I write to applaud Senator Obama’s close relationship with George Clooney.
In the present post-historical period international issues are framed as narratives. The once-heroic Israeli narrative, for example, has been superceded by the poignant Palestinian narrative of displacement and occupation. The current skirmish between Russia and Georgia is likewise a compelling conflict between narratives. In this context it would be a mistake to confuse the soft power of narratives with outmoded neocolonial concepts of hard power or geopolitical ambition. Senator Obama understands — as contributors to Commentary do not — that Mr. Clooney and his peers in Hollywood wield enormous influence in the construction and dissemination of governing narratives. As President, Senator Obama will be able to harness this soft power to create alternative sources of energy, halt global warming, and save the oceans.
I am saddened to share that Ms. Rubin’s blog is emblematic of the barriers that confront Mankind in our collective efforts to save the planet in a post-historical era of peace, ecological balance, and limited consumption. Thank you, Mr. Clooney, for your contribution to Our Moment and Our Movement.
Posts For: August 12, 2008
Fred Kaplan of Slate is a bit trigger-happy when it comes to blaming President Bush for every wrongdoing around the world. So it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s now blaming him for encouraging Georgians to provoke Russia:
Regardless of what happens next, it is worth asking what the Bush people were thinking when they egged on Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s young, Western-educated president, to apply for NATO membership, send 2,000 of his troops to Iraq as a full-fledged U.S. ally, and receive tactical training and weapons from our military.
Kaplan’s point reminds me of one of the greatest embarrassments of the first Bush administration. When George W. Bush ponders his options regarding Georgia (and the obligation he has contracted to help this nation), one wonders whether he remembers his father’s actions in the aftermath of the first Gulf war. Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus on Tuesday compared the situation in Georgia to the 1938 Munich crisis, but I’d argue Georgia’s situation is much more similar to those following that war.
After the end of the first Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush famously urged the Iraqis to “take matters into their own hands” against Saddam Hussein. But when some of them did, he didn’t raise a finger while Saddam murderously devastated his opposition.
Our current President knows the facts quite well: “As the revolt [against Saddam] spread, the U.S.–worried that a fractured Iraq would create more instability in an unpredictable region–chose not to support the rebellion. With no military assistance, the rebels were overwhelmed and crushed.” This was American realism at its worst, and George W. Bush was never particularly proud of it. That’s one of the reasons, in my opinion, he’s never broke the commitment the U.S. has made to the Iraqi people this time around.
And Bush also knows that Russia isn’t Iraq, Putin is no Saddam, and Georgia is a sovereign country and not a rebellious group within a country. However, similarities remain: Georgians believed that they had U.S. backing, and are painfully learning that the U.S. has chosen not to deliver on its promises. And moral considerations aside, the U.S. has a developing strategic problem here, as such lessons are not easily forgotten. If countries around the world believe that Georgia was abandoned, American diplomats will have to spend much more time in the future convincing peoples that offers of U.S. are genuine and meaningful. And they will find it ever-harder to succeed.
I am relieved to hear the Russia has called off its invasion of Georgia, although whether actions on the ground will match the words emanating from Moscow remains to be seen. But I am very, very depressed at the pusillanimous reaction to Russian aggression in what used to be called the Free World. Far too many are rushing to blame the victims. A perfect example of this mindset is this column by Newsweek‘s Michael Hirsch. He begins, “There is no excusing Vladimir Putin’s bloody invasion of Georgia,” but then he proceeds to offer one excuse after another. “Since the cold war ended,” he writes, “the United States has been pushing the buttons of Russian frustration and paranoia by moving ever further into Moscow’s former sphere of influence. And we have rarely stopped to consider whether we were overreaching, even as evidence mounted that the patience of a wealthier and more assertive Russia was wearing very thin.”
My only fear at this point is that . . . we may goad the Bushies and neocons into finding some kind of military escalation that would bring in the US. The US has no rational basis to be as committed to Georgia as Russia is; and has very little moral standing to protest an invasion of a sovereign country.
