- <i>Chef's Table: Pastry</i> Isn't About Pastry
- The Other Coachella: What You Won't See at the Music Festival
- How Syria Came to This
- The Doctored 'Memoir' of a Jewish Boy Kidnapped by the Vatican
- The Future of Elite Schools in the Trump Era (and the Future of Blogging)
- A Trump Doctrine for the Middle East
- ‘Mission Accomplished’ and the Meme Presidency
- The Unconstitutional Strike on Syria
- A Reckoning Will Come in Syria
- All of the World's Yeast Probably Originated in China
- The Family Weekly: Protecting Kids—But Not Too Much
Posted: 15 Apr 2018 04:00 AM PDT
"The curse of the pastry chef," Michael Laiskonis says in the final episode of Chef's Table: Pastry, "is always having to follow someone else." Laiskonis would know: For eight years he was the executive pastry chef at Eric Ripert's three-Michelin-starred New York restaurant Le Bernardin. Working in the realm of desserts means never getting to be the main event, the raison d'être, the star.
So it's fascinating that the newest clump of episodes from the Netflix documentary series Chef's Table, which focuses on sweets, treat pastry almost as a secondary subject. All the usual elements are there—Vivaldi-scored montages of culinary creation, kitchens gleaming with cold steel, close-ups of modernist concoctions filmed in impossibly high definition. But the four new entries have an underlying theme that in some moments relegates dessert (again) to the back of the kitchen. Chef's Table: Pastry is all about ego.
You might not sense it in the first episode, which features Christina Tosi, the Momofuku Milk Bar creator and human embodiment of everything Julie Andrews lists in "My Favorite Things." It becomes clearer in the second, in which the Sicilian baker and gelato maker Corrado Assenza explains the core of his gastronomic philosophy while milking sheep for ricotta and single-handedly saving Sicily's almond groves. It's further exposed in the third, as the eccentric Spanish pastry chef Jordi Roca details his Shakespearean sibling rivalry in a dramatic, laryngitis-ravaged whisper. And by the fourth, as the American chef Will Goldfarb reveals why he abandoned New York's restaurant scene to move to Bali, the series's real subject is in full focus. "You think you're special, you think you're the center of the universe," is how Goldfarb describes finally getting rave reviews. "After that, the new minimum standard for me was to try to be the best in the world."
When the subjects for Chef's Table: Pastry were announced back in March, there were outcries over the fact that while pastry chefs are predominantly women, the season was (like all Chef's Table seasons) mostly about men. The disparity becomes clearer watching the four episodes, and comparing Tosi's attitude to cooking with the worldviews espoused by Roca, Goldfarb, and Assenza. While they agonize over redefining the art of dessert, changing the world, making it new just like Ezra Pound said, Tosi has created an empire by creating things that make people happy. People don't go to cookies and cakes for sustenance, she says, let alone for a drastic reinvention and deconstruction of the medium. The reason for dessert, rather, is that it makes "the weight of the world … just a little bit lighter on your shoulders."
It's no surprise that Tosi's film is the most joyful of the four new episodes. It captures all the zany, gratifying, mad-genius, unmistakably American appeal of the chef and her signature products, which have become pop-cultural phenomenons of their own. It's easy to look at Milk Bar staples like crack pie, compost cookies, and birthday cakes and see nostalgic simplicity. But as the documentary details, Tosi's technical credentials are impeccable, starting with the pastry-arts program at the French Culinary Institute, then the "immersive-dining" restaurant Bouley, then a stint at Wylie Dufresne's wd~50. While her creations are no less innovative than Goldfarb's Balinese meringue or Roca's cigar-infused ice cream, they're designed to look and feel comfortingly familiar. Her cereal-milk soft serve is a sensory, emotional production that disguises rather than blasts how brilliant it is.
Watching the rest of the episodes, a thesis emerges. Corrado Assenza, the proprietor of a bakery and gelato shop that's been in his family for four generations, tried to revolutionize Sicilian staples, to "push the boundaries of sweetness in dessert." His customers—given dishes like almond granita with raw oysters—rebelled. Assenza had an emotional crisis and ended up finding fulfillment by reinventing his sense of what it meant to be a chef, instead. Creation, for him, became less about acclaim and more about giving back, whether to his customers (in the form of transcendent flavors) or to his homeland. "Now," he says, "every time a child tastes my apricot jam, I feel joy."
Roca and Goldfarb have similar evolutions. Roca, who was bullied by his much-older brothers as a child for the size of his nose, reluctantly took a job in their restaurant in Girona, Spain, but goofed off relentlessly. "I felt small," he says. "Inferior. There was no place for me. That was clear." Then he started working with the pastry chef, who refused to treat him like a privileged relative of the bosses, and aroused his interest in the process of creation. Finally, he says, "I understood the game of the kitchen. I understood the passion of my brothers." Goldfarb was an enfant terrible in New York whose early, Stefon-like culinary experiences featured "syringes, a lot of sensory deprivation, blindfolding, darkness. I think we had some handcuffs in there." Bad reviews devastated him, but when he finally started receiving raves it wasn't much better. Suddenly he was a celebrity chef, flying around the world, filming TV spots, and addressing rapt audiences. "I was onstage every night," he says. "It was intoxicating. I became absorbed in my own importance."
After relations with his colleagues and investors deteriorated, Goldfarb's restaurant closed and he moved to Bali. He now runs a restaurant in the small village of Ubud called Room 4 Dessert, which he describes as "a chance to restart and rebuild from the ground up." These days he thinks "it's much more charming to take care of actual people" than to make something abstract in service to his own ego. It's a surprisingly zen way for Chef's Table: Pastry to end. But it's not unfamiliar. The third season of Chef's Table, which was released last year, opened with an episode featuring Jeong Kwan, an Buddhist nun who cooks not for fame or money, but simply for the sake of good food. "With food," she explains, "we can share and communicate our emotions. It's that mindset of sharing that is really what you're eating."
It's an odd thing for a documentary series about the world's most accomplished chefs—and all the baggage that accompanies reaching that plane—to espouse. But David Gelb, the creator of Chef's Table, has always seen cooking as a multi-faceted activity, an art form that nourishes on more than one level. With Chef's Table: Pastry he uses dessert, an under-appreciated discipline within fine dining, to challenge the principles and power structures of the culinary world. It's a call for revolution, made more palatable by the fact that there are cookies.
Posted: 15 Apr 2018 03:01 AM PDT
I recall the first time I heard someone in New York talk excitedly about plans to "go to Coachella." What? I thought.
The Coachella I had known while growing up in the vicinity was a small desert town where irrigation made farming possible, and where the crops ranged from rows of vegetables to groves of citrus and date-palm trees. Under the blasting desert sun, its motto—"The City of Eternal Sunshine"—seemed a literally accurate description, except maybe for the nighttime hours. Every year the next-door town of Indio would hold the National Date Festival, where events included naming a Queen Scheherazade and her court. (That tradition continues: here's the current queen.) During Cesar Chavez's heyday as an organizer, his United Farm Workers led a number of strikes and other actions among the mainly Latino work force in the area.
So to me, the name Coachella had always meant "date palms" and "farm-worker efforts." But over the past 20 years, it has come to mean "Music Festival" to much of the world. In fact, the web address coachella.com takes you directly to festival information, not to a municipal site.
This tension—Coachella the real place, where struggles for economic and environmental progress have been waged for decades, versus Coachella the stylish venue toward which festival-goers are flocking right now—is the theme of an intriguing new "story map" produced by the novelist Susan Straight, the photographer Douglas McCulloh, and our friends* at the Esri corporation, of Redlands, California. The map is here, and a few details about it are after the jump.
