President Bush, one gathers from his exit ruminations, believes history will treat him more kindly than today’s polls. But history is tricky. Although it has tended to give presidents the benefit of the doubt–once aspersions are cast, they can stick and grow. Dwight Eisenhower, has been reevaluated upward, as has Harry Truman. But there has been no mercy for James Buchanan, and not much for Warren Harding. And Jimmy Carter is in historical limbo.
When we leave these shores, history gets vicious. In French history, untold numbers of monarchs have been pilloried by historians as decadent, feckless and idle. Their queens, too. It is unlikely that Marie Antoinette actually said, “Let them eat cake.” But that libel has stuck to her down through time.
In English history things are just as bad, or worse, but the targeting has been more precise. Although appeasement was popular when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain capitulated to Adolf Hitler, he has been vilified ever since. English monarchs have had to deal with English writers. They dubbed Mary I “Bloody Mary” and contrasted her unfavorably with her half sister, Elizabeth I, an all-round favorite.
If you came to the attention of Shakespeare, you were pretty well done for. Richard III, is a villain in history, despite scholars’ attempts to rescue him and a relentless disavowal of the popular concept of his villainy in the north of England, where he is still a local hero.
Then there is the linkage between the most denigrated English monarch, John, and our own George W. Bush. Not only did he merit a fairly obscure Shakespearian play, but his name was so blackened by his barons that no other English monarch has ever been named John.
Actually John was not all bad, but he was definitely luckless. His father, Henry II (whom we know from the play “Lion in Winter”) disliked him so much that he inherited no land and was known derisively as “John the Lackland.” He was totally overshadowed by his elder brother, Richard the Lionheart.
But when Richard headed to the Middle East in the Third Crusade, he put John in charge of things in England and the chunks of France controlled by the English crown. John gets no credit, but apparently he was an able administrator and an undistinguished soldier. He also had the unedifying habit of flying into towering rages.
The seeds of John’s later humiliation at Runnymede in the Thames River were sown in France, after Richard was killed and the crown passed to John. As commander in chief, John systematically lost English lands to the French. And he picked up a new sobriquet “John Soft Sword.”
With a diminished empire, John increased taxes on his subjects and the barons in particular. Apparently, history does not take kindly to those who increase taxes. But there is no evidence that it rewards those who cut them.
Anyway, the barons had had enough of John and forced him to sign the Magna Carta (the Great Charter) in 1215, which embodied habeas corpus (produce the body) to control reprisals by the king. It became the central pillar of English Common Law and its U.S. derivative. It also became a cornerstone for human rights legislation elsewhere and remained such, until George W. Bush and his administration excluded enemy combatants from its provisions.
The president might be encouraged to know that there was an attempt by historians to reposition John more favorably in the scheme of things seven centuries later. However, a children’s verse by A.A. Milne in the 1920s which said, “King John was not a good man–/He had his little ways,” confirmed the old view.
Winston Churchill, referencing habeas corpus, summarized the legacy of John’s reign: “When the long tally is added, it will be seen that the British nation and the English-speaking world owe far more to the vices of John than to the labors of virtuous sovereigns.”
Presumably, history will record that Bush admired Churchill but lacked his enthusiasm for John’s legacy: the Magna Carta.
- no responses
No building in Moscow so much says “Soviet Union” as the headquarters of Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly. It is more foreboding than the Lubyanka, the former headquarters and torture emporium of the KGB. The romantic charm of the czarist era, epitomized by the Kremlin itself, is wholly absent. Like the state monopoly itself, the structure is gigantic, threatening and very hard to get into.
It is set back from the road, and there are layers of security a visitor has to negotiate to see an official. It is easier to get into the Kremlin, No. 10 Downing Street or the White House than it is to get into Gazprom HQ. I know because I have gotten into all of them. No wonder old KGB hand Vladimir Putin loves the gas company.
As president, and now as prime minister, Putin grew Gazprom and its oil counterpart, Rosneft, not to be normal companies but agents of political implementation. Between them, they were tasked to gobble up the pieces of Yukos when its luckless founder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was thrown in jail.
But even more than Rosneft, it is Gazprom that has emerged as the right hand of Russian policy in Europe.
