"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
We have just marked a year since John Kerry launched himself, at 69, as America’s chief diplomat. And for most of the period since it has been difficult to find anything good to say about our 68th secretary of state.
Events of late require that I confess to error and change my mind. Kerry could go down as the most important overseer of American foreign policy in the post–Cold War era.
The record is very mixed, it is important to add immediately. The past year’s agenda is littered with failures — Syria (Kerry’s diplomacy just reached a dead end), the famous “pivot to Asia” (driftwood floating somewhere in the Pacific), Ukraine (Putin again trumps Washington). But this list goes straight to the point: Kerry appears to be managing America’s relations abroad at precisely the moment it comes clear that Washington must surrender the preeminence it has exploited without much inhibition since the Spanish-American War in 1898.
So in failure there lies buried a certain success. Each time Kerry encounters the limits of American power, he goes some way to redefining America’s place on the planet in what we can call our post–exceptionalist era. Of necessity this comes to a more modest but more constructive, less imposing and less disruptive presence. In failure success, and in retreat (as conservative critics, empire builders and militarists see it) we find advances.
There is one question that crystallizes the thought more than any other. Let us look closely.
Kerry’s efforts to restart talks between Israel and Palestinians — some Palestinians — are tritely advertised as his “signature” issue. Many were the commentators who warned that Kerry would break his pick trying to induce a settlement, and they are proven right. Talks continue, but it is evident now they are a wash.
Yet it is in Israel that Kerry has achieved his clearest success-that-looks-like-failure. He has brought light and air to a relationship that has been cloistered, untouchable, mired and on autopilot for decades. He has opened a door, then: Across the threshold, America will be better off, Israel will be better off, Palestinians will be better off, and the Middle East will be, too.
One can identify the very moment Kerry managed this feat. It was on the morning of Nov. 7 last year. That Thursday Kerry took the odd step of granting a joint interview to Channel 2, an Israeli network, and the Palestinian Broadcasting Corp., which, as the name implies, functions as a BBC of the occupied territories.
Putting the two correspondents together was inspired. In hindsight it suggested what was coming. The Israeli press thought he “spoke from the heart” and that he put aside his “statesman-like impartiality.” I do not think he did either. His remarks were considered, as is plain on reading them, and spotlessly impartial. What he dropped was the pretense of American impartiality that long ago devolved into a mere formality, an empty convention it was not done to acknowledge as such.
It is difficult to choose a single remark that represents the whole of what Kerry said. But here is a try. He was addressing a certain complacence evident in Israel of late, the thought that Israelis are safe as things are and in no need of a settlement with Palestinians.
“Well, I’ve got news for you,” Kerry said then. “Today’s status quo will not be tomorrow’s or next year’s. Because if we don’t resolve this issue, the Arab world, the Palestinians, neighbors, others, are going to begin again to push in a different way.”
The background here is important. Kerry was in Jerusalem for talks with Benjamin Netanyahu. The previous day the Israeli prime minister had prevailed upon Kerry to “steer [the Palestinians] back to a place where we could achieve the historical peace that we seek.” Netanyahu, as has been his habit since this round of talks began last July, had just announced that permits would be granted for yet more settlement construction on the West Bank.
Equally, momentum was building — notably but not only in Europe — behind boycotts of Israeli businesses operating on the West Bank, banks financing illegal settlements, and so on. This is called the BDS movement — boycotts, disinvestment and sanctions — and it starts to resemble the campaigns waged against South Africa during the later years of apartheid: a slow burn, but not without effect.
Kerry thus warned of a “third intifada,” this one an economic squeeze. “If we do not resolve the issues between Palestinians and Israelis,” he said early in the interview, “if we do not find a way to find peace, there will be an increasing isolation of Israel and an increasing campaign of de-legitimization of Israel.”
Kerry gathered steam as the encounter went on — almost certainly out of frustration, as Israeli commentators speculated. He let rip on the settlements question, the Israeli military presence, the risk of engendering a generation of Palestinians prone to what used to be called armed struggle.
Here are two more snippets:
“How, if you say you’re working for peace and you want peace, and a Palestine that is a whole Palestine that belongs to the people who live there, how can you say we’re planning to build in a place that will eventually be Palestine? So it sends a message that perhaps you’re not really serious.”
