Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 4, 2008

Is ‘No Country for Old Men’ About the Culture of Death?

Walking away from the Coen Brothers film of No Country for Old Men, you may have a couple of questions. For instance, why is the film set in 1980? And what does it all mean? In Cormac McCarthy’s novel, it’s obvious why the story takes place in 1980. The reason is Vietnam. Most of the characters served there; it’s where they learned about the value of human life, or lack thereof.

The sheriff’s deputy, examining a crime scene that ended up in a shootout, says, “It must of sounded like Vietnam out here.” When Moss (played by Josh Brolin in the film) buys ammo, he thinks, “the box of shells contained almost exactly the firepower of a claymore mine.” The sheriff (the Tommy Lee Jones character) tells Moss’s wife that “he’s goin’ to wind up killin somebody,” to which the wife responds, “He never has.” The sheriff points out, “he was in Vietnam,” and the wife says, “I mean as a civilian.” That dry distinction—that killing in war doesn’t count—is ironic.

When Carson Wells (the Woody Harrelson character) is killed by Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem in the film), Chigurh thinks about “the body of a child dead in a roadside ravine in another country,” as well as all the people he has assassinated, which underlines the point that killing leads to more killing. The sheriff thinks about how “I was supposed to be a war hero and I lost a whole squad of men. They died and I got a medal.”

COMMENTARY Editorial Director John Podhoretz has castigated the film as nihilist. But if you measure McCarthy’s ironic tone in the book, you might come to another conclusion. Possibly McCarthy is taking the extreme, Catholic stance that all killing is wrong, from capital punishment to war to abortion. The book takes place seven years after Roe v. Wade, five years after the fall of Saigon, four years after the restoration of the death penalty by the Supreme Court. It’s a year when the idea that state could sanction killing has begun to take root. The sheriff, in the book as in the film the voice of wisdom and restraint, expresses a sad resignation toward the death penalty from page one on, and a portion of the book that isn’t referred to in the movie might be the key to understanding McCarthy’s moral.

Remembering a conference in Corpus Christi, the sheriff thinks, “Me and Loretta…got set next to this woman, she was the wife of somebody or other. And she kept talkin about the right wing this and the right wing that. I ain’t even sure what she meant by it. The people I know are mostly just common people. Common as dirt, as the sayin goes. I told her that and she looked at me funny. She thought I was sayin somethin bad about em, but of course that’s a high compliment in my part of the world. She kept on, kept on. Finally told me, said: I don’t like the way this country is headed. I want my granddaughter to be able to have an abortion. And I said well mam I don’t think you got any worries about the way the country is headed. The way I see it goin I dont have much doubt but what she’ll be able to have an abortion. I’m goin to say that not only will she be able to have an abortion, she’ll be able to have you put to sleep. Which pretty much ended the conversation.”

McCarthy has a vision of an America that fosters what Pope John Paul II called a “culture of death;” these men come back from Vietnam, where they learned to kill, then apply their killing skills on a country that is killing fetuses and condemned prisoners and will soon give the okay to killing old people and the weak. The remorseless assassin Anton Chigurh is the natural consequence of a culture of death: A harbinger of unchecked killing.

Walking away from the Coen Brothers film of No Country for Old Men, you may have a couple of questions. For instance, why is the film set in 1980? And what does it all mean? In Cormac McCarthy’s novel, it’s obvious why the story takes place in 1980. The reason is Vietnam. Most of the characters served there; it’s where they learned about the value of human life, or lack thereof.

The sheriff’s deputy, examining a crime scene that ended up in a shootout, says, “It must of sounded like Vietnam out here.” When Moss (played by Josh Brolin in the film) buys ammo, he thinks, “the box of shells contained almost exactly the firepower of a claymore mine.” The sheriff (the Tommy Lee Jones character) tells Moss’s wife that “he’s goin’ to wind up killin somebody,” to which the wife responds, “He never has.” The sheriff points out, “he was in Vietnam,” and the wife says, “I mean as a civilian.” That dry distinction—that killing in war doesn’t count—is ironic.

When Carson Wells (the Woody Harrelson character) is killed by Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem in the film), Chigurh thinks about “the body of a child dead in a roadside ravine in another country,” as well as all the people he has assassinated, which underlines the point that killing leads to more killing. The sheriff thinks about how “I was supposed to be a war hero and I lost a whole squad of men. They died and I got a medal.”

COMMENTARY Editorial Director John Podhoretz has castigated the film as nihilist. But if you measure McCarthy’s ironic tone in the book, you might come to another conclusion. Possibly McCarthy is taking the extreme, Catholic stance that all killing is wrong, from capital punishment to war to abortion. The book takes place seven years after Roe v. Wade, five years after the fall of Saigon, four years after the restoration of the death penalty by the Supreme Court. It’s a year when the idea that state could sanction killing has begun to take root. The sheriff, in the book as in the film the voice of wisdom and restraint, expresses a sad resignation toward the death penalty from page one on, and a portion of the book that isn’t referred to in the movie might be the key to understanding McCarthy’s moral.

