Commentary Magazine


Topic: Great Britain

The Great War at 100

The 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, has come and gone, prompting a lot of reflections on the significance and implications of World War I. Even if Gavrilo Princip’s shots were only the excuse, not the real cause, of the Great War, it is hard to exaggerate their significance.

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The 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, has come and gone, prompting a lot of reflections on the significance and implications of World War I. Even if Gavrilo Princip’s shots were only the excuse, not the real cause, of the Great War, it is hard to exaggerate their significance.

The conflict swept away the entire Ottoman and Habsburg empires along with the governments of Germany, Austria, Turkey, Russia, and other states. It led to the creation of the modern Balkans and the modern Middle East. Nazism, fascism, and Communism–all the great ideological ills of the 20th century–would never have become as virulent as they did absent the devastation wrought by the 1914-1918 conflict. There would have been no Stalin in power, no Hitler, and there would have been no World War II–and hence no Korean War or Vietnam War. It is impossible to imagine how history would have gone otherwise but it would have been incomparably different–and probably for the better.

Even now, with those terrible “isms” having all but disappeared (mercifully!) and with some of the post-World War I states either gone (Yugoslavia) or on the verge of extinction (Syria, Iraq), the legacy of the war lives on. It can be seen not just in the long, depressing rows of crosses to be found in military cemeteries from the Somme to Verdun, nor in the statues of Franz Ferdinand and Gavrilo Pricip now to be found in Sarajevo. It can be found, still, in the map of Europe and the Middle East which, for all of the recent turmoil, largely reflects the legacy of World War I. And it can be found in the way that warfare is waged, running the spectrum from terrorism (of the kind perpetrated by Princip and his comrades in the Black Hand) to the use of tanks and airplanes and fast-moving mechanized infantry maneuvered by radio–all technologies introduced during the First World War.

How did this cataclysm come about? The most popular interpretation, advanced by the most popular account of the war’s origins (The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman) claims it was an accident that no one wanted. That outlook, while still held by some, has been convincingly refuted by a host of historians including many influential German scholars who refused to accept a whitewash of their country’s responsibility for starting the First World War as well as the Second. The excellent British historian Max Hastings marshaled much of the evidence in his recent book “Catastrophe 1914″ (which I reviewed here).

He writes: “The case still seems overwhelmingly strong that Germany bore principal blame. Even if it did not conspire to bring war about, it declined to exercise its power to prevent the outbreak by restraining Austria. Even if Berlin did not seek to contrive a general European conflagration, it was willing for one, because it believed that it could win.”

There is an important implication to this conclusion: namely that wars are not generally the result of “arms races” or “misunderstandings” that can be prevented with international mediation. Rather they are usually the result of deliberate policies by capricious regimes which may not want to fight but are willing to risk conflict in order to achieve their power-hungry aims. It stands to reason that the best bet for preventing future conflict is not in sponsoring more diplomatic negotiations but rather in the forces of freedom keeping their powder dry.

That is something that Great Britain, the guardian of international order in the pre-1914 world, singularly failed to do: London was willing to maintain the greatest fleet in the world but its army was so small that it was not reckoned to be a serious factor in continental calculations and its willingness to stand up to German aggression was in doubt. This hesitancy and unpreparedness on the part of London gave Imperial Germany the opening it was seeking to launch a preemptive campaign of conquest against both France and Russia–something that even the German General Staff, arrogant as they were, might not have dared had they been certain of massive and timely British intervention.

Alas, today, the enemies of freedom, from Moscow to Tehran to Pyongyang, can no longer be certain in the readiness and resolve of the greatest champion of freedom in today’s world–the United States. Our president has allowed red lines to be crossed with impunity and our defense capabilities are deteriorating because of mindless budget cuts. That is a dangerous situation. We are unlikely, thank goodness, to see another conflict on the scale of World War I, but we are courting lesser conflicts that can still prove deadly and dangerous–like the wars now engulfing Iraq and Syria, those progeny of World War I.

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Reparations for Europe’s Slave Trade?

There is no doubt that slavery was a great evil. But that does not mean that 14 Caribbean nations should succeed in their attempt to win reparations from Britain, France and the Netherlands, their former colonial masters, in a case that is being brought by enterprising British lawyers before the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

For a start there is the issue of what lawyers call standing: Most of these nations did not even exist when slavery was abolished, a process that began with the British Parliament passing the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. No doubt many Caribbean citizens are descendants of former slaves, but quite a few also have ancestors who were European; conjugal relations between masters and slaves were hardly unknown. Should the large number of mixed-race West Indians receive reparations with one hand and pay them out with the other?

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There is no doubt that slavery was a great evil. But that does not mean that 14 Caribbean nations should succeed in their attempt to win reparations from Britain, France and the Netherlands, their former colonial masters, in a case that is being brought by enterprising British lawyers before the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

For a start there is the issue of what lawyers call standing: Most of these nations did not even exist when slavery was abolished, a process that began with the British Parliament passing the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. No doubt many Caribbean citizens are descendants of former slaves, but quite a few also have ancestors who were European; conjugal relations between masters and slaves were hardly unknown. Should the large number of mixed-race West Indians receive reparations with one hand and pay them out with the other?

The problems with this legal action hardly end there. Reparations are generally accorded when nations take actions which are illegal and unethical under prevailing standards of international law. This, for example, is why it is appropriate for Germany to pay reparations to victims of the Holocaust or for Japan to pay reparations to former comfort women. But slavery was hardly against international law when it flourished in the Caribbean in the 18th century. In fact, slavery had been widely accepted since antiquity and practiced not only by Europeans but by Africans, Arabs, Asians, and many other cultures. It still exists in many places today.

Slavery only came to be accepted as a moral abomination—and eventually banned—thanks to the efforts of Western abolitionists such as William Wilberforce. The international slave trade was repressed through the action of the Royal Navy, with a small assist from the U.S. Navy. The moral opprobrium that clings to countries such as Britain which benefitted from the slave trade must be weighed against the moral approbation they earned by campaigning against slavery. Also on the plus side for the colonial powers is the fact that they invested in considerable physical infrastructure—roads, ports, railroads—that continue to benefit Caribbean nations to this day.

How one balances all of this out is impossible to say, and it is not a job for a court to address. We should learn from the past, but it is a stretch to try to benefit from misdeeds that occurred hundreds of years ago by and against people who are long dead.

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What Not to Learn in London

Mitt Romney is in London today showing his ability to act on the international stage as well as seeking to emphasize that he is prepared to embrace America’s traditional allies in Britain, Poland and Israel in contrast to President Obama’s desire to distance the U.S. from these nations. In London he will also get reacquainted with British Prime Minister David Cameron with whom he found himself in an unplanned and unnecessary spat about Olympic preparations. But rather than take lessons from him on how to get elected and to govern as a conservative, Cameron provides a sterling example of the bad choices that Romney should avoid during the campaign as well as once in office should he triumph in November.

It should be stipulated that the political cultures and circumstances of the two countries are vastly different. For all of their problems, Republicans are not in the position that Britain’s Conservative Party found itself prior to Cameron becoming PM in May 2010. The Tories needed a makeover after 13 years out of government while Tony Blair’s new Labor ruled. They got it with the handsome Cameron who sought to refashion the party’s image away from Margaret Thatcher’s “nasty party” to a new Conservative leadership that embraced environmentalism, gay rights and any other issue that would make them more popular. But while Cameron remains in residence at Number 10 Downing Street, the experiment of watering down conservative ideology has not been successful. The instinctively moderate Romney needs to take notice of Cameron’s failures. If he doesn’t, it will not only reduce his chances of victory over President Obama but impact his chances of making a difference even if he wins.

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Mitt Romney is in London today showing his ability to act on the international stage as well as seeking to emphasize that he is prepared to embrace America’s traditional allies in Britain, Poland and Israel in contrast to President Obama’s desire to distance the U.S. from these nations. In London he will also get reacquainted with British Prime Minister David Cameron with whom he found himself in an unplanned and unnecessary spat about Olympic preparations. But rather than take lessons from him on how to get elected and to govern as a conservative, Cameron provides a sterling example of the bad choices that Romney should avoid during the campaign as well as once in office should he triumph in November.

It should be stipulated that the political cultures and circumstances of the two countries are vastly different. For all of their problems, Republicans are not in the position that Britain’s Conservative Party found itself prior to Cameron becoming PM in May 2010. The Tories needed a makeover after 13 years out of government while Tony Blair’s new Labor ruled. They got it with the handsome Cameron who sought to refashion the party’s image away from Margaret Thatcher’s “nasty party” to a new Conservative leadership that embraced environmentalism, gay rights and any other issue that would make them more popular. But while Cameron remains in residence at Number 10 Downing Street, the experiment of watering down conservative ideology has not been successful. The instinctively moderate Romney needs to take notice of Cameron’s failures. If he doesn’t, it will not only reduce his chances of victory over President Obama but impact his chances of making a difference even if he wins.

Some would argue that Cameron had to take the Tories down a path in which traditional conservative positions were jettisoned. Britain had moved on from Thatcher’s era, and the move of Labor to the center under Blair stood to become permanent if the Tories did not accommodate themselves to the change in the climate. Cameron’s embrace of politically correct positions on social issues and the environment combined with fiscal conservatism seemed the perfect formula for victory. But in spite of Labor’s collapse under Blair’s successor Gordon Brown and the readiness of the voters for change, Cameron’s weak tea approach to policy did not bring the victory he expected. Instead of winning the election outright, he was forced to make a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in order to achieve his goal of becoming prime minister. But in order to do that, he had to further weaken his party’s base.

Two years later, Cameron is saddled with a disgruntled liberal coalition partner and a party base that not only despises him but which is, as Andrew Pierce in the Daily Mail writes, literally disintegrating. Though Tories cannot count on the same large, religious and deeply politically conservative base that is the heart of the GOP, the party activists in the shires, without whom future victories are impossible, are abandoning Cameron in droves. He is getting all the blame for Britain’s austerity budget. but having failed to provide a clear ideological alternative to Labor (British writer Melanie Phillips aptly dubbed him “David Obameron” in response to his open affection for the American president), he is unable to frame the issue in a manner that will gain him credit for keeping the nation afloat.

While the dilemmas facing Republicans and Tories are starkly different, what Romney can learn from Cameron is that a politician who tries to be all things to all people can not only snatch near defeat from the jaws of victory as the PM did two years ago but is not likely to be able to govern effectively or retain the loyalty of his party. Standing up for conservative principles can be difficult in the face of the opprobrium that it will bring from the liberal mainstream media, but such brickbats are the price one must pay for principle. Cameron was unwilling to pay that price, and though he may have achieved his ambition to become prime minister, it has cost him the ability to govern effectively and may well lead to his eventual defeat.

