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Jacob Heilbrunn

The Rand Paul Threat

Sen. Rand Paul should be pleased by the wilding that conservatives have attempted against him in the past week. Paul is attracting numerous brickbats from the likes of Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, Bret Stephens, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, and Rep. Peter King. The attention suggests that his opponents are worried—worried that Paul may be making friends and influencing people both inside and outside the GOP.

Lowry weighed in to accuse Paul of "dewy-eyed foolishness" and "blame America first libertarianism." Stephens complains that he might well lead the GOP to a "landslide defeat." And King says his views are "disastrous."

What's all the fuss about? 

The proximate cause of the latest fusillade against Paul are his recent comments about the possibility of the containment of Iran. To even suggest that containment might be a viable strategy is apparently heresy inside the GOP, or at least that's the way it's supposed to be. Paul himself says that he wasn't endorsing containment, in a Washington Post op-ed. He says he hasn't precluded anything. "Nuance," he says, is what he's after. Connoisseurs of the Bush presidency may recall that 43 famously declared, "I don't do nuance." Look where that got him.

Still, nuance is not what tends to win you presidential elections. A clear stance does. And the truth is that in a sense Paul's critics are right. He does represent a sharp break with the party's stands since 2001. While it's too much to dub him an isolationist—the boo word of American foreign-policy debates—he clearly is enunicating stands that are at variance with the Bush-Cheney legacy. Until now, the GOP—emblematic in Peter King's vociferous remarks—has preferred to act as though everything was hunky-dory during the Bush era. Perhaps the Iraq War could have been conducted better, but it was a noble effort. Torture is unpleasant, but only sissies would complain about it. And so on.

Now comes Paul who says it ain't so. What's more, he's actually attracting, as W. James Antle III points out on this web site, attention and adherents, offering more than just headline-grabbing statements. No doubt Paul has not spelled out his stands because he may not always know what they are. But his critics are correct to allege that he represents a direct and potent threat to the credo that the GOP has embraced for over a decade. 

But they go too far in claiming that he is espousing an edentate foreign policy. Paul's earlier and tough statements on Russia show that he is not oblivious to the need to project an aura of power and strength. In his speech last year at the Heritage Foundation, he was careful to distinguish himself from isolationists and to invoke George F. Kennan's strategy of containment—you know, the strategy that won the Cold War—as something worthy of admiration and emulation. 

It's a point worth stressing because Paul's detractors resemble the Republicans of the 1950s who embraced the rollback doctine, which never really ended up rolling back anything. They were all full of talk of confrontation and readiness to resort to nuclear war. If he plays his cards, well, right, then Paul could seek to revive a different tradition, the realist one exemplified by Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush.

Whether that approach can enjoy a revival, at least within the GOP, is very much an open question. Vladimir Putin's truculent actions have certainly helped revive the neocons and their compatriots. But whether their views enjoy much traction outside of Washington is another matter. For now, a good index of Paul's broader success may be the amount of derision and vitriol that is poured upon him by his detractors.

Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0.

United States

Should Gorbachev Be Tried For Treason?

In the early 1990s, the Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky wrote a diverting book review in the New Republic about Mikhail Gorbachev. His take was that Gorbachev, if I recall correctly, had to be an American agent. Who else would have so incompetently allowed the work of decades to crumble almost overnight?

Now Russian legislators are hoping to punish Gorby, as he used to be known in America, where he was always far more popular than back home. Flush with victory in Crimea, several Duma members apparently want to put the old boy on trial. Yevgeny Gydorov, a Duma member of the United Russia party, apparently believes that Gorbachev may have been an American spy. And the Guardian reports that Ivan Nikitchuk, a Communist Party deputy, wants him to go on trial. Lawyers, not historians, need to investigate why the USSR went poof. Nor is this all. It's time to ferret out domestic enemies. He says, "The fifth column in our country has been formed and works in the open, funded by foreign money." Maybe Gorbachev was on Ronald Reagan's secret payroll?

For his part, Gorbachev isn't taking the accusations lying down. He says that they are "absolutely unreasonable request from the historical point of view." Well, maybe. But it's hard to avoid the feeling that a trial—a real, honest and open trial—might actually not be such a bad thing. It could take place in a neutral territory—say, Switzerland. Recall that Trotsky submitted to a commission presided over in 1937 by the American philosopher John Dewey. It carried out no less than thirteen hearings in Mexico City, where Trotsky was living. The Dewey commission's mandate was to investigate the charges lodged against the old Bolshevik at the Moscow show trials. The result was a book called Not Guilty.

