Archive for May, 2008

Noah, Grandpa Dragon, and the King of the Beasts

Saturday, May 31st, 2008

A few months ago, I spent a long sleepless night trying to find an old video cassette from my childhood that had a 1970s animated version of Noah’s ark that I remembered. When I finally found it, the cassette had deteriorated to such an extent that neither the color nor the sound was coherent. Without knowing the name of this particular trilogy, and barely remembering many of the details, it took me (and my brothers and sister who also remembered the tv movie) hours more before we found it.

Shamus Culhane, one of the foremost early animators at Disney, wrote, directed, and created a series in the late 1970s, retelling the story of Noah’s ark with a decidedly political slant. At the time, the politics largely passed me by unnoticed. Even when recalling the story, it seemed more ridiculous than political. One of the main characters of the series is a dragon – the last of the red hot dragons – who survived the apocalyptic flood by holding his breath. The dragon feels old and useless and is saddened by the fact that he will be the last of his species – until two young and rambunctious crocodile hatchlings adopt him as a grandfather. Then of course, there is the lion who, en route to becoming king of the beasts, demonstrates that he is also the clutziest of animals – “feet up”. All ridiculous, and funny in a way that is best appreciated by preschoolers. But what these pratfalls and silly asides distract us from is the political turmoil and theological arguments that this Noah trilogy is all about.

My sister remembered the ravens singing, with their leader the crocodile, and the two sidekick wolves, “Anarchy! Anarchy!” as they plotted to take possession of the last dry bit of land on earth.  Noah, at one point, scolds the animals for taking advantage of the welfare system of the ark instead of setting off on their own as is God’s plan.  The story demonstrates at least a half dozen political and theological concepts and yet manages to amuse preschoolers.

Which is part of my point – as I have been unable to get my hands on much more than small portions of the shows since I watched it many years ago, and my memory of the shows is rather incomplete – my point here is mainly to wonder at the power of the subconscious.

When the memory of this trilogy began to come back to me, I would remember how this line or that line from the series would come to my mind in an appropriate situation – with the source always somewhat obscured.  I had absorbed these lessons, these ideas, these lines from the show and then forgotten the source.  Upon identifying the source again, I was elated – which is why I stayed up through much of the night trying to track it down.

In case anyone is interested, the trilogy I am referring to is listed at IMDB: Noah’s Animals, The Last of the Red Hot Dragons, and The King of the Beasts.

Someone had the foresight to post three clips from the second part of Culhane’s Noah trilogy which you can watch to give you a taste of the series as a whole:


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The Spirit that Animated the American Experiment

Friday, May 30th, 2008


[Image courtesy of the World Economic Forum.]

Moderation [in the use of power] is a virtue only in those who are thought to have an alternative.1

So said Henry Kissinger, one in a long time of the power-hungry and the unrestrained whose sense of hubris led them to take unto themselves as much power as they could amass. It is on this point that Kissinger would agree with George W. Bush, with Mao Tse Tung, with Josef Stalin, with Maximilien Robespierre, and with radicals throughout history.

This sentence contains two fundamental insights about radicals and their approach to power:

  1. That moderation is a limit on power;
  2. That those who reject the seemingly unimposing virtue of moderation in favor of the more attractive quality of “moral clarity” or some similar sense of certainty are bound only by the limits of their power.

My preference is this prescription masquerading as a definition used by Plato:

Moderation, which consists in an indifference about little things, and in a prudent and well-proportioned zeal about things of importance, can proceed from nothing but true knowledge, which has its foundation in self-acquaintance.

This is the spirit animates the American experiment and liberal democracy and represents a truly fundamental achievement of collective wisdom. The past century has been the story of numerous ideologies that have challenged this spirit of moderation – Nazism, Communism, nationalism, religious fundamentalism. All have offered certainty and clarity and rejected moderation. So far, each ideology, certain as it may be, has been beaten back by the forces of moderation – often led by America.

