James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
  • If you've been wondering about NW flight 188 (updated)

    That's the one that "missed" Minneapolis, overshot by 150 miles or so, then did a U-turn over Wisconsin before returning for a safe landing. Afterwards the two pilots said they had been "distracted" by a discussion about new scheduling software on their computers and therefore just didn't notice that they were out of touch with air traffic controllers for 90 minutes. The FAA, in no-nonsense fashion, soon revoked the pilot certificates for both men.

    The always-informative AVweb has an update on several developments.  A PDF of the original emergency-revocation letter from the FAA is here; a PDF of the pilots' legal appeal is here. Selections from the recordings of Air Traffic Control attempts to reach the plane are here.

    I am not a lawyer or an airline pilot, but it seems to me that the heart of the two sides' cases are the contentions below. First, from the FAA letter explaining the emergency revocation. Click for a larger view, plus a chance to see the surprisingly colorful language government officials chose to use ("while you were on a frolic of your own" etc).

    FaaLetter.png


    Now, one of a long series of defenses offered by the pilots' attorney -- in this case, that controllers (in some unspecified way) didn't do their duty and therefore added to the problem.
    AppealLetter.png
    As always, judge for yourself. I will be interested to hear the full arguments about dereliction of duty on all sides.

    UPDATE: Well, I said I wasn't a lawyer! Apparently the "colorful" language I noted, "on a frolic of your own," is a known term of art in the law world, sort of like "high crimes and misdemeanors" or "Oyez! Oyez!" (It involves whether an employer is vicariously liable for the deeds or misdeeds of an employee.) Now I know! Thanks to legally-educated readers for the info.
  • Historical precedent for Obama's Oslo speech

    As noted yesterday and before, William Faulkner's practically-haiku-length acceptance address on receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949 is the best known of these presentations.

    But reader Ken Weisbrode pointed me to the address that may have most in common with Obama's speech yesterday morning, and to a fascinating background account of that speech. Fifty-six years ago today, on December 11, 1953, George Marshall gave his Nobel Lecture, which explained, among other things, the effort to reconstruct Europe generally known as the "Marshall Plan." Yesterday Obama named Marshall among the "giants of history" who had won the prize and in comparison with whom "my accomplishments are slight."

    As a work of sheer rhetoric, Marshall's Nobel speech is not that memorable. He preemptively apologized, in forelock-tugging fashion, by saying that "I lack the magic and artistry of that great orator whom the Nobel Committee in Stockholm so appropriately honored yesterday" -- Winston Churchill, who had just accepted his (improbable) Nobel Prize for Literature. Certainly Marshall's most memorable major speech was his Harvard commencement address in 1947, which laid out the necessity of helping Europe recover after World War II. That speech began with remarkable directness:

    "I need not tell you, gentlemen, that the world situation is very serious. That must be apparent to all intelligent people."

    But two aspects of Marshall's Nobel lecture make it valuable reading now. One is its parallel with Obama's argument that military power, and in specific American power, was necessary but not sufficient for maintaining durable peace. For instance, after describing the emerging Cold War tensions in divided Europe and the ongoing war in Korea, he said:

    "These opening remarks may lead you to assume that my suggestions for the advancement of world peace will rest largely on military strength. For the moment the maintenance of peace in the present hazardous world situation does depend in very large measure on military power, together with Allied cohesion. But the maintenance of large armies for an indefinite period is not a practical or a promising basis for policy. We must stand together strongly for these present years, that is, in this present situation; but we must, I repeat, we must find another solution, and that is what I wish to discuss this evening."

    The other timely aspect is an essay published six years ago today, which, if I ever noticed it in the first place, I had forgotten about until Weisbrode pointed it out. It is by Andrew Goodpaster, former NATO supreme commander, and it describes the background of Marshall's speech, which Goodpaster helped write. If Goodpaster, who died in 2005 at age 90, knew the name "Barack Obama" at all, it was probably only as a speaker at the Democratic convention in 2004. But his description of the thinking behind Marshall's speech is a surprisingly interesting complement to the decisions Obama made in presenting himself as a Peace laureate who had just ordered additional troops to war. Worth reading.

    Also: Weisbrode is author of the new book The Atlantic Century, which is great despite my initial disappointment in realizing that it is not the story of an outstanding American magazine.

