Jacob Heilbrunn

Why America is Hated

Jacob Heilbrunn

America is hated abroad. Today's International Herald Tribune features a long article on Pakistan that provides a reminder of why it is hated. Gen. Kayani has apparently been touring military installations in the wake of the humiliating snatch of Osama bin-Laden. "We can't" was his response when queried about why Pakistan should trust America. Pakistan is not alone. The perception abroad that America is a willful superpower bent on imposing its will is not confined to Pakistan. In Germany, America continues to be viewed as the most dangerous power in the world. Now the Czechs are saying no to basing an early warning system against ballistic missiles in Prague. Geoffrey Wheatcroft cogently asks why we should even continue to have NATO exist. Why indeed? Western Europe is unable, or unwilling, to field significant military forces. It is also not clear who the enemy might be. Iran? The mullahs have no real beef with Europe. They want to engage in economic trade with it. If the United States could afford to pay for all of its commitments, including the defense of western Europe, that would be fine. But it can't. So NATO will continue to stumble along. America will continue to reel from the weight of its defense outlays. And it will continue to be abused by so-called allies such as Pakistan, which resents its dependence on Uncle Sam. Gratitude is rarely a category in international politics. But Americans would do well to recognize why such resentment exists. It may not be because we try to do too little, but too much.

TopicsDefense RegionsUnited States

The Greek Financial Catastrophe

Jacob Heilbrunn

Is there a silver lining in the collapse of Greece for America? Actually, there could be silver linings. One might be the collapse of the Euro and the European Union. Looked at from a realist perspective, it would perhaps not be a bad thing to see a big economic contender go under as a unified block. America would continue to play off European countries against each other. But perhaps the most salutary lesson is the example of chaos in Athens. The cradle of democracy is rocking wildly. Paul Pillar today excoriates the GOP for playing fast and loose with the budget. But what happens if outlays are not cut? Many Americans, especially independent voters, are frightened that Greece is an augury for the United States. Might not the truth be that the collision between the Democrats and Republicans is the necessary condition for reaching the painful sacrifices that will be necessary? Movement is already clear on the foreign policy front, where the GOP is returning, haltingly, to its older stance of restraint in foreign affairs. Pillar is right to indicate that the GOP compiled grotesque deficits during the Bush era. But perhaps it is starting to reinvent itself. If a genuine compromise is reached on both spending and taxes, it will be a potent sign that America is not headed the way of Greece. None of this, of course, is much consolation for Europe, which is tying itself into knots to relieve Greece. It needs to find a Grecian formula. And America needs to ensure that it never comes to that pass.

TopicsInnovationPolitical Economy RegionsGreece

The GOP Presidential Debate

Jacob Heilbrunn

The GOP presidential primary is doing something dangerous. It is adopting a serious tone. At least if yesterday's debate in New Hampshire is anything to go by. The candidates were fairly subdued. Tim Pawlenty and others even backed off of their attacks on presumptive frontrunner Mitt Romney.

It could have devolved into an ideological squabbling match. But it did not. Rather, Michele Bachmann, the lioness of the right, announced, "we need everybody to come together because we're going to win." Bold words. Are they true?

Obama could end up in a mess of trouble. The economy is floundering. The peace process with Israel is none at all. Syria is going up in flames. Afghanistan is a mess (what else is new?). And Obama's former Wall Street backers are disaffected with him. So are many of his followers on the left, as he has steadily reneged on a number of his campaign promises.

But to assume that the GOP primary is merely a coronation process would be a mistake. Obama remains an effective campaigner. And he likes to pull rabbits out of his hat at the last minute.

Still, it seems clear that several GOP contenders such as Bachmann and Rick Santorum are running for the vice presidential spot, confident that it could well be worth a lot in 2012. Hence the politesse in New Hampshire. So far, the GOP has a far stronger hand than it might have anticipated even a few weeks ago. But then again, if the next jobs report shows real progress, the race could get reshuffled again. The closer an actual primary looms, the more bellicose the contenders are likely to become.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Should the GOP Move Right?