Instead of complaining about the prospect of charges, then, Gorbachev should welcome them. They would provide him a chance to clear the air, to show that the assertions being lodged by his detractors and enemies are nothing more than calumnies. It could be a great occasion for historians, politicians and diplomats from the era to reconvene and discuss it. New insights would be sure to emerge. Gorbachev, who loves publicity, would be back in the limelight, at least for a few weeks. He could even expect his own Not Guilty book.

The pickle for Gorbachev, who endorsed Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea, is that he would probably be forced to plead incompetency. It's not as though he actively wanted to see the Evil Empire disappear. To his credit, he realized that the old ways were over. But he was under the delusion that he could establish some kind of Swedish social democracy, headed by the Soviet Union, to hold together the Warsaw pact. But the second Hungary opened its borders, East Germany started to lose its population. Absent a Soviet willingness to use tanks, East Germany quickly dissolved and was incorporated, or, if you are a Germanophobe, annexed, by West Germany.

Still, a dispassionate inquiry is hardly what Gorbachev's adversaries are seeking. They want catharsis, a scapegoat that they can pin the blame on for the loss of the cherished empire. A state investigation into Gorbachev's role is improbable. Prosecutor General Yury Chaika will surely decide that the question of "Who lost the empire?" is above his pay grade. But it's clear that the debate over Gorbachev's legacy isn't over. It's just beginning.

ImageRIA Novosti archive, image #359290 / Yuryi Abramochkin / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Muckety Mucks

Ukraine: Russia's Weakness, Not Obama's

Sarah Palin knows what's wrong with President Obama's approach to Ukraine. In a Facebook post, she said that she had predicted that after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, Obama's "moral indecision" would prompt Vladimir Putin to tackle Ukraine next: "Yes, I could see this one from Alaska. I’m usually not one to Told-Ya-So, but I did." The Washington Post editorial page also knows what's wrong.

"Mr. Obama," it says, "has been vague about the consequences of continued Russian aggression." An aggression that is taking place, we are told, in "the center of Europe." It suggests that the most forceful measure Obama could take would be to threaten to...well, to threaten to exclude Russia from our banking system.

It's time to get real. Ukraine may be about to get sundered in half. If it does, the reaction will be consternation but little more because 2014, as Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger writes in an astute column, is not 1914. Nor is the Crimea Danzig. And few in Europe were even prepared to sacrifice themselves in May 1939, the year an article appeared in Paris called, "Who Will Die For Danzig?" Contrary to Senator John McCain, who seems to adopt a new country every few months, we aren't all Ukrainians now. And Crimea is not suddenly at the "center of Europe," no matter what the geographers at the Post are now decreeing.

Nor is Obama displaying a pusillanimity dating back to his refusal to intervene in Syria. The blunt fact is that he has few tools at his disposal to compel a change in Russian behavior. Refuse to attend the G-8 summit? America needs Russian cooperation in Aghanistan and elsewhere. Europe needs Russian natural gas.

No, the main constraint on Putin's freedom of movement in Ukraine will be that it's dangerous for him to enmesh himself in a prolonged war in Ukraine. If he seeks to occupy the eastern Ukraine, all bets are off--Ukraine is not Georgia. It has 200,000 troops--ten times, Elke Windisch notes, as many as Tbilisi did. And it is calling up a million reservists. Still, Ukraine would be unlikely to be able to withstand a full-scale Russian invasion. Its tanks, for example, consist mostly of fifty-year-old Soviet era T-64s. The real trouble would come in occupying Ukraine. It would likely become not only a geopolitical but also a military nightmare for Putin, on the order of Iraq or Afghanistan.

Rather than threatening Putin, Obama should continue to seek to offer him an exit strategy--just as Putin offered him one out of Syria. By all accounts, this is what Obama is seeking to do. Such a course won't satisfy the nostalgic cold warriors in Washington, but it would defuse a conflict that should not be allowed to jeopardize the West's relations with Moscow. The truly dangerous course isn't if Obama seeks to treat with Putin. It's if he doesn't. Then the cold war that neoconservatives and liberal hawks have been dreaming about for decades would be reconstituted, with America and Europe facing off against an emboldened and truculent Russia and China.

It is more likely that Russia carves up Ukraine. This will be hailed by Putin as a triumph. In fact, it will serve as further testimony, not to Russia's strength, but rather its weakness. Russia was once an empire that stretched all the way to Berlin. Now the best it can do is to divide Ukraine, thereby creating a permanent wound in its relations with Kiev. The Crimean Peninsula would become a new Kashmir. Putin has embarked upon a course that is probably more dangerous for himself than for the West.