Remembering a conference in Corpus Christi, the sheriff thinks, “Me and Loretta…got set next to this woman, she was the wife of somebody or other. And she kept talkin about the right wing this and the right wing that. I ain’t even sure what she meant by it. The people I know are mostly just common people. Common as dirt, as the sayin goes. I told her that and she looked at me funny. She thought I was sayin somethin bad about em, but of course that’s a high compliment in my part of the world. She kept on, kept on. Finally told me, said: I don’t like the way this country is headed. I want my granddaughter to be able to have an abortion. And I said well mam I don’t think you got any worries about the way the country is headed. The way I see it goin I dont have much doubt but what she’ll be able to have an abortion. I’m goin to say that not only will she be able to have an abortion, she’ll be able to have you put to sleep. Which pretty much ended the conversation.”

McCarthy has a vision of an America that fosters what Pope John Paul II called a “culture of death;” these men come back from Vietnam, where they learned to kill, then apply their killing skills on a country that is killing fetuses and condemned prisoners and will soon give the okay to killing old people and the weak. The remorseless assassin Anton Chigurh is the natural consequence of a culture of death: A harbinger of unchecked killing.

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The Growing Electorate

More voters. That’s the key detail from Iowa last night. The Republican caucus electorate was 20 percent larger than in 2000 (from 86,000 to 103,000); the Democratic electorate was almost twice the size it was in 2004. Barack Obama got scads of new voters, but then, the data suggest, so did Hillary Clinton. This follows the pattern of every election since 2000. There were 105 million voters that year, and 122 million in 2004. John Kerry bested Al Gore’s vote tally by 16 percent; George W. Bush bested his own 2000 tally by 22 percent. The numbers in the midterm elections in 2002 and 200 showed a level of participation never before equaled in non-presidential years.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Television, as you have probably heard, was supposedly draining our capacity for civic participation. We were bowling alone. We don’t know when the Civil War was. We only care about Britney Spears. We don’t care about anything except our Big Macs, our SUVs, and our Venti Decaf Skim Lattes.

Evidently, we do care about a great many things. It turns out the Edward R. Murrow Era of Glorious Network Coverage With Lots of Foreign Bureaus was the period during which American voters increasingly tuned out. Meanwhile, in the Celebutard Guitar Hero Reality Television Internet Porn Era of Partisans Screaming Past Each Other Rather Than Engaging in Wonderful Civic Discourse, Americans are becoming more and more engaged with the politics of the present moment. Maybe American Idol, with its “you pick the winner” model, is actually better for civil virtue than Harvest of Shame.

More voters. That’s the key detail from Iowa last night. The Republican caucus electorate was 20 percent larger than in 2000 (from 86,000 to 103,000); the Democratic electorate was almost twice the size it was in 2004. Barack Obama got scads of new voters, but then, the data suggest, so did Hillary Clinton. This follows the pattern of every election since 2000. There were 105 million voters that year, and 122 million in 2004. John Kerry bested Al Gore’s vote tally by 16 percent; George W. Bush bested his own 2000 tally by 22 percent. The numbers in the midterm elections in 2002 and 200 showed a level of participation never before equaled in non-presidential years.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Television, as you have probably heard, was supposedly draining our capacity for civic participation. We were bowling alone. We don’t know when the Civil War was. We only care about Britney Spears. We don’t care about anything except our Big Macs, our SUVs, and our Venti Decaf Skim Lattes.

Evidently, we do care about a great many things. It turns out the Edward R. Murrow Era of Glorious Network Coverage With Lots of Foreign Bureaus was the period during which American voters increasingly tuned out. Meanwhile, in the Celebutard Guitar Hero Reality Television Internet Porn Era of Partisans Screaming Past Each Other Rather Than Engaging in Wonderful Civic Discourse, Americans are becoming more and more engaged with the politics of the present moment. Maybe American Idol, with its “you pick the winner” model, is actually better for civil virtue than Harvest of Shame.

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A Summit with Singh

Yesterday, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing announced that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will begin a three-day visit to China on January 13. There are long-running border disputes and fundamental disagreements between the Chinese and the Indians. Not one will be settled during the brief moments when Singh actually sits down for talks with his counterparts.

Although the itinerary has yet to be announced, it’s clear that the visit will be filled with a series of high-profile events and made-for-television handshakes. In short, Singh’s sojourn in the Chinese capital will resemble the smiles summit that the Chinese staged for Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda late last month. For example, Singh, if early reports are correct, will also address Chinese students at one of Beijing premier universities.

