Mr. Bruni is off today. The Pasty Little Putz ‘splains to us that “It’s Not About the Video,” and that the unrest in the Islamic world is more about power politics than blasphemy. MoDo, in “Neocons Slither Back,” says look who’s pulling the strings of Marionette Mitt and Puppet Paul. In “The Talk of China” the Moustache of Wisdom says recent local headlines offer a hint of how the coming transition is about much more than a change in leadership. Mr. Kristof looks at “The Foreign Relations Fumbler” and says if Mitt Romney keeps misfiring on foreign policy, he’s going to blow up his presidential credentials. Nick, honey, he has no such thing. Here’s The Putz:
The greatest mistake to be made right now, with our embassies under assault and crowds chanting anti-American slogans across North Africa and the Middle East, is to believe that what’s happening is a completely genuine popular backlash against a blasphemous anti-Islamic video made right here in the U.S.A.
There is a cringing way to make this mistake, embodied by the apologetic press release that issued from the American embassy in Cairo on Tuesday as the protests outside gathered steam, by the Obama White House’s decision to lean on YouTube to take the offending video down, and by the various voices (including, heaven help us, a tenured Ivy League professor) suggesting that the video’s promoters be arrested for abusing their First Amendment liberties.
But there’s also a condescending way to make the same error, which is to stand up boldly for free speech while treating the mob violence as an expression of foaming-at-the-mouth unreason, with no more connection to practical politics than a buffalo stampede or a summer storm.
There is certainly unreason at work in the streets of Cairo and Benghazi, but something much more calculated is happening as well. The mobs don’t exist because of an offensive movie, and an American ambassador isn’t dead because what appears to be a group of Coptic Christians in California decided to use their meager talents to disparage the Prophet Muhammad.
What we are witnessing, instead, is mostly an exercise in old-fashioned power politics, with a stone-dumb video as a pretext for violence that would have been unleashed on some other excuse.
This has happened many times before, and Westerners should be used to it by now. Anyone in need of a refresher course should consult Salman Rushdie’s memoir, due out this week and excerpted in the latest New Yorker, which offers a harrowing account of what it felt like to live under an ayatollah’s death threat, and watch as other people suffered at the hands of mobs chanting for his head.
What Rushdie understands, and what we should understand as well, is that the crucial issue wasn’t actually how the novelist had treated Islam’s prophet in the pages of “The Satanic Verses.” The real issue, instead, was the desire of Iran’s leaders to keep the flame of their revolution burning after the debacle of the Iran-Iraq War, the desire of Pakistan’s Islamists to test the religious bona fides of their country’s prime minister, and the desire of religious extremists in Britain to cast themselves as spokesmen for the Muslim community as a whole. (In this, some of them succeeded: Rushdie dryly notes that an activist who declared of the novelist that “death, perhaps, is a bit too easy for him” would eventually be knighted “at the recommendation of the Blair government for his services to community relations.”)
Today’s wave of violence, likewise, owes much more to a bloody-minded realpolitik than to the madness of crowds. As The Washington Post’s David Ignatius was among the first to point out, both the Egyptian and Libyan assaults look like premeditated challenges to those countries’ ruling parties by more extreme Islamist factions: Salafist parties in Egypt and pro-Qaeda groups in Libya. (The fact that both attacks were timed to the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks should have been the first clue that this was something other than a spontaneous reaction to an offensive video.)
The choice of American targets wasn’t incidental, obviously. The embassy and consulate attacks were “about us” in the sense that anti-Americanism remains a potent rallying point for popular discontent in the Islamic world. But they weren’t about America’s tolerance for offensive, antireligious speech. Once again, that was the pretext, but not the actual cause.
Just as it was largely pointless, then, for the politicians of 1989 to behave as if an apology from Rushdie himself might make the protests subside (“It’s felt,” he recalls his handlers telling him, “that you should do something to lower the temperature”), it’s similarly pointless to behave as if a more restrictive YouTube policy or a more timely phone call from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the anti-Islam film’s promoters might have saved us from an autumn of unrest.
What we’re watching unfold in the post-Arab Spring Mideast is the kind of struggle for power that frequently takes place in a revolution’s wake: between secular and fundamentalist forces in Benghazi, between the Muslim Brotherhood and its more-Islamist-than-thou rivals in Cairo, with similar forces contending for mastery from Tunisia to Yemen to the Muslim diaspora in Europe.
Navigating this landscape will require less naïveté than the Obama White House has displayed to date, and more finesse than a potential Romney administration seems to promise. But at the very least, it requires an accurate understanding of the crisis’s roots, and a recognition that policing speech won’t make our problems go away.
