Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

18 November 2009

Survivor’s Guilt and What to Do about It


[For brief comment on the President’s famous bow, click here.]

Having come through this economic crisis relatively unscathed, I feel a certain ambivalence. Sometimes I ignore the leading role that dumb luck played and attribute my success to brains and skill. Sometimes I feel survivor’s guilt.

Many good people are suffering through no fault of their own. Leading pundit Bob Herbert constantly reminds us (1, 2 and 3), of the plight of the jobless and foreclosed. Today he just published another column, on the wasteland that Detroit has become.

With 27 million of us jobless or underemployed and nearly 50 million in “food insecurity”—the euphemism du jour for hunger born of poverty—there’s a lot of pain out there. What decent person with a job, a home, and good prospects for retirement doesn’t mumble, at least now and then, “there but for the grace of God go I”?

If you share this survivor’s guilt, there’s something you can do, all by yourself. You can buy American and give your fellow Americans jobs.

I’m on record on this blog as never having bought a new American car. Before I bought my first new car in 1973, I test drove the Chevrolet Vega. It looked and sounded like something from a Soviet factory. The managers who approved it for production should be permanent members of the American Industrial Hall of Infamy. It put me off my feed for American cars for a long, long time.

But that was then. This is now. After GM’s and Chrysler’s near-death experiences, the Big Three are finally making modern cars. They may not be the best in their class, but at last they’re good enough.

Even stodgy old GM seem to have gotten the message. It appears to be beating Toyota (and the world) to market with the first modern electric car, the Chevy Volt.

So now it’s time for us survivors to step up. We can stanch a lot of suffering just by buying stuff made here at home.

Doing so is neither protectionism nor economic jingoism. As we’re constantly reminded, the U.S. economy still drives the global economy, and the American consumer still accounts for 70% of our GDP. That consumer has been stressed lately, for lack of a job and/or a home. By buying American, we can put her and him back to work and jump-start our own and the world’s economy.

That approach makes sense whatever your political persuasion. Let’s say you’re a wealthy conservative who hates protectionism. You can reduce populist pressure for tariffs and other trade barriers by buying a Cadillac or Lincoln instead of that Beemer, Lexus or Mercedes. The more of us have jobs, the fewer follow Dobbs.

If you crave energy independence, luxury and caché, buy the $128,000 electric Tesla Roadster Sport. Going from zero to sixty in 3.7 seconds will help solve any manhood issues you may have. Buying a Tesla (or a Chevy Volt) will give us a push toward energy independence. And it just might show you why electric cars and windmills aren’t all that dismal an industrial future after all.

Suppose you hate paying taxes. By buying American and putting the jobless and homeless back to work, you can help lower the taxes you pay for bailouts, stimulus plans, and social services for the down and out.

Now let’s say you’re a liberal who supports unions. Except for services, heavy manufacturing is about the only place where unions still survive. You can help them by giving workers in unionized factories a chance to keep their jobs.

And if you’re liberal, you probably believe that climate change is real and want to help retard it. Then you can buy a Chevy Volt and run it on clean electric power. The Volt is not just another car, but a new American industrial infrastructure.

Let’s say you’re an independent, who hates both major political parties. You can snub them both and help our economy recover by buying things your fellow citizens make.

And if you’re so alienated you didn’t even vote in last year’s presidential election, you can “vote” now with your pocketbook. As a consumer, you exert economic influence just buying stuff made here. No matter what you think about politics—or whether you think about them at all—you can make your economic “vote” count.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s made in America. Foreign factories make and sell things with American trademarks. Many products with foreign brands are made right here at home. They include lots of “foreign” cars made in our own factories by American workers.

A quick Google search reveals many “Buy American” websites with references and links to products made here. But I couldn’t find any that seemed to me authoritative, comprehensive and unbiased. I couldn’t even find any that handles the most important product: cars.

Finding out where cars and their parts are made requires a lot of careful research, and people likely fear lawsuits for getting it wrong. The research required is beyond the capabilities of this lone blogger. It looks as if the Blogosphere has come to the same conclusion.

So we survivors need a handy website telling us where cars and major consumer products are mostly made. Maybe our leading media can take their scattered brains off the antics of Sarah Palin and other celebrities for a few moments and create one. Maybe Consumer Reports can.

But my personal nominee would be the libertarian Cato Institute—if it’s got the guts. What better way for a libertarian think tank to earn its spurs than by helping the “invisible hand” set things right? If nothing else, a Cato-created buy-American website would show that Cato’s modern minions really care about free-market economics and consumer sovereignty, and not just rich white guys.

This is one thing Government should not do. Government involvement would only infuriate the right wing, which seems to see red every time government twitches. More important, government involvement would risk foreigners blaming our government and retaliating. Protectionism is a road to disaster that we don’t want to drive down again.

But enlightened consumer choice with an eye on macroeconomic balance is not protectionism.

In late 2005, I took a business trip to a new sector of southeast Seoul. The modernity and scale of my surroundings amazed me. On one major boulevard, ten orderly lanes of traffic ran between endless rows of glass-and-steel skyscrapers bearing the logos of every Korean and multinational firm. The cars rolling down those lanes were all sparkling and clean, of recent vintage. Nearly every one had been made in Korea.

My Korean colleagues spoke in awestruck tones of South Korea’s “economic miracle.” But there was nothing miraculous about South Korea’s economic success. There was only good planning, hard work, and South Koreans’ faith in their fellow citizens—faith enough to spend their hard-earned cash on what their countrymen produced. That faith allowed tiny South Korea to build a brand (Hyundai) good enough to challenge number-one Toyota.

If we Americans have similar faith in our own humbled and chastened auto industry, we can help it revive. The same is true of other industries now on the ropes, including major appliances.

So let American trademarks become the new “chic.” Let the rich brag about buying Teslas, Fiskers, Cadillacs and Lincolns. Let those of more modest means buy cars made by Ford, GM and Chrysler, especially the Chevy Volt.

At least for a few years, let new foreign cars be a stigma, like those corporate jets the Big Three’s CEOs used to fly to the Senate hearings. Let all of us who are still whole take pride in buying good-enough products made in America.

