Brush With Greatness: Fouad Ajami, 1945-2014

Fouad AjamiMy favorite professor passed away this week.

Fouad Ajami — Iranian by heritage, Lebanese by birth, American by choice — was an assistant professor of politics at Princeton in the late 1970s, and I took his International Relations course freshman year. He didn’t get tenure there — bad call, Princeton — and left in 1980 to become director of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins, where he thrived for 30 years.

He was a bit of an imp at Princeton, and I mean that in a nice way.  You can see it in his picture — I remember the same grin, framed in a darker beard.  When I was casting about for a major after realizing that I wasn’t cut out for [shudder] physics, my enjoyment of his course was part of why I chose Politics.  I wish I could say I remembered some profound insight he shared that shaped my political development, but I can’t. I probably got a B in the course, because that’s how I rolled.  In classes I liked.

Here’s what I remember: he quoted Lyndon Johnson’s characterization of Vietnam as “a raggedy-assed, third-rate country,” and said some American leaders dismissed a wide variety of countries in that way.  As he made his pedagogical point, he just seemed delighted by the fact that he was saying a bad word in front of a classroom at a prestigious school and he could get away with it because we were nominal adults.  He grinned that grin.

He became my favorite professor retroactively three decades later, when I discovered that my emerging world view was finding eloquent expression in his commentary in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. I blogged about him here and here and here. Since no one ever follows links on my blog (prove me wrong, I double-dare you), I’ll quote a passage from September 11, 2009, in which he championed the decision to go to war in Iraq:

Those were not Afghans who had struck American soil on 9/11. They were Arabs. Their terrorism came out of the pathologies of Arab political life. Their financiers were Arabs, and so were those crowds in Cairo and Nablus and Amman that had winked at the terror and had seen those attacks as America getting its comeuppance on that terrible day. Kabul had not sufficed as a return address in that twilight war; it was important to take the war into the Arab world itself, and the despot in Baghdad had drawn the short straw. He had been brazen and defiant at a time of genuine American concern, and a lesson was made of him.

Professor Ajami never wavered in his belief that America made the right choice by overthrowing Saddam Hussein.  I wholeheartedly share that viewpoint. Despite the years of mismanagement of the war, the world is a better place today because of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I expect that will continue to be true despite the feckless blunderings of our current commander in chief.

In 2011, Ajami retired from Johns Hopkins and decamped to Stanford, where he was a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His colleagues there have performed the invaluable service of compiling a page of links to his “best and recent articles,” the last of which was published in the Wall Street Journal on June 16, less than two weeks before he succumbed to cancer at the age of 68.  It was vintage Ajami, headlined “The Men Who Sealed Iraq’s Disaster With a Handshake.” In case you have any doubt, the men in question are Obama and Nouri al-Maliki.

 (This post is the fourth installment in my Brush with Greatness series.)

A Personal Message of Joy, to Several Constituencies

December 21, 2013: Last day on the job

Maplewood peeps: Look for me no more behind the deli counter at Kings. After 12 months of a second stint of slicing meat and washing dishes, I’ve replaced my income there with a part-time job that involves a desk.

Princeton peeps: When they told us “there’s no limit to what you can do with a Princeton degree,” did you realize they meant no limit in either direction? :) Kidding aside, in this economy I’ve been thankful for the income, and for the expansion of my paradigm of service.

Episcopeeps: I’m delighted to announce that I am again becoming a professional Episcopalian.  In January I start work as Director of Communications at Christ Church Ridgewood, serving a community of faith through newsletters, bulletins, social media and more.

December 2009: An earlier stint at Kings (with a cooler hat) led to a longer post

Communications peeps: As I mentioned, my new job is a part-time gig, so I remain very interested in freelance writing and editing opportunities.  Let me know if I can help your organization meet your communications needs.

As we prepare to ring in the New Year, I’m grateful for the precious gift of Today and excited by the prospect of Tomorrow. I’m grateful to Fr. Greg Lisby, and look forward to serving God and the people of Christ Church. Always and forever, I’m grateful for my beautiful wife Nina Nicholson, the Web Goddess, who never ceases to love and inspire me.

To all my peeps, and all who read these words: May the spirit of Christmas continue in your life as Epiphany approaches, and may you find joy and prosperity in the New Year.

(Photos by the Web Goddess, of course)

.

Marriage Equality: 33 States to Go …

I’m thrilled that my home state of New Mexico is the latest to recognize the right of marriage equality for same-sex couples¡Arriba!

