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.
  • Well, I hope he's right

    I don't pretend to know enough about Afghanistan to have a confident view of what to do about it. Fred Kaplan, who knows a lot more than I do, says that he too is torn. But I have been very skeptical of increasing U.S. commitment there, for the reason that Barack Obama tonight identified as one of the sources of possible objection to his policy:

    "First, there are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam.  They argue that it cannot be stabilized, and we're better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing.  I believe this argument depends on a false reading of history.  Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action.  Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency.  And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border."

    "Another Vietnam"... well, not exactly. There are far more differences than similarities between the situations. (History of colonialism; effects of partition; charismatic nationalist leader; topography; scale; nature of combat; larger Cold War dynamic and spillover; and I could go on.) And even to say "another Vietnam" discredits opposition in suggesting that it's a reflexive and undiscriminating reaction to the traumas of another age.

    The real question is whether another 30,000 troops and another year or two can make a difference -- whether this new commitment will meet the test that Obama announced a few minutes later in the speech: "As President, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests." I have resisted this additional commitment, because I have felt that it went beyond our responsibility, our means, and our interests. Since this is the course we're now set on, I hope his assessment -- that this can make a difference -- turns out to be right.

  • A little more on Cheney

    I have received a number of angry emails (plus supportive ones!) about this item earlier today, complimenting George W. Bush's dignity in his post-presidential year as prelude to criticizing Dick Cheney's angry, hyper-partisan attacks on the Obama Administration.

    The angriest complaints boil down to:
    - What about Al Gore?
    - What about Jimmy Carter?
    - What about Bill Clinton?

    Hyper-literal as this may seem, here are the two important differences between the comportment of previous ex-Presidents and Vice Presidents who have gotten re-involved in political discussions and what we have seen in the past year from Dick Cheney.

    1) In previous cases, the former officials have waited well over a year before criticizing the policies of their successors. After the extremely controversial (to put it mildly) resolution of the 2000 election, Al Gore was notable for his reluctance to question either the legitimacy of George W. Bush's selection or the policies he pursued. He did not clearly challenge Bush's policies until late September, 2002, with his frontal dissent from the impending invasion of Iraq in his  remarkable speech at the Commonwealth Club of California. Jimmy Carter played no significant role in the debate over Ronald Reagan's tax cuts in 1981, nor did Bill Clinton in the debate over Bush's tax cuts in 2001. As best I remember (and as best I can now determine), neither George H.W. Bush nor Dan Quayle played a role in Bill Clinton's big legislative struggles in 1993.

    2) In previous cases, former Presidents and Vice Presidents have been slow to question the character, loyalty, or patriotism of their successors, as Cheney has unmistakably done with Obama. For instance: Jimmy Carter had a very low opinion of Ronald Reagan, but it was many years before he allowed himself to be quoted to anything like that effect. And: I interviewed Bill Clinton for this magazine nearly two years after left office. He went out of his way not to be personally critical of George W. Bush, even though his wife was then in the middle of partisan politics in the Senate.

    So we have a former Vice President who has observed no cooling-off/decent-interval period whatsoever before criticizing the policies of his successor; and who has directly attacked a new president's character, strength, and willingness to defend the nation's interests. We have had bad Vice Presidents through the nation's long history; I don't know of any precedent for this behavior.

  • In praise of George W. Bush

    Since the results of the 2008 election became clear, the 43rd President of the United States has behaved in a way that brings honor to him, his family, his office, and his country. By all reports he did what he could to smooth the transition to his successor, including dealing with the house-is-burning-down world financial crisis. Since leaving office he has -- like most of his predecessors in their first years out of power -- maintained a dignified distance from public controversies and let the new team have its chance. He has acted as if aware that there are national interests larger than his own possible interests in score-settling or reputational-repair.

    The former vice president, Dick Cheney, has brought dishonor to himself, his office, and his country. I am not aware of another former President or Vice President behaving as despicably as Cheney has done in the ten months since leaving power, most recently but not exclusively with his comments to Politico about Obama's decisions on Afghanistan. (Aaron Burr might win the title, for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, but Burr was a sitting Vice President at the time.) Cheney has acted as if utterly unconcerned with the welfare of his country, its armed forces, or the people now trying to make difficult decisions. He has put narrow score-settling interest far, far above national interest.

