Letters to the editor

Jihad in the Philippines

Mark Bowden’s “Jihadists in Paradise” (March Atlantic) was a superb read, but the author does his readers a disservice by labeling Aldam Tilao (aka “Abu Sabaya”) a “terrorist.” As a journalist who covered the Philippines from 1978 to 2000, I can assure you that Tilao was neither a terrorist nor a jihadist. He was simply a garden- variety thug of the type that has plagued this part of the Philippines for generations. Tilao was a murderous man to be sure, and probably a psychopath, but his only motives were money and media attention, not politics. Bowden mentions that Tilao spent time in the Middle East, but that fact needs to be put in context: At any one time, there are close to 500,000 Filipino men working in the Middle East, where they go to work on construction projects because there are no jobs for them in their own country.

During the 333 years that Catholic Spain ruled the Philippines, the Muslims of Mindanao Island and the Sulu Sea were generally held in contempt and often persecuted by the colonial government. That attitude largely continued under American rule and even after Philippine independence.

As discouraging as this local history is, it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the current situation in the Middle East, with Osama bin Laden, or with 9/11. And to suggest such a link allows common criminals such as Tilao to opportunistically cloak themselves in some vague “cause” or grievance, which only makes fighting genuine terrorists all that much more difficult.

Steven Knipp
Washington, D.C.

Mark Bowden replies:

I am in substantial agreement with Steven Knipp about the nature of Aldam Tilao, as I hope the story makes clear, but there is no doubt that Tilao styled himself a religious terrorist, and recruited money and support on that basis. I suspect that in that sense he was not untypical of garden-variety jihadists worldwide.

Bushism After Bush

Ross Douthat could not be more wrong in his contention that George W. Bush’s political legacy will unite the Republican Party for years to come (“It’s His Party,” March Atlantic). First off, Bush never tried to “appeal to the broad electorate”; he won elections by turning out passionate minorities in huge numbers while alienating moderate voters in the hope that they would stay home. This approach worked in 2002 and ’04, but in ’06 the wheels came off. I also don’t see the same motivations in the current crop of GOP presidential contenders that Douthat does. All of them of course “support the troops” (just as all are in favor of breathing oxygen), but none call themselves neoconservatives, just as no aspiring brain surgeon today would claim to be a phrenologist. The battle for the future of GOP foreign policy will be waged by the realists and the isolationists, and Bush’s “idealistic” neoconservatism has been relegated to the dustbin.

Douthat asserts that what has “made the last six years so polarizing isn’t the president’s ideology” but his personality. I am not one to deny that Bush’s personality is abrasive, but the real problem for the GOP is that the ideological menu that Karl Rove crafted to win the elections of 2002 and ’04 has lost its appeal. It wasn’t shared ideology that got libertarians, Christian conservatives, and business moguls into bed together; it was the champagne buzz of winning elections. Now, as they wake up and face the consequences of waging a disastrous war and enacting huge tax cuts, the coalition partners will quietly slip their pants on and slink back home.

John Ranta
Peterborough, N.H.

The “successes” that Ross Douthat attributes to George W. Bush seem to have taken place entirely at the polls. Let’s review: 2000? Stolen, and Al Gore won the popular vote anyway. 2002? Public paralysis in the aftermath of 9/11. 2004? John Kerry’s fecklessness, Swift Boat lies, and Ohio voting abuses. And overlaying all three elections was the complicity of the media, which dutifully regurgitated the talking points of the Right Wing Noise Machine (a decisive advantage that Bush can’t take credit for). Some successes!

Meanwhile, Douthat’s article doesn’t devote a single word to the one really big Bush “success”: the president’s abject sellout to corporate America’s interests. Billions of dollars in subsidies for oil companies already earning record profits. Bankruptcy-law “reform” that was a boon to credit-card companies. Tax cuts for CEOs earning 400 times as much as their line workers. A massive handout to Big Pharma in the guise of a benefit for seniors.

By pretending that, despite Bush’s disastrous leadership, nothing is fundamentally wrong with the Republican program, Douthat attempts to lend an air of inevitability to the party’s continued domination of American politics. It’s a transparent ploy by an ideologue anxious to convince himself that last year’s drubbing at the polls was only a temporary aberration.

Rob Lewis
Langley, Wash.

