Commentary Magazine


Topic: New Year’s Day

Encouraging Despots

“Here comes the world’s newest superpower,” writes Cahal Milmo in the Independent yesterday. “China is set to make 2008 the year it asserts its status as a global colossus.” Fareed Zakaria, in his recent piece in Newsweek, agrees, predicting that 2008 “is likely to be seen as the year that China moved to center stage.”

As we start a new year, predictions invariably mention that Beijing is set to take over the world. China in the past merely enticed and puzzled the West. Now, it threatens to dominate us. Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins already calls the country “the most important power in the world.” Zakaria does not go that far, but he notes that “China has become the new x factor, without which no durable solution is possible.”

So here’s a question for us: Is it possible to solve any problem when a turbulent Communist state blocks all remedies? If we want to know why geopolitical disorders continue, we need look no further than Beijing. The Chinese have caused some of these maladies and contributed to almost all of the rest. Today, China proliferates nuclear weapons technology, supports murderous regimes, and is emerging as the core of a coalition of authoritarian states. The Beijing Consensus, touted throughout the developing world, is now the alternative to the West’s model of representative governance and free-market economics.

Washington’s approach has been to integrate the Chinese into the international community, to make their country “a responsible stakeholder.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is certainly correct when she said, replying to Mike Huckabee’s charge that the Bush administration has an “arrogant bunker mentality,” that it was “ludicrous” to say we have a “go-it-alone foreign policy.” The problem is not that we are going it alone. On the contrary, the problem is that we seek the assistance of unrepentant despots in solving the world’s most urgent problems.

So here is a question to ponder as we think about the coming year: Is it really a good idea to give increasingly aggressive autocrats a commanding role in shaping the global order?

“Here comes the world’s newest superpower,” writes Cahal Milmo in the Independent yesterday. “China is set to make 2008 the year it asserts its status as a global colossus.” Fareed Zakaria, in his recent piece in Newsweek, agrees, predicting that 2008 “is likely to be seen as the year that China moved to center stage.”

As we start a new year, predictions invariably mention that Beijing is set to take over the world. China in the past merely enticed and puzzled the West. Now, it threatens to dominate us. Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins already calls the country “the most important power in the world.” Zakaria does not go that far, but he notes that “China has become the new x factor, without which no durable solution is possible.”

So here’s a question for us: Is it possible to solve any problem when a turbulent Communist state blocks all remedies? If we want to know why geopolitical disorders continue, we need look no further than Beijing. The Chinese have caused some of these maladies and contributed to almost all of the rest. Today, China proliferates nuclear weapons technology, supports murderous regimes, and is emerging as the core of a coalition of authoritarian states. The Beijing Consensus, touted throughout the developing world, is now the alternative to the West’s model of representative governance and free-market economics.

Washington’s approach has been to integrate the Chinese into the international community, to make their country “a responsible stakeholder.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is certainly correct when she said, replying to Mike Huckabee’s charge that the Bush administration has an “arrogant bunker mentality,” that it was “ludicrous” to say we have a “go-it-alone foreign policy.” The problem is not that we are going it alone. On the contrary, the problem is that we seek the assistance of unrepentant despots in solving the world’s most urgent problems.

So here is a question to ponder as we think about the coming year: Is it really a good idea to give increasingly aggressive autocrats a commanding role in shaping the global order?

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The Bloomberg Presidential Fantasy

With the coming of the New Year came major pieces in as all three New York papers on the growing possibility of an independent presidential big by the city’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg. He will attend a confab next week in Oklahoma, hosted by former Democratic Senator and current University of Oklahoma chancellor David Boren that will include many prominent current and former politicians who claim deep frustration with the partisan polarization of the present moment — including lude one-time Sens. Gary Hart, Sam Nunn, William Cohen, and Chuck Robb, and one sitting Senator, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

At lunch a few weeks ago, two prominent Democrats with long experience in electoral politics, both very sensible men not given to hysterical excitement, told me they they think he has a plausible chance of winning the presidency. This struck me as dumb-founding. After all, no independent has ever won the presidency. No independent candidate has even come remotely close to winning. So why would Bloomberg’s bid be different? The consultants said Americans have a profound sense that the political system is broken and that a candidate whose career transcends party and ideology — but who can make a strong case that he is a brilliant leader who gets things done — could bring something new to American politics.

