Monday, September 22
September 22, 2008
Barack Obama, John McCain and the Language of Race
By BRENT STAPLES
It was not that long ago that black people in the Deep South could be beaten or killed for seeking the right to vote, talking back to the wrong white man or failing to give way on the sidewalk. People of color who violated these and other proscriptions could be designated “uppity niggers” and subjected to acts of violence and intimidation that were meant to dissuade others from following their examples.
The term “uppity” was applied to affluent black people, who sometimes paid a horrific price for owning nicer homes, cars or more successful businesses than whites. Race-based wealth envy was a common trigger for burnings, lynchings and cataclysmic episodes of violence like the Tulsa race riot of 1921, in which a white mob nearly eradicated the prosperous black community of Greenwood.
Forms of eloquence and assertiveness that were viewed as laudable among whites were seen as positively mutinous when practiced by people of color. As such, black men and women who looked white people squarely in the eye — and argued with them about things that mattered — were declared a threat to the racial order and persecuted whenever possible.
This obsession with black subservience was based in nostalgia for slavery. No sane person would openly express such a sentiment today. But the discomfort with certain forms of black assertiveness is too deeply rooted in the national psyche — and the national language — to just disappear. It has been a persistent theme in the public discourse since Barack Obama became a plausible candidate for the presidency.
A blatant example surfaced earlier this month, when a Georgia Republican, Representative Lynn Westmoreland, described the Obamas as “uppity” in response to a reporter’s question. Mr. Westmoreland, who actually stood by the term when given a chance to retreat, later tried to excuse himself by saying that the dictionary definition carried no racial meaning. That seems implausible. Mr. Westmoreland is from the South, where the vernacular meaning of the word has always been clear.
The Jim Crow South institutionalized racial paternalism in its newspapers, which typically denied black adults the courtesy titles of Mr. and Mrs. — and reduced them to children by calling them by first names only. Representative Geoff Davis, Republican of Kentucky, succumbed to the old language earlier this year when describing what he viewed as Mr. Obama’s lack of preparedness to handle nuclear policy. “That boy’s finger does not need to be on the button,” he said.
In the Old South, black men and women who were competent, confident speakers on matters of importance were termed “disrespectful,” the implication being that all good Negroes bowed, scraped, grinned and deferred to their white betters.
In what is probably a harbinger of things to come, the McCain campaign has already run a commercial that carries a similar intimation, accusing Mr. Obama of being “disrespectful” to Sarah Palin. The argument is muted, but its racial antecedents are very clear.
The throwback references that have surfaced in the campaign suggest that Republicans are fighting on racial grounds, even when express references to race are not evident. In a replay of elections past, the G.O.P. will try to leverage racial ghosts and fears without getting its hands visibly dirty. The Democrats try to parry in customary ways.
Mr. Obama seems to understand that he is always an utterance away from a statement — or a phrase — that could transform him in a campaign ad from the affable, rational and racially ambiguous candidate into the archetypical angry black man who scares off the white vote. His caution is evident from the way he sifts and searches the language as he speaks, stepping around words that might push him into the danger zone.
These maneuvers are often painful to watch. The troubling part is that they are necessary.
Sunday, September 7
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
On Wednesday, The New York Times on the Web flashed a headline that caught my eye: “U.S. to Unveil $1 Billion Aid Package to Repair Georgia.” Wow, I thought. That’s great: $1 billion to fix Georgia’s roads and schools. But as I read on, I quickly realized that I had the wrong Georgia.
We’re going to spend $1 billion to fix the Georgia between Russia and Turkey, not the one between South Carolina and Florida.
Sorry, but the thought of us spending $1 billion to repair a country whose president, though a democrat, recklessly provoked a war with a brutish Russia, which was itching to bash its neighbor, makes no sense to me. Yes, we should diplomatically squeeze Russia until it withdraws its troops; no one should be invading neighbors.
But where are our priorities? How many wars can we fight at once without finishing even one? Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and now Georgia. Which is the priority? Americans are struggling to meet their mortgages, and we’re sending $1 billion to a country whose president behaved irresponsibly, just to poke Vladimir Putin in the eye. Couldn’t we poke Putin with $100 million? And shouldn’t we be fostering a dialogue with Georgia and with Putin? Otherwise, where is this going? A new cold war? Over what?
And that brings me to our election.
What I found missing in both conventions was a sense of priorities. Both Barack Obama and John McCain offered a list of good things they plan to do as president, but, since you can’t do everything, where’s the focus going to be?
That focus needs to be on strengthening our capacity for innovation — our most important competitive advantage. If we can’t remain the most innovative country in the world, we are not going to have $1 billion to toss at either the country Georgia or the state of Georgia.
While we still have enormous innovative energy bubbling up from the American people, it is not being supported and nurtured as needed in today’s supercompetitive world. Right now, we feel like a country in a very slow decline — in infrastructure, basic research and education — just slow enough to lull us into thinking that we have all the time and money to play around in Tbilisi, Georgia, more than Atlanta, Georgia.
As Chuck Vest, the former president of M.I.T., said to me: “Both candidates have spoken a lot about ‘change,’ but in most areas of need, innovation is the only mechanism that can actually change things in substantive ways. Innovation is where creative thinking and practical know-how meet to do new things in new ways, and old things in new ways.
“The irony of ignoring innovation as a theme for our times is that the U.S. is still the most innovative nation on the planet,” Vest added. “But we can only maintain that lead if we invest in the people, the research that enable it and produce a policy environment in which it can thrive rather than being squelched. Our strong science and technology base built by past investments, our free market economy built on a base of democracy and a diverse population are unmatched to date; but we are taking it for granted.”
A developed country’s competitiveness now comes primarily from its capacity to innovate — the ability to create the new products and services that people want, adds Curtis Carlson, chief executive of SRI International, a Silicon Valley research company. As such, “innovation is now the only path to growth, prosperity, environmental sustainability and national security for America. But it is also an incredibly competitive world. Many information industries require that products be improved by 100 percent every 12 to 36 months, just for the company to stay in business.”
Our competitiveness, though, he added, is based on having a broadly educated work force, superb research universities, innovation-supportive taxes, immigration and regulatory policies, a productive physical and virtual infrastructure, and a culture that embraces hard work and the creation of new opportunities.
“America is still the best place for innovation,” said Carlson. However, we are falling behind in K-12 education, infrastructure and in tax, regulatory and immigration policies that no longer welcome the world’s most talented minds. “These issues must be at the top of the national agenda because they determine our ability to provide health care, clean energy and economic opportunity for our citizens.”
(For a good plan, read the new “Closing the Innovation Gap” by the technologist Judy Estrin.)
Alas, though, the Republicans just had a convention where abortion got vastly more attention than innovation, calls to buttress Tbilisi, Georgia, swamped any for Atlanta, Georgia, and “drill, baby, drill” was chanted instead of “innovate, baby, innovate.”
If we were serious about weakening both Putin and Putinism, we would be investing $1 billion in Georgia Tech to invent alternatives to oil — the high price of which is the only reason the Kremlin is strong enough today to bully its neighbors and its own people.
I LIVE IN WASHINGTON, in a neighborhood that is home to lawyers, political consultants, television personalities and the chief executive of the TIAA-CREF pension fund. Not exactly an abode of the superrich, but the kind of neighborhood where almost nobody does her own yardwork or vacuums his own floor. Children’s birthday parties feature rented moon bounces or hired magicians. The local grocery stores offer elegant precooked dinners of salmon, duck and artichoke ravioli.
Four miles to the southeast there stretches a different Washington. More than one-third of the people live in poverty. Close to half the young children are overweight. Fewer than half the adults work. The rate of violent crime is more than 10 times that of the leafy streets of my neighborhood.
Measured by money income, Washington qualifies as one the most unequal cities in the United States. Yet these two very different halves of a single city do share at least one thing. They vote the same way: Democratic. And in this, we are not alone. As a general rule, the more unequal a place is, the more Democratic; the more equal, the more Republican. The gap between rich and poor in Washington is nearly twice as great as in strongly Republican Charlotte, N.C.; and more than twice as great as in Republican-leaning Phoenix, Fort Worth, Indianapolis and Anaheim.
My fellow conservatives and Republicans have tended not to worry very much about the widening of income inequalities. As long as there exists equality of opportunity — as long as everybody’s income is rising — who cares if some people get rich faster than others? Societies that try too hard to enforce equality deny important freedoms and inhibit wealth-creating enterprise. Individuals who worry overmuch about inequality can succumb to life-distorting envy and resentment.
All true! But something else is true, too: As America becomes more unequal, it also becomes less Republican. The trends we have dismissed are ending by devouring us.
THE TREND TO INEQUALITY is not new, and it is not confined to the United States. It has manifested itself just about everywhere in the developed world since the late 1970s, and for the same two reasons.
The first reason is the revolution in family life. Not so long ago, most households were home to two adults, one who worked and one who did not. Today fewer than half of America’s households are headed by married couples, and married women usually work. So America and other advanced countries have become increasingly divided between families earning two incomes and those getting by on one at most.
The family revolution coincided with another: a great shift from a national to a planetary division of labor. Inequality within nations is rising in large part because inequality is declining among nations. A generation ago, even a poor American was still better off than most people in China. Today the lifestyles of middle-class Chinese increasingly approximate those of middle-class Americans, while the lifestyles of upper and lower America increasingly diverge. Less-skilled Americans now face hundreds of millions of new wage competitors, while highly skilled Americans can sell their services in a worldwide market.
As long as all Americans were becoming better off, few cared that some Americans were becoming better off than others. But since 2000, something has changed. Incomes at the middle have ceased to rise. The mood of the country has soured. Conservatives who disregard the mood of unease may forfeit their power to defend the more open and productive American economy they did so much to build.
STEP ACROSS THE COUNTY line between Washington and suburban Fairfax County, Va., and you see the forfeiting process at work.
A third of a century ago, Fairfax had only recently evolved from farm country to bedroom community. Some rich families clustered in the village of McLean, where Robert Kennedy had his Hickory Hill estate. Otherwise, Fairfax housed middle-class families looking for inexpensive housing and excellent schools. These middle-class families voted Republican, leading the Old Dominion’s political transition away from its reactionary segregationist past to a modern business-oriented conservatism.
Under its Republican leadership, Fairfax boomed. Giant shopping malls and futuristic office blocks beanstalked over tract homes. The population surged past the one-million mark. Today Fairfax boasts an economy bigger than Vietnam’s. Fairfax households earn among the highest average incomes of any American county, more than $100,000, but that high average conceals wide variations between the highly educated and new arrivals speaking in 40 different tongues. With wealth comes diversity — and what is inequality but diversity in monetary form?
The county’s new wealth and diversity have created important new social problems. The schools are stressed. The roads are choked. Land use is more contentious. As Fairfax has evolved toward greater inequality, it has steadily shifted into the Democratic column. The Democrats Tim Kaine and Jim Webb won almost 60 percent of Fairfax’s votes in, respectively, the 2005 governor’s race and the 2006 U.S. Senate election. Democrats dominate Fairfax’s local government. In 2004, Fairfax voted for John Kerry over George Bush, 53 percent to 45 — the first Democratic presidential victory in the county since the Johnson landslide of 1964. Don’t imagine that this is a case of the shanties voting against the mansions. Kerry won some of his handsomest majorities in the fanciest of Fairfax’s 99 precincts.
In fact, Fairfax’s Democratic preference is typical of upper America. In 2000, Al Gore beat George Bush, 56-39, among the 4 percent of voters who identified themselves as “upper class.” America’s wealthiest ZIP codes are a roll call of Democratic strongholds: Sagaponack, N.Y.; Aspen, Colo.; Marin County, Calif.; the near North Side of Chicago; Beacon Hill in Boston. (Palm Beach, at least, remains securely Republican.) There is a long list of reasons for this anti-Republican tilt among the affluent: social issues, the environment, an ever more internationalist elite’s distaste for the Republican Party’s assertive nationalism. Maybe the most important reason, however, can be reduced to the two words: “Robert Rubin.” By returning to the center on economic matters in the 1990s, the Democrats emancipated higher-income and socially moderate voters to vote with their values rather than with their pocketbooks.
Republicans still claim the support of the upper-middle, but by dwindling margins. Democrats increased their share of the vote among those earning more than $100,000 by 9 percentage points between 1994 and 1998. Between 1998 and 2006, Democrats increased their share of this upper-middle-class vote by 3 more points.
