Archive for the ‘Stewart’ Category

Keller and Krugman

February 11, 2013

In “The Conscience of a Corporation” Mr. Keller discusses stretching religious freedom to the breaking point.  Prof. Krugman, in “The Ignorance Caucus,” says the G.O.P. refuses to live in an evidence-based world.  Here’s Mr. Keller:

David Green, who built a family picture-framing business into a 42-state chain of arts and crafts stores, prides himself on being the model of a conscientious Christian capitalist. His 525 Hobby Lobby stores forsake Sunday profits to give employees their biblical day of rest. The company donates to Christian counseling services and buys holiday ads that promote the faith in all its markets. Hobby Lobby has been known to stick decals over Botticelli’s naked Venus in art books it sells.

And the company’s in-house health insurance does not cover morning-after contraceptives, which Green, like many of his fellow evangelical Christians, regards as chemical abortions.

“We’re Christians,” he says, “and we run our business on Christian principles.”

This has put Hobby Lobby at the leading edge of a legal battle that poses the intriguing question: Can a corporation have a conscience? And if so, is it protected by the First Amendment.

The Affordable Care Act, a k a Obamacare, requires that companies with more than 50 full-time employees offer health insurance, including coverage for birth control. Churches and other purely religious organizations are exempt. The Obama administration, in an unrequited search for compromise, has also proposed to excuse nonprofit organizations such as hospitals and universities if they are affiliated with religions that preach the evil of contraception. You might ask why a clerk at Notre Dame or an orderly at a Catholic hospital should be denied the same birth control coverage provided to employees of secular institutions. You might ask why institutions that insist they are like everyone else when it comes to applying for federal grants get away with being special when it comes to federal health law. Good questions. You will find the unsatisfying answers in the Obama handbook of political expediency.

But these concessions are not enough to satisfy the religious lobbies. Evangelicals and Catholics, cheered on by anti-abortion groups and conservative Obamacare-haters, now want the First Amendment freedom of religion to be stretched to cover an array of for-profit commercial ventures, Hobby Lobby being the largest litigant. They are suing to be exempted on the grounds that corporations sometimes embody the faith of the individuals who own them.

“The legal case” for the religious freedom of corporations “does not start with, ‘Does the corporation pray?’ or ‘Does the corporation go to heaven?’ ” said Kyle Duncan, general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing Hobby Lobby. “It starts with the owner.” For owners who have woven religious practice into their operations, he told me, “an exercise of religion in the context of a business” is still an exercise of religion, and thus constitutionally protected.

The issue is almost certain to end up in the Supreme Court, where the betting is made a little more interesting by a couple of factors: six of the nine justices are Catholic, and this court has already ruled, in the Citizens United case, that corporations are protected by the First Amendment, at least when it comes to freedom of speech. Also, we know that at least four members of the court don’t think much of Obamacare.

In lower courts, advocates of the corporate religious exemption have won a few and lost a few. (Hobby Lobby has lost so far, and could eventually face fines of more than $1 million a day for defying the law. The company’s case is now before the Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.)

You can feel some sympathy for David Green’s moral dilemma, and even admire him for practicing what he preaches, without buying the idea that la corporation, c’est moi. Despite the Supreme Court’s expansive view of the First Amendment, Hobby Lobby has a high bar to get over — as it should.

For one thing, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act — which was enacted at the behest of religious groups — companies cannot impose religious tests on their employees. They can’t hire only Catholics, or refuse to hire Catholics. They cannot oblige you to practice the same faith their owners do. Companies are, by legal design, zones of theological diversity and tolerance. So Green, whose company is privately held, can spend his own money to promote his faith, but it would be an act of legal overreach to say that he can impose his faith on his employees by denying them benefits the government has widely required.

“If an employer can craft a benefits system around his religious beliefs, that’s a slippery slope,” said Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and a critic of religious exemptions. “Can you deny treatment of AIDS victims because your religion disapproves of homosexuals? What if your for-profit employer is a Jehovah’s Witness, who doesn’t believe in blood transfusions?”

Also, courts tend to distinguish between laws that make you do something and laws that merely require a financial payment. In the days of the draft, conscientious objectors were exempted from conscription. A sincere pacifist could not be obliged to kill. But a pacifist is not excused from paying taxes just because he or she objects to the money being spent on war. Doctors who find abortions morally abhorrent are not obliged to perform them. But you cannot withhold taxes because some of the money goes to Medicaid-financed abortion.

“Anybody who pays taxes can find something deeply offensive in what the government does,” said Robert Post, a First Amendment expert at Yale Law School. “ ‘I’m not paying my taxes because of torture at Guantánamo.’ ‘I’m not paying my taxes because of drones.’

“People can’t pick and choose their taxes, because you couldn’t have a functioning tax system.”

I don’t know what the courts will say, but common sense says the contraception dispute is more like taxation than conscription. Nothing in the Obamacare mandate obliges anyone to use contraception if, for example, she is in the tiny minority of American Catholics who take the church’s doctrine on birth control seriously. And Hobby Lobby’s policy doesn’t prevent the use of morning-after pills: it just assures that if an employee does use emergency contraception, she pays for it out of her Hobby Lobby paycheck rather than her Hobby Lobby insurance.

Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia who often sides with proponents of broader religious liberty, has taken to warning his friends that their aggressive positions on abortion, gay rights and now contraception are undermining the longstanding American respect for free exercise of religion.

“The religious community cannot take religious liberty for granted,” he said in a speech before the contraceptive issue blew up. “It needs to expend a lot more energy defending the right to religious liberty, and it would help to spend a lot less energy attacking the liberty of others.”

Cases like Hobby Lobby, he told me, have compounded his worry.

“Interfering with someone else’s sex life is a pretty unpopular thing to do,” he said. “These disputes are putting the conservative churches on the losing side of the sexual revolution. I think they are taking a risk of turning large chunks of the population against the idea of religious exemptions altogether.”

But Laycock’s is a lonely voice among advocates of religious exemptions. More typical is Rick Warren, the evangelical megachurch pastor, who says the battle to preserve religious liberty “in all areas of life” may be “the civil rights movement of this decade.” Warren goes on to say — I am not making this up — that “Hobby Lobby’s courageous stand, in the face of enormous pressure and fines,” is the equivalent of the Birmingham bus boycott.

When I read that kind of rhetoric from our country’s loftier pulpits, I understand why the fastest-growing religious affiliation in America is “none.”

Rick Warren is an infected pustule on the posterior of humanity.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Last week Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, gave what his office told us would be a major policy speech. And we should be grateful for the heads-up about the speech’s majorness. Otherwise, a read of the speech might have suggested that he was offering nothing more than a meager, warmed-over selection of stale ideas.

To be sure, Mr. Cantor tried to sound interested in serious policy discussion. But he didn’t succeed — and that was no accident. For these days his party dislikes the whole idea of applying critical thinking and evidence to policy questions. And no, that’s not a caricature: Last year the Texas G.O.P. explicitly condemned efforts to teach “critical thinking skills,” because, it said, such efforts “have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

And such is the influence of what we might call the ignorance caucus that even when giving a speech intended to demonstrate his openness to new ideas, Mr. Cantor felt obliged to give that caucus a shout-out, calling for a complete end to federal funding of social science research. Because it’s surely a waste of money seeking to understand the society we’re trying to change.

Want other examples of the ignorance caucus at work? Start with health care, an area in which Mr. Cantor tried not to sound anti-intellectual; he lavished praise on medical research just before attacking federal support for social science. (By the way, how much money are we talking about? Well, the entire National Science Foundation budget for social and economic sciences amounts to a whopping 0.01 percent of the budget deficit.)

But Mr. Cantor’s support for medical research is curiously limited. He’s all for developing new treatments, but he and his colleagues have adamantly opposed “comparative effectiveness research,” which seeks to determine how well such treatments work.

What they fear, of course, is that the people running Medicare and other government programs might use the results of such research to determine what they’re willing to pay for. Instead, they want to turn Medicare into a voucher system and let individuals make decisions about treatment. But even if you think that’s a good idea (it isn’t), how are individuals supposed to make good medical choices if we ensure that they have no idea what health benefits, if any, to expect from their choices?

Still, the desire to perpetuate ignorance on matters medical is nothing compared with the desire to kill climate research, where Mr. Cantor’s colleagues — particularly, as it happens, in his home state of Virginia — have engaged in furious witch hunts against scientists who find evidence they don’t like. True, the state has finally agreed to study the growing risk of coastal flooding; Norfolk is among the American cities most vulnerable to climate change. But Republicans in the State Legislature have specifically prohibited the use of the words “sea-level rise.

And there are many other examples, like the way House Republicans tried to suppress a Congressional Research Service report casting doubt on claims about the magical growth effects of tax cuts for the wealthy.

Do actions like this have important effects? Well, consider the agonized discussions of gun policy that followed the Newtown massacre. It would be helpful to these discussions if we had a good grasp of the facts about firearms and violence. But we don’t, because back in the 1990s conservative politicians, acting on behalf of the National Rifle Association, bullied federal agencies into ceasing just about all research into the issue. Willful ignorance matters.

O.K., at this point the conventions of punditry call for saying something to demonstrate my evenhandedness, something along the lines of “Democrats do it too.” But while Democrats, being human, often read evidence selectively and choose to believe things that make them comfortable, there really isn’t anything equivalent to Republicans’ active hostility to collecting evidence in the first place.

The truth is that America’s partisan divide runs much deeper than even pessimists are usually willing to admit; the parties aren’t just divided on values and policy views, they’re divided over epistemology. One side believes, at least in principle, in letting its policy views be shaped by facts; the other believes in suppressing the facts if they contradict its fixed beliefs.

In her parting shot on leaving the State Department, Hillary Clinton said of her Republican critics, “They just will not live in an evidence-based world.” She was referring specifically to the Benghazi controversy, but her point applies much more generally. And for all the talk of reforming and reinventing the G.O.P., the ignorance caucus retains a firm grip on the party’s heart and mind.

