‐ Hillary Clinton has a new book out. At this point what difference does it make?
‐ President Obama gave a commencement address at West Point, which he meant as a defense of his foreign policy. It read instead as a compendium of general principles; it might have been given by any president over the last 60 years. American leadership underpins world stability and advances liberation. Peace and enlarging freedom work to our interests as a commercial nation. We will use force, even unilaterally, when we must, but we should also rely on alliances and robust international organizations such as NATO (yes) and the U.N. (well . . .). The greatest threat we face today is terrorism from spin-offs of al-Qaeda. Obama’s one flat-out wrong argument was a riff on leading by example: The examples he chose were climate control, signing the Law of the Sea Treaty, and closing Gitmo. This passage was a celebration of ineffectual gestures. But speeches, especially surveys such as this, do not shimmer in a void. They draw their force from the record of the speaker. After five years this president succeeds only at leaving: Iraq, Afghanistan. Bad actors seek to follow in his wake: Iran, Russia, China, North Korea. They scorn the most eloquent words. Better a president who was silent — but strong.
‐ What sort of a movie will Saving Sergeant Bergdahl be? Bowe Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban in 2009. It is alleged that he deserted first: According to a 2012 article in Rolling Stone, he became disaffected and e-mailed his parents, “I am ashamed to be an American.” Bergdahl’s culpability remains to be established. The badness of the men for whom he was exchanged does not. The Obama administration gave up five high-ranking Taliban held at Gitmo, including Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, a confidant of Mullah Omar, and Mullah Mohammed Fazl, a commander accused of massacring Shiites and Tajik Sunnis. The transaction would be bad even if Bergdahl were blameless. We negotiated with a barbarous and brutal enemy, as if we were peers. We advertised other Americans as kidnap bait, to be used in future exchanges. (Ronald Reagan in Iran–Contra and Israel in recent years made similar deals; they were wrong too.) Obama seems set on leaving Afghanistan and emptying Gitmo as briskly as possible — consequences, and honor, be damned.
‐ When President Obama traveled to Afghanistan, the White House press office distributed a list of all the officials he would be meeting with. The list went to some 7,000 people. On the list was a particular name, followed by the person’s job title: “Chief of Station.” He was the head of the CIA’s operations in Afghanistan. Presumably he is not any longer, his cover having been blown by the White House. The release of the station chief’s name to the press was a gross mistake. It has occasioned barely a murmur in the press or punditocracy — compare this with the Valerie Plame case in the George W. Bush administration. (There was even a movie made about that one.) Someday, we will have a Republican president again, and relations between the press and the White House will be back to normal.
‐ Eric Shinseki resigned as secretary of veterans affairs a few weeks after the widespread, potentially criminal mismanagement of his department became well publicized by the media. Shinseki, an honorable man, surely wanted to fix the broken bureaucracy he inherited. But he failed to do so, so he had to go. Plenty more has to be done: The Senate should pass the VA Accountability Act, which was approved by the House 390–33 and will allow the secretary to fire senior officials much more easily. (None, to date, has been fired over the recent scandals.) It should also be made easier for vets to go outside the VA system. If we built from scratch a system for giving vets care today, it would never look like the fundamentally unaccountable, fully socialized system we have. But we can hold the system more accountable and subject it to more competition than has been the case, and we should.
‐ Elliot Rodger’s berserker spree in Isla Vista, Calif., killed seven people, including him, and injured 13. Yet it did not result in calls to ban guns, in part because he stabbed his first three victims to death. The talking nation focused instead on misogyny, for although he killed more men than women, Rodger left a grotesque manifesto lambasting the sex, and his failure to win their sexual favors. So should he be understood as a misogynist, or (the conservative variation) a loser in the sexual free-for-all? America is a big country, with millions of cranks, bigots, and plain crooks. There are some of them to hate every strand in the national skein. But the great majority of haters are not multiple murderers. Most multiple murderers are crazy young men. We need to spot and treat the severely mentally ill. Arsonists look at the world around them and see fuel. We cannot stop them all, but we should be on the lookout for them — not their lighters, or their alleged ideas.
