In Washington, and around the world, we are waiting for the first torpedo to hit the hull, as they say. Having been broadsided ourselves in the extraordinary selection of Sarah Palin by John McCain for his running mate, we who cover politics are treading water.
Predictably the polemicists are out in front praising, or damning, with a terrible tribal loyalty. If the tribal leader says it is so, so it is. And why not say it is brilliant, or catastrophic, while you are about it? Talk is cheap, and the Internet and talk radio makes it plentiful. Oh so plentiful.
Nobody really will have much idea about Palin until that first torpedo fired is on its way. It could be a gaff on economics or foreign policy or something her Democratic antagonists have dug up from what appears to be a Doris Day past. We will begin to know her by how she responds.
We know that she is a kind cartoon Westerner, a huntin’, fishin’, gun-totin’ Annie Oakley who is going to draw a bead on easy money in Congress and easy virtue along K Street. Yeah, yeah, yeah. We know all about that one. We also know that, with the exception of Dick Cheney, no vice president has had the power to effect much.
If the heroin from the tundra makes it to Washington, Palin will have to do more than face down oil lobbyists and wayward legislators; her big challenge will be the party chiefs and their financiers who helped get her elected.
Washington may be corrupted by special interests, but it is also sustained by them. Lobbyists not only control a lot of campaign money they also own a lot of knowledge. Because they know the industries they represent, in a complex world, legislators need lobbyists–lobbyists they feel they can trust. At some level, every expert is a lobbyist. There are precious few people with deep knowledge on any subject who do not hold opinions about what they know. The smart legislator can sort out the frauds, like Abramoff, from those who work in the vineyards and know the grapes.
The selection Sarah Palin tells us very little about her. But it tells us, again, mountains about John McCain. (Disclosure: I have known McCain almost since he came to Washington, and he has spoken at defense conferences I used to organize.)
Yes, what McCain’s pick again tells us about McCain is that he is the most capricious of senators, and that he can see no contradiction in his own contradictory positions. McCainism is not conservatism. It is a view of the world peculiar to the man who holds it. His grip on Republican orthodoxy, outside of a right to life and a strong military, is tenuous.
Most of the delegates now assembling in St. Paul would, one suspects, leave a private chat with the man they are about to nominate shaking their heads. They believe money is speech, he does not. They believe in drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, he does not. It goes on and on.
More, they are opposed to tokenism and quotas. But in selecting Palin, McCain has perpetrated what must be the most cynical act of tokenism and quota acceptance in recent political history. He also has again demonstrated his unique capacity to be on both sides of an issue.
McCain’s rap on Barack Obama is that he is inexperienced. Now McCain has propelled the neophyte’s neophyte into the small group of people who might sit in the Oval Office and lead the free world. Nearly one in three vice presidents have become president. And McCain is not a young man.
His choice of Palin suggests that McCain is either a cynic or a fatalist—much more likely the later. The fatalist has no faith in orderly progression, but expects happenstance to intrude and change the course of events. It was fate that got McCain shot down and captured. It is McCain coercing fate that has put Palin on the national stage. Win or lose, she will be there for a long time.
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Georgia on my mind.
I was struck when I arrived in Tbilisi a few years ago, in the early hours of the morning, that the lights were blazing in dozens of stands that dotted the road from the airport to the city. This gave the impression that Georgia was booming; that the economy was vibrant and the people were entrepreneurial.
The next day, I learned that nothing in the small and ancient country of Georgia is quite the way it seems. A year after my visit a colleague from The Washington Times, Joseph Curl, also mistook the appearance of prosperity for the real thing.
The fact is that lights blaze night and day in Tbilisi because the good business people steal their electricity. Every one of the road stands is located next to a power line, and there is no attempt to hide the illegal connections. No wonder the lights stay on all night—no switches.
Georgia, like its bullying neighbor Russia, has fostered a strange indifference to law. It goes like this: laws are for the people who make laws, not for the rest of us. We just have to do the best we can.
In few countries have I felt more isolated by language than in Georgia. In most countries, at street level—restaurants and taxis–someone speaks English. Not so in Tbilisi. The first language, of course, is Georgian and the second is Russian. Happily, I was traveling with another journalist who spoke excellent Russian. Otherwise, like so many, I would have been confined to the international hotel where English was spoken.
