Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 20, 2008

Take Your Time, North Korea

Yesterday, President Bush told critics of his North Korean policies to pipe down and be patient. “Somehow people are precluding–you know, jumping ahead of the game,” he said as he appeared with his South Korean counterpart, Lee Myung-bak, at Camp David. Referring to the North Koreans’ February 2007 promise to disclose their nuclear programs, Bush said this: “They have yet to make a full declaration. Why don’t we just wait and see what they say before people go out there and start giving their opinions about whether or not this is a good deal or a bad deal?”

First of all, nobody is rushing to judgment, Mr. President. The North Koreans in October had promised to make the all-important declaration by the end of last year. It is now a matter of historical fact that they are more than three months late.

Moreover, the North Koreans rarely fail to miss an opportunity to tell an untruth, especially when it comes to their nuclear weapons. Incredibly, they have stated they already delivered a declaration. According to them, they possess only 30 kilograms of plutonium instead of the 50 kilograms that almost everyone believes they hold. Perhaps more important, the North Koreans stated they never had any nuclear weapons program based on uranium and have not proliferated anything to anybody, including the Syrians.

Lies, lies, lies! And what does the American president say in light of North Korea’s obvious fabrications? “He’s testing the relationship,” Bush noted yesterday in a reference to Kim Jong Il. “He’s wondering whether or not the five of us will stay unified, and the only thing I know to do is to continue pressing forward within the six-party framework.”

There are so many things wrong with this statement, it’s hard to find the place to begin. Yet let me note three points. First, if this is a North Korean test of American will, the last thing to do is to let Mr. Kim get his way. That, as they say in the geopolitics biz, is a sign of weakness. Pyongyang’s leader is not waiting for the Bush administration to end, as many pundits believe; he apparently sees no need to disarm in view of general American helplessness. Second, I cannot believe that the President, by publicly saying that he knows no alternative to the six-party talks, has just admitted that he has run out of ideas. Even proponents of engaging the North Koreans have become skeptics of the negotiating process that started in the middle of 2003. Third, the five other parties are not unified. Apart from pious statements from China, for instance, there is little evidence that Beijing shares Washington’s goal of disarming North Korea.

If Kim wanted to give up his weapons, he would be doing so at this moment. It’s time for the Bush administration to recognize that its plan has failed and to move on. We need less patience because we need to know where we stand.

And, yes, it’s true that President Bush’s term is nearing its end. Yet he still has an obligation to defend America and its allies. And that means, among other things, that he should stop issuing inane statements and making us look helpless.

Yesterday, President Bush told critics of his North Korean policies to pipe down and be patient. “Somehow people are precluding–you know, jumping ahead of the game,” he said as he appeared with his South Korean counterpart, Lee Myung-bak, at Camp David. Referring to the North Koreans’ February 2007 promise to disclose their nuclear programs, Bush said this: “They have yet to make a full declaration. Why don’t we just wait and see what they say before people go out there and start giving their opinions about whether or not this is a good deal or a bad deal?”

First of all, nobody is rushing to judgment, Mr. President. The North Koreans in October had promised to make the all-important declaration by the end of last year. It is now a matter of historical fact that they are more than three months late.

Moreover, the North Koreans rarely fail to miss an opportunity to tell an untruth, especially when it comes to their nuclear weapons. Incredibly, they have stated they already delivered a declaration. According to them, they possess only 30 kilograms of plutonium instead of the 50 kilograms that almost everyone believes they hold. Perhaps more important, the North Koreans stated they never had any nuclear weapons program based on uranium and have not proliferated anything to anybody, including the Syrians.

Lies, lies, lies! And what does the American president say in light of North Korea’s obvious fabrications? “He’s testing the relationship,” Bush noted yesterday in a reference to Kim Jong Il. “He’s wondering whether or not the five of us will stay unified, and the only thing I know to do is to continue pressing forward within the six-party framework.”

There are so many things wrong with this statement, it’s hard to find the place to begin. Yet let me note three points. First, if this is a North Korean test of American will, the last thing to do is to let Mr. Kim get his way. That, as they say in the geopolitics biz, is a sign of weakness. Pyongyang’s leader is not waiting for the Bush administration to end, as many pundits believe; he apparently sees no need to disarm in view of general American helplessness. Second, I cannot believe that the President, by publicly saying that he knows no alternative to the six-party talks, has just admitted that he has run out of ideas. Even proponents of engaging the North Koreans have become skeptics of the negotiating process that started in the middle of 2003. Third, the five other parties are not unified. Apart from pious statements from China, for instance, there is little evidence that Beijing shares Washington’s goal of disarming North Korea.