It is the rejection of this fundamental virtue by the Bush administration that led to our own failed experiment in hubristic radicalism.

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  1. This might be an unfair addition by me. I cannot find any information about the context in which it was used – only many sources attributing it to Henry Kissinger. I am interpreting it based on my understanding of Kissinger’s character and place in history. []

Obama-Webb 08

Thursday, May 29th, 2008


A lot of liberal bloggers have been trying to bat down the idea of an Obama-Webb ticket: Kathy G on Matt Yglesias’s blog and Ezra Klein at The American Prospect. James Joyner over at Outside the Beltway provides a good summary of the arguments being used against Webb.

James Fallows, writing from his personal experience of Webb also tries to quash the idea:

Having first met Webb nearly thirty years ago – and having co-written an Atlantic cover story with him, and having broken my rule against giving money to political candidates two years ago when he began his Senate run – I can’t imagine a job he would enjoy less than the vice presidency.

Jim Webb has arranged his life so as to maximize his intellectual and personal independence, and minimize the things he “has” to do and the bosses he must answer to…The federal government office that least matches Webb’s lifetime path is the vice presidency.

But I think the final word so far has to go to conservative Ross Douhat who sees the great potential of an Obama-Webb ticket (h/t Andrew Sullivan.):

…what separates Webb from, say, a John Kerry or a John Edwards – both of whom appealed to Democrats because they seemed to (but didn’t really) shore up the party’s weaknesses on national security and with the white and Southern working class – is that he really is a different kind of Democrat. He isn’t a conventional left-liberal who happens to have a military record and/or a Southern accent; he’s a more sui generis figure, a cultural (though not social) conservative with heterodox views on a variety of issues.

This is why, were I Obama, I would look at the left-liberal case against Webb – on the grounds that he’s too anti-feminist, too pro-military, too skeptical about affirmative action and immigration, too hostile to Hollywood and academia – as an advertisement for the pick. An Obama-Webb ticket wouldn’t send just a message that people who share the same ethno-cultural identity as Jim Webb can have a home in the Democratic Party, the way Kerry and Edwards were supposed to show that veterans and Southerners could too be Democrats; it would send a message that people with Webb’s views can have a home in the party. It would lend substance to Obama’s thus-far insubstantial claim to be something other than a party-line liberal, and in the process it would have the potential to achieve at the national level what the Congressional Dems have successfully done at the local level – namely, expand the definition of what it means to be a Democrat. That’s the promise, as-yet-unfulfilled, of the Obama campaign. And that’s how you build a lasting majority.

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Questions about McCain’s Foreign Policy

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

Relating to my previous post evaluating McCain’s foreign policy as a “realistic idealist”, here are two of my remaining questions:

  • Are you seeking to defend the current international system? To reform it? To undermine it? To create a new system?
    Some of your allies on the right claim that you are seeking to undermine the international system – which they see as constraining American power. Your tone is clearly conciliatory – enraging your enemies on the right such as Rush Limbaugh. Charles Krauthammer described one of the “hidden agendas” of your foreign policy as “killing the UN.” …
  • And a question from George Will:

    You say you are not “ready to go to war with Iran,” but you also say the “one thing worse” than “exercising the military option” is “a nuclear-armed Iran.” Because strenuous diplomacy has not dented Iran’s nuclear ambitions, is not a vote for you a vote for war with Iran?

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Evaluating McCain’s ‘realistic idealism’

Thursday, May 29th, 2008


[Photo courtesy of christhedunn.]

In an article in the New York Times evaluating John McCain’s foreign policy vision, Lawrence Eagleburger, secretary of state under the first President George Bush, described a fight currently being waged within the Republican party over the potential direction of McCain’s foreign policy: “It may be too strong a term to say a fight is going on over John McCain’s soul. But … there is at least going to be an attempt.” Eagleburger was referring to was the foreign policy chasm between the Republican party of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan1 , and George H. W. Bush and the Republican party of George W. Bush; between the realists and the idealists; between the paleo-cons and the neo-cons.