‐ Much of the tragedy of acute mental illness is that one of its common symptoms is an inability to recognize it. American law too often lets its sufferers go without treatment, deferring to the free will of people too radically impaired to exercise it. Representative Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican, has introduced legislation to change that and has won an impressive degree of bipartisan support. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi is, however, backing an alternative bill by Representative Ron Barber (D., Ariz.). Her spokesman says that she wants a bill “that actually has the support of the mental-health community.” Instead of trying to ensure that the most severely ill get treatment, the bill concentrates on expanding treatment options for the more mildly troubled. Where Murphy’s bill clarifies federal law to let doctors give parents and caregivers information about patients in the midst of a crisis, for example, Barber’s bill would instead expand anti-bullying counseling in the schools. Murphy and the Republicans and Democrats behind him deserve credit for recognizing that parts of the “mental-health community” are a problem.
‐ Obamacare remains as unpopular as ever, but some Republicans on the campaign trail are talking about it differently than they were before. Rather than promising to “repeal and replace” it, a few of them are saying they will “fix” it, or using the word “replace” without “repeal.” Several of them are waffling about whether they would leave the law’s Medicaid expansion or exchanges in place. It is not, in itself, all that important that the word “repeal” be used if a candidate would vote for a “fix” that would take health-care policy in a very different direction from Obamacare: Substance matters more than rhetoric. The defensiveness and clumsiness of these moves, however, suggests that Republicans are paying a price for failing to commit to a specific replacement plan, at least in outline. Without one, they cannot say what, in a post-repeal world, would become of people who are now getting their insurance through Obamacare provisions; this political vulnerability is making them wobble, at least rhetorically; and the wobbling in turn will demoralize conservatives who will have fresh reason to question Republicans’ commitment to undoing Obamacare. An alternative to Obamacare is also an alternative to flailing.
‐ Same-sex marriage is on a legal roll, with Oregon and Pennsylvania the latest places where federal judges have rewritten state marriage laws. The Supreme Court, in last year’s Windsor decision, pointedly did not rule that states had to recognize same-sex marriage. Judges with a sense of self-restraint would have likewise refrained. Instead they took the real charge of Windsor to lower judges to be: Go as far and as fast in rewriting the marriage laws as you wish; we are no longer in the realm of law. Given the absence of anything resembling traditional legal reasoning in Justice Kennedy’s controlling opinion in Windsor, it cannot exactly be said that these judges are interpreting the case mistakenly. Local officials such as Pennsylvania’s Republican governor, Tom Corbett, in declining to appeal these decisions, are doing their part to ensure that self-governance is subverted. Not just marriage laws but civics books will have to be rewritten to accommodate this cause.
‐ Kentucky Republicans had a Senate primary with two tea-party candidates. Businessman Matt Bevin was endorsed by prominent tea-party-supporting groups, the Senate Conservatives Fund, and FreedomWorks. But Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell beat him with the support of most tea-party voters (an NBC/Marist poll showed him leading Bevin among GOP tea partiers by 53 percent to 33 percent). The out-of-state push to take down McConnell seemed fueled by Beltway grudges disguised as a crusade for unworldly purity. Neither is an attractive motive. Kentuckians recognized that McConnell is both conservative and shrewd (witness his friendly relations with junior senator and tea-party beau ideal Rand Paul, who endorsed him). The Senate Conservatives Fund endorsed McConnell after his victory and urged Republicans to unite against his Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes. In that spirit we say: Better late than never.
‐ Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) became the first major politician to advance a reform of Social Security since President George W. Bush’s effort failed almost a decade ago. He would bring future spending down by slowly raising the retirement age and reducing benefit growth for the highest earners. At the same time, he would make it easier for people to work and save for their own retirement. Seniors still in the work force would see their taxes fall, for example, and people without access to company 401(k)s would be able to participate in the Thrift Savings Plan for federal workers. In a speech announcing his plan, Rubio also reiterated his support for a reform of Medicare that would use the power of competition to make the program affordable. Youthful-looking as he is, Rubio is a grown-up on this issue, one of too few in Washington, D.C.
