The problem with experience is that it doesn't prepare you for what you have never seen before. This is also a challenge for experts, for whom their knowledge of the past is usually an advantage, but sometimes can be their worst limitation.
This has certainly been the case in the past several weeks with the events in Tunisia and Egypt. Old Middle East hands approached the matter with great caution, fearing instability, because if it followed past patterns, it would most likely end in unhappiness. The most likely outcomes they could foresee were either: the further cementing of the status quo or an invitation to something much worse.
History taught them that popular uprisings in the region typically led either to replacing one despot with another or perhaps to trading the evils of autocracy for the evils of theocracy.
And we would do well to consider the fact that even now, as Egypt is awash in euphoria, that the experts may be right. And they would do well to consider that perhaps what has happened in Egypt is something entirely new.
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In a weekend photo op with his ally and the bane of his existence, Hamid Karzai, Barack Obama joked to reporters that every so often he gets something right. (Obama, that is. There is widespread agreement that recently Karzai almost never gets anything right.)
After a NATO summit that went about as well as could be expected, however, you could understand why the president felt buoyed enough to joke about his own fallibility.
Still, the problem with judging performance based on discrete events is that you can make progress on a plan and then discover later that the plan itself was ill conceived to begin with. This seems to be the way Obama and Co. are headed on Afghanistan, on the Israel-Palestine talks, and on Iran. They are taking credit for apparent steps forward ... and in the context of the execution of their plans, they deserve it. But the trajectories they are on in all three cases are likely to produce long-term results that are disappointing at best and that could ultimately be viewed as fairly disastrous.
This not only illustrates the problem of doing foreign policy analysis as it is done on cable TV -- news cycle by news cycle -- but it also illustrates one of the problems associated with recently fairly commonplace wonkish analyses that overvalue good policy processes. Good processes that produce lousy policies are actually not so good.
That said, one of the best tests of a good process is whether it recognizes when a mistake is being made and is able to make a mid-course correction. (The mistakes in question include prolonging the agony in Afghanistan when the cost of staying doesn't reconcile with the relative gains, getting bogged down in the distraction of the settlements debate with the Israelis, and letting short-term negotiating gains with Iran or North Korea distract from the damage done by their long-term commitments to building their own nuclear capabilities.)
When mid-course corrections involve stepping back from high-profile policies, of course, it often takes leadership from above to allow the worker-bees in the process the cover to make necessary adjustments.
In this respect, I now write words that I never thought I would write: Perhaps Barack Obama ought to consider taking a page out of the book of Pope Benedict.
Benedict began his tenure with a series of statements, actions and inactions that deeply damaged the stature of the Vatican. But to his credit, the conservative prelate has shown, at age 83, an apparent willingness to listen and adjust, even if only modestly.
Initially, the adjustments came as he moved the church forward in terms of coming to grips with the dark stain of abuses by Catholic priests. There is a long way to go but no one who is fair minded can deny that after a period of infuriating tone-deafness on this issue, Benedict, has during the past year turned a corner on this issue.
Now, this past weekend, he seems to be beginning a similar turn on the question of condom use, suggesting that there are actually circumstances (as in the case of male prostitutes) where using condoms may be seen as a moral positive and thus acceptable. It was a small step and he must go a long way to undo the damage caused by preaching against the use of condoms even among those with HIV. But it was a significant enough break with past policy that it immediately and predictably caused some in the Vatican hierarchy to try to walk it back as not being official church doctrine. Nonetheless, even Vatican spokespeople acknowledged the shift with one quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying, "Benedict XVI has courageously given us an important contribution, clarifying and deepening a long-debated question. It's an original contribution."
For a man whose job it is to preserve ancient doctrines and whose temperament seems to be that of a strict traditionalist, the Pope's relative flexibility is a welcome development for a church that must adapt to remain relevant and overcome recent setbacks. It is also an excellent example to leaders everywhere that frequently progress comes not from trying to maintain a veneer of infallibility but from accepting it as a human and thus inevitable aspect of their characters ... even when doctrine, position, or the warm buzz of sycophants suggest such self-awareness isn't necessary. Great leaders aren't infallible. They are the ones who best learn from and take swift and appropriate steps to correct their mistakes.
It's not just hate-mongers like Newt Gingrich versus champions of constitutional liberties like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg when it comes to the discussion of building that mosque in lower Manhattan. There's a nuanced "middle" position that seems to typically employ the phrase "out of respect for the families."
This phrase is often used in a sentence like, "of course, the Muslims have the right to put this mosque anywhere they want but out of respect for the families, they ought to move it father away from Ground Zero."
It allows the speaker to sound like they have a vague grasp of the liberties championed by America's founding fathers while, at the same time, they can pander to and even stir up the inflamed emotions that 9/11 still evokes...and no doubt will for many years to come. And as is true in any such veil for hypocrisy, the phrase is itself is a pretty pernicious concoction.
First of all, it suggests that the families of 9/11 victims uniformly, as a group, associate the attacks that robbed them of their loved ones not with a small, fringe group of radicalized terrorists but with a religion those terrorists debased and whose teachings they ignored. This doesn't respect but impugns them.
