Commentary Magazine


Topic: Olympics

Is Sports Diplomacy Worth It?

A chapter of my new book focuses on the history of people-to-people exchanges, or “Track II diplomacy” between the United States and so-called rogue-regimes. Over at Foreign Policy, and against the context of the Sochi Olympics, I examined the enthusiasm among diplomats that sporting diplomacy really breaks down barriers between peoples and regimes. Here, for example, is a recent video blog by a State Department official preaching the merits of sports diplomacy, a discussion full of platitudes but absent any evidence of how it fits the broader picture of American diplomacy, which should be to advance American interests and solidify American national security.

Proponents of sporting diplomacy often cite two examples: First, African-American track-and-field athlete Jesse Owens’s triumph at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Proponents of sporting diplomacy suggest he disproved Hitler’s racial theories on Hitler’s own turf. But subsequent history certainly shows that the boost Hitler received from hosting the Olympics more than offset any embarrassment Hitler experienced at Owens’s gold medals. Owens did not delegitimize Nazism among Hitler’s German constituents.

Read More

A chapter of my new book focuses on the history of people-to-people exchanges, or “Track II diplomacy” between the United States and so-called rogue-regimes. Over at Foreign Policy, and against the context of the Sochi Olympics, I examined the enthusiasm among diplomats that sporting diplomacy really breaks down barriers between peoples and regimes. Here, for example, is a recent video blog by a State Department official preaching the merits of sports diplomacy, a discussion full of platitudes but absent any evidence of how it fits the broader picture of American diplomacy, which should be to advance American interests and solidify American national security.

Proponents of sporting diplomacy often cite two examples: First, African-American track-and-field athlete Jesse Owens’s triumph at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Proponents of sporting diplomacy suggest he disproved Hitler’s racial theories on Hitler’s own turf. But subsequent history certainly shows that the boost Hitler received from hosting the Olympics more than offset any embarrassment Hitler experienced at Owens’s gold medals. Owens did not delegitimize Nazism among Hitler’s German constituents.

Second is the Ping-Pong diplomacy that allegedly broke the ice between the United States and Communist China. Henry Kissinger makes clear in his memoir White House Years, however, that the Ping-Pong exhibition actually came after months of behind-the-scenes diplomacy. To credit the athletes for the diplomatic breakthrough puts the cart between the horse.

Rather than assume athletic competitions break down barriers, it is important to recognize that sometimes they confirm them. After the Iranian team defeated the United States in a 1998 World Cup match, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei crowed that “Tonight, again, the strong and arrogant opponent felt the bitter taste of defeat.” In Sochi, Russian authorities seem determined to ensure that the Olympics reinforce hostility toward the United States rather than any feelings of brotherhood.

So is all sporting diplomacy bad? Certainly not, although its outcomes do not justify the State Department’s considerable investment in it. Simply put, when it comes to rogue regimes and America’s adversaries, it is time to face the fact that there are no magic formulas.

Read Less

Truth and Consequences in Sochi

The news this afternoon that the Justice Department will seek the death penalty against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving accused Boston Marathon bomber, comes at a time of increased attention to the terror threat from the Russian Caucasus, the breakaway region from which the Tsarnaevs fled to America. And for the Russian government it’s an ill-timed reminder of the consequences of the breakdown of trust in American-Russian security cooperation.

That’s because the Winter Olympics are set to begin in the Russian city of Sochi next week, and security concerns have only grown since dual suicide bombings in Volgograd in December. The U.S. Olympic Committee and State Department have warned American athletes not to wear their identifying gear outside the Olympic compound, and the threat of violence has put something of a cloud over the athletes’ families traveling to Sochi for the games. As the Washington Post reported earlier this week:

Read More

The news this afternoon that the Justice Department will seek the death penalty against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving accused Boston Marathon bomber, comes at a time of increased attention to the terror threat from the Russian Caucasus, the breakaway region from which the Tsarnaevs fled to America. And for the Russian government it’s an ill-timed reminder of the consequences of the breakdown of trust in American-Russian security cooperation.

That’s because the Winter Olympics are set to begin in the Russian city of Sochi next week, and security concerns have only grown since dual suicide bombings in Volgograd in December. The U.S. Olympic Committee and State Department have warned American athletes not to wear their identifying gear outside the Olympic compound, and the threat of violence has put something of a cloud over the athletes’ families traveling to Sochi for the games. As the Washington Post reported earlier this week:

The United States will send the largest delegation of athletes from any single country in the history of the Winter Olympics to Sochi, a team 230 strong that includes 13 gold medal winners .

And to one degree or another, the 105 women and 125 men will carry with them concern for their personal safety and that of loved ones who will make the round-the-globe trek to cheer them on.

“Obviously I keep up with the news. I’m very aware of the security threats,” said two-time U.S. figure skating champion Ashley Wagner, 22, of Alexandria, whose parents also will travel to Sochi for her Olympic debut. “At the same time, I have to tell myself that the USOC and the Russian Olympic Committee are doing everything they can. We want this Olympics to go smoothly; I know they absolutely want this Olympics to go smoothly.

“Really, what can you do other than believe in the people put in charge to take care of you?”

But reassuring the athletes and their families is not so simple. As Wagner suggests, trust has much to do with it. That is the upshot of today’s ABC News dispatch from Sochi. The article may assuage some of the concerns of the athletes and spectators, but it can’t possibly make the Russian government–or the American government, for that matter–very happy.

