The Pasty Little Putz may not be feeling well, and I think he may have cribbed a column from MoDo. In “Call Me Vlad” he has produced a classic Modo-esque “what if” fever dream. He babbles that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, savors his moment, shirtless, at Putzy’s desk, with an AK-47. (Should that ever actually happen Wee Putzy would most likely have to change his tighty whities.) In his comment “Kevin Rothstein” from Jarama Valley points out that “It’s not too late for Ross to enlist in our armed forces and prove how exceptional he is.” Word. MoDo has decided to do a mash-up of Hollywood and real life. Remember how everyone used “24″ to explain why we had to torture people? In “My So-Called C.I.A. Life” she ‘splains to us how C.I.A. Chief John Brennan explains the heavy mantle of protecting the homeland to the “Homeland” C.I.A. chief, Mandy Patinkin. (Just for the record, when I see America called “the homeland” it makes me ill.) In “When Complexity Is Free” The Moustache of Wisdom says the world of work is changing. He says if you want to see some American exceptionalism, visit a research lab. Mr. Kristof has decided once again to defend blowing up Syrians. In “Hearing You Out” he says Americans are asking good questions about whether we should intervene in Syria. He offers some answers. In “What War Means” Mr. Bruni says when we talk about future interventions, we must own up to the heavy price some Americans paid in past ones. Here’s The Putz:
When I came into my office, he was in my chair, feet up, shirt off, an AK-47 propped against the desk.
“President Putin,” I said, playing it cool. “Nice Op-Ed last week.”
He looked up from my computer. “Ah, yes. I was just checking this, how you say, ‘most-e-mailed list’ that your New York Times keeps. I see I’m still No. 1.”
“Only until someone writes a piece about Ivy League admissions, Mr. President.”
His laugh sounded like ice cracking in a Siberian spring. “Call me Vlad,” he said. “And tell me: Is it always this easy to get a rise out of you Americans? I watch your TV, I follow your elections. I thought you are used to propaganda.”
“Well, if it’s our own. But it’s different being lectured on peace and human rights by a ruler who doesn’t give a fig about either.”
“Yes, but all this whining from your politicians. This Bob Menendez saying my piece made him want to vomit — like a podrostok who cannot handle vodka. And John Boehner, I know he sometimes cries like a babushka but to whine that he was insulted by my column … does he get so offended when he watches the White House’s propaganda network, this MSNBC?”
“Actually, the White House doesn’t run …”
“And this anger about the paragraph where I questioned American exceptionalism? After reading the online comments, I concede that American people are exceptional: exceptionally easy to bait.”
“Well, you can’t blame us for being annoyed with the situation. President Obama traps himself by threatening a war that Congress wouldn’t support, you sweep in with a bogus solution he has to accept because the alternative is impotence …”
“How is the solution we have offered not a good one?”
“Will it lead to Assad giving up his chemical weapons?”
“I have no idea. But the diplomatic to-and-fro makes him unlikely to use them, which is what you wanted, no?”
“Well, the ultimate goal is to remove him from power …”
He banged his hand on my desk. “This is how it always is! You cannot stop with reasonable goal. You must have unreasonable one. Toppling the Taliban was not enough — you had to repeat our mistake and occupy Afghanistan. Saddam contained was not enough — you wanted regime change, democracy. Killing terrorists is not enough — you want the Muslim world to love you.”
“Well, there’s that exceptionalism thing …”
“Yes, yes, I admit, America really is different. Sometimes, deep in my cold, black heart, I even feel flicker of admiration for that difference …”
“Well, thanks …”
“But mostly it makes me insane. I have been dealing with American government for 13 years, and my needs have always been simple, straightforward. I just want what Russian leaders will always want: a sphere of influence, a partner to fight terrorism, stability at home, respect abroad. But your presidents, Bush and Obama — who can tell what they want? One minute they ask me for help in Afghanistan or offer some sort of ‘reset’ button; the next they push NATO to my borders and try to topple my only Middle Eastern client …”
“Well, maybe they both started out hoping that you were something other than a thug and ended up disappointed.”
