Home/The State of the Union

TAC Welcomes Helen Andrews

She will join the team as Senior Editor on May 1st.

Executive Director and Acting Editor, Johnny Burtka, announced a major addition to the TAC editorial operation this morning. Washington-area writer and author, Helen Andrews, will be joining the team as Senior Editor on May 1st.

In making the announcement, Burtka said, “With this move, The American Conservative is equipped better than ever before to provide the smartest political and cultural commentary in the right-of-center space. Helen is a longtime friend and alumnus of the publication, having served as an intern at the magazine back in 2009. We couldn’t be more thrilled to welcome her to the team.”

Helen Andrews is the author of a forthcoming book about the Baby Boomers to be published by Sentinel this fall. She has worked at the Washington Examiner and National Review and as a think tank researcher at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from Yale University. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, First Things, The Claremont Review of Books, Hedgehog Review, and many others.  You can follow her on Twitter at @herandrews.

In her new role, Helen will write regularly for the print and web publication and co-host a new TAC podcast, Right Now, with Arthur Bloom and Ryan Girdusky that’s set to launch in early May.

leave a comment

Army May Have Hosted Largest Gathering During Pandemic

Senators: Mandatory drug testing snafu is just the beginning of the military's incoherent COVID response.

Photo taken by a Fort Rucker soldier

The Pentagon “failed to adequately respond” to the COVID-19 pandemic, charged ten Democratic lawmakers in aletter sent to the Pentagon Monday. The lawmakers say “lack of clear guidance” from Defense Secretary Mark Esper has put service members at risk because there has not been a clear coronavirus policy across the Defense Department.

The Trump administration decided in April tosend the largest U.S. fleet ever to the Southern hemisphereto interdict “corrupt actors” in the Carribean, whichled to the destroyer USS Kidd turning back for San Diego after reporting 47 cases of COVID-19. Last week, Fort Rucker had100 percent of its nearly 2,000 soldiers wait nearly 10 hours for a drug test. As soldierswaited until nearly 2 a.m. for the test,they began to bring out couches and order pizza, in clear violation of social distancing. Post officials justified their decision to conduct a 100 percent urinalysis because they also had a test  “back in January” i.e. before COVID-19 hit U.S. shores. As it stands, the Army may have held the largest gathering in America during the pandemic.

There are plenty of examples like these to fuel the accusation that Esper’s response to the pandemic placed political considerations ahead of service members health. The Senators’ letter specifically focuses on other cases.

The Senators write that Esper placed politics above the health of the military forces and their families when he urged overseas commanders to not “make any decisions… that might surprise the White House or run afoul of President Trump’s messaging on the growing health challenge.”

There was no force-wide protocol because Esper delegated decision-making on how to address the pandemic to individual commanders of units, installations and vessels, which led to confusing and contradictory responses. While U.S. Forces in Korea acted quickly to contain the spread of the virus,  Navy commanders allowed the carrier Theodore Roosevelt to visit Vietnam, which resulted in more than 840 cases of COVID-19 on the vessel.

“Although local commanders know their units and operating environments better than anyone in the Pentagon, they are not public health experts,” the senators wrote. “They are now left to make decisions they should never have to make.”

Lawmakers also charge that Esper seems profoundly misled about COVID-19; he said as late as April 16 on NBC’s Today show that the spread on the Roosevelt of the novel coronavirus revealed a “new dynamic” showing the virus could be spread by asymptomatic carriers.

But by mid-March how coronavirus was contracted was already “extremely obvious,” the Senators write.

Signatories of the letter, including Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Patty Murray, D-Wash., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., also complain that Esper would not disclose military locations where COVID-19 cases are clustered. The Pentagon argues this information would compromise force security.

The senators’ letter “does not even remotely accurately reflect our record of action against the coronavirus and the great lengths we have gone to to protect our people,” Jonathan Hoffman, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, wrote in a response to Military.com. The senators “cherry-picked false and repeatedly debunked assertions that do not reflect reality.”

“Secretary Esper has made a clear, unambiguous decision to provide constant guidance to senior civilian and military leaders on how to confront the crisis,” Hoffman wrote.

The Pentagon issued basic force protection guidelines on January 30 and continued to update the guidance nine times. He also pointed out that the Pentagon has deployed 60,000 personnel to respond to COVID-19, including 4,000 health care professionals, two hospital ships, 14 Army medical task forces and two Navy expeditionary medical facility detachments. The Pentagon also provided 20 million N95 masks to the states.

Esper has until May 11 to respond to the lawmakers’ series of questions.

 

leave a comment

‘But He’ll Cost Biden the Election!’

Justin Amash is running for president and America is still masochistic when it comes to independents and third parties.

Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) holds a Town Hall Meeting on May 28, 2019 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

There was, for many years, a member of the Maine legislature who was an Aroostook nationalist. Henry Joy, a Republican who served as a state representative from 1993 to 2010, wanted Aroostook County, a vast swath of northern Maine larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, to secede and become its own state. Cheekily, Joy suggested that Aroostook retain the name Maine, while the southern bits be called Northern Massachusetts.

Unfortunately, Joy never ran for Congress. But I wish he had, preferably as an independent, and then started a one-man Aroostook secessionist caucus once he was there.

Why not? Parliaments the world over teem with third parties, nationalists, secessionists, greens, libertarians, whatever the UK’s Liberal Democrats think they are these days. Yet in America, we still insist that everyone be assimilated into one of two Borg collectives—either Republicans or Democrats, take your pick. Consequently, in the U.S. House, there’s only one independent member; in the Senate, only two (one of whom, naturally, is from Maine). Out of more than 7,000 state legislators, only 34 are independents or belong to third parties.

Now one of those rare independents is running for president. Yesterday, Justin Amash, the congressman from Michigan who left the GOP last year, announced he’ll be seeking the Libertarian Party nomination. The freakout on Twitter was instant. From progressives and anti-Trump Republicans rose a hue and cry: Amash is the new Ralph Nader! He’s going to reelect Donald Trump!

First, the idea that Nader decisively cost Al Gore the 2000 election is weaker than might be expected (the notion that Ross Perot defeated George H.W. Bush in 1992 is even flimsier). But more generally, are we really so masochistic as to think we deserve only two choices? When Scotland concluded that the British Parliament had lost touch with its interests, it ditched the Labour Party and sent nearly three dozen Scottish Nationalists to Westminster. The Dutch House of Representatives contains four parties in its governing coalition alone, with another nine in opposition plus two independents. When French voters grew tired of their center-left and center-right, they wiped them out, sending Emmanuel Macron to the presidency and his brand new party En Marche to an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly.

Certainly too many parties can result in squabbling dysfunction. That’s why Germany still requires parties to receive 5 percent of the vote nationwide in order to enter the Bundestag, a threshold meant to prevent the kind of parliamentary chaos that prevailed during the Weimar Republic. And it’s also true that America’s presidency is not a parliament: Amash can’t coalition with Biden to deny Trump the White House. Hence the freakout.

Still, when it comes to third parties, America truly is exceptional. Here and only here do we demand that 200 million voters of variegated backgrounds and opinions be crammed into two giant, cynical, self-serving, commercialized, widely despised political conglomerates. The argument for this used to be that it maintained political stability. How’s that working out? In an era of partisan groupthink and gridlock, maybe Republicans and Democrats sitting down with third partiers and independents is exactly what the country needs.

Justin Amash opposes America’s involvement in regime-change wars. He’s backed a constitutional amendment that would cap federal spending. He wants to both secure the border and expand legal immigration. He spearheaded a resolution in 2013 that would have ended the NSA’s blanket collection of phone metadata. A Michigander, he dislikes Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s coronavirus crackdowns. He became an independent because he thought the Republican Party was growing too nationalist and the Democrats too socialist. He voted to impeach President Trump.

Some of that may be to your liking, or none of it. But consider too that, unlike the major-party candidates, Amash has never been credibly accused of sexual assault and has yet to imply that spraying Fantastik into one’s eyeballs could be an effective epidemiological measure. Before we castigate him as a spoiler, maybe we should at least hear him out.

leave a comment

Navy Brass Shocks With Recommendation to Reinstate Captain Crozier

It will be interesting to see whether public opinion or protocol made for this unprecedented move in the COVID hero's favor.

Capt. Brett Crozier addresses the crew of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) during a change of command ceremony in November 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Sean Lynch/Released)

After an investigation, high level Navy investigators are recommending that Capt. Brett Crozier be reinstated as Commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, an unprecedented move that is sure to get a rousing endorsement both from his sailors and the civilian community who felt he acted selflessly to get his men and women out harms’ way of the pandemic.

This suggests that a) the charges against him, specifically, that he went out of the chain of command in an email pleading for help, weren’t as cut and dry as the public story conveyed, or b) his superiors are cognizant of the political optics of firing a man who put his neck on the line during a public health crisis that was directly affecting the readiness and welfare of the fleet.

Maybe it was a little of both. There is no denying that this video of his enthusiastic send-off three weeks ago by his own sailors had an affect on public opinion. That Crozier has since tested positive for COVID-19 and has watched as 856 members of the crew (out of  nearly 5000 sailors) have too, with one dead so far, must have played a role as well. 

