Steven A. Cook, The Aeneid, The Sting, and more

Cook Featured

Welcome to our first installment of the Rostrum, the Octavian Report‘s new home for digital content.

To lead off, we spoke with the CFR’s Steven A Cook. Cook is one of the pre-eminent experts on the Middle East and Turkey in America and the author of an excellent new book, FALSE DAWN: PROTEST, DEMOCRACY, AND VIOLENCE IN THE NEW MIDDLE EAST, about the misreading by Americans and others of the uprisings across the Arab World that broke out at the end of 2010. Cook explains how and why the world got those uprisings wrong and lays out what he sees in Turkey’s and Egypt’s future (the latter he considers a tinderbox for the region).

To get your summer reading started, we recommend THE AENEIDWar? Check. Daring escapes? Check. Strange new lands with dangerous inhabitants? Check. The masterwork of P. Virgilius Maro (that’s Virgil to you), is not only a foundational text of late Latin literature and a towering influence on modern and contemporary authors from Dante Alighieri to Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney — it’s also a gripping adventure story and a harrowing family drama.

The titular hero, Aeneas, a mighty warrior from Troy, drags his father, son, and family gods across the Mediterranean after his city falls to the Greeks and finds, after many adversities, a lush, unspoiled country — what will become Italy, the central dominion of the Roman Empire. All he has to do to keep it? Marry into local royalty and fight a bloody battle against a powerful and arrogant prince. Aeneas, loyal and steadfast but not above Homeric acts of violence when necessary, is a compelling figure: more introspective than Achilles, less wily than Odysseus. His internal and external struggles put him much more in the realm of the modern novel than in the less-tortured world of epic poetry. Virgil is said to have created this masterpiece two lines of hexameter at a time. It shows, both in the original and in all of its many translations.

Long cons are another form of high-level craftsmanship. The Redford/Newman classic THE STING outlines a doozy. In between the lukewarm reception of Frank Sinatra’s Ocean’s 11 in 1960 and the lucrative modern reboot starring George Clooney in 2001, The Sting did everything a heist film could hope to do and more in 1973. But you can’t really blame the competition for coming up short against Redford, Newman, and the masterful direction of George Roy Hill. Whatever rhythm the two found in playing notorious partners in crime from America’s wilder youth with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (another Hill flick) in 1968, they kept the fire burning with this second classic hit that found inspiration with the real life Depression-era con men Fred and Charley Gondorff.

Our two leads — and even the malevolent Robert Shaw, who would have stolen the entire show as the Irish mob boss antagonist if not for the supreme acting chops of his co-stars — do roguish charm better than anyone else in the business. This is The Sting’s ultimate trump card over the 21st century heist film (see: Now You See Me starring Jesse Eisenberg) that places its chips on sharp action shots, melodramatic “how long can we hack the alarm system” countdowns, and the ever-loved acrobat dodging motion detectors. Those can be fun in their own right, but not like The Sting. No, this picture does it with nostalgic title cards and humorously anachronistic rag-time music because it’s not trying to overcomplicate the formula; Newman and Redford are a couple of con men who make their score the old-fashioned way with a silver-tongue, pearly smile, and phony name. It is legendary actors doing exactly what actors do best that makes this such a clean, convincing, and classic tale of brains over brawn.

For further adventures in chicanery, please consult THE FAREWELL DOSSIER. The Dossier comprised 4000 secret documents handed over by a Soviet defector, Colonel Vladimir Vetrov (codenamed “Farewell),” to the French government and from Prime Minister François Mitterrand to the Reagan on July 19, 1981.

This launched one of the most successful sabotage operations fashioned by the Reagan administration: feeding dangerously false technical information into the Line X, an arm of the KGB which provided American industry secrets to the USSR’s research and development bureaucracy through a network of over 200 officers stationed in ten different KGB rezidenturas throughout the West. One Line X agent famously applied adhesive to his shoes during a visit to Boeing to collect metal samples. By 1981, Soviet scientists and engineers were effectively basing work off of stolen information from behind the iron curtain. Their just deserts? An unprecedentedly massive explosion of a gas pipeline in Siberia, chemical plant catastrophes, military computer malfunctions, a faulty space shuttle, and a load of other bungled projects. The Americans had caught wise and leveraged their position perfectly.

Their contents confirmed the most dire suspicions of the CIA regarding Line X’s existence; Gus Weiss, an eminent but soft-spoken adviser in the White House, suggested the disinformation campaign. The USSR had become greedy with the privileges provided by Nixon’s détente. In hindsight, it only makes too much sense that the USSR would go through any lengths to mitigate their embarrassing knowledge-gap with the West, even it meant endangering the opportunities already provided by American goodwill.

On that note, we turn to the pages of THE OCTAVIAN REPORT. Specifically, our interview with Ian Bremmer. Bremmer helped invent the concept of political risk. The author, commentator, and founder of the Eurasia Group is regarded as one of the foremost experts on the subject — one with urgent relevance to today’s seemingly fragmented world. We spoke with Bremmer for our current issue about the global risk profile, Trump, Russia, North Korea, and major issues currently off the general radar.

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