Someone PLEASE tell me why this waste of oxygen is inflicted on us weekly… Here’s MoDo:
Paul Ryan has not sautéed in foreign policy in his years on Capitol Hill. The 42-year-old congressman is no Middle East savant; till now, his idea of a border dispute has more likely involved Wisconsin and Illinois.
Yet Ryan got up at the Values Voter Summit here on Friday and skewered the Obama administration as it struggled to manage the Middle East mess left by clumsily mixed American signals toward the Arab Spring and the disastrous legacy of war-obsessed Republicans.
Ryan bemoaned “the slaughter of brave dissidents in Syria. Mobs storming American embassies and consulates. Iran four years closer to gaining a nuclear weapon. Israel, our best ally in the region, treated with indifference bordering on contempt by the Obama administration.” American foreign policy, he said, “needs moral clarity and firmness of purpose.”
Ryan was moving his mouth, but the voice was the neocon puppet master Dan Senor. The hawkish Romney adviser has been secunded to manage the running mate and graft a Manichaean worldview onto the foreign affairs neophyte.
A moral, muscular foreign policy; a disdain for weakness and diplomacy; a duty to invade and bomb Israel’s neighbors; a divine right to pre-emption — it’s all ominously familiar.
You can draw a direct line from the hyperpower manifesto of the Project for the New American Century, which the neocons, abetted by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, used to prod an insecure and uninformed president into invading Iraq — a wildly misguided attempt to intimidate Arabs through the shock of overwhelming force. How’s that going for us?
After 9/11, the neocons captured one Republican president who was naïve about the world. Now, amid contagious Arab rage sparked on the 11th anniversary of 9/11, they have captured another would-be Republican president and vice president, both jejeune about the world.
Senor is emblematic of how much trouble America blundered into in the Middle East — trillions wasted, so many lives and limbs lost — because of how little we fathom the culture and sectarian politics. We’re still stumbling in the dark. We not only don’t know who our allies and enemies are, we don’t know who our allies’ and enemies’ allies and enemies are.
As the spokesman for Paul Bremer during the Iraq occupation, Senor helped perpetrate one of the biggest foreign policy bungles in American history. The clueless desert viceroys summarily disbanded the Iraqi Army, forced de-Baathification, stood frozen in denial as thugs looted ministries and museums, deluded themselves about the growing insurgency, and misled reporters with their Panglossian scenarios of progress.
“Off the record, Paris is burning,” Senor told a group of reporters a year into the war. “On the record, security and stability are returning to Iraq.”
Before he played ventriloquist to Ryan, Senor did the same for Romney, ratcheting up the candidate’s irresponsible bellicosity on the Middle East. Senor was the key adviser on Romney’s disastrous trip to Israel in July, when Mittens infuriated the Palestinians by making a chuckleheaded claim about their culture.
Senor got out over his skis before Romney’s speech in Jerusalem, telling reporters that Mitt would say he respected Israel’s right to make a pre-emptive, unilateral attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
While the Muslim world burned on Friday, Mitt was in New York with Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan confessing that he wears “as little as possible” to bed. With no global vision or historical perspective — he didn’t even remember during his Tampa convention to mention our troops or the years of war his party reigned over — Romney is simply kowtowing to the right again.
Paul Wolfowitz, an Iraq war architect, weighed in on Fox News, slimily asserting that President Obama should not be allowed to “slither through” without a clear position on Libya.
Republicans are bananas on this one. They blame Obama for casting Hosni Mubarak overboard and contradict themselves by blaming him for not supporting the Arab Spring. One minute Romney parrots Bibi Netanyahu’s position on Iran, the next Obama’s.
Romney’s cynical braying about Obama appeasement in the midst of the attack on the American diplomatic post in Libya and the murder of the brave ambassador, Christopher Stevens, was shameful. Richard Williamson, a Romney adviser, had the gall to tell The Washington Post, “There’s a pretty compelling story that if you had a President Romney, you’d be in a different situation.”
He’s right — a scarier situation. If President Romney acceded to Netanyahu’s outrageous demand for clear red lines on Iran, this global confrontation would be a tiny foretaste of the conflagration to come.
Cheney, described by Romney as a “person of wisdom and judgment,” is lurking. On Monday, he churlishly tried to deny President Obama credit for putting Osama in the cross hairs, cattily referring to a report that Obama had not gone to all his intelligence briefings.
Well, yes. W. got briefings, like the one that warned him on Aug. 6, 2001: “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” That didn’t work so well either, did it?
Let’s not forget that Condi Rice is still hanging around too. Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom, who’s in Beijing:
Here is the story of today’s China in five brief news items.