If Kim wanted to give up his weapons, he would be doing so at this moment. It’s time for the Bush administration to recognize that its plan has failed and to move on. We need less patience because we need to know where we stand.

And, yes, it’s true that President Bush’s term is nearing its end. Yet he still has an obligation to defend America and its allies. And that means, among other things, that he should stop issuing inane statements and making us look helpless.

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What The Times Was Up To

Max Boot’s post earlier today about the preposterous New York Times story on the relationship between the Pentagon and former-military men-turned-war-pundits was spot on. I think, based on many years of experience working at various newspapers, that there is an explanation for the extreme length — 7800 words — of the story and the fact that it manages to find nothing more than an effort by the Pentagon to get good coverage. The Times thought it was on to something very big, ended up with something very small, and then took what little they had and tried to make a silk purse from the sow’s ear that was reporter David Barstow’s investigation.

I intuit  that this story, which features extensive use of Freedom of Information requests, was originally conceived as an investigation of potentially criminal activity — specifically, whether the Pentagon bribed these men to say things and write things both the Pentagon and the pundits themselves knew to be false. If there were such payments, it would be a requirement in law that the payments would be made on the basis of contracts — like the contracts that Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher, two conservative pundits, received from the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services respectively to promote legislation.

In the end, however, The story reads like a work of investigative journalism that came up entirely dry.  Perhaps  Barstow was tipped off to something seriously rotten and saw a Pulitzer dangling before him if he could only get chapter and verse. Perhaps someone else at the Times was, and threw the assignment to Barstow. Whatever is the case, there proved to be no there there, and Barstow was left with a huge amount of information with no clear act of wrongdoing.

So he did what is called a “notebook dump,” with the approval and even encouragement of his editors, revealing every single bit of information he uncovered. What began as a possible major scoop ended up as a “thumbsucker,” one of those “this is a cautionary tale about the way the Bush administration tried to spin the public.” Barstow’s endless tale reveals nothing more than that the Pentagon treated former military personnel like VIPs, courted them and served them extremely well, in hopes of getting the kind of coverage that would counteract the nastier stuff written about the Defense Department in the media. The fact that they were treated no better, if I have my guess right, than Thomas Friedman is treated any time his assistant places a phone call informing the pooh-bahs of Washington that the Great Man is deigning to give them an audience goes unremarked.

The honest thing to do in these circumstances is to kill the piece because you didn’t get the goods. That’s the problem with investigative journalism — often, the scandal is too confusing to be described in an exciting way, or it isn’t a scandal at all. But newspapers never kill the piece, because they spent too much money, too much time, and had too much hope to say, “You know what? This just didn’t pan out.”

Max Boot’s post earlier today about the preposterous New York Times story on the relationship between the Pentagon and former-military men-turned-war-pundits was spot on. I think, based on many years of experience working at various newspapers, that there is an explanation for the extreme length — 7800 words — of the story and the fact that it manages to find nothing more than an effort by the Pentagon to get good coverage. The Times thought it was on to something very big, ended up with something very small, and then took what little they had and tried to make a silk purse from the sow’s ear that was reporter David Barstow’s investigation.

I intuit  that this story, which features extensive use of Freedom of Information requests, was originally conceived as an investigation of potentially criminal activity — specifically, whether the Pentagon bribed these men to say things and write things both the Pentagon and the pundits themselves knew to be false. If there were such payments, it would be a requirement in law that the payments would be made on the basis of contracts — like the contracts that Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher, two conservative pundits, received from the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services respectively to promote legislation.

In the end, however, The story reads like a work of investigative journalism that came up entirely dry.  Perhaps  Barstow was tipped off to something seriously rotten and saw a Pulitzer dangling before him if he could only get chapter and verse. Perhaps someone else at the Times was, and threw the assignment to Barstow. Whatever is the case, there proved to be no there there, and Barstow was left with a huge amount of information with no clear act of wrongdoing.