There is no such thing as coincidence when it comes to Chinese diplomacy, at least when relations with China’s big-power rivals are involved. So we need to ask ourselves why Beijing is engaging in content-less diplomacy at this moment. Optimists, of course, will say that the country’s foreign policy is maturing and Beijing wants harmonious relations while it hosts the Olympics. Pessimists—I prefer to call them “realists”—might think that the Chinese are covering their flanks in preparation for misadventure elsewhere in the region. For example, Beijing may be thinking of intensifying pressure on Vietnam—the two countries are already involved in an especially nasty phase of their long-running territorial dispute over the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea. Or perhaps the Chinese are thinking of taking a bite out of Taiwan, such as a quick grab of its outlying islands.

In any event, China is undoubtedly trying to woo Tokyo away from Washington and prevent New Delhi from getting even closer to America. To the extent that China has any grand strategy at this moment, it is to push the United States out of Asia and make itself the unquestioned hegemon there. That means, at a minimum, Washington, in addition to problems elsewhere, needs to think about the next steps toward consolidating its relationship with India. The problems in the Middle East are important, of course, but superpowers never have the luxury of concentrating all their attentions on just one problem or region.

Yesterday, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing announced that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will begin a three-day visit to China on January 13. There are long-running border disputes and fundamental disagreements between the Chinese and the Indians. Not one will be settled during the brief moments when Singh actually sits down for talks with his counterparts.

Although the itinerary has yet to be announced, it’s clear that the visit will be filled with a series of high-profile events and made-for-television handshakes. In short, Singh’s sojourn in the Chinese capital will resemble the smiles summit that the Chinese staged for Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda late last month. For example, Singh, if early reports are correct, will also address Chinese students at one of Beijing premier universities.

There is no such thing as coincidence when it comes to Chinese diplomacy, at least when relations with China’s big-power rivals are involved. So we need to ask ourselves why Beijing is engaging in content-less diplomacy at this moment. Optimists, of course, will say that the country’s foreign policy is maturing and Beijing wants harmonious relations while it hosts the Olympics. Pessimists—I prefer to call them “realists”—might think that the Chinese are covering their flanks in preparation for misadventure elsewhere in the region. For example, Beijing may be thinking of intensifying pressure on Vietnam—the two countries are already involved in an especially nasty phase of their long-running territorial dispute over the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea. Or perhaps the Chinese are thinking of taking a bite out of Taiwan, such as a quick grab of its outlying islands.

In any event, China is undoubtedly trying to woo Tokyo away from Washington and prevent New Delhi from getting even closer to America. To the extent that China has any grand strategy at this moment, it is to push the United States out of Asia and make itself the unquestioned hegemon there. That means, at a minimum, Washington, in addition to problems elsewhere, needs to think about the next steps toward consolidating its relationship with India. The problems in the Middle East are important, of course, but superpowers never have the luxury of concentrating all their attentions on just one problem or region.

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Hugh Massingberd, R.I.P.

Yesterday, when Sam Munson related the sad news of George MacDonald Fraser’s death, he pointed readers to the Telegraph‘s obituaries page. Fraser was memorialized in a number of British papers—here are the Independent and the Guardian—but I’m glad Sam settled on what is, for my money (or at least for my free online subscription), the most brilliant obit page that the dead beat has to offer on either side of the pond. With its taste for humor, its nose for the salacious, bizarre, or simply telling detail, and its scalpel-sharp yet utterly deadpan prose, it outshines all the competition, and I can’t think of a more fitting end to a memorable life. (I should also note that in her recent book The Death of the Grown-Up, Diana West praises the page for honoring little-known but often jaw-droppingly daring war heroes. Those obituaries are, of course, more subdued and respectful, but they are every bit as spellbinding.)

Hugh Massingberd, the obituaries editor of the Telegraph from 1986 to 1994 and the man who made it what it iss, died on Christmas Day. He ought to be remembered as fondly as any of the great men and women whose lives he celebrated—or, if not celebrated, at least rendered with astonishing vividness.

Massingberd later wrote, “I determined to dedicate myself to chronicling what people were really like through informal anecdote, description and character sketch.” Laughter, he added, would be by no means out of place.

His ambition took many years to come to fruition. When, in 1979, during the strike at The Times, Massingberd sought to convince the Telegraph‘s editor, Bill Deedes, to venture upon a more expansive obituaries section, he was given to understand that it would be rather poor form to exploit the difficulties of a rival publication.

Finally, in 1986, Max Hastings gave Massingberd his opportunity. Immediately, Telegraph readers found themselves regaled by such characters as Canon Edward Young, the first chaplain of a striptease club; the last Wali of Swat, who had a fondness for brown Windsor soup; and Judge Melford Stevenson, who considered that “a lot of my colleagues are just constipated Methodists.”