‐ The Internal Revenue Service announced in late May that it will revise proposed regulations that would have severely restricted the activities of 501(c)(4) social-welfare groups. The administration claimed it needed new rules — the existing ones have been on the books, without a problem, since 1959 — to clarify confusing tax laws that supposedly led to the targeting of tea-party groups. In reality, the new rules would have codified that targeting, which the agency, on Lois Lerner’s watch, carried out furtively for years. In essence, the proposed regulations would have limited the amount of time social-welfare groups may devote to such activities as voter registration and voter education (in the case of the Tea Party, on subjects such as the size and scope of government). But they affected liberal organizations too, and groups from the ACLU to the NAACP charged that the regulations would violate their First Amendment rights. So out they went. The IRS, though, has not been tamed: The agency has promised to rewrite the rules, taking into account the 150,000 public comments, most of them negative, that they garnered. If they were serious about considering the feedback, they’d scrap the effort entirely.
‐Room to Grow, an essay collection published by YG Network, a conservative group, brings together much of the fresh conservative thinking that journals such as National Affairs — and, ahem, National Review — have been featuring on health care, financial reform, higher education, and other issues. The conservative authors of the book refuse to concede any of these areas to a Left that has often seen them as its exclusive territory, and refuse as well to adopt the role of defending a dysfunctional status quo from liberals who would make it worse. Instead they argue for conservative reforms: breaking the higher-education cartel, bringing real competition to health care, making anti-poverty programs work-oriented. The book launch, at the American Enterprise Institute, included supportive comments across the range of today’s Republican party: Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and House majority leader Eric Cantor lauded the book, and so did tea-party stalwarts Senators Mike Lee and Tim Scott. Room to Grow is the latest evidence that conservatism may be experiencing an intellectual resurgence as well as a political one.
‐ Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne is the worst car salesman ever. Speaking about his firm’s 500e electric car at the Brookings Institution, he told those assembled: “I hope you don’t buy it, because every time I sell one it costs me $14,000.” The electric Fiat exists not because of consumer demand — there is hardly any — but to satisfy zero-emissions rules in California and other jurisdictions that impose them. Fiat’s plan is to sell the minimum number of electric cars it is required by law to sell, at whatever loss it must endure, and then to sell not one more. Marchionne added that if automakers are forced to suffer losses in order to satisfy political whimsy, then they will be back in Washington asking for another bailout.
Betting the World Cup
As the World Cup approaches, soccer fans from around the world are preparing for a bacchanalian soccer binge that will inevitably lead to a deep emotional crisis for all but one nation. Even with the many disappointments, the rapture of fans in the winning nation is so great that the World Cup undoubtedly contributes positively to worldwide happiness. World Cup revenues, after all, are projected to be northward of a billion dollars, with tourism spending piling billions on top of that.
So who will the lucky winner be? Economics has a surprisingly large amount to say on the subject. Forget Thomas Piketty: By far the most important academic study out this year is Goldman Sachs’s massive “The World Cup and Economics 2014.”
In order to calculate the chances of success for countries in each round of the tournament, the Goldman Sachs economists who authored the study drew on data going back to 1960. Discounting friendly games and focusing instead solely on mandatory international matches, they tested the ability of several different variables to predict the winners of about 14,000 such contests. These variables included whether a team was a host to a match, whether a team was playing on its home continent, the number of goals scored by a team in its previous ten matches and the number scored on the opposing team in its previous ten matches, whether the match was a World Cup match, and a composite measure of a team’s success called the Elo ranking.
The authors developed the best possible econometric model drawing on those data, and used it to generate a prediction that Brazil has a 48.5 percent chance of being the World Cup champion. The accompanying table suggests that fans from other countries should be worried. For reference, the table below indicates in the far-right column the Goldman Sachs prediction for this year. To the left of that, for historical perspective, is the output of the model for the previous tournament.
