Today's Los Angeles Times features an excellent story chronicling the rise of conspiracy theories about Osama bin Laden: Is the death of Osama bin Laden a hoax? Did President Obama fake his death to try and help secure his reelection? Why was his body dumped so hastily for burial at sea?
Those are the kinds of questions that conspiracy theorists around the globe are pondering as they lash themselves into a frenzy about a government con job. Apparently Tea Party websites are abuzz about whether or not bin Laden expired as well. The radical left has its theories as well. According to the LAT,
I am sorry, but if you believe the newest death of OBL, you're stupid," antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan posted on herFacebook page. "Just think to yourself — they paraded Saddam's dead sons around to prove they were dead — why do you suppose they hastily buried this version of OBL at sea?"Infowars, the website of Libertarian radio host Alex Jones, was crammed with stories charging that the U.S. government had concocted the killing to justify a security crackdown. The Tea Party Nation website brimmed with indignant posts questioning the timing of Obama's announcement.
And in the Middle East some refuse to accept his death as well. The death of bin Laden is viewed as an impossibility. He's too clever to have been caught and killed, so the thinking goes.
As with Elvis, there will doubtless be sightings of bin Laden. Which is why the Obama administration is thinking about releasing photos of bin Laden. Sen. Joseph Lieberman says it's necessary to combat the belief that bin Laden remains alive. But the will to believe is a powerful one. Elvis sightings remain routine. Conspiracy theories continue to swirl around the assassination of JFK. President Obama is viewed is as an alien Muslim, not a godfearing American. And so on.
So perhaps a few photos will satisfy some of the skeptics. But a goodly number will doubtless claim that the photos were themselves faked. Conspiracy theories amount to nonfalsifiable hypotheses. If you reject the premise of the theory, then you yourself are part and parcel of the plot.
It's inevitable that bin Laden's demise would trigger a new round of fevered thinking. But the good news appears to be that, as Fouad Ajami observes in the Wall Street Journal today, the temperature of the Arab world seems to be going down. Al-Qaeda may not be a spent force, but its appeal and credibility are decidedly on the wane as the Arab Spring takes hold.
Which is why I'm not as worried as my TNI colleague Paul Pillar who decries what he sees as America's obsession with bin Laden. Pillar is apprehensive that bin Laden will become a martyr. To me that doesn't sound quite right. Pillar is right to warn against demonizing America's enemies. Terrorist attacks, in new forms, led by fresh leaders, will emerge. But it seems unlikely that they will be able to promote their particular eschatology with the fervor and veneer of plausibility that bin Laden and his confederates were able to muster, as they droned on about the return of the Caliphate.
The real danger was that bin Laden would escape retribution and demonstrate that it's possible to defy and attack America without suffering any consequences. He did not die a heroic death. He was shot down behind a female human shield. Moreover, the myth of him being some kind of Robin Hood figure living out in the wilderness was punctured, too. He was living in relative comfort (probably thanks to the indulgence of the Pakistani military). Now the credo that bin Laden espoused is beginning to expire along with him.
President Obama has accomplished what many had begun to think was impossible. "Justice has been done," Obama said as he announced that U.S. special forces killed Osama bin Laden in a compound a mere forty miles from Islamabad. With that announcement he has likely won the 2012 election. When the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is marked in September, he will be able to tell the survivors and families that he has ended the life of the satanic figure who perpetrated them.
It will be impossible to assail Obama as weak on foreign policy. The claim of many neoconservatives has been that Obama was soft on terrorism, lacked the cojones to prosecute the war against bad guys, preferred law enforcement methods to military ones. That claim has now been revealed as fanciful. George W. Bush was unable to capture or kill bin Laden. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld continues to act, in his memoirs, as though it's no big deal whether this monster was captured or not. He was wrong. The death of bin Laden will take away some, not all, of the luster he enjoys among Islamic militants. He didn't manage to die peacefully. Revenge took place for the murder of thousands. The failure to capture him had been a shameful and standing affront to America. Now he has deservedly died an inglorious death.