Till now, conservative strength in the vast American middle more than compensated for any losses at the top and for the immigration-driven expansion of the bottom. Indeed, the Democratic tilt of the very richest Americans could be exploited as a powerful conservative recruiting tool. Resentment of “elites” is a major theme of conservative talk radio. “Who’s looking out for you?” demands Bill O’Reilly, as he excoriates “media elites” who vacation in the Hamptons, Aspen and the Virginia horse country.
But O’Reilly’s question has recoiled upon its onetime beneficiaries. Who is looking out for the Fox-viewing public? For most of the Bush administration, G.D.P. grew strongly, the stock market boomed, new jobs were created. But the ordinary person experienced little benefit. The median household income, which rose in the ’90s, had only just caught up to its 2000 level when the expansion ended in 2007.
You’ll hear a lot of partisan roostering from Democrats about the superiority of the Clinton over the Bush economy. But the difference owes little to the policies of either president. Between 2001 and 2008, the amount that employers paid for labor rose impressively, at least 25 percent. Yet almost all of that money was absorbed by the costs of health insurance, which doubled over the Bush years. In the 1990s, thanks to the advent of H.M.O.’s, health-care costs rose more slowly, so more of the money paid by employers could flow to employees.
Out of their flat-lining incomes, middle-class Americans have had to pay more for food, fuel, tuition and out-of-pocket health-care costs. In the past few months, they have suffered sharp tumbles in the value of their most important asset, their homes. Their mood has turned bleak. Almost 70 percent disapprove of the policies of George W. Bush. At intervals over the past two decades, Gallup has asked Americans whether the United States is a society divided into “haves” and “have-nots.” Back in 1988, more than 70 percent of Americans rejected this description. This year, the country split evenly: 49-49. When asked, “Are you better off than you were five years ago?” only 41 percent of middle-class Americans say yes, the worst result since pollsters started asking the question half a century ago.
It’s this pervasive economic unease that is capsizing the Republican Party, even as Americans have arrived in recent months at a somewhat more optimistic assessment of the progress of the Iraq war.
TO WITNESS THE SLOW-MOTION withering of the G.O.P., drive a little farther west into the Washington metropolitan area, to Prince William County. Here is exurban America in all its fresh paint: vast tracts of inexpensive homes, schools built to the latest design, roads still black in their virgin asphalt.
Whether in Virginia, Missouri or Illinois, there are no more egalitarian and no more Republican places in the United States than these exurbs. The rich shun them, and the poor can find no easy foothold, but the middle-income, middle-educated, white married parents who form the backbone of the G.O.P. are drawn to them as if to a refuge. It’s a modest-enough utopia, and comfortable equality has had its usual pro-Republican consequences: Republicans hold six of the eight seats on Prince William County’s Board of Supervisors and all three of the federal Congressional seats that include parts of the county.
Yet in the past couple of cycles, the once-tight Republican hold upon the county has loosened. Prince William voted (very narrowly) for Gov. Tim Kaine in 2005 and then (slightly less narrowly) for Senator Jim Webb in 2006. A big vote for the 2008 Democratic senatorial candidate Mark Warner seems almost certain, and a victory for Barack Obama seems very possible.
To echo an old Republican question: Who lost Prince William County?
Republican economic management since 2001 has not yielded many benefits for middle-income America. Adjusting for inflation, the incomes of college graduates actually dropped by 5 percent between 2000 and 2004 — and 44 percent of the people of Prince William are college graduates. Prince William is also ground zero for the middle-class revolt against the Bush administration’s easy immigration policies. An estimated 10 million migrants have entered the United States since 2000, at least half of them illegally, and few places in the United States have reacted more angrily than Prince William County. Last year, the Prince William Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to require the local police to check the immigration status of all arrested persons.
It’s widely understood that abundant low-skilled immigration hurts lower America by reducing wages. As the National Research Council noted in its comprehensive 1997 report: “If the wage of domestic unskilled workers did not fall, no domestic worker (unskilled or skilled) would gain or lose, and there would be no net domestic gain from immigration.” In other words, immigration is good for America as a whole only because — and only to the extent that — it is bad for the poorest Americans. Conversely, low-skilled immigration enriches upper America, lowering the price of personal services like landscaping and restaurant meals. And by holding down wages, immigration makes the business investments of upper America more profitable.
Middle-class Americans surely share in the cost-lowering benefits of immigration. But the middle class also pays the higher local tax bills that can result from immigration. Immigrants do not qualify for many federal benefits, but they do use the roads, schools, hospitals and prisons supported by state and local property taxes — the taxes that fall most disproportionately on the middle class.
It is also clear that immigration thickens the ranks of the American poor. The poverty rate for post-1970 immigrants and their native-born children is almost 50 percent higher than for the native born. (In 1970, established immigrants were much less likely to be poor than the native born.) No mystery why this should be so: one-third of adult new immigrants have not finished high school. And there is reason to fear that this poverty will become entrenched: barely half of Latino students complete high school on time; 48 percent of births to Latino women occur outside marriage.
IN SHORT, the trend to inequality is real, it is large and it is transforming American society and the American electoral map. Yet the conservative response to this trend verges somewhere between the obsolete and the irrelevant.
Conservatives need to stop denying reality. The stagnation of the incomes of middle-class Americans is a fact. And only by acknowledging facts can we respond effectively to the genuine difficulties of voters in the middle. We keep offering them cuts in their federal personal income taxes — even though two-thirds of Americans pay more in payroll taxes than in income taxes, and even though a majority of Americans now describe their federal income tax burden as reasonable.
What the middle class needs most is not lower income taxes but a slowdown in the soaring inflation of health-care costs. If health-insurance costs had risen 50 percent rather than 100 percent over the Bush years, middle-income voters would have enjoyed a pay raise instead of enduring wage stagnation. John McCain’s health plan, which emphasizes tax changes to encourage employees to buy their own insurance rather than rely on employers, is a start — but only the very beginning of a start. Some Republicans have brought great energy to this problem. In the Senate, Robert Bennett of Utah has written a bill with the Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden that would require employers to “cash out” employer-provided health care — and then midwife a national insurance marketplace in which employees would join plans that offered more price control and price transparency. Mitt Romney in Massachusetts put an end to the tax disadvantage that hammers consumers who buy health care directly rather than through their employers. Rudy Giuliani proposed a federal law to enable low-cost insurers in states like Kentucky to sell their products across state lines in high-cost states like New Jersey. But it remains unfortunately true that the Republican Party as a whole regards health care as “not our issue” — and certainly less exciting than another round of tax reductions.
Unlike liberals, conservatives are not bothered by the accumulation of wealth as such. We should be more troubled that the poor remain so poor. With all due respect to the needs of employers, Republicans need to recognize that the large-scale import of unskilled labor is part of the problem.
Meanwhile, the argument over same-sex marriage has become worse than a distraction from the challenge of developing policies to ensure that as many children as possible grow up with both a father and a mother in the home. Over the past 30 years, governments have effectively worked to change attitudes about smoking, seat-belt use and teenage pregnancy. Changing attitudes about unmarried childbirth may prove more difficult. Yet it is a fact that the only way to escape poverty is to work consistently — and that even after welfare reform, low-skilled single parents work less consistently than the main breadwinner in a low-skilled dual-parent household.
At the same time, conservatives need to ask ourselves some hard questions about the trend toward the Democrats among America’s affluent and well educated. Leaving aside the District of Columbia, 7 of America’s 10 best-educated states are strongly “blue” in national politics, and the others (Colorado, New Hampshire and Virginia) have been trending blue. Of the 10 least-educated, only one (Nevada) is not reliably Republican. And so we arrive at a weird situation in which the party that identifies itself with markets, with business and with technology cannot win the votes of those who have prospered most from markets, from business and from technology. Republicans have been badly hurt in upper America by the collapse of their onetime reputation for integrity and competence. Upper Americans live in a world in which things work. The packages arrive overnight. The car doors clink seamlessly shut. The prevailing Republican view — “of course government always fails, what do you expect it to do?” — is not what this slice of America expects to hear from the people asking to be entrusted with the government.
It is probable that the trend to inequality will grow even stronger in the years ahead, if new genetic techniques offer those with sufficient resources the possibility of enhancing the intelligence, health, beauty and strength of children in the womb. How should conservatives respond to such new technologies? The anti-abortion instincts of many conservatives naturally incline them to look at such techniques with suspicion — and indeed it is certainly easy to imagine how they might be abused. Yet in an important address delivered as long ago as 1983, Pope John Paul II argued that genetic enhancement was permissible — indeed, laudable — even from a Catholic point of view, as long as it met certain basic moral rules. Among those rules: that these therapies be available to all. Ensuring equality of care may become inseparable from ensuring equality of opportunity.
Equality in itself never can be or should be a conservative goal. But inequality taken to extremes can overwhelm conservative ideals of self-reliance, limited government and national unity. It can delegitimize commerce and business and invite destructive protectionism and overregulation. Inequality, in short, is a conservative issue too. We must develop a positive agenda that integrates the right kind of egalitarianism with our conservative principles of liberty. If we neglect this task and this opportunity, we won’t lose just the northern Virginia suburbs. We will lose America.
David Frum, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of “Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again.”
Friday, September 5
It turns out there was something more nauseating than the nomination of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate this past week. It was the tone of the acclaim that followed her acceptance speech.
“Drill, baby, drill,” clapped John Dickerson, marveling at Palin’s ability to speak and smile at the same time as an indication of her unexpected depths and unsuspected strengths. “It was clear Palin was having fun, and it’s hard to have fun if you’re scared or a lightweight,” he wrote in Slate.
The Politico praised her charm and polish as antidotes to her lack of foreign policy experience: “Palin’s poised and flawless performance evoked roars of applause from delegates who earlier this week might have worried that the surprise pick and newcomer to the national stage may not be up to the job.”
“She had a great night. I thought she had a very skillfully written, and very skillfully delivered speech,” Joe Biden said, shades of “articulate and bright and clean” threatening a reappearance. (For a full roundup of these comments go here.)
Thus began the official public launch of our country’s now most-prominent female politician. The condescension – damning with faint praise – was reminiscent of the more overt misogyny of Samuel Johnson.
“A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs,” the wit once observed. “It is not done well; but you are surprized to find it done at all.”
Palin sounded, at times, like she was speaking a foreign language as she gave voice to the beautifully crafted words that had been prepared for her on Wednesday night.
But that wasn’t held against her. Thanks to the level of general esteem that greeted her ascent to the podium, it seems we’ve all got to celebrate the fact that America’s Hottest Governor (Princess of the Fur Rendezvous 1983, Miss Wasilla 1984) could speak at all.
Could there be a more thoroughgoing humiliation for America’s women?
You are not, I think, supposed now to say this. Just as, I am sure, you are certainly not supposed to feel that having Sarah Palin put forth as the Republicans’ first female vice presidential candidate is just about as respectful a gesture toward women as was John McCain’s suggestion, last month, that his wife participate in a topless beauty contest.
Such thoughts, we are told, are sexist. And elitist. After all, via Palin, we now hear without cease, the People are speaking. The “real” “authentic,” small-town “Everyday People,” of Hockey Moms and Blue Collar Dads whom even Rudolph Giuliani now invokes as an antidote to the cosmopolite Obamas and their backers in the liberal media. (Remind me please, once again, what was the name of the small town where Rudy grew up?)
Why does this woman – who to some of us seems as fake as they can come, with her delicate infant son hauled out night after night under the klieg lights and her pregnant teenage daughter shamelessly instrumentalized for political purposes — deserve, to a unique extent among political women, to rank as so “real”?
Because the Republicans, very clearly, believe that real people are idiots. This disdain for their smarts shows up in the whole way they’ve cast this race now, turning a contest over economic and foreign policy into a culture war of the Real vs. the Elites. It’s a smoke and mirrors game aimed at diverting attention from the fact that the party’s tax policies have helped create an elite that’s more distant from “the people” than ever before. And from the fact that the party’s dogged allegiance to up-by-your-bootstraps individualism — an individualism exemplified by Palin, the frontierswoman who somehow has managed to “balance” five children and her political career with no need for support — is leading to a culture-wide crack-up.
Real people, the kind of people who will like and identify with Palin, they clearly believe, are smart, but not too smart, and don’t talk too well, dropping their “g”s, for example, and putting tough concepts like “vice president” in quotation marks.