    The mystery is that Cheney has been through this process before. As chief of staff in Gerald Ford's White House, he was in charge of the transition to the Jimmy Carter team after Ford narrowly lost in 1976. Anyone who dealt with him then was impressed by his openness, his awareness of continuing national interest, his lack of bitterness -- and overall his resemblance to the George W. Bush of 2009. Whatever happened to that Dick Cheney is a matter of mystery. If only he would, for one moment, just shut up and follow the post-transition example of all three presidents he served: Ford, Bush, and Bush.

    Update: Please see this followup, if you're tempted to ask: "What about Carter? What about Gore?"

  • Chinese view of greatest threats

    The Lowy Institute, in Sydney, today released a poll of Chinese attitudes about their own country, its prospects, its relations with the outside world, and so on. Like statistics on almost anything coming out of China, opinion-survey results from there should be considered approximations of reality at best. (For instance, it is just about impossible to get reliable results from the poor, rural majority of China's population. Therefore polls unavoidably make the responding public seem more educated, urbanized, richer, etc than the whole Chinese public is.) But taken at face value many of these findings are interesting. For instance, on the major threats to China's well-being:

    LowyPoll1.jpg

    Click for a more detailed version, but the first two on the list are environmental, and the third involves Japan. Number four is possible American attempts to hold China back. Or, on one of my favorite hobby-horses, the importance of attracting Chinese (and other) students to the U.S. for education:

    LowyPoll2.jpg


    The whole report is available in PDF from the Lowy home page, here; ongoing discussion on the Lowy "Interpreter" site, e.g. here.

  • From an American traveling in China

    About the ripple effects of Barack Obama's disastrous and embarrassing trip to Asia:

    "I have just returned home to Connecticut after a month in northwest China.  I know you've probably exhausted yourself in venting your outrage at the pitifully poor coverage of the Obama visit to China by our 'mainstream' press, but I'm writing to add just one more voice to the chorus of people with on-the-ground experience in China, who can't seem to wrap our heads around what actually happened and what was reported. 

    "I was literally stopped in the streets of Yinchuan [Ningxia autonomous region, pretty remote, where these pics were taken], due to my being easily spotted as an American, by people of all walks of life who spoke and gestured enthusiastically about the impact that this American president was having and would have on their very lives.  It was exhilarating for me, having all too often suffered through explanations about why American leadership doesn't 'get it' where Asia is concerned.  My dinner conversations were enlivened in ways I wouldn't have imagined even three years ago.

    "In a region where one dares not discuss the 'human rights' agenda of the West, we talked openly and loudly and positively, frequently led by young aspiring Party members, about Obama's subtle but effective challenge to China's leadership to open up the society.  Almost all of my university colleagues and most of our students have Facebook accounts and use Twitter in this remote region of China, and all are upset... yes, angry... that they can not communicate using what they know are the most popular social media tools in the West.... 

    "As one who has long been worried about the direction of our fourth estate, I'm feeling little comforted by what I read and watched in our Western press and cable news while in China.  As an American far from home, especially during one of our most hallowed of holidays, Thanksgiving, I felt even more distant from that proverbial 'City upon a Hill.'"
  • Gift thoughts for the holidays

    I am a fan of nearly every kind of small aircraft, but I might draw the line here:

    Helicopter.jpg

    It's a personal helicopter, really two rotors on a hat. Action video here, from Makezine (thanks to Dave Proffer). As it happens, one of my upcoming New Year's resolutions is to get back into aviation actively. But avoiding this hat-helo would be consistent with two of my rules for a happy flying career: Don't fly anything that's not factory-built (sorry, home-crafters); and fly only airplanes, not helicopters. More on all of this another time.
  • More on "many nations of China"

    Two weeks ago, I mentioned Patrick Chovanec's Atlantic feature, "The Nine Nations of China," which included this map of regional differences within the country:

    Chovanec.jpg


    Shortly thereafter the Shanghaiist had a further riff on the theme, with maps of China representing the mental images of people from different parts of China. For instance, China as seen by people from Shanghai:
    ShanghaiMap.jpg

    And according to people from Hong Kong:
    HKMap.jpg

    The spirit is that of Steinberg's famous map of the USA as seen from Manhattan. Worth checking out.
  • Asian politics, American politics, press fail (updated)

    My colleague Marc Ambinder has just published a very astute and important, and in its way very depressing, analysis. It is an assessment of the Washington press corps' reluctance to look outward, to what we might quaintly call the "real" world, as opposed to informing itself purely with its own inside assessments of "narratives" and "perceptions" and "optics."

