This should have been a good week for John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. Few events have better illustrated their well-known assertions about the coordinated power of an Israel lobby in the United States than the effective pressure exerted on President Barack Obama that resulted in his opposition to Palestine's statehood bid in the United Nations.
Unfortunately, as in almost all matters that have to do with the Middle East, all the players -- even academic commentators chattering away at the margins -- end up being undermined by their prejudices, affiliations, old habits and darker impulses.
It happens all the time. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas undercut what should have been his most notable hour with comments to supporters that revealed his deep opposition to granting Israel the same rights and recognition he seeks for his own people. Prime Minister Netanyahu scored a diplomatic victory but at a moment that called for magnanimity he offered condescension and then a promise of new settlements.
Meanwhile, on the periphery of this enduring issue, there are those like Mearsheimer and Walt who perhaps with good, sound academic intentions seek to parse the politics of U.S. foreign policy but who regularly undercut their authority with their methods, tenor and alliances. Their book, "The Israel Lobby" is now a landmark, though arguably less one of scholarship than of opportunism. They seized a moment and capitalized on the existence of an audience that they must have known did not share their self-proclaimed objective, unbiased academic interest in the issue. I have written elsewhere about my views on the book and need not go into again here.
Now, during this week when some of the core ideas of their book were at least brought to life by events, they find themselves fending off a new wave of attacks that are linked to the less savory underbelly of their intellectual enterprise. The genesis of the problem has to do with a comment Mearsheimer provided for the cover a jacket of a book called "The Wandering Who? A Study of Jewish Identity Politics."
The problem with the blurb was not its contents, but rather with the book and the author Mearsheimer was endorsing. It turns out that author, Gilad Atzmon, is according to Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic, "a Hitler Apologist and a Holocaust Revisionist." Goldberg makes the assertions based on both the contents of the book that Atzmon wrote and that Mearsheimer alleges he read and on other writings by Atzmon. He has detailed these assertions in a series of his posts which themselves quote from other web commentators who substantiate his position including Walter Russell Mead, Jon Chait, Adam Holland, and a site called Harry's Place.
You can easily go to the links and see for yourself the facts. It's not a pretty picture. Atzmon has suggested that the Jews were collectively responsible for everything from the death of Jesus to the Holocaust and that today they again need to be saved from themselves by gentiles. He refers to Jews as a "sinister ideological collective." He offers up fictional Jews like Fagin and Shylock as part of an "endless hellish continuum" of Jewish abuse of other members of society. He blames recent financial crises on the Jews. In short, he is nothing more than an old school bigot.
And not only does Mearsheimer endorse his book, link himself to this author and thus give credence to all the critiques of "The Israel Lobby" that suggest that while some of its facts may be right, its authors' biases debase the enterprise and call into question its objectivity or value as anything more than a piece of propaganda. Like most propaganda there's truth in there somewhere-there is after all a pro-Israel lobby-but also like most propaganda it is twisted (other lobbies are downplayed, the influence of this lobby is overplayed, the Jewishness of the lobbying is misrepresented, etc.).
Wendi Murdoch slugged the wrong guy. While she has won worldwide admiration in the press for leaping to her feet without hesitation to defend her husband from a humiliating shaving cream pie attack, clearly the attacker was not the one doing the most to humiliate Murdoch. That, of course, would be Murdoch himself, who, in the course of his halting, uneven performance before a British parliamentary committee yesterday, only succeeded in demonstrating that a management change is long overdue at News International, possibly the most influential media company in the world.
Sure, it's tempting to say it was more humiliating for the anointed heir to the kingmaking top spot at News Corp., Murdoch's son, James, to be caught on camera leaning away from the attack while his flyweight stepmom connected with her roundhouse. And it would be even more correct to say that James's convoluted answers to questions about how the company handled the phone hacking scandal as it became revealed almost certainly disqualify him from further nepotism-assisted ascendancy within the company his father built.
But the hearing succeeded in clearly revealing that the company's deep cultural flaws flowed directly from Rupert himself. His response that he was not ultimately responsible for the apparently widespread criminality and absence of ethics within the company said it all. What happened to the old notion that the buck stopped with the man at the top? Murdoch was willing to mouth words of apology and feigned humility but then moments later reveal his view that the public reaction to the phone hacking scandal was overwrought, a media feeding frenzy of the type he made a career both fostering and profiting from.
Son James's responses to questions about who approved pay-offs to injured parties were also telling, of course. He noted that, because the amounts were comparatively low given the great size of the media conglomerate, they would never have come to the attention of top management like himself or his father. The fact that settlements concerning clear evidence of the worst kind of breaches of journalistic ethics wouldn't have come to the attention of people at the top is evidence of either a tacit or explicit acceptance of bad behavior, a failure of checks, or gross incompetence. (Not that all of the above is not also possible.)
After the big show of the hearings a more damning development emerged Wednesday morning with the release of the findings of the Parliament's all-party Home Affairs Committee which concluded -- in one of the least shocking findings in recent memory -- that News International "deliberately" tried to impede British police investigations into the phone hacking scandal. And that in turn was soon over-taken by the spectacle of British Prime Minister David Cameron defending himself in front of a special session of Parliament for having hired as his principal spokesperson one of the central actors in this sleazy affair while hobnobbing with others from the News Corp. hierarchy.
Cameron will likely survive this embarrassment. He is guilty only of seeking to advance his career by the same means of his predecessors, hitching his wagon to one of the most powerful media empires in the world. Murdoch should not be as fortunate. During yesterday's testimony he made it even clearer that he had failed to protect the interests of the shareholders (not to mention the customers) of his company through some failing of either his character or that of his management approach or of his company writ large.
It is time for the old man to go -- and that is a reality that even the nimble and courageous Wendi will not be able to swat away.
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This week marks the premiere of the eighth installment of the most successful series in movie history. As such, it offers a useful comparison in the differences between what makes a successful summer blockbuster in Hollywood and what makes for one in Washington, DC. Here are the top ten:
10. Too Few House Elves in Washington (Too Many House Death Eaters)
Oh Dobby, Dobby, if only there were a man in Washington of your stature. Poor Dobby who died, according to his epitaph, "a free elf" was cranky and even less photogenic than Anthony Weiner, but he had heart and courage and took risks for those he served in ways that none on Capitol Hill seem to even comprehend. Meanwhile, there are far too many Death Eaters up there on the wrong end of Pennsylvania Avenue, swirling around in service of He Whose Name Cannot Be Spoken (Grover Norquist) regardless of the pain it may bring to those who actually elected them. (Norquist may succeed with anti-tax religion in doing what the leadership of the Soviet Union could not -- bankrupting and thus breaking America.)
9. Even Hollywood Accounting is Better Than How They Do Math in DC
Hollywood is famous for skimming and double-entry book-keeping but even they know it takes both revenues and sensible spending to balance a budget. And they sure have their focused fixed securely on the bottom line on ways that would be revolutionary in DC. Meanwhile back in our nation's capital it would take a Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher with more gifts than Mad Eye Moody to combat the trickery that has in just over a decade transformed a budget surplus into a $1.6 trillion annual deficit. (Face it: Threats to downgrade U.S. debt aside, the real story is that Moody's and S&P haven't trash-canned America's Triple A rating yet. America is ... very lucky ... to still coasting on the reputation of past generations of leaders.)
Read the full list here.
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The media is the central nervous system of the body politic. It carries information, emotions, pain, feedback from voter to voter, voter to leader, leader to voter, from extremity to extremity. Theoretically, as far as biology textbooks are concerned anyway, the central nervous system includes the brain but many modern media seem to be bypassing that altogether. Or instead, they are just heading for its lower bits where reflexive reactions, fear, greed, lust, and everything else connected to ratings lurk.
As we have seen this week, while the information revolution has brought much good to the world -- Angry Birds and Wii Tennis come to mind -- it really hasn't done that much for the information business. (FP's slammin' new iPad app notwithstanding.)
In just the course of a few days, we have seen several more examples about the nature of the changes brought on by that revolution. Few have been that encouraging. While the openness and transparency and inclusiveness that have been celebrated by-products of new technologies are still fresh in our minds from the days of the Twitter revolution in Tahrir Square and the positive elements (and there are some) of grassroots journalism and wikilytics (collaborative massaging of information to produce new insights), this week has also reminded us of the darker consequences of the onset of the Info Age and the ethical and political challenges associated with a world of rapidly proliferating, intersecting, instantaneous, hard-to-police, massive, information flows.
The News of the World scandal is not only the most odious of this week's cases, it is also the most ironic. The notion that a scandal rag goes down in scandal is too elegant for an enterprise that has been devoid of elegance throughout most of its century and a half long history. That this irony is compounded by having the crusading so-called journalists and media mongrels at the helm of this slimy outfit now claiming the same "I was clueless" defense they have throughout their careers so derided in so many political leaders would be droll were the offenses in this instance not so repulsive.
But this scandal -- about illegal phone taps and using new technologies to snoop around to grab juicy story bits wherever they could be found, legally or otherwise --doesn't really introduce anything new to the media. Rather, it just underscores that one of the key characteristics of the information revolution is that it primarily takes what was previously there and amplifies and accelerates it. In this respect, it's like cocaine, really. Sleazy journalists become more sleazy. The impact of their sleazy journalism is broader. It happens faster. There are fewer effective filters.
Note to editors and producers: While I only attended journalism school for a few months before developing a career-ending allergy to carbon paper, I did learn a few things that you seem to have forgotten. Like for example, the definition of news …
For example, this week the two leading stories in the United States are that men are dogs and that politicians are dumb. Or, to put it another way, the stop-the-presses revelations of the week are that sex makes men stupid while going into politics tends to do the same to people regardless of gender.
How is any of this news? Did it take a Twitter scandal to persuade people that Anthony Weiner had personality issues? Did it take a misstatement about Paul Revere to convince the U.S. public that Sarah Palin was not going to give David McCullough a run for his money as the country's top historian?
As far as I can tell, the Weiner scandal is the third major sex scandal to impact a high-profile political figure in the U.S. in the past three weeks. (See Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dominique Strauss-Kahn for variations on this age-old theme.) It's the fourth if you count the on-going saga of John Edwards. As for Palin's remarks, it's not only not the first evidence that she is not what you would call an intellectual heavy-weight, but it is part of a torrent of mangled views of history emanating recently from Republican presidential candidates. (See also Michele Bachmann on the location of the battles of Lexington and Concord and Santorum on the idea that U.S. troops landed in Normandy to fight against Obamacare.)
