Saturday, February 03, 2007

Stacy Schiff on caffeine and its wonders, and then Maureen Dowd on how totally scrod (that’s the past perfect of “screwed,” for you non-grammarians out there) we are in Iraq.

If you believe, as I do, that darkness shrouded the Earth until someone thought to brew coffee at breakfast, at which time the stupor lifted, the neurons engaged and the Enlightenment dawned, then Robert Bohannon may be your new best friend. Dr. Bohannon is the North Carolina molecular biologist who six years ago sat down before a glass of milk and a doughnut and had the audacity to think that there was something wrong with that picture. Why not add caffeine — to the doughnut?

A normal person would stop right there and call out for a latte. Someone who had been chewing coffee beans since he was 8 would call out for a kilogram of food-grade caffeine. With the help of a local baker, Dr. Bohannon set about attempting to create what he had already named: the Buzz Donut.

The early results were disappointing; “they tasted like aluminum cans,” he says. Grainy versions followed. As of this week, perfection has been achieved and a patent filed. Dr. Bohannon is now waiting for Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’ Donuts — do trans fats somehow impair the ability to spell? — to call.

If you have a timelier idea, I’d like to hear it. Could we be where we are today without a tidal wave of caffeine? A 24-hour news cycle does not require 24-hour news. It does, however, require a 24-hour caffeine drip.

Tea is said to have fueled the Industrial Revolution; caffeine has been credited with modern physics and chemistry. “A mathematician,” the prolific, nonsleeping Paul Erdos liked to say, “is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.”

Small wonder then that the elixir of efficiency and inspiration should prove to be the blogger’s best friend, the CrackBerry’s companion, the spirit of social networking. It is difficult to believe that we could be wired without having been wired — you are to be forgiven for thinking that Howard Schultz invented the Internet. The inconvenient truth is that when Mr. Schultz founded Starbucks, he focused on the romance and ritual of a newspaper culture. So far as business history goes, this is a little like being Andrew Carnegie when the telegraph clattered to life.

In an innovative world, we congregate over coffee rather than over a beer: that’s why the “Cheers” decade gave way to that of “Friends.” The point of a bar, after all, is turning off the brain. The point of a cafe is switching it on. From an age that was arguably as taken with the sound of its own voice and as fixated on information as we are, the coffeehouse comes down to us with an illustrious intellectual heritage. It supplied Adam Smith and d’Alembert with office addresses. Coffee was Beethoven and Voltaire’s primary source of nourishment. Samuel Johnson was a 40-cup-a-day man. Balzac, the champion caffeinator, was a coffee-eater, like Dr. Bohannon.

An addiction like ours needs no excuse, as you know well. Is that your second cup already? Caffeine sparks imagination, stimulates conversation, accelerates thought, enhances mood, increases endurance and activates memory. It allows us to beat the clock; how anyone managed to build a cathedral before the advent of espresso is beyond me.

For better or worse, caffeine also accounts for the tenor of the times. Balzac was brilliant on the sparks to the brain as well as the cost to the nerves: “One wants everything to proceed with the speed of ideas; one becomes brusque and ill tempered about nothing.”

Did road rage exist before 20-ounce cup holders? I assure you that “door dwell” — that eternity required for an elevator door to close, regardless of how many times you jab the button — postdates the double espresso. Coffee makes everything crystal-clear, which makes me certain that I am right. What happens to a society in which everyone feels lucid, infallible and empowered? I believe Fox News would be your answer.

Naysayers credit coffee with a disproportionate number of marital spats, but no one has yet been able to make a sturdy case for a risk to our physical health.

This comes as a blessing and a relief — the more so as we have seriously upped the 18th-century ante. Then it was said that no seamstress as much as threaded her needle without her morning coffee. From Jeff Bezos of Amazon comes the secret of 21st-century success: “In Seattle you haven’t had enough coffee until you can thread a sewing machine while it’s running.”

Make that a cappuccino and two Buzz doughnuts, please.