Our first order of business was to get press passes at the information ministry. We were registered, photographed, paid a fee and were issued with press passes by an engaging young woman. My colleague, Nathan Hodge, elicited that our friendly registrar was going to a rock concert that evening and the tickets would cost about $150. We calculated that this would be many times her weekly salary and were perplexed. Georgians are poor, and government workers are not well paid. A role in the black economy? A rich lover?
Much in Georgia is unexplained. Since the Russian tanks rolled into South Ossetia, one those unexplained issues is how the government of Mikheil Saakashvili thought it could taunt Russia when it knew that Russia historically has been paranoid about its borders; and that its paranoia had been exacerbated by the West’s quick recognition of Kosovo and the loss of face by Serbia, a Russian Slavic ally.
Russia was poised to invade and the Georgian president lit the fuse when he sent Georgian troops to reclaim South Ossetia. Justice may have been on Saakashvili’s side, but realpolitik was not.
As long as Russia feels surrounded by American surrogates in the colors of NATO, it is going to bully where it can and use its energy superiority to try and separate Europe from the United States. Europe is 50-percent dependent on gas from Russia. Watch for European indignation to subside as winter approaches.
There is a precedent for Russia annexing chunks of its neighbors and getting away with it. Remember what happened to Finland during World War II. With the spread of mechanized warfare, Russia felt its crown jewel of a city, St. Petersburg, lying a few kilometers from the Finnish border, was vulnerable. So they began a land grab for about one-tenth of Finland, known as Karelia. This was to be a buffer zone.
After the bitterly fought Winter War of 1940, in a lopsided peace, Russia grabbed Karelia, including the second-largest Finnish city and most of its industrial infrastructure. Twelve percent of the Finnish population had to be resettled. It was a great blow to the Finns, and is remembered painfully today.
Neither candidate for the American presidency has any idea what to do about Russia. It is not an economic colossus. If it were not for energy, it would be sick indeed. It is not a competitive manufacturer in anything except vodka and nuclear power plants. It has not been able to divert its oil wealth for the betterment of its rural towns and villages, and its population of 142 million is declining rapidly.
But Russia is armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons and is our partner in some things that work well, like weapons decommissioning and the International Space Station. John McCain has proposed throwing the Russians out of the G-8. To what end? It has no real role in that group. Barack Obama would talk to them more. No one has courted the Russians more assiduously than George W. Bush or been as thoroughly rebuffed.
The Russian enigma will be with us a long time. As for the enigma of the Tbilisi rock concert ticket-holder, I think she was making money selling press passes to gullible American journalists who did not need them.
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The trouble with the diplomatic argument against nuclear proliferation is that it is patronizing. Simplified, it is the nuclear weapons state saying to any nuclear aspirant, “Trust us, because we do not trust you.” This unpleasant message is often amplified by race and religion. After all, the primary force in containing proliferation is the United States, backed up by its western European allies. Sure there are blandishments that can tip the scale, as happened with Libya. But by and large, proliferation is a national goal for many countries.
The surprising thing about proliferation is how slowly it has spread. For awhile, it even looked as though it was in retreat, when Argentina, Brazil and South Africa quit the race.
To understand the pressure to proliferate, we need to look at each potential proliferator and its aspirations separately.
Small countries, with a high respect for their history and a deep commitment to the well-being of their people, tend to eschew proliferation. Britain got into the club very early, but it is not likely that any British government in recent time would have elected for Britain to seek the nuclear deterrent. At times, it was hard enough to keep it. Bertrand Russell´s Committee for Nuclear Disarmament was a powerful force in British politics throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
Proliferators generally need a large land mass for concealment and testing, a defined sense of threat from outsiders, and a desire for regional dominance. Classically, Iran meets these criteria. North Korea´s motivation is more bizarre, but so is its leadership. It already has conventional weapons superiority over South Korea, but it cannot hope to be a dominant player in Asia.
Security alarmists constantly pose the proposition that a non-governmental organization, like al-Qaeda, could build a weapon in secret and introduce it into the Middle East, Europe or the United States. This is the worst of all scenarios, but it is also the least likely. Building a nuclear weapon is a huge industrial undertaking, requiring secrecy, specialized materials, skilled scientists and engineers, and an open money spigot.
True, it has gotten a little easier since it has become clear that plutonium from civilian nuclear reactors can be diverted to weapons. It is also clear that centrifuge now offers the potential for a highly enriched uranium bomb–something that was not really available with the World War II enrichment technology.