Of course, as has been widely reported, the families of 9/11 victims are not a monolithic group and so to be accurate, the phrase that should be used is "out of respect for some of the families..." But even in that instance, this phrase suggests that it is "respectful" to set aside principles and the law and embrace intolerance and ignorance simply because the wounds associated with a grievous crime are still open.
How can it be respectful to suggest that these families operate to a lower standard than the rest of American society? Or whether some do or not, how can it be respectful to treat them as they do?
Reading this weekend's New York Times's article on the deftness and ease with which the rich in Pakistan avoid paying taxes, an idea struck me. Well, actually to be perfectly honest, it struck my father -- who passed it along to me. The fact that he is currently lying in a hospital being pumped full of mind-altering drugs doesn't in any way undermine the quality of the idea. In fact, it just makes me want some of those drugs.
Because it is an idea of striking clarity and manifold levels of appeal.
In short, it may well be that two of the biggest threats facing the United States America -- the decay of nuclear Pakistan and the rise of the Tea Party movement here at home -- suggest a grand solution fraught with opportunity (and delicious ironies).
We need to keep an eye on Pakistan, but can't officially send troops there. Further, we can't afford to keep the ones we have in Afghanistan (who are actually there to keep an eye on Pakistan ... shhhh ... don't tell anyone) there indefinitely. And beyond that, we don't want to put our valued troops needlessly at risk.
At the same time, at home we are confronted by a new political movement whose leaders drape themselves in the flag and then proceed to espouse a worldview that is alternatively un-American (anti-immigration in a nation of immigrants, anti-personal freedoms like choice, pro-infusion of politics with religion) and ante-diluvian (anti-science, pro-vigilantism, pro-solving problems at the point of a gun). They are out of place here and lord knows -- given our history of success without them -- they are expendable.
The tea-baggers want a country? Let's give them one: send them to Pakistan.
It's a marriage made in heaven. Admittedly, there may be some disagreement as to which heaven, but let's leave that to them to work it out.
Think of the ways the Tea-bagger worldview makes Pakistan a much more natural place for them to live than America:
Here is a country with a large population committed to policies rooted in the values and outlook of centuries ago and a large group of Americans with a similar nostalgia for hangings, gunfights, superstition, racial and religious conflict and witch hunts. So theoretically, despite Pakistan's historically documented, deeply rooted strain of anti-Americanism, this may well be the one group of Americans with whom they have the most in common and thus, the ones with the best chance of building the bridge we need between our two cultures. And if we had to learn to live with less of the mean-spirited, misguided shrillness of the bagger rhetoric, I think we could handle it. And if it all ended badly for all involved, well, we could probably live with that, too.
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I'm just waiting for the following story or something like it to appear somewhere in the Afghan press really soon ...
"Petraeus Expresses Concern for 'Irreplaceable Ally' Karzai"
Kabul, April 10, 2010: During a news conference today, American CENTCOM Commander David Petraeus surprised reporters with a lengthy deviation from his prepared remarks denying yet again his intention of running for president of the United States. During the apparently impromptu comments before departing to fulfill a "long-standing commitment to vacation with my family in Des Moines, Iowa," Petraeus expressed "heartfelt" concern for the health of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Apparently, according to Petraeus, Karzai has recently been observed by "friends and family" to have become "so distracted by his deep commitment to supporting his NATO allies" that he has been increasingly absent-minded and clumsy. Petraeus cited reports saying that Karzai had "due to his commitment to democracy and battling corruption" on several occasions "stumbled and very nearly fell" near the top of long flights of stairs, open elevator shafts and in one case, an abandoned well.
"Given our unwavering support for our esteemed ally, a man who has become like a brother to me," said Petraeus, "we very much hope that the president is able to cut back on his speaking schedule and devote more time to quiet work at home lest he risk the kind of tragic accident for which he would only have himself to blame."
After the press conference, while visiting nearby Kandahar Country Day School for what his official schedule described as a "Counter-insurgency Training Session" during which the General demonstrated how to kiss babies and chuck them under the chin, Petraeus said, "I'm a student of these situations and we've seen other tragic cases in which our allies have become so zealous in their desire to fulfill our goals that they suffer tragic accidents. You may remember South Vietnamese President Diem forgetting to wear his seatbelt and suffering such unfortunate injuries on his way to a late night picnic outside of Saigon."
And while we're at it, wouldn't the following story be welcome in say, Italy's Corriere della Sera...