(The snippet above started as a simple Facebook post, but FB insisted on running the graphic full size and then cropped out the New Mexification of the logo.  Posting on my blog and linking to the post from FB is a kludgy way of displaying the graphic as a thumbnail  in Facebook.  If you’re here from Facebook and were expecting a more substantive post, there are 25 previous posts to choose from, ranging in tone from defensive to angry to jubilant.)

Those Who Use Mandela’s Death to Demonize the Right Would Do Well to Follow His Example

Why can Americans not come together to celebrate the life of a great man without using his death as a domestic cudgel?

Mandela, voting in 1994

If you Google “conservatives and Mandela” and look no further than the headlines, you’ll get the impression that the forces of the Right are secretly celebrating the great man’s death, rather than his life.  Some samples:

The last headline echoes a recurring theme: Newt Gingrich, who is in the news for stalwartly supporting Mandela both now and during Apartheid, is portrayed as a lone voice in the GOP fever swamps.  So who are these “hard-line conservatives” talking trash about Mandela?

Well… um… they’re Facebook commenters. If you look for a conservative or Republican of substance* who has criticized Mandela since his death, you’ll find them far more scarce than the headlines that imply they are everywhere.

Here’s the closest I can find: The Salon article cited above reports that

Bill O’Reilly’s head almost exploded since Mandela’s story doesn’t conform exactly to politics as he usually understands them:

“He was a communist, this man. He was a communist, all right? But he was a great man! What he did for his people was stunning!… He was a great man! But he was a communist!”

Ha! O’Reilly, that lying liar, called Nelson Mandela a communist! OK, he was also “a great man” who did “stunning” things for his people, but he was a commie!

Mandela, on a 1988 Soviet stamp

I’m not a big fan of Bill O’Reilly, but in this case he’s right on both counts.  Mandela may or may not formally have been a member of the South African Communist Party, but his African National Congress (ANC) was closely allied with the Communists throughout the Apartheid era — and to this day, in fact. Fortunately, Communism no longer has a lot of traction around the world.

The other label that gets thrown at Mandela is that he was a “terrorist” in the years before his imprisonment — and that also is accurate, or at least defensible. But despite the misnamed “Global War on Terrorism,” terrorism is not an enemy, it is a tactic. The Boston Tea Party was a famous, although not deadly, act of terrorism.

Gingrich — a historian and a far more thoughtful man than the Left would have you believe — pushed back strongly at the yahoos who vented their bile on his Facebook page.  His response is well worth reading in full; here are excerpts:

Mandela was faced with a vicious apartheid regime that eliminated all rights for blacks and gave them no hope for the future. This was a regime which used secret police, prisons and military force to crush all efforts at seeking freedom by blacks.

What would you have done faced with that crushing government?

What would you do here in America if you had that kind of oppression? …

As Americans we celebrate the farmers at Lexington and Concord who used force to oppose British tyranny. We praise George Washington for spending eight years in the field fighting the British Army’s dictatorial assault on our freedom. …

I would ask of [Mandela's] critics: where were some of these conservatives as allies against tyranny? Where were the masses of conservatives opposing Apartheid? In a desperate struggle against an overpowering government, you accept the allies you have just as Washington was grateful for a French monarchy helping him defeat the British.

Look, there’s no question that in the 1980s and beyond, conservatives picked the wrong horse when they favored the Apartheid regime over Nelson Mandela.  But South Africa was not the only tyranny America embraced during the Cold War, when Communism was still a potent threat.  Conservatives (with notable exceptions such as Gingrich) opposed Mandela because he had embraced violence, and was seen as a threat to an African bulwark against Communism.

in 1980s, conservatives didn’t have the benefit of evaluating Mandela on his post-imprisonment life.  Whatever sins Mandela may have committed before prison were more than balanced by his consistent devotion to healing and reconciliation afterward.  This is a man who seated his warden in a place of honor at his inauguration, who declined to nationalize the economy, who stepped down after one term when he could easily have become a president-for-life.

Gingrich is not the only conservative to draw fire for praising Mandela. Ted Cruz also was savaged on Facebook after praising Mandela.  Now four American presidents — two Democrats and two Republicans — have honored Mandela at his memorial service in South Africa, a fitting symbol of Mandela’s commitment to reconciliation.

Still, the taunting from the Left continues. Paul Waldman, writing in The American Prospect:

Most conservatives were wrong about Nelson Mandela and apartheid, just as they were wrong on essentially every question touching on race in our own history. It would be great to hear one of the people who were around then say, “I was wrong,” and explore what they’ve learned from that. But that may be too much to ask.