Jacob Heilbrunn

"I only support Republicans," former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu announced to the Los Angeles Times, when asked about whether or not he would support John Huntsman for the presidency. Strong words. But are they justified? Or is the GOP heading toward the breakdown lane? Conventional wisdom is that the GOP could lurch out of control. Independent voters, so the argument goes, will be turned off by rightwing orthodoxy. Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty are thus making a mistake by discovering their inner conservative. On a host of issues they are jettisoning positions. Pawlenty, for example, now opposes cap and trade, which he once vehemently supported. Now he opposes it. Vehemently. Lots of politicians change their positions during primaries. But the conversions are coming unusually thick and fast this year. But they do not necessarily spell doom. This could be one of those elections where it is more about the president than it is about his opponent. In other words, it is about President Obama's record, which is not looking so hot when it comes to the economy. Obama will try to shift the focus to the Bush era and tie his opponent to it. But Reagan was able successfully to run against Carter-Mondale in 1984 because he could say he had overcome a bad economy. Obama cannot. At least so far. So it may come down to Obama's charisma versus the economy. The actual Republican candidate may be less important. Obama is vulnerable, especially now that his most fervent supporters have seen their enthusiasm dim over his flip-flops.

TopicsIdeology RegionsUnited States

The Obama Administration's Leak Case Falls Apart

Jacob Heilbrunn

The Obama administration's prosecution of former National Security Agency senior manager Thomas A. Drake for leaking classified information about data collection is collapsing. No one would argue that the government shouldn't prosecute violations of handling classified information. But the case against Drake, which relies on the dubious provisions of the 1917 Espionage Act, has always been unpersuasive. It is more redolent of an effort to suppress and punish a legitimate whistle-blower than to apprehend a genuine culprit.

Drake's concerns about privacy violations by the NSA and the Bush administration appear to be fully justified. Senators Mark Wyden and Mark Udall, who are members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, are sounding alarms about the extent of spying on American citizens under the Patriot Act. According to Wyden, "I want to deliver a warning this afternoon: When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry.”

The Drake case is cause for perturbation as well. Drake blew the whistle on an expensive and failed NSA data-sifting program called Trailblazer that was promoted by then-NSA head Michael Hayden. The NSA was embarrassed by the appearance of stories in the Baltimore Sun showcasing its bungling. It went after Drake. The prosecutors at the Justice Department are guilty of gross overreach: apparently, they even contemplated charging Drake with being part of a conspiracy. Shades of the Moscow purge trials!

Now, as the Washington Post reports, federal prosecutors are going to withdraw documents that were supposedly going to prove that Drake was guilty of unlawfully possessing classified documents. Even though Drake is not accused of being a spy--he supplied a reporter with information that he believed demonstrated that the NSA was overreaching in its spying efforts--he is being targeted under the Espionage Act. But the act has proven an unwieldy instrument, as the case against former AIPAC official Stephen Rosen demonstrates as well--the Justice Department ended up asking the charges to be dismissed.

It's hardly a secret that the Bush administration overreached in its rush to compensate for its failure to detect the 9/11 plot. Some of the plotters were themselves ensconced in a motel near the NSA in Laurel, MD for a few days. The NSA worked overtime to try and get up to speed. Now the government, as Jane Mayer shows in the New Yorker, has tried to paint Drake as a subversive enemy:


The government argues that Drake recklessly endangered the lives of American servicemen. “This is not an issue of benign documents,” William M. Welch II, the senior litigation counsel who is prosecuting the case, argued at a hearing in March, 2010. The N.S.A., he went on, collects “intelligence for the soldier in the field. So when individuals go out and they harm that ability, our intelligence goes dark and our soldier in the field gets harmed.”


This is rhetoric straight out of the Bush administration. Whether Drake acted appropriately or not is one question. But the notion that he endangered national security is specious. Drake shouldn't be pilloried for trying to alert the public to egregious shortcomings at the NSA. Instead, his concerns should have been taken seriously. And still should.

