Entries from March 2005

The World’s Banker

David Frum March 31st, 2005 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Say this for President Bush: The man has a sense of style. Critic after critic howls for the heads of the architects of the Iraq war, and above all for the head of the man the European media call “Paul Vulfovitz,” as though he were a villain in a John Buchan novel. So what does the president do? He names this Vulfovitz to run the World Bank – a job that the world’s do-gooders and bleeding hearts have long regarded as their exclusive domain. Take that!

And just to add extra torque to the nomination, there is this irony: Even the president’s detractors have been constrained to admit that Wolfowitz is likely to prove an excellent choice – maybe more excellent than is entirely comfortable either for the bank, for its clients in the underdeveloped world, or for its constituencies in the advanced industrial democracies.

The foreign-aid industry has long been under fire from the free-market Right. The great Hungarian-born economist Peter Bauer published his searing essay “Dissent on Development” all the way back in 1971. Bauer’s work was bitterly controversial at the time, but in the three and a half decades since, it has evolved into something close to orthodoxy: Bauer himself ended his days as a member of the British House of Lords.

In the 1990s, the old attack from the Right was reinforced by a new challenge from the anti-globalist Left. This new wave of protesters objected to the World Bank’s record of supporting dams, mines, highways, and airports rather than the traditional life of primitive villages – and to its even more alarming habit of expecting its loans to be repaid. In the face of this unexpected onslaught, the bank’s image-conscious chairman James Wolfensohn hastily retreated. He gave speeches declaring that he shared the protesters’ goals. He promised to consult environmental activists before funding future dams. He declared that poverty reduction would replace traditional big-project development as the bank’s main priority.

These lofty words did not, alas, translate into actual progress against poverty. In a fascinating and important new book about Wolfensohn, The World’s Banker, Sebastian Mallaby of the Washington Post observes that the condition of the poor in much of the world actually deteriorated in the 1990s. Between 1987 and 1998, the number of people living on less than $1 per day increased by 100 million. The growing population of desperately disadvantaged was obscured, however, by a counterbalancing statistic: Over those same years, the number of Chinese living on less than $1 per day declined by about 100 million. Net-net, as the bankers say, there was global progress – but only because one smashing success story could be set against disappointment throughout much of the rest of the poor world.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the World Bank justified its role by arguing that only a subsidized multinational lender like the bank could be counted on to fund essential projects in the developing world. The experience of the 1990s discredited that old claim. In the post-1989 globalization boom, capital flooded into Latin America and East Asia. And despite shocks, disappointments, and crises, the money keeps coming: Developing countries attracted $255 billion in foreign direct investment in 2004, 42 percent of all foreign direct investment that year – the highest level since 1994.

When the developing world offers opportunities, entrepreneurs and investors will eagerly seize them. The trouble of course is that much of the developing world does not offer opportunities. And the reason for that glaring lack is politics, bad politics: war, civil strife, corruption, oppression, and lawless government. Why is Zimbabwe plunging into famine? Not for lack of fertile land or willing workers – but because of a greedy and brutal dictator, Robert Mugabe. Variants of this story can be told from West Africa to Andean South America – and throughout too much of the Islamic world, from Mali to Pakistan.

If Paul Wolfowitz is known for any one thing, it is his insistence that Middle Eastern terrorism can be traced back to Middle Eastern tyranny – that the region cannot know security until it enjoys freedom. This insight has, if possible, even more relevance to the problems of global poverty and Third World development.

The World Bank has in the past eschewed such political thinking. It is after all an institution owned and controlled by governments. The United States is the bank’s single biggest funder and accordingly holds the most votes – about 16.4 percent – but bank management cannot easily avoid responding to other large shareholders such as France (4.3 percent) or China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia (2.78 percent each). Any suggestion that tyranny is an important cause of poverty can be counted on to offend large voting blocs.

No wonder then that the Wolfowitz nomination has stirred the pot. But isn’t it long past time that this particular pot be stirred? Fifty-plus years since the World Bank went into business, there is precious little verifiable evidence that it has as yet done its supposed beneficiaries any real or enduring good – and considerable evidence that its willingness to underwrite projects that flunk the market test has done real and enduring harm. If the day should ever come, though, when the bank reinvents itself as a force for clean and representative government in the Third World; if it could offer incentives to encourage peace and stability in conflict-wracked places like Sierra Leone or Iraq; if it could be a force for democracy-led development: then its long disappointing record would at last change for the better. Paul Wolfowitz is heart and soul committed to this task – and so is the president who has again defied international complacency to give Wolfowitz his backing. It’s a great choice by a gutsy president who stands by friends – and has the right enemies.

A New World A New Day

David Frum March 28th, 2005 at 12:00 am Comments Off

On February 26, health Jada Pinkett Smith, wife of Hollywood star Will Smith, sparked a fierce little controversy at Harvard after receiving an award. In her thank-you speech, Pinkett Smith told the story of her life. She described how she had grown up as the child of two teenage heroin addicts and overcome adversity to build a successful career and a happy marriage. She concluded:

“Women, you can have it all – a loving man, devoted husband, loving children, a fabulous career. They say you gotta choose. Nah, nah, nah. We are a new generation of women. We got to set a new standard of rules around here. You can do whatever it is you want. All you have to do is want it.”

What could possibly be offensive about this message?

According to a complaint issued by the Harvard Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Supporters Alliance, as reported by the Harvard Crimson, Pinkett SmithÕs words “implied that standard sexual relationships are only between males and females.” “Our position is that the comments werenÕt homophobic, but the content was specific to male-female relationships,” said one of the AllianceÕs co-chairs. The other added: “I donÕt think [Pinkett Smith] meant to be offensive, but I just donÕt think she was that thoughtful.”