The holidays have come and gone, but there’s no excuse not to make yourself a present of one of these collections.

Yesterday, when Sam Munson related the sad news of George MacDonald Fraser’s death, he pointed readers to the Telegraph‘s obituaries page. Fraser was memorialized in a number of British papers—here are the Independent and the Guardian—but I’m glad Sam settled on what is, for my money (or at least for my free online subscription), the most brilliant obit page that the dead beat has to offer on either side of the pond. With its taste for humor, its nose for the salacious, bizarre, or simply telling detail, and its scalpel-sharp yet utterly deadpan prose, it outshines all the competition, and I can’t think of a more fitting end to a memorable life. (I should also note that in her recent book The Death of the Grown-Up, Diana West praises the page for honoring little-known but often jaw-droppingly daring war heroes. Those obituaries are, of course, more subdued and respectful, but they are every bit as spellbinding.)

Hugh Massingberd, the obituaries editor of the Telegraph from 1986 to 1994 and the man who made it what it iss, died on Christmas Day. He ought to be remembered as fondly as any of the great men and women whose lives he celebrated—or, if not celebrated, at least rendered with astonishing vividness.

Massingberd later wrote, “I determined to dedicate myself to chronicling what people were really like through informal anecdote, description and character sketch.” Laughter, he added, would be by no means out of place.

His ambition took many years to come to fruition. When, in 1979, during the strike at The Times, Massingberd sought to convince the Telegraph‘s editor, Bill Deedes, to venture upon a more expansive obituaries section, he was given to understand that it would be rather poor form to exploit the difficulties of a rival publication.

Finally, in 1986, Max Hastings gave Massingberd his opportunity. Immediately, Telegraph readers found themselves regaled by such characters as Canon Edward Young, the first chaplain of a striptease club; the last Wali of Swat, who had a fondness for brown Windsor soup; and Judge Melford Stevenson, who considered that “a lot of my colleagues are just constipated Methodists.”

The holidays have come and gone, but there’s no excuse not to make yourself a present of one of these collections.

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Sarkozy Shows Us Up

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is showing up the United States, and not just because he has a far better looking girlfriend than any Commander-in-Chief of recent memory. In stark contrast to the uncharacteristically silent Bush administration, Jacques Chirac’s successor has demonstrated impressive toughness in addressing the deepening Lebanese presidential crisis, in which the Hezbollah-led opposition has blocked the parliamentary majority from electing a new president since pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud’s term officially ended in November.

While visiting Egypt earlier this week, Sarkozy announced that France would suspend contacts with Syria as punishment for Syria’s political interference in Lebanon. Sarkozy compounded this blow by prompting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to declare his support for Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora; Mubarak said that Egypt “supports the election of a president for Lebanon as soon as possible”—an implicit dig against the Assad regime. On Wednesday, Syria responded with a far-less-convincing suspension of contact with France, oddly conceding, “Syria can’t dispense with France’s role in Europe.”

The Bush administration has long seen itself as having few good options vis-à-vis Syria. Though Washington views Syria as a key player in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, it has been hesitant to normalize relations with Damascus while the U.N. probe into Rafik Hariri’s assassination—in which the Assad regime has been implicated—is ongoing. In short, the administration has correctly refused to exchange the pipedream of Arab-Israeli peace for Lebanese stability, to which the completion of the Hariri investigation is essential. But Sarkozy’s breaking of ties with Syria provides the Bush administration with a key opening through which it can promote another essential regional interest: prying Syria from Iran.

As Iranian state television reported on Wednesday, in the aftermath of soured Syrian-French relations, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem declared, “The pressures exerted by certain countries will never undermine the strong relations between Tehran and Damascus.” Au contraire! Only three days earlier, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reportedly told U.S. Senator Arlen Specter that he was ready for peace talks with Israel, a move that would dampen Iranian-Syrian cooperation for years to come. With Sarkozy’s brilliant strike against Damascus, the Bush administration is now able to offer Assad a stark choice: normalization with western states that are broadly united on Lebanon and Arab-Israeli peace, or an isolated alliance with Iran. The former offers the political, strategic, and economic benefits of relations with the west and possible peace with Israel in accordance with Assad’s stated desires; the latter offers Syria’s continued confinement as a rogue state—a prospect made more costly by Sarkozy’s announcement. Most importantly, Lebanese stability—which has severe consequences for Arab democratization, Iranian ascendancy, Arab-Israeli peace—would no longer be on the table thanks to the leverage provided by Sarkozy’s move.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is showing up the United States, and not just because he has a far better looking girlfriend than any Commander-in-Chief of recent memory. In stark contrast to the uncharacteristically silent Bush administration, Jacques Chirac’s successor has demonstrated impressive toughness in addressing the deepening Lebanese presidential crisis, in which the Hezbollah-led opposition has blocked the parliamentary majority from electing a new president since pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud’s term officially ended in November.