    Yes, all those "perceived" things matter. In the real world, Gerald Ford had been a collegiate all-star football player; in the world of optics, he became a stumblebum, thanks his misstep on an Air Force One stairway and the virtuosity of Chevy Chase's subsequent riffs on SNL. Ford lost by a surprisingly narrow margin to Jimmy Carter in 1976; the bumbler image was part of the reason. I was working for Carter during that campaign, and we exulted in a front-page photo of Ford at a stop in Texas eating a tamale -- corn-husk wrapper and all, which fit the bumbler theme.

    Perceptions have always been part of political life, and always will be. But the purpose of the press is supposed to be giving reality a better chance. And as Marc Ambinder demonstrates, this past two-week episode of Obama-in-Asia represents a really flagrant and consequential failure in that regard.

    Ambinder's assessment tees off a new Politico item by John Harris that is a distillation of the "perception is all we care about" approach to the world. Yes, I realize -- as Ambinder obviously does -- that the topic of the Politico item is perception itself. But in talking about a damaging story line (one of seven!) the Obama Administration has to fight, the item asserts as truth something that simply is false*, and that seemed "true" only to White House reporters judging a diplomatic trip as if it were a series of stump speeches on a campaign swing. Actually, it's worse than that. If the trip to Asia had in fact been a campaign swing, political reporters would probably have been amenable to a more sophisticated analysis: what matters isn't the boilerplate at the press conference, it's the developments we see over the next weeks or months. That's a kind of looking-beyond-the-obvious that politicos would pride themselves in when thinking about, say, pledged-delegate counts or vote-wrangling in the House. For whatever reason, it didn't happen when it came to the substance of dealing with China.

    Essentially we have journalism about an important topic -- America's relations with the country that has a lot to do with our environmental and financial well-being, plus with the prospects for containing Iran -- presented as if it were coverage of another branch of pro sports. What's the difference? In sports, the only thing we finally care about is how well the game is played. People in Washington are depressed because the Redskins are so terrible, but that's not going to cause a run on the dollar or lead to international crises. The interestingness and drama are the only point. But the "sport" of negotiating with China involves something that are objectively very important -- as Ambinder, to his credit, goes on to examine by asking, "is the damaging story actually true?"

    This is about as destructive a case of "who cares about the realities?" press mentality as I remember since miscoverage of the Clinton health care plan 15 years ago, as described here and here. (I am excepting the buildup to the Iraq war, when there were a lot of other factors at play.) I have said several times before that I'll give the theme a rest -- and maybe this time I finally will, leaving it in Ambinder's hands. But it matters.
    _____
    * Arguments that it is false and jejune: here, here, here, here, and further links from those items too. Later today I'll create an omnibus "Obama in Asia" category for these posts. UPDATE: As a way out of this topic, I have now tagged all 12 related posts, including this one, with the "Obama in Asia" marker, and they can be found in reverse chronological order here.

  • Before the Afghanistan speech, two more views on China

    Two readers with hypotheses about Obama's mission to China and its "failure." First, from a reader with a lot of experience outside the United States:

    "Those media people who portraited Obama's visit to China as a failure simply had little idea about Chinese political culture. The way the Chinese government does things is that they cannot give people the impression that they are yielding to other governments' pressure. So if you come to lecture the Chinese government, you'll be disappointed. But if you come and show your respect and humility, you may well get what you wanted. Last time the Renminbi was re-evaluated [allowed to float], it did not occur when American politicians were lecturing China to do so, but when the shouts from Washington were relatively mild. This time, China stressed that its announcement of carbon emission targets was a "voluntary" action, even though we all know it had something to do with Obama's visit. [JF note: This all rings 100% true to me.]

    "When it comes to international reporting, American media is generally too quick to draw conclusions and too much on the surface. Maybe now you can have a better idea of why so many well-informed Chinese people are often so frustrated at American media's coverage of Chinese affairs. It is not because they are just "Chinese nationalists", as American media like to believe."

    Then, from a reader in the US:

    "Just a thought -- is it possible that the media's negative portrayal of Obama's China trip is giving the Chinese government cover to be more conciliatory than it otherwise might have been? As persuasive as Obama might be in private, the Chinese might be reluctant to give him the appearance of a major "victory" over them; but since his trip has been viewed as a "failure," they do not lose face when they make concessions.