Romney should enjoy his British visit, but if he wants a good British model he should look to Cameron’s Tory predecessors such as Thatcher and Winston Churchill (whose bust he has promised to return to the Oval Office after its removal by Obama). If he wants to win he should follow their examples rather than that of the feckless Obama-light Cameron.

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A Vacuum Recognized Is Not a Vacuum Filled

The central pillar of the rebuttal to complaints about American defense spending compared to that of the rest of the world is the fact that other countries–or continents, in Europe’s case–can only afford to skimp on defense spending because the U.S. will pick up the slack. American defense cuts, if not done carefully and responsibly, risk leaving a vacuum in areas where the U.S. military has carried the burden of influence.

So it’s not surprising that the prospect of American defense cuts, together with the “pivot” of resources to the Asia-Pacific region, are making some European allies nervous. Britain’s new defense minister, however, has some advice for his European counterparts: stop whining and pitch in:

Instead of worrying about the cutbacks to U.S. military power in the region, which many NATO countries apparently had been counting on to offset their own deep defense reductions, [Phillip] Hammond said the allies must recognize that “as a result, European nations, including the UK, will need to do much more of the heavy lifting in the security of their own region,” including both Europe itself and the Middle East, Northern Africa, and the Horn of Africa, which he called “the near abroad.”

“This is not the end of Atlanticism, but the beginning of a new, more balanced relationship in the alliance,” Hammond said.

While the U.S.-UK ties will always be Britain’s priority, Hammond said, “to support your rebalancing [to Asia], we will seek to work more closely with our neighbors in Europe, particularly France and Germany, to enhance capabilities in our own region.”

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The central pillar of the rebuttal to complaints about American defense spending compared to that of the rest of the world is the fact that other countries–or continents, in Europe’s case–can only afford to skimp on defense spending because the U.S. will pick up the slack. American defense cuts, if not done carefully and responsibly, risk leaving a vacuum in areas where the U.S. military has carried the burden of influence.

So it’s not surprising that the prospect of American defense cuts, together with the “pivot” of resources to the Asia-Pacific region, are making some European allies nervous. Britain’s new defense minister, however, has some advice for his European counterparts: stop whining and pitch in:

Instead of worrying about the cutbacks to U.S. military power in the region, which many NATO countries apparently had been counting on to offset their own deep defense reductions, [Phillip] Hammond said the allies must recognize that “as a result, European nations, including the UK, will need to do much more of the heavy lifting in the security of their own region,” including both Europe itself and the Middle East, Northern Africa, and the Horn of Africa, which he called “the near abroad.”

“This is not the end of Atlanticism, but the beginning of a new, more balanced relationship in the alliance,” Hammond said.

While the U.S.-UK ties will always be Britain’s priority, Hammond said, “to support your rebalancing [to Asia], we will seek to work more closely with our neighbors in Europe, particularly France and Germany, to enhance capabilities in our own region.”

It’s a nice thought, and it certainly would be the responsible thing to do. But there’s no reason to pretend this will happen. France just excused their pro-Western president from his duties to replace him with the leader of the French socialists, and absent conditions threatening a localized catastrophe–think Libya–it’s difficult to imagine the French increasing their role in defense of the West.

As for Germany, the country was greeted with Nazi catcalls for simply trying to maintain leverage over the conditions of bailing out failing European economies and saving the euro–just imagine what Europe’s reaction would be if Germany so much as hinted at becoming the continent’s new military power. It’s a nonstarter.

And what about Britain? As Max wrote here a couple weeks ago, British defense cuts will pare down the standing army to its lowest level in a century, and its diplomatic influence will wane accordingly. Hammond focused his remarks on, in his words, “the European NATO powers.” This is telling–and unfortunate. As Josh Rogin reported after the U.S.-hosted NATO summit in May:

This weekend’s NATO summit in Chicago is the first in decades to make little to no progress on the enlargement of the organization, leaving several countries to wait another two years to move toward membership in the world’s premier military alliance.

In the official 65-point summit declaration issued Sunday, there were several references to the four countries vying for progress on their road to NATO membership: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Georgia. But none came away from the summit with any tangible progress to tout back at home. NATO expansion was just not a priority of the Obama administration this year, U.S. officials and experts say, given the packed security-focused agenda and looming uncertainly caused by the deepening European financial crisis.

So the crisis in Europe had the opposite effect from what Hammond is suggesting; rather than retrench and build the West’s military alliance, everyone was too busy chewing his fingernails to get any work done.

This is not to say there are no reasons for caution on enlarging NATO. It’s that no progress was even attempted. And countries developing or experimenting with democratic laws and norms don’t usually tread water–they should be helped forward so they don’t fall back. NATO membership action plans can often be useful in this regard, as Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told Rogin:

Conley pointed to the Serbian elections this weekend, where Serbians chose an ultra-nationalist known as “Toma the Gravedigger” to be their president, as evidence that these countries could slip back toward authoritarianism if not given full support and inclusion by Western organizations.

The West is not always to blame. Often a country slipping back toward authoritarianism and corruption poses a chicken-or-egg question: Was Ukraine rejected by the West, or did they choose to reject the West (or orchestrate their rejection by the West)? But the underlying point is valid, and we cannot continue brushing off countries and expecting them not to take a hint. (Georgia, for example, has contributed more to the Afghanistan mission than some NATO countries.)

Now would be a great time to expand the Western alliance. Until that happens, Europe and NATO will continue to recede from the world stage, and Hammond’s good advice will be unceremoniously ignored.

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Prescription for Geopolitical Disaster

We interrupt our commentary on the looming defense sequestration–which Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has called a potential “disaster”–to note that our most stalwart ally, Great Britain, is also hollowing out its armed forces.

The honorary colonel of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, which is set to lose a battalion as part of the continuing downsizing, has written a letter to the chief of the general staff blasting the decision: “If challenged or scrutinized by, for example the media, it cannot be presented as the best or most sensible military option.” In all, five British infantry battalions are being eliminated, with the loss of 12,000 soldiers.

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We interrupt our commentary on the looming defense sequestration–which Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has called a potential “disaster”–to note that our most stalwart ally, Great Britain, is also hollowing out its armed forces.

The honorary colonel of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, which is set to lose a battalion as part of the continuing downsizing, has written a letter to the chief of the general staff blasting the decision: “If challenged or scrutinized by, for example the media, it cannot be presented as the best or most sensible military option.” In all, five British infantry battalions are being eliminated, with the loss of 12,000 soldiers.

This is part of a bigger drawdown ordered by the Cameron government, which as the Wall Street Journal noted last year, means that “the number of personnel will fall around 10 percent, and about 40 percent of tanks will be retired and the country will lose its aircraft carriers, leaving it with no carrier-strike capability for almost 10 years, until a new carrier comes into service.”

Why should this be of concern to Americans? Because Britain is one of the few allies we can count on in a crunch. In the future, however, even if it wants to fight alongside our forces, it will have scant capability to do so. We will be increasingly on our own in the world–at the very time when our own resources are in rapid decline. This is a prescription for geopolitical disaster.

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No Alternative to American Leadership

The prize for least convincing op-ed article of the day–admittedly a close contest, given all the contenders one can choose from–goes to Kwasi Kwarteng’s New York Times article, “Echoes of the End of the Raj.” Kwarteng, a British Conservative parliamentarian of African ancestry who has written a book about the British Empire, claims (have you heard this before?) the U.S. is in rapid decline and can no longer afford the price of global power, or as he calls it, empire. Those interested in a more comprehensive deconstruction of this unconvincing argument should turn to Bob Kagan’s fine new book. I want to focus here on only one of Kwarteng’s egregious statements.

“America’s position today reminds me of Britain’s situation in 1945,” he writes. Really? He may be the only one who sees the parallels. As it happens, my forthcoming book, “Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present,” which will come out in January 2013 from W.W. Norton & Co.’s Liveright imprint, contains a short section describing what Britain looked like in 1945 and the years immediately afterward. Here is part of what I write:

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The prize for least convincing op-ed article of the day–admittedly a close contest, given all the contenders one can choose from–goes to Kwasi Kwarteng’s New York Times article, “Echoes of the End of the Raj.” Kwarteng, a British Conservative parliamentarian of African ancestry who has written a book about the British Empire, claims (have you heard this before?) the U.S. is in rapid decline and can no longer afford the price of global power, or as he calls it, empire. Those interested in a more comprehensive deconstruction of this unconvincing argument should turn to Bob Kagan’s fine new book. I want to focus here on only one of Kwarteng’s egregious statements.

“America’s position today reminds me of Britain’s situation in 1945,” he writes. Really? He may be the only one who sees the parallels. As it happens, my forthcoming book, “Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present,” which will come out in January 2013 from W.W. Norton & Co.’s Liveright imprint, contains a short section describing what Britain looked like in 1945 and the years immediately afterward. Here is part of what I write:

Some 750,000 houses had been destroyed or damaged, public debt was at record levels, the pound devalued, unemployment rising. Britain had to rely on a loan from the United States as a lifeline, even as the new Labor government was launching a dramatic expansion of costly government programs in health-care, schooling, unemployment insurance, and old-age pensions.

Rationing remained in effect covering everything from meat, eggs, and butter to clothes, soap, and gasoline. As one housewife noted: “Queues were everywhere, for wedge-heeled shoes, pork-pies, fish, bead & cakes, tomatoes–& emergency ration-cards at the food office.” Even in the House of Commons dining room, the only meat on offer was whale or seal steak. The situation deteriorated even more in the harsh winter of 1947-1948. Coal, gas, and electricity were all in short supply. Everyone seemed to be shivering and complaining, as college student Kingsley Amis put it, “CHRIST ITS [sic] BLEEDING COLD.”

I describe conditions in post-war Britain to make clear why Britain could not afford to hang onto its empire. But does any of this sound like contemporary America? Are we rationing food and clothing? Are we dealing with widespread devastation? Are we unable to afford heat for our homes? Hardly. In fact, America is enjoying unprecedented prosperity–we are many times better off than we were 30 years ago, much less than Britain was 67 years ago, at the immediate conclusion of the most destructive war in history–one that bled Britain dry. We have not been bled dry by our military exertions. The defense budget amounts to less than 5 percent of our GDP–hardly an unsupportable burden, as I have argued many times before.

We do face problems of excessive government spending, exacerbated by President Obama’s Clement Atlee-like propensity for expanding the size of government. But, unlike Britain in 1945, we do not face a fundamental economic crisis. Our economy remains a leader among industrialized, or more accurately post-industrialized nations, with world-beating companies such as Wal-Mart, Apple, and General Electric–not to mention vast demographic advantages and mineral resources such as shale oil–that Britain simply did not have in 1945.

There is no reason we cannot continue to exercise global leadership–and every reason why we must continue to do so. Post-1945 Britain could cede the mantle gracefully to the U.S., confident that we would champion the same liberal values. To whom can the U.S. possibly pass power today? China? Russia? Iran? The question answers itself: there is no alternative to American leadership.