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While legitimate discussions are taking place on both sides of the Atlantic (and the Mediterranean for that matter) about what the goal should be for coalition forces in Libya, how those goals should be achieved, and why outside forces are in the country in the first place, perhaps the most important discussion ought to be who we are fighting on behalf of and along side of. This is not a reference to the shifting contours of the coalition or the fact that the French occasionally act French. Rather it is a question about who our allies are among the Libyan rebel forces. Because persuade ourselves as we might that we are intervening on behalf of the people of Libya to protect them from their demented dictator, at the end of the day, if that dictator falls, some government will have to replace him and right now various actors are positioning themselves to take advantage of the void that may be created.
In recent days, various people have posed questions about this group or the political processes that may follow this rebellion. They include...
The always perceptive Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic:
Do we really know who would rule Libya if Qaddafi disappeared from the scene? I met a whole bunch of anti-Qaddafi activists in Cairo last week, and they didn't fill me with good feeling about their intentions or their beliefs. Or, for that matter, their competence. I know that there are many brave people among the opposition, and I wish fervently for their success, on the theory that they can't be worse than Qaddafi. But I'm not one hundred percent behind this theory.
And Caroline Glick in the Jerusalem Post:
Under jihadist commander Abu Yahya Al- Libi, Libyan jihadists staged anti-regime uprisings in the mid-1990s. Like today, those uprisings' central hubs were Benghazi and Darnah.
In 2007 Al-Libi merged his forces into al- Qaida. On March 18, while denouncing the US, France and Britain, Al-Libi called on his forces to overthrow Gaddafi.
A 2007 US Military Academy study of information on al-Qaida forces in Iraq indicate that by far, Eastern Libya made the largest per capita contribution to al-Qaida forces in Iraq.
Veteran Middle East watchers might see Goldberg and Glick as actively pro-Israel voices who are articulating the Israeli view toward the regions recent turmoil which has been, roughly translated from the Hebrew, "don't rock the boat." As tough as the neighborhood is, many Israelis fear efforts at regime change may only make it worse. But it is not only members of this camp that worry about whose march to Tripoli we are enabling. Evan Perez recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that "U.S. counter-terrorism officials are wary that al Qaeda affiliates in North Africa could try take advantage of the upheaval in Libya, seeking a new foothold, said John Brennan, the top White House counter-terrorism official." This jibes with buzz from the White House that for just this reason Brennan and others in the intel community were skeptical of intervention in Libya, articulating the view that sometimes when you stir up a hornet's nest you just get stung.
I find myself in the camp that believes the people of Libya did deserve international protection from Qaddafi, that it should have come much earlier, and that the current operation has been bedeviled by the worst elements of leadership by committee. Having said that, with the prospect of a more extended, costly, risky endeavor to follow through and produce regime change not only on the horizon but being driven by a very real sense that this operation will be a failure if Qaddafi remains in office, I hope we are taking sufficient care to ensure that we are not going to end up with a worse, more dangerous Libya than we started out with.
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The tsunami and earthquake that tragically struck Japan today could not come at a worse moment for the Japanese. The economy has been struggling for almost two decades to recover and seemed poised to make progress, but now has suffered yet another bitter blow. The costs of rebuilding will add to already high deficits and high anxiety. It is only fortunate that there is perhaps no other country in the world as well prepared to deal with earthquakes and their consequences as Japan.
That said, the disaster also resonates in many ways with what is happening elsewhere in the world. It reminds us that "black swans" are not rare events. Indeed, the first few months of this year have demonstrated yet again that nothing in this world is as commonplace as the unexpected. That is no doubt more a commentary on the way we arrive at expectations than it is on the nature of life on the planet. In just the past 10 weeks alone, we have seen revolutions, earthquakes, major economies downgraded by credit ratings agencies, spiking energy and food prices, and the usual accompanying market roller coaster rides that bespeak the fact that we are collectively spun around by events more often than your average weathervane is by the daily breeze.
Another way the tsunami resonates is with the images we have already seen on the television of it sweeping ashore -- a great black wave of destruction -- causing havoc and then retreating to the sea. As I watched I couldn't help but wonder if that was not how we were ultimately going to view the upheaval that has rocked the Middle East this year. There came a wave and great drama and then, almost as quickly, the wave withdrew and was forgotten.
Certainly, we are at risk of such an outcome at the moment. If Qaddafi succeeds in pushing back the rebels during the next couple of days, the world may well conclude -- if it has not done so already -- that supporting the Libyan opposition may be a losing proposition. And if Qaddafi wins and reestablishes his control on the country through brutality, it will send a strong message to other regimes across the region that the right response to rebellion is to be both ferocious and merciless.
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Crises like the one in Egypt bring out the best and the worst in television news coverage. Twenty-four hour news, often a parade of pap and filler during ordinary slow periods, comes into its own. This is the kind of story that first sold the concept almost three decades ago. It's gripping and the news comes fast enough that at the best moments it's compelling viewing.
The problem is that when a story stretches out over the days and the "breaking news" stops living up to the breathless titles that are flashing below and atop the screen that the coverage becomes circular, repetitive and at times distorted. That happened this weekend. The distortions came as American audiences were frequently treated to American analysts talking about what America should do or what America wanted out of this revolution that was happening far far away in a place over which we have much less influence than our news broadcasts would have you believe.
That said what I found even more frustrating was that this story is full of fascinating elements that were often underplayed or ignored. Here are a few that struck me:
It is clear that the memo that went out to the media from Echo Chamber Central Command this morning was "the visit of President Hu to Washington will be presented in terms of China's growing threat."
In paper after paper headlines blared and reporting backed up the message. Some of the stories focused on the nature of the economic threat. Notable among these were the Financial Times's front page piece on how China's influence was being enhanced by dramatic increases in its lending to the developing world -- lending that now surpassed that of the World Bank. Inside the FT there was more including a well-researched and compelling piece by Geoff Dyer, David Pilling and my long-ago colleague from Institutional Investor Magazine, Henny Sender called "A strategy to straddle the planet." The thrust of the piece was also that China is using its trade flows to build links and leverage worldwide in an effort to shape the rules and set the priorities for the international economy. There was also an excellent accompanying piece on the potency and problems associated with China's almost $3 trillion in hard currency reserves. The Washington Post had an in-depth look at the frustrating times that Wisconsin's Manitowoc Company was having in its dealings in China… echoing a piece in the New York Times about the uncomfortable deals trading technology for market access that General Electric has embarked on. In both cases the point was: while China is an appealing market, the Chinese are hard to deal with and seem likely to pose long-term threats as an economic rival.
On the security threat posed by China, we had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal called "The New Era of U.S. China Rivalry" by Princeton professor Aaron Friedberg. The conclusion of the article: "Hu Jintao's visit may mark the end of an era of relatively smooth relations between the U.S. and China." The lead editorial in the Journal: "Dealing With an Assertive China." In the Times, Helene Cooper had a good piece (and not just because it quoted me) on the tougher posture adopted by the Obama administration called "For Chinese President's Visit, U.S. to Take a Bolder Tack" and another lead editorial which echoed that of the Journal in concluding, "State dinners and 21-gun salutes are ephemeral. What will earn China respect as a major power is if it behaves responsibly. That must be Mr. Obama's fundamental message."
The guts of the piece included statements like "(China's) overconfidence is clear. It has been aggressively pressing its claims to disputed islands in the East and South China Seas. The military's rising influence is troubling." And in the next paragraph: "For a country that claims to be a global power, it is still shirking its responsibilities. … For a major player, it can also be remarkably petulant."
It may seem unremarkable to Mr. Hu's delegation that the Journal and the Times are so aligned in their views. Americans who know them often to be polar opposites know better. (The Washington Post also had its lead editorial in roughly the same place:
China's would-be reformers face an ugly contrary current, seemingly centered in the military, that has been pushing a belligerent foreign policy, including toward the United States… Mr. Hu's visit offers the opportunity for the United States to make clear that a liberalizing China will be far more welcome as it rises as a world power than one that continues to deny its citizens freedom and the rule of law."
While normally such a convergence of views in the press should be a warning sign, this is one of those rare cases in which even the experts believe what they are reading. Oh sure, there are debates about the tone with which one should address the threat (there is still a school-marmish quality to some of the pieces advocating that the United States lecture the Chinese) or whether or not the United States is in a position to do that any longer (Francis Fukuyama's piece in the FT suggests we've lost ground). But in my conversations with diplomats from around the region during the past couple of weeks, there has been a recurring theme that China is engaged in a sweeping, systematic effort to extend its influence and flex its muscles.
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Timelines are for high school textbooks. History itself is all indirection and angles, actions and events caroming off one another, one unintended consequence glancing into the next.
That is what makes forecasting the future so difficult. Our rational minds look for the timeline, the natural next step, even though we know the bolt from the blue or the nudge from nowhere is that much more likely.
A week ago, anyone looking at American politics would have said that the driving forces would surely be the economy or possibly great events in the world, the wars we are fighting or the actions of the enemies we fear. Many would have predicted that the Tea Party movement and the extreme right, led by the likes of Sarah Palin, would play a major role in the 2012 presidential cycle, riding the momentum of their midterm election victories.
Surely as China's President Hu or France's President Sarkozy were being briefed for their visits to Washington, their intelligence services did not tell them the political landscape in America might shift dramatically as a consequence of the actions of a lunatic in front of a Safeway supermarket in a Tucson strip mall.
Indeed, even immediately after the tragic attack on Congresswoman Giffords, it was by no means certain that the event would have anything like lasting consequences. Nor was it certain what whatever consequences occurred might be. Nor is it certain now.
But some of the laws that govern the physics of history and politics suggest that once again the irrational, the unexpected, and the unintended are likely to dictate what impact Jared Lee Loughner's 31 shots might ultimately have. Among those laws are a few that are well known even to casual observers:
For all these reasons, it now seems likely the events in Tucson will have enduring effects on American politics and by extension global affairs. For example, although Loughner seems to have been your garden-variety deranged lone gunman -- dim, smirking, and profoundly ill -- he was a spark that set aflame the already smoldering debate about how ugly America's political discourse had become.
