Political Asylum — October 24, 2012, 5:40 pm

Welcome to Easter Island

You could have predicted the outcome of Monday night’s debate on foreign policy by the expressions on the faces of both candidates. President Barack Obama had his game face on, as watchful and aggressive as a hawk. Romney, by contrast, was missing the bellicose mien from his previous debates. He smiled nervously, and crinkled his eyes, and, as several observers noted, perspiration began to appear on his cheeks and upper lip. As Albert Brooks tweeted, referring to his role in Broadcast News, “Any more flop sweat and he owes me a royalty.”

The sweat, and the nervousness, gave away a pathetic little gambit. Governor Romney came out swinging for a tie. Right from the beginning, he all but openly offered the president an olive branch, once again changing positions he has supported for years, abandoning his party’s libel on Benghazi and generally trying to minimize any differences between the two men.

It was, as a number of commentators noted, an attempt to wrap Obama up in a gigantic, ninety-minute clinch. The idea was to make the debate a draw and leave viewers with the impression of the Republican candidate’s slow but steady gain in momentum.

President Obama was having none of it, swooping in eagerly on every Romney inanity. He had plenty of opportunities. Among all sorts of other nonsense, Romney informed us that Russia, the only country that makes our occupation of Afghanistan still tenable, “is a geopolitical foe.” Syria, meanwhile, is Iran’s “route to the sea”—a conclusion reached apparently because his advisers failed to cross out “Persian Gulf” and “Gulf of Oman” on Mr. Romney’s map and write in “Iran’s Sea.” Or entirely erase the country of Iraq—that little impediment between Iran and Syria and its majestic ports.

Romney kept repeating his established talking point that under the Obama Administration, the Middle East had fallen into “tumult.” Like Paul Ryan before him, he warned direly that “al Qaeda type individuals” had “taken over the northern part of Mali”—another erroneous descriptive for “the Sahara Desert.” He claimed, “We’re four years closer to a nuclear Iran. And we should not have wasted these four years to the extent they continue to be able to spin these centrifuges and get that much closer.” Implying, presumably, that Obama should have launched an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities immediately upon taking office.

When it came to military preparedness, Romney repeated the ageless Republican shibboleth that Obama had left us all but defenseless, sticking stubbornly to his inane factoid that our navy is “smaller now than at any time since 1917”—as if it would take a single modern carrier group more than fifteen minutes to demolish the whole of the Great White Fleet. Our Air Force, supposedly, is also “older and smaller than at any time since it was founded in 1947”—another meaningless characterization of a defense arm capable of attaining air superiority over any country on earth (not to mention ending all life on the planet).

Romney’s performance was, all in all, buffoonish and embarrassing: he repeatedly rambled and foomf’ed, seeming all but incapable of producing an intelligible English sentence. He called for “a form of—if not government, a form of . . . of . . . of council that can take the lead in Syria.” Latin America, he informed us, “is a huge opportunity for us—time zone, language opportunities.” He told us that he “went into the Olympics that was out of balance, and we got it on balance, and made a success there.” He accused the president of taking a path “which at the end of four years would mean we’d have $20 trillion in debt heading towards Greece.”

The Tumult Tummler’s own plans and solutions were vaporous and often contradictory. When he wasn’t digressing wildly about how much he loves American schoolteachers, he was promising to indict Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmandinejad for “genocide incitation” under the Geneva Convention. Just six days after accusing the president, in their last debate, of putting American live in danger by naming a date by which we will withdraw from Afghanistan . . . he weakly agreed to go along with that date if elected, and termed our training of the Afghan Security Forces a great success.

Just six minutes after claiming that America’s debt made it less likely that China would even want to trade with us anymore—“They look at the fact that we owe ’em a trillion dollars and owe other people $16 trillion in total”—he repeated his promise to label China “a currency manipulator” on the first day of his presidency, and dismissed the idea that this might set off a trade war by reasoning, “Well, they sell us about this much stuff every year, and we sell them about this much stuff every year. So it’s pretty clear who doesn’t want a trade war.”

Clear as mud. Whenever possible, Romney tried to swing the discussion in this foreign-policy debate back to domestic issues, and once again hammer home his well-worn set of damning economic statistics. Yet foreign or domestic, Romney’s talking points, when they were articulate enough to be comprehensible, were deliberately deceptive, mean-spirited, and slanderous.

