‐ How could President Obama not know that the Benghazi raid was a terrorist attack? He must read the New York Times.
‐ In the second and third debates, Mitt Romney did not equal his stellar performance in the first. “On points,” as the pundits say, President Obama could reasonably be judged to have won those two. Indeed, the networks’ snap polls generally suggested that he had, where they overwhelmingly found a Romney victory in the first. All debates are not equal in effect, however, and not just because the audience dwindles. In Debate One Romney ended the sense of Obama’s inevitable victory. He came across as a plausible president rather than the plutocratic bogeyman of liberal-super-PAC ads. In neither of the later debates did Obama erase these achievements. We are thus in a competitive general election: the one kind Barack Obama has never yet won.
‐ Mitt Romney didn’t quite say “Make love, not war” in the foreign-policy debate, but he could have. One of his first statements, about the War on Terror, was that “we can’t kill our way out of this mess.” True enough, although killing terrorists is the first step. He soft-pedaled his own positions and his disagreements with President Obama (rarely has one candidate in a presidential debate said he agrees so much with the other). Romney didn’t criticize the president’s rapid drawdown of the surge in Afghanistan, and he made it sound as if he wants all troops out of the country after 2014. A Romney spokesman quickly clarified that he hadn’t changed his view that Afghanistan will need a residual U.S. force. We assume Romney’s tone in Boca was more a function of debate strategy — reassuring the electorate, and especially women, that he’s not a warmonger — than of his instincts. Peace through strength does require strength.
‐ President Obama is losing support among women, and has therefore revived the rhetoric about a Republican war on women. Romney is supposedly a weak fighter for equal pay (actually, laws requiring it date back decades, and Obama has barely changed them) and a threat to women’s access to contraceptives (which are in plentiful supply in our country). In the second debate, Romney recounted how he had asked for recommendations of well-qualified women to fill positions in the government of Massachusetts and received “binders full of women.” Democrats called the line condescending; nobody not already deeply committed to Obama cared, which is the problem with the war-on-women tactic generally. Romney need not be defensive about any of this. When his own campaign has tried to appeal to women on the basis of their sex — as at the Republican convention, where both Romney and his wife said how much he respects and loves women — it has not worked. When he explained how his agenda would benefit all Americans, as in the first debate, he gained ground among men and women. Romney should let the president boast about making employers provide contraception, and explain how he will help them provide jobs.
‐ In the second presidential debate, Obama claimed that Mitt Romney’s plan to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood would affect “millions of women all across the country who rely on Planned Parenthood for not just contraceptive care” but “mammograms.” These millions of women must be very poorly served, since Planned Parenthood does not, with few exceptions, provide mammograms, as National Review’s correspondent Eliana Johnson was told repeatedly when she called five New York clinics about scheduling one. It does provide abortions — it performed over 330,000 in 2011. For some reason, the president did not mention these hundreds of thousands of women.
‐ The town-hall format of presidential debate, which debuted in 1992, is supposed to connect us to our simpler democratic roots, to Tocqueville via Norman Rockwell: ordinary citizens confronting the would-be mighty. In fact it gathers prescreened questioners in a TV-driven in-the-round format (how many actual town-hall meetings employ such a set-up?). The questions range from ho-hum to weird — 1992 was graced by the ponytailed we-are-your-children guy, who seemed in need of help that no answer from a baffled George H. W. Bush could give him. This year Obama and Romney engaged in a near cockfight; you half expected them to strip off their shirts, like Vladimir Putin, and go at it. Among forums characterized by lousiness, the town-hall debates are lousiest.