The Presidency
United States

The Assault On John Judis

John Judis, whose new book Genesis is critically and soberly reviewed by the eminent historian Bernard Wasserstein in the new National Interest, has been coming under fire from a number of conservative outlets for allegedly displaying hostility toward Israel. He was also disinvited and then reinvited to speak about his work at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. Now a new and perhaps more unusual denunication has surfaced in the form of a letter to the historian Ron Radosh that has appeared in the neoconservative organ the Washington Beacon. In it, New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier alternately mocks and dismisses his colleague, a vocation he specializes in. Though the letter was sent privately by email, it was clearly intended to go public.

Wieseltier complains that Judis' book is  "shallow, derivative, tendentious, imprecise, and sometimes risibly inaccurate—he is a tourist in this subject. Like most tourists, he sees what he came to see. There is more to be said also about the utter shabbiness of discovering a Jewish identity in—and for the purpose of—criticizing the Jews: it is not only ignorant but also insulting." This, of course, amounts to a psychoanalysis of Judis rather than an actual refutation of his main contentions. Their contentiousness rests in Judis' depiction of American Jewish organizations as muscling over Harry S Truman to win American recognition of the fledgling Jewish state. It is possible to dispute Judis' arguments—to maintain that he is right for the wrong reasons—as Wasserstein does quite eloquently without resorting to character assassination.

Wieseltier adds,

my favorite bit of self-congratulation on Judis’ part is his belief that he is heroically defying the Zionist thought-police at the New Republic. For three decades and more we—by which I emphatically mean Marty [Peretz] too—have been publishing criticisms, even bitter ones, of Israeli policies by myself, Michael Walzer, and many others. True, we have not published pieces rejecting the legitimacy of Jewish nationalism or wishing away the Jewish state, and we have published pieces defending Israel against states and non-state actors (and intellectuals arguing on their behalf) who have denied the right of Israel to exist and have used violence in the name of that idea—and all this, I know, makes us highly unsatisfactory as progressives. Israel was indeed a house obsession here—but not any single idea or image of Israel. There has been no conformity of opinion in this office about this subject or any other subject in the two hundred years I have worked here. And now comes Judis’s nasty little book to prove this definitively! By jumping on a bandwagon he has rescued our reputation for freedom of thought!

While it's true that Wieseltier could write whatever he wanted about Israel, he himself is being rather slippery, to use one of his favorite words, about the state of affairs at the magazine itself. (In his own writing, for the most part, Wieseltier is a master at playing the anti-anti-Israel card.) And the blunt fact is that Peretz was unwilling to tolerate pieces that he perceived as anti-Israel, a term that has always had a rather expansive meaning. Yes, there were a few who enjoyed exemptions such as Walzer, one of Peretz's oldest friends. But it clearly reached the point where Peretz didn't have to say anything—a form of self-censorship took hold. To act as though an intellectual free-for-all took place is more than a little, to use another favorite Wieseltier term of opprobrium, risible. Which is why Judis' comment in his acknowledgment—"During the time Martin Peretz owned it, the magazine tolerated a variety of views on various subjects but not on Israel ...I suppose that having to be associated with a publication whose views on that subject I often disagree with led to a buildup of repressed indignation that fueled the years I spent on this book"—seems understandable.

Closer to the truth than Wieseltier's noisy denials, I think, is the apprehension expressed by Ron Radosh in his own review of Judis' book. Radosh writes that Judis is "a senior editor of the once pro-Israel publication, The New Republic." The blunt fact is that the ancien regime, now that TNR has a new owner in Chris Hughes, is gone. (Judis notes in his book that Hughes "doesn't impose strictures on what the magazine writes about Israel and the Middle East.") Wieseltier is its last remnant.

What Wieseltier represents, then, is something almost historic. As TNR morphs into a general interest magazine, he is a living mummy, a repository of the ancient feuds that convulsed the New York intellectuals during the 1950s and 1960s. In some ways his vituperativeness evokes a sense of nostalgia. Like the Partisan Review crowd, he specializes in intestine feuds.

For as anyone with a nodding acquaintance with Wieseltier's writings knows, he has a proclivity not only for extremism, but also for attacking his brethren. To put it more precisely, he is an expert practitioner of what is known as prolicide—in his case, the killing of one's intellectual children.