Seek and ye shall find.  Deroy Murdock in National Review (emphasis in original):

Like many other anti-Communists and Cold Warriors, I feared that releasing Nelson Mandela from jail, especially amid the collapse of South Africa’s apartheid government, would create a Cuba on the Cape of Good Hope at best and an African Cambodia at worst. …

The example of the Ayatollah Khomeini also was fresh in our minds. He went swiftly from exile in Paris to edicts in Tehran and quickly turned Iran into a vicious and bloodthirsty dictatorship at the vanguard of militant Islam.

Nelson Mandela was just another Fidel Castro or a Pol Pot, itching to slip from behind bars, savage his country, and surf atop the bones of his victims.

WRONG!

Far, far, far from any of that, Nelson Mandela turned out to be one of the 20th Century’s great moral leaders, right up there with Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He also was a statesman of considerable weight. If not as significant on the global stage as FDR, Winston Churchill, and Ronald Reagan, he approaches Margaret Thatcher as a national leader with major international reach.

Requiescat in pace, Tata Mandela, and thank you.

(Photos from Wikipedia)

* It could be argued, I suppose, that someone with the title of Associate Editor of the conservative site PJ Media is “a conservative of substance”. His memorial post was headlined: “Communist Icon Nelson Mandela Dead at 95“. But Dave Swindle is not exactly a household name.

 

Giving Thanks for Our Country and Those Who Defend It

On Thanksgiving, as on every day, I give thanks for the men and women of the United States armed forces — especially one sailor very dear to my heart, who has been away from his family since April.  From The Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty God, we commend to your gracious care and keeping all the men and women of our armed forces at home and abroad.  Defend them day by day with your heavenly grace; strengthen them in their trials and temptations; give them courage to face the perils which beset them; and grant them a sense of your abiding presence wherever they may be; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Stay safe, Son, as you return from your final deployment and rejoin your bride and stepson.

The Biggest Loser This Week Isn’t Obama — It’s the Health Insurance Industry

Obama health care news conferenceThe President’s administrative decision to ignore another section of the Obamacare legislation for a year does not redeem his promise that “if you like your health plan, you can keep it,” but it’s a significant step in that direction.  It may slow the stampede of Democratic legislators seeking to distance themselves from the President, but it won’t eliminate it.  Yesterday 39 House Democrats voted for a Republican bill that would go slightly farther than the President did yesterday.  Politico reports:

It’s a significant show of disloyalty to the White House, but House Democrats had expected the defections to be far higher before the Obama administration said Thursday that it would pursue an administrative fix to the cancellation problem.

While Obama may have bought himself a little time, let’s pause for a moment to consider the plight of the health insurance industry.  No, really. The Obamafix hurts the insurance companies in three ways.

1. It worsens the problem of adverse selection.  The people who opt for their old plans will disproportionately be those who would have to pay more for coverage under Obamacare.  The whole financial structure of the law is based on convincing young, healthy people to overpay for insurance they don’t need, thereby subsidizing older, sicker people who cost the insurance companies a lot of money.  That’s why there’s an individual mandate to purchase insurance in the first place.

2. It creates crisis conditions for the industry.  Crises cost money, and could lead to bad decisions.  As insurance consultant Bob Laszewski writes (h/t: Megan McArdle):

The Obama administration may not be ready for Obamacare but the insurance industry is. The health insurance companies spent the last many months rolling their old policies off the books and replacing them with the 2014 Obamacare compliant products––Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum.

Cancellation letters have been sent. Their computer systems took months to program in order to be able to send the letters out and set up the terminations on their systems. Even post-Obamacare, the states regulate the insurance market. The old products are no longer filed for sale and rates are not approved. I suppose it might be possible to get insurance commissioners to waive their requirements but even if they did how could the insurance industry reprogram systems in less than a month that took months to program in the first place, contact the millions impacted, explain their new options (they could still try to get one of the new policies with a subsidy), and get their approval?

Plus, there will be increased ongoing costs for administering both sets of plans throughout 2014.

3. It sets the insurance companies up as the villains. Insurance companies have to decide very quickly whether to play along with Obama’s desperate gambit.  Playing along is very much not in their financial interest in the short term… but how much latitude do they have to make a prudent business decision and stand by the cancellations?   Remember, this is the president who, in the auto industry crisis, summarily fired the head of GM, forced Chrysler to begin selling itself to Fiat, and summoned the auto executives to the White House to tell them, “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.”

The president’s action is going to cost the health insurers a lot of money, and the only way for them to recoup that money will be by raising premiums in future years. Yes, I know that many consider Obamacare to be a giveaway to the health insurers, by forcing everyone to buy their products.  But I don’t think the industry is particularly grateful for Obamacare this week.

