Commentary Magazine


Topic: D.C.

The Innocents Pack for Damascus

Lebanese scholar Tony Badran quotes Robert Ford, President Barack Obama’s unconfirmed pick for ambassador to Syria, and Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, making statements last week that are breathtaking in their disconnection from reality.

Kerry said he believes Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, “understands that his country’s long-term interests … are not well served by aligning Syria with a revolutionary Shiite regime in Iran and its terrorist clients.” Ford, at the same time, said the U.S. “must persuade Syria that neither Iran nor Hezbollah shares Syria’s long-term strategic interest in … peace.”

These statements are simply off-planet. Either Kerry and Ford don’t know the first thing about how the Syrian government perceives its own interests, or they’re making stuff up for the sake of diplomacy.

It could be the latter. That happens. In Baghdad in 2008, a U.S. Army officer told me that the U.S. said things that weren’t strictly true about Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia to make it easier for him to save face, climb down out of his tree, and cut a deal. The American and Iraqi armies were still fighting his men in the streets but pretended they were only battling it out with rogue forces called “Special Groups.”

“We are giving the office of Moqtada al-Sadr a door,” the officer said. “We want them to be a political entity, not a military entity. So if you’re fighting coalition forces or the Iraqi army, we’ll say you’re a Special Groups leader or a Special Groups member.”

“So,” I said, “this is like the make-believe distinctions between military wings and political wings of Hamas and Hezbollah?”

“Yes,” he said. “That’s it. That’s exactly it.”

I’d like to give Kerry and Ford the benefit of the doubt here and assume that that’s what they’re doing with Assad, that they know Syria’s alliance with Iran is three decades old and therefore well thought-out and durable, that they know his foreign policy goal is one of “resistance” rather than peace, but I have my doubts. They otherwise shouldn’t find engaging him worth the humiliation and bother.

The U.S. military used diplomatic fictions to help convince Sadr to cool it, but he was actively losing a war at the time. He was, shall we say, open to constructive suggestions. Assad is not losing anything. On the contrary, he has all but reconsolidated his overlordship in Lebanon through terrorism and warlordism, and his patron regime in Tehran is on the brink of becoming a nuclear-armed mini regional superpower. Kerry and Ford should know they can no more flip Syria into our column than they could have lured East Germany out of the Soviet bloc during the Brezhnev era.

Diplomatic fictions have their time and place, but there’s a downside. Unsophisticated players, observers, and analysts begin to believe them and no longer understand what is actually happening. Residents of the Washington, D.C., bubble are especially susceptible, but I’ve met American journalists who live in the Middle East who don’t understand that Assad strives not for peace and stability but rather for revolution, terrorism, and war. (They might want to reread The Truth About Syria by Barry Rubin and Syria’s Terrorist War on Lebanon and the Peace Process by Marius Deeb.)

If some Americans who live in and write about the Middle East have a hard time with this, I am not optimistic that the truth has fully penetrated the Beltway, especially when policy, as well as public statements, seems to be based on this fantasy.

Kerry and Ford are undoubtedly intelligent people, or they’d be in a different line of work, but getting leverage and results in the Middle East requires something more. “American elites have a hard time distinguishing between intelligence and cunning,” Lee Smith, author of The Strong Horse, said to me recently, “largely because their lives do not depend on them outwitting murderous rivals. In hard places, intelligent people is what the cunning eat for lunch.”

Engaging Syria and describing Assad as a reasonable man would make sense if something epic had just happened that might convince him to run his calculations again, such as the overthrow or collapse of Ali Khamenei’s government in Iran. Otherwise, the administration is setting itself up for another failure in the Middle East that will damage its — no, our — credibility. One good thing will probably come of it, though. The naifs will learn. They’ll learn it the hard way, which seems to be the only way most of us learn anything over there. But they’ll learn.

Lebanese scholar Tony Badran quotes Robert Ford, President Barack Obama’s unconfirmed pick for ambassador to Syria, and Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, making statements last week that are breathtaking in their disconnection from reality.

Kerry said he believes Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, “understands that his country’s long-term interests … are not well served by aligning Syria with a revolutionary Shiite regime in Iran and its terrorist clients.” Ford, at the same time, said the U.S. “must persuade Syria that neither Iran nor Hezbollah shares Syria’s long-term strategic interest in … peace.”

These statements are simply off-planet. Either Kerry and Ford don’t know the first thing about how the Syrian government perceives its own interests, or they’re making stuff up for the sake of diplomacy.

It could be the latter. That happens. In Baghdad in 2008, a U.S. Army officer told me that the U.S. said things that weren’t strictly true about Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia to make it easier for him to save face, climb down out of his tree, and cut a deal. The American and Iraqi armies were still fighting his men in the streets but pretended they were only battling it out with rogue forces called “Special Groups.”

“We are giving the office of Moqtada al-Sadr a door,” the officer said. “We want them to be a political entity, not a military entity. So if you’re fighting coalition forces or the Iraqi army, we’ll say you’re a Special Groups leader or a Special Groups member.”

“So,” I said, “this is like the make-believe distinctions between military wings and political wings of Hamas and Hezbollah?”

“Yes,” he said. “That’s it. That’s exactly it.”

I’d like to give Kerry and Ford the benefit of the doubt here and assume that that’s what they’re doing with Assad, that they know Syria’s alliance with Iran is three decades old and therefore well thought-out and durable, that they know his foreign policy goal is one of “resistance” rather than peace, but I have my doubts. They otherwise shouldn’t find engaging him worth the humiliation and bother.

The U.S. military used diplomatic fictions to help convince Sadr to cool it, but he was actively losing a war at the time. He was, shall we say, open to constructive suggestions. Assad is not losing anything. On the contrary, he has all but reconsolidated his overlordship in Lebanon through terrorism and warlordism, and his patron regime in Tehran is on the brink of becoming a nuclear-armed mini regional superpower. Kerry and Ford should know they can no more flip Syria into our column than they could have lured East Germany out of the Soviet bloc during the Brezhnev era.

Diplomatic fictions have their time and place, but there’s a downside. Unsophisticated players, observers, and analysts begin to believe them and no longer understand what is actually happening. Residents of the Washington, D.C., bubble are especially susceptible, but I’ve met American journalists who live in the Middle East who don’t understand that Assad strives not for peace and stability but rather for revolution, terrorism, and war. (They might want to reread The Truth About Syria by Barry Rubin and Syria’s Terrorist War on Lebanon and the Peace Process by Marius Deeb.)

If some Americans who live in and write about the Middle East have a hard time with this, I am not optimistic that the truth has fully penetrated the Beltway, especially when policy, as well as public statements, seems to be based on this fantasy.

Kerry and Ford are undoubtedly intelligent people, or they’d be in a different line of work, but getting leverage and results in the Middle East requires something more. “American elites have a hard time distinguishing between intelligence and cunning,” Lee Smith, author of The Strong Horse, said to me recently, “largely because their lives do not depend on them outwitting murderous rivals. In hard places, intelligent people is what the cunning eat for lunch.”

Engaging Syria and describing Assad as a reasonable man would make sense if something epic had just happened that might convince him to run his calculations again, such as the overthrow or collapse of Ali Khamenei’s government in Iran. Otherwise, the administration is setting itself up for another failure in the Middle East that will damage its — no, our — credibility. One good thing will probably come of it, though. The naifs will learn. They’ll learn it the hard way, which seems to be the only way most of us learn anything over there. But they’ll learn.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

No (except from the Obami): “Does anyone think that Iran would be shipping arms to terrorists or building nuclear weapons if it was a democracy?” asks Elliott Abrams.

Predictable (when you nominate Tony Rezko’s banker): “It could be a rough few months ahead for Alexi Giannoulias. A federal judge ruled Wednesday that former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s trial will proceed on June 3, as scheduled. Blagojevich’s team had been seeking a postponement until November, saying they didn’t have enough time to prepare. … But that’s not all Giannoulias will be dealing with. By late April, the Giannoulias family bank must come up with $85 million in order to comply with a federal agreement and keep operating. Giannoulias has already said that he expects the bank to fail.”

Pathetic: “Rounding up the votes for health care has also proven difficult. House Democratic Whip Jim Clyburn told McClatchy Newspapers that final consideration of the bill may not occur until Easter (April 4) or later. He is dealing with dozens of members who refuse to commit to a firm position in hopes their silence will force the leadership to pull the bill and move on to other issues. ‘Just say nothing,’ is how one Democratic staffer explained the strategy being taken by many members. ‘Maybe it will just go away, and we can avoid a tough vote this close to the election.’” Maybe it will just go away? Profiles in courage they aren’t.

Close: According to Byron York, “there are 209 votes against the bill at this moment, leaving opponents seven short of being able to defeat it. By the same count, there are 204 votes for the bill, leaving the Democratic leadership 12 short of being able to pass it. There are 18 votes thought to be undecided.” In other words, seven votes away from Obama’s Waterloo.

Cranky Big Labor bosses descend on the White House: “AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is headed into a meeting with President Obama this afternoon after the White House and Congressional leaders have begun to discuss a higher-than-expected excise tax on some health care plans, in order to maintain their claim that health care legislation will reduce the deficit, a source involved in health care talks said.” Remember that the overwhelming support of core Democrats in midterm elections is what’s supposed to counteract the tsunami of opposition to ObamaCare. But what if that support is only lukewarm?

Obvious who you want making national-security calls. “Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan, contradicted the attorney general on Wednesday when he said that actually, the military still wants to capture Osama bin Laden alive. ‘I think that is something that is understood by everyone,’ he said. But perhaps not by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who on Tuesday told a House subcommittee that the chances of capturing Mr. bin Laden alive were ‘infinitesimal’ and that he would either be killed by the United States or killed by his own people.”

Common, among many observers these days: “Arab world says hopes in Obama are dwindling.”