While visiting Egypt earlier this week, Sarkozy announced that France would suspend contacts with Syria as punishment for Syria’s political interference in Lebanon. Sarkozy compounded this blow by prompting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to declare his support for Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora; Mubarak said that Egypt “supports the election of a president for Lebanon as soon as possible”—an implicit dig against the Assad regime. On Wednesday, Syria responded with a far-less-convincing suspension of contact with France, oddly conceding, “Syria can’t dispense with France’s role in Europe.”

The Bush administration has long seen itself as having few good options vis-à-vis Syria. Though Washington views Syria as a key player in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, it has been hesitant to normalize relations with Damascus while the U.N. probe into Rafik Hariri’s assassination—in which the Assad regime has been implicated—is ongoing. In short, the administration has correctly refused to exchange the pipedream of Arab-Israeli peace for Lebanese stability, to which the completion of the Hariri investigation is essential. But Sarkozy’s breaking of ties with Syria provides the Bush administration with a key opening through which it can promote another essential regional interest: prying Syria from Iran.

As Iranian state television reported on Wednesday, in the aftermath of soured Syrian-French relations, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem declared, “The pressures exerted by certain countries will never undermine the strong relations between Tehran and Damascus.” Au contraire! Only three days earlier, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reportedly told U.S. Senator Arlen Specter that he was ready for peace talks with Israel, a move that would dampen Iranian-Syrian cooperation for years to come. With Sarkozy’s brilliant strike against Damascus, the Bush administration is now able to offer Assad a stark choice: normalization with western states that are broadly united on Lebanon and Arab-Israeli peace, or an isolated alliance with Iran. The former offers the political, strategic, and economic benefits of relations with the west and possible peace with Israel in accordance with Assad’s stated desires; the latter offers Syria’s continued confinement as a rogue state—a prospect made more costly by Sarkozy’s announcement. Most importantly, Lebanese stability—which has severe consequences for Arab democratization, Iranian ascendancy, Arab-Israeli peace—would no longer be on the table thanks to the leverage provided by Sarkozy’s move.

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McCain as Agent for Change

Here are some details from the conference call I just had with Senator John McCain. On last night’s results, the Senator was quick to point out that negative campaigning had worked against Mitt Romney, and that he hoped Romney would drop the tactic, as he’s not interested in going tit-for-tat from here on. Although, he never said he wouldn’t go tit-for-tat, and later in the call acknowledged that going negative can move campaigns along.

What’s most evident was the Senator’s embracing the “agent of change” mantra, of which every candidate has recently wanted to take partial ownership. In McCain’s case, the claim is particularly credible. He was pushing for a change in Iraq strategy while most Republicans were still blaming the bad news solely on the press. He pointed out that he proposed scrapping the Rumsfeld plan so early on that John Edwards took to labeling the troop surge “the McCain surge.” As a proponent of the most critical change in recent U.S. foreign affairs, the Senator should be able to point to the success of the troop surge and embarrass both Democrats and Republicans into dropping the whole change angle.

He was exhilarated about his townhall meeting with Joe Lieberman last night, calling it the highlight of his political career. The Senator emphasized that Lieberman is an independent Democrat, while pointing out that this bi-partisan townhall meeting was a first, as far as he knew. A bit later he stressed that he’s the only Republican talked about as being attractive to independent voters, and added that this bodes well in a general election. I pointed out that one could surmise that a McCain-Lieberman ticket is something he’s more than casually mulling around. Senator McCain said that vice presidential predictions are good fun and games, but, in any case, Lieberman would certainly play a large national security role in a McCain presidency. He pointed to Senator Lieberman’s assessment of the Iranian threat as particularly indicative of his keen sense on national security. “But right now, I just came in third,” he said. “After I win on February 5, we’ll revisit this conversation.” That conversation may come courtesy of Mitt Romney.

Here are some details from the conference call I just had with Senator John McCain. On last night’s results, the Senator was quick to point out that negative campaigning had worked against Mitt Romney, and that he hoped Romney would drop the tactic, as he’s not interested in going tit-for-tat from here on. Although, he never said he wouldn’t go tit-for-tat, and later in the call acknowledged that going negative can move campaigns along.

What’s most evident was the Senator’s embracing the “agent of change” mantra, of which every candidate has recently wanted to take partial ownership. In McCain’s case, the claim is particularly credible. He was pushing for a change in Iraq strategy while most Republicans were still blaming the bad news solely on the press. He pointed out that he proposed scrapping the Rumsfeld plan so early on that John Edwards took to labeling the troop surge “the McCain surge.” As a proponent of the most critical change in recent U.S. foreign affairs, the Senator should be able to point to the success of the troop surge and embarrass both Democrats and Republicans into dropping the whole change angle.