So he did what is called a “notebook dump,” with the approval and even encouragement of his editors, revealing every single bit of information he uncovered. What began as a possible major scoop ended up as a “thumbsucker,” one of those “this is a cautionary tale about the way the Bush administration tried to spin the public.” Barstow’s endless tale reveals nothing more than that the Pentagon treated former military personnel like VIPs, courted them and served them extremely well, in hopes of getting the kind of coverage that would counteract the nastier stuff written about the Defense Department in the media. The fact that they were treated no better, if I have my guess right, than Thomas Friedman is treated any time his assistant places a phone call informing the pooh-bahs of Washington that the Great Man is deigning to give them an audience goes unremarked.

The honest thing to do in these circumstances is to kill the piece because you didn’t get the goods. That’s the problem with investigative journalism — often, the scandal is too confusing to be described in an exciting way, or it isn’t a scandal at all. But newspapers never kill the piece, because they spent too much money, too much time, and had too much hope to say, “You know what? This just didn’t pan out.”

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About That Basra Debacle . . .

Ever since the Iraqi insurgency first proved resilient, the MSM has not missed an opportunity to label any military challenge a lost cause. On March 31, the New York Times’s James Glanz and Erica Goode reported that the Iraqi military was unable to drive Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army from Basra, forcing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to approach Sadr, hat in hand, and plead with him to stand down. Sadr reportedly complied. The Times painted a worrisome picture of Maliki’s predicament:

Many Iraqi politicians say that Mr. Maliki’s political capital has been severely depleted by the Basra campaign and that he is in the curious position of having to turn to Mr. Sadr, a longtime rival, for a way out.

And it was a chance for Mr. Sadr to flaunt his power, commanding both armed force and political strength that can forcefully challenge the other dominant Shiite parties, including Mr. Maliki’s Dawa movement and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

Three weeks later. Same battle, same players, same paper, same reporter. Here’s James Glanz, writing this time with Alissa J. Rubin in today’s New York Times.

Iraqi soldiers took control of the last bastions of the cleric Moktada al-Sadr’s militia in Basra on Saturday, and Iran’s ambassador to Baghdad strongly endorsed the Iraqi government’s monthlong military operation against the fighters.

[…]

Despite the apparent concession of Basra, Mr. Sadr issued defiant words on Saturday night. In a long statement read from the loudspeakers of his Sadr City Mosque, he threatened to declare “war until liberation” against the government if fighting against his militia forces continued.

But it was difficult to tell whether his words posed a real threat or were a desperate effort to prove that his group was still a feared force. . .

What a strange ceasefire it was, leading as it did to three more weeks of fighting; what a strange powerlessness Maliki suffered, leading as it did to total victory; and what a strange power flaunted by Sadr, leading as it did to total defeat.

In short, the evidence is in: the Times got Basra upside down. The battle that James Glanz saw as a decisive sign of Maliki’s impotence, Sadr’s influence, and Iraq’s hopelessness proved to be a demonstration of Maliki’s adaptability, Sadr’s irrelevance, and Iraq’s capacity to free itself from the sectarian divisions that characterized its pre-Surge state of affairs. To be sure, Maliki stumbled in the early parts of the Basra fight. However, he obviously did not approach Sadr as a desperate man, but as a statesman who wanted to augment his military approach with diplomacy. At the time, Maliki even said Iraqi troops would continue the fight in Basra—a fact the Times ignored.

In his statement on Saturday, Sadr summed up the most important aspect: “This government has forgotten that we are their brothers and were part of them.” Indeed, they have. Mesopotamia’s supposedly inescapable sectarian allegiances are loosening, and those who are set on exploiting the Iraq that was will continue to find themselves complaining on the sidelines.

Ever since the Iraqi insurgency first proved resilient, the MSM has not missed an opportunity to label any military challenge a lost cause. On March 31, the New York Times’s James Glanz and Erica Goode reported that the Iraqi military was unable to drive Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army from Basra, forcing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to approach Sadr, hat in hand, and plead with him to stand down. Sadr reportedly complied. The Times painted a worrisome picture of Maliki’s predicament:

Many Iraqi politicians say that Mr. Maliki’s political capital has been severely depleted by the Basra campaign and that he is in the curious position of having to turn to Mr. Sadr, a longtime rival, for a way out.

And it was a chance for Mr. Sadr to flaunt his power, commanding both armed force and political strength that can forcefully challenge the other dominant Shiite parties, including Mr. Maliki’s Dawa movement and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

Three weeks later. Same battle, same players, same paper, same reporter. Here’s James Glanz, writing this time with Alissa J. Rubin in today’s New York Times.

