Flash in the Bedpan

The Buzz

Many journalists have reacted to Ann Romney’s RNC speech. But few have done so with the shocking insensitivity of the Daily Beast’s Judith Grey in a piece yesterday titled “Ann Romney’s Big Boo Boo.” Grey derides Ann Romney for omitting the minutiae of MS from her speech:

She failed to play the best card in her hand—the MS card ... If [Mitt] stayed up with her through the night, she should have mentioned it. If he had to carry her upstairs, she should have said so. If he emptied her bedpans, she should have shared that too. … Instead, [Ann] chose to gloss over the subject and speak in generalities. She challenged the notion that she’d had a perfect life given that she’d had five sons, MS, and breast cancer. ‘A storybook marriage?’ she asked rhetorically. ‘No, not at all.’ That was it. That was all she thought to say about the topic.

What a survivor Ann Romney is. Not only has she had to battle against MS, but now she has to endure unwarranted attacks from people like Judith Grey. Sure, the Romneys were lucky to have access to the best care money could buy, but MS couldn’t have been an easy fight. The incurable disease undoubtedly continues to affect Ann’s mental and physical health in private ways that she’d rather not share with the American public. Grey’s bashing of Ann Romney for withholding the contents of her bedpans seems to venture into the unthinkable.

As any caretaker can attest, lifelong illnesses like MS often have deeply unglamorous moments. To suggest that Ann Romney has failed as a spouse and, in this case, a political tool by insufficiently exploiting her own suffering for the benefit her husband (something I can’t imagine he would want) is more than ridiculous—it crosses a line of civility.

Whatever your political leanings, the family of a presidential candidate should not be maimed by the media for keeping its most private moments private, no less the ones that have attended a major personal struggle. A writer who views an illness of this magnitude as a political trump card—rather than an enormous obstacle—undoubtedly needs to reassess the lens through which she views the campaign.


Is Barack Obama Lazy?

Jacob Heilbrunn

The Democratic National Convention is making it clear what the Obama campaign is against. It dislikes Mitt Romney because he had it too easy. It opposes lowering taxes. It's against Republican efforts against abortion. And so on.

There is nothing surprising about these stances. To be sure, they have obtained an added vehemence in an unusually partisan election year, one in which the candidates are serially running phony, if not outright deceptive, campaign ads, prompting each candidate piously to accuse the other of engaging in deception. But what does President Obama want America to look like over the next four years? Forget whether we're better off than we were four years ago. The answer is obvious: a marginal yes. But will we be truly better off in the next four, or will the country simply continue to tread water during an Obama presidency?

This is the question that Maureen Dowd, Richard Cohen and Dan Balz ponder today. Obama gets a pretty rough pounding from what, by most standards, would seem to be a fairly sympathetic board of examiners. To judge by Dowd's and Cohen's op-eds, the real problem is that Obama is lazy or, to put it another way, something of an intellectual square. He doesn't like to mix it up with the hoi polloi.

In contrasting Obama with the gladhanding Bill Clinton, Cohen says,

The president who will lay out his reasons for seeking a second term is an odd political duck, a politician who does not appear to like people. Among the people he seems to like the least are his fellow politicians, including members of the Senate with whom he once served. The other day I talked with one of them—a Democrat—who rarely hears from Obama. This senator has zero respect for the president’s political abilities. The commander in chief is not—pardon the cloying term—a people person.

This is the very complaint sounded by Dowd. She says that Obama's habitual pattern of behavior is to

Avoid sound bites and visceral connections because political games are beneath you. Instead of surfing the magic and using it to cow the opposition, Obama would retreat inside himself at crucial moments, climbing back to his contemplative mountaintop.

He rationed his smile, his eloquence and his electricity, playing the dispassionate observer, delegating, dithering and rushing in at the last moment to try to save the day. A cold shower to Bill’s warm bath. While Clinton aides had to act like sheepdogs, herding the boss offstage as he tried to linger and schmooze issues with crowds, Obama needs to be alone and decompress even after meeting with a few people.