The article details the ways in which Russia has dotted the landscape with invisible security–or almost invisible, that is. ABC News’s correspondent began spotting some of the camouflaged army tents along the highway in and out of Sochi. “Once you spot one,” the correspondent noted triumphantly, “the others are easier to find.” The Russians quite justifiably told ABC to knock it off:

Missile batteries poke out from behind camouflage nets in the hills above the Olympic Park. Soldiers stand guard inside tents masked with fake leaves and branches in the mountains. Navy speedboats patrol the coast. Plainclothes police officers mingle among the crowd. Closed circuit security cameras are everywhere. An electronic surveillance program monitors all cell phone and internet activity.

Russian security officials have promised a “ring of steel” to safeguard the Sochi Winter Olympics. Putin has ordered tens of thousands of extra troops and police to help secure the Olympics. Judging by the number of times ABC News was asked to stop filming or asked to show identification, it is clear that Russian authorities are taking security very seriously.

As the story goes on to note, Russia is trying to strike a balance familiar to any country struggling with increased threats of domestic terrorism. They want the attendees to know the security is there without seeing them. People expect checkpoints around the main arteries in and out of the city, but they don’t want to constantly be reminded they’re in danger or feel like they’re competing in a police state.

But Russian security policy toward the Caucasus hasn’t exactly earned blind faith. Whereas the complaint often heard in the West is about “threat inflation” to justify intensive security measures (such as the controversial NSA programs), in Russia the opposite is the case. Ever since Vladimir Putin prosecuted the Second Chechen War, he has tried to build his public image on the idea that he pacified the troubled region. That means he understates the threat, and looks unprepared or disingenuous when trouble strikes.

It’s also why American and Russian military officials have been in talks about sharing American security technology for the games. U.S. officials don’t need any more reminders that authoritarian governments that rely extensively on propaganda and punishing dissent can’t be simply taken at their word.

Read Less

Putin’s Smoke and Mirrors

You have to hand it to Vladimir Putin. As a tactical politician, he has few if any equals in the world today; Barack Obama is a naïf by comparison. Just look at what Putin has accomplished this fall. He began by wrong-footing the U.S. in Syria, cobbling together a deal that keeps his ally Bashar Assad in power with de facto connivance from the U.S., all at the small price of disarming Syria of its chemical weapons. More recently he has wrested Ukraine away from the European Union with a generous bribe–er, loan–of $15 billion and a price reduction in the natural gas that Ukraine buys from Russia. And now, to complete his tour de force, he is magnanimously freeing from jails a few of the political dissidents he had earlier locked up.

On Wednesday, Russia’s rubber-stamp parliament passed a bill that will likely offer amnesty to two members of Pussy Riot and 30 Greenpeace activists who are currently in the slammer. Today, Putin suggested out of nowhere that he would release Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia, who was arrested in 2003 on charges that were widely seen to be politically inspired, his crime being in essence to oppose Putin. Now that Khodorkovksy has lost control of Yukos Oil, and been subjected to a grueling confinement, Putin, in the manner of a medieval czar, will show his generosity of spirit by releasing him. Of course there is an obvious political payoff to Putin: he no doubt hopes that these prisoner releases will decrease the amount of controversy at the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia.

Read More

You have to hand it to Vladimir Putin. As a tactical politician, he has few if any equals in the world today; Barack Obama is a naïf by comparison. Just look at what Putin has accomplished this fall. He began by wrong-footing the U.S. in Syria, cobbling together a deal that keeps his ally Bashar Assad in power with de facto connivance from the U.S., all at the small price of disarming Syria of its chemical weapons. More recently he has wrested Ukraine away from the European Union with a generous bribe–er, loan–of $15 billion and a price reduction in the natural gas that Ukraine buys from Russia. And now, to complete his tour de force, he is magnanimously freeing from jails a few of the political dissidents he had earlier locked up.

On Wednesday, Russia’s rubber-stamp parliament passed a bill that will likely offer amnesty to two members of Pussy Riot and 30 Greenpeace activists who are currently in the slammer. Today, Putin suggested out of nowhere that he would release Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia, who was arrested in 2003 on charges that were widely seen to be politically inspired, his crime being in essence to oppose Putin. Now that Khodorkovksy has lost control of Yukos Oil, and been subjected to a grueling confinement, Putin, in the manner of a medieval czar, will show his generosity of spirit by releasing him. Of course there is an obvious political payoff to Putin: he no doubt hopes that these prisoner releases will decrease the amount of controversy at the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia.

But while Putin is a skilled tactician, his larger vision is lacking. Russia has done relatively well on his watch because of its mineral wealth–it is Saudi Arabia with snow. But now the economy has slowed (growth next year is expected to be a paltry 1.4 percent) and even Putin’s own economy minister predicts that “stagnation will continue.” Indeed it will, for Russia is a ticking demographic time bomb.

Its population has been in freefall, as Reuters notes: “The population started declining sharply in the early 1990s amid political and economic turmoil, falling by 3.4 million in the 2000-2010 decade, according to census data. The impact is set to be felt sharply from now on, exactly when children born in 1990s would have started entering the workforce. The consequences are already being felt. Russia will close more than 700 schools this year for lack of pupils and the jobless rate has dipped to a record low of around 5 percent, not because the economy is booming but because the country is running out of people who can take the jobs.”

Even if Russia’s birth rate has now risen above its death rate, this is not a country with a healthy future. And while much of that is due to the legacy of 70 years of Communist failures, Putin has not done a good job of recovering from the baleful legacy he inherited. Instead he has focused on building up and milking the big oil companies, buying off or jailing opposition, and accumulating all power in his own hands. Putin may fool himself and some of his people that Russia remains a great power, but in fact it’s largely a matter of smoke and mirrors.

