Monday, February 28, 2005

# Posted 3:09 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

NY TIMES ENDORSES BUSH AGENDA, SAYS DEMOCRACY PROMOTION WORTH THE SACRIFICE: Sometimes, you just have to throw your preconceived notions in the garbage. Month after month, I criticize the Times for its lackluster commitment to spreading democracy across the globe. Yet now I am forced to confront a powerful editorial that concludes with this memorable phrase:
Promoting democracy is America's proper vocation, and not just in fair weather.
The editorial begins with the important observation that
The new year has started with democracy in retreat in several countries,
It then infuses its idealism with a measure of prudence by adding that
Washington cannot make the world safe for democracy, but it can surely make a more active contribution in each of these delicately balanced political battlegrounds.
At this point, some of you -- especially those with access to the print edition of the Times -- may be asking yourselves, "What is OxBlog smoking?" Does this wonderful editorial exist only in David Adesnik's twisted imagination?

Well, yes and no. The quotations above are from a real NYT editorial that ran on January 13, 1988. I came across it while reseaching the final chapter of my dissertation, which explores the Reagan Administration's response to the People Power revolution in the Philippines in 1986 and the second People Power revolution in South Korea in 1987. The editorial criticizes Reagan for failing to follow through on those democratic revolutions.

In the late 1980's, there was a tremendous enthusiasm across the political spectrum for promoting democracy across the globe. Then, as now, the Democrats were slow to embrace a doctrine first enunciated by Republicans, while Republicans were slow to get serious about living up to their President's ideals.

Actually, with regard the GOP, the situation now is a little different. In the 1980s, Capitol Hill Republicans such as Dick Lugar had to keep Reagan's feet to the fire. Today, it's the White House that has to put the pressure on Capitol Hill.
Getting back to the point, I think that the NYT editorial from back in '88 demonstrates both that democracy promotion is a strategy with true bi-partisan potential and that the current generation of editors at the NYT has sadly fallen away from the idealism of not all that long ago.

But I haven't lost faith. The more purple fingers there are in Iraq and across the Middle East, the closer we come to a democratic revolution on West 43rd Street.
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Sunday, February 27, 2005

# Posted 3:45 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED AT BRATISLAVA? As I mentioned yesterday, America's top journalists are having a hard time figuring out what the Bush-Putin press conference was really all about. One interpretation of the event I didn't mention was that of the WaPo editorial board, which lambasted President Bush for knuckling under to a liar and a thug like Putin.

In general, I am quite sympathetic to anyone who insists that Putin is a liar and a thug and that America should start getting tough with Moscow. Moreover, I have had harsh words in the past for both the WaPo and for our president when they seemed to go soft on the Russian president. In fact, given my unrepentant criticism in the past of both Bush and the WaPo, I think have the credibility this time around to say that Bush did a superb job at Bratislava and that the WaPo's good intentions have resulted in some very poor analysis. The WaPo observes that,
Lauding the Russian ruler as a man who means what he says, Mr. Bush declared that "the most important statement . . . was the president's statement when he declared his absolute support for democracy in Russia."

The problem, as Mr. Bush should know, is that nearly the opposite is true. The record shows that Mr. Putin has reversed Russia's progress toward democracy in almost every respect while consistently distorting that record.
No quesiton that Putin is an unrepentant liar and an emerging dictator. But I think the Post misunderstands what President Bush was trying to achieve. This was his first meeting with Putin after an inaugural address that committed the United States to an unmitigated policy of global democracy promotion. Thus, W. wasn't going to demand an abject (and highly public)surrender from the Russian thug. Rather, he wanted to feel him out and make clear on a very personal level that he, Bush, cares a lot about democracy promotion. From where I stand, the crucial statement from Bush was this:
I think the most important statement that you heard, and I heard, was the President's [i.e. Putin's] statement, when he declared his absolute support for democracy in Russia, and they're not turning back. To me, that is the most important statement of my private meeting, and it's the most important statement of this public press conference. And I can tell you what it's like dealing with the man over the last four years: When he tells you something, he means it.
By itself, that last sentence is absurd. When Putin's tells something to you and I, he is probably lying through his teeth. But Putin is smart enough to know that he can't constantly lie to Bush and get away with it. He can lie to the Russian public and to the American public without consequences. But every gangster knows better than to f*** with the godfather.

Like Reagan, Bush has a very personal diplomatic style. Again like Reagan, Bush pretty much speaks his mind, both on the record and off. Thus, when Bush says that Putin made a serious commitment to democracy at a private meeting with the President of the United States of America, that is exactly what Bush means. He has put Putin on the record and expects him to live up to his word, the same way that Bush lives up to his.

Now put this promise in the context of Bush's response to the following question:
Mr. President, four years ago when you first met with President Putin, at a time some in the world were questioning his commitment to democracy, you reassured a lot of those critics by saying that you had looked into his soul and saw a man that you found trustworthy. You've just listed some concerns here today. I'm wondering if you could unequivocally and without reservation repeat that statement today?
That's a great question. It forces Bush to confront the question of whether Putin lied to him before in a personal and private context. Here's Bush's answer:
One thing I -- gave me comfort in making the statement I made in Slovenia [in 2001] was that Vladimir said, when I agree with you, I'll agree with -- I'll tell you, and when I disagree with you, I'll tell you. In other words, we'll have a very frank and candid and open relationship. And that's the way it's been. There was no doubt in my mind what his position was on Iraq. He didn't kind of hedge, he didn't try to cloud up the issue. He made it abundantly clear to me that he didn't agree with my decision.
Naturally, I don't know exactly what happened in Slovenia in 2001. Although Bush is notorious for not admitting mistakes, I think his answer betrays a certain degree of embarrassment about his previous praise for the Russian president.

Yet Bush says that Putin has always been frank about what's on his mind. Forgive the speculation, but I suspect that Putin was evasive in 2001 about just how committed to democracy he was. At the time, Bush wasn't thinking much about democracy promotion, so he didn't push Putin to clarify his statements. In retrospect, I think Bush regrets not having pushed the envelope a little more. But he recognizes that Putin didn't lie.

So now, in 2005, rather than give Putin a public thrashing, Bush is trying to secure a much clearer commitment from the Russian. Thus, Bush is now making a considerable effort to spell out exactly what democracy entails. W. said that:
We talked about democracy. Democracies always reflect a country's customs and culture, and I know that. But democracies have certain things in common: They have a rule of law and protection of minorities, a free press and a viable political opposition.
Bush repeated that set of conditions a second time, and he got Putin to concede that
We are not going to make up -- to invent any kind of special Russian democracy; we are going to remain committed to the fundamental principles of democracy that have been established in the world. But, of course, all the modern institutions of democracy -- the principles of democracy should be adequate to the current status of the development of Russia, to our history and our traditions
You might say the glass is half full. Putin's hedges are not exactly what I want to hear. Yet whereas Third World dictators have a long history of insisting that their dictatorship is actually a new form of democracy, Putin has abandoned this pledge and acknowledged that democracy has a universal essence. What matters isn't whether Putin really believes this. What matters is that he told it to the President of the United States, who will be very angry if Putin goes back on his word.

For the reasons given above, I think Bush did a superb job at Bratislava. Now comes the hard part. For the first time, however, I am confident that Bush really understands what is at stake in Moscow.
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# Posted 2:14 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

YO! IT'S GONNA BE CLOUDY WITH LIGHT SHOWERS, BEE-ATCH! I only listen to one radio station in Charlottesville: 91.9 FM, WNRN. It's an all-music, no-commercials, not-for-station supported by the local community. It mostly plays modern rock, but has a decent amount of time set aside for almost every other kind of popular music.

Recently, while driving home one night, I was listening to WNRN's Boom Box, which spins "blazin' hip-hop and R&B". In a break between songs, there was a weather report...delivered entirely in a baggy-pants, street-corner, bling-bling, ebonicized accent.

It wasn't supposed to be funny, but I couldn't stop smiling. Because let's face it: Weathermen just can't be hip, fly or cool. They harder they try, the sillier they look.
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# Posted 1:44 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THE TRUTH ABOUT BUSH AND PUTIN: America's top journalists found it very tough to understand just what was happening last Thursday when George Bush and Vladimir Putin held a joint press conference in Bratislava. Just look at the headlines from the NYT and WaPo:
Bush and Putin Exhibit Tension Over Democracy

Bush and Putin Mute Differences, Latching Onto the Affirmative

Bush Gently Prods Putin on Democracy
Surprisingly, the first two headlines are both from the NYT and both from articles that ran on Friday. The first is from Elisabeth Bumiller and David Sanger, the second from CJ Chivers. It's as if they were covering different press conferences. Chivers reports that
The presidents focused their remarks after the meeting on personal trust and on commitments to fight terrorism and control the spread of weapons or materials terrorists might use. While raised, Western concerns about the decline in the development of democracy in Russia were muted after a period in which Mr. Bush heightened expectations with soaring language on the irresistible lure of freedom and democracy.
In other words, Bush failed to live up his word to promote democracy across the globe. Yet the very first sentence of the Bumiller/Sanger article was this:
President Bush expressed concern on Thursday night about Russia's commitment to democracy in a sometimes tense and awkward encounter with President Vladimir V. Putin. Mr. Putin, at times visibly uncomfortable, refused to yield.
Compare that to the first sentence of the Post's front page article, which read:
President Bush urged President Vladimir Putin to reinvigorate Russia's fragile democracy Thursday and then accepted Putin's word when the former KGB colonel insisted he was not turning his country back toward totalitarianism.
It would be hard to come up with a more compelling demonstration of how much the author's perspective influences the contents of articles described as 'news' or 'news analysis'.