 

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Is Obama Repeating April Glaspie’s Gaffe?

On July 25, 1990, April Glaspie, a career foreign service officer and ambassador to Iraq, made what in hindsight was one of the biggest gaffes in State Department history. During a rare meeting with Saddam Hussein, she assured the Iraqi dictator that the United States would not take sides in the dispute between Iraq and Kuwait. “We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait,” she reportedly told the Iraqi dictator. Just over a week later, he invaded his tiny neighbor, setting off a cascade of events which would lead to two wars and devastating sanctions.

Fast forward more than two decades. Thirty years after an Argentine military junta for largely populist reasons invaded the Falkland Islands, a British territory populated by British citizens, Argentine President Cristina Kirchner is at it again. Perhaps she wants to deflect attention from her own mismanagement, or perhaps the fact that the British have discovered significant oil reserves off-shore has led her to renew Argentina’s increasingly militant claim. Enter President Obama. Putting aside his gaffe of his calling the islands the “Maldives” (an Indian Ocean archipelago) instead of Las Malvinas, Argentina’s name for the islands, Obama sought to play the neutral card. From The Daily Telegraph:

In his address, Mr Obama maintained the USA’s stance of neutrality over the Falklands, saying he wanted to ensure good relations with both Argentina and Britain. “This is something in which we would not typically intervene,” he said.

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On July 25, 1990, April Glaspie, a career foreign service officer and ambassador to Iraq, made what in hindsight was one of the biggest gaffes in State Department history. During a rare meeting with Saddam Hussein, she assured the Iraqi dictator that the United States would not take sides in the dispute between Iraq and Kuwait. “We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait,” she reportedly told the Iraqi dictator. Just over a week later, he invaded his tiny neighbor, setting off a cascade of events which would lead to two wars and devastating sanctions.

Fast forward more than two decades. Thirty years after an Argentine military junta for largely populist reasons invaded the Falkland Islands, a British territory populated by British citizens, Argentine President Cristina Kirchner is at it again. Perhaps she wants to deflect attention from her own mismanagement, or perhaps the fact that the British have discovered significant oil reserves off-shore has led her to renew Argentina’s increasingly militant claim. Enter President Obama. Putting aside his gaffe of his calling the islands the “Maldives” (an Indian Ocean archipelago) instead of Las Malvinas, Argentina’s name for the islands, Obama sought to play the neutral card. From The Daily Telegraph:

In his address, Mr Obama maintained the USA’s stance of neutrality over the Falklands, saying he wanted to ensure good relations with both Argentina and Britain. “This is something in which we would not typically intervene,” he said.

Alas, there is a thin line between neutrality and moral equivalence. The fact of the matter is that the islands are British, the people residing on the islands are British, and every time anyone has bothered to ask the residents of the Falkland Islands, they have expressed an overwhelming desire to remain fully British. The problem with neutrality is that it legitimizes outrageous claims. There really is nothing to talk about, but by suggesting there is, Obama is fanning the flames of conflict, allowing rhetorical momentum to build, perhaps to the point where Kirchner will look at Obama’s studied neutrality the same way Saddam interpreted Glaspie’s.

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Reagan and Thatcher, Cameron and Obama

Ted Bromund’s post about the cringe-producing exchange of jokes between President Obama and British Prime Minister Cameron reminded me — in a contrasting way — of the exchange between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher 31 years ago, at a dinner at the British Embassy that capped Thatcher’s February 1980 Washington trip. She was the first foreign visitor during the Reagan administration; Reagan was in his first month and Thatcher in her first year.

The toasts were included in the batch of documents released last year by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, after the required 30-year delay. The exchange featured a good deal of historical humor, and a historical courage that can be more fully appreciated from our vantage point, three decades later. Here are excerpts from the toasts, followed by the concluding portion of Obama’s toast this week to Cameron:

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Ted Bromund’s post about the cringe-producing exchange of jokes between President Obama and British Prime Minister Cameron reminded me — in a contrasting way — of the exchange between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher 31 years ago, at a dinner at the British Embassy that capped Thatcher’s February 1980 Washington trip. She was the first foreign visitor during the Reagan administration; Reagan was in his first month and Thatcher in her first year.

The toasts were included in the batch of documents released last year by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, after the required 30-year delay. The exchange featured a good deal of historical humor, and a historical courage that can be more fully appreciated from our vantage point, three decades later. Here are excerpts from the toasts, followed by the concluding portion of Obama’s toast this week to Cameron:

[The Prime Minister]: Mr. President, an earlier visitor to the United States, Charles Dickens, described our American friends as by nature frank, brave, cordial, hospitable, and affectionate. That seems to me, Mr. President, to be a perfect description of the man who has been my host for the last 48 hours. (Applause.) …

Charles Dickens, like me, also visited Capitol Hill. He described the congressmen he met there as “striking to look at, hard to deceive, prompt to act, lions in energy, Americans in strong and general impulse.” Having been there and agreeing with Dickens as I do, I’m delighted to see so many Members of Congress here this evening. And if Dickens was right, relations between the legislative and executive branches should be smooth indeed over the next four years. After all, “prompt to act and lions in energy” should mean, Mr. President, you’ll get that expenditure cutting program through very easily indeed. (Laughter. Applause.) …

California, of course, has always meant a great deal to my countrymen from the time, almost exactly 400 years ago, when one of our greatest national heroes, Sir Francis Drake, proclaimed it New Albion in keeping with the bravado of the Elizabethan Age. This feeling of community and curiosity that we have about California exists in the present age when another of our household names made his career there, one of the greatest careers in show business. I refer to Mr. Bob Hope, who is here this evening, and whom we like to claim is partly ours because he was born in the United Kingdom, though he decided to leave when he was only four years old. (Laughter.) …

I hope you didn’t feel ill at ease as you came up the stairs and passed under the gaze of George III. (Laughter.) I can assure you that we British have long since come to see that George was wrong and that Thomas Jefferson was right when he wrote to James Madison that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” (Laughter.) …

It’s not the time, Mr. President, for me to talk at any length about the relations between our two countries except to say that they are profoundly and deeply right. And beyond that, we perhaps don’t have to define them in detail. …

There will, of course, be times, Mr. President, when yours perhaps is the loneliest job in the world, times when you need what one of my great friends in politics once called “two o’clock in the morning courage.” There will be times when you go through rough water. There will be times when the unexpected happens. There will be times when only you can make a certain decision. It is at that time when you need the two o’clock in the morning courage. … And what it requires is a knowledge on your part that whatever decision you make you have to stick with the consequences and see it through until it be well and truly finished. …

I want to say this to you, Mr. President, that when those moments come, we here in this room, on both sides of the Atlantic, have in you total faith that you will make the decision which is right for protecting the liberty of common humanity in the future. You will make that decision that we as partners in the English-speaking world know that, as Wordsworth wrote, “We must be free or die who speak the tongue that Shakespeare spake.”

[The President]: Bob Hope will know what I mean when I speak in the language of my previous occupation and say you are a hard act to follow. (Laughter. Applause.) … And may I say that I do know something about that “two o’clock courage,” but I also know that you have already shown that two o’clock courage on too many occasions to name. (Applause.) …

[Y]ou know, Prime Minister, that we have a habit of quoting Winston Churchill. Tell me, is it possible to get through a public address today in Britain without making reference to him? It is increasingly difficult to do so here, not just because we Americans share some pride in his ancestry, but because there’s so much to learn from him, his fearlessness, and I don’t just mean physical courage. I mean he was, for instance, unafraid to laugh. I can remember words attributed to Churchill about one somber, straight-laced colleague in Parliament. Churchill said, “He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.” (Laughter.) …

When he addressed Parliament in the darkest moments after Dunkirk, Churchill dared to promise the British their finest hour and even reminded them that they would someday enjoy, quote, “the bright, sunlit uplands,” unquote, from which the struggle against Hitler would be seen as only a bad memory. Well, Madam Prime Minister, you and I have heard our share of somber assessments and dire predictions in recent months. I do not refer here to the painful business of ending our economic difficulties. We know that with regard to the economies of both our countries we will be home safe and soon enough.

I do refer, however, to those adversaries who preach the supremacy of the state. We’ve all heard the slogans, the end of the class struggle, the vanguard of the proletariat, the wave of the future, the inevitable triumph of socialism. Indeed, if there’s anything the Marxist-Leninists might not be forgiven for it is their willingness to bog the world down in tiresome cliches, cliches that rapidly are being recognized for what they are, a gaggle of bogus prophecies and petty superstitions. … I wonder if you and I and other leaders of the West should not now be looking toward bright, sunlit uplands and begin planning for a world where our adversaries are remembered only for their role in a sad and rather bizarre chapter in human history.

The British people, who nourish the great civilized ideas, know the forces of good ultimately rally and triumph over evil. That, after all, is the legend of the Knights of the Round Table, the legend of the man who lived on Baker Street, the story of London in the Blitz, the meaning of the Union Jack snapping briskly in the wind. Madam Prime Minister, I’ll make one further prediction, that the British people are once again about to pay homage to their beloved Sir Winston by doing him the honor of proving him wrong and showing the world that their finest hour is yet to come, and how he would have loved the irony of that. How proud it would have made him.

At the beginning of his administration, Obama returned Churchill’s bust to Britain, insulted its prime minister on his trip to Washington (with no state dinner nor even a full-blown press conference), gave him a demeaning set of DVDs for a gift, and stayed silent as a State Department official explained “there’s nothing special about Britain. You’re just the same as the other 190 countries in the world. You shouldn’t expect special treatment.”

This week, in his toast at the state dinner for Cameron, Obama did not mention Reagan or Thatcher, or what they achieved together. He did, however, mention Churchill:

So, in closing, let me just say that I intended to make history tonight. I thought that I could be the first American President to make it through an entire visit of our British friends without quoting Winston Churchill. (Laughter.) But then I saw this great quote and I thought, “Come on, this is Churchill!” (Laughter.) So I couldn’t resist.

It was December 1941, and the attack on Pearl Harbor had finally thrust America into war, alongside our British friends. And these were the words Sir Winston spoke to his new American partners: “I will say that he must indeed have a blind soul who cannot see that some great purpose and design is being worked out here below, of which we have the honor to be the faithful servants.”

And so I’d like to propose a toast:  To Her Majesty the Queen, on her Diamond Jubilee; to our dear friends, David and Samantha; and to the great purpose and design of our alliance. May we remain, now and always, its faithful servants. Cheers, everyone.

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Who Writes This Stuff?

Going from Churchill’s subtle and magisterial “Iron Curtain” speech at Fulton, on which Seth commented yesterday, to Obama’s remarks at the White House in welcome to David Cameron is like going from Paganini to the village fiddler. Honestly, who writes this stuff? The joke about the British burning the White House in 1814 was funny enough when Tony Blair used it in 2003 in his speech to a joint session of Congress:

On our way down here, Senator Frist was kind enough to show me the fireplace where, in 1814, the British had burnt the Congress Library. I know this is kind of late, but sorry.

