Opinion

Nicholas Wapshott

The isolationists’ dilemma

Nicholas Wapshott
Sep 5, 2013 15:33 UTC

There has been a lot of loose talk about the return of isolationism since President Obama asked Congress for permission to degrade Bashar al-Assad’s ability to gas his people. Isolationism hasn’t been a respectable thread of political thinking in America since the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor made redundant the clamor to keep America out of World War Two.

The isolationists grounded their belief that America had no business interfering in other countries’ affairs in Washington and Jefferson’s warnings not to become entangled in foreign alliances. They scuppered Woodrow Wilson’s attempt to get the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. And they came to full blossom in 1938-1941, when their hope that the distance from Europe and West Asia could keep America out of Hitler’s war led Charles Lindbergh, Father Charles Coughlin, Joseph Kennedy, and others to make excuses for Nazism. Little wonder that in the last seventy years few have wanted to be thought of as isolationist.

Isolationism was always a combination of ideas. Around its central core — that America was too far away to be attacked and that we enjoy a self-sustaining economy that could, if necessary, prosper without foreign trade — was also an intense dislike of government, a belief that the profiteering defense industry was driving American foreign policy, and a detestation of Wall Street (which often disguised a rich seam of anti-Semitism that even in the Thirties was politically toxic) and the Federal Reserve.

Lindbergh’s father, a Republican House member from Minnesota who inspired his more famous aviator son’s isolationism, wrote two tracts that still find a ready audience, Banking and Currency and the Money Trust, an assault on usurers in the banks and the dirty tricks of big businessmen, and, when General Pershing’s expeditionary force set off to break the deadlock in World War One, Why is Your Country at War?. Many of the same ideas can be heard in the mouths of libertarians and Tea Party supporters today.

Here is Ron Paul, the Libertarian Party presidential candidate who became a Republican House member for Texas: “What was the advice of the founders? They said, stay out of the entangling alliances of all nations.” “Our foreign policy is destined to keep us involved in many wars that we have no business being in. National bankruptcy and a greater threat to our national security will result.” “There’s nobody in this world that could possibly attack us today. We could defend this country with a few good submarines.” “The neoconservative belief that we have a moral obligation to spread American values worldwide through force justifies the conditions of war in order to rally support at home for the heavy hand of government.” By any definition, Ron Paul is an isolationist.

How King’s speech took the world

Nicholas Wapshott
Aug 28, 2013 03:53 UTC

It would be easy to assume that the stirring words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech affected Americans most of all. His goading of a nation to live up to the democratic principles of its founders was a sharp display of America’s private grief. The wrongs he set out to right were internal and shaming — American sins that stretched back to the days of slavery. When he rose to speak, King was clearly aiming his remarks at his fellow Americans.

But King’s dignified appeal to the better nature of his countrymen had a resonance far wider than just the United States. When he addressed what he called “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation,” he would inadvertently set off a worldwide movement for racial emancipation. Tangible evidence of the long march he set off on 50 years ago can be found in the endless roads and civic facilities around the world to which the name Martin Luther King has been appended — celebrating the American civil rights leader’s universal cry for a more generous and humane world.

Africans found a particularly poignant message in King’s plea for racial tolerance and his declaration that “the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.” It is no surprise that there is a Martin Luther King Road in Lusaka, Zambia, and a Martin Luther King Street in Mpumalanga, South Africa. King’s appeal to the goodness in Americans and the struggle for black liberation in South Africa led by Nelson Mandela were made of the same cloth.

Jeff Bezos and the new publishing revolution

Nicholas Wapshott
Aug 8, 2013 16:10 UTC

The last few days have seen a flurry of purchases of ailing print journalism flagships. The Boston Globe was sold. Newsweek changed hands again. And, most spectacular of all, the Washington Post was bought for chump change. Meanwhile, the Tribune group — publisher of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune – is readying itself for sale.

