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Warrior monk vs warmonger: which of Donald Trump’s advisers will win out over Syria?

Arguing against intervention, Jeremy Corbyn chose to quote James Mattis rather than John Bolton. 

“Even US defence secretary James Mattis has said we ‘don't have evidence’ and warned further military action could ‘escalate out of control’,” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said on Friday, in a statement warning against an escalation of military action in Syria.

The fact that Corbyn’s position dovetails with that of Mattis, a Marine Corps general nicknamed “Mad Dog”, is not necessarily that surprising. Ironically, given that he is known for aphorisms like “be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet,” Mattis has been cast as the peacemaker within Donald Trump’s orbit. He has become a figure of international hope as the president mulls his options for a military response in Syria.

Maybe it is no coincidence that the members of the US administration who seem the least cavalier about the idea of leading the country into another war are also those who have fought first-hand. In fact, Mattis himself hates the nickname “Mad Dog”, a moniker which was given him by the press. Troops under his command preferred to call him the “Warrior Monk” for his ascetic lifestyle and intellectual, as well as physical, rigour.

The difference between Mattis and Trump is enormous. The president famously never reads, while Mattis, who led troops into battle in Iraq and Afghanistan, has often spoken about his love of books. Throughout his military service, he reportedly insisted on carrying a 6,000-volume library of books to every posting. His favourite books, he has said, included Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, Barbara Tuchman’s March of Folly and Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers.

“You develop by broadening your understanding of human nature, of the ascent of man and everything else so that you can reconcile war’s realities, grim as they are, atavistic and primitive, with human aspirations, without becoming a narrow-minded person,” Mattis said in an excerpt of a book published in Foreign Policy magazine in 2017.

But Mattis is increasingly isolated, as his former allies in the White House – the group which many considered to be the “grownups in the room” – have been pushed out one by one. Secretary of state Rex Tillerson was ignominiously fired while on the toilet by Trump, who made the announcement via Twitter in March. HR McMaster, another former general, was pushed out as Trump’s national security adviser just a few days later.

The national security adviser is one of the most important positions in an administration. He or she is tasked with triaging the advice and information provided to the executive branch by the security services and the military, and laying out the options for the president. Trump, whose understanding of international affairs is not as sophisticated as that of the average president, perhaps even the average adult, and who habitually does not read, requires even more hand-holding through every decision, making his national security adviser an even more influential position.

McMaster was seen as an ideological ally of Mattis. He wrote a book, Dereliction of Duty, which excoriated the Kennedy administration for a series of lies and missteps which led to the war in Vietnam. This was deeply ironic, considering he then accepted a job in this administration. It is no surprise that McMaster never saw eye-to-eye with Trump, but his replacement, John Bolton, a former ambassador to the United Nations under George W Bush, is an entirely different beast.

Not a military man himself, Bolton is one of the most vocal cheerleaders for war in the US foreign policy community. He has called for war with North Korea; he has called for the bombing of Iran. There is seemingly no problem that Bolton believes war cannot solve. He probably opens beer bottles with a battalion of mechanised infantry.

He was, and still remains, a vigorous defender of the 2003 Iraq War. As UN ambassador, he played a huge role in its promotion. Before that, as undersecretary of state responsible for arms control, Bolton had been deeply involved in suppressing dissent or evidence that might have undermined the Bush administration’s line on the imminent threat of weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the invasion.

The intervening years have not mellowed John Bolton. After leaving the Bush administration he gravitated toward the conservative media sphere, becoming a fixture on Fox News. It is almost certainly there that he attracted the attention of the president, for whom the far-right cable TV network is his favourite and perhaps only news source. Former colleagues have called him a “bully” and a “madman”.

In an open letter published in 2005, during the congressional hearings which would eventually approve Bolton as UN ambassador, Melody Townsel, an aid worker, wrote an extremely disturbing account of an encounter with Bolton in 1994, who at the time was a lawyer representing the lead contractor of a US aid program in Kyrgyzstan.

After receiving her complaints about inefficiencies by the contractor, Townsel claimed: “Mr Bolton proceeded to chase me through the halls of a Russian hotel – throwing things at me, shoving threatening letters under my door and, generally, behaving like a madman”. She went on to allege that the harassment was so bad, she “eventually retreated to my hotel room and stayed there”. She added: “I cannot believe that this is a man being seriously considered for any diplomatic position, let alone such a critical posting to the UN.” 

The Republican-controlled Senate declined to confirm Bolton for the position, but Bush circumvented them with a “recess appointment” that August. At the time, a White House spokesman called the accusations unsubstantiated and unfounded.

During the Obama years, Bolton has drifted even further to the right, finding fellow-travelers in the right-wing media sphere. He wrote a foreword to The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration's War on America, a book co-written by Pamela Geller, a famously Islamophobic provocateur. In 2016 he spoke at a conference organised by the American Freedom Alliance, a hardcore anti-Islam group listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization which tracks extremism in the US.

His super PAC, a type of political action committee, was a client of Cambridge Analytica. It used the controversial data-mining firm to support the election campaigns of right-wing candidates like Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton. Among the donors to Bolton’s PAC was Robert Mercer, the billionaire hedge-fund backer of Steve Bannon and Breitbart.

Now, with tensions in Syria rising to boiling-point, Bolton has the ear of the president. More, he has the power to control the flow of information that reaches Trump, and nothing in his past has given any indication or even glimmer of hope that Bolton will not filter all the president’s information through his own ideological lens. With a president who can probably still not be relied upon to find Syria on an atlas, it falls largely to these two men, the warrior monk and the warmonger diplomat, to decide whether or not Trump will take America to war, and how.

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.