But no joke stays funny if it gets recycled often enough, and a decade later, it’s become a lame and tiresome jest. And yet Obama, that modern master of rhetoric, and Cameron, who must have groaned when he read the script, used it again yesterday. Quoth Obama:

It’s now been 200 years since the British came here, to the White House – under somewhat different circumstances. (Laughter.) They made quite an impression. (Laughter.) They really lit up the place. (Laughter.)

This isn’t a presidential welcome – it reads, and it sounded, like a third-rate stand-up comedian living on stolen jokes.

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Going from Churchill’s subtle and magisterial “Iron Curtain” speech at Fulton, on which Seth commented yesterday, to Obama’s remarks at the White House in welcome to David Cameron is like going from Paganini to the village fiddler. Honestly, who writes this stuff? The joke about the British burning the White House in 1814 was funny enough when Tony Blair used it in 2003 in his speech to a joint session of Congress:

On our way down here, Senator Frist was kind enough to show me the fireplace where, in 1814, the British had burnt the Congress Library. I know this is kind of late, but sorry.

But no joke stays funny if it gets recycled often enough, and a decade later, it’s become a lame and tiresome jest. And yet Obama, that modern master of rhetoric, and Cameron, who must have groaned when he read the script, used it again yesterday. Quoth Obama:

It’s now been 200 years since the British came here, to the White House – under somewhat different circumstances. (Laughter.) They made quite an impression. (Laughter.) They really lit up the place. (Laughter.)

This isn’t a presidential welcome – it reads, and it sounded, like a third-rate stand-up comedian living on stolen jokes.

And Cameron’s reply was equally cringe-inducing:

So I am a little embarrassed, as I stand here, to think that 200 years ago – (laughter) – my ancestors tried to burn the place down. (Laughter.)  Now, looking around me, I can see you’ve got the place a little better defended today. (Laughter.)  You’re clearly not taking any risks with the Brits this time. (Laughter.)

Please, make it stop.

I decided a long time ago that Obama is only a great speaker if you like him before he opens his mouth. His oratory serves not to persuade, or to inspire, but to affirm. Unlike Churchill, who always presented an argument when he spoke, Obama usually speaks to present a conclusion. If you don’t agree with his conclusion, there’s nothing in his words to make you change your mind, and his reliance on jokey humor in his more informal remarks doesn’t help.

Look – writing welcoming remarks must be a tedious job, and I wouldn’t like to do it for anything. But would it be too much to ask that his speechwriters avoid obvious solecisms? If you’re going to use the tired “the British burned the White House” joke, don’t follow it up, two paragraphs later, with the claim that “through the grand sweep of history, through all its twists and turns, there is one constant – the rock-solid alliance between the United States and the United Kingdom.” So, except for the whole burning thing, it’s a constant?

No one is a more enthusiastic supporter of the Anglo-American alliance than I am, and I mean that literally. But it’s just not true that the alliance is a constant. It reflects, yes, shared interests, but it was also made, with considerable effort and by taking real political risks, by leaders like Churchill. That was the point of the speech at Fulton – not to celebrate the war-time alliance, but to make the case for its continuance in the nascent Cold War.

But when Obama says that “the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom is the strongest that it has ever been,” just after his administration has announced a “strategic pivot” to Asia and refused to back Britain over the Falklands, he’s not taking any risks, or making any effort, for the alliance at all. He’s just talking. And truly great speakers, like Churchill, don’t believe that assertions can substitute for arguments or actions.

 

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Churchill, Truman, and the Origins of a Modern Alliance

In October 1945, Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King came to see Winston and Clementine Churchill at their new London townhouse. Churchill’s party had lost the elections in a landslide earlier in the year, just as Churchill was trying to negotiate postwar Europe at Potsdam. When the butler brought them vodka sent as a gift from Moscow, Clementine told him to throw it out and bring brandy instead.

“King would soon discover the symbolism of this,” writes Philip White, as he recounts the story in his new book Our Supreme Task: How Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech Defined the Cold War Alliance. The symbolism was that Churchill was about to begin in earnest his post-premiership mission: to alert the world of the threat of Soviet Communism and forge a hardy alliance with the United States. Though the speech is among the most famous modern addresses, the background and analysis White offers are valuable. And there are two stories with immediate relevance as British Prime Minister David Cameron spends the day in Washington today with President Obama, awaiting his state dinner tonight.

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In October 1945, Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King came to see Winston and Clementine Churchill at their new London townhouse. Churchill’s party had lost the elections in a landslide earlier in the year, just as Churchill was trying to negotiate postwar Europe at Potsdam. When the butler brought them vodka sent as a gift from Moscow, Clementine told him to throw it out and bring brandy instead.

“King would soon discover the symbolism of this,” writes Philip White, as he recounts the story in his new book Our Supreme Task: How Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech Defined the Cold War Alliance. The symbolism was that Churchill was about to begin in earnest his post-premiership mission: to alert the world of the threat of Soviet Communism and forge a hardy alliance with the United States. Though the speech is among the most famous modern addresses, the background and analysis White offers are valuable. And there are two stories with immediate relevance as British Prime Minister David Cameron spends the day in Washington today with President Obama, awaiting his state dinner tonight.

We remember Harry Truman as a hero and a visionary–and rightly so–but Truman was himself in awe of Churchill. When Truman met Churchill in Missouri, and the two prepared to spend a train ride in conversation, Truman asked Churchill to call him Harry. Churchill said he would, but only if Truman would call him Winston. Truman balked. “I just don’t know if I can do that,” he said. “I have such admiration for you and what you mean, not only to your people, but to this country and the world.”

Humble giants, they were. Today we are lucky to just get the humility from our leaders. The second story is one of nuance–something Churchill wasn’t known for, certainly, but at one point in his famous Fulton speech deployed with utter genius. Here is an otherwise forgettable and forgotten paragraph from the speech:

The president has told you that it is his wish, as I am sure it is yours, that I should have full liberty to give my true and faithful counsel in these anxious and baffling times. I shall certainly avail myself of this freedom, and feel the more right to do so because any private ambitions I may have cherished in my younger days have been satisfied beyond my wildest dreams. Let me however make it clear that I have no official mission or status of any kind, and that I speak only for myself. There is nothing here but what you see.

In a footnote, White adds that when he discussed that last line with Larry Arnn, the latter pointed out the subtle brilliance of it. As White writes:

What the audience saw was the former prime minister flanked by the president of the United States and his leading advisers. So, if they focused on “nothing” but what was in front of them, they, and Stalin, could not fail to behold unity between Churchill and Truman–and, ergo, Britain and America.

The symbolism of that, too, is important. So is the seemingly insignificant incident of the Obama team’s removal of the bust of Churchill kept in the Oval Office during the presidency of George W. Bush. The Obama White House explained that “every president puts his own stamp on the Oval Office.” Indeed they do.

We also have the Obama administration’s failure on two separate occasions to support British sovereignty over the Falkland Islands. This is a painfully easy call, and you would have to go out of your way to get it wrong and needlessly insult our allies–which Obama did.

The Republican candidates for president have been critical of the president’s dismissive attitude toward the British, so you might imagine Cameron, leader of his country’s conservatives, would drop them a line to say hello, the way Gordon Brown met with Obama and Hillary Clinton during the 2008 election when he came to visit Bush. The Telegraph reports this is not to be the case, though Cameron will be meeting important figures, such as “the actor starring in the American television series ‘Homeland.’” The Telegraph explains:

Downing Street aides insist that there is no “snub” to the Republicans by not meeting the presidential candidates. Senior sources say that the schedule was organized by the White House.

If only Cameron had a scheduler of his own! Or access to a phone. But don’t fault Cameron for his priorities, for although he does not arrive bearing the bust of Winston Churchill or with the promise of support over the Falklands, Obama did give him a lift on Air Force One.

As in 1946, “There is nothing here but what you see.” A bit less inspiring today, however.

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Britain Shows No Sign of Shaking Addiction to Debt, Taxes and Regulations

With British Prime Minister David Cameron’s impending state visit next week, we can expect to hear a good deal about – though see nothing very much done about – Afghanistan, the NATO Summit, Libya, and Syria. But we’re also likely to get a smattering of commentary about Britain’s parlous fiscal position. If we’re lucky, the media will talk about “Tory spending cuts.” If we’re really lucky, they’ll call them “savage.”

Writ large, it’s useful to remember one thing about these spending cuts: they don’t exist. While some departments have indeed been trimmed, others – such as debt interest, healthcare spending, foreign aid, and contributions to the EU– have expanded. The net result is that state spending in Britain has not been cut – it is still going up. Most of the noise about cuts – nay, even savage cuts – simply reflects the media’s and the left’s definition of austerity, which they understand as meaning any increase that is not as large as they wish, or as a previous government had planned.

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With British Prime Minister David Cameron’s impending state visit next week, we can expect to hear a good deal about – though see nothing very much done about – Afghanistan, the NATO Summit, Libya, and Syria. But we’re also likely to get a smattering of commentary about Britain’s parlous fiscal position. If we’re lucky, the media will talk about “Tory spending cuts.” If we’re really lucky, they’ll call them “savage.”

Writ large, it’s useful to remember one thing about these spending cuts: they don’t exist. While some departments have indeed been trimmed, others – such as debt interest, healthcare spending, foreign aid, and contributions to the EU– have expanded. The net result is that state spending in Britain has not been cut – it is still going up. Most of the noise about cuts – nay, even savage cuts – simply reflects the media’s and the left’s definition of austerity, which they understand as meaning any increase that is not as large as they wish, or as a previous government had planned.

In Britain’s CityAM business newspaper, entrepreneur Alex Cheatle offers an increasingly common complaint: the Conservative led coalition government talks a good game on promoting growth, but it does too little. And that is the sad truth. Or almost the sad truth.  The full sad truth is that what few actions the government has taken have almost uniformly made matters worse. When the government came into power in 2010, its priority was to restore order to Britain’s finances. Given the course of events in Greece, Italy, and France, among others, that was a sensible point of emphasis. Unfortunately, it took the IMF-approved green-eyeshade bean-counter approach – an approach highly congenial to the Liberal Democrats, for entirely different reasons.  Thus, they decided that taxes needed to go up, while regulations could not go down. In a nation where the World Economic Forum finds that most problematic factors for business include high tax rates, an inefficient government, tax regulations, and a restrictive labor market, and where Heritage’s Index of Economic Freedom charts similar problems, that was a bad decision.