Ross Douthat replies:

John Ranta is correct that George W. Bush has often made targeted appeals to the GOP’s base, in the hope of turning out conservatives in record numbers. However, Bush also won far more self-described “moderate” voters in 2000 and ’04 than, say, Bob Dole did in 1996. Rob Lewis may be correct to chalk up this achievement to a mix of luck, brass-knuckle politics, and ballot-box chicanery, but Bush’s willingness to deviate from conservative orthodoxy on issues from campaign-finance reform to education likely had something to do with it as well.

Lewis argues that Bush has been a friend of corporate America, which no one would dispute, but it’s possible for a politician to show favoritism toward corporations and woo working- and middle-class voters with new spending initiatives. (These are the kind of political complexities that Democrats will rediscover, I suspect, now that their party holds power once again.) The prescription-drug benefit, for instance, may have been “a massive handout to Big Pharma,” but it was also a massive handout to retirees, and they rewarded the president at the polls—a lesson that future Republican candidates are unlikely to forget.

As for Ranta’s theory that the neoconservatives have been consigned to the political wilderness, I think that it underestimates the extent to which neoconservatism remains ascendant within the institutional GOP, and the extent to which the form of President Bush’s foreign policy (if not the substance of the fiasco in Iraq) retains the support of the GOP base. The real question is not whether neoconservatives will remain influential within the Republican Party—they will—but whether a neoconservative-influenced party can regain the trust of the broader electorate.

The Eye of the Beholder

I enjoyed many parts of Virginia Postrel’s “The Truth About Beauty” (March Atlantic), but some of her conclusions rest on shaky ground. She writes, for example: “Beauty is not just a social construct, and not every girl is beautiful just the way she is.” Well, beauty may or may not be a social construct, but its relative value is—and our culture (and beauty advertising in particular) teaches girls that their value lies in their appearance. Because Dove dares to claim instead that “Every girl deserves to feel good about herself and see how beautiful she really is,” Postrel accuses the company of “encouraging the myth that physical beauty is a false concept.” But the Dove campaign isn’t going to delude any woman into thinking she missed her calling as a supermodel. On the contrary, by telling girls they are fine the way they are, Dove is encouraging self-esteem independent of appearance.

Susan Carney
Gilbertsville, Pa.

Virginia Postrel replies:

Far from suggesting that beauty is just one value among many, Dove’s campaign encourages girls (and to a lesser degree women) to equate how they feel about their looks with how they feel about themselves in general. It does not tell girls that they are “fine” the way they are but that they are “beautiful.” The ads focus entirely on appearance, not achievement or character. Echoing a lot of sloppy thinking in our culture, Dove is saying simultaneously that beauty is not a legitimate value and that beauty is an all-encompassing value—a synonym for worth.

Families Matter

Clive Crook’s assessment of dime-a-day slum schools in India (“The Ten-Cent Solution,” March Atlantic) is marred by an error common to noneducators. Students enrolled in these schools constitute a self-selected group. Parents who exercise school choice are, by definition, already involved in their children’s education, and studies have repeatedly underscored the crucial role that parental involvement plays in educational outcomes. Not surprisingly, therefore, test scores will be higher in such schools. The slum schools that Crook describes deserve high praise for their accomplishments, but the test results he cites are contaminated.

Walt Gardner
Los Angeles, Calif.

Our Enemy, The Cow

Your item on “The Bovine Menace“ (Primary Sources, March Atlantic) claims that “animal flatulence” is responsible for greenhouse-gas emissions. In fact, there is essentially no methane produced in such a manner. The methane of bovine origin, which does play a small part in global warming, is produced by fermentation in the rumen and is “burped” through the mouth.

Henry A. Fribourg
Knoxville, Tenn.

After stating that “livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions,” your Primary Sources item cites deforestation and the fossil fuels used to manufacture livestock fertilizer as two big contributors to the whole mess. Do you mean the livestock or the livestock industry? Because if you have photos of livestock running the earthmoving equipment doing the deforestation, then you have yourself a scoop!

Tom Sacco
Des Moines, Iowa

The Editors reply:

We meant the industry, alas. And although flatulence does produce some methane, we appreciate Henry Fribourg’s pointing out that more is produced through burping.

All The Presidents’ Lies

Carl Cannon’s article “Untruth and Consequences” (January/February Atlantic) fails to answer the implied question in the magazine’s cover line (“Why Presidents Lie”). Here’s one idea: Presidents lie because, as Richard Neustadt wrote, their chief power is that of persuasion. They are salesmen for policies. Incentives to avoid obvious falsehood exist—believability for the next sale, for starters—but when the public is not paying close attention, the benefits of lying outweigh the costs.