At the moment, in the dead of winter, it is Gazprom that has cut off supplies of gas to more than 12 European countries. Ostensibly, the argument is over the price paid for gas by Ukraine, the transshipper of gas to all of Europe. But the Russian political agenda is not concealed. Putin, and the siloviki (the men of power around Putin and President Dimitry Medvedev) are angered by the defiance of former members of the Soviet Union, especially Ukraine. Despite its large Russian-speaking minority (about 40 percent) it has talked of joining NATO and the European Union–a red rag to Russia. Russia is angry at the West, in general, for trying to route new pipelines from Central Asia through Georgia, avoiding Russia. It is also mad at the West for recognizing Kosovo, and has responded by buying the Serbian gas fields.
Russian gas, which now makes up 30 percent of Europe’s need, does not look such a good idea–particularly to Germany, where pressure from the Green party led to the retreat from nuclear and the push for gas turbines. Before Germany turned its back on nuclear, it was a leader in the development of promising pebble bed technology. Now, sadly, Germany depends on Russia for nearly 40 percent of its gas supplies.
The gas crisis is worst in countries like Bulgaria, where there is very little gas storage and demand is in real time. But it is also affecting Italy and Southern Europe. Having closed their coal-fired power plants and shelved their nuclear plans, those countries now feel the full pain of the Russian bear’s embrace: gas droughts and electric shortages are leaving their populations cold and hungry in the dark.
So dependent has Europe become on Russian energy that every step to ameliorate the situation is a possible irritant to Moscow. If the pipelines bypass Russia, or the hub in Ukraine, that is a provocation. If new gas comes by ship from North Africa, that is an excuse for Russia to try and price its pipeline gas at the higher price of liquefied natural gas.
Belatedly, Britain and Finland commissioned new nuclear power plants. But Germany, whose former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder took a lucrative job with Gazprom, has chosen to increase its energy dependence on Russia.
Most observers believe that the current crisis will not last. Most likely, it will conclude with a jump in the price of gas, and some satisfaction in the Kremlin that Europe has been taught a lesson. But that lesson may have to be repeated over issues far from energy–such as the expansion of NATO and the European Union.
While the Russians appear to take some satisfaction in upsetting Western Europe, it is their Soviet-era satellites that most annoy them. Why, they wonder, can’t all of Eastern Europe remain suitably deferential, like Belarus and Armenia? Both toady to Moscow.
For the rest of Europe, the message is clear: build more gas storage, arrange more imports and diversify away from gas turbines.
For our part, we can help our friends and allies by thinking through our own actions, from the European missile shield to the willy-nilly expansion of NATO. This is a European problem. But if Europe has to make geopolitical compromises with Russia, it becomes problem for the Western alliance. That is us.
- no responses
The pictures are harder to take than the words. The words you can skip over; the pictures take you by the throat. All of my boyhood in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, came surging back to me with choking sorrow when I saw press pictures of Zimbabwean children digging through the roadside gravel, in the hopes of finding kernels of maize–corn in American English–that may have blown off passing trucks.
When hunger stalks Africa, maize is more important than gold–the difference between living and dying. It is eaten in several ways; even the stalks are chewed in the way Latin Americans chew sugar cane. Mostly, it is made into a stiff porridge called sadza.
Some of my earliest memories of the vital importance attached to maize go back to when I was nine years old and was awarded the job in our household of measuring the weekly maize ration to each employee. By law, every man–and domestic helpers were mostly men–received 15 pounds of maize each week.
My job was to watch the precious ground maize—grits to Americans–weighed out of 100 lb. sacks into smaller sacks. The weekly weighing was a jolly time, with much joking and laughing (and you have not laughed, until you have laughed in Africa) while the meal was dispensed, weighed with a scale hung on a tree limb.
This weekly ceremony, together with the distribution of stewing beef, was symptomatic of everything that was right and wrong with life in colonial Africa. It was humanitarian; it was generous; and it was patronizing. The amount of meal far exceeded the daily consumption of one person and was designed, although this was not mentioned, to feed more than one hungry mouth. It was a government-abetted welfare; paternalism in action.
