Kesler Gets Executive Power Right

The Buzz

The New York Times commissioned Columbia University’s Mark Lilla to produce a sprawling review of Charles R. Kesler’s critique of President Obama’s presidency (I Am the Change). Surprise!—Lilla doesn’t like the book. He calls it “that rarest of things, a cheap inflationary takedown.” He devotes two pages in the September 30 “Book Review” to making light of Kesler’s arguments.

It’s a good performance on Lilla’s part—sprightly and entertaining. But in dismissing Kesler’s conservative critique, he glosses over a crucial reality of our time—namely, the increasing intensity in the ongoing debate between those who want to invest more power in a growing federal government and those who fear the consequences of executive power. He suggests he just can’t understand why anyone could think Obama is fostering a federal power concentration that could possibly bother anybody.

It’s all about ObamaCare, he finally concludes, feigning just as much puzzlement over how anyone could think this represents anything untoward in American democracy.

Kesler’s study suggests that American politics has called forth three presidents who sought to aggrandize the presidency and the executive branch to a far greater extent than all others. They are Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. And, says Kesler, Obama is in their tradition, as he has sought to arrogate to himself powers and prerogatives of office far in excess of his predecessors.

The trend lines are unmistakable and worthy of a serious debate. Lilla’s flawed review seeks to ridicule Kesler while ignoring the debate. Unfortunate.

TopicsThe Presidency

Revolutionary Air

The Buzz

“What will they do next, bottle air and sell it?” This incredulous expression once might have been fanciful, but thanks to new efforts by Chinese philanthropist Chen Guangbiao, air is actually being canned and sold. Liz Carter over at The Atlantic reports that the profits from Chen’s canned air are being donated to the Chinese military in their efforts to defend the disputed Diaoyu Islands.

There is only one thing to conclude. The Chinese really want those islands.

According to the Global Times, “The air is collected from revolutionary regions, including Jinggang Mountain in Jiangxi Province, some ethnic minority areas and Taiwan, and sells for four to five yuan each.”

So this isn’t just any air, it’s “revolutionary” air. We should have known. What is one to do with revolutionary air? "One only has to open the can, directly 'drink' it or put the nose close to the can to breath[e] deeply," said Chen. Naturally, the first round of revolutionary canned air sold out in just a few days with day-one revenue just shy of $800.

“Brother Biao” as his fans know him is either a genius or a madman. Both are possible. Either way, one thing’s clear: we may be in the wrong business.

TopicsSociety RegionsChina

Second-Guessing About Benghazi

Paul Pillar

Barack Obama signs a condolence book in memory of Ambassador Christopher Stevens.The seemingly endless public rehashing of the attack in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans is not taking a form that serves any useful purpose. That would be true even without the political slant that was stemmed from efforts to turn some of the recriminations into a campaign issue. The loss of the four public servants was a tragedy. The rehashing does not alleviate that tragedy. Some relevant truths should be recalled:

Diplomacy is a dangerous line of work. The memorial wall at the State Department listing the many U.S. diplomats—going back more than two centuries—who have been killed in the line of duty is a reminder of that. There is an inherent tension for diplomats between doing their duties well, with everything that entails regarding contact and exposure in faraway places, and living securely.

Hindsight is cheap. After any incident such as this, one can uncover warnings that might have been applicable to the incident that occurred, measures that could have been taken that conceivably could have prevented the occurrence and various other "what ifs." What does not routinely get noted is that the same sorts of things could be unearthed about countless other facilities that do not get attacked and countless other lethal incidents that do not occur. What is unearthed is a product of the second-guesser's luxury of hindsight. One always can construct an after-the-fact case that any one such incident was preventable; this is not the same as saying that such incidents in the aggregate are preventable.

Resources are limited; threats are not. Even if U.S. diplomats consistently opted for living securely over doing their jobs well, total security cannot be bought. Second-guessing about how more security should have been provided at any one facility rather than any of dozens of others elsewhere (that did not happen to get attacked this time) is just another example of hindsight.

