood in their way.

How do we know about the politics?

Nestorius, who was bishop of Constantinople, shows up in most seminary training as the fall guy for something called the "Nestorian heresy," even though he was almost certainly not a heretic and would have been very much in tune with modern Catholics.

In the year 431 he's condemned at the First Council of Ephesus and thrown out of power. Sources written by his enemies say his tongue rotted out and he died, but he actually went into exile and wrote a juicy autobiography, which didn't turn up in the West until the 19th century.

In it he almost literally tells where the bodies are buried. It's like he's writing live from a couple of big church councils: who's bribing whom, who's on whose side. It makes for great reading, though he's certainly not unbiased.

What about the bishop of Rome?

The pope at the time, Leo the Great, is an interesting one. Two years after the Council of Chalcedon (451), which decided the question of the natures of Christ based on a treatise he allegedly authored, Leo wrote a wonderful letter asking if someone could tell him what happened at the council. He couldn't get anything he could read. He didn't understand a word of Greek, and all the theological debates were in Greek.

Rome was a heavyweight name, but when the Romans showed up at the councils, they didn't speak the language and had to rely on bad translations.

Rome was on the make at this time. From the 370s to the 440s, everything that we think of in terms of the papacy was coming into existence. That's when popes really emphasized being the heir of Peter. One reason they pushed so hard was because they were in a distant corner of the Roman world. Power was in Constantinople, and Rome could fall any day to the barbarians. Papal claims escalated as the pope's real power declined.

You point out in your book that monks also played an important role.

Monasticism was fairly new at this point. It emerged in the third and fourth centuries, and by the fifth there were literally large armies of monks, especially in Egypt, fanatically devoted to the church and willing to be turned out as clerical militias at a council. An Islamic militia in Iraq or Somalia today is a good analogy. And that doesn't mean they were out-of-control monks; they were doing what they should have been doing, literally fighting for the church.

The monks also reflected a turning point in social history. The Roman Empire was clean and well-washed; people took baths. But by the fifth century a lot of Christians started thinking that cleanliness was the opposite of godliness. The less you washed, the holier you were.

Imagine what an ancient council must have been like on a hot August day on the Mediterranean, with several hundred monks who had never washed. The smell must have been unbelievable.

How did church councils work?

Think of the U.S. Congress. When you have a debate in the Senate you know exactly how many senators there are, exactly what the rules are, how many senators you need to avoid a filibuster.

In church councils you knew none of the above. Councils didn't meet regularly, so there was often nobody around to remember what happened last time.

There's no set number of bishops at a council. In the ancient world nobody even knew how many bishops there were. The standard guess is 1,200, but nobody really knew, then or now, because in North Africa you couldn't throw a stone without hitting a bishop.

It was also the ancient world, so not everyone could get there; there were Huns and other barbarians on the road. If you got 200 or 300 bishops, you were doing pretty well.

There were no formal voting procedures either. Things were done in a kind of ritualized acclamation, more like North Korea than the U.S. Congress. Some of the shouts actually are more like cheers: "Glory to the great Bishop Cyril, the Holy Spirit speaks through him! He's the 13th apostle, let's hear it for Cyril!"

Any council was likely to spawn a dissident minority, which was going to put in its own report. Then everything went to the emperor, and both sides would lobby and bribe him furiously.

How did all this result in a resolution? We're obviously not fighting about the two natures of Christ today.

The issue came to a head in 428, when Nestorius became bishop of Constantinople. Between 428 and 431 he gave a couple of sermons that basically divided the Christian world in a mere three years.

He infuriated the Alexandrians, and in 431 they called the First Council of Ephesus to condemn Nestorius. The Alexandrians, who were Monophysites, said Nestorius leaned too far toward two-nature thinking, though later Nestorius agreed to what we today would call orthodox Catholic doctrine.

In 431 the council started, but a large chunk of the bishops, 50 or 60, didn't turn up from Antioch and the other eastern cities, where two-nature theology was strongest. One theory is weather; another is they were afraid of being beaten up by monks. So they took a leisurely couple of months to make a trip that should have only taken them about a week.

Meanwhile, in Ephesus on the Mediterranean, it was very hot. Bishops were starting to die regularly from heat. So they condemned Nestorius, sending a friendly letter to him which they began, "Dear Judas."

Finally the other bishops showed up, and they excommunicated the bishops who excommunicated Nestorius. After a while you needed flash cards to figure out who excommunicated whom. The controversy migrated to Constantinople, where everyone was trying to lobby the emperor.

Finally the Cyril faction brought out a famous one-nature holy man, Dalmatius, a monk who hadn't left his cell in years, and paraded him through the city, which caused a riot and basically forced the emperor to give in. Nestorius was out of office.

So Alexandria won?

For the moment. Over the next few years, the Monophysites became more and more extreme until finally some of them claimed Christ is just God and not human. There was a fight over this that led to the Second Council of Ephesus in 449, where a large group of monks showed up to intimidate anyone who opposed the bishop of Alexandria. If any bishop or priest on the other side tried to write an accurate account of the proceedings, a bunch of monks would take the pen out of his hands and break his fingers.

It was so violent and dangerous that the monks actually beat the patriarch of Constantinople to death. Today it's called the Robber Council or the Gangster Synod.

The Egyptians basically moved the ecclesiastical world away from Rome and Constantinople. It looked like it was going to be a Monophysite world based in Alexandria.

How is it that we're not following the pope of Alexandria today?

It seemed like nothing could go wrong until one day the emperor, Theodosius II, was out riding and his horse tripped and the emperor died. If you were a good medieval Catholic Christian, you absolutely believed that God made that horse trip. There was a new emperor, and more to the point, a new empress who happened to believe some very "blue," two-nature ideas, very Roman ideas.

What role did the new empress play?

Her name was Pulcheria, and she was the sister of the emperor who fell off the horse. And for about 30 years she was the guiding force in preserving what we today call Catholic Christianity.

As a teenage girl, Pulcheria was very pious and wanted to be a nun. She ran a whole cult of holy virgins around herself, as if she was the Virgin Mary. People addressed hymns to her. If any woman did this sort of thing several hundred years later in Christian Europe, she probably would have been burned at the stake as a witch.

Pulcheria was the one who did all the behind-the-scenes battling first against Nestorius, whose theology of the Virgin Mary wasn't exalted enough for her, and finally against Cyril and the Monophysites. She came to power in 450 and ended up as the standard bearer of Catholic Christianity.

Under Pulcheria's influence, the new emperor, her husband, Marcian, called the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which defined the orthodox doctrine of the two natures of Christ. The formula was allegedly written by Pope Leo in "Leo's Tome." Chalcedon reversed the results of the Gangster Synod. Nestorius was still out of favor, but the Egyptians also lost.