Each column shows the predicted probability that each team would make it to a certain round in the tournament. So for Brazil in 2010, for example, the probability was 26.6 percent that it would win, 39.2 percent that it would make the final, and so on. The cells are highlighted to show how teams actually performed — for example, Germany made it to the second round, then the quarterfinals, and the semifinals, while Portugal made it only to the second round and Italy and France, despite good odds, failed to advance at all.
The model performed remarkably well in 2010, with the final including two of the top three teams, and the semifinals three of the top four. So it is quite likely that the semifinals will, after all of the drama, include Brazil, Spain, Argentina, and Germany.
And from that scenario, one can be sure of two things. First, if Brazil wins, the celebration in the home country will be so wild that the rest of us will simultaneously be sorry we are missing it and glad we are not there. Second, if Brazil loses, it will be one of the bigger upsets in soccer history.
‐ Under the terms of the bargain that Chris Christie, New Jersey’s Republican governor, made with Democratic state legislators, Christie is reappointing the court’s liberal chief justice, Steven Rabner, in exchange for the appointment of a Republican justice — one who, according to conservative legal scholars, does not have a reassuring track record. Rabner’s record, on the other hand, is quite reassuring to liberals: Among other things, he forced New Jersey to recognize same-sex marriage. Christie has reneged on an important campaign promise: In 2009, the governor-to-be pledged to remake the state supreme court. That pledge meant something to conservatives, because the New Jersey supreme court is perhaps the most out-of-control in the country: Since the late 1960s, it has gradually usurped the powers of the legislature and the executive, ordering education funds to be disbursed in a cockeyed wealth-redistribution scheme and nullifying the state constitution’s protections against profligate spending. We understand that a conservative governor of New Jersey has to pick his battles. But conservatives expect the future of the courts to be one of them.
‐ First lady Michelle Obama has declared Republicans to be waging a war on “our children’s futures,” “sound science,” and the judgment of experts. Their crime in this instance is a proposal by a Republican congressman to allow schools to postpone compliance with federal school-lunch nutrition standards if they lost money on the program last year. As part of a 2010 law passed by Congress largely through the first lady’s efforts, limits on fat, sodium, sugar, and calories — and requirements that whole grains, fruits, and vegetables be served — have begun to be phased in over the past couple of years, with stricter rules set for the upcoming school year. A review released earlier this year from the Government Accountability Office found that implementation of the standards so far has been both costly and wasteful, as students routinely throw away unwanted servings of fruits and vegetables or forgo the unpalatable meals entirely. It turns out that you can lead a kid to veggies . . .
‐ A Health and Human Services board decided in late May that Medicare recipients must be allowed to apply for taxpayer-funded coverage of their sex-change operations. The board overturned a 1981 determination that transsexual operations were controversial and experimental, with insufficiently known long-term effects and frequent serious complications, and would therefore not be covered by Medicare. Now such operations are deemed by the board to be “safe and effective” and potentially medically necessary. The decision came in response to a suit by a 74-year-old man who, the AP reports, “has lived as a woman on and off since she was a teenager and full time since 2009.” Only a small minority of Americans opt to have their genitals surgically altered, and the percentage of the nation’s seniors who do so is presumably even smaller, but the ruling will accelerate the trend of private insurers’ routinely covering the operations. It will also accelerate the normalization of a practice that is not properly classified as medical treatment at all.
‐The New York Times Magazine had an article about the burgeoning marijuana industry. The article was written by an economics reporter for the paper, Annie Lowrey. She said, “Despite the potential, many investors are still hesitating at spending the money that might make joints and brownies less ad hoc, more corporate. Why spend $20 million on a grow site that might be shut down, or a new brand that might get stamped out by the next administration’s Justice Department? A surfeit of laws — and confusion between them — is holding the market back.” Is that so? Amazing. Maybe Lowrey can teach her paper that what goes for pot goes for an economy at large.