Let’s do it not because government commands it, and for God’s sake let’s pass no laws. Let’s do it all by ourselves, as enlightened individuals. Let’s do it just because—at this particular moment in economic history—it’s the right thing to do, both for us and for the global economy. Buying American is one of the few things we all can do right now to revive our economy and still preserve the system of global free trade that took a century of bloodbaths to create.

[For historical and theoretical background for this post, click here.]

Short Subject: The President’s Bow

Among all the asinine reactions to the President’s trip to Asia, the Right-Wing Blowhard Conspiracy’s response to his bowing to Japan’s Emperor Akihito was most rankling.

Bowing is the way people shake hands in Japan. Everyone bows lowest to the emperor because that’s the way it’s done. Even Japan’s own prime minister does.

The low bow is not a sign of subservience but a custom. Japan’s emperor is a figurehead, having no more real power in Japan than Queen Elizabeth II has in Britain. No one published pictures of them, but the mutual bows of our President and Japan’s prime minister were undoubtedly equal, as they should be under Japanese custom.

Our President is a careful leader who attends to detail. You can bet he got instructions from his protocol officer on exactly how low to bow to the emperor. You can bet he practiced the bow to perfection on Air Force One. It only looked dramatic because he’s so thin and seemed to be twice as tall as the emperor. (Maybe that’s why, under Japanese custom, he had to bow so low.)

The bow cost nothing and gave up nothing. It certainly didn't mean that we were eager to make grand concessions on moving our base on Okinawa, for example. Every business person knows that, in negotiation, small acts of kindness, protocol and respect can pay big dividends. Those small acts are infinitely more important in Asia than they are in our brutally abrupt domestic business culture, and we’re all going to have to learn them as we deal more frequently with Asians.

The bow was a smart move, especially among the Japanese. They’ve always thought Westerners in general—and Americans in particular—a bit lacking in politeness and the social graces. The look of delight on the emperor’s face probably reflected increased respect for our country among millions of Japanese.

Now millions of Japanese have a better opinion of us and our President. Anyway, how would we feel if a foreign leader came to the White House and refused to shake hands with him? That’s what we expect here, and a low bow is what everyone in Japan expects of a visitor to the emperor. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Duh!

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17 November 2009

Trade Policy for One: Saying “No” to Modern Mercantilism


1. Sweet memories of mercantilism
2. The postwar global economic system
3. China’s modern mercantilism
4. The fateful embrace
5. What to do: trade policy for one

1. Sweet memories of mercantilism. Remember “mercantilism”? That was a nineteenth-century economic policy designed to keep the strong on top and the weak down. It helped rapidly industrializing nations like England dominate the markets for both manufactured goods and the raw materials to make them.

The policy was simple. Industrializing nations themselves became the chief markets for manufactured goods for two reasons. First, the wealth brought by their own manufacturing created markets for the goods it made. Second, industries needed more machines to build and maintain their machines and to transport raw materials and finished products.

To enhance and maintain these natural market advantages, industrializers imposed tariffs on imported foreign manufactures. The tariffs added a price advantage (over foreign makers’ goods) to the natural advantages of being first and market size. They inhibited market entry by competitors in industrializing nations.

The barriers that tariffs raised let only firms in dominant nations achieve economies of scale. Those economies in turn allowed dominant firms to lower prices further, gain more sales, and accumulate the capital needed for continued innovation. The result—for many decades—was a global market in which the first nation or nations to industrialize could dominate wide sectors of manufacturing not only inside their own borders, but worldwide.

As mercantilism spread, it affected markets for raw materials. Because their manufactures sold well, industrialized nations had more cash available to afford raw materials. Their cash hordes allowed them to outbid others globally. Where higher prices didn’t work, “gunboat diplomacy” did. By virtue of their earlier industrialization, leading nations had more powerful military forces able to project military power over longer distances. The British Navy was a prime example.

So mercantilist nations plundered the raw materials of developing nations in an orgy of colonization. On occasion, they fought each other over the spoils.

2. The postwar global economic system. That was the scene at the dawn of the twentieth century. Two rising powers—Germany and Japan—came late to the colonization party. Germany had another disadvantage: it was mostly landlocked as well. Except for Germany’s coal, neither nation had huge stores of natural resources. Both lacked access to the fuel of choice for the coming century: oil. Both didn’t like the rest of the world keeping them down with tariffs, military control over raw materials, and economic manipulation. The result was a half-century-long bloodbath and the most destructive war in human history.

What has kept the peace for the last sixty years is not just the Bomb and the threat of mutual annihilation. The powers that won World War II began to understand that economics had played a key part in starting it. So they set out to create a global economic system in which everyone could trade on a level playing field. That effort began in 1945 with the Bretton-Woods agreement fixing monetary exchange rates, which kept the gold standard. It accelerated with the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) system, abandonment of the gold standard in 1971, and eventually the WTO.

Building that level playing field has taken over half a century and is still a work in progress. Enlightened, long-term self-interest had to fight short-term stupidity, greed and nationalism every step of the way. But we now have a rational global trading system in which vital raw materials like oil, iron, copper and soybeans trade globally on a mostly free market. Manufactured exports and imports have to overcome lower (and more even) tariffs than ever before. And we are working on leveling the playing field for trade in service and agricultural products, which are what the failed Doha Round of trade talks was all about.

Were these huge changes in policy altruism? No. They did produce the greatest transfer of wealth and welfare from dominant to rising nations in human history. But the transfer was not a gift; it was a product of enlightened self-interest. The powers that were dimly understood that short-term selfishness like mercantilism would only lead to economic imbalances and other wars, which in the nuclear age means sui-genocide. They also realized (a bit late) that cooperation beats fighting—that a truly global market speeds commerce, trade and innovation in science and technology and ultimately benefits our entire species.

3. China’s modern mercantilism. But now one rising power—China—has found a new form of mercantilism that seems to be working well for it. The new form is a subtle one: currency manipulation. By keeping the renminbi low and the dollar relatively high, China maintains a cost advantage for its exports over competing exports from abroad. Thus it expands its industrial base and maintains full employment.

That cost advantage of a low currency gives China all the advantages that mercantilism gave leading nineteenth-century economic powers. It lets Chinese industry produce more, achieve greater economies of scale, and accumulate capital for expansion and innovation. It attracts foreign manufacturers to China, adding to the natural advantage of low wages that its relatively lower standards of living allow. And it allows China to command a dominant position in global raw-materials markets by virtue of the size and strength of its internal markets, the strength of its manufacturing, its huge hoard of savings, and the size of its buys.