Putin deserves credit, I suppose, for his Machiavellian machinations. But no number of tactical victories in the realm of geopolitical maneuvering will improve life for average Russians (whose per capita GDP is lower than East Timor’s)–or Russia’s long-term prospects as a country, which would be better served by cooperation with, rather than animosity against, the West.

Read Less

Did Putin Outsmart Ukraine’s Protesters?

Der Spiegel opens its piece on how Vladimir Putin “outfoxed” Western powers in 2013 with a seemingly curious but in fact quite revealing scene. Putin and Patriarch Kirill are at a ceremony celebrating Russian nationalism when the country’s religious leader honors Putin with a certificate and the following praise: “We know that you, more than anyone else since the end of the 20th century, are helping Russia become more powerful and regain its old positions, as a country that respects itself and enjoys the respect of all others.”

National self-respect may or may not be as important to the Russian people as the patriarch suggested, but he certainly knew just what Putin wanted to hear. Yet because of the role Putin’s ego plays in formulating policy, it’s just as important at times to know what he doesn’t want to hear. It may have come across as petty when President Obama added insult to injury by avoiding a conference in Russia and dismissing Putin as having “that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom.” But the president was speaking Putin’s language. Case in point: the New York Times reported on Putin’s reaction to the comment, which he seemed to take far more personally than Obama’s decision to cancel his trip to St. Petersburg.

The more Russia struggles domestically the more effort Putin appears to expend to burnish Russia’s image as a great power. The bored schoolboy taunt threatened to turn Putin’s carefully crafted image against him: the stoic, detached leader with a casual air of superiority and boredom suddenly looks like the lonely misfit. And Obama has now done it again. Following the French and German presidents’ announcements that they will not attend the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, Obama was widely expected to abstain from joining the American delegation as well. But the president’s choice for the delegation’s roster is somewhat inspired:

Read More

Der Spiegel opens its piece on how Vladimir Putin “outfoxed” Western powers in 2013 with a seemingly curious but in fact quite revealing scene. Putin and Patriarch Kirill are at a ceremony celebrating Russian nationalism when the country’s religious leader honors Putin with a certificate and the following praise: “We know that you, more than anyone else since the end of the 20th century, are helping Russia become more powerful and regain its old positions, as a country that respects itself and enjoys the respect of all others.”

National self-respect may or may not be as important to the Russian people as the patriarch suggested, but he certainly knew just what Putin wanted to hear. Yet because of the role Putin’s ego plays in formulating policy, it’s just as important at times to know what he doesn’t want to hear. It may have come across as petty when President Obama added insult to injury by avoiding a conference in Russia and dismissing Putin as having “that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom.” But the president was speaking Putin’s language. Case in point: the New York Times reported on Putin’s reaction to the comment, which he seemed to take far more personally than Obama’s decision to cancel his trip to St. Petersburg.

The more Russia struggles domestically the more effort Putin appears to expend to burnish Russia’s image as a great power. The bored schoolboy taunt threatened to turn Putin’s carefully crafted image against him: the stoic, detached leader with a casual air of superiority and boredom suddenly looks like the lonely misfit. And Obama has now done it again. Following the French and German presidents’ announcements that they will not attend the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, Obama was widely expected to abstain from joining the American delegation as well. But the president’s choice for the delegation’s roster is somewhat inspired:

The United States’ delegation to the upcoming Winter Olympics in Russia won’t include a member of President Barack Obama’s family or an active cabinet secretary, but it will include openly gay athletes – a clear jab at Russia’s recent anti-gay laws.

Billie Jean King, the tennis legend, will join figure skater Brian Boitano at the games’ opening ceremonies on February 7, the White House said Tuesday.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, White House aide Rob Nabors and the U.S. ambassador to Russia will round out the delegation to the Sochi games.

King was one of the first professional athletes to come out as gay in the 1980s.

Two weeks later, a group led by Deputy Secretary of State William Burns will attend the closing ceremony. Speed skaters Bonnie Blair and Eric Heiden, as well as openly gay hockey player Caitlin Cahow, will also attend.

Of course, it shouldn’t be insulting to send gay athletes to the Olympics, but Putin has created a situation in which it makes a statement. Not only has the Russian government made it dangerous to be openly gay in Russia, but the Duma’s anti-gay-propaganda law was explicitly designed to equate homosexuality with pedophilia in spirit and, to a certain extent, in law.

Yet Putin seems to have outmaneuvered the pro-Western elements in his neighborhood once again. Kiev has been swamped with a vigorous protest movement ever since Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych spurned a trade deal with the European Union a week before the two sides were expected to seal the deal. It was widely understood that Yanukovych had buckled to pressure from Moscow.

Yanukovych appeared to have misplayed his hand, because the EU deal gave Ukrainians an opening to protest against the government itself. Yanukovych was backed into a corner, caught between East and West and with the protesters demanding far more than a trade deal; they wanted resignations and they wanted justice for police violence against them. Putin, however, saw this as an instance in which the protesters themselves overreached. And he may be right:

On Tuesday, Ukraine’s president, Viktor F. Yanukovich, and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said that Russia would come to the rescue of its financially troubled neighbor, providing $15 billion in loans and a steep discount on natural gas prices.

The announcement seemed to have a deflating effect on the protesters, a tired and haggard group after spending more than three weeks encamped on Independence Square. A church choir sang. Protest leaders asked for patience as they scrambled to devise a new strategy.

The protests were ignited by the government’s last-minute failure to sign political and free trade accords with Europe, which had been seen as an alternative to the Russian deal. Their demands, though, had expanded to seeking punishment for the police, accused of violently attacking demonstrators, and the resignation of Mr. Azarov, the prime minister.