  • Obama's Nobel speech

    Just after Barack Obama was chosen for the Nobel Prize, I confidently predicted that his acceptance address would not become the second-ever truly memorable address in the long history of such presentations by storied writers, thinkers, leaders, etc. The only acceptance speech that is still remembered and quoted is William Faulkner's three-minute address on receiving the prize for literature in 1949.

    I believe that prediction is still safe; and in terms of Obama's own political reputation and momentum, today's address will not supplant the most important speech he has delivered: the one he gave in Philadelphia, about race relations, in March, 2008. But this was a very good and serious speech, which like many of his major addresses -- the Inaugural address, the one in Prague about nuclear weapons, the one in Cairo on relations with the Islamic world -- will stand re-reading and close inspection, and which shared an obvious intellectual and structural architecture with all his other major addresses. Those trademark elements include:

    The embrace of contradictions (in this case, a defense of war as a means to peace); the long view; the emphasis on institution-building; the concern about the distortion of religious and ethnic loyalties; and above all a consciousness that was once called Niebuhrian and at this rate will someday be "Obamian," which emphasizes the importance of steady steps forward in an inevitably flawed world. As Obama said near the end of this speech:

    "Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature. We are fallible. We make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptations of pride, and power, and sometimes evil. Even those of us with the best intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us.

    "But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected."

    Operational and lower-level political notes: Obama mentioned the past winners who did long-term architectural work in a violent and difficult world -- George Marshall, Henry Dunant of the Red Cross -- along with the King / Mandela idealistic examples. He mentioned, favorably, former presidents Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan; but did not speak the names of the two recent American Peace Prize winners Carter and Gore. As with his Philadelphia speech, he made the speech about the most awkward issue of the moment, rather than trying to avoid it. (In Philadelphia, the racially inflammatory rhetoric of Rev. Jeremiah Wright; in Oslo, his predicament as a war president getting a peace price.) I don't think he provided even a five-second passage of the speech that could be isolated by U.S. opponents to show that he was "apologizing" for America. Also, a fascinatingly direct touch in the "presentation speech" by the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel committee. With Obama sitting next to him, he said:

    "Commenting on the award, President Obama said he did not feel that he deserved to be in the company of so many transformative figures that have been honoured by this prize, and whose courageous pursuit of peace has inspired the world. But he added that he also knew that the Nobel Prize had not just been used to honor specific achievements, but also to give momentum to a set of causes. The Prize could thus represent "a call to action".

    "President Obama has understood the Norwegian Nobel Committee perfectly."

    Main point, which is consistent across Obama's major addresses and different from most presidential discourse: this will probably seem better, on re-reading and with passage of time, than it did when coming across live. Faulkner is safe, but Obama rose to the moment.

  • At last there's proof: 44% of Americans are crazy

    According to the latest Pew poll on US attitudes on international affairs, 44% of Americans think that the world's leading economic power is... China. Only 27% think it's the United States. Here's the somewhat blurry chart from the report.

    PewPoll1.png

    As Barack Obama would say: Let me be clear. People who think this are crazy. Or, to be more gentle, they are really woefully misinformed about what the world is like.

    You could address this point with, you know, "facts." Almost no one in the United States is a peasant farmer. Most people in China are. Nearly everyone in America has indoor plumbing. Most people in China don't. Japan has one-tenth as many people as China, yet its economy is larger -- the second largest in the world. America's is of course largest of all, three times larger than Japan's and about four times larger than China's. Name 20 large American corporations that do business worldwide. Without trying, you can probably name 50. Try to name even 10 from China. Name the most recent winner of a Nobel prize in science from a Chinese university or research institution. (Hint: this is a trick question.)

    But visual aids may somehow convey messages that "facts" don't get across. Toward that end, it's worth checking out a much-circulated recent post on the ChinaSmack blog -- a site that translates popular Chinese posts into English. It's about practical living circumstances in a Beijing elite university district.** Here's a sample photo:

    beijing-university-graduate-lifestyle.jpg

    It ain't Princeton.

    As I'll explain at greater length in the next "State of the Union" issue of the Atlantic, China is big, fast-growing, important, and interesting. But the world's leading economic power? Someday, perhaps. But now, no way.

    In unrelated news, I see that 44% of the public wishes that the 43rd president were still in office. I'm not sure which is the less heartening thought: that these are the same 44% who think that China is already #1, or that a total of 88% of the public holds one of the other of these views.*

    ____
    * To clarify in response to query, obviously I am mentioning here the two boundary cases. One extreme is total overlap between the two 44% groups, so that the same 44% of the public thinks China is all-powerful and wishes GW Bush were still in the White House. The other extreme is zero overlap between the two, so that no one who thinks China is on top wants Bush back, and vice versa. Then the two groups would total 88%. In the real world it's somewhere in between.