STORY NO. 1 For most of the last two weeks, Xi Jinping, the man tapped to become China’s new Communist Party leader, was totally out of sight. That’s right. The man designated to become China’s next leader — in October or early November — had disappeared and only resurfaced on Saturday in two photos taken while he was visiting an agricultural college. They were posted online by the official Xinhua news agency. With the Chinese government refusing to comment on his whereabouts or explain his absence, rumors here were flying. Had he fallen ill? Was there infighting in the Communist Party? I have a theory: Xi started to realize how hard the job of running China will be in the next decade and was hiding under his bed. Who could blame him?
Chinese officials take great pride in how they have used the last 30 years to educate hundreds of millions of their people, men and women, and bring them out of poverty. Yet, among my Chinese interlocutors, I find a growing feeling that what’s worked for China for the past 30 years — a huge Communist Party-led mobilization of cheap labor, capital and resources — will not work much longer. There is a lot of hope that Xi will bring long-delayed economic and political reforms needed to make China a real knowledge economy, but there is no consensus on what those reforms should be and there are a lot more voices in the conversation. Whatever top-down monopoly of the conversation the Communist Party had is evaporating. More and more, the Chinese people, from microbloggers to peasants to students, are demanding that their voices be heard — and officials clearly feel the need to respond. China is now a strange hybrid — an autocracy with 400 million bloggers, who are censored, feared and listened to all at the same time.
So Xi Jinping is certain to make history. He will be the first leader of modern China who will have to have a two-way conversation with the Chinese people while he tries to implement some huge political and economic reforms. The need is obvious.
STORY NO. 2 In March, Chinese authorities quickly deleted from the blogosphere photos of a fatal Beijing car crash, believed to involve the son of a close ally of President Hu Jintao. The car was a Ferrari. The driver was killed and two young women with him badly injured. “Photos of the horrific smash in Beijing were deleted within hours of appearing on microblogs and Web sites,” The Guardian reported. “Even searches for the word ‘Ferrari’ were blocked on the popular Sina Weibo microblog. … Unnamed sources have identified the driver of the black sports car as the son of Ling Jihua, who was removed as head of the party’s general office of the central committee this weekend.” It was the latest in a string of incidents spotlighting the lavish lifestyles of the Communist Party elite.
Chinese authorities are so sensitive to these stories because they are the tip of an iceberg — an increasingly corrupt system of interlocking ties between the Communist Party and state-owned banks, industries and monopolies, which allow certain senior officials, their families and “princelings” to become hugely wealthy and to even funnel that wealth out of China. “Marx said the worst kind of capitalism is a monopolistic capitalism, and Lenin said the worst kind of monopolistic capitalism is state monopolistic capitalism — and we are practicing it to the hilt,” a Chinese Internet executive remarked to me.
As a result, you hear more and more that “the risks of not reforming have become bigger than the risks of reforming.” No one is talking revolution, but a gradual evolution to a more transparent, rule-of-law-based system, with the people having more formal input. But taking even this first gradual step is proving hard for the Communist Party. It may require a crisis (which is why a lot of middle-class professionals here are looking to get their money or themselves abroad). Meanwhile, the gaps between rich and poor widen.
STORY NO. 3 Last week, the official Xinhua news agency reported that authorities in the city of Macheng, in Hubei Province in central China, agreed to invest $1.4 million in new school equipment after photos of students and their parents carrying their own desks and chairs to school, along with their books, “sparked an outcry on the Internet. … The education gap in China has become a hot-button issue.”
STORY NO. 4 President Hu Jintao suggested that it would be good if the people of Hong Kong learned more about the mainland, so Hong Kong authorities recently announced that they were imposing compulsory “moral and national education” lessons in primary and secondary schools. According to CNN, “the course material had been outlined in a government booklet called ‘The China Model,’ which was distributed to schools in July.” It described China’s Communist Party as “progressive, selfless and united” and “criticized multiparty systems as bringing disaster to countries such as the United States.” High school students from Hong Kong, which enjoys more freedom than the mainland as part of the 1997 handover from Britain, organized a protest against Beijing’s “brainwashing” that quickly spread to parent groups and universities. As a result, on Sept. 8, one day before local elections, Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, Beijing’s man there, announced the compulsory education plan was being dropped — to avoid pro-Beijing candidates getting crushed.
STORY NO. 5 A few weeks ago, Deng Yuwen, a senior editor of The Study Times, which is controlled by the Communist Party, published an analysis on the Web site of the business magazine Caijing. According to Agence France-Presse, Deng argued that President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao “had ‘created more problems than achievements’ during their 10 years in power. … The article highlighted 10 problems facing China that it said were caused by the lack of political reform and had the potential to cause public discontent, including stalled economic restructuring, income disparity and pollution. ‘The essence of democracy is how to restrict government power; this is the most important reason why China so badly needs democracy,’ Deng wrote. ‘The overconcentration of government powers without checks and balances is the root cause of so many social problems.’ ” The article has triggered a debate on China’s blogosphere.