Iraqi soldiers took control of the last bastions of the cleric Moktada al-Sadr’s militia in Basra on Saturday, and Iran’s ambassador to Baghdad strongly endorsed the Iraqi government’s monthlong military operation against the fighters.

[…]

Despite the apparent concession of Basra, Mr. Sadr issued defiant words on Saturday night. In a long statement read from the loudspeakers of his Sadr City Mosque, he threatened to declare “war until liberation” against the government if fighting against his militia forces continued.

But it was difficult to tell whether his words posed a real threat or were a desperate effort to prove that his group was still a feared force. . .

What a strange ceasefire it was, leading as it did to three more weeks of fighting; what a strange powerlessness Maliki suffered, leading as it did to total victory; and what a strange power flaunted by Sadr, leading as it did to total defeat.

In short, the evidence is in: the Times got Basra upside down. The battle that James Glanz saw as a decisive sign of Maliki’s impotence, Sadr’s influence, and Iraq’s hopelessness proved to be a demonstration of Maliki’s adaptability, Sadr’s irrelevance, and Iraq’s capacity to free itself from the sectarian divisions that characterized its pre-Surge state of affairs. To be sure, Maliki stumbled in the early parts of the Basra fight. However, he obviously did not approach Sadr as a desperate man, but as a statesman who wanted to augment his military approach with diplomacy. At the time, Maliki even said Iraqi troops would continue the fight in Basra—a fact the Times ignored.

In his statement on Saturday, Sadr summed up the most important aspect: “This government has forgotten that we are their brothers and were part of them.” Indeed, they have. Mesopotamia’s supposedly inescapable sectarian allegiances are loosening, and those who are set on exploiting the Iraq that was will continue to find themselves complaining on the sidelines.

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Nailbiting Time

The punditocracy is worried about Barack Obama. Maureen Dowd isn’t pleased with his debate performance (although she explains it’s because he really operates on a higher plane than mere mortal politicians):

The thorny questions Obama got in the debate were absolutely predictable, yet he seemed utterly unprepared and annoyed by them. He did not do well for the same reason he failed to outmaneuver Hillary in a year’s worth of debates: he disdains the convention, the need for sound bites and witty flick-offs and game-changing jabs.

Eleanor Clift was dismayed that he “spoke haltingly much of the time” and was “on the defensive,” and she now wonders if Obama would be a nominee “whose vulnerabilities boost chances of a Republican victory in the fall.” And others (here and here and here) are equally dismayed. Some are downright disgusted by the gap between Obama’s high-minded appeal to “new politics” and the cynical realities of his campaign. Some are disappointed by the fact that “it’s still true that after so many months of promising hard truths, Obama doesn’t really force people to accept any.”

Did one debate performance do all that? Was media confidence in him so shaky that a few tough questions from ABC moderators could send his standings into a tailspin? There is a bipolar quality to such opinion shifts: one day Obama is the messiah of American politics, the next he’s a deeply flawed candidate. And the public fretting that Hillary Clinton’s criticism prefigures eventual GOP attacks highlights a central problem for Obama: isn’t he going to be vulnerable when the GOP does launch its salvos?

But all this fretting is really to be expected: Obama has staked everything on his verbal acuity. When that fails, he has no safety net. He cannot point to tough campaigns or great legislative achievements to assure his base that he’s been through worse. So it all comes down to sustaining the balloon of excitement and novelty he has created.

Likewise, when Obama’s strange, far-Left associations come to the fore, or when his musings about average Americans make the news, the thin veneer of moderation and post-partisanship is torn. It makes people like Clift worry. And their fear is not entirely irrational.

The punditocracy is worried about Barack Obama. Maureen Dowd isn’t pleased with his debate performance (although she explains it’s because he really operates on a higher plane than mere mortal politicians):

The thorny questions Obama got in the debate were absolutely predictable, yet he seemed utterly unprepared and annoyed by them. He did not do well for the same reason he failed to outmaneuver Hillary in a year’s worth of debates: he disdains the convention, the need for sound bites and witty flick-offs and game-changing jabs.