Kristof and Stewart

March 27, 2007

Today it’s Rory Stewart saying we must acknowledge our limits of power and knowledge in Iraq and Afghanistan and concentrate on what is achievable.  Wishful thinking…  Nicholas Kristof tells us a way to help fight poverty by becoming a microfinancier.  Here’s Rory Stewart:

We must acknowledge the limits of our power and knowledge in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere and concentrate on what is achievable. The question is not “What ought we to do?” but “What can we do?”

This is rarely discussed. When I ask politicians whether we can defeat the Taliban, they reply that we “have to” defeat the Taliban. If I ask whether we can actually do any good by staying in Iraq, they reply that we have “a moral obligation” to the Iraqi people.

By emphasizing moral necessity, politicians can justify almost any risk, uncertainty or sacrifice and make compromise seem cowardly and criticism treasonous. When I suggest recognition of Moktada al-Sadr or negotiation with the Taliban, I am described as an appeaser. But these moral judgments are fragile, and they increasingly cloak despair, paralysis and preparation for flight.

We are learning, painfully, that many of the problems in Iraq or Afghanistan — from violence and state failure to treatment of women — are deeply embedded in local beliefs, political structures and traumatic histories. Iraqis and Afghans do not want their country controlled by foreigners and non-Muslims. A powerful and effective minority is trying to kill us. The majority is at best lukewarm: they may dislike Sadrists or the Taliban, but they prefer them to us.

We are also now aware how little we can comprehend. Our officials are on short tours, lack linguistic or cultural training, live in barracks behind high blast walls and encounter the local population through angry petitions or sudden ambushes. We will never acquire the subtle sense of values, beliefs and history needed to create lasting changes, still less as we once intended, to lead a political, social and economic revolution.

Paul Bremer, then the top American administrator in Iraq, told us in October 2003 that we had six months to computerize the Baghdad stock exchange, privatize state-owned enterprises and reform the university curriculum. Now he would be grateful for stability. The American and British people have sensed that their grand objectives are unachievable, and since no one is offering any practical alternative, they are lapsing into cynicism and opposition.

Meanwhile the paralyzed leaders, afraid of their impotence, flit from troop increases to flight, from engagement to isolation. We must prevent this by acknowledging our limits, while recognizing that although we are less powerful and informed than we claimed, we are more powerful and informed than we fear.

A year ago, for example, I felt it would be almost impossible to help re-establish ceramics, woodwork and calligraphy and restore part of the old city of Kabul. I worried that Afghans were uninterested, the standards too low, the prices too high, the government apathetic and international demand nonexistent. But I found great Afghan energy, courage and skill and received imaginative and generous support from the U.S. government. Unexpected markets emerged; the Afghan administration helped; men and women found new pride and incomes. There are many much better established and more successful projects than this all over Afghanistan.

My experience suggests that we can continue to protect our soil from terrorist attack, we can undertake projects that prevent more people from becoming disaffected, and we can even do some good. In short, we will be able to do more, not less, than we are now. But working with what is possible requires humility and the courage to compromise.

We will have to focus on projects that Iraqis and Afghans demand; prioritize and set aside moral perfectionism; work with people of whom we don’t approve; and choose among lesser evils. We will have to be patient. We should aim to stop illegal opium growth and change the way that Iraqis or Afghans treat their women. But we will not achieve this in the next three years. We may never be able to build a democratic state in Iraq or southern Afghanistan. Trying to do so through a presence based on foreign troops creates insurgency and resentment and can only end in failure.

“You are saying,” the politician replies, “that we ought to sit back and do nothing.” On the contrary I believe we can do a great deal. But ought implies can. We have no moral obligation to do what we cannot do.

Rory Stewart’s latest book is “The Prince of the Marshes and Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq.” He runs the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Kabul and is a guest columnist this month.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

For those readers who ask me what they can do to help fight poverty, one option is to sit down at your computer and become a microfinancier.

That’s what I did recently. From my laptop in New York, I lent $25 each to the owner of a TV repair shop in Afghanistan, a baker in Afghanistan, and a single mother running a clothing shop in the Dominican Republic. I did this through www.kiva.org, a Web site that provides information about entrepreneurs in poor countries — their photos, loan proposals and credit history — and allows people to make direct loans to them.

So on my arrival here in Afghanistan, I visited my new business partners to see how they were doing.

On a muddy street in Kabul, Abdul Satar, a bushy-bearded man of 64, was sitting in the window of his bakery selling loaves for 12 cents each. He was astonished when I introduced myself as his banker, but he allowed me to analyze his business plan by sampling his bread: It was delicious.

Mr. Abdul Satar had borrowed a total of $425 from a variety of lenders on Kiva.org, who besides me included Nathan in San Francisco, David in Rochester, N.Y., Sarah in Waltham, Mass., Nate in Fort Collins, Colo.; Cindy in Houston, and “Emily’s family” in Santa Barbara, Calif.

With the loan, Mr. Abdul Satar opened a second bakery nearby, with four employees, and he now benefits from economies of scale when he buys flour and firewood for his oven. “If you come back in 10 years, maybe I will have six more bakeries,” he said.