The bad news on nuclear proliferation and the intractable problems of proliferation by Iran and North Korea have come at a time when the world clearly needs an enormous increase in the amounts of civilian nuclear power deployed. Countries that have been reluctant to build new nuclear power plants are going ahead. In Europe, this has been stimulated by the growing fear of dependence on fossil fuels from Russia. In many countries, this is heading towards 50 percent of their electric generation; and when the new Baltic pipeline starts deliveries into Germany, it could be as much as 70 percent dependent on Russian gas. Super-green Finland is building a fifth reactor. And the green-leaning Labor government in Britain has sanctioned more nuclear.
In Europe, new reactors raise few hackles on the proliferation front. But what to say about King Abdullah of Jordan’s desire to build a nuclear plant? He is a firm friend of the West and a stabilizing influence in the Middle East. The question is how long will his monarchy survive? It was the United States that urged a nuclear future in Iran, and reactor construction was happily under way when the Shah was deposed by the Islamic Revolution.
Diplomacy works in 10-year cycles or less. Nuclear reactors are designed to last 30 to 50 years. Neither friends nor foes can be identified over that time horizon. Ergo, a new proliferation strategy may be needed.
The United States had the makings of a strategy before Jimmy Carter was elected president. Simply, it was that the United States would dominate all facets of the nuclear fuel cycle and encourage nuclear club members to do the same thing. When Carter suspended the reprocessing of nuclear fuel in the United States, the possibility of controlling the fuel cycle for “clients” ended.
Subsequently the policy has been diplomatic persuasion, followed by sanctions, followed by a plea for multinational talks. It may or may not be working with North Korea; and so far it has produced no results with Iran.
In the Cold War, the United States assisted the Soviets with making their weapons safer by sharing aspects of fail-safe technology and giving them the technology for insensitive high explosives. The fear was accidental detonation, and the collaboration on preventing it was impressive.
Primitive nuclear weapons are dangerous; so much so that Little Boy and Fat Man, dropped on Japan, were partially assembled on the aircraft that was delivering them. Their designers were terrified that they would blow up unintentionally.
In a world in which there are more dangerous weapons in the hands of more dangerous people, there is not much hope that ambitious states can be deterred. But by working with them on safety, the old-time nuclear states, led by the United States, might establish new diplomatic channels and get a better idea of what they have got. Candidate One for safety collaboration might be Pakistan.
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The op-ed page of The Washington Post is full of type, but not enough to fill the gaping hole where Robert “Bob” Novak’s column used to appear. Novak’s column nominally originated from The Chicago Sun-Times, but he was the first to say that much of his success was the result of appearing in The Washington Post. If you write about politics it helps to do it where the politicians will read you. In Washington the best place for that is The Post, with its dominant circulation among the three newspapers published in the nation’s capital.
Now that Novak, 77, has had to retire to fight a brain tumor, it is clear that he has no successor. Some of his colleagues on The Post are more articulate than Novak. His fellow conservatives Charles Krauthammer, George Will and Michael Gerson all are great stylists. The liberals Ruth Marcus and Harold Meyerson turn a beautiful phrase, and Richard Cohen has remained fresh and funny for three decades.
But none of them sets out to do what Novak did for 45 years–break news. He believed the old adage that “there is nothing as good as news in the newspaper.” First with his late partner Rowland Evans, and in recent years by himself, Novak broke news. He understood that opinion alone grows tired, especially when everyone knows the sympathies of the columnist, but news is always self-refreshing.
For Novak, the column was a newspaper inside a newspaper; and he was going to fill it with news whether it was hurtful or harmless to his Republican friends. Because Novak was an ardent conservative for most of his professional life, conservatives always felt hurt when Novak’s reporting revealed chinks in their armor. As a commentator, particularly on television, Novak was a fierce partisan. But as a reporter he went where the story led, as they say, without fear or favor.
Novak got the news, which distinguished his column, the old-fashioned way: He worked for it. In this he was like the liberal Jack Germond, who worked hard for his stories.
Timothy Carney, who worked for Novak on the Evans-Novak Political Report, and now edits that newsletter, said in his Washington Examiner column last week, “The hardest working man I have ever known has retired.”
Carney went on: “What we’ve lost primarily is a reporter who cast a cynical eye on the best-laid plans of bureaucrats, who took the same level of skepticism to his coverage of both political parties, and who was motivated, above all, by the desire to unearth information that powerful people would prefer remain buried.
“To the detriment of the republic, there is now one fewer skeptic calling around Capitol Hill until he gets the real dirt–there is one fewer sleuth–freed by his spot on the opinion pages from what Novak calls ‘the deaf-dumb-blind’ sort of impartiality that often makes news reporting worthless–exposing the true machinations in the government. This can be a cause for relief for many powerful people.”