After Crozier was escorted from the ship, acting Secretary Thomas Modly made comments to the crew saying Crozier’s email pleading for help was either “too naive or too stupid.” His choice of words caused such an uproar among the TR sailors and their families, who by that time had viewed Crozier as their hero, Modly felt pressured to tender his resignation. It was clear where the political winds were blowing, even then.

There have also been stories about Crozier’s superior on the ship, Adm. Stuart Baker, that the men had an ongoing difference of opinion over whether the majority of the crew should be evacuated when the first infections began on the ship in early March. The chief complaint against Crozier’s four-page letter to Navy brass, stating the urgency for the evacuation, is that it should have went to Baker directly, and not in an “unsecured” transmission to 20-30 recipients including seven Navy captains and Baker.  

We may not know the exact details of the investigation. We do know that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has held up any decision on Crozier’s reinstatement, another move that has raised eyebrows. This too, appears to be out of the “chain of command.” Is it not the Navy’s purview—not civilian masters—who decide who or who doesn’t captain their ships? The drama is largely taking place behind the scenes, but what is clear, is that when it comes down to it, the American people hate the politics, and are siding with the guy they think took it on the chin for his crew. Whether that is “correct” in terms of the rules and regs doesn’t exactly matter in this particular court of public opinion.

UPDATE 4/26: I just had an interesting conversation with a retired admiral about the recent events. He too was surprised that the Pentagon now seems to be taking over the decision to reinstate Crozier. While the buck certainly stops with the civilian chiefs, these personnel decisions “normally” take place within the Navy hierarchy. But nothing about this case is normal, my admiral friend tells me, and it has become too political for the Pentagon to ignore. The game is still on, and the civilian entrance into this signals that they might not be comfortable with deciding the fate of Crozier based on public opinion over protocol, after all.

This also raises the question of where President Trump stands on all of this. After all, he did tell reporters shortly after the captain was fired, “I agree with their decision [to relieve Crozier] 100 percent.” It wasn’t too long ago that he stepped in on another major Navy decision—granting clemency to disgraced Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher earlier this year. Is he behind Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley staying the recommendation against the Navy’s wishes?

leave a comment

The COVID Spark Between America and China

It will take careful leadership to navigate dangerous geopolitical waters. Unfortunately that's been in short supply of late.

Have you heard? The reds are going to the red planet! China has announced its very own mission to Mars, called Tianwen 1, which means “quest for heavenly truth” (if anyone is dedicated to the truth, it’s Beijing). The Chinese expect the landing will take place before July of next year, after which a six-wheeled rover will venture out and conduct research for about three months.

We can only hope that China will invest in its space mission the same levels of scientific rigor and competence that it’s applied to its crackerjack COVID response. And maybe it’s a good thing that Beijing is turning its gaze to the stars. Back here on earth, it’s faced nothing but outrage since the coronavirus began its spread.

The sheer scope of the fury has been something to behold. This week, the state of Missouri announced it’s suing Beijing for damages incurred by the coronavirus. A class-action lawsuit against China has been filed in Florida. And lest you think it’s just us litigious Americans, the influential German newspaper Bild is demanding that China pay up to the tune of $165 billion. The International Council of Jurists in London has filed with the UN to seek damages from Beijing. And some Australian lawmakers have suggested that Aussie lands used by Chinese corporations could be reclaimed.

That’s quite the gust of blowback. And we haven’t even touched Donald Trump’s reminding everyone within shouting distance that this is the Chinese coronavirus. News reports still hang adverbs like “allegedly” on claims that China initially concealed the outbreak, yet America’s intelligence agencies have already concluded that Chinese officials very much lied. Commendable reporting by the AP, meanwhile, found that Beijing stalled for at least six days after grasping the extent of the viral threat, enforcing a culture of opacity, allowing Wuhan to hold a festive celebration, punishing doctors who tried to tell the truth.

This is all unsettling not just medically but geopolitically. The indictments against China call to mind the Thucydides Trap, a theory popularized by Graham Allison in a Foreign Policy essay back in 2017. Allison cited the ancient Greek historian Thucydides’ observations about the Peloponnesian War, in which the gathering power of Athens came to unnerve Sparta. He noted that this history went on to repeat itself—over the past 500 years, of the 16 instances when a rising power has sought to displace an existing one, 12 have resulted in war, with China and the United States possibly next in line. Allison notes that the Thucydides Trap can and has been avoided—the U.S. versus the USSR is the best example—through factors such as mutually assured destruction, brinksmanship, and sound strategy. But this is by no means guaranteed.