No, the death of bin Laden will not result in a reduction of terrorism. Bin Laden's terrorist spawn will surely try to carry out fresh attacks as soon as possible. Al-Qaeda has morphed—mitosis has taken place.
Bin Laden's killing will strengthen Obama's hand with foreign leaders—he now goes down in history as the man who took him out. It also frees Obama to take a fresh look at America's so-called alliance with Pakistan. Why was bin Laden living cozily close to the capital of Pakistan? Next to a military academy? In a $1 million house? Because Pakistan is obviously no ally of America. Pakistan is trying to pretend that the killing of bin Laden was a joint operation, which is clearly a bogus claim. Obama will have to consider the extent to which Washington can detach itself from this sorry, corrupt little country that is bilking it for billions in military assistance. Pakistan leaders must be cowering now that their greatest trump card has been removed. They had, in effect, a vested interest in making sure that this creep remained alive. Now he has been extirpated from the face of the earth, dumped for burial at sea.
The successful tracking down of bin Laden, above all, represents the overcoming of a psychological hurdle. Perhaps it will prompt Americans to take a more sober view of the terrorist threat, confident that while it cannot be eliminated, terrorism can be successfully battled. It will also increase the pressure in the next months for Congress to compromise and reach agreement on the debt and other issues. This is a rare moment. A politically divided country is now united by relief over the death of one of the greatest mass murderers in history. It is a victory for Obama and a triumph for America.
The republican impulse in England has always been something of a mystery to me. The UK has been shorn of so much so quickly—its empire, its self-confidence, its prosperity. The monarchy is its last calling card, the institution that makes it distinctive. Foreigners may pretend to be bemused by it, but royalty continues to command deference, even in America which ostensibly bridles at aristocracy—Thomas Paine declared "Of more worth is one honest man to society, and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived."
The marriage of William and Kate is the latest example of the special significance of the monarchy. Tamper with it at your peril. There's something heartwarming about seeing that the British can pull it off once again. Public ceremonies, grand weddings and funerals, are something that they pull off with a special panache. A constitutional monarchy, in other words, can add a dash of color to the dominant banalities of life in a democracy. Countries that don't possess one tend to be a little drab. Germany, for example, would probably have avoided Nazism had Kaiser Wilhelm not hastily abdicated in 1918. The presence of the Kaiser would have provided a measure of stability. The truth is that most democracies are incapable of pulling off what Walter Bagehot called the "dignified" aspect of government. The burden is too great, particularly in America where the president is supposed to combine the "efficient" and "dignified."
Kings and Queens embody the nation, with their bloodlines charted to show a continuous descent, in Prince Charles' case from Alfred the Great—the King or Queen, as the scholar Ernst Kantorowicz wrote, has two bodies—the physical one and the transcendent and eternal one that signifies a divine right to rule. In maintaining the monarchy, the Windsor's have a deft talent for reinvention. Things have certainly loosened up since the days of the early nineteenth century when Charles Greville could confide to his diary that "the Regent drives in the Park every day in a tilbury, with his groom sitting by his side; grave men are shocked at this undignified practice. And in World War I, when the name Windsor was adopted, Kaiser Wilhelm, a nephew of Queen Victoria, joked that he was eager to watch a performance of The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. In England the monarchy is hardly above the political fray. My friend Geoffrey Wheatcroft, an unfailingly elegant prose stylist whose essays you may have read in the National Interest, directed me toward an atrabilious piece in the Guardian by Martin Kettle, alleging that Prince Charles scotched the invitation of either Tony Blair or Gordon Brown to the festivities. According to Kettle,
Of course it is a snub. Of course it is deliberate. Not inviting Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to the royal wedding, while inviting Lady Thatcher and Sir John Major, is a cold, calculated act of high establishment spite against Labour. The failure to correct it—especially when the invitation to the official representative of the Syrian tyranny was so speedily withdrawn—only confirms the miserable, petty, ill-advised disdainful nastiness of the original deed. And I blame Prince Charles. His reactionary fingerprints are all over the wedding's programme of events.