That's very important in lots of ways. For one thing it meant that the heart of the Christian world would be Constantinople and Rome, not Alexandria. If these things had worked out differently, the heart of Christianity would have moved back to Alexandria.

So a nasty accident led to an amazing revolution. No one in Alexandria could believe it, because they held all the wealth and power. I'm surprised that Rome doesn't have a statue to the imperial horse that tripped, because that accident preserved the papacy.

What happened after Chalcedon?

Over the next 100 years all the oldest, most established churches, all the churches with the most direct links to the apostles, went in different directions as separate churches.

One set of churches became what we call Nestorian, which for several centuries were among the most sucessful Christian missionaries. They went to India, China, and Central Asia. Between 800 and 900 they were by far the most successful branch of Christianity in the world.

The Monophysites took a large chunk of Syria and Egypt. They had the greatest scholarship, the greatest connections with the New Testament, but they were all labeled heretical.

What was left was a rump, a small portion, and that's what becomes European Christianity.

What if that horse hadn't tripped?

Let's pretend that Emperor Theodosius had lived and Chalcedon had not happened. What it would have meant is that most of the Middle Eastern churches-Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia-would have stayed at the heart of the Roman Empire; maybe Italy and France would have peeled off, but nobody would have cared because they were so marginal to the story. It's quite possible that the center of the church would have moved to Alexandria.

And if the empire still held the Middle East, it probably would not have succumbed to Islam. But when the Muslims came in the seventh century, the Nestorians and Monophysites, who were oppressed by the Catholic emperors, welcomed them as liberators because the Muslims preached and, until the 13th century, practiced religious toleration. As long as you paid taxes they didn't care what you believed.

What are the lessons from those ancient fights for Christians today?

When you actually pin down what the two sides disagreed about in the fifth century, so much of it depended on a few words or even letters. One huge debate is over a single Greek letter, which determined whether Christ was "in" two natures or "from" two natures. Christians literally were killing each other over it, and they didn't realize that Islam was about to overtake them.

I do not mean that Christians should unite against other religions or feel that Islam is a particularly dangerous threat in that way; that was just the particular historical circumstance. What I mean is that people should recognize the great deal they have in common before they start seeing each other as enemies.

The other lesson is probably how you see your enemies in debates like this. There is a danger in so exaggerating them that you create monsters. Your "enemy" is someone you may not necessarily have that much against when you really think about it.

This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (vol. 75, no. 2, pages 18-23).


"A Combustible Faith" - A review of Jesus Wars -

Today's Tune: Ryan Bingham - Southside of Heaven (Live w/ Joe Ely)

Lent in Narnia

Would C.S. Lewis have renounced Turkish Delight from Ash Wednesday to Easter?

Devin Brown
posted 3/10/2011 09:34AM

Jadis serves Edmund Turkish Delight in the 2005 movie version of "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe."

In his short essay "Some Thoughts," C. S. Lewis examines the paradoxical fact that the Christian calendar is as full of feasts as it is fasts, as full of fasts as it is feasts.

How did the Christian faith come to have this unique "two-edged" character, a stance which is both world-affirming and world-denying? Lewis explains that on one hand "because God created the Natural—invented it out of His love and artistry—it demands our reverence." But at the same time, "because Nature, and especially human nature is fallen it must be corrected and the evil within it must be mortified."

But make no mistake, Lewis writes, its essence is good, and correction is "something quite different" from repudiation or Stoic superiority. And hence, Lewis argues, all true Christian asceticism will have "respect for the thing rejected" at its center. "Feasts are good," Lewis concludes, "though today we fast."

Lewis makes a similar point in his essay "A Slip of the Tongue," where he argues that in the life of a perfect believer, feasts "would be as Christian" as fasts.

Though today we fast, feasts are good. Feasts are, or should be, as Christian as fasts. These statements might serve as helpful signposts as we enter the seasons of Lent and Easter.

This two-edged, world-denying and world-affirming, stance is seen clearly in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the Turkish Delight which Edmund is tempted with and in the delightful meal served up by the Beavers.

Early in the story, the White Witch creates a box filled with "several pounds" of Turkish Delight which Edmund greedily devours. Donald Glover has called Lewis's specific choice of Turkish Delight a master stroke, one made with clear intention. What would have been lost if the Witch had tempted Edmund with, for example, oatmeal and raisin cookies? Glover argues that Turkish Delight is "a highly overrated sweet," and Narnia fans who have gone in search of the candy may agree, wondering how Edmund could have fallen prey to the overly sugared confection. Surely the name promises more than the candy delivers, and this, perhaps, is Lewis's point. Furthermore, it is not just Delight but Turkish Delight, a title containing, as Glover has observed, "Oriental and romantic overtones," further promises left unfulfilled by the sticky goo.

Gilbert Meilaender, in a chapter appropriately titled "The Sweet Poison of the False Infinite," provides an analysis of the spell that the Witch's candy casts upon Edmund.[1] As Meilaender explains, the phrase "the sweet poison of the false infinite" comes from Lewis's novel Perelandra and refers to any love of secondary things which has become inordinate. In Miracles, Lewis maintains that we are to offer the created things and pleasures of this world "neither worship nor contempt." Meilaender points out that the theme of inordinate loves is one to which Lewis often returns.

The Witch's magic candy is a sickly imitation of the wholesome food the children are served at the Beavers' house. There they eat boiled potatoes with "a great big lump of deep yellow butter" from which everyone can take "as much as he wanted." The main course is "good freshwater fish" followed by "a great and gloriously sticky marmalade roll" fresh from the oven and steaming hot. Afterwards, they each have a big cup of tea, push back their stools, and let out "a long sigh of contentment."

Lewis's point with the Turkish Delight is not that enjoying sweets is bad; in fact, his position is quite the contrary. Enjoyment of life's pleasures in all their variety and plenitude will be an essential quality of proper Narnian life. This was seen earlier in the tea that Mr. Tumnus provided for Lucy which included "a nice brown egg, lightly boiled, for each of them, and then sardines on toast, and then buttered toast, and then toast with honey, and then a sugar-topped cake." Meilaender points out that in both his fiction and non-fiction, Lewis suggests over and over that "to be fully human involves a certain stance toward the things of creation," one of deep enjoyment but not slavish adoration.

Lewis's devil Screwtape explains the situation to his young nephew this way: "Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy's ground. … He made the pleasures. … All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasure which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden."

In his essay "First and Second Things," Lewis elaborates on this point, writing:

By valuing too highly a real but subordinate good, we … come near to losing that good itself. The woman who makes a dog the center of her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping. … Every preference of a small good to a great, or a partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good. … You can't get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.