It’s true Bloomberg, the 25th richest man in the United States, could bring something entirely new to politics, i.e., spending half a billion or more on his own candidacy. It’s hard to overestimate how attractive this makes him tos ome people who are intrigued by the possibility of a Bloomberg run, in part because they might actually personally profit by it. Who would pocket that half a billion anyway? A lot of it would go to consultants. Don’t think that’s not an element in the whispering campaign on Bloomberg’s behalf, because it very much is.

Otherwise, how to explain the theory whereby a Jewish billionaire liberal from New York who can claim to have managed New York City in an efficient but hardly inspired or inspiring fashion is the person to cause a revolution in American politics down to the cellular level? 

Here’s another possible reason: Bloomberg is thrilling to people because he’s nominally a Republican but actually a Democrat. Thus, he can gull foolish Republicans into believing he’s one of them while actually being one of us. Every one of the people who is gathering in Oklahoma next week has one thing in common: They were either Democrats who served in Republican states and therefore had to take on a more ambiguous coloration, or they were Republicans serving in Democratic states and had to do the same. They are all social liberals, but some of them have a dash of rightward-leaning thinking — a dislike of deficit spending, say, or a more hawkish bent — they sprinkle on their liberalism like tabasco on eggs. It’s no wonder Bloomberg has become their deus ex machina. He shares with them a passionate love for and worship of of his own political positioning, the conviction that there is something inherently superior about a person who stands at a remove from ideological conflict.

What’s hard to understand about the Bloomberg fantasy is the assertion that the nation needs someone like him. The past four national elections have seen a startling increase in the level of engagement on the part of voters, with turnout rising to historic levels in 2000, only to rise 22 percent higher in 2004. This indicates not a withdrawal from politics because of a disgust with the possible choices, but the opposite. And the results reflect that. The midterm elections in 2002 and 2006 saw voters making clear ideological and practical distinctions between candidates and parties, to the benefit of Republicans in 2002 and to the benefit of Democrats in 2006. Washington’s fractious divide between Right and Left is a mark not of a failure in the system, but is a fair reflection of the nation’s divided political reality.

Obviously, voters get angry. They were angry about the Iraq war from two directions — people on the Left because we were fighting it in the first place and people on the Right because we weren’t winning it. They don’t like the behavior of Washington politicians. But they do see to it that things change when they get upset. Selling the White House to a billionaire whose sole promise is that he won’t make anybody too angry is not an answer to what ails us. My guess is that Bloomberg is smart enough to understand this.

With the coming of the New Year came major pieces in as all three New York papers on the growing possibility of an independent presidential big by the city’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg. He will attend a confab next week in Oklahoma, hosted by former Democratic Senator and current University of Oklahoma chancellor David Boren that will include many prominent current and former politicians who claim deep frustration with the partisan polarization of the present moment — including lude one-time Sens. Gary Hart, Sam Nunn, William Cohen, and Chuck Robb, and one sitting Senator, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

At lunch a few weeks ago, two prominent Democrats with long experience in electoral politics, both very sensible men not given to hysterical excitement, told me they they think he has a plausible chance of winning the presidency. This struck me as dumb-founding. After all, no independent has ever won the presidency. No independent candidate has even come remotely close to winning. So why would Bloomberg’s bid be different? The consultants said Americans have a profound sense that the political system is broken and that a candidate whose career transcends party and ideology — but who can make a strong case that he is a brilliant leader who gets things done — could bring something new to American politics.

It’s true Bloomberg, the 25th richest man in the United States, could bring something entirely new to politics, i.e., spending half a billion or more on his own candidacy. It’s hard to overestimate how attractive this makes him tos ome people who are intrigued by the possibility of a Bloomberg run, in part because they might actually personally profit by it. Who would pocket that half a billion anyway? A lot of it would go to consultants. Don’t think that’s not an element in the whispering campaign on Bloomberg’s behalf, because it very much is.

Otherwise, how to explain the theory whereby a Jewish billionaire liberal from New York who can claim to have managed New York City in an efficient but hardly inspired or inspiring fashion is the person to cause a revolution in American politics down to the cellular level? 

Here’s another possible reason: Bloomberg is thrilling to people because he’s nominally a Republican but actually a Democrat. Thus, he can gull foolish Republicans into believing he’s one of them while actually being one of us. Every one of the people who is gathering in Oklahoma next week has one thing in common: They were either Democrats who served in Republican states and therefore had to take on a more ambiguous coloration, or they were Republicans serving in Democratic states and had to do the same. They are all social liberals, but some of them have a dash of rightward-leaning thinking — a dislike of deficit spending, say, or a more hawkish bent — they sprinkle on their liberalism like tabasco on eggs. It’s no wonder Bloomberg has become their deus ex machina. He shares with them a passionate love for and worship of of his own political positioning, the conviction that there is something inherently superior about a person who stands at a remove from ideological conflict.