    "Perhaps the media actually helped Obama's case!"

    And perhaps this is long-sought conclusive proof of a liberal media conspiracy to prop up Obama! For the record, I take a much more positive view of Obama's efforts and results on the Asian trip than I expect to about the new buildup in Afghanistan, if that is indeed what he will announce. More on that anon.

  • The humiliating Obama-in-Asia failures mount up

    NYT front-page lead story today:
    NYTNov28.jpg
    From the story:

    "WASHINGTON -- The United Nations nuclear watchdog demanded Friday that Iran immediately freeze operations at a once secret uranium enrichment plant,  a sharp rebuke that bore added weight because it was endorsed by Russia and China...

    "Administration officials held up the statement as a victory for President Obama's diplomatic efforts to coax both Russia and China to increase the pressure on Iran. They said that they had begun working on a sanctions package, which would be brought before the United Nations Security Council if Iran did not meet the year-end deadline imposed by Mr. Obama to make progress on the issue....

    "In recent weeks, the Obama administration has been painstakingly wooing Russia and China, the two permanent members of the Security Council most averse to imposing sanctions... Persuading China has, so far, proven more difficult. After meeting with Mr. Obama in Beijing, China's president, Hu Jintao, said nothing about additional pressure on Iran.

    "But administration officials said that behind the scenes they had been working hard to get China on board, and expressed hope that those efforts would pay off.... Rahm Emanuel,  the White House chief of staff, said China's support on Iran and its decision to set a climate change goal on Thursday showed that Mr. Obama's trip to Beijing was producing results despite criticism of the visit. "This is the product of engagement," Mr. Emanuel said, adding that it was "a direct result" of the trip."

    To the NYT's credit: the online version of today's story contains a link back to an influential earlier "we didn't see anything happen in public, therefore nothing happened" story (by one of the same correspondents) about the "failure" of the trip. It's the link in the third quoted paragraph from the story, starting with the words "Chinese president Hu." So, no joke, this is a relatively classy gesture by the Times and better than we've seen from any of the networks or talk shows or other publications. It would have been very natural and easy to leave that link out. We'll take our progress where we can find it!

    And to be clear on one other point: the areas in which the Administration needed to engage the Chinese -- Iran, North Korea, climate issues, currency value and economic "balancing," human rights in general and talks with the Dalai Lama in particular -- are obviously all difficult. China's initial offer on emissions targets is nowhere near "sufficient"; similarly with its RMB-and-economic commitments; the Iran problem is far from solved; and so on. But ten days after the trip's completion, the apparent results are closer to the high end of what the Administration could reasonably have expected than to the across-the-board humiliation and disappointment that "analyses" of the trip generally proclaimed. There is evidence of at least first-stage engagement by China on all the issues that mattered to the United States. First-stage is not completion, but it's something -- and something most of the press, viewing the trip as if it were a campaign swing, missed at the time.

  • If you're in Washington this weekend

    Do not miss the chance to see Edward Burtynsky's "Oil" exhibit of mammoth-sized photos at the Corcoran Gallery in downtown Washington.

    One photo from the exhibit is the "Gallery" feature in this month's issue of the Atlantic. It shows the now-derelict SOCAR oil fields in Baku, Azerbaijan.

    gallery-burtynsky.jpg

     


    Here's another, of the oil-sands operation in Canada:

    2_Edward Burtynsky Oil.jpg

    The impact of the exhibit as a whole is, well, hard to convey in words. I had originally been drawn to Burtynsky's photos because his portrayal of factories in China resembled what I had seen there -- eg, in the one below, perhaps the most famous picture from his China series:

    burtynsky-factory-china.jpg

    The series on Oil was more enlightening to me -- perhaps because I'd already seen these Chinese factories, but mainly because very few people have seen the range of oil-industry artifacts that he has captured in his wall-sized and incredibly-detailed photos. Extraction and refinery operations around the world; the industries oil has made possible; the indications of the end of the oil era. Hard to forget. (In DC until December 13.) Thanks to TMF and EBF for the prod to actually drive downtown and see this.
  • Yet more evidence of pathetic failure of Obama trip to Asia

    From the NYT just now, under the headline,  "Iran Censured Over Nuclear Program by U.N. Watchdog":

    NYTIranChina.jpg

    Previous evidence to same effect here. And for previous discussion from "senior government official" on what Obama told the Chinese about Iran, go here. Will wait to see if this weekend's talk shows or opinion sections offer any "hey, wait a minute" reconsideration of their unanimous judgment last week about the way the Obama team was manhandled and stonewalled by the Chinese. I'll wait, but I won't hold my breath.