In general, I find that articles about speeches and press conferences reflect the author's perspective to a much greater degree than articles about physical events such as a bombing or airplane crash. When a journalist writes about a speech or press conference, his or her job basically consists of writing a summary that identifies the most important things that were said.

In theory, this shouldn't be hard. In practice, well, you see the results.

Naturally, if you really want to get a better sense of what happened at the Bush-Putin press conference, you should watch it for yourself if you can, or at least read the trasnscript afterward. (And notice the headline that the White House staff gave to the transcript: President and President Putin Discuss Strong-U.S. Russian Partnership. Talk about transparent spin...)

So what really did happen at the Bush-Putin press conference? That's the subject of my next post.
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# Posted 12:53 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

SCRABBLE! I just discovered the joys of playing Scrabble online. If you go to the homepage for the Internet Scrabble Club, you can get yourself an ID and password in a matter of seconds. Then it just takes a couple of minutes to download the software for the game.

If you already are a Scrabble player, be it online or bricks-and-mortar style, the San Jose Scrabble Club has lots of good resources available, including the incredibly useful lists of two- and three-letter words. If you're serious about Scrabble, you've got to memorize those. If you play online, you can just keep the lists on your desktop in a separate browser window.

No, that isn't cheating. Since there is no way to enforce the rules in online Scrabble, you are allowed to use a dictionary. However, there is an honor code which says no Scrabble or anagram software is allowed, nor should you have someone sitting over your shoulder telling you what to do.

If you are concerned about playing someone who relies on that kind of firepower, all you have to do is find opponents with lower rankings who aren't as maniacally competitive.

So, if you are up for a good game and you happen to see that "oxblogger" is on line, I'd be glad to play.
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Saturday, February 26, 2005

# Posted 6:52 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

ANN COULTER: It's a cheapshot from the folks at Michael Moore.com, but it's still pretty funny.
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# Posted 6:45 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

RIGHT-THINKING ON THE LEFT: Over at Dean Nation (a blog "dedicated to the spirit of the Dean Movement"), Brian Ulrich makes a powerful case for using force to stop the genocide in Darfur.
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# Posted 6:14 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

PUBLIC DIPLOMACY: In today's WaPo, four former directors of the US Information Agency argue that we cannot overcome widespread anti-Americanism unless we spend more on public diplomacy. Naturally, I favor additional spending on that front. However, the column's authors seem to forget that there is a difference between form and substance.

Countless images of jubilant Iraqis waving their purple fingers in the air did more to sway public opinion across the globe than any of our embassies' public affairs officers ever could. It was an image that was authentic. It was an image that no amount of money could buy.

Which isn't to say that it wasn't expensive. The was has cost around $200 billion. Preparations for the January vote probably costs tens of millions. But no amount of money could have persuaded millions of Iraqi to risk their lives at the polls if they didn't believe that elections matter. That is why photos of the purple fingers are priceless.
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# Posted 5:39 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

UNTRAMMELLED PRAISE FOR THE GUARDIAN: There are very few typographical errors in the Guardian. I mean it. And this isn't just a backhanded compliment. According to Gary Farber, everyone's favorite tabloid was once renowned for it typos, so much so that the smart began to refer to it as the "Grauniad".

According to Gary, awareness of this strange moniker is limited even among Britons. Thus, OxBlog doesn't have to be all that embarrassed at its ignorance of this bit of British culture.

On a related note, Gary takes issue with my decision to refer to the Guardian as a tabloid, even though, literally speaking, it is a broadsheet. Now, as some of you may know, Mr. Chafetz is often infuriated by the improper use of the word 'literally', as in "Maureen Dowd is literally a moron." Of course she isn't.

However, I think Josh might accept or even celebrate my metaphorical use of the word 'tabloid' as a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the Guardian's literal status as a broadsheet.

Finally, Gary asks whether I think the Guardian is actually more biased or less reliable than the Telegraph or the Times of London, and therefore deserving of special denigration. The answer to that question is 'no'.

However, well-educated Britons have a disturbing tendency to treat the Guardian as if it were a true paper of record and bearer of insight. In Oxford, one become known as open-minded and well-informed even if one only reads the Guardian (and perhaps the LRB on occasion).

By metaphorically referring to the paper as a tabloid, I hope to remind some of its readers that the Guardian provides intellectuals with the same sort of cheap thrills and pretext for self-righteousness that real tabloids provide for those who prefer to read about Posh & Becks rather than W. & Condi.
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Thursday, February 24, 2005

# Posted 8:07 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

OXBLOG Q&A: In the process of writing an article on divsions within the Democratic Party, a friend decided to send out a questionnaire on the subject. I've reproduced the questionnaire below, along with my answers:

Do you think the Democratic Party is more apt to question itself andits methods in public than the Republican Party?
Yes, but that is not because the Democratic Party is necessarily more self-aware or self-critical than the Republicans. Rather, it is because there is a profound division within the Democratic Party about how to deal with the most important issue facing America today: national security. That division inevitably plays out in public forums.

If so, do you think this is detrimental to the party?
A public debate is not a bad thing provided that it has some sort of resolution. However, the open division within the party on national security issues hurt John Kerry badly by forcing him to stake out a vague compromise position that made him seem weak on the most important issues of the day.

Is it because of an inherent intellectual difference between the parties (i.e. curiosity vs. status quo), or a practical difference (keeping party problems within the party vs. in public)?
Neither. As I said above, I think the Democratic Party is more divided on substantive grounds than the Republicans.

Is such questioning related to the Democratic Party's reliance on more complicated platforms (i.e. John Kerry)?
No, not at all. I completely reject the notion that the Democrats are the party of grey and that the Republicans are the party of black-and-white. The issue isn't nuance, but confusion. In an effort to present a united front to American voters, the Democratic Party sought to paper over serious internal differences about national secuirty. The result was a united party without a united message.

Is there another issue you believe is hurting the Democratic Party more than such self-criticism?
Again, what's huring the Democratic Party is a matter of substance, not presentation.

Is the Republican Party prey to the same weakness?
Absolutely. Just take a look at Republican resistance to Bush's Social Security reform package.

Is all this just a practical consequence of having lost significant power over the last decade?
No, not at all. The real issue is that the Democratic party is still struggling to reconcile the lessons of the Vietnam war with the responsibilities of being the world's only superpower. This divide was visible in the 1990s but was seriously aggravated by September 11th.
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# Posted 2:45 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

ACTUALLY, JOSH, I WOULD TAKE THAT POLL QUITE SERIOUSLY: I think it provides yet another indication of the degree to which European attitudes toward the United States (and Israel) are founded on an extremely distorted view of reality.

To be sure, the American public often displays a distressing ignorance of basic facts about world affairs. Yet liberals and leftists on both sides of the Atlantic often suggest that American ignorance is a unique phenomenon and that, if Americans were better informed, they would stop voting Republican and start thinking like Europeans.

But the real issue isn't information. It is values. Americans and Europeans have a lot in common, but also plenty to divide them. And the way to overcome that divide is not to dismiss others as ignorant, but to search for compromises that satisfy us both.
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# Posted 2:23 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

GUARDIAN SAYS ISRAEL RESPONSIBLE FOR TSUNAMI, AIDS, AND GLOBAL WARMING: Just kidding. But everyone's favorite London tabloid has published a column by Patrick Seale which seriously suggests that Israel was responsible for the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.

That's right. Arik Sharon supposedly told the Mossad to murder an extremely popular and influential individual known for his pro-Western, pro-business, and anti-Syrian views. "Why?", you might ask. Here's why:
Israel's ambition has long been to weaken Syria, sever its strategic alliance with Iran and destroy Hizbullah. Israel has great experience at "targeted assassinations" - not only in the Palestinian territories but across the Middle East. Over the years, it has sent hit teams to kill opponents in Beirut, Tunis, Malta, Amman and Damascus.
I put the word "opponents" in boldface because Israel does not kill its friends. I also put the word "opponents" in boldface because those whom Israel targets for death are not simply opponents, but rather terrorists who have murdered innocent civilians or have instructed their subordinates to do so.

Even though I often question Israel's decision to conduct targeted killings, there is a clear moral logic that governs Israeli behavior. Thus, it is ridiculous and offensive to suggest that Israel would murder one of its friends in order to embarrass the Syrian government. That sort of accusation is only a few steps removed from the allegation, common in the Arab press, that the Mossad was responsible for 9/11.