John McCain been playing both sides of this intra-Republican war since George W. Bush took office. In his most prominent speech on foreign policy, he described himself as a “realistic idealist.” He explained that his particular approach to the world came from his idealistic core being tempered by “hard experience.” He claims to bridge the chasm between these two approaches, and through his career he has mainly managed to assuage both sides. On the most prominent issue in recent years, Iraq, most of the pragmatists questioned, and often publicly opposed, the decision to launch a preemptive war in the Middle East; the neo-cons were the main proponents of the war. McCain managed to placate both sides by criticizing the execution of the war and the tactical decisions of the Bush administration while defending the overall strategy strongly. In this, McCain was essentially taking the neo-con side in the long-term, but allying himself for the short-term with the realists.

Though this approach has worked well for McCain as a senator, it would be impossible to continue as president because McCain would then have responsibility for both the overall strategy of the War on Terrorism and the tactics used.

For the moment, both the realist camps and the neo-conservative camps believe McCain is on their side at heart. But he can’t be on both sides. If we are to try to figure out what a McCain foreign policy would look like, it is unhelpful to list the specific policies and attitudes he has stated he will adopt towards particular nations. Foreign policy is a constantly shifting, adjusting use of power – and the single area of policy most directly and completely within the control of the executive. What is useful in trying to figure out what a McCain foreign policy would look like is an understanding of the basic assumptions McCain has about foreign policy.

  1. A focus, first and foremost, on the overriding and existential threat of “radical Islamist extremism.”
    McCain considers problems such as China’s rise, Russia’s increasing belligerence, and global climate change as far less important than the defining “national security challenge of our time.” I posited in an earlier post that it is because of the importance of the fight against Islamist extremism that McCain has flip-flopped on so many other domestic and national security issues: “After September 11, McCain had found a new enemy that was greater than the corruption of the political process and he was willing to put aside all of his domestic agenda to focus on the new enemy.”
  2. A demand for moral clarity.
    McCain has, throughout his career, sought enemies to fight. His personal sense of his self seems to demand that he be the white knight and those opposing him be the forces of evil itself. This is an exaggeration certainly2 , but this demand for absolute clarity leads to a poor understanding of the world, especially of our enemies. For example, McCain does not merely lack an understanding of the Muslim world; his positions indicate he has imposed a particular ideological framework on his understanding – a framework which does not allow for distinctions among radical groups.3 While many on the right praise McCain’s moral clarity for condemning radical Islamist extremists as the evil-doers they are, it seems an unquestionably poor strategy in a War on Terrorism to unite our enemies instead of attempting to divide them. It is notable that McCain does not mention the clear and tactically vital divisions among our enemies and among our allies in the Middle East. The words “Sunni” or “Shia” are not mentioned in either of McCain’s two attempts to lay out his entire foreign policy. In this way, McCain is continuing the tradition of George W. Bush.
  3. Iraq as the central front in the War on Terrorism.
    McCain cites Al Qaeda as proof that Iraq is a central front in the War on Terrorism. But Sun Tzu, ancient and wise author of The Art of War, has said that one of the first steps to winning a war is to choose the battlefield that gives you the most advantages. Al Qaeda apparently feels that Iraq plays to their advantages. In many ways, they are right. In an extraordinary article in The New Republic, Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank write of the “jihadist revolt against Bin Laden.” They cite a range of Muslim religious leaders, former and current terrorists, and a man described the “the ideological father of Al Qaeda” who were sympathetic to Bin Laden, even after September 11, who have all publicly broken from Al Qaeda in the past several years4 . Bergen and Cruickshank caution that:

    Most of these clerics and former militants, of course, have not suddenly switched to particularly progressive forms of Islam or fallen in love with the United States (all those we talked to saw the Iraqi insurgency as a defensive jihad)

