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Monthly Archives: August 2008

The Fun Begins

August 29th, 2008 - 9:24 pm

Until today, this presidential campaign has been a grinding experience to watch. It has been mostly about getting to know Barack Obama, who whether on world speed-tour, or columned stage, Berlin or Denver, inhabits realms in which the oratory is too thick, and the air is too thin. It’s all perorations, promises and pathos. Joe Biden riding the acela every day is just not enough to bring it down to earth.

Now, on the other side, with McCain’s VP pick, we have a former runner-up for Miss Alaska, who knows how to use a gun, and nixed the bridge to no where. This is suddenly wilder than a Macau poker game. But at least it feels real. Finally, I’m enjoying this election, and here’s some more relief — the best send-up yet of the Democratic litany, thank you, David Brooks! But let’s be fair. As the Republicans prepare to take the stage, where are the folks who produced this splendid even-handed tribute to our candidates of 2004?

The Promised Land of the Free Lunch

August 29th, 2008 - 2:19 am

Something splendid did happen at Invesco Field Thursday night. Race is no longer a bar to nomination for the American presidency. The pity is that this historic occasion deserved a far better candidate –a disciple of someone like Tom Sowell, not Jeremiah Wright.

And enough, already, of Barack Obama’s “improbable journey.” He grew up in an America in which, under both Democratic and Republican presidents, his rise turned out to be wonderfully possible — and at lightning speed. What’s really improbable is the destination that in the name of “change” he now promises this nation.

The place to which he would guide us is a land of the free lunch, where the government will wake you up in the morning, tuck you in at night, and pay your bills in between. Healthcare, daycare, college tuition, energy, pensions, jobs … you-name-it, the super-size state will be there, assuring, insuring, investing, redistributing, paying off credit card bills, rebuilding cities, mending lives, saving farms. All of that would of course require a state bureaucracy even more immense and intrusive than the bailout-happy tax-and-spend behemoth we have now. But that’s OK, because under Obama, lobbyists would vanish and special interest groups would melt away. With all Americans holding up “change” placards on cue and chanting “Yes we can,” our dreams would become one.

Of course, someone would have to pay for this vast experiment in state-mandated largesse, and since even America’s resources aren’t infinite, someone would have to ration it out. So there’s the intriguing glitch that while Obama’s big plans are supposed to help Americans succeed, anyone with the audacity to do so would be taxed and regulated right back into victimhood — with the exception, perhaps, of those an Obama administration might judge virtuous enough to deserve special privileges and exemptions. That’s not the system that made America great, and it’s not the system that gave Barack Obama the rich opportunities he has enjoyed to realize his own dreams. But he’s right about one thing. It would be change.

With all the charm of Lady Macbeth at the castle banquet, Hillary has had her say (in which she lavished more praise on the late Bill Gwatney and Stephanie Tubbs Jones than she did on Barack Obama). Now the Denver convention moves on to foreign policy, and Joe Biden’s moment. Biden is in the interesting position that on almost every front except Iraq, President Bush’s foreign policy has been converging with what the Democrats say they want — diplomacy with dictators, talking with tyrants, haggling with WMD-addicted rogue regimes. Piloted by Condi Rice, the American ship of state has already become the love boat of global diplomacy.

It’s not working out very well. While the homefront promises for a remade world have been rolling out of Denver – 5 million greencollar jobs, quality universal healthcare, arugula in every pot (all to be paid for by…?) — these alarming news items keep stacking up out of Russia, Pakistan, North Korea, Syria, Iran…

Russia, in its despoiling of Georgia and push toward the Caspian pipeline has now cranked up the heat by officially recognizing Georgia’s secessionist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent. Syria’s President Bashar Assad, host of Hezbollah and recent collaborator with North Korea on that fried nuclear reactor, has been shopping in Russia for ballistic missiles. In nuclear-armed Al Qaeda-infested Pakistan, the government is in turmoil. North Korea — predictably — having extorted fresh rounds of fuel, aid, cash and diplomatic concessions from the U.S. and friends, has halted the disablement of its Yongbyon nuclear reactor and is threatening to rebuild it  (while never having declared anything in the first place about its other nuclear ventures). Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency reports that the Bushehr nuclear plant, built with Russian help, is expected to be fully tested by the end of this year and operational in early 2009. Iran’s Fars News Agency further reports that Iran is designing a second nuclear power plant in the southwestern town of Darkhoveyn, and in order to fuel it “has to continue enriching uranium,” as part of the nuclear program meant to turn Iran’s Islamic Republic into “a world power and a role model for other third-world countries.”

