Michael J. Totten

Saturday, May 17, 2003

My Bad Advice

A few days ago a friend of mine said he wanted to visit Morocco.

Skip Tangier and go to Casablanca, I said. It's friendly and safe there.

That was the worst possible advice at the worst possible time.

CASABLANCA, Morocco - Just days after U.S. officials warned of possible worldwide attacks by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, a quick succession of five suicide bombings in Casablanca, the economic capital of Morocco, killed 41 people — about 10 of them terrorists, officials said Saturday.

There was no claim of responsibility.

The Moroccan government did not directly implicate al-Qaida, but the attacks confirmed fears that terrorists are striking lightly defended sites. The buildings targeted Friday were the Casa de Espana, a Jewish community center called the Israelite Community Circle, an old Jewish cemetery, the Belgian Consulate and a major downtown hotel.

Last year Shelly and I visited Spain on our honeymoon. Let's go to Morocco, I said. We can go to Casablanca. It's safe there, far away from the violence of the West Bank and Algeria. We were so close we could almost see it.

She had been there before, and I have not. She was sixteen years old, travelling with her parents. A charming old man offered her father a dozen camels if he could marry her. She loved Morocco and has nothing bad to say about it. But she was nervous about visiting after September 11. I conceded because I knew she was right, even though I wanted her to be wrong.

I don't want to write off the entire Arab world as a danger zone. But I think I'm going to have to do it anyway. For now.

Friday, May 16, 2003

Recommended Essays

On the right side of my page is a list of recommended and permanently linked essays. Tonight I took some off and replaced them with new ones.

All three are more than one year old. They are as relevent now as the day they were written.

Terror and Liberalism
Paul Berman, The American Prospect

The Men Who Would Be Orwell
Ron Rosenbaum, The New York Observer

Looking the World in the Eye
Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic Monthly

Bush Doesn't Get It

The news in Iraq looks bad again. Here is Hassan Fattah writing about the possibility of civil war erupting in Iraq.

Since the American takeover, Baghdad has turned into an Arab version of the Watts riots. Burning buildings dot the city skyline. Armed looters terrorize the population, tearing into homes and emptying them of their possessions. Petty crime has become rampant on the streets, virtually no one feels secure, and homes are never left unguarded at night.

The really scary part, however, may be yet to come. Thus far violence in Baghdad has been limited to unorganized gangs of looters carrying Kalashnikovs. But Iraqi security experts and other sources in the capital say that, under the nose of the American forces, Iraq's nascent political groups are forming armed militias and storing weapons as they prepare for a potential civil war for control of the country. In fact, The New Republic has learned, several Iraqis say even Hezbollah has formed a branch in Baghdad. Ultimately, if Baghdad's power vacuum is not filled soon, the rise of organized armed factions could turn Iraq's capital into a twenty-first-century version of 1980s Beirut.

This may sound like breathless doom-mongering, but it appeared in The New Republic. The New Republic is a liberal magazine that went out of its way to support Bush on the war. Its writers and editors have a long history of serious foreign policy study, quite unlike the cranks at The Nation and The American Conservative. While most of the media were wrong about the war, The New Republic was consistently right.

This article by Lawrence Kaplan in the same magazine is even more worrisome.

At long last, the military brass, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his civilian advisers at the Pentagon, and even the State Department agree about U.S. policy toward Iraq. They all support an administration plan that calls for a fairly rapid drawdown of American forces there: Whereas the United States currently has 130,000 troops in Iraq, by the fall it intends to have just 30,000.

Unfortunately, the plan is an enormous mistake. As America's soon-to-be former proconsul in Iraq, retired General Jay Garner, explained two weeks ago, "Before we begin the reconstruction successfully, we have to have security." And, as the experience of the last month has amply demonstrated, even 130,000 troops are barely enough to provide security in Iraq. A simple point, one might think. But not when one passes through the looking glass that is the U.S. occupation of Iraq--an occupation that, for reasons that have as much to do with political theology as with the particulars of Iraq, administration officials insist isn't really an occupation at all

We have got to ignore wing-nut paranoia about imperialism. Democrats need to snap out of their reflexive pacifism. Republicans need to grow up and get over their aversion to nation-building. We are not conquering and annexing Iraq, nor are we engaging in "international social work."