Picky, picky: “From Maine to Hawaii, Americans send people to Washington, D.C., to be their representatives — to cast votes that represent the will of the people who elected them to do the job. But now, as the House of Representatives moves toward approving one of the most sweeping pieces of domestic legislation in U.S. history, critics are fuming that Speaker Nancy Pelosi plans to usher through a health care bill … without a vote.”

No (except from the Obami): “Does anyone think that Iran would be shipping arms to terrorists or building nuclear weapons if it was a democracy?” asks Elliott Abrams.

Predictable (when you nominate Tony Rezko’s banker): “It could be a rough few months ahead for Alexi Giannoulias. A federal judge ruled Wednesday that former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s trial will proceed on June 3, as scheduled. Blagojevich’s team had been seeking a postponement until November, saying they didn’t have enough time to prepare. … But that’s not all Giannoulias will be dealing with. By late April, the Giannoulias family bank must come up with $85 million in order to comply with a federal agreement and keep operating. Giannoulias has already said that he expects the bank to fail.”

Pathetic: “Rounding up the votes for health care has also proven difficult. House Democratic Whip Jim Clyburn told McClatchy Newspapers that final consideration of the bill may not occur until Easter (April 4) or later. He is dealing with dozens of members who refuse to commit to a firm position in hopes their silence will force the leadership to pull the bill and move on to other issues. ‘Just say nothing,’ is how one Democratic staffer explained the strategy being taken by many members. ‘Maybe it will just go away, and we can avoid a tough vote this close to the election.’” Maybe it will just go away? Profiles in courage they aren’t.

Close: According to Byron York, “there are 209 votes against the bill at this moment, leaving opponents seven short of being able to defeat it. By the same count, there are 204 votes for the bill, leaving the Democratic leadership 12 short of being able to pass it. There are 18 votes thought to be undecided.” In other words, seven votes away from Obama’s Waterloo.

Cranky Big Labor bosses descend on the White House: “AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is headed into a meeting with President Obama this afternoon after the White House and Congressional leaders have begun to discuss a higher-than-expected excise tax on some health care plans, in order to maintain their claim that health care legislation will reduce the deficit, a source involved in health care talks said.” Remember that the overwhelming support of core Democrats in midterm elections is what’s supposed to counteract the tsunami of opposition to ObamaCare. But what if that support is only lukewarm?

Obvious who you want making national-security calls. “Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan, contradicted the attorney general on Wednesday when he said that actually, the military still wants to capture Osama bin Laden alive. ‘I think that is something that is understood by everyone,’ he said. But perhaps not by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who on Tuesday told a House subcommittee that the chances of capturing Mr. bin Laden alive were ‘infinitesimal’ and that he would either be killed by the United States or killed by his own people.”

Common, among many observers these days: “Arab world says hopes in Obama are dwindling.”

Picky, picky: “From Maine to Hawaii, Americans send people to Washington, D.C., to be their representatives — to cast votes that represent the will of the people who elected them to do the job. But now, as the House of Representatives moves toward approving one of the most sweeping pieces of domestic legislation in U.S. history, critics are fuming that Speaker Nancy Pelosi plans to usher through a health care bill … without a vote.”

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The Civil War

The media and liberal punditocracy has been searching for a civil war on the Right. Tea Party protestors vs. the GOP! Marco Rubio vs. Charlie Crist! But the divide isn’t really as significant as the Left would hope, and the primary fights on the GOP side, far from being a bloodbath, look rather tame (and in Florida, one-sided). There really is a fight breaking out — but it’s in the Democratic Party. Politico reports:

With Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter’s announcement Monday that he will run against Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Senate Democrats now have three colleagues facing serious primary challenges from candidates embracing distinctly anti-Washington platforms at a time when Democrats control the White House and both chambers of Congress…. In Pennsylvania, where Rep. Joe Sestak is battling White House-backed Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter, Sestak has criticized the party establishment for supporting a party-switcher and for focusing too much on the political calculus of adding another Democratic Senate vote.

“The Real Arlen Specter has been a longtime Republican for 45 years and has spent the past 29 years in Washington, D.C.,” reads a website Sestak’s campaign launched, titled “The Real Arlen Specter.”

In Colorado, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who is challenging appointed Sen. Michael Bennet, has gone so far as to denounce his own party for failing to denounce backroom deal making in health care reform negotiations. In New York, former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr. branded Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand a “parakeet” for party higher-ups before announcing Monday he wasn’t running.

Rather civil war-like, I would say. And then there is the fight over reconciliation, if we ever get that far. Roll Call reports: “Knowledgeable Senate Democratic aides have warned for weeks of the difficulty of drafting a complex health care reform bill under reconciliation rules. The challenge is to construct legislation that can satisfy Democrats, withstand Republican resistance and pass muster with the Senate Parliamentarian.” But the leadership is pressing on, despite the objections of prominent Democrats like Sen. Kent Conrad.

In the short term, the primary challengers on the Left will likely jerk the besieged Democrats even further Leftward in an effort to survive their primaries. But that then leaves the playing field wide open for Republican contenders to appeal to the Center-Right majority, the very voters inflamed by the Obami’s extremist agenda.

It is the very tale the Left was pushing, but in reverse. Now it is the Democrats, beset by internal divides and ideological extremism, who are heading for a smash-up.  It is what Obama has wrought, not so long after he promised to bring us into a great post-partisan era. It seems he has instead stirred up quite a fight, in his own party no less.

The media and liberal punditocracy has been searching for a civil war on the Right. Tea Party protestors vs. the GOP! Marco Rubio vs. Charlie Crist! But the divide isn’t really as significant as the Left would hope, and the primary fights on the GOP side, far from being a bloodbath, look rather tame (and in Florida, one-sided). There really is a fight breaking out — but it’s in the Democratic Party. Politico reports:

With Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter’s announcement Monday that he will run against Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Senate Democrats now have three colleagues facing serious primary challenges from candidates embracing distinctly anti-Washington platforms at a time when Democrats control the White House and both chambers of Congress…. In Pennsylvania, where Rep. Joe Sestak is battling White House-backed Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter, Sestak has criticized the party establishment for supporting a party-switcher and for focusing too much on the political calculus of adding another Democratic Senate vote.

“The Real Arlen Specter has been a longtime Republican for 45 years and has spent the past 29 years in Washington, D.C.,” reads a website Sestak’s campaign launched, titled “The Real Arlen Specter.”

In Colorado, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who is challenging appointed Sen. Michael Bennet, has gone so far as to denounce his own party for failing to denounce backroom deal making in health care reform negotiations. In New York, former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr. branded Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand a “parakeet” for party higher-ups before announcing Monday he wasn’t running.

Rather civil war-like, I would say. And then there is the fight over reconciliation, if we ever get that far. Roll Call reports: “Knowledgeable Senate Democratic aides have warned for weeks of the difficulty of drafting a complex health care reform bill under reconciliation rules. The challenge is to construct legislation that can satisfy Democrats, withstand Republican resistance and pass muster with the Senate Parliamentarian.” But the leadership is pressing on, despite the objections of prominent Democrats like Sen. Kent Conrad.

In the short term, the primary challengers on the Left will likely jerk the besieged Democrats even further Leftward in an effort to survive their primaries. But that then leaves the playing field wide open for Republican contenders to appeal to the Center-Right majority, the very voters inflamed by the Obami’s extremist agenda.

It is the very tale the Left was pushing, but in reverse. Now it is the Democrats, beset by internal divides and ideological extremism, who are heading for a smash-up.  It is what Obama has wrought, not so long after he promised to bring us into a great post-partisan era. It seems he has instead stirred up quite a fight, in his own party no less.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

A good question triggered by the assassination of the Hamas terrorist in Dubai and our decision to send an ambassador to Syria: “Will the safe haven Damascus continues to provide terrorists such as Mabhouh, who would erase Israel from the Middle-Eastern map—to say nothing of the foreign fighters trained by al Qaeda and/or armed by Iran who are still entering Iraq across the Syrian border to kill American soldiers—be a subject of discussion for America’s newly appointed ambassador to Syria once he’s presented his credentials?”

If you thought the Ivy League–educated Oval Office occupier Obama’s populism was fake: “If last year’s bailout of the financial industry caused you to start muttering words like investment banker and robber baron in the same sentence, it may cheer you to know that Timothy Geithner, the man responsible for crafting much of that bailout, agrees with you. ‘I am,’ he says, seated in his Washington, D.C., office, an intimidatingly ornate room worthy of a Hogwarts headmaster, ‘incredibly angry at what happened to our country.’”

A lot of people excited about a potential 2012 run by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels will be excited to hear this: “During an interview at the winter meeting of the National Governors Association here over the weekend, Daniels said he has now been persuaded to keep open the door to a possible candidacy.”

Is Marco Rubio running away with the GOP Senate primary race? The latest Rasmussen poll has him up by 18 points.

Democrats are on the defensive in Illinois: “Illinois’ Republican Party is keeping up a steady drumbeat of pressure on Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Alexi Giannoulias to answer questions about his family’s Broadway Bank. ‘Why is Alexi hiding?’ the party asked in an e-mail to reporters a week after the election and after news conferences Giannoulias had held in Chicago and Springfield. … In at least 10 e-mails sent out since the election, the party says Giannoulias is ducking questions about loans he authorized four years ago as vice-president of his family’s Broadway Bank and about the bank’s current troubled financial state.”

CATO’s Michael Tanner on the latest version of ObamaCare: “Faced with public opinion polls showing that 58 percent of the public are opposed to his health care proposal, President Obama has gone back to the drawing board and brought forth a new health care plan that looks almost exactly like his old health care bill. Actually that’s not quite true. This proposal is more expensive, pushing its cost up close to $1 trillion in the first 10 years, and raising taxes by some $629 billion.”