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The subtitle of this blog has been "How the World is Really Run" since the day it was launched, an editor's play on the title of a book I wrote. But I am today inclined to lend that subtitle out to the publishers of the most recent tidal wave of information from WikiLeaks. Because the 250,000 State Department cables contained in the release offer up no single revelation as striking as the overall message they contain: The dark shadowy world of diplomacy and international intrigue is working just about precisely as you suspect it is.
Behind the scenes, diplomats are sending private assessments of foreign leaders back to their bosses. Those assessments are often not entirely flattering. But what would you expect? Further, of all the assessments revealed among the WikiLeaks documents, none fly against perceptions that have long been public. Sarkozy thin-skinned? Berlusconi vain and partying way too hard for an old man? Putin and his cronies collaborating with the mob? The Karzai family corrupt? Saudis financing terror? Other Gulf leaders looking the other way? If you are surprised, then you have not been paying attention.
It is even less surprising, if such thing is possible, that those diplomats are busy trying to collect information on foreign leaders or that behind the scenes they are sometimes saying things that are at odds with their public statements. Does it make sense that Yemen's leaders would rather it look as though they were the ones striking against terror threats within their borders rather than letting the United States do it? Or that Arab leaders might take a tougher line on Iran behind closed doors? Or that the United States might be critical even of its allies from time to time? The real shock would be if these things were not true.
The landscape described by WikiLeaks is vivid, adding details that are colorful, sometimes embarrassing, and, occasionally, even thought-provoking. In the colorful department of course, we have everything from suggestions of inappropriate behavior from a member of the British Royal family (wouldn't we be more shocked by revelations of appropriate behavior from them at this point?) to descriptions by top diplomats of the Chechen president dancing at a Dagestani wedding with a gold-plated automatic shoved into his belt. In the embarrassing department we have vignettes as diverse as one featuring the Afghan vice president arriving in the United Arab Emirates with a suitcase full of illicit cash, or another featuring the White House auctioning off meetings with President Obama in exchange for countries taking in prisoners from Guantanamo.
What is thought-provoking is that it seems virtually every country that is a neighbor of Iran seems to be more inclined to see action taken against the Iranian nuclear program than is the United States… although frankly given the history and cultural fault lines in the region, this may actually be an argument for giving the U.S. approach more credence and support. Also emerging from the documents is a picture of just how dangerously immature China's foreign policy remains. The country is clearly continuing to be too inclined to cosset and support rogue regimes, an approach that is clearly out of sync with China's broadening international interests or its desire to be treated seriously as a leading nation. Finally, in this category, these documents make clear yet again -- from the repeated mentions of corruption in Afghanistan to deeply unsettling perspectives on the vulnerability and risks associated with the Pakistani nuclear program -- that the United States' involvement in that part of the world has us tied up with very bad actors and is likely to end up producing very unsatisfactory and possibly even tragic outcomes.
There is one other subtext that runs through all this, one well highlighted in a very good analytical piece on the releases by Timothy Garton Ash in the British newspaper the Guardian. The cables not only reveal that the world is run much as you expect it would be but for all the venality, hypocrisy, callousness and irresponsibility that is part and parcel of such assumptions, from time to time elements of it run precisely as you actually would hope they would run. For example, there is repeatedly revealed within the U.S. state department a high degree of professionalism, competence and courage. The best U.S. diplomats -- like Bill Burns, now undersecretary of state for political affairs, or ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson -- provide dependable insights in their communications and show no hesitation to send back assessments that will surely ruffle feathers back in Washington.
The WikiLeaks cables shine light on dark corners of international affairs only to reveal that for the most part, what is going on is what we thought was going on. The light enables us to see details, many fascinating, some disturbing, that also helps us better understand the nature of the world in which we are living and the risks we are facing. As a consequence, on a net basis, the newspapers that first broke the release -- the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Der Spiegel and Le Monde -- performed a useful service and did so with seemingly admirable restraint and judgment if their descriptions of their dialogue with officials regarding the releases are accurate.
That said, it must be acknowledged that yet another dimension of how the world is really run that is revealed through these releases is the means by which they were made public in the first place. If the U.S. continues to see fit to grant security clearances to three million individuals and all the information in these leaks can be as easily transferred as they were first to a fake Lady Gaga CD and then to the Internet or a thumb drive then we must expect that just like intrigue, deception, bad policies, and earnest public officials trying to advance their national interests, breaches of security like these will become a permanent part of the landscape of international affairs. If such leaks are really as odious and dangerous as many in the United States government are now asserting (a view with which I am sympathetic) then the place they ought to begin assigning blame is on themselves for allowing the creation of a system in which one more widely understood fact of the way the world works is that most secrets are very hard to keep.
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During Thursday night's episode of 30 Rock, the first clear sign that the show was being performed live and not on tape was the telltale stark, cool video feel of the images. Alec Baldwin's Jack Donaghy commented on it saying, "Does it seem weird in here to you? Everything looks like a Mexican soap opera."
Then he added, to Tina Fey's Liz Lemon, "My God I can see every line and pore in your face. It's like a YMCA climbing wall."
I kind of feel the same way about Washington at the moment. It's the election. It's the fact for a few weeks the focus of government shifts away from the monumental settings and practiced rituals that have all been carefully designed to show off politicians in the same way good lighting and a little Vaseline on the lens shows off aging actresses -- except in the case of D.C., the goal is to make those who serve look as though they are the ones with power, those who come and go at the whim of the people as though they were the constant, enduring elements of the U.S. power structure.
But then, during the home stretch of the election cycle when candidates are actually out campaigning, the settings and the lighting change. Everything seems less predictable. Gaffes and red-herrings drive the process. Stars stumble while unknowns are thrust center stage.
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The Drudge Report linked to a story over the weekend in which someone named Sam Rubin condemned CNN for not explicitly firing Rick Sanchez for his anti-Semitism. Rubin, writing a column called "My Truth" on the KTLA website, argues that this demonstrates what is wrong with CNN.
In so doing, he mentions but skims over the real reason that CNN should have fired Rick Sanchez, the reason regularly cited by Jon Stewart: the fact that Sanchez was dumb as a box of rocks. In fact, even in Anchorland where a man is no better than his haircut, Sanchez was an embarrassment long before he decided to wear his bigotry like a big ugly soup stain on one of his Brioni ties.
Once again, America's political pundits got it wrong in their analysis of this week's primary elections in the U.S. They immediately sounded the alarums regarding the big Tea Party wins, focusing on two of the most bizarre and extreme candidates to recently win victories -- Delaware's anti-masturbation advocate Christine O'Donnell and New York's porn-loving gubernatorial cartoon Carl Paladino. In so doing, they missed a far greater threat to the U.S. that was imbedded in the election results -- the success of the teachers' unions in defeating Washington, D.C.'s reformist mayor Adrian Fenty.
The unions didn't like his tough schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and her policies holding teachers accountable for their students' performance. So they poured money into the campaign of Fenty's opponent, D.C. City Council Chairman Vincent Gray. The spin on the election was that Fenty lost touch with the city's black voters, but behind the scenes it was another victory for special interests that care more about their job security than they do about America's economic future. The side that seems dedicated to ensuring that the U.S. continues to fall behind other countries in academic performance -- and thus in terms of competitiveness, growth and by extension, national security, scored a big victory … if anything so cynical and counter-productive could actually be called a victory. Sadly, within hours of this setback for education reform in the nation's capital, it became clear that another courageous reformer -- with Rhee, one of the two or three most notable in the country --, New York City's Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein, was also under growing pressure to suspend some of his trail-blazing accountability practices. The argument the critics made was that some New York City students were underperforming on one measure of English and Math proficiency, even while they conveniently overlooked a wide variety of national and state-level achievement gains made under Klein's stewardship. They also ignored the fact that the areas in which the setbacks occurred were ones in which standards were only this past summer revised upward (as Klein himself had urged for a long time).
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News from around the world this weekend:
In Israel, during a sermon, 89 year-old Rabbi Ovadia Yousef, spiritual leader of Israel's ultra-orthodox Shas political party, attacked the Palestinian people and their President Mahmoud Abbas, calling them "enemies and haters." Then, he went on to call for their deaths, saying, "May they vanish from the world, may God smite them with the plague, them and the Palestinians, evil-doers and Israelhaters." The Israeli government soon after issued a statement asserting that "These words do not reflect the approach of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu nor the position of the government of Israel." This distancing from a key player in a party that is an important part of the current coalition government, holding four seats in the Israeli cabinet, seems pallid in the face of such repugnant remarks that were clearly designed to cast a shadow over the imminent resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. As one Israeli Knesset member argued, "If God forbid a Muslim religious leader would express similar sentiments toward Jews, he would immediately be arrested."
In Afghanistan, five campaign workers supporting the efforts of a female candidate for the country's parliament, were gunned down. The murders, in Andraskan district of Herat province, followed the kidnapping of the five men on Thursday.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Some thoughts to start the week:
-If it takes 90,000 documents to tell you that the war in Afghanistan is not going well, that the Pakistani government is not a reliable ally or that many American troops are frustrated with the situation on the ground, then you haven't been paying attention.
-If the release of the Wikileaks archive had come during the Bush administration, Barack Obama would have been the first person out there hailing Wikileaks for their contribution to America's national security...instead of condemning the organization as the White House did over the weekend.
That said, while there was little that was revelatory in the Wikileaks archive, the appearance of the archive marks what may someday be seen as an important watershed. When President Obama took office, Afghanistan was Bush's war. When President Obama released his new strategy and redoubled our troop presence there, it became his war...but it was still argued that he was cleaning up Bush's mess. Now, after almost half a term in office, not only is this Obama's war...but it is increasingly hard to see it as anything but an ugly, deepening mistake.
The release of this information gives a feeling and a tone that the sparse coverage we have had of the war has been lacking. More than anything, it gives Afghanistan the actual feel of Vietnam. Not only are the goals unachievable but our partners are corrupt and our government's representations of what is happening in Afghanistan are often laced with deceptions, partial truths and self-serving spin.
This is the beginning of the end for this failed venture. Even the President's most ardent supporters will peel away from him on this with increasing speed. He will focus on the exit with increasing urgency. And it will be very interesting to see how the President's new man on the scene, General Petraeus, responds to the policy shifts to come.
