La Collins gurgles about “Summer Travel Plans,” and asks why is Barack Obama going wherever he’s going at all? Anybody he needs to talk to would be happy to pick up a phone. This is the same woman who would, make no mistake about it, be howling that he was an inexperienced lightweight with no foreign policy experience if he stayed home. Just finished re-reading Catch-22 did you, dear? Mr. Herbert’s column is titled “Yes, We Can.” He says the thing about visionaries like Al Gore is that they don’t imagine what’s easy. They imagine the benefits to be reaped once all the obstacles are overcome. Here’s that Collins woman:
Barack Obama is visiting … wherever. (Security is so tight for this trip that we cannot even talk about not talking about it.)
Suffice it to say that he intends to check out the big Middle Eastern trouble spots, to meet with officials and generals, and to speak with ordinary citizens to the degree possible for a man surrounded by more armor than a Transformer movie.
“I think he wants to get out and do as much as he can … I don’t think he’ll be strolling around the market in a flak jacket,” said Susan Rice, a senior Obama foreign policy adviser, speaking from a plane en route to … someplace.
That was, of course, a reference to John McCain’s visit to Baghdad last year when he strolled through a market, swaddled in a flak jacket and protected by so many soldiers, helicopters and sharpshooters that it looked like a new invasion. The entire expedition provided as much information on real-life conditions in Iraq as a walk down the old “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” set at Universal Studios. Nevertheless, McCain declared that he was witnessing evidence that the country was returning to normal. The next day, a number of Shiite workers from the market were murdered.
McCain, who had been demanding that Obama visit Iraq, is now denouncing him for not having gone sooner, more often and before making policy speeches on the Middle East. “He’s never been to Afghanistan and I’m astonished,” he added.
You could pose the question in the opposite direction. Why is Obama going at all? Given the constraints under which he has to operate, the chance that he’ll see something enlightening seem to be lower than the chance of being shown something misleading. (See above: McCain/marketplace.) Really, anybody he needs to talk to would be happy to pick up a phone.
On the other hand, it’s always useful to get out and about. President Bush has been traveling around the world like crazy recently. A friend of mine refers to this late-breaking interest in globe-trotting as “a taxpayer-funded junior year abroad.” But let us try not to be bitter.
Bush has been touching all the bases — April with NATO, the Middle East in May, Europe in June, Asia in July. And look at all the progress we’ve seen since. The United States and Iraq have suddenly agreed to a “general time horizon” for future troop reductions. (Not a timetable! Everybody knows that timetables are playing into the hands of the enemy. This is an “aspirational goal.” Totally, totally different.)
And we’re talking to Iran about its nuclear weapons! This also is not a change of policy. Just ask the administration. “The United States is determined to have negotiations only when Iran has suspended its enrichment and reprocessing,” said Condoleezza Rice firmly. Talking with the top Iranian nuclear negotiator is not a negotiation! It’s talk. A get-to-know-you thing. Like speed dating.
Americans seem confused about how Iraq fits into the presidential race. Polls tell us they want the troops out, but when it comes to judgment in foreign affairs, they have more faith in McCain, who wants to stay in.
There’s a kind of strange symmetry in Iraq. Earlier this week, The Times’s Sabrina Tavernise and Richard Oppel talked to Iraqis in various parts of the country and reported that most seem to have a very high opinion of Obama for reasons that include: 1) his name; 2) the fact that although he is not and never has been Muslim, there’s a connection there somewhere; and 3) in the words of one Baghdad businessman: “He seems like a nice guy.”
If you feel as though these explanations lack a depth of political sophistication, try asking American voters how they feel about Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.
The Iraqis who talked to The Times were less enthusiastic about Obama’s position on — well, Iraq. Although most of the people interviewed wanted the Americans gone, they also wanted assurance they would still have the pathetic modicum of security and stability they have now. Which requires the American troops. That seems to put them closer to John McCain’s position. But they like Barack better. Once again, we see citizens of our two very different nations united by love of democracy and voter irrationality.
The confusion about whom to trust on Iraq may go back to the fact that both candidates were right about the war, in different ways. Obama opposed the whole thing. (“Dumb” was the operative word.) McCain thought it was being badly executed. Recently, his passion to demonstrate knowledge of military tactics has been so intense that he appears to be running for secretary of defense.
