Five Best Wednesday Columns

Ian Toll on Pearl Harbor, Eric Berkowitz on Afghan women, Michael Kazin on Gingrich vs. Obama, Dana Milbank on Republicans and abortion, and Maxim Trudolubov on Russia's awakening.

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Ian Toll in The New York Times on Yamamoto and Pearl Harbor Americans see Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese admiral who conceived and planned the Pearl Harbor attacks that took place 70 years ago today, as an "archvillain." Yet Yamamoto "foresaw that the struggle would become a prolonged war of attrition that Japan could not hope to win ... In fact, Yamamoto was one of the most colorful, charismatic and broad-minded naval officers of his generation," writes Toll, a naval historian and author. Toll draws a complex portrait, describing Yamamoto's naval education and his travels in America. Toll writes how Yamamoto planned the Pearl Harbor attack as an attempt to force America out of a war they would likely win, all the while trying to convince the Japanese to seek peace. In the end, the attack was a miscalculation, spurring America to fight a total war of attrition. But, "[a]s Japan lay in ashes after 1945, his countrymen would remember his determined exertions to stop the slide toward war. In a sense, Isoroku Yamamoto was vindicated by Japan's defeat."

Eric Berkowitz in the Los Angeles Times on rape and Afghanistan Western media reports on Gulnaz, an Afghan woman who was raped, jailed for adultery, and then released provided she marry her attacker, had some Americans feeling "self-satisfied" about the relative decency of the western world. "But before we get too smug, we should recognize that our legal tradition has roots that are not all that different from those we condemn, and you don't have to look too far back in history for outrageous examples," writes Berkowitz, a lawyer and author. Not until 1980 did America outlaw a husband raping his wife, and in early English courts, pregnancy was seen as evidence of consensual sex. The tradition of forcing a rape victim to marry the attacker goes back to Deuteronomy. "The rights of American women have been hard won and could be easily lost. To view the Gulnaz case as anything other than a further call to action would be to disrespect her and victimized women everywhere."

Michael Kazin in The New Republic on a Gingrich-Obama match-up Newt Gingrich tops current polls, but his path to the Republican nomination seems unlikely. Still, a contest between Gingrich and President Obama "could bring a healthy candor to our politics and end up boosting the fortunes of liberalism as well," writes Kazin. Gingrich has challenged Obama to lengthy, moderator-free debates, a format Kazin argues Obama would be forced to accept and which he says would foster the first real debate between conservatism and liberalism we've seen in a modern presidential contest. Kazin describes previous presidential matchups and the factors that limited the ideological conversation in each of them. Kazin says it would also give Obama a platform to articulate his liberal principles well, and because Gingrich is unpopular with the country, Obama would probably win, giving liberalism a new boost. "It would expose the moral and logical defects of the conservative ideology that has been mostly dominant in the U.S. since 1980," he says.

Dana Milbank in The Washington Post on racially motivated abortions On Tuesday, Rep. Trent Franks introduced legislation to ban abortions sought because of the gender or race of the fetus. The bill shows that Republicans "have taken on a new, and somewhat suspect, interest in the poor and in the non-white. To justify their social policies, they have stolen the language of victimization from the left," Milbank writes. Related to this is Gingrich's latest proposal to eliminate child labor laws and let poor children work as school janitors. Milbank says the faux-concern for the poor is at odds with Republican actions when debating budget cuts. He adds that the foolish logic behind their concern about race-based abortions implies that African-American women are racially discriminating against their own unborn children. "So a black woman would have an abortion because she discovers — surprise! — that her fetus is also black?" Milbank asks.

Maxim Trudolubov in Bloomberg View on Russia's awakening The alleged fraud in last week's parliamentary elections in Russia have brought tens of thousands of protesters out in a protest unprecedented in recent Russian history. "Throngs of voters and protesters are sending Russia's leadership an unmistakable message: The country needs to stop being Vladimir Putin's business project and become a nation," writes Trudolubov, a Moscow-based newspaper editor. Trudolubov describes how the transition to capitalism led to cut-throat competition between citizens that distracted Russians from taking a role in democracy. It's allowed Putin and the oligarchy to set up an entrenched system which has given Russia some growth, but should now be replaced. "Russia's national awakening is at a very early stage ... It will take a long time and a lot of wisdom to get the unfinished project of a lawful and prosperous Russia back on track," he writes.

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