Among those who have felt the lash are Andrew Sullivan, Peter Beinart, James Wood and Louis Menand. The latter two worked directly for Wieseltier, and he championed both Sullivan and Beinart, at least initially. Some of the quotes that a brief web search excavates includes these morsels. On Menand: "Menand is the professor of littleness. He is a man in flight from the seriousness of his own vocation." Menand's offense? Not to bow sufficiently at the shrine of Lionel Trilling. In the case of Sullivan, he diagnosed "something much darker," namely, anti-Semitism: "To me, he looks increasingly like the Buchanan of the left. He is the master, and the prisoner, of the technology of sickly obsession: blogging–and the divine right of bloggers to exempt themselves from the interrogations of editors–is also a method of hounding." In another piece, Wieseltier offered a twofer, criticizing (if that is not too andoyne a word) Beinart and Wood simultaneously. On Beinart: "Beinart's pseudo-courageous article is an anthology of xenophobic quotations by Israeli hawks and anguished quotations by Israeli doves: familiar stuff." Then came Wood's spanking: "So what if Wood’s authorities are Jews? Can Jews not be wrong, or anti-Semitic? Wood’s Jews are certainly anti-Zionist." Is it really an accident that, having left the New Republic, several of its editors have repudiated its long-time reflexive support for Israel?

In retrospect, much of this is actually quite comical. Andrew Sullivan has called Wieseltier a "connoisseur and cultivator of personal hatred," which is true but far from the whole story. The truth is that hysterical petulance is at the bottom of much of Wieseltier's fulgurations. The contrast between the lofty principles that intellectuals such as Wieseltier purport to espouse and the childish sniping is what emerges most conspicuously in his latest fusillade. In the end, the stakes aren't really that high and, in any case, until recent decades many Jewish intellectuals were, more often than not, indifferent to Israel (Lionel Trilling) or dubious about it. Now Judis has written a mildly critical account that is triggering a furor. That his detractors would respond so extravagantly and violently may say more about their dispositions than his.


The Mendacity of Tony Blair

There are things to admire about Tony Blair. He refurbished the Labor Party, proving a deft steward who stripped it of the left-wing shibboleths that had become encrusted upon it like barnacles upon a rotting ship. None of his successors have matched his political successes. But then there are the things that are not so admirable, like the troublesome fact that he increasingly looks like one of the most mendacious prime ministers in British history.

The latest blot on Blair’s reputation is directly linked to his well-deserved reputation as a devious master of spin. A newly released email about him by Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News International, suggests a degree of callousness and cold contempt for the truth that even the Borgias might have marveled at. But this virago was laid low by her role, among other things, in the phone hacking revelations that swept the British press. As editor of the tabloid News of the World, she oversaw a staff that did things like hacking into the cell phone of Milly Dowler, a young murder victim. The ensuing scandal did further damage to Rupert Murdoch’s already questionable reputation. The predatory practices he had refined to an art almost ended up demolishing his own newspaper empire.

Blair was unmoved. Some saw tragedy. He didn't. Instead, he saw a situation to be managed. He paused from overseeing his seven homes and incessant globe-trotting to counsel Brooks. What was Blair’s advice to Brooks, who is defending herself from a number of charges, including conspiracy to tap cell phones and bribe public officials? Duck and cover. In the email that Brooks sent and that has now been made public, she, Brooks, said that Blair had told her how to weather the unpleasantness. The Guardian reports:


Brooks's email, which was sent the day after the News of the World's final issue was published, says that Blair advised her to set up a "Hutton style" inquiry into phone hacking at the Sunday tabloid, and that he had offered to act as an unofficial adviser on a "between us" basis.


This intrusion into a criminal affair by a former prime minister seems remarkable on the face of it. Blair had no business offering Brooks any advice. But his reference to a “Hutton style" inquiry is also telling. Blair is a master of evasion who never acknowledged that the Iraq War was a disaster, never took responsibility for fudging the evidence that led to it. Instead, when David Kelly, a prominent weapons expert who told the BBC’s Andrew Gilligan that the Blair cabinet had willfully exaggerated—or, as it came to be known, "sexed up"—its claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, was found dead on July 18, 2003 in the woods of Oxfordshire, Blair appointed Lord Hutton to conduct an investigation. The Hutton report concluded that he had committed suicide. But it is seen by a number of Britons as a white-wash. The suspicion that Kelly was murdered lingers on. Either way, it was a sordid episode that tarnished Blair’s reputation. That he would refer so cynically to the Hutton report—a white-wash, at a minimum, of Blair's culpability for misleading the British public about Iraqi WMD efforts—will cast further doubt upon the reliability of its findings.

