Kim Jong-un, the new leader of North Korea, turns out to be bringing some unexpected innovations to the Hermit Kingdom. His latest move isn't saber rattling. Rather, he is staging Walt Disney productions such as Sleeping Beauty on state-run television with a group that the Wall Street Journal says is called Moranbong.
Somehow, it makes sense the Magic Kingdom would be picked up by the Hermit Kingdom. Mickey Mouse may be as American as apple pie, but the fantasy element of the Disney World should comport well with the sheer weirdness of North Korea. The word is that Kim turns out to be something of a literary buff who wants to introduce a "grandiose"—how could it be otherwise?—"plan," says the Korean Central News Agency, to upend the country's culture, as though it hasn't already experienced enough upending. Apparently it includes co-opting Disney.
As the New York Times reports,
North Korean state-run television on Monday showed footage of costumed versions of Tigger, Minnie Mouse and other Disney characters prancing in front of the leader, Kim Jong-un, and an entourage of clapping generals.
The footage also showed Mr. Kim in a black Mao suit watching as Mickey Mouse conducted a group of young women playing violins in skimpy black dresses. At times, scenes from the animated Disney movies “Dumbo” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” were projected on a multipanel screen behind the entertainers; an article in the state-run press said unnamed foreign songs were on the bill.
Might Kim's move, his new role as cultural commissar, also be aimed at securing his succession? His older brother Kim Kong-nam got into hot water with his old man after he snuck into Japan and tried to visit Tokyo Disneyland. It spelled the end of any hopes he might have to succeeding to the communist throne. Now Kim Jong-un may be signaling that he feels confident enough to put on a Disney show and broadcast it to the masses. (Stalin liked to watch Hollywood movies with his chums in the Kremlin but did not allow them to be broadcast. An avid reader, he, like Hitler, fancied himself something of an authority on the arts, though Hitler would have recoiled at Disney as a sign of the cultural pollution of America.) In addition, Kim had a young woman seated next him—girlfriend, relative?—whose presence is inspiring much head-scratching about their relationship, if any. Is she actually his adviser on cultural affairs?
Throughout, much speculation has also centered on Kim's education in Switzerland, which is said to suggest that he might be more open to Western mores. But this is probably a misreading. Switzerland, a dour and thrifty nation, prides itself on its self-reliance, precisely the qualities that North Korea's leaders have sought to inculcate in its population. Nevertheless, North Korea's foray into Disney should not be interpreted as a sign of a suddenly mellowing regime but, rather, the mercurial proclivities of a tyrannical leader who presides over a Gulag. Like the Soviet Union, North Korea is a country where yesterday's weather can be altered by decree. North Korea, in other words, is not Mickey Mouse.
Someone should tell Rupert Murdoch to shut up. You might think that a news magnate with as sordid a record as Murdoch would have the sense to refrain from commenting publicly on the American presidential race. Murdoch may try to deny culpability as much as he can, but he is the press baron who presided over the scandals afflicting his news empire in England, where one nasty revelation after another has emerged about the antics of his minions, a number of whom may be facing jail sentences. A period of silence and personal reflection might seem to be in order.
No such luck. As the New York Times reports, Murdoch has moved on from the royals to bash a new target: Mitt Romney. Murdoch has been propounding unsolicited advice for Romney. Most of his complaints are commonplace, but because he is the one making them, they are attracting inordinate attention. In part he's suggesting that Romney dump members of his campaign team, a move that would suggest panic if a wholesale massacre were to take place. Plus, disenchanted former employees hardly miss a chance to snipe at their old boss.
Another Murdoch brainstorm is that Romney simply isn't conservative enough. Murdoch's heroes seems to be Rick Santorum, the hapless senator from Pennsylvania, and New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who lacks the polish to be a serious presidential candidate. Earth to Murdoch: the primary is finished. Romney won. Get over it.