Meanwhile, whitehouse.gov still says ” If you like your plan you can keep it and you don’t have to change a thing due to the health care law” — now a full week after Politico pointed out that the falsehood is still there.  The phrase has been indefensible for longer than a week, of course, but I count the Politico story as the event that destroyed the fig leaf of a possible excuse that it’s just old website content that hasn’t been updated.

You know you’re in trouble when utter incompetence is your only defense against a charge of lying.

(Photo of Obama news conference from whitehouse.gov)

White House Can’t Solve a Small Website Problem — How Will They Do With the Big Ones?

There are countless ideas floating around for fixing the Obamacare mess — and there are legions of partisans on both sides gearing up for a street fight over whatever approach may be taken.  In a post titled “Hope Is All Obamacare Has Left,” the indispensable Megan McArdle convincingly argues that none of the ideas will work.

What a mess.  But one thing is clear — the time to say “if you like your health plan, you can keep it” has passed.  A few diehards may still be trying to justify the use of that statement in the past, but surely all can agree that the phrase is poison and the White House should not keep saying it.

On Saturday, Nov. 9, weeks after the controversy erupted, Politico posted an article reporting that parts of the healthcare section of whitehouse.gov had been updated.  However:

“If you like your plan you can keep it and you don’t have to change a thing due to the health care law,” the website still reads.

I saw the Politico article on the 10th, I believe, and I kind of shrugged.  I’ve been responsible for website content, and I know how easy it is for outdated text to live on longer than it should.  I was curious to see how the White House had updated the passage based on the Politico article, so I clicked through to whitehouse.gov.

Unbelievable.  The language was still there.  If you click on the tiny screenshot at right, you’ll get a version you can read.

And to spare you any further dramatic buildup, as I write this on the afternoon of Nov. 13, four days to the hour after the Politico story was posted, the official White House website still says “if you like your plan you can keep it.”

The mind reels.

(The unrelated whitehouse.gov photo of the president’s reflection seems metaphorical, somehow.)

Did the President “Lie” About Obamacare, or Did He Believe What He Wanted to Believe?


I’m always reluctant to accuse a politician of lying. Far too often, disagreements about facts morph into accusations of “lies” by political opponents.

Take the ludicrous but widespread notion that President George W. Bush “lied” about Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction. Never mind that the intelligence agencies of major Western powers, including war opponents like Germany and France, believed Saddam had WMD.  Never mind that the Clinton administration and prominent Democrats with access to intelligence reports thought Saddam had WMD. Never mind that it is an established fact, about which there is no controversy, that Saddam actually used WMD, in the form of chemical weapons, in the Iran-Iraq war and against his own people in the Kurdistan region.  Never mind that it would make no sense for a president to lie about something momentous, knowing that the lie will be discovered.

Never mind all that — it doesn’t even rhyme.  It’s much easier for opponents of the war to put their fingers in their ears and chant, “Bush lied, thousands died.”

All of this comes to mind as various voices on the Right, including some I highly respect, are ratcheting up their accusations that President Obama “lied” when he promised, “if you like your health insurance plan, you can keep it.”

He made this promise again and again in the campaign to sell Obamacare to a skeptical public, as you can see in the video above.  My favorite bit is from the president’s September 9, 2009 speech to a joint session of Congress, starting at the 56-second mark:

Nothing in this plan will require you or your employer to change the coverage or the doctor that you have. Let me repeat this: Nothing in our plan requires you to change what you have.

That’s simply not true, of course.  There was never any hope that it would be true.  Obamacare sets minimum standards for coverage, and any plans that don’t meet those standards have to be changed or discontinued.  CBS News, not exactly a hotbed of anti-Obama sentiment, reports that more than 2 million Americans have had policies canceled for this reason.

The White House is on the defensive, trying to explain how, when the president repeatedly said this: “If you like your doctor or health care plan, you can keep it” — he really didn’t mean it.

It’s not just conservative pundits throwing around the L word.  The Washington Post’s left-leaning “Fact Checker” yesterday awarded the president “four Pinocchios”, the rating reserved for the biggest “whoppers.”  Lefty comedian/commentator Bill Maher told Piers Morgan “I don’t think Obama should have lied to people,” and Morgan agreed, calling it “a barefaced lie.”

I’ve always been convinced that President Bush may be guilty of believing what he wanted to believe about WMD in Iraq — but there’s no doubt that he believed it. You can agree or disagree, of course — I presented my evidence above.  I’ll be looking to see if evidence emerges that Obama somehow, against all logic, believed what he said about Obamacare.