The organizers of the award ceremony agreed to apologize for the offensive remarks. PC silliness from an out-of-the-mainstream campus? Possibly. But then thereÕs this: On March 3, the Boston Globe took Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney to task for “insisting that every child Ôhas a right to a mother and a father . . . Õ” In todayÕs context, the Globe argued, praise for the traditional family can be understood only as “ignorance” or “mean-spirited politics.”

And finally, this: Prodded by its famously high-handed courts, Canada is now amending its laws to accommodate same-sex marriage. The province of Ontario has passed a law deleting the words “wife,” “husband,” “widow,” and “widower” from every statute in which they appear. The federal same-sex-marriage bill now before the parliament voids the term “natural parent” wherever it occurs in Canadian law and replaces it with the term “legal parent.” Should the federal bill pass, motherhood and fatherhood will have been deprived of all juridical meaning in Canada – and children will belong to any adult or group of adults to which the state may wish to assign them.

These three events, which are simultaneously comic, grotesque, and sinister, add up to an important glimpse into our future.

For years, advocates of same-sex marriage have pledged that their big idea will have little or no effect on the 97 percent or so of the population that is not gay. All they wanted, they said, was that marriage rights be “extended” to a very small minority: What possible difference could that make to anyone else? But as same-sex marriage advances from slogan to reality, we are learning that it will make a very big difference to us all.

Same-sex marriage does not extend marriage. It transforms marriage.

To make same-sex marriage a reality, as the Canadians are demonstrating, the law must abolish the concept of “husbands,” “wives,” “mothers,” and “fathers.” The law does not abolish these concepts just for a previously excluded few. The law must abolish these concepts for everybody.

True, marriage in its old form will continue to be consecrated for many years to come. Priests, ministers, and rabbis will pronounce their ancient words over eager young brides and grooms. But the old words will not long disguise the new realities.

Andrew Sullivan, that endlessly ingenious advocate of same-sex marriage, tells us that he and those who think like him aspire only to alter something they call “civil marriage,” implying that there exists some distinction between marriage as it is recognized by the state and marriage as it is recognized by the church. But of course, while North America has long had civil ceremonies, it has never till now witnessed attempts by governments to substitute a new and antagonistic definition of civil marriage for marriage as it has been defined by Western religious traditions.

At minimum, state recognition of same-sex marriage amounts to an astounding act of self-repudiation, of digging up and discarding the roots that have nurtured and still sustain Western liberal democratic societies. Very possibly, same-sex marriage will provoke dangerous conflict between the deepest beliefs and the controlling laws of Western society, with a new generation of same-sex activists agitating to remove tax-exempt status from churches and synagogues that “discriminate” against same-sex couples.

To what end?

One of the most important lessons to be learned from the Canadian experience is that, despite all the passion they bring to the issue of marriage in the abstract, very few homosexuals wish for marriage for themselves. There are about 24 million Canadians between the ages of 18 and 65. ItÕs a reasonable guess that some 750,000 of them are gay. In June and July 2003, the two largest English-speaking provinces, Ontario and British Columbia, began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Within the first six months, some 300 Canadian same-sex couples had been married in B.C. Within the first year, about 4,000 Canadian couples had been married in Ontario.

Since then, the number of same-sex marriages seems to have dropped off. Current statistics are hard to come by, but itÕs a good guess that nearly two years after same-sex marriage arrived in Canada some 98 percent of adult Canadian gays have chosen not to avail themselves of their new legal right.

Which raises the question: Why bother? Why make a revolution for a prize for which so few of the revolutionaries feel any personal enthusiasm? The question takes us back to that vocabulary word with which we started: “heteronormativity.”

I am sure that the vast majority of those who today advocate same-sex marriage would ridicule the attack on Jada Pinkett Smith as a case of academic PC gone insane. And I am sure that they would be perfectly sincere. But sometimes it is difficult for those who passionately espouse a position to think logically about where their own commitments are leading them.

For the story of Jada Pinkett Smith is not some weird excess of the demand for same-sex marriage: It is the logical, predictable, and necessary consequence of that demand. The demand for same-sex marriage is not really a demand for a practical solution to practical problems. If it were, we would not hear so much talk about how the defense of marriage is like the defense of racial segregation; we would not hear so much anger and abuse; we would be talking about powers of attorney and tenancies-in-common rather than about discrimination and exclusion. Those amazingly candid Harvard students have made explicit the unspoken truth: This is not a debate about extending an institution, it is a debate about overthrowing a norm; not about reconstruction, but about destruction.

For once, an academic PC power play was neither comedy nor horror story: It was instead a public-service announcement.

The Liberal’s Lost Decade

David Frum March 28th, 2005 at 12:00 am Comments Off

ThereÕs no point reviewing books unless you are going to give the reader an honest assessment. And unfortunately, and delivering honest assessments is not always a pleasant duty.

John Ehrman, the author of The Eighties, is obviously a conscientious and careful historian. His research is thorough; his conclusions are fair-minded; he has obviously worked hard. His book comes recommended by conservative heroes George Nash and David Gelernter. I wish I could tell you that reading this book would be worth your time and trouble, but I canÕt. There is nothing much wrong with the book, but there is nothing much right with it either. It is plodding, conventional, and dull. Skip it.

Because The Eighties has so little of interest to say, it leaves one wondering: Maybe there is nothing interesting left to be said about this passionately debated period. Maybe the political controversies of the Reagan years burned so hot that they consumed all their potential fuel.

And yet, as I brood over it, it seems to me that there is at least one large topic about which there remains a great deal to say – and that it is a merit of EhrmanÕs book that he does seem to have noticed what this topic is.

