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.
  • 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.


    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:


    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:
    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 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.

  • Updates: Mullen/Obama in US, old/fat in China

    1) I mentioned recently Charles Stevenson's observation that when Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the JCS, testified yesterday about the Afghanistan decision, he was much more detailed and positive in describing how President Obama made the decision than he had indicated in his prepared testimony. By the time I put up the item, the relevant Pentagon site showed only the "as delivered" version of Mullen's comments, not his prepared testimony.

    Thanks to reader E. Rossi, here is a PDF of Mullen's prepared remarks, from the Senate Armed Services Committee's site. It indeed confirms what Stevenson said. The prepared testimony had only one line about the process. ("I support fully, and without hesitation, the President's decision.") The "as delivered" version, reflecting Mullen's actual comments to the committee, went on in quite some detail. "I have seen my share of internal debates about various national security issues -- especially over the course of these last two years. And I can honestly say that I do not recall an issue so thoroughly or so thoughtfully considered as this one." Etc. This is just to close an open loop.

    2) I mentioned last night a report from a long-time foreign teacher in China, who has been told that his and his wife's visas won't be renewed and therefore that they will have to leave the country, because they are now over age 60. Many readers have written in to emphasize the (true, and widely known) fact that large Chinese organizations generally have "low" mandatory retirement ages, at least by U.S. standards. Typically for government offices and big companies it would be age 60 for men and 55 for women. As with everything in China, there are of course exceptions. The issue here is the foreign-teachers' argument that mechanistic application of the rule is self-defeating, since it will make it that much harder for their provincial university to maintain the English program they have built up.

    The "news" aspect of the story is whether the government is enforcing the age limit, particularly for foreigners, in a way it hadn't before -- or whether this is yet another instance of varying decisions being made by varied officials across the vast country. On that front I have queries out.

    3) In the same account I mentioned that calling someone "fat" in Chinese, like calling someone "old," was at worst neutral and more often positive.  A reader pointed out that I needed to be more precise about such terms. To my comment, "I don't remember anyone calling me 胖方-- Pang Fang, "Fat Mr. Fang" -- but if they had that would have been complimentary too," Paul Camp of Atlanta says:

    "If so, shouldn't that be 'Phat Mr. Fang?' Nuances count in translation."  Good point.
  • Foreign teachers in China: 老师 who are not too 老

    The Chinese word for teacher is laoshi (老师); the first character, 老, means "old" and almost always has an honorific rather than a disparaging connotation. When a young Chinese person would call me 老方 -- Lao Fang, "Old Mr. Fang," Fang being for a while the Chinese version of my family name (story for another time) -- it was meant in a nice way. I don't remember anyone calling me 胖方-- Pang Fang, "Fat Mr. Fang" -- but if they had that would have been complimentary too.

    Given the respect for 老师 and 老-ness in general, I noted a report from James Bishop, an American who with his wife has taught English at Baoding University, in Hebei Province, since the early 2000s, that he was being told to leave the country because of his age. He writes:

    "China is purging foreign teachers over the age of 60. No new visas. and no exception I know of anywhere in the country. I am on a forum that connects hundreds of teachers here. Smart ain't it? Thus, no retired teacher, those with the most training and experience and the least likely to chase young Chinese women, can be hired into schools that desperately NEED trained teachers who have actually earned their degrees from accredited institutions."

    I wrote back to ask how long he had been in the country, and he said:

    "7.5 years at the same shop. We were honored with the 'Friend Of China' medal in recognition of our teaching efforts. Many modernizations and upgrades of our department were initiated by Sallie and myself. We have the only room dedicated to the use of English I know of in China (It is equipped with furniture and several hundred DVDs we purchased ourselves, two computers connected to the Internet, a satellite TV system providing access to foreign English language broadcast, and many books and magazines.), nightly full length English language films free of charge to the students, a student newspaper, mid day English free talks, 'seminars,' and an 'English only' rule within the building resulting in acknowledged improvement in oral English skills among the faculty and student body. The decision is being made by people who have no connection with, or concern for, the quality of English language instruction in China."

    In the big sweep of China's problems and injustices, this is not that heartbreaking. I mention it partly out of sympathy for the people involved -- but partly too as corrective data for outsiders tempted to think that all efforts in China are seamlessly aimed toward the shrewdest and most efficient pursuit of the nation's developmental goals. A lot happens because of accident, mistake, or foolishness.

    Bishop says that he and his wife "are looking for new worlds to conquer."

  • Textual analysis dept: Admiral Mullen defends Obama

    Charles Stevenson, a one-time teacher of mine and long-time authority on civil-military relations, pointed out an intriguing difference between what Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had planned to say to the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning, and what he actually said.

    I mention Stevenson's expertise in this field because the difference depends* on trusting his account of what he saw. Early today, Stevenson reports, Mullen's prepared testimony was posted on the Pentagon's site. It began with a fairly anodyne statement of support for the policy that Barack Obama announced last night, similar to what Mullen said in person this morning: "Let me state right up front that I support fully and without hesitation the President's decision."

    The prepared remarks then moved on to an analysis of the broader policy issues. But in his live performance -- captured in the "as delivered" transcript that is now on the Pentagon site -- Mullen went out of his way to defend the way Obama had made the decision, and implicitly to contrast it with the previous Administration's approach:

    "I have seen my share of internal debates about various national security issues -- especially over the course of these last two years. [Eg, including the Iraq "surge."] And I can honestly say that I do not recall an issue so thoroughly or so thoughtfully considered as this one.
    "Every military leader in the chain of command, as well as those of the Joint Chiefs, was given voice throughout this process ... [all ellipses in original] and every one of us used it.
    "We now have before us a strategy more appropriately matched to the situation on the ground in Afghanistan ...  and resources matched more appropriately to that strategy -- particularly with regard to reversing the insurgency's momentum in 2010.

    "And given the stakes in Afghanistan for our own national security - as well as that of our partners around the world - I believe the time we took was well worth it."

    Was Mullen volunteering a defense of Obama's "dithering" style of decision-making? Saying something about the previous Administration's approach? I don't know. According to Stevenson, "These implicit criticisms of Bush and even earlier Obama policies strike me as unusually supportive of the president in responding to political criticisms." FWIW.
    * I have not taken time to rev up the Internet wayback machine to see what that site showed this morning, but eventually I will give details of the before-and-after versions of the speech.

  • 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 Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.



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