"Aging Pontiff Sneezes"
Vatican City, April 10, 2010: Cardinal Giuseppi Borgia, personal physician to His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, revealed today that the Pontiff seemed to be coming down with a cold. According to Borgia, the Pope was "suffering from the stress of a busy Easter Week schedule." Borgia's comments raised alarms among some Vatican observers, such as the Pope's personal pastor, Reverend Raniero Cantalamessa, who said, "not only is he a very old man, but what he's been through I wouldn't wish on a Jew." (The Holy See denied reports that Cantalamessa was being considered for the position of official Vatican spokesperson-despite an insensitivity and tone-deafness to legitimate public concerns that would make him ideally suited for such a post. Cantalamessa, of course, is best known for last week comparing the attacks on the Pope and the church condemning endemic child abuse with past examples of "collective violence" against the Jews. He is also reportedly a recent nominee for the Nobel Prize in Chutzpah given the Church's historic role in actually fomenting that violence not to mention his stunning inability to differentiate between victims and perpetrators of crimes. )
Said one cardinal who declined to be named, "Poor old Ratzy. He hasn't had it easy. First of all, John Paul II was a tough act to follow. Then there was the whole kerfuffle about his having been in the Hitler Youth, as if a young boy should not have a hobby. Then, the media started unfairly ganging up on the church ... as if priests shouldn't have young boys as their hobbies. Clearly, it's all the work of Satan because we have had Popes in the past who have been involved in much worse stuff-corruption, murder, wars, incest, schisms ... the Inquisition for goodness sakes. But they didn't have to contend with all these new media. I mean "twitter" ... what is that? A tool of darkness, that's what."
Others close to the Pope, however suggested that given his age and the likelihood that this cold could get worse, perhaps the Pope might want to think about an early retirement. Said Prof. Dr. Hermann Wilhelm von Richtoven, Director of the Bayerische Atemwegserkrankungen Klinik und Rheinische Rhinologie Krankenhaus and Personal Nasal Advisor to the Pope, "Well, you never know. He could get better. Maybe not. It's all a crapshoot. But if he tries to keep up with his current workload, he could be looking at something much worse. Sinusitis, perhaps. Or a RICO conviction. I'd say it was time to step aside and retire to a quiet life of study and prayer. If he does, the cold should clear up in no time."
Said one high church official who, like the Pope, was involved in determining the fate of American Reverend Lawrence Murphy who was accused of abusing 200 hearing impaired boys who were under his charge, "you know, a sniffle here a sniffle there and before you know it you might draw the conclusion that a room full of weeping deaf children are trying to tell you something."
ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images
This weekend the Pope took a hard stand on behalf of the power of faith to provide "the courage" to not allow "oneself to be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion." This revealed more about the Pontiff's misunderstanding of the current crisis in the Church than intended. Because, of course, the problem is not the petty gossip. The problem is the hard and awful fact of decades of abuse of thousands upon thousands of innocent children at the hands of priests in whom they and their families had placed the ultimate trust.
The problem is not petty gossip. The problem is what would be considered in any other organization to be a apparent conspiracy to cover up grievous crimes and to recklessly endanger innocents. The problem is a culture not of compassion but of one that placed the interests of a rich and powerful organization above those of the individuals it was supposed to be serving. The Church doesn't need to be protected. The children need to be protected.
No, the problem is not petty gossip. The problem is the Pope and the church hierarchy of which he is not only the head, but also a revealing symptom. He may well be a moral and deeply spiritual man. But over decades, while some in the church have succumbed to temptations of the flesh, the Pope and other leaders may have fallen just as damagingly to those associated with power. They have been corrupted by it and in turn they have corrupted an organization that exists only through the moral authority they systematically compromised. As a result, the Church faces one of its greatest crises of the modern era.
Yes, as his clueless and increasingly desperate sounding defenders have argued, the Pope may not have been aware of the final disposition of the case of Reverend Lawrence Murphy, abuser of 200 deaf boys in the United States, but surely in an organization that now appears to have been so rife with such cases, he could not possibly have been unaware of scores of cases like it. But he like other Popes, like Ireland's Cardinal Brady, like the two Irish bishops who have resigned, like countless others among their colleagues have at best shown indifference to what was happening to their parishioners or to the organization whose core values they were undercutting indirectly or otherwise.
New York's Archbishop Timothy Dolan even went so far as to compare the Pope to Jesus Christ in that both faced unjust accusations. It was a deeply flawed comparison on countless levels. But perhaps there is a useful if inadvertent message in it. Jesus is revered especially during this week of the year for his sacrifice on behalf of humanity. If the Pope emulates him and his message, perhaps he might consider the benefits that might come of some personal sacrifice of his own.
In any other organization facing such a pervasive and long-standing cultural crisis, it would be almost reflexive to consider a management change. That said, in the case of an organization which is in the moral authority business, if a leader were actually seen as a symbol of a culture that threatened the very foundation on which the enterprise depended, there would be no choice but to replace him and demonstrate that core values and the interests of the community served was much larger than the interests of any individual or small group of leaders.
It is time for a house cleaning in the Vatican. Every dithering, defensive, inadequate apology, every fumble for an explanation, every attempt at minimization of the problem, every failure to act sweepingly and in the interests of victims rather than perpetrators, every such step makes that all the clearer. Pope Benedict may be a good man, but ironically the measure of his greatness may be whether he has the courage to set his own interests aside in favor of the much greater needs of the Church he has been chosen to lead.
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I am beginning to think that John Edwards, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, Octomom, and Jon Gosselin have joined together to form their own public relations firm ... and that their first client is the Vatican. I have come to this conclusion because it is impossible for me to imagine any other group of people giving the Holy See the kind of P.R. advice they seem to be getting.