‐ Voting is an event, a coming-together of the people to make a decision at a particular moment. That that particular moment is arbitrary matters not, because it is arbitrary for every voter in exactly the same way. The (admittedly bizarre) logic and (admittedly interminable) length of presidential contests owe their form to this. From the first straw polls and exploratory committees to the closing of the last precinct halls, the race is punctuated by a series of events, created by custom and accident alike, that presidential campaigns use as waypoints in the elaboration of their pitches to the American people. All of them — the primaries, the conventions, the debates, the swing-state whistle-stop tours and fourth-quarter ad-buying blitzes — are precision-set to a very particular clock, one that stops ticking after Election Day. Voters, too, used to be set to this clock, particularly the critical class of “swing” or “undecided” voters whose preferences, by definition, do not start to cohere until weeks, even days before the election. But the mass movement toward early and absentee voting disrupts the rhythms of this republican waltz. It exaggerates the advantages of having the early money lead, preexisting ground game, and known-quantity name recognition of the incumbent. It cuts off critical classes of voters from obtaining the fullest picture of the candidates or changing their mind in light of “October surprises” or acts of God. It makes voter fraud both easier to perpetrate and harder to catch. And it undermines our central political rite — the act that binds We the People — perhaps in ways we have not even considered. “Vote early and often,” the cynical cliché goes. But all other things being equal, we’d just as soon Americans vote only once, on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
‐ Age, and a history of failed presidential bids, have given Joe Biden an air of harmlessness, as if he were the lean and slipper’d pantaloon, with spectacles on nose. Watch him, though; he’s a tough old demagogue. In the vice-presidential debate, Biden accused Paul Ryan of “voting to put two wars on a credit card,” and boasted, “I voted against him.” But Senator Biden voted along with most other Democrats to go into both Afghanistan and Iraq. He claimed the Obama administration wants to raise taxes only on those “making a million dollars or more,” when they actually want to start raising at $200,000. Of the Benghazi attack, he said, “We weren’t told they wanted more security again.” But the U.S. security chief asked for additional protection, and the office of the ambassador requested that its security support team not be withdrawn. Should Biden have said, “We weren’t told they wanted more security again and again and again”? Finally, he insisted that, under Obamacare, “no religious institution, Catholic or otherwise,” would have to refer for contraception, pay for it, or otherwise be a means to its acquisition. This statement brought a rebuke from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which pointed out that its hospitals and social services will indeed be vehicles “because they will still be forced to provide their employees with health coverage, and that coverage will still have to include sterilization, contraception, and abortifacients. They will have to pay for these things, because the premiums that the organizations (and their employees) are required to pay will still be applied . . . to cover the cost of these drugs and surgeries.” Strip out the malarkey from the debate transcript, and Biden’s contributions would be pretty short.
‐ Asked during the debate how his faith informs his view of abortion policy, Joe Biden claimed that the Catholic Church, to which he belongs, teaches as a matter of faith that life begins at conception, and that he accepts this teaching in his personal life. Paul Ryan pointed out that it’s science that teaches that conception marks the beginning of a human life. The Church merely recognizes that fact and teaches that society has a moral obligation to protect human beings in all stages of development from being killed. Biden went on to say that a President Romney would appoint “someone like Scalia,” who would “outlaw abortion,” to the Supreme Court. No justice has ever said the Court should outlaw abortion. Scalia would allow legislatures to outlaw abortion. Can Biden really be unaware of this basic point? He was a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee for nearly as long as he has been a Catholic.
‐ In his keynote address to the 2004 Democratic convention, Obama quoted the American motto: “E pluribus unum. ‘Out of many, one.’” He continued, “Even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us — the spinmasters, the negative-ad peddlers, who embrace the politics of ‘anything goes.’ Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America.” That was very nice. Today, at the end of his reelection campaign, Obama is running an ad that ends, “Mitt Romney: Not one of us.” Obama still sees one America, evidently, and Romney isn’t part of it.
Crushed by Debt
Americans are accustomed to experiencing solid and steady economic growth. Recessions have been the exception rather than the rule, and growth has been remarkably stable. Even our bad decades have been pretty good. GDP grew at an average annual rate of 3.26 percent in the 1970s, 3.05 percent in the 1980s, and 3.2 percent in the 1990s. Growth was only a smidgen less than that even in the 2000s, at least until the calamitous events of 2008.
President Obama’s fiscal policies, which have pushed our federal debt to World War II levels and are on track to add trillions more debt over the next decade, promise to deliver an economic future that is different from anything in our experience. Exactly how different is made clear by an alarming new study from Stanford University economist Michael Boskin.
Higher national debt restrains growth through three main channels. Interest payments siphon revenues away from productive activities, government borrowing crowds out private investment, and uncertainty dampens investment. While economists have known about these channels for some time, Boskin is the first to carefully quantify the negative effects of the current debt explosion on our growth prospects.