Citing a few of the cuts he would make to pay for his promised doubling of our defense budget—already roughly equal to that of the rest of the world—he promised, “By the way, number one I get rid of is Obamacare,” a proposition that according to all objective analyses would raise the cost of health care in this country, not save anyone anything. He promised to keep Medicaid, which he told us was “a program for the poor,” but to turn it into block grants for the states. Only a Mitt Romney would feel he has to describe Medicaid to the average American, which is by no means “only” a program for the poor but the way much of the middle-class now gets its parents into retirement homes.

And finally, there was a return to the hoary right-wing claim that President Obama began his presidency with an “apology tour” through the Middle East and Europe—a claim that never quotes an actual apology, because none was ever rendered.

President Obama calmly ran all this brain bramble through a rhetorical wood chipper, as well it deserved. Romney gave a particularly thoughtless and shameful performance, one that, in a nation that took its role in the wider world seriously, would mark him unqualified to hold higher office.

But of course this is not that America. It is remarkable what there is about the world that simply doesn’t register anymore—not only with the average person but even with our media and political elite. A friend from Italy pointed out near the end of the debate, “But they’ve said nothing about Europe.” (This was just before the one, casual remark about how we mustn’t be like Greece.) A terrifying, prolonged financial crisis that is bringing our closest allies and trading partners to their knees merited hardly a word of discussion. Africa—save for those parts of its deserts being subjected to terrorism—was even more invisible. India, the world’s largest democracy and one of its largest economies, was not mentioned. Mexico, where over 53,000 people have died in the past four years in a war over products consumed by our people? No mention. Canada? Fugeddaboutit. Latin America in general? Well, you know—“time zone . . . language opportunities.”

Unmentioned also was the American worker, save in the passing saber rattle at China, or Obama’s glib assertion that “We in this country can compete successfully with anyone in the world, and we’re going to.”

In fact, the American worker cannot compete successfully with people—including children—working for starvation wages, in sweatshops and other hellholes, under dictatorships. The new world of manufacturing means fewer manual workers no matter what. But the president should be questioning how this tectonic social change is going to be brought about—how the real wages of working people around the world are to be maintained and raised—rather than rattling off a few more bromides about the need for more community colleges and better teachers, and how the wealthiest need to pay three percent more of their income in taxes.

The other missing topic was any discussion at all of climate change, which has now been completely banished from the national discussion by a massive corporate propaganda campaign and the pathetic acquiescence of our leading media outlets.

Just the week before, New York Times columnist David Brooks ran a triumphalist column in which he made out that government subsidies for green tech had flopped all over the world, to the point of creating a potential, global financial disaster. In the United States, he claimed, “green tech looks less like a gleaming beacon of virtue and more like corporate welfare, further enriching already affluent investors”—above all, Al Gore.

Green tech has been defeated by “the marketplace itself,” Brooks crowed, asserting that, instead, “Shale gas”—Brookspeak for “fracking”—“has become the current hot, revolutionary fuel of the future” and that “Fossil fuels will still be the default fuel for decades ahead.” In other words, more coal dust, more Deepwater Horizon spills, more Fukushima nuclear disasters, more chemicals in your wells and gas coming out your kitchen faucet. Even more bizarrely, Brooks maintained at the end of his victory dance that “Global warming is still real. Green technology is still important. Personally, I’d support a carbon tax to give it a boost.”

The world is undergoing unprecedented, manmade climate change, which most scientists tell us is accelerating uncontrollably every year, and which already promises to raise sea levels by over four and a half feet by century’s end and create vast droughts, killer storms, general chaos and devastation, and the answer is . . . maybe a carbon tax to nudge along the marketplace?

If a giant asteroid were hurtling toward Earth, David Brooks would propose a tax break to incentivize private rocket manufacturers.

But of course Brooks’s commentary isn’t supposed to be a serious policy formulation. It’s intended as maintenance of his brand as the Times’ “thinking man’s conservatism”—a narrow personal goal that easily trumps pending global calamity, just as their own goals do the same for President Obama, Governor Romney, the moderators of the four debates, most of the national press, and the Congress, and many, many others.

Jared Diamond, in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, writes of how the inhabitants of Easter Island, driven by some religious ritual or matter of kingly prestige, went about systematically destroying the fragile ecosystem of their island to build more and more of the great stone heads it would become known for—long after all the people were gone. Every day now, our own elite go about assiduously erecting their own stone heads, no matter what it does to the world around them. These idols are a good deal less literal, of course. But if you could look at them closely, you would see that each one is imbued with the face of its creator.

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is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine.