China’s new mercantilism is by no means as crude as the old. The old mercantilism was like pointed spears in the ground, excluding imports. The new mercantilism is more like ju-jitsu; it uses the desires and momentum of economic partners and rivals to their disadvantage. In order to keep its renminbi low, China buys lots of dollars, mostly through our debt offerings.

4. The fateful embrace. China’s currency manipulation has short-term advantages for us, too. Its massive buying of our debt helps finance our deficit and keep interest rates here at home low. China’s debt financing helped make our economic stimulus possible and ward off a second Great Depression.

But there are two flaws in this so far pretty picture. First, the global macroeconomic imbalances exacerbated the recent crisis, reducing employment in both countries as American consumers retrenched. Second, in the long run this unbalanced system would completely hollow out American manufacturing—a trend that is politically unacceptable and (if continued) likely to produce serious conflict.

So as leaders of both China and the U.S. have noted, the present system is unsustainable. The problem is how to wind it down. If China were to sell all its T-bills suddenly, interest rates here at home would skyrocket, choking off our weak economic recovery. Unemployment, which is now approaching stability, would explode. The feared (but so far avoided) second Great Depression might ensue.

None of those things would be in China’s interest. For we are still the greatest market for China’s manufactures, and our multinational corporations are woven into the fabric of China’s manufacturing economy. Anyway, a fall in the dollar would directly reduce the immediate value of China’s hard-earned two trillion dollars in foreign reserves.

Not only that. China owes much of its manufacturing advantage to American technology. I learned this when I looked at the bottom of my wife’s Mac Mini—the cheapest computer in which Apple offers its superb OS X operating system.

Steve Jobs and OS X are as American as Apple pie. But the legend on the bottom says, “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.”

American technology needs low-cost Chinese manufacturing to succeed. China needs American technology (to maintain its manufacturing predominance) and American consumers (to maintain its markets). Both countries need currency stability—the Chinese to avoid a precipitous drop in exports and exploding unemployment, and we to avoid the same result from interest-rate increases, exploding deficits, and consequent economic collapse.

So whether you call it a bear hug or a death grip, we and China are in an inescapable mutual embrace. Sudden moves on either side might be catastrophic. And war is out of the question: it would destroy a half-century of global economic progress and (if nuclear) likely extinguish our species as well. So what can we do?

5. What to do: trade policy for one.Whatever we do must take effect gradually. Sharp and sudden changes in government policy are probably not going to happen anytime soon, and anyway they would be risky and unwise.

The last thing either nation wants to do is excite the kind of unthinking nationalism that motivated the last century’s awful bloodbaths. History is too replete with misunderstandings and miscalculations to endorse sudden shifts in government policy in either country, or demagogic appeals that promote them. Blowhards like Lou Dobbs and Rush Limbaugh are humanity’s worst enemies.

But government need not do everything. Consumers and private businesses are another resource. Both sides can change the equation, without any apparent change in government policy, by accumulating “trade policies of one,” i.e., individual decisions of consumers and businesses.

There is irony in this suggestion. For millennia China has had a mass culture unacquainted with personal freedom and consumer choice. It recently emerged from the faceless anonymity of Communism. Yet already it is exhorting individual consumers in its vast population to do their parts by buying more and saving less. Coupled with domestic economic policies making saving less attractive, those exhortations are starting to take effect.

But what about us? Our economists rely on our consumers to drive global recovery, constantly citing the statistic that consumers account for 70% of our GDP. But our consumers are trained like Pavlov’s dogs in classical economics. They salivate reliably on buying everything at the lowest price, sometimes heedless of quality. Invariably they are heedless of the effect of their collective buying decisions on macroeconomic conditions.

Suppose our consumers started to take macroeconomics into account in their purchases. Suppose they started to buy American again.

I’m not talking about consumers at the bottom—the laid off, foreclosed, or those just scraping by. They need to save every penny they can. I’m talking about those of us still in the comfortable middle class, especially those who managed to come through this crisis relatively unscathed.

All we have to do is turn those products over, look at the labels and—when the decision is a close one—buy the one made in America, even if it costs a bit more. The extra pennies we spend on price will come back to us many times in savings on taxes for stimulus, unemployment insurance, and other social “safety nets.” And whatever extra we spend on domestic manufactures will have a “multiplier effect” as American employment increases and manufacturing revives.

Let’s take an example. This year my wife and I bought two Hyundais. We did so after doing exhaustive on-line research in the spring and test-driving in the late spring and early summer. Until this fall, when Consumer Reports’ analysis of new cars came out, we had no idea how much Ford and GM had improved their cars’ gas mileage and quality. If we had, we might have bought Chevies or Fords. As we Boomers used to say, “Bummer!”

But I have not given up on the Chevy Volt. Over two years ago, I promised on this blog to buy one if its price came in under $ 35,000. Now it looks as if the price will be $40,000, but I renew that pledge. Early next year—the year the Volt is supposed to debut—I’ll go down to a local Chevy dealer, sign up, and put down a deposit. What’s an extra $5,000 to own the first modern electric car, a solution to most of our energy troubles, and the first radical innovation in American cars in half a century?

The two Hyundais were just interim solutions. Our buying them reflected an economic reality that should provoke optimism: people can’t put off buying new cars forever. One replaced a jalopy that was very, very old.

From those who have much, much is expected. The lopsided economic system that our debt binge and foreign shopping spree has forged is going to stop one way or the other. Either it will stop when our currency crashes, inflation explodes and we can no longer buy foreign. Or it can stop, slowly, gradually (and much more gently) if we who can afford to do so tilt our individual buying decisions every so slightly in favor of things made mostly by our own fellow citizens.

I know, I know. These days it’s often hard to tell what’s really American. That Apple Mini “assembled” in China, for example, sports not just California design. It also has an Intel “brain,” and probably many other parts designed and made in America. But its decisive feature is the operating system—one so much better than its competitor that you’ve got no choice but to buy the Mac, wherever it may be made.

Not all products are like that. A car is a car. If it has the comfort features you need, runs smoothly and well, gets good gas mileage, is well made (with doors that don’t clunk), looks good, and is likely to be reliable, it’s a good buy. After decades of industrial stagnation and mismanagement here, American icons like Ford and GM finally are making cars like that, and their prices are attractive. It’s time to buy them. It’s also time to buy other big things, like appliances and building materials, that we Americans still make well.