By the way, it is worth taking note of the mental gymnastics that Patrick Seale must put himself through in order to explain why Israel, and not Syria, is the prime suspect in Hariri's murder:
If Syria killed Rafik Hariri, Lebanon's former prime minister and mastermind of its revival after the civil war, it must be judged an act of political suicide. Syria is already under great international pressure from the US, France and Israel. To kill Hariri at this critical moment would be to destroy Syria's reputation once and for all and hand its enemies a weapon with which to deliver the blow that could finally destabilise the Damascus regime, and even possibly bring it down.

So attributing responsibility for the murder to Syria is implausible.
I suppose it would also be implausible to suggest that Syria has been harboring Ba'athist insurgents from across the border in Iraq. After all, harboring such insurgents is tantamount to "political suicide" given that there are 135,000 American soldiers within striking distance of Damascus and a trigger-happy cowboy in the White House.

It is also good to know that Bashar Assad would never do anything that might "destroy Syria's reputation." Actually, I think the only thing Bashar could do to undermine Syria's reputation would be to stop killing people.

Now, I admit that it seems foolish, from an American or Euorpean perspective, for Bashar to indulge in this sort of reckless provocation. Yet he would hardly be the first dictator whose arrogance and total disregard for others brought about his own downfall.
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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

# Posted 3:06 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

KREMLINOLOGY: Moscow's ambassador to the United States published an op-ed in yesterday's WaPo that manages to be both belligerent and apologetic all at once. According to Amb. Ushakov,
In my view, it is a sign of maturity in the Russian-U.S. relationship that our presidents and governments can discuss any issue -- our concerns and yours -- in a candid and constructive way. Nothing, including democracy, is off the table.
Wow. It is very suprising to hear a Russian ambassador say that the United States has the right to lecture Russia about its internal affairs. Of course, in the name of "diversity", Ushakov observes that democracy has many different forms. That sounds nice, but none of democracy's many different forms entails state control of the media. If democracy is on the table, Russia may not realize what it's in for.

On a more truculent note, Ushakov says
Let me remind you that Russia has viewed some U.S. approaches as troubling, especially on Iraq. There was widespread opposition to U.S. actions in this regard, which our governments have agreed not to put in the forefront. It is an open secret that many in Russia are expressing serious concern about American intentions in the post-Soviet space, including in Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Notwithstanding these pressures, Putin and the Russian leadership are committed to a close relationship with the United States.
I can't really figure out what Ushakov is saying. That we let you invade Iraq, so you should let Putin consolidate his dictatorship? That if Bush doesn't let Putin consolidate his dictatorship, Russia will cause trouble in Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia?

Frankly, I think Putin & Co. really aren't sure how to deal with Bush. They want to believe that Bush is a realist who will work with any goverment that opposes Al Qaeda. That's Plan A, and I'm not sure that anyone in the Kremlin has a Plan B.
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# Posted 2:37 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

NOW THAT WOULD BE A BIG STORY: In an exclusive report, Time Magazine states that the United States has already begun back-channel negotiations with the Iraqi insurgents. Zarqawi & Co. are dead set against any sort of compromise, but the Ba'athists may be looking to cut a deal.

Although Time never says so explicitly, it suggests that these negotiations began after last month's election. If so, then the elections may have done far more damage to the insurgents morale than even the optimists expected. Conversely, if the US was negotiating seriously before the elections, then our side does not have as much confidence as is often supposed.

One issue to keep in mind about the Time report is that
An account of the secret meeting between the senior insurgent negotiator and the U.S. military officials was provided to TIME by the insurgent negotiator
Although "sources in Washington" have provided indirect confirmation of the story, it's hard to look past the fact that the main source of information has minimal credibility. Or even if that source has some credibility, it also has an agenda.

The positive spin on this agenda is that the Ba'athist insurgents want to marginalize Zarqawi & Co. by demonstrating their lack of control over the movement. The negative spin on this agenda is that the insurgents want to embarrass the United States by letting the Iraqi public and the Iraqi government know that the United States isn't as tough as its rhetoric suggests.

Speaking of which, I am having trouble getting a grip on this statement by Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the apparent Prime Minister-elect:
"The U.S. liberated Iraq from Saddam, and for that we will forever be grateful."
Jaafari may be a smooth talker, but one has to ask whether that kind of flower-throwing rhetoric won't compromise his nationalist credentials. Remember, Jaafari is supposed to represent everything the Bush administration doesn't want to see in Iraq. Just a couple of weeks ago, Robin Wright of the WaPo intimated that the elections in Iraq actually represented a major failure for the Bush administraiton since,
In one of the greatest ironies of the U.S. intervention, Iraqis instead went to the polls and elected a government with a strong religious base -- and very close ties to the Islamic republic next door. It is the last thing the administration expected from its costly Iraq policy -- $300 billion and counting, U.S. and regional analysts say.
If Jaafari is being cynical and deceptive, then Wright's analysis may not be as dumb as it sounds. But how often do the representatives of devoutly religious parties with "very close ties" to Iran say anything nice about the United States just for the hell of it.?
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# Posted 2:25 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

OH, THAT AXIS OF EVIL: Time Magazine reports that North Korea may be getting around its promise not to test long-range missiles by trading advanced technology to Iran in exchange for the results of Iran's long-range missile tests. Time's information shouldn't be regarded as definitive, however, since it rests primarily on statements by unidentified sources at the Pentagon. (That's an OxBlog caveat, not something you would get from reading Time.)

In other news, Syria is making a pretty strong bid to take over Saddam's place in the original Axis of Evil:
In January, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage traveled to Damascus and gave Assad a list of 34 former Iraqi Baath officials allegedly supporting the insurgency from Syria that the U.S. wanted the regime to round up.
Unnamed sources at the Pentagon also insist that Syrian military officers were directly involved in preparing the Iraqi insurgents to defend Fallujah from the American assault that retook the city.

You'd think Bashar Assad would at least have learned from his fello Ba'athist, Saddam Hussein, that if you are going to provoke the United Statest you should make sure that Europe is on your side. But after recent events Lebanon, even the French may be looking to punish Damascus.
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Tuesday, February 22, 2005

# Posted 1:09 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WHERE CREDIT IS DUE: Not long ago, I criticized the US government for its silent response to an anti-democratic coup d'etat in Togo. Thus, I am indebted to JT for pointing out that the US has now cut off all military assistance to Togo and endorsed the tough sanctions imposed by the regional organization known as ECOWAS.

After my initial criticism of the administration, one liberal realist chided me for assuming that this President literally intended to promote democracy across the globe. Other readers suggested that the US was holding back in order to avoid offending France, the great power historically most influential in West Africa.

Yet it seemed that the White House has surprised all of us. It is working hand in glove with a multilateral organization towards the objective of restoring democracy in Togo. Impressive, no?
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# Posted 12:32 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

A KINDER, GENTLER UNITED NATIONS: In response to the overwhelming emphasis in the blogosphere on scandals and corruption at the United Nations, Peter Daou has started up a blog called UN Dispatch that focuses on some of the good, humanitarian work for which the UN should be recognized.

I sympathize with Peter's perspective. The UN is an institution that is more than worth salvaging. Yet if one is concerned about the UN's image problem, priority number one should be an unmitigated cleansing of the UN itself.

Perhaps if the UN heard this sort of criticism from anti-war liberals, they would take it more seriously than when they hear it from the usual suspects on the hawkish side of the political spectrum (OxBlog included).

Ultimately, the UN must suffer from the same afflication that that troubles the United States as well. As self-proclaimed moral exemplars, both the UN and the must expect their critics to hold them to impossible standards and place all of their shortcomings under a relentless microscope.

The UN must bear an additional burden, however, since it is not subject to any sort of democratic accountability. Whereas George Bush can depend on the Democrats and on the media to report every possible criticism of his administration, the UN has no loyal opposition and no fourth estate devoted to righting its wrongs.

Thus, unless, the UN can right itself, few of us will attribute any sort of credibility to its pretensions as the guardian of international law.
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# Posted 12:16 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

JEFFERSON AND HEMMINGS -- NO "DEFINITIVE" EVIDENCE: Let me apologize for using the word "definitive" in my initial post on the Jefferson paternity suit. As this excellent post by Jim Hu points out, both scientists and historians have a bad habit of exaggerating the evidence which might indicate that Jefferson was the father of Hemings youngest child.

In addition, Jim links to this website (also mentioned by reader RT) which quotes a respected historian to the effect that there were 25 male Jeffersons living in the vicinity of Monticello, all of whom had the same Y chromosome that was passed on to Hemings child. Thus, OxBlog should certainly not have suggested that TJ was the only one who had a reasonable probability of being the father. That was simply an unfounded paraphrasing of what I learned at Monticello.