    ** Also to clarify, this is not from the elite university district, Haidian. Still, I've seen a lot of places like this.

  • Chrome for Mac

    Bootleg* versions of Google's Chrome browser, for the Mac, have been in circulation for several months. The "official beta" was released yesterday. Info and download available here. People who follow this are already aware, but I mention it for the record.

    I am in the polytheistic phase of all aspects of my computer life. I do my work on three Macs (MB Air, MB Pro, and Mini) -- but also run WindowsXP and Windows programs on all of them, under VMware Fusion. I also keep a blighted Vista/ThinkPad alive, as a networked backup for my other machines. In various circumstances I use Chrome, Firefox, IE, Safari, and even Opera and iRider for web functions, though I probably use Firefox at least 75% of the time, mainly because of its extensions. Chrome is appealing because it's so fast and because its modular structure allows easier recovery from freeze-ups and crashes. Also, the Windows version of Chrome now has some Firefox-like extensions available. Un-surprisingly, Chrome seems especially well-matched to Gmail and Google Calendar. More surprisingly, Chrome for the Mac (unlike Firefox for the Mac) does not support "Google Gears," the plug-in that allows you to use Gmail offline etc. If you try to load it you get see this message:
    ChromeGears.png
    Still the entry of each new deity into the polytheist's tech pantheon is cause for thanks. Therefore I'm glad to see this new option.
    __
    * By "bootleg" I did not mean "pirated" or "illegal," I meant only that it wasn't in convenient, authorized, downloadable-by-the-masses form. Developers have been able to get source code for quite a while from sites like this.

  • A good story in the Washington Post, and then...

    Yesterday I mentioned that the Washington Post had covered the recent climate-email story as another interesting political flap, whereas the NYT had noted that the email controversy did not affect the status of "decades of peer-reviewed science" on the climate front.

    Today's WaPo has a strong story doing just what I said newspaper reporters often find difficult: Saying flat-out that certain claims are true (or false), without relying on "critics contend" quotes to that effect. The story is by Lois Romano and Alec MacGillis; it concerns Sen. Joe Lieberman's recent comments on health-care reform legislation; and it says plainly that Lieberman is wrong. For instance (emphasis added by me):

    "Lieberman says the public option is a sop to supporters of full government-run health insurance. He argues that the proposal lacks public support, although polls show a majority favor the concept. He says the government has no place in providing health insurance, despite its role in overseeing Medicare and Medicaid.

    "Most of all, he insists that a public option would drive the country further into debt. But this argument muddles how the new system will function and is at odds with independent assessments... A strong public option would lower the bill's cost by tens of billions of dollars, the Congressional Budget Office found....

    "Confronted with the cost-saving assessments of a strong public option, Lieberman concedes the point, but he says an aggressive government-run plan would put undue pressures on medical providers and force them to shift costs to private insurers. Put simply, he opposes the public option in any form, regardless of whether it reduces costs.

    I note this in fairness, and in support.

    On the other hand, I see just now, online, that tomorrow the Post is publishing an op-ed on climate science by.... Sarah Palin! She is beyond doubt a celebrity and a political phenomenon. But who, exactly, has ever said that she knows anything op-ed worthy about climate change and climate science? I look forward to the "we are a serious newspaper" explanation for this choice.

    Update: I see that the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder weighed in on this point earlier this evening.

  • If you want to think about China this evening...

    ... the National Committee on US-China Relations, an established (and Establishment) group dedicated to "constructive engagement" between the countries, is having a live "Town Hall" session from 8-8:45pm Eastern time with Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

    I mention this mainly because of the surprising scale of the undertaking. In addition to the webcast with Campbell, there will be local, live sessions in some 40 cities in the U.S. and China by a wide roster of China experts -- to choose one example, Sidney Rittenberg, in Phoenix. The full list is at the bottom of this page. Registration for webcast here. If I weren't going to be at an Atlantic meeting on a related but different topic at just that time, I'd listen in.