What’s hard to understand about the Bloomberg fantasy is the assertion that the nation needs someone like him. The past four national elections have seen a startling increase in the level of engagement on the part of voters, with turnout rising to historic levels in 2000, only to rise 22 percent higher in 2004. This indicates not a withdrawal from politics because of a disgust with the possible choices, but the opposite. And the results reflect that. The midterm elections in 2002 and 2006 saw voters making clear ideological and practical distinctions between candidates and parties, to the benefit of Republicans in 2002 and to the benefit of Democrats in 2006. Washington’s fractious divide between Right and Left is a mark not of a failure in the system, but is a fair reflection of the nation’s divided political reality.

Obviously, voters get angry. They were angry about the Iraq war from two directions — people on the Left because we were fighting it in the first place and people on the Right because we weren’t winning it. They don’t like the behavior of Washington politicians. But they do see to it that things change when they get upset. Selling the White House to a billionaire whose sole promise is that he won’t make anybody too angry is not an answer to what ails us. My guess is that Bloomberg is smart enough to understand this.

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Bin Laden’s Year-End Whimper

In a year-end audiotape Osama bin Laden reportedly scolds Iraq’s Sunnis for turning on al Qaeda, and threatens to ramp up violence in the Palestinian territories. The world’s most wanted man also calls on Muslims to stand by a phantom:

Bin Laden said Sunnis should pledge their allegiance to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the little known “emir” or leader of the Islamic State of Iraq. U.S. officials have claimed that al-Baghdadi does not exist, saying Al Qaeda created the name to give its coalition the illusion of an Iraqi leadership.

It wasn’t long ago that the coming of the new year spelled elevated threat levels from Homeland Security and genuine fear in the hearts of Americans. Now, after six years of having the fight brought to them, all al Qaeda can muster is a tape-recorded finger wag. The fact is that the big story about Times Square this New Year’s eve was portable toilets, not bomb-detectors.

None of which is to say that victory over al Qaeda is complete. The gains made by the U.S. in the fight against Islamofascism are fragile. American troops have paid an enormous price for putting al Qaeda on the run, but as we saw in Pakistan last week, it takes just one thug to derail progress. Fortunately, momentum in Iraq and the increasing Muslim condemnation of suicide bombing make it clear that bin Laden is a thug whose influence is waning. His suspicious “help wanted” ads reek of desperation.
As for Israel, it should no longer be a secret that Palestinian terror is rank bin Ladenism decked out in nationalist threads. Whether or not Osama’s boilerplate threats portend coming attacks, Gaza’s increasing operational capabilities (courtesy of Syria and Iran) have raised the stakes. In 2008 every resource must be marshaled to stomp out Hamas in much the same way that the U.S. has marginalized al Qaeda over the past six years.

In a year-end audiotape Osama bin Laden reportedly scolds Iraq’s Sunnis for turning on al Qaeda, and threatens to ramp up violence in the Palestinian territories. The world’s most wanted man also calls on Muslims to stand by a phantom:

Bin Laden said Sunnis should pledge their allegiance to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the little known “emir” or leader of the Islamic State of Iraq. U.S. officials have claimed that al-Baghdadi does not exist, saying Al Qaeda created the name to give its coalition the illusion of an Iraqi leadership.

It wasn’t long ago that the coming of the new year spelled elevated threat levels from Homeland Security and genuine fear in the hearts of Americans. Now, after six years of having the fight brought to them, all al Qaeda can muster is a tape-recorded finger wag. The fact is that the big story about Times Square this New Year’s eve was portable toilets, not bomb-detectors.

None of which is to say that victory over al Qaeda is complete. The gains made by the U.S. in the fight against Islamofascism are fragile. American troops have paid an enormous price for putting al Qaeda on the run, but as we saw in Pakistan last week, it takes just one thug to derail progress. Fortunately, momentum in Iraq and the increasing Muslim condemnation of suicide bombing make it clear that bin Laden is a thug whose influence is waning. His suspicious “help wanted” ads reek of desperation.
As for Israel, it should no longer be a secret that Palestinian terror is rank bin Ladenism decked out in nationalist threads. Whether or not Osama’s boilerplate threats portend coming attacks, Gaza’s increasing operational capabilities (courtesy of Syria and Iran) have raised the stakes. In 2008 every resource must be marshaled to stomp out Hamas in much the same way that the U.S. has marginalized al Qaeda over the past six years.