TopicsIntelligence RegionsUnited States

The Myth of Rebuilding Afghanistan

Jacob Heilbrunn

The report of Senate Democrats about the failure of nation-building in Afghanistan is no surprise at all. At least to anyone who has occasionally looked at the front pages, or home pages, of a daily newspaper in the past few years. The billions that the Bush and Obama administration distributed to Afghanistan have mostly been wasted or feathered the pockets of local officials. What else is new?

The so-called Performance-Based Governors Fund, for example, is apparently distorting local economies, overwhelming them with cash and inadvertently fostering corruption. Wars lead to corruption and Afghanistan was corrupt before America ever entered it. The grim saga of America's intervention into Afghanistan goes back to the 1970s, of course, when Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, had the bright idea of providing Afghan rebels with stinger missiles and the like to extrude the Soviet Union from that forbidding landscape. It worked. Up to a point. Then the mujh, as they were known, began to aim their Enfield rifles and more at their quondam benefactor.

In today's Washington Post, Henry Kissinger calls for a negotiated political settlement. Any agreement is likely to amount to a face-saving one, as America seeks to extricate itself from the morass. But whether Obama can fully pull out is questionable. A reserve force will probably have to be left behind to prevent the country from completely collapsing or reverting to Taliban rule.

For his part, Obama has carefully kept his defined aims in Afghanistan quite limited. He's never talked about turning it into a shining democracy. Instead, he's insulated himself from criticism on the right by ramping up the number of troops serving in the area as the prelude to downsizing the war effort. His strategy may work—in America. As the New York Times reported yesterday, Rep. Walter B. Jones, previously regarded as a heretic by many Republicans for his opposition to the Iraq War, is gaining new respectability in conservative circles for his opposition to big government spending on Afghanistan. The only Republican candidate who has unequivocally endorsed the war is former Sen. Rick Santorum. As the Daily Caller observed,


there’s a growing anti-war trend in the GOP base that might tip primary votes away from candidates that vociferously champion the Afghan campaign. That trend surfaced last month when 26 House Republicans voted for a measure that would accelerate troop withdrawals from Afghanistan.

But if Afghanistan devolves into chaos in 2012, then Obama's campaign for the presidency will as well. After ten years and billions, Afghanistan continues to bedevil America. And that's not changing any time soon.


TopicsCounterinsurgency RegionsUnited States

Hitler's First Anti-Semitic Letter

Jacob Heilbrunn

In his recent book Hitlers November 9, the German historian Joachim Riecker shows how deeply the memory of Germany's surrender in 1918 impregnated everything that Hitler did. He traces the origins of the Holocaust to Hitler's fury at the so-called November criminals who had allegedly betrayed the German nation, foremost among them the Jews. Hitler, as Riecker underscores, never believed that Germany had lost World War I. Instead, the Jews had engineered a betrayal. Hence Hitler's malignant obsession, to the very last day of his life, with eliminating the Jews who had cheated Germany of victory in 1918. Now, as the New York Times reports, Hitler's first anti-Semitic letter is headed toward the Wisenthal center in Los Angeles. Presumably, the letter is genuine—it was purchased for $150,000 from a private dealer. The tale of Hitler memorabilia, fake and real, probably deserves its own history.

The letter is known as the Gemlich Letter. Hitler was serving in the Reichswehr after World War I as an anti-Bolshevik agitator. Bavaria had been a hotbed of socialist and communist beliefs after the war and was briefly a socialist republic under the leadership of one Kurt Eisner. In fact, Germany itself was in revolt, which is why the army, fearful of chaos, prodded Kaiser Wilhelm to abdicate. This was a mistake. He fled to Holland by train, an ignominous flight if there ever was one. But Germany, a deeply patriarchal society, was left leaderless. It was not the last time that the army would make a spectacular political misjudgment. In fact, the army, probably more than any other institution, deserves the blame for Hitler's rise.

The army—specifically Capt. Karl Mayr, who soured on his quondam protege and later ended up dying in the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1945—tapped Hitler to speak to groups of soldiers and urged him to join the fledgling NSDAP. His oratorical skills came naturally; this was the great discovery. As Thomas Mann once observed, Hitler couldn't do much of anything—he couldn't drive a car, father a child, and so on. But the one thing he could do was rant. In his memoirs, Ernst "Putzi" Hanfstaengl recalls the mesmerizing effect that Hitler had from the outset. Somehow he was able to assimilate and spew forth the resentments and hatreds of an entire country, leading it into the abyss, from which it emerged after World War II, a true pariah among nations.