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What China Threat?·

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Within about fifteen years, China’s economy will surpass America’s and become the largest in the world. As this moment approaches, meanwhile, a consensus has formed in Washington that China poses a significant threat to American interests and well-­being. General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), has said that “China probably poses the greatest threat to our nation by about 2025.” The summary of America’s 2018 National Defense Strategy claims that China and Russia are “revisionist powers” seeking to “shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” Christopher Wray, the FBI director, has said, “One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-­of-­government threat, but a whole-­of-­society threat . . . and I think it’s going to take a whole-­of-­society response by us.” So widespread is this notion that when Donald Trump launched his trade war against China, in January 2018, he received support even from moderate figures such as Democratic senator Chuck Schumer.

Shanghai Broadcasting Building, by Cui Jie (detail) © The artist. Courtesy private collection
Without a Trace·

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In December 2015, a twenty-­two-year-­old man named Masood Hotak left his home in Kabul, Afghanistan, and set out for Europe. For several weeks, he made his way through the mountains of Iran and the rolling plateaus of Turkey. When he reached the city of Izmir, on the Turkish coast, Masood sent a text message to his elder brother Javed, saying he was preparing to board a boat to Greece. Since the start of the journey, Javed, who was living in England, had been keeping tabs on his younger brother’s progress. As Masood got closer to the sea, Javed had felt increasingly anxious. Winter weather on the Aegean was unpredictable, and the ramshackle crafts used by the smugglers often sank. Javed had even suggested Masood take the longer, overland route, through Bulgaria, but his brother had dismissed the plan as excessively cautious.

Finally, on January 3, 2016, to Javed’s immense relief, Masood sent a series of celebratory Facebook messages announcing his arrival in Europe. “I reached Greece bro,” he wrote. “Safe. Even my shoes didn’t get wet.” Masood reported that his boat had come ashore on the island of Samos. In a few days, he planned to take a ferry to the Greek mainland, after which he would proceed across the European continent to Germany.

But then, silence. Masood stopped writing. At first, Javed was unworried. His brother, he assumed, was in the island’s detention facility, waiting to be sent to Athens with hundreds of other migrants. Days turned into weeks. Every time Javed tried Masood’s phone, the call went straight to voicemail. After a month passed with no word, it dawned on Javed that his brother was missing.

A screenshot of a December 2015 Facebook post by Masood Hotak (left), in Istanbul
Going to Extremes·

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When Philip Benight awoke on January 26, 2017, he saw a bright glow. “Son of a bitch, there is a light,” he thought. He hoped it meant he had died. His mind turned to his wife, Becky: “Where are you?” he thought. “We have to go to the light.” He hoped Becky had died, too. Then he lost consciousness. When he opened his eyes again, Philip realized he wasn’t seeing heaven but overhead fluorescents at Lancaster General Hospital. He was on a hospital bed, with his arms restrained and a tube down his throat, surrounded by staff telling him to relax. He passed out again. The next time he came to, his arms and legs were free, but a drugged heaviness made it hard to move. A nurse told him that his wife was at another hospital—“for her safety”—even though she was also at Lancaster General. Soon after, two police officers arrived. They wanted to know why Becky was in a coma.

Three days earlier, Philip, who was sixty, tall and lanky, with owlish glasses and mustache, had picked up his wife from an HCR ­ManorCare nursing home. Becky had been admitted to the facility recently at the age of seventy-­two after yet another series of strokes. They drove to Darrenkamp’s grocery store and Philip bought their dinner, a special turkey sandwich for Becky, with the meat shaved extra thin. They ate in the car. Then, like every other night, they got ice cream from Burger King and drove to their home in Conestoga, a sparse hamlet in southern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Philip parked in the driveway, and they sat in the car looking out at the fields that roll down to the Susquehanna River.

They listened to the radio until there was nothing more to do. Philip went into the house and retrieved a container of Kraft vanilla pudding, which he’d mixed with all the drugs he could find in the house—Valium, Klonopin, Percocet, and so on. He opened the passenger-­side door and knelt beside Becky. He held a spoon, and she guided it to her mouth. When Becky had eaten all the pudding, he got back into the driver’s seat and swallowed a handful of pills. Philip asked her how the pudding tasted. “Like freedom,” she said. As they lost consciousness, the winter chill seeped into their clothes and skin.

Illustration by Leigh Wells (detail)
“Tell Me How This Ends”·

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America in the Middle East: learning curves are for pussies.
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In January 2017, following Donald Trump’s inauguration, his national security staffers entered their White House offices for the first time. One told me that when he searched for the previous administration’s Middle East policy files, the cupboard was bare. “There wasn’t an overarching strategy document for anywhere in the Middle East,” the senior official, who insisted on anonymity, told me in a coffee shop near the White House. “Not even on the ISIS campaign, so there wasn’t a cross-governmental game plan.”

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Illustration by Stan Fellows

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