In the end, it's all a race between the Afghanisation of this conflict and its Vietnamization. Can we hand it off before it decays further, producing collateral damage that will include the political future of this president?
-It is time for Al Gore to step to the back of the bus. Gore and the other usual suspects in the push for climate legislation have failed. That's not to say they didn't face strong opposition. It's to say that after having lost repeatedly to that opposition it is time for them to step aside and let new leaders present new ideas. Cap and trade is dead. The green movement has gotten the politics wrong. A new approach combining bi-partisan legislation driven by economic and energy security concerns with an emphasis on self-financing initiatives and leveraging private and foreign investment is key. But so too is going to be using regulation as an effective driver and working hard to advance policies at the state level where much of the real innovation in the U.S. is taking place.
-Isn't China's timing of its announcement to move toward a carbon trading system in the next several years fascinating? It comes as a stark counterpoint to America's bumbling on this. It sends a message that China gets it and that we don't. And it's no accident. They know what they are doing and they knew how their decision would be received in the context of the flame out of climate and energy legislation on the Hill. Their decision sent two important messages...
-First, China has a sense of urgency on these issues. We don't. Why? It could be one of the most important questions in the world right now.
-Second, for all the talk -- by the Chinese as well as outside observers -- that they are not ready to lead on the international stage, they're doing it. On climate here and on climate during international negotiations, on currency adjustment, on economic reform, on Iran, on North Korea, they have led or been hugely effective behind the scenes. Increasingly, reports come out of bilateral and multilateral international sessions that the Chinese have been impressive and have driven the discussions-sometimes through advancing their ideas, often by simply going slow and knowing the world can't go faster than they are willing to. They are proving to be the canniest diplomatic players on the international stage at the moment. You may not love everything they're doing, but you have got to admire their effectiveness.
LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images
Does your media experience leave you feeling empty? Are you still hungry after your usual breakfast of three newspapers, a side of Drudge, and a big steaming mug of Morning Joe? (The Washington equivalent of a Denny's Grand Slam with none of the nutritional value, restraint, or fiber.)
Is it the vapidity of cage match programming? The emotion-focused, sound-bite oriented Oprah-ization of the interviews? The sense you have that all the really big world-changing stories aren't being reported? (How could they be if you don't speak Chinese?)
All these are contributors, of course. But a big piece of it is what is known to insiders as the non-story. These are pieces -- often with big headlines, an anchor flown in to do the stand-up in front of the flaming wreckage, a chorus of loudly flapping columnists punditerizing in the background -- that look like stories, sound like stories and quack like stories but are not actually stories.
To help you identify these before they actually suck you in (and then begin to eat up valuable grey cells, filling your limited memory with non-facts, non-insights and non-essentials not worth knowing), let me provide you with four examples from this past week of non-stories. Each is an archetype. Once you learn them, try to spot the equivalents or other examples of this all too common, rapidly proliferating form of intellectual pollution.
Type A: The "You've Been Played" Non-Story
Of all the non-stories of the past year, one of the most grotesque, bizarre and difficult to understand is the story of LeBron James "big decision." In this story, America held its breath as a seemingly friendly but over-large and uneducated 25 year-old who has never won a single truly big game as a professional basketball player gazed deep into his own navel deciding where he would cash his next obscenely large check. Wait a minute. He's a professional basketball player? He is a man who plays the one sport that is by acclamation agreed to be vastly more interesting when it is played at the college level because the pros are so self-indulgent, slow and generally loathsome? And we care? We actually played into his hands and helped him hype himself further while what he was doing was offering his young fans a lesson in how their heroes will sell them out for money or glory?
Yes, we did. Yes, we allowed the sheep-like non-journalist flacks for the sports marketers to sell this decision about where this man who is the world's most overpaid sneaker model would like to spend the next few years bouncing a little orange ball like it was a presidential election. Wait a minute ... we bought a story that covered a rich athlete behaving selfishly while he basks in the limelight of a charmed life as though it were news, all the while selling more LeBron T-shirts and posters? I apologize to the non-journalists who cover sports. They're not the sheep. They're just cogs in the machine. We're the sheep. We're the ones who buy into the whole idea of entertainment "news" as though it were not marketing but news.
Which brings us to example number two...
Type B: The "News from Nowhere" Non-Story
Combining the emptiness of "entertainment news" with the shock value of a sunrise is another brand of non-news: the kind that doesn't creep over even the lowest threshold for newsworthiness because it is so utterly predictable. We've had at least two excellent examples this week. In one such story, as it turns out, Mel Gibson is a reprehensible jerk. In another, as it turns out, Lindsay Lohan is a lying, self-deluding, drug-abusing skank. Mel, not content to be remembered as a misogynistic, alcoholic, anti-Semite, goes the extra yard by allegedly beating up his Russian mail-order mistress. And throwing in a few choice racist epithets for good measure. Lindsay, sporting the latest in obscene nail decoration, breaks down in court when she is told that there are actually consequences for repeatedly breaking the law, lying to the police, lying to the courts, lying to herself, and generally flushing what was a promising career down the toilet over which she was just bent while hoovering line after line of mysterious white powder up her button nose.
David McNew/Getty Images
As you may have read, General Jim Jones, the U.S. National Security Advisor, seeking to turn that Middle Eastern frown upside down, cracked wise at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy the other day. In so doing he showed the kind of sensitivity toward Jews that some have concluded will be sure to have him opening for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the Laff Factory in Tehran in no time. Having specifically gone to the think tank to reiterate America's commitment to Israel in no uncertain terms, Jones cannily opened with a joke that turned on the reliably funny topic of Jewish business acumen.
No wonder they call him the funniest Jim Jones this side of Guyana.
Not surprisingly, the comment offended a few people. We can only imagine that first and foremost among them was America's self-appointed first line of defense against the Israel Lobby, Steve Walt, who we have to assume was outraged that Jones even went to the Institute in the first place -- given what Walt has asserted is the allegedly pro-Israel stance of some of its experts. (Walt is recently on the record as suggesting that the folks who work at the Institute be denied any opportunity to ever work in the U.S. government because of their alleged "conflicts of interest" -- which he twists himself into Mary Lou Retton-worthy contortions to attempt rather unsuccessfully to distinguish from the more inflammatory "dual loyalty" which we all know means "you can't celebrate both Flag Day and Shavuos.")
Actually on the record as being offended was Anti-Defamation League National Director Abe Foxman who called the Jones joke "inappropriate." Personally, I found the joke funny -- what's funnier after all than a story like Jones's about a thirsty Taliban being denied a drink unless he buys a necktie from a Jewish merchant? That's the kind of thing we call a laff riot in Gaza -- where they know something about riots. But other Jews, you know, they're more sensitive than I am about these things -- not because they don't have a sense of humor (think Jerry Seinfeld, George Burns, Grouch Marx, Lloyd Blankfein, half of Chelsea Handler), but because after 5,000 years the same punch lines get a little old.
Fortunately for Jones, Jews aren't as sensitive about these things as other groups. As others have noted, imagine if the joke had turned on the stereotypes of different ethnic groups, African Americans, for example, or gays, or on a clichés about boneheaded military officers. Jones would be enjoying the same kind of career prospects as Michael Richards, considering shifting to a posting in Silvio Berlusconi's cabinet or be left cruising the Pacific Coast Highway with Mel Gibson. (It's a good thing he didn't call Ehud Barak "sugar tits.") Some groups you can't make fun of in America. But Jews, they don't mind a good ribbing from the Obama administration. Ask Bibi Netanyahu.
Since it looks like Jones won't be fired any time soon, however, he's probably going to have to give some more speeches. Given this, it'd probably be a good idea to learn some distinctly non-stereotypical new jokes about Jews with which he can open his speeches. Here are a few ideas:
A Jew walks into a bar. He says, "who's buying?" When no one else offers, he takes out his credit card and says, "this round's on me."
Of course, Jones's biggest on-going problem is hardly his lack of a sense of humor. It's that despite his best efforts, he is still dogged by criticism from some of his own colleagues within the administration -- despite periodic efforts at rehabilitating his aloof image -- that he is the disconnected, remote chief of a system that has thus far seemingly favored lengthy (some might say dithering) process over the production of good, clear policies, a process that cuts out key officials, and one that has been too dominated by the circle of pols that are close to the president.
All of which may, if you believe the buzz, foreshadow yet another joke, perhaps one paraphrasing the Dorothy Parker classic which dates to the Coolidge years. It might -- later this year, say the chattering classes--go like this: At a cocktail party full of Washington whisperers one says to the other, "I hear Jim Jones just resigned." Says the other: "How can you tell?"
There is, however, an important last irony here ... which is not quite the same thing as humor: There are some people I respect enormously who very resolutely resist the preceding critique of Jones and have been steadfast in their admiration for him. High among this group of Jones supporters? Well, as it happens, the Israelis -- who have no hesitation about offering genuine appreciation for his directness, experience and intelligence. Which is saying something. Because in Washington, when someone ... particularly someone you have been tough with ... is willing to praise you behind your back and in private, that typically means much more than most of the kerfuffles that actually make their way into the news. (Even if those kerfuffles are so amusing that nearly all including the most circumspect bloggers can't resist them.)
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
While we here at FP don't recommend eating disorders as an effective weight control technique, sometimes it's hard to pass up the canapés at those fancy Washington parties -- like GQ's "50 Most Powerful People in DC" cocktail blast at 701 last night.
Of course, GQ's party had its own built-in trigger of the gag reflex for most Washingtonians: their names weren't on the list. (I talked with one of GQ's writers as she was working on the list, a conversation I enjoyed right up until the moment it was clear they didn't think I was list-worthy. As for the final product's, um, curiosities see FP's earlier take. But, Leon Panetta ahead of Hillary Clinton? Tom Donilon on the list, but his boss Jim Jones off it? Various worthy but random journalists and bloggers and not Tom Friedman or David Sanger? The Sidwell admissions director ahead of the GDS admissions director? Insiders know the truth ... even as they all hungrily pour over the list looking for their own names and those of their allies, enemies and worst of all, their friends.)
But when a glossy, man-perfume scented equivalent of a long hairy finger down your throat isn't readily available, then knowledgeable Washingtonians know there is always another place they can turn, the Capital's naturally produced form of Serum of Ipecac. Just follow the news until you develop the acute reaction to hypocrisy that is certain to launch away your own indiscretions in one or two turbulent but satisfying moments.