In February, the Institute for Fiscal Studies announced the unsurprising results: cuts to non-investment spending are by 2016-17 supposed to do almost 50 percent of the work of bringing Britain’s budget into balance, but only 6 percent of those cuts have actually happened. Cuts to benefits are supposed to contribute just shy of 15 percent of the total effort: only 12 percent of those cuts have happened. The only area where the government has showed a Stakhanovite commitment to carrying through on fiscal consolidation is, predictably, in the realm of taxation, which was supposed to contribute 20 percent of the consolidation, 73 percent of which has already happened. The net result is this: overall, Britain has barely slowed the growth in spending, and though some reforms in the realms of education and welfare are promising, there has been no bonfire of controls on the supply side. Instead, in the teeth of a fragile economy, Britain has persisted in doing the one thing that governments are really good at: raising taxes. In the circumstances, it is not surprising the British economy is doing poorly.

In recent days, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne made headlines by stating bluntly that “The British Government has run out of money.” The U.K. offers an object lesson in the fact that, if you make enough bad choices, you soon get to a point where, as Osborne recognizes, there are no attractive choices left. With almost all the tough cuts left to make, the political road for the coalition looks as rocky as the economic path of a nation that shows no sign of shaking its addiction to debt, taxes, and regulation. So when Cameron comes calling, anyone who talks about savage Tory cuts should be met with a sigh, and a muttered “if only.”

 

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Obama Sending Wrong Message on the Falklands

I wrote yesterday about the Obama administration’s course correction in Burma, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton showing signs the White House has begun to think strategically in Asia. But while that failure seems to be well on its way to being fixed, the administration has doubled down on another of its early foreign policy mistakes, and the results could be disastrous.

Robert C. O’Brien, a former American representative to the UN, argues today in The Diplomat that the Obama administration has again turned its back on the United Kingdom in its dispute with Argentina over the Falklands. This is a rather easy call–British sovereignty there is lawful and the clear choice of Falklands residents. But Argentina is stirring up trouble there once again, and O’Brien suggests Obama’s behavior is indefensible and will have consequences:

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I wrote yesterday about the Obama administration’s course correction in Burma, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton showing signs the White House has begun to think strategically in Asia. But while that failure seems to be well on its way to being fixed, the administration has doubled down on another of its early foreign policy mistakes, and the results could be disastrous.

Robert C. O’Brien, a former American representative to the UN, argues today in The Diplomat that the Obama administration has again turned its back on the United Kingdom in its dispute with Argentina over the Falklands. This is a rather easy call–British sovereignty there is lawful and the clear choice of Falklands residents. But Argentina is stirring up trouble there once again, and O’Brien suggests Obama’s behavior is indefensible and will have consequences:

There’s a clear analogy between Argentina’s response to the U.K.’s defense cuts and what we can expect in the South China Sea and Persian Gulf from China and Iran, respectively, as massive sequestration cuts threaten to decimate the United States military. Indeed, the Obama administration announced this week that the U.S. Navy will decommission 7 Ticonderoga class cruisers and 2 amphibious warships in 2012 alone. There’s no doubt that Beijing, Tehran and even Moscow are watching the slashing of the U.S. defense budget with the same attention that Buenos Aires is paying to the decline of the Royal Navy.

Second, the Obama administration has made the United States an unreliable ally for our closest friends. Britain has been a stalwart ally of the U.S. in both Iraq and Afghanistan, notwithstanding the tremendous domestic political pressure on Labour and Conservative governments not to participate in those unpopular wars. However, in 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for talks over the dispute and even appeared to side with Argentina during a press conference with President Kirchner in Buenos Aires. Last month, as the current situation developed, rather than send a clear message to Argentina that the United States supported its longtime ally, a State Department spokesman demurred: “[t]his is a bilateral issue that needs to be worked out directly between the governments of Argentina and the United Kingdom…We recognize de facto United Kingdom administration of the islands, but take no position regarding sovereignty.”  Nile Gardiner, the Telegraph’s Washington correspondent, wrote in response that the “Obama administration knife[d] Britain in the back again over the Falklands.”

O’Brien says this treatment comes as no surprise to anyone who’s been watching the Obama administration’s interaction with our allies, such as Israel, Georgia, Taiwan, Colombia, Poland, and the Czech Republic, to name a few. Many of them, O’Brien points out, live in dangerous neighborhoods, and an unreliable America is a frightening prospect. Expect the shifting balance of power in the Middle East and the Baltics to reflect the vacuum this administration is creating.

Beyond power, O’Brien warns our credibility is in question at a time when it is greatly needed:

Third, failing to promote the rule of law, democracy and self-determination in the Falklands will damage the United States’ ability to promote those goals in other nations.  The 3,200 residents of the Falklands have been there for over 175 years.  They descend from people who have inhabited the Islands for far longer than many Argentines have inhabited their own country.  They are, apparently without exception, in favor of maintaining their local parliamentary government and association with Britain. There are no Argentines on the islands and there are no “displaced” Las Malvinas (as Argentina has labeled the islands) refugees in Argentina seeking a “right of return.” The current diplomatic crisis follows the nationalistic playbook that President Kirchner borrowed from the former military junta and that is promoted by her mentor in Caracas. The fact that there are large oil reserves off the Falklands is also fueling Argentine territorial ambitions as its government would love to get control of such resources.

That the Obama administration would display such amateurish–and, it must be said, somewhat offensive–incompetence on the Falklands does not bode well for the more exigent and nuanced trials the U.S. faces elsewhere.

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Ruling on Terror Suspect Is an Outrage

The British political and media establishments are in an uproar over a ruling issued by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg which prevents the UK from deporting to Jordan Abu Qatada, a Jordanian-born cleric who has been called the leading al-Qaeda representative in Europe.

Columnist Matthew D’Ancona neatly summarizes the case against Abu Qatada in the Evening Express; noting “that he was an associate of Zacarias Moussaoui, the 9/11 conspirator, and Richard Reid, the notorious shoe bomber; that he advised Rachid Ramda, the mastermind behind the Paris Metro bombings in 1995; [and] that he was described as a ‘truly dangerous individual’ by a British immigration court.”

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The British political and media establishments are in an uproar over a ruling issued by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg which prevents the UK from deporting to Jordan Abu Qatada, a Jordanian-born cleric who has been called the leading al-Qaeda representative in Europe.

Columnist Matthew D’Ancona neatly summarizes the case against Abu Qatada in the Evening Express; noting “that he was an associate of Zacarias Moussaoui, the 9/11 conspirator, and Richard Reid, the notorious shoe bomber; that he advised Rachid Ramda, the mastermind behind the Paris Metro bombings in 1995; [and] that he was described as a ‘truly dangerous individual’ by a British immigration court.”

So why did the European justices decide the UK could not deport him to Jordan where he has been convicted of involvement in terrorist conspiracies? Jordan promised he would be treated according to the letter of the law and not abused, but the court held that some of the case against him was derived from interrogation under torture of one of his co-defendants and that this would fatally taint any case against him. Unless London can win an appeal, it will be left with the unpalatable choices of trying him in a British court (where there may not be enough evidence to convict) or simply releasing him, so that he can preach jihad in Europe in total freedom.

This is indeed an outrage. From the British standpoint, the most salient lesson is the need to lessen the EU’s ability to second-guess British institutions. From an American perspective, I would draw another lesson: the need to agree on universal rules for the handling of terrorist suspects.

The U.S. has improvised its own rules since 9/11, with even the Obama administration reluctantly agreeing to hold some suspects in indefinite detention in Guantanamo and to try them in military tribunals rather than in normal criminal courts. But the administration is so unhappy about this outcome it is refusing to send fresh detainees to Gitmo, which creates major problems in trying to figure out how to deal with freshly captured terrorists. The problem is even more acute in other democratic countries such as the UK which have not created a Gitmo-like set-up—and where public opinion is horrified the U.S. has done so. The reality, however, is terrorism is a special form of warfare and requires its own legal mechanisms—ones that are different either from those used to address ordinary crimes or conventional acts of war carried out by lawful combatants wearing uniforms and observing the Geneva Conventions.

More than a decade after 9/11 there has been no appreciable movement toward such an international standard—a sort of standing Nuremberg Tribunal that might win universal respect. But the Abu Qatada case shows the need for such an innovation remains pressing. President Obama should use a sliver of his popularity abroad to advocate for such a course. If any U.S. president can get it done, he  can.

 

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“Iron Lady” Bias Can’t Diminish Thatcher

“The Iron Lady” is not a very good movie. In conception, it suffers from the problem inherent in any biopic: the order of events is well-known, and the characters are dictated by history. The result is that most biopics are bad. The classic example is Richrd Attenborough’s “Young Winston,” which despite being directed by a prominent cinematic artist, and being based on one of the great adventure stories of the modern age, is desperately dull.

In comparison to that low standard, “The Iron Lady” comes off tolerably well, though it suffers badly from a “if it’s minute 56, it must be the miner’s strike” feeling. It’s also far too obvious about putting guns on the mantelpiece in the first act so they can be fired in the third: when you hear a young Margaret Thatcher saying she doesn’t want to end her life washing up tea cups, you know how the movie will end. And it’s got an obsession with butter – covering it, using too much of it, and buying it– that may have been intended as a misbegotten metaphor for domesticity, but comes off as weird.

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“The Iron Lady” is not a very good movie. In conception, it suffers from the problem inherent in any biopic: the order of events is well-known, and the characters are dictated by history. The result is that most biopics are bad. The classic example is Richrd Attenborough’s “Young Winston,” which despite being directed by a prominent cinematic artist, and being based on one of the great adventure stories of the modern age, is desperately dull.

In comparison to that low standard, “The Iron Lady” comes off tolerably well, though it suffers badly from a “if it’s minute 56, it must be the miner’s strike” feeling. It’s also far too obvious about putting guns on the mantelpiece in the first act so they can be fired in the third: when you hear a young Margaret Thatcher saying she doesn’t want to end her life washing up tea cups, you know how the movie will end. And it’s got an obsession with butter – covering it, using too much of it, and buying it– that may have been intended as a misbegotten metaphor for domesticity, but comes off as weird.

The much-discussed, tedious, demeaning, and tasteless episodes of Thatcher’s old age, and the hambone contributions of Jim Broadbent as Denis Thatcher, certainly break up the chronology of the biopic, and seem to have been intended as the focal point of the movie: there’s a good deal of evidence that director Phyllida Lloyd and Meryl Streep wanted to use them to discredit Thatcher, not to make a movie that would burnish her image. Yet strangely, that’s more or less what they’ve achieved.

The present-day material is so irrelevant and faded compared to the vibrancy of Streep’s Thatcher in her prime that it inspires not a meditation on the loneliness of power, or a sense of “ashes to ashes,” but a desire on the part of the viewer to get the faux Denis off the screen and go back to the action. And while the movie clearly implies that Thatcher devoted too little time to her family – a point that sorts ill with its depiction of her as a feminist heroine – it tends, by devising a cartoonish Denis, to make her interest in politics all the more explicable and human. All this personal backstory is a Hollywood invention, pure and simple, but even dramatically, it doesn’t work.