Stacy Schiff is the author, most recently, of “A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America.” She is a guest columnist.

And now we have MoDo on Iraq.

“Everything you’ve heard and read is true. And I am deeply sorry about that.” Who said it?

(a) George Bush, about the chilling new intelligence report on Iraq.

(b) Joe Biden, about his self-imploding prolixity.

(c) Condi Rice, on her ability to understand Peyton Manning’s vulnerabilities better than Nuri Kamal al-Malaki’s.

(d) Silvio Berlusconi, on his wife’s Junoesque lightning bolt after his public flirting.

(e) Jacques Chirac, after giving a Gallic shrug at the prospect of Iran getting un or deux nuclear weapons.

(f) Hillary Clinton, on enabling the president to invade Iraq.

(g) Barack Obama, for the ultimate sin of not being black enough or white enough.

(h) Mary Cheney, on her decision to work on her terrifying dad’s homophobic campaign because the thought of John Kerry was “terrifying.”

(i) Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, about his affair with his campaign manager’s wife.

The answer is Gavin Newsom.

It’s rare to get a simple apology when a complex obfuscation will do.

Even after releasing parts of an intelligence report so pessimistic that it may as well have been titled “Iraq: We’re Cooked,” Bush officials clung to their alternate reality, using nonsensical logic and cherry-picking whatever phrases they could find in the report that they could use to sell the Surge.

In the 2004 National Intelligence Estimate, civil war was a worst-case scenario. In the 2007 one, Iraq has zoomed past civil war to hell: “The Intelligence Community judges that the term ‘civil war’ does not adequately capture the complexity of the conflict in Iraq, which includes extensive Shia-on-Shia violence, Al Qaeda and Sunni insurgent attacks on coalition forces, and widespread criminally motivated violence.”

As John McLaughlin, the former acting director of central intelligence, told The Times’s Mark Mazzetti: “Civil war is checkers. This is chess.”

Far from Dick Cheney’s claim of “enormous successes” and Gen. William Casey’s claim of “slow progress,” the report shows that any path the U.S. takes in Iraq could lead to a river of blood. It says that in the absence of any strong Sunni and Shiite leaders who can control their groups, prospects are dim for a cohesive government, much less a democracy.

If the violence gets worse, the report concludes, three sulfurous possibilities loom: chaos leading to partition, the emergence of a Shiite strongman or anarchy “mixing extreme ethnosectarian violence with debilitating intragroup clashes.”

So after four years of war, we get to choose between chaos, another Saddam or anarchy. Good work, W. And at such bargain prices; the administration is breaking the record for the military budget, asking for $100 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan this year and $145 billion more for 2008.

The White House thinks it can somehow spin the Iraq apocalypse so it sounds as if multiple wars are better than one civil war.

At a Pentagon briefing yesterday, Bob Gates rebuffed the idea of a civil war, saying: “I think that the words ‘civil war’ oversimplify a very complex situation in Iraq. I believe that there are essentially four wars going on in Iraq. One is Shia on Shia, principally in the south. The second is sectarian conflict, principally in Baghdad but not solely. Third is the insurgency, and fourth is Al Qaeda.”

That’s a relief, all right — we’re in four wars in Iraq and threatening another with Iran.

Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, agreed that the term civil war is unacceptable: “We need to get across the complexities of the situation we face in Iraq ... and simple labels don’t do that.”

When General Casey testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, he sounded as if he was talking about a completely different Iraq than the one limned in the intelligence report. “Today,” he said, “Iraqis are poised to assume responsibility for their own security by the end of 2007, still with some level of support from us.”

Compare that with the bleak tone of the report, which states that “the Iraqi Security Forces — particularly the Iraqi police — will be hard-pressed in the next 12 to 18 months to execute significantly increased security responsibilities, and particularly to operate independently against Shia militias with success.”

It’s official. We’re in a cycle of violence so complex and awful that withdrawing American troops will make it worse and keeping American troops there may also make it worse.

We can try or we can leave, but either way, it seems, we’re cooked.


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