In the letter, addressed to one Adolf Gemlich, also engaged in propaganda work for the army, Hitler supplied what the Times calls "clarification" about "the Jewish Question." Hitler explained that the Jewish "race" had to be "removed" from Germany. This is important because it indicates that anti-Semitism was always at the core of his Weltanschauung. Some historians like to dispute this. In addition, there is much controversy about when the Final Solution was initiated. Was it a haphazard program, as some historians claim, or something that he planned all along. In addition, did Hitler become an anti-Semite during his days as a bum in Vienna? Or did he become one in Munich?

Now that the Holocaust has become history, such documents will assume an increasing importance, particularly in the face of the deniers who continue to proliferate in the Arab world (Mr. Ahmadinejad for one) and elsewhere. The document offers a reminder of the power of ideology to transcend mundane fact. And its tenacity.

TopicsHistory RegionsGermany

The Greatness of Sarah Palin

Jacob Heilbrunn

There is something about Sarah Palin that betokens greatness. She has now instructed the American people on her sprawling "One Nation" bus tour that Paul Revere was actually warning the British that they should be on their toes during his famous midnight ride in 1775: "You know what, I didn't mess up about Paul Revere," Palin said. "I know my American history."

Actually, she shouldn't be so defensive. If she didn't make these mistakes, people wouldn't know if it was her or her doppelganger that she produced the other day that was speaking. Palin's genius is that she is so flawed. It's only elites that know that Paul Revere was warning Americans that the British were coming, not the British that the Americans were on the march. Palin also offered an interesting interpretation of the meaning of the Statue of Liberty. It's apparently a warning, so Palin claims, against socialism. From France. Yes, France. The country that invented the slogan "property is theft."

Details, details, details. Palin did have the grace to apologize to Mitt Romney for horning in on his big announcement of his candidacy in New Hampshire: ""I apologize if I stepped on any of that PR that Mitt Romney needed or wanted that day." Wait a second. Is that actually an apology, as the Los Angeles Times states? Not quite. In fact, it sounds rather snippy—as though she herself doesn't perpetually need or want PR.

But it's certainly hard not to think that Palin might end up helping Romney. Her sheer wackiness, along with other members of the GOP field, suggests that he might well benefit from the contrast. When the lunatics are in control of the asylum, or trying to gain control, it can never hurt to pose as the sober voice. Romney's sobriety, his middle-of-the-road qualities, might pay off. If Romney plays his cards right, in other words, the contrast with Palin could redound to his benefit. So far, he's benefitted by refusing to engage with her at all.

The broader question is whether the GOP is willing to accept him as its candidate. The stumbling block for Romney, of course, remains his religion. Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann would probably siphon off votes from him in the primaries and it's hard to see the evangelical base voting for him. Meanwhile, Herman Cain is bashing Rep. Michele Bachmann for offering prayers during her speech last night before the Faith and Family Conference in Washington, DC, calling it the "ultimate pander."

The fireworks have begun. Any worries that this is a lackluster GOP field are absurd. It's going to be one of the most uninhibited brawls that the GOP has experienced in decades.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Moody's Blues

Jacob Heilbrunn

Moody's is getting the blues about America. It's threatening to downgrade the prized triple AAA rating that the U.S. government enjoys: "A credible agreement on substantial deficit reduction would support a continued stable outlook; lack of such an agreement could prompt Moody's to change its outlook to negative on the AAA rating." The dry language is a threat. In focusing on the contretemps over raising the debt limit, which is really a proxy for the larger fight about spending, taxes, and debt, Moody's is basically telling the government to get its fiscal house in order or else.