“As for that ‘V.P.’ talk all the time … I tell ya, I still can’t answer that question until somebody answers for me, What is it exactly that the ‘VP’ does every day?” Palin asked host Lawrence Kudlow on CNBC sometime before her nomination. “I’m used to bein’ very productive and workin’ real hard in an administration and we want to make sure that that ‘V.P.’ slot would be a fruitful type of position.”
And, I think, they find her acceptably “real,” because Palin’s not intimidating, and makes it clear that she’s subordinate to a great man.
That’s the worst thing a woman can be in this world, isn’t it? Intimidating, which appears to be synonymous with competent. It’s the kiss of death, personally and politically.
But shouldn’t a woman who is prepared to be commander in chief be intimidating? Because of the intelligence, experience, talent and drive that got her there? If she isn’t, at least on some level, off-putting, if her presence inspires national commentary on breast-pumping and babysitting rather than health care reform and social security, then something is seriously wrong. If she doesn’t elicit at least some degree of awe, then something is missing.
One of the worst poisons of the American political climate right now, the thing that time and again in recent years has led us to disaster, is the need people feel for leaders they can “relate” to. This need isn’t limited to women; it brought us after all, two terms of George W. Bush. And it isn’t new; Americans have always needed to feel that their leaders were, on some level, people like them.
But in the past, it was possible to fill that need through empathetic connection. Few Depression-era voters could “relate” to Franklin Roosevelt’s patrician background, notes historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. “It was his ability to connect to them that made them feel they could connect to him,” she told me in a phone interview.
The age of television, Goodwin believes, has made the demand for connection more immediate and intense. But never before George W. Bush did it quite reach the beer-drinking level of familiarity. “Now it’s all about being able to see your life story in the candidate, rather than the candidate, with empathy, being able to relate to you.”
There’s a fine line between likability and demagoguery. Both thrive upon manipulation and least-common-denominator politics. These days, I fear, this need for direct mirroring — and thus this susceptibility to all sorts of low-level tripe — is particularly acute among women, who are perhaps reaching historic lows in their comfort levels with themselves and their choices.
Just look at how quickly the reaction to Palin devolved into what The Times this week called the “Mommy Wars: Special Campaign Edition.” Much of the talk about Palin (like the emoting about Hillary Clinton before her) ultimately came down to this: is she like me or not like me? If she’s not like me, can I like her? And what kind of child care does she have?
“This election is not about issues,” Rick Davis, John McCain’s campaign manager said this week. “This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates.” That’s a scary thought. For the takeaway is so often base, a reflection more of people’s fears and insecurities than of our hopes and dreams.
We’re not likely to get a worthy female president anytime soon.
By Hanna Rosin
Posted Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008, at 1:15 PM ET
When I first heard about Sarah Palin's, uh, domestic irregularities, I expected social conservatives to react with a kind of qualified, patronizing support—we are all sinners, there but for the grace of God, something like that. Instead, they are embracing her with unbridled admiration. The Family Research Council praised her for "choosing life in the midst of a difficult situation." Cathie Adams of the Eagle Forum, a conservative women's group, called her "the kind of woman I've been looking for all along." The two difficult pregnancies—Palin's with a Down syndrome baby and now her unmarried teenage daughter's—is just proof that "they're doing everything right," gushes Adams. Even the stern religious right godfather James Dobson doted: "A lot of people were praying, and I believe Sarah Palin is God's answer."
Some of this reaction can be explained just by listing the religious right's priorities in order. In the pantheon of family values, avoiding abortion sits at the top, above marriage or staying home to raise your children. Conservatives have spent the last 30 years seeding the country with crisis pregnancy centers dedicated to convincing young women not to abort their babies, regardless of their personal situations. The fact that Britney Spears' younger sister made the same decision to keep her pregnancy at 17 and that Juno was a hit movie only adds an unexpected glamour to the choice.
But this explanation takes you only so far. What's missing from the conservative reaction is still remarkable. Just 15 years ago, a different Republican vice president was ripping into the creators of Murphy Brown for flaunting a working woman who chose to become a single mother. This time around, there's no stigma, no shame, no sin attached to what Dan Quayle would once have mockingly called Bristol Palin's "lifestyle" choices. In fact, so cavalier are conservatives about Sarah Palin's wreck of a home life that they make the rest of us look stuffy and slow-witted by comparison. "I think a hard-working, well-organized C.E.O. type can handle it very well," said Phyllis Schlafly, of the Eagle Forum.
Suddenly it's the Obamas, with their oh-so-perfect marriage and their Dick Van Dyke in the evenings and their two boringly innocent young girls, who seem like the fuddy-duddies.
What happened? How did the culture war get flipped on its head? Of course, conservatives are partly lining up behind Palin just so they can stay in the game. But it's not all crass opportunism. To any religious conservative, Palin, with all her contradictions and hypocrisies, is a very familiar type in this peculiar moment in evangelical history.
Starting in the 1970s, leaders such as Dobson began rewriting the rules of the traditional Christian marriage to make it more palatable in an age of feminism. Domestic work was elevated to a special calling; Christian women were told their child-rearing decisions had national implications, as they were raising a generation of righteous soldiers. Mom took on a political tinge. Home-schooling mothers dragged their large broods to volunteer in campaigns. Like with many Christian moms of her generation, Palin's résumé starts with the PTA.
In the Gingrich era, a few of the Christian mom-types, including Palin, broke out and started their own political careers. Andrea Seastrand was an elementary-school teacher elected to Congress in California in those years. Linda Smith, of Washington state, kept a blown-up picture of her granddaughters in her congressional office. I remember interviewing her one day while her husband, Vern, sat in a hard chair in a corner and gave words to the obvious contradiction: "One of the reasons we got into politics, we wanted to preserve some of the traditional lifestyle we'd grown up with," Vern told me. "It's funny, with Linda away, we end up sacrificing some of that traditional family life to pass some of that heritage to our children."
Conservative women became a powerful tool for the party, and everyone was willing to overlook the cost to their personal lives. If a conservative Christian mother chose to pursue a full-time career in, say, landscape gardening or the law, she was abandoning her family. But if she chose public service, she was furthering the godly cause. No one discussed the sticky domestic details: Did she have a (gasp!) nanny? Did her husband really rule the roost anymore? Who said prayers with the kids every night? As long as she was seen now and again with her children, she could get away with any amount of power.
The larger Palin clan, meanwhile, reflects a different trend among evangelicals. The stereotype we associate with evangelicals—intact marriage, wife at home, teenage daughter saves it for marriage—actually applies only to the small minority who attend church weekly.
The rest of the 30 percent of Americans who call themselves evangelical have started to slip in their morals and now actually poll worse than the rest of America on traditional measures of upstanding behavior—they are just as likely to live together and have kids out of wedlock, and their teenage daughters lose their virginities at an earlier age than the girls of most Americans. University of Virginia historian W. Bradford Wilcox blames this partly on class differences and particularly on a lingering "redneck" Appalachian strain in evangelical culture. (I'm a "fucking redneck," wrote Levi, the father of Bristol's baby, on his MySpace page, before it was taken down.)
In that way, Bristol's pregnancy can be spun as just another one of the Palins' impeccable working-class credentials—salmon fisherman, union member, DWI, hockey mom, soldier son, pregnant teenage daughter.
The most remarkable differences between the large mass of evangelicals and the rest of Americans are in divorce statistics. Since the '70s, evangelicals and the coastal elites have effectively switched places. Evangelicals are now far more likely to get divorced, whereas couples with four years of college education have cut their divorce rates in half. An intact happy marriage that produces well-behaved children, it turns out, is becoming a luxury of the elites—bad news for the Obamas.
Hanna Rosin is the author of God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission To Save the Nation and a contributing editor at the Atlantic. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Wednesday, August 27
By Daniel Gross
Barack Obama's tax plan, laid out by advisers Austan Goolsbee and Jason Furman in the Wall Street Journal in mid-August, promises to improve the nation's fiscal standing by scaling back tax cuts for people making more than $250,000. Since then, the business pundit class has been griping that people who make $250,000 a year aren't really wealthy, especially if they live in and around New York; San Francisco; or Washington, D.C. (Check out this CNBC debate, for example.) On Wednesday afternoon, CNBC's unscientific online poll found that (surprise!) only 35 percent of respondents believed an income of $250,000 qualified a household for elite rich status.
I have two pieces of bad news for the over-$250,000 crowd. First, the reversal of some of the temporary Bush tax cuts is probably inevitable, given the Republican fiscal clown show of the past eight years. Second, I regret to inform you that you are indeed rich.
To a large degree, feeling rich or poor is a state of mind, as John McCain recently noted. "Some people are wealthy and rich in their lives and their children and their ability to educate them. Others are poor if they're billionaires." But income data can surely tell us something. And they tell us that $250,000 puts you in pretty fancy company. The Census Bureau earlier this week reported that the median household income was $50,223 in 2007—up slightly from the last year but still below the 1999 peak. So a household that earned $250,000 made five times the median. In fact, as this chart shows, only 2.245 million U.S. households, the top 1.9 percent, had income greater than $250,000 in 2007. (About 20 percent of households make more than $100,000.)
In dealing with aggregate nationwide numbers, we should of course take account of the significant differences in the cost of living from state to state. It's obvious that $250,000 doesn't go as far in Santa Barbara, Calif., or Manhattan—or in most places where CNBC viewers, employees, and guests live—as it does in Paducah, Ky. As census data show, state median incomes vary from $65,933 in New Jersey to $35,971 in Mississippi. But even in wealthy states, $250,000 ain't bad—it's nearly four times the median income in wealthy states like Maryland and Connecticut. And even if you look at the wealthiest metropolitan areas—Washington, D.C. ($83,200); San Francisco ($73,851); Boston ($68,142); and New York ($61,554)—$250,000 a year dwarfs the median income.
But people in Georgetown mansions don't necessarily compare themselves to fellow Washingtonians in Anacostia. Relative income really works at the neighborhood level. As we know from the work of Cornell economist Robert Frank, people rate their well-being not so much based on how much they make and consume, but on how much they make and consume compared to their neighbors. After all, you have to compete with them for status and for important positional goods such as housing and schools. And here the CNBC crowd has a point. It is certainly true that in a few ZIP codes and neighborhoods, brandishing a $250,000 salary is like bringing a knife to a gunfight. There is a significant number of rich people—including a healthy contingent of filthy rich people—in places like New York City and San Francisco. If you want to live in a neighborhood where starter homes cost $1 million, and you want to send your kids to private schools, and you want to go on great vacations and have a beach house, then $250,000 likely won't cut it. For people in this situation, the knowledge that they're doing better than 98 percent of their fellow Americans is little solace when the investment banker down the street has just pulled down a $2 million bonus.
But the number of places where $250,000 stretches you is small indeed—certain parts of Greenwich, Conn.; several neighborhoods in Manhattan; some of California's coast. Even in the most exclusive communities where the wealthy congregate, $250,000 is still pretty good coin. Consider this: CNNMoney recently ranked America's 25 wealthiest towns. In all of them, someone making $250,000 would have a difficult time buying his dream house. But in all of them, making $250,000 means you're doing better than most of your neighbors. Even in America's richest town, New Canaan, Conn., the median income is $231,138.
I await the tidal wave of e-mails and blog posts from self-made, hardworking, accomplished people who earn $250,000 but who don't feel financially secure and who don't consider themselves rich, especially compared to the venture capitalist next door. Having spent my entire adult life in and around Washington, Boston, and New York, I feel you. I'm eager to listen and empathize. Tell me all about how home prices in areas with good public schools are insanely expensive. Tell me about how many other seemingly undeserving people make so much more. Tell me about your proposals to devise an income tax system that accounts for geographically divergent costs of living (the Alternative Yuppie Tax?). Just don't tell me you're not rich.
Sunday, August 24
The Olympics may just be a sporting event, but it is hard not to read larger messages into the results, especially when you see how China and America have dominated the medals tally. Both countries can — and will — look at their Olympic successes as reaffirmations of their distinctly different political systems. But what strikes me is how much they could each learn from the other. This, as they say, is a teaching moment.
Call it: One Olympics — two systems.
How so? You can’t look at the U.S. Olympic team and not see the strength that comes from diversity, and you can’t look at the Chinese team and not see the strength that comes from intense focus and concentrated power.
Let’s start with us. Walking through the Olympic Village the other day, here’s what struck me most: the Russian team all looks Russian; the African team all looks African; the Chinese team all looks Chinese; and the American team looks like all of them.