    But Bergen and Cruickshank still believe that the anti-Al Qaeda positions of these radicals are making Americans safer. John McCain refuses to differentiate between the insurgency and the forces of Al Qaeda in Iraq – an enormous tactical blunder. And it is mainly because of this confusion that he has declared that Iraq is the central front of the War on Terrorism, when in fact, it is one of the few areas that unite jihadists opposed to Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda itself. 5

  4. Premised on the exclusive power of nation-states.
    In contrast to Richard Haas, editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, who believes we are in an age of non-polarity with non-state forces multiplying and state power dispersing, McCain premises his foreign policy on the power of nation-states – both America’s power and that of other nations – to affect virtually every area of policy. As McCain sets forth his foreign policy vision, he describes his policy country by country; for those issues he considered global, he describes how he will get other countries to act with us. While his aims here are clearly worthy, he seems to misunderstand how the world has been developing since the end of the Cold War. This assumption also underlies his focus on Iraq in the War on Terrorism. Even as Al Qaeda did much of the planning for it’s attacks in the lawless areas of Pakistan and within the free societies of Berlin, London, and New York City, McCain, like Bush, has focused on the role of states in assisting terrorism. Although this is certainly one component of any War Against Terrorism, it clearly should not be the main focus. One of the achievements of four years of a McCain presidency would be, according to a speech given by the candidate two weeks ago, that “There is no longer any place in the world al Qaeda can consider a safe haven.” Certainly a worthy goal – but it is belied by the fact that Al Qaeda can function within the freedoms offered by a Western democracy. The theory underpinning this claim, this hope, of McCain’s is that Al Qaeda can only function with some form of state sponsorship – which does not seem to be a supportable assumption.
  5. Demonstrations of toughness.
    Since John F. Kennedy suffered through his meeting with Kruschev in Vienna6 , presidents have been trying to prove their toughness to the world. The Cuban Missile Crisis was mainly a demonstration of toughness on the part of Kennedy; Lyndon Johnson pushed the line in Vietnam to show he was tough; Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada to demonstrate his toughness after retreating when attacked by Muslim extremists in Lebanon; Bill Clinton bombed countries to show his toughness; George W. Bush invaded Iraq and authorized torture. In the current campaign, each of the remaining candidates has tried to demonstrate their toughness in revealing ways. Hillary Clinton threatened to obliterate Iran; Barack Obama vowed to take out Bin Laden or a top Al Qaeda operative with or without Pakistan’s permission; John McCain has promised to continue the War in Iraq. The lesson I take from the historical examples is that “demonstrations of toughness” provide a boost domestically for a short time but rarely make the desired impression internationally, and are an exceptionally bad basis for a policy. McCain, by promising not to back down from Al Qaeda in Iraq, is buying into the Bush doctrine of replacing a genuine strategy to combat terrorism with “demonstrations of toughness”.
  6. Acting as “good global citizens.”
    This is the central difference between John McCain’s foreign policy vision and George W. Bush’s. He believes it is important that America act as a “good global citizen” and a good ally. For McCain, this means working internationally to combat global climate change, being open to persuasion by our allies, ending the policy of military torture of detainees7 , and numerous goodwill gestures. The Bush administration has begun to move in this direction in his second term already. McCain would be able to move further along, and could make genuine progress on global climate change.
  7. Inherent American exceptionalism.
    This idea is directly related to McCain’s demand for moral clarity. Just as he sees himself as essentially incorruptible, so he sees America. This idealization of America is what made his opposition to torture so inspiring. He was calling on the ideal conception of America to combat a corrupting evil which had been introduced into our system. In a similar way, he used his ideal conception of America to argue for the reform of our political process in his 2000 campaign. His foreign policy though demonstrates how this can be a very bad assumption to make. It is one thing to point to American history and to say that we have been an exceptional nation – as Obama regularly does. McCain implies an inherence to America’s goodness, one that exists irrespective of our actions. This assumption underlies McCain’s insistence that the decision to invade Iraq was right8 ; that the Bush administration’s strategy in the War on Terrorism is essentially sound; that a change in tone is what is mainly needed to rally our allies; that we remain the world’s “only monument of human rights” in spite of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, secret prisons, torture, and Iraq; that we must still “protect and promote” democracy to the Middle East; and that America offers a “unique form of leadership – the antithesis of empire – [which] gives us moral credibility, which is more powerful than any show of arms9 .” This is a dangerous idea in a large part because it is not shared by most of the world. For example, although we can declare we are the “antithesis of empire”, we will still be treated as one as long as we are projecting our military, economic, and political power around the world and occupying a sovereign nation.