Blair may have left Downing Street years ago, but he continues to cast a baleful shadow over the United Kingdom. The lies of the Iraq War have seeped into everything he does. If anyone still has doubts about his fundamental meretriciousness—his zeal to subordinate truth to convenience, his readiness to mislead, his talent for subterfuge and obfuscation—the latest revelations about his peculiar approach to justice should amply put them to rest. Meanwhile, the trial of the woman whom Blair offered to serve as a "secret advisor" continues on Thursday.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Joan Magi. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Public Opinion
United Kingdom

Victoria Nuland's Plan For Ukraine

It is good to know that Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, is not shy about venting her frustrations with the European Union. Like not a few British conservatives or French farmers or Italian cheesemakers, she seems to have a healthy appreciation for the vexations associated with Brussels. "Fuck the EU," she pithily declares in a new YouTube video that is causing a diplomatic brouhaha. The video, which may have been edited and which appears to disclose a conversation between Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, suggests that Nuland and the Obama administration have been machinating to create a new and improved Ukrainian government. Meanwhile, tempers are running hotter than ever in Moscow, where Kremlin adviser Sergei Glazyev is saying that Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych should just get it over with and crush the "putschists."

Rather than focus on the contents of the video, the Obama administration is complaining about dirty tricks in Moscow. While Edward Snowden could hardly have been the culprit, the video more than likely came from Russia without love. Nuland is in Kiev this Thursday meeting with Yanukovych to discuss matters like the future of his country, which is alternately being wooed and threatened by both Moscow and Washington. Which way should he turn? As he heads toward the winter Olympics, one of the perks of being president, Yanukovych adopted a lofty tone, saying that the crisis can only be solved by "dialogue and compromise."

But the implications of the phone call for America are not to be underestimated. For one thing, it reveals the extent to which the Obama administration is determined not simply to bring the crisis to an end, but also to install a government that it regards as appropriate. White House press spokesman Jay Carney says,

It's certainly no secret that our ambassador and assistant secretary have been working with the government of Ukraine, with the opposition, with business and civil society leaders to support their efforts to find a peaceful solution through dialogue and political and economic reform. Ultimately, it's up to the Ukrainian people to decide their future.

This is piffle. Nuland's comments show why. Should Ukrainian opposition leader Vitali Klitschko become part of a new government? No, says Nuland. He wouldn't get along with another opposition leader, Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Nuland announces, "I don't think it's necessary. I don't think it's a good idea." But it's also not a good idea when the U.S. government gets down into the weeds to determine the composition of a new government, especially when the stakes include ousting, or altering, a democratically elected one. Given that Washington has been accusing Moscow of meddling in internal Ukrainian affairs, it's more than a little ironic that it is doing just that. Senator John McCain, for example, said recently:

In recent months, President Putin has pulled out all the stops to coerce, intimidate and threaten Ukraine away from Europe. This pattern of behavior amounts to a Russian bid for a kind of quasi-imperial dominance over its neighbors, a newfound assertiveness that has only grown in the void left by the administration’s absence of leadership in other parts of the world, especially Syria.

But aren't Ukrainians supposed to determine their own destiny? Isn't that what this is supposed to be all about? Or is it the job of the American ambassador to act as a local potentate, choosing who does, and does not, get to serve in a coalition government?

Not a chance.

What's more, the fact that the Russians were apparently able to monitor the private conversations of American officials with ease should cause more than a little heartburn in the Obama administration. Maybe Nuland and Pyatt were talking on an unsecured line, but that too would raise a host of questions. For his part, President Obama has resisted any reforms, as far as possible, of the National Security Agency. But the more we learn, the more incompetent American intelligence looks. It can neither process the vast volumes of information that it is collecting nor protect official conversations from scrutiny. America has constructed an intelligence Maginot line.

The kerfuffle over Nuland's remarks will go away. But they do provide a glimpse into the conduct of American foreign policy. The louder the Obama administration declares that it isn't meddling in the affairs of the Ukraine, the more certain you can be that it is.

European Union
United States

The State of Barack Obama's Presidency

President Obama delivered the State of the Union address, but it wasn't really about the union's state. Instead, it was about the state of his presidency, which was not good going into last night and isn't really much better coming out of it. The aloof, austere Obama was gone, at least for the moment. He spoke with passion and authority, but the discrepancy between his rhetoric and actual aspirations was patent. He isn't in danger of a shrinking presidency. It's already shrunk.

