" . . . part of the success in Iraq involved reaching out to people that we would consider to be Islamic fundamentalists, but who were willing to work with us . . . "
--President Obama, interview with the New York Times
published March 7, 2009
I've been pondering President Obama's idea to split the Taliban and get some of those maniacal fanatics on our side for a change. It's a magnificent idea. It's not, mind you, a good idea. But it's magnificent--grand, sumptuous, rich, splendid--a great, big, thought-filled ideal of an idea, the kind you'd expect from deep-thinking, idealistic Barack Obama. Boy, is this a thinking man's administration. They are thinking so hard over at the White House, having such bright, shining, effulgent, coruscating thoughts, that if you're a thoughtful person like me (and I'm sure you are), you can't help being carried away with enthusiasm. The next thing you know you're thinking yourself.
Of course I'm not an Ivy League-educated thinker like Obama. But I've got a notion that might help the president. I have the perfect person for the job of splitting the Taliban. I know who the president should appoint. Only one man fills the bill as Special Envoy to the Beard-o's and Weird‑o's to Get Them Quarrelling Among Themselves. That man is the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
I suppose the president isn't listening to me. I'm a Republican, a conservative, and I think the opinion that Rush Limbaugh voiced on Obama's efforts at economic stimulus was too much of an attaboy. But victory in Afghanistan is not a partisan issue. Even I am not Republican enough to wish for an Obama failure in Kabul. Furthermore, I know what I'm talking about. I've seen the Muslim world as an adult, without the distractions of rambunctious Indonesian madrassa schoolmates with their noisy games of dodge-fatwa.
The president isn't listening to me. And Jeremiah Wright isn't speaking to the president. So there are a couple of practical problems with my plan. But President Obama isn't the kind of fellow who'll let something as mundane as reality interfere with hope and change.
Splitting the Taliban is the same hope-to-hell, change-a-roo that the FBI used to destroy Boston organized crime. The FBI gave sympathy, comfort, and wire tap information to Whitey Bulger, Steve "the rifleman" Flemmi, and other members of the Winter Hill Gang. This caused a split between Irish mobsters and Italian mafia. Now all of Boston's organized crime figures are on the lam or in jail and--bonus--so are most of the Boston FBI agents. Organized crime has been eliminated in Boston. Crime is no longer elitist and exclusionary; it has been returned to the common people of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Jamaica Plain.
To give another example, there's the financial bailout strategy to split the assets of troubled banking institutions. Good assets will go to a "good bank." Bad assets will go to a "bad bank." I'm opening a checking account at a bad bank ASAP. New customers at bad banks won't get good things like toasters, they'll get bad things like liquor and guns. And the personalized checks in bad bank checkbooks won't have pretty pictures on them, they'll have printed messages: "This Is a Stick-Up."
Therefore President Obama shouldn't let the fact that Pastor Wright and I are ticked off at him stand in the way of high hopes for big changes in Islamic fundamentalism any more than I let the fact that Pastor Wright is a left-wing loony stand in the way of how much I love the guy.
I'm serious about that. Jeremiah Wright is a kick-ass preacher of the Christian gospel. In his infamous post-9/11 "America's chickens are coming home to roost" sermon, Wright talks about Psalm 137, the reggae song one, "By the rivers of Babylon. " Wright points out that "this psalm is rarely read in its entirety." Easy to see why when you get to the end and hear the psalmist describe the fun the Hebrews will have when they defeat the Babylonians. "Look at the verse, Verse 9," Wright says,
"Happy they shall be who take your little ones and dash them against the rocks." The people of faith . . . moved from the hatred of armed enemies to the hatred of unarmed innocents. The babies. The babies. Blessed are they who dash your babies' brains against a rock. . . . Yet that is where the people of faith are in 551 B.C., and that is where far too many people of faith are in 2001 A.D.
Whew. A message applicable to Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike, not to mention Bob Marley. On the other hand Wright draws some conclusions from the gospels that I wouldn't. But so did St. Paul (I Corinthians 7:1, "It is good for a man not to touch a woman").