Eleanor Clift was dismayed that he “spoke haltingly much of the time” and was “on the defensive,” and she now wonders if Obama would be a nominee “whose vulnerabilities boost chances of a Republican victory in the fall.” And others (here and here and here) are equally dismayed. Some are downright disgusted by the gap between Obama’s high-minded appeal to “new politics” and the cynical realities of his campaign. Some are disappointed by the fact that “it’s still true that after so many months of promising hard truths, Obama doesn’t really force people to accept any.”

Did one debate performance do all that? Was media confidence in him so shaky that a few tough questions from ABC moderators could send his standings into a tailspin? There is a bipolar quality to such opinion shifts: one day Obama is the messiah of American politics, the next he’s a deeply flawed candidate. And the public fretting that Hillary Clinton’s criticism prefigures eventual GOP attacks highlights a central problem for Obama: isn’t he going to be vulnerable when the GOP does launch its salvos?

But all this fretting is really to be expected: Obama has staked everything on his verbal acuity. When that fails, he has no safety net. He cannot point to tough campaigns or great legislative achievements to assure his base that he’s been through worse. So it all comes down to sustaining the balloon of excitement and novelty he has created.

Likewise, when Obama’s strange, far-Left associations come to the fore, or when his musings about average Americans make the news, the thin veneer of moderation and post-partisanship is torn. It makes people like Clift worry. And their fear is not entirely irrational.

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Stop the Presses!

Hold the front page! Heck, on second thought, hold three full inside pages as well. Notify the Pulitzer jurors. The New York Times has a blockbuster scoop. Its ace reporter, David Barstow, has uncovered shocking evidence that . . . the Pentagon tries to get out its side of the story about Iraq to the news media.

Are you surprised? Outraged? Furious? Apparently the Times is: it’s found  a new wrinkle in what it views as an insidious military propaganda campaign. You see, the Defense Department isn’t content to try to present its views simply to full-time reporters who are paid employees of organizations like the New York Times. It actually has the temerity to brief retired military officers directly, who then opine on TV and in print about matters such as the Iraq War.

As I read and read and read this seemingly endless report, I kept trying to figure out what the news was here. Why did the Times decide this story is so important? After all, it’s no secret that the Pentagon–and every other branch of government–routinely provides background briefings to journalists (including columnists and other purveyors of opinion), and tries to influence their coverage by carefully doling out access. It is
hardly unheard of for cabinet members–or even the President and Vice President–to woo selected journalists deemed to be friendly while cutting off those deemed hostile. Nor is it exactly a scandal for government agencies to hire public relations firms to track coverage of them and try to suggest ways in which they might be cast in a more positive light. All this is part and parcel of the daily grind of Washington journalism in which the Times is, of course, a leading participant.

I think I got to the nub of the problem when I read, buried deep in this article, Barstow’s complaint that the Pentagon’s campaign to brief military analysts “recalled other administration tactics that subverted traditional journalism.” But the Times would laugh at anyone who claimed that activities “subversive” of America’s national interest are at all problematic. After all, aren’t we constantly told that criticism–even “subversive” criticism–is the highest form of patriotism? Apparently it’s one thing to subvert one’s country and another thing to subvert the MSM. We can’t have that!

How dare the Pentagon try to break the media monopoly traditionally held by full-time journalists of reliably “progressive” views! The gall of those guys to try to shape public opinion through the words of retired officers who might have a different perspective! Who might even be, as the article darkly warns, “in sync with the administration’s neo-conservative brain trust.”

The implicit purpose of the Times‘s article is obvious: to elevate this perfectly normal practice into a scandal in the hopes of quashing it. Thus leaving the Times and its fellow MSM organs–conveniently enough–as the dominant shapers of public opinion.

Hold the front page! Heck, on second thought, hold three full inside pages as well. Notify the Pulitzer jurors. The New York Times has a blockbuster scoop. Its ace reporter, David Barstow, has uncovered shocking evidence that . . . the Pentagon tries to get out its side of the story about Iraq to the news media.

Are you surprised? Outraged? Furious? Apparently the Times is: it’s found  a new wrinkle in what it views as an insidious military propaganda campaign. You see, the Defense Department isn’t content to try to present its views simply to full-time reporters who are paid employees of organizations like the New York Times. It actually has the temerity to brief retired military officers directly, who then opine on TV and in print about matters such as the Iraq War.