It’s easy to read too much into the Thucydides Trap. Neither America nor China is anywhere near as warlike as were the mad dogs of the Athenian Assembly. And modern times have afforded us global institutions that can act as cooling saucers for aggrieved nations. That China is being sued in court rather than threatened with invasion is itself a reason for hope.

Still, there’s another disquieting element to all this. Earlier this month, PBS released a timely Frontline documentary that went undercover in China to report on the infamous oppression faced by Uighur Muslims. The horribles were all there: disappearances, mosques shut down, reeducation camps, suffocating (and deeply sophisticated) surveillance, Han Chinese “relatives” made to live in Uighur households. The impression one gets is of full-scale cultural genocide. And at least so far as surveillance goes, the Uighur community is merely a petrie dish for measures Beijing hopes to implement nationwide.

The Peloponnesian War wasn’t just about the balance of power in Greece; it was also about competing ideological systems, with Sparta generally supported by aristocrats and Athens backed by democrats. America and China have similar deep philosophical differences, one ostensibly liberal and the other deeply authoritarian. These inflame each other’s sensibilities and make their respective cultures seem incomprehensible. Now, with the COVID, we have a potential spark. The odds of a military conflict are infinitesimally small—even hawkish crackpots like Tom Cotton aren’t suggesting as much. But we are about to face a very perilous geopolitical situation, one that will require careful statesmanship if we’re to navigate through. That will mean Beijing owning up to its missteps and providing greater accountability to the world once the pandemic has passed.

Unfortunately such American prudence and such Chinese honesty are in short supply of late. Maybe getting off-planet isn’t such a bad idea.

leave a comment

Up With America

Our circumstances demand that we prioritize local action over global ambition.

(By Michael Hogue)

In our exclusive interview with Ross Douthat from the May/June print issue, he describes America as nation marked by “stalemate, stagnation, and decay” without “a clear sense of both purpose and future possibility.” According to this definition of decadence, popularized by historian Jacques Barzun, America is less overindulgent than exhausted. The cultural and political capital accumulated over centuries of Western and American history has been spent down, and she stands naked before the cosmos.

Enter COVID-19, social distancing, shelter-in-place, high unemployment, trillion-dollar deficits, and plummeting markets. Can a decadent society survive a pandemic? More pressingly, can a decadent society witha corrupt ruling class survive a pandemic? The answer to that question hinges on the response of the American people.

In a recent episode of the Americano podcast at TheSpectator, Fox News host Tucker Carlson lamented that America is “the first experiment in secular materialism over a big population. It works great if your job is to supply people with enough calories. What it doesn’t do a very good job of is explaining death.”

And so we find ourselves at the beginning of the Easter season mediating on death (and hopefully resurrection) and pondering whether or not Americans have enough moral courage to face not only an existential crisis, but also the material crisis of tending to untold numbers of sick or unemployed countrymen.

Will we rise to the challenge? And if so, what role will conservatism play in healing the nation? When this magazine was founded in 2002, our editors echoed the wisdom of conservative luminaries Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk when they wrote: “We believe conservatism to be the most natural political tendency, rooted in man’s taste for the familiar, for family, for faith in God.” And its towards this disposition and the local institutions that support it—our churches, our neighbors, and our homes—that Americans can look for hope when faced with the realities of unemployment or death.

While Congress spent last month debating whether to include bailouts for Big Business in the stimulus bill, civil society and small businesses sprang into action to provide for the needs of their communities. Thankfully, Americans don’t wait for orders from the federal government before helping their neighbors—in this, we are exceptional.

At the same time, there are some challenges that local institutions simply cannot address in the face of a global pandemic. The cost of maintaining our permanent presence in the Middle East is no longer sustainable, and Congress has a constitutional duty to put the needs of American citizens suffering from coronavirus above our idealistic ambitions to make the world safe for democracy.

While trade and cooperation between sovereign nations provide many benefits, our political independence depends on maintaining a certain degree of economic independence for essential, particularly military and medical supplies. The pandemic provides an opportunity to map out the genealogies of our supply chains and prudently determine what needs to be made in America.

The necessity of securing our borders and establishing an orderly immigration system that serves our national interests is more urgent than ever before. The safety and happiness of the American people depend on our leaders having a clear sense of who is entering our country and why.

These issues—restraint in American foreign policy, prudential trade relations, and measured immigration policies—were also foundational to the worldview of our magazine’s founders and will prove the defining challenges of our generation in the years to come.

As America looks homeward during this time of crisis—just as a family might seek to secure their home, stock-up on essential supplies, and tend to the needs of their immediate relatives—we have a duty to serve our fellow citizens and practice charity towards our neighbors. None of this precludes peaceful cooperation with other nations and solidarity with those suffering around the globe. However, our circumstances demand that we prioritize local action over global ambition, and this presents a long overdue opportunity for national renewal.