You get the idea. All this has come to pass after the Bush administration got out of the business of regime change, tried to relieve the anxieties of assorted thug regimes, held up Libya as a role model and poured its efforts into multilateral happy talk. In the name of change, Obama favors four more years of even more of the same. But hey! Why worry? With a few more speeches, powered by hope, we can sort this all out. They’ll have nuclear bombs — so what? We’ll have universal healthcare. I just want to know — will that include a geiger counter for every family in America?

The appearance of Sen. Ted Kennedy on the Democratic stage in Denver last night needs the narrative ministrations not of a journalist, but of a novelist — and a superb novelist at that. Perhaps there was such a person in the TV audience, attuned to the immense appetite for life, in all its rich array, that propelled a mortally sick man to stand up before the crowd and declare that nothing could keep him away – and yet also attuned to the failures of character and flaws of vision, nursed by decades of power and privilege, that make this man a terrible guide for our nation’s future. If a story rich in the full dimensions of this lion’s last roar is to be written, it could hardly be published until well after this election and a great many more things – on which hang matters of life and death for a great many people — have been decided.

In the moment, there is an etiquette we accord to those engaged in mortal struggles, and a respect we render to those who do not go gentle into that good night. It would be wild folly, however, and a betrayal of future generations, to translate that wholesale into an embrace of all they have stood for. Watching the Kennedy tribute last night, in which the sea was invoked as the element of renewal, I wondered how many others in the audience thought of Chappaquiddick and Mary Jo Kopechne — left to die in the submerged car while Ted Kennedy meandered off to salvage his political career  , a career symbolized in last night’s film tribute by that expensive sailboat with Kennedy at the wheel and family aboard.

The year of Chappaquiddick was 1969. John McCain was then two years into his more than five years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi.

These are the dramas in which we discern not only clues to the character of a politician, but hints of our own struggles with courage, cowardice and mortality. They are far more gripping than the details of debates over tax policy, the progress and pitfalls of diplomacy, threats gathering in places far away, and whether “universal healthcare” portends a golden age, or the drab and unhealthy realities of socialized medicine. Politics feeds on symbols, fictions, images that linger in memory in ways that humdrum policy debates and practicalities do not. But I keep remembering a speech that the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa gave more than 20 years ago in New York. It was before the age of google and the internet, and I cannot now find a copy of the text, but the gist of it was this: he warned that art and politics have separate roles to play in our lives, and when the two become too much entwined — beware.

  

    

No, “The Respected Comrade Supreme Commander Is Our Destiny” is not a new Obama campaign slogan — it just sounds like one. It’s actually the title of a movie that was screened this past Saturday at the People’s Palace of Culture in Pyongyang, North Korea. But if some wag were to slip it into the lineup this week at the Democratic Convention in Denver, would anyone notice the difference?

The mix-and-match sloganeering for yes-we-can, we-are-the-change-we-seek, hope, destiny, moment, and above all, change, including the changing meaning of change, has reached the point at which there is simply no meaning left in the words — they have become blank checks which Americans are asked to “come together” and sign. Along with Beltway diehard Joe Biden now joining the comrades for change (scroll down for the video), we are about to see such rusting Democratic fixtures as Jimmy Carter, Jesse Jackson and the Clintons warming up the crowd these next three nights for the grand finale mass rally at INVESCO Field: “Change You Can Believe In.”

Come to think of it, if someone were to slip some of this stuff into the program at the Pyongyang People’s Palace of Culture, would anyone notice the difference? 

While we wait for details of an Obama-Biden ticket that will surely propose an even deeper love affair with the United Nations than that of the Condi Rice State Department, here’s one of those United Nations conundrums:

Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon will be convening a UN symposium in New York next month on supporting victims of terrorism.

But the UN still hasn’t managed to come up with a basic definition of terrorism.