This is very much the prevailing sentiment in Western Europe, where the elites think the current fighting was the fault of the Georgian government for daring to challenge the Russian bear. This Wall Street Journal article offers telling examples:
“In the minds of the Western European countries, Georgia has been rash “in trying to take control of South Ossetia through military force, said Sergio Romano, a former Italian ambassador to NATO and Moscow. “This will harden attitudes” in France, Germany and Italy.
Georgia’s military move last week was “not terribly wise,” said one U.K. official, who declined to be named.
There is no doubt that Georgia’s president, Mikhail Saakashvili, has made miscalculations. Certainly he did not intend for Russian troops to overrun a good chunk of his country. Perhaps he shouldn’t have responded to Russian provocations at all, but at some point Russian incursions would have become intolerable, with Georgian sovereignty lost bit by bit. The Kremlin clearly was spoiling for war, and it got what it wanted. Blaming the Georgians for not doing a better job of appeasing Moscow is akin to blaming the Czechs for not doing a better job of appeasing Berlin over the Sudeten Germans. Everyone understands the dangers of appeasement–but only in retrospect. In the present day it’s alive and well.
What would we ever do without the foreign press? One of my colleagues alerts me to this report from the U.K. about Barack Obama’s relationship with George Clooney:
‘George is pushing him to be more “balanced” on issues such as US relations with Israel. George is pro-Palestinian. And he is also urging Barack to withdraw unconditionally from Iraq if he wins. It’s a very risky relationship. His hope of becoming America’s first black President depends heavily on winning over conservative voters and it would be suicidal for him to be perceived as a tool of a Hollywood Leftie, which is how they regard George. But they text and email each other almost every day and speak on the phone at least a couple of times a week, often more.’ The Ocean’s Eleven star is among many Hollywood figures to have endorsed Obama, including Barbra Streisand, Scarlett Johansson, Warren Beatty and Steven Spielberg. One of Clooney’s trusted acquaintances said: ‘George is a master at crafting his own image and he is helping Obama to hone his image both domestically and abroad. ‘He told me he feels Obama is a once-in-a-lifetime leader. He is doing everything he can behind the scenes to bolster support in Hollywood, not just with other celebrities but with the money men at the studios.’ The acquaintance added: ‘He has tried to keep the true extent of their involvement out of the Press because he is frightened of alienating voters.’
Yeah, it’s probably a good idea that voters in the U.S. don’t find out that he is spending his time listening to left-wing claptrap from a movie star. People might get the idea that Obama is not a serious candidate, or at the very least can’t even muster up the nerve to tell his own adoring friends that he disagrees with their brilliant discourses on national security. Worse yet, they might think that private emails with his closest admirers provide a more telling insight into the mind of The Chosen One than carefully-crafted speeches by campaign advisors.
UPDATE: The Obama camp now is denying the Clooney story (which part of the story isn’t clear). The only solution: release the text messages!
He’s got an age problem, alright.
An utterly unscientific poll with an interesting outcome.
This may be the first flip-flop-flip: “The platform calls for Sen. Obama to fulfill his promise, made in the primaries, to engage in ‘direct high-level diplomacy, without preconditions’ in the case of Iran.” But they all said it wasn’t so!
Mickey Kaus asks: “Would it really hurt Obama if John Edwards went to Denver?” Yes! Barack Obama is trying to combat the image of a lightweight celebrity — the last thing he needs is for the three-ring gossip circus to come to Denver.
And this would be bad, really bad, if true.
Another “no kidding” headline.
Indeed: “What tapes?”
We’re told yet again that we are all racists. In any event: “The consensus is nearly universal, and correct, that Obama’s gambit was a tactical mistake: It put him at the center of an argument over race and racism that he simply cannot win—because the argument itself is prone to alienating the very voters he is trying to court.” And it couldn’t possibly be that he’s lagging behind generic polling because he is “a guy with a thin résumé, no foreign-policy credentials in an era scarred by terrorism, a background alien to much of Wonder Bread America. . . ” Nah. The voters are hateful, that’s the reason. (Either way, did the Democrats make the best choice?)
You sure do get the sense that there’s not much real work done in one of the two offices.