To do this, he surveys the economic literature and identifies the consensus estimates of how high the negative effects of debt are on economic growth. He highlights two studies that find strong negative effects. According to one, which was published by economists at the IMF, every 10 percent increase in the ratio of the national debt to GDP reduces future GDP growth by 0.17 percent. The other, a paper co-authored by economists Vincent and Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, finds that the economy loses about 1.2 percentage points of annual growth once debt levels climb above 90 percent. Boskin then asks the simple question: If the U.S. experience is similar to that of other countries with exploding debt, how bad does the growth picture get?
The accompanying chart illustrates Boskin’s key result. The top line is a baseline wherein the U.S. posts annual GDP growth of 2.25 percent, slightly lower than what the administration’s Office of Management and Budget has projected. The dark red line is the growth path we can expect if President Obama’s policies are all enacted and government debt is allowed to grow as projected by the OMB. The pink line is the growth path we can expect if government debt is stabilized in 2016.
The results are stunning. The red line, which describes the future path of the economy if President Obama’s policies are enacted, is fully 30 percent below the baseline by 2050. What is even more disturbing is that Boskin finds economic growth along that path essentially stopping in about 2040. Even if heroic measures are taken and the debt is stabilized in 2016, we can still expect much lower growth over the next few decades as the toll for our heavy spending binge.
The steady march to prosperity we have experienced over the years is no sure thing. Indeed, the surging federal debt may soon produce a generation of Americans who have never experienced even modest economic growth.
‐ In the Obama–Romney town-hall debate, there was a questioner named Jeremy, a college student. He was worried about having a job when he graduated. The Republican nominee said to him, “When you come out in 2014 — I presume I’m going to be president — I’m going to make sure you get a job. Thanks, Jeremy. Yeah, you bet.” You bet a presidential candidate has no business promising a person a job: unless he intends to hire him himself. Also, Romney has been saying that his “five-point plan” will lead to 12 million new jobs. Not 11 million, not 13 million, not 11,683,022 — but 12 million. Leave this kind of central planning to the central planners, and let our government allow an environment in which Americans can let ’er rip, creating as many jobs as they will.
‐ In the rapid-fire round of their election debate, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) and challenger Wendy Long were asked whether they had read Fifty Shades of Grey. They said they had not. So: A porno spank-book is made a bestseller by hordes of thirtysomethings, and a senator and a lawyer are asked — by a woman reporter — if they have joined them. Feminism.
‐ A plot to blow up the Federal Reserve in downtown Manhattan conjured up a host of bad Ron Paul jokes, but Quazi Mohammed Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis, a 21-year-old Bangladeshi studying in Missouri, meant it very seriously. Nafis thought destroying the building would hobble the American economy, and he planted a thousand-pound nitrate bomb at the spot. The bomb was a dud, supplied by an FBI informant; score another for good police work. Nafis was inspired by Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki. Both al-Qaeda prophets are (figuratively, at least) moldering in their graves, but their souls go marching on, as must our vigilance.
‐ The University of Texas has been the subject of three major racial-discrimination lawsuits — one decades ago for discriminating against blacks, two more recently for discriminating against whites and Asian Americans. The obvious lesson here — that the University of Texas should cease discriminating against people racially — is lost on the fine minds of that institution. The Supreme Court has just heard arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas,in which the university is defending its race-based admissions criteria. There has been some progress: The university has gone from categorical discrimination (overturned in the landmark Sweatt v. Painter case) to strong discrimination (overturned in the Hopwood case) to moderate discrimination, currently at issue. The Court has many possible standards to apply here, but why not go with the law? The Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, is fairly straightforward in its language: “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance,” including any “college, university, or other postsecondary institution, or a public system of higher education” receiving federal funding, which the University of Texas system does, in generous amounts. This unambiguous ban on racial discrimination stood as the law of the land until 1978, when the Supreme Court’s split-personality Bakke decision found some of the justices pretending, as they often do, that the words on the page do not mean what they plainly mean. We could do worse than to get back to the law.