‐ The Obama administration has announced that it’s considering recognizing Native Hawaiians, an ethnic group that makes up one-fifth of the Aloha Isles’ population, as an autonomous political entity. This would give the group, currently represented by the state’s Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the right to construct a race-based government like an Indian tribe and, likely, all the privileges of this right that it may find profitable. The idea came up in Congress during the Bush years, and Obama’s proposal to impose it via executive fiat is certainly unconstitutional. It’s a terrible idea in any case: Native Hawaiians — geographically dispersed and with no history as a sovereign nation — are almost nothing like an Indian tribe, and the only point is to give a politically powerful constituency valuable powers over state land, tourism policy, and more. They lost us at “Aloha.”
‐ Fifty members of the U.S. Senate sent a letter to the commissioner of the National Football League. The letter was on Senate letterhead, and the senators were all Democrats: Republicans were not asked to sign. The letter demanded of the NFL that the Washington Redskins be made to drop their nickname. (It studiously avoided the use of the word “Redskins.”) “The NFL can no longer ignore this,” said the senators, “and perpetuate the use of this name as anything but what it is: a racial slur.” Reasonable people differ on this question, including American Indians. But why are senators, in their official capacity, bothering the NFL? This is bullying, or in football language, piling on.
‐ “Heavy fighting” was reported in early June near the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk and other places between official Ukrainian forces and what are usually described as “pro-Russian separatists” or “insurgents.” In fact the latter are a mix of Russian soldiers, mercenaries in the pay of Ramzan Kadyrov, the pro-Russian Chechen strongman, and local thugs and criminals. They are equipped with heavy weapons capable of shooting down planes and helicopters. And they move freely back and forth across the Russo–Ukraine border. In other words the heavy fighting is the first stage not of a civil war but of a covert Russian invasion. It was probably designed by Russian military planners to spark a civil war when one did not erupt spontaneously, as they had first hoped. But recent political events have made it unlikely that it will develop on those lines. A new Ukrainian president was elected by a clear majority across almost all regions without the need for a runoff election. The “neo-fascist” parties alleged by the Kremlin’s propaganda apparatus to be running the Kiev government got 1 percent of the vote in the same elections. “Separatists” and “insurgents” were revealed in their true anti-democratic colors when they destroyed ballot boxes and beat up those trying to vote. Even in these discouraging circumstances, opinion polls showed that two-thirds of easterners and a larger percentage of all Ukrainians wanted an independent Ukraine outside Putin’s authoritarian grasp. Ukraine is stabilizing in response to Putin’s attempted subversion. Its newly “legitimate” president is offering a stronger military response to Russia’s salami tactics — and, for the moment, an effective one. Success in military conflict is uncertain, however, and Kiev might not restore its authority in the East. President Obama, visiting Europe, should reset the reset button. His promise of $1 billion and more troops for NATO is a welcome down payment — but no more than that.
‐ Awoken by the euro crisis to the undemocratic nature of the European Union, about one-third of Europe’s voters cast their ballots for “anti-establishment” parties in elections to the European parliament. Five million Spaniards abandoned the nation’s two major parties; the Front National defeated the two equivalent parties in France; and UKIP, led by Nigel Farage, was the first insurgent party since 1910 to win a U.K. national election. The parties are disparate: The hard-right nationalism of the Front National is very different from the welfare-state protectionism of the Danish People’s party or the free-trading liberalism of UKIP. But they are all reacting to the failure of supranational Euro-governance, and they all want a return of powers from Brussels to national parliaments. Prudent leaders in national politics recognize such earthquakes, but the leaders of the established parties in the European Parliament are too besotted with European integration to concede anything serious to the new arrivals. Instead they will work together in an unacknowledged “grand coalition.” The trouble with European politics does not lie on its fringes, but in its fanatical center.