Mr. Abdul Satar said he didn’t know what the Internet was, and he had certainly never been online. But Kiva works with a local lender affiliated with Mercy Corps, and that group finds borrowers and vets them.

The local group, Ariana Financial Services, has only Afghan employees and is run by Storai Sadat, a dynamic young woman who was in her second year of medical school when the Taliban came to power and ended education for women. She ended up working for Mercy Corps and becoming a first-rate financier; some day she may take over Citigroup.

“Being a finance person is better than being a doctor,” Ms. Sadat said. “You can cure the whole family, not just one person. And it’s good medicine — you can see them get better day by day.”

Small loans to entrepreneurs are now widely recognized as an important tool against poverty. Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for his pioneering work with microfinance in Bangladesh.

In poor countries, commercial money lenders routinely charge interest rates of several hundred percent per year. Thus people tend to borrow for health emergencies rather than to finance a new business. And partly because poor people tend to have no access to banks, they also often can’t save money securely.

Microfinance institutions typically focusing on lending to women, to give them more status and more opportunities. Ms. Sadat’s group does lend mostly to women, but it’s been difficult to connect some female borrowers with donors on Kiva — because many Afghans would be horrified at the thought of taking a woman’s photograph, let alone posting on the Internet.

My other partner in Kabul is Abdul Saboor, who runs a small TV repair business. He used the loan to open a second shop, employing two people, and to increase his inventory of spare parts. “I used to have to go to the market every day to buy parts,” he said, adding that it was a two-and-a-half-hour round trip. “Now I go once every two weeks.”

Web sites like Kiva are useful partly because they connect the donor directly to the beneficiary, without going through a bureaucratic and expensive layer of aid groups in between. Another terrific Web site in this area is www.globalgiving.com, which connects donors to would-be recipients. The main difference is that GlobalGiving is for donations, while Kiva is for loans.

A young American couple, Matthew and Jessica Flannery, founded Kiva after they worked in Africa and realized that a major impediment to economic development was the unavailability of credit at any reasonable cost.

“I believe the real solutions to poverty alleviation hinge on bringing capitalism and business to areas where there wasn’t business or where it wasn’t efficient,” Mr. Flannery said. He added: “This doesn’t have to be charity. You can partner with someone who’s halfway around the world.”

You are invited to comment on this column at Mr. Kristof’s blog, www.nytimes.com/ontheground.

I am SO glad he’s bringing Kiva to the forefront.  I have four loans out now.  This is an amazing organization — please visit their site and just see if you don’t find someone to help.

Fish and Stewart

March 24, 2007

Today it’s Stanley Fish and Rory Stewart in the NYT.  Mr. Fish discusses a bill in Missouri covering what can and cannot be required in college, and Mr. Stewart on how government policies must respond to Afghanistan’s fragmented pluralism.

Here’s Mr. Fish:

When a bill before a state legislature bears a woman’s name, it is usually because someone has been abducted or raped or murdered. But in Missouri, House Bill 213, or the Emily Brooker Intellectual Diversity Act, is under consideration because someone was given an assignment.

According to a complaint filed in the United States District Court in Missouri, Emily Brooker, a student at Missouri State University, was required by her professor in a social-work class to participate in writing a letter supporting gay adoption. The letter was to be signed by every student and forwarded to the state legislature. (It was never sent.)

Ms. Brooker declined to sign, saying that the position taken in the letter conflicted with her religious beliefs. A month later she was called before a faculty-student committee to respond to questions about her academic performance and her fitness for social work. Nine months later (Sept. 17, 2006), she filed her complaint, and on Nov. 8, 2006, the university settled out of court and agreed to pay Ms. Brooker a sum of $9,000, waive academic fees totaling another $12,000, clear her academic record and remove her professor from his administrative duties and the classroom. In short, a slam-dunk.

A story with a happy ending? Yes and no. Yes, because at least on the reported facts, she was obviously in the right. No, because no one involved in this little drama got the issue right.

Ms. Brooker apparently believed that the issue was religious freedom, and this was certainly the argument made by the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian organization that brought the case on her behalf.

“Being a Christian shouldn’t make you a second-class citizen on a college campus,” said David French, the fund’s senior legal counsel. The injury, however, was not done to Ms. Brooker as a Christian, but to every student in the class, Christian or not, opponent or proponent of gay adoption.

For what the professor was requiring of his class was public advocacy, and it doesn’t matter whether an individual student would have approved of the advocacy; advocacy is just not what should be going on in a university.

Once advocacy is removed from the equation — once issues, including gay adoption, are objects of study rather than alternatives to be embraced — the beliefs, religious or otherwise, of either students or professors, become irrelevant.

A student assigned to study an issue must be equipped with the appropriate analytical skills. Acquiring and applying those skills in no way depend on political or ideological affiliations. If the assignment is to give an account of the dispute about gay adoption rather than to come down on one side or the other, two students with opposing views of the matter might very well produce the very same account. Academic performance and individual beliefs are independent variables. They have nothing to do with each other.