Some questions remain about McCain’s basic views on foreign policy – many stemming from his triangulation between the neo-cons and realists for the past decade. I’ll be posting some of them later.

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  1. One could argue that Ronald Reagan was not a pragmatist, but many of his administration were, and his foreign policy was essentially pragmatism wedded to extreme rhetoric. []
  2. Hopefully. []
  3. As his comments in Iraq made clear. Those who would defend McCain as having “mis-spoke” can look to at least three instances when he expressed the same idea. []
  4. Most since 2005. []
  5. The distinction here should be a bit more subtle as the jihadists referenced by Bergen and Cruickshank oppose Al Qaeda’s tactics in Iraq, so they are not totally united on that issue. []
  6. And probably before. []
  7. Torture by the CIA is apparently still a deliberately gray area. []
  8. For if America is inherently good, it cannot be ill-motivated. []
  9. One of McCain’s top foreign policy advisors, Niall Ferguson, wrote a book explaining that by virtually any definition, America is an empire. []

Some perspective on how crazy Americans are…

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

Ben Smith tries to put the “Obama is a secret Muslim” belief into perspective.  As Andrew Sullivan says, “Maybe ten percent of Americans believing Obama is a Muslim isn’t so high after all.”

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It’s all Condi’ fault

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

The neoconservatives at The Weekly Standard have finally decided it is time to begin spinning the inevitable blame for the second term of Bush’s administration.  Stephen F. Hayes writes this week’s cover story on Condoleeza Rice:

In many ways, George W. Bush’s reluctant acceptance of bilateral talks with the North Koreans is the story of the latter half of his presidency.

Bush began his second term with the kind of bold, uncompromising vision that had characterized his first four years in office. The ultimate goal of U.S. policy, he proclaimed in his second inaugural address, is “ending tyranny in our world.” Bush said: “My most solemn duty is to protect this nation and its people against further attacks and emerging threats. Some have unwisely chosen to test America’s resolve, and have found it firm.”

But that speech is better understood in retrospect as a coda to his first term than a bridge to the current one. In the second term, those who have chosen to test America’s resolve – the Iranians, the Syrians, the North Koreans – have often found it less than firm.

The problem with the Bush administration – Hayes maintains – is not that the Iraq war was a strategic blunder; or that their goals were too vague and too grand; or that the Bush administration committed tactical errors that alienated our friends and united our enemies; or that the administration deliberately deceived the American people; or even that it compromised basic American values in a kind of preemptive surrender that was summarized by Cheney’s “One Percent Doctrine”.  These were not the problems of the administration, but the glories.

Instead, Bush’s problems began in the second term as Condoleeza Rice took over the State Department when she persuaded him to try more pragmatic courses of action.  The problem wasn’t that Bush was too stubborn or too aggressive, but that he wasn’t stubborn or aggressive enough.

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Dunkin Donuts: The Coffee of Jihadists

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

Rachel Ray was outed as a terrorist sympathizer and Dunkin Donuts was declared the official coffee of Al Qaeda1 as Michelle Malkin, super-heroine extraordinaire, protected Americans from the jihadist message hidden within a recent Dunkin Donut commercial.

We should all be thankful that Malkin is out there, patrolling our culture, and protecting us from this filth.