Posted: 15 Apr 2018 02:00 AM PDT
Seven years of horrific twists and turns in the Syrian Civil War make it hard to remember that it all started with a little graffiti.
In March 2011, four children in the southern city of Der'a scrawled on a wall "It's your turn, Doctor"— a not so subtle prediction that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a British trained ophthalmologist and self-styled reformer, would go down in the the manner of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, the Mubarak regime in Egypt, and eventually, the Qaddafi regime in Libya. But Syria's story would turn out differently.
The crackdown started small. Assad's security services arrested the four graffiti artists, refusing to tell their parents where they were. After two weeks of waiting, the residents of Der'a—who are famously direct and fiery—held protests demanding the children's release. The regime responded with live gunfire, killing several, and drawing the first blood in a war that's now killed some half a million people. With every funeral came more opportunities for protests—and for the regime to respond with more violence.
The protests quickly spread to other towns and cities—Homs, Damascus, Idlib, and beyond—engulfing what is nominally still the Syrian Arab Republic in flames. The underlying dynamic that drove the Arab uprisings—a rapidly growing youthful population and a rigid repressive regime incapable of change—was consistent across a number of countries. But the effects varied widely, and nowhere were they more ferocious than in Syria, where early hopes that Assad would go the way of other dictators have crumbled in the ruins of Syria's ancient cities and the shattered lives of its people. The progression of the regime's brutality, from deploying snipers to pick off protesters demanding freedom and dignity, to dropping chemical weapons on entire towns, has unfolded with the world watching in real time.
And now the world has again observed, through snippets on social media, what appears to have been a chemical-weapons attack in a rebel stronghold. It has watched the retaliatory strikes of the United States and allies, and heard the Pentagon claim success in the bombing of three facilities associated with Assad's chemical weapons program. How Syria moved from graffiti, to the near-toppling of its dictator, to that same tyrant's reassertion of control over a broken country, is a story of ethnic conflict, international connivance, and above all civilian suffering. And it's not ending now, but only entering a new and perhaps even more dangerous phase.
* * *
Decision-makers in Western capitals had long viewed the Assad regime as a grim model of Middle Eastern stability, but in 2011, they suddenly thought that "people power" would bring down Assad as it had other Arab despots. The Assad regime, however, had something the others didn't. "Popular resistance" strategies work well against authoritarian systems whose leadership come from the country's ethnic and sectarian majority, such as Egypt. Soldiers ordered to turn their guns on protestors are faced with a choice: Shoot their brethren among the protestors, or help get rid of those ordering them to do so. This causes a split in the army and security services, which can lead to a toppling of the government.
Assad's by contrast is a minority government with a kind of fortress of sectarian interests around it. Minority Alawites serve at the core, followed by concentric rings of other minorities (Christians, Shia, etc.), and finally by coopted Sunnis who represent the majority in Syria. Minority army and security officers are therefore farther removed from the majority Sunni population, making them more likely to order fire against protestors than to topple their brethren in power. This has galvanized the Assad regime against the kind of splits that toppled Ben Ali and Mubarak.
But this evidently wasn't part of President Obama's calculation when, in August of 2011, he declared that Assad should "step aside," as if Syria's strongman would magically leave on his own. To speed up the process, Obama organized European and Arab League allies to adopt similar language, as well as a raft of sanctions on the Assad regime, most notably a ban on purchases of Syrian crude oil, the regime's lifeline. Totally missing was a plan for removing Assad in the event he didn't go peacefully.
And Assad wasn't about to. In the autumn of 2011 and the first half of 2012, multiple UN initiatives failed to bring about sustainable ceasefires or a solution to the hostilities. While Western governments urged Syrians to keep the protests peaceful, the regime's military escalation to include more snipers, minority militiamen dubbed "ghosts," and rotary and fixed-wing aircraft caused death tolls to skyrocket. More and more Syrians picked up weapons to defend themselves, and hundreds of local militias were organized under the banner of the Free Syrian Army. The insignia included the old nationalist flag of Syria, but the FSA was more of a franchise than a true army.
The uprising had morphed into a civil war. So when in the summer of 2012 Russia and the United States offered a transition plan to help stop the violence, both sides dismissed it, each one believing it could defeat the other militarily. If anything, it looked like the rebels were gaining the upper hand; one group managed to seize half of Aleppo, Syria's largest city and industrial center, that July. At that point the pattern was set: When the regime faced serious losses, it resorted to extreme measures. In Aleppo Assad's forces resisted, holding onto the western side of the city and firing Scud missiles at rebel bases—becoming the second largest user, after Najibullah in Afghanistan, to deploy these weapons against their own people. Death tolls and refugee outflows spiked.
As the battle overshadowed diplomacy, the United States and its allies had hard decisions to make. First was what to do with the Syrian opposition, within which jihadist groups had rapidly sprung up, and which were poised to grow stronger in the absence of outside efforts to corral and arm the nationalist opposition. Obama, however, famously rejected plans to do so. Just as important, and ultimately disastrous, was an ancillary decision to allow U.S. regional allies to arm the opposition instead. Money from various Arab Gulf countries flowed into Syria, sowing even more division among those fighting Assad, and making Salafist and jihadist groups the strongest among them.
The second issue, and one that would usher in another turning point in the Syrian war, concerned U.S. intelligence reports that Assad was preparing to escalate further, by using his chemical weapons stockpile, which at that time was estimated to be the largest in the region if not the world. In an August 20, 2012 press conference, Obama said "that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized." As the war raged on that autumn, more and more reports and samples indicated the Assad regime had indeed begun using chemical agents in low concentrations.
By then, death tolls were already skyrocketing, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) estimating around 50,000 dead by the end of 2012, and refugee outflows approaching a half million.
Syria was melting down quickly. Evidence of chemical weapons use kept accumulating; refugees kept fleeing; and money kept flowing to jihadist groups, including what would ultimately become the Islamic State. And new combatants were entering the field. Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed militias were operating on the side of the Assad regime, while in the northeast, Kurdish fighters called the shots in an effort to secure their own autonomy. As the country fell apart, terrorist organizations filled up the vacuum on every side.
By summer 2013, opposition groups gained more ground in and around the capital Damascus. Either out of military desperation or pure brutality, the Assad regime doubled down on chemical weapons use. On August 21, 2013, nearly a year to the day after Obama set his fated "red line," the Syrian military launched sarin-filled rockets on the Eastern Ghouta pocket east of Damascus, an attack that the U.S. estimated killed around 1,400 civilians. As warships assembled off the Syrian coast for a possible retaliation, Obama backed down under pressure from Congress and his base, opting instead for a Russian proposed deal that would supposedly rid Syria of chemical weapons.
This dramatic turn of events caused whatever remained of Syrian opposition support for the U.S. to evaporate. On a trip to southern Turkey that autumn, I spoke to representatives of the Syrian opposition who told me they were furious over the decision. Many believed Assad had used chemical weapons and gotten away with it. But most were surprised that Washington believed the deal would stop him from doing it again—a tragically prescient conclusion.
Refugee outflows hit 2 million that September.
And ISIS duly expanded throughout Syria and Iraq. In 2014, its territory was approximately the size of Great Britain, and the militants were suddenly threatening not just the Assad regime but also the Iraqi state Washington had spent billions cobbling together. It was at this point that the Obama administration decided to strike Syria. While international headlines focused on the horrific execution of Americans in ISIS captivity, more than 7,6000 Syrians were killed in 2014 alone, the conflict's highest yearly death toll, and 1.3 million more Syrians fled to neighboring countries. Hundreds of thousands were displaced inside Syria as well.
