Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Today we have Thomas Friedman, Rory Stewart, and Judith Warner, who spanks Ann Coulter. First up, Mr. Friedman:

I haven’t kept count, but it seems to me that the number of times I’ve seen President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney give speeches about the Iraq war using smiling soldiers as their backdrops have been, well, countless. You’d think that an administration that has been so quick to exploit soldiers as props — whether it was to declare “Mission Accomplished” on an naval vessel or to silence critics by saying their words might endanger soldiers in battle — would have been equally quick to spare no expense in caring for those injured in the fight.

The squalid living conditions and red tape that have been inflicted on some recovering Iraq war veterans at Walter Reed hospital and elsewhere — which have been spotlighted by The Washington Post — are shocking in their detail, but not surprising. They are one more manifestation — like insufficient troops, postwar planning and armor — of a war that was really important to get right but really hard, which the Bush team thought was really important and would be really easy.

Mr. Bush summoned the country to D-Day and prepared the Army, the military health system, military industries and the American people for the invasion of Grenada.

From the start, the Bush team has tried to keep the Iraq war “off the books” both financially and emotionally. As Larry Diamond of Stanford’s Hoover Institution said to me: “America is not at war. The U.S. Army is at war.” The rest of us are just watching, or just ignoring, while the whole fight is carried on by 150,000 soldiers and their families.

In an interview last Jan. 16, Jim Lehrer asked President Bush why, if the war on terrorism was so overwhelmingly important, he had never asked more Americans “to sacrifice something.” Mr. Bush gave the most unbelievable answer: “Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night.”

Sacrifice peace of mind watching TV? What kind of crazy thing is that to say? Leadership is about enabling and inspiring people to contribute in time of war so the enemy has to fight all of us — not insulating the public so the enemy has to fight only a few of us.

If you want to compare President Bush in this regard with Presidents Roosevelt or Wilson, pick up a copy of Robert Hormats’s soon-to-be-published book: “The Price of Liberty: Paying for America’s Wars.”

“In every major war that we have fought, with the exception of Vietnam, there was an effort prior to the war or just after the inception to re-evaluate tax and spending policies and to shift resources from less vital national pursuits to the strategic objective of fighting and winning the war,” said Mr. Hormats, a vice chairman of Goldman Sachs (International). He quotes Roosevelt’s 1942 State of the Union address, when F.D.R. looked Americans in the eye and said: “War costs money. ... That means taxes and bonds and bonds and taxes. It means cutting luxuries and other nonessentials. In a word, it means an ‘all-out’ war by individual effort and family effort in a united country.”

Ever heard Mr. Bush talk that way? After Pearl Harbor, Mr. Hormats noted, Roosevelt vowed to mobilize U.S. industry to produce enough weapons so we would have a “crushing superiority” in arms over our enemies. Four years after the start of the Iraq war, this administration has still not equipped all our soldiers with the armor they need.

As retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton pointed out last year, because of spending in Iraq, the Army had a $530 million budget shortfall for posts, so facilities got squeezed. If Americans had been asked to pay a small tax to fill that gap, they would have overwhelmingly checked that box. They would have also paid a “Patriot Tax” of 50 cents a gallon to raise the money and diminish our dependence on oil. But no one asked them to do anything other than “sacrifice peace of mind.”

If you want to help and don’t want to wait for the White House bugle, here are some places to start: (1) Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes (http://www.saluteheroes.org/), (2) the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund (http://www.fallenheroesfund.org/), (3) the Fisher Houses (http://www.fisherhouse.org/) and (4) the Walter Reed Society (http://www.walterreedsociety.org/). And one I know personally from my hometown, Minnesotans’ Military Appreciation Fund (http://www.thankmntroops.org/).

We can get just about everything wrong in Iraq, and pretty much have, but we’ve got to take first-class care of those who’ve carried the burden of this war. It’s that simple.
Next up, Rory Stewart:

I began my career as a Foreign Service officer in Indonesia. There, journalists, diplomats and aid workers emphasized that local government was “incompetent, inefficient and corrupt.” I heard the same when working in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq. My colleagues often seemed contemptuous of the nations where they served. They overlooked the cultures’ virtues and strengths, which are the keys to rebuilding nations, particularly after insurgency and civil war.

Foreign policy experts will tell you that poor states lack the rule of law, a vibrant civil society, free media, a transparent civil service, political participation and a great deal more. Employees of major international agencies commonly complain that Afghans or Iraqis or Kenyans “can’t plan” or “can’t implement.”

At its worst, this attitude is racist, bullying and ignorant. But there are less sinister explanations. As a diplomat, I was praised for “realism” if I sent home critical telegrams. Now, working for a nonprofit, I find that donor proposals encourage us to emphasize the negative aspects of local society. Many of our criticisms reflect our deep assumptions about citizenship, management and the state.

Afghans and Iraqis are often genuinely courageous, charming, generous, inventive and honorable. Their social structures have survived centuries of poverty and foreign mischief and decades of war and oppression, and have enabled them to overcome almost unimaginable trauma. But to acknowledge this seems embarrassingly romantic or even patronizing.

Yet the only chance of rebuilding a nation like Iraq or Afghanistan in the face of insurgency or civil war is to identify, develop and use some of these traditional values. Many international reformers overexaggerate the power of technical assistance and formal processes. In fact, in these contexts, charisma can be more potent than bureaucracy. Politicians have to demonstrate an intuitive understanding of local power structures and an empathy for the unexpected things people value about themselves.

This may be uncomfortable for the international community. A leader who can restore security, reconcile warring parties and shape the aspirations of a people may resemble an Ataturk more than a U.S. president. This is not a call for dictatorship. True progress must be sustained by the unconstrained wishes of the people. These should include, in Afghanistan, people with strong liberal values as much as conservative rural communities. These various desires must be protected from both the contorted control of an authoritarian state and the muffling effect of foreign aid.