This is especially true when you include the coaches. Liang Chow, the coach of the Iowa gymnast Shawn Johnson, was a popular co-caption of China’s national gymnastics team in the 1980s before he emigrated to West Des Moines. The U.S. women’s volleyball team was coached by a former Chinese player, Jenny Lang Ping, when it defeated China a few days ago. Lang, a national hero in China, led the Chinese team to a gold medal in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. It would be like Michael Jordan coaching China’s basketball team to a win over America.
The Associated Press reports that there are 33 foreign-born players on the U.S. Olympic team, including four Chinese-born table tennis players, a kayaker from Britain, seven members of the track-and-field team — as well as Lopez Lomong, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan’s civil war, who was resettled in the U.S. by Catholic Charities, and Leo Manzano, the son of an illegal immigrant Mexican laborer. He moved to the U.S. when he was 4 but didn’t gain citizenship until 2004.
It is amazing that with our Noah’s Ark of an Olympic team doing so well “that at the same time you have this rising call in America to restrict immigration,” said Robert Hormats, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International. “Some people want to choke off the very thing that makes us strong and unique.”
China could learn something from our Olympic team as well: the power that comes from a strong society, woven together of many strands from the bottom up. For instance, it’s hard to drive around Beijing these days and not enjoy the thinned-out traffic and blue sky — which are largely the result of China ordering drivers off the roads and closing factories — and not wonder how these can be sustained after the Olympics. Many Chinese I have spoken to have asked: How can we keep this? Now that we have seen how blue the sky really can be, we don’t want to give it away.
The problem for China, though, is that environmentalism is a bottom-up movement in the rest of the world. While it requires a strong government to pass regulations from the top, it also can’t work without a strong, independent civil society acting as a watchdog, spotlighting polluters and suing businesses that do not comply. China can be green for the two weeks of the Olympics from the top down, but it can’t be green for the next 20 years without more bottom up.
That said, there are some things we could learn from China, namely the ability to focus on big, long-term, nation-building goals and see them through. A Chinese academic friend tells me that the success of the Olympics is already prompting some high officials to argue that only a strong, top-down, Communist Party-led China could have organized the stunning building projects around these Olympics and the focused performance of so many different Chinese athletes. For instance, the Chinese have no tradition of rowing teams, but at these Games, out of nowhere, Beijing fielded a women’s quadruple sculls crew that won China’s first Olympic gold medal in rowing.
The lesson for us is surely not that we need authoritarian government. The lesson is that we need to make our democracy work better. The American men’s basketball team did poorly in the last Olympics because it could not play as a team. So our stars were beaten by inferior players with better teamwork. Our basketball team learned its lesson.
Congress has gotten worse. Our democracy feels increasingly paralyzed because collaboration in Washington has become nearly impossible — whether because of money, gerrymandering, a 24-hour-news cycle or the permanent presidential campaign. And as a result, our ability to focus America’s incredible bottom-up energies — outside of sports — has diminished. You see it in our crumbling infrastructure and inability to shape a real energy program. China feels focused. We feel distracted.
So, yes, America and China should enjoy their medals — but we should each also reflect on how the other team got so many.
Saturday, August 23
Posted Saturday, Aug. 23, 2008, at 12:02 AM ET
What with the Bush legacy of reckless war and economic mismanagement, 2008 is a year that favors the generic Democratic candidate over the generic Republican one. Yet Barack Obama, with every natural and structural advantage in the presidential race, is running only neck-and-neck against John McCain, a sub-par Republican nominee with a list of liabilities longer than a Joe Biden monologue. Obama has built a crack political operation, raised record sums, and inspired millions with his eloquence and vision. McCain has struggled with a fractious campaign team, lacks clarity and discipline, and remains a stranger to charisma. Yet at the moment, the two of them appear to be tied. What gives?
If it makes you feel better, you can rationalize Obama's missing 10-point lead on the basis of Clintonite sulkiness, his slowness in responding to attacks, or the concern that Obama may be too handsome, brilliant, and cool to be elected. But let's be honest: If you break the numbers down, the reason Obama isn't ahead right now is that he trails badly among one group, older white voters. He does so for a simple reason: the color of his skin.
Much evidence points to racial prejudice as a factor that could be large enough to cost Obama the election. That warning is written all over last month's CBS/New York Times poll, which is worth examining in detail if you want a quick grasp of white America's curious sense of racial grievance. In the poll, 26 percent of whites say they have been victims of discrimination. Twenty-seven percent say too much has been made of the problems facing black people. Twenty-four percent say the country isn't ready to elect a black president. Five percent of white voters acknowledge that they, personally, would not vote for a black candidate.
Five percent surely understates the reality. In the Pennsylvania primary, one in six white voters told exit pollsters race was a factor in his or her decision. Seventy-five percent of those people voted for Clinton. You can do the math: 12 percent of the Pennsylvania primary electorate acknowledged that it didn't vote for Barack Obama in part because he is African-American. And that's what Democrats in a Northeastern(ish) state admit openly. The responses in Ohio and even New Jersey were dispiritingly similar.
Such prejudice usually comes coded in distortions about Obama and his background. To the willfully ignorant, he is a secret Muslim married to a black-power radical. Or—thank you, Geraldine Ferraro—he only got where he is because of the special treatment accorded those lucky enough to be born with African blood. Some Jews assume Obama is insufficiently supportive of Israel in the way they assume other black politicians to be. To some white voters (14 percent in the CBS/New York Times poll), Obama is someone who, as president, would favor blacks over whites. Or he is an "elitist" who cannot understand ordinary (read: white) people because he isn't one of them. Or he is charged with playing the race card, or of accusing his opponents of racism, when he has strenuously avoided doing anything of the sort. We're just not comfortable with, you know, a Hawaiian.
Then there's the overt stuff. In May, Pat Buchanan, who writes books about the European-Americans losing control of their country, ranted on MSNBC in defense of white West Virginians voting on the basis of racial solidarity. The No. 1 best-seller in America, Obama Nation by Jerome R. Corsi, Ph.D., leeringly notes that Obama's white mother always preferred that her "mate" be "a man of color." John McCain has yet to get around to denouncing this vile book.
Many have discoursed on what an Obama victory could mean for America. We would finally be able to see our legacy of slavery, segregation, and racism in the rearview mirror. Our kids would grow up thinking of prejudice as a nonfactor in their lives. The rest of the world would embrace a less fearful and more open post-post-9/11 America. But does it not follow that an Obama defeat would signify the opposite? If Obama loses, our children will grow up thinking of equal opportunity as a myth. His defeat would say that when handed a perfect opportunity to put the worst part of our history behind us, we chose not to. In this event, the world's judgment will be severe and inescapable: The United States had its day but, in the end, couldn't put its own self-interest ahead of its crazy irrationality over race.
Choosing John McCain, in particular, would herald the construction of a bridge to the 20th century—and not necessarily the last part of it, either. McCain represents a Cold War style of nationalism that doesn't get the shift from geopolitics to geoeconomics, the centrality of soft power in a multipolar world, or the transformative nature of digital technology. This is a matter of attitude as much as age. A lot of 71-year-olds are still learning and evolving. But in 2008, being flummoxed by that newfangled doodad, the personal computer, seems like a deal-breaker. At this hinge moment in human history, McCain's approach to our gravest problems is hawkish denial. I like and respect the man, but the maverick has become an ostrich: He wants to deal with the global energy crisis by drilling and our debt crisis by cutting taxes, and he responds to security challenges from Georgia to Iran with Bush-like belligerence and pique.
You may or may not agree with Obama's policy prescriptions, but they are, by and large, serious attempts to deal with the biggest issues we face: a failing health care system, oil dependency, income stagnation, and climate change. To the rest of the world, a rejection of the promise he represents wouldn't just be an odd choice by the United States. It would be taken for what it would be: sign and symptom of a nation's historical decline.
Monday, August 18
Posted Monday, Aug. 18, 2008, at 12:00 PM ET
While it is almost certainly true that Moscow's action in the Ossetian and (for good measure) the Abkhazian enclave of Georgia has been, in a real sense, the revenge for the independence of Kosovo (on Feb. 14 Vladimir Putin said publicly that Western recognition of Kosovar independence would be met by intensified Russian support for irredentism in South Ossetia), it is extremely important to bear in mind that this observation does not permit us the moral sloth of allowing any equivalence between the two dramas.
Perhaps one could mention just some of the more salient differences?
Russia had never expressed any interest in Ossetian or Abkhazian micronationalisms, while Georgia was an integral part of the Soviet Union. It is thus impossible to avoid the suspicion that these small peoples are being used as "strategic minorities" to negate the independence of the larger Georgian republic and to warn all those with pro-Russian populations on their soil of what may, in turn, befall them. This is like nothing so much as Turkish imperialism in Cyprus and Thrace and Iraq, where local minorities can be turned on and off like a faucet according to the needs of the local superpower.
Kosovo, which was legally part of Yugoslavia but not of Serbia was never manipulated as part of the partition or intervention plan of another country—the United States, in fact, spent far too long on the pretense that the Yugoslav federation could be saved—and, for a lengthy period, pursued its majority-rule claims by passive resistance and other nonviolent means. NATO intervention occurred only when Serbian forces had resorted to mass deportation and full-dress ethnic "cleansing." Whatever may be said of Georgia's incautious policy toward secessionism within its own internationally recognized borders, it does not deserve comparison with the lawless and criminal behavior of the Slobodan Milosevic regime. And in any case, it is unwise for Moscow to be making the analogy, since it supported Milosevic at the time and has excused him since on the less-than-adorable grounds (barely even disguised in Russian propaganda) of Christian Orthodox solidarity. It also armed and incited the most extreme and least pacifist forces in Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Does anybody remember the speeches in which the Russian ambassador to the United Nations asked the General Assembly or Security Council to endorse his country's plan to send land, air, and sea forces deep into the territory and waters of a former colony that is now a U.N. member state? I thought not. I look at the newspaper editorials every day, waiting to see who will be the first to use the word unilateral in the same sentence as the name Russia. Nothing so far. Yet U.N. Resolution 1441, warning Saddam Hussein of serious consequences, was the fruit of years of thwarted diplomacy and was passed without a dissenting vote.
The six former constituent republics of Yugoslavia, which all exercised their pre-existing constitutional right to secede from rule by Belgrade, are seated as members of the United Nations, as, indeed, is Georgia. Twenty out of 27 states of the European Union have also recognized the government of Kosovo as an entity de jure as well as de facto. The Kosovar population is estimated at 1.8 million, which makes it larger than that of some existing E.U. member states. Does anyone seriously imagine that Russia ever even remotely intends to sponsor any statehood claims for the tiny local populations of Ossetia and Abkhazia? On the contrary, these peoples will be reassimilated into the Russian empire. So any comparison with Kosovo would have to be not to its breaking away but to its potential absorption and annexation by Albania. And nobody has even proposed this, let alone countenanced the unilateral stationing of Albanian armed forces on Kosovar soil.
Heartbreakingly difficult though the task has been, and remains, the whole emphasis of Western policy in the Balkans has been on de-emphasizing ethnic divisions; subsidizing cities and communities that practice reconciliation; and encouraging, for example, Serbs and Albanians to cooperate in Kosovo. One need not romanticize this policy, but it would nonetheless stand up to any comparison with Russian behavior in the Caucasus (and indeed the Balkans), which is explicitly based on an outright appeal to sectarianism, nationalism, and—even worse—confessionalism.
The fans of moral equivalence may or may not have noticed this, but the obviously long-meditated and coordinated Russian military intervention in Georgia comes in the same month as explicit threats to the sovereignty of Poland and Ukraine, and hard on the heels of a Russian obstruction of any U.N. action in the case of Zimbabwe. Those who like to describe Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev as reacting to an "encirclement" of Russia may wish to spill some geopolitical ink on explaining how Kosovo forms part of this menacing ring of steel—or how the repression of the people of Zimbabwe can assist in Moscow's breakout strategy from it.
If it matters, I agree with the critics who say that the Bush administration garnered the worst of both worlds by giving the Georgians the impression of U.S. support and then defaulting at the push-comes-to-shove moment. The Clintonoids made exactly that mistake with Serbian aggression a decade and more ago, giving the Bosnians hope and then letting them be slaughtered until the position became untenable—and then astoundingly, and even after the Dayton Accords, repeating the same series of dithering errors in the case of Kosovo. The longer the moment of truth was postponed, the worse things became. But this in itself argues quite convincingly that there was no deliberate imperial design involved. Will anyone say the same about Putin's undisguised plan for the forcible restoration of Russian hegemony all around his empire's periphery? It would be nice to think that there was a consistent response to this from Washington, but I would not even bet someone else's house on the idea, which is what President Bush has given the strong impression of doing in the low farce and frivolity of the last two weeks.