* * *
America was not then targeting Assad directly—though Obama had by that point begun a covert program to arm some of the rebellion—but the regime was contracting as the U.S.-backed rebels crossed deep into the Alawites' heartland, threatening the Assad's sectarian base. This was perhaps why Assad began dragging his feet on the chemical-weapons deal, missing deadlines for moving stockpiles out of the country even as reports surfaced that it hadn't fully declared all of them.
Alarms were going off in Moscow, but over a different problem. The concern was not the pace of the deal's implementation, but that its Syrian ally was in a dangerous position: It had limited deployable manpower, and was losing territory even with the support of Iranian-backed militias. Only days after the United States signed the Iran nuclear accord in 2015, Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps' external operations wing, flew to Moscow; within about a month, Russia had established a base in the threatened Alawite stronghold of Latakia on the Mediterranean coast. Throughout the autumn of 2015, Russian aircraft dropped Vietnam-war era "dummy" bombs in support of Assad regime and Iranian forces throughout Syria, slowly reversing the regime's losses in Latakia and allowing Assad and Iranian-backed groups to march north on Aleppo.
A million more Syrians fled the country, with many fleeing beyond neighboring Turkey onward to Europe. Over 55,000 Syrians were killed in 2015 alone, bringing the overall total for the conflict to over a quarter million, with an estimated 100,000 more undocumented deaths.
The United States, now saddled with defeating ISIS and supporting the Syrian opposition, buckled. It engaged both Russia and Iran in an attempt to establish ceasefires and talks to end the war—even as Russia continued to pound rebel positions, allowing what was left of Assad's army and an array of Iranian-sponsored militias, including Hezbollah to push the rebels back. By summer 2016, this hybrid force surrounded and pulverized east Aleppo. And the U.S. was meanwhile seeing one of its allies challenged by another, as Turkey effectively invaded Syria to block U.S.-backed and Kurdish-dominated forces from consolidating their territory. Americans were focused on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election; Syrians, though, were focused on fleeing, with an estimated 11 million—half Syria's prewar population—on the run either in neighboring countries or inside Syria. Aleppo fell by late December, sending thousands of oppositionists into Idlib province, where many pro-Assad commentators claimed they would be corralled for slaughter.
As U.S. President Donald Trump took the reins in Washington, the Assad regime turned its attention to Idlib province and rebel controlled areas of southwest Syria adjacent Israel and Jordan. But a closer look at the force composition of those offensives showed a larger Iranian-supported and Hezbollah component than ever. U.S.-supported rebels fought back, pushing the regime south despite Russian air support.
This was the context in which the Trump administration faced its first major instance of a chemical attack in Syria, in April 2017, in the village of Idlib's Khan Sheikhoun. The United Nations ultimately confirmed it included the nerve agent sarin—a substance the Assad regime was supposed to have given up. This time, instead of trying to do a deal, Trump struck the airbase responsible for delivering the attack.
And yet Washington also found itself fighting one of Assad's enemies, ISIS. In the summer of 2017, the U.S., Russia, and Jordan managed to strike a deal to dramatically decrease the fighting in pockets of the country, allowing the Assad regime to launch an offensive against the jihadist group. Its army by now depleted, it relied in part on major contingents of Shia militias and Russian-organized units. Sunni areas liberated from ISIS afterward were expected to welcome the regime's offensive, but the Assad regime's brutality, combined with the Shia composition of the Iranian-backed forces coming to occupy Sunni Arab areas, caused most internally displaced persons to head toward the Kurdish-dominated zones.
ISIS, however, was not the regime's only priority, or even its primary one. In early 2018, the Assad regime launched an offensive to capture the Ghouta pocket —by then the opposition's last major presence near the Syrian capital and site of the 2013 chemical weapons attack. The regime and associated Iranian-backed militias were able to cut the pocket in two as Russia attempted to broker an evacuation of civilians and fighters to other areas. When those talks broke down, the Assad regime launched a military assault to take Ghouta by force. For reasons of limited manpower, sheer brutality, or both, Assad appears to have resorted to chemical weapons once again, killing dozens and again stepping over Washington's red line.
And once again, American strikes followed against regime targets. On Friday night, Secretary of Defense James Mattis characterized these strikes as a "one-off" meant to deter the use of chemical weapons, but no matter what comes next, those weapons are but one gruesome part of settling the Syrian Civil War. The war is now arguably the world's largest humanitarian disaster since World War II. The death toll now stands at nearly half a million, though the UN has stopped counting. Countless others are wounded and missing. A U.S. government report that the Assad regime is using a crematorium near the Saidnaya Prison outside Damascus indicates many of their remains may never be found. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates 13.1 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance, with more than 6 million internally displaced and 5 million registered as refugees. Hundreds of thousands more remain unregistered. Estimates of the total number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon today surpass a quarter of the country's population, with only slighter smaller figures for Jordan.
This is horrible enough. But meanwhile, the way the Syrian Civil War is "winding down" is increasingly unacceptable to regional countries. Israel, worried about the spike in Iranian militias and influence in Syria, is bombing there like never before. Turkey, concerned about the growth of the Kurdish dominated forces linked to Ankara's archenemy, the PKK, has invaded northwest Syria, pushing Kurds out of one stronghold in Afrin with threats to do the same in another one, Manbij. Meanwhile, negotiations in Geneva and elsewhere have yet to produce viable ceasefires or anything resembling a political settlement.
Like the civil war in neighboring Lebanon, the Syrian Civil War now threatens to morph into the Syria War—a regional conflagration which seems likely to burn for a generation. And civilians are cursed to live it, and die in it, every day.
Posted: 15 Apr 2018 01:50 AM PDT
After a century and a half, the story of six-year-old Edgardo Mortara—a Jewish boy who was kidnapped by the Vatican—has once again become the subject of acrimonious debate.
The facts are certainly dramatic enough: In June 1858, on the orders of Pope Pius IX, papal police knocked on the Mortaras' door in Bologna, Italy, and seized the boy from his family. He had been secretly baptized by a Catholic servant and so, according to Church doctrine, could not remain with his Jewish parents. In a tear-soaked scene, Edgardo was torn from his father's arms and hustled into a police carriage bound for Rome, where he would be raised in Church institutions. Worldwide protests followed. Thousands of people—from American protesters to the French emperor Napoleon III—demanded the child's return. Pius IX refused.
The case has reverberated into the 21st century. Pope John Paul II's decision to beatify Pius IX in 2000 led to angry protests from the descendants of the Mortara family and from Rome's Jewish community. More recently, Steven Spielberg's announcement that he plans to make a movie about the event (based on my book, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara) produced a new burst of attention, especially from conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church worried about popular reaction to the retelling of the story. Perhaps most unexpectedly, the Mortara affair has been taken up as a cudgel in the internal Church struggles over Pope Francis's attempts to reform the Church.
Edgardo Mortara's own account of these events recently appeared in English for the first time. But if anyone was expecting it to help clarify the controversial event at the heart of the story, they were deeply mistaken. Indeed, a reviewer for the conservative Catholic journal First Things used the text to defend Pius IX's actions, sparking numerous heated responses, including from an archbishop. What none of them has addressed, however, is that the published memoir itself has been heavily doctored.