Thanks to Malkin’s heroically supersensitive ability to be extremely offended (and to get other people to follow her2 ), Dunkin Donuts has finally renounced terrorism and removed this ad from circulation.

Some liberal pansies may ask when a scarf is just a scarf.  But what these liberals don’t get is that patriotism is not a function of “loving” one’s country; patriotism is not about wanting to make America a better place; and patriotism is certainly not about “independence.”  And treason does not include things like deceiving a nation to start a war of choice, or looting the government treasury, or allowing our sworn enemy to determine our foreign policy3

What patriots like Michelle Malkin get is that patriotism and treason are not about intentions and actions, but about style.  I know Michelle Malkin is a patriot because she is always on the lookout for traitors (who all happen to be Democrats.)  She also talks about patriotism a lot, and I’m sure she wears a flag pin all the time (even though I could find a picture of her wearing one for this article.)  Rachel Ray is obviously a jihadist because she wore a scarf that looks kind of like a traditional Arab headdress.  That’s also how you can tell that Arabs hate America – because so many of them wear these keffiyehs.

That’s why everyone can see how ridiculous it is that presidential candidate (and super-secret Muslim) Barack Obama considers himself a patriot.  He said he stopped wearing flag pins because people used them as substitutes for “true patriotism.”  What he doesn’t get is that patriotism is only about the fashion statements.

And as for those jihadists at Dunkin Donuts who claimed to not know what a keffiyeh was, Malkin has a ready-made response:

Ignorance is no longer an excuse. In post-9/11 America, vigilance must never go out of style.

We should all be thankful that Dunkin Donuts had the courage to back down after the threats of boycotting spooked it’s fearless leader.  And we should all be thankful that we live in a glorious liberal democracy where such bullying is possible.  What better way is there to use our freedoms than to boycott those who wear items of clothing that resemble items of clothing from other nations?

Some may call such fashion-policing xenophobic neo-McCarthyism.  But Malkin knows it is true patriotism.

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  1. Munchkins were declared an essential part of the ideal pre-suicide bombing meal. []
  2. Or is it “sheeple”? []
  3. Oddly, as awful as all of these are, none of them necessarily fit the bill of “disloyalty to one’s nation.” []

Will Ferrell’s Fashionable Patriotism

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

The previous post reminded me of this classic Will Ferrell skit:

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Noonan on sexism

Tuesday, May 27th, 2008

Peggy Noonan isn’t known for her enlightened thinking, but on occasion her riffs are truly enlightening:

So, to address the charge that sexism did [Hillary] in:

It is insulting, because it asserts that those who supported someone else this year were driven by low prejudice and mindless bias.

It is manipulative, because it asserts that if you want to be understood, both within the community and in the larger brotherhood of man, to be wholly without bias and prejudice, you must support Mrs. Clinton.

It is not true. Tough hill-country men voted for her, men so backward they’d give the lady a chair in the union hall. Tough Catholic men in the outer suburbs voted for her, men so backward they’d call a woman a lady. And all of them so naturally courteous that they’d realize, in offering the chair or addressing the lady, that they might have given offense, and awkwardly joke at themselves to take away the sting. These are great men. And Hillary got her share, more than her share, of their votes. She should be a guy and say thanks.

It is prissy. Mrs. Clinton’s supporters are now complaining about the Hillary nutcrackers sold at every airport shop. Boo hoo. If Golda Meir, a woman of not only proclaimed but actual toughness, heard about Golda nutcrackers, she would have bought them by the case and given them away as party favors.

It is sissy. It is blame-gaming, whining, a way of not taking responsibility, of not seeing your flaws and addressing them. You want to say “Girl, butch up, you are playing in the leagues, they get bruised in the leagues, they break each other’s bones, they like to hit you low and hear the crack, it’s like that for the boys and for the girls.”

And because the charge of sexism is all of the above, it is, ultimately, undermining of the position of women. Or rather it would be if its source were not someone broadly understood by friend and foe alike to be willing to say anything to gain advantage.

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