This has it exactly right: “In any event, McCain’s campaign hails his prescience, Obama tries to appear tough, Putin ponders his next move, and the Ukrainians wonder if they’re next.” But somehow the Hawaiian vacation location, the refusal to take questions from the media and the delay in getting up to speed haven’t helped Barack Obama establish his foreign policy credentials this week. (As Stephen Hayes pointed out, his presser looked a bit like a hostage tape with a forced reading from a script so obviously prepared by others.)
Whoops. This has every indication of a campaign which doesn’t learn from its errors or even think they were errors at all.
I think there is consensus that Bill Richardson (“Clinging to the Obama campaign’s talking points like a drunk to a lamppost,” as George Will memorably describes) has been an appallingly bad surrogate of late. If there were ever a public official whose reputation fell more precipitously after a presidential run, I’d be hard pressed to name him. (John Edwards doesn’t count.)
If Obama is calling for Georgia to be included in NATO and for the world community to stand up to the Russians and “condemn this aggression” isn’t he part of the knee-jerk, Cold war “overreation”? Really, Kagan and then Brzezinski, Holbrooke, Peretz and now Obama. Where is the Left to go if the Chosen One is inching ever closer to the neo-con conspiracy? Obviously, he’s not the Barack Obama they knew.
This is a cogent analysis and a good answer to “What can we do?”
Even if this issue is not a compelling one for every voter, it reminds us that Obama has effectively produced not a scrap of paper from his state senate career. It would seem that the presidential candidate with the skimpiest record in modern presidential history is also the least vetted. The MSM remains remarkably incurious.
The response of the West to Russia’s invasion has been to dress up in tough rhetoric a helpless message: What can we do? And there isn’t much the free world can do. The most aggressive proposals consist only of arming the Georgian army and throwing military and diplomatic support behind other nations which live in Russia’s crosshairs. One important reality narrows options and prevents serious consideration of a First Gulf War-style response: the fact that Russia is a nuclear power.
This is a lesson surely not lost on the Iranian regime, which like Russia has territorial designs on its neighbors, wishes to play an outsized role in its region, and views an American-allied democracy on its borders (Iraq) with about as much benevolence as Putin views such nations on his borders. Those who confidently predict a “containable and deterrable” nuclear Iran should consider the suddenly not-so-deterrable nuclear Russia and ask themselves whether such confidence is warranted.
Quick show of hands: Who among us expected that, in the course of the convention acceptance speeches by John McCain and Barack Obama and throughout the three debates in which they face each other in the fall, the words “South Ossetia” might be mentioned again and again? Or that the nation of Georgia might loom larger over the November election than the state of Georgia?
This is the thing about presidential elections — they can turn on a dime. This one has already. The success of the surge is playing a complex role in the calculations of both camps, with the possibility of a clear victory in sight in Iraq before anyone actually casts a vote in November. For a time, it appeared the surge victory might, in an odd and unexpected way, help Barack Obama by taking Iraq off the table as a source of anxiety and allowing him to focus the election more specifically on the economy. But Obama’s own uncertainty about how to address the surge suggests otherwise.
The role of foreign policy and diplomacy was bound to take center stage in the fall in any case, because Iran seems intent on keeping its nuclear program at the center of worldwide discussion. The complexities there, at least regarding the time frame in which Iran might actually become a nuclear power and the possibility of Israel’s moving to take care of the crisis, was always bound to lead to fuzzy answers about hypotheticals. But the very real fact of an old American enemy, Moscow, either dismembering or swallowing up anew a democratic American ally aborning, Georgia, is a different matter. This may prove to be an ongoing crisis in a key part of the world in the middle of an American election, and there will be no avoiding the question by alluding to hypotheticals.
At the end of last year, I said that the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan represented the end of the primary season’s holiday from history. Obviously, I was wrong about that, perhaps because primaries are largely conducted among voters who want their preexisting questions answered and don’t care so much about the responses of candidates to issues of the moment. General elections are about something else — they are about how the candidates might conduct themselves in the Oval Office. In these circumstances, the issues of the moment are vitally important because they speak to how quickly a candidate can respond to a crisis and how unexpected problems fit in with the more general agenda a candidate has been laying out in the months and years previous.
So welcome, South Ossetia, to the presidential election of 2008. Ere long, we won’t even remember we had no clue where you were only a day or two before the Olympics began.
