Nelson Mandela will celebrate his 89th birthday tomorrow. To mark the occasion, Mandela, along with Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan, and other “elders” of our global village will launch an extraordinary worldwide humanitarian campaign. The Council of Elders, as the Daily Mail calls it, will be a “United Nations of the great, the good and the rich.” (Expect Clinton—Bill, that is—to have a leading role.)
Conceived by entrepreneur Richard Branson and musician Peter Gabriel, this new assemblage will tackle (and presumably attempt to eradicate) armed conflict, AIDS, and global warming. But are these people really capable of saving the world? Many of the big names on this list didn’t exactly distinguish themselves the first time around. Kofi Annan presided over the decline and (further) corruption of the United Nations; Bill Clinton, his successes at home notwithstanding, failed to use American power abroad wisely. Carter was weak as a president, and seems to have gone around the bend since leaving office. It will take people of great vision and courage to guide the world through the strife undoubtedly lying ahead. (As Washington journalist David von Drehle memorably put it, “some very different sort of world is roaring up at us.”) These “elders,” unfortunately, do not possess that vision.
This new multilateralist group may have commendable aims; ironically, its charter members have helped discredit multilateralism as an instrument in global politics. I worry that this irony will be obscured by the pomp and circumstance attending tomorrow’s celebration.
As usual, there has been considerable fanfare leading up to the release of the new National Intelligence Estimate on “The Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland.” (Or, to be more exact, the release of the NIE summary—the full text remains classified.) Early commentary suggested that this NIE—a consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community—had determined that al Qaeda was just as potent today as it had been on 9/11, and that therefore President Bush’s anti-terrorism policies have been a dismal failure. The actual text is more nuanced, providing ammunition for both the President and his critics.
Michael Bloomberg’s all-but-declared presidential campaign suffered a serious setback on Monday, when the New York state legislature refused to sign on to plans to impose congestion pricing on New York City. The mayor’s plan would have charged people to drive into midtown Manhattan between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays. Congestion pricing is a good idea—in principle. There were, however, numerous substantive problems with Bloomberg’s plan, which would not have reduced traffic so much as redistributed it to less well-to-do areas bordering the mid-Manhattan congestion zone. But what may have been its real undoing was the mix of arrogance and managerial incompetence that the mayor brought with him to Albany.
Bloomberg’s proposal, from the start, struck skeptical legislators as a ploy designed to burnish the mayor’s green credentials for a run at the presidency. And the mayor (who spent the days before the decision not lobbying in Albany, but attending the Aspen Festival) never did the groundwork necessary to win approval in the State legislature. When concerns were raised that the subways were already heavily overcrowded and increasingly late—problems sure to be worsened by the plan—Bloomberg dismissed them out of hand. “He does not accept criticism and he views advice as criticism,” said one Senate Democrat. “He had no answers for complaints that weren’t flippant.” “If the mayor came in with one vote, he left with none,” said Senator Kevin S. Parker (D-Brooklyn). So angered were Albany Democrats that they voted as a bloc to defeat the measure.
Bloomberg cites his previous successes in working with the state legislature as part of his leadership portfolio. But in New York, collaboration like this is less impressive than it sounds: the New York City charter gives the mayor the upper hand in (almost) any conflict. This makes the congestion-pricing flop (as well as Bloomberg’s first-term failure to rally support for his plan to build a heavily-subsidized stadium on the west side of Manhattan) all the worse. Bloomberg, famously autocratic as a CEO, apparently suffers from the same problem in political life. His insistence that he’s above politics—a conceit cushioned by his ability to buy political support—hasn’t cut any ice in the cozy confines of Albany. One can only imagine how it would be received in Washington.
Writing about the collapse of the McCain campaign in New York, John Heilemann offers up a well-tested cliché: praise for a Republican who has no real chance of winning. Heilemann is writing for an audience of readers who have probably had little personal contact with Republicans; it’s easy for him to tell them how badly off the GOP will be without McCain. Heilemann also believes that McCain’s only chance of survival is to “resuscitate his previous image” as a straight-talking iconoclast who boldly defies Republican Party elders (and, by the way, who also lost in the last presidential race).
Heilemann misses the most interesting point about McCain’s seemingly imminent departure from the presidential primaries: this will be the first Republican primary campaign in memory in which the establishment candidate does not end up the winner. Ford in ’76, Reagan in ‘80, Bush in ’88, Dole in ’96, and G.W. Bush in 2000 were all the choices of the establishment fund-raisers and veteran political advisers. For all his reputation as a maverick, McCain began this campaign as a Washington-insider establishment favorite. (The fact that Warren Rudman is one of his campaign chairmen is all you need to know.) Heilemann blames McCain’s woes on precisely this strategy, but historically, it’s been a primary winner.
The question remains whether any of the remaining viable candidates will try to get themselves anointed as the establishment choice. Giuliani, Romney, and Fred Thompson are all styling themselves, legitimately, as Washington outsiders. And that may be a good thing. History shows that the GOP predilection for choosing the establishment candidate doesn’t always work out so well: Ford in ’76, Dole in ’96…
You don’t hear much about Anbar Province anymore. That’s because this area, once the scene of the heaviest fighting in Iraq, has turned remarkably quiet of late. Attacks are down 80 percent since last year. If there is any cause for optimism in Iraq this is it: If an area as troubled as Anbar could be turned around so quickly, then no part of Iraq can truly be said to be hopeless. Yet much hard work remains to be done to consolidate the gains that have recently been made. I asked Colonel John Charlton, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division, whom I visited in April, to provide an update for contentions readers on what is happening in the provincial capital, Ramadi. His emailed response follows:
In China in Revolt in the December COMMENTARY, Gordon Chang took note of the turbulent nature of Chinese society. Three decades of reform have transformed a regimented totalitarian society into a dynamic hybrid: free and unfree, assertive and repressed, at once.
As these antimonies suggest, China is not a society in a stable equilibrium. What is more, its social, political, and economic system is under sustained pressure from many directions. One of the least noted but most significant sources of future trouble is the changing composition of the Chinese population.
Yesterday Noah Pollak (at Middle East Journal) cited some encouraging new poll numbers from Gaza:
Hamas got only 23 percent support, down from 29 percent in the previous survey last month, while Fatah climbed from 31 percent to 43 percent.
The poll, the first major survey since the Hamas takeover, also showed that 66 percent of Hamas supporters said they would vote Fatah if it undertook reforms.
Trust in the Gaza-based deposed Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas stood at 37 percent, compared to 63 percent for Abbas. [Fatah] Prime Minister Sallam Fayad got higher trust marks than Haniyeh, 62-38 percent.
A bit more than eighteen months ago, Hamas took a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament (though it won just 44 percent of the popular vote). These new numbers don’t constitute a directly comparable result, but they suggest (as Pollak and others argue) that Hamas may be its own worst enemy. The tumble in Hamas’s standing also means that Fatah has a chance to recapture and retain power—provided that Abbas can remake his party into one capable of governing a functional (or less dysfunctional) state.
This would mean not only establishing a firm monopoly on violence, but addressing the rampant political corruption, internal tribal divisions, and rotten or non-existent infrastructure that have plagued Palestinian life for years. It would also mean, ultimately, ending hostilities—whether government-sanctioned or not—against Israel. (Dennis Ross took this line of argument at TNR.) Abbas may be too weak to accomplish this, but the opportunity is there. One hopes the Palestinian leadership won’t squander it.