‐ Thanks to Senator Jeff Sessions and the other minority members of the Senate Budget Committee, we now know that welfare spending hit $1.03 trillion in 2011. That’s a pretty astounding figure, even for this administration, and it means that spending on means-tested welfare programs (of which Washington funds more than 80) is the biggest item in the federal budget. For comparison, non-war defense spending in the same year hit $540 billion, and Social Security clocked in at $725 billion. Those numbers come from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, which collected the data at Sessions’s request. There’s not much to say besides: Yikes.
‐ Given his gambling record, perhaps Barack Obama should stay away from Las Vegas. The president has staked his reputation — and an awful lot of taxpayer dollars — on a “green energy” revolution that always is supposed to be just a few billion dollars away. On this front, October brought bad news. Much-vaunted battery maker A123 went bankrupt, Siemens gave up on its solar-energy business, General Electric made deep cuts in its wind-energy division, and employees at the LG Chem lithium-ion-battery plant in Holland, Mich., were reported to be so underemployed that, as one employee put it, “there’s a whole bunch of people, a whole bunch, filling their time with card games and board games.” LG Chem’s plant received not only $151 million in stimulus money, but also a 2010 visit from President Obama, who described the plant as “integral in building a better future for this city, for this state, and for this country.” “There’s no work, no work at all. Zero work,” an employee complained in October. In his Potemkin industry, he is in good company.
‐ In September, California’s governor, Jerry Brown, signed a bill into law that bans “gay-conversion therapy” for minors. Celebrating its passage, the bill’s sponsor, state senator Ted Lieu, described the method as tantamount to “psychological child abuse.” Whatever the merits of the practice, which employs psychotherapy to attempt to change a patient’s sexual orientation, there are serious questions as to whether the state should forbid parents to make such a decision — and why it permits them even weightier ones. California currently allows children as young as five to undergo a course of gender-altering “puberty-blocking drugs” that irreparably halts their development as males or females and, ultimately, completely changes the sex of their birth. But this, apparently, is uncontroversial.
‐ Radio Liberty has been broadcasting to Russians in their own language since 1953, and the consensus is that it has been vital in putting American views forward and serving as an enclave for free speech for all of that time. Those in the know have been warning that trouble is on the way. A new director called 41 of the staff of almost 90 radio journalists into the RL lawyers’ office and told them their contracts had been terminated. It so happens that many of them are human-rights reporters and critics of President Vladimir Putin. The new director has the different slant that radio is yesterday’s medium and RL will modernize by shifting to an Internet format. Mikhail Gorbachev, no less, has protested that American leadership “is ready to rotate 180 degrees” and that glasnost, or the freedom of speech he introduced in Soviet days, is under attack. A group of prominent Russians, including Elena Bonner and Vladimir Bukovsky, have written to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to protest the firings and the ending of RL radio broadcasts on a medium wave. A particularly sharp cry of pain comes from a former deputy energy minister who speaks of this “stunning example of desperate political idiocy.”
‐ Sometimes the plight of an individual can dramatize a whole issue, and that’s the case with Malala Yousufzai. This 14-year-old Pakistani girl comes from the Swat Valley, a tribal area where custom always trumps law. The Taliban and al-Qaeda see this as their territory. Islamist fanatics have no concept of rights for women, but believe that custom gives them the right to commit any outrage, from rape to murder. Young though Malala is, she started to campaign in behalf of female education. Coming home from school, she was shot in the head by a gunman, presumed to be a Taliban. The brutality shocked. The presidents of Pakistan and Afghanistan condemned the assault and spoke about the need to confront their common Islamist enemies. The head of the Pakistani army visited her. Al-Qaeda put out a particularly callous statement wondering why she had been treated as a heroine. She was targeted, the statement added, because she had made fun of Islamic values — at the behest of the BBC, of all unlikely conspirators. The Taliban, for its part, added that if occasion arose, they would shoot her again. Her courage only appeared all the more admirable. Flown to a hospital in Britain, Malala is expected to recover well.