For example, here's a recipe for Capitulimia drawn from just what's going on around town today:
Take just one dose of insurance companies trying to suggest in print and broadcast advertisements that after years of making indefensible profits from literally killing people and destroying families with their policies (the one's they didn't actually deny to those who needed them), it is they who are actually looking out for the interests of Americans in need of health care.
Add one 30 second American Petroleum Institute commercial in which they actually argue that the pending climate bill might hurt consumers by producing more highly priced gasoline? After their record? While they should actually all be hovering in their basements waiting for the class action suit from the planet for selling a product they have known for years was destroying it?
Then sit down and take a listen to say, Rush Limbaugh complaining the media is making spurious, emotional, and uninformed attacks against him ... and that "the media" has too much power. The media? Who is he? Where does his power and obscene wealth come from? Appearances to the contrary, he is not a manatee sunning on a rock.
If that hasn't done it, listen to one-time supporters of the havoc wreaked by the Great Decider's impulsive and catastrophic policies in Iraq or his ineffective blundering in Afghanistan as they criticize President Obama for actually taking some time to work out a sensible adjustment to tackling the mind-boggling challenges posed in the AfPak region ... challenges that were altered by the recent elections embarrassment in Afghanistan.
Or listen to Republican legislators responsible for the biggest deficits in American history and the collapse of the American economy, attack President Obama for doing what had to be done to clean up their mess.
Not there yet, go to Amazon.com and pre-order not only the Sarah Palin book but the upcoming books from President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Hank Paulson, and Karl Rove. Then think about the millions that will be generated by these books. (In New York State, I seem to recall once upon a time in the days of "The Son of Sam" they passed a law blocking criminals from writing books allowing them to profit from retelling the tales of their wrong-doing. These aren't criminals, of course ... well, not all of them ... but what are we to make of millionaires who gutted the American economy making millions from telling us all how they did it?)
Still on the verge of relief but not quite cleansed? Well, pick up a paper and read about the fact that roughly $140 billion in compensation will be paid out on Wall Street this year, a record beating out the last peak year of 2007. (And while you're at it, flip back to the FT from a day or two ago and read Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein's call for more industry reform and ask yourself: was placing this oped at the time the bonuses were going to be announced just a little cynical? Do they really think we're going to fall for that kind of grade-school spinning -- even if he did make a number of good points.)
There, that ought to do it. Feeling better now? Lighter on your feet? Angry but empty? No need to thank me. Just another public service from your virtual friends here on the Internet who will always do what we can to ensure our Washington readers are ready for another day of making the rounds from the Four Seasons to the Palm to the usual receptions sponsored by the likes of the American Foot Odor Institute and the National Alliance for Getting Children to Make Their Beds. And for the rest of you outside the beltway, with America's health care system unlikely to be high functioning any time soon, it's probably a good idea to drop a few pounds and get into better shape.
And here's our hint for turning what could be an eating disorder into a sustainable diet: just keep watching those headlines -- they're the world's most effective non-addictive appetite suppressant. If you follow Washington without losing your appetite, you're not paying attention.
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
Foreign policy is a fast-paced business. Despite the fact that at least someone in the Obama Administration is actually celebrating the art of indecision, you can save the world with snap judgments if you know what you're doing. I know what I'm doing.
To demonstrate I will now solve some of the biggest foreign policy problems confronting some of the world's most important newsmakers in a matter of just a few seconds each. (I will also solve a few lower-grade domestic problems as well.) If you are an important figure on the international stage, just look for your name below. Next to it will be the advice you need in a couple of quick sentences. If you are not a world leader but know one, please feel free to forward this to them.
To Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan of the Pakistani Muslim League: If you don't like the provisions of the U.S. aid package, keep it to yourself. Your complaints are precisely how we know the deal has been constructed properly. (Hint: Turn back the Americans who are offering aid and you'll end up with those who want to make all future deliveries by drone.)
To President Barack Obama: If you think that George's war (that'd be Iraq) is likely to look better than yours (Afghanistan) in five years -- and that'd be my bet right now -- then you really do need to listen to the people calling for a change in strategy.
To Manuel Zelaya: Fair or not, your five minutes are just about up...unless you choose to start dating Kate Gosselin. (And if that is Plan B, I have to say, I'd stay locked in the basement of the Brazilian Embassy, too.)
To Kim Jong-Il: You tell Wen Jiabao you want one-on-one talks with the United States to establish peaceful ties as a prelude to returning to the nuclear arms negotiating table? No problem. Two steps: First, ask for them. Second, realize Michael Jackson wrote "The Man(iac) in the Mirror" for you. As in the "how many shrinks does it take to change a lightbulb?" joke, the punchline is that it's you who've really got to want to change.
To Silvio Berlusconi: Are you the one that's tanned now or is that just a red face? The ruling by the Italian Supreme Court stripping you of immunity from prosecution just because you are Prime Minister certainly seems likely to put a hitch in your mambo Italiano. With three trials going on that involve you or your holdings, you might want to start planning your post government career. (I know your wife has some interesting ideas for what to do with you ... or parts of you.)
To Donald Tusk: As Poland's Prime Minister dealing with a corruption scandal, you have learned some important truths: gambling always produces losers (in your case, the three ministers who have been forced out of your government for corruption) and you can't beat the house (even if you try by suggesting you'll fire the anti-corruption official who blew the whistle on your cabinet) ... especially if the house is run by the two who stole that stole the moon and you don't fit in with their plans.
To Robert Mugabe: You say you want better ties with the U.S.? Well, you're going to need a long rope... Kim Jong-Il has a better shot at restored relations with the United States ... by a lot. Frankly, so does Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Frankly, so too does Rufus T. Firefly. Dictator, purge thyself.
To David Letterman: Ok, so far there's no rumors of foreign affairs in this story. But my advice to you is: continue doing just what you're doing. The openness is working...on the ratings...and on what's left of your image. Silvio, you randy slimebag you, pay attention. Old men apparently can screw around with younger women if they are charmingly self-deprecating about it, not political leaders and not you.
To Mazen Abdul Jawad: You may have been condemned to 1,000 lashes in Saudi Arabia for discussing your (kinda gross) sex life on a tv talk show. Here in America (see above), the same thing would actually get you your own talk show. Time to consider relocating...almost anyplace else. And speaking of Saudi outrages...
To Mohammed S. Al Sabban: If, as head of the Saudi delegation to the global climate talks, you are actually as reported going around saying if measures are taken to reduce world dependency on oil that the planet should offer aid to Saudi Arabia ... then get used to the idea that you are going to replace the woman who buried her husband in a rented suit as the living embodiment of laughable chutzpah.
To David Axelrod: Stay out of camera shot in photos about major foreign policy decisions. You're the president's right hand guy. He needs you: You have the "mind-meld" thing going, offer invaluable advice and by all reports are actually a good guy. Which is why what neither the president nor you need are the uncharitable whispers that you are out-Roving Rove in terms of day-to-day influence over administration operations. (Oh and to Karl Rove, re: your WSJ article that the GOP is winning the health care debate: There's a reason you guys are out. Wrong again. See the CBO report. The Obama-Baucus bill is getting closer and closer to being a done deal.)
I think for a lot of Americans, particularly those of a more liberal inclination, like Michael Moore or my mother, there was a kind of flickering hope earlier in the week that America might be on the verge of exiting the Middle East once and for all.
The loud tick tick tick of the withdrawal timeline has been audible throughout Iraq for months. And with the debate triggered by the McChrystal Report and the pushback calls for more troops seemed to be generating from Vice President Biden and others within the administration, it seemed we might be moving toward a decision by the President that would have us narrowing the mission in Afghanistan. This argued many ... including conservatives like George Will, for that matter ... could only reasonably lead to our withdrawal from that misbegotten place.
And they may even hoped, the United States might finally be ready to pressure the Israelis into backing down on settlements as a way of getting to serious talks about a peace agreement with the Palestinians. No Jewish settlements equals lasting peace settlement, seems to be the calculus there.
Then, reality crept back into the picture. First, it was hinted at when Obama ... at least temporarily ... backed down on pressuring the Israelis on the settlements. But then it came roaring back into focus with a vengeance thanks to the "news" of Iran's second nuclear enrichment facility. Never mind that Obama was briefed on this facility before he became president, that allied intelligence services had known about it for years and that everyone knew Iran was lying about its existence all along. There comes a moment in these things when their lying and our willingness to lie to ourselves or at least to our publics slip out of whack. And that's when the truth creeps out and spoils the party.
And so as the week draws to a close, the picture now looks somewhat different. Iran is revealed again to be a liar and immediately responds by saying "we won't back down." America, Britain, and France make statements condemning Iran, but they range from bland and process oriented (Obama) to bold but toothless (Sarkozy and Brown). Meanwhile, Angela Merkel (who my sources tell me is not one of Obama's faves in Europe to begin with) and the Russians and the Chinese can't or won't make it to the "shocked, shocked" photo op.
Russia and China are the "or" and the "else" of any international threat to Iran. Absent them, countries like the United States and our European allies can only stomp their feet or introduce sanctions that will be largely ineffective. So this problem festers on and looks very likely to get much worse before it gets better.
Meanwhile, days after the Untied States votes to triple aid to Pakistan, the Washington Post runs a story today about the growing anti-Americanism in that country and how it threatens our goals there. Given that Pakistan is where our real enemies are, this reminds us that this is the AfPak War and regardless of what we want to do in Afghanistan, we will for many years be grappling with the much, much bigger problems associated with nuclear Pakistan.
And on top of it all, the Iran revelation makes Bibi Netanyahu (see today's other post) one of the big winners of this week, proving that while Ahmadinejad lies about the Holocaust and nukes, Netanyahu has been accurately characterizing the Iranian threat. Further, it is becoming clearer and clearer to the Obama team that however difficult the Israelis may be, they are matched step for step by the Palestinians.
In short, for those of you who thought we might have been on the verge of getting the heck out of Dodge, reconsider. We can draw down troops in Iraq, but there will be 50,000 there when Obama's successor arrives in office. We can narrow the focus in Afghanistan, but there will be U.S. military dealing with threats in AfPak when Obama's successor arrives in office. We can extend the "unclenched fist" to Iran, but they will spit in it and represent a deep and lasting threat to regional security for many years, certain well past whenever Obama's successor arrives in office. And Israel and Palestine may make peace ... although that seems a long way off...but the volatility in the region will ensure that sooner or later everyone will be clear that they are not the lynchpin of the region's stability issues. (Although they are certainly an important one.)