He stroked the AK-47. “Maybe. But you are lucky to have me. After the 1990s, you could have had a crazy revanchist who tried to conquer his neighbors instead of just bullying them like me. Or another clown like Yeltsin, who let everything fall apart. Instead, I’ve delivered growth, stability, continuity — even our birthrate is now higher than yours!”
“O.K.,” I returned, “but your continuity is just corrupt one-party rule, and your hold on power is actually weakening. You’re relying more on demagogy, cracking down on civil society …”
“Your Obama would still give his eyeteeth for my approval ratings.”
“Touché. But in the long run, you’re a prisoner of your corrupt system. You’ll either hang on while it crumbles or step down and end up jailed by your successor.”
“I cannot let you change the subject, American columnist. Here is a message to transmit to your readers: As much fun as I had baiting them, part of my Op-Ed was sincere. I am not America’s enemy. I do not wish a new cold war. I do not wish to dominate the Middle East, whatever that means.
“No,” he went on, “all I want is an American foreign policy that sees the world as it actually is, and an American leader who can arm-wrestle at my level. Which is what you Americans should want as well, no? Maybe someday you should consider electing one.”
He rose, pecs flexing, and looked around my office. “Oh — and if I should need post-presidential career outside of Mother Russia, I think my Op-Ed sets me up nicely to become a columnist for your New York Times, no?”
Then he grinned — a wolf’s grin — and showed himself out.
And Wee Putzy piddled himself again. Here’s MoDo:
Carrie Mathison may be banished from the fictional C.I.A. on “Homeland,” but she was welcomed with open arms at the real one on Monday.
“Our field trip to Langley,” Claire Danes said wryly. “It did feel like we were in junior high school.” (She should know.)
The actress concedes that life entwining with art was a bit “awkward” in this case, given that both their narratives are under wraps. “There was one long table of C.I.A. folk and then us, directly facing each other like we were ready to rumble,” she said, laughing. “They couldn’t tell us anything about themselves, really. And we couldn’t tell them anything about our show, really. So what kind of conversation could we have?”
It got even stranger when Danes’s freshman roommate from Yale, a former operative who is now a lawyer at Langley, joined the group, dressed, as it happened, like Danes’s character.
“Pantsuit,” Danes deadpans. “You can’t go wrong.”
Alex Gansa, the co-creator and show runner of “Homeland,” called the two-hour meeting at Langley with his stars, writers and executives and a flock of C.I.A. officers “a frank and free exchange about the entertainment business and the intelligence business that revealed a lot of parallels.” He added dryly, “We both build sets. We both play roles. And we both brainstorm, about operations on their side and storylines on ours.”
Head Spook John Brennan even ushered his fictional counterpart, Mandy Patinkin, into his office. Patinkin said later that he stared at “the massive leather-bound books” on the conference table, thinking that rather than props, they dealt with “the fate of our world.”
Brennan talked about keeping America’s relentless extremist enemies at bay. (As Patinkin likes to say, when channeling his Inigo Montoya character from “The Princess Bride”: “I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.”)
The actor gives a gripping portrayal of Saul Berenson, the show’s moral center. (Or, given the themes of duality and duplicity, maybe the mole?) Brennan told the often-distressed father figure to the crazed savant Carrie about his own painful paternal duties meeting with the families of fallen officers.
Why did the gruff Brennan embrace Hollywood? You might think the C.I.A. would be busy with that long-delayed shipment of weapons to the Syrian rebels. But this is not only the most paranoid and insecure agency in town — as bipolar as Danes’s mesmerizing Carrie. It might also be the most image conscious.
The Company still shudders at the memory of times when some in Congress have questioned whether the agency should be shuttered or gutted — a fear reflected in the debut of the third season of “Homeland,” airing on Sept. 29, depicting Senate hearings after a terrorist car bomb explosion at Langley has wiped out the top echelon of C.I.A. officials and ripped apart Carrie and Brody, our favorite deranged, doomed lovers — Romeo and Juliet crossed with Bonnie and Clyde. (“Hurt people hurt people,” as Patinkin likes to say, quoting his wife.)