Now, being told by the likes of Murdoch that you aren't doing a good job running the campaign is something that Romney may regard with humor—a trait that, it must be said, he has not displayed in much abundance during the campaign. And being criticized for not being conservative enough may also be a criticism that the campaign welcomes as it tries to pursue independent voters. Nevertheless, there is something petty about the criticisms of Romney that Murdoch is voicing. For one thing, he's bashing Romney for the one trait and success—his discipline and business record—that he can plausibly point to as assets in his run for the presidency. To complain that Romney walked into a meeting with the Wall Street Journal and focused on facts and figures rather than ideology? Please. Moving further to the Right is not going to aid Romney. A rerun of the George W. Bush presidency is hardly a winning ticket for the 2012 election. Murdoch's animadversions point to a broader problem assailing the conservative movement, which is that it often sounds like a bunch of crybabies whining that Romney isn't conservative enough.
There a number of possibilities here that are not necessarily mutually exclusive. For one thing, conservatives clearly are preparing for a new George H. W. Bush—or at least they want to warn Romney off that path. By assailing him as lacking the cojones to be a real conservative, they hope to prod him to the Right. It's also the case that the Right may figure that Romney is doomed and that it's better off without him as president. In this instance, conservatives would be preparing to run the real thing in 2016. Given the tenor of Wall Street Journal editorials about Romney, it seems clear that any support for him from the Right (and Murdoch) would be at best halfhearted.
Whether or not the Journal really enters the lists for Romney, however, is not going to decide his electoral fortunes. Romney, stiff and verbally maladroit, is simply not a very good candidate, but he is the best one that the GOP could produce after eight years of the Bush regency. But the state of the economy means he will be able to mount a challenge to Obama, no matter the bellyaching from the right. The truly scary prospect may be that Murdoch, who has become infra dig in London, may now be trying to set up shop in America. Give this Australian parvenu credit for audacity. But it would be foolish to heed his musings about American politics.
Image: World Economic Forum
OK, my title is a little inflammatory. But it is the kind of thing that Newt Gingrich has been wont to say in the past about President Obama and anyone else he deems as lily-livered in the war against terrorism. Now, according to TalkingPointsMemo, the Atlantic and other outlets, it appears that the former Speaker has himself been lauding an organization that the State Department continues to view as a terrorist one, namely, the Iranian MEK. He's calling it a "massive, world-wide movement for liberation in Iran."
Strong words. But then again, conservatives always have been prone to proclaim that the State Department consists of a bunch of appeasement-minded wussbags who don't understand America's true national interests. But in this case, the State Department more than likely has it right.
Paul Pillar, who blogs regularly for TNI, knows a lot more about the MEK than I do or probably ever will. As near as I can tell, he thinks it is very bad news indeed, an organization that America would do well to keep at a distance—an organization that the BBC says some Western officials regard as nothing less than a coercive cult. But what is common knowledge is enough to give any sensible observer pause. So I confess to finding it more than a little disturbing that Gingrich would embrace this dubious organization made up of Iranian exiles with such zeal. He attended a rally for it last Sunday in Paris, which is located in France (a country that conservatives in the Gingrich mold usually denounce as consisting of a bunch of craven appeasers). But Gingrich's neocon zeal for the would-be liberators of Iran knows no bounds. The MEK may have had a close relationship with Saddam Hussein's Iraq and even supported it during the Iran-Iraq war. None of this, however, seems to faze Gingrich.
There are, however, several problems with Gingrich's bluster. One is that America is already taking an extremely hawkish stance toward Iran. President Obama has launched a war in all but name against Iran. Whether it will turn into a shooting one is something that probably won't be apparent until his second term. Another problem with Ginrich's bloviation is that we don't really know enough about the MEK to hail it as a bunch of freedom fighters. Conservatives did that with regularity during the Cold War—Jonas Savimbi in Angola or the contras in Nicaragua. And, by the way, what about Ahmed Chalabi, who was hailed as the next liberator of Iraq? The results, to put it politely, were somewhat dubious. America has a history of getting into bed with characters who profess dedication to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But their own records, particularly when it comes to human rights and democracy, tend to be unhappy ones.