The actual document Edgardo wrote differs in many passages from what Vittorio Messori, Italy's foremost conservative Catholic journalist-turned-polemicist, has published. Messori's work represents the first translation of Edgardo's memoir—originally written in Spanish—first into Italian, then into English. And it's a work that casts the episode in a light sympathetic to Pius IX. The Atlantic emailed Messori, one of the most influential critics of Pope Francis in Italy, asking him to explain the discrepancies. Messori at first attributed any errors to the English translation of his book, which he said he did not get to review. But the same discrepancies appear in the Italian version he prepared himself; asked to comment on specific passages, he did not respond.
In 1888, three decades after he was taken from his family, Edgardo wrote an account of his story in Spanish, referring to himself in the third person. By then, having been raised in a seminary, he had become a Catholic priest; years later, members of his order prepared a typescript of his account. It was the copy of this spiral-bound memoir in Rome's Canons Regular archive that Messori says he found and translated into Italian for publication; the English version that appeared last fall relies on Messori's translation, rather than the original Spanish. I personally compared the Italian and English versions of the Edgardo Mortara memoir published by Messori with the original, which I too located at the Canons Regular archive and digitized.
In Messori's version of the memoir, the reader is treated to a heartwarming story of a six-year-old child who is overjoyed to be taken from his parents so that he can become a Catholic—a child who would later have an uncannily accurate memory of what had happened to him. But this is not the narrative Edgardo actually wrote. The happy version instead emerges from numerous changes to the original, including the addition and deletion of entire paragraphs—changes that are common to both published versions of the Edgardo Mortara memoir in Italian and English.
A case in point is the addition of a 300-word paragraph, presented seamlessly with the rest of the text. It offers a justification for Pius IX's action in ordering Edgardo's removal from his family, and also describes the touching scene of the Inquisitor, Father Feletti, the man responsible for ordering the boy taken, going to see little Edgardo. "In Rome, with great pleasure and tears in his eyes," Messori's version of the memoir reads, "Father Feletti hugged the Mortara child, for whose eternal salvation he had suffered so much, and he always had a special affection for him. Father Mortara will always hold very dear the memory of this respectable friar, who was one of those who more closely intervened in the spiritual regeneration and rehabilitation of his soul." Neither this scene, nor the rest of the paragraph in which it appears, are to be found in Edgardo's original memoir.
Many of Messori's deletions involve omitting observations by Edgardo that fit uneasily with a pro-Church narrative. Edgardo, for example, notes in his original account that the servant who baptized him was only 16 years old. This is an important point, since his parents had used the fact that she was both illiterate and young to try to discredit her account of the baptism. But Messori's version does not include this detail.
Similarly, in the original memoir, Edgardo writes of the pope's decision to send the police to seize him: "Given that they [the Mortara parents] did not consent, Pius IX had to proceed, as Pope and as King, to the order of violent kidnapping." Messori's version does not include the terms "violent" or "kidnapping," so that the pope's "order of violent kidnapping" becomes simply an "order of sequestration."
Defenders of the pope's action in taking Edgardo have argued that the events had nothing to do with anti-Semitism, yet the way Church authorities treated Jews was deeply rooted in demonization. It is telling that some of the alterations Messori's version makes to Edgardo's actual words come at those points of his memoir where Edgardo reveals the anti-Semitic attitudes his Church mentors had drummed into him. Edgardo recalls his embarrassment as a child when, together with his fellow seminary students in Rome, he "walked through the ghetto, or Jewish district." Messori's version of the memoir ends the sentence there, but Edgardo's original continues that he had "always professed an inexpressible horror" toward the Jews. Similarly, later in his account, in referring to his parents, Edgardo writes, "The Mortaras hold to the Jewish religion, which is false, contradictory, absurd, condemned by history, and condemned to be labeled 'ridiculous,' as it is by most men." Messori's version does not include the "false," the "absurd," the "ridiculous," and the condemnation—a softening of language that lessens the impression that Church mentors may have filled a Jewish child's mind with anti-Semitic ideas.
But the problems with the accuracy of the memoir are not limited to distortions in Messori's translation. The man who wrote this account had been separated from his family at age six, suffered from numerous psychological ills later in life, and was constantly bombarded with the official Church narrative of the divine grace he had received. By the time he wrote his recollections, he had incorporated that Church narrative into sermons he was delivering throughout Europe, praising Pius IX for having him taken from his parents. In this way, he was able to justify his own choice to become a priest while inspiring his listeners to embrace Jesus and the Church.
The part of the memoir that the conservative Catholic media is most loudly trumpeting today is Edgardo's description of how, after learning of the baptism but before Edgardo was taken away, Pius IX repeatedly tried to arrange some kind of compromise with his parents. In Edgardo's original account, the pope proposed sending him to a Catholic boarding school in Bologna, for, "That way, his parents would be able to visit him whenever they wanted." The Inquisitor, Edgardo writes, repeatedly went to the Mortara home to convince his parents to accept the pope's thoughtful plan. Ignatius Press, publisher of the English-language memoir, highlights this episode in its brief catalogue blurb for the book, and in his introduction Messori calls this the book's greatest "revelation."
Yet this account is pure invention—and not by Messori, but by Edgardo himself. The Inquisitor went on trial in 1860 on charges of kidnapping the boy; trial transcripts offering hundreds of pages of first-hand accounts—from the boy's parents, the police, and the Inquisitor—all make clear that the Inquisitor never spoke with the Mortaras before the papal police took Edgardo away. The appearance of the police that night in June 1858 came as a complete shock to the Mortaras. The only offer that Church authorities ever made came after the boy was already securely in Rome in the House of the Catechumens, the Church institution dedicated to converting the Jews. Edgardo's parents were then told that if they themselves were to enter the House of Catechumens along with the rest of their children, and accept baptism, they would once again be able to live together as a family—a Christian family.
As if to ward off questions about the accuracy of Edgardo's memory, Messori makes repeated corrections throughout the text to verifiable historical mistakes, including names of Church officials and locations and dates of certain events, without noting that he is making changes. Messori, though, is hardly the first to alter Edgardo's story; rather, his book piles a new generation of inventions upon the old. Church defenders have long crafted their own narrative of what happened to the boy and his parents, instrumentalizing the Mortara family tragedy to tell a story that suited their purposes.
After the boy's kidnapping, as accounts spread of his mother's loud wailing, his father's fainting, and his siblings' terror, Church partisans began spreading their own, very different narrative of what had happened. In the fall of 1858, Bologna's Catholic newspaper reported that the child's removal "was all carried out with gentleness, solely through the use of persuasion" and that "whenever the carriage stopped in any town or city [on its way to Rome], the first thing that he asked was to be taken to the church, and when he entered he remained there at length, showing the … most moving devotion." No account was more influential than that published around the same time in the Vatican-supervised Jesuit journal, Civiltà Cattolica. It claimed that Edgardo showed "extraordinary happiness" on entering the Catechumens. The boy, the Jesuit journal reported, had a single idea "stamped on his forehead, and even more in his heart … the singular grace that he had received through Baptism and, by contrast, the immense misfortune for his parents of being and wanting to remain Jews."
Today, the Edgardo Mortara episode continues to roil the Roman Catholic Church and Catholic-Jewish relations. For those in the Church unhappy with the relatively progressive path the current pontiff is set upon, Pius IX remains a hero, the model of a pope who would risk all to stand up for the eternal verities of the faith. Those who take a different view should know that the translation of Edgardo's memoir is not a faithful one. Edgardo did indeed praise Pius IX, but the story of what actually happened to him as a child is different from what that pope's supporters would have us believe.