There is nothing new about rich men buying newspapers. The surest way to enhance personal prestige is to become a press magnate. As Rupert Murdoch’s second wife Anna replied when asked how she was enjoying Beverly Hills, “It’s not the same if you don’t own the paper.” But something more interesting is going on than social climbing. New technology billionaires are picking up old money properties for a song. Online is moving in on hard copy. This is not evolution, it is a revolution.

The history of the press from its inception, when Bi Sheng invented moving type in 1041, to the proliferation of online publications today, has been a succession of tidal waves as typeset printing and rival media technologies have battled it out. Despite the contention that capitalism thrives on competition, in practice the market tends towards monopoly.

The never-ending war on Obamacare

Nicholas Wapshott
Aug 7, 2013 15:05 UTC

What is behind the continuing campaign to repeal Obamacare? The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the name by which it is never known, was signed into law by the president in March 2010 and, after a legal challenge, was confirmed as the law of the land by the conservative-leaning Supreme Court in June last year.

Yet Republicans and conservative commentators continue to urge its overthrow. As that is not going to happen, at least not until there is a Republican president backed by a Republican Senate and House, which may be some time off, why are they wasting their time and our money?

The best chance of overturning Obamacare without benefit of all three departments of government was in the legal challenge on the grounds that Congress should not oblige a citizen to buy a certain product. That cut to the heart of the new law, for if a later Congress were to insist we buy Kellogg’s Corn Flakes under pain of a fine we would all be up in arms at the overreach of government.

It’s time for Obama to defy Putin

Nicholas Wapshott
Aug 5, 2013 15:44 UTC

Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to grant asylum to the NSA leaker Edward Snowden leaves President Obama looking weak. Putin meant it that way. His political base likes him thumbing his nose at the American president and he took a gamble that Obama  would not retaliate over a freelance spy.

It might be argued that this is just another Russian mosquito bite, an embarrassing irritation but not a major incident. It makes little difference where Snowden lives under what amounts to house arrest. In Russia, civil rights will be almost as severely curtailed as if he were locked up here. Like the WikiLeaks leaker Julian Assange, self-exiled to one room in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Snowden is going nowhere and is no longer free to do his worst. The Russians have already accessed his most damaging information, as did the Chinese before they sent him packing. Even the Guardian, the most ardent conduit of his erudite revelations, must have a data dump to keep it occupied for years.

That does not mean the president should do nothing. Harboring Snowden comes on top of a number of other offensive Russian actions that suggest Obama should draw one of his famous lines in the sand. Most egregiously, Putin has continued to bolster the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad, the tyrant of Syria who has used Russian military hardware to kill 100,000 of his own people. Russia not only continues to provide heavy arms, missiles, and aircraft parts that allow Syria to continue bombing civilians in rebel-held cities, it repeatedly vetoes U.N. efforts to broker a peace deal.

Despite flaws, Summers is the best candidate for Fed chair

Nicholas Wapshott
Jul 30, 2013 14:40 UTC

The two-horse race to replace Ben Bernanke as the Fed chairman appears to have come down to gender. In a letter to the president, about a third of Senate Democrats have made clear they would like Bernanke’s deputy Janet Yellen to replace him, primarily — though they do not openly say it — because she is a woman.

The White House, it seems, would prefer Larry Summers, Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary who was also director of Barack Obama’s National Economic Council. Summers is a distinguished economist, a former chief economist of the World Bank and briefly, until he was subsumed by controversy, president of Harvard University. (Summers writes a monthly column for Reuters.)

It is true there are not enough women in top positions. It is true, too, that Janet Yellen is a distinguished economist with considerable reserve bank experience. But her gender should not in itself be enough qualification for her to be awarded with one of the most important jobs in the nation.

Will conservatives tackle the racists in their midst?

Nicholas Wapshott
Jul 24, 2013 16:24 UTC

President Obama’s remarks about what it is to be an African-American in America have disturbed those who prefer to believe our nation is color-blind. That was always a myth, like the notion we are a “melting pot” of nationalities, all heaving together toward a common end. Even in New York, the most cosmopolitan of cities, racial groups tend to keep to themselves and differences survive across generations.