So the C.I.A. decided to risk any possible opprobrium from New York Congressman Peter King, who launched an inquiry, leading to an inspector general investigation, to see if the agency had overshared confidential information with the makers of “Zero Dark Thirty,” Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow.
A glamorous premiere and reception at the Corcoran Gallery of Art Monday night hosted by Showtime and its innovative president of entertainment, David Nevins, attracted a gaggle of current agency staffers as well as Michael Hayden, the former C.I.A. director, and Michael Morell, the former acting C.I.A. director. Jose Rodriguez, the ex-head of the C.I.A.’s clandestine service who gave the order to destroy the agency’s torture videotapes, was there, schmoozing.
“He chills my blood,” confided Gansa. He says the show has consultants who are “still active intelligence officers and a lot of retired intelligence officers.”
The Emmy-winning Danes revealed that she gets her “plasticine, rubbery face” from her dad. “My dad has no cartilage in his ears,” she said. “I love mushing his face around.”
While Carrie may be “transgressive” and “deeply flawed,” Danes says, “she’s a little bit of a superhero” who screws up but “ends up saving the day.”
The agency prefers P.R. about sometimes haywire yet dedicated fictional characters to fumbling real ones. Carrie and Saul — who get a lot more Congressional oversight in the new season than the C.I.A. gets in real life — actually boost the agency’s brand.
The C.I.A. would rather talk about nefarious programs, like targeted killings, than rehash blunders: Missing the breakup of the Soviet Union, and Osama’s 9/11 plot; failing to figure out there were no W.M.D. in Iraq and feeling flummoxed over the Arab spring.
Danes mused about their C.I.A. group hug: “Maybe it’s this strange idea that your achievements are never going to be celebrated publicly while your failures are going to be exposed. There must be some urge to have their victories on positive display even in a fictional context.”
So now we know what the next “24″ is going to be when TPTB start conflating fiction with reality. Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from Niskayuna, NY:
It’s easy to be depressed about America these days. We’ve got messes aplenty abroad and the Republican-dominated House of Representatives is totally paralyzed. Indeed, the G.O.P.-led House has become a small-minded, parochial place, where collaboration is considered treason, where science is considered a matter of opinion, where immigration is considered a threat, where every solution is a suboptimal compromise enacted at midnight and where every day we see proof of the theory that America is a country that was “designed by geniuses so that it could be run by idiots.”
Fortunately, there is another, still “exceptional,” American reality out there. (I am talking to you, Putin.)
It’s best found at the research centers of any global American company. These centers are places where scientists and engineers from dozens of nationalities are using collaboration and crowd-sourcing to push out the boundaries of medical, manufacturing and material sciences, where possibilities seem infinite, where optimal is the norm and where every day begins by people asking: “What world are we living in, and how do we thrive in that world?” As opposed to: “Here is my crazy ideology, and the world will have to bend to it because I’ve got a donor in Vegas who will fund it and a gerrymandered district back home that will endorse it.”
Just to get a jolt of that optimism, and a chance to focus on what we should be talking about, I asked General Electric for a tour of its huge research lab here in Niskayuna, north of Albany. I wanted to see what new technologies, and therefore business models — and therefore jobs — it might be spawning that public policy, and education policy, might enhance. I have no idea whether or how G.E. will profit from any of these breakthroughs, but I saw the outlines there of three radically new business trends that the United States should want to dominate.
The first derives from a phrase tossed off in passing by Luana Iorio, who oversees G.E.’s research on three-dimensional printing: “Complexity is free,” she told me. That is actually a very big statement.
In the old days, explained Iorio, when G.E. wanted to build a jet engine part, a designer would have to design the product, then G.E. would have to build the machine tools to make a prototype of that part, which could take up to a year, and then it would manufacture the part and test it, with each test iteration taking a few months. The whole process, said Iorio, often took “two years from when you first had the idea for some of our complex components.”
Today, said Iorio, engineers using three-dimensional, computer-aided design software now design the part on a computer screen. Then they transmit it to a 3-D printer, which is filled with a fine metal powder and a laser device that literally builds or “prints,” the piece out of the metal powder before your eyes, to the exact specifications. Then, you immediately test it — four, five, six times in a day — and when it is just right you have your new part. To be sure, some complex parts require more time, but this is the future. That’s what she means by complexity is free.