What little Obama had to say about foreign affairs was sensible. Obama wants to engage in withdrawal--withdrawal from Afghanistan as well as Congress. It was good to hear Obama say that he wants to get America off of a "permanent war footing" and that he would veto a foolhardy congressional attempt to up sanctions on Iran. Not that this deterred a reliable source of nonsense, Senator Lindsey Graham. Graham, a champion of new sanctions, responded that Obama got it all wrong: the world is "literally about to blow up" and that "I would say that trying to free people from the bonds of al Qaeda is a good thing. That going into Afghanistan is a good thing. Taking Saddam Hussein out is a good thing. Trying to get people get on their feet and elect their government is a good thing." (Seeing Graham go down in his next election attempt would be a good thing too. Let's hope that the people of South Carolina get on their feet and vote this dud out of office.)

The focus of Obama's speech was, of course, the economy. Some Republicans are acting as though Obama's pledge to carry out actions by executive fiat constitutes a constitutional coup. Senator Ted Cruz, for example, complains about the "imperial presidency of Barack Obama" in the Wall Street Journal. This line of argument would be more convincing if Obama were actually embarked on some grand initiatives. But he isn't. Stymied by Congress, he has retreated to a bunch of small proposals.

No doubt Obama declared that he is offering a "set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class." As Dana Milbank observes, "that sounded ambitious. But the first item he cited after that was the first lady's anti-obesity initiative." The only kind of ladder Obama offered, in other words, was a stepladder. Another piddling proposal was raising the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10--a promise so vague that the White  House apparently won't specify how many workers would even be affected by it in future contracts. This is the Obama that surfaced in his lengthy interview with David Remnick, where he mused abstractly about whether his star power had dwindled. He sounded like someone who was checking out of his own presidency before it had even ended--three years early. Far from being an imperialist, Obama is downsizing the presidency.

At the same time, Republicans began roadtesting their own messages for 2016. Cathy McMorris Rodgers gave the official response, one filled with bromides. Tougher ones came from Senator Mike Lee and, not least, Senator Rand Paul. Paul, who visited Detroit in December, offered a Reaganesque message of lower taxes.

But it's hard not to wonder if the responses were pointless. As the New York Times pointed out, much of the real action was taking place on Twitter--"Democrats and Republicans," we are told, "competed to make their views the majority, often with little regard to what the president actually said." To pay attention to what a political leader is saying, in other words, is so yesterday.

So the State of the Union, like America's credit rating, has become downgraded. Perhaps it wouldn't have made any difference if Obama truly had delivered a substantive speech. Would anyone be able to tell the difference?

The Presidency
United States

Michelle Obama's Imperial Trip

Michelle Obama visited the National Interest today. Well, not exactly. But she did show up at the local Subway sandwich shop around the corner, disrupting traffic and blocking access to the building that houses this magazine. (Joe Biden just whizzes up and down Connecticut Avenue to the vice-presidential mansion with an immense convoy with blaring sirens mornings and nights most days, but never seems to stop in between.) The result was that drivers began engaging in dangerous maneuvers to extricate themselves from the havoc created by her trip.

No doubt some amount of disruption is going to accompany any visit of a president or First Lady, but the Obamas, for all their talk about helping common folk, seem to display a striking insouciance when it comes to their travel arrangements, whether it’s in Washington, where they could go a few blocks on foot rather than increase their carbon footprint, or Los Angeles, where they pretty much shut down the entire city. But perhaps the most extraordinary thing is the complacency with which Americans accept the mounting intrusions of the government, whether it’s motorcades or the TSA. Other countries are different. German chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, might show up with a bodyguard or two when she attends a concert and does not use any special seating.

The reason for Michelle Obama’s visit was to promote her cause—all First Ladies in the modern era have to espouse a cause, and she has chosen a safe and uncontroversial one—of fighting childhood obesity. So she showed up with her cavalcade at a DC joint just a few blocks from the White House, where, according to her press office, she “joined the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) and SUBWAY® along with SUBWAY® Famous Fans Michael Phelps, Nastia Liukin, and Justin Tuck at a local Washington, DC, SUBWAY® Restaurant, to announce a three-year commitment by the chain in support of her Let’s Move! initiative to promote healthier choices to kids, including launching its largest targeted marketing effort to date. In addition to strengthening its already nutritious menu offerings to kids, SUBWAY® will launch a new series of campaigns for kids aimed at increasing fruit and vegetable consumption and will set new standards for marketing products to families.”