So if the UN can’t even figure out who’s a terrorist, how will the UN decide who’s a victim?

For a clue about where this latest initiative from Ban is likely to take us, check out the language in the UN press release linked above. Ban’s terror-victim forum, described as “the first of its kind at the United Nations,” is supposed to “help Member States to stand as one to support the victims of terrorism and to encourage civil society’s involvement against the scourge…” etc. etc.

“Stand as one”–?? Maybe Ban hasn’t noticed, but this is the fast track to the UN’s usual brand of Orwellian politics and moral bankruptcy. There are some UN member states — such as Iran — that like the idea of obliterating other entire member states, and support terrorists, such as Hezbollah, as a matter of state policy. (Although at the UN, Hezbollah cannot be regarded as a terrorist group, because there is no definition of terrorism).

For the UN, of course, it’s boom busines to keep ginning up new programs for an ever-expanding list of assorted groups of “victims.” Every new initiative becomes a rationale for more UN conferences, jobs, and solicitations for money. Whether any real victims are actually helped (or harmed) tends to become a secondary issue, if not simply irrelevant to the servicing and gourmet feeding of the UN organism — the conferences on Bali, the aid to dictators, the billions for peacekeeping forces that can’t keep peace and also can’t seem to keep their hands off the children they are supposed to protect. The UN has by now involved itself with so many categories of “victims” that by now the only victims for whom Ban is not convening forums or launching programs or dispatching envoys would seem to be the taxpayers of the developed democratic world, who fund most of the UN’s opaque, unaccountable patronage systems. 

In this case, supporting victims of terrorism might sound worthy — after all, who wouldn’t be sympathetic to genuine victims of terrorism? But before Ban starts convening participants from “all regions, cultures and religions, representing a diversity of terror-victim experiences,” how about the UN producing a clear and reasonable definition of this experience Ban wants the world-as-one to address?

If Ban really wants the UN to do something useful to stop the scourge of terrorism, he’d do better to start by cleaning up his own house. Step one: Instead of holding a new symposium, he could stand up and call loud and clear for member states to stay away from the UN’s Durban II conference, now being planned for 2009 by the likes of Libya, Iran, Cuba, Russia and Pakistan — which shows every signs of becoming a replay of the malevolent 2001 hate-fest that was Durban I. Before the UN starts cashing in on teror-victims as a source of employment and per diems for the UN itself, His Eminence the Secretary-General ought to bestir himself to defuse the UN itself as a mothership of moral equivalence, and an incubator of hatred.  

Russia Proposes a New Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

August 19th, 2008 - 11:26 pm

Writing in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, Soviet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proposes a new world order in which Russia and America, envisioned here as two equally great powers, carve out spheres of influence while rolling right over any democratic pipsqueaks who get in the way –or at least who get in Russia’s way. Under the headline ”America Must Choose Between Georgia and Russia,” Lavrov suggests that “An embargo on arms supplies to the current Tbilisi regime would be a start.”

In menacing tones, Lavrov warns of “the cost of the choice being made in Washington in favor of the discredited regime in Tbilisi.” Lavrov also dangles the bait that “Russia is committed to the ongoing positive development of relations with the U.S.” Implying a world in which Russia and America reign as co-regents, in chiding manner that comes close to parody of some of Condi Rice’s recent diplomatic locutions, Lavrov says:

“It is up to the American side to decide whether it wants a relationship with Russia that our two peoples deserve. The geopolitical reality we’ll have to deal with at the end of the day will inevitably force us to cooperate.”

… Perhaps, Mr. Lavrov. But on what terms? Lavrov’s proposal to Americans carries eerie echoes of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a non-aggression deal hammered out on the eve of World War II between the “High Contracting Parties” of Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. The pact included a secret additional protocol, carving up spheres of influence, interest and territory in the Baltics, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Regarding Poland, in particular, the text noted: “The question of whether the interests of both parties make desirable the maintenance of an independent Polish States, and how such a state can a state can be bounded can only be definitely determined in the course of future political developments.”

