Joe Conason's Journal

A National Review writer journeys to the Midwest -- and gets lost. Plus: A very bad week for Bush foreign policy.

Published January 10, 2003 6:00PM (EST)

Blue state and red faces
Today's National Review features a quaint travelogue by Michael Novak on his wife's Iowa hometown. Headlined "In the Heart of the Red States," his essay lyrically describes Cresco, distinguished seat of Howard County. Toward the end of lengthy musings, he writes: "It lies as well at the heart of the red counties that voted for conservative values in the election of 2000 ... In Iowa today, even the Democrats pretend to be conservative and to talk conservative talk, at least when they're home, in state."

That will come as a surprise to Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the outspoken progressive whose fiery speech at the Wellstone memorial was televised in his home state just before Election Day. But let's break down all of Novak's bogus assumptions, with the help of Google and that indispensable scholarly tome, The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2003.

"Heart of the Red States?" Not Iowa, which hasn't given its electoral votes to a Republican presidential candidate since 1988. What about "heart of the red counties"? Not Howard, where Gore defeated Bush handily, where Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack won easily -- and where veteran Harkin administered a well-earned whippin' to Rove-chosen challenger Greg Ganske.

So much for scholarship at the American Enterprise Institute, where Novak is employed as the "director of social and political studies." A high-school student who made this kind of dumb mistake in a term paper would deserve to fail.

Hackney vs. hacks
Since last summer I have meant to write about "The Politics of Presidential Appointment," Sheldon Hackney's memoir of his appointment by Bill Clinton to chair the National Endowment for the Humanities -- an inspiring story of intellectual courage, an inside view of politics and academia, and an important historical document of the culture war. Todd Gitlin's current review in the Washington Monthly performs my neglected task very well. The deceptively gentle Hackney finally gives the pundits who excoriated him as a symbol of "political correctness" what they deserved back then. (As Gitlin notes, the beleaguered "hero" adopted by Hackney's adversaries was none other than Stephen Glass, the manipulative fabricator who went on to work at the Heritage Foundation and, most notoriously, at the New Republic, a dark period that's now movie material.)
[1 p.m. PST, Jan. 10, 2003] <

Pseudo-tough and rapidly crumbling
Has anybody else noticed how rapidly the Bush administration's foreign policy is disintegrating? Based as it was on a knee-jerk rejection of everything that Clinton's diplomats tried to do in the Middle East, on the Korean peninsula and with multilateral organizations, the Bush policy was always feebler than it sounded. Now, despite heroic efforts by Colin Powell, the price of those fundamental errors is coming due.

The most obvious example is North Korea, where the president's pugnacity helped to create a dangerous confrontation that his aides are now scrambling to defuse. Actually, the White House has been forced to turn to Democrat Bill Richardson, former Clinton U.N. ambassador (and newly elected liberal New Mexico governor), whose negotiating skills may get them out of this mess. Richardson's meeting last night with two North Korean officials will, with any luck, bring concrete results. Its symbolic significance is to expose the phoniness of the pseudo-tough, "axis of evil" attitudinizing of the president and his aides. Incidentally, this isn't necessarily a partisan difference, although the Republicans have tried to make it into one. Among the strongest advocates of resuming engagement with North Korea is Donald Gregg, the former national security advisor to George H.W. Bush during the Reagan administration who later served as ambassador to South Korea.

Certain prominent conservatives (such as Kenneth Adelman) are urging the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the divided peninsula as an alternative to engagement with Pyongyang. Apparently they believe this will punish the left-leaning South Korean government. What this suggests, of course, is that American troops were kept there not to protect the South from the North, but to help maintain the long military dictatorship in Seoul. (If liberal Democrats offered any such cut-and-run proposal, the right would scream appeasement.) A wiser approach would be to engage the North in discussions that lead to nuclear disarmament -- and the eventual removal of our troops as part of a broader agreement.

Eventually Bush will have to conclude a deal with the North Koreans that brings them back into the international nonproliferation regime. The lesson of this experience is that the United States ought to display greater regard for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, so casually discarded by the Bush Republicans before they understood the potential consequences. Maybe they will wake up now, although I doubt it.

In the Middle East, Bush's original decision to distance himself from Clinton's strenuous peacemaking has had disastrous effects that are now undermining his Iraq policy. Although the rift hasn't received much coverage here, the White House and Downing Street are in the midst of intense disagreement over Israel and Palestine. The Bush tilt toward Ariel Sharon always disturbed Tony Blair, but the quiet dispute broke into open feuding this week when Blair invited Labor Party challenger Amram Mitzna to visit him on the eve of the Israeli election. Blair was evidently furious after his "friends" in Washington helped Sharon to scuttle the prime minister's own attempt at Mideast diplomacy by saying nothing when Jerusalem refused to allow Palestinian leaders to attend the London peace conference next week.

Now the Likud Party, which has enjoyed such uncritical support from the White House, turns out to be more or less a racketeering conspiracy, with increasing evidence pointing toward serious offenses by Sharon and his sons, among others. (I can't wait to read about the next late-night phone call from "Arik," explaining the whole affair to William Safire -- who will surely show more sympathy than he did when covering the phony Whitewater scandal.)

With Blair and Bush in conflict over Israel, the inherent tensions of their alliance against Iraq are beginning to emerge, at an inconvenient moment for the White House and the neocon faction so influential in its councils. The British are increasingly alienated from Washington, the Turks don't want their territory used as a base against Baghdad, the U.N. Security Council is unlikely to approve immediate action in Iraq -- but Bush and his advisors may see war as the only way out of the corner they've backed into. After the Korea humiliation, they will surely want to prove how tough they really are.
[10:52 a.m. PST, Jan. 10, 2003]

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