‐ Doctors in the U.K. have been asked to designate 1 percent of their patients as likely to die in the next year. The plan is to usher those patients into end-of-life treatment, a move that the government estimates would save the National Health Service £1.35 billion a year. In a “toolkit” introduced by Norman Lamb, minister of state for care services, doctors are advised that during routine consultations they should look for “indicators of frailty and deterioration” and that “older people are a priority to consider” because “around 70 percent to 80 percent of all deaths are likely to benefit from planned end-of-life care.” Lamb is determined that it be “as comfortable and dignified as we can possibly make it.” Britons have reason to be concerned when compassion talk is so blithely joined to fiscal hawkishness: The government will help you die, and we’ll all save money in the process. Ronald Reagan famously observed that the nine most dangerous words in the English language are “We’re from the government and we’re here to help.” Americans can’t change the U.K. health-care bureaucracy, but they can learn from it and keep a close eye on IPAB, the Independent Payment Advisory Board established under Obamacare.
‐ Declassified German-intelligence files reveal that Fidel Castro recruited former members of the SS, to train his own troops. This was at the time of the missile crisis. Who needs the SS when you have Che?
‐ When asked, “What would you do if you were president?” every schoolchild’s first response is: “I’d pass a law banning homework.” Now French élèves may need to find another answer, as President François Hollande has proposed exactly such a law, which would restrict school assignments to classroom work. The reason, he explains, is basic fairness: Homework increases inequality because it favors students with stable home environments. (Seriously.) So he would reduce France’s overall prosperity in an attempt to decrease the rich-poor gap, which is socialism in a nutshell. The result, as in all such schemes, would merely be to amplify other differences — and in any case, rich kids could fight the power by secretly studying at home. While Hollande may now have the next election’s youth vote locked up, he has yet to explain how he proposes to help the poor by educating the nation’s future adults less well. Is it any surprise that Kurt Vonnegut gave Harrison Bergeron a French surname?
‐ The Norwegian Nobel Committee had been on a bit of a roll. In 2010, they gave their peace prize to Liu Xiaobo, the great Chinese dissident and political prisoner. In 2011, they gave it to three brave women, two in Liberia, one in Yemen. But this year they gave it to the European Union. Why? For one thing, the committee has always favored international institutions over the nation-state. For another, they were throwing a lifeline to the EU, which may well break up soon. For another, they were saying, perhaps, that their own country, Norway, should belong to the EU. (Norwegians have rejected membership in two referenda.) And last, they probably genuinely believe that the EU has been a bulwark for peace. What WFB said long ago remains true today: Every year, the peace prize should go to the Pentagon, for the U.S. military is the world’s foremost guarantor of peace. Certainly it has been in Europe, all these decades.
‐ The awarding of the Nobel must have given ideas to the EU apparatchiks: They put up a poster extolling brotherhood in the European Commission building that serves as their Brussels headquarters. Daniel Hannan, a member of the EU parliament and one of the few independent-minded men in those haunts, happened to pass by the poster and study it. The symbols of the world’s major religions have been woven into a pretty design, and crowning the very top is the old Soviet hammer and sickle. No sign of any other national emblems, such as an eagle, a bulldog, or a rooster. The caption on the poster is pure Soviet-speak: “We can all share the same star. Europe4all.” Not while Daniel Hannan is there. He made a row, as did (quite understandably) the Lithuanians, and now, thankfully, the poster has vanished.
‐ John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their research on the reprogramming of adult cells to become immature stem cells. The prize always has a moral dimension, since it recognizes advances that promise to alleviate human suffering. In the case of Yamanaka’s work there is an extra element: He thought research on stem cells derived from human embryos had promise, but he wanted to reap the benefits of it without killing the embryos. He found a way: producing stem cells that are identical to those derived from human embryos. The press, like the Nobel Committee citation, largely ignored Yamanaka’s motive, and thus understated the glory of his achievement.
‐ Newsweek will cease print publication at the end of this year, going entirely online. The newsweekly genre, pioneered in 1923 by Time, succeeded in an era of radio and daily newspapers because people enjoyed a recap, with analysis and attitude, of events that might have passed them in a blur. Newsweek, founded in 1933, was the cheap imitation, crude where Time was feline; for years the only reason to read it was George Will’s essay. The beginning of the end, for Newsweek and for its genus, came in January 1998 when Michael Isikoff, a Newsweek reporter, learned of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky — but the story was broken online by Matt Drudge. Readers still enjoy news recaps, but today they come from a shrinking handful of national newspapers. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are the new newsweeklies. U.S. News and World Report is already gone; can Time be far behind? R.I.P.
