Why do reporters bother to write formal news stories? The best, most illuminating accounts I read are those in which the reporter dispenses with the conventions of “objective” journalism and writes in the first person, telling readers what he or she saw. Exhibit A is this blog post by New York Times Kabul bureau chief Alyssa Rubin. Rubin had earlier published a news story attempting to get to the bottom of what happened recently when American and Afghan soldiers exchanged fire with one another, killing six men. She could not figure out the real story–were the Americans simply jumpy or were the Afghans actually trying to kill them?–and so the story was inherently unsatisfying. But her blog post on how she reported the story is the best single snapshot I have seen of real security conditions in Kabul and its environs.
She begins by noting that living in Kabul, as she does, can give a misleading impression because, “despite the blast walls and checkpoints and rubble, there’s still some normalcy there,” with “restaurants that cater to us [Westerners], clothing shops, grocers — even a couple of neighborhoods where you might run into each other on the street.” But if you drive just 35 miles out of the capital into Wardak Province, an area that has never been truly pacified, the scene changes alarmingly: “The road empties out, and the few trucks and minibuses bounce over the scars of I.E.D. blasts every mile or two. ” Further, she writes:
There were Taliban watchers everywhere, of course: little boys, old men, they squatted by the roadside just looking into each car. I was wearing local clothes, but began to fear that they could see through it and tell I was American, and then we would all be at risk. A couple of times we passed small groups of men with Kalashnikov rifles, lounging by the side of the road. Some wore traditional clothing, others the khaki uniforms of private security firms, and there was no clear hint of their intent or loyalty.
When she finally reaches her destination, a small base occupied by the battalion involved in the “green on blue” incident, she must conduct her interviews not far from a burning fuel tanker–set on fire by the Taliban just as she arrived with an Afghan colleague. She finds an Afghan battalion commander who is trying to cope with the deep resentment felt by his men at the petty slights they have suffered at the hands of oblivious American troops yet fearful of what will happen if those Americans leave. “It will be more difficult in the future when you leave us alone,” he told her. “We don’t have heavy weapons, we don’t have heavy artillery, we don’t have enough ammunition. We don’t have night vision, we don’t have an air force. This post doesn’t even have electricity — we use oil lamps at night.”
Like most great reporting, this dispatch is subject to multiple interpretations. To me, it shows the problems inherent in the chosen American strategy of drawing down our combat forces and mentoring the Afghans–there are undoubtedly deep cultural divisions between Americans and Afghans that are hard to pierce, especially in the current atmosphere of distrust because of the green on blue shootings. But it also shows the necessity of continuing to support the Afghan security forces, for without our support areas like Wardak Province, located just a few miles outside of Kabul, will fall quickly into Taliban hands. U.S. commanders had hoped to pacify this area after the completion of operations in southern Afghanistan, but President Obama’s overly hasty withdrawal of surge troops makes that impossible, leaving Afghan forces in a precarious position as we continue our drawdown. If we continue to withdraw too quickly, Kabul itself, which is relatively peaceful at the moment, will be endangered by the Taliban.
Fragile Gains in Forgotten Afghan Corners
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A noble end.
When I was a boy, maybe 10, I hauled an old four-inch refracting telescope that my great aunt kept on the veranda of her summer house out onto the lawn and began pointing it at various stars. Stars look pretty much the same through a telescope as they do to the naked eye, only brighter. But planets look very different. And suddenly, there it was, Saturn, floating majestically upon the inky seas of the universe, its rings fortuitously at full tilt, as they are only about every 15 years. I began shouting, “It’s Saturn! It’s Saturn!” and dancing with excitement. My aunt, greatly amused, thought I was becoming hysterical, as I suppose I was.
For the last 13 years, I and millions of others have been dancing through the Saturnian system itself, thanks to a remarkable space probe called Cassini.
The Cassini space mission ended this morning when, on orders from NASA, it plunged into Saturn’s dense atmosphere and burned up. It was sending data up until the very end and almost certainly broke up within seconds of its last transmission at 7:55:46 AM (EDT).
What a journey it has been. It was launched on October 15, 1997, flew by Venus twice and earth and Jupiter once each to gain momentum (the planets, therefore, slowing down infinitesimally and moving ever so slightly further from the sun to conserve the angular momentum). It reached Saturn, 950 million miles from the sun, on July 1, 2004, the first space probe to orbit the giant ringed planet.