These real but subordinate goods come in endless variety besides the sorts of activities which are typically given up for Lent, things like eating sweets, smoking, or drinking Coke. Human curiosity, for example, is one of these real goods which must have its ordinate place. We see its proper role in the lives of the four Pevensies when they decide to explore the Professor's house. As the narrator tells us, "That was how the adventures began." The Professor's house is described as having a whole series of rooms lined with books, an indicator of the goodness of curiosity in its proper place in the Professor's life and vocation.

It was not always like this. In The Magician's Nephew, Digory's healthy sense of curiosity became inordinate as he forcibly made Polly stay in Charn while he struck the mysterious bell to find out what would happen. As Jonathan Rogers has noted, here Digory shows "an excessive desire for knowledge."[2] It is fitting that at this point Polly tells Digory he looks just like his Uncle Andrew.

But lest we react too strongly and reject curiosity or any other created thing altogether, Lewis also includes in The Magician's Nephew one of the most awe-inspiring creation scenes in all of literature, as Aslan sings Narnia into existence—each star, stag, bird, and blade of grass. You may choose to despise the things of this world, Lewis seems be saying, but know that they came from the Creator's loving hand with a very different relationship in mind.

"A properly Christian view of things requires more than a right relationship to the things of heaven," Jonathan Rogers writes. "It requires a right relationship to the things of earth too." Rogers concludes that "by allowing the reader to watch the creation of another world, C. S. Lewis evokes an appropriate awe and delight in the things of this world."

As we enter into the season of Lent, it might be helpful to see these 40 days not so much a time of renunciation (unless, of course, we have things to renounce) but a time of reordering, a time to slow down, step back, and carefully examine the things we have actively made or passively allowed to become the first things and second things in our lives.

- Devin Brown is a Lilly Scholar and a Professor of English at Asbury University. He is the author of Inside Narnia (2005), Inside Prince Caspian (2008), and Inside the Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010).




All Things Contemptible

What NPR’s “educated and intelligent” elite really thinks

By Mona Charen
March 11, 2011 12:00 A.M.

James O’Keefe, who is now felling executives of National Public Radio as he previously trap-doored ACORN, must be a deeply cynical young man. How else could he have imagined that ACORN workers in several cities would cheerfully offer to help him set up brothels using underage Central American girls?

How else could he have imagined that executives of National Public Radio (and apparently PBS, though that video has not surfaced as of this writing) would eagerly truckle to a front-group of the Muslim Brotherhood? But they did. They all did. As Nora Ephron said, “No matter how cynical I get I just can’t keep up.”

Like the FBI’s Abscam sting in the 1970s that netted six congressmen, a senator, and assorted others willing to accept bribes from “Arab sheiks,” O’Keefe and his colleagues designed a sting operation that involved activists posing as “Amir Malik” (supposedly from Nigeria though his accent screamed Caribbean), and “Ibrahim Kasaam.” They were, they explained, representatives of MEAC, the “Muslim Education Action Center,” a trust that was considering a $5 million donation to NPR.

On the fake website created for the scam, MEAC described its mission as fighting “intolerance” but also “to spread acceptance of sharia around the world.” You or I might have been given pause by that second bit, but not Ron Schiller, president of the NPR Foundation, and Betsy Liley, “senior director for institutional giving” at NPR. They showed up for lunch. Even before the risotto was served, “Ibrahim” volunteered that his organization was founded by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, “in America actually.” Not an eyelash quivered from the NPR team.

“Ibrahim” expressed his discontent with “the current discourse” in America, particularly as it concerned Muslims. This elicited enthusiastic nodding from Schiller and Liley. Schiller rhapsodized about NPR being the “voice of reason” — nearly the only place Americans could turn for “fair and balanced” news. He used that stolen slogan repeatedly. Schiller and Liley stressed that anti-Muslim bigotry was just the latest iteration of a classic American sin. “We put the Japanese in camps,” Liley lamented.

As for those who thought perhaps NPR should do without taxpayer dollars, Schiller noted, “It feels to me as if there is a real anti-intellectual move on the part of a significant part of the Republican party.” And then, inexplicably, this: “The current Republican party, particularly the Tea Party, is fanatically involved in people’s personal lives. They’re very fundamental Christian, and I wouldn’t even call it Christian, it’s this weird evangelical kind of move . . .”

Really? All those thousands of Americans carrying signs and listening to speeches about debt and taxes and spending and bankruptcy — they were fundamentalists?

“The Republican party has been hijacked by this group,” Schiller explained to people he thought were representing a Muslim Brotherhood–linked group. They weren’t just “Islamophobic, but xenophobic — they believe in right-wing, middle-America, gun-toting . . . I mean it’s scary. They’re seriously racist, racist people.”

Again and again in the course of two hours (full video is available at, Schiller described NPR’s listeners as “educated and intelligent,” unlike you-know-who. It’s of course ridiculous to say that NPR is “liberal” — but, just among ourselves — “liberals are more educated, fair, and balanced.” There’s that phrase again!

What Schiller dislikes about America is that “people like to make snap judgments . . . that all gays are after your children, that blacks are going to stab you . . . NPR is constantly trying to break through that.” But it’s hard, because such “a small percentage of the population” is educated and intelligent.

Told that NPR is affectionately referred to as National Palestinian Radio among his compatriots, Schiller and Liley laughed, and Liley exclaimed “Really? I love that!” Schiller suggested that NPR was neither “pro-Israel nor anti-Israel” but didn’t hesitate to boast to his “Muslim” hosts that NPR’s Israel coverage had offended a prominent Jewish American family so much that they withdrew their funding. Ah, exclaimed “Ibrahim,” this underscores the degree to which the American press is controlled by Jews and Zionists. Most of the press, “Ibrahim” continued, is accordingly pro-Zionist.

“I don’t find that at NPR,” Schiller offered. “Obviously” you find it among people “who own newspapers,” he continued. “But nobody owns NPR, so I don’t find it.”

Thank goodness Mr. Schiller is among the “educated and intelligent” elite — those who would never dream of stigmatizing minorities, dealing in stereotypes, or sanctioning bigotry. Thank goodness he would never consider slandering his countrymen in order to curry favor with people he had every reason to suspect were Islamic extremists.

Thank O’Keefe that Schiller and his boss are out of their jobs. It’s a start.

— Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2011 Creators Syndicate.

Dems’ Dull Budget Scissors

Nancy Pelosi demands more while President Obama refuses to lead.