If the distinction between studying and advocating were honored, there would be no need for Provision J of House Bill 213, which deals with “conflicts between personal beliefs and classroom assignments.” There could be no such conflicts if classroom assignments asked students to analyze an issue rather than pronounce on it; no one’s personal beliefs about anything would be in play.

Not only is Provision J beside the point; the entire bill is beside the point because it addresses a problem that should never arise, and proposes a remedy no different from the disease it claims to cure. Under House Bill 213, institutions of higher education would be required to report each year on their efforts “to ensure and promote intellectual diversity.”

“Intellectual diversity” — a term of art introduced by the conservative activist David Horowitz — mandates the proportional representation, on the faculty and in the curriculum, of conservatives and liberals. Its watchword is “balance,” but balance is a political measure, not an educational measure, for it could be achieved only by monitoring the political affiliations of professors and the political content of the materials they assign.

Emily Brooker’s professor was wrong to enlist her in a political campaign. Promoting and actively enforcing something called intellectual diversity would vastly extend his wrong and make it the law of the state.

Stanley Fish, the Davidson-Kahn professor of law at Florida International University, is a guest columnist this month.
Maureen Dowd is off today.

Here’s Mr. Stewart:

Afghanistan is now both more and less than a nation. Dialects of its official language are spoken from Iran to India. Its greetings and rituals are recognizable in Chechnya. Kabuli woodwork incorporates motifs from Syria, the Mughal Empire and pre-Islamic Uzbekistan. On Tuesday, I heard a song from a mystical order, founded in Afghanistan, which was played by musicians from the borders of Nepal.

But Afghanistan is internally fragmented. It contains diverse Turkmen, Uzbek, Tajik and Baluch people, who dominate the neighboring ‘stans.’ The Pashtun majority was split with Pakistan in the 19th century. The recent civil war has eroded nationhood further.

Government policy must respond to this fragmented pluralism. The myriad social organizations, histories and experiences of isolated Afghan communities should be liberated, and the state should become less centralized. This is because Afghans do not want to be ruled by an overbearing, alien government, and the civil service does not have the capacity to govern effectively across the country.

Devolution, however, should be counterbalanced by a new idea of a nation. President Hamid Karzai has embraced ethnic diversity in his elaborate Uzbek robes and Pashtun prayer beads. He must rebuild Kabul as a national symbol. He needs a new unifying definition of Afghanistan to replace the old and still powerful myth of jihad against foreign occupation.

Afghanistan is defined by its organic relationship to wider Muslim Asia. It is a barren country that first flourished as a trading station, connecting Central Asia, Iran and Pakistan, taking silk to Rome and cotton to China. It is historically entrepreneurial, adept at exploiting foreign financial support and finding varied irregular incomes. It is now supported by the cash of four million recently returned refugees and many remittances. Afghan carpets, tiles and calligraphy are attractive to neighboring markets because they draw on a regional tradition. Afghanistan should benefit from the overland trade between its resource-rich or rapidly growing neighbors.

This trade can be developed by increasing the United States investment in building roads. A year ago, it took nearly a day to get from Kabul to Peshawar, Pakistan — which was the time it took in 1933. Now the journey can be done in half the time.

But Kabul airport, which could easily make money, is pathetic; imports are taxed 15 times as they move from the borders to the capital; exports are crippled by cumbersome regulations and transportation costs.

Karzai’s largest problem lies with his Muslim neighbors, Pakistan and Iran. He must use everything that Afghanistan shares with these countries: linguistically, historically, culturally and religiously to charm, outwit and influence them. He should do the same throughout the Islamic world. The Middle East has never been so wealthy or so generous. Yet Afghanistan has failed to win its financial support.

The United States must, like Karzai, approach Afghanistan consistently as part of a wider region. There are identical tribal and political groups on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border, separated only by colonial line. We emphasize democracy and human rights and pursue an aggressive counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, but we support Pervez Musharraf, a military ruler, who takes a political, negotiated approach to the same groups in Pakistan. As a result of this schizophrenia, Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders base themselves in Pakistan and attack our interests from there.

Actions in one country spread quickly to neighbors. The invasion of Iraq disturbed Iran, then the election of a Shiite government emboldened it to finance other Shiite groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Concessions to India frighten Pakistan into financing the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Our response to the Taliban angers Muslims in Europe and Indonesia. Yet Afghanistan’s influence can also be positive. Shiite-Sunni violence has spread from Pakistan to Iraq. But the Murad Khane district in central Kabul, which contains five Shiite and Sunni ethnic groups, has, like the rest of Afghanistan, recently avoided sectarian violence.

This year is the 800th anniversary of the poet Rumi, who was born in Afghanistan, traveled through Central Asia, Persia and Arabia and died in Turkey, without being aware of leaving a single country. Tens of millions can recite his poetry. His line applies well to Afghanistan:

“Ma chu kuhim o sada dar ma ze tust.”

“We are mountains, our echoes are from you.”

Rory Stewart’s latest book is “The Prince of the Marshes and Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq.” He runs the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Kabul and is a guest columnist this month.