We conservatives have told ourselves a story about the recent past. ItÕs the story of “the rise of the Right,” as William Rusher called it in his important memoir. This story usually begins with the Goldwater debacle of 1964. From that disaster, conservatives learned important lessons about political strategy and tactics. They found themselves a new and more appealing champion in Ronald Reagan. And over the next 16 years, they built themselves a political movement that won the presidency in 1980 – and that now seems to have emerged as a governing national majority.

Over the past four or five years, this story has been confirmed by a growing number of nonconservative writers. (Indeed, the single best book about the Goldwater campaign, Before the Storm, was written by a red-hot liberal, Rick Perlstein.) This story is obviously very gratifying for conservatives, because it makes us the stars of the show, the makers of our own destiny. The trouble is, this story is not quite true. The country did not turn to the right after 1964 because conservatives were so convincing. It turned right because liberals made such an unholy mess of things. Liberalism was not pushed. It jumped.

Crime; riots; foreign-policy weakness; environmental extremism; disdain for the values and beliefs of ordinary voters; economic mismanagement – the list of self-inflicted disasters that liberalism brought upon itself in the 1960s and 1970s stretches on and on and on. Saturday Night Live, of all places, summed up what had gone wrong with a brilliant sketch at the end of the 1988 election: an imaginary party hosted by Michael Dukakis (played by Jon Lovitz). At the very end, a Joan Baez lookalike strums her guitar and sings a heartfelt anthem:

Unilateral disarmament, abortions on demand:
Take everybodyÕs guns away, and toss them in the sand.
Welfare for the homeless, free condoms for the kids -
WeÕll not blame the criminal for anything he did.
For who can say whatÕs right or wrong, if thereÕs such a thing as sin?
And if it really matters, whether wars we lose or win?

That summed up how a lot of Americans saw the liberalism of the time. ItÕs no wonder they rejected it.

But hereÕs the deep question: Why did the liberals of the 1980s not do a better job of casting aside this seemingly obviously damaging image of themselves? Nobody forced them to endorse the nuclear freeze or to pretend that the mentally ill vagrants in the streets were victims of uncaring economic policies. Democrats could have nominated Sam Nunn for president in 1984 or Joe Biden in 1988; each man had his faults, but he was far closer to the mainstream than the ultimate choice in each year.

Ehrman does a perfectly adequate job of describing the mood of bafflement and defeatism that settled on national Democrats in the 1980s. He has some stinging things to say about the academic LeftÕs trek toward absurdity and irrelevance. But he never sinks his teeth into the “why” question: Why were Democrats so unable to respond to the political changes of the 1970s and find plausible solutions in the 1980s?

ItÕs a question of considerable continuing interest. Even now, even after the Reagan years and the 1994 loss of Congress, even after 9/11 and the unexpected Republican gains in 2002 – even after all this, it is striking how void the liberal and Democratic side is of any organizing principle or grand theme that can stir the imagination of the country. ThereÕs no lack of brainpower on the liberal and Democratic side and no shortage of ambitious and idealistic people eager to grapple with the issues of our time. And yet somehow all that brainpower and ambition and idealism have failed, year in, year out, to produce a philosophy that is liberal, modern, and capable of producing a governing majority.

ItÕs a fascinating mystery why this should be so. But this mystery, along with many others, will have to wait for some other writer – one who understands that thereÕs more to the art of history than summarizing familiar events.

Unity, Finally

David Frum March 22nd, 2005 at 12:00 am Comments Off

On the eve of the Conservative Party’s convention in Montreal, a highly placed party member joked: “If we have the happiest, most harmonious convention in Canadian political history, the press headlines will read: ‘Harper Papers Over Cracks.’ “

And sure enough, on Saturday morning, that was almost exactly the headline featured in Montreal’s Gazette. (The Gazette substituted “rifts” for “cracks”: A newspaper editor really should be able to quote a cliche accurately.)

The only fitting reply is another cliche: some cracks; some paper.

I’ve been attending federal Conservative party conventions since 1983, and not since then have Conservatives been as united in their determination to win the next election as they are today.

The stylistic, regional and ideological divides between Western Reformers and Eastern Tories can still be detected, of course. But the overarching mood was one of unity. From Stockwell Day to Belinda Stronach, the party was burying old grudges, swallowing disagreements and disciplining itself to win and govern.

It’s a strange thing about human nature: When people decide to get along, they get along–and differences that once seemed insuperable suddenly become negotiable.

Leadership makes a difference, of course, and Stephen Harper’s Friday evening speech certainly provided it. But perhaps even more important is the gathering disgust at 12 years of Liberal misrule and corruption.

Some context here: Almost exactly a decade ago, some friends and I invited about 150 right-of-centre opinion leaders to meet in Calgary to try to settle the differences that had split the Mulroney coalition in 1993. In 1995, the conservative movement’s internecine wounds still pulsed red and raw. But maybe more to the point, both halves of the old coalition still felt more anger over the wrongs they had absorbed from the other half than either felt against the Liberal government of Jean Chretien.

Back then, the Chretien government was regarded as reasonably acceptable by many right-of-centre voters: It was controlling spending and balancing the budget. It had accepted the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement and NAFTA. It was getting on well with the United States. Its judges had only just opened their campaign against traditional marriage, and only a few alarmists could imagine that the courts would ever go all the way and overturn the institution altogether. In short, there seemed few reasons not to engage in an exciting bout of ideological fratricide.

Ten years later, it is a very different story. High taxes are squeezing the life out of the Canadian economy. Billions of surplus dollars are being hidden away through budgetary tricks to be spent as soon as the Liberals regain their majority–and can once again direct money to their pet causes and regions. Relations with the United States have been poisoned. Despite huge infusions of funds, the health care system is collapsing before Canadians’ eyes. Sailors and airmen are dying in obsolete ships and planes. The judicial system has been transformed into a romper room for social engineers. And the Chretien/Martin government has been caught in scandal after scandal after scandal whose common theme is an arrogant sense of entitlement and utter contempt for the public.