I have often thought about this conscious food distribution from the better-off whites to the poor blacks as less an act of racism than of British class snobbery: noblesse oblige in the colonial context. It was the same instinct that caused the viceroy of India to pretend to find work for 5,000 people at his palace in New Delhi.
Much of the meal ration found its way to extended families in the townships or to peddlers who came around on bicycles. None of it went to waste. The classic meal, eaten with little variation, was sadza, which is a dumpling that diners shape with their hands and dip into a stew made ideally with meat, but sometimes with other protein-rich ingredients like beans, or termites and caterpillars, which were harvested as delicacies. I ate a lot sadza with various stews, but the caterpillars were beyond me.
The question I have most often been asked is, “What was it like in Rhodesia?” I have never had a good answer except to say that it was like living in a good London suburb, but with a back story of indigenous people who came and went in our lives without really registering. British author Evelyn Waugh described this phenomenon as far back as 1937, when he wondered at the “morbid lack of curiosity” of the settlers for the indigenous people. He might have been told that it was the selfsame lack of curiosity that his characters in “Brideshead Revisited” had about the workers in the rest of England.
At this passage of time, it is almost possible to defend the British in Rhodesia. Their greatest gift, I sometimes think, was not democracy, law, literacy or religion, but the golden maize they brought with them in l890, which replaced rapoco, a low-yield grain grown in the region. Maize was produced in such abundance in Zimbabwe, before President Robert Mugabe destroyed the commercial farms, that it was exported throughout southern Africa.
Now the breadbasket is empty; and children sift through roadside gravel for corn kernels blown from trucks. Would I could fix my scale to a tree and weigh out a plentiful measure for those children, who are no older than I was, when I was the quartermaster in another time.
- no responses
It has been said, and repeated in articles and books, that Ben Bradlee, the legendary executive editor of The Washington Post, managed his newsroom through dynamic tension. The idea here is that two people are left to fight it out for the same job.
I never saw that anything was gained by this in my time at The Post. But what I did see was Ben’s habit of hiring the smartest, most ambitious people he could find. It wasn’t tension between two, but among many.
The problem was that there weren’t enough great jobs to accommodate the best and the brightest coming across the threshold. People would be hired who thought they were going to rise to the top in weeks and report their way to great glory.
But the people who had the great jobs, like David Broder, the chief political reporter, and diplomatic correspondent Carroll Kilpatrick were not about to surrender their turf to the latest aspirant.
In the end, Bradlee’s innocent desire to hire the best had a toxic effect. Rather than creating a newspaper of happy savants, it made for one with the worst internal politics of any paper outside of The New York Times, where, for different reasons, the same degree of infighting was part of the culture.
On the face of it, newspaper management may not have much in common with political administration. But I aver that it does, or at least it will for Barack Obama.
In two of the areas where much is expected of the president-elect, foreign policy and energy, I detect Bradlee’s management style. In foreign policy, Obama has set up an incipient tension on a grand scale. There is the imperious Hillary Clinton, who has many virtues, one of which is not diplomacy. Those who know her say that if she is crossed or undercut, the secretary of state-designate will strike with the stealth, speed and ferocity of a crocodile taking a wildebeest.
Besides Clinton, three others on team-Obama will want to make their mark on foreign policy: Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Adviser James Jones and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
Similarly energy policy, and the implementation of the president’s policy, has all the ingredients for covert warfare.
Obama has chosen to make Carol Browner the energy czarina, complete with an appointment at the office of the president and all the authority that implies. Ostensibly, her role is to coordinate the energy activities of the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency.
However ideology, rather than coordination, may be the order of the day.
The energy secretary nominee, Steven Chu, is a Nobel Prize-winning nuclear physicist who quoted William Faulkner in his acceptance speech. Browner and Lisa Jackson, who has been tapped to head the Environmental Protection Administration, are not energy experts. Instead, they are the products of the environmental movement and service in the Clinton-Gore administration with its suspicion of big energy; its pathological hesitation about nuclear; and its belief that somewhere out there is the soft path which, if taken, leads on to reduced oil imports, cleaner skies and millions of jobs.