Sunday, August 10
Suppose you have two groups of pregnant female rats. Rats in the first group can either eat as much regular lab-rat chow as they like, or they can eat their fill of human junk food — cookies, doughnuts, marshmallows, potato chips, muffins, chocolate. Rats in the second group only get chow, but again, can eat as much as they like. After the rats have given birth, continue the different regimens while the pups are suckling. Then give both groups of pups access to the chow and the junk food.
Experiments like this have found that pregnant females with access to junk food ate, on a daily basis, roughly 40 percent more food (by weight) and 56 percent more calories than rats that just had chow. Moreover — and this is the interesting bit — pups whose mothers ate junk food while pregnant and lactating had a greater taste for food high in fat and sugar than those whose mothers did not. The junk-food pups ate more calories and were more prone to gaining weight.
What goes for rats does not necessarily go for humans. Nonetheless, such results are thought-provoking. As everyone knows, humans are getting fatter and fatter. According to the World Health Organization, 400 million adults around the world weighed in as obese in 2005. In the United States, more than a third of women between 20 and 39 are obese, some of them extremely so. For the first time in history, large numbers of obese women are having children.
Being obese during pregnancy is dangerous for the mother and expensive for the health care system. But does it affect the babies?
There are reasons to think it might. The period between conception and birth is crucial — after all, you’re growing from a single cell into a baby. Your heart is being built; your brain is being wired. Exposure to alcohol during this time can disrupt brain development; lack of iodine may permanently stunt growth. Being starved in the womb can lead to health problems such as heart disease later in life, especially if food becomes abundant. So what about overnourishment? Does an “obese” environment in the womb somehow predispose babies to obesity later on?
At the moment, such questions are difficult to answer. Humans are much harder to study than rats, and the phenomenon of obesity in pregnancy is relatively new, so we don’t know much about it yet. Moreover, many factors contribute to someone’s becoming obese, and picking them apart is tricky. Added to that, an “obese” environment in the womb has two separate elements: the nutrients provided by the mother via the food she eats, and the hormonal environment of someone who is overweight. (Being obese can profoundly alter a woman’s hormonal profile.) Again, picking these apart is hard.
But the results of several studies suggest that the very fact of a woman being obese during pregnancy may predispose her children to obesity. For example, one study found that children born to women who have lost weight after radical anti-obesity surgery are less likely to be obese than siblings born before their mother lost weight. Another study looked at women who gained weight between pregnancies; the results showed that babies born after their mothers put on weight tended to be heavier at birth than siblings born beforehand. Since the mother’s genes haven’t changed, the “fat” environment seems likely to be responsible for the effect.
Why might this happen? Perhaps an “obese” environment in the womb alters the wiring of the developing brain so as to interfere with normal appetite control, fat deposition, taste in food, or metabolism. Studies on other animals suggest that parts of the brain that control appetite develop differently under “obese” conditions. And in humans, one study has found that babies born to obese mothers have lower resting metabolic rates than babies whose mothers are of normal weight.
For most of our evolutionary past, the problem has been avoiding starvation. An environment awash with sugars and fats is, therefore, an evolutionary novelty: in hundreds of millions of years of evolution, this is the first time such foods have been abundant. Giant quantities of fats and sugars have not, historically, been available to a developing fetus, so it wouldn’t be surprising if they do have a harmful impact.
If this is right, it raises the alarming possibility that the obesity epidemic has a built-in snowball effect. If children born to obese mothers are, owing to the environment in the womb, predisposed to obesity, they may find staying thin especially hard. Reversing the epidemic may thus rest on helping women to lose weight before they conceive and helping them to eat a balanced, non-junk-food diet while they are pregnant. The well-being of the next generation may depend on it.
Olivia Judson, a contributing columnist for The Times, writes The Wild Side at nytimes.com/opinion. Frank Rich is off today.
... A day later, I flew back to Denmark. After appointments here in Copenhagen, I was riding in a car back to my hotel at the 6 p.m. rush hour. And boy, you knew it was rush hour because 50 percent of the traffic in every intersection was bicycles. That is roughly the percentage of Danes who use two-wheelers to go to and from work or school every day here. If I lived in a city that had dedicated bike lanes everywhere, including one to the airport, I’d go to work that way, too. It means less traffic, less pollution and less obesity.
What was most impressive about this day, though, was that it was raining. No matter. The Danes simply donned rain jackets and pants for biking. If only we could be as energy smart as Denmark!
Unlike America, Denmark, which was so badly hammered by the 1973 Arab oil embargo that it banned all Sunday driving for a while, responded to that crisis in such a sustained, focused and systematic way that today it is energy independent. (And it didn’t happen by Danish politicians making their people stupid by telling them the solution was simply more offshore drilling.)
What was the trick? To be sure, Denmark is much smaller than us and was lucky to discover some oil in the North Sea. But despite that, Danes imposed on themselves a set of gasoline taxes, CO2 taxes and building-and-appliance efficiency standards that allowed them to grow their economy — while barely growing their energy consumption — and gave birth to a Danish clean-power industry that is one of the most competitive in the world today. Denmark today gets nearly 20 percent of its electricity from wind. America? About 1 percent.
And did Danes suffer from their government shaping the market with energy taxes to stimulate innovations in clean power? In one word, said Connie Hedegaard, Denmark’s minister of climate and energy: “No.” It just forced them to innovate more — like the way Danes recycle waste heat from their coal-fired power plants and use it for home heating and hot water, or the way they incinerate their trash in central stations to provide home heating. (There are virtually no landfills here.)
There is little whining here about Denmark having $10-a-gallon gasoline because of high energy taxes. The shaping of the market with high energy standards and taxes on fossil fuels by the Danish government has actually had “a positive impact on job creation,” added Hedegaard. “For example, the wind industry — it was nothing in the 1970s. Today, one-third of all terrestrial wind turbines in the world come from Denmark.” In the last 10 years, Denmark’s exports of energy efficiency products have tripled. Energy technology exports rose 8 percent in 2007 to more than $10.5 billion in 2006, compared with a 2 percent rise in 2007 for Danish exports as a whole.
“It is one of our fastest-growing export areas,” said Hedegaard. It is one reason that unemployment in Denmark today is 1.6 percent. In 1973, said Hedegaard, “we got 99 percent of our energy from the Middle East. Today it is zero.”
Frankly, when you compare how America has responded to the 1973 oil shock and how Denmark has responded, we look pathetic.
“I have observed that in all other countries, including in America, people are complaining about how prices of [gasoline] are going up,” Denmark’s prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, told me. “The cure is not to reduce the price, but, on the contrary, to raise it even higher to break our addiction to oil. We are going to introduce a new tax reform in the direction of even higher taxation on energy and the revenue generated on that will be used to cut taxes on personal income — so we will improve incentives to work and improve incentives to save energy and develop renewable energy.”
Because it was smart taxes and incentives that spurred Danish energy companies to innovate, Ditlev Engel, the president of Vestas — Denmark’s and the world’s biggest wind turbine company — told me that he simply can’t understand how the U.S. Congress could have just failed to extend the production tax credits for wind development in America.
Why should you care?
“We’ve had 35 new competitors coming out of China in the last 18 months,” said Engel, “and not one out of the U.S.”
Iraq and Afghanistan are the messes getting attention today, but they are only symptoms of a much broader cancer in American foreign policy.
A few glimpses of this larger affliction:
¶The United States has more musicians in its military bands than it has diplomats.
¶This year alone, the United States Army will add about 7,000 soldiers to its total; that’s more people than in the entire American Foreign Service.
¶More than 1,000 American diplomatic positions are vacant because the Foreign Service is so short-staffed, but a myopic Congress is refusing to finance even modest new hiring. Some 1,100 could be hired for the cost of a single C-17 military cargo plane.
In short, the United States is hugely overinvesting in military tools and underinvesting in diplomatic tools. The result is a lopsided foreign policy that antagonizes the rest of the world and is ineffective in tackling many modern problems.
After all, you can’t bomb global warming.
Incredibly, the most eloquent spokesman for more balance between “hard power” and “soft power” is Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Mr. Gates, who is superb in repairing the catastrophe left behind by Donald Rumsfeld, has given a series of astonishing speeches in which he calls for more resources for the State Department and aid agencies.
“One of the most important lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that military success is not sufficient to win,” Mr. Gates said. He noted that the entire American diplomatic corps — about 6,500 people — is less than the staffing of a single aircraft carrier group, yet Congress isn’t interested in paying for a larger Foreign Service.
“It simply does not have the built-in, domestic constituency of defense programs,” Mr. Gates said. “As an example, the F-22 aircraft is produced by companies in 44 states; that’s 88 senators.”
With the Olympics unfolding in China now, the Navy and the Air Force are seizing upon China’s rise as an excuse to grab tens of billions of dollars for the F-22, for an advanced destroyer, for new attack submarines. But we’re failing to invest minuscule sums to build good will among Chinese.
For the price of one F-22, we could — for 25 years — operate American libraries in each Chinese province, pay for more Chinese-American exchanges, and hire more diplomats prepared to appear on Chinese television and explain in fluent Chinese what American policy is. And for the price of one M.R.E. lunch for one soldier, the State Department could make a few phone calls to push the Chinese leadership to respond to the Dalai Lama’s olive branch a few days ago, helping to eliminate a long-term irritant in U.S.-China relations.
Then there’s the Middle East. Dennis Ross, the longtime Middle East peace negotiator, says he has been frustrated “beyond belief” to see resources showered on the military while diplomacy has to fight for scraps. Mr. Ross argues that an investment of just $1 billion — financing job creation and other grass-roots programs in the West Bank — could significantly increase the prospect of an Israeli-Palestinian peace. But that money isn’t forthcoming.
Our intuitive approach to fighting terrorists and insurgents is to blow things up. But one of the most cost-effective counterterrorism methods in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan may be to build things up, like schooling and microfinance. Girls’ education sometimes gets more bang for the buck than a missile.
A new study from the RAND Corporation examined how 648 terror groups around the world ended between 1968 and 2006. It found that by far the most common way for them to disappear was to be absorbed by the political process. The second most common way was to be defeated by police work. In contrast, in only 7 percent of cases did military force destroy the terrorist group.
“There is no battlefield solution to terrorism,” the report declares. “Military force usually has the opposite effect from what is intended.”
The next president should absorb that lesson and revalidate diplomacy as the primary tool of foreign policy — even if that means talking to ogres. Take Iran. Until recently, the American officials in charge of solving the Iranian problem were not even allowed to meet Iranians.
“We need to believe in the power of American diplomacy, and we should not believe a military conflict with Iran is inevitable,” said Nicholas Burns, until recently the under secretary of state for political affairs and for three years the government’s point person on Iran. “Our first impulse should be a serious and patient and persistent diplomatic effort. Too often in our national debate we focus on the military option and give short shrift to the diplomatic option.”
So here’s a first step: Let’s agree that diplomats should be every bit as much of an American priority as musicians in military bands.
Tuesday, July 29
"By age 5, it is possible to predict, with depressing accuracy, who will complete high school and college and who won’t."
The Biggest Issue
Why did the United States become the leading economic power of the 20th century? The best short answer is that a ferocious belief that people have the power to transform their own lives gave Americans an unparalleled commitment to education, hard work and economic freedom.
Between 1870 and 1950, the average American’s level of education rose by 0.8 years per decade. In 1890, the average adult had completed about 8 years of schooling. By 1900, the average American had 8.8 years. By 1910, it was 9.6 years, and by 1960, it was nearly 14 years.
As Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz describe in their book, “The Race Between Education and Technology,” America’s educational progress was amazingly steady over those decades, and the U.S. opened up a gigantic global lead. Educational levels were rising across the industrialized world, but the U.S. had at least a 35-year advantage on most of Europe. In 1950, no European country enrolled 30 percent of its older teens in full-time secondary school. In the U.S., 70 percent of older teens were in school.
America’s edge boosted productivity and growth. But the happy era ended around 1970 when America’s educational progress slowed to a crawl. Between 1975 and 1990, educational attainments stagnated completely. Since then, progress has been modest. America’s lead over its economic rivals has been entirely forfeited, with many nations surging ahead in school attainment.