Some are in a tizzy: “Critics left and right are accusing Rahm Emanuel of disloyalty-by-proxy after a Dana Milbank column in Sunday’s Washington Post defended the White House chief of staff — while trashing reputed Emanuel rivals Valerie Jarrett and Robert Gibbs. ” Actually, he’s been leaking his opposition to the entire anti-terrorism approach for some time, so this should come as no shock.

Thanks to the teachers’ union, the Los Angeles Unified School District has given up trying to fire bad teachers.

Oh good grief: “Last August, former Iowa Republican congressman Jim Leach took office as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.  What exactly were his qualifications for this post, other than being an Obamaphile Republican and thus a safely ‘bipartisan’ appointment, was and remains a mystery. Since his appointment, unsurprisingly, Leach has appeared to take little interest in the actual work of the NEH—support for research, publication, and education in the humanities—and instead has been gallivanting around the country on a 50-state ‘civility tour,’ giving mostly forgettable speeches … whose goal seems to be to get Americans to stop criticizing Barack Obama in terms that offend Chairman Leach.”

A good question triggered by the assassination of the Hamas terrorist in Dubai and our decision to send an ambassador to Syria: “Will the safe haven Damascus continues to provide terrorists such as Mabhouh, who would erase Israel from the Middle-Eastern map—to say nothing of the foreign fighters trained by al Qaeda and/or armed by Iran who are still entering Iraq across the Syrian border to kill American soldiers—be a subject of discussion for America’s newly appointed ambassador to Syria once he’s presented his credentials?”

If you thought the Ivy League–educated Oval Office occupier Obama’s populism was fake: “If last year’s bailout of the financial industry caused you to start muttering words like investment banker and robber baron in the same sentence, it may cheer you to know that Timothy Geithner, the man responsible for crafting much of that bailout, agrees with you. ‘I am,’ he says, seated in his Washington, D.C., office, an intimidatingly ornate room worthy of a Hogwarts headmaster, ‘incredibly angry at what happened to our country.’”

A lot of people excited about a potential 2012 run by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels will be excited to hear this: “During an interview at the winter meeting of the National Governors Association here over the weekend, Daniels said he has now been persuaded to keep open the door to a possible candidacy.”

Is Marco Rubio running away with the GOP Senate primary race? The latest Rasmussen poll has him up by 18 points.

Democrats are on the defensive in Illinois: “Illinois’ Republican Party is keeping up a steady drumbeat of pressure on Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Alexi Giannoulias to answer questions about his family’s Broadway Bank. ‘Why is Alexi hiding?’ the party asked in an e-mail to reporters a week after the election and after news conferences Giannoulias had held in Chicago and Springfield. … In at least 10 e-mails sent out since the election, the party says Giannoulias is ducking questions about loans he authorized four years ago as vice-president of his family’s Broadway Bank and about the bank’s current troubled financial state.”

CATO’s Michael Tanner on the latest version of ObamaCare: “Faced with public opinion polls showing that 58 percent of the public are opposed to his health care proposal, President Obama has gone back to the drawing board and brought forth a new health care plan that looks almost exactly like his old health care bill. Actually that’s not quite true. This proposal is more expensive, pushing its cost up close to $1 trillion in the first 10 years, and raising taxes by some $629 billion.”

Some are in a tizzy: “Critics left and right are accusing Rahm Emanuel of disloyalty-by-proxy after a Dana Milbank column in Sunday’s Washington Post defended the White House chief of staff — while trashing reputed Emanuel rivals Valerie Jarrett and Robert Gibbs. ” Actually, he’s been leaking his opposition to the entire anti-terrorism approach for some time, so this should come as no shock.

Thanks to the teachers’ union, the Los Angeles Unified School District has given up trying to fire bad teachers.

Oh good grief: “Last August, former Iowa Republican congressman Jim Leach took office as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.  What exactly were his qualifications for this post, other than being an Obamaphile Republican and thus a safely ‘bipartisan’ appointment, was and remains a mystery. Since his appointment, unsurprisingly, Leach has appeared to take little interest in the actual work of the NEH—support for research, publication, and education in the humanities—and instead has been gallivanting around the country on a 50-state ‘civility tour,’ giving mostly forgettable speeches … whose goal seems to be to get Americans to stop criticizing Barack Obama in terms that offend Chairman Leach.”

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Flotsam and Jetsam

A must-read new blog, Bad Rachel, is off with a bang, examining a study of Pashtun men in the Afghan army. “If through the good offices of our military—especially our women soldiers—we could help Afghani women unravel themselves from centuries of complicity in their own oppression and see themselves not as defiled, unclean, perpetually wanton creatures to be hidden away as if they were carriers of plague, but rather as noble members of the human race endowed with greatness and blessings: the giving of life, the tending to it mercifully and lovingly, and, most important, the imparting of lessons in real virtue—self-acceptance to their daughters and just plain acceptance to their sons—that would be gaining hearts and minds indeed.”

Obama doubles down on his George W. Bush buck-passing, repeating Eric Holder’s line that the Obama administration is treating terrorists just as its predecessor did. (No mention of the terrorists who were treated as combatants under Bush, and no word on why Obama’s not using the military-tribunal system put into place since many of the Bush-era terror cases.) Then the real double-talk starts: we got “actionable intelligence” from the Christmas Day bomber, the president says. But then why was he telling the American people that this was an “isolated extremist” in the days after the bombing? Something sure doesn’t add up.

Bill Kristol reminds us: “Robert Gibbs said to you right here at this desk, right here in snowy Washington, D.C., Chris, where you’re — you seem to have escaped from and enjoying nice weather there in Nashville — Gibbs said to you, what, two days after the Christmas bomber, ‘We got everything we needed from him.’ Do you remember that? There’s no — 50 minutes of interrogation with the FBI. That was great. Now — that was their spin then. Their spin now is, ‘Oh, it’s great. He’s talking again. He’s giving us lots of useful information.’ Which is it? Robert Gibbs was not telling the truth one of those two times. … When you have a White House that’s spinning constantly, they’re going to be criticized and they deserve to be criticized.”

Bill Sammon explains: “And Kit Bond was pretty direct, the senator saying the FBI director personally told him, ‘Look, the guy is talking to us again after five weeks but we got to keep that quiet. If that gets out, that could compromise national security.’ Because, of course, the intelligence that you’re getting from the guy is perishable. It’s actionable. And you don’t want to be blabbing to the world that the guy’s talking. So what happens? Twenty-four hours later, you have this unseemly spectacle of the White House press operation hurriedly summoning reporters to the West Wing to trumpet, ‘Guess what? He’s talking again! He’s talking again!’”

In case you thought it was very hard to get the federal budget under control: “Republican senator George LeMieux of Florida has done the math. If government spending were reduced to its 2007 level, we’d have a balanced budget (with a $163 billion surplus). Returning to the 2008 level of spending, the budget would be balanced in 2014 (a $133 billion surplus). And in both cases, that’s while keeping the Bush tax cuts across the board and indexing the loathed alternative minimum tax for inflation.”

Illinois Democrats had enough of this: “The ex-girlfriend who accused Democratic Lt. Governor nominee Scott Lee Cohen of threatening her with a knife said Saturday she ‘does not believe he is fit to hold any public office.”” Only a week after the nomination: “Embattled Democratic Lieutenant Governor nominee Scott Lee Cohen said Sunday night he’s dropping out of the race. ‘For the good of the people of [the] state of Illinois and the Democratic party I will resign,’ he said.”

Arlen Specter gets the endorsement of the  Pennsylvania Democratic party. But Democrats there don’t seem to like him all that much.

The Washington Post gives a blow-by-blow account of Sarah Palin’s appearance — her physical appearance, that is — at the Tea Party Convention. I can’t imagine them doing the same in the case of, say, Tim Pawlenty. One noteworthy observation: “In her lapel, a small pin with two flags — for Israel and the United States.”

Here’s a good bipartisan issue for conservatives to get behind: “The Obama administration is reaching out to business-friendly Democrats to win support for free-trade policies that divide the party. The effort is part of President Barack Obama’s push on trade that was launched with his State of the Union address. Obama said he wanted to double exports over the next five years as part of an effort to grow the U.S. economy.” If nothing else, it will annoy Big Labor.

A must-read new blog, Bad Rachel, is off with a bang, examining a study of Pashtun men in the Afghan army. “If through the good offices of our military—especially our women soldiers—we could help Afghani women unravel themselves from centuries of complicity in their own oppression and see themselves not as defiled, unclean, perpetually wanton creatures to be hidden away as if they were carriers of plague, but rather as noble members of the human race endowed with greatness and blessings: the giving of life, the tending to it mercifully and lovingly, and, most important, the imparting of lessons in real virtue—self-acceptance to their daughters and just plain acceptance to their sons—that would be gaining hearts and minds indeed.”

Obama doubles down on his George W. Bush buck-passing, repeating Eric Holder’s line that the Obama administration is treating terrorists just as its predecessor did. (No mention of the terrorists who were treated as combatants under Bush, and no word on why Obama’s not using the military-tribunal system put into place since many of the Bush-era terror cases.) Then the real double-talk starts: we got “actionable intelligence” from the Christmas Day bomber, the president says. But then why was he telling the American people that this was an “isolated extremist” in the days after the bombing? Something sure doesn’t add up.

Bill Kristol reminds us: “Robert Gibbs said to you right here at this desk, right here in snowy Washington, D.C., Chris, where you’re — you seem to have escaped from and enjoying nice weather there in Nashville — Gibbs said to you, what, two days after the Christmas bomber, ‘We got everything we needed from him.’ Do you remember that? There’s no — 50 minutes of interrogation with the FBI. That was great. Now — that was their spin then. Their spin now is, ‘Oh, it’s great. He’s talking again. He’s giving us lots of useful information.’ Which is it? Robert Gibbs was not telling the truth one of those two times. … When you have a White House that’s spinning constantly, they’re going to be criticized and they deserve to be criticized.”