    (Updated thought: Seriously, when does an official part of the chattering class -- one of the weekend talkers, someone from the leading newspapers -- look back on these past two weeks in journalism's effort to represent reality and ask how the dominant narrative could have been so wrong, and wrong in a way that was easily noticeable at the time? Just curious. The guiding motto for the inquiry should be the deathless subhead on Tish Durkin's article: "Even through a veil of censorship and propaganda, the Chinese people managed a clearer view of Obama's visit than the US media did."

    Also, when talking about "leading newspapers," I should make clear that accounts from the WSJ, which still has large bureaus in Asia, were far more balanced and accurate throughout this process than anything else I saw.)
  • Thanksgiving special: more evidence of failure of trip to Asia!

    Today in the NYT:ChinaEmissions.jpg

    Today in the Washington Post:
    WaPoIran.jpg

    Today in the (state run) China Daily:
    CHinaDailyMissiles.jpg

    Today also in the China Daily:
    CHinaDailyNK.jpg

    Along with the failure indicated yesterday, also in the China Daily:
    RMBChinaDaily.jpg



    Yesterday on Xinhua.net -- announcement of the 40-45% reduction target for emissions:

    XInhua.jpg

    I am thankful for the prospect of more such failures ahead. (And to Jeremy Goldkorn and others for leads.) And on this festive day am thankful to have decided not to bother linking these stories back to the "humiliation and disaster" coverage of the trip to Asia while it was going on. Gratitude all around.

  • Airspace over the Hudson

    One more thing to be thankful for: a sensible response to the tragic airplane-helicopter crash over the Hudson River in August. As of this week the FAA has applied new traffic-separation rules for small airplanes, airliners, and helicopters flying above the Hudson that should reduce the risk of such a collision ever happening again. The rules codify what had been informal procedures for keeping aircraft out of each other's way. But they don't over-prescribe, regulate, or restrict. Here is the FAA's diagram of the new separation procedures:

    FAANYC.jpg



    Versus the chart of how confusion could arise under previous rules:

    FAAHudsonOld.jpg

    When regulators and security officials address a problem through minimal rather than excessive rule-setting and interference or panicky over-reaction, that is worth our thankfulness too. Building toward a crescendo of things to be thankful for at this time of year.
  • Ever wonder what a Chinese travel show looks like?

    Here is your chance to see CCTV3's "Dali Impressions," in a 26-minute clip at this site. Site is in Chinese, as is the program -- but regardless of language, if you watch for a little while you will get the idea.

    Reason I mention it: starting about 4 minutes in, the program is shot at the "Linden Centre," in Xizhou, "happy town," in Yunnan province. This is the place I wrote about in this article two months ago and mentioned in this post, which includes the Atlantic's own video presentation. Starting at time 6:20 of the CCTV show, you can see Brian Linden strolling through his family's adopted home town. Starting around 7:15 you'll see him chatting in Chinese with the townsfolk.

    Other reason I mention it: TV really is the least globalized of media. Cars look more and more the same worldwide; electronic products are the same. But the styles, stars, programs, allusions, etc on TV really are distinct country by country. For a sense of the melodramatic, quasi-heroic aesthetic of modern China's "cultural" programming, let this run in the background. If you put it on a loop so it runs five or six hours straight, you'll have a sense of the ambiance of our home life in Shanghai and Beijing.

    Heroic introduction of Brian Linden, from the show. This is a screenshot rather than an embed, so the click-to-play button won't work:

    LindenCCTV.jpg

    Also, you'll see one of the touches I most appreciated about Chinese TV broadcasts. The narration is in Chinese, which is then subtitled -- in Chinese! (Much as Trainspotting or other films with extreme regionalisms in spoken English might be subtitled - in English.) I assume the subtitling is a bow to the wide variations in spoken Chinese across the country; it's a big convenience for foreigners working on the characters too. 

    In the ever-thankful spirit, this picture, taken from a deck at the Linden Centre and looking toward what become the Himalayan foothills, captures the feeling of my family's time in Xizhou:

    IMG_7214.JPG


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