Frankly, I went into “The Iron Lady” expecting the worst.  Making a movie about Lady Thatcher after Number 10 struck me as being like making a movie about Churchill after 1955. But as Churchill once said, if you get a few big things right, you can afford to make a lot of little mistakes.  And the movie does one thing completely right: it lets Thatcher speak her case in words that are – mostly – plausibly hers, and because the case and the words are powerful, they blow away the opposition, with the result that the movie’s political narrative is strongly Thatcherite.

In fact, not a single one of Thatcher’s opponents appears to have had anything going for them. Edward Heath is an appeaser who can’t even keep the lights on in Number 10 (fortunately, Margaret has a flashlight in her handbag); Michael Foot is a blithering, braying idiot with bad hair; Al Haig is shown as inept (a scene that had the Americans in the audience cheering Thatcher on), and her opponents in the Cabinet are spineless nincompoops who carry out a nursery school rebellion against her because she’s too vigorous in pointing out their uselessness.

From the Thatcherite point of view this is raise a cheer stuff, but it’s not great history. Agree with them or not, Heath, Haig, and the rest were not negligible figures. Nor is it necessarily a contribution to building up Lady Thatcher’s legacy: Thatcher’s only real opposition in the movie comes, inchoately, from the British system, and ultimately from herself. Indeed, “The Iron Lady” subtly – but not intentionally, I think – implies that Thatcher triumphed only because almost everyone else in Britain was a buffoon. True, the standard of political leadership in Britain in the 1970s was relatively low. But it’s hard to be a world historical giant in the movies if your competition is a bunch of pygmies. Even Streep’s performance, brilliant as it is, is not so much acting as it is mimicry.

Given the movie’s weaknesses, speculating about its political agenda is probably futile. For what it’s worth, my sense is the movie intended to be a “how the mighty have fallen” rumination, combined with a conventional left-wing take on Thatcher’s Britain. For example, during the Falklands War, Thatcher is told that sinking the Belgrano would be an escalation and invite an Argentine response: the shot of the British torpedo leaving the tube jumps to one of an Exocet missile striking HMS Sheffield. Cause and effect, the movie implies: it was Thatcher who killed those British sailors. Similarly, there is quite a lot of footage of angry miners, hard-partying city bankers, and various rioters. But none of this works because, while the Hollywood left may have no doubt where it stands on these issues, the movie simply assumes its case. In the end, it’s Thatcher who has to make the tough decisions, and the fact of her making them comes across as far more impressive than the film’s imputations about their effects.

Many of the film’s reviewers in Britain have been Thatcher’s friends and colleagues, and their dislike of its exaggerated and voyeuristic depiction of her failing health is understandable. But even the Denis scenes end with a Thatcher victory: she sees the ghostly Denis off, and closes – washing up a teacup, yes – on a suitable note of steely determination. In real life, Thatcher’s courage manifested itself in recognizing that Britain had spent the post-war years trying to reconcile the pursuit of low unemployment, low inflation, high growth, a stable pound, an export surplus, and large and steadily increasing government intervention in the economy. This was not so much a chosen policy as a refusal to make tough choices, and by 1979, it had completely stopped working.

By accepting the need to make choices, Thatcher broke out of the trap, and by doing that, she gave the following generation the luxury of being less than fully serious. Many people resented both her enthusiasm for making decisions and the decisions she made. But as Richard Vinen pointed out in the New York Times last month, Thatcher’s successors “ceased to think of politics in terms of hard choices and scare resources. . . likability [of the kind exemplified by David Cameron] may not be enough when the British people realize that their current predicament . . .is actually worse than the crisis when Mrs. Thatcher came to power in 1979.”

“The Iron Lady” is not a particularly good movie. In structure and feel, it’s much more a one-woman play than it is a film. But on the screen it’s a success nonetheless, if only because, perhaps without meaning to, it displays conviction politics in their purest, most elemental, and most attractive form.

 

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The Ideas Lady

Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady based on Margaret Thatcher is a touching reminiscence about a tenacious woman’s relation to her loyal husband and family, from whom she feared she had been too distant as a result of her overwhelming political ambition. There is plenty the movie – well worth seeing – does well, and plenty it does not (review here).

Granted, the movie is a biopic, a portrait of a person, not an era. That said, more could have been made about her cabinet, about her relationship to the queen, about Europe, about the Soviet Union, about Reagan, and about a host of other relationships and conflicts that featured in her lengthy tenure as prime minister of the United Kingdom.

But what cannot be granted is that the movie is intended as a depiction of Thatcher, and not Thatcherism; yet to take the latter out of the former is to reduce her life to the story of a determined, perhaps ruthless, politician, albeit one who was uniquely successful. That may be entertaining, but it is not edifying. Nor is it fair. Read More

Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady based on Margaret Thatcher is a touching reminiscence about a tenacious woman’s relation to her loyal husband and family, from whom she feared she had been too distant as a result of her overwhelming political ambition. There is plenty the movie – well worth seeing – does well, and plenty it does not (review here).

Granted, the movie is a biopic, a portrait of a person, not an era. That said, more could have been made about her cabinet, about her relationship to the queen, about Europe, about the Soviet Union, about Reagan, and about a host of other relationships and conflicts that featured in her lengthy tenure as prime minister of the United Kingdom.

But what cannot be granted is that the movie is intended as a depiction of Thatcher, and not Thatcherism; yet to take the latter out of the former is to reduce her life to the story of a determined, perhaps ruthless, politician, albeit one who was uniquely successful. That may be entertaining, but it is not edifying. Nor is it fair.

The Thatcher character herself declares: ‘‘It used to be about trying to do something. Now it’s about trying to be someone,’’ and yet we see so little of that ‘‘something.’’ Given the movie (justifiably) takes dramatic license with the historical record, it is regrettable that it omitted, for instance, the story of a Tory Party meeting where Thatcher, as the new party leader, slammed on the table a copy of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty and announced, “This is what we believe!” And that it does not reference that it was the Soviet media which dubbed her the “Iron Lady” because of her unfaltering opposition to Communism.

Perhaps it should not come as surprising, though, that a movie from Harvey Weinstein would choose to downplay Thatcher’s ideas and vision for her country–a prosperous Britain at home, built on small businesses and free from excessive government and from the trade union stranglehold that had choked the country through the 1970s, and a strong and unafraid Britain abroad. But in portraying her as little more than a yuppie pioneer – concerned predominantly with her own professional advancement – one wonders if the moviemakers sought not merely to downplay her ideas, but indeed to discredit them.

And yet it is about precisely these ideas of free enterprise at home and principled action abroad that this coming presidential election will be fought, and the moviemakers’ effort to marginalize those ideas may betray their recognition that, thanks to the leadership of, among others, the iron lady, they still have the same force today as they did then.

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Where Else Should He Go?

Obama is running out of places to go. There are just so many college campuses, and even his advisers must know that only a fraction of those kids are going to turn out to vote. He can’t go into swing districts for mega-events, because he’s likely to generate as much (if not more) opposition as support for his Democratic candidate. So it wasn’t unreasonable for him to go to small, supposedly friendly audiences. He wants to be shown “relating” and “empathizing” with ordinary Americans. But that, too, has gone very, very wrong. It seems they are quite miffed with him.

The Washington Post reports on his trip to Iowa:

Standing in the back yard of a resident, Obama stood patiently as one woman described, at length, her fears that the U.S. health-care system will soon resemble that of Great Britain. Next, a man spent several minutes describing the way his small business works – and his unhappiness with the prospects of a tax hike.

When the man veered off into his thoughts on Chinese currency, Obama interrupted.

“Okay, we’re going way afield now,” Obama said, jumping in to address part of the man’s earlier observations.

Too far afield, or he wasn’t briefed on it? And as for the rest, it’s about time Obama heard some unfiltered, unspun public reaction.

But Obama is still ambling down memory lane, recalling better days (“it was also a little bit of a nostalgia tour: Obama dropped by Baby Boomers Cafe, the restaurant that serves a chocolate chip cookie made popular by Obama and his campaign staff in 2008″). It is hard to see how any of this is helping Obama or Democratic candidates, and it is a measure of how far his political standing has fallen that it is hard to come up with a better alternative.

Obama is running out of places to go. There are just so many college campuses, and even his advisers must know that only a fraction of those kids are going to turn out to vote. He can’t go into swing districts for mega-events, because he’s likely to generate as much (if not more) opposition as support for his Democratic candidate. So it wasn’t unreasonable for him to go to small, supposedly friendly audiences. He wants to be shown “relating” and “empathizing” with ordinary Americans. But that, too, has gone very, very wrong. It seems they are quite miffed with him.

The Washington Post reports on his trip to Iowa:

Standing in the back yard of a resident, Obama stood patiently as one woman described, at length, her fears that the U.S. health-care system will soon resemble that of Great Britain. Next, a man spent several minutes describing the way his small business works – and his unhappiness with the prospects of a tax hike.

When the man veered off into his thoughts on Chinese currency, Obama interrupted.

“Okay, we’re going way afield now,” Obama said, jumping in to address part of the man’s earlier observations.

Too far afield, or he wasn’t briefed on it? And as for the rest, it’s about time Obama heard some unfiltered, unspun public reaction.

But Obama is still ambling down memory lane, recalling better days (“it was also a little bit of a nostalgia tour: Obama dropped by Baby Boomers Cafe, the restaurant that serves a chocolate chip cookie made popular by Obama and his campaign staff in 2008″). It is hard to see how any of this is helping Obama or Democratic candidates, and it is a measure of how far his political standing has fallen that it is hard to come up with a better alternative.

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A Thatcherite Moment in America

President Obama, in attempting to gain traction just ahead of the midterm election, has homed in his message on taxes – and most especially, on “tax cut for the wealth.” Here is how Obama is framing his argument:

Ninety-seven percent of Americans make less than $250,000 a year — $250,000 a year or less. And I’m saying we can give those families — 97 percent permanent tax relief. And by the way, for those who make more than $250,000, they’d still get tax relief on the first $250,000; they just wouldn’t get it for income above that. Now, that seems like a common-sense thing to do. And what I’ve got is the Republicans holding middle-class tax relief hostage because they’re insisting we’ve got to give tax relief to millionaires and billionaires to the tune of about $100,000 per millionaire, which would cost over the course of 10 years, $700 billion, and that economists say is probably the worst way to stimulate the economy. That doesn’t make sense, and that’s an example of what this election is all about.