The decisions Obama makes about Afghanistan, about dealing with a difficult ally in Pakistan, about how to forge an effective international coalition to contain Iran (which will involve coming up with credible, meaningful consequences if they fail to fall into line), and about just how to get two difficult parties to accept the peace they both need and want, will play a large role in determining whether Obama is around for another 3 or another 7 years. But it seems clear that almost regardless of which path he chooses, his successor will face many of the same problems.
A week that began with murmurs of hope among those who would like to see America disengaged from the region -- a group with which I am very sympathetic not to mention one that includes plenty of my relatives -- is distressingly ending with a slightly different tone, better characterized by the shrieks of noted foreign policy observer Mathew Broderick at the climactic moment of "The Producers." "No way out!" he cries, "No way out!"
I'm not always a pessimist. But I am right now.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Want to understand why the U.S. is currently in such dire straits in the greater Middle East? Just take a look at today's Washington Post. It leads with a story given the four-column headline "McChrystal: More Forces or 'Mission Failure.'" Beneath that is a second story, providing analysis from Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Karen DeYoung, also about the strategic debate about our strategy in Afghanistan.
Read the stories ... or the one the New York Times seemingly raced to shoe-horn onto its front page once it heard the Post had gotten hold of the classified McChrystal report ... and you see that General McChrystal defines his "mission" as winning against insurgents. (Although, as mentioned Friday, his parallel targeting of abuse of power and corruption within the Karzai government is itself a hugely important element of the report, a sign of just how strained that relationship has become.)
Reading these stories, you would think that the most important decision the Obama administration faces right now regarding its efforts in the Middle East is to decide whether or not to accept the arguments of McChrystal and the military to increase troop deployments to Afghanistan. And that's the problem.
On one level it's a problem because the troop levels involved simply are not enough to tip the scales in our favor. The proposed incremental increases in forces associated with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is comparatively small and the larger, more rapid increases in the Afghan police and army that are targeted -- to achieve a total force of 400,000 -- are seemingly offered, according to the Post, without dates. Even more troubling is the fact that if we rush into place such a force it will be under-trained and inadequately screened. And finally, there is plenty of reason to doubt whether it is really such a good idea to hand over such a force to a central government that is so deeply flawed.
But it's also a problem because it's the wrong debate. It's not about our core mission.
Afghanistan may have been the "good war" when compared to Iraq. But both were waged in pursuit of the same goal: to make America more secure and to defeat avowed enemies of the United States. There is only one best way to do that. And it's not being done either in Iraq or Afghanistan. It can't be done there. It has to be done here at home. It's reducing our dependence on oil from the region and cutting into the flows of that oil money that support bad actors.
But continue to read through today's papers and you see this more important mission is given second shrift -- even as world leaders gather in New York for high level climate talks that are inextricably linked to our national security interest in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.
Also, as in the case of the Post, while there is a good editorial today that opens with a statement about why it is vitally important to price carbon if we are to fight global warming, it does not note the centrality of pricing carbon to achieving our most important national security objectives. That's not surprising. The media and politicians still tend to treat the issues as though they were separate. Of course, they are not.
That's why it's therefore doubly disturbing when ... in articles in the Wall Street Journal on the NY climate talks or the New York Times story about European concerns that the United States lacks the "will" to move forward those talks ... all consulted note that administration negotiators are hanging back from the kind of solid commitments demanded by our leaders elsewhere in the world because of a sense the Congress simply won't go there.
Per the Journal report:
Is the U.S. Senate really expecting all the other countries to make a serious effort on climate change at the Copenhagen Conference in the absence of a clear commitment from the United States?" John Bruton, the European Union's Ambassador to the United States said in a written statement last Thursday. "Asking an International conference to sit around looking out the window for months, while one chamber of the legislature of one country deals with other business, is simply not a realistic position."
If this were only a failure of vision and will on the part of the U.S. Congress with regard to climate change ... itself a momentous global threat ... it would be a sign of a serious dereliction of duty on their part. But failing to recognize the urgency of a need for a price on carbon implies the Congress simply does not care about our troops in the Middle East today or those who may serve there in the future.
But you see, I don't think that's actually the case. And I think that the secret to making progress on the issue of setting a price on carbon is linked to getting Congress to see it as a choice: you can pay for the oil addiction with blood or you can pay for real security with a modest tax.
That is the core point Tom Friedman made in his excellent New York Times column yesterday (in which I was quoted.) Climate talks or the climate debate on the Hill and the McChrystal Report and what we do next in Iraq are inextricably related. Which means that horse-trading climate for healthcare or coming up with excuses as to why they shouldn't move until the Chinese make emissions commitments is playing fast and loose with U.S. national security.
Sadly, at the moment, we are a long way from reframing these issues as we should. Which is why, as bleak as the McChrystal report may look, a similar report assessing our prospects in achieving what is our real core mission would be even more unsettling -- based not on the failings of a foreign government but of our own.
MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images
Yes, "Morning Joe" thought the hot story out of the Venice Film Festival was the footage of an exuberant gay Italian man stripping down and begging for a kiss from George Clooney. But they missed the bigger story. Perhaps they were too dazzled by the flashbulbs or their reporter was unable to make his way through the fawning, screeching crowds of fans. But there, upstaging the canals and the pigeons of St. Marks was Hollywood's newest hunk, Hugo Chavez. And just like Clooney, he had his retinue of crazed admirers. In Chavez's case however, the heavy-breathing was coming from director Oliver Stone, who was in town to promote his latest labor of love, a valentine to Chavez called "South of the Border."
And you thought George W. Bush was Yale's most embarrassing graduate...
This new film -- which is not, incidentally, named after the South Carolina roadside tourist trap of the same name -- builds on Stone's unwitting reputation as a master of historical fiction. Whereas some filmmakers are known for their camera work or story-telling, Stone is best known for his inability to separate fact from fairy-tale. First, came JFK, which provided the same view of the Kennedy assassination you would get after huffing glue while watching the Zapruder film. Other fantasies made their way into his movies on Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. Appropriately, therefore, the best of all summaries of his worldview came in the description of his "single plane theory" of the 9/11 attacks as reported by the Onion. (Given Stone's track record, the fact that it is completely made up is precisely the reason it should be treated as the truth.)
Here's an excerpt of Time's review of the film:
Every step of the way, Stone is by, and on, on the President's side. He raises no tough issues, some of which are summarized in Amnesty International's 2009 report on Venezuela: "Attacks on journalists were widespread. Human-rights defenders continued to suffer harassment. Prison conditions provoked hunger strikes in facilities across the country." Referring to the 2006 election in which Chávez won a third term, Stone tells viewers that "90% of the media was opposed to him," and yet he prevailed. "There is a lesson to be learned," Stone says. Yes: support the man in power, or your newspaper, radio station or TV network may be in jeopardy.
According to Variety, Stone said, ""You can't get a fair hearing for Chavez. It's an outrageous caricature they've drawn of him in the Western press."
Yes. Outrageous. Let's just take a few items of Chavez news from around the world that have crossed the wires in just the past couple days and draw our own conclusions, shall we?
Let's start with the mildly comic. In Belarus, Chavez met with President Alexander Lukashenko (the White Russian version of a caudillo). There, according to AFP:
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Wednesday boasted of his good ties with fellow Western critic Belarus, even suggesting the two countries could become part of a Soviet-style union.
Chavez held talks in Minsk with his Belarussian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko marked by a chummy bonhomie that saw the pair also propose they travel the length and breadth of Venezuela in the near future.
"We need to create a new union of republics," Chavez told Lukashenko, according to a statement from the Belarussian presidency.
Today, in moves that are not so laughable, Chavez will meet with Russian officials where he is expected to discuss further arms sales, military cooperation and energy deals.
More ominously, today Chavez also stirred up a torrent of controversy when he accused Israel of genocide.
The question is not whether the Israelis want to exterminate the Palestinians. They're doing it openly," Chavez said in an interview with Le Figaro published on Wednesday.
The Venezuelan president, who has just completed a tour of Middle Eastern and Arab countries, brushed aside Israeli assertions that its attack on Gaza was a response to rocket fire from Islamist group Hamas which rules the coastal enclave.
"What was it if not genocide? ... The Israelis were looking for an excuse to exterminate the Palestinians," Chavez said, adding that sanctions should have been slapped on Israel.
While perhaps Stone would agree with these rants (and while he might disagree with Elliott Abrams's excellent piece in yesterday's Washington Post taking former President Jimmy Carter to task for his similarly one-sided, overstated and distorted views), his past record of using and abusing the truth like other directors do starlets suggests that he might not dig far enough into the facts to recognize that his film's hero is deeply in bed with some of the very worst of the Middle East's bad actors.
Fortunately for the rest of us, there is the very thoughtful and profoundly disturbing column by Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau in yesterday's Wall Street Journal detailing a growing case that Chavez and the Iranians are up to the worst kind of no good in this neighborhood. (Connecting the dots between Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Chavez's views is very easy when you do a little more research than Stone did.) Morgenthau writes:
Why is Hugo Chávez willing to open up his country to a foreign nation with little shared history or culture? I believe it is because his regime is bent on becoming a regional power, and is fanatical in its approach to dealing with the U.S. The diplomatic overture of President Barack Obama in shaking Mr. Chávez's hand in April at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago is no reason to assume the threat has diminished. In fact, with the groundwork laid years ago, we are entering a period where the fruits of the Iran-Venezuela bond will begin to ripen.
That means two of the world's most dangerous regimes, the self-described "axis of unity," will be acting together in our backyard on the development of nuclear and missile technology. And it seems that terrorist groups have found the perfect operating ground for training and planning, and financing their activities through narco-trafficking.
His theory is supported not only by the evidence outlined in his article but also by statements earlier this week that Chavez intended to provide oil to Iran in the event the world's leading powers attempt to impose an embargo on the country should it continue to pursue its nuclear weapons ambitions. The Iranian intransigence could put the U.S. on a collision course not only with Tehran but with suppliers like Chavez -- a fact which could delay his getting a star on Hollywood's walk of fame indefinitely as well as causing a real foreign policy headache for the Obama administration.