Here, however, we have wandered into the arena of psychoanalysis. Can Obama's problems—if they are really that problematic—be diagnosed as a symptom of an aloof personality? Or might broader trends be at work? Could Obama be grappling with an American political system that has itself become dysfunctional and that he does not understand how to repair?

From this latter perspective, Dan Balz's column today seems to be the most trenchant. Balz suggests that Obama could turn things around with a convention speech that actually lays out a program for the second term, something that Obama has notably failed to offer. Perhaps Obama can perform a U-turn during his convention speech. Obama, after all, has the best pipes of any president since Ronald Reagan. But as Balz says, "Talking about the past may not do enough to win over voters who might be prepared to vote for him but aren't confident that he has a plan for the next four years." It's an amazing testament to how far Obama has fallen since he ran as the candidate of change four years ago. So far, he has been the candidate of the status quo.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Why Morsi Went to Tehran

The Buzz

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi made waves last week at the Nonaligned Movement Summit in Tehran, insulting his hosts and their allies by calling the Syrian civil war a “struggle . . . against an oppressive regime that has lost its legitimacy.” Together with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s sharp words about Iran’s nuclear program and condemnation of its anti-Israeli rhetoric, it is becoming clear that the summit is turning into a public embarrassment for the Islamic Republic.

This is a pleasant surprise. Morsi’s trip to Tehran had caused severe indigestion in Washington, where there were fears that he intended to restore long-dormant relations. That would have been foolish on many levels. Another fear was that Morsi would legitimize Iran by his presence, as exemplified in Thomas Friedman’s recent New York Times column “Morsi’s Wrong Turn.” Friedman argues that Morsi must remember that he rose to power in a peaceful uprising that led to a fair election, and that accordingly he should be “ashamed of himself. . . [for] lending his legitimacy to an Iranian regime that brutally crushed just such a movement in Tehran.” 

Friedman has a point—even though Morsi’s speech angered Iran, it might be aired (as happened with Ban Ki-Moon) with a false translation. Fars News, a hardline Iranian outlet, once published an interview with Morsi that he claimed had been completely fabricated. Tehran has a limited but real ability to turn its rivals into sock puppets, and Iranians who do not have access to international media—more than there should be, but fewer than you’d think—might be duped and think Morsi backs the regime, even though his speech condemned their ally.

But Friedman’s broader message—that Morsi should not go to Iran because it is a dictatorship—is flawed. Morsi serves Egyptian interests when he pushes Cairo back into the international arena after years of being overshadowed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and even tiny Qatar. He has wisely attempted to make Egypt a key player on Syria by proposing a new contact group of the relevant Middle Eastern powers, including Iran. An understanding with Tehran is a necessary component of a Syrian peace. Morsi’s initiative will probably fail, but even one meeting of an Egyptian-backed contact group would be a key step back into the international spotlight that any self-respecting Egyptian leader—Islamist, secularist, leftist, Copt, or liberal—must seek for such a pivotal state.

TopicsGrand StrategyRising PowersRogue States RegionsEgypt

Dividing the World into Terrorists and the Rest

Paul Pillar

The common American tendency to view the outside world in starkly divided Manichean terms between friends, allies and good guys on one side and adversaries and evil-doers on the other side arises in many circumstances but seems especially marked in discussions of terrorism. The tendency is most visible in how the lists that have become mainstays of counterterrorist policy are widely perceived. The U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations had an almost mundane purpose when it was established by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. One of the principal features of that legislation was to criminalize the provision of material support to any foreign terrorist organization. This made necessary clear definitions not only of material support but also of foreign terrorist organizations. Hence the creation of the list, entries on which are determined by the secretary of state with the participation of other executive departments and according to criteria specified in the statute.