‐ Amid the usual sentimental claptrap about the majesty of the world’s largest democracy going to the polls, India has elected as its new prime minister Narendra Modi of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata (Indian People’s) party. Modi replaces Manmohan Singh, who won admiration as the main architect of India’s economic reforms only to find his government mired in an endless succession of corruption scandals unfortunately typical of India. Modi’s promise is to combine an economic-modernization program with squeaky-clean ethics: He himself is an austere-living man with a very modest income; though legally wed as a teenager in an arranged marriage, he has lived a bachelor’s life for all of his adult years, and is believed to have taken a vow of celibacy in the service of a strict Hindu faction. While Modi’s religious scruples may be of some reassurance to scandal-weary India, they are also a source of concern: As chief minister of Gujarat, he was accused of doing effectively nothing as Hindus massacred more than a thousand Muslims in reprisal killings for an attack on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims, in which 59 were killed. Modi has declined to make the sort of goodwill gestures toward Muslims that other BJP leaders have made as a matter of course. Modi may be personally clean, but what matters is that his government be clean: Corruption is a heavy tax, especially on India’s poor.
‐ King Juan Carlos of Spain has announced that he will abdicate and that his son, Crown Prince Felipe, will succeed him on the throne. The king’s reputation had been damaged by scandals in recent years. Hunting elephants in Botswana in 2012, he fell and required hip surgery, which made the news and exposed his expensive lifestyle to scorn at a time when Spaniards were adjusting to austerity measures imposed by their cash-strapped government. He was embarrassed by a legal investigation into embezzlement charges against his daughter. Some on the Spanish left are using Juan Carlos’s concession to the decline in his popular support to argue that the monarchy be abolished. Though it is fading, the memory of his heroism after Franco’s death, as the Spanish king steered his country toward democracy in the 1970s and early 1980s, still lives, however, and the will to keep the monarchy alive appears strong enough to prevail. Spaniards with enough of both hindsight and foresight appreciate that the institution that saw them through such a severe political crisis not so long ago could someday prove helpful to them again.
‐Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. France has once again tried to impose punitive taxes on its citizens’ incomes, and it has once again faced a backlash. In May, ministers in the country discovered that despite rises in the income tax, VAT, and corporation tax rates, receipts from the three streams came to 16 billion euros — a 14 billion–euro shortfall. It is not just rich actors who have rebelled. President François Hollande’s approval rating among all voters is hovering at around 20 percent, his Socialist party has been greatly weakened in parliament, and his own prime minister, Manuel Valls, has complained that “too much tax kills tax.” What’s French for “Laffer curve”?
‐ Many Venezuelans are enjoying a blog headed “RELOJES DEL CHAVI$MO” — wristwatches of chavismo. It depicts and comments on the luxury timepieces sported by Hugo Chávez–style officials, who thunder against yanqui capitalism. Socialist and Communist leaders, like other people, have long abided by “Do as I say . . .” When he attended U.N. meetings in the 1980s, the Sandinista chief Daniel Ortega liked to exploit New York for shopping. He had a particular fondness for luxury eyewear. In fact, President Reagan called him a “dictator in designer glasses.” Hypocrisy is maybe the least of the chavistas’, and the Sandinistas’, offenses, but it is one of them.
‐ Michael Bloomberg, speaking at Harvard’s commencement, gave students, parents, and faculty nationwide something to think about. “You have to wonder whether students are being exposed to the diversity of views that a great university should offer,” Bloomberg said, citing data that showed that 96 percent of the faculty and staff in the Ivy League who gave money during the 2012 election gave it to Obama. “There was more disagreement among the old Soviet Politburo.” Bloomberg also rapped Brown students for shouting down NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly last year. “What were [they] afraid of hearing? Why did administrators not step in to prevent the mob from silencing speech?” In answer to Bloomberg’s points: Students are not being exposed to diversity, because too many of them fear it and too many of their keepers hate it.
‐ In April, the University of South Carolina Upstate’s Center for Women’s and Gender Studies scheduled a satirical one-woman show — How to Be a Lesbian in Ten Days or Less — as part of its “Bodies of Knowledge” symposium. Some state legislators got upset, and the show was canceled. Now, as a result of state-budget cuts, the center is closing. Some on the left are calling foul, alleging an affront to academic freedom. USC-Upstate chancellor Tom Moore said that the decision has nothing to do with ideology and is just “part of an effort to be consistent and systematic across academic affairs in how we administer and support various programs.” The center’s $45,000-per-year budget will be repurposed to teach USC-Upstate students about America’s founding documents — which we have to admit sounds like a better use of funds in the service of more important “bodies of knowledge.”