However, there are always two sides to every story (at least ... around the dinner table in my house growing up there were typically many more than that). And as dark as is the picture of Iranian-Venezuelan cooperation painted by Morgenthau there will always be someone who sees the happy Hollywood ending to such collaborations. And of course, for that we can always turn to Stone. Because according to The Guardian, Chavez's Leni Riefenstahl is currently planning as an encore "an interview film with Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."
Update: We just heard from Willie Geist of "Morning Joe" who noted that they did their takedown of Chavez and Stone earlier this week. I should have known that Geist, who has one of television's best B.S. detectors and, even rarer, a great sense of humor, would never have let this story slip through the cracks.
FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images
What's a guy to do when the right is right? Especially when it's right about what it's been wrong about for so long. Especially if it's right for the wrong reasons? Especially if it's right about something that the sensible center and a president you otherwise admire is so wrong about?
The simple answer, of course, is to swallow hard, agree and change the subject. The other approach is to blog.
Blogging allows room for (a little) nuance. So here's where that begins: When I refer to the "right" above, I actually only mean one guy, although he himself is a pillar of the conservative establishments, George Will.
Specifically, I am referring to his op-ed today entitled "It's Time to Leave Afghanistan." In this instance, not only is he correct, he is ahead of the curve, a place that must be as shockingly unfamiliar to most of his followers as a visit to Afghanistan's Helmand province, a place Will correctly cites as a great case study in the futility of U.S. efforts in that tragically embattled land.
Yet, every so often Will hits the nail on the head and this is one of those times. And there is no greater proof to that than moments after the newspaper containing his column landed on my doorstep, I heard Joe Scarborough saying that the right was up in arms about it. This is where we get to the part about Will being right about what the right has been wrong about for so long. Because while Afghanistan is increasingly Obama's war (and will be only more so if he accedes to the recommendations of his battlefield commander Stanley McChrystal to up our troop commitments and other investments there), it didn't start out that way.
We entered the country in an understandable national spasm of anger toward al Qaeda and the Taliban after 9/11. Any president would have done that, I think. But rather than keeping the mission narrowly focused on exacting punishment and reducing the capabilities of the terrorists and their protectors in a swift and limited action, we accepted the idea, almost without debate, that America should wage a war on terror. The alternative approach, argued the right, would be to treat it as purely a criminal matter which would underplay the risks and produce inadequate responses. This is true, of course. Which is why they said it. But, it was a false choice. There is a middle ground. One can imagine targeted, tactical responses to specific threats that would likely be just as effective in reducing the risks to America and Americans ... or more so when you consider that myriad escalating and amplifying effects of pursuing the war strategy as we have.
As for Will being right for the wrong reasons, I can only speculate about his motivations, of course. They may be very narrowly founded on a desire to do what's in the national interest. I hope that's all there is to it and not a desire to further politicize the sensitive decision Obama faces on this issue (see today's lead story in the Times by Peter Baker and Dexter Filkins). It is in the interest of no Americans to see this war spiral downward into an even worse, more futile entanglement than it is. As Will correctly says, now is the time to reverse course, define goals even more narrowly and undertake the exit. Keep resources nearby. Strike fiercely against imminent threats using the distance weapons and, where essential, special forces. But stop trying to win the unwinnable. Recognize that shutting one terrorist enclave only creates another somewhere else. Stop lying to ourselves about Hamid Karzai who is rapidly becoming as crappy a former American puppet as any in the long list of supremely crappy former American puppets we have ever propped up. Disconnect ourselves from the futile charade of saying we are trying to contain the poppy business when in fact what we are often doing is protecting its key players ... men who are certainly responsible for more deaths worldwide than all the terrorist enemies in the region.
And in so doing, move to a new footing in Pakistan, reduce the risk of our getting involved in or exacerbating that country's deep civil tensions. Focus on securing their nuclear weapons and reducing any threat they may pose to India, our most "natural" important ally in the region.
In short, President Obama should recognize that of all the mistakes made early in his administration, trading "the wrong war" in Iraq for "the right war" in AfPak was probably the biggest and that he has a chance to stop and reverse course now, based on what he has learned (and Admiral Mullen seems to know and imply through his public statements) and not just get out of the country, not just avoid an even longer-term involvement in this expanding war, but also to once and for all reject the Bush administration's to the "war on terror" not just in name but in deed.
Where there's a Will, there's a way.
MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images
When I was just out of college, one of my pals from school landed a plum job as a production assistant at ABC News. Sometimes, we would meet his pals from the ABC News room for a drink near their studios in the West 60s in Manhattan. One of them was a terrific guy named Tom Capra, son of filmmaker Frank Capra, and I vividly remember him going into a rant over a beer about Ted Turner's hare-brained new 24-hour news operation which Tom and all his colleagues referred to derisively as the "Chicken Noodle Network."
At the time, CNN's aspirations and shenanigans and low salaries seemed beneath the serious work that was done by the likes of their Peter Jennings and Barbara Walters and Harry Reasoner and the other big stars of evening news. Back then those other stars were people like Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor, a mostly male group who traced their journalistic DNA back to Edward R. Murrow and that CBS operation that was kind of the Olduvai Gorge of broadcast news.
Now most of those stars are dead and oddly, the Chicken Noodle Network which rose up, revolutionized television and in fact, modern society, has in fact recently transformed itself into the Cadaver News Network. Between its non-stop coverage of Michael Jackson's demise (that was a guy who really knew how to make an exit), the 24/7 coverage of the death of Teddy Kennedy that has now (probably temporarily) usurped it and the age of most of its commentators and viewers, CNN is one of those ideas I feel as though I have seen gone through its full life cycle -- from laughing stock to parody of itself.
Candidly, it's hard to imagine the world without CNN and when global crises strike -- as most recently in the case of the Iranian uprisings -- it can roll out its really good journalists and provide the sort of coverage that revolutionized the business. But it has never really figured out in almost three decades of existence what to do the rest of the time. Some of its answers to that question, like Larry King, are both superannuated and intoxicated with sheer trivia (otherwise how do you explain the appearance of Kate Gosselin, a woman who any respectable news organization ought to treat like intellectual ebola virus, something that once in your system pretty much dooms your credibility to bleed out through every orifice?)
Part of its solution to the issue of what to do when there is no news is, of course, a sort of repetition of recycled headlines and clips that I believe will ultimately be revealed to be one of the torture techniques used by the CIA in its interrogation of detainees. But another element of it has been their pioneering of the coverage of world events ... and particularly those in Washington ... as a kind of reality television show.
What they do is put together a cast of people who are certain to fight with one another and then they toss a story in the middle of them and watch them tear at it like hyenas with a tasty piece of wildebeest. In these sessions, the news is no longer central, it is just a catalyst to generate more intense inter-personal drama, the precise equivalent of the latest bit of Tyra Mail or Gordon Ramsay's latest challenge for his chefs on "Hell's Kitchen." It's Real World DC and we're just waiting for Bill Bennett to give it good to Donna Brazile. Of course, when they move into funereal mode the terms of the interactions are more muted but that is more than made up for by the stately soundtrack and dramatic graphics that are the shiny wrappers crying out that this is "new and improved" version of the same old story. Want more filler? Let's see what our viewers are emailing into us about us. Or let's see how the Internet is covering the same damn thing we are.
At the end of the day, it all calls to mind the Saturday Night Live bit that only slightly pre-dated my conversations with Tom Capra, the one in which Chevy Chase would periodically announce "Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead." I don't say this to minimize stories of real importance ... nor do I say it out of some misplaced nostalgia for "the golden age" of news. We live in the golden age of news. The way it is delivered on the web trumps everything every done before in history whether you are looking for ultra-local news on whose cat got caught in whose tree or you want 1000 perspectives on the latest election in Cameroon.
CNN played a big role in triggering the transformation that has brought us to where we are today. But now, they as well as MSNBC and Fox seem to have lost their way. What they do best is cover breaking stories. They should recognize that stately music and somber logos do not dignity make just as fights among their contract commentators are neither newsworthy nor, for the most part, terribly interesting. They should also recognize that repeating things over and over again and having the otherwise excellent Wolf Blitzer say, as he too often does, that something is "historic" does not actually make an event bigger than it is. It only makes their already dragged-out coverage longer. There must be a better way ... more focused on hard news coverage and taut analysis. There has got to be a programming choice other than that between dead air and dead people.
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I'll be doing a Washington Post "live chat" this morning at 11 a.m. to discuss my article in Sunday's paper about Hillary Clinton's "quiet revolution" as U.S. secretary of state. You can submit your questions here.
Amid all the distractions, what is Clinton actually doing? Only overseeing what may be the most profound changes in U.S. foreign policy in two decades -- a transformation that may render the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush mere side notes in a long transition to a meaningful post-Cold War worldview.
The secretary has quietly begun rethinking the very nature of diplomacy and translating that vision into a revitalized State Department, one that approaches U.S. allies and rivals in ways that challenge long-held traditions. And despite the pessimists who invoked the "team of rivals" cliche to predict that President Obama and Clinton would not get along, Hillary has defined a role for herself in the Obamaverse: often bad cop to his good cop, spine stiffener when it comes to tough adversaries and nurturer of new strategies. Recognizing that the 3 a.m. phone calls are going to the White House, she is instead tackling the tough questions that, since the end of the Cold War, have kept America's leaders awake all night.
Welcome to my life: My wife and I are padding around the bedroom this morning trying to avoid stepping on the little piles of clothing and half-assembled alebrijes that are the residue of a recent trip she made to Mexico. (She is a big fan of the Oaxacan wood carvings and our house, as a result, is full of them. Of course, those from the most recent trip came not only as contorted and fanciful as usual but each carrying a different strain of swine flu which makes them even more frightening than usual for our big, stupid cats.)
The bed is unmade. The blinds are down in the full blackout position that produces the crypt-like conditions my wife demands in order to sleep. (Although as I write this I wonder if sleeping with me is what has led her to require conditions that would have a bat demanding a nightlight and calling for his mommy.) Morning Joe is burbling in the background, the inside-the-beltway equivalent of one of those Sharper Image white noise machines.
So are we discussing her trip? The day? Her upcoming visit to the eye-doctor to have her faulty laser surgery fixed? How nice I look in my running shorts and polo shirt that still features remnants of last night's delicious dinner of Lean Pockets?