I threw my support behind a president whom I do not like and did not vote for, hoping that he would get this right. We were told the reconstruction of Iraq would resemble the projects in Germany and Japan.

Was I wrong? Is the Administration going to give it up and let Iraq's wounds fester?

Warning to President Bush: You will disgrace yourself and endanger our country if Iraq burns while you fiddle in Washington. Tell Pat Buchanan and Noam Chomsky to go to hell. Do the right thing, or you're out in '04.

Thursday, May 15, 2003

Hatred and Pity

Robert Ellis emails:

You made a simple point about holding Israelis to a double standard, but it's one that hit deep. A kind of underhanded superiority pervades the Israel-Palestine conflict. The unwashed savages don’t know any better, and the Israelis do. It’s amazing that we all, to a certain degree, hold Palestinian society in a state of disesteem. It's just a matter of whether it comes across as the number 1 reason for sending the heretic savages straight to hell, or as a condescending viewpoint that allows us to disregard their primitive habits as a failing in the World Social Justice System to protect its ward.

This all reminds me of a drug-crazed knife-wielding would-be murderer that I saw gunned down in the mean streets of Dallas. He was trying to stab random people, all the while screaming “This is my territory!” To make a long story short, he got into a knife fight with 6 Dallas cops and predictably he lost.

Not once, over the years, have I ever considered that man to be in the same classification as myself. He was always, in my unconscious estimation, far from me. An excuse set him apart from me…and in all the disparate conclusions I’ve come to about what actually occurred that night, over all the years, he was never equivalent to me. It’s an easy thing to separate ourselves from another whether it is with hatred or with pity.

Pat Buchanan: A Fisking

What’s Pat Buchanan babbling about now?

Is George W. Bush a neoconservative? Has he, too, decided that we must, after taking down Saddam, destroy six or seven more Arab and Islamic regimes, “democratize” the Mideast, and impose a Pax Americana from Tripoli to Tora Bora?

Which neoconservatives want to take down seven Arab regimes? Which Arab regimes are we talking about here? Pat? I read the neocon journals, and I don’t know what you’re talking about.

And what’s up with “democratize” in sneer quotes?

Is Syria next on the U.S. “hit list” for “regime change”?


My sense: George W. is more his father’s son than a neocon. But we are going to find out soon. For not only have Richard Perle and ex-CIA-Director James Woolsey begun to breathe fire at Syria, so, too, have Secretary Rumsfeld and President Bush himself.

What has Syria done?

The interesting question isn’t what has Syria done. What matters most is what Syria is. I know Pat doesn’t care, but Syria is a Nazi state. The Ba’ath Party was founded in Damascus in 1942. Syria at that time was a colony of France. And France was controlled by the pro-Hitler Vichy regime. Guess who inspired and set up the Ba’ath Party?

According to Paul Wolfowitz of Defense, “The Syrians have been shipping killers into Iraq to try and kill Americans. … We need to think about what our policy is towards a country that harbors terrorists or harbors war criminals.”

“There will have to be change in Syria,” says Wolfowitz.

Every non-terrorist-sympathizing American agrees Syria must change.

Sources also report that the president, who has admonished Syria publicly, is now privately using barnyard language to describe what President Assad must be experiencing after seeing what we did in Iraq. If Bush has decided that regime change must also come to Damascus, the neoconservatives can fairly claim to have captured U.S. foreign policy whole and entire. For even under the Bush Doctrine, it is difficult to make a case that Syria should be the next target of a U.S. preemptive war.

There is a case to be made for a liberationist war. Syria is the imperial occupier of formerly democratic Lebanon. Remember Iraq and Kuwait.

Syria had no role in 9/11.

No one says that it did.

Damascus co-operated with us in running down al-Qaeda.

Al Qaeda is not the only terror gang in the world.

Nor has anyone credibly accused Syria of being behind the anthrax attacks or any recent terror attack on America.

Nor has anyone tried.

In 1990–91, Bashar Assad’s father sent 4,000 soldiers to Saudi Arabia to support General Schwartzkopf’s army.

Boy Assad’s father hated Saddam because Saddam was his Ba’ath Party rival. The Ba’ath Party exists to conquer the entire Arab world. The region isn’t big enough for two of them.