Well, whoop-de-do. Subway isn’t doing this out of altruism. It’s reaping good publicity for itself and, potentially, drawing more customers in the door who will get a chance to purchase the unhealthful but tasty wares that the company will continue to sell—potato chips, soft drinks, and so on. It’s an exercise, at bottom, in corporate branding.

At the same time, if Obama is so devoted to good health—and she clearly does spend a lot of time in the gym toning her abs and triceps—then she might have considered a different route toward L Street—namely, walking. Burning a few calories on the way to Subway wouldn’t be the end of the world and it would avoid the traffic snafus that inevitably accompany the movements of top officials. In our celebrity-crazed era, however, it seems to have become unthinkable for the president or his spouse to take a stroll outside the White House. Harry S. Truman used to take an early, brisk walk every day. Jimmy Carter walked down Pennsylvania Avenue at his inauguration. Of course there are threats to the president, dire ones. But a sense of proportion has been lost. Today, as part of America’s transformation from a republic to an empire, presidents and their near and dear are surrounded by a praetorian guard of security that renders it all but impossible for them to speak to common folk. One can only wonder what Theodore Roosevelt, who took a bullet at a speech, and kept on talking until he finished before he sought medical attention, would make of it all. Or Andrew Jackson, who in 1835 beat a would-be assassin with his cane after his gun misfired. What’s more, in 1992 the redoubtable Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan even went so far as to call the Secret Service a “disgrace and danger” to the republic for its constant attempts to aggrandize its power and sway.

In his lengthy interview in this week’s New Yorker, President Obama laments that he may never be able to walk into a store with a degree of anonymity and strike up a conversation. Fair enough. But we also learn that Obama’s memoirs are expected to fetch a record $20 million and that Michelle is already working on hers. The Obamas, or at least Barack, can’t have it both ways, which is to rake in the bucks on the basis of his celebrity and complain about it. But that does seem to be the consistent and odd pattern with President Obama. His New Yorker interview, you could say, showcases his predilection for seeing both sides without really taking a stand. An admirable stance for a professor. But a president?

His entire presidency, in some ways, appears to consist of Obama viewing himself as an observer rather than the principal actor. Maybe it really is Michelle who is running the show. She was certainly the star at Subway, where her performance stopped part of the city in its tracks. What it says about American democracy that our elected officials are now treated like royalty is another matter.

The Presidency
United States

Dennis the Menace: Rodman Visits North Korea

God Bless Dennis Rodman. At last America has someone who is willing to take the fight for freedom to North Korea. President Obama and his administration barely say anything about a country that has taunted America for decades. They'd prefer for the problem to just go away, which it won't. The most White House spokesman Jay Carney would say is that he wasn't saying anything about Rodman's "outburst."

Rodman was indeed in the highest dudgeon. It was a mesmerizing performance, surpassing anything he performed on the hardwood court. Chomping on a cigar, wearing a pair of shades, and surrounded by a phalanx of former NBA players, who had made great sacrifices, as Rodman emphasized during an interview on CNN, he was treated in an opprobrious manner by the host Chris Cuomo. His motives were impeached, his statements aspersed.

When all Rodman wanted to do was to bring a little lovin' to the Hermit Kingdom. He apparently first bonded with Kim when he and the Harlem Globetrotters visited the North. Now Rodman has become a true globetrotter, consorting with a world leader that almost no one has met. Rodman declared his "love" for newly minted leader Kim Jong-un, who is fresh from polishing off his uncle Jang Song Thaek, and proclaimed that his visit was a "great idea for the world." A slam dunk, in other words.

Might Rodman persuade his new buddy to ease tensions with America?

Kim, like Rodman, is clearly a mercurial fellow, which may be one of the reasons they get along so well. Kim's family members may be quaking, wondering if they are next on the execution list. Meanwhile, American missionary Kenneth Bae, sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, is stuck in North Korea, presumably in the sprawling Gulag that the regime uses to enforce obedience even as it constructs new ski resorts and hosts basketball games between issuing threats to obliterate South Korea and its patron the United States. For his part, Rodman played his role to perfection, wigging out when Cuomo asked him if he would try to put in a word for Bae: "If you understand what Kenneth Bae did .... Do you understand what he did in this country? Why is he held captive in this country?"

Good question. Only Rodman himself didn't seem to have a clue. Instead, he is suffused with his own importance. He and Kim have a lot to offer each other. Kim gets some free propaganda. And Rodman gets to boost his visibility. He must regret that Basher al-Assad has not evinced any interest in basketball. Right now, Rodman has more access than almost any world leader to the baby-faced Kim.