Notwithstanding this purpose—support to the enforcement of a criminal law—the list of foreign terrorist organizations gets regarded as if it were a more general act of condemnation that embodies what overall U.S. policy toward a given group is or ought to be. It is taken as a declaration of who is in the bad guys' camp and who is not. Listing or delisting of a particular group gets promoted by those with an agenda that has nothing to do with enforcement of a criminal statute. This has been seen most obviously with the well-financed campaign to delist the Iranian cult-cum-terrorist group the Mujahedin-e Khalq. Or pushing for a particular group's listing is a way of making a statement, as has most recently been the case with the question of whether to list the Haqqani group of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This way of looking at the list has several disadvantages. It constitutes pressure to politicize what is supposed to be an administrative and legal decision. It increases the potential negative consequences of listing a group because non-Americans follow the American lead in looking at listing as a general act of condemnation. Listing of the Haqqani group, however much it may be legally warranted under the terms of the relevant statute, might complicate not only U.S. relations with Pakistan but also any future efforts to negotiate an Afghan peace with the Taliban.

Sharply dividing groups into ones that get the terrorist label and thus are to be condemned and those that are not so labeled and condemned does not correspond to the messy reality of what groups do and don't do. Lebanese Hezbollah is perhaps the foremost example of a group that is known (and listed) in the United States as a terrorist group but is also much more than that. Instead of exploring different options in intelligently dealing with this multifaceted group, more attention gets devoted in a simplistic way to U.S.-European differences on whether Hezbollah “is” a terrorist group—i.e., is officially listed and branded as such.

A related problem is how putting a group on the bad side of the good guys/bad guys divide reduces one's policy flexibility because this one act of branding tends to preclude any engagement with the group, no matter how much such engagement would make sense. Probably the premier example is Hamas. The International Crisis Group recently observed that the ostracism of Hamas may entail yet another costly missed opportunity in the Middle East.

The rigid perceptual division of friends and enemies and the tendency to associate bad behavior such as terrorism only with the enemies does not correspond to actual behavioral patterns. It means, for example, overlooking in the Middle East Jewish terrorism until it occurs frequently enough to make it impossible to overlook entirely. In the United States it means a tendency to consider all terrorism worth worrying about to be Islamist and to discourage attention to other varieties that, based on what has been happening inside the United States, are worth worrying about at least as much.

We would be better advised to remember that terrorism is a tactic, not a fixed set of protagonists who are the only ones ever to use it. We should also remember that good and evil are pretty widely distributed in the world and not just confined to different parts of it.

Image: Thephotostrand

TopicsTerrorism RegionsUnited States

Talking in Circles

The Buzz

What happens when an Englishman tries to apply for Iranian citizenship? Christopher de Bellaigue has the answer. In a fascinating piece in the Atlantic, he recounts his attempt to do so in 2004. The result provides some interesting insights into Iran’s culture and the ongoing negotiations over its nuclear file.

De Bellaigue writes that upon his initial application, he was greeted by a smiling official who promised him that “it would be an honor to consider your case” and that he had “a good chance of success.” He kept returning month after month to hear that his case was “going very well.” But as the process dragged on, he got suspicious. Finally, he learned that there was no real process by which he could gain citizenship. It would have to be awarded by the Iranian cabinet—“a prospect that seemed rather unlikely.”

De Bellaigue attributes his treatment to the deeply ingrained Iranian practice of “ta’arof.” Coming from an Arabic word, he says, in Iran it “refers to a way of managing social relations with decorous manners.” It involves treating others with the utmost kindness, offering them every courtesy, sometimes in a sort of overdone, playacting ritual. But it can also be “a way of letting people down very, very slowly,” of saying no without actually saying it, as it was with de Bellaigue.

As the author notes, this way of conducting business has long frustrated Americans, “who tend to prize efficiency, frankness, and informality.” The clearest parallel is the continuing saga over Iran’s nuclear program. Americans understand the negotiations in concrete terms: quantities of uranium, red lines and so on. There is also a felt need for a clear timeline to resolve the issue—hence the current debates about when to strike if diplomacy has “failed.” In contrast, “Ta’arof is not always supposed to have a resolution; the best conclusion may be an open-ended one.”

Obviously, there is a limit to this analysis. Iran is clearly concerned with the same concrete factors that the P5+1 is. There is a compelling strategic rationale for Iran to drag the discussions out without a definite conclusion: it allows Tehran to keep its options open. But the lesson is still worth noting. As TNI has long contended, cultural differences matter in international affairs. De Bellaigue’s thoughtful piece offers an example of this principle at work at both the personal and national levels.

TopicsSociety RegionsIran