This is a subject about which we’re not supposed to speak. Or write. Well, I suppose we can allude. But not in detail. So, even though bloodletting is a daily occurrence in the orbit of Islam, discussing it is forbidden. At least among the sensitive, the sensitive left most notably. By which I mean, firstly, folk who think of themselves as universal souls but see others, Americans and Brits, French and Germans, Italians and Dutch, also the bulk of English speakers wherever they are, as retrograde. Patriots, for God’s sake, patriotism being not only a dirty concept but a dirty word. And the house of Israel, of course, which first gave content to the notion of nation, the most reactionary of groups to which men and women relate if they are not blessed to see history as the light of progress for all people. The irony of all this is that the beneficiaries of this earthly and unearthly idealism are the most tribal of humankind, the most contemptuous of the “other,” the most dug-in on their patent of what is true and what is false.
Tim Noah argued here last week that Rick Perry does not really love either the Jews or gays. And maybe he is right, although Perry’s bible, which is the Hebrew Bible, is certainly the source of his affectionate respect for Zion. His phobias toward homosexuals are, well, homophobic, and they are ugly. But nobody has ever been able to dismiss the assertion, as the New Republic editorial of December 8 points out, that Barack Obama is not especially friendly to gays (or to Israel). Nor, for that matter, can it be said that Hillary, for all her human rights passions and how “hip” she pretends to be, is especially stirred by the struggle for equality of homosexuals or realistically moved by the striving of the Jewish state for true safety and peace.
The grim fact is that President Obama is neither a strategist—just forget about him ever being a “seasoned strategist,” he won’t be—nor someone at home in the lessons of history, of which there are many that are germane, at least germane to the despondency of the population that is neither rich nor in power. The powerlessness of the ordinary man and woman may once have stirred him to become a “community organizer” but no one has ever shown that his Chicago community organizing ever achieved much or, for that matter, anything. The Obama in his first autobiography, Dreams from My Father, is a Third Worlder. And why not? But the African third world now gives no one especial pride, not even South Africa with its struggle behind it and its present politics cynical and cruel, its history falsified. Even Mandela is tainted, a very hard man to taint, by his lasting comradeship with Colonel Qaddafi among many other foul comrades.
Obama was dragged into the Libyan people’s struggle against their master by France and Great Britain. But he (and we) have basically absented ourselves, except for lame rhetoric and not always even that, from the broader Arab defiance of the tyrants who rule them. Now, I certainly understand that the world of the Arabs is a difficult one for us to navigate. Moreover, no one can predict what would follow in the wake of an overthrow. Viz: Egypt. Viz: Yemen. Still, there is no excuse for the long enchantment of the Obama administration with Bashar Assad’s rule over Syria, which is most accurately defined as a long reign of terror over its people. There was something actually cold-blooded in Obama’s courtship of Dr. Assad (whom you may have seen recently displaying a sick grin during a complicitous interview with Barbara Walters; why didn’t Walters ask him why he was grinning?).
We have not been especially lucky with the personal traits of some our recent presidents: the psychotic Richard Nixon, his confused successor Gerald Ford, the dark but always smiling Jimmy Carter, the solipsistic Bill Clinton. And now we have the narcissistic and self-loving Barack Obama. This president is touched by nothing. He surely wasn’t stirred by the blood of Syrians that flowed during four decades of Assadian rule, that flowed today and will, alas, flow tomorrow.
Thinking of that cold bloodedness and narcissism, there is a particular memory of nine-year old Barry in Barack’s Dreams. I will never forget it, although some friends, when I point it out to them, shrug it off. So let me try with you:
“Don’t you think he’s a little young?”
Lolo shrugged and looked down at me. “The boy should know where his dinner is coming from. What do you think, Barry?” I looked at my mother, then turned back to face the man holding the chicken. Lolo nodded again, and I watched the man set the bird down, pinning it gently under one knee and pulling its neck out across a narrow gutter. For a moment the bird struggled, beating its wings hard against the ground, a few feathers dancing up with the wind. Then it grew completely still. The man pulled the blade across the bird’s neck in a single smooth motion. Blood shot out in a long, crimson ribbon. The man stood up, holding the bird far away from his body, and suddenly tossed it high into the air. It landed with a thud, then struggled to its feet, its head lolling grotesquely against its side, its legs pumping wildly in a wide, wobbly circle. I watched as the circle grew smaller, the blood trickling down to a gurgle, until finally the bird collapsed, lifeless on the grass.