For the next 13 years, Cassini explored the planet, its rings, and its fascinating astronomical zoo of satellites (Saturn has 62 moons at last count, Cassini having discovered seven of them.) The most interesting of these satellites is Titan, larger than the planet Mercury, and second in size among the solar system’s moons only to Jupiter’s Ganymede. It is the only moon in the solar system to have a dense atmosphere (like Earth’s, mostly nitrogen).
On January 14, 2005, a module, named for Christiaan Huygens who had been the first (in the 17th Century) to decipher Saturn’s rings and who discovered Titan, landed on that world and took 350 pictures before succumbing to the deep cold on the moon’s surface.
They revealed a world both wildly exotic and strangely familiar. Titan is the only body in the solar system besides earth to have liquids on its surface—rivers, lakes, and seas of liquid methane.
There are far too many things that were explored in this remarkable, nearly flawless mission, to go into here. NASA has a list of some of the major ones. But it will be years before the mountains of data sent home by Cassini will be fully analyzed.
A matter of sovereignty.
An insidious form of political correctness is creeping into the English language on little cat feet.
It probably started with the word Koran, which has been in the English language since 1725. Suddenly it began appearing as Quran, which is a transliteration of the Arabic, and even Qu’ran. What appears to English speakers as a meaningless apostrophe is actually a breath mark carried over from Arabic, which, like Hebrew, does not write out the vowels. In English we do, and so we don’t need breath marks.
What is wrong with Koran? Exactly nothing. The idea that we should use the transliterated Arabic word instead of our own word is pure political correctness deriving from the classic linguistic fallacy of conflating the word and the thing denoted by the word. The Koran is the holy book of Islam. Koran is a word in the English language.
This line of thinking gives Arabic speakers, not English speakers, control over many English words. Does that mean we have to use Arabic transliterations for such English words as sofa, admiral, and zero, which derive from Arabic? I’m pretty sure Arabic speakers would laugh at the opposite idea, that we English speakers get to determine how English-derived words in that language should be spelled in Arabic.
In this month’s issue of Discovery magazine, there is an interesting article on how the Incas, who lacked a written language, used knots on strings as a mnemonic device. The magazine spells the word Inca as Inka. Inca has been in the English language since 1592, borrowed from Spanish. Spanish got it from Quechuan, the language of the Inca people. Spanish priests wanted to use Quechuan as an evangelical tool, and so they wrote it down, using, of course, Spanish orthography; Quechuan having no orthography of its own.
Then in 1975, the Peruvian government promulgated a new orthography of Quechuan, which uses the letter K whereas in Spanish the letter C would be used. Does Discovery magazine think that Peru’s Academia Mayor de la Lengua Quechua should determine how English words are spelled instead of Merriam-Webster or the Oxford English Dictionary? Apparently.
During the Winter Olympics of 2006, which were held in the lovely city of Turin, Italy, (where I’m happy to say I’ll be next week for a conference), the NBC announcers were instructed to call the city by its Italian name, Torino. Does that mean we have to say Milano, Roma, and Firenze instead of Milan, Rome, and Florence?
That way lies madness. Under that doctrine, foreign place names should be spelled and pronounced as they are in the local language. OK, but then what do we call the capital of Belgium, which in English is Brussels? Belgium is a painfully divided country linguistically. French-speaking Belgians call the capital Bruxelles while the Dutch speakers call it Brussel (I haven’t a clue how that’s pronounced in Dutch, a language notoriously difficult for foreigners to pronounce correctly).
What do we do with the English Channel? Half the coastline is in France, after all. Should it be the Anglo-French Channel? The French couldn’t care less what we call it in English, by the way. They call it la Manche, which means “the sleeve,” after its shape.
The only solution to this idiocy is to let native speakers of each language have full sovereignty over the vocabulary of their own language.
The United Nations thinks the rest of the world needs a “21st Century makeover.” To accomplish that, the international body is turning toward some of the most outmoded ideas of the 19th Century.
Far from wringing his hands over the global trend toward populism and the nationalist extravagances that typify it, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi is wrapping himself in populist economic anxieties like a familiar old blanket.
“A combination of too much debt and too little demand at the global level has hampered sustained expansion of the world economy,” he said in a statement on Thursday, despite the fact that global economic growth has shown no signs of slowing. For this lamentable state of affairs, Kituyi’s agency didn’t blame governments that spend beyond their means and borrow when they should be investing. He didn’t even blame a pronounced global recession from which the world began to emerge only recently. Instead, the United Nations lays the blame on “neo-liberalism.”