Let’s examine what the president said, starting with this observation: Obama’s sudden interest in the pernicious effects of large deficits is curious. There is no apparent limit to what Obama is willing to spend – yet when it comes to taxes, and almost only taxes, the president professes to be alarmed about the deficit. With that in mind, here’s a useful reference point: the $700 billion over 10 years that Obama is so eager to save is considerably less than Obama’s first (failed) stimulus package, which alone is estimated to have cost more than $860 billion. It would help Mr. Obama’s credibility if, in opposing taxes on fiscal grounds, he was not the most profligate president in American history. Read More

President Obama, in attempting to gain traction just ahead of the midterm election, has homed in his message on taxes – and most especially, on “tax cut for the wealth.” Here is how Obama is framing his argument:

Ninety-seven percent of Americans make less than $250,000 a year — $250,000 a year or less. And I’m saying we can give those families — 97 percent permanent tax relief. And by the way, for those who make more than $250,000, they’d still get tax relief on the first $250,000; they just wouldn’t get it for income above that. Now, that seems like a common-sense thing to do. And what I’ve got is the Republicans holding middle-class tax relief hostage because they’re insisting we’ve got to give tax relief to millionaires and billionaires to the tune of about $100,000 per millionaire, which would cost over the course of 10 years, $700 billion, and that economists say is probably the worst way to stimulate the economy. That doesn’t make sense, and that’s an example of what this election is all about.

Let’s examine what the president said, starting with this observation: Obama’s sudden interest in the pernicious effects of large deficits is curious. There is no apparent limit to what Obama is willing to spend – yet when it comes to taxes, and almost only taxes, the president professes to be alarmed about the deficit. With that in mind, here’s a useful reference point: the $700 billion over 10 years that Obama is so eager to save is considerably less than Obama’s first (failed) stimulus package, which alone is estimated to have cost more than $860 billion. It would help Mr. Obama’s credibility if, in opposing taxes on fiscal grounds, he was not the most profligate president in American history.

Second, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the cost for extending the Bush tax cuts to married taxpayers with income below $250,000 and single taxpayers with income below $200,000 – which Obama supports – would reduce revenues by almost $2 trillion over the 2011–2020 period. If Obama’s argument is that he should oppose tax cuts because of their adverse effect on the deficit, then presumably Obama should oppose extending any of the Bush tax cuts he has demonized for the better part of three years. Instead, Obama favors extending them to individuals making less than $200,000 per year.

Obama cannot have it both ways. He cannot on the one hand castigate Bush’s tax cuts as reckless, irresponsible, and ineffective while at the same time extending them for all but the highest income earners.

Third, Democrats assert that the Obama tax increase will hit only 3 percent of small businesses. “There aren’t 3 percent of small businesses in America that would qualify for that tax cut [one for families making more than $250,000],” Vice President Biden has said. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has chimed in as well, declaring that the tax increase on higher income earners would exempt “97 percent of small businesses.” In fact, it will hit fully half of all small-business income, since 85 percent of small-business owners are taxed on profits at individual tax rates.

Twenty months into his presidency, Barack Obama’s problems extend far beyond this particular tax debate. His problem is, in my estimation, conceptual and philosophical. He is trying to spur growth through extravagant government spending, which he believes will increase demand with its magic “multiplier effect.” If that theory worked, of course, we would not be experiencing economic deceleration with unemployment stuck at nearly 10 percent, the collapse of sales of new homes earlier this year, consumer confidence at an alarmingly low level, a “recovery summer” that saw us lose more than a quarter of a million jobs, and economic growth that is far lower than past post-recession recoveries. Yet Obama continues to double down, as if unchecked government spending, onerous new regulations, and higher tax rates on small businesses and our most productive workers is the road to prosperity.

The president is quite wrong about all of that – and it may be that Obama’s failures, for all their economic and human cost, serve a useful pedagogical function. Obama is reminding people, in fairly vivid ways, what works when it comes to economics – things such as rewarding effort and enterprise, recognizing the importance of incentives, creating certainty and stability that encourages investment and entrepreneurship, and honoring success and achievement.

In that sense, we might be reaching a moment similar to the one Margaret Thatcher faced when she was leader of the Opposition in Great Britain. The failures of the “old” Labour government were obvious to almost everyone – and that created a moment for Thatcher to become prime minister and for Thatcherism to take root.

“Where the state is too powerful,” Mrs. Thatcher told the Zurich Economic Society in 1977, “efficiency suffers and morality is threatened. Britain in the last two or three years provides a case-study of why collectivism will not work. It shows that ‘progressive’ theory was not progressive. On the contrary, it proved retrograde in practice. This is a lesson that democrats all over the world should heed.”

“Yet I face the future with optimism,” Thatcher went on to say. “Our ills are creating their own antibodies. Just as success generates problems, so failure breeds the will to fight back and the body politic strives to restore itself.”

It looks to me like we are seeing something similar taking place in America today. We’ll know more in seven weeks.

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Getting Obama Half-Right — and All Wrong

Newt Gingrich has created a new controversy with remarks to National Review Online: “What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?” As is sadly all too often the case with the former House speaker, he has said something that is half-sharp and half-politically destructive. He’s onto something by connecting Obama’s ideas to anti-colonialism, I think. The key principle in the social and political science Obama studied in the late 1970s and early 1980s was that colonialism was the great evil of the 20th century. The attacks on colonialism, which had been common on the left since the 1920s, were amplified in the 1960s by the reassertion of the Marxist-Leninist conception of “imperialism,” and for good reason — because the more general and less specific term “imperialism” was the way the left could put the United States at the center of its indictment of bourgeois Western corruption and rot.

To the extent that Obama believes that the West and the United States bear a considerable amount of blame for the parlous economic and political condition of other parts of the world and should offer some words of apologetic explanation, he may be operating (as Gingrich sort of suggests) from an ideological base in anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist thinking. This would go a long way to explaining, for example, his bizarre conduct toward Great Britain upon assuming the presidency — the snub of then-PM Gordon Brown, the presentation of a shoddy gift of DVDs, and the banishing of a bust of Churchill from the White House. Why do any of these things to this country’s closest ally unless there is some ideological root? That root could be anti-colonialist ideas, which always held that Great Britain was the worst colonial offender even if it hadn’t been the cruelest (the Belgians were the cruelest) because it portrayed itself as being so humane and orderly.

But by adding a connection to Obama’s father’s home country, Gingrich simply makes his anti-colonial point all but inaudible in the white-noise crackle produced by aligning himself, at least philosophically, with the “birther” crowd. To make the anti-colonial point, there was no need to mention Kenya; the center of anti-colonialist thinking during Obama’s formative educational years was on the Western left, particularly on social-science faculties at major universities here and in Europe. Far more important in this context, if you’re going to mention one of his parents, is his mother Stanley Ann Dunham, who did her academic training as an anthropologist as Obama was growing up. It would seem likely that any ideas of an anti-colonialist nature that Obama might have imbibed as a child would not have come from the father, whom he saw only twice in his life, but rather from his stoutly American, Kansas-to-Seattle-to-Hawaii mother, whose remarkable life journey also included taking up permanent residence on the academic left.

Gingrich might just have been careless in the way he was talking, and through that carelessness handed his party’s enemies a big stick to beat the GOP with at a particularly inopportune moment. Or he might have been sending a cutesy, cagey signal to the birthers that he had joined their number. Hard to say which would be worse.

Newt Gingrich has created a new controversy with remarks to National Review Online: “What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?” As is sadly all too often the case with the former House speaker, he has said something that is half-sharp and half-politically destructive. He’s onto something by connecting Obama’s ideas to anti-colonialism, I think. The key principle in the social and political science Obama studied in the late 1970s and early 1980s was that colonialism was the great evil of the 20th century. The attacks on colonialism, which had been common on the left since the 1920s, were amplified in the 1960s by the reassertion of the Marxist-Leninist conception of “imperialism,” and for good reason — because the more general and less specific term “imperialism” was the way the left could put the United States at the center of its indictment of bourgeois Western corruption and rot.

To the extent that Obama believes that the West and the United States bear a considerable amount of blame for the parlous economic and political condition of other parts of the world and should offer some words of apologetic explanation, he may be operating (as Gingrich sort of suggests) from an ideological base in anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist thinking. This would go a long way to explaining, for example, his bizarre conduct toward Great Britain upon assuming the presidency — the snub of then-PM Gordon Brown, the presentation of a shoddy gift of DVDs, and the banishing of a bust of Churchill from the White House. Why do any of these things to this country’s closest ally unless there is some ideological root? That root could be anti-colonialist ideas, which always held that Great Britain was the worst colonial offender even if it hadn’t been the cruelest (the Belgians were the cruelest) because it portrayed itself as being so humane and orderly.

But by adding a connection to Obama’s father’s home country, Gingrich simply makes his anti-colonial point all but inaudible in the white-noise crackle produced by aligning himself, at least philosophically, with the “birther” crowd. To make the anti-colonial point, there was no need to mention Kenya; the center of anti-colonialist thinking during Obama’s formative educational years was on the Western left, particularly on social-science faculties at major universities here and in Europe. Far more important in this context, if you’re going to mention one of his parents, is his mother Stanley Ann Dunham, who did her academic training as an anthropologist as Obama was growing up. It would seem likely that any ideas of an anti-colonialist nature that Obama might have imbibed as a child would not have come from the father, whom he saw only twice in his life, but rather from his stoutly American, Kansas-to-Seattle-to-Hawaii mother, whose remarkable life journey also included taking up permanent residence on the academic left.

Gingrich might just have been careless in the way he was talking, and through that carelessness handed his party’s enemies a big stick to beat the GOP with at a particularly inopportune moment. Or he might have been sending a cutesy, cagey signal to the birthers that he had joined their number. Hard to say which would be worse.

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Americans Get It

Rasmussen has an interesting poll concerning which countries Americans consider to be our allies:

Eighty-seven percent (87%) rate our neighbor to the north as a U.S. ally, while two percent (2%) view Canada as an enemy. Six percent (6%) place it somewhere between an ally and an enemy. … Great Britain, whose had a special relationship with America from the start, is seen as an ally by 85%, an enemy by two percent (2%) and somewhere in between by eight percent (8%). … Next comes Israel, recognized by the United States immediately after its independence in 1948. America has been the Jewish state’s strongest supporter ever since. Seventy-one percent (71%) of Americans regard Israel as an ally, but six percent (6%) say it’s an enemy. For 17%, Israel falls somewhere in between.

Alas, Obama does not seem to share the warm feelings about Britain or Israel, and the relationship between the U.S. and these countries is indisputably worse than it was under the Bush administration, or, for that matter, the Clinton administration. Americans have figured that out as well, according to a separate Rasmussen poll earlier this month:

U.S. voters are now as pessimistic about America’s relationship with Israel as they are about relations with the Muslim world. A new Rasmussen Reports nationwide telephone survey finds that one-in-three voters (34%) believe the U.S. relationship with Israel will be worse one year from now.

Let’s hope that voters are wrong on that one and that after 18 months of acrimonious dealings with the Jewish state, Obama rethinks he approach. As for Britain, I don’t imagine Obama can top sending back the Churchill bust or giving cheesy gifts to the prime minister. But he might do well to spend more time reassuring on our skittish allies and less time fawning over despots and throwing concessions at the Russians’ feet.