It’s easy to see why Putin saw the expansion of the protesters’ demands as an opportunity. What Putin wants is for Ukraine to stick with Russia and keep itself separate from the West. When the protesters brought Ukrainian politics to a standstill over the EU deal, it revealed that Putin and Yanukovych’s interests had diverged. Yanukovych could, possibly, keep his job by shifting back in Europe’s direction.

But once the protesters moved beyond the trade deal, Putin understood that the issue–which was all he really cared about–had lost its resonance as a rallying cry for the public. The protesters made it clear that they hated Yanukovych, not that they were dedicated to the free flow of commerce in a globalized trading system. That is a more fundamentally troubling situation for Yanukovych, but it means Putin could bail Ukraine out without sparking any wider outrage.

He may have also been betting that if Ukraine actually inked a deal with Russia, it would weaken the protesters somewhat since the original issue would be off the table and thus they might lose their center of gravity, if not their dissatisfaction with Yanukovych. That appears to be the case. If it is, Putin will indeed have “outfoxed” the West again, and the American Olympic delegation will seem a futile consolation prize for Washington.

Read Less

Barack Obama’s Learning Curve

Much of the initial reaction to the announcement that President Obama will cancel his planned meeting with Vladimir Putin has cast the move as an acknowledgement by the president that his beloved “reset” had failed. That may or may not be the case; even leftists long ago stopped pretending the reset existed, so it’s more likely that Obama waited until Putin danced in the end zone to finally respond publicly.

“There have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality,” the president told Jay Leno last night, referring to the Russian government. This is the stock insult from Obama. If you take a tough line against Russia, you’re stuck in a “Cold War mind warp.” If Russia takes a tough line, they are stuck in a “Cold War mentality.” Pity the president, who has spent so much time and effort mocking the idea that the Cold War has any relevance to modern international relations and now can’t stop uttering the phrase.

Read More

Much of the initial reaction to the announcement that President Obama will cancel his planned meeting with Vladimir Putin has cast the move as an acknowledgement by the president that his beloved “reset” had failed. That may or may not be the case; even leftists long ago stopped pretending the reset existed, so it’s more likely that Obama waited until Putin danced in the end zone to finally respond publicly.

“There have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality,” the president told Jay Leno last night, referring to the Russian government. This is the stock insult from Obama. If you take a tough line against Russia, you’re stuck in a “Cold War mind warp.” If Russia takes a tough line, they are stuck in a “Cold War mentality.” Pity the president, who has spent so much time and effort mocking the idea that the Cold War has any relevance to modern international relations and now can’t stop uttering the phrase.

But it’s also encouraging, for the same reason. The left’s insistence on ignoring the lessons of the Cold War was always a dangerous mentality for the president to embrace. It’s one thing for the professional left, who were so wrong so often during the ideological conflict, to pretend the entire second half of the 20th century never happened. But what the president says actually matters. Adopting historical amnesia as his foreign policy doctrine has resulted in fairly predictable confusion about America’s role in the world.

This disinterest in Cold War history is characteristic of the intellectual milieu from which the president emerged. You would think that in an age of yet another global ideological conflict–the Arab Spring has done for pan-Islamism what Nasser could never do for pan-Arabism–understanding how the West won the last one would be useful. But there is evident impatience for it on the left.

The New York Times is a good example. In 2009, the paper reviewed David Priestland’s The Red Flag: A History of Communism, and the reviewer complained that the book is mostly “a stolid and largely by-the-numbers recitation of communism’s rise and its spread, in various manifestations, across the globe.” Historians, he said, have “pounded what’s left of our interest in communism to tatters in recent years.” In 2012, when Max Frankel reviewed Anne Applebaum’s The Iron Curtain for the Times, he was strikingly dismissive because, Frankel said, “the heart of her story is hardly news.” He added, sighing: “It is good to be reminded of these sordid events, now that more archives are accessible and some witnesses remain alive to recall the horror. Still, why should we be consuming such a mass of detail more than half a century later?”

This mentality, that history has nothing to offer but superficial slogans, is a way for the left to avoid discussion of the 45 years they spent floundering in error. Steeped in this way of thinking, Obama took his time to wake up to reality. But though his decision to cancel the meeting with Putin seems minor, it has symbolic value. It is not the end of the reset–if that reset ever actually began, it ended in failure almost immediately. Rather, it may be the beginning of a real reset. And the mainstream journalists who have spent so much time ignoring Putin’s malevolence have woken up as well: Putin has insulted Obama, and the scales have finally fallen from their eyes.

Awake to the injustices perpetrated by the Putin regime, the media has begun calling attention to the anti-gay laws pushed through by Putin and his allies. The Times reports on the growing concern about the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Not only do human rights activists want to raise public outrage over Russia’s state-backed anti-gay policies, but the Olympic athletes themselves have to watch what they do. The Times explains:

Just as Russia now prohibits “propaganda” in support of “nontraditional” sexual orientation, the Olympic charter prohibits athletes from making political gestures during the Winter and Summer Games.

So it is entirely possible that any bobsledder or skier wearing a pin, patch or T-shirt in support of gay rights could be sent home from Sochi, not by Russian authorities, but by another group that suppresses expression: the International Olympic Committee.

Would the I.O.C. inflict such a public-relations disaster on itself? Perhaps not. But Olympic officials worldwide, including those in the United States, along with NBC and corporate sponsors, have put themselves and athletes in an awkward position by only tepidly opposing the Russian law that bans “homosexual propaganda.”

The Olympics is a business. NBC can gain viewership, and thus revenue, by loudly proclaiming Republicans to be anti-gay bigots. They can lose revenue by doing the same to an authoritarian anti-gay leader whose country is hosting the Olympics. It isn’t rocket science to figure out when supposed bedrock principles get air time and when they don’t.