The evidence came in yesterday's extraordinary statement from the Vatican "defending" themselves against attacks that they have not done enough to combat sexual abuse by priests. Rather than contritely focusing on all they have done to address this cancer on their credibility, they offered a response that will be studied in schools for years to come, whether in classes seeking to offer a lesson in how not to handle a crisis or in those offering an advanced degree in miscalculated chutzpah.
Following a meeting with the U.N. Human Rights Council meant to address concerns that the Church was failing to respond appropriately to a long history of members of the clergy abusing their flocks, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi read a statement that was undoubtedly considered by some spin doctor-equivalent somewhere to advance their case but which actually probably amounted to more convincing proof that the Vatican doesn't get it on this issue than anything discussed behind closed doors with the United Nations.Among their points:
The statement said that rather than paedophilia, it would "be more correct" to speak of ephebophilia, a homosexual attraction to adolescent males.
Of all priests involved in the abuses, 80 to 90% belong to this sexual orientation minority which is sexually engaged with adolescent boys between the ages of 11 and 17."
Aha. Well, I don't know about you, but now I feel much better about things. Most of the 6,000-20,000 priests who are abusing children at a rate somewhat lower than that of other religious groups are doing it with somewhat older kids. That puts things in a whole different light! I'm sure the whole ephebophilia defense will have altar boy enrollments skyrocketing in no time at all.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Vatican's response neither satisfied the man accusing it of covering up sex abuse within the Church nor did it sit very well with representatives of other religions. Keith Porteous Wood, of the NGO that charged the Catholic Church with violating several provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, said not enough had been done by the Church to address its internal problems or to open its records to permit civil prosecution of wrong-doers.
Protestant and Jewish representatives were quick to respond condemning the Church's attempt to spread around the blame and defending their own approaches to the problem.
Had these other religious groups asked my advice, I might have told them to simply remain silent and let the Archbishop Tomasi have the limelight and the microphone all to himself. It is hard to imagine what the Church could possibly do to look worse than it already did in the face of a global scandal that has cost it $2 billion in settlements in the United States alone. Hard to imagine ... and yet somehow, that's precisely what it did.
CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images
Among the most hotly debated issues arising from President Obama's speech in Cairo was whether or not he was implying a moral equivalency between the plight of the Palestinians and that faced by the Jews during the Holocaust. He and his team have denied this, but the juxtaposition of ideas in speeches does not occur entirely by accident. Neither does the juxtaposition of stops during presidential trips.
That President Obama went from Cairo to Germany and from a day where the central message was associated with his outreach to the Muslim world to one in which his central message was a commemoration of the Holocaust was purposeful. Frankly, to me it was slightly grotesque. "Ok Jews, if Cairo gave you heartburn here's a little Holocaust for you. Feeling better now?"
Further, the message delivered by the president at Buchenwald, was as carefully calculated as all his messages are to resonate different ways with different audiences. Again, the juxtaposition of Buchenwald with Cairo colors how we hear words like:
This place teaches us that we must be ever vigilant about the spread of evil in our times. ... We have to guard against cruelty in ourselves. ...And it is now up to us, the living, in our work, wherever we are, to resist injustice and intolerance and indifference in whatever forms they may take and ensure that those who were lost here did not go in vain."
Palestinians will undoubtedly greet those remarks as affirmations of their cause even as Israelis may greet them as a recognition of the lessons of the Holocaust. It is a deft politician who can use such a blend of language, setting and day-to-day context to deliver potent and seemingly supportive message to two deeply divided groups at the same time.
Whose evil is he referring to? Whose cruelty? He dances with issues of equivalency but never gets so close as to actually embrace them.
This helps him with his outreach to the Muslim world because he seems to be saying the Israelis are hypocrites and while they have used the Holocaust for years to justify the existence of their state and the often tough tactics they have used in defense of it, perhaps we can now join together in using it against them. And for the Jews he says, I feel your pain.
Indeed, on this trip, for all the talk of Muslims he has sought to take a page out of the playbook of a popular Christian icon, Santa Claus, offering something for everyone. For Muslims the speech, for Jews Buchenwald, for Palestinians tough talk about Israeli settlements, for Israelis talk of an unbreakable bond with the U.S., for anti-Iranians criticism of Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial, for Iranians acknowledgement of their "right" to a civilian nuclear program, for the American right attacks against "violent extremists," for the left no use of George Bush's favorite word "terrorism." And so on.
Thus, while the equivalency debate may continue to boil for some time without resolution (because everyone can hear what they want to or what they fear to in his recent statements), it underscores that the message of this trip seems to be that there is no position so divided that the U.S. cannot be on both sides of it, no group pair of enemies so embittered that we cannot offer support to both sides. While I am willing to accept the Administration's assertion that there was no implied equivalency between the actions of the Israelis against the Palestinians and those of the Nazis against the Jews, I am more troubled by the fact that the President or his team somehow think that leadership and diplomacy require that we view all issues as somehow equivalent...that there is no idea that cannot be bartered for another, balanced by a countervailing thought.
Obama on this trip has become President of Newton's Third Law of Motion. For every action, for every word, there is an equal and opposite reaction...and the United States will embrace both.