Now, does this mean there is only a 1-in-25 chance that Jefferson was the father? No, not really. Some have argued that Jefferson's brother Randolph is the probable father. But TJ himself is still very much in the running.
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Sunday, February 20, 2005

# Posted 11:01 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

ELDER HOSTEL UPDATE: I dropped my parents off at Dulles airport before dinner, thus bringing to an end the third and final day of the OxBlog elder hostel. This morning we visited James Madison's estate and plantation, known as Montpelier.

Right now, the Madison house is undergoing extensive renovations in order to prepare it for the celebration of Virginia's 400th anniversary in 2007. Although some might prefer to visit when the renovations are done, I think that visiting right now is an even better idea, since you can see history in the making.

The first stop on the Montpelier tour is a Power Point presentation about the history of the estate. I shuddered when I heard the words "Power Point". The whole point of a vacation is to get as far away from Power Point as possible. But this presentation actually turned out to be quite good. So good, that I feel compelled to share with you one amazing anecdote.

While stripping the walls of the Madison house in order to restore them to their original state, the workers take considerable care to preserve later layers of wallpaper, etc. since they also have historical and artistic value. But there are still things that go straight into the trash, such as mouse nests and other rodent paraphrenalia found inside the walls.

However, one enterprising researcher decided to take a closer look at one mouse's nest before it was thrown out and discovered that it dated back to the early 19th century, when Madison himself lived in the house. How is it possible to know somethng like that?

It turns out that the material for the mouse's nest included a number of strips of paper, including part of a letter hand-written by Madison himself and containing the first half of his signature. The nest also contained two strips of newspaper describing contemporary slave auctions.

Finally, the nest contained two bits of material stolen from Dolley Madison's sitting room. These bits alone are what allowed historians to determine what kind and color of material Dolley decorated her home with, thus allowing the restoration to be that much more authentic.

This afternoon, my parents and headed to Shenandoah National Park in order to navigate its Skyline Drive. The drive is a two-lane scenic road paved by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. Even on a cloudy February day, it offered spectacular views of both the eastern and western ranges of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The Skyline Drive runs for a hundred miles or so, from I-64 in the south to I-66 in the north. To preserve its characters and give drivers a chance to take in the scenery, the speed limit is only 35 mph. The atmosphere is even more pristine in winter-time, since all of the visitor centers and other recreation facilities along the drive are closed.

But do not fear: Some of the restrooms are open. At the beginning of the drive, a park ranger will hand you a brochure listing the facilities and sites along the drive. Strangely, this brochure does not indicate the presence of bathrooms. For hardy outdoor adventurers such as myself, this is not a problem, since any tree can serve as a pissoir and any mound of earth as a night soil depository.

However, the park rangers should remember that hearty adventurers such as myself are sometimes kind enough to bring senior citizens along with us for the ride. One such citizen informed me this afternoon that his commitment to upholding the basic values of human civilization would prevent him from making use of an arboreal pissoir except in the event of an absolute emergency.

Fortunately, when we stopped at one of the closed visitor centers along the drive, the bathroom was open, in working order, and even reasonably clean. Had we not been in something of a rush, my father might have come back, gotten the Sunday Post out of the car and demanded a civilized pause during our journey through the wilderness.

By the way, in response to the first post in this series, one reader, herself a senior citizen, communicated a certain degree of displeasure with the supposedly consdescending manner in which I portrayed my progenitors. Although I was fairly confident that my parents would have a sporting take on the posts, I was curious. And if they were perturbed, would it not represent a violation of the Fourth Fifth Commandment?

However, I am glad to report that my parents are not displeased. Perhaps because they are conservative and not orthodox, my parents declared that they would not interpret the Fourth Commandment in such an inflexible manner. As mature adults, they are willing to laugh at themselves when the situation demands (or when their incorrigible children so insist).

And thus our vacation drew to an end. A good time was had by all. Now I need a stiff drink.
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Friday, February 18, 2005

# Posted 10:54 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WELCOME TO THE OXBLOG ELDER HOSTEL! If they weren't my parents, I would charge them for my services as a tour guide/chauffeur. Born and raised in the heart of New York City, my parents are no closer to knowing how to drive than they are to knowing how to ride a horse. So if not for their far-flung, auto-mobile children, they might never have encountered the wonders of Charlottesville.

Our first stop for the day was the Bluegrass Grill & Bakery, which makes some of the best honey wheat pancakes around. They have the soft taste of hot fresh bread just out of the oven and they are light enough to absord lots of maple syrup. (And for the best pancakes on planet earth, stop by the Eaton Sugar House near South Royalton, Vermont.)

After breakfast we headed up to Ash Lawn-Highland, the home of James Monroe, 5th President of the United States of America. It is a nice little house in the countryside with a few exquisite antiques, but it's really just a warm up for Jefferson's home at Monticello.

There are a few fascinating bits of trivia to be had at the Monroe house, but you don't get much of a sense of why (or whether) he was a pivotal figure in American history. For example, Monroe was the third of the first five presidents to die on July 4th.

It also turns out that in the famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware, the man standing just behind Washington is James Monroe, who was then a young officer in the Continental Army. In the actual battle, however, Monroe crossed the Delaware a full day before Washington in order to conduct a reconaissance mission on the far side of the river.

The entrance to Monticello is just a few miles up the road from the Monroe estate. Because February is Black History Month, we had the chance to take a special tour of the grounds that focused on the role of slaves on the Jefferson plantation.

One point which the tour made very well was that slaves were not just manual laborers, but also sophisticated craftsmen. Much of the furniture in the Jefferson home was made by a single slave carpenter. The stone pillars at the front of the house were cut by another one of Jefferson's slaves. And a third slave mastered the art of French cooking during Jefferson's stay in Paris.

Naturally, we also got to hear a good bit about Sally Hemmings. What I didn't know was that Hemmings was both three-quarters Caucasian as well as the half-sister of Jefferson's wife, Martha. Thus, even before she began her affair with Jefferson, Hemmings was literally a part of the family.

It is also worth noting that Hemmings' children by Jefferson were seven-eighths white. And yet they were slaves, despite being fathered by the author of the Declaration of Independence. Slaves, that is, until Jefferson freed them in his will.

FYI, the tour guides at Monticello are all very open now about the relationship between Jefferson and Hemmings. However, they tend to preface their remarks by saying that the Thomas Jefferson Foundation now believes that such a relationship did exist. From what I gather, the Foundation took quite a while to admit that the genetic evidence on this subject was definitive.

(To be precise, the evidence indicates that a male member of the Jefferson family was the father of Hemmings' children. The only member who fits the bill is old TJ himself.)

After Monticello, my parents and I headed back into town for a late lunch at Atomic Burrito, purveyors of low-priced but high-quality vegetarian cuisine. Although my parents are still a few months shy of sixty-two, they had gotten a dollar off their tickets to the Monroe estate because it considers anyone over sixty to be a senior citizen. And at Atomic Burrito, the folks demonstrated why they are eligible for the discount.

If only to save time, the menu at Atomic includes instructions for how to order a burrito. First, the tortilla: White flour or whole grain? Then the rice: Regular or coconut? Then the beans: Black or pinto? And all of that is just Step One. You still have to choose a filling, a salsa, and extras such as lettuce and sour cream.

My parents began to study the instruction sheet as if it were written in hieroglyphics...and there were a mummy chasing after them. Accustomed to many decades of simply ordering an appetizer and an entree, the number of choices overwhelmed them. They were palpably afraid that if they didn't fully understand the process in advance, something might go tragically wrong with their meal.

Naturally, being under this kind of pressure only led to further confusion. Perhaps because they are professors who now administer exams instead of taking them, all of my parents' studying turned out to be for naught once the man behind the counter started asked them the hard questions: White or wheat? Black or pinto? Hot salsa or mild?

Having defused any number of mini-crises earlier in the day (Why won't my seatbelt close? Is the parking lot far away from the ticket counter? If I get a snack will I miss the next tour?), I decided to let the burrito-makers handle this one. And they did, with true graciousness and southern hospitality.

Now don't get me wrong. I love my parents 120 percent. And I owe them big time for all of the family vacations they took me on even though I rarely resisted the temptation to pick a fight with one of my kid brothers any time I got bored. But the day can get quite long when you have to exert a major effort in order to acquire a burrito.
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Thursday, February 17, 2005

# Posted 12:48 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

Mr. Dean is squarely in the center of his party on issues like health care and national defense.
Health care, maybe. National defense? I pray to God it isn't so. Then again, I'm not sure Krugman has any idea what centrism is. For example, he goes on to write that:
It was always absurd to call Mr. Dean a left-winger. Just ask the real left-wingers. During his presidential campaign, an article in the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch denounced him as a "Clintonesque Republicrat."
Go read CounterPunch for yourself. It is nothing more than Chomskyite propaganda. (The editors may not even consider that to be an insult!)
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# Posted 12:21 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

READING LIST: I've gotten lots of great messages in response to my posts on Left Behind. In addition to personal experiences, readers have been sharing their recommendations for what books to read to learn about evangelical Christianity.

Reader AW recommends Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture of America by Randall Balmer. RH recommends a novel, This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti.