‐ What is the point of getting carried by balloon to the top of the stratosphere and skydiving from 24 miles? Felix Baumgartner, a former Austrian paratrooper who has just done that — breaking the record for highest jump, and breaking the sound barrier as he fell — wore a space suit whose design may be useful in future high-altitude endeavors. But really the thing was its own point. The millions who watched Baumgartner step into the abyss separating him from the blue orb below saw a man pushing outward, ever so slightly, the limits of what men have done. His own limits, too, and not so slightly: Crippled by claustrophobia in practice jumps, Baumgartner kept calm during his ascent by running through a 40-item checklist with retired American colonel Joseph Kittinger, the former record-holder, who was in radio contact at mission control. Imagining the absoluteness of Baumgartner’s isolation, and the near, distant voice, you could find a metaphor almost metaphysical. Well done, and welcome home.
‐ Last month Megan Ryan was elected homecoming queen by her classmates at Bishop Hartley High School in Columbus, Ohio. Ryan has Down syndrome, a condition associated with cognitive disability and an enlarged capacity for expressing affection. As high-school seniors, her peers belong to a cohort especially susceptible to narcissism, which by declaring their esteem for her they renounced. Adolescents of all ages typically strive to be cool, or hot, but not warm. We lament the dumbing down of our culture and the closing of the American mind. It’s a terrible thing to waste, we say. Well, so is the soul, as they must call it at the Catholic high school where Ryan was honored. Their affirmation of that truth deserves affirmation.
‐ Steven Spielberg has made a movie about Lincoln. He warned a New York audience that there was a “confusing” aspect to the film: The Republicans in it are anti-slavery, pro-freedom, even “radical.” But the Republicans and the Democrats have “traded political places over the last 150 years.” It’s a pity that such cinematic talent has to reside in a man so simple-minded.
‐ A Chinese scientist has uncovered evidence that prehistoric humans ate pandas. There’s no record of whether they used white or brown rice, nor of when they stopped, or why; but we suspect it happened when the Chinese realized that pandas were much more valuable for tourism than for stir-frying with ginger and cashew nuts. As charismatic megafauna go, it’s hard to beat a panda — a little short on personality, perhaps, but cuter than Jessica Alba wearing bunny ears. After all, do Aussies eat koalas? To ask that question is to answer it (the answer in this case being “I don’t know”). So, to be clear, Panda Express is just a clever name, moo goo gai panda has forever disappeared from Chinese menus, and no one eats the meat of the achingly winsome black-and-white Celestial cuties anymore. Though we do sometimes wonder what’s in those dumplings . . .
‐ Speaking of killing attractive animals, the Justice Department has reaffirmed its policy of letting members of Indian tribes kill eagles — normally protected by wildlife regulations — to use their feathers for cultural and religious purposes. Fair enough; while we normally frown on granting special privileges to certain groups, Indians are entitled by treaties and longtime custom to pursue many of their traditional practices. But why was a similar indulgence not granted to oil producers in North Dakota’s Bakken formation, who last year were prosecuted under the Migratory Bird Act for supposedly causing the deaths of some two dozen birds in a vast oil field? If preserving Indian culture is worth a few endangered birds, why is cheap energy not worth a few common ones?
‐ Want to buy a slightly used statue of V. I. Lenin? Neither does anyone else, it seems. The last surviving Lenin statue in Mongolia has been placed on sale by the city council of Ulan Bator at a price of $300, with no takers as of press time. Some buyer ought to pop up eventually, if only to satisfy a current vogue for “retro Soviet chic” among Mongolia’s equivalent of hipsters. Yet there may be a better solution. The statue is too beat up to be worth destroying, and the Mongolians are too busy making money to bother with it anyway. So why not put it back and leave it in place? It stood on the grounds of the luxurious Terelj Hotel, which features a Swedish aromatherapy spa, salmon fishing, horseback riding, and evening cocktails on an elegant terrace. A recent review points out: “Another curiosity is the 10-metre-high statue of Vladimir Lenin, that icon of Soviet communism, overlooking the outside terrace and its displays of individual wealth.” The Mongolians could do worse than to make Lenin stand and watch capitalism in action as he slowly and symbolically continues to deteriorate.