The president’s description of how it feels to be a black man in America — routinely suspected of being a criminal, followed around stores by security guards, hearing car doors lock as he crosses the street, watching women clutch their purses tight in elevators — chime with similar experiences related by others set apart from the rest by dint of their skin color.

You can hear the same sorry stories from black visitors to America, shocked to discover that here, far from being a true democracy where everyone is treated the same, it is common for taxi drivers to ignore them, or bars to serve them last, or for public officials to treat them badly simply because they are black. This soft apartheid in America has been brought to the surface by the death of Trayvon Martin. It is a salutary fact that even the most powerful man in the world is treated with suspicion in his own land simply because he is black. After 50 years, Rosa Parks has yet to finish her journey.

Here are twenty things Congressional Republicans could actually accomplish

Nicholas Wapshott
Jul 23, 2013 16:37 UTC

The Senate filibuster deal was a good start. It showed both sides can work together if they are threatened with the prospect of a chamber frozen in impotence. But compromise remains a dirty word among many conservatives and libertarians in Congress who would rather accomplish nothing than find a way to achieve something. They are not only wasting their own time and our money, they are standing in the way of conservative or libertarian achievements.

House Republicans have spent 15 percent of their time, that is 89 hours, and run up  $55 million voting more than 40 times to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, even though it is the law of the land, the Supreme Court ruled it constitutional, and the Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost of repeal would be $1.3 trillion over the next nine years. So much for demanding “consistently, a balanced budget and fiscal responsibility.”

R.A. Butler, three-time acting prime minister of Britain, described politics as “the art of the possible.” Congressmen and senators who entered politics to achieve something — yet find themselves kicking their heels, because their Tea Party colleagues prefer to pass nothing to demonstrate their dislike of government in general — might take Butler’s definition to heart. There are many conservative policies that could be put into effect if they were only to pick the right ones and be prepared, as are the Gang of Eight in the Senate, to work across the aisle.

The birth of a new prince

Nicholas Wapshott
Jul 22, 2013 19:36 UTC

Now, after a torrid summer marred by natural tragedies, needless death, and devastating destruction, comes undiluted happy news. Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, has given birth to a prince. So, the first child of a commoner to be welcomed into the British royal family in modern times (Wallis Simpson tried to gatecrash in 1936 and was promptly asked to leave) has delivered an heir to extend the Windsors’ influence into the next generation.

The birth has set off genuine rejoicing around the world as a harmless piece of fun that only a humbug could find offensive. And the impeccably authentic upstairs/downstairs soap opera that makes “Downtown Downton Abbey” look like “The Days of Our Lives” has provided another romantic twist in an endlessly colorful plotline that began nearly two thousand years ago with the Kings of the Angles.

There has been many a slip in succession between the Mercia kings and the new prince. There were pretenders to the throne, including Mary Queen of Scots, Lady Jane Grey, and the Old Pretender, known as the “Warming Pan Baby.” There was a beheading, too, when Charles I fell foul of the parliamentarians, who were every bit as opposed to high taxation and the encroachment of the executive branch as the Tea Party today. But since William and Mary were imported from Holland in the 1688 Glorious Revolution and given the British crown on condition they didn’t interfere with parliament, the British monarchy has been secure.

Zimmerman: A trial that was all about race

Nicholas Wapshott
Jul 14, 2013 15:23 UTC

Will George Zimmerman’s trial for the killing of Trayvon Martin and the all-too predictable acquittal change anything?

Will it prevent racial profiling in the future? No. Will it keep guns out of the hands of reckless and feckless flakes? No. Will it ensure that from now on gun licenses are administered more closely? No. Above all, will it prevent such needless killings from happening again? Certainly not.

It would have been encouraging to imagine that the loss of Martin’s young life would change something, but it won’t. That is the real calamity of this familiar American tragedy.

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