Another problem is that Gingrich is essentially freelancing. He is spouting off about something that he does not know much about. Now there isn't much new about that. This is, by and large, what Gingrich does. He expectorates like a gushing fire hydrant in the middle of the summer about any and all sundry topics. Even during the primary season, it was almost impossible to get him to shut up, no matter how woeful his electoral numbers might have been. He lives to talk and talks to live. A silent Gingrich is almost as inconceivable as a spontaneous Mitt Romney.
Gingrich's remarks in Paris won't dent his image as it has already been dented. How influential Gingrich is at this point may also be questioned. But his remarks are symptomatic of a broader problem among his adherents, which is to say that they are not particularly choosy about whom they choose to support or ally themselves with in the fight against dictators and terror. Perhaps Gingrich might respond that you can't always be persnickety about your allies when battling the likes of the Iranian mullahs. But he seems to be hailing them as the George Washingtons of the Middle East. That's ludicrous. It's also a development that you might even be justified in labeling terrifying if the MEK really were to become the new pet cause of crusading conservatives. What Gingrich is courting is not the liberation of Iran but a replay of the Iraq War. That is a path that no American administration should follow.
Has Germany declared war on Europe? Or has Europe declared war on Germany? Speaking to members of the Free Democratic Party, her coalition partner, German chancellor Angela Merkel announced that euro bonds would never be created "as long as I live."
Merkel's remarks created a flurry of fresh consternation among her critics, both in Germany and abroad, as everyone tries to puzzle out whether she really means it or is just bluffing. In part, Merkel is trying to shore up her bona fides at home, especially with the Free Democrats, a classically liberal party that represents industry and views the idea of pooled debt—which is what a Eurobond would represent—with horror. The Free Democrats surely would rather see Greece and other countries depart the euro before the German taxpayer has to absorb the losses accumulated by its once-cherished euro partners down south.
The Social Democrats and the Greens, by contrast, are criticizing her refusal to contemplate euro bonds. They want to become financially bonded to Germany's European partners, or at least say they do, as long as they themselves are not in power. But as an electoral issue, it is a nonstarter. The Germans don't view pooling debt as a way to emancipate Europe. They view euro bonds as representing permanent euro bondage. Malte Lehming, the opinion editor of the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel, says, "Thank God we have Merkel. The Euro bonds and calls for more spending represent a failed Keynesianism. Things are going well for us economically. If we had spent hundreds of billions more, what would it have brought us? More debt." Lehming views France's latest stimulus with contempt: "Building more roads creates jobs in the short-term. But it does not create long-term economic activity."
The clash is clear. In Europe, the socialists want to follow the path of the Obama administration, which is to try old-fashioned stimulus. And if the stimulus does not stimulate, the response goes, then not enough stimulation took place in the first place. Merkel and British prime minister David Cameron see it differently. But Cameron really has no voice in debates over the euro. It is the doughty German chancellor who is holding out against the rest of Europe. To understand why Merkel feels so confident, you only need to look around Berlin, which is a vast construction site, a buzz of activity. There is no hint of an economic slowdown. Instead, a new Teutonic colossus is arising in the heart of Europe, one that is not dependent on its neighbors. They need Germany more than Germany needs them. Even the burden of the historical past, which largely dictated former chancellor Helmut Kohl's push for the euro, is ebbing away. A new Germany is emerging.
Whether European Union president Herman Van Rompuy will be able to overrule Merkel is questionable. The latest European summit was suppposed to be the one that solved this problem. But all along the incentive for Germany has been to play out this crisis as long as possible, which means that more lofty-sounding declarations will emanate from Brussels without curing any of the ills afflicting Europe. Whether those ailments can be quickly treated is increasingly dubious. Spain is announcing that even the private highways it built have turned out be be commerically unviable. Cyprus, headed by a communist, wants a bailout.