The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact disintegrated in June, 1941, when Nazi Germany invaded the USSR in Operation Barbarossa. Today’s Russia has far less to fear from a democratic United States, which has no territorial designs on Russia, and has been looking to democratic evolution of other states as the best bet for a safer, more peaceful world. America, by the same token, has more to fear, in terms of threats all too likely to be incubated under the spreading shadow of an autocratic and bullying Russia. The world has yet to recover from the corrosive effects of Soviet hegemony in the last century, from which this not-so-new Russian KGB-FSB brand of order is now sprouting. 

If America goes for this bait, swallows this Russian manifesto of the new world order, and hands over Georgia on a plate — with Ukraine, Moldova, and other former Soviet satellites and dominions to follow – we are in for a century even more brutal than that presaged by Sept. 11, 2001. Russia and America have a shared interest in thwarting the spread of Islamist jihad. But for America under the banner of that shared interest to collaborate in the resurrection of a predatory, despotic Russian empire would be to invite not a safer world, but a proliferation of threats.

It would be comforting to assume that Washington understands this, and will treat Lavrov’s article not as an invitation, but as a window on the disturbing political evolution going on inside Russia. These are sinister enticements the Kremlin now offers. Surely the American electorate knows better? This is a test of nerve, resolve, wisdom and basic decency. It will cost America dearly if we fail.  

    

   

As Russian troops loot, shoot and roll short-range missiles into Georgia, surely UN tradition calls for the Secretary-General to protest this invasion of sovereign territory tooth and nail? That, of course, is what Kofi Annan did when America led a coalition to invade Iraq — after Iraq’s tyranny had defied 17 UN resolutions, flagrantly violated UN sanctions, kicked out UN weapons inspectors, corrupted the UN’s own Security Council and racked up a history of gassing its own people, filling mass graves, consorting with terrorists, and started two wars by invading two neighboring states.

In Iraq’s case, the UN had such over-riding concern for territorial integrity that in the UN calculus, all Saddam Hussein’s violations, abuses, corruption and atrocities paled next to the priorities summed up by Annan’s denunciation of the invasion as “illegal.”

One could argue (and I have) that in making this pronouncement, Kofi Annan was wrong, hypocritical, and way out of line. But if the UN cherishes such benchmarks of illegality, then surely Russia’s invasion of Georgia should right now be inspiring strident cries of “illegal” from the global fraternity at Turtle Bay?

Uh… well, let’s see. Last Wednesday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon did reiterate his “support for a solution based on the full respect of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia” — but he did it while urging acceptance of an EU-brokered peace plan that goes disturbingly light on that same territorial integrity. On Thursday, according to the UN, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon voiced “deep concern at the humanitarian impact of the Georgian conflict.” On Saturday, Ban conferred with advisers and diplomats.

This Monday, finally getting to the heart of the matter, Ban’s Secretariat swung into action, doing what the UN really knows how to do – ask for money: “UN seeking nearly $59 million to aid Georgian conflict victims.”

Meanwhile, over at the Security Council, progress on the defense of Georgia’s territorial integrity was neatly summed up by a recent Wall Street Journal headline: “UN Security Council Fails to Meet Over the Weekend.”

Not that the Security Council hasn’t been trying. Prior to the failure to meet, there were a series of emergency meetings. Along with some lively but inconclusive dickering between the American and Russian ambassadors, these grand pow-wows featured the usual calls for all parties to exercise “utmost restraint” — never mind that Russian troops have been storming and digging into Georgian territory, not vice versa. Rotating members of the Council, such as Burkina Faso and Libya, allowed as how they would support whatever resolution might be reached by ”consensus.”

Consensus, of course, means that Russia, with its veto-wielding seat as one of the permanent five members of the Council — the others being China, France, the U.K. and the U.S. — must give its assent before the Security Council approve any resolution whatsoever. No surprise, then, that Monday’s news on the UN Security Council web site makes no mention of Georgia, though it does include such items as the donation by the UN Development Program of 500 bicycles “to help women pedal for peace in Uganda.” 

Where is that UN spirit that not so long ago was willing to raise absolute hell over the prospect of one country invading another? Where are the multilateral heirs of Kofi “illegal” Annan, now that there’s really something to raise hell about? 

High Noon in Georgia — With No Sheriff

August 12th, 2008 - 8:45 am

Russia’s rulers have made their point: The Russian military can shoot and bomb its way into the sovereign territory of a neighboring state, and the world will… talk.