Reactionary? You don't have to invite someone you don't like. And to call Prince Charles a reactionary is to do violence to the meaning of the term. If anything, he has displayed a rather droopy liberalism in recent decades. For Charles and his mother, the wedding signals the comeback of the British monarchy, which has suffered a brutal buffeting in the media. If you think about it, the marital track record of the royals in the past century, beginning with Edward VIII and the 1936 Abdication Crisis, has not been such a hot one. Matters, however, are looking up. There should be an extra spring in the step of the members of the House of Windsor. Annus horribilis is now being replaced by annus mirabilis in the overwhelmingly effusive reception that the newly minted Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are receiving.
Donald Trump is the Sarah Palin of 2012. Trump's foray into the Republican primary is causing heartburn in the GOP establishment and a flutter of excitment among voters. He's too brash, crude, inexperienced--so goes the verdict of the Trump detractors. Those points are all true, at least up to a point. But as with Palin, Trump's very inexperience means that he's attractive to voters. He is the man on horseback, just as Palin was the woman on horseback, who will ride into town to clear out the pesky varmints who are infesting Washington.
Like Palin, he doesn't speak in the honeyed tones of a politician seeking to curry favor with various voting groups. Instead, he's bluntly announcing that he'll take a meataxe to Washington as well as America's foes. He won't negotiate with China or the Saudis. He'll lay down the law. Trump may hail from New York, but he evokes America's bygone western traditions. The lone fighter who faces down the bad guys.
Conservatives like his temerarious talk. And perhaps not just conservatives. The GOP field has been a study in caution. Trump, by contrast, speaks clearly. He's most recently been visiting New Hampshire. The Los Angeles Times reports,
judging by the reaction at Portsmouth's Roundabout Diner, which offered a special three-egg omelet called "The Donald" on Wednesday morning, Trump is emerging as a sort of folk hero. As the mogul's black stretch limo pulled up outside, Brent Morrill hurried his two young daughters into the diner, telling them they were about to meet "one of the richest men in the world."
"I'm psyched," Morrill said about the prospect of Trump running. "He's a good businessman, and you've got to be a good businessman nowadays to run the country. I think he has the brains for it."
As Trump entered the restaurant, he was greeted with whoops and applause.
Is Trump truly "one of the richest men in the world"? His career as a real estate developer has been a checkered one. But with Trump it is the appearance of success, not the substance, that counts. America has increasingly inclined toward the celebrity candidate. This development truly took off when John F. Kennedy ran against Richard Nixon. Obama's 2008 campaign was premised on the notion that he was "the one," a uniquely anointed figure. He won't be able to replicate that strategy in 2012, but Trump, an outsider, could try.
The likely prospect is that Trump, like Palin, would wreak havoc in the Republican primary. He could even win it. But he lacks the sobriety, the steady judgment required of a president. Would you really want this man's finger on the nuclear button? But it's fun and enjoyable to speculate about Trump. Imagine the buzz a Trump-Palin ticket would create. For the media, he's a dream candidate. And for voters bored with the current GOP field he offers a pleasant diversion from reality.
He did it. President Obama released his birth certificate. It's about time. Or is it? Personally, the controversy swirling around Obama's birth certificate was kind of fun to watch. It became a new litmus test—Donald Trump was deemed beyond the pale once he started flirting with the whole "birther" controversy. Haley Barbour said it was a waste of time. So did Karl Rove.
To my mind, Barbour and Rove had it right. If you look at the pictures of Obama that ran in the New York Times magazine this weekend, it's hard to think of the young Obama as anything other than a cheerfully good-natured cherub, decked out in his pirate costume. The funny thing is that much of the Republican field seems to recognize this as well. The problem for the GOP is that the nutjobs—Donald Trump et. al.—seem to be capturing the limelight, at least for now. What's needed is for the establishment to unite behind someone (Mitt Romney is the obvious candidate) who can sell the GOP brand successfully.