Small wonder that Merkel and the Germans wish in their heart of hearts that they would all go away. Germany is learning what it feels like to be America—powerful and resented. That is the price of success. But so far, it seems to be one that the Germans appear more than ready to pay. Germany has become the land of the 1 percent, and the rest of Europe is the 99 percent. They will have to get used to it. Germany already is.
Image: א (Aleph)
Poor Angela Merkel. She keeps getting bashed as the incarnation of all that is wrong with the German approach to Europe. The New York Times, for example, explains in an editorial that her approach is "piecemeal" and driving the European Union to destruction.
This is nonsense. As Josef Joffe points out in an essay in the Financial Times, the über-Keynesians, as he terms them, forget that Europe has already been pumping massive amounts of money into the southern states, and it accomplished little. To lay all the blame on Frau Merkel's doorstep may be emotionally satisfying, but it will do nothing to solve the current crisis.
As Joffe notes, it is not true that Germany has simly profited from having an export market in Europe. The euro began at less than a dollar versus the greenback but has risen considerably since then. It took economic reforms, painful ones, to transform Germany back into the economic powerhouse of Europe. Those reforms, incidentally, were instituted by a socialist chancellor named Gerhard Schroeder.
Sure, the Greeks and Spainiards would like nothing better than for Germany to pour every last euro it possesses into their economies. But Merkel knows she must answer to German voters. They have no interest in in mortgaging their own pensions for the sake of southern Europe. Or the Germans may conclude that Europe is not too big to fail. A controversial new book currently on display in German bookshops is called Europe Does Not Need the Euro. Maybe Europe does. But Germany, by contrast, does not. The Continent could be about to find out the answer.
During the past year, Greeks have become increasingly antagonistic towards Germans. They've evoked memories of the Third Reich. They've complained about German financial rigidity. And, of course, they've flirted with leaving the euro.
But all flirtations come to an end, and Greece is now entrenched in the euro zone, or at least it has made it clear in the June 17 election that it has no intention of fleeing, no idea of flinging Jovian thunderbolts down from Mt Olympus. It may dislike reform, but it loathes the idea of abandoning the euro even more. Which is perhaps the worst news that it could deliver to Germany.
It was increasingly difficult to dispel the sense that Germans harbored, and continue to harbor, a good deal of Schadenfreude about the plight of the Greeks. The suddenly unhappy southerners, so the German thinking went, were being punished for their previous hedonism. Meanwhile, the Protestant North, thrifty and hardworking, was prospering as a result of its efforts. Why should the Germans bail out their impoverished cousins down South? The Germans could only fondly dream that the Greeks would execute their threat, commit financial hara-kiri, and bail out of the euro. Germany, already reeling from several decades worth of a federal "solidarity tax" of 5.4 percent for the former East Germany that does not expire until 2019, would have been relieved of the prospect of further transfer payments down south.
That's over. It looks like the Germans will have to cinch their Lederhosen even tighter in coming years. For the Greeks have emerged from their trance of the past few weeks to recognize that they faced a Hobson's choice, which is to say that there really wasn't any choosing for them to do. Confronted with the prospect of returning to the drachma, they surely realized that the good old days weren't all that great. The euro is the only thing that can save Greece, which is about to hold its neighbors hostage. Like it or not, Greece will have to be revived in some form or other. Germany remains wary: as German columnist Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger has observed, the fundamental problem in Greece is that it wants to blame its problems on outsiders. In truth, Greeks have been victimized by their own corrupt elites, including the conservative New Democracy party, which squeaked by in the latest round of elections.
For the short-term, it would have been catastrophic for Greece to exit the euro. Inflation would have soared and the county would have been unable to pay for any imports, including petroleum. It would likely have come to a complete standstill. Now Greece has the chance to reverse the tables. It's been the good, dutiful neighbor that has voted not to desert its neighbors. Rather, it is flinging itself into their laps, desperate for some kind of modus vivendi. With France treading down the path of socialism once more, Greece may even get a bit more of a hearing in the councils of Europe.