Stewart and Kristof

March 20, 2007

Today in the NYT it’s Rory Stewart in Kabul saying the United States needs to be honest about Afghanistan, and Nicholas Kristof wonders whether Dick Cheney is an Iranian mole.  First up, Rory Stewart:

Why are we in Afghanistan? Vice President Cheney talks terror, Britain focuses on narcotics. The European Union talks ‘state-building,’ others gender. On a different day, the positions seem interchangeable. Five years ago, we had a clear goal. Now we seem to be pursuing a bundle of objectives, from counterinsurgency to democratization and development, which are presented as uniform but which are in fact logically distinct and sometimes contradictory.

Finance officers in Kabul and shepherds in Kandahar want to know what we did with the $10 billion we spent in the last four years. So do any number of commentators on Afghan TV and radio. And when Helmand villagers see soldiers from countries thousands of miles away carrying guns and claiming to be only building schools, they don’t believe them.

I have noticed that many Afghans now simply assume we are engaged in a grand conspiracy. Nothing else in their minds can explain the surreal gap between our language and performance. The United States needs to be honest about what it wants from Afghanistan and what it can achieve.

We should remember that we came first to protect ourselves against terrorist attack. Afghans can understand this and help. But counterterrorism is not the same as counterinsurgency. Counterterrorism requires good intelligence and Special Forces operations, of the sort the U.S. was doing in 2002 and 2003. Recently, however, NATO has become involved in a much wider counterinsurgency campaign, involving tens of thousands of troops. The objective now is to wrest rural areas from Taliban forces.

But many of the people we are fighting have no fixed political manifesto. Almost none have links to Al Qaeda or an interest in attacking U.S. soil. We will never have the troop numbers to hold these areas, and we are creating unnecessary enemies. A more considered approach to tribal communities would give us better intelligence on our real enemies. It is clear that we do not have the resources, the stomach, or the long-term commitment for a 20-year counterinsurgency campaign. And the Afghan Army is not going to take over this mission.

Our second priority should be to not lose the support of the disillusioned population in the central and western part of the country. We have spent billions on programs that have alleviated extreme poverty and supported governance but have not caught the imagination of Afghans. Afghans are bored with foreign consultants and conferences and are saying, ‘Bring back the Russians: at least they built dams and roads.” To win them over we should focus on large, highly visible infrastructure to which Afghans will be able to point in 50 years — just as they point to the great dam built by the United States in the 1960s. The garbage is still seven feet deep and buildings are collapsing in Kabul. We can deal with these things and leave a permanent symbol of generosity.

Once we are clear about our own interests, we can think more clearly about the third priority, which is to improve Afghan lives through development projects. There are excellent models, from U.N. Habitat to the Aga Khan network, which has restored historic buildings, run rural health projects, and established a five-star hotel and Afghanistan’s mobile telephone network. The soap business that the American Sarah Chayes has developed with Afghan women has been more successful than larger and wealthier business associations. Such projects should be separated from our defense and political objectives.

Sometimes it is better for us to do less. Dutch forces in the province of Uruzgan have found that, when left alone, the Taliban alienate communities by living parasitically, lecturing puritanically and failing to deliver. But when the British tried to aggressively dominate the South last summer, they alienated a dangerous proportion of the local population and had to withdraw. Pacifying the tribal areas is a task for Afghans, working with Pakistan and Iran. It will involve moving from the overcentralized state and developing formal but flexible relationships with councils in all their varied village forms.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that we squandered an opportunity in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003, being distracted by Iraq and not bringing enough troops or resources. But my experience in Afghanistan has led me to believe that the original strategy of limiting our role was correct.

Rory Stewart’s latest book is “The Prince of the Marshes and Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq.” He runs the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Kabul and is a guest Op-Ed columnist this month.

Now here’s Nicholas Kristof wondering about Darth Cheney:

If an 18-year-old American soldier were caught slipping obscure military paperwork to Iranian spies, he would be arrested, pilloried in the news media and tossed into prison for years.

But in fact there’s an American who has provided services of incalculably greater value to Iran in recent years. So you have to wonder: Is Dick Cheney an Iranian mole?

Consider that the Bush administration’s first major military intervention was to overthrow Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, Iran’s bitter foe to the east. Then the administration toppled Iran’s even worse enemy to the west, the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.

You really think that’s just a coincidence? That of all 193 nations in the world, we just happen to topple the two neighboring regimes that Iran despises?

Moreover, consider how our invasion of Iraq went down. The U.S. dismantled Iraq’s army, broke the Baath Party and helped install a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad. If Iran’s ayatollahs had written the script, they couldn’t have done better — so maybe they did write the script …

We fought Iraq, and Iran won. And that’s just another coincidence?

Or think about broader Bush administration policies in the Middle East. For six years, the White House vigorously backed Israeli hard-liners and refused to engage seriously in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, thus nurturing anti-Americanism and religious fundamentalism. Then last summer, the White House backed Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, which turned Iran’s proxies in Hezbollah into street heroes in much of the Arab world.

Consider also the way the administration has systematically antagonized our former allies in Europe and Asia, undermining chances of a united front to block Iranian development of nuclear weapons. Mr. Cheney may nominally push for sanctions against Iran, but by alienating our allies he makes strong sanctions harder to achieve.