As for Obama, there has always been a disconnect between the president’s pro-gay rights speechmaking and his unwillingness to take any action in support of vulnerable gay men and women abroad. Our Abe Greenwald summed it up in his 2012 post: “Pro-Gay WH Ensures Anti-Gay Haven,” referring to the Middle East. Russia is another example, but perhaps this really is the beginning of a new reset, and Obama will find the courage of his convictions and “evolve,” as his defenders like to call his waffling and flip-flopping, on this too. Either way, the education of Barack Obama continues apace.

Read Less

Don’t Boycott Olympics Over Snowden

The continuing scandal of Edward Snowden’s flight to China and then Russia (and possibly elsewhere more permanently) has been a diplomatic setback for the Obama administration. But it has not been wholly without its minor diplomatic victories. A phone call from Vice President Biden to Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa apparently convinced the latter not to accept Snowden. And a request from President Obama apparently convinced our European allies to ground the Bolivian president’s plane out of suspicion Snowden was on board.

Snowden hasn’t been extradited, but his options are disappearing and his fate is now in the hands of the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB. And the president did read one aspect of the issue correctly: countries have reveled in rejecting the American president publicly, and so Obama has declined to play too high-profile a role lest he give Vladimir Putin and the others an additional public-relations victory. There was no reason to add (more) insult to injury–but that’s exactly what GOP Senator Lindsey Graham would have the administration do. Graham said the U.S. should consider boycotting the 2014 Olympics to be held in the Russian city of Sochi if Snowden isn’t extradited to the U.S. His comments have now drawn condemnation from both sides of the isle, as well as the U.S. Olympic Committee:

Read More

The continuing scandal of Edward Snowden’s flight to China and then Russia (and possibly elsewhere more permanently) has been a diplomatic setback for the Obama administration. But it has not been wholly without its minor diplomatic victories. A phone call from Vice President Biden to Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa apparently convinced the latter not to accept Snowden. And a request from President Obama apparently convinced our European allies to ground the Bolivian president’s plane out of suspicion Snowden was on board.

Snowden hasn’t been extradited, but his options are disappearing and his fate is now in the hands of the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB. And the president did read one aspect of the issue correctly: countries have reveled in rejecting the American president publicly, and so Obama has declined to play too high-profile a role lest he give Vladimir Putin and the others an additional public-relations victory. There was no reason to add (more) insult to injury–but that’s exactly what GOP Senator Lindsey Graham would have the administration do. Graham said the U.S. should consider boycotting the 2014 Olympics to be held in the Russian city of Sochi if Snowden isn’t extradited to the U.S. His comments have now drawn condemnation from both sides of the isle, as well as the U.S. Olympic Committee:

“If there are any lessons to be learned from the American boycott of 1980, it is that Olympic boycotts do not work,” U.S. Olympic Committee spokesperson Patrick Sandusky said in a statement. “Our boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games did not contribute to a successful resolution of the underlying conflict. It did, however, deprive hundreds of American athletes, all whom had completely dedicated themselves to representing our nation at the Olympic Games, of the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Graham said the United States should send Russia “the most unequivocal signal I could send them” after Snowden on Tuesday formally requested asylum after spending almost a month in the transit zone of the Moscow airport. Snowden has been charged with espionage for leaking details about two NSA programs that collected information about U.S. telephone calls and international Internet usage.

Alexey Pushkov, a Russian lawmaker, dismissed Graham’s remarks as an effort to go back to Cold War times of “mutual boycotts when our two countries looked at each other through, figuratively speaking, nuclear sight.” And President Vladimir Putin said U.S.-Russian ties were “far more important” than the Snowden dispute.

Olympic athletes train and prepare their entire lives for the chance to participate in an event that comes along once every four years. A boycott means there would be eight years between American participation in a winter Olympics. The average age of a winter Olympian is usually around 27 years old, making that eight-year gap a career-ender for many. That doesn’t mean a boycott is never an acceptable act, but the offense has to fit the outrage.

Does it in this case? Not remotely. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked about it at a press briefing and said it’s not even on the administration’s radar. The administration likely knows that the boycott threat would probably have the opposite of the intended effect. Most of the countries’ teams would shed no tears over the thought of not having to compete with American athletes, and they would probably view Putin as something of a hero for getting the Americans to back out of the competition, leveling the playing field in certain sports.

It would also make the U.S. look petty: we didn’t boycott the Olympics in China in 2008, after all, but now that we feel personally insulted we’re going to stay home? We should be careful about the precedent, too. An un-extradited fugitive is a low bar for countries to clear if they’re looking for an excuse to make a fuss.

So what’s happening here? It’s most likely an overreaction born of frustration. But unlike during the Cold War, the mistake to be avoided is taking such Russian provocations too seriously. Putin is presiding over a country in various stages of decline, and he would love nothing more than to be treated as though he is more of a threat than he is. That’s not to say he’s harmless–Russian assistance to Iran’s nuclear program and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, as well as invading U.S. allies are but a few of the ways Putin can and does cause real harm.

But it’s those actions that call for pushback, not the administration’s failed “reset,” a policy that quickly became a punch line. If there is information the FSB can get from Snowden, they’ve probably got it already. He’s been living in the transit zone of the airport for about a month, after all. Obama’s policies toward Russia have been disastrous and weak, but conservatives need to offer a more serious alternative than boycotting the Olympics over Snowden. It’s a good sign that Graham seems to be alone in his proposal.