‐ In Monroe, Mich., there was a teacher named Alan Barron. He was suspended a few weeks before his retirement. The problem was, he was teaching his eighth-graders about racism and Jim Crow. In the course of this lesson, he showed a video, which depicted white actors in blackface. The point was, this is what passed for entertainment in America once upon a time. An assistant principal, noticing the video, demanded that it be stopped, then suspended the teacher. While on suspension, Mr. Barron was forbidden to attend the annual banquet that honors retiring teachers. Parents went on a social-media campaign for him. One mother (whose daughter is half black) said, “It’s so sad this has happened to him. He’s one of the best teachers we’ve had. We can’t believe that this is happening.” The suspension was lifted. But the teacher had a rotten ordeal at the end of his career.
‐ At North Dakota State University, the fencing club has been prohibited from practicing on campus, since its foils, epees, and sabres are considered dangerous weapons and banned under NDSU’s safety rules. (Off campus, on the mean streets of Fargo, there is no such prohibition, so the club meets in a nearby school.) Scoff if you wish, but it’s just common sense: After all, how many times have we all turned on CNN to see live coverage of a deranged fencer poking terrified students in the chest with a foil’s blunt tip? None? Well, that just shows that the policy works — though, to be absolutely safe, we need a national registry of pistes and lamés, along with in-depth background checks to make sure potential purchasers haven’t rented too many Errol Flynn movies.
‐ For rock stars and novelists, dying has long been a good career move. For Richard III, it was better to be dug up. Ever since his bones were exhumed last year from beneath a Leicester parking lot, his reputation has been extensively reassessed in the British media. Instead of the villainous Machiavellian murderer of Shakespeare’s portrayal, he is seen as fair-minded, a friend to the poor, something of a policy wonk — the David Cameron of his day, perhaps, except for the “not Machiavellian” part. Now a scientific reconstruction of his spine reveals that, contrary to tradition, he was not a hunchback. Far from being Shakespeare’s limping, “bunch-back’d toad,” he merely listed a bit to starboard due to a touch of scoliosis. So his physical rehabilitation now parallels his moral one, and the strange-new-respectification of Richard III continues. Next thing you know, the Kennedys will give him a Profile in Courage Award.
‐ General Wojciech Jaruzelski was an outstanding example of the human puzzles that Communism habitually threw up: a dupe, a traitor, or a patriot, according to perspective. Born into the Polish gentry, he was deported by the Soviets in 1939. Also deported, his father died. Privileged people like them, he used to feel, deserved such fates. A slight figure who was impersonal behind the dark glasses he needed to wear, he became a commissar and rose in Sovietized Poland to be prime minister, first secretary of the Communist party, and finally president. Solidarity under Lech Walesa was the first mass movement to threaten Communism. Claiming that the Soviets would invade to suppress Solidarity, Jaruzelski declared martial law. Dozens were killed, thousands detained. Whether the Soviet Union would really have sent the tanks in is still a mystery. Pushed by Mikhail Gorbachev, Jaruzelski finally negotiated to hand power over to Solidarity without more violence. Poles forgave him, and Walesa came to church for his funeral. Dead at 90. R.I.P.
‐ One fears that Bill Clinton tapped Maya Angelou to read at his 1993 inauguration in order to have a black-female answer to Robert Frost, JFK’s inaugural bard — racial and sexual box-checking. (Three lines from the poem she read, “A Rock, A River, A Tree,” survive the occasion: “History, despite its wrenching pain, / Cannot be unlived, but if faced / With courage, need not be lived again.”) And yet she had real skills as a memoirist, and a life of memorable episodes. Pregnant at 16, she bore her child and worked any number of jobs to support him. And she practiced the right to bear arms. When she heard an intruder trying the door of her house, she warned, “Stand four feet back because I’m going to shoot now.” (She did; no one was hurt.) When the cops observed that the shots had been fired from inside, she said, “Well, I don’t know how that happened.” Would Mrs. Wharton have done that? Maybe not. Emily Dickinson? Definitely. Dead at 86. R.I.P.