By Jonah Goldberg
March 11, 2011

According to earthly logic, if you got a raise of 10 percent last year, but this year you got a raise of only 8 percent, you still got a raise. On Planet Washington, that qualifies as an indefensible slashing.

So when the GOP actually cut $4 billion from the budget last week, the Democrats acted as if it was an involuntary amputation.

Now the GOP wants to cut $61 billion of discretionary non-defense spending from the total budget of $3.7 trillion, and Democrats are responding as if this will spell the end of Western civilization.

But given their terror of forcing a government shutdown in this tea-soaked climate, Democrats were forced to counteroffer with a cut of $10.5 billion, or 0.28 percent of the federal budget. Imagine you have a budget of $10,000 (about 40 percent of it borrowed on a credit card), then “slash” 28 bucks. That’s what it’s like to be a frugal Democrat.

Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace repeatedly pressed Sen. Dick Durbin: Is $10.5 billion in cuts “really the best the Democrats can do?” The No. 2 Senate Democrat responded, eventually: “We’ve pushed this to the limit.” Any cuts beyond that would simply crater our economy and gut “investments” to make us competitive with China. Apparently, Durbin thinks trimming the staff at the Oregon National Laboratory will result in us all becoming busboys at a Beijing restaurant.

Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, makes Durbin look stingier than the guy who invented copper wire by refusing to let go of a penny. Her solution to the deficit is — wait for it — to spend a whole bunch more. In October, Pelosi said that every dollar spent on unemployment benefits and food stamps puts another $1.79 into economy. “It is the biggest bang for the buck when you do food stamps and unemployment insurance.”

If that were true, why not drop bags of cash from C-130s over the unemployed and poor?

Her latest version of teenage-mutant-ninja Keynesianism is to “invest” even more on education. “Nothing brings more to the treasury than investing in education,” Pelosi said.

Never mind that Washington has “invested” roughly $2 trillion in education since 1965. And forget the fact that spending on education at all levels of government has gone from $55,000 (in 2010 dollars) for one student’s K–12 student in 1970 to $155,000 in 2009, according to Cato Institute scholar Andrew Coulson, while “overall achievement has stagnated or declined, depending on the subject.”[1]

Would another trillion in education spending really have a greater return than, say, allowing American companies to drill for the billions of gallons of oil under our soil and the trillions of cubic feet of natural gas? Don’t ask Pelosi. Like Bluto in Animal House talking about the Germans bombing Pearl Harbor, she’s on a roll.

Why am I talking about Durbin and Pelosi? Well, Obama is in a fetal crouch under the Oval Office desk, muttering something about the need for courage and bipartisanship while quietly proposing $6.5 billion in cuts, which the Congressional Budget Office said is really only $4.7 billion. (That’s about $700 million more than the U.S. spends in borrowed money every day. Imagine someone in obscene debt going a little more than 24 hours without using his credit card. Problem solved!)

Oh, and Senate majority leader Harry Reid seems determined to keep talking until the men in the white coats escort him off the Senate floor. He was last heard saying the GOP has gone crazy because it had cut funding to a cowboy-poetry festival in Nevada. No, really. Stop laughing.

In 2007, the budget was 19.6 percent of the GDP. In 2009, it went up to 25 percent of GDP. That’s where the Democrats would like it to stay.

What happened? The financial crisis, of course. But as many of us suggested at the time, one of the Democrats’ real motives behind the stimulus was to inflate the “baseline” budget so that huge increases would never be reversed thanks to the D.C. logic that a cut in growth is a cut.

Now, Democrats greet any attempt to restore the size of government to its pre-crisis size — when we were still living way above our means — as if America would be plunged into the Stone Age.

Look at it this way. Those heartless Republican bastards would cut 2011 non-defense discretionary spending from 3.6 percent to 3.2 percent of GDP. Under Bill Clinton, such spending averaged 3.1 percent of GDP.

We owe $14 trillion we don’t have. Our total liabilities — i.e., Social Security and other entitlements — dwarf that. Obviously, we can’t just cut discretionary spending alone. But if it’s this hard to ask rough-rider poets to cowboy up, how are we going to deal with what everyone agrees is the much harder stuff?

— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.



Thursday, March 10, 2011

Book Review: 'One Rough Man' by Brad Taylor

Saturday, February 19, 2011

On the day that changed everything, Sept. 11, 2001, Brad Taylor’s wife was nine months pregnant. Within days, she gave birth to their daughter. Four days after that, Taylor headed to Afghanistan with the image of his crying wife holding their new baby permanently etched in his mind. During his twenty-one years in the U.S. Army, Taylor’s job assignment was with special operations and ultimately as a commander in the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment — better known as Delta Force.

He’s the real deal.

This is what makes his debut novel, One Rough Man, so fascinating — Brad Taylor has actually navigated the deep currents of the complex and dangerous waters he writes about. He takes the reader beyond Delta Forces and into the realm of the secretive — out of the box and off the grid. His vehicle is called Taskforce and his hero is a guy named Pike Logan. Think Jack Bauer and Mitch Rapp on steroids, or Jason Bourne — only taller, tougher, and totally unlike Matt Damon.

As Americans watch events unfold throughout the Middle East, first in Egypt and now with unrest spreading like a contagion to other states in the region, we have a fresh reminder of just how quickly geo-political reality changes. And always nearby there is the threat of Islamism.

It is an ideology that feeds on instability, whether exploiting the rage and frustration in American prisons, or manipulating the hopes and dreams of naïve protestors in public squares, Islamism is a political poison that deceives and destroys. We’d do well to bear in mind that the various tales spun by novelists — stories of intrigue and suspense — are not really all that far from reality. Not far at all.

The title of Brad Taylor’s new book, One Rough Man, comes from a quote attributed to George Orwell (with a nod to Rudyard Kipling): “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” Some who spend too much time missing the point might debate the authenticity of the quote, but its essential truth is beyond dispute. And Pike Logan is the roughest of the rough men.

Is there some Brad Taylor in Pike Logan? He insists that there isn’t, though he acknowledges his great sense of pride in having served with many “Pike Logan’s” over the years. There is no doubt, however, that Taylor’s literary creation is informed by his real-life experiences. Although unlike the author, Logan endures — and not all that gracefully — a severe personal trauma, one that puts his life and career on a downward spiral. It’s a well-worn path of self-destructive behavior born of despair.

But, One Rough Man is every bit as much a story of redemption as it is of retribution. And of course — but far from clichéd — the way back involves a woman in need. Her name is Jennifer Cahill, the niece of a celebrated anthropologist who is murdered after finding what turns out to be an ancient WMD — yep, a good old fashioned weapon of mass destruction — in a remote Mayan jungle. As the story moves forward, Logan and Cahill find themselves racing against the clock to thwart what could potentially be an Islamist terrorist act of historic proportions. And they themselves are being tracked and targeted, as well.