“If we do not resolve the question of settlements and the question of who lives where and how and what rights they have; if we don’t end the presence of Israeli soldiers perpetually within the West Bank, then there will be an increasing feeling that if we cannot get peace with a leadership that is committed to non-violence, you may wind up with leadership that is committed to violence.”
You did not read or hear much about Kerry’s interview in the American media. Paradoxically, the Israeli press is far freer in its reports and commentary on the Mideast crisis than one finds in the States. I found good accounts in the Times of Israel and here.
The reaction was strong, predictably. Conservatives accused him of anti-Semitism, dealing Israel out of existence, indulging a “messianic” streak, knowing better than Israel what is good for it. Three members of Netanyahu’s cabinet mounted frontal attacks.
I predicted in this space last summer that a renovation in U.S.–Israeli relations was due. It is far from accomplished, but this is what it looks like for now. Something abrupt had to push the process in motion. Kerry did the deed waiting to be done.
He did some other important things, too. Most immediately, he reasserted control over American policy in the region. As the Middle East evolves post–Arab Spring and as Iran seeks to open, the only alternative was to allow Israel’s standing hostilities and its givenness to military solutions over diplomacy to limit Washington’s alternatives.
The honest talk, fresh and direct, was key. By way of it he insisted on a key distinction that is often blurred. While making clear his support for the Israeli project, he insisted that this does not compute to acquiescing to Israel’s behavior in the occupied territories and its evident lack of genuine interest in a comprehensive settlement.
One cannot imagine a previous secretary of state pulling this off, but in my view Kerry got his timing just right. He tapped a liberally flowing undercurrent. One already detects a distinct turn in the comments of prominent Israel watchers, and they follow that distinction Kerry insisted upon.
One example among numerous will do. It comes from Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist whose pieces usually run in the international edition or as blogs on the website. Many concern Israel, and a very fine one appeared last week. Declaring himself “a strong supporter of a two-state peace,” he remarked, “Jews, having suffered for most of their history as a minority, cannot, as a majority now in their state, keep their boots on the heads of the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank any longer.”
Cohen’s commentary along these lines preceded Kerry’s interview in Israel by a long way. But Kerry has lent this perspective deserved prominence and credibility. This lands us all with a new responsibility. It comes as a question. What do critics of Israel mean now that it is feasible they may be heard in high places?
I answer this way: I am a vigorous critic not of Israel but of its conduct. The flaws lie in execution, not the originating thought. As to history, it can never be made not to count; the displacements of 1947-’48 cannot be forgotten. But neither can history be reversed, as Cohen asserts. “There can, and should be, agreed compensation for the dispossessed,” he writes. I sign on to this. As a memorial Israel is a poor one, in my view. All concerned, those living and those remembered, deserve better.
(Transparency: Cohen is a friend and former colleague.)
Kerry’s first year raises a question of intent. Obviously he did not intend for the current round of Mideast talks to fail when he started them last July. He did not intend to give Russia the lead on the Syria question, or Iran the initiative in getting talks going on its nuclear program. But in the latter two cases, recognition of other poles of power has resulted.
As to the Mideast, Kerry has accomplished something I had judged possible only in principle. He has shaken loose a policy badly in need of shaking and given a stale conversation a new sound.
All positive. Maybe Kerry’s gift is for getting underway a transition in America’s posture abroad that will inevitably lead to a loss of primacy, and to do so quietly enough to avoid (so far, anyway) upsetting conservatives, nostalgists and exceptionalists any more than necessary.
Who can imagine that failure-as-success was Kerry’s purpose when he set out a year ago? But the big messes, such as the coup Washington sanctioned in Egypt, now a god-awful crisis, are cases wherein old policies, in the American century mold, ran the full course. Then you get success as failure, not the other way around.
Patrick Smith is the author of “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century.” He was the International Herald Tribune’s bureau chief in Hong Kong and then Tokyo from 1985 to 1992. During this time he also wrote “Letter from Tokyo” for the New Yorker. He is the author of four previous books and has contributed frequently to the New York Times, the Nation, the Washington Quarterly, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter, @thefloutist.More Patrick L. Smith.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)