“The whole neo-liberal mantra that ‘there is no alternative’ has begun to fall apart,” said UNCTAD’s globalization director, Richard Kozul-Wright. “There are plenty of alternatives out there, and they are urgently needed given the kind of economic and social imbalances that we are currently facing.”
What is “neo-liberalism?” It’s a lot like paleo-liberalism. You might better know it by its more popular moniker, which Kozul-Wright was careful to avoid: classical liberalism. In the context of a national economy, it is the belief in reduced or non-existent trade barriers, the free movement of capital, and the privatization of industry. It’s Adam Smith and David Ricardo. And it’s the bane of Keynesians’ existence.
Kozul-Wright speaks so contemptuously of the phrase “there is no alternative” because, like so many of his fellow travelers at Turtle Bay, he came of age at a time when the pejorative “TINA” was a dirty word. It was Margaret Thatcher’s battle cry when she successfully privatized the utilities and industries that Clement Atlee nationalized. It was the slogan that marshaled support in a newly united Germany for the transition in the East toward a market economy. It was a phrase coined by the philosopher and early conservative thinker Herbert Spencer whose Darwinian maxims are still resented by, well, people who use the word “neoliberalism” like it were a slur.
Kozul-Wright has a point about tackling government debt and inflation, which is nearing the point of crisis in the United States and the United Kingdom respectively. His prescriptions—the end of austerity and a massive drunken government spending spree—would seem to miss the mark. More important, though, Kozul-Wright is right about something else. There absolutely is an alternative to the classically liberal economic ethos that conquered the world when the Berlin Wall fell. For the historically literate, however, it’s not a desirable alternative.
As COMMENTARY’s Sohrab Ahmari has chronicled for over a year, classical liberal economics are opposed not merely by Keynesians but by a more reactionary sort. Advanced economies transitioning away from heavy industry have produced armies of the dispossessed and disillusioned. These legions span the traditional right-left political spectrum. They are united by protectionism, economic nationalism, and a robust social safety net (one extended only to the right kind of people).
These movements, like Kozul-Wright, are backward looking. And while he would no doubt consider himself hostile toward the forces of reaction that have assumed power over the course of this decade, the policies he advocates are both populist and nationalist. They are the products of despair and hopelessness, and it is no accident that illiberal economies are so often stewarded by illiberal governments.
There is no shortage of irony in the fact that UNCTAD’s “globalism director” shares a set of economic prescriptions with millions of Westerners who reject globalization. “Prosperity for all cannot be delivered by austerity-minded politicians, rent-seeking corporations, and speculative bankers,” Kozul-Wright wrote for The Guardian on Thursday. “Unlike the textbook concept of pure competition, our hyper-globalized world has been accompanied by a considerable concentration of economic power and wealth in the hands of a remarkably small number of people.” This is the perfect synthesis of the Occupy Wall Street creed with Steve Bannon-style economic chauvinism—two ideologies that share more in common than either would prefer to admit. Neither is especially friendly toward the kind of enlightened republicanism that has made the West a beacon of freedom and prosperity unmatched in human history.
Many have set out to prove that there is, in fact, an alternative to economic liberalism. They lead prison states that subject their people to authoritarianism and privation. While Venezuela’s Bolivarians lecture the West on the folly of TINA, their ministers are advising the public how to avoid starvation by raising rabbits. Meanwhile, in the heart of a city where the bounty of unfettered capitalism overflows, men like Richard Kozul-Wright and Mukhisa Kituyi lead comfortable lives lecturing the public on the excesses of Adam Smith. The very lives they lead stand as an irrefutable testament to the hollowness of their ideas.
An awful new normal.
At least 22 people were injured after an improvised explosive device detonated aboard a London Underground train on Friday. The crude bomb–apparently contained in a white bucket wrapped in a plastic bag–went off as the train was leaving toward central London from Parsons Green station, 15 minutes from where I live. Several victims suffered flash burns while others were crushed in the stampede that ensued.
Across the English Channel, meanwhile, a hammer-wielding assailant struck two women in the eastern French town of Chalon-sur-Saone. The women survived. The attacker had shouted Allahu Akbar.
This is the West’s new normal.