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LIVE: Blogging the Republican Candidate Debate, Part Two

The debate is over. I think at the end, as I thought throughout, that it changed nothing.

Moderator Carolyn Washburn has just made the worst demand in the history of debating: Offer a New Year’s resolution for somebody else on stage. She is the editor of the Des Moines Register. It must not be a very good paper.

McCain is asked when he wished he would have compromised on his ideals. He says he can’t think of a time.

Completely pointless observation: For a very tall man, Fred Thompson still has an uncommonly huge head.

Duncan Hunter is attacking Mitt Romney for having a company that funded a Chinese corporation’s effort to buy an American defense contractor. I don’t know the case, and chances are Hunter is being unfair, but thank G-d somebody is going after somebody else at long last.

Romney says it’s incredibly important that the next president should be a conservative. We need to follow Ronald Reagan’s model: social conservatives, economic conservatives and foreign policy conservatives. I want to draw on those strengths. Very strong answer.

Huckabee’s faith means, he says, that the poor and the rich should have the same health care and education.

Quick call on the debate: Romney is very good. Huckabee is fine. Thompson is intelligent and thoughtful, but still not totally engaged. Giuliani is very fluid. McCain seems a little reduced in stature, for some reason. I don’t see much change coming out of this.

Character question for Giuliani: My government in New York City was very transparent. I’m used to it, I’m used to being analyzed, I haven’t had a perfect life and I wish I had. I’ve had an open transparent government and an open transparent life.

Giuliani: I’ve been tested by having to show leadership through a crisis — not just 9/11 but as a U.S. attorney and a mayor. We have problems we haven’t solved — terrorism, the border. We need an optimistic leader who can bring us solutions.

Romney: I know how to keep America strong. I know a lot about the economy. I know a lot about health care and the economy. And I know a lot about values. “And to the People of Iowa, I need your help, I’d like your vote.”

Alan Keyes says he would, upon assuming the presidency, instantly commit himself to an asylum. Okay, he didn’t say that.

John McCain: I can lead, I can inspire confidence and restore confidence in government.

Mike Huckabee: The first priority of the next president is to bring all the people together. We’re too polarized. The left is fighting the right — who is going to bring this country together again? We need to be the united people of a United States. This guy has a way of saying absolutely nothing and making it sound deeply meaningful.
Romney says we need to fight global jihad, reduce the size of government, and have stronger families with stronger values.

Thompson says he would go before the American people and “tell them the truth.” I’d tell them that we need to fight the enemy, that we’re bankrupting the next generation, that judges are setting the social policy in this country and that’s got to stop, and tell Congress we need to work together.

Rudy Giuliani says in the first year he would confront Islamic terrorism, end illegal immigration, and move to achieve energy independence. “You need bold leadership to accomplish that.”

Mike Huckabee says he has had the most executive experience of anyone on stage. Smart.

Thompson says the biggest obstacle to education is the National Education Association.

Alan Keyes inserts himself on education. He complains about how he is being treated unfairly. He is a deeply unpleasant buffoon.

Huckabee says we need to “personalize” learning for students who drop out because they’re bored to death. We need to build a curriculum around their interests. Unleash “weapons of mass instruction.” We need to teach the right side of the brain with the same energy as the left.

Romney gives an extraordinarily good and detailed answer on education.

Duncan Hunter cites Jaime Escalante as his model on education. This is like listen to an Oldies station. Twenty years ago, I wrote words of praise about Jaime Escalante as a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan to speak.

Rudy Giuliani says parents should choose the school their child can go to. In America, higher education is the best in the world and there’s total consumer choice.

John McCain says on education, we need more choice and more competition. We need more charter schools, we need more vouchers where it’s approved locally, need more home schooling, need to be able to pay good teachers more and fire bad teachers. Odd praise for Mike Bloomberg’s work on public education, which doesn’t deserve much praise; is that a strange shot at Giuliani?

Mike Huckabee says Americans are looking for leadership, looking for change, want politicians not to be a ruling class, but a serving class. When we are elected, we are not elected to be elevated up but to truly remember what we’re looking for. Trying to help Americans be the very best they can be.