And by condoning torture and extralegal detentions in Guantánamo, the White House antagonized Muslims around the world and made us look like hypocrites when we criticize Arab or Iranian human rights abuses. Take Mr. Cheney’s endorsement of the torture known as waterboarding, which simulates drowning: “It’s a no-brainer for me,” he said. The torturers in Iran’s Evin prison must have cheered. They got a pass as well.

Even at home, Iran’s leaders have been bolstered by President Bush and Mr. Cheney. Iran’s hard-liners are hugely unpopular and the regime is wobbly, but Bush administration policies have inflamed Iranian nationalism and given cover to the hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Why focus on Dick Cheney rather than his boss? Partly because Mr. Cheney, even more than Mr. Bush, has systematically pushed an extreme agenda that has transparently served Iranian purposes. And domestically, his role in the Scooter Libby scandal — and his disgraceful refusal to explain just what he was doing at the crime scene — ended up paralyzing executive decision-making and humiliating our government.

Is that really just one more coincidence? Or could it be another case of Mr. Cheney’s following instructions from his Iranian bosses to damage America?

O.K., O.K. Of course, all this is absurd. Mr. Cheney isn’t an Iranian mole. Nor is he a North Korean mole, though his we-don’t-negotiate-with-evil policy toward North Korea has resulted in that country’s quadrupling its nuclear arsenal. It’s also unlikely that he is an Al Qaeda mole, even though Al Qaeda now has an important new base of support in Iraq.

Like Kennedy and Johnson wading into Vietnam, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney harmed American interests not out of malice but out of ineptitude. I concede that they honestly wanted the best for America, but we still ended up getting the worst.

So what are the lessons from this episode?

Our national interests are as vulnerable to incompetence as to malicious damage. So we must identify and abandon the policies that backfired so catastrophically. The common threads of those damaging policies are clear: a refusal to negotiate with “evil”; an aggressive willingness to use military force to solve problems; contempt for our allies; and the bending of legal and moral principles to allow indefinite detention and even torture, particularly for anyone with olive skin and a Muslim name.

Whenever we’ve suspected a mole in our midst, we’ve gone to extreme lengths to find the traitor. This time, betrayed not by a mole but by failed policies, let’s be just as resolute. It’s time to uproot policies that in the last half-dozen years have damaged American interests incomparably more than any mole or foreign spy ever has in the last 200 years.

You’re invited to post your comments about this column on Mr. Kristof’s blog, www.nytimes.com/ontheground

Judith Warner and Rory Stewart

March 17, 2007

It’s guest columnists in the NYT today. Judith Warner puzzles over teaching girls how to be adult women when adults seem to be confused over it, and Rory Stewart on the proposal to elect the members of Britain’s House of Lords. Here’s Judith Warner:

Bling-Bling Barbies and pouty-lipped Bratz. Thongs for tweens, and makeover parties for 5-year-olds. The past couple of shopping seasons have brought a constant stream of media stories — and books and school lectures and anguished mom conversations — all decrying the increasingly tarted-up world of young girls and preteens. Now the American Psychological Association has weighed in as well, with a 67-page report on the dangers of the “sexualization” of girls.

The report takes aim at the music lyrics, Internet content, video games and clothing that are now being marketed to younger and younger kids, and correlates their smutty content with a number of risks to girls’ well-being. It finds that sexualization — turning someone into “eye candy” — is linked to eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression in girls and women. Adopting an early identity as a “Hot Tot” also has, the researchers wrote, “negative consequences on girls’ ability to develop healthy sexuality.”

This isn’t surprising, or even new. But what did surprise me, reading through the A.P.A.’s many pages of recommendations for fighting back (like beefed-up athletics, extracurriculars, religion, spirituality, “media literacy” and meditation), was the degree to which the experts — who in an earlier section of the report acknowledge the toxicity of mother-daughter “fat talk” — let moms themselves off the hook as agents of destruction requiring change.

I know that sounds pretty nasty. We’re not supposed to be judgmental these days. We’re not supposed to blame parents — especially mothers. I also know that what mothers do or don’t do (short of out-and-out abuse) doesn’t, single-handedly, “cause” much of anything. But I think it’s fair, even necessary, to wonder: how can we expect our daughters to navigate the cultural rapids of becoming sexual beings when we ourselves are flying blind? How can we teach them to inhabit their bodies with grace and pleasure if we spend our own lives locked in hateful battles of control, mastery and self-improvement?

We all tend to talk a good game now on things like body image and sexual empowerment. We buy the American Girl body book, “The Care and Keeping of You,” promote a “healthy” diet and exercise, and wax rhapsodic about team sports. But do we practice what we preach?

Not when we walk around the house sucking in our stomachs in front of the mirrors. Not when we obsessively regulate the contents of our refrigerators in the name of “purity.” (Did you know that there’s a clinical word for the “fixation on righteous eating”? It’s called “orthorexia.”) Our girls see right through all our righteousness. And they hear the hypocrisy, too, when we dish out all kinds of pabulum about a “positive body image,” then go on to trash our own thighs.