Finally, I'm going to recommend Amy Prykholm's Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America, of which I have now read the first 60 pages. The WaPo published a very negative review of the book which says that it is hopelessly mired in post-modern jargon.

I disagree completely. Some of the jargon is there, but you can safely ignore and focus on the book's real message. Prykholm is an avowed secular feminist, but she develops an impressive degree of empathy for those who love Left Behind.

However, the WaPo does provide one delightful elbow to the ribs, directed at both Prykholm and fellow scholar H. Hendershot:
Hendershot, rather than analyzing with care the tendency of evangelical media to preach to the choir, seems content simply to lament it. Neither author seems to notice that this same tendency is rife in virtually all didactic entertainment, from Michael Moore's films to Rush Limbaugh's radio schtick. Why should evangelical media be any different?
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Wednesday, February 16, 2005

# Posted 1:18 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

JOB HUNTING AGAIN: Thanks to the kindness of a friend at Georgetown Law, I have a place to call my own while I'm in DC this week, wireless access included.
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# Posted 1:14 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

JOE GANDELMAN WISHES HE WERE AN ATTRACTIVE WOMAN. Which is certainly preferable to being a vindictive NYT correspondent.
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# Posted 1:12 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

MODEL U.N. -- A CONTRADICTION IN TERMS? An author in the U. Chicago student paper recently reported that,
This past weekend, Model United Nations of the University of Chicago (MUNUC) hosted one of the premier high school United Nations simulations in the country for the 17th year. Some 150 Chicago students sacrificed time and sleep to teach thousands of high school delegates that, unlike the Bush administration’s policies, diplomacy and debate can work.
Maroon Blog responds:
Personally, if there's one lesson that model U.N. conferences have taught me, it's that the U.N. is almost useless. No model U.N. committee I have been a part of has ever done work that can be described as effective and decisive.
But is a "model" UN supposed to be effective and decisive? Or are students expected to behave like actual UN delegates? For that matter, does the Chicago Model UN program teach high school students how to embezzle like actual UN bureaucrats?
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Sunday, February 13, 2005

# Posted 6:50 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

"LEFT BEHIND IS EVIL": That is the title of a post on Fred Clark's blog. (Hat tip: DP) Clark is a committed Christian who sees the Left Behind novels -- and even moreso, their popularity -- as serious threat to all that Christianity stands for. I don't know enough to agree or disagree, but I thought I should post a dissenting opinion since my comments on the book have not been fiercely critical. Clark writes that:
The apocalyptic heresies rampant in American evangelicalism are more popular than ever.

It's easy to dismiss these loopy ideas as a lunatic fringe, but that would be a mistake. The widespread popularity of this End Times mania has very real and very dangerous consequences, for America and for the church. ("Premillennial dispensationalism" -- the technical terms for what these prophecy freaks teach -- teaches that the Sermon on the Mount does not apply to Christians living today. It also undermines the core of Christianity -- Jesus' death and resurrection, and the hope of that resurrection. These are not tangential matters for Christians.)

The cultural standard bearer for these Very Bad Ideas is the "Left Behind" series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. These books have become so popular that every pastor in America is now confronted with the task of gently, pastorally explaining to their congregation why the theology of these books is misguided and misguiding.

I'm not a pastor, so I won't be pastoral here. These books are evil, anti-Christian crap. This weekend, I'm beginning a new series of posts in which I'll go through these books, page by page.
Clark is currently up to page 71 in Left Behind. His posts are compiled here, in reverse chronological order.
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# Posted 6:30 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

ELECTIONS RESULTS IN IRAQ: Jeff Weintraub is very glad that the Sistani list didn't get two-thirds or even a majority of the vote. He argues that this will create incentives for coalition building and moderation.

Now, I wouldn't be all that concerned if the Sistani list had gotten a much larger majority, since I think it has done quite a good job of demonstrating its democratic bona fides. Even so, Jeff is 100% right that the absence of a majority will safeguard the stability of the new government by creating incentives for moderation.
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# Posted 5:06 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

APOCALYPSE, PART FINAL? I just finished the book a few minutes ago. Just like fans of Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket, I can't wait to read the next book in the Left Behind series, entitled Tribulation Force. After that, there are eleven more. (And since I'm a grad student, I'll be borrowing them from the library instead of paying for them at the bookstore.)

For the moment, I'm just going to provide a few more comments about the tensions within the novel's partial embrace and total rejection of secular intellecualism. In the pages leading up to the novel's climax, both Cameron Williams and Chloe Stole, the most skeptical and secular of the book's protagonists, embrace Christ and become born-again Christians.

At first glance, the conversion of Cameron and Chloe simply represents the authors' semi-fantastical hope that the standard bearers of America's secular elite will abandon their skepticism. Yet the conversion also indicates just how badly the authors want to finding highly intelligent, perhaps even intellectual spokesmen for the born-again movement.

In other words, the condescension of the secular elites has had a profound impact on at least two important spokesmen for the movement, and they feel compelled to respond. They also feel compelled to defend themselves from the common accusation that proselytizing is an inherently offensive behavior. Before Chloe's conversion, her father thinks to himself that:
The disappearance of God's people was only the beginning of the most cataclysmic period in the history of the world. And here I am, Rayford thought, worried about offending people. I'm liable to "not offend" my own daughter right into hell. (Page 343, emphasis in original.
To be sure, this sort of response won't comfort those who resent proselytization. But it shows that the believers are aware of the dilemma they face. Thus, Rayford forces himself to be patient with his daughter.

Rayford is also patient with Cameron, aka "Buck", who discovers the truth while interviewing Rayford for a story on the Rapture:
Buck sat without interrupting as this most lucid and earnest professional calmly propounded a theory that only three weeks before Buck would have found absurd. It sounded like things he had heard in church and from friends, but this guy had chapter and verse from the Bible to back it up. (Page 384)
A secular reader might wonder why citing Biblical verses is at all persuasive to a journalist like Buck, who is presumably aware of scholars' conviction that the Bible is the product of human hands. Yet for the authors, citing such verses is constitutes rational and intellectual behavior, the kind one might asociate with a "lucid and earnest professional." Once again, we see how badly the authors want to endow their Christianity with the intellectual legitimacy possessed by secular wisdom and science.

The text of the novel seems to indicate that presenting arguments about faith in a calm and rational manner is essential to the conversion of the skeptic. Thus, after talking to Rayford,
Buck did not sleep well...if this was true, all that Rayford Steele postulated -- and Buck knew instinctively that if any of it was true, all of it was true -- why had it taken Buck a lifetime to come to it?...

Yet even Captain Steele -- an organized, analytical airline pilot -- had missed it, and Steele claimed to have had a proponent, a devotee, almost a fanatic, [i.e. his wife] living under his own roof...

The Holy Land attack [when Russia attempted to destory Israel] had been a watershed event in [Buck's] life...he had known beyond a doubt for the first time in his life that unexplainable things out there could not dissected a and evaluated scientifically from a detached Ivy League perspective. (Pages 393-394)
As Buck approaches the brink of conversion, he admits to himself that
He had always considered the "born-again" label akin to "ultraright-winger" or "fundamentalist." Now, if he chose to take a step he had never dreamed of taking, if he could not somehow talk himself out of this truth he could no longer intellectually ignore, he would also take upon himself a task: educating the world on what that confusing little term really meant. (Page 396)
Here we see the authors attempting to challenge the conventional wisdom that born-again Christians are, by their very nature, extreme and irrational. Yet in order to do so, they must abandon the anti-intellectualism they embraced just two pages earlier and assert instead that Buck's intellecutalism is precisely what led to him embrace Christianity instead of ignoring it.

Is it possible to resolve this contradiction? Perhaps one might argue that intellectualism is only viable and sound when built on a foundation of religious faith. Thus secular intellectualism is condemned to fail.

Yet if faith must precede intellectualism, how can one justify faith on intellectual grounds? Within the context of Left Behind, the answer is simple: World events have provided miraculous and incontrovertible evidence of the Bible's literal truth.

In our world, a different answer must be found. What this novel seems to suggest is that if born-again Christians learn to speak in the calm, detached manner of secular intellectuals, they can overcome the negative stereotypes that that have subjected born-again Christians to so much condescension and scorn.

Although there is a certain validity to this hypothesis, one must also address the more fundamental question of whether the actual substance of the born-again faith is somehow inherently offensive to both secular intellectuals as well as those intellectuals who embrace the Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and other faiths.

Naturally, one can't expect a novel to resolve the eternal conflict between reason and faith. Yet this novel directly raises such issues. Therefore, I hope that the next books in the Left Behind series do more to address such issues in a substantive manner.
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# Posted 1:38 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

APOCALYPSE, CONT'D: I just can't put down this book. Since I last posted, I've read another 150 pages of Left Behind. I can't exactly explain what makes me enjoy reading it so much.

A big part of it, I think, reflects my fascination with an American subculture with which I am totally unfamiliar. Yet at the same time, I am quite familiar with the Biblical prophecies on which the novel draws. Although in a much more subdued form, they also have their place in modern Jewish culture.