Posted: 14 Apr 2018 03:15 PM PDT
A few days ago, for no intended reason, I came across this remarkable off-the-cuff essay from back in 2011 by my then-and-now colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates. In those days—before "The Case for Reparations," before Between the World and Me, before the new, wonderful Apollo Theater rendition of Between—Ta-Nehisi was a closely followed writer but not yet the internationally influential figure he has deservedly become. And, like many of us writing online for The Atlantic in those days (I was doing so from Beijing), he used the then-flourishing model of the blog to carry out an extended thinking-out-loud relationship with his readers. That's what you'll see in the post mentioned above, which is about Ta-Nehisi's encounter with some works of Herman Melville's.
The world has moved on from that era of online discourse, principally because of a shift in the dynamics of readership and traffic. Then, you could assume that readers of today's post would have some background awareness of what you wrote yesterday, or maybe last month as well. They'd know the kind of sensibility a comment came from, and of the parts of the argument you weren't spelling out.
Now, any given post bears a greater expectation of being a stand-alone, completed thought—one that can "travel" via social-media sharing (through Facebook or Twitter) and will be comprehensible to people who have no idea of the preceding flow. With no assumption that posts will be read in context, there's a correspondingly greater risk that any comment or sentence can be taken on its own, taken the wrong way, and instantly circulated to damaging effect. There's less leeway for the "error" part of the trial-and-error aspect of thinking in public.
To exist in journalism is to be comfortable with accelerating change—back in 2011, I quaintly resisted the term "blog" for my part of the site, little imagining that a few years later that word would have the lost-era resonance of "first quarto edition" or "hand-written letter." And this shift in discourse, by which something is lost, is also part of a process by which a lot is gained: namely, a much broader potential audience for material on a site like ours. But it is a shift.
This is a build-up for saying that I'm going to try once more, within the confines of this space, to revive a little of the retro blogging spirit. As an example for today, here is a message that came in from a reader in an elite-university college town. (OK: It's New Haven.) He says that an under-appreciated aspect of Donald Trump's war on expertise deserves further attention. The reader writes:
Posted: 14 Apr 2018 11:51 AM PDT
The evening of Friday, April 13th, 2018, was John Bolton's debut crisis as President Trump's national-security adviser. Barely three days on the job and there he was, standing off-camera in the White House Diplomatic Reception Room, while his new boss delivered an address to the nation to explain why U.S., British, and French aircraft and missiles were attacking targets associated with Syria's chemical-weapons program.
Trump read from a teleprompter, standing in front of a portrait of George Washington, flanked at each shoulder by a small bronze statue of an American eagle with its wings raised and an arrangement of yellow and white roses. The symbolism was of an assertive White House in spring bloom. As his boss delivered what sounded like a carefully negotiated script, Bolton studied a copy of Trump's remarks with gel pen poised as if to check whether he remained true to his text.
To be sure, there were a few classic Trumpisms in the president's delivery: Assad as a "monster," the American economy as the "greatest and most powerful … in the history of the world," and Trump's wistful ever-present hope that "someday we will get along with Russia."
But the real message of the address was far more restrained than Trump or his national-security adviser reportedly desired. A chemical weapons R&D center and two storage facilities were destroyed to degrade—not eliminate—Assad's capabilities and send a signal that the United States and its Western allies would not tolerate the use of these weapons of mass destruction. No other regime targets were struck, no Syrian aircraft destroyed, no Russian or Iranian bases threatened, and no Russian air-defense zone penetrated. It was, as Defense Secretary James Mattis described it afterward, "a one-time shot." No doubt at another time, under another president, Trump and Bolton would have accurately described it as a "pin-prick attack."
As commander-in-chief, with Bolton at his side to bolster his belligerent instincts, Trump could have easily insisted on a more substantial attack. His decision not to do so underscored the underlying import of the missiles he had dispatched and the message that he meant to accompany them. That message was the real lead that Trump buried in his Friday the 13th Address. And it amounts to a Trump Doctrine for the Middle East.
"We cannot purge the world of evil or act everywhere there is tyranny," Trump averred, in stark contrast to John F. Kennedy's "pay any price, bear any burden … to assure the survival and the success of liberty." Instead, Trump was intent on downplaying expectations and limiting U.S. engagement: "No amount of American blood or treasure can produce lasting peace and security in the Middle East. It's a troubled place," he declared. Trump promised to "try to make it better," but he repeated: "It is a troubled place."
Like "Crooked Hillary," "Liddle Marco," "Lyin' Ted," and "Leakin' Comey," the Middle East has now been Trump-branded as "a troubled place." Clearly not somewhere for a great-again-America to invest its energy. By his use of American force, Trump intended to establish a strong deterrent against Assad's use of chemical weapons, because he declared it to be "a vital national security interest of the United States." But, this vital interest would remain narrowly defined. By contrast, "the fate of the region," he explained, "lies in the hands of its own people."
In other words, there would be no effort to overthrow Assad, or any other Middle Eastern tyrant. To protect the American people, Trump would complete the destruction of ISIS in Syria, "with but a small force." It would, however, be up to America's regional friends to "ensure that Iran does not profit from the eradication of ISIS." Indeed, Trump elaborated, "we have asked our partners to take greater responsibility for securing their home region." So much for the United States taking the lead in rolling back Iran's hegemonic gains in the Middle East, as Trump's scathing criticism of the Iran nuclear deal had implied. Trump has in effect now declared that in the Middle East he will, just like his archrival Obama, lead from behind.
Critics of Trump who argue that the strike on Syrian chemical weapons facilities needs to be part of a broader strategy seem to be deaf to this message, perhaps imagining they can goad him into adopting a more ambitious effort to remake Syria or the broader region in America's image. But Trump already has a Middle East strategy. It's just not the one they, and possibly Bolton, would prefer. He will embrace America's Middle East partners, autocrats and democrats alike, and sell them all the arms they can afford. But it's their job to assume the burdens of dealing with this troubled place, not his.
If Assad dares to use chemical weapons again, Trump made clear he'll bomb again. But if Assad wants to continue slaughtering his people with conventional weapons, it's up to others to deal with him. Listen up: "The fate of the region lies in the hands of its own people," not in Trump's hands.
His intent to leave Syria to its own devices was something Trump clearly signaled when he declared on March 29 that American troops would be departing there "very soon." "Let other people take care of it," he told a rally of his supporters in Ohio, foreshadowing his more detailed remarks on Friday night.
But he had already made clear his intentions in Syria, or lack of them, over the past year when he repeatedly avoided helping Israel, America's closest Middle Eastern ally, contain Iran's encroachments there. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried repeatedly to enlist Trump's aid in establishing red lines in Syria against Iran's establishment there of an air base, factories for precision-guided rockets for delivery to Hezbollah, and encroachment of the Golan Heights by Iranian-backed militias. Instead, Netanyahu has had to travel seven times to Moscow to beseech Putin for the help he could not secure from Trump. But absent Trump's engagement, Putin has no interest in challenging his Iranian partner in Assad's reconquest of rebel-controlled territories. Bibi's appeals therefore fell on Putin's deaf ears.
This has left Israel to enforce its own red lines by attacking Iranian facilities and convoys. Now Tehran's promises of retaliation are ratcheting up tensions and an all-out confrontation is looming, one that could engulf Lebanon too. Should that happen, Trump can be counted on to cheer Israel from the sidelines as the troubled place becomes predictably even more troubled.
Similarly, in Yemen, Trump is happy to help his friend Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman flail around in the quagmire, providing all the weapons and intelligence he can use. But there has been and will be no U.S. diplomatic engagement to promote a political settlement that might help Saudi Arabia forge a much-needed exit strategy and end the humanitarian crisis. And who benefits in the meantime? Iran, of course, which by supplying rockets to Houthi rebels is building its position of influence on Saudi Arabia's southern border for barely any cost to itself.