Moreover, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered to return to Syria 99 percent of the Golan Heights, down to the Sea of Galilee. Though the offer was rejected, that it was made suggests that even Israel does not fear Syria. Why then should the United States?

You could say that Ehud Barak several years ago did not fear Syria. But what does Barak say today, after the rise of the second intifada and the raining down on Israel of Katyusha rockets from Syrian-controlled Hezbollah across the border in occupied Lebanon? Pat doesn’t ask or even care.

And what grounds do we have for attacking Syria?

We are not attacking Syria.

Syria has not attacked us.

Neither did Mussolini.

She is not under UN sanctions.

She should be.

Nor does President Bush have authority to go to war with Damascus.

We are not at war with Damascus.

The congressional resolutions under which America invaded Afghanistan and Iraq were restricted to regimes that gave aid or sanctuary to 9/11 terrorists, or to Iraq alone. Syria is beyond the reach of both resolutions.

We are not at war with Syria.

Nor would we have any international support for an attack on Syria.

We are not at war with Syria.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has ruled out British support.

Has anyone ruled in American support?

The United Nations Security Council would oppose a war on Syria 14-1.

Today the UN Security Council would oppose a war on Syria 15-0. We are not at war with Syria.

If America intends a war on Damascus, Bush will have to ask Congress to authorize that war, or act outside the Constitution. Not only the Arab and Islamic world but the entire world would condemn us. The isolation of the United States would be complete.

Occupied Lebanon might be grateful.

What are Syria’s crimes? According to Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, and Bush, Assad let Islamic warriors pass through Syria to fight in Iraq. He sent night-vision goggles to Iraq. He may be providing safe haven to escaped Saddamites inside Syria. He harbors terrorists, is building chemical weapons, and supports Hezbollah.

Some things are true even if Paul Wolfowitz says they are true.

But if these are the casus belli for a war on Syria, we should attack Iran.

We don’t have plans to attack either Syria or Iran.

Unlike Syria, Iran is believed to have been behind the terrorist attack on U.S. installations at Khobar Towers. Iran has ballistic missiles superior to Syria’s and a nuclear program more advanced than that of any non-nuclear state save North Korea. Iran is the principal supporter and supplier of Hezbollah. Iran also let Islamic warriors enter Iraq. And Iran is a charter member of the president’s “axis of evil.” Syria is not.

Syria should be a member of the Axis of Evil. It is, after all, an imperial Arab Nazi terrorist state.

Why would Syria come before Iran on America’s hit list?

It doesn’t.

First, Syria, one-fourth as populous as Iran, is “doable,” as Paul Wolfowitz likes to put it. Iran, three times as large as Iraq, would require a longer, bloodier war and hundreds of thousands more U.S. troops to defeat and to occupy.

We would not need to occupy Iran for long. Most of the country supports American-style liberal democracy already. The time of Iranian dictatorship is ending.

Moreover, a U.S. invasion of Syria would put a U.S. military presence on the border of Israel and isolate Hezbollah in Lebanon, a dream of Sharon and the neoconservatives.

Gosh, Pat. Maybe you could try to conceal what's getting you all riled up here.

My sense? Bush has had enough of war for the present.

What's the point of this article then?

While, in his view, the demands of the War on Terror and the imperialist agenda of the War Party may have overlapped in Iraq, Bush has not signed on to any “World War IV” or Pax Americana.

What imperialism? Which nation has the War Party annexed? Pat is confusing the United States with Syria.

But he and his War Cabinet are content to let the neocons bark at the Arab world, as only benefit can accrue to us if these nations feel intimidated.

Well, we wouldn’t want to embolden them, would we?

Prediction: Unless President Assad insanely decides to aid an intifada in Iraq, U.S. Marines will halt at the Syrian border.

That’s your only sensible sentence, Pat. So what was the point of the rest of it?

I have a guess. It’s that Old Right and Old Church grudge again, isn’t it?

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

What's in a Name

What the heck is a liberal, anyway? And why should anyone care?

Sean LaFreniere answers both questions.

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Writer Blogs

Have you found Roger L. Simon's site yet? He hasn't been blogging long, but his page is already one of my favorites. More often than not these days, I read his first.

Roger is a mystery novelist, screenwriter, and film director, and he writes on lots of topics. Movies, sports, the perils of publishing, and war.