In the movies, this would have been the moment for the sheriff to appear, and take the risk of facing down the ruffians. But outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, America over the past five years has gone out of the lone superpower business. The cowboy has holstered his gun, and joined the crowd at the UN saloon. The watchword is soft power – whether dealing with North Korea, Syria, Palestinian terrorists or Iran. Which goes far to explain why Russia’s Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev figured they could get away with this. More in my article today on NRO, “Georgia and the American Cowboy“… “When too many thugs cross too many lines and get away with it, the rules of the entire global game start to shift.”

The Tiananmen Massacre Map

August 7th, 2008 - 12:00 am

This is one the official guides to the Olympics won’t be handing out, but it is vital to understanding the true context of the spectacle we are about to witness in Beijing. Created and circulated by people who have kept faith with the Chinese democracy movement:

The Tiananmen Massacre Map

showing street locations in Beijing where on June 4, 1989, 150 of the demonstrators were killed, or the hospitals where their bodies were taken. As the text accompanying the map explains, the total number killed “remains unknown although estimates range from several hundred to several thousand.” The information for this map was gathered by a group called the Tiananmen Mothers, started by Ding Zilin, a mother of one of the victims.

Nineteen years have passed, but as one of the eye-witnesses in the Beijing streets and in Tiananmen Square itself to that night of June 3-4, 1989, I look at this map and in memory can still hear the first cracks of the bullets, feel the treads of armored personnel carriers shaking the pavement, and see the people looking grimly at the advancing rows of helmets, silhouetted against the burning roadblocks. They were clutching bricks and bottles against the guns of their own country’s army. I remember a young man I saw closeup, shot in the chest, one of seven with bullet wounds I saw carried to a makeshift medical tent at the north end of Tiananmen Square during the final hours — and wonder if any of them are named in this document. I remember the demonstrators sitting in the spring breeze, shortly before dawn, on the steps of the monument to China’s Revolutionary Heroes, surrounded on three sides by tens of thousands of soldiers in the final standoff in Tiananmen Square — and facing off against the huge portrait of Mao, the white Goddess of Liberty statue that stood in Tiananmen for less than a week before China’s rulers knocked it down.

Here’s the account I filed that June 4th, recording what I had witnessed, and trying to answer my editor’s question, what does it mean? “The Party Pulls the Trigger.” 

In that 1989 article, in the closing paragraph, I tried to set down something that still applies today; not least as visitors to Beijing survey the massive security efforts, not all of which are intended strictly to protect the Olympics:

“No doubt when the Chinese government has finished dealing with its people, the tidy square will be presented again as a suitable site for tourists, visiting dignitaries and the Chinese public to come honor the heroes of China’s glorious revolution. It will be important then to remember the heroes of 1989, the people who cried out so many times these past six weeks, ‘Tell the world what we want. Tell the truth about China.’ “ 

On this massacre map, one of the important truths that stands out if you look at the ages of some of those who died that night, is that the Tiananmen uprising was not solely a student movement. Some of the people who in their passion for liberty tried to face down the guns of their own government were in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. Nor were they all killed in Tiananmen Square. From what I saw, my best estimate is that more were shot or crushed to death in the surrounding streets, trying to stop the advancing troops from reaching Tiananmen — which had become a symbol of the desire for freedom and justice.

Now come the 2008 Olympics, and while wishing the athletes well, I have little to add to what I wrote in early 2001, when Beijing was competing with Osaka, Istanbul, Paris and Toronto to host these games.

“…Trying to imagine the Olympic torch lit in Beijing, I keep remembering another torch, put there not at the behest of the communist regime, but by the protesters who nearly 12 years ago rose up by the millions to defy China’s tyranny. It was the torch held in both hands by the Chinese Goddess of Democracy — patterned after our Statue of Liberty — that for almost a week stood in Tiananmen Square, until it was destroyed by government troops on June 4, 1989. 

When that symbolic flame of freedom can be safely lit again in China, it will be fitting to award Beijing the Olympic Games. Until then, the Olympics can better keep faith with human dignity — especially that of the Chinese people — by going somewhere else.”