That, at least, is what I’ve been told by Rosalind Wiseman, author of the Queen Bee books, who spends much of her time touring the country, lecturing parents and listening to what girls have to say.

The tweens she meets beg her to let their moms know they see through them. They snigger, too — in communities where plastic surgery is the norm — at “augmented” moms who strut their stuff in spaghetti straps and spandex. A group of 12-year-olds Wiseman recently met told her: “Our mothers are coming to school thinking they’re 18 years old. We feel bad for these women. It’s embarrassing.”

“By eighth grade,” Wiseman said, “the girls pretty much give up on their mothers and sort of check out.”

Maybe it’s time to take a break from bashing the media and start to take a long, hard look instead at the issue of mothers’ sexuality, which is, apparently, after a long and well-documented dormancy, enjoying a kind of rebirth — thanks, it is said, to things like pole dancing classes and sports club stripteases. These new evening antics of the erstwhile book club set are supposed to be fabulous because they give sexless moms a new kind of erotic identity. But what a disaster they really are: an admission that we’ve failed utterly, as adult women, to figure out what it means to look and feel sexy with dignity. We’ve created an aesthetic void. Should we be surprised that stores like Limited Too are rushing in to fill it? (Now on sale: a T-shirt with two luscious cherries and the slogan “Double trouble.”)

In opposing the tot-trash ethos, we shouldn’t comfort ourselves with “co-watching” TV or throwing out the Barbies. Instead, we ought to learn to find comfort inside our own skins.

Judith Warner is the author of “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety” and a contributing columnist for TimesSelect. This is her last guest column this month.

Next up, Rory Stewart:

When I visited Baghdad in 2003 and 2004, I found senior people in the Coalition Provisional Authority largely uninterested in events in the province where I was based. They focused on writing a draft constitution for Iraq. Paul Bremer III was excited about the document and thought it could be a source of national pride. But very few Iraqis had been consulted. They did not think it would bring a more effective government and felt it would be dangerously disruptive. I was reminded of this when I read about the vote this week to turn the House of Lords into a wholly elected chamber.

Britain’s unwritten constitution has adapted incrementally over centuries to challenges to the political system. The House of Lords once represented hereditary noblemen against the king; its power was later limited by the House of Commons. Recent changes have been positive.

It is now, like the Canadian Senate, essentially an appointed house, consisting of senior community leaders, generals, academics, business people and retired ministers, with a small rump of bishops and hereditary nobles. Members serve for life; they can scrutinize and delay, but can’t veto bills. The House of Lords is much less powerful than the House of Commons or the prime minister. Its primary role is as a watchdog.

On Monday, the House of Commons voted 337 to 224 to introduce elections for the members of the Lords. On Wednesday the Lords objected. An elected Lords would bring changes in fundamental constitutional relationships that have not been adequately considered.

Two elected houses make sense in a federal system, where the lower house represents individuals and the upper house the states. But Britain is not a federal country. Both houses would probably duplicate the same principle of representation. An elected Lords would have the democratic legitimacy to demand more power at the expense of the Commons and the prime minister.

There would be other, more eccentric, consequences: an elected house would exclude the bishops, severing the constitutional connection between the state and the Church of England, a subject over which governments were destroyed in the 19th century. It would remove the remaining 92 hereditary peers, who now serve until their deaths. The queen would then be even more of an anomaly. These changes, perhaps overdue, would be fundamental and should not be entered into lightly.

Real constitutional change should be driven by crisis and necessity. The United States achieved change on this scale only through revolution. That crisis created the opportunity for the Founding Fathers to define their basic philosophical principles and write a new constitution, which remains to this day both a cornerstone of national pride and also a formal political instrument, governed by strict rules.

But in Britain there has been no such crisis. In fact, most believe that the House of Lords is being a good watchdog. It has recently publicized and defended principles of justice and liberty against the government’s human rights and terrorism legislation. Even the reformers want to preserve this positive function. Their problem is not with what the House of Lords is doing, but with how its members are chosen.

The reformers believe that they can change the selection processes without changing the outcomes. They fail to see that these things are connected. It is because the House of Lords’ members are appointed for life that they have an independence that allows them to challenge party policy.

Meanwhile, the British public is largely frustrated with elected politicians and not enthusiastic to see more of them in the Lords. Voters understand that the House of Lords remains anachronistic, irrational and imperfect, but feel no pressing need for change. This has encouraged the Lords to vote overwhelmingly to remain an appointed house. The party leaders, Tony Blair and David Cameron, have evasively favored a hybrid house: partly elected, partly appointed.

In Britain, the grand banner of democracy is cloaking flimsy and unnecessary policies. There is room to make the appointments process more transparent, representative and nonpolitical. But in reality, an elected upper house would make sense only in the context of a new written constitution that redefined the separation of powers; the relationship with the lower house, the church and the monarchy; and deep issues of national identity. But to do that would require the rigor, seriousness and courage of the Founding Fathers.

Rory Stewart’s latest book is “The Prince of the Marshes and Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq.” He runs the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Kabul and is a guest Op-Ed columnist this month.
Maureen Dowd is off today.