Rodman's position isn't completely unusual. The history of political pilgrims to foreign lands is a long one. The aspiration to find a country that is better than America seized the fellow travelers who visited the Soviet Union, Cuba, Vietnam, and other communist countries. But Rodman doesn't seem intent on running down America. Instead, he depicts Kim and himself as victims of an uncomprehending media and American government. He wants to perform layups in Pyongyang; the White House wants him to layoff. Dennis remains a menace.

Image: Flickr/OPEN Sports.

North Korea

Why Ariel Sharon Could Have Saved Israel

Secretary of State John Kerry is on a peace offensive, or at least he is acting as though he is on one. He has just embarked on his 10th visit to the Middle East, but the frequency of his visits doesn't appear to be producing anything other than frequent flyer miles. The most he seems to have been able to accomplish is to persuade the Israelis to delay the bids for new settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem until he departs on Sunday. If this constitutes progress, then it is hard to see where it is progressing other than towards a prolonged exercise in futility between the Israelis and Palestinians. Kerry is in danger of becoming the Dan Snyder of the State Department, promising a revival, only to watch continual meltdowns.

So what else is new? What's new is that former prime minister Ariel Sharon, who is 85 and has been in a coma for eight years, is apparently about to die. His demise provides the melancholy backdrop to Israel's current predicament. Sharon, whom I met once at Blair House, where he came across as genial and earthy, humorous and shrewd, was a great man. Not greatness in the sense that he had an impeccable record. Far from it. But he was a realist--tough, forceful, a visionary who could chuckle to himself about the peculiarities and fascinating qualities of the land he represented.

A wise man, you could even say, whose wisdom Israel desperately misses. It was the older generation of leaders such as Sharon and Yithzak Rabin, both military men, who understood that Israel had to alter its course to ensure its survival. Which is why Sharon, who had once been a proponent of new settlements, didn't hesitate to withdraw Israel from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Sharon repudiated the idea that Israel's greatness could rest in a Greater Israel. Loyalty to the idea of a Jewish state meant that it was imperative to betray the settlers he had once championed. If anyone could have delivered the further territorial concessions that are necessary for an accommodation with the Palestinians, it was Sharon. He knew that the West Bank had become an albatross for Israel, not its salvation. A new exit loomed. But his collapse in January 2006 was an unmitigated disaster for Israel, opening the path for Benjamin Netanyahu's comeback.

Since then Israel has become increasingly isolated. It is harder to make the case for Israel, or, to put it another way, for its defenders to mount a persuasive defense. A small but telling instance is the spate of letters in Thursday's New York Times about the the Hillel organization's attempt to ban exchanges between its Jewish members on college campuses and those it deems anti-Zionist. Eric Fingerhut, president and Chief Executive of Hillel, writes that "we will not, consistent with our guidelines, welcome anti-Zionist speakers or partner with anti-Zionist organziations." This does not sound unreasonable on the face of it. But a number of Jewish students at Swarthmore College who have repudiated these sentiments clearly believe that it is not and that it is, in fact, a smokescreen for censorship of views of the Arab-Israeli conflict that do not comport with those of the leadership of Hillel. It would have been wiser for Hillel to assess these matters on a case-by-case basis rather than trying to issue an ukase that raises more questions than it answers. It goes without saying that a college campus in particular is a place for debate, not the stifling of views. In wading into these treacherous waters, Hillel is doing neither Israel nor itself any favors.

Indeed, the situation on American campuses may not be as dire as Hillel's actions suggest. As Inside Higher Ed reports, a "backlash" is developing against the American Studies Association repugnant resolution calling for a boycott of Israel. Brandeis Unviersity, Kenyon College, Indiana Unviersity and Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg have stated that they will exit the association. And a number of university presidents are condemning the attempt to politicize academic freedom. Not usually noted for their courageousness, they know that this is an easy one. Let's hope that the real boycott that ensues is of the American Studies Association.

But ultimately, these developments are a sideshow when contrasted with the standoff between the Israelis and Palestinians. New Israeli settlements will simply confirm that Kerry's efforts were doomed before they even began. It looks increasingly as though Sharon, and Sharon alone, would have been able to extricate Israel from its current political and strategic morass. It would be a bitter irony if the last chance for peace disappeared with the leader known in Israel as "the bulldozer."

Image: Wikicommons/Creative Commons.

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April 19, 2014