    While I'm at it, here is one more example of the humiliating failure of Barack Obama's recent trip to Asia, which Kurt Campbell will presumably discuss. It's an item from the East Asia Forum, in England from the Australian National University in Canberra*, about some promising developments regarding North Korea in the wake of the trip. In passing it mentions my own arguments with mainstream coverage of the trip, but I cite it now because of the news and analysis there concerning North Korea. FWIW

    * Brainlock episode: the author of the article, Amy King, is now at Oxford, in England; the EAF journal itself is from the ANU, in Australia -- as I knew in some corner of my brain but did not convey to my fingers while typing.

  • Dramatic video of how unemployment has spread (updated)

    I am a sucker for geographically-based displays of just about any data. (And this is not just because the world's leading company for "Geographic Information Systems" software, or GIS, is the ESRI firm of Redlands, California, founded and owned by a home-town family friend, Jack Dangermond. More on that another time.)

    The DC-based writer Latoya Egwuekwe has put together a particularly effective short video of how unemployment has spread across the country since early 2007. Like any such display, it's imperfect -- for instance, the employment info appears to be county-by-county, which makes some big, lightly-populated areas look more important than some geographically-small cities. Still, it really gets the idea across. YouTube link is here; embedded video below.



    UPDATE: A reader points out that the fine print in the chart above says that the data come from a 12-month moving average of each county's unemployment rate. As she points out, "While that's nice, it will make the start of the recession look less bad and one year later look more bad." That is, the onset of unemployment was more sudden than the graphic indicates -- and improvement, when it happens, will also be faster than the moving average shows.

  • They could study this in journalism schools: NYT v WaPo on climate emails

    This is a long post, but likely about the last one for several days, so it all evens out...

    I am trying to avoid gratuitous NYT/WaPo comparisons, because like all publications they are trying their best in difficult conditions. I subscribe to both and wish them both well. But their respective front-page stories on the same subject -- two days ago in the Post, and this morning in the NYT -- present a very interesting contrast. Both stories are about the leaked/stolen emails from the University of East Anglia and what they may say about the basic science of climate change.

    Let's start with the story in today's NYT story. The added emphasis is from me:

    In Face of Skeptics, Experts Affirm Climate Peril


    Just two years ago, a United Nations panel that synthesizes the work of hundreds of climatologists around the world called the evidence for global warming "unequivocal."

    But as representatives of about 200 nations converge in Copenhagen on Monday to begin talks on a new international climate accord, they do so against a background of renewed attacks on the basic science of climate change.

    The debate, set off by the circulation of several thousand files and e-mail messages stolen from one of the world's foremost climate research institutes, has led some who oppose limits on greenhouse gas emissions, and at least one influential country, Saudi Arabia, to question the scientific basis for the Copenhagen talks.

    The uproar has threatened to complicate a multiyear diplomatic effort already ensnared in difficult political, technical and financial disputes that have caused leaders to abandon hopes of hammering out a binding international climate treaty this year.

    In recent days, an array of scientists and policy makers have said that nothing so far disclosed-- the correspondence and documents include references by prominent climate scientists to deleting potentially embarrassing e-mail messages, keeping papers by competing scientists from publication and making adjustments in research data -- undercuts decades of peer-reviewed science.


    On Saturday, also on its front page, the Washington Post reported the same story this way:

        -- In e-mails, science of warming is hot debate

    Stolen files of 'Climate-gate' suggest some viewpoints on change are disregarded

    By David A. Fahrenthold and Juliet Eilperin Washington Post Staff Writer Saturday, December 5, 2009

    It began with an anonymous Internet posting, and a link to a wonky set of e-mails and files. Stolen, apparently, from a research center in Britain, the files showed the leaders of climate-change science discussing flaws in their own data, and seemingly scheming to muzzle their critics.

    Now it has mushroomed into what is being called "Climate-gate," a scandal that has done what many slide shows and public-service ads could not: focus public attention on the science of a warming planet.

    Except now, much of that attention is focused on the science's flaws. Leaked just before international climate talks begin in Copenhagen -- the culmination of years of work by scientists to raise alarms about greenhouse-gas emissions -- the e-mails have cast those scientists in a political light and given new energy to others who think the issue of climate change is all overblown.

    The e-mails don't say that: They don't provide proof that human-caused climate change is a lie or a swindle.

    But they do raise hard questions. In an effort to control what the public hears, did prominent scientists who link climate change to human behavior try to squelch a back-and-forth that is central to the scientific method? Is the science of global warming messier than they have admitted?