Here's an example of the way Roger thinks, and why I like him.

At this point in history, a reasonably educated person is at least somewhat aware of the traditions of liberalism (various forms), conservatism (various forms), Marxism, Freudianism, Zen Buddhism, libertarianism, feminism, deconstructionism, etc, etc… you get the idea. They each could be called an intellectual arrow in our quiver. And anyone who is walking around with less than the full complement of arrows in his or her quiver is at a disadvantage. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I want to be fully armed and able to use whatever is necessary (one or a combination of arrows) for a given situation. In the modern world, we can be sure of one thing. It won’t always be the same. I don’t want to be a blind archer, clinging to the orthodoxy of one outmoded point of view or another, because I can promise you one thing: At one point or another, they all will be.

Set your bookmarks.


And then there's Karrie Higgins' new blog Anti:freeze. There are thousands of personal blogs in the world, but I've never found one as good as Karrie's. Most of them are boring unless you know the blogger personally. Karrie is an old friend, so perhaps I'm a little biased here. But she writes better than I do, and this is the only blog I know that's downright literary.

I would give you an excerpt, but it seems rude somehow to the rest of her page to take out only a part of it. Best just to go and read for yourself.

Terror in Chechnya

41 killed in a suicide bombing in Chechnya.

Terror in Riyadh

Four terrorist bombings in Saudi Arabia yesterday.


Birth Day

The official version of Kim Jong Il's birth:

When the Dear Leader was born in a humble log cabin on Korea's sacred Mount Paekdu in 1942, a bright star and a double rainbow appeared in the sky and a swallow descended from heaven to herald the birth of a "general who will rule all the world."

A soldier in the army commanded by the Dear Leader's father, the Great Leader, saw the star and the rainbow and rejoiced, carving a message into a tree: "Oh, Korea, I announce the birth of the Star of Paekdu."

Who makes this stuff up? Does he laugh when he writes it? Or does he look over his shoulder, trying to steady his hands?

Monday, May 12, 2003

Email Trouble

Just now I accidentally deleted 50 unread emails. If you sent me an important email today and I haven't responded, please resend it.

Sincere apologies.

Published in the Journal

My essay Builders and Defenders is featured today in the Wall Street Journal's online Opinion Journal. If you missed it last week when I blogged it, you can read it today here.

Sunday, May 11, 2003

A Letter to Tristero

Liberal blogger Tristero analyzed my Builders and Defenders piece (in exacting detail) and came to the conclusion that, on balance, I was more critical of the left than the right. He finds it odd, then, that I call myself a life-long liberal. He wants to know what’s going on. He’s not the first to ask, and it's time I addressed this question.

Tristero's urgent political goal is to defeat George W. Bush. He does not say, but I imagine he thinks, that I am not being helpful. I'm trashing my friends and giving ammunition to the enemy.

Ronald Reagan famously said “Never criticize another Republican.” He wouldn’t even criticize America’s filthy allies; nothing but overpraise for them. Reagan said the Contras - the revitalized remnants of Somoza’s fascist National Guard, the killers of Nicaraguan aid workers and nuns - were “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.”

You see, Tristero, where Reagan’s dictum can lead you.

The GOP sticks together for the same reason Democrats do. United we stand. Divided we fall.

The left is now divided. We are a scattered, bickering, defensive minority. There is no wisdom in denying this.

The question now, Tristero, is when to critique our own? When do we fight ourselves instead of Republicans?


Two weeks after September 11 I went to New York with my soon-to-be wife, and we took a cab to Lower Manhatten at Midnight. The subway wasn’t running yet, and it was too far to walk from where we were staying. City Hall was close enough to the pit, so we got out there, too ashamed to tell the driver where we were going.

The acrid stench of burning….what?… wafted north toward Midtown. Choppers circled the smouldering ruin, barracades blocked the neighborhood streets, and soldiers manned the checkpoints. “My God,” I told Shelly. “It feels like we’re in a war zone.”

Then it hit me for the first time. I mean, it was then that it really hit me. I knew from the way I phrased that sentence that I was still in denial.

It wasn’t a joke, it wasn’t a show, it wasn’t an “incident,” and it wasn’t a “tragedy.” War had come to New York. War. In New York.