Abandoning the Afghans
President Obama’s Afghanistan policy is, in substance and timing, ideal for his political interests: He can boast (and already has) that all U.S. troops will be home from Afghanistan before the end of his eight years in office, and that he just brought home an American soldier from Taliban custody. But it’s ruinous for just about everyone else: for the U.S. and NATO troops now asked to continue sacrificing while Obama’s policies strengthen the Taliban; for both of the Afghan presidential candidates, who are running on a strong, permanent partnership with the United States; and for the Afghan people, who have tentatively and hopefully thrown in their lot with the West.
Good politics at home and in the short term looks very different abroad and for the long term. The president has broken an implicit promise he repeatedly made that the U.S. would stand by the Afghan government. It has long been agreed that the Afghans should assume full responsibility for combat operations after this year, and, partly to Obama’s credit, their forces have grown dramatically in size and capacity over the past several years. But they still need support and training from American troops, and the president has now put an expiration date on that aid.
Afghans will soon go to the polls to choose between two presidential candidates. Both of them got to the final round by promising to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States, and both of them will face the task of knitting together a political coalition, maintaining the loyalty of the country’s manifold provinces, and holding off the Taliban. Whoever wins will now assume office with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and plenty of other deadly foes knowing that in two years he will be fending for himself.
President Obama had never promised a large enduring presence in Afghanistan, but he had promised that this would remain an important partnership — meaning on-the-ground security cooperation and support. The Obama administration has instead proposed total withdrawal by 2016, with troop levels to be cut to 5,000 or so next year. It’s still better than going to nothing immediately, but strategy is a futures game, and Afghans will start hedging.
And we suspect President Obama may not even have the political will to continue U.S. funding for the Afghan armed forces. Their gains will go for naught if the Afghan government doesn’t have the money to pay the salaries of 350,000 soldiers and tens of thousands of police whom Americans have trained.
The next American president will inherit an alliance worth virtually nothing in a region where radical Islamism and militant groups of all stripes will grow more or less unimpeded, goaded on and supplied by rogue regimes. Once upon a time, President Obama said that Afghanistan was the good war, the one where we’d focus, where he was committed to victory. He has now formally, even proudly, broken that promise.
Obama’s War on Coal
Having failed to get the Democrats’ cap-and-trade scheme through Congress, President Obama intends to create it through fiat, with the Environmental Protection Agency issuing what amounts to a bill of attainder against coal-fired electricity generators. The regulation will set a national limit on greenhouse-gas emissions from coal plants and then offer states a phony menu of choices for meeting that standard, stacking the policy deck in such a way as to force them into cap-and-trade programs administered by multistate cartels.
It is far from obvious that the Obama administration has anything like the legal authority for this; until quite recently, the White House seemed to think that it was necessary for Congress — remember Congress, the lawmaking branch of government? — to pass a law creating a cap-and-trade program. But, having lost that vote, President Obama is pressing on in rule-by-decree mode, apparently having mistaken himself for Charles de Gaulle.
To what end? There are two fundamental realities that the administration is committed to ignoring. One is that, even if we swallow whole the most alarmist version of the global-warming story, the phenomenon is inescapably a global one. In order for the United States to make national cuts that are of global significance, they would have to be substantially larger than anything under current consideration, and reducing emissions from coal-fired plants exclusively would be nowhere near sufficient. And that assumes that the rest of the world stands still, which is unlikely to be the case in consideration of the second reality: Coal does not care where it is burned. If we reduce demand for coal in the United States by substituting other fuels in our electricity plants, that does not transform a corresponding sum of the world’s coal deposits into fairy dust. It will still be coal, and it will still be useful for producing electricity elsewhere.
The administration’s hope is that we will be leading the world by example. In this case, when it comes to the global economy, we suspect it really will be leading from behind.