“The feedback loop is so short now,” explained Iorio, that “in a couple days you can have a concept, the design of the part, you get it made, you get it back and test whether it is valid” and “within a week you have it produced. … It is getting us both better performance and speed.”
In the past, performance worked against speed: the more tests you did to get that optimal performance, the longer it took. When complexity is free, the design-to-test-to-refine-to-manufacture process for some components is being reduced from two years to a week.
There is a parallel revolution in innovation. When G.E. is looking to invent a new product, it first assembles its own best engineers from India, China, Israel and the U.S. But now it is also supplementing them by running “contests” to stimulate the best minds anywhere to participate in G.E.’s innovations.
Example: There are parts of an aircraft engine — hangers, brackets, etc. — that are not key to the engine, but they keep it attached and add weight, which means higher fuel costs. So G.E. recently took one bracket — described the conditions under which it worked and the particular function it performed — and posted it online under the “The G.E. Engine Bracket Challenge.” The company offered a reward to anyone in the world who could design that component with less weight, using 3-D printing.
“We advertised it in June,” said Iorio. Within weeks, “we got 697 entries from all over the world” from “companies, individuals, graduate students and designers.” G.E.’s engineers culled out the top 10, and they are now being tested to determine which is the lightest that conforms to G.E.’s specs and can be built on its printers. I saw one prototype that was 80 percent lighter than the older version. The winning prize pool is $20,000, spread out across 8 finalists, with awards ranging from $1,000 to $7,000 each. A majority of entries came from people outside the aviation industry.
Lastly, we are on the cusp of what G.E. calls “the Industrial Internet” or the “Internet of Things” — meaning that every major part of a G.E. jet engine, locomotive or turbine is now equipped with online sensors that constantly measure and broadcast every aspect of performance. Computers capture all this big data and use it to improve everything from the flight path to energy efficiency.
“We used to do monitoring and diagnostics,” said Mark Little, the director of G.E. global research: “We had sensors on a gas turbine. If something happened in your system, we could say: ‘You have an overtemperature on the backend, and here is how to fix it.’ And now we are using all this data to do prognostics. We are reading the signals and telling you something that will happen. You can proactively respond to it, and it affects reliability and productivity.” With all this data, G.E. is developing new service businesses that offer not just to manage an airline’s or railroad’s engines, but how fast all its planes or trains go, how flight and train schedules are coordinated and even how its equipment is parked to get optimal performance and energy efficiency.
With this diffusion of sensors, says Beth Comstock, G.E.’s chief marketing officer, a company can assemble data so much more accurately to “observe performance, predict performance and change performance” so there is “no unplanned downtime.” It can make an airline or railroad or power plant so much more “sustainable,” in both senses of that word.
Watch this space, even if Washington doesn’t: When everything and everyone becomes connected, and complexity is free and innovation is both dirt-cheap and can come from anywhere, the world of work changes.
And now here’s Mr. Kristof, telling us why we should rain down hell on the Syrians:
Columny is often a kind of dodge ball, in which we avoid counterarguments and bluster past contrary views. So, since I’ve obviously offended many readers by supporting missile strikes on Syria if it doesn’t give up chemical weapons, let me try to confront directly your objections.
Our schools are failing. Head Start is being cut back. Our roads and bridges need repairs. And you want to pour billions of dollars into blowing up Syria? What a misuse of resources!
That was true in Afghanistan and Iraq: For the cost of a single soldier in Afghanistan for a year, we could have built 20 schools. But Syria seems different.
A missile strike on Syrian military targets would result in no supplemental budget, so money would come from the existing military pot. In any case, the cost of 100 missiles would be about $70 million — far less than the $1 billion annual rate that we’re now spending on humanitarian aid for Syrians displaced by worsening war and by gas attacks.