Business should make the same decisions. If price and quality are decisive, by all means buy foreign. But if the decision is a close one, tilt the scales in favor of domestic manufactures. Buy GE’s windmills rather than Vestas.’ Buy GE’s jet engines or gas turbines, rather than Rolls Royce’s. Wait for Boeing’s super-efficient Dreamliner, rather than buying Airbus’ monstrous A380.

Chinese consumers and businesses can help similarly. When facing a decision whether to buy now or save, they should tilt the scales in favor of spending. When deciding whether to pick an American or other foreign product, they should tilt the scales in favor of the American one. Why? Because China is locked in a permanent economic embrace with the United States, which no one wants to become a death grip. Chinese consumers and businesses need to help their nation’s most important economic partner far more than they need, for example, to help Brazil, Germany, Japan or Singapore.

This “trade policy for one” need not be a permanent feature of the global economic landscape. We have some hideous imbalances in our global economic system now, and we need to fix them gradually but soon. What better way than millions of informed individual decisions: Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”? Consumers and businesses will know when the global economy is back in balance; then they can alter their own individual policies correspondingly, gradually and at their own pace. All can go back to buying on price alone again, if they wish.

If governments get too involved, nationalism and its co-conspirator protectionism will rear their ugly heads. There will be risks of miscalculation, overreach and unanticipated consequences, which might exacerbate international tensions and take decades to unwind. If consumers and businesses in both countries act intelligently, with enlightened, long-term self interest, we might restore balance organically and gradually, leaving governments to handle the really hard stuff, like bringing Iran and North Korea into line.

Let’s each introduce our own intelligent trade policy, one by one, in our daily lives. The Internet can help.

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14 November 2009

Holder’s Decision


Sometimes our punditry’s fuzzy thinking is flabbergasting. Last night on the Lehrer News Hour it was on full display.

David Brooks and Mark Shields both decreed that Eric Holder made the wrong decision in setting the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other 9/11 defendants in civilian court in New York City. Mark Shields went further: he said the President made the wrong choice in leaving the decision to Holder as Attorney General.

Let’s start with the basics. On an interview earlier in the same program, Holder described 9/11 as “the crime of the century.” Brooks demurred, calling it an “act of war.”

Who is right depends upon timing. Maybe we are at war today, over eight years later. I have written so myself. But we are at war largely against illiterate armies of misguided Afghans, not the well-educated perpetrators of 9/11. If we are at war now in the AfPak region, it is because we botched a simple police action with the most outrageous inattention, stupidity and incompetence in our military history. We let bin Laden get away by shifting attention to Iraq and neglecting Afghanistan, as we had done so foolishly since the successful Anti-Soviet Jihad.

Our police action degenerated into war long after 9/11. Not even a semantic contortionist can call a limited military action by a nation of 307 million against a few hundred terrorists a “war” and get away with it.

Osama bin Laden tried to become that semantic contortionist. He declared “war” on us in February 1998, in an obscure statement purporting to be a fatwa. But even on its own terms, this statement fell several light years short of a “declaration of war” as the world had used the term up to that point in human history. Besides a few notables in our intelligence services, whose advice was ignored, no one here knew about it. If you had taken a poll among Americans on 9/12, you would have been lucky to find 0.1% who’d ever heard of bin Laden, Al Qaeda or their purported declaration of war.

In fact, it’s unclear whether Al Qaeda itself existed at that point in time, other than as a figment of bin Laden’s fertile imagination. The so-called 1998 “fatwa” didn’t mention Al Qaeda; it came out under the head of the “World Islamic Front.”

And anyway it was not even a real fatwa. A “fatwa” is a binding religious edict. Bin Laden was the rebel scion of a rich Saudi family with zero religious training and no Islamic congregation. He had no authority to issue any fatwa. At the time he issued it, the so-called “fatwa” was nothing more than a propaganda tool of an unknown, nascent, secret band of extremist Islamist rebels. If you’ll pardon the religiously mixed metaphor, it was a “Hail Mary” pass by a small band trying desperately to attract recruits.

The Hail Mary pass did not connect until after 9/11. The successful act of terrorism put Al Qaeda on the map and gave bin Laden a powerful recruiting tool among disgruntled Islamic extremists. And it did so precisely because it was the “crime of the century,” as Holder described it. Holder is right.

If we give every band of gangsters, criminals, extremists or rebels the power to declare “war” on us simply by saying so, we will be fighting a lot of “wars.” And by calling them “wars” we will be giving these groups far more publicity and power over us than we ought. At the time of 9/11, we were no more at war with bin Laden or Al Qaeda than we are now at “war” with the Michoacan drug cartel, against which Holder just quietly led an effective police action.

That cartel has killed many people in our own country. It has far more victims in Mexico than died in 9/11. Yet we fight it as we should, through police action and our Department of Justice. Even Mexico brought in the Federales not because there was a “war” but because Mexico’s police had become hopelessly corrupt.

But Shields’ and Brooks’ main error has less to do with the semantics of war than it has to do with a topic that both men ought to know intimately: the perennial tug-of-war between publicity and secrecy.

Ever since 9/11, we have run that tug-of-war exactly wrong. We have kept secret what we should have publicized, and we have publicized what we should keep secret.

As I have bemoaned at length in another post, we made state secrets out of our fallen heroes’ final returns home, while we publicized our strategy, troop counts and even troop postings. If we are indeed at war now, we are going about it in a very strange way. Our media serve our enemies in the same way that their own spies used to.

Now some of us want to make the opposite error in trying captured terrorists. Trying, convicting and executing people with obscure judges and in secret are not things that great democracies do. They’re what the Bolsheviks and Castro did and banana republics do. They’re what Khalid Sheikh Mohammed himself brags about having done: beheading defenseless journalist Daniel Pearl, without counsel, in some secret hideaway.

Even if we were at war, the model we should follow is Nuremberg. Now that was a trial. Multi-lingual, procedurally perfect, scrupulously fair, with voluminous documentary evidence, and entirely public from opening call to sentencing. Holder wants to make the 9/11 trials more like Nuremberg and less like Daniel Pearl’s secret execution. God bless him.