Bill Sammon explains: “And Kit Bond was pretty direct, the senator saying the FBI director personally told him, ‘Look, the guy is talking to us again after five weeks but we got to keep that quiet. If that gets out, that could compromise national security.’ Because, of course, the intelligence that you’re getting from the guy is perishable. It’s actionable. And you don’t want to be blabbing to the world that the guy’s talking. So what happens? Twenty-four hours later, you have this unseemly spectacle of the White House press operation hurriedly summoning reporters to the West Wing to trumpet, ‘Guess what? He’s talking again! He’s talking again!’”

In case you thought it was very hard to get the federal budget under control: “Republican senator George LeMieux of Florida has done the math. If government spending were reduced to its 2007 level, we’d have a balanced budget (with a $163 billion surplus). Returning to the 2008 level of spending, the budget would be balanced in 2014 (a $133 billion surplus). And in both cases, that’s while keeping the Bush tax cuts across the board and indexing the loathed alternative minimum tax for inflation.”

Illinois Democrats had enough of this: “The ex-girlfriend who accused Democratic Lt. Governor nominee Scott Lee Cohen of threatening her with a knife said Saturday she ‘does not believe he is fit to hold any public office.”” Only a week after the nomination: “Embattled Democratic Lieutenant Governor nominee Scott Lee Cohen said Sunday night he’s dropping out of the race. ‘For the good of the people of [the] state of Illinois and the Democratic party I will resign,’ he said.”

Arlen Specter gets the endorsement of the  Pennsylvania Democratic party. But Democrats there don’t seem to like him all that much.

The Washington Post gives a blow-by-blow account of Sarah Palin’s appearance — her physical appearance, that is — at the Tea Party Convention. I can’t imagine them doing the same in the case of, say, Tim Pawlenty. One noteworthy observation: “In her lapel, a small pin with two flags — for Israel and the United States.”

Here’s a good bipartisan issue for conservatives to get behind: “The Obama administration is reaching out to business-friendly Democrats to win support for free-trade policies that divide the party. The effort is part of President Barack Obama’s push on trade that was launched with his State of the Union address. Obama said he wanted to double exports over the next five years as part of an effort to grow the U.S. economy.” If nothing else, it will annoy Big Labor.

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Now Here’s a Political “Civil War”

When the White House begins to sputter, when there is talk of a wave election, and when a party loses a state previously thought to be unlosable, it doesn’t take long for the backbiting and finger-pointing to start. Stuart Rothenberg picks up lots of it. What is wrong with the Obama operation? Well, Democrats have lots of answers:

“It’s hard when you live in this area to understand how bad it is out there,” one veteran Washington, D.C., Democrat told me recently. “People want jobs. They know that it will take time, but they want to be certain that we are working on it.”

The same Democrat noted that this administration, like others, can’t always count on people telling the president how bad things are outside the Beltway. “When the White House calls, most people figure that to get another call, they better give good news. Tell them how bad things are, and they’ll never call you again.”

Others say it’s Rahm Emanuel’s fault. Rothenberg asks: “Rahm Emanuel, whose successes at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are now part of Democratic Party lore and who was the ultimate Capitol Hill insider, missed Massachusetts? But isn’t he always obsessed with the politics of any issue?” The answer according to one Democrat: “It’s the Myth of Rahm.” Oh, we were told he was a political genius. What about David Axelrod? The Democrats don’t like him either. (“One problem, according to some observers, is that David Axelrod, a savvy political strategist who understands message and campaigns, has become an Obama ‘believer’ and has lost some of the perspective he once had.”)

The real problem may be that the sacrificial lambs have figured out they are the sacrificial lambs. (“‘They want to get the heavy lifting done,’ added another Democrat about the White House’s priorities. ‘They don’t care if it costs them the House, the Senate and governors.’”) Or maybe it’s not Obama’s fault. Maybe it’s Nancy Pelosi’s. “She is utterly tone-deaf. She is supposed to look out for her Members, not just make history. It’s reckless what she has done,” one Democratic consultant tells Rothenberg.

Yikes. That’s a lot of upset. We’ve been told there is great division, a near “civil war,” breaking out in Republican ranks. But let’s be honest, that’s nothing compared with what is happening on the Democratic side of the aisle.

Aside from the implications for 2010, it is also an indication that the White House may no longer control the agenda or can count on the support of its congressional allies. After months of hearing from the White House that hugely unpopular ObamaCare would be popular after it passed and watching the president campaign in New Jersey, Virginia, and Massachusetts with no impact (at least not a positive one for their party), Democrats have figured out that that White House’s political radar is on the fritz. Democrats who are in unsafe seats — that is virtually all of them — need to fend for themselves, consider what the public is telling them on everything from spending to terrorism, and be willing to tell their party leadership “no.” Otherwise, they now know they risk joining Jon Corzine, Creigh Deeds, and Martha Coakley — not to mention Chris Dodd and Byron Dorgan — on the list of those who have learned the danger of being tied to the Obama agenda.

When the White House begins to sputter, when there is talk of a wave election, and when a party loses a state previously thought to be unlosable, it doesn’t take long for the backbiting and finger-pointing to start. Stuart Rothenberg picks up lots of it. What is wrong with the Obama operation? Well, Democrats have lots of answers:

“It’s hard when you live in this area to understand how bad it is out there,” one veteran Washington, D.C., Democrat told me recently. “People want jobs. They know that it will take time, but they want to be certain that we are working on it.”

The same Democrat noted that this administration, like others, can’t always count on people telling the president how bad things are outside the Beltway. “When the White House calls, most people figure that to get another call, they better give good news. Tell them how bad things are, and they’ll never call you again.”

Others say it’s Rahm Emanuel’s fault. Rothenberg asks: “Rahm Emanuel, whose successes at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are now part of Democratic Party lore and who was the ultimate Capitol Hill insider, missed Massachusetts? But isn’t he always obsessed with the politics of any issue?” The answer according to one Democrat: “It’s the Myth of Rahm.” Oh, we were told he was a political genius. What about David Axelrod? The Democrats don’t like him either. (“One problem, according to some observers, is that David Axelrod, a savvy political strategist who understands message and campaigns, has become an Obama ‘believer’ and has lost some of the perspective he once had.”)

The real problem may be that the sacrificial lambs have figured out they are the sacrificial lambs. (“‘They want to get the heavy lifting done,’ added another Democrat about the White House’s priorities. ‘They don’t care if it costs them the House, the Senate and governors.’”) Or maybe it’s not Obama’s fault. Maybe it’s Nancy Pelosi’s. “She is utterly tone-deaf. She is supposed to look out for her Members, not just make history. It’s reckless what she has done,” one Democratic consultant tells Rothenberg.

Yikes. That’s a lot of upset. We’ve been told there is great division, a near “civil war,” breaking out in Republican ranks. But let’s be honest, that’s nothing compared with what is happening on the Democratic side of the aisle.

Aside from the implications for 2010, it is also an indication that the White House may no longer control the agenda or can count on the support of its congressional allies. After months of hearing from the White House that hugely unpopular ObamaCare would be popular after it passed and watching the president campaign in New Jersey, Virginia, and Massachusetts with no impact (at least not a positive one for their party), Democrats have figured out that that White House’s political radar is on the fritz. Democrats who are in unsafe seats — that is virtually all of them — need to fend for themselves, consider what the public is telling them on everything from spending to terrorism, and be willing to tell their party leadership “no.” Otherwise, they now know they risk joining Jon Corzine, Creigh Deeds, and Martha Coakley — not to mention Chris Dodd and Byron Dorgan — on the list of those who have learned the danger of being tied to the Obama agenda.

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Misunderstanding Massachusetts

The Washington correspondent of Der Spiegel reacts to the Massachusetts election by suggesting Obama’s troubles may simply reflect “a case of the best US president at the worst time” — a great man understandably unable to bring “change” because he has to deal with so many crises:

Barack Obama has spent his first year in office fighting one crisis after another. Now he faces a political crisis of his own — the defeat in Massachusetts threatens his health care reform, his most important domestic project. Is it a case of the best US president at the worst time? …

In times of crisis, insecurity and defensiveness trump any openness to change. And since his inauguration Obama has had to deal almost exclusively with crisis management. The financial crisis, the automotive crisis, the jobs crisis, the climate crisis, the global crisis. There have never been quite so many crises.

The five crises do not quite compare with inheriting the Great Depression (FDR) or World War II (Truman), and memories are short about what George W. Bush faced in his first year: a recession caused by a burst Internet bubble; the failure of the seventh largest company in the country (Enron) and one of the Big Five accounting firms (Arthur Andersen); an attack on New York and Washington, D.C.; a stock market that crashed and an economy that tottered; the need to mobilize the country for a war in Afghanistan; a failed “peace process” inherited on Inauguration Day (with a new Palestinian war against Israel already in its fifth month); etc.

The difference is that Bush did not spend his first year blaming Bill Clinton for the Internet bubble or the inherited recession, or the ineffective response to the first World Trade Center attack and the multiple attacks thereafter, or the bungled peace process. Bush got tax cuts enacted that helped restore the economy; began his war on terror that kept the country safe for the next seven years; worked cooperatively with Ted Kennedy on major education legislation; and so on.

Obama spent his first year responding to the financial crisis with massive borrowed-money bailouts; to the automotive crisis with a government takeover and a transfer of wealth from secured creditors to unions; to the jobs crisis with a trillion dollar “stimulus” that didn’t work; to the climate “crisis” with a nonbinding international agreement featuring a blank appendix; and to the “global crisis” with … what?

Most of his time was devoted to ObamaCare, something unrelated to the five “crises” he faced and something that got more unpopular the more people understood it. He made a lot of trips and speeches, most of them reminding the country that now was the moment and telling the world that his hand was outstretched. For the coming year, he plans a huge tax increase in the guise of letting current tax rates “expire” and has no plan for the real crisis he will face: Iran.