I first met Novak at a conference. We were both speakers, but he was the star. I do not remember the conference or where it took place–Texas, I think. But I do remember Novak and how kind he was to me, and generous with his praise of my talk.
Over the years I ran into Novak at the White House, at receptions, and one glorious evening at the National Press Club in 2001, when we lampooned Novak. Actually that was not the plan, but it was the result. The plan was to give him the prestigious Fourth Estate Award and to say pompous, platitudinous things about journalism. Instead his fellow columnists filled the stage, and there was much merriment and roasting “The Prince of Darkness.” This moniker came from a fellow journalist, John Lindsay, and was a commentary on Novak’s Slavic looks and pessimism about the human condition. Novak loved it.
To my mind Novak’s politics were tortured, but his journalism shone through. He believed that the purpose of his column was to find out what is going on and to tell us. He was true to the old journalistic concept that you have failed if the reader does not know something he or she did not know before they picked up your piece.
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Way back in the 1970s, the old Mobil Oil Company paid $212 million for an oil shale lease in Colorado. The company did not produce a single barrel of oil from that lease. After leasing the land, Mobil shied away from developing the resource because of substantial environmental problems, involving water and degradation of the high desert.
Traditionally, oil companies have taken leases that they have had to abandon either because the resource was not as substantial as they had hoped, or because the economics had changed or as in Colorado, other impediments appear.
Also, there are physical limitations on where the oil companies can look for oil. And sometimes the judgment of their geologists is just wrong. Even in this age of seismic sophistication, there are dry holes.
A modern deep-sea oil rig is nearly as complex and sophisticated as a refinery. Every off shore rig (there are a little over 400 of them around the world) is working flat out; sometimes in the service of international oil companies, and sometimes in the service of state-owned oil companies, which control a majority of the world’s resources.
When it comes to offshore drilling, the oil industry feels that there would be a better chance of finding reserves in new leases rather than old leases, which they acquired defensively at a different time.
To the Democrats, this is evidence of oil company ineptitude and greed. To the oil companies, it is a situation reminiscent of the David Mamet play “Glengarry, Glen Ross,” where the real estate salesmen are denied the best prospects in order to shift lousy inventory.
The best oil-drilling prospects are in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Not only do these areas have the best expectation of good reserves, but there is already a sophisticated infrastructure in place in the Gulf and Alaska. No such infrastructure exists on the Atlantic Coast or the West Coast north of Santa Barbara. Infrastructure is important because it reduces cost, and especially because it speeds the time it would take to bring new oil to market.
The drilling controversy has been a gift to the Republican Party because it enables John McCain to go after Barack Obama on an issue that people understand: the price of gasoline. Seventy percent of Americans, according to the polls, favor drilling offshore now. Yet Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House, refuses to allow an up or down vote on this simple issue. She wants a vote to be part of a larger energy and environment bill.
Pelosi is handing the best issue yet to John McCain. The public cannot understand many of the complex problems confronting the country, but it can understand the price of gasoline, even if new drilling will not lower that. It does not matter to the public that it was a Republican president, George H.W. Bush, who originally blocked drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf, or that John McCain was a supporter of not drilling there and still opposes drilling in ANWR.
The Democrats have boxed in their presumptive presidential nominee. Unless Pelosi softens her position, the issue is going to dog Obama through to the election. Even if he comes out in favor of drilling, he is vulnerable to McCain’s attacks if he is at odds with the speaker of the House.
Democratic antipathy to Big Oil goes back many decades. To many Democrats, the dislike of Big Oil is visceral. They have convinced themselves that somehow the oil companies represent a malign international conspiracy to block alternative energy sources and to run up prices. The left wing of the party has never been able to separate the oil industry from John D. Rockefeller and his kerosene cartel.
For their part, supporters of more drilling onshore and offshore are overselling what can be expected in the way of new supplies. The United States has about 2.5 percent of the world’s oil reserves and consumes about 25 percent of the world’s oil. Nothing can be done about the former, so something will have to be done about the latter. Right in the front of doing something about the latter are–surprise, surprise–the oil companies. British Petroleum has enormous investments in alternative energy, including hydrogen. And Chevron, as it likes to remind us, is the largest geothermal producer in the United States.
The oil companies are not perfect, but they are quite good at what they do: getting oil out of the ground and to your local gas station.
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