The debate is over. I think at the end, as I thought throughout, that it changed nothing.

Moderator Carolyn Washburn has just made the worst demand in the history of debating: Offer a New Year’s resolution for somebody else on stage. She is the editor of the Des Moines Register. It must not be a very good paper.

McCain is asked when he wished he would have compromised on his ideals. He says he can’t think of a time.

Completely pointless observation: For a very tall man, Fred Thompson still has an uncommonly huge head.

Duncan Hunter is attacking Mitt Romney for having a company that funded a Chinese corporation’s effort to buy an American defense contractor. I don’t know the case, and chances are Hunter is being unfair, but thank G-d somebody is going after somebody else at long last.

Romney says it’s incredibly important that the next president should be a conservative. We need to follow Ronald Reagan’s model: social conservatives, economic conservatives and foreign policy conservatives. I want to draw on those strengths. Very strong answer.

Huckabee’s faith means, he says, that the poor and the rich should have the same health care and education.

Quick call on the debate: Romney is very good. Huckabee is fine. Thompson is intelligent and thoughtful, but still not totally engaged. Giuliani is very fluid. McCain seems a little reduced in stature, for some reason. I don’t see much change coming out of this.

Character question for Giuliani: My government in New York City was very transparent. I’m used to it, I’m used to being analyzed, I haven’t had a perfect life and I wish I had. I’ve had an open transparent government and an open transparent life.

Giuliani: I’ve been tested by having to show leadership through a crisis — not just 9/11 but as a U.S. attorney and a mayor. We have problems we haven’t solved — terrorism, the border. We need an optimistic leader who can bring us solutions.

Romney: I know how to keep America strong. I know a lot about the economy. I know a lot about health care and the economy. And I know a lot about values. “And to the People of Iowa, I need your help, I’d like your vote.”

Alan Keyes says he would, upon assuming the presidency, instantly commit himself to an asylum. Okay, he didn’t say that.

John McCain: I can lead, I can inspire confidence and restore confidence in government.

Mike Huckabee: The first priority of the next president is to bring all the people together. We’re too polarized. The left is fighting the right — who is going to bring this country together again? We need to be the united people of a United States. This guy has a way of saying absolutely nothing and making it sound deeply meaningful.
Romney says we need to fight global jihad, reduce the size of government, and have stronger families with stronger values.

Thompson says he would go before the American people and “tell them the truth.” I’d tell them that we need to fight the enemy, that we’re bankrupting the next generation, that judges are setting the social policy in this country and that’s got to stop, and tell Congress we need to work together.

Rudy Giuliani says in the first year he would confront Islamic terrorism, end illegal immigration, and move to achieve energy independence. “You need bold leadership to accomplish that.”

Mike Huckabee says he has had the most executive experience of anyone on stage. Smart.

Thompson says the biggest obstacle to education is the National Education Association.

Alan Keyes inserts himself on education. He complains about how he is being treated unfairly. He is a deeply unpleasant buffoon.

Huckabee says we need to “personalize” learning for students who drop out because they’re bored to death. We need to build a curriculum around their interests. Unleash “weapons of mass instruction.” We need to teach the right side of the brain with the same energy as the left.

Romney gives an extraordinarily good and detailed answer on education.

Duncan Hunter cites Jaime Escalante as his model on education. This is like listen to an Oldies station. Twenty years ago, I wrote words of praise about Jaime Escalante as a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan to speak.

Rudy Giuliani says parents should choose the school their child can go to. In America, higher education is the best in the world and there’s total consumer choice.

John McCain says on education, we need more choice and more competition. We need more charter schools, we need more vouchers where it’s approved locally, need more home schooling, need to be able to pay good teachers more and fire bad teachers. Odd praise for Mike Bloomberg’s work on public education, which doesn’t deserve much praise; is that a strange shot at Giuliani?

Mike Huckabee says Americans are looking for leadership, looking for change, want politicians not to be a ruling class, but a serving class. When we are elected, we are not elected to be elevated up but to truly remember what we’re looking for. Trying to help Americans be the very best they can be.