He has not been the best president and these are not the worst of times — and the sort-of-God/best-president-ever treatment he received from the mainstream media contributed significantly to the problem he now faces. His belief that he just needs to slow down and “explain to people why we’re doing what we’re doing” is a more-cowbell response that ignores what Massachusetts was trying to tell him.

The Washington correspondent of Der Spiegel reacts to the Massachusetts election by suggesting Obama’s troubles may simply reflect “a case of the best US president at the worst time” — a great man understandably unable to bring “change” because he has to deal with so many crises:

Barack Obama has spent his first year in office fighting one crisis after another. Now he faces a political crisis of his own — the defeat in Massachusetts threatens his health care reform, his most important domestic project. Is it a case of the best US president at the worst time? …

In times of crisis, insecurity and defensiveness trump any openness to change. And since his inauguration Obama has had to deal almost exclusively with crisis management. The financial crisis, the automotive crisis, the jobs crisis, the climate crisis, the global crisis. There have never been quite so many crises.

The five crises do not quite compare with inheriting the Great Depression (FDR) or World War II (Truman), and memories are short about what George W. Bush faced in his first year: a recession caused by a burst Internet bubble; the failure of the seventh largest company in the country (Enron) and one of the Big Five accounting firms (Arthur Andersen); an attack on New York and Washington, D.C.; a stock market that crashed and an economy that tottered; the need to mobilize the country for a war in Afghanistan; a failed “peace process” inherited on Inauguration Day (with a new Palestinian war against Israel already in its fifth month); etc.

The difference is that Bush did not spend his first year blaming Bill Clinton for the Internet bubble or the inherited recession, or the ineffective response to the first World Trade Center attack and the multiple attacks thereafter, or the bungled peace process. Bush got tax cuts enacted that helped restore the economy; began his war on terror that kept the country safe for the next seven years; worked cooperatively with Ted Kennedy on major education legislation; and so on.

Obama spent his first year responding to the financial crisis with massive borrowed-money bailouts; to the automotive crisis with a government takeover and a transfer of wealth from secured creditors to unions; to the jobs crisis with a trillion dollar “stimulus” that didn’t work; to the climate “crisis” with a nonbinding international agreement featuring a blank appendix; and to the “global crisis” with … what?

Most of his time was devoted to ObamaCare, something unrelated to the five “crises” he faced and something that got more unpopular the more people understood it. He made a lot of trips and speeches, most of them reminding the country that now was the moment and telling the world that his hand was outstretched. For the coming year, he plans a huge tax increase in the guise of letting current tax rates “expire” and has no plan for the real crisis he will face: Iran.

He has not been the best president and these are not the worst of times — and the sort-of-God/best-president-ever treatment he received from the mainstream media contributed significantly to the problem he now faces. His belief that he just needs to slow down and “explain to people why we’re doing what we’re doing” is a more-cowbell response that ignores what Massachusetts was trying to tell him.

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Brown’s Victory Speech

“The independent voice of Massachusetts has spoken,” thunders Scott Brown. ” This senate seat belongs to no one person and no one party. This is the people’s seat.” This is the populist, anti-Washington voice that many in the GOP will emulate in November. As Brown thanks Sen. Kirk for “completing his work,” the cheer goes up: “Seat him now!” (The message is clear: enough with the political tricks.) Brown says his first call went to Ted Kennedy’s widow, and to the chagrin of many partisan,s Brown says he hopes to be a “worthy successor” to Kennedy. (He’s got a lot of Democratic constituents, so conservatives will forgive him the hyperbole.) He ran against the “machine” in D.C., he says (yup, populism is going to be big in 2010), but the people are the real machine. He’s advertising his daughters’ availability, teasing Obama about ragging on his truck, and challenging Obama to a pick-up game (with Brown’s daughter Ayla, a Boston College star, on the Republican’s team). Victory is fun and Brown is having a ball.

Brown is a telegenic candidate who just claimed a history-changing victory. He’s going to D.C. as a Republican rock star. We’ll see what he does with his opportunity.

UPDATE: He takes another swipe at Obama’s cracks about his truck. (“That’s where I draw the line!”) And he takes time to go after the Democrats’  health-care bill, which he says is not being honestly and fairly debated. He ticks off its many failings — Medicare cuts, the impact on the deficit, the special-interest deals, etc. “We can do better!” You can see why this candidate won.

“The independent voice of Massachusetts has spoken,” thunders Scott Brown. ” This senate seat belongs to no one person and no one party. This is the people’s seat.” This is the populist, anti-Washington voice that many in the GOP will emulate in November. As Brown thanks Sen. Kirk for “completing his work,” the cheer goes up: “Seat him now!” (The message is clear: enough with the political tricks.) Brown says his first call went to Ted Kennedy’s widow, and to the chagrin of many partisan,s Brown says he hopes to be a “worthy successor” to Kennedy. (He’s got a lot of Democratic constituents, so conservatives will forgive him the hyperbole.) He ran against the “machine” in D.C., he says (yup, populism is going to be big in 2010), but the people are the real machine. He’s advertising his daughters’ availability, teasing Obama about ragging on his truck, and challenging Obama to a pick-up game (with Brown’s daughter Ayla, a Boston College star, on the Republican’s team). Victory is fun and Brown is having a ball.

Brown is a telegenic candidate who just claimed a history-changing victory. He’s going to D.C. as a Republican rock star. We’ll see what he does with his opportunity.

UPDATE: He takes another swipe at Obama’s cracks about his truck. (“That’s where I draw the line!”) And he takes time to go after the Democrats’  health-care bill, which he says is not being honestly and fairly debated. He ticks off its many failings — Medicare cuts, the impact on the deficit, the special-interest deals, etc. “We can do better!” You can see why this candidate won.

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Crime Going Extinct?

In one of the more hopeful and underreported stories in recent months, we learned that for the first half of 2009 — a period of considerable economic distress in our country — crime fell by 4.4 percent nationwide, with the murder rate dropping by a staggering 10 percent, according to statistics recently released by the FBI (see links here and here). The decline in murders from one year to another is one of the more significant decreases we have ever experienced. (All four of the offenses that make up violent crime — murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault — decreased nationwide. In addition to the murder rate declining by 10 percent, robbery also fell by 6.5 percent, forcible rape decreased by 3.3 percent, and aggravated assault declined by 3.2 percent.)

In disaggregating this data, we see that violent crime and aggravated assault decreased in major cities of over 1 million residents, dropping by 7 percent and 6.2 percent, respectively. Crime in America’s largest city, New York, has fallen by 11 percent from last year and by 35 percent since 2001. New York, with 461 murders through December 27, is on track for the lowest number of homicides since comprehensive record-keeping began in 1963.

In Los Angeles the murder rate for the first half of 2009 was down by almost 30 percent. In Washington, D.C., the murder rate fell by 26 percent from a comparable period last year, to its lowest in the last two decades. The first half of 2009 also witnessed a 14 percent decrease in homicides in Atlanta and a 10 percent drop in Boston. (It should be pointed out that some cities, like Baltimore and Detroit, saw their murder rate climb.)

The Washington Post summarized things well in its January 2 editorial:

The national decrease in murder began about two decades ago. In 1991, the national homicide rate hit 9.8 per 100,000 inhabitants, prompting forecasts of permanently rising street violence — then fell to 5.7 in 1999. Many wondered whether this “Great Crime Decline” could be sustained for another 10 years. The answer would appear to be yes: By 2008, the murder rate had drifted down to 5.4 per 100,000, the lowest level since 1965. And given the preliminary figures, the rate for 2009 should be lower still. Indeed, if present trends continue, America will experience a degree of public safety not known since the 1950s.

The reasons for the drop we have witnessed in violent crime since the 1990s are multiple, probably including higher incarceration rates and tougher sentencing; advances in policing (including targeting repeat offenders and high-crime areas, utilizing technology such as crime mapping and gunfire-detection systems, which allows police to rapidly respond to incidents, and identifying criminal patterns more effectively); the passing of the crack-cocaine epidemic; the aging of the population; an enormous investment in private security measures; a proliferation of surveillance cameras; more effective intervention and prevention; and more.

It is impossible to ascribe with precision the exact reasons that have led to the progress we have witnessed; they vary depending on cities and circumstances. But the moral of the story is clear enough: problems that at one time seemed intractable can yield, and yield quickly, to the right policies and to a determined citizenry. Fatalism and despair are not options. And the capacity of American ingenuity to address the challenges we face is remarkable. As Irving Kristol put it more than three decades ago, “One of the least appreciated virtues of this society is its natural recuperative powers — its capacity to change, as we say, but also its capacity to preserve itself, to adapt and survive. The strength of these powers always astonishes us, as we anticipate (even proclaim) an imminent apocalypse that somehow never comes.”

It is not terribly fashionable to focus on the progress we experience, whether it has to do with a drop in violent crime rates here at home or a more pacified situation in Iraq. We are prone to focus our attention on the problems we face and the things that are going wrong. But sometimes, to paraphrase James Boswell in The Life of Samuel Johnson, cheerfulness does break in.

In one of the more hopeful and underreported stories in recent months, we learned that for the first half of 2009 — a period of considerable economic distress in our country — crime fell by 4.4 percent nationwide, with the murder rate dropping by a staggering 10 percent, according to statistics recently released by the FBI (see links here and here). The decline in murders from one year to another is one of the more significant decreases we have ever experienced. (All four of the offenses that make up violent crime — murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault — decreased nationwide. In addition to the murder rate declining by 10 percent, robbery also fell by 6.5 percent, forcible rape decreased by 3.3 percent, and aggravated assault declined by 3.2 percent.)

In disaggregating this data, we see that violent crime and aggravated assault decreased in major cities of over 1 million residents, dropping by 7 percent and 6.2 percent, respectively. Crime in America’s largest city, New York, has fallen by 11 percent from last year and by 35 percent since 2001. New York, with 461 murders through December 27, is on track for the lowest number of homicides since comprehensive record-keeping began in 1963.