All conservative-minded people can agree that ejecting these shameful characters from public office transcends any of the minor differences that once divided them.

For too long, Canadian conservatives have been talking to–and arguing with–each other. Over the past year, they have resumed the true work of politics: talking to the public. In Montreal, the Conservatives and their leader began to advance a coherent economic agenda, emphasizing tax relief and another round of trade liberalization with the United States. They began to develop a powerful new case on health care that highlights the deterioration of Canada’s state monopoly system. Support for investment in the armed forces and for defences against missile attack was nearly unanimous.

They even found common ground on social issues like the protection of marriage and democratic reforms. The Liberals may call themselves the party of “Canadian values,” but one important Canadian value is the right to elect your own government. Western and Eastern Conservatives may disagree about Senate reform. But they are at least open-eyed enough to recognize that, while both of Britain’s big parties favour democratization of the House of Lords, Canada’s Liberals adamantly oppose electing Senators. Very soon, Canada and the People’s Republic of China will be the last two major industrial powers on earth with unelected upper chambers.

Is the job of building an alternative government quite finished? Not yet. There are still candidates to recruit, funds to raise, policy to complete. Canadians will want to know more about Conservative plans for tax relief, and they will need a closer knowledge of the values and vision of Stephen Harper the man and potential prime minister. But if unfinished, the job is well begun. After twelve years of the frozen selfishness of Chretien/Martin Liberal government, spring at last is in the air.

The Latecomers

David Frum March 22nd, 2005 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Piero Fassino did not quite say that George Bush had been right all along: That would be going too far for the leader of an ex-communist party. But in an interview this week with La Stampa, click Mr. Fassino did say that he had come to recognize that President Bush is “fighting for freedom and democracy” in the Middle East. The leader of ItalyÕs Left Democrats added that this fight has set in motion dramatic changes that promise to weaken the forces of religious extremism in the region.

Mr. Fassino remains a fierce opponent of both the Iraq war and the Bush presidency. But he is not blind. Within days of the successful Iraqi elections, view a wave of change swept the region: peaceful protests in Lebanon against Syrian occupation, unhealthy local elections in Saudi Arabia, the amendment of the Egyptian constitution to permit opposition candidates, official support for womenÕs suffrage in Kuwait, and many other examples besides.

Nor is Mr. Fassino blind to his own political advantage. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has stumbled from uncertainty to uncertainty over recent days. First he won a vote in Parliament extending the deployment of the 3,300 Italian troops in Iraq. Then he high-handedly told a television interviewer he would begin withdrawing the troops in September. Then he reconsidered once more and promised to withdraw the troops only after consulting with ItalyÕs coalition partners, the US and the UK.

Mr. BerlusconiÕs stumble opened a low-cost opportunity for Mr. Fassino to present himself as a moderate, fair-minded, and pro-democratic leader – and to distance himself from the shrill, delusional accusations of Giulana Sgrena and the far left.

So long as Italian troops remain egaged in the war on terror, there will remain a large and substantial difference between Mr. Berlusconi and his left-wing critics. But once the troops come home, the gap shrinks away: If ItalyÕs support for the war is reduced to a matter of words and UN votes, Mr. BerlusconiÕs opponents will find it far easier to match him.

Still, it is interesting and important that Mr. BerlusconiÕs opponents should ITAL wish END ITAL to match him. Why are they not content to loiter out there in Michael Moore land, pedaling conspiracy theories and chanting slogans about war and oil?

Mr. FassinoÕs La Stampa interview offers a clue. At one point he tells the interviewer that it is necessary to acknowledge that President Bush is acting on very different principles from previous Republican presidents, such as Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, or BushÕs own father.Those men, acting on the advice of former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger or (in the case of the elder Bush) KissingerÕs disciple Brent Scowcroft, often found themselves supporting dictators and other unsavory regimes in the name of anti-communism.

The younger Bush, however, is following the tradition of Ronald Reagan. In the 1980s, Reagan faced multiple global crises: not only a Soviet arms buildup in Europe, but also communist insurgencies in Central America and threats to the stability of authoritarian American allies in East Asia: South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines. A small cadre of mid-level aides argued that the surest way to defeat communism and to strengthen AmericaÕs position in the world was by encouraging democracy in non-democratic allied states.

A young Assistant Secretary of State named Paul Wolfowitz organized the campaign of pressure that forced Ferdinand Marcos out of power in the Philippines and that led to elections in South Korea.

Another assistant secretary, Elliott Abrams, argued that the United States would never be taken seriously as a defender of democracy in Central America until it forced Augusto Pinochet out of power in Cile. Abrams incessantly pressed for elections in El Salvador and Guatemala as essential to the defeat of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

And although apartheid South Africa had its defenders among some conservatives, these same mid-level officials argued that American support for democratization there would constitute a global test of American commitment to the ideals it professes.

Fifteen years later, East Asia is a zone of advancing democracy , every government in the western hemisphere except CubaÕs is an elected one, and South Africa has made a peaceful transition to a government representing all its citizens. The mid-level aides I mentioned, plus many others, who witnessed the power of the democratic ideal in the Cold War have now risen to high office – and have committed the United States to a new policy of democratization in the Middle East.

The European left has long given lip service to the international support of democracy. And yet, when George Bush adopted this very policy as his own after 9/11, the leaders of the European left began to fret about stability, sovereignty, and the supreme right of local despots to wield power free from foreign interference. After all those years of fulminating against Henry Kissinger, the European left overnight became more Kissingerian than Kissinger himself had ever been.