Lolo rubbed his hand across my head and told me and my mother to go wash up before dinner. The three of us ate quietly under a dim yellow bulb—chicken stew and rice, and then a dessert of red, hairy-skinned fruit so sweet at the center that only a stomachache could make me stop. Later, lying alone beneath a mosquito net canopy, I listened to the crickets chirp under the moonlight and remembered the last twitch of life that I’d witnessed a few hours before. I could barely believe my good fortune.
This is a picture of an unemotional, remote, and icy boy. And so he is as man-president.
In the last days alone, Islam and Arab lands have experienced bloodletting in such numbers that it must have touched someone. But, no. These horrendous death-happenings occur so often that they hardly make the newspapers and certainly not television news. Maybe some of you will recognize the word “Kishinev” as the name of a town in Bessarabia—no Arabs lived in the province—where pogroms against its Jews were a common event. But one in particular took place on April 6-7, 1903 (Easter time) and 47 (or 49) Jews were killed, something like 500 injured (many seriously), and 2,000 families left homeless. This stimulated a stir of enormous consequence. A protest letter transferred by President Theodore Roosevelt to the czar was turned back. There were what the French call manifestations all over Europe. The first modern Hebrew poet, H.N. Bialik, memorialized the event in a poem called “Be-Ir ha-Haregah” (“The City of Slaughter”). And Kishinev is known, by Jews at least, as the site of a notable mass murder.
Do you know the name of this town: Mazar-e-Sharif? It is one of the places in Afghanistan where four days ago a Pakistani Sunni terrorist group, likely with the cooperation of the local Taliban, heaped death on worshippers at prayer in three Shia mosques. At reporting time, no less than 68 were dead and hundreds wounded. By now, there are no doubt more numbers to add to what we used to call in Vietnam the “death count.” The Times reports that “Targeted strikes by Sunnis against the minority Shiites are alien to Afghanistan.” Well, here’s a new feature to the routine mass murder among the Muslim faithful. But, like the other ones, there were no protests. These mass murders will vanish not into memory but from memory.
Iraq, from which we will depart before the year is up, has seen continuous killing of the innocent. Last week, at least 32 Shia pilgrims were killed in towns south of Baghdad.
And here’s an irony. The Voice of Russia reports that Iraq has been called in by the Arab League to mediate the civil war in Syria. But, of course, what with more than 4,000 dead (the Israelis think it is more like 5,000), they’re not yet calling it a civil war or even a simple war. Nonetheless, the Times reported that no less than 24 protestors and perhaps as many as 38 were shot to death. Here’s an excuse: If you saw Walters the other night, you would know that Assad said that the troops who killed Syrian civilians were not his troops but government troops. And hearing is believing. She never hinted otherwise.
The Syrians trust the Iraqi Shia who govern in Baghdad. After years of American help and American blood, the Baghdad regime still thinks of the Damascus regime as allies, Shia all. (You don’t have to rely on the Voice of Russia. There are other sources for these developments.)
How will the Syrian bloodletting end? I’ve been hinting here and there that Erdogan’s Turkey will invade its southern neighbor, with which it shares a 560 mile border. The Turks believe that at least Syria’s northern sectors are rightfully theirs. This will not be good for the Kurds in Syria, although they had reason to hope that the end of the good doctor’s rule would mean a big relief for them. What a successful Turkish intervention would mean is hell for the Kurds and a swath of Sunni rule from Turkey through Syria to Jordan to Saudi Arabia to Egypt and the Maghreb beyond. A Sunni swath with increasing government power in the hands of the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood. And please don’t forget who rules in Gaza. This is a map with which Barack Obama could very well live. Very well, indeed. Except it won’t be so gentle and civilized as he made out in Cairo almost three years ago and at his annual Ramadan fest in the White House. One more to go. Or five.
Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.