The coming weeks will shine a spotlight on Germany's Angela Merkel. The dour chancellor may have hoped that Greece would bail out on the bailouts. No longer. Now she has an even bigger problem than a Greek exit on her hands. It's the fact that Greece is staying that will keep her awake at night. But the notion that Merkel will somehow balk at trying to aid Greece further is improbable. The euro is not going anywhere, no matter what Euroskeptics might like. In assessing Europe, the wish has often been the father of the thought among conservatives who dislike the idea of a single Europe rather than a collection of nation-states. But this crisis may well end up accelerating the process of integration rather than leading to a crack up.
President Obama is delighted that Greece hasn't blown up the euro. He's terrified at the thought that Europe won't get its economic house in order and obliterate any prospect of a second term for him. But the idea that any solution will come quickly—or that Greece does not remained divded internally—is a pipedream. Rather than a deus ex machina appearing to save the day, it may take years before Europe emerges from its new time of troubles.
Russia is in ferment. As President Vladimir Putin tries to ensure the stability of his regime, protesters have been assailing his administration as corrupt and moribund. It's becoming cool and hip and fashionable to complain about the state of affairs. Thus even socialite Ksenia Sobchak, described by the Washington Post as Russia's "It Girl," has joined the ranks of the malcontents.
Now comes a new bombshell. Russia's new culture minister Vladimir Medinsky, who has something of an equivocal record when it comes to judging the Soviet past, says he wants to shut down a state-run enterprise. He says it's time to let Vladimir Ilyich Lenin rest in peace. No more Lenin's tomb in Red Square, no more glass coffin, no more enormous lines. Such a move might represent something of a setback for Russia's tourism industry, not to mention the old-guard Stalinists who revere the founder of the modern communist state. Where would the embalmers ply their trade? What would happen to their expertise? Would this be another Russian tradition that falls by the wayside to modernization?
Putin has been more circumspect about the matter. But Medinsky seems serious. According to him,
Maybe, indeed, many things in our life would symbolically change for the better after this.
Whatever his motives, I think Medinsky is right. In fact, Lenin should have been buried a long time ago. It was Stalin who cooked up Lenin's burial as a way of legitimizing his own nasty rule. It was also Stalin who may have poisoned the old boy, hastening his own bloody, dictatorial rule. But it was Lenin who, of course, made Stalin possible, which is different than saying his rule was inevitable. Medinsky wants to turn the mausoleum into a museum. It would be a pity if it were to glorify Lenin, the inventor of the Russian concentration camp and a murderous killer in his own right. Truth to tell, Lenin deserves the kind of burial that Osama Bin Laden received. Both men were terrorists, but one managed, thanks to World War I and a hapless tsar, to shoot his way into power, including murdering the defenseless royal family. Lenin, a sanctimonious windbag, began the destruction of Russian society, a job that Stalin completed. It has yet to recover from their depredations. A museum could begin the process of telling the truth about this thug.
An online poll indicates that many Russians also believe that Lenin should be removed from Red Square. As Medinsky has noted, Lenin and his relatives were never keen on the idea of public displays. The pharaonic element in Bolshevism was introduced by Stalin. Walter Rodgers, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, has warned against removing Lenin's corpse. In his view,
Interring Lenin beside his mother in St. Petersburg may paper over, but will not expunge, the bloody Bolshevik past. Shakespeare reminds us that “the evil men do lives after them.” Modern Russia would dishonor communism’s victims if Lenin’s corpse is smuggled out of town on a moonless night.
But it's also possible that an interment might prompt Russians to confront his sanguinary legacy, to reexamine his misdeeds, to recognize that his actions continue to shape modern Russia in profoundly destructive ways. Lenin's burial need not be an occasion for burying the past. In removing Lenin from Red Square, Russia would be saying that he no longer serves as a father figure. It could come one step closer to confronting its past honestly. So far, Putin has seemed disinclined to face up to it. The issue of his interment might offer him a different route to follow, one that could set a different tone for modern Russia.