This is a familiar formula for fans of the “thriller” genre, but Taylor’s background and clear flair for research give the book the feel of something different from a predictable first novel. It is also clear at times that the author finds himself unable to let the reader in on details that are very real and very classified.

Taylor is currently finishing work on a second book in an ultimate series involving Pike Logan. It is likely that this new character will take his place among that elite group of near super-heroes who give us a glimpse of hope that there might, in fact, be such people who make the world safer for the rest of us. Sometimes they make us uncomfortable. And certainly we all acknowledge the tension between our love for freedom and the occasional need for things to happen in the name of security that seem to momentarily trump, or at least suspend, a basic value here or there. I suspect, however, that more people than care to admit it secretly hope there are such operatives “ready to do violence on their behalf.”

Brad Taylor has wanted to write a novel for a long time, but it was as he approached retirement from the army, after a final teaching assignment at the Citadel, that he decided to give it a try. One Rough Man is a great first book and leaves the reader with a hunger for more.

We may as well make room in our hearts and on our shelves for some great Pike Logan adventures to come.

Brad Taylor gives us the world’s next action hero

Rough and Tumble

by Erica Jackson Curran
February 16, 2011

After serving 21 years in the Army Infantry and Special Forces, Brad Taylor knows a thing or two about the military. The Charleston resident’s debut novel, One Rough Man, uses his experience to tell the story of Pike Logan, a member of a government anti-terrorism operation called the Taskforce.

Logan is a leader of the super-secret team tasked with eliminating terrorists, but when his wife and daughter are brutally murdered, he’s so consumed with rage that he’s viewed as a danger to the force and discharged. He falls into a life of solitude and alcoholism until he receives a cry for help from a college student named Jennifer Cahill whose anthropologist uncle was murdered after discovering an ancient weapon of mass destruction in the Mayan jungle.

Operating off the grid, Logan resembles a superhero, fighting for vengeance and righteousness in the name of America. Taylor assures us the organization is completely fictional: “The fact that Taskforce is in my book is proof positive that it isn’t real, because I wouldn’t put it in there.” He also admits there were times he wishes such a group could exist, above protocol and above constraints. “It’s kind of this make-believe organization everyone has a fantasy about,” he says.

Though recently retired, Taylor has plenty of personal experiences to pull from, including eight years in the Delta Force, where he commanded multiple troops and a squadron. He served in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other classified locales. Events in the book are inspired by his military career, but don’t generally reflect actual events.

“No overarching real-life events are depicted in the book,” he says. “As far as I know, we’ve never killed a drug kingpin in Guatemala, captured a terrorist getting a dirty bomb in Georgia, or killed a terrorist in Sarajevo. Having said that, a host of experiences, which happened to me or to people I know, appear. It’s impossible for them not to.”

With his broad knowledge base, Taylor was extra careful not to reveal sensitive information, calling on friends in the military to proof the book before publication.

“I write fiction, which means I can make up whatever I want,” he says. “If I paint myself into a corner where the only way to keep the plot moving forward is something classified, I simply back up and start again.”

A stickler for detail, Taylor supplements his deep knowledge base with meticulous research. He studied Guatemala, Belize, and Washington, D.C. over the course of writing One Rough Man. For an excerpt in which Pike and Jennifer must break out of an interrogation facility at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Taylor actually visited the airport, tracing his characters’ steps from customs, noting cameras, alarms, and checkpoints.

“In my mind it’s kind of insulting to the reader if you don’t do any research at all,” Taylor says. “In fact, I won’t even finish a book if it’s something I know about and the guy’s just making things up off the top of his head. I’ll just put the book down because it smacks of laziness.”

Taylor had always toyed with the idea of writing a book, but didn’t have time until he retired in 2010. During a stint teaching military science at the Citadel, he suddenly found himself with extra time on his hands.

“When I got there, it was like I was on a 200 mile-per-hour train and now I was on one doing 10 miles-per-hour,” he says. “It was a real rewarding job, but it was nowhere near the pace, so I said I would try to write a book.”

With no official training, One Rough Man was a brand-new learning experience for Taylor.

“I learned to write on the fly, initially through the help of a freelance editor named Caroline Upcher,” he says. “She was brutal on my first manuscript — which will never see the light of day — and it was a steep learning curve, but in the end she taught me the rudimentary skills of the craft.”

With that training behind him, Taylor is prepared to bring Pike Logan back in a series of books. In fact, his second has already been turned in to his editor. While he won’t divulge the details, Taylor says that Pike and Jennifer open a business to be used by the Taskforce as a cover to conduct operations, dealing with a homegrown threat that’s “very, very plausible.”

Realistic threats and current events factor prominently in Taylor’s plot.

“It takes about two years to get a novel out, and in that time any number of things could happen,” he says. “Truthfully, a big fear I had with One Rough Man was that Iran would cause a war, which would have drastically affected the currency of the book. I tend to stick to overarching themes as opposed to concrete current events.

“For instance, the Mexican drug cartels are a bit player in One Rough Man. I wrote that section a long time ago, because I figured it wasn’t going to be solved anytime soon, and now the cartels are big news, so it worked out,” he says. “On the other hand, Egypt is a large part of book two. I’m looking at the current events over there and wondering how much rewriting I’m going to be doing.”

Book Review: 'The Secret Soldier'

The Company He Keeps

The New York Times
February 25, 2011


By Alex Berenson

401 pp. G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $25.95

Ask not what John Wells can do for your country. Seriously, don’t ask. Even if you found this former C.I.A. operative in a chatty mood, his answers might leave you feeling uneasy. He’s the sort of guy who borrows civilians’ cars with all the hesitation of a teenage shoplifter, who’ll club the skull of a useful drug dealer who’s already comfortably trussed in the back of an Econoline. When a beefy thug on a pier in Cyprus dismisses him with an ostentatious yawn, Wells quickly takes him to task, dumping him into Zygi's oily harbor. And these are just the tales he could actually tell. The ones he couldn’t — now those are scary.

A 210-pound, Montana-raised, one-man Team America, Wells has already completed four missions dreamed up by the novelist Alex Berenson. In his fifth, “The Secret Soldier,” Wells and an intrepid former Special Ops soldier take on a freelance assignment financed by steady streams of million-dollar Saudi paychecks. Wells must defuse an impending war on Arabian soil between the United States and the House of Saud, instigated by a terrorist group so shadowy that its attacks on soft targets around the Persian Gulf perplex even Al Qaeda.