The choice before us is clear, and the stakes are high. As Yoram Hazony wrote on these pages last week, “We’re all going to die soon anyway. The only open question is whether we act honorably or not while we’re here.” History will render a verdict on our actions. But today, while we still have life in our bones, let us rise and say: Down with decadence. Up with America.

leave a comment

Our ‘Greatest Generation’ Men Weaponized Viruses, Too

How often the sword of righteousness was used to justify dark ops and human experimentation.

'Tales from the Darkside' intro screenshot (courtesy CBS Television)

Some of us might remember a cheesy Tales from the Crypt knock-off in the 1980’s called Tales from the Darkside. Created by horror legend George Romero, it was more great camp than great horror, but it had one of the best opening credits of any show then and since. While the camera rolls over green forest and glen, a scene-chewing narrator begins: “Man lives in the sunlit world that he believes to be reality…”

Suddenly the same landscape is rendered bleak and ominous by a jarring shift to inverted negative photography. The narration continues, dramatically pausing for effect: “But ….there is, unseen by most, an underworld, a place that is just as real, but not as brightly lit….a Darkside.”

 

 

The intro (some say it was the scariest part of the show) so perfectly encapsulates the Washington swamp that it’s almost too obvious. But I thought it of again quite suddenly while editing Jeff Groom’s excellent piece Wednesday about the history of germ warfare. Groom, a military man himself, reminds us that despite the “sunlit” narrative of America saving the world from tyranny after WWII only to be thrust into another existential struggle with the Red scourge of Communism, an entire underworld was operating simultaneously, secretly manufacturing biological weapons, breeding insects as vectors for disease, perhaps even deploying them in the battlefield (in other words, doing everything we were accusing the morally bankrupt enemy of doing).

…the 406th Medical General Laboratory of the U.S. Army’s Far East Medical Section was established, “in a warehouse near the Agsugi Air Base in Yokohama (Japan) in 1946,” ostensibly to provide health services to U.S. military servicemen. 

However, their mission soon expanded to include an R&D division comprised of 309 personnel. Researchers “initially concentrated on mosquito-borne diseases, but the military scientists eagerly expanded their work to include ticks, mites, lice, fleas, and flies, with particular attention to the breeding and biting behaviors of black flies and midges found in Japan and Korea.” 

As I wrote about here, journalist Stephen Kinzer published a book late last year that went into great detail about the covert U.S. bio and chemical weapons programs that flourished from the infusion of seemingly endless Cold War resources after WWII. While it is important to note that it was never proven that the U.S. actually unleashed diseased swarms of insects against the enemy in Korea as alleged, it is also worth reminding readers that the War on Communism was nonetheless used to justify an entire battery of inhumane and unconstitutional activities right under the surface of our perceived reality. Much of it was lost to memory with the destruction of files decades later, but plenty has been recovered by intrepid journalists, including Kinzer, over the years.

Just an example of what we do know according to Kinzer: after WWII, the Americans hunted down and arrested one General Shiro Ishii, who commanded the ghoulish hellscape known as Unit 731, located in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Among other human experiments he conducted on Chinese prisoners, including children (like slow roasting people with electricity, or locking them in high-pressure chambers until their eyeballs popped), Ishii infected his victims with botulism, bubonic plague, syphilis, cholera, smallpox, tuberculosis, and myriad other deadly diseases long vanquished by vaccines, and watched them die.

Instead of bringing Ishii to justice, scientists at the secret Army bioweapons program at Camp Detrick, Maryland, “wanted to learn what he knew and were driven by a sense of urgency that overwhelmed whatever moral qualms they might have felt,” wrote Kinzer in Poisoner in Chief. They convinced Gen. Douglas MacArthur to sign a secret decree granting amnesty to Ishii and all who worked with him. He turned over all of this research, which included an untold number of tissue samples taken from people while they were still alive, to the Americans. “Thus did the man responsible for directing the dissection of thousands of living prisoners during wartime, along with those who worked with him, escape punishment.”

The “sunlit” reasoning was likely that the information would be valuable for mounting a defense against enemy germ attacks. But we know from Kinzer’s book that the underworld was experimenting with all kinds of ways of weaponizing pathogens and dispersing them silently over populations, too. They even used unwitting Americans as guinea pigs. 

In 1950, according to Kinzer’s book, scientists from Camp Detrick used a Naval minesweeper off the coast of San Francisco to release harmless but traceable bacteria (it had a red tint) into the air over the city via large aerosol hoses. After six days of this they found that some 800,000 residents in the city, as well as people as far as Oakland were affected. Over the next several weeks, 11 people checked into local hospitals with urinary tract infections, and had drops of red in their urine. One man died. “Doctors were mystified.” Of course they were—because the experiment had not been authorized or known to any local authorities. 