What would Barack Obama do in a second term? This is the question that Ryan Lizza poses in a lengthy and informative essay about modern presidencies in the New Yorker. Lizza suggests that he might look at Ronald Reagan's playbook, which is to say that he should focus on a few big priorities—"The Reagan Administration quickly grasped that whatever power it had gained through reelection had to be spent judiciously."
It's a conundrum that tends to preoccupy presidents as they search for a legacy. In two cases—Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush—it has meant heaving overboard much of the ideological baggage that encumbered them during their first term. Take Reagan. Fellow TNI blogger Paul Pillar suggests in a recent (and droll) post about conservatism and Republicans that it was "misleading" of me to suggest that Reagan was a mixture of neocon and rollback conservative. Not so, says Pillar. Reagan was a realist.
Here I must part company with Pillar. This observation is true for the second-term Reagan. It does not, however, apply to the Reagan of the first term, who in his initial press conference created a sensation by declaring that Soviet leaders reserve the right to "lie, cheat, and steal to get whatever they want." There was, in other words, plenty of chiliastic rhetoric emanating from the old boy who almost singlehandedly created the nuclear-freeze movement with his dire pronouncements. Reagan, in other words, didn't shrink from demonizing America's adversaries.
It's also the case that Reagan brought on board the neocons who had gone into exile from the Democratic party. The neocon members of the Reagan administration included Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard Perle, Michael Ledeen, Elliott Abrams and Paul Wolfowitz. Reagan loved Kirkpatrick. Then there were the rollback communism types such as Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State Al Haig, who seemed ready to go to war with Cuba. Finally, Reagan presided over the Iran-contra affair, which landed the neocons in a mess of trouble and prompted George H.W. Bush allegedly to refer to the "crazies in the basement." This was no administration of shrinking violets.
It wasn't until Reagan's second term that he shifted course, moving far beyond the detente that Richard M. Nixon and Henry Kissinger had envisioned to strike far-reaching accords with Mikhail Gorbachev. James Baker and George Shultz both played vital roles in prompting Reagan to reach out to Gorbachev. But it's also the case that Reagan got lucky. Absent Gorbachev, he would not have been able to wind down the cold war. Note that I'm not saying that Reagan was a full-blooded neocon. He believed in the alliance with Europe and used proxies, as Pillar notes, to conduct warfare (though Grenada was much ballyhooed as a sign that America was back). But as himself a lapsed supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Reagan had some consanguinity with the neocons.
What about George W. Bush? Here again we can see the phenomenon at work. In his first term, Bush swallowed the neocon line and turned himself into the pliant instrument of Vice President Dick Cheney. By 2006, however, he had begun to wise up. Cheney was curbed. The neocons were starting to come into bad odor. Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates were now conducting foreign policy. The realists—the grown-ups--had returned.
Where does this leave Obama? The president has not been very ideological in his approach to foreign affairs. He has adhered to many realist stances. At the same time, as James Mann observes in The Obamians, he has maneuvered, sometimes hypocritically, in assuming war powers that his office may not necessarily possess. Obama is no imperialist, but he has further strengthened the imperial presidency. Mann suggests that he may have even exceeded George W. Bush in this department by going to war in Libya, while claiming all along that it was not even warfare.
So where would Obama head in a second term? The old dictum of Harold MacMillan—"events, dear boy, events"—springs to mind. For all the penchant of the media for viewing the president as some kind of grand vizier, their power to control events is, more often than not, limited. Nevertheless, Obama does have proclivities and impulses, not to mention a vast national-security apparatus at his disposal, one that dwarfs anything in recent American history: Lizza suggests that Obama might be tougher than he was in his first term with countries such as Iran or China. His most immediate challenge will be in Syria where, Lizza writes, "he may have to decide if he wants to push harder to topple President Bashar al-Assad, possibly by force."