Given this year of riot and revolution in Cairo, Tunis and Sana, it’s frighteningly easy to believe Berenson’s terrifying chain of events in Riyadh, Jeddah and Mecca. But Berenson, a former reporter for The New York Times, confounds traditional fantasies of patriotism and vengeance. His hero has an unfortunate knack for arriving at the scene just after the nick of time. Wells is also a conflicted Islamic convert (although Berenson uses this detail mostly as a narrative ornament — we don’t even see Wells pray until halfway through the book).

“The Secret Soldier” luxuriates in violence, positively raging with Tarantino-style carnage. It’s rare to go more than a few pages without encountering a sickening passage like this: “Shrapnel tore open his face and neck, and one jagged piece chopped through his skull and cut into the arteries around his brain, causing massive internal bleeding. He died, but not soon enough.” But in the spirit of his lapsed C.I.A. spook, Berenson doesn’t fully trust his readers; he habitually litters his prose with research notes. When a victim of a terrorist attack in Bahrain screams, “Call 119,” the narrator helpfully explains: “The Bahraini equivalent of 911.” By the time a Montego Bay hoodlum mentions Kingston, and the narrator adds, “the Jamaican capital,” you feel as if you’re stuck in a movie theater next to a whisperer you’d love to throttle.

Thankfully, these intrusions soon vanish, letting Berenson’s confidence with forensics, scenery and storytelling bloom. He’s equally convincing as he guides us into the backseat of King Abdullah’s speeding Maybach and places us in the hotel room (not to mention the mind) of a cross-dressing suicide bomber. From the first page of the prologue, Berenson’s most innocuous settings (11 p.m. in an Irish bar, Manama, Bahrain) reliably fill us with dread. His characters are all adept with entertaining, rat-a-tat zingers, and whenever tension mounts, Berenson ends his paragraphs with dashes —

But one of the most provocative passages in “The Secret Soldier” is one many readers won’t notice. Set in tiny type on the copyright page is a long, unorthodox disclaimer, reaching far beyond the “any persons living or dead” boilerplate to detail how this novel turns Saudi Arabia’s very real (and very much alive) King Abdullah into a central character, locked in an invented power struggle with invented brothers and invented sons. If the story doesn’t send you racing to Wikipedia to catch up on the House of Saud and Mecca, this mind-bending footnote will.

Plunking one of the world’s wealthiest, most powerful men into a terrifying thriller? That’s a twist even John Wells might not have seen coming.

Todd Pruzan is the editor of and the author of “The Clumsiest People in Europe.”

No Intervention in Libya

In the absence of compelling national-security interests, we should stay out.

By Andrew C. McCarthy
March 10, 2011 4:00 A.M.

I am against intervention in Libya. In explaining why, four things about the ongoing commentary and handwringing over no-fly zones and other potential U.S. intrusions seem noteworthy.

First are the sudden torrents of disdain for Muammar Qaddafi by commentators who spent the Bush years saying this very same terrorist — who even then was repressing the very same opposition he is fighting now — was a great ally of the United States against terrorism. I carry no brief for Qaddafi; I thought it was reprehensible for our government to try to launder him into a statesman, much like Clinton did with Arafat. But given that this strategy only tightened Qaddafi’s grip on power, it’s a bit much for us suddenly to be told that we are now under a moral obligation to oust him. Some proponents of intervention add, “He must answer for Flight 103.” Why didn’t he need to be removed and answer for Flight 103 some time between 2003 and 2008?

Second is the studied effort to avoid addressing who the Libyan opposition is. As in Egypt, the main opposition is the Muslim Brotherhood — avowed enemies of the West whose goal is the establishment of sharia states. The National Front for the Salvation of Libya is also a largely Islamist opposition group — one that was stronger until many of its Islamist members split off because they objected to the group’s acceptance of U.S. support in the 1980s. There are other Islamist and leftist groups, including violent jihadists. Moreover, Libya is virulently anti-Israeli, and a disturbing anti-Semitism courses through the opposition. (See this Pajamas report [1], as well as this post by Andrew Bostom on the history of anti-Semitism in Libya [2].) Whatever regime comes after Qaddafi is likely to be anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-Israeli. That doesn’t mean such a regime might not be marginally better than Qaddafi, but it does affect how much we ought to care and how much effort we ought to expend to hasten the post-Qaddafi era.

Third, reading my friend Pete Wehner’s post on Contentions today [3], I have to say that proponents of the “Freedom Agenda” continue to misstate the position of their critics. Pete quotes George Will’s observation — now apparently reconsidered — that Condi Rice was “quite right” in condemning the “enormous condescension in saying that somehow the Arab world is just not up to democracy.” She is actually quite wrong. No serious person I know is saying Muslims aren’t up to democracy (and what we’re talking about here is a Muslim issue more than an Arab issue). This is not a question of ignorance or incompetence. They understand the principles of our democracy. They just don’t want them. Any democracy worth promoting is a democracy that runs afoul of key sharia-law principles. Muslims don’t want our democracy because they believe their civilization — including its law and desired political structure — is superior. I think they are terribly wrong about that, but it’s a considered choice and one that is theirs to make. What’s condescending is to insist that we know better than they do what’s good for them.

Fourth, along related lines, one would have hoped we’d grasp by now that a big part of our problem in Iraq and Afghanistan is that much of Islam regards Western invaders as occupiers against whom jihad has to be waged until they are driven out of Muslim countries. That is not merely an al-Qaeda position. It is a mainstream Muslim position. These Islamic principles counsel Muslims not to side with non-Muslims against other Muslims. They are virulently opposed to efforts to plant Western ideas and institutions in Islamic countries. It doesn’t matter to these millions of Muslims that we think we are doing humanitarian work and helping to improve Muslim lives. It is astonishing, after all that has been said and suffered the last ten years, that these very basic points continue to be missed — particularly by people who purport to be so worried that terrorist recruitment swells because of policies like indefinite detention and military commissions. What really increases terrorist recruitment is invading Muslim countries, killing Muslims there, and staying to try to build Western democracies.

We should be having as little to do with Islamic countries as practicality allows, not getting ourselves ever more entangled — at least absent compelling national-security reasons. Such reasons are not evident in Libya.

— Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.





Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Radical Islamists condemn hearings into radical Islamists

By Eric Golub
The Daily Caller

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the co-founder of a project to develop a Muslim center near ground zero, addresses the "Today, I Am A Muslim, Too" rally to protest against a planned congressional hearing on the role of Muslims in homegrown terrorism, Sunday, March 6, 2011 in New York.(AP)

In a stunning turn of events, radical Islamists and their supporters have condemned Congressional hearings into radical Islamists and their supporters.