As a child, I did believe in the imminent coming of the messiah. Although my parents demonstrated no interest in such fantasies, there were both teachers and public figures who were willing to encourage them. So in a strange sort of way, reading Left Behind is a process of self-discovery.

As such, I was not glad to discover the increasingly prominent strain of anti-intellectualism in the novel. More often than not, accusations of anti-intellectualism tend to serve as a partisan battering ram. Nonetheless, anti-intellectualism does exist and the right and should identified for what it is.

In Left Behind, the anti-intellectual current focuses at first on Chloe Steele, Stanford undergraduate and daughter of protagonist Rayford Steele. Whereas Ray immediately recognizes the Rapture for what it is, Chloe resists. After Chloe tells her father that her mother (now in heaven) used to tell her about the Rapture and the end times, Ray asks here:
"But you still don't buy it?"

"I want to, Dad. I really do. But I have to be intellectually honest with myself."

It was all Rayoford could do to stay calm. Had he been this pseudosophisticated at that age? Of course he had. He had run everything through that maddening intellectual grid -- until recently, when the supernatural came crashing through his academic pretense. But like the cabbie said, you'd have to be blind not to see the light now, no matter how educated you thought you were. (Page 237)
The novel's portrayal of Chloe is not without sympathy, but it hammers home the same message again and again: Do not be deceived by your commitment to reason. Let faith take over. (Obi-wan Kenobi would be proud.)

The section of the book I've just finished also contains what seems to be the theological core of the novel's premise. Searching for answers, Ray Steele visits the church that his wife attended before she was taken by Christ. Steele discovers that the pastor and almost the entire congregration were saved as well, but the pastor wisely prepared a video tape with instructions for those Left Behind. At the conclusion of the tape, Pastor Billings tells his viewers that:
"If you accept God's message of salvation, his Holy Spirit will come in unto you and make you spiritually born anew. You don't need to understand all this theologically. You can become a child of God by praying to him right now as I lead you--" (Page 215)
Within the context of the novel, this message makes perfect sense since of the Bible's literal truth surrounds the characters. Yet if one approaches the novel as an inspirational work for those of us living in the real world, its message becomes problematic.

Both Pastor Billings and those other characters who have knowledge of the Rapture and what is to follow derive their information from sophisticated decodings of numerous passages in the Bible. For example, during his lecture on the video tape, Billings recites in their entirely the six verses from 1 Corinthians 15 that serve as the Biblical foundation of the book's premise.

During his lecture, the pastor feels compelled to explain the meaning of the verses in considerable detail. This is necessary precisely because the meaning of the verses is so obscure. If you read them without already knowing what they mean, you would probably never be able to figure out that they are referring to the Rapture or anything like it.

Which isn't to say that the pastor's interpretation of the verses is necessarily wrong. Yet his interpretation clearly entails significant intellectual labor. Moreover, the labor required is not simply his own, but also those of numerous experts and scholars to whom the book occasionally refers.

This hidden intellectualism is especially problematic when considered side-by-side with the overt anti-intellectualism prevalent throughout the novel. In practice, it constitutes a double standard. The secular intellectualism of characters such as Chloe is denigrated. The sacred intellectualism of unnamed experts is glorified.

It is also beyond reach. Converts such as Ray Steele are not allowed to challenge it. They are told to simply embrace their faith in a simple, child-like manner. In the context of the novel, this makes sense. If one could watch Biblical prophecies being fulfilled on CNN, then trusting one's pastor makes a certain amount of sense.

But I am curious to know: Will there be disagreements in the final pages of the novel about what action the Bible prescribes for those who are Left Behind? Or is the meaning presumed to be so apparent that the only relevant question is whether the characters choose will faith over skepticism?

Although novels are not supposed to be handbooks for day-to-day living, this one clearly has a message for those who want to devote more of their life to religion. And it is message I am becoming somewhat uncomfortable with.

UPDATE: Click here for the next post in this series.
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# Posted 12:52 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

OXBLOG, FIDDLE & MANDOLIN: I just saw a great bluegrass concert by King Wilkie. Check'em out.
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Saturday, February 12, 2005

# Posted 12:46 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

LIVE-BLOGGING THE APOCALYPSE: As part of my growing interest in evangelical Christianity, I've decided to read Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Is reading a novel the best way to educate myself about a serious subject like this? No, probably not. But I spend all day reading academic prose, so if I'm going to spend my spare time on something it has to be entertaining.

I've been looking for a novel to read for quite some time now, so when Time Magazine decided to list LaHaye as one of the 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America, I thought it might be fun to read some of his books. After all, if LaHaye and Jenkins have sold 42 millions books, it's pretty safe to assume they are fun to read.

And they are. I read a hundred pages last night and another fifty after breakfast this morning. LaHaye and Jenkins write in a simple, straightforward, user-friendly kind of way. There are no artistic or intellectual pretensions here. The purpose of this book is to tell a story.

The story begins 30,000 feet over the Atlantic, on flight from Chicago to London. Suddenly, dozens of passengers disappear. Literally. An old woman wakes up to discover her husband's clothes just lying on his seat. His shoes are on the floor with his socks still inside.

Quickly, it becomes apparent that this is a global crisis. Millions and millions of people have disappeared across the globe. Including every last child. The result is chaos. When drivers suddenly disappear from cars, engineers from trains and pilots from their planes, massive accidents result.

The protagonists of the book are the 747 pilot Ray Steele and ace reporter Cameron "Buck" Williams. In the manner of a 1950s comic book, it seems that everyone in the United States has un-ethnic names. Thus, the list of characters includes Hattie Durham, Marge Potter, Christopher Smith and Steve Plank.

Williams' role is that of the well-informed, well-educated, rational individual trying to come to grips with the apparent fulfillment of Biblical prophecies on a global scale. At least for the moment, Steele's role is something of a mystery. Why should we care about this pilot? What is his relevance to the unfolding events? He is also a non-believer struggling with spiritual events, but what makes him different from billions of others caught in the same situation?

The mystery of these implicit questions heightens the novel's suspense. In fact, just about everything heightens this novel's suspense. This morning, I looked up from the book and there was something about New York on television. For a moment, I was actually surprised that New York was still there.

Naturally, my interest in this novel is also political. Foremost in my mind are pervasive stereotypes of evangelical Christians as intolerant, close-minded and provincial. Already after 150 pages, I can say this book isn't strictly provincial. Although focused on a small number of individuals, it studies them against a trans-continental back drop of transformative events with global implications.

Yet within this globalism there are hints of chauvinism. For example, we learn on page 48 that
At a Christian high school soccer game at a missionary headquarters in Indonesia, most of the spectators and all but one of the players disappeared in the middle of play, leaving their shoes and uniforms on the ground. The CNN reporter announced that, in his remorse, the surviving player took his own life.
So out of 240,000,000 million Indonesians, the only ones saved are those who embraced Christianity. Of course, if the authors are committed to their interpretation of the Bible, it is hard to avoid such conclusions. Nonetheless, such details may strike non-Christian readers as remarkably intolerant and even provincial. Yes, the events in question take place in Indonesia. But the only apparent purpose of Indonesia is to provide converts for a foreign faith.

A fundamental question here is whether a book like Left Behind can reach to those who don't share the faith of its authors. For example, will the address whether Catholics can be saved, or whether they must automatically be left behind? If Catholics can be saved, why not Muslims or Hindus?

By initiating such a work of fiction, the authors confront a precipice. Either they can make a broad audience feel good by suggesting that anyone can be saved if he or she is basically a good person. Or they can inspire those who share their faith by suggesting that it is essential to salvation.

Choose the former, and the value of faith becomes questionable. After all, why believe if non-believers can also be saved? Conversely, is it possible to assuage the guilt of those believers who don't want their friendly Buddisht or agnostic neighbors to be condemned to eternal suffering in the event of an onrushing apocalypse?

UPDATE: Click here for the next post in this series.
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# Posted 12:17 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

DOES BUSH CARE ABOUT TOGO? Zero Sum takes me to task for assuming that this administration actually intends to promote democracy in every wayward corner of the globe, e.g. Togo. FYI, this is the criticism of a conservative realist, not of a carping liberal just waiting to pounce on the President for his supposed hypocrisy. ZS writes that
Togo has no strategic value for the US , and since most Americans haven't heard of, paid attention to, or care about Togo, there is simply no electoral advantage at this point in saying or doing anything.
Although I do believe that promoting democracy has political advantages on the domestic front, I think it is very wrong to assume that this sort of domestic calculus enters the fray when the White House thinks about places like Togo.

If the President wanted to send a strong message to the government in Lome, he could do so at very little cost. The power differential between us and Togo is so great that even our ambassador or Assistant Secretary of State for Africa could make America's voice heard.

The real issue, I think, is that Togo isn't important enough to command the President's attention. With crises brewing in Iran and North Korea, it's hard to imagine that the NSC, State Department or Pentagon will even want to bother the President with memoranda about Togo.