While some may hope to see this as the impartiality of the peacemaker, others might reasonably fear that it is the moral vacuity of a politician who seeks to be all things to all people. As my friend Tom Friedman often says, "just because George Bush or Dick Cheney says something doesn't always mean it is not true." There are absolutes. There are countries with whom we have greater shared interests than others. There are crimes that are worse than other wrongs. To restore American leadership does not mean having everyone like us. We can take stands that are more difficult and controversial than the President's statements today opposing Holocaust denial and genocide. (Though it might be worth exploring whether we are opposed only to genocide during or after the fact or whether we are willing to actually try to stop those who threaten it...as do the Iranians and the leaders of the militant wing of Hamas in their views toward the destruction of Israel. And by the way, by stopping them I don't mean reprimanding them.)
The answer as to whether Obama ultimately lives up to our hopes or our fears come when his actions illustrate whether there are values we are not willing to negotiate, points that can't be balanced, enemies we are willing to oppose, friends we are willing to stand by even when it is unpopular. Tell me the day that Obama is willing to make his first enemy in order to defend a deeply held principle and I will tell you the day he ascends from being a politician to being a statesman.
JENS-ULRICH KOCH/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama's speech today, welcome as it was in tenor and intent, sought to test whether American identity politics could effectively translate into a new form of U.S. identity diplomacy. While there has always been some element of playing to cultural and historical affinities in international relations, it is telling and rather worrisome that a speech offered as a centerpiece of the new president's Middle East policy spoke to a type of relationship that has seldom if ever been similarly invoked in U.S. diplomatic history-that between our country and a religion.
Seventy-eight times in his 55-minute speech did President Obama use the words Islam or Muslim, their variants or make mention of Islamic texts, language or institutions. The central thesis of the speech was that the United States needs to redefine its relationship with the Muslim world. And while it is hard to be against strengthening our relations with any group, this approach does contain a trap. It posits the existence of something that does not really exist. With over a billion members, "the Muslim world" encompasses a group so geographically, culturally, ideologically, and ethnically diverse as to be almost a meaningless term.
Further, as some critics have rightly pointed out, despite the occasional acknowledgement that Muslims may exist in Asia, Africa or the United States, the speech was primarily addressed to the Muslims of the greater Middle East. Not only does this unintentionally marginalize Muslims who are not Arab or Persian, upon further examination the focus on that region reminds us that our problems are not with Muslims per se but with often deeply divided subsets of that group with other sect-related, national, tribal or other identities. This in turn underscores why repairing relations with Islam is not a highly meaningful goal from a practical standpoint (because Islam is hardly monolithic and our relationship with it is hardly central to solving the problems we face).
While the purpose of the speech seemed to be to try to engender better will toward the United States and our new administration...and while it may have succeeded in this respect...from a diplomatic perspective one can only get so far by appealing to an entity that doesn't really exist. Ultimately the representatives of the U.S. government have to sit down with representatives of local governments and most of the governments in the region are not known for their responsiveness to the needs or moods of their people. Even among those that are democratic such as Iraq, Pakistan and Iran, divisions among Islamic sects or between fundamentalist and moderate factions are likely to trump generalized views that this U.S. administration is less offensive to Muslims than the last one.
In the United States, identity politics work because churches or synagogues mobilize voters. In the Islamic world the effect is likely to be much less easily translated into political movement. This is not to say that today's speech does damage to the United States. That could only happen if the administration were to expect too much of it in the way of meaningful consequences.
In the end, I guess I am of the school that believes in the strictest and most far reaching interpretation of the separation between church and state. There's no place for the cozy relationship that has emerged between the two in U.S. politics or in the politics of the Middle East. And there is no place for it in U.S. diplomacy. In the first instance, it is a matter of principle that should divide the two. In the second, it is a matter of practicality and a sense of history. To my mind, America should have no relationship with Islam to repair...or with any other religion. Our government should be blind to such issues and treat all countries with tolerance and respect. Which is just one more reason why today's speech, for all the merits clearly underlying its conception and evident in its execution, made me uneasy.
It's June, which means it's time for FP's 50th annual International sleazestakes, the definitive ranking of the most odious cases of political corruption and scandals worldwide....and the most entertaining ones. This ranking is the one used by prosecutors, tabloid editors and the crooks themselves to know who is up (to no good usually) and who is down (to their last appeal). In fact in some places (Equatorial Guinea, Illinois) it is used as a kind of handbook for public officials.
Ok. That's not true. We've never done this before. But when you write about the lying cheating dirt bags who have made politics even less respectable than investment banking and the priesthood, it rubs off on you. Nonetheless, every word that follows is based on absolutely unimpeachable allegations even if the same cannot be said of the politicians in question.
So here goes, 10 world class sleazebags in 10 categories of sleaziness.
From the country that gave us Caligula comes a scandal that makes us wish that there was a way to pull an Oedipus and gouge out our mind's eye. (What, you think I meant the other oedipal stuff? Gross. There are standards of taste, even in this blog.) Please don't make us imagine the 72 year old media-baron-turned-Godfather-of-Italian-politics (which is quite a distinction when you think about it) with the 18 year old lingerie model that Berlusconi's wife alleges he had a dalliance with. Fortunately, recently Berlusconi got his country's privacy commission to bloc the release of pictures of him at a party in Sardinia with the girl, then age, 17. And, to get back at his wife for calling him out on his alleged cradle-robbing, friends of the PM are now circulating stories that Berlusconi's wife had taken a special interest in her security detail. Ah, Italia...the dolce vita never ends.