This threatens the country’s long-term prospects. It also widens the gap between rich and poor. Goldin and Katz describe a race between technology and education. The pace of technological change has been surprisingly steady. In periods when educational progress outpaces this change, inequality narrows. The market is flooded with skilled workers and so their wages rise modestly. In periods, like the current one, when educational progress lags behind technological change, inequality widens. The relatively few skilled workers command higher prices, while the many unskilled ones have little bargaining power.
The meticulous research of Goldin and Katz is complemented by another report from James Heckman of the University of Chicago. Using his own research, Heckman also concludes that high school graduation rates peaked in the U.S. in the late 1960s, at about 80 percent. Since then they have declined.
In “Schools, Skills and Synapses,” Heckman probes the sources of that decline. It’s not falling school quality, he argues. Nor is it primarily a shortage of funding or rising college tuition costs. Instead, Heckman directs attention at family environments, which have deteriorated over the past 40 years.
Heckman points out that big gaps in educational attainment are present at age 5. Some children are bathed in an atmosphere that promotes human capital development and, increasingly, more are not. By 5, it is possible to predict, with depressing accuracy, who will complete high school and college and who won’t.
I.Q. matters, but Heckman points to equally important traits that start and then build from those early years: motivation levels, emotional stability, self-control and sociability. He uses common sense to intuit what these traits are, but on this subject economists have a lot to learn from developmental psychologists.
I point to these two research projects because the skills slowdown is the biggest issue facing the country. Rising gas prices are bound to dominate the election because voters are slapped in the face with them every time they visit the pump. But this slow-moving problem, more than any other, will shape the destiny of the nation.
Second, there is a big debate under way over the sources of middle-class economic anxiety. Some populists emphasize the destructive forces of globalization, outsourcing and predatory capitalism. These people say we need radical labor market reforms to give the working class a chance. But the populists are going to have to grapple with the Goldin, Katz and Heckman research, which powerfully buttresses the arguments of those who emphasize human capital policies. It’s not globalization or immigration or computers per se that widen inequality. It’s the skills gap. Boosting educational attainment at the bottom is more promising than trying to reorganize the global economy.
Third, it’s worth noting that both sides of this debate exist within the Democratic Party. The G.O.P. is largely irrelevant. If you look at Barack Obama’s education proposals — especially his emphasis on early childhood — you see they flow naturally and persuasively from this research. (It probably helps that Obama and Heckman are nearly neighbors in Chicago). McCain’s policies seem largely oblivious to these findings. There’s some vague talk about school choice, but Republicans are inept when talking about human capital policies.
America rose because it got more out of its own people than other nations. That stopped in 1970. Now, other issues grab headlines and campaign attention. But this tectonic plate is still relentlessly and menacingly shifting beneath our feet.
Sunday, July 27, 2008; B01
Nikita Khrushchev said the Soviet Union would bury us, but these days, everybody seems to think that China is the one wielding the shovel. The People's Republic is on the march -- economically, militarily, even ideologically. Economists expect its GDP to surpass America's by 2025; its submarine fleet is reportedly growing five times faster than Washington's; even its capitalist authoritarianism is called a real alternative to the West's liberal democracy. China, the drumbeat goes, is poised to become the 800-pound gorilla of the international system, ready to dominate the 21st century the way the United States dominated the 20th.
Except that it's not.
Ever since I returned to the United States in 2004 from my last posting to China, as this newspaper's Beijing bureau chief, I've been struck by the breathless way we talk about that country. So often, our perceptions of the place have more to do with how we look at ourselves than with what's actually happening over there. Worried about the U.S. education system? China's becomes a model. Fretting about our military readiness? China's missiles pose a threat. Concerned about slipping U.S. global influence? China seems ready to take our place.
But is China really going to be another superpower? I doubt it.
It's not that I'm a China-basher, like those who predict its collapse because they despise its system and assume that it will go the way of the Soviet Union. I first went to China in 1980 as a student, and I've followed its remarkable transformation over the past 28 years. I met my wife there and call it a second home. I'm hardly expecting China to implode. But its dream of dominating the century isn't going to become a reality anytime soon.
Too many constraints are built into the country's social, economic and political systems. For four big reasons -- dire demographics, an overrated economy, an environment under siege and an ideology that doesn't travel well -- China is more likely to remain the muscle-bound adolescent of the international system than to become the master of the world.
In the West, China is known as "the factory to the world," the land of unlimited labor where millions are eager to leave the hardscrabble countryside for a chance to tighten screws in microwaves or assemble Apple's latest gizmo. If the country is going to rise to superpowerdom, says conventional wisdom, it will do so on the back of its massive workforce.
But there's a hitch: China's demographics stink. No country is aging faster than the People's Republic, which is on track to become the first nation in the world to get old before it gets rich. Because of the Communist Party's notorious one-child-per-family policy, the average number of children born to a Chinese woman has dropped from 5.8 in the 1970s to 1.8 today -- below the rate of 2.1 that would keep the population stable. Meanwhile, life expectancy has shot up, from just 35 in 1949 to more than 73 today. Economists worry that as the working-age population shrinks, labor costs will rise, significantly eroding one of China's key competitive advantages.
Worse, Chinese demographers such as Li Jianmin of Nankai University now predict a crisis in dealing with China's elderly, a group that will balloon from 100 million people older than 60 today to 334 million by 2050, including a staggering 100 million age 80 or older. How will China care for them? With pensions? Fewer than 30 percent of China's urban dwellers have them, and none of the country's 700 million farmers do. And China's state-funded pension system makes Social Security look like Fort Knox. Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer and economist at the American Enterprise Institute, calls China's demographic time bomb "a slow-motion humanitarian tragedy in the making" that will "probably require a rewrite of the narrative of the rising China."
I count myself lucky to have witnessed China's economic rise first-hand and seen its successes etched on the bodies of my Chinese classmates. When I first met them in the early 1980s, my fellow students were hard and thin as rails; when I found them again almost 20 years later, they proudly sported what the Chinese call the "boss belly." They now golfed and lolled around in swanky saunas.
But in our exuberance over these incredible economic changes, we seem to have forgotten that past performance doesn't guarantee future results. Not a month goes by without some Washington think tank crowing that China's economy is overtaking America's. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is the latest, predicting earlier this month that the Chinese economy would be twice the size of ours by the middle of the century.
There are two problems with predictions like these. First, in the universe where these reports are generated, China's graphs always go up, never down. Second, while the documents may include some nuance, it vanishes when the studies are reported to the rest of us.
One important nuance we keep forgetting is the sheer size of China's population: about 1.3 billion, more than four times that of the United States. China should have a big economy. But on a per capita basis, the country isn't a dragon; it's a medium-size lizard, sitting in 109th place on the International Monetary Fund's World Economic Outlook Database, squarely between Swaziland and Morocco. China's economy is large, but its average living standard is low, and it will stay that way for a very long time, even assuming that the economy continues to grow at impressive rates.
The big number wheeled out to prove that China is eating our economic lunch is the U.S. trade deficit with China, which last year hit $256 billion. But again, where's the missing nuance? Nearly 60 percent of China's total exports are churned out by companies not owned by Chinese (including plenty of U.S. ones). When it comes to high-tech exports such as computers and electronic goods, 89 percent of China's exports come from non-Chinese-owned companies. China is part of the global system, but it's still the low-cost assembly and manufacturing part -- and foreign, not Chinese, firms are reaping the lion's share of the profits.
When my family and I left China in 2004, we moved to Los Angeles, the smog capital of the United States. No sooner had we set foot in southern California than my son's asthma attacks and chronic chest infections -- so worryingly frequent in Beijing -- stopped. When people asked me why we'd moved to L.A., I started joking, "For the air."
China's environmental woes are no joke. This year, China will surpass the United States as the world's No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gases. It continues to be the largest depleter of the ozone layer. And it's the largest polluter of the Pacific Ocean. But in the accepted China narrative, the country's environmental problems will merely mean a few breathing complications for the odd sprinter at the Beijing games. In fact, they could block the country's rise.
The problem is huge: Sixteen of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China, 70 percent of the country's lakes and rivers are polluted, and half the population lacks clean drinking water. The constant smoggy haze over northern China diminishes crop yields. By 2030, the nation will face a water shortage equal to the amount it consumes today; factories in the northwest have already been forced out of business because there just isn't any water. Even Chinese government economists estimate that environmental troubles shave 10 percent off the country's gross domestic product each year. Somehow, though, the effect this calamity is having on China's rise doesn't quite register in the West .
And then there's "Kung Fu Panda." That Hollywood movie embodies the final reason why China won't be a superpower: Beijing's animating ideas just aren't that animating.
In recent years, we've been bombarded with articles and books about China's rising global ideological influence. (One typical title: "Charm Offensive: How China's Soft Power Is Transforming the World.") These works portray China's model -- a one-party state with a juggernaut economy -- as highly attractive to elites in many developing nations, although China's dreary current crop of acolytes (Zimbabwe, Burma and Sudan) don't amount to much of a threat.
But consider the case of the high-kicking panda who uses ancient Chinese teachings to turn himself into a kung fu warrior. That recent Hollywood smash broke Chinese box-office records -- and caused no end of hand-wringing among the country's glitterati. "The film's protagonist is China's national treasure, and all the elements are Chinese, but why didn't we make such a film?" Wu Jiang, president of the China National Peking Opera Company, told the official New China News Agency.
The content may be Chinese, but the irreverence and creativity of "Kung Fu Panda" are 100 percent American. That highlights another weakness in the argument about China's inevitable rise: The place remains an authoritarian state run by a party that limits the free flow of information, stifles ingenuity and doesn't understand how to self-correct. Blockbusters don't grow out of the barrel of a gun. Neither do superpowers in the age of globalization.
And yet we seem to revel in overestimating China. One recent evening, I was at a party where a senior aide to a Democratic senator was discussing the business deal earlier this year in which a Chinese state-owned investment company had bought a big chunk of the Blackstone Group, a U.S. investment firm. The Chinese company has lost more than $1 billion, but the aide wouldn't believe that it was just a bum investment. "It's got to be part of a broader plan," she insisted. "It's China."
I tried to convince her otherwise. I don't think I succeeded.
John Pomfret is the editor of Outlook. He is a former Beijing bureau chief of The Washington Post and the author of "Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China."
Thursday, July 24
An odd cabal of timorous Europeans, myopic media outlets, corrupt Afghans, blinkered Pentagon officers, politically motivated Democrats & Taliban
Is Afghanistan a Narco-State?
On March 1, 2006, I met Hamid Karzai for the first time. It was a clear, crisp day in Kabul. The Afghan president joined President and Mrs. Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Ambassador Ronald Neumann to dedicate the new United States Embassy. He thanked the American people for all they had done for Afghanistan. I was a senior counternarcotics official recently arrived in a country that supplied 90 percent of the world’s heroin. I took to heart Karzai’s strong statements against the Afghan drug trade. That was my first mistake.
Over the next two years I would discover how deeply the Afghan government was involved in protecting the opium trade — by shielding it from American-designed policies. While it is true that Karzai’s Taliban enemies finance themselves from the drug trade, so do many of his supporters. At the same time, some of our NATO allies have resisted the anti-opium offensive, as has our own Defense Department, which tends to see counternarcotics as other people’s business to be settled once the war-fighting is over. The trouble is that the fighting is unlikely to end as long as the Taliban can finance themselves through drugs — and as long as the Kabul government is dependent on opium to sustain its own hold on power.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. When I attended an Afghanistan briefing for Anne Patterson on Dec. 1, 2005, soon after she became assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law-enforcement affairs, she turned to me with her characteristic smile and said, “What have we gotten ourselves into?” We had just learned that in the two previous months Afghan farmers had planted almost 60 percent more poppy than the year before, for a total of 165,000 hectares (637 square miles). The 2006 harvest would be the biggest narco-crop in history. That was the challenge we faced. Patterson — already a three-time ambassador — made me her deputy at the law-enforcement bureau, which has anti-crime programs in dozens of countries.
At the beginning of 2006, I went to the high-profile London Conference on Afghanistan. It was a grand event mired in deception, at least with respect to the drug situation. Everyone from the Afghan delegation and most in the international community knew that poppy cultivation and heroin production would increase significantly in 2006. But the delegates to the London Conference instead dwelled on the 2005 harvest, which was lower than that of 2004, principally because of poor weather and market manipulation by drug lords like Sher Muhammad Akhundzada, who had been governor of the heroin capital of the world — Helmand Province — and then a member of Afghanistan’s Parliament. So the Afghans congratulated themselves on their tremendous success in fighting drugs even as everyone knew the problem was worse than ever.