In Los Angeles the murder rate for the first half of 2009 was down by almost 30 percent. In Washington, D.C., the murder rate fell by 26 percent from a comparable period last year, to its lowest in the last two decades. The first half of 2009 also witnessed a 14 percent decrease in homicides in Atlanta and a 10 percent drop in Boston. (It should be pointed out that some cities, like Baltimore and Detroit, saw their murder rate climb.)

The Washington Post summarized things well in its January 2 editorial:

The national decrease in murder began about two decades ago. In 1991, the national homicide rate hit 9.8 per 100,000 inhabitants, prompting forecasts of permanently rising street violence — then fell to 5.7 in 1999. Many wondered whether this “Great Crime Decline” could be sustained for another 10 years. The answer would appear to be yes: By 2008, the murder rate had drifted down to 5.4 per 100,000, the lowest level since 1965. And given the preliminary figures, the rate for 2009 should be lower still. Indeed, if present trends continue, America will experience a degree of public safety not known since the 1950s.

The reasons for the drop we have witnessed in violent crime since the 1990s are multiple, probably including higher incarceration rates and tougher sentencing; advances in policing (including targeting repeat offenders and high-crime areas, utilizing technology such as crime mapping and gunfire-detection systems, which allows police to rapidly respond to incidents, and identifying criminal patterns more effectively); the passing of the crack-cocaine epidemic; the aging of the population; an enormous investment in private security measures; a proliferation of surveillance cameras; more effective intervention and prevention; and more.

It is impossible to ascribe with precision the exact reasons that have led to the progress we have witnessed; they vary depending on cities and circumstances. But the moral of the story is clear enough: problems that at one time seemed intractable can yield, and yield quickly, to the right policies and to a determined citizenry. Fatalism and despair are not options. And the capacity of American ingenuity to address the challenges we face is remarkable. As Irving Kristol put it more than three decades ago, “One of the least appreciated virtues of this society is its natural recuperative powers — its capacity to change, as we say, but also its capacity to preserve itself, to adapt and survive. The strength of these powers always astonishes us, as we anticipate (even proclaim) an imminent apocalypse that somehow never comes.”

It is not terribly fashionable to focus on the progress we experience, whether it has to do with a drop in violent crime rates here at home or a more pacified situation in Iraq. We are prone to focus our attention on the problems we face and the things that are going wrong. But sometimes, to paraphrase James Boswell in The Life of Samuel Johnson, cheerfulness does break in.

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“Please Take a Moment . . .”

The Obami have been no friends to human-rights activists and democracy promoters around the globe. Leading the charge … er … retreat has been Hillary Clinton, who infamously told the Chinese that human rights shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with other, more pressing issues like global warming. (Something real, and tangible, you see.) And this is the administration that stiffed the Iranian democracy protesters and defunded them, while Hillary and crew have been busy “engaging” the despotic regimes of Burma and Sudan.

So you can imagine my surprise when an e-mail from Hillary’s longtime gal-pal and frequent media spinner Ann Lewis came to me (well, me and anyone who signed up to get information from Hillary’s failed presidential campaign). It’s actually a fundraising letter and spin-gram from NoLimits.org — born when Hillary discovered there were limits to the Democratic party’s toleration of the Clintons — touting, yes, Hillary’s “strong commitment to human rights and women’s rights.” December 10 is Human Rights Day, so Lewis breathlessly reminds us:

In the last year, she has appointed the first ever Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, chaired the first UN Security Council session on violence against women, and offered significant medical help and protection for rape victims in the Congo. Secretary Clinton has spoken out for religious freedom and diversity in Tazakh, LGBT rights in town halls from Washington, D.C. to Moldova, and increased access to technology for grassroots advocates fighting to be heard in Iran. She’s condemned the murder of journalists in Russia, and called on China to release those still imprisoned for their actions during the protests in Tiananmen Square two decades ago.

Hmm. I think the administration isn’t exactly eager to help Iranian protesters with technology, because that might help Chinese democracy protesters. And we can’t have that. But fidelity to details was never part of Hillary’s campaign operation, so let’s not get too deeply mired in facts.

All this seemed rather out of joint, as if dropped from a time capsule. It seems to be from another year, another decade, in which Hillary was out trolling for support and in which human rights topped the agenda. And then I saw the accompanying photo, which seemed indeed to be from another era, five or six hairstyles ago.

box_join_us

Well, perhaps someone has been messing with the space-time continuum. Or maybe Hillary has been watching those Obama poll numbers that look like the hill for advanced skiers (i.e., featuring a really precipitous decline) – and she’s just keeping her options open.

The Obami have been no friends to human-rights activists and democracy promoters around the globe. Leading the charge … er … retreat has been Hillary Clinton, who infamously told the Chinese that human rights shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with other, more pressing issues like global warming. (Something real, and tangible, you see.) And this is the administration that stiffed the Iranian democracy protesters and defunded them, while Hillary and crew have been busy “engaging” the despotic regimes of Burma and Sudan.

So you can imagine my surprise when an e-mail from Hillary’s longtime gal-pal and frequent media spinner Ann Lewis came to me (well, me and anyone who signed up to get information from Hillary’s failed presidential campaign). It’s actually a fundraising letter and spin-gram from NoLimits.org — born when Hillary discovered there were limits to the Democratic party’s toleration of the Clintons — touting, yes, Hillary’s “strong commitment to human rights and women’s rights.” December 10 is Human Rights Day, so Lewis breathlessly reminds us:

In the last year, she has appointed the first ever Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, chaired the first UN Security Council session on violence against women, and offered significant medical help and protection for rape victims in the Congo. Secretary Clinton has spoken out for religious freedom and diversity in Tazakh, LGBT rights in town halls from Washington, D.C. to Moldova, and increased access to technology for grassroots advocates fighting to be heard in Iran. She’s condemned the murder of journalists in Russia, and called on China to release those still imprisoned for their actions during the protests in Tiananmen Square two decades ago.

Hmm. I think the administration isn’t exactly eager to help Iranian protesters with technology, because that might help Chinese democracy protesters. And we can’t have that. But fidelity to details was never part of Hillary’s campaign operation, so let’s not get too deeply mired in facts.

All this seemed rather out of joint, as if dropped from a time capsule. It seems to be from another year, another decade, in which Hillary was out trolling for support and in which human rights topped the agenda. And then I saw the accompanying photo, which seemed indeed to be from another era, five or six hairstyles ago.

box_join_us

Well, perhaps someone has been messing with the space-time continuum. Or maybe Hillary has been watching those Obama poll numbers that look like the hill for advanced skiers (i.e., featuring a really precipitous decline) – and she’s just keeping her options open.

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“Patriotic” Chinese Protests

Sunday, thousands of angry Chinese took to the streets in anti-foreigner protests in major cities in China, including Wuhan, Harbin, Jinan, Xian, Qingdao, and Dalian. The demonstrations followed those occurring on Friday and Saturday, which took place around the country, including Beijing, Kunming, and Hefei. They were the largest anti-foreign protests in three years, since anti-Japan riots shook Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities in China.

Young Chinese, upset at foreign media coverage of recent ethnic disturbances and pro-Tibetan protests around the world, gathered in front of foreign stores, declared a boycott of French retailer Carrefour, and carried pictures of Mao Zedong. “Condemn CNN” and “Shut up you French,” seen on banners over the weekend, expressed popular sentiment. “We’re supporting the Olympics and boycotting Tibetan independence,” said the organizer of one of the demonstrations in the Chinese capital. As Zhu Xiaomeng, a student in Beijing who has been organizing a boycott of French companies, noted, “After 5,000 years, we’re not so soft anymore.”

That’s the message Beijing wants you to hear. Chinese state media triggered the protests in China with noxious anti-French stories that began appearing about a week ago, and Beijing has fueled demonstrations in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, London, Birmingham, and Manchester in Europe and San Francisco, Los Angeles, the Twin Cities, and Washington, D.C. by paying “patriotic” Chinese to participate.

The ugly tactic seems to be working. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, for instance, will be sending three envoys to Beijing to try to limit the damage (the first left France yesterday). He also invited Jin Jing, a disabled fencer who protected the Olympic flame in the Paris torch relay from protesters, to be his “personal guest.” There is, however, evidence that Beijing manufactured the incident that made the “wheelchair angel” a national symbol of Chinese defiance.

So the West is being intimidated once again by arrogant Chinese rulers. Eventually, we will learn that Beijing has been manipulating us all along. In the meantime, Western leaders will continue to apologize to the Middle Kingdom whenever it gets into a snit.

Sunday, thousands of angry Chinese took to the streets in anti-foreigner protests in major cities in China, including Wuhan, Harbin, Jinan, Xian, Qingdao, and Dalian. The demonstrations followed those occurring on Friday and Saturday, which took place around the country, including Beijing, Kunming, and Hefei. They were the largest anti-foreign protests in three years, since anti-Japan riots shook Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities in China.

Young Chinese, upset at foreign media coverage of recent ethnic disturbances and pro-Tibetan protests around the world, gathered in front of foreign stores, declared a boycott of French retailer Carrefour, and carried pictures of Mao Zedong. “Condemn CNN” and “Shut up you French,” seen on banners over the weekend, expressed popular sentiment. “We’re supporting the Olympics and boycotting Tibetan independence,” said the organizer of one of the demonstrations in the Chinese capital. As Zhu Xiaomeng, a student in Beijing who has been organizing a boycott of French companies, noted, “After 5,000 years, we’re not so soft anymore.”

That’s the message Beijing wants you to hear. Chinese state media triggered the protests in China with noxious anti-French stories that began appearing about a week ago, and Beijing has fueled demonstrations in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, London, Birmingham, and Manchester in Europe and San Francisco, Los Angeles, the Twin Cities, and Washington, D.C. by paying “patriotic” Chinese to participate.