Chu will have his hands full just keeping the Department of Energy functioning. It is poorly constructed, designed around fuels without an integrating purpose. Also in 2000, Congress established the National Nuclear Security Administration as a separately organized agency within the DOE. Consuming $20 billion of the department’s $25 billion budget, it is a managerial problem. For the money, the NNSA refreshes the nation’s weapons stockpile; designs and computer-tests new weapons; manages the legacy nuclear wastes from earlier weapons work; conducts monitoring and surveillance of weapons programs, both legal and illegal, around the world. Prima facie, this is more than Browner, a former EPA administrator, may be ready for.
Finally, the new team has implicitly been charged with creating millions of new jobs. Alas, that may take more than the first Obama administration to implement. Notoriously, energy has always been capital-intensive and labor-light. It is not a big employer. Only in the extraction of coal was it once a big employer, but mechanization has reduced the need for men with picks and shovels.
It is a good guess that Browner will tell Chu what is expected, and he will tell her what is possible. And there’s the rub.
- no responses
Here in Washington, we were just settling down for the enervating business of projecting the future from the first tranche of President-elect Barack Obama’s Cabinet, when an ill wind from Chicago reminded us that all politics is human, and that political success does not equate to wisdom or simple common sense. Also, it reminded us that we love to see politicians fall.
The allegations against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich have diverted even the most serious policy wonks from their ruminations. But this will pass, and most likely Blagojevich will go to his disgrace. The wonks will go back to puzzling how Obama’s foreign policy appointments will work together, or who will work against whom. It is not titillating, but it is engrossing.
This brings up the subject of Hillary Clinton, Obama’s pick for secretary of state.
What makes Clinton tick? Why would a woman who has been a successful lawyer, the first lady of a state, the first lady of the United States and a successful U.S. senator want more? Her ambition is Napoleonic, vaulting and incomprehensible. Those who are not addicted to the narcotic of power cannot understand it any more than we can grasp what drives Rupert Murdoch, the most successful publisher in history, to expand his empire at the age of 77, when he might reasonably be expected to be enjoying his family and reveling in his achievements.
But Clinton’s ambition, together with her husband’s position in the prompter’s box, does not auger well for harmony in foreign policy. First, there is National Security Adviser–designate James Jones to consider. He will see the president every day and, unlike Clinton, does not have to preside over the management of the State Department with its 50,000 widely scattered employees. More, he is fresh out of his Marine general’s uniform, and generals have more difficulty than most in accepting orders.
Then there is the possibility of a three-way struggle between Clinton, Jones and Susan Rice, nominated to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. She was an assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration and signed on early as an adviser to Obama. She did not throw her weight behind Hillary–and the secretary of state-designate notices things like that.
Foreign policy is not just caught up in a triangle of strong egos. There is another player: the vice president. Vice President-elect Joe Biden has made foreign policy his area of expertise for many years, serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and traveling widely. Biden is not malicious, but he is garrulous and wont to say things he wished he had suppressed. Loose lips in the veep’s office could be a nightmare for all concerned, especially Clinton.
Clinton, herself, has one other problem: her husband. The former president made a speech in Hong Kong, after his wife had accepted the job of secretary of state. If this is not a conflict, it is at least a possible harbinger of things to come. Awkward things.
Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, may be called upon to keep the peace, but he has baggage too. He is known to be abrasive and to have strong ties to Israel, where he served in the Israel Defense Forces during the Gulf war. Obama might want to keep Emanuel out of foreign affairs even if, as chief of staff, he is forced to keep the peace between the super-egos. Of these, Rice is the gentlest, but she will have to answer a lot of questions about the Rwanda genocide during her Senate confirmation hearing. She was on President Clinton’s Africa team at the National Security Council during the genocide. As they say, it was not our problem, but it will force Rice to answer hard questions about the slaughter now taking place in Darfur and the eastern Congo.
Hillary Clinton is smart and energetic, but if she has diplomatic skills, she has not used them to date. In China, I watched her lecture women on becoming lawyers. The women, who had expected somebody more sympathetic, looked at her agog. Few of them probably knew what a lawyer was, and Clinton clearly had not bothered to find out what was on their minds. Not a good beginning.
The sorry thing is that it will be years before we know how well the Obama foreign policy team meshes; before the books are written and memoirs lift the curtain.
- no responses