New York Republican Congressman Peter King has insulted the decency of every warm fuzzy terrorist enabler by having the unmitigated gall to question why there is a hole in the ground where towers in Manhattan once stood.

Congressman King is holding hearings on the radicalization of young American Muslims. This is considered selective prosecution if one ignores the fact that the profile being looked at by Congressman King belong to the people actually fitting that very profile.

While Islamists and their leftist enablers protest the hearings, the typical charges of bigotry are being hurled at Mr. King. Given that accusing Republicans of bigotry is so 2008, Mr. King is pressing ahead.

One irony of the situation is that liberals are normally obsessed with getting to the root causes of crime. For those unfamiliar, “root causes” is normally code for excusing illegal behavior by minorities belonging to politically correct groups with protected status.

Yet for some reason, when radical Islamists are the guilty parties, liberals stop spouting about root causes. The straw-man argument is that targeting radical Islamists is an insult to the many peaceful Muslims worldwide. This is the same train of “thought” that attributed a disproportionate share of black crime to centuries of white racism.

White racism failed to explain why most violent crime committed by blacks targeted other blacks. Radical Islamists hate Jews and Christians, but most of their victims are the very innocent peaceful Muslims the left claims to care about.

This is not about targeting entire cultures or civilizations. It’s about finding the bad guys, whoever they may be and wherever they are.

The minute it becomes time to hold hearings on cannibals, Congress can start interviewing young white males from middle-class backgrounds in Iowa and Nebraska. Does this mean that every single Caucasian in Middle America is a cannibal? No. Does it mean that too many cannibals are young, middle-class Caucasians with moms in the Parent Teachers Association? Yes. Midwestern PTA moms do not riot over this. They want to know if Hannibal Lecter is living in their homes before the next family dinner becomes a grisly affair.

Similarly, cracking down on inner-city crime saves black lives. Defeating Islamofascism saves Muslim lives.

Before the current administration turned the Global War on Terror into disappointment over inconveniences, the goal was to find and capture all of those who promote, harbor, or finance terrorists.

Those marching in the streets against Congressman King are the standard collection of politically correct sensitivity sobbers who most likely swapped their peace pipes with crack pipes before leaving the house.

There is no cure for these misguided souls. They cannot be reasoned with or deprogrammed.

The only solution is to talk over them. Getting to the truth is more important than the feelings of those who only feel and never think.

Homegrown American Muslims are becoming more radicalized. The Fort Hood shooting had everything to do with radical Islam, as did the Shoe Bomber and the Christmas Day Bomber.

When a black church burns to the ground and the charred remains of a burnt cross are found on the property, can intelligent people at least admit that there is a good chance that white people did it? Is it worth acknowledging that people who are the victims of racial or ethnic crimes are usually targeted by people of other races and ethnic origins?

This is not just logical. It is definitional.

A certain group of people have announced that they hate America and the West. They refer to us as the Great Satan. They go on television and chant about death to America. They train their own people to fly planes into towers.

If these people happened to be green-colored Belgian Dwarves wearing one red shoe, we would profile green-colored Belgian Dwarves wearing one red shoe and anybody else fitting that description, including Tom Hanks.

It just so happens that very few Belgians are found ranting about jihad and infidels while yelling “Allah Akbar” and blowing innocent people to Kingdom Come.

Once is an accident. Twice is a coincidence. Thrice is a trend. Four times is a problem. Many times is a way of life.

Focusing on Tea Party violence is useless because Tea Partiers’ rate of actual violence is zero. For those who went to public schools, that is less than once.

Focusing on Timothy McVeigh allows statistical aberrations to trump the norm. He was an outlier. Remove him from the data and a fascinating pattern emerges.

Only a blind person could miss this pattern. So let’s get Attorney General Eric Holder tested for glaucoma and then get down to the business of finding out who is radicalizing young American Muslim men with few career prospects and even fewer romantic options.

The threat is real. Denial is deadly. The struggle between civilization and barbarism cannot be lost because academics who got their PhDs in protesting are encouraging students getting their degrees in protesting to utilize their only life skill out on the streets, that being protesting.

Congressman King is trying to get to the truth. If he is allowed to succeed, Americans of all stripes, including moderate American Muslims, will be safer.

We must win the War on Terror. Radical Muslims are trying to kill us all. They now live among us.

There is no middle ground on preserving the American way of life. Either we side with Peter King or we side with the terrorists.

Eric Golub is a Brooklyn-born stockbrokerage and oil professional living in the People’s Republic of Los Angeles. His blog is the TYGRRRR EXPRESS ( and his three books are “Ideological Bigotry,” “Ideological Violence,” and “Ideological Idiocy.” His interests include politics, football, the stock market, and Republican Jewish brunettes.


King Hearings Are Overdue

The Editors
National Review Online
March 9, 2011

A protester in support of a planned congressional hearing on the role of Muslims in homegrown terrorism holds up signs during a protest, Sunday, March 6, 2011 in New York. The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. , says affiliates of al-Qaida are radicalizing some American Muslims and that he plans to hold hearings on the threat they pose to the U.S. (AP)

‘Katrina/Rita FEMA Trailers: Are They Safe or Environmental Time Bombs?” “Pandemic Influenza Preparedness and the Federal Workforce.” “Online Privacy, Social Networking, and Crime Victimization.” “The State of U.S. Coins and Currency.” “Diversity and the Department of Homeland Security: Continuing Challenges and New Opportunities.” “Civil Rights Services and Diversity Initiatives in the Coast Guard.” “Protecting Animal and Public Health: Homeland Security and the Federal Veterinarian Workforce.” “The Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Enforcement Act of 2009.” “Tribal Police Recruitment, Hiring, Training, and Retention at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.” “Organized Retail Crime.”

These are some of the topics about which the sundry homeland-security committees and subcommittees of the Democrat-controlled 111th Congress saw fit to hold hearings. The list drastically underrepresents the number of panels concerned with post-Katrina self-flagellation and the ever-impending influenza epidemic, obsessions that suggest DHS’s top security priorities are protecting citizens from family orthomyxoviridae and low-pressure systems of uncommon size. And those hearings in the 111th that did focus on “man-caused disasters” were concerned primarily with overreacting to the Deepwater Horizon spill and the missing the point of the fizzled Christmas Day attack (grope-a-dope, anyone?).

Against this backdrop, the scandal is not that House Committee on Homeland Security chairman Peter King (R., N.Y.) will tomorrow hold hearings on “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response.” The scandal is that they have been so long in coming.