We should not imagine that John Bolton is going to change any of this. Perhaps he wanted a more robust attack. Perhaps he wanted to provoke a confrontation with Russia. But his checking of Trump's text against delivery in the Diplomatic Reception Room is a picture that tells a thousand words. He was making sure the Trump Doctrine for disengagement from the Middle East was accurately delivered.
Posted: 14 Apr 2018 08:34 PM PDT
Everyone remembers the banner. It was huge, for one thing—those gigantic soft-brush stars and stripes, the big letters shouting: "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED." It was also a huge mistake.
What's faded, 15 years since George W. Bush stood beneath that infamous sign on May 1, 2003, is that the political theater that took place on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean was as meticulously planned as it was audacious—a fact that's almost impossible to imagine in today's impulsive presidency. Hours after ordering air strikes against government targets in Syria, the current president casually tweeted: "Mission accomplished!"
But in the spring of 2003, every detail was choreographed. President Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln in a fighter jet, then emerged wearing a green flight suit. Bush's speech was timed for the golden hour, with the idea that the waning sunlight would cast a pleasing glow on the president as he spoke. Even the Navy crew members who gathered on the deck wore color-coordinated shirts, and were perfectly positioned so they'd appear in a single television shot with the words "Mission Accomplished" over Bush's right shoulder, media strategists pointed out at the time.
This attention to detail was typical in the Bush White House. The 43rd president had a team of special producers who were obsessed with how the president's message might be amplified on television. "I sort of use the rule of thumb, if the sound were turned down on the television when you are just passing by, you should be able to look at the TV and tell what the president's message is," Scott Sforza, who staged Bush's presidential events, told Martha Joynt Kumar in an interview for her book, Managing the President's Message. "You should be able to get the president's message in a snapshot, in most cases."
That's why Sforza and his team so frequently had banners appear behind Bush at presidential appearances. In 2002, a backdrop wallpapered with the phrase "protecting the homeland" was used when Bush gave a speech about homeland security in Kansas City. In 2003, just a week before Bush's infamous aircraft-carrier speech, he spoke about the economy in Canton, Ohio, in front of a giant sign that said "JOBS AND GROWTH"—in the exact style of the "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED" banner.
Bush's team believed that short bursts of text were crucial to conveying the president's message—and these messages clearly resonated with people. Fifteen years later, the president of the United States doesn't need to print banners for this purpose: he has Twitter.
Which is perhaps why it seems fitting that Twitter is where President Donald Trump declared "Mission Accomplished!" on Saturday morning, despite Trump's well-known affection for television. "A perfectly executed strike last night," Trump wrote, referring to the strikes he ordered on government targets in Syria. "Thank you to France and the United Kingdom for their wisdom and the power of their fine Military. Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!"
One remarkable response came from Ari Fleischer, who served as the White House press secretary for Bush from 2001 to 2003: "Um...I would have recommended ending this tweet with not those two words," Fleischer tweeted.
It's possible that Trump meant to be provocative—he has demonstrated a masterful knack for norm-shattering trolling in the past. It's also possible that he has no sense of irony, or at least no real knowledge of recent American political history, and didn't realize what he was invoking with the phrase.
Either way, Trump has a preternatural sense for captivating people. And a president who participates in meme culture—knowingly or not—is a president who commands attention at every level.
The political theater that Bush's team staged for him seems to come effortlessly to Donald Trump. It is an instinct that has been reinforced, no doubt, by his own obsession with television, and one that Trump leverages constantly on Twitter. Incidentally, the power of television is part of what made "mission accomplished" become a meme so quickly. (A "mission accomplished" banner appears repeatedly in the comedy series Arrested Development, for example.) And the internet's remix culture has sustained it ever since. (There are multiple meme generators that use "mission accomplished" in some way.)
Trump has a record of dabbling in memes outright, too—and not just because some of his closest confidants, like Dan Scavino and Stephen Miller, are steeped in troll culture. Even Trump's unmistakable red "Make America Great Again" hat could be considered a meme in its own right. The slogan was used by Ronald Reagan, then remixed in wearable form for the Trump moment. But in the sprawling and context-unraveling universe of memes, "mission accomplished" has always been particularly potent—simply because of how discordant it was with reality from the very beginning. This is the same reason Richard Nixon's wing-tipped stroll on the beach was a meme of sorts in Nixon's day. When he was photographed walking in the sand wearing a suit and fancy dress shoes, it wasn't just awkward—it was totally absurd.
Bush never actually said "mission accomplished" in the remarks he made on the aircraft carrier that day. He was going to, though.
"I took 'mission accomplished' out," Donald Rumsfeld told the journalist Bob Woodward in a 2006 interview, referring to an earlier version of the speech. "I was in Baghdad, and I was given a draft of that thing to look at. And I just died, and I said, 'My God, it's too conclusive.' And I fixed it and sent it back."
In the speech, Bush put it this way: "Our mission continues. Al-Qaeda is wounded, not destroyed."
"They fixed the speech," Rumsfeld told Woodward, "but not the sign."
Years later, Bush said he regretted the "mission accomplished" moment. "No question it was a mistake," he said in a television interview in 2010. He wishes he'd gone with "good going" or "great mission" instead, he said.
In the American presidency, however, there are no take backs. That's always true, but felt especially in times of war, and in an age where wars themselves are televised. Television and Twitter create a sense of intimacy between the chief executive and the electorate, a sense that sometimes masks the true distance between them. In fact, the space between the president and the people is dominated by political theater, and it is a theater of the absurd.
Posted: 14 Apr 2018 08:28 AM PDT
For a constitutional lawyer, the Trump administration requires a crash course in obscure parts of the document—the Emoluments Clause? The "Inferior Officers" Clause? Really?
But equally challenging is the need to keep turning the conversation back to constitutional questions that people are sick of hearing about—and, even worse, have tacitly agreed to consider irrelevant. "To see what is under one's nose," George Orwell wrote in 1946, "requires a constant struggle." Orwell didn't add that trying to point out what is under our noses can turn one into a kind of Ancient Mariner at whose approach both friend and foe are tempted to flee.
But here goes: Trump did not have the authority to order any kind of strike on Syria. Congressional authorization was needed before any use of force against Syria; Friday's attack was unconstitutional. And his pledge that the United States "is prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents"—that is, a unilateral declaration of long-range war aims and a pledge of long-term military involvement—is about as gross a violation of the Constitution as I can think of.
The fact that Trump ordered a one-off missile strike a year ago doesn't change that calculation. The fact that almost no one in Congress spoke up when he did doesn't change that calculation. The fact that foreign policy commentators fawned on that decision doesn't change that calculation. The Constitution still requires congressional authorization for an attack on another country. The requirement is not a formality. It is in the Constitution for a reason. Congress's failure to assert its prerogatives is—even though it may have become a craven habit—a matter of life or death for a self-governing republic.
The reason, as I have written before, is that no president—not Barack Obama and not Donald Trump—has the authority under the Constitution to "declare war." Of all the toxic constitutional developments of the Obama years, by far the most disheartening is this: Obama's unlawful intervention in Libya garnered strong criticism; but the harshest criticism came when Obama chose to obey the Constitution by asking for congressional authorization to strike Syria. For breaking the mold of presidential unilateralism, he garnered—and continues to garner—the undisguised scorn not only of his political enemies but even of many of his friends. That hostile verdict on his presidential leadership is the clearest sign that we have entered what future historians may describe as a post-constitutional era.