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L’enfer, c’est moi-même

As we approach the New Year, our thoughts inevitably turn to resolutions. Running a marathon, learning Mandarin, and reading the Deipnosophistae are among the many things I will end up not doing in 2008. Keeping a diary will appear on many to-do lists, but anyone contemplating this soul-pulping undertaking should first read Louis Menand’s New Yorker essay, “Woke Up This Morning,” on the subject. He begins with a discussion of three reasons (ego, id, and superego, for convenience) why people keep diaries, and why they often fail to record more than a week or two at a stretch:

The ego theory holds that maintaining a diary demands a level of vanity and self-importance that is simply too great for most people to sustain for long periods of time. It obliges you to believe that the stuff that happened to you is worth writing down because it happened to you. This is why so many diaries are abandoned by circa January 10th: keeping this up, you quickly realize, means something worse than being insufferable to others; it means being insufferable to yourself.

Some people possess an amazing stamina when it comes to vanity and self-importance, and the results can be horrifying. (See, for example, horizon blogger Sam Munson’s hilarious review of the diaries of Joyce Carol Oates.) When such results are validated by publication, they probably push their authors even deeper into the abyss of self-regard. Yet I suspect that for many of us, the embarrassment of rereading an old journal can have a tonic effect on our capacity for humility—which is exactly why I’ve never kept one.

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As we approach the New Year, our thoughts inevitably turn to resolutions. Running a marathon, learning Mandarin, and reading the Deipnosophistae are among the many things I will end up not doing in 2008. Keeping a diary will appear on many to-do lists, but anyone contemplating this soul-pulping undertaking should first read Louis Menand’s New Yorker essay, “Woke Up This Morning,” on the subject. He begins with a discussion of three reasons (ego, id, and superego, for convenience) why people keep diaries, and why they often fail to record more than a week or two at a stretch:

The ego theory holds that maintaining a diary demands a level of vanity and self-importance that is simply too great for most people to sustain for long periods of time. It obliges you to believe that the stuff that happened to you is worth writing down because it happened to you. This is why so many diaries are abandoned by circa January 10th: keeping this up, you quickly realize, means something worse than being insufferable to others; it means being insufferable to yourself.

Some people possess an amazing stamina when it comes to vanity and self-importance, and the results can be horrifying. (See, for example, horizon blogger Sam Munson’s hilarious review of the diaries of Joyce Carol Oates.) When such results are validated by publication, they probably push their authors even deeper into the abyss of self-regard. Yet I suspect that for many of us, the embarrassment of rereading an old journal can have a tonic effect on our capacity for humility—which is exactly why I’ve never kept one.

Menand gives us snippets of Virginia Woolf, Samuel Pepys (of course), Andy Warhol, Ronald Reagan, Arthur Schlesinger, and Leo Lerman. The major lesson to be drawn from these vastly different documents is that a diary’s greatness lies less in portraying its author than in portraying the remarkable people its author knows. Here is a memorable description of T. S. Eliot by way of Woolf, dated February 16, 1921:

Pale, marmoreal Eliot was there last week, like a chapped office boy on a high stool, with a cold in his head, until he warms a little, which he did. We walked back along the Strand. “The critics say I am learned & cold” he said. “The truth is I am neither.” As he said this, I think coldness at least must be a sore point with him.

If a diary manages this sort of thing, it should be seen as an act of literary and historical magnanimity, not least because it saves its subjects the misery of keeping diaries themselves.

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A Closer Look at China’s Port Closures

There is word from Washington that, together with the Chinese, the American government has agreed “to put behind them” the dispute that erupted when China abruptly closed Hong Kong to a number of American ships and aircraft.

The most important turn-away was the USS Kitty Hawk carrier battle group, which had been granted permission to spend the Thanksgiving holiday in Hong Kong. The U.S. government had flown the families of the crew to the former British dependent territory for the festivities. Then, without explanation, on November 22 that permission was withdrawn, along with permission for the frigate Reuben James to spend New Year’s in Hong Kong.

Faced with great U.S. unhappiness, China reversed herself again, saying the Kitty Hawk could come—but carrier battle groups cannot turn on a dime. By then the Kitty Hawk was well under way for Japan—via the Taiwan Strait.

It is all very well and good for the Chinese ambassador to tell President Bush that it was a “misunderstanding”—indeed, a lot of talk has been coming out of our capital that would make you think sudden port closures on the eve of long-planned visits were routine. But they are not. Closing Hong Kong is not an oversight; it is serious business.

A few questions must be answered before the United States can close the file on this case. Who is in charge of access to Hong Kong? Do people in Hong Kong decide? Does the Chinese Navy decide? Does the standing committee of the politburo of the Communist Party decide? To make the point absolutely clear: does the Party rule the gun—or, as looks increasingly to be the case, does the gun rule the Party?