Is this outcome not ironic? Is it not embarrassing? And might it not explain Mr. FassinoÕs sudden, overdue, but still welcome praise for a president who – whatever his faults – has committed the United States more whole-heartedly to the support of democracy worldwide than any of EuropeÕs self-declared leaders of conscience?

America’s New Ambassador To The World

David Frum March 15th, 2005 at 12:00 am Comments Off

These have been difficult years for AmericaÕs friends in Europe. Too often they have been left feeling stranded and isolated by an administration that does not speak in ways that Europeans find compelling or convincing.

The difficulties have been especially acute over the Middle East. Americans can say with truth that many Europeans have taken positions on the Middle East that are cowardly, cynical, and corrupt. But AmericaÕs European friends can reply that it does no good for the United States to be idealistic if it is also perceived to be arrogant, peremptory, and obstinate.

After all, no matter how cynical Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder may be, there is a real and important difference between American and European interests in the Middle East: Europeans – and especially Italians – live next door to the Arab world; you have large immigrant
populations from the Arab world; and you are uniquely vulnerable to upheaval in the Arab world. Americans may want to change the Middle East; Europeans are understandably concerned about being changed by the Middle East.

So it has never been more important for the United States to make its case on the Middle East well – not only for the sake of American policy in the Middle East, but for the sake of AmericaÕs relationships in Europe.

It is therefore big news that President Bush has his supremely trusted adviser Karen Hughes as his new Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy. But is it good news?

Nobody is closer to this president than Hughes. I wrote about her in my book on the Bush presidency, THE RIGHT MAN:

“[Karen] Hughes was the only person in the White House who could criticize Bush. She would tell him that he had done a poor job at a speech practice session or at a press conference, and he would react with none of the angry defensiveness that criticism from a less supportive person could provoke. … [I]n turn, her praise mattered more to Bush than that of anyone else on the staff.”

HughesÕ arrival on the job constitutes a major statement of presidential rededication to the job of global communication. The new undersecretary – who is incidentally also an extremely close friend of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice – will have the presidentÕs ear and the power to get things done.

But what things will she choose to do? And are they the things that in fact need doing?

Hughes is an exceptionally gifted crafter of political messages for the American audience. But can this record be carried over into the international realm? There are serious reasons to worry.

Communications professionals in the United States and in Europe takes for granted a certain kind of media infrastructure. Politicians speak knowing that their message will be repeated more or less as it is delivered. Though the media may be swayed by unconscious biases, a politician does not have to worry (much) about deliberate deceit or active misrepresentation.

So nothing could be more natural – more unavoidable almost – for an American media profession than to think of her job as speaking through the media. That is precisely how Hughes did think when she was running AmericaÕs international media campaign from the White House from 9/11 until her departure in 2003. She would search out attractive, presentable Americans of Arab or Muslim background and send them onto Al Jazeera or Al Arabiyya or on speaking tours of the region to make the case that America was not hostile to Islam, was not a country of hedonistic infidels, etc.

In 2002 and 2003, that approach failed and failed badly. In the Middle East, most important indigenous television broadcasters are all actively managed agencies of governments. (Including, in the case of Al Hurra, the US government.) The media are not more or less neutral channels of communication. They are weapons in an undeclared war. They are not there to be used by the West. They are there to be used against the West. Instead of trying to speak through the local media, an effective communications strategy in the Middle East has to find ways to speak past them – and, ultimately, to use influence and power to modernize and transform them.

The locals know that. When Lebanese patriots bring hundreds of thousands of flag-waving demonstrators into the streets to demand that Syria free their country – and when they bring out even an even larger crowd after the Hezbollah counter-demonstration – they are sending a
message that not even Al Jazeera can pervert.

It is hazardous in todayÕs Middle East to equate communication with words. This is a region of the world in which words have been systematically corrupted, where dictatorship is called “nationalism,” where stealing is called “socialism,” and where murder is called “martyrdom.”

And to the extent that words do resonate, they ring in tones that may not be readily audible to those from different cultural traditions. Let me offer just one example.

Osama bin Laden calls his terrorism a “jihad.” Should we do likewise? Some tough-minded Westerners agree that we should – and that we should then press the Islamic world to repudiate both word and act.

On the other hand, the word “jihad” carries deeply positive meanings for those raised on the Koran. ThereÕs a real risk that by accepting bin LadenÕs language, we may inadvertently strengthen him. Some Western Muslims insist that “jihad” should be understood as a purely peaceful activity, the struggle of the conscience against evil inclinations. This reinterpretation of “jihad” is deeply unhistorical – but maybe we ought to be going along with it anyway. One knowledgeable friend argues that we should make a point of describing Osama bin LadenÕs terrorism as “hirabah,” or unholy war.

Is this a smart suggestion? I canÕt know – and neither, I fear, can Karen Hughes. That fear makes me wonder whether the president might not have done better to have chosen somebody fluent more naturally fluent in the idiom of the part of the world to which America needs to speak. Somebody like, say, Johns Hopkins University professor Fouad Ajami, a Bush adviser and long-time champion of reform in the Arab world. Doesn’t anybody at the State Department have his phone number?

The Face Of Gallantry

David Frum March 14th, 2005 at 12:00 am Comments Off

In a recent “Diary” for National Review Online, recipe I told the terrible story of Mithal al-Alusi, a gallant Iraqi politician and democrat whose two sons and bodyguard were gunned down in Baghdad on February 8. I invited NRO readers to send messages of condolence for Mithal, which I would forward to him in Baghdad. Within 48 hours, I had received almost 200 letters, many of them from the parents, relatives, and friends of active-duty U.S. soldiers and Marines.