Camp Detrick deemed “Operation Sea Spray” a “success,” knowing that yes, huge swaths of a city could be infected with a silent but deadly germ from a boat sitting off the coast of a major urban center. It would be the first of many such secret “simulations” in U.S. cities through 1969.

To believe that only rogue dictatorships like China might be responsible for weaponizing viruses—like some contend the Chinese were doing in Wuhan, is naive, and frankly dangerous. For decades after the Second World War, Americans who we call “the Greatest Generation” used the sword of righteousness to expand and metastasize the military industrial complex until one hand no longer knew what the other was doing and why, and frankly did not want to. Led by powerful men like CIA Director Allen Dulles, they did diabolical things we believed only possible in science fiction, and more. That this was allowed to go on for so long shows how amazingly useful the power of narrative can be, and how most of us are willing to believe in it at the risk of missing “the Darkside” right behind the mirror.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is Executive Editor of TAC. Follow her on Twitter @vlahos_at_TAC

 

leave a comment

The Curious Ascent of Simone Ledeen

The Pentagon’s new Middle East honcho is protege and progeny of neocon godfather Michael Ledeen.

WASHINGTON– Iran, not Iraq, is the real problem.

“When you hear ‘Al Qaeda, … it’s probably wise to think ‘Iran.’” Most insurgents in Iraq are “under Iranian guidance and/or control.” The 1998 bombings of African U.S. Embassies “were in large part Iranian operations.”  Iran had a hand in 9/11. “The time for diplomacy is at the end; it is time for a free Iran, free Syria and free Lebanon,” the latter two Iranian pawns. “Change above all violent change ­is the essence of human history.” Creative destruction “is our middle name. We do it automatically … it is time once again to export the democratic revolution.” Total war, a phrase made infamous by Goebbels, is justly on the horizon. Sparing “civilian lives cannot be the total war’s first priority … The purpose of total war is to permanently force your will onto another people.”

These are thewords, in the mid-2000s, of a writer named Michael Ledeen, a former consultant to the Departments of State and Defense, as well as the National Security Council. He was resident at Washington’s American Enterprise Institute at the height of its powers, in the early 2000’s, as the nation was gripped by war fever. In 2003, it was written that “Ledeen’s ideas are quoted daily by such figures as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz.” 

In Washington, the power elite had become the company it kept. His thinking is a relic of a mindspace, quietly pervasive in the capital, that held that invading Iraq was just the beginning, a low-hanging fruit for a whole rotten basket. Some officials quietly urged Washington not to take its eye off the ball, and confront Iran first. But it was assured, as it has now been for forty years since the revolution, that the end was nigh for the mullahs in Tehran.  

It’s worth pondering a legacy such as Ledeen’s, as he lounges in semi-retirement. His daughter, Simone Ledeen, has just been named deputy assistant secretary of defense (DASD) for the Middle East, or, Secretary Mark Esper’s point woman on the planet’s most troubled theater. 

As Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) correctly points out, attacking a perhaps imprecise original report by POLITICO: “Simone Ledeen has worked at the Pentagon & Treasury and at a major bank. Exactly what we should want for such a position. And yet, the big scoop here is ‘she is the daughter of’ — as if she is not her own person.” Of course, Schanzer didn’t point out that Ledeen’s father is still a fellow at FDD. But, of course, descendants are not destiny, and Ms. Ledeen deserves an appraisal independent of her famous father.

So let’s take a look at her record. 

Ledeen, an MBA with a background in finance, served as an advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the viceroy administration that ran Iraq in the immediate aftermath of Saddam’s toppling. In the pages of National Review at the time, Ledeen attacked the Times’ Paul Krugman for crying nepotism. “Instead of trying to find out who my colleagues and I really are and what we did in Iraq, Krugman created a fantasy world in which unqualified people got great jobs because they were children of celebrated or powerful Washington insiders,” she wrote, saying some her colleagues were Gore voters, President Bush’s opponent in 2000, and that he had her own C.V., including work in eastern Europe. “I was part of a team trying to repair an unbelievably broken system,” she said, and no doubt she was, though she didn’t dwell on the matter of who helped further break that system. And ten years before Islamic State swept over much of Iraq, Ledeen wrote: “The system is now up and running.” Curiously, Ms. Ledeen now leaves this experience off her public resume, now that she serves a Republican president who got elected saying Iraq was a “big, fat mistake.”