The key to defeating Obama will not be hugger-muggers about birth certificates but rising gasoline prices. Nothing sticks in the craw of Americans more than high tariffs for gas. In this regard, America truly is becoming Europeanized. Whether any president can do much about oil prices is another matter. Richard Nixon tried to implement wage and price controls, and look where that got him.
Obama is urging Middle East countries—namely, Saudi Arabia—to increase output and threatening to rescind tax breaks for oil companis. He observed,
We are in a lot of conversations with the major oil producers like Saudi Arabia to let them know that it's not going to be good for them if our economy is hobbled because of high oil prices."
It will be interesting to see if Obama tries to take steps to curb commodities future trading. But this, too, is probably a phyrric move, one that addresses the symptoms rather than the cause of the disease. But it may well become a big issue should oil prices continue to increase, partly as a result of trading on oil futures.
For now, however, the Republican candidates seem to be spending more time pummeling Obama over peripheral issues than over the economy. It's time for the birth, in other words, of a real race. Otherwise, the GOP will have capitulated before it's even fired a shot.
For years President Obama tried to play kissy-face with the opthamologist. But the not-so-wily ruler of Syria refused. Bashar al-Assad, once seen as a potential reformer, an ally of the West, a potential peace partner, is sending his tanks into the streets of Deraa to crush the opposition. In response America and its European allies are threatening sanctions. Britain, Italy, and France have suddenly begun to stake out activist foreign policy positions, but with little to back them up. Whatever happened to the Gallic shrug? It's being replaced by delusions of Napoleonic grandeur.
In any case, sanctions are usually no more than temporary. Obama himself said on Friday that the crackdown "must come to an end now." Why? The Syrian kleptocracy has cast its lot, not with America, but with the forces of repression. Anyway, Obama often likes to confuse verbal demands, as Yale professor David Bromwich has observed, with action. Soon enough the illusions will return should the Syrian dictator succeed in routing, at least for now, his opponents. The real loss for Assad isn't the prospect of sanctions but the fact that he is, increasingly, being drawn into Iran's orbit. He is becoming the puppet ruler of the Iranian mullahs, playing Hungary to their Soviet Union.
But this presumes that Assad will be able to cling to power. Iran is not the Soviet Union, a mighty empire that can dispose of its satellites as it wishes. Instead, Syria may well topple into anarchy. The army, for example, is displaying some cracks:
There are rumors of divisions emerging within the Army, with more soldiers refusing to fire on protesters and a spate of assassinations of military officials said to be sympathetic to the protesters, The Christian Science Monitor reported. In Deraa yesterday, military units clashed after some soldiers refused to fire on protesters. If the Army breaks ranks with Assad, it would severely undermine his regime's ability to survive.
For those who warn that instability may be more dangerous than the stability represented by the Assad regime, it's already too late. Like not a few dictators, Assad has reacted too slowly. He may, in fact, be a hostage of his own security forces, unable to undertake even the tepid reforms that he allegedly wanted to pursue. But for the Obama administration, the entire episode should be a chastening one. It wanted to follow a policy of engagement with Assad. Assad refused. Now Obama is paralyzed by the prospect of a genuine Syrian revolt.
Image from the Official White House Photostream
When it comes to pathological dictators, there doesn't really seem to be much dispute about whether they're nuts or not. It sort of comes with the territory, doesn't it? Plus the pressures in this particular line of work are bound to have insalubrious consequences. There are constant plots to worry about, attack from abroad, even criticisms from your own family, as Stalin discovered when his first wife lashed into him. The British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore dates Stalin's real crackup from the time his wife committed suicide in 1932.
So how much stock should we put in the discovery of a diary by Alexander Myasnikov, who was one of the Generalissimo's doctors. According to the doctor,
The major atherosclerosis in the brain, which we found at the autopsy, should raise the question of how much this illness—which had clearly been developing over a number of years—affected Stalin's health, his character and his actions," Dr. Myasnikov wrote in his diaries, excerpts of which were published for the first time in the Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets yesterday. "Stalin may have lost his sense of good and bad, healthy and dangerous, permissible and impermissible, friend and enemy. Character traits can become exaggerated, so that a suspicious person becomes paranoid," the doctor wrote.