Even the Italians couldn't come up with a scandal as delicious as this one in tiny Paraguay, known for its mountains and its unusually large number of schnitzel restaurants and goose stepping senior citizens. Here we have the President of the country, a former bishop, now being the subject of not one, not two, but three separate paternity claims. Lugo is clearly a man who may not have been true to his vows, but who is making up with it by literally trying to become the father of his country.
This weekend our favorite black hole of charisma, Gordon Brown, proposed constitutional reforms to help bring an end to one of Britain's biggest and yet most piddling political scandals in years. No sex here. No diddling young boys. No Profumo spy scandal. No, this case...which has already got 12 members of parliament from three political parties already announcing they will not seek reelection...is about padding their official expense accounts with claims running from the costs of a home swimming people to an eight dollar donation to a church. Still, the scandal has accelerated the speed with which Gordo's career is circling the drain and it has claimed the Speaker of the House of Commons. Still, I'm not sure if Brown's suggestion that the country's constitution be altered is the answer...given the British history of political scandals, perhaps he ought to be focused more on the constitution of British politicos.
We've written about him before thanks to the fact that the scandal surrounding a murdered lawyer's video accusation from the grave has threatened the stability of Colom's government. But the scandal only gets more politically fraught even without much more clarity on whether the lawyer's claims were true. While Colom spent yesterday touring Mayan ruins with Taiwan's president, labor unions backing the leftist leader have started to push their case that the whole scandal was cooked up by Guatemala's business elites to undermine the leftwing president. Bad as the scandal is, I can't quite get my brain past the oxymoronic notion of Guatemalan business elites.
A scandal without a cover up would be like an aging Hollywood star without plastic surgery...its often the effort to put a better face on things ends up doing the really upsetting disfiguring. So in this category we salute incoming South African President Jacob Zuma who nobody argues is a model citizen but who nonetheless managed to shrug off accusations of every manner of crime and buzz about his polygamy to rise to that nation's highest office where, Wednesday, he will deliver its state of the nation address. But because you can't do a good scandal without the cooperation of the press, we also want to tip our hats to the Japanese media who were cited in an article in the New York Times last week for their complete willingness to be the tools of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in funneling accusations against opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa...thus reminding us that the best friend of any scandal monger are the tools in the press who will print first and ask questions later.
It's gotta make George Bush proud. In a page right out of American democracy (New Jersey, Louisiana or Illinois-style), yesterday, the former Iraqi Trade Minister tried to slip out of the country as an investigation centering on the disappearance of $39 million dollars, massive shipments of food and that old favorite, obstruction of justice, closed in on him. He was foiled when the Iraqi police got the plane to Dubai he was on to turn around and return to Baghdad where Al-Sudani was taken directly to the slammer. It's working, people, it's working! We can make the Middle East look like us.
Buying votes is the meat and potatoes of political corruption (as we shall soon see.) And so we have to honor those who have shown the most creativity in this regard. In Thailand, the brother of the Deputy Prime Minister and a colleague are accused of handing out towels printed with slogans as an inducement to elderly voters to cast their ballots for them. That's a novel twist. But the prize in this category goes to our old friend Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who has been attacked by his opponents for trying to buy votes through the use of shipments of potatoes to districts he wants to carry. This in turn has produced the best political chant of the year, crowds of anti-Mahmoud Iranians rolling out that old national trope, the little black dress of Iranian politics, with their call for "Death to Potatoes, Death to Potatoes!"
It is no small thing to even have the possibility of becoming the least distinguished U.S. Senator ever. But only months into his tenure (which will almost certainly only be measurable in months), Illinois Senator Roland Burris has managed to achieve nothing for the people of Illinois but further embarrassment. His streak of misstatements on his interaction with Governor Rod Blagoevich prior to his selection for the Senate rivals any of the acts of truth-twisting every achieved in that upper chamber of the U.S. Congress. And almost certainly when Burris is gone...which will be soon either through resignation or when he loses election when his temporary term is up (he is as electable as Dick Cheney in Nancy Pelosi's district in San Francisco)...it is for these dubious achievements that he will be rightfully remember.
You gotta love it when a political leader becomes the victim of a scam. It's a small victory for everyone. But it is especially sweet when one of the world's richest men, known for his own history of beauty-queen-sex-slave scandals, is suckered out of 20 billion rupiahs by a team of Indonesian crooks who had the sand to call up the Sultan's adjutant and persuade him to send the money to fake bank accounts in order to help allegedly support political campaigns in Indonesia. On one such call, one of them even pretended he was the President of Indonesia calling. The embarrassed sultan followed up the announcement with a trip to the current ASEAN Summit which is being held in Korea, a country where political scandal is a national tradition. (See final story below.)