The letter-writers were inspired by the gallantry of MithalÕs response to his terrible loss. He told Radio Free Iraq that my children, three people [in all] – one of my bodyguards and two of my children – died as heroes, no differently from other people who find their heroic deaths. But we will not, by God, hand Iraq over to murderers and terrorists.

We will pave the road for peace. If [the attackers] thought that by attempting to kill Mithal al-Alusi, the advocates of peace in Iraq will be stopped, then they have made a grave mistake. We will be calling for peace. We will be calling for peace with all neighboring countries. We will be calling for peace with all countries of the region. And we will be calling for fighting terrorism by any means.

Many letter-writers were impressed too by the apparent reason for the terroristsÕ targeting of Mithal: his support for peace with Israel.

After the overthrow of Saddam, Mithal was appointed the head of IraqÕs De-Baathification Commission. In this capacity he attended a September 2004 conference on terrorism in Herzliya, Israel, thereby becoming the first and only Iraqi official ever to travel to the Jewish state. He opened his remarks with a stunning declaration: “I would like to thank the United States for liberating Iraq from Saddam HusseinÕs terror.”

Mithal explained his actions in an article now posted on NRO:

Last month, I became the first Iraqi official ever to visit the State of Israel. My visit outraged my colleagues in the provisional Iraqi government. I was fired from my job as general director of the Supreme National Commission for De-Baathification, expelled from my political party, and stripped of my personal security detail: a potentially deadly punishment for somebody in my position in todayÕs Iraq. I was even threatened with criminal prosecution.

Yet I have good news to report too. I have been surprised – and pleased – by the support I have received from Iraqi intellectuals and from a very large number of ordinary Iraqis. They recognize that I didnÕt go to Israel for the sake of Israel. I went to Israel for the sake of Iraq. . . .

In IraqÕs own sovereign interest, we must have peace. Those Iraqis who talk of Israel as the enemy are in reality looking for justifications to inflict violence on their fellow Iraqis.

Something in these words – and in the price Mithal paid for uttering them – touched a profound chord in NRO readers. Let me quote from just one letter I received for Mithal, addressed directly to him:

As I consider your courageous commitment to liberty in the face of such personal loss, as I consider the photos of brave Iraqis holding up their purple fingers, flaunting their votes in the face of evil, I find myself thinking that you are nothing like us. We do not have that kind of honor and courage. I am shamed by how weak and craven we Americans have become in our safety and wealth. We are not like you. . . .

I am sorry for your loss, and I pray God will comfort you and reward your country and your people for such sacrifice. I donÕt know that I could show such resolve in the face of such loss.

How should we understand this outpouring of sympathy for an Iraqi democrat from readers and supporters of the premier conservative periodical in the United States?

President Bush had made it clear well before the beginning of combat operations in Iraq that establishing free institutions there would be a major war aim of the United States. In a major speech at an American Enterprise Institute dinner on the eve of battle, he said, “The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values, because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder. They encourage the peaceful pursuit of a better life.”

These ideas are not exactly unprecedented on the American right: Ronald Reagan often expressed similar beliefs. In his famous speech in Westminster in 1982, Reagan insisted on “manÕs instinctive desire for freedom and self-determination” and argued that “it would be cultural condescension, or worse, to say that any people prefer dictatorship to democracy.”

But itÕs also true that at least as many important conservatives – perhaps many more – rejected ReaganÕs view. Russell Kirk, the revered conservative thinker, warned at the end of the Cold War against the assumption “that the political structure and the economic patterns of the United States will be emulated in every continent, for evermore.” Kirk argued that such an approach to foreign policy would lead to disaster: “An imposed or induced abstract democracy thrust upon peoples unprepared for it would produce at first anarchy, and then – as in nearly all of ÔemergentÕ Africa, over the past four decades – rule by force and a master.”

Many of those who opposed and still oppose the Iraq war do so for reasons quite similar to those advanced by Kirk. They say that American-style democracy is not for everyone, and predict that if the populations of the Arab and Islamic Middle East are ever allowed to govern themselves they will opt for ideological extremism, religious fanaticism, and external aggression. And high on the list of those peoples supposedly unprepared for democracy are the Iraqis.

But this time around, the people most vehemently advancing such views are not Republicans and conservatives but liberals and Democrats – including the DemocratsÕ nominee for president in 2004, John Forbes Kerry.

“I have always said from day one that the goal here . . . is a stable Iraq, not whether or not thatÕs a full democracy,” Kerry told reporters after a town meeting in Harlem last April. “I canÕt tell you what itÕs going to be, but a stable Iraq. And that stability can take several different forms.” KerryÕs chief foreign-policy adviser, Rand Beers, followed up by explaining that the Kerry camp regarded George W. BushÕs aspirations for democracy in Iraq as “too heroic.”

In the months leading up to and following the election, KerryÕs elegantly expressed skepticism has bumped its way down the intellectual hierarchy to become something close to the dominant point of view among American liberals. Which is how it happened that the very day before the violent attack on Mithal al-Alusi, Slate magazine featured a literary attack on the Syrian-American democrat Farid Ghadry by a writer named Elisabeth Eaves:

So, youÕre an Arab exile. YouÕve prospered in the United States. YouÕve got lots of influential neocon friends. And now you want to overthrow the evil Baathist dictator back home. HereÕs the catch: Your name, fortunately – or perhaps unfortunately – is not Ahmad Chalabi. What are you supposed to do?

This is the predicament in which a man named Farid Ghadry finds himself. (Remember that name: He could soon be cashing millions in U.S. government checks.)