He was exhilarated about his townhall meeting with Joe Lieberman last night, calling it the highlight of his political career. The Senator emphasized that Lieberman is an independent Democrat, while pointing out that this bi-partisan townhall meeting was a first, as far as he knew. A bit later he stressed that he’s the only Republican talked about as being attractive to independent voters, and added that this bodes well in a general election. I pointed out that one could surmise that a McCain-Lieberman ticket is something he’s more than casually mulling around. Senator McCain said that vice presidential predictions are good fun and games, but, in any case, Lieberman would certainly play a large national security role in a McCain presidency. He pointed to Senator Lieberman’s assessment of the Iranian threat as particularly indicative of his keen sense on national security. “But right now, I just came in third,” he said. “After I win on February 5, we’ll revisit this conversation.” That conversation may come courtesy of Mitt Romney.

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The Morning After: A Japanese Take

Japan is one place where Hillary Clinton’s drubbing in Iowa may spark some optimism.

During a just-completed visit to that country, high government officials reminded me repeatedly of a statement by Mrs. Clinton that had shocked them by the way it ignored Japan’s pivotal role in Asia. She had written in the November 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs, that: “Our relationship with China will be the most important bilateral relationship in the world in this century.”

No one who, like me, regularly visits both countries can possibly imagine that China is remotely close to reaching the levels of living standard, education, and economic and technical sophistication of Japan today, to say nothing of its political freedoms.

Japan is in addition a far more formidable military power than is usually recognized. Her self-defense forces are superbly trained and competent. On December 18 she became only the second country in the world to intercept an incoming missile in space—when one of her Kongo class Aegis destroyers destroyed a target, designed to resemble a North Korean Nodong, outside the earth’s atmosphere in a test near Hawaii.

Furthermore, geography dictates that any Chinese attempt at force projection in northeast Asia would hit, almost immediately, the likely unyielding boundaries of Japanese territory and interest. Japan is far larger than her four main islands. The most distant point in the chain of islands that runs south of Nagasaki through Okinawa and beyond is Yonaguni island. It’s more than 1,312 miles from Tokyo (Beijing,Seoul, and Manila are all closer) and only sixty miles from the northeast coast of Taiwan. As the Chinese well understand, this fact means that any operation against Taiwan would almost certainly involve violation of Japanese sea and air space, which would lead to hostilities with Japan and her ally the United States.

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Japan is one place where Hillary Clinton’s drubbing in Iowa may spark some optimism.

During a just-completed visit to that country, high government officials reminded me repeatedly of a statement by Mrs. Clinton that had shocked them by the way it ignored Japan’s pivotal role in Asia. She had written in the November 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs, that: “Our relationship with China will be the most important bilateral relationship in the world in this century.”

No one who, like me, regularly visits both countries can possibly imagine that China is remotely close to reaching the levels of living standard, education, and economic and technical sophistication of Japan today, to say nothing of its political freedoms.

Japan is in addition a far more formidable military power than is usually recognized. Her self-defense forces are superbly trained and competent. On December 18 she became only the second country in the world to intercept an incoming missile in space—when one of her Kongo class Aegis destroyers destroyed a target, designed to resemble a North Korean Nodong, outside the earth’s atmosphere in a test near Hawaii.

Furthermore, geography dictates that any Chinese attempt at force projection in northeast Asia would hit, almost immediately, the likely unyielding boundaries of Japanese territory and interest. Japan is far larger than her four main islands. The most distant point in the chain of islands that runs south of Nagasaki through Okinawa and beyond is Yonaguni island. It’s more than 1,312 miles from Tokyo (Beijing,Seoul, and Manila are all closer) and only sixty miles from the northeast coast of Taiwan. As the Chinese well understand, this fact means that any operation against Taiwan would almost certainly involve violation of Japanese sea and air space, which would lead to hostilities with Japan and her ally the United States.

These geographical, economic, and political facts mean that in Asia the most important relationship for Washington must be with Japan. Lip service is regularly paid to this concept. In reality, however, as Mrs. Clinton’s essay demonstrates, Washington gives relatively low priority to consultation with Japan and attention to Japanese issues, particularly when compared to China.

Hillary mentions Japan only once, near the end of her piece, observing: “We must find additional ways for Australia, India, Japan, and the United States to cooperate on issues of mutual concern, including combating terrorism, cooperating on global climate control, protecting global energy supplies, and deepening global economic development.” That is all.