Read Less

Awarding Olympics to Istanbul Would Discourage Reform

I have written before about the International Olympic Committee’s fast approaching decision about which city to award the 2020 Summer Olympics. There are three finalists: Istanbul, Madrid, and Tokyo. At the core of my initial criticism was that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was framing Turkey’s right to host the Olympics in terms of religion: Turkey would be the first Muslim-majority country to host the games. That would have set a negative precedent in which religious quotas rather than other host qualities become a predominant factor. Regardless, the point should be moot for other reasons: Dubai is the front runner for 2024 and is also majority Muslim, but unlike Turkey, its ruler has not framed the city’s bid in religion.

I also admittedly have been cynical about Erdoğan’s broader motivation: according to a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, the prime minister has used his position to amass great wealth. The billions in construction contracts that would accompany an Istanbul Olympics could propel Erdoğan—a man who already has more than a dozen corruption cases against him—into the ranks of the world’s richest man.

Read More

I have written before about the International Olympic Committee’s fast approaching decision about which city to award the 2020 Summer Olympics. There are three finalists: Istanbul, Madrid, and Tokyo. At the core of my initial criticism was that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was framing Turkey’s right to host the Olympics in terms of religion: Turkey would be the first Muslim-majority country to host the games. That would have set a negative precedent in which religious quotas rather than other host qualities become a predominant factor. Regardless, the point should be moot for other reasons: Dubai is the front runner for 2024 and is also majority Muslim, but unlike Turkey, its ruler has not framed the city’s bid in religion.

I also admittedly have been cynical about Erdoğan’s broader motivation: according to a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, the prime minister has used his position to amass great wealth. The billions in construction contracts that would accompany an Istanbul Olympics could propel Erdoğan—a man who already has more than a dozen corruption cases against him—into the ranks of the world’s richest man.

When I criticized Istanbul’s case, however, on Erdoğan’s illiberal policies, correspondents pointed out that the International Olympic Committee has never associated the hosting of the Olympics with an endorsement of any particular country’s human rights situation. That’s true historically, as the 1936 Berlin, 1980 Moscow, and 2008 Beijing games demonstrate, and it is also the case with regard to the 2014 Sochi winter games and the Dubai 2024 bid. But in the post-Cold War era, there has also been an undercurrent that the Olympics might improve society or encourage continued liberalization. That certainly was a factor in the Beijing award.

Alas, as the IOC’s September 2013 decision looms about the 2020 Games, they should recognize that, in the aftermath of the Gezi Park protests, confirming the 2020 Olympics on Istanbul could do serious harm to Turkey. Rather than recognize that the protests are largely a reaction to his own autocratic style, Erdoğan has doubled down on both his own intolerance, endorsement of police brutality, and bizarre anti-Semitic conspiracies. No longer, it seems, is the “Interest Rate Lobby,” as Erdoğan now labels his imagined Jewish conspiracy, just targeting Turkey. Rather, it has Brazil in its sites as well. Nor are the Jews the only conspirators with which Erdoğan now obsesses: On August 5, a judiciary whose independence Erdoğan has eroded will render judgment against dozens of former military officers, journalists, and other officials whom Erdoğan has patched together in a convoluted conspiracy that doesn’t pass the most basic of smell tests. To cap it off, rather than investigate the police abuse which helped sparked Turkey’s recent unrest, Erdoğan has endorsed it.

Turkey is in a fragile state: The Gezi protests have exposed long-simmering fissures which will only worsen if Erdoğan can use the 2020 Olympics as his excuse to bulldoze over political opponents and civil society. Nor are the Kurdish peace talks going well. While Turks celebrated a peace process announced with the long-outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) just two days before the International Olympic Committee’s official visit to Istanbul, both Turks and Kurds are beginning to recognize that the agreement was not just for the PKK to lay down its arms, but that the PKK seeks equally momentous decisions on Turkey’s end, including the release of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, and eventual confederation between Turks and Kurds inside Turkey. If the Turks are not prepared to meet such demands, violence could return to Turkey in the run-up to the Olympics. Istanbul, after all, is now the city with the largest Kurdish population in the world.

Someday Istanbul will host the Olympics, and it will do so with a charm and a friendliness that few other cosmopolitan cities can match. That day cannot come during Erdoğan’s tenure, however, for should the International Olympic Committee choose Istanbul when they meet in Buenos Aires on September 7, they will ensure that the 2020 Olympics will be associated with strife, not celebration.

Read Less

Turkey Doesn’t Deserve the Olympics

Turkey is one of three finalists for the 2020 Summer Olympics. Its chief competitor is Tokyo. Madrid, because of Spain’s financial woes, remains a long shot. The Turkish press often reports endorsements of its bid, most recently by former London mayor Ken Livingstone and also by U.S. Ambassador Frank Ricciardone, whose unprofessional endorsement seemed motivated more by a desire to make himself popular in Turkey than by U.S. policy.

Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s European Union minister, has argued that bestowing the Olympics on Turkey would further Turkey’s European Union drive by undercutting European prejudice. This is ironic because, during a trip to Bulgaria in 2011, a senior aide to Bağış dismissed the Bulgarian Foreign Minister’s criticism of Turkish policy toward Hamas and Israel by questioning whether he had Jewish blood. Perhaps it is not Europe where prejudice is so ingrained.

Read More

Turkey is one of three finalists for the 2020 Summer Olympics. Its chief competitor is Tokyo. Madrid, because of Spain’s financial woes, remains a long shot. The Turkish press often reports endorsements of its bid, most recently by former London mayor Ken Livingstone and also by U.S. Ambassador Frank Ricciardone, whose unprofessional endorsement seemed motivated more by a desire to make himself popular in Turkey than by U.S. policy.

Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s European Union minister, has argued that bestowing the Olympics on Turkey would further Turkey’s European Union drive by undercutting European prejudice. This is ironic because, during a trip to Bulgaria in 2011, a senior aide to Bağış dismissed the Bulgarian Foreign Minister’s criticism of Turkish policy toward Hamas and Israel by questioning whether he had Jewish blood. Perhaps it is not Europe where prejudice is so ingrained.

Bağış also plays the grievance card, suggesting that the failure to award Istanbul the Olympics would be the result of anti-Muslim bias.Bağış said the International Olympic Committee (IOC) members will also have a chance to put an end to rumors that the Games are biased ‘against a belief group,’” Hürriyet Daily News reported. This too is nonsense, because the frontrunner for the 2024 Summer Games remains Dubai. The International Olympic Committee should consider candidates on a country-by-country case; to start a religious quota would be dangerous.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent outburst at the United Nation’s Alliance of Civilizations conference should end any talk for now of Turkey hosting the Olympics. Erdoğan has promised to use any international forum to criticize Israel. His 2009 temper-tantrum at Davos when talking to Israeli President (and Nobel Laureate) Shimon Peres shocked the audience. Giving Erdoğan the world stage at the Olympics could endanger the spirit of the Olympics for decades to come should he confuse hosting the Olympics with having a bully-pulpit from which to play out his obsessions.

Bashing Israel may be in vogue, but the International Olympic Committee should not assume that Erdoğan’s obsessions are singular. In recent years, he has embraced Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese leader wanted on charges of genocide. As Erdoğan’s top aide, Bağış himself has gotten in on that game, threatening military action against Cyprus.

Let us hope that, as the International Olympic Committee visits the three finalists for 2020, they do not forget what the ideals of the Olympics mean. And if Bağış is worried about a majority Muslim country never hosting the Olympics, let us hope he can find a ticket to Dubai 2024.

Read Less

Armstrong and America’s Sense of Fair Play

One of the bigger, nonpolitical stories of the summer has been the decision by Lance Armstrong to drop his fight to clear his name in proceedings before the US Anti-Doping Agency which accuses him of using “banned blood transfusions, the blood booster EPO, testosterone and other drugs” to help win his record seven straight Tour de France titles. The affair is in many ways a tragic one, since Armstrong, a cancer survivor who is doing admirable charity work via his own foundation, has been one of the most beloved and admired athletes of recent times–certainly the only cyclist to break through to popular adulation in the United States.

He was not repentant in announcing that he would no longer fight the charges that will lead to him being banned from the sport and stripped of his titles. He called the proceeding “an unconstitutional witch hunt” and said the process was “one-sided and unfair.” He did raise some legitimate questions about the process, and in particular about the lack of physical evidence and that belated nature of the proceedings, coming after his retirement and many years after the acts in question. But by all accounts the USADA had compiled overwhelming evidence of Armstrong’s infractions from among his own former teammates. All legal proceedings are subject to some doubts, but on the whole I believe the process is one that Americans can be proud of even if it brought down one of our sporting icons.

Read More

One of the bigger, nonpolitical stories of the summer has been the decision by Lance Armstrong to drop his fight to clear his name in proceedings before the US Anti-Doping Agency which accuses him of using “banned blood transfusions, the blood booster EPO, testosterone and other drugs” to help win his record seven straight Tour de France titles. The affair is in many ways a tragic one, since Armstrong, a cancer survivor who is doing admirable charity work via his own foundation, has been one of the most beloved and admired athletes of recent times–certainly the only cyclist to break through to popular adulation in the United States.

He was not repentant in announcing that he would no longer fight the charges that will lead to him being banned from the sport and stripped of his titles. He called the proceeding “an unconstitutional witch hunt” and said the process was “one-sided and unfair.” He did raise some legitimate questions about the process, and in particular about the lack of physical evidence and that belated nature of the proceedings, coming after his retirement and many years after the acts in question. But by all accounts the USADA had compiled overwhelming evidence of Armstrong’s infractions from among his own former teammates. All legal proceedings are subject to some doubts, but on the whole I believe the process is one that Americans can be proud of even if it brought down one of our sporting icons.

For the USADA is a non-government agency (although it does receive some money from the drug czar’s office) that is charged with policing our own athletic house. In other countries–say the old East Germany or today’s Communist China–the government is the primary culprit behind cheating and rule-bending to give national athletes a leg up on their competitors in the Olympics or other competitions. If the machinations of those athletes are exposed, it is inevitably done by the World Anti-Doping Agency or some other international body. There is scant hope of those countries policing themselves because they have a win-at-any-cost mentality and want to use international athletic glory to make up for the deficiencies of their country.

The U.S. has a very different–and more admirable–ethos, inherited from Britain, which can be exemplified by the old chestnut, “It’s not whether you win or lose…” Of course we love winners–athletes like Lance Armstrong. But not to the extent that we will connive in their cheating. It is very much to America’s credit that we are willing to police our own ranks and to mete out justice even to a beloved superstar athlete with vast resources to fight the charges against him. That sends an important signal of equality before the law that, even if we take it for granted, will resonate in countries such as China where the rule of law does not exist.

And it’s not as if our devotion to fair play hurts us in the end. After all, U.S. athletes–even without enjoying the benefits of state support for training, much less for rule-breaking–still won more medals than any other country at the London Olympics: 104 compared to 88 for China, which has turned medal production into a state-sponsored industry.

Read Less

Paralympics Demonstrate Israel’s Priorities

It’s no secret that Israel isn’t an Olympics power: It came away from the London Games without a single medal, and since its inception, it has won only one gold and seven medals overall (making it one of very few countries with more Nobel Prizes than Olympics medals). What is less well known is that Israel does much better in the Paralympics, which begin today: There, it has won more than 300 medals overall, 113 of them gold.