    The two stories are worth reading in full, and side-by-side. I won't belabor all the contrasts and implications but will make this point: A very frequent criticism of the mainstream press is that reporters are hesitant to say, "This is true, and that is false." Instead, they usually feel safest in the "critics contend" zone, "neutrally" reporting what each side says. Eg, "Critics contend that the health-care reform bill will require the elderly to face 'death panels'; Administration officials disagree."

    In this case one big-time paper, the Post, sticks with "critics contend," while the other presents a contrast between "decades of peer-reviewed science" and politically-motivated opposition. Moreover, the NYT presents the controversy as something that might get in the way of deliberations in Copenhagen; while the Post presents it as a scandal in which "wonky" emails may not constitute "proof" that climate change is a "lie or a swindle" but still justify introducing "lie" and "swindle" as possibilities.

    Not to overdramatize, but: in a way the papers are betting their reputations with these articles. The Times, that climate change is simply a matter of science versus ignorance; the Post, that this is best treated as another "-Gate" style flap where it's hard to get to the bottom of the story. While I don't claim to be a climate expert, the overwhelming balance of what I've read convinces me that the Times's approach is right. For now, I'm mainly noting the stark contrast. (Thanks to S. Corneliussen for tip.)

  • Yet more on expelling China's long-time foreign teachers

    Below and after the jump, reactions from readers in and around China to some reports (here, here, and here) about foreigners who can't get teaching visas to China renewed, and therefore must leave the country, because they have reached age 60. To boil down the themes that recur in messages I've received:

    1) Circumstances naturally vary place to place and institution to institution. Some people say they're having no trouble staying on, at whatever age; others, that a crackdown really does seem to be under way.

    2) Lots of other countries have mandatory retirement ages of 55, 60, 62, etc; and if visas there are tied to jobs, foreigners sometimes have to leave.

    3) Historically Chinese institutions have used age brackets, or other "categorical" exclusions, as an excuse to move out people they wanted to expel for other reasons.

    4) What seems to be an age-related crackdown might actually be aimed at people who have been in China for a long time -- a related but different objective.

    Details and testimony below. What this all amounts to I can't be sure, but FWIW many people have reported hearing of a new emphasis on enforcing the letter of often-ignored laws about visas.
    ___
    -- About the bottom-line practicality of many institutions, a reader in Vietnam writes:

    "We taught for three and half years on a series of extended student visas in China.
    "We were also paid in cash once a month.
    "There is always a work around in the PRC if there is sufficient guanxi." ["Connections" -- for more, see here.]

    -- More on exceptions and practical reasons for the policy; a reader in China writes:

    "I am not an English teacher in China, though I have lived here for 11 years and have known several. As everything else goes here, there are exceptions to the sixty rule. I know a man who is 65+ and teaching in Shandong. He has been in China for longer than I have been here, and I assume that he will be here a lot longer too. I cannot imagine that he is the only one.

    "My understanding is that much of this depends (surprise! surprise!) on who know, how well you know them, and how much your university is willing to fight for you to stay. Also, being good at your job and being high profile is not necessarily the best thing to be if you want to continue on past sixty. That sort of 'success' draws attention....

    More »

  • Another gift possibility

    In the Atlantic's special on-line "Editors' Choice" gift guide, I aim very high with my own wish-list item, on the principle of "if you don't ask, you'll never know." But in case you're not quite motivated to get me that item (a flying boat), a nice second choice would be the completely solar-powered airplane that took its first flight in Switzerland this past week. Note: the opening scenes in the video below, which show the plane soaring over the Alps, are very definitely in the "artist's conception" category.

    More YouTube shots here. Okay, it didn't fly very long (maybe 30 seconds) or very high (a few feet above the runway surface) -- but it flew, with no external power of any sort! And 106 years ago, the Wright brothers' plane stayed aloft for only 12 seconds the first time. I will never get over the fact that there is an actual photo of that first flight, from the Smithsonian:

    Thumbnail image for new1.jpg

    I'll promised to act surprised if I find any of these craft under the tree. (Thanks to Michael Ham for the idea.)


  • More on the ousted foreign teachers in China

    Earlier this week I mentioned James and Sallie Bishop, foreigners teaching English at a provincial university in China who have been told that they must leave the country because they have reached age 60. Background here and here.