If the military made the decision against civilian wishes, that would be important news, for the Chinese military recently has been showing more “assertiveness” (to put it delicately). If, on the other hand, the civilians initiated the action, then clearly we have to reconsider what exactly the Chinese authorities are envisioning as a future.

What worries me most in this whole situation is that we seem not to want to know what really happened. If we look too closely, we might find that the benign assumptions upon which our China policy rests do not fit with the facts.

There is word from Washington that, together with the Chinese, the American government has agreed “to put behind them” the dispute that erupted when China abruptly closed Hong Kong to a number of American ships and aircraft.

The most important turn-away was the USS Kitty Hawk carrier battle group, which had been granted permission to spend the Thanksgiving holiday in Hong Kong. The U.S. government had flown the families of the crew to the former British dependent territory for the festivities. Then, without explanation, on November 22 that permission was withdrawn, along with permission for the frigate Reuben James to spend New Year’s in Hong Kong.

Faced with great U.S. unhappiness, China reversed herself again, saying the Kitty Hawk could come—but carrier battle groups cannot turn on a dime. By then the Kitty Hawk was well under way for Japan—via the Taiwan Strait.

It is all very well and good for the Chinese ambassador to tell President Bush that it was a “misunderstanding”—indeed, a lot of talk has been coming out of our capital that would make you think sudden port closures on the eve of long-planned visits were routine. But they are not. Closing Hong Kong is not an oversight; it is serious business.

A few questions must be answered before the United States can close the file on this case. Who is in charge of access to Hong Kong? Do people in Hong Kong decide? Does the Chinese Navy decide? Does the standing committee of the politburo of the Communist Party decide? To make the point absolutely clear: does the Party rule the gun—or, as looks increasingly to be the case, does the gun rule the Party?

If the military made the decision against civilian wishes, that would be important news, for the Chinese military recently has been showing more “assertiveness” (to put it delicately). If, on the other hand, the civilians initiated the action, then clearly we have to reconsider what exactly the Chinese authorities are envisioning as a future.

What worries me most in this whole situation is that we seem not to want to know what really happened. If we look too closely, we might find that the benign assumptions upon which our China policy rests do not fit with the facts.

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The Tortured Torture Debate

David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey have written a series of thoughtful articles on the intersection of law and counterterrorism. In today’s Wall Street Journal, they take up the question of torture, attacking those critics of the Bush administration who, while condemning the coercive interrogation methods it has used in the war on terror, conspicuously omit to say which techniques they themselves regard as legitimate.

This is a fair point. But the authors’ own reasoning has some shortcomings of its own.

Drawing on published reports, Rivkin and Casey note that the Bush administration at various junctures has used “slapping, exposure to cold, stress positions, interrupted sleep and waterboarding, alone or in some combination” in the interrogation of al-Qaeda prisoners. The Justice Department, they say, “has reportedly approved all of these as legal.” And while “[r]easonable minds can disagree with this finding,” they assert that it is “unlikely that Justice signed off on these methods without regard to the level of intensity or potential cumulative impact” on the prisoner. In other words, the Department of Justice had grounds to conclude that the methods did not amount to torture.

But that is precisely the point in contention. After all, the Department also signed off on a memo saying that only methods that caused “organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death” constitute torture and are punishable by law. All other methods were presumably permissible. That memo was subsequently repudiated and withdrawn. Michael Mukasey, testifying in his confirmation hearings, called the memo “worse than a sin. It was a mistake.”

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David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey have written a series of thoughtful articles on the intersection of law and counterterrorism. In today’s Wall Street Journal, they take up the question of torture, attacking those critics of the Bush administration who, while condemning the coercive interrogation methods it has used in the war on terror, conspicuously omit to say which techniques they themselves regard as legitimate.

This is a fair point. But the authors’ own reasoning has some shortcomings of its own.

Drawing on published reports, Rivkin and Casey note that the Bush administration at various junctures has used “slapping, exposure to cold, stress positions, interrupted sleep and waterboarding, alone or in some combination” in the interrogation of al-Qaeda prisoners. The Justice Department, they say, “has reportedly approved all of these as legal.” And while “[r]easonable minds can disagree with this finding,” they assert that it is “unlikely that Justice signed off on these methods without regard to the level of intensity or potential cumulative impact” on the prisoner. In other words, the Department of Justice had grounds to conclude that the methods did not amount to torture.