Well, I suppose. But wasn't Stalin on the road to craziness from the outset? His record as a Bolshevik revolutionary amounted to a prolonged tenure as a bank robber. He showed no compunction about offing his enemies from the outset. Still, there was something especially sinister about the man. He clearly was headed for a new, massive purge toward the end of his life, as the Doctor's plot indicated. Perhaps Koba, as he was known to his chums, might even have embarked upon a war against western Europe, though the evidence there is iffier.
The amazing thing is that several of Stalin's associates appear to have kept diaries, always a dangerous thing to do in a totalitarian regime. This week purported entries from secret service head Lavrenti Beria are appearing, where he waxes rhapsodic about wanting to go fishing. Ivan Maisky's diaries, which are excerpted in the New York Review of Books, are being published. None of this will surpass Nikita Khruschev's memoir, but they do add new details and flashes of insight into Stalin's regime. (So does the novelist Vasily Grossman's work--for a spectacularly insightful discussion see my friend Leon Aron's new review.)
Still, to try and chalk up Stalin's actions to sheer nuttiness is probably a mistake. To run the Bolshevik system required someone like Stalin. Terror is its essence. Absent someone like Stalin, who predicted to his associates that they would end up allowing the empire to collapse, communism can't really function. An older book, one of the greatest ever written about Stalin, Boris Souvarine's biography, got it right in emphasizing his Georgian heritage—essentially, Stalin could be viewed as a ferocious bandit who took over Russia and imposed his values on it. Russia continues to struggle to rid itself of them.
Image from the German Federal Archives
There's always been something a little odd about American involvement in Libya. President Obama explained that he was trying to avert a humanitarian catastrophe and that Col. Qaddafi must go. But Qaddafi has put up a much stiffer fight than Obama and his allies David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy ever anticipated. The rebels, meanwhile, are a motley crew, one that even Secretary of Hillary Clinton has trouble defining. No one really seems to know who they are, except that they probably include a goodly number of Islamic radicals in their ranks.
But why be concerned about that? Western prestige is now on the line. Hence the decision to employ armed drones in Libya, "deepening," as the Washington Post politely puts it, American involvement in what amounts to a civil war. Can you say mission creep?
One problem with American involvement in Libya is that it is, at bottom, a diversion from its mission in Afghanistan. Libya was once a source of terrorism. But it hasn't been for about a decade. Qaddafi had been largely tamed. Afghanistan, by contrast, remains a potent source of danger to America. Predator drones should be flying there, not over Libya.
David Ignatius points to another difficulty. According to Ignatius, "It brings a weapon that has become for many Muslims a symbol of the arrogance of U.S. power into a theater next door to the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, the most promising events in a generation. It projects American power in the most negative possible way." The drones are symptomatic of America's desire to wage war via air power. Obama has no intention of inserting ground troops into Libya. He has, in other words, created the worst of all possible worlds. America has pledged to remove a dictator. But Obama is unwilling to enforce that pledge. Instead, he is prolonging the conflict.
As the tumult spreads across the Middle East, America is injecting itself, step-by-step, into the Arab revolutions. Now Syria is going up in flames. Even if he and defense secretary Robert Gates don't want to get involved in Syria, they will inevitably face calls to do something. Will American predators be circling over Damascus within a month or two?
Germany seems to be doing remarkably well. Unemployment is down. So is spending. Its economy is the envy of its neighbors. But Roger Cohen in a stimulating op-ed in the New York Times drubs what he calls "Merkel in Miniature"—chancellor Angela Merkel, who is decidedy on the defensive after her Christian Democratic party has lost successive state elections. Cohen sees what amounts to a new version of Deutschland uber alles—putting Germany first and neglecting the idea of a united Europe.
Cohen reminisces about the golden age of Germany when the country plowed ahead with reunification and embedded itself in the European Union. Now things aren't so clear. Germany is wobbling. Merkel has no vision. She's faltered when it comes to shoring up the Euro. And when it comes to Libya, Germany, the strongest country on the continent, has gone AWOL.