Information about lethal incidents is not total and immediate. The normal pattern after such events is for explanations to evolve as more and better information becomes available. We would and should criticize any investigators who settled on a particular explanation early amidst sketchy information and refused to amend that explanation even when more and better information came in. A demand for an explanation that is quick, definite and unchanging reflects a naive expectation—or in the present case, irresponsible politicking.

The public second-guessing does nothing to honor the service of those Americans who died. And it does nothing to prevent similar incidents. The secretary of state has, per standard procedures, appointed an accountability review board (led by a highly respected and experienced retired diplomat, Thomas Pickering) to assess what happened in Benghazi. Let the board do its job.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsTerrorism RegionsLibyaUnited States

A Man Called Tubesteak

The Buzz

A man called Tubesteak died the other week in Southern California. It was noted in passing by some media, including in a New York Times obituary. But The American Conservative offered up a particularly charming reminiscence by one Roger D. McGrath, identified only as the author of a book called Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes: Violence on the Frontier.

It seems McGrath spent his youth in the late 1950s hanging out with the surfers of Malibu, in Southern California. Though they weren’t conscious of it, they were creating a new beach culture that soon would capture the national imagination. And the leader of this unruly contingent was a young man, somewhat older and substantially bigger than the rest, named Terry Tracy, who fancied himself Malibu’s unchallenged Kahuna. 

He got the Tubesteak sobriquet when he brought hotdogs to a barbecue rather than the anticipated steaks. Chided mercilessly, he defended himself by calling his culinary contribution “tubesteaks.” It stuck. When a diminutive teeny-bopper named Kathy Kohner entered the scene looking for some tutelage in board handling, the boys attempted to shoo her away, whereupon Tubesteak appeared from his makeshift beach shack to inquire about the interloper’s identity.

“It’s a girl,” said one.

“It’s a midget,” said another.

Tubesteak promptly labeled her a “gidget.” The name stuck, and Tubesteak became her protector.

Turned out that Kathy’s father was a Hollywood writer named Frederick Kohner, and he took sufficient interest in his daughter’s new milieu to capture it in a 1957 book entitled Gidget. Intrigued editors of Life magazine sent a reporter and photographer to investigate. The resulting story prompted a Hollywood studio to pay $50,000 for the movie rights—a sufficient sum, as McGrath notes, to buy a Malibu beach home in those days.

Thus did Sandra Dee become Gidget (and later Sally Field in the TV version) and Cliff Robertson become Tubesteak. And thus did a little slice of Americana gain national attention. Tubesteak settled down in San Clemente, fathered seven children and surfed until his fiftieth birthday. His passing deserved notice, and it was smart of The American Conservative to share it. 


Netanyahu Dumbs It Down

Paul Pillar

One naturally wonders what was going through the mind of the Israeli prime minister, or of his staff or speechwriters, when deciding to include in his address to the United Nations General Assembly such an obvious invitation for satire and ridicule. And on a deadly serious topic, which Mr. Netanyahu more than anyone has repeatedly proclaimed we ought to view in deadly serious terms. I am referring, of course, to the drawing of a cartoon bomb that he used as a prop and on which he drew a red line with a marker while talking about imposing red lines on Iran's nuclear program. A major topic of postspeech analysis has concerned which cartoons were possible sources of the bomb design. Was it something Wile E. Coyote had used against Road Runner, or did it—and more evidence leans in this direction—come from Boris and Natasha on the old Rocky and Bullwinkle show? There are many satiric directions one could go with Netanyahu's prop, and Photoshop-adept wags in Israel wasted no time in having fun with some of them.

Sometimes dumbing a topic down, even to the level of cartoons, has the advantage of getting a single point across clearly even at the expense of distorting or oversimplifying the rest of the topic. But if the point concerned where Netanyahu wanted to establish a red line for Iran's nuclear program, he failed to clarify this and instead only confused. The line he drew on his cartoon bomb indicated that what would be unacceptable would be any enrichment of uranium to the 90 percent (i.e., weapons-grade) level. If that is the line, there is no problem and no issue. Iran is doing no enrichment to that level and has given no indication of moving to that level. If it were to begin to make such a move, this would immediately be observed by the on-site inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. In his remarks, however, Netanyahu said Iran should not be permitted to “complete” medium-level (20 percent) enrichment. That is not only at odds with his graphic but also intrinsically unclear. What does “complete” mean, especially given that—this is something the prime minister never mentioned—more than half of the 20 percent-enriched uranium Iran has produced is being made into fuel plates for nuclear reactors and as such is no longer available for possible further enrichment to weapons grade?

