Roving thoughts and provocations

Clogging the War Machine

David Cole

Pool/Reuters/Corbis

Over the last few days, critics have called President Barack Obama weak, indecisive, rudderless, and even a threat to the presidency for not ordering an immediate military strike on Syria. Had Obama acted alone, however, he would have violated both the US Constitution, which requires prior congressional approval, and international law, which forbids the offensive use of force absent Security Council approval. Instead, he is now pursuing a path that accords with the rule of law, and may in fact be more effective at deterring further use of chemical weapons. Indeed, it may even prepare the way for a diplomatic strategy to end the underlying civil war.

From Cocaine to Fascism

Alexander Stille

Behind Italy’s official façade of bourgeois morality, traditional family life, and patriotism, the early twentieth-century novelist Pitigrilli saw a world driven by sex, power, and greed. Cocaine, his most successful novel, describes a world of cocaine dens, gambling parlors, orgies, lewd entertainment, and séances; the principal occupation of the characters is distracting themselves from the horrors of real life. Cocaine appeared in 1921; the following year, Benito Mussolini and his fascist party came to power. Interestingly, Mussolini, himself a deep cynic and perhaps the shrewdest interpreter of the post-World War I mood, appears to have been a fan of Pitigrilli’s novels: “Pitigrilli is not an immoral writer; he photographs the times. If our society is corrupt, it’s not his fault.”

How to Save the Syrians

Michael Ignatieff

Molhem Barakat/Reuters

We may be at a turning point in the Syrian agony, when diplomatic action combined with the threat of force moves the Syrian regime toward putting its chemical weapons under international control. If this happens it will be a victory for international law, for the authority of the UN Security Council, and for peace. But it is only too obvious that thus far the peoples of the democratic states have failed in our responsibility to protect the people of Syria.

Spaghetti Lessons

Charles Simic

Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos

I came to Italian food late. My grandmother and mother made noodles and macaronis, but nothing else that could remotely be described as Italian. In my mother’s family, garlic and olive oil, two of life’s peerless delights, were regarded with horror, as something people of suspect ethnicity and class coated their food with. It was on a pizza that garlic in obscene quantities first entered our home. As for spaghetti, it may have been served in a bowl, but it came out of a can bought at the supermarket. It took me years to reach the high-school level in Italian gastronomy and begin to dream of university. As I ate my way into higher wisdom, I also learned about the culture that came with the food.

Hyderabad in Five Colors

Pico Iyer

Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images

Every visitor who goes to India knows how the country refuses to conform to plans or international expectations; the only way to survive is to give yourself over to its way of being. Fight against the Indian way of doing things and the only result will be tears. Just as you have to turn your watch forwards by half an hour when landing in India, just as you have to check in the batteries from your camera as separate pieces of luggage, just as it can prove impossible to find a working Internet connection in a proud center of high-tech like Hyderabad, so every foreigner has to surrender and realize that things will get done in their own, unexpected ways. The very qualities that make India so culturally alive, textured and itself make it uncommonly reluctant to adjust to the economic rules and geopolitical norms of the world.

America’s Jobless Generation

Jeff Madrick

Karen Kasmauski/Corbis

Our current employment crisis has less to do with technology or globalization than with the administration’s failure to adopt policies to support young workers. Consider the bleak prospects of young people entering the labor force today: the portion of people aged twenty to twenty-four who have jobs has fallen from 72.2 percent in 2000 to just 61.5 percent. Meanwhile, the median earnings of men between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four working full-time has fallen by nearly 30 percent since 1973. For women, the median has fallen by 17 percent. As Andy Sum, an economist at Northeastern University who has studied youth unemployment for many years, has shown, if you are out of work or underemployed during those initial years of adulthood, chances are far higher you will be unemployed, poor, or dependent on welfare later on.

What Seamus Heaney Taught Me

Christopher Benfey

Ian Berry/Magnum Photos

Seamus Heaney used to say that the poetry-writing hours of a poet’s day were the easy part; it was what to do with the rest of the day that was a challenge. He decided early on that teaching was something honorable to do with the rest of the day. He took his teaching very seriously, regarding it as a craft, something to be worked at, much like writing.

Snowden in Exile

Amy Knight

Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos

It is probably unfair to draw comparisons between Edward Snowden and Kim Philby, another Westerner who fled to Russia, whose betrayal of his country as a double agent did unprecedented damage and cost many lives. Snowden was not an agent of a foreign state, and was apparently motivated to divulge NSA secrets to journalists by his indignation at the discovery of the NSA’s pervasive and intrusive eavesdropping program. But the longer Snowden remains in Russia, at the mercy of his Russian hosts, the greater the chances of his ending up like Philby and living the life of a man without a country.

Obama, Syria & the Constitution

David Cole

Reuters/Corbis

Having warned Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in August 2012 that the use of chemical weapons on his own people was a “red line” that would compel the United States to respond with force, President Barack Obama now apparently feels the need to follow through on his threat. In preparation, his diplomats are seeking international backing, with limited success. But while Obama sends his representatives around the world to obtain backing and gain more legitimacy for a US-led military response, he has not sought the approval of the one body whose authority is clearly required: the United States Congress.

Syria: Which Way to Kurdistan?

Hugh Eakin

G. Gubaeva/UNHCR

While the dramatic images of refugees pouring into Northern Iraq are new, Northern Iraq’s troubled relations with Syria—and Syria’s Kurds—are not. As I discovered during a trip to Northern Iraq earlier this month, the war in Syria has lately been anything but a boon to the region. The Barzani government has had to deal with ten times as many Syrian refugees as anticipated a year ago—numbers which have quickly exhausted its political will or administrative capacity to deal with them. And now it faces growing agitation among its own people to enter the war, despite indications that sending in KRG-backed fighters might be disastrous for Kurdish unity in the region.