Why, of all the many military misadventures into which Uncle Sam has blundered since 2001, is Syria different? The reason is that, under the Constitution and the War Powers Act, the president has no authority to send military forces into hostilities except after congressional authorization or in response to a direct attack on the U.S. or its forces. The president has no inherent power over war; it is given to Congress. In 2001, George W. Bush grumbled about his supposed executive authority, but went to Congress for approval of a "war" against "those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001"; in 2002, he did the same again, and got approval to "defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and … enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq." Those resolutions remain, at least technically, in force, and have been used by the Obama and Trump administrations as justification for U.S. efforts on behalf of forces—including some of the Syrian rebels—fighting against the Islamic State, supposedly a "successor" to Al Qaeda.
Republicans in the congressional leadership insist that the 2001 authorization is all that's needed. "The existing AUMF gives him the authority he needs to do what he may or may not do," House Speaker Paul Ryan said Thursday. That plough really won't scour, no matter how you torture the text. The nation of Syria is not the nation of Iraq; and the Syrian government is not Al Qaeda, nor an affiliate, nor a successor, nor anything except a sovereign nation against which the president has decided to go to war.
Trump must go to Congress to seek approval now; and if he does not, Congress must, regardless, conduct a full debate on what he has done and whether he should be allowed to keep doing it and when he should stop. Trump is both incoherent and pathologically secretive. He is almost certainly unable and unwilling to tell the country what he is doing. If Congress does not debate the next step in Syria, there will simply never be any statement of U.S. war aims. Neither the Syrians, nor the Russians, nor any U.S. allies, nor the American public will have a clue what we are doing and when we have failed or succeeded.
That need for explanation and public strategy is one of the reasons the Framers of the Constitution lodged the war power with Congress rather than the president. There is another reason, though. By anyone's definition, a nation that launches war on the word of one man is not, in any real sense, a republic any more. The Framers knew this; I doubt they were capable of imagining Donald Trump, but they worried about unfit and tyrannical characters in power, and they sought to rein them in.
The U.S. has been in a strange state of war—against an enemy who can't entirely be located or described—for seventeen years, in pursuit of a victory we will not recognize if we achieve it. That is without parallel in American history; it is poisonous to a democratic system. In the long run, allowing the president to become an autocrat with sole control of war and peace is likely to prove fatal to the republic.
Posted: 14 Apr 2018 05:17 AM PDT
It is undoubtedly a good thing that a small international coalition of the willing responded to Syria's latest chemical outrage with a limited military strike. But it marks only the first step in an effective strategy to stop Syria's use of chemical weapons—and more importantly, to hold Russia accountable for its promise to oversee a chemical weapons-free Syria.
Syria and Russia have displayed characteristic bluster and dishonesty, warning of "consequences" for a crisis that the Syrians themselves provoked by apparently violating, once again, their 2013 agreement not to use chemical weapons. Any confrontation with destabilizing bullies is dangerous, and there is no predicting whether and how they'll respond.
Even a limited and justified effort to contain Syria and its allies carries a risk of escalation. The Trump administration, with its capricious chief executive and broken policy-making process, is ill equipped to forge the sort of complex strategy needed to manage Russia, Syria, Iran, and a Middle East in conflict. Nor has it so far displayed much interest in building the international cooperation necessary to implement such a strategy—although it was a pleasant development that the United States was joined this time by France and the U.K. rather than proceeding unilaterally. However, the considerable drawbacks of the Trump administration don't give the West a pass when it comes to Syrian use of chemical weapons, and Russia's belligerent expansionism. Both need to be checked and contained, even considering the additional risks Trump creates.
In order to have any real impact on chemical weapons use, the response needs to be sustained. Every time the regime uses chemical weapons, there needs to be a retaliation, which specifically targets the regime's chemical-weapons capacity—command and control, delivery mechanisms including aircraft and bases, storage, research, and the like. A political strategy is indispensable as well. Since Russia is the guarantor of the failed 2013 chemical weapons agreement, the West needs to keep Russia on the hook for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons. The Pentagon chief suggested that these strikes were a one-off, and only time will tell which of Trump's preferences prevail.
Deft diplomacy will also be necessary to reduce the risks of wider war. It doesn't help that Trump is undermining the nuclear deal with Iran at the same time as he is ratcheting up the stakes in Syria. One key determinant now is how much is Russia willing to add action to match its relentless campaign of lies and bluster about Syria and chemical weapons. Another is whether Iran, Assad, and Hezbollah are willing to sit on their hands after these strikes. In the past, all three have been willing to refrain from action despite angry promises.
* * *
The problem is the context. Any American action in the Middle East ought to be embedded in a comprehensive, engaged strategy—which is not likely to be forthcoming. Today, we can be sure that America's significant moves—from proposals to withdraw military assets fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq, to promises to degrade the capabilities of Bashar al-Assad or limit the reach of Hezbollah or Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps— will land à la carte, increasing the danger of miscalculation and violent, destabilizing escalation.
At stake is how to manage disorder in the Middle East, and more important still, where to draw the line with a resurgent Russia.
Containing rival powers is an art, not a science. Military planners talk about the "escalation ladder" as if it were a chemical equation, but in reality escalation hinges on unpredictable questions of politics, interests, psychology, hard power, and willingness to deploy it.
Obama's strategy could most simply be understood as a desire to contain regional fires with minimal involvement, while keeping an equal distance from regional antagonists, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, and difficult regional allies including Turkey and Israel. The U.S. got involved in the fight against ISIS, by this logic, with minimal resources and local alliances that it knew couldn't outlive the immediate counter-terrorism operation.
In the Syrian context, Obama early on made clear that the United States commitment to principles of democracy and human rights would remain primarily rhetorical. Today, the United States has discarded even many of the rhetorical trappings of American exceptionalism. Trump has made clear that he doesn't apply a moral calculus to superpower behavior. But he's also expressed personal outrage about Syria's use of chemical weapons—and he visibly takes umbrage at being personally embarrassed or humiliated.
Whether one thinks it's wise or fully baked, President Trump also has a Middle East strategy. He wants to reduce America's footprint, and disown any responsibility for the region's wars, as if America played no role in starting them and suffers no strategic consequence from their trajectory. He wants to outsource regional security management to regional allies. Most of this is continuous with Obama's approach, except when it comes to regional alliances; Obama attempted a "pox on both your houses" balance among all of America's difficult allies. In his biggest departure from his predecessor, Trump has tilted fully to the Saudi Arabian side of the regional dispute, and has erased what little daylight separated American and Israeli priorities in the Middle East.
This is the bedrock of Trump's moves in the region—moves that are all the more consequential because they are overtly about confronting, or trying to check, Iran and Russia.
* * *
The United States has a critical national interest in reestablishing the chemical weapons taboo. It also has countless other equities in the Middle East that require sustained attention and investment, of diplomatic, economic, and military resources. A short list of the most urgent priorities includes preventing the resurgence of ISIS or its successors; supporting governance in Iraq; limiting the reach and power of militias supported by Iran; and reversing the destabilizing human and international strategic toll of the world's largest refugee crisis since World War II. A major regional war will only make things worse.
Given the stated priorities of the president, the most realistic possibility is an incomplete, and possibly destabilizing policy of confrontation, containment, and reestablishment of international norms.