Obama underestimated the potential of the surge, but was way ahead of McCain in recognizing that the big problem in the region was Afghanistan, not Iraq. Yes, even though he had never been there, Obama was able to figure out that the region where Al Qaeda was actually located posed more of a danger to American security than a benighted country where it wasn’t.
Until, of course, George Bush invaded and Al Qaeda moved in. But he was much less experienced then. It was before the junior year abroad.
Here’s Mr. Herbert:
As I was listening to Al Gore on the telephone, I was thinking: “Uh-oh, the naysayers will have a field day with this one.”
The former vice president was giving me an advanced briefing on the speech that he delivered on Thursday, calling on the United States to behave like a great nation and actually do something real about its self-destructive and ultimately unsustainable reliance on carbon-based fuel for its 21st-century energy needs.
“I’m going to issue a strategic challenge that the United States of America set a goal of getting 100 percent of our electricity from renewable resources and carbon-constrained fuels within 10 years,” he said.
“One hundred percent?” I said.
“One hundred percent.”
Mr. Gore’s focus is primarily on solar, wind and geothermal energy. His belief is that a dramatic, wholesale transition to these abundant and renewable sources of energy is not just doable, but essential.
My view of Mr. Gore’s passionate engagement with some of the biggest issues of our time is that he is offering us the kind of vision and sense of urgency that has been so lacking in the presidential campaigns. But the tendency in a society that is skeptical, if not phobic, about anything progressive has been to dismiss his large ideas and wise counsel, as George H. W. Bush once did by deriding him as “ozone man.”
The naysayers will tell you that once again Al Gore is dreaming, that the costs of his visionary energy challenge are too high, the technological obstacles too tough, the timeline too short and the political lift much too heavy.
But that’s the thing about visionaries. They don’t imagine what’s easy. They imagine the benefits to be reaped once all the obstacles are overcome. Mr. Gore will tell you about the wind blowing through the corridor that stretches from Mexico to Canada, through the Plains states, and the tremendous amounts of electricity that would come from capturing the energy of that wind — enough to light up cities and towns from coast to coast.
“We need to make a big, massive, one-off investment to transform our energy infrastructure from one that relies on a dirty, expensive fuel to fuel that is free,” said Mr. Gore. “The sun and the wind and geothermal are not going to run out, and we don’t have to export them from the Persian Gulf, and they are not increasing in price.
“And since the only factor that controls the price is the efficiency and innovation that goes into the equipment that transforms it into electricity, once you start getting the scales that we’re anticipating, those systems come down in cost.”
The correct response to Mr. Gore’s proposal would be a rush to figure out ways to make it happen. Don’t hold your breath.
When exactly was it that the U.S. became a can’t-do society? It wasn’t at the very beginning when 13 ragamuffin colonies went to war against the world’s mightiest empire. It wasn’t during World War II when Japan and Nazi Germany had to be fought simultaneously. It wasn’t in the postwar period that gave us the Marshall Plan and a robust G.I. Bill and the interstate highway system and the space program and the civil rights movement and the women’s movement and the greatest society the world had ever known.
When was it?
Now we can’t even lift New Orleans off its knees.
In his speech, delivered in Washington, Mr. Gore said: “We’re borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet.”
He described carbon-based fuel as the thread running through the global climate crisis, America’s economic woes and its most serious national security threats. He then asked: “What if we could use fuels that are not expensive, don’t cause pollution and are abundantly available right here at home?”
Americans are extremely anxious at the moment, and I think part of it has to do with a deeply unsettling feeling that the nation may not be up to the tremendous challenges it is facing. A recent poll by the Rockefeller Foundation and Time magazine that focused on economic issues found a deep pessimism running through respondents.
According to Margot Brandenburg, an official with the foundation, nearly half of 18- to 29-year-olds “feel that America’s best days are in the past.”
The moment is ripe for exactly the kind of challenge issued by Mr. Gore on Thursday. It doesn’t matter if his proposal is less than perfect, or can’t be realized within 10 years, or even it if is found to be deeply flawed. The goal is the thing.
The fetish for drilling for ever more oil is the perfect metaphor these days. The first thing you do when you find yourself in a hole is stop digging.