Some officials wish we would put up with terrorism much as we accept other urban nuisances such as traffic, vermin, and pickpocketing. Recall former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls’s words following the Nice truck attack in July 2016 that killed 86: “Times have changed, and we should learn to live with terrorism.” According to the Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, former President Obama liked to remind his staff that Americans are more likely to die from slipping in their bathtubs than from terror attacks.
But these glib assertions can never calm people frightened of taking the Tube or boarding a plane, knowing there is always chance, however slight, of something going boom or gunshots ringing out to cries of Allahu Akbar! Bathtub slips may be more deadly, statistically speaking, but they are by definition accidental. They don’t possess that malign, war-like aspect that defines modern Islamic terrorism.
Nowadays when you step into a Tube train, you are aware that you are entering a battleground. Even the most enlightened, progressive commuter can’t help but notice the woman in the burka or that young man with the long beard scowling in one corner of the carriage. The sight raises a dozen anxious questions and emotions. Now, statistically speaking, that woman or that young man is just “trying to get on with life.” But as the French philosopher Pierre Manent wrote in his book Beyond Radical Secularism:
The immense majority of our Muslim citizens have nothing to do with terrorism, but terrorism would not be what it is, it would not have the same reach nor the same significance, if the terrorists did not belong to this population and were not our fellow citizens. These terrorist acts would simply be odious crimes subject to ordinary justice if they were not guided by an aim of war and by the intent to ruin the very possibility of a common life.
So long as a small but significant minority of Muslims takes a war footing against the West, terror will persist, and no amount of statistical sophistry and empty rhetoric from leaders will assuage legitimate fear.
The best opponent Democrats could hope for.
Mere days ago, Breitbart’s Steve Bannon told “60 Minutes” that “our purpose is to support Donald Trump.” Then, on Wednesday, Trump decided to make an immigration deal with Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi over Chinese food. Within minutes, Breitbart was dubbing the president it had pledged to support “Amnesty Don.”
For Breitbart, accusing someone of supporting “Amnesty” is tantamount to calling him a child molester, so negative is its understanding of the word. That is why a White House spokesman declared afterward that Trump “will not be discussing amnesty.” But in the next sentence, the spokesman said Trump would consider “legal citizenship over a period of time.”
That, my friends, is the very definition of amnesty, pure and simple. Forget his Orwellian newspeak: The Trump spokesman was acknowledging his boss had agreed to follow the provisions of the so-called DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for 800,000 people.
Yes, follow this. Donald Trump, the most anti-immigration president in a century, and maybe of all time, is going to oversee the first wide-scale amnesty since the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli Act led to the legalization of 3 million illegals.
I like this plan, by the way. But let’s face it. With this deal, Trump has betrayed his core followers and a significant campaign promise—the most startling such turnabout since the first President Bush went back on his “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge.
What gives? When it comes to the DREAMers, Trump surely knows that polls show a near-majority of Republicans (46 percent in the latest Morning Consult survey) support citizenship for those brought to America by their illegal-alien parents as children and who know no other home.
But he didn’t stage his takeover of the Republican Party by gaining the support of those Republicans. No, Trump came to power in the GOP by consolidating the party’s extremes and then moving on the center, which was split among a dozen other candidates. And he did so in large measure by talking about immigration and immigrants in a startlingly hostile manner.
This gave him a reputation for politically correct plain speaking and a willingness to consider wild policy options—a deportation force and the construction of a 1,900-mile wall even through deep river beds—no conventional politician had or would.
And he gained the passionate support of all those who claimed the GOP had become a party of wimps mired in the Washington swamp, unwilling to bring the fight to the Democrats, unable to crush liberals. And what has he done over the past two weeks? He has struck deals with Schumer and Pelosi and gave those two signature Democrats almost everything they could have hoped for.
This is a potentially significant moment on the American Right, which is a far more complex agglomeration than either its leaders or its most hostile critics tend to acknowledge. Trump is abandoning his true believers in favor of an explicitly anti-ideological, anti-partisan approach—only a month after it appeared he was retreating into their loving arms.
He is not a systematic man. He is an improviser. It would be a mistake to see any kind of deliberate long-term strategy here. Last week Trump knew he wanted the debt-limit fight to go away and he made it go away with no fuss for three months. This week he knew he wanted to dispose of the DREAMer issue before it became a total pain and he made that happen, too.
Trump once said his followers would stand behind him even if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue. Becoming “Amnesty Don” is as close to firing that shot as anything any politician in recent times has ever done.