We stood at the lip of the rim of oblivion, and I never felt so old in my life.


I want you to read the work of three writers, intellectual giants and guiding lights for the left and for our civilization: George Orwell, Paul Berman, and Christopher Hitchens.

They all understand both intellectually and viscerally that if we are divided in wartime we will fall. Not as liberals and left-wingers, but as British and Americans and Westerners. Liberals must unite with all the friends of liberalism, in both its left-wing and its right-wing variations. Because anti-liberal fascism may kill us if we don’t.

Here is Christopher Hitchens quoting George Orwell in his celebrated essay “For Patriot Dreams” featured in Vanity Fair and The Best American Essays.

In the fall of 1990 (and the once beautifully combined words “New York” and “the fall” will never again have quite the same sound to me), George Orwell wrote of a certain human quality that attaches itself to particular horrors. He was looking back to his boyhood, through the prisms of a frightful war that had just begun and a frightful war that had clouded his youth. As he put it:

I must admit that nothing in the whole war moved me so deeply as the loss of the Titanic had a few years earlier. This comparatively petty disaster shocked the whole world, and the shock had not quite died away even yet. I remember the terrible, detailed accounts read out at the breakfast table (in those days it was common to read the newspaper aloud), and I remember that in all the long list of horrors the one that most impressed me was that at the last the Titanic suddenly up-ended and sank bow foremost, so that the people clinging to the stern were lifted no less than three hundred feet in the air before they plunged into the abyss. It gave me a sinking sensation in the belly which I can still all but feel. Nothing in the war gave me quite that sensation.

“Look teacher,” a child cried during a school evacuation as the towers were becoming pyres. “The birds are on fire.” The infant was rationalizing the sight of human beings making a public choice between incineration and suicide, and often suffering the most extreme pangs of both fates. Yes, we will look. And yes, we will remember it long after other miseries have intervened. The title of Orwell’s 1940 essay, incidentally, was “My Country Right or Left.” Confronted in this manner, and affronted too, one has to be able to say, My country after all.

Here is Paul Berman in Terror and Liberalism, the best 9/11 book yet written.

We are in an absurd situation. Truly, this is a moment Camus would have appreciated. We have reason to be terrified; but it is not a good idea to be terrified. Oh, how I wish that the entire world would turn out to be rationally explicable, after all – that a Chomsky could nail it down for us, and everything could be shown to be the workings of evil oil companies and their media allies, or some other identifiable pestilence. But no single logic rules the world, and no one is going to intervene on our behalf in order to impose one – not God, nor Hegel, nor FDR. We have to steel ourselves. We need a new radicalism to press Bush to explain the stakes more clearly and to offer political solutions to people around the world who might otherwise become our enemies – a new radicalism to press Bush to turn more convincingly against the “realist” errors of the past. Bush will do what he will do. Let us press, even so.

The Democratic Party has no Roosevelt, who knew how to wage a war of ideas even while waging the other kind of war. Still, the party of Roosevelt can be the party of Roosevelt.

We have no way to know how the present situation will come out – whether the president’s decisions will prove to be wise or foolish; whether his failings will prove to be fatal or not; whether the military planners will be shrewd or naïve; whether our enemies will turn out to be more numerous or less; whether some alert police officer or customs agent will rescue a city or not. But we do have the experience of the last many years to draw on, and the experience can tell us, in a general way, what aim to bear in mind. Describing the nihilists and their thinking, Camus wrote “Here, suicide and murder are two sides of the same system.” We are the anti-nihilists – we had better be, anyway. Events around the world have demonstrated the existence of an anti-nihilist system, too. The anti-nihilist system likewise has two sides. In the anti-nihilist system, freedom for others means safety for ourselves. Let us be for the freedom of others.

There are two archtypes, Tristero, that I neglected to mention in Builders and Defenders. There also are Liberators and Destroyers.

We must side with the Liberators and damn the Destroyers. It is urgent and right that we do this.

Like us, Tristero, some of the conservatives are Liberators. They are not so different from you and me. And they are our countrymen in wartime.

Some of our own make excuses for Destoyers while damning the Liberators. I detest this, and I will fight my own side until this problem is resolved to my satisfaction.

Divided we will fall. And country before party.

Copyright 2003 Michael J. Totten