    Many things in China are true where they are true -- and untrue, or true in different ways, in other parts of the country under other circumstances with other local officials interpreting and applying the rules. I've received a large number of reports from across China, some recounting situations like the Bishops', others saying that there's no change and no problem. I'll start with these two:
     
    First, from a young Westerner who has taught in China but is now in Europe as a graduate student. He says:

    "Just a word regarding Mr. Bishop's situation. I am just hearing from two of my expat friends who have been teaching in Chengdu for 3 and 4 years each, that a new visa regulation is being enforced, which will force all but a very select group of people to leave the country for at least one year after having been there for 5 years more or less continuously.  Whats that all about? Great teachers who like their jobs and would be happy to stay are forced to leave the country for a year? I don't want to know how many of them will find a job some place else in that year off and never come back."

    Next, from someone who says there is no problem -- and indeed a market for older teachers:

    "I read your article on the banning of teachers over the age of 60 in China and I just wanted to let you know that this is not true across the country.  For years, we [a volunteer group] have been sending  60-100 teachers a year to teach in a number of universities in China and for the most part, they are retired, over the age of 60 and the schools are now saying that they should be under the age of 80!  Many of the teachers we send are for short-term summer and fall classes, but many stay on for long-term teaching assignments.  I suspect that they are watched closely to see that their characters are acceptable before the offers of longer contracts are made."

    The reader goes on to offer a hypothesis about how Chinese officials have used age limits in the past as convenient excuses to remove foreigners. It raises sensitive issues, which I'll deal with in a separate post. On a constructive note, here is a reader suggestion about a group that has often placed older people in teaching positions in China: Teach For Friendship, which is based in Tucson but deals with teachers from across the U.S. and Canada.

  • China quote of the day

    " 'Maybe it's because we owe China so much money, so they're taking their panda back,' said Desiree Bryce, a mathematics teacher from Hope County Charter School, which was also visiting the zoo."

    On news that Tai Shan, the much-beloved young panda at Washington's National Zoo, will soon be heading back to the birthplace of his parents. Tai Shan, having been born on American soil at the Zoo, is eligible to become president.

    (Tai Shan in his youth, About.com photo.)
    Tai-dec2205.jpg


    Tai Shan was scheduled to go back to China anyway in 2007, at age two; so his extended stay may have been part of a shrewd charm offensive by the Chinese government. For more on pandas in general, check the Atlantic's coverage here and here; on owing money to China, here; on charm offensives or their lack, here. Good luck, Tai Shan! And thanks to panda fan Daniel Lippman.
  • Afghanistan for beginners

    The vast majority of Americans have to take arguments about Afghanistan more or less on trust. We just don't have enough experience there to speak with confidence about tribal relations, or the possibilities of national coherence, or the effects pro and con of injecting more foreign troops, or the many other factors that matter in shaping America's policy. This is true to a degree on all questions of international relations. But it is particularly acute here because the Obama Administration's decision to increase the U.S. commitment, ostensibly en route to decreasing it, rests fundamentally on two judgment calls:

    1) Whether Al Qaeda/related terrorist groups really do depend so heavily on a specific geographic base in Afghanistan that, if the U.S. can disrupt them there, we won't have to apply similar efforts later on in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, or anyplace else.

    2) Whether a limited increase in U.S. troops, for a limited amount of time, really can make a decisive difference -- in the long-term stability of the Afghan regime, in the competence of the police and military, in the resistance to a Taliban or terrorist return, and so on, after allowing for any friction or hostility created by the additional presence of U.S. troops.

    I am no expert on either point.* But I know these things: for Obama's strategy to pan out, the answer on both calls had better turn out to be Yes. And my observation of the world over the years makes me assume, fear, and expect that the answer to #2 is going to be No. That is what I meant just after the speech in saying, "I hope he's right." The alternatives are grim.
    ____
    * On the first point: People I respect strongly argue exactly contrary cases. For instance, six weeks ago Matthew Hoh stressed in his resignation letter that the logic of fighting in Afghanistan, "if honest... would require us to additionally invade and occupy western Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, etc." Yesterday on NPR Andrew Bacevich made a similar case: we were going to the source of the Al Qaeda problem circa 2001, which may or may not have anything to do with the problem ca 2011. On the other side, genuine experts on Afghanistan like Steve Coll have argued that the circumstances in that region truly are unique, and that a disruption of terrorist activities there would make a significant difference.

    Again, for this strategy to work, both assumptions have to prove true: the goal must be attainable (#2); and once attained it must prove sufficient and effective in addressing the underlying problem (#1). We're back in the realm of hope.

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