There are so many reasons to try Mohammed and his co-conspirators publicly, in civilian court, and in New York City that it’s difficult to count them all. We want the whole world—and all of us—to know that we are still Americans. We want to show that we can give men accused of doing us such grievous harm a scrupulously fair trial and honor the rule of law even when it’s hardest to do so. We want to open every step of the trial to worldwide, public scrutiny. And we want the world to know that even in this case—even in dealing with a man who brags of cruel and inhuman deeds—we will take into account our own harsh treatment of suspects and exclude coerced testimony.

We also want the world to know that Americans are not cowards. The great irony of our so-called “war on terror” is how our “patriotic” (and utterly safe) small towns quake in fear at the thought of harboring mere transferees from Guantánamo, even in maximum-security prisons. Meanwhile, New Yorkers have gone about their business, living largely and well, in the terrorists’ bull’s eye for the best part of a decade. Who is more courageous? Who is more patriotic?

If you took a poll of New Yorkers, I think you’d find overwhelming approval for Holder’s decision, as a New York Times editorial suggested today. In a city that still hasn’t rebuilt Ground Zero, it’s a sign of people’s courage, resilience, toughness, fairness and patriotism.

And if you really want a fair trial, consider the sophistication of New Yorkers, who grow up in a city filled with the nation’s best lawyers and judges and a long tradition of respect for law. If you want a hanging jury, go to Virginia or a small town in a red state.

Why the Justice Department, in civilian court? That one’s easy. For eight years “political operatives” tried to take over our Department of Justice. They were the closest thing we’ve ever had in this country to the Soviet Union’s political commissars. President Obama, who knows our Constitution better than any of his predecessors since Lincoln, is determined not to let that happen again, whatever the provocation. So he left the decision on the crime of our century in the hands of a trained and dedicated professional, Attorney General Holder.

The President made the right decision, and so did Holder. Both decisions put 9/11 in perspective. If we could have an open, fair and procedurally correct trial of Nazi war criminals after the world’s greatest war, we can try the remnants of this small band of terrorists in New York City, which already has tried and convicted several of their predecessors.

New Yorkers’ legal sophistication will provide a level of fairness that no other venue could provide. Trying these men in civilian court, in the ordinary course of business, will show the whole world how nothing extremists can do will budge our great democracy from the rule of law that began eight centuries ago on the fields of Runnymede. And when the trial is over and these men face justice, we can all be proud of how our nation and our leading city publicly showed the “resolve” that Brooks so covets but never seems to find. The best resolve we can show is staying true to ourselves and our traditions.

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08 November 2009

Confessions of a Cockeyed Optimist


One of my favorite lines in all of world literature comes from Voltaire’s Candide. After surviving wars, plagues and pestilences, the ever-optimistic heroine pines for her dead teacher Pangloss. “Oh, Pangloss, Pangloss!” she cries. “How happy you would be if you had not been killed!”

That line sent me into spasms of laughter at seventeen. At 64, I see it as a germ of wisdom that just might help our species survive. Life is precious and fragile and all that really matters.

We’ll get through this terrorism business, maybe not in my time, but soon by historical standards. The reason is as basic as Candide’s immortal line. However immured people may be in religion, ideology and self-righteousness, most of them dimly understand a simple truth: being blown to bits is not a good thing.

Sooner or later, that simple truth will lead everyone to reject terrorism. The end will come sooner if we who oppose it now emphasize that simple truth in our propaganda, political and military strategy, and every act.

Our leaders seem to be getting the idea. The simple truth is working its way into our strategy and political discourse. We see that protecting civilians works better than killing terrorists, and that war may not be the best way to promote democracy.

Someone (Churchill, I think) once said that democracies do the right thing after exhausting all the alternatives. We are living that sage line. But at least we seem to be reaching the point of exhaustion where doing the right thing is all that’s left.

Saving ourselves from our own profligacy is a bit more difficult. The consequences of owning a Hummer or razing a forest to plant tobacco are not as easy to see as the carnage of suicide bombing. The consequences lie farther in the future.

But that’s why we have science and scientists: to predict consequences that require math to see. The trick is to get ordinary people and ordinary leaders to believe them when they bear messages that no one seems to want to hear.

Modern Germany seems to have no problem. It’s elected a scientist—a physicist—as its Chancellor. And for its size and population, it’s way ahead of the rest of the world in wind and solar energy. Despite its still-recent Nazi aberration, the nation that invented moveable type and individualism is yet a moral force to be reckoned with.

Some day the rest of us must also come around. Just like governance by random explosions, leadership by the stupid and short-sighted must some day yield. Sooner would be better than later. But if we Americans can’t lead the charge ourselves, then Germany and China will show others the way. In our multipolar world, no one has a monopoly on wisdom or common sense.

Anyway, some really important anniversaries are coming up. According to legend, Martin Luther tacked his diatribe on paid indulgences on the Wittenberg church door on October 31, 1517.

So Halloween 2017—less than eight years away—will mark a very special anniversary in human history. It will come half a millennium after the individual act that ultimately broke the Catholic Church’s monopoly on thought. That act conceived freedom of speech and freedom of religion and made modern science possible. It allowed a mostly decentralized North to lead the world in freedom, commerce, productivity and innovation. Islam still awaits its own Martin Luther.

It’s cold in late October in the Northern Hemisphere. So I hope there’ll be bonfires everywhere on October 31, 2017. I expect to have one myself, but not for Halloween.

A few years later, in 2023, we’ll mark the four hundredth anniversary of the old English Statute of Monopolies, adopted by Parliament in 1623. That act established free enterprise and economic science. I’m still trying to pin down the exact date of its adoption, so I can know precisely when to celebrate.

Freedom of thought, freedom of enterprise. Not bad for a little over a single century, and in one small part of the world—what That Idiot Rumsfeld called “Old Europe.”

But the other shoe took a long time to drop. Freedom demands responsibility, lest it create license, anarchy and terror. The two are inseparable. If individuals are free to think what they choose and to act in free markets, they must be accountable for what they do.

The other shoe didn’t drop until centuries later, on October 1, 1946. After the most brutal and destructive war in human history, the Nuremberg tribunal sentenced surviving Nazi leaders for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It rejected the defense of just following orders. In so doing, it sentenced all of us to responsibility for our acts, not just before God in the hereafter, but for now, on Earth, and before our fellow creatures.