By the same token, the NY Times and Washington Post haven't devoted any serious attention to the issue, so there's no outside pressure to address the situation. If Bush actually thought about Togo for more than a few seconds and realized how low the cost of involvement was, I'm fairly sure that he would do the right thing.

In conclusion, the presumption that Bush makes decisions on the basis of a narrow domestic political calculus presumes that the President and his closest advisers spend enough time thinking about peripheral issues to determine how they will play on the homefront. But the real problem with places like Togo is that they don't even get subjected to that sort of analysis.

So, is there a way out of this dilemma? Actually, yes. If sustained over time, a presidential commitment to democracy promotion will slowly diffuse throughout the bureaucracy. If the embassy staff in Lome or the West Africa desk officer at Foggy Bottom begin to believe that the President really wants them to promote democracy in Togo, they may take the initiative on their own without orders from above.

(Maybe our folks in Lome are actually doing that right now. But as a general rule, I don't think there is a grassroots commitment to real democracy promotion at the embassy level. In principle, I'm sure all of our diplomats support democracy promotion. However, in any given situation, other interests tend to predominate.)

Over time, lower echelon officials may even come to believe that promoting democracy right now is better than waiting for the African Union or other multilateral organizations to develop a concerted apporach to the country in question. But that won't happen until a long time from now, and it won't happen unless the next President and his successor pick up where Bush left off.
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Thursday, February 10, 2005

# Posted 5:47 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

CAN THE DEMOCRATS GET TOUGH ABOUT NATIONAL SECURITY? That is the question posed by an open letter to the party posted on the website of the Progressive Policy Institute. The letter's basic message is as follows:
Once again, our foes doubt that we will fight and sacrifice for the ideals we profess to live by. Once again, we must prove them wrong. Moral clarity in this fight is essential. The American people will not trust leaders who will not vigorously defend their ideals.
Does the Democratic party dare associate itself with a phrase such as "moral clarity"? Or will the invocation of a phrase associated with the White House simply persuade the Democratic left that the idealists who drafted this letter are closet Republicans? I hope not, but it wouldn't surprise me if they did.

One should also point out the significance of this letter's suggestion that the American people actually prefer leaders who "vigorously defend their ideals." I can't really recall any instance during the campaign when either Democratic pols or media figures said that John Kerry was hurting himself by not talking about democracy promotion. Unsurprisingly, Kerry didn't even try to insist that he was the real idealist and that Bush was just a poseur. Instead, Kerry simply let Bush take the pro-democracy high-ground.

Although both the pols and journalists knew that Kerry had to present himself as tough, they never seemed to think that American voters also cared about electing a president who is openly idealistic. Nor did the pols and journalists ever argue that being idealistic is part and parcel of being tough.

The bottom line is that there is a massive gulf of perception that separates tough, idealistic Truman-style Democrats from the party's liberal establishment. This isn't just about the war in Iraq or even the occupation. Rather, it is a fundamental division about what role idealism should play in American foreign relations and the degree to which the American people actually care about those ideals.
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# Posted 5:31 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

KRISTOF WANTS IT BOTH WAYS: Hippercritical says it doesn't make sense. Last fall, Nick Kristof was among the vocal advocates of calling a spade a spade and declaring that mass murder in Darfur amounts to genocide.

In a recent report on Darfur, the UN refused to label the murders as genocide. But instead of criticizing the UN, Kristof attacks Bush for preventing the UN from referring Darfur to the International Criminal Court. Naturally, Kristof doesn't mention that the ICC may be completely toothless, so his complaint about Bush is sort of irrelevant.

Now, I sympathize with Kristof to a certain degree. He is a good liberal who therefore wants to be a good humanitarian and a good multilateralist. But Darfur has demonstrated once again that the multilateral response to massive human rights violations is often pathetic. At some point, Kristof and others may have to recognize that being a good liberal means becoming a bad multilateralist.
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# Posted 5:13 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THIS SHOULD'VE BEEN AN EASY CALL: Why won't the United States speak out on behalf of democracy in Togo? After the death of dictator Gnassingbe Eyadema, the US has patiently waited for the African Union and other multilateral bodies to come up with an appropriate response, even though the military has installed the dictator's son in power.

Since Togo has no strategic value, the Bush administration should've jumped at this chance to show the world that the President meant what he said about the spread of democracy across the globe. On the other hand, the Bush administration's silence is far better than Jacques Chirac's pathetic statement that the dead strongman was "a friend of France who was for me a personal friend."
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# Posted 1:57 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THE HUMAN SIDE OF OUTSOURCING: A fascinating set of observations about life in India.
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# Posted 1:13 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

REAGAN ON SOCIAL SECURITY: What follows is a letter, dated February 9, 1983, from the President to George Burns, the well-known actor and octogenarian:

Dear George:

I just had to answer your letter knowing how concerned you are about Social Security. Now that I've reached the age of eligibility you can rest assured I've done something about it. I've made sure it will be on a solid basis for all you young fellows when your turn comes.

February 6 was my birthday -- I finally made PAR-72 the hard way.

Nancy sends her love and so do I.


Source: Reagan: A Life in Letters, Page 162.

Reagan's letter provides an interesting contrast to the message in which FDR declared that private annuities should ultimately replace Social Security. According to OxBlog reader AS, this website and others have fundamentally misunderstood the sort of program that FDR was advocating. Drawing on this report by the official historian of the Social Security Administration, AS comments that:
FDR's proposal of "voluntary contributory annuities" was for insurance-type annuities, to be issued and guaranteed by the government. Income from this program "would go into the trust fund along with the payroll taxes collected under the mandatory program." This is essentially just a voluntary extension of what we now know as traditional Social Security...

FDR proposed a program with money held by the government, and a return guaranteed by the government. In stark contrast to what FDR proposed, the Bush proposal is for money held by Wall Street and returns are guaranteed by no one.

FDR proposed allowing workers to voluntarily increase the size of their government-guaranteed retirement account. Bush, on the other hand, proposes decreasing the size of the government-guaranteed retirement account, and instead entrust the money to Wall Street. The two proposals are diametrically opposed, yet you're still treating them as equivalent.
AS points to numerous important contrast, but also overlooks some important similarities between the two proposals. First of all, FDR did envision the reduction of guaranteed benefits, although such a reduction would take place in the indefinite future. Now, almost seven decades later, we are living in that indefinite future.

AS is correct to point out that FDR's proposal made no provision for Wall Street. Then again, in 1935, how could anyone have reasonably proposed that investing in the stock market was a safe and secure course of action?

One should also point out that under the still-to-be-defined Bush plan, one can invest in US government bonds. In fact, it seems that private account holders will be able to invest entirely in government bonds should they so choose. If they do so, the returns will be guaranteed by the United States government and not by "no one".

Finally, I believe that AS overlooks a very important similarity between the FDR and Bush proposals, namely that the investor will be in full possession of the benefits, which the government will never be able to take away. Under the current system, the government retains the right to reduce benefits, raise the retirement age or alter the system in any number of ways. Both the private annuities described by Roosevelt and the private accounts proposed by Bush would be immune from such action.

That said, I want to emphasize that these comments are not intended as a defense of the Bush administration's approach to this issue. Rather, I believe it is important to dispel certain myths and misperceptions perpetuated by the President's critics. Or for that matter, by the administration itself.

UPDATE: Matt Yglesias counters via e-mail that:
The statement that under the Bush plan you'll be allowed to invest in US government bonds is true, but misleading. The personal accounts will be financed in the short term through government borrowing (since we need to keep paying benefits to people 55 and over). This will open up a new hole in federal finances over and above the existing one. The Bush plan involves first closing the existing gap in some unspecified way. The second gap will be made up by a further reduction in guaranteed benefits for people who choose to start a private account. The second reduction will be calculated by determining the size of your account contributions and tacking on a three percent annual interest rate, three percent being the interest rate on the bonds that the government will need to sell in order to let you start your account.

This has the benefit of ensuring that, over the long term, the transition costs will be managed. The downside is that in order to make money with your account, you need to invest in assets that have a higher rate of return than do bonds. The only assets that do so are riskier assets (either stocks or corporate bonds). So while you'll be permitted to invest your money in Treasury Bills, there would be no point in doing so since your reduction in guaranteed benefits would be exactly equal to the rate of return on the bonds you purchased, minus the administrative fees on your account. The choice, then, is a bit illusory.