Ledeen served the U.S. government for the next ten years, before leaving for the private sector, where her story again gets interesting. Ledeen had worked in Afghanistan with Gen. Michael Flynn, who would become scourge of the Obama administration and later President Trump’s first, short-lived national security advisor. Simone Ledeen’s advisory role to Flynn would overlap with that of her father’s. Michael Ledeen would go on to co-author Flynn’s first book, The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and its Allies, released in the heady days of summer 2016. I read it at the time and the book is a real page-turner, because it’s hard to look away from unproven assertions that “the war is on,” as Flynn and Leedeen write, “We face a working coalition that extends from North Korea and China to Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua.” 

Revanchist Russia, Communist China and Islamist Iran are all very much in league, it’s posited. The authors assert a scene straight out of Team America: World Police, with Iran serving as the “linchpin” of an anti-American alliance that obviously exists. David Frum’s “axis of evil” became Ledeen and Flynn’s death star. Ledeen’s daughter was no co-author, but by serving as aide to Flynn, she sure did make it confusing. Inferring that she’s at least a fellow traveler I think is no great crime.

General Flynn’s continued popularity on the MAGA right is a political shield, for Simone Ledeen, and perhaps, her father. General Flynn’s fall from grace is a tragic one, and the president should perhaps consider a pardon for a man who has given much to his country.

But Trump shouldn’t pardon the general for his overheated views, the chemtrails of foreign policy thinking– the type of discredited nonsense the president got elected excoriating. Trump backer billionaire Peter Thiel continues to defend his support of the president on a compelling basis: Trump hasn’t plunged America into new Middle Eastern wars, as his two immediate predecessors did. As Thiel said of the past generation of leadership, in his speech to the Republican National Convention: “Instead of going to Mars, we have invaded the Middle East. … On this important issue, Donald Trump is right.”  

Why should we care? Well, it’s now Simone Ledeen’s turn in the barrel. She, indeed, gets a chance to write her own legacy. 

“I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea,” President Trump wrote Wednesday. The Middle East isn’t going anywhere. In fact, with an ugly oil shock, it’s poised to get somehow worse. The United States could well blunder into a fourth miserable decade there. 

There are, perhaps at last, hopeful signs out of an administration now besieged by the fallout of Coronavirus. The crisis is a moment to finally, pull back back significantly from the theater. In this respect, Trump could be a Reagan, not a Bush, in prudently acknowledging sunk costs, as he did when he left Lebanon. There is a blueprint for a better way, with rival calls for realism and restraint after an epoch of failure. The electorate cries out for it– as the U.S. has elected Iraq war opponents in three successive presidential elections. Obsession with Iran is an extremist movement, with its adherents residing most inside the Beltway. As Washington’s now-empty streets attest, the American government has more preeminent challenges.  It should be the job of Trump’s lieutenants, Ledeen included, to steer the president toward his better angels, not triple down on the mistakes of the past. 

So let’s hope what’s past isn’t prologue.

leave a comment

Voice of America Never Looked Lovelier!

Here's hoping Trump gets his way when it comes to state-funded broadcasters

A reporter from the Voice of America during a rally by Iranian dissidents in New York City. (Photo by Ramin Talaie/Corbis via Getty Images)

“If you look at what they’re doing and what they’re saying about our country, it’s a disgrace — the people that are running that,” President Trump said last Wednesday about Voice of America, a publication funded by the U.S. government but technically independent. The White House has recently been stepping up its efforts to confirm Michael Pack, a conservative documentarian, to head up the board of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which controls Voice of America, along with other state-funded journalism enterprises like Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, and Alhurra, and his latest salvo is thought to be part of that.

The USAGM used to be called the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and was created in 1999 out of the U.S. Information Agency to give it the appearance of independence. Since the end of the Cold War, with no Warsaw Pact to beam subversive broadcasts into, the agency has struggled with a lack of purpose, and President Clinton even unsuccessfully tried to cut it back. Since then it has more or less been a place for patronage appointments. Pack, if confirmed, would replace Kenneth Weinstein, who once contributed an article to Irwin Stelzer’s Neocon Reader entitled, “Philosophic Roots, the Role of Leo Strauss, and the War in Iraq,” and who Trump has nominated as his ambassador to Japan. When Obama reorganized the BBG to create a new CEO position toward the end of his term, he gave the job to NBC chairman Andy Lack, since he had a lot to thank them for. (You may recognize Lack’s name from the heavy criticism pointed his way by Ronan Farrow over his handling of Matt Lauer’s behavior and the Farrow’s story on Harvey Weinstein, and also his 2015 visit to Ukraine on behalf of the BBG.)