All of this is, however, beside the point. We collectively give Netanyahu far too much credit for believing what he is saying and for being focused on technical details that he claims to be focused on. His case for the Iranian nuclear program being some kind of grave, imminent threat does not stand up, and he is smart enough to realize it does not stand up. Thus he loses nothing through confusion, contradiction and silly graphics. The idea that Iran is only a few months away from having a nuclear weapon simply does not conform with the facts regarding the status of its enrichment program and everything else that would be required to build a usable weapon. It does not conform with the weight of the evidence that Tehran hasn't even decided to build a bomb. What Netanyahu claimed about red lines and a threat of military attack being able to deter Iran from continuing its current nuclear program contradicts, as Tony Karon points out, the assertions about the supposed inability to deter Iran if it had a nuclear weapon, which is the main basis for all the alarmism in the first place about a nuclear-armed Iran. This parallels the similar contradiction involved when those promoting the use of military force against Iran argue, as they often do, that Iran would be deterred from striking back forcefully. As for the supposed horrors that would ensue if Iran did acquire a nuclear weapon, what Netanyahu had to say about that in his U.N. speech—such as suggesting that continued Iranian enrichment of uranium would somehow mean Al Qaeda having a nuclear weapon—was just as cartoonish as what he said about red lines, even if he did not have a graphic to go with it.

The use of even a satire-inducing prop becomes a little less puzzling if we do not take what Netanyahu is saying at face value but instead realize what he is trying to do, which is not to establish some technical case about timelines of the Iranian nuclear program. He is, for one thing, succeeding in getting our attention. The above-the-fold portions of the front pages of Friday's New York Times and Washington Post were dominated by a picture of Netanyahu holding up his cartoon bomb drawing.

If the Israeli prime minister looks somewhat looney by using something that could have come out of Looney Tunes, that only adds to building the image of himself as someone who might actually be crazy enough to start a war with Iran. His principal audience in this regard is not in Iran but instead in the United States. The threat of dragging the United States into such a folly of a war serves in the first instance to increase the pressure for sanctions, subversion, and other dimensions of conflict with Iran short of overt military force. It also serves to box the U.S. president into a position in which if overt war comes, it is more likely to involve the United States and not just Israel.

Netanyahu's agitation and saber rattling, and the effects they have on U.S. policies, also help to subvert prospects for success in negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue. They help, moreover, to prevent any broader U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, thus supporting the Israeli line that Israel is the only partner the United States can hope to have within a region full of threats and enemies.

All the agitation on Iran has diverted attention from topics that Netanyahu does not want to receive attention, which include above all the festering conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. A measure of how well this diversion of attention has succeeded is how little notice the Palestinian situation has received in reporting in the United States of the speeches at the General Assembly. That includes coverage of the speech by Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, who devoted much of his address to that topic and reminded his listeners that the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement was only one half of the Camp David accords, with promised progress on the Palestinian issue being the other.

Speaking of diversion of attention, note also how, in contrast to Netanyahu's cartoon-aided presentation, relatively little comment has been given to the speech at the same podium the previous day by Iranian president Mahmoud Admadinejad. Most comments just noted how rambling and ultimately boring Ahmadinejad's speech was. The only things he said about Israel were to complain (and what Iranian president couldn't or wouldn't complain about this?) about all the Israeli threats and hostility directed against Iran. There was no reference to map wiping or any of the other rhetoric that has repeatedly been seized upon by those talking up an Iranian nuclear threat. It is interesting how when such snippets of rhetoric appear they are vigorously extrapolated into conclusions about future Iranian policy, but when they do not appear the absence is simply ignored.

Image: World Economic Forum

TopicsDomestic PoliticsUNSanctionsNuclear ProliferationWeapons Inspections RegionsIsraelIranUnited StatesPalestinian territories