The ugly tactic seems to be working. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, for instance, will be sending three envoys to Beijing to try to limit the damage (the first left France yesterday). He also invited Jin Jing, a disabled fencer who protected the Olympic flame in the Paris torch relay from protesters, to be his “personal guest.” There is, however, evidence that Beijing manufactured the incident that made the “wheelchair angel” a national symbol of Chinese defiance.

So the West is being intimidated once again by arrogant Chinese rulers. Eventually, we will learn that Beijing has been manipulating us all along. In the meantime, Western leaders will continue to apologize to the Middle Kingdom whenever it gets into a snit.

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I . . . Agree with Michael Scheuer

Gabriel Schoenfeld has done a masterly job of dissecting the bizarre world view of retired CIA officer Michael Scheuer. But today Scheuer has actually written an article that I for the most part agree with. It’s called “Break Out the Shock and Awe,” and in it he cautions against the notion that “the U.S. military should rely more on covert operations and special forces to fight counterinsurgencies and irregular wars.” Only conventional forces, he argues, can deliver a lasting victory.

The reality is a little more complex. When they have skilled allied forces to fight alongside, American special operators can in fact deliver outsize results. That’s what happened in El Salvador in the 1980′s, when 55 Special Forces trainers helped defeat a communist insurgency. But in the absence of large, competent, conventional forces-and they have been notably lacking in Afghanistan and Iraq during most of the time we have fought there-special operators cannot magically defeat our enemies.

But even when delivering generally sound analysis, Scheuer goes astray. He writes:

Anyone who reads works on the recommended book lists of the Army chief of staff and the Marines Corps commandant — books by such writers as Stephen Ambrose, Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and Dwight Eisenhower — will find little indication that wars can won by clandestine and special forces. Only Max Boot and his brethren at the Weekly Standard, Commentary and the National Review preach such nonsense as gospel.

I cannot speak for everyone at The Weekly Standard, COMMENTARY, or National Review, but off the top of my head (and speaking as the author of a book that is on the reading lists of both the Marine commandant and the chief of naval operations) I am hard put to think of any contributors to those publications who in fact “preach such nonsense as gospel.” Quite the reverse. Those publications have been supporting a surge of troops in Iraq precisely on the theory that special operators can’t do it alone.

Along with many of my “brethren” such as Fred Kagan, I have repeatedly warned against the special operations fallacy. For instance, in my Commentary article “How Not to Get Out of Iraq,” I wrote

If Special Operations Forces could not prevent the establishment under their noses of a Taliban-style “Islamic state” in Baquba during the past year, how much luck would they have operating from Kuwait or the Kurdish region, as suggested by proponents of this approach? It would be like trying to police Boston from Washington, D.C.

The major proponents of a commando-centric approach to fighting terrorists are not, in fact, to be found on the Right, especially now that Donald Rumsfeld is no longer at the Pentagon. They are primarily Democrats.  Some advocate this approach out of sheer ignorance; others do so out of political expediency.  All want to convince themselves that we can pull most of our troops out of Iraq and still keep Al Qaeda at bay. Scheuer would be well advised to aim his rhetorical fire a bit more carefully.

Gabriel Schoenfeld has done a masterly job of dissecting the bizarre world view of retired CIA officer Michael Scheuer. But today Scheuer has actually written an article that I for the most part agree with. It’s called “Break Out the Shock and Awe,” and in it he cautions against the notion that “the U.S. military should rely more on covert operations and special forces to fight counterinsurgencies and irregular wars.” Only conventional forces, he argues, can deliver a lasting victory.

The reality is a little more complex. When they have skilled allied forces to fight alongside, American special operators can in fact deliver outsize results. That’s what happened in El Salvador in the 1980′s, when 55 Special Forces trainers helped defeat a communist insurgency. But in the absence of large, competent, conventional forces-and they have been notably lacking in Afghanistan and Iraq during most of the time we have fought there-special operators cannot magically defeat our enemies.

But even when delivering generally sound analysis, Scheuer goes astray. He writes:

Anyone who reads works on the recommended book lists of the Army chief of staff and the Marines Corps commandant — books by such writers as Stephen Ambrose, Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and Dwight Eisenhower — will find little indication that wars can won by clandestine and special forces. Only Max Boot and his brethren at the Weekly Standard, Commentary and the National Review preach such nonsense as gospel.

I cannot speak for everyone at The Weekly Standard, COMMENTARY, or National Review, but off the top of my head (and speaking as the author of a book that is on the reading lists of both the Marine commandant and the chief of naval operations) I am hard put to think of any contributors to those publications who in fact “preach such nonsense as gospel.” Quite the reverse. Those publications have been supporting a surge of troops in Iraq precisely on the theory that special operators can’t do it alone.

Along with many of my “brethren” such as Fred Kagan, I have repeatedly warned against the special operations fallacy. For instance, in my Commentary article “How Not to Get Out of Iraq,” I wrote

If Special Operations Forces could not prevent the establishment under their noses of a Taliban-style “Islamic state” in Baquba during the past year, how much luck would they have operating from Kuwait or the Kurdish region, as suggested by proponents of this approach? It would be like trying to police Boston from Washington, D.C.

The major proponents of a commando-centric approach to fighting terrorists are not, in fact, to be found on the Right, especially now that Donald Rumsfeld is no longer at the Pentagon. They are primarily Democrats.  Some advocate this approach out of sheer ignorance; others do so out of political expediency.  All want to convince themselves that we can pull most of our troops out of Iraq and still keep Al Qaeda at bay. Scheuer would be well advised to aim his rhetorical fire a bit more carefully.

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Commemorating the Struggle for Soviet Jewry

The campaign to free Soviet Jewry was one of the great human rights struggles—and successes—of the last century. Here was a situation in which the battle lines were sharply drawn, people of conscience had only one side to take, and where the distinction between the Free World and the Soviet slave state could not have been more clear.

December 6 marked the 20th anniversary of the Freedom Sunday Rally in Washington, D.C., which brought an estimated 250,000 people to the National Mall on the eve of a summit between President Reagan and Premier Gorbachev. The anniversary was celebrated by NCSJ, formerly known the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

The struggle for Soviet Jewry serves as a useful example to contemporary human rights movements. Here was an issue that attracted supporters from an array of political corners—from evangelical Christians to the labor movement, the latter of which played a pivotal role. There was Bayard Rustin, the great civil rights activist, who lent not just his personal understanding of the connection between the African-American and Jewish freedom struggles, but also his mellifluous voice to the singing of Negro spirituals. That Rustin would be a leader in the campaign to free Soviet Jews was hardly a surprise; he was the greatest black proponent of Jewish causes. Ten years ago, writing in the New Republic, Paul Berman noted that “[Rustin] organized a tiny but noisy black organization [Black Americans to Support Israel Committe, BASIC] in favor of Israel. That was as noble as anything he ever did.”

Most passionate, of course, was Senator Scoop Jackson, author of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which (very sensibly) prohibited normal trade relations with countries that prevented their citizens’ freedom of movement (a right that is granted in the United Nations Charter). The amendment continues to be a useful tool in promoting human rights and religious liberty abroad as it encourages countries to improve their records in order to “graduate” from the law.

If anything, the 20th anniversary of the Freedom Sunday rally ought serve as a reminder that human rights should always be on the agenda of the United States, no matter what the issue or country with which it’s dealing.

The campaign to free Soviet Jewry was one of the great human rights struggles—and successes—of the last century. Here was a situation in which the battle lines were sharply drawn, people of conscience had only one side to take, and where the distinction between the Free World and the Soviet slave state could not have been more clear.

December 6 marked the 20th anniversary of the Freedom Sunday Rally in Washington, D.C., which brought an estimated 250,000 people to the National Mall on the eve of a summit between President Reagan and Premier Gorbachev. The anniversary was celebrated by NCSJ, formerly known the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

The struggle for Soviet Jewry serves as a useful example to contemporary human rights movements. Here was an issue that attracted supporters from an array of political corners—from evangelical Christians to the labor movement, the latter of which played a pivotal role. There was Bayard Rustin, the great civil rights activist, who lent not just his personal understanding of the connection between the African-American and Jewish freedom struggles, but also his mellifluous voice to the singing of Negro spirituals. That Rustin would be a leader in the campaign to free Soviet Jews was hardly a surprise; he was the greatest black proponent of Jewish causes. Ten years ago, writing in the New Republic, Paul Berman noted that “[Rustin] organized a tiny but noisy black organization [Black Americans to Support Israel Committe, BASIC] in favor of Israel. That was as noble as anything he ever did.”

Most passionate, of course, was Senator Scoop Jackson, author of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which (very sensibly) prohibited normal trade relations with countries that prevented their citizens’ freedom of movement (a right that is granted in the United Nations Charter). The amendment continues to be a useful tool in promoting human rights and religious liberty abroad as it encourages countries to improve their records in order to “graduate” from the law.

If anything, the 20th anniversary of the Freedom Sunday rally ought serve as a reminder that human rights should always be on the agenda of the United States, no matter what the issue or country with which it’s dealing.

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All the News That’s Fit to Bury

Let us connect four dots.

On September 11, 2001, some 3,000 people were killed by Islamic terrorists in New York, Washington, D.C., and in Pennsylvania. It was a big story; indeed, it made the front page of the New York Times for quite a few days running.

On December 9, 2006, a Muslim convert by the name of Derrick Shareef, a U.S. citizen, was indicted on a charge of attempting, as part of a plot to wage “violent jihad,” to use a weapon of mass destruction — grenades — to attack Christmas shoppers in a mall in Rockford, Illinois. It made page sixteen of the New York Times, and was recounted in 129 words.

Today, November 20, 2007, Shareef pleaded guilty to the charges. It made page 28 of the New York Times, and was explained in 90 words.