But that is precisely the point in contention. After all, the Department also signed off on a memo saying that only methods that caused “organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death” constitute torture and are punishable by law. All other methods were presumably permissible. That memo was subsequently repudiated and withdrawn. Michael Mukasey, testifying in his confirmation hearings, called the memo “worse than a sin. It was a mistake.”

In his testimony, Mukasey was also asked directly about waterboarding, a procedure which simulates the feeling of drowning. First, he said it “is not constitutional for the United States to engage in torture in any form, be it waterboarding or anything else.” But he then backed away from such precision, saying about waterboarding: “I don’t know what’s involved in the technique. If waterboarding is torture, torture is not constitutional.”

Is waterboarding torture? Rivkin and Casey explain that it “has been part of U.S. military training programs on interrogation resistance.” From this they conclude that the practice is not torture, because if it were, “then it is impermissible for all purposeswhether or not an individual has consented.”

But this does not follow. Consent makes the context entirely different. No one is compelled to endure military training of that sort, which is only for elite, volunteer units, in our all-volunteer military. Being subjected to extreme cold while naked in a cell against one’s will is very different from being subjected to extreme cold as a consensual member of the Polar Bear club that swims every New Year’s day in the Atlantic Ocean.

Rivkin and Casey make some tentative judgments that also strike me as peculiar: “Slapping a man’s face probably does not cause him severe pain. Breaking his nose probably does.” “Probably”? I would think it is more than that, but perhaps I am wrong. Are we now forced to hold a debate about the meaning of the phrase “severe pain”?

However much it hurts to have one’s nose broken, the fine distinctions the authors are attempting to draw here should cause us to take note of all of the interrogation techniques that the U.S. military is not using, and has never contemplated using, from the rack of the days of yore to the electric drill applied to the head or limbs, a favored al-Qaeda technique.

The entire discussion of torture in which Rivkin and Casey and others are engaged demonstrates that we are a humane society attempting to remain humane while protecting ourselves from those who are not. But if we as a country are going to find a defensible position, it will have to rest on arguments that themselves can survive interrogation.

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Russian Bare

My outrage over Beijing’s cruel treatment of dissidents will just have to wait for another day. I had promised contentions I would write about the release of Yang Jianli and his thoughts about the inevitability of democracy in China.

That’s a worthy topic to be sure. But this is August, the silly season, and it’s more fun to discuss the photos—which some interpret as making use of gay iconography—that President Vladimir Putin just posted on his website. Now we know that when he’s not sending Russian bombers on Soviet-era patrols or claiming the North Pole for Moscow, Vladimir Putin poses bare-chested in a cowboy hat and cargo pants with his fishing rod at a remarkably suggestive angle. (Did I mention his clearly defined abs, flexed biceps, and well-defined pecs? The hearts of women and men alike were fluttering all across the ten time zones of Mother Russia.)

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My outrage over Beijing’s cruel treatment of dissidents will just have to wait for another day. I had promised contentions I would write about the release of Yang Jianli and his thoughts about the inevitability of democracy in China.

That’s a worthy topic to be sure. But this is August, the silly season, and it’s more fun to discuss the photos—which some interpret as making use of gay iconography—that President Vladimir Putin just posted on his website. Now we know that when he’s not sending Russian bombers on Soviet-era patrols or claiming the North Pole for Moscow, Vladimir Putin poses bare-chested in a cowboy hat and cargo pants with his fishing rod at a remarkably suggestive angle. (Did I mention his clearly defined abs, flexed biceps, and well-defined pecs? The hearts of women and men alike were fluttering all across the ten time zones of Mother Russia.)

Of course, the exhibitionism of Putin contrasts with the indignation of Nicolas Sarkozy, on display earlier this month. Photographers snapped the French leader, wearing only swimming trunks, as he vacationed in New Hampshire. He actually climbed aboard the photographers’ boat and shouted at them. That’s understandable, because Sarkozy, although trim, is evidently not as chiseled as his Russian counterpart.

Is American political leadership being left behind in the male physique department? Perhaps not. George W. Bush is an exercise fanatic, for one thing. And Putin, for all his Spetsnaz training, is still not as buff as Barack Obama, who was photographed coming out of the Hawaiian surf on New Year’s Day. Some suspect that the Kremlin’s leader was attempting, in publishing these photos, to make a statement about the health of his nation. But, it looks like Russia still takes a backseat to the Land of Lincoln as far as the buffness of its leaders is concerned.

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