Maybe Roh Moo-hyun took a bribe. In fact, it looks like he did. Why else, in the midst of an investigation, would he go out behind his house and jump off a cliff, killing himself? Still, the popular ex-president, was not an anomaly in a country that may be the next lifetime honoree for the International Sleazestakes Hall of Fame given the fact that two of its military presidents ended up in jail and two of the sons of its first elected presidents joined them there. In fact, as noted in a good LA Times retrospective about Roh, Koreans like to joke that when North and South are reunified, the South will handle the economy but given the South's record on political matters, those will be left to their brother and sisters from north of the demilitarized zone.
Additional nominees welcome...and being created by entrepreneurially minded political leaders worldwide every day.
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For those of you who have followed this blog from its tortured beginnings in a small reed basket floating down the Nile, you are aware that I have struggled mightily with the idea that an American minority group with strong ties to a foreign state has gained control of the mechanisms of power in Washington. On the one hand I find the idea almost irresistible given that it is supported by leading academics from important American universities. Academics, after all, are seldom wrong (because they are very smart people) and are always scrupulously objective. On the other, how can it be that the few can muscle around the many, particularly when the few have historically been systematically and often cruelly discriminated against throughout our history as a nation and even before that? After all, Madison notwithstanding, isn't this a country based on the idea that the majority can muscle around the minorities?
But as a part-time academic myself, I am also capable of being objective and, on occasion, when my children are not present, even right. The only difference is that for me, it happens for just a couple hours a week during years when I am teaching or at those other times I am visiting my office at the Carnegie Endowment (which is what, after all, a "visiting scholar" is supposed to do.) So it was today that I had a minor epiphany as I walked through the Carnegie Endowment parking lot. There, wending my way among the rows and rows of aging Priuses with their regulation assortment of Obama, ACK, and "Commit Random Acts of Kindness" stickers, I finally found myself forced to accept the hard truth that the vaunted, controversial, hard-to-acknowledge lobby was real...try as my skeptical Semitic brain did to deny the obvious truth.
Recognition finally came because today's newspapers were full of evidence I could no longer ignore. It was absolutely clear that a minority group for whom the words of foreign leaders had the weight of law on some of the most basic of life's issues had achieved stunning power in Washington. The disproportion between their numbers and their influence was mind-boggling. Further, it was also clear that most Americans, blinded by decades of propaganda and smooth talking champions in America's media and political classes, were oblivious to the often inflexible, sometimes confrontational attitudes of their overseas mentors. Those mentors, inhabiting a small state created to meet the needs of just one religious group, had been battling other such groups for thousands of years at a cost of countless lives, and yet these American hyphenates remained committed to their ancient traditions.
No, I had to accept the reality that The Lobby existed exactly as described in best-selling literature and on well-respected blogs. After all, these clearly well-organized, crafty Catholic-Americans were -- despite representing only a quarter of the American people -- on the verge of augmenting their already defining majority on the U.S. Supreme Court. It was striking in fact that every single member of the Court's conservative wing, including the Chief Justice, are Catholics as is the court's noted swing-vote, Anthony Kennedy. And now, this lobby's latest puppet, Barack Obama, has played right into their hands with his nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, a woman whose confirmation would give the Catholics two-thirds of the votes on the nation's highest court.
Admittedly, Sotomayor would bring to the court more federal court experience than any justice in three-quarters of a century, a distinguished record as justice, and a story that was movingly and inspiringly American (despite her parents birth in a long-disputed territorial remnant of a fallen empire.) Admittedly, as the first Hispanic nominee and a legal centrist nominated for her first federal job by President George H.W. Bush, she was also a brilliant choice for a political perspective. In fact, even walking through that garage full of low-emissions, high mileage vehicles with "Pray for Whirled Peas" bumper stickers, it was clear to me that she was a truly first class selection. And so it was, ironically, that in the very first moments I had come to accept the existence of The Lobby I found myself no longer concerned about it because it was hard to dispute the qualifications of its latest representative to the court...or, for that matter, despite my ideological differences with some of her Catholic brethren, with any of their qualifications either. (Well, most of them, anyway.) Either it was that or the fact that moments later I had to leap aside to avoid the stealthy approach from behind me of yet another Prius which, when running quietly on electric power in places like parking lots, are the real silent killers of America's vital think tank population. (Now there is a group with hugely disproportionate and frightening influence on Washington...talk about your revenge of the nerds.)
(On a vaguely related note: I thought it was interesting that the same CQ journalist who broke the story of Jane Harman's interventions on behalf of AIPAC, today broke a story indicating the CIA regularly lied to Congress. Hmmmm. And who was served by both these stories? I wonder if anyone in Speaker Pelosi's office has any ideas.)
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Judging from the reaction of senior officials of the Catholic Church to criticism of Pope Benedict's remarks in Israel, it is clear that they do not understand that very often the strongest messages come not in what is said, but via what is not said. Sometimes, the oversights take the form of important words left out of speeches. For the Pope, an example was his failure to mention by name the Nazis, to characterize their actions during the Holocaust as murder or to satisfactorily acknowledge his own past in his speech at Yad Vashem. But greater than this misstep, cited by Israeli critics in government and the media and defended by a Papal spokesperson who said "he can't mention everything every time he speaks" is the fact that fueled the calls for a few extra words from the Pope, the fact that haunts his Papacy, the fact that of all the people on earth a man with his background was selected to be Pope.