As I read and read and read this seemingly endless report, I kept trying to figure out what the news was here. Why did the Times decide this story is so important? After all, it’s no secret that the Pentagon–and every other branch of government–routinely provides background briefings to journalists (including columnists and other purveyors of opinion), and tries to influence their coverage by carefully doling out access. It is
hardly unheard of for cabinet members–or even the President and Vice President–to woo selected journalists deemed to be friendly while cutting off those deemed hostile. Nor is it exactly a scandal for government agencies to hire public relations firms to track coverage of them and try to suggest ways in which they might be cast in a more positive light. All this is part and parcel of the daily grind of Washington journalism in which the Times is, of course, a leading participant.

I think I got to the nub of the problem when I read, buried deep in this article, Barstow’s complaint that the Pentagon’s campaign to brief military analysts “recalled other administration tactics that subverted traditional journalism.” But the Times would laugh at anyone who claimed that activities “subversive” of America’s national interest are at all problematic. After all, aren’t we constantly told that criticism–even “subversive” criticism–is the highest form of patriotism? Apparently it’s one thing to subvert one’s country and another thing to subvert the MSM. We can’t have that!

How dare the Pentagon try to break the media monopoly traditionally held by full-time journalists of reliably “progressive” views! The gall of those guys to try to shape public opinion through the words of retired officers who might have a different perspective! Who might even be, as the article darkly warns, “in sync with the administration’s neo-conservative brain trust.”

The implicit purpose of the Times‘s article is obvious: to elevate this perfectly normal practice into a scandal in the hopes of quashing it. Thus leaving the Times and its fellow MSM organs–conveniently enough–as the dominant shapers of public opinion.

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Learning from Longshoremen

On Friday, the An Yue Jiang, a Chinese ship carrying arms bound for Zimbabwe, left the port of Durban. Earlier, a high court refused to allow the weapons to be transported across South African soil.

The decision capped a surprising turn of events. On Thursday, Themba Maseko, a spokesman for Pretoria, said that his country would not stop the shipment as long as formalities had been completed. Dockers of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, however, refused to unload the cargo, fearing that Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe might use the weapons against his opponents, who are locked in a post-election standoff with him. Mugabe appears to have lost his post in the March 29 presidential election but is unwilling to step aside.

“This vessel must return to China with the arms on board,” the union said in a statement. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely. The rust bucket is headed for Luanda, where the weapons will be unloaded for a long overland trek to Zimbabwe. So the workers have won only a symbolic victory.

Yet symbolism matters, especially to autocrats. South African workers apparently know that. “How positive it is that ordinary dockers have refused to allow that boat to go further,” said Mary Robinson, the former U.N. high commissioner for human rights. Mary, you’re right, of course. But let’s not call these South Africans “ordinary.” They have done more to stop Chinese autocrats from aiding Mugabe than their own leader, Thabo Mbeki–and than the most powerful individual on earth, President George W. Bush.

As Robinson said, the Durban port workers tried to stop something they believed was wrong. Perhaps the American people should ask their leader to go to South Africa so he can learn a thing or two from the longshoremen in Durban.

On Friday, the An Yue Jiang, a Chinese ship carrying arms bound for Zimbabwe, left the port of Durban. Earlier, a high court refused to allow the weapons to be transported across South African soil.

The decision capped a surprising turn of events. On Thursday, Themba Maseko, a spokesman for Pretoria, said that his country would not stop the shipment as long as formalities had been completed. Dockers of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, however, refused to unload the cargo, fearing that Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe might use the weapons against his opponents, who are locked in a post-election standoff with him. Mugabe appears to have lost his post in the March 29 presidential election but is unwilling to step aside.

“This vessel must return to China with the arms on board,” the union said in a statement. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely. The rust bucket is headed for Luanda, where the weapons will be unloaded for a long overland trek to Zimbabwe. So the workers have won only a symbolic victory.

Yet symbolism matters, especially to autocrats. South African workers apparently know that. “How positive it is that ordinary dockers have refused to allow that boat to go further,” said Mary Robinson, the former U.N. high commissioner for human rights. Mary, you’re right, of course. But let’s not call these South Africans “ordinary.” They have done more to stop Chinese autocrats from aiding Mugabe than their own leader, Thabo Mbeki–and than the most powerful individual on earth, President George W. Bush.

As Robinson said, the Durban port workers tried to stop something they believed was wrong. Perhaps the American people should ask their leader to go to South Africa so he can learn a thing or two from the longshoremen in Durban.

Read Less




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