Since the patronage goes to regime loyalists, to borrow a phrase from our interventionist friends, the coverage tends to support the regime. Instead of giving comfort to dissidents under authoritarian governments, as it used to, VOA now enforces compliance with an authoritarian EU, treating every populist in Europe as a threat to the European project and democracy itself. Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orban are regularly described as “far-right” in RFE news reports, and they recently reopened a bureau in Hungary in an implicit rebuke of the government (their president, as of 2019, is Jamie Fly, a Never Trumper and neocon of long standing who used to head the Foreign Policy Initiative). Five out of the seven stories RFE has run mentioning Salvini in the last year link him to Russia. Sound familiar?

To those in Washington, however, this means any attempt to rein in an operation that clearly isn’t operating in a way that has anything to do with the interests of the United States, is both an attack on democracy and an attack on their social circle. For example, the latest column by Colbert King, a former editorial page editor for the Washington Post, is an extended defense of Voice of America director Amanda Bennett. Bennett, who he says he has “gotten to know,” is described as a “woman of heart, intellect and substance,” victimized by “McCarthyism” from President Trump. What he doesn’t mention is that Bennett is married to Don Graham, longtime publisher and owner of the Washington Post before it was sold to Jeff Bezos — Graham calls him “Jeff” — several years ago. And Bennett’s deputy is also a former Post editor.

It calls to mind how the godmother of Hollywood gossip, Louella Parsons, got her plum gig writing about the movies. Parsons regularly dropped flattering portrayals of William Randolph Hearst’s mistress into her column, then was hired by a Hearst paper, in the process turning “Marion never looked lovelier!” into a popular joke.

Bennett is in a tough spot, having had to push back against claims by Rachel Maddow and others that they had been co-opted by the Trump administration already. “If people continue to believe that VOA is already just spouting propaganda, then no one will be there to care if some day it is forced to do so,” she said in October at a National Press Club event.

With all due respect to Bennett, who has a realist’s sense about media partisanship among other virtues, it seems to me that being a propaganda organ is sort of the point of the USAGM, however useful it may be to conceal that fact. It’s certainly what FDR had in mind when VOA was created, and it appears to be a propaganda organ now, only its propaganda is opposed to people like Trump. And therein lies the real problem.

The White House’s attack on Voice of America centers around the claim that they are broadcasting Chinese propaganda instead of American propaganda, though the evidence they cited in their newsletter is rather thin. They might have added that, according to the Hoover Institution, A VOA TV editor once pledged allegiance to China at an event at the Chinese Embassy in DC. According to VOA staffers cited in the Hoover report, a regular meeting with embassy officials has helped shift their coverage in a more soft-focus direction, toward documentaries about fried chicken instead of samizdat. Part of that must be related to the inevitable access issues involved in trying to cover the communist country. But one might hope for at least some reciprocity for letting Chinese propagandists into the Rose Garden.

To be fair, Radio Free Asia has had some tough stories recently. The big one that comes to mind is from Radio Free Asia on April 6 that cited a source alleging that people were being packed into bodybags and cremated alive in Chinese facilities. While this writer is not one to overestimate the Chinese Communist Party’s concern for human life, this certainly looks like the stuff of atrocity propaganda. Setting aside the question of whether it’s true, a government publisher allowing an anonymous person “close to the funeral industry” to talk about a viral video she saw (which doesn’t show anything, it’s just a masked woman talking about having seen it), is not exactly groundbreaking journalism.

PolitiFact rated a post about the same viral video “false,” which as a Facebook partner means that the post will be seen by fewer people. What they really mean is unproven. The headline, “Wuhan woman says coronavirus patients cremated alive,” is indisputably correct, the question is whether the woman is telling the truth. An outlet purporting to be doing independent journalism rather than propaganda making reference to unproven claims via an anonymous source is questionable, but the standard is not the same for social media platforms, where censoring people who spread unproven accounts of atrocities by authoritarian governments is probably not ideal. At the very least it seems at odds with the Arab Spring-era line that social media was going to be the thing that topples dictators.

Propaganda directed against the Chinese government is probably among the more useful things the various USAGM publishers could be doing in the world at the moment. It’s certainly more useful than most things that Radio Free Europe does today. But if the White House is going to criticize VOA for publishing unverified Chinese death statistics, it’s fair to note that they have also published unverified material that is unflattering to China, too.

Voice of America and its sister publications are part of the American soft power apparatus, their essential function is as propaganda. That’s what it was founded to do during the Roosevelt Administration, and we shouldn’t pretend it’s anything other than that. So long as it exists, the only question is whose propaganda it’s going to put out. Today it’s material that suits the foreign policy preferences of liberal internationalists and neoconservatives. We should not be so optimistic as to assume that a new chairman is going to change that, but one still hopes Trump gets his way.

leave a comment

1234567