The rest of the article continues to scorn both Ghadry and Chalabi in the same vein, as if nothing could be more gigglingly absurd or excruciatingly uncool than to devote oneself to the fight against tyranny in oneÕs native land. I know this voice. I remember it from the days of the Cold War, when it was the fashion among a certain kind of elegant intellectual to mock the testimony of East Bloc ŽmigrŽs with their comical Slavic accents and cheap, ugly clothes. Older friends tell me it was much the same in the 1930s, when some brave souls tried to tell the truth about HitlerÕs Germany to the uninterested ears of the British elite.

Maybe the best response to this self-satisfied dismissal was delivered by Susan Sontag, a woman whose many mistakes were redeemed by, if nothing else, this speech she delivered in New York City in 1982:

I have asked myself many times in the past six years or so how it was possible that I could have been so suspicious of what [Czeslaw] Milosz and other exiles from Communist countries – and those in the West known bitterly as Ôpremature anti-CommunistsÕ – were telling us. Why did we not have a place for, ears for, their truth? The answers are well known. We had identified the enemy as fascism. We heard the demonic language of fascism. We believed in, or at least applied a double standard to, the angelic language of Communism. . . .

The ŽmigrŽs from Communist countries we didnÕt listen to, who found it far easier to get published in the ReaderÕs Digest than in The Nation or the New Statesman, were telling the truth. Now we hear them. Why didnÕt we hear them before, when they were telling us exactly what they tell us now? We thought we loved justice; many of us did. But we did not love the truth enough.

The skeptics are right up to a point: The culture and history of the Middle East do create grave difficulties for democracy – so much so that those who champion democracy are called on to show extraordinary courage and commitment. They must face terrible dangers, endure terrible suffering, mourn terrible losses – as Mithal did and is doing. And oh, just to add to their burdens, they must bear disdain from much of the Western press, and from radicalized professors of Middle Eastern studies who instruct Western publics that indeed the killers of Mithal al-AlusiÕs sons represent Islam and the Arab world more authentically than Mithal and those like him.

But precisely because it is so difficult to be a democrat in the Arab and Islamic Middle East, Arab and Islamic democrats like Mithal al-Alusi deserve all the more honor.

When people talk about the clash of civilizations, ask yourself: On which side of that fault line would you put Mithal al-Alusi? He has sacrificed more to uphold the values of our civilization than almost any of us on the Western side of that supposed line will ever be called upon to do. Which raises the possibility: Maybe this civilization of liberty we defend does not belong to us, but to all humanity.

When you hear it asked whether Iraqis will fight for their own freedom, ask yourself whether it is possible to fight harder than Mithal al-Alusi has fought. Is it really too much to ask Americans to recognize how much they share with a man like this? Is it too much to expect that those who describe themselves as “liberals” refrain from mocking individuals who risk so much for the sake of liberty?

The Wrong Way To Honor A Hero

David Frum March 8th, 2005 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Italian intelligence officer Nicola Calipari was a true hero: a valiant officer of the law who devoted his life first to the fight against organized crime and then to international counterterrorist operations. He had negotiated the release of two Italian aid workers held hostage in Iraq last year. He died bringing yet another hostage to safety, Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena.

A hero’s death should inspire those who live on. Let us hope that in time this will be true in Calipari’s case as well. For the present, however, the accidental shooting of Nicola Calipari seems to have revealed something of the worst in both Italy and the United States.

Calipari was killed at an American checkpoint near Baghdad airport. Many Iraq-based reporters suggest that these checkpoints may have done more than anything to alienate ordinary Iraqis.

“You’re driving along and you see a couple of soldiers standing by the side of the road–but that’s a pretty ubiquitous sight in Baghdad, so you don’t think anything of it. Next thing you know, soldiers are screaming at you, pointing their rifles and swiveling tank guns in your direction, and you didn’t even know it was a checkpoint.” So reports Annia Ciezadlo of the Christian Science Monitor.

It’s understandable that soldiers on the receiving end of car bombs and improvised explosive devices would take every conceivable precaution to protect themselves. But the checkpoints are designed to protect soldiers and only soldiers: Iraqi safety is very much a secondary concern.

Calipari’s death will no doubt spark self-examination and change by the U.S. military. One has to wonder, however, why the uncounted number of Iraqi civilian casualties did not do the same.

But it is not only Americans who should search their consciences.

It seems that the reason Calipari’s car was fired upon was that the Italian authorities had not kept U.S. authorities informed about Calipari’s mission. And the reason for that strange omission was that Calipari’s mission involved the negotiation of a ransom for the kidnapped journalist.

The Italians know that the U.S. authorities fiercely oppose ransom payments, and so they thought it best just to keep things quiet until Sgrena and Calipari were safely out of Iraq.

These Italian actions put Sgrena’s and Calipari’s lives at risk. They also endangered the lives of many thousands of other Western civilians in Iraq. Ransom payment encourages more kidnappings–and Italy is allowing ransom payment to become a bad habit.

As if guiltily aware of how wrong the practice is, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi provided the funds himself out of his own enormous fortune to free the two kidnapped aid workers in 2004. This time, the money seems to have come from the public treasury.

As with the American checkpoints, Italy’s motives are understandable: The Iraq war is not popular in Italy, which has about 3,000 troops in the country. And prolonged hostage dramas weaken support for the war even more. The Berlusconi government is naturally tempted to do whatever it can to bring these dramas to a rapid close.

But to understand is not to excuse. The Berlusconi government’s attempt to shore up support for the war by furtively paying for Sgrena’s return got a brave and widely admired man unnecessarily killed–and has created an effective platform for the extremist views of an anti-American journalist.

Since her liberation, Sgrena has accused the United States of deliberately targeting her vehicle. “Everyone knows that the Americans don’t want hostages to be freed by negotiations, and for that reason, I don’t see why I should rule out that I was their target,” she implausibly claimed in a television interview on Sunday.