The Department of Homeland Security was created in direct response to an act of Islamic terror, an act perpetrated by radical Muslims who lived and worked, planned and plotted inside the United States. Post-9/11, the threat of homegrown jihad is as great or greater. Just yesterday, Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, a Colorado mother who had converted to Islam, married a suspected Algerian terrorist, and moved with him to Ireland to plot attacks in Europe, pleaded guilty to a terrorism charge. She had previously been in contact with Colleen LaRose — aka Jihad Jane — a Pennsylvania woman who herself pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder in the name of Islam. As we write, Nidal Hasan, a U.S. Army major of Palestinian descent, who was radicalized in the same Virginia mosque that nourished a number of the 9/11 hijackers and their American-born spiritual leader, Anwar al-Awlaki, sits in jail for the religiously motivated slaughter of 13 at Ft. Hood. He joins Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized U.S. citizen, who will spend the rest of his life in prison after a botched attempt to blow up Times Square for the favor of Allah. Then there are Bryant Neal Vinas, Sharif Mobley, John Walker Lindh, and “the D.C. Five,” all American-born converts to radical Islam arrested in the course of waging jihad against the United States.

Protesters gather at the "Today, I Am A Muslim, Too" rally to protest against a planned congressional hearing on the role of Muslims in homegrown terrorism, Sunday, March 6, 2011 in New York. (AP)

These aren’t mere anecdotes. They are constitutive of the brute fact that homegrown terror is an overwhelmingly Islamic phenomenon. And yet a search of the Homeland Security hearings in the 111th yields not one mention of Islamism or jihad. So the cries of religious persecution from groups like CAIR and their allies on the left badly miss the point: It isn’t that we have cast a discriminatory eye toward Islam, but that excessive concern with the pieties of multicultural relativism has prevented us from being sufficiently critical of Islamism. A problem cannot be dealt with that is not first faced foursquarely, and, to appropriate a phrase, we have for too long been a nation of cowards when it comes to addressing jihadist radicalism between our shores. Representative King’s hearings make an honest first effort to do that.

Among the witnesses expected to appear at the hearing is Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, head of the American-Islamic Forum for Democracy, whom we expect to provide an overview of the threat of not only violent but also cultural jihad being waged by Islamists inside the United States. Witnesses Melvin Bledsoe and Abdirizak Bihi will share their firsthand knowledge of this threat. Bihi’s nephew, Burhan Hassan, was radicalized in a Minneapolis mosque and in 2008, at the age of 17, disappeared to Somalia, where he died, apparently fighting for the Islamist group al-Shaheeb. Mr. Bledsoe’s son, Carlos, converted to Islam in college after traveling to Yemen and went by the name Abdul Hakim Mujahid Muhammad when he shot two army recruiters in Little Rock in 2009, killing one. We expect both men’s testimony to be both heart-rending and sobering.

There will of course be some dead weight among the witnesses: We doubt that Reps. Keith Ellison (D., Minn.) and John Dingell (D., Mich.) will add much to the proceedings, besides defending their many peaceful Muslim constituents from an attack no one is contemplating. And we wish King had called the likes of Steve Emerson, director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism and an indispensable voice on Islamism in America. But it is our understanding that this will be only the first of several hearings on the subject. So there may, at long last, be time to address this long-neglected topic.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

A Classic Thriller Gets a Prequel

The Wall Street Journal
March 4, 2011

Following the 1979 publication of "Shibumi," publishers and readers alike hoped that its author, Trevanian (the pen name of Rodney Whitaker), would write a sequel. In Nicholai Hel, the book's hero, the novelist had created one of the singular figures of 20th-century espionage fiction. An assassin so stealthily lethal that he could dispatch a team of Palestinian terrorists with only a pocket comb and a rolled-up magazine, Hel was also a mystic and an aesthete. He sought understated perfection in everything from his Japanese garden to his chateau in the Pyrenees.

Don Winslow filled in some of the gaps in Trevanian's 'Shibumi.' (Getty Images)

With the March 7 publication of "Satori," Nicholai Hel will finally be at large again, practicing hoda korosu (naked kill) and pursuing Eastern wisdom. Trevanian, however, had nothing to do with it (he passed away in 2005 at 74), and the novel, for which Grand Central Publishing has announced a first press run of 100,000 copies, is not a sequel.

"I've written a prequel," says Don Winslow, the darkly comic Southern California crime novelist ("Savages," "The Power of the Dog") chosen to pick up the tale. "When you meet Hel at the start of 'Satori,' he is not a practiced assassin. He's killed only one person, and he has no experience in espionage. He's been sitting in a jail cell for three years."

For Mr. Winslow, 57, the road to "Satori" began in 2008 with an email from his then-agent, Richard Pine, asking: "How would you like to be the next Trevanian?" Mr. Pine's business partner, Michael Carlisle, had represented Mr. Whitaker. Mr. Winslow was intrigued. During his 20s, he'd read "Shibumi" and started playing Go, the Japanese board game Hel regards as a template for life.

Mr. Winslow was, however, wary. "This was intimidating on several levels," he says. "Rodney Whitaker was like Le Carré, but more tongue in cheek. I wanted to respect the content and the style. But I didn't want to do an imitation: only bad things could happen."

Rereading "Shibumi," Mr. Winslow found his point of departure. Although Trevanian's novel devotes considerable space to Hel's pre-World War II childhood in Shanghai, where his mother, a White Russian, fled following the fall of the czar, it offers almost no details about his early adulthood. It jumps from Hel's post-war imprisonment to the Middle East conflicts of the 1970s. "All Trevanian says about what happened to Hel is that in 1951 he went on a mission to Beijing and was found by the French Foreign Legion three months later wandering through Indochina," says Mr. Winslow. Just how his hero evolved into the world's most feared assassin is left to the imagination. "I thought: 'He's given me the corners to write to.' "

Mr. Winslow drafted the first 100 pages of "Satori," fleshing out Hel's activities in Beijing. Set against the backdrop of the Korean War, they focus on a CIA plot to assassinate the Soviet commissioner to China. Alexandra Whitaker, her father's executor, approved.

Mr. Winslow is talking at one of his favorite hangouts, the Coyote Grill in Laguna Beach, on the stretch of coast from Orange County to San Diego which, in the author's fiction, is rampant with burned-out surfers, drug dealers and DEA agents. Oliver Stone hopes to start filming "Savages" in June using locations nearby.

For fans of "Shibumi," the choice of a contemporary California noir novelist to flesh out the saga of the worldly Nicholai Hel raises the sort of questions that might have confronted Ross MacDonald if he'd been recruited to channel Graham Greene.

"I knew what some people would think," says Mr. Winslow. "But I have an affinity for the Asian culture that produced Hel. There's a part of my personality that is contemplative. I'm a Buddhist, albeit not a very good one."