If a $70 million strike deters further gas attacks and reduces the ability of President Bashar al-Assad to bomb civilians, that might actually save us money in humanitarian spending. All this is uncertain, but the bottom line is that the financial cost of a strike isn’t a reason to acquiesce in mass murder in Syria.
So you want to reduce Syrian suffering by bombing Syrians? Seriously?
Syrians worry about American missiles going astray, but they prefer that risk to being endlessly bombed and gassed with impunity by the regime. That’s why it’s Syrians, led by the Syrian government in exile, who are pleading for American airstrikes.
“These people are being bombed every day anyway by their own government,” Amal Hanano, a Syrian-American woman who uses that pseudonym for security reasons, told me in a Skype interview. “People want the Syrian air force destroyed.”
“This is the complete opposite of Iraq,” she added.
I’ve seen that video of a rebel eating a prisoner’s heart. It’s not just Syria’s rulers who are monsters, but also the opposition.
That seems to be a false equivalency. Sure, some of the rebels are vile, but human rights monitors find far more atrocities committed by government forces.
Likewise, Al Qaeda-linked Islamist militias have gained strength because they receive funding and weapons from Gulf countries, while, until recently, we provided no arms to moderate rebels.
“If we see an Assad fighter plane overhead and there’s a 50-50 chance we’ll hit it, we don’t strike,” a secular rebel told the independent Web site Syria Deeply. “We can’t afford the ammunition. The Islamist brigades will take a shot at anything. They have more than enough supplies.”
We get involved in these messes, and we always regret it. Look at Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam.
Or look at Rwanda: President Clinton says one of his biggest regrets is not getting involved and stopping that genocide in 1994. In that case, Western forces evacuated a dog from the French Embassy, but left behind the Rwandan staff to be slaughtered. That wasn’t “restraint.” That was passivity and myopia, and it was wrong.
Conversely, in Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Kosovo, Mali, Ivory Coast, there’s general agreement that the West was right to intervene militarily to avert mass atrocities. The point is that either side can cherry pick examples of successes or failures, and there are also some that fall in-between. But, over all, I’d say that there are more successful humanitarian interventions than failures.
So Assad presides over the killing of 100,000 people, and we sit on our hands. Then the regime releases sarin, and we bomb? Isn’t the message to tyrants that when you slaughter your citizens, just don’t offend our sensibilities by using gas?
Yes, and that troubles me. We should have stood up to the butchery in Syria earlier — not to mention the killings in Darfur and elsewhere.
That said, chemical weapons are special because they are so indiscriminate, with the Aug. 21 sarin attack perhaps the most lethal evening in the entire Syrian war. And while there is plenty of hypocrisy and inconsistency in the air, it’s better to inconsistently confront one cause of suffering than to consistently acquiesce in them all.
Get a life! You’re a broken record on Syria, and no one agrees with you.
I’m passionate on this because there’s a crucial principle at stake about the need to stand up to genocide or mass atrocities where it is feasible.
I understand that Syria is a hard case, with uncertain consequences. But if we are broadly retreating from the principle of humanitarian intervention to avert mass atrocities because of compassion fatigue in a tumultuous and ungrateful world, then we’re landing on the wrong side of history, and some day we will look back in shame.
Finally we get to Mr. Bruni:
In the feverish debate about a strike against Syria, there was a phrase that rankled, a shorthand that shortchanged the potential consequences and costs of military engagement.
“Boots on the ground.” It’s what the Obama administration told us that we needn’t worry about. It’s what lawmakers and pundits said that voters could never abide.
No “boots on the ground.” Definitely not “boots on the ground.” It was as if we were talking about footwear: rest assured, folks, wingtips and Birkenstocks are out of the question. But we were talking about lives, about American servicemen and servicewomen, the kind who were dispatched for dubious reasons to Iraq and less dubious ones to Afghanistan, some of whom didn’t come back, some of whom will never be the same.
We’re not good at discussing this, at confronting head-on what the toll of our best intentions and tortured interventions can be. We turn to abstractions, not just “boots on the ground” but the shopworn observation, divorced from any detail, that Americans are “tired of war,” as if it’s a wearying chore, something that fatigues a country rather than something that rips families and communities apart, sucking their loved ones in and spitting them back out in coffins, on respirators, with missing pieces, with scrambled minds.