‐ Norodom Sihanouk led Cambodia to independence after World War II, and while the follow-up was bloodier than usual, the story of his nation’s emergence from colonial rule was otherwise all too sadly typical. In the 1950s and 1960s, Sihanouk, Cambodia’s hereditary king, ran Cambodia like any other tinpot dictator, stealing what little wealth his nation could generate, ruthlessly suppressing dissent (e.g., displaying rebels’ heads on spikes), and professing Communism when it became convenient. In 1970, after a U.S.-sponsored coup in Phnom Penh while he was traveling, Sihanouk threw his support behind Pol Pot’s psychotically murderous Khmer Rouge insurgency, which seized power and began slaughtering Cambodians on an industrial scale, though with horrifyingly pre-industrial methods. Sihanouk survived under house arrest in his palace, and after Vietnam ejected the Khmer Rouge he spent an opulent exile with his fellow tyrants in China and North Korea, backing forces opposed to the Hun Sen regime and eventually helping to broker a peace agreement. In 1991 he returned to Cambodia, where he reigned in luxury as a highly popular figurehead until his abdication in 2004. Dead at 89, and may he rest in the peace that his tragic nation so seldom enjoyed in his lifetime.
‐ George McGovern, minister’s son from South Dakota, retained a preacher’s manner and an awl-thin upper Plains accent all his 90 years. After gallant service in World War II — he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross — McGovern attended the 1948 Progressive-party convention. The Progressives, he wrote in his memoir, were “idealistic middle-class Americans who wanted a foreign policy based on restraint and reason.” He never fully acknowledged, then or later, that they were manipulated by Stalin. McGovern made his political career as a Democrat, becoming an anti-war senator. He ran at the last minute for the 1968 presidential nomination, then led a successful march through the primaries in 1972 — only to lose 49 states to Richard Nixon. Watergate rehabilitated him: that, and his unshakeable good temper. After a failed career as an innkeeper, he admitted in a genial essay for the Wall Street Journal that he had never appreciated the punishing weight of regulations. He was a sparring partner and friend of WFB. R.I.P.
Peeling Back Benghazi
One of the lessons of Watergate was that the cover-up is worse than the offense being covered. Is that the case in Benghazi?
The Obama administration’s initial explanation of the attack that took the lives of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans was that it was a protest of an anti-Mohammed movie trailer posted on YouTube. This was the thrust of press secretary Jay Carney’s briefings, of U.N. ambassador Susan Rice’s appearances on five Sunday talk shows, and of President Obama himself, as late as his speech to the General Assembly two weeks after the fact. (He claimed in his second debate with Mitt Romney to have flagged Benghazi as a terrorist attack in his next-day Rose Garden talk, but his words in the Rose Garden were a generic reference to ongoing threats.)
The explanation was obviously unlikely: The Benghazi compound was attacked by a large force armed with rocket-propelled grenades, not a gaggle of opportunists hitch-hiking on a mob. The administration clung to it, however, because it was anxious to say that it had al-Qaeda on the run (Bin Laden is dead, and GM is alive, in Joe Biden’s formulation). The opportunity to make tolerant noises at the expense of the hapless Copt behind the Mohammed trailer was also too good to pass up.
But what happened in Benghazi itself, as four Americans were being killed? The attack began at 9:30 p.m. and lasted, in waves, until the small hours of the next morning. Eight Marines managed to arrive in Benghazi from the embassy in Tripoli by 2:00 a.m. Is our rapid-response capability in a war-torn country in which we are involved so slight? Could a larger show of force have been dispatched from Sicily?
The seeds of the debacle were in fact planted long before. There was a failure to heed appeals from Stevens and from the embassy for increased security. More broadly, there was an air of triumphalism about our Libyan venture (“we came, we saw, he [Qaddafi] died,” as Hillary Clinton crudely put it last year), and a confidence that the cool Obama team, unlike the cowboy Bush, could use soft power and a light footprint to advance our interests. Speak softly, and carry a small stick.
Obama is not the first president to have made Mideast miscalculations — the Bush years are still raw; Ronald Reagan left a barracks of dead Marines in Lebanon. But the hopes of his feckless supporters that he would mark a new era in history have been dashed abroad, as at home.