In Ben Hecht’s amazing memoir, Child of the Century, he tells of a great actor for whom work suddenly dried up. He kept trying, showing up at auditions, knocking on doors, but although everyone professed great respect for his work, he was treated as a has-been. Finally, a really great opportunity came up, where a young producer who was a big admirer was casting for a role that was perfect for his skills. He read his lines beautifully; he was sure he had landed the part. But to his chagrin the producer called him into an office to tell him his services would not be needed.
“The problem is this part calls for a bald man and you have a splendid head of hair.”
The actor leapt to his feet. “I have never revealed this before,” he shouted. “But in actuality I have lost my hair.” With a flourish, he pulled off his toupee.
“I’m sorry,” said the producer. “I still see you as a man with hair.”
This comes to mind when perusing the one element of the Iraq Study Group report that merits analysis. Generally, its living in the past is a presumptive liability. Still, we should consider the possibility that the past may be sufficiently prologue to inform some of our calculations in the present.
Here is the nub. The Baker Boys tie Iraq to the region and the region to Israeli-Palestinian friction. Solve the continent, solve the country: what a deal! (Tony Blair actually said: “This is simple.”) Putting aside the implausibility of suddenly cleaning up the Palestinian mess, the interesting contention here is this: it is the same old war. Don’t be fooled by the Islamic baldness or the al-Qaeda hairpiece, this is the same hirsute Arab fighting for land, not ideals.
Baby boomers like me (born in ‘58) grew up with Arab-Israeli friction always on the front pages. A touch of terrorism, a pinch of politics, a couple of UN condemnations, a dab of diplomacy and the occasional whit of war. If anyone in those Arab countries was a Moslem, it was not particularly noticeable. All the angry talk — and the happy talk — was about pan-Arab unity, nationalism, sovereignty, land rights, water rights and all the sundry important and unimportant minutiae that engage governmental types.
Nasser, Faisal, King Hussein, Assad, the Shah, Qaddafi, the Gemayels, Colonel Haddad, Arafat, Sadat — all these guys were players in the Middle East melodrama without Muhammad’s name coming up outside the American boxing ring. The various negotiators, shuttlers and summiteers, Baker the Third among them, were at home navigating in these muddy waters of unenlightened self-interest. Arafat, with his stubble, was the embodiment of this ethic: a rapacious, appetent vulture too busy gorging on carrion to shave; fill his belly, the diplos figured, and he’ll leave you in peace.
The advent of bin Laden and his cohorts brought a new vocabulary to a preexisting skirmish. Old embargo, new jargon; old cargo, new argot. Suddenly the fight was not against Arabs but Muslims, fighting for Allah, not Arabia. The Arab-vs.-Caucasian East-vs.-West model was retired and it became Islam vs. Judaism and Christianity. The atheists began rubbing their hands gleefully: you see, religion causes all the world’s wars. And all the thirtysomething analysts are out researching Mohammedan incunabula for clues to the Koranic apocalypse.
Most of the old-style Arab regimes are still in place, some under identical management. It seems reasonable to posit that those autocrats assume they can keep the lid on the theocrats. Repression comes naturally to them, as in all those old Eric Ambler novels where a stocky man with a moustache introduced himself as head of the Security Police and suddenly all the unrest was quashed. But a lot of toothpaste has been squeezed out of the tube and a lot of genies have come out of the bottle, and it is questionable indeed if they can be put back inside.
Which leaves us with an interesting conundrum. Should we view the Islamic movements as the primary historic force guiding the Arab world at this time? Or should we accept the Baker view halfway, namely that the Islamic enemy is rootless and stateless and our best ally in defeating it is the sitting Arab hierarchy? Which is the hit show of the next Mideast generation, Despot Housewives or Allah in the Family?
One thing is certain. On either side of this coin, dealing with Iran is poison. If Islam is in the ascendant, Iran is its avatar. And if Islam is a dangerous sideshow, Iran is its one sovereign foothold and needs to be kept in check. One piquant idea emerges from this meditation: if someone could figure out a bonus we can hand Syria, short of control of Lebanon, enough to enlist them as an ally against Iran, now that could be very interesting. But for right now, I think I’ll keep my wig on.
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It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
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