In this light, George W. Bush’s mendacity is not different in kind but in ambition from that of other presidents. The Bush administration does not simply lie; it erects edifices of dishonesty and assails those who endanger them. Along with lies about weapons of mass destruction—a silly term that enabled war boosters to use the relatively uncontroversial contention that Iraq had chemical weapons to imply that Iraq would soon have nuclear weapons—the administration falsely claimed that Baathist Iraq worked with al-Qaeda; it denied the existence of the Iraqi insurgency for months; it has consistently exaggerated the role of jihadists like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in an Iraqi revolt dominated by Sunni tribes; it has reliably overstated the progress of the Iraqi military and government. All this and more, to sell a war.

This litany of dishonesty makes it deeply discouraging to see Cannon suggest that had WMD been found in Iraq, posterity would not consider Bush dishonest. If this is so, it is a stunning indictment of historians’ objectivity. I am not yet so pessimistic.

Benjamin H. Friedman
Somerville, Mass.

Carl M. Cannon replies:

Benjamin Friedman imputes “pessimistic” impulses to me for asserting that American public opinion would not be so unfavorable toward President Bush had chemical and biological weapons been found in Iraq. I’d say this is realism, not pessimism. To Friedman’s main point, I’d add this: Caches of biological and chemical weapons were not discovered in Iraq, but prior to the war even the most principled opponents of the Iraq invasion did not openly doubt their existence. There is some evidence that their absence surprised even Saddam Hussein. The more salient question in this regard is why the Bush administration was so slow to admit the absence of such weapons long after it was clear they weren’t around.

The Roberts Court

I believe that Jeffrey Rosen misunderstands John Roberts’s concept of collegiality (“Roberts’s Rules,” January/February Atlantic). The chief justice’s definition of collegiality, like the right-wing definition of bipartisanship, is to do it his way. The attempt to stifle dissent by discouraging differing opinions is part and parcel of this arrogance. Roberts’s intent to follow Chief Justice John Marshall is just as telling, as Marshall also mistrusted democracy and issued his judgments to make certain that those atop the natural order were protected from the rabble.

James D. Colville
Rochester, Minn.

Jeffrey Rosen replies:

It is James Colville, I think, who misunderstands John Marshall’s vision, which John Roberts is trying to resurrect. There is nothing “right wing” in the effort to encourage a single unanimous opinion of the Court, rather than expressing separate, or seriatim, opinions, which was the traditional English model. When Thomas Jefferson railed against Marshall as a “crafty chief judge” who cowed “lazy or timid associates” into joining unanimous opinions “huddled up in conclave,” many of the unanimous decisions that he criticized (such as McCulloch v. Maryland, upholding the Bank of the United States) were supported by a majority of the nation’s citizens and opposed only by illiberal or self-interested local minorities. Furthermore, Roberts acknowledged that in order to resurrect Marshall’s vision, he would have to convince his liberal and conservative colleagues that narrow, unanimous opinions were in each of their long-term interests.

Advice and Consent

James Watt should be identified as a Scottish inventor, not an “English inventor,” as he is in a caption in James Fallows’s “Mr. Zhang Builds His Dream Town” (March Atlantic). Watt was a native of my hometown, Greenock, Scotland.

Margaret E. Minton
Frederick, Md.

The Editors reply:

Margaret Minton is correct. We regret the error.

James Fallows’s fascinating description of Broad Air Conditioning in “Mr. Zhang Builds His Dream Town” is marred by his faulty explanation of how Broad’s “nonelectric refrigeration” works. He states that the “nonelectric coolers … boil a special liquid, a lithium bromide solution, and when the vapors from that solution condense, they cool whatever is near them.” But evaporation (the opposite of condensation) is cooling, as is noted in the next paragraph, where Premier Wen Jiabao is approvingly quoted as saying, “Yes! Yes! For it evaporates and takes away the heat.”

Marshall E. Deutsch
Sudbury, Mass.

James Fallows replies:

In the Broad Company’s account of Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to their factory, the sentence following the one quoted by Marshall Deutsch declares: “The Premier is a specialist indeed.” Now we know why they didn’t say that after my visit. My apologies for the condensation/evaporation mix-up.

Joshua Green’s article about Tim Gill (“They Won’t Know What Hit Them,” March Atlantic) states that in four states where Gill and his allies invested, control of at least one legislative chamber switched to the Democrats last November, and lists Washington as one state where that happened. However, Democrats already controlled both the Washington House and Senate.

Carleen Pagni
Vancouver, Wash.

Joshua Green replies:

Carleen Pagni is correct, and I regret the error. The four states were Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota.