Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 12, 2007

The “Emergencies” of the Stem-Cell Debate

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank offers a portrait of the debate on stem-cell research that took place in the Senate over the last two days. He notes the extent to which Senators, especially those working to remove the boundaries governing federal funding of embryo research, focused on sad, often quite touching stories of illness and suffering in their own lives and those of their families and friends.

This makes sense, of course, since the debate was about medical research. But on the other hand, it does raise the question of exactly what case those stories were intended to make. The stem-cell debate is not about whether our country should support medical research—there is an absolute consensus on that point. The federal government spends about $30 billion on such research through the National Institutes of Health each year. The debate is not even about whether to support stem-cell research. The federal government has spent about $3 billion on various forms of stem-cell research since 2001, including more than $130 million on embryonic stem-cell research.

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The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank offers a portrait of the debate on stem-cell research that took place in the Senate over the last two days. He notes the extent to which Senators, especially those working to remove the boundaries governing federal funding of embryo research, focused on sad, often quite touching stories of illness and suffering in their own lives and those of their families and friends.

This makes sense, of course, since the debate was about medical research. But on the other hand, it does raise the question of exactly what case those stories were intended to make. The stem-cell debate is not about whether our country should support medical research—there is an absolute consensus on that point. The federal government spends about $30 billion on such research through the National Institutes of Health each year. The debate is not even about whether to support stem-cell research. The federal government has spent about $3 billion on various forms of stem-cell research since 2001, including more than $130 million on embryonic stem-cell research.

But that money has been spent under the constraints of President Bush’s embryonic stem-cell funding policy, which says only research that uses lines of cells created before the policy was enacted can be funded. Those created from embryos destroyed after the policy came into effect are not eligible. The idea is to prevent taxpayer dollars from offering an incentive to destroy human embryos–which is precisely what the bill the Senate passed last night (by a vote of 63 to 34, falling short of the margin needed to override a veto) would do.

What’s wrong with such research? The President believes (as do I) that human embryos—human beings in their earliest developmental stages—should not be treated as raw materials for scientific experimentation. America’s commitment to equality requires us to treat all human beings with at least that minimal regard. (I laid out this case on the New York Times op-ed page a few months ago.) Others believe that human embryos are not worthy of that degree of regard or protection, because they’re not developed enough, or large enough, or possessed of the capacity for cognition or pain.

These are legitimate arguments about the nature of the human embryo and the appropriate attitude toward it. But what bearing does a Senator’s story about his neighbor’s diabetes have on the argument? The point of these stories in the stem-cell debate is to argue not that one approach or another is ethical, but that the fact that so many of us and our loved ones suffer from serious ailments should cause us to put ethics aside. It is a case for approaching medical research—and indeed the very fact of illness, if not of death itself—with what might best be called a crisis mentality. Our illnesses, our deaths, are an emergency, and until the emergency is over we can’t bother with abstractions about equality and dignity.

This, too, is not a senseless attitude. But it is deeply misguided and dangerous. The “emergency” will never be over. Disease and death will haunt us always. We are right to struggle against them, and modern medicine offers us some formidable tools in that effort, which we ought to use and develop further. But we must do so with a sense that medicine is a science of postponement and an art of delay, not a crusade for final victory over death. That means the mission of medicine is permanent, not temporary. And that in turn means modern medicine must find its place in everyday life, rather than insist that we treat everyday life as an emergency that requires the suspension of moral and ethical rules. If we can have no recourse to ethics until we’re done fighting disease, then we can have no ethics at all.

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China Conundrum

What should we do about the rise of China? To answer this question, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) convened an “independent task force,” a group of thirty experts, including Commentary contributors Aaron Friedberg and Arthur Waldron. The group has just issued its findings under the title: U.S.-China Relations: An Affirmative Agenda, A Responsible Course.

Like all such documents, the report has its share of compelling and tedious moments. The most revealing section of this one is its nine dissents, a record-breaker for the consensus-seeking CFR. (For the record, Friedberg and Waldron are among the dissenters.) In his demurral, Winston Lord, U.S. ambassador to the PRC under Ronald Reagan, complains that the report “seriously understates the harshness of the Chinese political system and the backsliding in recent years on political reform and human rights.”

Coming at the same issue from another direction is Maurice Greenberg, the insurance tycoon and former chairman of AIG, who in his own dissent takes issue with what he calls the report’s “persistent urging of democracy in China.”

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What should we do about the rise of China? To answer this question, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) convened an “independent task force,” a group of thirty experts, including Commentary contributors Aaron Friedberg and Arthur Waldron. The group has just issued its findings under the title: U.S.-China Relations: An Affirmative Agenda, A Responsible Course.

Like all such documents, the report has its share of compelling and tedious moments. The most revealing section of this one is its nine dissents, a record-breaker for the consensus-seeking CFR. (For the record, Friedberg and Waldron are among the dissenters.) In his demurral, Winston Lord, U.S. ambassador to the PRC under Ronald Reagan, complains that the report “seriously understates the harshness of the Chinese political system and the backsliding in recent years on political reform and human rights.”

Coming at the same issue from another direction is Maurice Greenberg, the insurance tycoon and former chairman of AIG, who in his own dissent takes issue with what he calls the report’s “persistent urging of democracy in China.”

Greenberg, who has been making a mint in China, notes that since 1975 when he began to travel there, he has seen “unbelievable change,” especially in the economy. The key to it all, he maintains, is political stability, which we should not endanger. The United States should therefore “stop pressing China to adopt a democratic political system–that is up to them. If it is to occur, it has to be their own choice.”

I do not know what this particular logical fallacy is called in Latin, but one is left wondering who is the “them” that Greenberg is referring to here? And if democracy in China “has to be their own choice,” who is going to be making this choice? The Chinese people or their self-appointed and self-perpetuating Communist leaders?

But let’s not be in a rush to solve this difficult conundrum. The Chinese market is huge. There’s money to be made.

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The Military’s Media Problem

I’ve been traveling around Iraq for more than a week, spending time with U.S. forces. One constant is complaints about the news media. “Why doesn’t the press show the good we’re doing?,” soldiers ask. They wonder why the coverage seems so slanted.

Part of the answer is that the soldiers’ tactical successes may not be adding up to strategic success. Another part of the answer is undoubtedly the bias of the press—not only against the war but also in favor of negative news. But another important factor is the ham-handed reticence with which the military makes its own case.

The conventional military mindset sees the media as a potential enemy to be shunned at all costs. Officers who get quoted too much are derided behind their backs as “glory-seekers” or “self-promoters.” The focus is always supposed to be on the team, not the individual, and there is a general assumption that good deeds will speak for themselves. General George Casey, the former U.S. commander in Iraq (now about to become Army chief of staff), exemplified this point of view. He seldom spoke to the media and tightly limited who could speak on behalf of his command.

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I’ve been traveling around Iraq for more than a week, spending time with U.S. forces. One constant is complaints about the news media. “Why doesn’t the press show the good we’re doing?,” soldiers ask. They wonder why the coverage seems so slanted.

Part of the answer is that the soldiers’ tactical successes may not be adding up to strategic success. Another part of the answer is undoubtedly the bias of the press—not only against the war but also in favor of negative news. But another important factor is the ham-handed reticence with which the military makes its own case.

The conventional military mindset sees the media as a potential enemy to be shunned at all costs. Officers who get quoted too much are derided behind their backs as “glory-seekers” or “self-promoters.” The focus is always supposed to be on the team, not the individual, and there is a general assumption that good deeds will speak for themselves. General George Casey, the former U.S. commander in Iraq (now about to become Army chief of staff), exemplified this point of view. He seldom spoke to the media and tightly limited who could speak on behalf of his command.

The result of such caution is to cede the “information battlespace” to critics of the war and even to outright enemies such as Osama bin Laden and Moqtada al Sadr, who have shrewdly manipulated press coverage. General David Petraeus, the new U.S. commander in Iraq, wants to engage more actively in what are known as “information operations,” and he’s off to a good start. He is, for instance, taking reporters with him on tours of the battlefield. On Saturday he had a correspondent from the San Antonio newspaper along when he traveled to Baqubah. (I also accompanied him, as did Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute.) But to be successful, Petraeus will have to get more officers to follow his example.

Some officers I met with earlier this week at Task Force Justice in the Khadimiya neighborhood of northwest Baghdad offered useful suggestions for what should be done: (1) require all battalions to set up a secure, comfortable room where reporters can stay and file stories; (2) contact media organizations to invite them to send embeds; (3) distribute lists of media contacts down to battalion and even company level and encourage officers to contact the press directly, bypassing the ponderous public-affairs bureaucracy; (4) grade battalion, brigade, and division commanders on how well they engage the press.

To this I would add one other idea: troops on the ground who see inaccurate reports about their operations should contact the media outlets in question and demand corrections—or take other steps to publicize the facts as they know them. In short: stop griping about the press in private and start doing something about it in public. That’s just what some military bloggers are already doing, but their activities are often frowned upon.

What the armed forces have to realize is that in today’s world engaging in information ops can no longer be a peripheral part of a military campaign. In a sense, the kinetic operations have come to be peripheral to the core struggle for hearts and minds in Iraq—and back home. If the armed forces don’t do a better job of waging this part of the struggle, they can lose the war, no matter what happens on the battlefield.

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