But a reckoning can't be deferred forever. Iran has been surging further and further afield in the Middle East, to great effect. Russia has been testing the West's limits mercilessly since the invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. At some point, the United States and its allies will stand up to this expansionist behavior, although there's wide latitude about where to set limits. When the West, or some subset of NATO, does confront Russian ambitions, there's no pat set of rules to keep us safe. Such confrontations are inevitable, and dangerous, and unpredictable. The best we can do is enter into them carefully, with as many strong allies as possible, and clearly stated, limited expectations about what we intend to accomplish.
The United States and its allies also need to more carefully distinguish things they dislike (Iranian influence in Iraq) from things they won't tolerate (Hezbollah and Iran building permanent military infrastructure in the Golan). Rhetoric in the region often conflates the two. Israeli officials, for instance, talk about "intolerable" developments in Syria, but in practice their security policy often allows for a great deal of ambiguity about just what level of military threat they're willing to tolerate along their frontiers. Iran, Hezbollah, and now Russia have made grandiose claims about retaliating if the United States takes action, but after past strikes by both the United States and Israel, the actual response has been quite restrained.
The United States and its allies need to set limited, achievable goals. The U.S. might for instance stand firm against the use of chemical weapons, or against new military campaigns against sovereign states, but it can't very well seek to turn back the clock to a Syria free of Russian and Iranian influence.
In addition, the United States can help the world remember who is the author of this dangerous impasse: Syria, Iran, and Russia, who have serially transgressed the laws of war, lied in international forums, and mocked countless agreements, including the shambolic deal that was supposed to rid Syria of chemical weapons in 2013. This won't justify American actions or give them political cover, but it is a key reason why we're in such a difficult position in the first place. Despite American restraint, or even American willingness to tolerate war crimes by Syria and its allies, Syria and its allies have insisted on pushing past every limit and exhausting the world's willingness to turn a blind eye toward abuses so long as those abuses stay within national boundaries.
Finally, to have any impact at all the United States will need to pay consistent and sustained attention. Russia, Syria and Iran have gotten away with murder, literally, and have found themselves able to run circles around Western governments that still care to some extent about international norms and institutions. They are dangerous, but they are far weaker than their words would suggest. The West cannot deter every action it does not like, but it can draw boundaries and impose a cost—but it must do so consistently.
This weekend's strikes have established a bar and set a perilous, but unavoidable, process in motion. What counts is what comes next.
Posted: 14 Apr 2018 09:22 AM PDT
When scientists in France set out to sequence 1,000 yeast genomes, they looked at strains from all the places you might expect: beer, bread, wine.
But also: sewage, termite mounds, tree bark, the infected nail of a 4-year-old Australian girl, oil-contaminated asphalt, fermenting acorn meal in North Korea, horse dung, fruit flies, human blood, seawater, a rotting banana. For five years, two geneticists—Gianni Liti, from the Université Côte d'Azur, and Joseph Schacherer, from the Université de Strasbourg—asked for samples of Saccharomyces cerevisiae from nearly everyone they met, whether doctors in French Guiana collecting human feces or Mexican tequila makers.
"It's easy to get a thousand wine strains," says Schacherer, "But that's not how we wanted to proceed." They wanted little-known wild strains of yeast that live all over the world in a great variety of environments. And they wanted these samples to see if they could confirm their suspicions about the historical origin of yeast. The results of their analysis, published in Nature, suggest that yeast came from, of all places, China.
The most telling clue is that yeast in and around China has the most genetic diversity of anywhere in the world. Liti had already suspected this, having worked with Chinese researchers who collected yeast from remote primeval forests. But the massive sequencing confirmed just how unique yeast in East Asia are: There are more differences between yeast strains from Taiwan and Hainan—both tropical islands off the coast of China—than there are between strains in the United States and Europe, separated by the entire Atlantic Ocean.
The out-of-China hypothesis for yeast is not so different from the out-of-Africa hypothesis for humans. Among Homo sapiens, Africa has the most genetic diversity of anywhere on Earth. All humans elsewhere descend from populations that came out of Africa; all yeast elsewhere descend from strains that came out of East Asia. Once wild yeast strains made it out of Asia, humans likely domesticated them several times to make the yeasty foods that we know: beer, bread, wine.
How yeast strains are different from each other turned out to be surprising, too. A standard way to measure difference is to take the same gene in two separate yeast strains and compare how many letters have changed—like typos that have accumulated over time. But Liti and Schacherer found that the number of times a particular gene is repeated in the genome—a phenomenon known as copy-number variation—actually accounts for more of the differences between, say, strains used to brew tasty lagers and strains that live on insects in the wild. In other words, it's not just the sequence of the gene that matters, but the number of copies the yeast has.
This could be true in other species as well, says Ed Louis, a yeast geneticist at the University of Leicester—possibly even in humans. But copy-number variation is not as easy to study in humans, whose genomes are more than 200 times the size of yeasts'. So studies looking for genes that factor into heart disease, for instance, usually spot-check the genome for single-letter changes. The yeast results suggest that maybe human geneticists should take a closer look at copy-number variation, too.
Applying insights from tiny, single-celled yeast to big, multicellular humans is not so far-fetched. We share a lot of the same cellular machinery—in many cases, you can replace a yeast gene with its human version and the yeast goes on functioning just fine. Because yeast strains reproduce quickly and grow easily in the lab, scientists long have used it to study genetics.
Leonid Kruglyak, a geneticist at UCLA, calls the new study a "treasure trove of information." He's already planning experiments based on some of its data. Kevin Verstrepen, a geneticist at KU Leuven who has sequenced many strains of domesticated yeast used in beer, is also enthusiastic: "Everybody in the yeast community is quite excited," he says.
And if you're wondering if wild yeast can indeed be used to brew beer, the answer is yes. Yeast is yeast. It turns sugars into alcohol. But don't expect great results. "We've done quite a few of them," says Verstrepen. "Let's say the beers are funky."
Posted: 14 Apr 2018 04:30 AM PDT
This Week in Family
Parents wish they could protect their kids from all the harm in the world, but it can be hard to tell just how much is in their control. Dawn Dow, a sociologist, is familiar with the stress this can introduce in parents' lives. Based on interviews she conducted with dozens of black mothers, she wrote about the great lengths many black parents go to to curate the books and TV shows their children come across, in order to shield them from negative stereotypes. Dow wrote: "The mothers I talked to generally weren't confident that when they turned on the television, went to a movie theater, or visited a bookstore, their children would see empowering versions of themselves."
Meanwhile, a senator questioned Mark Zuckerberg about child-privacy protections at his Congressional testimony this week, calling attention to the fact that the American system for protecting kids' privacy online is inconsistent and often ineffective. Steven Johnson, an Atlantic staffer, reflected on what this means as kids spend more and more time on the internet.
The Big Question
Are helicopter parents stunting the development of the next generation?
The first episode of Home School, The Atlantic's new animated series on parenting, explores what happens when parents don't give kids enough room to learn from their own mistakes. Julie Lythcott-Haims, the author of How to Raise an Adult, says this kind of parenting is dangerous: "We parents end up getting in our kids' way. We deprive the kids of the chance to show up in their own lives."
Watch the episode, produced by Elyse Kelly and animated by Brothers McLeod. Have you found a balance between protecting your kids and giving them the freedom to make their own mistakes? How? Share experiences and advice in Homebodies, The Atlantic's Facebook group on family life.
Every Wednesday, the psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb answers readers' questions about life's trials and tribulations, big or small, in The Atlantic's "Dear Therapist" column.
This week, a reader worries that her fiancé doesn't take initiative on household tasks. "I want a partnership, not a person to delegate to," she writes. Lori's advice? Reimagine what a partnership looks like:
Send Lori your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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