As last week ended, the possibility of bombing Syria seemed to recede. But before that happened, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were promising that any military action we might take would be limited to the air and would be at once a definitive deterrent and “unbelievably small,” in Kerry’s words. That paradoxical notion spoke volumes about the administration’s confused and confusing approach.
And that assurance underscored a different, unspoken reality: that to strike a blow is to light a fuse. You just don’t know. You can’t predict the moment or the shape of the explosion, and you can’t guess the size of the temptation to follow it up with just one more maneuver, one additional push. My fellow Americans, we’ve gone this far. We must seal the deal by going a little farther still.
And that’s why we should have been weighing, and should still weigh, some numbers in addition to those cited by the president in his address to the nation last Tuesday night. He mentioned the galling statistic that more than 100,000 people had been killed in the last two years of civil war in Syria. More than 1,000 of them, he said, had perished in the gas attack that prompted our current debate about whether to hit certain Syrian targets.
Here are some other relevant figures. Our country sent more than two million men and women to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 6,500 of them are dead. Tens of thousands were physically injured, including some 1,500 amputees. Iraq and Afghanistan were minefields, literally and metaphorically, rife with improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.’s. They were easy places to lose a limb.
Of the two-million-plus Americans who spent time there, “studies suggest that 20 to 30 percent have come home with post-traumatic stress disorder,” writes David Finkel in his beautiful and heartbreaking new book, “Thank You for Your Service,” which was excerpted in The New Yorker recently and will be published next month. “Depression, anxiety, nightmares, memory problems, personality changes, suicidal thoughts: every war has its after-war, and so it is with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, which have created some five hundred thousand mentally wounded American veterans.”
Pause here for a few seconds. Take that in. Half a million Americans carry around a darkness they didn’t used to, because when our country went to war, they, unlike most of us, actually had to go.
“How to grasp the true size of such a number, and all of its implications, especially in a country that paid such scant attention to the wars in the first place?” Finkel asks in his book. That’s an essential question, not just in terms of Iraq and Afghanistan but in relation to our current crossroads and all that we need to take into consideration when deliberating war.
There’s the financial strain of military engagement. There’s the wrath of nations that disapprove of it and the possible repercussion from terrorists. With Syria, each of these has been discussed.
But there’s also a worst-case scenario of a point, down the line, when things get messier than we ever meant them to and when there’s a call for something more than aerial bombardment, for the presence — and the sacrifice — of American servicemen and servicewomen. And “boots on the ground” isn’t adequate acknowledgment of this.
“Thank You for Your Service” is. Together with its masterful prequel, “The Good Soldiers,” it measures the wages of the war in Iraq — the wages of war, period — as well as anything I’ve read.
For “The Good Soldiers,” Finkel embedded himself so deep in a battalion that he could evoke the blood, sweat and dread of the men around him. For “Thank You for Your Service,” he followed some of those men home, and got inside their therapy sessions, their homes, their heads. He chronicled all the pills they were taking to try to medicate themselves back into some semblance of normalcy. He chronicled the silences they fell into because they weren’t sure what to say.
He atones for our scant attention by paying meticulous heed. And he reminds us that it’s not just the warriors who suffer; it’s the family members who muddle on without them or who struggle to put them back together.
One of the people he follows closely in the book is a widow, Amanda Doster, whose friends, he writes, “began to lose patience with her inability to stop being so relentlessly heartbroken.” When she packs up the house that she and her dead husband shared, the very last thing she grabs, from a counter, is the wooden box with his ashes, and when she puts it in the car, she “buckles him in,” as if it’s not too late to try to protect him.
I mention Finkel and his books not just because they’re so gorgeously written, but because they fill in crucial gaps for the many Americans who have opinions about Syria but no firsthand experience of war.
The way that we can best thank our good soldiers for their service is to keep in mind, whenever contemplating the next military engagement, the ravages of the last one. To remember that there are spouses passionately loved, parents sorely needed, sons and daughters fiercely cherished in all of those pairs of boots.