Opinion

Nicholas Wapshott

In Nairobi mall, a layered ‘clash of civilizations’

Nicholas Wapshott
Sep 25, 2013 20:06 UTC

What can we make of the terrible events in Nairobi, where innocent shopping trips turned into a bloodbath? It is usual to think of such horrors as acts of senseless killing. For every civilized person, the slaughter is inexcusable and incomprehensible. But in this case, as in so many others, it is not inexplicable.

The notion of a “clash of civilizations” has gained widespread currency since the September 11 al Qaeda attacks, particularly in the United States, where the idea has not only been used to explain why many young Muslims hate the West but to encourage a general fear and suspicion of all Muslims.

Islamists set out to violently counter the perceived decadence of Western capitalism. Those who use such intolerance to promulgate hatred against Muslims in general do not do justice to the subtlety of the arguments on the “clash of civilizations” made by Bernard Lewis, the Princeton professor who requisitioned the phrase for modern use, and the late Samuel P. Huntington, the Harvard and Columbia academic who came to similar conclusions.

In Nairobi, Islamists from lawless, pirate-ridden Somalia have been waging war against their Kenyan neighbors, who have been fiercely fighting back. According to the Kenyans, the Islamists are almost defeated and the Nairobi shopping mall massacre was their last desperate attempt to turn the tide.

Certainly the Islamist killers achieved the one aim they prize above all: They have drawn attention to their cause. How many had heard of Osama bin Laden until he brought down the Twin Towers? The Nairobi slaughter, like the 9/11 attacks, was a propaganda coup. The fact the terrorists targeted a Western-style shopping mall, patronized by prominent, prosperous Kenyans — President Uhuru Kenyatta’s nephew and his fiancée were among the at least 67 people who were killed — suggests the terrorists were protesting against commerce and symbols of the West.

Government shutdown threat means it’s high noon for Obama

Nicholas Wapshott
Sep 20, 2013 14:44 UTC

As the nation heads towards a government shutdown and defaulting on its debts, the two battling sides cannot even agree which election they are fighting. Republican presidential hopefuls are jostling for position ahead of the 2016 primaries while President Obama has his eyes on the midterms next year. Both sides insist they will not compromise; yet both sides cannot win.

The president’s blink over Syria has encouraged the GOP. His failure to act resolutely and stand by his promise to punish Bashar al-Assad for gassing his own people suggests that when he declared over the debt ceiling, “I will not negotiate over whether or not America keeps its word and meets its obligations. I will not negotiate over the full faith and credit of the United States,” he may have been bluffing, just like when he said about Syria, “A red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”

The Republicans who hope to launch their presidential bids by tapping into the energy of the Tea Party, currently obsessing about killing the Affordable Care Act by defunding it, are prepared to call the president’s bluff. For Senator Marco Rubio, whose reputation among Tea Partiers was dimmed by his attempts to broker immigration reform, the debt ceiling showdown at the end of the month is the perfect way to strangle Obamacare before it comes into full force. “I’m in favor of funding the government at the levels that were agreed to last year in the Budget Control Act and not spending a single penny more of hardworking taxpayer dollars on a disaster, which is Obamacare,” he said.

On Syria, Obama shouldn’t text while he’s driving

Nicholas Wapshott
Sep 17, 2013 15:50 UTC

The confusion surrounding the American response to the Syrian government gassing its own people has shocked foreign policy wonks. Here is Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, after the president threw the problem to Congress, then, facing defeat, handed negotiations with Bashar al-Assad to his nemesis Vladimir Putin: “The President has essentially allowed the red line in Syria to be somewhat ignored.” And here is Haass’s final verdict on the president’s dillydallying: “Words like ‘ad-hoc,’ ‘improvised,’ ‘unsteady’ come to mind. This is probably the most undisciplined stretch of foreign policy of his presidency.”

There is little sign the president has yet grasped the cost of contradicting all his top foreign policy advisors. Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel were each asked for advice, then ignored. Obama appears oblivious to the fact that his fumbling over Syria has severely diminished his authority, even among close colleagues and his own party. He is under the impression that marching to the top of Capitol Hill and marching down again and backward flipping on decisive action against a despotic perpetrator of dastardly mass murder is simply a matter of “style.”

He seems to think his real enemies are not Assad, Putin, Ali Khamenei, Iran’s top mullah, and Kim Jong-un, the North Korean tyrant, but “folks here in Washington.” “Had we rolled out something that was very smooth and disciplined and linear [the 'folks in Washington’] would have graded it well, even if it was a disastrous policy,” he told George Stephanopoulos.

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.

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.

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