So my Japanese friends may be forgiven if they feel some relief at the primary defeat of a candidate who so conspicuously ignored their country. But they will continue to worry (as I will too) for Hillary’s views are sadly typical of elite American foreign policy thinking today.

Will someone else be better? That’s far from clear. A quick Google search of keywords “Barack Obama” and “Japan” suggested that, on this issue, Iowa’s winner has spoken out so far only about the superior gas mileages of Japanese made automobiles.

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It’s Not Unfortunate, It’s Natural

As we noted yesterday, the January 1 deadline for North Korea to turn in a complete accounting of its nuclear-weapons program, as it agreed to do last February, has come and gone without any sign that this homework assignment will ever be turned in.

The “silence has generated unease, even embarrassment, among North Korea’s counterparts in the six-party talks hosted by China,” reports the Economist. But the Chinese were not among those embarrassed. They described the delay simply as “natural.”

The Bush administration, on the other hand, reacted more belligerently, calling the North Korean misbehavior “unfortunate.” But such a harsh word is now generating repercussions.

Today, North Korea’s main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun announced that the North will “continue to harden its war deterrent further in response to the U.S. stepping up its nuclear war moves.” The Los Angeles Times explains that North Korean talk about bolstering its nuclear deterrent “usually means it thinks international powers are not treating it properly.” In Korean culture, showing respect is critical. Obviously, the State Department should have been more deferential.

To revive the talks, which have been generating so many valuable broken promises, the United States should now reverse course, publicly declare that the word “unfortunate” was unfortunate, and join the Chinese in calling the North Korean delay “natural.”

As we noted yesterday, the January 1 deadline for North Korea to turn in a complete accounting of its nuclear-weapons program, as it agreed to do last February, has come and gone without any sign that this homework assignment will ever be turned in.

The “silence has generated unease, even embarrassment, among North Korea’s counterparts in the six-party talks hosted by China,” reports the Economist. But the Chinese were not among those embarrassed. They described the delay simply as “natural.”

The Bush administration, on the other hand, reacted more belligerently, calling the North Korean misbehavior “unfortunate.” But such a harsh word is now generating repercussions.

Today, North Korea’s main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun announced that the North will “continue to harden its war deterrent further in response to the U.S. stepping up its nuclear war moves.” The Los Angeles Times explains that North Korean talk about bolstering its nuclear deterrent “usually means it thinks international powers are not treating it properly.” In Korean culture, showing respect is critical. Obviously, the State Department should have been more deferential.

To revive the talks, which have been generating so many valuable broken promises, the United States should now reverse course, publicly declare that the word “unfortunate” was unfortunate, and join the Chinese in calling the North Korean delay “natural.”

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About Last Night

A few thoughts about last night:

1. The biggest story, by far, is Barack Obama’s victory. He’s going to come out of Iowa like a freight train. I suspect he’ll (easily) beat Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire and win the nomination. And he has to be the favorite to be the next President of the United States.

2. Senator Obama is in possession of tremendous political talents – talents as good as Bill Clinton in some areas and better than him in others. Obama has the right pitch, a reassuring presence, and a huge likeability factor. He has always been far more naturally gifted than Hillary Clinton – and once he evened the playing field early in ’07 in terms of money and organization, it came down to who is the better candidate. On that scorecard, it’s not even close. We’re seeing that right now. Obama is getting better as a candidate (watch his powerful speech last night if you missed it); Hillary Clinton is not (watch her very bad speech last night, if you missed it and can bear it).

3. Senator Obama has weaknesses, including his inexperience and his liberalism, and they matter. We’re electing a President, after all, not deciding on a prom date. And so scrutiny on Obama’s positions, which has largely been missing from the campaign so far, will increase – and that will eventually take a toll. The impressive but vague and abstract appeal of Obama should decrease as the prosaic side of politics – namely, a candidate’s stand on the issues – begins to push aside the poetry side of politics.

What Obama has working in his favor, I think, is that his areas of vulnerability are off-set to some extent (and maybe to a large extent) by his personality, his tone, his bearing. He is inexperienced – but he radiates a sense of good judgment. He has a liberal voting record – but he comes across as largely anti-ideological and certainly as anti-radical. Those things should help him down the road, though they will certainly not inoculate him.

4. Republicans have to be worried that the “intensity gap,” which has been extremely large until now and may grow. The turnout for Democrats last night exceeded 239,000 – almost double what it was four years ago. It was an enormous, even breathtaking, showing. Democrats are excited and it’s manifesting itself in money and in turnout.

In contrast, and until now, Republicans have been in almost a torpor. The path to victory is hard enough as it is; if the party remains in need of Prozac for much longer, it’ll be wiped out in November. The (reasonable) hope for the party is that once it settles on a nominee, it’ll shake off the listlessness. Another positive sign: Republicans last night set a record in turnout (though the number of Republicans showing up to cast votes was only half the number of Democrats who did).

