Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 20, 2007

Should We Give Aid to North Korea?

Devastating floods, caused by more than a week of downpours, recently have killed about 300 North Koreans, displaced more than 300,000 of them, and ruined at least 11 percent of their cropland. The waters have also damaged 540 bridges and 800 buildings. The U.N. said 58,000 homes have been destroyed. The capital of Pyongyang is covered by waist-deep water. South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung said that “the flood damage in the North is heartbreaking.”

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has appealed to the international community for assistance. South Korea immediately responded by pledging $7.5 million in emergency assistance. The United States will also help, providing $100,000 to two non-governmental organizations that will supply blankets, water containers, and shelter materials.

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Devastating floods, caused by more than a week of downpours, recently have killed about 300 North Koreans, displaced more than 300,000 of them, and ruined at least 11 percent of their cropland. The waters have also damaged 540 bridges and 800 buildings. The U.N. said 58,000 homes have been destroyed. The capital of Pyongyang is covered by waist-deep water. South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung said that “the flood damage in the North is heartbreaking.”

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has appealed to the international community for assistance. South Korea immediately responded by pledging $7.5 million in emergency assistance. The United States will also help, providing $100,000 to two non-governmental organizations that will supply blankets, water containers, and shelter materials.

Humanitarian assistance is always in season. In fact, the United States has been one of the largest food donors to North Korea in recent years. Yet aid is fungible. Whether we provide in cash or kind, each dollar we give means that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il can spend one fewer dollar on his suffering populace, and one more building weapons of mass destruction. We have, in a real sense, funded the devices that threaten us. Moreover, North Korea’s regime has diverted assistance from the United Nations World Food Program, the world’s largest humanitarian organization, to feed the military and favored officials instead of the country’s most needy citizens. If it were not for aid provided by Bill Clinton and South Korea’s Kim Dae Jung, Kim Jong Il’s destitute regime would have collapsed long ago.

Substantial aid, however, can also undermine a government by dividing the ruling cadre and winning the loyalty of common folk—if the assistance is monitored rigorously by inspectors. For instance, many ordinary North Koreans have gotten their first glimpses of the outside by talking to foreign aid inspectors, and thereby have realized that all Pyongyang told them about other nations is wrong. Moreover, government minders, accompanying foreign inspectors, have traveled around their country for the first time and learned about the failures of their own government. When he has felt threatened by it, Kim Jong Il has turned down international aid, most notably in 2004, when he told the U.N to stop assistance.

By all means, then, let’s help the North Koreans devastated by this week’s rains, but only if we can use aid to subvert their despicable leaders.

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Friedman’s Folly

Has anything sillier than this, from the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman, been written recently by a serious columnist?

Is the surge in Iraq working? That is the question that General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker will answer for us next month. I, alas, am not interested in their opinions. It is not because I don’t hold both men in very high regard. I do. But I’m still not interested in their opinions. I’m only interested in yours. Yes, you—the person reading this column.

This is a case study of a columnist trying to be provocative and merely coming across as pandering and foolish. The main point of Friedman’s column is that the “surge,” while it may be making progress, is insufficient. What matters, he argues, is politics. He sees, as the indispensable condition for American success, “a coalition of Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds who share our vision of a unified, multiparty, power-sharing, democratizing Iraq . . . [and who] are willing to forge a social contract that will allow them to maintain such an Iraq—without U.S. troops.”

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Has anything sillier than this, from the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman, been written recently by a serious columnist?

Is the surge in Iraq working? That is the question that General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker will answer for us next month. I, alas, am not interested in their opinions. It is not because I don’t hold both men in very high regard. I do. But I’m still not interested in their opinions. I’m only interested in yours. Yes, you—the person reading this column.

This is a case study of a columnist trying to be provocative and merely coming across as pandering and foolish. The main point of Friedman’s column is that the “surge,” while it may be making progress, is insufficient. What matters, he argues, is politics. He sees, as the indispensable condition for American success, “a coalition of Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds who share our vision of a unified, multiparty, power-sharing, democratizing Iraq . . . [and who] are willing to forge a social contract that will allow them to maintain such an Iraq—without U.S. troops.”

This is another way of saying what Petraeus and Crocker (and countless others) have said repeatedly: ultimately a decent outcome in Iraq depends on a political solution, not a military one. But the American military must play a key role if political reconciliation is to have any chance of success. To argue that military success has nothing to do with political progress is absurd.

Friedman states that, since “[sectarian] fires have been set, trying to unify Iraq feels like doing carpentry on a burning house.” But to extend the analogy, what Petraeus and company are trying to do is to put out the fire and create the conditions that will allow the carpenters to complete their work. We don’t know if they’ll succeed—but we know they can’t possibly succeed so long as the fire rages.