About three months later, after meeting with local officials in Helmand — my helicopter touched down in the middle of a poppy field — I went to the White House to brief Vice President Cheney, Secretary Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others on the expanding opium problem. I advocated a policy replicating what had worked in other countries: public education about the evils of heroin and the illegality of cultivating poppies; alternative crops; eradication of poppy fields; interdiction of drug shipments and arrest of traffickers; and improvements to the judicial system.
I emphasized at this and subsequent meetings that crop eradication, although claiming less than a third of the $500 million budgeted for Afghan counternarcotics, was the most controversial part of the program. But because no other crop came even close to the value of poppies, we needed the threat of eradication to force farmers to accept less-lucrative alternatives. (Eradication was an essential component of successful anti-poppy efforts in Guatemala, Southeast Asia and Pakistan.) The most effective method of eradication was the use of herbicides delivered by crop-dusters. But Karzai had long opposed aerial eradication, saying it would be misunderstood as some sort of poison coming from the sky. He claimed to fear that aerial eradication would result in an uprising that would cause him to lose power. We found this argument perplexing because aerial eradication was used in rural areas of other poor countries without a significant popular backlash. The chemical used, glyphosate, was a weed killer used all over the United States, Europe and even Afghanistan. (Drug lords use it in their gardens in Kabul.) There were volumes of evidence demonstrating that it was harmless to humans and became inert when it hit the ground. My assistant at the time was a Georgia farmer, and he told me that his father mixed glyphosate with his hands before applying it to their orchards.
Nonetheless, Karzai opposed it, and we at the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs went along. We financed ground-based eradication instead: police using tractors and weed-whackers to destroy the fields of farmers who refused to plant alternative crops. Ground-based eradication was inefficient, costly, dangerous and more subject to corrupt dealings among local officials than aerial eradication. But it was our only option.
Yet I continued to press for aerial eradication and a greater commitment to providing security for eradicators. Rumsfeld was already in political trouble, so when he started to resist my points, Rice quickly and easily shut him down. The briefing at the White House was well received by Rice and the others present. White House staff members also made clear to me that Bush continued to be “a big fan of aerial eradication.”
The vice president made only one comment: “You got a tough job.”
Even before she got to the bureau of international narcotics, Anne Patterson knew that the Pentagon was hostile to the antidrug mission. A couple of weeks into the job, she got the story firsthand from Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, who commanded all U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He made it clear: drugs are bad, but his orders were that drugs were not a priority of the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Patterson explained to Eikenberry that, when she was ambassador to Colombia, she saw the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) finance their insurgency with profits from the cocaine trade, and she warned Eikenberry that the risk of a narco-insurgency in Afghanistan was very high. Eikenberry was familiar with the Colombian situation, but the Pentagon strategy was “sequencing” — defeat the Taliban, then have someone else clean up the drug business.
The Drug Enforcement Administration worked the heroin trafficking and interdiction effort with the Afghans. They targeted kingpins and disrupted drug-smuggling networks. The D.E.A. had excellent agents in Afghanistan, but there were not enough of them, and they had seemingly unending difficulties getting Mi-17 helicopters and other equipment that the Pentagon promised for the training of the counternarcotics police of Afghanistan. In addition, the Pentagon had reneged on a deal to allow the D.E.A. the use of precious ramp space at the Kabul airport. Consequently, the effort to interdict drug shipments and arrest traffickers had stalled. Less than 1 percent of the opium produced in Afghanistan was being seized there. The effort became even more complicated later in 2006, when Benjamin Freakley, the two-star U.S. general who ran the eastern front, shut down all operations by the D.E.A. and Afghan counternarcotics police in Nangarhar — a key heroin-trafficking province. The general said that antidrug operations were an unnecessary obstacle to his military operations.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAid) was also under fire — particularly from Congress — for not providing better alternative crops for farmers. USAid had distributed seed and fertilizer to most of Afghanistan, but more comprehensive agricultural programs were slow to start in parts of the country. The USAid officers in Kabul were competent and committed, but they had already lost several workers to insurgent attacks, and were understandably reluctant to go into Taliban territory to implement their programs.
The Department of Justice had just completed an effort to open the Afghan anti-narcotics court, so capacity to prosecute was initially low. Justice in Afghanistan was administered unevenly by tribes, religious leaders and poorly paid, highly corruptible judges. In the rare cases in which drug traffickers were convicted, they often walked in the front door of a prison, paid a bribe and walked out the back door. We received dozens of reports to this effect.
And then there was the problem of the Afghan National Police. The Pentagon frequently proclaimed that the Afghan National Army (which the Pentagon trained) was performing wonderfully, but that the police (trained mainly by the Germans and the State Department) were not. A respected American general in Afghanistan, however, confided to me that the army was not doing well, either; that the original plan for training the army was flimsy and underfinanced; and that, consequently, they were using police to fill holes in the army mission. Thrust into a military role, unprepared police lost their lives trying to hold territory in dangerous areas.
There was no coherent strategy to resolve these issues among the U.S. agencies and the Afghan government. When I asked career officers at the State Department for the interagency strategy for Afghan counternarcotics, they produced the same charts I used to brief the cabinet in Washington months before. “There is no written strategy,” they confessed.
As big as these challenges were, there were even bigger ones. A lot of intelligence — much of it unclassified and possible to discuss here — indicated that senior Afghan officials were deeply involved in the narcotics trade. Narco-traffickers were buying off hundreds of police chiefs, judges and other officials. Narco-corruption went to the top of the Afghan government. The attorney general, Abdul Jabbar Sabit, a fiery Pashtun who had begun a self-described “jihad against corruption,” told me and other American officials that he had a list of more than 20 senior Afghan officials who were deeply corrupt — some tied to the narcotics trade. He added that President Karzai — also a Pashtun — had directed him, for political reasons, not to prosecute any of these people. (On July 16 of this year, Karzai dismissed Sabit after Sabit announced his candidacy for president. Karzai’s office said Sabit’s candidacy violated laws against political activity by officials. Sabit told a press conference that Karzai “has never been able to tolerate rivals.”)
A nearly equal challenge in 2006 was the lack of resolve in the international community. Although Britain’s foreign office strongly backed antinarcotics efforts (with the exception of aerial eradication), the British military were even more hostile to the antidrug mission than the U.S. military. British forces — centered in Helmand — actually issued leaflets and bought radio advertisements telling the local criminals that the British military was not part of the anti-poppy effort. I had to fly to Brussels and show one of these leaflets to the supreme allied commander in Europe, who oversees Afghan operations for NATO, to have this counterproductive information campaign stopped. It was a small victory; the truth was that many of our allies in the International Security Assistance Force were lukewarm on antidrug operations, and most were openly hostile to aerial eradication.
Nonetheless, throughout 2006 and into 2007 there were positive developments (although the Pentagon did not supply the helicopters to the D.E.A. until early 2008). The D.E.A. was training special Afghan narcotics units, while the Pentagon began to train Afghan pilots for drug operations. We put together educational teams that convened effective antidrug meetings in the more stable northern provinces. We used manual eradication to eliminate about 10 percent of the crop. In some provinces with little insurgent activity, the eradication numbers reached the 20 percent threshold — a level that drug experts see as a tipping point in eradication — and poppy cultivation all but disappeared in those areas by 2007. And the Department of Justice got the counternarcotics tribunal to process hundreds of midlevel cases.
By late 2006, however, we had startling new information: despite some successes, poppy cultivation over all would grow by about 17 percent in 2007 and would be increasingly concentrated in the south of the country, where the insurgency was the strongest and the farmers were the wealthiest. The poorest farmers of Afghanistan — those who lived in the north, east and center of the country — were taking advantage of antidrug programs and turning away from poppy cultivation in large numbers. The south was going in the opposite direction, and the Taliban were now financing the insurgency there with drug money — just as Patterson predicted.
In late January 2007, there was an urgent U.S. cabinet meeting to discuss the situation. The attendees agreed that the deputy secretary of state John Negroponte and John Walters, the drug czar, would oversee the development of the first interagency counternarcotics strategy for Afghanistan. They asked me to coordinate the effort, and, after Patterson’s intervention, I was promoted to ambassadorial rank. We began the effort with a briefing for Negroponte, Walters, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and several senior Pentagon officials. We displayed a map showing how poppy cultivation was becoming limited to the south, more associated with the insurgency and disassociated from poverty. The Pentagon chafed at the briefing because it reflected a new reality: narcotics were becoming less a problem of humanitarian assistance and more a problem of insurgency and war.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime was arriving at the same conclusion. Later that year, they issued a report linking the drug trade to the insurgency and made a controversial statement: “Opium cultivation in Afghanistan is no longer associated with poverty — quite the opposite.” The office convincingly demonstrated that poor farmers were abandoning the crop and that poppy growth was largely confined to some of the wealthiest parts of Afghanistan. The report recommended that eradication efforts be pursued “more honestly and more vigorously,” along with stronger anticorruption measures. Earlier this year, the U.N. published an even more detailed paper titled “Is Poverty Driving the Afghan Opium Boom?” It rejected the idea that farmers would starve without the poppy, concluding that “poverty does not appear to have been the main driving factor in the expansion of opium poppy cultivation in recent years.”
The U.N. reports shattered the myth that poppies are grown by destitute farmers who have no other source of income. They demonstrated that approximately 80 percent of the land under poppy cultivation in the south had been planted with it only in the last two years. It was not a matter of “tradition,” and these farmers did not need an alternative livelihood. They had abandoned their previous livelihoods — mainly vegetables, cotton and wheat (which was in severely short supply) — to take advantage of the security vacuum to grow a more profitable crop: opium.
Around the same time, the United States released photos of industrial-size poppy farms — many owned by pro-government opportunists, others owned by Taliban sympathizers. Most of these narco-farms were near major southern cities. Farmers were digging wells, surveying new land for poppy cultivation, diverting U.S.-built irrigation canals to poppy fields and starting expensive reclamation projects.
Yet Afghan officials continued to say that poppy cultivation was the only choice for its poor farmers. My first indication of the insincerity of this position came at a lunch in Brussels in September 2006 attended by Habibullah Qaderi, who was then Afghanistan’s minister for counternarcotics. He gave a speech in which he said that poor Afghan farmers have no choice but to grow poppies, and asked for more money. A top European diplomat challenged him, holding up a U.N. map showing the recent trend: poppy growth decreasing in the poorest areas and growing in the wealthier areas. The minister, taken aback, simply reiterated his earlier point that Afghanistan needed more money for its destitute farmers. After the lunch, however, Qaderi approached me and whispered: “I know what you say is right. Poverty is not the main reason people are growing poppy. But this is what the president of Afghanistan tells me to tell others.”
In July 2007, I briefed President Karzai on the drive for a new strategy. He was interested in the new incentives that we were developing, but became sullen and unresponsive when I discussed the need to balance those incentives with new disincentives — including arrests of high-level traffickers and eradication of poppy fields in the wealthier areas of the Pashtun south, where Karzai had his roots and power base.
We also tried to let the public know about the changing dynamics of the trade. Unfortunately, most media outlets clung to the myth that the problem was out of control all over the country, that only desperate farmers grew poppies and that any serious law-enforcement effort would drive them into the hands of the Taliban. The “starving farmer” was a convenient myth. It allowed some European governments to avoid involvement with the antidrug effort. Many of these countries had only one- or two-year legislative mandates to be in Afghanistan, so they wanted to avoid any uptick in violence that would most likely result from an aggressive strategy, even if the strategy would result in long-term success. The myth gave military officers a reason to stay out of the drug war, while prominent Democrats used the myth to attack Bush administration policies. And the Taliban loved it because their propaganda campaign consisted of trotting out farmers whose fields had been eradicated and having them say that they were going to starve.
An odd cabal of timorous Europeans, myopic media outlets, corrupt Afghans, blinkered Pentagon officers, politically motivated Democrats and the Taliban were preventing the implementation of an effective counterdrug program. And the rest of us could not turn them around.
Nonetheless, we stayed hopeful as we worked on what became the U.S. Counternarcotics Strategy for Afghanistan. The Defense Department was initially cooperative (as I testified to Congress). We agreed to expand the local meetings and education campaign that worked well in the north. Afghan religious leaders would issue anti-poppy statements, focusing on the anti-Islamic nature of drugs and the increasing addiction rate in Afghanistan. In the area of agricultural incentives, since most farmers already had an alternative crop, we agreed to improve access to markets not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan and the wider region. USAid would establish more cold-storage facilities, build roads and establish buying cooperatives that could guarantee prices for legal crops. With the British, we developed an initiative to reward provinces that became poppy-free or reduced their poppy crop by a specified amount. Governors who performed well would get development projects: schools, bridges and hospitals.