As quoted in an AP story by Victor Simpson, Israeli parliament speaker Reuven Rivlin observed, "The pope spoke like a historian, as somebody observing from the sidelines, about things that shouldn't happen. But what can you do? He was part of them. With all due respect to the Holy See, we cannot ignore the baggage he carries with him."
The Washington Post included the following responses to the visit:
'You were not asked to do something unprecedented or heroic. All that was required from you was a brief, authoritative and touching sentence. All you had to do was to express regret. That's all we wanted to hear,' wrote Hanoch Daum, a columnist for the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.
On Wednesday, an editorial in the widely read newspaper Ha'aretz called the visit a 'missed opportunity.'
'His important statements condemning anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial lost their potency because of his lukewarm remarks at Yad Vashem,' the editorial said. 'The pope's visit shows that there is no real dialogue between Israel and the Vatican, and that it is difficult to erase centuries-old wounds.'"
While the Pope's past as a member of the Hitler youth and the German army during World War II is something that has been often discussed and its compulsory nature acknowledged, it is understandably very difficult for some people to get beyond. For me however, what is more difficult still is the fact that the cardinals of the Catholic Church, meeting in sacred conclave in the Sistine Chapel, knowing those facts and the church's dubious history during the Second World War, chose among all the worthies in their midst to select the man who later chose to be called Benedict. This was blindness or arrogance or worse. Certainly they knew the choice would be unsettling to at least one group with a long and difficult history with the church. Certainly they knew it would be evaluated as a choice in that light. Perhaps they might even have foreseen a moment when the new Pope would stand before a Holocaust memorial and be seen both as a representative of his church and of his past. Yet nonetheless, they went ahead.
This is not in any way to say that Benedict is a bad man. It is not to minimize the fact that he ultimately deserted from the German Army or that he has devoted his life to a course of reflection and service. He certainly appears to be a very good man by many important measures. And frankly, his speeches in Israel and the message of his trip to the Middle East were much less troubling than his ill-considered comments about condom use during his trip to Africa or his embrace of a Holocaust-denying bishop at the beginning of this year. But what the Israel trip has done is to cast once again into stark focus the choice the cardinals made, the message they chose to send about who among them in their eyes best represented their church, its values and its future...and about how little they cared about the reactions of those who might be especially troubled by their choice.
Clearly, just because an individual has a dark chapter in his past -- whether it was a mistake or a failure to make a choice to resist an ultimate evil -- that does not disqualify him from having a life of value or accomplishment. However, when elevating such men (or women) to prominent, powerful, and richly symbolic posts, the characteristics of these individuals in question often become secondary to the role those characteristics and the reaction to them play in the selection process. Whether they are part of the justification for the selection or, in this case, considered dismissible or minimizable, how they are treated speaks to the character of the selectors and the institution they represent even more than they speak to the character of the person under consideration.
This is true in comparatively minor instances, such as when a government administration with the desire to have the highest standards in selecting officials chooses to ignore missteps by some that would disqualify others (thus raising the question of why some make it and some do not). And it is certainly true in the case of choosing to lead a church with the Vatican's history and responsibilities someone from a past like that of the former Cardinal Ratzinger. In such a case, speeches, pomp, and religious ceremony fade to the background. What troubled observers in Israel was not what the Pope said but who he was and that he was chosen.
He could, as observers noted, fairly easily have addressed this at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in the state whose creation was in part a by-product of that abomination, was the place to do it. The Vatican's argument that he had addressed it before was uncompelling because by choosing not to in the one place where such a statement of acknowledgement and regret would have made the most difference he again raises questions not just about a choice but the reasons behind it.
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The Pope has gone from denying one Holocaust to effectively promoting another.
For those who thought that Pope Benedict couldn't do more damage to his own reputation or that of the Catholic Church than caused by his embrace of a Holocaust-denying bishop earlier this year, it has taken him less than two months to achieve that particular miracle of negative transcendence. Traveling to Africa for the first time, Benedict stated that the AIDS epidemic is:
[A] tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, and that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems."
Over 30 million people are currently living with AIDs worldwide. Approximately 23 million of them live in Africa. Over 25 million people have died of AIDS since 1981, of these, about 1.5 million die in Africa each year. There are currently over 11 million AIDs orphans in Africa. Over 59 percent of the people in Africa infected with AIDS are women. According to the World Health Organization, condom use reduces the risk of HIV infection by 90 percent.
While Benedict's defenders will no doubt argue that he is merely promoting church doctrine, his proposed alternatives of chastity and fidelity are hopelessly unrealistic. This is a reason there is even a debate about the doctrine at the highest levels of the Church, suggesting a level of doubt about the use of condoms unreflected in the Pope's sweeping and reckless statement. The doctrine is dangerous and promoting it is therefore, at best, reckless. Africa, according to a story on the Pope's statement which ran in the Times of London, is "the continent where the Roman Catholic Church is growing fastest."
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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.