Petraeus and Crocker have had more success than virtually anyone would have hoped for at the beginning of the year. The evidence of progress on the security side is indisputable. Clearly, we have a long way to go, and the central government in Iraq has been a major disappointment thus far. But to state that what Petraeus and Crocker have to say in September is of no interest is intellectually unserious and even dishonest. Tom Friedman may not believe that Petraeus and Crocker can alter events in Iraq—we shall see—but he will surely care what they say. And pretending that the opinion of a hairstylist in Manhattan or a high school senior in Seattle should carry more weight than the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq is risible.

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Sub-Prime Thinking

The Forgotten Man, Amity Shlaes’s compelling and highly readable reinterpretation of the Depression and the New Deal, is a timely reminder of the way in which government policy can have counterintuitive effects, sometimes of a disastrous nature. Shlaes suggests that, in the Depression era, misguided policies incited and then prolonged the financial crisis, saddling us with the hugely expanded federal government that struggles to manage our economy today.

How is the government doing at that task? Over the past few weeks, and especially over the past few days, financial markets worldwide have been roiled by a credit crisis. That crisis was sparked by a real-estate bubble and a lending boom that are in no small part an unintended consequence of U.S. government policy.

The government encourages home-ownership by offering a significant tax break for mortgage interest. This is one of the few deductions that is not subject to the dreaded alternative minimum tax, which has begun to squeeze the middle class. As with any other subsidy, the effect of the mortgage-interest tax break can be to encourage consumers to buy more housing, and more expensive housing, than they may need.

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The Forgotten Man, Amity Shlaes’s compelling and highly readable reinterpretation of the Depression and the New Deal, is a timely reminder of the way in which government policy can have counterintuitive effects, sometimes of a disastrous nature. Shlaes suggests that, in the Depression era, misguided policies incited and then prolonged the financial crisis, saddling us with the hugely expanded federal government that struggles to manage our economy today.

How is the government doing at that task? Over the past few weeks, and especially over the past few days, financial markets worldwide have been roiled by a credit crisis. That crisis was sparked by a real-estate bubble and a lending boom that are in no small part an unintended consequence of U.S. government policy.

The government encourages home-ownership by offering a significant tax break for mortgage interest. This is one of the few deductions that is not subject to the dreaded alternative minimum tax, which has begun to squeeze the middle class. As with any other subsidy, the effect of the mortgage-interest tax break can be to encourage consumers to buy more housing, and more expensive housing, than they may need.

At the same time, the highly-regulated lending industry was permitted to let the sub-prime mortgage sector grow wildly in the middle of a real-estate boom, with exotic adjustable-rate and interest-only loans enabling all sorts of unqualified buyers to purchase homes on the premise that rising prices would eliminate the risk of default.

These sub-prime loans were cut up and repackaged by investment banks as collateralized debt obligations, which became a favored instrument of unregulated hedge funds. But prices could not rise forever. Financial gravity has now set in. The two government policies that formerly were operating in parallel are now colliding.

As falling real-estate prices make the underlying collateral insufficient to pay off the debt, a number of lending institutions and hedge funds trading in collateral debt obligations have gone belly up, triggering a world-wide panic. The Federal Reserve, which several months ago was pooh-poohing the risks posed by real-estate weakness, has now been forced to step in and reduce the lending rates for banks.

This is a crisis, in other words, that few, including few in government, foresaw. It leads one to wonder what other major risks are lurking hidden in our financial system. Have we really faced the implications, for example, of the fact that China is such a major investor in U.S. Treasury Bonds?

I seldom agree with the New York Times‘s Paul Krugman, and I am not sure I agree with him today when he writes that “it’s hard to avoid the sense that the growing complexity of our financial system is making it increasingly prone to crises—crises that are beyond the ability of traditional policies to handle.”

But it is past time to think imaginatively about hidden dangers to our financial system.

Who should do such thinking? Shlaes’s The Forgotten Man makes it clear that when it comes to a financial crisis, government is the most important actor, and also the least reliable source of insight.

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Rove’s Unused Gift

Mike Gerson, David Frum, Carl Cannon, and many others have offered their view of how history will judge Karl Rove’s contribution as political strategist and White House aide. All of them overlook what was perhaps Rove’s greatest—and least utilized—skill: explaining and advocating the Administration’s policies. Since the outset, the Bush White House has done a terrible job of defending itself in public. On political talk shows, Republican spokesmen were as likely to criticize the White House as they were their Democratic counterparts. Too often Scott McClellan, the ineffective White House spokesman, was the only voice making the case for the Administration. (By the time the far savvier Tony Snow arrived, most people had stopped listening.)