5. Mike Huckabee is the most naturally gifted politician in the GOP field and second to Senator Obama among all the candidates. But his political situation, while strong, is not nearly as enviable as Obama’s. The GOP race remains extremely fluid, with New Hampshire not nearly as hospitable to Huckabee as it is to Obama. It’s not unreasonable to think that Huckabee’s showing in Iowa was sui generis, given his strong appeal to evangelicals, who dominate the GOP caucus-goers in Iowa (they made up 60 percent of the vote last night). Huckabee won the evangelical vote by an overwhelming margin – and lost badly to Romney among non-evangelicals. This demonstrates, I think, that Huckabee’s appeal, while certainly real, may also be narrow.

Read More

A few thoughts about last night:

1. The biggest story, by far, is Barack Obama’s victory. He’s going to come out of Iowa like a freight train. I suspect he’ll (easily) beat Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire and win the nomination. And he has to be the favorite to be the next President of the United States.

2. Senator Obama is in possession of tremendous political talents – talents as good as Bill Clinton in some areas and better than him in others. Obama has the right pitch, a reassuring presence, and a huge likeability factor. He has always been far more naturally gifted than Hillary Clinton – and once he evened the playing field early in ’07 in terms of money and organization, it came down to who is the better candidate. On that scorecard, it’s not even close. We’re seeing that right now. Obama is getting better as a candidate (watch his powerful speech last night if you missed it); Hillary Clinton is not (watch her very bad speech last night, if you missed it and can bear it).

3. Senator Obama has weaknesses, including his inexperience and his liberalism, and they matter. We’re electing a President, after all, not deciding on a prom date. And so scrutiny on Obama’s positions, which has largely been missing from the campaign so far, will increase – and that will eventually take a toll. The impressive but vague and abstract appeal of Obama should decrease as the prosaic side of politics – namely, a candidate’s stand on the issues – begins to push aside the poetry side of politics.

What Obama has working in his favor, I think, is that his areas of vulnerability are off-set to some extent (and maybe to a large extent) by his personality, his tone, his bearing. He is inexperienced – but he radiates a sense of good judgment. He has a liberal voting record – but he comes across as largely anti-ideological and certainly as anti-radical. Those things should help him down the road, though they will certainly not inoculate him.

4. Republicans have to be worried that the “intensity gap,” which has been extremely large until now and may grow. The turnout for Democrats last night exceeded 239,000 – almost double what it was four years ago. It was an enormous, even breathtaking, showing. Democrats are excited and it’s manifesting itself in money and in turnout.

In contrast, and until now, Republicans have been in almost a torpor. The path to victory is hard enough as it is; if the party remains in need of Prozac for much longer, it’ll be wiped out in November. The (reasonable) hope for the party is that once it settles on a nominee, it’ll shake off the listlessness. Another positive sign: Republicans last night set a record in turnout (though the number of Republicans showing up to cast votes was only half the number of Democrats who did).

5. Mike Huckabee is the most naturally gifted politician in the GOP field and second to Senator Obama among all the candidates. But his political situation, while strong, is not nearly as enviable as Obama’s. The GOP race remains extremely fluid, with New Hampshire not nearly as hospitable to Huckabee as it is to Obama. It’s not unreasonable to think that Huckabee’s showing in Iowa was sui generis, given his strong appeal to evangelicals, who dominate the GOP caucus-goers in Iowa (they made up 60 percent of the vote last night). Huckabee won the evangelical vote by an overwhelming margin – and lost badly to Romney among non-evangelicals. This demonstrates, I think, that Huckabee’s appeal, while certainly real, may also be narrow.

At the same time, Huckabee is winsome, humorous, formidable, and shrewd. I have my own concerns about Huckabee, including (above all) his stand on national security, which is the least impressive and coherent among the top-tier Republicans; his head-snapping reversal on immigration; his “populist” rhetoric on economics; and even his use of faith in this campaign. But it would be foolish to dismiss him, or what he represents.

The GOP candidates who simply tried to ape Ronald Reagan more than a quarter-century after he was first elected President came up short. It’s important to bear in mind that when Reagan ran, he put forward philosophically fresh, creative ideas (like supply side economics and moving beyond containment with the Soviet Union) and changed the intellectual contours of the GOP. Today’s GOP candidates, with the exception of Huckabee, come across as stale and (as is the case with Hillary Clinton) backward-looking—and Huckabee’s appeal is more personality driven than ideological. One senses among Republicans that the intellectual cupboards are bare, and they are, right now, out of sync with the country.

Barack Obama came into this week riding a wave. It grew a lot bigger last night – and after Tuesday, it’ll grow bigger still.

Hillary Clinton and the GOP have their work cut out for them.

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