George Will’s must read column on Georgia explains:
But Russia’s aggression is really about the subordination of Georgia, a democratic, market-oriented U.S. ally. This is the recrudescence of Russia’s dominance in what it calls the “near abroad.” Ukraine, another nation guilty of being provocatively democratic near Russia, should tremble because there is not much America can do. It is a bystander at the bullying of an ally that might be about to undergo regime change.
And then he queries whether Barack Obama (and implicitly the voters) will learn anything:
This crisis illustrates, redundantly, the paralysis of the United Nations regarding major powers, hence regarding major events, and the fictitiousness of the European Union regarding foreign policy. Does this disturb Obama’s serenity about the efficacy of diplomacy? Obama’s second statement about the crisis, in which he tardily acknowledged Russia’s invasion, underscored the folly of his first, which echoed the Bush administration’s initial evenhandedness. “Now,” said Obama, “is the time for Georgia and Russia to show restraint.”
But, of course, Obama’s subsequent statement may simply have been an effort to mimic John McCain (and nearly every other mainstream foreign policy guru) without evidencing any real understanding. (Goodness knows, his latest comment was filled with vague appeals to “peace” and efforts to “remind” the Russians that “the civilized world require[s] their respect for the values, stability and peace of that world.” Had all that simply slipped Medvedev’s mind?) It seems unlikely that an event, even one as serious as this, could provoke a re-evaluation of Obama’s unbridled faith in diplomacy.
For Obama, proof of diplomacy’s shortcomings is hard to come by. If diplomacy as practiced by current participants fails — with Iran, with Israel and the Palestinians, with Darfur — it is simply further evidence that we need Him. If mere mortals fail to move totalitarians and if the crop of diplomats on the scene can’t manage the right word or turn of phrase to open the hearts of our adversaries, we shouldn’t fret. His unparalleled empathy, insight, and eloquence are the keys to resolving these and another crisis.
Hard power, deterrence, or “threats,” as he so cavalierly dismisses them, are never the answer in his worldview. Diplomacy operates in splendid isolation, without need to acquire the benefit of “leverage” that might actually impact our foes. So, if Obama didn’t learn anything from the resolution of the first Cold War (yes, the first), the Colombians’ successful hostage rescue mission, the surge or any of the diplomatic failings of late he certainly won’t learn anything from Georgia. When one has unyielding faith so deep that it can resist the most compelling evidence to the contrary (i.e. the success of the surge), there is no factual circumstances which can open one’s eyes. That’s the true definition of an ideologue — the real world is irrelevant. So “no” — this won’t disturb Obama’s “serenity about the efficacy of diplomacy.”
And what of John McCain? Rich Lowry sums it up:
McCain’s judgment benefits from years of marinating in national-security issues and traveling and getting to know the key players; from a hatred of tinpot dictators and bloody thugs that guides his moral compass; and from a flinty realism (verging at times on fatalism) that is resistant to illusions about personalities, or the inevitable direction of History, or the nature of the world.
We may be seeing the end of the Russian invasion. For now and for Georgia. But it is a preview of what is in store for the next President. There is no doubt then as to what we would be getting with each candidate’s administration. So even if Obama learned nothing from Georgia (other than to crib from McCain’s pronouncements), the voters certainly should.
The long conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis has not been devoid of amusing moments. One of these happened last week, when the top Palestinian negotiator, Ahmed Qurei, threatened that if Israel does not accede to all the Palestinian demands regarding borders and refugees, then “we might demand Israeli citizenship.” He meant that the Palestinians would drop the entire concept of an independent Palestinian state and instead push for a complete merger with Israel, creating a binational state.
This is truly weird. Right now the only people who actually favor dissolving the Jewish state in favor of a binational one are a small number of Western intellectuals who are so comfortably disconnected from the realities of both Israel and the Palestinians as to make the idea sound vaguely plausible — as if West Viriginia and Virginia just needed to patch up old conflicts and reunite. But for the sake of the argument, let’s just take a moment to think about the actual implications of Qurei’s threat.