It was a stunning failure of imagination not to have given Rove a more prominent role as White House spokesman, and instead to have dispatched him to endless party-building activities. Rove was not merely a master of policy detail, but a compelling and persuasive debater. Democrats who saw him merely as a Republican James Carville never saw him speak before an audience. While Carville could deliver only partisan hyperbole, Rove was especially effective in front of skeptical audiences, whom he mesmerized with cool but passionate presentations of facts, history, and data. A year ago I saw him receive a standing ovation at the hyper-liberal Aspen Festival of Ideas. When he spoke there this year, making what sounded like an irrefutable case for the surge in Iraq, one of the prominent locals stood up and asked: “Why haven’t we heard these arguments before?” Why indeed.

Mike Gerson, David Frum, Carl Cannon, and many others have offered their view of how history will judge Karl Rove’s contribution as political strategist and White House aide. All of them overlook what was perhaps Rove’s greatest—and least utilized—skill: explaining and advocating the Administration’s policies. Since the outset, the Bush White House has done a terrible job of defending itself in public. On political talk shows, Republican spokesmen were as likely to criticize the White House as they were their Democratic counterparts. Too often Scott McClellan, the ineffective White House spokesman, was the only voice making the case for the Administration. (By the time the far savvier Tony Snow arrived, most people had stopped listening.)

It was a stunning failure of imagination not to have given Rove a more prominent role as White House spokesman, and instead to have dispatched him to endless party-building activities. Rove was not merely a master of policy detail, but a compelling and persuasive debater. Democrats who saw him merely as a Republican James Carville never saw him speak before an audience. While Carville could deliver only partisan hyperbole, Rove was especially effective in front of skeptical audiences, whom he mesmerized with cool but passionate presentations of facts, history, and data. A year ago I saw him receive a standing ovation at the hyper-liberal Aspen Festival of Ideas. When he spoke there this year, making what sounded like an irrefutable case for the surge in Iraq, one of the prominent locals stood up and asked: “Why haven’t we heard these arguments before?” Why indeed.

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Triumph of Experience Over Partisanship

It’s amazing what happens when skeptics of the Iraq War go to Iraq to have a look for themselves. Reality is likely to intrude on ideology. For the latest example, see this report on Representative Brian Baird’s recent trip to Iraq. A liberal Democrat from Washington state who voted against the war, he told his hometown newspaper “that his recent trip to Iraq convinced him the military needs more time in the region, and that a hasty pullout would cause chaos that helps Iran and harms U.S. security.”

Some sniff at such reports as being the result of “choreographed tours” designed by the military to deceive lawmakers about the true state of the war. See, for instance, this article by Washington Post reporter Jonathan Finer. Finer is right that there are limits on what senators and congressmen see in Iraq, where they typically spend only a day or two, and their time is generally limited to briefings on safe U.S. bases. But even those brief glimpses give lawmakers a better sense of what is going on than that possessed by many ideologues back home (both pro and antiwar) who have never visited the front lines at all. It’s especially helpful when, like Baird, lawmakers keep making trips so that they do get some sense of perspective over time to allow them to make better sense of what they’re seeing.

For instance, Baird has learned to be wary of one of the panaceas commonly proposed for solving Iraq’s woes—a division of the country: “He no longer thinks partitioning Iraq into Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd sections is possible, for instance; no one he spoke to in Israel, Jordan, Palestinian cities or Iraq liked the idea, he added.” He has also come to see through the common trope of leftist activists, that setting a timetable for withdrawal will force Iraqis somehow to get their act together. It will likely have the opposite effect: “Baird said he believes that to the extent Iraqis think the United States would withdraw before bringing security to a functioning Iraqi government, ‘that might contribute to the infighting and instability of the government.'”

It’s amazing what happens when skeptics of the Iraq War go to Iraq to have a look for themselves. Reality is likely to intrude on ideology. For the latest example, see this report on Representative Brian Baird’s recent trip to Iraq. A liberal Democrat from Washington state who voted against the war, he told his hometown newspaper “that his recent trip to Iraq convinced him the military needs more time in the region, and that a hasty pullout would cause chaos that helps Iran and harms U.S. security.”

Some sniff at such reports as being the result of “choreographed tours” designed by the military to deceive lawmakers about the true state of the war. See, for instance, this article by Washington Post reporter Jonathan Finer. Finer is right that there are limits on what senators and congressmen see in Iraq, where they typically spend only a day or two, and their time is generally limited to briefings on safe U.S. bases. But even those brief glimpses give lawmakers a better sense of what is going on than that possessed by many ideologues back home (both pro and antiwar) who have never visited the front lines at all. It’s especially helpful when, like Baird, lawmakers keep making trips so that they do get some sense of perspective over time to allow them to make better sense of what they’re seeing.