No, we're discussing blogging, bane of my existence. She was dead-set against it at the outset. But now she loves it. She says it is because people she meets talk about the blog all the time but that is implausible unless she travels in an even smaller, weirder circle than I thought. Instead, I am pretty sure it is because that when she does meet the odd Joe (or Jane) who reads the blog, she immediately gets waves of sympathy from them for having to put up with such a deranged curmudgeon. ("Do you really have to pretend to laugh at the jokes around the house?! You poor muffin...")
So I say, "I'm thinking of doing the blog today about Uribe." Yesterday there was a vote in the Colombian legislature that rekindled the prospect of President Uribe running for a third term. While I happen to think Uribe has done a pretty terrific job, all things considered, in one of the world's toughest jobs, I don't think it will enhance his legacy or Colombian democracy for him to run again. There are plenty of other talented Colombians and plenty of ways for him to continue to play a leading and constructive role.
She responds that many of my Colombian friends will be angry with me for this position because they think so highly of Uribe. She also notes that other people have made the point before and in so doing I might inflame discussions here that have some folks on Capitol Hill arguing we should go even slower on the approving the Colombia free trade deal if Uribe makes the decision to run again. Admittedly, she is the head of the Western Hemisphere Department at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and, although she is a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, she is also one of those old-fashioned advocates of free trade that you used to read about in business magazines before they were all forced to go underground and live in basements and practice their secret rituals of promoting global government and worshipping a border-free globe in secrecy. (Ok, I'll admit it. Me too) But she makes a good point. And she is my wife who brought home many beautiful alebrijes. So I drop the idea.
Instead, she suggests, I should do the piece on the insanity of the vetting and approval process that has left us with scores of gaps across the top levels of the U.S. government here in late August of the first year of the Obama presidency. As she puts it, we've got "local Kentucky politics" resulting in not having senior officials in place to deal with vital issues. "Here we are in the middle of a crisis and some of the most important jobs in the whole government are vacant for no good reason," she says while slathering herself in some strange cream that although it makes her look temporarily like a creature from a Roger Corman film actually smells pretty good and seemingly makes her immune to the effects of time, gravity and continental drift.
You don't argue with a woman who seemingly has discovered a cure for physics. And again, her argument has, as my old boss Kissinger used to say, the added benefit of being right. She lists a group of ambassadors, assistant secretaries, deputy U.S. trade representatives and others who are cooling their heels while Congress is at the beach or out trying to scare old people with "death panels." I jump on her bandwagon by reminding her of the story of the very smart, capable and talented Lael Brainard who is still in limbo despite the fact that:
That's it, I think, I'll write a "Free Lael Brainard!" piece. But then my wife reminds me the Post did that a couple days ago and I would look like a copycat. So that idea is also ditched.
What about doing a decline of America piece based on the quote I saw while reading U.S. News during a private moment this morning, I suggest? She says I shouldn't mention that I read the story anywhere in the vicinity of the loo because that would be tasteless. I promise not to. Then, I get to the thrust of the story which was a quote from former West Virginia Governor Gaston Caperton, a good guy I spent some time with once on some Clinton foreign mission somewhere who has since gone on to even greater power as head of the College Board. His observation was something to the effect that about a quarter of SAT-takers in 1989 said they had a GPA in the A range (A plus, A or A minus) but that today that number has climbed to well over 40 percent.
No wonder we've got problems, I thought. But then I thought the last time I wrote a piece about some of the intellectually-challenged citizens of America I got accused of being elitist and anti-American and a traitor and a Jew. And two of those things aren't true, one I feel bad about and the fourth one would probably be disputed by my rabbi who hasn't seen me since my youngest daughter's bat mitzvah. I've taken enough abuse this week and it's Friday, so maybe I'll just...and then I looked up and noticed my wife had quietly, like a Blackwater assassin going after an al Qaeda target, gone to work. So I decided not to write a post for the blog today. It's a summer weekend. And if I wrote all this stuff it would probably be way too long anyway. Why not give the readers a day off.
Every so often a straight, reported story comes across the wires that is news, analysis, and commentary all at once. The best such stories are also metaphors and provide their own punch lines. The truly transcendent ones take big issues and reveal truths about them beyond the collective abilities of the billion monkeys at a billion keyboards that is the blogosphere.
An AP story released late Monday afternoon achieves all these things. As such, although it is only the 11th, it is already my nominee for story of the month. The headline says it all: "Drug cartels smuggle oil into the U.S."
It's not a long story. The facts are pretty straightforward. Mexican drug gangs have been stealing Mexican oil and selling it to U.S. distributors. The U.S. government has caught on to the scam and one oil exec in the U.S. has pleaded guilty. The Mexican government says it is part of a new wave of stealing the country's oil patrimony.
What the Mexican government doesn't say is that the drug cartels that are smuggling tankers full of oil into the United States are probably operating more efficiently than Pemex, the country's calcified national oil company.
What the story doesn't have to say is that it was only natural for drug lords to branch out from feeding one U.S. addiction to feeding another.
The New York Times is getting beat up regularly these days. So, let's take a minute and comment on the continuing high quality of its reporting in Pakistan. There could be few more important stories. There could be few places where it is tougher to report. And yet, week after week, they produce insightful pieces that offer valuable insights into this nation that is ally, warzone, and threat all blended together.
Today's example is the story "70 Murders Yet Close to Going Free in Pakistan" by Sabrina Tavernise and Waqar Gillani. It uses the story of how one of Pakistan's most dangerous extremist leaders is likely to escape multiple murder charges scot-free to illustrate the deep flaws within the Pakistani justice system and the perverse partnership between Pakistani authorities and some very dangerous characters and organizations. (Jane Perlez's story from earlier last month, on how hard a time the United States was having getting its aid dollars distributed in conjunction with our very unappreciative seeming Pakistani "allies," is another such example. And there are plenty of others.)
These stories drive home the message that Pakistani society is hugely complex and deeply conflicted, that this is a largely dysfunctional country in which a modicum of political unrest is the best one can hope for during the foreseeable future. They remind us why it has been conventional wisdom for several years now that this is the most dangerous country in the world.
They also underscore the absolute fallacy that every nation is "entitled" to its own nuclear program. (And they underscore why we will someday look to the Bush administration's complete caving on sanctioning Pakistan for developing its nuclear program in order to win a strategic advantage in the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban, a mirage at best, as perhaps the biggest of all its big foreign policy errors.) No society allows everyone access to firearms ... even the gun promiscuous USA. We deny weapons to minors, criminals, and the mentally unstable. We limit their ownership to people who have "proven" they can manage them. And look how that's working for us. Not so well. Is it really reasonable that there should be a lower standard for "permitting" the development of nuclear programs?
The threat of Pakistan is primarily a regional one, unless a portion of its nuclear arsenal falls into the wrong hands. That would create a potential catastrophe to be sure. It's a high-risk scenario with an outcome that should have the United States on guard. But is Pakistan really the most dangerous country in the world?
It comes to mind as one of the other countries that I think is among the world's most dangerous, Russia, has been rattling its rusty sabers more frequently recently. There was the story the other day about its submarines off the U.S. coast, the not so comforting rebuttal today by one of its top generals, its recent naval exercises with the Iranians, its generally non-constructive attitude toward dealing with the Iranian nuclear problem, its belligerent rumblings throughout its near abroad ... the list goes on. And this is a country that has the ability, as the submarine (and earlier strategic bomber readiness) stories suggest, to project force anywhere in the world. It is also a country that has the political clout and through its natural resources the economic clout to become something between a difficult rival for the U.S. and a permanent spanner in the works of the international system. (For a very good take on Russia, see today's op-ed by one of our best experts on the country, Steve Sestanovich, in the Washington Post.)
Despite a new State Department intel estimate saying that the Russian military is less capable of projecting force than it was and is moving toward a "smaller more technical force", it still has a vastly more potent nuclear capability than all but one countries and a vastly more potent military than all but a tiny handful. Such assessments need to therefore be taken in context and always capabilities need to be multiplied by the will to use them in risk calculations.
Russia also has, as Joe Biden impoliticly noted, some problems that could be complicating factors. In short, the bear has the wolf at its door-demographically and economically. Biden interpreted these as factors that might weaken Russia. But they are also the kind of factors that often inspire leaders to dangerous postures and strategies. What is weakening Russia is simultaneously making the country more dangerous.
I know this is not a popular view. But it seems very likely to me that on more fronts and in bigger ways, Russia could be a bigger problem for the U.S. and for the world at large over the next decade or two than Pakistan.
Which begs the question: Which is the most dangerous country in the world? I'll try to answer that tomorrow.
A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images
Word came through late yesterday that as anticipated here the White House caved to Senator Grassley, providing assurances America would not be lifting its tariff on Brazilian ethanol anytime soon.
As interesting to me was that the Renewable Fuels Association, which is not like many things in Washington what its name suggests and does not support all renewable fuels just those produced by its members, saw fit to issue a press release going after me and Andrew Sullivan who graciously picked up some of what I had written on our corndog friends. They accused me of being an international consultant (true) who has worked closely with Brazil (also true). It helps to work with different parts of the world to actually know what's going on in them. In fact they characterized me as a Brazil nut. This hurt. Because I actually am not a big fan of Brazil nuts. They then went on to say that there are, despite my assertion to the contrary, credible experts who think corn makes a shred of sense. They listed a number of reasons why corn would make sense -- if you were just interested in using a feedstock that is already being produced for which we already have fancy subsidy programs that comes from states with a lot of political clout, for example. They also erroneously suggest that Sullivan and I implied (which we did not) that corn only comes from Iowa. In fact, I for one, know corn comes from lots of other places including Hollywood and Washington flackeries. But perhaps my language was not precise enough.
So let's toss the ball right back at them. Please find a credible expert who believes that corn is the best possible feedstock from which to make ethanol or that corn is actually a more efficient source of energy than other feedstocks like sugarcane or likely next generation feedstocks. Once you've done that we can move on to the idea that subsidizing an industry with an unsustainable model is in the U.S. national interest or that having U.S. consumer pay more for fuel in the current economic environment is a good idea or that protectionism is really the answer. Or better yet, perhaps we can move the discussion on to why the U.S. continues to lavish subsidies on the ag business that distort world trade and, very often, primarily offer a payday to corporate farms and well-to-do larger farmers.
David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.