If Obama became even more interventionist, then he would be following the Bill Clinton model. During his first term, Clinton did everything he could to avoid entering the Balkans conflict militarily. In his second term, he bombed the Serbs and drove Slobodan Milosevic from power. If Obama wants to follow a more emollient approach, he will have to try and win one for the Gipper. In studying the records of his predecessors, Obama has plenty of models to choose from as he contemplates his future.
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reprised their starring role during Watergate by issuing a lengthy examination of Watergate and Richard Nixon in the Washington Post this past Sunday. Their essay was accompanied by an article from Leonard Downie bemoaning the disappearance of the kind of investigative reporting practiced by Woodstein, as they were once known. The gist of the new Woodward and Bernstein piece is that they were were even more right than they knew. They suggest that Nixon had launched a "criminal enterprise," a multifront war—against the media, the Democratic party, the antiwar movement and so on—and that Watergate was simply part of a greater complex. They also include bloodcurdling remarks by Nixon about the supposed perfidy of Jews.
In reading their essay, it is not always easy to detect any real revelations. That Nixon had a dark, pathological side and said very nasty things about his real and perceived enemies is not news. But Woodward and Bernstein's object appears to have been to nip any revisionism about Nixon in the bud—the notion that he was not really such a bad fellow. Woodward and Bernstein adduced a book review by a former Nixon aide named Frank Gannon, who suggested that many questions about Watergate remained open. Whether that review is worthy of the significance that Woodward and Bernstein invest in it is questionable.
But there is more to it than that. Is it really only Nixon loyalists who are trying to polish Nixon's reputation? Or is it, rather, liberals who have started to look more fondly at a president they have come to regard as one of them? A closet liberal. Someone who deviated from conservative orthodoxy. A president who can be held up as the antipode of the right-wingers in Congress who expostulate about rolling back big government. Nixon, after all, created the Environmental Protection Agency. He supported the Philadelphia Plan, which relied upon racial quotas. Stephen F. Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute observes,
It was under Nixon that social spending came to exceed defense spending for the first time. Social spending soared from $55 billion in 1970 (Nixon’s first budget) to $132 billion in 1975, from 28 percent of the federal budget when LBJ left office to 40 percent of the budget by the time Nixon left in 1974. While Nixon would criticize and attempt to reform welfare, he nonetheless approved massive increases in funding for other Great Society programs such as the Model Cities program and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Some of the changes in spending policies that Nixon supported, such as automatic cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients and other entitlement programs, contributed to runaway spending trends in successive decades.
Nor is this all. He and Henry Kissinger tried to wind down the arms race. They pushed for détente with the Soviet Union. They recognized China. They did not try for all-out victory in Vietnam—instead, they pushed "Vietnamization." So some liberals have begun to look more fondly upon Nixon.
Woodward and Bernstein also overlook another, related aspect to his presidency. It was the Right that went to war against Nixon, not just the Left. Nixon was pilloried by the budding neoconservative movement for abandoning the fight against communism. The old cold warrior, the exposer of Alger Hiss, it was suggested, was now capitulating to the Reds. And it wasn't just the neocons who were in high dudgeon. Conservatives were in despair as well. As David B. Frisk reports in his new book If Not Us, Who?, a group centered around the National Review, which included William F. Buckley Jr., Frank Meyer and members of the American Conservative Union, also voiced its disappointment with what it saw as Nixon's compromises. The group called itself the Manhattan Twelve—its manifesto deplored "excessive taxation" and "inordinate welfarism" and was published in the National Review.
The Right was restless. It didn't trust Nixon. So in 1972, Ohio Congressman John Ashbrook ran against Nixon in several Republican primary states. His famous statement about Nixon was "we kept waiting for the other shoe to drop but then we realized he was a centipede." His aim was to represent the true conservative voice—one that would emerge in full flower with Ronald Reagan in 1980, who essentially repudiated the Nixon-Kissinger approach to foreign affairs by substituting a combination of the old rollback doctrine and neoconservative anticommunism. Nixon had become a ghostly presence in the GOP. He worked assiduously at his rehabilitation, but his efforts did not take place within the GOP. Rather, Nixon sought to transform himself into an elder statesman with his books on foreign affairs and visits to Russia.