There's a love of rhetorical skill in the Muslim world. Osama bin Laden doesn't just go on tape cassettes and say, "America sucks." He recites poetry, he finds things that "America sucks" rhymes with. On the flip side of the orthodoxy coin, Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses is hardly a Unitarian mumble of skepticism about the formal doctrines of established religion. The Koran itself is oratory, dictated by the prophet, who could not read or write. (One wonders a bit about Christ's literary, as opposed to rhetorical, learning. In Luke, when Jesus goes to the synagogue and reads from the Book of Isaiah, he gets the text wrong--and improves it.)
Preachers at black churches are the last people left in the English-speaking world who know the schemes and tropes of classical rhetoric: parallelism, antithesis, epistrophe, synec-doche, metonymy, periphrasis, litotes--the whole bag of tricks. A speaker of Arabic can't buy a fig in the market without using most of these at least once. And embodied in a love for rhetoric is an embrace of contradiction--which, in the form of oxymoron, is itself a rhetorical trope.
In 1984, before Obama was born, I was covering the civil war in Lebanon. I was in the southern suburbs of Beirut, an area controlled by Hezbollah, and I got stopped at a checkpoint by teenage Islamic fundamentalists waving their guns around with the safeties off. I turned over my American passport, and one young man began yelling at me. He yelled at me for half an hour, sticking his gun in my face and shouting about how all the terrible things in the world were America's fault--poverty, war, injustice, Zionism. And then, when he was done yelling, he handed back my passport and said, "As soon as I get my Green Card I am going to dentist school in Dearborn, Michigan."
That brings me to another point in favor of letting Pastor Wright deal with the Taliban. They hate America. He hates America. Wright's "God Damn America" sermon, which Obama slept through in 2003, should give the pastor and the Taliban numerous talking points and a basis of mutual interest upon which to build the trust and understanding needed for progress and prosperity in Afghanistan.
Wright has progressed rather prosperously himself damning America. You begin to suspect that Wright's hatred of America is not unlike the hatred of America exhibited by the teen at the Hezbollah checkpoint. That kid's about 40 now, a prominent orthodontist in Bloomfield Hills, and I bet he voted for John McCain. "I stopped by to tell you tonight that governments change," is a less radio-talk-show-quoted passage from the "God Damn America" sermon. Imagine Wright's surprise when the change of government came from a member of his own congregation who would diss him worse than John McCain ever did.
Wright is amusing on the subject. In April 2008, after Obama had washed his hands of Trinity United Church of Christ, Wright told the National Press Club in Washington, "So when Jesus says, not only you brood of vipers, now he's playing the dozens because he's talking about their mamas. To say brood means your mother is an asp, A-S-P. Should we put Jesus out of the congregation?"
In my experience the Muslim world's love of language extends to that natural consequence of having a mouth on you, humor. I was in Kuwait during the run-up to the Iraq war. A shopping center got hit by an Iraqi missile. I went to see the damage and I found a perfume shop where every bottle had burst from the warhead concussion. An American store owner would have been on his cell phone screaming at his insurance agent. The Kuwaiti proprietor was seated comfortably in an armchair, sipping a cup of coffee. When I entered he smiled, gestured at the heaps of broken glass, and said, "Special price."
There is no downside to sending the Reverend Jeremiah Wright to Afghanistan. We'll be able to claim success, because the Taliban will split. The Afghans themselves say that if you put two Afghans in a room you get three factions. Never mind that the Taliban is unlikely to split in a way that leads to a peaceful, law-abiding Afghanistan that doesn't harbor terrorists. The last time there was an Afghanistan like that was in 1.6 million B.C., before humans had arrived in the region. Shipping Wright through the Khyber Pass will also get him out of the United States, much to the relief of the president, the first lady, and most United Church of Christ congregations other than Trinity's. Then there is the off chance that Pastor Wright, with his gifts of oratory, humor, and Afghan-level ability to make everyone furious, will convert the natives. I'm for it. And I'm glad President Obama is "willing to work with" religious fundamentalists. He'll need to when the 2012 GOP national convention is filled with mujahedeen.
P. J. O'Rourke is a contibuting editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.