Before her kidnapping, in articles for her left-wing Italian paper Il Manifesto and for the German Die Zeit, Sgrena had made clear her opposition to the coalition mission in Iraq. But in captivity, Sgrena seems to have progressed to outright sympathy for the insurgents and endorsement of their cause.

In her articles and interviews since the kidnapping, Sgrena has done her utmost to humanize the kidnappers, describing one as a fan of an Italian soccer team and praising the cheerfulness of another. She reveals nothing about them that would in any way damage their image among her Italian listeners. She repeats their slogans about “ending the occupation”–without acknowledging in any way that for them, “ending the occupation” is a euphemism for the restoration of a murderous tyranny over the unwilling people of Iraq.

Are these the same insurgents who detonated bombs at Shiite religious ceremonies, killing hundreds? Who killed children as they received candy from U.S. soldiers? Who attack hospitals, water treatment plants, electrical generating stations? Who cut off the heads of other captives?

These questions do not interest her. Nor does she seem to have noticed that while she was held captive, Iraq held an election in which millions of Iraqis voted freely for the first time in their nation’s history–and that those voters massively repudiated the terror and violence of her “cheerful” kidnappers.

The old Italian Communist party may have expired. But as Giulana Sgrena reminds us, communism has left its mark on the political culture of the Italian left. The readiness to support any anti-American group, no matter how vile; the credulity in the face of Third World brutality; the willingness to bend the truth in the service of “the revolution”: The aftermath of the killing of Nicola Calipari has opened an opportunity for all this to come out in the Italian media and Italian politics. It is no way to honor the sacrifice of a brave and good man.

Breaking An Industry Into Little Pieces

David Frum March 1st, 2005 at 12:00 am Comments Off

From the gush and glitz of Oscar night coverage, you’d never know that Hollywood is a deeply troubled enterprise.

There will always be a demand for entertainment of course, and moving pictures will continue to dominate the entertainment industry for many years to come. But Hollywood as we know it — big feature films starring name-brand actors — is following Broadway in its progression from the very centre of American consciousness to the fringe. The time is not far distant when the Oscars will become what the Tony awards are now: an annual occasion for remembering better days gone by.


In 2004, Americans spent more on video games than they did to go to the movies: US$11.3-billion v. US$9.4-billion.

No movie in American history has earned more in its first weekend than Spiderman, which grossed some US$114-million. The biggest new game of 2004, Halo 2, grossed US$125-million in its first 24 hours.

It’s true that the movie industry as a whole continues to hold a huge lead over the video game industry. Add in movie rentals, pay-per-view, DVD sales, the revenues of HBO-type movie channels, and motion-picture revenues add up to a grand total of about US$45-billion. International sales raise that total still higher.

But that US$45-billion includes a lot of businesses that are not exactly “Hollywood.” Pay-per-view for example is dominated by sporting events: Six of the 10 all-time highest-grossing pay-per-view programs were Mike Tyson boxing matches, including the biggest of them all, the 1997 fight in which Tyson was disqualified for biting the ear of Evander Holyfield.

In the rental and DVD sale market, meanwhile, pornography and animation loom very large. Porn accounts for an estimated 25% of all rentals. Eight of Billboard’s top 10 VHS bestsellers last week were animated, as were three of the bestselling five DVDs.

Yes, the market for motion-picture entertainment may continue to grow. But as it grows, it fractures into steadily smaller pieces, just as music, television and print have each previously done.

This fracturing of the market has made possible for movies that would once have seemed impossibly quirky to find their audience — such as this season’s middle-aged, middle-class favorite, Sideways. But it means that few if any movies — non-animated movies, anyway — can achieve the kind of broad cultural impact that was once achieved by films like The Godfather or Star Wars.

This fragmentation of the audience suggests why video games in particular are such a lethal threat to Hollywood. The biggest single movie-going segment of the population is the group aged 16 to 21. Older groups have each in their way been drawn away from the theatres — and once they are walking the aisles at Blockbuster, they are shopping not from the 400 or 500 new films Hollywood may offer in any given year, but from a menu of 10,000 choices.

Since the advent of the videocassette machine and the ability to watch movies at home, it has been teenagers who make the hits — and what teenagers want is action-adventure movies with spectacular special effects: super-heroes who race through the canyons of Manhattan on spider threads or who battle the hosts of Mordor with magical powers. Video games offer teenagers this alternative: Instead of some actor performing the stunts and fighting the battles, the star of the show can be … you.

As competition intensifies for teen dollars, Hollywood’s mega-hits have ceased to be quite as mega as they used to be. It’s striking, I think, that of the top five grossing movies of all time, only one — Shrek 2 — was made in the past five years.

Some moviegoers — and even some in Hollywood — may welcome the relative decline of the teen market, because it creates opportunities for more grown-up movies to get made and find their audience. 2005 is being hailed as a banner year for adult films, in the old-fashioned sense of the term. The last great era of American cinema was the period from about 1969 (the year Francis Ford Coppola founded his independent production company, American Zoetrope) until about 1981, when VHS sales took off and the adults abandoned movie theatres to kids too young to date. Maybe once the studios absorb the news that the kids prefer X-Box to multiplexes, they will stop making Troys and resume looking for the next Chinatown. Maybe.

But while the makers of grown-up movies can take pride (if they are successful) in a job well done, and can even make a handsome profit if they know their business, they are unlikely to become screamingly super-rich — and becoming screamingly super-rich is what Hollywood is all about. So the likelihood is that the harder it becomes to make a mega-hit, the more desperately and hysterically Hollywood will try. They will look for new taboos to violate, new shocks to deliver: first offending and then boring their audiences in a frantic desire to please them.

That’s the vicious cycle that killed Broadway — is killing pop music — and to which no entertainment industry is immune: not even the great dream factory on the California coast.