But there had to be disincentives too. We agreed to provide security for manual poppy eradication, so that we could show the Afghan people that the more-powerful farmers were vulnerable. We focused on achieving better ground-based eradication, but reintroduced the possibility of aerial eradication. We agreed to increase D.E.A. training of counternarcotics police and establish special investigative units to gather physical and documentary evidence against corrupt Afghan officials. And we developed policies that would increase the Afghan capacity to prosecute traffickers.
Adding to the wave of optimism was the arrival of William Wood as the new U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. He had been ambassador in Colombia, so he understood drugs and insurgency well. His view was that poppy cultivation was illegal in Afghanistan, so he didn’t really care whether the farmers were poor or rich. “We have a lot of poor people in the drug trade in the U.S.A. — people mixing meth in their trailers in rural areas and people selling crack in the inner cities — and we put them in jail,” he said.
At first Wood advocated — in an unclassified e-mail message, surprisingly — a massive aerial-eradication program that would wipe out 80,000 hectares of poppies in Helmand Province, delivering a fatal blow to the root of the narcotics problem. “If there is no poppy, there is nothing to traffic,” Wood said. The plan looked good on paper, but we knew it would be impossible to sell to Karzai and the Pentagon. Wood eventually agreed to language advocating, at a minimum, force-protected ground-based eradication with the possibility of limited aerial eradication.
Another ally for a more aggressive approach to the problem was David Kilcullen, a blunt counterterrorism expert. He became increasingly concerned about the drug money flowing to the Taliban. He noted that, while Afghans often shift alliances, what remains constant is their respect for strength and consistency. He recommended mobile courts that had the authority to execute drug kingpins in their own provinces. (You could have heard a pin drop when he first made that suggestion at a large meeting of diplomats.) In support of aerial eradication, Kilcullen pointed out that, with manual eradication you have to “fight your way in and fight your way out” of the poppy fields, making it deadly, inefficient and subject to corrupt bargaining. Aerial eradication, by contrast, is quick, fair and efficient. “If we are already bombing Taliban positions, why won’t we spray their fields with a harmless herbicide and cut off their money?” Kilcullen asked.
So it appeared that things were moving nicely. We were going to increase incentives to farmers and politicians while also increasing the disincentives with aggressive eradication and arrest of criminal officials and leading traffickers. The Pentagon seemed on board.
Then it all began to unravel.
In May 2007, Anthony Harriman, the senior director for Afghanistan at the National Security Council, in order to ensure the strategy paper would be executed, decided to take it to the Deputies Committee — a group of cabinet deputy secretaries led by Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, whom President Bush had appointed his “war czar” — which had the power to make the document official U.S. policy. Harriman asked me to start developing an unclassified version for public release.
Almost immediately, the Pentagon bureaucracy — particularly the South Asia office — made an about-face. First, they resisted bringing the paper to the deputies. When that effort failed (largely because of unexpected support for the plan from new field commanders like Gen. Dan McNeill, who saw the narcotics-insurgency nexus and were willing to buck their Pentagon minders), the Pentagon bureaucrats tried to prevent the release of an unclassified version to the public. Indeed, two senior Pentagon officials threatened me with professional retaliation if we made the unclassified document public. When we went ahead anyway, the Pentagon leaked the contents of the classified version to Peter Gilchrist, a British general posted in Washington. Defense Department officials were thus enlisting a foreign government to help kill U.S. policy — a policy that implicitly recognized that the Pentagon’s “sequencing” approach had failed and that the Defense Department would have to get more involved in fighting the narcotics trade.
Gilchrist told me that the plan was unacceptable to Britain. Britain, apparently joined by Sweden (which has fewer than 500 troops in a part of the country where there is no poppy cultivation), sent letters to Karzai urging him to reject key elements of the U.S. plan. By the time Wood and Secretary Rice pressed Karzai for more aggressive action, Karzai told Rice that because some people in the U.S. government did not support the plan, and some allies did not support it, he was not going to support it, either. An operations-center assistant, who summarized the call for me over my car phone just after it occurred, made an uncharacteristic editorial comment: “It was not a good call, ambassador.”
Even more startling, it appeared that top Pentagon officials knew nothing about the changing nature of the drug problem or about the new plan. When, through a back channel, I briefed the under secretary of defense for intelligence, James Clapper, on the relationship between drugs and the insurgency, he said he had “never heard any of this.” Worse still, Defense Secretary Robert Gates testified to Congress in December 2007 that we did not have a strategy for fighting drugs in Afghanistan. I received a quick apology from the Pentagon counterdrugs unit, which sent a memo to Gates informing him that we actually did have a strategy.
This dissension was, I believe, music to Karzai’s ears. When he convened all 34 Afghan provincial governors in Kabul in September 2007 (I was a “guest of honor”), he made antidrug statements at the beginning of his speech, but then lashed out at the international community for wanting to spray his people’s crops and giving him conflicting advice. He got a wild ovation. Not surprising — since so many in the room were closely tied to the narcotics trade. Sure, Karzai had Taliban enemies who profited from drugs, but he had even more supporters who did.
Karzai was playing us like a fiddle: the U.S. would spend billions of dollars on infrastructure improvement; the U.S. and its allies would fight the Taliban; Karzai’s friends could get rich off the drug trade; he could blame the West for his problems; and in 2009 he would be elected to a new term.
This is not just speculation, even when you stick with unclassified materials. In September 2007, The Kabul Weekly, an independent newspaper, ran a blunt editorial laying out the issue: “It is obvious that the Afghan government is more than kind to poppy growers. . . . [It] opposes the American proposal for political reasons. The administration believes that it will lose popularity in the southern provinces where the majority of opium is cultivated. They’re afraid of losing votes. More than 95 percent of the residents of . . . the poppy growing provinces — voted for President Karzai.” The editorial recommended aerial eradication. That same week, the first vice president of Afghanistan, Ahmad Zia Massoud, wrote a scathing op-ed article in The Sunday Telegraph in London: “Millions of pounds have been committed in provinces including Helmand Province for irrigation projects and road building to help farmers get their produce to market. But for now this has simply made it easier for them to grow and transport opium. . . . Deep-rooted corruption . . . exists in our state institutions.” The Afghan vice president concluded, “We must switch from ground-based eradication to aerial spraying.”
But Karzai did not care. Back in January 2007, Karzai appointed a convicted heroin dealer, Izzatulla Wasifi, to head his anticorruption commission. Karzai also appointed several corrupt local police chiefs. There were numerous diplomatic reports that his brother Ahmed Wali, who was running half of Kandahar, was involved in the drug trade. (Said T. Jawad, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States, said Karzai has “taken the step of issuing a decree asking the government to be vigilant of any business dealing involving his family, and requesting that any suspicions be fully investigated.”) Some governors of Helmand and other provinces — Pashtuns who had advocated aerial eradication — changed their positions after the “palace” spoke to them. Karzai was lining up his Pashtun allies for re-election, and the drug war was going to have to wait. “Maybe we taught him too much about politics,” Rice said to me after I briefed her on these developments.
Karzai then put General Khodaidad (who, like many Afghans, goes by only one name) in charge of the Afghan counternarcotics efforts. Khodaidad — a conscientious man, competent and apparently not corrupt — was a Hazara. The Hazaras had no influence over the southern Pashtuns who were dominating the drug trade. While Khodaidad did well in the north, he got nowhere in Helmand and Kandahar — and told me so. Karzai had to have known this would be the case.
But the real test for the Afghan government and the Pentagon came with the “force protection” issue. At high-level international conferences, the Afghans — finally, under European pressure — agreed to eradicate 50,000 hectares (more than 25 percent of the crop) in the first months of this year; and they agreed that the Afghan National Army would provide force protection.
The plan was simple. The Afghan Poppy Eradication Force would go to Helmand Province with two battalions of the national army and eradicate the fields of the wealthier farmers — including fields owned by local officials. Protecting the eradication force would also enable the arrest of key traffickers. The U.S. military, which trained the Afghan army, would assist in moving the soldiers there and provide outer-perimeter security. The U.S. military would not participate directly in eradication or arrest operations; it would only enable them.
But once again, Karzai and his Pentagon friends thwarted the plan. First, Anthony Harriman was replaced at the National Security Council by a colonel who held the old-school Pentagon view that “we don’t do the drug thing.” He would not let me see General Lute or Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, when the force-protection plans failed to materialize. We asked numerous Pentagon officials to lobby the defense minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak, for immediate force protection, but they did little.
Consequently, in late March, the central eradication force set out for Helmand without the promised Afghan National Army. Almost immediately, they came under withering attack for several days — 107-millimeter rockets, rocket-propelled grenades, machine-gun fire and mortars. Three members of the Afghan force were killed and several were seriously wounded. They eradicated just over 1,000 hectares, about 1 percent of the Helmand crop, before withdrawing to Kabul.
This spring, more U.S. troops arrived in Afghanistan. They were effective, experienced warriors — many coming from Iraq — but they knew little about drugs. When they arrived in southern Afghanistan, they announced that they would not interfere with poppy harvesting in the area. “Not our job,” they said. Despite the wheat shortage and the threat of starvation, they gave interviews saying that the farmers had no choice but to grow poppies.
At the same time, the 101st Airborne arrived in eastern Afghanistan. Its commanders promptly informed Ambassador Wood that they would only permit crop eradication if the State Department paid large cash stipends to the farmers for the value of their opium crop. Payment for eradication, however, is disastrous counternarcotics policy: If you pay cash for poppies, farmers keep the cash and grow poppies again next year for more cash. And farmers who grow less-lucrative crops start growing poppies so that they can get the money, too. Drug experts call this type of offer a “perverse incentive,” and it has never worked anywhere in the world. It was not going to work in eastern Afghanistan, either. Farmers were lining up to have their crops eradicated and get the money.
On May 12, at a press conference in Kabul, General Khodaidad declared the 2008 anti-poppy effort in southern Afghanistan to be a failure. Eradication this year would total less than a third of the 20,000 hectares that Afghanistan eradicated in 2007. The north and east — particularly Balkh, Badakhshan and Nangarhar provinces — continued to improve because of strong political will and better civilian-military cooperation. But the base of the Karzai government — Kandahar and Helmand — would have record crops, less eradication and fewer arrests than in years past. And the Taliban would get stronger.
Despite this development, the Afghans were busily putting together an optimistic assessment of their progress for the Paris Conference on Afghanistan — where, on June 12, world leaders, including Karzai, met in an event reminiscent of the London Conference of 2006. In Paris, the Afghan government raised more than $20 billion in additional development assistance. But the drug problem was a nuisance that could jeopardize the financing effort. So drugs were eliminated from the formal agenda and relegated to a 50-minute closed discussion at a lower-level meeting the week before the conference.
That is where we are today. The solution remains a simple one: execute the policy developed in 2007. It requires the following steps:
1. Inform President Karzai that he must stop protecting drug lords and narco-farmers or he will lose U.S. support. Karzai should issue a new decree of zero tolerance for poppy cultivation during the coming growing season. He should order farmers to plant wheat, and guarantee today’s high wheat prices. Karzai must simultaneously authorize aggressive force-protected manual and aerial eradication of poppies in Helmand and Kandahar Provinces for those farmers who do not plant legal crops.
2. Order the Pentagon to support this strategy. Position allied and Afghan troops in places that create security pockets so that Afghan counternarcotics police can arrest powerful drug lords. Enable force-protected eradication with the Afghan-set goal of eradicating 50,000 hectares as the benchmark.
3. Increase the number of D.E.A. agents in Kabul and assist the Afghan attorney general in prosecuting key traffickers and corrupt government officials from all ethnic groups, including southern Pashtuns.
4. Get new development projects quickly to the provinces that become poppy-free or stay poppy free. The north should see significant rewards for its successful anticultivation efforts. Do not, however, provide cash to farmers for eradication.
5. Ask the allies either to help in this effort or stand down and let us do the job.
There are other initiatives that could help as well: better engagement of Afghanistan’s neighbors, more drug-treatment centers in Afghanistan, stopping the flow into Afghanistan of precursor chemicals needed to make heroin and increased demand-reduction programs. But if we — the Afghans and the U.S. — do just the five items listed above, we will bring the rule of law to a lawless country; and we will cut off a key source of financing to the Taliban.