1. If the Palestinians were to drop their demands of statehood, it would suggest that their entire movement was never really dedicated to independence (as they claimed) but to destroying Israel (as the Israelis claimed). True independence movements do not flip-flop on the question of independence, and suddenly desire to be fully integrated into the occupying, oppressor state. Only if they believe that the best way to defeat Israel is to take it over from the inside — with long-term demographics leading to a long-term electoral advantage, presumably — could they consid er accepting israeli citizenship.
2. Such a change of heart on the part of the Palestinians would devastate their international standing. It is one thing to model yoursleves as freedom fighters struggling for independence, and quite another to try and convince the world that somebody must give them citizenship. The precedent alone would be enough to convince most states that the Palestinian demands are best being ignored.
3. There is probably nothing that could more successfully unite the Israeli public against the Palestinians than the demand for a binational state. Most Israelis now support a two-state solution not so much out of guilt as out of disgust — a culture that teaches its children to blow themselves up in cafes rather than to earn an honest living is something Israelis want nothing to do with. Israelis are torn about the land-for-peace issues. But they will never consider giving citizenship to the Palestinians. This is not an ethnic issue, but a cultural and moral one.
4. There is nothing more legitimizing to the state of Israel than the request for citizenship — even if you believe Israel should be a secular, non-Jewish democracy. The very mention of asking for citizenship undermines sixty years of carping about the “Zionist entity” and refusing to race swimmers in the Olympics. If I were an Iranian leader right now, I’d be pretty peeved.
The Palestinians have done a great deal to convince the Western powers that giving them a state would be a bad idea. A successful struggle for independence begins with convincing the world that you not only “deserve” it, but can handle it. To present the world, as the Palestinians have done, with a unique combination of extreme corruption and religious fanaticism, both encouraging not merely violence against enemy but against oneself, is to make the worst possible case for statehood. And to entertain the thought that the principal victim of your atrocities will then wel come you to be fellow-citizens — well, this just makes a mockery of all the suffering the Palestinans have both endured and inflicted.
President Bush’s comments on the latest developments regarding the Russian invasion of Georgia are not encouraging. After noting that Moscow’s forces were operating south of South Ossetia and were threatening the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, the President said this: “These actions would be inconsistent with assurances we have received from Russia that its objectives were limited to restoring the status quo in South Ossetia that existed before fighting began on August the 6th.”
Now that is interesting. Mr. President, did you hold off speaking out and acting because of these “assurances”? Your reliance on Russian promises would explain your inadequate response to a clear act of aggression.
So, Mr. President, it is time to reveal your administration’s conversations with the Russians. What did they say? And when did they say it?
Daniel, this is rather enlightening and lots of fun. Try “moment,” “Islamic” and “freedom.” Sort of tells you where each is coming from, right?
Ben Reis deserves credit for his nifty new creation–a compilation of all major campaign speeches by Barack Obama and John McCain into a searchable, easy-to-use website. The website, www.speechwars.com, allows one to compare the actual words of debate in this ongoing, verbose election.
One quick observation: A two-word search using using the terms “Iraq” and “surge” reveals that Barack Obama actually mentions this issue more frequently. Odd, considering McCain bet his presidential aspirations on the success of this particular policy.
Democrats are beginning to echo that idea in private. While McCain calls for an “economic surge,” Obama still struggles when trying to establish a strong emotional connection with voters facing tough economic times. That’s a worry, they say, as voters’ attention has shifted away from the war in Iraq to gas prices and job losses. And Obama at times has seemed to play into McCain’s new script. Reporters have not forgotten that someone inside his campaign authorized–or wasn’t smart enough to stop–Obama’s appearance at a podium with an altered version of the presidential seal inscribed with Obama’s campaign motto. And for all Obama’s talk about his small-donor base, his campaign recently announced a $10,000-a-head fund raiser in September to be hosted by George Clooney in the Swiss Alps. “He needs a much more empathetic economic message,” says a veteran Democratic operative. “This is one place where his coolness really isn’t working for him. He gives off an aura of distance that really does get in his way.”
But this is entirely a dilemma of his own making. It really isn’t possible to declare yourself to be the harbinger of a new era in politics, spur a messianic-like following and try to crush the opposition by virtue of crowd size without losing a sense of intimacy with the average voter. Bill Clinton, for his many faults, had the ability to talk to a large crowd while convincing each person that he was talking directly to him. Obama is not a warm fuzzy guy, he rarely smiles and his rhetoric is so grandiose it is hardly surprising that the average voter may ask: But what about me?