Jon Stewart Savages the Obamacare Rollout — And Why It Matters

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-october-21-2013/the-weakest-link

Unsurprisingly, conservative pundits have been relentless in emphasizing the ongoing problems with the introduction of Obamacare. Some headlines: “The Obamacare Fiasco” (National Review);” “Obamacare Rollout Worst Since New Coke” (John Fund on Newsmax); “Poll: White House Blames ‘Volume,’ But Majority Believe Healthcare.gov’s Problems Hint at Broader Obamacare Problems” (PJ Media).

But now the funniest liberal in America, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, has lashed out with a scathing review; the video clip above (the audio of which is NSFW) is less than half of the 10 minutes he devoted to the “glitches” on Monday. A sample: After a news clip noting that less than 10 percent of applicants were successful in applying the first week, Stewart said:

“Less than ten percent — how bad is that? Twenty percent is the number of dentists who recommend sugared gum.”

I can just see some drone in the basement of the White House crafting a talking point in rebuttal: “Actually, when four out of five dentists recommended sugarless gum for their patients who chewed gum, most of the remaining dentists recommended not chewing gum at all.” But if you’re poking holes in the joke premise after Jon Stewart has gotten his laugh and moved on, you’re in trouble.

Here’s why it matters what one comedian thinks: The Daily Show‘s biggest demographic is 18- to 29-year-olds — the very people who have to be persuaded to purchase a product they don’t think they need at a price that will subsidize their elders. James Taranto dissects a new HealthCare.gov ad featuring a woman in her 50s who

“is purportedly getting a free lunch: better coverage with lower premiums, deductibles and copayments than someone with her risk profile would be able to negotiate absent price controls. But people can get a free lunch only if other people pick up the tab. The technical term for those other people is “suckers.” In the case of ObamaCare the suckers are young and healthy people who normally would be cheaper to insure.”

Gallup polling data shows that one in three uninsured Americans currently plan to pay the penalty rather than spend the money on a healthcare plan. Obviously, the penalty-payers will skew heavily toward young people who think they don’t need insurance. Older people with pre-existing conditions can be expected to enroll at a very high rate, thereby loading the insurance pool with the most expensive people.

I wonder, though, how compliance will shift once young people actually start doing the math. The first-year penalty is $95 or 1% of income, whichever is higher — increasing to $325 or 2% in 2015, and $625 and 2.5% in 2016. I think the first-year number that sticks in people’s minds is the $95, which sounds almost trivial — whereas the 1% is going to kick in for anyone making more than $19,500 a year (there’s a $10,000 income exemption for individuals). For an entry-level professional in New York City struggling to pay rent and college loans on a $46,000 salary, that’s $360.

 

Gov. Christie Belatedly Accepts Reality on Same-Sex Marriage

After 37 years as a committed couple, Ulysses Dietz and Gary Berger were married this afternoon by Mayor Victor De Luca at Maplewood Town Hall, as New Jersey becomes the 14th state to permit gay people to marry. The Web Goddess and I were thrilled to be in attendance, along with other friends of the happy couple who were able to get time away from work on short notice.

Also today, Gov. Chris Christie conceded defeat in his opposition to marriage equality, after a unanimous state Supreme Court decision lifting a lower-court stay, which touched off wedding bells around the state.

One of the cool things about blogging is the occasional opportunity to say “I told you so,” and back it up with a link. In a February 2012 post headlined “The Sooner Christie Loses on Same-Sex Marriage, the Better Off He’ll Be,” I wrote:

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.  As of this week seven states permit same-sex marriage.  New Jersey will not become the eighth, but I fully expect it to be in the front half of the parade, despite Christie’s efforts.

When I predicted Christie would be better off by losing, I was looking ahead 18 months to when he would stand for re-election.  Election Day now is little more than two weeks away, and his re-election is not in doubt.  A liberal friend predicted before the wedding this afternoon that if Christie runs for president in 2016, the Right will savage him for dropping his appeal before the court could eventually rule on the appeal itself.

I don’t see it that way — the Right has bigger quarrels with Christie than marriage equality.  By dropping a clearly hopeless cause, Christie demonstrates he is more pragmatic than Ted Cruz.  That’s admittedly a low hurdle, but it does represent an “evolution” in Christie’s approach to the issue.  Four years ago I voted for Jon Corzine, the badly-tarnished Democratic incumbent, solely on the basis of Christie’s announced support for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Thirty-six states to go.  They’ll go one by one for a while, but eventually I expect the U.S. Supreme Court to be asked to rule on some state’s refusal to honor a same-sex marriage performed in another state — by which time the lack of damage to the institution of marriage will be well established.

If it happens that way, I’ll have another I-told-you-so post to write.  In the meantime, congratulations to Gary and Ulysses, and to all our other friends who are marrying or planning weddings on this happy day.

(Photo by the Web Goddess, of course)