The international community often attempts to avoid imposing foreign systems. Donors try hard to emphasize grass-roots consultation in designing a political system. But it is much easier for us in theory than in practice to admire and empower an unfamiliar society.

Our approach to nation building in Afghanistan has failed to accommodate the splits between Hazara and Pusthu land arrangements, gender attitudes and codes, or their different approaches to literacy, the dignity of the individual or economic progress. We do not embrace the many unexpected ways in which Afghans might overcome trauma, invest, trade and learn. Such diversity should not be imprisoned by the current centralized government, but empowered by a devolved and flexible federal system.

Western management jargon is of little help to Afghan entrepreneurs, who use tricks, trust, community and crises in a powerful way. The strong Afghan sense of justice, community and religious belief can support a counternarcotics program, the rule of law, democracy or security. But the real drivers of change are opaque.

Ultimately, we must respect countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, and trust in their ability to find their own solutions. This does not mean we need to withdraw entirely. A Harvard M.B.A. will be better at building a hydroelectric plant than a local tribal process. Foreign troops can sometimes, as in Bosnia, end a war. Our rigid values, critiques and methodologies can, even in Iraq, set up a central bank and stabilize a currency.

But the central problems are national and political. Our invective about state failure and our dissatisfaction have become part of the problem. Real solutions will emerge, often improbably, from local individual virtues, and from the cultures we struggle to describe and tend to ignore.
Rory Stewart’s latest book is “The Prince of the Marshes and Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq.” He runs the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Kabul and is a guest columnist this month.

Now we have Judith Warner and the spanking:

Ann Coulter’s use of the epithet “faggot” to slur Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards last week took me back to the schoolyards of the 1970s, when Coulter and I were both young.

There were plenty of words like “faggot” being thrown around back then. There was “faggoty,” for example. “Retard.” And “spaz” — or “total spaz,” the rhythm of which rang through her words last year, when Coulter dismissed Al Gore on MSNBC as a “total fag.”

The world of playground insults hasn’t altered much since Coulter’s schooldays, but the larger world has changed a bit. She made her remarks during a major gathering of conservatives in Washington that drew most of the major Republican presidential candidates, and commentators of the left, right and center soundly denounced her.

Even Michelle Malkin, Coulter’s fellow pinup girl on the Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute’s 2007 “Great American Conservative Women” calendar, blasted her words as “rhetorical fragging” and a “tired old schtick.”

We shouldn’t be content, though, to let it go at that.

Leaving the issue of not-so-latent homophobia aside — dwelling upon it, in this context, is a matter of shooting ducks in a barrel — what I found particularly shocking in Coulter’s comments was their studied juvenility, the sheer idiocy of their language. “Faggot” and “total fag,” like other political pearls of our time — such as “bring it on” and “girlie men” — are just epoch-making in their stupidity. In fact, they sound like lines out of Mike Judge’s 2006 film “Idiocracy,” a political satire that I rented a few months ago and can’t seem to get out of my mind.

In “Idiocracy,” a man the Pentagon has chosen for his perfectly average intelligence is sent into the future and finds the America of 500 years hence inhabited by people so grotesquely moronic that they can barely grunt utterances greater than “Man, whatever!”

Those future Americans have, however, held on to a full arsenal of obscenities and repeatedly tell the hero, who speaks in full sentences, “You talk like a fag.” As the film plays out, it’s the People vs. the Fag — the very dynamic that Coulter establishes when she connects to her audience via their inner 13-year-olds.

All this led me this week to think of Frank Luntz, the hot political consultant and wordsmith who wrote the lyrics for the 1994 Republican revolution. In his new book, “Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear,” Luntz puts forth the argument that using the “uplifting, ennobling tone” of famed political scribes like Ted Sorenson and Peggy Noonan is not the best way to capture the attention of Americans today. Instead, to communicate with the people — the real people of “small town, middle America” — and to speak straight to their hearts, minds and entrails, you’ve got to put “yourself right into your listener’s shoes.”

In other words, think small. “Use Small Words” is Rule 1 of his strategy for successful communication. Rule 2: “Use Short Sentences.”

Luntz has a doctorate from Oxford; Coulter has degrees from Cornell and the University of Michigan Law School. Conservatives generally like to run with the idea that liberals are elitists, living “in a world of only Malibu and East Hampton,” as Coulter’s recent blog posting on the “crock” of global warming put it. But isn’t there something elitist, if not wrong, I wondered aloud to Luntz, about condescending to — or coddling or enabling — the imagined verbal limitations of the less-educated “other”?

Luntz did not much appreciate the question.

“It’s not condescending — it’s pandering,” he said of Coulter’s most recent performance. “Everything about the book says what she did was not just wrong but reprehensible. Those aren’t words that work. She broke every rule.”

“God, I really hate it every time she speaks,” he fumed. And, he added, if I were to even think of mentioning him in the same breath as her, “I will really, seriously raise hell.”

At a Conservative Women’s Network lunch at the Heritage Foundation last week, a question was raised, over dessert, about how conservative women should deal, “as women,” if Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination for president. The guest speaker, Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer in Washington, hemmed and hawed, shared some thoughts about Wellesley College and Barbara Bush, blushed, then concluded, “We’ll let the redneck guys who just aren’t ready to vote for a female commander in chief take care of the woman thing.”

Sounds like a plan. Sounds to me, too, like the Republican noise machine may just have a monkey wrench in its machinery.
Judith Warner is the author of “’Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety” and a contributing columnist for TimesSelect. She is a guest Op-Ed columnist this month. Maureen Dowd is off today.



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