Why? One answer is that Germany's pacifist sentiments mean that it shrinks from any conflict. The legacy of World War II has created a culture of repentance that shuns the use of force. There is something to that answer. But perhaps something else is occurring as well: Germany is returning to realist precepts. It's reaching out to Russia as much as to its postwar allies, France and England, not to mention the United States. And why not let the Brits and the French take the lead in Libya—Germany already came to grief there once before.
According to Cohen,
The time for a mea culpa has come. The loss of European idealism is the most shocking change I’ve seen in Germany this past decade. Merkel, who would still be stranded in East Germany if Kohl had wavered as she has, needs to lay out just how Germany, with its three per cent growth and low unemployment, benefits from the EU, the euro and a borderless market of almost half a billion people.
Still, Cohen is putting it a bit strongly. Perhaps realism rather than idealism is what will pull the European Union through its current difficulties. The Germans can hardly be elated about the profligacy of their southern neighbors. It's understandable that they would view the EU with a somewhat more jaundiced eye. The heady days of the 1990s were, in other words, a mirage.
So it's open to debate whether a new German problem is really developing. In the risk-averse culture that Germany has developed, the notion of bailing out on the Euro, or even the European Union, is close to unthinkable. For her part Merkel has shown tremendous staying power. She's managed to absorb a number of blows over the years, but always come out on top. She's a pragmatist, not an idealist. Besides, perverted idealism has gotten Germany into a lot of trouble in the past.
America has a long history of intervening secretly in what the Soviet Union used to call the "internal affairs" of other countries. A lot of times those interventions seemed to work out well at the time, but ended up backfiring (see Iran). At other times they simply went badly awry, as in the Bay of Pigs. Such actions bred festering animosity toward America and seemed to make a mockery of the very democratic values Washington claimed it was upholding.
Many of these policies actually had their origins in the postwar era when America sought to counter communist influence in western and eastern Europe. The labor movement and the CIA played a big role in trying to shore up the democratic opposition. Those moves, too, usually boomeranged, as communist regimes smashed the exiles that the CIA sent into Eastern Europe. George F. Kennan, who headed the Office of Policy Planning, said it was necessary to "fight fire with fire," but more often than not it was Washington that ended up getting burned.
Today the National Endowment for Democracy represents an attempt to get away from the seamier side of such interventions and to support civic organizations abroad. But today the Washington Post reports, on the basis of leaked classified cables, that America has secretly been backing the Syrian opposition. Apparently the State Department has financed Syrian groups and television programs attacking the Assad regime. U.S. diplomatic cables, the Post says, reveal that the State Department has disbursed at least $6 million to a group called the Movement for Justice and Development--a grouping of Syrian exiles living in London.
The import of this move seems clear: President Obama is supporting, much as his predecessor, George W. Bush did, regime change in Syria. Regime change may, or may not, be in America's interest. The Assad dictatorship, father and son, has been an ugly one. But what would replace it? Does Obama know? Does he have a clear read on the exiles in London (some of whom are apparently former members of the Muslim Brotherhood) that America has been supporting? The record of American assistance to such groups has not always been a happy one.
Another problem is that by intruding into Syrian domestic politics, the administration legitimizes the regime's claims that it is fighting foreign enemies intent on subverting the home land. For make no mistake: subversion is exactly what Obama is practicing. He is aiding a group that seeks to topple the current Syrian government. Now Obama could argue that he's been aiding it simply to use as a lever against Assad. Or he could maintain that he does want to oust him.
But to put the State Department in charge of what is tantamount to regime change seems reckless. The State Department is supposed to engage in diplomacy, not secret warfare. That's the CIA's job, even if it hasn't done a particularly effective job of it. The diplomat who wrote that Syria "would undoubtedly view any U.S. funds going to illegal political groups as tantamount to supporting regime change" in a secret April 2009 cable had it right. Obama is imperiling the State Department, not Syria.