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Tuesday, February 08, 2005

# Posted 1:16 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

HELP WANTED: I've been in Washington yesterday and today in the hopes of averting post-graduation unemployment. Posting will resume tonight.
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Sunday, February 06, 2005

# Posted 8:28 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

HALFTIME WITH PAUL McCARTNEY: A major improvement over Justin and Janet in every way. But what's with Paul's shirt? Deep red with a black star?
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Saturday, February 05, 2005

# Posted 1:44 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

LONG MEMORIES, SHORT TEMPERS: David Holiday, who shares my esoteric interest in US-Central American relations during the Reagan era, is less than happy about Elliot Abrams' promotion over at the National Security Council. The media clearly hasn't forgiven or forgotten, either. According to the first sentence of a wire report reprinted in the WaPo,
Elliott Abrams, who pleaded guilty in 1991 to withholding information from Congress in the Iran-contra affair, was promoted to deputy national security adviser to President Bush. [NB: Abrams will be a deputy NSA, not the deputy NSA. --ed.]
David H. observes that Abrams
Still thinks he did nothing wrong...Sounds like a model policy maker for the Bush administration to me!
Since the legal aspects of the Iran-Contra affair are not my area of expertise, I am going to withhold judgment. I have read the transcripts of many of Abrams' jousting sessions with House and Senate oversight committees, and it is hard not to be impressed by his intellect.

Given how often liberal recollections of the 1980s are just plain wrong, I would not be surprised if their is far more merit to Abrams' case than his critics let on. (For Abrams defense of his own record, see here.) In fact, even some of Abrams most persistent liberal critics admit that he took the fall on behalf of other Reagan era officials.

What I can comment on with a certain degree of confidence is Abrams' commitment to democracy promotion. In contrast to many of those around him in the 1980s, Abrams understood fully that America must take down right-wing dictators along with their Communist counterparts. In spite of Abrams' controversial support for the Contras, he was fully able to work side-by-side with arch-liberal Sen. Tom Harkin toward the objective of bringing down the Pinochet regime in Chile.

In fact, I would argue that Abrams is a pivotal figure in the history of neo-conservatism. In the early 1980s, in the heyday of Jeane Kirkpatrick, democracy promotion was nowhere to be found on the neo-con agenda. In fact, Kirkpatrick rose to fame by arguing that the Carter administration's greatest failure was its hesitation to support pro-American dictators like Somoza and the Shah.

If you want to understand why the new generation of neo-conservatives is so committed to democracy promotion, you have to focus on the influence of Elliot Abrams.

One of Abrams' assistants at the State Department in the 1980s was Robert Kagan. Now, I can't be objective about Kagan since I worked for him and think he's a great guy, but who wouldn't admit that Kagan is the most important and persuasive spokesman today for neo-conservatism?

Neo-conservatism today is much stronger than it was 20 years ago, and Elliot Abrams is one of the most important reasons why.
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# Posted 1:24 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

ASK AND THOU SHALT RECEIVE: Yesterday, I wanted to know how the ICC could enforce an arrest warrant for war criminals in the Sudan. Today, veteran Human Rights Watcher David Holiday points me to the HRW commentary on Section I, Article 59(4) of the ICC charter (Available here as a PDF), entitled "Issuing an International Arrest Warrant":
Recommendation: The Pre-Trial Chamber should have the power to take appropriate measures when an arrest warrant, issued under Article 59, has not been executed. Specifically, such measures should include the issuance of an international warrant for the arrest of the accused, (240) delivered to all states and binding on state parties, or ordering the freezing of assets of the accused without prejudice to the rights of third parties. Where the prosecutor satisfies the Court that the failure to execute a warrant was due to the failure of a state party to cooperate with the Tribunal, the Court may so communicate to other state parties. (241)

Comment: The Court must develop a mechanism towards ensuring that accused persons cannot escape conviction by absconding or otherwise refusing to submit to the jurisdiction of the Court. The Court should be empowered to insist that all state parties share responsibility for bringing to trial those indicted by the Court. The adoption of this recommendation would mean that, in the event of an accused person being shielded from prosecution by the State on whose territory she or he is residing, the accused could be arrested on entering the territory of another state party to the treaty, or cooperative non-state party.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that I don't know jack about jurisprudence. But what HRW's commentary seems to be saying is that unless NATO provides the muscle, the ICC is powerless. So how about it Jacques? Gerhard? Want to prove to Middle America that Europe actually cares about genocide? This is your chance.

Anyhow, while Jacques & Gerhard are thinking it over, it is possible that the simple threat of an ICC indictment may prevent further atrocities. As Randy Paul explains [via e-mail]:
It was the announcement of the indictment of Charles Taylor in the Sierra Leone ad-hoc tribunal that provided the impetus to get him out of power in Liberia.
My sense is that Taylor was in a much weaker position than the Sudanese goverment is now, but hey, you never know. If I lived in Darfur, I would put NATO on my speed-dial.
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# Posted 1:35 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

AND THE WINNER IN IRAQ IS...Saddam. (Hat tip: BM)
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# Posted 1:19 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

JUMPING ON THE BANDWAGON: I've already had two readers (AL and VJB) send me this excerpt from FDR's message to Congress on Social Security from 1935, so its existence is clearly not a secret. But it's quite interesting, so here goes:
In the important field of security for our old people, it seems necessary to adopt three principles: First, noncontributory old-age pensions for those who are now too old to build up their own insurance. It is, of course, clear that for perhaps 30 years to come funds will have to be provided by the States and the Federal Government to meet these pensions. Second, compulsory contributory annuities which in time will establish a self-supporting system for those now young and for future generations. Third, voluntary contributory annuities by which individual initiative can increase the annual amounts received in old age. It is proposed that the Federal Government assume one-half of the cost of the old-age pension plan, which ought ultimately to be supplanted by self-supporting annuity plans. [Emphasis added]
You'd think that Bush's speechwriters would've discovered this quotation while researching his State of the Union address. But I guess they figured that FDR would be the last one to provide the President with ammunition for his struggle with the Democrats.
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Friday, February 04, 2005

# Posted 11:52 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THE UN IS NOT THE PROBLEM IN DARFUR: In response to my recent post on Darfur, Randy Paul points to this report from Human Rights Watch which says the Bush administration's refusal to refer the case to the ICC is forcing the death toll ever higher.

I haven't followed this as closely as the situation warrants, but the HRW report doesn't explain how an ICC indictment would be enforced. Would the small African peacekeeping force now in Darfur be expected to arrest any indicted war criminals? If they tried, would the Sudanese government and its militias respond with overwhelming force?

It seems to me that HRW should learn from Bush rather than criticizing him. If you want to stop the murderers in Khartoum, there is only one way to do it: go in there and get them.

Had the United States not invaded Iraq, it would be reasonable to advocate a US-led mission to Sudan, a la Kosovo. But that is not an option. Given the state of transatlantic relations, the United States can't exactly demand that the French and Germans put their money where their mouth is and deal with the situation and Darfur.

But if Chirac and Schroeder really want to demonstrate that Europe is ready to lead rather than just criticize, this may be the best opportunity of the decade.
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# Posted 11:45 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

EVERYTHING BUT THE KITCHEN SINK: Check out this post from the Regular Staple. It mentions Prague, hot babes, Jonathan Safran Foer and democracy promotion. And did I mention it includes a gratuitous insult directed at Canada?
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# Posted 11:39 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

I (HEART) DUKAKIS & MONDALE: Finally, there is a website to devoted to the great also-rans of American history. From DeWitt Clinton to Samuel Tilden (the Al Gore of his day and age) to modern favorites such as George McGovern, they've all come together at Defeated Online.
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Thursday, February 03, 2005

# Posted 6:35 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

ANOTHER LIBERAL MISUNDERESTIMATES BUSH: Yesterday in TNR, David Kusnets, chief speechwriter for Bill Clinton from 1992-94, wrote that
If Bush continues to sound as unabashedly idealistic as he did in his inaugural--when he appeared in a hurry to remake the nation and the world--then you'll know that's the real Bush, not simply the Bush that [Michael] Gerson presented to the world during the last five years. My bet is that's not going to happen...

While [Bush] won't backtrack from his support for democracy overseas, he'll likely lean more heavily on realist rhetoric to explain why such policies will make America more secure.
Wow. It's hard to be more spectacularly wrong than that. (Although you've got to give Kusnets credit for laying it all on the line and making explicit predicitons.)

Speaking more broadly, I find it to be extremely striking that someone with such extensive experience inside the White House speechwriting machine could so thoroughly misunderstand the nature of presidential rhetoric. After leaving the White House in 1994, did Kusnets ever presume that major, substantive aspects of Clinton's rhetoric were the work of speechwriters, rather than a reflection of the president's own interests?

I don't know, but I doubt it. The clear subtext of Kusnets' argument is that Bush didn't understand (or perhaps didn't care about) what he was saying in public during the first four years of his administration. Now that is misunderestimation.
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# Posted 6:30 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

GOOD WORK, JAMIE: OxFriend Jamie Kirchick, current president of the Yale College Students for Democracy (or just YCSD), got 200 of his fellow students to dip their fingers in blue ink as a symbol of support for the elections in Iraq. (Hat tip: JVL)
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# Posted 6:11 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

IRONY WATCH: Safia al-Souhail was a special guest of the First Family last night at the State of the Union Address. According to al-Souhail, the man who murdered her father on Saddam's behalf just happens to be one of the businessman who made millions off of the Oil-for-Food scam. Al-Souhail even says that the assassin received the oil vouchers as a reward for his work. (Hat tip: JS)
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