Today, on the same day, in the same newspaper, is a story about sports entitled Concussions Leave Colleges and Players in Murky World. It received 1,439 words and appeared on the front page.

What do these numbers tell us about how the New York Times reports on the terrorist threat to the United States in the years since September 11?

Readers who respond with the correct answer will receive a free copy, autographed by me, of former CIA officer Michael Scheuer’s forthcoming book, Marching Toward Hell. (A stamped self-addressed envelope with the correct postage sent to the offices of COMMENTARY is required for entry. Offer void where prohibited.)

Let us connect four dots.

On September 11, 2001, some 3,000 people were killed by Islamic terrorists in New York, Washington, D.C., and in Pennsylvania. It was a big story; indeed, it made the front page of the New York Times for quite a few days running.

On December 9, 2006, a Muslim convert by the name of Derrick Shareef, a U.S. citizen, was indicted on a charge of attempting, as part of a plot to wage “violent jihad,” to use a weapon of mass destruction — grenades — to attack Christmas shoppers in a mall in Rockford, Illinois. It made page sixteen of the New York Times, and was recounted in 129 words.

Today, November 20, 2007, Shareef pleaded guilty to the charges. It made page 28 of the New York Times, and was explained in 90 words.

Today, on the same day, in the same newspaper, is a story about sports entitled Concussions Leave Colleges and Players in Murky World. It received 1,439 words and appeared on the front page.

What do these numbers tell us about how the New York Times reports on the terrorist threat to the United States in the years since September 11?

Readers who respond with the correct answer will receive a free copy, autographed by me, of former CIA officer Michael Scheuer’s forthcoming book, Marching Toward Hell. (A stamped self-addressed envelope with the correct postage sent to the offices of COMMENTARY is required for entry. Offer void where prohibited.)

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The Cocktail Party

The most interesting article I read this past weekend? Glad you asked. It was this column by the Wall Street Journal’s “How’s Your Drink?” columnist, Eric Felten. His subject is the history of the cocktail, and in 1,200 or so words, he distills a lot of complex facts into a high-octane tale.

Felten pours scorn on the notion that Alec Waugh (Evelyn’s older brother and an author himself) invented the cocktail party in London in 1925. He concludes that the credit, such as it is, must go to Mrs. Julius S. Walsh Jr. of St Louis, who in 1917 threw what was supposedly the world’s first cocktail party.

Why did I find this article so fascinating? It’s not because I’m a lush or an aficionado of beverage history or a friend of Felten. (I’ve never met the multi-talented author, who is not only a writer, but also a jazz musician based in Washington, D.C.). But somehow I always find his columns to be delightful and instructive reading—just the right “pick me up” for a dreary Saturday morning, and with none of the hangover associated with the more traditional variety.

Read More

The most interesting article I read this past weekend? Glad you asked. It was this column by the Wall Street Journal’s “How’s Your Drink?” columnist, Eric Felten. His subject is the history of the cocktail, and in 1,200 or so words, he distills a lot of complex facts into a high-octane tale.

Felten pours scorn on the notion that Alec Waugh (Evelyn’s older brother and an author himself) invented the cocktail party in London in 1925. He concludes that the credit, such as it is, must go to Mrs. Julius S. Walsh Jr. of St Louis, who in 1917 threw what was supposedly the world’s first cocktail party.

Why did I find this article so fascinating? It’s not because I’m a lush or an aficionado of beverage history or a friend of Felten. (I’ve never met the multi-talented author, who is not only a writer, but also a jazz musician based in Washington, D.C.). But somehow I always find his columns to be delightful and instructive reading—just the right “pick me up” for a dreary Saturday morning, and with none of the hangover associated with the more traditional variety.

I still treasure the Pimm’s Cup recipe he produced this summer, which made for some very contented guests at Boot Manor. And I keep reading even though we have some fundamental ideological disagreements. I think he is understandably, if sadly, deluded in his notion, expressed in this interview, that a “true” martini must be made with gin, not vodka. (I do find myself agreeing with him, however, that it is “fanciful” to think “that there is an appreciable difference among competing brands of vodka.”)

The cocktail history article grabbed me in particular because Felten mentions one of my favorite characters of all time—Smedley Butler, a Marine who won two Medals of Honor before being drummed out of the service (for insulting Mussolini in public of all things), and before he turned into an isolationist and pacifist in the 1930′s. Butler, a teetotaler sometimes known as “The Fighting Quaker,” occupies a prominent place in my book, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. He makes a fascinating cameo in Felten’s article:

The first cocktail party to get much ink in the New York Times . . . was a scandalous evening of drinking at San Diego’s Hotel Del Coronado. One evening in April 1926, the commander of the local Marine base, Brig. Gen. Smedley D. Butler, arrived at an officers’ party at the hotel and found one of his subordinates, Col. Alexander S. Williams, to be crocked. It might have all been ignored had Butler not loathed Williams’s politics, which were left-enough-of-center to be described as “anarchistic.” And so Butler had the man charged with intoxication. The court-martial that followed in the “cocktail party case” was something of a sensation, with a parade of junior officers perjuring themselves, attesting to Williams’s total sobriety. Old Smedley suffered a nervous breakdown, attributed to “worry over the coolness toward him by society since he made charges of intoxication” against Williams. The opprobrium felt so acutely by the general is some indication of the high esteem in which society already held the institution of the cocktail party.

I must remember the next time I have my favorite cocktail, a vodka gimlet (another drink, like the martini, that fundamentalists erroneously insist must be made with gin), to raise a toast to Felten and wish him all success on his forthcoming book, a compilation of his Journal columns.

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Gross Misconduct

The battle over Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic (1875) has ended happily. Last November, Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University sold the painting for $68 million—the highest price ever paid for an American work of art—to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and the newly established Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. (Founded by Alice Walton, the Wal-Mart heiress, the Crystal Bridges Museum is being built in Bentonville, Arkansas.) In deference to local sensibilities, however, Jefferson offered the work to Philadelphia institutions if they could match the purchase price within 45 days. In a cliffhanger of the sort not common in the art world, the Philadelphia Art Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, working together, just made the December 26 deadline, having raised about half of the purchase price and borrowing the rest.

Today recognized as the summit of American realism, The Gross Clinic was once viewed as indecent. In 1876 the Centennial Exhibition rejected it as too brutal for public display, and it was relegated to the U.S. Army Hospital exhibition. Its subject is indeed brutal: Samuel D. Gross, Jefferson University’s brilliant surgeon, removes a diseased bone from a young eye and pauses dramatically in mid-action, bloody scalpel in hand. As his assembled students observe with forensic detachment, the boy’s mother cringes beside Gross, in palpable torment. Here is the most forceful depiction imaginable of the intellectual culture of Philadelphia, whose tradition of artistic and scientific empiricism reaches back to its Quaker foundation. For this reason alone, it is deeply satisfying that the painting remain in its native city.

Still, nagging questions remain. One is the involvement of the National Gallery, which might be expected to defend the cause of American art as a whole, and not to act as a predatory corporation, aggrandizing itself at the cost of the cultural patrimony of another city. Another is the increasing tendency of private institutions to sell their cultural assets, declaring them, on the basis of narrowly formulated mission statements, to be “outside the scope of our central mission.” Such was the case two years ago when the New York Public Library sold Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits (1849), the iconic Hudson River School landscape, to the Crystal Bridges Museum. And finally, there is the Philadelphia Art Museum itself, which has eloquently defended the idea that the physical location of a work of art has much to do with its aesthetic force and social significance; it is striking that this is the same museum that has worked so assiduously to pry the collection of the Barnes Foundation from the building and site that have given it its meaning for three quarters of a century.

Such are the lingering qualms, but they should not prevent one from marveling at The Gross Clinic, now on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until March 4.

The battle over Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic (1875) has ended happily. Last November, Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University sold the painting for $68 million—the highest price ever paid for an American work of art—to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and the newly established Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. (Founded by Alice Walton, the Wal-Mart heiress, the Crystal Bridges Museum is being built in Bentonville, Arkansas.) In deference to local sensibilities, however, Jefferson offered the work to Philadelphia institutions if they could match the purchase price within 45 days. In a cliffhanger of the sort not common in the art world, the Philadelphia Art Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, working together, just made the December 26 deadline, having raised about half of the purchase price and borrowing the rest.

Today recognized as the summit of American realism, The Gross Clinic was once viewed as indecent. In 1876 the Centennial Exhibition rejected it as too brutal for public display, and it was relegated to the U.S. Army Hospital exhibition. Its subject is indeed brutal: Samuel D. Gross, Jefferson University’s brilliant surgeon, removes a diseased bone from a young eye and pauses dramatically in mid-action, bloody scalpel in hand. As his assembled students observe with forensic detachment, the boy’s mother cringes beside Gross, in palpable torment. Here is the most forceful depiction imaginable of the intellectual culture of Philadelphia, whose tradition of artistic and scientific empiricism reaches back to its Quaker foundation. For this reason alone, it is deeply satisfying that the painting remain in its native city.

Still, nagging questions remain. One is the involvement of the National Gallery, which might be expected to defend the cause of American art as a whole, and not to act as a predatory corporation, aggrandizing itself at the cost of the cultural patrimony of another city. Another is the increasing tendency of private institutions to sell their cultural assets, declaring them, on the basis of narrowly formulated mission statements, to be “outside the scope of our central mission.” Such was the case two years ago when the New York Public Library sold Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits (1849), the iconic Hudson River School landscape, to the Crystal Bridges Museum. And finally, there is the Philadelphia Art Museum itself, which has eloquently defended the idea that the physical location of a work of art has much to do with its aesthetic force and social significance; it is striking that this is the same museum that has worked so assiduously to pry the collection of the Barnes Foundation from the building and site that have given it its meaning for three quarters of a century.

Such are the lingering qualms, but they should not prevent one from marveling at The Gross Clinic, now on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until March 4.

Read Less




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