So what's the result? More finger-pointing, which is the way things get done in Washington. But Moody's blues do help change the tenor of the debate. Well, maybe not for everyone. Sarah Palin weighed in to announce that there is no debt crisis, at least when it comes to determining whether or not the ceiling should be raised or not. Let the ceiling collapse seems to be her motto. She thinks Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is making "false statements" about a "catastrophe" should Congress fail to act. It would be nothing less than a "failure of leadership" if Republicans sign off on raising it.

Of course the amusing part of the whole debt controversy is that Congress is only raising the limit to pay for what it already approved in spending. It doesn't have buyer's remorse. It just doesn't want to pay for its outlays.

Meanwhile, the jobs report, which is what really counts for the President, was anemic. Which is to say that Obama will struggle to become a president who gets reelected when the employment rate is over 9 percent. Mitt Romney said Obama has "failed America." The election race is bound to heat up. Right now Palin, Romney, Pawlenty and Gingrich (and Guiliani?) are vying for the presidency, or least giving the appearance that they may run for it in Palin's case. Her bus tour is a brilliant stroke, another chapter in the unpredictable Palin saga.

If the economy gets bad enough, she may even have a shot at the presidency.

TopicsMonetary Policy RegionsUnited States

The Pornography of Anthony Weiner

Jacob Heilbrunn

 New York Rep. Anthony Weiner has been busted, or at least accused, or considered to be in trouble, or something, for a picture of his crotch clad in grey underwear sent from his Twitter account to a twenty-one year-old lass in Seattle. Was Weiner trying to lasso her? The  British Daily Mail reports that he has about 50,000 followers on his social networking site but has zeroed in on 198, most of whom have two X chromosomes, including one Miss Ginger Lee, a porn star who considers Weiner to be her "hero" and cherishes what she says are personal messages from him.

This is pretty heady stuff, let's face it, for what is, at bottom, a dweeby congressman who would probably be the kind of fellow that wears the dingy underwear featured in the alleged picture of him (though why he would think it would offer any kind of frisson is another question). Until now, Weiner has been known mostly as an impassioned loudmouth. Now he's voicing off about his sexual travails. For the record, he says it's all bunk even as he apparently revels in all the publicity. His account was hacked. He doesn't really know if the picture is of him or not. "I want to make it clear this is, in my view, not an federal case." According to Weiner, "In my view, this is not an international conspiracy. This is a hoax, and I think people should treat it that way." An international conspiracy! Truly the man does not underestimate his own significance.

It's silly season, in other words, in Washington, and the spectacle of Weiner pinned like a butterfly is an amusing sight. It's fashionable to say that this is what happens in the summer. Except that it seems to be silly season most of the time. Sure, the silliness gets punctured, briefly, when something big happens like polishing off Osama bin-Laden. But otherwise it's the pecadilloes of politicians that capture the headlines.

Sometimes the foibles of politicians are legitimate fodder. Newt Gingrich thus got into hot water for his big payments, or to put it more precisely, debts, to Tiffany's. In his case it was a legitimate story. The Tiffany's flap seemed to reveal a stark contradiction between the man who was saying that he would lower the budget deficit and couldn't keep his own under control. In addition it's hard to pose as a populist and social conservative when you're racking up enormous jewelry bills for your third wife, Callista, who appears so frozen that ice cubes might shatter when she looks at them.

But Weiner-gate, as it's being called? Does it really rise to the level of full-time coverage? Apparently so. Fox is fretting that the "far-left media' has begun to "circle the wagons" around Weiner. Politicio, however, says this is bunk:


Weiner has never been a favorite of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and at least one leadership office wasn’t exactly thrilled with Wednesday’s media blitz.“Watching Anthony Weiner’s Twitter and press blitz is like watching a Charlie Sheen meltdown. It’s amusing, uncomfortable and not necessary,” said a Democratic leadership aide not in Pelosi’s office. “If Weiner really wants to get beyond this, he’ll shut up and let Democrats get
back to their Medicare message.”



Ooh lala.

So the focus on Weiner's family jewels is messing up the crown jewel in the Democrat's message for the fall elections in 2012. Maybe his wife Huma Abedin can bail him out. She served in the Clinton White House and should know intimately how to deal with sex scandals. 

TopicsMuckety Mucks RegionsUnited States