Rasmussen has an interesting poll concerning which countries Americans consider to be our allies:

Eighty-seven percent (87%) rate our neighbor to the north as a U.S. ally, while two percent (2%) view Canada as an enemy. Six percent (6%) place it somewhere between an ally and an enemy. … Great Britain, whose had a special relationship with America from the start, is seen as an ally by 85%, an enemy by two percent (2%) and somewhere in between by eight percent (8%). … Next comes Israel, recognized by the United States immediately after its independence in 1948. America has been the Jewish state’s strongest supporter ever since. Seventy-one percent (71%) of Americans regard Israel as an ally, but six percent (6%) say it’s an enemy. For 17%, Israel falls somewhere in between.

Alas, Obama does not seem to share the warm feelings about Britain or Israel, and the relationship between the U.S. and these countries is indisputably worse than it was under the Bush administration, or, for that matter, the Clinton administration. Americans have figured that out as well, according to a separate Rasmussen poll earlier this month:

U.S. voters are now as pessimistic about America’s relationship with Israel as they are about relations with the Muslim world. A new Rasmussen Reports nationwide telephone survey finds that one-in-three voters (34%) believe the U.S. relationship with Israel will be worse one year from now.

Let’s hope that voters are wrong on that one and that after 18 months of acrimonious dealings with the Jewish state, Obama rethinks he approach. As for Britain, I don’t imagine Obama can top sending back the Churchill bust or giving cheesy gifts to the prime minister. But he might do well to spend more time reassuring on our skittish allies and less time fawning over despots and throwing concessions at the Russians’ feet.

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Dismantling Joe Klein

Correcting the errors in logic and fact by Joe Klein is more than a full-time job, and I usually have better things to do. But once in a while, he writes a piece that deserves to be examined and dismantled. The posting Klein did on Time magazine’s blog Swampland earlier this week, “Obama on Iraq,” qualifies as one of those instances. Let’s have a look.

1. On Monday Klein wrote this:

It is the way of the world that Barack Obama ‘ s announcement today of the end of the combat phase in Iraq … will not be remembered as vividly as George Bush’s juvenile march across the deck of an aircraft carrier, costumed as a combat aviator in a golden sunset, to announce — six years and tens of thousands of lives prematurely — the “end of combat operations.”

Now let’s see what Klein said about Bush’s landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln on CBS’s Face the Nation, on May 4, 2003:

Well, that was probably the coolest presidential image since Bill Pullman played the jet fighter pilot in the movie Independence Day. That was the first thing that came to mind for me. And it just shows you how high a mountain these Democrats are going to have to climb. You compare that image, which everybody across the world saw, with this debate last night where you have nine people on a stage and it doesn’t air until 11:30 at night, up against Saturday Night Live, and you see what a major, major struggle the Democrats are going to have to try and beat a popular incumbent president.

Bush’s moment went from being Hollywood cool then to a puerile act now. Such bipolar shifts of opinion in a high-ranking public official would be alarming and dangerous; in a columnist and blogger, they are comical and discrediting.

2. Klein asserts this:

Certainly, even if something resembling democracy prevails, the U.S. invasion and occupation — the carnage and tragedy it wrought — will not be remembered fondly by Iraqis anytime soon. We will own the destruction in perpetuity; if the Iraqis manage to cobble themselves a decent society, they will see it, correctly, as an achievement of their own. [emphasis added]

Here, Klein moves from the merely ludicrous to the offensive. What Klein is arguing is that even if things turn out well in Iraq, America deserves none of the credit. We were responsible only for carnage and tragedy, not liberation. The heroic sacrifices of America’s military men and women are dismissed as inconsequential. Those who have died have done so in vain, according to Klein’s line of reasoning; if the Iraqis manage to cobble for themselves a decent society, he insists, it will be an achievement of their own making alone.

This claim is flatly untrue. Without the intervention of the United States, Saddam Hussein would not have been deposed. And without the sacrifice of treasure and blood made by America, Iraq would have been convulsed by civil war and possibly genocide. It is certainly true that if Iraq continues on its path to self-government, its people will deserve a large share of the credit. But so will America — and so will those who wore America’s uniform into combat. For Klein to dismiss what our country and its warriors have done to advance liberty and humane ends is disturbing and revelatory.

3. Klein writes this: Read More

Correcting the errors in logic and fact by Joe Klein is more than a full-time job, and I usually have better things to do. But once in a while, he writes a piece that deserves to be examined and dismantled. The posting Klein did on Time magazine’s blog Swampland earlier this week, “Obama on Iraq,” qualifies as one of those instances. Let’s have a look.

1. On Monday Klein wrote this:

It is the way of the world that Barack Obama ‘ s announcement today of the end of the combat phase in Iraq … will not be remembered as vividly as George Bush’s juvenile march across the deck of an aircraft carrier, costumed as a combat aviator in a golden sunset, to announce — six years and tens of thousands of lives prematurely — the “end of combat operations.”

Now let’s see what Klein said about Bush’s landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln on CBS’s Face the Nation, on May 4, 2003:

Well, that was probably the coolest presidential image since Bill Pullman played the jet fighter pilot in the movie Independence Day. That was the first thing that came to mind for me. And it just shows you how high a mountain these Democrats are going to have to climb. You compare that image, which everybody across the world saw, with this debate last night where you have nine people on a stage and it doesn’t air until 11:30 at night, up against Saturday Night Live, and you see what a major, major struggle the Democrats are going to have to try and beat a popular incumbent president.

Bush’s moment went from being Hollywood cool then to a puerile act now. Such bipolar shifts of opinion in a high-ranking public official would be alarming and dangerous; in a columnist and blogger, they are comical and discrediting.

2. Klein asserts this:

Certainly, even if something resembling democracy prevails, the U.S. invasion and occupation — the carnage and tragedy it wrought — will not be remembered fondly by Iraqis anytime soon. We will own the destruction in perpetuity; if the Iraqis manage to cobble themselves a decent society, they will see it, correctly, as an achievement of their own. [emphasis added]

Here, Klein moves from the merely ludicrous to the offensive. What Klein is arguing is that even if things turn out well in Iraq, America deserves none of the credit. We were responsible only for carnage and tragedy, not liberation. The heroic sacrifices of America’s military men and women are dismissed as inconsequential. Those who have died have done so in vain, according to Klein’s line of reasoning; if the Iraqis manage to cobble for themselves a decent society, he insists, it will be an achievement of their own making alone.

This claim is flatly untrue. Without the intervention of the United States, Saddam Hussein would not have been deposed. And without the sacrifice of treasure and blood made by America, Iraq would have been convulsed by civil war and possibly genocide. It is certainly true that if Iraq continues on its path to self-government, its people will deserve a large share of the credit. But so will America — and so will those who wore America’s uniform into combat. For Klein to dismiss what our country and its warriors have done to advance liberty and humane ends is disturbing and revelatory.

3. Klein writes this:

As for myself, I deeply regret that once, on television in the days before the war, I reluctantly but foolishly said that going ahead with the invasion might be the right thing to do. I was far more skeptical, and equivocal, in print–I never wrote in favor of the war and repeatedly raised the problems that would accompany it–but skepticism and equivocation were an insufficient reaction, too.

Well, this admission marks progress of a sort, I suppose.

For the longest time, Klein denied ever having supported the war. He even complained about being criticized by liberals for his support of the Iraq war. “The fact that I’ve been opposed to the Iraq war ever since this 2002 article in Slate just makes it all the more aggravating,” Klein said.

But what proved to be even more aggravating to Joe is when people like Arianna Huffington and me pointed out that Klein supported the war immediately before it began, thus contradicting his revisionist claim.

For the record: On Feb. 22, 2003, Klein told the late Tim Russert that the war was a “really tough decision” but that he, Klein, thought it was probably “the right decision at this point.” Klein then offered several reasons for his judgment: Saddam’s defiance of 17 UN resolutions over a dozen years; Klein’s firm conviction that Saddam was hiding WMD; and the need to send the message that if we didn’t enforce the latest UN resolution, it “empowers every would-be Saddam out there and every would-be terrorist out there.”

It’s worth pointing out that to make a false claim and revise it in light of emerging evidence is something of a pattern with Joe. After all, he repeatedly and forcefully denied being the author of the novel Primary Colors until he was forced to admit that he, in fact, had written it. It takes him a while to grudgingly bow before incontrovertible evidence. But he does get there. Eventually. When he has no other choice.

4.  According to Klein:

In retrospect, the issue then was as clear cut as it is now. It demanded a clarity that I failed to summon. The essential principle is immutable: We should never go to war unless we have been attacked or are under direct, immediate threat of attack. Never. And never again.

Presumably, then, Klein believes that Great Britain declaring war on Germany two days after Hitler’s invasion of Poland (Great Britain and Poland were allies and shared a security pact) was a violation of an “essential” and “immutable” principle. So was the first Gulf War, when the United States repelled Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. So was Tony Blair’s intervention in Kosovo and Sierra Leone (the latter widely viewed as successful in helping save that West African country from barbarism and dictatorship). So, arguably, was the American Civil War; after all, Lincoln could have avoided war, had he given in on the matters of secession and slavery.

According to Klein, no war is justified unless a nation has been attacked or is under the direct, immediate threat of attack — which means interventions for the sake of aiding allies, meeting treaty obligations, averting massive humanitarian disasters, or advancing national interests and national security are always and forever off the table.

Klein’s arguments are those of a simpleton. He has drawn up a doctrine that isn’t based on careful reasoning, subtle analysis, or a sophisticated understanding of history; it is, in fact, a childish overreaction to the events of the moment. What Klein states with emphatic certainty one day is something he will probably jettison the next.

Iraq is a subject on which Joe Klein has been — let’s be gentle here — highly erratic. He both opposed and supported the war before it began. After the war started, he spoke hopefully about the movement toward democracy there. (“This is not a moment for caveats,” he wrote in 2005, after the Iraqi elections. “It is a moment for solemn appreciation of the Iraqi achievement — however it may turn out — and for hope.”) Now he refers to it as a “neo-colonialist obscenity.” President Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” went from being something that “seem[s] to be paying off” and that might even secure Bush the Nobel Peace Prize to a “delusional farce.” Klein ridiculed the idea of the surge, referring to it as “Bush’s futile pipe dream,” before conceding that the surge was wise, necessary, and successful.

This is all of a piece with Klein. And there is a kind of poignancy that surrounds his descent. Once upon a time, Joe was a fairly decent political reporter — but somewhere along the line, he went badly off track. He has become startlingly embittered, consumed by his hatreds, regarding as malevolent enemies all people who hold views different from his. In the past, his writings could be insightful, somewhat balanced, and at times elegant. These days, he’s not good for much more than a rant — and even his rants have become predictable, pedestrian, banal. Witless, even.

This cannot be what Henry Luce envisioned for his magazine.

Read Less




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