Nuremberg is recent history. To the Chinese, who famously think the effect of the French Revolution is too early to tell, it happened yesterday. But Nuremberg’s effects are already multiplying as perpetrators face justice for genocide and other crimes in Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Angola, and maybe someday even Darfur.

Nuremberg is so recent that it’s hard to know when to celebrate. I might not see the first century, when I’d be 99. So I’ll arbitrarily pick the 75th anniversary, in 2021, for my big celebration. It will fall between my celebration of Luther’s invention of individualism and the English Parliament’s invention of economics. My celebration will downplay Nazi atrocities and emphasize the positive: the establishment of a principle of accountability to each other that all leaders and all people must follow.

We humans learn slowly. Frequently we backslide. Freedom of thought and conscience, freedom of enterprise, and responsibility for our individual acts—even if we are leaders—took the best part of half a millennium to establish. We are still working out their ramifications and consequences. Accountability for destroying other species and damaging the Earth on which we all live is still a sometime thing.

But these three great principles seem here to stay. The Internet has given the first two a boost and soon may speed the third along.

In the meantime, we have a decent excuse to do what we humans do best: congratulate ourselves and celebrate. My health and longevity permitting, I plan to throw a big party on each of these three great anniversaries. If all of us do so and remember what we celebrate, our species just might muddle through.

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07 November 2009

Lesson from Fort Hood


    “He was a loner.”—Virginia Tech spokesman Larry Hinckler, speaking of 23-year-old mass murderer Cho Seung-Hui, April 17, 2007.

We know so little about Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed thirteen and wounded 38 at Fort Hood Thursday. Our media that never sleep have obsessed on his story for over forty hours and found next to nothing.

Hasan was a military man. But nothing in military or civilian law keeps anyone from interviewing people who knew him personally and well. Apparently our media have found no one. No one even knows yet whether he is responsible for strange Web postings that seemed to sympathize with terrorists. No one can say. That fact in itself speaks volumes.

Hasan is a psychiatrist. For years he lived alone in a basement like a friendless student. His job was to ease the pain of soldiers under stress of repeated deployments in two wars, both of which are approaching the longest in our history. Yet who knew of his own pain? Who cared?

It’s easy to imagine how his isolation increased. His job and training were to hear his patients out. He had to listen to them caringly and non-judgmentally. He had to assuage their deepest fears, which military machismo forbade them from airing to others.

Hasan is an American, born and bred. He has an Arabic name but no accent or foreign mannerisms. No doubt his patients, forgetting his foreign name on the security of his couch, said many things about Arabs and Muslims that Hasan would rather not have heard. Professional discipline required him to nod and respond sympathetically.

Who shared Hasan’s pain? Who even knew? Apparently, no one. The psychiatrist was going quietly crazy and no one even suspected.

Two millennia ago, the ancient Romans asked a relevant question: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes”—“who will guard the guardians?” Hasan’s job was to watch and care for others, but who was watching or caring for him?

The answer, of course, is no one. In that respect he was as quintessentially American as Cho Seung-Hui and Timothy McVeigh.

That is the lesson of Fort Hood. In the biggest military base in the world, a highly educated man—a doctor!—got lost without a trace and therefore lost his soul. Amidst all the structure, organization, routine and ceremony of military life, a cog quietly broke and fell off the gears, and no one noticed.

Now that Hasan is in a coma from which he may never awake, the only record of his loneliness and personal disintegration may be those Web postings, if in fact they are his. How odd that electronics should preserve forever a history of mental decay of a man to whom no one reached out!

In the coming weeks, we will hear many “lessons” from Fort Hood. Some will be obvious, like the need for better control of weapons—especially personal weapons—on military bases. Some will be more subtle and profound, like the need to hew to our ideals of equality. Our national credo is that “all Men are created equal,” and our President personifies it. We cannot and will not start Muslim- or Arab-bashing now, especially not when winning our two wars requires maintaining the open arms that our Statue of Liberty symbolizes.

Some may wonder why our society is awash in weapons. But our Supreme Court approves. And we so love our weapons that election of an unusual President with a reputation for gun control caused a vast hoarding of ammunition. It will be decades, if ever, before a great thinker might help us reconsider our love affair with personal instruments of death and destruction.

In the meantime, we should all think about something much more fundamental. What the NRA says is sadly true. Weapons don’t kill. People do. And we now have quite enough examples to know when. They kill when extreme isolation dehumanizes them, when they have no friends.

Recently my wife and I have become friendly with immigrants from a foreign culture. They have extended families spread around the globe. When they get together, they are noisy, chaotic, and caring. Their embrace is all-encompassing. Even here in America, far from they bulk of their families, these immigrants stick together. They never lack a sympathetic ear, a loving glance, a gentle touch, or help to run an errand or watch a sick child. They are never alone. In that noisy but loving cocoon, it is impossible to imagine any of them doing what Hasan did. Ever.

But Hasan isn’t an immigrant. Like so many of us, he is an American of foreign descent. He had no noisy extended family. He had no network of close friends. Apparently, he had no one at all to sit with him, lie with him, smile at him, touch his arm, drink with him, or laugh with him. All he had was Facebook, Twitter and the ever-present Web. So one day he cracked and slaughtered others, as if they were not fellow sentient beings but erasable bits and bytes.

In a vastly different age, when no one lived alone, John Donne wrote, “No man is an island.”

Today that is not so. In the richest, most technologically advanced society on earth, we have made it possible for human islands to exist. In some ways we have encouraged them. We offer food, clothing, shelter, and information—riches beyond anything John Donne could have imagined. We even offer electronic illusions of friendship (Facebook) and spontaneity (Twitter).

All these things we offer without real human contact. We provide no extended family to those who need it most. And so we must add a modern codicil to Donne’s great legacy: “a man who is an island can be dangerous.”


Epilogue: A Social Rx

If you want a general prescription for what ails American society, here’s mine. At least once a month, every group in America, from the White House down to every local service station, throws a party.

Five simple rules govern these parties:

1. Everyone in the group is invited, and everyone comes. Attendance is mandatory. (For the House and the Senate, that includes both parties and independents.)

2. Everyone who is not a wallflower engages those who are. Socializing is mandatory, and wallflowers get special attention.