This is just a sampler of the China that Xi Jinping will be inheriting. This is not your grandfather’s Communist China. After three decades of impressive economic growth, but almost no political reforms, there is “a gathering sense of an approaching moment of transition that will require a different set of conditions for Chinese officials to maintain airspeed,” observed Orville Schell, the Asia Society China expert. The rules are going to get rewritten here. Exactly how and when is impossible to say. The only thing that is certain is that it will be through a two-way conversation.
Last but not least, Mr. Kristof:
Diplomacy is a minefield, and Mitt Romney spent the last week blowing up his foreign policy credentials to be president. He raised doubts about his capacity to deal with global crises, and we were left hoping that if that 3 a.m. call ever went to him, he’d have set up call forwarding.
The essential problem is that every time Romney touches foreign policy, he breaks things. He went on a friendly trip to Britain — the easiest possible test for a candidate, akin to rolling off a log — and endeared himself by questioning London’s readiness to host the Olympic Games. In the resulting firestorm, one newspaper, The Sun, denounced “Mitt the Twit.”
(Imagine a President Romney making a London trip and helpfully offering off-the-cuff advice on Northern Ireland, or breaking the ice in Parliament by telling jokes about Queen Elizabeth. The War of 1812 would resume, and the British would again be burning down the White House.)
Then there was the Romney trip to Israel, where he insulted Palestinians and left some Jews uncomfortable with stereotyping by praising Jewish culture in the context of making money. Hmm.
After that trip, you’d have thought that on foreign policy, Romney might remember the adage: Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.
Yet with the Middle East exploding in recent days because of a video insulting the Prophet Muhammad, Romney dived in with a statement that hit a trifecta: it was erroneous, inflammatory and offensive.
Still, I was initially in a forgiving mood. Presidential candidates always have microphones in their faces, and it’s not surprising that periodically they say inane things. President Obama himself blew it a few days ago by mistakenly asserting that we didn’t consider Egypt an ally. But Obama then had the good sense to have the White House clarify that “not an ally” in that context meant “an ally.”
If Romney had similarly explained that in denouncing Obama he was actually praising the administration, the episode might have blown over. But after a night of sleep, he doubled down and repeated his denunciation of the president. That was just reckless.
Perhaps the Romney campaign should invest in a muzzle for its candidate. It might even be tax-deductible!
Foreign policy isn’t as glamorous as it seems. Diplomacy mostly consists of managing crazies who are making unreasonable demands in impossible situations with no solutions. And those are just our allies.
In the Middle East, the basic dynamic is that extremists on one side empower extremists on the other. Thus anti-Muslim extremists released a video that Salafi Muslim extremists then publicized to provoke grass-roots outrage that would benefit them.
It’s too bad that Salafis weren’t as indignant about the massacre of Syrians and Sudanese as about the trailer of a movie that may not even exist. As a parody Twitter account of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, posted: “Wow! Good thing I just bombed mosques, killed women and children and I didn’t make an anti-Muslim video! People would be after me!”
The Republican Party is caught in a civil war on foreign policy, and Romney refuses to pick sides. In contrast to his approach on the economy, he just doesn’t seem to have thought much about global issues. My hunch is that for secretary of state he would pick a steady hand, like Robert Zoellick, but Romney has also surrounded himself with volatile neocons.
With China, Romney seems intent on a trade war. In the Middle East, it appears he’d like to subcontract foreign policy to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu recently tried to push the United States to adopt a nuclear red line that, if Iran crossed it, would lead us to go to war there. Obama was right to resist, and it has been unseemly for Romney to side with a foreign leader in spats with the United States.
(For my part, I think Obama should indeed set a red line — warning Netanyahu to stop interfering in American elections.)
Most dangerous of all is Romney’s policy on Iran, which can’t be dismissed as an offhand misstatement. As my colleagues David E. Sanger and Ashley Parker note, Romney muddles his own position on his nuclear red line for Iran. Plenty of candidates don’t write their own foreign policy position papers, but Romney is unusual in that he seems not to have even read his.
According to clarifications from Romney’s campaign, he apparently would order a military strike before Iran even acquired a bomb, simply when it was getting close. For anyone who has actually seen a battlefield, that’s a blithe, too-light embrace of a path to yet another war. It’s emblematic of a candidate who, on foreign policy, appears an empty shell.