First and foremost, of course, that’s a testament to Israel’s cutting-edge medical care, developed in response to the grim necessity of having to treat far too many victims of war and terror. But it’s also a testament to Israel’s priorities: Whereas athletes competing in the regular Olympics often struggle financially, since state funding for most forms of sport is minimal, Paralympics athletes benefit from a network of state-supported rehabilitation centers where sports is part of the program for those who want it. It’s not that Israel wouldn’t love having more Olympics medals; the country went wild when Gal Fridman won his gold in 2004. It’s just that caring for its wounded veterans and victims of terror takes precedence–as it should.

Read More

It’s no secret that Israel isn’t an Olympics power: It came away from the London Games without a single medal, and since its inception, it has won only one gold and seven medals overall (making it one of very few countries with more Nobel Prizes than Olympics medals). What is less well known is that Israel does much better in the Paralympics, which begin today: There, it has won more than 300 medals overall, 113 of them gold.

First and foremost, of course, that’s a testament to Israel’s cutting-edge medical care, developed in response to the grim necessity of having to treat far too many victims of war and terror. But it’s also a testament to Israel’s priorities: Whereas athletes competing in the regular Olympics often struggle financially, since state funding for most forms of sport is minimal, Paralympics athletes benefit from a network of state-supported rehabilitation centers where sports is part of the program for those who want it. It’s not that Israel wouldn’t love having more Olympics medals; the country went wild when Gal Fridman won his gold in 2004. It’s just that caring for its wounded veterans and victims of terror takes precedence–as it should.

Nor is it Israelis alone who benefit from the country’s medical expertise. Israel has a variety of programs that offer medical help to people worldwide–not only its well-known emergency medical missions to disaster areas, but also ongoing programs like Save a Child’s Heart, which provides heart surgery to children from throughout the developing world year-round, as well as training for medical personnel from these countries. Israeli cardiologists donate their time for this purpose, and an Israeli hospital donates the space; fundraising covers other expenses, like plane tickets for patients from Africa.

For the knee-jerk anti-Israel types, of course, Israel can do no right. Regrettably, that even includes some of the people Israel helps: When Haaretz tried to interview Palestinian doctors who had been trained by Save a Child’s Heart earlier this month, for instance, every one of them refused to talk, fearing the wrath of enforcers of the Palestinian Authority’s anti-normalization campaign.

But anyone who takes the trouble to look knows the truth. As one Palestinian from Gaza whose daughter was treated by SACH told Haaretz:

“At the checkpoint I met many people from Gaza who come to Israel for medical treatment, here and at other hospitals. I am not the only one who came here. It is obvious that people come to Israel for medical treatment, regardless of the political conflict.”

And that’s a badge of honor shinier than any Olympic gold medal.

Read Less

Olympics and the International Community

From the moment the International Olympic Committee (IOC) turned down the request to commemorate the deaths of Israeli Olympians killed in Munich forty years ago the tone was set for how the games would portray the international community. The Olympics are meant to spotlight sportsmanship and patriotism, but have given the games and many of their participants black eyes on the world stage.

The anti-Semitism exhibited by the opponents of the Munich moment of silence weren’t the only instances we’ve seen so far. Members of the Lebanese judo team refused to practice next to Israelis. Commentators on Al-Jazeera derided Israel as the Israeli delegation entered the stadium during the Opening Ceremonies. The Palestinian Olympic chief applauded the IOC’s decision to forgo a moment of silence for the Munich 11. Israeli swimmers were left without a security detail at a training camp outside of London, even in the wake of the Burgas terror attack. The London Olympics’ website couldn’t quite understand where the city of Jerusalem lies, first awarding it to “Palestine” as its capital, leaving Israel without a seat of power. The list of offenses against the Jewish state unfortunately goes on, and equally unfortunate, given how much time is left in the Olympics, there will no doubt be more to follow.

Read More

From the moment the International Olympic Committee (IOC) turned down the request to commemorate the deaths of Israeli Olympians killed in Munich forty years ago the tone was set for how the games would portray the international community. The Olympics are meant to spotlight sportsmanship and patriotism, but have given the games and many of their participants black eyes on the world stage.

The anti-Semitism exhibited by the opponents of the Munich moment of silence weren’t the only instances we’ve seen so far. Members of the Lebanese judo team refused to practice next to Israelis. Commentators on Al-Jazeera derided Israel as the Israeli delegation entered the stadium during the Opening Ceremonies. The Palestinian Olympic chief applauded the IOC’s decision to forgo a moment of silence for the Munich 11. Israeli swimmers were left without a security detail at a training camp outside of London, even in the wake of the Burgas terror attack. The London Olympics’ website couldn’t quite understand where the city of Jerusalem lies, first awarding it to “Palestine” as its capital, leaving Israel without a seat of power. The list of offenses against the Jewish state unfortunately goes on, and equally unfortunate, given how much time is left in the Olympics, there will no doubt be more to follow.

The embarrassments don’t end there, however. Stories about the cruelty of the Chinese government in their pursuit of gold have circulated the internet along with heartbreaking photos of crying children, removed from their families and forced into grueling training. CNN published an opinion piece today about the story behind the Saudi women’s Olympic squad, showcasing the backwards cultural impediments to female athletes in the Middle Eastern nation. Stories have emerged about doping, thrown badminton games, fencing controversies and unfair judging for gymnastics competitions as well.

Can someone please remind me: What’s the point of the Olympics? What was once billed as a rare opportunity to put ethnic controversies and rivalries aside for the sake of “the game” has warped into exactly what the “international community” has become: a body of nations plagued by mainstream anti-Semitism, led by totalitarians, perpetuating everything they claim to be working to combat.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.