Why exhume this history? Merely to suggest that the Woodward and Bernstein essay does not tell the entire story. Indeed, it might be fair to conclude that what is new in the piece is not interesting and what is interesting is not new. The authors suggest that the new information simply confirms their original hunches and conclusions. Woodward and Bernstein wrote the first draft of history and provided the material evidence that people needed to make the moral judgment that the times called for. But with greater distance and perspective, it seems clear that Nixon did not represent the high point of the imperial presidency. George W. Bush and Barack Obama have gone further in foreign affairs than Nixon ever did, the former in authorizing torture, the latter in personally signing off on the assassination of terrorists, including an American citizen. Next to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, Nixon was a piker. Of course, the excesses of Nixon should not be waved away. But they can also be viewed in a broader context than Woodward and Bernstein appear prepared to allow. Like some of Nixon's aging and dwindling and die-hard defenders, they are stuck in something of a time warp.
To grasp just how toxic and corrupt and venal America's relationship with Pakistan has become it is not necessary to focus on drone strikes or military or farm aid. Instead, the revelation that the U.S. Agency for Aid and Development has now shut down a $20 million program to bring the children's television show Sesame Street to Pakistan serves as perhaps the most telling sign of the moral rot that suffuses our alleged ally in the war on terror. The show was called Sim Sim Hamara. It was supposed to do all the good things that Washington wants to inculcate abroad—preach tolerance and diversity and educate youngsters, who would learn along the way that America is not the Great Satan.
But it appears this is another exercise in what might be called nation rebuilding that has gone awry. An outfit in Lahore called the Rafi Peer Theater Workshop has allegedly been acting like a Miss Piggy rather than an upstanding Elmo. It should be enough to make even proponents of foreign aid feel as grouchy as Oscar. The group apparently has been misusing State Department funds—about $7 million so far—that have been sent to it. USAID's Mark Toner explained that
We did receive via that hotline what we believe were credible allegations of fraud and abuse by the Rafi Peer Theater Workshop. So we did launch an investigation into the allegations. We've also sent the theater workshop a letter that terminates the project agreement.
What has the workshop, which denies the accusation, doing? Shortchanging the costumes of the characters to skim off some of the money? Stiffing the set designers?
More seriously, the question for Congress, which is scrutinizing futher aid to Pakistan, has to be what kind of oversight is being exercised over the hundreds of millions that are disbursed each year to Pakistan. The answer is probably not very much. The relationship with Pakistan is more that of an extortionist than a grateful recipient, which is why Islamabad is currently attempting to blackmail Washington into paying top dollar for port and highway access into Afghanistan to resupply soldiers. Fortunately, the Obama administration does not seem to be acceding to Pakistan's cupidity, at least when it comes to these latest demands.
But the Romney campaign surely has an opening with which to question the entire American relationship with Pakistan, and its questioning should start with the matter of Sesame Street. USAID administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah has been extremely active in Pakistan—even a cursory look at his organization's website suggests the breadth of its activities, which run into the billions of dollars in the past two years alone. But as Shah himself noted, Pakistan is a financial cesspool. In a speech this past April, Shah said, "By most accounts, fewer than 2 percent of the population pays taxes-and the wealthiest often pay the least. So long as this remains true, Pakistan simply won't have the resources it needs to prosper."
Yet the Christian Science Monitor is complaining that "If Sim Sim Hamara goes off the air, but US bombs keep dropping, another generation of Pakistanis will have only one thing to associate the US government with: war." Please. Such handwringing amounts to blaming the victim. There's no cogent reason for America to fund corruption. And if even an innocent children's show ends up being pilfered for dollars, how can Washington have any confidence that its more substantial aid programs are being implemented effectively?
Image: U.S. Embassy Pakistan