For instance, Baird has learned to be wary of one of the panaceas commonly proposed for solving Iraq’s woes—a division of the country: “He no longer thinks partitioning Iraq into Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd sections is possible, for instance; no one he spoke to in Israel, Jordan, Palestinian cities or Iraq liked the idea, he added.” He has also come to see through the common trope of leftist activists, that setting a timetable for withdrawal will force Iraqis somehow to get their act together. It will likely have the opposite effect: “Baird said he believes that to the extent Iraqis think the United States would withdraw before bringing security to a functioning Iraqi government, ‘that might contribute to the infighting and instability of the government.'”

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Planet Academia

Have you been waiting for an American version of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich—a searing account of life in the American Gulag? Well, according to the New York Times Book Review, your wait is over. Rush right out and pick your own copy of Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak.

To be sure, the Times’s reviewer, Wellesley professor Dan Chiasson, admits that the poems may be somewhat lacking in artistic merit. But, hey, he suggests, you gotta make allowances:

It is hard to imagine a reader so hardhearted as to bring aesthetic judgment to bear on a book written by men in prison without legal recourse, several of them held in solitary confinement, some of them likely subjected to practices that many disinterested parties have called torture. You don’t read this book for pleasure; you read it for evidence. And if you are an American citizen you read it for evidence of the violence your government is doing to total strangers in a distant place, some of whom (perhaps all of whom, since without due process how are we to tell?) are as innocent of crimes against our nation as you are.

Perhaps all???

Chiasson may be carrying his anti-Bush paranoia a wee bit far, given that the Gitmo detainees now include such charming characters as Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the mastermind of the 9/11 plot. I have yet to hear even the most ardent critic of the administration suggest that KSM is actually innocent.

But Chiasson seems to be writing from an alternative reality—call it Planet Academia—where the Gitmo detainees are not the world’s most vicious terrorists but, rather, political prisoners of a repressive American regime akin to Stalinist Russia. The only thing he can’t seem to figure is why Amerika, that bastion of fascism, would allow these poor souls to publish their writings: “imagine a volume of Osip Mandelstam’s poetry released by the Soviet government in 1938, or an anthology of poems by Japanese internment prisoners released by our government during the Second World War.” He speculates, rather cunningly, that this might actually be a plot by the U.S. government “to make Guantánamo and our abuses there unfold on an abstract ‘literary’ plane rather than in real life and real time,” and thereby to lessen our horror at what is transpiring behind the prison walls.

For my part, I have trouble figuring out why the Times editors would publish what amounts to a parody of liberal antiwar hysteria. Could it be that the dictator in the White House ordered the Times to run this essay in order to confine the antiwar activists to “an abstract literary plane” and thereby to hold them up to general public ridicule?

Have you been waiting for an American version of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich—a searing account of life in the American Gulag? Well, according to the New York Times Book Review, your wait is over. Rush right out and pick your own copy of Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak.

To be sure, the Times’s reviewer, Wellesley professor Dan Chiasson, admits that the poems may be somewhat lacking in artistic merit. But, hey, he suggests, you gotta make allowances:

It is hard to imagine a reader so hardhearted as to bring aesthetic judgment to bear on a book written by men in prison without legal recourse, several of them held in solitary confinement, some of them likely subjected to practices that many disinterested parties have called torture. You don’t read this book for pleasure; you read it for evidence. And if you are an American citizen you read it for evidence of the violence your government is doing to total strangers in a distant place, some of whom (perhaps all of whom, since without due process how are we to tell?) are as innocent of crimes against our nation as you are.

Perhaps all???

Chiasson may be carrying his anti-Bush paranoia a wee bit far, given that the Gitmo detainees now include such charming characters as Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the mastermind of the 9/11 plot. I have yet to hear even the most ardent critic of the administration suggest that KSM is actually innocent.

But Chiasson seems to be writing from an alternative reality—call it Planet Academia—where the Gitmo detainees are not the world’s most vicious terrorists but, rather, political prisoners of a repressive American regime akin to Stalinist Russia. The only thing he can’t seem to figure is why Amerika, that bastion of fascism, would allow these poor souls to publish their writings: “imagine a volume of Osip Mandelstam’s poetry released by the Soviet government in 1938, or an anthology of poems by Japanese internment prisoners released by our government during the Second World War.” He speculates, rather cunningly, that this might actually be a plot by the U.S. government “to make Guantánamo and our abuses there unfold on an abstract ‘literary’ plane rather than in real life and real time,” and thereby to lessen our horror at what is transpiring behind the prison walls.

For my part, I have trouble figuring out why the Times editors would publish what amounts to a parody of liberal antiwar hysteria. Could it be that the dictator in the White House ordered the Times to run this essay in order to confine the antiwar activists to “an abstract literary plane” and thereby to hold them up to general public ridicule?

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