The style problem has been compounded by a policy problem. Obama’s energy policy — a combination of long term technology promises and condescending conservation tips — has entirely missed the average voter. And on the economy, aside from touting (and then backing away from) protectionism and offering (and then potentially scaling back on) tax increases he really hasn’t said much. What exactly is he offering Americans in the way of economic growth (which average voters understand is the key to financial security and job production)? Why are tax increases a good idea in a dragging economy? He hasn’t said.
Perhaps the Convention will enable Obama to recalibrate both his tone and his message. But for now, he seems oblivious to the first rule of politics: it’s not about you, it’s about the voters.
Michigan, the bluest of blue states (two Democratic Senators, a Democratic Governor and a Democratic-controlled state House of Representatives), is a swing state this presidential election cycle. Polling shows the race to be neck-and-neck. This piece has one answer: the impact of the indicted and disgraced Detroit Mayor Kwane Kilpatrick. This explanation goes like this:
I was struck by the number of Democratic operatives in Detroit who suspected that the mayor’s problems didn’t just put his mother’s re-election in jeopardy, but threatened to tarnish the Democratic brand throughout Michigan. And that includes Barack Obama’s campaign in the Wolverine State. One consultant, who worked for one of Kilpatrick’s primary rivals, put it bluntly. “This goes beyond their behavior in Detroit. The behavior pattern of the Kilpatricks threatens to undermine Obama’s candidacy in Michigan,” Detroit political consultant Sam Riddle told me. “Their behavior feeds into how white mainstream voters think of black politicians.”
But there may be much more at work. Michigan is suffering from a depressed economy and lagging job growth. The solution of the Democratic Governor and Democrats in the state legislature (along with a few misguided Republicans): raise taxes in an economic downturn. It turns out that didn’t do the trick. The unemployment rate there is now 8.5%. Governor Granholm has an approval rating of 20%.
So along comes a Democratic presidential candidate promising to raise taxes. Does that sell? Not so much, I would expect. And McCain may be the type of quirky Republican who appeals to the voters of Macomb County, the original home of the Reagan Democrats. (He won the 2000 primary in Michigan but lost to sort-of home-state son Mitt Romney in this year’s primary.)
So if Virginia is an inviting Red state target for Barack Obama, Michigan (with its 17 electoral votes) may be the best chance for a McCain Blue state pick up. Indeed, there may be no better place to argue that a Democratic-dominated government and tax increases are the wrong sort of change.
I am in Azerbaijan–a country that shares borders with both Russia and Georgia–for the week, and this morning I was lucky enough to meet with Deputy Foreign Minister Hafiz Pashayev. Mr. Pashayev was unequivocal about two related points concerning the U.S.’s response to the recent Russian aggression.
First, the President’s initial statement condemning the action was too weakly worded and the stronger statement was too slow in coming. Azeris refer to January 1990 as “Black January.” That’s when Soviet forces rolled through the capital city of Baku, killing hundreds of anti-communist protesters and others. Mr. Pashayev made it clear that the legacy of Black January still lives in the minds of Azeris. The attacks in Georgia reinforce what many in the Caucasus already know: Russia’s neighbors enjoy a fragile brand of freedom. He thinks a quick, unequivocal and muscular renunciation of the Putin-Medvedev invasion might have gone a long way. What do you know? The president whose cowboy rhetoric is often characterized as alienating to other democracies and provocative towards the Muslim world has let down a struggling Muslim democracy by failing to come through with the tough talk.
Second, of the two U.S. presidential candidates John McCain made a statement more in keeping with what Azeris (and presumably Georgians) want to hear from America. In Mr. Pashayev’s words, McCain’s statement was “strong and to the point,” while Barack Obama’s was too “careful.” (I don’t care how many cover stories are written about the international adoration enjoyed by Barack Obama.) When the tanks roll in and the bodies start piling up, the rest of the world is not looking for an American statesman who speaks beautifully of world citizenship. They want a U.S. President who makes it clear that human rights and the sovereignty of democracies are ideals America is not afraid to defend.