3. Everyone without a dangerous medical condition gets at least mildly intoxicated. Mild inebriation is mandatory. People outside the group provide designated drivers.

4. All electronic devices and other weapons get locked away for the duration.

5. There are no exceptions and no excuses to rules 1 through 4.

After a year of human socializing, we would have change we all can believe in. Call this a fanstasy if you like. But don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it. Facebook is no substitute for face time.

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05 November 2009

The Obama “Referendum”


One of the strangest things about our country is how we use the echo chamber of mass media to tell ourselves things that just aren’t so. For two generations we told ourselves that private business is the good fairy and can do no wrong, while government is the wicked witch that does no right.

Our government just singlehandedly saved us (and the global economy) from a second Great Depression. The people who actually caused the collapse—greedy and stupid bankers on Wall Street—are already acting like pigs at the trough again and threatening to throw a second derivatives party. Yet as dumb and selfish as they are, and as infuriated as we all are about their unjustified compensation, we still believe them when they decry a “government takeover” of finance and autos.

The so-called “Obama referendum” in the recent election is just like that. Two Republicans won governorships, not unexpectedly. So all of a sudden the whole country is turning away from a President who’s grappling with the broadest, deepest set of problems in half a century and is just starting to hit his stride.

The sky is falling! Karl Rove is riding it down on our heads once again! Pay obeisance to our best-known college dropout and American apparatchik! Abandon all hope and prepare to re-enter our “Soviet period,” with “political operatives” running not just our Department of Justice, but the economy, too!

What bunk! The causes of the Democratic losses in New Jersey and Virginia were not hard to see. And they had little to do with a resurgence of discredited Republican ideology.

New Jersey was the easiest to understand. Former Wall-Streeter and Goldman Sachs executive John Corzine tried to use his immense personal wealth to buy political office for a third time. A few months ago, some 44 New Jersey notables, including three mayors, a state legislator and several rabbis, were indicted for corruption in one of the largest and most appalling sweeps in recent history.

Corzine’s loss reflected a simple, basic anti-incumbent surge: “throw the bums out.” Anyone who can’t understand why a rich man who represents Wall Street in what may well be the nation’s most corrupt state suddenly became unpopular in this year of all years has been keeping his head in the sand.

The proof of this analysis is Michael Bloomberg’s near-loss in New York City. Despite his enormous ego and his recent romp in the gutter of racism, Bloomberg had been doing a pretty good job in a difficult time. He spent more of his own considerable personal fortune (reportedly $ 90 million) to win than anyone worldwide had ever spent on municipal office anywhere. Yet Bloomberg nearly lost to a lackluster candidate who never gained much traction and whose chief claim to fame was being an honest man and the object of Bloomberg’s brief foray into racist demagoguery. That candidate (William C. Thompson, Jr.) was so astounded by his near victory that his concession sounded like a victory speech.

Why did Thompson nearly win? Simple. He rode the populist wave of revulsion and anger at rich men from Wall Street who buy elections as if governing us rubes is their own personal entitlement. Thompson also tried to ride the “throw the bums out” train that always runs in hard times. He almost succeeded. Corzine’s loss and Bloomberg’s near-loss show that train still runs in the twenty-first century, despite our media echo chamber and a punditocracy obsessing over every blip in the polls. Duh!

Virginia is harder to explain, but not much. An experienced, savvy campaigner with statewide name recognition (the state’s attorney general) beat a state senator, Creigh Deeds, who was virtually unknown outside his district and a poor candidate and lackluster campaigner. Virginia has been red for forty years, the President’s astounding win there a rare anomaly. Deeds, who is white, apparently was unable to rekindle the enthusiasm that Barack Obama generated among African-Americans and the young of all races. Turnout in Virginia among the 18-29 set dropped by 50%, as compared to one year ago.

In addition, there was probably some backlash among Northern Virginia’s “Beltway Bandits,” who make their living sucking on the federal government’s capacious teats. Lately their share of the milk of government contracts has lessened while places that need help much more (Michigan, Ohio, and Detroit) get their fair share. So the white-collar folk in Northern Virginia voted their economic interests.

Low youth turnout in an off-year election, a poor candidate, and local economic changes among voters who live off government largesse—these are hardly the pillars of a second Republican Revolution.

If you want to see the immediate future of American politics, look a little further north—beyond Virginia, Manhattan, and even New Jersey. Look to upstate New York. There the Rush Limbaugh faction of the GOP threw its moderate candidate overboard and anointed a right-wing extremist. Fed up like all moderates with extremism masquerading as reason, the moderate promptly endorsed the Democrat, who won. That was in a district that had sent Republicans to Congress for over 100 years.

If there’s one thing that Republican extremists do well, its “public relations” and “spin,” which my generation knew as propaganda. They have “spun” these off-year election results into a glittering cloth of lies. But that cloth won’t wear. Increase Rush’s $ 400 million pay to a billion and he’d still be a stupid blowhard who knows nothing of substance but is highly skilled at telling entertaining lies.

After the disasters of 2000 – 2008, the people get it. All but 20% see Rush for what he is: a skilled propagandist for the rich—the fat cats’ Goebbels. What happened in New Jersey and New York was a revolt against the rich from Wall Street and their forty-year pack of lies. What happened in Virginia was a local return to form in a place whose economy depends upon government employment and government contracts.

If these by-year elections offered any general lessons at all, there were two. First, let Rush continue to lead the GOP over a cliff, and we might unlearn our poisonous economic fairy tales sooner than anyone expects. Second, the President and the Democrats have to reconnect with the youth and African-American voters who helped put the President in the White House—without losing women, who were and are his core constituency [search for “positive”].

The President hasn’t done much in the latter direction because he has strategic vision and exquisite timing. There is still a year before the 2010 elections. By then employment and youth’s prospects for jobs will be turning up. So the major lesson of Tuesday for Democrats is an important but narrow one: pick candidates for contested seats that are better known and better campaigners than Creigh Deeds.

And for God’s sake stop anointing alumni of Goldman Sachs. Instead, groom people with real-world experience, including our many returning veterans. Ever hear of Jim Webb?

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01 November 2009

Military Secrecy: Still Useful After All These Years


One of the most appalling examples of Dubya’s mismanagement of the war in Iraq involved Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha. He’s hardly a household name today, in part because he’s no longer alive. But he was the father of the Sunni Awakening which allowed our “surge” to succeed and gave Iraq a chance to survive as a pluralistic democracy.

Unfortunately for Sheikh Sattar, he was also the “star” of a command performance during one of Dubya’s brief visits to the theater of war. Dubya ostentatiously shook hands with him, on camera, in a video clip shown round the world. About two weeks later, Sheikh Sattar got blown away by a roadside bomb.

Of all of the outrageous blunders that Dubya and That Idiot Rumsfeld made in Iraq—and there were many—that one infuriated me most. It seemed to epitomize their casual negligence toward the safety of our own troops and our allies. We’ll never know, but I wonder whether Sheikh Sattar might be alive today (and vastly helpful in Iraqi politics) if Dubya had not so flagrantly advertised his helping us.

Thirty-four years after the agony of Vietnam, we seem at last to have learned two vital lessons. We have learned to support and honor our troops no matter how mistaken we think the policy or strategy they are ordered to pursue may be. And when they lay down their lives for us, we have learned to honor their remains. The photo of our President mournfully saluting the flag-draped coffin of a fallen hero at Dover Air Force Base shows us how it should be done.

For eighteen years we treated fallen heroes’ final journeys home as state secrets, whether or not their families wanted privacy. Yet at the same time we published the precise number of troops in our “surge” and the schedule for their deployment and withdrawal. Sometimes we let our media even reveal postings to particular provinces or localities.

Only a PR person could see any sense in that.

When all the internal debate is over and the President has finished his thinking, we shouldn’t know how many more troops he will send to the AfPak theater. Far less should we know what proportion of them will go to Kabul, Kandahar and Helmand Province. Why? Because if we know, the enemy will know too.

One disadvantage of hiding in caves is poor communication. With our spy satellites and ground-based telephone interceptors ever on alert, bin Laden and Mullah Omar have to rely on personal couriers for current information. We have twenty-first-century means of knowing; they use means two centuries old. Why would we want to give up that strategic advantage and let our enemy learn our plans by passively watching the news?

Sometimes making information public can give us an advantage. That may happen, for example, when we wish to divide the enemy and draw part to our side.

Secretary of State Clinton understands this point. Friday night on the Lehrer News Hour, she broadcast that strategy to the world. In an interview on her trip to Pakistan, she never used the word “Taliban” to describe our plans. Instead, she referred repeatedly to Al Qaeda “and their extremist allies.”

The import of her careful choice of words was clear. We have decided (as I suspected) that Al Qaeda and the Taliban are not joined at the hip. General Petraeus himself implied as much eighteen months ago when he spoke of winning some “reconcilable” Taliban to our goals. So we are going to do our best to bring as many of them to our side as possible, just was we did with the awakening Sunni in Iraq. That strategic decision has already been made, apparently at the highest level.

Secretary Clinton’s careful choice of words also had another implication. The word “Taliban” means “students” or “seekers of knowledge ”in Arabic. Apparently many Muslims in the theater view the Taliban as students of a form of Islam. In a world with 1.3 billion Muslims, it makes little sense for us to portray ourselves as an implacable enemy of any form of Islam, even one that we view as extreme. Doing so would play right into the hands of Al Qaeda’s “Crusader” narrative.

We do not want to be seen as “infidels” or enemies of faith. Instead, we want Southwest Asia to see us as the bane of people who blow up innocents in hotels, restaurants, bazaars, universities, mosques and Islamic weddings. So Secretary Clinton’s implicit announcement that the Taliban are no longer generically our enemy may be helpful to our cause, even if it gives away our strategy of reconciliation where possible.

Another possible exception to the need for military secretary involves our own activities in Pakistan. A year ago Pakistan’s military was doing little or nothing to dislodge Al Qaeda from Waziristan. Then it made sense to publicize our drone strikes and isolated special-forces incursions. The publicity made our enemies feel less secure in their sanctuary, thereby constraining their activities. It also may have motivated some of them to flee to Afghanistan and open themselves up to our own forces.

But now that Pakistan has skin and massive forces the game, we should expect news reports of most drone strikes inside Pakistan—let alone any ground assistance by our troops—to cease. Not only might reports reveal important strategic or tactical information. They also might inflame Pakistanis’ sentiments against our “meddling” in their internal affairs and infringing on their national sovereignty.

One thing both our far left and far right can agree on is that we are at war. During the last sixteen years, our enemy in that war has dealt us more devastating blows than all our other adversaries combined. So it behooves us to accept military secrecy not just about day-to-day tactics, but about our strategic objectives and approaches as well, including the number of additional troops we send and where they will go.

During our greatest war, the precise place where we had planned to invade occupied France was one of the best kept secrets in military history. We built row upon row of rubber tanks and planes in southern England, indistinguishable from real ones from the air, to convince the Nazis we were headed for Calais.

Just think how many more gravestones there would be above Omaha Beach at Normandy if military secrecy had broken down. Today, where we send how many troops among Afghanistan’s precarious towns and provinces is just as proper a subject of military secrecy.

David Brooks wants evidence of the President’s “resolve” to “win” in Afghanistan. But a leader doesn’t show resolve by talking. Nor does he show it by chest-thumping antics like Dubya’s “Mission Accomplished” stunt on an aircraft carrier. War is not film-making or public relations, although occasionally propaganda can be helpful. War requires deception and secrecy, things democracies like ours find hard to countenance.

So a democratic leader shows resolve in war by careful thought and planning, and by veiling plans and results in military secrecy when appropriate. He demonstrates personal commitment by making sure our troops have the strategy, training and equipment they need and by sparing the time and bearing the pain to witness fallen heroes’ final journeys home and honor their sacrifice. And he demonstrates strategic vision by, among other things, having been the very first of all the presidential candidates to propose a serious, comprehensive strategy for combating terrorism in the AfPak region.

Our enemies will know our President’s “resolve” when first they see movement in the hills around their sanctuaries. Until then, let them doubt our resolve and grow overconfident.

In the meantime, let Brooks and our insatiable media suck it up and respect military secrecy. And if any general thinks whatever secret decision the President may make is a serious strategic error, let him have the guts and decency to resign and go public.

Our heroes and our taxpayers deserve no less. Except for broad outlines and occasional strategic advantage, neither our strategy nor our tactics should ever appear in our daily news—until they have produced success. War is not a spectator sport.

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